In the past few months I’ve traveled to Bangkok for spring break, finished my sophomore year at Harvard (marking the halfway point of my undergraduate career… where did the time go?!), and caught an airline mistake fare that got me a week in Dubai and Abu Dhabi for $200 round trip flights. It’s been quite the semester!
My trip to Bangkok had been in the works since October. This was my first year as a member of one of the coolest organizations Harvard has to offer, the Harvard College in Asia Program, or HCAP. Basically, HCAP is an international exchange program between Harvard and eight different universities all across Asia—in Istanbul, Dubai, Mumbai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, and Bangkok. In January, eight delegates came from each city to Harvard for a conference that we organized, which was a blast. Then in March, the eighty or so of us from Harvard split up and went to their cities for the corresponding conferences that they organized.
I’ve been an avid follower of the Facebook page Humans of New York for about three or four years now, but there is one particular comment among the millions made on HONY’s hundreds of posts that has really stood out to me all this time. On a picture of schoolchildren in Ukraine taken on HONY’s world tour, someone wrote about how she has come to care so much about Ukrainian affairs after having a Ukrainian roommate. She ended the comment by saying, “Imagine if we all knew one great friend in every country. We would care so much about what happened EVERYWHERE.”
For me, the HCAP January conference and March conference in Bangkok has done exactly this, and that is precisely why this has been one of the most memorable international experiences I’ve had so far. After becoming so close with the Asian delegates in January, by spring break I felt like I was going to visit old friends, and it made me all the more excited. Leaving Bangkok after a tearful goodbye, I knew I had a network of friends that would be with me for a long time.
And, just like that HONY commenter described, it’s made me feel a connection to Thailand and its people that wasn’t there before. It’s one thing to visit a country as a tourist, hopping from landmark to landmark, restaurant to restaurant, learning about the place’s history but never getting a chance to truly connect with a local. I’m certainly an avid tourist—most of my travel is just plain tourism, after all, and I do love the feeling of wandering a new city, armed with my camera and, dare I say it, selfie stick.
However, I’ve found that the international experiences that have made me feel the strongest connection to a country are the ones I’ve spent doing something other than just tourism. In Thailand, my days were mixed with sightseeing—the Grand Palace, the temples of Ayutthaya, and Pattaya’s picturesque beaches, to name a few—but also with academic lectures and workshops that helped me learn a little more about the country. Best of all, I got to experience all these things with a group of some of the best people I’ve ever met.
It’s a pretty cool feeling, to have such strong ties of friendship to the other side of the world.