Living the Dream (Internship Week 1)

My medical internship was at Peking University Shenzhen Hospital, which is one of the teaching hospitals of Peking University School of Medicine. Jet lag and endless warnings for turbulence confused my senses. Listening to people speaking in Mandarin made me realize that I had arrived at my destination after over 30 hours of flight and transition. It was so familiar, but new and exciting at the same time, because this was my first solo adventure in a new city as an adult!

First life lesson I learned from my internship: Never be afraid to ask for help! When I first arrived at the hospital, I started my “scavenger hunt” for my supervisor, internship office, my dorm arrangement, and where to get my work clothes/name tag. So, I started with finding my supervisor, Dr. Li, and dragged my luggage among a crowd of patients at the busiest hour in the morning. I asked volunteer guides where to go almost every 5 minutes.

First excitement: I received a white coat to wear for the duration of my internship! It was the first time that I could be so close to my dream career. On the second day of arrival, I started my internship at Department of Plastic Surgery in the OR. Even though I was just getting oriented to observation protocols, I noticed the striking similarities with what I saw when I shadowed at American hospitals: equipment, procedural standards, and infrastructure. My supervisor, Dr. Li, told me that she received part of her medical training at USC, CA. She also shared that large percentage of the equipment and materials for plastic surgery were imported from American companies. I was excited to learn of the existing medical collaboration between the U.S. and China. It encourages my dream of becoming a physician who wants to participate in the global effort in improving people’s life quality via wellness.


Australians and the Aborigines

The Australian culture was one of the things that made me love Australia so much. They may be crass or even harsh, and they will probably poke some fun at you, but that’s their humor. They are such friendly people; they are so direct because they have good intentions. I had a lot of fun with Australians, especially when interacting with them at pubs. They are just amazing people.

However, I also learned a lot about the history of their culture and the aborigines. We spent a day in the city of Cairns when they had a cultural festival. This festival celebrated the culture of the aborigines. There was a stage set up out in a park, and there were aborigines performing traditional dances with face- and body paint on. A big crowd of aborigines and white Australians intermingled and enjoyed the show. There were food trucks that served traditional aborigine dishes. There was also a gallery with dozens of different aborigine art products for sale such as paintings, sculptures, boomerangs, jewelry, etc.

The relationship between the aborigine tribes and the Australian government was very interesting. I learned a lot about this relationship, and the more I learned the more I wanted to know. It was so interesting because there were many similarities with the relationship between the American government and the Native American tribes. For example, the hunting laws for both indigenous peoples are pretty similar. Certain aborigine tribes also take the initiative to conserve their environment like Native American tribes. For example, there was a tribe that got government funding to construct a national park in their forest and they now use proceedings of this park to conserve their forest. Anyway, it was great to see how Australians value the history and culture of aborigines, and it was great to have learned so much about it too.

Living in the Rainforest

My trip to Australia was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Living in the rainforest was something I had never done before and I was very excited about it. Being someone who really loves animals and being surrounded by them, I thought living in the rainforest was awesome. Every morning I was woken up by a serenade of cool birds such as whipbirds, and chowchillas (we called them startrooper birds because they sounded like blaster rifles). I saw amazing animals I never thought I’d see before, almost daily. We had a resident bandicoot that hung around the center and he came by every night to steal whatever food scraps he found on the ground. We also had a resident bush turkey called Charles, who was always clucking around when we were having lunch. Even seeing Victoria rifle birds, a bird of paradise, while playing volleyball outside was a common instance. I also saw a python when taking out the trash once, and I saw another one on a hike.  I also had a juvenile emu in the wild walk up really close to me. I even petted a kangaroo and cuddled a koala in Kuranda! But I think one of the most amazing experiences I had while over there, was feeding wild wallabies. These were all unforgettable encounters


Living there was great, however I’m not going to sugarcoat it, there were also a lot of annoying things and there was a certain element of danger. I got leeches on my legs almost every day, especially when it rained. And when it rained, it poured. The rain would last days sometimes, it was the first time I ever experienced a day where it literally rained all day. The rain made our cabins extremely humid, and leaving anything in its place for more than a few days would cause mold to start growing on it. A lot of the other students also complained about mosquitoes and other bugs, especially spiders, which were huge of course. There were also numerous plants that we had to be careful for, like wait-a-whiles, which had curved thorns that hooked onto your skin and ripped it open if you continued walking, and stinging trees, which according to some reports can cause reoccurring burning sensations for years. In any case, living in the rainforest was an amazing experience, it wasn’t always great, but it was definitely life-changing.

Going Abroad

When I first signed up for my Australian summer abroad program, I had no idea what to expect. It was only going to be a month long, so I thought “how am I going to learn much?” But after being there for about two hours, I already knew this was going to be a very busy month.

After driving up a mountain for what seemed like hours, we arrived at the Center for Rainforest Studies. The access road had no signs indicating that was the entrance, and that was the intention. It kept us even more isolated from the rest of civilization. The “center” was really just a small building in the middle of the Australian rainforest and it had a small classroom, a common area for the students, a kitchen, and the staff’s offices. Behind the center was a muddy path that led to the cabins, where we slept. After being given a small tour of the area, we had lunch followed by a hike around the site, and then a few lectures which introduced us to our schedule.

Our schedule started at 7 a.m. every day – we woke up, had breakfast and did dishes, then we split up into groups and did different activities. At the end of the day we had dinner, did the dishes and went to bed. I did so much in such a short month; I installed animal traps in the pouring rain on one day, the other I went to a town called Kuranda and interviewed the local residents, another day I did transect surveys of native plant species. I snorkeled in the great barrier reef and learned to identify bleached corals. I did bird surveys and platypus surveys in the early morning. I set up camera traps to capture images of pademelons and bandicoots. I went spotlighting for opossums in the night. I did so much, and I learned so much in that month, that now I believe every student should take the opportunity to study abroad if they can.


Squirt Guns & Buddhas

The Buddhist New Year, Songkran, is celebrated by several countries in Southeast Asia, but especially in Thailand. I was told by my Thai professor that it is religiously observed with a tradition in temples where the monks pour water over their buddha relics, cleansing them of sin and refreshing them for the New Year. Somehow over the years, that tradition morphed into the country-wide squirt-gun fight that is modern Songkran.


While Thais celebrate the calendar New Year (January 1st), the Bhuddist New Year doesn’t actually occur until mid-April, which is extremely lucky as April is by far the hottest month in Thailand. I was told by friends to buy my squirt gun a week or two in advance, as the demand for them can be so high that it becomes impossible to find one. I was also told to make sure I didn’t bring my phone out unless it was in a waterproof case, and to be on my guard the entire week for rouge squirt-gun assassins.

This was all very good advice.

Children (and a decent amount of adults) roamed the streets with buckets, ready to attack anyone foolish enough to get within reach. I was hit several times while running to buy groceries, and even once while speeding down the road on a motor taxi.

During the night, the streets with bars and clubs turned into swimming pools, with thousands of people, all soaked, running around with hoses, buckets, squirt-guns and anything else that could contain any amount of water. One of the major streets in Bangkok was shut down for the festivities one night, and THOUSANDS of people turned out to get soaked and listen to the free concerts with Thai pop stars.

It is probably the biggest holiday in Thailand. I can’t even compare it to how Americans revere Christmas, because it felt much bigger than that. Everyone walked around the streets, soaking wet and smiling.

My friends and I also visited a temple during Songkran to see the religious side of the celebration, and watch the monks wash their buddhas with golden cups of water.

I was so glad I was able to have this experience. I had never even heard of Songkran before, but couldn’t believe what a big deal it was. I had an absolute blast and it was probably one of the highlights of my trip.


Holiday in Cambodia

My first trip outside of Thailand was with a friend of mine, Juliette, to Siem Reap, the capital of Cambodia. We had decided to travel there for five days, because our visas required us to leave the country once every three months in order to remain valid. But really, that was just an excuse. We desperately wanted to get out of Thailand and see how the rest of Southeast Asia compared, and it had also been a dream of both of ours to see Angkor Wat. The flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap was very short, and before we knew it we had landed and were taking a tuk-tuk to our ($3-per-night) hostel. The difference between Siem Reap and Bangkok was very striking. While Bangkok was a bustling metropolis, it still seemed somewhat less modern compared to European and American cities, but Siem Reap made us realize exactly how modernized Bangkok was compared to its counterparts in the area. Many of the roads were unpaved, the sidewalks were few and far between, and there was a noticeable lack of streetlights. Despite this, our hostel had an incredibly fun and relaxed environment and we enjoyed swimming in the pool and getting to know the other guests before heading off to bed.

The next day we woke up around five a.m. to get ready for our sunrise tour of Angkor Wat. I will never forget driving around the corner and seeing Angkor Wat against the barely-lit horizon. Our entire tour group sat still and watched the sun slowly crawl up behind the temple before our tour guide ushered us on to go explore the inside. The structure was ancient, and absolutely amazing to look at. It reminded me of Thailand’s temples, but somehow also seemed reminiscent of ancient Aztec and Mayan temples I had seen pictures of before. Juliette and I were incredibly glad that we booked a sunrise tour, not only for the view, but because of the fact that after 10 a.m., it became almost unbearably hot, so the sunrise tour gave us a few hours of exploring the temples without melting.


Angkor Wat at Sunrise

The area of Angkor Wat is actually incredibly large, and covers about 500 acres with dozens of ancient structures on it. Our Cambodian guide told us about the history of the buildings, which was interesting to hear. The most striking part of it for me was physically seeing how the Khmer Rouge regime in the 80’s had destroyed some of the buildings during the Cambodian Genocide. We saw several temples with bullet holes in the walls, areas where land mines had been detonated, and even one temple that had been almost completely intact for hundreds of years until the Khmer Rouge destroyed it in the 1970’s.

Later in the trip Juliette and I went to a museum in Siem Reap dedicated to the history of the Cambodian genocide and military struggle surrounding it. It was a simple museum, mainly consisting of tanks, deactivated land mines, and other wartime memorabilia sitting in a mango grove, but it was amazing in the sense that every single one of the guides had personally been through the genocide. I had been to war museums before, but never one like that. One guide was missing an eye a limb and several fingers from fighting in the military during that time. He spoke about his experiences, which included killing a khmer rouge soldier. Another guide spoke about how he watched his father murdered with a shovel during the genocide, and how his grandfather had disappeared and was never heard from again.

I can’t stress how amazing, and horrifying, it was to hear firsthand accounts of a historical event such as this. It was even more amazing to see the effects from it that were still around today, from the physical damage of temples and buildings, to the extreme poverty and political corruption that is still very present in the country, to the column of  real human skulls that sat near the center of the city, many of them bashed in or filled with bullet holes, all of them unidentified.


Seeing living history like that was not easy, but I had such a greater appreciation for the country and its people after seeing how they have begun to progress from that dark period.


Bangkok to Phuket


It was nearly midnight on New Year’s Eve when I stood in line at Thai immigration to get my passport stamped and be officially welcomed into Thailand. After nearly 27 hours total of flying, on top of a fifteen hour time difference, I thought I would be absolutely exhausted, but as I stood around looking at the holiday decorations throughout Suvarnabhumi Airport I couldn’t have been more excited. I finally made my way to the front of the line and had my passport and visa stamped by a friendly immigration officer who wished me a Happy New Year before ushering me towards baggage claim. I glanced at my phone on the way and saw that the date now read January 1, 2016. I had begun the New Year nearly 8,000 miles away from home.


A Ronald McDonald statue sitting outside the McDonald’s near my apartment doing the “wai”, a traditional Thai greeting and sign of respect

Bangkok was going to be home for the next six months, and I can honestly say that I fell completely in love with the city after only a few days. It’s certainly rough in some places, rightfully known for it’s atrocious traffic and filthy streets, but all of that is completely forgivable once you taste the food, meet the incredibly kind locals, and see your first glittering temple or golden Buddha amidst the concrete buildings.


The Grand Palace is not only the historical home of the Royal Family, but Bangkok’s main tourist attraction. Dozens of buildings and temples sit in the complex, all covered in glittering tile and intricate mosaics. 


A golden Buddha meditates at the Grand Palace.



These are just a few of the buildings that form the Grand Palace.


A pair of massive demon guards stand by the gate to the palace.


Spires at Wat Pho, located next to the Grand Palace. The Wat Pho is one of the most famous temples in Thailand and was historically used by royalty.

While Bangkok was where I spent most of my time, I also was fortunate enough to explore the rest of the country as well. I traveled with a large group of friends to Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand, where we rented motorbikes to drive through the mountains, hiked and even got to meet some friendly elephants.


A meditating buddha rests under lanterns at a temple in Chiang Mai.

I also traveled down to the Southern Islands of Thailand, probably the most visited and recognizable area of the country. It was a bit cloudy during my trip, but that didn’t make it any less stunning. We snorkeled, boated, swam and took in everything we could from Phuket and Koh Phi Phi.

All of these places were gorgeous, but one of my absolute favorites was a small island called Koh Samet, which was accessible from Bangkok by a three-hour bus and ferry ride. I went here twice during my semester, once with my exchange student friends and once at the very end of my trip with my boyfriend. Koh Samet had the most beautifully colored water I had ever seen, amazing bars, and even had fire shows for entertainment on the beach at night. Besides Bangkok, Koh Samet was probably my favorite place in all of Thailand.


Sitting on the seaside cliffs in the Icelandic town of Keflavik waiting for my connecting flight to whisk me back to the world of the real, I have the chance to reflect on my experiences in Germany and Europe. This is my first time alone in a country and somehow feels like my first time alone ever. I learned how to be alone these past six months, and how to like it. I spent time in churches alone in Marburg sometimes. I would pray. I’m not religious but it just felt right. I would ask God or something what I was supposed to do with my life, for the guidance to be on the right path, for some sign that my impact in this world will be greater than me. I guess it was a time for me to reflect just for me, not for a letter to someone or a Facebook post; just a time to be. It was peaceful and sad and reassuring. I figure at least I am asking the right questions, at least I am asking the questions everyone asks: “Why are we here?”. But sitting on the coast with the chilly sea breeze brushing me with goosebumps while the sun at the same time warms my face in this small fishing town in Iceland, that doesn’t seem to matter. It is a question we have to answer for ourselves. No one is there to tell us what to do or how to live our lives, we just have to do what feels right for us. Being alone always helps me realize how much I do because of other people, and not because of me. Not that this is a bad thing –we are social creatures– I just start to reflect on the ways our fears shape us to be the kind of people we think other people want us to be. I think what I have most taken away from my time here is my appreciation for being alone. I enjoyed lunch today alone at a table at a restaurant. I was amazed by the sympathetic stares –the kind I had always given to every person I have seen travelling or eating alone– and I don’t care. I want to be alone.  I want to travel alone, to feel whole and not lonely or lacking in doing so. I love people. I love family, and friends, and romance, and growing up in a family of twelve never really afforded me time to be alone. I had a twin by my side all 21 years; even in Germany she was there. I was afraid of being alone. I am alone for the first time in my life, really alone, and it feels sweet and warm and real. I feel real.



I feel like I need to offer up some cliche about my time here in Germany. I need to say something about how much I have developed as a person and the way I am going to change the world because of the things I have seen and done. And it’s not that those things aren’t true, I just feel guilty. I feel like I am supposed to be using this opportunity for something more than self-development. I feel like I am supposed to be doing more. I also know that this is just the first step. I would not be prepared at this point in my life to go on some altruistic mission. I need to learn how to be alone. I need this development period to become more aware of the ways I can be a positive influence in the world. I need to learn about myself and my capacities, and to develop the kind of empathy this experience has begun to give me. I need to shake the American/white saviour complex that compels so many young adults to go on a weeklong volunteer mission to *insert third-world country here* to take pictures of themselves with children and feel better about themselves. I want to work in a way that will actually make an impact in this world, but I know that takes the humility to know that I might not make an impact, and that it might not be my place to try to help where I am not needed. I need the humility of being a foreigner and I need to know that I am not the solution to the problems in this world. All I can do is try. I want to do so much more than just be sitting on the steps next to the University alongside the river and living in a dorm doing what I would be doing in the US, just in a different setting. But this is the first step. This is the beginning.


Always Learning

A big point of frustration for me in Germany was the education system. I assumed that by going to a country so similar to the United States like Germany, I would be having a very similar experience as what I had in the U.S. What I realized while there is that even the smallest differences can feel very frustrating and confusing. I have spent the last 16 years of my life being shaped into the proper student for a very specific kind of education system. Every step of the way, I knew what I was supposed to do, I knew how to cite a paper properly, how to format an academic paper, what voices to use and what not to use, I knew how to study for tests and to be the right kind of student for the system, and I was good at it. Coming to Germany and to not “fit” into the system was indeed a frustrating experience on top of trying to act like having every single class in German was normal. It did become normal, but at first, everything felt wrong. I did not take the system seriously because it did not fit into my idea of what a university “should” be like. I was not used to having a session for each class only once a week, I was not used to finding reading material on my own and not having assignments but just suggestions, I wanted the guidance of a structured American college course. It was a transition that required adjusting and learning, and eventually I did get used to it the way it was. I learned to like the independence and lack of constant supervision and deadlines. The students had more responsibility, and they were not babied. Although this proved a challenge for my concentration and self-motivation, thus causing more frustration, I learned to understand that there are flaws in our system and the way we prepare students for the world, as there are in Germany. There is no one way to educate or to learn, and now I want to know more about how school and education systems can look. I want to know how they teach in Africa, in Bali, in Peru. I want to know that school does not need to have a strict structure and that there are more ways to learn through a school system. After learning so much about other people and their lives and other cultures, I know that the education system we have does not prepare us for the real world. No one on the street asked me to fill in their definite articles with the proper case and gender. All those worksheets did not teach me how to have a conversation with someone, all those quizzes were not in a format that prepared me to answer questions at the doctor’s office. There is no multiple choice section in life. Everything is a learning experience, and we need to take them as they come and learn from the people we meet and from our experiences. The most valuable lessons cannot be found in a textbook.