travel

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Remember in elementary school when venn diagrams were all the rage? Let’s get back into that mentality.

1. Southern California trumps wherever you are – similarity

Sorry I’m not sorry for being born and raised in the best place on this and any other alternate universe. I may no longer technically live there or spend much time there, but I’ll always identify with its casual culture. And with regards to its endlessly sunny weather, ignorance is bliss. C’mon, where else can you surf to school?

Here’s a snapshot of my man Kobe at the Vietnam airport: another not so subtle reminder that SoCal runs the world.

2. Priorities – similarity

When it comes to the three C’s, you know …

Cosmetics, Chocolate, & …

…Coffee!

the States and Vietnam have seriously got them on lock. The coffee is actually special coffee. It was one of those times when I was really glad my parents withheld information until after I tried and liked it! I hate to be living evidence that college catalyzes a caffeine addiction, but my affectionate feelings for coffee began this past summer due to the delectable and exquisite taste of Trader Joe’s coffee – so it doesn’t technically count, right??

Vietnamese coffee is practically a brand of its own though. Its power ingredient is condensed milk and it’s infamous for being really strong. Ease into this gateway drug, kids!

3. All of the lights – similarity

Thanksgiving 2011 was the first time I was in New York City during the holiday season. I got to watch the Thanksgiving Parade live and leisurely roam the lengthy avenues at my pleasure. Even with all the hype and high expectations about the city lights, it surely did not disappoint with its meticulous detail and ornate décor. 

Vietnam rings in 2012 with Tet about a month after the US does although they do not hesitate to celebrate with the States with their New Year as well. Downtown Saigon is currently resplendent with its various main roads and roundabouts brightly decorated. The main mode of transportation here in the city is by motorcycles, or as the locals call

them, ‘Hondas.’ Between my sister and me, it took about a week to pressure my parents into driving us around in Hondas even though rules of these Vietnamese roads are highly questionable. It’s so much easier to appreciate the lights on the back of a motorcycle (compared to a taxi) and I find it way more culturally immersive to have my mom lean over to a nearby biker at a red light to ask for directions.

But what is more culturally immersive is driving a motorcycle on my own! What up Asia

The topic of motorcycles brings us to our first few differences.

4. Tomato, potato; living room, garage – difference

Like New York City, Saigon’s real estate is limited, causing architects to exploit the third dimension of height. Most of the houses I’ve visited in Saigon have at least three and up to five floors! They remind me of Harvard entryways (which are like normal dormitory floors, but vertical and connected by a staircase). Due to the low supply of land, houses here don’t have garages! The Vietnamese with cars/Hondas use what Americans would call a living room as a garage. People just drive into the first room of their houses!! Most restaurants have valet parking, but some restaurants will let you drive right into the restaurants, which is actually the best kind of security for your car (in my opinion) +1 Vietnam.

5. Road Safety prevents Road Kill? – difference

As mentioned above, most Vietnamese people get around via Honda motorcycles. This method is not only more gas efficient, but also uses space more efficiently – I haven’t seen parking spaces for cars as of yet, unless of course you park on the side of the road, close your eyes, and hope that the other Hondas dodge it. All of these efficiency advantages fall to their death,

however, when you factor in travelling with your family. Kids can be seen wedged in between adults, which naturally seems like the least dangerous option, but standing up?? Also, here, plastic bags don’t seem to be too much of a safety hazard. I understand that you’re much more vulnerable to toxic gas emissions on a Honda compared to an enclosed vehicle, but using a plastic bag over the head as a preventative measure seems like risky business. I admire the Vietnamese for fearlessly confronting death, but not enough to let Vietnam win this one…+1 United States.

6. The FDA: The Food-Death Argument – difference

Go big or go home: why just confront death on the road when you can confront it at meal times too? I won’t believe you if you tell me this isn’t a question that’s been forever lingering in the back of your mind.

During my first night in Vietnam, I freaked out about seeing lizards chilling on the walls of restaurants. Good thing my aunt reassured me early on that lizards are seen as a “good intruder.” Lizards apparently eat ants, mosquitoes, and other gross things that are categorized as “bad intruders.” Now my scientific side would +1 Vietnam because major snaps for being green and exploiting the ecosystem but my leniency regarding cleanliness only goes so far.

 

I’m going to turn the other cheek and just blindly believe that the green liquid in the plastic bottles is soap that will be used to wash these dishes. I applaud your transparency Vietnam, but I do like the letter A’s not only on my report card, but also on the front windows of my favorite restaurants. Thus, +1 America.

7. The Health vs. Taste Controversy – undefined

Viet BLT, hold the L&T anyone?

A "bo bia ngot" street vendor: wrapped sugar sticks, shredded coconut & sesame seeds

Now I’m a level-headed, young woman of the Y2K+12, so I’ll compromise some cleanliness in order to please my taste buds. I’m an advocate for the growing popularity of food trucks in America so I’ll be a faithful advocate of street vendors here in Vietnam. I’m pretty confident when I say street vendors give you more bang for your buck and belly, but my confidence dwindles with regards to your digestive tract because no amounts of deliciousness validates an icky sicky day. Let’s just say my father will pay my tuition with less hesitation after some UHS (Harvard University Health Services) travelling sickness pills – two months ago when I went in to get vaccines in preparation for Vietnam, they helped me make sure that all my bases were covered!

As with most controversies, no clear winner is apparent at the moment, but bonus +1 UHS!

8. You are what you eat – too many variables

My mother openly voices that I’m approximately 3 magnitudes uglier when I’m tan. My determined endeavors to soak up the sun may seem like residual teen rebellion, but this recurring clash is truly a cultural one. Throughout history, Vietnamese people have appreciated lighter skin tones because it symbolized wealth since reduced sun exposure most likely meant you didn’t have to go outside and work. I, however, have adapted the more mainstream American way of thought that tan lines represent a sporty and adventurous personality. Even though some people have resorted to artificial means to imitate tans, surprise still struck me when the soap aisle at the supermarket could have been called the bleach aisle.

Although the featured ingredients of aloe vera, milk, and licorice extract seem to compose of a balanced diet, they also apparently help brighten your skin. This has made me weary every time I use unidentified soap to wash my hands. If only I packed a month long supply of Purell…

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My first formal exposure to the Spanish language (not counting Dora the Explorer) was in 8th grade where Introductory Spanish was a 6-week course offered as part of the Exploratory Wheel elective. Spanish class soon became a year-long course for me every year since then – even now in college!

I clearly remember the day in 8th grade when I became determined to acquire Spanish fluency. One of my good friends – endearingly nicknamed Briana Banana – raised her hand in the midst of silence during a writing exercise. She inquired about one of the new infinitives we just learned meaning “to play” which evoked an alarmed and confused countenance by the teacher who repeated back: “soufflé?!” It was one of those unexpected misunderstandings that provoked our endless giggling – we literally hysterically laughed about this for weeks. If I were to ever write a memoir, this moment wouldn’t only be noted as a randomly hilarious event, but also as a turning point when I decided it would be way more than awesome to be fluent in Spanish so that I could translate words like “soufflé.”

I’ve been learning Spanish for almost 5 years now (didn’t enroll in a Spanish class senior year of high school after taking AP Spanish my junior year, highly recommended class by the way!) and recently, I’ve been feeling that the steep slopes of my learning curve have started their inevitable plateau. This is not to say that Harvard language classes aren’t fulfilling – I definitely feel like I have more mastery with regards to grammatical points such as compound verb phrases and my most recent class (see description below) incorporated Spanish cinema which naturally gave me more of a sense of Spanish history and culture.

[Spanish 40: An advanced language and culture class that further develops linguistic competence using regions of the Hispanic world as a focus for class discussion, grammar review, and an introduction to Hispanic social contexts and texts. Course materials may also include films, interviews, painting, photography, music, selections from the press, as well as literary or historical readings. Frequent written and oral assignments, and a thorough review of grammar.]

I think my lack of complete satisfaction stems from the fact that my Spanish acquisition has been contained within the four walls of a classroom. Ever since high school, most of my time outside the classroom has been dedicated to furthering my scientific interests in order to narrow my future career path. However, I’m pretty confident that I need to either volunteer or study abroad in Spain, Latin America, or any other Spanish-speaking region so that my Spanish learning is concomitant to my personal growth (as corny as that may sound) because studying abroad offers a harmonious combination of formal learning in the classroom and informal learning via outdoor adventures and interpersonal interactions. My adventures in Vietnam this J-term have really cemented my desires to pursue being active abroad in the near future.

As a first generation Vietnamese-American, I simultaneously learned Vietnamese and English growing up. I’ve never received any formal Vietnamese instruction, but I can listen and speak just as well as I can butcher words when I read them. I couldn’t write Vietnamese if my life depended on it and my reading abilities are fairly limited to restaurant menus. Therefore, I depend on my listening comprehension and speaking skills for communication. My parents’ friends are generally impressed with my fluent façade because most Vietnamese kids born in the US have English-dominated language skills. I believe my bilingual language advantage stems from the fact that I grew up living with my grandparents so the demand for Vietnamese was higher. However, this advantage no longer applies in college where I no longer reside with anyone who pressures me to speak Vietnamese. My desire to maintain my Vietnamese in college led me to volunteer in Dorchester, a heavily Vietnamese populated community near Cambridge. These efforts haven’t been too helpful since the PBHA BRYE (Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment) program aims to tutor struggling Vietnamese teens in English. I’ve also sought out various ways to enhance the Vietnamese half of my Vietnamese-American identity such as participating in Len Duong Camp last summer and traveling to Vietnam this J-term.

I’ve been in Vietnam almost two weeks now and my parents who once use to mercilessly describe my Vietnamese abilities as pathetic, now just tell friends and relatives that I’m indeed capable of speaking Vietnamese. I’ve learned much more slang as well as new vocabulary – specifically for all the new fruits and cuisines that aren’t readily available in the United States.

LEMON Ritz…WHAT?!

I think the most convincing proof of my Vietnamese acquisition has been my improved abilities to make jokes and puns in Vietnamese!!

I’m not even sure if Charles Dickens has enough words to describe how fulfilling my first (and hopefully not last!) trip to Vietnam has been. Everything from meeting all the relatives who I have and haven’t heard about to seeing where my parents were married and where they use to hang out afterschool has not only been a culturally immersive experience, but also a personally fulfilling one.

A man playing the recorder…with his nose!!

I intend on using this family trip to Vietnam as a catalyst for studying abroad because I am SO ready to collect some stamps in my passport!

A street sign in Saigon – I guess rockets are allowed on this street?? 😉

This restaurant had a special vomit section in the bathroom and we still ate there.

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The encircling 1am darkness was subtly interrupted by the dim lights of a New York City subway underpass. Up the stairs stumbled two Southern Californian 19 year old females struggling with the forces of rain, wind, and heavy suitcases. A scheduled 8:30pm bus arrival became a midnight arrival due to rain and natural Thanksgiving traffic. These unforeseen, unfortunate circumstances left my roommate and me at Penn Station flipping a coin to determine if we should take the uptown or downtown train. Maybe leaving for New York City for Thanksgiving break 25 hours after a wisdom teeth extraction was poor planning on my part, but am I glad (retrospectively) that I did it?

 

From the Tuesday night until Sunday morning of Thanksgiving vacation, my roommate and I conquered New York City. We shamelessly stuffed ourselves in Little Italy and Chinatown, tapped into our domesticated sides at the grocery store to create a wisdomteethless-friendly Thanksgiving dinner, watched the Macy’s Day Parade live, saw The Lion King on Broadway, and were approached by countless people soliciting money and/or directions – an extremely immersed experience if I do say so myself.

Times Square

Ice Skating in Central Park

Personally, Thanksgiving break has become an essential necessity like water or oxygen. It is perfectly placed between the second (or third) wave of midterms/papers and before final semester exams. This vacation teaser allows you to resuscitate your sleep depository and mentally prepare for looming obstacles.

Being born and raised in San Diego, California, I feel an innate inclination towards urban settings. That’s why one of the strong benefits of Harvard University is its location. Not only does Boston offer a great skyline and a delicious array of cultural restaurants, but Boston also offers unique opportunities in practically any industry you can think of (i.e. business – Boston Consulting Group, medicine – Massachusetts General Hospital, non-profit – Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program). Yet, Boston doesn’t feel like a giant, overwhelming city. If that’s the atmosphere you’re looking for though, New York City is just a short bus/train ride away. I love the fact that I can take advantage of both majestic cities during my undergraduate years!

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Good Vibes

One of my favorite songs of all time is Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys, and it’s been stuck in my head for the past couple of days – probably because Thanksgiving break was crammed with good vibes.  I took the Greyhound bus all the way from Boston to Virginia to visit some family friends, and life was awesome all weekend. The sun was shining, and I didn’t set my alarm clock once. I felt like a love-sponge, just soaking up affection and good food.  Our Thanksgiving feast included all the components of a typical American meal: turkey, cranberries, stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, and two kinds of pies.  And at night, we had traditional Dutch treats called Oliebollen!  Oliebollen are little round donuts, filled with raisins and spices.  I almost died of happiness and good vibrations while I ate them.

I helped create this poignant Thanksgiving artwork.

Unfortunately, the bus ride back to school almost took away all my good vibrations.  We stopped in New York in the middle of the night to switch buses – but Greyhound, Inc was temporarily out of bus drivers.  So we waited on the floor in sleepy, grouchy suspense until some more bus drivers showed up at dawn, and I made it back to campus just in time for my morning classes.

Speaking of good vibrations, a few weeks ago the Harvard Global Health & AIDS Coalition staged a ‘Pool Party Demonstration’ outside of Merck Pharmaceuticals, near the Harvard Medical School  – an effective and creative way to protest.  While Merck has been instrumental in developing ARVs and other HIV-related drugs, they’ve refused to join the Medicine Patent Pool so far.  The Patent Pool tries to ensure availability of HIV drugs to low- and middle-income families across the globe, and Merck’s cooperation would be invaluable toward that end (you can read more about the issue here).

Pool party with a purpose.

Listening to speeches!  I’m wearing the hawt green shades.

We showed up with beach balls, sunglasses, and multicolored towels, and set up our waterless pool party in the grass below Merck Labs.  I was impressed with how congenial and relaxed everyone was, while still being insistent about their goals.  We chanted and talked and wrote letters to Merck management, and some Harvard med students gave speeches from inside the blow-up pool (everyone told them to “Get in the pool!”).  The demonstrators showed that it’s possible to be passionate without being violent, and to make your voice heard without being antagonizing.  Of course, some policemen showed up pretty quickly and watched the proceedings with folded arms, but they didn’t seem too concerned.  The demonstration actually got a lot of local publicity, and a  follow-up event is scheduled for World AIDS Day this coming Thursday, December 1st.  If you live in the Boston area, feel free to join in – and no matter where you live, there are so many ways you can show your love & support for those living with HIV this Thursday.

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Wait, what?  Summer is almost over?  It is completely impossible for it to already be August 22.  Time has clearly played a trick on us all.  AHHHH!

Good news is, I’ve had an INCREDIBLE summer!  Bad news is, I haven’t been able to tell you all about it ‘til now…. But here I go!

Ok, so this summer I had the ridiculously, amazing opportunity to say, “Psh… summer?  Who would ever want to stop studying for three months?” and take a summer class…. In BARCELONA!

That’s right!  I went with the Harvard Summer Study Abroad to Barcelona, Spain to learn about Barcelonan art, architecture, and culture.  I got to speak all sorts of Spanish, pretend to know Catalan, eat yummy food, travel to Paris and Rome, soak up the sun on the beach… oh right, and go to class.  Of course.

When I went, I knew absolutely none of the other kids on the program.  They were all rising sophomores and juniors from Harvard, but for whatever reason I’d never met any of them.  I love meeting new people, so this didn’t bother me, but I still did not know what to expect.

It was one of the best summers of my life.

Me in front of the Sagrada Familia!

We lived in a summer student housing residence in large singles.  Not only was each single relatively big, but each had its own full bathroom and kitchenette!  Our classroom was located in the historic main building of the University of Barcelona, and we got to learn all of the ins-and-outs of the city’s super-efficient metro.   We only had class Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of every week, so this meant four full days every weekend to explore and travel!

In Madrid!

An average school day went as follows:

  • 9:15 – Wake up to enjoy the Residence’s complimentary breakfast of croissants, fruit, and expresso (I am now an addict).
  • 10:15 – Leave the Residence to walk to the metro station.  Wait a maximum of four minutes for the metro to arrive.  Ride to school.
  • 11:00 – 1:00 – Learn about Barcelonan history, art, architecture, and city planning.
  • 1:00 – 5:30 – SIESTA!  This means eat, sleep, explore, shop, go to the beach, do homework, etc.
  • 5:30- 8:30 – Itinerario, which was our term for class-led field trips around Barcelona to see the buildings that we had learned about in class.
  • 9:00ish – Dinner.  Because Barcelona is a pretty touristy area, the food can be expensive.  We went out to eat some, but we mostly utilized the kitchenettes in our rooms, which meant LOOK OUT WORLD!  I LEARNED TO COOK!  That’s right, I can now make eggs in every style you can possible imagine (including poached, thank you very much), and a mean orange chicken.
  • 10:30 – If we didn’t have a lot of work, a lot of the times we went out.  Barcelona has all sorts of cool things to see at night, and why would you want to miss out on such an intrinsic part of the cultural experience, right?
Beyond all of that, I also made some incredible friends, who I know I will stay close with during the next three years of my Harvard experience.

The whole group with a view of Barcelona in the background

Now that I’m home, I can’t wait to go back to school!

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One thing I didn’t expect coming to Harvard are the number of international opportunities, generally funded by the university or other means, that allow students to explore the world. This spring break, I traveled to Dubai for an academic, cultural, and social exchange conference through the Harvard College in Asia Program (HCAP). Over the week I saw and learned about the United Arab Emirates, but more importantly, I made a really close group of friends from both Harvard and abroad.

The HCAP experience is a set of seven conferences that take place at Harvard and across Asia with all expenses paid except airfare. Each February, nearly 50 students from the top universities in their country come to Harvard for a week-long conference Harvard students put on for them. After a few lectures in the morning, we show the students Boston and give them an introduction to American culture. Then, over spring break, approximately 70 Harvard students split into six groups to visit one of the six partner universities over spring break. We aim to make the conferences accessible to all by having all expenses covered while abroad and by helping students gain university funding for the flight if they are unable to pay. This year, we partnered with schools in Dubai, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Mumbai, Seoul, and Tokyo.

Participating in HCAP and this trip to Dubai have been experiences I could never have imaged I doing just three years ago as a high schooler. My trip to Dubai took myself and ten other Harvard students abroad. We visited with high profile speakers such as the US Consulate General to the UAE to a leader in the push for opening medical tourism facilities in Dubai in order to learn about healthcare in the the region, the theme of this year’s conference. But after the academic portion of the conference, the American University of Dubai students took us for sightseeing, to the beach, and to their favorite hang-out spots. From the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest man-made structure, to hidden gems like an Indian street food restaurant, we saw all aspects of Dubai and gained a thorough appreciation of the locals’ propensity for setting world records. The students were frank about life there, both about the  opportunities they’ve had in Dubai as well as the darker side of the city with workers living in harsh conditions to enable the emirate’s quick growth.

Spending nearly every waking hour with both my Harvard peers and having my life saved from crazy drivers by the Dubai students served as an effective formula to create strong bonds. Indeed, the relationships I built on previous HCAP trips I took to Singapore and Tokyo persist. I’ve received emails asking for a place to stay from my friends abroad, and I know if I ever travel through Asia, I  have a bed waiting for me. These bonds have become even stronger in the past; HCAP’s first president eventually married a student he met while at the conference abroad. While I may never have that strong of a bond with the students abroad or even see some of them again (except possibly through Facebook), they have challenged me to think deeper, question assumptions, and peer outside my American paradigm for viewing the world.

Here are some photos from the trip:

HCAP on Jumeirah Beach

Spelling HCAP on Jumeirah Beach

 

The view from the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest man-made structure

The view from the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest man-made structure

Taking a break from the desert safari through the sand dunes outside Dubai

Taking a break from the desert safari through the sand dunes outside Dubai

Taking a camel ride after the safari.

Taking a camel ride after the safari

Visiting the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which honors the popular founder of the UAE

Visiting the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the eighth largest mosque in the world, which honors the popular founder of the UAE

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I love Boston.  I love Cambridge even more.  But sometimes it’s nice to take a break and do something random, do something spontaneous, do something… like go to New York!

As I mentioned in my previous post, my exam schedule for this semester is really strange.  I had a two-part Spanish exam at the beginning of last week while it was still Reading Period, and a 15-page Celtic History final paper due Friday afternoon.  Now I have an entire week of nothing before my next two exams, which will be Economics 10 on Saturday morning and Government 20 on the following Monday afternoon.  I suppose that most students, given all of this time, would either waste it or use every second to study.  I decided to give myself a break after a week of hard work before the second week of hard work by going to visit some friends in New York.

This might sound drastic and only a little crazy.  I do admit to being on the spontaneous side of normal, but really it was very easy and not at all hard to do.  Being from Pittsburgh, I’m not used to easy travel unless it’s by car to either Ohio or West Virginia or by plane to anywhere worth going.  It turns out that in New England, there is plenty of affordable public transportation that can take you almost anywhere!

After I decided I wanted to go to New York for the weekend, I looked up ways of getting there.  Amtrak has a fast-moving three-hour train ride there for about $90 one way.  While this no doubt would have been both comfortable and quick, I decided that I really wasn’t willing to hand over that kind of cash for a quick trip.  So I looked up bus routes, and lo and behold Bolt Bus has a four-hour ride from Boston to New York for only $15!

The trip itself was also easy!  I took the T (Boston’s subway system) directly from Harvard Square to South Station, where it was a two-minute walk to the bus terminal where I boarded my bus.  The Bolt Bus had Wi-fi and power outlets so I could watch endless numbers of movies on Netflix and stalk my friends on Facebook.

Before I knew it, I was there – dropped off right outside of Penn Station!  But while New York was awesome, I found that I really did miss Cambridge.  The great thing about going to school in a city like Cambridge is that it’s a lot more manageable in size but there is still always more to explore.  But, if you’re ever looking for something crazy and spontaneous to do… New York is just a $15 bus ride away!

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