So About the Study Part…

It’s not what usually gets talked about, but schoolwork is a significant part of the study abroad experience.  My program, Contemporary Issues in China is fairly intense.  We have Chinese class throughout the semester and Area Studies courses, which are held in intensive blocks one at a time.  Right now I’m in “China in International Relations,” already having finished “Chinese Literature” and the intro course, “Understanding China.”  I have loved my classes here.  It has been so fascinating to learn about some subjects that I’ve never learned before, and to attempt to understand China.  I think what I know most certainly is that I will never know or understand everything there is to know about the most populated and most ancient country in the world.  While a lot of my schoolwork looks like it would at Hope, with lots of reading, writing, and learning characters, the study abroad experience does provide some more unique opportunities including cool field trips and fun activities.  My final block class, “Ethnic Minorities in China” means that we get to spend two weeks in Tibet!

Last week for IR we went to the Old Summer Palace, where the emperors would live until the place burned down.  I’ve been here before, but it was so cool to learn more of the history with my professor along, and chuckle at all of the attention that 15 waiguoren in a group attract anywhere that we go.  I love that this was class for the day!

Listening to fascinating history while perched on giant rocks with my friends? I’ll take it!
Old Summer Palace ruins

For Chinese last week we went to a market and had to find items (we only had the word in Chinese), pick out a gift for someone else in our class, and talk to random people.  It was a much needed break from sitting in a classroom.  We’re at the point in the semester where people are staring to get tired and the novelty of being in China has definitely worn off in many ways.  Usually my class starts at 9, but we were told that today we had a mandatory meeting at 8 to talk about our long travel trips.  Our program director starts talking to us about shopping for hiking clothes and I can’t help but notice how distracted he is.  He says, “You need to make sure you have good hiking shoes, but we can worry about that later, today we’re cancelling classes and everyone’s going out into the city!”  Deciding in our still-tiredness that this was probably true we went downstairs to find all of the teachers and RA’s holding signs to different locations in the city.  This was Crazy Day!  A day meant to be totally fun and give us a break.  I went with two IES teachers, one of our RA’s and seven other students to Fragrant Hills Park, a large hill that we climbed on the outskirts of Beijing.  I am a Pacific Northwest girl and the constant being in the city/not being outside in nature has been getting to me.  God gave me exactly what I needed today.  Everyone was so happy to have classes cancelled, and it was a beautiful hike, even when the smog got the best of the view.  We then went to a restaurant that some kids in the group knew for lunch and it was one of the top meals I’ve had in China.  We ordered several veggie dishes, chicken, shrimp, and of course rice.  We were literally silent because everyone was so focused on eating and savoring the food.  It was incredible.  It’s these experiences outside of the classroom that I will always remember.

Getting ready to go out for Crazy Day!
The view from the top is ALWAYS worth it!
Beijing, Beijing smog. The hills on the left are the retreat center for the Communist Party.
Remnants of an awesome meal! 


Not-So-Everyday Happenings

Time is going so quickly, my mind is perpetually confused in some non-existent and illogical time frame.  My french language classes are coming to a close this Wednesday (hooray!) and Thursday I leave for a two week home stay in the mountains!!! Near the ocean!!! And a only a day-hike away from Spain!!! I’ve been looking forward to this trip since I started going through the study abroad application/decision making process, which was about this time last year.

Although lately I’ve been feeling much too into a routine for my liking, the past couple of weeks have certainly been full of their own adventures and random surprises. Here is a quick photo recap of some definite highlights!


Icicle wall from a hike in the French countryside.  A benefit of less-than-warm and very sporadic weather is icicles mingled with moss.



Cheese, wine, and bread. This was one of many glorious moments where French food stereotypes prove themselves true. This is the cheese cave at Chez Xavier, one of the best cheese stores in France and certainly the best in Toulouse. It’s quite the complicated process to produce these cheeses!




Some surprises in the city!  During downtime between classes and volunteering we often wander the streets and browse the through the shops (and botanical gardens?). Toulouse has a a relatively small, but very concentrated down town area so there is always plenty to explore and stumble upon!


This is the gospel choir that I sing with on Thursday nights with my host mom. Quite the experience! I wasn’t able to perform this Sunday because I don’t know all of the songs yet, but hopefully next time I’ll be able to join in with certainly the most animated gospel choir in all of France. 


And last but not least, I saw Mumford & Sons!!! They were playing in Toulouse and I snagged a ticket via Facebook and a healthy dose of faith in humanity (which proved successful and not naive. Yay!) It was my second time seeing them live (the first in the U.S.) and it was certainly a very different experience, but very much cherished!

Next time I write, I hopefully be in a little mountain village!

À la prochaine!

Living in German Dorm

Everyone who lives in a US college dorm know that the best way to get to know people is leaving your dorm doors open. In Germany however, people like to close their doors. This does not mean that they are trying to avoid you though. Every time I have needed anything I just go and knock on any of my flat mates door; the funny thing is they tell you that Germans like to close the doors and make you feel comfortable about the sudden cultural change simply related to the opening and closing of doors.

I really don’t know if it is a good thing or a bad thing that they don’t have meal plans here. On one side I get to cook for myself and feel that I am ready to take on the world outside college but everyone has those lazy days when they just want to go and get a sandwich from the Kletz or Phelps and not have to worry about doing the dishes. Personally, I have enjoyed cooking here especially when all the dishes and cooking tools are already provided in your dorms. I admit it, sometimes I really feel lazy and want something fast and that is when Doner Kebabs come into play; probably one of the things that I will miss a lot when I get back to the States.

Today I had one of the best interactions with one of my flat mate. They were playing some songs while we were all cooking food and most of what I have heard was in German; almost made me think that they did not listen to English songs that are very prevalent in United States. Then there was a change in playlist and I was surprised to listen to what started playing; they had some Doors, some Pink Floyd, Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and even few country songs which is hardly even heard outside few states back in US. It is indeed a globalized world.

The picture quality of where I live did not come out that great due to the lack of light in the hallway but students here conserve energy in any way possible. 



Unexpected & Beautiful: Chengdu

This past weekend was a long travel weekend, so we had Friday off of classes.  On Thursday night, I flew with two of my friends to the city of Chengdu (成都) in the Sichuan Province of western China.  We originally decided to go there because it is the only place in the world where you can hold a panda, and there are other awesome sights as well.  It turns out that holding a panda is $300 US dollars per person.  Our flights cost less than that.  Needless to say, I decided not to do what I had gone to Chengdu to do, however, it was the other unexpected things that made the weekend so awesome!

My favorite moment of the weekend was one that was totally unexpected, not usually considered at all desirable, but absolutely spontaneously hilarious.  Three friends and I were riding back from the Sichuan Opera when our car broke down.  Straight up stalled out in the middle of the road.  Out we got to push.  If the sight of four laowai pushing a van down the street wasn’t enough, a bus pulls up beside us and stops at the intersection.  There were probably about 30 Chinese people on board who were all staring at us, some of them literally, with mouths wide open.  We could not stop laughing.  They all looked so confused, and the absurdity and adrenaline rush of the situation made everything that much funnier.  I will never forget that, totally unexpected or planned, yet hilarious nonetheless.

–Three things I appreciate about flying in China: free food, free checked bags and you don’t have to take off your shoes to go through security.  Meet Marytha and Alyssa!  We had a great weekend together.


–We got in the car to go on our day tour of the Leshan Buddha (the largest Buddha in the world) and the pandas to find some kids from IES Shanghai.  What are the chances of that?  They were a fun group to spend the day with.  The Buddha was pretty magnificent, and the pandas were oh so fun to watch even though I was bummed about not holding one.

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–One of my friends at Hope, Yijun, is from Chengdu.  I got to meet her parents and they treated us to a delicious dinner with true Chinese hospitality!  It felt like being at home with family, they were so kind!  It was a very unique experience that I wasn’t expecting to have, but it might even have been why I came to Chengdu.  I’m so thankful that everything worked out.

–Wandering random shopping streets with no goal or time frame in mind.  Sichuan is known for SPICE.  The one spicy dish I ate I also managed to get in my eye.  Needless to say, I’m still a spice wimp.



–Something that I LOVED about Chengdu was how many green trees there were (Beijing basically has none right now).  We also checked out a monastery that had some beautiful gardens away from the city.  It was interesting to observe some Buddhist religious practices and I definitely want to learn more about Buddhism as it is a belief system that has greatly influenced Chinese culture.


–On Sunday, Marytha and I were going to go to a nearby mountain but train tickets were sold out by the time we got there.  We decided to explore some parks in Chengdu and had an absolutely awesome day!  We paddled a canoe (a midst many greetings of “Hallo!” from our fellow Chinese mariners), danced with Chinese people (including to “Gangam Style”), and rode this suspended bike ride at the part of the park that had a mini amusement park.  It was so glorious to be in such beautiful creation and to enjoy it with many Chinese people as well.  Some sort of white puffy pollen was floating in the air, like snow, which only made everything feel more like a fairy tale!  We even managed to run into Alyssa and her friend without planning to at all.

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Chengdu was an absolutely beautiful city, and I’m so glad that I made the choice to go, even though I didn’t hold a panda, train tickets were sold out, the car broke down… it was still an awesome weekend, with the best memories in the unexpected & beautiful.


And it starts with a snooze

11 Am- I wake up to the sound of alarm and react to it exactly like anyone else. I snooze it. That’s how my day starts. Everyone has their daily routines for their day and I have realized how they have differed from what I do back in Hope College.

11:30 Am- By the time I snooze and get ready to go to the bathroom I need to be make sure that I don’t interfere with any of my flat-mates’ daily schedule either. Germans are very punctual and I always feel bad if my slacking affects them.

11:59 Am- My tram always get by at 12:01 and if I want to make it to class after having lunch, I need to be at the stop by this time. This has drastically changed how I would sleep in for 10, 15, and 20 more minutes, put on cloths, get to class and have lunch “later on” in the Kletz. Being dependent on something else apart from my own body to get me to class in time makes has made me feel dependent on the public transportation. (Don’t take it the wrong way; I love the public transportation here.)

12:15 Pm- The Mensa. By this time I am at the student canteen ready to have some food. The Mensa reminds me a lot of Phelps. By that I mean, everyone complains about the food but in the end you know that it is healthy and efficient.

Till 1:30 PM I have some free time when I am able to do some leftover homework and just talk to the people in my program. Unlike Hope College where my classes and bedroom were less than 15 minutes apart, every time I got to class, I only intend on returning back home after my classes are done. Due to this, I haven’t had naps between classes in Germany yet.

6:00 Pm- The feeling of being done with classes for the day is the same in Germany and in the United States.

In America most people have dinner early due to which all the dining services are shut down super early. I have been used to eating late in Nepal and needing to cook has allowed me to have a flexible schedule not based on when I should eat. Even though the start of a weekday is very scheduled, it is up to me to make use of my time when I am not in classes. I have done a good job so far and always feel like I have a productive day. Today, it was a very lazy Sunday, and I felt that I accomplished something just because I did my laundry. 


Okay, perhaps this photo is a bit deceiving as today we got snow in Toulouse, but a few short days ago this was life after classes, sun-bathing on the banks of the Garrone. Such bliss!!!

I seem to have somehow entered a glorious place in my study abroad experience:  the demands of the language are not as exhausting as they once were!  When I first arrived listening and speaking French sucked the energy right out of me.  This would then lead to a vicious cycle of blank stares and quizzical looks as my exhausted mind tried and failed to find the French words for “Sorry, I don’t understand.” Of course I suppose I’ve been improving slightly everyday, but I know feel like I have finally come to a place where (hopefully) my progression will be more fluid.

And as it turns out, the ability to speak someone’s language makes friendships much more interesting and natural! This past weekend, a friend from the program and I went to a surprise birthday party.  It was a blast and full of French (read “better”) versions of American food!



We contributed these little guys to the party.  They were an all-around success considering we had to translate the recipe from French. Despite buying two cartons of milk when we needed two spoonfuls, we somehow managed to pull it off.

And in other random and wonderful news, I live right next to a veterinary school. Why is this exciting!? Because their grounds are open to the public!  This means I have a wonderful place to escape the city and bond with some French farm animals.  The random joys! 


Cultural Shock..Hurts!

Welcome to Valparaiso/vina!
Welcome to Valparaiso/vina!
the view everyday (sun almost always included!)
the view everyday (sun almost always included!)

Despite the title of this blog, I am thankful for and LOVING everyday here in Valparaiso! Waking up to my host dad having toast, cheese and coffee all set out for me (breakfast of champions, right?), rounding the corner of my barrio and seeing the sparkling Pacific and the faint shape of Battleship game pieces floating on the horizon. And everyday I get to study Spanish, history, culture, and community development all together, the perfect combo of everything I love learning about! Not to mention, most days I get to end my day with a scenic run on the pier and sometimes a helado on the beach with friends. In those moments, I have found myself asking, “Is this real life?” But the answer…

is “No.”

While these picturesque, vacation-like images I have described to you are one of the reasons most students desire go abroad (myself included), they come with a cost, a cultural shock that follows.

It begins a week or two into your trip abroad, about the time when you start to see underneath the empanadas and sunny beaches of the country , witnessing also the effects of its history, its social problems, completely unknown by average tourist. Cultural shock affects everyone differently, but it’s felt when you realize the world in which you now find yourself is drastically different from your own, or that it doesn’t match how you originally pictured it. Here are some of culture shocks (big and small) I’ve felt over the past week…

1.) Grocery stores here are not like…(insert name of a specialty U.S. grocery store here). This is actually a sort of big one for me. I am a bit of a health nut and enjoy my greek yogurt, whole wheat pretzels and kale salads (not all together though). Those luxuries are simply hard to come by here in Valparaiso (trust me, I spend 30 minutes combing the local supermarket for them today.) Despite this, you’re never far too far from “home town” favorites (there is a Starbucks ,McDonald’s and Ruby Tuesday’s a block away.) Oh, globalization.

2.) A group of 25 Spanish- speaking gringo kids draws attention on the streets. Our group’s blonde hair and North Face backpacks are not daily occurrences in Chile. We are  in a place where we no longer “blend in” to say the least.

3.) Tear gas spreads fast and education is not a cheap. Last Thursday we witnessed a smaller sized,  student protest from a window in our program’s  headquarters. Education, especially at the university level, is extremely expensive in Chile and many middle class families cannot afford it.  While for the most part we watched the protest  at a distance, the tear gas sprayed by the police wafted through the window causing wide spread coughing fits and headaches, though store owners and small children below got the worst of it. Social and political unrest are not isolated occurrences.

Yet the postitive from this ongoing process of adapting, and change, and cultural shock is that each day, my eyes, mind, and heart are opened a little wider. Not to mention I’m not in this alone. My comfort has been in this:

 “This is my command-be strong and courageous!  Do not be afraid or discouraged.  For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:9

Amor y Paz,

Leah 🙂

“Chileanismo” of the week: Buena Onda: /cool, good vibe/

Cultural Differences – By the Numbers

17 minutes – How late my class at University of Granada usually starts. Spain is quite relaxed with their sense of time, and it takes so much of the stress off. 

106 people – The capacity of the normal sized bus in Granada that would probably hold 50 or 60 people in the US.

Twice – The number of times I do my Michigan Nice smile to fellow pedestrians in the street each morning before I remember they think its weird. For Spaniards, it’s weird to look into strangers’s eyes, let alone smile. Well, hopefully the people who walk close to my house in the mornings just think I’m friendly! 

50% – The percent of Americans in roles Spanish singers imitate during a popular reality TV show. The influence of American shows and movies is everywhere! Almost everyone knows what Jersey Shore is, and the Simpsons (dubbed version) even has a prime time spot during lunch.

Zero – The number of times that politicians are asked about their religious leanings. Here it is considered very taboo to ask religion when talking to a politician because that is considered more or less a violation of secular government and the separation of church and state. That is one of the reasons that some people consider the US government to be non-secular, a thought that would astound most US citizens.

3 pm – Normal lunch start time. Needless to say, I’m always hungry. 

Study but do not stress out

This has been a slow week compared to the previous ones. No matter where you are or what you are doing there is one thing that we all will have to focus on while studying abroad; that part is studying.

Studying abroad is not just about travelling and getting to know your host country but it is also about comparing the academic content as well as teaching styles from US and Europe. Since I have been here my course work sometimes overwhelms me. With a more than a month of field studies in my program, my whole semester course load is packed into around three months. It does seem like a daunting task but I got a very good advice from one of the alumni of the program: “Focus on school work but don’t let it stress you out”. For anyone who would think of studying abroad this is a good advice to keep in mind. I have noticed that most professors know that you are trying something new by simply being abroad. They have told us the work we need to do but in the meantime they subtly express that we also need to explore more and try to have fun with our courses. Exposing myself to their teaching style lets me see the difference from American college systems but also allows me to appreciate how courses are taught in the United States.

Like I said, no matter how much course load one has, there needs to be time for fun. The sun has finally started coming out in Freiburg and all of my class mates are pretty excited about it. We did not get the best weather when we were here. There was more snow here than Michigan had which means that we were bundled but in layers the whole time. Now that the weather is getting better I have realized that sunlight gives a totally different dimension to the places we have actually been to already. We climbed up an observation deck the first week of our semester and Freiburg looked foggy but now the whole city is visible to us. The change of weather has definitely given us more to do in Freiburg now.


Buenas desde Chile!

¡Buenos Finalmente desde Vina del Mar, Chile!

After spending what seemed to be a second summer vacation at home in eastern Michigan ( expect for the snow part 😉 ) I am finally in Vina de Mar, starting my semester with SIT Study Abroad. After only a week here, I have had too many new and exciting experiences to count! Here’s just a recap of some of them!

I arrived and met up with the rest of the 25 students in the program last Monday, commencing a week long orientation period in Valparaiso, Chile. During this period of time we stayed in a hotel and spent 3 days in a conference room learning everything from “chileanismos” to how the bus system works to peso conversions to remembering not to pet the street dog (I have a really hard time with the last one!) All that sitting and listening may sound dull, but by Friday, not only was my brain exploding with new information, it had to process all the Spanish! It’s hard to believe, but after basically hearing only Spanish for a few days straight, I think my comprehension and speaking have improved (a bit)! It goes to show that although language classes provide a base, nothing can replace “living” the language.

When Saturday came, we were oriented as much as we could be and were ready to meet our host families!! At 12:00 pm sharp, my host mom and dad, a sweet older couple, arrived at the hotel and lugged my oversized suitcases into the taxi. We were then off to their home in Viña del Mar, the neighboring city to Valparaíso. It’s  a quaint lime-colored house atop one of the area’s many “cerros” (hills) and only a few minutes’ walk from the ocean!

After a whirlwind of a week, I woke up on Sunday and went to a church recommended to me by a Hope alum. that studied abroad in Vina del Mar called “La Union Cristinana”. There, I met up Hope friends Kelsey and Kimberly. The music was by far my favourite part because I recognized some of the songs we sing at the gathering, expect they were in Spanish of course.) After a sort of stressful week, it was good to rest in God’s presence and know that even in a foreign country he’s never far away.

“Chileanismo” of the Week: pololo/a: boyfriend/girl

Saludos muy amables,

leah 🙂

Ps. pictures to come, technical difficulties!