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An Open Ground
A hidden maze of ever increasing complexity. The boundaries of the world—what defines them?
A child. The world is an open ground. Exciting and playful. Free for exploration. From when I first learned to cycle till about the age of seven, my parents asked me to never go outside our street. I had close to a hundred metre region to circle over and over, but the possibilities still felt endless.
Thank you, RyanAir
The month of November 2021 has been one of the quickest of my life. Now that I’m finally in a routine here, I was able to visit two new cities: Lisbon and London. Each was a unique experience, so I wrote a journal entry after each trip to remember the details. (more…)
A Week in Poland
My second month abroad was even more meaningful than my first. Not only did I learn more about Israel and Judaism in the classroom, but I also continued to explore the Old City by foot. In my first blog, I wrote about seeing the Dome of the Rock (or Temple Mount) from afar. Recently, I also had the opportunity to explore it up close during the one hour of the day that my program was permitted.
I spent the last week of November in Poland. It was cold and gray, and the towns we visited were bleak. However, I enjoyed the food, which helped make up for the fact that it was my first Thanksgiving away from my family. I missed all of the traditional foods we eat each year, especially my grandma’s pecan pie. I also missed watching football with my dad and brother.
In Poland, I visited many of the concentration camps from the Holocaust, including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka. I also saw the Warsaw Ghetto.
Although I had previously studied and knew the historical significance of these sites, I was overwhelmed when I saw them in person. The population per square kilometer in Manhattan is almost 28,000. In the Warsaw Ghetto where Jews were forced to live, there were 125,000 Jews per square kilometer. They comprised nearly 30% of Warsaw’s population but occupied only 2.4% of its area.
Leaving Poland, I was consumed by one thought: how truly lucky and privileged I am to be alive and to have been born in the United States.
During the last few days in Poland, I learned about the Omicron variant to Covid. I also learned that if we didn’t make it back to Israel by midnight on November 28 we would be required to quarantine for three more days. Having already quarantined for a full week in September, I was really hopeful that my plane would be on time. As luck would have it, our wheels touched down 126 minutes after the deadline so we were immediately tested and hurried to our quarantine locations. I am looking forward to my final month in Jerusalem once quarantine ends.
The World at Home
You would think that plunging directly into my hometown of almost nineteen years would yield routine results—invariable observations I would be wont to have. Yet, cradled between familiar mountains and blanketed by the same dusty borderland sky, my everyday community sprung opportunities ready to impart me with new knowledge. As my gap year commenced, my newfound role as an intern for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center delivered a transformative culture shock a few short miles away from the border along which I had been raised.
Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center (“Las Americas,” for short), prides itself on its unique hub of community volunteers, interns, paralegals, and attorneys, all working to provide relief and pro bono legal aid to migrants from across the globe. Interning for the Detained Team at Las Americas, I assumed differing roles to contribute, however slightly or laboriously, to the mission of the organization, from ordering files to interviewing detainees about their often-harrowing cases for asylum.
Even just a few months into my work, I witnessed significant diversity and similarities across cases. Clients shared insight into the heart-wrenching realities of their home countries: some fled incarceration under an unjust government, unmitigated destitution, religious persecution, or as victims caught in the crossfire of corrupt systems and violent groups. Some immediately acquiesced to substandard conditions and discrimination at detention centers in the hopes of prompt release, while others petitioned officials for basic respect. Some arrived already suffering physical and/or mental trauma, escaping brutality and degradation to the most primitive conditions imaginable. At times my stomach would churn upon hearing the clients’ ages, some even younger than me.
Across backgrounds, every client bore ideals valued by the US to this same country that attempted to turn them away. While some advocated for their freedoms and inalienable rights, others promoted love, faith, assiduity, forgiveness, and courtesy, even when aware of how the US misconstrued them as wrongdoers or criminals.
However, all of the clients—regardless of language barriers, cultural differences, or brevity—spoke with the same humble dignity and respect, their tone fatigued, but never defeated. Engaging in such poignant conversations with clients resulted in constant emotional growth, as I strived to empathize with the detainees and offer the solace lacking in the immigration system. Despite the complexity of such an unforgiving system, the people I spoke with maintained hope, braving every undeserved difficulty to seek a better life.
Often before ending their interviews with a blessing for the workers at Las Americas, the clients I spoke with disclosed pieces of wisdom I carry with me:
- “Venimos a sembrar semilla Buena a este país” (We have come to plant a virtuous seed in this country)
- “Love recognizes no religion or color”
- “En ninguna carcel, ni de oro, alguien se va a sentir bien” (In no prison, not even one of gold, will someone feel good)
- “La vida es bonita, nadamás es saberla vivir. Por uno no viene para molestar” (Life is beautiful, if only you know how to live it. That is why one does not come to this country just to be a bother.)
As I prepare to spend Christmas with my family knowing the clients I spoke with may not obtain the same opportunity, I think of the lessons working at Las Americas has instilled in me thus far, remembering to hold steadfast to faith and hope and look forward, but also sideways to our fellow neighbors. I now move forward with the intent of treating everyone benevolently and finding ways to alter the immigration system for the better, seeking the noble work hidden within the niches of my community.
In the past few weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s important to do what you want to do when you want to do it.
In the weeks prior, I was overwhelmed with work and the tasks before me that I lost track of living and treasuring each day given to me. During the busy times of developing a mobile application, starting an English project for the Japanese community, and interning, getting through the day had become my end goal, and before I knew it, there were only three months left in my gap year.
Of course, three months is still a lot of time, and I am just as excited to start my time at Duke, as I am living in Japan on this gap year, but part of me started to fear the what-ifs. What if I feel like I didn’t do enough on my gap year? What if end up not being able to do something I could’ve done? What if I reflect on my gap year and think, I should’ve done this, I should’ve done that instead of feeling satisfied with my year?
Rather than thinking about the what-ifs now, I decided to prioritize taking time to do the things I want to do now: the things I can’t do in the United States and without the time I currently have. One of those things was traveling. With the added hurdle of COVID-19, it was difficult to take extended trips to remote areas, but with the number of cases having gone down significantly in Japan after the New Year, I took my mask and backpack and headed off.
I first started by taking a brief trip back to the United States. This trip was mostly to conduct trials of the mobile application I had been developing in Japan, but it was nice to be home and spend time with my family for the first time in 6 months. After enjoying many home-cooked meals, time with my dog, and feeling refreshed for the second half of my year, I headed back to Japan.
In retrospect, this short trip back to the US was important in resetting the new “normal” that had become living in Japan. I was able to appreciate spending time here more and found many things I wanted to do before the year was over.
My first trip in Japan was two days in Osaka on the West side of Japan. I decided to go on this trip about three days before I went, as I found tickets for The National High School Baseball Championship. The National High School Baseball Championship is held twice a year in the spring and summer, and it is one of the most-watched sports events in Japan. I was very excited to get an opportunity to attend, as it was my first time going to the spring tournament, and the tournament last summer was canceled due to COVID-19. Watching the players chasing their dreams under the hot sun and brisk wind, was a fresh reminder of myself just a few months ago. Revitalized and motivated, I returned to Tokyo.
My next trip was to the bottom part of Japan, where I visited Hiroshima, Oita, and Fukuoka prefectures. A friend and I took a plane down and only used trains to travel between the prefectures. Although we were still in Japan, life seemed much slower there, especially in Oita. Trains only came once an hour (they typically come once every few minutes in Tokyo), and the climate was slightly milder, making it a nice escape from the hustle of everyday life. Walking along farmland and homes in remote areas of Japan, seeing and experiencing things I had never done before but knew I’d likely never do again, I felt happy and refreshed.
Looking back on the past month, I feel that it has been one of the most enjoyable of my gap year so far. Being able to take a trip across the country whenever you “feel like it” and experience things unbelievably different from your everyday life is a benefit of the gap year I never want to give away. I have a few more trips planned for next month, so I am looking forward to wherever those trips take me next.
A Year Is Just 365 Days
A gap year sounds sexy, doesn’t it? It’s becoming increasingly popular, but still unconventional enough to warrant fascination from others when you tell them about it, almost like a badge of honour you wear proudly on your sleeve to announce to the world that you are not afraid to stop and take time to think about what you truly want to do in life, even as your peers relentlessly forge ahead in their educational and professional pursuits.
Everyone takes a gap year for different reasons– to travel, recharge after high school, gain working experience, ascertain aspirations, discover new passions or, of course, to avoid virtual schooling during a pandemic– and more often than not there are a multitude of factors at play. But we all share a common goal– to feel more prepared for college and life at large.
For the most part, my gap year has boosted my readiness for college, albeit not in the way that I expected a year ago.
The biotech internship and research attachment I participated in certainly informed my career aspirations, diverting me away from public health policy formulation and towards the physician-scientist pathway. With extra time on my hands, I’ve had the luxury of exploring the plethora of resources offered at Duke, talking to seniors and observing some classes related to my prospective majors (owing to the generosity of many professors). I now have a clearer idea of which courses to take, which programs to participate in and which clubs to join.
But the most useful skill I acquired was the art of self care. Bouts of ill health caused me to realise how much I had been neglecting my body and mind over the past few years. They instigated me to reexamine my lifestyle and reorganise my priorities, to stop centring my life around work and school and define boundaries to ensure that my physical and mental well-being are not encroached upon.
I probably should have established this work-life balance way back in high school, but in hindsight, I don’t blame myself for not doing so. How could I, with my future seemingly hanging in the balance? Not to mention that I based my self worth largely on my academic and extracurricular achievements, and was addicted to the satisfaction of perfecting a test score or winning a competition.
I had to extricate myself from the formal schooling system for this entrenched mindset to change. Life felt empty initially without the extrinsic gratification of a good score. But I soon discovered healthier, more sustainable sources of intrinsic happiness. I still see it as a form of responsibility to do well in tests, examinations and projects but they no longer tower over me like mammoth spectres. Receiving a mediocre grade will not make or break my college experience, let alone my life, and reducing my existence to a couple of numbers and letters is, well, depressing to say the least.
Preparing for the AP Biology test over the past few weeks gave me a chance to put this new mindset into practice, like a rehearsal before the actual college stage. While my high school self would have spent every possible minute cooped up in my study room, save for occasional trips to the bathroom or kitchen, the “new me” interspersed study periods with piano practice sessions, k-drama breaks and evening walks, even having the audacity to meet my friends for a meal or two. Rather than undermining my preparedness for the test, these healthy distractions actually alleviated my long-standing performance anxiety and prevented me from burning out (as I did while preparing for the “A” Levels).
Over the past year, I have definitely grown in both tangible and intangible ways. If I could go back in time, I would absolutely make the same decision to defer, even if it meant starting college later than everyone else. But I would also like to highlight that taking a gap year is not a panacea; you shouldn’t feel pressured to get it all figured out within 365 days. Exploration is, after all, what college is all about. I do have more clarity around my aspirations and passions, but it is with an open mind that I’m going into college, where new peers, mentors and experiences will shape me in ways I cannot yet imagine.
The Arts’ Pandemic Pivot
When Covid hit last March, ballet was the first thing in my life to be affected. I distinctly remember having tickets to see San Francisco Ballet perform on March 14th, a Saturday, and being so disappointed to find out earlier in the week that the performance had been postponed. At the time, I thought that this rain check was disappointing, but little did I know that soon after my whole life would come grinding to a halt. Next came the school closures and the suspension of ballet classes at my studio. As I watched many industries turn to Zoom, I saw that the arts were falling behind. My grandfather, a professional jazz pianist, was suddenly out of work, and I saw pleas from desperate artists flooding my Instagram feed every time I opened up my phone. My high school, which had a specialized arts program, came up short in funding for the next school year as a result of our major fundraising gala being switched to a virtual format. In short, the arts didn’t have the luxury of creating a semblance of normalcy in a virtual world.
Over the past year, I’ve seen artists do what they do best: think creatively. By mid-April, I began to see videos popping up of dancers creating DIY home studio spaces. Soon after, many dance suppliers began creating small rectangles of flooring meant specifically for in-home space constraints. I had a lot of fun setting up my own in-home dance space, and I’m actually thinking about keeping it once life goes back to normal. The convenience of rolling out of bed and taking class is unparalleled, and I love being able to work through classes on YouTube at my own pace.
In the dance world, the next creative solution that was born was outdoor classes. I never thought ballet could be effectively done outdoors until I saw the tents my studio set up. Fully floored and outfitted with barres and lights, they almost resembled the studio experience I had grown so used to. In some ways they surpassed it, with the fresh air and lack of mirrors creating a new type of sensory experience.
As we get closer to seeing live performances as a reality again, I couldn’t be more excited to finally reschedule that San Francisco Ballet performance. As it turns out, it never really was canceled, just postponed for an extended chunk of time.
Experiencing the Israeli – Palestinian Conflict
Unexpected changes feel like the theme of this year, especially for those of us on gap years. A few weeks ago, I spent four days in an intense seminar on the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. I listened to twenty-three speakers with a range of opinions and diverse contributions aimed at resolving or easing the conflict. The seminar gave me some clarity on my political views, and also emphasized how stagnant the conflict has been in the last few years and especially since the beginning of the pandemic. Visiting some of the most contentious, awful places of tragedy in Jerusalem and the West Bank gave me the sense that although things have been stagnant for some time, the lack of progress had not meant an acceptance of the current situation but that it was only a matter of time until things boiled over. With recent escalations during the last few weeks and on Jerusalem Day, the celebration of the Israeli presence in Jerusalem, and the capture of the city during the Six-Day War of 1967, we are now in the most intense state of conflict in seven years.
My opinions that slowly crystallized and became more nuanced during the conflict seminar I participated in now feel irrelevant. In a matter of days, I’ve learned that opinions stop mattering when people are dying. I’m living in such a different social environment than the one I see on social media. In Israel, it feels like, regardless of what people believe, everyone just wants the suffering to end. It feels impossible to engage with people across the world arguing over which side is right and whose situation justifies violence. Frankly, I find it impossible to understand hatred and the spread of false information when I only feel pain for those around me. Sure, I disagree with certain actions and policies but it’s not something I can think about right now, let alone rationally.
I don’t know what this period of my gap year will mean for me in the long run. I will not forget it, nor do I want anyone to live through this reality. I know that this last month will require months of processing, and I’ll slowly derive meaning and a sense of purpose and action. Sadly, in less than a month my program ends I’ll fly back home. In a weird way, my year is ending similarly to how it started. I’m ending my year in a sort of quarantine, unable to go to parts of Jerusalem and Israel that are unsafe right now. This means I have the privilege of spending my last moments more intimately hanging out with my friends in our apartment, supporting each other through these difficult days. I don’t know if it diminishes from the moment to acknowledge the beautiful connections during times of pain. We hold on to each other more tightly, and hopefully the love we feel for those far from us, that fuels emotional arguments on social media, will be the hope that pushes us out of this moment.
As I’ve begun thinking about moving onto Duke’s campus next fall, I’ve been wondering how much I’ll miss living in my dorm in Jerusalem. As much as I am looking forward to moving into college dorms, I’ve only now started to appreciate how good I have it here. Of all the ways I’ve changed and grown over the last eight months, the comfort I feel living full time among other students and the amount I’ve matured socially has really become apparent. I believe that’s largely due to the fact that I’ve not only lived in the same building as sixty-five other students, but I’ve been on the exact same schedule as all of them too. Whereas in college, I’ll likely run into a few dorm mates occasionally and spend a few social hours a day in my hall, this year (largely due to Covid) I’ve spent most of my free nights together with my entire program in our small building. Although it felt a little overwhelming at first, living in the same apartment with four other people makes getting bored pretty difficult, and when I am bored I know I have dozens of friends within a thirty-second walk from my door. Because of our constant social atmosphere, within eight months I’ve gotten closer with many of these kids than I did with some of my closest friends back home. Although I considered myself to be very independent before I came, and still do, I believe I’ve gotten incredibly comfortable with the uniquely intense social environment of my program. I’ll get back to my apartment after a long day of classes, and the first thing I do after setting my bag down is walk into our next-door apartment to relax with five or six dorm mates instead of resting on my own. I’ll always be thankful for the special living situation I had this year, with all of the comfort, daily excitement, and close friends it’s allowed me to gain. So, for anyone who is scared of transitioning from solo life to dorm life, I can confidently say diving straight into something as intense as this will certainly get you acclimated quickly.