Sunday, July 28, 2013

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea

Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea

One of the problems about growing up in a small town is that the turnover of books in the local bookstore is very slow. This means that every time you go to the local book store, you have to continue sifting through the same books – trying to convince yourself to buy one of the ones that you passed on buying during the last visit. It is a horrible and painful process to think that you have to settle on your personal reading material – and it was in this process that I came to loathe Jared Diamond. Granted – I know that my loathing is based on nothing substantial. It is just that I got tired of seeing stacks of his most recent book while there were hardly any books available on the topics which interested me. I loathed him for no other reason other than spite - so don't take it personally, Mr. Diamond!

I will admit, at one point, I picked up one of his books to give it a test read. He promptly lost me when, in the book I picked up, he started talking about Papua New Guinea. (It was long before my Global Book Challenge.) I knew where Papua New Guinea was located (thanks to my handy-dandy Geo Safari Globe Quiz which brought me hours upon hours of entertainment as a 6-year-old), but little else about the country. I remember looking at it on the globe and thinking how interesting that the island that contained Papua New Guinea was cut almost perfectly in half by a straight line. Knowing nothing about borders and political strife, I found it interesting for pure aesthetic purposes. 

When it came time to choose a book about Papua New Guinea, I wanted a book that would not only provide me with an overview, but also with a story that would be compelling, as I was getting a little exhausted of reading heavy-duty books about politics, social unrest, and policy. I eventually settled upon a book entitled Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea by Kira Salak, published by the National Geographic Society.

Once I began reading this book, I found it difficult to put it down – I was reading it everywhere when studying in Germany: the U-Bahn, cafes, the doctor’s office, in the minutes before class began, etc. It is essentially a travel memoir – and subsequently does not only delve into the country in and of itself, but also into the author, who is indeed a fascinating character. After deciding to take a year off from graduate studies, the author made plans to travel to Papua New Guinea as a single woman in order to cross the country. To be honest, I truly respect women who are willing and able to do this – because I seriously doubt that I would chose to do something similar on my own (especially during a relaxing gap year!) My reasoning behind this is only for safety reasons. I would love to see the wildlife, interact with local cultures and diverse people, and sleep in the outdoors. But the reality is, I would never do something like that by myself. As I keep finding myself in situations that compromise my security in public places with hundreds of eyes and a strong security force in the western world, I can only imagine what could happen elsewhere. I say all of this to express my admiration for the author. To be honest, I found her story allowing me to live vicariously through her travels. 

Papua New Guinea is a relatively new country, having gained its independence from Australia in only 1975. The country is home to around 6.4 million people and is marked by its diversity. There are some 800 different languages spoken in the country – and most have less than 1,000 speakers each. During her travels, the author visits many of these small, isolated communities within Papua New Guinea and is able to experience their ways of life. Interestingly, however, she notes that religion is a unifying factor among the people, while it is hard to create a shared identity based on language or culture. “Nearly 40 percent of the indigenous population are Catholics or Lutherans. Another 28 percent are of some other Christian denomination. Not bad for a country virtually unexplored up through the second half of the 20th century.” (page 55)

I enjoyed reading about the different ethnic groups and the challenges that the country faces in regard to modernization. Like in many of the other books I have read about the region, establishing peace in the midst of such a strong ethnic diversity often proves to be difficult, especially as certain tribes have been warring for generations. Likewise, the author’s experiences in the capital city of Port Moresby with the so-called “rascal boys” were  very interesting, especially as we consider the country’s history, its route to modernization, and the country’s troubles today with smuggling. According to the author: “They’re a PNG [Papua New Guinea] phenomenon and the reason why Port Moresby is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The rascals are generally young men who come to Port Moresby from all over the county. They leave behind tribal homelands to converge in the big towns with hopes of discovering an El Dorado of wealth and western goods.” (page 65) 

Despite these interesting stories, I was particularly drawn to the author’s experiences with the OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or the Free Papua Movement), as this brought me back to my childhood wondering about the straight line which separated the island of New Guinea on my globe. For those who do not know, the eastern part of the island is controlled by Indonesia – a country that is spread across many islands and with the strongest army in Southeast Asia (two points I brought out in my blog post about Indonesia.) Just like on East Timor, there is a movement for island independence and unification, as supported by the OPM. In her book, the author shares her experience traveling to a refugee camp in Papua New Guinea, which  “holds about 10,000 people from West New Guinea – Indonesian Irian Jaya – who were forced to flee from the rape, torture, and slaughter of the Indonesian military, the same notorious military that has been occupying and terrorizing East Timor for decades.” (page 145) I found these stories the most compelling – especially those of the women and children who have been caught up in the conflict. The author brings a very personal touch to her portrayal, as she shares her feelings of burden and responsibility for having been a guest of the refugee camp and learning their stories, which were virtually unknown in the western world. She wanted to help bring justice to these people and I think she did a compelling job in her book. 

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  



Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II

I am somewhat obsessive compulsive about flags. And while some might consider this obsessive compulsion a negative aspect of my personality, there is no doubt that my obsession over flags came in handy very recently. While interning at the Francisco Viñas Competition in Barcelona, I went to the audition stage to help make sure that everything was in order for the auditions that afternoon. I must admit, the place was a flag aficionado’s heaven – the stage was crammed full of the flags of all the countries from where the singers came. While testing my flag knowledge by mentally listing the country of each flag, I stumbled across a surprise: the flag of North Korea. 

My excitement when I first thought that I would be working and interacting with 50+ North Korean opera singers was unparalleled. North Korea, one of the most barrier-ridden places in the world for a U.S. citizen, was apparently training an entire fleet of opera singers to bring shame upon the western world – and I would be witnessing it firsthand. When I started asking my colleague whether or not I should mention that I am from the United States or whether that was just too problematic, the mix-up was revealed: Barcelona City Hall had sent us the wrong flag. Due to my flag expertise, the mix-up was quickly averted. Naturally, I like to think myself as the hero of the day.

I remember the first time I ever learned the flag of another country – or for that matter, the first time I ever heard of Japan. My parents were watching a television show. While I was walking across the room, I saw a man hold up a white piece of paper with a red dot on it. In the midst of canned studio laughter he exclaimed, “It’s the flag of Japan!” I was very young and did not know what a flag was or what Japan was, but it was very nice to know that I could make one for myself with a red marker, if I wanted to. Throughout elementary school, I quickly learned more about flags – and more about Japan: ninjas, feudalism, emperors, geishas (I knew they existed – but my mother refused to tell me what they were), kimonos, World War II, kamikaze, atomic bombs, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, cherry blossom trees, Pokemon, anime, sushi, tea, and (let us not forget) the most important: Madame Butterfly, the heroine of Giacomo Puccini’s opera of the same name.  

Needless to say, I did not know where to begin when it came to choosing a book about the country. I thus reached out to a professor whose specialization is in Japanese religious traditions, and who collaborated with me on a musical project. He suggested John W. Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II – the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bancroft Prize.

I read this book during a very appropriate time in the midst of my studies in Berlin, as I was studying post-war Germany and the Trümmerliteratur, or the “rubble literature” movement. One work that truly spoke to me was Draußen vor der Tür, a powerful play by Wolfgang Borchert. It tells the story of a soldier, who was a prisoner of war in Siberia, coming home to Germany to discover that he has no home, or rather that has been shut “outside of the door” (a direct translation of the title.) In the midst of his three year absence: his wife has found someone else, his parents have died, and he cannot find a job. Plagued with guilt over what happened with the small brigade in which he was in charge, he visits his former military superior and finds him eating well and heartily with his family, having moved on successfully with his life with no feelings of remorse. Finding that he has no place in Germany, the soldier commits suicide. 

The first chapter of the book, entitled “Shattered Lives,” deals with this same topic, only from the Japanese perspective. The author quotes an anonymous letter that parallels Borchert’s work:

“I returned to Japan from the southern regions on May 20th. My house was burned, my wife and children missing. What little money I had quickly was consumed by the high prices, and I was a pitiful figure. Not a single person gave me a kind word. Rather, they cast hostile glances my way. Tormented and without work, I became possessed by a devil.” (page 60)

Of course, the book did not only go into the re-entrance of former soldiers into society, but rather many of the aspects, challenges, and cultural changes brought about by Japan’s defeat in the war and the Allied occupation of Japan from August 1945 to April 1952, in which the United States and General Douglas MacArthur took the leading roles. It is important to note the importance that the United States played in this process of post-war development. In short, during this time “the Americans set about doing what no other occupation force had done before: remaking the political, social, cultural and economic fabric of a defeated nation, and in the process changing the very way of thinking of its populace.” (page 78)  

I cannot hope to summarize this 560-page book in only one blog post, and thus, I encourage anyone with an interest in reconstruction, the creation of democratic structures, the effect of war on a society, the change and westernization of a culture, U.S. military history, or Japan to read this book – it is truly excellent. In the meantime, after reviewing the notes I wrote in the margins, I realize that I continued to find myself fascinated by two concepts: 1.) the role of the Japanese emperor; and 2.) the difficulties of administering justice to the victims of imperial Japan. 

When Emperor Hirohito announced unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945, it was a monumental occasion for the Japanese people - not only because the news itself was in and of itself life-changing, but also because the emperor had never before spoken directly to his subjects. Coming from the United States, I have never been able to get my head around the concept of a king, ruler, or emperor. To be honest, the tradition seems like a relic to me – something that belongs in a museum, rather than in tabloids or (heaven forbid!) actual governance. To the Japanese in 1945, the emperor was all-important and all-powerful. What I found most interesting, however, was how the United States occupation decided to use this devotion to the emperor to its own benefit. Instead of blaming the emperor for war crimes, the Americans decided that “the emperor, the supreme authority in Japan, was fundamentally an empty vessel. Just as he had been followed as the embodiment of ultranationalism, so he would be followed if turned into a symbol of some sort of imperial democracy.” (page 220) The occupation recreated the role of the emperor. Instead of the perpetuation of a semi-god, “the emperor should travel around the country, visiting coal mines… and farming districts, listening to the people, talking to them, asking questions.” (page 331) 

The author also delves into the difficulties associated with bringing the Japanese to justice. Comparing the Tokyo Tribunal, which started on May 3, 1946 and continued for nearly three years, with the German Nuremberg trials, I immediately began to draw connections between the book and my personal experience in Germany through my studies. One of the challenges which I found the most interesting was that of language: “Four languages – English, German, French, and Russian – were employed simultaneously in the Nuremberg trial. In Tokyo, while the basic languages of the tribunal were English and Japanese, at least six other languages had to be accommodated. Communication was exceedingly complicated – ‘beyond comparison to the German case…’” (page 458) The control of Imperial Japan at its height included the regions of modern-day North and South Korea, Taiwan, many areas of mainland China, Thailand, Burma, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Thus, the linguistic and cultural diversity of the victims of Japanese war crimes would be difficult to account for. Likewise, the western world had a different mentality regarding Asia: “Colonialism, and imperialism more generally, defined the twentieth century Asian world in which Japan was accused of having conspired to wage aggressive war.” (page 470)  The author even noted that four of the powers who were determining justice – Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the U.S. – had previously held territories alongside Japan prior to the war.
Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  

Monday, July 22, 2013

India - Book Two

Behind the Beautiful Forevers 


One of my favorite traditions with my mother is to go book shopping with her. This tradition started at a very early age. When my mother discovered that the “allowance” system she had concocted did not motivate me to make my bed, help clean the bathroom, or do the dishes, she settled for the next best thing. If I practiced the piano and my voice for a certain amount of time each week, she would reward me with a trip to the bookstore and would buy me two books. I guess she figured if she couldn’t make me into a clean, polished person, I might as well develop into a talented musician and a well-read bookworm to compensate for these inadequacies in my personal character. Needless to say, my library grew exponentially in the next few years, I developed a habit of reading constantly, and my music developed into an integral and enjoyable part of life – as I never felt forced into practice. 

When my mother came to Berlin, I knew exactly where to take her: Dussmann. This four-plus floor mega-bookstore even includes a two-floor English language bookstore with a large assortment of titles. After we slowly sifted through the books separately, we sat together and read the backs of the books together – discussing which ones that we wanted to read. My mother eventually decided upon a fiction title that had been recommended to her by a friend. After reading so many books about policy, I wanted a lighter read, which led me to pick up the 2012 Winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo, a staff writer at the New Yorker.  

I never intended to buy and read this book as a part of my Global Book Challenge. (Indeed, the first book I ever read as a part of this challenge was about India – In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce.) However, I found this book so poignant and gripping that I wanted to write about it and share it on my blog.

Ever since I read the anthropology book, Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong by Gordon Mathews, I have found myself fascinated by the concept of low-end globalization – in particular how this low-end globalization stems from high-end globalization, something which I definitely play a role in. Over the past few years, I have joined the ranks as someone who is involved in high-end globalization: I consider international airports are just a means to get from Point A to Point B – a necessary means rather than a novelty or a reason to get excited. I have a global plan for my cell phone, so that I can contact my friends and family not only in cases of emergency, but also to conduct everyday business. As a multi-lingual and well-traveled person, I expect to eventually add myself to the workplace that perpetuates this high-end globalization. But yet, this globalization affects many others in less positive ways. 

Such is the case with the main characters of this book – among the three thousand people who live in the slums of Annawadi, which is located right next to the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. The airport, in fact, plays an important role throughout the book. As many of the main characters sort through garbage as their main source of income in order to find recyclable materials, they are constantly hoping for access to the valuable trash that travelers leave at the airport (or throw out of their cars on the way to the airport.) One lucky character is given the opportunity to work in a menial position at one of the hotels surrounding the airport – to the jealousy of many of his neighbors.

Although this book is non-fiction, it reads like fiction as it follows different people – children and adults alike – as they try to survive and better themselves, often at the expense of their neighbors. Their stories are compelling and I found myself unable to put down the book when reading about the people who were experiencing starvation, lack of medical care, beatings by police, inter-ethnic conflict, corruption, scamming, and voter disenfranchisement. I kept on waiting for the “American dream story” – for one of the characters to rise up and overcome his or her circumstances. However, this story never came. The book ends without any significant change in any of the characters’ situations or positive change brought about through economic development or new policy implementation.  

Something that really stuck with me was this quote about corruption: “In the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India’s modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.” (page 28) As I read firsthand about the women who engaged in scamming and corruption directly in order to better the position of their families, I couldn’t help but wonder that if the situations were turned, would I find myself engaging in this behavior? And in an even broader sense, how do you discourage corruption among those who perceive the opportunities offered through corruption as the only option?  The books shows instances of what “The West” would consider unethical or corrupt – even among economic development institutions and orphanages. 

Even more, this book made me question my role in the globalized world and made me ponder how others are affected – even by my subconscious actions - everyday. As the slum essentially was based off of the trash and subsequently, the tourism to India through the International Airport, the slums were very much affected by the global crisis: “A kilo of empty water bottles once worth twenty-five rupees was now worth ten, and a kilo of newspaper once worth five rupees was now worth two: This was how the global crisis was understood.” (page 190) I would recommend this book to anyone – especially the world traveler – in order to help broaden one’s perspective and understanding of what it truly means to be a part of the modern, globalized world. 

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  

Venezuela - Book 4

The Enduring Legacy

(For a short introduction and to view the other books I have read about Venezuela, please click here.)
My interest in energy and environmentalism has been quite late in coming. As an artist, my mother has always been under the assumption that nothing creative can be accomplished during the daylight hours. Subsequently, I grew up in an environment of the glow of light bulbs while staying up until the wee hours of the morning – lighting up the entire neighborhood from our little home. Likewise, the recycling options in my town were dismal, and thus, I never recycled. And once I started driving, based on the way my family borrows and shares each other’s vehicles, I never found myself having to insert my card at a gas pump. My tank would mysteriously never be empty due to the generosity of my parents. 

Being in Germany has, at least, added to my environment consciousness. This sentiment has certainly been magnified by the fact that I am living in the home of one of the most active Green Peace volunteers in the Berlin area. It seems like every weekend, she is going out to protest. I am never surprised to come home to find a banner laying on the kitchen table or DHL boxes filled with polar bear costumes. Every week, Green Peace volunteers meet at the apartment to discuss their upcoming mobilization plans. Needless to say, I cannot get away with NOT recycling. So, night after night, I busily divide my garbage into the garbage bins labeled biodegradable, plastics, paper, and other. (I messed up a lot when I first moved there – only to discover that my hosts had, in the early hours of the morning, dug through the garbage and fixed my sorting mistakes.)

While environmental consciousness has slowly seeped into my private life, it has likewise seeped into my academic life. A couple of weeks ago, I met with a couple of representatives from the embassy of South Sudan in Berlin to discuss the difficulties associated with the country’s development, especially as this country is very rich in oil. I felt fortunate that I was able to bring to this conversation the information in one of the books I had chosen to read about Venezuela, The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela by Miguel Tinker Salas, printed by the Duke University Press in 2009. 

Instead of delving into the economic development that occurred following the extraction of oil in Venezuela, this book focuses on the unique way that the oil industry shaped the Venezuelan society and culture. Written by someone of both Venezuelan and United States heritage who grew up in the oil camps of Venezuela, this book has a very human approach and offers a particularly interesting point of view. The author asserts that, “To only address economic factors associated with this extractive industry was to underestimate the power of oil to influence society, politics, and culture. Beyond monopolizing the economy, oil shaped social values and class aspirations, cemented political alliances, and redefined concepts of citizenship for important segments of the population.” (page 238) 

In order to discuss some of the points discussed in the book, it is necessary to first give some information about the development and evolution of this industry (which is interspersed in a manageable way throughout the book.) Oil was first extracted in the area around the Lake Maracaibo region, which was relatively undeveloped in 1914, when Mene Grande (which was owned by a company which would eventually become a part of Shell) first opened.  By 1938, following the nationalization of the oil industry in Mexico, Venezuela was the only country in Latin America that allowed foreign oil companies, thereby making it into a country of particular importance for the United States, especially in light of World War II. In 1928, Venezuela was the world’s largest exporter of oil, but “its share of total world trade in petroleum declined from 46 percent in 1948 to 33 percent by 1958.” (page 219) In the midst of these changes in the world economy, changes were also taking place within the Venezuelan government: In 1958, the dictator-like figure Perez Jimenez was ousted by a military coup; In 1960, Venezuela was one of the participating countries who eventually founded OPEC; and “In 1976 the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez of AD [the political party, Acción Democratica] (1947-79) formally nationalized the oil industry, compensating United States and European interests and creating a new national corporation, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA.)” (page 226) 

      Despite all of the facts and technical information I have just shared, this book truly focuses on the development of culture and how the foreign-controlled oil industry helped shape the Venezuelan society. Some of the points which I found most interesting in this book included: 

  • Negotiating Regional Difference in Venezuela through Interaction in Oil Industry: Venezuela is a geographically diverse country with very little historical tradition of interaction with others outside of one’s particular region. Different accents, culinary traditions, and customs had developed in each one of these individual regions. The jobs related to the oil industry attracted people from all over, and allowed them to interact. “At one level the new encounters initiated a process of recognition, crucial to state formation and nationhood, but at another it produced friction as regional difference emerged.” (page 77)
  • The US Middle Class Lifestyle Being Imported: As companies began to recruit men with families from the United States, these well-off families began to create a cultural ideal for Venezuelans with aspiring ambitions to achieve. With the new immigrants from the United States also came such forces to Venezuela such as a modern chain of supermarkets (at first sponsored by Rockefeller Investments), parks with “lush green lawns seeded with grasses imported from the United States” (page 157) at the oil camps, and baseball teams.
  • Social investment Conducted by Industry, Rather than by Government: At the beginning of the oil industry in Venezuela, the government lacked the resources to build the necessary infrastructure, leaving the oil companies to do this themselves. They built roads in order to ensure transportation and provided its own security to camp inhabitants.  As the oil industry grew and “as they began to recruit foreign employees with families, the oil companies had to attend to the needs… schools had to be built, teachers hired, hospitals and medical staff expanded, and recreation centers enlarged.” (page 144) All of these institutions and organizations were imported from the United States, making it a very strong cultural force.
  • Company Structure Built on Race and Nationality:  Located on the Caribbean Sea, Venezuela can be characterized for its racial and ethnic diversity. While prejudice existed during Spanish rule, these prejudices were reinforced by the structure of the oil industry: “The oil companies’ social hierarchy had senior staff employees from the United States and Britain at the top, lighter-skinned Venezuelan junior staff in the middle, and usually mixed-race Venezuelan office boys and secretaries at the bottom… the foreign was assumed to be the purveyor of knowledge, while the Venezuelan was considered the neophyte expected to implement company policy.” (page 186) Likewise, Jim Crow-style segregation was imported from the United States and was implemented in force at many of the camps.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!