Visiting Hiroshima

A paper crane in the background with the words "Visiting Hiroshima" and a peace sign.

Hiroshima is three hours away from Kyoto and five hours away from Tokyo by shinkansen. It’s far too long to make a day trip out of it and not near too much of interest, and yet thousands of foreigners still stop by when they’re in Japan.

The bombing of Hiroshima by the US is modern history, but after the bombings, Hiroshima the city slowly slid out of the Western mind. The bombings were behind fifty years of growth, healing, and history when I was born, but even then, all I knew of Hiroshima was the destruction and enormous casualties. A lot can happen in 70 years, though. Hiroshima is now bustling city that reminded me of Boston with its waterways and green spaces. Most of the memorials to the victims of “little boy” are centered in the Peace Park, built over where the worst damage occurred.

This is the A-Bomb Dome. Once an important meeting place and source of pride for the city, it is now the most well-known icon of bombing. It’s only one block away from the hypocenter, the point directly below the bomb when it detonated, and everyone inside was killed. Somehow, much of the building remained, and it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Heritage Site status was declared in 1996 against the wishes of the US and China, who voted against granting the special historical designation. Pro tip from Renee to the US government: If China is the only other country voting “nay”, you should seriously reconsider your position. That’s not good company to be in.

Usually, the A-Bomb Dome doesn’t look like my picture above. When it’s not undergoing conservation, it looks more like:

(Picture from WikiTravel.)

The Peace Memorial Museum is an absolute must-see for understanding both the immediate aftermath of the bomb and the city’s healing process. It’s also nauseating and heart wrenching. This is coming from someone who’s read books about forensics and watched vlogs about mortuary science for fun. From the girl who went to the Museum of Death on spring break, where visitors frequently pass out.

This was worse.

But it was worth it.

Part of the shock was that I simply didn’t expect to see removed keloids or deformed fingernails in museum boxes. I was also a little concerned about the number of small children I saw with their parents. History is for everyone but not all ages. Most kids seemed either a bit shell shocked or like they were trivializing exhibits to process them.

Little Boy, actual size.

The museum covers the events after the bombing thoroughly, until after the effects of atom sickness began to appear. Then it switches to a long, elevated hall with a clear view of the A-Bomb dome out the window on one side and posters detailing other bits of history on the other side. I stood in front of the poster that explained how the bomb was tested in New Mexico for a long time. In Hiroshima, the atom bomb destroyed upwards of 100,000 lives. In New Mexico, we named our baseball team the “Isotopes”.

You’re probably getting the feeling that a day visiting Hiroshima isn’t fun. And it’s really not. So after I left the museum I got ice cream (from Baskin Robbins, because Asian ice creams are terrible) and sat next to the river.

Visiting Peace Park only takes one day, but I planned for two days in Hiroshima. My second day, I took a day trip to a unique island a short train ride out of the city. It’ll prove much lighter and, uh, fuzzier than this entry, I promise!

On my experience at NTHU

A hand holds an ice cream burrito. Visible in the background is a NTHU sweatshirt.

(Originally posted here.)

What follows is a long post  with no pictures. Sorry, folks. My intention here isn’t to rant. It’s to provide more information to curious friends, as well as students who are considering NTHU for exchange.

Perhaps some of the issues I’m about to discuss are new problems or may be solved in the near future, but last semester was one frustrating experience after another.

You should know a few things up front: first, I’m attending UNM on a scholarship that requires I take 15 credits a semester with at least a 3.0 GPA, for eight consecutive semesters. You should also know that Computer Science is not my original major, and that I’m also double majoring in Languages, so I’m a little behind schedule in some spots.

That said, let’s start with a brief overview.

The Basics

The following is how I explained the situation to my study abroad counselor at UNM:

“I constantly had communications issues with NTHU. For instance, we weren’t told how or when to pay for our dorms, yet we were locked out for late payments. All dorm staff spoke only a smattering of English, and all memos we got were in Chinese. Two of my classes were rescheduled without notice, and the only English language calculus class was canceled, also without me being notified. Support staff we had to meet with for things like internet permissions and mail didn’t speak any English, and most of the required paperwork was in Chinese only. Due to NTHU’s special class registration system for exchange students, we weren’t officially registered until weeks after classes started, which meant we weren’t on attendance sheets, weren’t assigned lab space, weren’t able to log into homework submission systems, etc. While professors used English in class, the tutors and TAs were mostly unable to communicate in English. NTHU assigned me an adviser from my department, and while she was very helpful, NTHU never told her she was assigned an exchange student. Things actually look worse for next semester, as websites that used to have in English switched to just Chinese, and English course offerings for computer science are more limited. Essentially, compared with Taiwanese students, exchange students at NTHU have many extra hoops to jump through while getting much less support.”

This leads us to a less-but-still-relevant…

…Short Rant About NCTU and Calculus

I also had issues with NTHU’s partner school, where I took calculus. Honestly, that’s putting it lightly. This calculus class was the bane of my existence. When NTHU’s fall classes came out, they weren’t offering calc. That was a problem, as I’m behind in my math sequence, so I was relieved when they added an English calc class. I registered and showed up for the first day of classes…and no one was there. They canceled the only English language calculus class, required for the huge majority of students, without notifying me. NTHU runs very small classes sometimes, and I know there were at least two other foreign students registered for this class. Why they canceled is beyond me.

Anyway, I decided to take calc at NTHU. They offered more than one English calc class, but because other classes were moved and I had to join late, I only had one option. This class, I soon realized, was moving deep and fast, sort of an honors-and-intensive rolled into one. We finished our coursework almost a month before students in the regular classes and moved right on to calc 2 material. The homework was almost all proofs, difficult proofs. I found the answers to one of the problems on an answer sheet for a different class, one that listed Linear Algebra as a prerequisite.

I took my homework to tutors, but that was only some help. They spoke very little English, so if I didn’t catch something, they couldn’t explain it to me. Sometimes they couldn’t even work out the answers. There was one problem early on in the semester that five tutors spent twenty minutes working on, only to tell me that they couldn’t answer it without more advanced techniques we weren’t allowed to use. I asked UNM’s online tutors for help then, to try to get explanations. I’ve only had good experiences with CAPS (UNM’s tutoring office), but the poor tutors were stumped by these homework problems, and astonished that they were only for calc 1.

Couldn’t I have just dropped? Nope, not exactly. Remember that 15 credit requirement? Yep.

Spring Semester

The NTHU Department of Computer Science is only offering three courses in English Spring semester for undergraduates, one of which is “English Listening and Speaking”. The other two don’t correlate to any classes required for my major and/or require NTHU-specific prerequisites. This means that a second semester at NTHU would not have brought me closer to finishing my degree, and I would have returned to the US too late to enroll in summer courses. Coming home allows me to take relevant classes this summer at the local community college. In addition, my roommate and closest on-campus friend had moved to Taipei, I had pretty much used up my travel opportunities, and I wasn’t enthralled with the thought of pushing through a semester that would be essentially useless.

What now?

I appealed to UNM for a leave of absence for the spring semester. Most schools (including UNM) grant these exceptions for serious illness or injury, family situations, missionary work, and military orders. Documentations and letters of support are strongly suggested. My only documentation was the NTHU school calendar and a few screenshot emails, but somehow, it worked. My leave of absence was accepted and I’m returning to UNM in the fall, scholarship intact.

In hindsight…

I wish there was more information on NTHU online. Non-university, English language websites are practically non-existent. No blogs, no vlogs, no review websites, zilch. When I started this blog, I couldn’t find a single relevant blog. Now, this little blog is on the second page of Google search results for the third result and first non-NTHU result for  “national tsing hua university blog exchange student taiwan”, and is the only blog Google returns in the first five pages. So maybe this will help others out.

Update, January 2016: This post is now the third result and first non-NTHU result for “national tsing hua university blog exchange student taiwan”. The blog’s homepage is the fourth. There is, however, another blog post within the first five pages, which is pretty good reading. You can get to it here.

NTHU is a well-regarded technical school in a beautiful country, and I hope the adjust their systems to better support exchange students. Do I regret going? Nope. But I don’t regret coming home, either. I took a gamble based on the information (and vastly reduced application time) available to me, and it didn’t work out this time. But trying new things, meeting new people, and traveling while I can was kind of the whole point of this adventure.

 

Happy adventuring!

The Studio Ghibli Museum

A robot from Castle in the Air with the words "Studio Ghibli Museum" in bold white letters

A quick note: this is from the blog I kept when I was in Asia during 2014 and 2015. You can read old posts here.

Although anime and manga still aren’t quite “mainstream” in the US, if you haven’t heard of Studio Ghibli, you must have been living under a rock. You’re also probably new to this blog, because I’ve posted about Ghibli films twice: here, in a general post, and here, in a post about  the studio’s Academy Award-Winning Spirited Away.

Anyway, I’ve been a fan of Studio Ghibli and the works of Hayao Miyazaki for years now, so when I planned my trip to Japan, a stop at the Studio Ghibli Museum was at the top of my “to do” list. The museum, also known (for some reason) as the Museo d’Arte Ghibli, is in the town of Mitaka on the outskirts of Tokyo. It’s inaccessible by car, and visitors are strongly encouraged to take public transit all the way or walk part of the way.

A sign pointing to the Studio Ghibli museum in Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan

It’s easy to find the museum from the train station.

No pictures are allowed inside the museum, so you can fully experience it without the distraction of the camera. I appreciated the rule for a different reason: since I had no idea what the inside looked like, everything was interesting and surprising and worth exploring.

A group of people waiting in line outside the entrance to the Studio Ghibli Museum

Waiting in line for the first entry slot in the morning.

The museum was designed by Miyazaki himself, and his fingerprint is on everything. I’ve been to plenty of theme parks before, ones that look nice but are a little too shiny, or where you find that what you thought was wood is painted on or the cast iron is hollow in the middle. At the Ghibli museum, everything feels real. The museum treats children like individuals, and everything is child safe. Exhibits have steps in front of them, so that children can see the exhibits without their parents’ help. I actually had to bend down quite a bit to see some things, as they were set up at a six year old’s eye level.

A young woman with sunglasses standing in front of a model of a robot from Castle in the Sky at the Studio Ghibli Museu

This creature is from Laputa: Castle in the Sky resides on the roof. Pictures are allowed on the roof, so here, have some more!

 

Model of a robot from Castle in the Sky

Up on the roof there were dozens of people in a small space. How I managed to get a picture without a single one of them is beyond me.

 

A large cube with strange patterns, from Castle in the Sky

This is also from Castle in the Sky, if I’m remembering correctly.

When you enter the museum, you get a ticket to see a short film. There are nine films on rotation, each one only available at the Ghibli museum. Each guest can only see one film. Everyone understood how special this was, because as soon as the movie started, everything was completely silent.  The movies are completely in Japanese, but that hardly mattered. That’s the beauty of cinema, after all–it’s a heavily visual medium. I saw The Day I Harvested a Planet, which was magical.

A short strip of three film frames, surrounded by a cardboard frame.

Each ticket is special, too, with a few frames from a Ghibli film. I think these are from Spirited Away.

It’s hard to do the museum justice in a short blog post, and I think that’s intentional on Miyazaki’s part. It’s designed to be an experience, so writers are left in a catch-22 because if we do it justice in words, we take away from an potential experience.

This, then, is where I end my post. Hopefully, you too can one day take a trip to the Ghibli museum and experience it the way it’s meant to be experienced.

A robot from Castle in the Air with the words "Studio Ghibli Museum" in bold white letters

Cambodia: The Long Version

A quick note: this is from the blog I kept when I was in Asia during 2014 and 2015. I haven’t edited it at all – this is it, in its full glory. You can read old posts here.

I’m back in Taiwan now, with internet and bubble tea, so I can update you on my short little adventure to Cambodia.

When we hit the ground, I got a distinct Indiana Jones vibe.  What can I say, I’m not used to being dumped on the tarmac and waiting for thirty minutes in a pushing crowd while surrounded by barbed wire and with planes roaring overhead.

When I booked my room, the guesthouse owner told me to “not change money” because everyone used US dollars.  Which was bizarre, but also a problem, as I’ve been using Taiwanese money for the last three months and had about five cents to my name in US currency.  I pulled two hundreds from an ATM–more than enough for the visa fee and four days, as it turned out.  The visa officer changed me a crisp two dollar bill like it was nothing, and after incredulously holding it up to the light and squinting at it, I figured it was real enough to stash away for back home.  Those just don’t crop up anywhere.

My passport and forty dollars now traveled down a line, from hand to hand.  “Stand over there,“ a visa officer told me.  So I joined another mass of people, trying to figure out what the fuss was about.

Here’s how getting your passport back works in Siem Reap: a swarm of fifty people pack into a small space, surrounding a passport officer who stands on a desk.  He gets a passport, looks at it briefly, then holds it open, calling out the country and owner’s name.

“Korea!  Kim!  Kim? Kim?”

Mrs. Kim jumps up in the back of the room, waving her arms.

The passport officer throws Mrs. Kim her passport over twenty bobbing heads, and when she catches it, we all clap.  People are filming, and laughing, and making consolatory noises when someone drops their passport.

I finally heard my name–and middle name, as they seem to be stuck together now a days–and waved my hands around.  (I’m happy to say I caught my passport, to faint applause.)

Outside, I found the driver that the hotel had sent.

“Two hours!” complained my tuk-tuk driver.  His name was Lucky, and his English was good.

“You’re telling me.”  I told him that I hadn’t wasted any time, and I wasn’t sure why it had taken so long.

“The Koreans,” he told me matter-of-factly, declining to explain.

I stayed at The Cockatoo, which was lovely.  Close enough to the center of town to walk, yet far enough away from Pub Street to be peaceful–any night except December 31, at least.

A bed with a mosquito net covering it. There are shelves on the wall and a picture of the character Tin TIn

“The mosquito net is for the Indochina flair,” Angel told me.  “…and for the mosquitoes.  Make sure you shut the door behind you.“

I crawled under my mosquito net early and managed to net* five hours of frequently-interrupted sleep before the highlight of the trip:  seeing the first sunrise of 2015 behind Angkor Wat.

I’ve wanted to see Angkor Wat for years, ever since I saw it on some “Wonders of the World” flashcards that we had lying around the house.  Angkor Wat is unusual because it faces the west, not the east, which means better sunrise viewing. Archaeologists like to have little scholarly spats about why this is, but all it means for most people is a spectacular sunrise.

A picture of Angkor Wat at sunrise

Waiting for the sun to rise was one of the most magical things I’ve ever done.  Thousands of us picked our way over a ten-centuries old bridge, armed with little flashlights.  We staked out spots here and there, then waited.  I’ve never heard so many people be so quiet outside of a prayer–people talked, of course, but always in tones of hushed anticipation.

Angkor Wat itself was barely visible in the darkness, so it was only as the sun rose that I realized two things: first, the pictures didn’t lie, and second, it was huge.  Massive.  Angkor Wat is the biggest religious monument in the world.  It’s a huge temple surrounded by lots of green space and ponds, then a huge wall, then a massive moat.  The walk way that leads from one side of the moat to the front of the temple is a quarter mile long.

Part of Angkor Wat

Part of the center of the temple, meant to represent the mountain of the gods.

I wandered around until the whole temple was visible, then walked straight to the back.  I had a hunch it would be quieter there, and it was.  After an hour or so of wandering, I decided it was about time for breakfast.

Everywhere in the Angkor archaeological park and in Siem Reap, people call to tourists. Follow tourists.  Push menus in tourists’ faces.

“Hey lady, tuk tuk?”

“MasAAAAGE?”

“Ten post cards, one dollar.  One, two, three, four post cards–you buy lady?”

This last monologue goes on for several seconds and is frequently repeated by small children as you walk to or from a temple.  Once I heard it from a girl who couldn’t have been older than three.  Her mother coached her from off to the side, yelling instructions and encouragement in Khmer.

All of this yelling has an upside–if you do want food, or a tuk-tuk, or flowy pants with elephants on them, all you have to do is walk twenty feet and someone will make you an offer.

Breakfast in the park was expensive, but better than any I’d had in a long time.  (Good breakfasts are scarce for college students trying to make their 8AM, so that’s not saying much.)  I tried an iced coffee–it was intensely sweet, probably with more sweetened condensed milk than coffee–but very good.

A glass mug filled with coffee and ice.

After breakfast and more exploring, I headed out to another temple. Hopefully I’ll get a post on that finished soon!

*apologies for the terrible pun