Three Eye-Opening Differences of Living in Japan

As cliché as it is, it’s quite true that you never know what you have until it’s gone. I knew Japan was going to be drastically different than the US, and I thought I was ready, but in reality, I wasn’t.

Here’s a list of the top three things I took for granted the most and how they have affected me in Japan.


I knew my Japanese wasn’t the best, but I’ve been studying it for two years, that’s going to get me pretty far, right? Wrong. I feel like a grown baby. Reading and writing is one thing, but speaking and listening is another. My host parents have to say every sentence slowly and clearly using grade-school-level vocabulary and grammar in order for me to understand them. Even then, it’s still a toss up whether or not I’ll be able to answer their question.

The biggest issue with communication, however,  is knowing that there are hundreds of Japanese people around me at any one time, and I can’t speak to any of them. Sure, some speak English, but they’re usually either 1) too shy to use it or 2) it’s the same level as my Japanese and gets us nowhere. The language barrier is a huge hurdle and something I underestimated coming to Japan and took for granted in the US. On the bright side, it has inspired me to work harder at learning the language so that I will, someday, be able to have a full conversation in Japanese.


How could transportation be an issue? Japan is known for its extensive railway system that works by utilizing some sort of wizardry. While this is true,  a 40 minute commute to campus every day isn’t something I’ve ever experienced. In the US, I lived a 3 minute bike ride from my first class. That’s a huge change. And if 40 minutes isn’t long enough, what makes it even longer is having to stand the entire time because the train is so crowded there aren’t any seats. Not only are you standing, but if it’s during peak hours, you’re most likely pressed against five other people. Talk about lack of personal space.

This is a photo of Shinjuku Station in Shinjuku, a special ward in central Tokyo, at 4pm. It’s not even rush hour, yet there’s tons of people.


I came to Japan knowing that I was extremely picky when it comes to food. If you live on your own, this won’t be an issue, since you can get just about every type of food here; however, I chose to live with a host family for my first semester. That means I have to eat all kinds of food, even if I don’t like it. Not only do I not want to be rude, but I genuinely do want to try every type of food I can, and while there have been a few meals I could have done without, most have been delicious. Still, I wish I could walk three minutes to the dining hall to get a burger and fries.

This is what a typical dinner looks like, little brother’s arm included.

Even though these difficulties have risen since arriving here exactly one month ago, there are even more fantastic things I love about Japan. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of great people from around the world, and have become close friends with many of the students in my program.

This is a photo of most of the students in my program during our day trip to Kamakura.

In addition to this, having a campus in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world is absolutely incredible. The campus isn’t very large, but the buildings are tall and allow for excellent views like this:

This is a view from a sixth floor terrace. This is my favorite place thus far to study or hang out.

These three difficulties have had a great impact on me since I arrived, but I’m adapting as time passes. Japan has been amazing so far, but as with any great change in life, there are both ups and downs. I’m greatly looking forward to riding this roller coaster for the next 10 months.

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Chance in Japan – Gilman Introduction

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For the Adventure of Being Alive!

“I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love—for your dreams—for the adventure of being alive” – Oriah Mountain Dreamer


For the adventure of being alive!

As a person, I’m someone who thrives on adventure and change. In my friend group, I’m the one who suggests spontaneous trips to unusual places or signs us all up for lessons from a West-African drumming ensemble. Why live a boring life when you can live an exciting one? Why stick with the familiar when you can experience something new?

And it is this driving curiosity and love of life that drove me to pack my solitary blue suitcase and go study in St. Petersburg, Russia for the fall semester of my senior year.

Upon first arrival, everything was in some shape or form of “Wow!” The pastel colored buildings, the lump of loose coins you receive in change after buying a bottle of water, the intimidatingly beautiful Russian women speed walking long distances in towering stilettos, the stray dogs who wander the city and bark at things… Every moment and every step felt empowering from being able to talk about my day with my host mom to negotiating a cell phone contract in Russian.

Of course there are the demoralizing moments as well like trying to buy theater tickets for a show that you are convinced is in August but is actually in September or when you mix up your words so badly in Russian that the store attendant mutters “иностранцы” (foreigners) and literally just gives up on you. But, I think the embarrassing experiences are also just as empowering as the good ones because they, as a mother might say to an unwilling child, “build character.”

After lying on the floor of my acting class pretending to be a glue monster in front of twenty Russian students or being yelled at by a security guard after accidentally walking in through the exit of the metro, I’m pretty sure my sense of self can survive anything.

There’s still a constant feeling that no matter what you do, you’re probably doing something wrong, which can be paralyzing, but then at the same time—freeing.

Mistakes are ok.

Mistakes are ok.

Mistakes are ok.

This is the mantra my perfectionist self has been muttering to itself throughout college, and I think there is no better and immediate way to realize this statement than through study abroad. One month into my study abroad adventure, I realize that it’s very easy to stay at home, settle into your routine, do what is comfortable, and avoid the uncomfortable. Here, in Russia, often times necessity thrusts you into the uncomfortable. You can’t just go without water or completely avoid public transport, and thus you take a deep breath, gather the few words you know, and try your best.

Talking to my friends who are also in the study abroad group, I think we all are experiencing culture shock similarly but in stride. As one friend said, “all the things I miss are easily rectifiable.” No public trash cans? Re-use and throw away less stuff. Can’t drink the tap water? Head to the store or fill a bottle from home. Feeling overwhelmed by the city? Take the электричка (a train that goes to the suburbs) out of the city and stroll around a park.

Thus, I think those of us who are adjusting best are perhaps the ones who come in with the least amount of expectations. Life just is and you never know what will happen next.

This past week, we celebrated our one month of living here quietly, as in we didn’t even realize one month went by until our host moms pointed it out to us at dinner.

“I feel like I can get around and do what I need to do.”

“I feel like I live here now.”

“I feel like my vocabulary has doubled.”

“I finally have Russian friends.”

These are all things we can say now as we successfully navigate parts of the city without Google Maps or order food with no “surprise” words or requests from the waiters or converse freely with our host parents and 1-month in, hey, I guess that’s pretty good!

There’s still so many things left to do—I still have to go to the Hermitage, buy my balalaika and figure out some folk tunes, learn to cook blini, and hunt for mushrooms at my host mother’s dacha but those things will come. One month in, I have the confidence and the perspective to be able to pursue my goals and experience my upcoming life in Russia to its fullest extent.

Adventure is my spirit, and I look forward to see where the ball rolls next.


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Brazil in 3 Months, My First Impressions

Hi! I’m Ricardo Martinez. I hail from the University of California, Davis, and am studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio). I study Political Science and Philosophy, and have a minor in Latin American studies. I hope you enjoy my adventures through the pieces I will be writing. Let’s go!

I arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 5th with two suitcases, a carryon, my backpack, and big plans. I came prepared, I thought. PUC-Rio officials were in the arrival area waiting for exchange students, and as soon as there were enough students to fit in two vans, some from the states and others from Europe, we departed to our host family’s locations.

I arrived at my new home and was impressed by the room my host mom provided me with. There was a big desk, a huge closet, and a full-size bed with a giant window where I could see Copacabana beach. Over the next couple of days, however, my excitement ended with frustration, home sickness, and weariness. Prior my arrival to Brazil, I had little time to prepare, much less rest my mind. I knew I was going to Brazil, but I did not know what I would face and the time I needed to thoroughly prepare for the program. I was a bit in disarray the first couple of weeks, my mind still back in the states.


I kept moving forward nonetheless and did the best I could to enjoy the new experience. Brazilians are very nice people, and so adjusting to them has been a lot easier than I thought. The culture is also very different, for example, Brazilians enjoy taking their time, be it patiently paying at the cashier, or waiting for the elevator that takes one to the third or fourth floor. You really must witness it to know what I am saying. In any case, Brazilians, or Cariocas here in Rio de Janeiro, are laidback and genuine people. The term ‘carioca’ is given to those that are native to Rio de Janeiro, meaning they were born and raised in Rio. It’s also a way of speaking, living, and being, really. Cariocas are always casual, tan every day, and to my surprise, dislike cold weather. If it rains, you’ll find them in their homes watching novelas.


At the Pontifical University of Rio de Janeiro, or PUC-Rio, there are students from all over the world, and though it is a small campus, it’s compact and in the middle of trees and green life. There’s even small monkeys jumping around the trees, much as we have squirrels in the United Stats across many campuses, at least we do at UC Davis. The students are very open to speaking with foreigners, and so every now and then I get to practice my Portuguese. Portuguese really is unlike Spanish, I was surprised. Both languages may be from the same tongue but Portuguese enunciation, and some vocabulary, has made it difficult for me to grasp. Whenever I speak “Portuguese,” to Brazilians it’s ‘portunhol,’ meaning that it’s a blend between poor Portuguese and Spanish.

But it is all part of the adjusting process, as has been my forty-minute bus rides to school because the campus is in Gavea, completely opposite of Copacabana. The bus rides have therefore been an adjusting process, especially because it really takes an hour to get from my host mom’s home to class, in the states for example I could bike to campus in the span of ten minutes. The food as well is different, with little spices that make me miss my grandma’s food. I must say it is healthy and balanced, yet black beans and rice are always included in any dish. There’s also bread and coffee at any corner shop, and the coffee I have enjoyed indeed. My favorite food item however is acai, a healthy snack composed of a blend of purple berries from the Amazon with ice and some addon toppings such as granola and powder milk.


Most recently, I obtained a research assistant internship position at the BRICS Policy Center. I will be doing research regarding Chinese developmental investment in Brazil and Chile. I also enjoy my classes, two of which are the processes of regional integration, taught in Portuguese, and Brazilian foreign policy. These experiences have been very enriching, and above all, my stay in Brazil eye-opening. Now onto what’s in store for the next couple of months.

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The Road to Wrocław

I had spent weeks mentally preparing for the beginning of my program in Wrocław, Poland to begin. I watched as my friends returned to the Nebraska Wesleyan, my home university, campus and begin their school years anew. I couldn’t help but feel a little left behind seeing the world march on as a I awaited the start of my Polish language courses at the University of Wrocław in early September. I had said my goodbyes countless times when I finished my summer internship in Lincoln, Nebraska and moved back home to my rural community in the southwestern region of the state to spend time with my family. I counted the days with anticipation until I would step foot on a plane, take a 20-hour journey, and arrive in a country I had never seen, on a continent I had never visited, and be welcomed in a language that I was far from fluent in. The gravity of this, however, did not strike me until my mother stopped at the departure gate of Denver International Airport. It was hard to grasp that the day that I’d been anticipating for nearly a year had finally arrived and, with it, the bittersweet farewell I was now faced with. In retrospect, I was prepared in nearly every way that one could be before taking a leap of faith such as this. I had done my research, gotten my visa, debated on what to pack for days, and attended every pre-departure session offered by my university but nothing prepared me for the weight of actually saying goodbye.

I carried this feeling with me for the majority of my journey to Wrocław. My initial arrival was rough to say the least. When I arrived at my dormitory I was greeted by a sweet Polish woman at the front desk with a list in hand verifying the students that were to be living there for the year. The catch, though, was that she did not speak English nor I Polish. To make matters worse, my name was nowhere to be found on the list that we repeatedly combed through to verify my housing placement. At this point, I was near my breaking point. Here I was, thousands of miles away from home and I wasn’t even sure I would be able to find a place in the dormitory. Luckily, after multiple attempts of pantomiming to one another what we were trying to say (at one point even crudely drawing pictures to convey our thoughts), I was given a key to what will be my home for the next ten months.

In the moment, these obstacles seem incredibly frustrating and can even serve to be a bit demoralizing, but the remedy to my adjustment blues has come to me in a two-fold solution. Firstly, trying to stay positive is a major asset. Sure, there may be plenty of frustrations and sometimes my expectations may fall short of reality, but that’s not to say that there aren’t dozens of silver linings to be grateful for. I may have said goodbye to my family and friends, but this only makes saying “hello” that much sweeter when I return. My name may have been left off of a housing list, but I shared an exchange with a kind individual that I would otherwise have not have experienced, Pictionary and all. Secondly, and perhaps the most important for me, is being able to keep a sense of humor. There are inevitably going to be things that I do not know or have experience with but keeping a sense of humor, laughing at (and learning from) your mistakes, and moving forward is vital. This new outlook has made the passing days far more enjoyable and positive than my initial arrival and with the support of my new friends abroad and family back home, I’m completely confident and inspired to continue my journey into my new lifestyle. That being said, keeping a list of goals and aspirations during my time in Wrocław helps keep me on track. Something as simple as a list of restaurants or attractions to visit with my new friends is enough to make any worries drift away. The longer I am Wrocław, the more relaxed I feel and my excitement to get into the full swing of things only grows. I cannot predict exactly how the coming months will go, but with my new outlook on my time here and unique experiences daily, I’m confident they’ll be filled with new friends and adventures!


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Departure and Initial Adjustments

I am fortunate enough that I have traveled outside the United States twice before coming to study at the American University of Sharjah. Both were summer long trips, the first a humanitarian project in Malawi and the second a cultural exchange program in South Korea. Two things that held true for all of my trips is: I never could be fully prepared or know completely what to expect, but adjusting gets easier every time. I will admit, I looked at every google search result possible for “Woman traveling abroad in the UAE”. But life in the country and day to day interactions can never be fully encapsulated by whatever Google spits out. Once you accept that you can relax and move forward with a more open mind, not focusing on how events are lining up with your expectations and getting frustrated when they aren’t matching up.My biggest concern before I left was the financial aspect of studying abroad. I did several budget plans, tweaking every figure until I knew I could make it work. In the end, it all did work out, and here I am in the United Arab Emirates writing this post.

It didn’t fully sink in that I was studying abroad until I could see the twinkling lights of Dubai emerge from the airplane window. Disembarking after a long day of flights and airports, I followed the mass of passengers as we weaved through the long hallways leading to the luggage. Top tip: always check to see if the luggage carts are free. Most large airports in the states charge a few dollars for them, so I assumed the same applied in this airport. I was dreadfully mistaken. My taxi driver waiting on me had a right to chuckle when he saw me struggling to carry all of my bags. He remedied the situation and grabbed the nearest cart and pushed my bags for me the rest of the way.

As soon as I stepped outside the heat and humidity hit me, I felt like I was walking through hot jello. At 10pm at night the temperature was still well over 85 degrees and incredibly humid. This weather hasn’t improved, and six weeks in I am only marginally more adjusted to the constant 100+ degree temperature. I sat in the back seat of the taxi, looking out the window at the city racing next to me trying to read the Arabic written on all the signs.TeaganUAEfirst2

I wont deny that the next few days were rough. I got to the University a day earlier than most of the other exchange students, and our orientation didn’t start for several more days. Settling in to my dorm room was the easy part, but when I sat in my room it fully dawned upon me that I was alone. In both my other international travels I was part of a group from the very start. This time it was up to me to find my place. I won’t forget my first morning here. I wandered around campus at 6 am, watching the sun rise and exploring the campus grounds while listening to the birds. I went through the full spectrum of emotions, feeling alone, angry, and regretting everything.  When it comes to culture shock, like I mentioned it earlier, the more I travel the easier adjusting is. Once I found the international exchange office and talked to one of the staff there, all my uneasiness and regret faded away. As the whole group of exchange students went through orientation and taken on excursions around Dubai and Sharjah, I found my rhythm and renewed my excitement.

I am six weeks in to my program, and by now I am over the large hill of culture shock. I have adapted to the new culture as best I can and look forward to spending more time here. The best technique I found for this is building relationships with local students. I auditioned for the play and me and another exchange student both got it. She is a friend to fall back on, but we both are now a part of a larger circle of friends rehearsing twice a week. Being involved gives a sense of belonging, as well as meeting people who can give you more insight into the culture.

Not surprisingly, the UAE is different from the USA. I am in Sharjah, the most conservative of the Emirates. I am expected to follow a dress code when in public (cover shoulders and knees) and have to watch how I interact with friends of the opposite gender. I have to make sure I don’t take pictures that have other locals in them, especially if they are women. I should be aware of what I say and post online regarding political issues or religious topics. Freedom of speech does not exist here in the way Americans are accustomed to. The first thing I really noticed is that I am not free to act and say whatever I want, and bound by a lot of spoken and unspoken rules. That being said, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I am here as a visitor, and will conduct myself in a manner that respects the culture. To be honest this is a very tolerant country, with a level of diversity that reminds me of the States.

While I am here my goal is to visit all seven of the emirates. Considering that the UAE is slightly smaller than my home state of Indiana, I could drive through the entire country in one day. The public bus system out of Dubai is fantastic, making the realization of my goal possible. I hope to see all seven emirates and what differences exist between them. I hope to experience all that the UAE has to offer, from the extravagant malls of Dubai to the mountains in Ras Al-Khaimah.

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Surviving the British Buffet (This Post Will Make You Hungry)

Remember when you were a kid and everything you put in your mouth was a new experience?  It’s not too late to relive it.

Britain has a reputation for terrible food, and I’m not sure where that comes from. What I will say, though, is that British foods don’t tend to travel the same distances that American foods do, and I suspect this reduces the amount of additives and preservatives injected for shelf life.  In the States, you can hardly find a salad dressing or tomato sauce without sugar added, and salt intake is on the high end even if you don’t own a shaker. British foods, on the other hand, are pretty much “season to taste,” which requires a trifling amount of effort but actually works out rather well if, like me, you’re also starting to realize how shamefully inept you are at the most basic fundamentals of feeding yourself. I’m actually more than a little proud that I’m learning to strike that precarious balance between seethingly bland and plate-of-pure-salt.


a proper british pub spread

A proper British pub spread.


The trade-off in Britain is that while perishables perish, they also tend to be RIDICULOUSLY fresh when you buy them. Like, right off the farmer’s wheelbarrow and into your kitchen. I’m starting to suspect that the myth of terrible British food is contrived to keep secret the mouthwatering deliciousness of things.  I do suspect that because foods tend to be fresher and less pre-saturated with flavourings, the British may have a slightly subtler palate. American brands compete for customers with increasingly outrageous combinations (chocolate-chip sausage, anyone?) which I suspect has conditioned our tastebuds to have a very high tolerance and a very low comprehension for more nuanced tastes. The Brits, on the flip side, are unaccustomed to such explosions of flavor and can appreciate a milder experience. (Then again, I notice that they do have a thing for chili spice, which I guess is how they get their kicks.)

I can also say that Britain isn’t likely the easiest place to be vegan or vegetarian. I have observed vegetarian and gluten-free options on products and menus, but on the whole the cornerstone of the British diet is heavily geared to dairy, grains, and meat. By far the most oft-found foods are some form of meat or dairy food in a pastry. There are meat pies, pasties, sausage rolls, Scottish eggs, macaroni pies… more combinations than I can wrap my head around, and all of them infuriatingly delicious. It’s set my efforts to reduce my grain intake back decades. Regrets? Undetermined.


scotch eggs.JPG

Scotch eggs.


One of the things that I missed the most when I arrived here was Hickory Farm’s summer sausage, but a favorite British dish of mine is “Bangers & Mash”: three hefty sausages crowning a simple plate of mashed potatoes and gravy.  I finally took it upon myself to ask the server what kind of sausages they served, which turned out to be Cumberland, and was thus elated to discover these at the market. Cumberland sausages are pre-seasoned with a distinctive combination of herbs and spices, and these have become my staple summer-sausage-substitute.  I would happily stock each, but I fear I may have a harder time reverting than converting.


bangers and mash

Bangers and mash.


Back in the States, I also liked to keep a block of cheddar in the fridge to slice up for an easy afternoon snack. When I made my first grocery run in the UK, I looked at the cheddar askance. There were no brands I was familiar with, and the blocks were labeled, “Mild” or “Mature” – not “Medium” and “Sharp” as I was used to. Were these equivalent? Would “Mature” have a weird flavor?  I chanced it and bit into my first slice with trepidation, fearing a waste of a good fiver. As the taste hit my tongue, my face reflexively grimaced; it was immediately clear that this was not the cheddar of my experience.

And then the second wave of flavor hit my tongue… little neurons of new information exploding ecstatically into my brain. My eyes widened. I paused mid-bite, savoring the developing taste sensation. It reminisced of something I’d once sampled from a fancy platter of delicatessen cheeses I could never afford. But this was just a common-variety block of cheddar purchased for a few pounds from the bottom shelf of the local grocer. I quickly ensconced another chunk between the roof of my mouth and tongue, lingering on my newfound luxury as the voice of British claymation star Wallace, of Wallace and Gromit fame, burst into my memory espousing the virtues of cheese. Suddenly it stopped being silly.


butter and cheddar

Butter and cheddar.


A similar thing happened with the butter. “It’s just butter,” you’d think. But let me tell you: in Britain, the butter is so delectable you add the bread to it. Butter in the States is erroneously called “Sweet Cream,” but never have I confused it with anything I would consider sweet until it had been compensated by much sweeter ingredients. Your run-of-the-mill square of Scottish butter is another story. Add a pat of it to the plainest bread slice and poof!  Instant decadence.  I’d been prattling fanatically about the cheese and butter to my family over the phone when my mum stumbled across a relevant passage in a book she was reading called “The Cafe by the Sea” by Scottish author Jenny Colgan:

Colton’s face was comical to watch. If Flora, as a massive cheese fanatic, had adored Fintan’s creation, it was nothing to how a man raised on American cheese and finally tasting something so full and bursting with flavor and richness and full-bodied depth and nuttiness was going to react.  “Good God in heaven,” he said eventually… Colton cut himself a thick wedge, then another…  For a time there was no sound except for some slightly orgasmic noises.  “My God,” said Colton eventually.  “I mean, my God. I mean.”

“Taste the butter,” said Flora evilly.

The motto of the American market seems to be “fast and cheap;” perhaps an unfortunate artifact of the magnitude of our population and economy. But the Scots do things a little differently. A bit of googly sleuthing turned up this article on which says that European butter is cultured, churned, and allowed to ferment longer, resulting in the festival of complexity on your tongue. I’d imagine the cheese-making process is similar. Dairy products, in general, seem to be something you can depend on for happiness.  You might have heard that if you haven’t had proper European chocolate then you simply haven’t had chocolate. Sorry to break it to you, but it’s true. I thought I was above that crutch until a friend introduced me to the real stuff, and now a day is incomplete without a few squares of Lindt with my shortbread (a crumbly, buttery cookie) and tea.


chocolate and shortbread

Chocolate and shortbread.

coffee on the road

Coffee on the road


I’ve blathered before about my obsession with crumpets, and I’ll blather some more. The pleasure of a crumpet, as I recently lamented to my mum, is almost not worth the sacrifice of finishing it; the flavors still dancing away on your taste buds as you stare at the now tragically empty plate. I call this “crumpet remorse,” and I subject myself to it daily.  The U.S. is SERIOUSLY missing out on these things, and I can’t for the life of me fathom why. Instead, in the States we stock their outrageously inferior cousin, the “English Muffin.” They may appear similar, but English Muffins are dense, dry and taste in my expert opinion like compressed cardboard. Crumpets, on the other hand, are light, airy, porous, buoyant squishy sponges of flavourful fun.  Whatever you put on them, the bread absorbs it so that the entire muffin is thus infused.  When I return to the grievously-deprived States, I may leave my clothes in favor of a carton of crumpets.

How to crumpet: As I understand it, most Scots just ready it in the toaster like your ordinary slab of wheat, but since I like to fry up an egg and sausage for breakfast, I toss the crumpets into the skillet as well. The result is a soft and spongy concoction on the inside with an outwardly crispy crunch. Personally I like to top one off with a square of salted butter and (optionally) a smidge of jam. I lay a fried egg over the other and nibble on my jammy crumpet while I melt a slice of Scottish cheddar in the still-hot skillet. As soon as that’s soft, I pour it over the egg and nip into the most delicious anti-mcmuffin you could imagine.

When they hear you’ve been to the UK, Americans will love to ask: “How was the food?” in tones that sounds more in line with the question, “How was the toothache?” If you ever have the pleasure of the answer, be sure to tell them it’s terrible. More wealth for the rest of us.


dining in the UK.JPG

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