In March 2013, I went on a spring break trek to Palestine with a a bunch of HKS students, led by Asma Jaber. I was thinking about going to Morocco, China, or some other trek, but after learning a bit about Palestinian history, culture, and political tensions, I knew that I had to go on this trek. It would be my first trip to the Middle East, and the trek would come to open my eyes, ears, and heart to the region. (You can read one of Asma’s powerful articles here.)
George was our local tour guide, a Christian Palestinian, and introduced us to this beautiful land with a culture and history unparalleled in its richness, vibrance, and tensions. For seven days, we trekked through the West Bank –Nablus, Ramallah, Jerico, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron. We couldn’t get into Gaza Strip (no surprise there), but video-conferenced with some Gaza residents. My one week in Palestine pulled me to return to the Middle East many times since then, and I certainly plan to visit many times throughout my life. It’s one of the most actively misunderstood regions, and by studying and traveling throughout different countries since Palestine, I fell in love with the region.
Fast forward to last year, 2014. With her passion for studying and sharing the history of Palestine, Asma founded PIVOT, “an app that lets you see what a place looked like in the past and digitally streamlines the preservation of culture & history” and is starting with Palestine. Her co-founder and finance Sami Jitan and team won the Harvard Dean’s Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge at the Harvard Innovation Lab and a variety of other awards and recognition.
They’re currently raising money for this project on kickstarter (check it out) and are looking forward to making this a widely useful, relevant, and fun tool for everyone.
Asma’s ability to convert her passion for her ancestry, culture, and her history into an innovative and relevant app is so inspiring. I hope you check it out!
As part of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Asia Leadership Trek, my 40 classmates and I visited the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul to learn about the abhorrent human rights situation in North Korea. Personally, I have been learning about these issues for almost 10 years now, but the shocking nature of the situation still hasn’t worn off, nor should it. I have heard so much about this organization’s good work and was excited to finally meet some of the individuals who are helping to run this organization.
The event kicked off with a 20-minute documentary that shared some facts about the North Korean prison camps, forced labor, widespread starvation, public executions, and the horrendous realities around defections. Familiar faces such as Kim Young-Soon and Kang Chol-Hwan came on the screen and spoke about their experiences when they were living under this regime. I first heard some sniffles and gasps, and as the documentary continued to play, I heard soft sobbing behind me (I sat in the front row), and classmates offering tissues to each other. After the documentary ended, Michele and Miri briefly introduced Ms. Kim EunJu to speak about her experiences living inside North Korea before she defected.
Ms. EunJu Kim. The young, petite woman who was sitting a few feet away from us was sharing about her experiences in a world that was a universe away. Though it’s easy to know the fact that North Korea is less than 60 miles north of where we were sitting, it was just so difficult to understand just how such a horrific place could exist this day in age, in a place so geographically close to us. As I looked around the room, I saw my classmates and friends—people representing 22 nations—who were hanging onto every word coming out of this young woman’s mouth. People’s eyes were glued to Ms. EunJu, and for those who were meeting a North Korean defector for the first time, or were learning about the human rights violations in the regime for the first time, I could tell that their worlds were being transformed.
Classmates formed a circle around me during our 10-minute break to ask me question after question to clarify their understanding of the social, legal, political, and humanitarian situation of North Korean citizens and refugees. Why and, more simply, how could the Chinese government forcibly repatriate these refugees? How could they be considered as economic migrants and not refugees who were desperately seeking political asylum and basic liberties? How could our governments, and private actors not doing more to bring down this despicable, despicable regime?
After we left the Citizens’ Alliance office and loaded the bus, my classmates continued to ask me questions centered more on actions that they could take. My 40 classmates and friends, dressed in somewhat geeky red Asia Leadership Trek polo shirts, come from 22 nations, and are diplomats, military servicemen, deans of universities, politicians, consultants, and NGO members back home. A 90-minute meeting with this organization with a purpose-driven passion instilled outrage, heartbreak, and disbelief in these 40 people, and I have faith that these classmates and I will work to transform this outrage of the egregious injustices we learned about into practical, compassionate action to help create changes for North Korean people.
A baby has no past. Yet political constructs dividing countries like North and South Korea determine people’s fates before they are even born. Human beings are born as equal creatures in the eyes of God and I am fascinated by how humanity — with all of its complexities and similarities– is segregated by man-made boundaries and are destined to fulfill extraordinarily different fates that are largely determined by the political circumstances into which they are born. The sheer arbitrariness of people’s birthplaces obligates some people with moral duties to serve those who have been born in countries with fewer opportunities and freedoms. As my classmates and I have been fortunate enough to have been born in countries whose political leaderships allows us freedom and education, I believe we all have a moral duty to channel our fervent commitment to human equality to help protect the basic rights for those citizens who are born under this regime that refuses to protect and provide for its citizens.
Some people may be skeptical of the awareness-raising efforts of the North Korean human rights situation. After all, naming and shaming this regime hasn’t led to any meaningful changes to its behavior towards its citizens. However, I have full faith that with more and more passionate, compassionate, and empowered people who are educated with these issues, changes to the human rights situation inside this regime, and the very existence of this regime, will occur in our lifetime.
With any visit to a new place, fully knowing a country is impossible, much less with a brief visit to one city, especially if that city one of the wealthiest cities in a poor country. But from my few days in Yangon that were jam-packed meetings, interrupted by torrential rain, and where I was bothered by very determined mosquitoes, I learned that this is an extremely complicated nation striving towards healing, reconciliation, and unity, a nation that I would love to visit again and again in the near future. The society is marred by well-known cancers: the absolutely reprehensible treatment of the Rohingyas, the exclusion of other ethnic groups for the sake of a cohesive national identity, and extreme poverty that is stunting a generation of children. But who said transitioning from a military dictatorship to a democratic society was easy?
I sat in the window seat of our bus throughout our time in Myanmar, and quietly watched people living their lives. I tried to control my attitude and told myself that this was not a voyeuristic exercise, but one of learning and absorbing another’s culture and way of life. Like in any other country — rich or poor, democratic or not –, I watched men and women hustling, trying to make a living by selling coffee under dirt-covered umbrellas, young kids selling gum and tissue packs, and young school girls wearing green longyis with Barbie backpacks walking, hand-in-hand, to wherever they needed to go. I watched young boys, maybe 12 or 13 years old, teasing their girl classmates on the streets, trying to get a rise out of them. Prepubescent flirting, I call it. There were older girls, maybe late teens or early twenties, wearing heavy eye make up (much like myself) complete with Tha Nat Khar, strolling around in their skinny jeans with swag in their step.
I must admit that the familiarity of what I witnessed from my window seat was relieving. Yes, there is much, much more to people and their realities than what meets the eye, but the familiarity of life on the streets in a country that has been notorious for being closed off just until a few years ago, revealed that humans truly are experts at surviving. The brutal Burmese dictatorship failed to strip the dignity and self-determination of its people, and they eventually failed at sustaining its regime. I suspect that this country will take decades to reverse damages done by the previous government, and to work toward a peaceful domestic existence. But as an outsider, I am thrilled that the country has made the first critical step of transitioning out of authoritarian rule, and is making strides to achieve what its people have been fighting for for so long. I have no doubt that this recent history can, and will, be repeated in the last few remaining dictatorships in our near future.
Walking barefoot on wet marbled floors of the Shwedagon Pagoda, I tried to serenely be present and absorb the glittering beauty that is the Shwedagon Pagoda while sheepishly snapping photos like any other tourist. I inched around the main pagodas, and watched as people came to burn incense, say their prayers, and quietly find peace, at least for a few minutes. I watched young couples, holding hands and flirtatiously passing their time. Groups of girlfriends sat on steps, chatting away.
I stood still, looking up at the blue evening sky, punctuated by heavy clouds, and focusing on the tip of the 368-foot tall spire. This is SO much gold, I thought. Pretty different from the churches I attended, growing up.
“Do you see the diamond?”
Someone with a heavy accent interrupted my thoughts. I turned to where the voice was coming from, pretty sure that the question was not meant for me. But there he was, a middle-aged Buddhist monk, medium build, wrapped in a reddish-brownish monastic robe, looking at me and waiting for a response.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Diamond?”
“Come with me. I need to show you something.” Without looking back at me, this monk took off, expecting me to trail behind him and await his instructions. A sense of familiarity, a feeling that usually does not describe the first two minutes of a first meeting between two strangers, shrouded my and the monk’s bond. I obediently followed, and put my feet on an unmarked spot that the monk pointed to on the ground. He instructed me to stand in that very specific spot and then look up. I saw a huge glittery white mark at the top of the spire. It’s a 76 carat diamond that can be seen from only specific angles from the ground level, he told me. When he sensed that the novelty of the giant diamond wore off on me, he beckoned with his head for me to follow him, and took off again. I followed him, and just as expected, he had another hard-to-find element of the Pagoda to show me. This happened repeatedly.
There were no introductions made between us, no skepticism, no ambivalence, nor suspected ulterior motives that marred this special moment for me. I asked questions about this history of the pagoda, his relationship to the pagoda, his daily routine as a Buddhist monk, and what he thought about my country, the United States. It was time for me to meet up with my group again, so when I pressed my hands together and said thank you, he smiled, pressed his hands together as well, and we parted.
To this day, I don’t know his name, nor does he know mine. All I have is a photo that we took together that captures the fact that despite the different worlds in which we live — a Korean American twenty-something girl, and a Buddhist monk who was raised in a Burmese monastery — we could instantly connect on the common grounds that we have a shared humanity. No questions asked, no introductions needed.
The kind faces of several women wearing beautiful longyis greeted the trekkers and welcomed us into the headquarter office of the National League for Democracy. Larger-than-life banners and posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, or “The Lady” of Myanmar, surrounded the small entrance to their party office. On either side of the front door were street coffee vendors with kid-sized plastic chairs and tables covered in dirt, with stray dogs and cats lazily hanging out under the vendors’ carts, finding respite from the humid heat. (Remember, this is in the middle of June.) These coffee vendors were seen everywhere across Yangon. As someone who has been following the NLD’s activities for some years now, I was greatly looking forward to this particular meeting. I looked at my classmates’ faces and observed slight bewilderment as they looked around with wide eyes. I knew what they were thinking: could this be the party headquarters office for the NLD? The party of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the beautiful face and incorruptible figure of Myanmar in western media? The room we walked into past the front door was dimly lit with an odd, yellow-ish light. Piles of old newspapers were scattered across table tops with few older men and women reading books, some on cell phones, casually fanning themselves. A few turned to look at who entered the office, and, with equal disinterest, turned back to what they were doing.
In a single-file line, we walked up a narrow flight of wooden stairs to the second floor, which was even hotter than the first floor. A non-English speaking elderly woman directed me and my friends into their conference room. This was another poorly lit room with a dozen or so chairs surrounding the four wooden tables pressed together. Old photos and bulletins of the NLD party were tacked onto the wooden columns around the room. More piles of newspapers and bulletins decorated this room, along with bronze busts of The Lady, and outdated NLD calendars. We sat around, murmuring amongst ourselves, red in the face from the heat, seeking direction for how we were going to spend the next hour together.
I was assigned to moderate this session, so I was getting pretty nervous as the older men in the room were not providing any direction. Someone said “Ah, I didn’t know so many people were coming” and yelled for more chairs. Plastic chairs were sent in, but the small space couldn’t hold forty chairs, so many stood, others perched on table corners. I took the seat next to the men wearing longyis and waited for everyone to get situated. Two fans were sent in, and I watched as my beautiful German classmate tried to plug the fan in. The plug refused to stay in the outlet; it kept falling out. She tried all sorts of angles to keep the plug inside the outlet, but this turned out to be a fruitless effort. Each time the plug fell out and the fan stopped, more classmates became agitated. Given how hot the air was, people sitting in that area were desperate for this sputtering fan to work. I turned to the speakers who were watching this same scene with amusement, and then turned back at my friends, determined to get this fan to work. I thought to myself, slightly annoyed, “Gosh, how many Harvard graduate students does it take to plug in a fan?” Another classmate offered to hold the plug into the outlet, but there wasn’t enough space for him to squeeze in around the others, so the fan issue was dropped. No more fan. I noticed that this conference room didn’t have a door in the door frame.
Three very old gentlemen, dark skinned, wearing collarless dress shirts and green longyis, stood next to me, waiting silently as the forty guests got settled in. These were patient men. Patient men with extreme gravitas, the type of weight and dignity that comes only with age, experience, and hardship. They have been fighting for democracy in their country that was previously controlled by a military dictatorship for decades. They had no problem waiting a few extra minutes for their fidgety guests to settle down.
I peered around the room, looked up at the three gentlemen from my seat, took a deep breath, smiled, and asked the group, “Shall we start?”
The three men who held top leadership roles spoke to us at length about party’s efforts to engage the country’s youth and to incorporate them into the ongoing process of democratization. They shared some facts with us:
Among the 1.3 million NLD members across the country, 50,000 are under 30 years of age.
There are 280 township youth conferences
NLD runs 200 schools and provide free education, targeting students from poor backgrounds. They engage 20,000 students and about 1,000 teachers
They smiled, joking that they– at 65 and 70 years of age — were the young ones in the party, alluding to the reality that only small pockets of Myanmar’s youth are actively engaged in politics and efforts for social change. These are men who have been involved with the party since its inception in 1988, and have been part of the political struggle to open up Myanmar long before the 8888 Uprising. As part of their description of the difficulties of engaging youth into national politics, the men also stated that 1 million of Myanmar’s youth are currently working in Thailand. Right when the country opened up with its first democratic elections in 2010, much of the frustrated youth tried to leave their country to pursue opportunities abroad. The combination of brain drain, corruption and mismanagement of resources at the national level, poverty, and ethnic strife continually disillusions this country’s young people — as it would in any other country — from getting involved in politics. This leaves the “young people,” the 60, 70 year old men and women, to push forward in this effort to democratize and unify a country marked with 65 years of domestic conflict and its continuing legacy, 135 ethnic groups (and many more unrecognized ethnic groups), and widespread poverty.
Ninety edifying (and very hot) minutes of discussion later, we made our way back to the rickety entrance of the building, and spent some time buying NLD paraphernalia, mostly with The Lady’s beautiful face on it. NLD was built around, and continues to be centered on, Aung San Suu Kyi, and this was reinforced when I looked around the NLD’s “concession stand.” T-shirts in different colors, books, calendars, fans, pamphlets, posters, pins all with images of her beautiful face and orchids in her updo were all for sale, presumably for mainly foreigners’ consumption. I bought a book on The Lady written by her cook who stayed in her home during her two decade-long house arrest. I also took a few photos with several young women who worked at the front desk who were wearing longyis and wore the Tha Nat Khar, the yellowish-white make up made from ground wood with which women paint shapes onto their faces. We all said Khay Zoo Tin Bar Dae, which means thank you, and parted ways.
We piled on the bus and debriefed the session. Some of my classmates expressed deep frustration and disappointment of the party leaders’ calm and peaceful demeanor that lacked an aura of urgency, passion, and verve. “No wonder Myanmar’s peace process is so slow,” a friend chided. Another classmate complained that the party leaders were too skittish about difficult subjects, such as the severe persecution of the Rohingyas in Rakhine State (which some refer to as the Rohingyas genocide), and the future of the NLD after Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer able to be politically active.
While these critical comments were being tossed around in our bus, I thought back to the old, wrinkled faces of the men who spoke, and imagined what their lives as political activists must have been like. How tired they must be. How drained they must be from fighting for a political situation that their nation could enjoy, without having sufficient funding, resources, or public recognition. How exhausted they must be from fighting for democratic values in a military dictatorship, and then not have widespread popular support when the country does open up. Of course there is no spirited zest, or a pep in their step! How could outsiders such as ourselves, who have no skin in the game, the game that is Myanmar’ democratic future, demand that these decades-old fighters have a renewed sense of almost juvenile-like rebellious spirit? This has been their lifelong commitment, and I honor their past, their continuing dedication to their country’s future, and their devotion to a democratic society.
I do not know what it is like to continually face physical and psychological danger to fight for something I crave, and I certainly do not know what it’s like to fight the same fight for decades without seeing an end in sight. But what I could reasonably suspect is that this ongoing fight for democracy by not just the NLD, but other political parties and organizations, is going to be a long, arduous journey.
Days after my graduation, I took off with a bunch of my classmates and friends for the HKS Asia Leadership Trek, which is a “unique, overseas learning experience that exposes young professionals to the Asia region through active engagement and knowledge sharing of best practices in public leadership, education, and social entrepreneurship. The Trek provides an experiential journey of Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Bangkok, Jakarta, and Yangon.” In a nutshell, we had an extraordinary line-up of meetings (sometimes waay too many) with politicians (e.g. President of Indonesia and his cabinet), American ambassadors, billionaires and budding entrepreneurs (e.g. Proximity Designs in Yangon), beauty queens (many Miss Indonesias!), NGOs (e.g. Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights), Corporations (e.g. Mitsubishi, Toyota, Samsung), etc etc etc. I’ll write more about my experiences in each place, but I thought I’d provide a quick overview of my whirlwind of a trip to Asia. [For the fun stuff, check out our photos on our facebook page here]
With the exception of China, I was fascinated by the countries’ own arduous journeys to democratize their societies and governments. Speaking with politicians, editors of major media outlets, NGOs, students and friends we made in the countries cemented by belief that all people truly are hungry to be free. Freedom can materialize in various forms of expression and outlets, but people everywhere — in Myanmar’s Rakine State or poor parts of Seoul — want to be heard, want to be free. Something else I observed was a fiery urgency in all six countries to create, innovate, and push the frontiers of entrepreneurship while balancing the tension with more Confucianism and Buddhist values of hierarchy, respect, and keeping the status quo. As Asia quickly becomes an increasingly powerful region for international politics, business, and culture, these countries, along with their neighboring countries, must be able to figure out how they will be able to sustainably balance their desire for social and political change while staying true to traditional values. On the contrary, I strongly believe that Western nations, especially my country the United States, could tremendously benefit from incorporating the more traditionally “Asian” values into our commercial, political, and social worlds.
There are many differences, tensions, and historical difficulties among these countries and between the US and Asian nations, but as we move forward in a globalizing era, understanding other nations (or at least minimizing misunderstandings and false perceptions) is essential to minimize military conflict and maximize the possibility for regional peace. So while our politicians, presidents, and diplomats have at it, we can all do our part by traveling, reading up on people and places that we just don’t understand or even harbor hatred towards. It’s trite, and almost elementary, but trying to understand parties that we just don’t understand or can’t connect with is our duty! Although this trip allowed me to only scrape the surface of each country, I tried my best to catch glimpses of life in each place that went unspoken of. I will, of course, plan return to each of these extraordinary countries. I hope you do too.
Happy New Year everyone! I returned from Lebanon a week ago to conduct interviews with my classmate Laila Matar to work on our Policy Analysis Exercise together. I will write more about my trip to Lebanon in a separate post, but for now, for those interested in applying to Harvard University Kennedy School of Government and its capstone project, I’ll direct you do a post Laila and I wrote for the HKS admissions blog.
For a little over two weeks, Laila and I ran around Beirut, Bekka Valley, Saida, and elsewhere trying to meet and interview as many people as possible, ranging from Ministers, politicians, activists, journalists, UNHCR staff, Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees, Palestinian refugees from Syria, a Catholic priest, Iraqi security forces, and more. The more we learned, the less we knew. Syrian refugees were pouring into Lebanon’s porous borders with no coordinated national policy to properly serve and absorb the refugees while securing existing Lebanese communities. The Syrian refugee crisis — not only in Lebanon, but Turkey, Iraq, and other neighboring countries — is one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time, and unfortunately, the end is nowhere near.
at exhibition in Beirut of drawings by Syrian refugee children
Me and some of my friends at the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il statues in Pyongyang, the first stop on our tour in North Korea.
During my recent trip to North Korea that I co-organized for 24 Harvard classmates and friends, one particularly memorable moment took place at the DMZ from the DPRK’s side, where I saw both the North Korean and South Korean flags straddling the 38th parallel. I carefully struck up a conversation with a North Korean military officer in his mid-50s. At first, he scowled and demanded that I, a Korean-speaking American, stand away from him. I kept near him, pretending that I had no wiggle room amidst the dozens of fellow tourists who were also at the DMZ.
After his military colleagues cleared the area, the officer casually covered his mouth with a folder, looked away from me, and in a low voice started asking me questions about my life in America. After all, he couldn’t have his colleagues see him be so friendly with a foreigner, much less an ethnic Korean American. He asked me what life was like in America, what my parents did, and how I learned to speak Korean in America. His questions were rooted in sheer, nonjudgmental curiosity. For ten minutes, we stood by each other in a crowd while looking in opposite directions, and carried this clandestine conversation in Korean while having both of our mouths covered.
After telling me that he full-heartedly wishes that the two Koreas reunify so that all Korean people, hanminjok, can live together in peace, he asked me:
“Do I look like your father?”
I didn’t really know what he was asking, so when I asked him to ask his question again, he said:
“Well, I know that we’re hanminjok, but I’m curious if I look like a Korean man in the United States. Am I as tall as him? Same face?”
I choked back tears, and made some joke about how handsome the military officer was. The man was significantly shorter, thinner, and had much darker skin than my father. I was standing in front of the flesh and blood that was the result of a divided country, 60 years later, in human form. My father could have easily been born in North Korea, but was born 35 miles south of the DMZ, and his fate could not have been more different than of the man I was standing in front of.
A rush of military officers headed our way, which abruptly ended our guarded conversation. The officer shoved me out of the way and barked at me to not stand so close. I tried to wave goodbye, but he ignored me. I’m pretty sure that he was acting like so because he was in the company of his colleagues. When it was time for my group to get back on the bus, I caught his eye and winked. Without smiling, he winked back.
I co-organized a Harvard University Kennedy School Trek for 24 classmates and friends to North Korea in August, 2013.
I flew into the Kingdom of Bahrain from Doha this morning. This small island country along the Persian Gulf with a population of about 1.2 million (which includes about 600,000 non-Bahrainis who work in the country) is rich in its history, culture, and recent political events. Like Qatar, this Muslim country is observing Ramadan, so food and drink is strictly forbidden in public places until 6:30PM, when iftar starts. When iftar started, I walked around the Manama (the capital city) in the humid 98 degrees weather. I cabbed over to the souq, and snapped a few photos in between browsing goods and chatting with store owners.
Throughout my cab rides, I asked the taxi drivers about their thoughts on the recent protests that took place in Bahrain as part of the Arab Spring, and they all had very bold opinions about the King and his royal family. Though I won’t go into details of the conversation here, I will say that all three drivers I met will attend the protest tomorrow at 5PM in Manama.
Afterwards, I headed to one of the newest buildings, the Bahrain City Center, and people-watched while having coffee and trying to stay awake along with the rest of the city. Every day, I’m amazed at how people are able to celebrate the breaking of fast, and socialize into early morning, and then go to work the day after. I’m trying my best to keep up!
I started off my travels to the Gulf countries a few days ago, starting off in Dubai (I will write more about Dubai on my second visit to UAE next week), and landed in Doha, Qatar. I felt the rush of the city’s rapid development all around me, especially as the country prepares to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.
Due to Ramadan, it’s illegal to eat/drink/smoke in public between sunrise until sunset (Iftar is at 6:30PM in Doha), so the daytime was very slow. As predicted, I couldn’t find a single café outside my hotel, so I went over to the W Hotel to spend my afternoon there. Right when Iftar started, the city woke up and all the shops, restaurants, and markets lit up. I headed straight to the Souq Waqif and spent hours there, weaving through the alley ways, speaking to shop owners, and buying little trinkets for my family. Here are a few shots I got from the evening.
One of the shop owners turned out to be one of the coolest people I’ve met all summer. This 75-year old shopkeeper had posters of a young bodybuilder around his pearl shop, and it turns out that it was him! He also used to dive for pearls, sleep on bed of nails, and broken glass. When I asked him if he had superpowers, he said yes! Some other shop owners joined our conversation and praised this man. Watch an interview of him here! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoL64-ao9dc
Afterwards, I walked along Doha Cornishe (the waterfront along the Doha Bay) for hours late at night, and felt completely safe, just as the policemen and young ladies at the Souq told me. If you’re ever in the gulf, I encourage you to visit Doha!
Countless people have helped make an unforgettable summer for me in Turkiye. Though I cannot cover everyone (that’d be impossible!), I want to call out a few friends who I am so grateful to have met (or reconnect with) this summer.
Before coming to Ankara, I was warned that it was not the most exciting city of Turkey. Leaving hesitations aside, I decided to spent two months in this city and I was pleasantly surprised by the rich history and fun times that this old city has to offer. This post will be about my adventures throughout the nooks and cranies of this city.
A U.S. diplomat I worked for in Berlin years ago is currently stationed in the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, and invited me to the U.S. Independence Day Party at US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone’s residence. Several hundred people from Ankara’s diplomatic community attended this swanky affair to celebrate our nation’s 237th birthday, including the New Orleans Jazz Band who swung by the party to perform as part of their tour throughout Europe. I was both lucky/unlucky to stand right next to the media section of the crowd, but did manage to snap a few photos. Hope your Independence Day celebrations went well!
I made my way to Istanbul again to see Merve, the beautiful sister of Emre Sargin, who was a colleague and friend from Google. She and I met up with her friends who also live in Istanbul and we drove over to Demirciköy that overlooked the Black Sea. We had some beers, and made our way to a beautiful fish restaurant where we ate and hung out until the sun set. We made our way to Bebek (a posh area in Istanbul that means “baby”) and had coffee and desserts by the water, which was the perfect finale to a day in Istanbul.
The next day, Merve and I hung out at Ba?dat Caddesi and walked along the Marmara Sea, that was dotted with local Turkish families, groups of friends, and couples in love who were playing, swimming, and sunbathing. This was one of my favorite weekends in Istanbul by far – Thank you Merve! [Note to readers: check out Merve’s blog!] http://www.kadinlarinmodasi.blogspot.com/
My classmate and co-intern Anita and I flew to Izmir to see this beautiful seaside town and to visit Ephesus. We saw the covered Bazaar, the historic synagogues, the countless bars and cafes that lined the water, and hung out amidst the general festive spirit of the families and couples that were spending their summery weekend in Izmir. Our day in Ephesus was HOT (I think it was about 103 degrees), but worth it. We wove through the ruins of this former great city composed of temples, a grand library, baths, majestic columns, and statues. We even saw a wedding photo shoot in Ephesus. The visitors in the theatre burst in applause when they saw the bride and groom! Enjoy the photos from this weekend!
Cappadocia (“the land of beautiful horses) is located in Central Anatolia, sort of in the middle of Turkey. With rich religious and historical significance, this high-traffic tourist destination was surely worth the 6-hour ride from Ankara. The sophisticated underground cities that early Christians used as hiding places, fairy chimneys, underground tunnel systems that served as defensive networks, and the unforgettable hot air balloon ride in Urgup (for which I had to wake up at 3:45AM!) that overlooked Cappadocia’s landscape made this trip a truly unique place.
Last Friday, a great new friend Ünal took me to Kugulu Park in Kizilay, Ankara to participate in an Iftar dinner. A special guest, Professor Dr. Ihsan Eliacik was also there to break fast as well (he’s the man in the blue button down being interviewed in my photos). Right at around 8:27PM, I witnessed and participated in my very first Iftar dinner with Muslim Turkish people in this park. At first, I only stood around the outskirts of the mini communal dinners since I’m not Muslim and I didn’t want to disrespect their holy event in any way. But minutes after people started to break fast and start sharing their food, people invited me and Ünal to take our shoes off, sit with them on their rugs, and eat their food together. Watching friends, family, and strangers communally break fast was a truly beautiful sight!
My world-traveller former roommate from Vienna (Latasha Wilson) who is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey met me in Istanbul this past weekend, which turned out to be truly unforgettable. This city, where history meets modernity, was everything that I expected it to be — the buzzing Istiklal Street, majestic Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the energetic Spice Market, the sparkling lights that lined the countless side streets, and the unbelievable diversity of people who flowed throughout the veins of the city collectively makes a magical experience that understandably leaves an indelible mark on all people who grace the streets of Istanbul. It certainly did for me. As always, I had a great time people watching and captured a few moments that I absolutely loved.
Latasha and I had dinner in a beautiful restaurant on a side street off of Istiklal Street on the terrace and noticed that about a third of people in the fine establishment were eating dinner with a gas mask around their neck, placed on their head, or somewhere on the table. About thirty minutes into dinner, we heard protesters marching through the street below with whistles and drums that rhythmically complemented their chants. *Every single person* on the terrace started to clap enthusiastically, sing, chant, and yell out phrases of solidarity. An elderly woman even brought out a whistle from her purse! The cheers were cut short with a cloud of dense tear gas that covered every surface of the terrace (mind you, we were almost half a mile from Taksim Square where the heart of the protests was taking place). People put their masks on, while others grabbed napkins to cover their noses and closed their eyes shut.
A young lady about my age had brought a liquid mixture of crushed anti-acid tablets and water and started spraying it into people’s faces (including mine) to alleviate the stinging from the tear gas. After the worst was over, people broke out into cheer again! This scenario (graceful dining, punctuated by chanting passerbys and the diners breaking out into song and cheers, which was then quieted by powerful tear gas that I could actually see) repeated itself almost 15 times throughout dinner. After a long dinner, we were about to head out when our Turkish-only speaking waiter blocked us from leaving and motioned that there was too much tear gas outside so he recommended that we wait on the second floor for twenty minutes. I peered into the restaurant next door, and onto the streets below that were packed just minutes before, and this is what I saw. (Forgive me of the hazy photos…I snapped the photos through windows)
After we finally walked onto the streets, we were stuck. For every direction that we wanted to walk towards, we were told that there was either too much gas, too much police, or both. So we lingered on Istiklal street a few meters from Taksim Square where thousands of people were in gas masks, and we sprinted into side streets when the crowd ran (this happened many a times). I saw many young men selling gas masks and goggles on the street. I bought one, because it was impossible to breathe without one. I wore my sunglasses in the dark to protect my eyes, but that didn’t help after a few minutes because they were coated in opaque white after a few minutes from the tear gas.
There was so much energy in the air, and honestly, it was exciting to be right in the middle of the action in a place that seems to be the pulse of the universe these days. Some people helped us out when things got a tad too dangerous and we ended up buying a few cans of Efes Pilsner (Turkish beer), and drank it on the street while talking politics with our new friends.
The morning after, I walked around Taksim Square, which was clear of the protesters from the night before. I may have snapped too many photos of the square, because a policeman came up to my friend and asked in Turkish who I was, and why I was taking so many photos. After my friend calmly answered back in Turkish that I was just a nice American tourist with no political interest. Still skeptical, the policeman stared at me for the longest one minute of my life, and said in perfect English, ‘Welcome to Turkey.’
I walked over to the Anitkabir (Ataturk Mausoleum) today to spend some time learning about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the leader of the Turkish War of Independence, and the founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey. Most of the other visitors were Turkish citizens, and I was struck by how much quiet reverence people had for the leader, the museum, and towards each other. A few minutes before entering the museum, I saw a student protest at a large intersection, and of course, snapped a quick photo.
Here are some photos (and a cool video about the soldiers’ rotation) from my day here.
After my visit to Anitkabir, I walked around the city, and found myself in Kizilay (I promise it was on accident), and got there literally 5 minutes after the riot police sprayed tear gas on the protestors who I stood next to last night. I walked down the streets to find a taxi, and tears automatically streamed down my burning eyes because of the thick tear gas in the air. I saw young girls and boys crying from having had tear gas sprayed directly into their face. My cab driver had tears streaming down his face because of the spray as well. Not too sure if he was able to see clearly, I hopped in, and made my way back to my guest house.
I arrived in Ankara, Turkey a few days ago, and I’ve been having a blast so far. It’s an extraordinarily clean, modern, and welcoming city with attractive young people who smoke, drink, hang out, and have a good time. Anita is here with me for the same internship, and am stoked to have a friend here! [By the way, a lot of my readers complained that my posts were too text-heavy, so I’ll try my best to post more photos!]
I was invited to be someone’s plus-one to a Turkish wedding, so I happily attended. It was so fun! During the wedding, my friend leaned over and whispered to me, “aside from you, everyone here is Muslim.” His comment aside, I couldn’t have felt more welcomed. Everyone was in good spirits, and the DJ played a combination of American pop music (including Pitbull!), Alawite traditional songs, and Turkish folk music throughout the night. It was so nice to see the groom unable to stop smiling throughout the evening. Congratulations, Alev and Bayram!
After the wedding, my friend (anonymous government official) and I snacked on the veggie, nook, that we bought from a street vendor and walked over to A?gabat Street (7th Street in Ankara), which is a really popular street around here with tons of shops, cafes, bars, and businesses.
While having Efes Pilsen (a Turkish beer) and grilled meatballs, a peaceful protest walked past us, and my friend was able to capture part of this on my camera. The cafe instantly put on a national song in support of the peaceful protest.
After drinks, we headed over to Kizilay, where we happened to come across a huge peaceful protest with an estimated 7,000-10,000 protesters. People were chanting, singing, and generally in good spirits. (Sorry, I was filming on my tippy-toes, and so the video is a tad shaky)
It was a wonderful, spirited evening and learned a ton from my new friends here in Ankara. Stay tuned for more!