Abel Tasman and New Zealand Backpacking Psychology

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What is the first thought that comes to mind when you hear the word “backpacking?” My mind immediately wanders to the Gilmore Girls revival, in which Lorelai Gilmore abandons her attempt to do the Pacific Crest Trail after realizing that she can’t fit freeze-dried mac n’ cheese into her pack. Maybe you think of adventure, campfires, and fresh air. Or perhaps you cringe at the thought of spending even one night in a tent. In New Zealand, backpacking culture is everywhere. Tourists come from all over the globe to explore New Zealand’s national parks and live for a week in the bush. Much like the other international students at University of Otago, I arrived in New Zealand with the intention of hiking, camping, and adventuring all over the country as frequently as possible. Although I had a good amount of experience car camping, I had never been backpacking before, but knew that my first backpacking adventure should absolutely take place in New Zealand.

A few weeks ago, I made the decision to do the Abel Tasman National Park coastal track with several friends. Our plan was to conquer a total of 60 kilometers (37.5 miles) in four days, with three nights of camping. To be honest, I didn’t think much of our trip until the morning of our departure arrived- I was an experienced camper and hiker, and didn’t see how backpacking could be much different. After cramming bug spray, cooking gas, and a sleeping bag into my already bulging pack, I felt ready to conquer Abel Tasman.

During the first day of our trek, I felt tranquil and completely at ease. Although we arrived at Te Pukatea, our first campsite, a bit later than expected, our first meal and night in the tent went smoothly. However, the hours that ensued were much more challenging than I anticipated. After about 3 miles into the day, my head began to hurt from dehydration. Unlike much of New Zealand, the water at Abel Tasman has to be treated before consumption, so I was unable to fill my bottle at a stream nearby. My pack, which weighed about 25kg, dug into my shoulders and made it harder to march along the path. After hiking, driving, and being slightly uncomfortable during my first night on the ground, I felt exhausted. However, we had a total of eight hiking hours to catch up with friends who started the track a day earlier, and I had to find ways to entertain my mind- otherwise time would pass excruciatingly slowly.

At first, all I could think about was my own discomfort, but I gradually became appreciative of the fact that my body was physically capable of hiking so far while carrying such weight. I noticed the way that my feet softened to the contours of the track, the way that my lungs filled with air as I stopped and took a look at the view, the manner in which the muscles in my legs hardened as I clambered uphill. This consciousness reminded me of the self-consciousness that I struggle with in my daily life- specifically how others perceive my personality and intentions. I started to wonder how and why this personal discomfort came to be, and tried to focus on my own experience and thoughts rather than what others were seeing in me. This led me to take in my surroundings more deeply. I examined the changing landscape of the trail- from tropical forest to sandy coast- and inhaled the scent of fresh growth. As I approached the six-hour mark of our hike, I realized that I had entertained my mind with a constant cycle of self-examination that I had never accomplished before in my life.

Unfortunately, the last two hours proved to be much more of a challenge than the rest of the day. As my toes began to blister and my legs weakened, my psychological thought cycle was punctuated by thoughts of discomfort. Eventually, pain consumed me psychologically, and I had to concentrate solely on forcing myself to complete the hike.

Every day of Abel Tasman that followed led to hours of sleep lost, increased dehydration, and exhaustion. Although my psychological musings continued each morning, they were broken increasingly rapidly by thoughts of discomfort.  On the last morning, I awoke with a fever, and had to resort to sheer psychological willpower to get myself to our final destination. After exiting the trail, driving home to Dunedin for 10 hours, and finally laying in my bed, I gained a profound sense of gratitude for civilization.

What did I learn from Abel Tasman? I have thought about this question thoroughly since my trip, and compiled the following list of lessons:

  1. Backpacking, like many other things in life is NOT a race, but a journey. Rather than going as fast as possible, it is so important to take things slowly and enjoy the experience.
  2. Isolation leads to self-discovery. Along the trail, I was able to identify things about my life that bother me that I am usually unable to pinpoint in daily life. After backpacking, I am committed to identifying those problems and erasing them.
  3. Things will go wrong! The best way to handle any adverse situation is staying calm, not jumping to extreme conclusions, and allowing a solution to slowly materialize.
  4. I want to be a vegetarian! This one is super random, but I have been thinking about going veggie for a while now for environmental reasons. After spending 4 days eating only dried fruit, nuts, beans, and rice and being perfectly satisfied, I’m doing it! Hello veggie life!
  5. Life is too short to surround yourself with negative people. Shed the ones who bring you down, and gather those who make you feel happiest.
  6. There’s nothing like a challenge to make you appreciate your life. After spending 4 days in the wilderness, I have never cherished running water, hot showers, my bed, or my laptop more.

On a final note, nothing fuels my passion for environmental conservation like a backpacking trip. Being totally immersed in the natural environment makes a person so much more aware of the intricate biological, chemical, and geological systems that drive life on our planet. I’d like to think that the current American administration would stop whining about how climate change is a hoax if they were all forced to backpack for a week. At a time in history when unprecedented sea level rise, global temperature increase, and environmental degradation are wreaking havoc around the globe, it is imperative for individuals to gain greater understanding of the natural world that serves as our home. As we attack the natural environment with increasing force, she will only come back with a more powerful vengeance.

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Comfort in Isolation: Unravelling Ease and Examining Expectations

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As of September 27th, I have been in New Zealand for three entire months. Despite this relatively lengthy portion of time spent abroad, I’m not quite sure that, psychologically, I have accepted that I am living in New Zealand. Rather than feeling like my American accent sticks out like a sore thumb, I tend to forget that my voice sounds different at all. I walk to class surrounded by seagulls and the occasional palm plant, unfazed by the fact that I am currently thousands of miles from my permanent home. Without blinking, I digest Kiwi colloquialisms and respond in my own American slang. I am used to spending my weekends underneath the stars at some gorgeous national park on the South Island with a hoard of international friends. This is NORMAL to me now. To be honest, the level of comfort that I have attained in New Zealand is startling. To reference the unbelievable and frankly profound Lizzie McGuire Movie, I have reached a level of abroad-chill that only Ethan Craft can speak to.

How does any person, completely isolated from everything that they know, cope with solitude? When I was little, I wanted more than anything to be older and living on my own. I used to build leaf forts in my parents’ backyard and pretend that I was a research scientist camping in the Amazon rainforest. I imagined that my bedroom was an apartment, that I was an adult professional living my best life in a beautiful city. The older and more independent that I become, the more comfortable that I feel. Truthfully, I think that my most blissful moments of happiness have been spent completely alone, fully aware of my of self-reliance. In this way, I believe that solitude is something that I have never needed to cope with, but an experience that I crave. Perhaps the ease with which I conquer daily life in New Zealand is simply due to the fact that I have, for the entirety of my life, desired to experience total independence.

Sometimes, when I talk to my family members or close friends from home, I wonder what it will feel like when I return to the US. Will I slide again comfortably into the niche that I abandoned in June? Or will I carve new spaces for myself as a result of my foreign travels? I think that I will slip rapidly back into my life in Philadelphia, hopefully armed with some wisdom from my international meanderings. If I can quickly adapt to life in New Zealand, I have full confidence that my transition back into American life should be just as simple. What I am not prepared for, however, is the emotional aftermath of my Kiwi life.

At Aoraki National Park, I gazed upon enormous glaciers and pristine blue pools. I hiked through shrublands and up volcanoes at Tongariro; I conquered fields of frozen wheat in Queenstown. And what did I feel upon completion? Exhaustion, hunger and sleep. I was terrified and humbled by the marvels that I encountered, yet this was broken by the conscious thought that I had to continue on my designated trail. In order to complete the journey at hand, it was crucial that I briefly indulged in my surroundings before moving on.

Am I as tough and independent as I’d like to believe? Or is my relative ease in New Zealand due to the fact that I know, subconsciously, that I cannot be homesick because that would prevent my own psychological stability and general happiness from flourishing in Dunedin? Who knows. I may still not by the time that I depart for LAX. What I do know is that eventually, perhaps several weeks after I return to Philadelphia, my life in New Zealand will hit hard. At certain random moments in my life, it seems that I have a ridiculous sense of clarity- like everything around me is suddenly so real and tangible and makes life seem utterly glorious. When one of these moments hits back in the US, I am positive that I will immediately think of my life in New Zealand and be brought to tears. In just a month’s time, I will dream of the Otago peninsula with its bird-infested piers and deep gray waters and feel lucky to have lived such an incredible life. Despite each day that I pass the Otago University clocktower without so much as a glance of appreciation, Dirty Dunners is slowly, and without conscious detection weaving its way into my heart.

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Taking in New Zealand and all of her glory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When in Seoul!

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The first month of my four month stay in Seoul has passed much faster than I would have liked. Thus far I have done many things that I had hoped to accomplish during my journey here, including visiting Seoul Tower, eating lots of barbecue, and hiking through nature. While I have checked off many things off of my to-do list; I have also had the luxury of trying things I had never imagined myself doing. In this post I want to highlight the importance of stepping outside of your comfort zone and taking advantage of every opportunity that the world presents you with!

 

Traditionally, I have never been someone who identified as a big sports fan. I used to enjoy playing soccer in middle school and tend to watch the super bowl most years, but that’s about the extent of my passion for competitive sports. That being said, when I heard about the long-standing rivalry between Yonsei University (my study abroad university) and Korea University (another prestigious private university) in the form of an annual multi-sport competition, I knew I had to attend. The Yonko games (or Koryo games, depending on which university you attend) is the most hotly contested collegiate rivalries in South Korea, in which both universities compete against each other in baseball, basketball, ice hockey, rugby, and soccer. These games are a historic tradition, with the origins of the athletic rivalry dating back to 1923. Both sides eagerly support their teams through vigorous cheering through the games and while it is called a rivalry there is never any bad blood harbored between the universities, but more on that later. The games were an extremely fun and social time, which included me waking up at 7 in the morning in order to get good seats at a baseball game (something that I had never imagined myself doing!) I met a number of great people at these events and did an exhausting amount of cheering. Luckily for us, Yonsei ended up winning the competition 5-0, their first win in seven years! After the games, both students from both universities celebrated in Sinchon, the town in which Yonsei is located. Despite the rivalry during the games, students came together to socialize, drink and eat together. In Sinchon, myself and hundreds of fellow students formed “trains” that headed to restaurants in order to receive free food and drinks. Overall, the games and the resulting celebration will be remembered as one of my favorite moments spent in South Korea.

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Storming the field after Yonsei’s victory!

Another way I expanded past my comfort zone during my study abroad experience is my recent pursuit of kickboxing! I had never practiced martial arts (excluding a brief 1 month stint in karate during elementary school) but it has always been something I was interested in trying. Therefore, when a few of my friends revealed that they practiced kickboxing back home and that the club here accepted exchange students, I quickly volunteered to join. I was also inspired by my grandfather, who was a winning boxer while my family lived in Korea! Thus far, I have attended a few practices which I found myself enjoying quite a lot. More importantly, it has exposed me to native students and allowed me to befriend people that I could otherwise never meet.

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Celebration in Sinchon (after some free food and drinks)

In conclusion, my experience abroad has allowed me to pursue things that I never pictured myself doing. The trip as a whole has revealed many new insights into what I enjoy and the person I am. Keeping in theme with trying new things; this upcoming week is a national holiday and I am excited to be doing a temple-stay program, in which I will be doing meditation and learning about traditional Buddhist culture. As always, I am extremely thankful to be granted this opportunity and in my next blog I aim to discuss the academic side of my stay as well as managing the balance between work and exploration during study abroad!

(Culture) Shock and Awe!!

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Have you ever ate pig stomach or noodle soup with ice cubes in it? How about travelling to multiple department stores at an attempt (and eventual failure) to buy trash bags? Before coming to South Korea I had not done any of these things, but these are just a few apparent examples of some of the many different things that constitute what people label as “culture shock”. While many aspects of culture shock are not immediately visible to the eye, in this post I will attempt to breakdown some of the various unfamiliarities I felt after moving to Seoul.

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Some (very) large crab I found while exploring a small seaside town.

There are a few differences that are immediately brought to mind when I ask myself, what exactly is different between the US and South Korea. One thing that threw me (and many other exchange students) for a loop was the fact that used toilet paper is not flushed down the drain. Instead it is thrown into a waste bin that is then emptied in the trash at a later date. While there are a few exceptions, notably in some public bathrooms, most Korean plumbing is not equipped to disintegrate toilet paper so it is necessary to throw it into a separate container to avoid clogs. While I’m on the topic of bathrooms, it is also a common practice for the shower and toilet to be separated into two rooms. This is due to the belief that toilets are generally perceived as “unclean” while showers are for the purpose of cleansing. Another difference I noticed during my stay here is that soap bars are much more popular than liquid soaps. One of the funniest examples that I encountered of this was found in the subway, where a bar of soap was fixed onto the end of an extendable rod, which you then had to stroke in order to wash your hands!

As I mentioned at the end of my last blog post, I had recently journeyed to one of the southern-most regions of Korea, the island of Wando. Wando is a small ocean town, known for its seafood, seaweed, and friendly culture. In addition to seeing many wonderful sights it was here I also had the unique experience of tasting pig stomach for the first time. Somehow in my group of friends, I have become the one that is commonly relied on to order food and translate the menus for everyone. In this scenario, we ordered a plate of fried chicken and a plate of what I presumed to be shrimp (basing my opinion not on what the item said but rather a picture of fried shrimp directly above the dish in question.) To the surprise (and dismay to some) of my group we were instead served a dish with a suspicious looking meat with some delicious sauce. After thorough inspection and tasting we later decided that it was indeed pork stomach, which has an extremely chewy yet crunchy texture.

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The view from Wando Tower!

Lastly, I want to highlight some of the aspects of culture shock that are not immediately apparent to someone once they embark on an extended international stay. Culture shock is usually broken down into four distinct phases: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and adaptation. The honeymoon phase is experienced upon arrival and involves a fascination with the new culture. This was very accurate to my personal circumstances, as I found myself utterly absorbed and romanticizing the differences between Korean and American culture. After this phase is negotiation, in which individuals may experience anxiety as the result of cultural differences. Homesickness is very common and the body has to actually adapt to living in a foreign environment, including adjustment to your circadian rhythm and digestion to account for the differences in food/beverage. On the whole, I have not experienced much anxiety from my trip but I have noticed changes in my diet and sleep schedules. For example, during my first few weeks it was common for me to nap excessively and I often felt abdominal discomfort following my meals. However, this passed with time and I can confidently say that I am mostly adjusted to my daily life in Seoul! While a semester is a long time to spend in a foreign environment, four months is not an excessively long time in the grand scheme of things so I will most likely not experience the final stages of adjustment and adaptation; since they tend to happen after six months.

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It is common practice to sit on the floor in order to enjoy traditional Korean meals!

Overall, I like to perceive the differences in South Korea in a positive light and am thankful for the opportunity to be exposed to cultural standards, foods, and societal practices that are very different from my home. While adjusting to a new environment can be challenging, I believe that it will ultimately result in insights and personal strength that could never be achieved otherwise. Thanks again for reading and in my next blog I will highlight on how I have been expanding past my comfort zones, see you again soon!

The Culture of Eating: A Literal Interpretation of “Food For Thought”

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Scenario One:

It is a Monday morning, and I have not gotten enough sleep. Outside, a miserable sheet of rain is unleashing its wrath on the few students who have summoned enough courage to venture outside. I am not this brave. In fact, I doubt that I will drag myself out of bed for another hour or two. However, I suddenly remember that I can’t miss my 1 pm geology lab, making fruitless attempts to find my hairbrush and put together a normal outfit. Food is less that an afterthought; if I had to rank my daily priorities on a scale from one to ten, eating would be a negative number. Instead, I stop by the coffee cart outside of Paley Library, gulp down the last milky dregs, and rush to the lab.

 

Scenario Two: Dunedin

It is a Monday morning, and I have not gotten enough sleep. Outside, a miserable sheet of rain is unleashing its wrath on the few students who have summoned enough courage to venture outside. I do not have a morning class, but I should really mobilize and work on a few essays that will be due in the upcoming weeks. However, the constant grey-ness of Dunedin has really been bumming me out, so my motivation for work is low. I decide to have a treat-yo-self kind of morning to raise personal morale, throw on a sweater, and head to Good Earth, a really awesome local café by my flat. One thing that New Zealanders seem to have down is the art of egg-making; whereas Americans seem to be constantly scrambling theirs, Kiwis enjoy a wide range of fancy egg preparation, from frying to poaching to boiling. I decide to embrace fancy egg culture and order two poached eggs in Hollandaise sauce with a layered potato cake. As I wait for my breakfast to arrive at my table, I crack open “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens and sip a flat white. When my meal arrives, it is piping hot; everything tastes amazing and I spend more than an hour just relaxing, munching, and reading. With a full belly and caffeinated brain, I eventually depart, fueled and ready to work on essays at the central library.

 

Notice a difference? In terms of activities that are imperative to human existence, eating is one of the most significant. Eating culture varies from country to country, with each state, province, or territory exhibiting its own unique subset of foods or eating traditions. When I was younger, I was reminded of this constantly by my grandmother, a cooking enthusiast who understands that the process of eating is one to be celebrated. In the mornings at my grandmother’s apartment, I would always sit at the same spot at her dining room table, laden with a beautiful fabric placement, different glasses for juice and tea, perfectly arranged silverware, and my favorite plate- one that showed four chubby chefs preparing a meal. With unmatched grace and agility, my grandmother would lay out our breakfast bounty: crisp toast, eggs, fresh fruit and yogurt, and the occasional bacon. I think that when I am preparing to die and reflecting on my own human experience, these breakfasts with my grandmother will go down in the top-ten best memories from my existence, though they may seem inconsequential.  Nothing to think about but the complexity of the music accompanying our food, the process of eating, and the pleasure of one another’s company. My grandmother is the sole person that I credit with teaching me to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate a really good meal.

 

It makes me sad to think about, but eating culture in the United States is trash. This sounds harsh, but compared to many places around the world, it’s kind of true. America has been the ultimate proponent of worldwide fast food grab-and-go culture. Nothing says “I don’t have time to enjoy or care about what I’m putting into my body” like a $2 Whopper special from MacDonalds or an enormous, extra sugary Dunkin’ Donuts coffee to go. The purpose of FAST food is to spend as little time as possible savoring the food that one eats, enjoying the time spent eating, or reflecting on the physical act of consumption. As a result, the quality of prepared foods in the United States has fallen miserably to the point where we barely care if we’re putting wholesome ingredients or absolute garbage into our bodies. This has led to reduction in price of high-demand, terrible cheap foods and an exponentially expensive cost of eating well.

 

Living in New Zealand has given me a heightened respect for both the process of preparing foods, the origins of the food that I purchase, and the activities surrounding consumption. Almost the food that I eat comes from the local farmer’s market or Veggie Boys, a tiny shop that sells beautiful veggies for cheap. Instead of blindly walking into a supermarket and picking up items, I have started to contemplate various facets of production that occurred between development my food item and the incident of purchase. Did my kale from a farm that uses sustainable growing practices? Did this piece of salmon come for a large-scale fishery that doesn’t consider the ecological impact of irresponsible mass fishing? What type of lives do the goats that produce my cheese experience? New Zealanders are so big at sustainability, limited wastefulness, and conservation that these questions will now inevitably pop up as I grocery shop. Now, the process of cooking a meal has derived new meaning as well. After a stressful day, I like to turn on some peaceful music, carefully lay out all of my ingredients, and being lovingly arranging them into a meal. Cooking reminds me of the careful, precise techniques that I employ for research at my lab at home. The practiced motions of each activity bring me a kind of numbing, happy peace. To the subconscious mind, is there a difference between measuring out a graduated cylinder of 1M HCl and pouring vegetable oil into a measuring cup? For meditative purposes, I would argue that there is not. In New Zealand, I also have the pleasure of enjoying nightly flat meals with all of my flat mates, which is refreshing as I normally eat quickly and alone. Through these dinners, I have really bonded with the people that I live with, and have had the pleasure of trying typical Kiwi meals that my New Zealander flat mates prepare.

 

It would be ridiculous to say that I’ll never participate in “grab and go” food culture again in the United States. Let’s be honest: some fast foods (hello pizza) are amazing in their own greasy, delicious ways. To say that I won’t hit the Mexican burrito stand at least twice during my first week back in Philadelphia would be a lie. However, I want to extend my newfound appreciation food preparation and enjoyment to my friends and family back at home. Instead of munching on pasta in my room as I churn out my latest assignment, I will force my roommates to put down their work, sit down together, and eat some good food. Of all of the best relationships, moments, and memories of my life thus far, most of them revolve around consuming, preparing, or gathering around amazing meals.

Exploring the Boundaries of my Seoul

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Two weeks have passed since I have arrived in South Korea and they have been contained some of the most extraordinary moments of my life! I quickly became close friends with my Austrian roommate, Arno, who in turn introduced me to friends that I am extremely grateful to have met. We have gone to some amazing places, including the beaches of Gangneung, the hills of Sinchon and the metropolis of Seoul. The sights have been incredible so far and I look forward to continuing my adventure!

As I mentioned at the end of my first blog post, upon my jet-lagged arrival to Seoul I checked into my dorm and fell asleep before even meeting my roommate. He came home later that night after exploring the city with some of my soon to be dear friends. After a groggy, but friendly first greeting I quickly went back to sleep. In the next few days Arno and I bonded over our many similarities and differences, we both were bassists, loved music of all genres and were thrown into a completely foreign environment. Though our backgrounds and reasons for coming to Korea were totally different (he wanted to explore a place far from home, whereas I wanted to explore a place intimately connected to my own) we quickly found ourselves exploring the many sights of Seoul together. Additionally, he had introduced me to a group of fellow exchange students that quickly became very close friends of mine.

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View of Seoul from North Seoul Tower

One of the first journeys our group, and many other Yonsei students, took was into the neighboring city of Sinchon. A short 10 minute walk takes you into the heart of the city, which is always busy with pedestrians walking into the many shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues that Sinchon has to offer. One of the things stressed to us during our orientation was the importance of mastering the public transportation in Seoul. Our group quickly acquainted ourselves with the subway and bus systems, which allowed us to venture into the nearby towns of Hongdae and Itaewon with ease. While each city is obviously different from each other, they are connected through their brightly-lit streets, hilly terrain and incredible nightlife. In my opinion, the most interesting and different thing about Korean cities that I have encountered is the fact that the buildings are built onto the landscape, which promotes the preservation of its many wooded hills and allows for some spectacular views. This contrasts with American cities, such as Philadelphia, where many times the landscape is flattened in order to allow for greater ease during construction. Of the many exciting activities we have done in these towns, my favorites include Korean barbecue, shopping and karaoke!

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Exploring Hongdae with Friends!

Not only have I had the pleasure of exploring the nearby surroundings of Yonsei University but I have also been able to venture far away from Seoul. Gangneung is a small city on the east coast of South Korea known for its rustic beauty and seafood. Myself and three friends took a 3 hour bus ride from Seoul station in order to stay at an Airbnb right on Gyeongpo beach. The beautiful countryside was much different from Seoul’s bright skyline, but allowed us to shoot fireworks on the beach, ride scooters along the coast and watch the sunrise over the Pacific. We even got to eat at a traditional family-owned restaurant after much confusion with the Korean-speaking chef and the help of some English-speaking customers!

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Sunrise over Gyeongpo Beach

While I had no expectations going into my study abroad semester, I can safely say it far exceeds anything I could have hoped for and I am so grateful to continue exploring my mother’s homeland. See you in the next blog where I talk about a trip to one of the most Southern areas of Korea and accidentally ordering pig stomach for dinner!

 

An Ode To Mom: Personal Values and Studying Abroad

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A few days ago, I was sitting at a cafe in Tongariro National Park in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island. My friends Claire, Clara and I had just finished a massive, day-long hike to Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom to those Lord of the Rings fans reading this) and were sitting in silence, too tired to say much of anything. I decided to crack open a book that I recently bought from a really nice used book shop near my flat when I noticed a very tiny, fluffy-haired girl toddling around next to us. We made eye contact, so I smiled and waved. She cackled and waddled back over to her mom, who smiled and scooped her up into her lap. The girl continued to wriggle around and do lots of annoying little-kid things that parents hate (eat crayons, point out inappropriate things loudly, generally ignore the indoor voice/outdoor voice idea), but her mom continued to smooth her hair and pat her back. This immediately reminded me of another very tiny and energetic blond girl who, over 18 years ago, was probably annoying her adoring mother in the very same way.

This probably sounds lame, but my mom is one of my best friends in the entire world. She has always been my real-life Lorelai Gilmore. When I’m sick of my friends or the smell of North Philly or classwork, I take a 20-minute train ride to my mom’s apartment to be showered in gluten-free snacks, Keeping Up With The Kardashians references, and new succulent plants. My mom wears clogs non-ironically and can rock a mean pair of cat-eye sunglasses. She is probably the most patient person alive, and has been for the entirety of my life.  This is the first time in my entire life that I’ve established permanent residence more than 20 minutes away from where my mom lives, and let me tell ya, it is hard. I find myself frequently thinking about how lucky I am to have a parent that I miss so horribly. More recently, I’ve been having random flashbacks to things that my mom used to do for me when I was a little kid, like make hot chocolate on snowy days, or feed ducks bread with me in the park, or braid my hair in the mornings before elementary school.

In the United States, I take a lot of things for granted. My apartment building is automatically heated and cooled depending on the temperature outside. If I’m ever out too late somewhere in Philly, I can call Uber to get home almost immediately. My dad will reliably treat me to free Vietnamese food once or twice a month. If I run out of vitamins, deodorant, or almond butter, I can run to Trader Joe’s and reliably pick up the exact products that I want. And- given that time differences are irrelevant- I can call my mom whenever to say hello or pop by for a visit. In New Zealand, everything that I do is so much more calculated. Most foods here are prepared differently than in the US, so I always have to check menus thoroughly before ordering because of allergies. If I’m having a rough day, I have to wait until either late at night or early in the morning to call my friends or family because of the 16 hour time difference. I’m careful not to get sick or break any bones because of international health insurance hassles. I use my favorite Roses’ Lip Balm liberally because there is no Urban Outfitters to stop by in case I run out. A chronic victim of clumsiness, I try to avoid spilling things on the few clothing items that I have here in NZ because I know they’d be expensive to replace.

This might sound stupid, but I hate the string of apathy that follows mass consumerism in the United States. Things that you buy are cheap and disposable, and immediately available when their predecessors are used up or broken. This “buy/throw away/replace” culture makes it so much easier for Americans to devalue personal relationships and belongings. We’re constantly looking for the next best item to buy, or significant other to pursue, or friend to hang out with and we don’t appreciate the things that we already have. Being isolated in New Zealand, far from many of the people and things that I love, has made me truly value the people, things, and experiences that I do have here. I feel like I’m living a much fuller, more valuable existence because I appreciate my life more. My morning cup of coffee is not just a drink, it’s a delicious boost of caffeine that will enhance my mood, help me settle into my morning routine, and taste awesome! My boots are not just boots, they are warm, comfortable foot-hugs that help me to easily traverse the planet! My bag is not just a bag, but a beautiful, leather container that guards my passport and money from the world and keeps my beloved sunglasses safe! So meta, New Zealand!!

That last part may be a joke, but it’s kind of true- for the rest of my life, I want to own, become close with, and seriously value a select number of personal belongings and people. I think that it’s so important to get rid of bad relationships and unnecessary belongings in order to truly value the ones that you need or love. So long are the days of buying 10 pairs of moderately cute and cheap shoes from Buffalo Exchange- I want to own the pair of my dreams, cherish them forever, and wear them to my grave! Goodbye wastefulness and apathy! Hello appreciation and love!

 

 

 

 

A long way from Quito

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17th August: Quito, Ecuador

I am currently sitting in the auditorium of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito listening to an orientation the university has prepared for us. It has been such an intricate adventure getting here and I am still recovering from it all. When I finally arrived at the Quito airport, 24 hours after I was supposed to, Juan Carlos (one of the program coordinators) picked me up and we got on an $8 bus to make our way to the old airport. We drove for about 45 minutes during the sunset through the most beautiful and grand mountain ranges I had ever seen.

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over the river and through the mountains to Quito

“Maybe all the struggles of the last day and a half were worth it for this beautiful view,” I thought to myself as the bus pulled up to the half-abandoned building. That thought was cut short when I was quickly embraced and taken by the arm to an awaiting taxi by a flustered Ecuadorian woman, my host mother.

We arrived to her house and she gave me rice and chicken (a South American staple) while I explained the events that had unfolded over the course of the last two days.

14th August: Philadelphia, United States

It all began on Monday the 14th when I started my day in Philadelphia International Airport at 6 in the morning. I was supposed to have two flights that day, which I didn’t mind much because it was cheaper and I could spend the day mentally preparing for my time abroad.

From PHL I flew to Tampa, and from Tampa I flew to Miami. I arrived in Miami ready to board my flight to Quito, Ecuador and was happy to have an hour to relax before boarding at 2:50. Unfortunately, I would learn shortly that there were different plans for myself and the other ~130 passengers.

The first curve ball that got thrown at us was that there was to be maintenance done on our first plane, so they moved us to a new gate. However, since there were no planes ready to take us where we needed to go, we had to wait a couple hours. I understand that American Airlines doesn’t just have extra planes waiting around to take people to Ecuador on a moment’s notice, so I didn’t let it get to me.

We were supposed to board the flight at 2:50, but were not able to get on the plane until 4:50.  I sat down, ready for my third and final flight to begin when the pilot announced that two people decided to get off and that we would have to wait for their luggage to be removed. I didn’t want to be bothered just yet, so instead of focusing on the setbacks I let myself fall asleep.

I was woken up by screams and flight attendants running up and down the aisle. From the angle my seat was at, I could only see the people crowding around the emergency. At one point, a crew member lifted up a blanket to give the person privacy in whatever was happening, but in my sleepy state, I really thought someone had died and they had to cover a body. Luckily that was not the case, we found out after a short while that one of the crew members was having what appeared to be a seizure or a heart attack.

I had no idea where we were, but I knew we were going to have to land to get the flight attendant to a hospital as soon as possible. We landed around 8:30 pm and learned that the crew member had a heart attack and would be taken to the hospital. We also learned that we were now in Jamaica and, after an hour of decision making, the crew began handing out customs forms. The staff had been aboard that plane since 4 am and due to certain laws, they would not be able to work any longer. We were going to stay the night in Jamaica. We were taken to a hotel near the airport and had to wait in line to get a room. Another setback was that American Airlines did not send a representative with us to help us get our rooms and most of the passengers were Ecuadorian and did not speak English. I finally got a room around 2 am and I had never been as happy to rest in an unfamiliar bed as I did that night.

We got our flight to Quito around noon and I surprisingly felt more prepared to arrive than I did the day before. If I can handle all the setbacks, twists, and turns that my first day had to offer, I feel like I can handle anything. Taking the leap to study abroad is scary and full of surprises, but I am so grateful to be where I am now. All the uncertainty I carried with me seems so irrelevant because I am living, learning, and loving my time in a new culture.

waking up in Montejo Bay, Jamaica


informing my mom that I’m a long way from Quito

What to Expect: Getting in Touch with my Roots

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The weeks leading up to my departure to South Korea filled me with countless emotions. Excitement about living in an entirely different world, apprehension over navigating in a city with a drastically different native language, sadness about leaving the ones close to me, and gratefulness to be able to pursue such an amazing opportunity. Most of all though I felt shock, even though travelling to Seoul had been a long time dream of mine that was months in the making; it felt surreal to me that in a matter of hours I would be embarking on journey of over 6800 miles.

One of the main reasons why I wanted to partake on this journey was to get in touch with my heritage. My mother’s side of the family is originally from Seoul and I have been exposed to Korean culture ever since I was a child. I distinctly remember days spent at my grandparents house eating homemade dumplings, noodles and stews. I always loved spending time with my Korean side of the family, which was fundamentally different from my German/Syrian roots on my dad’s side of the equation. Yet another motivator for my trip was the fact that I never learned how to speak Korean while I was young and as such, could never fully communicate with my grandparents. Starting sophomore year at Temple I began to take the language courses with the hopes of one day being able to have full conversations with my grandparents. To further this goal I decided that fully immersing myself in Seoul would improve my speaking skills considerably.

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Checking in my Luggage at Newark Airport!

I thought that I would seize the opportunity to live abroad while I could and although I felt ill-prepared, before I knew it the planning process of my trip was over with and I was about to depart on the experience of a lifetime! I had only left the United States a few times in my life, once on a brief trip to Canada and once on an extended vacation with my family to the Philippines. Not only did I have limited exposure to foreign countries as a whole but I had also never taken an airplane by myself! I had a long journey ahead of me with two flights resulting in a cumulative 21 hours of flying time. My friends and family gave me the support and courage I needed to make the trip and my course schedule was finalized for my semester at Yonsei University. Suddenly I was at Newark airport with my two bags and checking into my connecting flight to San Francisco. Luckily for me, (and unluckily for my high school teachers) I have always been able to fall asleep quickly so the first six hours of my journey flew by in no time. After a short layover, I was on a significantly longer flight to Incheon National Airport. Even sitting on the plane it felt half like a dream that I was going to be living in an entirely different continent for four months. After watching a few movies and listening to a few albums the plane touched ground and I had made it to my mother’s homeland!

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Immigration at the Incheon International Airport!

Customs and immigration were the first challenges I faced in Korea and luckily for me they went swimmingly. Next, I had to navigate the bus system in order to get to my dorm at Yonsei University. After a long line and awe-inspiring ride to the university I was dropped off at the station next to the university. However, I still managed to get lost and wandered around the foreign environment for the better part of an hour until I found someone who directed me to my residence at SK Global House. Finally, after all the confusion and excitement from my travel I checked into my room. The jet-lag quickly caught up to me and I fell asleep before even meeting my roommate!

Thanks for reading my very first blog! In my next post I will address my first two weeks in Seoul, the friends I made, and the little things that make Korea so distinctly different from the US.

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First sight I saw after getting off the airport bus

What to Expect: Critical Friends

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A friend is someone who will be by your side no matter what; who will stick by you and share pivotal moments of your life with you. A critical friend, however, is one who will offer you their honest opinion and critique, with the goal of helping you grow as an individual. Our professors introduced this term to us during orientation, and encouraged us to remain critical friends to one another throughout this experience. This served as a running theme throughout the program. We were in tight quarters, in an unfamiliar country with a culture we weren’t used to. We’d make mistakes – we just had to trust someone would be there to challenge us to do better. To be better.

During our class, for example, we had to be critical friends. We were there to help each other grow, not to bring each other down. Sometimes people made problematic comments or said things that conflicted with the majority opinion. These unpopular opinions were definitely addressed during class, and conversations often became tense. Having these kinds of conversations about social issues and opposing ideologies can be tough, as there may not actually be a “right answer.” However, what I appreciated most about this program was that it forced us to talk about and think through our differences in ways some people may have otherwise never had the opportunity to.

I was often challenged to be a critical friend, myself. This summer was characterized by evolving dynamics, underlying themes, and layered issues. I found myself being a critical friend to my classmates who made decisions that totally disregarded the people of color in the group; my Jamaican comrades whose ideologies were rooted in gender and racial biases; and even my professors, who allowed their assumptions to dictate how they handled situations.

Sometimes being a critical friend came in group settings, but you’d be surprised how many people actually seek it. Watching some of my classmates truly humble themselves enough to admit they were wrong and seek guidance on how to move forward was one of my biggest takeaways from studying abroad. You see, in class, we talked about the “bystander effect” and how not acting in a situation can be just as bad as being the oppressor. And as difficult as it is to be strong, your actions, or lack thereof, could determine the course of a situation. I began to reflect on my own ability to admit when I was wrong, and realized that in order to be an effective critical friend to others, I had to  be critical of myself.