Cultural Understanding in Asia

June 4, 2015
Amanda Nagy
Asia house library
Thumbnail of Asia House library. Photo credit: Brannon Rockwell-Charland

Beginning this summer, nine graduates will spend two years living and learning in China, India, Indonesia, and Japan as Oberlin Shansi fellows.

The Oberlin Shansi two-year fellowship provides opportunities for recent graduates to experience life in contemporary Asia and develop a deep understanding of the host cultures, people, and languages. The hosts, in turn, engage in meaningful dialogue with Oberlin graduates to learn about the culture of the United States. The fellowships vary by country and institution, but most involve teaching and volunteering in the local communities.

Shansi is an independent, nonprofit organization with the goal of promoting understanding and communication between Oberlin and Asia. Shansi achieves this goal by partnering with universities and nongovernmental organizations throughout Asia. Founded in 1908, it is among the oldest educational exchange programs in the United States.

This year, nine fellows were selected from nearly 20 applicants. “They are an impressive, diverse, and committed group,” says Gavin Tritt, executive director of Oberlin Shansi. “Their majors include Africana studies, geology, East Asian studies, politics, and economics, and their interests are wonderfully broad, from Taiko and folk dancing to composting and bike maintenance. They are about to find themselves challenged in myriad ways as they embark on this journey of discovery and growth."

The fellows going to China are Jeremy Rubinstein ’14, Beijing Normal University; and Margaret “Maisy” Byerly ’15 and William Leslie ’15, Shanxi Agricultural University (SAU), Taigu, Shanxi. The fellows going to India are Emmanuel Greenberg ’15, Jagori Grameen, Rakkar, Himachal Pradesh; and Vanessa Champagne ’13, Lady Doak College, Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The fellows going to Indonesia are Patrick Gilfeather ’15, Syiah Kuala University, Banda Aceh, Aceh; and Teresa Tippens ’15, Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Java. The fellows going to Japan are Chris Nguyen ’15 and Chul Kim ’15, J.F. Oberlin University, Machida, Tokyo Prefecture.

Tritt says the fellowship is a life-changing opportunity. “They will immerse themselves in their local communities, work hard as teachers and volunteers, and emerge after two years as global citizens with new friendships, new perspectives toward themselves and the world, much improved language abilities, and a commitment to exchange and engagement across cultures. It is inspiring to imagine what they will learn and contribute during these brief two-year fellowships. This is only the beginning, and we look forward to seeing how this experience shapes the rest of their lives."

In their first-year narratives, the 2014-2016 fellows talk about their rich experiences so far, with some sharing honest details about language blunders, feeling awkward in their new country, giving up certain Western comforts, and coping with gastrointestinal distress.

Ruby Saha ’14, a fellow in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, has spent the past year teaching English at Universitas Gadjah Mada. Indian by nationality, she grew up in Indonesia and Singapore, and her parents now reside in India.

After several months in Yogyakarta, Saha says she was struck by the Javanese dominance in Indonesian politics and education—and the systemic inequality and marginalization of minorities living in poorer islands.

“Education infrastructure, access and resource allocation are all much greater here and in Bali than anywhere else in the archipelago, and the Javanese have higher rates of post-primary enrollment than any other Indonesian ethnic group. By contrast, poverty is disproportionately concentrated in the eastern islands.”

To help her students think about stereotypes, she introduced them to a TEDTalk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘The Danger of a Single Story,’ in which she describes the way Africa has become reduced to a narrative of poverty, corruption, and devastation in most people’s imaginations.

“I asked my class to think of some single stories or stereotypes that exist within Indonesia and describe one or two of them. Many of my students wrote about meeting people from Kalimantan and Timur for the first time in Jogja. Most of my students have never left central Java, because travel is largely inaccessible to them. They live in dormitories with other Javanese students, with curfews that do not allow them to attend late night events like reggae nights. When I asked them to think of ways in which we might combat these stereotypes and challenge these single stories, many suggested that we try to interact with these people and understand them on a human level.

“As a Shansi fellow, within the context of cross-cultural discourse that we carry with us throughout our time here, I think we should appreciate and participate in the culture that surrounds us, but also seek out the limits and margins of these spaces, which is a freedom that our students do not often have. I’m extraordinarily grateful to have the opportunity to be here for another year, and I’d like to spend that time finding and listening to the stories of the people I encounter, whether it’s in the classroom or a reggae bar or a roadside stall.”

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