Vietnam, week 2: Adventures galore

So I know I said the following posts in Vietnam would be more about classes and what we’re doing, but because every day I learn more and more about the culture here, there’s no way I can’t write about things I’ve picked up on in the past week. Here we go!

Supermarkets: I went to the supermarket here for a few items and had a really interesting experience. For one, they “check” your purse before going in, meaning they put it in a plastic bag and staple it shut, or they take it and put it in a locker, and you can retrieve it on the way out. Additionally, after you pay for your items, a security guard will check your receipt against the items in your grocery bag. I guess this is a way of ensuring that people don’t shoplift, though I’d be interested to see if that happens often.

The main reason I added this category was because of the experience I had while buying lotion. I barely brought any on this trip, but after very cold weather in New Orleans, I realized I needed to buy some as soon as possible. Nothing in the main supermarket was written in English, even though some items are by typical American brands like Vaseline, Colgate, etc. I eventually found the lotion section, but as I was browsing the different kinds, I realized that every single bottle was a skin-whitening cream. I know only a little bit about the skin-whitening “craze”, often in East Asian societies, for fairer skin to become more white. But it didn’t set in until I was in this store where it was listed on every single option. Needless to say, I ended up finding the last bottle of a typical American lotion, and spent more money that I should’ve, but I didn’t want to buy a product that would bleach my already pale skin.

Also, exploring food markets that are in a completely different language is actually hilarious. None of us know what anything is, so we all just try a bunch of different foods. You just have to roll with it.

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Beautiful fresh produce on the street (it’s everywhere).

Recycling (or lack thereof): – I haven’t seen one recycling bin since I’ve been here, which is very concerning, since many people drink bottled water and other beverages. I don’t see people using disposable bottles nearly as much as in the U.S., but recycling still should be available. However, what’s also interesting is that there are very few trashcans as well – they are often very difficult to find. At home, there’s never a problem finding a trashcan, and I think this reflects the consumer culture. I think people here generally have less trash since they’re buying very little packaged food, and fresh food is abundant and affordable.

No tipping: For the most part, people don’t tip here. In taxis, restaurants, etc., which is definitely a weird concept to get used to. Also, most of my cab rides have cost under $5, which is CRAAAAZY.

Hot water: you have to turn it on for your shower. It really makes me think about the energy that I’m using to prepare for and during the shower. It seems to be pretty prevalent in my friends’ homestays as well, along with the 2-button flush on toilets. The U.S. REALLY needs stuff like this in at least public places, in order to crack down on people who are needlessly wasting energy and resources.

Season clash: It’s winter in Vietnam, but it’s also in the 70s every day and very humid. Yet everyone here is wearing winter coats, scarves, hats, and jeans. My group strolls down the street wearing tshirts, shorts, skirts, and dresses, and we’re sweating up a storm because of the humidity. I know everything is relative, but really, winter coats when it’s 75º out?

P.S. The pictures of the snow at Wesleyan (and at home) are BEAUTIFUL and I’m sad to miss the snow days and sledding on Foss. Enjoy the beautiful snow emotions while they last (because the snow will last all semester hehehehe I’m glad to be in warm climates).

Classes/Activities/Academic things: We’ve had 8 classes so far (1 of each of our 4 classes each week) and countless guest lectures about various aspects of the health care system in Vietnam. It would be too much to describe each lecture, so here are the titles of the lectures and site visits (with a few descriptions) we’ve had:

Lectures

  • Overview/Introduction to Vietnam and its government
  • Vietnamese health care system
  • Epidemic transition & burden of disease
  • Language class (x4)
  • Globalization & risks to health in Vietnam
  • Environmental health problems and programs in Vietnam (major issues: lack of clean drinking water, waste management, air pollution/smog, food hygiene and safety)
  • Tobacco control in Vietnam – the smoking prevalence here is RIDICULOUS. Something like 1 out of every 2 men smoke (not many women do), which only worsens the smog situation here.
  • Disability & the national response in Vietnam
  • Agent Orange – very very interesting – I know my parents’ generation knows much more about this than I do, but since the Vietnam War was the war we discussed least in high school, I didn’t know much about it upon arriving in Vietnam. Learning about the health effects of Agent Orange, the main herbicide and defoliant used by the US military in the war, was appalling – the Vietnamese citizens that were exposed to it suffered greatly with multiple health problems, and the offspring of those citizens are still affected to this day. AO also affected soil and water, so it contaminated the vegetables and fish that people relied upon to live. I saw pictures and video footage of children and grandchildren who have severe health problems, including various birth defects and mental disabilities, extra fingers and toes, and other awful things. This is just the tip of the iceberg on AO, but it’s very important to know about in terms of current public health effects on the Vietnamese and the offspring of veterans in the U.S.
  • Application of Accupressure (type of massage) – Traditional Medicine in Vietnam

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    Vietnam National History Museum

Site visits:

  • Vietnam National History Museum
  • Thanh Xuan Peace Village – essentially a rehabilitation center for children affected by various disabilities, often stemming from the effects of Agent Orange. They aim to promote peace about the topic of Agent Orange and work with children ages 2-20 so they can become well enough to have a job and live on their own. Unfortunately, I think a lot of what they do got lost in translation while we were there, since we had to use a translator.
  • Department of Traditional Medicine at Hanoi Medical University (the university at which our
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    Herbs on herbs on herbs

    classroom is based) – this was freakin AWESOME. They do a lot of different treatments to reduce pain and tension in the body, specifically acupuncture, massage, and herbs. This was a very interactive visit, so a lot of my friends got to test all of these treatments (and I got my first massage…5 minutes, but still worth it), which definitely made it a lot more fun.

First weekend in Vietnam: This was a much-needed weekend after a week starting with 43 hours of travel, followed by 4 packed days of classes, lectures, and navigating the city of Hanoi on our own. I spent all of Saturday in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, which is an (often touristy) area by the beautiful Hoàn Kiếm LakeDCIM100GOPROGOPR0940.. My friends Steph, Sophie, Mariam and I spent 2 hours at a rooftop café with an incredible view of the lake. We all had “moments” while we were up there of alllll the feelings about being abroad and privilege and college and friendship. All in all, it was wonderful. We spent the rest of the day walking all over, eating (when in Hanoi…), and discovering cool nooks and crannies in the city.

On Sunday, the four of us, plus our friends Adrianna and Hannah, traveled to the Bat Trang Ceramic Village just outside of Hanoi. We got to see a crazy amount of teapots, teacups, bowls, chopsticks, and everything else you can imagine in every pattern you can think of. We also got to make our own pottery on pottery wheels, which was a lot of fun, though we didn’t take it home (probably for the best).

General update: every day is still an adventure. I’m loving every new experience and every friendship and IMG_4361every time my host mom asks (through my host sister) more about my life. She already told me that I use chopsticks well, which makes me warm and fuzzy inside because my host mom is the CUTEST. Speaking of cute, so is my 5-year-old host brother – he discovered my roommate’s GoPro during my host mom’s birthday dinner the other night and decided to look at it like this.

While every day is still very exciting, every time I’m stuck in a language rut and don’t know how to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak English (aka every other minute), I unintentionally start speaking Spanish. I’ve told my host mom “Sí sí!” and “Como se dice…” multiple times, and even more with street vendors when I have no clue how to ask for something I want after already saying “no meat” and “only vegetables” and “tofu” in Vietnamese. It just makes me even more impressed with everyone I’ve met here who speaks both Vietnamese and English (I’ve spoken with a lot of students my age), because they are such different languages in terms of the tone and inflection, and I can’t even imagine trying to become fluent in Vietnamese.

This weekend, everyone on my program is traveling to the scenic Halong Bay, where we’ll stay on a boat, kayak in bright blue waters, and hopefully explore some caves, among other activities. Hopefully the next blog post will be more exciting than this one. I can’t wait for more adventures! Have a wonderful weekend!

P.S. Wanna see what an IHP group looks like when walking around? Or worse, crossing any street in Vietnam?? This is exactly what we look like. You’re welcome.

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43 hours later: Vietnam, week 1

Xin chào from the other side of the world! I am here in Vietnam, where the temperatures are in the 70s and it’s sunny all the time…kinda (but I’ll get to that later). I’ve only been here for 4.5 days, but I already have so much to say. Because of that, I’m thinking this first post will be about big things that I’ve noticed, and the next few will be more specific about what we’re doing here. Every day I’m here I come up with more things I want to write down, because there is so much going on here that is so different from my daily life. Here we go!

How we got here: Our journey from the U.S. to Vietnam was 43 hours long, door to door. Quick rundown on the 4 flights we took:

  • NOLA to JFK (NYC) on Saturday morning (2.5 hours) – we had a 7 hour layover, though by the time we got off the plane, got our bags, switched terminals, and put all the bags down, we only had about 3 hours before we had to check in and go through security again. This was when my mom met me in the airport!
  • JFK to Frankfurt, Germany (6.5 hours) – though we didn’t change planes in Frankfurt, IMG_4151we still had about an hour to roam around the airport. A bunch of us bought beer and pretzels to soak up as much of Germany as we could while we were there (and maybe make ourselves a bit drowsy for the next flight).
  • Frankfurt to Singapore (11 hours) – After landing in Singapore, we had about an hour to roam around this airport as well, and let me tell you, it is NICE. Huge flower arrangements and koi ponds and life size teapots. I’ve also heard that there’s a pool, so I will definitely be checking that out when we fly through there again on the way to South Africa.
  • Singapore to Hanoi, Vietnam (3 hours) – at this point, we were all so antsy to stop flying. All of our other flights were very smooth, so naturally our last one was very turbulent. But we all cheered and clapped when we landed safely in Hanoi, not only excited to be able to move, but to finally be rid of airplane food.

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    Katie’s snapchat when we finally landed in Vietnam!

I slept maybe 3 hours during this 43-hour journey (I think I’m just bad at sleeping in things that aren’t beds, even if they’re super nice Singapore Airlines seats), but of course I fell asleep as soon as we got on the bus to take us to our hotel. I slept 11.5 hours that night, which was much needed before we began our usual 9-5 schedules the next day.

Homestay: For most of the time in each country, we’re staying in homestays. Everyone is paired up with a different member of our group for each homestay, which is really nice so we don’t have to do it alone, and we get a different partner in each country. In Vietnam, the homestay families live all over the city, so we have to walk or take a bus (or both) varying distances to get to our classroom, which is at Hanoi Medical University. My roommate, Mariam, and I happen to live closer than anyone – we’re a 5-minute walk from class. It’s definitely nice to be so close, but I also wish our group lived closer together so we could hang out easily outside of class without making a significant commute.

My homestay family is a mom, dad, daughter (19), daughter (17), and son (5). However, I still haven’t met the dad, and I’ve only met the younger daughter briefly, because they both come back late from work and school, respectively. Only the two daughters speak English, which is definitely something weird to get used to. At breakfast and dinner (the two meals we eat with them), I can only speak with one person, so conversation can lag a bit. I just want them to take us out on the weekends and show us around Hanoi – I know other people’s host families are doing that, and I think it would be a really fun way to see the city, with people who live there. However, I know that we all were placed with different families who will do different things, so I’m trying to keep the mindset of being grateful for the experiences they are giving me, not the ones they aren’t.

Food: FOOOOD! In general, it is MUCH healthier here than in the U.S., in terms of the huge presence of fresh food and lack of processed, which is probably why there is no evident obesity. Everyone I’ve seen happens to be very thin. Pho (pronounced “fuh”), one of the most popular foods, is broth with rice noodles, green vegetables (typically scallions), and meat (which I obviously leave out of my order, though it’s tough when trying to convey that in Vietnamese). Pho is eaten all around the clock, often for both breakfast and lunch. Though I don’t like the ratio of noodles to vegetables (I would prefer many more vegetables in it), it is so different than mainstream American food. American meals are focused around meat and other animal products, which is why heart disease, diabetes, and other cardiovascular diseases are so common and are our #1 killers. I am interested in seeing the incidences of the aforementioned diseases and cholesterol levels in Vietnam; I can imagine they are much lower than in the U.S.

IMG_4217My host mom has been fantastic about cooking vegetarian meals. She makes a variety of dishes, including some meat, but everything is separate. There’s always a green vegetable (last night was one called morning glory), tofu, white rice (I miss the brown at home), a light broth, and a few other things (like spring rolls or cool mushrooms). While it’s pretty healthy, there still is a heavy emphasis on noodles and rice, and less on vegetables. There’s some at every meal (including breakfast), but not as much as I’d like. Actually, one of our guest lecturers, who was talking about public health in Vietnam, mentioned that one of the health problems associating with obesity is a low consumption of fruits and vegetables. A national survey from 2010 stated that 80.4% of Vietnamese people ate fewer than 5 servings of fruits/vegetables per day (exponentially lower than the Norr-Metz household), so this is another topic about which I want to learn more.

Traffic: If you think Montgomery Avenue and the Schuylkill Expressway have bad traffic, you would be blown away at what it is like in Vietnam. Motorbikes are the main form of transportation here; many people also ride the bus, but only a few own cars. My host family, and many others hosting IHP students, lives in an alley off a main road, so even if they had a car, there wouldn’t be space to park it. We’ve taken a few taxis when going across the city, and I honestly just feel bad for the drivers who have to make their way in a sea of motorbikes, cars, and bikes. Not only are there thousands of travelers on the roads at one time, but crosswalks aren’t reIMG_4407ally a thing, which makes crossing the street pretty terrifying (and sometimes exhilarating – it’s like a life-size game of Frogger). No one stops for you – you just have to weave in and out of vehicles until you get across the street. In general, we’ve learned to keep moving forward (never back, because the drivers don’t expect it), and get out of the way of cars (who won’t swerve to avoid hitting you), and you should be able to get across. I already know that my mom is probably breaking into a sweat right now reading this (I would absolutely not want to cross the street here with her…sorry Mom), but most of us have been doing well, though I don’t think it’s something I’ll ever get used to. However, I have made sure to walk carefully on the inside of the sidewalk when I’m walking against traffic, because everyone on the program is already getting a lot of stares, and the last thing I want is a driver to get distracted by looking at me and subsequently drive onto the sidewalk.

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Hoàn Kiếm Lake on a sunny day, but the smog completely covers the sky.

Smog: Breathing. It’s a thing we all do and want to keep doing. But the smog here is LEGIT, and I felt it the minute I got out of the airport. Though most days are around 70º and sunny (sorry not sorry to everyone on the east coast right now), I’ve only seen a blue sky once, because the smog completely blocks it. Many people wear masks (especially on motorbikes), and a lot of us are considering getting them as well. Some of the smog is definitely because of the congestion of so many motorbikes/vehicles in a small area, but I’ve also heard that people here burn a lot of coal instead of fossil fuels, which would make the smog worse. I definitely want to learn more about this over the next 3 weeks here.

Money: There are around 21,000 Dong to $1 USD, which makes the conversion rate a bit difficult to get used to, but almost everything is significantly cheaper than the U.S…just wait until you read this. A bowl of pho has cost me as low as 25,000 Dong (just a little more than a dollar), and my lunch most days has cost around 15,000 Dong! A 25-minute taxi ride costs about 100,000….which is $5. I’m beginning to think that our stipend for the first 10 days (788,000 Dong = about $37) is going to last me for a while, and I may not even have to withdraw my own cash at all.

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Vietnamese language lesson!

Language barrier & vulnerability: Before this trip, I’d traveled abroad to 2 other countries, and I could always find someone who spoke English if I couldn’t get by on my own; Vietnam is a completely different story. Even though I can be independent and have a good sense of direction, if I get lost here, I have absolutely no way of getting help from anyone if they don’t speak English. Hand gestures only get you so far, and my few words about food won’t help me. Thankfully, we had our first language lesson yesterday, and I’m slowly picking up on common phrases. I now know how to say these few, and I have other useful ones written down:

  • Hello = Xin chào (pronounced “sin chow”)
  • I’m sorry = Xin lỗi (“sin loi”)
  • My name is Rachael = Tên tôi là Rachael
  • What is your name? = Tên bạn là gì? (“ten ba la zee”)
  • Pho with no meat = Pho chay (“fuh chai”)
  • This food is delicious = Thực ăn ngon (“tuc a non”)
  • How much? = Bao nhiêu? (“bow new”)

While it’s difficult, the language barrier makes every day an adventure. I haven’t met anyone who speaks English while buying food, and so far I’ve managed to get by, but it’s really hard. It also makes me feel extremely vulnerable, which leads into the topic of being a minority for the first time. As a straight, white, American young woman with a lot of privilege, I have never really felt like the minority in any place I’ve been. But across the world in Vietnam, I stand out completely. People call out to me on the street – mostly in Vietnamese, though some of them say “hello” (including children) – and this is really difficult, because I have absolutely no clue what they are saying. I don’t know if it’s friendly, jeering, or suggestive, and the only thing I can do is continue to walk.

My group recently has talked a lot about this, and it’s really difficult being in a position where people can (but don’t necessarily) take advantage of you. When we try to pay for something, we don’t know if someone’s overcharging us, nor do we have a way of reacting or compromising if they are. Walking down the street attracts stares, chatter, and picture-taking, and in some of my friends’ cases, touching that is completely uncalled for. This is mostly with the black women in my group, and locals haven’t been shy about touching their hair and bodies from behind, without asking. If this happened at home in the U.S., we would be able to ask the person why they’re doing it and/or tell them off. But here it’s hard to reconcile because not only can we not defend ourselves, but we don’t know why they’re doing it. However, I don’t think these actions of staring or picture-taking are out of malice, but out of curiosity. Most people here haven’t seen African Americans before, and as someone’s host brother told them, most people in Vietnam don’t ever travel out of the country, so us being here gives them an experience of diversity. As Jordin said about a black woman in his chemistry lab who was with him in China, she was like a unicorn there: something they had always heard about, but never thought they’d see in real life; that’s the same for the black women in my group. Throughout our 4 weeks here, we’re going to feel uncomfortable in many different aspects, and people are going to stare at us the whole time – but that’s part of the learning experience. Will I spend most of my life being a minority? Probably not. But a semester-long experience of being a minority is already teaching me a lot about my privilege in this world and my opportunities to change it.

*I forgot to mention in my first post, but please feel free to contact me via iMessage/Whatsapp/Viber/Facebook message/email/probably not carrier pigeon because of the smog! There’s a 12 hour time difference, but I love to get messages so send away :)  Have a great weekend!!

Second week in NOLA, next stop: Vietnam!

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THANK YOU MOM! Homemade vegan heaven.

Right now I’m sitting (well, standing) in the JFK airport, waiting for our evening flight to Vietnam!! My lovely mother was so nice and came to the airport to visit with me for 3 hours in between flights. If you know her, you know that she wouldn’t miss this opportunity to see me when I’m a few hours from home before flying across the world. She also brought me the last bit of fresh fruit and vegetables that I’ll have for 4 months…I may or may not have teared up a bit as I finished my lettuce, kale, and quinoa (all of it “dressed” to the nines, of course).

This week was just as busy as our first week in NOLA. We had 2 classes, 3 site visits, 2 guest lectures, and various other activities which kept our days busy from 8:30-5pm (if not later). I’m exhauuuuusted. Let’s hope I sleep on the next few flights to Vietnam, because I’ll be traveling from 8:30pm tonight (Saturday, Jan. 17th) and arriving in Hanoi around noon on Monday, Jan. 19th. Even taking the time difference into consideration (Vietnam is 12 hours ahead of EST), I’ll be traveling for about 24 hours. I’ve heard Singapore airlines have great movies, so it looks like I’ll be switching between watching those and reading Wild.

This past weekend, there were no mandatory group activities, so our group split up and went to a variety of different museums and attractions in New Orleans. One of the places I visited was the National World War II museum, which is walking distance from our hostel. This museum was fantastic – it brought back much of what I learned in IB history in high school, and reminded me how much I enjoy learning about it. Something that always fascinates me in museums is the architecture and layout, and how it significantly contributes to your experience. This museum was laid out in chronological order of all of the documented events from WWII, and the aesthetics were incredible. One of the rooms was filled with trees and snow to depict the environment during one of the battles, and even the temperature in the room was colder. It was great (though that room didn’t help my body temperature…I’m still defrosting from last week).

On Monday (Jan. 12), we had our first Globalization and Health class, a guest panel speak about their work in HIV/AIDS in NOLA, and we traveled to the Lower 9th ward, a particularly impoverished area of the city that was hit extremely hard by Hurricane Katrina. The speakers were very detailed and informative in their descriptions of HIV/AIDS, and I learned a lot about HIV as a disease and its prevalence in New Orleans (I was surprised to learn that NOLA has one of the highest HIV rates in the country). Their organizations try to “normalize” HIV by offering free or low-cost testing in a variety of areas, including bars. Throughout this week, I’ve been seeing signs promoting HIV testing in drugstores and food markets, which I think is great in terms of getting the word out that testing is simple but necessary.

On Tuesday, we traveled to an organization called Market Umbrella for the Crescent City Farmer’s Market, which is a farmer’s market with a variety of products from local farmers and sellers. There was a ton of very colorful produceIMG_4098_2, bread, jams & jellies, pesto, sauce, meat & dairy, and my favorite, Mediterranean food (I dug into those hummus and lentil samples immediately). As someone who is very outspoken for my love of fruits and vegetables, I love farmer’s markets, but I really enjoyed this one because of their focus on food access and insecurity, especially as areas of New Orleans are food deserts. The market is open 4 times per week, but each one is in a different area of the city, and they’re all open at different times. They do this so everyone has the ability to go to the market when it’s not too far from their home, and the hours vary from the morning to late afternoon and evening, to accommodate for different work schedules. Something they said that really stuck with me was this: “When markets are doing their best work, they’re drawing from all different ages, races, socioeconomic statuses, and all walks of life.”

Another awesome thing that Market Umbrella does is accept EBT cards and SNAP (the relatively new acronym for food stamps) benefits. Unfortunately, there’s a stigma around food stamps that may hinder people from using them in a more public setting, so the market gives out wooden tokens, ranging from $1 to $5 (after paying through EBT or credit card), to anyone entering the market. That way, everyone uses the tokens and no one is looked at differently for using EBT/SNAP.

Market Umbrella also participates in a Farmer’s Market Prescription Program through Blue Cross Blue Shield, which promotes food as preventative medicine. I am a huge proponent of this (check out the fantastic documentary Forks Over Knives, which is based on research from The China Study; you can also look into Dr. Neal Barnard’s work with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)! This program gives people prescriptions for fruits and vegetables that they can have “filled” at one of the farmer’s markets. I firmly believe that we can use food, particularly a whole foods plant-based diet, instead of medicine, and the research proves it (check out the links I posted a few lines above). Not only would we be saving our bodies in all aspects, but the national health care bill, the incidences of major chronic diseases (heart disease, diabetes, and other cardiovascular diseases), and climate change would all drop markedly, and we wouldn’t be responsible for the mass murder of 10 billion animals every year. I’m not saying that everyone needs to go vegan, nor do I think that is realistic, but a change in this direction would significantly change each person’s health as well as the health and survival of this planet. I know this is not an easy task, since fresh produce isn’t available to most people based on geography and price. Much of this stems from government subsidies on wheat and corn, which are the primary ingredients of many unhealthy foods. But to the people who have the ability to buy healthy food: YOU have the ability to change the world EVERY DAY, 3 times a day (or however many times you eat). We vote with our dollars always, and the choice to buy fruits, vegetables and quinoa/lentils/brown rice/farro/tofu/tempeh/beans/nuts/the list goes on instead of a hamburger or chicken makes an unbelievable difference by not supporting the factory farming industry that is literally killing the people, plants, and animals on this planet. This is precisely why I want to go into public health: I want everyone to have equal access to food that will save us and halt global crises in their tracks.

Final note on this: If you’re interested in any of these issues, I would love to talk with you about them! I’m also extending an official invitation to anyone reading this to come to my house in Philadelphia and eat the incredible food that my family makes. I know I’m spoiled to have parents that are such amazing and adventurous cooks, but we love sharing meals and ideas (and homemade bread…if you’ve had it, you understand). They would love to have company while I’m away (especially poor little Mel, all alone with no siblings constantly pestering her).

Most nights at the hostel, we’ve been playing a game called Hot Seat. One designated person sits in a chair and the rest of us can ask them any question we want (though they’re allowed to decline if they want). While you may immediately assume that we only ask inappropriate questions, like how many times they’ve locked their little sister outside on purpose or something crazy like that (oops, not sorry bout it), it actually gets really deep, and is a great way to get to know someone. The questions usually are about their family, where they’ve traveled, tough things they’ve been through, things like that. My favorite question that is asked of everyone is if they had to conjure a patronus, what memory would they think of and what would the patronus be? (If you don’t recognize this, please go read the entire Harry Potter series and thank me later.) We’ve also put some of our staff in the hot seat, especially in the last few days, as we left 3 people in New Orleans who aren’t traveling with us. It’s definitely something I look forward to every night.

I mentioned in the previous post that everyone was assigned to a case study group for the semester, and my topic is Environment and Health. The other topics are food and nutrition (this was my first choice), mental health, infectious disease, maternal and child health, and traditional healing systems. “Case Study Day” was on Wednesday, and each group left to go meet with members of different NGOs and organizations across New Orleans. My group met with 2 members from Groundwork NOLA, an organization committed to working with underserved communities to improve the physical environment for an improved quality of life. Their main focus is water, which makes sense because of the tremendous flooding that occurred after Hurricane Katrina. Groundwork has a variety of programs and projects within the community, one of which is the building and maintenance of 8 rain gardens. These gardens look like regular flowerbeds outside shops, but they are designed to retain water during rainstorms to prevent runoff from going through the sewer system into the nearby Lake Pontchartrain, which ultimately improves the lake water quality. Ground also has a youth job-training program, which involves high school students in ecological landscaping and maintenance (specifically on the rain gardens), soil and water quality testing (specifically for lead), and GIS mapping to identify community hazards, among many other projects. The members are also paid, which puts a value on their work and the importance of improving the environment. I think this program is a fantastic way to get New Orleans youth to become interested in their local and global environments, as well as build their skillsets for jobs in the future.

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All 34 of us on the streetcar in New Orleans…we take up a LOT of space.

Last part, I promise! To close up our time in New Orleans and get ready to go abroad, we had a bunch of sessions designed to synthesize what we’ve learned in these past 2 weeks and how we’ll deal with the same (and new) issues abroad. This included topics like cultural immersion, specifically leaving a country before feeling like you really get to know it. This is a wild understatement for what we actually discussed, but it was a mindblowing conversation that really got me thinking. I want to try and stay in the present moment for this entire trip, and appreciate and learn from everything that comes my way. We also discussed cultural exploitation, which was prompted by one of our speakers in the Lower 9th Ward, an area of New Orleans that was hit hard by Katrina, and it also is very racially segregated due to the history of the canal that separates it from other neighborhoods. This man talked about people coming through the neighborhood in tour busses with cameras, ready to take pictures of “poor people” and their hard lives. Since I’m in a group of 36 people, there is no way we can’t look touristy while traveling. The airport this morning was a sight to see – we are now THOSE people, for 4 months. Anyway, my group talked about balancing giving and taking on this trip, and that we’re only going to get as much out of it as we give. We have to be open and flexible, and know that we are shaped by what we see around us. I feel like this paragraph just got super philosophical (and the conversation did), but sometimes it’s easy to stray from that thought. It’s definitely something I want to focus on throughout this journey.

To close: I had an amazing time in New Orleans – it’s an incredible city with so much history, and everyone I met was so happy to be there. I hope to return someday (hopefully for Mardi Gras), but for now, my group is moving onwards to our next destination. I am so excited to travel the world with this group. Everyone is so smart, friendly, interesting, and passionate, and I still can’t believe I have this opportunity. Next up: VIETNAM!

New Orleans: the city full of life, history, colors, and BEADS

Here is the first real post of my trip! The program has kept us extremely busy (our days are typically 8:30am-5pm), so this is the first bit of free time I’ve had to organize my thoughts and make sure this post is just detailed enough to hold your attention for a few minutes.

A few key terms before I begin (sorry for the formality):

  • IHP stands for International Honors Program. While the big study abroad company that runs my program is called SIT, IHP is how SIT distinguishes its multi-site, comparative programs. There are a few different multi-site programs run each semester, with different themes and countries, but I’ll be referring to my program in this blog as just IHP.
  • NOLA = New Orleans, Louisiana. I actually only realized this meaning a month or so ago – all this time I thought people talking about NOLA were just referring to Tulane with a different name…oops. But Jordin just told me he didn’t know what it meant either, so clearly I’m not the only one.

The first day of my trip was extremely eventful, even though the only plan on my agenda was to travel to New Orleans for the beginning of the program. I got to the airport at 8:30am for my 10am flight. 5 hours later, I was still sitting (well, standing, if you know my typical habits) in the airport. After multiple delays, switching flights, a flight cancellation, another flight switch, and sprinting across the Philadelphia airport twice, my plane finally took off for New Orleans at 3pm. I thought I was finally on my way, until the captain announced at 5pm that we had to stop in Jackson, Mississippi, to get some more fuel……people on the plane were frustrated, to say the least. We finally touched down in New Orleans around 7pm, and I got my bag and got in a cab right away. I got to the hostel in which my group is staying in New Orleans around 8pm, and walked with someone from IHP (the program I’m on) to the separate building with the rest of the group. As soon as I walked through the door, I got a round of applause. Even though I got there 6 hours late, I was soooo happy to finally be finished traveling…until I would fly again 2 weeks later (now in 1 week!).

The hostel is located near the French Quarter of New Orleans, which is the city’s oldest neighborhood. We’re near a lot of different types of restaurants and antique shops, and it’s also very easy to get public transportation to go anywhere else. The nearby food is very vegan friendly and also very varied in cuisine (Ethiopian food…mmm). The hostel is walking distance from many of the surrounding areas, and many of us have been going on runs to see the city, mostly to the nearby French Quarter.

A little bit of info on the program specifics: This semester, the program consists of 34 students (30 girls, 4 boys…what a ratio) and 2 traveling staff members, one of whom is faculty and will teach 2 of our of our classes, and the other is a trustees fellow who oversees and spends a lot of time with us, the students. In each country (including during our stay in New Orleans), there is a country coordinator, who organizes our fieldwork and visits during our stay, and local faculty, who teach a few classes with regard to relevant public health issues in that country.

Unlike typical study abroad programs, where you spend the semester in one country taking classes at a local university and exploring the rest of the time, IHP has our schedules PACKED. We’re taking 4 classes this semester: Globalization and Health; Health, Culture, and Community; Public Health: From Biology to Policy; and, Community Health Research Methods. However, these classes aren’t typical in terms of the coursework. While we do spend time in class each week, most of the curriculum is through fieldwork in each country. For instance, the only project in our Research Methods class is a semester-long case study, which will grow with our experiences in each country and submitting assignments along the way. My case study topic is Environment and Health, which is already a key interest of mine, though my knowledge of it is more on a national level.

This week we had our first “Jigsaw” session in response to the readings we did prior to arriving. A Jigsaw is a discussion of readings or experiences, where we’re split into groups and each group discusses the topic (e.g. 1 of the 6 required readings). After a certain amount of discussion time (we had 45 minutes), we divide into new groups, with 1 person from each readings going to a different group. That way, each new group has at least 1 member representing each separate reading, and we can discuss major themes and ideas that thread through each one. So far, we’ve done 2 jigsaws on different experiences we’ve had in New Orleans, and I really like that it allows us to hear so many different perspectives of one topic.

We’ve had a few guest lecturers come to speak to us this week, including a friend of the New Orleans country coordinator, a woman named Robin who is working in Louisiana’s state department of public health, and she’s specifically interested in housing security. This talk was titled “Environmental Justice”, and though it definitely included aspects of the environment, it was not the focus. She stressed the term “collective impact” (as opposed to “singular impact”), in that it is the way you should effect change: from all sides. By using a singular impact, or by focusing on one side of a problem, you can’t necessarily create effective change. But using collective impact allows you to focus on all of the main points around an issue and create lasting change, as those variables are unified under one collective vision. Robin discussed her work in Maternal and Child Health, specifically around the low birth weight (LBW) of babies. The average percentage of babies in NOLA born with LBW is 13%, but in some areas of the city, the percentage is as high as 22%. She started working with Best Babies Zone, a project hoping to change the variables related to LBW by changing variables that are economic, environmental, educational, etc. Through her research in this field, she found that it was less healthy to be housing insecure than to be housing secure OR homeless. Essentially, it is significantly more stressful to be unsure of your housing situation and everything that comes along with it than it is to not have a home at all. Robin finished this part of her talk by saying, “Poverty is a downward vector that forces down the quality of life forever, and for succeeding generations”. This last bit isn’t new to me because of my work at the Center for Hunger-Free Communities this summer, when I was doing on-the-ground work in the Philadelphia welfare offices, working with women struggling to get out of poverty and become more financially stable. The vicious cycle of poverty is real, and the stress that comes along with it significantly contributes to the intergenerational spread of food insecurity, impacted child development, and much more. Hearing about this situation in a city outside of my own makes it all the more real for me, and spurs my interest even more in the food insecurity/hunger/nutrition/poverty area of public health.

General things I’ve noticed about New Orleans that are important/interesting/cool/sometimes touristy:

  • Beignets – a popular dessert (or breakfast? All day? Probably.) here, especially for tourists. It’s basically deep fried dough with powdered sugar on top. I think it’s the equivalent of the doughnut in every other city.
  • Pralines – another big sweet. There are stores in all areas that possibly contain tourists.
  • Streetcar for transportation – the prevalence of personal cars here is less than in many other cities (like Philly), but people travel on the streetcar, which is an old trolley that goes in a few loops around different areas of the city. It’s definitely not something I’m used to, but I like that it encourages using public transportation for decently short distances, as opposed to taking a personal car.
  • Live music (especially jazz) is everywhere – walking down streets in the French Quarter, you can hear dozens of different bands and artists playing music at any time of day or night. Brass bands playing in the street, singers performing in pubs – it never ends and I LOVE IT. The talent here is incredible, and checking out different pubs and dance clubs is so much more exciting because they’re performing music to which I actually want to dance and listen. The music in one club can range from older songs (“Brick House”) to songs by new artists (Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”) – all performed by the same band. I love the versatility!
  • Bourbon Street – This is a major street at the very beginning of the French Quarter, filled (almost entirely) with bars and strip clubs. It’s a very different atmosphere from anywhere I’ve ever been, with people advertising for their bars out on the street, with signs and/or strippers to help them. You can also walk around with an open container and not be questioned.
  • Bead necklaces – Beads are here, beads are there, there are beads EVERYWHERE. Beads are
    IMG_4075

    Beads on an electric wire, hanging over one of the most popular streets in NOLA: Bourbon St.

    hung over tree branches, telephone poles, electrical wires, streetlights, balconies, and anywhere and everywhere else you can imagine. Oh, also around the necks of everyone walking along Bourbon Street. Fun fact: sometimes people will crowd onto the balconies above bars and shout at girls IMG_4288walking by on the street to flash them (them = 50+ people). If the girl flashes the people, the people will throw her a string of beads as a keepsake. (Mom, don’t worry, I walked right by with only a wink.)

Non-material, important aspects of NOLA:

  • Everything is divided into pre- and post-Katrina – Almost everyone with whom I’ve interacted in New Orleans lived here when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. This event absolutely shook this city, literally and figuratively. Besides the catastrophic physical damage, it has affected the memories of residents, even until this day. Sometimes I’ll be talking to someone who is telling me about their life here, and they’ll start explaining something but stop in the middle after realizing they’re describing that part of their life before Katrina hit. It was a huge event here, and I definitely want to learn more about its effects, especially in relation to healthcare.
  • New Orleans pride – the residents of the city are also die-hard fans of it, especially with the shared experience of surviving Hurricane Katrina almost 10 years ago. While many big cities often pull back people who grew up there, it seems like no one wants to leave New Orleans. People are really proud that they were born and raised here, and I think the city pride really makes it so different in the first place.

General life updates:

  • It is MAD cold here, much colder than I thought it would be. So my everyday outfit is a long sleeve shirt, a thicker sweater, a blue fleece, gloves, and a scarf tied around my face. And I’m STILL FREEZING. In addition, the hostel’s heat doesn’t work so well. (Side note: since I packed light for this trip and only have limited room in my suitcase, these are basically my only clothes so I wear the same thing every day. Luckily, everyone else is doing the same thing, so no one person smells any more than the next.) Usually, I’m all about wearing lots of layers, including a sweatshirt and big sweatpants, when I’m at home or school, but the only problem is that I don’t have them here! I packed as lightly as I could for countries that are supposed to be on the warmer side, the lowest temperatures in the 50s. But New Orleans surprised us all. All I want is my fuzzy Wesleyan sweatshirt, the huge bar mitzvah sweatpants that Mel gave me because they literally fit her like a bathrobe (if you know what this child looks like, you’ll know this is true), and a thick pair of socks. Sadly, I have none of this here. More updates to come when I defrost.
  • The hostel with my group is basically like a small house, and each of the several bedrooms have room for 2-8 people (bunk bed style, of course). The hostel is actually really nice, with a decent-sized kitchen with lots of supplies. However, there are only 2 bathrooms…for 34 students and 1 trustees fellow (he’s 25 and works for the program, but he goes back and forth from being more of an authority figure to going out with us and having a crazy time. He rocks.) living here. The house has gotten a tad grimy in the past week, and we saw a mouse the other day…cool.
  • I miss my cats. The snapchats from home are simultaneously painful and happy to watch. But on the bright side, 3 other girls and I have formed the Kitty Committee to demonstrate how much we love and miss our cats. More to come on our progress throughout the semester.
IMG_4055

French Quarter of NOLA

To sum up my first week in New Orleans: it is an extremely unique city and I am so happy to be here. As a local told me the other day, it’s the only city in the United States that is like another country. The architecture, the cuisine, the starkly different neighborhoods, the traditions of the city and its residents, and so many other characteristics make New Orleans fantastically different and distinct. I’m excited for more exploration and discoveries in our second week here before I head to Vietnam on the 17th!

P.S. I apologize for the extreme length of this post. I hope you enjoyed your coffee and good food that I miss oh so much while reading it.

The Adventure Begins!

Hello / Xin chào / Hallo / ¡Hola!

These are the (minimum) 4 languages I will encounter on the study abroad journey on which I am about to embark. Tomorrow, I will be beginning the adventure of a lifetime. I will travel and study public health in four different countries on four different continents over the next four months.

When I first found out about this program (link attached), I thought it sounded incredible. Though deciding to do it took a lot of discussion and questioning with many friends and family members this past summer, I am so excited to begin this adventure. It has taken a lot of planning, packing, and vaccines to get this far, and now it’s already time to ship (well, fly) off! I’ll be in New Orleans, Louisiana, for the first 2 weeks before we fly out of the USA. Then, we’ll head to Hanoi, Vietnam (4 weeks), Bushbuckridge, South Africa (5 weeks), and Buenos Aires, Argentina (5 weeks).

As someone who has not traveled much internationally, I know this will be a very different experience from what I’m used to. I tend to think of myself as someone who doesn’t like change, and I never have. The thought of moving houses or replacing old things with new terrifies me (I’m pretty sure I was upset when my mom switched soymilk brands). But I signed up for this program for many reasons, knowing that it will be a semester of change. Going abroad is supposed to be thrilling, challenging, uncomfortable, and most of all, rewarding, and I can only hope this semester brings all of those feelings. For any TSwift fans out there, I’m currently feeling happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time. For anyone else, you should listen to Taylor Swift sometime.

Please follow and add your email to this blog if you want email updates each time I post (don’t worry, it won’t be frequent enough to spam you). Philadelphia, Wesleyan, and everyone in between, see you in May after this incredible adventure!

P.S. This pictures shows most of the medication I’ll be taking on this trip, just in case. RIP extra space in my suitcase.

meds