The GoGlobal Blog

Category: Global Partners

Student, Evironmental Scientist, Sourdough Lover, and …Wife?

Student, Evironmental Scientist, Sourdough Lover, and …Wife?

Photo taken in Baños, Ecuador

Who am I? A question for the ages. For most students, the answer is going to be fairly similar. You identify by the class year you are in, maybe you’ve decided on a major and maybe not, and you could even be a member of one club or another. For me, this answer is a little different and may even surprise you, it has definitely surprised some of my classmates! In the end, our identifiers shape who we are and how we interact with the world around us. That’s why my identity is so important to my study abroad journey.

This year, I am a senior Rambler at Loyola where I major in environmental science with IES and have a concentration in conservation and restoration ecology. I love to frequent the farmer’s market on Mondays, where I spend all my cash on sourdough and tamales, and I like to study by the lake on nice days. I have a name that professors find impossible to pronounce (by the way, it’s “ray-leen”) and I’ve even learned to recognize the face they all make when they get to me on the roster. I live in Rogers Park and have just begun riding my bike everywhere. This all sounds pretty familiar, right? Well, I’m also 25 years old and have been married to my husband, Andrew, for four and a half years. Are you surprised? Or did you read the title and completely ruin it?

Super cute right?

My story makes more sense once you know a little more about my past. I graduated from high school back in 2012 and completed my associate’s degree in 2014. Andrew and I just came back to college this past Fall after he completed his 5-year contract with the Marine Corps. We’ve made two major moves across the country between Northern Illinois and Southern California where we lived in a little desert town called Twentynine Palms. It was never my intention to take 4 years off from school, but life has a funny way of working out. While we lived in California, I worked as a vet tech. It was a job that I adored until I didn’t anymore. As it turns out, pet parents are really mean! I’ve always maintained my love of animals though.

Coming back to school is one of the most difficult adventures Andrew and I have embarked on and we’ve been through two deployments to the Middle East. There were 3 hours of commuting 5 days a week, depression, anxiety, financial issues, loss of adored pets, and even talks of divorce. This is what makes my journey a little more unique. I don’t have to only worry about classes, basketball games, and club meetings. I also have to worry about where our grocery money is going to come from, if all the bills for the month have been paid, or if Andrew and I are spending enough quality time together to maintain our marriage. That’s also why it was so hard to decide to study abroad.

After deployment #2

Now that I’ve given you way too much personal information, this brings me to where I’m at now. I chose to attend the GAIAS-Galápagos Extension Program through IES abroad where I am a part of their marine track. I am currently in Quito, Ecuador studying various aspects of marine ecology at Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) and I will be leaving for the Galápagos Islands in just 18 more days. I am so happy and thankful to be here and while I did all the work to get to where I’m at in life right now, it’s not without help from so many others.

First off, I have an incredibly supportive husband and family. If it weren’t for their help and insistence that I study abroad, I wouldn’t even have considered it. This program also comes with a rather large bill that is almost completely covered by 3 grants, 2 government loans, and 3 scholarships.

I am so thankful to be in Ecuador studying something I love and wouldn’t have a chance to study at Loyola. I’ve been here for a month and some days, I wake up and still can’t believe I’m actually here. There are so many aspects of this program that are incredibly amazing! Tune in for the next episode to learn more!

Call me Scuba Steve.

– Rhealene

In Loving Memory of Maya Papaya and Sheldon Kitty

 

LUC in the Land of Harry Potter

LUC in the Land of Harry Potter

Last year, being in the NCAA Final Four was such an exciting time to be a Rambler. With national coverage of the basketball team, we became “the Harry Potter school” with our maroon and gold striped scarves, more famously known as the Hogwarts colors. Here, in the city where J.K. Rowling wrote many of the Harry Potter books, I see maroon and gold everywhere in windowshops, on people’s hats and scarves, and I get so excited to throw my “‘blers up” hand before remembering what they mean when they sport maroon and gold stripes. As I pass closer, their merchandise always says “Hogwarts” or “Gryffindor”. Still, I am always happy to see our school colors and it makes me feel a twinge of familiarity in this new place. I have shoved homesickness (or “schoolsickness”) to the back of my mind successfully for a few weeks (not a method of coping that I would recommend), but the maroon and gold stripes always make me a little sad. However, I am not a fan of Harry Potter, and it makes me giggle to see people line up in front of The Elephant House Cafe, famous for being the exact location where J.K. Rowling wrote many pages of the first few books of the series. They wait in the rain, snow, and sleet to get in, and from many online reviews and testimonies from people I meet who have visited, it ends up to be a disappointing experience as far as the actual coffee and cakes go. I am sure they would be happier to spend their money on food and coffee that is worth it, maybe in Cafe Arrivadolce, listening to the construction along North Sheridan Road, watching Chicagoans fight against being blown over in the harsh Lake Michigan winds as they make their way down the street. They might like Metropolis Coffee Company on Granville Ave, close to where people were paintballed by a moving vehicle last year, and where I have seen countless domestic disputes under the train tracks (there is never a dull moment in Chicago). Maybe they would like to be visit the school that made the 2018 Final Four after over 50 years. At least, that is where I would want to go right now; that is my maroon and gold.

The First Two Weeks In Beijing

The First Two Weeks In Beijing

When I left Chicago a lot was going through my mind. I was going to a country that I had never been to before, and one that not very many American students wanted to study abroad in, at least compared to places in Western Europe. After the fourteen hour long flight was finally over the plane landed at about 4 PM Beijing time. After a long taxiing to the gate I got off and walked to customs, and then baggage, and then out to meet the kind people who would be taking me and the twelve other students who arrived that evening to the University of International Business and Economics, the University where The Beijing Center was located. It was only a twenty-five minute drive and finally we had arrived to the school we had up until now only seen photos and videos of.

The campus is massive, the size of a small town in fact. We were all given maps along with instructions on how to use WiFi and other utilities that would be necessary for daily life. After everyone finally got to their rooms and settled in a bit, we woke up bright and early for orientation. Orientation lasted for a full four days and covered topics that ranged from how the classes would be structured to how to live life and get necessities in Beijing. During those four days there were also optional excursions one could go on with the group. For example, the third night virtually everyone went to downtown Beijing to see an acrobatics show and stop by a very nice mall along the way. The trip was also a good chance for anyone who was unfamiliar with using the Beijing subway system to learn how to use it. The experiences that were afforded to all TBC students were very effective at getting everyone accustomed to life in Beijing.

After we went on one last trip as a group to Tienanmen square and the forbidden city, our classes began. Classes at TBC are much like classes at Loyola, except they typically contain about a fifth of the regular amount of students. My entrepreneurship course consisted only of me, two Colombian women, the professor, and his wife for the first class. The experience is a lot more intimate than classes that have fifty or more people. These amazingly small class sizes make you feel like you’re at a small private school rather than a large school like Loyola. After the first week of class was finally over it was nice to have what felt like an actual break. The first two weeks of my time in Beijing were filled with fun, new experiences, trying new foods, and an interesting bathroom in which the shower, toilet, and sink share the same space, which is nice because it’s now very easy for me to clean the bathroom. I’m excited for what’s to come  and will keep everyone who reads this blog posted.

If anybody reading this has any questions about The Beijing Center, please feel free to leave a comment down below, or email me at fzigic@luc.edu.

 

See you all again soon!

A Brew of Emotions: The Final Stretch (Last Week in Beijing)

A Brew of Emotions: The Final Stretch (Last Week in Beijing)

There is one week left of my study abroad adventure in Beijing, and I am feeling a brew of emotions.

The first, excitement. For the past two weeks, I’ve felt really homesick, more homesick than I have ever felt before during this semester. It’s probably because the power of the holidays is on full blast back in the States. Missing the Thanksgiving celebration with all my friends and family was already hard enough, and seeing all the Christmas-related stuff on people’s social media hasn’t made it any less easier. So the thought of coming back to the U.S. and being bombarded with that holiday cheer is very exciting to me. I’m excited to just exist in my house again. I’m excited to see all of my friends again and catch up. I’m excited to eat Vietnamese food again. I’m excited to continue developing the relationships and the projects that I left behind all those months ago. I’m just excited, and I can hardly wait to jump on that plane back!

A picture of my family’s Christmas tree that my mom sent to me recently. I think this is the first year that I have not helped put up this tree.

The second, procrastination. As you probably already know, this last week is finals week, and instead of studying for my Chinese language finals or working on final presentations/essays, I am writing this blog post.

So that basically sums up that emotion.

The third, sadness. For the past four months, I’ve created countless numbers of memories, and I’ve taken an equal amount, if not more, pictures while I’ve been here. Scrolling through the pictures I’ve taken so far, I cannot help but feel sad to leave China. Here is where I’ve grown spiritually. Here is where I’ve conquered fears time and time again. Here is where I’ve seen a rich and beautiful culture and discovered that this country has dimensions that I’ve never thought even existed. To leave something so profound in my life makes me feel… empty? I don’t think that’s quite the right word, but it’s the best I’ve got. It makes me quite sad to leave behind this life that has challenged me in ways that I didn’t think would challenge me. It makes me even sadder to think about the friends that I’m parting ways with. The friendships that I’ve established here are some of the most enjoyable friendships I’ve ever had in my collegiate career. The people here are so vibrant, and being surrounded by them has allowed for me to grow into a better version of me. I’ll be leaving all of that behind, soon.

The Fall 2018 TBC Family

At our monthly (the last one for the semester) community meeting last week, TBC Student Development Director Ryan briefly talked about the possibility of going through reverse culture shock once we returned home. At the time of the meeting, I didn’t think much of it (mostly because I was distracted with the idea that they were serving us pizza after the meeting), but now that I’ve sat down to write this blog and to reflect upon what this past semester has meant to me, all of the things he talked about on the topic of reverse culture shock seems to be entirely plausible for me. Maybe the pace of life back at home will be so alien to me that it’ll seem… I don’t know, boring in comparison to the life here? Maybe I’ll be so overwhelmed with the go-go-go pace of back home that I’ll shut down? Who honestly knows how reverse culture shock will affect me, if it’ll affect me at all.

That leads to the fourth emotion that I’m marinating in, and it is perhaps the most profound one.

Anxiousness.

I call this emotion the most profound because I never thought that I would feel a little anxious to go home. I mean, I’m homesick. I’ve been longing to snuggle my dog, to goof around with my brother, to chatter with my family at the dinner table, to play hours upon hours of video games on my Nintendo Switch, to laugh with my friends, and yet I feel this tiny nagging sense of dread to return home even before I’ve come home.

The truth is, around the middle of the semester, I had a little bit of a crisis. One of the Chinese roommates for TBC whom I’m pretty good friends with was in the middle of applying for graduate school and studying for the GRE. Talking to him and watching him go through this process made me realize something: I only have three semesters left as a undergraduate student. Suddenly, the entire world seemed to have laid its entire weight on my shoulders. Horrible thoughts and feelings of falling behind on my studies because I’ve studied abroad creeped in, and a sense of paranoia flooded my senses. What if my studying abroad set me so far back that I wouldn’t be able to prepare for applying to graduate school on time? I still hadn’t looked at what graduate programs I wanted to even apply for. I didn’t even know what kind of programs I wanted to apply for. I had a plan for after graduation, but that was only a vague thought, not even a game plan. And here I was, in China.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t regret going abroad, and I won’t ever regret my time here. I just suffered a little from this realization that life seemed to have kept going without me back at home.

Well, this is where all of my friends and family would remind me: slow down, Justine. Remembering that advice allowed for me to jump off of that Paranoia Rocket off to Planet Anxiety and continue to enjoy my time here in Beijing while I still could. I knew that my fears were blown a little out of proportion, and I technically still had plenty of time, I just needed to use it well once I returned. But, to be completely honest with you, I might be strapped in to ride that rocket again now that my study abroad semester is coming to an end. It is the final stretch.

I know now that what I felt in the middle of this semester was like culture shock part two, and it was completely normal for me to have gone through that. As I get ready for finals this week and continue to swim around in this brew of jumbled emotions, I realize that I just need to take a deep breath. I need to remember that while it feels like life zoomed ahead of me back at home, I’ve also zoomed ahead in many other aspects. I’ve gained a new skill in speaking some Chinese. I’ve gained a spiritual understanding of myself.  I’ve gained knowledge on China and Chinese culture, something that I’ll admit I misunderstood before I came. I’ve gained stories that I can share with everyone back at home. There are so many positive things that have come out of this amazing opportunity, and I have to keep them in mind as I come to terms with the experience ending.

Anxiousness doesn’t necessarily have to be negative. I can be anxious about a whole lot of different things in my life, and I figure that worrying about what the future has in store for me doesn’t do much good. It’s better to just sit back and enjoy the rocket ride rather than screaming the entire time.

I guess, what I’m try to say is that I’ll just have to see what’s in store for me when I return. I may not know what reverse culture shock will do to me, but I do know that I’ll treasure the least few days I have with TBC in Beijing and that I’ll return to the States ready to face the scary future more ready than ever.

Thanks for reading my blog this semester.

-Justine

Sleepy, Sleepy Pandas! (Weekend Trip to Chengdu)

Sleepy, Sleepy Pandas! (Weekend Trip to Chengdu)

As a last huzzah before Finals Week, last weekend my friends and I hopped onto a 3 hour plane to Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan Province of China and also known as the Home of the Giant Panda. We ended up staying there for two days and three nights, and by the end of the short-lived trip, we were very glad that we were able to squeeze it in before the end of the semester. It provided a last push for us to wrap up our study abroad semester in China.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. We must address probably the most important, and definitely the most cutest, part of the trip. The first day we spent in Chengdu was spent squealing over the cute, sleepy, and amusingly clumsy pandas in the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, which was about an hour shuttle bus ride from our Airbnb. We had met up with an old friend of my friend, who was her exchange student many years ago and generously served as our navigator for the day, as he was a student of a relatively nearby university in Chengdu. 

Our panda-watching group!

The park was filled with lush greenery that was mostly made up of tall bamboo stalks that at times towered over us and beautiful ponds and small lakes, where ducks and geese would literally swim up to you to greet you. It was magnificent to see all of that green. None of the zoos that I had been to before looked anything like the inside of this park, and the pictures don’t do it much justice.

Of course, it had endless amounts of designated panda enclosures, most of which were all outside. The pandas had plenty of room to roam around and to just… be pandas: all the enclosures had some sort of wooden playground structure that they could either nap on or lounge about and some trees that they could climb up and get stuck in should they please. It was just endless amounts of entertainment watching the pandas. For example, we watched one who was quite obviously stuck up high in a tree try his hardest to climb down but ultimately decided to just accept his fate for the time being. We also watched some adorable baby pandas stumble around, trying out their new paws. Whenever any one of us spotted a panda, it was instantly the greatest new thing we had ever seen. It’s a given that I bought a lot, and I mean a lot, of panda goodies at the various souvenir shops around the vast park.

Baby pandas!!!

After we had seen our fill of pandas (we probably spent a close to five hours or so at the park), we took the shuttle bus back to the area around our Airbnb, which happened to be near a huge shopping district filled with shopping malls. For an early dinner, we sat down and had the famous Sichuan spicy hotpot, where we ate a bunch of interesting meats, like stomach lining, duck blood, and liver, much to the insistence of our local friend. We were also served drinkable cold yogurt, in case we needed it to calm the fiery burn of that Sichuan spicy hot broth. Needless to say, we had quite the adventurous dinner that night!

Hotpot is a shared dish where there is a center pot with boiling broth. You are served raw meats and vegetables, and you basically cook the food in the broth. In the middle of this pot is the really spicy Sichuan broth, while the outside was the non-spicy broth. Yum!

To aid in digestion, we wandered into a random shopping mall and waddled around there for awhile with soup bellies. That was when my friend spotted a Vietnamese restaurant, and it was all over. We quickly made the decision to have tomorrow’s lunch there before we had dinner with my friend’s old math professor. It was a pretty easy decision, considering two out of the three of us were craving Vietnamese food and the third friend had been wanting to try Vietnamese food. Once night fell, we parted ways with my friend’s old exchange student, and we headed back to our Airbnb, where we played card games and talked for hours into the night.

The next morning, after sleeping in comfortably, we hurried over to that Vietnamese restaurant for lunch, stopping by to get $2 (you heard me) large brown sugar coffee lattes. I could barely contain my excitement as I flipped through the menu, feelings of nostalgia and homesickness and longing for home flooding my senses all at once. My friends were equally excited to have some Vietnamese food with me, sensing my eagerness, so we quickly ordered our food: two orders of pho (one chicken and the other beef), one order of bun, which is basically a cold noodle salad dish, one order of spring rolls, and one order of eggrolls.

The dish that brought me to tears.

Let me tell you, tears were shed all around that day. My friend, who for the first time ate eggrolls the Vietnamese way (wrapped up in lettuce and mint leaves), was also brought to tears at how good they were. But I cried for a different reason. The food genuinely tasted so similar to my mom’s home cooking, and the longing for home hit me harder than ever before. The sauce, nuoc mam, in particular was almost dead on similar. Just a drop of that garlicky, salty, sweet, and sour sauce by itself was enough to bring tears to my eyes, and it was a testament to how good the food was going to be. The refreshing bun dish perked up my taste buds, which, over the course of the semester, had slowly developed an unbearable craving of the fresh, floral, and bright flavors of Vietnamese cooking. It had taken me a trip to Chengdu to finally find some Vietnamese food in China, and the discovery of this restaurant made me that much more glad to have gone on this trip. Eating here was what gave me some energy to last for the rest of the semester. We were almost done, and I knew that I would be able to have that familiar and comforting Vietnamese food again.

We walked around the shopping mall until it was time to have dinner with my friend’s math teacher. He generously fed us a delicious Filipino dinner, and it was a pleasure to spend time at his wonderful apartment with his family. Before long, though, we had to go back to our Airbnb, pack our stuff, and then pull an all-nighter by playing cards and snacking on foods until it was time for us to leave for the airport. Our flight was at 6am, so we figured that it would be better to just stay up. We were back on campus by 9am, and after an emotionally and physically adventurous weekend, you know I passed out for a good while, dreaming of cute and cuddly pandas.

Thanks for reading! 🙂

-Justine

A TBC Thanksgiving

A TBC Thanksgiving

So this past Thursday was actual Thanksgiving Day, and to be honest with you all, it didn’t really feel like Thanksgiving. In the days leading up to Turkey Day, I was feeling less homesick than I thought, most likely because I wasn’t being bombarded with the fact that Thanksgiving was quickly coming up (I made it a point not to check social media for awhile, knowing full well that seeing Thanksgiving food videos and ads would make the homesickness worse).

The actual day was just like any other normal day here in Beijing, China. I went to class and then back to the dorms to sit in the lounge and do miscellaneous things.

But fear not, I still was able to partake in some Thanksgiving tradition here.

Friday night was designated to be TBC’s annual Thanksgiving potluck in the basement of our dormitory building. I got together with two of my good friends and together we planned to bring a huge serving of guacamole to the potluck. The day before the potluck, my friend and I went to a small supermarket on campus to find something to contain our guac. Unfortunately, the supermarket didn’t have much in terms of kitchen container supplies, so we decided to get a green wash basin to use as our container for the guac (no, I’m not kidding). We then got the ingredients to actually make the guac: the vendor who sold us the produce gave us an amused look when we put a plastic bag filled with 11 avocados, 4 tomatoes, 2 onions, and 2 lemons on his counter. The actual day of the potluck, my friend who was an intern at the U.S. embassy was able to get her hands on three bags of Tostitos (which, I never realized I would miss until I ate one tear-inducing scoops Tostito chip). Once we all were able to get together on Friday evening, we rolled up our sleeves and after about an hour, we churned out 11 avocados worth of guacamole (spoiler alert: all of it was eaten by the end of the night).

11 avocados worth of guacamole in a wash-basin

After we reveled in our success in making amazingly delicious guacamole, we went downstairs and were warmly greeted by the Chinese roommates and TBC Student Development staff. Seeing all of the food already laid out on two long tables filled me with the joy and excitement that I feel on Thanksgiving. There was food ranging from Chinese dishes to traditional Thanksgiving foods like turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing.

My mood was lifted higher and higher as more people in the program came downstairs with their food items. As I enjoyed everyone’s company and ate some wonderful food, I smiled to myself, knowing that even though I was far away from my home in America, the home that I’ve found here in Beijing, among my TBC and Chinese friends, was quite enough for me to feel the Thanksgiving spirit.

I’m so, so thankful for the opportunity to study abroad at TBC, the time that I’ve spend abroad, the people that I’ve met while I’ve been abroad, and the people back at home eagerly waiting for me to return.

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I know I did 🙂

From all of us at TBC, Happy Thanksgiving!

-Justine

Buddhism and I

Buddhism and I

I grew up in a Buddhist Vietnamese family. As a child, I went to the closest Buddhist temple to my house every Sunday to sit and listen to the morning chants and teachings alongside my family before attending Vietnamese school for a few hours. I grew up wearing necklaces with little Buddha carvings and prayer beads around my wrist. I was raised with Buddhist traditions, and I was told that whenever I felt unsafe, unsettled, or just not right, I should pray to the Buddha. Doing so would calm my rapid heartbeats and my noisy mind. So it was natural for Buddhism to become the belief that I would call my religion for a good part of my childhood.

But, as I grew older, I questioned what Buddhism meant to me and if it had a place in my life that was more than something I grew up with. I didn’t know if belief in the Buddha would help me achieve my goals — I came to strongly believe that my accomplishments were because of my efforts and my efforts alone. I also didn’t think that praying to the Buddha would do anything for me. I unfortunately found that whenever I did pray to Buddha, when my head would spin and my emotions would reel out of control, I found no calm, no real peace within those prayers. And so, I put Buddhism on the back burner and saw it as just part of my Vietnamese heritage. It was nothing more, nothing less.

Moving forward in my life, I labeled myself as “agnostic,” although I would often clarify to others, “But if I had to identify with a religion, it would be Buddhism. My family’s Buddhist.” I knew that I was spiritual. I knew that there were forces and miracles out there that just couldn’t be chalked up to pure coincidence. I also knew that Buddhism held a piece of my life that I could not just give up. It was huge part of my culture, after all. But I didn’t know if Buddhism itself, let alone any other religion, was right for me, and so for years, I considered myself to be agnostic.

Flash forward to my time here in Beijing, China.

Coming to China, I never expected that something like my spirituality and my relationship with Buddhism, naked and confused, would be brought out into the open. I knew that I would see Buddhism more in my surroundings, more than I saw it back in the United States, but nothing could prepare me for what I would spiritually experience here. The prevalence of Buddhist temples and motifs all over China forced me to confront what I had been neglecting to address for years.

It all started on the Silk Road in the Buddhist monastery town of Xia’he. If you’ve read my blog about our time in Xia’he, you already know that story of my hike around the Labrang Monastery early in the morning. I want to reiterate the significance of that morning to me yet again. What I felt is still something, even after a few months after that morning happened, that I cannot explain. It was a sensation that I just could not begin to understand. For awhile, it only made me really giddy to know that something that significant had happened to me that morning. It was something that I told people close to me because all I thought of it at the time was that it was important to me. After some time, though, I finally was able to bring myself to analyze and reflect on why exactly that feeling was important to me. It was too remarkable for me to just ignore. However, I wasn’t able to come up with an explanation for what it could have been on my own, so I decided to bring this conundrum before a Buddhist monk.

Sunset in the beautiful Buddhist temple.

This monk I met during a field trip my Introduction to Buddhism class took to a famous Buddhist temple in Beijing. After a tour of the temple grounds and a delicious vegetarian dinner, we all sat down inside of a prayer room that looked very similar to the prayer room that I sat in for so many Sundays of my childhood. We then had a Q&A session with one of the monks of the temple, with my professor acting as a translator. I timidly raised my hand to ask the first question of the night. I remember my voice shook as I tried to explain my family background and what had happened to me in Xia’he. I asked him what he thought of my story. I remember my friend, who sat next to me, pat my back in quiet support, hearing the emotion in my voice and knowing that the moment had meant something personal. The monk listened intently as I told my story, shifting his weight on the cushion he sat upon as my professor translated what I said into Chinese. Then, he gave me his explanation.

The Buddhist monk told me that what I had felt could have been a reaction of my soul to the circumstances of that moment. In the Buddhist tradition, the soul is reborn a number of times in a never-ending cycle. He proposed that I could have been a Buddhist in my past life, and my soul, in that moment, could have remembered that it was Buddhist in the past life. I was brought to tears because I unconsciously remembered that. He also said that if that particular explanation was a little far-fetched to me, I could have reacted the way that I did because what I had prayed for was very deep and personal, and because my prayers had come from the bottom of my heart, I was moved to tears as those prayers meant a lot to me.

After the field trip, the first thing I did was tell my parents about the monk’s words to me. My mom smiled with excitement on my phone screen as I told her and my father about the Q&A session. “Maybe it was meant to be for you to go to China and learn more about Buddha,” she said as a passing comment. But I took note of her words, and I held them in the back of my mind as I continued about my days in China.

Since I received that explanation, my heart felt a little lighter. My mom was certainly right that China was becoming a classroom for me to learn about Buddhism in a surprisingly subtle way. I felt like I could look at Buddhism in the eye, sit down, and have a proper dialogue with it instead of ignoring it like I had done for all of those years. I could see it in action in the lives of the people here. I knew, knew, that deep down it held a very dear place in my heart. It was undoubtedly part of my cultural heritage, after all. I believed in many of its morals, and I had extensive knowledge about the religion. Yet I still had this weird complicated relationship with it, unable to call it my own because I still questioned it. Now that I had gotten to this point with it where I could comfortably reflect, I felt that I could search for an answer to the question I had been asking Buddhism for quite some time: “What role do you play in my life?”

One of the things that puzzled me about the religion was that it seemed contradictory as a result of its material culture. Buddhism is a religion that attacks the material world with such a vigor no other religion can compare. Yet material culture still exists within it. I didn’t understand why it is necessary for us to pray with prayer beads, to burn incense, and to read sutras as we chant. It disturbed me to see so many tourist sites along the Silk Road sell prayer beads and other Buddhist ritual items as souvenirs. So, what did I do to try and understand this phenomenon?

I wrote an extensive 13-page research paper about material culture within Buddhism for a class.

While researching information for that paper, my Buddhism class took another field trip to another different Buddhist temple, sitting down in a monk’s living quarters and having a very casual talk with him. The monk was named Yuan Liu. He spoke extremely good English and was very hospitable, constantly offering us more tea and more snacks to eat. As we enjoyed each other’s company, we were allowed to ask him any questions that we had about Buddhism. Obviously, I had to ask him about the role of material culture within Buddhism, both for my paper and for my own sake.

The answer that he gave me became an answer that I had been looking for.

He said that the items, like prayer beads, are a way to guide the mind, which by its nature is uncontrollable and easily distracted. Whenever anyone starts practicing the Buddhist belief, their minds start out as wild and uncontrollable. The rituals, the chanting, everything, serves as a reminder to practitioners of their belief and the path that they walk on. Perhaps most importantly, he reminded me that what really matters in Buddhism is the tempering of the mind and the discovery of inner peace and happiness through a simple life.

Again, the first person I called to tell this experience was my mom. She basically reiterated what the monk had told me. Perhaps the most significant thing she told me was that wearing prayer beads meant that one was always praying to Buddha, reflecting the dedication to the Buddhist way, even if one didn’t go to temple every Sunday or prayed all the time.

I contemplated on Yuan Liu’s and my mom’s words long after I turned in that essay. I slowly came to understand that all that stupid questioning I did was a result of me blatantly veering off of the path that my parents put me on during my times of turmoil. They had put me on that path because they believe that the teachings of the Buddha would allow for me to grow up into a responsible, strong, polite woman. They believe that the teachings could help me redirect myself when in times of difficulty. I’ve come to better understand that Buddhism isn’t a religion in which I have to do all these rituals to call myself a true Buddhist, but it is a guidance. Buddhism, at its core, is the nurturing of the heart and the spirit, and by passing down its traditions to me, my parents were nurturing my heart and my spirit, long before I’ve realized it. It’s taken me a trip to China to finally, truly, understand that. And that’s a powerful realization that brings me to tears.

My prayer beads.

The prayer beads that I bought in Xia’he as a reminder of that morning now serve as a reminder for the Buddhist teachings embedded in me as part of my Vietnamese identity. I don’t claim that I’ve had a sudden spiritual awakening during this study abroad experience in China. But I think the critical self reflection that I’ve done while I’ve been here is more than enough to say that my perspective on what Buddhism means to me has changed. I wouldn’t have been able to do this self-reflection if I didn’t hop on that plane to come here. I wouldn’t have come to terms with a part of me that I’ve ignored. Buddhism and I still have a lot to work on, together. It isn’t collecting dust behind me anymore as I walk forward in my life; it’s back to walking besides me, acting as a nurturing guide whose presence I am still getting used to.

Maybe my mom was right. Maybe fate meant for it to be this way for me after all.

Thanks for reading~ 🙂

-Justine

Our Days in Beijing

Our Days in Beijing

Hello, everyone! It’s been quite awhile 🙂

Since coming back from both the Silk Road and from whatever adventures we planned for ourselves during the Chinese National Holiday, all of us have been quite busy with schoolwork. We’ve come to the middle of the semester now. I’d be lying if I said that the semester hasn’t been flying by since the National Holiday. Midterms are this coming week, and many of us are spending this weekend preparing for them. As for me, I am a chronic procrastinator, so here I am writing this blog while my to-do list for this weekend stares mockingly at me.

With the help of finally having an academic class schedule, life living in Beijing, China has smoothed out to a fairly rhythmic routine. I had thought that adjusting to the new environment around me was going to be more difficult than it has been. Every day has many thoroughly enjoyable moments that I share with my fellow TBC students and the TBC staff, and it makes life here in Beijing that much more interesting. The days seem to all blur together because they’re all so fun, and you know what they say about when time flies.

As for my own academic schedule, I am currently taking 18 credit hours, so I’ve got a pretty full plate.  Originally, I had planned on taking only 15 credits, but my sudden decision to switch into the intensive beginner Chinese language class has bumped those credits to 18. This hasn’t prevented me from going out and exploring Beijing or laughing with my friends in the TBC dormitory lounge, however. I love all of my classes because they provide a certain insight into Chinese culture and history that I couldn’t have gotten just by walking around Beijing. For example, I learned about the usage of Wade-Giles in my Modern Chinese Fiction class, a writing system that was used in China before the adoption of Pinyin. In Wade-Giles, if there was a “t” written, it was actually pronounced as a “d.” So, the original word for “tofu” in Chinese is actually pronounced and correctly written in Pinyin as “dofu,” but because people didn’t know about the difference between Wade-Giles and Pinyin when tofu was brought over to the West, it is now pronounced in the Western world with a “t.” How fascinating is that?

It also isn’t hard to stay on top of all the schoolwork, so long as you make the effort to stay on top of it. A bonus is that all of the classes for TBC students are located in one building, so that significantly reduced the difficulty of university life here, much to all of our gratitude.

In particular, I love, lovelove, my Chinese language class. In the TBC program, everyone, regardless of their Chinese language level, are required to take a Chinese language class. I have never spoken a word of Mandarin before coming to Beijing, and I was very eager to start learning it formally in a classroom setting. Like I mentioned before, I switched over to the beginner Chinese intensive class, which basically means that the class covers Chinese 101 and Chinese 102, or two semesters of Chinese, in one semester. The pace that we’ve been going at is perfect for me, and I feel like I’ve been making leaps and bounds with my Chinese. Just the other day, during pair work in class, I was able to make a pretty good conversation with my Chinese professor, and it was so rewarding to know that I’ve come so far in my studies when I had no background in the language before coming to China. In fact, I’ve picked up a Chinese language minor!

我很喜欢学中文!I love learning Chinese! 🙂

My Chinese classmates and I! 我的中文同学和我!

In addition to having all of our classes in one building, they’re all located on the same floor, the 4th floor of the Ning Yuan Building, otherwise known to us students as the TBC Building. This is because the 4th floor houses the actual TBC center, with all the staff offices and the extensive TBC library as well as the classrooms that we students have class in. I can’t express enough how amazing it is for us students to have our own facilities and our own staff dedicated to helping us throughout our time here. Everyone is so, so friendly, and the friendly, welcoming, and warm atmosphere of the program has no doubt helped all the students, not just me, to settle into our lives here. I can pop my head into the Student Development Office at any time just to have a quick chat with the Student Development people. I’m so grateful for the support system here, through the staff members as well as my fellow students. My entire TBC experience would not be the same without any of the people I’ve made good friends with here, studying together, laughing together, stressing out together, eating together, and more.

But finally, I’d like to talk a little bit about living with the pollution here in China.

It really isn’t anything that is completely life-changing or life-altering. During orientation, we were advised to download an AQI (Air Quality Index) app in order to monitor each day’s air pollution rating, and I check this app every morning like I check the weather every morning. The app will give me a number index as well as a color to symbolize how bad the pollution is, with green representing pretty clean air (the number index ranges from about 0-90) and purple representing pretty bad pollution (an index of about 250-300). Basically, the higher the index, the more pollution there is for that day.

A screenshot from the Air Quality app that I use. You can also see the color coordination that they give the different ranges of indexes.

We’ve only had a handful of days where the air pollution has reached the nasty “purple” rating (I remember the rating reaching around 290 those days). The great majority of days, however, are “orange,” or an AQI of around 100-150. The difference between these two air qualities are quite jarring, as you can see in the pictures I took just a day apart below.

A “purple” AQI day.
An “orange” AQI day.

I include these pictures to show that beautiful blue skies are still prevalent in China, and that the air pollution is getting much, much better than where it was in the past. Before coming to China, my assumption was that the pollution was just plain bad, and that was an assumption created by ridiculous media coverage. I’m here to tell you that the pollution really isn’t all that bad to deal with, and my health is completely okay — the effects that one might get from directly breathing the air of a bad AQI day are only very temporary and manifest in like runny noses and sometimes headaches. I will wear a face mask whenever there’s a “red”  or higher AQI. But the locals here, regardless if it’s a purple AQI day or not, don’t really wear masks: this is just what life is for them. As one of the Chinese roommates for TBC put it, “I’m used to it.”

In terms of the water pollution, people just buy bottled water. Water here (including literally everything else) is really cheap (we’re talking maybe 30 U.S. cents for a 550 mL bottle of water and 40 cents for a 1.5 L bottle of water), so access to clean water is not a problem here.

I will dedicate an entire blog post about the food I’ve been stuffing my face with while I’ve been in China — you will have to wait until then to hear about the details of the amazing food here in China! Trust me, it’s quite different from the Chinese takeout back in the States. What I will say that food, along with water, is really cheap as well. Most of my meals are around $2, and I usually won’t spend more than about $7 on food per day. Plus, because of UIBE’s amazing restaurants and street food vendors around off campus, I rarely get bored of Chinese food. But more on that later.

So yeah, in conclusion, life is good! Homesickness is definitely a feeling that I get from time to time, I won’t lie, but I know that my time here will be over within a moment’s time, so I gotta enjoy it while it still lasts!

That’s about it in terms of how my days in China are going so far. I apologize for the lack of pictures for this blog; I promise the next one will have more. But I have to get back to studying for midterms now, so see you next time! 🙂

-Justine

The Truth and Reconcilition Commission

The Truth and Reconcilition Commission

Hello friends.

My time in South Africa is coming to a close (I leave a June 13), so I want to use this entry as a chance to talk about a topic that I find interesting and I’d like to touch on, as it’s an important part of South African history.

I want to talk about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Commission post-apartheid that was employed rather than a trial to deal with both the perpetrators and victims of apartheid. We were lucky enough to speak with Mary Burton, one of the seventeen people elected to be a commissioner, meaning she heard peoples’ stories and decided whether or not to grant amnesty to perpetrators and listen to victims’ stories. The Commission was unique in that it operated under the idea of restorative justice rather than retributive justice, meaning that it had no focus on punishment of perpetrators, but rather forgiveness and truth. The Commission was structured so that survivors and perpetrators alike were eligible to apply to tell their stories. Perpetrators could receive political amnesty and survivors could finally tell their suppressed truths and stories. Some intended for the TRC to help victims cope. The basic premise of the TRC thus was that in exchange for truth, reconciliation and healing would be granted to the families of the victims of apartheid. Indeed, that reconciliation would be granted not only to the victims of apartheid, but to the perpetrators as well. The TRC is often criticized for not being focused enough on punishment and not achieving true justice for victims; however, there is much to be looked at and considered.

I admire the way that Mary Burton spoke about the TRC because she seemed to give a very honest and holistic view. She acknowledged both its successes and failures; gave it the credit it deserved and admitted its failures. My understanding of the TRC in the South African context is one of a committee that had a very difficult job and did it to the best of their ability. I think that they could have done more and I think that people’s’ critiques of the TRC as not being fair enough to the victims and giving them the justice they deserve are valid, but I think that it is almost impossible to judge how they went about this extremely difficult task. Mary highlighted the successes of the TRC in that it did bring some families closure and justice, like a story she told about a family who located their child because of the investigation of the TRC. However, the TRC also had many failures in that it failed to punish all the perpetrators of apartheid and therefore fully acknowledge the harm done to the people. I think that the biggest thing I have learned about the TRC through talking to Mary Burton, reading Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness is that the TRC had an incredibly difficult job and carried it out to the best of their ability based on the circumstances. Yes, they did not bring justice to all families and that is not okay considering the heinous crimes committed during apartheid, and therefore the TRC deserves to be criticized. However, it given the circumstances, it may have been impossible to create a system that was conducive to “perfect” reconciliation.

There is also the question of if the TRC occurred too quickly, if there should have been more of reducing poverty and unemployment rates, and perhaps if there had been more of a focus on this, South Africa would be in a better position today. However, I understand and respect why they wanted to reconcile immediately. Once apartheid ended, Mandela, Tutu, and other leaders had one concentration: moving forward together. This did not involve promoting a country where black South Africans were angry at all white South Africans and refused to live in harmony. This involved focusing on strengthening the country as a whole and forgiving its past, while remembering it so as to not let it happen again in the future. I think that this is a strength of the TRC, because by nature of it being a committee based in reconciliation, it is inherently focused on forgiveness and restoring amicable feelings between two groups. The immediate period after apartheid ended was a very delicate time – is what I get from Tutu and Mary Burton – all of the leaders had to be careful to not focus on revenge but rather a better future. If they concentrated on revenge, the country would fall apart. So, I know that the TRC has many faults and it did not fully properly do its job in restoring justice to all, but at the time, it was perhaps their only and best option.

This question of a how a country moves forward after a period so awful and inhumane has come up before, like in Germany post-Holocaust. In both situations, there is the delicate question of how do we punish those who have committed horrible acts while focusing on keeping our country in tact? It’s a question that no government has mastered. But, considering the time, I think that it is admirable that the leaders did not focus at all on revenge and this is a strength for South Africa in the post-apartheid era. It’s constantly interesting to see how South Africa has been able to move on after apartheid, and forgiveness is a huge part of the country’s aims. It’s very impressive and perhaps something that individuals can apply to their own lives as well.

In other news – about a month ago, the entire country of South Africa’s bus drivers went on strike demanding higher wages. The effect was enormous with thousands of people across the country unable to get to work/school/anywhere because the lack of transport. The social worker at my service site had to leave at 5:45am to arrive at work at 9:30am – that’s how bad the traffic was. Mr. P, our program driver, had to wait much longer for taxis/other form of transport that are typically less efficient to be able to get to where our bus is and pick us up. The bus drivers held firm and refused to cave, ultimately giving their wages a 9% increase. The strike was definitely necessary but I was thrilled to see so many golden arrow buses back on the highway last week and bringing people to work.

As for me, I am leaving for a five-day trip to Namibia tomorrow where I will be camping, seeing sand dunes, and driving through the desert (we’re driving there and flying back)! I’m extremely excited but very stressed as we are in the midst of finals season at school. Not much else is new other than trying to fit in a lot before we leave in just a few weeks. The feature photo for this entry is me in Kirstenbosch Gardens, some lovely gardens behind Table Mountain with fantastic views, after me and my friends had a lovely picnic last Friday. I’ll be back soon with more updates about my time here. x

Visit to Robben Island

Visit to Robben Island

Hello friends. Long time, no talk. Lots has happened since my last post.

First of all, my body is very sore as I am writing this as on this past weekend, I completed the “three peaks challenge,” in which I climbed the three “main” mountains here in Cape Town (Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, and Lion’s Head) in one day. It took about eleven hours and was very physically taxing but definitely worth it!

Since I last wrote – notably – I went on visit to Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, along with many other political prisoners during apartheid), went shark cage diving, and travelled to Johannesburg. I have much to tell you about interesting guest speakers we’ve had in our classes, people we’ve met, our trip to Johannesburg and other activities but in this entry, I’d like to focus on our visit to Robben Island.

Visiting Robben Island is a valuable and informative experience that everyone should partake in if they go to South Africa. As I mentioned, it is where Mandela was for the majority of his imprisonment, and a imprisoned many political prisoners during apartheid, like Robert Sobukwe, the first president of the Pan-African Congress (PAC), a prominent breakaway movement from Mandela’s party, the African Nationalist Congress (ANC). The experience of visiting the island is very unique. All of the tour guides are former prisoners of the island, meaning that they’ve chosen to stay on the place filled with horrible memories and which serves of a constant reminder of a system that once oppressed them so violently. It is incredible that they are willing and able to do this, and makes the visitors’ experience much more valuable and impactful. We first took a boat out to the island – we’ve been meant to go a couple of time before this, but trips often get canceled because the boats can’t sail due to bad weather, wind, et cetera. Once we got to the island, we waited to take a bus to enter the prison, where we met our tour guide.

Our tour guide told us that he was imprisoned for acts of terrorism and sabotage, but did not tell us the specifics. He then explained to us the categorization process that was used to classify the prisoners. People were either White, Indian, Coloured, or Black. He talked about the difference in food that was given to different groups of people, but he also said that even though people were given different food they all shared it together whenever possible. He told to us that the room we were in was a general population block that housed roughly fifty prisoners. The room would have been extremely packed had fifty bunk beds and fifty men been in there. We left the room and walked through the prison to an open area outside. There were pictures showing what it looked like during the apartheid era, including staged propaganda pictures of the prisoners that were circulated to make it look like they were treated humanely, which was not the case. Here, our tour guide told us about the many political prisoners who had gone missing during their time on Robben Island and how their bodies had just been found in 2013 in a graveyard in Bellville (in Cape Town) that was strictly reserved for white people only. This was very shocking and showed us how the effects of apartheid are still very much alive today.

Next, we went back inside the prison into a block of individual cells. This is where we got to see Mandela’s cell (pictured). You can see how small it was, with only a cot, table, and trash can. It was obviously very powerful to see how small the cells were, that these people had to live in for so long, but honestly, I think that regardless of how much you learn about life in the prison, it’s ultimately impossible to internalize their experience being there.

Mandela’s cell.
Mandela’s cell.

We then left the prison and got onto another bus to see around the island. One very interesting thing that we got to see was the quarry where they worked. In the quarry, there was a cave (pictured). The prisoners would regularly eat lunch and converse in that cave because the sun’s heat was too unbearable. Our tour guide detailed how important the conversations in the cave were by telling us how it was the only spot that they could speak freely without any fear of being recorded secretly. This is pretty cool as it was where the first meetings of the new government met, even before they left prison.

Cave.

In the lime quarry, there was a pile of rocks that were neatly stacked near the cave (pictured below). Our tour guide explained to us how it was created in 1995 after Apartheid had ended and Mandela was president. Mandela and all the political prisoners that were still alive had gone back to Robben Island to celebrate their freedom and remember all the injustices of the past. Mandela had laid the first rock down and the rest of the former prisoners followed, creating this pile of rocks of all different colors, shapes, and sizes. The pile symbolized the diversity of the country and the coming together of all the people within Robben Island as well as the greater South Africa. This symbolic act showed the forgiveness that was in the hearts of these people who had been so unjustly and inhumanly treated.

Throughout our visit, a few of us kept having this conversation about how these men were able to come back to Robben Island, a place that had been such a painful part of their lives, to work as tour guides. Every day they were forced to relive a moment in their lives that I am sure they wanted to forget. Someone actually asked our second tour guide if it was more therapeutic or traumatic for him to come back to the island. He said that it was definitely more traumatic for him because every day he was forced to relive his worst experiences. The tour guides were given no therapy or counseling when they were asked to come back and that has not changed over the years. It’s amazing that they still willingingly come back everyday and tell their experience to visitors. Obviously this cannot be the case always as many of the former prisoners are older and as time goes on, there will have to be new tour guides, so I feel privileged that I was able to get this experience.

I’ll be back soon with more about our trip to Johannesburg and more fun, educational, and interesting things! See you soon. x