The Duke Immerse: Global Inequalities cohort–totaling nineteen across the students and staff–arrived in Honolulu late afternoon Monday and fought off the allure of jetlag to partake in a packed introductory day of programming Tuesday.
The morning began with a shuttle ride to University of Hawai’i at Manoa, the state’s flagship campus. En route, Duke senior Brittany Amano, who grew up on the island of Oahu (where Honolulu is located), schooled the passengers on the area’s history with regards to imperialism–the 1893 coup against the Hawai’ian Kingdom, and its subsequent annexation (and eventual 1959 promotion to statehood) by the U.S.–and the unique cultural and ethnic backgrounds that still persist here. In 2020, it’s the only U.S. state where the white population isn’t the largest demographic.
Arriving on campus, we met up with Dr. Cynthia Ning, associate director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University. After providing us with the history of the school, she added dimension to Amano’s descriptions, huddling students and staff around topographical maps of the major islands of Hawai’i. Then, we stepped outside into the literal arboretum of campus itself, floored by the more than 4000 trees (spanning more than 500 species) that lined its walkways and devoted green spaces.
At noon, students sat in on a lecture from Dr. Paula Harrell, a scholar visiting from Georgetown University. The discussion, titled Facing History, Looking To The Future: Chances for China-Japan Détente, explored, through a discussion of Professor Ezra Vogel’s latest book on the two countries, how the relationship between Japan and China has not always been confrontational; in fact, the duo have shown a remarkable capacity for learning from each other, and by almost any measure, they have navigated their way towards being hugely successful societies. Now, on the cusp of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, there is expectation that China general secretary Xi Jinping will visit Japan in a few months to pass the fifth diplomatic document between the two countries, and the first since 2008.
Moreover, Harrell said, while it can seem like a “war of acronyms” as both Japan (through agreements like the TPP, Trans-Pacific Partnership) and China (BRI, Belt and Roads Initiative) seek to develop and influence the region, the audience discussion suggested a nascent hope for something new and better: perhaps, as senior Carolyn Hoover posited, a re-emphasis on emotional, generational reconciliation between the two nations in concert with economic collaboration, or perhaps even an openness to new models of development altogether.
After lunch, the final academic item of the day was a film screening of Blind Shaft, a 2003 “underground movie” made without permission from the Chinese government that highlights the grim realities of both the illegal coal mines in northern China and the pressures of life under capitalism. As Dr. Ning noted after the film, the striking inequality in China–conditions range from“first world to fourth world in the same country,” she said–can quickly lead to depraved outcomes. Men sell their bodies for pay; to survive, they exploit women in brothels. But all are trying to sacrifice their labor for something better for themselves and their families, and in one striking scene, the two parties encounter one another in line wiring money back home. Senior Jack Malsin said it depicted a simple pressure found in both the proverbial wild west and a play like Death of a Salesman; one can suffer, he said, “entirely as a victim of the environment around you.”
In the film, agency under such brutal conditions is an illusion, and anyone who tries to game the system can’t last long. In short, a tonally dark ending to an otherwise bright day, but one that carries a crucial lesson. The world can appear beautiful at sunrise, but both on this trip–and always–it’s important to look a little more.
Please view all of our photos and videos from the trip on our Facebook and Flickr accounts.
Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity Duke University