Chinese New Year Festivities

Renae Laurice Meana is a 3rd year Global Studies major studying at Yale-NUS College in Singapore this semester. As many of you know, Chinese New Year was a few weeks ago. As we begin the Year of the Pig, read what Renae experienced in Singapore to learn more about some of the holiday traditions around the world!

It’s the beginning of February, which means it’s holiday season in Singapore. Chinese Singaporeans are the largest ethnic group, accounting for almost ¾ of the total Singaporean population. Although the holidays may be considered over in the U.S., it feels as if it’s just beginning here. I can feel it and see it all around me.

Outside of MRT stations there are stands selling so many Chinese New Year related items. With Chinese music playing in the background of the stalls, there are red and gold decorations being sold alongside cute plush pigs since it is the year of the pig. Malls are decorated with displays of red lanterns, pigs, tangerines, and oranges (as this fruit signifies wealth and luck for the upcoming year). Booths selling goodies such as dried fruits and traditional cookies are found everywhere in the mall. At most malls, there are huge displays with all the different fortunes and predictions for the upcoming year for you, based on the year you were born. The fortunes include predictions on your health, career, love life, financial state, and more. It’s actually pretty funny how in depth they can be. For example, one of my roommates’ fortunes predicted pretty bad luck for a majority of the categories, but it did say she would find her life partner this year. The actual accuracy and validity of these fortunes is debatable. My roommates and I love reading them and seeing how they differ from mall to mall. Even the big transnational brands in the mall are targeting shoppers during the holiday season. Walking into H&M, all the advertisements feature Chinese models wearing red dresses, tops, sweaters, and suits. Beyond the shopping mall, what I love to scout out are the fast food chains and their special menu items for the New Year. McDonald’s has prosperity burgers and prosperity punch while KFC and Burger King sell New Year’s bundle meals.

Chinese New Year almost feels equivalent to Thanksgiving back in the U.S. I was able to enjoy a five-day weekend since my classes were cancelled on Monday for New Year’s Eve and Tuesday and Wednesday were considered public holidays in Singapore for the celebrations. The campus felt quite emptier, as most Singaporean students went back home to celebrate the holiday with their family. Only one dining hall was open to accommodate international students who would be staying on campus during the holiday. Speaking to some local students, many of them are exhausted from the festivities. For Chinese Singaporeans, Chinese New Year means visiting the houses of all their relatives, no matter how distant. However, what was really nice was that Yale-NUS’s president and his wife opened up their house for a Chinese New Year celebration for students that were on campus. It was a very welcoming event with a beautifully laid out table with many Chinese New Year treats and desserts. It was a really thoughtful event and a great way for international students to engage in the celebrations.

An incredible and unforgettable event that I went to with my suite was the Lunar New Year celebrations next to Marina Bay Sands. Being within a crowd of red and seeing the vibrancy of the celebrations with the music, food, and dance in the background was electric. Many families and couples were out and about to celebrate. There were so many beautiful lanterns that glowed throughout the night. Fireworks are actually illegal in Singapore so you won’t find individual households setting them off. However, the firework show put on by the Singaporean government made up for it. I have seen so many images and have watched live television broadcasts of fireworks shows during the New Year, but seeing it in person was an incredible experience.

It’s a couple weeks later and the celebrations are still going on strong. I am so glad to be in Singapore during such a festive time. The city is decorated beautifully in celebration of the New Year to bring in prosperity for the coming year. It truly feels as if the holiday season never really stopped after leaving the U.S.


Food Customs in Italy

Ariana Piacquadio is a 3rd year Italian and Global Environment and Sustainability double major. This spring 2019 semester, she is studying in Italy on the UVA in Italy: Siena program. Now that she has settled into her life in Italy, read what she has noticed and learned about food culture there.

A view of Siena, Italy from the top of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

There’s a reason Italy is famous for its food. Granted, it’s a bit of a stereotype to say that all Italians know how to cook and that all Italian food is amazing. However, I think I’ve eaten better food here in the past three weeks than I’ve had in my life, so maybe there’s something to it.

The standard Italian breakfast varies slightly depending on the region you live in. Here in Tuscany, most of my friends and I have experienced small and sweet breakfasts. Generally, you won’t be eating eggs or avocado toast to start your day in Italy. Most mornings, my lovely host mom leaves me cereal, Nutella, these toasted bread crackers that are kind of like big, unflavored croutons, and of course espresso. When I walk to school, I see crowded bars full of people eating pastries and coffee on their way to work. Apparently, it’s not entirely out of place order a glass of white wine with breakfast, as I witnessed someone do this just the other day.

Lunch is harder for me to pin down because I usually have to grab something quick between classes. I’m still not sure exactly what is customary. For me, I either eat focaccia from the Panificio close by, or a mix of cooked vegetables and bread from a local grocery store our group has nicknamed “fake whole foods”. If you go to a restaurant, most don’t serve lunch until 12:30 at the earliest.

My meal of trofie con pesto at Caposantachiara Ristorante in Genova, Italy

Finally, there’s dinner, which usually begins around 8:00 p.m. here. Back in the states, I’m used to a single, large meal, but Italians do this differently. The dinner begins with aperitivo, an appetizer. When I eat with my host family, we always skip this part of the meal, but I’ve noticed in restaurants that they’re very common. Next follows i primi piatti, which in my experience is almost always pasta or soup. My host mom waits until I finish this to bring out the next part of the meal, i secondi piatti. This is usually some kind of meat, but my host family is vegetarian like me so most nights we have a vegetable dish. The meal ends with dolci e caffe when I eat in a restaurant, but at home we eat fruit. Also at the restaurants, it’s very common to order a liter or two of red wine (unless you’re eating fish, in that case you drink white wine). Wine is a huge staple of the meal and living in the Chianti region makes it very easy for me to get on board with this custom.

Good food is one of the first things people associate with Italy and while there are so many layers to this place, it’s true that food is a huge part of the culture. I’m still learning the many nuances of the customs here and how they vary in every region. I feel lucky to live with a host family, where it’s easier for me to see how daily Tuscan families eat and live.

Italian Summer Memories: Contrada Festival

As we head into winter break let’s take a look back to summer! Christopher Fitzpatrick is a third-year mechanical engineering major who spent his 2018 summer on the UVA in Italy: Siena program. Read below how his experience of a contrada festival took him back to childhood memories of home.



When I was growing up, I lived on a cul-de-sac in a suburban neighborhood. Families with children lived in every house on my street, so Razor-scooter races and wiffleball matches occupied most afternoons and weekends throughout the summer. Every August, the neighborhood would host a block party. Fathers would wheel their grills to one family’s driveway while us children would squeal around in another family’s backyard and spray each other with water guns. The late afternoons would always consist of a main event—one year it was homemade mini golf course, another year it was a family-versus-family obstacle course—and evenings would always begin with a barbecue under a rented tent. Over time, people would age, families would move away, and the block parties would end for good, but I am still nostalgic of those memories.

Those memories unexpectedly surfaced last night. After three of my friends and I cooked pasta in their apartment, we were invited to join some other study-abroad students for our friend’s birthday celebration at the overwatch—a park we named for its incredible view of the Siena skyline. On our walk over, we were greeted by something that looked like a block party; fathers drank beer as they grilled various meats, small children ran around and screamed (quite loudly), adolescents hung out in cliques, and an entire neighborhood ate a massive dinner together under a graduation-party-style tent. We found a contrada festival.

My Italian roommates have explained contrada festivals to me before. Siena contrade—or neighborhoods—host massive block parties every summer around the time of the Palio di Siena—a famous horse race that takes place in the center of the city. Temporary performance stages, hired gelato vendors, games that in one way or another relate to the Palio, and excited chattering facilitate an atmosphere of tradition and community. These events further indicate the Siena population’s pride toward their contrade. I have woken up in the middle of the night several times to contrade rallies and their sounds of melodic hollering and drum-beating, and flags of each of the 17 contrade now fly along most of the city streets. In the Piazza del Campo—the city center—fences are already put in place for the race, and everyone sounds just a little more excited. Siena may be a “small” city, but it is overflowing in tradition, pride, and culture. The Palio is approaching, and it is palpable in the air.


Japan: Weekend Homestay

Leah Corbett, a 4th year Japanese major, spent the spring semester studying on the JF Oberlin University: Reconnaissance Japan Program in Tokyo. Read about her homestay experience below, check our her own blog at, and watch her “daily snapshot” video at

This past weekend, I did a two-day, one-night homestay. I and another student from India, Gopi, stayed at the home of a woman, Takahashi-san, who works at Oberlin. I remember when I first signed up to do a homestay through Oberlin’s Office of International Programs, the vision that automatically came to my mind was staying with a nuclear family – I think that’s the typical vision – so I was a little surprised when I got the notification that I would be staying with one person. However, I think it brings up an important point, which is that not everyone lives in that style of household. I think it turned out to be an enjoyable experience for all three of us!

We met up on Saturday morning, and then went shopping for food. Gopi and I are both vegetarian, and Takahashi-san was very thoughtful in making sure we would have a good choice of food during our time with her. We even stopped by a Japanese sweets store and picked out something for each of us.

This is a flower made of sweet bean paste which I got at the sweets shop. It was almost too pretty to eat.

Once we got settled in at her place, Takahashi-san began preparing ingredients for making vegetable sushi rolls. Since I’ve been in Japan, I have not yet been able to eat any kind of sushi here because veggie rolls aren’t a normal thing that is sold here, like they sometimes are in the U.S., so I was excited to be able to eat some and experiment with fillings. She cut the nori (seaweed) into smaller sections so we could make lots of individual rolls with different ingredients.

If you look closely, there are two tiny dollops of wasabi in this roll. I was scared of trying any more than that.

Later that day, we went to a piano performance, which Gopi had been invited to. It was rainy and we had to take the train a little ways to get there, but it was relaxing and a nice evening excursion for us.

The next day for a midday snack, Gopi showed us how to make chapati, a type of flatbread from India. We ate it along with a mango pickle which she brought with her to Japan.

All in all, it was a cool experience because there was cultural exchange going more than one way, with us eating both Japanese and Indian food during our time there. It was an enriching experience which especially demonstrated just how important food is in the varying cultures in the world. I’m glad I decided to try out a homestay!

Experiences in Milan

As we continue to look back at experiences students had last spring, let’s turn to Linjiang Han, a Commerce major who studied in Milan, Italy on the UVA Commerce: Third Year Core: Universita Bocconi program to finish off her third year. In this post, she writes about her thoughts from during her second month in Italy!

One of my biggest challenges since coming to Italy is the use of clothes drying racks instead of dryers. I asked around and realized other European countries also use drying racks. When I lived in the United States, I used to wash my clothes once every two or three weeks. After coming here, I must wash my clothes every week because of the lag time for my clothes to dry as well as the small size of the washing machine.

Another difference is that the grocery stores and product container sizes can be much smaller than they are in the United States. I find this to be a fact that is rooted in culture and not likely to change. In the stores, there is also not as many selections as I am used to and prices can be higher due to the cost of living in Milan and the euro-to-dollar exchange rate. I try to save on expenses by finding less expensive restaurants and places to buy food in bulk.
Not only are the grocery store prices high, but also restaurant prices. While you do not tip in Italy, there are sitting fees that are essentially mandatory tips. These sitting fees are generally €2.50. Once, I thought I should save money and ate a small meal that was €4.50 only to realize the sitting fee costed over 55% of what I ate. To get around this problem, especially when I’m traveling and prices can sometimes be exorbitant in the first place, I will eat at cafes or small establishments where there is no sitting fee. However, when it comes to eating authentic Italian food, especially ones specific to a region, I am willing to pay more money for it. In the following photographs are some of the local foods I’ve eaten: Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia (Squid Ink Pasta) from Venice and Polenta e Osèi (Polenta Cake) from Bergamo.
Related to food, another challenge I encountered when I came to Milan was the late dinner time because of aperitivo. Since then, I have fully adjusted by to it by eating lunch at a later time or eating a snack around lunch time. After coming to Milan, I have realized that not only is my body affected by meal times, but that many Italian businesses tend to take a lunch break. Even at the university’s help desk, there is a three-hour window in the middle of the day when it is closed. Therefore, I am now accustomed to checking hours of operation if I want to go someplace close to lunch time.

Additionally, everyone places great efforts in sorting out trash in Italy. For example, we have five different trash bins in my apartment with one each for plastic, paper, glass, organic waste, and miscellaneous. In addition, personal bathroom trash must be taken out by each occupant that day. I was not used to taking out the trash every day, so it was an initial challenge to remember every day.

I have been exploring Milan by going to different neighborhoods/bureaus of the city. When I went to the northwest part of the city, I was surprised to find a Chinatown. I later asked around and discovered there is a large Chinese population in Milan. After my realization, I asked some Chinese speaking locals about their immigration and was informed they immigrated to Italy when the economy in the country was good and particularly because they already had friends in Milan. This really resonated with me because I immigrated to the U.S. from China. Beside is a picture I took when the Chinese New Year was approaching and I saw there was a lot of decorations in Chinatown. On Chinese New Year, there were so many Chinese gathered that could cause someone to think they were not in Italy anymore.

Unfortunately, I have had more practice speaking Chinese than Italian since I came to Italy. My Italian is very poor and I also cannot roll my r’s. Some Italians assume I cannot speak Italian because I am Asian and they are correct in this case. Once or twice, people have greeted me with “konnichiwa” or “nihao.” The most Italian I have used is to order food to the lunch lady or the basic phrases such as “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” However, I shall endeavor to learn more Italian while I also explore more of Milan.

My exploration of Milan includes going to its different museums. From my visits, I learned a lot about the history of the city I’m currently studying abroad in.  For example, in Milan, there is one central canal with many restaurants known as Navigli. However, in one of the museums, I learned Milan was once more like Venice with many canals but, due to industrialization, most of the old canals were covered over by concrete and Navigli now remains the only main canal in Milan. While I thought this was rather tragic, I am glad Navigli is still around as I often go there for aperitivo and enjoy the view (seen on the left). I believe that anyone who lives in Milan must have seen this beautiful view as they pass by Navigli.

Through walking around Milan and sometimes taking spontaneous routes and detours, I am becoming more attuned to the pulse of the city. I believe by the end of my experience, I will feel like a real local rather than just a student who attends one of its universities.

A big part of my goal for coming to Italy was not just getting to know Milan, as I wrote about in my last blog, but the country itself. By going to other Italian cities besides Milan, I have been able to see the part of Italy that’s less business-focused. In smaller towns like Bergamo, an hour away from Milan, the pace of life is slower, though definitely not lackadaisical, in which Italians take time to eat meals or sit in a gorgeous park to read. On the other hand, in cities like Venice where tourists outpopulate the locals, many of the locals I find are around retirement age and often keep to themselves.

I believe I am learning more about Italy, not only through a third-person point of view of traveling, but also interacting with local Italians wherever I go. In Venice, I talked to a local who actually spoke Chinese to me, a huge indication of the number of Chinese tourists who visit the city, and we discussed the city itself. He told me about the pollution of the canals that is not only caused by tourists, which I had previously assumed, but mostly because of the wastes from nearby plastic factories. When I brought up how the U.S. would usually fine such companies to clean up the waste, he replied that the red tape of the system means that these factories wouldn’t really be fined. I found this topic really fascinating because I don’t think I would have researched something like this before going to Venice and I got to see Venice beyond all the touristy canals and through the lens of a local.

Currently I have traveled to six different Italian northern cities, most of which are close to Milan. My travels have provided me the opportunity to practice Italian. Since Bocconi is an international school and my classes are all in the English, I don’t meet many Italians at school. When I go to stores and shops, I use very basic Italian phrases such as “how much.” Through my travels, I seek to gain a better understanding of the Italian lifestyle and culture that are shaped by the country’s history and geographical location. Later this semester, I hope to visit more Italian places, both cities and small towns, in my efforts to become more educated about the country I am living in.

Thanksgiving in Jordan

Dominick Giovanniello attended the 2016-2017 CET: Intensive Arabic Language in Amman, Jordan program as a Third Year. He studies Middle Eastern Language and Literature and Global Security and Justice. As we prepare for break here in Charlottesville, let’s look back a year ago to his experience celebrating Thanksgiving abroad.

Out of all the holidays, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite. We celebrate it simply back home, but I still love gathering friends and family together and gorging myself on delicious food. However, I’ve never considered Thanksgiving a real holiday or celebration of anything meaningful to my life. To me it’s just a good excuse to bring people together and eat. And for that reason, explaining Thanksgiving to my Jordanian friends was rather difficult, since Jordanian families tend to be closer and don’t need a non-religious holiday as an excuse to gather.

Nevertheless, this past week we held a Thanksgiving celebration at the CET building, complete with all of the traditional Thanksgiving staples like turkey (probably the best I’ve ever had) and mashed potatoes. The day started early, with a couple of students slaving away preparing dishes while the rest drank and milled about. Although most of our language partners, teachers and Jordanian roommates were present, I noticed that they largely stuck to themselves, in large part, I suspect, due to the presence of alcohol. And as the day wore on, I noticed that the separation between the two groups became more acute.

Although none of the Americans were belligerent or exceedingly annoying, it was obvious that many were intoxicated and that the Jordanians felt uncomfortable because of it. Additionally, none of them could relate to the topics of conversation or to the shared cultural knowledge of the Americans, for lack of a better term. For example, when “Country Road,” the ubiquitous song in all American college parties, came on over the speakers, practically the entire group stood up and began to sing along lustily, while the Jordanians looked on in confused amusement.

To be entirely honest, I didn’t enjoy Thanksgiving this year. Although it was fun to let loose and enjoy some of the comforts, activities and foods I associate with home, I felt like I was under a microscope and that the Jordanians were judging us the entire time. In my opinion, opening up and celebrating or discussing your culture in a foreign country induces a considerable amount of pressure and makes you feel incredibly vulnerable. I think a large part of it is due to having lived overseas before and being one of the only Americans in a school full of Italians and Brits at the height of the Iraq war when anti-American sentiment was really common in Europe.

To me this Thanksgiving was a reminder that cultural dialogue and exchange are not something that just happens, nor is it an entirely innocent process. You have to make an effort to share your culture and be open to learning about another person’s, but at the same time you’re also aware of your own role as an unofficial ambassador, which inserts a tremendous amount of pressure into interactions and events that you would never notice normally at home. For this reason, living overseas can be really exhausting and stressful, even if you’re just going to the grocery store or doing something mundane like that.

I wonder if immigrants in America feel this way, especially immigrants from non-Western cultures. Because no matter how welcoming or accepting another culture is, there’s always a pressure to conform and change your behavior to the cultural norms of your host country, while at the same time challenging stereotypes and misconceptions. And if I’m feeling this kind of pressure as an American student in Jordan for a year, I can’t begin to imagine how tough it must be for Arab immigrants in the U.S. (or for anyone who gets lumped in the same group), especially in light of our post-9/11 society and attitudes.