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Post Magazine: Worlds Apart

Post Magazine Education Review

Eric Wee
Monday, November 8, 2004; 1:00 PM

Can five weeks in the United States change how Muslim students see a country they've been taught to hate?

Eric Wee field questions and comments about his article about 21 South Asian students who spent last summer in Chestertown, Md. taking part in a State Department program aimed at improving the goodwill of Muslims toward America. He was online Monday, Nov. 8, at 1 p.m. ET.

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Wee is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post Magazine.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Eric Wee: Hi Everyone,

This is Eric Wee. I wrote the story on the Muslim students who where here from South Asia in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine. I'm here for the next hour or so to answer your questions. I'll try to get to as many of them as possible but will probably not get to them all since we have many already waiting. So send in your questions and we'll get started....


Columbia, Md.: Mr. Wee, excellent article in Sunday's Post.
You mentioned a lot of positive experiences the students had while in Maryland, which is very encouraging. Did any have serious difficulties adjusting to small town America?
I'm happy the students, for the most part, enjoyed themselves. I graduated from Washington College in 2002 and lived in Chestertown for 6 years total, and I'm proud that they found the community welcoming.

Eric Wee: Hi Columbia,

Thanks for your question. Actually one of the hardest thing for the students to adjust to was the food. Several lost a great deal of weight because they found the food so bland compared to South Asian food. Some who had relatives in New York City, actually had their relatives drive down in the middle of the night just to deliver some food they could eat.


Washington, D.C.: Am curious about how the students got picked to come to the US...were they (or their parents) already biased towards support of the US? Also, were these the kids of the privileged and wealthy or were they a cross-section of students within these countries?

Eric Wee: That's a good question and something that I talked to the State Department about. This is the second year of the program. The first year, the organizers did worry that maybe they were bringing in students who were only from the elite classes in their societies and were therefore maybe more pro-western. They might have had links to the embassies abroad etc. This year they really made a conscious effort to get out to the more remote parts of the South Asian countries involved and find people who were not in the big cities. Mamoona who is in the story is an example of that and probably wouldn't have been picked in the year before.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Eric,

how are you? It seems you followed the story of ASI by incorporating a few people's take on the institute. The most prominent ones seemed to be Mamoona and Ali. What made you pick them from the pool? In what respect were their stories more striking than the others?

Could you comment on what your other interviewees had to bring to the table? I am interested in finding out what others said, if you have details from your notes that stand out. maybe point out to some events that didn't make the cut.

The article was very good, balanced I should say, I found your angle interesting. Of course to me ASI had so many more facets, it was much more personal and I've experienced way more than that.

Do you have rough drafts of your article that you can send? I am not sure if that is done in journalism, but it would be interesting to see how your story developed, what you took out, what you left in.


Eric Wee: Hi Florin!

We should probably say to the rest of you reading this that Florin was one of the American student aides who was with the students through the program and who lived with them.

To answer your question - I picked Mamoona and Ali for this story because they were both interesting combinations. Ali is a very complex and engaging individual who has ideas that are both insightful and surprising at the same time. Mamoona was a focus because of how far she had to travel both physically and culturally to come to this program. She actually feared for her life when she first embarked and it was very brave of her to get on her first plane flight and come to America. I wanted to try to capture that.

There were many, many other stories that I would like to have gotten into the piece but space makes you pick and choose very carefully.

I'll talk to you more about this...


Washington D.C.: Do you think the time frame that the students are here is long enough?

Eric Wee: Good question. It was long enough for them to get a good taste for this country. I almost felt that after 5 weeks they were just starting to get into their strides and things were just to understand things about America that the weren't ready for when they first got here. Another 5 weeks would have been idea. But money is a factor and even at 5 weeks, the financial investment is great. Plus I'm sure the people running the program would have been exhausted if the program went any longer...


Washington: Great story. Looking at the published story, is there anything that you would have done differently?

washingtonpost.com: Worlds Apart (Post, Nov. 7)

Eric Wee: I always feel that there is something that could be done differently better. I had spent a good deal of time with Arab students at Georgetown who were going through the same type of program, about 2 1/2 weeks. I probably would have liked to have used that time with the South Asian students who opened up to me more....


Alexandria, Va.: Eric,
Great article - very insightful and objective. I did programming for the State Department's International Visitor Program, so I am familiar with the premise surrounding bringing international visitors to America for the first time. I truly believe these programs are invaluable to the U.S., not just to those few young people, but to their friends, family, and others from their home countries who they influence or who actually believe in their experiences. However, the one problem I found working with the State Dept. was that many of the visitors never saw the "David's" of America or people who vehemently disagree with their viewpoints. Do you think it was a good experience for the students to see the poorer, violent, not-so-glamorous side of America and would it have been positive for the students to have further encounters with more conservative sections/regions of American society? Thanks.

Eric Wee: Thanks for your question. You raise a good point. I know that the students themselves wanted to meet more people who held different opinions then themselves. It became almost a joke that they would constantly say "we want to meet people who don't like us."

So yes, I do think it's valuable for them to see as many different sides of this culture as possible including more conservative aspects and more "Davids".

The thing I though was admirable about this program is that they didn't seem to want to give the students a sugar coated view of America. Both at Washington College and at Georgetown, their organizers were open to showing them some of the more unpleasant aspects of American society.

I also think that the State Dept and the colleges are working to get the students to meet more GOP representatives and others...


Fairfax, Va.: Hi Eric,
As part of the visit to the US, did the students have a chance to meet and interact with local Asian Muslims?

Eric Wee: Yes they did. They actually met with the Imam in Baltimore and they prayed with other Asian Muslims in Montgomery County...


Gambrills, Md.: You're article was interesting, but as one who has lived outside the U.S. for extended periods of time, it came as no surprise to me. In fact, I think your article underscores an important fact that everyone often overlooks, that one always views another culture through the prism of his or her own. The trouble is, we Americans have been taking the rap for years for doing just that and in the process, often displaying cultural insensitivity. Now, what about these, and I say without apology, "Ugly Muslims?" Aren't they doing the same by coming here and criticizing everything they experience, because it's at variance with their own culture? And what's wrong with pointing this out to them, much in the same way we Americans have had things pointed out to us?

Eric Wee: Hmmm. Interesting point. But I wouldn't categorize these students as being culturally insensitive or to use the phrase you used. I found the students first of all to be highly intelligent and very insightful. Yes, they did have very strong opinions but I don't see them as criticizing everything about America, many things yes. But many things they liked. They liked how friendly and open Americans were. They liked how some people were against the war in Iraq here. And I would think that actually they would have welcomed any challenges to their perceptions which I think the American students did. For example some of the Muslim students had really thought that Americans have very very weak family structures and some of the Americas let them know that even though they left home at age 18, they still went home at vacation and when the could and they remained close to their families. That was an eye opener for some and a welcome one, I think...


Washington D.C.: Do you think that this program would work well
the other way around, ie having u.s. students live
and study in arab and south asian countries?

Eric Wee: Absolutely. Maybe even more so for Americans since many don't leave our shores and have no idea what it's like in other parts of the world....


New York, N.Y.: Hi Eric,
Excellent article. As an Indian-American myself, I was struck by how the Indians and Pakistanis hugged in the end. They are both culturally similar, but there is so much animosity between the countries sometimes. It's nice that at least a small group go to meet and know, and most importantly, like, the other side.
My question--what do the students plan on doing when they get back? Are they interested in pursuing higher education here?
Thanks for taking my question!

Eric Wee: That was one of the nice side benefits of the program- participants form India and Pakistan got to be very close through the course of the program. At the beginning I noticed how many of the students from Pakistan would be off on their own and didn't mix with the rest as much. By the end, they were very close and many tears were shed when they left each other.

All the students were in college and I know that many want to do graduate work and many want to do that in the US!


Charlotte, N.C.: I have a problem with the student who thought it was bad that Americans don't know the political issues from his country. Part of it is that we don't care, and that we are concerned with ourselves, but there is another factor that he doesn't take into account.

It's a mathematical issue. The one big country in the world is the US, therefore everyone knows about the US. People from outside the US know about their specific region and the US. US citizens are supposed to know about all the regions, though. Europe, Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, South America? It can't be done. I doubt if those from Southeast Asia can tell you much about the IRA or the kidnappings in South America.

The people in the US tend to get a general knowledge of the rest of the world, not specific. But the people from each region seem hurt that we don't know enough about their region. We can't know specifics about all of it.

Thanks for the article, it was interesting.

Eric Wee: Thanks for your question. But that thing that strikes you when you are doing a story like is how much students like the ones in story know about the US and how very very little American they meet know about their countries. For example there were some students who on a trip to the Supreme Court were talking about the finer points of rulings and what year they occurred. At the some time students from Syria and Jordan ran into people on their stay here who didn't know these were countries....


Washington: Thank you for the great article. There will certainly be a lot of pressure put on this kids upon returning home to confirm the stereotypes that older, more authoritative members of their community harbor. Did the students ever talk about how they will communicate their experiences back home?

Eric Wee: Yes they did. The ones who said they changed their opinion about America and Americans said one of their biggest challenges would be to convince their peers and friends that they hadn't been brainwashed which I found interesting....


Clarendon, Va.: Thanks for a well written, informative and balanced article. Did you interview any of the Americans that came in contact with the students to see if they came away with any greater understanding of their guest's world?

Eric Wee: I would have liked to have done more of that but time didn't allow me to. I did though speak to one woman who made it into the story who had some of the students over for dinner and I thought her thoughts really exhibited the culture gap that potentially exists between Americans and people from other countries. One of the students over at her house thought it was terrible she was living on her own while she was in her 70's while she says she's far from lonely and barely has time to keep her golf game up...


Olney, Md.: As a coordinator for an international educational exchange program for high school students, I read your story with great interest. Besides the Muslim students' difficulty with American food, I am curious about other problems encountered. In 2005-2006, I will be working with the State Department's Partnerships for Learning, Youth Exchange and Study Program (P4L-YES) to place secondary school students from countries with significant Muslim populations in American homes for up to one academic year. These students will attend an American high school. It would be helpful to know what other difficulties to anticipate in their adjustment to American culture and customs.

Eric Wee: Well I think one thing these students felt was that they needed more time to adjust to the US before being thrown into classes. I think the organizers of this program is working on that.


Washington, D.C.: Is the state department living in the 1950s with no Internet or satellite television? Before asking if five weeks is enough for 21 Muslim students to change their perception of America and act as goodwill ambassadors in their home countries, why not ask about the perceptions of the million plus south Asian Muslims that have been living in America for decades? At least one of them in this forum thinks that America's foreign policy can no longer be defended in his home country as a conduit for promoting democracy and human rights around the world. As for the students, I doubt whether polished state department officials ushering them through the streets of liberal cities as Washington, DC and San Francisco will leave an impact on their minds, when they can turn on their television sets in the evening and watch American GIs slaughtering innocent women and children in Falluja.

Eric Wee: I think one important thing to say is that for some of the students, their view that American foreign policy is bad or evil had translated and expanded so that they also began to have a negative view of American society and Americans in general.

I do think programs like that disentangle the two in the minds of the students. They may not like what American troops are doing in different parts of the world, but at the same time they are able to experience kindness from average Americans. So I do think the program did have an impact on the minds of this year's participants that I witnessed. What the ultimate results will be is unknown but it did make the students think about America on a deeper level....


Annapolis, Md.: Sir,
A well-written article! I forwarded it to the Muslim international students here at the Naval Academy (Tunisia, Pakistan, Maldives) so they might relate to the feelings of the individuals in your article.

Very Respectfully,
M. Ali

Eric Wee: Thanks...


Washington, D.C.: Your article does not seem to mention any discrimination faced by the students. Was there none? It seems that this is a "feel good" piece, rather than an analysis of the problems faced by visitors who follow Islam.


Eric Wee: I didn't seem to see any overt discrimination directed toward the students and it didn't seem to be something that was on the forefront of their minds. There were moments when people were staring at this large group of South Asians in traditional dress, particularly at a minor league baseball game. I did notice security at one of metro stations here in Washington DC particularly following them as they exited the station but that was the closest to discrimination that I could see...


Karachi, Pakistan : Dear Eric,

This is me Sarah ASI 2004 participant, just wanted to state some thing that is all 21 of us had tried to convey the message during our exchange that none of us have ever felt or experienced hatred towards America in our home countries rather most of us always stated that there are very few people who hate America in Pakistan and other South Asian countries that is evident from a great number of Pakistani students travelling to US as exchange participants on US grants if people really hated America there wouldn't be so many exchange participants coming from small towns to large cities of Pakistan. So how can you state that the students were taught to hate America in their countries. Seems your article is based on one participants experiences and not the rest of the 20 participants who never claimed that they were taught to hate US?

Eric Wee: Hi Sarah!

It's good to hear from you. As for your comments, I tried to show that things were not black or white, that the participants hated all aspects of America or not. I think the truth was that the participants brought a complex mixture. I think some people in the program both hated American foreign policy and disliked aspects of American society but at the same time liked things about America and American culture. Obviously each of the participants had their own combination of feelings. I picked Mamoona and Ali because I thought their mixed feelings showed that complexity. I know that at the beginning of the program, many of the students said they liked everything about America and there was nothing they didn't like. But as the weeks went on, some I think became more candid and began to reflect what was really on their minds. I think Mamonna was a good example of that. Hope that helps answer your question. Hope to talk to you soon/again.


To Charlotte: "It's a mathematical issue. The one big country in the world is the US, therefore everyone knows about the US. "

No, we only make up 5% of the world's population. There are two nations larger than us - China and India. We only think we are the largest.

Eric Wee: Interesting point...


Washington: I enjoyed your story. It struck me that these students were young adults - many of them are 21 and 22 years old. But they seemed younger than their ages, more like high school students. Is my perception correct?

Eric Wee: Actually I found these students to be highly mature in many aspects, certainly intellectually. And I found many of them were more thoughtful and reflective than many of their American counterparts at the same age.

I would say that some seemed a bit younger socially just because I think they have lived more culturally sheltered lives.


Chestertown, Md.: Were the students really as unprepared as it sounded? It was almost as if the thought the fourth happened all the time. Shouldn't something have been done beforehand to minimize the culture shock?

Eric Wee: I think you might be referring to the minor league baseball game where they witnessed an unbelievable fireworks show (note- if you want to ever want to see a terrific fireworks display go to a Wilmington Blue Rocks game when they have a show at the end). This actually wasn't during the 4th of July. It was just a random evening so that was why some were so shocked when they saw this outlay of resources for a few thousand spectators, something Americans have almost become blase about...


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Have you been in touch with anyone since they returned home? How did they handle this transition (from the US to home)? Do anyone of them plan to return to the US?

Eric Wee: Hi Pittsburgh, I have been in sporadic email contact with the participants as I was finishing the story. I know that for some it was an adjustment going back but I don't really have the details on that. I know that the feelings between the participants are strong and there is even a potential reunion in Bangladesh early next year that some of the American organizers had hoped to attend.


Alexandria, Va.: I was serving at the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh at the time of 9/11 and was very concerned that U.S. programs in Bangladesh did not reach out to young student leaders in the Islamic world. (There had been programs such as Seeds for Peace directed towards secondary school Muslims in the Middle East but South Asia was essentially a vacuum.) I initially proposed a university student exchange to my colleagues back in Washington just for Bangladeshi students. Time passed and there was little action taken since a university student exchange did not fall neatly into the existing program structure. I then proposed that students take part from a number of South Asian countries with large concentrations of Muslim students, including India where Muslims are, of course, a minority. Eventually the proposal was approved on a one year trial basis with 7 participants coming from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The requirements had to do with age, ability to speak English sufficiently to take part in an intensive program of this type and that the students come from 'predominantly Muslim' universities, which would provide for the case of India.

In Bangladesh we solicited all the leading universities and received more than 140 applications for 7 slots, which reflected the high level of interest in the U.S. which exists there among university students. There were many more applications from males than females since some families would be reluctant to send daughters to the U.S. (for other families this is not an issue since there are many Bangladeshis, male and female, studying in the U.S.). We chose from this past 4 women and 3 men and would have loved to have selected many more since a strong case could have been made for participation of maybe a quarter of the applicants we interviewed.

The 2003 program was a crashing success, thanks in large part to the work of two persons unnamed in your article, Ted Widmer and Kees de Mooy, on the faculty at Washington College. These two are looked upon in almost reverential terms by the Bangladeshi and other students taking part in the program for their openness, knowledge and willingness to interact openly and honestly from day one of the program taking place at Washington College in Chestertown. We spent considerable time with our students before and after the program and were impressed with how much of a difference five to six weeks in the U.S. can have on well chosen students from South Asia in this age bracket. Readers may be interested to know that there are plans to hold a reunion of the 2003 and 2004 participants somewhere in South Asia early in 2005. The Washington College web site for the program is www.asi.washcoll.edu

In the meantime, the students are in constant communication with each other and with students and faculty from Washington College who took part in the program. They have very frank ongoing discussions about the role of religion in politics, the role of women in society, treatment of minorities in general, and what democracy means in a South Asian context. I thin of this program as the 'gift which keeps on giving', a very sound investment in future leaders of South Asian countries.

It provides very usual interaction for students from India and Pakistan which historically has not been the case. Likewise Bangladesh - Pakistan (with all the historical ties of the 2 countries) and India - Bangladesh.

The program should be expanded so that students returning to their home countries do not feel like such lonely voices in the wilderness. As the article said, those returning are told that they have been brainwashed and have not had a 'real experience' in the U.S. It takes a critical mass of students -- with differing perspectives but first hand knowledge of the interaction with Americans -- to disabuse skeptical students that this program, called The American Studies Institute, is more than a Potemkin Village.

I'm very much interested in the future of this kind of exchange and what kind of interest your well done article generates.

Eric Wee: Thanks for your comments. Yes, there were two people, Ted Widmer and Kees de Mooy, who were very important in making this program happen and I'm sorry that I couldn't get them in the story. They were great to work with...


Eric Wee: Okay, I'm going to wrap this up. Thank you all for your insightful and thoughtful comments. Sorry if I didn't get to your question but my fingers are starting to get sore. Feel free to email me at Ericwee6@yahoo.com if you have any other questions or thoughts.




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