Our group has arrived in Chengdu! We were settled in our various accommodations, some of us, such as myself are staying in the international dormitory, while other students opted for shared apartments a short distance from the university. Afterwards, USAC had a bus take us to Carrefour (a French equivalent to Walmart) to buy any last necessities for our rooms or apartments.
I find the dormitory to be much nicer than any dorm room I ever had as a college student. I have my own bathroom too.
The university, while accepting all students has traditionally been a university for the 55 ethnic minorities of China. It is evident walking around the campus that the university is diverse. Chengdu in general is home to a large Tibetan population, and the university is located in the neighborhood of Wuhou, which is Tibetan. The streets surrounding the university are filled with Tibetan restaurants and stores. I would guess that every 5th person I pass on the sidewalk is a Buddhist monk.
What has struck me the most walking around the campus is the life and buzz of activity taking place. The basketball courts are filled with students, as are the badminton courts, the ping pong courts, the pool, and the track and field. On my first night in my dorm room, I glanced out my window and down to the track and field and I was stunned. There were probably around 400 people on the field and track. Some were walking or running the track, others were kicking balls on the field, or doing sit ups, or just lounging. It was amazing. So, last night I decided to incorporate a few turns around the track into my daily routine in an effort to do what the campus locals do in the evening.
The other thing that has stood out to me while strolling campus are the people that make up the campus community. Our resident director explained to me that in China the university is home to many people, both faculty, and former faculty. So, not only do you see students walking about campus, you see faculty, former faculty, as well as grandparents who often live with one of their children and help raise their grandchildren. This university is truly a community.
On my last night in the Basque Country, I reflected on the past five weeks. It has been an amazing adventure which I will always treasure.
I set out to learn about Basque history, culture, and language, and what I learned surpassed my expectations. Prior to my arrival, I had some basic knowledge, but it was mostly in bits and pieces. I now have a deeper understanding of how all those pieces fit together.
Basques were pioneers in many areas of civilization: shipbuilding, fishing, wine, cider, ironworks, and agriculture. Though it continually evolves, they maintain their identity as one of the oldest civilizations, and the one that has stayed in the same place. Some current traditions date back centuries, if not further. They are proud of their heritage, identity, and culture. I learned much about all aspects of their history and culture, and I have a desire to continue learning more.
I am grateful for this opportunity. The knowledge I gained is invaluable, and will help me better work with students and faculty in Basque Studies, as well as the local community. Special Collections and Archives have extensive books, journals, and collections related to Basque history and culture, and I now have a better ability to help researchers utilize these collections. And when we have researchers from the Basque Country, I now can speak a few words in their native language.
Thank you to Boise State and USAC for this wonderful experience!
I’ve finally arrived in Chiang Mai, and I’ve finally begun the USAC program! It’s been a whirlwind week and a half leading up to this, which I will share more about in a future blog post, but for now it feels great to get settled and to meet the Chiang Mai University USAC staff and my fellow study abroad students—all of whom are delightful on first impression.
This morning began with an early (7:30 am) meetup outside the USAC student dorm, which is about 2 blocks from my apartment. We gathered outside the 7-Eleven there (yes, there seems to be a 7-Eleven every few blocks here), and then piled into rod daeng (red taxi buses) that took us to campus. The CMU campus is only a few blocks from where we’re staying, but it’s a big one—sprawling with buildings and roads, but also quite wooded with a lot of green spaces—and our shuttle tour took about 40 minutes. If the humidity allows, I can see a lot of opportunity for early morning runs or walks along the roads and paths, including around the scenic Angkaew Reservoir. Compared to the high desert landscape and climate of Boise State, I’m immediately struck by how lush, tropical, and green everything is here. And it’s absolutely breathtaking.
After our campus tour, we all gathered in the Faculty of Political Science building for a welcome session and orientation. About 50 students are attending this summer session, from universities all around the U.S., and the collective nervousness and excitement among everyone reminded me of the fun vibe at the start of a new semester back home. There were introductions from the super-helpful Chiang Mai USAC staff – Jum, the director, and Siri and Mali, her two program assistants – and then presentations from several CMU officials, including a Vice President and a Dean.
Following the morning orientation session we ate a tasty buffet lunch outside. If only campus food in the U.S. tasted half as good! (More on that later: The food here deserves a blog post – or three – of its own, so stay tuned.) We then all hopped back in the rod daeng to go to a local mall for a few hours, where many students had the first chance to outfit themselves with anything they needed. I picked up a cheap cell phone for making local, Thailand calls, along with a few other basic supplies for the apartment. I’ll say more about money in a future post, but things here are often shockingly inexpensive. (For example: In USD, my pay-as-you-go Thai phone plan costs about 3 cents a minute, and at dinner tonight my entree was about $1.40.)
Our final stop of the day, on our way back to housing, was at a uniform shop. Yep – that’s right. Students in Thailand, regardless of age or level, wear uniforms while in class! This wasn’t any surprise, as I’d known this for a long time, but it was still something of a shock to the system to pile into the store and actually try them on: White, buttoned-down short-sleeve dress shirts and black slacks. These are the type of clothes I’m used to wearing as a professor in the U.S., but I guess I was hoping that the uniforms would be a little more light-weight; the heat and humidity here are already bracing enough wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and it’s going to be quite an adjustment walking to and from campus and classes in those clothes! But like everything else, that’s just a part of being in a different place and a different culture: adjusting, making do, and getting used to new things. As they told us this morning at orientation: “Be open to everything, yet attached to nothing.” Wise words.
All told, it was a fun and eye-opening first day with the USAC program, and it has me looking forward to the opening events and tours over the next several days. . .
Hutongs are narrow alleys or lanes and in Beijing there are very few left as the traditional courtyard residences which make up hutong are torn down for new development. I will not get into whether or not this is a good or a bad thing, as I believe that this topic is hard to have a true grasp on as a foreign visitor and one not personally tied to the issue. Regardless of the changing landscape in Beijing, I have greatly enjoyed walking down numerous hutongs and observing the life and activity happening in them. Below are two hutongs near the hotel we are staying at, both are primarily residential.
According to the hutong Wikipedia page, hutongs were first established in the Yuan dynasty (1206-1341). During the Ming dynasty (1368-1638), the use of hutongs expand and hutongs residents lived in particular areas based on their social status. Aristocrats were permitted to live closer to the Forbidden City, on the east and west sides, while the commoners, merchants, and artists lived to the north and south. After the the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 the hutongs residents changed, and residences that once housed one family were subdivided to house numerous families. While there is some desire on my part to romanticize life in a hutong, the reality is that the residences are old, really old in some cases, and many lack bathrooms. In all the hutongs I have wandered through, all have public restrooms on almost every street for residents’ use.
Some hutongs are undergoing extensive renovations with new boutiques and bars and restaurants emerging alongside the older residences. In the area where the two hutongs pictured below are located, it is clear that the neighborhood is changing rapidly.
Traveling to a foreign country means exploring new foods as well as new culture surrounding food. Food and experiences are very important in the Basque Country. People care both about quality of food, and it is often the center of socialization.
A unique feature is gastronomic societies. These are groups, historically men but women more recently are allowed to be members, that meet regularly to cook, socialize, and have competitions. Traditionally, women were the head of the household and in charge of most everything, so the societies grew as a way for men to get together on their own. Some societies are closed to the public, but others allow people to pay for the experience. A group of us were lucky enough to participate and enjoy the delicious food.
The meal experience in a restaurant, and in people’s homes, is different than in America. Basques savor both the food and the entire experience, therefore take a few hours for a meal. Courses are served one at a time with plenty of time for socializing in between. Thanks to Boise State Basque Studies faculty Larraitz and Nere, I went to a couple restaurants with this wonderful experience.
The other major food are pintxos (tapas). It is typical for people to go get pinxto and wine at multiple places in an evening. On Thursdays, neighborhoods have pinxto pote. During the recession in the late 2000s, people reduced how much they frequented taverns and restaurants. To encourage people to go out and socialize, areas started pinxto pote which is reduced price pinxto and wine (usually 2 euros for the pair).
Though wine and beer are very popular here, there are also many cider houses. The cider is kept in incredibly large barrels and streams quickly from the spout. People line up with their glasses and try not to let any drip on the floor. Combined with a several course meal, it’s a wonderful experience.
12 hours and 4 movies later, I arrived in Beijing, China. I sailed through immigration (you must have a visa to China) and customs and quickly located an ATM. During my first attempt at withdrawing money the ATM kept asking me for a local phone number, which I do not have and I had a minute of panic thinking “Oh no, what if the Agricultural Bank of China is the only ATM machine in the airport, how will I get any money out?” I decided to keep looking and sure enough there was another ATM. ATM’s in China all have an English language option, so no worry about trying to navigate Chinese characters. With money in my wallet, I decided to opt for a taxi ride to my hotel (versus taking the subway or shuttle), it was late, I was very tired, and I thought I could see more of the city from the taxi. USAC had sent me an arrival guide with detailed instructions about my options for getting into the city. The info included how much each would cost and where to find each transportation option. They even included a subway map and a map of the streets around the hotel, so if you walked from the subway station to the hotel you could find the hotel easily. Using the arrival guide I knew to follow the signs for taxis, which are also written in English. I found the taxi line and queued up waiting my turn. The arrival guide had also given me the address of the hotel in both English and Chinese, so when I got into my taxi, I showed the driver the address in Chinese. The taxi ride took about 30-40 minutes, during which I intermittently fell asleep. When I woke up at one point, I noticed we had made it deep into the city and we were driving in Tiananmen Square.
Soon after, we pulled up to the hotel and I paid my taxi driver. In the end, my roughly 35 minute taxi ride cost $15. I checked in at the hotel, dropped my bag and went next door to a little restaurant for a quick bite before I went to bed. The restaurant had a menu with pictures and with English descriptions under the Chinese so it was easy to order. I had delicious pork and scallion dumplings and then called it a night.
Today I woke up and met my USAC group for a day of touring Beijing. Our first stop was Tiananmen Square, which can hold up to 1 million people. Needless to say, it is a large square. From there we entered the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was built between 1406 and 1420 by a Ming emperor and saw 24 emperors live and rule from within it’s walls up until 1912. The Forbidden City is quite large, about 178 acres, so our group spent a while wandering around. My favorite parts of the Forbidden City were found off the main path of visitors where I found a few quiet courtyards. From the Forbidden City we were bussed to a restaurant for lunch, before setting off for the Temple of Heaven. The Temple of Heaven was constructed at the same time as the Forbidden City and used by Ming and Qing emperors for religious ceremonies of prayer to heaven. Set in a large park the Temple of Heaven complex is five times larger than the Forbidden City.
The beautiful terrain in the Basque Country allows for a variety of outdoor activities, whether surfing, hanging out at the beach, walking around various towns, or hiking. I spent a lot of time walking around various places, but went on two extended hikes.
The first was part of a USAC excursion to the Pyrenees. We hiked from Sara (France) to Zugarramurdi (Spain). It had recently rained and was overcast and a bit muddy, but beautiful nonetheless. Part way through the hike was a short wall which more or less marks the France/Spain boundary. We passed some farms where we saw sheep and cows.
The second hike was from Donostia to Pasaia, along the Bay of Biscay coast. In some places, mountains meet the ocean so the land is undeveloped, and this hike was up Mount Ullia. There were several paths with directional signs, but they also marked the paths with various colored stripes as guides. It was a gorgeous setting, and it seemed that every turn brought on a new and beautiful view.
Before the Basque Country was Christianized, the people followed many pagan traditions. Some of these centuries old practices still exist today. One major event that combines both the pagan and religious rituals is celebrating San Juan’s night, which coincides with the summer solstice (the shortest night of the year).
The principal characters are the sun, the fire and the water, and the bonfires that are ignited this night ward off evil for one year. Men, women, and children spend part of the day preparing bonfires. According to tradition, jumping over a bonfire on San Juan’s night cleanses and purifies a person and burns their problems away.
It was great to witness this tradition that is not prominent in the US. There were many bonfires around Donostia. My friend and I went to the one in the neighborhood of Gros, on the beach. Before the huge bonfire was lit, many children put their year’s school papers around it (it was the last day of school). Other people also placed items. There was Basque music and dancing prior to lighting the main bonfire.
Also during this time all along the beach groups of people lit dozens of small bonfires to jump over. We participated in the jumping part of the ceremony, which saying the traditional Basque words, which essentially is to tell evil to go away and to welcome good things for the next year:
San Juan, San Juan heldu da
Sorginan begia galdu da
Galdua bada, gal bedi!
Sekula agertu ez baledi!
Gaxtuak harontz, sorginak harontz eta onak honontz
One of the great things about San Sebastian is how easy it is to explore other areas of the Basque Country. I took a trip to northern Basque Country, specifically Bayonne, France.
Bayonne is a lovely town and proud of its Basque heritage. Many signs were in both Basque and French. I particularly enjoyed the Basque Museum. It traced the history of the farmhouse, agriculture, shipfaring, dancing, art, sports, and other aspects of Basque peoples. There was a film circa 1920s or 1930s that portrayed Basque life throughout all the provinces.
I also enjoyed the honey shop, Loreztia. Bees are very important in Basque history. Prior to the availability of sugar, it was the only sweet food option. Bees (as well as all animals) were considered part of the family. This shop had honey and jam and allowed tasting of all. The flavors were delicious and it was hard to not purchase one of everything.
Greetings! My name is Tom Hillard (Tom Hillard Bio) and I am excited to begin this blog for Boise State’s Global Learning Opportunities office. I am one of the fortunate recipients of a Faculty International Development Award (FIDA) this summer, granted through Boise State and the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC). In just a few days, I will be embarking on a nearly two-month journey to Thailand, where I will explore and experience local cultures, cuisines, and landscapes and spend a summer session studying at Chiang Mai University.
As an associate professor of literature in the English department, I’m eager to dive in and spend this summer doing something different: not teaching or doing the usual scholarly research and writing or administrative work for our MA in English program, but instead becoming a student again. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a classroom on that side of the podium! While in Chiang Mai I’ll be taking a Thai language class, studying Buddhism, learning about Thai history and culture, honing my Thai culinary skills, and going on a number of treks and excursions into the surrounding countryside. I have a lot of ideas about what I think I might learn this summer, but I’m mostly looking forward to opening myself up to the experience and allowing the people and the place to take me wherever they lead.
The past several months have been a flurry of preparations, wrapping up the end of Spring semester and getting everything in order for the upcoming adventure: Applying for a travel visa, registering for classes, booking airplanes and trains, locating housing, getting vaccines, and figuring out how to pack for seven weeks in a hot, humid, tropical climate — not to mention learning what I can of the Thai language and Thai script! Thankfully, the staff at USAC has been enormously helpful at every stage so far.
Once my travels are underway I’ll be updating this blog as often as my internet connections allow, so stay tuned for more over the coming weeks. . .