Tag Archives: Grace

Intro to Applied American Arts

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By gjmacdougall

This week has been completely consumed, in the best way possible, by tech week and performances for the final show I am a part of this semester, GW Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’. As I have found with most of my experiences here in America, theatre at GW can get a little intense, with 5 shows being performed over three evenings. However, again I am incredibly grateful to have been given the chance to create something with the loveliest, most talented people, as well as to the friends who came to give their support. This experience has definitely been the biggest highlight of my time here so far.

The greatest people you will ever meet...

The greatest people you will ever meet…

Keeping up the energy for the performances of course meant lots of caffeine and sugar, the latter of which I found in the form of ‘froyo’, going with a friend to the FroZenYo store next to Farragut West Metro Station. I had thought Edinburgh did pretty well on the frozen yogurt front – at home me and my friends are fans of ‘Frisky’ – but it seems DC has the last word. Being priced by weight and not by size and topping means that you can try the whole range of flavors at FroZenYo (such as pistachio, birthday cake and dulce de leche) and all the toppings (think pecans and blueberries through to brownies and gummy bears)…before taking it to the till and realizing you have the size and price of a small dinner (which is in fact what it becomes – 21, who?!).

Inner peace at FroZenYo (photo credit: Kelli Jones)

Inner peace at FroZenYo (photo credit: Kelli Jones)

Another activity that I enjoy in Edinburgh is going to the galleries and museums – the National Museum of Scotland being my favourite place in all the city – so I was looking forward to continuing my week of theatre and culture by finally visiting more of the vast number here in DC. On Sunday I went to one of the free classical music concerts held in the West Garden Court at the National Gallery of Art on the National Mall, as part of the 74th Season of Concerts. There I listened to the National Gallery of Art Orchestra play music by Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, the beautiful melodies mingling with and becoming part of the equally breathtaking setting.

I also briefly visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum which again had stunning architecture and again felt a little like a film set, modelled in the style of classical Europe yet oddly retaining its sense of newness. I was also slightly brought up short by a reminder of home, the collection turning out to contain a number of paintings by John Sargent which gave me a surprise pang of the heart.

However, this week I was sharply reminded that these great experiences I have been having are not shared by everyone. On shopping at Whole Foods (poor planning on my part meant I claimed I did not have enough time to go to favourite Trader Joe’s and instead went to the closer but more expensive Whole Foods to ‘grab a few things’, which inevitably always ends with financial regret) I was talking to the cashier about being an exchange student and he asked ‘do you like America?’, to which I replied ‘I’m finding it great!’. What slightly shocked me was his response of, ‘I hate it’, a stark contrast to the sometimes extreme patriotism and even nationalism that is a stereotype of America and that I have encountered here, saying he would rather go somewhere like Egypt instead.

This uncomfortable mixing of two worlds of experience was again to be noticed when at the American Art Museum, the grandeur of the building, combined with the triumphant classical music somewhat mysteriously blaring from speakers outside, having a dystopian feel when contrasted with the area of Downtown/Chinatown DC, a neighbourhood appearing much less affluent than the area of Foggy Bottom I have become used to.

Another off note was struck when passing the White House on the way there, a heated argument apparently regarding a DC tour being given what one felt was special attention by police officers, due to the ethnicity of those involved. However, it is not the first time that my friends and I have been wary of the police and security and their seemingly overly heavy-handed attitude.

Now that the play is over I feel both free and slightly lost. However, this week I am able to distract myself with the wonders of ‘Halloweek’, seeing the 31st of October celebrated in a way unlike anywhere else in the world.

To the end of a second full month here, and the opening of a third,

Grace

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Health and Wellness

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By gjmacdougall

The Lerner Health and Wellness Center at GW is a place where a large number of students spend their time. Membership comes free with enrollment, so why would you not use it? Everyone else does.

A friend recently shared an article from The Guardian about orthorexia and this made me start thinking about image, health and wellness in the States. Yes, it’s a stereotype, but I do get the feeling there’s a greater emphasis on image in America. The food, I would say, could be deemed ‘unhealthier’ than in Europe, but the gym and fitness culture is also bigger, along with the portion sizes. And there seems to be an uneasy relationship between the two.

In terms of health, it feels sometimes like the ‘wellness’ has been a little lost.

Obsession with health and fitness is something that it is all too easy to get sucked into. Obviously exercise is medically a good thing, but you get the sense, and experience it also, that the motivation to work out comes from places of insecurity over image and the idea that ‘everyone else does’, rather than for the health benefits.

As mentioned before, in terms of food, everything is amplified: the portions, the decadence, the intensity of flavour – and also the guilt. There’s this idea that if you eat something deemed ‘unhealthy’ you have to justify it by explaining how you’ll go to the gym later so that it will all be ok. You skip that cupcake catch-up with a friend…or you do it anyway, and then beat yourself up about it. Everyone else does.

And of course the market also has its say.The cost difference between traditionally ‘unhealthy’ foods such as burgers and cookies and ‘healthy’ foods is quite staggering, and though in the UK the ‘unhealthy’ foods are also cheaper, I feel it is not quite to the same extent. If you have limited money, the choice has already been made for you.

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The idea of image and presentation came up again during my week (though in a much more lighthearted way) with one of the scarier moments of my life: doing a Southern American accent in front of a drama class full of American students, for midterm rehearsals. One cliché that I was thankful is mostly a reality is the welcoming and encouraging nature of Americans, as they were very supportive about it and still wanted to talk to me afterwards, so they didn’t seem too offended with my attempt…

This contrast between Britain and the States was also found in my participation with friends in a ‘trivia night’ at Tonic, a restaurant I walk past longingly every day on the way to class. ‘Trivia night’ is the equivalent to the British ‘pub quiz’ (and my friend who had studied abroad in the UK did say the lounge at Tonic had one of the most pub-like atmospheres she had found in DC) but I did not find the questions to be equal. Left to my own devices I would have been lucky to score a handful of points – if I go again I definitely need to brush up on baseball, presidents, and Dragon Ball Z – but my smarting competitive pride was more than soothed by the restaurant’s basket of tater tots, a food stuff I had only ever heard described in films and on tv, let alone eaten.

Other unique State-side experiences were checked off this week, watching the CNN Democratic Debate whilst eating heavenly homemade brownies, pumpkin picking at Larriland Farm, Maryland (sampling the delicacies of funnel cake and apple ‘cider’ and driving past scenery that reminded me of New Jersey, bringing the memories rushing back), going to the Smithsonian National Zoo and also attending the Washington Prayer Gathering on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.The biggest was probably the White House Fall Garden Tour which was a very surreal experience, as a house and gardens which ultimately seem so ordinary, end up meaning so much, complete with the full force of US security.

Up close and personal

Up close and personal

However, it’s not only the big things but also the little ones that continue to strike you as different and serve as a reminder that you’re in the US. Groups of smartly dressed sororities and fraternities spilling onto the streets on their way to chapter meetings and initiations, the blank stares you’re met with when you call a piece of clothing a ‘jumper’ instead of a ‘sweater’, police officers with guns – these all add up to create the experience of a different culture.

This week has been the one where I’ve most been missing home, the sudden drop in temperature reminding me of England and Edinburgh, combined with the flood of GW students’ parents arriving for ‘Parents Weekend’. However my friend’s family who were down for the weekend very generously also took me out for sushi (like brunch, it’s becoming a problem) at Kaz Sushi Bistro, ending the night with my first ever crêpe from GW-staple Crepeaway, and so making me feel part of a family even though far away from it.

The past few days have been unexpectedly laid back but this week things pick back up again with tech week and performances for the GW Shakespeare Company show ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, along with a few deadlines.

To another week of American experiences, cliché and otherwise,

Grace

When the working day is done

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By gjmacdougall

This week has seen the beginning of midterms, a phenomenon unfamiliar to many of us exchange students who are used to more heavily weighted exams coming at the end of the semester or even year. Though some of us are lucky in that only our credits and not our grades transfer, tests still need to be taken and papers submitted. As someone whose organisational skills have been tried in America and found wanting, and combined with rehearsals running till midnight, I have found myself in ‘Gel hell’ one too many times this week – holding it together with Red Bull, Reese’s pieces, pancakes, pumpkin-flavoured coffee (it is October in the US after all) and the mutual moral support of friends and flatmates in the same situation. I still feel I haven’t really got a handle on how to work the academic system over here, a paper taking my American friend approximately half the time it took me to complete, but as midterms seem to be scattered throughout the following weeks hopefully I’ll soon begin to learn it.

Trying to stay true to the mantra and play harder, I looked to fill my weekend with excitement. On Friday I once again embraced US sushi culture by going with a knowledgeable friend to Buredo, a restaurant/fast food joint near McPherson Square Metro Station, selling the very American concept of ‘burrito-size sushi rolls’. I had high expectations and it did not disappoint – as attested to by the long lunchtime queue at the door.

Buredo: Hanzo

Buredo: Hanzo

In the evening I had an event that I had been looking forward to for over a week: an NBA pre-season game at the Verizon Center with the New York Knicks playing the Washington Wizards. Getting caught in the sudden downpour on the way to the arena dampened our clothes but not our spirits and we had a great time, our all-American night finished up with my first trip to a US McDonald’s.

MVPs (photo credit: Grace Huang)

MVPs (photo credit: Grace Huang)

Though I really enjoyed seeing a basketball game – better than baseball in my opinion! – again I was struck by how commercial watching American sports is as an experience, everything seeming so artificial as to feel unreal. Part of this feeling of unreality I know comes from the fact that these are experiences so commonly presented in the media and stereotyped that when you do get to live the cliché it seems unnatural and that you are somehow part of a movie. However, despite knowing this, you still get waves of this idea that everything has been carefully constructed and that the individual just passively accepts it all. To put it this way, I feel like going to the game has made me understand the premise behind The Hunger Games a little bit more.

Another thing I’ve had to think about more deeply this week is memories. My friend and I have set up a weekly Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast date to discuss what’s happened in our lives and the days ahead – this is not the problem, but the coffee is. Dunkin’ Donuts was a key component of my American memories from seven years ago and I had idealised the flavour (there being only a few stores in the UK and none near where I have lived), so was not so pleasantly surprised to find that now to me it tastes weak and…average. It was a small lesson in how memories can change over time, are based less in realities and more in emotion, and that things change and don’t stay the same – nor should we want them to. A vaguely disappointing coffee experience is a sacrifice I’d more than happily make in order to keep the great positive differences between my first time in America and my time here now.

To next week and the memories it will create and alter,

Grace

Twenty One Candles

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By gjmacdougall

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that this week has been one of the best of my life.

I have been completely blown away by the generosity of my flatmates and friends and I would never have guessed that they would make sure I celebrated my 21st in such style. It has also definitely been exciting to turn this age in a country where it’s a much bigger milestone than in Britain.

The day started with a surprise flat birthday breakfast complete with pancakes, cake – my flatmate woke up at 6 to make it! – and another flatmate’s legendary apple crumble along with, incredibly, gifts!

Picture 1 birthday breakfast
Breakfast at 601 (photo credit: Yoonjoo Kyung)

Having only one class made for a relaxed day, with a gathering of food and friends on the roof of E Street to enjoy the warm weather and views, before having to leave for a tech rehearsal for ‘Welcome Back One Acts’ produced by GW theatre society 14th Grade Players.

I have been constantly impressed by how the theatre groups here make you feel part of their family. For example, for tech week the actors were each given survival packs of tea, vitamins and ‘candy’ to make sure they stayed fighting fit until the end of the run. Rehearsing and performing has been a brilliant experience and I’ve met a lot of amazing and talented people.

Picture 2 tech week
How to Survive to the End of Tech Week

With tech week and finally the shows taking up most evenings and still having a number of reports and assignments to complete, I’ve had to adopt what seems to be the American college culture of cutting down on sleep and increasing on caffeine (though it did give me an excuse to use the Starbucks gift card given to me by a friend for my birthday). I’ve also had to break my year abroad promise to myself by pulling a couple of all-nighters to get everything completed, but have been fuelled by the selection of birthday cupcakes given to me which had made my cupboard resemble the dessert counter of Whole Foods!

On Friday I rewarded myself for handling the week’s craziness by going for brunch (yes, again) with a good friend to Founding Farmers where I enjoyed great conversation along with one of the biggest and best burgers I’ve ever had. I’m loving having Fridays off from class and a three-day weekend every weekend, so am predicting a struggle when I have to adjust back to a more normal week next year or next semester. The burger theme continued at Burger Tap & Shake at Washington Circle, where it amused me to see iced tea on tap along with the ‘soda’.

Next week I have fewer rehearsals as One Acts is ending but I do have some big essays in place of midterms to hand in, which should keep me occupied. However, motivation comes in the form of seeing my first (pre-season) NBA game at the end of the week as well as other good things to look forward to.

Till the next week of 21,

Grace

How to Win Friends and Understand People

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By gjmacdougall

One of the best events of our exchange orientation week was the chance to ask anonymous, off-the-record questions to our ExO leaders to find out more about what life is really like in DC and at GW. One of the questions asked was ‘what annoys you most about GW?’ and the answer was a general attitude of negativity in some people, with the idea of things not being worth the effort.

As an exchange student there can be a tendency to take on an attitude of negativity towards the culture you are in, flagging up the many issues that seem ‘wrong’ or ‘different’ to you and it not seeming worth the effort to think about these differences further. Yes, I sometimes feel that my critical keenness is dulled and I am scared that I have been so absorbed by a different culture that I have lost some of the ability to interrogate it, but achieving an objective distance that can help in future understanding of cultural relations is different to being predisposed to be negative. What one person may find irritating in the behaviour of another may be simply the result of a different culture, and only a few minutes’ conversation is enough to see genuine human warmth behind it. This is not to say that you can’t be frustrated about things and passively accept ‘the system’ – the situation Bahar describes is completely different and not what I mean, I was inspired by another experience I had – but it does mean thinking a bit beyond your initial reactions.

This week has not only highlighted a ‘melting pot’ of different cultures but also of different religions, with Pope Francis’ first visit to DC as well as the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. The last time I lived in an area with a relatively large Jewish community was in New Jersey, and it is fascinating to see how classmates practise their faith, with different attitudes towards the fast and celebration of the holiday.

Differences in religious practice was something I also experienced when I went to the National Community Church at Loews Theater, Georgetown this Sunday – the first time I’ve ever been to a church in a cinema and it worked! That you could potentially order popcorn to listen to the sermon was a strange thought but it was exciting to try something new and I liked the service.

The coming together of different cultures in joint celebration was seen in one of the highlights of my week, getting together with fellow exchange blogger Bahar and friends to create a stereotypical ‘American’ brunch that we felt we had been missing and which we enjoyed on the rooftop of my accommodation, overlooking the city.

The Brunch Club (photo credit: Alicia Gonzalez-Barros)

The Brunch Club (photo credit: Alicia Gonzalez-Barros)

However, the DC brunch culture is strong as the next day I got a second taste of that cliché at the 21st birthday brunch for a friend from my poetry class who was also in Smackdown with me.

Caption: Poor lighting, top people

Caption: Poor lighting, top people

Fellowship over food continued as my cousin treated me to an early birthday dinner a short walk from campus at Nooshi on 19th and L – as the name suggests, a restaurant serving noodles and sushi.

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And I also enjoyed deep midnight chats catching up with an exchange friend over a carton of oreo ice cream.

My weekend was rounded off watching a friend play in the GW water polo team and though sadly they lost this time to Princeton I definitely enjoyed seeing my first game and plan to go again!

This coming week looks to be the most hectic yet, but also the most amazing (I’m finally turning the big 2-1)

See you on the other side,

Grace

O Brave New World

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By gjmacdougall

This week has again been full of new adventures, bringing out my British side but also challenging some of those British views. For example, I had arrived with the prejudice that all Americans were much more conservative politically than Europeans, but I have been proven wrong and am enjoying that – I have had classes with professors as liberal, if not more so, than any UK lecturer!

However, I did hear ‘socialism’ used as a dirty word in my first real, brief taste of American politics, when watching the CNN Republican Debate with friends. Seeing the debate fulfilled part of the reason I wanted to come to DC, to feel connected to and attempt to understand the US political system, beyond the quite negative and simplistic view I had of it. Having good friends who differ from me politically is both interesting and positive – pushing me to want to learn more about viewpoints that I otherwise would have had less time for.

Three weeks into classes and I have been able to become more fully involved in activities outside of my subject timetable. Theatre societies were something I really enjoyed being a part of in Edinburgh and where I made a lot of friends, so I was keen to investigate the student theatre scene at GW. Everyone has been lovely and welcoming and there are so many things going on! Socially, I have found being involved in a society very useful, as it has been harder to make friends in class than I had perhaps naively assumed – it’s much easier to connect when you have shared interests. One of the theatre societies I have got involved in has been the GW Shakespeare Company and I have had an amazing time rehearsing for and performing in their annual ‘Shakespeare Smackdown’ scene and monologue competition. I also got a flavour of Greek life as the society has adopted the tradition of assigning each new member a ‘big’ – an older member of the society who anonymously gives their ‘little’ gifts and notes during tech week and becomes a mentor figure after their identity is revealed.

Big Love

Big Love

Big and Little- I won!

Big and Little- I won!

Smackdown was a chance not only to make new friends but also reconnect with family, as my second cousin – whom I last saw when I was in America seven years ago – is also in DC for the year and came to give me her support!

This week has completely flown by in a whirl of slight stress and a lot of excitement and next week looks to be the same – but I’m looking forward to it.

Till then,

Grace

Keeping up with the American Dream

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By gjmacdougall

If you’d told me before I left for America that within the first week of classes starting I’d be sitting in the corridor of a university building at 12.30am, eating M&Ms whilst waiting for my acapella group audition, I don’t think I’d have believed you. Yet that’s how things turned out as I wanted to live the ‘Pitch Perfect’ fantasy – though without quite the voice of Anna Kendrick my own story did not exactly follow that of the film’s.

Auditioning for acapella groups was one of of the many stereotypically ‘American’ activities I wanted to check off my list, and trying to embrace every opportunity has kept me busy. However, the past two weeks have been dominated by the beginning of classes and adjusting to the US college system.

At the pre-departure talk in Edinburgh we had been warned that studying in America might feel slightly like ‘going back to school’ and my own less-than-fond memories of middle school in the States meant I was vaguely worried about this but also better prepared for it. However, myself and other exchange students were still surprised at the relative lack of independence and increase in assignments in comparison to our home universities – it’s a long time since I’ve had homework!

Classes are also very professor-oriented in America in a way I have not experienced at Edinburgh (though as I have not taken honours classes there yet, I’m not entirely sure how much this might change as you progress through your degree). It seems slightly unfair to me that here your grade for a class is so dependent on your teacher’s opinion of you, how harsh or lenient a marker they are, and how they have designed the syllabus, with seemingly no anonymously marked papers, moderation system or degree-wide overall exam. The use of continuous assessment – constant regular assignments, quizzes and small exams that add up to form your grade, as opposed to the more spaced out essays and end of term exams at universities in the UK – does have an advantage in that students are not penalised quite so much for having an off day during the exam period and are measured more on their overall ability. However, as I experienced at thirteen, not having grown up with this system means the long list of reports and papers can be daunting. The mistake I made seven years ago was to allow these to swallow up all my free time and prevent me from doing anything outside of class, and as I want to get involved in as much as possible at the uni and in DC, it means that I have had to get better at managing my time – though as only my credits and not my grades transfer the pressure to do well academically is off.

As a reward to myself for surviving my three-day week, I went with a friend to Buzzfeed-staple Baked & Wired in Georgetown for expensive but delicious cupcakes.

Sugar highs at Baked & Wired - pistachio and red velvet (photo credit: Kelli Jones)

Sugar highs at Baked & Wired – pistachio and red velvet (photo credit: Kelli Jones)

An antidote to class was also found sitting on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial watching dusk (or as a Scottish poet might call it, ‘the gloaming’) settle over the Tidal Basin.

Remembering - and thinking (photo credit: Marcos Falcone)

Remembering – and thinking (photo credit: Marcos Falcone)

 

The text in the picture above at the memorial is an amalgamation of quotes from Thomas Jefferson and though when read is deeply impressive and inspiring, is also a reminder of the selectivity involved in remembering the past. The line ‘nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [slaves] are to be free’ is originally followed by the words ‘nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them’ – this racism obviously not included on the memorial. Those who cannot remember the past may be condemned to repeat it but it is also important to note what is remembered, and by whom.

My weekend concluded by once again experiencing DC brunch culture with a flatmate outing to The Liberty Tavern in Arlington for an all-you-can-eat buffet, which I sluggishly tried to walk off around the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the first I have seen of the many galleries and museums in the city.

Things are currently the right mix between familiar and fresh and exciting, so I’m looking forward to what next week will bring,

Till then,

Grace