Studying abroad can be very fast paced and intense. For a lot of people, it is their first time in America, leaving home or moving countries. Although we are only here for a semester, six months is a long enough period of time that DC is very much home. Once you are finally settled and all of the practicalities of sim cards, bank accounts and medical insurance are out of the way you are able to go about your daily life as a GW student. Being an exchange student gives you the best of both worlds. You are able to experience a country whilst learning new things and meeting new people. Whether it is travelling, chilling in Shenkman or late night study sessions in Gelman the memories you make are shaped by the people you share them with.
Along with all the exciting experiences of being abroad, this week was time to fulfill the other element of studying abroad - study! It was the first time I have stopped and lived life as a normal student. This is largely due to the fact that it is currently midterms and so people have been spending their time in the library on one too many cups of coffee rather than out exploring DC! The nature of assessments is drastically different from back home as the American education system is so much more flexible. Professors set the exams which typically range from essay based questions to multiple choice, fill in the blank and short answer questions. The majority of the exchange students are pass-fail and so studying becomes more enjoyable than stressful as you can focus on the content rather than the grade.
One of the benefits of studying in DC is the access to all the museums that frame the National Mall. For my African American history module, we had the opportunity to visit the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture. Being able to interact with the content of the course really enhances the experience of the module. The museum provides a chronological account from slavery to present day. You begin the narrative seventy feet below ground with the origins of slavery and gradually make your way through centuries of struggle and progress. They have original artefacts such as slave shackles, the coffin of Emmett Till and the couch from the Oprah Winfrey Show. It is one of the best Smithsonian museums and tickets are currently very hard to come by so if you have the chance, definitely go!
This weekend it was my turn to play tour guide. A close friend of mine, who I met whilst she was studying abroad at King’s College last year had come down from Philly to catch up and check out DC. Her timing could not have been more perfect as the temperature reached up to 75°F (24°C) and the cherry blossoms came out in bloom. We have been so fortunate with the weather this year, the winter has been extremely mild and spring has arrived early. This time last year it was snowing and now people were out sunbathing. As I hate the cold I am so glad I have not spent the semester freezing my arse off.
We grabbed lunch, headed down to the National Mall and spent the afternoon sitting at the edge of the Reflecting Pool basking in the sun and catching up on all the events of the past year. To escape the heat we went and checked out the Renwick Gallery before heading to Georgetown for dinner. After eating way too much pizza we decided that we still weren’t full and went to the famous Georgetown Cupcakes for dessert. I had only tried the Baked and Wired cupcakes before but I definitely prefer the Georgetown ones. As the sun set on Georgetown and as the Oscars were in a couple of days we went and checked out the film Lion at the AMC cinema.
The next day we headed across town to Eastern Market. Although it is only a small market they still had a decent selection of food stalls. We had Mexican street food for lunch followed up by mini doughnuts. As the weather changed we decided to make the most of the free museums in DC and explored the Air and Space Museum and the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The holocaust memorial was particularly sobering and extremely poignant in the current political climate. It was unsettling to recognise certain parallels between past and present events as the museum also makes connections between past cases and potential future risks of genocide.
Once again we hit up 14th Street for dinner. This time around we headed to Thip Khao, which specialises in Laos food. I had never tried Laos food before as it is not something that is commonly available in London. However, it is definitely something I will be searching for when I return home. We devoured a range of dishes from chicken hearts to pig ears (trust me it tastes better than it sounds!) before finishing the night off at Eighteenth Street Lounge.
It was great to be able to catch up with an old friend and show her around the city. As we explored DC I realised how much I had come to know and love my new home.
As it was President’s Day, we decided to make the most of the long weekend and head up to New York for a couple of days. After class on Thursday we all hopped on the Megabus and within four short hours were in New York City. We were staying on the top floor of an Airbnb in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn with views overlooking the Manhattan skyline from the Empire State building to the World Trade Center.
As this was my second time in New York I had already seen the Statue of Liberty, toured the MoMA and the Met, and taken a picture in Times Square. This time around I was able to skip all the tourist attractions and experience the city as a local. The best way to travel around New York is by subway. Although it cannot compare to the London Underground, the subway still gets you everywhere you need to be. My first visit to New York I avoided the subway and went everywhere by taxi or walking. This time around I wanted to be able to do as true New Yorkers do.
A friend of mine that I met on a previous exchange in South Korea had recently moved to New York and so was able to show me how locals do it. Living on opposite sides of the pond it was great to catch up, hang out and explore the city together. That’s what so great about studying abroad, you meet people from all over the world and get to travel together. From travelling both individually and in a group I have learnt that it is the people you share these experiences that truly makes it.
On Saturday I joined my friend to go rock climbing in Long Island City. Although I am not the athletic type I decided that when in New York is a good time to climb a sixty-foot wall. Surprisingly, this turned out to be a good idea and I managed to make it all the way to the top. I figured studying abroad is a great opportunity to try anything new.
As I didn’t have class on Tuesday, I decided to stay an extra day in the city. We headed across town to catch the East River Ferry. The East River Ferry is a commuter ferry that only costs $4 ($7 on weekends) and takes you from midtown down to Pier 11. It gives you the most amazing views of Manhattan, all the bridges and the Statue of Liberty. From Pier 11 we walked up through the city, stopped for lunch in ChinaTown, I tried my first cannoli in Little Italy went shopping in SoHo.
It was great to experience the hustle and bustle of New York. The city is the embodiment of the melting pot that is America. Endless cultures, languages, food and ethnicities it genuinely is a city where anything goes. Spending a week away in New York, it was finally time to return to home. Leaving DC made me realise how much the city has become my home.
This week I got to relive one of my favourite British pastimes - talking about the weather! When coming to DC I expected freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall. However, the winter has been extremely mild and this past week people were walking around in shorts and a t-shirt as temperatures reached up to 21°C (70°F). The good weather did not last long and there were reports of a snowstorm hitting the East Coast. DC was relatively unscathed compared to up north but temperatures still dropped below zero and there were a few snow flurries. As my professor observed in class, ‘it’s February and I’m not wearing a jacket - but hey, climate change doesn’t exist’.
One of the top recommendations I received upon arriving in DC was to visit the monuments at midnight. Exploring a city at night is a completely different experience. There are no workers around, no tourists and only the occasional security guard. Being only a few blocks away from the National Mall we decided to make the most of the warm weather and head down to the Lincoln Memorial. It’s one of the most iconic views both historically and politically and one that I have seen countless times before moving to DC. Sitting at the bottom of the memorial with a view stretching the length of the reflecting pool and reaching all the way up to the Washington Monument in the early hours of the morning is perhaps one of my favourite moments thus far. It was nice to have a peaceful moment to fully take in being in DC.
Later on in the week we attended a basketball game between the George Washington Colonials and the VCU Rams. According to full-time students, GW is not big on school spirit especially compared to other universities. Coming from the UK I find that hard to believe. The game fulfilled all my expectations of a school sports game. There were cheerleaders, a school band, free t-shirts, chants and a mascot (George, The Colonial). We were neck and neck the whole game. With twelve seconds left on the clock, we were trailing 52-50. Just as a win seemed impossible number 12 scored a three-pointer pushing us into the lead and winning the game (at least so we thought). The whole stadium erupted, the band started playing and we jumped and cheered in celebration. It was like something out of a movie. The game was not yet over. 0.4 seconds were put back on the clock in order to finish out the game. In less than a second GW received a foul, sending the Rams to the free throw line to score four more points and win the game.
Crowds took to the streets of Boston, not in protest but celebration, as the New England Patriots celebrated their fifth Super Bowl win. A pinnacle of American culture, the Super Bowl is an event not to be missed. Last year I spent the Super Bowl in a NY hotel room, eating pizza and wondering what on earth was going on. This Sunday was not a lot different. There was a lot of eating and a lot of confusion. Once we had established the difference between ‘football football’ and ‘american football’ we could enjoy the Super Bowl for the spectacle that it is. Something of this scale could only exist in the United States. Like so many other events in America, the Super Bowl is a performance from start to finish.
We headed uptown to a restaurant on 14th street where we made ourselves comfortable for the next three hours. The game seemed over in the first five minutes as the Falcons had scored two touchdowns, eventually leaving the Patriots trailing by 25 points. Never before in Super Bowl history had a team recovered from a lead that great. Assuming that the sports portion of the evening was over, we left the football on in the background and dug into several rounds of sliders. Whilst I am not a big sports fan, any excuse to celebrate with friends over food and beverages is okay with me.
Halftime is when things got interesting. Lady Gaga was perhaps the greatest performance of the night. She flung herself off of the roof of the stadium and then proceeded to sing a medley of her greatest hits. Her performance was not as overtly political as people were expecting. However, it possessed a general message of inclusion in response to recent events as she performed ‘This Land is Your Land’ and ‘Born This Way’.
The Patriots went into the game as one of the most successful and most widely loathed teams in the league. With the exception of Pats fans, public support was for the underdogs - the Atlanta Falcons. However, the roles remained reversed for the majority of the game and the Patriots entered the final quarter with an impossible win as they were still 19 points behind. Just as the game was about to end the Patriots had achieved a two-point play, tying the game and making it the first overtime in Super Bowl history.
No team had ever come back from a three-touchdown deficit in the history of the Super Bowl and now everything came down to the next few moments. Although I did not fully understand what had happened, after three hours I was invested. New England won the overtime coin toss and suddenly everything looked bleak for the Falcons. After a few quick plays, the Patriots had scored the final touchdown and won yet another Super Bowl title. A group of foreigners, unaware of the exact specifics, erupted in celebration as another moment of history was witnessed.
Based on my experiences of the past two weeks I get the impression that a protest is going to be part of my weekly routine. Ten days into the new administration, Trump has already taken action to repeal Obamacare, withdrawn from the TPP, reinstated the Mexico City policy, reopened the Keystone XL and Dakota Pipeline construction projects, proposed plans to build the wall, and denied entry to refugees and citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries. In response to the decisions made this week, protests have erupted across the country and across the globe. It is exciting to live in the city that makes these decisions and watch how the people react so quickly against them. On Friday, Trump implemented the ‘Muslim ban’. By Sunday, thousands had gathered outside the White House in protest.
I attended the protest both in support and observation. Unlike the Women’s March, the protest was spontaneous with so little time to garner support or numbers. Not expecting a huge turnout and living so close to the White House I left shortly before the event. When I arrived, people were beginning to gather around the Marquis de Lafayette Statue. As time passed, people filled up the Square to the point where we were standing shoulder to shoulder and I was unable to see beyond the sign in front of me. Even without anyone choreographing the protest, the crowd began to chant ‘no hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here’, ‘hey hey, ho ho, the Muslim ban has got to go’, and my personal favourite ‘hands too small to build the wall’.
An hour later and ten blocks away, there was a completely different kind of gathering. I left the protest to head over to Chinatown to check out the Chinese New Year parade. Hundreds of Taiwanese flags went hand in hand with the Stars and Stripes. Instead of protesting against divisive policies people were celebrating cultural diversity and unity. For me, the protest and the parade embody what is great about American culture.
Prior to the inauguration, people were willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt as he had not yet had the opportunity to do anything of serious measure. One week in and people are beginning to have a different opinion. Trump has followed through on his promises and done exactly what he said he would do. It’s scary to think that this is only the beginning. However, based on the response he has so far received I wonder how far he will be able to go. Sunday’s experience proves that with every action he takes there will be an even greater reaction.
When I left Shenkman Hall on Friday the streets were deserted, trucks blocked off roads and helicopters flew overhead. Something out of a post-apocalyptic horror film, the day was not destined to be a day of celebration. We left early to ensure we had a good spot, however, upon arrival we realised how unnecessary it was when we had a clear view extending the length of the National Mall. The majority of GW students did not attend the inauguration out of protest, some went out of curiosity but few went in support. As both an exchange student and history student I was not going to miss the opportunity to witness the inauguration of President Trump.
Men, women and children donned t-shirts and hats all hoping to ‘make America great again’, with complete faith that Trump was the man that was going to achieve this ‘greatness’. I had never met a Trump supporter in the flesh and suddenly I was surrounded by thousands of them. Observing the election campaign from a distance I could not comprehend how Donald Trump managed to become President. Coming to the US I hoped to gain some insight into this and the inauguration provided the perfect opportunity to do so.
I was aware of the stereotype of a Trump supporter but believed it to be a caricature created by the media and not representative of 46% of voters. The first man I encountered was a man in his 60s with tattoos on his forehead and neck, handing out flyers on how simple it is to be saved. One of the most extreme in the crowd, his main concerns were abortion and Israel. He believed that CNN and NBC are lying to the public and the only genuine source of information is Fox News. Stereotypes aside the man proved to be genuinely friendly and polite towards me.
As an exchange student in America, I feel extremely welcomed by students, staff and strangers. In a country so historically diverse and inclusive the events of the past year have been disturbing. Listening to Trump’s inaugural address with my fellow exchange students it was concerning to see how his presidency will affect us. As Britons, Australians and Koreans we were automatically excluded from Trump’s ‘America first’ narrative. The atmosphere at the inauguration was a celebration, however, it was not a constructive one. The crowd booed as Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and Obama arrived on stage. They booed when Chuck Schumer mentioned the exceptional quality of all Americans, including those of different sexual orientation or gender identity.
The contrast between the inauguration and the Women’s March could not have been greater. The march may have been in response to the election result but people marched not because of Trump but in spite of him. The streets were jammed pack with nasty women and bad hombre’s protesting for their rights as women and Americans. The atmosphere was not filled with negativity towards immigration, LGBTQ or planned parenthood but rather positivity over the resilience of the American people. A sense of unification filled the air as hundreds of thousands of people march down Independence Avenue and towards the White House chanting ‘this is what democracy looks like’ and ‘love trumps hate’.
I am extremely fortunate to not just observe the events of this weekend but participate in them. Being a part of history with so many others both in the US and over the globe is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The inauguration and the Women’s March provided me with a greater understanding of the election and the contrast between the two events highlights the challenges of the next four years. The Women’s March gives me with the hope that whatever Trump tries to achieve he will have to face the fight of the American people.
At the end of the first week in DC I finally feel settled into my life at GWU. Orientation week has been non-stop logistics, legalities and most importantly fun! Between the GW staff and the orientation leaders we were truly looked after. It was a very different experience than my previous introduction to King’s. Back home the emphasis is on independence and you quickly learn to fend for yourself. At GW all the exchange students were embraced as fellow colonials and we had our own sense of community as we figured out DC together.
It is always within the first week in a new country where you experience the biggest culture shocks. Although the US and the UK share a common history and culture, there are certain subtle differences which take some adjusting to. As a Londoner, eye contact is not something that I am familiar with. When walking the streets of DC people often look you directly in the eye and smile. Strangers on the metro, in coffee shops or restaurants, converse with you beyond the minimum level of service required. Initially, it threw me as in London people generally abide by the rule of if you don’t bother someone they won’t bother you. Americans, in general, are that friendly. They actively engage in conversation which typically begins with ‘how are you?’ and finish with ‘have a nice day’. The action may remain the same but the experience is overall a more positive one.
One of my biggest curiosities in coming to DC which I share with so many others is that of the upcoming presidency. The response to election in DC is not what I initially expected. In a district so overwhelmingly democratic I was under the impression that there would be a sense of mourning over the outcome. There are objections to the personal and political policies of Trump; however, the general energy feels optimistic. The American people have faith in their political system and accept the outcome of the vote despite the multitude of reasons not to. My understanding of the election may change over the next six months as I explore DC and America may react differently over the next four years.
DC has so much to offer beyond politics. Over the course of this week, I have explored the city through the medium of food. Every American classic you can dream of from burgers, fries, tater tots, pretzels and milkshakes in gigantic portions big enough for two. DC is a diverse city and if you are craving something different there are plenty of amazing Indian, Japanese and Italian restaurants. On my first night here we headed to Barcelona Wine Bar, a Spanish tapas restaurant on 14th street which had the best Patatas Bravas. I highly recommend going and make sure you try the Spicy Eggplant Caponata and Jamón & Manchego Croquetas.
Alongside eating my way through the city we had the opportunity to burn off the calories with some ice skating at Washington Harbor. I hadn’t ice skated since I was a little kid and was desperately hoping it was just like riding a bike. Luckily enough it was and I left unscathed with no bruises or broken bones. The finale of orientation was a Washington Wizards game against the Philadelphia 76ers. I know next to nothing about basketball but it was one of the best experiences. Three hours of whooping and booing as the Wizards won 109 to 93. Big sporting events are the epitome of American culture and between the remote control blimps, cheerleaders and junk food it did not disappoint.
My first week in DC has been a whirlwind but I have had the most amazing time meeting students from all over the globe and can’t wait to see what the next six months has in store.
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