Celebrating the Holidays in Istanbul

This year’s holiday season was different for two reasons. The first being that Turkey does not share the same national holidays with the United States, such as Thanksgiving. The second reason involves religion. Since the majority of Turkish people are Muslims, they do not actively celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas. However, having friends from all over the world means we get to share our holiday traditions with each other!

Thanksgiving was the first of the big holidays I missed while abroad. My fellow Americans and I were definitely longing for some our favorite family dishes, so we decided to make our own Thanksgiving dinner with some of our new international friends. We talked about why Thanksgiving is an American holiday and even shared what we were all thankful for. I think I can say that my non-American friends thoroughly enjoyed the holiday; I know I did!

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Yes, we ate turkey in Turkey!

Since the big holidays celebrated in the US are not celebrated here, there is no reason for the university to have breaks. Therefor, when I should have been celebrating Christmas Eve, I was in the library studying for my first final, which was on Christmas day. Thankfully, this didn’t bother me all that much because it didn’t even feel like Christmas. Although we had studying to do, my friends and I still managed to go to a neighborhood near our university to have a nice dinner.

Christmas is definitely a well known holiday, being the subject in many famous movies and songs.  People from all different spectrums enjoy the idea of giving, so although people may not celebrate it for religious reasons, they enjoy the idea of it. This is why in certain neighborhoods in Istanbul the Christmas spirit was very much alive. Lights were strung through out the streets and Christmas trees were even put up in some places. Walking these streets after my final made me feel right at home.

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Who doesn’t like Christmas lights anyway?

The holidays are best spent with family. Obviously I missed my family in the States, but I had made a new family in Istanbul and I was so happy to celebrate the holidays with them. The best part of this year’s holiday was not the food or the finishing of classes, but learning about other people’s traditions and customs that accompany the holidays. Listening to all the different traditions really put a true meaning to the holidays. It doesn’t matter which holidays you celebrate, just as long as you are with the ones that mean the most to you.

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Don’t Add Sugar (Nate’s Travel Tips)

Traveling isn’t brutality; it’s a skill you develop with experience. Visiting tens of cities and countries over a short span of time, or even visiting one for that matter, can be at once exhilarating and exhausting; I’m by no means an expert, but I have picked up some knowledge over the three week-long travel breaks we get for the DIS program in Denmark. I was lucky enough to travel through Germany, Austria, Italy during the first break, visit doctors in Stockholm, Sweden and Tallinn, Estonia during the second, and explore the United Kingdom on the third. I learned that if I prepared properly and kept the right attitude, the journey definitely strained a lot less and thrilled a lot more. If you read nothing else in this post, definitely read the tips!

Preparing keeps you sane – you can rely on the fact that you’ve brought what you need. Your pack becomes your best friend and source of comfort. It simply feels better to be walking around in a foreign place if you have the familiarity of your pack literally anchoring you down to the path. This also means that packing right is packing light – I found that with a light backpack I could avoid paying for lockers and save the time some people spend on going to their accommodation first. I also discovered a kind of “survival” kit of times I had to pack. Like Adams tells us in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, having a towel is strangely reassuring (as if you’re saying to yourself “I’ve come through all this crazy traveling and yet I managed to keep my towel, so I must have done something right”) and it’s wicked useful – I used it as a blanket one night I got to my hostel too late, a soft cushion for some Venetian glass I bought as a gift, and even as a tool to dry myself off after showering. Other items I wouldn’t usually think of like ziplock bags, locks (yes, multiple), tape and a notecard box (helps keep small items safe) came in very handy as well. The final and most important aspect of preparing I discovered was researching where I was headed. With this you have to strike a tricky balance – you have to know enough to have historical and cultural literacy of the place (Don’t go to Estonia not knowing it was a country like I did, it makes for very awkward conversations), but without over-saturating yourself. You want to have enough background to know what, who, and where to be interested in but still retain enough ignorance to enjoy learning about and experiencing the place. Being a boy scout about travel (“Always be prepared”) can earn you some derisive laughs from inexperienced friends, but you’ll have a much better experience if you are.

The other, probably more, important lesson I learned is to have a very certain attitude while you’re traveling. Being overly optimistic is foolish – things are going to go wrong, and not recognizing that before you leave will only leave you worse off when they happen. At the same time, you obviously have to enjoy the experience! That’s the key idea right there. Traveling is experiencing, and experiences in themselves are neither positive nor negative things. The effort, curiosity, and openness you put into them and the friendliness, helpfulness, and interest of strangers (yes, they can in fact be nice!) can come together to make the journey fun and rewarding. So, some tips:

 

  1. “Don’t Panic” (Again from the Hitchhiker’s Guide, which I read after my second break and found oddly accurate). Although I faced numerous, often daily, times that I wanted to give up in frustration and just lie down, having a constant faith that no matter how long it took, or in what way, I would get to the destination I had in mind. Just be patient! Taking a breath, mentally removing myself from the situation, when I felt myself starting to panic helped immensely.
  2. Open yourself to experience (Or learn to). Of course this is largely a personality trait but everyone has some leniency – I’m actually a fairly shy, closed person but I managed to open myself to talking with random strangers, meeting people (especially welcoming hosts), and I slowly but surely became more comfortable with it. In this is a willingness to not do just the touristy things, but to go further and to explore the “real” place, or at least less commercialized version of it. The people who live in a place make it unique, give it culture unlike anywhere else. Ask them what they think you should do! Maybe you’ll even get invited to do something with them!
  3. Accept your mistakes. During my first trip to Germany, Austria, and Italy, I had some really fun experiences as well, but my mistakes overshadowed them. And unfortunately humans have this horrible tendency to forecast how they feel in the moment into the future (ever tried to cheer someone up after a bad breakup? “But I’m always going to feel this miserable!”). But then I had this wonderful realization that I had to forgive myself. Picking myself up, healing over the two week course-period, and leaping into the next travel break made it so much more enjoyable than the first. And the best part? I’d learned what not to do from the first trip.

 

So I guess I’d like to revise how I started this post. Travel can be brutality, I see traveling like how I imagine many captains have described the ocean over the years: arg mate, ‘she’s a wild and beauty but ye need to tame ‘er, ride ‘er or shell toss ye overboard quick as that.’ (Sorry for being corny, haha). Travel will whip you around and kick you until you’re bruised washed up and close to crying on the side of a road in Rome at 2:15 am if you let it (true story). But it can also be an extraordinary experience through which you grow. Your Choice…

I’d like to finish with a connection to my interest in psychology. We panic when we perceive something as a threat. One of my professors described something he called the “Zone of Proximal Growth,” which can be thought of as the extent to which anything we experience can help us grow (literally, personally, professionally, etc.). Basically, we perceive everything inside this metaphoric “zone” as a challenge to be overcome and everything outside as a threat to be avoided. One of the main goals of travelling, for many people, is to expand their zone of proximal growth by being open to new unforeseen experiences and, as a result, grow from them rather than fear them and panic. As Floyd Skloot (2003) profoundly said: “It’s not so much a matter of making lemonade out of life’s lemons, but rather of learning to savor the shock, taste, texture and aftereffects of a mouthful of unadulterated citrus” (In the Shadow of Memory, p.197). Although he’s talking about learning to live with the loss of memory in dementia, potential travelers can learn a lot from his positive, but candid, acceptance and even joy in experience, no matter its quality. So, fellow traveler, don’t add sugar. 

 

 

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Professional Lenses

I don’t think it’s possible that a program abroad for four months wouldn’t touch nearly every facet of your life goals. You go off, leaving your country and you can’t help but expect change in every corner of your life. Admittedly, some is for the good and some is for the bad. But the way that studying abroad affects your academic and career lives is unmistakable. Every moment you’re awake has the potential to be a learning experience and your classroom becomes the entire world around you. Your academic growth is no longer limited to during classes and while doing your homework. From the bus to the market to having lunch with a new local friend, you’re constantly learning. Constantly.

I love how going overseas develops you as a person and as a professional. It’s the truest form of international experience, and it’s priceless when it comes to your personal skill sets and your future career. My professional goals have been irrevocably altered by living in Quito for the past 3 months; I believe I can succeed in so many more things now than I ever did before. I know for a fact that I would love to work on an international scale, and that goal has been solidified here. I’ve always wanted to be among the best with my Spanish knowledge and skills, and this semester has pushed that goal to the max. I know how much I’m capable of now. I think that is such a beautiful part of study abroad for all students who cross its path; they learn they are able to do infinitely more than they ever knew they could, and that expands their goals and sets them on the next level. All your world view lenses change when living overseas for so long – academically, professionally, and personally.

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Thoughts on Cultural Shock and the Reverse

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Above is the chart by which I’m supposed to evaluate my experiences and offer some thoughts on whether or not I agree and why or why not. I’ll simply go through each point in order for clarity.

Phase 1 (Arrival) Everything is awesome when you’re pa… Wait. Everything is new, interesting and exciting. This is true, but frankly I still feel like everything in Barcelona / Catalonia / Spain is pretty much awesome. Perhaps if I were in a more exotic or less developed country I could imagine the ‘awesome’ factor wearing off.

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A spectacular view from the Teleferic on Montjuic.

 

Phase 2 (Couple weeks in) Differences become apparent and irritating. Problems occur and frustration sets in. I don’t really identify with the chart on this point. I had very little issues adjusting or coping with cultural differences. Probably the only real big issue I had was simply adjusting to the time difference for sleep.

Phase 3 (4 weeks or so) You may feel homesick depressed and helpless. I think I definitely had and still experience this randomly. No matter how much I love Barcelona, I’m still longing for my closest loved ones. This feeling may have been much worse had I not met a great group of people here, and I can imagine that for some this is much more severe. Also, it was nice to know that from the beginning, my girlfriend was coming out to visit.

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My girlfriend, Kaylee, came to visit for 9 days.

 

Phase 4 (6 weeks) You develop strategies to cope with difficulties and feeling make new friends, and learn to adopt to the host culture. Between school, my language exchange partner, Gilman stuff, and my new friends, I’ve never really had a chance to just relax. I suppose that also helped deter more feelings of homesickness.

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The International Studies Abroad group I’m in.

Phase 5 (10 weeks) You accept and embrace cultural differences. You see the host as your new home and don’t wish to depart or leave new friends. There is definitely some truth in this. I do feel a sense of ‘home’ at my home-stay. But as I’ve said before, it is still pretty impersonal and I feel more like a guest at a hostel than I do a member of a home.  Certainly, the friends I have made here are great, and I do wish a few of them lived closer in the states, but to say that I don’t want to depart is a stretch. I am looking forward to departing because I have plans and goals that I need to get moving on. I can’t sit around in Barcelona! (Maybe if I was 10 years younger..)

Phase 6 (10 weeks) You are excited about returning home. Yes, I agree. Compared to Barcelona, the city of Lewiston is a sleepy village… I could go for some time in a sleepy village.

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The Lewis-Clark Valley. About 40,000 people.

Phase 7 (Week or two home) You may feel frustrated, angry or lonely because friends and family don’t understand what you experienced and how you changed. You miss the host culture and friends and may look for ways to return. Technically, at the time of writing this, I haven’t returned home yet. But I know that I’m going to encounter some degree of these feelings. Studying abroad is an eye-opening, mind-expanding and emotionally challenging experience. I can’t expect people to understand something so profound… nor can I hope to even possess the eloquence to adequately express how it feels.

I can also attest to thinking about ways return already. In fact, I may pursue applying for the Fulbright Scholarship since I am graduating this semester!

Phase 8 (3 weeks at home) You gradually adjust to life at home. Things start to seem more normal and routine again, although not exactly the same. I can only say that this seems likely.

Phase 9 (4 weeks at home) You incorporate what you learned and experienced abroad in your new life and career. Again, I feel like this will be the case. I am sure I’ll be more conscious about recycling and water-usage because of my time here in Spain. I can also see myself drawing on this experience as a selling point for my applications to graduate school and future employment opportunities.

 

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Culture Shock in Forward and Reverse

Upon arrival in Beijing, I was terrified to cross the street. Mopeds, taxis, three-wheeled vehicles, cars and buses all vied jealously and chaotically for a place in the flow of traffic, and there seemed absolutely no rhyme or reason to the process. I did not want to lose my life in a traffic accident on the first few days in China, so I made sure to stick close to a local, moving when he moved, and stopping when she stopped. Each street-crossing was exhilarating. Everything was new, foreign, and picture-worthy, from the ubiquitous red-lanterns hanging outside buildings to the colorful reds, blues and greens of temples.

Now I cross the street with ease, not even thinking twice about it. I hardly even look twice when I see the donkey pulling a cart of walnuts amidst the metropolitan traffic. The street-vendors, lion statues, sharply-dressed security guards standing in their glass boxes, and even the fried-duck heads piled up in a cart for sale hardly cause me to bat an eye. I feel at home here, or at least accustomed to daily life in Beijing.

I think that culture shock inevitably occurs when thrown into a completely new situation, especially when one does not speak the local language. However, there are varying degrees of shock depending on the country, the nature of the program, and the individual. Studying abroad in Beijing allows one to choose to what extent he or she wants to be immersed in the culture. Because it is a huge metropolitan city and the capital of China, there are plenty of areas, bars, and restaurants to go to that feel more American or “Western”. I have tried to stay away from those places as much as possible, and to instead seek out the more typical Beijing. Although I am taking nearly three hours of Chinese class four days a week, in addition to time spent with my Chinese tutor, my program is still predominantly based in speaking English. I think that this was a good way to first experience China, but has definitely created a cushion for the level of cultural shock I have had to face. If living with a host family or taking courses all in Mandarin, the shock would have been far greater.

Nonetheless, I’ve definitely had my fair share of the phases of cultural shock, purely due to the inevitable fact of living in a foreign country. Being away from family and friends has been challenging, especially when facing personal challenges that call for someone you are close with to talk to. The most acute shock I have felt, shared by many of my colleagues, is tied to food. I find it amusing that for someone with little relative interest in food, it could become such a central part of my homesickness. Never before have I realized how much bread, cheese, tacos, and a good juicy burger and fries mean to me. Comfort food is definitely real. But everyone finds ways to cope, whether it be indulging in that overpriced burger at a western-style joint, or buying produce at the local market to make a yummy batch of guacamole with your friends.

What I worry about is reverse culture shock. Now that I am finally starting to feel at home here, what will it be like to go back? Parting from all of the great people I’ve met here will be sad. Seeing family and friends again will be great, but it will be so hard to encapsulate and communicate what life here in China was like, and all of the incredible experiences that I’ve had.

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Life in the AFRICAN BUSH!

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Getting my Texas cowboy on! Yeehaw!

Last week was an unforgettable experience. During a visit to a rural community I was able to integrate into life quickly and participate in a multitude of activities. From Senegalese wrestling, to harvesting peanuts, to riding horses and donkeys, to searching water from a well and carrying a bucket on my head, to teaching an elementary school class in French – my rural visit was enriching. It was remarkable to see the work ethic of these incredible men and women. They are focused on the essentials of life and it was a breath of fresh air to reconnect with nature and traditional ways of living. Here is my week in a nutshell:

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Separating the peanuts from the plants in the shade of the tree

I got up at seven o’clock to take a taxi, a bush taxi, a bus and finally a horse cart before arriving in the village of Keur Wack Dia, 25 km to the southwest of Kaolack in central Senegal. The village is located in the heart of the bush. There are no more than three hundred people, and the village is divided into two with one half of the people who speak Wolof and the other half speaking Serer. I was accompanied by another student named Georgia and a member of the Peace Corps named Katerina. As soon as we arrived at the site, Katerina introduced us to the village chief. Georgia and I gave him two bag fulls of bananas and I found out that I would be sleeping with him in his hut. Then we met the whole village, they all came to welcome “the Toubabs.” Of course, I immediately forgot every single word of Wolof I thought I had learned in class. The language barrier was my biggest problem all week. Fortunately, the villagers were very forgiving. For dinner, they prepared couscous. As a man, I ate first with the other men, and after we finished it was time for women to eat. I noticed throughout the week how gender roles were well defined in village life. To end the evening each night, we sat on mats and lay under the stars. I think it was one of the activities I enjoyed the most- laying under the stars in rural Africa and talking about life in an African tribal language.

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I’ll never complain about having to wind up a hose

The rest of the week flew by and I realized that the most important thing I had to do was to participate actively. The day began at about 5:45 am with the call to prayer. After the prayer, the whole village was awake and already in the process of working. Women have made several trips to the well and the men went out to start harvesting peanuts. It is essential to start early because the heat is unbearable in the early afternoon. Villagers work all day and rarely take breaks and they go from one task to another. An amazing thing is that I’ve never heard any complaints (although I actually understand limited Wolof, I didn’t see any facial expressions that showed signs of negativity).

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My Village Family!

My career and academic goals have been changed since being here. I was not sure if graduate school is for me, but I am coming to realize that I should take advantages of the opportunities I have in the United States to gain a good education to be better prepared to help others. I also decided that the Peace Corps is not for me. It had always been a viable option at the back of my head, but spending one week in their shoes allowed me to have an even deeper respect for their service and realize that I wouldn’t enjoy their lifestyle.

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The kids are so eager to learn, and it was fun being a last minute substitute.

At the end of the week, I easily came to love the people of the village and they were able to love me. The leader asked me if I wanted to stay and be the next volunteer Peace Corps, but I had to refuse the offer. It is amazing how one week can really change my perspective on life and allow foreigners who do not share the same culture, the same race, or the same language to create strong relationships that will leave lasting memories.

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Interning Abroad: The Real Deal

I am interning for the semester in Quito, Ecuador at an organization called the Comisión Ecuménica de Derechos Humanos (CEDHU), or the Ecumenical Commission of Human Rights. I got to be involved in this opportunity through my study abroad program, IES Abroad. They helped me to set it up and are also giving me a background class once a week to supplement my learning base regarding the business world here.

The typical day at my internship varies day to day. I work at CEDHU once a week right now, but also have participated in an event they put on last week, called El Encuentro Nacional de Comunicación, which was an event bringing together journalists and radio professionals from all over the country. The work that I do at my internship is usually logistical and usually takes place on the computer. That isn’t exactly what I was expecting, but it has helped me to grow all the same. I have completed projects that had to do with surveys the organization has done, called and contacted clients, and formed informational outlines for future workshops that CEDHU hosts.

I believe that I have grown in a professional sense because I have learned how to handle myself in such a different situation as a work environment in a foreign country. That isn’t the typical college kid experience. But yet here I am, lucky enough to be able to learn about how people do business in Spanish, in Ecuador. If learning how to operate in a foreign work environment isn’t professional growth, I don’t know what is! I have learned to see business through the eyes of a Latin American business instead of having my American blinders on like usual. It’s completely different. They are much more relaxed here than we are back in the States. Timing isn’t the end-all-be-all like Americans view it to be. The environment seems so, so much more relaxed compared to the work environment in the U.S. Besides being able to expand my skills, I have also expanded my networking and professional contacts through this opportunity. This internship has been truly been invaluable for my knowledge accumulation, cultural understanding, and for any career I find myself in in the future.

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