Dusseldorf, Germany + Vienna, Austria | April 2018

Just the day before, I’d been confiding in a friend that I felt like I had no knowledge of the world and wasn’t prepared to enter a career in international relations, or really any career at all. The following day, I was on a plane to Dusseldorf, explaining U.S. politics to the German man sitting next to me and listening to his explanations (in German!) of European politics.

It seems to me that once travel becomes a big part of people’s lives, the mundane details lose their novelty and excitement. As much as I love to travel, I hope it doesn’t become too big a part of my life, because I’m in love with those mundane details. I never want to lose the blooming sensation in my heart as I step onto a plane or watch the landscape rising up to meet the underbelly of those steel wings or greet the immigration officer in his language. Although this was my 2nd time in Germany and 6th time in Europe, it felt like my first time out of the country.

Despite the fact that I spent the entire flight catching up on school readings and journaling, not sleeping, I was wide-awake and ready to sprint through the airport to make the most of my 4 hour layover. Thankfully, Dusseldorf Airport at 6am felt itty-bitty compared to some of the other German powerhouses that accommodate the people criss-crossing the world. It took me less than half an hour total to get through customs, exchange some dollars for euros, hail a cab, and step foot into downtown Dusseldorf.

An early Saturday morning, people my age stumbled around the square, slurring at me and trying to get my number, my money, my phone. “Ich verstehe nicht,” I lied, relief washing over me as I spotted C finally appear across the street.

C, a lovely friend from my 2014 NSLI-Y program in Seoul, who, on my journey back to Chicago from Abu Dhabi in 2016, drove 2 hours to Charlotte, North Carolina to see me for 30 minutes during my layover. Here, in Germany! She took the semester off to study German at a university in Mannheim, but not before spending a semester working as a plumber, kayaking guide, AND animal caretaker!

We took a nice walk around downtown Dusseldorf, admiring the colorful architecture, surreal flat-topped trees, powerful Rhine river, and distant Rheinturm. I was disappointed not to see any of the wild parrots C had hyped me up about. It was early enough that we encountered few others, which us feel like the only people in the city. C was probably tired of hearing repeat myself over and over: “Germany is so beautiful! I can’t believe I’m back in EUROPE!”

I had anticipated only having 20-30 minutes with C because my layover was only 4 hours, but I ended up staying an hour, and even then, I had another hour to kill at my gate when I got back to the airport. People were not exaggerating when they told me a taxi ride between the city and the airport would only take 15 minutes! And whether I would’ve had 15 minutes or 15 hours with C, I’m happy our friendship has survived distance and only seeing each other twice since NSLI-Y.

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I sat next to two unfriendly-seeming guys on my flight to Vienna, but as soon as I started talking to them in their language, Italian, they softened up and were curious about where I was from and where I was going.

My nearly 24 hours without sleep was starting to catch up with me, so I planned on taking a nap in the airport before venturing into the city. But then I reminded myself that I only had 10 hours, that friends were waiting for me. Although I usually find it impossible to fight off the hands of fatigue (let’s hope taking vitamin D every day eventually solves that), I forced myself to take the next train into the city. It sounds inconsequential, but for someone like me who lets chronic fatigue control my life and sometimes negatively impact relationships, this was a step in the right direction, proof to me that I am in control of not just my mind but my body.

At Vienna Central Station, I was met by Carolyn, a good friend from my semester at Yonsei, and Alexa, one of her friend’s from Yonsei. Carolyn is French-American but goes to school in the Netherlands, and Alexa is a local Vienna resident. I had withdrawn early from my Yonsei semester, and on my last day, Carolyn and I wondered when we’d see each other again and where it would be. We certainly did not anticipate it being a mere 6 months later in Vienna!

It was my 2nd time in Vienna and 3rd in Austria, but I was there long enough ago and for briefly enough that this trip still felt like my first time in Austria at all! We tried melanges (a local Viennese specialty that’s basically a cappucino but made with a long shot instead of an espresso), sucked down free smoothies and left our marks at a Yoobar pop-up store, caught up on each other’s lives on Museumplein, took a quick nap at Burggarten. It appeared that my plans to see Schonbrunn Palace again were too ambitious for the <10 hours we had together on my layover.

I follow a travel vlogging couple, Sam and Audrey, on Youtube, and as Carolyn and I were walking around intending to stop at the first cafe we could find, we stumbled across one of their recommendations, Aida! Not exactly a local favorite but definitely a tourist one, we decided to drop our guard just once and let ourselves get caught up in a swirl of waitresses in retro skirts, bright pink decor, and decadent cakes.

Then I got a text from Delaney, one of my NSLI-Y internet friends, that she was in the city too! She did NSLI-Y in Oman studying Arabic, and she was on her YES Abroad exchange year in Bulgaria. She and her host grandmother had come to Vienna for the weekend, and we sat at the aqua-domed Karlskirche together for an hour, talking about our different experiences abroad. And can I just say that her Bulgarian баба is quite the adventurous, happening woman?!

Then came time for me to catch my flight to Yerevan. Thankfully, I had a row to myself and could finally sleep. I had never really heard spoken Armenian before – the only exposure I’d had to the language was the Glendale Armo rap I listen to. It was definitely exciting to meet Armenians at my gate and hear them speaking their language!

It seems like many of the best days of my life are spent on planes, in airports, on layovers. Reuniting with old friends and meeting in real life an internet friend whom I’ve seen a couple more times since Vienna? Check. Exploring a new city and rediscovering an old one? Check. Using rudimentary high school German? Check. Realizing that fatigue and discomfort are just messages to the brain, and that I can hold all calls if I want to? Definitely check.

I may still not know to much about the world, but at least I know myself.

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Tianjin, China | December 2017

My brother and I went on a last minute trip to my mom’s hometown right after Christmas to visit my ailing grandpa. We didn’t make it in time. As soon as we stepped foot into our hotel, we got a text that things had taken a bad turn and to come over immediately. It wasn’t fast enough.

But my grandpa was always a jolly person, never sad or angry. It used to piss my grandma off because she would be yelling at him, and he’d just laugh and laugh as she railed on him. Nothing got him down, and I don’t think he’d want any of us to be mourning his death, but rather celebrating his life. Celebrating life in general.

I normally write travel posts in the format of a diary or a guide, but this time I want to share stories from the different places that my brother and I visited with our family friend. I want to celebrate our time spent in the city my grandpa raised his family and my mom in, to do justice to his indomitable spirit.

天津意式风情街 Italian-Style Town

Uniformed men in China can be a little intimidating; they’re not people you strike up conversations with. This one looked a little less scary playing with his dog.

 

古文化街 Old Chinese Town

I spotted a girl playing with a balloon, and I have a phobia of balloons, so I made our friend take us through a side entrance. I proceeded to pay more attention to the fluffy Bichon than the actual town.

 

天后宫 Temple

Inside the Old Town was a temple area full of gateways, burning incense, statues, and engraved stones. I took a hanja (Chinese character) class in Korea the previous semester, and we’d talked a bit about how characters developed over time. It was cool to see some of those older characters carved into the rocks here.

 

企鹅公社 (an artsy space)

Where the hip, young people hang out, as our friend explained. There was writing covering the walls, but I didn’t have a pen on me to make my own mark.

 

大悦城 Mall

Malls are a big deal in China. They’re sleek, shiny, and modern, where people gather to hang out and eat big. We met up with our friend’s sister and girlfriend for dinner. His sister happens to be a good friend I made in 2012 when I visited Tianjin for the first time in years, so it made my heart full to see her again. Unfortunately, I was hit with a bout of intense anxiety during the dinner, so I pulled the girlfriend aside to talk to her. I didn’t expect her to understand since mental illness is a bit of a taboo topic in China, but to my surprise, she was empathetic and told the others not to bother me. Another lesson that if you ask for help, you will receive it.

 

Nanjing Road (Tianjin, not Shanghai)

I’m not normally a tea person, but this sugar pear one hit the spot. We took the metro here, my first time in all the times I’ve been to Tianjin experiencing it!

 

Akalaka Korean restaurant

Bibimbap for me and samgyeopsal for my brother were welcome sights for us, missing Korea as we were. Our friend and his girlfriend love Korean food and pop culture but called Koreans inferior to Chinese, a perspective I was unsurprised by but still upset about. They also brought up Hong Kong, and you can imagine how that conversation went. In those situations, I wonder if it’s my place as someone younger than them to make futile arguments, or to keep my mouth shut. I tried to find a balance between the two.

 

This trip was a complicated one for me. I showed weakness when people were depending on me, a situation I don’t feel comfortable writing about in my blog but that I still carry with me as I navigate adulthood and the increasing number of people who will depend on me in some way as I get older. I can’t keep being weak.

But then there are people like my mom, who shows strength in the face of adversity. When she got the call that my grandpa had passed, she decided to come immediately to China. My grandma told her to give it some thought, so my mom lied that she would, hung up, and booked a same-day flight.

My grandpa is proof to me that not everything needs to be taken seriously, even the serious stuff. My mom is proof to me that the human mind can rise to the occasion when it needs to. And I’m proof to me that just because those are works in progress to me, doesn’t mean I will not reach them.

A New Life

I kept wanting to cry in the weeks leading up to graduation just to relieve the pressure building on my chest, but I couldn’t. So I wore my uncertainty, sadness, and regrets on my shoulders, carrying them around with me as a reminder to do better in my next endeavors, to make my next moves powerful.

I couldn’t help but feel like I failed during my undergrad years. I’ve always been a confident gal, and I know and love the person I am. But for the first time ever, I suddenly felt resentful of, dissatisfied with, and angry at… myself.

But now I’ve moved to D.C., a dream of mine since I was a junior in high school. I’m interning at American Councils with the NSLI-Y program, another dream of mine since I became an alum of this wonderful initiative that changed my life. I’ve only been here a week but I’m loving every moment of my internship, spending quality time with friends old and new, trying new foods (something I’ve never been good at), and *gasp!* working out. I’m trying to discard the baggage that followed me around during those last few weeks of college. Weights don’t lift you up.

I’m still trying to process that I’ve graduated. NYU and NYC are incredibly special to me, and I have a difficult time letting go of things dear to my heart. But I’m realizing that as long as I allow everything I’ve learned and experienced through NYU to color my actions and decisions moving forward, it can still be close to my heart.

Conversations In Transit

Part I: Denver

“Have you seen your family since coming to America?” I asked him.

“No,” he responded, eyes fixed on the road. “I came here as a refugee. I can never go back.”

Later he texted me, “Let me know when you are ready to go back to the airport, my sister. And next time you come to Colorado, call me, not for a ride but to say hi.”

Part II: New York City

“Dans mon pays, les tribus s’entendent bien car il n’y a pas une qui est plus forte que les autres,” he explained to me. In my country, the tribes get along because there isn’t one that’s more powerful than the others.

“Mais c’était pas le cas avec certaines d’autres pays, où certaines tribus avaient été priviligiées par les pouvoirs coloniaux,” I ventured. But that wasn’t the case with certain other countries, where certain tribes were priviliged by the colonial powers. “Et c’était ça qui avait démarré autant de violence.” And that’s what started so much violence.

“Voila.”

 

No VPN Necessary

Hello from China! Fortunately, WordPress was overlooked as a website to block, so I can access it even without my slow (but unlimited) T-Mobile roaming data.

I finally figured out how to customize this blog (completely missing the “Customize” bottom bar for the years I’ve been writing), so it now has some personality to it! Hopefully these little details makes it more fun to read, too. I love spending hours browsing through my friends’ blogs, reading their perspectives and seeing how they add their own flair to their sites. Forget professional blogs – I want to see how people just like me express their creativity.

It has been through reading my friends’ blogs that I’ve discovered the beauty and quirk of countries near and far that I would have otherwise never even thought about. It’s been perusing their writings that I’ve gained new insights on concepts as broad as interacting with the world and as individual as being human. It’s through sharing my own thoughts that I’ve been able to connect with a variety of people who, like me, aspire to add their own touch to this world.

The world over, no matter how hard entities big and small try to influence the thoughts that then control our speech, one thing is certain: we will talk, we will be loud – no VPN necessary.

The best things come in twos…

I took a leave of absence in order to rest and focus on my (mental) health, but the former hasn’t really been on the docket since I got home. I think that my not resting, though, has in some ways been helping me work on my mental health, and I couldn’t be more grateful. However, sleep ISN’T for the weak; even if I’m not lounging at home as much as I probably should be, I’ve been making sure to get enough sleep (usually) so I can be at my best.

So here’s my comprehensive, personal guide to filling your mind and heart with good things during a leave of absence!

2 internships | I decided to continue with my virtual internships with EducationUSA Armenia and U.S. Embassy Bishkek. Things slowed down in November to allow me time to recover, but they’re picking back up again before the holidays, and I’m excited! I’m working on Christmas content and U.S. state profiles for my Armenian students and international relations-related projects for my Kyrgyzstan internship. I’m grateful to have supervisors that look out for my health. 🙂

2 jobs | I’ve been working part-time at Abercrombie and my best friend’s dad’s insurance management office as an assistant (definitely something new for me, and I’m learning lots!), but both of them together end up being like a full-time job! There are some 12-hour days when I go straight from 7/8 hours at the office to another 4 or 5 at Abercrombie. I’ve found that this lifestyle isn’t very sustainable for me because I’m constantly exhausted, but I’m grateful for the opportunities, and my office job ends next week. I do love working, though, and I enjoy retail because I get to interact with customers who speak languages from all over the world! (And run into people I know! Today was a Spanish teacher from my middle school, and on Thanksgiving it was friends from my high school French exchange – including one of the French girls who was back in town to visit her host family!)

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2 languages | I’m self-studying Korean (level 3 out of 6 in the Yonsei series) and Russian (Intermediate 1), but it’s a bit slow. Still, I have a process for how I study, including taking notes, looking up unknown words, filling out every exercise, and writing sentences using newly-learned vocab and grammar. I’d love to add some Duolingo/Mango work with Greek and Azerbaijani, but that can come after I’m not working 12 hour days, haha.

2 more languages! | I signed up to take 10-day intensive Arabic and Portuguese courses at University of Illinois!! I’m so excited to start languages 9 and 10, especially Arabic, and to live on a real college campus with my best friend, who will be taking Spanish and French. We already have Netflix binge dates and cute cafe study seshes planned.

2 leadership positions | I received funding from the CLS Alumni Development Fund to implement a NSLIY to CLS mentorship program and host a networking event, and I recently was selected as a NSLIY Alumni Representative, so I get to host even more cool events! I’ve been trying to get a head start on brainstorming event ideas and venues, and mentoring my students has been super fun and rewarding. They’re all so driven and kind!!

2 confirmed trips | Party in D.C. with the other NSLIY Alumni Reps for training! And unfortunately, my grandpa is very sick, so my brother and I are going to visit him at the end of this month in China. Pretty shitty circumstances to return to such a wonderful country, but I’m grateful for a chance to see him and spend time with him. He’s the kind of person who is always smiling and laughing, even as you are annoyed with and yelling at him. (Mostly my grandma.) He takes nothing seriously, and that’s why he lives such a full, happy life. I’d love to learn to be like him and just think positively, smile often, and laugh in the face of negativity.

2 planned trips | I made an awesome friend at an embassy event in Korea this summer, and he’s back in Salt Lake City after completing his State Department internship. I can’t wait to visit him and meet his cute cat and even cuter son! I’m also arranging a trip to Yerevan and Bishkek for spring break so I can meet my internship supervisors and students and see with my own eyes the countries I’ve been working with this year. 🙂

2 days of therapy per week | Well, so far it’s only been once a week what with my crazy work schedule, but it will become 2 soon, even if only temporarily given everything else I’ll have going on! My therapist has been incredibly empathetic yet rational, and she’s helped me see angles to my feelings and the way I approach them that I didn’t realize. The office is in downtown Chicago, which is great because that city brings me so much happiness and also lots of great memories with my favorite people. I honestly don’t know the city well at all, though, so I’m hoping once things calm down with work, I’ll have more time to explore different neighborhoods and cultural offerings in the city. On another note that’s harder to explain, nostalgia is something that weighs heavily on me. The better the memory, the more difficult it is for me to deal with the fact that it’s over. Since so many of the best memories of my life were created in Chicago, being in the city can be difficult for me at times, but I’m trying to use what I’m learning from therapy to appreciate the city and the memories it holds, not be weighed down by it all.

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So as you can see, things have not slowed down just because I’m home! I’m excited to rest a bit more after this week, though, and to dedicate some more time to my internships – and, well, to taking care of my health. By the time I go back to NYU, I want to be able to hit the ground running!

 

Mugeuk, Korea | October 2017

Centuries ago, when he was young, my friend taught in the Korean countryside through EPIK. Called back to it for a ginseng festival, he brought me along too so I could meet ~real Koreans~ and speak lots of Korean and see a different side to Korea. Ironically, my diary chronicling this day is buried at the bottom of a suitcase, so I’m using his notes to write this post – my first time using someone else’s perspective to write my own.

Jarret’s and my first stop was Nanum Cafe, owned by his mentor of sorts – and honestly my mentor of sorts now too after hearing this guy’s story. He works in international development, started his own awesome cafe, and was literally constructing with his own hands a building for his wife’s fashion business as we strolled up. People like him show me that even though I have diverse interests, I can make it all happen. Why be limited to just one? Also, Jarret will kill me for the next picture, but it’s an accurate representation of how much trash I made from all the Belgian sugar cookies I wolfed down with my coffee. I also didn’t put that book on the table to seem more intellectual for this picture; I assumed Jarret would bring his backpack, but he didn’t because he assumed I’d bring my purse, which I did. Guess whose book was kicked out of whose purse in order to make room for his gross snacks?

We made our way to the river to meet up with Seuli, one of Jarret’s gym friends from his EPIK year. She also has a cool story, of traveling all over Asia to do whatever the hell she wants, when she wants – and absolutely killing it. She used to be a body builder, and she has the most adorable little spitzer, Mingki. She let me live out my dream of owning a dog by walking him the whole time. ❤ She also let me live out my dream of speaking Korean well by complimenting even the simplest of my phrases. Jarret did not lie when he said his friends would be great for me to practice with.

After Seuli peaced out (“I have to go help my brother” gotta love that Korean tact), Jarret and I walked around the festival area. I honestly still don’t know what ginseng is, but I enjoyed the decorations and music! I also liked that basically anywhere we wanted to go was within walking distance of each other.

Jarret’s coteacher during EPIK, Jason, came to meet up with us and take us to the school where they used to teach together! Jarret had shown me so many pictures of it over the years, and it was so surreal seeing it with my own eyes, in the flesh [brick?]. The track next to it took me back to my own high school days, and there was even a little workout room for teachers to make some #gains during their lunch breaks. Or is that just Jason? It’s a school that specializes in technology and engineering, and many students from there actually don’t end up going to college – they get straight to work at tech companies all over Korea and the world. Jarret took me to Mugeuk because he knew it would be meaningful for me, but it also made my heart warm to know he was getting his meaning too by returning. He still keeps in touch with some of his students and speaks fondly of them, the city, and the experience in general. It got me excited for what’s to come for me; I know teaching English or at least working with youth abroad is in the cards for me in the near future, and I can’t wait to forge as deep of a connection with my students and host city as he did with his.

Jason was kind enough to drive us out of town to a beautiful lake nestled between little forested mountains. Jarret thinks he’s a photographer and wouldn’t stop snapping candids of me, but a lot of them turned out better than I thought they would! Is it his photographic intuition that I now trust, or the superior camera of his Samsung phone?

After a satisfying meal of bibimbap (pretty much the only Korean food I enjoy), we went back downtown, where the festival was in full swing. Seuli was actually singing in it, but we had to leave before she came on. 😦 I don’t doubt that she did an amazing job, though! Is there anything that woman can’t do? Meanwhile, as he pulled out his phone, Jarret’s bus ticket flew out of his pocket. We couldn’t find it anywhere, so at the bus station, we asked if he could get a new one free of charge. The woman behind the counter explained that the child in line right in front of us had tried to refund a ticket he was pretending was his, so Jarret could just have that one. And it was his exact ticket that he’d lost!! What are the odds?!

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It was a fun first foray into the Korean countryside (I know I need to calm down with the alliterations), and I hope I can go back someday, if for nothing else but to see the wonderful people (and pupper!) that I met. It was honestly a really special day that I’ll always look back on fondly for the people I spent it with and the much-needed fresh air and change of scenery.

다시 한국에 돌아갔을 때 무극에도 꼭 다녀오려고요. ^^