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.

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Religions of Korea

Jonathan Thomas is a Second Year student, currently enrolled in the UVA Exchange: Seoul National University Program in Seoul, South Korea.

Seoul National University is nestled into a contour on the side of one of Seoul’s largest mountains, Gwankak mountain. The mountain is located to the south of the city, and like most of Korea, is particularly picturesque during the fall months when the trees covering the mountains turn from green to autumnal colors. Getting off at Gwacheon station puts you at the base of the mountain path that begins the ascent to the top of Gwanak mountain.  The path winds its way up, following a clear stream which makes it way down the mountain in the opposite direction.

Just before the peak of the mountain, there are a series of buildings, where you’ll find an ornate and active Buddhist temple, with its members still operating and maintaining the temple. However, this isn’t out of the ordinary. Walking up to the top and finding a temple is quite common in Korea, with many of them located on or around mountains. This doesn’t mean that Buddhists or Buddhist monks are in anyway secluded. Often times you’ll see monks with their heads shaved dressed in gray robes riding the subway. Additionally, if you take the bus from Seoul National University to the closest subway station on the east side of the school, you will be thrust into the busy area of Nakseongdae station. The busy streets are home to coffee shops, restaurants, stores, and churches. The churches are highlighted by the spires jutting up from them, but apart from this they look like any other building on the street.

What is remarkable about this is the coexistence of both of these religions in harmony. Many times, religions butt heads, clash in their ideology and generally don’t get along. While there have been rises and falls in popularity of both religions in Korea over the centuries, Korea has had a history of religious acceptance, especially of foreign religions, and the divide between Christianity and Buddhism is about fifty-fifty. This has created a dynamic that has continued into the present. The religious order of Korea isn’t something of tension, but rather a virtue, where the religion you hold is your belief and the religion another person holds is their own belief. This has created a society where Buddhist temples and Christian churches sit virtually side-by-side without the slightest hint of animosity.

While this may seem trivial, to me it’s a refreshing reassurance. Currently, there are quite a lot religious conflicts spread across the world, and these conflicts are some of the most difficult to resolve. Therefore, to see a country and culture like Korea where two religions can coexist, sans conflict, gives me hope that those conflicts have some sort of resolution, and makes me appreciated Korea for its unique cultural aspects like this one.

Rethinking Food Security

Devan Kaufman is a 4th year studying Global Studies currently abroad with SIT International Honors: Rethinking Food Security. Currently in India, the program will also visit Tanzania and Italy.
Devan Kaufman (me) on a rooftop in Ahmedabad wearing a necklace of marigolds and a dot of red with rice pressed in on my forehead – a traditional welcome.
A rickshaw: these are common modes of transportation and what I used in getting to and from class.
One of the oldest tea shops in the market visited – selling for over 100 years.
Workers standing on the side of a truck of whole coconuts for the wholesaler.
 Wholesale bags of goods at the market.
Colorful sand used for Diwali (the Hindu festival of lights) in the making of rangolis (a traditional art form of colored patterns created on the floor commonly using dyed rice or sand).
Some traditional sweets.
Anna purna: a program I studied that serves food to day laborers for a cheap price: Daal, roti, rice and a sweet.
One of AMUL’s headquarters where milk is processed. India has the largest milk co – op and visiting this processing site was part of my studies.
Rooftop city view.
An alter for Diwali.
Pastoralists with their cows: Their livelihoods are constantly being threatened with globalization and a shift towards industrialization and ignoring biodiversity.
A few indigenous cows.

Stunning Sights of Japan

Caroline Jordan is a 4th Year student studying Psychology. She is attending the UVA Exchange: Waseda University program this semester.

Taken in Harajuku, this photo shows the famous Takeshita Street, famed for its relevance to youth culture. The picture shows how crowded this popular shopping and fashion area gets, with both tourists and locals examining the youthful fashion culture in stores.

Taken at the Asakusa Shrine, this photo shows the long road of shops and vendors leading to the temple. Food, charms, and souvenirs are sold here, before entering the Shinto shrine.

This photo is of myself in the Tokyo Metropolitan Building observation area. For such a large and populous city, the view is serene from above it all.

Two Waseda University students show the exchange students how to observe the proper rituals at the Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine in Kawagoe.

I took this photo in Kawagoe, a traditional town. Around the town, there were many of these “love fortunes” pictured here. Fortunes are common in the shrines and temples here, but this is the only city where I have seen so many love fortunes placed around!

Taken near Palette Town in Odaiba, this photo shows buildings making up the famous skyline. I took it to show the unique architecture of even the standard office buildings in Tokyo.

UVA Exchange: Seoul National University

Elizabeth Kim is an Economics major, who attended the Spring 2017 UVA Exchange: Seoul National University Program in her third year.

This is a picture of the streets of Hongdae. It’s always so crowded, especially when there are street performers like in the picture! You can’t really tell who is the performer because the crowd is so huge! There is always one section of the road in Hongdae where there are many street performs dancing to or singing popular Korean pop songs. I thought it was interesting that in the U.S., many street performers are also asking for money, but here it is a lot of young people that want to show off their talents.

As exchange students, we are part of a program called SNU Buddy where we are put in groups with Korean students who help us get settled and create group events. One event was to have our own jangteo called International Food Day. It was the biggest jangteo on campus, as seen in the picture! Students from many different countries cooked two dishes from their country that could sell a lot. I participated as well on the U.S. team and we decided to make chili and fried Oreos. The fried Oreos sold really well because many Koreans hadn’t seen it before and they all said it was a food that they would expect to come from the U.S. because it was fried and would have very many calories.

From April 27 to May 7 is the Lotus Lantern Festival to celebrate Buddha’s birthday, which is on May 3. These are some of the lanterns that were put up at Bongeunsa Temple in Gangnam. It’s always cool to see historical monuments tucked away in the huge city of Seoul. The lanterns were so pretty to look at.

Lotte World at night was very pretty. This is a part of the portion of the park that is outdoors. I thought it resembled the castle at Disneyworld! Its interesting one company, like Lotte, that can be involved in so many things. For example, Lotte runs this amusement park but also many department stores, fast food restaurants, hotels, and many more.

This is the cherry blossom festival in the beginning of April. Though there are many cherry blossoms all around Korea, one of the popular places to go see them is at Seokchon Lake, where this picture was taken. I submitted this picture because you can see how crowded it was! Afterwards, I could understand why everyone wanted to go see the cherry blossoms – they’re only in bloom for about 1 – 2 weeks.

More street food in Hongdae!! There are always so many street food trucks and it’s tempting to stop at each one. There are especially many in Hongdae because it is a very popular location for young people to go to eat, drink, and shop. Here, my friend and I are eating fried dumplings and the vendor is also selling tteokbokki (spicy rice cake) and odeng (fish cake).

UVA in Costa Rica

Mariam Gbadamosi attended the UVA in Costa Rica Program in Summer 2017.

This picture was taken in the market in the city of Grecia in the province of Alajuela in Costa Rica. This picture showcases many of the fruits that are characteristic of Costa Rican cuisine like pineapple, coconut, and watermelon. Ticos, as they refer to themselves, visit their local market to buy fresh fruits and foods.

This picture was taken in the coastal city of Jacó, which is in the province of Puntarena. The picture showcases the beach landscape and the mountains in the backgrounds.

This is a picture of the uninhabited Tortuga Island in the Gulf of Nicoya. The island is undisturbed and home to many animals and numerous species of plant.

This picture showcases murals on the ceiling of the Iglesia de Costa Rica.

This picture was taken in the central plaza of the city of Alajuela. It showcases the Iglesia or church of Alajuela, which is central to the community.

This picture was taken in the central plaza of the city of Alajuela and showcases the park. One can see the city landscape and locals enjoying a stroll through the park.

This picture was taken in Juan Santamaria park in the city of Alajuela. The mural depicts the events of the invasion of Costa Rica by Willian Walker in 1856 and the heroic acts of Juan Santamaria, a soldier for the Costa Rican army. He is recognized as a national hero.

This picture was taken in ICLC, where we studied Spanish during the program. The image showcases the landscape of the area and one of the classrooms of the institute.

The catholic church is always the physical center of the Costa Rican city, because it is central to the lives of the people. This picture was taken inside the church and showcases the religious imagery.

This picture was taken in the market in the city of Grecia in the province of Alajuela in Costa Rica. This picture shows one of the many shops that make up the market and the people that work there. In addition, one can see plantains which are a staple of the Costa Rican diet.

Falles de València 2017: Patrimoni Immaterial de la Humanitat

Thomas Sumner is a second year Spanish major spending the spring semester on UVA in Valencia: Business. Read the rest of his Valencia blog at https://thomastravels.tumblr.com/.

Fallas of Valencia 2017: Intangible World Heritage

Fallas. Where do I even begin? Professors and other students talked up this festival to me long before I arrived in Valencia, and now I know why. Even after having lived through it, I still find it difficult to explain the “locura” (madness) that is “las Fallas.” The celebration is truly unlike any other, and although I doubt my words will be able to fully explain the celebration or convey what an incredible experience it was, I’ll try my best!

Fallas is a festival of fire that takes place in the city of Valencia every year from March 15th to 19th. During this time, huge, brightly painted wooden sculptures are erected in plazas and public areas and are ultimately burned to the ground with fireworks displays at midnight on the 19th. From the minute the clock strikes 12:01 am the morning of March 15th (and honestly, even way before that point – certain festivities begin as early as February 3rd!) until the moment the last ember dies out, the city of Valencia is in a perpetual, 24 hour “fiesta loca.”

Here’s an example of a falla (the Falla Cuba-Literato Azorín, to be precise)

As if the opportunity to be living in Valencia and experience all this wasn’t cool enough, my best friend Sam joined me for the week! I loved getting the chance to celebrate Fallas with her 🙂

The most commonly agreed on explanation for the origin of Fallas dates all the way back to a pagan celebration during the middle ages. Because of scarce daylight hours during the months of winter, Valencian carpenters frequently labored far after the sun had set. In order to continue working without daylight, the carpenters would hang oil lamps from precariously built wooden structures. As winter came to an end and the days lengthened, these structures were no longer necessary, and the carpenters would set them on fire to celebrate the Spring Equinox and the lengthening of the days. Eventually, the celebration was Christianized and made to coincide with “La diada de Sant Josep” to honor Saint Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary and the patron saint of carpenters. The day of Saint Joseph always falls on the 19th of March, and is also when Father’s Day is celebrated throughout Spain.

These crude wooden structures from the middle ages have evolved so much that they have almost nothing to do with the fallas you’ll see today (except for the fact that they’re flammable). Fallas nowadays are made of what is essentially papier-mâché and sanded wood, painted over in bright colors. Fallas are satirical in nature and normally are designed to poke fun at someone or something (and really, anything is fair game). In this way, fallas vary in style and subject each festival because they offer social and political commentary on the events of the year (you had better believe that there was no shortage of mini Donald Trumpsbeing burnt to the ground in Valencia last weekend, and I can’t say the sight brought me much remorse).

This year, the day of Saint Joseph (also known as the Cremà, the last day of the festival when the burning of the fallas takes place) happened to fall on a Sunday, which was just a coincidence. However, this means that the largest days of the celebration fell on a weekend, allowing many more people from outside of Valencia to take days off and experience the festival. What’s more, 2017 is the first year that Fallas has been recognized by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as intangible world heritage. Both of these factors made the festival even larger (and more crowded) than normal. All in all, it’s estimated that the population of Valencia doubles (some will argue it almost triples) during the week of the celebration. The preliminary numbers indicate that this year’s festival was record breaking, as the city welcomed well over a million tourists and spent around 8 million euros (and remember, that number is even larger when converted to US dollars) on the festivities.

Most “barrios,” or neighborhoods in Valencia have a “casal faller,” a committee that sponsors the neighborhood’s falla. This committee is composed of different residents of the neighborhood who oversee the falla’s design, construction, and erection. The process lasts year-round (no exaggeration – they’ve already begun planning for 2018 and it hasn’t even been a week yet!) and brings neighborhoods together to form tight-knit communities. The process can also be quite costly – many committees sponsor fundraiser paella dinners (a typical Valencian dish) throughout the year to help defray costs. Each year, the neighborhoods enter a friendly competition with each other to see who can sponsor the best falla (as deemed by a committee of judges). To be as fair as possible, neighborhoods are separated into different levels of competition based on their budgets. The top tier of competition consists of neighborhoods that have been sponsoring fallas for years, and are so good at it by now that they can mount absolutely spectacular and humongous fallas (or in other words, they have a huge budget at their disposal). For my pictures of fallas at the bottom of this post, I looked up the names of all the fallas in the top tier of competition. For the rest of them, I’m just going to leave them captionless, because looking up all those names would take forever! Fallas are normally named after the intersection of streets they are placed on, and at times the official names can get pretty lengthy.

As if the normal fallas weren’t enough, each casal faller normally sponsors a falla infantil, a smaller falla (normally more lighthearted and less satirical) for kids to enjoy. Each individual character on a falla is known as a ninot. Each casal faller chooses one ninot that they feel is an example of their best work and most representative of their falla as a whole to be put on display the month before the festival. Leading up to the week of Fallas, anyone can visit the museum and cast a vote for their favorite ninot. The ninot with the most votes becomes the “ninot indultat” of the year. This means the ninot is pardoned from the flames, and is kept in the museum instead of being burned. This is done for both regular fallas and fallas infantiles.

The ninot indultat from this year, depicting a scene that one might see in Valencia’s famous Mercat Central

Each casal faller also chooses one fallera mayor and one faller mayor infantil to represent their neighborhood falla in various ceremonies like parades and events at the town hall. For these events, the girls wear traditional fallera dresses and have their hair done up in a particular style. There is also one fallera mayor and one fallera mayor infantil chosen to represent the entire city, a great honor.

The fallera mayor and one fallera mayor infantil of Valencia, 2017

Walking up and down the streets of the city during Fallas, Valencia sounds like a war zone. You can hear explosions 24 hours a day coming from “petardos,” or firecrackers. If you’re like I was before I came to Valencia, when you hear the word firecrackers, you think of cute, small little packages that pop when you light them on fire. Not in Valencia! Petardos make huge explosions, a very loud bang, char the ground, and flash brightly. They can either be lit from the ground or thrown (theoretically also at the ground, unfortunately sometimes thrown at people). Many Valencians use the illegal variety packed with an excess of gunpowder, which can be quite dangerous if set off incorrectly. Petardos are used every morning around 8 am as part of the “Despertà,” or wake-up call, where partygoers roam the streets and set off explosives to wake up anyone still sleeping and start off the day’s festivities. Although most people exercise common sense and are able to set off petardos without getting hurt, there are inevitably accidents, and the hospital burn units are always busy during the week of Fallas. There are even men who will set off full-on fireworks (which is also illegal) down in the Rio, the drained river that the city of Valencia converted into a park system. It was astonishing for me to see so many young children set off and/or play with these explosives with minimal or no parental supervision. The camp counselor in me wanted to run up and take the explosives out of their hands, but I had to restrain myself.

Venders selling food or knick-knacks out of mobile stations are also very common. Although the sale of food is supposed to be regulated and the vendors are theoretically approved by the health department, we’ll just say from my observations, the standards seem to me a bit more flexible than they might be in the US. I was advised by my host mom to buy food sooner rather than later, as some vendors don’t change the oil they use to fry food in from one day to the next, which makes buying food the last few days kind of dicey. Sam and I took her up on that suggestions, and enjoyed some delicious churros and buñuelos on our first night.

Another quality tip from my host mom was to go out the nights leading up to the beginning of the festival. This way, Sam and I got to see a lot of the fallas without having to deal with crowds. We saw a good number of fallas during the “Plantà,” the process of setting up the fallas, so some of them were only partially constructed. However, it was a lot more pleasant than trying to elbow your way through lots of people in the midday heat. In fact, some families will take their children out at insane times (like 4 am) to see the fallas in order to avoid crowds.

There are lots of events and traditions that go on during the week of Fallas. Every day at 2 pm, there is a Mascletà in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (the town hall square). For this event, the crowds are simply unavoidable. You have to get to the plaza at least an hour early if you want a half decent spot. The Mascletà is similar to a fireworks display, except it’s put on during the day, and the fireworks stay closer to the ground and are even louder. The joke is that the Mascletà is so deafening, you can hardly hear it – but you can feel it! The vibrations you feel from all the explosions, particularly at the finale, are dangerously potent (I’m talking so strong, we were warned to keep our jaws slack to avoid chipping a tooth). What’s even crazier, the Mascletà starts long before fallas do, on the 26thof February to be precise! And seeing as it’s a daily occurrence, the city of Valencia spends a great deal of money on pyrotechnics well before the actual Fallas celebration even begins.

Mascletà in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. The big spaceship-looking tower is the falla of the town hall, which has nothing in particular to do with the Mascletà, they just happen to be in the same place.

There are also many “cavalcadas,” or parades, throughout the week. At any time during the festival, but especially during these parades, you’ll see people dressed up as falleros and falleras, wearing traditional Valencian outfits. You will also hear all sorts of bands and percussion ensembles playing music to rally people up and excite passerby.

(Very cute) falleras infantiles!

Each casal faller has its own parade to the “Plaza de la Virgen” (Plaza of the Virgen, although I feel like in this case the translation was hardly necessary), where they offer bouquets of flowers to the Virgen Mary on behalf of their neighborhood. This is known as the Ofrendà. All of the offerings are used to construct a larger-than-life Virgin Mary made out of flowers that is left on display for the week (and I feel the need to note that this structure is not burned).

However, my favorite of all the Fallas traditions are the castillos, or fireworks shows. They are absolutely stunning, and the photos don’t begin to do them justice. I also must say, as much as I love my country, these fireworks displays put the 4th of July to complete shame. Each night, the show gets bigger and starts even later. The biggest show, the Gran Nit del Foc, doesn’t start until 1:30 am!

But then again, during Fallas, the city never sleeps. This is a week where there are more people in the streets at 5am than at 9am. Fallas is a time where everyone kicks back and enjoys themselves, socializes and unwinds. However, the celebration has negative aspects as well. There is a horrific amount of trash generated in the likes of beer bottles, discarded wrappers, and the remains of fireworks that lie scattered all throughout the streets. Clubs and discos move outside, and blast music at all hours of the day, preventing people who live nearby from sleeping at night. The city infrastructure becomes absolutely paralyzed. Driving anywhere is nearly impossible with so many roads blocked-off to mount fallas, or converted to pedestrian-only for the week. This causes any remaining roads to become insufferably congested with traffic, to the point that it’s really just quicker to walk and save yourself the trouble and the gas. The metro still runs, but it becomes insanely crowded and everyone is shoved into the train like sardines (Sam and I got to experience this firsthand on multiple occasions). Businesses are shut down for the holiday and it can be difficult or near impossible to run errands or get things done during the festival. And this is not to mention the considerable environmental impact of so many fireworks, Mascletà’s, and burning fallas. For these reasons and more, some residents of Valencia dislike the Fallas, and others leave the city for the week altogether. Many residents stand somewhere in the middle, as they enjoy the celebration but dislike the effects it has on the city. My host mom is of this persuasion – she told me that she has seen enough of Fallas in her day that she would have left the city for the week had I not been staying with her. However, from my perception at least, the majority of Valencians seem to enjoy Fallas and are proud of what it represents for them in terms of cultural heritage.

Last but certainly not least, at midnight on the 19th is the “Cremà” (burning), the fiery end to the festival. Explosives are laid underneath the fallas, and when the clock strikes the hour, they are ignited. The fallas infantiles burn at 10 pm, the regular fallas burn at midnight, and the big falla by the town hall burns at 1am. These times tend to vary based on the amount of firefighters available to supervise and control the burning. Fallas that have won awards may also be burned later so more people can come to watch. I was amazed at how quickly the fallas burned, and how I could feel the heat from the fire even being a considerable distance away. At first, I thought it was sad that artists spend the whole year crafting these beautiful sculptures, only to burn them to ashes. And it is sad, in a way. But I now understand that it is all done in the spirit of the Fallas. The festival reminds us that beauty is not eternal and doesn’t last forever, and neither do the fallas. The Cremà symbolizes rebirth, a sort of purification through fire – out with the old, in with the new.

The Cremà on a Sunday night

I can now say with certainty that the title of World Heritage is well-deserved by the Fallas! I consider myself so fortunate to have been able to experience such an incredible festival firsthand and will always treasure my memories from this week.

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