I am very happy to say the anticipation of separation was the worst part of leaving the country to study. It is generally discomforting to leave what feels safe and comfortable, and embark on something new. This separation is a difficult transition, however it slowly expands the comfort zone and truly reinforces my appreciation for all of my connections, friends, and family back home.
Leaving for Madrid, I was on a flight with many of my friends, and we experienced this initial separation from home with companions, making it an easy transition. Leaving for Buenos Aires, however, I have a distinct memory of the engine of the plane starting and pulling away from the gate, as I looked around me and didn’t know anyone on the flight. I heard a hectic mix of unfamiliar Spanish dialects and felt a panic, although I knew it was too late to change my mind. I reassured myself that over the course of the semester, I would expand my comfort zone just as I had in the past, and that the awful pit in my stomach on the flight would only result in personal development in the coming months, imagining a more confident, comfortable version of myself returning back to the United States from the adventure.
After four years of high school, and a lifetime on Long Island, I was much less anxious to move south and start a new life at Tulane. Leaving Tulane, however, as my recently-made acquaintances at college stayed and enjoyed their junior year in a familiar environment, moving into off-campus houses and gaining even more comfort in the city, I felt extremely disoriented relocating yet again. Not only confused by the frequent relocations, I have been shocked that my time in Europe and South America led me to miss New Orleans, my recent home, much more than my hometown and everything I had known prior to college.
Each excursion and vacation outside of my places of study, from New York to New Orleans, Madrid, and Buenos Aires has made each of the prior locations feel more and more like home. Even after a weekend trip to Uruguay in the beginning of my semester, I returned to Buenos Aires feeling like home because it was comfortable and familiar. This is because our comfort zones are relative, and the more frequently we get out of the comfort zone, the more comfortable the familiar places become. I am now appreciative of all of the times that I feel scared, out of place, or uncomfortable, in knowing the fact that each trip outside of my comfort zone only expands my confidence in myself and comfort in my environment.
The thing about living in Beijing and Mainland China in general is that you reside behind the Great Fire Wall: a cute name given to the Chinese government’s dedication to limit Western influences on the Internet and control what information is available to their citizens. Although I assume this is unintentional, it also does have the side effect of making communication with people stateside more difficult, as does the thirteen hour time difference.
When I moved from my hometown to Tulane, it was easy keeping in touch with old friends; if I wanted to talk, I would simply text, Snapchat, Facebook message, or use a multitude of other means. In China, I have found it to be completely different as most Western communication apps are banned and, therefore, require a VPN. VPNs are surprisingly efficient, however, they do drain your monthly data, so I had to use mine sparingly. Thus, many forms of communication fell by the wayside. As I mentioned, being thirteen hours ahead of most of my friends did prove problematic as it left early mornings and late nights as the ideal times for communication. Classes took the majority early mornings and many nights were instead spent out in the city than on the BFSU campus at a computer communicating with friends.
Despite this lack of communication, I found that the friendships I made before my time abroad have remained strong; people are quite understanding of the limiting powers of the Great Fire Wall. I have also found that I don’t need my phone and constant notifications, the ability to search (factually accurate) Internet, and always be in contact with friends as much as I have expected. In fact, I found I don’t really care for a phone besides the ability to carry music with me at all times.
Basically, a combi, also called a micro, is a vehicle that ranges in size between an old Volkswagen van and a regular sized bus, with everything in between. The reason for the variety is that combis are not very well regulated: they started as informal businesses to combat the lack of public transportation systems outside of the city center. These endearing buses take a boring commute and turn it into a daily dose of adventure.
Here’s what to expect on your average commute to school:
You leave your house at least an hour before your first class. You will probably still be late, but the professor won’t be there yet anyway, so it doesn’t matter. You squint to see the street names painted on the sides of the combis before they drive past you, because the route numbers on the front don’t mean anything. Huzzah! You have found one that looks promising. You flag it down.
The cobrador quickly opens the van door and yells “SUBE SUBE SUBE”, so you run to catch it. Chances are, it’s still moving when you get a foot in the door, and it doesn’t wait for your other foot before taking off again. It’s rush hour, so everyone is packed in like sardines. The cobrador yells “AVANCE AVANCE AVANCE” and everyone squishes in a bit tighter to make room for you.
You settle in and rummage around for change. The combis don’t have a fixed rate, but instead charge by distance. The university is three districts away, so the cobrador charges you 2 soles, or about 60 cents. You get a small colorful ticket in return.
Hark! A seat opens up! You slide in and position yourself so that sharp piece of metal doesn’t poke you in the back. Your legs touch the backrest of the seat in front of you, and you pity everyone taller than you.
The best part of the combi ride is the people watching. There are people in nice suits with briefcases, old people who can barely walk, and students scrambling to finish their readings before class. Some talented women can put on a full face of makeup, including curling their eyelashes. The truly gifted are able to sleep. Periodically, a street vendor will board the combi, selling Sublime candy bars, 2 for 1 sol. You’re not in the mood for chocolate this morning, so they hop off at the next stop.
Sometimes, the combi breaks down on the way to the university. The irony is not lost on you that the word “van” in Spanish means “they go”. These vans are mostly held together with rust and a prayer.
Finally, you hear the cobrador shout “PARADERO UNIVERSITARIA”, which is the name of your stop. You stand up, yell “BAJA”, and elbow your way to the front. The cobrador responds “BAJA BAJA BAJA”, and you slide out of the van as it pulls away. Congratulations, you made it!
To me, combis epitomize the Lima experience. I definitely took a while to get used to the public transportation system in Lima. It’s very different from paying a single fare to get on a clean, spacious, air-conditioned subway car, which will take you anywhere you want, along well-publicized routes. But I really respect the ingenuity and grit of Limeños. They created a system that actually works pretty well, despite its dysfunction. There was a need, and they filled it in a creative and entrepreneurial way. In a weird way, I will miss the combis and their ability to turn an everyday occurrence into an adventure.
*flagging down a Vietnamese rice farmer and getting a ride back to the village on a motorbike*
This is definitely something I (or my parents…) never imagined myself doing. I just completed a week long backpacking trip in Vietnam. In dire need of a nice shower, I arrived last night at midnight to my dorm at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. For anybody who knows me well, they know a backpacking trip is outside of my comfort zone, and that’s exactly why I wanted to do it.
Through the seven days of attempting to use the transportation system in northern Vietnam, I traveled to the beach towns of Da Nang/Hoi An, the metropolitan Hanoi, and the minority villages of mountainous Sapa. This was an eye-openning experience. From meeting other backpackers to having a local tour guide in Sapa, every person I met left me with something. Observing different ways of life forced me to take a step a back from my self-absorbed life of a 20 year old. When you meet a villager who got married at 16 and had three children by 20, it puts things into perspective. I become extremely aware of my freedom and privilage. It also shows you that your way of life is not the best way, just one way.
Something else that stuck with me was the Vietnamese saying “same same, but different.” There is so much truth in this. Being in Vietnam was influential for me. Many people thought I was Vietnamese. When I was in Sapa, it was harvest time for the farmers. Their rice harvest was supposed to feed the families for the whole year. I saw girls and boys my age and younger working in the fields. People that looked like me. “Same same, but different.” Interesting (for lack of a better word) that the thing you have the least control of, your birth, decides so much.
I made it back to Hong Kong as the same but different.
Did you have a hard time communicating with host country nationals when you arrived? Share an example. Did you adjust your communication strategies in response? How?
When I first arrived in São Paulo, everything was different- the time zone, the temperature, the altitude, and the language. Despite the best wishes of the travel doctor that I visited prior to leaving for my semester abroad, I wasn’t able to sleep well on the plane. By the time that my plane had landed at 5:00AM, I was tired and groggy, but nevertheless excited to take on my latest adventure. All was going swimmingly at the airport and in the taxi ride to my apartment deep in the heart of São Paulo. I had somehow figured out the correct bairro (neighborhood) where I was to live – Bela Vista- and I was already practicing my Portuguese with the cabbie who told me all about the three most important São Paulo football clubs – Corinthians, Palmeiras, and FC São Paulo, and I already began to feel like a local.
After my hour-long cab ride came to an end, I thanked him for his conversation and wished him well, and I exited with my four massive pieces of luggage that I was to use for my five months in Brazil. In São Paulo, especially in the nicer neighborhoods, every high rise has a two-gate system, to keep out burglars, as well as a 24-hour guard on duty. No matter the hour, you have to be buzzed in by the guard that sees you entering – no key, no fob, no scanner – just the guard. As I prepared to walk up to the gate, at first I was confused by the 12-foot wrought-iron fence standing before me with no keyhole in sight. I then saw a panel with a big large button, which I decided was what I needed to press.
After a few rings, I heard the voice of whom I presumed to be a middle-aged female guard, but I did not understand a word of what she was saying. In reality, I had never practiced Portuguese outside of the United States, and I sometimes struggled with my listening comprehension. At this point, 6:30AM on a Thursday morning, my brain wasn’t functioning on full sleep, and I honestly could not understand a word. I tried my best to explain my situation and my living arrangements in the apartment complex, yet the guard simply couldn’t understand me. The guard finally hung up the phone. So, there I was, alone in a foreign world, already experiencing a dilemma. Logically, I called back on the phone, and she picked up again, and I tried explaining to her my apartment number, and she put two and two together and called one of my new housemates, Monize, to come down and help out with translation.
Long story short, Monize, my wonderful Brazilian flatmate, used her limited English and my broken Portuguese to get me into the complex, and finally to bring my bags up to my new apartment. What a first two hours in my new world! I was scared, nervous, cold, tired, and frankly confused. Yet, my flatmate, one of three, was willing to help me out when I was in a tough spot.
Five months later, all of the security guards knew me by the name “O americano,” but I was able to converse with them and could understand them perfectly. I spent four months working in a structured credit office where only Portuguese was spoken, and I felt comfortable maneuvering all around the second largest city in the Western Hemisphere. Eventually, I even became the resident translator for some of my European friends at FGV. At the end of the day, I learned so much about resilience, cultural differences, language barriers, and friendship. When it was finally time to leave in December, Monize decided that it was time for her to tell me what the security guard had told her over the phone on my first day in Brazil: “Monize, please come down to translate for this poor boy at the gate. I’m doing my best to understand him, but I’m fairly certain that he’s speaking in Greek.”