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Monday, April 25, 2016

Travel Diary #4: Polar Bears + Beavers + Tigers + Kingfishers

Travel Diary #4: Three Weeks of Living the Dream!™

It's been a while since this blog was last updated--apologies! I (Diana) have been traveling essentially nonstop for three weeks since March 30th, so it's been difficult to make any posts happen during that time as Dorothy and I weren't in the same place. But now I'm back, and we'll have fashion posts up for you guys soon. Meanwhile, this is my travel diary, reflecting back on my brief respite from school. If you don't feel like reading the whole thing (I understand--it's long!) I've divided the post up into three parts. Just click on any one of the tags below to skip ahead.

Part One: Coca-Cola Scholars Weekend
Every year, the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation opens up applications for high school seniors in the United States to apply for a chance at being named a Coca-Cola Scholar. I originally applied for the scholarship money; I was naive. Being a coke scholar is not about the money, but about the incredible, incredible people you'll meet and call your new family. Every single person I met at the Scholars weekend--a weekend in Atlanta, Georgia where the 150 scholarship winners gather for a banquet, a celebration, some tourism, and a community service project--was just phenomenal. From International science competition winners to nonprofit gods/goddesses to coding wizards to cultural trailblazers to athletic powerhouses to musical philanthropists to disease conquerors to artistic geniuses, I could not have asked for a more inspirational, humble, compassionate, interesting group of people. Surprisingly, I didn't really feel any sense of competition or jealousy--rather, everyone just sort of walked around with our coke scholar tags, meeting each other, in awe of each other, encouraged by each other, so that we were connected by more than just our red scholar shirts: our hearts thrummed to the same beats by DJ 412, our stomachs brimmed with the same delicious meals, our lives surrendered, gracefully, confidently, to the tidal wave that swept us to the embrace of a wider mission of hope, of love, of change and human triumph. 

Coke scholars who arrived to the Weekend a day early because of distance gathered together at the dining tables for the first introductions. S/O to Cornelius the liar in this picture :P
Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation President Mark Davis stops by to say hi
Group 1 chaperones' picture below... BEST GROUP EVER ;) 
Snack table for the perpetually hungry AKA me
Sterling from Tennessee had a Walkman and makes cassette tapes. Call me basic but that's SO COOL.
Coca-Cola Scholars are master at dabbing

Thursday night, we had our banquet. Wow wow wow. What an experience. From rehearsal to live broadcast to sitting with leaders from all over the world who sponsored the foundation to hearing David Rubenstein's MINDBLOWING speech... It was honestly one of the best moments of my life. Mr. Rubenstein, you were right--we are not here to buy boats. We are here to make this world better than how we found it. 

The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, unlike many other scholarship foundations, really focuses on fostering the spirit and goodwill of leadership in its scholars. What did this mean? We all attended a three-day Leadership Development Institute that challenged us to not only be vulnerable but, more importantly, empathetic. It comprised of some of the most illuminating and wonderful hours I've ever experienced. My biggest takeaway? At one point, we were asked to write down on a note card what one of our greatest fears was. Everyone turned theirs in anonymously, and our group leaders (we were divided into groups led by coke scholar alumni) read each out loud. The predominant response: "I'm afraid I'm not good enough." "That I will disappoint everyone." "That I will not be able to reach my goals." Maybe my perspective as a developed nation resident renders my enlightenment naive and privileged, but something tells me that these fears are universal. When I realized that all these leaders around me shared my fear--suddenly I wasn't afraid anymore. Because I am not alone. We are not alone. We've never been alone--we just forget that little fact, sometimes, in the hours before sunrise, when the glow of computer screens can feel like an ironic caveat against envisioning things too bright. 
The beautiful Christina Randall and Caroline Leadmon
The majestic Manaal Ali
Best LDI group? Heck year. #7Pride
Sub-unit 7A, AKA the best Sub-Unit ;)
On Friday, we went to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Oh, what an incredible experience it was.
The entrance to the Center
The Center's CEO, Derreck Kayongo, co-founder of the Global Soup Project, gave us one of the most incredible speeches I've ever heard. It was inspirational, hilarious, powerful. Derreck taught us an African folk tune after the speech, and the sound of 150 scholars singing along, the way we swayed like wheat in summer winds, our feet planted, our eyes focused, our ears listening everywhere, to everything, for one reason: in that moment, we were unified. In that moment, we felt, from our soles to our souls, the same rhythm dancing in us all.
Dr. Philip McAdoo, our fearless subunit 7A leader
One thing I will never forget. Inside this Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) exhibit, there was an installation that people waited in long lines for. Essentially, it mimicked the 1960 Greensboro sit-in. Let me explain: there was a long "table counter." You, the "protester," would sit down and put on the headphones they provided. You are invited to close your eyes and leave your hands flat, palm down, on the table. Suddenly, you hear shouts. Slurs, threats, sirens pound your ears, and somewhere someone is screaming, someone is being beaten, your friends near you are yanked out of their seats, violence as imprinted into the clamor as the crescendo of your own quickening heartbeat. If your hands leave the table--because you were frightened, agitated, who knows--it's over. The recording is finished. I managed to keep my hands still until the very end of the recording, but the experience shook me. I had never before realized just how much bravery and an almost heroic sort of foolishness it takes to fight for justice in such a hate-carved world. Needless to say, I was endlessly inspired but, even more than that, grateful for all the pain that those before us have suffered to try to make this world a better place.

We were suppose to go to the World of Coca-Cola following the Center, but Atlanta suffered a city-wide power outage. The CCSF staff were incredible enough to shift the schedule so that we got to go on Saturday, even if only for a short amount of time. 
Everyone always makes such a big deal about Beverly, but I don't think it's THAT bad. There was a Sunfill that tasted like toothpaste though. Ugh ugh ugh. (Yes, the World of Coca-Cola had a place where you could try different Coke-owned products from around the world.)
After the World of Coca-Cola visit, we all went to Parklane Elementary School for a community service project. Since the selection of coke scholars depends in part (and quite heavily so) on community service, this was such a wonderful culminating project. I, however, left my phone and camera on the bus so I could focus completely on the project, so I have no pictures. Basically, my group painted curbs! :)

Saturday night, we went to the Coca-Cola headquarters for what I can only describe as the best party I've ever been to.
Me and my roommate, the tireless Nadya Okamoto


Part Two: MIT & Princeton

So I need to say this, even if I know some will just take it as a sign of "humble brag"... I never in a million years could have thought that I'd be lucky enough to not only be named a Coca-Cola Scholar but also be admitted to incredible institutions of higher learning like MIT, Princeton, and various other schools that I will not name at this time. Every day I am confused, grateful, overwhelmed, but confused. Where did I decide to go to college? You'll know by the end of this post.

My family and I went to MIT's Campus Preview Weekend from April 7 to 10. Cambridge/Boston is BEAUTIFUL but also a very different environment for this gal. To be honest, I'm not sure I can say I liked the loud, urban, college kids-swarmed feel of the place. The first day of CPW also happened to be the worst weather during CPW in recent memory, so for this Southern California girl... LOL let's just say I may or may not have been only half-functioning, if functioning at all.

Oh, right before this trip, I cut off over a foot of my hair. :D 

I had the most incredible host ever, Elena Polozova. I REALLY hope she doesn't mind me posting a picture of her dorm room... I should probably have asked her before I posted it... Oops #DontBeLikeMe But LOOK AT HOW MAGICAL HER DORM IS! She is magical too. What a woman *bows in respect* (No, the colors in the picture were not altered... it really is that beautiful)

One thing I really loved about MIT was how crazy and amazing the dorm system was. Each dorm--sometimes even floor of a dorm--had a unique personality. My host lived in East Campus, where the students were quirky maniacs who I think are part Miyazaki-cat. They're great, though. Below is a picture of Burton Connor, which has an insane open-glass ballroom-esque place, as pictured. Ahhhh definitely I LOOOOOVE the way MIT's residential system works. You can really find your people.

I also really loved Simmons, another dorm. It has a BALL PIT!!!! And FRESH SMOOTHIES DURING STUDY BREAKS!!! Gotta say, though...  With 700 events scheduled during CPW, there was SO MUCH amazing FREE food (e.g. steaks and milkshakes) that had it not been for the long walks around campus, I probably would have already gained the Freshman 15.

Several of us Coke Scholars were at CPW and took a picture together with the number man, but I don't have the picture, so here's just me making a stupid pose at the number man by myself. xD

And that wraps up MIT! Now onto... 
The sky was absolutely beautiful when we arrived in Princeton
Princeton is just so gorgeous... from the sky to the architecture
Food in the Wilson/Butler dining hall! :D

In front of Alexander Hall, white tents were set up so we could check in. Oh man, Alexander Hall is so regal and majestic in person. I walked literally up a spiral to go to the second floor seating... IT'S A REAL CASTLE <3
Princeton's Princeton Preview was only 1.5 days long (April 10-11), so wow was it jam-packed. I sat in on an electromagnetism class and a East Asia Since the 1800s class and promptly fell in love. Then I went to talk with some professors and department heads and listened to a Bridge Year (Princeton's tuition-free gap year program for matriculating freshmen) panel and basically I was sold. Thank you so much to Midlyn for hosting me! ^.^

Part Three: Experience Yale-NUS Weekend

As the last part of my three-week long trip, I went to Singapore on an all-expenses-paid trip sponsored by Yale-NUS college. I just want to clarify here first that Yale-NUS, contrary to popular belief, is not a satellite/branch campus of Yale. Rather, it is an independent institution that happens to be the brain child of Yale University and the National University of Singapore. But by no means is it a "sideways" campus! It's got its own incredible faculty and manages its own astounding system.

Ahem. Now that I've got that out of the way...


They don't call it the Garden City for nothing. Even the AIRPORT, when I landed after a 20-hour itinerary that included a layover in Tokyo, was beautiful and floral. No wonder it's consistently ranked as one of the world's top airports.

The Yale-NUS campus is just heart-stoppingly gorgeous. I couldn't believe it when I saw these steps in the water and found out that I could actually walk on them. It felt like I was in a secret garden, with the earth cradling me so that magic darted like fairies between the sky and the lake, the entire night scene illuminated like a dreamscape.

The view outside my dorm window in Cendana (yes, I got my own dorm room, in a suite full of other prefrosh. It was just a beautiful experience. I'll explain in a bit):

EYW (Experience Yale-NUS Weekend) lasted for three days (April 15-17), though I was there for technically 4.5 days because of flight times. One of the elements I loved the most about the Weekend was how, because Singapore is so safe and clean, we (the prefrosh) had abundant freedom. I made friends with several wonderful, wonderful people, and we decided one night to go shopping on Bugis street.

Yale-NUS was also generous enough to give us a bus tour around Singapore. The bus windows were tinted blue, however, and I'm too lazy right now to correct each one's colors, so all the following blue-tinged photos... just... imagine them as less blue xD Here, I corrected one of the pics' colors so you can have a reference.

See how floral and green Singapore is? It blows Claremont out of the water as the "City of Trees." We did get to get off the bus at Chinatown, where we explored a temple and bought some food.

My dad had a friend in Singapore, so on Sunday night, I went with her and her friend to explore the city for a bit.
I had never had a fresh Thai coconut before. YUM YUM YUM. 10/10 would try again
I thought it was really cool how the subway cars all had different-colored handles and how there were posters all over the place encouraging you to be a good citizen.

I forget what this mall is called, but it reminded me 100% of Las Vegas except CLEANER (woot woot).

Beyond the fantastic time I had exploring the city-state, however, there was one thing that made me fall completely in love with Yale-NUS: the community.

Oh, how do I begin? I had never felt so loved, so cared for, so embraced, and it was all by people I barely knew. How do I articulate the love I felt and still feel for the friends I made? How do I explain my gratitude for the way my suitemates listened to me rant without judgment, truly listening to what I was saying, not because they had to but because they wanted to? How do I describe the camaraderie I felt as I pulled an all-nighter the night before my return flight in the dorm common lounge with freshmen who enlightened me to the rampant sexism and racism in music videos as we made fun of the self-righteousness with which some books are written (*cough* Eat, Pray, Love), as I tried to do my math homework but half-gave up because these people were so interesting, so real, so unabashedly weird in the best way possible? I sat down at the dining hall tables and had conversations with an Argentinian, an El Salvadorean, a New Zealander, an Indian, a Singaporean, a Lebanese girl, a Cypriot... Yale-NUS boasts a degree of internationality and diversity unmatched by virtually any other school. Then, when I heard about the opportunities that the students there have had through the international and professional program center CIPE, from freshmen's 7th week of first semester being dedicated to a hands-on research project with a professor, usually abroad, to mystery internships that landed one girl in a Burmese monastery for two months, to travel fellowships that allowed the same girl to bike with her friends from Singapore to Hanoi for the experience of a lifetime... they say you know when you fall in love with a place.

They are right. I knew.
Friends <3 PC: Jasmine Goh

As I left, I couldn't help but take a picture of the gorgeous fauna of the airport again. Also, they had roti prata!!! I love that stuff so much, I can't tell you how excited I was to finally have one again.

One thing that I thought was kind of funny was how there were "How did we do?" electronic boards at basically every service place you can think of in the airport. From information desks to restrooms to security. It's pretty easy to see why Changi is basically the world's best airport. The bonus? Singapore Airlines is SO GOOD. WOW. The food is INCREDIBLE for an airline, and the service is impeccable. I just want every airline to be as great as Singapore Airlines, but alas...

On my layover in Tokyo, I ate some udon and bought some sakura-matcha Kit-Kats. Everyone kept speaking rapid Japanese to me, ha! To avoid explaining I'm Chinese (which, given the hostile history between China and Japan in the last century, would be the best course of action), I just stared at them and showed them my U.S. passport. xD

So now I am back, wondering about the things that I didn't get to see, buried in the space between past and reality. As IB and AP exams come up, I'm filled with a sort of exhaustion that seeps into my bones: not a physical exhaustion, persay, but a mental one. The sort of exhaustion when you've tried to soak in every second of every day and suddenly you find that there's nothing left to soak, because you are catapulted back into a place- a time too familiar, too paralyzing for your heart to absorb.

What college, then, did I choose? In this state of heartache and nostalgia, wanderlust and paranoia?


I'll let you decide how I feel about that.
After I committed, the sky blazed orange. 

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