I’m Singin’ in the Rain (Well, Actually, I’m Sniffling and Trying Not to Cry)

Unrealistic expectations might be one of my biggest flaws.

*Neil Degrasse Tyson Voice*: Since the dawn of time…

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Alright, alright, actually just since elementary school (but that feels like ages ago) I have allowed my heightened expectations to get the best of me. Coming up to any big event, I would amp myself up on the fantasy of what it would be like, the cinematic experience of my life would play in my head. The most common of these mini-movies were some version of whomever I had a crush on running up to my to profess their undying love. Probably in the rain. Which has happened exactly zero times.

So, clearly a realistic expectation.

I did this in other moments too. My most vivid recollection of one of these experiences was my 4th grade birthday. My parents had agreed to take me and three friends to Riverside Amusement Park (what is now Six Flags New England and 8 bazillion times bigger and better.) I had invited three friends, including my BEST friend, and I was certain it would be the most amazing day ever.

*Cue fantasy of a movie montage with us running around the park, having the time of our lives, cut to some rad 90’s song by Chumbawumba.*

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But, my “best” friend didn’t show up.

We were all gathered at my house, waiting to leave–me running to the front window every few moments to check for her mom’s car–and she wasn’t there. Finally, I called her house. Her mom told me she’d overslept and therefore would be unable to make it.

I was devastated. The day was ruined. Clearly she wasn’t my best friend after all, she probably didn’t even WANT to come, and now the day would be terrible.

I think I cried.

I remember my mom trying to soothe me by telling my I should likely have not let my expectations get so high–and reminding me that I had two other friends there, waiting to enjoy the day with me. I internally cringe at this memory, and that I had relegated these other two friends to secondary status, worried only about the one friend who ended up not coming through for me. My other friends had shown up!

Young Kate…THEY were your true friends!!!

But I was 10, so perspective wasn’t exactly my strong suit. Low and behold, we went to the park and had an awesome day, not made terrible in the least by the absence of my “best” friend. Had my expectations not been so heightened to begin with, could I have perhaps saved myself the trouble and strife of being so let down by my friend not showing up?

Alas, this, it would seem, is a lesson I’m still working on learning.

I was in Singapore for New Year’s Eve this year. I’ve never spent a New Year’s Eve alone before–though, as I may have mentioned–I’ve done many other things alone, including pretty much every other major U.S. holiday. But New Year’s had always been one that I wanted to be with friends or family for. There’s something about the celebratory aspect, the countdown to midnight and all, that always made me feel like I’d rather be around people.

(and the fantasy that someone ridiculously attractive will suddenly appear for me to kiss at midnight…I’m beginning to think I have a problem…)

This year, however, I was traveling. I could have made the decision to tag along with some people in the hostel I was staying in but I felt–in my attempt to do things that sometimes go against my natural inclinations, in an attempt to continue to stretch and push myself out of that trusty, pesky comfort zone–it would be a good idea to try New Year’s alone.

My first several days in Singapore had been fairly enjoyable. The architecture is pretty great and it’s an incredibly green city, full of parks, flowers, and plants–even on some of the buildings. I wandered through the botanic gardens–one of my favorite things in any city–hopped on and off a hop-on hop-off bus, wandered streets and shops and found cool cafes.

I was particularly fascinated for some reason by the Marina Bay Sands building–which basically looks like a ship on top of three huge pillars. I suppose it was the unique structure or the relative lack of other tall buildings in the vicinity that repeatedly drew my eye–and iPhone camera. It might also be because I was vaguely reminded of a stationary, building form of the “Titanic” and my little nerd heart loved it. Or maybe not. Whatever.

In any event, on New Year’s Eve, I found a celebration down at Marina Bay, one of the more iconic, photographable areas of Singapore, and with a great view of the skyline and said Titanic Marina Bay Sands building. The party I went to was on the aptly named “float”, a floating dock at an outdoor stadium in the bay. There was a strip of food stalls, arts booths, music from a local radio station (counting down the “top hits of 2017!” of course). Every hour they shot off some fireworks and would shoot 6. Whole. Minutes. Worth. at midnight.

(I’m sorry for my fireworks disdain, but I’ve seen some epic fireworks. 6 minutes…SIX…?).

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It had rained on and off all day–being a tropical-y island in rain season and all–and was drizzling as I arrived. But I had two plastic ponchos and wasn’t too worried about the rain. In the movie version of my life, of COURSE the rain holds off until after midnight. And of COURSE I would have a great story to tell about my super cool New Year’s Eve.

Thus began the unrealistic expectations.

Well, for a while the rain did hold off and the night was pretty fun. I wandered the main strip of food and art, buying a couple cool, unique things, before sitting and people-watching in the stands. I genuinely enjoyed my solo experience of New Year’s Eve…until it started to actually rain.

And then rain harder.

And then basically just dump water from a gigantic faucet in the sky.

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I hunkered down under my poncho, fairly dry for a surprising amount of time (other than my poor feet, is there a worse feeling than squishy, wet feet?), waiting for midnight.

Stubbornly.
Obstinately.
AS GOD AS MY WITNESS, I WOULD MAKE IT TO MIDNIGHT!

And yet, the longer I sat there, the more miserable I became. It was raining so hard I couldn’t even look up at where the fireworks were because the rain was streaming into my face and eyes. My feet were soaked. Rain was gradually finding little riverbeds to stream into the openings of my poncho and dampen my jeans and shirt. It was threatening to fully overcome my dry clothing. Yet I kept stubbornly sitting there, unhappy and cold. Miserable–yet feeling somehow obligated to stay until midnight. I couldn’t leave. I was already alone for New Year’s. I *had* to at least say I’d been to a cool party and had fun. If I didn’t see those six whole minutes of fireworks, it wouldn’t be a real New Year’s!

But eventually I’d had enough. With about thirty minutes to go, I grabbed all my stuff, trudged down the stairs and out of the stadium. I walked 97 blocks to find an open MRT station, starting to sniffle and tear up on the way.

I had failed.

My New Year’s Eve alone was a bust.

I missed the six minute fireworks.

This would likely ruin my ENTIRE 2018.

I maybe half-yelled, half-cried at some very nice, polite Singaporean police officers (my bad guys, thanks for being decent humans) when I kept being directed to stations that were closed. I think I semi-terrified a helpful MRT attendant who timidly asked if I needed help while I dribbled tears and sniveled by the ticket machine, lost in my own self-pity and ruined expectations.

And as the clock struck midnight on January 1st, 2018, I was on the north-south train line, heading back to my hostel. I was dry, but there was nothing to mark the occasion. No countdown. No celebratory yell of “Happy New Year!” No fireworks. Just another moment in time, anonymous on the metro. Alone and damp in a foreign city, away from everyone I know. With really wet feet.

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I emerged from the MRT, gave up on the idea of the remaining 20 minute walk to my hostel, and found a taxi. As I sat in the cab, the driver turned, gave me a cheery smile, and said “Happy New Year!” With a flood of realization, I laughed and wished him one back. Here was this guy, working on New Year’s Eve, still happily enjoying his evening. Here I was, internally whining about a lousy holiday that didn’t meet my unrealistic expectations. Dozens of other people had been on the MRT. Those police officers I’d leaked tears in front of were on the job (dealing with touristy throwing themselves pity-parties.)

The world was, in fact, still turning–and I was still here.

Therein lies the big slap-you-in-the-face reminder I got that night–in looking everywhere for those unrealistic expectations you’ll never find, you miss everything that’s right in front of you. I cannot tell you how many countless times I’ve missed something because I was too busy stubbornly looking for the wrong thing. I nearly missed my real friends in 4th grade because I was too busy looking for a fairytale friendship that didn’t exist. I missed the joy of starting another year with all that I am lucky to have–alive and traveling and living a life many only get to dream of–because I was seeking some mysterious fantasy version of New Year’s Eve.

I’m not saying that we are not allowed to feel sad or disappointed when bad things happen. I actually think people need more room to feel their full range of emotions, instead of this social-media-ized pressure to constantly be having THE BEST TIME EVER. Crappy stuff happens. We get disappointed. It’s allowed.

But I am obsessed with the phrase “You can’t see the forest for the trees” because I constantly struggle to see the whole forest. A lot. I stare at that one tree and think it’s the only tree there. I get lost in the wilderness. But we all have the capacity to zoom back out and see the bigger picture, and it’s really necessary once and a while.

As I started out by saying–this may be one of my biggest flaws, something I struggle with daily. But the story of my rained-out New Year’s Eve will certainly be one I remember for a long time. One worth telling. Even though it wasn’t perfect. I was out living my life–and life includes rain sometimes.

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(I mean, the perfect person professing their undying love in the rain can’t exactly happen without it, right?)

The perfect experience is elusive. It doesn’t exist. What does exist is all the other stuff, the real things happening in front of us, every day. We can choose to tune in and participate, to fully live within our lives and get as much out of them as possible, or we can cling to the fantasy and constantly be disappointed. Bizarre as it may sound, I’m reminded of those cheesy holographic images you see you might see at Halloween or in the Haunted Mansion at Disney World. When you tilt the image one way, it looks like a scary skeleton faces and might be horrifying and scary. But when you tilt it another, it’s a beautiful image of a family.

It would seem, to me, it’s all about how you choose to tilt the hologram.

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All By Myself

If you hadn’t heard, I love to travel alone.

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It was not always this way. In college, I once stayed on campus to work for a week after everyone else had left for winter break. It was quiet and lonely and I was bored out of my mind. I called my dad and he suggested I go to the movies.

“ALONE?!?” I said, as if he’d suggested I buy a bunch of fireworks and light them before locking them inside the trunk of my car and driving home from work. He laughed and assured me that it was not, in fact, illegal to attend movies alone. So I drove to the theatre…and realized that going to the movies alone is one of the single greatest experiences on the face of the Earth.

Especially when the theatre is nearly empty and the only other viewers are quiet old people.

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Thus began my venture into the world of “doing things alone”–because why shouldn’t I have fun all by my damn self? I can be pretty entertaining, you know.

Me, Party of One
When I was planning to move to Chicago. I had flown to the city for a few days to tour the school I would work for and search for an apartment. I was staying in a hotel downtown and downtown Chicago is not really a hoppin’ place at night (I honestly don’t know why I just said “hoppin’” but I’m going to go with it.)

In search of dinner, I found a place I’d been to a few years before called the Italian Village. It’s fairly well known, a group of 3 different Italian restaurants housed within one building in the Loop–and pretty much near nothing else. I went in, alone, and got a table for myself. I deliberately chose to put my phone away and just enjoy the meal. I ordered a salad, an entree, wine, and dessert–figuring if I was going to eat alone, I might as well do it up right.

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I still remember that meal. Sitting and actually enjoying the food I’d chosen, instead of looking down to realize I’d already eaten it without noticing. Watching other people and wondering about their lives. Enjoying my own. damn. company.

It was radical, it was new, it was something I had to do again. So I did, and still do. I know many people who do, and have seen many others on my travels. Yet people are often still mystified when I tell them.

“You travel ALONE? Like, by yourself?”

And they ask the funniest questions

“What do you…do…?”
(All the stuff I would normally do, except talk out loud because that would be a little weird with just me.
But even still, sometimes I talk out loud too.)

“Don’t you get bored?”
(No, I think I’m pretty interesting company, but thanks for the compliment. I get bored being around other people about as much as I get bored alone.)

“Aren’t you scared???”
(Of having to have this conversation again? Yes.)

But of traveling alone? Hell no. It’s amazing. Everyone should do it. Here’s why.

Whatever, Whatever, I Do What I Want.
First, when you travel with people, you’re at the mercy of the group. I can only imagine what it’s like to travel with kids and have to be at the mercy of those tiny, cranky, dictators (I’m kidding, I love kids. But they must also be tricky to travel with…) When you travel alone, you can do whatever you want. Whenever you want to.

Whatever. You. Want.

Get up early, sleep in late, go out, stay in, eat now, eat later. Whatever. On no one’s schedule but yours. All of this outside the confines of your daily life, routine, and responsibilities. So you have an extra freedom because you literally have to do…nothing.

And the bonus is, if you make last minute changes in plans, it’s often super easy to squeeze in someplace. Restaurants almost always have space at the bar, and often there are random single seats at movies and shows, or on tours. It’s just little ol’ you, so it’s a lot easier to jump in than with a big full group. Slither, slither.

You Better Think…Let Your Mind Go, Let Yourself Be Free
One of the other major benefits of solo travel, in my eyes, is the “think time”. My teaching life is so full of mental “stuff”, I find it sweet relief to have time to simply think about…anything. Everything. I sometimes take the bus when I could take a taxi purely for this reason. I can tell when I haven’t taken time to sit and think and process for a while because my brain starts to feel like a shower drain that hasn’t been cleaned for a few weeks–gunked up and clogged (gross metaphor, sorry, but accurate).

Traveling alone provides a huge amount of time to think and process the experience. I lamented earlier this year seeing the Great Wall of China with other people. Don’t get me wrong–they were great people and I had a great time. But I was so focused on the group and everyone taking pictures and figuring out what everyone wanted to do and all that I didn’t really have time to take it in.

I was standing on the frickin’ Great. Wall. of China. Something I never, ever thought I’d  see in real life. And like a flash, I was done and gone and it was over. Yes, I went and I remember seeing it–I wasn’t comatose–but I like to really appreciate a place when I’m there. I watch people while I’m traveling (one of my all-time favorite travel activities, people are *fascinating*) and more and more I see people do what I call “the drive-by”:

They swoop into a place, let’s say, a museum. They take approximately 8 billion photos. Photos of each exhibit. Photos of the plaques by the exhibits. Photos of their family in front of the exhibit. Selfies in front of the exhibit. Photos of the cafeteria. Photos of the floor. Photos of the bathroom (yes, I have seen all of this.) Then they leave.

They never stop and look.

They see the entire experience through the lens of their camera or phone. And, honestly, you could have done that at home. When I went to Paris and saw the Mona Lisa, I wasn’t so much impressed by the painting but to stand in the presence of the most famous piece of art in the world. It felt holy. I didn’t jam my way to the front of the crowd, shoving and pushing to take a photo I’d rarely look at, and that would likely be bested by 10,000 others on Google. Instead I stood to the side and just tried to take in the experience. Maybe this type of travel isn’t for everyone, maybe some people enjoy the drive-by. But I still remember how I *felt* standing in front of that painting and I don’t think I’ll forget it any time soon.

Stop. Hammock Time

There’s an undeniable freedom in being able to change your plans at the drop of a hat, without having to consult anyone. To suddenly decide to walk down that random street because it looked like it might be interesting, to turn around after walking 10 blocks because you’d really rather read in that hammock by the beach, to stay in that bookstore five minutes more without worrying someone is bored and waiting for you. I’ve traveled with a few rare people I could still do these things with, but they’ve been few and far between. I don’t mean to disparage those I’ve traveled with–I truly enjoy group trips as well. But generally, it’s when I’m on my own that I feel most free to truly explore and see a place.

People often seem bewildered when I talk about traveling alone, as if I’m traveling to Venus, not just on a holiday. Which I suppose speaks to a whole slew of other issues–such as the perception of being alone = lonely or the idea that a woman *shouldn’t* or *couldn’t* travel alone–but for now, I’ll simply say: just try it. It’s super fun. All the cool kids are doing it.

It can be uncomfortable at first, sitting at a table alone or asking for “just one” ticket–especially because people might look at you strangely (rarely happens to me, most people in the service industry are nice and cool.) You’ll probably wonder if other people are looking at you or if you look sad and lonely. And sure, sometimes it would be nice to have someone there to share a story with or make a snarky comment to. But it’ll pass. Lean into it, choose to enjoy the experience, and eventually you will. Sitting alone won’t kill you. And no one is really looking at you, they’re wondering if you’re looking at them.

(And you should be because people are SO interesting.)

One of my simplest pleasures in life is a book, a cup of coffee, in a cafe somewhere around the world. I usually take a photo of such moments to remind myself that it really can be that simple.

Just me, a book, a cup of coffee, and the world. Doesn’t get much better than that.

“How to Life: A Comprehensive Guide on How to Like, Do Stuff”

On numerous occasions I have lamented to my mother that I wish life–or at least adulthood–came with an instruction manual. Some sort of comprehensive guide that gave both practical advice–such as how to file your taxes and get your cat to stop clawing the couch–and answers to bigger, more ethereal questions–such as “What do I want to be when I grow up?’, “Should I sell all my possessions and move to a cabin alone?”, and “How do I eat raw cookie dough and watch Netflix all weekend without becoming fused to my couch?”

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My mom always laughs in that knowing, mom-laugh way (undoubtedly one of the most appealing things about being a mom, I assume) and says the feeling never goes away. That despite seeing a progressively older face in the mirror, you always feel like the same unsure kid you were as a teenager.

To be clear I’m NOT insinuating that my mom is old.

She’s practically the same age as me.

And I’m still very, very young.

I suppose as a teenager, I assumed there’d be more certainty in my future. I’d find a career and job I enjoyed and work there for 40 years. I’d find the place I wanted to live and buy a house and live there for 100 years (because clearly I’m going to live to be at least 120). I’d find someone to marry and have kids and we’d be super happy.

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Whelp, I’ve achieved approximately zero of those visions–and I don’t think any of them will ever come true quite like that (though I’m not ready to give up on getting married and having kids, I am no longer naive enough to think that those things alone will allow me to be super happy. Hey–growth y’all!) My disappointment in adulthood comes not from my lack of achieving my previous visions of life, but from the realization of how *many* decisions there are to make, and how frequently I feel like I’m just making them all wrong.

During a conversation with some fellow teachers the other day, I remarked on the realization, during one of my first years of teaching, that I had been inducted into a life and career where nothing would ever be done. Never. There would always be a running “to do” list that just kept accumulating items for completion–plus all the stuff in my person life.

Like, did you know bills come EVERY MONTH and you have to keep paying them? I tell ya…

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I’d been accustomed to the way things were in my youth–when I had stuff to do, I did it and then I was done and had oodles of time to play and read and clip magazines for pictures of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. “Done” existed.

But in adulthood this is not to be had. Instead you get on a treadmill and start running–or, if you’re lucky you choose to run outdoors–and occasionally the speed gets cranked up or down on you. I had to learn that sometimes–actually, quite often–it is necessary to get off the damn treadmill and make your own free time. A skill I admittedly still struggle with often and can thank my former co-teacher for helping me learn. Her advice generally sounded like: “In an hour, that lesson plan really isn’t going to be so much better that your students get set on a dramatically different life trajectory–and you need to like, sleep and eat and stuff. So GO HOME.”

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I owe you much Christina, your voice is still in my head at the end of long days. Thanks woman.

I’m sure, however, that should Christina ever read this, she’ll claim she doesn’t really know how it all works either (even though she’s super awesome and I don’t even know how we’re both adults at the same time because I’m over here laughing at fart jokes and she’s raising two children and generally being awesome.) But I find something comforting in that–that everyone has that kid inside, who’s uncertain and doesn’t really know if they’re doing all of this right or not.

Some of you may have noticed that it’s been quite a while since I’ve written anything on here. I think about writing often and frequently write in my head without putting it down on paper. I make lists of random thoughts and ideas I feel might be interesting. But when it comes to actually going through the process, I often find myself stalled.

Because what if I’m not doing it right?

Not the technical process of writing, of course. I certainly hope people would not have been letting me teach for the past 10 years if I wasn’t a competent writer. This worry of mine is more about what I have to say–because who am I to have the authority to say *anything*? Sure I do cool stuff like move to China and whatever, but I am FAR from having anything “figured out”.

If they were going to write the instruction manual, I would not be the one hired to do it.

But.

I have things to say, and I like saying them. I really enjoy writing. I really enjoy the idea that maybe someone reading my writing will say “Me too!”. I enjoy the idea that people I’m far away from can hear from me and we can connect for a moment or two. I have no expectations of my writing changing lives or being anything profound, but hey, it’s fun and I like it.

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And so I circle back to the original point of this little post–I have no idea what I’m doing. And no one else does either. We dress up in our work clothes and get in cars to go to jobs and make big and important decisions. But at the end of the day, we’re really just making the whole damn thing up. So I say write or play with legos or collect expensive porcelain pigs or go hang gliding, or quit your job to make ice cream, or whatever feels true and good. Because, as one of my teenage-self’s favorite shows used to say–everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.

Plus, in all honesty, if that instruction manual existed, I’d probably throw it in the trash anyway. As any improviser will tell you, things are a whole lot more fun when you’re making them up anyway.

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Good to the Last Drop

When I first started drinking coffee, I had to drink it with milk and sugar. Actually, when I FIRST started, I just had hot chocolate with a shot of espresso. I thought the taste of black coffee was the worst. Bitter and sharp, it was an assault on my tastebuds.
Then, my father told me of how my brother (in an attempt to impress his then girlfriend, now wife) taught himself to drink black coffee: he bought a large at Starbucks and forced himself to drink the whole thing. So that’s what I did, and those who know me know I am a complete junkie now (though I also know better than Starbucks, having been fortunate enough to experience the tastebud joys that are Australian and Vietnamese coffee)


Traveling solo is kind of like training myself to like black coffee. I get so many shocked reactions when I talk about traveling on my own. I think people assume, when they hear that I love to travel solo, that I’m this fearless badass who just barrels into unknown circumstances with a smile and a backpack. 


Yeah, definitely not.

There are honestly a lot of times when I travel that I’m quite anxious. Today, for example, I had to take a taxi from the airport in Danang, Vietnam. I’d read, and been warned, several times about taxi scams and I was nervous about navigating the whole thing myself. But the alternative was to walk from the airport, in the rain, for an hour.


Uh, no thanks. 

So I took the taxi from a reputable company and…

It was fine. I think the guy asked for more than was on the meter at the end but he gave up pretty quick when I handed over some cash, so it was all good. No screaming, no yelling, no stealing my stuff. I survived wholly unscathed. 

There is, without a doubt, a lot of shit that can go wrong while traveling. I find I get most anxious when moving cities. I’ve checked out of one hotel/hostel room and have no “home base”. I move from a city where I have gotten my bearings and generally grasp how things work, to a place where everything is new, confusing, and intimidating. 

But this is where the true freedom and joy of travel–especially solo travel–comes in. As I left my hostel in Hanoi this morning, the woman at the front desk gave me directions to the stop for the airport bus, which I had not previously taken (Hanoi isn’t known for its super public transit system. It has one but taxis and motorbikes are used far more often). I did not, as usual, listen particularly carefully as she explained where to go–just took in a general idea of “rights and lefts”–what could go wrong?

As it turns out, nothing did. I found the stop fairly easily, got the bus quickly, and made it to the airport 2 hours before my flight. The whole walk to the bus stop I had worried about what to do–would the bus come? What if it took a long time? What if they didn’t give me change, only had large bills? What if I had to take a taxi, how much was it supposed to cost? What if I got ripped off? What if the taxi tried to take me to somewhere else? These may seem a bit excessive but when you hear people’s crazy stories about travel (and that’s ALWAYS what people want to tell you when they hear you travel) and you’re a single, solo female traveler, you kind of can’t help but be a little wary I think. 

But I got on the bus, and had an awesome, triumphant and immediate feeling of success. I had  figured it out. I can do this! 

Solo travel is like rock climbing. You’re up on the cliff, sometimes in a secure spot, sometimes dangling on the edge. And should you fall off, you’ve got to trust that your “rope”–all your brains and guts and common sense–is going to catch you. When I went rock climbing as a kid, I always had a giddy, excited sense of relief when then rope would catch me and I knew I wasn’t plummeting to my death (not unlike my feelings while bungee jumping last year). That is a similar feeling when I’m able to navigate a tricky situation while traveling solo–I “catch” myself and the feelings of badassery overwhelm. This has not always been a strength of mine–trusting myself to handle things–and this makes the experience all the more sweet.

So sometimes the thought of going on my own, dealing with the new and unfamiliar, seems like my old perspective of black coffee–“ick, why would I do that to myself?” But I always push myself to do it and–as I have come to feel about my coffee–it is So. Damn. Good. Every. Time.

Do They Know It’s Christmastime At All?

It’s been interesting, spending the last two Christmases away from home. I love Christmas—not the commercialism and all, but the joy and traditions and the time with family. But as I’ve fully entered adulthood (as much as someone who still plays pretend with her friends at improv practice ever will) I’ve been more disappointed by Christmas each year. Many of my family’s traditions have faded or changed, and the magic that always seemed to surround the season disappeared for the most part. I hope that one day, with my own children, I’ll feel that again but for now, I honestly haven’t been sad to skip the whole thing the past couple of years.

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Last year I found myself in Malaysia, ordering room service breakfast and watching Home Alone 2 on cable. I was by myself and it was actually delightful, but this year I opted to spend time with a couple friends.

This year, I went to Taipei with two friends, a married couple I work with named Eric and Haley. Or, as Eric called it, “Tai-bae” (this is also, apparently, the correct pronunciation, funny enough).

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Just three weirdos at Christmas

Easily one of the most pleasurable aspects of the trip was getting direct flights from Ningbo to Taipei and back. I love my travels, but I rarely fly direct because of the cost and there is only so much fun to be had in any airport terminal.

I have developed a bit of a reputation this year—pardon the humble brag—among my friends for being particularly good at finding excellent restaurants in the cities we visit. I don’t see anything special in what I do—if anything, Google and Trip Advisor deserve the credit—but hell, I’ll take the praise! And I have had an usual amount of success as of late, so yeah, just call me the Travel Titan…the Dining Dutchess…THE MEALTIME MAESTRO.

Ok, I’m done.

Our first afternoon, after checking in at our respective hotel (them) and hostel (me), we grabbed lunch at a diner called Whalen’s in the city. I’d seen it online and it was touted as American/Canadian, which is difficult to find in China so we checked it out. It ended up being one of those meals where everyone sits and eats and just moans over how good the food is.

Despite being a little wary of it, I had poutine for the first time ever and it did not disappoint (it’s a Canadian dish of fries covered in cheese curds and chicken gravy). Haley was, to put it delicately, very fond of the gravy that accompanied the poutine. There is something special about living in another country and coming across your comfort foods from home. That food never tastes as good as when you haven’t had access to it in months.

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Apple Crisp at Whalen’s

We then made our way to Taipei 101, the big, iconic tower in the middle of the city. I’ve now been to many a tall building—Empire State Building and Freedom Tower in New York, Sears (IT IS SEARS NOT WILLIS) Tower in Chicago, Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai Tower in (duh) Shanghai, and I’m sure several others. I’m not so impressed by the big, tall buildings anymore but it was worth a visit.

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Personally, I think “Taipei 101” sounds more like a course at the local university…

Unfortunately, the day was a big smoggy (as per usual) so we didn’t have the best view but it was definitely unique in terms of experiences I’ve had in tall building observatories. You could literally see the grime of pollutants on the outside of the building’s windows and I wondered, not for the first time, about my risk of lung cancer in the future…

One new aspect to this building was the gigantic steel ball positioned in the middle of it to help offset any wind from the many typhoons and earthquakes Taipei is at risk for. I didn’t fully understand how it works (because, let’s be honest, I didn’t quite care enough to watch the explanatory video) but from what I gathered, there’s a hydraulic mechanism that kicks into gear when a storm or seismic event occurs, helping keep the building from collapsing.

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It’s that kind of thing that reminds and impresses me with the ingenuity of the human brain. Super cool.

The one thing I always seek out in any city I visit is a foreign language bookstore, because I’m basically Hermione. I’ve taken to collecting books in each city I visit and inscribing them with the date and location where I purchased them. One day I will own a house with an international library—or maybe a private jet as I continue my journeys across the world.

We wound up at Eslite department store, which includes a massive book section. I was very excited to find another edition to JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike detective series, which I find delightful. I clearly enjoy her writing style and I read the first two in the series this summer. They’re compelling, easy reads that each have a good twist at the end. The two main characters, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellicott, are far more fleshed out and interesting to read about than many characters I’ve come across in popular mysteries/thrillers, but I digress…

We finished our night at a Thai rooftop restaurant in the area, which was fairly unremarkable except that my rice was served pyramid-style.

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On our way down from the restaurant, the already-packed elevator opened into a very crowded nightclub. Several people proceeded to load in a woman so intoxicated (it was about 8pm) that she was in a wheelchair and had a plastic bag attached to her neck.

If you know me at all, you know I have a serious case of emetophobia (IT IS A REAL THING) and the sound/sight of someone vomiting literally makes me want to bolt in panic. So there I stood, in the corner with my eyes shut, plugging my ears and humming tunelessly to myself as this woman proceeded to vomit continuously the entire way down the building.

I felt more impressed with my ability to make it through that situation than I did after bungee-jumping off the Auckland Bridge last year (ok maybe not quite, but it was up there).

I hope that woman was taken to a hospital and recovered. I also hope to never be that drunk in my life. That has to be a 9 day hangover, minimum.

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The following day I played tourist, visiting the Chiang Kai-shek memorial and then taking a walking tour of the city. Free walking tours are my favorite way to see a new city—though I’ve had a mixture of quality on them. The tours run by Sandeman’s in Europe have been the most excellent, but they are also the best established. I appreciated my tour in Taipei (though I snorted when one of the guides commented that Taiwanese people don’t party much, remembering my elevator ride the previous evening) but when we started to hit 3½ hours, I found an excuse to duck out.

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That evening I met back up with Eric and Haley to eat at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant called James Kitchen that serves traditional Taiwanese food. It was hidden at the end of a busy street, a place that I would have normally walked right by had I not done my research ahead of time. The meal was excellent, the best parts being crab meatballs and pumpkin glass noodles.

We then ended up in a leather shop, buying ourselves Christmas gifts, and off to an expat-frequented bar called Revolver—picked based on it’s reputation and my fondness for the Chicago-based improv troupe of the same name. With the assistance of my two wing-friends, I worked on my flirting game. In my world, this consists of noticing a cute guy across the bar, making eye contact multiple times and quickly looking away. Maybe smiling. In Haley’s world, this consists of striking up conversation with the guy I’ve been looking at.

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I appreciated the cheeky decor at Revolver

One of these techniques resulted in me having a very pleasant conversation with an adorable German man.

 

Spoiler: my technique was not the successful one. Maybe I need to change my tactics.

 

Our third and final day in Taipei (Christmas day in fact) started with me nursing a spectacular hangover and attempting to skype with my brother, nieces, younger sister and sister-in-law. The camera only worked on my end, resulting in a hilariously narrated conversation in which my incredibly generous brother gave my younger sister a trip to visit me in China this spring. Having not had any visitors yet, it was a truly awesome gift for both of us (that will most definitely also result in some hilarious additions to this blog).

I then made my way to meet the others for brunch at Pig & Pepper, another delicious restaurant, and then board the bus up to Keelong Bay and Jiufen Village.

Jiufen Village a little tourist village on the mountainside outside of Taipei with a gorgeous view down into the bay. Our visit was marred slightly by my repeated necessity to chomp Pepto-Bismol (hangovers, amirite?) but it was a very worthwhile jaunt. We wondered among stalls full of food, handcrafts, touristy souvenirs, and all kinds of knickknacks, passing the time from late afternoon into evening and watching the sun descending over the valley and water below.

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The view down to Keelong Bay from Jiufen Village

A perfectly delightful Christmas afternoon, free of expectation and unnecessarily forced frivolity.

Back in the city, I explored the Raohe Street Night Market while Eric and Haley went back to their hotel. While the night markets in many of the cities I’ve visited have started to feel very similar, I still enjoy walking through them, observing all the people, salivating over the delicious foods, and exploring the stacks of goods up for sale. I greatly enjoy the feeling of being lost in a crowd—alone among hundreds of people—and night markets are an excellent place to do that.

It’s hard to regret missing Christmas when doing so had afforded me the opportunity to see places like Taipei. I do miss my family and regret not seeing them (save through the lens of my phone’s camera as my mom points me at the ceiling fan repeatedly) but these last two years have given me some pretty extraordinary experiences in compensation.

One of my friends—or possibly my siblings—once said that perhaps I’ll be that wild aunt who rolls into town once and a while with fabulous gifts and amazing tales of my adventures abroad.

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I think I’d be ok with that.

Run, Run to the Bus!

At the beginning of this school year I was relocated to a different campus of my school in Ningbo, China. What was supposed to be 6 weeks turned into a year and now, I’ve decided, probably longer. The decision has so far served me very well—I’ve had a huge career boost, I’ve met some fantastic new friends and coworkers, and I’ve grown a lot. I also got a killer new apartment in the whole deal, can’t complain.

My new apartment complex is a bit far from the center of Ningbo, and therefore I find myself taking the bus into the city quite often—either to meet friends for dinner, or often to catch a flight or a train. On my last several trips to the bus stop, I would turn out of my complex to see the bus I take sitting at the stop. The bus usually pauses there for a minute or two before departing on schedule (my stop is the first on the route). The first couple of times this happened, I kept walking at a quick pace toward the stop, but was unwilling to run because of my shoes or bags or I was tired or a little extra full from lunch or whatever excuse I had. Inevitably the bus would pull away before I got there and I’d be irritated that I hadn’t caught it and then had to wait 20 minutes for another one.

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On my way to dinner this past Friday, the same situation arose. I was in heels—and they were particularly tricky ones that are too big for my feet and often come whipping off unexpectedly when I walk (it’s possible I need new shoes…)

I had a moment of quiet resignation—I would miss the damn bus again and be late to dinner as a result.

Whatever. Fine. Totally great. I don’t want to get on your stupid bus anyway!

Then I thought, “Screw that. I can run and catch it, shoes be damned!” Stumbling and flailing toward the stop, I’m sure I looked ridiculous and my shoe popped off my foot approximately 900 times on the way.

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But the driver waited and I made it.

I made the effort, recognized the choice I had in the matter, and as a result I caught the bus and saved myself 20 minutes of waiting for another one.

It’s a seemingly inconsequential story—I doubt anyone reading this is particularly interested in my bus riding habits—but I share it because I think it speaks to a larger pattern. It’s currently the season of New Year’s resolutions, new beginnings, and seemingly endless possibilities. But often, many New Year’s resolutions seem to reside in Fantasyland. We believe that this magical time of year will just give us the willpower to do whatever we want, often whatever it is we think will “fix” our lives.

We can lose the weight in 6 weeks!
We can quit drinking coffee (though I don’t know why)!
We can finally write a series of 6 best-selling novels!
MARS HERE WE COME!!!

But then, we so often refuse to acknowledge the reality of that goal. We make bucket lists and vision boards and talk of doing things “someday” but we never take steps toward actually doing them—we procrastinate our way toward never actually living our lives.

We want to catch the bus but we don’t want to run.

In an age where keeping in touch often means liking a Facebook post, dating often means swiping left or right based solely on a photo, and ordering groceries can be done from your couch, we seem to have forgotten the rewards that real effort can bring. Instead, we hope that by simply willing something to happen, the bus will wait for us and we can get on without having to try.

Spoiler alert: every time I tried that method, I missed the bus.

I’ve had so many conversations recently with people that have left me weary. The conversations consist almost entirely of a series of whiny complaints—what’s wrong at work, not having enough money, not having enough dates or a relationship, no time to do fun things or travel, being annoyed at friends or family, and on and on.

Venting frustrations is one thing—something I feel is healthy and necessary to good mental health. I find it equally exhausting when people expect everyone to be happy and positive all the time, as if that is the sole acceptable human emotion. We feel the way we feel and we should accept that from others as well. But whining persistently about problems that do, in fact, have solutions…sigh…

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Again and again I listen to conversations that follow this pattern:

  • Person 1: “I just wish I had a date on Friday”
  • Person 2: “So let’s go talk to some people at the bar”
  • 1: “Well, I’m so tired from work…”
  • 2: “So we’ll go tomorrow night”
  • 1: “Well, I don’t know, I don’t like talking to people in bars…”
  • 2: “Ok, so maybe try online”
  • 1: “Ugh, I hate online dating, it’s so impersonal…”
  • 2: “Do you want me to set you up with this person I work with?”
  • 1: “I don’t know, I mean I’m pretty picky…”
  • 2: “WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO SAY?!?!”

Ok, so maybe that last line is just what I think in my head but I dream of having the guts to say it aloud—because seriously, what is there to say at this point? It’s not a discussion, it’s a one-sided whine-fest and I think we all would MUCH prefer to laugh and talk over other kind of wine.

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I want to add that I have been the first person in this conversation many times, and probably will be again–but I also see how annoying and pointless it is. Once you see the pattern, it’s really difficult to stop seeing it–and to not want to change it.

We all play a role in our reality—a much larger role than we are often willing to admit. In the dating scenario, the first person is making excuse after excuse in an effort to avoid actually having a dating life. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a total of zero people walk into my living room while I’m eating takeout and watching Netflix and offer to love me forever (probably something I should realistically be thankful for…). Refusing to change the pattern results in the same outcomes.

You don’t catch the bus when you flat out refuse to run toward it.

That goes for cynicism too. It’s quite easy to take the “well I don’t even care about dating anyway, all men are stupid” route but that’s not only unfair, I’d say it’s a flat out lie. From my experience, people who make those cynical statements are usually the people who care the most, just trying to cover the hurt and rejection they feel.

Life is full of seemingly impossible situations, frustrations, and irritating scenarios. Believe me, I’d love to be dating someone or to be better at saving money, or watch less television, or keep up with writing for this blog more often and have it just magically happen with ease.

But I am done with sitting back and being content to wish and whine about these things and do nothing more. It hasn’t solved anything thus far and I expect it never will.

So in the season of resolutions and new beginnings, I plan to keep running for the bus. As absurd and outrageous as I might look, stumbling in my shoes or with my backpack slapping me in time to my pace—and as many times as I might miss the bus anyway—it’s always going to be worth it to make the effort.

Because it’s always such an awesome feeling when you finally catch it.

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Kate’s Rules for an Awesome Night Out!

I’m taking a break from tales of China to post something I intended to post a while back. I mean, though I am living in a completely different country, large swathes of my life are really not very different (i.e. completely and exactly the same) so I might as well carry on writing about other stuff besides China Life.

Which I guess makes the theme/intent of this blog just to write about my life, which I have to admit feels more self-serving than I normally like to be but hey, it’s way better than the Live Journal I used to keep.

On that note…

Over this past summer I found two (actual paper) journals that I kept throughout my adolescence. I had previously thought both of them lost in the Great Clean-Out of my childhood home that happened when my parents got divorced. But someone smartly thought to save them and I now have the most horrendously painful notes about my adolescence that I could possibly wish for—in other words, COMEDY GOLD. Mostly I’m able to look back at who I was and smile (or rather guffaw with snorts mixed in between). It especially helps knowing that I’ve come a looooooooonnnnnggggg way since then—mostly in that I have lightened up a LOT, not so much in that I still watch a LOT of TV.

Many entries document such important milestones in my life as “what happened on this seasons TV finales”, “will my favorite TV couples ever get together?” and “why I’m angry with my sister today”. Other times I railed against whatever family member was being annoying/unfair or waxed poetic about what crush(es) I had that week.

Basically, they’re both humorous and bone-depth painful to read. And I’m so glad I found them. Biggest realization from reading them? I cannot spell worth a damn. Thank you spell-check!

I selected my favorite entry to start with. The plan was to post some more of my teenage writings (with adult commentary of course) as I read through them and select the parts I’m actually willing to let the world read (I’ve honestly thought about burning some of the rest haha) but they’re packed in a box back in the U.S. so it might be a while before anymore appear.

So this entry deserves a bit of a preface. The thing you need to know is I went through a phase throughout most of high school in which I never went out but I wanted to be cool. Desperately. To determine that which would make me cool, I used my go-to guide of teen movies and television shows. For example, Clarissa from “Clarissa Explains It All” was the epitome of coolness. So was Kat in “10 Things I Hate About You” (I mean, she read The Bell Jar and wanted to go to Sarah Lawrence. I had no idea what either of those were but it just HAD to be cool. Also, Heath Ledger).

This was what I wished I could be.

In any event, as many of you know, I was none of those things. I was dorky, in love with The X-Files and Harry Potter (I’m pretty sure about half my journal is filled with entries about both of those things). High school movies usually feature wild parties, lots of dating, drinking, and all sorts of debauchery—but I think by now you’re aware that this was not my life. I mostly stayed home, writing in these journals apparently. When I did “go out”, it was to the movies or the mall with friends and maybe to someone’s house to hang out.

This was the real me.

So wherever the hell this entry came from, I have no idea. It must have been my (completely misguided and ultimately hilarious) attempt to act like I went out all the time and knew what that meant enough to give advice to others (I also did read “Seventeen” and “CosmoGirl” so I think I was trying to be a columnist for some reason). What I actually ended up with is a step-by-step guide in how to dress yourself and remain deeply uncool.

Here it goes:

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I’m going out to the movies tonight and I just wanted to write a little something before I left.

Apparently going to the movies was a big deal for me. Probably because it was one of the rare times I was going with friends at night rather than my family during the day. The fact that I felt the need to write a journal entry before going probably explains why that was a rare occurrence.

Kate’s Rules to an Awesome Night Out:

(and how to prepare!)

  1. Ask a bunch of chickas to go do something fun! Movies, music, even mall. If you want, invite your eye candy along as “part of the group”.

I have never before or since said the word “chickas”. I thought that sounded cool for some reason. It does not. I have also never used the word “eye candy” and am not sure why that was the choice. Probably because all I ever did was look at boys, being way to painfully shy and awkward to actually speak to any of them. It also sounds a bit shallow.

Good job teenage me.

  1. Set at LEAST 1 hr aside to get ready (for major events like Dances and PROMS, allow at least 3 HRS).

All the words that are capitalized and underlined here were actually emphatically double underlined in my journal. I was nothing if not a passionate writer. Also, apparently dances and proms are different things and any woman who takes less than an hour to get ready isn’t doing it right (for the record, it now typically takes me 20 minutes or less to get ready to go anywhere, unless it’s a Saturday and I don’t care in which case it takes me exactly no minutes).

  1. Spend some time before hand psyching yourself up, reading magazines, whatever.

Apparently getting psyched meant reading magazines that featured unrealistic beauty standards and following their advice for how to have a good time. No wonder most of my teenager years were filled with delusional ideas for how I needed to act and look. I might as well have written “spend time feeling crappy about yourself for not fitting into the box you’re supposed to” because that’s what usually happened.

  1. Begin to get ready. Put on your fav. CD and dance in front of the mirror for a minute.

I’m dating myself here with the mention of a CD, but alas, it was the age before iPods.

I also was only allowed to dance for a minute.

More than a minute would definitely have been too much and I would have been TOO pumped up to go out.

 

  1. Get your outfit ½ on. Bottoms on first, shoes later of course.

Only half on. Apparently this list only works if you’re wearing separates, no jumpsuits or dresses for you! And what dummy would even THINK to put shoes on at step 5?!

Come on amateur.

  1. Do your make up and hair but NOT jewelry yet.

Another emphatically double-underlined word. Apparently it was extremely important that jewelry not be applied at the wrong time. It might have sent the entire evening spiraling out of control. I might also add that I almost never wore makeup until college so I’m not sure where part 1 of this step comes from. And “doing my hair” usually consisted of showering and then using globs of gel to make it less frizzy (and therefore stick to my head) as I slicked it back into a tight pony-tail like this:

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Here I am in all my glory! Wearing my standard hoodie (this one is my “I survived Salem, Mass.” hoodie, which the guy I liked said he liked, soooo…)

  1. CAREFULLY put your top on and make sure to touch up any messed up hair/makeup.

I’m not sure what prompted me to use the words “top” and “bottoms” to describe clothing but I find it absolutely hilarious now. I think the intention was to leave it as open-ended as possible so that anyone could use this advice.

That I never published anywhere or showed to anyone.

  1. Put on all jewelry.

Ok, step 8 is the acceptable time to add the jewelry, but not a moment before. Make sure to put it ALL on NOW.

  1. Fix any nail polish that needs it.

Nail polish? When did we paint our nails? Was this from an earlier-in-the-day manicure? Why are we “fixing” the polish…and how? Are we repainting them?

  1. Put on your shoes (make sure nails are DRY!)

It seems a logical conclusion to simply switch steps 9 and 10 to ensure no issues with the wet nail polish. Also note the emphasis for all those dummies who surely would have put shoes on with wet nails otherwise.

  1. Look in the mirror one last time and spritz some perfume.

Last time you can look in the mirror, better make it a good one!

 

  1. Catch a ride w/gal pals and head off to your night out (make sure to have some essentials with you for touch ups etc.)

Another term I have absolutely never used, “GAL PALS”?!?!?!?!

Also, make sure to mooch a ride off them and bring all the makeup you never wear.

  1. While you’re out, have FUN, don’t constantly mess w/your hair or re-apply lip gloss. You’ll never attract any guys.

This appears to be the entire goal of going out, most likely prompted from said magazines you read earlier—to attract guys.

None of this list worked in that capacity so you should probably just stop reading it now. It appears the “guys” weren’t drawn the dorky girl with a bag full of unused make-up who looked like she had indigestion and turned bright red when they ever even looked in her direction.

 

  1. Be coy with the guys you meet. Make them work to get your #. Then make them wait to go out w/you.

WHAT GUYS WERE YOU MEETING?!?!?!

None of these are legitimate pieces of advice. I have never done any of this. It is probably directly plagiarized from something in “Seventeen” or “CosmoGirl”. Basically this entire list is about making sure no guy ever knows you actually want to go out with them—i.e. “look like you’re uncomfortable and ignore them completely”.

Good plan. This may explain my teenage dating life.

 

  1. When you arrive home, avoid any conversation w/the ‘rents. It spoils the evening.

The piece de resistance: “the ‘rents”. A term only used by the coolest of cool. And apparently any contact with parents whatsoever brings doom and gloom. How very teenager of me.

  1. Relish your night as you go to bed and relax to some tunes.

It’s probably only 9:30 so you have good couple of hours to imagine what your night could have looked like if you’d ditched this stupid, absurd list and just did whatever the hell you wanted.

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You’re probably now well aware of why I’d have rather died than ever let anyone see this journal—and why I was never cool in high school. But I’m assuming most of you also recognize some of the horrific awkwardness of being a teenager—and hopefully laughed not only at me (it’s cool, I’m putting it out there and laughing too) but in remembrance of your own teenager-ness.

It’s something I notice about working with teenagers—the incredible sense of empathy at what they’re all going through because you vividly remember how painfully uncomfortable the whole shebang was.

You could not PAY me—or brainwash me, or threaten to remove each toenail one at a time—and get me to relive high school. But I survived it with some pretty epically funny stories, and evidently journal entries, so I guess it wasn’t all bad.

There’ll eventually be more where this came from, and more writing from me (both about things here in Shanghai and my general thoughts on life). Hopefully in 15 years I’ll look back on these blog posts with a little less cringing than when I look at those journals 😉

Thanksgiving Day in the H.K.

Ok, ok, it’s been too long since I last posted—I know! I blame a busy work schedule and my inability to commit to writing a blog consistently. I promise I’m going to update as much as possible, ASAP.

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There’s a LOT to share about school, but for now I’ll write about my Thanksgiving romp around Hong Kong, as it is most fresh in my mind and has me hooked on phonics travel again.

When I realized I’d most likely be missing both Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, I worried I’d be homesick—but it ended up being pretty awesome. I will say, though I love both Thanksgiving and Christmas and missed seeing my friends and family, it is a welcome break from the deluge of holiday cheer and fanfare. It’s kind of like when I would eat Chipotle all the time or how I constantly listen to Adele—it’s mostly fabulous but a girl needs a chance to miss the good stuff. I feel like missing the holidays this year will allow me to enjoy them more when I am eventually back with said friends and family and enjoying all the merriment.

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That said, I decided to visit Hong Kong for my Thanksgiving break this year. The original plan was to go with my friend Kate who was visiting some friends for a music festival. Funny enough, we never met up (I wasn’t that into the music festival idea and usually prefer exploring on my own) but I ended up having a blast. I can’t say it enough—if you’ve never traveled solo, GO DO IT. DO IT NOOOOOOOWWWWW. It changes you in ways you cannot even fathom until you do it—and nothing seems intimidating after you survive being locked out of your hostel at midnight with all your baggage on a street where strange men keep inviting you to brothels.

Which is exactly what happened my first night in the HK. I took a bus into the city with all my baggage and immediately as I got off there were several men mumbling to me “Hello miss? Miss? Do you need a place to stay? Would you like someone to spend the evening with? Hello, miss? Nice place to stay, someone to keep you company…”

As compelled as I was to accept these scintillating offers, I considered them for negative 5 seconds and walked away (let me be completely, unsarcastically clear here, should I ever consider a career in public office—I DID NOT CONSIDER ANY OF THESE OFFERS). I was actually proud of my no-nonsense, “I don’t want none of what you’re sellin’” attitude. And if I might add, not at any point was I in the slightest perturbed by this experience because I knew I could deal with it and figure it all out. See? Solo travel = bad-assery.

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Anyways, I found my hostel, that despite being very highly rated on Hostelworld was down a narrow corridor, up a rickety elevator that looked like I was breaking into a (human)meatpacking ring and was inevitably closed. Oh, but don’t worry, you just had to call the special number. For all of us international travelers who love to pay for cell service for a 4 day trip.

So I bagged the hostel and luckily there was a Holiday Inn across the street. Despite the fact that it was about $250USD/night (OOF. Double OOF) I charged the damn room, went to it, put on the fluffy bathrobe that was supplied, paid $5USD for mini-bar pretzels and enjoyed the pants off that room.

Day 1 of exploring (which also happened to be Thanksgiving Day) took me first to the free breakfast buffet at the Holiday Inn, which I took full advantage of, given the exorbitant price I’d paid the previous evening for my room. I wanted to also soak in the pool but the temperature was a bit too chilly for that, sadly. So I made sure to put on both bathrobes and slippers, and to use all the free toiletries.

I had to feel like I was getting my money’s worth.

I then switched to the more cost-effective Mini Hotel—still not very cost-effective but it was better than the hostel and it was less than Holiday Inn. The room was literally a bed and a shower. That’s all. But then, that’s all I needed.

I then hopped down to the subway to head to Victoria Peak. If I may take a short interlude, I must say that I just love taking subways/metros in cities—and the trains of Asia are so incredibly reliable and efficient! All moving escalators, divided stairways and swiftly moving people and machinery. It makes my efficiency-loving heart do high-kicks, I just love it. One day, when I settle somewhere for more than half a second, I plan to frame maps of subway systems. Plus, you know, Dumbledore had that London tube shaped birthmark on his knee…

Anyhoo, I headed to Victoria Peak—for which there are multiple options to arrive. I chose the tram. Yes, it’s touristy, but honestly I’m tired of things being called “touristy” as if you shouldn’t ever go there. That often just means it’s the place everyone wants to go, and with the exception of Bourbon Street in NOLA and places like Bubba Gump Shrimp, I have no problem with touristy. I love Times Square, I love Navy Pier, what can I say? I’m a traveler—I like to do unique things and experience local culture and all, but I love me some tourist traps.

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Up the tram I went—and dayum, that thing gets near vertical. Seriously, I was concerned with the lack of safety harnesses on the seats—especially with small children and their tendency to not want to sit quietly in seats. Also adults’ tendency to not want to sit quietly in seats but rather hang out of windows to take pictures of everything. But we made it to the top—which was a giant tourist trap! Complete with a Bubba Gump Shrimp!!!

Fortunately, there was also a lookout spot with beautiful, glorious views of the city and sea. I could have stayed up there for quite a long time, save for all the people. This is the one flaw I sometimes have with touristy locations—all the people. Don’t get me wrong, I like people and all, I just abhor the decorum many people have for public locations. I’m going to allow myself a small rant here—though I typically like to remain positive—but I just have to say it. Tourist behavior is absolutely the worst part of tourist spots and I feel like it should be a mandatory class in every school, everywhere, ever.

My biggest problem is those who seem to feel the location is their own personal spot—they take up lots of space, jump in front of others, push, shove, and generally dampen my merriment. China seems to be particularly bad for the pushing/shoving/lack of personal space deal. I’m not entirely sure why but I can assume that it’s just not a priority given how many people live here—I suppose everyone just has an unspoken agreement that personal space ain’t gonna happen. But it drives me nuts.

Additionally, and this is one I see everywhere that just irks me, are the paparazzi. Not the actual paparazzi who take photos of things people are actually interested in looking at (though they often seem to be some pretty obnoxious, personal privacy ignoring jerks from the stories I’ve read), but the tourist-razzi. The people who have to take 1,000 photos of the pretty view from the side of the line while waiting to go up the tram. By the way, that “pretty view” is half of a sliver of one part of the city, and the rest is all concrete buildings. I saw people taking photos of “no smoking” signs and of the sidewalk (yes, literally the sidewalk). I tried and tried to determine what could be so interesting—I get the unique photography thing, I take pictures of fleurs de lis everywhere—but I just couldn’t figure it out. The piece that bugs me is that everyone is so damn obsessed with taking photos that they don’t actually experience the place they’re in!!! There’s no stopping to appreciate and enjoy the experience. That’s why I feel like people are so underwhelmed by everything—they show up, take 800 pictures, observe only through the screen of their phone or iPad (still don’t understand that one) and never actually have the experience.

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Case in point—seeing the Mona Lisa last year. Everyone whines that it’s anti-climactic and unexciting to see her, yet I could not help be in awe. There I was, standing in front of the most recognized work of art in the world, by arguably one of the most influential painters, in a famous museum, in a beautiful city, taking part in an experience that so many people will never have. The sheer history seemed to radiate off the painting—of how many people have stood before her, of how many events have come to pass during her existence. Had I walked in, shoved through the crowds, taken 1800 photos and left, I never would have even considered these facts.

And so, to end my ever-lengthening diatribe, I feel like every bit of travel should come with some time to reflect and respect the places that you have traveled to. Is that not the real point of travel—to not just see, but truly experience? I love photos and I take many, but I think people miss the point when the entire trip is virtually observed through a phone screen.

After Victoria Peak I made my way to the Botanical Garden and found it to be quite tranquil and beautiful. The lack of people in a still tourist-y location was good enough for me. The greenhouse was beautiful, it had some of the most incredibly unbelievable orchids I’ve ever seen–they were perfectly manicured and cared for.

I ended up sitting next to a fountain for a while and watched a bunch of little children playing with bubbles. I think it’s just delightful how eagerly little kids will play with other children they’ve never met. Everyone just jumps right in, no questions asked—“hey, I’ve got bubbles.” “Oh, bubbles? Great, I love those. New best friend.”
If only the world worked like that all the time…

After much wandering, I made my way back into the heart of the city and found myself at the IFC mall, which has a super cool rooftop. I bought bunch of food/snacks at the grocery store and sat on the roof for a picnic. The skyline was gorgeous and I quite enjoyed my no-fuss Thanksgiving dinner—I was certainly very thankful to be there. I then treated myself to a movie (Hunger Games: Mockingjay 2—they definitely didn’t need to split it into two parts) and was jazzed to find a Garrett’s popcorn in the mall—Chicago blend all the way!

 

Onward and upward (literally)

Day 2 of my travels took me to The Flying Pan for breakfast. The Flying Pan is an American-style diner of which there are two locations. I had been dying for American breakfast—it being the one type of food I really cannot find in the the ol’ Shanghai and therefore hiked my way to The Flying Pan.

Yes, I hiked.

As in, walked up very steep hills—because Hong Kong is apparently just on one large mountain. I neglected to research The Flying Pan enough to learn that the other location was on flat, easily walkable ground, but then I would have missed the awesome little markets and food stalls all throughout the billy goat area. It reminded me vividly of stories my dad has told me about growing up in an Italian immigrant neighborhood in New Haven. The fresh food stalls I saw in Hong Kong seemed to give the impression of “this is how we’ve always done things”–and that’s exactly the way I always imagined my dad’s tales.

After getting lost several times (I am terrible at orienting myself—I literally forgot how to get to my hotel every night, and the streets in HK also make zero sense. All circles and loop-de-loos) I arrived and enjoyed eggs, bacon, and toast for the first time in for-ev-er. It was amazing. I seriously love breakfast.

I then made my way to the train and headed to Ocean Park for the day. Ocean Park is an amusement park/zoo/aquarium-type place and I definitely love a good amusement park (see? Tourist traps). After a short train ride and a longer bus ride through the mountain I’d recently hiked part of, I arrived on the southern edge of the island in front of a ticket kiosk and loud triumphant music that reminded me of “Jurassic Park”. I kept secretly hoping that some super awesome velociraptors would show up and flank me as I sped through the park on a moped but no such luck…

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The park was a pretty decent one—though I’d just read a bunch about the detriment of keeping animals in captivity and had very mixed feelings about it the whole time. On the one hand, I do think it’s educational to allow people to see animals close up, and I know there can be other conservation benefits. On the other, I feel like it’s cruel to keep animals caged and out of their natural habitats and lifestyles. It’s something I’m still mulling over and learning more about, so perhaps more to discuss another day.

I did see two pandas, though they were being shy. If I may add, the Red Pandas were by far the cutest. I was instantly thrown back to my 2nd grade days, when I completed a project on Red Pandas. Never thought I’d actually see one, but 7 year old me was super psyched. Also, I saw a Basilisk—a real one. Just going to leave it at that… #HarryPotterNerdReference

I wandered the rest of the park for most of the afternoon, amused by the different theme park food options here. There are the usual choices—hotdogs, French fries—but also kiosks selling friend squid legs, fish balls, rice, and other unusual dishes (for me anyway). I didn’t try any of them, given the incredibly long lines, but it was interesting to observe.

The park got old after a while and I decided to head back to the city right at peak traffic time—which turned out to be perfect because I caught a quick nap on the bus. I then took the Star Ferry across the (very windy, rocky) harbor and found…A BOOKSTORE!!! I probably could have bought 30 books there, but I only bought 2 3 4.

City skyline in the background, bag full of new books, is there anything better?

Wandering along the waterfront and then through the city, I saw a lot of lux hotels that made me wish I made enough money to travel a little more in style (hey I can be grateful and a little wishful at the same time, right?). Made it eventually to the Temple Street Night Market and wandered through the stalls for a bit. It’s mostly kitschy, souvenir-type wares but I did buy a cool turquoise-colored bracelet. Typically I try to find unique souvenirs—if I buy any—but hey, I can tell people I bought it in Hong Kong.

My 3rd and final full day of exploring had me a bit sluggish and lazy. I went to the other Flying Pan location (down an easily walkable city block and closer to my hotel—good planning, me!) because I obviously needed more breakfast. I then headed out to Tung Chung on Lantau Island to visit the Tian Tan Buddha. Quick up and back, I thought, and then maybe stop by Hong Kong Disney for a couple hours? Who knew, the day was mine!

Luckily, I hit the gondolas right at the perfect time of day—when there was only a two hour line to go up the mountain.

More fortunately, I’d recently made a small investment in four new books to read, all of which I’d packed in my bookbag. I’m tellin’ you, two hours of playing with your cell phone? BORING. Two hours of reading an excellent book? BLISS

Ok, it did suck that I was standing in line the whole time, but still, it was good reading time. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, if you’re interested.

The ride up in the gondola was beautiful, if a little knee-wobble-inducing. The Buddha itself was pretty cool, as well as Po Lin Monastery and the little town around them. Again, a pretty big tourist trap (there was a Starbucks and a Subway…) but still a cool experience.

The second 2 hour wait to go back down the mountain was not as cool however. Thank goodness Liane Moriarty knows how to entertain. The pitch-black gondola ride was also quite the experience, especially given that all 7 additional members of my gondola did not speak English. Any sort of emergency rescue situation would have been quite the ordeal.

Eventually made it back down the mountain and chose to chill in my hotel for the rest of the night. Enjoyed one more breakfast at The Flying Pan the next morning (I don’t think you understood that I really, really like breakfast) before heading back to the hotel and off to the airport to fly home.

I have to say, I quite enjoyed Hong Kong and definitely plan to return at some point. It reminds me much more of New York than Shanghai does, and I’ve always had a soft spot for New York. Hong Kong does win in the population density department though–I saw no fewer than 6 of these massive apartment buildings, just in Tung Chung! They have to hold at least 1,000 apartments…those poor residents won’t stand a chance in the zombie apocalypse…

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All in all, a cool city though. I was also re-infected by that pesky travel bug, and my adoration of visiting new cities and exploring new places—especially on my own. I really do recommend solo travel.

I’ll add more soon about school and life in Shanghai—and I will certainly post about my pending Christmas holiday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Thanks for reading. People who read are my favorite kind of people.

Feed Meh—A Story of Food in Shanghai

There are several questions that people have been asking me pretty consistently since I decided I was going to uproot my entire life and move to China. The most common question I get, however, is “what’s the food like?”

I’ve also heard many presumptions, assumptions and other kinds of “umptions” about what the food is like, so I thought today I’d set the record straight and give a little bit of education about what the food is really like here in Shanghai. Disclaimer: I’ve only been here a short while and claiming to know everything about Chinese cuisine would be like visiting New Haven, Connecticut and claiming to know everything about American cuisine (to be fair, the NH does have some pretty amazing food, but I digress…)

It’s A Dog Eat Dog World

Ok, so the big one that I got from many people before leaving was commenting about how the Chinese eat dog…or cat…or any other number of “weird” foods. First of all, assuming that any food people eat is “weird” is a little insensitive—because if we’re being honest, making a pastry in a lab, filled with chemicals, pumped full of preservatives so it can stay on the shelf for years, and then deep-frying it? Uhh…Americans eat some “weird” stuff too, so my mindset is live and let live—and I’ll still eat what I like.

As for meats, I have seen a huge variety—but no dog or cat. I have heard that sometimes there can be “counterfeit meat”, meaning that a restaurant says it’s chicken but it’s really something else. I have not encountered this (that I know of) and honestly, it’s not my biggest concern right now. I DO see a ton of seafood—especially squid, octopus, shrimp (delightfully, British-ly called prawns here), fish—as well as chicken, pork, and steak (or other variations of cow meat). Tofu is also in great supply—which is nice when I don’t feel like being risky with the meat.

If I may address one final “meat in China” issue—there was a big backlash several months ago about the mistreatment of dogs being used for meat in China. I don’t recall what these stories actually said—and again, I’m no expert, nor have I seen dog meat—but for those who are so up in arms about those stories—and still eat hamburgers, steaks, and chicken in the US—I suggest you do a little research about factory farming stateside. You may want to start a little closer to home with your outrage…

Ahh, there I go on a tangent again. Back to food in Shanghai. There are, as well all know, two types of food to experience in any city—local restaurant cuisine, and the grocery store. I begin first with the dining out experience, and then will give you a little walk through some of the supermarkets that I’ve been to.

Most of the restaurants I’ve been to here in Shanghai have been fantastic. Typically, everything is family style and sharing plates, which I think is the best way to eat. It allows for much more variety during meals, and (so far) has lead to many lively conversations about which dish is best. Plus, for those familiar with Friends, I share a similar sentiment to Joey in that “JOEY DOESN’T SHARE FOOD”. I dislike sharing when I’ve ordered my own meal—but when it’s a meal meant to be shared, game on!

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Me when I order my own meal.

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Me when it’s sharesies.

The top meal I’ve had thus far was back at the beginning of my move here. In the trendier, downtown area of Shanghai is a place called Szechuan Citizen. I may have already mentioned this place but it was Just. That. Good. We ate the best ribs I think I’ve ever had in my life, huge (maybe 8-9 inch pieces) with the meat falling off the bone and unbelievable spices. I, being a life-long shrimp fan, also had the best shrimp I’ve ever had. They were marinated in a red tomato-y sauce and were so tender and juicy by the time we ate them, they barely had to be chewed. Plus the entire meal, including many drinks, cost each of us about 300 rmb (~$50).

There are also many excellent Western restaurants—I’ve had several good burgers and gone to a couple of great Mexican places—which makes me grateful to live in such a large city. I am certainly eager to continue to learn about local food, but it’s nice to have something familiar when I want. Additionally, Asian cuisine in general—from Japanese food and sushi, to Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and all the different cuisines of China—is plentiful here.

Grocery Store Dropout

Going to the grocery store has always required a bit of thinking on my part. I rarely make lists and I never remember what I need, so I frequently wander the aisles, picking items at random (on another note, we may have located the root cause of why I don’t eat healthier meals…). When you couple that experience with living in a foreign country, where products are typically only labeled in Chinese, and you have no idea what some items that you’re looking at ARE, it’s a task and a half.

First, there are a variety of food store locations—large shops like Wal-Mart and Carrefour, smaller markets, and then even smaller places that simply sell meat or fruits and veggies. The “one stop shop” doesn’t exactly exist here and I sometimes have to visit multiple stores to get everything I want—though Carrefour and Wal-Mart get pretty close. Disclaimer: Wal-Mark here is not the Wal-Mart of the U.S. I can’t even entirely explain why, it’s just really different. Basically the only similarity is the logo and a few products.

The setup of these stores is different than in the US as well—due mainly to the difference in products—and it took me forever to find things like paper towels, soy milk, and coffee because they’re just not in the same old places. Plus there are many new items, like the massive displays of snacks and treats throughout the store:

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Western food is actually fairly easy to find but you’ll pay for it. Breakfast has been the biggest type of food I miss—though I have been able to find some cereals and other breakfast-y things. I also find myself at the store, randomly lusting after foods that I wouldn’t even necessarily buy in the US. For example, I saw a jar of pickles the other day and immediately my mind said “PICKLES!!!!! Picklespicklespicklespicklespicklespickles yum pickles!”

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I did not buy the pickles, but my intense desire to do so was intriguing. I suppose it’s because they don’t come with every meal here like they do in the US. Also, small side note, I feel like such a creep taking pictures of ordinary things like the grocery store. You would think I’d feel cool and stealthy, like a spy or something. Nope, just creepy.

The meats and seafood section of the grocery store is also quite different. The seafood section looks more like a pet store in my eyes because everything is alive—fish, crabs, frogs, octopi, etc. None of the meat or seafood is wrapped in anything and the butcher does not wear gloves while cutting it, which also struck me as vastly different from the US—where the meat is honestly not necessarily healthier/less prone to microbes just because it’s in plastic.

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As I said before, there is more tofu than you can possibly fathom, in more shapes than you can possibly dream of. This is a happy thing for those, like me, who fear the meat sometimes. Rice and grains come in massive bags and every variety you can possibly think of. It seems prudent to purchase rice in these mass quantities, especially for the cost, but I hate the idea of having to carry that home…and up 6 flights of stairs…

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Carrefour has a particularly large selection of baked goods and sweets. The thing I’ve noticed about many foods here—both sweets and other snacks—is that they don’t seem to be as saturated with ingredients as in the US. For example, sweets don’t taste as sugary, and savory snacks are not as salty. It’s actually kind of nice and my tongue and stomach are happier not being overloaded with flavors.

There are “familiar” products that come in different and intriguing flavors. For example, these orange mango Oreos—which I bought, and they taste like those chocolate oranges they sell around Christmastime. In fact, Oreos seem to be incredibly popular here. I frequently see huge shelves full of them, as well as other Oreo products (like cookie bars and other variations on the original).

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There are also many intriguing varieties of potato chips, such as chicken and rib flavors, and even these squid chips—which I have not bought and don’t know if I’m brave enough to try yet. My absolute favorite new chip is the BBQ Doritos a coworker introduced me to. Not sure if they exist in the US, but they should.

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I did get my hand on those delicious Laughing Cow cheese cubes (which I haven’t seen since elementary school and came in ham and tomato flavors as well as plain) and some Wisconsin cheddar, as well as some Goldfish. All of these things cost me far more than Chinese products but it was nice to have something familiar.

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Dried fruits are plentiful here and I particularly like these dried kiwi slices. You can also find kiwi berries—which are THE GREATEST THING EVER. They’re like mini skinless kiwis you can just pop in your mouth!

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I also bought cat plates. Because, cat plates.

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Entering and exiting both Carrefour and Wal-Mart requires riding escalator ramps. You can even push your cart onto them and the wheels lock into place on the floor of the ramp. The most amusing part are these Tyson chicken adds, in which this guy is REALLY excited about chicken.

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It’s an adventure every time I go.

It’s a Safety Dance

The last big thing about food here in China is safety. As I’ve mentioned a few times, the safety and cleanliness standards are a bit different here and so you need a healthy level of wariness to stay, well, healthy.

First and foremost, the water is not drinkable. I don’t even use it to brush my teeth (although you can, I’m just super paranoid and also need an excuse to use up the massive amounts of water I had delivered to my apartment). You can shower with it, and cook with it as long as it’s been boiled. But for drinking, you have to use bottled water. So nearly everyone has one of these fancy contraptions at home (not something I ever thought I’d own):

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The bonus with this is that it also gives you instant hot water—which is great for tea in the morning! I have an electric kettle but apparently sometimes I’m just too lazy to wait 2 minutes for the water to boil. Instant gratification for the win!

Because the water isn’t drinkable, however, you have to be careful about vegetables and fruits too. Sometimes these foods have been washed in the tap water and now have harmful bacteria on them. Sometimes they’re just not kept in clean places. Either way, it’s good to be wary—some people suggest not eating anything unless it has a thick skin you can peel off. I haven’t stuck to this suggestion—mostly because my body hated me when I first got here and wasn’t eating enough fruit and veggies—and I just hope for the best.

Everyone who I’ve met here says that street food is amazing and you have to try it. That said, “street food” means food made at a little cart on the side of the road and cleanliness is typically not a huge important factor. I have not yet been brave enough to try it but who knows.

Adjusting to the food here in general has been interesting. There is a large amount of drinkable yogurt that you can find in most grocery and convenience stores, and I find that the yogurt helps stabilize my digestion. I’ve had some upset stomachs—and one particularly queasy experience that I do not care to recall—that my new best friend Pepto Bismol has come to the rescue during. The downside is that there is not a plethora of pharmaceutical drugs here like in the US (what I wouldn’t give to see a local Walgreens or CVS…). I’m not sure what will happen when my friend Pepto finally runs out…but I have my fingers crossed.

So there you have it. That’s my 1.5 months experience with food in China. I am sure I will have many more stories and experiences to share in the coming months (good ones I hope!).

Until next post!

Comfort in the Uncomfortable

The most difficult thing about updating this blog, besides finding making the time to write, is picking something to focus on. There is so much “new” on a daily basis for me, that I find my brain flitting in ten thousand directions when I sit down to write them down and I find it difficult to remain focused on one theme in my posts. However, I aim to be a somewhat decent writer, therefore I decided to dispose of reorganize my previous post into several new posts, which I’ll put up throughout the week. Today’s post is on being comfortable in the uncomfortable—which I consider the biggest challenge to living in a new, foreign location.

The first major trip I took without my family was during my sophomore year of college, to visit my friend Julie and her family on the Big Island of Hawaii. I still remember very clearly the feeling I had before leaving—that I wasn’t actually going to get to go. I was certain some unforeseen event would occur and I would not ever make it on my big exciting trip (me not having a state ID or driver’s license, and losing my birth certificate nearly did cause this to happen. How’s that for a self-fulfilling prophecy? I still owe my mom for bailing me out of this one. Thanks mom). There was something too fantastical about the idea of Hawaii to me. It just seemed far too good to be true and I couldn’t possibly deserve to actually have that experience.

But, I did indeed go—and I credit that experience with giving me the confidence and guts to try all my other travel experiences. From moving to New Orleans, to Chicago, to traveling Europe and now living in China, I knew I could do each of these things because of my experiences in Hawaii. So thank you to Julie and her wonderful family for that one (I credit her especially with helping me to be a traveler, not a tourist, and to be sensitive to cultural differences—and to try new things, like scrumptious sushi! Thanks Julie). The trip was phenomenal and though there were many times that I was nervous to try something new, I did it anyway and I will forever remember these life-altering experiences.

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Especially eating that raw octopus tentacle.

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How many tickles does it take to make an octopus laugh? Ten tickles.

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Octopus! It was chewy.

As recently as 6 months ago, moving to another country was not something I dreamed I’d be doing any time soon. Even after getting the job, I still had that same familiar feeling I’d had before going to Hawaii—that it just wouldn’t ever happen. I feel like this must be a sort of normal response before a major life event, especially one you’ve never experienced before. And obviously, here I am in Shanghai, clearly living here, so I guess it worked! Incidentally, this same theory is also one I use to think about my dating life—which I talk about back in my first post to this blog (if you haven’t read it, check it out. It’s the one I’m most proud of).

It would certainly be easy to feel this feeling of impossibility and think the worst. After all, how many people have fears that are actually a manifestation of our fear of the unknown—i.e. ending up alone, fear of the dark, etc. Aren’t most fears linked to what we cannot control or know? There seems to be little in life that is as unknowable or controllable as moving to a new country—especially one in which you do not speak the language! Sure, I researched it a fair bit before moving, but that’s a little like reading someone’s OKC profile before going on a date—it’s never exactly the same as you imagined it would be. So it would certainly be easy to not be able to imagine what life in this new country would be like, and turn into a total Fanny Fussbudget, like one unfortunate soul I met recently.

This person has been fussy since arrival—hates the food, hates the cleanliness level of the city, feels mistrustful of taxis and any service people. They have consistently asked questions such as “and you’re sure they’re not trying to cheat you?” when signing up for a phone plan—with our Chinese liaison (no, I’m pretty sure she’s friggin’ good at her job. She’s actually awesome, since you didn’t ask). I’ve had such a hard time understanding why someone would choose to move here with this attitude. In general I have a hard time with people like this—those who are always determined to find the negative. Don’t get me wrong, I was a little freaked about some of those same things when I got here. But the beauty and joy of traveling is breaking out of that which you know and learning something new. If all you’re going to do is whine the whole time, might as well go home (seriously, please go home).

On the flip side, I feel my (inner, mental) world rapidly expanding the longer I’m here. I’m ravenous for more experiences—to learn the language, to find those things which make Shanghai and China unique, to meet locals and hear their stories, to learn about my students’ lives. I find myself wondering more and more how I can build some sort of permanent life this way—traveling and learning from people, teaching, exploring, and advocating. I envision some sort of future in which I am both highly paid and travel the world learning from people and experiencing other cultures. Recently I created my own “Bucket List” to go with my students’ project and decided I’d like to visit all 195 countries in the world. I want to see it all.

In the post formerly known as this one, I mention an episode of This American Life that featured David Sedaris. While I love Sedaris—Me Talk Pretty One Day was one of the first books that ever made me laugh out loud as an adult—I sometimes found him a little prickly (his own version of Debbie Downer) in the episode. That said, he makes some incredibly insightful points about living abroad. The one that continues to come to mind as I build my life here is as follows:

“It’s that thinking that makes me feel alive. And it makes me notice everything around me. When I become complacent like I was in the United States, you just get used to things so you don’t think about them. You think, I’ll get a cab. I’ll go to the airport. I’ll have a patty melt. You don’t think about it. Whereas now with me, the anxiety starts early on. And I’m always afraid that somebody’s going to throw me a curve ball and ask me a question like, what sign are you? Just ask me a question like that out of nowhere. And I’ll appear foolish. So it keeps me on edge. But really, that edginess has always made me feel alive.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this entire excerpt (though less so with other portions of his interview. You can check out the entire thing here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/165/americans-in-paris It’s definitely worth a listen).

Living abroad, in a place that speaks a language you are not entirely fluent in, is an anxiety-filled experience. One of my first nights here, I simply did not eat dinner because I was too anxious to venture out and even ask anyone where to get food—and I am not a typical meal skipper (I’d like to say because it’s unhealthy to skip meals but it’s because I love meals). Looking back now, even just a month later, this seems silly. Of course I know how to get food. But it is stressful and anxiety-ridden to explore and ask and fumble (or more likely for me, pantomime) your way through asking a non-English speaker for help and I remember that feeling well.

But to truly survive, and ultimately thrive (sorry, had to) in a new country—as David mentions (we’re old friends)—you have to embrace that feeling. And it is that feeling that actually reminds you that you’re alive. He has so nicely summarized why I sound so chipper and excited when I call my parents. I am happy and feeling good about being here because I feel alive. Every day is a constant challenge, a chance for something new to happen or to be discovered. While I appreciate some level of routine in my life (like getting up, showering, brushing teeth, etc.), I have never appreciated the mundane routine of monotonous life. It was that reason that lead me to realize I never wanted to work in food service—because to me, every day was too similar (I have the utmost respect for those who do though, after all it’s they who serve me those meals I like. But it’s not for me).

Honestly, I was scared before I left—and when I first arrived—that I wouldn’t be able to hack it here. I honestly had a conversation with my therapist in Chicago about how much I hate to be uncomfortable—both physically and mentally/emotionally. But the longer I’m here, the more I see how beneficial it is to be uncomfortable (mentally/emotionally at least) and how much I can grow from this experience. There are lots of unsavory aspects of life here—the tap water is undrinkable, there are shaky health standards for foods, it can frequently smell less-than-appetizing, people push and shove, and I’ve seen more poop and vomit on the sidewalks than I’d care to. Any of these aspects of life could be reason to give up, fly home, and stay within my comfort zone. But none of these things is impossible to deal with—and honestly you stop thinking about any of them much when you adjust to living here. More importantly, these minor inconveniences (if you can even call them that—minor bothers?) are far outweighed by the magic of being able to have this experience.

Each morning, I wake up in the morning excited to be here and to find out what new things will come from the day. I find the entire experience endlessly fascinating—and while I am sure that this feeling will one day come to an end, as Sedaris says later in his interview (sorry, I mean David, forgot we’re besties), I’ve got it now. When it does go away, then maybe I’ll find another adventure to take on. Everything, no matter how large or small the experience, comes back to how you approach it and your frame of mind. If you choose to narrow your window so that you can only see the poop on the sidewalk or the massive crowds, or whatever other slightly irksome detail, you’re really missing a lot. Like, uh, an entire culture and country. Imagine if people came to the US and just saw one small aspect of our country before judging us…oh the outrage!

So fill a big bowl up with that discomfort and ooze yourself on in! Now if only I can take my own damn advice and apply this to my dating life…Another post for another day 😉

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