Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Milan: City of Trickery

This past weekend, G. (’19), J. (’20), and I travelled to Milan, which is possibly the city with the most unexpected surprises so far. Here is a guide so that if you choose to visit Milan (it was fun!), you will be equipped with knowledge:
I actually like anchovy pizza.
1. The Entrance Test
After you arrive at the airport, there will be a friendly local who will offer to help you buy metro tickets. Ignore them. It’s extremely easy to buy tickets with the machines. These people will take your change or demand money for their service. Luckily, I recognized what the woman was doing and firmly told her we didn’t need her help, so we weren’t duped.

2. The Infinite Metro Loop
We were on the metro. The next stop would have been the stop we were going to get off at. BUT to my shock and great confusion, the metro started reversing direction. What? What is happening??? We arrived at the stop at the airport, and suddenly the metro started running in its original direction. This is the “Oscillating Metro Trap” where if you aren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t notice that you’re travelling back and forth between these three stops forever. To escape, get off at a stop, then walk to the other side of the metro station.

3. The Unattainable Treasure
On top of a terrace (Duomo).
Although The Last Supper is in a museum, you actually need to make a reservation a month in advance for tickets. Or, you could relent and buy a pricey tour, since lots of tour guides buy out all the tickets for this famous painting. Unfortunately, we did not know this, so we did not see it.

4. The Sea of Peddlers
In almost all the tourist places, there are many people who will try to sell you something. In short, if someone tries to talk to you, shut them down. I was impressed by G. (’19)’s ability to utterly and repeatedly reject such friendly-seeming people, although he was approached at least eight times. Meanwhile, unsure if these vendors are sexist, but J. (’20) and I were not asked once.

Milan is quite beautiful, and the city has great gelato. (The pizza is yummy, but not extraordinary). In all, I think my favorite part during the trip was when we were walking back from the Duomo under a golden cloudy sky at sunset, with rain droplets gently splashing down, and with a grape and chocolate gelato cone in hand, a rainbow behind me and the music of a talented street guitarist fading, I realized just how lucky I was to have MISTI.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Hornet Adventures

It never rains. EVER!
What is France like? Not the tourist-y parts, but real France. In Southern France, because of the nice weather, a lot of people eat outdoors. This is very apparent in the small properties that restaurants own, where there are often tables set outside rather than inside the building.

In all of France, the food is better than in America. For around six euros, I can get a dessert, entree, and appetizer at a cafeteria near the school. More effort is made in the presentation of the dish, and the desserts aren't too sweet. It's also a well-balanced meal, including carbs, protein, and vegetables.

Boulangeries are amazing.
I think it's the combination of the great food and the great weather that my coworkers and I were placed in a critical situation today. Because of the great weather, we decide to eat outside for lunch. And because of the great food, various insects are attracted. Like hornets.

For context, most of my coworkers are masters students. In France, internships are only granted to masters students since at this step in the education ladder students understand what they are researching. Like I've mentioned before, my coworkers are at least four years older than me. And besides J. ('20), they are all guys.

Yesterday, the first hornet attacked. Our lunch was cut short as the large, menacing hornet hovered over someone's plate. Thus, a masters student in the navy (imagine a rather athletic, tall guy) proceeded to smash his chair on the table. As he puffed out his chest, assuming dominance over the meager insect, he then scrambled back in terror when the angry hornet zoomed out from under the chair.

Today, the hornet returned, probably thirsting for vengeance. Somehow, it knew to aim for the plate of the guy who was allergic to hornets. I didn't know this at the time, but apparently he had quite the traumatic experience recently when a hornet stung him on the lips after he sipped some Coca Cola.

While four out of the eight at our table jumped out of their chairs and backed away, I remained seated, grabbed a glass, and waited patiently for the hornet to settle on the tray. Then, I calmly lowered the upside down cup onto the table, encasing the hornet in a transparent prison.

Navy guy looked at me. "Vivian, you're a badass."

This beats MIT dining any day.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the end. The hornet's brother arrived at the opposite end of the table, but now my coworkers were equipped with the knowledge of how to defeat this insect. Two people reached for empty glasses and eyed the enemy, who flew in random, spontaneous patterns to save itself. Suddenly, when the hornet was floating low on the platter, MC striked. And promptly shattered the glass the was holding to pieces.

I'll admit, I was laughing pretty hard. But at least I had the decency to ask if he was okay (he was). The hornet was probably frightened by this fierce show of strength because it flew away, and we returned to lunch as normal.

Back to work (my research).

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Japan and Cultural Reflection

I decided to nip on* up to Japan for the weekend. I stayed at a hostel near Osaka airport Friday and Sunday night, and in Kyoto on Saturday - so I got to see a bit of two cities. I've been really bad about blogging in Taiwan (sorry, mom), so this will simultaneously be a blog post about various Taiwanese experiences that come to mind.

*forgive me 

Kyoto is full of literally thousands of temples, even more tourists, and pretty wooden houses and lanterns in the older parts. The tourists basically come in two varieties: European (kinda jarring to see so many white people after two months in Taiwan - like, wait, why is she taller than me?) and Asian (mostly Chinese and Korean, I think). Few Americans, interestingly. Most of the Asian tourists walk around Kyoto in rented wooden platform flip-flops and kimonos, which look both pretty silly on most people and uncomfortable. The temples are pretty, although I had some bad luck with seeing things - the most scenic hillside temple is currently covered in construction netting, trains were getting cancelled and delayed when I tried to go to the red-gate shrine park, and I arrived at both the castle and the famous Golden Pavilion right after closing time (that last part is probably more bad planning than bad luck). Many of the tourist sites are surrounded by shopping streets selling sweets, kimonos, fans, swords, tea, delicious pickled vegetables, and other things that look very exciting until you see the price tags. I was a little disappointed in the main food market - you can find most of the selection in a Taipei night market, but with more action and for a third of the price.

The Kyoto National Museum is off the main tourist track, but I went in on a whim and was so glad I did: it's beautifully curated and illuminated and has some incredible statues on loan - seeing the Bhuddist hell gods definitely makes you want to avoid Bhuddist hell. (Not sure how one does that, actually. Liz and I toured a huge Bhuddist monastery near Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, where we got VIP treatment because my mentor's uncle is the village mayor. The museum there emphasized entirely non-religious, liberal-westerner-friendly values - compassion, tolerance, charity, etc. But that's a particular Taiwanese sect known for being pragmatically focused. I'm sure how different Japanese traditions are; there wasn't a lot of information posted in the temples.) The other part of Kyoto that I really liked was Arashiyama, an area on the northern edge of the city. There's a little bamboo forest swarming with tourists, tourists getting photographed in geisha makeup, tourists sitting on rickshaws getting pulled by Japanese men in cone hats, etc. But I went farther, as instructed by the Turkish staff guy at Hostel Santiago, and had a really nice long walk through little villages and more temples. 

I went to Osaka for a couple hours yesterday evening. It's different from quiet, cutesy Kyoto - very modern, very colorful, and very loud. I wandered around the boisterous shopping arcades and saw a small outdoor concert, then had chirashi and plum wine (good stuff).

Miscellaneous impressions:

The train system is super-elaborate, which also makes it hard to navigate. I was kind of amazed by how much harder it felt to get around than in Taiwan - after all, I still don't speak much more Chinese than I do Japenese; but somehow Taiwan feels familiar enough now that transportion doesn't feel like a challenge. (Having an unlimited data plan helps, too. I was reminded this weekend that paper bus maps are a thing that exist, and what a wonderful thing they are.) 

Japanese toilets, including in public bathrooms, are exactly as high-tech as one might hope. On the other hand, soap is not a thing in a lot of places - slightly disconcerting in restaurants. (It's unclear to me why the CDC considers Japan to have American-level food safety standards, but Taiwan to be an aah-don't-touch-the-street-food third-world danger zone.)

Everything is super expensive, especially compared to Taiwan. Prices for food, transportation, hostels, tourist attractions, etc. are even higher than American ones, I think. 

None of the meals I ate were exceptional - definitely not for the price. Flavors are generally mild and portions quite small, although things come beautifully presented with a bunch of tiny dishes. 

People generally don't seem super-friendly (except this one old man in a village who kept smiling and waving at me from across the street) - even the information-counter staff made me
feel as though they were doing me a big favor. People do seem to warm up once you talk to them a little more, though. My perception here is probably colored by several cultural factors: first, Japanese people don't generally seem comfortable in English (nor I in Japanese, of course). I think it might also be the case that they tend to be uncomfortable with foreigners in general; that's what I was told by Taiwanese coworkers, but I don't really have enough evidence to judge. It also seems that facial expressions are used differently - that people just tend to smile less, which my American lens translates as coldness. 

Maybe my biggest impression, unfortunately, is how patriarchal and sexualized the culture is, and how immediately obvious that is. I noticed as soon as I got off the plane that women dress differently than in Taiwan. The Taiwanese notion of femininity (which is already much more constraining than in the West) generally involves a cute, innocent look - think loose, shapeless dresses over white t-shirts. Japanese women dress much more to emphasize their figures. It seemed like practically every young woman, especially in Osaka, was wearing heels, full makeup, carefully done hair, a tailored outfit, etc. I parsed this at first as just a difference in sartorial taste, but after seeing the cities, I think it's more a reflection of cultural expectations - pretty exhausting ones, too. Kyoto and Osaka are both filled with an impressively creative variety of methods of objectifying women: hostess lounges, special massage parlors (best name: "Mrs. Banana"),  strip clubs, geisha parlors (this culture is huge in Kyoto, and I won't pretend to know enough about it to comment further), "girl karaoke", cosplay-girl party centers, porn mags at the ramen counter, and on and on. I talked about some of this with a Ukrainian professor of art history, who specializes in Japanese culture, that I met in the Kyoto hostel. She told me about some elements of the cultural background - like the absence of a Judeo-Christian concept of forgiveness, which makes "saving face" so crucial, and the expectation that women take up as little space as possible, even to the point of holding their thumbs folded in. She said that for her Japanese women friends abroad, it's much easier to live outside Japan because the burden of expectations is so much smaller. Interestingly, she also talked about the near-nonexistent rape rate - she seemed to feel that the open sexuality somehow contributes to keeping violence low. My hunch, though - supported by this harrowing Quora thread - is that assault of various forms exists but is very rarely reported or prosecuted. I had some drunk businessmen lunge at me on the street (in an "oh ha ha white person let's yell in English that sounds fun" kind of way, not in an intimidating way); it seems hard to believe that said wasted businessmen, in an environment where women are provided for their amusement, would never fail to "be a gentleman", as the sign outside "Geisha Beautiul Ladies Hostess Lounge" instructs. Some other fun facts from cursory Googling: workplace sexual harassment is not illegal; the pill was illegal until 1999; until last year, women (but not men) were required to wait six months to remarry after divorce, and there's still a waiting period for pregnant women.

I've been realizing, this summer, just how much a child of the West I am. Even in Taiwan - which is by all accounts the most liberal, gender-equal, and generally most West-like country in Asia - the culture can feel stifling. People are constantly surprised that I do X by myself (with X often as simple as taking a bus to work!). I'm not sure to what degree that's because people just generally don't do things alone much, to what degree it's because I'm a foreigner and don't speak Chinese, and to what degree it's because I'm female. I suspect a little of each. A lot of things that are really important for me - independence, spontaneity, risk-taking, heterogeneity - are just not part of the culture here.

I went to a MISTI training a couple of years ago where they talked about the anthropological division between group-oriented and individual-oriented societies. I didn't get what that meant while travelling in Europe or Israel, but I'm coming to understand it now, and it's real. I think the difference is enough that I could never really feel like I belong in Asia (even setting aside physical distinctiveness), in the same way that I could be comfortable in Europe or the US or Canada or Israel. 

That's certainly not to say I don't like it here! I've really enjoyed my time in Taiwan (would recommend a visit to everyone - probably more than Japan tbh, especially if you're on a budget...), and I want to see much more of the continent (in part because I've spent the last couple of paragraphs generalizing about a couple billion people based on my passing familiarity with a few cities, and that seems slightly problematic... especially since Taiwan considers itself culturally closest to Japan, which means that the differences among other countries in Asia are probably greater than the difference between Taiwan and Japan). But I'm looking forward to coming back to the undignified, mixed-up U.S. coastal bubble. And I wonder if I can squeeze in an anthropology class next year...

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

3.0 Tournus

As I'm writing this on my phone while sitting on a charmingly rustic balcony of my future Course 3 professor's château, I feel a little bit like a cheater. There's this wonderful view of a green countryside spread in front of me, and yet I'm taking breaks to stare face down on my digital screen and type up some thoughts. I think I'd prefer reading from my Agatha Christie book and enjoying the tranquility, but I don't want to wake up the guy sleeping downstairs right next to my backpack if I noisily ruffle through clothes and whatever else is stuffed in my book bag to inevitably find what I'm searching for last.

Also I was going to write about Paris and Lyon since those happened first, but I figure since I'm here I'll just write in the moment.

Old picture of old castle.

BACKSTORY: When I was still a freshman (now I've upgraded to rising sophomore I guess) I declared Course 3. Almost immediately, I heard rumors of a Course 3 professor having a French castle and inviting his students to stay in the castle during the summer. Somehow, I managed to get my name on the excel sheet in the Course 3 fb group and now I'm in Tournus, France with a couple of other Course 3 students.

[Sad. I can't add pictures with this blogger app. All the reviews were right.]

[Hmmmm... I'll probably just post this later with pictures. Blogs without pictures for me are just a bunch of words. I don't think I have the literary talent to make my words interesting enough alone.]

Back in the train station in Lyon, my friend A. ('20) asked me who the person I was looking for looked like. I responded no clue, but I had her profile pic on fb messenger. This gives you a sense of how much I did not know these Course 3 people at all.

Homemade rosemary ice cream.
But, they turned out to be pretty cool. Would I even say otherwise since I'm going to send this blog to them? Probably not, but in that case I wouldn't mention them at all. So these people were cool. Like I could imagine being in that Course 3 "frat" and hanging out and struggling through sophomore year with them or looking to upperclassmen for their wisdom.

The Course 3 professor was also the nicest host. Professor Carter treated us to a quaint, local French restaurant called Cassandre: La Table de Chapaize. I stress the "French" part because it seems that in Southern France near Italy, all the restaurants are Italian. That's not a bad thing: authentic Italian pizza, pasta, bread, and gelato are quite delicious. However, I was excited to try actual French cuisine in France. A true four course meal, paired with kir and red and white wine (for those over 21). Everything was fantastic, both taste and presentation-wise -- it was one of the most enjoyable meals I've probably ever had in my life.

The next day, we snacked on boulangerie bread spread with raspberry jam and a light, creamy cake for breakfast. Afterwards, the professor took us to the flea market on our way to sight-seeing in a small town with a stone church and amazing view. We bought local, historical trinkets like hundred-year-old postcards, aluminum absinthe spoons, and silver candlestick holders.

I should mention that in quiet, small, countryside towns, you need cars to travel. As there were nine students, someone else besides the professor had to drive; not only drive a stick shift, but also have the honor to drive a truly "grungy" old white van that was only the slightest bit sketchy. I will mention that the person driving the van (apparently also known as Mum) had incredible skills.

["Nature prefers low enthalpy at low temperatures and high entropy at high temperatures." Just the typical conversation that occurs between Course 3 MIT professors, students, and graduates.]

Everything about the French countryside is charming. Peaceful and tranquil. Beautiful.
It was quite the shock when I arrived coming from Paris, with its busy streets, constant stream of cars and people chattering, endless succession of opulent buildings and towers and museums.

Pregnant donkey.
The moment I arrived at the château in Tournus, I listened. Birds chattered. Wasps buzzed. I marveled at the silence of nature.

The scenery is rolling green fields, patches of white cows, golden squares from neatly arranged rows of wheat and corn crops. Instead of golden-tipped obelisks, there's richly green trees towering the roads.

In fact, I am extremely glad that I came to visit. Though I was quite tired from the (mis)adventures of the Paris fireworks of the night before, the quiet serenity of the countryside seemed to possess natural healing and restorative abilities. Although Professor Carter half-jokes (probably actually serious) that he will make our lives quite miserable in class, he seems to truly care about teaching.

Before this week, I told E. ('17) that I entirely don't feel like a Course 3 because I hadn't taken a single Course 3 class, not even 3.091, and somehow I'm going to spend two nights in a Course 3 professor's castle. She replied laughingly that I already sounded like a Course 3: the trick was to mention "Course 3" as much as possible.

In the end, I can't really tell if I chose the right major quite yet considering I haven't taken any classes. But I am at least more confident in the community. And whatever nightmares or terrors I hear from upperclassmen who tell the tales about sophomore year, at least I feel that these *miserable* classes will create tight and lasting friendships.

P.S. I'm too lazy to write down everything that happened, plus I don't really want to interrupt the natural flow of writing I've got, but it would be amiss to not include the following conversation that happened during our sight-seeing. We asked a man to take a group photo of us:

Man: *holds phone* "SEX!"
Course 3 people: *confusion*
Man: "Funny!"
Course 3 people: *laugh awkwardly* *smile uncomfortably*


"Maybe he only knew enough English to sound kind of creepy."
"No, sex still means sex in French."
"That was weird."