Anja Nettler Living Abroad

A slight green-eyed young woman with a posh British accent sat down to be interviewed.  She appeared more English than German.  Blond haired ponytail and glasses, she was believable as a confident student journalist. Yet, vulnerability exists within Anja Nettler, because she’s so far from home.

 Born and raised in Lagenhagen, Germany, Anja decided to live abroad five years ago when her boyfriend Jörg was offered a job in London. 

As Jörg worked tirelessly to make ends meet in the expensive city, Anja went to Queen Mary University to achieve her Bachelors.  Eventually, she joined a Masters programme for International Journalism at the University of Westminster.

Living within a different cultural background hasn’t been easy for Anja.  It didn’t take long before she noticed some preconceived judgments of Germans in the UK.

“When I lived in Harrow, a 15-year old boy once asked me what I thought about Hitler?”  Anja found it appalling that the boy didn’t assume she would denounce Hitler the same way any other sane person would.

Anja is concerned for the way that Germans are looked at by the rest of the world.  There was no hesitation in setting the record straight about the Germany that she had always known.

“It is against the law in Germany to glorify the Nazi’s.  You are also forbidden to wear a Swastika,” she said in a way that asked, Isn’t this obvious?

Anja blames the constant references to World War II in the UK as a possible reason for anti-German sentiment and one is forced to think back a few weeks to the sea of poppies on lapels of commuters.

Not Abroad Forever

Originally, Anja had agreed to three years in London, but was forced to change tactics when her boyfriend received a pay raise and promotion.  She was miserable when she and Jörg first arrived.  Due to very little money, they were forced to live on fast food in a room with a pest control problem.

“They say that money doesn’t make you happy, but having no money makes you extremely unhappy.”

Yet, despite the challenges that Anja has faced in the UK, it hasn’t been complete gloom and doom for the International student.  She admits to the wonderful culture of art that London has to offer and even plans to visit England again once she returns home for good.

Now that her education is almost complete, Anja has a 3-year plan to return to her beloved Germany, where she will use her British education to propel herself in the field of journalism.

The Elimination of Classification

On Al Jazeera this weekend, a very interesting debate took place hosted by Avi Lewis regarding The Color of RecessionAccording to statistics, the unemployment rate for minorities is around 34%, while unemployed white Americans are only at 7.2%, says the NY Times.

The programme featured four panellists who debated the issue of race, including ‘Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow Coalition; Rosa Clemente, an activist and former Green Party Vice Presidential candidate; Linda Chávez, director of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity and the Reverend Greylan Hagler of the United Church of Christ.’

The discussion focused a great deal on the Obama administration, at times criticizing the new president’s failure to focus on helping minorities, who have been affected more strongly by the economic downturn.  Referring to Obama’s focus as a ‘colour blind approach’, Lewis puts the question to the panellists: Is Obama letting down people of colour?

The answers, surprisingly, are more varied than one might expect.  Rosa Clemente, for example, was dissatisfied with Obama’s actions so far, criticizing that the President has not focused his energies on minority unemployment issues.  Linda Chavez agreed, but also added that Obama is offering the ‘same old solutions’ to the economic crisis.  She believes this will only cause more problems for America in the future.

Reverend Jackson, who in many ways represents more traditional ideas about racial inequality, didn’t show any great opposition to President Obama.  Jackson did, however, disapprove of banks investing from the ‘top down’ rather than the ‘bottom up.’

Obama’s only supporter seemed to be Reverend Hagler, who suggested that people support the President rather than holding him to ridiculous standards.   He reminded the audience that Obama is a president, who must answer to and work with other groups such as the legislative branch.  ‘He is not a king,’ said Hagler.

Reparations

Though the discussion centred around the effects of the economic crisis on minorities, there was ultimately an argument about reparations to people of colour.  Should reparations be made?  All but one believed there should be.  Chavez maintained that the generation of minorities existing in America today are so disconnected from those who suffered from racial discrimination that there would be no point to making reparations. 

What was most disturbing about the discussion is that in almost everyway it seemed to undermine what President Obama is trying to do.  And what is Obama’s goal?  Is it simply to get a nation through one of the worse economic crises it has ever experienced?  Is it to end a war, while ensuring that Afghanistan is not left in such a weak state that the Taliban can easily overtake it again?  While all of these goals are no doubt part of Obama’s plans, it becomes clear from his campaign that a loftier goal is in place: Saving a nation from their own short-sidedness in regards to race.

So much of Obama’s presidential campaign appears to have focused on race.  And it seems clear that Obama understood what Europe has known for many years; Race is America’s greatest problem.  The children of oppressors and the oppressed have been taught by their ancestors that race is indeed, a huge subject and should be treated as such.  And while this poses no problem for the American who is accustomed to making race a very big issue, it consistently undermines the great cultural theorists of this generation who wisely maintain that the only way to overcome racism, sexism and the classification of ‘Otherness’ is by giving absolutely no respect to the ideology of classification.  In other words, ignoring the idea of race forces or at least impels others to deal with a person’s humanity rather than their skin colour.  It is a reminder of that which makes us similar, rather than what makes us different.

President Obama is, no doubt, a part of this new school of thought at least to some degree.  While he does not ignore race, he certainly has committed himself to making decisions that do not focus on the race of the American in crisis.  His proposals for healthcare, economic solutions and war will likely not include reparations to any race in particular.

Is this a good plan of action?  It may be more accurate to say that it is a necessary plan of action.  Who among us wants a leader, who makes decisions based on skin colour?  It was morally wrong when it was done by those who formerly held positions of power.  It would be wrong now.  In fact, it might further destroy the task of healing the wounds between races in America.  The ‘what about me’ syndrome exists on both sides.   

People are discriminated against for all sorts of reasons including gender and race.  It is ridiculous to believe that an epoch of racial prejudice has not been passed down to both black and white Americans the way family heirlooms are passed down to grandchildren.  Why would you believe even the most righteous of equality leaders over your own parents unless you were ready to challenge everything you had ever been taught?  Yet, it is equally ridiculous to believe that the consequence of such programming does not also include a fundamental fear and mistrust of anyone who is different.  Even small children teach us this in grade school where the slightest abnormality causes a student to be the focus of ridicule and cruelty.

Beyond Race

Still, what is crucial here is whether or not Obama’s regime of ‘colour blindness’ seeks to be an example by teaching people to function beyond the idea of race.  If the goal of the current administration is to eliminate the need for classification, the very idea of discrimination, therefore, is called into question. After all, is it productive to use classification as a defence?  For example, is it effective for someone to say, ‘He is treating me inappropriately because I am Indian and a woman?’  Or is it more effective to say, ‘He is treating me inappropriately?’  How much more useful would it be to focus on the issue of mistreatment, rather than the issue of race or gender?

There is no doubt that if Obama is a student of the school of thought that seeks to take the focus from classifications, therefore eliminating the power of ‘Otherness’, he has his work cut out for him.  Enticing people from a lifetime of programming is not something that can be done in four or even eight terms of a presidency.  Yet, Obama’s biggest followers have often interpreted his message as one of hope.  And since a minority has managed to obtain the highest position in America, then we can only imagine that change is possible and that perhaps, Americans are on the cusp of that change.

For NY Times statistics on unemployment in America, please go to http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/11/06/business/economy/unemployment-lines.html

AN AMERICAN LONE WOLF IN LONDON: QUIETUDE

If you are American, like me, and are planning to spend some time in London then there’s a lot you may want to know. Nothing can take away from the actual experience of living here. No one can teach you that. Yet, if you are a rookie in the UK or making arrangements to study here abroad or live here for a time – there are some interesting tidbits, pitfalls and surprises that will ultimately become part of the best stories of your life.

I’ve been living here for five years. Back when I began studying here, I only knew London by its landmarks, rituals and monarchs. No one who arrives in central London is going to be very surprised to see the changing of the guards or Big Ben. They might be intrigued or excited, but not surprised.

What might prove to be a revelation, however, is the quiet. Now I don’t mean to paint a picture straight from The Sound of Music, with some nymph-like woman twirling around on a hilltop. London is a major city with traffic, rush hours, homeless people, tourists and criminals – make no mistake about it. Yet, there are subtleties that sneak up on the unsuspecting newcomer. For example, during rush hour in the city, you will almost never hear a car honk its horn. If you are from Minnesota, that might not be a huge surprise. But I’m from New York, and it’s not possible to walk through that asphalt jungle at 9AM on a Monday without hearing a cacophony of car horns. Every car is speaking, and though each one sounds different they are basically saying the same thing. ‘Get out of my way!’ Yet in London, a car horn is a rarity. You may hear one ever so often – but even then – other drivers are looking at the trigger happy horn blower as if he has utterly lost his mind.

Another reality is that Englanders, as a rule, are very reserved people. That is not to say that there aren’t scuffles, arguments, scenes, tirades and even the occasional fight. Still, on average, voices are at a moderate pitch. If you are from a major city in America, this may take getting used to. In my first year in London, I was always asking people to repeat themselves. I was also very aware of the stares I received whenever I spoke in public – the loud New Yorker that I am. I’ve since learned to lower my voice, so much so that when I return home, my family and friends are asking me for the first two days, ‘Why are you talking so softly? What’s wrong with you? Are you sick?’

These aspects of quietude gives London an overwhelming calmness that presents itself when least expected. One of my favourite hangouts was Leicester Square, which for all intents and purposes reminds one of Times Square if it was scaled down by about 60%. But right in the centre of the large movie theatres, restaurants and tourist shops is a tiny little park with trees, benches and statues. And though there is touristy mayhem and a vendor jamboree going on right outside the park, stepping in it is like entering a vacuum of hushed tranquillity. It’s as if the noise cannot penetrate the invisible walls of the park.

There are ever more interesting aspects about the journey that is England to be revealed in future blogs; as they are, even now, being revealed to me. Stay tuned for more. And remember, you don’t have to be American to relate to these experiences, and you don’t have to live in England to understand that every place on earth has its own special nuances. And the world keeps going ‘round.

NEWS AS ENTERTAINMENT

Imagine, for an instant, this tender moment. A middle-aged man sits at an antique desk, his melancholy countenance replacing his usual stern look. On the desk, there is a stack of stationery, two felt-tipped pens, and a pile of envelopes. Perhaps too, there is an assistant ready to read off a list of names. Or maybe, the man is alone at his desk when he begins to write the letters to the families of British soldiers, who have given their lives for Queen and Country. After an hour, due to an old injury causing partial blindness, the man’s left eye begins to tear from the strain.

This might be a romanticized version of the event, but no one can deny that UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown took the time to hand write letters to families he had never met; a small, but touching gesture from the busiest man in London. Yet, it has not saved him from coming under intense scrutiny by Jacqui Janes, the mother of a soldier, who was killed in Iraq. In her condolence letter from Brown, the name ‘Janes’ seemed to be written as ‘James’. Jacqui Janes found the misspelling of her son’s name, as well as the sloppy writing, ‘disrespectful’.

Last night, the Evening Standard seemed to commiserate with the grieving mother, as they published an article on the front page with the headline, Brown: Sorry If You Can’t Read My Writing. They continued the article on pages four and five, including a photograph of Jacqui Janes holding up a copy of the letter and another photograph of Janes and her son in full uniform.

On BBC Radio 94.9, the issue was discussed on The Breakfast Show yesterday with Joanne Good and Paul Ross. Joanne (or Jo as she is commonly known), who is notorious for her harsh judgment revealed that she was more surprised to find out that the PM would actually hand write letters. The fact that he made mistakes on the letter was not an issue for the well known radio personality. This morning, The Times, made a touching comment about the sentiment of hand written letters, calling the PM’s mistake ‘careless’, but ‘not callous’.

If all of this seems a tremendous amount of hoopla for such an inconsequential issue, one could argue that an inability of a Prime Minister to spell or write well is of public interest. After all, every oratory mistake former President George W. Bush uttered – and there were plenty – made him a constant source of ridicule in the press. Still, perhaps it can also be argued that these types of news stories, which seem to occupy large spaces in the news are tabloid stories at best.

It may be fitting that the PM’s handwriting skills have been called into question on the very day that Professor Daya Kishan Thussu gave a lecture at the University of Westminster on ‘Infotainment’. Thussu maintains that the news media is consistently influenced to report soft news (celebrity, pop culture) rather than serious and topical information that is in the public’s best interest. And perhaps, hard core journalists may – if doing any soul searching or internal juggling – find themselves duplicating Thussu’s sentiment after reading articles about Gordon Brown. The indictment against him seems severe indeed, when one considers what he meant to do by writing condolence letters by hand despite his disability.

What is arguably most disturbing about this incident is that it promotes the idea that certain people in particular positions are not allowed to make mistakes. Scarily, this is not a new idea. In corporate offices everywhere, a project called Six Sigma is being implemented and taught to employees with the goal of teaching them how to eliminate making mistakes. Ideally, it seems a reasonable objective for any business, indeed a way to improve accuracy and increase production. Yet, a closer inspection of the business strategy reveals it as a psychological trick that perhaps usually results in making older, less mentally nimble employees feel insignificant. It also gives corporations the opportunity to get rid of high paid mature workers and justify replacing them with younger, more agile employees that are willing to work for less money due to lack of experience.

It is ultimately important to meditate on what can be taken from news stories that seem over-inflated and trivial. It shows a stronger movement toward news as entertainment. And while these stories may interest the public, they are conceivably bad for the public as they seek to replace news intended to inform people and inspire them into social action against injustice and destructive forces.

Xavier Claramunt and Space Capitalism

A space enthusiast named Xavier Claramunt, who is CEO of a company called Galactic Suite, has started a project that will result in the first hotel in space, Times Online reported today.

Claramunt, a former aerospace engineer, has revealed that a billionaire has donated £2.5 billion to the cause making it possible for the project to be completed within 3 years time.  The cost of staying at the space hotel resort for 3 nights, which promises a weightless spa where you can watch 15 sunsets a day, is £2.7 million.

This news, which is certainly surprising, forces us to think about the connection between space exploration and money. There was a time when little boys and girls dreamed of going to space by joining astronaut programmes.

They were lofty goals because in order to be an astronaut, one had to excel in their studies and show a consistency in extracurricular activities like volunteer work and sports. This would allow the applicant to develop strong teamwork skills. Eventually, your good grades would allow you to enter into a Master of Science programme.

What parent wouldn’t be happy to help a child in this pursuit? What person wouldn’t want to know that those few who manage earth’s orbit on behalf of the rest of the world are intelligent, ambitious people?

It would seem that the ambitions regarding space flight have changed. Instead of targeting those who are intelligent, it targets those who are rich. Instead of creating ways to explore and learn, Claramunt is using the space around our planet as a form of entertainment. And someone, somewhere is letting him.

Space Pollution

The most disturbing part of Claramunt’s plan is that it manages to expand the problems of waste management and pollution outside of earth’s atmosphere. Earth’s orbit has already been bombarded with man-made satellites used for vast communication around the earth.

In fact, two Russian satellites were destroyed when they crashed into each other earlier this year. One of them, Kosmos 2251, had been out of service since 1995. The crash has left more than 500 pieces of debris in space, which poses a threat to other satellites in sun-synchronous orbits.

Yet, on a psychological level, the issues of a class system, which Claramunt’s project brings to the surface, is even more troubling. The message here is that intelligence, hard work, good grades, altruism, and self esteem won’t necessarily get you into space, but money will; and lots of it.

Has the very idea of space exploration as a noble and honest attempt to learn more about our planet and the space around it been compromised? If it hasn’t yet, it may very well be by 2012.

Kids who want to go to space may not focus their attentions on education, but instead on getting rich. The London Times equated Claramunt’s plan with something out of Star Trek. But to ‘seek out new life’ doesn’t seem to be what Claramunt is after. He simply means to expand our old life by bringing the same problems we’ve always known into the final frontier.