Welcome to India!

Greetings! My name is Michelle Jeong and I am currently a junior at Bowdoin College studying abroad in Madurai, India. Prior to coming to India, everyone wanted to know why I chose India as my study abroad location. Before I could even answer the first question, I was asked another question: “Why not go to Europe where you can travel and relax?” I wanted to study in India because I knew it was going to be a different experience: culturally, linguistically, and physically. To me, study abroad was a chance to live a different life in a different country. I am aware that I will face challenges but that made me want to go to India even more. I want to know what I am capable of.

 

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The whole group of SITA (South India Term Abroad) students attempting the Vrksasana (tree pose).

 

This past summer I interned for 7 weeks with a non-profit organization located in Ghana. I would be lying if I said it was perfect. It wasn’t, but that’s what I loved about it. When the power went out for 12 hours at a time I can’t say I was the happiest person in the world, but it made me re-evaluate my lifestyle. I needed to toughen up and accept that resources such as electricity and central air conditioning were not available to most of the world’s population. Being raised in the United States made me a weakling.

 

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Menakshi Temple.

 

Experiencing differences and difficulties in Ghana somewhat prepared me for India. I knew I was going to be the foreigner that was constantly stared at. I knew that brushing my teeth and consuming tap water was HIGHLY discouraged. I knew that I would be restricted in both dress and behavior. The one thing I wasn’t prepared for? The need to relearn everything. As soon as I stepped off the bus in Madurai, I was greeted by traffic: scooters, buses, motorcycles, cars, cyclists, trucks, and even pedestrians. I felt overwhelmed. There was so much traffic I didn’t know where to go. I essentially needed to relearn how to walk in a city. Being from Washington D.C. I thought I would have no trouble navigating a city, however I was dead wrong. Madurai is bustling with people. The roads are not only narrow but most of them have big intersections without any traffic lights or stop signs. Traffic laws do not really exist in Madurai, but drivers somehow understand each other and communicate with honks. Traffic is confusing and overwhelming as it is, but driving on opposite side of the road complicates things to a greater extent. It’s mind-boggling to me that while I hesitate to cross the road, locals will shimmy past me walking right into the middle of the road not hesitating for one second. While it is frustrating having to learn a new language (Tamil), eat food with only my right hand, and to use a hose instead of toilet paper, it’s exactly what I wanted from a study abroad experience.

 

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Grand entrance to Menakshi Temple.

 

At this point you may be asking yourself, “Why is this girl trying to be so positive?” Over time I have learned that being positive is the best way to adjust to a new environment. Why complain about it if it’s only going to make it worse? Yes, sometimes I don’t understand what my host grandfather is trying to say to me and yes, sometimes I’ll be squashed into a small auto-rickshaw with 6 other people. BUT that’s the fun! All these scenarios are entertaining and they make for great memories! Trying to look on the brighter side of things has helped me absorb the culture shocks that India has greeted me with. I’m already 2 weeks into my program but I look forward to the crazy auto-rickshaw moments, the insane road navigation, fresh coconut water, and delectable south Indian desserts.

 

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Cramming 6 people into an auto-rickshaw built for 3 (small) people.

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Filed under Michelle in India, South & Central Asia

Nach Amerika Kommen: Coming to America

These last two weeks have been a blur. I went from discovering more things about my host country to saying my final goodbyes to it in what seems like an extremely short time. Now I am back home in Arlington, Texas, getting ready for the new school year.

My final week in Lüneburg was spent reminiscing and planning. Reminiscing about the previous 10 weeks of my life, during which I had created lasting memories, made new friends, and discovered a little bit more about myself. And planning for the future in which I hope I can incorporate the things I learned from my study abroad experience.

I plan to keep working on my German language skills because I would like to return to my host city one day and speak fluent German to the kind people who made me feel welcome 5,000 miles away from home.

I plan to keep being open to having honest conversations with anyone who is willing, because I now know how amazing and powerful such interactions can be.

I plan to one day help someone feel welcome in my homeland, just like countless people did with me during my time in Lüneburg.

However, despite having all these plans, I don’t think that I have actually fully gotten comfortable with the fact that I am back. A part of me still thinks that I will wake up in my bedroom in Germany, grab a quick breakfast at the train station bakery before boarding my bus, say “morgen” to the bus driver like I did every morning and head to my language class.

 

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A final look at the wonderful city that I got to call home during my study abroad program.

 

I’m going to miss the city, the people, my friends, the culture, and the language. Now that I am back, I don’t get to eavesdrop on native speakers at the grocery store in the name of improving my language skills.

As mentioned in my very first blog post, since Germany and the United States are both Western nations, there aren’t really stark differences that triggered any sort of culture shock. But my life here seems just a little more monotonous after having the opportunity to explore a country that has significantly more history than the United States. I can tell that I am now a little bit more curious now about other countries and how people of other nationalities live their lives.

I’m going to nurture this curiosity as much as I can by travelling more, learning new languages, and continuing to be open to people and to new experiences. In the meantime, I will be volunteering my time to my university’s study abroad outreach programs because I want more people to have the amazing opportunity that I did.

I will be graduating in December, after which I plan to attend graduate school for international relations. Also after the amazing experiences I had this summer, I think that I would like to try my hand at onstage storytelling and maybe get involved in an organization that uses the exchange of stories as a way to promote relationships among unlikely people.

The stage is set for something great, I just have to wait to see what plays out.

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Filed under Bioreoluwasheto in Germany, Western Europe

A Metamorphosis Abroad

I have never been able to relate to a lot of the people I met growing up unless they came from a similar background as I do. If they did not, a bridge was immediately formed where we stood on opposite ends, speaking still, yet never truly hearing or understanding one another. This was especially true for Asian people (I know how bad that sounds but let me finish). Growing up, I definitely let the media, stereotypes, and Hollywood brainwash my ideas surrounding Chinese people. I always assumed they were very well-off, and super good at math. The fact that the Asians at my schools fit these stereotypes only pushed my prejudices deeper into my conscious. Before studying abroad, I had only met three Asians who did not fit these stereotypes, but still zero I could relate to. Yet still, I have been fascinated with Asia since I was a child, and made it my mission to eventually travel here. This by far one of the best decisions I have made in my entire life.

My first day in Hong Kong was a very humbling experience. It was the first time in my life I saw Chinese people doing regular jobs, like supermarket cashiers, fast food, and plenty of other jobs. I thought wow, these people are just like every other race: diverse. Diverse in every sense of the word, from their fashion, views, and physique. It washed away my idea that Chinese people were people I just couldn’t relate to because we are just so different, but that is so far from the truth. This is the part where I introduce my brilliant co-worker and friend Ariel.

 

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This is Ariel, my brilliant Hong Kong sister whom I will miss dearly.

 

Ariel is like my tiny little sister, even though shes only one year younger me. She is an incredibly hard worker and has taught me so much about Hong Kong culture. We have similar views on most things we discuss, like the governing and policing parties, how life should be more than just working so much, and plenty of other stuff. She is the reason I work overtime practically everyday, her presence is dope. She’s passionate about her people and their freedom, she goes to protests just like us Berkeley folk are known for doing.

Through friendships like Ariel’s and my coursework through the University of Hong Kong, I have learned a lot about myself. I thought I was capable of adapting to any environment, but I discovered my kryptonite: censorship. During my travel to and from Tokyo, I have stopped in Shanghai a couple times. Since Shanghai is a part of mainland China, censorship is very real there. I was blocked from using all my apps, and even e-mail. I firmly believe that no one or governing force should have the power to control the information people can receive. It creates a bubble for that group of people, they become lost in the dark. Knowledge is power, and when access to resources that can provide that knowledge is prohibited, people gain very little power.

Experiencing this censorship was a miserable experience, until I decided to make the most of it. I exchanged my HKDs (Hong Kong’s currency) for RMB (China’s currency) and wandered around Shanghai. I discovered street vendors who were cooking some food that smelled amazing. I was about 3 dollars short, so I gave them the rest of my Hong Kong coins, and they accepted them with intrigue. When I was leaving, one of them asked for a picture with me, and of course I said yes because she had been so kind.

 

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My delicious meal in Shanghai.

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The kind street vendor who asked for a picture with me.

 

One of my reasons for interning in Hong Kong was because I imagined the work culture here being extremely intense (it is). So I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to force myself to improve as a professional. I can say mission accomplished. Through my internship with the social enterprise Mircoforests, I have written website content, drafted a grant proposal, designed workshop newsletters, and produced press releases. I have gotten used to working 8 hours a day plus the usual hour or hour and a half overtime (keep in mind my internship is unpaid). I can focus on tasks better, I have learned how to write grants, press releases, and effective newsletters. I know the inner-workings of social enterprises which are similar to non-profits,  and I plan on starting my own non-profit or social enterprise once I have the means to do so.

I came here under the impression I was open-minded, then discovered I could be very narrow-minded at times. It feels like someone has pried my mind wide open with a crow bar, showing me a beautiful aspect of diversity and human connection. This experience has prompted a conscious metamorphosis.

 

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Filed under East Asia, Sua in Hong Kong

Farewell Reflection

It’s been almost a week since I’ve been back in the United States, and while I’ve been nothing short of busy from moving to a new apartment, looking for a new job, and getting ready to go back to school, I find that the time I’ve had to reflect on my experience in Japan and my readjust to life in Miami is quite plenty.

When I came back from my first year abroad in Thailand I remember feeling like people were so standoff-ish in America. Now coming back from Japan I feel quite the opposite. It’s kind of strange to have people being so open with each other compared to the quiet and reserved nature of Japanese people. While there are many things that I’m having to get used to again, there are also some things that seemed to come back naturally to me. Like hanging out with family and old friends, which has grounded me in a way that makes transitioning back to American culture much easier. It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve been able to eat all the foods I’ve been missing while meeting up with these people. But already I find some aspects of life in Japan that I miss.

 

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From my last trip within Japan to Nasu.

 

Funny enough, I’m already missing the transportation system that Tokyo offers. I miss the freedom that it gives, especially considering I don’t have a car here. I miss the feeling of calm that Japan has. Stemming from the fact that Japanese culture is so centralized around not being an inconvenience to anyone, traveling around the city and just going out in general has a much more calm atmosphere than what I’ve been experiencing so far while back and it’s been admittedly kind of hard to get used to. I also miss the dynamic that I had with my friend group in Japan, specifically knowing that the likelihood that we’ll all be able to hang out the same way that we used to is impossible, at least for a very long time from now.

 

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Another photo from Nasu.

 

My overall takeaway from coming back has been one of general acceptance. While life in Japan and Miami is so completely different, I’m glad to be able to say that living in Japan and learning about the people and culture and language has made me grow and given me a better perspective of the world. I’m feeling positive about the reintegration process so far, and am glad to have such supportive friends and family to help me through it.

 

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This photo is from my hotel room in Narita.

 

Traveling for long periods of time is, I know, intimidating. But when it comes down to it the personal rewards and experiences that you gain from studying abroad are so much more beautiful and amazing than any of the difficulties or challenges it brings. Which is exactly why I know that traveling and studying abroad will never not be an important thing to me, and that it will continue helping me to grow and change for the better.

 

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And this is a photo from my balcony at my new apartment in Miami.

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Filed under East Asia, Stephanie in Japan

Understanding

Prior to studying abroad, I considered myself extremely open minded and understanding. I contribute these characteristics to my creative nature and unique background and interactions with various kinds of individuals from loving, kind and intelligent souls to racist, ignorant, and arrogant ones. However, what I am learning about myself in my time in Hong Kong is that I am not as understanding as I have perceived myself to be. Understanding Hong Kong culture, especially its work culture, has been a ball of confusion, sometimes met with frustration. I cannot understand the idea of dedicating so much of yourself and your time to an occupation, especially if the occupation is not a fulfilling one. I do not understand how when rules are set here, there seems to be no wiggle room whatsoever. Laws and rules are followed as they should be, but when these rules prevent productivity and lack compassion, it seems that logic and rationality become useless within the machine of society.

I understand that I must learn to live by the rules because at the end of the day, I am still a guest in this country and have no right to try changing ideas that have been cemented into their society ages ago. Becoming aware of my lack of understanding is just another example of how I am growing so much here, in the beautiful, yet sometimes confusing place that is Hong Kong.

 

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This is my amazing boss Rainbow Chow, who is one of the people who has challenged my understanding and helped me grow. She is a true inspiration and has taught me so much. Never have I been inspired by an individual so much.

 

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Filed under East Asia, Sua in Hong Kong

Change is Inevitable

It’s been 2 months and I am still very much in love with Lüneburg.

It has remained beautiful, it has remained welcoming and, as I predicted, it has proven itself to be the perfect place for me to achieve my study abroad ambitions.

As my time here draws to an end, I often find myself thinking about what I expected to happen. I find myself thinking about the excitement I felt during the very first hour of arrival. I find myself remembering how anxious I was to experience what Germany had in store for me. And I often find myself looking back on something that my German professor said to me right before I left for my program.

She said, “You don’t know it now but you’re going to change so much”

I really didn’t know what she meant by that. I mean, how much could a person really change in just 10 weeks?

A lot, apparently.

“Change” somehow implies that one can spontaneously develop new characteristics when placed in a different environment. I’m stubborn, so I would prefer to think that being here has made me more aware of who I have always been. That my experiences in Germany have helped me nurse the characteristics that would have otherwise been suppressed or ignored. This has, in turn, modified the way I act, how I communicate, and my general world view.

 

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I’m not fond of being the subject of photos but I really loved the historic architecture that my friends and I encountered in Dresden and had to remember my reaction to the moment.

 

The most important way I’ve changed is in that I have become a lot more confident in my point of view. Previously, I spent most of my time fitting my perspective into the narratives of others. Instead of letting my unique point of view shine through, I sought to blend in. Blending in made it easy for me to make statements, engage in discussions, and be involved without exposing the facts of my life that make me who I am.

My cultural identity is a prime example of this. I was born in Houston, Texas but raised in Lagos, Nigeria. Despite my purely American accent, I spent more of my life in Nigeria (11 years) than in the United States (7 years). Yet I had always felt the need to hide this fact because I genuinely believed that, in order to connect with people and to be a good communicator, I had to be totally and completely relatable. Even if that meant ignoring the “Nigerian” in “Nigerian-American.”

Being here, and being a foreigner on both fronts has made me a lot more comfortable with being open about my cultural identity. It has actually helped me figure out exactly what that is. This happened with encouragement from the curious locals and fellow study abroad students who saw my name and asked me to talk about my background and went even further by asking about how it has shaped my personal identity. I realize now that there is so much value in being “all of me” while connecting and communicating with others. I don’t think that I would have been brave enough to come to this realization myself or change in the way that I have while in the United States, especially at this moment in time. So I have my study abroad experience to thank for this.

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Filed under Bioreoluwasheto in Germany, Eastern Europe

Finally Back in the USA!

I miss Wien (Vienna)!

Since I’ve been back in the U.S., I’ve kept in contact with many people I spent time with in Wien. Readjusting to the time difference has been the most difficult factor because I feel exhausted while everyone here thinks the day is still young, and then I am wide awake while everyone is sleeping. I would say I am in the stage of reverse culture shock that involves frustration and loneliness because my friends and family here don’t understand what I’ve experienced and how I’ve changed. It is astonishing yet frustrating how a student can leave their home for several months and build a new life elsewhere but without everyone they’ve always known. It is also frustrating because the closest friend I made in Vienna, Akilah, is about a 10-hour car ride away now, instead of a 40-ish minute train ride. It is easy to talk about Vienna with people here, but the more I talk about it, the more I wish I had spent the rest of my summer in Wien!

I absolutely miss Vienna’s reliable public transportation system. I miss the feeling of knowing I could get from point A to point B with little to no effort and with peace of mind.

 

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Nighttime view of the Danube River and the mountain-scape from the U2 U-bahn (subway).

 

I also miss the scenery and beautiful gardens. I miss the vibrant colors and the variations in each garden I visited while in Vienna. I firmly believe that a reliable public transportation system and well-kept recreational areas are great assets to a person’s quality of life.

 

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Akilah and I in Volksgarten!

 

Here in America, there seems to be an urgent need to be going to one place or the other, or to be completing a certain task. In Austria, people actually took their time to breathe and never seemed to be overwhelmed with any daunting tasks. That is something I brought back with me: I don’t necessarily feel it is important to be everywhere and doing everything.

The American food culture is also very different from Austria’s. I never felt the need to cook in bulk while I was there because I had a mini-refrigerator. My options were to either stop by the market and buy the ingredients to cook my meals or spend quality time with friends at a restaurant. The food was always fresh and the memories are unforgettable!

 

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Our final dinner together!

 

This fall concludes the final semester of my undergraduate studies at Purdue. I will be sharing my experiences abroad during the study abroad fairs in September, and I am super excited about that! I think my insights will influence students who are on the fence with their decision to study abroad. I am also looking forward to graduating in December. Some people say it seems like I have breezed through college, but I can say I have made the most of my undergraduate studies. I will be seeking employment opportunities within the field of agriculture, but I am open to any career that requires travel and the use of my global awareness and adaptability skills!

Bis bald, Wien.

 

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Filed under Elizabeth in Vienna, Western Europe