Sleepless Nights, Departure, Mandarin, and Thoughts

My first day back in the United States— Saturday, the 14th of November— was tiring. I had spent a sleepless Wednesday night and Thursday morning editing a video to show at a school presentation early Thursday evening. I did not get to sleep until midnight on Thursday, and with the graces of my body’s alert systems going off, I woke up with a start at 3:00 AM to begin packing for my 11:00 AM flight that Friday morning out of Australia. It was perhaps five hours until departure, so I was glad to have woken up at 3:00 AM and not later. After a twenty-one hour flight back home, I settled into bed early at 10:30 PM, which is my norm in college. Despite my extreme sleep deprivation, I awoke at 9:00 AM on Saturday morning, which was pretty early for someone who averaged five hours of sleep each night for the past few days. Ten and a half hours of sleep in total on my first night home. Not too bad for a first night’s sleep.

After my full night’s sleep, I could finally think about the changes that had happened in my first few hours back in the U.S., and I found the memories coming back bit by bit. I could remember back to Friday night, as I got off the plane and feeling firmly attached to familiar ground. Around me were Dunkin Donuts, an abundance of Americans, and even a T fare machine, which is the bus and train public transportation here in Boston. Having my T card on hand, I used the machine to check the fare on my card — $4.20— perfect for two bus rides. I had used a different fare machine for the last three months to travel on Australia’s transportation system, Translink. That thought brought me feelings about the T fare machine that were oddly similar, but not quite the same. I had a sense of unease that I did not quite fit in in a place I had once been comfortable. But that feeling went away when I knew that for certain, I was back where I had started.

I stepped outside the airport terminal into a windy and late fall evening. After spending some time looking out for signs of a bus that would take me towards inner Boston, I realized that I was still wearing my shorts in mid-40˚F weather. I was clearly underestimating the weather in Boston at this time of the year. I put on a pair of rain pants to warm my legs up while I waited for the bus. I looked down at my smartphone and it read 4:50 PM. The sun had already set in Boston, and again, that was unfamiliar. The sun sets in Brisbane around 6:00 PM this time of the year during their long days of spring. It was truly a bipolar change going from Brisbane’s warm long days and short nights to Boston’s wintery short days and long nights.

I took the Silver Line express back home to Copley Square, enjoying the company of a self-depreciating bus driver while listening in one ear to Kiss 108, a music radio station in Boston. The bus drove in the right lane, which was not actually as jarring as when I first arrived in Australia and experienced a bus driving in the left lane. I walked the rest of the way home, suitcase, duffel bag, backpack and all. Walking back home, I was surprised that I could cross the roads without getting hit. Though I did look the wrong way for upcoming traffic a couple of times before I started crossing the street. I had to concentrate on not drifting to the left side of the pedestrian path, which had become natural in the three months in Australia.

And so that was my first night back from Australia, including the nights leading up to my arrival in the U.S.. I am definitely happy to have a break from a regimented schedule of classes, projects, and exams at University of Queensland. Now, after a week of being back in the U.S.,  I am starting to feel fully adjusted to living back at home. Looking forward, I have decided to return to learning Mandarin, a language I have studied in my childhood. I have picked up a winter job at the Frog Pond as a skate guard, something that will keep me active until I return back to college. I have also grown to have stronger culinary interests from taking food classes in Brisbane, made possible by a Student Initiatives Fund grant from my college. In the present, I am enjoying home-cooked traditional Cantonese-style dishes, which has helped me return to a more simple carb and vegetable diet.

Memories of presenting a day’s worth of research on Stradbroke Island, getting caught in that deluge of rain that ruined my laptop, daily hikes through Lamington and Girraween, and the feeling of finishing a four day research project on the Great Barrier Reef are memories of a lifetime. With these experiences I have had abroad in Australia, I already feel that I have a stronger background in my biology major. I will miss the 31 students and 9 staff from my study abroad program. I will miss the great food that my host family always made for dinner around the TV set, and scrumptious “snags” on white bread.

This has been my semester abroad in Brisbane, Australia. Cheers to change and growing up in today’s modern world.

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Conservation in Russia

“The most majestic and beautiful of all the world’s cities, it seems, has dozed off the banks of a fast-flowing river . . . resting from storms scudding overhead and the apparitions of the past, hardening into these colonnades, these bronze lions, these eternally smiling sphinxes, into the black angel on the top of Peter and Paul’s Fortress . . . And through this drowsiness, waiting for new, even unexpected shocks that will open its granite eyes onto a second life.” —Alexei Tolstoy

The policies of the Soviet Union, a time when officials felt that pollution control was an unnecessary hindrance to economic development and industrialization, can be found at the root of many of the environmental issues in Russia. Large parts of Russia’s territory began demonstrating symptoms of significant ecological stress by the 1990s, largely due to a diverse number of environmental issues including deforestation, energy irresponsibility, pollution, and nuclear waste.

While vehicle and industry emissions are certainly an increasing danger, the irresponsibility towards water pollution remains the most serious concern as it has caused health issues in many cities as well as the countryside due to the poor treatment of waste water prior to being returned to waterways. Water treatment facilities are obsolete and inefficient and combined with the lack of funding this has not only caused heavy pollution, it has also resulted in waterborne disease spread. Much of the water pollution is a result of the dumping of industrial and chemical waste into waterways.

The trademark Louis Vuitton monogram is spray painted uniformly on these Russian trash cans. An ironic and humorous representation of luxury masking the sad truth of environmental unfriendliness.

The trademark Louis Vuitton monogram is spray painted uniformly on these Russian trash cans. An ironic and humorous representation of luxury masking the sad truth of environmental unfriendliness.

As a partaker in the time-honored American pastime known as consumerism, I am among many Americans who have noticed the labeling of consumer products become more complex than just a seal of approval from Good Housekeeping magazine.

Usually uniformly green, the labels on American goods all share the mission to protect our Earth and its resources, as well as safeguard the health, safety, and well-being of the humans and animals who call it home. Each label represents a different goal, whether it be practicing energy conservation, reducing waste, supporting sustainable forestry, or lessening our reliance on agricultural chemicals.

Unless you are a frequent shopper of overly priced goods, it’s quite rare to find the Russian equivalent of USDA Organic, Energy Star, or the recycling triumvirate of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” In St. Petersburg, it is totally different because the average person is not concerned about waste and sorting it. They simply don’t care about garbage disposal. There are however activists; students and the younger generation in particular who are interested in implementing and improving the dynamics of environmental conservation. The government has very few projects in place that aim to change people’s attitudes and approach towards nature. Further, officials decry the economic and social costs of environmental degradation. They lack the commitment, resources, and organizational capacity to address environmental problems.

Let us preserve the beauty of this frosted rose, along with other aspects of nature, as it prepares itself for the Russian winter.

Let us preserve the beauty of this frosted rose, along with other aspects of nature, as it prepares itself for the Russian winter.

The near future of Russia appears to be unable to deal effectively with the daunting environmental challenges posed by decades of Soviet and post-Soviet environmental mismanagement and recurring economic crises. Although the prolonged contraction in economic activity has resulted in significant drops in most pollution categories, substantial environmental improvement will depend on an array of socioeconomic, institutional, and cultural changes that will need to be facilitated by international engagement. Major progress is decades away.


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Enjoying Europe’s Beauty

While studying abroad, vacations are incorporated into our semester schedule just like any other university. This is a nice chance to take a break from late nights of writing papers and studying, but also a wonderful opportunity to see other cities nearby. For my fall break I embarked on an adventure-filled tour of Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris over the course of ten days. Each city is uniquely its own. Berlin holds a strange peace and serenity to it in the day time with picturesque orange and gold trees sprinkled everywhere. Amsterdam is a storybook town, with its spotless canals, lush parks, and happy cyclists. Paris, an urban jungle: crowded streets, smushed together (sometimes even slanted) buildings, and amazing fashion.

At 850 acres, Tiergarten is Berlin’s oldest and largest park. With a cool temperature, a thick layer of fallen leaves, and a slow sunset, it felt like walking around in a calendar picture for November. The most notable and surreal thing about Tiergarten was the pure serenity of it. It’s right in the middle of Berlin, however there were few souls around. The park is so huge, you could easily spend a solitary day exploring it. You can’t really find that in places like Central Park or Hyde Park in New York, which are typically dotted with people. My favorite find in Tiergarten was a tree etched with romantic carvings from couples proclaiming their love for one another with hearts and arrows.


Romantic carvings at Berlin’s Teirgarten.


Hanging out in Tiergarten.

There is a lot of unused space in Berlin. The best example of this is Spreepark, an abandoned theme park next to Spree River. The park has been abandoned for almost 15 years and is popular for daredevils to sneak into and tour. Despite this, the park sits untouched. In America, developed space rarely sits around long enough for nature to reconquer, especially in a major city. Just taking a walk around Spreepark’s fence is an adventure. There are huge overturned dinosaur statues lying around. And at night when the wind blows, the ferris wheel makes some spooky noises.


The spooky abandoned Spreepark.

Amsterdam wins the eco-friendly award. Cyclists definitely outnumber cars. It was whimsical seeing hoards of people biking to work in business attire, their briefcase stowed in the bicycles’ front basket. In Amsterdam, the bike lanes are as busy and stressful as a freeway lane. Crossing the main street was a dizzying affair each and every time, as there are about eight lanes of traffic and the central metro train meandering its way down the street too!

The Dutch even bike on their night outs. I saw couples pedaling in sync on two-person bikes, dressed to impress. As one person told us, “Everyone here has two bikes. A really good one, and then a crappy one in case the good one stops working…or if a friend comes to visit you.”

Amsterdam’s beauty is obviously prided. The canals and cobblestone streets are cleaned each night to look spic-and-span.

Therefore, Paris was a major change.

The outlying districts of Paris reminded me of New York, with trash thrown about on the street and in the gutters. To fix this problem, the streets have a steady stream of water running down them. The water comes out of curbside openings and washes the debris into the sewage system. It makes Paris more energy and eco-efficient, as the sewage water runs through a different set of pipes than the drinking water, and is therefore treated to different, less costly standards. Here’s an article that explains the eco-friendly water system in Paris way better than me. This practice is good for the environment, but not good for pedestrians crossing the street sometimes. There can be huge puddles near the curb. I feel sorry for any fierce Parisians wearing a cute pair of heels.


At the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Random, but Paris really loves carousels. I saw about six of them in the most random places during my visit. That’s six more than I’ve seen in London. Obviously this needs to be fixed, Queen Elizabeth.

Thankfully, I was in Paris the weekend prior to the recent attacks. My thoughts and prayers go out to the multiple countries attacked this past week.

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A Day in the Life of Christina in Paris

This footage was filmed by Gilman scholar and video correspondent Christina prior to the events of November 13, 2015. Thankfully, Christina, as well as all Gilman scholars studying in Paris are confirmed safe. The Gilman International Scholarship Program offers our condolences to those who have suffered loss. Our thoughts are with the people of Paris and Beirut and all those around the world who have been affected by the attacks.

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by | November 18, 2015 · 2:56 pm

The Blur of City Life: Rebuilding My Past, Present, and Future

I landed in Australia on the 21st of August. Today is the 11th of November, nearly three months after my Virgin Australia international flight touched down in Brisbane International Airport. Everyday has been a new experience. On one day, I am riding my bike precariously close to cars driving on high speed lanes, and another day I am studying in a cubicle at one of three libraries I regularly go to on the University of Queensland (UQ) campus, taking part in an act that tens of thousands of students here at UQ participate in.

Life in Brisbane comes by in a blur. Waiting for the bus at one of the central transit centers is a hair-raising experience. The process is like this:

1) Look up on the timetable and remember when your bus is coming.

2) Look up at the electronic arrivals board and see if your bus is on time or late (which is often enough).

3) Concentrate on recognizing that your bus with the correct number is coming into the station.

4) Flag the bus down to stop at the station immediately. If you have not done so, then you missed your bus already because it has already driven off.

I have missed my bus twice. Once during rush hour when I was not paying attention and it sped off towards the next station. And another when my bus went past me and I caught up to it as it waited in the bus queue, but the door closed on me just as I ran up to it. The bus driver was not keen on opening that door.

At my homestay, I struggle to come home early because much of my time is spent at a UQ library doing homework on a library computer as a result of a my personal laptop suffering from water damage. I have to cope with being without technology since I have broken my iPhone and Macbook laptop, and I miss the ease of carrying these around to stay connected to others through the Internet. Additionally, my back-up Razor flip-phone has recently lost its ability to project my voice to callers on the other side. Loss of a majority of technology? That was modern culture shock.

Living with a host family has been a departure from my two years living in college dorm housing at my home university in the U.S.. My host family really helped with my process of adjusting to Australia by providing a physical home with people I consider my extended family now. I have not had any bad bouts of homesickness, but I did experience a bit of depression from forfeiting control that I possess in my own country when arriving in Australia. Here, I am a guest, and sometimes the only way to learn my way around is by making mistakes, which requires more patience than I’m used to. When I look back at my study abroad experience in Australia, I will see it as a time when I made the most mistakes I have ever made and have taken the most risks ever!

On the 9th of November, the day after we returned from a class excursion to Heron Island, our lecture in class was not on any of the subjects that we have studied this semester, but it was about culture shock and reverse culture shock! Amazing and coincidental that it was exactly what I was going to write about for this blog post!

From the time I decided I was going to do this unknown and alien thing called study abroad, I was already preparing myself in many ways: Figuring out international cell phone plans, travel plans, “what are you going to bring there” plans, and most importantly, my plane ticket plan. It was a LOT of preparation going in. I had numerous documents for my study abroad program to sign and complete by strict deadlines, all while I was still taking classes at college. But now that all of that prep work is finished, I can focus on the question: How am I going to remember this? And how am I going to go back to the United States after spending a quarter of a year in a foreign country– 1.2% of my current life?

The lecturer warned us that people and things will have moved on without us, whether we like it or not. People back home have started moving in a direction where they have either completely forgotten about you or replaced you with new friends. After all, study abroad makes it hard to stay in touch with everyone you know back home.

Another thing the lecturer shared is that our peers might shrug us off if we start getting too yappy about what a great time we had studying abroad. This is because everyone I talk to about my experience will not be as emotionally invested in my experience as I am, and they might even be a bit annoyed listening to me babble on about what a great time I had. This lesson from the lecture really perked my ears. I imagined myself back on my home campus, speaking with a friend at a football game, sharing about what a great time I had at the Great Barrier Reef on Heron Island. The person will likely not be interested in this story, because they have most likely never been to Australia or to the Great Barrier Reef themselves, or spent as much time and energy studying the ecosystem and culture as I have this semester. Australia is a distant place for most of my American peers. There is no string of experiences that allows them to connect to my story and say “Yeah, I can relate to that.”

I imagine the adjustment of returning home will be similar to adjusting to my first year of college, but on a grander scale of adjusting from the Australian culture that I have grown so used to. I am even imagining how much the playground across the street from my home in New York has changed since I’ve been gone. Last fall semester of my sophomore year, the park was completely torn down and in shambles, but by the following summer the playground equipment was just being put up. And by the time I return, the park will be complete with no more orange construction fences, and perhaps snow will cover the playground where the kids will play in the spring. To understand and talk about what it is to study abroad and return home is one of the most interesting challenges that I have encountered in my life. Despite the personal challenges that I faced, I can confidently say that this experience as a whole has changed me for the better.

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Agricultural Sustenance in Jordan

As my American friends back home prepared for their annual Halloween activities, my October 31st was spent along the Jordan Valley in a region called Ghor Al Mazraa. Standing as the country’s most fertile region, its unique agricultural climate has excelled Jordan’s all-year-round fruit and vegetable exports for decades. With that being said, Ghor is known for more than just its fertile land and agricultural richness. It is home to a unique, authentic community which sustains itself through resourceful, agricultural living. The people of Ghor exemplify a strong bond between man and nature, one that has held generation after generation and is portrayed throughout their daily lives. I was lucky enough to spend the day with a local family there, who invited my peers and I over for some dinner and more.

Below is a picture of Madia. Madia, who was kind enough to invite us to her small home in Ghor Al Mazraa, introduced us to a whole different lifestyle inside her community, one based on agricultural sustainment.  In the picture below, Madia is teaching us dough-stretching techniques used to make Arabic flatbread. Similar to rolling a pizza, it is done by flopping the dough back and forth between your hands. Once a large circle is formed, the dough is placed onto a large, heated dome.

Madia making bread.

Madia making bread.

This large black dome sits above burning wooden sticks. It is heated and used to cook bread in a matter of seconds. Among many traditional cooking  techniques utilized by Madia and her family, this particular method is used to solely to make bread, a staple component in almost every Arabic meal.

The black dome.

The black dome.

After Madia’s lesson on flatbread making, she gave everyone the chance to make their own piece. I decided to have a go at it myself and to my surprise I ended up making a decent flatbread! I even received a few compliments.

Me and my flatbread.

Me and my flatbread.

Throughout Madia’s home, there were several stations set up for the students in my program which were meant to expose us to the unique lifestyle of the community. After the bread-making station, I decided to check out the other ones located in and out of the house. Among them was a seed-grinding station, where a few of my peers were grinding lentils with a traditional grinder made up of two rocks and a wooden handle. This grinder is used by pouring seeds into the small opening at the top and using a wooden handle to turn two rocks against each other until enough friction is created to break the seeds apart.

A rock grinder.

A seed grinder.

After spending some time at the seed-grinding station, I decided to move on to one of the stations outside. I came across another cooking station, which I would later find out was being utilized to make our dinner for that very night. Here a few of my peers were helping some of the women peel tomatoes. In order to give you a true understanding of the community’s resourcefulness, let it be known that the skins and other parts of the tomato which were not used for the soup were fed to the goats in the backyard!

Peeling tomatoes.

Peeling tomatoes.

Just across the tomato station was another station set up for sauteing vegetables. To my realization, Madia’s family did not own a stove and relied on a pan, metal rack, and burning wood in order to fry the peppers and onions.

Ghor Al Mazraa, Jordan Valley, Jordan, Azzara - Photo 6

Cooking the veggies.

Lo and behold, the tomatoes that we previously peeled were eventually combined with the fried peppers and onions, and simmered together to make  a delicious homemade tomato soup. We enjoyed our soup with the flatbread we made earlier.

Our yummy soup.

Our yummy soup.

After dinner, Madia and her family invited us back inside for some arts and crafts. Among one of the varying sessions was “model car making.” As a common hobby among children in the community, various wires and other seemingly “useless” materials are utilized to make model cars which are then played with as toys. At this station, one especially talented boy by the name of Khalid displayed his collection of bikes, motorcycles, cars, and airplanes. He even showed us how to bend and form the wires to form the models seen below.

The wire cars.

Khalid’s impressive wire cars.

Among the most interesting and traditional crafts was the natural eyeliner station. One of the young women explained the process of creating this organic makeup– a three hour long process using a black aluminum bowl, olive oil, and a piece of cotton cloth. The cloth is burned over the olive oil while the aluminum tin is placed on top of forming smoke. At the end of the process, a thick black layer is formed on the inner surface of aluminum bowl, and then scraped off and used as eyeliner. They made everyone, both men and women, put it on! Below is a picture of my friend Meghan sporting the traditional eyeliner.

Megan trying out the eyeliner.

Meghan trying out the eyeliner.

The day trip to Ghor was among one of my favorite thus far, and it really put into perspective the manner in which natural resources and agricultural methods are cherished and utilized within Ghor’s community. Coming from Western society where waste is an all too common thing, being exposed to the lifestyle in Ghor Al Mazraa was very inspiring. 

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Small Children, Big Impacts

Hearing the mantra of a child’s laughter can bring great joy. In a similar regard, receiving a kind look from a child can save you from your own darkness. Children absolutely fascinate me. Please refer to the photo below, where you will see a lovely little darling squatting to play with the dirt. What you can’t see pictured in this photo is that the child is really in front of the Catherine Palace, which with nearly 1 kilometer in circumference it is the most grandiose summer residence in all of Russia. What’s comical is that the little girl was more intrigued by the dirt, on which hundreds of tourists had walked on earlier that day, than an 18th century triumph.


Young stranger being amused by the dirt in front of the Catherine Palace.

It is this very fascination I have with the minds and personalities of youngsters that urged me to find a volunteer opportunity that involved youth to supplement my study abroad experience. The demand for English speakers is enormous in Russia, as the value of learning the international language of business and commerce is appreciated by many. Also, old stereotypes of an economic system fueled by vodka and general lawlessness have made native English teachers scarce in Russia. The demand for native speakers to teach English in Russia far exceeds the supply. With this in mind, I came across an opportunity to volunteer as an English teacher for first through eighth graders at a private academy about a half an hour outside of the city.

The English lessons commence after the students’ core classes and extracurricular activities have ended, leaving me with usually very drained students to work with. Clearly, an efficient plan needed to be implemented if I wanted my pupils to absorb as much knowledge in the limited time we had together. I noticed that combining both a communicative language approach (vocabulary and conversation exercises) and an interactive approach (opportunities in lessons for both speaking and listening), the kids started to build a basic understanding of English.

The classroom where the English lessons take place and subsequently where students build their foundation as future leaders.

The classroom where the English lessons take place and subsequently where students build their foundation as future leaders.

Once a week, I get individual time with every student and depending on their proficiency level, I facilitate question-and-answer sessions, Simon Says games, and deeper discussions on a variety of topics. One young girl in particular warms my heart like no other as she greets me in her best English and smiles with her newly growing adult teeth. Together, we read interesting tales and later complain about things like “silent E’s” in the English language. I can really see the wonder in her eyes.

One of my star students, Dasha, as she tries to read,

One of my star students, Dasha, as she tries to read, “school, bus, train…”

Teaching the language was certainly not as challenging as finding topics to discuss with some of the older students in the academy. The academy I volunteer at is quite prestigious, and therefore only attended by those who can afford it. I struggled speaking on the topic of public transportation in the city with one of my students as he very loudly grimaced at my mentioning of the St. Petersburg metro system (a quite fascinating and efficient system in my opinion). He couldn’t imagine himself riding in such a dirty and crowded cart when he could very easily be transported by his mother’s luxurious BMW. Certainly a response like this can infuriate many Russian citizens, particularly the estimated figure of 70 percent that is below the middle class. My first taste of the the wealthier side of Russia unexpectedly came from a young pupil of mine. I realize that his upbringing leaves public transportation out of his daily rhetoric.

While this attitude about elements of different social classes can certainly become more developed one day, a positive change for the low-income Russians is unlikely to come anytime soon. The highly monopolistic economy that’s controlled by a small number of political-business elites is not only slowing down the social mobility from the middle to the upper-middle class, but could even cease as a result of the current crises (low oil prices, Western sanctions, and deep-set economic problems). When the reality stands out to be very grim, I am reminded that I myself am still young and capable of making a change. I hope that by teaching students the English language, they too will become interested in ways they can use their abilities to make a positive impact. Who knows, maybe one of my pupils will save the Russian social class system one day.

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