Ms. Stovall 313’s Next Big Adventure!

I’m smiling so big that that I might crack open my face because of my recent good news.  I have received an NEH grant!

As you may know, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)  is a government agency that funds amazing humanities programs nationwide.  One of their many grants is for school teachers and university professors to take summer institute courses on a wide variety of humanities topics.  The summer institutes range from one to five weeks, and NEH fully funds the programs so teachers can study and collaborate with teachers for all over the US.

There are 46 different institutes this summer ranging from “Cultures of Independence: Perspectives on Independence Hall and the Meaning of Freedom” in Philadelphia to “Political and Constitutional Theory for Citizens” in LA.  Whether you are at teacher that wants to study history, politics, literature, culture, music, Religion, art, or language, there is a summer institute that will titillate your brain.

So guess where am I going to spend this summer?

Picture of Jess holding up a sign of Mexico

YAY!

I’m heading to Oaxaca, Mexico!

 A bit of backstory here: The Fulbright to New Zealand was a very spiritual experience for me.  The indigenous Māori have a deep connection to their whakapaka, their ancestry, the heart and soul of who they are and where they come from.  When I would hear their stories of their land and of their people, I think about the black and white starkness of my own genealogy, where we can amazingly trace my white mother’s side back to Captain Jonathan Sparrow (maybe a cousin of the famous pirate made famous by Walt Disney?), born 1630 in England and came to the United States on a ship soon after the Mayflower.  But on my Black father’s side, all that remains when looking just 150 years in the past is this single black and white photograph of a man and woman.  Little is known about these two individuals; however, it is understood that this couple is the last of the traceable family members on my dad’s side, for the rest of the family tree is of course lost to slavery. There are many reflections and implications that arise from looking at the first two people in your family to possess freedom, and yet have no idea of their identities. They are the legacy of my blackness, but I do not even know their names or what brought them great joy.

Picture of Jess's ancestors.

The picture of the first free ancestors on my dad’s side.

 

Picture outside of waitomo caves

Regina and I getting ready to enter the caves!

One example of my spiritual journey to connect to my heritage in New Zealand came  when I went to the glowworm caves in Waitomo with my dear friend Regina when she visited me for two weeks. After walking through 250 meters of cave and seeing amazing displays of stalactites and stalagmites, our guide told us to be utterly silent as the group approached a river flowing  40 meters under the earth.  We climbed without speaking into a little rowboat we found there, and our guide pulled us using ropes attached to the top of the cave into utter darkness.  And then, as we entered a cathedral of the cave, I looked up and saw millions of glowworms stuck like stars in the night sky.  This sight rivals some of the most beautiful displays of nature I’ve gazed upon in my life so far, such as the sun rising over the ocean in Jamaica, or setting over the Charles Bridge in Prague.

 

Picture of the glowworm cave.

The glow worm cave.
Source

Picture of inside of the cave.

Some more wonders of the cave.

And I just… lost it.  There I was in a boat with 15 other people in a river under the earth gazing at something that can only be described as miraculous, and I just started weeping like an old woman reunited with a long lost love.  There was something so undefined and special about looking up at those glowworms.  I started thinking about all of the heartache, all of the freedoms stolen, all of the  moments of struggle and perseverance that lead to that very moment of getting me into this boat to experience this miracle. Everything from slavery, to disease, to even my own amazing parents having to withstand racial bigotry to create their loving family, I know that I have not gotten here alone.  And there I was standing on very tall shoulders having an encounter that my ancestors probably could not even imagine one of their descendants experiencing. I felt my ancestors sparkle their joy and pride for me through the lights of the glowing insects.

Now, mind you, it is incredibly difficult to prevent one’s neighbors from knowing you’re sobbing your eyes out when every slight creation of sound ricochets off of the water and sides of the caves, amplifying it a million times.  But I’m only slightly ashamed that I got emotional, even if it made my boatmates fidget uncomfortably in their benches.  I’m happy that I got to have that spiritual experience of feeling so incredibly connected to my past and to my heritage.

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The Imprint of Leaving New Zealand on both my Heart and my Foot

Jess makes a snow angel

So much snow in Chicago!

Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

My car sits in a blanket of snow.  We’ve just had the 5th largest snowfall in Chicago history after Monday’s blizzard, and I know that soon I’ll be on my way to Michelle Obama arms after I manage to shovel my Pontiac from its white cocoon.  It’s hard to think that just a few weeks ago, I was sitting in the blazing warmth of a sunny Sydney summer, and now I am checking my cupboards to make sure I have enough hot cocoa to help defrost my fingers later this afternoon.

Side by side comparison of Sydney and Wisconsin

Left Sydney, right Wisconsin. The only thing they have in common is that I love them both.

The end of my official Fulbright experience was a wonderful blur.  Sometimes, it’s not until we say goodbye to a place that we realize how much that place has impacted us.  As I gave my final hugs and my final gazes at places that have become security blankets, I realized just how grateful I was to have this experience.

Maurice and Jess

Remember Maurice, the neighbor who helped me get through a New Zealand winter? Well, here he is. I miss him!

When I arrived home from the Milford track, I only had three days in Wellington before I left the country, as Fulbright granted me the dream opportunity to spend two days in Sydney, Australia (blog post to come).  It was a crazy three days attempting to sardine in all of the suitcase packing and goodbye hugs that I wanted to do.  And on top of it all, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Minister of Education read this very blog you are reading now and called me in for a meeting to gain my perspective on New Zealand partnership schools (again, blog post to come).  These events all led to a very exciting homestretch of my Fulbright experience.

But it wasn’t without an interesting finish.

One of my goals while I was living in my beautiful apartment on Oriental Parade was to walk out of my apartment one sunny morning, cross the quiet street, walk across the golden sand, and run out into the sea, arms outstretched to embrace the watery soul of the earth.  But then it never got quite warm enough for me to want to venture into the ocean. If I’m honest, I barely dipped my toes in. It felt so much more beautiful (and comfortable!) to look the ocean from the warmth of my apartment.

Picture of farewell dinner

The farewell dinner with my Fulbright friends: Tricia, Max, and Sarah.

After a wonderful farewell dinner, a couple of my Fulbright buddies decided to come back to my apartment, partly because I didn’t want to say goodbye, but mostly because I needed people to sit on my suitcases so I could get them shut.  As we chatted in my living room, I started to feel some pangs of regret.  How is it that I lived on the ocean for over four months and never swam in it?  What kind of adventurer am I?

So, while my friends continued their chatter, I slipped into my bedroom to sneak on a bathing suit.  When I came out in a towel, my friend Sarah exclaimed, “You’re doing it?!”  And I was.

Sarah and Max braved the rain and wind–Wellington’s retaliation of my departure was to withhold drops of sunshine in my final days–to witness my venture into the sea.

They thought I was just going to prance around in the water and run right back inside.  But oh no, if I was going to run into the sea, I was going to run. into. the. sea.  And it was pretty much how I always anticipated.  There I was, running out into the ocean, arms outstretched, traveling deep enough to submerge myself, and then…

OUCH!  BLOODY HECK! WHAT WAS THAT?

A sharp pain shot up my left leg.  Thinking I stepped on a sharp rock, I paused for another second in the water to complete one more pseudo-doggie paddle, and then I turned around to limp back to shore.

As I high knee-d in, shivering and smiling, Sarah and Max wore impressed expressions on their faces.  I felt proud that I had accomplished a personal goal, but I was worried about my left foot.  As we walked back up the four flights of stairs to my apartment, I favored my left leg, not wanting to look to see if there was blood.  I really, really don’t do well at the sight of blood.  I hopped immediately into the shower to wash the sticky salt and sand from me, giving me a clear picture of what happened to my foot during my dip in the ocean.

Uh oh.

There was definitely blood, enough that I had to slump against the glass side of the shower to collect myself.  And it was more than just a scrape or a cut– inside my foot were about 15 puncture wounds with little brown tips sticking out of them.  It could only be one thing: a sea urchin.

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The Milford Track: Thriving on Dehydrated Food and Water from Waterfalls

I start this blog post as I cruise down the Doubtful Sound on a beautiful sunny day. It is one day after I have finished the Milford Track, something I booked way back in July, and it’s hard to believe that I have completed it after many months of thinking/dreading/dreaming about it.

I was really nervous about my ability to complete it. Since I’ve been in New Zealand, my skin hugging skinny jeans now require a belt, yet I’m not in any better shape than pre-New Zealand. In fact, I’ve just lost most of my muscle weight from stopping the strength training I’d been doing in Chicago. The only workout I’ve really had is stuffing my cheeks with beautiful New Zealand pies. Just two weeks prior, I was unable to keep any food down after coming down with a horrible stomach flu. And this would also be my first real hike. Well, ever. And it was 33.5 miles that included an avalanche trail and an alpine trail. Things just weren’t looking too good for me.

It certainly was a physical feat–today I’ve been groaning each and every step I have to climb or descend, and my right ankle is purple and bulbous–but I have just seen and experienced something profoundly remarkable. Please note that the pictures and notes will in no way be able to do it justice.

Prior to the Milford Track:
I booked in July. The popular Great Walks of New Zealand sell out within a couple of hours of going on sale when they open on the New Zealand Department of Conservation website. Luckily, Amy, another Fulbrighter, was on to this fact and let the whole Fulbright New Zealand teaching crew that we had to book now!

I’ve never ever properly hiked, or tramped, as they say here. So, I had to rent all of the gear. Luckily, Bev’s Tramping Hire was there to the rescue. Bev got me outfitted with the right pack, sleeping bag, cooking ware, and clothing. I even got to try walking with a walking stick, which I’d later use as a cane to hobble around like an old woman when my legs got sore.

I packed a lot of food. Amy took one look at it and told me to put some of it away. “Too heavy,” she explained. She also looked at my freeze dried meals and said I wouldn’t like them. Luckily, if there is one thing I know about myself is that this girl can eat. And I mean, eat. As in, I ran out of all of this food on day three.

Picture of all the camping food.

This is all the food I brought/ate.

Day 1
Objective: take a bus from our hotel in Te Anau to Te Anau Downs. Then, take a boat to Glade Wharf, start of the track. From the track, walk an easy 3 miles to the first hut, Clinton hut.

Highlights:

Jess in front of beginning sign.

Heading to the start of the track with my borrowed back!

1) I successfully carried my first pack! It was a little heavy with all of the food that I brought (although Amy told me not to).

2) I walked over the second swing bridge of my life. It was quite scary, and I bobbled all over from side to side like a staggering zombie. I would eventually get better, which is good because I would cross about 17 more during the next three days.

3) The weather! I mean, this is a temperate rainforest and Fiordland is known for its rain. It rains 200 days out of the year and parts of the Milford Track floods. Just two and a half weeks ago it snowed here. Just under two weeks ago, it flooded so badly that the trampers had to be helicoptered out. And yet, for the next four days, it was to be sunny and beautiful, a rarity here. In fact, as I type this in on my cruise, it is day 6 of no rain. (Nine days here is considered a drought to put things in perspective).

Some people would say that this is bad because the “real” Milford happens when it rains, as there are hundreds and hundreds of waterfalls down the mountains (the mountains are granite, so there is nothing to soak up the water). But I’ll swap slippery slopes and being soaked to the bone for sunshine and seeing everything clearly anyday.

4) Next to our huts were several little glow worm caves. It was fun to wait until the sky started to raven to see the blue-green lights glowing along the trail path.

5) In an effort to stay hydrated, I drank a lot of water before bed. That meant that in the wee hours of the night, I had to sneak out of my hut in search of the toilet. When I got outside, I threw my hands up in stark fright. This gesture was so rigid I almost flung up my flashlight like confetti at a surprise party. It wasn’t because I had come face to face with an animal–the best thing about camping in New Zealand is that there isn’t anything deadly lurking in the woods–but because I was so shocked to see how blazing and bright the stars were.

I. have. never. seen. anything. like. it.

I could see everything: the galaxies, the Southern Cross, the twinkling planets: the stars seemed as close as the glow worms I had seen a few hours before. Spilled down the middle was the Milky Way. Never have I ever felt so happy to have nature call as on this night.

Picture of people playing cards and knitting

The first night as everyone starts to get to know each other.

6) It was really lovely to see the immediate community build up. From the first night, people shared food and stories. I became friends with a couple from Boston, Kendra and Neal, a couple from Poland, Gregory and Dorota, and a family of three: Robin, Michael, and their ten year old son Ethan. I met the Polish couple as we were searching for eels in the nearby stream. Look as we tried, we had no luck. Amy and I gave up, headed back to camp, and tried out the huge hula hoops (we had a lot of time to kill).

Soon, Gregory came running up the path, exclaiming that he had found eels. However, by the time we ran back down the trail, they were already gone. But the sweetness of the couple’s gesture stayed with me for the rest of the journey. Later that night, we would all play cards until we couldn’t see anymore.

Low points:

1) Because the hike was so short, there really wasn’t anything to do when we got back. I couldn’t sit outside and enjoy the late afternoon sun because I was too delicious of a snack for sandflies. Sandflies are very similar to mosquitoes in that they suck your blood; however, unlike mosquitoes, if you kill one, it will send out a toxin that will send more its way (unless that is a total myth told to me by my Doubtful Sound tour guide just now). So we were pretty limited on what we could do.

2) In this first hut, there are two bunkrooms. We got into a room with the door slammers. Meaning, it seemed as if every person leaving the hut, no matter what time of night, had gotten into a serious argument with their mom and dad. I jolted awake too many times from these door slamming nincompoops, and I made a mental note to avoid them at all costs at the next hut.

Pictures from Day 1:

Picture of opening Milford sign

Amy and I at the start of the track!

Picture of boat.

The boat that would take us to the beginning of the trek.

Picture of mountains

The view from the boat

Picture of trail

The first section of the walk was all New Zealand beech trees.

Picture of the landscape

The walk is just magical. I knew I was in for a treat.

Picture of the fern

I had to take a picture of the fern, the New Zealand symbol for new beginnings and personal growth. Perfect for me.

Picture of Amy on a swing bridge

My second ever swing bridge (I would go over many, many more!)

Picture of the stream

These are the streams we drank our water out of!

Picture of Jessie by the river

Taking a break to enjoy the scenery.

Picture of the hut

A picture of the hut!

Video clip from day one:

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Teachers as Changemakers: The Sunshine of my Fulbright Research Project

Picture of flyer

The flyer for our presentation today.

Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

Today, I get ready for my first presentation about my Fulbright project.  I’ll present with Amy and Tricia at Victoria University of Wellington at 3:30.  As I prepare my notes and my smiles, I can’t help but have my thoughts tugged by the news of Michael Brown’s non-indictment yesterday.  As my mentor Rob posted on his Facebook wall, “It ain’t right Atticus, it just ain’t right,” from Harper Lee’s famous novel.  It isn’t right that Michael Brown was not even given the dignity of a trial, that we keep hearing language and belief systems that are symptoms of the sick cycle of oppression in the U.S.

But today, I am glad more than ever to be an educator.  I have the great privilege and responsibility to give hope, to make change, and to interrupt racist systems.  I am proud to be an educator, and I am proud to work with the young people who will be the change of the future.  And it just so happens that my project addresses implicit racism in education, as the focus is on eradicating the achievement gap/educational debt between students of color and white students.  This blog, therefore, will break down the components of my project, as well as what my daily life looks like.

The title of my project: Teachers as Changemakers: The Power of Reflection in Diminishing the Racial Predictability of Student Academic Achievement

The purpose of my project: to find ways to eliminate the racial predictability of student academic achievement.

My passion is to teach for justice. Students of color have been disenfranchised at my high school in the US, resulting in an achievement gap in which 61% of white students meet college readiness standards, while only 14% of Black students do. My goal is to find ways to diminish the racial predictability that currently exists in test scores, discipline data, G.P.As, and college graduation rates.

Students with donuts

Some of my amazing students on a surprise donut day.

I can no longer tolerate a culture that perpetuates the status quo, that teaches Black students that being academic is a “white” thing.  I have some amazing colleagues who are doing amazing things in their classrooms.  I have a division head who gets it.  I have been totally blessed to have Chala, the assistant principal, visit, teach, and mentor in my classroom 2-3 times a week for the last three years, giving me feedback, ideas, and inspirations.  Teachers are ready to make change.  And teachers can make change.  I know this because they already do in so many ways that often go unnoticed.

So, I’m no longer interested in deficit thinking.  In the media, we teachers constantly get blamed for the lack of student academic progress.  We are seen as lazy and greedy.  We know there are profound gaps in student academic achievement and socioemotional needs.  But I believe that’s the easy way to think.  It’s easy to blame, it’s easy to hang the ugly picture out on your washing line for all to see.  It’s easy to reaffirm pre-existing beliefs and expectations about our students of color.

But you know what’s not easy to do?  Turn around and face the problem.

It’s not easy to work together to find solutions.  To look at all of the positive things that are happening and share those ideas like we do Thanksgiving recipes.  Sure, there is no recipe that will fit all palates and some ingredients will need to be modified to fit the individual, but there are certain key ingredients–love, hope, high expectations, strong student-teacher relationships–that all recipes need to work.  But how do we knead, nurture, and allow these concepts to grow in such a current harsh climate for teachers?

Well, that’s my project.

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Thanksgiving on Cuba Street

A Gratitude Journal

My carpool picks me up at 7:10 a.m. each morning at the top of Cuba Street.  If I can convince myself to crawl out of my warm bed and into the frigid air of my apartment before six a.m., I can make the 6:30 a.m. bus that will take me to the bottom of Cuba Street, and then it’s just a quick 10-minute jaunt to the top.  If I wake up after 6 a.m., I will miss the bus, and then I must run/jog/shuffle/skip the two miles to my meeting point. (School starts at 9 a.m. here, but I have a hike to get to my placement).

Even though I get exercise if I don’t catch the bus, I love making it because I get to stop for coffee.  Now 98% of coffee shops open after 7 a.m., which means I’m mostly out of luck because there is a coffee shop desert around my carpool pick up point.  However, Roberto at Palomino coffee on Cuba Street opens up just a little bit early so that I can get my coffee and still make it to my pick up point on time.  He’s pretty much the greatest man alive, and I look forward to stopping there on the mornings that I can.

Jessie with free cookie

My day is so much better because I got a free cookie. Thanks Roberto!

Today, I missed the bus by 47 seconds.  I had a loooong day yesterday that didn’t get me home until 10:45 p.m., and I knew I would be just as late tonight.  Even though it was 7:08 and I was huffing and sweating, I still decided to stop in to get a cup of coffee from Roberto. He inquired after my tardiness, and I gave him a brief synopsis of my past and future 24 hours, stressing that I really needed a cup of his coffee.  As he handed me my dreamboat-in-a-cup Flat White, he added a decadent chocolate cookie to the top of my coffee cup before handing it to me.  “For you,” he said in his Cuban accent, “to help with your day.”

It’s a few hours later, and I feel like I wish I could unplug after my iPad got completely wiped, and I lost– thankfully not all–of my research over the last month (I know, cue lecture about backing up files).  As I was about to sob into the D, O, and H keys on my keyboard, I noticed the cookie sticking out of my backpack.  It made me stop and remember that even though this is a tough loss, I am able to reflect, rethink, and rewrite.  Roberto’s gesture was a reminder to me that there is heartbreakingly beautiful kindness in the world. And for that I am grateful.

Note of gratitude

Someone at school put my name in the gratitude/commandments drawing, and I won! Thank you random stranger, now I get to draw an awesome prize on Monday!

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It is super cool being “from the future,” as I am 18 hours ahead of Chicago, but it makes communication difficult.  There is a small window of time right before I go to bed or right when I wake up that I can catch people in the States to talk to them.  I can’t talk during my day because I have to have wifi to Skype or Facetime, and I don’t get home from school in time to talk to people before they tuck in for the night.  So during the weekdays, I feel pretty isolated from my friends and family in the U.S., and I suck every last bit of comfort from the imessages and Whatsapp texts I get during the day.  It’s weird to think that most of my communication with home is through short conversations sprinkled throughout my cupcakes of days.

You can imagine, therefore, how meaningful mail has been to me.  I haven’t given out my mailing address to anyone but my parents, and they sent me a wonderful welcome care package the first week I arrived.  I realized quickly that one has to sell one’s car just to be able to pay to ship a package in New Zealand, so I didn’t send on my mailing address to anyone else.

Package from Joy

The AMAZING package from Joy.

But somehow, mail has found a way.  Our close (and oldest) family friends Kate and Michael sent me a lovely card.  And the biggest hug to a soul is that my lovely friend and fellow book club member Joy sent THE most incredible care package ever.   I had written a blog post about how miserably cold I’d been in Wellington, and she secretly Facebook messaged my mom asking for my address.  She sent me a giant package that has kept me literally and figuratively warm for two weeks now: a blanket, gloves, hand warmers, Nutella, fancy chocolate, and stuff for Halloween and Thanksgiving–the two holidays I will miss while I’m here.  I would win a Pulitzer if I was able to able to adequately express how grateful I feel.  I guess it makes sense that Joy would bring me so much joy.  (PS: Joy, check your mailbox in 6-8 days!)

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Video: A Windy Day in Wellington

Windy Wellington sign

The Wellington sign that you see on the way to the airport–highlighting just how windy the city can be!
Source

A couple of weeks ago, I posted what an amazing spring day in Wellington looks like.  It really is true that you can’t beat Wellington on a good day.  But then there are the not-so-good days.  It’s funny that I went from one “windy city” to another, but the wind here can sometimes be otherworldy.  To put in perspective, Wellington can average 18 mph winds while Chicago averages 11.1 mph, and winds can get up to 64 mph here.  You better hold on to your hat!

To show you just how windy it can be, check out this little video of one morning’s walk to school:

Hope your day is a lovely, smooth sailing kind of day!

 

Jess and Reg stand in the wind

Regina and I demonstrating what happens when you try to take photos on a windy day.

Kiwifruits and Capstone Projects: My tips for the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching application

Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

‘Tis the season to apply for the 2015-2016 Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching!  Applications are due November 5th.  It’s funny to think that at this time last year this experience was just an idea, but now it has become a full reality.  What a difference a year makes, eh?

Jess climbs rock

Hiking in the Golden hour in Wellington. I had no idea a year ago I’d have this amazing experience.

It’s been wonderful that I’ve gotten e-mails recently from applicants who have stumbled upon my blog.  I’ve gotten some good questions, and I am eager to help others have this amazing opportunity that I’ve been afforded.  So my first bit of advice is, APPLY! (If you want know why I did, check this out.)  You have no idea what magical things can happen for you if you do.

Fellow Fulbright DA grantee Kate has some good general application tips on her blog called “I got it!” if you are interested in those.  Below, I’ve included a few of the questions I’ve received, along with my response to those questions.  These answers are my personal opinions, and my experiences have to do specifically with what I know–the New Zealand program–so please keep that in mind.  Please let me know if there are any other Q and A I should add.  Happy applying!

How did you make (or how are you making) your contacts in New Zealand, both university and in schools? Have you had trouble meeting people or making connections?

New Zealand is a small country.  As an American, it’s like living in small town U.S.A. It’s not too dissimilar from where I grew up in Wisconsin, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of town, where there are four stoplights that are all found on “Main  Street.”  People here in New Zealand say that there is two degrees of separation (although some argue for three) between its citizens. This means that when you are networking with someone, either she will personally know the person you’d like to get  in touch with or she will know someone who knows that person. This also means that within one week of moving into my apartment, I’d walk into a dairy (convenience store) within a two-block radius and would hear, “Oh, you must be Jessie!” Word travels fast here.

Picture of silver fern

New Zealand’s national symbol

As a result of the tight knit nature of the Kiwi Community, meeting people really depends on who you know.  They are a bit like a Kiwifruit ironically, a bit hard to eat because you must cut through a tough outer layer, but once you do, they are incredibly mushy and wonderful on the inside. (I am in no way endorsing cannibalism) . It was quite hard when I first arrived, as I wasn’t culturally ready for how careful and standoffish Kiwis would be (although I haven’t had this experience when meeting Māori men and women–who have opened their doors and felt like Whānau (family) right away–but I’ll write more on that in another blog post).

The good news is that once you are in, you are in.  And the Fulbright family really is a family that will help you get “in.” The support I’ve gotten from Fulbright Scholars and Fellows  (thanks especially to Brenda, Ben, and Sarah) is amazing.  They were able to formally introduce me to key people, who have in turn introduced me to key people, and my small world here has just been expanding to something delicious (I think I’m still thinking about that kiwifruit).

So yes, it was hard at first.  Kiwis are perplexing because they are so kind and giving,  yet they can be difficult to get to know on a personal level. But if you can get to know one in the field you are interested in, you are set.  I  spent the first three weeks feeling like I was the new girl in the cafeteria, sitting awkwardly alone with my bruised banana, looking at every passerby with eyes that read, “Will you please be my friend?”  But now that I have made some important contacts, the invitations to homes, to meetings, to conferences, and to hopefully lifelong partnerships, is overwhelming.

It will take patience, a dazzling smile, a little bit of luck, and the help of some of your fellow Fulbright family members, and you will break through the figuratively hard shell of the Kiwifruit to find much sweetness inside.

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A Tale of Two Airports

A cultural comparison in the second person

Domestic flight at Chicago O’hare airport, USA

Jessie at the caveYou arrive at the airport 1.5 – 2 hours before your flight. If you are lucky enough that you don’t need to check any bags, you  go directly to the eticket booth, print out your boarding pass and head to the security lines. You’ve passed GO, collect $200.

If the machines aren’t working or you have to check a bag, you will stand in a long, slow line.  Once at the front, you will still use computer monitors to check your bag, and an airline representative may or may not help you print your boarding pass. They will weigh your bags, put them on the conveyer belt, and you head to the security lines.

After waiting in a long line for security, you will get stopped by a gate attendant.  He or she will check your driver’s license or passport by scanning it under a blue-green light.  They will look at you and down at your picture a few times to verify that it is, in fact, your mug on the license.  Finally, they will scribble something that looks like a drawing of a balloon animal on your boarding pass and give it back to you. You’ll get bonus points if you can get a smile out of them.

After waiting in yet another line, you reach the actual security checkpoint.  You remove your shoes and hope that your feet don’t smell like cheese and that you remembered to put on socks without holes in them.  You put these shoes into a plastic tub, and you remove your belt and coat and add them to it. You pull out your laptop and/or Ipad and put it in a separate tub.  You remove your liquids, which all have to be less than 3.4 ounces and stored in a plastic bag.  They get their own little plastic tub home as well.  Finally, you add your carry-on bag and personal item(s) to the conveyer belt.  You make one last check that you don’t have anything hiding in your pockets.

You wait until your belongings get onto the conveyor belt, then you wait in line again to get scanned for metals/flammables/weapons of mass destruction/metal screws in hips.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get a metal detector.  If you’re unlucky, you’ll strike an epic dance pose by throwing your hands up in a tube that takes a 360-degree image of your body.  Everyone will know that you got your belly button pierced when you were a teenager.

At this stage, you might make it through fairly easily.  But you can be stopped for a variety of reasons.  This time, because it was so early in the morning, you decided to throw your hair up in a bun in an attempt to look semi-presentable.  Now the TSA attendant is squeezing and poking said bun because you had forgotten you put bobby pins in it.  People huff behind you because they are sick of standing in line.  You might also be stopped because you had accidentally put one of a plethora of airline-inappropriate things in your carry-on.  They will open and salad toss everything you spent hours packing carefully because you packed gel deodorant.

Beautiful spring flowers

Beautiful spring flowers

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Video: A Spring Day in Wellington

I’ve been lucky enough that one of my favorite forever family friends–try that for alliteration–came to visit me in New Zealand during my two week school holiday.  I’ve known Regina since she was born, and she has inspired me to be the woman I am today. And one of her many talents is that she is a filmmaker.

The saying goes here that “you can’t beat Wellington on a good day,” and we had an absolutely glorious spring day in Wellington when Regina first arrived.  I was honored that she captured the day on her iphone and made this video for me–an incredibly meaningful souvenir of my amazing adventure. I will treasure this memento always.  I hope you enjoy the beautiful Wellington sights and sunshine with me!

Picture of Regina and Jess

Regina and I just after Regina’s plane touched down in Wellington.

7 Things I Learned the Hard Way in Wellington

Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

I’ve been given the most amazing experience I could ever have dreamed.  And it has been wonderful.  But as with any transition to a new culture, it isn’t always easy.  There are hiccups, embarrassing moments, and cultural misunderstandings. I’ve definitely cried into a jar of Nutella. But that’s all a part of the journey.  I won’t grow if I don’t encounter obstacles.

The following are the seven things that I’ve learned the hard way in the first month of living in Wellington, New Zealand. Some are small, some are big.  Some might be funny, others more serious.  But all will contribute to my growth.  I can’t wait to walk away from this experience a more confident, mature, and culturally competent woman when I step on that plane back to my homeland.

  1. Snapper cards

Bus rides took me a bit to figure out. You use a bus card (called a Snapper card) to tap against a machine when you get on and then you tap off it when you exit (they call it tag on/tag off).  You then get charged by how long you ride, similar to the zoning on the London Tube station.

The first time I rode the bus, I  happened to sit behind a college-aged student who was explaining to her parents that you had to tag off or you would get a fine.  Oh. I thought.  I would never have thought to do that.

Picture of Snapper card and Garbage bags

Here are pictures of my two frenemies: my red Snapper card and yellow garbage bags.

But even with her helpful advice, I just can’t seem to get into the habit of tagging off. Once, when my flatmate Tricia and I were riding to the Karori campus, I slipped my Snapper card into my wallet and stuffed it in my coat pocket. When we got to our stop, I hopped off without even thinking about my Snapper card.  I looked back to see what was taking Tricia so long, and my eyes bugged out of my head when I saw her taking the time to tag off.  In panic, I fumbled my hand into my pocket in an attempt to retrieve my Snapper card, but by the time my fingertips felt the red plastic, the bus was happily pulling away.

A few days later when I rode the bus again for the first time since my mistake, the tag on/tag off machine shouted for all to hear, “Penalty applied.”  So not only did I get the full cash fare fine for not tagging off, but I also had everyone in the whole bus hear my transgression.  If kiwis had judging eyes, I’m sure I would have felt them on me as I walked down the bus aisle to an open seat. Now, whenever Tricia or I forget to tag off, we will call the next bus ride experience the “walk of shame.”  As in, “oh man, I really hope there aren’t many people on this bus because I have to do a walk of shame today.”

I’ve now taken to holding my Snapper card in my hand within my line of vision so that I do not forget to tag off.  However, last week, there was a spout of warm sunshine that sparkled out of nowhere. I felt like an audience member on an “Oprah’s Favorite Things” show. Soon, I found myself stripping off my winter coat, feeling pleasantly and unusually warm. As I daydreamed out the window at the beautiful hills rolling outside, I suddenly snapped to reality in the tranquil bus and realized we had reached my stop.

Jumping up, I went to tap my Snapper card against the machine and realized that I had somehow wrapped my scarf around the hand that held it.  In panic, I tried to use my semi-free hand to untwist the scarf free, but my effort was made difficult by the fact I was juggling my lunch box and laptop case.  It seemed that the harder I tried, the more I couldn’t get my hand free.  A couple of people in the back of the bus started giggling at my obvious frustration that I couldn’t find my hand.  Finally, I waved at the bus driver to go to the next stop so I could calm myself enough to figure out how to free my hand.  He shook his head at me, letting me know he would wait.  I took a deep breath, figured out that I had somehow created a knot around my hand in my panic, unknotted and wrestled it lose, tagged my card, and walked out into the now, suddenly misting Wellington air.  Man.

Lesson I learned: get the mini Snapper card that you can attach to your key chain.  And laugh at yourself when your hand gets eaten by a piece of cloth.

  1. Mold

Mold is now my greatest enemy.  My mouth fills with venom whenever I think of it.

When I first arrived, I lived with or Axford fellow Ben before he moved on to travel the world.  Those first couple of days before he left, I noticed that he always had the curtains open and would even go so far as open the windows.  Who is this guy? I would think to myself as I shuddered in the winter wind. He must be Wolverine.

After he left, I shut the windows and closed the curtains to try to keep the fleeting summer rays trapped inside each room.  But one day when I set my laptop back down and opened my bedroom door, I was slammed in the face with a putrid smell.  Mold!

Sailboats in the rain

Even though the weather is sometimes cold and windy, Wellingtonians will still brave the weather to sail. Amazing!

I opened the curtains to see that there were tiny black spots dancing along the edges of two of the curtains. I clutched my chest thinking that I was surely dying of a black lung.  I did what many people do of my generation: I jumped online and googled the harmful side effects of mold on the human body. After reading about the various neurological and respiratory diseases that can come from mold, I had to leave my apartment to gulp the fresh Cook Strait air.

Later that day, I met up with my new friend Max, and I very dramatically told him about my mold infestation.  Now, I know I was being melodramatic–I mean, I understand that having a few spots of mold on a curtain does not equal a spore takeover–but I had assumed that I’d get more than a “meh” from Max. But that is really all I got–a noncommittal, so-what-“meh.”  Apparently, mold is just a “thing” in New Zealand.  Because it is so cold and damp here and most don’t heat or insulate their houses (and many houses in the valley are in the shade), mold is just kinda an everyday problem here.

Max taught me that I have to open my curtains each day to let the sunlight in and that I should crack the windows during the day and shut them at night.  So that “strange behavior” I noted when I first arrived is actually quite normal behavior in New Zealand.  In fact, there are whole documents that give you tips on how to prevent mold.  And when you talk about mold with New Zealanders, they’ll just look at you blankly like, “so what?”  It’s just part of life here.

The good news is that I won’t die of a black lung while in New Zealand.  After talking with our landlord, we discovered that the mold on the curtains already existed.  We are lucky in that we are located in a place that gets sun all day long (when it’s sunny), so we rarely even think about the mold anymore.  The place where we actually do have a heater–although it took me a week to discover it–is in the bathroom, so we don’t have to worry about the moisture there.

Even so, Tricia and I have been super paranoid about mold. If there is anything slightly dark on anything, we will shriek “mold” and shake our fists to the sky.  Most of the time, it’s just a crumb or a sequin.  But just today, Tricia washed her water bottle and left it out to dry in the morning. By the time we arrived  home to cook dinner, our most hated enemy had found its way inside because grey clouds had blanketed the sky.  Curses!

Lesson I learned: Read about a country’s climate before arriving in said country.

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