Hi, I’m John and I’m studying Computer Science this fall at La Universidad Adolfo Ibañez in Viña del Mar, Chile. Follow my adventures here on the Gilman Scholarship’s blog!
In late September I accepted an internship position as a research assistant at the BRICS Policy Center. Its name comes from the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. They are countries with emerging economies and increasingly regional and international influence. At the BRICS Policy Center, administered by the Institute of International Relations of PUC-Rio, researchers perform short and long-term studies on the BRICS countries and their intricacies. Now more than a month since the internship began, the experience at the BRICS Policy Center has been stimulating.
I first learned of the center’s existence while attending an event on Brazil-US relations in Washington D.C. this past Spring; as soon as I arrived to Rio de Janeiro I began preparing to apply for the application and after it became available I immediately applied and heard back in September. I joined their Social-Environmental Platform team, specifically under an international relations professor working on a project to study the presence of China in Latin America. My research therefore has been to study why and how China has become such a strong actor in Latin America, one that to this day continues to invest and increase its economic and political partnerships with Latin American countries. The project is in its preliminary stages, but what I am learning has been captivating and though the reading is burdensome and time consuming, I thoroughly enjoy reading the various literatures on China in Latin America.
When I applied to PUC-Rio, I indicated to my study abroad advisor my interest in interning while abroad in Brazil, though I never would have imagined how difficult it would be. Difficult in terms of the large commitment of my time while having to also simultaneous commit myself to four courses, a completely new life, and the constant invitations of friends to go enjoy the experience of living in a foreign country. Interning abroad can therefore be draining, yet I have enjoyed the experience, and though it has limited my time substantially, I’ve organized myself in a way that I can make time for various activities while at the same time fulfill my duties. I spend around two to three afternoons working from home every week on various readings, and then meet once a week to discuss the literature with the professor and two other student researchers. The discussion takes place in Portuguese and I can understand most of it, though when it comes to explaining what I read, and I am personally not able to thoroughly explain my thoughts in Portuguese, I change to English.
Long having heard of the acronym ‘BRICS’ during one of my courses at UC Davis, never did I imagine I would be able to work alongside Latin American researchers looking at China and its presence in Latin America, specifically Brazil. BRICS no longer is an acronym, for these countries have and continue to amass significant influence worldwide, and at the BRICS Policy Center I hope I will continue to learn more about their relationships with one another. Students should consider completing an internship during their time abroad, I highly recommend it.
Two days into 2017 and I found myself on a long journey to the United Kingdom. After spending the holidays at home with my family in Mexico, I packed my suitcase and drove north for four hours, just me and my mom. We crossed the border and arrived in Tucson, Arizona – spending a brief night in a place that I had also once called home. Ever since my parents relocated to Mexico, I rarely have the opportunity to visit. Perhaps it was just the nostalgia, but it felt right to be in the place where it all started before flying to my college home again.
The next morning, I took in the lingering smell of the desert rain and kissed my anxious mother goodbye. Seven hours later, I found myself lugging my heavy suitcase up three flights of stairs to a mostly empty college apartment in Philadelphia. After two years studying at the University of Pennsylvania, it also felt like home to walk around my college campus and have late night conversations over noodles at the local Ramen Bar. Less than 24 hours later, I packed up my second suitcase and stumbled back down the stairs before heading back to the airport for another day of traveling.
By the time I arrived in London, I had passed through 3 different countries over 3 days of travel. Disoriented and exhausted, it was difficult to find the charm in London when I first arrived. My heater didn’t work, my phone service went out, and there was no logic in the placement of crosswalks. During orientation, I sat in the back with one of my best friends from Penn and we rolled our eyes at every cheesy presentation while introducing ourselves to an overwhelming group of new people.
What school do you go to? What are you studying? Where are you from?
Though the entire situation surrounding “Abroad Orientation” called for small talk and awkward introductions, my inconsistent response to every “Where are you from?” question made me uneasy. As I stumbled to simplify my complicated background and the different layers that compose my identity, I realized that home could take on different meanings. To other American students, I was mostly from Arizona, the place where I grew up. In awkward and somewhat incoherent sentences, I would also mention Philadelphia before quickly moving on. On the other hand, to my British classmates, I was clearly American. Yet, I would often find myself clarifying that I was Mexican too.
It has been a month since I first arrived in London and as the days pass, introductions and “where are you from?” questions have become less frequent. Still, these past few weeks have encouraged me to look back and pinpoint the places that I call home and people that have inadvertently impacted and influenced who I am. At a time when the value of diversity has been questioned and undermined, I find myself embracing my background and the framework that it has provided as I find my place in this expansive and multifaceted city. Sure there is no place like home and there is no place like London but I have a feeling that the two aren’t altogether mutually exclusive.
Smørrebrød, flaeskesteg, snobrød, risengrød, biksemad….herring. What the heck do these strange words mean? And moreover how in the world do you pronounce them? These were my first reactions to Danish food – it was something alien and bizarre – they put pickles and mayonnaise on herring for crying out loud! But as my host family in Copenhagen introduced me to the mouth-watering wonders of flaeskesteg (it’s like a savory juicy pork roast with a rack of crisp salty bacon on top, but better), the warm coziness of a bowl of rice pudding with a pad of melted butter flowing over the cinnamon and sugar you sprinkle on (risengrød), and, with much hesitation, to the way the weird combinations of ingredients in open-faced sandwiches (smørrebrød) actually compliment and enhance each other, I learned to really enjoy them.
Smørrebrød delight the Danes and remind them of Julefrokost (Christmas-day Lunch). But to Americans these open-faced sandwiches seem unappetizing at best. At first, they were enough to make my stomach turn, but then I forced myself to take a bite… It wasn’t so bad! It even tasted pretty good, in fact. Sure, it was a bit too heavy on the sweet-and-sour flavors like pickles and herring for me, but the chewy rye bread‘s sweet nutty flavor actually paired really well with the savory meats and crisp veggies piled inches high on top. My favorite is one made with a chilled, thick slice of pork covered in red cabbage and pickles. Ot her varieties are made with liver pate, meat-jelly, and pepper, or fried fish (usually cod) and remoulade (tastes like a more savory mayonnaise), or mini-shrimp marinated in salt-water and mixed on the bread with lettuce, cold butter, freshly cracked pepper, and remoulade. And what’s more? They pair these with herring marinated in either a sweet-cinnamony sauce or curry and then drink snaps and beer with it!
I would come to find over the next few months that this, at first startling, pairing of opposites makes Danish food interesting, scintillating, and unique. Sour with honeyed, crunchy with smooth, intense with mellow – during a group dinner, Dorthe (one of my host parents’ many close friends) told me with pride that she would never serve a dish without considering these combinations. High-end restaurants like Noma inspire the world with their unique creations– have you ever had a generous helping of beef tartar covered in ants? What about caramelized milk and monkfish liver… Yummmmm. But what these dishes all have in common is a pairing of opposites that excites the senses.
“Hygge” – the Danish catchphrase, shibboleth, and in many ways formula for living – also plays a lead role in their food culture. Danes go out to hygge with each other, thank each other for a hygge time together, and try to make their homes as hygge as possible. Hygge is both a description and an action – you can call a night spent with friends or a café hygge, but you can also say you’re going to hygge. It implies a sense of coziness, being together with close friends and family, trust and safety, but also living up to a certain norm. You’re expected to participate wholeheartedly in conversation but not predominate, laugh and smile but not overreact. The ideal is someone who is “man hviler i sig selv,” or rests in himself. The Danes treasure an environment that lets people be themselves, and enjoy doing so, without thinking about their outside concerns. Food reflects this harmonious hygge atmosphere – it allows the Danes to come together to enjoy conversation, laugh, share experiences, and discuss their views in a safe, trusting, and cozy atmosphere. At least in my homestay and their group of friends, eating together makes them family. All of them live far from the small villages and farms they grew up on in Jutland, and so they rely on each other for social support, good “hygge” times, and of course for “laekkert mad” (delicious food).
I think the best food experience I’ve had in Denmark was a light meal of bread cheese red peppers and olives that my friends and I shared at Ølsnedkeren – a craft brewery Copenhagen’s Nørrebro neighborhood. The dinner wasn’t anything special, and there weren’t even any Danes there, but we enjoyed eating, drinking, and laughing together for almost 5 hours. Although the food is important, enjoying a cozy evening (“have en hyggelit aften”) together with friends is better.