Blubbering Mess

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Blubbering Mess

No, the title of this post does not refer to me leaving Germany soon.  Rather, it is the name of an abandoned building in Berlin that, to me, is a representation of the spirit of the city.  Until February 2005 this structure was a swimming and leisure center.  It has since fallen into disrepair – smashed windows, colorful graffiti and abandoned beer bottles litter the property. The pools have long been empty and the lack of electricity make certain corners of the interior a bit too mysterious for me, but despite its raggedy appearance, Blubbering Mess is beautiful.

It exudes creativity.  Every inch is covered with graffiti or art. Since most of the glass has been smashed or broken over the years, walking outside is like walking over a beautiful mosaic (I would definitely suggest closed toe shoes for this particular adventure).  There are few places in this world I could walk into a building to find a girl with blue-green hair, a long gown and a blow up dolphin meant for a pool posing for pictures in a shattered courtyard visible to the street and no one takes excessive notice. It’s cool to be weird and that’s awesome.

Berlin is a place where beauty and inspiration can be found anywhere and in anything.  This city has become the master of reinvention – it’s history demands it.  In the past century Berlin has been governed by four distinct governments or regimes.  It has been divided, it has been unified. It has been bankrupt and plagued with inflation, but it has also evolved into one of the most stable and wealthy economies in Europe.  It cannot ignore or reject its history, but Berliners also refuse to let their history hold them back and instead embrace the alternative way of life and thinking that they have become so well known for.

In Blubbering Mess I see this spirit: a resistance to letting destruction or disrepair categorize something as useless, a desire to make something many may see as ugly into something beautiful and different. It’s creative. It’s inventive. It’s uniquely quirky and entirely Berlin.

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The Most Memorable Farewell

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One of the best memories of this incredible study abroad actually occurred at the very end of the trip, during my flight to visit my grandparents in China. The brief interaction that I had summarized and symbolized all of the great things that I had done, seen, and learned.

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DCU v GWU: Finals Edition

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When it comes to coursework at Dublin City University, the phrase “different from GW” is definitely an understatement. Final exams are pretty comparable to GW here, with normal planning but a focus on the individual: expecting outside research and inaccessible professors. The strangest part of exams to me is that many of them are taken in the basketball gym.

If you are lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) like I am, you have no exams. Instead, you suffer though a host of 3,000 word essays all due in the same two-week period. Although being a native speaker of English definitely puts me at an advantage over my foreign peers, jumping into third-level Irish classes in the Spring semester gives you no indication of the correct way to format, cite, write, research, and just about do anything the Irish way. And with the inaccessibility of professors, you are left guessing and praying that you get a passing grade.

The most difficult thing to get used to is the grading. 70 out of 100 is a very good grade, and 60 is decent. But you can also apparently get up to 100. This boggles my mind. If 70 is so good, what does it take to get a 100? These are the types of questions I will not miss upon my return to the states.

With some easier classes and some more difficult classes, there have been challenges in how independent the learning comparably can be. But by far, the biggest challenge has been getting accustomed to being, thinking, and acting like an Irish student in producing your work. I have approached this by spending a ton of time researching, writing, fact-checking, and doing just about everything I can think of, spending entire days in the DCU library. Now my time will be spent patiently awaiting my results, due out in the early summer. Pray for me.

Kitun Brated Thai

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I leave Khon Kaen tomorrow. I cannot believe how quickly these four months have sped by.

I have been blessed with the joys of lots of adventure and new experiences along with tough growing pains as I have been away from my community in DC. I have gotten to live in villages in the north of Thailand with the Karen people, in central Thailand in a fishing village on an island, then several in the Northeast, an organic farming village and a silk weaving village most recently. Beyond those phenomenal experiences witnessing little blimps of authentic life here in Thailand, I have had a few excursions of my own. I have had quite a few bus mishaps, getting stuck on the side of the road with a few travel companions, getting stuck in multiple storms, and even getting stuck on a broken down bus. All these were in pursuit of finding remarkable hikes in the jungles of Laos or national parks in Thailand. I have also made some pretty great friends along the way, and am able to carry on a conversation in Thai! Learning the language has been really fun.

I will miss the phenomenal Thai food. I will miss discovering fun coffee shops in Khon Kaen. I will miss sharing food. I will miss the moobans (villages). I will miss night markets. I will miss the sweet Thai friends I have made along the way. And most of all I will miss the joy of discovery.

Research Time!

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I can’t believe that it is officially the beginning of my last month here in Thailand! This past week, I finished all of my classes, handed in all of my finals, and shifted all of my attention to my final research project, which I will be working on until I leave.

For our final project of the semester, students are expected to choose a topic that we have studied this semester that has interested them and revisit the issue. The research topics students are looking at are varied – some students are looking at maternal health, others are looking at poverty strategies, and some are researching traditional Thai dance.

For my research, I will be working with three other students to study the effects of the Thai government’s land and forest policy on the people of Thailand. We will be visiting two villages in Thailand to conduct research. One village we are visiting is in Kalasin province and the other one is in Sakon Nakhon province. Both provinces are about 2-3 hours away from Khon Kaen province, where I’m studying.

While in these villages, my research group and I will be working with an NGO based out of Sakon Nakhon province to tell the story of 27 farmers and their families who were accused of trespassing and who had their land and homes seized by the government.

My group of four students will be working on a documentary, a journalism feature article and an academic policy paper on the issue. It’s going to be a lot of work, but I am excited to get researching and get the story out there!

Korean Music and Lanterns

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Dragon Float

안녕하세요 (hello)! Week 12 in Korea and I am starting to realize that I have 5 weeks left in my study abroad journey. The highlights of this week included KUBA dinner, Hongdae, a traditional Korean music concert, and the lantern festival.  Before I talk about my week, let me divulge into some facts about Korean beauty culture.

The Korean people are obsessed with keeping up their cosmetic appearances. There is not a single block around or inside Korea University that does not have some variation of skin or makeup stores. The sinks in the bathrooms are often crowded at all school hours by girls brushing their teeth, often causing a blockade of the sinks. There are contest to see who can talk in a higher pitched voice because it is considered cute. Plastic surgery is a very big part of the culture here as well. Double eyelids are seen as the beauty standard and people often get their eyelids done as a gift for high-school graduation. In Gangam-gu I counted about 27 different plastic surgery clinics within a ten minute walk. There is one beauty standard for women to have similar hair, noses,  big eyes, small chins, and general cosmetics as everyone else. It is actually quiet shocking to see people striving to all be the same. I personally have accepted it but not too many people realize how intense it actually is.

Anyways, back to talking about what I have accomplished this week. This week was very busy due to school and an exam. However, my first fun point was the KUBA dinner. KUBA buddy dinners are always fantastic because it gives international students the opportunity to try something that they may never have realized was on the menu. This Thursday we went slightly beyond the traditional Korean food and tried Chinese food. We had fried chicken and green peppers, while sitting cross-legged on the floor and enjoying each other’s company. Afterwards we got to go to a soju food place and then the always lively Hondae, near the Honjik Women’s University. Hongdae is a party  scene were many ex-pats go and we ended up at a place called Zen Bar. The following day I went to a traditional Korean music concert that my KUBA buddy directed. The instruments used were different than the ones I was used to seeing. If I were to describe them they looked like floor harps, single-stringed violins, wooden flutes, and a trumpet-esque horn that sounded like a bagpipe. My KUBA buddy played the Ajaeng, which is what looked like a floor harp to me. The music sounded like traditional Chinese music and like what would be played on an old-time Korean march to war. The performers were dressed in traditional Korean attire up to the last song, when they changed into modern clothing to reflect the style of the piece they were playing. Overall, it was an interesting experience and afterwards we went out for Dak Galbi (spicy chicken).

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Lanterns at a Temple

Today was the Lantern festival in Korea. The Lantern Festival is an important ritual in Buddhism that pays respect to Buddha for Buddha’s birthday. After seeing the Buddha’s of Thailand and Hong Kong, it was interesting to see how the Korean depictions compared. So around 4pm my friends and I decided to go to Insadong and see what it was all about. I have never seen such a wide variety of lantern design or that many tourists at one time in Seoul. We went through a Buddhist temple and the entire ceiling was adorned with lanterns. After we explored the temple we saw the parade, which was my favorite part. The floats were really cool and colorful. Especially this one fire breathing dragon. The end of the festival for us was gathering near the Gyeoungbokgung Palace to listen to a Buddhist monk speak.

Overall, this week was very work oriented. However I did enjoy the concert and Lantern festival the best. This upcoming week I am preparing to go to Tokyo, Japan for 5 days so stick around for some more awesome adventures! 안녕(goodbye)!

Spring Into Action

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When I was deciding where to study abroad, I wasn’t really taking climate into consideration. It wasn’t until I was preparing to leave for Denmark last December and people started asking me, “Did you pack enough layers? Did you bring an extra umbrella?” that I started to suspect I might be in for some bad weather.

Copenhagen in the winter isn’t awfully cold. During the past three months the temperature usually hovered in the low 30’s. But because it was fairly mild, we didn’t get much snow — just a lot of gloomy grey skies and some rain. Couple this with the sun setting at 4:30 in the afternoon and you might begin to understand why the Danes tend to hibernate until April rolls around.

But once the sun finally comes out — oh boy. There’s a dramatic difference between cold and warm weather here in Copenhagen. In the cold, people scurry from one building to the next. The only folks you see on the streets are those braves tourists bundled in about 400 layers and clutching hot cups of tea or coffee — that, or the cyclists commuting to and from work. And at night everything closes down early, with students staying in their dorms and families huddling indoors to enjoy some hygge.

In the warm months? Completely different. People look for excuses to stay outside. No matter what day it is or what time in the morning, people are hanging out in parks, sipping beer and enjoying leisurely picnics. You thought there were a lot of cyclists in winter? In the spring and summer the parade of bike riders is endless, and at least five bikes are locked to every vertical object in the city. And you’ll find folks out in about way into the evening hours, eating ice cream cones and basking in the lingering daylight. (The sun doesn’t set until 8:30 pm this month!)

I often hear some of my friends complaining about the way our semester abroad panned out, weather-wise. “If we had come in the fall, we would have had better weather!” they tell me. And it’s probably true — though the weather is nice now, there are still a few bitterly cold days ahead. Denmark doesn’t get warm and stay warm until around mid-May… which is when we’ll be leaving. (On a different note: CAN YOU BELIEVE THERE ARE ONLY TWO WEEKS LEFT TO THE SEMESTER? I can’t even think about it. Nope. Not happening.)

But, to tell the truth, I wouldn’t trade my spring semester for a fall one even if I had the chance. Though it might have been nice to enjoy more sun and to see Copenhagen in summer at the end of August, the daylight would have grown shorter and the weather colder each day. I enjoyed watching the city slowly bloom — witnessing the Danes (and my fellow American students and I) crawl out of hibernation and finally leave the house to enjoy the sun. If I’ve learned anything, though, it’s this: winter, spring or summer, Copenhagen is beautiful in all weather.