Hello! My name is Jenna Staerkel. I am currently studying abroad in Yamagata, Japan. The other day I went to the Yonezawa Snow Lantern Festival. A snow lantern festival is exactly what it sounds like. During these festivals, large snow lanterns are exhibited along with a variety of snow sculptures.

The northern parts of Japan receive large amounts of snow every year and so there are many snow festivals held each year in these areas. The largest and most famous snow festival is located in Hokkaido.
When I arrived at the train station, I could tell that the whole town was really excited for the snow lantern festival. Outside of the train station, there was even a small stand distributing free soup. After I enjoyed some soup, I climbed up the giant snow sculptures that were built just outside of the station.

I then took a bus to the snow lantern festival. It was very cold and very crowded, but there were so many beautiful snow lanterns and sculptures on display.

Towards that middle of the festival there were many food and snack stands set up. I also came across a very large snow sculpture that was built to commemorate those who lost their lives during the earthquake.
Although the festival was very cold, it was well worth it! The lanterns and sculptures were beautiful and the food at the stands was delicious. Thanks to this snowy and cold winter, I was starting to get really tired of the snow. However, after attending this snow lantern festival, I have come to realize just how amazing snow can be.

Well, the direct translation isn’t yank on stomach. It’s actually “pull stomach”. However, that doesn’t do reality justice. It’s more like yank/tug/jerk stomach. Kinda like an internal combustion engine working overtime through the intestines. And I have it. This is not unexpected. Almost every foreigner (well, Westerner), gets it within one or two weeks of an extended stay in China. I mean, it’s totally understandable. The food here tastes amazing. Especially the food you can get on the street.

Every time you make a purchase, even if it’s the same food purchased from the same little mart, could taste just a little different than you remember it, but still taste incredibly good. Unfortunately, stomachs of most Westerners must go through its own version of culture shock as it deals with the reality of a different flavor of food. The results can be quite impressive. Exhaustion is just one symptom after a long sit in the thinking room.

Anyway, I thought I had beat it. I was set. Last night, I went to bed early. I woke up early. I felt great. I had some bread for breakfast. I had some potstickers for lunch. Lamb was on the inside. I didn’t think lamb would upset my stomach as I figured pork would. Anyhow, my taste buds thanked me profusely for such a tasty meal for lunch. I finished studying. Half-an-hour flies by. No eruptions are immenent. Maybe I had beat the tide. An hour goes by. Nothing on the horizon. I think I’ve beat it. Now, to go out with friends and check out the Olympic Stadium.

That’s when it hit. Not before I left my room. Not when I was waiting downstairs for my friends. Not even when we left the apartment. But when we stepped across the university gate leading to the outside world, I noticed something concerning. A distant rumbling warning of things to come.

Now, for a foreigner, there is something that must be understood about China. The toilets here are not exactly of the sitting nature. Rather, they are of the squatting family. I’ve never been a fan of that brand of commode. This is my third extended trip to this part of the world and I have yet to be put in a position where balancing my weight in a squat position is my only option. However, it seems that Beijing has even fewer assisted squatters than Shanghai or even Taiwan. It seems that the old fashioned way of doing things is my only option if I’m caught outdoors in a dire need to find someplace private to do my business.

In other places in this part of the world, McDonald’s is a trusted place to find something to sit on. However, in Beijing, even McDonald’s has not imported this most luxurious of Western cultural artifacts.

So, we begin this trip. Within five minutes of our travel, I am concerned. Thirty minutes in, we’ve reached the Olympic Stadium. I can’t hold it any longer. By this time, squatting and getting rid of the constant pain within seems better than trying to hold it in. I search for a stall. I figure, if anywhere in Beijing has something to sit upon for me to do my most important business, it’s got to be the Olympic area. I mean, the Chinese served thousands of Westerners not four years ago. They had to have provided something to sit on, right?

Fortunately, the answer to that question is yes. Unfortunately for me, and much to my chagrin, the one thing they did not provide in that private compartment was toilet paper. In none of those stalls could toilet paper be found. There wasn’t even any paper towels. They’ve gone green in their effort to conserve waste. So, I take care of business, learn some lessons and return home.

After I clean up, I have some dinner consisting of crackers and peanut butter. Surely, my stomach will welcome such old and familiar products. Not quite. In fact, not until I break down and grab some sprite and gatorade does my stomach calm down and begin to rest.

This time, however, I will not underestimate the power of the Pull Stomach. A friend is hooking me up with some medicine tomorrow as well as yogurt that kills stomach bugs. I shall conquer for I will never give up! And I will never accept defeat! I will endure! And I will succeed!

Around the world in 90 minutes…Impossible? No. Astronauts do it all the time. Us normal people? Maybe a little more difficult. Until now. Leave it to the Chinese to figure it out.

In the southwest corner of Beijing, there resides a park dedicated to showing off the world’s greatest structural wonders throughout history. Each section of the park is dedicated to a certain geographic area of the world. Europe. America. Africa. Middle-East. Ancient Egypt. Ancient Greece.

This is one twenty-fifth of the actual size…

Ever want to see a pyramid or the Coliseum but never had the money to travel to Egypt or Rome? Now you can see both and much more up close and personal on a smaller scale. But you need to travel to Beijing first. The White House. Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. The former skyline of New York City complete with Twin Towers. Denmark’s Mermaid. Belgium’s water basin. London Tower Bridge. Venice. Paris. All are there. Some even that I’d never heard of before. Each on a scale varying in size from life-size to as small as one-fourtieth of the actual size. Each, however, much larger than a human. And all seen in 90 minutes. Flat. Well worth the $10 US it cost to get in. And I can now say I’ve been to all the most important places in history throughout the world.

Of course, I was not the only one there. Besides my friends from school, many Chinese congregated around the various parts of the world for pictures. Not just any pictures mind you. Engagement/wedding pictures. Tall, thin, short, stout, all types of Chinese were there dressed to the nines to capture that special moment next to those historical markers. Making history next to history.

Now, we weren’t planning on seeing these artifacts when our journey began. Originally, we were only going to see Marco Polo Bridge. We saw it. It’s historically significant. It was there when Marco Polo visited. It’s that old and still in use. Polo said that that bridge was a marvel. The dragons on top of each of the bridge’s pillars has a different facial expression. But it’s just a bridge. It took all of 10 minutes, if not less, to get what we wanted out of it. So, we did the next best thing: checked the iPhone and found the World’s Park 世界公园.

Traveling is fun. All places have so much good. The world’s greatest monuments will always be preserved by historians, books, pictures and now actual models built to scale. In China.

Week 1 Over

First week is over. What a relief. That first couple days of getting settled in, realizing my Chinese wasn’t as good as what I thought, and dealing with the hassles inherent in moving somewhere foreign are finally over. And you know what? I’m glad to be moving forward.

I’m about the only American in my program. I’ve seen white people running around every now and then and yelled out to them only to have a foreign English accent respond. Consequently, I’ve made friends with people from all over the world: Cameroon, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Korea, Japan, China, Germany, etc.

Girl looking just right before taking her picture at Forbidden City

What an amazing opportunity for me to experience the beauty of this world and life through becoming friends with people of completely different nationalities and cultures. It’s amazing to me just how marvelous this life is and how similar we all are to each other all over the world.

Before I became friends with so many, I took the opportunity to sightsee. I saw Mao’s resting place. I saw Tiananmen Square where so much history has taken place. I saw many more things. But then I got to focus more on school activities.

We had opening ceremonies and get to know each other games Friday

Split up into teams for games

. Everyone had the deer in the headlight look. Everyone. So, we set about getting to know each other using the most common language available: English with a dash (if that) of Chinese.

But now, the real fun begins. The tests are in. The results are back. Textbooks are bought. Classes begin 8 a.m. tomorrow. Four months from now, our Chinese should be much better. Friendships will have deepened and important experiences gained.

Moving to a new country is fraught with uncertainty and unexpected requirements. Sometimes, that means more headaches and frustrations than one ever wants in a lifetime. Like when you have money, but no way to access it. Or when you have a visa, but got the wrong category of visa.

Both things happened to me yesterday as I was signing in to school here in Beijing.

First. I had to sign in to my apartment. I couldn’t register with the school until I signed into my apartment and got a form of temporary residence from the apartment. The apartment manager handed me my key and said, you owe the equivalent of about $1,200 US for the semester.

“Can I pay month to month?” I ask. “Nope,” they say in Chinese. “All up front.”

“Can I pay with my credit card?” I ask. “Nope,” they reply. “Only cash accepted.”

I say ok and go to a bank. I put in my credit card and pull out some money. Or at least that’s the idea. Nothing happens. I had already maxed out my daily limit. It was Labor Day in America, so no one would be at work, which meant I couldn’t contact my bank or those who owe me money.

So there I was. Effectively broke with no access to any money, which meant no apartment, which meant no registration for school, which meant…well, I didn’t want to think about that.

Fortunately, a friend of mine who picked me up from the airport spotted me the money and said to pay him back when I could. I said I would pay him back through Paypal.

With the apartment taken care of, next was registering with the school. Things went smoothly until the very last step. They looked at my visa and said, “you have an x visa. You need a physical done.” Now, what I was told before coming to China was that I didn’t need a physical if I stayed here less than six months. However, they didn’t say that I needed one if I had an “x” visa. Had I gotten the work visa “f” then I wouldn’t need the physical.

Unfortunately, by the time I found that out yesterday, everyone had gone home. So, tomorrow, I’m off to the hospital for a physical. Hopefully, nothing will go wrong from here on out.

Lessons learned. Expect complications. Be prepared for anything. Have a friend with you who can help you out in a crisis. And don’t give up. Two steps forward and one step backwards is still moving forward.

China. Beijing no less. I can’t believe I’m here. It’s been over a year since I left this country and now I’m back.

The days leading up to this moment went by too fast. So many friends and family to see and talk to. So little time to spend with each person like I want. I’m not going to lie, going away to live on one’s own carries with it some trepidation. Of course there is much excitement and much to look forward to, but the unknown is a wild frontier where one never knows exactly what will be around the corner.

Anyhow, I flew back to Oklahoma from the wonderful Rocky Mountains of Utah on Tuesday, helped fix a family van, went and slept overnight at my brother’s apartment, then got up the next morning early to take the GMAT. Brutal test, but I did better than the average Joe, which is good enough I guess. That afternoon I met with the Army ROTC Lt. Colonel and then spent some time working at a ranch with a good friend of mine. Thursday was spent visiting another brother in a small town in the northeast part of the state. Friday I took my one and only Army physical fitness test of the semester before going back to my storage unit and going home to pack all my things for this adventure.

I hope I got all I need. If not, oh well. I’ll have to buy anything extra here in China.

But now I’m here. The plane ride is long, but that’s what inflight movies are for. Now, it’s well after 1 a.m. and I can’t go to sleep. I go to check in to my dorm tomorrow morning and get to deal with any complications that may be there. Shouldn’t be, but you never know.

Hint to those who are studying abroad. Find a friend to pick you up from the airport and help you get settled in at the school you’ll be at. It will save a lot of time and effort on your part.

Everything is set. My bags are packed. Play time is over. I am heading to China.

But not for six more days. Sigh. What am I going to do?

Everyone else is in school. They just finished their first week. They are getting ready for the first big break of the fall semester: BarBQing while watching their beloved OU football team trounce the University of Texas at El Paso Saturday, Sept. 1. And I? I will be on my beloved plane headed for China. And sadly, I will not witness this football game. Nor will I participate in any Labor Day activities. Come to think of it, all the holidays that we love to celebrate in America I will miss this semester. And why? Because I had this overpowering urge to study abroad in China and China’s semesters are different than America’s. They don’t celebrate Christmas or New Year’s. They have a Chinese New Year’s which they celebrate towards the end of January, but it’s on the Lunar Calendar so it changes every year.

So, yes, I will not return from this epic adventure/study abroad until two weeks after January 1, right in time for the next semester to start up at the University of Oklahoma. In fact, I think I’ll have little less than a week to recuperate, get over jet lag and find an apartment to live in before school starts up in Norman. Sometimes I wonder why I do this to myself? Why do I put myself through so much? But after the experience I realize it was totally worth it.

For example, wMt. Timpanogas meadowithin the last two weeks, I have hiked Mt. Timpanogas, camped at some hot springs, hiked all over Zion’s National Park in Southern Utah and returned to Mt. Timp (as the locals like to call it) to camp over night. It’s been outstanding. My legs have hurt from the intense hiking, but I figure it is good exercise. I mean, Timp is over 12,000 feet above sea level. The hike begins at around 6,000 feet and round trip is over 14 miles. Now that’s intense! And so much fun! Not to mention it’s been a nice break from my Chinese studies. I have to prepare because China tests everyone who comes to study on their Chinese skills to place them in the appropriate classes. So, I want to get into the best classes possible.

Anyway, my name is John. I am going to Beijing, China. I will write once a week about my experiences. Maybe more this semester while I am studying abroad. I am stoked to go. I have my passport, my visa, my plane ticket. And I have to wait six days before I can get on that plane and depart. Meanwhile, everyone else is busy at school. Sigh. But it is a small price to pay for the epic adventure that is coming my way. Oh. And I’m a Mormon.

Though I’ve been in Japan for almost 2 months now, this is my first blog post. The first month alone was more hectic than a whole year back at home! So far, I’ve gotten more used to the lifestyle here and things have slowed down. Despite having been to a lot of places here in Japan, and experiencing a lot of different things, I’ll start off slow and work my way through what I’ve done slowly until I catch up with what’s currently happening. So how about I introduce myself… and some Japanese food!

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See you later Istanbul…

In Turkey, when you part ways, it is not common to say ‘goodbye’ but rather, ‘see you later’. ‘Görüşmek’ in Turkish means ‘to meet’. Adding the ‘ürüz’ to the end changes the word to mean ‘we will meet soon’. How Turks bid each other farewell tell a lot about their culture and their outlook on life. My short time here has shown me that Turks enjoy the moment, and questions about the uncertain future are left to the future. Turks like the serendipitous nature of life, and like to leave all possibilities open. Saying ‘görüşürüz’ to my friends here has not been a heart-wrenching task, but rather a joyful ‘hello’ to the next phase. The Turks around me do not dwell on the time I will be away, but they smile and wholeheartedly wish me the best of luck. My friends do not know when they will seen again, but they smile at the possibility of a future meeting.

I have come to feel, that in our culture, we fear an uncertain future. We seek to plan almost every moment, and become filled with anxiety when an unknown factor enters the equation. Unknown possibilities often frighten us, especially when parting from loved ones. We ask ourselves, “When will we meet again?”, “Will we get to speak to each other frequently?”. “What if this or that?”. We are nearly paralyzed with these questions, unable to look forward positively to a future full of countless possibilities. This is why, in my time in Turkey, I have come to admire the Turkish outlook of life.

Instead of obsessing or dwelling on the future they leave it up to the cosmos. You will often hear Turks say, ‘inşallah’, when referring to the future. “God willing” they say. It is not so much a religious mantra, but an acknowledgment that not everything can be controlled. We are only capable of so much in this world, everything else must be left up to chance.

So, as I leave an amazing city, country, and people, I do not shed tears of sadness, but of joy. I smile, bittersweetly, at the end of one chapter and beginning of another. I am filled with excitement at the possibilities the future may hold. I hope to return to Turkey upon graduation in December, but as I have learned here, nothing can be certain in the future. I must keep my heart and mind open, and enjoy the unexpected twists and turns life may bring me. So, as I pack my bags and head back to the US, I smile and say,

İstanbul, görüşürüz inşallah…

After the end of every song, my Turkish friend Semih, without fail, would sit straight clapping and smiling as he said enthusiastically, “çok iyi ya!” “So good” he proclaimed! Semih, my tall, thin friend from Tokat, could not have described the notes and rhythms  of Erkan Oğur any better.

Last weekend, a student group at Bogazici, working in collaboration with a Turkish organization called ILKYAR, invited the famous Turkish folk musician Erkan Oğur to perform at a concert benefiting ILKYAR. The organization travels to schools all across Turkey with the aim of promoting a broader world view and to encourage education in very rural areas of Turkey (http://www.ilkyar.org.tr/).

Erkan Oğur grew up in Southeastern Turkey where he showed a keen interest in traditional and folk Turkish music. Oğur mostly performs ancient Turkish and folk music using such instruments as the ‘bağlama’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ba%C4%9Flama) and ‘oud’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oud). I was amazed at the age of some of the pieces performed. “This is a song from Urfa during the 15th century,” Esad would inform me. Then even more astounding was listening to the audience, in perfect harmony and unison, singing along with the melody. Wide-eyed and smiling, I was blown away by the lasting impact each song seemed to have. The melody, rhythm, and lyrics were ageless, spanning generations and from one empire to the next to the Turkish Republic. During intermission, my Turkish friends, who had first informed me of the concert, taught me a little piece of folk music trivia. When many of these pieces were written, copyright, as we know it, did not exist. So, the composers would sneakily work their name into the lyrics towards the end of the song. Moreover, they said when you hear the name it is an indication that the song was coming to the end.

Watching Erkan Oğur play is fascinating. His eyes appear half closed, as if he is in deep thought. Between notes, his hand floats back and forth above his bağlama. At one point I felt myself drifting off into a dream-like state, not out of boredom but in meditation. Each note was weighted, emotional, played from the heart. Erkan Oğur seems to have a way to pull each of the listeners into his trance. You cannot simply listen to the music he plays, you must experience it.

If you are interested in listening to Erkan Oğur renditions of Turkish folk music, my personal favorites are: ‘Pencereden Kar Geliyor’ (Snow Comes From the Window), ‘Dersimde Dört Dağ İçinde’ (Dersim is in Between Four Mountains), and ‘Zeynebim’ (My Zeynep).

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