As part of my program, everyone was required to chose anywhere is Ecuador and conduct an independent study project, or ISP. For 4 weeks all my friends and I left Quito to head for the coast, the Amazon, the highlands - or in my case the Galápagos. As sad as I was the leave the group, I headed to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal, the capital of the province of Galapagos. Before I left, the topic of my study was unclear and I vaguely knew I wanted to learn about the politics of development and tourism. This was a scary endeavor, flying miles away from the host family and city that had just begun to feel like my home. I had only one contact on the island and I wasn’t unsure how I would conduct interviews or narrow down my topic. But after only a few days on the island, I was confident it would all work out - and having just come back to Quito, I can say for sure that it did.
Throughout my four weeks, I conducted dozens of interviews with politicians, fisherman, people in the tourism industry and activists. One interview lead to the next and I was overwhelmed with the generosity of the community to help me with my research. Soon enough, I began to see patterns within my interviews and common themes that could help me formulate my thesis. I heard from people from various sectors who all felt the same way - that the central and local governments were not representing galapagueños. I learned about how the construction of 5-star hotels, the cruise industry, and the weak migration regime are all threatening the way of the life of the people in San Cristobal and how the clash between development and conservation manifests within the governance structure. My findings were more fascinating and complex than I ever would have thought and turned into 44 pages of information, all in Spanish!
This experience was one I know I will never forget and one that has not only made me confident in my language proficiency but in my ability to connect with strangers and listen to their stories. I feel incredibly honored to have been invited into the homes of so many to hear about their lives and their inspirational tales of activism. Throughout my program, we spoke a lot about the idea of reciprocity. When going into a community outside your own for the purposes of gathering information, the importance of giving back is paramount. I have sent my project to all my key informants in hopes that it can be used as a way for the community to analyze the causes of the major issues galapagueños are facing today. But more than this, I hope to shed light on this issue in my community, whether that be in my home community or at GW. As I finish up my program in the coming weeks, I hope to have more time to reflect on my experiences in the Galápagos and how my time there will affect how I study and learn about development in the future.
One of the really unique aspects about doing an SIT Program is that they all have a one month attached independent study project (ISP) to culminate the end of the semester. During the ISP, you are allowed to travel to anywhere that is relevant to the program focus and given free range to research any topic of your interest. I only have one week left of my ISP time, but it has been one of the most eye opening and educational experiences of my life. I decided to go to Dharamsala, the “capital” of Tibetans in exile. I’ve spent the last three weeks apprenticing a local small business clothing company to learn more about how emerging Tibetan designers use traditional clothing as inspiration for their contemporary designs. I’ve been going into the workshop and working with the tailors to make clothes. I even got to design a few garments. I set out to gain some perspective on what Tibetan clothing means for a group of people that have evolve in exile, and I’m walking away from a deeper understanding of how nuanced this idea of fashion, especially in the context of identity, can be. This experience has given me so much first-hand knowledge about the livelihoods of those who seek to creative and to do so with integrity to their identity.
Getting to do an ISP in India is also really cool because it is like I get to study abroad in two countries. Despite being in majority Tibetan communities in Nepal and India, Dharamsala has been really unique from my experience in Nepal. In my few weeks here, I’ve reunited myself with a variety of food that doesn’t include dal bhat, explored little Israel, and walked a lot of hills. I even met the Dalai Lama and got to attend a teaching by him. It’s my last week in Dharamsala before I head back to Nepal for the final week of study abroad, so I’m trying to soak up all of the beauty in Dharamsala before I leave.
I'm not gonna front, before I came to Nepal, I was worried about what it meant to experience poverty. I came with a lot of misconceptions of what it means to live in a country that was deemed poor by outsiders. And sure enough, the first day was a shocking experience. I came off the plane with hundreds of people swarming luggage claim and taxi drivers trying to get anyone to get into their car. But my time in Nepal has taught me that poverty is only a concept. Just because someone makes a certain amount of money, we label them in categories to describe their happiness and self-worth. In reality, poverty is only what we make of it. Yes, my host families in Nepal and India may be, by a definition, poor, but that does not mean that they are deprived of something. In fact, they are happier than most people I know back home. Just from the glimpse of their lives that they have shared with me, their lives are never packing anything. There's always three square meals, things to do, and lots of love to be distributed. So many times in my life, I've equated money and the amount of material things I have ownership over to happiness. Somehow the less I had meant I would be less happy.
It’s been eye opening to see how people across the world live their lives. One that is filled with joy and love and not lacking in any sense. Humans are incredibly resilient, they make due with they lives, and find ways to live abundantly with whatever they have. It really puts things into perspective. I have been thinking a lot about my return to the United States, the life I live and the meaning of the things I own. This experience has helped me realize how my life is lived in measurements of what I need rather than what I have. It’s hard to unlearn what I have been socialized to prioritize, but it’s a lesson that I’m grateful to have learned.
That most common response I receive when I tell people that I’ll be spending four months in Nepal (Other than where it’s located on the globe) is what I would even gain from going halfway around the world to study a subject that doesn’t even directly relate to my major. I’ve always found this question to be a little preemptive and perhaps a little ignorant. Travelling has always been a source of knowledge and inspiration for me. Whether it was a day trip to a neighboring state, or a month long trek across the world, being somewhere new was always welcomed. In fact, it become somewhat of an addiction. I craved the long bus rides and getting lost in a new city, connecting with new people. It was clear to me that anytime we set forth on a journey that is out of our comfort zones and beyond the realm of our perspectives, we give ourselves room to grow as a human being. Experiencing the world through my own eyes, ears, and touch is one of life’s greatest teachers.
Many of my more practical relatives and friends often ask me about why I spend money to travel instead of saving it for long term investments like a house, a car, or retirement. I can barely decide what I want to eat for lunch tomorrow, let alone a mortgage. And saving money for a retirement that I’m not certain to achieve seems like overkill to me. In John Avedon’s, “In Exile From the Land of Snows”, he simply states that, “If in this present atmosphere, in which everything depends on money and power, and there is not much concern about the real value of love, if we human beings now lose the values of justice, of compassion, of honestly, then in the future we will face more difficulty; more suffering will come (411).” The pressures of achieving a conventionally successfully life often arises in my thoughts, yet when I am travelling, I am brought back to compassion and love for the world. Material objects become unimportant as I am reminded of the greater forces in life driving me.
Living in an entirely new country for four months is completely different from any type of travel I’ve ever done. In many ways, I am forced to look at how I currently live my life and reexamine how it will operate in the context of living in Nepal for an extended period of time. Already, I am discovering what it means to take from the Earth and (literally) carry it on my back. In many ways, I have quickly learned the lesson of less is more. Most importantly, this trip is different because it feels like a pause on life. A break from the stresses of everyday life, thoughts about the future, and intrusive internal thoughts. It feels like a lesson in happiness and I’m so excited to learn.
“Even if we do not succeed in this life, that is all right; but at least we have tried to build a better human society on the basis of love.”
You will oftentimes hear people talk about the difference between a house and a home. From my experience living in cities, I have found that the turning point occurs once there is a community surrounding your house. It becomes a home when you have people you care about around you, and a physical environment that you appreciate. At GW, I found this very quickly. I made fast friends with my neighbors in my dorm and fell into a rhythm within a few weeks of arriving on campus. Despite living in three different buildings during my year and a half on campus, I found continuity throughout and always felt a sense of attachment to my house. At GW, my house was almost instantly my home. While it took a little longer, I had developed a similar feeling here in Shanghai, until last week when my community changed.
I live in an apartment complex that is slightly down the street from Fudan University’s campus. My building has 12 stories, with no one living on the first floor. The backside of my building faces a two-lane street called Wudong Road. On the backside of the building, there were several businesses including two convenience stores, a western food stall, a cell phone stand, a Korean restaurant with a to-go window, a wonton soup stall, a fried rice stall, another Korean food stall, and a sit-down restaurant. These are the only businesses within a quarter mile of our building, and so they were always popular with all of the international students who lived in the apartment complex. Essentially it would be like living in Potomac Hall and having four or five additional restaurants next to Carvings. It created a community and was just a part of everyone’s lives.
Then it all came to an end this week when the police shut all of the food stalls and restaurants down, with the exception of the final sit-down restaurant listed above. It first started with the police showing up on Sunday night and telling all of the businesses to close up and hanging tarps over their entrances. Then on Monday, the police came and destroyed all of their equipment. Then on Tuesday, several men showed up and piled cinder blocks in front of the stands and completed closed off the restaurants with blocks and mortar. I have heard several rumors as to why the food stalls got shut down but have yet to actually find any solid evidence.
It has been a little more than 2 months since I got to Ecuador. I can’t believe how fast its gone by and how little I have felt homesick. I have fallen in love with the all the people in my life here, the city of Quito and all the beautiful nature at my disposal. However, there always comes a point in time when you are living in another country where the magic of it all starts to wear off a little - when you start to become disillusioned with things you once found fascinating or unique. There is something about the halfway mark.
By now, I have established routines, make local friends and connected with my host family and these are the things that have kept me grounded. But now that I am settled, the negative or maybe better said not-as-great aspects of the city have started to get to me. Little things like the never-ending traffic, cat-calling or randomly overpriced products are starting to upset me when they never used to before. I feel like this is an often un-talked about part of being abroad. We are conditioned to act like we love every part of being in the country we are in and if we criticize or do not like certain aspects of life abroad we are being ungrateful or judgmental. But what I am starting to come to terms with is that it’s okay to not be happy all the time. It’s okay to criticize, question or inquire about why things are the way there are.This is why we are here - to learn, to observe, and to begin to understand the context and systems that are at play.
The more I come to know about Ecuador, its history, politics, and people, the more I feel connected to it all. This knowledge has let me start to look deeper into the subtle differences that may sometimes to frustrate me. The traffic I sometimes can’t stand has now turned into research into why the government is investing in extractivism instead of public transport. The cat-calling I often hear has turned into debates on why machismo still permeates today. And those randomly over-priced products I begrudgingly buy has now turned into discussions about Ecuador's struggling economic model. I am learning to channel some of my disillusionments into research, actions, questions, and investigation that I hope will only enhance my knowledge and connection to this country. I truly love Ecuador and I am so grateful to be able live in a country so different from my own that I get to have these internal debates. I hope as I move past this halfway mark of my time here, past the initial honeymoon stage, I can use this curiosity to propel my Independent Study Project (ISP) that I will be beginning in a few weeks. I am excited to start to delve deeper into some of the topics that have surfaced through my experiences and use my observations to contribute to important global discussions surrounding Ecuador today.
I have been off the grid for the past month and a half because life has been hectic. I have tried my best to appreciate every day and in doing so, I reduced the amount of time I spent sending Whatsapp messages/Facebook messages to friends in the United States and the amount of time I spent on social media. I even deleted Snapchat.
I used this time to focus on learning about public health and about life here in India.I have also used this time to work on something that I never have time to do back at GW – I worked on myself. I realized that during the semester, I get so caught up in my classes and my friends and interning and working and student organizations that I often forget that I should be my number 1 priority.
On top of taking time to myself, I traveled quite a bit since my last blog post. I traveled around India and I went to Thailand for a week. Although I absolutely love Delhi, I love getting the chance to leave – whether it is for a weeklong trip or for a quick weekend trip – and learn more about different places. Since my last blog post, I have been to Bahraich, Bangkok, Agra, Palampur, Dharamsala, and Jaipur. I will try to post separate blog posts about each place I have been to but for how I would like to focus on the idea of making the most of study abroad.
One of the things I wasn’t prepared for when I came to Nepal was the mistaking of my identity and how common it would be. Pretty much from day one, people came up to me speaking Nepali and mistaking for a plethora of ethnicities. Coming from a strong Chinese American heritage and the diverse culture of the United States, the case of mistaken identity in Nepal was an unexpected challenge I’ve had to navigate in during my time here. In the US, I almost never get mistaken as anything other than Chinese and if I do, most people have a pretty easy time understand how I can be Chinese AND American. Here in Nepal, people’s gut reaction is to assume that I’m Nepali, and since I interact with a lot of Tibetans, I often blend in with them as well. When I tell them I’m Chinese and I’m from America, I can see the gears in their brain working. They ask, “But where are you from from?” Or “But where are your parents from?” Even though I’m ethnically Chinese, my parents were born in Vietnam and escaped as refugees during the war. Often times, they walk away more confused than before and at first, I was frustrated with my lack of ability to effectively communicate the complex history of my family. It took a lot of thinking to fully comprehend how, even though Nepal is multiethnic and multilingual, the populations perceptions of identities and physical appearance weren’t as detached as mine were. Their perceptions of Americans stems from this idealization of whiteness and despite the reality of America being an extremely diverse country, the fantasy that exists in their minds have a hard time accepting this. By no means is this phenomenon their fault, they are only reflecting what they have been acculturated to, but does bring up the larger questions of what validates a person identity and how that relates in a larger context.
Studying in Nepal is not exactly your traditional study abroad experience. From the transportation, to the customs, to the everyday nuances, you'll find differences from every angle. However, I could not be more grateful to be studying in Kathmandu. In so many ways, I have begun to understand the ways in which the world operates and dismantle the associations I have instilled in myself. I think one of the biggest surprises I've encountered since coming to Nepal was just how wrong my preconceived notions of Nepal and Tibet were. Like most people, I thought Tibetans floated on air and didn't have the capacity to get mad at people. However, they are human, just like any other group. It sounds silly looking back in hindsight, but these stereotypes are ingrained in us and it takes a lot of reflect to fully understand how deeply embedded our ideas of the world are. The greatest form of learning I've done here in Nepal is unlearning. Unlearning what it means to be part of a global society, to associate two things together, to question the purpose of systematic belief.
One of the most humbling moments of this trip was hearing Tibetans thanking us for coming to study Tibetan and calling us courageous for being able to leave our country and travel to a place like Nepal and India. It really hit hard to realize how incredibly lucky I am to be able to travel and see life like this, but also have the comfort of knowing that it is temporary and that life as it is right now is only a point in time; a fleeting moment before I move on. I am constantly reminding myself that because of pure luck, I'm in this position and because of luck, they are in that position. I think one of the conversations I had with a member of my homestay sums it up pretty well. He said: Take what you learned here and don't forget about us [Tibetans], but when you go home, you have a place to stay, food to eat. All you have to do is be a good person.
So let me tell you about the food situation here in Nepal. Nepal's food has always been an unique mix of it's neighbors and the multitude of ethnic groups living in Nepal. Being in Nepal, you'll find a huge variety of foods that have it's origins from all over the world. For my program, our focus is learning about Tibetan history and culture so I also eat a lot of staple Tibetan dishes. Here are some of the classic Nepali and Tibetan foods you'll find if you find yourself in Nepal:
The national food of Nepal, Dal Bhat is a staple of any Nepali household. It consists of lentil soup and rice, and is often served with other various vegetables. Each family has a unique recipe and there are dozens of different variations. Originating from India, it has not only become a common household meal, but part of the livelihood of the people of Nepal.
Momos are probably the holy grail of dinners here in Nepal. Similar to dumplings, these are decedent bite sized balls of dough filled either with meat or vegetables. When done right, each Momo will be filled with hot and steamy juices that will send your taste buds into overdrive. They are best served with homemade chili sauce (the spicier, the better).
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