Ser vs Estar: to be or not to be in Spain, that is the question

No, this is not going to be a blog post dedicated to explaining the seemingly impossible grammatical rule of when to use ser versus estar. Their similar translation but very different meaning best encapsulates my pre-leaving feeling.

For the non-hispanohablantes (me, until the end of this semester), both verbs mean: to be. A chief difference (although any introductory Spanish class will explain that there are many) is that ser is used for generally accepted permanent adjectives. For example, I would Soy simpatico to mean that I am a generally nice person. Estar is used to mean a specific instance or state of being. For example, to say that I am sick at the moment then I would say Estoy enfermero.

My feelings at this moment are sad. I am currently in a state of being that is sorrowful over all the things that I will miss: friends, family, and my dog. Of course, fomo is real and every party, club, and activity that I am going to miss at Georgetown seems like a net negative in the aggregate.

However, I am also in a state of being of excitement. There are a lot of really awesome opportunities waiting for me in Spain and I can’t wait to experience them.

All of my current emotions are temporary. Soon, I will be in Spain where I can settle down and be able to discuss a more permanent sense of being.

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Coming of Age in Japan

Last week, I celebrated my 20th birthday in Japan. While that may not sound too special an age to many, it is the age of becoming an adult in Japan, bringing along new responsibilities and rights. As of last week, I can now legally sign contracts and pass by the alcohol shelves in stores without awkwardly averting my gaze.

Japanese culture stresses the importance of “coming of age,” recognizing the significance of aging to adulthood. In addition to being the age that confers the right to sign contracts, drink, and other things, 20 used to be the legal age to gain the right to vote (until the law lowered the age to 18 this past year). Even the Japanese language has a special word to mean “20 years old” (hatachi), and local governments and city halls hold lavish events and celebrations for Coming of Age Day – a national public holiday – on the second Monday of every January. Even though my birthday came after the holiday, because it landed within the designated period between April of last year and this April, I was invited to the event held by my city ward’s office at an upscale hotel in the city center.

While the event itself seemed fairly similar to other receptions – speeches by city hall personnel, plenty of free food, and a celebratory toast – the significance of the ceremony made the occasion seem on a whole new level. Girls were dressed up in traditional Japanese kimono, with multitudes of vivid colors to celebrate the occasion, while guys typically wore dark suits and ties. Despite all of the formalities, many of the newly inducted adults celebrated joyfully with friends and family, upholding a long-standing ceremonial tradition.

Yet while these celebrations may still be enjoyed by many across Japan, societal trends have created noticeable challenges for the tradition. Nationwide attendance at these sorts of “coming of age” ceremonies has dropped fairly consistently over at least the past decade, with Japan’s declining birth rate and lower levels of enthusiasm and interest among young adults being cited as reasons for the decline. Modernization and busy lifestyles with students ever so focused on future careers and job hunting prospects have also shifted attention away from cultural traditions and customs, which have slowly begun to lose their significance and meaning in society as older generations continue to age. This trend has only continued to accelerate with younger generations more interested in moving towards large urban cities and away from rural areas, exacerbating a disparity not only between urban and rural, but also across generations with diverging perspectives towards tradition.

Nevertheless, many Japanese traditions have lived on, whether in modern forms adapting to the 21st century, or continuing on close to their original forms due to being passed down from generation to generation. I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend such a traditional ceremony, and I hope these traditions continue for generations to come.


Until the next ceremony!

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Halfway Hall

This Monday, the second years had a big dinner and celebration called “Halfway Hall.” It marks the halfway point in their academic career. Although I am not a second year, this same week marks my halfway point at Oxford. I am halfway through my second term, and that is seriously scary. If anything, my first reaction was to panic a bit. The first term I was just settling in, and let time slip away because a year seemed like quite a long time. Now that my days seem more numbered, I feel more pressure to fulfill my goals of seeing all of Oxford and the United Kingdom, going to every library, making the most of my access to mainland Europe, and soaking up British culture. I truly do love it here, and that might also be why the halfway point seems all the more startling. However, in a strange way it is also comforting. Before I left, all everyone could talk about was how long a year was and how everything would change. So far, that has not been the case; my Georgetown friends are as close as ever, and the time has flown by.

Hilary term has definitely been more serious and work heavy for me. Since I know Oxford well now and have a good routine, I have been immersing myself in finding the little niches of the school and branching out a bit. For example, I have been going to the formal dinners at other colleges on invitation by some of my British friends, and it is cool to see the diversity of the dining halls and students cultures. Also, there are around forty libraries that are open to all undergraduates out of the over one hundred that exist. I have been trying to go to two different ones a week, and it has been very rewarding. It has made me realize libraries are hiding everywhere in Oxford – from the top floor of museums to behind cafes to inside churches… my quest for libraries has taken me to all parts of the town. There is nothing like finally a new library in Oxford, sensing the hush, and walking in and seeing the true scholarship being achieved by people of all ages and backgrounds.

This term I have two essays a week compared to one like last term, as well as decided to start learning French at the Oxford Language Centre (note the spelling of center). Since students cannot study languages unless that is their undergraduate major, the university provides a center with classes as an extracurricular activity that you take for a couple hours a week (no grades) independent of your courses and degree. I have missed taking a language and it has been fun to be in a class so diverse; it includes PhD, undergrad, and masters students studying all sorts of things.

Overall I have definitely found this term to be the most intellectually fulfilling and challenging thus far, and much more enjoyable and productive since I know what I am doing! Some things ahead include my lacrosse team’s varsity match against Cambridge, more travels on my next six-week break, and studying for the LSAT. The Halfway Hall was a reminder of sorts to always appreciate every day, because for me they are numbered.

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Living in, not visiting, Rio

It’s been over three weeks since I left the United States on a flight to Brazil. I can hardly remember the biting cold of Michigan as I sit in 95-degree Carioca weather hoping my blatant sunburn will go away soon. I feel that so much has happened in these three weeks. Though I missed the first sign of snow at Georgetown, some Hoya basketball games and reunions, I don’t feel too bad about it as I sit on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema after a long day of class. Other students and I often rent a few umbrellas, buy a couple of coconuts and take turns diving into the waves. A difficult life, I know.

My comfort level has expanded in these few weeks. I know my neighborhood well enough to know which day has the best open market and which grocery stores have the shortest lines. The tiny bar in front of my apartment already recognizes and greets us as we walk in for a cheap meal. The bus and metro system are no longer sources of panic. My first day of school I was nervous about flagging down the wrong bus but now I confidently wag down the good ol’ 435 that takes me to the gates of PUC.

PUC has also become familiar to me, tucked away in the city near the Tijuca Forest and Botanical Gardens. There is even a nice view of Christ the Redeemer which reminds me of Georgetown’s own of the Washington Monument. I really appreciate that PUC is a very green campus, with a lot of outside space to relax and work on homework. However, I won’t be doing homework for much longer. My Intensive Portuguese course at PUC is already wrapping up. Our final tests are just in a few days.

For these past three weeks, I had a crash course in the Portuguese language, Brazilian music and the Carioca accent. It was nice to have this time in preparation for taking regular classes in full Portuguese especially since my last grammar class was a year ago. Our class shifts between looking at grammar rules, listening to music videos and watching Rio documentaries, helping our five-hour class period go by faster. The class, made up of students  from all over the States and world, has so far been a great introduction to both PUC and Brazilian higher education.

So far, the international students are the only students on this campus. All the normal students are still on vacation. After next week, I will be too. The festivities for Carnival, Rio’s biggest holiday, are just getting started and PUC gives us over two weeks to celebrate. The block parties with dancing and music have already begun even though it’s still almost a month away. Last Sunday, I even got to attend one of the parade practices. The practice attracted thousands of people in the big Carnival stadium. It feels more like a sports game then an open rehearsal. People cheer for their favorite Samba school. We happened to be standing in the Beija Flor samba school section and after an hour cheering and dancing with them, I’ve become a loyal fan. By the next time I write here, I will have experienced both the chaos and excitement of one of Brazil’s largest cultural celebrations.

These past three weeks here have been a time of transition. I no longer feel that vacation-high where everything is so new and you walk around with all the basic signs of a tourist. It still is new and exciting but now I am starting to settle into a rhythm and getting comfortable in the city I will call home for these next six months.


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Adapting to a Chinese-Style Education

下课! (Xià kè) These two magic words signal the end of class. In a way, they also speak to wider characteristics of the Chinese educational system. In Chinese classrooms, students don’t even entertain the idea of packing up before the professor utters these two long-awaited syllables. Teachers hold their students’ attention until the last moment of class. This demands no particular effort either from teachers or students; rather, it’s a deeply embedded cultural tradition, and it demonstrates Chinese citizens’ unshakeable respect for education. Here at ACC, our teachers treat the program’s gaggle of American college students no differently, and hold us to the same standards of respect and commitment to our education.

Although I have experienced a Chinese classroom before during a high school exchange program and have studied Chinese language and culture for ten years now, I have not escaped the culture shock. At Georgetown, I am guilty of quickly checking my phone or emails during class and sometimes simply zoning out, certainly in addition to other types of classroom petty crime. Coming to ACC, however, quickly shakes students of those habits. In language classes of six or seven people at their largest (at their smallest, nobody but you and your professor), there is no room for mistakes beyond vocabulary and grammar structures (which are inevitable and even welcome by our teachers). In class, teachers call on students at will, leaving us no choice but to follow our class’ progression. And, sure enough, that split-second when you think about the dumpling restaurant at the center of your lunch plans will coincide with one of the many times your teacher asks you to use a complicated grammar structure in a sentence. 请再说一次。。。

Teachers here expect much of us, the least of which is paying attention in class. ACC students’ regular workload includes a variety of assignments and strict respect of a language pledge to speak only Chinese at all times. The language pledge and our teachers’ high expectations that we will respect it also highlight the importance of education in China. Obviously, it functions on the honor system, since we are not always around our professors. However, ACC’s pledge is stricter than other programs run by Americans who simply don’t believe students will stick to it. ACC students are expected to participate because they are serious about improving their Chinese. A logical way to promote that is complete language immersion. Thus, the program administrators and teachers expect that we will bring the same level of respect to our education as Chinese students. This expectation is never clearer than when they hear students speaking English with each other. In these cases, teachers express not anger but genuine disappointment and often confusion. In China, lacking respect for education is simply unnatural.

In many ways, however, the importance of education also helps ACC promote an innovative way of helping students learn Chinese. While teachers always expect respect from their students, the relationship between the two groups is incredibly relaxed and often fun. Skipping the formality of emails, teachers and students use WeChat, China’s widely used substitute for Facebook (among other things), to communicate. Our teachers send us emojis and laugh at (and with) us when our grammar or characters are off in the class group chats. Our teachers also accompany us to meals and trips into the city, offering much-appreciated explanations. With regards to academics, they hold office hours every evening for two hours, and give students recommendations on the best nightlife in Beijing after cultural lectures on Chinese New Year traditions.

So, 下课 and the context around it helps explain a lot about the Chinese educational system. It ends the class during which teachers expect 100% of our attention, and marks the beginning of the period during which teachers are student allies, working to help them continue their education of Chinese language and culture in a multi-faceted way. The way I see it, these aspects all stem out of a deep respect for education inherent to Chinese culture. So far, ACC has been the perfect place to explore that aspect of Chinese culture.

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The Ignatian Way of Preparing

Last night I told my sister that I couldn’t believe that I am finally leaving for my semester abroad (in Bath, England) this weekend. She gave voice to my inner thoughts responding, “Me too; it’s like you just got home,” before quickly adding, “But I still want you to leave.” While it now seems like no time has passed at all, I’ve actually been on break for what felt like the longest 6 weeks of my life, obsessing over countless study abroad related blogs, Yahoo answers, and Pinterest boards on everything from what to pack to what to see. Needless to say, the feeling is mutual.

Over this long break, full of ample time for leisure, I’ve been reading up on Ignatian spirituality–developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (the religious order also known as the Jesuits) and practiced today by many (Jesuits and non-Jesuits) worldwide. As I’ve prepared for my time abroad, I’ve come to accept that there’s only so much planning I can do and no way of knowing everything that lies ahead, so I’m taking with me a few Ignatian principles that will hopefully make my time in Bath the best that it can be.

  1. Living Simply: As I’ve said, I’ve done a lot of research on what to pack, and honestly it’s been a burden on my mind at times. However, for the past couple of years I’ve travelled from Arizona to Georgetown, so the stress of packing is nothing new. What I’m trying to keep in mind is that there is no need, nor is it possible, to take my entire life with me. Further, the Ignatian principle of simple living emphasizes the richness we feel when we are less burdened (by anything, but in this case, definitely shoes). So, I trust that what I take will be sufficient and that there is always a store near by.
  2. Contemplation in Action: St. Ignatius believed in finding God in all things, which applied more broadly can mean finding the good in all things. In our busy lives, it’s easy to be bogged down by everything, so the idea of being contemplatives in action urges us to be aware and reflective during the action of the day. I’m sure that the next four months will be packed with excitement, action, and even stress, so I hope to take moments throughout my day to be grateful for my experience and to recognize the good at work in my day-to-day experiences.
  3. Magis: Magis is Latin for more, and in the Ignatian context urges people to do more for the greater good. However, one of the best explanations of magis I’ve heard is not necessarily doing everything, but digging deeper. With this in mind, I’m looking forward to using this time as a means to immerse myself in what matters: my studies, the location, and the people. I certainly don’t expect to do everything, but I do look forward to the experiences I will have.

I am beyond grateful for this opportunity and cannot wait to put Georgetown’s Jesuit values into action during the months ahead. I hope to do justice to my adventures through this blog and to make the most of this time.


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Bruxelles, j’arrive!

After enjoying a much appreciated extended winter break, I’m finally ready to head off to Brussels, where I’ll be studying for the next five months.

My dad’s job has found him recently locating to Japan, so I’ve been spending the last month in Tokyo with him. I feel like I’ve done a good job of adapting to Japanese culture, but after a month of bowing to say thank you and waiting patiently at every single crosswalk (jaywalking really isn’t a thing over here. Tragic, I know.), I know I’m in for quite a bit of culture shock when I touch down.

I decided to book a flight for a couple days before my program starts, and even though my housing doesn’t start until my program does, I’ve got a bed in a backpackers hostel in the heart of Brussels, so I’m excited to take a couple days to wander around Brussels on my own. I’ve gone on a few backpacking trips with my brother, both in Europe and in Japan, and while this will be my first time going alone, I’m not too worried (lies). I’ll be taking all my classes in French, so that’s a little worrisome (truth), but I’m less focused on the things I’ll be learning in the classroom and thinking more about what I hope to experience outside of it.

I’m looking forward to being dropped right into a brand new environment, and I have every plan to hit the ground running and take in as much as I can. While five months seems like a long time to be away from my friends and family, I know it’s going to fly by so I need to make the most of my time.

I’ve been practically living out of a suitcase anyway (read: I’ve been cycling through the same three shirts so I wouldn’t have to unpack), so my bags are pretty much set and ready to go. All that’s left to do is fly!

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From One West African City to Another


As I type this, I am sitting on the balcony of my parent’s house in Conakry where I have been staying for the past four weeks. The power has just returned after a few hours of being out and I can hear the neighborhood celebrating below. In just two days, I’ll be landing in another West African city which will be my home for the next four months, Accra. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t experience much difficulty adjusting to life in Accra after spending so much time in Conakry. Granted, I’ve already gotten accustomed to the time zone, the going and coming of electricity and tap, showering with cold water, and a bunch of other difficulties that both countries pose.

Ironically, despite the relatively close distance between Guinea and Ghana, it has proven challenging to find a flight from Conakry to Accra. After flight schedule changes, my travel agent has presented me with four options for arriving in Ghana: an itinerary with 5 stops in West Africa, an itinerary with a 17 hour layover in Casablanca and an arrival in Accra at 4am, and an itinerary with a stop in Bamako and a 40 minute layover in Lomé. I’ve chosen the last option and I’m hoping that 40 minutes will suffice.

Ghana is one of the more popular countries in African Studies and after all the countless readings and writing assignments on the country, I can’t believe I’m going to be living there soon. The nation has an impressive track record of peaceful turnovers, and has earned a reputation of being committed to democracy and development. This is an especially exciting time to live and study in Ghana as the nation has just sworn in a new president. Most of the population is hopeful for more industrialization and development under the new administration. I am looking forward to spending this time with Ghanaians and I’m so excited for all the new relationships and the new knowledge.

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Flying to the Other Wing


“Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas.” [Translation: Cuba and Puerto Rico are the two wings of one bird]. That was one of the last things my Abuela [grandmother] said to me as I left Puerto Rico over winter break this year. I had never heard that phrase before or the 1893 pro-independence poem from which it originated, but I knew that she was talking about the parallel histories of the two Caribbean islands. In that moment, I knew I had made the right choice to study in a land about which I knew very little but had heard so much.

One of the main reasons I decided to spend a semester in Cuba was to compare and contrast the two wings – Cuban culture and the Puerto Rican culture of my mother’s side of the family. Growing up with revisionist American history courses (which covered very little about U.S. involvement in Latin America), I never knew how much the histories of the two islands paralleled each other. Both were among the longest-lasting Spanish colonies, and Spain relinquished its rule of both in 1898 following the Cuban War of Independence (somehow, we refer to this war as the Spanish-American War even though the U.S. fought for just a few short months). For much of the 20th century, even though Cuba was independent in theory, both Caribbean islands served primarily as economic assets for the United States. The U.S. profited immensely from the islands’ labor and resources. The two wings diverged on the eve of January 1, 1959, when the 26th of July Movement and its allies emerged victorious in the Cuban Revolution.

There are many topics I hope to explore in my semester in Cuba. I want to learn why Puerto Rico has remained a site of economic exploitation for the U.S. while Cuba secured economic independence. I want to examine why my American history courses in high school taught me that Cuba is essentially a four-letter word while failing to mention Cuba’s universal healthcare and one of the highest literacy rates in the world. I hope to see how Cuba and its relations to the U.S. begin to change following recent events, such as the death of Fidel Castro and the inauguration of an American president whose choice for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said he would consider putting Cuba back on the “list of terrorist nations that support terrorism.” Because of America’s checkered history with its neighbor 90 miles to the south, my courses have taught me an incomplete narrative which I hope to fill during my semester abroad.

As I prepare to fly to la otra ala [the other wing], I hope to stay grounded in myself and continue to strengthen my own sense of Latinx identity [see why I use the term “Latinx” here]. Puerto Rico is the only place in the world where I have been surrounded by primarily Latinx people, and my own sense of identity suffers when I’m not around my Puerto Rican side of the family. In Cuba, I have three main goals: to explore Cuban culture, to learn the country’s histories, and to return with a renewed sense of self.

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Flying to the Wrong Airport

As I sit in the Chicago airport waiting for my plane to board, I don’t feel very different. I usually fly back for school around this time, long enough to enjoy the laziness of home but short enough to get back to friends. There is always a mix of snow, rain or slush at these Midwestern airports that cause me to arrive for my flights absurdly early because you never know what the weather could bring.

A part of me expects to land in Washington DC tonight, get back to the Hilltop for the new semester and the end of my Junior year. As I left my hometown, some people wished me luck at school, unaware I wasn’t going back to Georgetown. My email keeps filling up with “Welcome Back,” “Apply to,” and “Reminder about” emails that don’t apply to me anymore. I look at my social media and no longer see my friends’ holiday and family photos but the familiar Georgetown Snapchats and Instagram shots. It did not seem real that I wasn’t returning over the Christmas break because we were all gone. Now they are all taking classes and heading back into Syllabus week, while I am still sitting in an airport. Flying to not only a different city but a different country.

When my flight lands tomorrow, I will finally be rid of Michigan’s snow and entering into the summer weather of Rio de Janeiro. I and one other Hoya will be studying at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. I will be taking classes there in Portuguese, which honestly frightens me still.  My homestay with a local Brazilian woman is located about an hour away from the university (and approximately four blocks from the beach). My first month in Brazil will just include one intensive language class for all the international students, a new title/identity that I am excited to experience.

Tomorrow is the start to a drastically different semester than the past five at Georgetown. Though I will miss being on the Hilltop, I am excited for the opportunity to study at a new university in a new language with new people. I feel like I am starting as a freshman again but with the added difficulty of navigating my surroundings in a second language. There will likely be many funny mistakes and learning experiences in these next six months, all of which I will try to record for both your amusement and future students’ benefit.

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