Another Update and Education Funding Challenges

I’ve been very busy with traveling and enjoying my last few weeks in the US for a while, so I apologize for the lack of posts. Now that I am back, I wanted to write a quick update about my work with Mandarin and my continuing struggles with funding.

My arrival in Taiwan for the International Chinese Language Program is a mere 2 weeks away. I have spent the past six weeks independently studying in the hopes of testing into the second level course at ICLP. I have no real idea how close I am, but I do feel that my ability has grown by leaps and bounds. Jumping from 0 to 1 on a scale of 100, while subjectively feeling infinite, is still a single drop in the very large bucket of proficiency. I realize I am still taking baby steps, but as long as I can stay optimistic and continue to feel forward movement, my enthusiasm and passion won’t abandon me.

I think getting my speaking as far up to speed as possible is not only more practical but far easier. For about the first month, I tried to advance my reading, listening, writing, and speaking simultaneously. While the long-term goal is to be proficient in all, the simple fact is that reading and writing slow me down immensely. Therefore, I have shifted my focus and now spend a disproportionate amount of time on listening and speaking. I would rather hit the tarmac in Taipei with at least a passing familiarity with the spoken language even if I remain illiterate.

I doubt this is the best course of action for everyone, but it is the one that I think is working best for me.

The Continuing Financial Struggle of Studying Abroad

So as I have written several times, as a professional adult looking to study abroad for a year, I have been woefully unsupported by the American government. There is no aid available for federal or state student loans, thus my past Indiegogo campaign. As the campaign came to an end and it was apparent I could use more funding, I figured I would fall back to my last option: a private loan from a bank. Since I don’t own a home, I knew a signature loan with no collateral would have a higher interest rate. My credit is good, though, so I figured I could still secure something reasonable.

Well, a funny thing has happened since 2008: banks don’t really give out unsecured private loans anymore. Seems their own predatory behavior burnt them badly enough that they no longer offer such loans, even in meager amounts to those who have multiple accounts with said bank. When I went to my bank, they didn’t even take my name or account information. They simply said “We don’t do those loans anymore.” End of discussion. Another bank took my application and then denied me the loan because I will not be working as a full-time student in Taipei and thus the loan was too risky. Now I am not going to complain about banks not giving me a risky loan, but it does suck that loans that had been freely available to people with good credit for decades are now largely gone. For me, it is just another obstacle to overcome.

Lack of support for professionals looking to study independently remains the stark reality in which I live. As I have stated before, if not for the extreme generosity of the Taiwanese government, I would not be able to do ICLP this year.

While I am fortunate to be able to still do the program despite the lack of support from the government or private banks, there are many people who are unable to further their education outside of specific programs. With the job market still recovering from the crisis of 2008, the federal government should be making it easier, not harder, for Americans to gain valuable education and experience.

Turkey’s Cult of Personality Problem

I lived and worked in Turkey for two years, so I have a very strong opinion about the goings on there. Next week, Turks will vote in a historic election – the first popular presidential election in Turkish history. While the office of President is little more than ceremonial at this point, I would not be surprised if the government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, finds a way to distort the constitution and centralize power in the president. That, however, remains to be seen and is great fodder for a future article. This article is going to talk about the troubling and undeniable slide toward authoritarianism that Turkey is currently experiencing. What’s more, a large portion of Turks seemingly welcome it.

I’ve written about Turkey’s problems before, but a recent article in a Turkish newspaper, the Daily Sabah, has recently published an article so ridiculous, I had to write about it. To almost any outside observer, Erdoğan is an autocrat. He orders the brutal oppression of any protests against his policies. He restricts speech and his government imprisons dozens of reporters. He and his government are corrupt and they meddle in the judiciary, the police forces, and the central bank. While I lived there, Twitter was banned, Youtube was banned, Facebook was banned.

It wasn’t all bad, however. Political life in Turkey is raucous at best unhealthy at worst. The most entertaining bit is watching the Prime Minister work. Erdoğan is world class in coming up with crazy conspiracy theories to try to explain anything that goes wrong with his policies or Turkey in general. This is what makes Erdoğan such a special and uniquely Turkish politician. He knows what buttons to push with the Turkish electorate and it is simple: Turkey is a strong and powerful country that outside forces continually are trying to destroy. Take for example, the interest rate lobby. Or the robot lobby. Or the minions of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. Or maybe even the insidious cat lobby tampering with elections. Most of these are patently ridiculous but enough Turks either truly believe these outlandish claims (the cynical answer) or ignore it for their own selfish interests (the other cynical answer) that Erdoğan will most likely win the election next week.

My cat looking innocent. She's actually planning the most efficient and devastating way to bring down the entirety of the Turkish way of life.

My cat looking innocent. She’s actually planning the most efficient and devastating way to bring down the entirety of the Turkish way of life.

Unfortunately, despite events that would undo almost any other democratic and accountable government, Erdoğan remains popular enough to retain his iron grip on the government. The sad truth is that the Turkish public is by and large poorly educated and deluded by ninety years of brainwashing and propaganda. Since the inception of the modern Turkey under Atatürk, Turks have been inundated with propaganda that Turkey is the greatest country on Earth. Being Turkish is the greatest gift. Being Muslim is what makes a Turk a Turk. Turkey and by extension Turks do no wrong and all of their problems are the result of outside meddling. Take a look at this recent article from the Hurriyet Daily News. Turks have been told to be proud under all circumstances. Questioning their own mistakes is verboten. A large plurality of Turks rarely critically think about themselves or the decision of the government. For instance, earlier this year, taped phone conversations emerged that strongly implicated massive corruption on the part of the Prime Minister himself and his immediate family. The Prime Minister’s response was classic: “I was montaged!” It worked. Nothing ever came of it. Presidents in the US have been impeached for less.

This is a big problem for Turkey and as I have said before, Erdoğan is not breaking the mold for Turkish politicians. He is not derailing a promising emerging democracy. He is falling into the pattern that Turkey has followed since 1923: power centralizing in one dominant figure and the cult of personality around him. The only thing that is different is the Islamic slant, since for decades it was Muslims that were oppressed by militantly secular autocrats. While I think a lack of proper (read: not advancing a government agenda) education plays a big role in the decisions of the Turkish electorate, I would be remiss if I did not also posit that Erdoğan is staying in power because devout Muslims want to keep one of their own in charge no matter how inept and corrupt he is. They know what lies behind the other door (I could write volumes about the ineptitude of what passes for the “opposition” in Turkish politics.) Such self-destructive self-interest is a terrible yet prevalent thing in democracies far more advanced than Turkey. We’ll see next week whether Erdoğan is able to keep all of his corruption and missteps under the rug and remain in total control of the country.