I’m Back?

When I think about being in Salamanca or try to tell someone else about my experiences there, I feel like I’m in a fog. It’s almost as if I was never there and I’m telling folks a fairy tale of sorts. To have explored a foreign country and return home is a very surreal thing. I didn’t expect to be watching my children play and think about the kids playing in the fountain at La Parque Alamadillo. Or go for breakfast with my husband and not being able to finish a good ol’ American pancake meal when all I want is just a cafe con leche and a croissant. Crazy.

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Garden Wall in Madrid, Spain.

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The best churros in Spain at Valor in Salamanca.

 

I’m not sure that I even thought about what would happen once I returned home and to my routine. I haven’t had much trouble adjusting to my old life (strange to call it “my old life”). I’ve jumped back into the swing of things with both feet and I think I’m doing a good job of it (if I say so myself…and I do). But I feel myself fighting to hang on to my memories of being in Spain. I’m not quite able to express to my friends and family EXACTLY what my walk to school was like. Or what pinchos really are. Or how I really feel about being back home.

 

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San Sebastian Coastline, Northern Spain.

La Senora y Yo

My señora (host mom) in Spain.

 

I may never be able to explain all that I gained in Spain through this wonderful opportunity Alamo College and the Gilman Program gave me, but I will always have my memories of this very special place. I am forever changed. I will never be able to fit into a cookie cutter mold. And that in itself has made everything worth it.

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Filed under Meya in Spain, Western Europe

Finally Home: The Return and Reverse Culture Shock

It has been a week since I’ve returned home and it has been very bittersweet. Before returning home I decided to do a little traveling. When it was time to come back to the United States, reality hit me. When I thought of going home I kept thinking about my little apartment in Bangkok, not my home in Puerto Rico.

Going home.

Going home.

I felt very sad when it was time to leave Thailand. I grew to love my neighborhood and the people I interacted with every day. The food vendors who greeted me every day, the fruit man who tried to teach me the names of the different fruits in Thai, and the coffee girl who spoke to me only in Thai and laughed with me when I didn’t understand anything. But even so I was very excited to return to my island, my family, friends, and delicious Puerto Rican food.

Farewell party arrange by the university

A farewell party arranged by my host university

The hardest thing I’ve experience since coming back has been dealing with the jet-lag. It has been a struggle getting back on track and changing time zones. Because of this I have missed out on some dates to see my friends since I’ve been sleeping weird hours. Another one of the biggest changes to re-adjust to has been the difference in price. Thailand is an extremely cheap country to live in. One dollar meals, extremely cheap transportation, and shopping is definitely the thing I miss the most about Thailand. The expensive prices in Puerto Rico have left me in shock. Going from paying $1 for a meal and $1 for an iced coffee to paying more than $15 for both hurts.

Enjoying our lasts days with student discounts

Enjoying our lasts days with student discounts.

I miss Thailand a lot and keep wanting to talk to everyone about my experience. I know that in some weeks I will probably come to experience more reverse culture shock but for now I’m happy to be back home and to share my experiences with my friends and family. And I also have another adventure to look forward to: Beginning this August I will be studying abroad again in Germany for a full year. Thanks to my time abroad in Thailand I feel more than ready to tackle this new experience.  Studying abroad definitely gave me the confidence to say yes to this opportunity and to not be afraid of what’s to come. I feel extremely prepared to overcome any obstacle, to have an open mind, and to do my best in this new adventure.

The day of our last final. Our class of Beginning Thai.

The day of our last final exam in Beginning Thai.

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Filed under Arleen in Thailand, South & Central Asia

Social Justice and Study Abroad

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Filed under East Asia, Stephanie in Japan, Video Bloggers

A New Blend of an Old Self

It’s a week after I returned from study abroad. I’ve finished unpacking my suitcases and feel like my travel home is a blur. But then I remember the 24-hour journey in which I managed to bring not only my backpack as a carry on, but also my sleeping bag, tent, and sleeping mat that somehow made it through multiple sets of security check points. I also remember the entire season of Girls I watched with jet-lagged curiosity on the flight instead of sleeping. And on the final leg, waiting around in those airport chairs  eavesdropping on strangers who I can understand because they are shockingly speaking perfect English.

The airport pickup was made by my parents who arrived with much enthusiasm and a little cooler of snacks to share. The reunion felt strangely similar to when I am reunited with my family in between semesters away at school. All one can really offer another is love and snacks at this point.

 

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Shortly after I got home, my mother and I went strawberry picking. I’ve never been so conscious of such an annual routine. Take note of the small good!

 

There are a few strange bits about being home.

The first time I got in my car and began driving, it was a feeling of pure exhilaration and luxury. I turned on the radio and felt like a million dollars.

I have a whole closet, dresser, and shelf full of clothes to wear now and am somehow feeling slightly nostalgic for my living-out-of-a-suitcase life. This is something I thought to be impossible beforehand. I  donated multiple bags of clothing to the thrift store right away.

Being home is a bit strange because you want to share your experience perfectly so you feel a bit disappointed when people don’t ask you about it, but feel equally disappointed when they do ask and you struggle to define your experience in the 30 seconds available. There are just so may facets to include in the explanation. I believe this gets easier.

 

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The face I make for reverse culture shock as a stranger at my own kitchen table. Modeled by university cat.

 

A few oddities worth mentioning:

My Facebook newsfeed is a mix of memes in both English and Spanish.

In a recent trip to town, my friend hands me his Jeep’s auxiliary cord. I put on Chilean reggae music and begin to tap the rhythm out on my thighs. He just laughs.

I feel even more strongly now post-Chile that our consumer markets are flooded with way too much stuff as I stand in front of the five shelves of peanut butter in the grocery store, reflecting on the choice between merely two types in Chile.

I wonder when I’ll find a liquor store that sells Pisco, the Chilean alcohol distilled from grapes.

I complain about the quality of avocados in Wisconsin as I open a smelly too-many-days-old one from our counter. I recall how avocados seemed immune to aging in Chile. I also feel a queasy sort of guilt for all the food miles we rack up with produce in the States.

Outside my window I hear the sound of summer frogs instead of the weekly marching band practice that sounded below my Valparaiso apartment. The cars that pass by do so in silence and I find myself grappling to define the feeling that something is missing. I realize I miss the lack of cars with open windows stuck in traffic constantly, stretched along the oceanfront and the narrow streets. Many Chileans like to leave room for their reggaeton beats to waft out.

 

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A Chilean lesson: the meaning is always in the small details.

 

I visit the flea market on Sunday and it reminds me of Valparaiso’s. My mom motions to the meats for sale, wrapped in several layers of plastic wrap, labeled, and in buckets of ice. I think about the carts of raw fish in Chile with the juices running down the sides onto the sidewalk.

There are plenty of things here I appreciate, like setting my own mealtimes, free access to my large book collection, and the easily attained feeling of home. I missed being surrounded by forested area and seeing the deer graze in the yard. I’ve enjoyed planting the garden and weeding the kale again.

 

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A few of my favorite things I enjoyed the first week home: green salad, libraries, and iced coffee.

 

But it’s quiet here and pretty stable. I miss the chaotic, random unfolding of events of a night in Valparaiso and I miss the constant opportunity for something to happen. I suppose I have been trying to find small ways to add adventure and challenge to my days here since my time away allows me to look at it all with fresh eyes.

When I first arrived home I was scared I had settled back in too easily. But as I’ve made present in the examples above, Chile is present in my thoughts and is becoming more and more frequent. I keep finding more reasons to appreciate the experience.

As for my future, my appetite for the pursuit of my goals in life seems to have grown. I’ve been devouring magazine articles and short stories, noting remarkable authors and different approaches to journalism. I’ve been thinking about new ideas to write about this fall for my school’s magazine and narrowing in on my internship options. Making goals to read more, write more, and tackle some more Spanish reading seems to have become a daily trend right after brewing my morning coffee. Each cup is a treat as I thank my garage-sale-bought Coffeemate and recall the trademark Nescafe packets of Chilean instant coffee.

I envision my life being a fuse of lines of writing, reading, non-profit work, magazine articles, and representing differences, while simultaneously embarking on my own quest. My world has grown. My world is changing. I step into my old location as a new blend of myselves, pre-Chile and post.

 

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Ciao Chile!! This photo captures the finale of a steep climb that I made at the national park La Campana. Only a bit more steep and rocky than the challenge of studying abroad! (Hah!)

 

 

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Filed under Natalie in Chile, south america

Missing Home

The familiar mesquite trees sway to the occasional breeze on a hot Texas summer day. I am home. The hum of the washing machine stops and the dryer begins to beep, signaling me to finish the laundry. I’m back. I can hear my dad arguing with my sister about something that won’t matter or be remembered by tomorrow morning. I am finally home.

No matter how many times I say it, the phrase “I am home” does not carry the same joy as it did when I said it while embracing my parents at the Houston airport my first day back in the United States. Now when I say, “I am home,” the words come out more like a question. Am I really home? I’m home, yet I’m ready to go back home. I wonder if that makes any sense.

I’ve been back for a week now and although I am happy to be reunited with my family, I can’t help but feel homesick for Peru. The more I share stories about my experiences abroad, the more I miss my old life in Lima. I remember my first meal back in America. My family took me out for breakfast and we ate at a café in a small town. When the waiter began taking orders, I kept having a natural urge to respond in Spanish. A globe sat on a shelf on the opposite side of me and I kept staring at it, feeling the want and need to return to Peru. The waiter brought glasses of yellow colored juice. My heart sped up and then sank in disappointment once I realized the juice wasn’t maracuyá (passion fruit), but regular orange juice. Again, I mistook one of my favorite beverages–chicha morada (purple corn juice)– for a purple colored tea while walking around the farmer’s market in my hometown.

Transitioning back into my old life during the first few days was the hardest for me. I found it hard to accept that I was never going back to my old home at the Casa Yllika or greet the doorman who sat at the front desk of the building where my political science class was held every morning. I miss living in a big city where everything was within walking distance. I even miss the danger of running across the bustling streets of Lima while having car horns blast impatiently in the air. I miss how every day felt like an adventure.

 

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Me standing above the city of Lima.

 

The biggest difference between the United States and Peru is the difference in social class levels. In Peru, the poor are really poor and there is a lack of a middle class. Driving around Texas however, one can see that there is an obvious middle class and the children are playing instead of begging on the streets. As I pass by the rows and rows of pretty houses with bright green lawns, I can’t help but laugh at myself for thinking our country was truly suffering. I remember the shantytowns outside of Lima. I remember the begging children, the handicapped man selling stale chocolates, and the homeless woman breastfeeding her baby on the side of the mall. I don’t want to forget them, but as more time passes and life returns to normalcy, I can feel them slowly fading into a dreamlike memory.

 

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Students leaving school to go back to their homes in the shantytown.

 

My mission now is to take my experiences and share them with everyone around me. I will tell them about the village in the Amazon, the shantytown school, the wonderful food, and the amazing people. My trip to Peru has inspired me to travel all around the world and seek opportunities where I will be able to assist those in need. I look forward to visiting Peru again one day, not as a student, but as an English teacher.

 

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Some of the fourth grade students I got to meet at a school located a couple of blocks from where I was living in Lima.

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Filed under Isabel in Peru, south america

Round Table Dining in China

Let me start by sharing these two facts about me: I’m a huge foodie and Chinese food is an irresistible family favorite. I love everything about food whether it’s home cooking, gourmet dining, or searching for the most delicious palate. When I eat with my Chinese friends in the States, they always ask for the “real” menu. The notion of a secret menu that caters to a Chinese palate and another that offers Western-friendly options was very peculiar to me. Naturally, I was ecstatic to try authentic Chinese cuisine.

 

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A home-cooked Chinese meal.

 

Chinese people are some of the most hospitable folk I’ve met in my life. When I arrived in Shanghai, my friend Alvin invited me to join him and a Canadian expat for an authentic Sichuan hotpot called Là Fû. Alvin ordered many dishes such as frog, rabbit head, cow intestine, brain, ox tail, and tongue. Initially, I was nervous about trying some of these but they were surprisingly delicious. It was there that I received my first lesson in the cultural differences between China, America, and Egypt.

 

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Enjoying Là Fû.

 

First, the Chinese version of spicy is something you should probably avoid unless you’re a fire-breather or a dragon. Another part of Chinese etiquette is making sure that your guest has enough to eat. If your host sees that you have finished your plate that is his cue to order more. By the time I realized this, I felt like a turkey on Thanksgiving Day—stuffed. Alvin was very adamant about paying which brings me to my third lesson: The person who extends the invitation is usually the one who will foot the bill.

Last weekend, my roommate and I journeyed from our apartment to The Bund in search of Din Tai Fung. In 1993, this restaurant was rated top ten in the world and featured Shanghai’s most famous dumplings. We finally found it after an hour of walking and although the portions were small, it exceeded every expectation. This week my friend Nick came to visit and took me to a Korean barbecue called “B.C. 2333” where I was treated to the best Korean food I’ve had thus far. Afterwards, they took me on a native tour of Shanghai and I felt as if I was seeing the city for the first time.

 

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Din Tai Fung restaurant.

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At BC 2333.

 

There are many differences between the Chinese and Western style of dining. In both cultures, eating out is a way of socializing, but in China there is a greater emphasis on sharing and being a good host. Something I really admire about this culture is the round table style of dining. It is very personable and I like being able to share dishes with my friends. Finally, I would recommend bringing a Chinese friend with you because it is extremely difficult to order authentic food without speaking Mandarin. Unless you’re eating pizza with Italians, nobody knows pizza better than Italians.

 

Pizza

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Filed under East Asia, Khalid in China

Hong Kong’s Work Culture

As I sit crammed on Hong Kong’s famous subway system, the MTR, I am surrounded by tired souls. Gaunt figures that fade in and out of consciousness, as their limp heads sway with the train, returning home from their workplace.

 

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Crowded MTR as the working class flock to their destinations.

 

Hong Kong’s work culture is like nothing I have ever experienced. It is a culture where unpaid overtime hours are expected almost daily and are the norm, where off days feel like a holy grail, where people are unable to de-stress by going to the beach, bars, or just sleeping all day. My local friend’s commentary on their work life is practically identical: It is a beast that consumes and spits you out with scars in the form of sunken eyes, irritable moods, stress, and fatigue. Perhaps this is why the people of Hong Kong are so strong willed and resilient. The work culture strengthens them, something that I’ve noticed is happening to me too. One of my reasons for studying abroad here was to develop myself as a professional, and Hong Kong’s work ethic is forcing this development in ways I did not imagine. This one of the many reasons why I love Hong Kong.

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Filed under East Asia, Sua in Hong Kong