Kremlin and Kulich: Spring is (almost?) Here

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I finally went to the Kremlin. That’s right, I’ve been here since January and I just went to the Kremlin last weekend. That’s three solid months of Kremlin-less life in Moscow. Three solid months of hoping that I’d just so happen to run into Putin on the street. Three solid months of being able to SEE the white and gold Ivan the Great Bell Tower from my HOUSE and not “having time” to go see it in person. I mean, I have been busy, sure. I’ve been busy studying, and eating, and hanging out in coffee shops, and sleeping in on the weekends and going to the myriad and endless supply of malls that Moscow has to offer. Okay, that’s a joke of course, I’ve done and seen plenty since I’ve been here, but when I told my mom a couple weeks ago that I had yet to see the Kremlin, THE number one tourist destination in Moscow, her shock was not unfounded.

So last Saturday, I gathered two of my friends, both of whom had already been there, and ventured over the red-walled complex for an afternoon of sightseeing and many, many beautiful churches. There a lot of different things to do and see at the Kremlin, some of which are free or cheap, and some of which cost upwards of 750 rubles (That’s 15 bucks right now). As poor college students, we went with the free or cheap option and scored admission to the Kremlin complex itself and all the churches inside for the equivalent of five dollars. The Armoury, which houses various collections of tsar-era artifacts, as well as the Diamond Fund which houses the Faberge eggs, and the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, all cost extra money and have fixed entrance times. Since we’d all heard the bell tower was overrated and didn’t feel comfortable dropping up to thirty bucks extra to go in the Armoury and the Diamond Fund, we decided to simply enjoy the first day of beautiful weather in Moscow by wandering around the various old churches inside the wall and then strolling along the road nearest to the river. We reveled in the sunshine that glinted off the golden domes and whitewashed church walls for several hours before getting too hungry and retreating to a nearby underground shopping center. I would have to say it was a most certainly worth the price of admission and while of course part of me wants to go see the jeweled Faberge eggs and shining armor in the separate exhibits, I’ll just have to save that for my next trip to Moscow.

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I can’t believe how little time we have left here, and the number of things I still want to do, see, and visit is just mind-boggling. Sunday was a gorgeous 65-degree Easter Day, and I met up with my friends after they finished church to walk around. Easter is the biggest holiday in the Orthodox calendar and the festivities here did not disappoint. In the center of the city, small, Easter-themed huts popped up, selling icons, eggs, pastries, and a variety of other Easter and spring-themed merchandise. Large and beautiful painted faux-eggs stand in the squares next to quaint, egg-shaped light displays, forming a sort of Easter wonderland. While my host family didn’t have much in the way of Easter dinner, we did eat Kulich, the traditional Russian Easter cake, and I’ve eaten more hard-boiled eggs than I know what to do with in the past week. Spring is slowly but surely coming here in Moscow, and although the temperature dropped to the 40s again on Tuesday, I can’t help but hope that by May I’ll be able to head outside sans boots or jacket. Easter, the symbolic start of spring is over, and while the weather has yet to catch up with the public consciousness, the mountains of snow that welcomed me in January are already a distant memory. I only have a month left in this wonderful city, and I plan to make the most of it, whether I need to wear my parka or not.
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Kulich, picture courtesy of russianseason.net

Hello to a new adventure

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Hello to a new adventure
Aerial view of the city lights prior to landing

Aerial view of the city lights prior to landing

Word of the Day: السلام عليكم (As-salamu alaykum)

Translates to “peace be upon you (plural),” often used as a greeting and parting that is equivalent to “hello” and “goodbye” in English.

It was three years ago when I came to the realization that I wanted to study abroad in the Middle East. In a period of uncertainty amidst ever-changing plans (re: college), my desire to study Arabic overseas remained the one constant.

Three years is a long time. Yet as I was waiting at the boarding gate in Athens, on my way to Amman at last, none of it seemed real. Perhaps it was because I spent the past month making my way through Europe, and Amman seemed to be yet another transient stop. Or perhaps, having studied abroad twice before, I was wary of being confronted with my expectations vis-à-vis reality. I limited my assumptions and did little research on the city itself, opting to be in a constant state of surprise and discovery instead.

Little did I know I would face my first “surprise” within an hour of landing in Amman. I arrived at my apartment around 3AM to find that my bathroom was partially flooded due to a ceiling leak. And in the other bathroom, I discovered that I also had a broken shower head. It was an inconvenience, but none of that honestly mattered; I was just happy to have a bed and a tangible place to call home in the interim.

G'morning. The view from my balcony window

Sabah al-khayr! The view from my balcony window.

It is now my third day here in Amman, and the past few days have gone by in a blur. I had orientation the morning after my arrival and language placement testing later that day, which consisted of a 13-page written exam and a brief oral interview.

Thankfully the second day, a trip to Ajloun, was less strenuous and far more enjoyable than the first. Ajloun Castle was built in the 12th century under the orders of Saladin (founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, Sultan of Egypt and Syria) to protect the territory from the Crusaders in present-day northern Jordan. The castle served as part of an important communication system that connected major cities in the region, including Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo through the use of fire beacons and pigeon posts. I climbed through various levels of the castle to get to the roof and was afforded a stunning view of Syria and Lebanon to the north and Israel to the west. On a clear evening, I was told, one could even see the lights from Palestine. It was a beautiful day well-spent.

Ajloun Castle (known as Qala'at al-Rabadh)

Ajloun Castle (known as Qala’at al-Rabadh)

View from the pigeon post. My camera doesn't do this gorgeous view justice.

This photo doesn’t do the view justice.

Tomorrow I officially begin class at Qasid Arabic Institute. I will be taking only Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) courses and will pick up from where I left off at Temple. However, if possible, I would ideally like to also take ‘Ammiyyah Arabic. It is the local dialect of Jordan and therefore the primary spoken form of Arabic here. To be considered fluent in Arabic, one would have to master both MSA and ‘Ammiyyah. It is a daunting prospect to be sure, and one which I clearly cannot expect to achieve in just the short period of time here, but it is certainly a step I can take.

In the next few days, I look forward to doing some exploring of Amman, particularly before things start to pick up. My internship officially begins next week, and I will be assuming the position of Research Associate for CSR-Watch Jordan, a stakeholder organization focused on corporate social reform through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). My primary responsibility is to publish research addressing NGO operations with regard to sustainable development in Jordan. I look forward to this exciting opportunity to engage with my new community and conduct interviews with members of organizations doing incredible work.

Goals for the rest of the week (by no means an exhaustive list): 1. Discover the “best” shawarma and falafel. 2. Open a bank account. 3. Get a Jordanian SIM. 4. Enroll in kickboxing classes.

All this will be attempted in my best broken Arabic, Insha’allah!

Bad Weeks Happen…

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Of course, bad days and bad weeks happen regardless of where you are. Being here in England for nine months, I figured eventually I would have an unlucky week somewhere in between all the new, amazing experiences and fun. Last week was a bad week, and being abroad while encountering it just complicated all the troubles.

Even the Queen has a few bad days every now and again.

Even the Queen has a few bad days every now and again.

At the beginning of the week I misplaced my wallet. Thinking it was possibly stolen, I cancelled my debit cards, just as I would have at home. Fortunately, later in the day I recovered my wallet because a lovely person handed it into a front desk at the University. Insurance cards, driver’s license, and student card were all now back in my possession; however, those cards in there were now useless. I realized I would have no money until my new cards were sent to my home address and then shipped from America to my U.K. address! I borrowed a little bit of money from some friends, but it was still stressful making do on next to nothing for so long.

Planned hurdles of that week included finishing three assignments for my classes, two of which were significantly weighted essays. Mid-week essay writing was in full swing, but something kept slowing me down. My one leg and arm were insanely itchy! Never have I had I experienced itchiness like this. I was unable to focus on my writing for more than a few minutes before I would have to pause to scratch.

Soon after I gave up on essay writing for the night, I discovered the itchiness was coming from a handful of red, welt-like bumps. Calling and consulting a triage nurse left me with the information that I was having an allergic reaction to either spider or bed bug bites. After another night of sleeping in my bug-infested room, I woke with even more itchy, swollen bites. It was time to take action.

I contacted UEA’s pest control service explaining the situation and within the same day, a man came to my flat with a pest control kit in hand. After searching high and low he did not find anything. Just as he was explaining how he cannot treat any issue unless there is evidence, I saw a brown spot moving up the wall behind him! AHHH! EW!

He grabbed the little bugger and confirmed that. yes, it was a bed bug. In order to properly rid my room of the pests they are spraying my room on three separate occasions. Each time I have to bag up all my belongings so they can be moved out of the room. Ever since the first treatment, thankfully, I have been bite free!

Bed bugs, papers, a lost wallet, and no money would have been bad enough back home, but having these problems thousands of miles away from home was even tougher. These experiences, although they were such a headache, taught me important lessons about traveling and studying abroad.

  1. Always keep a back-up stash of emergency money, separate from your main wallet/purse.
  2. Never carry your passport around with you, unless it is absolutely necessary. Thankfully, it was separate from my wallet when I lost it, but the situation would have been much worse if my passport were lost too.
  3. While staying in hotels and hostels, do not keep your bags on the floor. Bags on the floor make it easier for pests to latch on and come home with you.
  4. Remain calm, even though a situation may seem to be a gargantuan mess. Eventually, everything will be worked out and you will be okay!

The last point was crucial to my sanity and being able to finish my schoolwork while I was near penniless and battling the bugs. Getting through that week was tough, but I am now being rewarded with my university’s three-week spring break! Traveling and relaxing will be even more appreciated now that I conquered these troubles and learned important lessons.

Trains, Planes, and Automobiles (well, mostly trains): Traveling in Russia

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One of the most common questions I’ve been asked about studying abroad is if, once I’m in Russia, I’m going to travel the rest of Europe as well. My answer is no for several reasons. The first and most technical is that until several weeks ago, we only had single-entry visas, which meant that once we were here, we could not leave until our program ended. While we received multi-entry visas when they were renewed, my desire to spend my weekends traveling Europe is fairly small, given that I have the largest country in the world at my fingertips. Sure, I could spend my weekends jetting off to the Baltics, Kiev, or Germany and Poland, but why should I when I can soak up culture in St. Petersburg, visit beautiful churches in Vladimir, and tourist the way Russians do in Kazan or Sochi? Of course, I have not spent every weekend traveling. In fact, thus far I’ve only been to two places other than Moscow, with plans in the works to go to two more, but I’ve gotten to know the city I live in. This semester, I’ve used most of my weekends as a chance to get acquainted with Moscow, since I’m too busy studying during the week to feel like being a tourist once classes end at 4. And when I do travel, I enthusiastically jump on a train and head for another part of Russia on the exceedingly efficient rail system.

St. Petersburg and the overnight train

About a month ago, our group took a trip to St. Petersburg on an overnight train. On Russian trains, there are three types of accommodation: Kupe, Platscart, and sidyachi. Kupe, the most expensive, is a private compartment with four beds that provides a quiet, if stuffy, place to sleep on overnight trains. Platscart is cheaper than purchasing a kupe and provides you with one bed in a train car lined with two levels of bunks. It can be crowded, smelly, and noisy, but is most certainly an experience to remember and the bunks, though small, are fairly comfortable. The cheapest ticket one can buy on a train is for sidyachi, which is simply a seat like we have on American trains. No lying down, no personal space, but certainly a money-saver. On our trip to St. Petersburg, my friend and I purchased spaces in platscart, while four other girls from the group chose to share a kupe. It wasn’t a bad time, and while we arrived exhausted in St. Pete at 5:30 am, I would (and will) do it again.
Our time in St. Petersburg was filled with beautiful architecture, walks along the Neva River, and a visit to the Hermitage, one of the world’s largest collections of Western Art. It was a beautiful city that brought images of Paris and Stockholm swimming to mind. I’m glad I spent a weekend there, but I’m even more glad that I chose to study abroad in Moscow, where waiters speak in Russian, menus don’t always come in English, and instead of trying to accommodate our limited language skills, people simply tolerate us and communicate as best as possible sans English.

The Winter Palace or Hermitage, home of one of the largest collections of European art in the world

The Winter Palace or Hermitage, home of one of the largest collections of European art in the world

Boring or Beautiful? The provincial city of Vladimir

The second trip of the semester was this past weekend. My friends and I met bright and early at 6:30 am on Saturday to catch the first electric train out of Moscow to Vladimir, a provincial city about two and a half hours away where ACTR, my program, has another site. We met up with the student studying there this semester and he gave us the tour. Vladimir is relatively small—around 345,000 people—and was quite a departure from the hustle and bustle of Moscow’s 11.5 million residents. I was told over and over again that there was nothing to do in Vladimir, and while it’s definitely not as cosmopolitan as Moscow, I did not find that to be true. Beautiful cathedrals stand on scenic overlooks, delicious food is available for a fraction of the cost of Moscow, and a quick 45-minute bus ride away is the quaint, picturesque town of Suzdal, famous for its wooden architecture and kremlin. We spent part of the afternoon in Suzdal, but unfortunately our time there was fairly limited since we had to make it back for our return train by 7.

One of the many beautiful churches in Vladimir

One of the many beautiful churches in Vladimir

 

A perfect example of Suzdal's quaint, wooden architecture

A perfect example of Suzdal’s quaint, wooden architecture

What’s next?

The day, though hectic, was a success and we returned to Moscow exhausted but satisfied with our adventure. Our program is shockingly close to its end, and there are still so many more places I want to see across the country. My dream is to one day return and ride the trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok, stopping along the way to get to know Russia outside of Moscow’s urban sprawl. I have plans to visit Nizhniy Novgorod and Kazan in a few weekends, and hopefully Sochi at the beginning of May, although we have to fly there due to the border conflict. As our official, program-sponsored week of travel, we will all be going to Volgograd and Saratov at the end of the April, and I can’t wait.

Although for many, part of the appeal of studying abroad is the opportunity to backpack through Europe, I’m perfectly content to hold off on Athens and put Prague on pause. I’d love to get there someday, but for now, I’m having a great time exploring the magnificent and vast nation that is Russia. It’s a beautiful, diverse, and underrated nation that encompasses a more varied scope of culture, lifestyles, and people than anywhere else I can think of. Why would I want to miss that?

Midterm Craziness and Mid-Term Reflections

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The past few weeks in Kunming have been my busiest ever, which explains why I’ve been slacking in my blog posts as of late. I’ll try my best to sum up what I’ve been up to since returning from Xishuangbanna several weeks ago.

Upon returning from our trip, we all had midterm papers and Chinese class exams. This semester, midterms were certainly more of a challenge for me than I’m used to. One of them required a fairly deep understanding about international relations in Southeast Asia, which majoring in Computer Science hasn’t quite prepared me for. The Chinese midterm was difficult in its own way, covering eight chapters from our textbook with about forty characters to memorize in each. Aside from midterms, each class also requires students to complete a fifteen to twenty page report for the final project, and with four classes this semester, I’m confident that this is more writing than I’ve ever completed in my life.

Although keeping up with the course workload has been stressful, I’ll admit that it’s forced me to manage my time better than I ever have before. I feel I’ve become much more efficient in how I use the time that I have, knowing that there’s only a little under four weeks left until classes end and we leave for Southeast Asia. I’ll also say that Kunming has such a comfortable atmosphere with plenty of places to sit quietly and do work. In Kunming, it’s sunny and warm every day – we haven’t seen rain since January (sorry to everyone at home who’s still enduring winter weather!). Sitting outside to catch up on work has become a regular habit. I don’t think I could have chosen a more comfortable place to spend a semester.

In addition to coursework, I’ve spent the past few weeks thinking about what I’d really like to do after finishing school. Before coming to China, I anticipated that I was going to be at least a little disappointed about spending an entire semester without any computer science work. However, I’ve reflected on how much my Chinese has improved here, with new opportunities to practice every day. The people here are so friendly and willing to help me learn. China’s culture, or the aspects of its culture that I’ve experienced so far in Kunming, are so interesting, and especially different from life at home. It’s disappointing, to say the least, that my time here is more than halfway over. I absolutely miss home – I think about what I’m missing out on every day – but being here has only solidified my interest in Chinese language and culture. I’m having an incredible time here, and I know that to ever become truly fluent will require me to return for a longer period. I’m already thinking about when I’ll be back!

Everything is in bloom right now on Yunnan University's campus.

Doing homework isn’t so bad with a campus like YunDa.

Everything is in bloom right now on campus.

Everything is in bloom right now on campus.

The Thrill of Giving Directions

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I spent last Sunday evening speaking Russian with Italians. And Americans. And British people, and of course, Russians. Since the beginning of the semester, I’ve been hearing about a language exchange that two of my classmates go to on Sundays, and last week I finally had the time and the energy to join them. As a formerly-shy person who sometimes still gets nervous in crowded social settings, I wasn’t really sure what to expect out of the meet up. I was more than a little nervous as I made my way up the stairs at J.P. Burger and Co, staying close by my friend’s side as we scanned the crowd for a place to sit. We hovered by a table draped in a Russian flag and talked to each other in Russian while we waited for a spot to set our drinks and strike up conversation. We didn’t have to wait very long. Two well-dressed young women, somewhere around my age, sauntered up to us. The moment they said “privyet,” I could tell they weren’t Russian, and their perfect hair and makeup let me know they weren’t American, either. After we made our introductions, they cheerfully informed us that they were from Italy and had only been studying Russian for a year. Several minutes later, their friends—one Russian and one Italian—joined our circle and I began to relax and enjoy myself. Though most of us had only been studying Russian for a few years, we managed to conduct our entire interaction without speaking English at all.

I know this interaction seems relatively minor, but although I’ve been here for two months now, I still frequently doubt my Russian skills. When I last studied abroad, I went to Japan. I knew absolutely no Japanese before I left so when I learned new phrases in class, it felt like a whole new world of communication was opened up to me. Suddenly, I could ask for directions, ask to borrow a telephone, or inquire as to the whereabouts of the nearest toilet. Every tiny language gain I made was enormous, because I was starting from ground zero. With Russian, things are a little (a LOT) different. Before I came to Moscow, I had two and a half years of Russian language instruction under my belt. Though a solid foundation, my progress here has seemed like a much steeper upward climb. I attribute this to the fact that since I already knew the basics before I arrived, my expectations of what I can and can’t communicate are much higher. Instead of being excited that I can ask for directions, I’m frustrated when I can’t convey how I feel about important issues or engage in a dialogue that’s not filled with “не знаю как сказать…” (ne znayu kak skazat” or “I don’t know how to say…”)
I can feel this becoming less of an issue, but regardless, there are days here when I feel like a complete child and even the easiest words and sentences don’t come to me. Of course, learning a language is incredibly difficult and even in an immersive setting, you have to try in order to make progress. The language is not just going to pop into your head with a full lexicon and perfect grammatical understanding one day because you’ve lived in a country for a while. I’ve met enough expats here to know that. However, I know that even though I have a long way to go, the gains I’m making here are significant. I had a dream the other night that when I returned to the States, my Russian was at exactly the same level it was when I left in January. I was devastated! However, I can already tell this is not the case, and while it may not be thrilling to ask for directions anymore, I’ve given them since I’ve been here, and that’s pretty cool.
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At the language meetup with our new friends! Photo Courtesy of one of my new Italian friends, Francesca, and her selfie stick

International Women’s Day

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As some of you might know, this past Sunday, March 8th, was International Women’s Day. In Russia, this is a national holiday that comes with a Monday off of work and lots and lots of tulips. Like a combination of Mothers’ Day and Valentine’s Day, International Women’s Day is a holiday to celebrate all women and their accomplishments, achievements, and contributions to the family and society. Women of all roles, positions, and classes are celebrated with flowers, sweets, dinner, or some other method of saying “thank you.” Restaurants and stores hold sales and specials during the days leading up to March 8th, and it is easily one of the most widely recognized and honored holidays in the calendar. Both men and other women buy gifts for mothers, teachers, daughters, grandmothers, girlfriends, etc. As a foreigner without any blood relatives here, I wasn’t really expecting anything for the holiday. However, when I arrived home today I found my bed laundered and made, my laundry piles folded, and a vase of three tulips on my freshly cleaned desk, all from my host mother and brother. These gestures, which I could have been baffled by or at least found mildly invasive, served to remind me that even though I am not a blood relative of Svetlana and Sasha, they have taken me into their home and treated me not as a guest, but as a family member who deserves beautiful tulips on Women’s Day like the rest of the family. Though on most occasions, such as Valentine’s Day, I would prefer chocolate over flowers (one dies, the other is edible and delicious), the symbolism of the red and yellow tulips, so cheerfully occupying a vase on my desk, is not only a gesture of thanks and appreciation, but also a celebration of the coming spring, something I’m waiting for with baited breath.

Of course, even though she is not my birth mother, I absolutely had to give Svetlana, my host mother, a gift as well. While I did not get the chance to buy her a souvenir or trinket in Saint Petersburg, where I spent the weekend, I made sure to pick up three (even numbers are only for funerals) yellow tulips for her on my way home from the train station.
Women play a variety of different roles in Russian society: mother, grandmother, teacher, caretaker, housekeeper, cook, boss, worker…the list goes on. However, as far as I can tell, one idea remains fairly constant in the collective Russian attitude towards women. Women take care of the house and the home, and men take care of them. This idea may seem a bit outmoded to some Americans, but the sentiment of “men must care for women,” is prevalent in many aspects of society. For example, I’ve had doors held for me, bags carried, drinks paid for, and generally have been treated very well, if much more delicately than I usually appreciate. My interactions with Russian men have ranged from positive to entertaining to offensive but hilarious, and unlike some of my friends, I’ve had the good fortune to have thus far had no encounters with aggressive Russian “alpha males,” to whom no means yes for a much longer time and with much more persistence than American males could ever dream of mustering.

Regardless, women here face an interesting paradox. Men see them as weaker and less capable–a return to “traditional” values–but it is the women who hold together the home, the family, and often also earn the money. My host mother, though in her seventies, still works as a doctor, cooks dinner every night, and manages to care for both herself and those around her, including this hungry, frazzled American. Her daily routine reminds me of an anecdote my Russian professor told me last year, which ends by stating: “Women do everything, men do all the rest.” While this is clearly not always the case, especially these days, it lends a certain insight into the psyche and ideals of the Russian consciousness and the national perception of women, who can and must do everything they can, except carry their own bags home from the store. Russian women in particular deserve to be celebrated for this reason, because as I’ve made very clear, they truly deserve it. No matter how society views women, whether as helpless dolls, empowered Amazons, or somewhere in between, their contributions to the world we live in are not only useful, but absolutely necessary for life and survival.
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Three of the five ACTR girls on the ice in Petersburg! While I don’t have a picture of my flowers (they’re wilted now), this picture was taken on Women’s Day!

Four (Incredible) Days in Xishuangbanna

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I’d known from textbooks, as well as some of my own observations in Kunming, that Yunnan Province is an extremely diverse one, the most diverse in all of China. It is home to 26 out of the 55 registered ethnic minorities in the country and is significantly influenced, both culturally and otherwise, by its Southeast Asian neighbors, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. Despite what I had already known, though, there was no possible way of predicting what I experienced during our four-day trip to Xishuangbanna.

Xishuangbanna is one of China’s Dai autonomous prefectures, meaning that a significant portion of the prefecture’s population is of the Dai ethnic minority. Located in the far south of Yunnan Province, Xishuangbanna shares borders with Myanmar and Laos. It’s a tropical region, so we enjoyed some beautiful 80 to 90 degree weather during our four days there. We left early Wednesday morning and spent the day on a bus; we didn’t arrive at our first minority village until around 11:00 that night.

The Daizu Village

Our first two nights were spent in a Daizu (傣族, meaning Dai ethnic minority) theme park. The theme park was created to resemble a Dai minority village, so the guesthouse we stayed in was similar to a true Daizu home. I knew the guesthouse we would be sleeping in for the first two nights wasn’t going to be like the university dorm I’m used to, but I wasn’t fully prepared for the Dai village. We slept in small rooms on the second floor of the building, which was a little like a large barn loft, something that is typical of Dai-style homes. The amount of insects and four-legged creatures, which are my biggest phobia by far, was the most difficult thing for me to get used to in the village. Showering with a lizard or two on the wall next to me was not an easy task! Despite the minor challenges, though, it didn’t take long for me to become accustomed to our living arrangements.

We spent the majority of our two days in the Dai village speaking with the residents as part of a surveying assignment for my ethnicities course. We also had the opportunity to experience a Dai ethnic tradition: the Water Splashing Festival. This festival is traditionally held once a year as a New Year celebration. The Dai will dress in their best clothing and splash buckets of water at each other, both strangers and friends alike. The Dai people highly value water; for them, it holds a religious connotation, representing purity and good intentions. The theme park holds a miniature Water Splashing Festival every day, where tourists can dress in Dai clothing and splash each other in the park’s central fountain. The park was especially crowded that day, so lots of Chinese tourists joined us in the mini festival. Learning about the community’s lifestyle and culture was especially interesting because I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about the Dai minority prior to our trip. Nearly everyone we met was happy to share more about themselves.

Getting to Know Dai Culture

We spoke with several families during our stay in the Dai village, getting to know more about Dai minority culture and practices.

A Buddhist statue and stupa, located at a monastery in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna

A Buddhist statue and stupa, located at a monastery in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna

IES students after the Water Splashing Festival

IES students after the Water Splashing Festival

Nanpen

After two days in the Daizu village, we piled into two vans and drove for about three hours to Nanpen (南盆), a relatively small Aini minority village south of the Daizu village. Unlike the Daizu village, Nanpen is not a theme park, but an actual village located in the mountains. There were no tourists other than our study abroad program, and so this portion of our trip felt much more authentic. We split up into groups of three to five students and stayed with families within the village. Everyone we met was so friendly and hospitable, which made the experience even more enjoyable for me. Most of our time was spent just getting to know more about the Aini people and their cultural practices. We asked several families our survey questions, but also spent a lot of time during meals speaking with both young and older generations. The kids were especially fun to talk to, and they didn’t mind when I spoke slowly or asked them to repeat themselves in Chinese! We played basketball and other games that we brought along as gifts for the kids in the afternoon, and we sang and danced with the others at night after sharing a meal together. Even though we couldn’t understand the music they sang, they loved when we joined in. The excitement was more in sharing a homemade meal and connecting through music.

This was a typical meal for us in the Aini village - sharing great food with new friends.

This was a typical meal for us in the Aini village – sharing great food with new friends.

All of the kids in Nanpen village loved playing basketball, jump rope, and other games with the IES students.

All of the kids in Nanpen village loved playing basketball, jump rope, and other games with the IES students.

Tea Picking

We had a chance to pick tea leaves with some of our Aini friends – this was our view from the top of the mountain.

As cliché as it may sound, spending just two days in the Aini village was a life-changing experience for me. I can’t say that I’ve had a lot of those, but living in that village and discovering a lifestyle so incredibly different from my own was the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. During those two days, we had no cell service and no Internet, and to my own surprise, I was completely satisfied with being so removed from the rest of the world. I felt content with what I had, not really needing anything else. That’s how everyone in Nanpen seems to live – modestly, using what he or she needs without always wanting more. Their lifestyle is lacking in the modern luxuries that a city life provides, but from what I observed, they don’t want to change that. Nearly everyone we surveyed receives a majority, if not all, of their income from farming. People spend a portion of every day outside, where the weather is always sunny, whether it’s feeding the animals that roam freely underneath the homes, walking up the hillsides to pick tea leaves, or gathering the vegetables that are served at every meal. Nanpen is such a close community, where everyone knows just about everyone else, and people enjoy the work that they do because they work together to benefit the village. Most of the kids complete high school but never study at a university, and as we discovered through our surveying, even those who do complete a university-level education usually return to the village, never leaving the lifestyle into which they were born. To me, that reveals quite a lot about the kind of community the people of Nanpen have created. After some reflection, the most accurate word I can think of to describe everything that I experienced during my time with them is “beautiful.”

My experiences in Nanpen differed pretty significantly from those in the Daizu theme park, but I feel as though I’ve learned a lot about both minorities from my time in Xishuangbanna. I’m grateful for the time I spent with both minority villages, and I hope that I’ll some day have an opportunity to see them again.

Sunrise in Nanpen

Waking up early from the sound of chickens wasn’t so bad, with a view of the sunrise like this.

春节快乐 (Happy Spring Festival)!

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The past week has been one filled with celebration for the Chinese New Year, called the Spring Festival (春节 or “Chunjie” in Mandarin). The first day of the new year was on Thursday, February 19, but the Chinese love, and need, to prepare at least a week prior. It’s part of tradition for Chinese families to have large reunion dinners during this time. Many of the restaurants and small shops around Yunnan University closed several days before the holiday, giving families time to return home and prepare for large gatherings. Paper lanterns and other red and gold decorations were plastered on the streets and storefronts. In accordance with the Chinese zodiac, this year is that of the sheep (or ram, or goat), so most street vendors were selling these stuffed animals, along with other red and gold gifts. Navigating the supermarkets is a bit of a nightmare during the week leading up to the holiday because everyone is out buying food, candy, and gifts. Preparing for Chunjie is a lengthier process than I’d imagined, but luckily, IES students were given a week-long Spring Break at this time to celebrate and travel on our own.

On the eve of the first day of the new year, several of us went to a Chinese homestay family for an authentic Chunjie, to observe some common holiday traditions. The homestay mother taught us all how to play Mahjong, a Chinese game with tiles containing four different suits; we played a few rounds before prepping for dinner. The game is a little like Rummy, but there are many variations of Mahjong throughout the country’s different provinces. I’m proud to be able to cross learning the game off my bucket list for China. It’s one of the most well known pastimes originating here, and you’re always likely to find groups of people playing in parks. After Mahjong, we learned how to make one of China’s most famous dishes, one commonly associated with Chinese cuisine in America – dumplings (饺子 or “jiaozi”). And because dumplings are small, or maybe because the Chinese know how to do dinner the right way, we made a lot of dumplings. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many dumplings in one setting before, ever. There must have been over 300 made by the time we were ready for dinner, of both the vegetarian and meat varieties. That dinner tops the rest for me, mostly because we helped to prepare it and shared it with new friends.

Another of my adventures over Spring Break was a day trip to the Stone Forest. It’s a big attraction within Yunnan Province, and is exactly what it sounds like – a forest of massive boulders. The Stone Forest is about two hours from Kunming by bus, so we left early Friday morning to allow enough time to see the whole park. Leaving Kunming took a little longer than anticipated, however, because we misread the online directions and took a taxi to the West Kunming bus station instead of the East station. One simple character truly means a world of a difference sometimes. After making our way to the correct station and onto the bus, we arrived in Shilin, where the park is located, around noon. The weather was perfect for an afternoon outside, so the Stone Forest was packed with other tourists. To our surprise, there were no other foreign tourists – we were the only non-Chinese in the entire park. It’s not unusual here to meet Chinese people, especially children, who have never seen a foreigner before, so in addition to the actual Stone Forest, we were also a major attraction. A surprising amount of families asked for pictures with us – definitely a confidence booster! The park was a beautiful place with tons of pleasant people to meet; it was definitely a day well spent.

Our Spring Break was an opportunity to explore Kunming and its surrounding cities. Chunjie is such an exciting time for all of China, with so much celebration to be shared, and I’m grateful for having had the chance to experience it first-hand, in the heart of it all.

A view from a temple at the top of Stone Forest

A view from a temple at the top of Stone Forest

The park was packed with tourists the day we went.

The park was packed with tourists the day we went.

Singers and dancers, dressed in Yunnanese-style clothing, performed throughout the day at the park.

Singers and dancers, dressed in Yunnanese-style clothing, performed throughout the day.

The Joys of Megabus

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Since I’ve been here, I have had a significant, personal discovery… Megabus! This is undoubtedly the best mode of travel for students. Studying abroad in the first place is not the most money-friendly decision, but while gallivanting across the globe you don’t need to spend a fortune to have unforgettable experiences. If you are going to study abroad in Europe, I beg of you to check out this particular bus service. You will be floored at how far a few dollars can take you. It has stops nearly everywhere in the United Kingdom and for most big cities of Europe as well. If booked far enough in advance, you can go from UEA to London (which is about 3 hours away) for the shockingly low fee of £1. Many of the prices range between £1 and £15 (which is the equivalent range of about $1.50 to $23). I have now taken advantage of Megabus a few times from my university to London and have even taken it for a extensive, sixteen hour journey to Amsterdam.

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The journeys to Amsterdam and back were at least £100 cheaper than flying and in a way that was not even the best part! During those long, long rides I had the opportunity to see so much of Europe. French, Belgian, and Dutch scenery and cities passed by and left me with not a single dull moment during the trip. Yet another new experience that Megabus enabled for me to have, was that of crossing the English Channel via the Channel tunnel!

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The Channel tunnel connects England to France through a 31.4 mile long tunnel. This tunnel holds the record for having the longest underground portion at 23.5 miles of underwater tunnel! Honestly, it made me a little nervous thinking about how our bus would be underwater for so long, but mostly it amazed me.

The tunnel is actually rather far away from the water, as it was built though a deeper layer of earth underneath the sea floor.

The tunnel is actually rather far away from the water, as it was built though a deeper layer of earth underneath the sea floor.

Popping up in France from giant hole dug underneath water that started in England is quite a strange experience if you really think about it!

The journey to Amsterdam was long, but all the interesting surroundings kept me happy and so did the bus’s conveniences of outlets, a bathroom and free Wi-Fi. Overall, Megabus is the best way for a study abroad student to travel cheaply and see Europe through a different perspective.

I appreciate it even more for getting me to my destination safely! Amsterdam was worth the long ride. It’s a unusual city full of kind people and history. Being able to visit the Anne Frank house was the most enlightening and moving event of the trip. Passing through the secret bookcase into the areas where she and her family hid and lived (for nearly 2 years) is beyond description. The whole house gave me a new understanding for what Jews had to face during the Holocaust. Once through the rooms and corridors of the house, the space opened up into a room where her diary and other writings were on display.

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The house in the middle is the Anne Frank House, located at Prinsengracht 263 in Amsterdam.

The Blumenmarket (flower market), canals, and colorful graffiti were other points of interest from my adventure.

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Thank you for reading!