When I began my undergraduate studies at Northwestern, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an engineer. What I did know was that I wanted to study global health.

Upon beginning school, I immediately declared my minor (a major in global health wasn’t offered back in those days) and planned out a 4-year course schedule that included a study abroad in South Africa. As is always the case, those plans had to be rewritten. In my 2nd year, I accepted an engineering co-op with Johnson & Johnson’s medical device division, which delayed my graduation plans by one year and interrupted the clean course sequences I had so meticulously arranged. The plan went through another major revision when I added a second engineering major my 3rd year, and yet another when I changed my mind and removed that double major during my 4th year.

Throughout each rewrite, as courses were added and replaced and flexed and moved, one thing remained unchanged: I was going to South Africa. I switched back and forth between whether it would be in my 4th year or my 5th year and whether it would be in the winter or in the spring, but South Africa was going to happen no matter what.

Now, in the very last quarter of my 5th year of undergrad, I’m finally going. I’ll pack my bags tonight (because why do it before the last minute?) and fly out tomorrow, landing 32 hours later and transforming into reality the dream I’ve dreamed for so long.

non progredi est regredi

Image from

“How was South Africa?”

As I reflect on this spring quarter and even my first blog post, it’s becoming clear that this experience did indeed change me in lasting ways. But I’m realizing that many of the specific ways I learned and grew go beyond what I predicted. I’ll spare you the laundry list of details and share a few ways I both did and didn’t expect to grow.

Here is a shot of an African penguin sanctuary. One of infinite examples of natural beauty.

I expected this program to reinforce my passion for protecting people’s health (it absolutely did), but I didn’t realize that it would bolster my feeling of adamancy when it comes to protecting nature from climate change and human abuse. For that I owe the everyday experience of South Africa’s absolutely vibrant biodiversity (in both flora AND fauna!), excursions to natural reserves, an unending series of surprise hikes, and the truly beautiful experience in Kruger National Park and the Drs. David and Cleo’s wisdom and examples of environmental research and advocacy.

This is one of my favorite pieces from an art exhibit by and about South African women called Being Her(e) which we saw in an old apartheid-era jail in Johannesburg. The artist overlapped an image of herself with an old image of her mother.

While I anticipated I would become a stronger advocate for non-dominant races and ethnicities (you bet it did), I didn’t anticipate becoming so much more passionate about women’s rights and feminism during my time in South Africa. For that, I owe a lot of thanks to the wonderful women I shared this experience with and their fearlessness and unending support for each other, to Professor Guows’ example of both career and personal excellence all while fighting tirelessly for other women yet retaining her sense of humor, and to the many resilient and passionate South African women who often work the hardest and receive the least credit.

Here are most of the program participants after hiking Cape Town’s Lion’s Head Mountain on our penultimate weekend in South Africa.

Finally, I expected to make great friends on this program, but I couldn’t have anticipated how much I’ve improved for knowing them. Through example, they taught me to be a more fearlessly and actively supportive and encouraging friend, to be free and exuberant with compliments. Through their friendships they unknowingly encouraged me to speak up more, to be a better judge of when to take breaks, to be adventurous and spontaneous while taking care of myself and others, to articulate my thoughts to convey logic but not at the expense of feeling. I could go on for paragraphs, but I promised to spare you the tedious specifics.

When people ask me, “How was South Africa?” I say it was incredible. Beyond that, I don’t know where to start without taking up hours of their time; I haven’t yet found a way to reduce what feel like a year’s worth of experiences this spring to a short summary or sound byte, and I couldn’t feel more fortunate to be in that position.

Saying Goodbye to South Africa — For Now

It is absolutely crazy to think about my time in South Africa — that it even happened at all. Three months passed so quickly, and I have so, so many fond memories in Stellenbosch, Cape Town, the Garden Route, the Kruger and Johannesburg.

Our last Northwestern-sponsored dinner at a vineyard in Stellenbosch

I’ve learned so much about being Asian American in a different racial context, about being female in a society that experiences one of the highest rates of violence against women, and about the promises and failures of a public health system that tries to offer free, comprehensive health care through an underfunded, overworked system.

I’ve experienced the most extravagant South African wines, foods and landscapes. I’ve hiked Table Mountain three times, visited the beautiful Kirstenbosch gardens twice and drank at so many gorgeous wineries. I’ve run across the sand on Indian Ocean beaches at nighttime, watching the phosphorescent bacteria light up little sparks beneath my feet. I’ve bungee jumped for the first (and last) time, praying for my life while suspended over a silent canyon. I’ve watched the sun set in glorious colors on outside patios by the sea. I’ve had beautiful, wonderful conversations with new lifelong friends while drinking rooibos tea and eating rusks.

A low-quality image of a high-quality South African sunset, on my final ascent of Table Mountain

I’ve even had time to examine what I want my future career to look like. I’ve decided to pursue global health research in the future, to help draw attention to health care access among minority groups in the U.S. My professors and TA’s in Stellenbosch have helped me see that it’s a path that I can carve out for myself.

This past quarter in South Africa has been one of the highlights of not just my time at Northwestern, but of my life so far. I feel so blessed, and so, so privileged, to have done it all, and I hope to be back again someday.


To be frank, a large chunk of our South African experience was constricted to a very Western culture and style of living in South Africa. Despite South Africa’s diverse people groups and 11 different official languages. A majority of our interactions were with white Afrikaans or British people who only make up around 10% of the entire South African population. There were several instances where we could interact with other people, like during out isiXohsa language lecture or our service learning sites that we went to 3 times. But those experiences mostly did not lead us to become close to other people. That’s why I was excited to learn that we would have a homestay with a family in the village of Hamakuya. We finally did not have access to any hamburgers or pizza. Instead, we helped our host mom, Constance, cook pap (corn meal), snacked on Baobab fruit, and dined on Mopane worms. We danced on the dirt floor with Constance and the neighboring children and learned how to play Morabaraba with the host dad, Rodney.

I found it slightly ironic that we experienced a mostly Western side of South Africa despite the fact that they make up only 10% in population. This might be because our host school, Stellenbosch University, is still 61% white, and neocolonialism takes shape in capitalistic ventures of fast food and clothing stores. I know one or two students found the Hamakuya experience difficult in food and culture, I treasured this experience of getting to know a loving family and a beautiful culture outside our usual context.

More Thoughts on Kruger National Park

Seeing Kruger did make me sad that humans had wiped out the majority of this biodiversity throughout the rest of South Africa (as well as most places worldwide). I’m especially sympathetic to other intelligent, emotional, social animals that have been victimized by the aggression of historically European colonizers armed with guns, germs, and steel. The situation of elephants as such animals who historical indigenous people respected as another pseudo-human civilization meriting respect yet who are now domesticated for our tourist pleasure or culled because of a problem we produced reminds me of my favorite documentary, Blackfish, which tells the parallel story of orcas. It seems that there is a global trend in the danger that Westerners pose to these animals which is really a shame. Another universally felt environmental issue imposed primarily by the greed and excess of Europeans and other first-worlders is climate change; the visible excess of bushy growth in the savannas – a proven result of heightened atmospheric carbon dioxide – was a heart-aching reminder of the widespread damages wrought by the anthropocene.

As atmospheric carbon dioxide increases due to climate change, the landscape of the savanna changes. The classic savanna vegetation was characterized primarily by tall trees like the one in the background here and tall grasses like the one in the foreground. But because bushes thrive in heightened carbon dioxide conditions, Kruger has seen an increase in the bushy mid-height vegetation seen here obscuring a baby giraffe and populating the landscape.

This global north/south dynamic in all its injustice was closely mirrored in the issue of rhino poaching. Driven by Vietnamese and Chinese demand, it reminds me of the damage inflicted on indigenous communities by the Chinese mafia’s exporting of poached seafood and accompanying peddling of drugs that we witnessed on our earlier visit to Hout Bay. Throughout this quarter I’ve been consistently amazed by the interconnectedness of global politics not just in these issues but also in, for instance, the SA-Russia nuclear power deal due in part to Zuma’s friendship with Putin (and Putin’s close deep involvement in American domestic politics… what a tangled web). Now more than ever I am aware of the US’s need to act responsibly in conservation efforts and social justice. While I know that the US is lacking to say the least, I am happy that at least USAID is still active and I will do what I can to push for continued and improved humanitarian aid and environmental regulation through what I hope to be a career in advocacy.

Rhinos like the one shown here that we spotted near the road are endangered due to the illegal poaching and trading of their horns on the black market, driven largely by cultural beliefs about the horns’ powers in China and Vietnam.

The issue of exclusion of non-whites has heightened my sensitivity to the injustice done to Native Americans. It is an absurd Western concept to think that land which has existed for millions of years can be “owned” by anyone, much less that ownership can be won by some arbitrary and unjust battle or payment. It is a shame that indigenous people with long histories in and symbiotic relationships with land could be displaced and excluded from land that was then largely destroyed for white profit or enjoyment. It is so frustrating to see that this pattern is continuing in the US with, among other things, the Dakota Access Pipeline. Experiencing and learning about the South African parallels as an outsider with a more unbiased standpoint than I can have at home has reinvigorated my hope to act as an advocate for indigenous rights at home.

Wine and MORE Wine in Wine Country, South Africa

New Motto: Live with Wine

Stellenbosch, in many ways, is very similar to Evanston — bougie shops and bougie people in a pretty college-y town — but in One Major Way, it is Very Different, indeed:


There is much wine to be had in Stellenbosch, and if you are over the age of 18 and open to imbibing alcohol, you should definitely partake. For people in this specific audience, you’ll be happy to know that the first and last class trips we take for our Culture, Language and Identity class are an exciting grouping of wineries, paid for by your Northwestern tuition.

Things to know before you go:

  • Wineries have excellent waitstaff, who will describe the wines’ “notes,” subtle flavors and smells, and specific distilling processes. Ask lots of questions!
  • Before you sip, you can do a number of things to pretend like you know a lot about wine. Swirl the wine in the glass and peer closely into your glass. Smell the wine and describe fruity, nutty or spicy smells — for red wines, use dark fruit words like “raspberry” and for white, use light fruit words like “melon”. Always say these smells are “on the nose,” which I’m pretty sure just means that you can smell those things. Notice the aftertaste of the wine as well and describe them as best you can. This gets more fun as you drink more wine.
  • If you hate the wine you try, you don’t have to finish it! There will be a vessel of some kind in the middle of the table where you can dispose of wines you don’t like.
  • Wineries are literally beautiful. Take lots of pictures to make all your friends jealous at home. Rows and rows of vines, mountainous surroundings and a wine glass in hand make for great pictures. Dress accordingly.
  • When you decide to go to wineries on your own, rest assured: tastings range from 30 to 80 rand (~$3-8 USD) for three to five wines. My favorite wineries were probably De Waal, where they invented pinotage wine, Uva Mira, because it was named after me, and Postcard Cafe, which has stunning views and an amazing selection of wines. A couple of friends also went on the Franschoek Wine Tram and enjoyed a whole day of endless wineries.

Uva Mira was beautiful AND was named after me.

As you visit wineries, take the chance to relax and enjoy yourself —but always be conscious of the fact that you are participating in one of the most exclusive experiences in South Africa. Though tastings are cheap in American dollars, they are not cheap for a majority of South Africans.

The wine industry is one created by white European colonizers, who began distilling wine to keep away scurvy as they sailed around Africa to “trade” with the Far East. White vineyard owners enslaved Malay and African peoples to work for them and often kept their workers on a diet of wine that bred alcoholism and kept them subservient.

Now, however, wineries are used as a tourism tactic for the country. Many wine shop attendants and winery waiters have insinuated to us that South Africa is “not like the rest of Africa” in part because it has wine — and in that way, is more European — more civilized — than the rest of the continent.

Just like every other aspect of South Africa, apartheid, racism and colonialism touch wine culture. Do not divide your ‘vacation’ experience from the experiences of South Africans and the historical context of the privileges you enjoy.

That said, explore as many wineries as you can! In that way, you can understand more about this unique aspect of South African culture — and hopefully store away enough memories of incredible wine to tide you over when you find yourself back in Evanston.

Thoughts on Kruger National Park

As a biology major and (notoriously among our group) lover of flora and fauna, I absolutely loved our recent week in Kruger National Park. Here I’m going to share a couple miscellaneous thoughts and feelings that have stayed with me since we left.

I felt fulfilled and overwhelmed by all the “natural” beauty around us. Several times I found myself thinking about an old NPR podcast on beauty in which a scientist explained that humans find beauty in nature and particularly specific types of nature scenes due to evolutionary bio-programming. Specifically, the research shows that humans prefer paintings of savanna-like landscapes with lush grass and sparse, tall trees and a water source (pond or stream) of some sort, and humans also show a bias in favor of the color blue. Scientists believe that this is because the earliest human ancestors (i.e. from the cradle of humankind in the nearby South African province of Gauteng, adjacent to the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces in which Kruger resides) lived in savannas and needed vegetation, water, shade, and elevated homesteads to see predators approaching in order to survive, flourish, and reproduce. As someone whose naturalistic worldview is centered on a respect for and interest in all kinds of life, it was an incredible and poignant privilege to spend nearly a week in the setting of the beginning of humankind and, moreover, of incredible biodiversity in both plants and animals.

I took this picture from a game drive vehicle. It’s a good example of an image which humans are biologically predisposed to consider beautiful.

To expand on biodiversity, one especially exciting aspect was what we in the game drive vehicles associated with the “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. I loved seeing herbivores like giraffe, zebra, antelope, and buffalo along with, often, baboons and warthogs all grazing together in close quarters. It was almost a metaphorical picture of the (overly idealized) South African rainbow nation with so many species coexisting and mutually benefitting from each other. One of our guides, a biologist named Cleo, gave lectures on elephants and termites that expanded this picture. I love that the tiny and un-showy underground insects are responsible for so much macro-vegetation and animal life, providing great water sources and root tracks, mineral licks, air-conditioned homes, and nutritious soil and thus grazing material that trickled all the way up the food chain. This bottom-up savanna governance reminds me of the movements for grassroots democracy that are happening in both the US and SA in response to their respective presidents.

Here is one of many sightings of various herbivore species grazing together. Zebra, antelope, and wildebeest herds are visible in close proximity here, and giraffe and ostrich herds were close by.

The issue of elephant overpopulation in Kruger (a pretty surprising one to me given the predominance of the ivory-poaching narrative in the West, which is a critical problem in other parts of Africa) brings to my mind the very complicated relationship between humans and “nature.” In contrast to the vast majority of the earth’s surface, national parks like Kruger seem to us like almost completely untouched earth. Nature reserves make the macro reorganization of the earth by humans – from the widespread deforestation and urbanization of the planet’s surface to the global exchange of domesticated species to, back home, the industrial redirection of the flow of the Chicago River – more glaringly obvious. It was jarring when we exited the park gate to goats, cows, donkeys, litter, huts, and sparse vegetation. But still, on closer inspection, even Kruger was artificially constructed through pumped watering holes and relatively glamorous camps and also simply by the closure of the area to the outside by a fence. The confinement of elephants to the park and therefore high concentration of herds, as Cleo taught us in her lecture on elephant culling, damages the tree populations and the birds and insects that depend on them and ultimately the whole ecosystem. To me this issue raised the question of whether humans can interfere in nature in any way, even to preserve it, without disrupting the whole natural order. Paradoxically, human preservation of nature inherently disrupts nature. It also makes me wonder whether more intervention (culling) on top of the original (fencing) can in fact be considered more natural than simply letting the wildlife exist as it will after minimal intervention. I’m persuaded to think that we should “clean up” after our disruption via culling, but I think there is a tension between “nature preservation” and the artificial imposition of our ideal of what nature should be.

I took this photo of part of a large elephant herd we saw drinking from a watering hole. Because Kruger is enclosed by a fence, elephants are unable to roam over their natural areas and are therefore overpopulated within the Kruger space. The ensuing artificial elevation in their trampling and tree-knocking behaviors is destructive to the savanna ecology.


Racism in Post-Apartheid South Africa

In 1994, South Africa officially ended apartheid, a period of segregation, violence, and discrimination on the basis of race. It is what Mandela and thousands of activists fought bravely against whilst enduring unfair imprisonment, torture, and even death. It has now been a little over 20 years since the end of such atrocities, but the impact echoes down until today. Throughout our program, we learned and saw much of this effect. We learned about #feesmustfall campaign fighting against fees that restrict impoverished, mostly black and colored students from attending higher education. We were students at a university that had 61% white students in a 10% white country. We met people waiting to receive compensation and houses from the government who kicked them out of their homes during the apartheid.

Although we saw first hand the impact of racism, we unfortunately experienced some directly. As we explored South Africa, a handful of black men approached the three Asian student on the program and yelled racial comments, such as “China”, “Ni Hao”, and “Hello Asian person”. One employee at the Cape Town airport came up to one of us, tugged his eyes to the side in a squint, and made racial jokes at him. I was furious. Even in Trump’s America, I had not experienced anything like this. The most frustrating thing was that black men, who had experienced discrimination and racial hatred only 20 years prior, were committing those same hateful acts towards me and my two other classmates. Why is this happening? One of my professors explained in a lecture that because 20 years have passed since the apartheid, a new generation of South Africans who don’t remember or lived through the apartheid was coming up. Perhaps my experience with racism in South Africa is due to the fact that people don’t remember being explicitly discriminated against. Or perhaps its for other reasons. But one thing was made clear for me: racial reconciliation goes beyond US boarders or between whites and blacks; despite its atrocious racial history, the world has so much more to learn in loving and respecting others.


(No pictures or the use of phones were allowed during Parliament sessions)

Even after hearing how crazy parliament is from my TA and Professor, I was not prepared for what I saw and experienced during our class trip to the South African Parliament. We had the privilege of seeing different ares of parliament buildings and learn more about the process and daily workings of Parliament from a member of the DA. We had a very structured and well planned tour through different chambers before heading straight into the crazy beast. We started to make our way to the main chamber as a bell rang. It was supposed to indicate to members that the session was to start soon, but it might as well have been equivalent to a bell indicating a natural disaster was to strike and civilians should evacuate.

Somehow, the session was a mix of respectful behavior and chaotic insults. When the Speaker entered, everyone stopped talking and stood up before her. Throughout the session, members would bow towards the Deputy Speaker before leaving the chamber or approaching them to privately discuss a matter. In complete contrast to this practice, members from all parties constantly hurled insults, held private conversations, and texted/played games on their phones DURING speeches. The insults sometimes had nothing to do with critiquing or debating any parts of the speech content. Sometimes, they were directed towards the speaker or party the speaker was a part of. For example: a member of the EFF yelled “BORING!!” during the Speaker’s opening statement. It reminded me of a rap battle where participants try to out insult the other through whatever means possible. And speaking of irrelevant insults, almost all of the speeches rarely touched the topic of the session: parliamentary budget. Speech points included gender rights, children rights, drought, secret ballots, and of course, insults.

My professor and TA have proposed that the ANC is too corrupt and the DA need to step into power. But no matter which party is in power, the parliamentary culture would leave the parliament at a stand still, or frankly, a laughing stock. From my limited knowledge of South African politics and my background in Learning and Organizational Change, I believe a mere change in part power will not solve parliamentary problems. Alas, the ANC can’t be blamed for everything that’s wrong in South African government.

Spring break in Cape Town

I came to Stellenbosch without taking any class on South African history, politics or culture, so the only things I knew were of the general variety—that apartheid happened, that it ended in 1994, that Nelson Mandela was a hero.

But I came anyway, and I came a week early, figuring I would spend spring break in Cape Town and catch up on my knowledge gap. For a week, I hiked Table Mountain, visited the Kirstenbosch gardens, walked through Bo-Kaap’s colorful streets, visited the District Six museum, watched so many breathtakingly beautiful sunsets on the shoreline, and took many, many jetlagged and finals-week-exhaustion naps.

I also was able to read a few books. On my last weekend there, before the program began, I spent some time alone, drinking coffee in amazing cafes (check out Truth Coffee Roasting, a very not-insider’s-scoop because it was literally named the best coffee shop in the world) and finishing two books about South Africa.

The first, titled After Mandela, is a journalistic perspective from a white American author named Douglas Foster about the Mbeki and early Zuma regimes—how the African National Congress (ANC) political party has or hasn’t delivered on promises and what the political regime looks like from young people’s perspectives. I was particularly interested by the interviews he conducted with members of this Born Free generation, who are more or less my age—individuals born after apartheid ended in 1994. A significant gap exists between this younger generation and the older generations who lived through and fought against apartheid. True liberation, including economic empowerment of black and “coloured” (“mixed”) populations, freedom from HIV/AIDS and fears of sexual and physical violence, seems far-off, despite the post-apartheid promises of a nonracial, equitable world.

However, this was written in the perspective of a white American journalist. Though I haven’t been able to unpack his hidden biases completely yet (I’m hoping my global health classes will help me understand more clearly South African perspectives on traditional medicine versus antiretroviral medication, South African populism, and specific cultural values among all the diverse identity groups in the country), it’s safe to say that every person brings his or her perspective to bear on whatever it is they see, and in this case, report on.

I sought a true South African perspective next. I visited the Book Lounge on the corner of Roeland and Buitenkant Streets, just down the road from Truth Coffee Roasting, and found Period Pain by Kopano Matlwa, an award-winning South African writer. This was a first-person perspective, fictionalized but based on lived South African experiences, from a black female doctor who works in a public hospital. The writing is structured in journal entries that are, in turn, anguished, personal, biting, deep. The words seemed to sink in and nestle in my chest, and I reread multiple passages. I sat in the bookstore café and read the whole thing through in one sitting. It’s 200 pages and riveting, with zero wasted words—about violence against African immigrants to the “exceptional miracle” of South African democracy, about sexual violence against women in a patriarchal society, about the idealized nonracial world that South Africans hope to live in—but without using these cumbersome academic words. The issues become personal, as these issues always are, and relatable, from an American perspective and an American society that now openly espouses patriarchy, racism, and sexism and calls is populism. I feel lucky to have read Matlwa’s words. They are so good.

So my spring break was, in every sense of the word, perfect—a perfect “pre-departure” trip, or in my case, a perfect pre-program trip. I rested after finals week. I hiked!—my favorite thing in the world. I read!—my second favorite thing in the world. Now I feel like I have a marginally less-meager background in South African culture. It’s still sparse and narrow and dated, but far more substantial than it was previously.

Now, I have three months to learn more, and hike more, and read more, and make new Northwestern and Stellies/Maties friends (University of Stellenbosch nicknames for the students and the sports teams, respectively). Here’s hoping that I walk away from this trip having learned a lot—about South African history, culture and public health, and about myself, as an Asian American woman who’s trying to figure out her post-graduation plans.