Notes from Abroad

The overseas experiences of NC State University students

Packed with Activity

The great thing about studying abroad is there is always something to do, go see, or get involved with. Of course going to lectures and tutorials are important, but the weekends provide a great time to travel and see more of the country in which you are living in. Like most weeks, this past week was jam packed with activity.

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At the residential college in which I reside, there is a constant swarm of activities. Throughout the semester the college hosts a few formal dinners. The food at these dinners is particularly nice and the entire college dresses up for the event. We had a formal welcome dinner this past week. The theme of the dinner was Australia. Therefore, one of the appetizers served before the main meal was kangaroo meat. Being a vegetarian, I did not give the meat a try, but I know plenty of people who did and thoroughly enjoyed it. Others described the meat as having a gamey taste and quite tough to eat. In addition to the authentic meal options, the college hired a local aborigines school to come and perform a selection of dance. The dances were different from anything I had seen in the past. I really enjoyed the full cultural experience.
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So far classes seem to be going well. More work and readings are done outside of the classroom in Australia than in the United States. This may explain why I feel like I am never in class. The tutorial groups provide a unique setting to learn. Thus far most of my tutorials consist of discussing journal articles recently published. With a large portion of my grade determined from papers I am expected to write, I asked our tutorial reader about some helpful hints. Being unaware of how papers are typically written (style, format, citations) and turned in, I asked heaps of questions. When I asked her if she would be willing to look through my paper before I turned it in, I was given quite the look. Apparently our tutorial leaders grade our papers. Helping students before they turn in their papers is not expected, or even frowned upon in Australia, looked at as a way of cheating. This will take some getting used to, as I could write an entire paper and have everything I write be incorrect.

To make my schedule even more hectic, I have joined a social basketball team for the semester. The games are incredibly laid back. I don’t think anyone even knows the score until the end. There are even people on my team who have never played in a basketball game before. As a competitive person the laid back atmosphere can be a bit frustrating at times, however, I know the atmosphere is good for me and will make the experience more enjoyable in the long run. The social sports have a lot of rules to try and keep games fair. Hopefully I will be able to get used to these rules so I do not receive a foul every three seconds.

A group of exchanges decided to rent a car for the weekend to take a few day trips up north to Lancelin and Cervantes. On Friday we headed all the way up to Cervantes to see the pinnacles. The pinnacles are literally just a bunch of random sharp looking rock formations. They formed when the water level from the ocean recessed. After an hour of driving through the park and getting out every few stops to take pictures, there was not too much more to see. Definitely worth the trip, though. Although I did not drive on this trip, as a passenger in the car, riding in Australia takes a lot of getting used to. Australians drive on the opposite side of the road with the steering wheel on the right side. Every time we would take a turn I thought for sure we were going to get hit because of my “American” instincts. Luckily, Jasmine, the girl who was driving, is from Ireland so was not phased by any changes.

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On Saturday we headed up to Lancelin, to go sand boarding. Traveling as an exchange student with other exchange students is always an adventure. Being so, when we saw a sign for mini golf on the side of a highway, of course we followed it. Ten minutes later and in the countryside of Australia we stumbled upon a homemade mini golf course. The place was so remote the lady working there questioned us on how we even found it. We played a round. Unfortunately my golf class skills from last semester have not stuck with me, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

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Proceeding onward to Lancelin, we finally rented our sand boards and headed out to the dunes. Sand boarding was easier than expected and quite similar to snowboarding. The only difference was if you tried to stop you would not make it all the way down the dune. Covered in sand in literally every possible place imaginable, we headed back to Perth to recover from our few busy days exploring Australia.

2.O Week

The first week back at classes is orientation week. Being the second semester of class for the year, Australians refer to this first week as 2.O week. In essence, the week is full of fun activities while class work has not begun full force quite yet. My first day of class was pretty uneventful. I’m constantly astounded at how little time I spend in classes here. With a full course load I would expect to be in class most days. However, I managed to only get one class on Mondays, only a lab on Wednesdays, and no classes on Fridays. The lectures are fairly typical and incredibly similar to those I would attend at NC State. I do like the ability to re-watch recorded lectures online. The grading system is harsher in Australia, or so I have been told. To get the highest marks you have to achieve above an 80%. In addition, tests only occur once a semester, typically. I only have two tests the entire time I am studying abroad, both of which are final exams worth over 50% of my grade. There is a lot of pressure put on one test. Small assignments are assigned very minimally. Most of my grades will come from a few large papers and group assignments. For my semester abroad I am enrolled in Conservation Biology, Behavioural Ecology, Humanity in the 21st Century, and Knowing Country: The Dreaming and Darwin (an indigenous studies unit).

Throughout the week the Resident’s Club at my residential college (Trinity), put on various events to get the exchange students better integrated with everyone else of the college, while also welcoming everyone back from their five week break. The events they hosted were definitely the highlight of my week.

On Monday there was a quiz night, with topics ranging from naming celebrities to fun facts about countries around the world. In between the quiz categories there were other challenges to be completed. The Resident’s Club would never tell you what the challenge was before you went to volunteer for one. To give a hint to one of the next challenges, they said, “This challenge you will get hot.” Thinking it was some sort of athletic challenge, I volunteered from my table. I should not have been so quick to do so, as the challenge involved a chili pepper eating contest. I had to eat two whole chili peppers as quick as possible. With my low tolerance for spicy foods, I did not win the challenge, but somehow consumed the two chili peppers. My mouth has never been on fire more. I estimate I drank an entire carton of milk after that challenge.

On Tuesday night we were divided into random teams and took on Survivor, Trinity style. The game involved running around to different stations around campus doing crazy challenges. In between those challenges, we had to gain extra points through scavenger hunt type activities. For instance, take a picture with your team spelling out Trinity or take a video serenading a random stranger. One of the challenges involved us letting red syrup drip down our faces to make it look like we were bleeding. This was our first challenge so for the remainder of the night our team looked like a mess. Somehow our team had the perfect combination of people to complete each challenge and won.

On Wednesday night the local bar on campus, referred to as the Tav, had a Surperhero themed night. Everyone around campus, especially those living in the colleges, showed up for a fun night dressed as superheroes. A majority of Australians commute from home to campus, as living expenses in Perth are quite high. Therefore those who live in the colleges are typically from over an hour outside of the city. Another interesting point to make is that most students in Australia go to the university closest to their home to study. Going “out of state” is almost unheard of.

On Thursday, the Resident’s Club took us to the Fremantle Prison, an old prison in Western Australia no longer in use. The tour was at night, and the guards giving the tour tried to make it as spooky as possible, telling us crazy stories about people who had committed suicide in an unknown way and those who had escaped. The prison tour was a great cultural experience to see some of the recent history of Australia while also learning about their past prison system.

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The weekend activities were just as great as those held throughout the week. An Australian living at Trinity offered to drive a group of us to the Avon Descent, a huge, two-day kayaking and power craft race on the Avon and Swan Rivers. The descent is 133kilometers. Even though Perth is a beautiful city, escaping for a while was nice, along with being able to see more of the countryside. Even in the middle of winter, the forests are a rich green color and walking along the river was quite peaceful.

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Adjusting to the Land Down Under

After four flights, too many hours to count, and a piece of missing luggage later, I finally made it to the land down under to begin my studies at the University of Western Australia. By moving to Australia the day completely flipped. Being 13 hours ahead, my mornings originally in the States are now my nights here. The jet lag was not nearly as bad as expected, and I’m slowly adjusting to my new surroundings. Moving half way around the world by myself was a bit scary. Knowing absolutely no one and starting fresh was worrisome. However, if there is one thing I have learned in my first week, Australians are incredibly welcoming.

Within minutes of my arrival, I was welcomed with a warm hug by Anni, the Dean of Students for the residential college I am staying in. Residential living is a bit different than at NC State. Instead of staying in residential halls, there are many different residential colleges. The colleges are composed of different buildings. Within each college there is a strong college spirit. Many events take place within the college, allowing you to get to know those living around you. All meals are served in one dining hall, making the dining hall a hectic place with over 300 students going through for each meal. Australians do not have roommates, meaning this semester I will have a room to myself – a pleasant change to the typical cramped living style.

With Kangaroo

Our first week was spent as an orientation week, both for the college and the university. It is currently winter in Australia, so their school year is the opposite of ours. I am starting during the second semester. Since this is the case, almost all of the students I met during the first week were not from Australia. The exchange students staying in my college are mostly from the UK and the US. Registering for classes was a bit confusing. I suppose I will figure out if I did everything correctly when I go to attend the lectures this week. The classroom time seems to be substantially less than at NC State.

Beyond the orientation activities, much of my first week was spent exploring the city of Perth. From what I have seen so far, Perth is a beautiful city. I love to run, and the running paths around the city are remarkable. One morning I was running on a path right next to the Swan River, a river that goes through Perth and empties into the ocean. As I was running I spotted some fins in the distance. Within minutes, there was an entire pod of dolphins swimming right next to the wall along the trail. As a marine science student, I was ecstatic.

With Koala

My first weekend was spent further exploring the surrounding area of Perth. Beyond walking through the beautiful Kings Park overlooking the city, I went on two excursions offered by the university. One took us to the Perth Zoo. The zoo seemed like any zoo I would go to in the States. The other trip took us to Swan Valley and Caversham Wildlife Park. Unfortunately, the weather since I have arrived has been quite dreary and wet. The weather did not stop us from sampling chocolates, honey, and nuts in the Swan Valley region. At the wildlife park I was officially welcomed to Australia with a picture with a koala and the ability to feed and pet kangaroos.

At zoo

Back to the Pack

Three planes and 26 hours later, I touched down in RDU on July 13th. 

The strangest thing I felt was how unreal Thailand suddenly felt. I had spent nearly 2 months there, and while my boyfriend drove me back from the airport, the trip was already starting to feel surreal- like it was a dream I’d had, and now I was finally awake. 

Being able to understand the idle conversation around me, for the first time in months, was more comforting than I would have imagined. I remembered that I wasn’t an imbecile for not understanding Thai. 

I can’t say I had reverse culture shock — I slipped back into my old routines and expectations the very next day without any stress. Though my sleep schedule has not quite adjusted, I am happy to be home. Being back in my own culture isn’t what was hard, but missing aspects of Thailand certainly have changed the way I view some of the things about being back home: 

1. I miss the street vendors. Terribly. And I miss how further my money would stretch. 

2. Our sidewalks are clean, well-maintained and even our “natural areas” are trimmed and kept clean. I miss the cobblestone sidewalks, the overflowing bowls of lilies, the untamed shrubbery that made Bangkok a much greener city than New York could ever hope to be. I miss the GIGANTIC trees that burst from the sides of buildings or mangled the sidewalks. I miss the chaos of lizards, birds, dogs and cats that were all over the city. Bangkok had more texture, had more life than the ghostly cleanliness of most of the sidewalks and streets in Raleigh. 

3. The fruit. My heart is breaking for the freshness and glorious affordability and selection of the fruit in Bangkok. Everything there had seeds, even the oranges and grapes, and it suddenly occurred to me that our “seedless” versions of everything back home, are far from normal. 

4. I will miss having movie theaters on the top floors of malls, rather than being stand-alone buildings. More than that, I will miss the vast majority of shops being mom and pop places, or unique independent businesses. The power of franchises and corporations is almost suffocating here. 

5. Despite the impressive controlled chaos of Bangkok roads, it is nice to have smooth-running traffic back home, and know you don’t have to watch for motorcycles and tuk tuks weaving insanely between cars. 

I will miss all the friends I made in Thailand immensely, and I’m already making plans to visit on my own the summer after next. Below are my two pen pals, Luck and Fisa, and I hope to keep my connections to Thailand strong throughout the next two years. 

I'm gonna miss my Thai mothers!

I’m gonna miss my Thai mothers!

I’m so thankful that I was able to study abroad, and I recommend that anyone considering it should make the decision to go. Once you graduate and have a career to worry about, it will be near impossible to get a month away (you need at least that to really absorb and become more than a mere tourist) to travel. 

I hope these blogs have been informative and entertaining. If I could upload my (literally) 18,000 photos and videos to this blog, I would. And there’s so much I could say about my experiences, but alas, time is short and I already need to begin preparations for fall semester. 

My face has been plastered on these blogs enough, that if you see me around campus, feel free to ask about Thailand! I will be talking about this trip for a very long time, I’m sure. 

Kopkunkaa so much for reading! 


Man to Monk

Through my contacts at Wat Tapan, I was told to come to the temple early Tuesday morning. What I experienced there was a ceremony to welcome a new monk to Wat Tapan, and I was lucky enough to meet his sister and other family members.

I’m really going to miss all the activity at the Wat and the wonderful people I met there.

I definitely left a piece of myself in Bangkok~

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983735_10152649908592652_2779034226436082425_n The head monk to the Wat makes the first cut, then he goes outside to be shaven and washed

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After receiving blessings and praying, the monk is presented with the golden robes. He sheds his white clothes, representing his virginity, and goes to change

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It was amazing to watch!

 

Wat Tappan – My Second Home

These are some photos of Wat Tapan, my home base for meeting Thai and learning about Thai culture!

 

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Nit, Fisa’s friend who knew English fairly well– she taught me a lot of Thai words and had me try a lot of Thai food

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Me and Fisa, the second day at the Wat. She really took a liking to me, thankfully enough

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Me and Noon, who used to be a monk for a long time, but now he helps out the monks around the Wat

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Me and Ying, one of Nit’s daughters, riding in a tuk tuk!

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Noi’s Local Market

 

 

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While we were in Kanchanaburi, the owner of our guesthouse, Noi, turned out to be a rare find. She routinely teaches her guests how to cook Thai dishes, and takes them to a local market to sample all kinds of authentic Thai food, for 10 or even 5 baht a piece. She buzzed us through, bringing up handful after handful of delicious and ridiculously cheap sweets, snacks and grilled meats and vegeatables. I wish I could list everything I tried, but it was one, succulent blur of spice and zest. Everything was good.

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She also showed us the countryside, golden with ripening rice fields (something I had never seen before) and humming with the sound of buffalo and cattle grazing. I always forget how big those animals are in real life, and I quickly understood why the elderly Thai man we met carries a slingshot when he’s around the buffalo.

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Noi also told us about her concerns for the future, such as younger Thais preferring Western fast foods to traditional Thai veggies and spicy meats, the over-abundance of plastic bags being used in retail, and disorganized recycling system and how many rural Thais are still ignorant about proper recycling and trash disposal methods. She really was a forward-thinker, and we were all grateful for her honest input and guidance through the market!

The Snowball Effect

Anthropology books like to describe this concept as a serious strategy that professionals consciously conduct in the field, when in reality it is just what tends to happen.

Once you get to know some Thais, you are likely to meet their friends. Or, if other Thais see you hanging around a Thai, they are much more likely to initiate conversation.

Below is a rough chart of all the Thais made contact with during my time abroad:

Chart

 

What is interesting to me is how a few of these Thais that became good friends of mine, do not know enough English to be “good informants” per se. Fisa, Noi, Ying and Noon all were very nice to me and gave me presents often, but they needed Nit around to communicate effectively.

I met Maitri and his wife Bow at a park while they were feeding fish (which gave me an opportunity to engage with them), and then he invited me to Toey’s gallery opening, where I met most of the cluster.

Fisa, the woman at the Wat that sells the incense, candles, flowers, and other temple items was my anchor. The accepted me right away and paved the way for so many other Thais to get to know me. I’ve learned through other Thais that she loves me like a daughter.

Although not every Thai I met could speak much English, avoid the habit of merely seeing people as “informants.” Though I was lucky enough to meet Nan, Noi and Pla, all of which were happy to explain all kinds of things to me, you will still learn a lot from watching Thais that won’t impart knowledge as obviously. For me, even getting on friendly terms with the security guards or wait staff at local restaurants was important, because it is a huge confidence boost and a king of emotional safety net.

I am incredibly happy with what I have been able to accomplish here in Bangkok, and I’m really going to miss all the friends I have made!

Kanchanaburi

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Me with our tour guide Angie. She taught me how to write my name in Thai

 

Kanchanaburi was my destination for our 4-day weekend off to travel on our own. This place had so many spectacular sights, and I hope I can go again someday!

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I rode a 50-year old elephant through the jungle. What impressed me is how this lean Thai man controlled such a huge animal with only his hands and his voice — he hopped off in order to take picture of me in his spot, and with only a few words, got the elephant to pose. That level of control without the use of force or a sharp object was amazing to watch. They loved their animals there, and if I could, I’d love to go back and make a research project out of their way of life.

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We also went to THE Bridge over the River Kwai, which happened to be within walking distance of our guest house.

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The Erawan Falls are another breath-taking location in Kanchanaburi, which is where I met another Thai local that I became particularly fond of:

Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya is a monumental maze of ancient ruins beside modern restaurants and housing. Here, on the other side of the river, was the original capital city when Thailand was called the Kingdom of Siam.

We went as a class for a lesson in Thai history.

I couldn’t believe how much of it was still standing, especially after the floods, fires and destruction when the former capital was sacked.

It was chilling to climb up steps that were built in the 1300s, long before the United States were even a thought.

Though just ruins now, so much of Ayutthaya still had a lot to say. It’s just that history speaks with a soft voice, we have to listen close if we want to hear it.

 

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