“It’s More How People See You…”

After more than a year of work, my master’s thesis was approved for final submission to the Graduate School! It has been a challenging project, but a fascinating one due to my own experiences and hearing students’ stories everyday. A big thank you to my committee and–most especially–my advisor, Dr. Christina Weber. Also, my husband, who possesses infinite patience.

Here is the overview in a nutshell/abstract:


This research investigated how study abroad affected students’ sense of identity and how interactions between study abroad students and other people shaped their understanding of their identity. While abroad, students taking part in a five-week study abroad program started to recognize having an American self and used behavior and clothing to negotiate their association with this role. The relationships between students and the program leader, other students, friends, and family members were instrumental in the recognition and development of their identity. Students also started creating a study abroad self before departure and used points of discomfort as an opportunity to adjust how they defined this identity. Student responses indicated that study abroad offers them insight into how a sense of identity is related to the context of place and people, as well as an opportunity to negotiate their identity both while abroad and after return.

Ten Years Ago

For me the events of September 11 happened in the evening.

I had just arrived in Japan to begin a year studying abroad, and had barely settled in. The next morning we were to have a vocabulary quiz. During the evening we’d been practicing our vocabulary and someone, maybe me, had needed a soda. Down in the common area, the TV had been set to CNN, which was the only real international channel we had available. The first plane had just hit, and it was enough to pique our curiosity so we suspended our studying temporarily to go downstairs and watch for a while.

Of course that was just the start of the horrible events, and the rest of the evening and much of the night were spent with a growing group of Americans watching, but not understanding. Eventually, one of the American professors who lived next door came in to try comfort us and give us that feeling that we were together, safe, and that it would all be okay. It was so surreal though that we just sat there stunned, and when we wandered off to bed we still didn’t know what to think. We didn’t know whether we would wake the next morning to more horrible news or simply the effects of sleep deprivation and confused grief.

The school was understanding, and all classes except our first Japanese class were cancelled the next day. For that, we took our quizzes and then left. That evening there were still the scheduled meetings with our new Speaking Partners, a collection of Japanese girls who did not understand why the Americans were all identifying so closely with events in a part of the country that most of us had never visited.

I had been to New York once. It was about year and a half previous while touring for choir. I’d looked out the bus windows up and up trying to see the tops of the towers when we’d driven by them. On our free day some had gone to the towers and ridden to the top, but I’d done other things thinking that the next time I came to New York that could be on my list.

So in the face of polite confusion, I asked myself why I identified with these events so closely. Of course, my brief look at the buildings didn’t entitle me to the grief that native New Yorkers felt. It was only a distant part of my world, barely touched. No one I knew had been hurt or killed. I struggled with this question repeatedly over the next few days, generally falling back to pointing at our national identity, to our universal “many into one”.

I spoke to my parents many times during that window known as “the wake of September 11”. They told me of the solidarity they were seeing. Of the warm smiles tinged with sadness shared in passing. Of the flags flying everywhere, and the people honking in bold support of memorial signs and bumper stickers. They sent me a small cloth flag, which I still keep. But it was a retelling of events at home, and I could only feel slightly disappointed and disoriented for experiencing the national mourning via phone, CNN, and blog reports.

Since then I have seen the long-term effects. So much division has grown, so many questions of who qualifies as a true American have been asked, so many fights have been started between people about patriotism instead of political positions. Often in the place of personal identity, flags and stars and purple mountains majesty are used to decorate commercials and press conferences. Many fingers point: you and you and you and you are the other, unwelcomed and excluded.

Today, I see many reviews, reports, and reminiscences from ten years ago. Again, September 11 feels like a distant tragedy, as something viewed only through a small window. I don’t feel that I have the authority to comment on the events or the aftermath directly.

So instead I look back and think about the intervening years and how things have changed. I remember the feeling that caused someone halfway around the globe to mourn alone. And I hope that in the future we can regain the universal identity that I could not truly describe, the empathy for people who are fundamentally both the same and different in places we have barely known.

Follow-up regarding The Help

I’m glad to see that I’m not the only person who noticed the issues with the narrative framing for The Help. Unfortunately it sounds like the problem extends from the marketing for the book and movie to the structure of the movie itself. Erik Childress at eFilmCritic comments:

Aibileen and Minny are wonderful characters, so well played by Davis and Spencer, each bringing just the right touch of pain and sass so as not to become caricatures. Both, but especially Davis, are likely to be talked of highly around Oscar time. So why not start with them and end with them instead of using them as crutches for white girl success and insecurities?

The full review is here.

The Help and Racism Today

The book The Help was recently recommended to me as an example of interesting narrative structure. The descriptor of “summer read” is generally enough to make me skeptical, but I quite enjoyed the book. However I couldn’t help but notice one thing: this is a book about racism, and the marketing itself for the book and movies seems to be displaying subtle racism.

The book is structured with three narrators: Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. The first two are black women who work as maids, and the last is a white woman who just graduated college and has moved back home. The first chapter is from Aibileen’s perspective, the second from Minny’s, and the third from Skeeter’s. The book then alternates perspectives in no particular order, with just one chapter in the later half written as a third person perspective when all three characters are in the same location briefly. It concludes with Aibileen’s perspective, neatly bookending the story in a mirror of how it began. The structure of this book comes together to make it most predominantly the story of the black maids, with Skeeter’s story functioning as an opportunity for change and thus motivating the plot.

Rather noticeably, the marketing for the book and the movie do not mirror this narrative structure but instead put Skeeter in the foreground. In both the book jacket and the movie trailer, Skeeter’s background is mentioned before the other two black characters. This change might make sense if the marketing were using this opening as an opportunity to indicate that Skeeter wanted to be a writer and thus would be interviewing the black maids, but instead she is merely introduced as being a member of the social scene in Jackson. Her role in pushing the plot forward is only brought forward after the Aibileen and Minny are introduced. In this way, it seems that the sole reason for listing her first is to frame the story from her perspective.

This leads me to wonder if there are marketing gurus in the book and film industries who believe that the story would not have a chance to be a success if it is pitched as a story about black women. As much as I would like to believe that this assessment is wrong, I can’t definitively say it is. Still, regardless of whether the marketing gurus are making an accurate assessment, it makes me sad to think that a well-crafted story about overturning racism is still running into a subtle form of that very problem 50 years later.