See where the Global Engagement Fellows have studied abroad, and read their stories!
See where the Global Engagement Fellows have studied abroad, and read their stories!
I’ve been back for quite a while now, which seems like the perfect time to write some sort of reflection post. I’ll keep it short, and basically just talk about some things that I’m so thankful for now that I’m back, as well as some other reflections on last semester.
Things I’m thankful for:
1. Being able to talk to my friends and family easily. It’s so nice to only be one time zone away from my family and be able to call people during the day rather than always having to wait until 9 pm.
2. Warm showers, dryers, and other similar comforts. Dryers save so much time. It’s unbelievable.
3. Having a kitchen. China has amazing food for cheap, but I definitely missed being able to just cook for myself.
4. Having my own room. I really really love being able to just have a space that is mine and that I can lock everyone else out of for a while. I guess I didn’t really experience any of the problems with having a roommate freshman year in the dorms because my roommate was amazing, but I definitely experiences some of those problems in China.
5. My primary education in the U.S. Elementary, middle, and high school schedules in China are crazy, because the middle school, high school, and college you go to are all based on your performance at the previous level and on national tests, so the stress of studying for the SAT begins in elementary school, and it’s worse because people only get one chance to take the gao kao. I’m so glad I didn’t have to go through that.
6. Understanding everything. I guess this is a given, but it’s just so much less stressful to immediately understand the language and cultural references.
1. It’s so much easier to get homework done when you don’t know people. I spent so much more time studying in China than I ever would be able to in the U.S. because I didn’t really know anybody to waste time with, and everyone I knew in the U.S. was sleeping when I was awake. I also didn’t really have much internet access which made me extremely productive. Overall, I would much rather have people to talk to, but sometimes I do miss just being able to sit and work on homework without any texts or anyone knocking on my door.
2. Learning a language is really hard. Before I went to China I thought that I would be fluent when I came back. Unfortunately, I still don’t think I’m really fluent. My Chinese has improved a lot, but I still take a long time to understand what people say, and there are still countless characters that I don’t know.
3. A lot of things can become normal. If I thought about it, I would realize how incredible my life was, but if I didn’t remind myself everyday that I was in China it was easy to just settle into a normal routine. Occasionally something crazy like a purple three wheeled truck would catch me off guard, but I was surprised how much I felt the same as I do here.
4. People around the world are somehow both more different than you thought and more similar than you thought at the same time. I would never have been able to imagine any of my classmates’ stories, but at the same time we all had a lot in common. I remember clearly walking home with my classmates one day, and one of them saying “现在，年轻人的性格都差不多”, (“Now young people’s personalities are all about the same”). I don’t really think that’s true, but I do think we have a lot more in common than we might think.
Now, you may be wondering why I picked those countries as my title. What’s so special about them? Well, I’ll just tell you — those are the countries that I am exposed to every day in my Chinese class. I am only one of two Americans in my class. It’s fantastic. Can I just say that I love Chinese with a Russian accent? Who knew!
My classmates are awesome. Most of them studied Chinese at Beijing Normal University last semester, so I’m the only new one in the class (and their Chinese is a LOT better than mine). But they have been so warm and welcoming to me, helping me with homework and inviting me to lunch with them after class. They are really serious about learning Chinese, and are strict with one another about not speaking English in class. Last week, when our teacher gave an assignment to present about a food in our country, I was like, “Ok, no problem, I’ll just do a little research, make a basic Powerpoint, run through it maybe once or twice, and I’ll be fine!” But the next class, two of my classmates came up to me and asked if I wanted to join their group. They described their plan to do a skit about making sushi, actually MAKE sushi, and then have a Powerpoint with pictures to reinforce the presentation. Later we got together to work on the script, obtain the ingredients to make sushi (which included going to three different supermarkets on campus to find sushi seaweed), make the Powerpoint, and then make the sushi and run through the script. I was pretty sure that none of the other groups could even come close to our performance. But another group played a video they made — it was incredible; they had costumes, used an actual restaurant’s kitchen to demonstrate how to make their country’s dish, and even interviewed people on the street.
Our class also has something called “ABCD,” a form of “punishment” for students who skip class, forget to do their homework, or speak English in class. The student who is found “guilty” of the above charges has 4 choices: A — sing a song, B — dance in front of the class, C — tell a story (in Chinese, of course), or D — buy snacks for the whole class. So far, two students danced the macarena together, and I think today a few students need to bring us all some chocolate. I look forward to class each day, because I never know what my classmates will have up their sleeve, whether it be chocolate or homework help.
Okay, I know I keep disappearing from this blog for long periods of time. Mia colpa, veramente. After the initial craziness of the first few weeks here in Italy, life settled into a different kind of blur filled with language exchanges and (not) going to classes that all confused me to no end. In the end, my initial misgivings finally started to subside as I’ve fallen into a nice and stable rhythm here. Nothing really spectacular has happened and I haven’t left Bologna since I got here, but certainly a lot has started to change for the better. I figure it’d be best just to talk about the new developments individually, so here goes nothing.
The view of Le Due Torri from the “main street” of Bologna. Pretty dang picturesque
BOLOGNA TANDEM LANGUAGE EXCHANGE (aka the group that saved my study abroad trip)
When I arrived here in Italy, I was shocked at how little I actually knew about speaking, and I had no idea how to start. Turns out, talking to people actually helps you learn a language better. Who knew, right? There’s a group here at Alma Mater Studioram that hosts various language exchanges at different locales (namely pubs) around the city where students can get together and practice a language of their choice. It has been, without exaggeration in the slightest, THE single-most important thing that’s happened in my life. Nearly all of my friends have come from Tandem or through friends I met there; British, Puetro Rican, German, Scottish, and above all Italian students are just a share of the people I’ve met at the tandems. Italian students absolutely crave native English speakers to talk to, and all you have to do is yell across the room at another friend in your American accent and they come running. In my own experience, I was quite literally surrounded by a group of Italian girls as I walked into the room, which is altogether a pretty pleasant experience. Yes, I wasn’t speaking entirely Italian, but becoming good friends with them has helped us all learn our respective languages better, and it’s really helped my confidence in speaking to actual Italians. Nearly all the aspects of my social life have come from Tandem, and for that I give major thanks. Now I have a much greater confidence in my Italian and I’m far more willing to try complex structures and words, which is a huge boost to my quality of life.
Plus, Italian girls. What’s there to complain about?
THE ACTUAL STUDYING (or lack thereof honestly)
Italian university is a funny thing. You’d think college classes are similar across institutions seeing as American universities are based on European styles, but Italian classes are truly another thing entirely. It is universally accepted that students can become “studente non frequentante“, otherwise known as never going to class and reading an extra book or two before the exams. I fought the allure of this approach, but eventually I was sucked in and now I almost never go to class. Lectures are a very confusing thing if you don’t know the language; teachers speak so fast and with so many esoteric words that trying to keep up is like trying to listen to Texas cattle auctioneers. Eventually, I discovered that I was much happier piecing through the books on my own time, and eventually I replaced my class time with trips to the library to study. Maybe it isn’t EXACTLY what my parents and teachers back home would like to hear, but this way I get to take every opportunity I can and adjust my schedule to whatever I want, which is a huge benefit when you’re trying to soak up as much as you possibly can. Of course, I slipped behind pretty heavily in my studies and now I’m racing to catch up, but I honestly don’t regret a single bit of that choice.
BOLOGNA, THE CHEEKY LITTLE BROTHER OF FLORENCE
Being a studente non frequentante, I’ve had a lot more time to explore the city on my own time and start to get to know its secrets. I have to say, though Bologna is not as flashy as a city like Rome or Florence, its nooks and crannies hide plenty of interesting secrets and fantastically cheap restaurants. Dig deep enough and you’ll find some tantalizing spots, like the Osteria Dell’Orsa, where they serve Bologna’s most famous Tagliatelle al Ragu, already a city-wide tradition, for only 6 euros. Or how about La Tana del Bianconiglio, a cozy little bar tucked away on one of the side streets, with FIFA 2016 running on a PS4 in the corner and range of excellent craft brews at low prices. That’s one thing that’s surprised me about Bologna; the city has a monumental appreciation for solid craft beers, something you wouldn’t expect in a country famous for wine and garlic. All over town, restaurants and breweries serve a wide range of beers for the distinguished beer taste, of which I have absolutely zero (for now). There’s always people out on the streets enjoying the company of friends and strangers, which creates a very friendly atmosphere all over the city you just wouldn’t find in a bigger town. I feel like I sound like an advertisement for the city, but I truly am falling for it, and I can’t wait to dig deeper in the next few months.
Okay, enough gushing. I really could say a lot more about the month I’ve been absent from this blog, but honestly I reeeeally need to get back to studying. This week is going to be pretty hellish with all the books I need to read, but I’ll hopefully make it through in at least 3 pieces. I swear to anyone who actually reads this (I’m looking at pretty much just you, Jaci) that I’ll get back into blogging at the end of this week. This next month should be a lot more exciting anyways; there’s a good bit more traveling to be had, and a few really cool spring festivals popping up around Europe that I intend to go to. Anyways, I will check back in in a week or so, but until then ad un’altra volta lettori miei!
Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve been back to this blog. Such a huge amount of stuff has happened since I dropped off the map that I don’t even know where to start! I guess the best way would just be to try and skip through all the extra junk that happened before and just say this: I made it to the University of Bologna to study abroad for a semester, and I’ve already been here for a few weeks. Crazy, right? Though I suppose to really talk about all the stuff that’s happened since I’ve been here, I really do have to go back to where I left off and talk about the lead-up to this. First, though, let me say a few things that I’ve realized since I came to Italy:
1. Studying abroad is SO much harder than it seemed in my perfect little daydreams of wandering through foreign cities, meeting millions upon millions of foreigners and taking lots of pictures to make your friends jealous (because we all know that’s a hidden desire of all exchange students).
2. I had myself fooled into thinking a semester of living in an apartment with a few roommates and being *almost* 20 years old made me more of an adult. Well, that got thrown out the window pretty much immediately. I am, and will continue to be, fairly inept at this whole maturity thing for a loooooooong time.
3. HOW MANY WORDS CAN THERE BE IN A NEW LANGUAGE HOW DO I EVEN REMEMBER ALL THE ENGLISH WORDS BY GREAT ODIN’S RAVENS
4. There’s nothing like stepping into a foreign country with too few language skills, not enough money, and (excuse my Italian) no idea what the hell you have to do next to make you feel the whole spectrum of emotions in the space of a few minutes.
BACK FROM THE FUTURE
I haven’t posted anything since the halcyon days of the end of freshman year, and a lot has changed since then. Namely, I had to go through all the mess to actually study abroad. Long story short, I had a pretty terrible semester honestly, with the whole gamut of issues both mentally and emotionally. During this time, I definitely let a lot of things in my life slip, and I just barely got myself together for the end of the semester to set myself up for this trip. I was actually about a week late on turning in my visa application, but thanks to my wonderful adviser Ms. Castorino (a gem if I ever saw one), I was still able to get my mess in a pile and apply. I’m so glad I was able to go, but in hindsight I think this idea might have been a little mature. I was convinced I had enough skills in the language and half of an idea of what I was doing, and plus I felt a semester abroad would help me get my head on straight and come back to OU better than ever after the joke of a semester I just had. In my naivety, I imagined everything just going smoothly whether I planned much at all or not, and combined with the fact that I thought I’d been told everything I needed to be told, I didn’t do nearly enough research over the months before my trip, and I didn’t practice my language skills nearly enough either, regardless of the fact that I didn’t have the recommended number of semesters of Italian class to study abroad.
Hindsight is a real pain in my butt, let me tell you.
With all my bravado behind me, I coasted through the winter break and literally packed the day before I left. I had no idea where I was living, how to sign up for classes, or whether or not the fact I decided I wanted to come home early (according to Bologna, where the semester ends in July) to work for the summer would absolutely screw my whole semester over. I was completely ignorant as to just how difficult of a position I put myself in. Blissfully unaware, I hopped on a plane to Rome, where I would stay for a few days and then take a train to Bologna about 10 days before classes started. In that time, I was expecting to find an apartment with no problem, quickly become fluent in Italian even though I didn’t even know all the tenses yet, AND travel to Venice for Carnevale, because that’s not expensive or ill-timed at all. Unfortunately, I would find out just how wrong I was within a day or two of stepping off that plane and onto the other side of the ocean.
TOO LATE TO GO BACK NOW YA LOSER
I arrived in Rome without too much trouble. I was absolutely exhausted from the flight, but knew my way around an airport and I already had a ticket for the train between the airport and the part of the city I would be staying in. I reached the train station and realized something: I had no map. Luckily I found a small spot with free WiFi and used Google Maps, but I was so tired and nervous that I got frustrated with it all fairly quickly. Eventually I reached my hostel, and I was so excited; I’d get to use my proper Italian for the first time! I stepped up to the door carrying my far-too-heavy luggage and IMMEDIATELY blanked on what I was supposed to say. I stammered out a soft, “B-Boungiorno!”, and the receptionist immediately responded in English. Feeling a little defeated and still not able to remember the words I needed, I just told him what I needed in English, a theme that would recur a few times over the first week I was in Italy.
After that initial encounter, I began traveling around Rome myself. Traveling alone is something I’ve always wanted to do, but I discovered it was a lot lonelier than I had thought it would be. A lot of traveling experiences aren’t quite as exciting when you don’t have someone to travel with, although it affords a unique perspective, even if you have to take way more selfies than normal. Everything you see and find is a very personal memory, and that can definitely have it’s benefits. I certainly won’t downplay how cool it was to see the sights of Rome for the first time: The Tiber River, Vatican City, the Roman Forum and Palantine Hill, and my favorite, The Colliseum. I’ve wanted to visit it ever since I saw that Gladiator movie (Russell Crowe 4evr), and to actually see it in person was a truly impressive sight.
(See? No one is above posting smug, cliche pictures of themselves)
After plenty of aimless wandering around the streets of Rome, it was time to hit the real deal: Bologna. I grabbed my bag and hopped on my late train, eventually arriving in Bologna around 10PM. Like last time, I found my hostel and made a fairly awful attempt at speaking Italian before settling in. The hostel was pretty far away from the city center, so at that point I decided to just go to bed and try to work things out in the morning.
The next few days became kind of a blur of realizing just how much I didn’t know about my trip here. All I was told by OU was that I would have to check into a police station when I got there, but that was about all I knew. As it turns out, I should’ve done far more looking into what needed to be done, because it’s a lot more complicated than that. I had to check in with the University, apply for a Permesso di Soggiorno (Residence Permit), and find out how to get a Codice Fiscale, the Italian equivalent of a Social Security number (I think). On top of that, finding an apartment became much more of a chore than I thought, and for a while I honestly thought I would have to live in a hostel for way longer than I could afford before I found a place. At that point, I was freaking out about so much, and I was really glad to have people back home to talk to who could reassure me and calm me down. One thing I figured out is that it’s okay to have days or times where you don’t try and deal with life; just Skyping people and sequestering yourself with some video games and a bottle of wine can really improve your mood and help you focus on finding a way through the next few days.
Eventually, I figured out everything I needed to with school and Residence Permit, but it was pretty touch-and-go for a few days. Also, I was lucky to find a housing service through the university, and they hooked me up for an offer on a pretty cheap place in the city center. I spent plenty of days running around like a chicken with my head cut off, but things finally started looking up, and it seemed like I was somewhat in control of my life.
Then classes started.
“COULD YOU PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY AND GOOD SPEAK SLOWER”
As soon as classes started, I finally realized just what I’d signed up for with Italian classes. Almost every student who does an exchange semester at Bologna has an excellent grip of the language, and teachers donn’t slow down for anything at all. Unfortunately for me, I’m a little behind the language curve, so a good 50% of what the professors say flies right over my head. I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided taking Italian Linguistics was a good idea, but after listening to those first few lectures, I ended up thinking it was at least going to be an adventure. Outside of class isn’t much different either: Bologna isn’t a huge tourist city, and so the grasp of English around here is a lot less than in a city like Florence or Rome. It’s certainly kept me on my toes with trying to learn more Italian and understand what’s going on. Classes are also structured very strangely here; at least for exchange students, you don’t need to actually enroll for class. The only thing you’re forced to do is sign up for the final exams, which are oral and make up your entire grade. You don’t even need to go to class as long as you read the required material before the test. It’s kind of nice to have all this freedom, but having to do a completely spoken exam is an admittedly daunting thought. In the end, though, I’m not too worried, and I feel as though my Italian will improve enough in the meantime to do the exam. At least, that’s what I’m blindly hoping, and we’ll just have to see how it turns out. Like one of the titles I wrote earlier in the post said, I’m stuck here now, and there’s no real choice but to keep moving forward and hope it turns out okay!
I think I’ve been complaining a little much about the difficulty of studying abroad, and I won’t downplay it; as a much more experienced mentor of mine said, it really is like freshman year all over again, except you don’t speak the language and there’s not a hallway full of people in the same boat, just waiting to make friends with you. That being said, as I settle into life here, I’m becoming happier and happier that I decided to choose this route instead of chickening out or taking an easier experience. There’s a lot of merit to going to eat by yourself or just grabbing a cappuccino in the middle of the day just because you can. With no one directing me and far less restrictions than an American school, it is exciting to have this much freedom to move how I want. There’s nothing more satisfying than being able to walk into a store or restaurant and say something correctly in Italian, which seems to be happening more and more often. Plus, I’m on the other side of the planet; this is an experience not many people get to have, and I’m intensely grateful for it. I just hope that if someone else who wants to study abroad reads this, then they won’t make some of the same mistakes I did. Well, “did” is kind of a misnomer, because that’s not including the many mistakes I know I still have yet to make. I can’t wait to see what happens in the future, and I’ll be writing about all of it; the good, the bad, and the intensely awkward. For now I have to pick my way through a textbook in Italian, but I’ll be back here sometime soon I’m sure. For now, you’ll just have to wait for the next rip-roaring installment of AN IDIOT ABROAD: NICK GEDIG EDITION!
I haven’t kept up on my blog at all so I’m just going to make one post of (very brief) summaries of interesting things that happened in December and January in chronological order.
1. My classmates being awesome: My birthday was in December, so my classmates surprised me with a cake and a card during listening class. It was probably a fire hazard because there were a lot of candles on it but it was awesome. We also didn’t have any forks, so one of my classmates thought it would be a good idea to just feed everyone bites of cake off of the spatula. It was funny.
2. Christmas: I went to school on Christmas, which was weird. But we all wore red and green so we could take a Christmas picture. I went to dinner with a Chinese family and their friends. It was very much different from Christmas in the states. We had hot pot, which doesn’t really even exist here, and someone got up to make a toast every 5 minutes. It was good though.
3. TUTU Running Club relay: A guy who I met at the 50k invited me to run a relay that his running club was hosting. Each person only had to run 6K so of course I participated, and we made an international team. It was a lot of fun, even though one of my teammates didn’t show up, forcing my other teammate’s friend to run a 6K in khakis and a button down shirt.
4. New Years: We actually got a few days off for New Year, which was awesome. I went to KTV for the first time with my classmates. KTV is basically just karaoke but you have your own little tiny soundproof room. China has a lot of KTV places. Also I am bad at KTV but everyone else in my class is really good.
6. Final Exams: We had final exams from January 13-15. This was not fun.
7. Trip to Harbin: Chinese textbooks always seem to have a lesson about Harbin and ice lanterns, so Sarah and I took advantage of the weekend after finals to go to Harbin and look at ice lanterns. They were in fact very impressive and awesome. I only took three pictures because it was really cold (REALLY COLD as in -20 Fahrenheit). Turns out taxi drivers in Harbin like to talk to people a lot (unlike in Dalian, where they prefer to just listen to the radio), and lots of people are trying to scam you because Harbin gets a lot of tourists.
8. Going home: We returned from Harbin at 10 on the 17th, so I bought some snacks for the plane and went to sleep so that I could get up and leave for the airport at 4:30 am. I then waited in lines in the Dalian airport (2 hours), flew to Shanghai (2 hours), got through customs and security and checking in again in Shanghai (3 hours), flew to Detroit (13 hours), waited in lines and rushed around through security and customs in the airport in Detroit (3 hours), and flew to Oklahoma (3 hours) for a grand total of 26 hours spent in airports and airplanes, 3 times through security, 3 times waiting in line to check my bags, and lots of sitting. It actually wasn’t bad, and for once nothing was delayed. Success!
Despite the fact that Dalian is sometimes called the “shopping city”, and does indeed have more than it’s fair share of gigantic malls, I decided to try out some online shopping in China because walking around all day shopping can get exhausting, particularly when you don’t know which stores might have what you’re looking for. A lot of Chinese people also choose to shop online, especially for clothes, so I thought there must be some advantage to it. It turns out that Chinese online shopping sites are incredible. Basically, you can buy absolutely anything for ridiculously cheap and read a million reviews about it to confirm that the quality is good before you buy it. It is then shipped to your door (supposedly) for at most $2.
The first step is setting up an account, which went smoothly until I got to a part where you have to enter your name, but it has to be at least two Chinese characters and also has to match your bank card. Obviously, my name could not possibly meet both of these requirements. I actually don’t remember how I got around this snag, but I somehow did. I probably couldn’t do it again without a lot of luck, but at least now I have a account.
I ran into a second snag because I could only use my bank card that had 67 yuan ($10) on it. (Long story short, I have two bank cards that I didn’t try to get. One is from the school and has my scholarship money. One is from when I went to the bank and exchanged money and they put the 67 yuan that wouldn’t go nicely into hundreds on a card and gave it to me.) For some reason I couldn’t sign up for an online account because (again) my name was wrong. Apparently, I had to enter it with a bunch of extra spaces in it. Once I was finally able to get past the first step where you put in your name, it turned out that I just can’t use that bank card online at all anyway. Eventually, I discovered that I needed to transfer money between the two cards using an ATM and then a CRS (I didn’t know those existed before I came to China, do we even have them in the states? I still don’t even know what CRS stands for but they’re super helpful.)
Finally, I got to actually try to buy something. I needed to buy running tights, as the weather was quite cold and I forgot my nice running tights in the U.S.. Eventually, I had found a cool $6 pair of tights to experiment with. I entered the address on my room key card, and hoped for the best.
Unfortunately, my tights did not ship quickly, nor did they ship to my room, or even my building, or even the bridge near my building (somehow, a lot of people get their packages delivered to this spot underneath the bridge and just go pick them up from the pile. Here is proof)
Instead, I received a mysterious text message telling me to go to a place which nobody could give me directions to by that night, or else my package would be send back. They also helpfully left a phone number. I wasn’t about to lose those $6, so I called the number, obtained very poor directions, and headed out the door. I followed the directions, but couldn’t find anything resembling what I was looking for (the 3G building apparently), so I asked some more people on the street, who didn’t know, and then called the number again. This time I got better directions to a school near mine, but I didn’t quite know if I had understood right, so I asked the guy to repeat it, at which time he got annoyed, told me he’d deliver them to me tomorrow, and hung up.
I could have just went home and waited for him to deliver the thing, but I wasn’t sure how he would know where to deliver it, and I’m impatient, so I walked to the other school. Finally, I found someone who knew the place in the text message, and took me to it. Then, we searched through this maze of packages forever, but couldn’t find it because the guy had taken it to his office so he could deliver it. He was very annoyed to see that I had come to get it instead of waiting. But hey, I’m just a stupid foreigner.
Later, I managed to order two whole things and get them actually delivered to my building simply by putting the name of the school I was at in the address. So the lesson learned from this whole experience is that if you order something in China you should make sure that your address is super specific, or else your life will be hard.
There are so many different stories in the world.
When in Paris, we visited the Universite de Paris. The school was gorgeous, and everyone walking around looked so savvy and put-together. It’s weird to think that if I had been born in France, I might’ve been one of those students going to that university where tourists came and gawked at our sophistication.
When in Barcelona, I met a young woman who had just been on a job interview with a pharmaceutical company, and was now taking a day off to see the sights before going back to her job in Berlin.
In Verona, our hostel owner was a lovely young man who had renovated his apartment into a lovely 3-bedroom hostel. This young man was also very used to having to evacuate his home when bombs were discovered from the Second World War and had to be disabled.
In Porec, we were waited on my two cousins who lived and worked on the island only during the summer, and during the year they went to school in the capital in order to become plastic surgeons. They were extremely open to Americans and wanted to hear about our lives back home, because one day they wanted to visit California and New York City.
In my final stop in London, I met a man from Australia who had made his way through Asia, India, Eastern Europe, and was now exploring Western Europe for a few months before returning back to Australia to run the family business.
Everyone has a story. No two are alike.