Hey guys! My name is Kristen and I am a sophomore journalism student at the University of Richmond. This spring semester I will be attending Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. I leave in a few days and I am totally freaking out. Recently I have gotten into the habit of making lists of the things I should buy before I leave and what I should bring in general. I am planning on packing only the essentials because I want to bring back a lot of stuff! Since I am a procrastinator down to the bones, I’m a little behind on getting everything ready. I am working both my jobs for these last 2 days that I will be here and I am navigating that while trying to prepare for my trip, but I am remaining positive! My family surprised me with a “going away breakfast” this Sunday and it made me realize how much I am going to miss them. I am extremely close with my family and I know they’re wishing the best for me, so I want to have an amazing experience for their sake as well. I experienced a big change in my life during the period of time that I was waiting to study abroad and it made me eager to start over. I want my experience in Korea to clear my mind and to allow me to reset and come back with a whole new outlook. I am looking forward to studying my hardest, making friends, experiencing new things, and growing as a person. I can’t wait to talk to you guys again and let you know how I’m settling in. Talk to you soon!
One thing that has surprised me during my time here is the representation of different countries from the expat community. In terms of students at my university, the vast majority of exchange students are from European countries, with the occasional American or Canadian as well. This helps create a different kind of abroad experience where I’m not just surrounded by other Americans, but get a whole range of different perspectives instead. Outside of school, most of the Americans I have met are English teachers and businessmen. The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) – the diplomatic and cultural exchange body of the US in Taiwan – hosted a ‘Town Hall’ event for American citizens staying here, which allowed me to hear from many different kinds of Americans living all over Taiwan. It struck me as quite strange at the time that this was the first time in several months where everyone in the room was American. Even during my other times abroad in the mainland or otherwise, I was always surrounded by a group of Americans from the program or group, so living without that has been eye-opening and has probably given me a more enriching experience overall as well.
Everyone attending this town hall was also reminded to make sure to vote in the November midterm elections. Though my requested absentee ballot never came by mail, I was able to get a Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot from the town hall to mail in and ensure I can still vote in my state. It’s also election season in Taipei, so there are ads and political rallies all over town. The mayor of the city, Ko Wen-je, has recently received a lot of Western press coverage from his music video with a popular Taiwanese rapper (look it up, it’s actually pretty catchy). It’s really interesting seeing how elections pan out somewhere other than your own community/country and seeing people’s passion. This city continues to surprise me with how modern and livable it is – American cities could even learn a thing or two from it.
“I pick you” shouts a tattered, stranger man from across the street. I look up to see his scraggly finger pointing in my direction. He stepped off the opposite curb and began moving towards me. “But I don’t pick you,” I shouted back. My friend grabbed my arm and pulled me closer to her. She said jokingly “sorry, but she’s mine.” In my blue dress, I continued to walk down the sidewalk with five other girls by my side. To him, I was nothing more than a body. The body of a woman he felt justified to sexualize and objectify.
I arrived back to our hostel. I looked in the mirror and saw my exposed arms and legs in my short, blue dress. I changed quickly into joggers and a long sleeve tee, an outfit that covered my skin and my feminine curves. Now, looking back, I hate that I did that. I hate that I let the sleazy man affect my mind and my behaviors. Because in that moment, I saw only what he saw — the body of a woman. Nothing more, nothing less.
“So where are you from?” asked my tour guide. “The United States,” I responded. His face said it all. My answer was not adequate. Where was my light skin, my pointy nose, my wide eyes? “No but where…”, before he could finish I cut in. “I was adopted from China”. This answer was satisfactory. He only stopped when his ethnocentric ideals were proven. I fit the stereotypical mold of an Asian. I, however, did not fit the stereotypical mold of an American. Despite me living in the United States and holding an American passport, he would not accept me as an American. The tour guide proceeded to take out his phone and show me pictures of himself with Asians. “This is my brother’s girlfriend from Taiwan. Isn’t she pretty?”. In my head, I was taking out my phone and showing him all my photos with white people. But on the outside I humored the bigot’s microaggression and smiled like the passive woman of color I was expected to be. Now, looking back, I hate that I didn’t speak up for myself, for Asians, for people of color. I hate that I let the ignorant man affect my mind and my behaviors. Because in that moment, I saw only what he saw — the body of an Asian. Nothing more, nothing less.
In these instances, I felt like the only thing I had to offer the world was my body. My body that just so happened to be female and Asian. My mind was of no importance. My personality was of little interest. And my opinions, perspectives, and experiences — all irrelevant.
It’s fascinating and heartbreaking to travel across countries all with the binding construct of a social hierarchy. The amount of respect, dignity, and humanity you receive is based on your placement on this hierarchy. You have no control. You have no influence. Society has the final judgement, labeling you as a superior, equal, or inferior. Why is this the accepted norm? Why is this okay to nations, communities, individuals? I share my stories to demonstrate how rude acts of ignorance, even if small, perpetuate dehumanization.
There’s growing popularity of the false notion that the way you dress can, will, and should affect the way you are treated. As I walked down the streets of Cape Town, my blue dress caught a particular man’s eye. My blue dress caused distraction and attraction. My dress allowed him to label me as property. Property that could be easily chosen and then discarded. I should be obedient and honored that he would “pick” me. My dress demoted my human status to object status. If I hadn’t worn such a “revealing” outfit, I would have been treated as a proper woman. I wouldn’t have been catcalled. I wouldn’t have been objectified. As the woman, I am the one to accept the blame. It is my job to behave within the standards of appropriateness and sophistication. This idea is ridiculous. Clothing is not the perpetrator. My actions, as a woman, should not be dictated by the limited self-control of a man. Patriarchy and misogyny is excused while women are blamed — while I am blamed.
My program, thankfully, is not short on feminist women and their allies. I have ample support from intelligent, creative, beautiful women with different perspectives across limitless topics. Nonetheless, my support falls short in the area of race. In a group of 25 students, over half of them are people of color. Nonetheless, I am the only one who identifies as Asian. I did not understand how much comfort and support my Asian friends provided until they were no longer there. Within the group, I have sympathizers but no empathizers. On days when the world seems to grab at my feet, pulling me backward, situations like these make me feel like a blank canvas, an empty body. My self-confidence diminishes and my accomplishments are forgotten. These seem to slip my mind but, thankfully, are fully appreciated and vocalized by my peers. Those days do inevitably come but seem to be few and far in-between.
The past 12 weeks of my life have been hard, but they have also been so full of joy and growth. I would not trade a single moment of my abroad experience. It’s been a main contributor to the development of the individual I am today. I am a woman. I am Asian. And I am proud to say that I am both. However, I am also a daring adventurer who flew over the coast of South Africa, ziplined over waterfalls, and snorkeled with seals. I am also a vulnerable and compassionate individual who studies with the hope of promoting and progressing health as a human right. I am also a sarcastic ass who will not pass up an opportunity to make a joke. These are all things my body cannot show alone. These are all things society cannot come to understand when they limit me to a spot on a hierarchy. But I have come to understand, societal constructs are not my loss — it’s theirs.
The title of this post should actually be ‘Bryan in Tainan’ since that’s the trip that inspired me to write this. Tainan is a city in southern Taiwan (the “南” (nán) in its Chinese name, “台南” (táinán), means south) known for its history and culture from the Qing Dynasty. I also visited its southern neighbor, Kaosiung (高雄), on the recommendation of a mountain there with scores of wild monkeys. Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed.
When I arrived at the hostel, the owner couldn’t understand why so many foreigners were obsessed with seeing monkeys. Whereas she saw them as annoying and bothersome animals, most of the tourists who visited this mountain from other countries were incredibly excited to see monkeys in the wild for the first time. Signs were up all over the hiking trails warning hikers not to provoke the monkeys or eat in front of them. Apparently these monkeys have grown accustomed to the presence of people walking by and to an extent feeding them as well, so they were much less apprehensive than I would have expected. I even saw a few walk straight in front of hikers and hang out beside two elderly people drinking tea.
In Tainan, I also saw someone dressed in a monkey costume in front of a temple doing some sort of performance. If I had to guess, this would have been inspired by the Monkey King from the famous classical Chinese novel, Journey to the West. It was just one of many of the street performances I saw – all accompanied by food stands, of course. I even ran into a hand puppet performance in front of a tiny temple in a not very busy side street. Although it was difficult to follow, I ended up watching almost the whole performance with only one other person in the crowd who likely worked at the temple. She was happy to see me interested and to explain the basic/dumbed-down version of the plot to me in Chinese as well.
Nearby, I also ran into a fortress built by the Dutch in the early 17th century called Fort Zeelandia (or 安平古堡 in Chinese, meaning Anping District Ancient Fort). This was another vestige of foreign influence/colonialism in Taiwan that now still stands as remembrance. Taiwan and its relatively young few hundred years of history have seen a striking number of foreign countries or empires’ presence and influence, which is interesting to see throughout the island. Tainan is the historic capital city under the Qing Dynasty, so these roots stretch even farther back than Taipei, which was more bolstered and developed under the Japanese colonial period than the Qing Dynasty.
Mazu (sometimes spelled Matzu) is the Chinese goddess of nautical navigation pictured in the statue above. You’ll find statues and shrines to her throughout port cities throughout this region and Southern China. There are lots of legends about her and how she became elevated to the status of goddess, but the basic idea is that she helps guide sailors back home safely. In an area prone to typhoons, this was important before modern sailing technology. I’m not certain why there were so many children playing and blowing bubbles that night I visited, but with the sunset it was an incredible sight altogether. I was taken aback visiting the south by how friendly and laid back people there were. I had a problem returning the city bike to the station and asked someone also renting a bike if they could help, and they proceeded to spend upwards of twenty minutes of their time helping me. Another person I met at a food stand was surprised I could read some of the Chinese characters (traditional here is much harder) and told me that if I could read the street signs I ought to go to this restaurant that the locals love instead of the touristy place I was headed towards. It was fascinating how different it felt being in a place only two hours away from Taipei by high speed rail and I am tempted to go back before I leave.
Hola from BA! Since we loved our tango lesson a few weeks back, this week my friend and I decided to take a salsa/bachata dance class. It was being offered for just $1 for international students! Honestly, neither of us are the most coordinated dancers, but we had so much fun trying out the dances and laughing with the other international students.
Every weekend there are little fairs (ferias) around the city selling gifts, souvenirs, clothing, jewelry, and practically anything else you can think of! My friends and I spent a lot of time walking around this one in Palermo, and I loved the little paper cranes that this person had hanging throughout her stand. The funniest thing I saw being sold were tshirts for small dogs! I was so tempted to buy one to bring home for my dog.
After walking around the feria for a while, we wandered around Palermo a bit, taking in all the beautiful sights. I feel like Palermo is known for its street art and giant walls covered in all sorts of painting and graffiti. Here was one wall that we thought was really cool.
Also this week, I came across a juice bar/açaí bowl place called Be Juice. The bowl I ordered was absolutely amazing and I pretty much inhaled it. I think I had really been craving a meal like this since I eat this type of food so often back home! Be Juice was the closest thing I could find to RVA’s Ginger Juice, one of my all time favorite restaurants.
Chau for now!
Wow. What an beautiful week it has been in Buenos Aires! The weather was absolutely perfect; around 75 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny with a nice breeze every day.
This week, I went to a food truck festival in Palermo, one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in BA. There were all different kinds of food, from argentine comida parrilla, to middle eastern cuisine, to trendy mediterranean and even Vegan trucks! I was so overwhelmed, I wanted to try everything.
The festival included live music, which was super cool. The lady singing had a great voice, and the band was doing covers of a lot of old American music (the Beatles, Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc.). The crowd was loving it, clapping and singing along to the songs they knew. I always think it’s so funny to listen to Argentines sing the words to American music in their accents.
This weekend, I went roller blading in the rose gardens in BA. It was incredible, I’m definitely going to be coming back during my time here. People can rent roller blades or bikes for only around $150 argentine pesos an hour ($7.50 USD), which is plenty of time to blade around. My friends and I went right around sunset, so the gardens were absolutely beautiful.
Lastly, I wanted to show my typical BA breakfast. Most people here drink coffee, tea, or orange juice and have toast or a croissant with jelly, cream, or dulce de leche for breakfast. I’m not a huge toast person, but since it’s the custom here I’ve been adapting. Usually in the morning I make myself either toast with peanut butter and banana, or avocado toast!
Chau for now!
Midterms and School Trip to Moscow!
Hi everyone! I am currently writing from Saint Petersburg, but so much has happened that I decided to back track a bit. It’s been a long time since I have written anything, but this is because I have been extremely sick and also caught up with midterms at the same time. I had to makeup seven school days of homework and readings for five classes, including two quizzes. Thankfully, everything including midterms went okay and I am not too behind in all of my classes.
Although, I am picking up Russian grammar and conversation quite alright, I still feel like there is a gigantic gap between my knowledge in grammar versus my knowledge of vocabulary. I feel like I am in a good place in my grammar class, but conversation class is really where I start to lose it a bit. The class moves a little fast for me and I am unable to pick up all the new words thrown at us within one class period.
I was really worried about my Russian Conversation class since it was an oral exam. Whenever I am called on in class, I just feel the entire class come to a screeching halt because I am usually confused. I actually received my mid-semester grade for my Conversation class today and I am hovering around an A-/A, so I am very pleased with that. I think all of our professors acknowledge that we are working really hard for our class and they are patient with us when we are confused during class.
After the whirlwind week of midterms, CIEE took us to our trip to Moscow! When I mean right after, I literally mean 5 hours after our last exams. We traveled in an overnight sleeper train from Saint Petersburg to Moscow. We arrived about 9 hours later and we were ready to start our three-day weekend in Moscow! I have to admit that I never really looked into Moscow in terms of traveling and had no idea what I was going to see there besides the Red Square.
We first went on bus tour around the city where we stopped by the embankment near the Kremlin. After that, we were taken to Red Square for a lunch break where I was surprised to find out that the fancy shopping mall in Moscow (ГУМ) was located right across Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square. The juxtaposition of these two structures instilled a stronger opinion for me regarding Moscow. Here you have a communist revolutionary and directly across from this mausoleum lies a department store selling extremely expensive brands like Dior. One of my professors talked about this when we came back from our trip and called it “Russian inconsistency”.
Our second full day of Moscow consisted of a tour of the Kremlin. Unfortunately, I do not have much to say about it besides that I was intrigued by the size of the area. The term “Kremlin” itself actually means fortress. Our four-hour long tour consisted of visits to different buildings including the Dormition Cathedral and the Kremlin Armory Museum. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos inside some of these buildings, but it was indeed an interesting place to be.
I think my favorite part of our Moscow trip was going to the Museum of Cosmonauts. I do not really have a big interest in space, but it felt like nostalgia to me. I have been to the National Air and Space Museum a few times in D.C and I just felt like I was a child again. If Russians view this museum the same way I do for the museum in D.C, I am sure that it brings them the same feeling of nostalgia and pride in their country.
I think going to Moscow was an important and necessary trip for our group because there are many big differences between Saint Petersburg and Moscow. I also understand that it is a little difficult for us to make quick judgments regarding Moscow because we were only there for 2.5 days. As part of our discussion in our Russian Civilization class, we all shared our opinions of Moscow and held almost the same opinions regarding the city. Although we all felt a little more comfortable with speaking English in Moscow, we found more comfort in Saint Petersburg. This is not only because we have been here for longer, but the atmosphere feels a little more welcoming for us. Moscow feels more like a business center with many tall buildings, while Saint Petersburg feels a little older because of the types of buildings we are used to.
I know I definitely want to return to Moscow and take another trip to build a better opinion of the city, but for now I will end with an obligatory picture of Saint Basil’s Cathedral.
До следующего раза (until next time)
Жюстин, usually Джастин, Жастин, or Жустин.