As the year started, our first activities involved taking a look at how so very much of what is at the very heart of a culture today depends on the history and past experiences of its people.
We began by reading and discussing the experience of a young American Peace Corps volunteer to South Africa. The text is provided below. As you read the short text, think about the following questions:
- what surprised the author, and why,
- how Italians face similar crises,
- your personal reaction, and how you would have felt if you had been in the author’s shoes,
- what the South Africans’ way of coping says about them…. and what Italians’ reactions in similar situations say about us, and our culture.
Eat, Drink and Be Mournful
By Laura Portalupi ’02 – Peace Corps/South Africa 2006-2008 published in The Miamian, at http://www.miamialum.org/s/916/interior-3-col.aspx?sid=916&gid=1&pgid=2770&sparam=Laura%20Portalupi&scontid=0
Before leaving for South Africa, I read a statistic that South Africans spend more time at funerals than they do having their hair cut, shopping, or enjoying barbecues. It was a grim fact girding my journey abroad.
Sure enough, days after arriving in the rural community where I would spend the next two years, a colleague brought me to a funeral for someone whose name I only learned once I got there.
In rural South Africa, funerals are a significant part of the culture and open to anyone who feels inclined to attend. I lived in a large village of about 18,000 people in a region promoted on signs along major roads as “The Cultural Heartland.” It was also a place ravaged by AIDS, alcoholism, crime, and road accidents.
The traditional funeral began around 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Women dressed in long skirts, tied a tuku around their hair, and covered their shoulders with a shawl. Men wore dress shoes and jackets – jeans were OK. The service began at the home of the deceased and concluded in the cemetery with the burial. Beyond the graveyard gates, the somber tone was traded for a social one, and everyone returned to the house for a full meal. The whole event was typically over by 8:30 a.m.
My host sister seemed to be a professional funeral-goer. Many Saturdays I would emerge from my room mid-morning, only to find my sesi humming lingering hymns as she scrubbed laundry. For her, as for many others, attending funerals was as commonplace as washing clothes, cooking dinner, taking the bus to town.
A few months after I completed my Peace Corps service, I received some tragic news from South Africa – the only daughter of my dear friend, Lorraine, had been killed in a car accident. Lorraine had been my confidante and kindred spirit. She was sensitive and generous and radiated love for others – she was the epitome of compassion.
I hated the omnipresence of death in South Africa. The way death sidled up and stole people. It just wasn’t fair.
When I spoke with Lorraine on the phone, her gentle voice was intact, but wounded. “It’s part of life,” she said.
It was a truism I had heard again and again in South Africa. But it wasn’t just a truism, I realized now – it was the truth. South Africans have an intimate relationship with death, and the routine, the familiarity, the acceptance – none of it was callousness. It was courage.
We then moved on to watch and discuss three very powerful films about South Africa under the apartheid regime: Goodbye Bafana !, Cry Freedom and Catch a Fire. These films provide not only a glimpse into the lives of black activists Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko… they also provide a thought-provoking look at the lives of normal South Africans who struggled to come to terms with the wrongs of the apartheid system. We saw that there were also brave white South Africans who decided to take a stand against what was wrong in their country: people like Donald Woods, and James Gregory.
Students took a look at the Freedom Charter, an important document written by South African anti-apatheid activists which was banned under the apartheid regime. Here is a copy of the document, in Microsoft Word format, and a photographic image of the original leaflet:
I encourage everyone who was unable to be in class to watch these films, either renting them, watching them online in streaming, or borrowing them when you come to class. It will be well worth your time to see them… and you will get some good practice in regarding English accents other than the standard UK Queen’s English !
If you enjoyed reading and learning more about South Africa, I also strongly enourage you to read a classic in world literature which is a deeply moving book, “Cry the Beloved Country”, by Alan Paton. First published in 1948, Cry The Beloved Country stands as the single most important novel in twentieth-century South African literature. Amongst the reviews I have seen of the book, these comments may convince you:
“The greatest novel to emerge out of the tragedy of South Africa and one of the best novels of our time” (The New Republic)
“A beautiful novel, rich, firm and moving-its writing is so fresh, its projection of character so immediate and full, its events so compelling and its understanding so compassionate, that to read the book is to share intimately, even to the point of catharsis, in the grave human experience treated.” (New York Times)
For the 1st semester, you will need to purchase a copy of Peter Hessler’s best-selling book “River Town” , which we will be reading and discussing together in class. Here is some background information about modern-day China to get started:
First, an interview with Peter available on FORATV: http://www.lostlaowai.com/blog/ae/china-videos/video-peter-hessler-on-chinas-past-and-present/
And a series of articles and interviews:
You can also find lots of information on the web about other people’s experiences in China– and cultural misunderstandings:
There are also hundreds and hundreds of interesting blogs about China– some with good and reliable information, others less accurate… some examples are
If you are very interested in China, some fascinating books include:
We will also be reading several extracts from Peter Hessler’s 3rd book about life in China, Country Driving: