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I Have Never Been So Cold…

I know this is a long one, but last weekend I went on my first travel weekend out of Beijing!  15 other students from my program and I went up North to the city of Harbin, which is closer to the Russian border than to Beijing!  We took an all night train Friday night and arrived bright and early on Saturday morning and OH MY GRACIOUS IT WAS SO COLD (negative temperatures Fahrenheit .  I unwisely didn’t put on all my underlayers on the train, so I was shaking as soon as we got off!  One thing about traveling with 15 other people is that you end up waiting around for each other.  I was still groggy from sleeping, and we were trying to find each other to get cabs together to our hostel and I was under dressed, but fortunately this was the most unpleasant time of the trip for me.

I went into the bathroom to change at the hostel and left my backpack and such right outside the door, to come out of the stall to see an unfamiliar woman digging through my stuff, like had my wallet open and was thumbing through everything.  Chinese utterly failed me.  “What are you doing?  That’s my stuff!  You can’t do that!”  I then yelled for my friend who can speak Chinese and she thankfully came in right away.  It turns out I had left my pile of stuff in the place where guests leave things that they want to give away (there was no sign explaining this that I saw), and the staffer had been seeing what was up with it.  I then felt really bad for overreacting and we both apologized profusely to each other.  The sight of an unfamiliar person going through your wallet is a lot more unnerving than you would think!  However, the day only got better from there.

We split up into groups, and I and seven others went to Snow and Ice World, the largest snow and ice park in the world.  Its most famous lit up at night, but we decided to save some money and see it in the day.  I was not at all disappointed.  There were so many ice sculptures and we basically had the park to ourselves because it was daytime.  There were ice slides, tubing, ice biking (exactly what it sounds like) and a Chinese thing where you basically sit on a chair that’s mounted on a sled and push yourself around on the ice with poles.  Running around doing things and taking pictures with the ice sculptures helped us stay warm too!  

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Ice hallway

 

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All bundled up with the ice temple!

 

 

 

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Incense and ice Buddha

We headed back to the main shopping street in Harbin and walked around the shops and had some lunch.  I really wanted Russian food but the only place we could find was way too expensive and people needed food so we had Chinese fast food, which is pretty tasty though available in Beijing.  No complaints though.  The Russian influence was really clear in this part of town, for it definitely felt very European to me.  Buildings weren’t skyscrapers which was a nice change from Beijing!  We then went to St. Sophia’s Cathedral, which was gorgeous!  My favorite part was the flock of birds that kept flying around the top and then landing back on the roof, over and over again.  It was captivating!  It was really neat to see a testament to God’s work in China over the years and the beautiful way that He made those birds to fly around.ImageImageImage

 

We went to see another park’s sculptures all lit up.  Highlights include admiring the craftsmanship of the sculptures, falling off of a sculpture, and the wonderful meal that we ate afterwards.  We had a girl who is nearly fluent in Chinese order for us and I had the best eggplant I have ever had in my life.  It was cooked in some sort of savory soy sauce thing… I will never forget that meal.  It was a great group of people and the restaurant gave us a private room with a giant round table with the lazy susan so we can all take from each dish.  It really creates a sense of community that I absolutely love.  We talked, laughed and ate some awesome food before heading back to the hostel for a chill night of talking and hanging out.ImageImageImage

The next morning my friend Mykhanh wanted to go to Catholic church and I said I would go with her.  There were three churches on the same corner!  The first one was an Eastern Orthodox church which we basically just walked in and out of.  Then we went to the Catholic church and ended up going to mass in Korean… why not right?  It was the first service that we found and they welcomed us warmly, not that we could understand a word.  Then we went to the second half of a protestant service in English.  It was such a fun morning and God delighted us with an adventure seeking Him!  It was time to head to the train station and go home after one last walk down the main street for our favorite street snacks, but it was a great weekend!

I love the thrill that comes from seeking and finding adventure.  I love that God is who He is no matter where I am, and I’m learning more and more about walking in Him wherever I go.  I love that I am so free here, to just buy a train ticket with 15 friends and go explore somewhere, to laugh and enjoy and slide down ice slides and expand my view of the world just a little bit more.  

 

Host Family and (Not) Burning Down the House

Being in a host family is a very unique social situation. You are automatically living in very close quarters with people you barely know and at the beginning could barely communicate with. Luckily, it only took one mis-communication for my host mom and I to start learning how to understand each other. My host mom, a very traditional Catholic but a very welcoming and fun person, is named Ascención, but everyone calls her Choni.  During the whirlwind first day, Choni had taught me how to make coffee on the stove using the small percolator she has. However, I didn’t fully understand how to turn it off. I thought, “its just a stove how hard can it be?” How wrong I was. 

My first day of class comes and, of course, I am running late. Everyone else in my host family had already left the house. I pour out my coffee and go to turn off the stove. After 5 minutes, I can get it to turn off except for one upside down four on one of the displays. After 10 minutes, I just had to leave. After class, I go running to the student life office to talk to one of the advisers and also a recent friend Estrella. I try to tell her in Spanish, but an emotional Evelyn attempting to explain in Spanish was just not going to cut it so I quickly switch to English. “I’m sure I’m going to burn the apartment down!” I exclaimed. She ensured me that everything would be alright and that she would give Choni a call. I went back to class and after lingering to talk to my new friends, heading back home for lunch. I was sure I would be greeted with a strict lecture when I arrived back home. However, I was greeted with an enthusiastic “Buenas dias, guapa!” (Hi, cutie) and a delicious. Later that day, she explained it once more and I realized that the upside down four was actually an h for hot.

Since then, we’ve been getting along very well, including attending a kids club and church together and some very interesting discussions during lunch. I’m looking forward to getting to know her even better in the coming 3 months! 

I never thought I would____ !!

I just sat down to write about what I have done in the past one week and realized how the past seven days have been filled with travels and “wow I never thought I would be here” moments. In the past week I have been to Luxembourg, Brussels, and Paris to see how the European Union actually works and honestly speaking, if I had not been to these places my course work would probably not make sense to me.

From talking to the US deputy ambassador in Luxembourg and going to the European Court of Justice to visiting the European Council as well as the Commission, the last week has increased my knowledge about the European Union academically and practically. Getting a firsthand account from people who actually work in these institutions gave me insights on the struggles, strengths, and weakness of the EU in a wider dimension.

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As much as I love talking about what European Union does, I have realized that I need to have some fun stuff written here as well as those are the reasons why I will remember my experience all over Europe.

Let me start with Brussels. I really don’t think I have had so much chocolate in my entire life. Not only is Belgium famous for their chocolate and waffles, they also had a chocolate museum where we actually got to see chocolate being made and got to sample as many as we wanted. YES, AS MANY AS WE WANTED. Being the place where Tintin (the comic book and the movie) was created I had emotional moments every time I saw monuments glorifying the comic book I have spent my whole life obsessing about. Never would I have thought when I was a kid, reading one of Tintin’s adventure, that I would actually go to the place where he was born.

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Like I said this week was filled with “I never thought”. Never did I think that I would see the Eifel Tower; no matter what anyone says the thing is beautiful especially during the night. Never did I think that I would see the Mona Lisa. Regardless of people considering it being overrated, there is no better feeling other than being in front of probably one of the most famous painting in the world. Not only that but being in the Louvre, surrounded by thousands of masterpiece from around the world, was simply overwhelming (maybe it was the size of the museum too).

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Right now I am back in Freiburg and when I look back at the last seven days, I am just thankful that I was able to go to the places I went. As much as I love travelling, I am pretty sure my wallet loves being back in Freiburg and am looking forward to not having a week long travel for another month; I guess it is time to explore the city in depth and get to know my flat mates. Study abroad is all about starting a new adventure when the previous one ends.

A Day in the Life

8:00- Wake up, eat Chinese breakfast. This usually consists of zhou or rice porridge, a hard boiled egg, and usually something else. Sometimes I have dumplings for breakfast, I never know until I walk into the kitchen!

8:30- catch the bus to school. The time of my commute changes drastically depending on the amount of traffic that morning and how long I have to wait for a bus, but it usually takes me about 25 minutes to get to Bei Wai. It’s a great time to people watch though! If I have enough time before class, I might pop into the bakery right next to campus and chat with a few friends who also make this a custom. It feels like the LJ’s of JP’s of my China experience!

9:30- class. Right now I’m taking Chinese Literature, but my area studies courses are broken into blocks, so we take one class for about three weeks at a time, but at a very intense pace. I actually really like this method, because I can really focus on the material that we’re learning at the time. My Lit class has seven students, so we all have to contribute to the discussion! This has given me the opportunity to really get to know the material and get to know my classmates and their ideas. I absolutely love it though, to see China from the perspective of its authors, and what this creative outlet can teach us about the culture.

12:00- lunch. There are a multitude of options from the cafeteria on campus that has meals for one US dollar, to baozi or dumplings of the street, to more formal restaurants. I could go to every food place within walking distance of campus and never run out of options! I’ll probably do a post solely devoted to food sometime. This time might also be spent finishing homework or cramming for a Chinese quiz.

1:00- Chinese class. I’m in a class with two other students, so we all get lots of chances to talk and practice Chinese. I’ve already seen myself improve in a month of being here, so I can’t wait to see where I am by the time the program is done! After class I have my one on one session with a Chinese teacher, and I’m currently doing some extra learning about restaurant words, so that I can learn to order for myself here.

4:00- the language pledge lifts, so I’ll usually hang around and catch up with friends before heading home. Its been interesting having to think and speak Chinese only during the day. In a week, the language pledge will go to 24-7 on campus. With my language level, the language pledge has felt more like a vow of silence than anything else, because I just don’t have the vocabulary for the things I want to say yet. However, gesturing, pointing, grunting, and inserting English words when needed can be more effective than it seems! This is the time I might go on random food adventures or catch up emails (I never thought I would appreciate email until I’m 8-11 hours away from the people I love). Today we had our first Chinese test (and I think it went pretty well), so afterwards some friends and I went to the bakery and had a wonderful laughter filled conversation.  Below is hot milk tea, an afternoon favorite of mine- its basically like chai (served hot) with taro bubbles!  So good!Image

5:30- go home. While in the morning everyone (including me) is tired and bustling off to work, the evenings are an interesting time to be out and about. I love hearing the Chinese language around me even though I want more than anything to understand what people are saying, I love the way Beijing lights up with neon as night falls, I love the little street food and bootleg DVD stands that are open as I walk home from the bus stop. I don’t love climbing five flights of stairs to get to my apartment quite so much, but I guess its getting me in shape for Tibet later in the semester.

6:30- dinner. This is one of my favorite parts of the day. Chinese food is awesome. Definitely not for the picky eater, but I’ll eat anything that’s placed in front of me unless it has an unnecessary amount of spice. For example, fish here is served totally whole with the eyes, head, tail, etc. still intact. I’m also improving my chopstick skills, though I still drop things a lot, it’s starting to feel natural to me. Tonight we had a dish with shrimp in it and that includes the shell, legs, and head. They’re fried to be crispy, and man are they delicious!

7:00+- I usually start homework at this point, or maybe watch some tv with my host dad first. Its interesting how much you can pick up from a show with only knowing a few words of the language. Later in the night is a time when friends in Holland start waking up and coming online so I’ve had a few surprise late night Skype chats, which fill me with so much joy. One challenge I’ve had here is adjusting to not having the Christian community at Hope. I’ve gone to some different churches and I’m praying for a group that I feel like I fit with!

I’m headed to the city of Harbin to see their famous ice sculptures this weekend, so I’ll have lots of pictures and stories from that next week!

La Ville Rose

 

Yesterday for the first time in my life, I experienced mountains with snow! I had the chance to snow shoe in the Pyrenees and after that day visit, it’s fair to say I’ve fallen in love with those beautiful mounds of earth!  It was also my first time out of the city since I’ve been here making the experience even more cherished. 

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I am thankful to now feel more settled into life in Toulouse; the language barrier becomes a little less imposing everyday, I love my homestay, and I’m now in a routine with classes. For my volunteer project, I’ve been placed in an afterschool program called Alliances et Cultures.  This past Friday we made pancakes (being the only American I was considered the expert on this subject).  It was essentially chaos, but very much welcomed.  Something I’ve found here is that people are generally quieter, so the noise and energy of the kids felt familiar (despite not understanding what they were yelling about). 

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Amidst the foreign and the familiar, each day I find myself deeper into a beautiful predicament:  I fall more in love with France, and more in love with America with every uncovered nuance.  The particularities of French culture further define the uniqueness of life in America.  I suppose only time will tell how this quandary will play out, but for now I am thoroughly enjoying what I’ve discovered thus far, and I am very much ready to see more!

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Berlin and Prague

Before I tell you all about Berlin and Prague, I am going to tell you about what I just did- I just went sledding and skiing in the Swiss Alps and I am very sore. I don’t think I have ever seen that much snow in Michigan (I may have in Nepal though).

One of the biggest features of the program I am enrolled in is that I get to explore Europe while analyzing its political components and have fun at the same time. The Swiss Alps falls under the fun part. Going to Berlin will probably be one of the most memorable experiences for me. The Topography of Terror, which used to be a GESTAPO head-quarter during World War 2 and now a memorial for the persecuted Jews, along with the Stasi prison where prisoners during the reign of East Germany were held, overwhelmed me with the historical significance Berlin reflected. Having withstood two notorious regimes in the past 100 years, Germany has done a really good job to confront their history and develop to where they are now. However, one of the most enlightening insights I got during my stay in Berlin was regarding the East Germany; we had a meeting with two residents who lived before the Wall fell and they both concurred on the point that East German regime was not that bad as everyone thinks it to be. Both of them said that it was corrupt and economically unstable but noted that it was as functional as any government system in the world right now; perhaps, a dual reflection of any situation is required in order to understand it entirely.

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While I got to see how Germany and Europe has progressed so much from their past, Prague showed me a nation still going through the transition from a communist nation to a capitalist one. Even though it has been almost 20 years since Czechoslovakia separated, it appeared as if the political system is still inclined towards the old system; a change in political generation has still not occurred. However, it has been speculated that this new era is coming soon and seeing the transition would be valuable.

I will stop with the politics for now. One thing I wanted to tell everyone before I ended was that Freiburg has a “Halloween” type festival of their own called the Fasnet which took place last week. It is celebrated to signify nest of fools taking over the city and the battle of cold seasons against spring which ends with the burning of Freiburg’s carnival costume until it can return again next year. With all the costumes and masks all over the city, all the students who have celebrated Halloween found it a bit similar but apparently more bizarre.

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Since I am leaving Freiburg for another trip tomorrow, I will make a point to update everything I do here. For now that’s all folks 🙂 

Happy New Year!

Chungjie
Sunday was the Chinese New Year, or since China now follows the Roman calendar, Spring Festival (Chunjie). Chunjie in China is like the American holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s all rolled into one. Life in Beijing stops as the migrant labor force (about half the population) returns home to other provinces. We had Monday through Wednesday off of classes this week to enjoy the festivities. Here’s how I enjoyed my Chunjie:
Saturday- New Year’s Eve is the big day, where we have a huge meal. Some other kids from my program came over to my homestay and our housekeeper actually said that she wanted us to eat so much that we would explode (I think we came pretty close!). Then we watched the traditional New Year’s Eve “talent competition” television event. It involves singing, dancing, and skits. Celine Dion even made an appearance. No, I don’t understand that one either. It would have been better if we could have understood what was being said and sung! Another key feature of Chunjie is fireworks. Not just your average driveway fireworks, but the big ones that could be used in an actual fireworks show. Here they can be bought by anyone off the street. Starting around 5 o’clock they were going off all around the city just about non-stop, culminating in an earth shaking racket at midnight that went on until about three. Thankfully, I’m a night owl!
Sunday- A friend of my homestay family invited me and a friend to go with them to a temple fair, which is the traditional gathering at Chunjie. There were a LOT of people, and stalls to buy souvenirs and street food, as well as sedan chair rides and other carnival games. We walked around the Old Summer Palace (where this temple fair was being held). It was awesome to meet a Chinese family and spend part of the traditional Chinese holiday with them. Their daughter is 14 and speaks English- love for Taylor Swift is universal!
Monday- I went with my host dad to visit his brother and his family. It was so much fun! His sister in law and her daughter were also there and they even have a dog. The girls were practicing their English with me and I got to practice my Chinese with the parents. The warmth of a welcoming and hospitable home is universal. The family sat around the table and laughed and even though I wish I could understand what was being said, I could understand that the family loves each other’s company. For dinner, I met up with a group from my program and we went out to an American restaurant that was way too expensive, but I had a quesadilla and it was magnificent. Cheese is not easily found in China at all. As much as I love Chinese food, its good to have something different every once in awhile. Trust me, no matter where you go, you will miss the tastes of home eventually!
Tuesday- I hung out with the same family that I did on Sunday and had lunch at their house. They heard from my host family about a dish that I really like called tangyuan (rice flower balls filled with red bean paste), and made some just for me! I ended up watching The Hunger Games with their daughter, and it was really interesting to explain the premise behind the story to someone with limited English, and the themes about government to someone who lives in a country with a very different government than ours, and enjoyed a relaxed evening of great conversation with my friends. Every day is something new!
Wednesday- Today I went to another temple fair with some kids from my program. More masses of humanity, more overpriced food, more ridiculous items for sale. I also went shopping with a friend. I must also add that the fireworks have carried on every night so far. I never thought I could be bored of fireworks, but there’s a first time for everything!
I’m so glad that I got to be in China for Chunjie, to see something that is such an important part of their culture, and to experience the family aspect that the holiday brings. I’m thankful for the families that have graciously invited me into their homes and filled me to bursting with delicious food, for the time spent getting to know friends better, and for God’s provision in bringing me here!

When History Leaves You Speechless: Ronda and Seville

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This is the fountain we saw in the center of the patio of the Cathedral in Seville. It looked like an average fountain, with children playing and old men chatting. However, as our professor explained more about the history of the this place, this fountain has been a part of a sacred meeting places for more than 1500 years. They have proof that this fountain was part of a Visigoth Church and after the place for the sacred washing before the Muslims would enter their church an now a fountain in the third largest Catholic cathedral in the world. Who would of thought that a simple fountain could have that much history!

There were many other examples of the mix of Muslim and Christian history and architecture. The one on the right is a tower in Ronda. Where the Christians destroyed and the rebuild the tower can be seen where the rock at the bottom switches to brink halfway up. A similar event occurred at the mosque that used to be where the Seville cathedral is now. On the left you can see a picture of the inside of the top of the tower. After an earthquake destroyed the outer layer of the tower, the Christians rebuild the outside to house bells. The impressive arch can be seen dating from about the 13th or 14th century. As well columns visible are from the mosque at Cordoba to have continuity of the faith, so they date from about the 10th century!  As cool as all the history, the best part of the trip was definitely getting to hangout with my new IES friends!

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Already a month?

It really does not seem that long but apparently it’s been a little over a month since I have been in Freiburg, Germany. Since this is not the first time I am studying abroad, saying bye to Hope College was not as hard as I thought it would be (compared to 18 years in Nepal). Just like I was open to adventures when I got off at USA a year and half ago, landing in Frankfurt gave me a similar sensation. My first quest was not that great as I had to survive in a totally new country without knowing any German, without knowing how to get to my center, and not having my luggage for 4 days; the not having my luggage is something everyone will remember for a while.

It been a month so far and being in Europe was something I only imagined last year while I filled my study abroad application. I have heard so many speculations about European culture and trying to see if they are actually right or not have been fascinating. Germans do drink a lot of beer, they do have very good public transportation systems, they definitely do not hate the Americans, and many of them do not know the Super Bowl. Apart from me, one of the only non-American when Super Bowl was discussed, everyone was utterly shocked. It was a good thing that Freiburg is a college town because due to requests from college students, a lot of places in town were screening the game till 5 in the morning.

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Compared to Holland, Freiburg is a huge college down. With trams running from one side of town to the other, every one who rode it were mostly college students. Being in Freiburg, I was in the same situation as them so I had to survive just the way they did in Freiburg which meant I had to cook a lot. As much as I enjoy cooking, I realized that over a year of convenient meal plan and Burger King had made me SUPER lazy. My parents always told me that I would have a hard time when I had to cook, I always said I would not and when I started cooking, I realized I was right. From mixing spices here and there and cooking things that I would never even see in Meijers, I was very glad to know that I would not starve or go broke soon.

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 Just when I was getting used to being in this entirely new feeling of independence (more than I ever felt in Hope College) we had to leave for our course trip. Don’t get me wrong, I did not really bother me especially since we were going to Berlin and Prague. Now that I had wrote down so much, I realize that I have done a lot so I will post about my trip to the capital and Czech Republic next week. From not being able to sleep in a new bed to passing out so easily in the same one, this one month has been quiet enlightening one. Not going to lie, but I am pretty excited to see how the rest of the semester will be like.