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living my best tourist life

UCL has a really strange term set up; reading week is the first week of November but exams are mid-December. Consequently, this week doesn’t have to be reserved for studies alone. So, I used only a small portion of the week to catch up on work (which was, admittedly, very stressful), and spent the majority traveling instead.

Initially, I had only planned on going to one place for reading week: Copenhagen. However, I had one friend who really, really wanted to go to Prague and, some way or another, another friend and I got looped into going along for that as well. Though the bookings for travel and lodging had been rushed and flights had to be cancelled and rescheduled, everything had, eventually, fallen into place.

While I had been skeptical about how well the trip would go with how little planning we did, I’ve never been so glad to make a spontaneous decision. First off, the hostel we stayed at, Hostel Mango, was an absolute steal built for broke young people. I paid about thirty euros for three nights. Better yet, I got to bond with my UCL friends I travelled with and also made two new friends. One was a Spanish bloke with hair reminiscent of the biblical depiction of Jesus and another was a soft spoken Chinese grad student studying in the Netherlands. Somehow, we all ended up in Prague at the same time.

Vltava River

Prague is a beautiful little city and all the sights and attractions we visited were within walking distance (pro-tip: don’t buy a 72 hour metro ticket when you visit, spend the money on food). In the four days we were there, we visited major tourist spots like Old Town, Prague Castle, and the National Gallery.  We also found a quaint gingerbread shop that smelled like Christmas with treats that tasted of pure happiness. Somewhere along the line we attended a string quartet performance, sitting in awe as Beethoven’s notes resonated throughout Mirror Chapel.

a trdelník (chimney cake)

Dispersed in between our activities were copious amounts of warm mulled wine tinged with cinnamon, chimney cakes piled with fresh cream, and squishy little bread dumplings accompanying Czech styled roast beef. Needless to say, we ate very well.

The highlight of it all came on the last day; 6am and we were up to catch the sunrise. Standing on Charles Bridge, I watched as the fiery red sun rose into the sky and the sleepy town across the bridge begin to stir. Birds skimmed the river’s surface as they flew past and wispy fog began to dissipate as sunlight streaked across the horizon.

Watching daylight seep into the city was enough to make an economics major like me attempt to wax poetry. Sometimes spontaneity isn’t so bad, even if it means typing up a paper on a phone during the plane ride back to London at 1 AM.

Wine for Education?!?

Terrasses de Bourg-en-Lavaux in Switzerland

When I began my exchange at ETH Zürich, I did not expect to take a class in wine production techniques. In reality, the class is not technically about wine production… exclusively… it also includes insight into brewing processes as well as a short introduction to distillation. The class, appropriately meeting Friday afternoons, is titled the Biotechnology of Alcoholic Beverage Production – which I signed up for as a result of my passion for biotechnology and because there are not food science classes typically offered at Northwestern. This class primarily focuses on understanding and manipulating the underlying biological processes (e.g. fermentation) that lead to different properties in many of the world’s alcoholic beverages.

Grapes ripening on a vine in Bourg-en-Lavaux

The most astonishing part of this class is certainly the hands-on experience that seems deeply ingrained in many of ETH’s classes. I have found during my exchange that when classes are directly intertwined with real-world processes, concepts are more deeply ingrained than if material is overheard during lecture. In the case of the Biotechnology of Alcoholic Beverage Production class, this hands-on approach has been two-fold: First, in class we often sample beverages produced under different conditions to observe the effect of downstream processing on the final product. Second, on a trip to Lavaux, a prominent wine-making region in Switzerland, I was able to put my knowledge learned in the classroom to the test – identifying grape varieties by their taste and physical properties, distinguishing wild grapes from their domesticated counterparts based on examining seedlings, and even analyzing grape-pressing techniques to determine which types of wines were being produced.

Although my exchange is just beginning, I have already learned valuable practical skills by employing perhaps the most unlikely of teaching aids: wine.

mindset reset

I felt academic fulfillment for the first time in a couple years this past week.

For an anthropology class called Introduction to Material and Visual Culture, I was given an assignment to visit a museum. There, I was to observe and analyze how space and context shape the narrative presented to the viewer. I spent a little over six hours in the Victoria & Albert Museum over the span of two days just sketching, watching, and exploring the beautiful space. In particular, I analysed the Jameel Prize 5 exhibit, housed right near the Cromwell Street entrance. The exhibit (which I highly recommend!) features the works of eight Jameel Prize nominees that focus on the cross section of contemporary art and Islamic traditions. The Jameel Prize is awarded every two years for this specific type of design and is organized by the V&A in collaboration with Art Jameel. Guided by the premises of the assignment, I actually thoroughly explored and dissected an exhibit, rather than an article or paper about one, for the first time. From examining the aesthetic of the space to the texts on the walls, analyzing the predominance of artist voice in the presented narrative (something that isn’t too common in most museums), and just people-watching, I was able to truly soak in the exhibit. Kind of like a good sponge cake and tea.

All in all, it was really invigorating to complete this assignment. From visiting the museum (even taking the tube at peak hour and being squashed like a measly bug) to sitting down at my desk and organizing my thoughts, I actively enjoyed learning from this academic assignment. I had almost believed that that was no longer possible, and it’s great to be proven wrong. For me, it’s prettyeasy to get stuck in major-focused (economics) work and a state of mind purely set on absorbing as much information as possible in the shortest amount of time. In the process, I slowly lose the desire to gain any knowledge from academic assignments as I associate it only with struggling and consuming time. Studying abroad has put me in a different mindset from the get-go; my brain automatically matches studying abroad with words like “short-term”, “growing as a person,” “trying more new things,” etc. This consequently makes me more ok with focusing on classes outside of economics, like my anthropology module. My academic brain has been (more or less) reset, and I hope I’m able to carry this improved mindset of enjoying the learning process back to Northwestern later.

 

Being sick while abroad

It’s true that when you fall ill while away from your home and family, that’s when you start feeling homesick the most. I have recently been struggling with a cold, which is ironic because I caught it from sleeping with the fan on the last few night because it was so hot in my room. Thankfully, it’s already my 10th week in Singapore, so I have made close friends who’ve also been very helpful throughout this ordeal. Although I miss the comfort of my own home, I have been getting by relatively well thanks to them. And getting help from my friends have not only been very comforting, but educational as well.

When I first reached out for help, it was to ask what cold medications I should get. I never bothered to bring one because, well, Singapore is literally just 1.5 degrees from the equator and has an average temperature of over 30 degrees Celsius throughout the year. I was aware that popular American products that I’m used to are available here as well, but I figured that they would be more costly and that I’d have to travel further outside to get them. One local friend recommended me a cheap medication, but quickly followed up by saying how that was so American of me. She told me how Americans seem like they need to have a drug for everything. She then prescribed me a hot bowl of chicken soup and jokingly added, “In Asia, you just eat the same thing for all sickness.”

This wasn’t exactly a foreign concept since I also lived in Asia for half my life, and eating foods like chicken noodle soup is a common cold remedy in America. But it’s interesting how reliance on pharmaceutical drugs is such a salient stereotype of Americans. And now that I think about it, even though I never bothered to bring cold medicine, I did bring 7 different pills here, none of which are exactly essential for my survival. And although alternative remedies exist, I tend to default to pills because I somehow find more comfort in something in a capsule neatly packaged and sold at a pharmacy than tried-and-true methods which pass on by word of mouth.

There’s possibly some broader lesson about scientific elitism, validity of traditional knowledge, Orientalist discourse in academia, etc. to be found here, but at the moment I am still feeling quite sick and so while I keep these things in mind I will return to having another bowl of chicken soup.

Asian American in London

Only two weeks have gone by since I’ve arrived in the UK but I’ve already come to realize how much of a niche I’d been fit into back home– both by myself and American society. As an Asian American, there’s a few popular expectations I’ve found myself meeting or even trying harder to attempt to meet. I love boba, went through a hardcore phase of discovering Asian mainstream culture (dramas, kpop, anime, you name it), prefer Asian food as my go-to daily cuisine but love milkshakes and Portillo’s, and bop to old Train songs. I’m often considered Asian enough to be different or exotic, but too American to be authentically Chinese, language skill and culture wise. Thus, in the States, I felt most comfortable with those just like me: other Asian Americans. Though it’s common to vibe more with people like yourself, I found that at Northwestern all my close friends were Asian, if not Asian American. It’s wonderful, but also limiting, with the limit being something that I’ve brought onto myself in an effort to feel like I belong more.

Here, in the UK, I’m considered international. Whether my peers are considering my American background or my Asian heritage, I’m simply someone different to be curious about; Asian American isn’t really approached as an identity separate from both American and Asian. The preconceptions that typically follow me are less prevalent and for the first time ever my closest friends are from all over the world– Spain, Ecuador, China, and even UChicago. I don’t feel the need to prove that I was obsessed with Zac Efron and Taylor Swift as a teen, or that I can speak Chinese fluently. My Asian American identity is definitely something I’m proud of but, at the same time, I’m really thankful to be in London. The change in setting will hopefully not only expose me to a new culture but to new sides of myself.

Unrelated: tons of good food places near UCL!!

Navigating Singlish as an English-speaking foreigner

While several of my exchange student friends have noted that one of their main reasons for choosing Singapore as their study abroad destination is that they would not have to face a language barrier, they also report that the reality is far from their expectations. In their defense, it is true that English is Singapore’s language of education, and as is the case in many other countries around the world, the language of law and commerce. However, Singaporean Colloquial English, or Singlish for short, is no doubt a challenge for English speakers foreign to Singaporean life.

A local classmate described Singlish as economical, efficient, and expressive. And that line of sentiment seems to be dominant among local Singaporeans. I find it similar to how in America, there are prevalent metalinguistic discourses surrounding nonstandard English varieties, such as Southerner speech being slow and drawn out, and African American Vernacular English being rough and to-the-point. While such characterizations are, linguistically speaking, largely unfounded and meaningless, people nevertheless seem very eager to imbue fun and quirky (but also often prejudiced) qualities to what are otherwise logically coherent and highly structured languages.

At the same time, it would be a lie if I said I found Singlish uninteresting. Several of my native Singlish-speaker friends have been very excited to teach me some unique features of Singlish, such as the use of sentence-final emotive particles (“lah”, “meh”, “sia”), reduplications (“think think”, “boy boy”), and uninverted wh-questions (“what is the answer to this problem is what?”). I’ve also found that some other features of Singlish might appear more familiar to younger Americans such as copula absence (“she (is) at work”, “you (are) weird”) and optional marking of plurality (“it costs ten dollar(s)”), as these structures are frequently seen in texting and internet slang.

Notes from a student-led presentation on Singlish for exchange students.

But I don’t really mean to go into the structural details of Singlish here. Rather, I want to reflect more on the different ways in which I have personally been trying to navigate Singlish as an English-speaking foreigner.

The most glaring difficulty that I continue to face since arriving here is getting used to an accent that I am not accustomed to. For me, this means being more attentive both to the spoken sound of Singlish and to my own use of Standard American English. It means learning common Singlish words and phrases such as “tapao” (Chinese phrase meaning “take-out”) and becoming familiar with syllable-timing (Singlish is a syllable-timed language, which means that each syllable takes about the same time to articulate. On the other hand, Standard American English is stress-timed) and also, funnily enough, British pronunciation and spelling (given Singapore’s colonial history).

If I pronounce something wrong (yet another valuable lesson I learned: pronunciation standards are subjective even regarding the “same” language), I often get feedback where the person I’m talking to says the word they think I am saying back to me with emphasis on the part that was unintelligible to them to make sure that we’re on the same page. Talking with native Singaporeans has made me appreciate the amount of work they put in for communicating with foreigners. For example, my native Singaporean friends were, at the beginning, very conscious of using sentence-final emotive particles (which are as common and indispensable as the use “lol” or “omg” in texting) when I would enter into their conversations. Similarly, vendors are often seen keeping pen and paper nearby so that they can communicate in writing if speech should fail.

It’s an obvious fact that communication is a two-sided effort, but as a foreigner with relative privilege, I am often not the one who bears the bulk of that burden when talking with local Singaporeans who may be having as much of a difficulty understanding me, as I have understanding them. I struggle with the part of me that feels entitled to my accent on the pretense of it being the “standard” or the “norm.” Upon reflecting on my experiences, I am learning to be more mindful of the fact that, in our globalized world, English is multiple – both in its form and its social dynamics – and they are all valid in their own right.

Rematch

The last time I was in Switzerland, Switzerland had won.

On my last visit to the land of chocolate and fondue, I was romping through Western Europe with my close friends and, as one traveling on a budget does, we had decided to visit the second most expensive country in the world where we planned to enjoy the scenery, eat some Swiss delicacies, relax and recover from the school year we had just finished in the states.  We arrived in the Basel airport where we soon learned that the train tickets to our hostel would be replacing the dinner we had planned to have that night. While our wallets were considerably lighter, our spirit was no less diminished, so we embarked on a short hike up the side of a cliff where our labor was rewarded with breathtaking views. The following day we awoke at the crack of dawn hiked along a precipitous ridge-line connecting Interlaken to nearby Brienz and stumbled down the mountain after a 26.2 mile hike to realize that we had missed the last train to Interlaken for the night. After hitchhiking back to our hostel, we caught a few hours of sleep before departing again for Luzern, a beautiful city that perfectly blended its history with modern flare.

Though we were thrilled to take a break from activity and relax for a few beats, upon checking into our hostel, we quickly came to understand that the company’s IT platform had been down for a few days and the room we had booked months in advance was no longer available. Scrambling to avoid the rain we searched for a place to stay and came upon a website called couchsurfing.com where we contacted Jean, a french national with an affinity for peanut butter and American heavy metal. After arriving safely at Jean’s flat, we collapsed on his living room floor — tired, wet, cold, and hungry. We had challenged Switzerland and it proved to be a stout competitor.

Now, almost a year later, I am returning to Switzerland to redeem myself (and learn quite a few new things in the process). Careful planning and preparation for this semester abroad is the only means to a trip where I have a chance to gain some footing on the fine ledge between living abroad and surviving abroad. Hopefully, a year’s time will have been sufficient to plan for success in this remarkable country, and as the final hours to my departure tick away, I wait in anticipation for my chance to even the score.

 

Rediscovering my identity abroad

As I mentally prepare myself for study abroad at NUS, I reflect back on my first study abroad experience – to here, America, 10 years ago. I entered America feeling both excited and nervous, and, while those feelings have now all but faded away, I still struggle to call America home. In fact, I feel as though I never had a home, just places I dwelt in and a vague specter of my culture that haunts me.

Experiences like mine aren’t new to diasporic communities, and children of diaspora take on many strategies different to navigate their own struggles. Personally, I find it liberating to double down on the fact that I don’t have a place where I can trace my roots or feel nostalgic about. Since I don’t really feel like I’m from anywhere (I think many of us who struggle to give a straightforward answer when someone asks them “Where are you from?” can relate), I’m more comfortable entering new environments. It’s what I’ve been doing for the most of my life.

In that spirit, I want my time abroad at Singapore to be a personal journey as much as an academic one. Significantly, Singapore presents me with opportunities to rediscover my Korean identity outside of American contexts. I’m no longer forcefully tied to my citizenship under liberal multiculturalism (“We’re all equal, proud Americans under the same flag!”) but at the same time I’m faced with new challenges such as confronting my East Asian privilege in Southeast Asia (as a Singaporean friend jokingly advised me, “Don’t tell them you’re American. Just present yourself as Korean and you’ll quickly make friends with the locals”). Just preparing for study abroad has made me realize that there’s no neutral choice when it comes to presenting my identity – there are only different extents to which I can choose to acknowledge this fact.

Above all, I have to be conscious of glorifying or criticizing Singapore as an outsider. As much as I am interested in Singaporean politics, society, culture, and language (if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have applied to this program), I shouldn’t suddenly be pretending to be an anthropologist, assuming the guise of an apolitical participant-observer. I will still blog about my experiences, but I will commit myself to refrain from making any statements beyond my own personal thoughts (if at any point I am overreaching, please call me out!).

**On a tangential note, registration has so far been a very difficult process for an unorganized person like me. Word of advice for future exchange students to NUS: start getting into contact with other exchange students early (NUS makes Facebook groups for exchange students about a while after admissions are out), because it’s better to struggle together than alone. Most importantly, stay calm if something goes wrong because literally anything can happen, including accidentally getting sent a rejection letter when you, in fact, got into the program.

possibly the worst three days of my life between the two emails

 

Back Again

There were many times in Paris where I actually felt desperate to go home. I missed my friends and iced coffees and the feeling of being somewhere that felt familiar. At the time though I knew I’d miss being in Paris so much. By the end of my 4 months there, the novelty of just waking up and moving around Paris as part of my daily routine had only worn off the tiniest bit, and I found myself panicking a little as the time to go home drew closer. I felt ready to leave, but I was also dreading the inevitable realization of what I had left behind.

Settling back into life on campus, at Northwestern, was surprisingly easy. Everything seemed to just click back into place once the initial vertigo of being back had worn off. Because of this, though, my life back in Paris feels like this weird, insulated dream. I look back on days wandering around not just Paris, but other European cities like Amsterdam and London and find myself shocked to think of how far away I was from the people and places that were familiar to me.

I find myself constantly in the mood to evoke some vibes from my time there – I listen to a lot of French music and constantly look back through my own photos and others of just the streets, trying to recreate that feeling of being there. Even though I got to experience that feeling for 4 entire months, at this point it feels just like a single instant I keep mentally returning to. I’m already thinking ahead to post-grad life, wondering when I’ll have another opportunity to go back.

Some photos I took on my last walk around this beautiful, extremely photogenic city

An Afterword

So, it’s been a while since I’ve been back home. After weeks of waiting, some serious trouble accessing cash, and about 7 flights across Europe in two weeks, I’ve survived “study abroad.” Here’s to that!

A picture from Berlin, at the Gendarmenmarkt (a very nice Christmas market)!

My last few weeks were a lesson in stress-management. After having all my assignments due, I suddenly had to also manage all of my friends leaving at different times, and trying to say goodbye to each of them, while also finishing all of my goodbye-Europe travel plans (I only went to Rome, Berlin, and Prague…. did you know that I studied abroad in Euuuroooope?). Add on any logistical mishap, phone malfunction, or even slight delay in catching the 83 bus line, and I started to get very homesick. I missed Northwestern, I missed my classes, and I missed my friends. To me, I was about to return and continue the work that was already 6 quarters and 2 summers in progress – study abroad felt like a bit too much of an aberration, knowing that I was soon to return to one and a half more years of that same Northwestern environment.

And of course, since I’m nothing if not predictable, now I’m missing the hell out of Paris. I started writing this post during Week 3 of Winter Quarter classes, so I’ve mostly had my chance to answer everyone’s greetings of “Hello!! How was it over there?”, and each time I’ve responded, I’ve missed Paris a little more. There’s elements of my life that just aren’t the same – the crêpes are gone, it’s harder to leave my campus to go and meet friends, my weekends are less filled with new sights, and I’m meeting fewer people. On top of it all, I’ve lost the constant challenge of navigating and reflecting on difference – of trying to make sense out of a different culture’s daily life and experience that is so different from mine.

(Addendum: yes, even though I was studying in Western Europe, French society is still different. And if anything, its proximity to American culture makes the small differences, be it in education structure, in civic participation, conceptions of politeness, or social order, so much more interesting).

The more time I spend away, the more I realize that I also miss the beauty of Paris. It’s hard to describe Paris in a way that hasn’t already been said, written, sung, or played, but man, the city is beautiful. It’s uniform, in a way that’s frustrating at first. You can never really know where you are, since every set of buildings looks the same – short, with old windows, a gray-yellow colour, and a probably-really-old entrance door always equipped with a stark blue number sign. But that uniformity is also so striking. From any vantage point, Paris seems to simply sprawl itself out to the horizon. Its erratic street pattern adds texture to the city. It’s a place for getting lost, where you can just wonder upon a restaurant-studded main street (Rue Oberkampf) or yet another museum related to a 19th century novelist (the Maison de Victor Hugo by the Place des Vosges).

Paris is now a memory, and that’s a very very hard statement to reconcile. I’m not in any way dissatisfied: I know I learned a lot, and I know I grew exponentially as an independent, young, adult. There’s a distinct happiness and lightness in my daily life that I felt, where now I feel a (perhaps much more American) need for “work” and “goals.” But that stress does get a little sweeter every time I think of the wonderful people, places, and memories contained within that 4-month memory bubble.

Nonetheless, I’m so happy to have gone. The next question is when I go back. And, for how long…