Onward to…! // Fulbright Pre-Departure Orientation in DC

Anyone who follows me on social media already knows this, whether they wanted to see all 10 of my related posts or not, but I’m going to be spending the next academic year in Uzbekistan teaching English through Fulbright!

I had originally applied for Kyrgyzstan and was an alternate, and I really didn’t expect to get bumped up because the ETA program in that country only has 3 spots and I doubted anyone would drop. However, after the death of their former president, Uzbekistan recently began opening back up to the international stage and is eager to collaborate with the U.S. embassy on education projects. The Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) program wasn’t slated to begin there until next year (I’d even been considering applying to Uzbekistan but saw that a program didn’t exist), but I suppose last minute funding was found for it to start this year – next month, to be exact. They’re even thinking of bringing Peace Corps and possibly American Councils (and FLEX??) back to the country, so it’s going to be an exciting, inspiring time to be there. 🙂

This whole process has been an exercise in flexibility, patience, and humor – fortunately, some of few qualities I actually have. Power went out in the entire U.S. embassy during our webinar call with them? That’s fine, I’m not scared of dealing with my own power outages. Still don’t have any information about my placement or visa even though I’m due to arrive in about exactly a month? No problem! I didn’t even know I’d be going at all just a few weeks ago. The Uzbek version of Tajik Tummy sure to hit my intestines during those first several weeks? Laugh it off like I always do. But of course, there are other things I’m more concerned about: food and water sanitation (thank you, emetophobia, for making simple things a thousand times more worrying for me), whether I’ll be a good teacher or not, how I’ll cope with moving from 4 years of big cities and lots of friends to possibly a remote town where I know absolutely no one and barely speak the language. But I think the latter two will be part of the fun; they’ll motivate me to work hard, study lots, venture out, and talk to people!

Last week I attended my PDO, which featured all the Central Asian countries plus non-Commission European countries ranging from Armenia to Macedonia to Serbia. I met amazing people: alumni, other ETAs, student researchers, and scholars. Something that’s great about Fulbright that is distinct from NSLI-Y and CLS is that you get to meet people of all different ages and at different points in their careers, from recent graduates like me to university professors who are established experts in their fields. Most of the other people in my Central Asia cohort have already been to the region and know a lot about it, so I felt a little out of my depth, but that just means there’s more for me to learn!

IMG_7894.JPG

Some highlights from PDO were…

…An English-teaching workshop that taught me a lot about teaching pedagogy, English grammar, and myself! I sometimes get nervous just answering a question in class, so I thought getting up in front of my peers to mock-teach would be intimidating, but it actually brought out a side to me I didn’t know I had! It was fun and felt like acting. And I feel better prepared to bring multimedia materials and effective teaching strategies to my own classroom.

…A visit to the U.S. Department of State, my first time being inside the building. We were briefed on Central Asia and our role as citizen ambassadors.

IMG_7974

…A panel featuring Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s media relations manager, Muhammad Tahir; the State Department’s Public Diplomacy Officer for Central Asia, Jenn Miller; Dr. Dinissa Duvanova, a Fulbright Scholar to Kazakhstan; and Dr. Paul Michael Taylor, Director of the Smithsonian’s Asian Cultural History Program. I took extensive notes on what each of them had to say, particularly Tahir and Miller. Keep in mind that the notes below are their words and opinions, not my own, and while we’re at it – nothing on this blog is reflective of the State Department or Fulbright or any of the other alphabet soup of programs I talk about!

Tahir: Uzbekistan is experiencing top-down changes, so although they are opening back up to some degree of cooperation with international states and NGOs, others find it hard to make their way back into the country. Turkmenistan, his home country, is “going backwards” but is stable, with nothing in the political regime drastically changing and the Taliban still on the other side of the border. However, unemployment is at 60%, the average salary for the 40% with jobs is $300/month, there are 110,000 high school graduates vying for 6,000 university spots that can only be filled through bribery (which can go upward of $75,000 just for admission, not to mention tuition and passing your classes!), and the president loves to rap with his grandson and break Guinness World Records. In Tajikistan, the president’s daughters control politics and his son-in-laws business. There’s been a backlash in the country against Islam, with beards forcibly shaved and hijabs pulled off. This kind of repression feeds into religious extremism. The former president of Kyrgyzstan left power peacefully, but he helped his Prime Minister get elected as the new president. This new president, however, has been anti-corruption and going for his former president’s people. Tahir hopes that this does not feed back into authoritarianism for this fledgling “democracy.” As for Kazakhstan, all he said was to keep an eye on the 2020 elections and whether they’d yield a transition of power.

Miller: She had a more optimistic view of Central Asia and reminded us that most of these republics are only 26 years old, and that when the US was only 26 years old, we were doing some pretty nasty things too. I’m not sure if I agree with this comparison. The media in the region is still owned by Russia, which affects how citizens view the outside world, including the United States. The governments of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have reached out to the U.S. embassies for help developing as quickly as possible, and in the former’s case, making up for lost time. Uzbekistan sent the U.S. embassy an 100+ page of priorities, which we’ve wittled down to: anti-corruption/bribery, freer journalism, university partnerships, and English for STEM. We’re looking to help with English for journalists and Afghan refugee support in Tajikistan. Countering violent extremism by making sure madrassas provide quality education that lead to employment is a priority in Kyrgyzstan – and something I’m excited to learn more about, as my VSFS internship with U.S. Embassy Bishkek was somewhat related to this topic. Kazakhstan might soon cost-share ETAs with us, which means we’d get to send more ETAs over there! And the goal for now in Turkmenistan is to just keep the light on, to support the State Department exchange alumni who call it home, and to continue providing quality services at the 4 American Spaces throughout the country. She also told us to keep a lookout for exceptional, motivated teachers that we encounter, as there is State Department funding to support them. She told us about a Kazakh woman she met who taught both students English and teachers English pedagogy at her university, then went home to care for her farm and 8 kids. #PowerMovesOnly

…A networking event where I got to introduce my friend John (NSLI-Y Russian 2014, Fulbright Russia) to my roommate Delia (NSLI-Y Turkish 2010 & 2011, Fulbright Tajikistan) and chat about Central Asia and my virtual internship with someone from EducationUSA! Contrary to popular belief and I guess counterintuitively, I am staunchly against networking, so I zipped out of there after talking to those people. 😛

I’m so thankful for this opportunity to live in a country that’s beginning to open up again. I’ve already started studying Uzbek (the grammar is so exciting!!! I love grammar!!!), which I’ve happily put to use in social media captions because that’s the most fun way for me to learn a language. 😉 It’s kinda funny because just a month ago, I was like, “Screw it, if Fulbright isn’t going to send me abroad, I’ll go on my own trip!” and proceeded to book a trip around Europe and the Caucuses. Now I’m $1000+ out on a trip I can’t take, but at least my dream came true and I’m doing a Fulbright! Priorities.

This is going to come with its own particular challenges for me because of my phobia(s). But rereading Divergent (see, there’s a method to my madness of continuing to read kids’ books!) has taught me a lot about myself in relation to my phobia, and how although it’s a part of me, just like my skin and blood, it doesn’t have to alter my reality. So I just tell myself,

Be brave.

 

Advertisements

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.

IMG_4022

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.

IMG_3999

 

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!)

Processed with VSCO with t1 preset

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.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

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!