In which a grown man rolls around in the snow

So, like I said before, my long-distance boyfriend is currently on exchange in the US.

Not just the US, but in Boston. At my school, Northeastern University.

How rad is that?!

It’s rad for me, but I think it’s been even more rad for him. The Northeast US is very different from what he’s used to. This boy is tropical, born and raised. His hometown has two seasons: hot, and hot and wet. His university, in Sydney, experiences 300 days of sunshine per year. This summer, he experienced temperatures in excess of 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

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As a result, he’s never seen snow. Not in person, anyway. Everyone’s seen it on TV– in those Christmas specials and the Harry Potter films– but he (and most Australians) has never seen snow.

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Thus, whenever I sent him snapchats all like

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He’d always respond

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When we finally found out that he was coming to the US, he was excited. I’m sure you can figure out why.

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Clearly, he didn’t understand just how horrendous the cold could be. How could he know? He’s never experienced it before. At my urging, and his mom’s insistence, he went out and got winter clothes for the first time.

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Finally, he arrived in the US. In the middle of December. I greeted him in the airport, where it was heated and warm and indicated nothing of what was to come.
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Then, we went outside.
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His face was priceless.
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He tried to laugh it off.
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I had to explain to him that, just because it’s below freezing, it doesn’t mean that it’s snowing. He looked like a wounded puppy.
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But he perked up real fast.
Back in Philly, however, it doesn’t snow all that often. Not as much as it does in Boston, that’s for sure. We’ll get snow a couple times a year, maybe. The boyfriend got over the novelty of the cold real fast, and waited eagerly for his first snow.
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Then, finally:
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That night, I went to bed. I’m not sure if he did, as excited as he was. The next morning, I was forcefully awakened.
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As it turned out, the snow had arrived, and the boyfriend had already gone out to play. As I sleepily ate breakfast, he shared his observations with me.
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He even took videos.
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By now, I had come to view snow mostly as a nuisance. It’s a pain to walk through. It’s even worse to drive in. I commute to school by bicycle, and nothing screws up your trip more than icy roads and snow in your face.
But seeing the boyfriend all throughout that day…
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…reminded me that snow is, actually, kind of nice.
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And that, as boring as I find my hometown, other people find it fascinating. It’s strange, being on the other side of a foreign exchange. Usually I’m the one freaking out, you know?
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Finally, the boyfriend and I went up to Boston. I figured he might like it. It snows a lot more here, so he’d get to see it more often!
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Maybe a little too often.
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I, as the good girlfriend, comforted him about the unfortunate weather.
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Looks like he’s adjusting well.
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By the way, the boyfriend is making a USA video blog! Here’s one he made about his first snow. I even cameo in it!
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University of Sydney is kicking my booty.

I’m a study abroad student. I’m only going to be in Australia for one semester. And for most one-semester students, there’s a common theme:

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However, Northeastern does not allow me to take all my classes pass/fail. No, every single class I take here will count towards my GPA– and this is a worrying thought.

You see, when you’re not some study abroad student paying out the wazoo to go to school in Australia, the University of Sydney is actually very competitive. USyd falls within the top 50 unis in the world (as opposed to Northeastern, which is still trying to break the top 50 in the USA) and is number 3 in Australia.

So, the school is more competitive, and the students are resultantly smart. But I’m smart too! Right?

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Australian uni culture, as far as I’ve seen, is a little different from the USA. For one, it’s much more independent. Here, kids are expected to sort of figure things out on their own. Great emphasis is placed on the final exam. Professors do not have office hours. And the load is heavier. As a biology major, I’ve found that every single class in bio has a lab, meaning that science kids usually have 4 labs in a single semester. In the States, I’ve been warned not to take more than two.

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And those labs, or as they’re sometimes called, “practicals.” I come from a school where I’m used to it being like this: 

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Here, all my labs are like this: 

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Of course, I might learn more if the university doesn’t hold my hand. On the other hand, I’m totally lost. After I did my first evolutionary genetics lab sans guidance or explanation, I got my grade back:

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And this was after I harassed the lab TA.

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Oh, no.

So far, I’ve been saved by my lab partners, who are usually Australians who actually know what’s happening. Actually, it’s really shocked me at how much they know. You see, I’m used to this: 

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All the students I’ve met here, on the other hand, have been like this: 

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Perhaps I’ve been encountering an odd breed of students, but all the kids I’ve met really love their respective subjects. They often mention truly wanting to learn, and how they aim for the knowledge rather than the grade. As someone who’s hated every course I’ve taken, this concept is foreign to me. I’m impressed, to be honest.

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And I’m also dead. The grading system at the University of Sydney is a little different from the USA. While US unis will often hand out A’s, the University of Sydney grades everything on a bell curve.

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Since I’m surrounded by this incredible population of passionate students, there’s no way I’m reaching that top 3 percent of kids. I’ll be surprised if I get “credit.” Shoot. How am I supposed to keep the minimum 3.5 GPA I need to retain my scholarship?

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So maybe I’m not so screwed after all?

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Ok, ok, I kid. I’m still super-worried about my classes. But, instead of this: 

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I’ve downgraded to this: 

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It’s an improvement.

6 ways to make your study abroad more awesome

When I went abroad to Germany, I was pretty nervous. I would be living with a family I had never met before. I didn’t know anything about German culture. I was determined to make my trip a success, but still had some reservations.

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Being an exchange student is not a competition, but some kids definitely do better than others. Every trip is different. Some students aren’t ready to go abroad. Some familes aren’t ready to host. The organization I went through, Youth for Understanding (YFU) tried to teach us how to make our travels successful. We went through a pre-departure orientation, an arrival orientation, and even an orientation at the end of our trip— let me just say I’ve had enough icebreakers to last a lifetime.

They offered some advice, which I offer to you now. Not all exchange students have the luxury of being over-orientated like I was, so they have nothing to dispel their worries.

So, I present…

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…a list of 6 quick, messy tips!

1. Eat ALL the things!

Food is important! When you’re abroad, your host parents may cook for you, or buy food for you, or take you out to eat. If you don’t like a food, fine– but try it at least once. Your family wants to share their culture with you, and food is a huge part of that culture.

I met an Indian-American girl who became an extreme example of this when I went to Germany:

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Not that I’m saying that anyone should give up vegetarianism, especially if it’s important to you. However, be ready to try new things! Go to your country with an open mind. Remember, you’re the odd man out here. You’re going to have to adapt to your new country, just as they have to adapt to you.

2. Expect nothing.

After I announced I was going to Germany, everyone had expectations for me.

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Although I applied to go to Japan, I was sent to Germany instead. Though I was a little disappointed at the time, in retrospect it was a good thing. I’m obsessed with manga (surprise!) and I therefore had a very unrealistic view of what my Japan trip would be like.

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This might sound pessimistic, but if you go in with overly high expectations, you may be disappointed. Not all students have the best experience. Before I went to Japan, my Japanese tutor who went on the same trip frequently told me,

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And this isn’t a bad attitude, either. When you have no expectations– none at all– you can go in and appreciate every experience for what it is, instead of thinking about how much better it could be. I went to some amazing places in Germany, but I also spent a lot of time just hanging around my host family. Both ends of the spectrum, to me, were equally valuable.

3. Hang with the natives.

Exchange students tend to stick together, which makes sense. In a strange, new land, there’s a group of people who speak your language, know your background, and understand the way you think. Who are you going to gravitate towards?

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Running around and looking at famous sites is fun and all, but it doesn’t immerse you in the culture. The best way to learn about your host country is to talk to people who know it the best– the people who have lived there their entire life. At the very least, try not to be a “guest” to your host family. Help around the house, hang out, and talk to them!

Talking to natives can be a bit difficult, though, which brings me to the next two points:

4. At least attempt to learn the language

and

5. Don’t be afraid to sound like an idiot.

My German host family speaks English, so I was able to speak with them fairly well. I tried hard to learn a bit of German, though. I even purchased a phrasebook before departure. One of the phrases I still remember:

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I did became frustrated when I met people beyond my host family. Not many of my host family’s friends or relatives spoke much English.

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I did a little better when I went to Japan, since I had a slight knowledge of the language. Still, that didn’t stop me from speaking terrible Nihonglish. Some of the stuff that came out of my mouth was preeeettttyyy dumb.

Like during my homestay in Japan. I spent my homestay with another American girl, who’ll I’ll call “K” for anonymity.

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So go! You don’t have to sound as dumb as me, but don’t be afraid to speak the language. Even if you get it wrong, people will appreciate the effort. It’s better to communicate a little rather than not at all!

But as you’re off adventuring, and learning new things, and seeing new places, a feeling– one of the most unexpected, gut-wrenching feelings– one that can and has sent kids home and ruined exchanges– is going to hit you.

6. You’re going to get homesick.

I’ve never been abroad for a extended period of time, so I don’t have much experience with this. But I can attest to the stress that comes with going abroad. The climate is different. The food is different. The language is different, forcing you to concentrate all day, every day. A lot of students experience exhaustion their first few days abroad.

When it really gets bad, I hear, is about three or four months into your exchange. By then, the “honeymoon” period of your exchange has worn off. The novelty is gone. Yet three months is a very short time within which to make friends (at least for me, but I am friend-making-ly challenged) so many students find themselves suddenly craving the familiarity of home.

My best friend from high school hosted a girl from France for a year. Sure enough, a couple months into her exchange, my best friend confessed:

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While you’re wrapped up calling home, though, you’re missing out on what’s going on around you. Time spent talking with your real family is time missed talking with your host family. YFU told us, many, many, times:

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Because, more often than not, kids encounter this problem on their exchange. (They even told kids on short-term exchanges to leave their laptops behind, to avoid hiding behind a computer screen all day.)

When I went to Germany, I actually wasn’t expecting to get homesick. I was only there for six weeks. But sure, enough, when I Skyped my parents…

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And then my friends…

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Of course, I never got to the OMG-I’m-miserable-here-send-me-home-right-now point, but I did feel those pangs of homesickness. After you hit that low, though, your exchange slowly gets better and better until, by the end, you don’t want to go home anymore! And then you go home and get reverse culture shock, which is a whole other story.

I guess, in the end, all of these tips really boil down to one thing:

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You can’t truly enjoy the country if you aren’t in the country. Not just physically there, but mentally there as well. Immerse yourself!

So, to all you prospective exchange students? Don’t be scared: go abroad! No two exchanges are alike– and some kids do have bad luck– but most kids have a blast abroad. (I did!) In the end, your experience is what you make of it. And the things you can learn from your experience… well, that’s a whole other post in itself.

Now go board a plane and spread your awesomeness elsewhere.

High schoolers! Don’t know where to start? I super-believe in studying abroad, so I’mma link to two organizations I know are legit:

Youth for Understanding (I used this one! If money’s an issue, there’s a ton of scholarships available, like the full-ride I got to Deutschland!)

AFS Intercultural Programs (A girl I knew used this one to go to Japan– they offer partial scholarships.)

In which I go all-out-full-on-nude (in front of strangers, no less)

Time for more Japan!

While my group was in Sapporo, we took a break from city life to go to… well, another city.

This city, known as 登別市 (Noboribetsu-shi, or Noboribetsu City) isn’t very big– the estimated population is around 50,000 or so. It is famous, though, in Hokkaido. First, it’s part of 支笏洞爺国立公園 (Shikotsu Touya Kokuritsu Kouen, aka Shikotsu-Tōya National Park) which is famous for its beautiful mountains and volcanic calderas. Second, volcanic activity means volcanic hot springs– and, accordingly, 温泉: onsen. 

The term onsen, as I understand it, literally translates to hot springs. It can also refer to the resorts and hotels built around those onsenJapan is a volcanically active country, so there are lots of spots for people to build these resorts– and they might as well, since onsen are popular in Japan.

And we were going to find out why.

Our amazing and awesome sensei scheduled us to stay at Noboribetsu for a night! In an onsen, of course. We were all pretty psyched– at this point, we had been taking classes, meeting with conversation partners, and running around Sapporo nonstop! Even in Japan, we were ready for a break.

However, before I go on, I should say this about onsen:

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Oh. Okay. What are there, then?

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Yup. The Japanese usually go to their hot springs totally in the nude, not unlike Germans and their saunas. We were all aware of this. How did this make us feel?

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America is, for some reason, a nudefearing country, so none of us were used to, well, being naked in front of others. In addition, the Japanese are polite. Accordingly, we had a lot of bath house etiquette to learn before our excursion.

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This, more or less, is the lesson we received from our sensei. Despite our nervousness, we were still excited! I mean, every single manga has at least one hot springs scene, right? And, out of 18 kids, I’m pretty sure only two or three kids weren’t into manga/anime… so… that was that.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Before we got into any sort of onsen, we decided to tour the natural wonders of Noboribetsu’s volcanic landscape. More specifically, we took a hike around Jigoku-Dani, also known as

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The valley is home to a number of volcanic lakes and streams, leading to stunning scenery like this:

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And that steam is no joke! The water was scalding– too hot to the touch.

Though we didn’t get to bathe in the lakes, we did get to enjoy some of the naturally-heated water. Our group took a hike through the forest, where we encountered this:

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And, naturally, we took the chance to enjoy it!

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I could go on and on about our hotel, too. The traditional rooms with its sliding doors, low tables, and tatami mats. The luscious, Japanese-style futons. The open buffet with all-you-can-eat crab and miso soup and much, much more. Most importantly, there was an arcade in the basement with a giant Pikachu.

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But instead, I’m going to skip to the best part: the onsen.

The onsen.

Was amazing. 

We went in there at night, which was no problem– the baths open early and close late. There were two separate baths, one for women, and one for men. There’s an indoor section, with a number of different pools set at varying temperatures. We ventured there first.

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After puttering around there for a while, we noticed people were walking in from the outside. Meaning there was an outside. We decided to venture outside.

And it was…

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Beautiful. 

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Photography typically isn’t allowed in onsen, for obvious reasons. I’ll try to make do with description: the onsen was softly lit, surrounded by graceful trees and rocks. It was drizzling gently outside, a nice cool contrast to the steaming water. There were well-placed boulders sticking out of the pools, serving both as organic ornament and a place to lounge. And, before I forget: there was a water slide.

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You know, words can’t do it justice. Instead, I’m going to put up some photos I found of our hotel. (Err, at least, I think we stayed here. The name of the onsen eludes me.)

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Three hours later, we were still there. And then, after staying up late, some of us woke up early to go again before we had to leave the hotel. Because it was just so… relaxing! Or, as the Japanese would say, 気持ちいい! (Kimochii— feels good!)

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I mean…

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It’s like any new experience– it may be uncomfortable at first, but you can have a great time if you just put yourself out there!

Literally this time.

So that night, I cozied up in my (hotel-provided) yukata…

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…and fell into one of the deepest, most satisfying sleeps I’ve ever had.

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I’d do it again anyday.