I Spent a Semester Abroad in South Africa

Sooo I returned from my semester abroad in South Africa a couple weeks ago. I meant to announce I was going in July before I left, but I didn’t. Sorry to let you in on the big news after the fact.

To make it up to you, I planned a series of eight posts. I’ll start with a couple about my life there, then move on to some photo essays about my travels, and end with a bit of South Africa’s history.

I’m doing this in part because it’s a requirement for Global Engagement Fellows (let’s be honest with each other), but I also want to share my experiences in the hopes they inspire others to study abroad in South Africa. I was the first from OU to go there in years, and when I was researching the program, information was not easy to find. I want others to know how awesome South Africa is and to be a resource for those who are interested.

If you’re at all curious, check back in the upcoming days, and if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below. I’ll answer as soon as I can one way or another.

In the meantime, I leave you with these and, hopefully, anticipation.

A Day in the Life of 戈爱玛

戈爱玛 (Ge Aima), that’s me! I thought you all might be interested to see what a typical day in Beijing looked like for me.

At 未名湖 (No Name Lake) in north campus

Peking University (PKU) is in Beijing’s university district (Haidian), in the northwest part of the city.  I was about an hour-long bus ride from the Forbidden City, which is at the heart of Beijing. Despite the distance from many things, it’s actually very accessible with both a bus stop and a subway station right outside the east gate. Being a little farther from the center of town allows PKU’s campus to be larger than most. In addition, because it’s the most highly-ranked university in China, it’s a tourist attraction and gets a lot of money from the government for beautification. The main reason I chose PKU was, in fact, because I heard it had a gorgeous campus.

Also at PKU’s on-campus lake
On clear days, I could see the distant mountains to the west. This day was so smog-free, I could open my window!

I lived in an international student dorm just outside Peking University’s southeast gate. I was on the eleventh floor (out of twelve) and, although I had a double room, I had no roommate. Somehow, in the four months I lived there, I forgot to get a single picture, so you’ll have to take my word for it – the room was massive. Probably four times the size of my freshman dorm room in Oklahoma. The best part about it was the view. One entire wall of the room was a floor-to-ceiling window. My window faced south, towards 中关村(Zhongguancun), known as China’s Silicon Valley. At night, it would light up, and it was like I was living two blocks from Times Square. It was hard to get out of bed in the mornings because it was so peaceful to just lie there and look out at the city.

I would watch the sunset from my room every night.
On top of the world!
Usually I would check my air quality app just to be sure.

Most days, my first class was at 10:10. I would wake up at 9:00 and look out the window to see if I needed a mask or not. Most days, it was pretty obvious I did.

I didn’t go outside this day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I would leave for class around 9:45. On the way, I would stop at a street food cart just outside my dorm for breakfast – 煎饼(jianbing)。Before my eyes, Jianbing Man (as we international students affectionately called him) would create a breakfast masterpiece in just 30 seconds from wheat batter, egg, green onions, and some mystery ingredients. It cost USD $1, and it is one of my top 3 foods from China.

Campus at night, taken from the bridge once after it snowed.

To get to campus, I had to cross a pedestrian bridge. Besides the two flights of stairs (which got progressively harder as the smog worked away at my lungs), I really enjoyed this part of my commute. At the top of the bridge, I could see a lot of the city and the campus. It made me feel like such a big-city girl.

My classroom building
My reading professor

The walk to my classroom building only took about 10 minutes total. Most days, I had just two classes – reading, and then either speaking or vocabulary. They lasted two hours each. I really loved my classes, my professors, and most of all my classmates. The 13 of us represented 8 different countries: United States, Australia, South Korea, Japan, Spain, Russia, the Philippines, and Brunei. My closest friend in the class was Carlota, from Spain, in the blue dress next to me in the photo below.

My class with my speaking professor

In between the two classes we had an hour-long break for lunch. PKU’s biggest and best canteen, Nonyuan, was also the closest one to my classroom building, so that’s where I normally went. This is what one of my typical lunches looked like: baked chicken, fried rice, a fried egg, steamed Chinese cabbage, and an Asian pear. Oftentimes I would also get milk tea or red bean sesame cookies for something sweet. All of this cost me less than USD $2! And it was, obviously, delicious.

Twice a week I would go to the fruit store after my classes. This is one of the parts of my daily life I miss most. Walking into the fruit store, my senses were immediately overwhelmed with the sweetest aromas of fifty different kinds of fruit, half of which I had never seen before. The store wasn’t very large, but they packed a lot of goodness in such a small place. I would always get enough pears for the next few days, since I had at least one every day. The pears in China are like an American pear and apple combined – sweet, unbelievably crisp, juicy – you could never go wrong with a pear. In addition to pears, I would usually also get some fruit to snack on, like kumquats or grapes.

After the fruit store, I would get started on my homework. Sometimes I would work on campus with friends, other times I would head back to my room to introvert and get stuff done. I always looked forward to dinner, though – another opportunity to have more of China’s amazing food. On the right is another of my top 3 dishes from China, 涮羊肉. Its English name, instant-boiled mutton, doesn’t do it justice. The cook drops thinly sliced lamb into a massive vat of boiling water for a few minutes, then scoops it into a bowl with some noodles and Chinese cabbage. Ladle some sesame sauce on top and sprinkle some Sichuan pepper if you dare, and you’re good to go! It was so incredibly savory and satisfying. The watermelon was a very nice spring and summer treat, too. This meal was also only USD $2.

After dinner I would usually work some more and often Skype my family or friends, drinking lots of tea all the while. Towards the end of the night I would have dessert: lychee nuts. If you haven’t had them before, they taste like a combination of a plum and a grape. You have to peel that spiky shell to get to the slippery fruit inside, but that’s just part of the experience. I also miss having lychee every night.

That’s what a day looked like for me! When I think about China, the things I miss most are the things in this post: the food, the friends, and the habits that made up my days there. It was a good life.

Two Adventures in Xi’an

Question: what has 11,000 legs, lives underground, and has been around for thousands of years but was only discovered 4 decades ago?

Answer: the Terra Cotta Army (兵马俑)!

If Nate and Iook a little stressed, it’s because a third of China was pressing towards us at this moment.

In April, Nate and I traveled again with CET. This time, we went south to the famous city of Xi’an, resting place of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang and his thousands of terra cotta soldier statues. After a 10-hour bus ride (we drove through the night on this trip), we rolled up to one of the world’s biggest tourist attractions. It was a Chinese national holiday so not only were lots of foreign tourists there, all the Chinese tourists were too. There’s an expression in Chinese, “人山人海”, that literally translates to “people mountain, people sea”. This phrase could be used to describe both the tightly-packed rows of earthen warriors and the seething masses of people who mobbed them.

With piles of labeled body parts, it was like a witch’s pantry.

The terra cotta soldiers were very cool. We first went through an exhibit that presented some history, which then opened up into three massive excavation pits that contained the soldiers. My favorite part was actually getting to see the excavation in progress. In two of the pits, there were ladders, tarps, and tools laid out among the bodies. The soldiers themselves weren’t finished – apparently it takes longer than 40 years to rebuild a 9,000-piece relic that was first built in the third century BCE.

This horse got stuck in a wall.

 

 

 

After we were done with the Terra Cotta Army, we went to Xi’an’s most famous street food market for dinner. The food there was mainly in the style of the Uyghur, a Chinese people group in the country’s northwest that has been largely influenced by Middle Eastern culture. The best dish I tried there was a spiced roasted lamb skewer, a street food delicacy I got to enjoy several times while in China. Nate and I also bought massive cotton candy spools for $5 each. It was luxury in excess.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thus climbing, we ascended.

The next day we tested the limits of the human body. Mount Hua is one of China’s most famous mountains, and parts of it make it one of the most dangerous hikes in the world. (Don’t worry, we didn’t do those parts. We didn’t have time.) Hiking the mountain means ascending a neverending series of staircases carved into the mountain itself. There are 5 peaks on the mountain, and we made it to two of them. It took 9 hours. Up.

Somehow, the view and the experience were worth the extreme physical pain we were all in by the time we reached the summit. China’s dramatically jagged mountains rose around us in green and yellow.

Us with Brian, a friend from South America we made on the hike!

Thankfully, we got to take a cable car down so we didn’t have to try to not fall down the mountain as we went down the stairs in our weakened state. Although the rapid descent through the mountains we had just climbed did make me question the merit of ascending the mountain on foot, the experience of flying through China’s mountains in a glass box was truly breathtaking.

The entrance to Mount Hua Park

By the time we made it back the bus, my legs were shaking so bad I could barely stand for lack of balance. Sleep was such a relief that night.

We got up super early the next day to drive back. I managed to stay awake most of the ride, and I was pleasantly surprised that the scenery on the daytime ride back was more diverse and beautiful than I had realized. I got to see mountains, plateaus, terraced rice fields, farms, and other manifestations of the landscape that must be unique to China. It was like driving through the China section of a world history textbook.

That was my last out-of-town trip while I was staying in Beijing, and was it ever a good one.

Grass and Sand: Inner Mongolia

First, a word of advice: if you ever go to Beijing, you need to get hooked up with a group called Culture Exchange Trips (CET). This student-led group organizes trips across China for internationals and Chinese students, and they are amazing. I met some really wonderful people, went to some truly incredible places, and did it all for extremely cheap.

There’s Inner Mongolia, on the back of the China chicken, cradling Mongolia (image from Wikipedia).

On our first major trip with CET, Nate and I went to Inner Mongolia (内蒙古). Quick briefer on Inner Mongolia: it is, in fact, a part of China, not Mongolia. China kept it when the rest of Mongolia gained independence from China in the early 20th century. Now, the culture of the region – food, language, traditions, etc. – is a mixture of Chinese and Mongolian cultures.

When you’re traveling abroad, hardcore travel is the only way to go. All the CET participants met up at 5 a.m. for the 8-hour bus ride to Inner Mongolia. The bus ride was long and bumpy, which made sleeping difficult. The get-to-know-you activities our group leaders (Amy and Marwan) started also made it difficult to sleep, but that wasn’t as much of a problem because Amy and Marwan were AWESOME. They really made this trip as memorable as it was (in a good way).

Look how tough we seem to be.

When we arrived in China’s northernmost province, we had a family-style lunch (about 10 Inner Mongolian dishes and a massive bowl of rice shared among 10 people at a table) and then headed out to the grasslands for horseriding.

Here’s how it works: You slap a blanket on top of a horse. You slap a tourist on top of the blanket. And then you slap the horse, and the tourist holds on for dear life as she bounces off across the Inner Mongolian prairie. 

It was a lot of fun. Halfway through, we stopped at a tent in the middle of the grasslands for milk tea and some traditional Inner Mongolian milk candy before riding back to the main corral.

A little bit of me and a little bit of Nate
It’s me on a horse!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day, the whole group along with Nate, Tuscany, and I headed out to the Gobi Desert. On the bus ride, we got to see the Yellow River – China’s cradle of civilization! Known as “China’s Sorrow”, China historically has a love-hate relationship with this river: its frequent flooding is devastating, but is also the only thing that makes northern China farmable.

From the very touristy desert welcome center, we took a dune buggy into the heart of the desert. Truthfully, this was also rather touristy – it was set up like a county fair. But even the commercialization of a few dunes didn’t detract much from the unique beauty of the desert – just blue sky and yellow sand in all directions.

Big desert, little elephant

The sand was surprisingly soft. We walked around for a little bit, took a ride on a dune motorcycle, and finally made our way to the camels.

My trusty mount

 

Note our fashionable desert attire – shoe bags and patterned scarves

 

 

 

 

 

Out of all the forms of transportation I had experienced in the past few hours – horseback, bus, dune buggy, sand motorcycle – I would pick camel any day of the week. It was like sitting on a really soft, furry beanbag chair with a beanbag backrest. My camel was friendly to me, and the ride wasn’t bumpy at all as it plodded across the sand on its wide hooves. I’m pretty sure I could have slept on that camel’s back.

Pachyderm on dromedary!
Put me on a poster, DBo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day was our last in Inner Mongolia. We went to the Museum of Inner Mongolia, home of the largest collection of dinosaur skeletons and fossils in Asia. Nate and I got this picture next to the most impressive one – it was really quite colossal. There were also a lot of really interesting exhibits on Inner Mongolian history and culture.

 

Somehow this happened.

After that, we went to another museum, this one more focused on the art of Inner Mongolia.

Taken as Tuscany bravely rides into battle at the head of his ele(in)fantry

 

 

 

 

Attached to the museum was a massive mall-like emporium of extremely expensive Inner Mongolian handicrafts. It was actually rather unsettling – it was a veritable labyrinth of a place, very well-staffed by identically dressed salespeople, and the members of our group were the only people there. Still, the merchandise was very cool – like this wall of swords. Nearly everything cost more than I’m worth, but I did buy several small knives that were on sale for only USD $1 each!

And that was it. After another 8-hour bus ride back, we arrived home just in time for bed. Next up: Nate and I travel south!

A Beijing Birthday

Because few memorable Beijing days start with a low air quality index (AQI), here’s an unedited photo of what the view from my dorm window was like on that day

March 19, two months after we had arrived in Beijing, was Nate’s birthday. We took the opportunity to explore the city a little bit and do some things on our Beijing Bucket List.

I knew that starting the day with waffles, even in Beijing, was a prerequisite for a good birthday. So we took the bus to the hippest coffee spot in Beijing – Maan Coffee: Waffle and Toast. Even the name, although magnificent, couldn’t do justice to the two-storied, rustic, delectable food paradise that it adorned. Seriously, though – I have never had better waffles than these. In my life. I would fly back to China just to have these once more.

After waffles, we went to an international church we were trying out. We didn’t end up settling there, but it was nice to have a place to worship with other Christians again.

For lunch, we went to the cool part of Beijing – Sanlitun, where the parties go down. For us, the part was authentic Italian pizza – pricey, in China, but worth it since it was the first good Western food we’d had in 2 months.

Next stop, Beijing Zoo! We spent a long time at the Giant Panda exhibit – we connected on a deep emotional level with this fuzzy beast that pretty much just wanted to lie on its back and eat food without moving its head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a lovable lump.

 

 

Nate and me trying to really get into the mindset of that slouchy panda in the back

 

As it was quite late in the day, a lot of the exhibits were already closed. The upside of this was that, for a Beijing public attraction, the zoo really wasn’t that crowded.

 

The zoo also had some really incredible birds.

For dinner we went to a hutong, which is a narrow street that is historically filled with shops and restaurants. They still are, but now they’re more touristy and less quaint and traditional. We found a Peking Duck place and enjoyed Beijing’s most famous dish!

Finally, we went to a European restaurant called M for dessert. Little did I know when I looked it up online that it would be the fanciest restaurant I had ever been in. Because most of the desserts on the menu were upwards of USD $20, Nate and I split this tiny lemon pudding. It was very tasty, but we vowed never to return there until we’re rich.

We got to see so many different pieces of Beijing that day, and eat a lot of good food. On a related note, if anyone wants to fly me to Beijing to get Maan waffles for my birthday next year, you know I’m down.

At Maan with one of their teddy bear order holders!

Vagabound.

The leaves

Begin

To dispose themselves around my feet.

I feel the cold front,

Winter,

A metal barrel pressed against my chest.

Cold.

I remember: you are supposed to be happy

You are supposed

To be.

Be.

Do not forget the lights, the dusting, the warmth,

The pinecones, the sugar, the glow, the laughter,

The cold.

I am back to that one Christmas tree,

That eternal zero degree warmth

And the couch that held

You.

Back then

It was my greatest accomplishment to make you laugh

Back then;

Your laugh shimmered in Christmas lights

Reflected in one

Snowy

Peak.

We have all been weathered into loneliness.

I will be:

Weathered, away,

Here.

The leaves,

They take my breath away,

I think, coldly, warmly,

Elucidate me, leaves

I am falling

With

You.

International Event: Latin Americanist Lunch

On Thursday, September 7, I attended the first Latin Americanist Lunch of the semester. For those of you don’t know, the Latin Americanist Lunches is a series of roundtables and lectures that take place on campus about once a month. They cover a range of topics about Latin America, and they are hosted by the College of International Studies and the Center for the Americas. And, perhaps best of all, in addition to learning a lot of cool information, there is free lunch involved when you RSVP!

This month the lunch was part of the Brazil Week we had on campus, and the topic was OU Latin American Study Abroad Programs. The meeting featured several important faculty members who have led study abroad trips themselves to countries all over Latin America, from Brazil to Mexico and many more. The faculty addressed the importance of studying abroad and how it is vital to a student’s education outside of the classroom in order to truly appreciate and begin to understand cultures outside of our own. Each faculty member who has led a trip spoke about how much the students they traveled with grew because of their experiences, no matter the length of the trip. Professors who led trips for only a week had many of the same observations as professors who led semester-long programs. What I personally enjoyed the most about the lunch was the student perspective. The lunch was a round table where anyone was allowed to participate in the discussion, so several students shared their experiences with studying abroad, and listening to them just made me want to go abroad and have my own experience immediately. The students addressed how they became more confident because of the fact that they had to be more self-reliant and flexible while being abroad. Overall, listening to the experiences of both the professors and the students was really motivating.

The other component of the luncheon, outside of sharing study abroad experiences, was to discuss how to encourage more students to take advantage of the study abroad programs offered at OU, specifically the Latin American programs. As a Global Engagement Fellow who studies Spanish, I was already wholeheartedly on board with studying abroad even before the lunch began. Afterwards, I walked away with an even bigger desire to study abroad in Latin America. I believe that the most effective strategy brought up at the round table was the idea of using students to connect to students. As was the case for me, the personal stories of my colleagues moved me more than those of the professors. Specifically, the idea is that during country specific weeks like Brazil Week or Mexico Week students who have studied abroad in those regions can briefly speak directly to classes in the College of International Studies about what they gained from going abroad.

I am very happy I attended the first Latin Americanist Lunch of the semester, and I look forward to attending many more. The next lunch will be on Tuesday, October 17, and will discuss the relationship between film and military dictatorships in Brazil. The following lunch will be on the topic of the U.S.-Mexican War on Thursday, November 16.

The Great Wall of China

On March 4, I experienced my first of the New7Wonders of the world (it’s a thing). The Great Wall was built spanning several dynasties and centuries to protect China against attack from the north. Now it’s a landmark that rides the mountains through the middle of China, and an extremely popular tourist destination. If you want to maximize authenticity and minimize crowds of people wearing matching visors, you can go to a partially unrestored part of the wall, which means it’s more of a hike and less of a selfie booth.

The whole group, pre-Great Wall (Nate and I are front left)

The unrestored section we chose to go to is in Chenjiapu, an hour outside of Beijing. I was traveling with a group of about 50 students, mostly from either my school, Peking University, or our neighboring rival university, Tsinghua. We rented a bus that took us to Great Wall Fresh, family-run restaurant and guest house in the mountains of Chenjiapu. We enjoyed a family-style lunch before our guide, one of the Great Wall Fresh family members, led us off on our adventure.

Hiking to the Wall

From the point you see in the picture up there, it was about a 45-minute hike to the place where we mounted the Great Wall. And suddenly, we were standing on bricks that were laid centuries ago.

If you look closely, you can see everyone else on top of the tower – far, far away from us.

 

The rest of the group went left along the wall to a beacon tower, but Nate and I thought we could get a higher vantage point by taking a quick detour up the wall to the right. We were right about “higher”, but not about “quick”. An especially steep and dilapidated part of the wall, it took us nearly an hour to go up and come back down, putting us far enough behind that our group was out of sight, lost to us in the mountains of China.

Nevertheless, we did not fear. We decided to just move a little quicker until we caught up with them – besides, we were walking on a major tourist attraction that was made for walking on. It would be very difficult to actually get lost. And that’s how our coolest date ever began.

The whole walk along the Wall took about 2 hours from that point.

At one point, we reached a point on the wall that was higher than any other we could see. We climbed a teetering pile of bricks to the top of the watchtower. In every direction, the hazy mountains were layered to the horizon. We could see as far as the curve of the earth would let us. The pictures I took are a sorry representation, but that truly was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. The world God created is unfathomably beautiful and wonderful, and Nate and I got to see such a unique piece of it.

Though we kept up a good pace, we never caught up to the group. As we were descending from the Wall at the end of the hike, we met a search party coming from the other direction. They thought we had gotten lost forever on the Wall. Maybe we nearly had a couple of times, but we made it in the end. And I’ve got some amazing memories to show for it.

I have so many more pictures that attempt to capture a fraction of the beauty we saw that day, so I’ll stick them here.

Click on this photo to see it bigger!

Gilman Scholarship

Receiving the Gilman scholarship covered a lot of my expenses for my summer study abroad in Morocco. I would definitely recommend applying for it, especially if you have financial need or are studying a critical language. Since there is no Gilman representative at OU, here is my experience of applying for the scholarship.

First of all, there are two different application deadlines. I chose to apply for the earlier deadline, even though this meant I did not have all the details for my program and not even been accepted into it yet. While I was accepted, I was told by others that there is some room for accomodation if you end up changing from your original plan. The benefit of applying for the early deadline is that you receive notice of the award much earlier. If you are dependent on financial aid for studying abroad, as I was, this can be crucial in planning. You can see the full list of deadlines here.

The application is fairly straightforward. It includes information about yourself and the program, an essay, and a follow-on service project proposal. One potentially confusing detail is that the information about the program and the application itself are found on two different sites. Also remember to save your password somewhere – you will still need it when you return.

As you are applying, remember to leave yourself time to contact a number of people. There is only one financial advisor at OU, but you will need to contact the study abroad office to figure out who your advisor is, if your regular study abroad advisor is not also a Gilman advisor. You may need more information than you have about the program itself. The service project will also require you to contact people on campus to make sure that your proposal is feasible.

Speaking of the service project, try to maintain a balance between what will be sufficient effort but also what will be feasible upon your return. Keep in mind your class schedule and any jobs that you have that might affect your ability to complete it. Think of groups you will be engaged with and how they mind benefit from awareness about the Gilman scholarship.

Assuming that many of my readers are Global Engagement Fellows, the Gilman Scholarship would be an excellent option for many you. The Spring 2018 and Summer 2018 applications are currently open, and I encourage you all to apply.

img_%d9%a2%d9%a0%d9%a1%d9%a7%d9%a0%d9%a6%d9%a1%d9%a6_%d9%a1%d9%a6%d9%a1%d9%a5%d9%a0%d9%a2%d9%a5%d9%a1%d9%a9 img_%d9%a2%d9%a0%d9%a1%d9%a7%d9%a0%d9%a6%d9%a1%d9%a6_%d9%a1%d9%a6%d9%a1%d9%a5%d9%a0%d9%a7%d9%a5%d9%a5%d9%a3

Boomer Sooner at Baab Mansour in Meknes

Your Mom Was Right: Act Like a Grown-Up and Say Thank You

Your Mom Was Right: Act Like a Grown-Up and Say Thank You

No matter how experienced a traveler you are, one of the biggest issues when planning to study abroad is funding. Plane tickets, housing, food, travel expenses, and visas can all add up to a considerable amount of money. I’d like to take this moment to say that there are a lot of different sources of funding, both from your university and from external sources. Always talk to your professors, especially ones in the foreign language department, because they often know about scholarships for your specific study abroad destination.

If you get a scholarship, that’s great! People are handing you money, what’s not to love? But in the excitement of being able to pay for your time abroad, don’t forget the people that made your experiences possible. With scholarships and grants come the responsibility to meet the organizations’ or sponsors’ requests as well as to show your gratitude for all of their support.

I was fortunate enough to receive a substantial scholarship from Delta Phi Alpha, the National German Honor Society. Upon returning, I wrote them a report summarizing my experiences as well as thanking them for their generosity. This sort of essay really means a lot to the people who receive it; it shows that you are truly grateful for their support, and that their money wasn’t taken for granted.

Here is a link to my report on the Delta Phi Alpha website:

http://deltaphialpha.org/2017/08/scholarship-report-amy-griffin-in-graz/

In short: funding is out there if you take the time to look for it, and if you do receive any, make sure to show your gratitude!