Dancing Kizomba in Bordeaux, France

One of the most exciting subcultures that I have encountered while in France is the dance subculture, particularly the large group of individuals who love to dance Kizomba. I learned about this type of dance through a Senegalese guy named Mahomed, who I met at the park while watching football.  He related to me that there were dance lessons at Punta Cana – a neighboring club – for five euros per lesson, and that I would have fun learning it. I therefore took him up on the offer and upon my arrival I was given a warm welcome and introduced to everyone.  Subsequently, Mahomed and I became very good friends and together we frequent local venues to practice Kizomba.

Kizomba is a very sensual dance that originated in Angola.  One must be very comfortable with physical contact from the opposite sex in order to participate.  In fact, one of the basic instructions given by the teacher is that, “one must remain very close to their partner.”  And if someone is having trouble with a technique, the instructor usually blames it on the two people not sticking close together.  Another difficult aspect of the dance is that it requires the male to be the lead, while the female merely shadows what he does and follows his direction.  Therefore, if the male is a beginner, as I am, the dance can be tedious and frustrating for both participants.  Still further, since my French is not so great, more problems arise when I need to tell my partner something or when she needs to tell me something. But as time has went on, I have learned to simply have fun.

Learning Kizomba is something I would have never ventured into while in the United States.  However, being in a different country and trying to make new friends, I have been forced to adapt to the French culture and do what they do, in order to fit in.  This has proved a great benefit for me; I have met a lot of people, my French is improving, I am exploring new facets of the world which in turn is presenting me with new opportunities and making me more curious.  I am now eager to learn more dances like the Salsa, for example, and I owe it all to the diversity which I have encountered while studying abroad.

Below is a clip of my first experience with Kizomba:

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Filed under Brian in France, Video Bloggers

Return to the Rural

The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.

-          G.K. Chesterton


Now that I have been back in New Hampshire for a little more than three weeks, I feel like I can finally write about my experience of readjusting to the United States. I have heard of reverse culture shock and the effects it has on people who return to their country after a long absence. I find it interesting, though, that I do not feel any major reverse culture shock. You would think that a place as foreign as China would make culture shock and reverse culture shock worse than, say, if one went to England. However, at least in my case, I have slipped in and out of China quite smoothly.

This is not to say that I do not notice differences between China and the US, or sometimes miss China or feel happy about something in the US. I often chat with Chinese students and others at my college about life in Beijing, the places I traveled, and when people ask me to tell them all the best parts about my trip I cannot help but remember fondly those experiences. I would not say I have had any major heartache, though, because I have this strong feeling in my heart that I will definitely return. And this feeling has made me content, as well as allowing me to focus on my current studies back here in America.

If I were to say the thing I miss the most about China, I would tell you that there are many things I miss: affordable travel, the delicious food, the language and classes, the people – I miss them all. I am also happy to be back in the States because now I can always find American foods, like good hamburgers and ice cream (yes, all unhealthy, I know!), and it is always comfortable to use your native tongue. I also enjoy how I am now studying multiple subjects, because in China I studied only Chinese. It feels nice to get a break from intensive language study, and the language study served as a quality break from all these other subjects.

I think the oddest thing now that I am back at my small liberal arts college in rural New Hampshire is just how different life is. Not only is the culture in America a mountain across the valley from Chinese, but living in Beijing, one of the largest cities in the world, and then returning to live in a town with less than 5,000 residents has been a drastic change. In Beijing, I would bike every morning along with countless other itinerants – whether they were driving cars, riding bikes, or taking a taxi or public bus – to Tsinghua University. On my way, I would stop at a food peddler and buy a chicken and egg fried sandwich and stop at a street side vendor who sold milk tea. In the small town of New London, I live off campus and make breakfast every morning, then catch a ride to campus. There are no bikers, there is snow everywhere, and you only see some cars on the road. The way of life is so different that I am actually surprised I have not had more difficultly readjusting than I have.

My semester in Beijing has definitely changed me. I feel confident about living in cities, and I also know that I would love to return to China and continue my study of Chinese language and culture. Studying abroad was definitely a highlight – if not the highlight – of my college experience!

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Sean’s Route to Class

Meet U.S. Department of State sponsored Gilman Scholarship recipient Sean Deegan. Sean is a Gilman Global Experience Correspondent for the Fall 2013 semester in Moscow, Russia.  The Gilman Global Experience allows Gilman Scholarship recipients the opportunity to record videos around academic and cultural themes to share with other students interested in studying or interning abroad in the featured country. For more videos please visit the Gilman Scholarship’s Official YouTube page.

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Got Water?

One of Jordan’s biggest industries is travel and tourism because it is replete with amazing historical sites and scenery. Fortunately, I have been able to relish in the natural beauty Jordan has to offer. From the Red Sea in the South to the lush olive groves in the North and the desert all in between, Jordan is truly breathtaking. Because tourism is so popular here, there are a number of initiatives to protect and preserve the ancient ruins as well as the natural beauty of many areas.

One such place is the Wadi Mujib Nature Preserve whichis located Southwest of Amman in the vast range of slot canyons that empty into the Dead Sea. We went soon after our arrival in Jordan because once the rainy season starts in the fall they close down until the next summer in order to avoid possible problems with flash flooding. We hiked up one of the slot canyons in about two-three feet of water, up to a big waterfall surrounded by the beautiful sandstone walls of the canyon, which strangely resembled the slot canyons in my home state of Utah. It was surreal. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a waterproof camera, so for a glimpse just Google it.

Despite that image of rivers of water flowing through the slot canyons, the single biggest problem in Jordan is their lack of water resources. They have one of the lowest rates of water per capita in the world. They draw most of their water from the Yarmouk River, the Jordan River (which are shared with Syria and Israel), and an underground non-renewable aquifer. These will be supplemented by the planned water pipeline bringing water from the Red Sea and pumping it into the Dead Sea. This will help replenish the Dead Sea, whose water level has been receding steadily, and also provide potable water to the public. Water is a very serious issue in Jordan and only intensifying with the constant waves of refugees from neighboring countries.
To give an idea of how bad the water situation is in Amman, water is only pumped to your neighborhood once a week. One day per week water is pumped to your neighborhood and fills your water tank on the roof. That precious supply is all you have until the next week. Showers are intermittent and quick, toilets are flushed sparingly, and washing dishes is done with absolute minimal water. Even observing these strict water-usage guidelines, it is not uncommon for the water tank to run dry. When that happens it is very expensive to have a water truck drive out and refill it, and, in reality, many do not have the resources to pay for it. Water conservation is a very conscious part of daily life, which differs drastically with most places in the US where water is more than abundant and relatively inexpensive. This is one of the most salient aspects of my experience in Jordan and it has made me question my own history of blatant water overuse and made me profoundly grateful for the abundant supply of natural resources in the U.S.

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Guinea Pig and the Peruvian Approach to Food

Peru is famous for cuy, which Americans call guinea pig.  At the high altitudes in the mountains large animals can be difficult to maintain, so guinea pigs fill diets with protein.  The first question any good Peruvian asks a foreigner is “Have you tried cuy?”  I didn’t think my trip to Peru would be complete without eating this famous dish, so I communicated to my family that I wanted to try it.  One day, I came home from work to find a full guinea pig on my plate.  I must say, cuy does not taste like chicken.  The flavor is difficult to describe, although perhaps the even more interesting part was prying meat off the bones of a guinea pig; that is not a behavior I was accustomed to.  I did enjoy it, although there are other foods whose flavor I prefer.  I have also had the privilege of visiting guinea pig farms, which is a stark contrast to the cute cages for our pets in the United States.

Peruvian Guinea Pigs

Peruvian Guinea Pigs

Overall, the food in Peru has been fantastic.  Breakfast consists of eggs, white rice, occasionally vegetables like avocado and tomato, and fresh bread from a local oven.  This bread is made in round, individual pieces instead of loaves.  The mountainous region of Peru is known for its soups, and almost every lunch begins with one of these delicious dishes.  Lunch will also have rice or potatoes and some type of meat.  Dinner is often a repeat of lunch, since it tends to be a smaller meal that is warmed up individually.  My taste buds have yet to be disappointed by a Peruvian meal.

The largest meal in Peru is lunch.  Accordingly, almost all working people go home from 1 to 3 PM every day.  Everyone eats lunch together.  This is the primary time to meet each other and reminisce about the day.  Because of this long lunch break, many Peruvians don’t return home until 8 or 9 at night.  In the US, lunch is typically more of an individual affair.  Dinner is our primary meal, and working people almost always eat lunch apart from family.  We often will eat dinner as a family around 6 or 7 in the evening, when Peruvians would still be working.  Our structure is probably a reflection of the mobility of our society.  Since we often hold jobs very far from home, it could be both difficult and expensive for us to transport ourselves home and back twice a day.  The Peruvian work structure is different, since jobs are almost always geographically close to home.  A break in the middle of the day is not a major inconvenience for them, and I know they value time with family between stressful times at work.  Overall, the Peruvian system is different, but I am seeing how it is very consistent with the values of Peruvian culture.

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Acquiring Acquaintances Abroad: An Arduous Assignment

For me, as a devastatingly taciturn individual, it is difficult to develop friendships, regardless of where I am in the world.  I have this horrible tendency towards silence—the more people gathered in a room, the quieter I become.  It is not a conscious choice either.  I do not stand there and think, “Well, I’m just not going to talk.”  My lack of loquacity is really something that just happens to me.  My brain, it seems, decides on its own to take a short vacation.  Words escape me.  And while I stand there, not quite (but almost) literally lacking mental functioning, a person comes up to me and makes the attempt.  They try to engage me in conversation (read: small talk), and whatever small bits of thinking ability remained before have now disappeared entirely.  My mouth produces words instinctively while a red light in my brain flashes and blares incessantly; it is a warning—Get yourself out of this dangerous situation, immediately!

I know, of course, that my social anxiety isn’t something that many people reading this blog will endure themselves.  However, it is something very real for me, and indeed something that has played a very large role in my study abroad experiences.  In a lot of ways (and certainly the most obvious), it hinders me.  Friendships are gained by means of social interactions, and often they are begun by the dreaded small talk. Unfortunately, I go through this horrendous process of 1) not knowing what to say, and 2) not being able to say it anyway. For whatever reason, in social situations, I become a completely different person. The voice, thoughts, and opinions that come out of my mouth are never my own. They are filler words, phrases chosen not conscientiously, but accidentally, spur of the moment. This is true even in English, so you can imagine my ability to converse in Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, or Lithuanian.

Even I, though, have managed to find friendships while living abroad. In Costa Rica, I worked with a small NGO dedicated to protecting the rights of HIV/AIDS-infected persons. Much of my time was spent at La Casa de Paz, a shelter for drug addicted women, and oddly enough, these people—the employees and the women themselves—became my closest friends. It’s because of them that I learned to speak Spanish and really it’s because of them that I understood Costa Rica as something more than a popular tourist destination.

In India, my greatest friendships came in the form of my host family, an ironic twist of fate. You see, I’d had two host families in Costa Rica too, and though they certainly had their merits, I did not want to repeat the experience in future travels abroad. Being my socially awkward, naturally introverted self, host families are a less than ideal setup. After a full day of classes and conversations and public outings, the last thing my brain wants to do is return home for a few hours of “obligatory chitchat.” Is it great for language learning? Absolutely. Is it great for my sanity? Probably not.

When I learned that I was to have a host family in India, then, I was less than pleased. And it’s not that I worried my new family would be particularly mean or disagreeable either. Honestly, I was more worried that they would be too nice. Yes, I recognize how strange that sounds. How could I possibly have that concern? Well, like I mentioned above, after a full day of social interaction, I prefer to return home and be alone. Without those few hours of almost total isolation, I feel exhausted in such a way that I struggle to convey accurately in words. It’s not a physical exhaustion I feel, but rather a mental and emotional one. Few people understand this personality quirk of mine, and I expected that my Indian host family would fall into this category. After all, hosting a study abroad student is an exciting opportunity. It’s as much an opportunity for the hosts to learn about American culture as it is for the guests to learn about the hosts’ culture. I feared that I would be a disappointment for my host family.

I was fortunate, though, in that the woman and her daughter (my Indian family) never made me feel out of place. They offered their home to me entirely. They taught me how to eat like an Indian, demonstrating the proper scooping hand motion, something that took a good two weeks to perfect. They told me what they thought of the Indian government, the education system, and the media. For some reason, the three of us (and our personalities) worked well together. Over time, our relationship deepened—first from roommates to acquaintances, and then from acquaintances to friends, and finally from friends to a makeshift family.

China was an altogether different experience from Costa Rica and India. For one thing, I lived in a dorm room on the campus of Zhejiang University. My days consisted almost exclusively of two things: attending Chinese class and studying for Chinese class. It’s difficult to incorporate friendships in your life when you’re immersed in the Chinese style of education. As it turned out, my professors and classmates became my best friends. I should tell you that I didn’t recognize this at first. In the beginning, my mind distinctly demarcated the words classmate and friend. But it’s quite difficult for them not to overlap when class feels like your life. In fact, the forced Chinese conversation homework proved to be an excellent way to avoid small talk. I learned about my classmates’ lives in the most raw, simplest form because, well, I could only understand Chinese in its most raw and simplest form.

Now onto my friendships in Lithuania, where I am to “study” for the next three months. Note the quotation marks around the work study. They’re there to indicate the uniqueness of my study abroad program in Lithuania. It feels insufficient, the phrase study abroad, because I don’t really feel like a student here. Much of my time is spent as an intern at the American Embassy in Vilnius, or participating in activities and attending outreach events that are in some way affiliated with the U.S. Department of State. Evenings and weekends here are my schooldays.

So much of this blog entry has concentrated on my shyness and introversion. You’re likely wondering how I fare as an intern in the Public Affairs Section of the American mission to Lithuania (responsible for all embassy outreach activities, public events, social gatherings, media, etc.). Well, I can assure you, it has been adjustment. Small talk is no longer that unfortunate thing I must endure every now and again; it is my life. And truthfully, even months into my internship, I’m just as dreadful at it as I was in the beginning. Here’s the deal: I’m no suave, debonair diplomat, and I never will be.

Unlike many of those with whom I work, I don’t have the natural ability to talk about anything and everything, and successfully feign interest. You can talk to me about your yarn factory as much as you want, but I can only think of so many questions about it before you realize I really couldn’t care any less. You might think of this as a weakness in a world where “stage presence” is a must at all times, but I’ve not found that to be the case. In my short time here, I have already found my fair share of friends (both Lithuanian and American and almost every other nationality you can imagine), and  it’s really because of my poor acting ability that I’ve done so. Guess what? Hating social functions is actually a reliable ice breaker because, for the most part, nobody enjoys them. They are simply a necessary evil. Thus has been my experience here anyway.

Before ending this blog post, I do want to make it clear that making friends abroad is difficult, more so even than in the U.S. The language barrier is one difficulty, of course. But so is finding common interest. Sometimes it’s even a struggle to find someone with a similar sense of humor. In the end, though, the struggle is worth it. When people tell me, “You’re not like the Americans on TV” and I tell them, “Well, you’re not like the [enter nationality here] I see on TV either,” a bond forms. I’m not quite sure how to explain it. Perhaps it’s something one must experience for themselves.

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Filed under Travis in Lithuania, Writing Prompts

Environmental Protection in Germany

During my time in Germany I have definitely had the opportunity to see a lot of the great outdoors. The University of Freiburg is situated in a valley in the Black Forest, so hiking, skiing and mountain biking are pretty normal weekend activities here. The area around Freiburg is paved with expansive well kept hiking and bike paths to make the outdoors accessible and enjoyable for everyone. Germany keeps the Black Forest and the rest of its natural resources beautiful by keeping very environmentally conscious. Recycling programs are commonplace here and most homes participate in a recycling technique called “Mülltrennung” or waste separation. Basically what they do here is that each home has several different trash cans into which the trash is sorted. For example, our apartment has three: One for plastic packaging, one for paper and one for the rest of the trash, which mostly comprises of food waste. Glass is also separated by color (brown, green and clear) into another set of cans outside of our building. This is something I truly wish to take back to the US with me when I leave. At first it is a little tedious, but once you get used to what goes where (the helpful signs many apartments hang over their trash cans help) it is really easy and it feels good to be doing something environmentally conscious.

Germany is also in the process of shutting down all of its nuclear power plants and switching to renewable, green energies, with wind energy and solar energy being a large part of the production. This decision came about after the Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan in 2011, but protests against nuclear energy (and weapons) have been happening in Germany since the 1960s and especially since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Many cities in Germany already use solar or wind energy as a large part of their power supply. For example, Vauban, a part of Freiburg, is famous for being completely powered by solar energy and being a car-free neighborhood. The world’s first house which produces more energy than it creates, called the Heliotrope, was built in by Rolf Disch in Freiburg in 1994. (It looks really awesome, too: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Heliotrop_Freiburg.jpg) It even physically rotates so that its solar panels face the sun for optimum energy production. How cool!

Although Germany is known for its car companies, such as BMW, many Germans commute to work and school via public transportation such as buses or street cars or by bike. Many parts of large cities, such as Freiburg, are pedestrian only zones, encouraging the people to walk or bike. When driving long distances Germans often opt for bus or train travel over driving a car, as the prices of owning a car, gas and even getting a drivers license are much higher than in the US. The train system in Germany, and even most of Europe, is fairly well connected and relatively cheap, making it a great, green travel option. Many of my German friends here opt to walk, bike or take public transportation instead of driving their cars.

Go Green!


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Filed under Carly in Germany