Notes From Abroad

Claire Ma ’13, now on her Junior Year Abroad in Geneva, Switzerland, spent several weeks in January on a Praxis internship with the NGO International Bridges to Justice, where she learned, among many things, how to keep a beat on a massive Chinese drum.

Claire Ma (center) beats the Chinese drum in the Swiss Alps during a stop on the way to the World Economic Forum, along with IBJ CEO and founder Karen Tse (right) and Development Director Donna Reitano. (Photo by Alexandra Pauli.)

Claire Ma (center) beats the Chinese drum in the Swiss Alps during a stop on the way to the World Economic Forum, along with IBJ CEO and founder Karen Tse (right) and Development Director Donna Reitano. (Photo by Alexandra Pauli.)

Attention!” the shopkeeper warns. “Be careful!”

I am in a tiny, family-owned Asian fast-food joint in Carouge, 20 minutes from Geneva ‘s city center, having tracked down a personal contact of my boss. I edge backwards down the stairs, trying my best to keep my precious load from scraping the walls of the narrow stairway.

I carry in my hands a gigantic wooden and cowhide drum, and I guess it weighs some 50 pounds. It is a Chinese drum, traditionally played during the Chinese dragon dance, and my boss wants it, desperately, for a New Year’s event she is throwing at the World Economic Forum in Davos, a mountain resort in eastern Switzerland.

“We must drum and dance to unleash the dragon in this Year of the Dragon!” she declares, jumping up and down. “If we don’t, it’s condemned to sleep for the next 12 years.”

It’s January, and having chosen to spend my Praxis internship in Geneva during Winter Break, I am working at International Bridges to Justice (IBJ), a small Non-Governmental Organization that trains lawyers throughout the developing world to defend and protect the accused. It has been fascinating for me to see IBJ, now in its 12th year, work from the ground up. My work, I have discovered, includes an odd quest or two…such as the one at hand.

After eating lunch on a bus stop bench alongside the drum—to the puzzled stares of bus passengers gliding by—my supervisor and I struggle to ease the magnificent instrument out of the doorway. Several shelves have to be removed, including everything on them, but we eventually succeed.

With the help of the shopkeeper, we heave the enormous drum into the car. “Réveillez le dragon. Il avait dormi toute l’année,” the owner tells us as we are leaving. “Wake up the dragon. He’s been sleeping all year.”

The Chinese drum is one among several necessities we gather for the final touches of our organization’s big event in Davos, where the World Economic Forum (WEF) has been meeting for the past few days. I am lucky to accompany IBJ’s CEO and the Development Director to the WEF, a spectacular affair that brings together politicians, businessmen, activists, economists, entertainers, artists, and social entrepreneurs to discuss the world’s most pressing economic and social issues.

We decide that the massive Chinese drum is too large to carry onto the train, so we load it into a car and drive across Switzerland, a long journey through major cities and winter weather. Once we reach Davos, the work begins almost immediately.

My experience is a whirlwind of late-night discussions, hectic preparation, and interactions with formidable personalities. I shake hands with an African king, listen to high-powered CEOs speak about our organization, and befriend an affable, self-trained photographer from Germany. Davos is, all in all, an intense and eye-opening glimpse into what happens backstage.

During our IBJ event, I have the opportunity to beat out a rhythm on the massive drum. As the deep, powerful sound throbs around me, I cannot help but think of the words of Henry David Thoreau: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” Drumming on the instrument in the Swiss Alps, I feel an oddly liberating awareness of my life abroad.

Life with IBJ is just a snippet of my experience in Geneva. Although I have been here for six months, Geneva is a city with a particularly amorphous character that I still struggle to fully grasp. It is a city with a population that is constantly moving, changing, and flowing like the endless motion of Geneva’s most famous banner, the Jet d’Eau.

My life abroad has been a time of discovery, of myself and of the world around me. In the midst of this moving city, I have encountered remarkable individuals, drummed my own beat, and dreamed of my future.

And, perhaps, I have unleashed the dragon for years to come.