KyungSun in Scotland: Scattered

March 26, 2015

Things that have been on my mind lately: homesickness, booking flights, buying Edinburgh concert tickets, prescription waste, Harry Potter Pub Quiz, and what I’m having for lunch today. These are a reflection of the many things I am juggling this week. If there was a way to see my thoughts, it would certainly look like a scribbly 2 year-old doodle. So perhaps the best way to give you a better picture of my thoughts is to sketch them out separately. Here goes:

When you’re trying to move on…

Homesickness is like the cold that refuses to go away. It gives you a headache, it’s all you think about, and even when you find a distraction, it still lurks underneath. It’s persistent because when you’re dealing with problems, you usually want to do three things: shut down, shut everyone out, or let everyone in to help you. I think the best place to do all three is at home with your family. I’ve mostly been missing the ease and comfort of home. Being abroad means you have to make a lot of decisions on your own, and lately, I’ve had to make some headache-inducing money decisions. Numbers already stress me out (social sciences all the way!) and after a stressful number-crunching session, takeout and staying in bed become very attractive options.

If you just booked a budget-flight…

Like me, you’d probably be a bit scared. Germanwings’ latest crash struck my heart for the 150 people that were on board and their families. I pray that they find strength during their time of grief. I can’t even imagine how shocking it is knowing that your loved one is gone unexpectedly and how infuriating it is not knowing the cause of the crash. The pilot was experienced, there was no distress signal, and I pray that they find the other black box soon. It could have been anyone. I recently booked two flights to Athens and Rome from a budget-airline before the crash. It’s nerve-racking and another source of stress, but I’m trying to remind myself to have hope in all things – hope that everything will eventually be okay.

Here is a good summary to the story in case you don’t know about it yet:

Finding good music to keep you sane…

Despite the difficulty in managing money, I’m reminding myself what exactly I’m buying. One of those things are concert tickets. My goal is to visit as many theatres and performance venues in Edinburgh as possible. I hear they are beautiful! Some of them are in old churches or historic buildings which will also make it an even more unique experience compared to performances in the States. Now, as much as I love that Usher is coming to Glasgow (Scotland’s biggest city), I’m also a big fan of musicals and classical music. I know, I know. It’s “outdated”. But I instilled a deep appreciation for it by growing up singing classical music. Plus, contemporary and classical instrument fusion is awesome (see link below for proof). I’m also using UR’s cultural reimbursements, which has eased the burden that I may be coming home broke.



When you go against the World Health Organization….

My MSP told me earlier this month about a life-changing health idea: donating unused medicines to developing countries. I was immediately intrigued and he said he wanted me to look into how to set up this program in Scotland. Success! I now found my topic for my 5,000 word internship research paper. After looking more into it, I discovered that there is a lot of prescription waste in both Scotland, the UK, and the US. This is not to say that our countries are inefficient. Less than 50% of this waste is actually unavoidable due to for example, people switching treatments or passing away before finishing their medicines. However, the avoidable waste is what I’m most concerned with, especially if they are caused by inefficiencies in our prescribing practices. Of course, like with all foreign aid, I have to be careful of the unintended consequences that may come from drug donations. Apparently the World Health is not a fan of donating medicines abroad. However, hopefully my research will lead me to discover some safe, sustainable, and legal practices!

When you’re breathing the same air as J.K. Rowling…

I have yet to see Ms. Rowling herself. I haven’t checked if she’s out on tour, but my friend does know where she lives…Despite the fact that J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in Edinburgh, HP it’s not a big tourist hype here. There is, however, a lot of local and campus-hype for HP. So far I’ve come across an Azkaban ceilidh, the Harry Potter Society, and tonight is the Quizzard (Harry Potter Pub Quiz) hosted at the local pub. I’m hoping the triwizard cup will be the victory prize. Fun fact: Rowling drew inspiration for some of HP’s famous places like Diagon Alley from alleyways and places here in Edinburgh.

Finally, the most important meal of the day….

Today’s special is the pulled pork sandwich. Sold.

My thoughts may seem scattered, but they’re all pieces of my abroad experience. Yes, lately, I’ve mostly been tired, homesick, and stressed. But I like to take these moments to re-focus where I am. I zoom out from how I’m feeling in that particular time and see all the things that’s happened so far. Doing this has made me realize that despite the stress right now, I am also paving the way toward cool and memorable experiences.

And when even this doesn’t work, I always have Leslie Knope and Indian takeout.





KyungSun in Scotland: Getting Plugged In

March 23, 2015

Sometimes I forget that I’m not a typical exchange student.

This past week, my other exchange friends reminded me that essays, tutorials, and societies still existed. These three things about Uni (University) life had far slipped from my mind once I began my internship. Although I do not miss the workload, the one thing I do wish I did was to join more societies. I did do the Music Society, but I unfortunately wasn’t able to attend the concert. I had booked trip to Ireland and realized at the next rehearsal for that concert was that same weekend. #fail

I admit, I do have a lot more free time compared to the other exchange students. But let me dispel your first worry that I probably sit in my room all day. I wrote in my first blog post that if I have spare time, I would spend it going out to explore a new part of the city. I am happy to say that I’ve been keeping up with this promise.

Things I’ve discovered so far on my spontaneous walks in the city include:

Some extreme and strange street performances. Its not uncommon to hear bagpipes on the streets, but my ears perked up when I heard Leonard Cohen’s, “Hallelujah” (one of my favorites). It was played via the flute pipes by a man wearing a Native American headdress. I also saw a man eating fire and another playing the violin while on a suspended line.

Street performance on the Royal Mile

Street performance on the Royal Mile

Delicious local food. The best food can always be found at farmer’s markets. I found a great one in Stockbridge that had some noteworthy Kenyan Samosas and Spanish paella. Yum.

Stockbridge Farmer's Market

Stockbridge Farmer’s Market

Celebrity sightings. I only noticed that fame was in our presence when I saw the traffic commotion of…the Irish Rugby team in front of the Balmoral, aka the most expensive/grandest hotel in Edinburgh. I looked them up later and discovered that they are currently 3rd in the World Rugby rankings (as of 3/2/2015).

Irish Rugby Team Sighting on Princes Street

Irish Rugby Team Sighting on Princes Street

Each time I go out, I see more of why all my friends, professors, and advisors have told me that Edinburgh is one of their favorite cities. There is always music somewhere, the people in general are reserved, but friendly, the buildings are beautifully historic, and the city is so alive in its own Scottish culture, but also in other cultures. Its not uncommon to see an Indian restaurant, Pizza Hut, a Scottish tourist shop, and French pastry shop all in one row.

While it is easier to get plugged into Edinburgh city, it definitely has been more difficult to get plugged in at Edinburgh Uni. There aren’t many social events that unifies the campus like a football game or a Pig Roast would on a given Saturday. Rather, it’s a more common part of the European uni life to be part of the campus by being part of the communities already within the campus. Aka, by joining multiple societies.

One of the many overwhelming pamphlets I recieved during orientation

One of the many overwhelming pamphlets I recieved during orientation

But joining a society while doing the internship has been semi-difficult. There are interns who are actively part of societies; one of them recently had a show that we attended through the Opera Society and another two are part of the Sports Unions. But for me, the key to getting more involved at school and meeting more Scottish people has been to go to society events.

Just last night, I went to the Improverts Show, an improvise comedy society, and it was one of the best Friday nights I’ve had. My flatmate and I were warned that we probably won’t get tickets unless we bought them ahead of time. But fortunately we got in line early enough before they sold out. And I could see why we were warned. It was packed and hilarious. Its also a very popular Uni event because apparently, they sell out for every Friday show. That’s a pretty good track record.

The Improverts!

The Improverts!

Here is a snapshot of what the pre-show looked like:



There is never a shortage of events here at Edinburgh. This week, I’m going to a Harry Potter themed pub quiz, a theatre festival for social change, and my Scottish neighbor invited us to see her play, Candlewasters. I find out about most of these events through friends or my kind Scottish neighbor. There is no convenient “Spiderbytes” equivalent here at Edinburgh and you really have to dig through Facebook and read the posters throughout campus. But despite the sheer number of events, this has also meant that I’ve also been able to find a lot more entertainment/fun things to do that fit me better. It’s definitely one of the things I’ll miss most about Edinburgh.

P.S. If you want to check out the list of Edinburgh’s 240+ awesome societies for anything and everything, check out:

KyungSun in Scotland: Ready or Not

January 13, 2015

Sometimes we’re not ready for everything. When I arrived in Edinburgh, I came in with an open mind ready to be filled with new experiences. Yet I quickly learned that being mentally and physically prepared are two different things.

Here is what I wasn’t ready for:

Source: Google Images

Source: Google Images

The first night of orientation was a welcome dinner that promised good haggis. Haggis is one of Scotland’s traditional dishes and made from sheep heart, liver, and lung. Yum? The meal didn’t sound or look very appealing. However, I decided to just dive into the cultural experience on day one. I was ready. I slowly took a bite and thought, Hm, this isn’t too bad.

It wasn’t until the other exchange students finished their cup that I realized I had only eaten a quarter of mine. The tatties, or mashed potatoes, were gone, but the haggis remained. In the end I couldn’t fully push the image of eating sheep organs out of my head. One of the exchange students chuckled and said, “Are you done already?” He was going back for seconds. I told him I hadn’t warmed up to haggis quite yet.

Here is what I was ready for:

Ceilidh was my favorite event during orientation. I highly recommend it to anyone whether you like to dance or not. I promise this is a great dance to learn for people who especially don’t like to groove. You just need to be able to do three moves: forming circles, skipping, and cheering. It’s very simple!

The best part was messing up the rhythms because you saw how eager everyone was to make the formation work. I also saw the rush of proud satisfaction from our group once we finally got the dance right. I love that dancing is a way to communicate without words. I didn’t talk much that night, but I got a good sense of who everyone was even without the usual introductions. I slept for 13 hours that night and woke up feeling sore. This was enough to convince me that my body needed time to catch up with my eagerness to try everything.

What I was definitely ready for:

Nicholson Street

Nicholson Street

City life in Edinburgh is too cool. At first, I would walk down a street thinking everything looked the same as the States. Then further on ahead, I would suddenly come across these dark historical churches, cobblestone streets, or Arthur’s Seat peaking behind the skyline. I am constantly in awe of how the city changes before my eyes.

The spirit of the city is also very visible here. Just the other day, I explored Princes Street. I felt like I was walking in NYC as I passed this long row of commercial stores. Cars were honking as people J-walked, double decker buses sped by, and lights lit the way ahead. I almost forgot I was abroad. But then I looked towards my right and saw the Edinburgh Castle standing high above. To me, the castle was like an authoritative figure, reminding everyone below never to forget the history that had shaped the country. I love that I can see the cross between history and modernization, Scottish culture and diversity of other cultures present everywhere.

What I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for:

View from the castle entrance

View from the castle entrance

I now understand the true meaning of being cold. Yes, it’s definitely cold when temperatures are freezing and the chilly air seeps into your bones. But now also imagine the rain pouring on you, constantly dampening the little warmth you’re trying to kindle. Then gusts of wind fan the cold flame already spreading throughout your body. My usual attire is four layers, a down jacket, thick socks, rain-poof boots, scarf, and gloves. Even then I’m never warm enough.

Mainly, I keep reminding myself that I need to rest. Even though I want to tackle everything – exploring the city, trying new foods, going to all the social events – I’m often more tired than I realize. It’s more than the jet lag. The cold, the constant walking, and living adjustment adds onto the tiredness I get after meeting so many new people in one day. However, I’m enjoying soaking in the city day by day. The cold is certainly uninviting, but it doesn’t stop me or anyone else living here from parading the streets every day.

Kimberlee in Mongolia: International Women’s Day

March 17, 2014

Even though I barely heard about it in the US, International Women’s Day is a big deal here in Mongolia. Everyone from my host family to the SIT staff kept reminding me of the “big day”. Up to a week before the “big day”, I saw many people buying roses, cakes, and fancy chocolates! The way Mongolians celebrate Women’s Day seems to be a combination of a Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day in the US.

My host sister Tuugi had a school concert in the outskirts of the city on Women’s Day, so our family headed out there for most of the day. It was great to get out of the city for the first time! It’s amazing how a short drive outside of the city can drastically alter the landscape. The drive gave me a taste of what I will get to see later in the semester during our excursions and nomadic homestay! I must’ve been oohing and ahhing a lot because after a while my host brothers started pointing at random things and shouting “WOW!”


One of the many scenic landscapes I witnessed

Once we got to the concert, we were so late that we only got to see Tuugi perform for a few seconds. It was kind of like a school-wide talent show, and we missed almost all of her portion. Thankfully, the rest of the show was interesting, even though I had no clue what was going on. There was an array of acts, and it was interesting to see what was acceptable in the school environment. For example, there was a student-made video that humorously portrayed a middle-school student that came in to shoot/beat up weak students. There’s no way that that would be acceptable in the US, but it got a lot of laughs here. Another surprise was when a group of students performed traditional Irish-step dancing. There was also a fashion show that had an interesting mix of traditional Mongolian accessories with western-style clothing. I especially enjoyed the performances that included traditional Mongolian instruments.


To the far right is a student wearing a traditional headband with her western-style dress.

After the concert, my host mother pulled over to the side of the road to give us the chance to run around and enjoy the fresh air outside of the city! It was great to play outside with Temuujin and Tulga for a bit- they were especially excited by the jet we saw in the sky.


Chasing after the jet

Once we got home, we celebrated Women’s Day together. After dinner, we ate cake and passed out the candy we had bought for each other.  I think that when I look back at this picture, I’ll always remember what an exhausting, yet wonderful day it was.


I got Temuujin to take a picture of all the women, and we even got Undral to hysterically laugh at exactly the right moment.

Rhiannon in India: Ending the semester on a great note

November 19, 2013

I starting to dawn on me that I only have few weeks left in India, and what’s worse, only a few more days left in Hyderabad! All of a sudden, I am scrambling to spend as much time as possible with my friends in Hyderabad, the other students in my program, and my home stay family and neighbors. To add to this busy schedule, I am hurrying to find gifts for my family and friends at home, plus attempting to study for finals and plan for my end-of-semester travelling. Because of all this craziness, it has been hard to find time to blog about my recent experiences, not to mention stopping to reflect on my semester and going back home. Nevertheless, I am happy that, in the past few weeks, I have been able to spend time doing the things that I will miss most once I am back home.

It may sound strange, but one thing I will miss most about this semester is sitar practice. Twice a week, five of my friends and I spent at least an hour in the evenings learning sitar from our wonderful teacher Vinoj, who only knew a few words in English. We learned mostly by watching and repeating what he played, but he would always say, “very good, very good” accompanied by a pat on the head, if we played something correctly, or “WRONG” if we messed up. Although we couldn’t communicate much through language, our teacher was always enthusiastic and supportive of us, and it provided a lot of hilarious moments during practice. Last week, we finally performed in the SIP Cultural Show, playing two songs on sitar that we have been practicing for three or four months now. It was really nerve-wracking to perform in front of a large auditorium full of UoH students and professors, but we were all proud of ourselves for performing only a few months after starting to learn sitar from scratch. As soon as we started playing our second piece, a popular Bollywood song, the whole crowd erupted in applause, and afterward, some of my Indian friends said we stole the show!

Sitar class

Sitar class with our teacher and tabla player

Here’s a video of our performance:

Another thing I will miss a lot is hanging out with the little kids in my apartment building. A few weekends ago, Jennie and I were missing home, so we threw a Halloween party and invited all the families in our building. We decorated the rooftop patio with orange balloons, paper pumpkins and bats, and tissue paper ghosts. We bought tons of candy, a pumpkin, and some art supplies and planned some activities so that all the kids could participate. When the kids showed up that night, they were all decked out in full costumes, masks, capes, and face paint! We wore costumes, turned on some music, and played Halloween-themed bingo, pin the spider on the web, and musical chairs. The biggest hit among the kids was the “brain bowl,” a pumpkin full of noodles with prizes in the bottom that kids had to find by reaching their hands in the “brains.” Usually, we are constantly asking questions about Indian traditions, so it was nice to share a little bit about our culture in return, while getting to spend time with our neighbors too.

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The kids in their costumes for the Halloween party

Halloween weekend also happened to be Prerna’s birthday and Diwali, so the whole weekend was full of celebration. On Saturday, Prerna decided to celebrate her 15th birthday at an orphanage in Hyderabad that she had visited before with her school. We loaded up the car with toys and headed to the orphanage with our host family and some of our “extended host family” as well. Going to the orphanage was one of the many eye-opening experiences I have had while being in India. When we arrived, I thought it was a girl’s orphanage because almost all of the children I saw were girls, ranging from infants to pre-teens. However, I realized that it is only because many families in India can’t afford having daughters that the orphanage was so overwhelmingly female. It is illegal in India to determine the sex of a child before birth, so many baby girls are abandoned after they are born. To add to this problem, the social stigma around having children out of wedlock and the discrimination of children with divorced parents causes many mothers to abandon children regardless of their gender. This was a sad reality to witness firsthand at the orphanage, but while we were there we met a few of the children that had been adopted, including one girl who would be leaving the orphanage with her new family to live in London in just a few weeks.

The next day, we celebrated Diwali, one of the biggest and most widely celebrated holidays in India,with our host family and neighbors. We feasted all day on white rice, lemon rice, curries, daal, roti, vada, peanut chutney, and tons of sweets like laddus, gulab jamin, and kheer. Then we spent the evening setting off fireworks and playing with sparklers. There aren’t many regulations on fireworks here, so it was actually quite frightening how many explosions were going off in the small alleyways and streets between the apartments in our neighborhood. Apparently Diwali is one of the most dangerous days of the year in India, and we even saw an apartment building on fire in the distance. We went up on the roof to watch the 360-degree view firework show going on for miles around us, but as the night went on, we all got headaches from the booming noises and smoke inhalation. Overall, my first Diwali experience seemed like a mixture of Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and Blitzkrieg.


Our Diwali feast

In just a few days, after I finish exams, I’ll be heading to South India with my friends to explore the backwaters of Kerala, tea plantations in the Western Ghats, and the luxurious palaces of old kings in Karnataka. I’m anxious to start these adventures, but the excitement is bittersweet. When I leave for this trip, I’ll be saying goodbye to Hyderabad, the wonderful city that I’ve called home for the last five months.


Diwali decorations – rangoli and diyas

Rhiannon in India: Observing the many religions of India

November 6, 2013

A lot has been changing here recently. Finals are quickly approaching, the end of our program is almost a month away, and believe it or not, it is getting a little cooler here in Hyderabad. Right now, we are busy reviewing for finals in our classes, making travel plans for our last trips around India, and preparing for the Cultural Show, a performance that the Study in India program puts on at the end of every semester for the entire university. SIP students will perform things they know from home or something that they have learned here, like sitar or traditional dance. According to our advisors, it’s a huge hit among the university community and the auditorium is always packed. My sitar class will be performing two songs in the show, one traditional raga and one popular Bollywood song from the movie Aashiqui II. Together, the songs total 15 minutes of straight playing time, so it’s safe to say my fingers will be totally numb by the end.

Because I am leaving India in only one month, I have been spending more time reflecting on what I have learned in my time here – what has fascinated me, what has confused me, and what I am still interested to learn more about. A few weeks ago, CIEE took us to Varanasi (formerly called Banaras) for a long weekend trip, and although I have been interested in the many religions of India since I arrived in July, being in Varanasi made me even more fascinated by the complexity of the subject. Just as in any other part of the world, religion is a complex part of Indian culture that is impossible to boil down to one blog post, but somehow India strikes me as even more complicated than many other places in its religious culture. It seems impossible for an outsider like me to understand the innumerable traditions, values, festivals, and rituals of each of the religious groups present in India, especially because each part of the country has created its own unique version over the centuries. What’s more, religion or spirituality is much more present in everyday life here than it is in the US, so I am surrounded by constant reminders of its importance and complexity.


The Bahai Lotus Temple in Delhi

Of course, religion is different for every person in India, and there is no way I have seen even a small part of all there is to see. I have met Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and I’m sure many others. Instead of attempting to make sense of it all, I would just like to share the experiences I have had over the past few months that show just how integral religion is to Indian culture.


A small shrine on the side of the road in Pondicherry

As Hinduism is the dominant religion in India, there are references to Hindu gods everywhere you turn. There are Hindu temples along the roadsides, tucked away between houses in neighborhoods, and among the rocks on the hillsides. There are shrines to one god or another in almost every store and restaurant, puja rooms in almost every Hindu household, and pictures or statuettes of deities in many taxis and autos. As I said before, each region of India has molded their own religious traditions, so people always joke that if we celebrated every religious holiday in India, we would never have to go to school or work. Adding to this is the shear number of gods recognized in Hinduism. There are millions of Hindu deities, but most Hindus will say that this is because there are just many names for each of the main gods.


Men performing morning puja at Assi Ghat in Varanasi

As I said, our trip to Varanasi last month really solidified my interest in religion in India. Varanasi, nestled on the edge of the Ganges River, is the “Mecca of Hinduism” and full of religious temples, stupas, and shrines to various Hindu gods and the Buddha. It is one of the only places in India that is famous for its sacred rituals concerning all parts of the life cycle. The Ganges River, named after the Hindu goddess Ganga, is the holiest river in India, although all rivers are considered to be auspicious because of their cleansing and purifying qualities. All Hindus aspire to visit Varanasi and bathe in the Ganges at least once in their lifetime to be cleansed of their sins. Unfortunately, the Ganges has now become one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Families unable to afford cremation often put the bodies of the deceased in the river anyway, and you can see trash lining the water’s edge as you walk along the riverbank. However, this doesn’t deter many followers of Hinduism and other religions that worship the Ganges from bathing in the water, or even drinking it to cure diseases.

There are over one hundred “ghats,” or long, steep steps leading down to the water’s edge, along the riverside in Varanasi. These ghats are used for bathing, daily puja, and death rituals. At many of the ghats, there are cremation pyres, where the bodies of the dead are burned and their ashes spread into the water of the Ganges, allowing that person to reach Moksha, or the liberation from the reincarnation cycle of life and death. As we explored the city that weekend, it seemed like every 20 minutes we saw a funeral procession moving through the narrow, crowded alleyways toward the river, with covered bodies laid out on stretchers carried by two men. At first all the talk about death was a bit depressing, and I wondered if this process of pushing through the crowds of people was disrespectful to the deceased. However, I came to realize as I watched this happen many times that the procession through the holy city to the river is a very sacred part of the death ritual.

Because of these rituals, many Hindus and people from other religions move from all over the world to the holy city in order to die and be cremated by the Ganges. As a result, Varanasi has become a microcosm of India, comprised of small neighborhoods for people from each region of the country. Even the way each of these groups practices Hinduism – the gods they worship, the types of temples they build, and the rituals they conduct – are very different, so moving around the city quickly becomes a lesson in the cultural plurality of India.


Men having their heads shaved on the street for Pitru Paksha, a 16-day period when Hindus pay homage to their ancestors

We also went to Sarnath, the sister city of Varanasi where the Buddha gave his first sermon and now home to a Buddhist stupa and a sapling from the Bhodi tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment. A stupa is a solid mound of earth, stone, or brick of any size, usually containing relics from the Buddha himself, that is used as a meditation site for Buddhists. We have seen many stupas while we have been in India, and most of them contain relics (usually ashes) from the Buddha. At first, I thought it was very curious that, although Buddhism originated in India, there are very few Buddhists in the country, and instead it is practiced mainly in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, and other Asian countries. But I learned from a few friends here that in India, Buddhism is not considered a religion separate from Hinduism. Rather, the Buddha is considered a Hindu sage, and his followers in India consider themselves Buddhist Hindus. It was not until the ideology spread to other countries that it became a religion in itself.


The Buddhist stupa in Sarnath

Although Hinduism is the main religion in India, Hyderabad is actually one of the largest Muslim centers in the country. As you go towards the Old City in the center of Hyderabad, you will see more mosques, men wearing taquiyas (head coverings), and women wearing hijabs or burkas. Even from our apartment, we can hear music from the Hindu temple and the call to worship in Arabic from the Mosque in our neighborhood. The Old City has a large Muslim population because Hyderabad used to be ruled by the Nizams, an Islamic monarchy, from 1724 until 1948. This mixture of Islamic and Hindu culture makes Hyderabad an especially interesting place to live.

I didn’t intend for this blog post to be a boring lecture on religion, but I hope that it shows just how important religion is to the vast majority of people in India. Because we are surrounded by it every day as we are studying here, it has become something we must learn about – whether we like it or not. I know I am not alone in my frustration over which Hindu god did what, what religious holidays we are celebrating practically every week, or the reasoning behind the rituals that we witness everyday. But becoming a part of these things has been a wonderful opportunity that I could have never had at home.

Alyssa in New Zealand: The capital and Maori culture

October 11, 2013

The reality that the end is approaching has finally hit everyone. Since it’s the last week of classes, we have all started to realize that living here is not going to last forever. As we hand in our last minute assignments and prep for the upcoming exam period, we can’t but help ourselves to keep planning more and more last minute trips. What have we not done? What are we missing? Surely we’ve seen a lot, but have we seen enough? The thought of leaving something behind seems to be more worrisome than preparing for our final exams.

Yet, it is important to focus on the next few weeks, for typically, the final exams account for the majority of our final grades. My microbiology final is 70% of my grade and my zoology final is 50%.  As much as I would prefer to put most of my efforts on my travels, it is essential for me to focus on my work as well.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the traveling comes to a complete halt. In fact, I continue to explore the country. Nothing stopped me from flying into Wellington (the North Island) last weekend. What made this experience a little more special was that I was with the people that I have known my entire life: my parents.

Being with mom and dad was such a great way to spend my time in the nation’s capital. I found myself very lucky to have had visitors. I got to have a little taste of home in America, even though I’m several thousand miles away from it.

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Golem, a main character from Lord of the Rings, greets those who arrive in the Wellington airport everyday

Wellington is a very walkable city, for we continuously weaved in and out of the streets. Since the city is situated on the southern part of the North Island of New Zealand, much of the main activity is centered near and around the waterfront. It it typically known as “Windy Welly” due to the high amount of winds that blows into the city from the ocean. A boardwalk that turns into a path runs along the perimeter of the city right by the waterfront, making everything very accessible and creating an enjoyable walkway. Near the water, Wellington seems almost like a beach town. Nevertheless, the further you walk away from the waterfront, the more urban it becomes. The city turns into a more hectic and active version of Dunedin. There are several more people that are walking around as well as cars drive through the streets.

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The leaning posture of the statue indicates the magnitude of wind in Wellington.

Variety is integrated all throughout Wellington. Every corner that you turn is something completely new. Whether it be shops or restaurants, no two places that you encounter are the same. I finally got to go out to eat and have a taste of some of the New Zealand food. The food isn’t significantly different from American food. Most of the options that they offer on the menu are somewhat similar. However, the way it all tastes is fairly different, for it tastes much more natural. Everything that I tried seemed like it was a more flavorful, healthier version of what the American dish would be.

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A view an area of the waterfront from Mount Victoria, a prominent hill in Wellington. Wellington is the first city one would enter if traveling by ferry from the South to the North Island.

The waterfront is a very populated area, for there are several different kinds of attractions located there. One of the main appeals is the Te Papa Museum, New Zealand’s national museum. As we walked around each level, I found myself learning a lot more about the kiwi culture than I had throughout the entire semester. The Maori culture is highly preserved and respected in the country, for they are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand that have their own language, mythology, crafts and performing arts. Sadly, the presence of the Maori seems to be slowly shrinking in New Zealand, but the kiwis make a great amount of effort to sustain and uphold the customs in the country.

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A light up map of New Zealand in the Te Papa museum

Pounamu (also known as “greenstone”) plays a very important role in Maori culture. It is a very highly valued type of stone found in southern New Zealand and each piece of stone carries some sort of significance to it. The piece of greenstone that I attained (a gift from my parents, for it is advised that you should never buy greenstone for yourself) is a “fish hook”, the symbol of plenty. It represents strength and determination and it provides safety for travelers, especially those who venture out overseas (which seemed to be quite fitting for me).

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Maori greenstone – the fish hook

After returning to Dunedin, I was inspired to attend the end of the semester concert that was performed by the students enrolled in the Maori papers (both 100 and 200 level). Over half the students in the 100-level paper were international students. I saw the people that I was familiar with walk on stage in costumes that made them seem like strangers. The females were dressed in all black, wearing knee-length skirts, black lipstick and black designs drawn right beneath their lower lip on their chin, almost making it look like they had fangs. The males were shirtless and wore grass skirts that seemed to be constructed by some type of fiber.

Throughout the performance, the students were only singing in Maori with a peaceful melody. Even though I did not understand what they were saying, I was still very entertained. Typically, the dance starts off so that the females are situated in the front and the males in the back and they’re standing very close to each other. Eventually they all spread apart, and the females continue to gently sing in the front. The highlight of the performance is when the males make their way to the front to perform the haka, the traditional ancestral war cry. Much of the dance involves stomping of the feet, vigorous movements and rhythmic shouting and chanting. The signature mark of the dance is the widening of the eyes and sticking out the tongue. New Zealand rugby teams perform the haka before every game, trying to intimidate their opponents and to increase the intensity of the team.

Even though the semester is finishing, that does not prevent me from learning more about the New Zealand tribal culture. I’m glad that I finally had proper exposure to the culture, for there is much more to New Zealand than amazing sights; it has plenty to offer. It’s never too late to discover something new, even if it seems like you’re quickly running out of time (which is exactly how I do feel). The end may seem intimidating, but it is also motivating.

Rhiannon in India: Ganesh Chaturthi

September 20, 2013

As I mentioned in my last post, the past week was full of celebrations in honor of Ganesh’s birthday, called Ganesh Chaturthi. People in India celebrate by putting up statues of Ganesh in their homes or on the road and do pooja (ritual) around the Ganesh every day for anywhere from 3 to 11 days, depending on different traditions. At the end of the week, they put the Ganesh statues in water for Immersion, symbolizing Ganesh’s journey home to heaven. Because everyone puts the Ganesh statues in natural bodies of water during this holiday, it has been a huge source of pollution that adds to the issue of clean water in India. Recently, people have started using clay statuettes that naturally dissolve in the water, but many plastic and painted statues are still used every year. In Chennai, when we visited the temple to make an offering to Ganesh, we saw men making the clay Ganesh statuettes on the street for people to buy instead.

Clay Ganeshas

Men at the temple making clay Ganeshas

As soon as we got home from our Chennai trip on Monday night, the weeklong celebration began in full swing in our apartment building. While we were in Chennai, our host mom, Nivedita, and some of the other women in the building had put up a pandal, similar to a shrine, that included a large stage, elaborate decorations, and a 4-foot tall Ganesh statue in the car garage beneath our building, colorfully decorated with flowers and other small statuettes. Every night for five nights, all of the families in the apartment building (about 65 people in total) would gather around the pandal for pooja, singing, games, and dinner.

First, around 8 p.m., all the women would sit in a circle in front of Ganesh and chant Vedic mantras together. Then, a pujari would arrive and begin the formal ritual by chanting loudly, apparently instructing us to do certain actions, although I could never understand what he was saying. Instead, I would mimic the actions of the people around me, throwing rice on the Ganesh, drinking coconut water, spinning around three times to the right, and many other things. Although I never fully understood what was going on, burning incense, breaking coconuts, and listing the names of our neighbors were among the usual things done during the pooja. After the pujaris were finished, we would begin playing games and singing. Most of the children – and there were a lot of them – were very interested in Jennie and me and wanted to talk and play with us constantly. During the Friday night pooja, the families wanted to do something special so Jennie, Prerna and I sang a Taylor Swift song and played guitar. It turns out Taylor Swift is just as popular here as she is in the US, if not more!

Finally, around 9 or 10 p.m., we started dinner, which was prepared by some of the women in the apartment. It always included an enormous vat of rice, lots of fried snacks, and a dessert. The dessert was the most important part of the meal because Ganesh is known to love sweets. In fact, all of the statues of Ganesh show him holding a laddu, a sweet ball-shaped dessert, in one hand. The dinner usually went on until 11 or 12, and even after we came upstairs, we would go to the neighbors’ apartments and chat for another hour, so we were always exhausted by the end of the night.


Our apartment’s Ganesh pandal and food for the potluck

The most exciting part of the whole celebration was on Saturday, when we did the Immersion. As soon as we got up on Saturday morning, we started making biryani with Nivedita and Sandia, our neighbor down the hall. Biryani is a spicy rice dish special to Hyderabad – and we made 11 pounds of it for the potluck that day. When we gathered for the feast that afternoon, I was so surprised to see that there was even more rice, curries, snacks, and desserts that other people had made for us to eat. It was like Thanksgiving, but with more food than I could have ever imagined.

After eating, we started the procession of cars to the lake, displaying the large Ganesh statue in the back of the first car, like a parade float. The car had been decorated like the pandal, complete with flowers and all of the small Ganeshas from each apartment. After our neighbors blessed the journey by doing a ritual in front of the car with water, fire, and breaking coconuts, everyone drove their cars and two-wheelers slowly all the way to the lake while banging on pots and yelling “Jai! Jai!” The cheering didn’t stop until the last Ganesh had been thrown into the water.


Blessing the travel of the Ganesh procession

The best part of this celebration was getting the chance met all of our neighbors. Now that Jennie and I have gotten to know them, especially the kids, we haven’t stopped hanging out with them since. Now, we have started eating meals on the rooftop with some of the other families. When the power goes out (which happens every day), we go to the neighbors’ apartments to pass the time together. A few of the kids come to our apartment every day after school to play games or ask for help with their English homework. Some of the kids have even made it their job to teach me Telugu, the local language, although I am hopeless at pronouncing the words.


In the procession to the lake with the Ganesh statue

I feel so lucky to be surrounded by such a great community of people and that I have been able to form relationships with them over the past week. Not understanding Telugu, spilling the coconut water, or turning left instead of right during pooja didn’t seem to matter at all. Spending time with my host family and neighbors makes our differences melt away, and it has made a world of difference.


Our family and neighbors on the day of Immersion

푸른: Akaraka Festival at Yonsei University (posted by Indira in South Korea)

May 27, 2013

In some of my previous posts I have already written about the unbelievable school spirit that is so well present on the Yonsei campus, but over the past week I actually experienced it first-hand. There are two big events at Yonsei every year that attract many students and that are given a lot of attention: Sports games against Korea University in the Fall and Akaraka Festival in the Spring. I am very lucky to be in Seoul during the Spring since that gave a possibility to take part in the Akaraka Festival.

So what is this Akaraka thing? Just the best thing ever! No, seriously. I have never before experienced anything like it: It is a festival, a huge party, something like a carnival, big concert, and so much more. I think one could somewhat compare it to Pig Roast, but it is so much more. This year May 14-16 Yonsei turned blue. Literally. Everywhere you would look there were people in blue, which is Yonsei’s color. It was so hard to locate anyone as all the students were wearing blue shirts as a way of showing the school pride and belonging to the best University in Korea (yea, I might be a bit biased but I do think Yonsei is amazing).

Students at Akaraka

Yonsei students proudly wearing the school color (blue) at Akaraka

The first two days of the festival there were so many street vendors selling delicious Korean street food (such as Korean pancakes, fish cakes etc.), concerts all across the campus, games, and open air parties. There was even a huge trampoline-bungee jumping that many students took their turn on. The first night of the Festival Mentors Club (similar to the Ambassador Club at the UR) organized an amazing “Gentlementors” (reference to Psy’s “Gentleman” song) party in front of the main auditorium. There were so many students dancing and having fun. Definitely one of the best nights I had in Korea so far. Before the party we also had a Zombie Run. This was the event organized by the student council and both Korean and foreign students participated. The basic ideas was to walk/run down the path while escaping zombies. There were five zones along the path each with their own topics and rules. Thriller zone, for instance, was probably one of the most interesting. Runners were only able to move when the Korean song “Thriller” was played, if they moved when song is not played zombies would take their life (each participant had 3 lives). Zombies were amazing! Yonsei hired professional make up artist who made a lot of people including some of my friends look like real zombies. A huge number of students participated in this event and the reward for the last man standing was 300.000 won (about 300 dollars). The Zombie Run was truly very fun and I enjoyed it a lot!

Zombie Run

Preparing for the Zombie Run

Second day of the festival was all about the concerts and food! I really enjoyed walking down the main road and trying different Korean street foods (it is very delicious and extremely inexpensive, definitely a must try while in Korea!). It was fun seeing the Korean bands and performers in concert too: So many Korean students were super excited while I knew none of the performers and understood none of the lyrics. It was very entertaining nonetheless.

After a two day warm up, Thursday finally came. Most of the students had their classes cancelled (all 3 of my Thursday classes were cancelled!) and starting from about 2pm celebrations started. Many students went to the outdoor amphitheater around 1pm already in order to see K-Pop starts who performed before the real Akaraka started. We were advised by the Korean students to come to the amphitheater some time between and 5pm. Akaraka was mind-blowing! So much energy, dancing, cheering, many performances and artists! I’ve never seen anything like it. We were on our feet dancing from 4 until 10pm. And it was amazing! Many famous Korean bands performed such as Girls’ Generation. The entire amphitheater was going crazy. Everywhere you would look you would see a sea of blue. It really shows how important the school spirit is for the Yonsei students. Being part of Akaraka and one of the thousands of students who were present there made me feel like a part of the Yonsei community. I realized how much I love this place and how Seoul feels like a home. I don’t think I will ever be able to put into words what happened on Akaraka Thursday; it is simply something one has to experience in order to understand it.

Girls' Generation

Girls’ Generation performs at Akaraka

I have to admit that the three days of the Akaraka Festival were the highlight of my stay at Yonsei so far. I loved every bit of it and I sure would love to relive it. Yonsei is such a special place that grows on its student and becomes a true home. Too bad I will have to leave this places I learned to love so dearly in only 4 weeks… But I’ll think about leaving later. Now I have to enjoy the time I have left!

행복: Akaraka and Cheering Competition (posted by Indira in South Korea)

April 15, 2013

I always thought that U.S. universities put a high emphasis on school spirit with their mascots, cheerleaders, teams, etc. but I’ve never seen anything even close to the spirit Yonsei has. It is UNBELIEVABLE!

Everyone wears their fancy Yonsei jackets through the whole city with much pride and they display their love for the school they go to (students of other universities in Seoul do the same). The most impressive display of school spirit and pride, however, has to be the Akaraka and Cheering Competition. I have never seen students so involved and so happy to be part of a certain university.

In some of my earlier posts I wrote about how Yonsei and Korea University are two main rivals and they have all these amazing cheering songs where they talk about which school is better and how they are going to beat the other school. As part of our international student orientation we had an hour long cheering orientation during which we learned (or tried to learn) all the cheers and dances. It is really hard as the vast majority of the songs are in Korean so it’s very hard to follow. Dance, on the other hand, is much easier to follow as you just do what everyone else is doing.

Recently there was an event hosted in Yonsei University’s outdoor amphitheater – a cheering competition. Unfortunately, most of the exchange students had their Korean language course at this time or hadn’t heard about it at all, so it was only five of us who joined hundreds of Yonsei and Korea University students for an evening of cheering, singing, dancing, and fun. We got to the amphitheater pretty late and there were so many people: half of the amphitheater was all blue, and the other half started turning red. In less than a half an hour after we got there the amphitheater was completely full! It was very easy to spot the Yonsei students wearing blue and Korea University students wearing red. There would be one Korea song and the red half of the amphitheater would sing and dance and then the Yonsei students would get a chance to do the same. It was also fun when the Korea and Yonsei prince dressed in fun traditional looking costumes in the colors of their University talked about all the good things about their University thereby showing how bad the rival University is. All of this is of course just fun and helps students bond; both within the respective universities, but also between the two universities. I had so much fun participating in this event as it is a warm-up for the real cheering competition that will happen in May – Akaraka. I am so looking forward to that! 🙂

 Full amphitheater for the Cheering Competition between Yonsei and a rival university

Full amphitheater for the Cheering Competition

 Yonsei students dancing to one of the cheering songs at a cheering competition

Yonsei students dancing to one of the cheering songs

Even though the school spirit is on such a high level, the University sports are not that good on this level. Two of my friends and I went to a home basketball game between Yonsei and another Korean university and I was rather surprised to see how few supporters there were and the program was not on the level I would have expected. There were no cheerleaders at all! It was interesting to have this event and cheering competition and to compare them in my mind. We, however, enjoyed a good basketball game!

Yonsei basketball game which I attended with a friend

Yonsei basketball game

Now, I’ll leave Yonsei for a while to go and visit an island located about 1.5 hours from Seoul and I am really looking forward to exploring Korea!

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