Hi Friends! Since my last blog post, I’ve visited Ostende, a coastal city in Belgium, and Gent, another beautiful city in Belgium. Whenever I return to Leuven after traveling to other cities in Belgium and Europe, I feel like I’m coming home. In this post, I’m going to take you through a typical day for me!
On a typical day I have two classes: Human Rights, a law course intended for non-law students who want to know more about human rights and how they actually play out in a European context, and Low Countries, a history class about well, the low countries, that being Belgium and the Netherlands. They’ve both been interesting and I’ve learned more about European law and history through them. The building where these classes are taught is about a 15 minute walk from my residence, and goes straight through the shopping center into a central part of Leuven. On my walk I encounter a lot of other students, in college, primary, or secondary school. I smell freshly made waffles and see people in cafes sipping their espresso or afternoon beer. There is a yummy Thai restaurant just steps away from the building where students line up for affordable (less than 5 euros!!!!!) pad thai or curry. My friends and I usually decide to catch lunch there in between our classes.
On any given day, I’ll go to a store to browse or the closest grocery store, Colruyt (think a smaller version of Costco), to pick a few things up. (It’s important to remember your own shopping bags!) One day after class, I decided to go to a vintage store with a friend. The vintage store is located at the end of Oude Markt (Old Market) a popular nightlife spot that is constantly bustling with the inhabitants of Leuven. It was a rainy day today, so the streets were a little less crowded and umbrellas were up!
Once I get back home, it’s normally dinner time so I’ll cook whatever I’m feeling like or me and a friend will make a meal together. Usually pasta and pesto or curry and rice have been the go to for me. I eat dinner a bit earlier than my hallmates, which means I get the kitchen to myself! By the time I finish dinner, the rest of the hall will decide they’re hungry and start cooking. Once you get 13 people in the kitchen trying to cook their own food, it’s bound to get crazy! During that chaos, I kick back on the couch in the kitchen and catch up with everyone and share funny stories.
To end the night, I’ll catch up on some homework, water the 3 cacti I bought at the local flea market, or stay up late talking to the people on my hall. Conversations get interesting and laughs are always shared. I’m happy to have found my rhythm in Belgium. Time is FLYING by!
Thanks for checking in, I’ll catch you again in a few weeks!
One aspect of studying abroad that is definitely similar to my time at UMass, and really probably life in general, is how natural and easy it is to fall into a routine. I was very focused at the beginning of my semester at USFQ (Universidad San Francisco de Quito) to engage in any adventure presented to me and throw myself out there in order to make the most of my once in a lifetime experience here in Quito. However, the reality is that no matter how determined you believe you are, it’s nearly impossible to go on a trip every weekend, or do things during the week all the time, not only due to classes, but also considering your budget when abroad. So I find myself going to classes, getting lunch with friends, going to salsa club, and usually returning to my host family’s apartment or getting some work done in a café with friends, similar to what I might do during a semester at UMass. Personally, I don’t think there is any shame in routines, I think they help keep me sane and calm during stressful course loads, and especially now, since I’m surrounded by a completely new environment. While at the surface, things seem to be similar to my semesters in the U.S., there’s also this imbalance of nothing really being mine here, but having to make it mine so that I can enjoy my time here without missing home too much. Although having a planned out week and keeping things in a routine so that I know what to expect is how I normally like to live my life, I knew that this experience abroad would not have been what it has for me so far if I did what I normally would at UMass.
As a challenge for myself during my time abroad, I have been focusing on experiencing every day a little further out of my comfort zone. Not only by going on trips around Ecuador that may or may not be totally planned, but also by exploring Quito during the day on my own, reflecting and focusing on what I am experiencing in the moment instead of worrying about an assignment or whether or not I remembered to close my door so that the dog wouldn’t get in. Although spending time on my own and experiencing the area may not seem like something that exciting or challenging, as someone who is always looking for friends to spend time with and never wanting to do things on my own, I think this is a big step, and I have been enjoying my small doses of solitude and have been able to learn things about myself in a new country, which I think was a very important goal for me when I was thinking about studying abroad.
Unlike most weekends, where I spend time with groups of friends going out or going on weekend trips or going camping, a few weekends ago, I spent the Saturday in Quito on my own – and discovered the most amazing market, el Mercado Iñaquito, where I walked around and spoke with Ecuadorians who had stands there, bought and tried produce I had never heard of before, practiced my bartering skills, and had a delicious lunch. It was an amazing Saturday, and it was all on my own. Afterwards, I went to see a movie by an Ecuadorian director called Sin muertos no hay carnaval, which was an incredible story about life in Guayaquil, the most populated city in Ecuador, and was an amazing opportunity to learn more about Ecuadorian culture and life in Ecuador, as well as practice my Spanish (I’m pretty confident that I understood the majority of the film).
Although there is a lot of pressure to continuously go on adventures with other classmates or friends during your time abroad, I just want to stress the importance of taking time for yourself, while also exploring what is around you, especially if you find yourself spending a lot of time with others and not taking the time to think about the city you are living in and how it has been impacting you and you, it. On the other hand, finding balance is always essential, and I’ve also found that it helps to talk to others studying abroad about their experiences and also search for advice from those who are from the country you are studying in. Some of my Ecuadorian friends have given me advice on incredible places to visit and know in Quito and beyond, and this country never ceases to amaze me, whether I am by myself, reflecting on the space and what I hope to gain from my experience here, or with a group of friends, taking pictures and enjoying the natural beauty that is Ecuador. I will be doing just that this weekend in Quilotoa, a breathtaking crater lake in Ecuador that has trails to hike and unbelievable views.
Stay tuned for updates on the astounding beauty that is Ecuador, from this weekend’s trip to Quilotoa, next weekend’s trip to the coast, and a mid-semester break in the Galapagos! I feel an upcoming blog post about Ecuador’s flora y fauna coming your way.
As always, thanks for reading!
Over the past few weeks, I have developed a routine: I wake up to the city-wide call to prayer in the early morning. I prepare my school supplies and do some last minute studying. I walk up the narrow staircase to my host mother and siblings eating breakfast. My mother gestures for me to get some bread on the table, and use the olive oil, honey, and jam to spread on the bread while she pours me some coffee and mint tea. After eating for a bit, I realize I have lost track of time and have to hurry off to class. I make a shaking gesture to my host mother trying to communicate with her that I need to run, and she does the same gesture back to me while making a noise that is supposed to imitate the sound of rushing feet. I thank her and dash down the stairs to get my jacket and backpack and open the door to the slowly awakening medina. Breathing in the cold morning air, I walk around the street merchants setting up their displays, mothers bringing their young kids to school while dodging bikes and motorcycles. These tiny, winding streets that only a short time ago felt like an indecipherable maze, now feel like part of a normal morning commute.
As I walk up to the wooden door of my host institution, I ring the buzzer and wait a few seconds for the click signaling that I can enter. I exchange good-mornings with the staff member at the front desk and hurry over to my Arabic class. When our class is over, my other classmates and I exchange complaints about how difficult Arabic is, but how glad we are that we are learning it in a country like Morocco. We grab some coffee from the coffee machine and head to our lecture. I am constantly in awe of the amazing people that we have the opportunity to listen to and ask questions to. One day it could be a foreign correspondent for Reuters or Associated Press, and the next day it could be a human rights activist who was jailed and is explaining censorship in Morocco.
After the first lecture, we head to lunch and discuss and debate the contents of the lecture and what we might want to do for our independent study project. After filling our bodies and minds, we head to our final lecture of the day, where we will once again be enlightened by an amazing professional. After our classes, we split up into groups depending on who needs to study what, and head off to various cafes to study. I typically study in a cafe called Arab Cafe located just off of Mohammed the V Ave. After studying for a few hours, and ingesting more than our fair share of mint tea and second hand smoke, we head back to our respective host families and enjoy a traditional family dinner.
Although this routine was becoming comfortable, this past week we had the opportunity to explore outside of Rabat. Getting into a routine, you can kind of take the place you are in for granted. Some of the things you once saw as novel could become monotonous. This excursion shook me out of that. We were able to travel to the Medina of Fez where we saw the tanneries and the various other textile cooperatives. We traveled to the Sahara and watched the sunset and rise over the sand dunes. We scaled the Atlas Mountains, and we went to a traditional medicine cooperative in Marrakesh that sold pure Argan oil, among other things.
While riding in the bus between these cities, I had a lot of time to reflect. As I watched the landscape rush past I became aware that this- what I was seeing, and smelling, and feeling, and thinking- would have all been a distant dream had it not been for the Gilman Scholarship. The Gilman Scholarship made what I once thought was impossible, a very real reality. For that, I am deeply and truly grateful for this opportunity and will live it out to the absolute fullest. When I turn the corner into the Medina during my morning routine, I’ll make sure to stop, look around, take a deep breath and smile, knowing that even if I am late for class, I am late for class in Rabat, Morocco.
My first couple of weeks trying to manage what I will call my new and transformational “Chinese life” definitely presented some difficulties. Months before I even thought about how everything was going to work out abroad, I heard the term “culture shock” at my university’s study abroad orientation. It seems that in many people’s minds culture shock is some mystical, fairytale-esque concept, or that it’s your immediate reaction to a new place when you first arrive. This term was briefly discussed during the orientation for my program, and I overheard several students sort of laugh away the significance of it. To put it simply, culture shock develops this way: once you enter your new surroundings, you’re in a “honeymoon” state, everything is wonderful and unfamiliar, for a while it feels like you’re the star of some kind of movie.
As time goes on it fades and gradually you start to feel uncomfortable and extremely out of place (in China, where everyone save a small percentage are ethnically Chinese, this feeling comes extremely quickly), and you start to miss the little things your home has that your new home doesn’t. I’m here to tell you that during my first “transitional” few weeks, I was a prime example of this stage of culture shock. I’ve never been in a city as large as Kunming, and my biggest distress was that I felt like a grain of sand on this huge beach I didn’t understand. Slowly but surely this started to fade away as my relationship with my classmates and my roommate improved. So far the person that I appreciate the most is my roommate. Here’s a short breakdown of how I got my roommate: CET Academic Programs, the organization that is in charge of my program, gives each one of us a Chinese roommate in order to foster our language abilities, as well as give us a chance to intimately know a Chinese person and how they live their lives day by day. My roommate had to apply and be interviewed, and is given strict instructions to not speak English at all with me. That being said, even though at times I fear our communication is poor due to the language barrier, he’s become one of my best friends so far. The most interesting thing about our friendship to me is the fact that we’re constantly exchanging cultural information about our homes, while all of my other friends back home center around our common interests (my roommate and my interests almost mirror each other, so that aspect is there as well).
A couple of weeks ago we got to talking and somehow I brought up Fifty Shades of Grey, which was risky because I really didn’t want to explain what the plot line was (is there even one?), and after a while my roommate eluded to the promiscuity of Americans by saying he didn’t know why we liked being intimate so much. At the time I played it cool but was surprised that that kind of misconception of Americans exists. I tried my hardest to clear that up for him and tell him that many Americans (myself included) aren’t like that using my child-like Chinese, and I don’t regret it one bit. Although we’ve never had a talk about misconceptions and stereotypes about Chinese people, many of them have been cleared up from subtle nuances I caught just being around him so much. My favorite cultural insight is Chinese hospitality. When he and I would go out to eat, countless times he would pay for me without a second thought (we started going dutch after I finally figured out how to say there was no need), and let’s not forget all of the times I had no idea what I was doing and he would help me understand something, or simply take me to put minutes on my phone.
All in all, I’m going to make sure once I arrive home to not forget his kindness, and to pay it forward by taking that piece of Chinese culture to the States. Going back to what I said about culture shock, there’s also a stage where you begin to feel comfortable with how things work where you are. I can proudly report that I’m tiptoeing my way into a rut, but not in the cliché way this word is often used. In a place where little children (and very often the elderly) look at you like you come from outer space, having a routine that includes friends you never thought you’d have is a blessing that is hard to take for granted.
History has thrived upon an ability to dream. I have never received the comprehensive road map, or tutorial for direction in my life. What I have had is inspiration that grows from wisdom and stories by sometimes seemingly insignificant interactions. My dreams are composed of ideas that I have built based upon these interactions. A benefit of taking on the world without following any given example is that I have been able to explore several influences rather than rely on a select few. Many aspirations have been absorbed from my experiences, and Costa Rica has allowed me to find pieces of my professional ambitions that I had not previously pondered.
While abroad, I studied the culture and climate of Costa Rica, the Spanish language, and the literature of Latin America. I attend Elon University, which is a liberal arts university in North Carolina that requires one to take a variety of courses outside of one’s selected major. This practice brings depth and breadth to an already extraordinary institution of learning. By encouraging this type of study, students can look to fulfill several of the requirements abroad, which is essentially what I accomplished.
In addition to classes, however, I found inspiration in the adventures that were had within Costa Rica. The biggest shock in the short time frame that I have been home in is the scheduled nature of society. Expectations for an individual at nearly any age are abundant and unwritten. In order to acquire the common concept of success, one must plan his or her life years in advance, and always be looking for something more. Our schedules and lives are mechanized, and however important this far-sighted requirement is – a person can easily forget the benefit of adventure. To not be retained by the circulation and commonality of routine is where true success lies. Costa Rica has shown me that there is so much more to life than the brand of getting rich quickly that many seem it idolize.
When I think of the leaders that I would like to see in the future, they are individuals that have explored outside their comfort zone. The greatest professional ambition that I have gained was a greater idea of the leader that I will be. To settle in one area, and to base ideas from within the confines of one’s own four walls is constraining not only to the individual, but to those who admire that person as well. Not traveling, but rather experiencing diversity is absolutely essential in order to gain creative and intellectual perspectives that would otherwise be absent. The leaders of this upcoming generation will be culturally intelligent and able to talk across difference in order to innovatively engender success. A global motivation is now hard-wired into my system, and it forever will be one of the several ideas that guide the direction of my dreams.