I quit Facebook…and here’s how it changed my brain:

…or…

A forty-something guy in Facebook’s target demographic got sick of the social network and after quitting realized that being on social networks had probably altered his brain chemistry. This is his version of that all too common story.

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“So…no big rant or grand statements, but I just don’t like Facebook anymore. If you do, great, but I’m out. You know where to find me.”

And with that I was gone, and not the temporary gone of just putting my account on hold – the gone gone in the form of permanent deletion, at least after the 14 days of “hey guy, why don’t you just think about it?” that Facebook makes you go through when you break up with them. It wasn’t that I thought that Facebook was stealing my data, or that a potential employer might look for secrets. I just got bored. Facebook started to feel like a part time job where I had to wade through hours of posts about our Muslim terrorist president or endless videos for recipes which seemingly always required a pound of cheese and a crock pot. Except I didn’t get paid.

This is not the version of the story where I got off Facebook and spent the rest of my days wandering through the woods and finding the meaning of life in the flow of the stream by my house. This isn’t the version where I instantly had a better connection with my wife and kids and spent more time playing board games on Saturday nights. Instead, in my version of this story, I didn’t miss Facebook, but my brain did, and it took my walking away to realize what had happened to me.

I was a pretty moderate user –  never (well almost never) to avoid work and never at 3am, but yes when I was bored, yes when I walked the dog and definitely yes when I traveled alone for work. I also used it as a fill in for the morning newspaper, because as I slept, all of my North American friends were filling up my feed with the next morning’s reading. Never mind that my morning paper was useless for any actual news. I did get to see my mom like a post from Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the same two-minute span though, and watching an old high school friend (who I’m not 100% sure I even knew in high school) go through a breakup with her cheating husband very publicly was both strangely entertaining and creepy at the same time, but can you believe that he changed all the locks and left her out in the street??!?!?

When I quit using (the repeated use of this word is deliberate) I didn’t go through some sort of shaky withdrawal period. If I had quit to protect myself from Facebook’s irresistible draw I might have, but I really was sick of it. I did however notice slowly, and increasingly, that it had altered how I framed things that were around me happening in the real world. After about two weeks, including one of those four day work trips where I was alone, I noticed that I actually was thinking in short status updates. When I saw something cool my instinct was to capture it and share the coolness of the thing. When my day was shitty I wanted to throw out a quick “You’ll never guess how bad this white guy American expat has it – today wasn’t perfect!” But mostly I noticed that when I had done something that I was particularly fond of, Facebook is where I got my attaboys.

Living abroad is sometimes hard – not leaving your war torn country as a refugee hard, but kinda hard. You tend to focus what you know, and if you don’t particularly like hanging out with the expat community, which I don’t, you tend to spend most of your time at work or with your family. I work from home. On many days my family are the only people I see. My family is great, and I like spending time with them and appreciate their approval, but when my little successes would pop up, I was turning to people, most of them thousand of miles away for the approval that I was looking for.

One day about two weeks after quitting I was in the midst of a particularly good morning. I had gotten my daughter to school on time (almost) and successfully visited my son’s school to pay a bill for an upcoming ski trip. I topped it off by doing some successful shopping and having a full 25-minute phone conversation with a customer service representative about why my phone wasn’t working in other countries – completely in French. I was so happy and proud of myself. Then, instinctively, I reached for my phone. Feeling good wasn’t enough. I wanted an attaboy. I was mentally preparing an update that was fun, but not too braggy, perhaps with a little joke about how dumb I am or about how bad my French is (that was my online style) and then I remembered. I put my phone back in my pocket and then just stood there for a minute. I was awash in sadness – seriously legitimate sadness. I was alone, standing on a street corner in France, a guy with no friends and no one to pat him on the back.

I walked home through the park. It was starting to get cold, and it was one of those days where the last leaves on the trees stay wet even though it hasn’t rained all day. I felt defeated, but ultimately I didn’t consciously miss using, even if my brain was telling me that I did. In fact, I was more sure of my decision to quit than ever. Instead basking in the instant gratification of that virtual moment, I went home, did some work, and made tacos for dinner. When my wife came home from work I got my attaboy, but this one from a real person who actually cares about me. Then we ate tacos, and it felt a little bit more like home.

I realize that here at the end of 2015 the decision to quit puts me in the same category as people in foil hats. It also makes me old. But my beef has never been with Facebook or social networking in general, but with what it brings (or doesn’t). I do miss the cool photos of surfing destinations shared by a high school photographer friend. I miss the updates about shows and recordings from musician friends that I knew in the 90’s. I miss the updates from the painters and the writers and the former students all across the world creating new things. Oddly, I also miss looking at the pictures that my wife posts of our family, even though I am sitting with them in the same room. I always wanted more of that.  More real. Less “hey look at this.”

When I quit using, I promised that there was no big rant or grand statement. I guess that just like most of my experience on Facebook that was a lie, because here it is – my grand statement. And with that, I’m out. You know where to find me.

(Please leave any attaboys in the comments)

😉

 

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My Friend Dramane is Volunteering for the War

Next month is four years since we left the United States. Here is a walk down memory lane and an update: When Dramane arrived in Mali, there were already more volunteers than they needed, so he came home. He continues to like the life of an immigrant in Europe, with all its complications.

The View Abroad

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This is a story about a man named Dramane – a story that has a beginning but no end – at least I don’t know how it is going to end…so let’s start at the beginning.

Dramane was my first friend that I made after my family arrived in Spain. In the second week of September the sun still screams at anyone who dares venture outside in Zaragoza, but the calendar calls all the kids to school anyway, so I took my daughter’s hand and walked her through the park and into the schoolyard of what would be her first real school.  I forced a big smile and said encouraging things, but my daughter just stared back at me with a look of “But dad, you never taught me any Spanish” on her face.  I gave her a hug, and took a big breath and swallowed hard as she walked…

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Shameless Self-Promotion

This Friday February 28th, I will be presenting with Jack Creeden and Nelson Chase from School Year Abroad at the NAIS annual conference in Orlando.  I put together this short video as a preview of our presentation, Global Programs: What works and how we can improve? Stop by room Asia 1 at 8am for what I promise will be an interesting and lively discussion.

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6 Study Abroad Hacks to Save your Semester Right Now

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© 2013 Kimberly Baker

 

Congratulations on surviving the first few weeks of your study abroad experience.  By now you have probably settled into a routine, found some new friends and gotten over the initial shock of speaking a foreign language.  The question now becomes, “Now what?”

Now is not the time to settle into a routine.  Constantly challenging yourself while abroad will help you realize some of your goals that you told everyone that you had before you left.  Remember those?  You were looking to immerse yourself in another culture, learn how to see the world through a different lens and improve your language skills. Yet after a few weeks you are probably spending a lot of time with other Americans speaking English and have tended to focus on all the annoying or confusing things about your experience abroad.  This is a normal response to what you are experiencing, but hopefully you went abroad for more than that. Here are six things that you can do to get yourself out of the rut.

1. Join a club – without a friend.
Nothing will break up your routine and get you speaking more that getting away from your friends and taking part in a shared activity with locals.  If you are studying in Europe right now take a look around you.  Europeans take their athletic and social activities seriously.  This is often displayed in their level of gear.  For example, Europeans don’t just go for bike rides, they get geared up like they are in the Tour de France and go for it in huge groups. But don’t worry if physically pushing yourself to the limit is not your thing.  Social clubs can sprout up around almost any activity, from belly dancing to bocce ball, so get out there and do something.  Be socially awkward.  Embrace it.

 2. Put the camera away.
By now you have probably taken about a thousand pictures, and that’s great, but it is probably time to push your self to do less documenting and more participating.  Every time you pull out your camera to capture the moment, remember that you are removing yourself from the situation and creating a barrier between you and any real experience.  This is especially true in social situations.  And if your camera is filled with pictures with buildings and landmarks, it is definitely time to give it a rest.

 3. Cut the ties with home for a while.
I know.  It is hard to be alone.  But by getting on Facebook or Skype every time you miss something or someone you are giving in to the instant gratification, and that is removing you from what you are supposed to be doing right now – immersing yourself in the local culture.  (remember that?)  That immersion will never happen if you keep one electronic foot back home.  Plus, your constant Facebook updates about your awesome adventure are starting to annoy your friends at this point.

 4. Go to the market.
One of the ways to truly understand a culture is through its food, and one of the best places to go to experience food culture is at the market.  If you live with a host family, ask your host mom or dad if you can help with the shopping (if you live in a dorm or with other abroads pick out a typical regional dish) and with a list of five or ten items, go to the market and shop.  This is not easy.  Market culture varies from country to country, but usually revolves around some pretty set cultural norms of how things work. (how to stand in line, who goes first, whether or not you can touch the food, etc…) At this point you have none of this information, so you need to dive in and figure it out.  After your first try you will probably fail miserably.  You will buy the wrong thing, or not enough of something.  You will get pushed, probably by an old lady, and people will get frustrated that they can’t understand you.  This is good.  Step up to the plate and figure it out, or spend the year eating sandwiches.  (yawn.)

 5. Stop always hanging out with other Americans.
I get it.  Your American friends understand you and are going through the same emotional experiences as you, so it makes sense that you are forming tight bonds with them, but in doing so, you are making it impossible to have a true understanding of the local culture.  And before you dismiss this idea, remember back when you were a kid.  If you went to summer camp, you made friends there, and those friendships were characterized by an intensity that seemed so strong.  These were your new best friends.  At least it felt like it, because you were all nervous about being alone at camp and going through the same shared experience. Just like right now – but let’s remember that you’re not at camp and that you got on a plane and traveled to a different country for a reason.  Also, to reinforce something from number 3, it is o.k. to feel alone.  It is o.k. to feel lonely.  Use it as a motivation to get out into the community. 

 6. Trade in your smartphone for a dumbphone – and buy a paper map.
Nothing is more depressing that seeing someone walking down the street in one of the world’s great cities staring at their phone.  Ask yourself, “What is so important that I need to  be constantly connected?”  The answer is, of course, nothing.  Need to find something? Get a map.  Need to get ahold of someone?  Text them – or better yet, walk to where they are.  Lost?  Ask for directions. Need to update your status? Just don’t.  The world will still turn, and you will spend less time focusing on your phone and more time participating in your own experience.

 A closing note.
There is still time to become the boss of your study abroad experience.  You are going to have fun pretty much no matter what, so while you are at it, why not challenge yourself and learn something in the process?  Above all, be proactive.  Get out and do something, don’t wait for the experience to come to you.  If you don’t you will find yourself counting the days until you go home and wondering why you went abroad in the first place.

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Abraham Maslow Is Ruining Study Abroad for Everybody (with a little help from Clayton Alderfer)

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In my studies of international student experiences I keep bumping into what I see as a fairly important problem in study abroad: American students seem to have a knack for finding other Americans and then spending all of their time with them. And if they can’t find them, they jump on Facebook and fill up on friend contact. It is their default setting. Of course there is the occasional cultural adventurer who goes out of his way to meet locals, but he is the exception rather than the rule.  So why are Americans abroad spending so much time with each other? Because Abraham Maslow told them to.

Abraham Maslow was the popular 20th century psychologist who gave us Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, a description of human motivation that works in stages with the subject only moving on to the next stage after fulfilling the personal needs of the current stage.  Somebody crafty eventually made the theory into a pyramid, which gave us a familiar and easily accessible visual of the theory and eventually a new life as an easily modifiable internet meme.

At the base of the pyramid we find physiological needs, things like food, water and air.  Once those needs are met, the theory tells us that we tend to look out for our personal safety and security.  This can include things like having a job, which of course allows you to pay for your physiological needs.  Next up comes love and belonging, where we find friendship.  The top of the pyramid is occupied by esteem needs and then self actualization, where we find things like morality, creativity, and problem solving, or the things that characterize the best of human capabilities.

Although certainly applicable to the student experience, Maslow’s pyramid still doesn’t explain why students in study abroad experiences tend to stop at the love and belonging stage and hang out with each other all the time.  That’s where psychologist Clayton Alderfer steps in.

Anyone who has ever been to Teotihuacan can tell you that climbing pyramids is hard.  You get all sweaty and out of breath, and if you do it for long enough your legs start to hurt.  So what is the easiest way to avoid all of that discomfort? Clayton Alderfer has your answer: Don’t climb all the way to the top.  The view is still pretty good from the halfway point, and no one is handing out medals at the top anyway, so why even bother?

Aldefer says that in situations where higher level needs are not met, subjects tend to double down on needs in lower levels. I think that how this applies to time abroad is that when we are unsuccessful at building meaningful relationships with the members of the local culture, (if we have in fact tried to do so at all) we increase our efforts in what is achievable – hanging out with other Americans.

Which brings us to the point -the public service message to our students: If you are abroad right now, or getting ready to go abroad, don’t let Maslow and Aldefer predict your demise, because the secret is that the view is actually better at the top of the pyramid.  Integrating into a new culture and learning how to have a meaningful relationship with someone from that culture is difficult, and sometimes never fully happens.  But when it does, it is an amazing thing, however, remember that it doesn’t happen by itself.  There is no magic that happens by your simply getting on a plane and flying thousands of miles.  You are not endowed with a wealth of intercultural skills by eating Paella or sampling a fine Bordeaux.  You have to work at it, but you have time.  So log off Facebook, turn off the computer, leave your camera at home and go out and meet some people.  You’ll be glad that you did.

 

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2013 NAIS Annual Conference Global Education Preview

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Next Tuesday I will be returning to the U.S. for the first time in 18 months to present at the National Association of Independent Schools Conference in Philadelphia.  It will be enjoyable to share my research, (Mandatory plug for my session: Purposeful Global Education: How can we assess its impact – Thursday 1:30, room 118c)  but I am really looking forward to being able to hear from others and get in some quality shop talk – preferably over a Philly cheese steak and a cold one…

So here are my plans and the workshops that I am looking forward to that are global-education related.  The screen grabs are from the conference iPad App, which is actually really good.  There are way more sessions that I want to see than slots for me to see them, but here is my list so far.  If you think that I have missed something, or if you have some inside dirt on a session that is going to be especially good, please share in the comments section.  Here’s to what will hopefully be a great #naisac13.

Thursday:

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8:00– I’m a little bummed that the 8 am time slot is so packed.  The CIS presentation on certification looks interesting, and the schools of the future session also looks good.  The home-stay at day schools session also looks like a winner, and I would file it under the “Wow, that’s a great idea, why didn’t somebody think of that sooner?” category.  Right now I am planning on attending “The Global Consortium: What it is and how can it serve you,” mainly because it is being run by a group of people that I know and have worked with in the past.  Good people.  People who really know what they are talking about.  I am interested to see what they have to say.

10:00– I, along with the rest of you, will be at the general session.  Jim Collins seems like an interesting guy, who I have never seen speak.  So we’ll see.  Fingers crossed.

12:00– At noon, “Building a Collaborative Global Education Model” looks good.  Two of the presenters are from EF Education First, which I have to admit at first worried me.  My only knowledge of EF was from their massive marketing campaign for their educational tours, which mainly consist of trips that move at break neck speed through major world cities and sights – trips that I question the educational value of.  What I didn’t know was that as an organization they do a lot more than just the educational tours. You can see for yourself here.  So I’m intrigued, and willing to give it a go.

1:30– Finally on Thursday I  will presenting  “Purposeful Global Education: How can we assess its impact?” With Jack Creeden and Nelson Chase from School Year Abroad.  For the past year I have been looking at student growth in the areas of intercultural competence, creativity and self-concept in students who study abroad or participate in international education in one way or another.  I am currently studying 210 students studying in Italy, Spain, and the United States (a control group made up of students from 7 different NAIS schools.)  I will share the research, give what I think are some surprising results from our first round of testing, and talk about what ways schools can improve assessment of their own programs, in addition to strategies for improving the overall quality of  global programs.

Friday:

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8:00– On Friday I have a choice of starting the day identifying and managing risks or empowering student leadership.  Talking about risk is usually how I like to start my day, and managing risk is an important and often ignored aspect of student travel, but I will probably be in room 125 listening to the representatives from Punahou and Collegiate Schools talk about international collaboration.  There seems to be a lot of overlap with what I am studying, so I look forward to some fresh perspectives.

9:30– General session.  I just hope to get through this one without crying like a little boy.  Here is a preview from Oprah.  Good luck.

11:30– Another jam-packed block.  Because I believe that international education and experiential education can (and should) go hand in hand, I am interested in the “Going Glocal” and “Learning for Real” presentations. “Becoming a Niche School” also looks good, but right now I am leaning towards “Holton’s Ultimate Guide to Developing Global Citizenship.”  I am especially interested in how Holton, as an all girls school, tackles the goal of exposing their students to cultural and international difference while teaching in an environment that does not include one important difference – Gender.  I am not implying that it is impossible, rather I am truly interested to see how they make it work.

1:30- To finish off Friday, and the one hour workshops, I am torn between three choices.  They all look good.  “Diversity – It’s Academic,” definitely shows promise, and “teachers Unplugged” looks interesting because I have no idea what it is.  It is described as a participant driven “unconference,” with nine presenters  – which I can’t seem to wrap my mind around.  I think it will probably either be fantastic or dissolve into a soup of people talking to hear themselves speak.  I Hope it is the first.  Finally at 1:30 I have “Life in an online Global Classroom,” which will present the work of the Global Online Academy.  This is probably where I will wind up.  Technology has a major role in global education, even if most often it is implemented in a piecemeal way.  I look forward to seeing a description of a successful program.

In my down time, I plan on meeting as many new people as possible.  Want to talk shop during the conference?  Send me a message at @aricvisser.  Want to get a cheese steak?  Even better.  See you all in Philly.

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The Direct Relationship Between the Depth of the Spanish Economic Crisis and the Overall Quality of Street Music.

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It was a cold late January evening in the city of Zaragoza.  The wind blew down from the mountains, as it tends to do, adding a rosy tint to the cheeks of the shoppers trying to make the best of the winter sales.  The sidewalks were packed with families, regardless of their intention to make any purchases, as the expectation is that when the “rebajas” come, you shop. It’s just what you do.

Outside the Corte Ingles stood five young men in almost-matching dark pea coats, unbuttoned, with messy haircuts and skinny jeans, each holding a brass instrument.  The men were surrounded by a half-circle of people big enough to block the sidewalk.  The men were not smiling or chatty.  They just stood there with emotionless looks on their faces.  Then they started to play.  It was beautiful.  You could tell from the first note that they knew what they were doing. They were playing one of those classical songs that you can hum perfectly but don’t know the name to, and as the song built momentum the crowd got bigger and bigger.  When the song finished, the crowd applauded.  Some gave money and walked on, some stayed for the encore, and some just walked away.

The next morning a young violinist stood playing in the plaza not far from where the brass ensemble played the night before, filling the square with another round of professional quality music as people hurried to work.  At his feet sat his open violin case with a cardboard sign that read, “I just want to be able to finish my studies.”

It hasn’t always been like this.  There has always been street music, but generally it has always been provided by the usual suspects.  There are the roaming accordion players who stand next to your table, always playing the same exact songs, the often-skinny Irish man with the squealing violin, and the guitar strumming American trying to fulfill his dream of spending the summer busking from festival to festival.  Only occasionally would anyone not fit this mold.

Then, here in Spain the economy went all to hell and things started to change.  The music got better, and the musicians got younger.  The accordion players now had to compete with full bands, drum set included, and cellists, harpists, and classical guitarists with nimble and skilled fingers.  Of course this didn’t happen because of some newfound love of street music.  It happened because more and more people, especially young people, are broke.

Last week the unemployment rate for young people in Spain went over 55%.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a young person with a job.  Some have taken work asking for donations on the sidewalk for various non-profits, which appears to be one of the only jobs available, but most find nothing, and therefore make nothing.  Their parents are not much better off.  As a sign of how bad things are getting, one of Spain’s largest labor unions just announced that even it was laying-off hundreds of workers.

All of this is going on while day after day we read new stories of corruption.  If you believe what you read in the newspapers, and most people do, the last 20 years of the Spanish government have been characterized by jaw dropping mismanagement.  Politicians have taken bribes to help secure contracts, hired their tennis coaches as governmental advisors, and built highways and airports that weren’t needed, some would say as a thank you for campaign donations.  In what has to be the cruelest allegation, while simultaneously cutting public services, health care and public education, the Spanish Popular Party (PP) has been accused of running a distribution ring of black money, millions of Euros of taxpayer money held in hidden Swiss bank accounts, that they pass out, I kid you not, in paper envelopes.   With this level of corruption, and an unemployment rate so high, I am honestly surprised that there are not more people in the street throwing rocks and breaking windows in protest.  Instead, they are filling the streets with music.

Of course no one knows what is going to happen with the Spanish economy, but I’m not sure if young people can stomach an unemployment rate much higher than 55%.  This generation can only rely on the generosity of their families for so long.  There may come a point when they decide that enough is enough and take to the streets in the millions, but for now, that isn’t happening. With a little luck, things will start to improve.  Perhaps the politicians will steal a little less money, people will get back to work, and hope will return.  And with hope will come the exit of the harpists and the pea coat wearing brass band, no longer needing to play on the street corner.  And with their exit will come the return of the accordion players and the American vagabond, and everyone will be happy for the absence of such fine music.

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My Friend Dramane is Volunteering for the War

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This is a story about a man named Dramane – a story that has a beginning but no end – at least I don’t know how it is going to end…so let’s start at the beginning.

Dramane was my first friend that I made after my family arrived in Spain. In the second week of September the sun still screams at anyone who dares venture outside in Zaragoza, but the calendar calls all the kids to school anyway, so I took my daughter’s hand and walked her through the park and into the schoolyard of what would be her first real school.  I forced a big smile and said encouraging things, but my daughter just stared back at me with a look of “But dad, you never taught me any Spanish” on her face.  I gave her a hug, and took a big breath and swallowed hard as she walked in with her new classmates who would spend the next few months talking at her with no response.  When all the children were inside, the parents began filing out, chatting and catching up on news and gossip from the summer.  I just stood there for a moment and then started for the door, where I would see Dramane for the first time.  He wasn’t chatting and catching up.  He was just standing in the back and smiling, then darted out – satisfied grin in tow.

For a few days each morning was identical.  My daughter was brave and Dramane stood in the back and smiled after seeing his twin boys hop up the steps into the school. But then after about a week, Dramane came over, shook my hand and simply said “Hi.  I’m Dramane.”  I told him my name and stood there looking at his smile.  I don’t know that I had ever seen anyone smile that much.  As Americans, we often get made fun of for smiling all the time in public, which is fine, because it is absolutely true, but on that morning, and for mornings to come, Dramane made me look practically miserable in comparison.

For the next two weeks it was always the same, a firm hand shake, a “how are you” and an enormous smile.  We became friends, at least I considered him my friend, and I hoped he thought the same of me.  We told each other about our home towns – mine in the United States, his in Mali – and we talked about the school.  We shared our “immigrant experiences,” and I ridiculously imagined that we had so much in common.

One morning he took me for coffee and showed me his business – one of those storefronts where you can get on the internet, make copies, use a phone or send a moneygram to a loved one back home.  He ran the place with his brother.  That day he told me more about his family. He told me about his wife and how the paperwork to get her to Spain was impossible.  He told me that he had a two-year-old son, also in Mali. He told me about driving back and forth to bring his family things, describing a car trip that would make a coast-to-coast U.S. road trip look like a lap around the block.

I never went to his shop again, but we always shook hands and said hello without fail.  I found what I thought was a link between us, an immigrant experience that we shared, and knew that no one else in the schoolyard quite understood us.  We were different, and although eventually I started talking to the Spanish parents, Dramane never did.  He just stood in the back and smiled like he always did.

—–

Now the weather has turned colder and the schoolyard chats have been shorter.  Up until this week I hadn’t seen Dramane in a while and wondered where he had gone.  I no longer think that we share a common immigrant experience, and realize that it was a fantasy to think that we ever did, and never did that become more clear than when I saw Dramane last Friday and shook his hand for the first time in a while.

“Hey Dramane, how are you?”

“Aric, I’m good, How are you.”

“Good.  I’m good.  Hey what ever happened with your wife’s papers?”

“Oh, she is here now.  I don’t know, maybe you have seen her?”

“Wow! Great news. And your son?”

“We had to leave him in Mali.  His papers did not go through.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s o.k.  I am leaving soon anyway.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to Mali.  I am volunteering to fight in the war.”

“You’re doing what?”

“I’m going to fight.  They are taking volunteers.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Aric, you need to understand, this is no way to live.  I can’t stay here, and I can’t just go back and live in the sand.  What am I going to do, live in a village in the middle of the desert?  I can’t do this anymore, so I will go home and fight.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I just stood there looking for words and Dramane just stood there smiling and shaking my hand.  He probably noticed that I didn’t know what to say, so he just said, “ I will be fine.  It’s no big deal.”

But of course it is a big deal, but all I could come up with at that moment was “good luck.  I really don’t want this to be the last time I see you.  Be careful.”

He assured me that he would, turned and walked away…

I walked home thinking about Dramane.  He was going to fight, and I didn’t even know what side he was on, hell, I didn’t even know what the sides were.  I went home and looked it up.  It’s complicated.  Why does it always have to be so complicated in West Africa?  It’s about religion, or not, because it is really about cultural differences from hundreds of years ago, or not.  It’s about al-Qaida.  It’s about money. It is about oil.  It is about colonialism.  It is about the French.  It is about poverty.  It always seems to be about poverty.  It’s about the Tuareg, a nomadic North African people who impossibly have a Volkswagen named after them.  Do we name cars after ethnic groups?  Is that actually something that we, as privileged westerners get to do? You can read for yourself what it is about here. It is about all of those things and none of those things, but whatever it is, it is enough to make Dramane want to fight, and perhaps kill other human beings.

There is no moral to this story without an end. Only that we live in a big world, where sometimes people leave to go fight, and when that happens, the lucky ones stay home. I don’t know what Dramane believes in, or if he will actually take up arms against his countrymen, but if he does, I hope that he is safe.  I will think of him when he is gone, and perhaps while he is away I will embrace my big fat American smile and start shaking some more hands.

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10 Tips for Your Study Abroad Blog.

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#7 – Somebody already took this picture, so now you don’t have to.

Congratulations to the hundreds of thousands of you who have just begun your semester abroad. May your journey be as fun and life-transforming as you hope it will be. While abroad, many of you plan on blogging about your experiences, which is great, but as someone who as part of his research reads A TON of study abroad blogs, may I humbly offer the following tips which will help keep you and your readers happy.

10. Take it easy on the superlatives.
Undoubtedly, you will be having a blast and learning a lot during your time abroad, but not everything is the “best ___________ in the world,” or the “most __________ of my entire life.” Rather than tell your readers that the Shawarma from the corner stand is the best thing that you have ever eaten, describe it, -help your readers taste what you taste through your brilliantly written prose.

9. Don’t write about coffee.
Yeah, we get it – coffee is better over there. Everyone on the planet already knows that, so you don’t need to report on it. And although you want to tell everyone about how you “don’t know how you are going to go back to drinking American coffee, (or the coffee from where you are from)” the process is easy; you go back and you still drink coffee. There is nothing you can do about it. It would also be nice if you readers didn’t have to look at endless pictures of coffee foam, so leave those out too.

8. Don’t complain.
Your have the privilege to leave the country and spend the semester in who-knows-where doing who-knows what, which is an exciting experience not available to most of the world’s population, so don’t use your blog as your own personal bitch session. Nothing makes you look like more of a spoiled brat than looking at a picture of you at the Great Wall above a post in which you go on and on about “how the fries don’t taste like they do back home,” or “why does the Wifi suck so bad in Europe?”

7. You know what makes pictures awesome? When they have people in them.
You are probably a great photographer, or perhaps just an avid Instagramer, (please watch this -(NSFW language)) but your readers don’t need to see a picture of the Eiffel Tower. A good rule of thumb that I once got from a photographer/Illustrator friend of mine is that if your readers can google an identical picture, then don’t post it (or take it for that matter.) Look for opportunities to photo-document the details of your life abroad, you know, the interesting stuff. Except for coffee. Enough with the coffee pictures.

6. It’s not all about you.
True, your friends and family will probably be the only people that read your blog, but that doesn’t mean you have to constantly talk about yourself. You are in a country with wonderfully interesting people and customs, be a journalist and get someone else’s story. It will help you meet new people and keep your writing fresh and interesting.

5. Don’t tell us about how wasted you got last night.
This one seems obvious, but many of you still will seem to need to give a full report about “how you met up with some __________ dudes last night and pounded brews at the expat bar.” Your educational institution and your family have given you the benefit of the doubt that you are studying abroad for all the right reasons, so don’t let them down by confirming that you really just went abroad to party. The same goes for pictures of empty wine bottles or that great shot of your friend passed out in the sand. Have fun, but keep that part to yourself.

4. Don’t constantly talk shit about back home.
This tip is mostly for Americans, but few things are more annoying than an undergrad who has been out of the country for two months explaining how “this experience has made me realize how f-ed up things are back in the states.” Also, don’t use the phrase “the states.” It just makes you look pretentious. While your experience may change the way you look at things, it won’t fundamentally change who you are and certainly won’t change your cultural identity much, if at all. Trust me, I study this.

3. Tell the truth.
Your expectations are high. You are ready for the best time of your life (see number ten.) Remember that sometimes in life things are just normal, or boring even. That will happen to you too. When it does, take the opportunity to write about something else (see number six) or don’t write at all, because unless you are the next Dave Eggers, your readers will know that you are faking it.

2. Don’t, under any circumstances, post a picture of yourself at Starbucks, McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Dominoes, Pizza Hut, or Subway -or- post a picture of yourself with any of the products from the aforementioned establishments in your hand or in the background.
If you honestly can’t go four months without getting your fix from Mickey D’s, then you shouldn’t be there in the first place, so if you break down in a moment of weakness and find yourself under the golden arches, don’t provide photo evidence. It makes you look like a lightweight.

1. Remember to experience first, document later.
You are right in the middle of what you will soon be referring to as the most transformative experience of your life, be careful not to miss it. It isn’t your job document your trip for people back home, nor should it be. Remember that when you pull out your camera to get that perfect shot, or you sit in your apartment and update your Facebook status (which is a whole different issue) you are creating a barrier between you and the people of the country where you are a guest. Leave the camera at home, turn your phone off, and rather than take someone’s picture, shake someone’s hand. Meet the people who are the reason you left home, immerse yourself in their world, and then if you have time, write about it. Your writing will improve and you readers will thank you. I know I will.

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El brindis por el 13%

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El 25 de noviembre los catalanes votaron, y yo me pegué a la tele para ver el espectáculo.  Como extranjero, la política española siempre ha sido como un deporte para mí  Los candidatos dicen cantidad de barbaridades,  a veces cosas tan surrealistas que parece que están intentando ganar un premio Oscar, no un escaño.   El 25-N fue igual.

Cuando habían contabilizado el 97% del voto, Alicia Sánchez-Camacho y su equipo del PP organizaron una rueda de prensa, y durante la cual sacaron varias copas de cava para brindar por el resultado de las elecciones.

¿Perdón?

El PPC recibió algo menos del 13% del voto popular.  Es verdad que han subido a 19 escaños de los 18 del 2010, pero ¿es ocasión para sacar el cava? Según ella, el voto demostró que los Catalanes han rechazado a Artur Mas y su movimiento independentista, y por ello quería brindar con cava “Catalán y Español.”

Parte de lo que dice es verdad.  CIU, el partido de Mas, perdió 12 escaños, y por eso están muy felices Alicia y amigos.  Pero sería falso decir que los catalanes han rechazado el movimiento independentista.  Casi dos de cada tres escaños fueron a candidatos independentistas y parece que van a seguir adelante con el referéndum de independencia.  Pero Alicia brinda de todos modos, porque para ella la derrota del enemigo es más importante que el éxito de su propio partido.

Pero el problema no empieza ni acaba con Alicia Sánchez.  Después de las elecciones del año pasado, el Partido Popular en general ha comenzado atacar a las autonomías, porque para ellos, solo hay una España mayúscula, con una sola lengua y una cultura unida y homogénea, es decir, una España que no existe, y la parte más triste es que no reconocen la riqueza lingüística y cultural que define a la España moderna.

Lo vemos claro casi a diario con los amigos de Alicia. Era claro en octubre cuando el ministro de Educación, José Ignacio Wert dijo que el interés del Gobierno era “españolizar a los alumnos catalanes.”  Porque para Wert, solo hay una España .. la suya, y si te identificas como catalán, hay que españolizarte.  Qué fuerte.

Quedó claro también el mismo mes cuando el portavoz del PP en el Congreso, Alfonso Alonso comparó a los padres que participaron en la huelga escolar con simpatizantes de Herri Batasuna. Porque para Alonso, si quieres demostrar que estás en contra de los recortes en educación, eres terrorista.  Qué triste.

Tal vez lo que dicen está sacado del contexto y seguro que son buena gente, pero en el tema de la diversidad lingüística y cultural en España, el PP está completamente equivocado.  España es tan grande, y tan bella y tan encantadora precisamente por la diversidad, no a pesar de la diversidad. El PP no quiere una España rica en diversidad lingüística y cultural, solo quiere que todos piensen como ellos, pero España no se unirá por la fuerza.  Eso lo sabemos por la historia.

Como Americano, tengo experiencia en temas de diversidad. Entiendo lo que es tener diversidad entre las fronteras.  Es parte de nuestra historia.  En Estados Unidos no tenemos una lengua oficial, y en muchos sitios el inglés casi no se habla.  Nueva York y su vida urbana no tiene nada que ver con Nueva Orleans y su cultura criolla  y por eso nuestro país es más rico que si fuera homogéneo.

También hay razones pedagógicas para apoyar la diversidad en España.  Cientos de estudios han mostrado que la diversidad lingüística y cultural en centros educativos ayuda a todos los estudiantes, incluso en áreas del desarrollo cognitivo, es decir, que el nivel de inteligencia sube con el nivel de diferencia en el aula. No obstante, parece que hoy en día el sistema valora más la unidad que la diversidad.

Mis niños asisten al colegio público.  Su libro de lengua dedica una página a “las lenguas de España.”  Dice que en España se habla castellano, pero en algunas áreas algunas personas hablan otra lengua también – el catalán, el gallego, o el vasco.  Luego da el ejemplo de cada lengua traduciendo la palabra “leche.”  Y allí se acaba.   Tres idiomas oficiales, hablados por millones de personas reducidas a una sola palabra.  No propongo que los andaluces deban aprender el gallego, pero sí creo que deberían conocer algo más que una simple palabra.

Se entiende por qué algunos en Cataluña quieren irse de España. Con un gobierno nacional que no entiende ni valora su cultura, estar harto de defender a su manera de vivir es normal.  Como extranjero, no estoy a favor ni en contra de que se vayan, pero lo que si está claro es lo que están haciendo Alicia y sus amigos.  Dicen que quieren una España unida, mientras hacen todo lo posible para empujar a Cataluña afuera, tal vez sin saberlo, pero lo hacen.   Si quieren brindar, que brinden por la diversidad de culturas en España y por el derecho a participar en unas elecciones libres, no por la derrota del otro hermano “español.”

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