Making a Space For Myself

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Making a Space For Myself

Last week was a whirl wind of swiping metro cards, deciding which classes to add or drop, and shoes beginning to wear from the journeys around Madrid. When I began this week, I had dreams that it would become like a pattern I didn’t have to think about anymore. However, it is not so. I am still adjusting to my schedule, to commuting abut 30 minutes to school, and spaces between classes.

This week I started an art history class at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. It is my only class that is apart from my program. It is filled with heritage Spanish speakers from Madrid, so being the odd one out felt intimidating. I had missed the first two classes because I added it late, but I was excited. When the class began, I almost burst into tears. The teacher was speaking too fast and I could only pick up a couple of words at a time.

pues…también……la arquitectura…arte….catedral….vale

Lost in the constant and hurried typing of the classmates around me, I sat frozen, trying to even remember how to comprehend what was happening. I felt defeated, but after 30 minutes, I was able to become accustomed, even though I still hasn’t completely figured it out, I felt better. The next class, I talked to some students around me and they helped me. They offered to share notes and my program offered me a tutor for this class so I am content.

My new university is huge. Its very different from the United States. The campus is enormous because every department has their own building and library. Here, when you are in school, you don’t take interdisciplinary courses, you have all your classes in just your major. I’m not sure I would like to have it that way. I think I am very indecisive, but I do think it makes for strong alumni. The campus is covered in graffiti written by the students. Most of it is about or relating to anarchy, communism, or marxism, which I find interesting. img_0111

Although I feel out of place, there is a park near the school that I get to walk through for my ceramics class. It is huge and covered in trees with little rivers and creeks that run through it. There are always dogs in the park running, and playing. As I walk through the park, I find myself feeling mentally and physically somewhere where I belong. It reminds me of the hikes I take with my dog on the Wissahickon train behind my parents house. Maybe, I do not have a space waiting for me here— that someone was waiting for me to fill, but I have realized that I can make space for myself. I can find spaces where I can stretch my legs as far as they can go, and find places where I do not feel ashamed about not being completely fluent and looking different from most people here.

I’m more than elated to work on making more space for myself here and growing confidence.

Same Deal, New Details

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Same Deal, New Details

Becoming more accustomed to Madrid, interestingly enough, has involved a lot more of people watching than I thought it would. Yes, I visited Madrid in 2013 with my high school class, and so I thought I knew Madrid a little bit, but I am experiencing so much more. I am taking the metro consistently, I have more freedom, and now I am seeing the city and people in a new light.

Madrileños— as they call themselves have interesting habits, that are not technically bad…but very different culturally. The people in the city don’t walk with as much speed as I would wish and everyone seems to be obsessed with barbecue sauce and mayonnaise— both of which I don’t particularly care for. I have been stared at and talked (audibly) about on the metro too many times to count and am finding it hard not to yell at everyone who brushes past me in the subway without pardoning themselves or asking me to move. That is the Spanish way. People are more frank, walk slowly, and think that saying “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me,” are a waste of time and unnecessary. I am finding it a bit harder this time to adjust as I notice more behaviors that are very culturally different from what I am used to seeing in Philadelphia.

Thankfully, I was able to find some familiarity in my friends who I met during my high school exchange program in 2013. When we met up in Madrid, I don’t think I had ever smiled so hard. We had so much to catch up on and tell each other. We would just randomly look into each others eyes and hug time and time again, laughing about nothing and how we remember each other a few years ago. The blood flushed to our cheeks as we ran across intersections to get tapas and tinto de verano. And this time when we went our separate ways on the metro it was an hasta pronto instead of an adios!

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The weekend was a never ending loop of walking around Plaza de España at 11 pm, tapas, friends, and hours on the metro. School began this week and as the last drops of summer vacation vanished as I pushed myself into the crowded metro at 8 am on Monday. I faintly remembered what it felt like to start Fall Semester with grass stains and tan lines, but this time it was different and those regular faces I would see on the first week of becoming accustomed to beginning classes weren’t there. I was relieved, but also anxious that those faces wouldn’t be there to assure me that this was real and not a dream. I still feel like I’m floating a little bit and have yet to find a grounding point that makes me believe that where I am is real and not fiction.

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Little things are becoming more real to me, but every night when I go to sleep, I feel like I am going to wake up to the sound of the neighbors having a block party and reminding me about being safe at night. Those familiarities stick to my mind like syrup as I watch strangers pass me and bump into me in the metro station. But through the bustle, I slightly smile at my feet— feeling more and more every day like I’m finding my footing.

First week so far… (Buenos Aires)

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img_3220I was pretty nervous to fly out of JFK airport to Buenos Aires Sunday night. I would not consider myself an experienced traveller and the only time I really travelled out of the country was to Greece, and the flight back from Athens to Philadelphia was a nightmare. So mentally preparing myself for the flight was most definitely a challenge. Thankfully two hours into the flight and after three consecutive Tavis Smiley podcasts, I fell asleep for a couple of hours and finally arrived to Buenos Aires in the morning. We took a bus from the airport to a hotel where we’d be staying for the first two days. The Hotel is conveniently located on the corner of a major intersection in the center of Buenos Aires. It was built in 1978 in preparation for the World Cup.  Argentina at the time was under a military dictatorship that was ushered in by a military coup backed by the United States. Developers were given loans by the government to build the hotel. Fast forward to 2001, the loans were never paid back to the government and the Hotel was abandoned. The workers at the Hotel Bauen feared they wouldn’t be able to find work especially since in 2001 Argentina was going through one of the worst economic crises in the nation’s history. The workers occupied the Hotel and with the support of a variety of organizing collectives were eventually recognized as a cooperative by the Argentinian government. We met with the vice president of the cooperative who gave us a lecture on the history of the Hotel, the workers movement to occupy the Hotel and the symbolic meaning of the workers resistance. He said that the Hotel Bauen was linked to a specific class of people in Argentina: the elite, the wealthy. The workers at the Hotel took something much more important than just the structure and business of the hotel; they took their symbol of class and power. First two days in Argentina and I was amped!!!

Equally as exciting, I met my homestay family on the third day. I’m staying in a nice apartment a few blocks from the Hotel and about a fifteen minute walk from where my classes are held. My homestay mother picked me up along with a fellow classmate on the program and walked us to her apartment. On the walk to the apartment we ran into her husband and their dog, Kenzo. After getting settled in, my homestay father, roommate and I went out to find a wine opener in the city. On the way we talked about family and school, about the European influenced architecture all over Buenos Aires (it really is beautiful!!) and finally found the perfect wine opener for 35 pesos. Just to make sure we got the right deal, my homestay father checked into four other shops to compare prices. He was quite funny, talking to everyone in the stores and on the streets. It made me miss my grandfather, who shares the same charm and attitude towards strangers. I am forcing myself to learn Spanish because it is quite necessary both in the streets and bars of Buenos Aires, but also in my homestay. I do have two phrases down though. My first one “Que Paso Kenzo??” or “What’s up Kenzo?” My homestay mother finds it funny, so I keep doing it especially around her. The other one is “Puedo tener cafe, por favor?” or “Can I have coffee, please?”  which I ask my homestay mother in the morning where my roommate and I sit at the table as she cooks toast and listens to tango music. Those have been the moments I look forward to every day!

 

 

First week in NYC (Preparing to leave the country)

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img_3267It has been ten days since I’ve been in New York City!

 

My mother and sister drove me up to Long Island City on the 21st, where the launch of my study abroad program began. There were numerous hurdles we had to jump; my mother’s anxieties of driving in NYC, my sister’s poor navigation skills (we got lost numerous times) and how I had to go to the bathroom the whole drive through the Holland Tunnel. Despite some bickering, I was able to have a heartfelt goodbye with my mother and sister, who, along with the rest of my family and friends, I will miss very much.

As with all things new, I took some time to get acclimated to my new surroundings. First and foremost, I sleep on the top bunk of a bunk bed, something I haven’t done in a while. Travelling to class I take the subway, which dwarfs Philadelphia’s subway system. You’ve got the A train, the seven train, the R train, you’ve got this train and that train! So many damn trains!

It has also been hard getting back into the rhythm of going to class. We are in sessions from 9am to 5pm Monday thru Friday. We do workshops, have discussions and also go out into various neighborhoods in New York City to do field work. Last week, a group and I went out to Jamaica Queens to meet with a woman who worked to improve business development in the area. The focus of her work was to attract businesses to Jamaica Queens in hopes to build up the economy. How this actually plays out is a different story. This model, known as gentrification, is similar to how many other cities, like Philadelphia, have taken on to address the need for economic development. The reality of most of these business development plans are that they seek to attract outside people; tourists, businesses to name a few, which will ultimately displace residents who have lived in the community for generations. The way people have responded to these issues in a number of ways. One in particular is they have created alternative or informal economies themselves. I learned about a bus service that travels the city bus routes but instead of charging 2.75 each way they charge a dollar. People in the community said that the dollar buses were much more reliable than the city buses! There are definitely problems with informal economies; how workers are treated, represented, whether or not such economies can provide a living, but it is always interesting when people take matters into their own hands and address the issues in their community in innovative ways.

This post may be unusual for a “study abroad” blog, especially one entitled “kyleintheglobalsouth.” NYC is fitting though.

A fellow classmate made an interesting comment about NYC today in a seminar. The “international city” with bright lights that we all love, is romanticized by many. “The Greatest City in the WORLD!!” This romanticizing of NYC marginalizes the experiences of many that are isolated in impoverished housing projects or pushed out to the periphery of city limits. We tend to equate the global south with developing countries, where ills of poverty are realities for most. What does it say about the United States when our “greatest city” is home to such realities?

Although I am more than excited to fly to Buenos Aires on Saturday, I think it has been good to reflect on both the US and NYC in particular. Seeing the reality of NYC, a reality shared by many other American cities, reaffirms the need for the struggles of those in the United States to be put into a global context.  Police violence, gentrification, racial discrimination and economic violence are not merely civil rights issues, but human rights issues. These issues are here in America; alive and well.

Yonsei University

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In South Korea, education is very important and it’s a very serious matter here. Students are always striving to reach the top and to perform the best he or she can in order to stay one step ahead of his or her peers.

When it comes to college, students and their parents usually have the best in mind. Namely, SKY is an acronym used to refer to the three most prestigious universities in South Korea: Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University. Admission into one of these universities is widely considered as determining one’s career and social status. Many influential lawyers, doctors, politicians, engineers, professors have graduated from one of the SKY universities.

Needless to say, I feel very honored and proud to be able to attend Yonsei University as an exchange student. The atmosphere here is quite intense because everyone is very studious. It’s not an odd thing to find someone reading or taking notes on the elevator or while walking to his or her next class.

Everyone here takes education very seriously and nothing should be taken with a grain of salt. The professors hold their students to a high standard and expect the best performance out of everyone. Knowing that, I feel very encouraged to always do my best because I know I am capable of doing so.

Yonsei is academically vigorous but its beautiful campus makes it worth it. I never expected the school to have such a big campus considering it is a private university in such a small and compact country. But because the school is surrounded by so many hills and forests, many of the buildings require great leg work and stamina during the ten minute transition period between classes.

But at least during those ten minutes, you are given a great and picturesque setting as your everyday view.

Although it is the second week of classes, I still don’t feel like a student yet. Maybe it’s because I am still in the transitioning phase but I hope that I will make it there in one piece. It’s as if my mind and body are in two completely different places. Other than that, classes here are quite similar to the ones back home.

As an accounting and finance student, the Business school here along with the classes are very competitive just like the ones back at Temple’s Fox School. I am surely happy that Fox was able to prepare me because I feel as though I’m sitting in another one of my BA classes. But as for those in other majors, I’m sorry that I can’t really give any insight on how any of the other classes are.

Now that the add & drop period is over, final class schedules are set and soon enough, everyone will be buried in their books studying away at the library or a quiet cafe. For sure that is going to be me! But with so many things to look forward too, its good to study and be a good student but also make some time for yourself to relax and unwind as well!

 

First Week In Seoul

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It’s only been a week since I’ve arrived in Seoul and I feel like its been months already. Needless to say, I’m happy I packed a pair of comfortable shoes with me. Because all I did was walk. Literally, I walked everywhere.

After landing and getting settled at Yonsei University and the dorms, my roommate and I went ahead and decided to explore the neighborhood. Apparently, in Korea, the small convenient stores are THE go to places for late night craving and snacks. I was able to grab a big oversized bottle of water and three big bowls of ramen for under $2. And the best part about stopping at these convenient stores is that you can eat your cup of ramen right then and there.

They have hot water dispensers in the store for you to make your ramen and a seating area right outside of the store. This was definitely something new to me. If our convenient stores did this back in the states, wouldn’t it be very nice and convenient.

But aside from the amazing convenient stores, Seoul is the epitome of shops both clothing and food wise. With the amazing transportation system, its so easy to get from one place to another. But be warned, the subway is always crowded. Even at the wake of morning, the train is full of people heading to work or just ready to go out and about.

To have so many places to go within such short distances is surely very new to me. But its also goes to show you how small and compact Seoul is. Even if you don’t know a tiny bit of Korean, the local residents are so nice and are willing to help you if you ask. From what I could tell, Koreans are very shy and won’t approach you first. In fact, they are more scared of speaking English incorrectly and so they choose not to engage at all. But if you’re willing to take that extra step and try to start a conversation, you can really meet amazing and super sweet people along the way.

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Overall, the first week of Seoul is surely an experience I will never forget. Aside from the usual tourist attraction, the culture itself is truly one of a kind. Everywhere you turn, there are couples. And you may think that couples in one country is most likely the same in other countries. Well, that’s not the case here in South Korea. Apparently, couple outfits are a big thing here. It’s not everyday you see two young people walking arm in arm matching from head to toe. But I guess its more so towards the younger generation since they pay more attention to the trends happenings nowadays.

Other than that, theres still so much more to do and see around Seoul. With cafes and shops lines up on every street and alley way, South Korea is truly a destination that an traveler should consider coming too. If you don’t want to come for the fashion and clothes, at least come for the amazing young and lively atmosphere! You surely won’t regret it!

 

From Spain, With Love

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From Spain, With Love

After spending my last evening eating Chinese food and watching television with my family, I grew incredibly anxious and upset— knowing I would dearly miss my parents, siblings, and dog. I hugged my mother tight before I went to sleep and silently cried thinking about all the memories I would miss while away. I was scared.

Yet, the next morning when I woke up, I felt completely ready to go. In New York’s JFK airport, it was my mother crying instead of me as I waved goodbye to them behind the security line.

Hours later, when the plane landed in Madrid, I sniffled softly to myself and took a deep breath— knowing I had made the right decision. On Monday, all the students met at the Marriott Princessa which is a very historic hotel in Madrid. I was excited and for the day and a half that we stayed there, I was already able to meet people from my program who I found to be interesting and could talk to.

On Tuesday afternoon, I finally was able to meet my host mother with my flatmate, Becca. Pilar and her daughter, Belen, greeted us with two besos before we got into the car to see our new home. On the car ride, I already knew that it was going to be a perfect match between all of us. We had so much in common and I could tell that Pilar really cares for the students that enter her household. After organizing our rooms for an hour or so and resting, we had a great lunch with Pilar, Belen, and Pilar’s 25 year old grandson—Pablo.

The orientations have been focusing on various aspects such as cultural differences/shock, how to behave in a Spanish home, drinking safely in Spain (the drinking age here is 18), safety in the metro, sexual assault, and academics. The activities have been fun yet educational and usually the program members giving us information are very animated and patient with is.

Orientation with the program has been very informational, but also tiring. I wish we had a bit more free time upon arriving. As soon as I get home from learning about all of these topics, I just want to go to sleep. Not only because it is 6 or so hours of information after taking such a long and exhausting flight, but because it is all in Spanish and it is a little hard getting accustomed to listening to Spanish and speaking it at all hours of the day. It does have its perks through because I have already learned so much and I feel happy because many of the señoras and students have told me that I speak very well — almost like a native!

I am very content here, although I do miss my mom and my dog. However, I got to see my long time friend Kaitlin who is also studying abroad in Madrid this semester. It made me feel so much better to talk to someone really familiar.

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Kaitlin

 

The metro is amazingly easy to commute to school with, Becca and I get along very well, Pilar is very kind, and I like my cohorts. I am excited to begin classes, but I have to wait until next week to finalize them and begin to take them.

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The metro

Although I may struggle at some point with missing home or with academics, I know that this semester will only provide me with great educational opportunities, memories to last a lifetime, and friends I will always be able to talk to!

My Natural Comfort Zone

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IMG_1495Did I mention in my last blog post that I’m from Philadelphia? Well, I am. Born and bred.

I’m pretty proud of my city. I love a lot of the comfort that comes with living in Philadelphia my whole life. Navigating the city is a piece of cake. The buildings are familiar to my eyes. Graffiti covered buildings are typical. I don’t look twice at the abandoned factories. SEPTA takes me from my home to my church to my jobs. I have a favorite mural, water ice place, and park. When I walk through center city, I have accepted that I will always run into someone I know. Philadelphia is beautiful to look at from far away, but as I walk the streets I am faced with the inequality, the litter and the smells that come with summer heat. I love the city I left behind. I miss it every day, but Cape Town has so much to offer me.

Cape Town is nothing like Philadelphia. I’ve been here for two months now and I am not super confident I could navigate most of the city. I get lost in the same areas. I wander down the same streets. I still am not sure what the fastest way into town is. It is so much larger than my home city. When I ride down Nelson Mandela Boulevard and I look over the city it puts the skyline of Philadelphia to shame. There are almost four million people living here. Compare that to Philadelphia’s one and a half million people. Cape Town is surrounded by mountains and ocean. I spend a lot less time in the City Center than I did in Philadelphia because it is so far away. I spend a lot more time climbing mountains and on the beach, which are not as accessible at home.

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I did not choose Cape Town for its mountains and beaches. Despite what you see in the picture above, I don’t love being out in nature. Trees make my eyes water and I can’t swim all that well. I find that is a part of why I love being in an urban environment. Most of my peers chose to study in Cape Town because of the outdoor activities. They are excited to bungee jump, to go on safaris, and to hike Table Mountain. I did not plan on enjoying those experiences, but I have. This semester has begun with more hikes than I’ve ever done in my life. My daily life no longer consists of streets of high rises, factories and Philadelphia’s familiarity. Cape Town has challenged me to quite literally climb mountains. I now begin some of my days with a hike, most of my days with an hour-long bus ride to school, and all of my days with the understanding that I will experience something unfamiliarly new. I chose Cape Town to study history at the University of the Western Cape, but the last few weeks I have been consistently challenged by how different this city is from Philadelphia.

Pre-Departure: Madrid, Spain

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Pre-Departure: Madrid, Spain

As I prepare to leave it all behind—the city I have known for so long, the people I know and love, and the memories I have made here —I cringe slightly. Anxieties and fears consume my thoughts. How do I find the will leave somewhere I have grown up for someplace completely unknown? How do I find peace about not seeing my family and friends for months? Who will I be when I come back?

I ask these questions as if my parents did not pack every small remnant of our belongings from Liberia into a small suitcase and come to the United States. I ask as if leaving the land that raised them— where they forged relationships, had a child, and had family was not stripped—unwarranted— from their hands by the Liberian Civil War. And I ask like the culture shock was almost unbearable at first, and that adaptation was necessary for survival.

I, young and unimpressionable at three years old, remember none of this. I fit in quickly, lost my accent, and forgot all those I loved four thousand miles and an ocean away. So as I look forward to travelling to Madrid in the fall, I realize I have no experience like this to fall back on and that makes me scared. I am scared to miss my friends and make new ones. I am scared to speak Spanish and embarrass myself. I am scared to leave something behind.

But I meditate on the fact that people do this everyday, for no matter how long or how strenuous the situation. We all leave where we are comfortable because comfort doesn’t ever manifest change or helps us grow, but only aids us in staying in the same place we have been before.

In the show, How I Met Your Mother, the main protagonist and the narrator—Ted Mosby— says, “If you’re not scared then you’re not taking a chance. If you’re not taking a chance, then what the hell are you doing anyway?” This could be nothing more than a chance, but one full of many benefits. This is a chance to globalize my mind and knowledge of the Spanish history and language. If I don’t take this chance, I fear even more than leaving everyone, that I will regret it forever. I will regret not making memories that will last a lifetime and adding this experience to my resume. The opportunities that lie within studying abroad in the Fall are endless and that prospect excites me.

Although I’m still very fearful, I have come to terms that this experience can only exist to benefit me and the others around me— to open my mind and realize there are histories, politics, and cultures that I have never been exposed to, but exist for me and others to learn from. So now as I prepare to leave it all behind, an inherent fear still lingers, but now it’s coupled with the excitement and passion I know will make it worthwhile. The dust has been cleared from the small suitcase, but this time I am prepared to pack my own remnants and leave some things behind— even if it’s just for a semester.

Pre-Departure: Seoul, South Korea

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(Source: http://duhoctantien.com/library/module_new/du-hoc-han-quoc-cung-truong-cua-luhan-exo—yonsei-university_s810.jpg)

When I first decided that I wanted to study aboard in Seoul, South Korea at Yonsei University, I really didn’t take my own words seriously. I always dreamed about living in another country and experiencing life through someone else’s eyes. But I never thought that I could ever commit to such a big deal because I didn’t believe that it could be possible. I never really had the opportunity to step outside of my own comfort zone before. But as my departure day gets closer, it’s all starting to sink in.

Growing up in a family of Cambodian immigrants, I had the opportunity to experience my own native culture through my parents and family. But being born here has exposed me to the American culture as well. Now, my household is a mixture of Cambodian and American values. It’s interesting to say the least but coming from a different background has allowed me to be more open in terms of culture. So when I’m studying abroad in South Korea, I know that I’m going to soak in the culture very quickly because everything is new and exciting.

Going through the process of the application, getting a passport and gathering all the necessary documents really put things into perspective. I was able to plan ahead and look into the future for just a bit. I was picturing myself where I would be 6 months from now. And it was a real eye opener; this is going to be my first time out of the country let alone my first time on a plane and I’m already a nervous wreck just thinking about it. I have already set up so many high expectations and goals that I want to reach while I’m abroad and I hope I meet them while I’m there.

Just thinking about myself being away from home for so long gets me both nervous but excited at the same time. It’s going to be an opportunity for me to face the real world, hands on. I can either make it or break it. But if I don’t try at all, I’m going to fall and never get up. I want to try and gain experiences. It will help me become a better person and become more well prepared when I truly graduate and head out into the work field.

For me, I see this as a great opportunity knocking at my door and I’m going to do everything that I can to take it. Being a student abroad opens so many great doors but most importantly, I’m able to open my eyes to a world bigger than the one I already know. The struggles that I face everyday maybe different to the next person. But I’m willing to learn from their choices and actions and take notes. I can learn from them and use their lifestyles and ways to help build more opportunities for myself.

The experience of studying abroad is unique to each person and I want to be able to tell my kids one day about it.