May 2005 Reflection

My Nikon 3500 digital camera has been with me through almost everything: college graduation, New Year’s Eve 2004 in New York… everything. She has seen at least a dozen zoos or aquariums and traveled in even dozens more cities around the world. Recently, I returned from an amazing traveling extravaganza that included four continents, starting with travels in Japan with the rest of the Gale family. My brother John, an English teacher, guided us on a tour de force of the island nation. Their society is extremely polite, their technology quite sophisticated, and the people are neither high strung (like Americans) or laid back (like the Irish). I took pictures of the lights of the Akihabara electronics district in Tokyo, the glamourous sites of many shrines and temples including the Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji and the Byodoin Temple and its Phoenix Hall, and I even got to see a whale shark at the Osaka Aquarium! I was amazed to experience a culture so developed and “westernized” and yet so extremely unique and to its own.

From there, my Nikon and I went to the great city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The arid, brown tones and the influence of the Islamic culture in the people, architecture and language made for some fantastic pictures. The city though had a darker side, one where my camera would not be allowed to take any pictures. An associate of a friend, whose vision of “a good time” meant something quite different than mine, was showing me around the city one night. Sparing you the details, what I thought was to be a night of vegetarian dinners with friends and dancing turned into a night at a disco of a prominent international hotel in Bur Dubai. My Nikon triggered the metal detectors at the club’s entrance. I was perplexed at first by the strict security, but we finally got through after I promised not to take any pictures. To my shock, the security was there to protect the predominantly British and American clientele, who frequent the locale looking for exotic women, predominantly brought over from east Africa and the Philippines. The joint was essentially a brothel, table after table of several older, white men surrounded by a personal entourage of younger women of color. Michael “the social activist” starting asking hard questions of the group I came with and the women who approached me. I learned a great deal about the sex trade in Dubai and the Middle East and the culture that had emerged in city’s nightlife. The UAE is a country torn between a burgeoning Anglo-western commercial influence and traditional Muslim values. Non-natives may drink where Muslim natives may not, and the name of the game is shopping, hotels and nightlife. I left the disco soon after and Dubai the next morning with an unresolved picture of a distinct culture in the heart of the world where the great global clash of new-world commercialism is increasingly fighting with the values of older generations and histories of people.

My year in a different heart of the world, the beautiful west of Ireland, has encapsulated a similar picture concerning this global war of values. Aside from my earlier reflections in March on the Irish cultural struggle between European liberalism and everything else, I will leave this island with a vague picture of the psychological war between the old and the new Ireland. The older Ireland that used to gaze and hike the Hill of Tara and spend relatively quiet evenings at the local pub is being replaced by a younger Ireland obsessed with roads, money, and resentful of fourteen years of forced Irish language courses, who also frequent most nights at discos and spend the afternoon at the shop or bar. I am the first to admit that I am over-generalizing, but I stand by the point that the new Ireland, in my opinion, and their values are based more around commercialism, destructive behaviors, and a confusing, new global identity.

But who am I as an American to make such accusations? America has effectively played an intimate role in the generational shift that is occurring in Ireland and really around the world. I have seen many peoples, from Aborigines in Australia to the pastoral communities of West Virginia, embrace and struggle with the values and meanings, both empowering and destructive, of globalization and development. All of these snapshots have finally coalesced into a vision of confidence that I have regarding my view of America in the world of development. I believe in the power of America to be great and to provide leadership in promoting positive social change around the world and particularly at home. I believe in the notion that Americans are the greatest people in the world and yet have much to learn from their global neighbors. I believe in a similar struggle of values in America, one where big business is winning and true Christian values are being replaced by disturbing interpretations of hate and insouciance, particularly with regards to the world’s poor. I believe that the time for returning home was to be soon so that I could follow through on my plan to bring home my newfound outlooks on the world and the possibilities of culture now that I understand them more thoroughly. At the time, I did not know what further adventures awaited my Nikon and I, what other visions of the world might come to pass.

After returning to Ireland, I went to see the beautiful Lisa Loeb one night at a concert in Galway at the Roisin Dubh, an absolutely excellent venue. My spirits had been lifted by the angelic voice of the opening act Brian O’Flaherty and by about two pints of Carlsberg. Lisa came onto the stage full of energy and anticipation. I had immediately whipped out my Nikon 3500 digital camera to take a picture of her, and in a moment of weakness I dropped the camera into my beer. Air fizzled through the cracks of the camera as the metallic frame submerged down into the translucent glow of lager in what was to be the longest two seconds of my life. I immediately pulled the camera out of the glass and saw the LCD image of the table in front of me fizzle away into lines of static. My Nikon was gone. Submerged in a poisonous vat of distraction and labor, the camera would leave tired, even dead, and at the end of what would be an amazing journey.

The end of that road for me is now. Despite eight weeks to go and many adventures to pursue, I am practically “done” with Ireland. Like my camera drying on the windowsill in dead hopes of revival, I am waiting out my time here in Ireland until I can return to a world with meaning and purpose. When visiting America recently, I completely reconnected with many personal and professional networks and regained a sense of service that had guided me through now almost ten years of working in museum and living institution advocacy and education. I saw in America what I had sensed earlier this spring about my newfound patriotism. I am not homesick, and I wholeheartedly love living in Ireland and Galway, but I am extremely anxious to leave.

In Ireland I am a different person. I live life here like a personal digital camera (I hope by now you have gotten the on-going metaphor), bouncing around in someone else’s pants pockets only to emerge for the exciting moments of the day. I am in and out in flashes of movement and color only to retire periodically, drained of energy. Once I get hold of something to believe in, I become charged and ready, but fizzle out as soon as my expectations fail to be satiated. I have seen amazing things and been to amazing places, but all the while have been entrapped by the confines of my own insecurities, personal vendettas, and the institutional expectations of both my university and the Mitchell Scholarship program. I am extremely grateful for everything my home institution and the Alliance have done for me this year, and yet I have been frustrated all year long by the inabilities of the programs to cater to my individualized academic and personal needs and to empower me to believe in that for which they strive. The only person to blame is myself. When I left America, I left there the passionate and ambitious person that had gotten me the scholarship. This year has been a relaxed state of stress; I am constantly feeling unmotivated and underappreciated all the while unable to find the time or inspiration to be much better. I wish I had approached the year either with a stronger sense purpose or a nonchalant sense of relaxation, free of the stress of meeting expectations. I have not met anyone’s expectations this year really, not even my own.

Despite all this, I have no legitimate regrets. My Nikon is dead, but she had been an old girl ready and willing to go. The concert was a great night otherwise full of wonderful memories including a chance encounter with an old friend from college who magically walked in the door that night. This year has been amazing, and now it is over. My camera will be sent back to America for repairs along with my mind and body. The presence of technology, community, and energy there will hopefully breath life back into both of us, and we will take on the journey we left behind with vigor, grace, and anticipation.

I leave this amazing country with a better-formulated view of the world, many wonderful friends and memories, and a huge amount of gratitude to the people who made this year possible. Thank you to my family and friends who supported me throughout the year despite being so far away. Thank you to the faculty and staff of NUI-Galway, particularly my advisor Dr. Jimmy Dunne and Ann Monahan of Student Services. This year would have been nothing memorable without the tireless efforts of the U.S. Ireland Alliance and its leadership. The best part of the year was my fellow scholars, whose stories, emails, and open arms were, from my first month here, my rock here in Ireland. If I were able to have all of you together in one spot, I would shower the group with praises, sweets, and a call that our work and relationships not end with the passing of this year. Also if I had a working camera, I’d like to take a picture.

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