a summer at ASEF University

i’ve heard about couchsurfing.org for the longest time but never thought of looking it up for myself. today, with the enthusiastic plugging of my new bulgarian friend, hristo, i finally created an account. i am still a bit wary about the idea of staying with strangers, but i’m giving it the benefit of the doubt and am now offering my petit studio au havre for surfers. so with any amount of karma, i should be able to couchsurf my way around a decent portion of the world before i begin working!

the past week has been a flurry of lectures (twice a day), cold meals (our group sessions never finish on time), new friendships and an interesting weekend of field trips around the region. in general, the level of academia of the lectures has been quite high, although some of them were so fluffy that i decided to sketch the people around me in my notebook instead, something i haven’t done since i left ISKL. the spanish delegate, pol, caught me glancing at my unsuspecting models and later asked to see what i drew. my style is quite different now – not very evolved technically, but there’s something worth working on still. pol liked my sketches and i was fairly satisfied with their quality.

the theme of the 15th ASEF University is “migration and multicultural societies”, so i guess it couldn’t be helped that some fluffiness would crop up. one particular lecturer who spoke about multiculturalism really irritated me as she harped on and on about the hybridity of cultures. she showed us a photograph of a Turkish couple snogging (her choice of words, not mine), which i think she intended to shock us with. “have you ever seen anything like this?” she asked. “a woman in a headscarf publicly snogging. people who lack an understanding of the evolution of culture would be completely appalled that a muslim woman could go against her values so blatantly.” she went on to say that the snogger (my choice of words, not hers) was not at all a typical muslim woman, because her headscarf was not tied in the traditional knot. she argued that the culture had evolved such that the meaning of the headscarf has evolved as well and is misunderstood to be a devout islamic symbol when in fact it holds newer, modernized values. “this woman,” she exclaimed passionately, “is making a statement with her headscarf. she is a statement of cultural hybridity.”

i can buy the notion and value of cultural hybridity, but her example really annoyed me. firstly, she was equating religious values with cultural ones, which are not the same thing. there are intrinsic connections between the two, yes, but only one is malleable to the times. religious values are rooted in doctrine which claim universality because they claim to be the truth. how, then, can the truth possibly evolve? had she given a more familiar western example of nuns snogging (such a disgusting word) the hell out of each other, i doubt she would have gotten away with saying that they were hybriditisifizying their cultural/religious identity because they were wearing their habits back to front. secondly, she was not only pardoning the girl for acting against religious principle, but lauding her for defying  the image of islam, which implicitly introduced some form of judgment on islam to the entire ASEF delegation. i can accept the value of undercutting religious stereotypes, but it seemed more like she was devaluing the religious principle on which the snogger was being judged. she might as well have said: “it’s the it-thing for muslims to be defiant, it’s so passé to stick to the good old values.”

in any case, we’ve spent so much time harping on the notion of multiculturalism that not a lot of value is being added to the discussion any longer. we’re delving into cheesier and cheesier metaphors to illustrate the complexity of culture. today alone, we’ve had icebergs, a glass of mixed liquids of different density levels and onions (so much is below the surface, some cultures mix and some others stay isolated, and there are many layers to ones’ cultural identity). if i have to listen to another discussion about the definition and challenges of multiculturalism i think i might scream.

that said, we have had some extremely valuable lectures. in particular, i found the lecture on north-south korea relations really fascinating because i knew so little about it in the first place. apart from the history and description of north korea, we looked at the likelihood and (dis)incentives of reunification, the situation of north korean defectors (interesting how this term used in place of emigrants or even political refugees) and the south korean position on north-south relations. i was surprised at first to hear that south korea does not encourage defectors. with stability as its main priority, south korea is against the reception of too many defectors, fearing that a flood of them will try to enter the country and destabilize the economy and society. surrounding north-east asian countries such as china and japan are also against receiving defectors who managed to escape the regume, and often send them back to north korea, where they undoubtedly face torture for their disloyalty. ra jong-yil, the man who delivered the lecture, also the president of the university and previous special aide on national security to previous korean president roh moo-hyun, furthermore stunned everyone into silence when he pointedly said that advocating for human rights in north korea and talks of reunification were stupid ideas. but i won’t expand on this.

some things i’m learning from this conference have nothing to do with the theme at all. mostly, i am surprised at the extent to which one’s education really frames the way one thinks. it seems so intuitive for this to be true, but i never fully appreciated the outcome until now. it isn’t difficult to spot the people who have absolutely no background in political studies. some delegates here have neither a real idea what it means to design a policy nor given any thought to the duties of the state. this often obscures the purpose of the discussions we have and drags the whole group into very long-winded debates over tangentially-related fundamental ideas such as the individual vs. the state, universal values, national identity, absolute freedom etc. eventually i asked ana, the executive office of ASEF and the woman who organised the summer school, why students with no political background were also considered eligible for the programme, and she said that it was because migration and multiculturalism were such broad topics that it covered even the fields of urban design, architecture, psychology, anthropology and other educational backgrounds. she believed that everyone would have something valuable to contribute. i guess i can see where she is coming from, but it can be hampering to have a discussion on migration policy bogged down by unrealistic arguments on how the individual is more important than the state and thus they should have the right to emigrate and immigrate wherever they please.

i had some very interesting conversations with a couple of people here, one of which i found especially shocking, but i think i will leave that for another post altogether.

korea itself has not been very exciting, but this is mostly because i’m spending most of my time on the university campus. we’ve gone out a bit to the local karaoke and bar, but the region is neither very urban nor very beautiful. i managed to pick up a bit of korean and can read most of the characters now, which is nice, but the novelty of being in a new country has worn off quite significantly after this one week and i am now just aching to go to seoul, where i’m expecting life to be more fast-paced. 3 more days!

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