Author Archives: gjmacdougall

The Americanization of an exchange student by the University George Washington

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It’s the night before the beginning of the spring semester and so it feels appropriate, now that the dust has settled after the whirlwind of finals and the slight jolt and joy of a visit home, to reflect upon the fall semester.

True to the words of every exchange student, the time has flown by – as well as friends flown away, needing to return for the spring to their home universities. But though the time has gone quickly, it has had an effect. Though I was greeted back in Norwich by friends congratulating me on having ‘escaped’ the accent, I did feel at times slightly more ‘American’ at home – a little more outgoing and assertive, perhaps, than those around me who were more reserved. Not to mention needing to go cold turkey on caffeine for a while, after my first finals experience.

Going to a country that shared my native language and that had a culture which closely mapped onto my own, I had been doubtful about how much an exchange would affect me. However, it has.

For example, I have had to become much more efficient and organised – in Edinburgh I never had a diary but here you can’t survive without one. I also now appreciate my university’s city much more, being excited to return and play the tourist there, as I am doing here, and not take it so much for granted. And I have grown in confidence in myself and my ability to relate to others because, contrary to my initial fears, America 2.0 couldn’t have been more different from the first version.

In terms of academics, my exchange so far has had a great positive effect, introducing me to many new ideas and writers as well as forcing me to become much more time-efficient in my writing due to finals (10 essays, 7 days…). However, I feel I have also become a little lazier with my essays, spared from having to adhere strictly to a word count as in Edinburgh, where laboriously cutting down the words is half the battle.

Though I couldn’t have imagined a better first semester of my exchange, there are still some lessons I will be bringing into the spring term. One of them is pacing: something that I feel I should have applied to more than just my Thanksgiving meal. There is the temptation – spurred on by all those you see around you – to try and do everything at once, and though trying new things outside your comfort zone creates the great experiences (and in terms of the less great ones, ‘good stories’) of an exchange, sometimes saying ‘no’ would save future stress down the line. Hopefully I’ll remember some of this wisdom a couple of weeks from now.

So much of my enjoyment of the first semester is down to the care taken of us by our exchange coordinators and for that I am very grateful.

Anyway, to get to bed and start this new semester with its new adventures –

 It's goodnight from me...and it's goodnight from GW - goodnight!

It’s goodnight from me…and it’s goodnight from GW – goodnight!

Grace

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Say good night!

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Maybe it’s the amount of caffeine and sugar in my system to get me through deadlines and finals (for a time I was feeling my body was 60% coffee/coke and not water), but even though there is almost a week left after this one, I’m starting to get emotional about the end of term.

One example was at the end of my last Beginning Acting class, which I have loved this semester. In a class earlier in the term we had ‘thrown’ an imaginary big ball to the ceiling as part of an improv lesson, and in our final time together our professor said ‘the last thing I want you to do is to get into a circle’, before reminding us that the ball was still up there and that we needed to bring it back down. We did that and then he said ‘I want you to grab a piece, and bring it to your heart, and keep it there…forever’. I would be lying if I said I didn’t get a little teary-eyed.

The class has grown together so much over the term and the professor is just amazing – if anyone is looking for course options for next year, I can’t recommend it highly enough!

This week has been a collection of other ‘lasts’, such as the last time for tots and trivia at Tonic with the same group of people. It ended with a bang as we placed the highest I’ve ever experienced there, though I haven’t exactly improved on the level of my contributions from the beginning of the semester, my role still being little more than ornamental. However, my moment of glory came in knowing that a ‘brolly’ is British slang for ‘umbrella’ (though if I had failed there they would probably have made me relinquish my UK passport).

It was also the last pre-class Tuesday Dunkin’ Donuts date I had with my friend, which had seen the sweet sustenance of donuts and friendship power me through each week.

And the donut theme continued with my American poetry professor bringing in Duck Donuts for our final class together, to accompany our study of Dunbar (the American, not the Scot).

It seems free food is everywhere if you know where to look as the university tries to give its students some motivation and respite from work. From stumbling across an academic department party, to attending the Midnight Breakfast (breakfast food, activities and prize givings one night from 10pm – 12am) laid on by GW, as well as cookie hand-outs in Kogan Plaza from different societies, we were stressed, but well fed! Socialising over delicious food was also a feature of the GW Exchange Farewell Party though the occasion was bittersweet as it was great to catch up with fellow exchange students who we hadn’t properly seen for a while, but sad to know that we wouldn’t see some at all next semester.

A week of all-American college stress obviously called for an all-American college study break and so I went with a friend to burger chain Five Guys. It got a rare thumbs up from both of us and so will be returned to in the future. 

So the week has been a time of endings but also of future excitement, as I attended the GW Student Theatre Council’s ‘Star Wars Disco’ Prom – which revolves around the announcement of the different theatre societies’ upcoming Spring 2016 seasons – as a reward to myself for completing the week’s deadlines which had seen me pull all-nighters of an intensity I never had to in Edinburgh.

 Reunited: Smackdown (some of us may have thought the theme was more binding than it was)

Reunited: Smackdown (some of us may have thought the theme was more binding than it was)

I’m incredibly grateful I get to spend another semester here at GW and in DC as the end of term has completely snuck up on me. However, I will be really sorry to see the semester-only exchange students go, as well as American friends who are leaving for a term abroad.

To more emotions, finals and the final week!

Grace

Happy Hours and less happy hours

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The week after Thanksgiving has a strange atmosphere as after five days of blissful relaxation college students are thrown straight into the intensity of finals and papers. With two weeks left of the semester everything seems to be moving so quickly and stress levels are high. However, maybe it was the amount of pumpkin pie I ate over the break but I feel I’m becoming more ‘American’ in my style of working. I’m getting into the swing of things and I seem to be more efficient with my assignments as I understand more how the American college system works – achieving the goal I had set at the beginning of the semester, after initially taking more than double the length of time to complete work and essays than it did for my US counterparts. However I still doubt I’m efficient enough for the seven deadlines I have looming next week…so a number of hours these past few days have had to be dedicated to the library.

In other ways, I do feel that I’m becoming more ‘American’ and not just on the superficial level of giving up the fight to hold onto my British words for greater ease and understanding (though I will cling to ‘flatmates’ until the bitter end), and in terms of food with my greater frequency of coffee drinking, the desire to add cinnamon to everything, and slight addiction to protein bars. One example is in being more assertive – not necessarily always a positive thing – but as someone whose form of stereotypical British ‘politeness’ can sometimes tend towards not properly defending my own interests, I feel being clearer in articulating what I want is a good thing.

Of course having many responsibilities means (for ‘real’ GW students and exchange students alike) finding ways to avoid them and I managed to succeed in this, the excuse being a number of friends’ 21st birthdays.

Combined with Christmas shopping, these gave me a reason to put down the books and run errands around Georgetown, also finally giving me the opportunity to see the admittedly beautiful Georgetown campus.

My friends’ new legal freedom meant ‘happy hours’ were high on the agenda and I experienced my first in DC at Tonic. Here, as with my fro-yo experience,  the nachos crown that had previously been held for me in Edinburgh (by the student union at Teviot) was taken by America, the restaurant’s happy hour deal also meaning they were less than half price.

What the doctor ordered

What the doctor ordered

The biggest event of my week though was the University Honors Program Yule Ball, attending as a guest of one of my friends. With snowflake decorations, delicious desserts and hot chocolate, and an induction into the ways of the ‘cupid shuffle’ it was a great night and made the stress momentarily melt away.

However, it was at another ‘happy hour’ for a friend’s birthday at Town Tavern in Adam’s Morgan that I was given a stark reminder of the darker hours in the US this week.’Do you feel like you could get shot at any time in the UK?’ – I was caught off guard by the question and of course the answer for me was ‘no’ but it startled me that some in the US might be living with this feeling. However, it almost seems no wonder when – as with events in San Bernardino – it feels like every day news reports roll in telling of another episode of gun violence. There is a sense of real frustration among the students I am with that this situation exists but also that it feels like there is a brick wall between them and change. San Bernardino has been further politicised in its portrayal as an act of terrorism.

And there have also been some less happy hours not here but in the UK, that also make essays and deadlines fade into insignificance. I must admit it was through the medium of Facebook and my friends’ reactions back home that made me fully aware of the British government’s decision to carry out airstrikes in Syria.

To the penultimate week of the semester (it seems so strange to write this),

Grace

Post-Thanksgiving

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These past five days have been the highlight of my semester. Thanksgiving was the perfect pick-me-up, coming at a low point for everyone in the semester and refreshing us all for the last push of finals and the end of term. Although five days is just enough time to make us all think the Christmas holidays have come already!

For the break I was was so generously invited by my friend to spent it with her and her family in Connecticut, and I also got the chance to visit Long Island and New York City.

The first day of the holidays was a trip down memory lane as I accompanied my friend on her visit to her old high school to see old teachers and friends, something it turns out a lot of returning students seem to do when they return home after starting college. It was a surreal experience for me to be in classrooms that reminded me of middle school in New Jersey eight years ago – right down to the pledge of allegiance at the beginning of each day – but also felt a fitting and symbolic part of my ‘come back’ to America and made me think about and feel thankful for the great differences between my two US experiences.

In the evening I also got to experience ‘Friendsgiving’ – a pre-Thanksgiving meal and get-together for a group of friends all returning to their hometown for the break. A lot of fun and also a training exercise for the main event in terms of food pacing…

The next day was the day of Thanksgiving and was as perfectly ‘American’ as I could wish, the preparations in the kitchen and gathering of relatives reminding me very much of Christmas celebrations. We visited my friend’s uncle and family in Long Island and the day was filled with a feast of delicious food, American football on the television, and relaxing around the dinner table. I was immediately made to feel part of the family, joining in the annual tradition of walking the two minutes to the shore of the Long Island Sound, to choose a pebble on which to write our name and what we were thankful for and to add it to the increasing collection.

Another American ‘tradition’ of Thanksgiving I indulged in was ‘Black Friday’ (and I must confess, on my return, ‘Cyber Monday’) – though thankfully in Connecticut I did not experience the full-on craziness I had been dreading and did not have to fight anyone for my bargains. And my friend kindly let me cross off another American bucket list item by taking me to a ’50s-style diner for burgers and milkshakes.

Time Warp

Time Warp

Over the weekend I also was given the opportunity to visit New York for the first time since I’ve been here. Taking in some culture at the Whitney Museum of American Art before finding lunch elsewhere in the Meatpacking District was followed by a wander around Soho, grabbing coffee in independent cafés along the way.

I've been thinking, I've been thinking...

I’ve been thinking, I’ve been thinking…

I also got to experience Chinatown and Little Italy and picked up tips for my return (a group of us have – foolishly? – decided to head back for New Year’s Eve…).

So good they named it twice!

So good they named it twice!

The break was also a whirlwind of new culinary experiences for me – from Polish dessert babka at ‘Friendsgiving’, to Vietnamese food in Chinatown and cannoli in Little Italy as well as churros over coffee in my friend’s old high school hangout in Connecticut. However it was not only my taste buds that were educated as over the course of many conversations I was also instructed in American slang, which I look forward to springing on my unsuspecting friends over the Christmas holidays.

My break was full of lovely touches, from the little chocolate turkeys awaiting each place setting at the dessert course on Thanksgiving, to watching the movie ‘Garden State’ whilst travelling through New Jersey on the bus back from New York. I also hadn’t realised how much I’d missed home-cooked meals and it felt wonderful to be fully immersed in a family atmosphere.

The next few weeks promise lots of deadlines and stress but the break has rejuvenated me as well as given me many memories that I will treasure.

To another week of much to be thankful for and catching up with other friends’ Thanksgiving adventures,

Grace

Pre-Thanksgiving

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This week I experienced DC from the inside of my flat – sorry, apartment – through a combination of illness and pre-Thanksgiving essay deadlines: turns out feeling sorry for yourself can take up a lot of time. I’ll admit, there was a low point which did see me sadly scrolling through the mince pie section of the Tesco website as I mourned this apparently very British food stuff’s absence in America, as well as the fact that Christmas preparations seem to be on hold until Thanksgiving whereas in Britain I get the impression they are well underway.

However, in the spirit of that impending holiday, this week also reminded me I have a lot to be thankful for. I have money for insurance and medicines, I found the GW Colonial Health Center to be helpful and accessible, professors have been understanding, the wonders of technology mean I can Skype countries around the world, the weather is still strangely warm for this time of year – but perhaps most importantly, I have amazing flatmates and friends who will check up on me and who will brighten my day with tea and a catch up.

Anyway, next week I have a lot to look forward to as I have very generously been adopted by my friend’s family and invited to spend the Thanksgiving break with them: to say I am excited would be something of an understatement.

Till after Turkey Day,

Grace

“People haven’t been kind with other people”

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These were the words of the six year old daughter of one of the teachers at the Lyon school where one of my best friends works for her year abroad, when talking about the events in Paris on Friday. The simplicity in this innocent summary, that can be applied to events around the world this week, is heart-breaking, along with the child’s hope for the good in people that is missing from politicians’ speeches of retribution.

Hearing the news about Paris in the States felt different than if I had been in the UK – being across the water it initially sounded like it was coming through water. But being an exchange student at GW also gave a greater immediacy to the outcome of the events: here there are a number of students from Paris.

Watching Obama’s statement on Paris was a strange experience, delivered from the White House that just last week we were happily strolling through. A reminder of the power of that place and the power of America on the international world stage, in case it had ever been briefly forgotten.

The pain and the politics will continue in the weeks and months ahead, and it looks like it already has.

Paris, Beirut, Baghdad and all such other events make everything else seem meaningless. These are the times that try men’s souls. But there is the hope of a child.

Grace

A tale of many countries

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This weekend the ‘fresher’s flu’ I’d been running from since the beginning of term finally caught up with me and made me miss the creature comforts of home, but before then, this week was about experiencing a mix of different cultures.

It started with a delicious, American home-cooked meal by the mum of one of my friends, the US theme continuing later in the week with the GW Alternative Breaks Fall Ball (a fundraiser for volunteering trips during university holidays that my roommate is a part of) as well as in my weekly struggle with american coffee chain ordering systems for my caffeine/catch-up fix with a friend.

However, the highlight of the week and perhaps the ultimate ‘American’ experience was our visit on a balmy November (try saying global warming isn’t real) afternoon to the East Wing of the White House. Organised for the exchange students by our exchange coordinators we were able to wander a selection of the corridors, admire the rooms and their history (the extent of which the European students felt a little superior over), and even – with the photography ban lifted – take photographs, because did it even happen if it wasn’t captured on film?

 A Room with a (slightly wonky) View

A Room with a (slightly wonky) View

Seeing the inside of the White House had an air of surrealness similar to that which I felt during the Garden Tour. Aside from the stringent security, designed, one felt, as much to instil fear as to protect against threat, it felt hard to reconcile what seemed to be just a beautiful English country house with one of the most powerful places and symbols in the world.

We concluded the tour with another cultural experience by going to District Taco to sample some (albeit Americanised) Mexican food. I have been told countless times by my American friends in Edinburgh that ‘Yeah, British people can’t do Mexican food’ so I was eager to try some in the States. District Taco has a number of locations across the Washington and Virginia area and you are able to customise your order, Subway-style, whether it be tacos, burrito or quesadilla. It had been highly recommended to me by a friend here and I have to say, after my first time trying soft tacos, I will definitely be making a return visit.

However, the day of cultural experiences was not done as later that night Bahar had invited me to an evening of spoken word by DarkMatter, a trans south asian performance art duo who were performing at GW. Spoken word is an art form I had never encountered before going to university and some of my friends in Edinburgh are heavily involved in it, so I was very keen to be in the audience. Their fresh, radical intelligence was amazing to hear – hearing a mention of the name of my mother’s state in India was also nice for me – as they articulated how bringing cultures together can, and have been, highly destructive.

For culture with an uncomplicated moral message and most likely complicit in the processes DarkMatter were calling out, I went to see the latest James Bond film, Spectre at the AMC Loews Theatre in Georgetown (the same cinema where I had previously attended a church service) with a group of other exchange students. A Bond fan already, being overseas made me even more appreciative of the positive portrayal of my country, despite any flaws the film might have, seeing Britain as it wished to be seen in the eyes of the world.

To another week of experiencing different cultures and their interaction,

Grace