Interesting Country Facts A-Z

April is here and with it, as always, comes birthdays week. Generally, around this time, Tucker and I are gearing up for a celebratory trip; however, just like last year, no such adventure is on our horizon. No worries though because over the past year I’ve done more than enough armchair travelling for another round-up of interesting country facts, this time coming to you alphabetically. Enjoy!

Antigua – This relatively small island in the Eastern Caribbean has a sweet secret known as the Antigua Black, the world’s sweetest and rarest variety of pineapple.

Belize – Many countries are known for their wines, but Belize puts a bit of a spin on the traditional recipe. In this Central American country, they specialize in making cashew wine, or wine made from the fermented fruits of cashew trees.

Chile – While the world’s first potatoes are generally thought to have been grown in Peru, approximately 99% of modern-day potato varieties are genetically linked to a small island off the cost of Southern Chile.

Dominican Republic – Located on Hispaniola, one of the largest and most diverse islands of the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic was highly sought after during the Colonial Era. Due to the relatively early Spanish presence/conquest of the area, the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor in Santo Domingo is actually the oldest cathedral in the Americas (completed in 1541).

Equatorial Guinea – People from this Central African nation are called Equatoguineans and their official language is, somewhat surprisingly, Spanish.

Fiji – The name “Fiji” is actually the Tongan word/pronunciation of the island; the Fijian word is “Viti”. The misnomer occurred because the first encounters between western explorers and Fijians took place on the island of Tonga.  

Ghana – Ghana, which means “Warrior King”, is located on the Gold Coast of West Africa. It is home to the world’s largest artificial lake, Lake Volta, which has a surface area of over 2 million acres.

Haiti – On the other half of Hispaniola (the second largest island in the Caribbean) lies Haiti, which is often associated with Voodoo. However, “voodoo” is actually more of a product of US pop culture than an accurate portrayal of the Haitian religion known as Vodou.  

India – As a country well-known for its delicious curries, I found it interesting that the word “curry” likely comes from the Tamil word “kari” meaning “sauce”. Tamil is spoken throughout most of Southern India.

Jamaica – Like many English-speaking islands in the Caribbean, Jamaica celebrates Boxing Day and/or New Year’s Day with a colorful parade known as Junkanoo. Interestingly, “Junkanoo!” is also the name of a Baha Men album. 

Kyrgyzstan – Kyrgyzstan has a long history, thus it’s not so surprising that it has its fair share of epics, such as one of the world’s longest poems, the Epic of Manas. This poem of more than 500,000 lines revolves around the hero Manas and his many adventures.

Lesotho – An enclaved country entirely within South Africa, Lesotho has the distinction of having the world’s highest low point. In fact, the elevation of the entire country is above 1,000m (3,300ft), which is why it has the nickname “Kingdom in the Sky”.  

Madagascar – Madagascar is home to many diverse ethnic groups, each of which has their own traditional customs and rituals. One that I found particularly interesting was the Famadihana ceremony, or the turning of the bones, where families rebury their ancestors with fresh cloth, on which they write the names of the deceased so they will always be remembered.

Nepal – Most people know that Mount Everest sits on the border of Nepal and Tibet/China, but I recently learned that the Nepalese name of the infamous mountain is Sagarmatha. In Tibetan it’s known as Chomolungma.

Oman – The humble Sultanate of Oman is actually the oldest independent state in the Arab world, but perhaps even more interestingly, the most popular soft drink there is Mountain Dew.

Panama – The recent Ever Given debacle has shed some light on the importance of shipping canals, and where there’s a need, there’s a price. The Panama Canal makes over $2 billion per year in shipping fees. The average toll for a ship to travel through the canal is about $150,000.

Qatar – A peninsula on a peninsula, Qatar is the flattest non-island country in the world. It would also be a fantastic Scrabble word if proper nouns were allowed!

Russia – Russia is big. The Trans-Siberian railway, which crosses the entire country, is over 9,300km (5,700 miles) long. It’s easily one of the longest and busiest railway lines in the world. 

Sri Lanka – The teardrop of India is known for its tea (Ceylon being a former name of Sri Lanka), but it’s also where cinnamon was first cultivated.

Tanzania – While there are many notable features of Tanzania, my favorite country fact is that Zanzibar, an island just off the coast, was the location for the world’s shortest war. The Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896 lasted about 40 minutes.

Uganda – This Central African country was given the nickname “the Pearl of Africa” by none other than Winston Churchill. He wrote fondly of the country and its diversity in his book “My African Journey” published in 1908.

Vatican City – Technically a city-state, the Vatican City has lots of strange laws, one of which has to do with the guards they employ. Evidently the guards that protect the Vatican must be Swiss males between 19-30 years of age and they must be over 174cm (5’8’’) tall. The uniforms are also required.

Wales – Part of the United Kingdom, Wales is sometimes overlooked by its somewhat more famous neighbors, but a surprising number of celebrities are Welsh: Roald Dahl, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Anthony Hopkins just to name a few.

Yemen – Yet another country on the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is the suspected home of the infamous Queen of Sheba. 

Zimbabwe – Zimbabwe has had a rough history of leaders. From the late 1980’s to 2017, a disastrous authoritarian regime threw the country’s economy into a tizzy leading to many crashes and insane hyperinflation. For this reason, Zimbabwe’s government was printing 100 trillion-dollar notes as recently as 2009.

Fun Facts: US Presidents Edition

Lots of holidays this week, no? Pączki Day, Lunar New Year, Valentine’s Day, and on Monday, Presidents’ Day! Yay! I know you probably feel like you’ve heard enough about US politics to last you a lifetime, but since I love a good theme AND I actually read a really interesting book about the US presidents last year, I thought I’d post some fun facts about our chief executives throughout the years. I promise these are solely amusing trivia tidbits – nothing that will make you want to smash your head against the wall or angrily take to Facebook.

Washington strikes me as a cat’s eye man.

1 – George Washington was an avid marble player.

2 – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same oddly fitting day: July 4th, 1826. James Monroe also died on July 4th (five years later in 1831).

3 – Thomas Jefferson loved pasta and designed and built his own “macaroni machine”.

Macaroni machine or torture device?

4 – James Madison was the shortest president (Lincoln was the tallest).

5 – James Monroe ran uncontested in 1820 ushering in the “The Era of Good Feelings”.

6 – John Q Adams liked to swim naked across the Potomac.

7 – Andrew Jackson was known for dueling and occasionally taking a bullet for his wife’s honor.

8 – Martin Van Buren had the nickname “Old Kinderhook”, which many believe is where we get the expression “O.K.”

9 – William Harrison got sick after his long, outdoor inaugural address and died after only 1 month in office.

Polk’s No Fun Zone

10 – John Tyler was called “His Accidency” as he was the first “Act of God” president.

11 – James Polk banned alcohol and dancing (among other things) from the White House.

12 – Zachary Taylor laid the cornerstone of the Washington Monument while snacking on cherries and milk, which might have given him the bacterial infection that eventually killed him.

13 – Millard Fillmore married his teacher, Abigail Powers.

14 – Franklin Pierce was friends with Nathanial Hawthorne.

15 – James Buchanan never married, the only president thus far to remain a bachelor.

16 – Abraham Lincoln had the legislation for creating the Secret Service agency on his desk the night he was assassinated (although at the time it was an agency meant to stop counterfeiting, not bullets).

You know what they say about hindsight…

17 – Andrew Johnson’s wife, Eliza McCardle, taught him how to write.

18 – Ulysses Grant hated wearing uniforms and received many demerits during his time at West Point.

19 – Rutherford Hayes and his wife Lucy were given a Siamese cat from Bangkok, it was the first Siamese cat in the US.

The Carters also had a Siamese cat, Misty Malarky Ying Yang.

20 – James Garfield was shot by an assassin in July 1881, but died 79 days later due to the misuse of the newly-invented metal detector as well as unsanitary conditions.

21 – Chester Arthur had Louis Tiffany of Tiffany & Co. redecorate the White House.

22 – Grover Cleveland was distantly related to the guy whom the city of Cleveland was named after.

23 – Benjamin Harrison was the first president to have his voice recorded.

24 – Grover Cleveland (again): after being diagnosed with mouth cancer, he had part of his upper jaw removed in a clandestine operation on a yacht.  

25 – William McKinley used to be on the $500 bill, which was last printed in 1934.

Puts those Benjamins to shame!

26 – Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest person to assume the role of president at age 42.

27 – William Taft might have never gotten stuck in a bathtub, but he did install custom-made tubs throughout the White House and various US ships.  

There is just something so bizarre with this…

28 – Woodrow Wilson kept a flock of sheep on the White House lawn.

29 – William Harding’s death might have been caused by an intentional poisoning.

30 – Calvin Coolidge was sworn into office by his father, an official notary public. Also, Coolidge was the only president (thus far) to be born on the 4th of July.

31 – Herbert Hoover was the first president born west of the Mississippi.

32 – Franklin Roosevelt was extremely passionate about his hobby of stamp-collecting. (Bonus fact: FDR’s wife Eleanor once had the KKK put out a $25,000 reward for her assassination.) 

33 – Harry Truman’s solo initial “S” was given to represent both of his grandfathers: Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young.

34 – Dwight Eisenhower changed the name of the famous presidential getaway from Shangri-La to Camp David. He didn’t want to sound too fancy.

35 – John Kennedy was once marooned on an island and sent a successful SOS message via coconut in order to be rescued.

SOS! -JFK

36 – Lyndon Johnson had to deal with the assassinations of JFK, MLK Jr. and Robert Kennedy although he, himself, was never targeted.

37 – Richard Nixon’s daughter, Julie, married the grandson of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower.

38 – Gerald Ford is the only person to have been both vice president and president without ever being elected by the public/Electoral College.

Joan Quigley, Reagan’s astrologer. The 80s must have been wild.

39 – Jimmy Carter was the first president born in a hospital.

40 – Ronald Reagan frequently consulted with an astrologist during his presidency, even keeping a calendar of “good” and “bad” days. Somehow the assassination attempt just wasn’t in the signs…

41 – George H W Bush considered asking Clint Eastwood to be his running mate in 1988.

42 – Bill Clinton has won two Grammy Awards (other presidential Grammy recipients include Jimmy Carter and Barak Obama).

43 – George W Bush’s daughters, Jenna and Barbara, were the first First Family twins.

44 – Barack Obama’s first job was as an ice-cream scooper at Baskin Robbins.

45 – Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, is from Novo Mesto, Slovenia (formerly a part of Yugoslavia) in Central Europe.

Such a good boy!

46 – Joe Biden’s German shepherd, Major, is the first rescue dog to reside in the White House.

Very Superstitious…

Non-scary black cat for me!

It’s October, a strange time of the year where spooky and supernatural things are dressed up in costumes and set out on suburban lawns. Truth be told, Halloween really isn’t my thing. I don’t like scary movies or unexpected visitors, and as I have chocolate in the house year-round, even the candy aspect is a bit of a miss. What I do like, however, is a nice dose of cultural quirks. Therefore, in lieu of ghosts and goblins, this month, I’m sharing my favorite international superstitions, all of which I’ve either heard from my students and/or have experienced myself abroad. Nothing creepy or crawly here, I promise!

The first superstition I thought of is a simple one that I experienced often when I was in China. Much like how we view the number seven as lucky and the number 13 as unlucky, the Chinese, too, have their superstitions regarding certain numbers. One of the strongest of these is about the number four. The number four is generally avoided in China. Elevators will often skip that floor number altogether, and any room numbers or phone numbers that happen to have too many inauspicious fours in them are often shunned as well. So, what makes the number four so unlucky in China? It’s actually the pronunciation of the word. In Mandarin the number four is pronounced [sì], which is unfortunately similar to the word [sǐ] or “death”.

EEK!

Speaking of death (it is Halloween after all…) in South Korea, a common superstition is that sleeping in a closed room with a running fan might actually kill you. This is such a common superstition that “fan death” has its own Wikipedia page. Although the alleged cause of death for these unexplained casualties has never been proven (or even agreed upon), warnings are still commonplace throughout the country. Bet you’ll never look at that unassuming appliance in the corner of your room the same way again!

Another death-related superstition I recently heard comes from Kenya, where owls are actually seen not as wise, candy-crunching mentors, but instead as harbingers of death. Seeing an owl in Kenya is believed to be a bad omen because it means that death will strike soon. Could be you, could be a family member, but you can be sure it’ll be close and quick. Even the local words used for “owl” are often avoided as they might bring about the birds themselves (and subsequently an untimely death). Perhaps Hedwig was the true cause of Harry’s continued misfortunes…

To be fair, they do look pretty menacing…

Bad luck is understandably a pretty common thing to be superstitious about, but my favorite superstitions involving bad luck are the ones that can be traced back to an event or custom in a culture’s history. One example of this would be the fact that it is considered unlucky in France to eat a baguette or loaf of bread that has been kept upside down. This belief is said to come from an old practice of leaving upside-down bread loaves out for the town executioner to pick up. No one would want to anger an executioner by accidently eating his bread, right?  

Safe to count now

Two other superstitions that come to mind when I think about bad luck come from Poland and Mexico. In Poland, we were told not to count any perogies that are being cooked. It’s simply bad luck to do so, and it may result in a ruined dinner. In Mexico, to escape a bit of bad luck, you should avoid sweeping at night because that, too, can bring a curse down on your house. Additionally, even when daytime sweeping in Mexico, you shouldn’t sweep the dirt straight out your front door, otherwise all your good luck will leave with it too. I knew I should have swept it under the rug instead!

If bad luck to you means losing money, then you shouldn’t put your purse or wallet on the floor. In Brazil (and many other countries) this action or even the accidental dropping of your purse/wallet could mean that you’re about to lose a lot of money or else have some other, serious financial difficulties.

In addition to good and bad luck, many other superstitions seem to be concerned with friends and enemies. For example, in Mongolia if you happen to touch someone’s foot or step on their shoe, you should immediately shake hands as a sign of good faith and friendship. If you do not, it means that conflict is on the horizon and that your relationship might be strained in the future. This superstition is so prevalent that even strangers who accidently bump feet will turn and shake hands to combat the negative consequences.

Hard to image much foot contact in these vast spaces!

In another shoe-related superstition, in Egypt, it is considered disrespectful to leave your shoes with their soles facing up. Stemming from ancient Egyptian beliefs, this can be seen as a slight against God, thus a possible omen of bad events (or in a mixing of religious terms, bad karma) heading your way. This superstition also seeps into etiquette because it is also seen as rude to sit with your soles pointing towards another person.

X

In Turkey, it’s sharp objects (or at least passing them to others) that can cause you to lose friends. For example, handing over a pair of scissors might been seen as the cause of a severed relationship in the future. It’s more prudent to set the sharp things on a nearby table than to hand them over directly.

On the other hand, if you find that you want to get rid of an unwelcomed friend, or a visitor that has over-stayed their welcome, in the Philippines, there is a superstition that says sprinkling salt around your house will cause a visitor to leave. I wonder if you throw salt over your shoulder at the same time will the results be magnified or canceled out?

So close to danger, and I didn’t even know!

Other common superstations revolve around mystical creatures and the magic they bring. In Peru, dragonflies are believed to be connected with sorcery and can bring evil to those whom they touch. Luckily, also in Peru, ladybugs are counters to the devious dragonflies, and they can indicate that good luck is on the way.

Some creatures, however, can be related to both good and bad superstitions, as with the Icelandic elves. These “hidden people” are woven into many beliefs and even holiday celebrations in Iceland. For example, there are stories about construction projects being halted because the plans didn’t take into account the feelings and habits of the local elves. They really must be consulted if you want things to run smoothly. I’ve also heard they throw some pretty awesome Christmas parties.

And there you have it! A well-rounded 13 international superstitions to keep you up at night wondering how many times you brought the bad luck on yourself with your unsuspecting actions. Perhaps this explains all the bad juju in 2020? Something to think about! Happy Halloween! 😉

Five Years From Fulbright

Loved every minute of it!

It’s hard for me to believe, but this month marks five years from when Tucker and I first embarked on a long term, overseas adventure. It’s hard to say when exactly we decided that life abroad was something we wanted for our future, but I do remember asking if we could just stay in Finland indefinitely when we took our first international trip, just after our wedding/university graduation. I was immediately hooked on the adventure, but for Tucker, I think having a set plan and an entire, relatively stable year of not only living but also working in another country gave him the insight he needed, which ended up shifting our life plan pretty drastically.

At both Dalton State and Georgia State we had wanted to study abroad, but it was just way too expensive, even with scholarship help. However, in grad school I learned about Fulbright. An exchange program that provides grants for individual research projects, or in the case of the ETA program, specifically assigned teaching posts. It was obviously an amazing opportunity to not only experience another culture, life abroad, professional development, etc. but to also make money in the process – something extremely valuable to those graduating with student loans. However, before you can apply for a highly competitive Fulbright grant, you first have to choose a country/placement that interests you (and that will hopefully give you a good chance of success). For us, this was another easy choice and an incredible opportunity; we chose Poland.

2015-2016 Cohort

My heritage ties, solid grades, and excellent letters of recommendation (thanks again mentors!) eventually pushed us across the almost year long application/waiting process. We got the “congratulations” email in March, with a departure date in September. It was our first experience with a State Department exchange program, and it made a lasting impression. Meeting my fellow Fulbrighters, the Fulbright Commission staff in Warsaw, and eventually my mentor and colleagues at the University of Łódź completely solidified my respect for cultural exchange and soft diplomacy. I learned so much about Poland, the United States, history, politics, teaching, you name it, but I think what surprised me most was how much I learned about myself.

Tucker in the midst of solving a problem…

Being in a completely new environment always shifts one’s focus, and I would argue that living in a new environment (such as in a new country/culture) shifts it permanently. I absolutely loved that every day was an adventure. Going to the bank, setting up our internet connection, grocery shopping: it was all exciting and gave us new insights into everything from security and privacy to historical ties and familial influence. For problem-solvers like me and Tucker, it was a constant string of puzzles and challenges to work through often with the most amusing results and exciting successes. It also allowed for exceptional personal growth – interpersonal skills, patience, dealing with ambiguity. These skills I now cherish were addressed and honed day after day as an expat. 

Legendary hospitality!

Then there is everything we learned about Poland and about my family and my heritage. Seeing some of the “quirks” of my family represented by an entire culture, experiencing the long-lasting effects of World War II, celebrating Wigilia with new friends, eating as many pierogi and kopytka as humanly possible – we tried to soak in as much as we could. In fact, there are many habits we picked up in Poland that are still a part of our everyday lives. I discovered my love of both herbata (tea) and piwo (beer) in Poland. Tucker and I developed an interest in history and politics that we didn’t really have before. We saw firsthand how important fresh, wholesome food is and we learned how to shed some of our homegrown laziness, both of which have influenced our daily lives ever since.

Another unexpected gain from my time with Fulbright was a shift from a strong interest in teaching language (an obvious passion of mine) to an even stronger passion of teaching and discussing culture as well. After Fulbright I learned about the English Language Fellow Program, which allowed me to continue this combined effort of teaching English/language skills while at the same time learning from each other as our mutual understanding and friendships grew. Tucker and I are now considering taking this idea one step further and potentially joining the foreign service in order to continue developing meaningful intercultural relationships with people from all over the world. Fulbright gave us a glimpse into the many incredibly powerful things exchange programs can do.

Looking back at this seemingly small part of my academic/professional career, it’s clear to see it definitely had a huge impact on my life. It changed the way I view myself and my culture as well as how I see the world. From Fulbright 2015-2016 right up to the craziness that is 2020 and hopefully beyond, I plan to continue sharing my experiences in exchanging culture and shifting perspectives, whether with the help of specially designed programs like Fulbright, through my online teaching of international students, or throughout my life as an expat anywhere in the world. These five years have absolutely flown by, but I will forever be grateful for every step along the way. Thank you, Fulbright, and dziękujemy, Poland.

So thankful

Fun Florida Facts (and Opinions)

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Oh, 2020…

This year has thrown a lot of surprises at the world (and some not-so-surprising events as well really), but for me and Tucker one of the most unexpected occurrences has been our prolonged stay in Florida. We were only meant to be here for a few months as we gathered our lives from various corners of the world in order to head north for the next few years. Of course, with a brief snag in our immigration paperwork followed by a global pandemic, we’ve found ourselves in a holding pattern since March. And while, like everyone else, I’m still struggling to figure out what this all means for our jobs, our future, our society, etc. I’ve also been doing what I do best in a new place: exploring. Even though this exploring has taken place mostly online (and occasionally from a socially acceptable distance), life in Florida has still been quite interesting, and in some ways enlightening. Thus, for this month’s post, I have put together a list of my newly gleaned facts (and opinions) to share about our temporary home.

Cartoon Florida
Hi, guys! Wanna be my friend?

The first thing I have to mention is the fact that everyone seems to have an opinion about Florida. People who have never even been here feel one way or another about it, and plenty of people like to vocalize their opinions (many of which are quite negative) without much regard to facts or feelings. I say this as a non-Floridan, someone who doesn’t have a strong feeling one way or another about this particular state, but sheesh, even I feel bad listening to the many tirades and verbal attacks on the Sunshine State, especially those that can be found online. In our brief time here, I’ve come to view Florida as the state that’s often picked on, but that everyone secretly likes and takes advantage of (like an annoying kid in school that has a really nice pool).

When reflecting on why there are so many negative associations with Florida and Floridians floating around out there, I feel it boils down to two things: 1) the Florida Man and 2) vacationers. Most everyone knows about the Florida Man trope nowadays. A long-lasting meme that has permeated the internet and beyond, it originally referred to the crazy headlines often found in Florida that always begin with “Florida man…” and usually end with his doing something absolutely absurd. But interestingly, one of the first things I learned about the Florida Man origins is that they were sparked by a change in state law. In the 1990’s Florida passed the Sunshine Law, which ensures public access to all government records, including police arrest records. As you can imagine, in 30 years, the spring break capital of the US has racked up quite a few crazy stories, which brings me to my next point.

 

Vacationers. Probably the first thing we noticed after a few months in Florida was the ebb and flow of the people. Renters in, renters out; snow birds in, snow birds out; spring-breakers in, and (thankfully) spring-breakers out. The state of Florida has approximately 22 million permanent residents, but sees 110 million tourists annually. That’s a lot of YOLOing for any place to deal with. I think I actually first noticed this phenomenon in grocery stores. People in bathing suits, vacation gear (lots of Disney paraphernalia where we are), and a general lack of care for their immediate environment. Many people are here for a short time and their mindset is to live it up; therefore, chaos ensues, sometimes in the form of drunken parties and possible police involvement (which is then publicly documented for all the word to see and share).

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Three Sisters Springs

Of course, I completely understand why so many people choose to vacation to Florida. It’s an amazing place for affordable and varied entertainment. We’ve got theme parks all over the place: Disney World, Legoland, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, (and for a select clientele) Gatorland. There is also an abundance of parks, lakes, and other natural features like the Everglades, hot springs, swamps, and of course, the many, many beaches. Florida actually has the longest coastline of any of the contiguous states, and the climate (especially in south FL) means beach-going is possible year-round.

Speaking of South Florida, another thing that became immediately clear upon moving here was the presence of three distinct regions. You have North Florida, Central Florida, and Southern Florida, and the people who live (and vacation) in these three places often differ as much as the geography. We’ve heard this said a few times now: the further north you go in Florida, the further South you are. This refers to the fact that northern Florida is very much like Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas, etc. Demographically, linguistically, socially, north of Ocala is really part of the South. On the other side, you have South Florida which held onto its Spanish roots and still welcomes a large influx of immigrants from Central and South America. The influence can be seen, heard, felt, and tasted as soon as you drive south of Lake Okeechobee. And that leaves Central Florida, which is somewhat a mix of the two and also somewhat the result of many retirees from out of state. Orlando and many other cities in Central Florida are very much like any other major city in the US: professional, progressive, and a tad hipster.

Another part of life in Florida that caught my attention early on was the naming of the coasts. Most likely, at least in part due to tourism, each section of the coastline in Florida has a name and, for lack of a better word, a vibe. You have the Space Coast, which is the location of the Kennedy Space center and where all the rocket launches take place (which we can see from our driveway, btw). You also have the Gold Coast where the big cities (Fort Lauderdale and Miami) and the famous South Beach are located. There’s the Sun Coast with its beautiful sunsets, the Nature Coast with its natural springs and manatees, and even the First Coast, which is where you can find the first and longest continuously inhabited settlement in modern day USA.

FloridaCoastalRegions
I sense another checklist forming…

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Castillo de San Marcos

Since our trip to Saint Augustine and the First Cost, I’ve been really interested in Florida’s history and particularly how it differs from that of the colonies. Perhaps most people remember that Florida was first claimed by Spain, which is why we still see so many names like: Boca Raton, Punta Gorda, Buena Vista, etc., but what I (having taken Georgia History, not Florida History, in school) found super interesting was the native American history here. Of course, it now seems quite obvious with place names like: Tallahassee, Kissimmee, and Osceola, but I never gave much thought to the tribes that called Florida home and were actually some of the first to be attacked and displaced. Indeed, the Creek/Seminole tribes, in particular, not only found themselves stuck in the middle of a fight between Britain and Spain during the Seven Years’ War, but went on to challenge the US settlers with what is now known as the Seminole Wars, some of the longest and most expensive in early US history. Historically, Florida has seen a lot, and I don’t think it gets much credit for its important place in US history, let alone world history.

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Daily torrential rain

Finally, the last surprising fact I am very pleased to share is about the weather. As cold weather people, Tucker and I were very much dreading our time spent in the humid and, yes, extremely sunny Florida, especially as that time started to stretch into summer. However, I’m happy to report that it’s really not so bad! Florida is really breezy, which certainly helps with the heat, and now that we’re officially in summer, I can say that there’s a bit of a rainy season here meaning the afternoon thunderstorms that happen almost every day also help to cool it down. We’ve both commented that while the warmer temps might last longer, they don’t feel near as oppressive as summer in Atlanta. Plus, the produce here is absolutely amazing! In addition to citrus, Florida produces significant percentages of the country’s tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers, and sugar cane.

All in all, Florida has been a surprise in many ways for us (including the very exciting news that there is no state income tax in Florida!). Ultimately, our time here has really just been another lesson in finding out how much there is to discover/learn, even in a place you think you already know pretty well. So, what have you learned so far in 2020?

Florida Adventures

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Contemplating the state of the world

Have I already mentioned what an interesting year 2020 is turning out to be…well, anyway, as you may have heard, we should all be self-quarantining now. So what better time is there to write about all the adventures we had (and some we still have) planned for our sojourn in Florida, which has also been quite unexpected and rife with issues (more on that in a later, much longer post).

For now, let’s focus on Florida: the Sunshine State, the Family Vacation Mecca, the Hotbox of the East Coast. Of course, like most middle-class Americans east of the Mississippi, Tucker and I had been to Florida many times in our lives. Apparently my first ocean experience was as a two month old at New Port Richey Beach; Tucker and I both visited grandparents down here when we were little (mine in St. Pete and his in Fort Pierce), and of course, if you know my family, you know we’ve made our fair share of trips to the big WDW. We actually both remember separate trips to Pensacola for one reason or another, and as I have family in the Villages, we’ve made several stops there as well. But, when my parents officially moved down here back in 2017, Tucker and I planned and took a trip to Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Key West (with his mom this time), which I believe truly marked the beginning of our new and focused Florida Explorations.

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Sunset Key

So, when we came back this year, knowing immigration would take a few months, we decided to really see what Florida has to offer. I made a list, shocking I know, and we’ve done our best amid the global and domestic catastrophes to explore our new state of temporary residency. Here’s what we’ve done:

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Butter beer!

1 – Universal Studios

The first place I knew had to be on the list was Universal Studios. Tucker had never been, and the last time I was here was in 2006 with a friend and her family. Since then, they’ve added pretty much the only thing that could draw me away from Disney and into another over-priced theme park: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Long story short, it’s no Disney, but you really can’t miss visiting Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, can you?

 

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So amazing!

2 – Daytona Beach

We realized pretty early on in our Florida-life that everything in the state is between 1-3 hours away from Orlando, so it was easy to plan Saturday excursions in any direction. One of the first of such excursions was to Daytona Beach, which boasts the title of “The World’s Most Famous Beach”. And while I might not go that far, it’s always great fun to share a fishbowl drink overlooking the waves.

3 – Disney Brunches

Some of the things on our list are events rather than places, as with our plan to go to brunch with family on the first Sunday of each month we are in Florida. This was narrowed down to Disney-specific brunches because my parents get a discount and, well, we love the World. So far we’ve been to Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’, Boma – Flavors of Africa, and the Whispering Canyon Cafe. Next up was going to be the Wave…of American Flavors, but I think April’s brunch might be an at-home affair.

4 – Cocoa Beach and the Space Coast

82989356_10221868133720808_9032252941439860736_nNext up, my dad wanted to try a famous seafood place (Dixie Crossroads) out on the Atlantic coast, which I quickly paired up with a drive to Cocoa Beach and Port Canaveral. Although it was a quick visit, we walked along the beach and the pier, looked for the cruise ships and the Space Center, and learned that Florida has a nickname for every single section of coastline.

5 – Crystal River Manatees

Of course, I had to include Florida’s friendliest sea creature in our excursions! Tucker and I took a drive up to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to see some free range manatees and were blown away by the large numbers of them. While they definitely kept their distance, and rightly so, it was incredible to watch them splash and float around in adorable aggregations (which I learned is the group noun for manatees).

6 – Downtown Orlando

Just as I spent a lot of time exploring Atlanta when we lived there, I knew I wanted to go through the different neighborhoods and attractions of Orlando as well, you know, aside from the theme parks. One day we took a lovely walk around Eola Lake and up around Church Street. We went to see Henry IV at Orlando Shakes and strolled around all the museums on the north side. We’ve also found our new favorite used bookstore in Best Used Books and have been back and forth to all sorts of Orlando hot spots since January.

7 – Hop Passport: Florida Edition89925318_10222367882414213_2624685322386014208_n

Actually, one of the main reasons we’ve been to so many random locations in Florida is due to our quest to get a stamp at as many local breweries as possible. My sister-in-law and her boyfriend gave us the amazing Hot Passport for Christmas this year, and we’ve had a great time checking off places and seeing new cities across Florida. We’re at 14 out of 96 so far, and you should definitely check out the Hop Passport for your state if you’re also a beer-lover. You just can’t beat half-off beers!

8 – Disney (free things)

Another more open-ended item on our list is to finally do some of the free things at Disney that we never had the time or energy to do on previous trips. We haven’t bought park tickets for our time in Florida this year, but we’ve had a great time attending free events, walking the Boardwalk, hanging out at Disney Springs (the free shopping and entertainment area), and so much more. If you want a list of fun, free, and non-kiddie things to do at Disney, please let me know. I’m practically an expert.

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The Boardwalk: my favorite Disney place!

9 – Saint Augustine

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Castillo de San Marcos

Finally, on our last day of freedom (pre-self-quarentine), Tucker and I drove up to Saint Augustine to learn a bit more about Florida’s very long history. We visited the Fountain of Youth, the Colonial Quarter, the oldest masonry fort in the US, and ultimately saw a completely different side to this seriously diverse state. I’d really love to go back and explore Saint Augustine even more one day; it’s really an awesome city.

And so that brings me to a few things still on our list for the oh-so-tentative future:

* Take a train

I absolutely love trains, and when I saw how frequently they’re actually used in Florida (albeit still over-priced and not terribly convenient), I knew I needed to try them out for myself. Probably after the pandemic though…

Train

* Naples/Everglades

The Naples area is deemed “Paradise Coast” and it’s one part of Florida neither of us have ever been to; therefore, it was an obvious choice for the list. We’ve also never truly been into Everglades National Park (we’ve only driven through parts of it), so we tacked that (and the obligatory airboat ride that accompanies it) on as well.

* Devil’s Den

A place that has been on my travel to-do list for years now, Devil’s Den is an underground spring with clear waters and an abundance of ancient rock formations and fossils. It looks so cool, and I really want to go! Once the water gets a bit warmer though…

Den

* Tampa/deep sea fishing

And for now, the last thing on our list is a trip over to the Gulf Coast for a deep-sea fishing excursion (during which I might just have to close my eyes or ask that we be allowed to catch and release). We’re also planning to do a more thorough exploration of downtown Tampa on this particular trip. I really love the whole two birds, one stone idea.

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Making lemonade!

Well, that’s our Florida bucket list! Fingers crossed that everyone stays home for the next few weeks/months, so we can get back to exploring once everyone’s healthy again. Until then, I might add a few more things to list now that I have such ample time for research! I also challenge everyone reading this to do the same for your state/region – it’s a great way to pass the time and make the most of our days in the future!

Viva La Mexico

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Chichen Itza

Another month, another amazing country explored! Have I mentioned how nice it’s been working entirely online? No, but seriously, we’re incredibly lucky to be able to support these explorations as Tucker and I continue to make plans for what we want to do and where we want to be in the future. For the past 30 days, we’ve been in Mexico, sussing out the situation in three amazing cities, and learning all we could in the process. When planning our Mexican adventure (while happily freezing in Canada), we narrowed our focus down to Merida, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. Through online research and word of mouth, we felt that these were the three most likely candidates for a potential future home that fits our particular set of needs/wishes. So we set out to see which city would reign supreme (in our eyes anyways). Of course, we were also very interested in what living in Mexico would be like in general, having never visited any part of Latin America, and also how much tourism we could possibly squeeze into this already packed month of international inquiries! Here’s what we learned:

Merida

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Enter a caption

Our first stop was the city of Merida, which is the capital city of the Yucatan peninsula. We arrived fairly late at night and were quite surprised when the first restaurant we came face-to-face with in Mexico was a Carl’s Jr. Haha! From that moment on, we were constantly reminded how much the US and Mexico have influenced each other over the years. From the abundance of Coke products to the variety of Christmas songs, there were so many things that made us feel like we weren’t too far from home. Some things, however, were very different. For example, the colors of Merida were unlike any city I’ve ever been to! Every building was painted a different, yet equally vibrant shade: coral, sea foam, cyan, olive; I lost count early on. All the color was even more surprising when we learned that Merida’s nickname is “the White City”! Apparently that has more to do with the traditional clothing than a description of the city itself, because Merida is nothing if not colorful.

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Pure art!

Merida was also incredibly clean! Everywhere we walked we could smell the scents of soap or laundry detergent wafting out of the various doorways. I had also (wrongly) assumed that in such a warm climate, bugs would be imminent, but we saw none during our 10 days on the peninsula. We what did find was a lot of extremely helpful strangers. As we stood in front of famous buildings or walked back and forth trying to find the correct bus stop, so many people approached us and gave us advice and information. We learned a lot about the Mayan people from locals who kindly shared what they knew in English, just for us. They didn’t ask for tips or for us to buy something from them, they shared because they’re proud of their heritage and wanted foreigners to also soak up some of their history and culture. Overall, Merida was incredibly laid-back, absolutely unique, and unequivocally friendly.

Guadalajara

74469092_10221331106775470_6605481842357305344_nOur next stop was Guadalajara, the capital city of Jalisco (I’m really beginning to think I must have a thing for capital cities…). Anyway, when we arrived in this, larger city, I realized just how much all the negative hearsay (like the number of well-meaning warnings I received before our trip) can really affect first-time travelers. I immediately felt uneasy, like everything was an unforeseen danger. Of course, after only a few hours, that was all wiped away. The people of Guadalajara were just as friendly and carefree as those in Merida. Our Uber drivers, especially, greeted us and patiently listened as we stumbled through Spanish to ask questions or give any necessary additional information. We also noticed that in Guadalajara, and perhaps Mexico as a whole, the timings of things are quite flexible. We often found ourselves checking the hours of one place or another, only to arrive and see they haven’t quite set up yet (even a few hours after opening). We really felt the struggle of coming from a China mindset (up early, asleep by 10pm) to the Mexican way of life, where nothing really gets going until after 8pm at least!

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Arco de Zapopan

Once it gets going though, it’s impossible to deny the liveliness of Mexcio! Guadalajara in particular has an amazing bar/restaurant street that has so much activity it would take more than a year to see and do everything just on that one strip! From festivals and live music to pub crawls and lucha libre tours, the people in the city know how to party (even on weeknights, which was incredibly impressive, and something I wasn’t quite able to do). While in the city, I was also surprised by the extreme variety of Mexican cuisine. I love Mexican food in the US, but what we typically see is a list of the same 5-6 items with various customization options. In Mexico, the food-scene is much more diverse. From the taco stands and torta kiosks to traditional Aztec/Mayan dishes that look like they came right out of a Top Chef episode (not to mention all the international options). In 30 days I’ve added countless new dishes to my favorites list, and I can now be absolutely sure that Mexican is my favorite of the world’s cuisines. Of course, my favorite among favorites is still the humble taco, and I feel no shame in admitting that Tucker and I kept track of the 75 tacos we ate in Mexico!

Mexico City

78976206_10221463131596008_7786060591298248704_nOur final stop on this scouting mission was the infamous Mexico City. One of the largest cities in Latin America with about 9 million residents, and easily one of the most welcoming mega-cities I’ve ever been in. Sometimes in cities of this size, the expectations for speed and efficiency can be extremely high, which poses a problem for travelers who are clueless as to how things are usually done. However, I never felt any impatience from the locals in CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico). Things were just as easy-going and friendly as the other cities we visited. Of course, Mexico City is quite big, which does bring about some challenges. For example, it typically took over an hour to get from one side of the city to the other, even with the super convenient (and cheap) metro. A sprawling city combined with loads of commuters, holiday shoppers, and tourists definitely made for a chaotic transportation situation. However, because of that large and diverse group, we were also able to get some Kansas City BBQ when we wanted something a bit different one night. It’s the eternal struggle of city life!

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Busy, busy!

Aside from the sheer size and diversity Mexico City (and really all of Mexico) has to offer, I was also really surprised by the openness we saw and felt. Mexico is a Catholic country, and having lived in Poland, I remember the conservative lean that often goes along with that. However, Mexico proved again and again that if it’s not bothering anyone, who cares? We immediately noticed all the pda (public displays of affection): lots of kissing, hand holding, etc. anywhere and everywhere, by all sorts of couples: old, young, gay, straight. We also saw more skin than we had grown used to in China (although that is pretty much necessary when it’s still in the 80’s in winter). And finally, the language used was a bit freer as well. I’ve never seen so many kids shouting curse words as when we went to the lucha libre match (all in good fun though). Ultimately, Mexico had the “anything goes” approach that we sometimes found in China and Poland, but here it was definitely more strongly connected to social issues, and we ultimately found it very refreshing.

Mexico In General

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Incredibly lush!

As I’m writing this, I keep thinking of things I want to add. All the information we got in Merida about the Mayan people and the way it influences the modern culture there, all the flowers and fruits of Jalisco that surrounded us even in the middle of a huge city, and all the people in Mexico City, who just like in NYC are trying to make it big in one way or another. As is typical when we travel, we learned so much about the places and people around us, but we also learned more about ourselves: like how strong preconceived notions can be (even in experienced travelers), how many American exports are actually really unhealthy (sugary drinks and fast food), and ultimately, how similar we all really are. We often found ourselves bonding in limited language over traffic, wifi, cute animals, and delicious food: you know, the important things in life.

In short, Mexico was absolutely amazing, and we could definitely see ourselves living there in the future! We felt safe and welcomed, and we had a great time getting to know our southern neighbors a bit better. As it stands now, we’re muddling our way through Canadian immigration, but at least we now have a solid plan B (Guadalajara won out, by the way). Or, who knows, maybe after a few years in the frigid north, the desire to thaw out in Mexico will draw us south of the border sooner than we think!

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A Bit Different, Eh?

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Look how Canadian I am!

So we just spent our first month in Canada, and I can tell you I’ve never been more observant in all my life! Tucker and I are in the process of deciding where we want to live for the next few years, so we’ve been looking into everything from neighborhoods and public transportation options to social interactions and local habits, most recently in Ottawa and Montréal, Canada, but with a few cities in Mexico soon to follow (more about that in a subsequent post, I’m sure). Our reason behind these investigations is that neither of us have actually spent any real time in Canada (or Mexico), and we really just didn’t know what to expect. Would I find it too similar to the US (i.e. boring)? Would Tucker be able to get a job without speaking French or Spanish? What would our lives be like on the whole in any one of these places? To get a clearer picture, we first headed up to Ottawa and Montréal to see what we could discover about life in the Great White North. So far, these are a few things that have stood out to us as uniquely Canadian:

Language Uncertainty Dance

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Aka “stop”

Many people know that Canada has two official languages, but what exactly does that look like? Well, to us it seems pretty clear cut on paper: in Québec, French is the default language, and everywhere else, English is the go-to. Therefore, signs, menus, and the like carefully follow provincial lines. However, people are bit more mobile than that, and the lines aren’t always so clear when speaking is involved. For example, Montréal is a very international city with immigrants who speak many different languages, and Ottawa is located half in Ontario and half in Québec. This all led to a bit of a which-language-should-we-use dance between us and everyone we encountered. Hotel staff, grocery store clerks, restaurant servers, and literally everyone we talked to had to make a choice of which language to use with us, and we, in turn, also had to choose.

We determined that provincial lines do play a role in the choice, but there were other factors of consideration as well, like the supposed heritage of the speaker (Francophone or Anglophone), how we appeared (clearly lost or in-the-know), and what situation were we in (ordering Vietnamese food or buying food from an outdoor market). Even our names seemed to be used as an indication; at all the ticket checkpoints I received “merci”s and Tucker got “thank you”s, and the only reason we could come up with is that my name is Danielle. For me, this process was fascinating, and I found myself eavesdropping on anyone and everyone just to note which language they were using and why. When so many people are bilingual the possibilities are truly much more interesting!

How Cold It Really Is

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Sometimes I wore my hat AND earmuffs…

Canada is quite far north, of course, but when looking at the lines of latitude, Ottawa and Montréal really aren’t that much above what I consider “normal” cities. Łódź, for example, is significantly closer to the Arctic Circle, which began a line of thought that led us severely astray. Because while the latitudes of these two cities are actually well below some well-known (and might I add, temperate) western counterparts like Vancouver or Seattle, their climates are simply different. There’s no large body of water to curb the freezing temperatures, and evidently the “Polar Vortex” is a real thing that starts much earlier than I had anticipated. In short, Ottawa is one of the top ten coldest national capitals in the world, and I didn’t bring my big jacket. Oopsies.

Honestly, even with my big jacket I doubt my small collection of outerwear is actually going to be enough for winter in Canada. Taking a look at some of the clothing stores here, we’ve seen winter gear we didn’t even know existed. Linings for boots, glove extensions, and every possible manner of covering your ears and face. The terminology is also a bit different, as I had to google the word “toque” shortly after our arrival. It’s actually pretty impressive to see the flexibility of clothing in action. Even in October, the temperatures can get below freezing, especially at night, but during the day it can get up to the 60’s. It’s amazing to watch the various pieces come off and go back on throughout the day, sometimes sparked solely because the sun came out from behind the clouds. I vaguely remember the vast temperatures swings of Chicago, but clearly I have yet to master dressing for them.

An Abundance of Animals

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Polite squirrels as well!

With our new-found knowledge of how cold and long “winter” in Canada can be, we definitely found the amount of fauna out and about to be rather odd. Immediately upon arrival to Ottawa (which I will remind you is 200kms from the closest Great Lake and almost 500kms away from the ocean) we were met with the loud, annoying cries of seagulls. Seagulls? There are no beaches here! Sure there are rivers, but it’s cold! What’s with the seagulls? In our first week we also came across squirrels of all colors, bunnies, chipmunks, and so so many birds. And that was in the city proper, skyscrapers well in view! It seems nature really is on your doorstep up here in the North. However, if I see a moose or a bear lumbering down Sparks Street, I might just lose my mind.

French/British Combo

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Her majesty

Another surprising insight into life in Canada is that it seems to be less of an American/French fusion and more of a British/French fusion. As a native inhabitant of a former British colony myself, I just assumed all former colonies were quite distinct from Old Blighty, but evidently there’s more of a scale of “Britishness” than I thought. Here in Canada, we have the Queen on the currency, a Prime Minister and Parliament, Celsius and the metric system, traditional tea and pub cultures, and the distinctive, yet eccentric spelling system with all those extra vowels and not enough “z”s. Additionally, as Americans, especially Americans coming from China, we’ve also found an extraordinary penchant for forming lines in Canada. At the train station we wrapped around the entire hall forming two lines to match the two platforms below the station. It seemed very odd to us, inefficient even, but soon we realized lines are a way of life here; basically if it’s a norm at Timmy’s, it’s a norm everywhere.

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Ah, Timmy’s

Interesting Fusions

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Beyond delicious!

Speaking of combos, we’ve also seen an incredible amount of interesting food fusions in Canada. Early on in our stay I ordered “pierogi eggrolls”, and even after eating them, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the concept. Canada has seen its fair share of immigration throughout its history, and we can definitely see how that has affected the restaurants and their signature dishes throughout the country. We’ve had tandoori nachos, a turducken club, bruschetta mac and cheese, and many other colorful combinations. It seems even their own, native poutine (which is traditionally French fries covered in cheese curds and thick gravy) is also open to interpretation. We’ve tried jalapeño poutine, butter chicken poutine, and Peking duck poutine just to name a few! Stores and other vendors also seem to cater to this preference for food creativity and variety. We’ve seen ph broths and żurek mixes in grocery stores, Italian sausages served in French bread by street vendors, and vending machines with American, British, and European candy choices.

The Use of “Washroom”

This might be a small thing, but I couldn’t get over the Canadian use of the word “washroom”. I’ve lived in several different cities, on different continents even, thus I have heard many things used to describe the place we go to “relieve ourselves”. I’ve heard bathroom, restroom, toilet, WC, lavatory, powder room, even “the john”, but “washroom” is not one I would have listed as a common occurrence. Until Canada, that is. Here it’s virtually the only word they use! It’s on all the signs, it’s what people say, I was even corrected once when I asked about the location of the “restroom”. They looked a bit confused and clarified with, “the washroom?” Which I then went off in search of, quietly contemplating my accent, word choice, and place in the world.

 

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I bet they have the nicest washrooms in there.

Also of interest on the topic of washrooms in Canada is that they all seem to be located in the basement. At the majority of restaurants and pubs we visited, the washrooms were located under the establishment, often down a very long, steep staircase. I tried to look into why that is so common here, and the best I could find is that it had something to do with the building codes at the time of construction. Whatever the reason, I just hope they keep them well-heated in winter. Thankfully, even if the rooms themselves end up being a bit drafty, at least the hot water in Canada is on point. The tap water, we’ve noticed, goes from ice cold to absolutely steaming hot in about 5 seconds – in a pinch, I actually brewed my tea with the sink water in Montréal. Canada really does seem to love their extremes!

And, For Sure, the Politeness

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We even got compliments on our photos!

Finally, the last Canadianism that stuck out to us was, indeed, the politeness that perhaps they are so well known for outside of Canada. At first, we noticed all the “no worries” and “of course”s and other pleasant responses to our many “thank you”s. There wasn’t even that tone of you’re-a-bit-of-an-idiot-and-I’m-only-helping-you-because-it’s-my-job sort of thing that’s so common Stateside. We also heard a lot of back channeling or the words you use when showing someone you’re paying attention. Things like “for sure, for sure”, “oh yeah, definitely”, and “wow, great”. There also seemed to be a great deal more small talk. People more frequently asked questions or shared information than what we have grown used to in the US. For example, when our bus cards didn’t work on the STO line, the bus driver took a few minutes to explain to us how the complicated inter-provincial system worked. He then let us ride for free – so nice! We’ve also been given quite a few tips for places to go and things to do, after various locals asked and discovered that we’re not Canadian. These politeness features have definitely made the big cities of Canada feel not quite as big.

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O Canada!

So these are some of the most obvious things that immediately reminded us that we’re not in the US; however, I have a feeling there will be many more discoveries like this in the future, should we come back for a longer stint. Every country, even long-time neighboring countries with similar back stories have their little quirks. I can’t wait to find out more about what makes Canada, Canada!

 

America in Ten Words

Intro
One Cool American

Earlier this year I read China in Ten Words by Hua Yu, which I would highly recommend! It’s a short collection of personal stories centered around ten words that the author feels represent China and its history, people, culture, etc. As someone who (at the time) was living in China and had spent the previous two years learning all about said culture, I absolutely loved reading from the perspective of Yu, a native Chinese. He touched on so many of the things I have shared in my various posts and gave new meaning to some of the things Tucker and I experienced ourselves as residents in China. In short, I loved it so much that I thought maybe I could join Yu in sharing a bit about my own culture or at least how I, one American, view it.

Honestly, this is a slight departure for me because I typically choose to write about my discoveries and observations on places and cultures that I am newly discovering myself, but this required a different sort of reflection. Even though I definitely can’t live up to Hua Yu’s work with one short blog post, I hope to share a few of the traits and characteristics (in no particular order) that, for me, make America, America.

#1 Independent

IndependentAs an English teacher I’m often asked to describe the United States and Americans, and for as long as I can remember, the first word that has come to mind is: independent. We love to feel independent! Independent financially, politically, emotionally; in our families, in our workplace, and in the world. Many of us longed to “be out on our own” at a very young age, and most Americans follow that course throughout their lives. We love expressions like “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “stand on your own two feet”. In our culture, there is an immense pride in (and often an expectation to) figure things out on our own. Whether this comes from the pioneer spirit of our history or from Hollywood’s “steal the spotlight” mentality, we can see the strong value placed on independence in all aspects of American lives. From our first declaration as a prospective country to our preference for ordering individual, non-shared meals, we focus every day on our individuality and personal independence, and if ever we feel it’s being threatened, look out.

#2 Entertainment

EntertainmentYou might have noticed that I didn’t get very far into this post without mentioning Hollywood. As much as many Americans like to think of that place as somehow “other”, the truth is, we are massive consumers (and producers) of entertainment, all thanks to Tinseltown. In fact, many of my students from all over the world have surprised me with facts and details about life in the US that were gleaned entirely from our movies and TV; some have even confessed that’s how they started learning English or even why they continue today. Of course, what they see in the movies is not always true to American life, but there are definitely many of our values and perspectives shared through our obsession with entertainment. It’s hard to imagine America without movie trailers, award shows, film conventions, and dedicated fandoms. As someone who hasn’t seen such American classics as the Godfather, Stars Wars, or Top Gun, I’ve been described a few times as “simply unamerican”, but I promise I’ll get to them eventually!

#3 Direct

Being told I’m unamerican (even jokingly) to my face brings me to my next Americanism. We are a direct people. After living in China for a few years, I know this to be absolutely true of Americans. We like to be told upfront, no matter what it is, and often regardless of how it’s said. I’ve heard people refer to Americans as blunt or straightforward, and although we aren’t always trying to be, we are often quite direct in our daily lives. Imagine communicating with someone (a family member, a colleague, or even a stranger) and not being able to figure out what they mean. You would probably want to shake them and say “stop beating around the bush” or “just break it to me”. We have a certain intolerance for ambiguousness coupled with the idea that things should be said and done as efficiently as possible, feelings be damned. This is why in our culture it’s perfectly normal to decline invitations or to challenge a superior. We would rather ruffle some feathers right off the bat than leave things vague or unclear.

#4 Patriotic

PatrioticAnother trait that I associate with America is our deep patriotism. We love our flag, our national anthem, and the values that we have long attached to our country, such as freedom, perseverance, and justice. Although patriotism means something a little different to each of us, as Americans this is our home, and we feel a certain pride and responsibility in that. Whether we show these feelings by hanging a flag outside our house, voting in every election, or representing our values abroad, we all like to feel that we have a role to play for America, and we’re happy to do it. Perhaps because we grew up with stories of how hard our forefathers, suffragettes, and civil rights activists fought for us to have what we have today, the sense that we need to take up the baton and continue to work for a better homeland has been deeply instilled. Or who knows, maybe it was just hearing that Lee Greenwood song year after year.

#5 Dreamers

DreamersAlthough this word has taken on new meaning and significance in the last few years, the American Dream and the people who embody it are not new, nor I think are they bound by political lines. America was founded on dreams: dreams of a new nation, dreams of equal representation, dreams of prosperity. We can still hear the US referred to as a “Land of Opportunity” from both inside and out. We love the fact that “if you can dream it, you can do it”, and thanks to our lack of a formal class system, many Americans have been able to make it happen all throughout our history. Most of us have immigrants in our ancestry, which is maybe one of the most classic versions of the American Dream. Others have seen their dreams come true in regards to socioeconomic status or overall success. Just like independence, Americans value people who dream big and work hard to make it happen. In short, we believe dreams can come true.

#6 Divided

Divided 2Dreams are wonderful, but all dreams are based in some sort of reality. And for Americans, right now that reality is a strong division. Party lines are more evident than ever, generation gaps and racial divides exist, and there’s no doubt that whatever the topic of conversation, people tend to divide up into various groups or “sides”. We have the Left and the Right, Boomers and Millennials, white collar and blue collar, Black and white, gay and straight, religious and non-religious, and so many other labels that, like it or not, separate us in some way from our fellow Americans. Although we are the “United” States and a supposed “Melting Pot”, many events have recently been shining a spotlight on our divisions and differences instead. Diversity can often beget division, or at least the perception of division, but I think we’re all also aware of the classic “United we stand; divided we fall”. Trends change everyday, and we can change as well.

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At least Atlanta can be pretty United!

#7 Private

Another American feature that stands out to me is our penchant for privacy. On the whole, Americans are quite private (even with the growing popularity of oversharing on social media). We like privacy fences and secure passwords, and we fear Alexa and Siri are gleaning too much information from us. We have all sorts of privacy laws and generally feel that keeping things to ourselves is one of our inalienable rights. I often have students ask me “how old are you?”, “how much do you make?”, “why don’t you have kids?” and other such questions that, as an American, leave me feeling like my privacy has been breached. We talk about “personal boundaries” and “invasions of privacy” fairly regularly – both in the physical and figurative senses. It’s typically very clear to Americans where “the line” is and our use of small talk often demonstrates it: weather, sports, family members – all good; religion, politics, or anything “too personal”, strictly off the table.

#8 Friendly

Friendly
Super friendly (and patriotic)

Although we might like keeping things to ourselves at times, we are usually still quite good at small talk and making friends. From the outside looking in, Americans are often viewed as very friendly. We’re often smiling for no reason, making jokes with strangers about the broken elevator, or lending a hand in the form of opening doors for others or picking up something that has been dropped. Basically, we’re masters at “Meet-Cute Stories”. I think the reason we often come across as overly friendly is because we’re all pretty much willing to do these things regardless of where we are, who we’re with, or what we’re doing. We also tend to retell these little anecdotes throughout the rest of our day: “I ran into a man at the gas station, and you’ll never guess what he said…”, “Sorry, I’m late. I was chatting with a woman outside.”, etc. And don’t even get me started on what it’s like when two Americans meet while abroad; you’d think they had just met their long-lost cousin!

#9 Isolated

The US is big and only has two neighbors, a bit of a rarity in terms of geography, and these facts play into my next feature of “Americanness”: isolation. A large portion of Americans never feel the need to leave their homeland (and why would they with the bounty of things to do and see right at home?) or even keep track of what’s going on outside of their immediate surroundings. However, this tendency to face inward seems to contribute to a bit of ignorance about the rest of the world. You might have seen Jimmy Kimmel testing Americans on world geography, which as a geography nerd, definitely makes me cringe, but unlike other countries whose histories and even present day dealings have required a much more thorough knowledge of their surrounding nations, for Americans, it has rarely mattered (of course with increasing globalization that is changing every day). However, regardless of the underlying reasons, Americans can definitely be said to be “in our own little world”.

#10 Innovative

InnovativePerhaps because we’ve always been in our own little world, the US has also been a hotbed for inventiveness and creativity right from its start. From Thomas Edison and Clara Barton to Bill Gates and Katie Bouman, Americans have contributed a great deal to global innovation. Even the average American likes to think and talk about the future, and we always, as Walt Disney famously said, “keep moving forward”. It’s no wonder our people were among the first to take to the skies, race to space, and create all types of digital media. We simply love to take risks and try something new. We have the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”, but in America, it might not even require necessity.

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Who could ever forget this incredible innovation?

So that’s my list. Of course, there are about a hundred words I sifted through before deciding on these ten! America is complicated; culture is complicated! And we can’t always fit everything into ten neat little categories. But maybe we can agree that reflection and openness can be great for developing a better understanding of ourselves and our communities. I would love to see some of the words you would add to your “America in 10 Words” list, or if you’re from another country, what words would you assign to your culture? We have a lot we can learn from each other’s perspectives, and I can’t wait to continue shifting mine!

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Traveling and Learning

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Bus Selfie!

I really love traveling, and recently I’ve been reflecting on why exactly I feel so strongly about it. Is it the break from daily life? A chance to meet new people? Why does anyone choose to travel? I think Tucker enjoys it so much because he loves to try anything new, and going to new places is the perfect way to do that. But I’m not as fond of new things (especially new foods) as he is; I have a different motivation. I like to travel because, ultimately, I like to learn. Originally I thought I’d be a lifelong student because of my love of learning; however, that turned out to be pretty uneconomical. Fortunately, just after graduation (only a few months after we got married) Tucker and I took our first trip overseas, and I found it: a new way to continue learning – through exploring the world around me.

During our subsequent travels I have been amazed at what we’ve ended up learning: geography, history, culture, psychology, self-awareness, the list goes on and on. So this is the force driving my not-so-easily-sated addiction, but thankfully, I’ve also been given ample opportunities to get my fix. Here are the places we’ve traveled and some of the things we’ve learned during my two years as an English Language Fellow (August 2017-July 2019):

Beijing

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Hefei

Hefei, Anhui [where we learned about HOME]

Through traveling, I think one of the things we’ve learned the most about is the concept of “home”. We’ve learned that a home can really be made anywhere, and that connections with neighbors and friends are absolutely necessary for a place to truly feel like home. In fact, we have often felt closer to the friends we’ve made during our brief stints abroad because these shared experiences bond people together in an incredible way. We become instant family with other expats, and our Chinese friends are literally our lifelines! It’s such an interesting dynamic that definitely opened up our views of family and home. Another interesting aspect of our new perspective on “home” is how well we actually know it. Going into our last two new homes we haven’t known anything about them. Nothing about the neighborhoods we’d be in or even anything past what Wikipedia says about the cities/regions they’re in. This has given us a new outlook on what it means to truly know where you live. We’ve had an amazing time learning more about the places we’ve called home, and it’s made me curious about the places we used to call home and how well we actually knew them.

Nanjing, Jiangsu

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Mongolia

Mongolia (Ulaanbaatar & Gorkhi-Terelj)

Shanghai

Wuhan, Hubei

Huangshan & Hongcun, Anhui

Xi’an & Lintong, Sha’anxi

Harbin, Heilongjiang

Thailand (Chiang Mai & Bangkok)

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Cambodia

Cambodia (Siem Reap & Phnom Penh) [where we learned about CONFLICT]

In addition to learning about our home (and our views of it), traveling to difference places has allowed us to take a closer look at how others view the same places and how they view their own homes. This has lead to a better understanding of conflicts and global perspectives, which I am endlessly interested in. When we visited Cambodia, for example, I was immediately struck by their relationship with Thailand. We took a bus from Thailand to Cambodia, and walked across the border through immigration, where the welcome was, well, not so welcome. Cambodia has had a rough history, with its neighbors and with many foreign nations, and that has left an impression on the population. And it’s hard to deny their feelings, especially when one of the other most noticeable features of Cambodia was the number of missing limbs, mostly caused by landmines still implanted within their borders decades after the end of the conflict in Vietnam. The US has its perspective on our many conflicts, but every country, and every person has their own views, which are extremely important to learn in order to really begin understanding each other.

Hong Kong

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Guangzhou

Shenzhen & Guangzhou, Guangdong

Hangzhou, Zhejiang

Sanhe, Anhui

Badaling, Beijing [where we learned about PERCEPTION]

On the topic of perception, I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention the fact that traveling has broken pretty much every stereotype I’ve ever had about a place or group of people. When we traveled with my family in China, it was amazing to watch those stereotypes break for someone other than myself. My parents realized pretty quickly that China was nothing like they had imagined, and Tucker and I have done the same thing in every place we’ve visited. Our perspectives are shaped through all sorts of things (the news, education, movies, etc.), but they’re always seen through our own individual filters as well as through the filters of the sources of information. This has lead to many different perspectives on many different things, but seeing and experiencing something for yourself gives you the best insight you could ask for. One of my favorite travel quotes comes from Aldous Huxley: “to travel is to learn that everyone was wrong about other countries.” Even when comparing your experiences with someone else who has been to the same place, a difference in perspective is almost guaranteed, but that’s what makes it so interesting!

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Badaling

Suzhou, Jiangsu

Kunming & Mile, Yunnan

Australia (Sydney, Port Macquarie, Brisbane, Airlie Beach, Cairns)

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Australia

Haikou, Hainan

Qingdao, Shandong

Guilin, Xingping, & Longjin, Guangxi [where we learned about FAMILY]

Traveling with family has taught us a lot as well. First, it taught me to be thankful for our family members who are willing and able to travel with us. There have been many expats we’ve met whose family members have never visited them or even want to see the places their loved ones call home. It truly makes me thankful for the open-minded and adventurous spirits of my and Tucker’s families. I have also learned a lot about taking care of other people’s needs. In China, independence really only comes with time because with no alphabet and very little English, trying to do things on your own can take a lot of effort and patience. Luckily for Tucker’s mom and aunt (and my parents), we were there to help them answer any questions and provide whatever they needed. Through these trips, I learned a lot about what is required to be responsible for someone other than myself 24/7, and it has left no question in my mind as to why we haven’t had any kids. Haha!

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Fanchang

Jinshanling, Hebei

Wuhu & Fanchang, Anhui 

Changsha, Hunan

Zhangjiajie, Hunan

Chaohu, Anhui [where we learned about the PAST]

Another set of lessons we have undoubtedly received through our travels has been in regards to history. Coming from the New World, our “history” typically refers to the seventeenth century and onward, but traveling to other parts of the world, we’ve realized just how recent that actually is. Europe showed us their history through maps and architecture; Asia has shown us through traditions and languages. Visiting the outskirts of Chaohu and other cities and villages of Anhui is a bit like stepping back in time. There are farmers whose ancestors have farmed the same land for hundreds of years. Ancient artifacts seem to be dug up every day in this part of China, cooking vessels and jewelry from thousands of years ago. In history classes I was never really good at linking what was happening in ancient Rome with the rest of the world, but after traveling and seeing some of the history for myself, it has gotten much easier, as has the ability to connect what has happened in the past with what is happening in the present.

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Chaohu

Chengdu, Sichuan

Siguniangshan, Sichuan

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Chongqing

Chongqing

Zhuhai, Guangdong

Macau

Lantau Island, HK

The Philippines (Cebu & Manila) [where we learned about INEQUALITY]

Traveling truly brings to light things I never would have given second thought to in other situations. Throughout our travels we’ve met many people in many different circumstances. And sadly, we’ve seen that people are almost never treated equally. We, in the US, tend to think of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but there are also issues of class, religion, ethnic background, age, and countless others. Inequality seems to be a shared human-trait, but it’s also something we’re all growing increasingly aware of. Sometimes seeing it manifest in a different way, as it often does in different contexts, helps show how ridiculously common, yet unnecessary it really is. Tucker and I were in the Philippines earlier this year, where we saw first hand some of the inequalities experienced by the people who live there versus the people who vacation there. It’s something that allows us to think about the impact we have when we unintentionally aid inequality, not only when traveling but in all aspects of our lives.

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The Philippines

Singapore

Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur)

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Jiufen

Taiwan (Taipei, Jiufen, & Tamsui)

Anqing, Anhui

Jiuhuashan & Chizhou, Anhui

Xining, Qinghai [where we learned about KINDNESS]

Finally, I think the biggest lesson of all has been the kindness strangers are capable of showing for each other, which we found well on display on our recent trip to Qinghai. It has been a common thread throughout every place we’ve traveled; the help we’ve received from people we had never met before continues to inspire us. Whether it is someone giving directions in multiple languages or simply sharing information about their culture so that we can leave with a more complete understanding, we’ve made friends with people around the world. This is what allows me to not get bogged down in politics or negative stories that are passed around because I have experienced the kindness of humans in every country I’ve been to. I’ve seen our similarities and they far outweigh any differences. Mark Twain wrote “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”, and I believe our ability to travel more freely now than ever before has played a big part in the acceptance and compassion people are showing each other around the globe. I want to continue to spread the kindness I’ve received, and I hope that we all continue to do that whether we’re traveling or not.

Chaka & Erlangjian, Qinghai

Japan [Upcoming!]

There you have it: 10 different countries, 20ish provinces/regions of China, over 60 cities, and an immeasurable amount of knowledge, experiences, and memories. It’s fun to keep track and even more fun to share, but don’t just take it from me. As the Asian proverb goes, “better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.” Hope to see you on our next trip!

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