Auf Wiedersehen Deutschland!

Posted by stephanie on Jan 19th, 2009
Jan 19

Before coming to Germany, I had forgotten how much I missed familiarity:  familiar people, familiar foods, and familiar language (to an extent—more familiar than Hindi, Thai, Korean, or Mandarin for sure).  While all of this familiarity came rushing back to me after my several months in Asia, after spending an extended amount of time in Germany, I can now see more of the differences that exist.  For example, trying to figure out the German trashcans/recycling bins was a challenge at first.  In Christin’s house, there are 4 separate containers under the sink for various types of refuse.  Watching handball was also a first for me, as was discovering the deliciousness of Döners (  There are of course a lot more differences between Germany and the U.S. in culture, politics, sports, entertainment, and food, and I definitely felt my American-ness at times.  After standing out so sharply in Asia, it was interesting for me to blend in so much more in Germany, yet still be so different in many regards.  I do have to admit it was kind of nice in Asia having people assume that I didn’t speak their language because of how I look—although there were many occasions where I wish I could have surprised people by being able to understand the various languages.  While I was impressed with the amount of German I had retained from one semester of it at Vanderbilt, it definitely wasn’t enough to get by actually trying to live like a German for a month.  I did perfect the phrases “Es tut mir leid.  Ich spreche nicht Deutsch,” meaning, “I’m sorry.  I don’t speak German,” all said with a very convincing American accent.

Another area in which Germany and the US are quite different is in the health care systems.  Without going into the pros and cons of either system, I do have to say I was impressed with the German health care system from what my friends parents were able to get from it.  My friend’s dad was able to take an entire month off of work to go to a health clinic/spa sort of place as part of a health promotion course.  There he was able to visit with doctors to talk about health and figure out ways to make his every day life back in Wolmirstedt healthier.  We were able to visit Christin’s parents at the place where they were staying and enjoyed some of the benefits of the indoor pools, Roman vapor baths, quaint villages, and amazing sledding locations.  My friend is in her fifth year (out of six) of German medical school, so I hear about diseases, health, and medicine quite a bit, which got me thinking that health is not an issue I have really explored in my exploration of the meaning of freedom around the world.  This is what I hope to do in Africa, where I plan on volunteering at an HIV/AIDs clinic and seeing what opportunities arise from that.

I’m really excited about heading to Africa.  After enjoying some time with people I know in a place I’ve been before, I’m geared up for the new experiences that have colored so much of my trip thus far.  Now, time to pack those bags….


Freedom is…The Autobahn!

Posted by stephanie on Jan 3rd, 2009
Jan 3

I can’t believe that I’ve been in Germany for more than 2 weeks now. The time has absolutely flown by as I have been caught up in the German Christmas celebrations. Being away from home at Christmas is tough, and I am certainly missing my family and friends back at home, as well as the friends I’ve made along the way, but I’m lucky to have such a good friend in Germany who invited me to be part of her family for this holiday season. Sitting by the fire next to the glow of the Christmas tree, eating tons of food, daily coffee and cake time, and exploring the Christmas markets were definitely highlights of a German Christmas for me. I’ve done some traveling around Germany with my friend Christin, and have even been able to meet up with some Vanderbilt friends who are in Germany for the year. Mostly, though, I have taken some time for myself, to relax, reflect, plan, and just stay put for a while. Towards the end of my time in Asia, my travels were beginning to move at a whirlwind speed in order to get everything in that I wanted and still make it to Germany in time to meet up with my boyfriend who flew from the U.S. to visit me. I’ve decided that 2009 will indeed bring me to Africa, and I already have my plane ticket to Uganda for January 20. I was toying with the idea of heading to Israel, but this was before all of the strife in Gaza and the extremely volatile situation that has arisen there. I’m hoping to stay put in Uganda for a little while to see what opportunities arise, and hopefully understand more fully some of the issues of freedom in Africa. After Uganda I plan on traveling to South Africa, so if you have contacts in either of these places I’m always appreciative of as much help as possible!


More thoughts on China

Posted by stephanie on Jan 3rd, 2009
Jan 3

While in Beijing I also had the Dr. Min Chen, Vice President of Chevron China Energy Company.  Dr. Chen’s daughter is currently a sophomore at Vanderbilt, and he was so gracious in inviting me to speak with him despite his busy schedule!  Dr. Chen is from China, but he received part of his education in the U.S. and has lived in a variety of places because of his work.  Dr. Chen and I had a really nice discussion about freedom in China, but unlike my meeting with Paul Mooney, the American freelance journalist, I know that Dr. Chen had to be more careful with what he told me as a representative of a major corporation.  Dr. Chen told me that he believes there is great freedom in China, especially in the Internet age and the growing wealth among many in China which is affording more freedom to travel.  I asked Dr. Chen what he felt the greatest difference between American and Chinese culture is in relationship to the idea of freedom, and he said that he feels it is the difference between the idea of the individual (America) and the idea of the common good (China).  Chinese culture is Confucius is nature, meaning there is a greater emphasis on harmonious development. Dr. Chen feels that the Chinese government is more effective at decision-making, bypassing endless debate in favor of action instead to produce results.  As Mr. Mooney highlighted, as long as the economic situation in China continues to be strong, and the growing middle-class isn’t affected, Chinese citizens will tolerate violations of their individual freedoms.  I’m not entirely convinced this is a result of seeing some sort of common good that their sacrifice of individual freedoms will bring, but instead because keeping quiet and a low profile is the way to ensure that their economic gains and life will not be disrupted.  Chinese citizens are able to say negative things about the government and have their opinions that counter the current system, but they are not free to organize or advocate for change without repercussions or the possibility of becoming a political prisoner.

I discussed related issues with Richard Wu, a 2007 graduate of Vanderbilt’s law school and a practicing lawyer in Beijing, and he said he thought it was ingenious of the Chinese government to turn people’s attention away from politics after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 to instead focusing on economics.  In a funny side note, Mr. Wu and I were to meet at a Starbuck’s in a shopping center in Beijing, but apparently there was more than one in this small shopping area and we each went to different ones—good thing for cell phones!  Despite what the world may want to believe, just because Beijing has many Starbuck’s, McDonald’s, and other Western imports, it is still the seat of a Chinese government intent on keeping its power by keeping its citizens quiet.  There is an argument that economic freedom (meaning capitalism really, but this could be debated) will bring political freedom to China, and that democracy is on the horizon.  People will also point you to the fact that there are village level elections already taking place in China.  I’m definitely no expert on these issues, and there are tons of people more qualified to give their opinions on the situation in China, but I think that as long as much of the world is dependent on China economically, there will be very few changes in China politically.

While there are certainly issues of political freedom in China, I really enjoyed my time in Beijing and hope to one day return to China to explore more of the country.  Next time, though, I will be armed with a little more knowledge of Mandarin!

Constitutional comparison

Posted by stephanie on Jan 1st, 2009
Jan 1

After Hong Kong, I flew to Beijing where I was greeted by a completely different climate—both in the frigid weather and greater restrictions on certain freedoms in mainland China. However, getting into China and moving around were a lot easier than I had anticipated. At the airport I expected an interrogation in order to pass through immigration, but within seconds I had a stamp in my passport and the green light to explore a once elusive, now much more open, country. I’m not sure how much of the ease I had getting around Beijing was a result of improvements made to accommodate tourists for the Olympics, but navigating Beijing was no problem despite not knowing a word of Mandarin (except for ni hao). I really liked Beijing, and some of the minor annoyances, such as the people who will physically pull you into their shops, the chorus of “Hey lady” (not in the Jerry Lewis sense), and the spitting (which I’m pretty convinced starts in their toes) were quite endearing to me after receiving a taste of it in India. There was so much to see and do in Beijing, and my days were full trying to fit in all of the sights as well as having a few meetings along the way to try to better understand the situation in China. However, one of the downfalls of only visiting the major cities in China is that you don’t get to see what life is like for the vast majority of Chinese citizens in the rural areas.

While in Beijing I had a meeting with Paul Mooney, a freelance journalist from America who has reported on China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong since 1985 and has been in Beijing since 1994 ( I find it really interesting to talk to ex-pats in the countries I visit about issues of freedom, mainly because they have an interesting perspective of coming from one culture but choosing to live in another. My knowledge of Asia is limited (or at least it was much more so before this trip—I minored in European Studies), so I learn a lot from the people that I talk to in the different areas. One thing in particular that Mr. Mooney told me about China that I found really interesting was that according to the Chinese Constitution, Chinese citizens enjoy the freedoms of speech and press. Intrigued by this, I looked up an English translation of the Chinese constitution and skimmed some of the rights guaranteed to Chinese citizens. Some of these rights that are guaranteed are the right to vote at 18, freedom of religious belief, freedom of person, freedom and privacy of correspondence, the right to criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary, the right and duty to work, the right to rest, the right to material assistance from the state and society when old, ill, or disabled, the right to receive education, the freedom to engage in scientific research, literary and artistic creation and other cultural pursuits, equal rights, freedom of marriage, and a few others. Up to this point most of the rights and freedoms sound pretty similar to our own, don’t they? However, around Article 51 the language starts to change from what the state gives the citizens to what the citizens should give the state. Article 51 says that, “The exercise by citizens of the People’s Republic of China of their freedoms and rights may not infringe upon the interests of the state, of society and of the collective, or upon the lawful freedoms and rights of other citizens.” The Constitution goes on with the duties of the citizen, which include the duty to safeguard the unity of the country, to safeguard the security, honor, and interests of the motherland, to defend the motherland and resist aggression, and the duty to pay taxes.

Despite some of the differences in the Chinese Constitution that are to be expected because of the different form of government in China, I was amazed at how similar some of the language and ideas about freedom and rights was to the American Constitution. Of course, not to be cliché, but actions speak louder than words, so no matter what is said in either constitution, if the rights and freedoms talked about aren’t actually given, then to me they don’t really exist. There seems to be a commonality on what people think freedom should include, though, which explains some of the similarities. As most people in China and abroad know, though, many of their guaranteed rights and freedoms are denied, and Mr. Mooney believes that as long as things are going well economically for China, neither the citizens nor the governments of countries who benefit (like the US) will say too much about it.