A New Beginning and A New Lifestyle

Marhaba! My name is Sofia Sinnokrot and I am a second year student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the 2018-2019 academic year I will be studying abroad in Amman, Jordan. Being half Palestinian and visiting the Middle East several times in my life, I do not share the culture shock that many of my fellow peers have experienced from the moment they saw the McDonald’s sign written in Arabic.

McDonalds

However, visiting the Middle East and living in the Middle East are two completely different situations; the latter in which I was not prepared for. In the United States, we take for granted many aspects of our daily lives that are additional privileges in other parts of the world. For example, Jordan is one of the poorest water countries in the world. That being said, my apartment is only given a measurable tank of water for the month. Once that water runs out, we have to wait until the next refillment period or pay a large amount of money to get a new tank before. We are not able to drink the tap water from our kitchen sink, and have to pay for additional water jugs once we run out of drinking water. It is emphasised that laundry should only be done on the first day that our water is refilled since a load of laundry requires a significant amount of water. Water alone is a major change for me to adjust to while I am here. Being a runner, I consume at least 3 liters of water a day. Not having access to water fountains in buildings is something that is actively on my conscious and an adjustment I have had to account for in my daily routine. Coming from Chicago, unlimited drinkable running water was a norm for me that I took for granted. The same goes for electricity. Electricity in Amman is very expensive, and drying machines are rare household items. Instead of having my laundry done in a few hours, I have to hang my clothes up outside and wait two days for them to dry.

porch

Life in Amman is very different compared to life in the United States. Most of the food in the supermarkets are imported from nearby countries. Thus, grocery shopping can become very expensive. Vegetables that are imported are sprayed with an extreme amount of pesticides and the chemical taste of them has made eating food an unpleasurable experience. Although I could go on forever comparing the simple life of living in America to the more complex adjustment of living in Amman, there are many positive aspects to each scenario. For one, I have become water conscious. With global warming on the rise, gaining environmental friendly traits is NOT something that should be talked about in a negative way. Jordan being a poor water country is extremely unfortunate, but I am now conscientious of my water usage. As well, instead of buying from supermarkets where goods are imported, I have learned to buy from local sellers. Not only is the food comparably fresh and cheap, I am helping the seller’s family as well as the Jordanian economy.

veggie stand

It is the little things that I do not normally think about that make adjusting to life in Amman a little bit more difficult than I expected. Nonetheless, I love my life here so far and I am very excited for the next few months!

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The Return and Reverse Culture Shock

Was it all a dream? Did all of that really happen? How can I even begin to explain to my friends and family back home about my experiences studying in Sápmi? I have identified closely with the stages of reverse culture shock in the past two weeks. I miss the Sámi culture and the closeness I developed with my hosts and random people that became friends. Before returning home home in Northern Illinois, I spent six days with my mother in Oslo which is the largest city in Norway. After studying so closely with the indigenous peoples, it was a shock to be surrounded by so many Norwegians and little evidence of Sámi presence. Spending the time with my mother was wonderful because we got to spend quality time together doing really fun things in a city neither of us had been to before, but I couldn’t eloquently express what I was thinking about after such an intensive month of immersion study. Fortunately the only stories I have to share are happy ones, this program couldn’t have gone any better.

Mom and I Exploring Oslo, Norway.

Mom and I Exploring Oslo, Norway

Part of me thinks I will be back there someday…maybe for a holiday or to visit an old friend. Part of me can’t imagine the next time I will ever get the chance to go to this part of the world…will any of those new friendships last the test of time? The last ten days back in small-town Illinois have been excellent, but complicated. I’ve been spending time with family and got to visit an old friend and explore downtown Chicago but mind is trying to adjust to American ways of life…and also knowing that I am leaving to study in Costa Rica soon. As an environmental studies major, I can’t help but find myself comparing the ecological health of place I visited in Norway, the Chicago river I walked beside, the tropic rain-forest I will find myself in for the next month…its too much for me to process in a short amount of time.

Things I have been so happy to have back in America are non-dairy milk options, the overwhelming choices available in any shopping or grocery store, and lower prices compared to Scandinavia, and the beautiful prairies and forests I grew up among. Thing I miss about my host country is the lower population density, vast and lush natural landscapes, being surrounded by foreign languages, and the general nomadic travel component of my particular course, and most of all the people that I got to share enlightening experiences with. The ego check that comes along with culture shock has taught me a lot about myself and what I would like to change.

On a walk in the windy city...the city by the lake...Chicago.

On a walk in the windy city…the city by the lake…Chicago.

I now know my strengths and weaknesses better than I had a month and a half ago the day I began my international journey. I can also identify qualities in other people in a way that I couldn’t before this experience; I feel like the more people who are different that you meet and interact closely with, the more about human behavior becomes apparent to you. People are so diverse, even among close communities. Generalizing and comparing one culture to another doesn’t do any good, but recognizing those beautiful and challenging uniquenesses is important. I wonder if I will ever see someone wearing the beautifully colored gahkti, or if I will ever eat reindeer or whale, or surf above the arctic circle again? Will the friends I made there ever come to visit me in America? So many people hear a lot about America and want to visit so badly, and I hope to be a good host to anyone who finds their way here.

On a hike enjoying the natural beauty of northern Illinois.

On a hike enjoying the natural beauty of northern Illinois.

What will I do now? Well…I’m going to be studying in Costa Rica for 23 days! It will be my final course of study for my first bachelor’s degree in Conservation Science and Management from the University of Washington. The course is in environmental science and restoration ecology through the school of environment and focuses on biodiversity and sustainability. I wish I could tell you all about it, but my Gilman International Scholar’s duties have come to an end with this final blog about my experiences in Sápmi. I look forward to seeing sloths, observe hundreds of species within each taxa, to eat exotic fruits, practice Spanish and scientific sketching, and to have the best final class any undergraduate student could ask for!

It’s been a pleasure writing for all of you. Peace.

 

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Costa Rica to College to Career

It has been two years since I was awarded the Gilman Scholarship to Costa Rica, and it has provided me the skills to be confident, flexible, and independent. So, I initially did not think that I would gain these skills when studying abroad- I thought that I could just get ahead by taking courses while having the opportunity to travel and become more advanced in my Spanish-speaking skills, but studying abroad allowed me to gain critical career skills by pushing me from my comfort zone.

Yes, I did expand my Spanish-speaking vocabulary, but more importantly I developed important cross-cultural communication skills. You see, I was in a home-stay program where I was able to live with a family and learn about the Costa Rican culture to truly adapt to the Pura Vida lifestyle. My communication skills developed immensely, and I am able to now interact with people with different backgrounds. Also, learning another language can make you a competitive applicant for a future career because you are able to connect with a greater range of people through communication.

Studying abroad will help you enhance your ability to adapt to a new environment. During my first days in Costa Rica I had no idea what to do, where to go, or how to have fun. I escaped the dim lighting of the library and was able to actually walk outside and study wildlife on campus (such as sloths) at the University of Costa Rica! Fortunately, I was able to make cheap affordable travel plans through contacting travel agencies. While traveling in Costa Rica, I was able to meet other college students while staying in hostels, which really opened my eyes as it was a completely different experience. However, that experience was a growing experience as I was able to meet and connect with others from all across the world. I was also able to develop new time management skills in order to balance my classes as well as traveling. Ultimately, studying abroad allowed me to gain the skills necessary such as time management and being flexible which are key skills in the workforce.

Being a Gilman Scholar means that you are not only given the opportunity to study abroad, but you are given a strong foundation to set up your future career through the experiences that you will gain.  Thank you Gilman for providing me with that foundation!

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Finishing college and Cambridge

This week I finished my college degree. In the past five years I have written dozens of papers, taken countless tests and quizzes, and spent hundreds of hours in the library, but Thursday night that all concluded when I submitted my final paper. As I said before it all feels a bit odd finishing my degree at the University of Cambridge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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A pasture near River Great Ouse.

With the completion of this study abroad program I feel well prepared to jump into my next stage of life. In college I lived in the urban city of Berkeley, the rural mountain community of Monteverde Costa Rica, and now finally the historical town of Cambridge. I never thought going to university would provide the opportunity to travel and live in so many new places and I can confidently say that living abroad has been the most educational experiences during my time in college. Powerpoints, lectures, and discussions provide for academic growth, but living in a new country allows for growth in far more important ways.

Snapshots of St. Ives, Cambridgeshire on my 23rd birthday

Having visited the UK once before and having previously studied abroad, I did not experience the same radical personal changes that are common from your first time abroad. That being said, this experience was in no way any less important. At UC Berkeley students feel an intense pressure to immediately launch into a career, which makes a high stress environment conducive to rash decisions. Being here we were all so engaged with the Cambridge community and English culture that we didn’t have the mental space to worry too much about job apps and resumes. This is not to say that career planning was put on hold, to the contrary this program has provided the time to think deeply about my career priorities and goals. I have had many discussions with the locals, my professors, and my peers about careers in medicine and science. I even perused the job openings on the local hospital’s website this week. Studying abroad at the end of my college career has provided freedom and time to deeply ponder my career direction and aspirations, a luxury I would not have had if I was back home.

Local snacks! These were the best scones I have ever tried and we couldn’t resist indulging in the wild blackberries.

 Furthermore, living in Cambridge has given me a window into a different lifestyle. In the United States I would never have the chance to live in an 800-year-old building or visit ancient Roman sites such as Bath. There is a sense of permanence here that is oddly comforting: life has persisted for thousands of years and will continue to do so while you are here, and after you are gone. Layered upon this antiquity is a vibrant modern culture. Walking through the beautiful stone buildings you see live music almost every day, food from all over the world, and the distinctive youth fashion. Life here is founded on traditions and history, but also innovative and progressive. Getting to experience life in England I can now relate better to European foreigners and better understand what influences their morals and values. I will incorporate various habits and customs that I learned here when I return home.

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Gonville & Caius College on King’s Parade

A piece of England will always remain with me in the form of the growth I experienced here. Cambridge has given me a certain steadiness and confidence that I would not have had if I chose to do summer school in Berkeley. I feel more firm in who I am, but at the same time more open to change. Studying abroad has been an exercise in assessing my strengths and weakness; I know what I am capable of and what I need to work on. As I pack my bags, melancholy washes over me: it is difficult letting go of this beautiful chapter in my life, but I can’t help but be excited for the next one. I am no longer a university student, but I know that as long as I can travel I will never stop learning.

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Meaningful relationships in Brazil

One of the most meaningful relationships during my time abroad was with a local Brazilian student named Gabriel Barros. I was introduced to “Gabe” by my Portuguese instructor; for the sole purpose of tutoring. Gabe was an Engineering major and thus, he was fairly busy. In all honesty, I can say that Gabriel was a terrible tutor (of course I am being funny)! I cannot say that I learned very much during our tutor sessions. In accordance to my host university’s policy, Gabriel and I could not socialize off of school grounds. Therefore, Gabriel and I did not “hang out” much, aside from when he went with me to get my first tattoo, went to the movies, and gave me a ride to the airport for my departure. Even though Gabriel was a terrible tutor, he was a great friend. We did not spend a lot of time together in Rio de Janeiro, but our lost time was made up during our reunion in Tokyo Japan!

I feel like I really got to know Gabriel in Tokyo. I brought him several snacks from the U.S. (as his birthday was on my arrival in Japan) and we rented a hostel together. I came to understand his sense of humor and he mine (although, it took us both a while to get accustomed to, ie- he didn’t understand my sarcasm so he became irritated whenever I said something sarcastic. I thought that his reaction was funny so I would deliberately be sarcastic to get him upset)

My time with Gabriel in Tokyo was well spent! Every morning, we planned out our schedule over a cup of Japanese espresso (Gabriel wines a lot if he doesn’t have coffee). On several occasions, we had 100 Yen sushi together (which is very cheap), went people watching in the Shibuya district (cool place to people watch), went Anime shopping in Akihabara (Gabriel likes Anime, I don’t), tried several Ramen dishes at the Yokohama Ramen Museum, visited Mt. Fuji, bathed in a public onsen, had a blast in Roppongi, and we did so much more! Unfortunately, our time together ended after I was scheduled to depart to Osaka and Kyoto, 8 days after our trip to Tokyo. But even though our time in Tokyo is over, our adventures together are not!

Gabriel and I have been actively in contact over the years. Mainly, via Facebook messenger and Facebook video chat. Until next time Gabbi!!

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Then and Now: American in Sápmi

Me enjoying the splendor of Sápmi with three locals not pictured

Me enjoying the splendor of Sápmi with three locals not pictured

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: The more I learn, the less certain I am about things. Right when I think that I have things figured out, I go and travel to Sápmi to spend time in an immersive learning experience with Sámi communities that challenge all my notions of what I perceive as “true”. Being kind, open, and willing to learn are the three qualities that I began the trip with and the three that I will leave with. Everything else is under consideration because wisdom comes in many forms. My goals of reprogramming my colonized mind have continued during this global experience.

I am a conservation science and management major within the environmental studies program at University of Washington. I wanted to see how the Sámi have managed to survive and thrive in a part of the world (for 14,000ish years!), that to many of us from the United States, imagine as a barren tundra landscape that would be impossible to do anything in. For many months, the sun doesn’t shine; the aurora borealis illuminates the imagination. For a few summer months, that sun shines at all hours of the day; birds sing at midnight and the stars are left for the imagination.

My professional goals have not changed from this experience but rather have been reinforced. My focus has shifted to be more sensitive and supportive to indigenous worldviews that are not my own. In the United States, 1% of the total population are native. Knowing this, I felt encouraged me to seek experiences at a global level before working the rest of my life in a place I am privileged to call home. The connection to land that I have had since I was a small child in rural Illinois is often validated by the worldviews of people who value life over capitalism despite the fact that I myself am not indigenous at all. Being a product of immigration from all across the globe, I sought knowledge from these communities that may inform me on how I can be a better indigenous ally throughout my career as a land manager, conservationist, and member of civic society.

Because after all, these indigenous peoples and their communities ARE STILL HERE. The colonized mindset of western thought not only continues to find ways to forcefully engage in land acquisition, cultural appropriation, and ethnic erasure but also tends to paint the picture that these people are in the past. Moreover, I became more aware that this poisonous, imperialist worldview assumes that unless indigenous peoples are living in “teepees”, wearing animal pelts, not using electricity, or whatever, then they must not be traditionally indigenous anymore. Does the colonizer really think that a people who have constantly innovated for 14,000 years would stop innovating during a time in history when innovation has spiked to unimaginable heights? This is insensitive and naïve, and this fact has been made crystal clear to me after this month of study.

To many Americans and other economic “winners” who have read this far, I imagine that their blood pressure has increased and they are formulating a few arguments in response to what I am writing. To me, that is a step in the right direction even though it seems counterintuitive. The more we actually engage in dialogue about these matters, the more visible these matters become in public perception. Why didn’t everyone know what was happening at Standing Rock in South Dakota? Why doesn’t everyone know that Sámi have established a moratorium along the biggest river between Norway and Sweden to protest environmental and human rights violations? Not enough people are aware of it, so they cannot engage in dialogue as humans should. I’m not saying that we have to dismantle our current system entirely and I’m not saying I do not appreciate all of the advantages and comforts afforded to me as an American. I’m just affirming that there is a lot of work to do to change our world to one where humans, especially those whose ancestral lands have been stolen from them, continue to be swept under the rug in the interest of capital gain by exploiting natural resources and to build national pride.

Once again, I cannot be certain of anything. But neither can anyone reading this blog. We are only human, and the totality of existence exceed our capabilities to comprehend all of its intricacies. However, it is an absolutely certainty that last week climate in and around Tromsø where I was staying had the highest night time temperature in recorded history. The gulf stream is projected to completely changed direction due to human-induced climate change which will decimate any change of maintaining agriculture along the Arctic coast in winter. Windmill fields are being protested in the Tundra because of how they will disrupt reindeer herding patterns that have been ongoing for millennia. A short anecdote I will share is when a wonderful Sámi couple told me how the Norwegian government offered their people $10,000,000 for ownership of a mountain that they wanted just so they could tear it apart with machines for mining. The Sámi response was that absolutely no amount of money will ever equal the value of a MOUNTAIN, and a sacred mountain at that.

I will leave the readers with this final idea, and keep in mind that I, myself, am a straight white male who is a product of immigration that seeks employment with the government to manage the lands we, as human animals, rely on: Imagine if every national and state park was no longer managed solely by the American government but instead by indigenous peoples who have historically inhabited those spaces for thousands and thousands of years while being supported by the American government financially through taxation derived from people just like you and me? Do you really think things would devolve and we would lose the “grandeur” that makes those places the aesthetically beautiful and enlightening spaces we have come to think of them? And finally, how would you feel if people started finding pleasure in hiking up and down churches, temples, and other built environments that are holy to a certain culture just so they could take a picture of themselves at the top for everyone on the internet to see?

THIS is how you do college.

“how worthless even the most beautiful words…how fragile what one secretly feels…it was not the wind…you did not hear the bird…it was I…my thoughts” – Neils-Aslak Valkeapää, Sámi artist and activist, from his book Trekways of the Wind.

The only souvenirs I need

The only souvenirs I need

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My Return

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It’s amazing how fast you can feel at home in a new environment. I was in South Korea for almost a month, and in just that time I was able to adapt to the culture and embrace the changes. I was enjoying my stay so much that at one point I was wishing that I could stay longer. Despite all of this, I am amazed that I haven’t suffered any major or negative reverse culture shock since I’ve returned.

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On August 5th, Cherry and I took a taxi to the airport at around 6am. I remember being wide awake and watching as we passed through Seoul. I was trying to absorb some last minute images before I had to enter the airport. The taxi driver had the radio on at low volume, and Cherry was sleeping to my left. At first, I was a little melancholy, but soon I felt at peace.

I looked over the recent texts my mother had sent me asking for my flight information. After that, I thought about my family and friends that were anxiously waiting for me to return. They were my priority.

When I arrived in New York it was Sunday afternoon. As soon as I got home I showered, changed, and then ate the food my mother had prepared. I was chatting with my brothers, my mother was taking care of me, my sister was asking random pop-culture questions, and my dad was silently shuffling around the apartment. It felt like any other Sunday.

The next morning at 8am I had my driving lesson (my road test is this upcoming week!) and then I went to work an 8 hour shift at the Hunter College Library. It was a busy day, and thanks to that I was very aware of the differences between New York and Seoul.

I was in rush to make it to my driving lesson that morning, so I ended up forgetting my earphones at home. Usually I hate walking in New York City without earphones since they serve as an armor, protecting me from the craziness that goes on throughout this city. To my surprise I didn’t realize that I had left my earphones until I was on 7 train heading towards the driving school. I was so comfortable walking to the train station that I guess it reminded me of walking to a station in Seoul. Never, during my time in South Korea, did I use my earphones while I was walking outside.

However, that comfort of walking music-less in the streets only lasted that one day. On my way home after work I was approached three times by panhandlers and abruptly surprised by a subway singer. My armor was needed.

On another note, I find it funny that I still bow a little to people when I say thank you. In South Korea my friends and I were pleasntly surprised at how nice most employees from stores, cafes, restaurants, the subway, etc. were to us, so we always used to give 45 degree angle bows. Perhaps it’s the fact that kindness between strangers can sometimes be a rarity here in New York that I always have the urge to give certain people big bows. When I start doing a bow, I quickly remind myself that I’m not in South Korea, so I end giving a little head bow.

Other than these minor instances, I think I’ve adjusted well back into my old life here in New York. Of course I miss my Korean friends, Yohan and Aeju, as well as my little crew of New York City friends that I became close with on this trip, but it’s not in a painful way. Whenever I think of them I just smile. I know that I will go back to South Korea sometime next year, alongside the new friends I have here in New York.

In addition, this study abroad program has heavily influenced my academic future. I definitely want to take more media production classes during my last two semesters. I also want to find a media internship that will allow me to work with people within the Documentary field. If I find an internship like this and end up enjoying it, then perhaps I will apply to a master’s program that specializes in camera production. My ultimate goal is to find a career that is within this field of work.

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