I recently read an interesting article by Courtney Martin titled “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems,” and one of the main messages I was left with is that foreign problems often seem much simpler and more solvable than they really are. After spending over seven months in Israel I can confidently say this couldn’t be more true. Issues surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict, Jewish society, religious tensions, and much more that I wasn’t even aware of before arriving here have forced me into a personal crisis. I quickly realized after arriving, to my dismay, that the conflicts I came here to better understand would only become more confusing and distressing as time would go by and as I would have more personal close encounters with the people who are most affected.
Last Tuesday at seven in the morning I arrived at the Western Wall in Jerusalem with a group of friends from my program. I wasn’t there for a regular tourist visit, though, nor for anything particularly spiritual. Rather, I came in order to support my friends praying with the Women of the Wall, a multi-denominational organization that strives to achieve the right for women to pray freely at Judaism’s most sacred sight. As of now, women are not legally allowed to read from the Torah or wear prayer shawls at the Wall, and attempts to do so have been met with violence from both the police as well as the ultra-orthodox and orthodox communities. Throughout our two hours there myself and a few other men, who supported the cause by singing prayers from outside the women’s section and by being an extra barrier between the ultra-orthodox counter protestors and the women attempting to pray, were harassed, yelled at, pushed, spat on, and called traitors, and I can only imagine how much worse it was within the women’s section. Ultimately, the confrontation was incredibly disturbing but eye-opening. Having children as young as eight or nine screeching in our ears while religious men in their 70s or 80s cheered them on while calling us Nazis certainly allowed me to experience issues surrounding religious pluralism in an entirely new way.
Although I was infuriated by what I saw, I tried my best when reflecting on that day to understand what happened from different perspectives. Throughout this whole year one topic of interest that I’ve been exploring is moral subjectivity, so I’ve tried my best to not immediately reject different communities’ varying moral codes. With that in mind, I left with the impression that the fundamental moral principles under which the people yelling at us live simply don’t align with those of myself or most of the people I know in my more secular, liberal, and Western world. My worldview largely revolves around individuality and thus I place a lot of importance on civil rights, diversity, and fairness. I’m sure these counter protestors don’t hate the idea of fairness and individual rights, but it seemed to me like their moral foundations are based more in ideas of sanctity, authority, and loyalty. When one of my friends said something along the lines of, “just because we don’t agree on each other’s way of being religious it doesn’t mean we should fight to control each other,” a guard who was meant to protect us yelled at him that he was no Jew but a Nazi. Of course, I recognize that in the heat of a protest it’s hard to do anything other than yell at the other side, but still, how could I create effective dialogue with these people when we, to a large extent, speak from completely different moral planes?
Maybe it takes more than logic to convince one another. Maybe instead of throwing facts around, I’d need to tell stories and express the importance of different narratives. I’d need to successfully put across as a tangible, relatable thing the foundations of what I believe in, because if we don’t agree on those foundations then what difference does it make if my friend says she feels oppressed by the religious authority or if the ultra-orthodox claim the Torah says only men can wear tefillin.
During my gap year I have found many more new questions than answers and that’s certainly been frustrating at times. But when I signed up to come here, I believed I was ready to challenge myself and to question what I believe in. The frustration that I’ve felt throwing myself into situations like these at the Western Wall has been one of the most challenging parts of my year, but, at the same time, it’s been the most rewarding part as well.
Since I haven’t been the most diligent about writing my blogs, I thought reflecting on my mechinah’s middle of the year seminar, designed to reflect on individual and group growth, would be appropriate. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I didn’t quite need the time to ponder my own journey because I journal – literally dedicating 20ish minutes every night to reflecting – and because I’ve discovered I’m naturally a reflective person – sometimes to a level where I wish I could stop feeling all my emotions because it is exhausting. Instead, I mused on the group community we have created. We essentially live in a commune; everyone has shifts for cooking and cleaning and is part of a committee pertaining to a certain aspect of our experience (community service, learning, logistics, shabbat, and group.) My reality here is enormously different than my old reality of sitting through a whole day of school and extracurriculars and coming home to a clean house with dinner waiting on the table. Sometimes, I am lazy, and I don’t want to plan, cook, or clean – especially clean – anything. The sentiment of “somebody else will do it” occasionally, or perhaps more than occasionally, percolates through my brain. But then what if everyone has the same reaction? During one seminar session, we discussed our favorite quotes/themes from classes so far, and one quote really stuck with me: הפראייר האמיתי הוא הבן אדם שמפחד להיות פראייר“ ” meaning “the real freier (Hebrew slang term for a sucker/a chump/someone taken advantage of) is the person who is too scared to be a freier.” I understand this to mean that putting in more than you are likely to “get” is much more fulfilling than refusing to put in anything because giving part of yourself is part of the “getting.”
As a member of the group committee, my responsibility is to help plan our weekly שיחת קבוצה (group conversation). This forum is the food and water that enables the group to exist and grow. Our conversations consist of a 15 minute discussion on practical issues – often cleaning – and then we transition into some sort of activity or question that everyone participates in or answers. I’ve learned that group responsibility is not just a practical sentiment but also an emotional one; our group wouldn’t exist if not for communication, and I have improved tremendously on this front. I wouldn’t say I used to put up walls around myself but more that I never ventured out of my dotted line enclosed comfort zone. I wasn’t scared of opening up, I just always thought I could handle my own feelings, and I rarely spoke up if something was bothering me out of fear of being perceived as brash.
However, during our middle of the year seminar, many friends complimented me on how comfortable I was sharing my feelings during our many group-conversation-like sessions. And, during our “thinking time” sessions, I reflected on how beautiful it is that I have a group to which I can give so much of myself practically and emotionally.
Greetings from Marlborough, New Hampshire! The last time you heard from me, I was about to leave South Carolina on a multi-day road trip up north headed for Camp Glen Brook. Now, I am already more than halfway through the program, and I can’t believe how fast the weeks have flown by. Before I arrived, eleven weeks seemed like an incredible amount of time to spend away from home; definitely the longest period away in my life thus far. However, the remaining month and handful of days now seem like an insignificant amount of time that is rapidly approaching, whether I’d like it to or not. My experience at Glen Brook, although not yet complete, has been one of the most transformative and engaging periods of my life.
When we first arrived in February, each of the nine “gappers,” as we are called, had been quarantining at home for two weeks, and it took another ten days of masking up before we were able to enter the Glen Brook Bubble, a group of individuals who live on the property together and have taken specific and strict measures to keep everyone safe. Week one was our first intensive: Orientation. This involved giving up our phones when we arrived, not to get them back until the end of the first week. We also spent this first week getting to know one another, the land, and the daily ins and outs of living at Glen Brook. We learned to build fires, care for the dozens of chickens that reside here, use a wood stove, split wood, chop down a tree, and more. Again, it seems so long ago that we were first learning all these things. For the next two weeks, a period entitled Foundations, we continued building on those habits and daily activities that make life here at Glen Brook just that: Life. We attended Food Studies classes, carved wooden spoons with their bowls coal-burned into them, and we began some of our continuous classes. These include more cerebral classes, such as Society, Self, and Ecophilosophy.
Our fourth week here at Glen Brook was our second intensive and my favorite thus far: Orienteering. By the beginning of the week, we had packed up all our belongings into our suitcases once more in preparation of moving from the main house into the Hill House, our own home for the next month or so. All of this, minus what we had packed into our backpacks for the week, went into the parlor to wait patiently for us to return. On Monday morning, we moved down to a canvas tent by the lake, where we set up camp. Then, the real intensive began. Day one was an intro to orienteering: in groups of three, we used our compasses and maps of Glen Brook to navigate to three different coordinates and back to camp. On day two, we took it up a notch: we travelled to Pisgah State Park, the largest State Park in NH, where we split up into two groups, each trailed by one of our Gap Leaders, and had to navigate using our compasses and a topographic map of the area (no trails!) to two points in the park. Day three saw us in groups of three, this time without an escort, and we once more had to locate two points, the last of which was our meetup spot. The last day of orienteering was one of my favorites: the solo challenge.
Over the past two weeks, we’ve been taking electives in various subjects, including Land Conservation, Food Studies, Nature Writing, Hat Making, Bow Drills, and more! This past weekend was also our third intensive, a backpacking trip along the Monadnock Sunapee Greenway. Now that we’ve returned, our next two weeks will be full of manual work, since for our Deep Dive, we’re going to be starting on some new cabins for summer camp! After that, we’ll have two weeks of Apprenticeships (I’ll probably be choosing Farm, especially since we are getting piglets soon!), then a week-long canoeing trip, then a few more days to wrap up and off we go.
It seems so sudden to me that I can already see the end of my time here approaching. Although before I arrived, I was slightly concerned about whether I would feel excruciatingly homesick, the opposite has been true. Glen Brook has been an incredible experience with some of the best people I have ever known, and it will be a bittersweet day to say goodbye for now. I know, however, that Glen Brook has transformed me for the better, and the way I can pay back that debt is by going out into the world and spreading the message I have learned here: we are all persons of consequence, our human nature is wild, and by sustaining that which sustains us “we can learn to see our selves as made up of the world—and in turn see our role in making up the world.”
On March 11, 2020, I walked the halls of my high school for what I would have never guessed to be the last time. My sister and I celebrated the phone call we received that night that we would have no school for the next few weeks. And I think you know how the story goes…
On March 12, 2021, I walked the halls of California Northstate University in Elk Grove, California. A location I would have truly never expected to find myself, and definitely never imagined to be excited to go to. I was spending the day volunteering at the College of Pharmacy’s vaccination clinic, guiding excited people from the door to their seats where they would eagerly await their vaccine. I spent the day talking to people and hearing numerous stories of where people were a year ago. The air in the room was light and hopeful, it felt like the whole room let out a sigh of relief.
As I sat down in one of those seats to get the vaccine myself, I reflected on how far I’d come since that day last March. Just one year had passed, yet my entire outlook on my life had flipped on its head. Exactly a year before I was thinking about missing my prom and graduation. Now, I couldn’t tell you the last time either of those things crossed my mind. They feel so small now as I look back on the last 12 months and see what significant losses we have faced as a world.
I mentioned in my previous blog that I was hoping to find ways to step up and give back to my community. In addition to volunteering at a couple of different vaccination clinics, I have joined the Serve the Moment Service Corps. Through this program I have been distributing food to those in need in my area, writing letters to express gratitude to the frontline workers who have shown extreme strength for the last year (see photos below), and working with The Ella Baker Center who works both locally and nationally to help Black, Brown, and Low-income communities shift resources from prisons and punishment-based systems to opportunities that make our communities safe, healthy, and strong.
I have found this time I’ve spent at home to be very rewarding. I am doing work I would never have done otherwise, getting exposure to new issues and ideas and learning more than I could have imagined. It is allowing me to give meaning to this incredibly challenging time.
It was all I could ever think about, the nasty culprit behind countless sleepless nights, a master puppeteer who toyed with my emotional strings, wearing me down till I went limp as a rag doll.
Childish. Immature. Melodramatic. Many derided my all-consuming obsession as such. But was it really? How could I stop worrying after the (outrageously) staggering amount of dollars and hours invested in standardised tests and college applications? How could I stop agonising after the immaculate marketing apparatus of these institutions had utterly convinced me that the education they offered was what I wanted, nay, absolutely needed? How could I stop fretting when everyone appeared to take my admission as given and pulled no punches in asserting their confidence in my abilities?
Friday, March 27 2020, 0708 SGT.
After months of nerve-wracking anticipation (and an additional 8 minutes spent wallowing in the delusion that nothing was cast in stone till I relinquished my oblivion), I finally mustered the courage to open the portal. What ensued thereafter was an explosion of ecstasy that begs description.
Getting into Duke feels like a dream. But it has also been overwhelming. Once you start sporting the Duke cap, you are thrust onto a pedestal. You are showered with compliments that feel undeserved and misdirected and paint a shimmering persona you can only hope to live up to. You hear about the amazing feats achieved by students past and present and wonder if you have what it takes to fill the gigantic shoes they have left in their wake. For international students like myself, there is the daunting challenge of acclimating to college life without the comfort of the familiar; of making new friends without any common experiences to leverage as a starting point; of allowing our identities to be shaped and reshaped by a foreign culture without losing ourselves in the process.
The pandemic has hardly made things any easier. In the face of rapidly emerging and wildly circulating variants, travel restrictions that stretch indefinitely and familial pressures borne out of safety concerns, this heavenly dream constantly threatens to devolve into a hellish nightmare. As if it were not already challenging enough to adapt and thrive in Duke, study and living arrangements in the coming semester remain fraught with uncertainty. How am I going to get to campus safely without making my family worry? If I can’t, will online learning still be an option? How am I going to make friends remotely and attend live classes in a distant time zone? Whenever I get a taste of campus life through Instagram stories and virtual events, anticipation swells within me like a bubble, only to burst at the thought of missing out on all the fun in fall.
But hearing my own struggles with imposter syndrome, identity, uncertainty and loneliness echoed by other students during Duke Real Talk sessions has provided a good measure of solace and solidarity. Their stories have also driven home the reality that these sentiments will ebb and flow as I transition through different phases of college life, each with its own flavours of distress. I recall how desperately my younger self longed for the liberation that college life seemed to promise. I relive the euphoria that embraced me as I read that coveted acceptance letter, then bemoan how quickly it faded into the shadows of new concerns. There is no ailment more debilitating than chronic dissatisfaction– and I am starting to realise that the most powerful remedy comes from within.
Only I have the power to prevent myself from being swept up by the blustering whirlwind of ceaseless yearning and desire by remaining firmly grounded in the present moment. Adopting this deceptively simple mindset has been difficult, but it has certainly worked wonders. Who knew that taking morning strolls in the park, with the sweet scent of dewy grass still lingering heavily in the air, could dramatically uplift my mood for the rest of the day? Sometimes, I even stop by the beach to bury secret Korean messages in the sand and leave wondering if anyone will discover them before they are erased by the lapping waves. Stimulated by a surge of rekindled musical passion and the addictive satisfaction of mastering a challenging song, I have started playing the piano again and developed a new obsession with the ukulele (after numb fingertips and painful calluses suspended my love affair with the guitar). Every happy memory I make now is carefully preserved in daily gratitude stories on Instagram that remind me to savour all the little pleasures in my life before they slip away without warning.
As we welcome the newest members of the Class of 2025, getting into Duke a year ago still feels like a dream– and I want to keep it that way, to always remember how immensely blessed I am to be pursuing my aspirations in a supportive, collaborative and explorative environment, and be content with all that I already have.