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!

Houston 8.9.17

My Dearest Friend,

I’m back in the States. It’s been a long year since I was last living here, but I suppose it’s good to be back. I loved Japan. I loved living in Kyoto and looking out my window to see mountains circling the city. However, I think I have learned what there is for me to learn in Japan at this point in my life. Living abroad, I learned a lot about myself and the world I live in, but I also found that there is much I don’t know about my own country and myself. Before I go abroad again, I have things to do here.

First, I want to continue developing myself and my interests. I tend to become mired in my work, so I forget to pursue interests and hobbies. Worse yet, I sometimes forget to enjoy them once they’ve been added to my daily to-do list. I want to make a focused effort on having hobbies and extracurricular activities that I enjoy outside of my major and career goals. Related to that, I want to keep working on my language skills, now for my own sake rather than for classes. I’ve spent a lot of time on my Japanese, and I want to keep it up. I want to become bilingual. Living in an international dorm for a year, most people I knew spoke at least two if not three or four languages. I want that too.

The next primary goal over this next year is to continue my journey toward self-sufficiency. I’m finally living in non-university housing for the first time since I left home. I’m also working on getting a part-time job to pay for as many of my day-to-day expenses as possible. As a college student in America, I have always had a foot in both worlds, childhood and adulthood. After having been mostly independent and self-sufficient for a year abroad, I don’t want to go back to being a pseudo-adult. I’m not in a position yet where I can shake it off completely, but I can start a conscious journey toward being fully independent.

Lastly, I want to further invest in my relationships, both here at home and those I built while abroad. I have always struggled to stay in contact with people I no longer see regularly. For much of my time abroad, I had little if any contact with people from home. However, I also was reminded of how wonderful my friends from OU are and how important they are to me and my life. I want to actively invest in and develop those relationships further while maintaining the friendships I spent a year building in Japan. I am no longer content to take a passive role in my friendships. My life is only as fulfilling as I make it.

I have changed a great deal over the past year. Now that I’m in motion, I don’t want to stop. There is so much more out there for me, and I am capable of so much more than I have in the past expected of myself. This year, back in a comfortable place with a group of amazing friends nearby, is the perfect time to explore what I can do. Once I have tested and expanded the limits of my capability, I will be ready to explore the world more fully. My next flight is coming soon—I want to make sure that I’m ready for it.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 2

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 2

I am a strong believer in only eating all-natural foods. Artificial coloring, preservatives, even so-called “natural” flavors are big no-nos with serious health effects. I’m didn’t just jump on a health-food bandwagon; there is real science that shows our bodies aren’t designed to handle all those chemical additives. Organic food is what humans evolved to eat; all those extra unpronounceable ingredients really do cause cancer and neurological disorders and all other sorts of problems, and yet here in America we gobble them down without a second thought. Organic and all-natural options are hard to find and usually come with a hefty price tag.

Fresh Milk Machine in Ljubljana
The ultimate example of organic food in Europe: the milk dispenser in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a high-tech machine that provides extremely cheap, fresh, local milk. Liter-sized bottles to dispense the milk into are also available for about a euro.

In Europe, organic and all-natural food is readily available and cheap. Even the Walgreens-style drugstore had entire shelves full of all-natural shampoo, soap, and conditioner; at home, I have to visit Natural Grocers or order it online. Not everything is all-natural, but the percentage of food that I could eat was so much higher than in the US.

In addition, and also in direct correlation, to this, weight extremes are a much smaller problem in Europe than in America. Some people were very overweight, and some people were far too skinny, yet I never saw either of the extremes that are fairly common in America. Grocery stores don’t provide electric scooters, and I never saw a girl with such stick-thin legs than I worried she wouldn’t actually be able to walk on them.

The difference isn’t only in what Europeans tend to eat: they also are far more active as a part of their daily routines. In the US, everyone owns a car and drives everywhere; exercise is something we do in the evening or on the weekends in order to “stay fit.” In Europe, people walk to the grocery store and then carry their heavy bags home, and take a bus or train and then walk a few blocks to work. Of course people still lift weights and run in the park and bike on the weekends, but their daily lives are already less sedentary than ours are. This level of constant, non-strenuous activity keeps them extremely fit for their whole lives; I regularly saw tiny 90-year-old ladies slowly but competently make their way through the supermarket and then get on the tram to go home.

After my observations in Europe, I wouldn’t say that either America or Europe is healthier than the other; we simply have focused our negative health habits in different areas. Europeans smoke a ton but are also more active and eat healthier food; Americans are more wary of cigarettes but drive everywhere and eat bright blue cake. Is one better than the other? Maybe not, but by combining both sets of health ideologies, it’s possible to have the best of both health worlds. All we have to do is commit to being truly healthy.

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 1

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 1

One of the most difficult things for me to adjust to about living in Austria wasn’t the language or the public transportation or the frustratingly limited opening hours of supermarkets. No, one of the hardest things for me to deal with was the omnipresence of people smoking.

I have always been extremely sensitive to strong smells; even the perfume in most shampoos and hand lotions is too strong and chemically for me to withstand. But cigarette smoke has always been one of the hardest things for me to deal with; I can’t breathe with it nearby, and it gives me an instant, piercing headache.

I had read before that Europe has a higher concentration of heavy smokers than America does, but I didn’t really understand what that would be like until I was in Austria. Cigarettes and smoke were everywhere: every bus and tram stop had a perpetually full ashtray, outdoor seating at restaurants smelled more of smoke than of food, and the entryway to every store was an impossible gauntlet of unbreathable air.

There wasn’t much I could do about any of it, except look for restaurants with non-smoking rooms and practice my shallow breathing skills. That, and silently judge all the people around me who didn’t seem to care that cigarettes are, you know, lethal. At least in America, we have a lot of laws and taxes and educational programs in place to prevent such rampant smoking. At least we care about our health, right?

But then I stopped myself. Yes, cigarettes are terrible and kill people. Yes, from my experience, fewer Americans smoke than Europeans. But Americans aren’t really any more health conscious than our neighbors across the pond; we just focus our health problems in different fields. What are Europeans doing right that we should emulate? See part 2 of my blog post :)

But What About My Visa?

But What About My Visa?

When I was looking into the different German-speaking countries that offered semester study abroad programs through OU, one of the aspects about Austria that appealed to me was that it was a more unusual choice. Even compared to other European countries, Austria is pretty small at 32,000 square miles and a population 8.7 million people; Germany is about 138,000 square miles with 82.6 million people. For further comparison, my home state of Colorado is 104,000 square miles and has a population of 5.5 million people!

Size Comparison(The map shows Europe, with Colorado overlaid for a scale comparison.)

In my experience, most people don’t think of Austria very quickly when they talk about Europe. It’s fairly small and doesn’t have the international fame of the larger countries like Germany, France, Spain, and the UK (which I find ironic, given that it had one of the largest empires in Europe only a century ago). This made it feel more unique and off-the-beaten-path as a study abroad destination, while still allowing me to study in German for a semester.

However, something I never considered was that visiting such a small country might have some drawbacks on the administration side of study abroad. In order to live in Austria for five months, I needed to apply for a visa–no problem, right? Fill out some forms, hand over some cash, and I’d be good to go.

Except that for a visa to Austria, those forms include a fingerprint scan, and therefore the application must be conducted in person at an Austrian embassy or consulate. And since Austria is so small, there are only three such locations in the United States: in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. A visit to one of these cities on such short notice would have been way too expensive and impossible to fit into my school schedule, and a bit of research showed me that I couldn’t apply for a visa once I was in Vienna or Graz, so I started to panic.

Luckily, my Education Abroad counselor informed me of one other option: students from the US and Canada can enter Austria without a visa, and then within their first 90 days in the country, visit an Austrian embassy in either Slovenia or Germany to apply in person for a visa. So in order to stay for a full semester in Graz, I had to take a weekend trip outside of the country to Ljubljana, the capitol of Slovenia!

This ended up being a really fun adventure, since Graz’s branch of the Erasmus Student Network (an organization that arranges fun activities and local student “buddies” for study abroad students all over Europe) put together a trip for everyone who needed to go through this rather convoluted application process. We piled into a tour bus to drive to Ljubljana, where we handed in our paperwork and did the fingerprint scan, and then continued on to Trieste, a coastal town in Italy. Altogether, it only took us three hours of driving, yet by lunchtime we had already spent time in three separate countries!

Although there were some unexpected complications in choosing Austria for my semester abroad, I am so glad that I found a program to suit my unique sense of adventure! Obstacles like applying for a visa actually turned into wonderful opportunities with plenty of support both from the OU Education Abroad counselors and local groups like ESN. Don’t let administrative details dissuade you from finding a study abroad program that fits your interests!