How Rain changed my life

Romain Sinclair, Sciences Po Exchange, Fall 2013

In one’s time in Paris, one cannot go without noticing the incessant rain that, in my opinion, plagues the city. This blog entry is dedicated to this exquisite phenomenon.

Having constant rain truly changes the experience of living in Paris. When looking at what is to be a new home, college bound students must consider the weather when choosing colleges. The same applies for a four-month trip abroad. This is because the weather patterns strongly shape the activities that one takes part in. For instance, at Northwestern, it is terribly cold so people stay indoors at the library and study. At Sciences Po and in Paris, when it rains it’s just not as motivating to go out and sightsee what Paris has to offer. Still, the biggest letdown for me is related long boarding. I am an avid long boarder. I’m always riding at Northwestern. In Paris though, I can’t long board. The rain messes up the metal bits inside the wheel and this causes one to lose control.

On the other hand, rain can be good. The cup always has the potential to be half full. Having rain gives one time to sit back and have a coffee, or three (3 is the magic number today). On the positive side, staying in due to rain has greatly helped me with my planning abilities. In my rain-time, I’ve searched cool French movies, TV shows, and bars. Finding movies is good because then I have something to do for my other rainy days, which are inevitably right around the corner. The highlight has got to be the cool bars that rainy days allow me to research. I’ve discovered dozens of  ethnic food bars, tapas bars, cocktail bars, the list is endless. It’s great because this is something I definitely could not have access to back home.

In one way then, one could say that the rain has replaced one hobby of mine with another. Instead of longboarding, I go to bars. Yet, that wouldn’t do it justice. The rain in Paris is more symbolic than that. It’s taught me some things. I mean, it’s not pleasant, but it’s not going away. When it’s cold and rainy outside you plan for when it’s not. When it’s sunny and bright, you do the things that you wanted to do before. In sum, the rain has taught me patience.

Ici C’est Paris

Romain Sinclair, Sciences Po Exchange, Fall 2013

Having been in Paris for 3 months, it becomes apparent that France is a soccer country.  It’s called football or “foot” (pronounced F-ooot) for short.  Everyone’s a fan of foot. This is both surprising and welcoming for a soccer fan like myself. Back home there would be very few people enthusiastic enough to talk about football with.  In the remainder of this post, I will describe the advantages that living in a soccer-centric culture presents

1)   Everyone plays soccer well here. The average person from The States isn’t very comfortable playing soccer. This doesn’t mean there’s a lack of skill. There are many people both back home and at Northwestern who have worked hard to become great players. Many of these players blow me out of the water. However, the average person has trouble. If I randomly selected someone out of my friend group (most of whom did play sports in high school), chances are that person cannot even do basic movements that are essential to the game. Not in France. The average person here has played a lot of soccer in his or her childhood. This happens mostly through informal games of soccer. In a singly walk in Paris, one is bound to see at least five groups of kids playing some kind of soccer game. It’s such that even the kids who may seem nerdy are actually really good (read: better than you).

2)   The increased skill makes it easier to schedule pick-up sessions. I’ve not actually played that many pick-up games in my time here (refer to my post about how often it rains here). However, I’ve definitely had the opportunity to do so a number of times. Think of basketball in the U.S. Consider the amount of people who play basketball and the frequency of pick-up games there are. Then, you have soccer in Paris.

3)   People want to go see soccer games! This is by far the best highlight of living in a soccer nation. Most of the European friends that I’ve made since coming here have a team they support. They can also discuss in some depth their home country’s soccer league. This is really cool because when it comes time to go to a game, there is no issue in finding people to go with. An added bonus is that Paris has a really strong team. It’s called Paris Saint Germain (PSG) and it plays in the north-western part of Paris. The stadium is very easy to get to, and the atmosphere in Games is phenomenal!

Studying at Sciences Po

Amy Glazier-Torgerson, Sciences Po Exchange, Fall 2013

Normally, course registration is an exciting time for me at Northwestern. I love browsing through the course catalogue, imagining myself the courses that I systematically add to my shopping court. After finalizing my schedule, I take a screenshot of the first week and post it on my Facebook page, along with a nerdy comment about how excited I am for Special Topics in SESP: Race and Ethnicity next quarter (to any students reading: this class was amazing!) When I registered for Sciences Po classes, I got more of a rush of anxiety than joy.

Course registration was pretty scary. Unlike Northwestern’s tiered registration times, Sciences Po undergraduates register all at once, exchange students and native French speakers alike. I didn’t know about the need to register exactly at the minute registration opened, so when I tried to register, every English speaking class was closed. Since Sciences Po is officially bilingual, I had been hoping to take at least one English class. I registered for classes that looked very interesting– Punishment in the 20th Century, Introduction to Ethics, The Fifth Republic- Constitutional Law, a French language class, and the History of European Construction– but I was more than a little nervous about them all being in French.

Luckily, the welcome program calmed most of my nervous. I hope every future Sciences Po international student given the opportunity takes it to participate in the welcome program. During that week, my group “Daumesnil” (not the easiest French word to pronounce on your first day in France if you’re a timid French speaker like me) learned about the unique methodology of Sciences Po, becoming familiar with assignment terms like “exposé,” “etude de cas,” and “dissertation.” We all shared the same fear of understanding nothing, and thanks to such a realization we supported one another’s French and helped each other progress. I met plenty of other native English speakers taking on all French classes, and knew that I was up for the challenge of studying in another language.

Now that I am nearing the end of my academic semester, I can safely say that my classes went just fine. One class was completely wrong for me: I was the only international student among 120 French law majors in a class where the professor did not know that I existed. Luckily, you don’t leave Northwestern completely when you study abroad, and my IPD advisor was very helpful in finding a solution. My other classes challenged me in new ways. I’ve given oral presentations on the history of the legal term “Crime Against Humanity” and its implications in the trial of the Nazi Klaus Barbie, practiced understanding a French-Canadian accent, and figured out how to focus for back-to-back two-hour lectures. Classes run in a very different manner here and are more grounded in 2-4 big assignments, such as oral presentations, than any weekly homework or readings. My classes have been at the core of my experience in Paris, as they have exposed me to both native and non-native French speakers, unique morsels of history in very specific domains, and given me the opportunity to immerse myself in a new environment. Although I love being a Sciences Po student, I’m looking forward to being a full-time Northwestern student again.

Yesterday, I registered for classes at Northwestern, and it was an exciting time, just like I remembered it. Having struggled with expressing myself in my native language this semester, I’m thrilled to be returning to an intellectual environment where I am confident in my contributions to the class. I even miss the usual twice-weekly readings. When I posted my schedule to Facebook this time, I commented that the screenshot proved that I would be returning in just a few weeks. It is such a bittersweet feeling to return to my NU home by leaving Paris. I have to admit, I mostly posted the comment to believe it myself.

The bad, the ugly

Audrey Zong, HKUST Exchange, Fall 2013

I hope that the title got your attention! There are expectedly struggles that we face when going on a study abroad/exchange program, and below are some of mine.

1) Food

Sounds crazy right? The school canteen food has been a common complaint among many exchange students. The meats (duck, chicken) usually come in tiny portions, compensated by a too-large-serving of white rice, and the killer is that the duck and chicken comes with all the skin and little bones that make your eating experience slightly unpleasant, never knowing when – crackle – you bite into a piece of bone. Much of the food is fried/stir fried with a lot of oil, or too much butter. There are no kitchens in the common rooms or anywhere in the halls. If you want to cook, you need to buy your own electronic, portable stove and pots, pans, and cooking supplies. As someone who loves to cook healthier dishes for myself, this has been a struggle. Also, ordering can be challenging because it’s been discovered you never know what you will get, but we’ve learned that all the “italian pastas” are noodles with sauce. The other thing about ordering is the language barrier, which brings me to the second struggle.

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2.) I get mistaken for a native speaker every time.

One of the most frustrating things for me is not speaking Cantonese. For one, it would definitely make taxi rides, asking for directions, asking for food, asking for anything, a whole lot easier. But furthermore, I get mistaken as a native speaker all the time. Even when I ask in English, I receive responses in Cantonese, and although I try to explain I don’t speak Cantonese, only English, they continue to speak to me in Cantonese. Without being rude, sometimes I need to wait for the person to finish their sentences in Cantonese before repeating in English I don’t understand nor speak Cantonese. From friends, I have heard that it can be taken offensively for local-looking people to rub Hong Kong people the wrong way if I am not careful about the way I tell people I don’t speak Cantonese. To some, as I’ve been told, it can come off pompous and pretentious to “only speak English”. This is a main part of the reason that looking like a local-HKer is so frustrating. However, I have had unpleasant experiences where I get laughed at when I try to ask something in English. For example, I walked into a restaurant and asked if they had almond cookies as a dessert item. The two ladies looked at me in skepticism and looked at each other. “Almond cookies?”, no they didn’t understand what I had said. After I repeated myself a few times, they more or less understood I was trying to ask for cookies, and they gave me an abrasive response “no” and waved me off, and then snorting at me. But the abrasive responses can get categorized in the language barrier section. Or perhaps it is a Hong Kong cultural barrier that I haven’t been able to completely understand yet.

3.) Classes

3a.) Lack of respect in classrooms

The lack of respect for professors in classes comes very shocking. It seems completely normal for a classroom full of students to be talking over the professor while he or she is standing in front of the class lecturing. Sitting towards the back, I can hardly hear my professor for one class sometimes. Really, an entire class of 80+ students, all having side conversations, is too distracting, and also makes me question a professor’s credibility.

Turning this around, I have been very disappointed to hear one of my professors threaten the class that the material will be on exams, whether he gets through teaching it or not, and that if we fail, it’s our own fault because the class was too loud for him to finish lecturing. In a way, he dangled a letter grade carrot in front of our faces, and tainted the idea of learning for interest.

3b.) Grading

The classes are almost all on a bell curve. Students on the lower end of the curve can ride the curve slightly, but those at the top are immensely competing for the top percentile. This creates disunity and much competition, not the constructive kind.

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 4.) Forgetting alone-time

Exchange is a lot of fun; in my exchange group are over 300 people from all over the world, and there’s always something going on, whether it’s going on a monkey trail hike or infinity pool hike, or traveling to another country, or going out to explore new restaurants, or water sports on Hong Kong’s many islands. Amid the action, it’s so easy to lose sight of yourself when there is a constant stream of events to go to, things to see, and people to talk to, that you forget to give time to yourself to reflect. And maybe at some point we can get so accustomed to having company 24/7 that being alone becomes scary. I know this happened to me, and to overcome it, I decided to check out a novel (11/22/63- Stephen King) and stay in on a Saturday night to catch up on reading (and writing blogs of course).

5.) Status: lost

These last two posts are getting into fuzzier territories and slightly off-topic, which fits right into my state of mind. The “exchange” of an “exchange program” encompasses the exchange between you and local students as well as other exchange students. In this regard, I have been exposed to a novel outlook for further education and career paths. As many Northwestern students can relate, we have been conditioned to believe the “right” way is to do well in high school, get into a prestigious four-year university, and either pursue a higher degree of education or begin your career. In the European countries especially, there is much more freedom in choosing your own path, and university is more like “part of your life”, rather than college = “your life”. The low to free tuition definitely influences their path selection, and our very very high tuition is also the reason there is so much pressure to do well in school, get a good job, and pay off our loans. However, the students I have spoken to have much more practical, working experience than us. It is common for them to start an apprenticeship or internship towards the end of their high school years for one or two years, or do it after high school. It also seems common to take semesters off to do internships or exchange programs — at least much more casually than it is for us in the States. We argue that the U.S. has a very great education system, which is why we pay such exorbitant amounts for universities, but personally, I feel sub-par in comparison to many of the European engineering students who have had practical, hands-on experience already, both in technical skill and in terms of career confidence. There are many alternatives and possibilities, and I am young, so it’s a scary and exciting feeling to know that I am in control of my path.

 

Exploring Turkey

During the Bayram break (Eid), I embarked on a week long journey across Turkey.  The program I attended was specifically for exchange students and approximately 150 exchange students from different universities in Istanbul went on the trip.

A few days before the trip, I learned that a fellow wildcat who was studying in Amman, Jordan was coming to Istanbul for the Eid break! My excitement was followed by disappointment because I realized that since I was leaving for my trip across Turkey, I may not be able to see my friend. Luckily, the dates worked out and I was able to see my friend for a few hours before I left Istanbul. We met in Taksim and I was able to show her around Istanbul and give her tips for her visit. I ended up getting no sleep that night since I left for my trip the next day at 7 am and of course I had not packed yet!

Our first stop on the trip was Şile, a small vacation town on the black sea. It had the most beautiful beaches and the town was quite quaint. The fall weather made it impossible to swim, but my friends and I spent some time walking on the beach. When we went into town for dinner, there was a stray dog that followed us for the whole 20 minute walk back to the hotel. We joked that Şile was “dog city” since there were so many stray dogs. The local people were so welcoming, a young teenage girl stopped us on our way out of the supermarket and offered us some free chestnuts from her parents’ fruit shop. She asked us about University life and about the countries where we were from. Şile was a nice sleepy town to begin our trip and I loved  how peaceful it was.

After a day and a half in Şile, we packed up and headed to Lake Abant, a large nature park where we had a barbeque and watched the sunset. Afterwards, we  drove to Ankara for a Turkish bath. Taking a Turkish bath at midnight has to be one of the strangest things I have ever done. A Turkish bath consists of swimming in a warm water pool, going to the sauna, and receiving a deep body scrub. I slept about 2 hours on the bus that night before I was woken to watch the sunrise on Lake Tuz, one of the largest salt lakes in the world.

I spent two days in Cappadocia which is home to “fairy chimneys” and historical sites such as monasteries and churches from ancient Roman times. There are some local inhabitants who live in the fairy chimneys. I also explored  Derinkuyu Underground City in Cappadocia.

One of my favorite destinations was Ephesus, an ancient Greek city.  I had never seen Greek ruins before and it’s funny that the first time I saw Greek ruins was in Turkey. Although the ruins in Ephesus were very impressive, I definitely want to visit Greece now.

My all time favorite place is Pamukkale, which means cotton castle in Turkish. Pamukkale is a natural hot spring  and the ancient Greco-Roman city of Hierapolis was built at the top of Pamukkale. Although it was around 50 degrees when I went to Pamukkale, I was still able to go swimming since it is a hot spring. The view from the top of Pamukkale is one of the most incredible I have ever seen. It looks like the rocks are covered in snow, but the color is actually due to the minerals. I am so happy that I had the opportunity to see other places in Turkey outside of Istanbul. Despite long hours on a bus and overall exhaustion, the trip was so worth it!

Hong Kong Treasures

Audrey Zong, HKUST Exchange, Fall 2013

Besides the breathtaking skyline and the endless shopping Hong Kong is often known for, there are many overlooked aspects that I think Hong Kong is not credited enough for. In this post, I will take you through some things Hong Kong has to offer.

Food with a free view:

Tim Ho Wan is known as the cheapest one-star dim sum Michelin rated restaurant. Generally if you go to the small restaurant, there is going to be a wait, even if you’re eating at an odd hour, so it’s not surprising to imagine that trying to get a table at lunch or dinner time ends in a one – to two- hour wait.

The solution? Get food to go! And the bonus: get food to go and bring it up to the 4th floor terrace to have a lunch/dinner with a view of the Victoria Harbour Skyline. And make SURE to try the HK famous Barbeque Pork buns!!

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BBQ Pork buns

Screen shot 2015-02-06 at 1.14.27 PMView at the terrace (The terrace is on the 4th floor of the IFC Building)

Hiking:

The hiking trails are, in my opinion, the most understated aspect of Hong Kong. There are amazing trails all along the coast that lead to sandy white beaches, which is exactly what we stumbled upon during the section 1 hike of the Maclehose trail. After an easy to moderate walk/hike for about two hours, we came to the Tai Long Wan beach. Its soft, white, sand and beautifully clear waters is hidden by the mountains on either sides, making it feel like a true hidden treasure. To get there, follow the section 1 of the Maclehose trail and you can’t miss it!

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Clear waters and white sand

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A very international hiking crew

Views without the price:

Victoria Peak is everyone’s to-do list for anyone visiting Hong Kong, but the whole ordeal can feel very touristy- starting with the long wait for the overly-priced trams. Instead, go with friends and split a cab- it’s way faster and cheaper. After you get to the top, you can pay for the observatory for the view. I found an alternative that feels much more authentic while enjoying the view: at the peak, instead of going up to the observatory, follow Lugard road for about a 10 minute walk, and you’ll find an unparalleled view of the Hong Kong skyline.

As with any city, it’s fun and rewarding to explore it for its hidden gems. So all those study abroad-ers, make sure you don’t miss out!

What can a camera not capture of study abroad?

Amy Glazier-Torgerson, Sciences Po Exchange, Fall 2013

Every day for the past eight weeks of my study abroad journey at Sciences Po in Paris, I have been eagerly taking pictures of my daily adventures. Among those pictures are those of famous Parisian monuments that, despite their grandiosity, I’ve accidentally stumbled upon, the amazing cliff top views I’ve soaked in during visits to Granada, Spain and Normandy, and of course the decadent desserts I scarf down like I have the metabolism of a French woman (I don’t). The photos I’ve taken try to capture the amazingness that is an exchange student’s life exploring Paris and other parts of Europe, but in sending them on to family and friends, the photos can only capture just that: what you see. Forgive the expression, but there is a great deal more to my two months in Paris than meets the eye. I’ve loved seeing the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame so much, but to give you, the reader, more of a taste of my experience, I want to take you through a day in the life of an exchange student living in Paris.

I can use my day today as a bit of a case study. This morning, I woke up leisurely at 9am because I don’t have any classes on Thursday. I may have fewer hours of class here than at Northwestern, but there is a greater emphasis on oral presentations that demand considerable attention. After reading a few French language articles on Denazification in the French zone of occupation in Germany and Austria for one of such projects, I left my homestay in the 11th arrondissement and found a major student protest. I followed the protest for about half a mile listening to the chants criticizing the expulsion of a Roma middle schooler and eavesdropping on debates. Later that night at dinner with my host family, we talked about the French tradition of protesting and the danger of people being forced into political activisim without passion for the cause, but instead for the activity of protesting. I argued that the tradition of political activism at a young age can at least instill a desire for sincere activism throughout life. All in French: success!

After observing the scene, I went to a café for several hours to make travel plans for fall break with my friend from Sciences Po. Splitting up legs of the trip with different friends, we’ll be visiting Brussels, Amsterdam, Naples, Venice, Vienna, and Prague… in 11 days! We’re wishing there had been a seminar on navigating European public transit and finding hostels that won’t give you bug bites.

After we split, I took the metro across town to a hole-in-the-wall hot yoga studio where I finally found a good bargain on classes–no shock, Paris is an expensive city, especially for yoga. Detecting my accent (everyone does), the instructor asked me D’où venez-vous? (Where are you from?) and we talked about hot yoga practice in the USA. After an energizing class filled with new French vocabulary verbs (exhale with a flat back?) I wouldn’t ever have learned in class, I took the metro home in my workout clothes: a big no-no, but that’s one habit of mine that won’t go down without a fight. After a delicious dinner with my homestay family where, as usual, my big American appetite appeared in full force, I did more reading and skyped family. I’m going to a lecture in the morning at Sciences Po on economic equality, so I need to go to bed early!

Even though I passed through popular districts and monuments, the most remarkable parts of my day were moments of immersion: expressing myself honestly with my host family, understanding the conversations around me, and also importantly doing what I love in a new city. I can’t capture on camera most of these experiences, or others like the pride in being told “you speak great English for a French girl” (it happened once and never will again, but I’ll cling to it forever), or the frustration of balancing personal time with soaking in all that Paris has to offer. The stories I can’t capture on camera have transformed what would otherwise be an eight-week vacation into a life of perpetual adventures in Paris.

Türkiye Çok Güzel

Hagar Gomaa, Koç University Exchange, Fall 2013

Is this school on top of a mountain or something?! That was my first thought as I rode from the airport to Koç University. The university is situated in the northern most district of Istanbul. From my dorm room, I have a view of the Black Sea. It takes about 20 minutes on the minibus to travel from the neighboring district of Sariyer to Koç and the whole journey is uphill.

Activities Fair at Koç University

My first week in Istanbul was a whirlwind of new experiences.  Meeting people from all over the world has definitely been one of the highlights of being abroad.  My Turkish mentor took me and my other exchange friends into the neighboring area of Sariyer to purchase essentials including sheets, snacks, and a Turkish phone. I spent my first couple of days wandering around in Sariyer with the other exchange students. There are many cafes and restaurants on the Bosphorus strait in Sariyer and the view is simply breathtaking.

I visited common tourist areas such as the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia, and Topkapi Palace. I was especially fascinated by the Aya Sofia which is a church that was later converted to a mosque. It has paintings of Jesus right next to Islamic scripture and I think this is a beautiful image of religions coexisting.

Hagia Sophia/ Aya Sofia

One of the difficulties about being in Turkey is my limited Turkish. Although all the courses taught at Koç are taught in English, most of the staff that works in the student center and dorms do not speak English. I have slowly been improving my Turkish by chatting with the staff in the student center and with people I meet in cafes or restaurants. Turkish people are incredibly friendly and helpful! During my first few weeks I did not have a transit card that is required for all bus and metro services, so I relied on strangers to swipe their card for me and I gave them cash. Most of the people I encountered were happy to swipe their card for me and refused to take the cash when I offered it!

Istanbul really is where east meets west. My university (as well as most major tourist attractions) is on the European side of Istanbul. The Asian side of Istanbul is more residential and many of the Turkish students’ families who attend Koç live on the Asian side. I did not venture to the Asian side until my third or fourth week because it can be a long journey which requires the minibus, a bus, and the ferry.

Both sides of Istanbul divided by the Bosphorus

 

Taksim square is the center of all nightlife and shopping! The first time I walked through Taksim, I was amazed by how many people were able to walk through one street. I felt like I was in a scene from a movie because every street vendor, club owner, restaurant waiter, and  kiosk owner was calling to us to buy something or to come try their product. Of course, Taksim is also a very touristy area. Many of the street vendors speak some Arabic and they recognized that I was Arab and would  speak to me in Arabic.

Galata Tower near Taksim Square

“Where are you from?” is the first thing Turkish people ask all foreigners. My identity as an Arab American can be an anomaly to some people. I always respond with American and wait until they ask, “but where are you really from?” before explaining that I am also Egyptian. Most of the time they are fascinated to meet a practicing Muslim American and ask me some questions about being born and raised in a non Muslim country and wearing hijab. I am always happy to answer and to refute the stereotype that all Americans are white.

Koç University has a beautiful campus although it is a bit secluded from central Istanbul. To travel to Taksim square it takes about an hour and a half by public transportation and 50 minutes by taxi. I like my classes and especially enjoy my courses in Turkish Language and in Ottoman History. It can be difficult to travel further than Sariyer during the school week, but luckily I have Fridays off so I make use of the weekends to explore Istanbul. One of my goals moving forward is to travel more during the week. In my next blog post I will detail my travels across Turkey during my week off from school.

 

We’re definitely not in Hong Kong anymore.

Audrey Zong, HKUST Exchange, Fall 2013

One of the coolest things about Hong Kong for students studying abroad is its convenience and proximity to numerous southeast Asian countries. My first travel experience was to Vietnam.

(Tip: For anyone else studying abroad in Hong Kong now or in the future, check out this deal called “Fanfares” offered by Dragon Air and Cathay Pacific. Every Tuesday morning at 8 am, there are 10 or so fantastic flight deals to all different southeast asian countries as well as others that are farther away. For example, last week, there was a Fanfare to from Hong Kong to Chicago for $550 roundtrip! But you have to be quick. Some of these deals are snatched up in less than an hour)

Through Fanfare, a group of 12 exchange students booked a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam, which is the large city in the northern part of Vietnam. In Hanoi, your first and biggest fear is death by motorbike. Seriously, every second person in the city owns a motorbike. So imagine Hanoi’s rush hour as such: driving in LA during rush hour with motorbikes touching tail to head, completely stuck. I think it’s plausible that if everyone left their motorbike and walked home, they could easily cut their commute time. But surprisingly, I did not see one single accident the entire stay in Vietnam. Perhaps it’s the fact that everyone is constantly being attentive to their surroundings because there are so many cars, motorbikes and people everywhere.

The first activity for us was a Ha Long Bay Cruise. The Bay was very scenic and cool, but the picturesque aspect of this Bay was tainted by the hundreds of commercial cruise boats, like ours, out on the water. During the cruise, we were able to explore a cave, kayak in the bay, learn to make traditional Vietnamese spring rolls, and tan out on the top of the boat. The more interesting part of Vietnam was hidden in Mai Chau, a rural village 180 km to the northwest of Hanoi. We went to Mai Chau with no tour guide and no plan, but it turned out to be fantastic. We stayed in a stilt-house homestay, where our bedroom is a floor with 12 pads laid out, each with a pillow and blanket, and a mosquito net around all 12 pads. It wasn’t the most comfortable sleep we’ve ever gotten (especially because of the roosters at the crack of dawn), but in comparison to where the host stayed, we were very lucky. The host and her entire family lives in one single room, with a mattress in one corner, a small table at another, and the kitchen at the third corner, and the door at the 4th corner.

The most exciting and exhilarating part of the trip is riding motor bikes. With only a helmet as protection, we were able to go as fast at 80 km/hour. Doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re out on a windy road with only a helmet and an unpredictable road of animals, your life feels very precious. We explored up and down, left and right, and found a small, untouched lake, where we were able to jump into the water from the bridge. Roaming through Mai Chau through foot and bike made us all recognize how different these people’s lives are, and perhaps they don’t know what else is out there, or maybe they do but they prefer the simpler life better.

Below are a few pictures from Vietnam:

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Biking

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Upgraded Biking

 

 

Horse races and mooncakes

Audrey Zong, HKUST Exchange, Fall 2013

Among many other firsts, Hong Kong has unveiled to me the sport of Horse Racing. The Hong Kong Jockey Club is quite famous, especially for horse races at the Happy Valley Racecourse every Wednesday night. A few exchange students and I found our way to the public, lower-level part of the racecourse, and we were met by a sea of fashionable, young working adults, casually hanging out with other young, hip, working people. Granted it was the opening night of the night horse races, the racecourse was packed with people, and the area we were in (the lower-region) doesn’t even account for the numerous VIP tables and booths in the upper region.

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Looking completely lost, we made our way to the bleachers to watch the first horse race begin. There are a total of 8 races per night, and each race has 10 – 12 horses racing, but each horse only races once a night. After watching the first race, some people we were with were ready to try their luck and place bets, but we had no clue how to. On the bleachers and in the area where you place you bets, we discovered a very different demographic of people; we saw many older, local men, clutching to a wad of sheets where you write down your bets, along with newspapers scribbled with notes and marks. Many were also plugged into the handheld radios; their concentration would not be broken. The contrast between these older locals and the posh, younger crowd was startling.

With no idea of the difference between quinellas, tierce, quinella place, win, and place, bets were somewhat blindly placed 15 minutes from the start of the next race. From the bleachers, we watched the horses run on the large screen, but were able to see them on the track while they sprinted in the last straight-a-way.

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Some won, some lost, but by the end of the night, most came out to zero.

Another first for me is celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival, the second biggest holiday in China – the equivalent of Thanksgiving or Christmas for many people in the United States. To celebrate, I went to a Mid-Autumn Festival. There were a ton of lanterns at the festival, but not as many as the number of people. Thousands of locals and tourists alike gathered at the park where the festival took place to see the lanterns and a few traditional Chinese dance and song performances.

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Besides observing the hundreds of lanterns, I ate THE food of the Mid-Autumn holiday: the Mooncake. It’s a dense pastry filled with red bean or lotus cake paste, and generally has an egg yolk in the center. In the historical context, mooncakes were used to smuggle messages to overthrow the Mongol rule. While it was neat to see the lanterns and try traditional foods, the congestion and heat got the best of me and I called it a night.