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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A McDermott Adventure in Argentina

During our month-long trip to Argentina, we were able to enjoy a huge variety of the amazing adventures that Argentina and it's neighbooring countries had to offer. Being stationed in the beautiful city of Buenos Aires, we immersed ourselves in the days of soccer and endless nights of tango and cafes. On weekends we traveled to the magnificent Iguazu Falls, Uruguay, and the final weekend we went to Tigre. Our entire experience was incredible, and Tigre was a perfect ending to the trip.
We arrived in Tigre early Saturday morning via the train from Buenos Aires. Upon arriving we immediately boarded the ferry that would take us to our adventure. The ferry ride took us house to house while it dropped people off from their grocery shopping and finally we arrived at our destination. Our day started with a quaint, kind welcoming by the proprietors of Deltaventura, a husband and wife. They lead us into their large backyard, opening to a trail into peaceful fields, with turkeys, dogs and cats coexisting in the foreground. It felt like home; we played soccer and ran around like we were little kids again. Our guides spoke of their surrounding environment with such passion, making us wonder why we had never really heard of this utopian slice of South America before. And so we were raring to go canoeing into the heart of this beautiful ecosystem on the calm waters. We rowed slowly, encountering fun road blocks, joking with our friends on the other canoes. There was no one there but us. To reference a cliche, that solitude made us feel so much more at one with nature and simple aesthetic pleasure. We reached a rounded lake near the end of our rowing, where some of us decided to lie down and observe the blue sky, away from all the stresses of maps and curriculums of the big city.
We then began our trek back to camp, amidst orchards and houses. We felt extreme jealousy of the owners of these homes, who were able to settle down away from the pressures of market bustle and constant crowds. Though we were already tired from the adventure, the best was yet to come.
Lunch was the epitome of home-cooked quality. It was a traditional asado meal, with various, vast amounts of grilled meats sizzling on a plate, the aroma evoking vigor in us once again, prompting us to eat. Even the vegetarian food was delicious, the pasta and sauce cooked with a caution that would remind one of a mother's considerations for her child. The plates kept coming and we could not resist, because the flavor itself obliged the appetite more and more. The satisfaction however, was not over.
In the afternoon we began our rides on horses and mountain bikes. There is something about traveling with animals that connects us to nature even more. We not only understand our surroundings, but how other creatures interact with them. Though this resulted in some turbulence along the way, it was quite the learning experience. This experience was not lost to the bike riders, though. There was something amazing and awe-inspiring about being able to stop alone and look around, raised on a ridge above a sea of fields on either side with the sun barely poking out. It was pure nirvana. In the end, we saw the guides care for a hurt horse with such love, making us realize the importance of carrying consideration for others into all aspects of life.
We left that evening having come full circle. We had entered Argentina to a crowded, vibrant and cultured city, forced to navigate the Subte underground and the roads above all while absorbing a language that was entirely foreign to some of us. We were ending our journey, though, by observing its calm side, interacting with the land without commercialism. We saw the manufactured and natural beauty of Argentina, and both sides were amazing contributors to a life-changing experience.

The following people are represented by this blog post:
Erich Bao, Dionna Budd, Liz Organ, Prashant Raghavendran, Bryan Thompson and Lye-Ching Wong

Monday, August 24, 2009

Beijing: The Insider Story

Just when I prepared myself for thronging crowds and smoky streets, Beijing springs a surprise on me. The Silicon Valley of People’s Republic of China stands out for its beautiful architecture, superb restaurants and clear blue skies. The Peking University students tell me that I should be thankful for the clear blue skies as they were as rare as a blue moon prior to the big clean up in preparation for the 2008 Green Olympics.

My course at the Peking University has been intense, but fun. Our class of about 40 students had representatives from 25 countries. It has been a most amazing experience to interact with students from so many different cultures with diverse backgrounds. We formed small teams to work on our final projects, and it was inspiring to see how many interesting ideas we came up with when we put our heads together. We also had the chance to talk to several prominent businessmen who have started their own enterprises in China about the prospects in the Chinese economy. They explained to us the obscure concept of guanxi, communication difficulties, cultural barriers and other problems a foreign businessman would face in China. At the end of the day, we all had a better understanding of Chinese culture, economy and political environment.

Beijing is undoubtedly a very intriguing city. The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu is awe-inspiring to say the least. Some other amazing places I visited are the Museum at Ming Tombs, the Forbidden City and the TianAnmen Square. At the Jade Gallery, I had the chance to check out how jade jewelleries and artefacts are made from the raw jade stone, and how the ring of jade was inserted in the 2008 Olympic medals. The Wangfujing Street is home to many curious shops including the Shengxifu Hat Shop that has been in place since 1911.The stalls on Food Street sell everything from crispy scorpion fries to worm kebabs.

The Summer School in China has been a very enriching and educational journey, and we all feel nostalgic as we bid goodbye to each other. Dr Fei Qin concluded the course by quoting Dr Suess from ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go’:
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
You’ll look up and down streets. Look’em over with care. About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.” With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down a not-so-good street……..
Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.
You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest………………
Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t………
You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!”

Friday, August 21, 2009

Adventures and Self-Discovery in Morocco

So I know it looks like I do nothing but blog on the EMPSN, but we are all required to write blogs when we study abroad there should be a dozen or so of doing the same thing. I highly encourage you all to post your blogs on EMSPN so we can have share stories on this 'social' network :)

So about my summer, I was fortunate enough to receive the Critical Language Scholarship this summer, and I was sent to Tangier, Morocco. At first I was SUPER upset about being sent to Morocco because I don't know the local dialect at all and I am not really interested in North Africa. But alas, the scholarshp was a GREAT opportunity to learn Arabic, and my goal/I WILL be fluent in arabic by the time I graduate UTD... so I took it. And I am SO glad I did.

The program itself was intensive, as promised. We spent the first 10 days traveling through about 5 major cities in North Morocco (the South is mainly desert), and then we finally settled in Tangier. Classes were 4 hours a day, followed by about 4-5 hours of homework 5 days a week. CRAZY I know. We barely had time to leave the campus to go experience the culture... we basically just went out to grab dinner. Eventually, we got more efficient and started spending more and more time out which was fun.

We traveled almost every weekend and had some 'fun' ADVENTURES: sitting 7 people in a taxi (me being the lucky passenger in the front between the driver and another passenger that was 6 feet tall... and yes the stick shift was on my tush the whole time!), getting offered illegal drugs like 10 times in one night... including at dinner by my waiter, riding on a camel to watch the sunrise at 4 a.m. over the Sahara (real Africa one might say :) ), going to local homes for interesting local cuisine and AMAZING hospitality, cold bucket showers, etc. One of my favorite adventures was throwing my bags into a moving train and then jumping into random local Moroccan men arms after the train started to pick up speed because I got off at the wrong stop. Or getting into a fake taxi and almost being kidnapped with friends. Needless to say, we had our adventures in Morocco.

This is where the blog gets corny... so forewarning.

The best part of the trip though was what I learned about myself. This trip, more than my previous two trips, really changed me as a person. It was so powerful to be around such AMAZING people that had similar interests and passions as me, and I re-discovered my love for arabic and the middle east by staying in the region and by constantly being around them. I now KNOW I want to end up working in the region or at least towards improvement and greater universal understand of the traditions of the peoples of the region. I gained a new-found appreciate of the traditional culture and a hightened appreciation of the differences between the lifestyles in East and the West. I gained self-confidence in my language skills and started realizing the power of communication with peoples of such different background. The opportunity to speak with fellow americans that just love what the language and culture as much as I do was a very beautiful thing. We started throwing in random arabic words in our everyday english conversations (similar to when we say "hola" all the time), and we all internalized the 'arab way' when it came to greetings (cheek kisses), sharing, giving, and just loving each other. I met americans from states like Montana, Ohio, Indiana, etc of which I know NOTHING about, until now. Also, of the 45 or so of us, only like 4 hadn't traveled before, so everyone had something to give intelectually to the group. I made some great friendships that I know will last forever, and I rediscovered the type of person I am and want to be when it comes to relationships with elders, family, friends, etc. I am an Arab-American, and I have developed a greater pride and understanding of what that means and how that forms me as a person. How that makes me 'unique'. Both sides of that hyphen is special and I have started to internalize that. I only hope that each of you have the opportunity to go out and meet some people in the middle of nowhere (like North Africa for instance) that will make you look inside yourself to further understand the person you are and the person you want to be in the future. I know it sounds corny but it can happen, and it did happen to me in Morocco.

The Explorer

So I know I have already written a few blogs about the Middle East, but this year I have had such a different and such a wonderful experience that I feel like I need to share with you guys.

A quick pre-summary of what I am about to talk about, I took a month traveling around the Eastern Mediterranean region of the Middle East. That is, I traveled through like six cities in Syria, went back to Amman for a more local experience, failed to get to Lebanon, and went to Egypt for almost two weeks.

First was SYRIA. I studied in Damascus, Syria last year for 3 months, but I was so focused on language study that I did not travel except for a quick bus tour through some sites in Jordan. This year, me and some friends and relatives rented a car and drove through all the big cities on the west side of Syria. (The East is basically desert). I was amazed to see how different each region was in a single country. There were very conservative cities were most women were in full black veil covering even the skin between the eyes (these cities include Hama and Aleppo), there were cities were music was more prevalent than others (Aleppo), there were beaches (Latakia) and mountainous scenery that could rival Switzerland (Somra and Mashquita), and I can go on and on. The food was AMAZING as Syria is known to have the best food in the Middle East. The people in the different regions have a few words that are different but in the most part they all speak the same Aamiya (dialect). It is kind of like the USA with our minor differences between the North and South (you non-Texans that say things like "pop" and don't understand basic words like "ya'll"). Now that my language skills are better, I was able to speak to more locals in their native tongue, and I think the biggest thing I noticed was their pride for their country, their unbelievable hospitality and love for friends, family, and even foreigners. What can I say? I LOVE Syria.

Next, I went to JORDAN. for a few days where I stayed with a friend of a friend. Unlike last year, I actually stayed in the city the whole time and went to most of the different areas in Jordan. I went to the old medina (old city) where the people were actually not too friendly and I was a little uncomfortable without a long sleeve shirt. I went to the new part of town and was AMAZED at how rich some parts of the city are. I saw the biggest houses I have ever seen IN MY LIFE in Ammann. I learned that there are a lot of investments in the city now, so that is why they are growing. I also experienced the Westernization of the city firsthand - I stayed with a family in which some of the elders were against the non-traditional advancements of the region whereas the teenagers were almost ashamed of the old parts of their city and were super proud and excited about the new things to come. While in Ammann, I also visited the major touristy sites (the huge amphitheater, the new mosque dedicated to the past king, etc). One thing I think is cool about Ammann is that the highest flag in the world is flown in the middle of the city. One side note - their main local dish (mansaff) is disgusting, in my opinion. It is a dish with a piece of meat, rice, a thin slice of special bread, and a weird yogurt that they pour over it that is basically fat. Yucky.

I wanted to go to LEBANON, but I because I was traveling so much the only times I had to go was near to another travel... and with the parliamentary election nearing and the daily bomb threats there was a big possibility that I would get stuck in the country and not be able to catch my flight to Egypt or back to the states. I hope to make that trip up soon though!

Lastly, I traveled to EGYPT with Mary Gurak (2007 McD scholar) and with my mother. The latter was an INVALUABLE asset, because I do not know the egyptian dialect and my mother was able to get us into a lot of local areas and knew how to steer us towards a less-touristy experience. I have to say, I was VERY disappointed with Cairo. The city is EXTREMELY dirty, and soooooooooooo crowded. There are 20 million people in the city! Also, the people there harassed us more than anywhere else I have traveled to in the Middle East. We not only got cat calls, but also we had people that were too pushy when trying to sell us goods. I was also the least comfortable in Egypt as far as not wearing a hijab. I have never had a problem with this before even in a very Islamic city like Damascus, but I got a lot of nasty comments and condemnations from the local Egyptians. To be fair, I did have some lovely experiences with some locals and I wasn't able to stay in a home and experience the hosptitality I have heard Egyptians offer, but I still was taken aback with the experiences in the streets of the city. When in Egypt, I did do a little sightseeing - we went to the Egyptian Museum, Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Hatshepsut's temple, the market Khan al-Khalili, etc. We also traveled to Luxor (another city) where we saw the ancient Egyptian Karnak Temple. The ancient sites are ABSOLUTELY worth seeing. Lastly, we took a day excursion to the city of Alexandria, a beautiful coastal city with an amazing history (guess who the city was named after) and few historical sites left. All in all though, I was most amazing with how pour the country is. With all we hear about Egypt and Cairo and all the money they get from other countries (they get like $20 billion from the US alone), the people are living in HORRIBLE conditions. The markets were full of rotting fruit and veges, we saw 'houses' that consisted of a single hall with a couch and mats on the floor for 6 + people to live in. The king is not very popular in Egypt, and we didn't see any pictures of him in the streets as you do with most other countries and their kings. I can go on, but this is getting too long.

All in all, it was an amazing experience and I learned a lot about both the persistence of tradition and the modernization of the Middle East. This region has become a big part of my life, and I would encourage anyone who has the means and interest to try to take a trip out to this side of the world at some point in their life.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Learning to travel, teach, and even treat patients in Ghana!

I am happy to say that my sensory overload in Ghana has since composed itself into a nice cognitive framework from which I have effectively learned how to travel, teach, and even treat patients in Ghana. When my studies came to a close and I bid farewell to the group at Legon, I felt ready for a change of pace. What a change it was! I arrived at the pre-primary school and the headmistress showed me the class and said, "Ok, teach." I looked at twenty of Ghana's most energetic five year olds and thought, "Teach what?" Since the children were about to graduate up to primary school, I could teach them whatever I wanted. Class quickly evolved into hours of me providing constant entertainment with new learning songs, counting strips, story drawings, and reading books.

The proprietoress of the school encouraged me to leave at lunch so I arranged an afternoon volunteer at the children's ward of the nearby University Hospital. My tasks included taking children's vital signs, holding down the squirmers during medicine dispensation, and talking with the kids to take their minds off of being sick. Most of the children were in the hospital because of severe diarreah or malaria. It was interesting to watch the dynamics between the children and their parents, the children and the nurses, and amongst the nurses.

After volunteering at the school in the morning and the children's ward of a hospital in the afternoons, I took a week to go visit '04 Scholar and current Peace Corps Volunteer Hannah Frank. Her site is in Fulfusu, also known as Damongo Junction, a village of 5,000 without electricity or running water but 4 cell phone towers. Her primary project is guinea worm eradication and if you want so see the water source and her work, check out her blog at http://hannahefrank.blogspot.com/.

The coolest day of my entire trip was the day we went about making yam fufu and lite soup. We hop on a tro tro to get to the market in Buipe so we can buy the ingredients for fufu and lite soup: yams, tomato, maggi seasoning, and a chicken. On the way the tro tro stops, some men have a short discussion and then a cow is led over to the back of the vehicle. The back seat is taken out, lashed to the roof (next to a goat that is already up there), and the cow is more or less shoved into the boot of this tro. Everybody climbs back in and at one point the tro carries a cow, goat, sheep, and 19 people. We collect our ingredients from the market, giggle at a sign that reads "NO NAKED flames," then head back to Fulfusu to make dinner. Fufu is made by peeling and boiling the yams until they are soft and then pounding them until they become a sticky lump of starch. The lite soup is more or less a tomato soup with some seasoning and lots of pepe (pepper). The live chicken became delicious chicken soup thanks to the men of the compound teaching us how to kill, pluck, and cut the animal. High school biology has nothing on the slaughtering process. Every step of the way the anatomy of the chicken was explained and I could even see the formation of the eggs in the chicken. We shared the food with the entire compound and stuffed ourselves.

Hannah and I traveled back south to attend the swearing in ceremony for the new group of Peace Corps Volunteers. Afterwards we then went to visit Hannah's cousin who volunteered at an orphanage and invited us to see the closing ceremony. We bummed a ride back to Accra so that I could easily catch my flight the next day.

Experiences in Europe

This summer I was lucky enough to travel extensively in Europe in addition to my research at CERN. My internship did not start until mid-June, so I was able to travel for a large chunk of time starting in late May. I was also able to augment my study with weekend trips across western Europe.

I started my study abroad experience in London. I can speak a meager amount of Spanish which helps me with reading a decent amount of French, but I had thought that an English speaking country would be a nice place to start my experience. This ended up backfiring to a certain extent because, while everyone at the museums and sights spoke English, the people in the hostel with me were largely from France, Germany, Italy, or elsewhere and spoke mostly in languages that I did not understand. This was not a problem, though, as I spent the majority of my time walking around the city and experiencing London.

By far the most interesting and fun thing that I did in London was go to Shakespeare's Globe. A Comedy of Errors, a hilarious play centered on two sets of twins and mistaken identity, was absolutely hysterical, and the experience was only improved by the venue: a thatch-roofed replica of the Globe located right on the Thames. If anyone else spends some time in London and wants to see some Shakespeare, the cheapest Globe tickets are the best. The goundlings pay five pounds and stand on the floor in the center of the Globe for the entirety of the play. I was lucky enough to show up early, and I ended up in the center, close enough to prop my elbows on the stage.

London, I felt, was not entirely different than the United States, but there were distinctions. The age of the country was one thing. I visited Westminster Abbey and saw the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor who died in the year 1066. Newton was one of the newer additions to the Abbey in 1727. I found it interesting that when visiting sights in London, or all of Europe for that matter, the relative youth of our country becomes remarkably apparent. Additionally, the city seems to be built in one large pile of buildings, tube tunnels, bridges and people. Tiny alleys and winding streets are lined with tall, skinny buildings, built at any angle that allows them to fit into the jumble. Within walking distance of each other are modern buildings and those with smokestacks reminiscent of Mary Poppins and Sherlock Holmes. The age as well as size of the United States, especially in a sprawling city like Dallas, prevents us from needing to build in such a way, but it is certainly interesting to see. I also kept doing double takes when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a twelve year old driving a car (I know the steering wheels are on the other side, but for some reason, it always caught me off guard for a split second).

From London, I flew to Amsterdam where a stayed for a short two days. The Van Gogh museum was very nice, and I happened to be there when they had The Starry Night on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. With this piece in hand, the museum had set up an entire temporary exhibit on night works which I found to be very interesting. Amsterdam seemed to be two cities simultaneously. The north part of the city, which houses the infamous red light district and some of the other more notorious aspects of Amsterdam, was truly intriguing just to watch. Whether it was a businessman openly haggling with a prostitute, an off duty police officer taking a break in a coffee shop, or the thousands of bicycles outside of centraal station this was one of the most culturally different places from the United States that I visited during the entire summer. The south part of the city, on the other hand, is much less touristy and better highlights the beauty of the city. The canals, I'm told, are rivaled only by those in Venice, and the buildings all give off a quaint, homey feel. The parks are pristine; the weather is great; and the people are laid back and friendly.

From Amsterdam, I went to Paris. My favorite part of Paris was, hands down, the food. The Louvre: big, Notre Dame: nice, The Eiffel Tower: tall, but the food: tasty beyond words. I only had one bad meal in Paris, and by bad I mean it was more on the culinary level of a hot pocket, which in nearly any other case, is rather good. Paris taught me the difference between eating and dining. Besides treating my taste buds I enjoyed Paris because it is a great city to see while just strolling around. I spent a day walking along the Seine, browsing paintings being sold by street vendors and watching the Paris day unfold before me. Did I mention the food?

Rome was next on my whirlwind tour of Europe, and I think the experienced can be summarized by saying that one would be hard-pressed to find a type-A Italian. The Paris metro and the London underground, there were electronic signs that would count down the minutes until the train arrived. The last minute counted down the seconds, and if the train was late, it would count up the seconds that the train was late. The trains in London or Paris were never more than 10 seconds late. Rome was another story. The same signs existed, but would sporadically change from five minutes, to three, to one, stay at one for four, then go back to five. The managers the Roman subway system could save a lot of money by just posting non-electric signs saying, "Just wait, it'll get here". This was not, however, a bad experience. The trains just getting there when they got there actually did a lot to lower my stress level. I wasn't worried about missing trains or checking in to my hostel late because in Rome, late and deadline are very relative terms. I was content to just go with the flow and get there when I got there.

The Vatican museum with the Sistine chapel was my favorite museum of the trip. It was laid out in a linear fashion with a set path to take. This made it much more manageable while still being one of the largest museums in the world. The audio guide was also very extensive and instructive.

After Rome, my internship started, but I was still able to travel on the weekends. I investigated interesting ways to exit cable cars 450 feet over small lakes in Interlaken, Switzerland (by bungee proved best). I went hiking in Lauterbrunnen, a small town nestled in a valley between two Lord-of-the-Rings-esque cliffs boasting thousand foot waterfalls. I swam in the pristine glacial river that runs through Bern and visited Einstein's house shortly after. I visited the botanical gardens and eyed a $24,000.00 watch in Zurich, and I ate Weiner Schnitzel in Heidelberg, Germany.

I visited a lot of places and saw a lot of interesting things, but the things that I most enjoy taking away from my experiences abroad, separate from my research experience, are the differences between the United States and countries abroad. I learned so many things from the different cultures that I visited this summer. American portion sizes are ridiculous; there's full and then there's American full. 24/7 megastores that sell everything for cheap are not omnipresent in all countries. Moderate Americans are a bit conservative by European standards, and American beer, for the most part, is not any good at all. For all its differences, I also figured out that I greatly appreciate living in the United States. It was a fun, enriching summer, but its good to be home.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Reflections on a summer in Germany

Today is my last day in Germany. I left Marburg this morning with a few friends from the Sommer Universität program, and the whole way to Frankfurt we talked about how odd we find it that the program is actually over. It’s strange really; we all knew that the program runs for four weeks, but over the course of the last month we seem to have lost track of how time had actually been passing.
It’s not a hard thing, to lose track of time in Marburg. Many have described the Universitätstadt as a perfect fairy-tale town hidden away in the hills of Hessen, an apt description that captures the city’s relaxed atmosphere. Exploring the old, historical city, wandering along its winding, cobbled streets really gave me the sense of being lost in a traditional German town. However, the International Sommer Universität program was about much more than just getting to know Marburg. During the last four weeks, not only have I studied and spoken more German than ever before, but I have also learned much about the European Union, its role in the world and how Germany, the largest and probably most important member of the Union, influences Europe and the rest of the world. I am particularly pleased about participating in the ISU program this year because, as a beginning graduate student in International Political Economy with a focus on Europe, the scope of my seminars this summer have helped prepare me for classes to come. I feel that getting a better scope of the European Union and its policies has helped me to open up my mind more to international organizations and the kind of attitude of cooperation required to work with them.
Aside from getting to know more about the European Union and Marburg, the ISU program also included several cultural excursions on the weekends. These outings included hiking through the hills and forests of Hessen and dancing with traditional German folk dancers, taking a tour of a salt mine 800 meters under the earth, exploring Point Alpha, an observation point for both American and Soviet forces before reunification and taking a ferry ride up the Rhein river. These experiences provided a great opportunity to get in touch with German gemütlichkeit, the warm, welcoming, friendly spirit of Deutschland.
The ability not only to get to know Germany by living here, but also by exploring its history and culture, has helped me gain a greater appreciation for new cultures and viewpoints on life. Also, being away from family and friends and everything that I have become so reliant on and comfortable with has given me a greater appreciation for everything I have in my life. As much as I know I am going to miss Germany and the people I have met and gotten to know in my month at the ISU program, I am ready to come back home and get back to my life, but incorporating all that I’ve learned here.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Summer in China 2

Beijing and China's ruling Han majority portray a very specific version of China to the rest of the world. This China is homogenous in culture and creed.

I had a very different experience in China's southern Yunnan province, home to 26 of China's 55 minority groups. In Yunnan's rural lands, I ate the Bai people's distinct culinary creations, witnessed the Ni's distinctive dance, and even married a Tibetan woman after winning a strength contest and being crowned the Yak Prince. (Pictured) The marriage was for show … I think. What Mandarin I understood didn't help me in rural China, where many people speak regional dialects.

So, during my 8 weeks in China, my impression of the nation changed greatly. I don't know how I ever thought a nation of 1.3 billion could be homogenous, but I did. The reality is that while America may be the world's great melting pot, China could probably give the U.S. a run for its money. America undoubtedly has one of the largest varieties of races and nationalities living under one roof, but at the end of the day, our cultural differences aren't that great. For the most part, we're eating the same food and wearing the same clothing.

In China, the racial differences are subtle, but the cultural differences are pronounced. Each ethnic group has its own style of dress, from simple farming attire to fluorescent floral patterned dresses and hats. Each group has its own music, dance, and even musical instruments. China's varied geography and climate has left each group with its own cuisine and abodes.

And while the ideal Chinese person that Beijing portrays is a Mandarin speaking atheist, China is filled with more languages and religions than perhaps any other nation.

So, I left China with a couple of valuable lessons. Actually, I learned dozens of valuable lessons, but to always carry anti-diarrheal doesn't fit in well with this narrative. My first lesson, as cliché as it is, is to never judge a book by its cover, or perhaps more appropriately, a people by its propaganda. You can never really understand a people or culture until you've experienced them first hand. The second lesson, as corny as it is, is that with just a few shared beliefs or commonalities, incredibly varied groups can come together as one nation.

The summer I spent in China was eye-opening. Studying abroad, as harrowing, hectic, and exhausting as it could be, was one of the best experiences of my life.