It’s the nearing the end of April and in turn, nearing the end of a semester abroad. With my mind quite firmly set to “analytical mode” as the last flurry of assignments begin to come into focus, I’d like to present a little diagram which I feel pretty much sums up the experience of being on exchange.
At the start of the curve is the enthusiasm of being somewhere new – of that long needed break from the drudgery of law school readings about lawsuits involving tainted oysters and snails in beer bottles. You meet a bunch of new people also on exchange and its great – over the course of the next few weeks there are plenty of get-togethers, and lots of travelling and exploring (one of the great advantages of a city campus no doubt). You start building friendships and bonds over terribly planned but immensely fun road trips and spontaneously put together parties. Classes have just started and the workload really isn’t that bad and perhaps not that different (or even lighter) than what you would get back at home.
Then, there is inevitably a dip somewhere. Mid-semester assignments suddenly emerge from the fray, and nights spent in the library sustained by caffeine start to reconfigure your sleeping patter to something that even most nocturnal animals would find hard to comprehend. Of course, this also tends to mean most of your other fellow exchange students are also bogged down with assignments as well. On top of this, there may or may not polar vortexes. Your Facebook newsfeed becomes a startling contrast between snow filled streets and pictures of your friends back home relaxing on the beach on a warm sunny day. A really good friend has their 21st birthday and you are a couple thousand miles away. A little homesickness starts to kick in.
But then hey, you survived your mid-semester assignments and submitted then (barely) in time. And then all of a sudden it’s time for Spring Break – who knew that one day you would actually need a break from exchange? Regardless, it has come at just the right time. All of a sudden, your enthusiasm has come right back. You meet a whole new bunch of people, get to travel and explore a whole new place. You come back refreshed and energized and guess what? Your mid-semester results are pretty good. On top of this, the weather is starting to warm up – the Spring semester wasn’t some terrible joke. You spend a lot more time outdoors. The next batch of assignments aren’t really that bad and perhaps it’s just too nice of a day to really be worrying about them too much anyway. You get to see the national mall lined in a sea of white and pink and as touristy as that may be, it is still pretty cool.
Then just as things just seem to settle in nicely, you are reminded that the end is drawing near. Email after email will provide you with checklist after checklist of administrative loose strings to tie up and check off. You start to wonder how you are going to fit all that stuff you bought back into your suitcase. The possibility that you might actually miss your charmingly messy dorm room begins to dawn. But at least you can start making plans for those few weeks left in your visa to really start travelling and exploring the country which delays the goodbyes for a few extra weeks.
Earlier on in the semester, being situated in the middle of DC was somewhat of an anti-climax – an endless stream of rather mundane mid-rise office buildings and apartment blocks inter-dispersed with the occasional Subway here and there was hardly the most exciting thing. Even the White House was – the quintessential icon of American politics and power – really seemed much, much smaller than it did in all those sweeping camera pans on movies or the West Wing. Added to that was the cold – something that I have long and frequently complained about and will continue to do so even when I return to Sydney. My last post was about how the arrival of Spring was kind of nice. I retract this statement. Spring in DC is not nice – it is very, very nice. I think I also said that the cherry blossoms were sort of a big deal. I also retract that – they are a very, very big deal and a literal sea of pinkish-white flowers all along the tidal basin, as tranquil as it would seem, generates a sort of tourist hysteria the likes of which I have not seen since New Year’s in Times Square. We are talking fanny pack wearing tourists shoulder charging through a sea of other fanny pack wearing tourists kind of crazy – extra points if you have a baby stroller which can double as a handy plow-like device. Heck, there is a even a parade for the cherry blossoms with all of its kitschy marching band, strangle costumed people and weird floating objects glory which this year seemed to have an added degree of zest and enthusiasm perhaps due to the particularly long and daunting winter that had just passed. There was a certain point in time in which I seriously questioned why I bothered to bring anything other than thick woollen coats and jackets. I also pondered whether the “Spring Semester” was some sort of horrible joke like the strange wildlife we Australians invent to freak out tourists from abroad. But perhaps like the exchange experience as a whole, with time comes a sort of familiarity and comfort which, when coinciding with weather which allows you to wear shorts, is just pure bliss. So my advice for those who also find themselves landing in a harsh January winter is quite simply hold on and hold out – spending the spring in DC worth it.
When I stepped off the tarmac at the airport some three or so months ago, the whole “winter” thing was pretty innovative and unique for someone used to a climate which tends to move between sort of warm, to warm or scorching hot “cook an egg on the sidewalk” heat waves. However, as amusing as it was to randomly snowball fellow exchange students as we walked down the street, the snow sort of lost its appeal when the stinging cold of constant and seemingly never ending winter days dragged on. And on. And on. I do believe that if I ever hear the words “polar vortex” again, I will either go crazy or curl up into the fetal position and rock back and forward in front of a heater (hard to tell which reaction I will have at this point). So alas, Spring has finally come. Yes, it actually has (well sort of if you excuse the fact that it sort of snowed/sleeted/hailed only a few days ago but none the less) and I do believe we have left the snow and freezing wing behind. So finally, the “Spring” semester is living up to its name and the warmer weather has itself brought about a sort of pleasantness which perhaps has come at just the right time – right after Spring Break, a little after the end of the mid-term stream of assessments and just before the next onslaught of assignments and exams leaving a small but well appreciated window of opportunity to do “spring-like stuff”. First off, it is quite simply the really small stuff – the fact that you can walk around without so many layers of clothing that you resemble the Michelin rubber tyre man or the Pillsbury dough boy. Secondly, it is the fact that you can actually begin to appreciate DC as a city with spectacular yet casual walks down to the monuments in the early morning or late at night no longer come with the danger of frostbite induced amputation which is always a good thing. Thirdly, I hear that DC is a pretty big thing for this whole “cherry blossom” business and indeed, soft pockets of light pink are beginning to gently appear in amongst the walkways and boulevards but more so than anything else, the great capital city finally seems to be coming alive after a long winter hibernation and festivals are coming up left right and centre. Finally, things just seem to be settling into a nice and pleasant pace all around, tempered perhaps by a certain lingering and not too distant realization that a semester really is short and time does actually fly by very quickly.
While I was preparing my breakfast meal, I came to the realization that these miniscule, delicious oats scattered with slices of bananas reminded me of the dichotomy between agency and structure which seems to define the debate between pos-structural and modern constructivist understandings of how the concept of “security” is constituted within the international system. I quickly came to a second realisation which was that I had spent far too much time reading and researching a swathe of obscure, abstract international relations theory literature such that my perception of a simple meal had been distorted in such a unfathomable (and to be frank, quite concerning) manner. I then realised I better start eating my oats before it got cold and mushy. Then I realised that all the stuff I had read and re-read finally made sense. Such is the nature of undertaking an independent study and research subject – a little known creature lurking in the midst of the GWU course offerings which I think merits a few words.
Research is a strange thing – and experience which combines “pull out your hair in frustration” moments with the ecstatic “eureka” moment that has motivated the thinkers and ponderers looking at apples falling from trees or sitting in bathtubs throughout history to devote their time and effort to uncovering the mysteries of the world around us. For the past few weeks, this is precisely what I have been doing – endless readings of journal articles, countless hours on Google scholar and requesting obscure books from all over the DC area. And the strange thing about it all? It is completely and utterly voluntary. Independent research is precisely that – no lecturers to set your readings, no prescribed textbooks, just an idea and a supervisor to guide you along the often rocky road to publishing a substantial paper at the end of the semester. Quite frankly, in amongst the I heart DC cups and sweaters that I will be bringing home to Sydney in a few months, I think a substantial piece of research on the subject of international relations theory would be a pretty nifty souvenir (but then again, keep in mind I did interpret a bowl of oats and bananas as a debate between two core theoretical concepts – make of that what you will). But beyond that there is quite simply the fact that for the first time in my academic life, I get to set the subject and research in somethign that I have a passion about. .
I write this on a table whose surface is barely visible because it is strewn with highlighters, printed out journal articles, ripped put pieces of notebook paper and sticky notes on top of which sits a stack of cans of red bull and a giant ball of colourful jolly rancher wrappers which supplied me with the necessary caffeine and sugar to sustain my efforts through the milieu of academia. All the research and readings haven’t driven me to “The Shining” “here’s Johnny!” crazy (yet) though really there couldn’t be a more perfect setting than the hallways of City Hall if I ever did. In other words, undertaking independent research is not for the faint of heart. However, for those who are driven by a particular passion and would jump at the ability to spend a whole semester devoted to a subject of their choice for a subject (as obscure and crazy as it sounds to everyone else), then it really is a rewarding experience.
Spring Break is holds a particularly well known if not infamous reputation for partying on crowded beaches, drowning in a sea of people and loud “doof-doof” music and otherwise trying to avoiding drowning in the actual sea itself. It’s a pretty amazing thing when you consider that in Australia, we too have a weeklong break in the middle of semester but cocktails and drinks on poolside bars are replaced by days recovering sleep or stockpiling on red bull for assignments. In any case, while many would have no doubt enjoyed their time in the sunny and sandy shores of the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Florida or otherwise, a group of some forty or so people decided to undertake a strange and baffling trip to the middle of Alabama to help build houses for the poor and disadvantaged who lost theirs in the tornado that tore through Tuscaloosa.
I will admit that I did not expect much and heck, I joined the Alternateive Spring Break program as a spur of the moment kind of thing. Sipping cocktails with mini-umbrellas on the beach were replaced by many bottles of Gatorade to combat working in the Southern heat, being warned of falling coconuts on the beach was replaced by being warned of falling sheets of roof metal on the work site and exotic dinners were replaced by a daily lunch of peanut butter and jelly. But the funny thing is that as much as it sounds counter-intuitive to a degree that someone would choose to spend their Spring Break in such a way, looking back I really have no doubt that it has been one of the great experiences of my exchange so far – and the defining feature of what made that week so great was meeting a great group of people be they from GWU itself or indeed the great characters and people of Alabama and the South in general. It is quite easy and indeed, perhaps intrinsically natural to simply get to know and travel with other exchange students but to a certain extent, this means that other GWU students and indeed the community of people that surround us as a whole become somewhat of an exotic species. Jumping head first into the alternativee spring break, living, working and talking alongside a group of forty new people that you never knew before but by week’s end you have developed a great bond with was just a great way to really engage with a whole new group of people and you would indeed be amazed at the sort of laughs and friendships which develop over many hours of caulking and nailing sideboard.
Sunny and warm, incredibly pleasant weather and released from all commitments to assignments and exams, you are suddenly overcome with a the sheer sensation of being truly alive and free – all of this…really doesn’t apply to Washington DC at the moment in the midst of yet another snow storm with plenty of freezing rain to turn the sidewalks into makeshift ice rinks. In any case, time to conclude this long drawn out series of ramblings on travelling about with a simple, short and final point.
On Making Mistakes
It is inevitable that at some point in your journey you will encounter obstacles and challenges, and most importantly, you will make plenty of mistakes. It might be figuring out that Apple Maps (you know, that app which suggest you drive off bridges and stuff) really isn’t the best navigation tool in the world and that the human mind can only sustain a few road redirections and endless roundabout before being driven close to insanity. It might be accidentally ramming something with your rental car in the middle of the night and hastily concluding that no-one will really notice anything in the morning anyway. It might be learning the difference between the center of the city as opposed to say, a random stadium across town called City Centre. It might be realizing that the place you booked to sleep is in the middle of nowhere, at the edge of town, with lots of creepy cats and looks like it could be the set of some Stephen King novel involving lots of axes and decomposing bodies in that strange attic above your room. But the Liberty Bell, Rockefeller Centre, Times Square, the Statute of Liberty – all those meticulously planned checkpoints of television and movie lore on your itinerary of things to see – are really at the end of the day, always going to be there in some shape or form. Truth be told, sometimes they just really aren’t that amazing as perhaps you would think. At the end of the day (and perhaps several months on when you are back home), the moments you might find yourself coming back to will probably not be that dull tour of Constitution Hall or that $30 ride up a glorified New York elevator, but rather, those mistakes – those small indirections and mishaps – through which you shared a good laugh with good company, learned something about travelling about and something about each other as well. Murphy’s Law states that what might go wrong will go wrong but heck, sometimes stuff going wrong is half the fun.
So part 2 of ramblings on travelling.
Contrary to popular belief held by many of those who visit from abroad, the United States is not simply a land run on fast food chains or the latest meat-like product being spruiked by a certain clown, bearded colonel, trapezoidal hut or Chihuahua . So take a step off the fast food land and take a detour down the tourist track – each city will always have its own start attractions be it Ben’s famous chilli for Washington DC, Gino’s philly cheese steak for Philadelphia or a dirty water hot dog in New Work (Papaya King is definitely recommended). However, take a further detour deeper in the heartland and again, given its historical and cultural diversity, you will find that the culinary landscape of the US is indeed quite diverse. So keeping an open mind with a small sense of adventure can lead to some great food. If you see something different and looks pretty interesting, go for it – Washington DC itself offers Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese, Southern and Soul food restraints to name just a few and New York is pretty much the holy land for those camera toting, instagram uploading, ‘picture before I eat’ food bloggers. It’s always a good idea to check up somewhere about a restraint before you go in because at some stage you don’t want to end up seated and then have everyone's eye bulge out when they realize that the cheapest thing on this diner’s menu is a $25 burger (true story).
On Working in Groups
Not everyone appreciates the 19th century impressionist artwork of Gauguin, a large EDM rave at the Hammerstein or a musical on Broadway to the exact same extent – sometimes trying to coordinate what and where everyone wants to go and how long you want to stay there and admire Pollock’s ability to splash paint or take a photo with that guy in the creepy Woody costume in Time Square can be a challenge. Meet up, find out what everyone has on their to do list and do a bit of planning and whilst staying in a large group is always great, sometimes it can be just too hard to handle so as Caesar famously told everyone (writing in the third person no less), it is sometimes best to divide and conquer – again, a small group tends to be less of a logistical challenge then groups of twenty. Five, the same number of men in a SAS raiding party or patrol, strangely enough, seems to be the magic number so far – manageable and plenty of room for characters, a good number to split up accommodation costs and just enough to fit into a standard rental car.
Some six months ago in the middle of 2013, I was in the process of narrowing down a smorgasbord of universities to pick my preferences for an exchange. England promised the historic heartland of London or Edinburgh, France offered long afternoons in cozy cafes along Parisian streets or the rural charm of the provinces. In the end, Washington DC won out and whilst the winter blues and the gradual weight of research papers and midterms begin to bear down (and you grow a strange sense of gratitude towards the city’s inability deal with more than four inches of snow) perhaps one of the great pleasures of being in DC is quite simply the fact that it is such a convenient launching point to explore all across the US east coast. With this in mind, I think it pertinent to perhaps write down some lessons learned over the course of the past few weeks of travel for the reference of future to-be exchange students and eager city-hoppers in the semesters to come. So for Part 1, two points:
On the taking of busses:
You can thank Cold-War paranoia and fear of Soviet paratroopers raining down from the skies for the creation of the internet through which you can now watch videos of cats with their head stuck in cereal boxes. You can coincidentally also thank the Cold-War for pushing the development of the sophisticated and well planned highway system which in turn allows cash strapped students to travel rather cheaply and comfortably throughout much of the east coast in particular. So unlike in Australia or Europe, it appears as though budgets airlines are not really a thing here so skip the grumpy air hosts and the $5 optional peanuts for a relatively comfortable bus ride to New York, Philadelphia, Boston as well as other notable cities which will no doubt be on some sort of travel checklist you have devised. Best of all, these busses are cheap – book early and they won’t cost you more than $30 for a return trip and most will have both power outlets to keep you phone charged up as you furiously tap away at several dozen games of flappy birds or do some causal browsing with the onboard Wifi. A trip to New York is four hours which passes by pleasantly enough and sometimes even quicker if you happen to manage a driver who lovingly disregards speed limits.
On planning where to sleep:
A city must be pretty cool to have Frank Sinatra and Jay-Z release catchy tunes solely dedicated to it; and countless films and pop culture references made to it; and filmed in its streets – in other words, lots of people pine after the Big Apple and you will be hard pressed to find someone not wanting to visit New York at some point (unless they already live in New York in which case they simply shake their heads at all the crazy people lining up to see a shiny ball drop in the middle of the freezing winter at the end of each year). In turn, the competition for accommodation in New York as well as any of the big city drawcards along the east coast can be fierce – fiercer so for cheap, well-located and decently comfortable accommodation particularly around the times when most people are travelling, be it during long weekends or during the Christmas period. In other words, do your research and book your accommodation well in advanced. You can thank a German schoolteacher looking to establish cheap accommodation for travelling schoolchildren in the early 20th century for the chain of hostels you can find in most major cities – these are always a good option for a basic place to put your head and unless a personal butler in the presidential is really that important for you, it is more than enough.
So in summary, take a bus (it isn’t that bad) and make sure to plan ahead and look for cheap, well-located accommodation early (unless you plan some Steinbeck-esque hobo adventure) and give thanks to Cold-War paranoia and long dead German schoolteachers.
It could be said that there is hardly anything more quintessentially American than the Super Bowl – the great annual tradition of great pomp and circumstance that is the championship game of American Football and de-facto national holiday. This was my first Super Bowl in the United States and the game this year, was to the say the least, anti-climatic as the Denver Broncos took a beating that had most declaring the game in effect over by the time Bruno Mars finished doing the splits or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers finished the last riff and line on their strangely cordless guitar and bass (the reason for which was subsequently explained by bassist Flea). Perhaps given the not-so riveting game, the focus naturally turned towards the other great attraction of the Super Bowl which is of course, the commercial advertisements. An alleged ten million dollars for a thirty second spot is a serious matter, more so in an age when the attention of at least one hundred and ten million people can be so undivided (or at least as undivided as it can come in this day and age). There was the usual assortment of zany, at times barely coherent humor and “what-the-hell was that?” kind of moments but nothing jumped out as particularly remarkable or memorable including a certain Coca-Cola ad consisting of a simple enough montage of different people from different cultures singing “America the Beautiful” intercut with lines of the song in different languages – including Spanish, Arabic, Tagalog, Mandarin and Hebrew. I would like to think that the ad was pretty standard sappy stuff for the United States but the strange controversy which followed it was enough to merit some thought.
I am still getting orientated with the strange spectrum and poles which seems to direct and guide the American political compass and the controversy which followed in the aftermath of that Coca Cola ad provided some interesting points. The reaction from the right-wing conservatives – the “Fox News” crowd as they would be known and lambasted as by Australian satirists – was in some senses surprising and in other senses predictable. Former politicians who now out of the spotlight yet always craving attention could perhaps be expected to lambaste whatever they can as to the degeneration of society – Allen West’s comments that the ad was “truly disturbing” neatly fits into this category. Random everyday Joe’s and Jane’s now armed with the gigantic megaphone of Twitter and Facebook can be expected to make their semi-drunken spiel of bigotry.
The Coca-Cola ad revealed that many still hold onto a particular vision of what they believe to be theirs within America – a vision of the stability and surety of homogeneity of which the diversity captured in the Coca-Cola ad seems to disturb. Yet as many have pointed out, this vision of America never really existed given that large sections of the US spoke Spanish or that many of the ancestors of those lambasting their multi-lingual take would not have been able to sing “America the Beautiful” in English either. One of the most striking things about arriving in the US is seeing the English signs at the Airport side by side with the Spanish translation – something which continues into everything from brochures to television. Such linguistic diversity is not found in Australia but it was a pertinent reminder of the cultural and historical diversity of the US. There is little doubt that multiculturalism and diversity remains a major issue for many and this is something which perhaps hits home with Australia, itself on the one hand priding itself on its diversity and on the other hand, providing the same glimpses of bigotry. I suppose it strange that a simple Super Bowl ad would bring such a simmering issue to light.
One of the great pleasures of being on exchange is the ability to act on the spur of the moment as was the case when a small group of us decided to head on a short road trip to Philadelphia. After a two and half hour drive transformed into a four hour drive by poor navigation and rest stops, we eventually found ourselves in an unassuming room in an otherwise unassuming building near the centr of Philadelphia – old wooden chairs around around tables draped with dusty green cloth, books, pens and papers and frozen at a specific moment in time. That particular moment was the debate and signing of the Declaration of Independence and US constitution, and that building was Independence Hall. We had arrived late in the afternoon, barely able to catch what was the last guided tour of the day through what is arguably the holiest of holy grounds of that great narrative of American democracy.
Stories of nationhood are of course powerful things, embodying at their core a sort of orientation of identity which can keep the collective whole coherent and Independence Hall serves as the backdrop to the great “American Aeneid”. Yet as much as these stories of nationhood weave the notion of a united identity – a sense of distinct and shared values and principles which can bridge divides – the reality is of course always far more complex and more often than not, bleaker and far less romantic. The tour guide ended on an empowering note, something along the lines of modern day American inheriting that great spirit of freedom and equality – two principles which it seems I frequently encounter and seem compelled to draw my focus upon during my time here in the US. The poverty which is so evident in Washington DC is still evident in Pennsylvania and the backdrop loses none of its biting irony – simply replace the National Monuments with the great historical sites of Colonial revolutionary America.
All of the above was drawn into focus by a simple and unassuming display not far away from Independence Hall in an old, decaying prison – a half gothic revival half brutal and pragmatic concrete and steel bar mishmash that is the Eastern Penitentiary Prison. What was once a pioneer of early prison design had been transformed into a well oiled tourist attraction with an exceptionally good self-guided tour narrated by Steve Buscemi. The most memorable point amongst the displays of Al Capone’s prison cell and gift shop was simple diagram of US incarceration rates on a column graph, dwarfing those essentially ever other state in the world – a rate which hovers just below 750 prisoners per 100,000 population. This blog entry is of course no place to tackle the behemoth of the criminal justice and prison system, however, I do have to say that once again, another great city of the US brought about a much greater deal of reflection and thinking than I ever expected it could and more so than anything else, it is the striking and complex contrasts which are evoked which are the most poignant – an unassuming room where the principles of rule of law, fairness and equality are said to have been captured and embedded into a nation and an unassuming diagram which displays the modern issues of justice.