Travel Nerves and Goals for a Summer in Paris

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Tomorrow, I’m flying across the ocean to live with a stranger for six weeks while taking a 3000-level French class in Paris, France.

Holy crêpes.

To calm my nerves, I’m reminding myself that I’ve taken French since 7th grade, and took French class during each of my two semesters at Temple. I even got to go to France in high school, for just over a week. I’m better prepared than lots of people who choose to study abroad! But still, something tells me that studying the language in Paris will be quite different from the last six years I’ve spent studying it in the US, and this trip will be nothing like my first.

Welcome to my blog, friends and strangers. And welcome, very soon, to Paris!

Getting Ready

Up until a few days ago my French adventure seemed to be far away in the distant future. Suddenly, I realized I was only days from departure and had a LOT to do. So for my first post, a little advice to aspiring students abroad.

I have discovered the importance of doing all the prep stuff in advance. When I went to pick up the prescriptions I will need for my trip, I was informed that although my doctor had approved me to pick up an extra refill, my insurance had not. I learned that a whole big process was required to get that approval, a process for which I no longer had time. Instead, I’m spending money on medicine which I could have spent on delicious breads and cheeses in Paris. Learn from my mistakes and sort out the important stuff way ahead of time!

Packing for this kind of trip is weird; it’s not a vacation for a few days, but it’s also not an entire semester. So what I did was divide the length of my stay (six weeks) by the number of times I expect to wash my clothes (twice) which means everything I bring can be worn three times total. Thus, I have packed clothing sufficient for a two week trip.

You wouldn’t guess it from seeing my messy room, but I love to organize and pack. For my checked bag, I’m using an old suitcase with some glorious floral print that will really stand out on the luggage carousel.

Stylish, n'est-ce pas?

Stylish, n’est-ce pas?

One huge help to me while packing has been the TSA’s “Can I Bring…?” tool, on their website. You can search for pretty much any item and it will tell you whether you can bring it and any special rules. For example, did you know that lip gloss does not count as a liquid? That you can take a pencil sharpener through security? Now you know.

It’s not my first time traveling by myself, but I will be landing in another country alone for the first time. I’ll be honest: I’m pretty freaked out right now. But at the same time, I’m so excited I can’t come close to explaining it in words. Luckily I learned a lot about myself during my first year of college, and I know how to manage the nerves I’m feeling. When I get scared, and my stomach starts to feel funny, I can take some deep breaths and have a ginger candy. And with that simple fix, I’m excited and feeling good again.

Before I Even Get There…

I’m nervous about le métro. In Philly, the lines make sense. The Broad Street Line goes north and south beneath Broad Street. Duh. The Market-Frankford line goes east to west and crosses the BSL in the middle. Welp, the Paris Métro system is NOTHING like that. The 13 different lines snake around the city, criss-crossing and turning all over the place. Just planning my journey from the airport to my host’s home involves a bus, a train station, and a métro. What do these people have against the grid system?!?

LOL WHAT IS GOING ON?

LOL WHAT IS GOING ON?

Fortunately, I have a tiny map of the city (including métro lines!) that I can carry everywhere.  And as I figure out this silly snaking train system, I’ll let you know of any pattern or logic I discover.

This is going to be a challenge, an adventure, and just an incredible experience, and I hope you’ll follow along and experience it with me! My next post will come straight from the City of Lights, and I’ll be sharing some initial realizations of differences between PA and Paris.

Bonne journée!

Big Ben Beckons: Preparing to Travel to London

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And so it begins—airfare, luggage and passports, oh my. Preparing to study abroad doesn’t even seem real. I’ve only ever traveled a few times in my life, but never for this long, and while I am beyond excited, I am also incredibly nervous. I mean, I believe I can fly [I believe I can touch the sky], but boarding an airplane completely on my own? I never thought the day would come. Little ol’ me—5′ 2″ and barely 100 lbs—carrying a suitcase half my weight and then some. It won’t be easy, but it will be an adventure.

Already I have learned that, even another English-speaking country can be worlds away culturally, linguistically, and socially. I have heard that escalator etiquette is extremely vital, lemonade is actually Sprite, and that I shouldn’t try black pudding because “It’s not chocolate! It’s made with blood!” Thank you Aunt Miriam.

Honestly though, I am so passionate and excited about this trip. I am eager to try new things and to experience a new culture and landscape. From what I have seen—whether it be through Instagram or Google images, London is an incredible city. It is a destination with iconic landmarks and secret getaways. Where people thrive and make memories, and where so much history has taken place.

I cannot wait to absorb that history—to find hidden wonders and to make that beautiful city mine. I cannot wait to explore an entirely new environment and to become a part of it. I mean, how many people get to say that they lived in a different country. I know it is only for a short period of time, but it is still so real and new and exciting. Plus, where better to study British Literature than at its source?

As Advertising is one of my majors, I am also eager to observe British media first hand rather than through the internet and textbooks. In my personal opinion, the United Kingdom has come up with some of the most inspiring and unfiltered existing concepts and campaigns. There is just something so raw about Europe. Perhaps it is because it is an older and wiser region, or perhaps it is due to its unique political system. Either way, it has the power to inspire.

I expect nothing less than to be inspired. I expect to feel differently about certain cultures and to change my opinion about specific politics. I expect to learn a world of history about a country that shaped the entire world. I am still in shock that I have been provided the chance to feel any of this—to plan any of this. I am so blessed and I only hope to share this incredible opportunity with the rest of the world.

Let me share this with you.

This suitcase is nearly half my weight.

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Just a few of the many things I need to get started on my journey.

How To: Enter a Temple

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In this post, I’ll explain the tradition of entering an Indian temple. First of all, there innumerable temples in India, ranging in faith from Hindu to Jain to Panjabi Krishna and more. Each temple is dedicated to a different God or Goddess. For example, there is a temple in Dhrangadhra (the town in which we are living) dedicated to the Goddess of wealth. We have also visited temples that are specifically created for people to pray when they are in need of certain things. For example, we went to a temple in Modhera dedicated to  children with learning disabilities and those who are transgendered.

Here is how you are supposed to enter a temple:

Before you enter, some general guidelines to keep in mind

*Make sure you are wearing appropriate clothing (i.e. shoulders and chest covered for women, along with pants/skirts/dress that lay well passed your knees and males wear any shirt and pant combo)

*Ask if you are allowed to take pictures before you actually take them!

*If you are a woman who is menstruating, do not enter the temple out of respect for tradition

And the official steps

  1. Take off your shoes.
  2. If there is a bell, you can ring it to symbolize that you are there for the God or Goddesses to hear.
  3. Bend down to touch the bottom of the temple entrance with your right hand.
  4. Take that same hand and touch your heart, and then motion over your face, and then head, like you are pushing your hair back in the air. This signifies that your prayer comes from your heart and all of your body.
  5. Enter temple.
  6. Walk up to the idol in the center of the temple.
  7. Bow down on your knees and recite prayer.
  8. Receive the chandla and the Prasad piece of candy or fruit that the priest gives you to eat, as a thank you for showing your praise to the God or Goddess.
  9. Retreat away from the center of the temple, making sure not to turn your back to the God or Goddess.
  10. Sit for at least one minute in the temple to show the God or Goddess that you are not simply there to ask for something. You have to show respect to the God.

I have also noticed that there are many holidays in India, or days to remember past events and history. Apparently, praying on these various days is like going through a portal and instantly getting to the event thousands of years previous. Pretty neat concept, right?

Here are a few of the highlight temples that we have visited:

Nal Sarovar, Gujarat-Nal Sarovar Burd Sanctuary: Mainly inhabited by migratory birds in winter and spring, it is the largest wetland bird sanctuary in Gujarat, and one of the largest in India.  We stopped to look around, climb the stairs and enter the Temple!

Nal Sarovar, Gujarat-Nal Sarovar Burd Sanctuary: Mainly inhabited by migratory birds in winter and spring, it is the largest wetland bird sanctuary in Gujarat, and one of the largest in India. We stopped to look around, climb the stairs and enter the Temple!

Upon entering the Temple at the sanctuary, we were immediately offered the customary chai (tea).

Upon entering the Temple at the sanctuary, we were immediately offered the customary chai (tea).

Modhera, Gujarat-The temple dedicated to children with disabilities and those who are transgendered.

Modhera, Gujarat-The temple dedicated to children with disabilities and those who are transgendered.

Modhera Sun Temple!  The Sun Temple, Modhera, at Modhera in Gujarat, is a temple dedicated to the Hindu Sun-God, Surya.  It was built in 1026 AD by King Bhimdev of the Solanki dynasty.

Modhera Sun Temple! The Sun Temple, Modhera, at Modhera in Gujarat, is a temple dedicated to the Hindu Sun-God, Surya. It was built in 1026 AD by King Bhimdev of the Solanki dynasty.

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A panorama of the beautiful Sun Temple.

The walls and columns inside are carved with elaborate depictions of Hindu stories and poses found in the kama sutra.  Indians are meant to come to this temple to learn about sex.

The walls and columns inside are carved with elaborate depictions of Hindu stories and poses found in the kama sutra. Indians are meant to come to this temple to learn about sex.

Tourist picture on the side of the Sun Temple!

Tourist picture on the side of the Sun Temple!

Temple in Patri, Gujarat!  Vibrant colors make this temple look like candy land.

Temple in Patri, Gujarat! Vibrant colors make this temple look like candy land.

A Temple right on our own backyard of Dhrangadhra.  No women were allowed in this Temple as it is part of a Hindu school where boys are taught how to live.

A temple right on our own backyard of Dhrangadhra. No women were allowed in this Temple as it is part of a Hindu school where boys are taught how to live a pure life.  It was a gorgeous temple, full with beautiful music, lights, and decorations.

Temples come in all sizes and shapes.  This Temple was in front of one of the local women's houses!

Temples come in all sizes and shapes. This temple was in front of one of the local woman’s houses!

Lights, Camera, Action!

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Indians definitely know how to party! We had the privilege of attending a wedding early last week. One thing was made clear after attending this celebration–the fascination with our differentness. Everywhere we travel, as a group of Americans, we are stopped, stared at, and photographed. At first uncomfortable and awkward, I have grown accustomed to it and it is something I have come to embrace. It is funny how we are recognized from a mile away; and it is easy to get annoyed when 30 people are gathered around, pointing and speaking about you in a language you cannot understand. It is the first time many people in this small, rural village have ever seen an “other” and we stand out with our language and variations in skin color, eye color, and hair types. They are fascinated, engrossed and captivated by our every move. The translators, guards and locals helping on the trip have told us that we are the equivalent of celebrities, which is hard for us to conceptualize. When we go on trips to local events, even the wedding and other celebrations, people are watching us and photographing us instead of the main event, which is hard to accept.

A bunch of spectators, waiting for us to take their pictures and shake our hands.

A bunch of spectators, waiting for us to take their pictures and shake our hands.

The wedding was unlike anything I have ever experienced. First of all, it was enormous, E-NOR-MOUS! Imagine about 2,000-3,000 of your friends, family, and village (basically the entirety of the small, rural Indian town). Now, imagine an energetic singer, complete with a band on a stage, giant speakers, and the sounds of never ending Indian dancing music. The women, of all ages, are decked out in their most elaborate sarees full of vibrant colors, jewels, and glitter. The men were mostly dressed in button downs or white pants and a matching shirt.

The stage, complete with dancers, singers, and some members of our group!

The stage, complete with dancers, singers, and some members of our group!

In India, the wedding families host a three-day to week-long celebration in honor of the wedding. The night we attended was the first of the series. It was a large ground that was covered with plastic drapes, complete with a makeshift fence, stage, waterfall, decorations and lights. With music blasting, people dancing, and the general commotion that one could imagine with attending an event of this size, it still bewilders me that almost all activity was halted upon our arrival. Within seconds, it was as if we had a large flashing sign over heads saying “foreigners here!” and instantly hundreds of people were staring, coming to watch us, surround us and take pictures. They all wanted to take pictures, hold our hands, and simply watch us.

The entrance to the wedding, complete with a fountain.

The entrance to the wedding, complete with a fountain.

There were local newspapers following us around, wanting us to partake and dance and smile for photos. We were thrown into the “garba” line. aka dancing circle. A handful of us, myself included, jumped into the line, embarrassing ourselves to no end. We danced and danced, trying to learn the wedding garba steps from watching the other women and men, but more practice is always needed.

When the women needed a break from dancing, they sat together to rest!

When the women needed a break from dancing, they sat together to rest!

I remember looking up and trying to remove myself as an active partaker and try to see what was going on around me. It looked like a middle school dance. Boys were dancing with each other, making their own garba circle, and the girls were in their own circle creating a larger concentric circle around them and the entirety of the wedding celebration.

Garba circle!

Garba circle!

Weddings in India last until people stop dancing. This means that weddings can go on well into the morning. The bride left the wedding around 1am, but the wedding commenced. We left around 2 am, and there were still hundreds of people celebrating!

Zhenya, Alexa (me), Francesca, Peter, and Lauren at the wedding, dressed in traditional garb.

Zhenya, Alexa (me), Francesca, Peter, and Lauren at the wedding, dressed in traditional garb.

Arrival And Revival: First Impressions

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Today is my third day in India, and I have already done so much!   There is a mixture of undergraduate students, graduate students, professors, translators from the Gujarati community, relatives of Dr. Jhala, occasional special visitors, and the staff at the palace (will explain this in the next blog). Dr. Jhala (Prince of Dhrangadhra) who all of us on the trip call “Bapa,” which is an endearing nickname for grandfather, has made sure that we are keeping busy with trips to the market, getting mehndi (henna), astrological sign readings, trips to town and local shops, desert trips, yoga, music and dance classes, and also attending an Indian wedding. I’d first like to reflect on the initial impressions after setting foot on Indian soil. Since the trip to India took about 3 days from start to finish (including a nine hour layover in Dubai) it is safe to say the long trip has definitely been made worth it with the experiences I have gained already.

Ahmedabad International Airport 3am-the majority of the student group is collected at the airport to be taken back to the palace.  The majority of us are exhausted, and a bit delirious, yet ecstatic to finally be in India!

Ahmedabad International Airport 3am-the majority of the student group is collected at the airport to be taken back to the palace. The majority of us are exhausted, and a bit delirious, yet ecstatic to finally be in India!

Trials and Triumphs: Week One

The heat is going to take a lot to get used to! It has been averaging about 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and it is only supposed to get hotter as the trip continues. The heat, along with the fact that there is basically no air conditioning anywhere, means that you have to either 1. Adjust, or 2. Adjust faster.   It’s day three and I have already accepted that I will never not be sweating. However, with this I have already learned that by eating and drinking hot/spicy foods you cool yourself off, which is the reason why Indian food is inherently spicy and Indians drink hot chai. Americans have the presumption that chai is a type of tea (“chai tea latte”), however chai just means “tea” in Indian languages. Other types of tea are not served often at all, unless you are wealthy or staying in a hotel.

Arrival to the palace!  This is the only room in the whole palace/town that is air-conditioned.  Each room is shared by only one other person, and has an attached bathroom/shower.

Arrival to the palace! This is the only room in the whole palace/town that is air-conditioned. Each room is shared by only one other person, and has an attached bathroom/shower.

Toilets. While in the palace there are more Westernized toilets–everywhere else has Indian toilets, AKA holes in the ground and sometimes a hose and small cup to wash yourself off with. While I have learned that it is essential to carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer with me at all times, I have also decided that using these Indian toilets will be a great way to get a leg workout! Optimism!

A typical toilet found in India.

A typical toilet found in India.

Driving through India, through the essentially unregulated roads, has given me numerous life lessons and is what I will focus on for the rest of this post.  Since the moment I stepped out of the Ahmedabad International Airport, all of my former perceptions of what India would look like instantly disappeared. In my head, the caste system in India meant that there would be super wealthy areas that would appear westernized, and then the poorer populations who would be living in makeshift hut-type houses. To my surprise as I walked toward the parking lot of the airport, stray dogs and people were congregating in masses lounging on the ground (mind you it was about 3am and still about 90 degrees Fahrenheit). Not what I was expecting!

This video captures the essence of driving in India. (Credit Robert Frohman)

Maybe I can take a hint from the Indian use of the horn. I can compare the Indian use of honking to my drive to learn whilst here. While driving, the horn is a communicator to others on or near the road. When everything is going well, you beep and advance flawlessly, smoothly, and without trouble. However, when the horn fails and the other drivers on the road do not take proper action, you have to back off, slow down and reroute. During this trip, I am sure to run into obstacles, this is certain. When these obstacles arise, I need to slow down and rewire my thinking, formulate a new plan to get to my goals while here. When everything is going smoothly, I need to take advantage and proceed, keeping in mind to always do so with caution.

 A rickshaw is a three-wheeled Indian taxi.  Typically, three people can comfortably sit in the back, and one person can hop on the front seat with the driver.   However, more often than not, local town people try to get at least seven or eight people on them, with people hanging off the sides.

A rickshaw is a three-wheeled Indian taxi. Typically, three people can comfortably sit in the back, and one person can hop on the front seat with the driver. However, more often than not, local townspeople try to get at least seven or eight people on them, with people hanging off the sides.

The two-hour car ride to Dhrangadhra provided further insight. This trip from the airport to the small town was one of those moments that will always be minted in my memory.  The whole driving experience was culturally shocking. I was taking everything in at once; the narrow two-lane highway, the fact that the driver was speeding down the crowded streets at 120 km, the sights on the sides of all streets. The rawness of all of this sent my mind spinning. Cows, pigs, stray dogs, people on foot, bicycles, mopeds, rickshaws (Indian taxi, without doors), motorcycles, in trucks, cars, all speeding on the roads without signs, laws, and rules. The only real thing that keeps drivers of all types at a reasonable speed is the placement of speed bumps about every half-mile. Furthermore, all vehicles used their horns like I’ve never seen before. In India, the horn is effectively the regulator of all traffic. The horn is used to let others on the road know you are there, needed to pass by them, or telling them to move (the beeping needs to be a bit more aggressive here). This means that every time you are passing someone, whether they are in your way or not, you beep at them. You beep at the cows, the dogs, and the people walking on the roads. Your horn is your best friend when driving in India.

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Casual cows and water buffalo on the road, amidst the busy traffic.

Stay tuned-the next blog will be posted soon. I just wanted to cover the first reactions!

Aajow (Goodbye, but literally translated “Come Soon”)

-Alexa

From Idealized Visions to Real Expectations: Preparing to Study in India

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Getting to India is no easy task, as I have figured out.  Since I have gone abroad on an exchange program once already throughout my time as a Temple University undergrad, I thought I had the upper hand in this application process.  I thought I knew how to travel safely and cost effectively, I thought I was decently “travel-savvy.”  However from the extensive paperwork, to applying for a visa, to group meetings, to researching my independent study project, and to the endless questions about traveling 28 hours to the other side of the world India poses a new challenge for me and my pursuits to be a storyteller.  I know that this experience will make me more mature and shape the way I think and act, be it scholastically, culturally, and socially. That said I definitely overlooked the fact that India is a developing country when I saw myself traveling there months ago…

For those of us who are geographically challenged-here is the map of Asia. India is the orange-shaded country in the bottom middle, with the large downward projection.

For those of us who are geographically challenged-here is the map of Asia. India is the orange-shaded country in the bottom middle, with the large downward projection.

And this is where I will be staying, in the palace of prince and Dr. Jhala, an anthropology professor at Temple University. I will be in the Indian state of Gujrat, city of Ahmedebad, and town of Dhrangadra, in a PALACE!

And this is where I will be staying, in the palace of prince and Dr. Jhala, an anthropology professor at Temple University. I will be in the Indian state of Gujrat, city of Ahmedebad, and town of Dhrangadra, in a PALACE!

For months now I have envisioned myself in a desert, where the food is rich with aromas and spices; the fruit is golden and juicy, and the people are friendly and interested in me. Pretty self-indulgent, right?  This is exactly why it is time for me to travel to Asia, to the Indian province of Gujarat. It is time for me to reshape my westernized perceptions of the world and jump head first into life in a developing country. While I am excited to embark on this adventure abroad, I have more hesitations and concerns than I thought I would. Below are some of the constant thoughts that I have continuously circulating in my head:

-From malaria tablets, Hepatitis A, typhoid, to rabies, the immunizations are neither cheap nor fun.

-Language barriers will be a difficult task when I forget that not everyone can speak or understand my western English.

-Clothing? You mean I have to wear clothing that basically covers me up neck to foot everyday, in the desert, without AC?

-I thought the food was supposed to be delicious and fresh? Why can’t I brush my teeth with the water?  Why have I been prescribed a variety of stomach medicines? And why is everyone warning me about it?

-$#%*, 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the dry dessert is definitely not my idea of a summer getaway.

-There’s no toilet paper outside of the house we are staying in, WHAT?

-Furthermore, how do I learn how to use these so-called Indian toilets (AKA holes in the ground).

These are only some of the more common thoughts that pop into my head when I think about departing for India in literally a month.  This trip will not be like the exchange program I partook in last year, where I studied in England.  This is nothing close.  This is a new task, challenge, and chance for growth.

‘Till India-

Alexa

再见,昆明!(“See you again, Kunming!”)

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I’m still struggling to believe that this will be my last post during my semester abroad in China. The semester has been officially over for one week now, but it still hasn’t hit me that tomorrow, I’ll be leaving what has been my home for over four months now. With the semester over, I’ve had some time to explore the city one more time and reflect on my time here. With so much to be thankful for, I couldn’t possibly sum up these four months into one blog post, but I thought I’d dedicate this last post to explaining some of what I’ve learned here, and what I feel so grateful for having experienced.

I’m especially grateful for having had the opportunity to improve my Chinese as much as I have during these four months. Having the ability to comfortably communicate with native speakers was my most ambitious goal before my study abroad, and I’m happy to say I’ve achieved that. I’m nowhere near fluent, and I know that there’s much more to learn, but my Chinese has improved in ways it never could have at home. Prior to studying abroad, I rarely spoke voluntarily in Chinese class for fear of speaking incorrectly. I never willingly spoke Chinese outside of class, again for the same fear. Now, however, that fear rarely crosses my mind. It’s unusual for me to speak more English than Chinese on any given day. I want to practice speaking it every chance I get, knowing that every conversation allows me to learn something new. I may not have the same opportunities to practice after returning home, but I’m determined to make sure that my Chinese continues to improve. I feel so grateful for having had so many chances to work on my language skills, and for discovering how important that is to me.

Another aspect of Kunming that I’m so grateful for having experienced is the genuine friendliness of its people. I’ve always felt that in cities like Philadelphia or New York, it’s uncommon, and maybe a little strange, to have simple conversations with strangers. You can ask for directions when you’re lost, and if you happen to meet someone nice enough, you’ll have a pleasant conversation and end up where you need to go. However, for the most part, we keep up a guard when it comes to talking with people we don’t know. In Kunming, though, I’ve found that guard isn’t necessary. People are so willing and so happy to talk with someone new. Even when I can’t understand their 普通话 (“Putonghua” or standard Chinese), they are so happy to meet an unfamiliar face. Having a simple human-to-human connection, even just a smile for a stranger, goes a long way here, and I’ve appreciated that a lot.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned here, one that I hope I’ll remember to carry with me even after I’ve left this city, is something that is hard to name with just a few words. The best I can do to sum it up is, “慢慢走” (pronounced “manman zou”). The phrase translates literally as “walk slowly,” but means more than that. It’s a common phrase used more or less as a goodbye, especially when leaving shops or restaurants. To me, it reflects the pace of life at which people here like to live. People in Kunming never seem to be in a hurry, even when they’re late. I used to find myself rushing past others on the sidewalk, annoyed by how slowly everyone around me seemed to move. As I adapted more and more to living here, though, I realized that the city itself is just slow-paced, and that it isn’t a bad thing. It has its urbanized parts where you can go to feel a little more like you’re in a big city at home. For the most part, though, Kunming is a place a little less modern than most cities I’m familiar with, and I’ve become so comfortable with that. Wander through any of the city’s parks, and you’ll see people walking at what seems to be an especially slow pace with their arms crossed behind their backs, as is the Chinese way of walking. They’re usually walking not to arrive somewhere, but for the sake of walking. And when you walk simply for the sake of walking, you realize what you missed before when you were in such a rush. It’s so easy to get caught up in everything you want to accomplish in a day, but taking just a few minutes to slow down is often worth it.

These are just a few of the things living in Kunming has taught me, and they nowhere near sum up everything I’m grateful for this semester. I’m disappointed to see the end of my time in Kunming approaching so quickly, but I know that this won’t be the last time I see this city. This semester has, in some ways, made me even more unsure of what I want to do after graduation. Spending four months without any computer science work has made it difficult to see how everything I’ve studied this semester can fit in with my major. I do know, however, that speaking Chinese often is more important to me than ever, and that I want to see Kunming again some day. There’s still time for me to figure all of that out, and in the mean time, I have so much to remember and appreciate from my semester abroad.

谢谢你,昆明。再见!
(“xiexie ni, Kunming. zai jian!” – “Thank you, Kunming. See you again!”)

米线 ("mi xian"), one of Yunnan's noodle dishes.

Eating 米线 (“mi xian”), one of Yunnan’s noodle dishes, for the last time

At 大观公园 ("Daguan Gongyuan"), one of Kunming's bigger parks

A visit to 大观公园 (“Daguan Gongyuan”), one of Kunming’s bigger parks

The view from my dorm room at Yunnan University - one of the things I'll miss the most!

The view from my dorm room at Yunnan University – one of the things I’ll miss the most!

Victory Day

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This past Saturday, I watched a parade, navigated crowds of people waving red, white, and blue flags and sporting ribbons, and finished the day watching fireworks on a canal. Is it fourth of July already? It may seem like what I just described could be any old Independence Day celebration in the U.S., but it’s May, and I’m in Russia. That aside, the holiday we celebrated here on May 9th was much, much grander and more significant to Russians than U.S. Independence Day ever is to Americans. May 9th is День Победы (Den’ Pobedi) or Victory Day here in Russia, and it celebrates the Victory in Europe over the Axis Powers in WWII. I suppose you could think of it like Memorial Day, Arbor Day, Veterans Day, and Independence Day all rolled into one, but truth be told, we simply don’t have a holiday in the U.S. that is anything like Victory Day.

The laser light show the day before Victory Day

The laser light show the day before Victory Day

Without getting on too much of a soapbox, I want to take a minute to explain why exactly Victory Day, and victory in WWII, is so important here in Russia. While I touched on the idea in my last blog post about Volgograd, I want to do the holiday more justice. The Soviet Union lost over 20 million people, both civilians and servicemen, from 1941-1945. To put that in perspective, the United States suffered about 400,000 casualties. Not a small number, but in comparison to the USSR it is literally a fraction. Additionally, during the war countless people were displaced, forcibly moved, or lost their homes in battle, such as the Battle of Stalingrad. The Siege of Leningrad alone, which lasted from September 1941-January 1944, saw the loss of over 3 million soldiers and 1 million civilians both during the siege itself and in evacuations. When the war finally ended in 1945, the USSR was a different place. Women were left without husbands, mothers without sons, sisters without brothers, and children without fathers. The trauma that reverberated across the nation as it fought on both the European and Eastern Fronts is unimaginable to those of us who come from a country that has simply never experienced anything on such a massive scale. The United States hasn’t had a war on its soil for over one hundred years and while we’ve had our share of bloody battles, they honestly just don’t compare to the way WWII played out for the Russians. That’s not to diminish what we’ve experienced in the U.S., just to put in perspective why this holiday is so important to the nation as a whole and on a personal level. It is emotional in a way that the Fourth of July is not. It is celebrated in a grandiose and all-consuming fashion completely unlike Veterans Day. It is simply put, Victory Day, and participating in the festivities, was something I will never forget.

Rehearsing for the parade

Rehearsing for the parade

For weeks beforehand, the whole country prepares for celebrations including parades, concerts, and events of all sorts. Especially this year, which marks the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ Victory, everyone went all out. Several of my friends and I went to a laser-light show the night before Victory Day, which chronicled the story of a soldier and then regaled us with classic Soviet tunes from the era, set to wonderful, themed projections. The morning of Victory Day itself, the whole city (and much of the country), gets up bright and early to watch the military parade on Red Square. Now, this parade is not your typical Macy’s-style affair with floats and dancers and beauty queens. This parade is a real, honest-to-goodness military demonstration at which armies from all over the world march on the square. We watched India, Serbia, and China march by (to name a few), before the Russian soldiers from all branches of the military entered the square in their dress blues. They were preceded, of course, by the heavy artillery and tanks, which drove down Leningradskiy Prospekt and settled themselves in next to the veterans and world leaders. Putin nodded approvingly from his podium while the Commander General of the Russian military drove to each of the regiments and saluted them. It was a solemn, impressive affair unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Although us “normal” people aren’t allowed on Red Square for the parade (it’s reserved for world leaders, military men, veterans, and the like), I understood completely why everyone stops what they’re doing to watch from home.
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After the parade, we Americans headed into the center of Moscow, attempting to navigate the crowds and closed subway stations. We finally made it to the park Muzeon, where there were concerts, food vendors, and general merriment as the entire population of the city turned out in droves to celebrate the holiday and enjoy the beautiful weather. We spent the day wandering through the park before settling in that night for the fireworks. From where we stood near the canal, fireworks glittered in every direction. When they were over, shouts of “S prazdnikom!” (Happy holidays!) filled the air as we exhaustedly stumbled to the metro.

Victory Day balloons illuminate the night sky

Victory Day balloons illuminate the night sky

Victory Day, which means so much to Russians, reminded me that although we often think this way, the U.S. did not march in and magically save the day in WWII. We helped, of course, but without the Soviet Union, things would have gone very differently. Every Russian I have met so far was in some way affected by the war. My host mother’s father fought, while my friend’s grandfather did the same and my professor’s grandmother was in a concentration camp. While many people in the U.S. can say the same, including me (my grandfather served in the South Pacific in the Navy), I’m not sure we’ll ever truly understand or remember the same way. For me, Victory Day was an inspiring, moving, and joyful day of both celebration and mourning those who were lost. As the song goes, “Victory Day: happiness, but with tears in our eyes.”

70 Years of Victory

70 Years of Victory

6 things that are different in Jordan

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Word of the Day: يلاّ (Yalla)

Translates to “Let’s go! Come on!”

Temple of Hercules, Citadel, Amman

Temple of Hercules, Citadel, Amman

The cliché is true: time goes by so fast.

I have grown to love Amman. Far from a typical tourist city, it is a city that does not reveal itself to you at first sight. Here I am afforded the opportunity to actively engage with my new community and encounter new experiences with each passing day. 

Living abroad always brings with it changes, challenges and differences. But after more than a month in Amman, I’ve acclimated to a new life here. A life which, in all honesty, was embraced quickly and easily.

Consequently I had trouble coming up with aspects of Jordanian life that were “different.”

I have discovered that, by traveling extensively and living abroad, our similarities (and not our differences) become all the more apparent. I will touch on this topic later, but for the purpose of this blog post I will highlight some of the differences I have encountered in Amman, the city I am glad to call home in the interim.

 

Amman is the

The “original” Philadelphia

  1. Weekend: The work week here runs from Sunday to Thursday. Friday is the official day of rest, where most shops close for noon prayers.
  2. Call to prayer: Adhan occurs five times a day and is called out by the muezzin in the mosque via loudspeaker. The adhan here starts at 4AM (right around the time I go to bed).
  3. Street Addresses and Mail: Having a residential street address is still a relatively new concept in Jordanian culture. It’s common to give directions based on the nearest landmark. E.g., when I opened a bank account here and had to give them my address, I put down Mukhtar Mall in Sport City as the closest landmark.Regular mail does not reach a residential/business street address and can instead be picked up at the post office. When sending important documents, courier service is your best bet.
  4. Water: Jordan is one of the five driest countries in the world. Annual consumption per capita is about 170 cubic meters. To put things in perspective: the average Jordanian consumes about 100 liters a day, whereas Israelis on the other side of the border consume 900 liters – similar to the average American.Water is a scarce resource and has consequently been rationed as such.  Water is delivered every week; if a family were to use it all up before the next “water day” they would have to pay around $35 (for six cubic meters) to refill the tank on the roof. That being said, many Jordanians do not consider the water to be safe for consumption and drink bottled water instead. IMAG1057 (1)

     

  5. Getting around: In Amman, traffic laws are mere suggestions. And it seems as though there is traffic no matter the time of day.Public transport is almost non-existent. There are a few buses, but there is no readily available schedule and the locations of the stops are ambiguous. There are also white mini-vans that depart once the vehicles are full, but there are no set routes and, as a (foreign) woman, I attract some unwanted attention when I walk by.  As such, I have been advised to only take taxis. I take them every day; they’re cheap (for Western standards) and they’re a great way to chat with the taxi drivers and practice my Arabic!
  6. Recreation: In Amman, you have to go and make your own entertainment. I live in a residential neighborhood called Al-Madina Al-Riyadiya (Sport City), which tends to be on the conservative side and offers little in terms of entertainment. On the other hand, neighborhoods such as Abdoun and Weibdeh offer numerous restaurants, cafes and bars.I play soccer every week with a local club and go kickboxing three times a week. When our busy schedule allows for it, my friends and I explore the restaurant scene in Amman and frequent shisha cafes.
Celebrating my British roommate's last night!

Celebrating my British roommate’s last night!

Southeast Asia Part 2: Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Returning to Kunming

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The rest of our time in Southeast Asia was filled with traveling and sightseeing, and so I’m finding it hard to condense everything we experienced into one blog post. I’ll elaborate on some of my experiences while skimming over others, and offer some reflection on the end of my semester in Kunming.

Ho Chi Minh City

After departing from Hanoi, we flew to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to spend the next several days. One of the highlights of our time in Ho Chi Minh for me was the War Museum. With several floors and various rooms, the museum focuses on the American phase of the Vietnam War. I had learned about the war in high school and college, but learning about it in one of the war’s major cities was an entirely different experience. After arriving at the museum, we all split up and wandered on our own. The images portrayed and stories told were so emotionally powerful; I couldn’t help but be silent for my walk through all of the rooms. One of the exhibits showed photographs and firsthand accounts of the American phase, while another showed the after-effects, still present today, of Agent Orange. Seeing the photographs made me feel repulsed, but that showed me how powerful a story the museum portrayed. It wasn’t just a history lesson, but a solid reminder of what humans are capable of.

Phnom Penh

After our time in Ho Chi Minh City, we made our way down to the Mekong Delta. We spent several days in the delta performing research in a small commune called Vinh Long. After some time in the commune and in Can Tho, our last stop in Vietnam, we took a six-hour boat ride up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. My first impression of Phnom Penh was how unbelievably hot and humid it was. Vietnam’s weather was hot enough for me, so adjusting to Cambodia’s heat took some time. Despite the heat, though, we did plenty of sightseeing in Phnom Penh. The architecture in this city was unlike anything I’d seen before. Because Buddhism is Cambodia’s national religion, and a significant part of its history, much of the capital city’s architecture reflects that of religious temples. Two of the more memorable sites we visited here were the killing fields and Tuol Sleng Prison, two of the country’s most infamous places under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. These sites were the two most well known execution sites during this period (1975-1979), when a communist party came out of hiding and claimed rule over the country. During this period, the party executed nearly a third of its population at sites such as the killing fields, imprisoning them before death at Tuol Sleng and other prisons. Cambodia has seen repeated violence and political struggle, especially during the 20th century, but its ability to recover amazes me. Phnom Penh and other cities lost so much of their culture during the 1970s, but they have become beautiful cities once again. You can see some of what remains from prior to the Khmer Rouge, mixed along with what had to be rebuilt. Phnom Penh has made progress and continues to recover from its past, and is today an interesting place to explore with such an eventful history.

At Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace

Architecture of the Royal Palace

Architecture of the Royal Palace

Siem Reap

Our next stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap and the surrounding area. Siem Reap is a smaller city than Phnom Penh, and much less modernized. The surrounding area of the city center is rural, which we got to see firsthand in our two-day trip to Kampong Kleang Village. This is one of the villages that sit along the Tonle Sap Lake, Southeast Asia’s largest lake and a major source of livelihood for many in Cambodia. I wasn’t sure what to expect on our bus ride to the rural village, so I was a little taken aback when we arrived. I’d never seen a community like this one, and I think the people of Kampong Kleang were equally as surprised to see us foreigners walking through the main road of their village. One of the families was kind enough to let all twenty of us stay with them for our one night there. We went on a boat ride on the river before all eating dinner together. The next morning, our earliest day of the entire trip (and my 21st birthday!), we woke up at 4:00am for a fishing trip on the lake. We were able to see the sunrise over the lake – one of the most beautiful sites on the entire trip. I don’t know that any other birthday will top that one. I may never get to spend more time along the Tonle Sap in a rural village in Cambodia, let alone on my birthday.

Although I enjoyed our time in Kampong Kleang, I couldn’t help but feel saddened, and maybe a little guilty. I felt as though we shouldn’t have been there unless it was to benefit the village in some way. I was saddened to see the level of poverty in the village, probably the poorest place I have ever been. During the country’s wet season, the lake’s water level rises significantly, so the homes sit on ten-meter tall stilts. Flooding is still a problem occasionally, however. A majority of the families here make a living fishing in the lake or growing rice, but with an average family size of 7 or 8, most don’t make enough to live comfortably. The children don’t have much to play with at a young age, but they’ve learned to be entertained with what they have. Pollution and overfishing in the village are major problems, but with many families struggling to support themselves, environmental issues aren’t the most pressing concern. With spending such a short period of time there, I was disappointed to leave feeling as though we hadn’t made a contribution that was meaningful to them. Although I may never return to that specific village, I hope that the work I do some day will help people in similar situations.

Fish massages in Siem Reap

Fish massages in Siem Reap

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Kampong Kleang Village, along the Tonle Sap River

Kampong Kleang Village, along the Tonle Sap River

Sunrise on the Tonle Sap Lake

Sunrise on the Tonle Sap Lake

Returning to Kunming

After a few days in Siem Reap, we flew to Bangkok, where we stayed for one night before flying back to Kunming. We learned a lot during our 19 days in Southeast Asia; I saw so much more than I ever thought I would have in a semester abroad. After almost three weeks of travel, I was ready to return to Kunming. When we returned, we spent the last two days of the semester working on our regional symposium, the largest project in the program. Those last two days flew by, and I’m still a little in disbelief that the program is officially over with now. Most of the students have returned home, so I’ve had to say goodbye to some incredible people. I’m so grateful for having shared this experience with all of them. I’m also grateful for this last week or so that I have to spend in Kunming. This city has become home for me; I’m so happy to be back. With the last of my time (for now) here in Kunming, I want to travel, unwind from a hectic semester, and prepare myself to leave this special place and return home.