What I Study, and Why

As a college student, I find the question that I most often get asked is “what do you study?”  My answer—Near Eastern Studies—almost invariably provokes the same response:  “Oh…” (stares off into space with a perplexed look for a moment)  “That’s really neat!  What is that?”  After I do my best to explain, I usually encounter the follow-up question, “but what do you DO with that?” or my personal favorite:  “but… but WHY?”  This post is my attempt to answer all these questions.

First and foremost, I should differentiate between what I study at Cornell and what I’ve been studying so far at Oxford.  At Cornell, my major is called “Near Eastern Studies”.  This encompasses the history, literature, and cultures of the Middle East from the beginning of human history to the present day.  At Oxford, I have been taking courses from the Egyptology (Ancient Egypt), Assyriology (Ancient Mesopotamia), and Theology (particularly early Christianity) departments.  In my studies, both at Cornell and at Oxford, I have mostly focused on the history of Iran and on the civilizations of the pre-Islamic Near East.

I should note that there is often a lot of confusion regarding the terms “Near East” and “Middle East”.  The Near East, with some slight geographic differences, basically refers to the Middle East before the start of Islam in approximately 620AD (although some departments, like Cornell, do not make a distinction between the two terms).

What I study is fairly straight-forward.  Why I study it is a little more convoluted.  For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by ancient cultures.  My room is littered with books of history and myths.  I think this fascination is also what lies behind my love of fantasy novels, because most of them are set in medieval periods or earlier.  One of my favorite computer games growing up was Age of Mythology, in which you could either play as the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Norse, or the Atlanteans.  One of the reasons I loved the game so much (and still do) is that you could click on a unit and learn the history and myths behind it.  Overall, I just loved learning about how societies behaved and functioned before modern conveniences, and how different civilizations arose before collapsing or evolving into something new.

When I first arrived at Cornell, I was determined to study something ‘practical’, so I avoided classes on ancient civilizations in favor of exploring more modern-oriented fields such as psychology, government, and economics.  I even dabbled a little in computer programming.  As my foreign language requirement, I opted to take modern Persian (after being talked into it by an Arabic professor), since I figured that a Middle Eastern language would probably have the best career prospects aside from Mandarin.  This is where my love for the ancient Near East really began.  Until my freshman year of college, I mostly read about the ancient Greeks and Romans, medieval castles, and Old Norse myths.  In my Persian class, however, the professor exposed us to all sorts interesting history from ancient Iran and Mesopotamia.  Noting my interest, my professor suggested that I take his History of Iran course the following term, because he thought I would love it.  He was right.  From the very first lecture on the Achaemenid Persian Empire, I was hooked.  I decided I would study the Middle East.

My decision to focus on the ancient Near East did not occur until my studies here in Oxford.  When I was applying, I discovered that Oxford University does not have an all-encompassing ‘Near Eastern Studies’ program.  Rather, the Oriental Studies department is split into various modern languages—Arabic Studies, Persian Studies, Turkish Studies, and Hebrew Studies—as well as encompassing Egyptology and Assyriology.  At that point, I decided I would give Egyptology and Assyriology a go and try them out for a term.  After all, I loved a course I had taken the previous semester on the myth and religion of Mesopotamia, so why not?  As the term went on and I learned more about ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt (and ancient Israel through my course on Old Testament Texts), I’ve learned that this is where I belong.  I still wake up every morning excited to go to lecture, and I love all of the topics that I have to research for my papers, to the point that I get so distracted by some of the reading assignments that I end up checking the books out to finish reading them for fun.  I’ve had other courses that I’ve been excited about, of course, but none that have been able to hold me in utter fascination for months on end, as Egyptology and Assyriology have managed to do.

Those are the ‘what’ and the ‘why’; the answer to what I will do with my degree remains to be seen.  There is no doubt in my mind that I will apply to grad school to get an advanced degree in my studies; if I want to have any hope of a career in this field, I need at least a Masters, if not a PhD.  At this point, I have a decision to make.  Most, if not all, grad programs require that I choose either modern Middle Eastern or ancient Near Eastern studies.  Although studying the modern Middle East would offer more jobs, especially in government or corporate work, the ancient Near East is where my passions lie.  There are actually more jobs in this field than first meet the eye.  Although the typical career path would be to work for a university, there are also many museums and private collections looking for curators who understand ancient Near Eastern artifacts and texts, and there are literally tens of thousands of extant texts that have yet to be properly catalogued and published.  Far from being a dying field, the study of the ancient Near East is still in its infancy (or at most, its preteens).  There is still an unfathomable amount left to be discovered, both buried in museum and university archives, and lying beneath the shifting sands of the Middle East.  Just the thought of it is enough make me feel like a little kid, excited to go on a treasure hunt.

New Year, New Term, Old Resolutions

Hilary term has begun here in Oxford, and the work is already piling up.  Here at St. Catherine’s, about twenty new visiting students have arrived to study in Oxford over the next two terms.  New Yorkers have strong showing, and the count of Cornellians at Catz has risen to five.  All the new visiting students are settling in, and the rest of us are slowly finding our way back into the academic routine.  As this is the start of a new term, and as it is still quite early in the new year, I believe now is the opportune time for me to reflect and create a few New Years and New Terms resolutions.

The problem that plagues me most in college—and most of my fellow students, I’m sure—is procrastination.  Despite trying to get most of my work done early, I continuously find myself up into the wee hours of the morning the night before an essay is due.  As much as I enjoy late-night essay-writing marathons, the lack of sleep always catches up eventually, which of course leads to more late nights (after long afternoon naps to recover).  Therefore, this term I resolve to manage my time more effectively and reduce my procrastination.  In order to do so, I have decided to schedule my time working and my time relaxing during the day, so that I don’t get sucked into hours of TED videos and Candy Crush Saga.  My plan is begin with 10 minutes of play for every 50 minutes of work between 10am and 9pm (perhaps noon-8pm on weekends), with ample breaks for meals, lectures, tutorials, rehearsals, and the like.  I’ll see how well this plan works, and then tweak it from there.

Language study has never come easy for me, despite the fact that at least half my major revolves around various dead and/or foreign languages.  My skills in any particular language, as to be expected, get rusty with disuse, and yet I find that I have not forced myself to study and review enough during periods that I’m not actually getting graded on my language.  To counter-act this, my second resolution is schedule just 30 minutes of language study and review every day, in whichever particular language I’m in the mood to study that day.  As an initial experiment, I will try to make this study period be consistently at 2pm every day, to be adjusted as needs be.

My third resolution revolves around creativity.  Throughout my life, I’ve always wished that I was better at drawing and creative writing, but I’ve never taken the time to properly practice and develop my abilities in those areas.  I find myself again in the procrastination mentality of “well, I’ll do it tomorrow” or “I’ll do it as soon as I’m done with such-and-such”, and never actually doing anything about it.  Therefore, I have decided to treat ‘creative time’ much as I have resolved to treat my homework and with language study:  I will schedule in 30 minutes a day specifically for doing something creative, whether it be doodling, a serious drawing, writing a short story, or anything else that requires me to focus on creating something new.  I think morning would probably be best for this, so I will start by scheduling this period for 9am every day, immediately after breakfast, and see how it goes.

Three resolutions are more than enough for me to start off the year with, and I will do my best to stick to them, although I’ll inevitably fail occasionally.  However, I’m hoping that by making each of them at fixed times every day will help make each resolution become habit, which will then hopefully open the doors to new resolutions.  My goal is to attempt to keep each of these first for a week, and then for a month, without breaking any of them.  To keep track, I will put little stars or smiley faces in my calendar for each day, with the goal of rewarding myself with something small each week I keep my resolutions (perhaps a candy bar or a nice coffee), and something larger after a solid month of keeping them (perhaps a trip to the movies).  I wish you all the best of luck on any of your resolutions, and I wish you all a very Happy (very belated) New Year!

Travels Around the South-Western UK, Part II

Apologies for the tardiness of this post; I’ve been travelling and I’ve had spotty internet.  School resumes next week and I should be back to normal posting by then.

The second leg of Mikayla’s and my adventure took a much more leisurely pace than the first.  We spent three nights in Cardiff, followed by two nights in Watford (an hour north of London) and one in Oxford.  Most of our days were spent casually exploring, which was a nice break from the busy and structured week before.  Cardiff castle was wonderful, and we ended up spending several hours there while dodging a massive school-group of 7 year-olds.  I was quite surprised to discover that the castle keep is entirely hollow and open to the sky; apparently, all the original interior structures were wooden, built within the surrounding stone shell.  We also visited the Pierhead building (cool architecture), the Millennium Building (cool architecture plus shops), and the Wales National Assembly Building (also cool architecture).  In Watford we mostly relaxed and wandered, and in Oxford I gave Mikayla the grand tour.  However, all of these were happy discoveries beyond the real reasons we went to Cardiff and Watford:  the Doctor Who Experience and the Harry Potter Studio Tour.

The Doctor Who Experience is in Cardiff Bay, in a large and appropriately blue warehouse near the BBC Studios.  The lobby of the building is strewn with various Doctor Who memorabilia, including a seven-foot LEGO Dalek, Clara’s diary, and the Moment, the doomsday device from ‘The Day of the Doctor’.  I was like a little kid in a candy shop, barely able to stand still while waiting in line for our turn in the ‘Experience’.  The Experience was a cute twenty-minute interactive prequel to the exhibit, where we had to run around, stare down Weeping Angels, hide from Cyber-Men, and attempt to evade extermination.  I expected the Experience to be rather kid-oriented, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Fortunately, there were some small children in our group, including an adorable little girl who was terrified to fly the TARDIS, but courageously did so to save all our lives.

Following the Experience, we were then welcomed into the exhibit, which was packed full of Doctor Who props and costumes, the majority of which were originals.  The collection ranged from the costume of the First Doctor, to the Face of Bo, to one of the original TARDIS consoles (from the 9th Doctor, if I remember properly).  Of course, I had to take pictures of everything.  My profile picture on Facebook is now of Mikayla and I standing in front of the TARDIS, if that gives any suggestion of how excited I was.  The Doctor Who Experience is definitely a must for any fans of the TV show, whether a die-hard fan who can quote every episode since the 60s (well, except the few that have been lost), to the casual viewer who’s only seen a part of the latest season.

As amazing as the Doctor Who Experience was, there is nothing that could compare with the absolute spectacle that is the Warner Brothers’ Harry Potter Studio Tour.  This was the one part of our trip that Mikayla and I had booked well in advance (at least a month), and much of our vacation was scheduled around being able to see it.  The day we chose to go also happened to be Mikayla’s twentieth birthday (not quite a coincidence).  Mikayla and I are both happy members of the Harry Potter generation; we grew up with the characters in the books, and as we matured, so did the stories.  Of course we own all the movies, and saw every single one in theatres.  I also am the proud owner of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and now also of The Tales of Beedle the Bard (my souvenir from the tour).  Needless to say, we were both very excited.

The first thing we were shown on the tour was while waiting in line:  the cupboard under the stairs.  Then, after a short welcome video, we were brought into the Great Hall, complete with tables and benches and silverware, as well as the podium, the great hourglasses showing House Points, and the costumes of most of the professors of Hogwarts.  We were surprised to discover that the set had no roof as such, it was simply open to the ceiling of the warehouse.  Later in the tour, we were informed that the original attempts to create the floating candles through stage affects failed utterly; ultimately they were all rendered, along with the ceiling itself, by CGI.

From the Great Hall, we were sent into a gigantic warehouse that contained the original sets of the Potions Classroom, the Gryffindor Common Room, Dumbledore’s Office, the Burrow, and Hagrid’s Hut.  Beyond the sets, there were cases with props everywhere, including wands, the Goblet of Fire, the Triwizard Tournament Cup, and Skele-grow.  And this was all in just one room!  We must have easily spent an hour in that room alone, taking pictures and reading all about each of the props and sets.  From there, we were guided to an outdoor area that housed Number 4 Private Drive, the Knight Bus, the giant chess pieces from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Tom Riddle’s grave, and Godric’s Hollow.  But the real highlight of the back lot that we were in was that was where they sold butterbeer.  Mikayla and I each got some with a souvenir mug.  It was deliciously creamy with a very frothy head (that they put on with a spoon), and it prepared us for the next leg of the tour.

We were then guided to the creature room, where they showed many of the secrets behind the creation of the creatures, from the goblin makeup to a robotic hippogriff to a fire-breathing dragon (that could actually spit fireballs up to forty feet!).  Next was the set of Diagon Alley, which was so realistic that I felt like I was actually there.  All that was missing were the shopkeepers and the robes.  Diagon Alley was followed by a gallery of set models, storyboards, and set plans, which were all astoundingly detailed, even ones that didn’t make it into the movie.  The crown jewel of the entire studio tour, however, was in the next room.

As we walked towards the next gallery, the music swelled magnificently, and we were greeted by the snow-covered twenty-foot tall model of Hogwarts Castle in all its glory.  Mikayla and I literally fought back tears, the sight was so moving (I’m sure the music and dramatic lighting added quite a bit).  The detail was absolutely incredible.  It was as if they had taken an actual castle and shrunk it down to miniature size, it was so realistic.  As we followed a circular ramp down around it, we beheld stunning vistas that were just as beautiful as if we were in a real castle.  For two individuals who had grown up reading about and seeing this magnificent castle on film, it felt like we had truly stepped into a magical world.  It took all of my willpower to leave that mesmerizing sight and walk into the final room, which was filled floor-to-ceiling with boxes of wands, each one with a handwritten label containing the name of a member of the cast and crew of Harry Potter.  According to the signs, every single individual who took part in the production of the films had a box somewhere it that room.  It was a touching monument to the sheer number of contributors to such a monumental series of films that inspired millions of people across the globe.

After such an amazing two weeks, I was sad my holiday was reaching an end.  The last few days before Mikayla left to head back to the States were especially hard, knowing that it was the last time we would see each other for almost 6 months.  Our last full day together was spent in Oxford, where we shared an afternoon tea and walked around the city centre while I showed her all my favorite places.  We had a lovely dinner at Jamie Oliver’s (after trying the Eagle and Child and the White Horse pubs, whose websites’ had inaccurate hours), and then we wrapped up the night with a bottle of wine and some chocolate in my staircase.  The journey to Heathrow was a tearful one, and it was a very hard goodbye for both of us.  But in the two weeks we had together, we had some amazing adventures.  We met new friends, tried new food, saw amazing sights that took our breaths away, and made memories that will last a lifetime.  Now, it’s back to school for me and off to an internship for Mikayla, until we meet again (besides Facebook messaging and Skype, of course!).



Travels Around the South-West UK

Apologies for the tardiness of this post; I’ve been travelling and I’ve had spotty internet.

As I am writing this post, I am sitting in the lounge of the River House Backpackers hostel in Cardiff, directly across from the Millennium Stadium, watching Limitless with people from all over the world (US, UK, Australia), including the love of my life, after a delicious home-cooked meal of nan and curry.  It has been an absolutely amazing week of travelling and exploring.  I’ve seen 5,000 year-old monuments, eaten bread from a 300 year-old recipe, and made new friends from across the globe.  I’ve seen an 800 year-old document and Roman coins.  And I’ve watched possibly the best fireworks display I’ve ever seen.

On the 29th of December, I headed down to London to check into my hotel.  Early the next morning, I took the Tube to Heathrow Airport to meet my girlfriend of almost 3 years.  It was a very happy reunion, with many smiles and a few tears.  After a quick nap (I’d been up since 5, Mikayla since her flight left), we headed out exploring.  We checked out the Tate Modern and visited St. Paul’s cathedral at night.  Over the next few days, we visited the Tower of London, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Oxford Street, 221B Baker Street, and more.  Undoubtedly though, the highlights of our visit were the London Eye and New Years Eve.  Mikayla and I, ever since we learned that I’d be studying abroad, promised each other that neither would go on the London Eye without the other.  The morning we chose ended up being perfectly sunny, and as the ferris wheel spun and we rose higher and higher, we could see for miles.  The sun glistened off the top of Big Ben, and the Shard gleamed in the distance.  It was an amazing sight.

New Years Eve began rather rainy and grey, but the skies cleared up as the day went on.  We made our way to Victoria Embankment, directly across from the London Eye, by 6 in the afternoon.  The crowd was already substantial, and grew exponentially as the night wore on.  The group standing in front of us clearly were experienced at New Years watching; they had blankets, lounge chairs, and beverages galore, guarded their space jealously but were having such a good time that they kept all around them entertained.  Around 10, the music started and the lights on the Eye began putting on a lightshow.  Around 11, the mayor of London gave a New Years address (projected onto a building), and then the countdown began.  As the clock struck midnight, the Eye exploded into a dazzling spectacle of fireworks and bubbles and strawberry-scented air (which was bizarre but pleasant) piped into the area.  As the smoke from the last fireworks drifted away, the crowed bust into a rousing rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” to properly ring in the New Year.

After London, we spent a night in Salisbury at an adorable little Bed & Breakfast called the Wyndham Park Lodge.  The host was very sweet and helpful, and gave us lots of good tips.  From Salisbury, Mikayla and I took the bus to Stonehenge.  It was a cold and rainy day, but we braved the weather to venture to that ancient circle.  Just having those massive stones standing in front of us, as countless others over the millennia have before, really brought home the immense age and history of this island.  After we returned to the city, we went the magnificent Salisbury cathedral, which has the tallest spire of any Cathedral in the United Kingdom.  It houses one of the original copies of the Magna Carta from the 1200s.  But perhaps the most astonishing thing about the cathedral was inside, Mikayla and I encountered someone she knew and someone else that I knew, both from the USA!  We both could not believe that we both ran into someone from home thousands of miles away.

From Salisbury, we then headed out to Bath, where we stayed at the YMCA hostel.  We spent two nights there, and in that time we toured the Roman Baths, visited Bath Abbey, and walked to the Circus and to the Royal Crescent.  The entire city is on a hill, with stunning views of the surrounding area.  Mikayla and I shared our first proper afternoon tea together at Sally Lunn’s, reputedly the oldest food establishment in the city and the originator of the ‘Sally Lunn Bath Bun’, which was absolutely delicious.  We loved the place so much that we returned for dinner to celebrate our 35-month anniversary (seeing as we’ll miss our 3-year by about a month).  We then spent the evening in the hostel hanging out with a couple older gentlemen from the northern UK and a girl our age from Australia, watching quiz shows and telling stories.  We finally headed to bed around 1am, only to run into the two gentlemen again at the coach station, and again at the Bristol coach station on our way to Cardiff!

And as I sit here in Cardiff, now watching QI and planning our next few days, it is nice to have a quiet evening in to relax and reflect on the week.  This has undoubtedly been the best week I’ve had in a long time, and one of the best weeks of my life.  And we have yet to go to the Doctor Who Experience and the Harry Potter Studio Tour!  These are the moments that truly make studying abroad memorable for years and years to come.