Me in Japan and the world

Kyoto, the emperor’s home of the past and today’s cultural heart of Japan. This is the setting of my study abroad experience. Upon arriving I had a lot of challenges ahead of me, from learning a new transportation systems to studying the language. Some challenges are easy to overcome, while others take time. When considering GLI, I’ve taken the challenge of trying to come to an understanding of how cultural differences might affect relations, especially economical, between Japan and other countries, in particular the United States. My study time here is not yet over, but I feel like I’m coming to a level of understanding where I can confidently contrast the two with accuracy and confidence. While in Japan, I feel like I’ve come to know my own country better than ever before. To give and example, let’s take a look at work in Japan versus the United States. With my time here, I can confidently say that the Japanese are hard workers, and I can also say they tend to take this admirable trait too far at times, overworking themselves. Given this comparison, I began to see how much and at what level Americans value personal and family time in relation to work. When talking about social topics like this, it becomes difficult to leave out parts of the grander narrative, which includes a country’s culture and politics all the same. Having so far spent much time with Japanese friends, international friends, and from time to time Japanese families, I would say my perspectives on Japan’s culture and politics has definitely broadened. Although with the past year’s tense elections, both in the US and Europe, I have also been able to see the reactions of events taking place around the world. Whether or not this experience has greatly developed my leadership skills is yet to be tested. However I do know I am more confident now, especially when it comes to subject matter such as Japan or politics. Given I were to be involved with these topics, I would no doubt feel comfortable in taking a position of action. I have come to really love Japan, though I will say there are also things I have discovered to dislike as well. The likewise can be said for America. This brings up some big questions, both societal, and personal. In particular, personally I’ll likely one day have to make the decision of where to live and work in the world. What is better, Japan, America, or some other country? Unfortunately the world is not cookie cut into good and bad pieces, which makes such questions difficult, to say the least. So instead, with my remaining time in Japan, and at The University of Montana, I’ll have to continue thinking about a variety of things. What is valuable in the American culture? How much should politics affect my actions regarding international matters? Does culture affect economy, and if so at what level? With time, it is my hope I can come to a right answer to at least a few of these questions.

Thank you for reading.

Best,

Isaac LaRowe

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.

bangkok1

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.

cambodia

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.

siemreap

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

bangkok9

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.

thai-ronald

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.

bangkok4

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. 

bangkok1

A golden Buddha meditates at the Grand Palace.

bangkok5

bangkok8

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

bangkok7

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

bangkok6

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.

chiangmai1

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.

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.

IMGP6951

Crossing Cultures: Obama in Argentina

IMG_2596One of the most interesting yet intimidating events we experienced in Buenos Aires was President Obama coming to visit. The first day we arrived in the city, several people told us he was coming, even though it wasn’t for another month. However, his arrival in Buenos Aires was greatly anticipated and incredibly controversial. In order to explain why, one of our professors gave a weeks-long history lesson about Argentina.

Forty years ago, the Argentine military staged a coup and took over the government, which began the darkest period in the country now known as “The Dirty War” or “La Guerra Sucia“. During this time, the military leaders formed the Triple A: The Argentine Anticommunist Alliance. The Triple A hunted down and killed any left-wing activists, military dissidents, or Peronists. An estimated 30,000 people “disappeared” meaning they were killed or kidnapped. Many children of the victims were kidnapped and given to military families. The 30,000 disappeared are known generally as the “desaparecidos”. Having occurred only four decades ago, the Dirty War and its victims still feel like a fresh wound in the hearts of many Argentine citizens.

How does Obama’s visit play into this? Well, he was set to arrive in the country on the fortieth anniversary of the military coup. This date angered a huge number of Argentine citizens because many feel like the U.S. somewhat “condoned” the military’s activity because Henry Kissinger had secretly approved the military rule, and U.S. has yet to release classified documents about the war that could possibly shed light on the fate of many victims. People were mad. They were angered that the President of the U.S., a country that did not push harder to respect and help human rights during such a violent time in Argentina, felt he could come to their country on such an emotional and important day.

When President Obama arrived on March 24th, huge protests were held in Plaza de Mayo which rests between the government buildings that house the Argentine president’s office. We decided to attend the protests. As we walked down the main avenue to the plaza, hundreds of people held up pictures of their killed or disappeared friends and family members and shouted “Nunca Más!” meaning “never again”. I couldn’t help but tear up as we witnessed the emotion and unity of thousands of citizens in the streets.

While many held up signs and photographs, we witnessed more intense protests of Obama’s visit in the form of burning American flags and posters denouncing the President’s presence. Once we saw these, my roommate and I decided to head back to our house just to be safe. It was an incredibly intense day in the city, but I was undeniably lucky to witness such an event–one that I will never see again. It gave us a chance to step away from our American identities and understand a different history from a new perspective.

Missoula to Berlin

Week One

I started learning the second I stepped off the plane in Berlin. After what felt like days of flying, from Spokane to London then from London to Berlin, I immediately understood what jet lag was, that you have to pay to use most restrooms in Europe, and that water was most definitely not free (and never came with ice). Once I got over these feats, our first task was to make our way to the hostel from the airport using public transportation which was cheap, usually late, but not as hard to manage as I had expected. I met the full group at our hostel and, with no time to unpack or freshen up from the overnight journey, hit the streets of Berlin for a tour. We quickly learned that Berlin wasn’t just a big city in Germany. It’s a city with a long history of immigration, culture and art.

Street art in Berlin seen on a walking tour of the city

Street art in Berlin seen on a walking tour of the city

From the Turkish neighborhood next to our hostel to the many Syrians refugees already integrated, I was overwhelmed (in the best way) with different languages, food, cultures and customs. The first week was a whirlwind of struggling to order items off of menus, navigating the U-bahn and bus systems, and diving headfirst into the rich history of Berlin, complete with seeing the Berlin wall to learning about the history of world-famous clubs along the Spree.

Part of the Berlin Wall

Part of the Berlin Wall

In this first week, I learned more than I ever could have imagined traveling abroad, cultures different than mine, and we began to examine the refugee crisis, except this time close up and not from across the Atlantic safe in our classrooms.

 

Up-close: The refugee camps

Some of the most prominent days during the trip to Berlin were those when our group visited refugee camps. We’ve spent a year learning about refugees, trying to understand their struggles and the complicated asylum process, and when it came time to listing off the facts of the refugee crisis, many of us felt proficient and well-educated about the crisis. However, when it came to experiencing what it was really like to be one of these individuals with unique scenarios, we were clueless. After an hour bus ride and a mile walk out of Berlin, we arrived at a refugee camp.

Interviewing workers at a refugee camp

Interviewing workers at a refugee camp

Clothes hung up to dry on a fence at the often over-crowded refugee camp

Clothes hung up to dry on a fence at the often over-crowded refugee camp

We immediately met men, women and children who are often shown as victims simply demanding German resources in the media. Either they’re depicted as evil Muslims coming to take jobs and spread Islam, or they’re shown as victims leeching off the system of a wealthy country. While we knew it was much more complicated than that, even just speaking with a few people changed our perspective. We met people who loved the camp and others who hated the plumbing. Some were wondering why a group of American students with cameras were allowed to come in (which we sometimes wondered too) and others were thrilled to have their picture taken, posing with peace signs and posting selfies with us to Facebook. Suddenly they weren’t just “the refugees” as we’ve discussed in class so much as one collective group. “The refugees” suddenly became individuals. They became Amir, one of our translators, who was ecstatic because he’d just been granted the opportunity to move out of his refugee camp that he’s called home for years into a real home in Berlin. They became children not older than 10 who quickly overshadowed us as they showed off the four languages they spoke — embarrassing compared to our English. As we walked through the refugee camps, expecting crying and despair, we were surprised to find children playing soccer in the yard, taking selfies with their iPhones, and wearing designer clothes they brought with them on their trip from Syria. These were people. People who one day had to leave their homes and come to Germany, while we were coming to Germany because we wanted to broaden our education, not because we had to.

 

Wrapping things up

The second and third weeks in Berlin were busy with real, on the ground, international journalism. With half of our phones not working on our German SIM card plans and more than half of us knowing how to speak German (not to mention Arabic or Farsi), we quickly learned to adapt. After a few stress-induced breakdowns and loads of help from our advisors, we were on to producing our final project on a deadline, with not-so-great WiFi, in a foreign country, on a subject we knew nothing about a few months ago.

Going over the final edits. Photo by Shane McMillian

Going over the final edits. Photo by Shane McMillian

With the quotes from the doctors, politicians, refugees and others in Berlin, advice from Shane, Henriette and Larry, insight and help from our translators who were also refugees, and support from newfound friends in the group (which was bound to happen when after living in close quarters for nearly a month) we produced a final portfolio-worthy project we all can be proud of. Not only did we get to study and research a migration event that will be historically significant for years, we also got a chance to practice real journalism outside of the classroom, both of which will affect my life for the better in years to come as a journalist and traveler.