Interconnectivity

One of the perks of being an online English teacher is having the opportunity to talk to people in far reaching places that I would have never otherwise have met. I get the chance to ask people about their country’s culture, language, tradition and politics which, to me, the coolest thing in the world is to learn about different cultures. It gives me direct insight to what a given country is like. The global need for English is the reason I am employed and it speaks to the fact that our world is growing to be more interconnected. I tutor a lot of computer engineers and technicians who are from Saudi Arabia, a country that is very traditional but also wealthy and educated. Tech companies are very international and English is the common language used across nations. I have always believed that people are all more similar than they are different but this job has been proving that as a truth to me. It’s surprisingly easy to find common ground with someone who seemingly has nothing in common with me. (i.e. a male computer programmer from Saudi Arabia and me a wandering American female traveler) but if there is a desire to understand each other you will find commonalities and a way to understand differences.

I was having a fascinating conversation with a young woman from Turkey earlier this week about the recent election in Turkey and what that means for the future of Turkey when she made a point that I think about often. She said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that in the increasingly global world we live in we need to think about helping people and solving social problems not fearing each other. We should be moving forward together yet there is this odd phenomenon of nationalism rising throughout the world right now and that ideology is rooted in fear and hatred for those unlike ourselves.

This is a strange paradoxical world we are living in today where I can sit in Peru and have a conversation with an educated young person in Turkey who, much like myself, is disappointed in her country and doesn’t see progress in what is happening, not only in her own country but, in the world. It’s true that we are living in scary uncertain times where war could be in the future, people fear radical terrorists which then increases racism and nationalism. This is all overwhelming and absolutely horrific. Yet, we have the most amazing technology at our fingertips and I don’t think I would be the first person to believe that this interconnectivity is a peace building tool.

The news terrifies me but I have instant access to that news, people are talking about it, people are debating, people are organizing. Not only do I talk to my friends who are in different countries about the news, through my job I’m talking to complete strangers in different countries about the state of the world we are all a part of. Borders are arbitrary and with technology we can unite and educate ourselves from our own homes.

While I used to believe that technology was a distraction, and in many ways it is, it’s also an amazing 21st century tool. It’s reaching across the globe to inform, connect and educate people. If technology is used to connect people and inform them I think nationalistic ideals can be challenged- they are being challenged. I learned from one of my Saudi Arabian students that a hashtag started a social movement for women to earn the right to drive. It’s about starting a conversation and reaching people with shared interests as well as those that are being challenged. As long as this continues I believe there is hope for progress.

For the time being, there is a backlash against that forward movement. It seems to me that in a shift of power and movement towards equality a strong authoritarian fist will try to maintain control but it will fall. People of diverse backgrounds around the globe are gaining momentum in the fight for equality and the oppressor is fighting back but in the future there will be a shift of power. I deeply believe this. After the Obama presidency it makes sense, in the U.S, that there was a rise of white nationalism, those people will lose control because we are moving forward in the fight for equality. Technology as a powerful tool and a creative one at that. A powerful, amazing, creative tool humans have never seen before, a far reaching tool to interconnectivity and peace building.

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Asparagus and other global veggies

Since the growing season has begun back home in Vermont I thought I’d pay a tribute to one of the first available crops: asparagus. This vegetable absolutely delights me, I know, I’m probably a weirdo. But seriously, if you have never tried raw asparagus, I highly recommend it. Flavorful, crunchy and delicious. My first farm season started last May, and I had the delight of picking asparagus out of the field and crunching into the miracle of a farm fresh veggie. This was the moment I fell in love with farming, and I remember it clearly.

To answer the question on your mind right now, no, I have not gone off the deep end there is a reason I’m writing about asparagus and it has to do with Peru. Take a wild guess as to what one of Peru’s main exports is. Asparagus! Now, that might not seem strange to you but let me tell you, here and Cusco, I have never even laid eyes on a single stalk of asparagus. I have seen it mentioned on a menu or two but it’s unclear as to if it’s actually available and is certainly a higher ticket item than other veggies. From what I understand most of it is grown in Lima and other warmer, most hospitable climates. I am unclear as to whether it’s available for the general public to buy or not.

The sheer amount of Asparagus being sent overseas is absolutely astounding. In 2016 Peru exported 125,000 ton of asparagus that accounts for 90% of the country’s air exports followed by blueberries (that I’ve also never seen here) and flowers according to freshplaza.com. Next time you are in a grocery store and you see asparagus that isn’t labeled ‘local’ I am willing to bet it was sourced from Peru. Asparagus is a vegetable you often associate with eating in the dead of winter. Guess where it’s coming from. Not California or even close. The United states accounted for 65% of all of Peru’s asparagus exports in 2016. Americans don’t even eat vegetables! Where is this stuff going? Probably the bottom vegetable draw in our refrigerators to rot or maybe to a few restaurants to use as a component to a dish but gets picked around. The vegans? I don’t know..

The larger point I’m trying to make is not only about asparagus it’s about food, trade, and the global world. Yes, here we go again. I don’t believe the majority of Americans put a lot of thought into where there produce comes from. In the summer fresh local vegetables are available but usually still more expensive than something that was imported. Yet, the crops that are exported aren’t available to people in the country that’s producing it and if it is the price is inflated because of the trade value.

Let’s break this down. Crops are grown in so called “developing countries” and sent to so called “developed countries” because there is a demand and an available profit. But the producing country then has very little access to the crop because it is unavailable and expensive. Developed countries economic demands are then being put before the value of people’s health in nutrition in the providing countries. This is nothing new in terms of history. Warm, beautiful place, where people can provide for themselves off the resources of the land is stripped of resources by the white man. We all know this story but do we think about it when we eat things like asparagus with our dinner in the middle of February?

Now, I’m not saying Peruvian’s health conditions are crumbing because they need more asparagus. I’m saying this seems like an unequal power dynamic and I understand there is economic incentive for the Peruvian economy and, hopefully, although I haven’t looked into it, for the growers as well. Global food trade is bigger than just vegetables it affects communities and the environment but isn’t likely to change as long as there is economic reasons underlying it all. It’s true, we live in a global world but I think we need to take that into consideration more often in our daily lives.

So next time you’re in the grocery store, pick up some asparagus and see where it’s from and when you’re craving veggies this summer go local!

Language and Communication

When I first became an English as a Second Language teacher I had mixed feelings about the results of my work, culturally. Was it harmful to  be placing so much emphasis on the English language as essential for success? I would say yes. The Sociology major in me nagged away at my brain telling me, “this is imperialistic, Laura, damn it!” It’s true, people can earn more money by speaking English because it’s extremely helpful in the tourism industry in Cusco, and around the world, but it’s forcing priority of the language of people who come to visit over indigenous languages. Quechua is the native tongue throughout the Andes in the ancient Incan empire sprawling through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Quechua is so ancient it was thousands of years before it was a ever written language. Words for modern technologies like ‘washing machine’ are more like a hybrid between Spanish and Quechua.

Quechua is important to the Andes because is a key element of preserving Andean culture- not for the tourists- but for the people who belong to this ancient heritage. Therefore, placing an emphasis on English to make money off of visitors is devaluing parts of the culture that has existed here for thousands of years. That is hugely problematic. As an English teacher I felt I was contributing to a kind of modern imperialism and I certainly did not agree with it. While my students (ironically) reassured me children still learn Quechua in school.

Despite the cultural value displacement mental moral dilemma I experienced the language learning process fascinated me. People who didn’t speak a word of English could learn so quickly and put the language in action. What a cool function of the human brain to be able to express something in a foreign tongue! The functioning of language is an amazing phenomenon.

Let’s back up and talk about the main purpose of language: Communication. Being able to communicate through language is part of the human experience and sometimes we face obstacles with communication even the same language is being spoken. Other times communication barriers happen when different languages are being spoken. Lack of communication and understanding creates conflict as small as an argument with your wife to as large as war. Conflict almost always causes harm- so is there a way to prevent that? Maybe the answer is communication. So was teaching English all bad? It seems more complicated than that.

I was listening to a Ted Radio Hour podcast last week and the topic was language. One guest was explaining that it’s been theorized that in the future various forms of English will be spoken on every country on earth. Making it a global language. Creating an engine for universal communication. In theory, English would be something that would unify all people to communicate with each other. While the fact that English could be this universal language is problematic to me I  also find it be kind of a beautiful idea that it could unify people across nations.

This helped me find peace in working in ESL. The demand is not going to go away so why not someone like myself, who also understands the value of preserving ancient culture and traditions, teach English to help further my students career goals in this modern world. I am grateful to be immersed in such a rich culture and I too have learned a new language. Humans are only going forward. People are not going to stop speaking English and tourists aren’t going to stop coming to Cusco so maybe there is balance in there between communication and education about culture that can help people today gain a broader global perspective.

Expat vs Immigrant

,A few weeks ago I moved back to Cusco, Peru. On a bit of a whim and very little planning. I bought a plane ticket and was sure I could find housing and a job no problem once I arrived in person. I was right. But why is it so easy for a western woman to just up and leave and move to another country without fear of admittance through Peru’s border, without worry about finding a job without a visa? Well, I think it’s pretty obvious why PRIVILEGE.

For those of you who have been living under a rock: the United States national security turns people away at the border based on the the region of the world they come from but more so the color of their skin regardless of their situation. Someone could be seeking refuge of war torn country,  or seeking better job opportunities, an education, or maybe they just want a freakin’ vacation but before I go on a tangent about systemic racism my point is this: an American passport is basically a global golden ticket. Simply the fact that I can get on my computer and purchase a plane ticket to South America without a shred of doubt about entering Peru for the third time, especially after last time I overstayed when my visa for at least three months, is a HUGE global privilege I hold as an American. Not only can I vacation where I please but I can choose to live in other countries if I so desire.

Living in Peru makes me an “Expatriate” or “expat” which isn’t entirely accurate since I don’t plan on living here for any extended period of time but I work, have an apartment and am not a stinky backpacker so I’ll take it. But why am I, and other people in similar situations, not “immigrants”? It is in reference of the country said person has original citizenship in. Myself and other westerners are “expats” while those whose home countries are not considered “first world” get labeled as ‘immigrants’ when they move to other countries.

In The United States ‘immigrant’ has become a tainted word associated with being desperate, poor, and dare I say, usually brown or black. This is another manifestation of global privilege that’s perpetuated in subtle ways and in this case it’s through language and rhetoric. It’s a view of what is considered safe and what is considered potentially dangerous. Expats and immigrants can be found all over the world but the difference is how they are perceived. The difference is that it’s easy to be an expat, you are welcomed, and even when the system doesn’t work in your favor rules bend to do so. Immigrants are seen as a burden and are largely unwelcomed.

The best example of how easy it is to be an expat I think in relation to my own life is my job. I don’t have a work visa yet I have a job and know that is a widely accepted fact- no visa no problem. My presence in Peru is not seen as threatening but rather as helping- to teach citizens English. I think we all know what the attitude towards undocumented workers in the United States is like.

I urge other people living abroad, so called “expats”, to really take this into consideration. You ooze with privilege so what are you going to do about it? Be aware at the very least that your birthplace has allowed you to slide by wandering the world while others are receive the opposite set of tools in life.