Slices of Culture

I have been taking a course called Globalization Trends and World Issues that has been really interesting (though also a lot of hard work). Tonight we were visited by the Humphrey Fellows, mid-career education professionals from foreign countries who have come to Penn State to study. They did a little panel discussion for us about life in their home countries and it is very interesting to see things from the individual perspective.

Egypt: This man talked about how the country has changed a lot from a communist society to a more open, democratic one. His most interesting thoughts were explaining polygamy in Muslim culture. He explained how marriage requires a man to provide for his family, thus someone who marries twice has twice the households to provide for – not very cost efficient. Women who work are still not expected to provide for the family. Most cases are people taking care of families where relatives have passed on or in the countryside with really old men. Women have to give their husband permission to marry a second wife, otherwise they can get a divorce. The explanation for men being able to divorce easier than a woman is that they have to leave their family well off and provide for them afterwords. A woman can get a divorce, they just have to go through a process so they aren’t just taking their husband’s support and running. It’s different and probably not the best way of handling things, but its interesting and its culture. He also noted that his wife, his sisters, and sister-in-law all work.

Russia: This woman was also very interesting. She noted the differences between the communist state and the current one. She seemed to lament the change. Under communism, she said, one felt secure. There were police everywhere and from her point of view their presence was welcome. She noted, however, that under communism the state dictated everything you received and there was always shortages. The current lawlessness in Russia is very disturbing to her and she said in some ways she would welcome a return to dictatorship. This kind of flies in the face of our American view that democracy is always better.

Bhutan: This guy was very funny and very excited to talk about his country. The king of Bhutan has relinquished some of his power recently and is moving the country towards a constitutional monarchy. He also talked about their plan of moving towards a higher Gross National Happiness, as opposed to trying to compete with large countries Gross Domestic Product. One of the students noted that he kind of glossed over a refugee crisis that has been going on between Bhutan and Nepal. It seemed like this guy was really optimistic for the future, or at least wanted to put on a good face for his audience.

Sierra Leone: In a contrast to the man from Bhutan, the woman from Sierra Leone was pretty negative about her country. There is a governance failure there, she said. When our professor said that is probably due to the civil war, the woman smiled and said government failure is why they had the war in the first place. They struggle to maintain schools and infrastructure. When we asked what happens to the money from their famous diamond mining operations, she simply shrugged her shoulders and said it has been mismanaged. She also shed light on a battle there between feminists and traditionalists.

All in all it was a very interesting discussion and could have gone a lot longer if we had more time. It opened my eyes to the fact that news and historical descriptions of events do not always match the first-person view of them. In the future, I would like to hear more first-person perspectives of events along with the general overviews. 

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