Eleven Years, a History Lesson and Some Good Dim Sum

My how things change.

Eleven years ago, I remember applying for a study-abroad scholarship given by my father’s employer for study abroad to a program of my choosing through Youth for Understanding. Being able to study abroad as a high school student is VERY expensive and oftentimes done at the cost of travelling students. Not to mention the amount of time it takes to sort out class schedules and such. My parents said flat out they would never send me abroad of their own volition as the tuiton and fees were incredibly expensive. It was roughly $5000-6000 USD and that was eleven years ago. Nonetheless, I applied, only to find out three months later I was one of two students in the country awarded the scholarship. It has given me the experience of a lifetime.

For the sheer fun of it, I researched the cost of a semester abroad in Denmark today. Today? Just south of $8000 USD. Part of me isn’t surprised, but given 11 years have passed, part of me is also surprised it’s not higher.

I remember Phoebe crying every time I sent the family a letter that semester in 1999, she was scared to death of what could happen to me as I was out of the country. (Mind you, this was when things were much happier in our family. It was the year just before our relationship as mother and daughter started to turn sour.) I remember the HUGE scrapbook my father and I put together of every relic, picture and everything else I had from my trip abroad. I remember every place I went to and I STILL have all the paintings I created from my art class in school. Granted, I had sold some of them at a local art show in Odense but I had kept most of them.

I remember buying a few craft wares that I actually still have with me: a ceramic Royal Copenhagen sleeping kitten, an amber necklace that my host mother gave me along with several other pieces of jewellery that has held up surprisingly well even after all these years, a Legoland mug. I even have three concert t-shirts I had from Denmark: two shirts from the now-defunct Midtfyns summer music festival and one from Roskilde, one of the biggest events held today. My host family were huge music fans and worked the Midtfyns festival as volunteers: I remember camping in a tent in the campsite allotted for the volunteers. Oh it was so much fun.

I still keep in touch with the elder of my two host brothers on Facebook, even though he has since moved from Odense, where he lived with the family when I had studied there. He now lives in Copenhagen.

Fast forward eleven years.

When I made the important change of switching jobs this year, whilst my new work schedule freed up and allowed me to take up running as a new passion, it also freed up time for me to perform volunteer work. I’ve had a lot to be thankful for, and especially given how a lot of things have turned around for me this year. I thought of the things that I truly enjoyed and how I could possibly take my passions to help others.

I’ve always been a huge fan of understanding and exploring other cultures and learning more about the world. I recalled my times in Denmark. I remember everyone and everything that made my time abroad a lot more smoother, safer and altogether more memorable.

And I thought what it would be like doing the same for students coming abroad.

I hear a lot about how Americans are ignorant of the world. (Sadly, this was a major complaint of exchange students during fall orientation!!!) I hear a lot about how Americans are uptight about security, overly obsessed with pop culture, cars, driving, and the like. The media definitely has its own biases.

I may not be representative of every American citizen or resident out there…but I thought I could do a decent job representing us to those abroad whilst making their stay here stateside a lot more positive and informative of whom we really are.

I signed up and haven’t looked back.

Today I had taken some of the exchange students around on a (sanctioned) neighbourhood tour of Philly, taking the students around Independence Mall, Wash West, Society Hill, and canvassing through the eclectic offings of South Street before heading back to the Market East Station. The students that attended were from the suburbs of New Jersey and would not normally have been able to visit Philadelphia. The greater Philadelphia area coordinators offer ample opportunities for exchange students to travel to NYC and even a West Coast trip to San Francisco. However, there are also a number of parents that are very reluctant to send their students into the city, fearing something could happen to the students in broad daylight. I can understand why parents are scared of the city, but at the same time I am also of the opinion that one has to experience it before forming an opinion, and from what I was told a number of them haven’t even been to Philadelphia, but only forming opinions on what they’ve heard or read in the news.

Alright, newsflash. We’re not going to Mantua, Strawberry Mansion, Southwest Philly or any of the royally dangerous areas you hear about day in and out on the news. Philly is perfectly fine if you can stay away from the bad areas. It’s like anywhere else. Sheesh.

Yesterday morning, we picked up the students at the train station; I had also waited there for other volunteers taking the train in. Everyone seemed fresh and excited; the day was looking gorgeous and I even at one point took off my jacket. We had walked down to the Liberty Bell and showed the students both the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, both on 6th and Walnut Street areas. We took them to Independence Hall across the Street.

Whilst the experience proved to be eye-opening for the students, it also proved to give me a jolt and a hard dose of reality as to how ignorant I was of American history. Mind you, history was never a strong suit of mine, and whilst I have loads of knowledge even on biology, chemistry and the sciences, my recollection of American history is shameful in comparison. I had studied European history in university and remember a few key things between that and political science, but American history? As Madeleine (the program’s area lead director) and myself relayed the information learnt on the tours to the students, the students kept bringing up the First and Second Continental Congress and who did what in the Revolutionary War. Good lord, it was quite a scramble in my brain to recall those important points in American history. Beyond knowing the Revolutionary War was in 1776, and the Civil War was 1861-1865 and (and I’m not even sure those dates were right) what the Underground Railroad was all about, offhand, it was quite a struggle.

Once we were through Independence Hall, we strolled back to Chinatown for dim sum at Joy Tsin Lau (1026 Race), which arguably accordingly to many Center City residents, is the best place by far to have dim sum. They serve dim sum until 3pm, and we figured we’d avoid the crowds easily, most of which would have packed the place between 11am-12:30pm.

I was dead wrong. Even then though, our wait was only 20 minutes (as opposed to the 40 minutes or more that I normally expected). The reputation of the place is rock solid and their rock-bottom prices make the place an even bigger draw. I sure as heck now wouldn’t be eating dim sum every day, it is quite oily and not all that healthy but once in awhile it is quite intriguing. Of course, when you consider I burn off a royal amount of calories now that I run, it’s not even a second thought.

Once we sat down, our table ordered a few sets of dumplings (shrimp dumplings, shrimp moo shu, pork and peanut butter dumplings), rice with chicken and beef, fried tofu, eggplant with vegetables, a plate of mildly fried tempura shrimp, hot green tea, and sesame chestnut cubes (basically a gelatin made from sesame oils with chestnuts in them). Everything was cooked fine, served fresh, hot and easy off the carts. Ambience was the typical hustle and bustle of a crowded Chinese restaurant, the walls are adorned in red and gold Asian garb.

Total bill for the six of us? $36 with gratuity. With tip, it was still even slightly cheaper than I expected. Heck I was here with a friend not long ago, and for the two of us, it had cost $15. Needless to say, the students were thrilled at having had a good meal at a very affordable price. Not to mention the plates of food and the curiosity of the students easily kept the conversation going.

After we left Chinatown, I took the crew southwards through Wash West, Society Hill and down to South Street. The girls were intrigued by the hats, and a sidewards magic show that someone was putting on inside a pretzel shop. We took them to the pier area and showed them the floating condominiums; most of the students were intrigued as to how anyone could take their belongings and live on water.

What I found most intriguing with the conversations that I had with the students. How mean the girls were on the cross country team (shockingly enough, I was able to chat with one girl about distance running as she was also looking into training for her first half soon), how remedial and boring school was in the States compared to much tougher curriculum in Europe, getting fellow students to understand the world in which they came from, not understanding why Americans appear so paranoid and taking security measures that seemed over the top to the European students and so forth. Other school customs that appeared to take them some getting used to: SAT/PSAT preparation in English classes, the concept of homecoming and other high school traditions, moving around from classroom to classroom. A lot of them mentioned to me that, especially in the more conservative areas, a number of them were put off by what they called the “excessive patriotism” of Americans.

One girl also asked me what life was as a member of the spring musical. And was I able to give her an earful on that. Overall, man, oh man did these conversations take quite a bit of explaining. But my, did I learn a lot in all these conversations.

We strolled up and around Society Hill north on 2nd Street, and took a short break near the Society Hill Towers before the students went home. All in all, though, they were grateful. As for me, I might not have children, but I had learnt quite a lot from students a bit younger than me; how a teenager’s life was changing, how their views (as foreigners) of Americans were changing, whether for better or worse.

I’m hoping I made a decent ambassador to them and if not, I don’t squander my chances for the rest of this year. Then again, as I was seeing them back off at the train station, the smiles on their faces I think may have told me the answer.

Restaurant Info:
Joy Tsin Lau | 1026 Race Street | Philadelphia, PA 19107 | 215.592.7227 | Zagat overview (no restaurant website)

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