Reverse Culture Shock II

It’s now been about a week since I’ve been back in New York, and the experience of coming back to the US from France compared to the experience of coming back to the US from India could not be more different. If anything, I’m shocked by how similar New York City is to Paris. Since my first semester abroad started with a two week orientation in New York, coming back here has really made my year abroad a full-circle experience.

Trying to think about ways I’ve experienced “reverse culture shock” this week, probably the first and biggest has been that I can actually speak English, with confidence, in all aspects of my daily life – and I’m actually realizing that I definitely became a bit more shy having to operate in my second language for several months, always trying to think before I spoke and only talking to an actual person when absolutely necessary. So it’s been a bit of a shock to be able to get by so easily. Combined with my experience in Brazil last semester, where I spoke no Portuguese and the average person spoke no English, I have definitely come to sympathize more with the immense difficulties faced by immigrants in the US.

Other cultural differences are smaller, but have made me look a bit silly for forgetting that they were even differences. The first example is that in France, floors of a building are numbered with the ground floor, or Rez-de-chausée, as 0, followed by 1, 2, 3, and so on. In the US, the ground floor is the first floor – which I completely forgot about in a department store the other day, and ended up going upstairs in search of something that was on the floor I was already on. Another, more linguistic difference that I’ve had to deal with is at restaurants. In French, an entrée (“entry”) dish is an appetizer, while the main course is le plat principal – but in US English, entree means a main dish – which lead me to blurt out at a restaurant “wow the appetizers here are so expensive and intense!” I’m also having to get used to the fact that the US doesn’t really do dollar coins, and in general coins seem a lot less commonly used here than in France (either to make your change easier to give when paying in cash, or for smaller purchases). Another funny situation that’s happened already has been when I used a vending machine to buy a subway ticket, and stuck my credit card in waiting for a beep – when I remembered that chip cards are brand new here and the machine needed me to dip and remove my card for it to read the strip. All of this isn’t anything that crazy, but it goes to show that there are definitely some little ticks and habits I picked up during my time in France that I’ll have to get rid of.

In the bigger picture, I think I already had a bit of a European mindset going into my year abroad when it comes to things like policy – for example I was already a strong proponent of high speed rail before seeing it action in France. But it’s actually the way I responded to certain controversies in France, like the Loi de travail (work law) currently under debate (which caused nearly weekly strikes all over the city, and led me to be accidentally tear gassed one day while walking downwind from a protest) that helped me refine what my political views are here in the US – and reaffirmed my drive to be an active citizen and vote whenever possible. I’m really coming to see that the US is a very unique place with a very unique amount of power, and I’ve spent a lot of time this year contemplating what that means and what it should/could mean going forward.

I might be home, but this isn’t my last post on this blog! I owe it to myself and you, my readers, to reflect a bit more about what this whole year has meant to me and how I’m going to take that knowledge forward into my final year at Cornell and my future career. So, be on the lookout for one last post coming soon where I’ll try to wrap up everything from my year living abroad on every continent (except Australia, and Antartica if that counts to you) and try to extract some sort of greater truth from all of it!

Cheap Flights and Youth Hostels

When I started out this semester, I thought it would be a totally different experience staying in one country for the entire time as opposed to what I did last semester, changing countries every month. But one of the more surprising things to have happened is that I’ve actually visited more countries this semester than I did last semester. In 2016, (besides France) I’ve traveled to: Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Monaco, Hungary, and the Czech Republic – and also transited through Belgium, Slovakia, and Austria.

One of the things I’m going to miss the most about living in Europe is that flights here are incredibly cheap. During Spring Break, I flew from Prague to London for $16.50 – and then took a $20 shuttle bus (the cheapest possible ground transportation from the airport) to my friend’s flat. But that was an extreme – otherwise I’ve been able to fly round trip from Paris to these destinations for about $60-$80. In the US, my most frequent flight – Atlanta to New York – costs at a minimum $175 or so, up to $300 or more at peak times. And flying home to Atlanta from Ithaca can cost me up to $750 or more! So I profited (as the word is used in French) from the cheap flights here to go and see some really cool places around Europe. In fact, I don’t know anyone who’s studying abroad in Europe this semester who hasn’t had at least one or two trips to another country – it’s so cheap that it really makes the experience of travel very open to a much wider amount of people than in the US. Helping along with this whole process is the abundance of cheap hostels – not the nicest accommodations, but you really can’t beat staying somewhere for often less than $10 per night.

The rest of this post will be a summary of the highlights of my trips (with photos!).

Hamburg, Germany

IMG_9059My first trip of this semester was probably my most random adventure. With other friends having already been to several places and the allure of Paris starting to fade a bit as I started settling down, I decided that I really just needed to take a plunge and go somewhere. So I looked up cheap flights and bought a ticket to the cheapest destination possible – Hamburg, Germany. While this isn’t the most “hip” place to visit in Europe, I really enjoyed my time exploring the city, its UNESCO World Heritage sites, and its really cool “HafenCity” development. This was also my first time really traveling alone – which I found definitely has its ups and downs.

London, England (Twice!)

IMG_9150One of my best friends from Cornell is studying abroad in London this semester, so I went to visit her twice. The first time was a quick weekend trip when another of my best friends was there – and we got to see this year’s Slope Day main act, Walk the Moon – which certainly helped out on my FOMO last week when I saw all the pictures from Cornell’s traditional end of the year party. The first time I went to London, it was more about seeing my friends than seeing London – so I decided to go back at the end of Spring Break since I found that flight for less than $20. Highlights of my second trip included seeing the Prime Meridian in Greenwich and the various (free!) museums in Kensington.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

IMG_9289One of my best friends who isn’t studying abroad came to visit me from the US during his Spring Break, and we spent the first part of the trip in Amsterdam. While the city is really quaint and the canals are super beautiful, I actually really disliked it. As one of Europe’s leading (internal and international) tourist destinations, Amsterdam felt really fake and “Disneyfied” – even though we stayed in a non-touristy residential area, I just couldn’t imagine living here.

Munich, Germany

IMG_9422Along with two girls in the EDUCO program, I went to Munich March. Unfortunately, we found out when we arrived that we had overlooked the fact that it was Easter weekend – Catholic Bavaria’s laws prohibit dancing and music in public on Good Friday, which made our first day feel very somber and not very fun. But the weather became beautiful and I really got to explore the city on Saturday. Then on Sunday, we visited Dachau concentration camp – which was by far one of the most emotionally difficult places I’ve ever visited. But on a more upbeat note, it was cool to compare the differences of Northern and Southern Germany (thinking back to my trip to Hamburg), and to eat tons of pretzels and drink a lot of really good beer!

Lyon, France

IMG_9516My parents used their frequent flyer miles came to visit me in late March/early April, and as part of their trip they wanted to see another city in France besides Paris. We took a TGV to Lyon, France’s supposed culinary capital, and I got to see a side of France that’s totally different than what I’ve become used to in Paris. From Roman ruins to fun and hip neighborhoods, along with all the great and affordable restaurants, I can see why Lyon is a favorite for domestic French tourists.

Nice, France & Monaco

IMG_9621After my parents left, my aunt also came to visit me with the desire to see a different city in France than just Paris. We settled on Nice – and I must say this was probably the most picturesque city I’ve visited all semester. Formerly part of Italy, the cuisine was definitely more Italian in flavor and very good – and the old town’s colorful, compact streets were awesome to explore. On one day of our trip, we took a train to Monaco – adding another country to my roster for the year – which was just a crazy place to see in terms of how much wealth can be concentrated in one tiny sliver of land. Altogether, the great ambiance and alluring blue waters of the Côte d’azur really made me wish I could have stayed longer.

Budapest, Hungary

IMG_9798For part of my ridiculously long Spring Break, I met up with my friend studying in London in Budapest. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I found this city to be really cool because of its history, monuments, and good food. Highlights of our short time in Budapest were a visit to the “healing” waters of a thermal bath, buying traditional street food and crafts at the various street markets, and the great views from the hills over the Danube. I had been told by people that Hungary, which uses the Forint as its currency, would be really cheap, but this was definitely not true – if anything the weird exchange rate (278 HUF per dollar) makes deciphering prices hard and it easy to be ripped off as a tourist if you’re not careful.

Prague, Czech Republic

IMG_9845From Budapest, we boarded a bus for the 7-hour ride to Prague through Austria and Slovakia. Unlike Hungary, the Czech Republic (or “Czechia” as their PM now wants people to call it in English), which uses the Koruna, was actually really cheap – one of the reasons I was able to have such a good time here. Prague was absolutely beautiful – the historic architecture and vast green parks really give the city a great vibe – but our weather could not have been worse because it SNOWED in April while we were there, which is something I was trying to avoid by not being in Ithaca this semester. One surprising thing about the Czech Republic is that it has a huge beer culture – Pilsner was invented there. One of the highlights of our trip was visiting a craft brewery no bigger than an average classroom and drinking their beer straight from the barrels – for less than $2 per pint!


Overall, this semester has been an amazing way to experience Europe’s diverse cultures and to see so many places that I’d always learned about in school. One thing we talked about in my Mobility class is that the fact that international travel here is so commonplace and cheap is not by chance – the regulations that promote it are an active component of the EU’s mission to form an “ever closer union” (except with the UK…….) among its member states and citizens. It’s an admirable goal, and I can attest that one of the most educational experiences of my semester has been getting to experience so many different places in such a short amount of time.

The Absurdity of the French University Schedule

Hello readers! I know it has been a while since my last post – but I’m here today to rectify that with what will hopefully be the first of a few catch-up posts about my life in France!

University scheduling might not sound like a really exciting topic, but it’s had a lot of real implications on the way my semester has progressed here in France.

In the US (at Cornell at least), we typically have 15 weeks of class per semester, with 1 long weekend per semester plus a longer break for Thanksgiving in the Fall and Spring Break in the Spring. At the end of the semester, we get a few days off to study for exams and write final papers, and then have a 10-day (or so) exam period. With most classes meeting twice or three times a week at least, we can have anywhere from 30 to 45 class sessions or more per semester per class.

In France, we had 13 official weeks of class, but public holidays and other random breaks for Spring and Easter observed by some but not all courses led to even less weeks of class. Classes meet, in general, once per week for a lecture (the “Cours magistral” – CM) and once per week for a “Travaux dirigés” (TD), or “Directed Work” session (which is somewhat equivalent to a discussion section in the US), if the class has one. In one course, “Tropical Societies,” the last CM was March 16 and the last TD on April 5 (that’s 8 lectures and 11 sections, for a total of 19 meetings this semester). For another, “Mobility, Flows, and Networks,” the last TD was March 31, but the last CM was on May 2 (for a total of 24 total sessions). Having less meetings is a cultural difference that I’ve come to accept. Students are expected to read up on the subject on their own from the giant list of books provided at the beginning of the semester, rather than a more concise and scheduled reading selection as I’m used to in the US.

Here’s the absurd part that I find ridiculous: the final exam period is over a month after the end of courses. For my class that last had a lecture on March 16, my final exam will be on May 14. My course which last met on May 2 has a final on May 23. And none of these exam dates were even announced until the last week of April, meaning after the end of exams I have to sit in France with nothing to do for a week since I couldn’t wait to book a flight on such short notice (I know, such a horrible problem to *have* to be in Paris for extra time).

For the American students here, this massively long gap between courses ending and finals beginning means that we have essentially a month-long Spring Break. I was able to travel to Budapest, Prague, and London over two weeks, and now I’m back in Paris for 2 more weeks before my exams begin. When me and another American friend asked a French girl if she had any fun plans for the break, she responded “what break? I have to study every day until the exam! That’s what the study period is for!” While it’s great for her that she’ll be studying, I can’t even imagine what content she’s looking at every day for over a month since we had so few classes.

In a way, some of the academic aspects of this semester have really disappointed me. While having to do everything in French has certainly been a challenge, some of the usual challenges I associate with college life, like learning time-management, balancing different types of courses and their different types of work, etc. have all sort of not been present for me in France. It’s actually quite scary that after so much time of having nothing to do here that I’ll soon be back at Cornell where nearly every moment of my life has to be scheduled in order for me to complete everything that’s required of me.

While it definitely wasn’t true last semester with IHP, this semester has definitely “been more about the abroad than about the study” (see my upcoming post about European travel for more on that!) – but only because the French university system builds in so many ridiculously long breaks and gaps to an already low amount of class time.

Living in a State of Emergency

One day last semester while I was in India, after I woke up and went downstairs for breakfast, I connected to the wifi (which didn’t reach my bedroom) and saw a ton of updates come through on my phone. When we got to class, everyone was either in a somber mood or got into one once their phone connected to the wifi at school. We were all just hearing about the Paris attacks, and since we were asleep when they happened, we were also hearing about all of the first responses of #PrayforParis and the first bits of controversy about Beirut being overshadowed and everything else that people were talking about immediately afterwards.

While we weren’t really affected in any major way during our time in India (other than the assuring emails I got from Cornell Abroad), everyone suddenly started asking me if I was still going to go to Paris in the Spring. Knowing that I had already been exposed to and survived some pretty high-crime places in Sao Paulo and Cape Town, not to mention the constant risk of senseless gun violence we face in the US every day, I didn’t think much about canceling my semester in Paris.

Heavily armed military guards are now a common sight in Paris. (Photo Credit: Louis Witter for LeFigaro)

Since the attacks, France has implemented an unprecedented state of emergency. Originally supposed to last (only) 3 months (although now extended “until ISIS is defeated” or May 26, whichever comes later), the State (through the police and/or military) can now search homes, shut down places of worship, confiscate weapons, ban public assemblies/protests, require anyone foreign to prove their legal immigration status at any time, and monitor your social media and internet usage – all without warrants from a judge. Essentially, this means the majority of the rights I enjoy at home in the US thanks to the Bill of Rights are not available to me here.

Day to day, my life has definitely been impacted by living in this state of emergency. France has a program called Vigipirate (which I guess stands for vigilance against pirates?), where different levels of threats of terrorism automatically trigger various security measures. With Vigipirate at “attack alert” level since I arrived here, I don’t think I’ve gone a day in France without going through at least one security check of some sort.

These signs announcing security checks are in force can be seen everywhere around Paris.

One of the first things you notice while walking around or taking the metro in Paris is that there are heavily armed military/gendarmes/police roaming around and guarding tourist sites and government buildings. On top of the government security forces, most public places like universities, cafeterias, even some grocery stores have hired private security guards to carry out bag searches, pat downs, and ID checks at entrances. Since arriving here, I’ve received 6 photo ID cards (in addition to my passport and driver’s license) that I need to carry at all times in case of a security check – one for the Metro, two for my two different universities, one for my program center, one for a library I like to study at, and one for the building/campus where I live. I must admit, all of the security everywhere does make me feel a bit safer – but I don’t know if the increased feeling of security is worth the daily invasiveness and suspension of numerous human rights.

A photo from a protest that was heavily advertised around University of Paris 1. The banner says “Immediately lift the permanent state of emergency” and “For your security, you no longer have civil liberties.” (Photo Credit: RFI)

It’s really surprising to me that the (Socialist-controlled) French National Assembly and Senate have by a large margin extended the state of emergency for 3 more months and enshrined the ability to declare such a long state of emergency with unlimited renewals into the constitution. Among most French people I’ve talked to, especially students, the state of emergency is talked about as an unpopular Fascist policy that, at this point, seems unnecessary. But after living here a few months, it has become a way of life. During weekend trips I’ve taken so far to Germany and the UK, it seems really strange not to have my ID or bag checked everywhere I go and not to see the military patrolling the streets – so perhaps the sense of security that comes from these new daily rituals is what is making a supposed majority of French people support the continuation of the state of emergency.

“So do you go to the Sorbonne?”

One question I’ve gotten a lot from friends and relatives is if I’m taking classes at the Sorbonne. The answer is a lot more complicated than an easy yes or no. Partly because “the Sorbonne” refers to two different things depending on if you’re speaking to a Parisian or an American.


The Sorbonne Building

In the context of present day Paris, if you ask someone about “La Sorbonne” most people will probably assume you’re talking about nothing more than a very pretty historic building in the heart of the Latin Quater. The Sorbonne building is home to classrooms and offices for 6 different universities – and is really quite beautiful.

To Americans however, “The Sorbonne” is usually used to mean the French equivalent of the UK’s Oxford or Cambridge Universities or our own Harvard/Yale/Stanford/MIT/Cornell top tier of universities. Most people seem confused when I tell them that “the Sorbonne” isn’t actually university, nor is there even a single “University of Paris” or University that uses the Sorbonne name.


The “La Sorbonne” name is still a powerful marketing tool – even if the institution founded in 1253 doesn’t exist anymore.

Until the late 1960s, there was one “Université de Paris” that was all encompassing with several campuses, including the famed Sorbonne building that housed humanities and social sciences faculties and courses. In 1968, this system abruptly came to an end when students protested alongside general strikes of workers – to an extent that then-president Charles de Gaulle feared the whole country could devolve into a civil war and briefly fled the country. The protests started over fears that the university system was about to become less open to everyone – via higher admissions standards and higher fees (which sounds quite similar to the South African “Fees Must Fall” movement I experienced first hand in Cape Town last semester). What I still don’t understand is that the solution to all of this was to de-centralize the nearly 1000-year old University of Paris into 13 distinct universities that seem to have been cut up almost completely at random. Except for the far-off campuses in the suburbs that are now Paris 10-13, the remaining universities all sort of randomly occupy buildings (often sharing them with other universities) throughout the city (with the exception of Paris 7, which has recently centralized onto a new campus in a completely new neighborhood called Avenue de France.) Not logically divided by geography, the 13 universities are also not divided logically based on subject/discipline/specialization – while some schools have more emphasis in some areas than others, in general the old departments were just kind of splintered across all of the new schools, so now you can study history, for example, at Paris 1, 3, 4, or 7. To further complicate things, the universities have all gained different reputations – Paris 4 is known for being particularly difficult and “traditional,” while Paris 7 has adopted an American-style campus, and Paris 1 is seen as more left-wing, for example by refusing to implement Vigipirate security checks (a whole post on Vigipirate will be coming soon).

So where do I fit into all of this jumbled up 40 year old university system? I am taking courses at multiple universities while I am here. I chose 2 courses at Paris 1, in Geography L2 and History L3, and a course at Paris 7 in Geography L2. This course load would be impossible for a French student to select for several reasons. Firstly, French students, like American students back home, only enroll at one university (despite the fact that all the universities share buildings here). Secondly, if you have chosen to pursue your “licence” (equivalent to our Bachelors degree) in a certain field, you can only take courses within that field for 3 years and you don’t get to choose which courses you take or what order you take them in. Finally, in order to progress from L1 to L2 to L3, you have to pass with certain grades and over the years the number of successful students diminishes more and more – from an open admissions class in L1 to a quite selective successful graduating class after L3.

The "Fac Tolbiac" of Paris-1 (the shorter black glass building with 3 parts in the center) - not exactly the grand European institution I was expected to take most of my classes at.

The “Fac Tolbiac” of Paris-1 (the shorter black glass building with 3 parts in the center) – not exactly the grand Renaissance-era building where I was expecting to take most of my classes.

Having been inside this system for a few weeks, I can say that I really, really, really dislike the French system for higher education. The open enrollment with nearly no tuition makes for a lot of students in L1 and L2 courses that are really only there because their parents told them to, or just because it was where their friends were going, or for any other reason other than actually having an academic interest in the subject area. This gets even worse since the students can’t choose their courses on their own – if you like Geography but don’t care for the class on Climatological Cartography, you probably aren’t going to pay attention as much in that course. The result is that in every class I’m taking, the students talk constantly during lectures, even when the professor calls them out on it, and do things in discussion sections like read the newspaper, roll cigarettes, or even talk on the phone – right in front of the teacher! The fact that everyone except a small handful of students in each class seems like they wish they weren’t there has actually made me a lot less stressed about doing well this semester. Even though I don’t speak French to the level of a native speaker, at least I take notes, actually respect my professors, and am trying really hard to make sure I understand everything well and keep up with readings. And while everyone is definitely specialized in their respective subject areas since that’s the only place they can take courses, the scare-tactic our program used during orientation of “L3 is NOT the same as your junior year because it’s much harder” is completely false.

I am quickly coming to adore the American system of a liberal arts education that not only encourages but requires students to seek both a breadth and depth of knowledge in subject areas that interest them. And while our problems with college access and affordability are incredibly daunting and vast, I’m coming to see that open enrollment and free tuition for all at all universities is probably not the best solution.

An Urbanist Abroad, Redux

Bonjour tout le monde! I have been in Paris, France now for exactly one month on my second semester abroad! This time, instead of traveling to a new continent ever 4 to 5 weeks I’ll be staying put in one city (except for a few weekend trips) for 5 full months! While I’ve been getting adjusted to my new life here, it’s been a really hectic and chaotic time for me trying to adjust to a new culture, new school system, new language, new program structure, and everything else that’s different about this short period in my life that I’m sure will be like none other I will ever experience.

IMG_8640While I haven’t been blogging due to a complete lack of time and energy, I have been thinking of some great blog posts that I’ll be writing up soon hopefully about everything from the differences between the French and US university systems, to aspects of my daily life here in Paris like my housing and commute, to stereotypes that Americans seem to have about Europe that I’ve found to be completely untrue. I think this semester, since I will be staying here in France for so long, my blog is going to be a lot less narrative and start taking a much more thematic approach to explaining what I’ve been experiencing here.

As a way to get my blog back off the ground for this semester, I’ll make the rest of this post an introduction to my program, EDUCO, and how it differs from what I did last semester with IHP. EDUCO is a consortium of Emory, Duke, Cornell (hence EDuCo), and Tulane (who doesn’t get a letter in the name for some reason) here in Paris that operates quasi-independently of each of the universities that send students. EDUCO organizes our housing, either in homestays or a dorm (which is where I chose to live this semester), acts as an administrative support system for enrolling us in courses at several Parisian universities where we can take courses, teaches a handful of courses just for EDUCO students, ranging in topics from French Grammar and Communication to a class that studies Hip-Hop Dance in France, and finally organizes some fun outings and social events for us to experience France in ways we might not be able to otherwise.


The broadest way I can think of to describe the difference between being an IHP student and an EDUCO student is that the two programs are probably as far apart as possible when it comes to a spectrum of student independence and learning community building. In IHP, nearly every single day of the semester was scheduled for us by the program, including mandatory ice-breakers and community building sessions, and we were actually not technically allowed to be alone or out on our own at any time. Here at EDUCO, no one thought it was important to even go around the room and introduce ourselves to each other during orientation. Once we got our housing assignments, we all scattered to different parts of the city – I honestly think I haven’t seen some of the people in the program since the first week. If I didn’t have a grammar class at the program center, I probably would have very little reason to go there other than to use their free printer. Besides all of the culture shock that I had anticipated, I think the hardest thing about transitioning from last semester to this one has definitely been going from feeling like I always had 30 friends who I knew I was going to see every day and do fun things with every weekend to only knowing a few people here, and not having any sort of regularly planned interactions or shared academic interests/schedules with the other students on the program.

IHP and EDUCO also seem to have very different notions of what it means to “study abroad.” Last semester, I was in American-style classes that traveled, using primary sources (be them tours, guest lectures, visits to organizations, or what we experienced in our homestays) from the cities we were in as a basis for incredibly fruitful academic discussions about the more theoretical forces that shaped what we were seeing and experiencing. In IHP, you get a full package of abroad experiences, reflection and analysis, and connection back to US academia. This semester, as a student living in a French dorm, attending classes at 2 different French universities (in French, of course), and being treated essentially just like any other French student, I am immersing myself into a different culture – but essentially on my own, having to make those reflections and connections back to what I know from Cornell independently. Both approaches have their own benefits and drawbacks, and as such I’m so glad I get to experience both of them!

I could keep going for ages about the different things I’ve experienced here and the comparisons I can make to everywhere I went last semester, but as this is just an introduction post for this semester, I’ll leave off here with the promise of much, much more to come. Finally, since it’s been a while, I’ll just remind everyone reading that just below my posts you’ll find a comment box – feel free to send me comments and questions about anything I write about or what you want me address in my future posts!

Reverse Culture Shock I

Now that it’s been a month since I arrived back in the US, I want to post an update about how I’ve been dealing with readjusting to being back home. When I first got here, I expected that the infamous “reverse culture shock” would be some sort of stark difference or that coming home would be a similar experience to going to the next country on IHP. But when I got home, neither of those things happened – the biggest shock to me was that I didn’t feel shocked at all.

It’s not that surprising – I know that my childhood home is absolutely massive compared to any of the places I stayed while abroad, I know that American grocery stores have a ridiculously large selection of items, and I’ve always been shocked by just how sprawly and car-dependent Atlanta is. What was probably the most difficult for me to adjust to was being back with my parents instead of my IHP friends. Having spent months with the same group of 30 other students, I got really close to a lot of new people and really came to enjoy the conversations we all had together both inside and outside of the classroom.

Since December is the holiday season, I went to two parties while I was in Atlanta. The first was with people I went to high school with, the second with my parents’ adult friends from church. With people my age, explaining my experiences abroad was certainly a bit easier – I know that the people who went to my International Baccalaureate program are not ignorant to the great inequality in the world, nor to the experience of traveling abroad or engaging in academic study of pressing issues. Even so, it was still quite hard to explain myself and my experiences to them – making me feel like other IHP alumni will be the only people who will ever understand what I’ve been through this past semester. When I went to the party with older people, my experience of talking about being abroad was a lot harder. Most people didn’t really care about my time in the Global South, but seemed more interested in the fact that I’m studying abroad in Paris next semester. One woman even asked me “why would Cornell send you to Africa? It’s not like we need to learn anything from them.” In lieu of angrily ranting to her about the fact that South Africa’s racial inequality in many ways mirrors the situation in the US, I smiled and wished her a Merry Christmas and moved on. This same distinction between generations has happened before when I talk about my year abroad – I find that younger people seem much more interested in hearing about the Global South, while older people continually tell me that I should get a Eurail pass so I can gallivant around Europe on spring break next semester.

Reflecting on my month in the US, I’ve found that my biggest “culture shocks” have been from things I hear other people say. Firstly, a lot of people are completely ignorant to the situation in developing countries. When I told someone I went to the movies in India to see the new Hunger Games, they seemed surprised that there were movie theaters in India (have they not heard of the massive Bollywood film industry?). At the same time, people seem shocked that there are people in the world who don’t have hot water in their taps (or sometimes in Sao Paulo, any water in their taps at all) or wifi in their house (and don’t see the need to get it.) The most aggravating thing I think I’ve experienced in the US is waste – especially of food. In the words of our Indian country coordinator Sonal, “there are too many people with no food at all for you to throw any food away.” While some waste is inevitable in our lives, I’ve come to be disgusted by people constantly taking and wanting more than they need.

In just 5 days, I’ll be headed to Paris for my next semester abroad. While I still have nerves similar to those I felt just before the start of last semester (why do study abroad programs have to make such a big deal out of telling you absolutely no details about anything before you arrive?), having gone abroad and lived in all sorts of different and unpredictable conditions has certainly made me feel more prepared for what’s next!

Final Reflections on India

This is the end of my first semester abroad! It’s so crazy to think that by tomorrow night I’ll be back home in the US. While there’s a lot to synthesize about the whole semester, since I had a final reflection post about each country I’ll make another one just about India and then write up more thoughts about everything once I’ve relaxed at home a bit.

While in the other countries I was sad to leave and wished I had more time, here in India I’m actually kind of glad to be leaving. Some people in our group have really disliked India – that’s not at all the case with me, but I do think that this culture is so different than what I’m used to that it just requires a huge amount of daily stress to take everything in, make sure you’re being respectful, and be completely lost language-wise. Then, there are little things that make it hard to adjust – like a lack of toilet paper (and sometimes toilets with seats/bowls), a lack of black coffee or tea (everything is made with milk), or the inability to find even an apple slice that doesn’t have masala or some other spice sprinkled on it. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but it’s just so different from what we’re used to that it makes being here a bit harder than the other places we’ve traveled.

What makes our India program different from the other places we’ve been has been a different emphasis on urban planning than we’ve seen in other places. A lot of the issues here aren’t actually rooted in the built environment – sure there’s segregation and informal settlements and tons of unjust and frankly disgusting things happening to people, but most of this doesn’t come down to a problem with the City, but with human rights.


The Old City of Ahmedabad


The legacy of the caste system hangs over this country in ways that even race doesn’t hang over South Africa – and the two are actually quite similar. For some people in our group, it was quite hard to grasp the idea that India doesn’t really have a concept of race in the same way that we do in the West. Skin tone actually has very little to do with your class, caste, or opportunities – although this doesn’t stop beauty products from being “whitening” when applied to your skin. What does define opportunity here is caste. The caste system was historically a division of labor that over centuries became so restrictive and filled with stereotypes that now it is actually one of the most cruel and unjust things I’ve ever learned about. Somehow, when someone is born the system determines their entire life chances and opportunities – some people are destined to literally spend their working life swimming in raw sewage while others get to be internationally-eduated elites. While this is extreme, and to a great extent caste has become less important in urban areas, people even use caste today to determine how polite or respectful they are going to be to different people – even if say they are your superior at work (probably thanks to government-imposed affirmative action). Since the caste system’s radical injustice still drives a great deal of the inequality in India today, it’s hard to talk about urban planning solutions without advocating first for some human rights advances.

Learning about the caste system has also helped me to understand the problem the US (and other Western countries) has when it comes to race and racism. Race, like caste, is a social construct where society decides that some people are born different than others. In the US, some white people complain about affirmative action as being unfair just like some higher caste Indians think they deserve even more advantages than they received at birth. Similarly, excuses about “those people” just being lazy/stupid/dirty/any other negative adjective because of some natural or inherent trait sound exactly the same in India as the US when it comes to talking down to “lower” people. Finally, in both countries people have some perception that race/caste is an old concept and that since civil rights laws were passed in the 60s no one is discriminated against anymore. While I certainly was conscious about the horrible injustices that continue in the US due to racism, going to India and seeing the caste system at work has made me even more radically inclined to fight racism and spread awareness that everyone is born equal and deserves actual equal opportunity in life.

I think India taught me a great deal about the importance of human rights, and that as urban planners there are things we can do with the built environment that help to provide equity and human rights to everyone. My time in India reinforced my views that “development,” urban planning, and global exchanges of ideas and people really can and do have enormous positive impact on the quality of life and opportunities available to people – but that we need to keep fighting to do better.

I’m about to board a plane now – and after 34ish hours of traveling (including one 16 hour flight I’m not really looking forward to), I’ll be back in the US. It’s going to be weird going home after all of this time, but thankfully I have time to decompress, reflect, and write more blog posts about all of that once I get back.


Sunset during our final retreat to Little Rann of Kutch last week.


Traveling Over 2,000km in 2 Days

This weekend, we were lucky enough to have three days of break from class – so 8 of us chose (on Thursday) to take a trip to see the Taj Mahal. Thankfully, one of the volunteers helping out with the India program is a former tourism agent, so planning everything was a million times easier than it would have been on our own.


Waiting for boarding to start for our train.


On Saturday afternoon, we went to the Ahmedabad rail station to board a train to Agra. I had heard things about how crazy Indian trains could be – the stereotype of people riding on the roof and literally falling out of the windows and doors from the overcrowding. Seeing as we would be spending 16 hours on this train, I was not exactly looking forward to the trip. Upon getting to our train car, I found out that we had been booked on the highest class possible on the train – AC 2-Tier. This meant that our train car was air-conditioned with sealed windows, individual bunks stacked 2 high with privacy curtains, and even outlets to charge our phones and laptops! For the first few hours, we all sat around and talked while we ate food my host mom had put into tupperware for us, and then we got a full night of sleep on full sized beds – with the added bonus of being rocked to sleep by the train.

When we got to Agra, it was like a scene out of James Bond. Our group met up on the super crowded platform and an Indian man came up and handed one of us a phone – it was the volunteer who had organized the whole trip for us! (I guess as the only white and black people there, it wasn’t hard to spot us on the platform.) She explained that the guy who handed over the phone was our driver for the next two days and that he would be taking us on our whole itinerary.


Inside the Incredible Fatehpur Sikri Mosque


The first stop: Fatehpur Sikri, a mosque and palace built a few hundred years ago about an hour from Agra. While this place was undeniably beautiful, it was incredibly irritating to have literally dozens of people come up to us to try and get us to buy things, to give us a tour, or just give them money. Since we were being constantly harassed and especially since some of the girls were getting uncomfortable, we decided to leave after about 45 minutes to go check in at our hotel back in Agra.


Taj Mahal, and all of the crowds you don’t see in the postcards.

After freshening up, we went for the main purpose of our whole trip: to see the Taj Mahal. Our drivers found us a tour guide and a photographer – which really helped us get through all of the lines and crowds easily. I was a bit skeptical that coming all of this way would be worth it, but once we were on the grounds of Taj, I could see that it was all worth it. The whole complex really is a marvel of architecture. When you enter, the tomb looks like the far off postcard view – almost unreal. As you walk through the gardens and get closer, you realize that the long fountain and walkway you always see in pictures isn’t actually that long. Up close, you see the incredible details of the structure – it has stone inlays, unpainted carvings, and all sorts of pieces that you can never see from the photos. The inside wasn’t really that impressive – but thankfully as foreigners you get to skip the long lines to see it thanks to your “high-value” tickets that you didn’t have a choice but to get. We went at sunset, which made the stone and sky light up in different colors during our whole time there. Every angle you can view the structure from, it looks equally impressive and different. The Taj Mahal is a wonder of the world because its architecture plays with perspective in ways I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world – and to experience that you absolutely must be there in person.

The next day, we awoke bright and early to travel to Delhi via car. We would only have a few hours here, but the train back was booked through here for some reason so we had to go. Or so we though – only 4 of us got our train tickets confirmed, and after hours of heated back and forth with each other, the drivers, and our helper in Ahmedabad, the 4 others ended up on a bus back to Ahmedabad sadly. But, with nothing we could do to fix that and a few hours left, we had our drivers take us to Starbucks (which we don’t have in Ahmedabad) to decompress. It was really nice having a familiar experience of a mocha and lemon pound cake – it certainly helped boost the group morale. With a few hours to spare, we had our drivers take us on a whirl-wind tour of New Delhi. In 2 hours I got to see a massive Hindu temple, the seat of government and the Rajpath, the India Gate, the Red Fort, and more. Then it was off to the Old Delhi railway station in ridiculous traffic to catch our train home. While it was unfortunate we didn’t have more time to explore, the smog and pollution in Delhi was so ridiculously horrible that I think it was better for our health to leave so soon.


New Delhi is a city planned on a grand scale – and is also ridiculously smoggy.


The next morning, I woke up on the train and immediately went to class. I thought this was going to be horrible, but the train’s sleepers actually let you have a somewhat comfortable full night of sleep going to class was actually not a problem. I now know that trains are definitely the way to travel – if I ever have a chance to take a sleeper Amtrak train back in the US I definitely will.

Anyways, that’s the story of how in just 2 days I was able to travel over 2,000km and see two cities and another wonder of the world. Studying abroad really is crazy.


Our schedule here in India has been really difficult to get used to – partly because weekends here are only 1 day (Sunday) and partly because the city is a bit crazy due to local holidays. This week, we had class for 2 days, had a 3 day break for Diwali, and then tomorrow we go back for 2 days before the “weekend” of Sunday. I’m glad we had time off for the holiday though – I’ve spent it with my host family learning so much more about Indian culture than I could have ever figured out in a classroom.


The view from our window on Diwali – constant fireworks in the sky.

Firstly, I’ll define what Diwali actually is for those who don’t know – it’s a massive holiday celebrating the New Year and is also known as the Festival of Lights. There are a ton of traditions associated with this, and for school children it means 15 days off from school!

I guess I should also talk a bit about my host family before I explain what we did for the holiday. I’m living with 2 other guys from my program in a house where there were already 10 people. Our hosts are the Bankers, a couple in their mid-40s with their 13 year old son and 15 year old daughter, but on the second floor of the house is our host dad’s brother and his family and our host grandparents. Our host family is dalit, meaning they are of an ex-untouchable caste – but thanks to affirmative action policies our host grandfather was able to become a high ranking officer in the State Bank of India, so my family is also probably upper middle class.

The whole family gathered on the front porch Wednesday night to celebrate the coming of the new year with fireworks. For hours we set off firecracker after firecracker – which was a ton of fun! The unfortunate part of this was that every other family in the city was doing the same thing. By around 11:30pm, you could barely see across the street from all of the smoke, and when we finally got to sleep the constant noise of explosions made it really hard to get any sleep.


Our host mom lighting lamps on the front porch.

The next day, Thursday, we awoke to find the house decorated with intricate sand designs. Then the visiting started. I would describe this day as sort of like Trick-or-Treating meets Thanksgiving – each family has visiting hours of sorts where people from the neighborhood and family stop by to enjoy some sweets, tea, and conversation. We went with our host family to at least 7 or 8 houses on our street, respectfully eating a little something at each place and drinking a ton of tea.

It was good that we were so caffeinated by the end of the day, because at night we went to visit family in a different neighborhood. Our host family, as I said, is of a low caste – and as the rare exception who have moved up in social class, many of their family and friends lived in much different conditions in a neighborhood called Asarwa Chawl. A chawl is a type of settlement that the government calls a slum, but isn’t exactly informal – the houses have brick walls and have been there for decades, but the “streets” are more like a small network of random alleyways. The massive density means services like sewage or fire protection are incredibly difficult to provide. In the chawl, I think I had some of the most incredible hospitality I have ever received. With our host parents, me and one of my roommates went around to about a dozen different extended relatives using our host father as a translator.

While we got the tea and treats like we had received earlier that day, we also got a somewhat unexpected gift: money. The first time it happened, we were with a very elderly couple who lived in a two-room, somewhat open air home (which is common in this neighborhood). I felt really bad taking money from these people – although it was only 10 rupees, since I was this American who had flown all over the world and these people didn’t even have drinkable tap water, something about them offering me money just felt wrong. After being told it would be disrespectful to refuse, I took the money and repeated this uncomfortable process a few more times in other houses. Later on, in talking to my program’s country coordinator, I found out that it’s a tradition to hand money down by generation on Diwali as a form of gift giving. This explains all the money I saw being exchanged during the celebrations – our host mom would pay a younger adult some money when we entered their house, and then someone older than us would hand us money as a gift, and then if children were with us they got the money instead of us. We also saw plenty of other traditional aspects of culture that we probably wouldn’t have seen anywhere else during our time in Inida. For example, we saw how our host mother and other married women would cover their head and hide their face from the elder man of the household – even if they were having a conversation with one another.

Overall, the night was really just overwhelming. It was a lot to take in: thousands of years of cultural tradition manifesting itself; the inequality between these people, my host family, and myself; the massive amount of hospitality and joy shared with us by strangers we had never met and would likely never meet again; and the constant self-relfection on all of that the whole time. Needless to say, I was exhausted by the time we got back home.

It’s experiences like I had on Diwali that remind me why I chose to study abroad – and not do the traditional “party your way through Europe” route. In just a few hours I was able to learn so much more about a country’s culture, urban planning challenges, and hope for the future than I think I could get in a semester in the classroom.IMG_8053