Embracing the Unexpected

Since the day I started my journey to Kyrgyzstan, unexpected opportunities have become a daily occurrence for me. I can never be completely sure what my days are going to hold or what new people I am going to meet. One of these unexpected opportunities presented itself during my second week in Bishkek. One of our program assistants mentioned that there were many opportunities to teach English if any of us were interested. Two other girls from the program and I told her that we would be interested and she responded later that day with a teaching opportunity for us. A few other people in our program had already started teaching English here, and all of their situations seemed to be teaching one or two small children at their homes once or twice a week. At first, we were under the impression that this was going to be the same kind of deal, but we slowly began to realize that what we were in for was going to be a very different experience.
We got our first clue when we received a call telling us that a taxi was being sent to pick us up. We got into the taxi with no knowledge of our destination and watched the city fly by as our driver maneuvered his way through rush hour traffic (driving in Bishkek is absolutely terrifying by the way, mostly because lanes and general traffic rules don’t seem to exist.) We finally stopped at a building that had the words ENGLISH ZONE emblazoned across the front and climbed out of our taxi. We were greeted by one of the managers and then taken into a room where the owner began to talk to us about our time in Bishkek so far. After a few minutes of small talk, he suddenly became very businesslike. “So you want a job” he said. “Before we go further, I want you guys to tell me about the most influential teacher you’ve had and why they impacted your life so much.” At this point, the three of us realized that we would not be giving one on one lessons to small children while their parents made us snacks, and that we had quite literally stumbled into a legitimate job interview. We scrambled to get into professional mode and somehow managed to get out coherent and decently intelligent responses to his questions. After the impromptu interview, he told us we would have a five-day trial period and explained the premise of English Zone to us.  English Zone is a school that is trying to revolutionize learning. Students are not given lessons on vocab and grammar directly, but learn it through learning other subjects in English. They give presentations on topics, debate controversial issues, watch videos, learn songs, and are just generally immersed in English the whole time they are at English Zone. “Moderator” is also substituted for the word “teacher” because the idea is that the moderator should facilitate discussion and learning more so than teaching information directly. I found these concepts fascinating and on par with my own feelings on education.
We began our trial week that day and observed a class. The next day we showed up for training and our supervisor said “Rachel and Alex you’ll be observing my class. Gabby you have a class in ten minutes that you will be leading.” I’m not going to lie; there was a moment of pure panic where my thoughts went something like “What. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve had no training. I should run…Or play dead… Is it possible to do both?” I managed to clamp down these thoughts however, and shakily walked into my class ten minutes later with a very sparse and haphazard lesson plan. That class was one of the most fun and eye-opening experiences of my life. All of the students were my age or older and were already at a conversational level. They were also hilarious and my nerves disappeared almost immediately. Since that day, I’ve been volunteering there Monday through Friday and loving it.

One of my friends told me once that he thinks that there are people we meet who are like puzzle pieces and that, throughout our lives, these puzzle pieces come together and help shape who we are as a person. For me, the students and the people I work with at English Zone are definitely some of my puzzle pieces. They have not only taught me a lot about Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan, but they have taught me about myself. They ask me questions that make me think and come up with answers to my questions that I have never considered before. They have taught me about an aspect of myself that I didn’t really know existed and helped me discover that I am passionate about helping people learn. They have told me about their dreams and ambitions and inspired me to follow my own. They are funny, smart and dedicated and make me want to strive to be better every time I moderate a class. Many of them have also become my friends and the time I have spent with them outside of English Zone has resulted in some of my favorite experiences here so far.

I had no idea when I applied for this summer program in Bishkek that I would become part of a startup company that is trying to change the education world. I didn’t know that I would find a new passion or that I would meet my students and learn so much from them. They have opened up parts of this culture that I would not have gotten a chance to see as a foreigner. Before going to English Zone and meeting the people there, I hadn’t really considered the possibility that I would come back to Kyrgyzstan down the road, this trip seemed like a once in a lifetime kind of deal. The unexpected friendships and connections I have made there have made me want to return and learn more about this country and become more involved in the work that English Zone does.

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The Various Stages of Culture Shock, Homesickness, and Reverse Culture Shock

When I first arrived in Spain, it took a few weeks before I fully adjusted to everything: the bizarre eating schedule, the food tastes, the money, the unknown streets, not to mention the language barrier. However, I knew that if I threw myself into it, I could overcome the challenges and learn to enjoy myself. Initially, that worked. It was a new country with new people and places to see; I loved trying everything new and soaking up as much of it as quickly as I could. Eventually though, I couldn’t take it; I became overwhelmed with the differences, and the having to think in a foreign language constantly became mentally exhausting. I really started to miss home, and I’d only been abroad for a few short weeks. I missed late night Steak n Shake runs with my friends, peanut butter, mac n cheese, and going to the movies.

Honestly, one of my biggest mistakes was going to my Facebook and talking to everyone back at home. Instead of making me feel better, I felt worse. However, my parents surprised me by sending me a package full of American junk food, so that made me feel a bit better. My host sister helped me out as well. After a few weeks of staying with her, she introduced me to her friends (who were also my age) and I was invited to one of their parties. It was fun, and they kept insisting that I spoke Spanish very well, which was certainly a major confidence booster. A few weeks after that, we all went to a movie together, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I could understand almost all of the movie, despite it being completely in Spanish, without subtitles.

The homesickness came and went. I had days where I really missed home and others where I felt like I could stay in Spain forever. Eventually, I had to say goodbye to all the friends I had made while in Spain, including the host family that I had grown so close to over the past few months. Saying goodbye was hard, but I still e-mail them and let them know how I am doing when I have time. When I got home though, after the first few weeks of catching up with friends I hadn’t seen in months, I wanted nothing more than to go back to Spain. English just sounded ugly to me, and my stomach turned at the sight of certain foods here. But, I now love putting olive oil in most foods now, and even though I can’t help but slip into Spanish sometimes, it’s not necessarily a bad thing! I’ve been able to successfully communicate with a few Spanish-speaking customers at my summer job as a cashier, and I’ve chatted with a friend of mine who studied abroad in Peru. We’re constantly comparing cultural differences while also improving our language skills. Though I do still miss Spain, I know that my place is here for now, and that my experience and knowledge gained while there will be invaluable in the future.

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Life After India

I remember when I was a freshman in high school and I was advised to “cherish the next four years” because they were going to “fly by.” They did. I remember as a freshman in college when I was encouraged to “appreciate this time in your life” as “it will go by in the blink of an eye.” It did. When I was told that my semester abroad would go by faster than any other semester, I truly did assume that it would. And it did, in ways – but in other ways my time in India was immeasurable. Sometimes it feels like the past semester sped by, but other times it’s as if a lifetime was spent in India. Traditional senses of time do not apply when you go abroad.

There are many things I’ve seen in India that I can’t process yet here in the States, nor will I be able to in the near future. Likewise, there are many things that I now notice and get unhappy about. When I see people wasting water frequently, I am immediately reminded of how limited its availability truly is. I’m also reminded again of the high consumption of meat in the United States, whereas in most of India people typically have to go out of their way to find a “non-Veg” restaurant. I miss hearing songs from the latest Bollywood films and I miss seeing cows, camels, and yes – even the occasional elephant – walking in the streets. I miss jackfruit chips and morning chai (though I do not miss mid-day, afternoon, and evening chai – that got to be a tad excessive). Most importantly, I miss the beautiful souls I met whilst in India and the incredible experiences we had there. I’ve been talking about India a lot with my friends and family, which is helping me readjust to life stateside. I’m currently trying to incorporate everything I’ve learned in India into my daily life, which is proving to be challenging in this strange old environment. I can boil up my efforts into a simple act: make the most out of every single day, just as I would if I were traveling. I may not be traveling now, but my time abroad has taught me that I can always live like a traveler

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The Conservation and Beauty of Spain

When I initially went to Spain, I expected to find an environment different from what I was accustomed to in the United States, and I wasn’t disappointed. In Zaragoza alone, where I lived, I very rarely would see trash in the streets. Every once in a while, I might spy a random plastic bag blowing in the wind, or a pop can on the sidewalk, but it wasn’t very common. It also struck me as odd that the sidewalk was wet one day, even though it hadn’t rained or anything in a few days. As I was walking to class the next day, I saw a giant machine being operated along the sidewalks. As I got closer, I realized that the machine was actually spraying and sweeping the sidewalk, gathering trash as it went as well. I thought that this was definitely a great way to keep the streets clean, and I wish I saw more of that in my hometown. As a person with a disability, who can easily trip and fall over the smallest bit of trash, clean and clear streets and sidewalks are a blessing!

Another form of conservation that I found in Spain, particularly in my host family, was the reuse of food. My host mom was an absolutely fantastic cook, and I enjoyed almost every dish she cooked. However, she would often times make large portions and I’m a smaller guy, so I don’t always eat much. If I wasn’t able to eat all of something, instead of throwing it away like I might at home, she’d insist that we could reheat it for later. Leftovers became my best friends in a sense. Even if I didn’t like the dish she had prepared (which was rare), she would try to reuse different parts of the dish in something else that I might enjoy. As she once told me, “I went to Cuba once. After seeing what little food they have, I will never waste a single bite of food, if I can help it.”

One last thing I noticed about Spain was how much Europeans in general really have learned to cherish and take care of the environment, particularly the most beautiful parts, like the beaches. For example, I visited two different beaches in Spain: the main beach in Valencia and La Concha (The Shell) in San Sebastián, named for its shell-like shape. The couple of beaches that I’ve visited in the US have been quite dirty, to be honest. The sand can be quite uncomfortable to walk on, due to miscellaneous pieces of trash. However, I particularly enjoyed the day I spent in San Sebastián because I was able to walk on a clean, beautiful beach, only having to worry about small shell pieces, instead of pieces of glass or an empty can of Coke. I really appreciate that there are still clean places like that in the world, and I hope that one day people will see the value in such places and will in turn, take better care of them.

La Concha

La Concha

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Road to China

Howdy world! My name is Alex Montoya and I am from Canyon, Texas. I currently am a senior (Wahoo) at West Texas A&M University studying both Broadcasting Electronic Media and Advertising/Public Relations.

As of now, I am in Shanghai, China interning for Ringier Media Company, which is based out of Switzerland. I am beyond excited to be their editorial intern for the next month. Some of the things that I do is help push online content to readers in the area, review blogs and help keep CityWeekend Magazine up to date with current information.

While being driven to my apartment, I couldn’t help but notice all the development this city is going trough and the amount of limited space going deeper into the city. At this point, the only way to house roughly 24 million people is by going up. Always living no higher than two floors back home, I was constantly hung up on how high I would be living. 26 floors later, I unpacked by bags for an experience that has already started.

Living in an enormous city, there is always something to do or somewhere to go. Every place that I have visited, I usually have no idea what I am eating, but as always, I am never disappointed. Eating out all the time has no effect on my wallet, considering every other store is a food vendor and most servings are always fulfilling. Back home, a single outing for a delicious meal could cost me 3 days of meals here. I am glad that I actually get to see people walk around both day and night instead of driving everywhere. Another thing that I am enjoying is public transportation. It is very easy to make your way around the city, unlike back home, where I would have to hop in a hot car and drive a good distance before getting somewhere.

One of my favorite things about living in this city is that no matter which direction you decide to get lost in, everything is worth snapping a picture. The amount of cleverly placed advertisement around the city makes me want to buy what they are selling. I also enjoy the fact that just about everything has gone digital, which makes navigation very smooth. Surely living in the largest city in the world, I am bound to eat great foods, take worthy travel pictures, soak up and experience a culture, and lastly connect with people from all over the world.


Alex Montoya

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Anything but Graduate School

Before my study abroad semester in Morocco, I was seriously considering going to graduate school. But after this semester, I realized that what I desire to learn I won’t be able to find in a classroom (more on this later).

Specifically, I calculated the economic cost of going to graduate school. I estimated that graduate school would cost between $25,000 to $45,000 per year, and after three years of graduate school, I am about $75,000 to $135,000 in debt.

Of course that estimate doesn’t take into account the income lost for not working during that period, but also, it doesn’t take into account the time I would lose and never regain: my early 20’s, when I am free from all commitments and obligations.

Personally, it isn’t worth it. With a graduate degree diminishing in value every year in the US (more graduate students in the work force and the current stagnation of jobs), the costs exceed the benefits.

But in the wise words of Mark Twain, “Don’t let your schooling interfere with your education.” Even though I will not be attending graduate school, it doesn’t mean I will stop learning. On the contrary, my education is a life long journey and mine is not ending when I graduate next spring.

When I take into account the free-online courses that are being offered by Ivy schools, the  infinite information thanks to the internet that is available, and access to public libraries, museums and so forth; we are at the forefront of a shift in how education is acquired.

Furthermore, what I truly desire to learn about, I won’t be able to find in a classroom. These last five months in Morocco taught me that traveling teaches you about the world, about history and society, but it also teaches you about yourself. I realized, that in a world where so few people know who they are, where so many people follow the mindless herd — knowing who I am as a person is far more important to me than hanging a diploma on a wall.

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Food and Culture in Kyrgyzstan

Food is a rich and important part of Kyrgyz culture. The staple ingredients of meals tend to be meat, vegetables, and rice. Ган-Фан (gan-fan) and манты(manti) are two of my favorite dishes so far. I would describe Ган-фанas a type of thick sauce with chunks of meat and vegetables over rice. Манты are dumplings with meat, potatoes, and onion inside and are usually steamed but I’ve also had fried ones in restaurants and they are quite delicious as well. I tried the other day to learn how to fold мантыinto in its dumpling shape, but most of what I accomplished was proving that I am not cut out to work in a Kyrgyz kitchen. My host family assured me that I folded them perfectly but I have learned that, when it comes to my cooking skills, they lie to me out of love a lot. The fruit here is also absolutely delicious. The first thing I ate when I arrived in Bishkek was a plate of fresh strawberries. They are smaller than the strawberries I am used to but the flavor is amazing. I have developed a slight obsession and I get irrationally excited when I see them being sold on the side of the road by the bucketful.

One thing I’ve noticed here is that food is not wasted to the extent that it sometimes is at home. My host family makes many dishes that reuse ingredients from the previous night’s meal so as to make the most out of the food they have. This has definitely made me think about the attitude toward food in the US and the amount of times I have seen leftovers tossed out instead of being reused to create another meal. Another thing I have noticed, with my host family but even more so at restaurants, is how popular tea is. My tea consumption at this point is off the charts because pots of tea seem to be equivalent with complementary glasses of water one gets at restaurants in the US. Any time I have a meal here, I can be sure that there will be some type of tea on the table.

Hospitality is a very important part of Kyrgyz culture and it is believed that a big part of being hospitable is making sure that guests are well fed. I have noticed that this mentality about food and hospitality reaches into the professional world here as well. I am interning with the Soros Foundation in Kyrgyzstan and have been to a few meetings and a conference so far. At each of these events, I can always be sure to find a spread of tea, jam, cookies, and bread at the very least and on various occasions I have seen four-course meals laid out.

Food is also used to bring the family together and is a way to show that you care about someone. I share my host family with another girl from my program and the phrase we hear the most from our grandmother is most definitely “кушатькушать!” (eat eat!). It seems to be her constant mission to make sure that we are either drinking tea or eating bread at all times. I have stumbled sleepily out of my room at midnight to go to the bathroom only to find my grandmother waiting for me with a fresh cup of tea when I come out. Our host sister Aychurek, or Chuci, told us that this is because cooking and providing food for members of your family is a way to show affection and that you care about them. Meals with my host family are one of my  favorite parts of the day because it is a time when we are all together talking about our days and other random things. The mentality of eating as a thing to be enjoyed and savored and not just a process to get through as fast as possible, is something I really love about this culture and something that I want to bring back with me when I leave here.

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