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There and Back Again

Now that I have returned to Northwestern after spending four months in Zürich, Switzerland, it has been nice to return to familiar places and see familiar faces, yet a lot has certainly changed – not only about campus itself, but I feel that I have also changed as a result of my time abroad. It certainly has taken some time to adjust to the fact that I can’t use the CTA to transport myself into the mountains or whisk myself off to another country.

Hiking to the top of Malbun, Liechtenstein.

The flat cityscape of Chicago is certainly a far cry from the stoic peaks of Engelberg and Interlaken, but at the same time, seeing signs I can once read is a welcoming feeling that makes it seem as though I never left. During my time abroad, I made an effort to explore Zürich and as much of Switzerland that I could.

Resting on a bridge in Budapest, Hungary.

Skiing with great friends.

During these travels, I met new people who have changed my outlook on life as well as gained new cultural perspectives that I would not have been able to comprehend by staying in the United States. Although four months is only but a fraction of my time spent in college, I have learned more about life and the world in these past four months than I have during the sum of the three years I have spend at Northwestern.

Enjoying Raclette, a Swiss favorite.

Studying abroad has opened my mind to new experiences, allowed me to explore exciting new places, and meet amazing people along the way. Although I am now home here in Chicago, I believe I have found a second home abroad and I can’t wait for the chance to go back again.

Leaving my exchange

As I prepare to leave Switzerland and return to the United States, it’s hard to imagine that nearly four months have passed and that many of the people I have seen on a daily basis will continue out their studies while I begin my next quarter halfway around the world. In the final few weeks before I leave, I have tried to explore places I may never have the chance to visit again alongside the friends I have made abroad. This post outlines a fundamental aspect of an exchange program: exploring new places and cultures.

I began my final excursions with a trip to Venice, Italy, and I was immediately greeted with a dramatic shift from the punctual Swiss lifestyle I had grown accustomed to during my exchange. Aside from eating phenomenal Italian cuisine, I was able to experience a laid back way of life enjoyed by the Venetian populace.

A gondolier in Venice, Italy

My next trip began with a 12 hour nighttime train to Budapest, Hungary. Budapest became the first Eastern European city I have visited and as such, was one of the most interesting cities that I have been to as much of the commercialization of Western Europe was absent. Budapest gave the feeling that everything around was locally owned and the importance of community relations was evident in every place we visited, from the thermal baths to the markets.

Exploring the Buda Labyrinth in Budapest, Hungary

My final adventure away from  Switzerland was incidentally a journey that marked my setting foot in every country that bordered Switzerland: Skiing in Liechtenstein. Although the culture of Liechtenstein varies little from that of Switzerland, the country known for its small size had plenty to offer for students seeking to experience a new place.

Skiing in Malbun, Liechtenstein

Without travelling to new cities while on an exchange, one misses the chance to explore new places and meet new people. Although sometimes it may be difficult to leave the host country, the results are almost always worth it.

What I’ve Come Away With

The more I learn about the Middle East,  my image of what I want to do in regards to the region becomes less clear because matters are so deeply complex. It was necessary for me to examine my relationship to Israel as well as Jewish and Palestinian history, to best assess my place in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I often question myself if it is even my place to be studying the Middle East or if it is simply an extension of colonialist powers who saw themselves gifting structural reform to a ‘backwards people’.  Though much of what I heard and learned was discouraging, what I’ve come away with is that I ultimately believe in personal connections rather than institutions as the agents for change. I believe under the right circumstances two people can come to some understanding of one another, they can humanize one another in their minds. It is clear from particularly from my experiences that the narrative of fear in Israel is overpowering and it justifies the separation enforced in every sense, (i.e. The Occupation, Mizhrahim residing largely in the south of the country, Arab cities isolated in the North, Arabs only speaking with Arabs on TAU Campus and Jews with Jews).

The experience I hold most dear to me is when I attended a Palestinian wedding in the West Bank. The mere fact that I was able to then share this story with Israelis with a tone of warmth truly challenged many Israeli’s perspectives and ignited necessary conversations of which I hope to have more.

   

Israel: What I’ve enjoyed!

My three previous posts expressed socio-political aspects I have been contemplating. However, I would like to dedicate this post to convey what I am thankful to have experienced:

  1. I have thoroughly enjoyed the food. Tel Aviv has the largest vegan population per capita. It is both empowering and eyeopening, (mouthopening?), to experience such delicious vegan food. It is nearly always an available option and it is much cheaper than alternative vegan or vegetarian options offered in the United States. Consequently, the culture surrounding veganism is must less reactionary and much more normalized.
  2. Each city is a different world. Although Israel is tiny it is extremely diverse in the experience it has to offer, from Tel Aviv to the Kibbutzim to Jerusalem to Haifa each city has its own dynamics. It is amazing the complexities that can be had in such a small country.
  3. I love my roommate. I am very blessed to have met her. I was anxious about sharing a dorm again but it has proved to be a wonderful experience. Not only have I enjoyed her friendship but because she is Israeli she has shared a perspective of the Israeli-Arab conflict with me that I was not intimately acquainted with. It has expanded my understanding of history and politics but also complicated it.
  4. I met family I didn’t know I had for the first time and they are wonderful! Not only did I enjoy their company but they also had photographs and stories about my family tree that my immediate family were not aware of. Through my familial history, I also learned more about the history of the Kibbutzim. An integral building block to understanding Israeli society.
  5. I’ve learned how to play shesh-besh! 

Thought to Action

My concerns about Tel Aviv have proven true thus far. However, I have reconsidered my concerns, (mentioned in my first blog post), through a new lens: David Ben-Gurion’s vision of a secular Jew. Of course, this ‘vision’ has many implications in itself, many of which I cannot delve into here. But, with the intention of linking Tel Aviv and it’s culture to the idea of a Jewish state is something quite interesting. I had this thought while I was enjoying Brunch at a crowded restaurant on Sabbath morning, observing Israelis photographing their food presumably to post on Instagram. It is not that there is a problem with such a thing it is rather that it is a shocking reality against the background of the Jewish state where just 45 miles from Tel Aviv sits the city of Jerusalem whose streets remain mostly empty on the holy day Shabbat. That said, Ben-Gurion understood Judaism as a national culture extending beyond religion, based on the humanistic-political principles articulated by the biblical prophets, which had served as a moral compass throughout Jewish history. He claimed that he hoped these principles would also guide Israel to develop into a model society. Although there are many points of contention in this evaluation it is discernible to say that Tel Aviv was successful in executing Ben- Gurion’s vision. Tel Aviv congratulates itself on its culture of acceptance. And while it is indisputable that Tel Aviv enjoys certain liberties I feel as though it’s reputation overshadows it’s reality at times. 

I say this because I have witnessed such blatant racism in Tel Aviv. When I confronted these remarks I was met with the response that I am too sensitive and a typical American who is obsessed with politically correct culture. It is interesting how the bipartisan fight over freedom of speech in the United States has penetrated Israel. 

It is easy to find criticisms in a country that is not your own. Your inherent discomfort that comes with your lack of familiarity highlights that in which you find wrong or different. That is to say that what I’ve encountered in Tel Aviv is not unique and has subsequently made me more acute to the similarities in racism that plagues the US. It has inspired me to think more about what I can do to combat racism at Northwestern by way of rejecting the Israeli occupation through student organizations such as JStreetU. Below I’ve attached a photograph that shows a group of Northwestern students who were taken to Israel by Hillel with whom I met to discuss how I would like to translate my observations of Israel into actions on campus. This meeting led to a few Skype calls with Northwestern students throughout my trip in which we started to organize Shabbat dinners that aim to bridge different communities on campus! 

Reinvigorated Learning

I’ve sincerely enjoyed my time here so far. It is particularly satisfying for me to be out of school yet still immersed in such intensive learning. Particularly with language. But more so, due to Israel’s incessant need to create a sense of continuity which justifies its establishment, her history is preserved and expressed at every street corner, literally, through her street names. With each name that I am unfamiliar is the opportunity to peel away another layer of history and trauma caked onto each narrative, both Jewish and Palestinian. Given that I am only currently enrolled in Ulpan I have the time to ask whatever questions I please and more importantly seek out answers not only through scholarly texts but also through daily news as well as my very surroundings. I feel I have learned more deeply without the pressure of grades and professors’ lasting evaluations. I’ve found it extremely liberating and it has translated particularly well to my personal journey with my music.
As I was not able to continue my Dual-Degree in the same manner during my time abroad I have not been enrolled in Music School. This has been particularly enlightening to me. In conservatory, I often depend solely on my scheduled unversity performances, which constitute as requirements for my performance degree, as the source for performance opportunities. That said because I perform so infrequently throughout the school year there is an incredible amount of pressure that comes with each performance in which my grade is also determined. Being abroad and without a music program, I’ve been able to experience the stark difference between the life of a music student as opposed to the life of a musician. I have truly had to confront my insecurities in performing in order to create playing opportunities for myself. It has also forced me to engage with the city in a much deeper manner. I go out nearly every night to listen to live music and to network. Consequently, I have been able and fortunate enough to create a lovely community of friends with whom I play with and connect with despite our language barrier. A barrier which is weakening with each day as I continue to work on my Hebrew.

 

(Later on in during my abroad experience I was even given the opportunity to play at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival. I was the only woman in the Big Band I performed with. See picture below from sound check)

 

Pre-Departure Post

While I am extremely excited and grateful to endure my upcoming study abroad experience I have concerns about my choice to study in Tel Aviv as opposed to Jerusalem or an Arab country for that matter. I am tentative about my choice, first and foremost, because I am apprehensive if I will be able to immerse myself in Arabic, especially to the extent that the requirement of the MENA Study Abroad aims to cultivate through direct immersion in the Middle Eastern region. While there are obviously Arabs in Israel, the presence of Arabic and Arab Culture seems to be particularly inconspicuous in Tel Aviv. While Tel Aviv is known to be a ‘liberal oasis’ in the Middle East it is somewhat paradoxically not well integrated, to my knowledge, between non-Jews and Jews. I am also somewhat concerned that my perspective and the information I hold true regarding the Israeli Occupation and the Israeli-Arab Conflict will not be challenged to the extremes that I wish to seek. However, that said I am interested to see how Western culture has manifested in a Middle Eastern context. Simply put, I hope this upcoming opportunity deconstructs the biases I am unaware that I hold as a result of my identity, Ashkenazi Jewish.

My concerns aside my main goals include becoming fairly proficient in the Hebrew language and as a student of music further exploring how music has the potential as a tool for peacebuilding.  I am especially interested in improvisational music how it functions in both secular contexts as well as religious contexts, (Jewish, Islamic, Christian) because it is an art form that requires ultimate vulnerability, presence and honesty to most clearly communicate said emotions in a given moment. Pain is overwhelmingly present on both sides of this conflict, which spoken language cannot always convey.  Therefore, I hope to learn how I can provide that outlet for communication among individuals involved in the conflict because I believe it will create an opportunity for personal diplomacy. A diplomacy that will create a pathway for collaboration and as a result break down stereotypes that are planted deep within us, watered by governments and institutions who wish to separate us in order to further their violent agendas. I am not naive in that I think music will save the world, but I believe it has the power to transcend individuals, and I believe that in order to truly create change we must understand each other’s unique plights as human beings. If there is empathy the conditions others are in become unbearable and people will feel collectively ignited to implement change.

And we’re back

I am grateful to have been able to have gone abroad as a second year. I finished my first year at Northwestern full of new, eye-opening experiences but also with a sense of stalemate and dissatisfaction with myself. Maybe it was being so close to home (Chicagoland suburb) or feeling the remnants of high school memories but I still felt very trapped in a bubble. I couldn’t help but always focus on small, immediate things and struggled to engage myself with what I was doing in a manner that I found personally fulfilling.

 

My time at UCL has not only allowed me to meet the people, explore the places, and take the classes I have previously mentioned in my posts but also to sort myself out. Situated in a big city like London, I strangely found it a lot easier to be alone. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy being around all the lovely people I met, but I felt just as content strolling and sketching in Regent’s Park by myself as I did brunching with others. When I was a freshman, I always wanted to be around people, so as not to miss out on anything. It was frankly exhausting at times. There are also many other things that have changed, but are harder to put into words. Much of these mindset changes can probably be attributed to the novelty and brevity of the whole exchange program, rather than any real revelation on my part. However, I am no less happy and appreciative of this experience as I look back on the best three months of my life.

 

In retrospect, the “bubble” that had so restricted and frustrated me was pretty much all self-constructed. Now, I’ve come to realize, more consciously than ever, that my experiences are largely shaped by the mindset I choose to approach them with rather than the actual contexts they occur in. Freshman year me would say that’s a fairly obvious conclusion, but current me actually has that experience and can hopefully apply this understanding to everything else that I do at Northwestern and beyond.

morning sketch at Regent’s Park

 

The Alps are calling

When people think about Switzerland, a few things immediately jump to mind: fondue, a small pocket knife with a million features, and – most notably – vast ranges of stoic peaks capped with snow. Upon arriving, these impressive giants are hard to miss, and in fact, there is hardly a place that isn’t in some way affected by the Swiss Alps. Although much of my time abroad has been devoted to studying, a full exchange experience would be incomplete without exploring the local landscape and experiencing what the Swiss culture has to offer.

Snow capped peaks in Saas-Fee

Thankfully, I have been fortunate to meet great people with a taste for adventure during my time in Switzerland. I have traveled to all five of the countries that border Switzerland, as well as a few more along the way, but few compare to the majesty and serenity offered by traversing through the Swiss Alps themselves.

Night view of the Alps in Saas-Grund

When walking on the side of a mountain, it is easy to wonder how anyone settled in a place such as this, and indeed exploring the small mountain towns give a glimpse into the challenges the locals must have faced in populating such unforgiving terrain. But the people who braved the elements and carved a life out for themselves into these barren rock formations opened the beauty of the Alps to travelers such as myself to enjoy, and for that I am truly thankful.

Hiking through Engelberg

Back home?

It’s been a pretty consistent theme in my life that I don’t feel an intimate connection to a home, a place of belonging, nostalgia, and comfort. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve mostly settled on this feeling as an unavoidable part of me, but returning to America from 4 months of living alone abroad brings me back to the question of home. Weirdly, I’ve felt like I belong more in Singapore during my period of exchange than I have my entire time in America. And reflecting on this fact brings me to the very hard question of whether to attribute that on my situation (the actual hardship of living in America as a 1.5 generation Asian American) or on myself (my internalization of the narrative that I don’t fit in America). I’ve always brushed it off as “a bit of both,” but after my exchange, I’m beginning to allow myself to be more vulnerable so that I can explore that latter connection.

Because, honestly, I was more positive and outgoing during my exchange out of sheer will. I wanted to be a new and improved self in Singapore and I did just that – I took risks and became a different “me.” And I wish to carry this mindset back to America but it’s awfully hard, and I’m not sure whether that’s because it really is is for me or if that’s actually an excuse and I’m just being cynical of living in America.

Some of you probably also go through the kinds of identity crises that I do. And without discounting the structural factors that really do contribute to our discomfort of living in America, I want us to question whether our cynicism, which we may have developed in order to survive the harsher environments growing up, may be holding us back in the present. The answer may be a definitive no, which is valid, but if the question stumps you for a second, it may be good to practice being vulnerable in safe spaces to find your answer, which I myself will start doing.

Ultimately, my exchange to Singapore has made me confront the hard problems in my life, and inspired me to think about them in a new, critical light. I am very grateful that I had the privilege to have and share this experience.