Unavoidably Immersed

“Every page seems to have a light covering of mist. The obstacles stimulate me. Every new construction seems a marvel. Every unknown word a jewel.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, on learning the Italian language

There’s no way around it – Arabic is a daunting language for English-speakers to learn. When I practice, sounds come from places in my throat I never even knew existed. The script, while beautiful, blends into one long strand of arabesque.  Unlike most of the other interns, I had never studied Arabic before. I literally looked up how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” while sitting in my airplane seat en route to Cairo. Thankfully, my new friends and co-workers at AUC have enthusiastically helped me grow my vocabulary over the past three months. But no one has been as encouraging and influential as my Arabic tutor, Arwa.

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All interns receive six hours a week of private Arabic tutoring as part of our program. For me, this meant spending the first month learning the alphabet, the number system, and simple greetings. Now, after almost six months, I have graduated to directing taxi drivers and exclaiming my excitement for various food items. Arwa is an amazingly patient teacher. During our lessons, she repeats words and phrases many times over until their sounds became familiar to my ears.

Eventually, we’ve also started to take our meetings outside of the AUC campus. Once, I learned how to order Koshary – a quintessential food staple of Egyptians – at a Koshary shop near Tahrir Square aptly named Koshary El Tahrir. Koshary is a quick, easy, cheap fill-‘er-upper consisting of pasta, rice, vermicelli, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions and topped with hot sauce, tomato sauce, and tangy vinaigrette. Inside the store, Arwa refused to say a word as the waiter came around to our table, forcing me to slowly choke out the Arabic equivalent of “Koshary. Small. Extra onions. Thank you.” It is quite easy to resort to English and get by in Cairo, so I very much appreciate Arwa persistently urging me to speak Arabic.

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Perhaps most empowering is the freedom that comes along with speaking Arabic. Even armed with just four months of lessons, I feel more assured to explore Cairo by myself. It has been a gateway to the city because now I know that if a taxi driver does not speak English, I can navigate. If I believe I am being overcharged, I can bargain down. Furthermore, I have been able to strengthen relationships at the workplace with my co-workers. Taking a genuine interest in the language, and by extension, culture of any country not your own demonstrates to others one’s assertiveness, curiosity, and open-minded nature – all of which helps in making new connections in a foreign place. So even though Arabic is difficult and the learning curve is low, I am encouraged to putter through it because knowing those words means freedom and understanding.

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My new oyster.

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“I like slice-of-life.”

I am tired. There are so many ways that a person can be tired and I have felt them all this week.

When you’re young, you can have an infinite number of dreams. One morning you can fancy being a conceptual artist. By dinner you can want to be a human rights lawyer and that’s fine because by the time you go to sleep you can dream of being a rapper. Growing up is giving up on having endless dreams and aspirations as you realise there is only time enough to do a handful. It’s not the giving up on any specific dream that breaks me – it’s the loss of the idea of unlimited possibilities.

If I were to move back to the States, I would only really want to live in Chicago. If I were to live in any American city other than the one I call home, I may as well live across the globe. I guess this means I’m homesick.

Running is freedom distilled into a physical movement. You don’t need anything other than what you already got, to go on forever and ever and ever.

I hate how it’s sometimes considered a bad thing for a girl (or a guy) to be really into dressing up, doing their hair, and/or makeup. I appreciate a carefully cultivated aesthetic. The image of a woman is a construction of smoke and mirrors and a spritz of fairy dust. There’s power in that visual. Own it.

I like hugs (but not from strangers).

An Egyptian Family Christmas

It was the morning of Christmas and my apartment smelled like cat piss. My refrigerator was painfully similar to that of a fraternity house – half a whiskey bottle, a couple of eggs, and some mushy apples. Scholarship applications rested unfinished somewhere on my Mac desktop, probably floating (sinking?) in my Chicago River screensaver. Worst of all, the meet and greet service guy who was supposed to pick up my parents in 12 hours still had not confirmed. But that was okay because all this stress meant that I would be with my family for the winter holidays, Egyptian border control be damned. 

It’s daunting to wake up knowing that you have all this stuff you must get done. Suddenly the world outside our bed just seems incredibly frightening. Nonetheless I dragged myself up and out the door to give my life and apartment a parent-friendly makeover. I started by waiting an hour for the Syrian pastry shop in Tahrir to open. Take note – almost nothing is open in Cairo before noon on Fridays. But the barista at the chain cafe across the street put a cute animal face in my cappuccino foam as I waited and apparently, that’s all it takes to brighten my day.

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I forgot to take a picture, but it looked as adorable as this one.

With a delicious assortment of honey drenched sweets in hand, I headed down to the jewellery stores in Maadi to pick out delicate silver bracelets for my mother, and to eat hearty Chinese dumplings with my Egyptian friend who made sure the meet and assist guy confirmed.

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Let it be known that the Chinese food in Cairo tastes better than most Chinese food in America.

By early evening I was back in my apartment and everything had turned out fine – I got the piss smell out of my apartment by thoroughly washing the litter box and throwing open all the windows. I even had time to whip up a quick dinner.

After a hasty hour of cleaning bathroom sinks and sweeping up mounds of cat hair, it was 8pm and I was in an uber on the way to Cairo International Airport. An hour ride later, and a half-hour of waiting outside later (for security reasons), I was in the arms of my mother and father. Just like that, after a six month absence, I was smelling my mom’s hair and kissing my dad’s cheek in the middle of the parking lot. It’s so weird.

We spent the last two hours of Christmas at my apartment unwrapping gifts and playing with the cat around my coffee table, spread with Syrian desserts and instant ramen. My dad had a cough for the past week and apparently all he ever felt like eating was instant ramen. As I watched my mom nibble at the kunafa, her shoulder hunched in that familiar slump- her mouth making circular motions as the chewed, I couldn’t stop thinking – one day, I will never sit across from my mom and watch her eat. Because one day she will die. Then I became obsessed with memorising the exact detail of how her face wrinkled and the color of her eyes and the movements of her hand as she tucked her hair behind her ear.

One day you feel infinite and then one day, you don’t. Over the past few months, I was so busy being annoyed at my parents and avoiding them that I overlooked their mortality. They’re getting older and it’s showing. Now everything seems like there’s a time limit, and I am fixated at counting the grains of sand I have left in the hourglass. Yes I know that that’s a rather morbid thought to end on, especially for a Christmas post, but it’s better to be aware of this now than to regret it when it’s too late. 

Beijing Transience

It’s been almost two months but I never feel quite rooted in Beijing – like I’m only half there. (Err here).

Maybe because every past visit was a half-return, knowing that I will always be back in a few years for more family reunions in smoky restaurant dining rooms. And this visit, I saw it as a stopover between my college graduation in Chicago and my adventure year in Cairo. In my mind, Beijing was not an anticipated destination with a culture shock to boggle my mind, but the faded city of my birth. Beijing is a transfer stop. I had left it for good 18 years ago.

Recently, I’ve realized that this is a terrible, if not detrimental, perspective and attitude. It’s never a good idea to be only half-present in a place, environment, community, what-have-you. It leaves a lot of room to detach from reality and float into depressing introspection. So we’re just going to skip over that chapter of my summer.

These days my brain’s been simmering on the chasm of differences between living in a Western country versus an Eastern country. Pre-arrival Wendy was like: I lived alone for seven months in France, no problem. Not an ounce of homesickness, not even during the Fourth or Thanksgiving. I’m set for a life in international diplomacy! I can fly anywhere like a free bird! 

Ha. Ha. How ridiculously naive it was of me to assume that that meant I was invincible and beyond ties. If France is the sleek tabby cat that brushes up against your leg as you sit out on a terrace cafe, Beijing is the running of the bulls, a wild gazelle stampede. Which is to say, all the briskness, alertness, avoiding, sweating, and people are beginning to wear down my body and mind. I really have to fight for myself here – a spot on the subway, my way up the stairs, the right to cross the street. At least this is good for my character which has always erred towards the side of passive. As much as the smog of a million cars and roars of a million screeches silence everything, the monstrous din also pushes me to strengthen my voice and shout louder for myself. If I don’t, I really am only half here.

In the midst of transience, I have fondly discovered three places in Beijing where I do feel grounded, solidly planted into the cement.

1.) The Bookworm

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Coffee, books, friends. Nothing feels more familiar than that.

2.) Xiwai Cultural Leisure Plaza Footbridge

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The view looking east.

3.) Yonghegong Lama Temple

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My photos don’t do this place justice. Also, you can’t smell the greatness that is incense from a photo.

Just writing this post makes me feel better. It’s a relief. The mind is a muscle one can exercise and mold. No matter where you go, there are tangible steps you can take to mitigate homesickness. It could be grabbing your subway card and hightailing it to one of your grounded places. It could also be listening to that one album while walking, or sketching a landscape that strikes you, or drinking crazy amounts of bubble tea (like dangerously unhealthy amounts of bubble tea). Conceptualize those steps – whatever they may be for you –  as a fertilizer that nurtures deeper, more penetrating roots.

The Summer I Fulfilled My Destiny

I am typing this from a sub-optimally air-conditioned performing arts theater in Liuzhou, China. Chinese people really aren’t into cold. Even the iced coffee I got from the vending machine outside would barely qualify as “chilled” back in the States. But I can survive. Being a native Chicagoan for almost two decades trains one’s body to thrive in any weather condition (jury’s still out on Beijing-level air pollution though). 

This summer I received the opportunity to complete what I can only describe as a dream internship pre-ordained by the gods. I’m working at a performing arts production team based in Beijing, whose mission is to promote dance, theater, and music as effective tools of cultural diplomacy. I assist on projects that bring performing art groups from around the world to China, and projects that bring China’s performing arts to the world stage. Currently, I am touring southern China with a French dance company, and practicing my dismal French and rusty Chinese with native speakers. Recently in China, the government has almost doubled the state’s budget for the arts and culture. Even though most of the performing arts industry is privatized right now, artistic exchange has always acted as a forum for different countries to engage in diplomatic dialogue. So I’m extremely excited (and a little intimidated) to meet government officials from all over the world who attend our performances. Seriously, if someone asked me my ideal job, this would be it.

Many people consider “cultural diplomacy” to be a fluffy endeavor. Maybe it’s the sentimental, romantic, feelings-driven artist side of me, but I truly believe that it’s impossible to view (or listen to) any form of art without also getting a glimpse of the artist’s soul. Every country has artists. Witnessing the arts of cultures foreign to one’s own makes one realize that people everywhere are bound together by common experiences. Death, love, loss, joy, despair – these are themes found in all art and all people, regardless of cultural origin. You don’t get that from the news reportings on other countries. So much of the human experience is lost in articles and montages depicting other nations, swirled into a hodgepodge of political will and financial numbers. Yeah, these are lofty ideals for the arts. But a large part of my hopes for this summer is to see how my ideals play out in the real world. 

Oh I guess I graduated from university too. So my life’s story-arc at the moment is the inevitable clash of star-filled dreams and bleak reality. 

My dazed and confused college graduate face.

My dazed and confused college graduate face.

One too real realization already is that, while waking up in a different city every other day makes my heart soar (to see so many different horizons outside your window is invigorating), single-person hotel rooms are rather lonely. I spend about an hour a day chatting or Skyping my friends back home. I miss you all individually, and I miss us – our synergy, our dinners, our roars of laughter – collectively. A part of me wants so badly to keep living in that little piece of heaven we had carved out of our last months of college. But what was beautiful and perfect during that particular period of our lives isn’t sustainable. We are all starting new lives in new cities with endless possibilities. But, the people who really matter, I’m sure I’ll see them again. In a way, this mutual feeling of uncertainty, excitement, uncontrollable change is just another bond that strengthens our relationships.

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The last perfect hangout.

End post-graduation feels. I will upload my super belated post on Central Europe soon, and hopefully on-time posts of Kunming, Liuzhou, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Beijing over the next week or so!

Anticipation is the Best Part

We all form ideals about things – the ideal college, the ideal boyfriend, the ideal career. Of course, we never reach most of these ideals, but a lot of the time it was the pursuit of this perfection that motivated us to get as far as we did. I am blogging this from Café Rouge in London, a few yards away from the British Museum. I have half a croissant smothered in strawberry jam in my mouth and listening intently to the two girls next to me gossiping over Sunday brunch a la Sex and the City. One girl is appalled by the lack of fashion sense and texting etiquette of the 35-year-old guy with whom she went on a date. The other is nodding sympathetically and asking an endless string of and-then-what-happened’s like the perfect gal-pal she is. Oh, I’m also sipping on a chocolate cappuccino. I think this is one of those rare instances in which the concept of an ideal manifests itself into reality.

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Today is the first day of my dream European sojourn – launch off in London, parading to Paris, boogying down in Berlin, prancing through Prague, dropping off in Dresden, and venturing to Vienna. I have the perfect mix of alone days and meet-up-with-friends days. I have days scheduled for field research and drafting my B.A. thesis. I have days with nothing planned at all. I just purchased a disposable camera with a 30-photo capacity roll of film to satisfy my hipster quota (I have a reputation to uphold). And most importantly, right now the exchange rate is 1.00USD to 0.92EUR. Thanks Obama.

I think people who love ideals also are pretty into making lists. I’ve almost never checked off an entire list on schedule, but here’s to trying!

  • Buy a durable tote bag from an independent bookshop
  • Find a vintage sweater and dress
  • Go on a run through every city’s most beautiful park
  • Complete 30 pages of my B.A. thesis
  • Stay within my 300EUR spending budget
  • Finish Super Sad True Love Story

I’m going to keep this list short. God knows what happens when Wendy gets overambitious and lets her ideals grow wild.

Accumulating Fence Posts

There’s this great passage in a book I read a while ago, I think it was a Steinbeck. Maybe Grapes of Wrath? I could also be completely wrong. It was about time and what influences our perception of how quickly (or slowly) time passes. The passage used fence posts as a metaphor. At first impression, we assume that boring, monotonous stretches of our lives during which nothing remarkable happens and we do the same routine for weeks – these are the times that will feel like they go on forever. But in actuality, it’s the opposite. The periods in our lives during which we go through new experiences, events that cause us to re-evaluate our life choices, often in quick succession – those are the time periods that actually stretch a long way in our memory. Because without these “fence posts” of new challenges to mark the passage of time, “time has nothing to hang off of.” And your life blurs by and before you realize it, you’re ten years older when you really haven’t aged at all.

At least, that’s the view on time that the passage suggested. I have to agree based on my experiences in 2014. I think I built a mile-long stretch of wooden fence posts, haphazardly staked in the ground at uneven angles. It felt like the longest year ever. And often, people say that phrase with a negative connotation, but you know, what are we in a rush for? Death? (But actually…).

This year I’ve operated on the basis of “Why not?” If an opportunity arises to which I don’t have a strong compelling reason as to “why not?” then I’d go for it. I wanted fence posts to rain down on my life! Some “why not” experiences have steered me into the paths of amazing new friends, sights, beaches, fireworks, books. Other experiences only left me with a potent answer to the question “why not.” But at the end of the day (or year), I have a clearer view of what I want, what makes me happy, what pisses me off, what devastates me – the stuff on which principles are built. And as someone who equates more knowledge with progress, I am grateful for the fence posts, collectively.