¡Estamos Aquí!

We’re in Mexico now! Yay! After over a year of immigration uncertainty with Canada, it feels great to be actively taking steps towards our new home base (even if those steps are taking us in a new direction).

So? What exactly is the plan?

Well, what are plans, really? This last year has definitely tested my ability to come up with back-up plans on top of back-up plans; however, what I came up with isn’t as crazy as it seems. When we got back to the US after our time in China, Tucker and I knew we wanted to stay in North America for a while (to be closer to family, to make pet travel a bit easier, etc.) Initially, we planned on moving to Quebec for a few years followed by a few years in Mexico. Unfortunately, the pandemic had other plans. In early 2020 our Canadian residency application stalled due to the fact that Canada and the US took wildly different approaches to the Covid situation. Even now, it’s unclear as to when the border will reopen and immigration processes will resume as usual, so we decided to flip the plan. Mexico and then Canada.

Getting to Mexico was surprisingly easy (just ask Ted Cruz – haha!) although, our process was slightly different. We opted for temporary residency, which is good for up to four years. In Orlando we got the appropriate visa from the consulate, and in our first two weeks in Guadalajara, we successfully completed the immigration process by exchanging our entry visas for our residency cards. Another “yay” moment! Currently, we’re up to our ears in apartment listings, looking for a place to rent for the next year or so. The housing hunt has been super exciting because we haven’t had this much freedom in choosing a place to live in a long time! I’m living my House Hunters International dream right now!

Once we’ve selected and moved into our new apartment, we have to fly back to Orlando, pick up a small, furry passenger (along with a few more suitcases) and drive across the border back down to GDL. The road trip is still in the planning stages, but it’ll be a respectable 30+ hour drive. Who doesn’t love a good road trip?! After that, the plan is to, somewhat unsurprisingly, wait. We’re still taking every Covid-related precaution, limiting many of our usual activities for the foreseeable future. Like most people, we’re eagerly awaiting our turn to get vaccinated and for life move on into some sort of post-pandemic phase.

What’s the situation like in Mexico?

“Sneeze Etiquette”

Speaking of Covid, many people have been interested in what the situation looks like south of the border. More or less, I would say it’s pretty similar to the US. Where we are, a majority of people are taking it seriously, wearing masks, limiting their time in crowded, enclosed spaces, working/schooling virtually when possible, etc. but there are always some who “forget” their masks, fail to wear them correctly, don’t care about the risks, etc. Cubrebocas are mandatory in Jalisco (our state), and in addition to checking for masks, most stores have employees stationed at the entrances spraying hand sanitizer and taking temperatures.

Another concern for us during this move (aside from the pandemic, of course) was our complete lack of connections in GDL and (to put it mildly) our less than rudimentary Spanish skills. We were wondering how difficult it would be to set up our phone plans, complete paperwork, contact renters, etc. On the whole, we’ve been extremely fortunate. We’ve already made a few expat friends and have done our best to pick up some Spanish basics muy rápido. Fortunately, as we’ve experienced in many parts of the world, the locals here are extremely helpful (and thankfully not resentful) when we struggle with the language. They’ve gone out of their way to help us with pronunciation, translation, even involving others to make sure the message is clear. I can never feel anything but humble when we, as foreigners who haven’t learned the local language, are treated this way. I sincerely hope to repay their kindness by doubling down on my Spanish skills – next year when we renew our cellphone plan or residency cards, I’m going to blow them away with my progress!

Hopefully my last temporary setup…

Somewhat less exciting, but a large part of our lives nonetheless, has been our transition into both working fully remotely. Thankfully our internet speeds have been up to the challenge, and it’s been really fun to break for lunch together everyday (albeit a bit early as our schedules are still tied to EST). Anyway, we were very happy that there was no interruption to either of our jobs as we transitioned to Mexico. Other aspects of life have changed a bit, of course, such as being back to never having any idea what’s going on when we step outside our apartment. Men walking the streets ringing cow bells, for instance, or even disappearing carrot cakes. We have so much to learn!

What’s the best part?

Actually, I think I just alluded to the best part: all the new things. We love an adventure, and there’s just nothing like being fully immersed in a new culture. We’re loving all the new things to try and to research. We’re also really enjoying getting to know a new city and a new neighborhood. Orlando taught me that there is so much to see in between the points of interest, and I’m continuing to stretch our walking tours further and further. Plus, I know we’re both incredibly grateful to be finally taking steps towards a feeling of semi-permeance and/or control. I have no problem with not knowing where I’m going, but as it turns out, I like to have a say in when I go.

What’s the worst part?

Sadly, maybe even predictably, the worst part is that we still have to think about Covid. I want to explore; I want to go and do everything, but I also need to be responsible and safe for myself and everyone around me. It’s not so much a product of where we are in the world, rather where we are in history, and unfortunately, it’s no easier in a new place. The good news is there might be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel as long as we all continue to work together and trust the process. As I learned in Gotta Kick It Up, “sí, se puede”!

All in time

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.

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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?

Ruminating on Returning

With so much to see in the world (and currently so much time to plan) Tucker and I find ourselves talking about trips we’d like to take fairly often. We typically have no problem jumping into the logistics and research of a given location, but we do sometimes get stuck on the initial “where should we go” question. There are so many places we’d absolutely love to visit, but there is also a growing list of places we’d really like to return to; places we clearly haven’t explored thoroughly enough for our liking; places, including but not limited to:

The Netherlands

472549_4075793461494_1409717026_oThis was an obvious choice for this particular list because we only spent about 23 hours in the country. It was our first foray into long-layover travel, and we definitely fumbled our way through it. It wasn’t too difficult to get from the airport to the city center (and back again), but as we set off with absolutely no plan, it was mostly just a long walk around the beautiful canals. Amsterdam is a great walking city though, so even with our random ambling, we were able to take in the numerous and iconic bridges, bicycles, and fry-stands. We also explored the infamous Red Light District and (from a distance) the I AMsterdam sign, which is sadly no longer there.

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Pre-smartphone days

If/when we return, however, there many things we have added to our NL itinerary. Mostly notably, all the incredible museums that we missed! Anne Frank, Van Gogh, Rembrandt – we definitely needed more time. I also want to visit Castle De Haar, see the tulips, and maybe spend the night in a houseboat. We’ll also need to do a better job of trying some Dutch specialties on our next trip: poffertjes (small fluffy pancakes), bitterballen (fried meat balls), and some fresh Gouda, for a start.

Finland

414107_4076007586847_1513337318_oNext on our “must return to” list is Finland, which might not have been an obvious choice seeing as we spent almost three weeks there, but at the time we 1) had very little money to spend, 2) were exhausted from finishing up our undergrad degrees, and 3) had just gotten married, which as anyone who has planned a wedding can attest, left us feeling a bit burnt out. Typically when we travel now, we avoid suitcases and we move around a lot, but as this was our first trip sans car, we failed miserably at both packing lightly and at utilizing public transportation. We also weren’t able to afford train passes or much of anything at that time; in fact, our flights and accommodations were wrangled together with the help of some of our wedding gifts and useful family connections. Regardless of what now seems like a trip very far removed from our usual preferences, at the time is was magical.

It was actually my first trip overseas, and I quite literally cried on the plane from sheer excitement. Even with very little planning and even less travel experience, we found time to act our age in a youth hostel in the Olympic Stadium of Helsinki; we then honeymooned properly in a cabin (with its very own sauna) at a lakeside resort in Kajaani, and we also watched a series of bizarre sunsets around 11pm each night. I really wouldn’t change anything about our time in Finland, but for the next visit, I do have a list of a few more things I’d like to see/do. Things like: cross into the Arctic Circle, see the Northern Lights, meet Santa Claus, go snowshoeing, step foot in Turku, and visit Olavinlinna Castle, all while listening to my favorite language in the world: suomen.

The Bahamas

536438_10200935610700815_1786181392_nTechnically we’ve been to the Bahamas a few times now, but does it really count if it’s on a cruise? I mean, don’t get me wrong, cruises are fun and economical, but they definitely keep you in a bit of a bubble. For this reason, I would love to go back to the Bahamas, without the big boat. I think it would be amazing to fly into Nassau and explore New Providence Island a little more slowly and a lot more thoroughly. There are several forts I want to see on the island, not to mention the art galleries, lighthouses, and, of course, the beaches (especially the ones on the far side of the island). At some point Tucker and I want to get our diving certification so we can explore the depths too, or if we don’t have time for that, then I want to do one of those bubble helmet dives instead!

South Korea

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Chimek

Another clear case of not enough time: our quick trip to South Korea still feels like a bit of a blur. I had just spent a month studying abroad in China, but before taking the long plane ride back to the US, Tucker and I tacked on a few days in Seoul as well. Luckily we had our very own personal tour guide as a former student of mine (and his wife) took us around the city showing us all the famous sights and, more importantly, the best eats. We tried to act cool in Gangnam, we saw the famous Blue House, we crisscrossed the many bridges and marveled at the surrounding mountains. We were also treated to the most amazing Korean BBQ, bingsu (shaved ice dessert), chimek (fried chicken and beer), and soju (traditional Korean alcohol), which fueled our love of gochujang (red chili paste) for years to come. It was truly unlike any trip we’d ever taken, and spending the time with new friends was the best part.

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Thanks Hyung-Bin and Jessica!

Of course, with so little time (and a tightly packed and carefully arranged agenda), we didn’t really even make it out of the capital. Next time, we’d love to see the notorious DMZ or to head south to the highly regarded Jeju Island. I find that a lot of my Korean students speak very fondly of the nature in their home country, and I’d love to hike a mountain, view a waterfall, or whatever else is going on in the season we find ourselves in. I’m also pretty sure I’ll never get my fill of Korean food, so obviously we need more time and access on that front. I know we didn’t even try half of what was on our list, and everything we did try, we mostly certainly want to have again!

Italy

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So sick 😦

Does anyone feel like they’ve ever seen enough of Italy? I feel like even Italians are always discovering new things they want to do and see in a country that clearly has culture coming out of every orifice. Speaking of orifices, mine were a bit sneeze-y, stuffy, and runny when we took our trip to Rome a few years ago. It was actually a bit heartbreaking to not be able to fully taste what many people regard as the king of international cuisines. Due to my weakened state and a surprise address from the Pope that weekend, we weren’t able to check off quite as many things as we’d hoped in planning that particular trip. Fortunately, we did still hit most of the highlights of the Eternal City, plus we got to see the Pope pop his head out of the little carpeted window in the Vatican, so how can I really complain?

For Rome specifically though, I know we need to see the Sistine Chapel and the rest of the Vatican Museums (when we were there, the wait to go inside was over 4 hours long). We also opted not to go into the Colosseum when we were there, partly because of crowds but also because it just looked so touristy. In hindsight, we regret not taking a closer look at such a historic structure. And then, there’s the rest of Italy we still need to explore: the fashion of Milan, the waterways of Venice, the architecture of Pisa, the art of Florence, the pizza of Naples; I mean really, there is so so much we still have to see in Italy. I also want to have a clear nose and a few more cannoli taste-tests next time.

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Waiting to hear Pope Francis

Germany

13726595_10210193233855608_8528054797553861878_nGermany unfortunately represents another set of rookie moves on our part. We spent a year living just a few hours over the border in central Poland, yet we failed to A) make it to Oktoberfest and B) visit Bavaria, the most quintessential of all the German regions. While I do sorely regret not making time for southern Germany, we did really enjoy our time in Berlin and Potsdam looking at the incredible architecture, sampling the infamous brews, and picnicking in the numerous parks. It was an absolutely lovely time, but of course, I’d love to go back for a festival or two. It’s really not our fault we missed Oktoberfest; we had wrongly assumed it took place in October, but really it’s more of a September event that actually ends in early October. Ah well, it’s on the list for our inevitable return trip. As are other famous places like: Neuschwanstein Castle, the Rhine, Cologne, and, of course, Bavaria.

Mongolia

22489965_10214825998711834_2745602979160999147_nPerhaps unlike any other place we had been, Mongolia intrigued us in so many ways. It’s really a breathtakingly beautiful country that exceeded every expectation we had for it. We visited for about a week in 2017, but unfortunately a lot of that time was taken up by work (conferences, presentations, etc.) In our free time though, we were able to pretty thoroughly explore Ulaanbaatar, including temples, yurt neighborhoods, live-music bars, and amazingly trendy restaurants. We also took a short road trip out to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, which was honestly a bit frightening for me (mostly because we opted to dismiss the rental insurance), but ultimately it gave us the best glimpse of what life is like outside UB.

It was this glimpse that sparked our conversations of returning to Mongolia. We’d love to experience more of the steppes, perhaps to try our hand at some serious horseback riding, yurt living, and other nomadic fundamentals. I’m also really eager to return to Mongolia in the dead of winter because Ulaanbaatar is consistently ranked the world’s coldest capital, and that’s something I want to experience. Although, on the flip side, I also want to make the long trek out to the Gobi dessert or the Flaming Cliffs; as one of the least densely populated countries in the world, the nature in the Land of Eternal Blue Sky is unspoiled and absolutely stunning. Okay, so apparently we need two or three more trips to Mongolia.

Malaysia

51666025_10218814551103151_7277803769331449856_nLast on this list (for now) is a place we actually visited just last year. On our way back to China from a work event in the Philippines, we took a bit of a roundabout path that allowed us to spend almost a week in Malaysia, well, in and around Kuala Lumpur anyway. Malaysia is a tricky country to fully explore in a short amount of time because it’s made up of part of a peninsula (West Malaysia) and part of the island of Borneo (East Malaysia), the two regions being about 400 miles apart. For this reason, although we feel pretty good about our exploration of the amazing capital city, typically called KL for short, we still really want to explore some of the other regions of this incredibly diverse country.

51743204_10218802008229587_1851030617089638400_nWe never made it to a beach while we were in Malaysia, so maybe we’ll start there on a subsequent trip. There are many islands off the coasts of both West and East Malaysia that look amazingly beautiful and relaxing. There are also several world-renowned national parks, which are home to a collection of unique indigenous species that Tucker really wants to check out. Of course, as we found in KL, Malaysia seems to enjoy extremes sports as well, so maybe we’ll try the popular zip-lining, white water rafting, or jungle trekking activities while we’re at it!

65967210_10219977305371281_6241891798231285760_nOf course, there are three countries, not previously mentioned, that are and will indefinitely be on our return radar: the United States, Poland, and China. These are the places we have the greatest connection to, and thus will need many re-visits and reunions to sustain us. Luckily, our friends and family in Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando, Łódź, Hefei, and Shanghai continue to make us feel like we never left. Traveling around the world and learning about different cultures and languages has been a huge part of my life, and I sincerely hope it always will be. Whether we make it back to any of these places, or onto any of the other 150+ countries still on my list, I’ll forever be grateful for these opportunities and the people who have had a hand in making them happen.

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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So What’s Next?

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Busy livin’ it up!

Summer is coming to a close, and much like Tucker and I ourselves, you might be wondering what’s next for us? What are we doing? Where even are we? I know I don’t do a great job of keeping up-to-date on Facebook and other social media (mostly because I tend to post photos weeks or even months after the events actually happened), but I thought maybe I could share our plan and thought process here for anyone trying to keep up.

Back in the US (for family fun/easy transitioning):

My Fellowship ended and our China visas expired this July, so Tucker and I (and my parents) celebrated the upcoming changes by taking an incredible trip to Japan. We said our goodbyes to Asia (for now), really enjoyed the freedom of having zero work responsibilities, and began to plan what we wanted to do next. Of course, before any plans could really get underway, we had to make a stop back in Atlanta to visit friends and family (thanks to everyone who was able to hang out with us this summer – we had an amazing time!). After our family fun in GA, we had a bit more in FL before setting to work unpacking, consolidating, and repacking – our 10 boxes, 5 suitcases and a few odds and ends are currently all in a closet and ready to ship out.

Working online:

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Love ’em both so far!

While working on getting our physical items into place, I also started teaching online. I’m currently working with VIP Kid and Lingoda, and typically teach 5-7 classes a day. VIP Kid uses their own platform to create a one-on-one virtual classroom for Chinese students aged 5-14. It has been so much fun for me to keep this connection to China (for example, I got to wish all the kiddos a happy Mid-Autumn Festival this weekend and show off my vast mooncake knowledge). I’ve also really enjoyed being able to branch out in my field by teaching kids instead of adults (for the first time ever!). So far I think my favorite moment was when I was trying to get a student to guess the word “alligator” by giving clues like “it is dangerous”, “it can live both in the water and on land”, “it goes chomp, chomp ” (with the accompanying hand movements), and he very confidently yelled “it’s a DUCK”! They really are hilarious and so impressive with their English skills!

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Tea is a must before my morning classes

Lingoda, on the other hand, is more of a video-conference style classroom geared toward adults. I can teach up to five students at a time, and we cover a variety of topics from specific grammar features to business communication skills. The company is based in Europe, but markets to English learners everywhere, which is awesome because not only am I being paid in Euros (how cool is that?!), but also in my less than one month of working for them, I’ve had students from over 30 different countries. I love being back “in” classrooms with mixed international groups; we have the BEST conversations! In addition to VIP Kid and Lingoda, Tucker and I have kept up with our English test recordings that we started doing in China as well. We’re both getting really good at our respective “Boy 3” and “Girl 2” voices. Needless to say, I’ve definitely been keeping myself busy work-wise, and I’m excited to say that I might never have to get out of my sweatpants ever again!

Off to the Great White North:

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Way up there

Okay, so now that I can work anywhere in the world, where are we going? Good question. In less than two weeks, Tucker and I are headed up to Canada for at least a month to check out the living/working situations in Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City. Neither one of us have ever visited this part of Canada, so before we make the decision to move there semi-permanently, we want to check it out in-person. Tucker is also waist-deep in job applications at the moment, and while we wait for news (and potential offers/visa paperwork) we’d like to get to know the lay of the land. By the way, if anyone knows someone looking for a highly qualified laboratory scientist in ON or QC, let us know!

Why Canada?

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In our element!

If you’ve ever spoken to me about my travel/living abroad obsession, you might be surprised that Canada is so high on our list of potential new homes. So why Canada? We have quite a few reasons: first, it’s Tucker’s turn to choose, and he’s dying for 1) someplace cold and 2) an easier language situation (after Polish and Chinese I think he wants to have even just a slight chance at fluency). We also want to bring our pups along with us this time, and since I refuse to cargo them, that means we’re really limited to the US’s two neighboring countries. Although I still have big plans to move to South America and the Middle East and some far flung Pacific island, for now, we need to be able to drive to our destination, all paws accounted for. Plus, I’ve always wanted to improve my French. 🙂

If not Canada, then what?

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Thanks NAFTA!

Of course, visas can be tricky, new jobs can be finicky, and Canada seems to be a place that wants long-term immigrants, not the flaky 2-3 year types like us. So, if we’re unable to get things to work out in the Great White North (or we find that it doesn’t fit our needs/wants), then we’ll be looking to Mexico next. Perhaps spending a month or two down there to assess the situation and eventually move all our stuff to our new country of residence, wherever it may be. Right now, we have two vastly different options ahead of us, countless exciting possibilities, and we’re definitely ready for whatever comes next!

Long-term plans:

So that’s what we have planned for our immediate future. We shouldn’t be too far away this time, but we are still making sure to find some new places and opportunities to explore. I promise when we settle into our new home, I’ll be sure to share the news all over my social media! As for the not-so-immediate future, Tucker and I are still both planning to take the foreign service exam next year (although I’m really having a hard time imaging myself no longer teaching!), but we’ll just have to see how that goes. We’re actually both interested in trying out some field-adjacent jobs in the future; I’ve been thinking about maybe something with international programming, and he’s been looking into hospital labs and even field service engineering. Of course, we do plan to continue living abroad in a variety of locations for the foreseeable future as well (hopefully with furry children in tow). The possibilities are truly endless!

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Soon-to-be world travelers!

Things We’ll Miss Most About China

I keep furtively glancing at my calendar, realizing that we’re leaving China in a mere 90 days, and I can’t help but feel a little sad. Just like our last few months in Poland, I keep finding myself saying things like “I wonder if this is the last time we’ll eat here” or “this will probably be our last Taobao order”, etc. It’s always hard to say goodbye, but to help make sure I never forget the details of living in China, I created this handy list of things we’ll miss most (one for each letter of the alphabet, of course):

a
Anda

Anda: Anda is the nickname of Anhui University. It’s probably the first Chinese word I learned to say correctly (tones and all) because if not, we’d have ended up in a taxi to who-knows-where rather than on our way home. But much more than the word itself, I will miss what it represents: the students and teachers I’ve gotten to know over the last year and a half. My time in China would have been entirely different without their continued encouragement, support, and friendship, and I’m so thankful for the memories we’ve shared.

Bubble Tea: Although I’m not a bubble tea fanatic (like some people I know), I will definitely still miss this sweet concoction. Tea with milk, sugar, and tapioca pearls; served piping hot in winter or with a mound of ice in summer, what’s not to love?

c
Cha

Cha: I never really considered myself a tea (“cha”) snob, but after having some of the best teas in the world readily available and often free at every restaurant and hotel, I might have to accept that moniker in the future. The variety and quality of tea in China really is above the rest, and it’s something I most certainly will miss!

Darunfa: Darunfa is our grocery store of choice, and although it stresses me out at times (especially on the weekends), there are so many things I’ll miss about it. The people keenly observing what Tucker and I are buying, the over-the-top decorations and displays, and especially the freshly made Tiantian balls that rarely made it all the way home, just to name a few.

Eleme: Having a pizza delivered is one thing, but Eleme delivered it all. What a great way to try out all the various Chinese dishes within a 5km radius, and all without having to get dressed!

f
Festivals

Festivals: After almost two years in China I can safely say the US just doesn’t have enough festivals. I’m going to miss all the talk about Chinese traditions and questions about whether or not I ate the respective holiday snacks: mooncakes, dumplings, zongzi, etc. I’ll also miss all the red and yellow.

Gaotie: Gaotie, or high-speed trains, are my absolute favorite way to travel, and I’ll miss them sorely. From the odd overhead announcements to the constant smell of instant noodles “cooking”, I will be thinking (and talking) about Chinese train travel for years to come.

Hotpot: How could we not miss the experience that is going out to hotpot with friends? From deciding which ingredients are okay for Dani to try to testing just how spicy we can go, it doesn’t seem to get old. Although the food itself is delicious and something that will certainly be missed, the time with our friends is even harder to let go of.

i
Insanity

Insanity: China’s crazy! Well, it can be crazy – travel during Golden Week and you’ll see (really even Saturdays at the grocery store or a weekday in rush hour counts as insanity for me), but I’m going to miss it for sure. The atmosphere created when you’re surrounded by so many other people just doing their thing is really something I’ve learned to appreciate. “People mountain, people sea” will be missed, but I’m happy to have been a part of these tides at least for awhile.

Jianbing: Specific street foods are always something we crave, and for me the Chinese street food I’ll miss the most is Jianbing (a crepe-like folded sandwich thing that usually has a crispy cracker in the center). Somehow I always seem to eat them early in the morning when we’re on our way somewhere quick, so I associate them with big events and on-the-go eating, which are just two more things I’ll miss about our time spent in China.

Kaishui: Someone recently asked why I still don’t drink hot water (“kaishui”), and I responded with a loud “I do!” When I’m sick, it’s my new favorite thing to drink, and if that’s not enough, just let me say how much I’ll miss having it readily available for my tea. From classrooms and offices to trains and airports, I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle life without the possibility of a cup of tea wherever I am.

l
Luxing (Traveling)

Luxing: Speaking of trains and planes, I will miss traveling (“luxing”) around China immensely. What an incredibly beautiful (and vast) country this is. I’ll forever talk about the high speed trains, English signs and maps, and ultimately how easy China made it for me and Tucker to simply take it all in.

Malls: I never really understood the importance of malls until I moved abroad. In the US I never went to a mall – foreign brands? Foreign foods? Who needs them? Now I know: expats do! I also love that I now associate Starbucks, Pizzahut, and Walmart with malls! Thanks China!

n
Noodles

Noodles: How will I live without my daily bowl of Chinese noodles? Cheap, delicious, and widely available, I eat a lot of noodles here, and I will definitely miss my favorites when we go. Chongqing mian, dandan mian, niurou banmian; I’m going to have to work through my withdrawals carefully.

Our Home: Hefei is without a doubt my favorite city in China even though I know no local believes me when I say that. It will forever be one of our homes, and the Chinese city we know the best; therefore, it’s my favorite. Whenever we get back to Hefei after traveling we always say “home sweet Hefei”, and that’s what it is: a pretty sweet place to live.

Pengyou: This time leaving our pengyou (“friends”) behind is much harder than before because unlike most of the other places we’ve lived, where we can easily stay connected with the people we’ve met with Facebook or Instagram, China will be different. I will miss reading my friends daily WeChat moments, I will miss being able to share in the seasonal rituals like the uploading of weather events, and I will definitely miss the last minute plans to get together just for fun.

q
Qingwen (Excuse me, may I ask?)

Qingwen: Qingwen means “excuse me, may I ask…”, and it’s a phrase we have used A LOT during our time in China. Although I probably won’t miss the phrase itself, I will miss the ability to ask strangers for help no matter how small or obvious the solution is. We have been helped far and wide in China (we’ve even had a server cut up our food for us), and I will miss this particular brand of hospitality immensely.

RMB: Renmenbin, the people’s currency, has been good to us. It doesn’t take a lot of money to have a really nice life in China – going out with friends, traveling to nearby tourist locations, and so many of the fun parts of our China experience were so easy to do (and do often) because they were extremely affordable. I’ll definitely miss all the quick, cheap fun we’ve had.

s
Shufa (calligraphy)

Shufa: Shufa is “calligraphy”, which I’ll miss seeing on every hotel and restaurant wall, but more than that, I’ll miss the characters themselves. There is nothing that warms a Linguist’s heart quite like an ancient and unique writing system. Literally everything around me is an interesting language puzzle to solve, and although Tucker might not miss the headaches that caused, I’ll certainly miss the challenge!

Taxi Drivers: Our “paid friends”, as someone once put it, will definitely be missed. I really enjoyed my chats with drivers all around the country. My Chinese isn’t great, but it’s easy to ask about someone’s kids and let them do all the talking. I also appreciate all those drivers who took their time to teach us new vocabulary or pronunciation details – we have used it all!

u
Uniqueness

Uniqueness: China’s weird! And I love it! I’ve never seen a place that mixes extremes in such a way, and I love how much I have learned from that. I’ll miss the uniqueness of China, and I’ll do my best to continue sharing how awesome being a little different can be.

Visas: I will certainly miss the small piece of paper that allows us to travel freely in and out of this country, and I truly hope to get another one soon. It’s always hard to leave, but it’s especially hard when you can’t necessarily come back whenever you want. Here’s to an upcoming paperwork session!

WeChat Pay: The ease, the security, the practicality, I will miss WeChat Pay more than I can even write right now. I have often said WeChat is the lifeblood of China, and I stand by that. It allowed us to be independent, yet even more connected to the people and culture. I love all the surprised looks we get when we ask, “Weixin keyi ma?”.

x
Xuesheng (students)

Xuesheng: My students (“xuesheng”)! The first group I turn to for cultural/logistical questions! The real reason I do what I do! I will miss spending every week laughing at the cultural faux pas I make, bonding over the non-temperature controlled classrooms, and working together to learn and build their language skills. My students are very fast to tell me they love me, and as culturally awkward as it is for me to return the favor, I do love them, and will miss our class (and non-class) times immensely.

Yellow Mountain: The image I will carry in my head of Anhui province is one of Huangshan (Yellow Mountain). It is arguably one of the most beautiful places in China, and is central to a lot of Eastern China’s history. I’ll miss the fact that it’s only a two hour train ride away, but at least I’ll have a beautiful visual to share when I talk about my people and home in Anhui.

z
Zhongguo Wenhua (Chinese culture)

Zhongguo Wenhua: “Chinese culture” is the only way I could sum up the rest of the things we’re going to miss. We’ve learned so much and have had an incredible time getting to know this country, some of its people, and their culture. From the small things like abundantly available hotel slippers to the large things like the value of community, I’m so thankful for the perspectives we’ve gained and the time we’ve spent in China.

中国,我们已经想念你了。

China, we miss you already.

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Asian Island Adventures

51236081_10218703184719061_8876367206510755840_nThe second New Year (also known as the Chinese New Year or the Lunar New Year) has come and gone, and with it, possibly our last long winter break off together. Just like last year, the Chinese university semester break coincides with the holiday giving us several weeks off, which, of course, we put to good use! My program had its mid-year meeting and conference in the Philippines this year, and somehow, Tucker and I managed to squeeze in three (and a half) other destinations on our island hopping itinerary. You might have seen the hundreds of photos on Facebook, but I’d also like to share a few words about our time traveling in South Asia. To be honest, it’s a little surreal to be writing this as I watch the snow fall outside, but here we go!

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Macau/HK

50416214_10218648248945701_250725072455598080_nOur first stop was Macau, a “special administrative region” of China. It gets this rather long name due to it being somewhere between a province and another country entirely. It’s a part of China, but it’s also not China, which is actually one of the reasons we wanted to visit. We wanted to see if there were any noticeable differences. We also wanted to visit because we were eager for another taste of Portugal. Macau used to be a Portuguese colony and has retained quite a bit of the Portuguese flair in architecture, food, and language. It was an incredible mix of the two cultures: tons of Chinese New Year decorations along the beautiful mosaic walkways, pork dumplings could be ordered with a side of garlic bread and red wine, and all the signs were in both Chinese and Portuguese, which was very exciting for this language nerd. The weather was beautiful while we were there, so we were able to walk almost the entire city by foot. Macau is made up of a small peninsula and island on the southern coast of China. The peninsula is where the Old Town is with its ruins, churches, and forts, and the casino-filled island gives Macau the nickname “The Vegas of the East”. We had an amazing time exploring both: taking selfies, eating all the street food, and even trying our hand at gambling again (much to my chagrin).

50679451_10218668969583704_4242597479859617792_nAfter a few days of strolling around Macau’s narrow alleyways, we took a massive speed boat (TurboJet) to our next destination just across the water: Hong Kong. This was actually our second trip to Hong Kong, but last time we didn’t quite get to everything on our list – this short stopover on the way to Midyear was our second chance. We had less than 24 hours in the city, but we managed to make it out to Lantou Island to see the incredible Buddha and cableway there, we took the bus to the top of Victoria Peak to watch the sunset over the city, and we went to Tim Ho Wan for the world’s cheapest Michelin Star eats. While I definitely preferred Macau’s laid back, European vibes, it’s hard to not like Hong Kong as well. Macau and Hong Kong are a couple of tiny islands (and respective peninsulas) that I highly recommend everyone to visit! No visas needed for US citizens! 🙂

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The Philippines

51544827_10218758613504746_7490417853212917760_nAll too soon it was time to fly to the Philippines and get to work. When we first landed in the Philippines it was chaos! Passengers getting up and grabbing their bags before the plane had stopped moving; people sitting on seemingly every inch of the floor in the airport; signs for flight changes being moved by hand from gate to gate; loud cover songs of 2000’s hits playing in every corner of the terminal, etc. All I could think was “Well, we’re definitely not in China anymore.” As we sat waiting for our flight though, the newness wore off, and it was easy to see that the Philippines are just plain fun! In fact, their national slogan is “It’s more fun in the Philippines”, and I totally got it. Smiles were everywhere! The flight attendants wore bright yellow polos and hummed songs as we boarded. Fellow passengers sang along with the music they heard on the plane. The joy was contagious!

51090853_10218728310947201_775519455542247424_nThe first week we were in the Philippines I had to “work”. I attended meetings with the other Fellows, we planned and executed various group activities, and generally bonded and reconnected after our last five months apart in our various host cities/countries. For this part of Midyear, we were put up in a resort on Mactan Island, which was incredibly fancy and not the sort of place Tucker and I usually go for (I’ve never heard so many “yes ma’ams” and “hello sirs” in my life). It was beyond beautiful though, and luckily Tucker was able to take full advantage of the beach, the snorkeling, the infinity pool, etc. However, after a few days completely devoid of local culture, I was definitely ready to get to our next location: Cebu City. It was here that we attended and presented at a local teacher training conference held at the University San Jose Recoletos. Easily my favorite part of Midyear, I was able to meet and interact with many local Filipina/o teachers and get a much better feel for what life in the Philippines is really like.

 

51300721_10218758619504896_748782893282623488_nOnce the conference and Midyear were officially over, Tucker and I hadn’t quite had our fill of the Philippines, so we headed to Manila for some good old-fashioned touristing. Manila is an incredible city with some of the best food I’ve had in a long while. Their specialty seemed to be fusion restaurants. We had super interesting and delicious food at Loco Manuk (Filipino, Peruvian, and Chinese) and El Chupacabra (Filipino and Mexican), and saw a Japanese-French Cafe that looked amazing as well! In addition to the incredible food, we also had a great time walking around Manila Bay, grabbing a drink in Intramuros (the Old Town), and watching the Super Bowl at a local expat bar. The Philippines boasts an amazing mix of languages and cultures, and it was so fun for us to be able to use English (commonly spoken there) to ask about a million questions of our taxi drivers, servers, and any other local we could find. We learned about the strong influence of Catholicism in the Philippines, the new-ish movement towards environmental clean up, and most of all we learned how welcoming and friendly the people are.

Singapore

52466008_10218786674966265_1366061700507238400_nAt this point we were over the halfway mark of our trip, and my body had had enough. I left Manila with a fever and several other ailments (not so fun to describe), but I was still super excited to see Singapore! We watched Crazy Rich Asians on another leg of this trip in preparation, but the movie doesn’t do the city justice. It is by far the cleanest city I’ve ever seen, and has represented its multicultural population incredibly well! Singapore is made up of large groups of ethnic Chinese, Malays, and Indians, and each has a dedicated area of the city where you can find their respective religious buildings, restaurants, and specialized grocery stores. Even with the diverse neighborhoods in place, the city as a whole really seems to cater to each group in so many ways. Colorful, artistic, and clearly very well-off, there are so many lovely parks and public spaces in this city, where we saw families wearing everything from tank tops and sundresses to saris and hijabs. I often talk about places where there is a mix of cultures, but its usually a watered down mix, where clearly one culture has dominated, but in Singapore they were all there loud and proud. It was amazing!

However, after a few days in Singapore I definitely had another “this is clearly not China moment”. Everything was so quiet, there weren’t many people around, and the “no spitting” signs actually seemed to work, as we saw absolutely no spitting while we were there! Signs like these were everywhere, covering the basics like “no littering $1000” and the bizarre like “no chewing gum $500”, ultimately giving the city a punny nickname: Singapore, a “fine” city. Tucker really loved Singapore – so many interesting foods to try, lots of activities to partake in (the Trick Eye Museum, Universal Studios, and beer tastings to name a few), but I was a little hesitant. It was almost a little too clean and a little too “nice” for me. I guess I like my cities a little more rough around the edges, but as far as a place to vacation and experience as many authentic Asian cultures and foods as possible, it has got to be number one on my list!

Malaysia

The last stop on this epic journey was Kuala Lumpur (usually called KL), Malyasia. We ended up taking a Transtar bus from Singapore to Malaysia because it was only about a 6 hour drive and the price was right. Little did I know that $30 was going to buy me the best bus ride of my life! We had recliners, tea service, lunch, personal TVs, and gorgeous views of the Malaysian jungles. If you’re ever in this area, take this bus ride! Upon our arrival in KL, I couldn’t help feeling a little like Goldilocks. The Philippines was maybe a little too outgoing for me, and Singapore was a little too uppity, was Malaysia going to be just right?

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51885758_10218802010149635_1122751154648776704_nIt turns out KL was full of surprises for us. The majority of people living in Malaysia are Muslim, so it was much more conservative than I was expecting. Most everyone wore long sleeves and pants despite the high temperatures, and the presence of beautiful and delicious “mocktails” was at an all time high for me. KL is actually not on an island, and to us, it seemed like we lost that friendly, carefree island-vibe as soon as we arrived. Interactions were a bit more abrupt and businesslike – like they usually are, I suppose. Another surprise was the color we saw all around us – both the Philippines and Singapore were incredibly colorful cities, but I think any city would be hard pressed to match the vibrancy of KL. Brightly colored murals everywhere, some of the lushest, greenest trees I’ve ever seen against the bluest of skies, and the insanely colorful Batu Caves just outside the city made for some incredible scenes (and photos).

There’s no possible way for me to share everything we saw and learned on this trip, but I hope you enjoyed reading a few of the details! After reflecting on any of our travels, it never ceases to amaze me how little I actually know about the world I live in, and taking trips like this only intensifies the curiosity I have for all the places I haven’t yet been to! I hope no matter where Tucker and I end up next, we can continue these adventures because this experience, like so many before it, was truly remarkable.

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China Bucket List – Nearing the End

The New Year is here! And like many people, it has me both reminiscing about 2018 and planning for the upcoming year. In particular, Tucker and I have been looking at what we’ve accomplished China-wise since our move to Hefei. It’s beginning to hit us that we only have a few months left of living in this incredible country, so our China bucket list has become a bit of a priority. With this in mind, here are some of the things we accomplished in 2018 and a few more that we’re still hoping to cross off before our impending departure. If you’re ever in China, I highly recommend each item on this list!

25550266_10215398260578023_5563219324360546085_n✔ Learn to play Mahjong

As game lovers, we knew we would have to learn to play Mahjong while in China, but what we didn’t expect was how much we’d love it! Since our learning the game, we have bought our own set of tiles and have played in many a Mahjong room. It’s a bit like Gin Rummy, but with added Chinese practice – perfect for me!

 

22195457_10214729980991451_5640761874681964647_n✔ Visit a Buddhist Temple

Although China as a whole isn’t very religious, there are many temples still in use around the country. When we visited Nanjing during Golden Week last year, we climbed to the top of Jiming Temple and burned incense in order to strip away our negative qualities and purify our inner-selves (or so they say).

 

33165983_10216691252622016_2671023896341250048_n✔ Perfect our Chopsticks Skills

Just like many other Chinese takeout lovers around the world, we weren’t exactly new to chopsticks; however, there were many foods we had never attempted to eat with them before (like soup or salad for instance). But it didn’t take long for our hand cramps to disappear, leaving behind beautiful chopstick form and a sense of mastery.

 

23843625_10215123442787750_5496286057710795872_n✔ Hike Huangshan

We live in Anhui province, which is famous for having the most beautiful mountain in China: Huangshan (Yellow Mountain). It was made very clear to us that we had to visit the mountain, preferably once in each season. Well, a year and a half in, and we’ve made it to the top of Huangshan twice – once in November and once in April.

 

48427268_10218385939028117_6167021417226305536_n✔ Share Hotpot and Selfies with Friends

This is a bucket list item that we have happily done dozens of times. If grabbing a burger and a beer is the American way of hanging out with friends, hotpot and selfies are the Chinese way, and we’ve had so much fun every time!

 

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✔ Stare in Awe at the Terra-Cotta Warriors

History was never my favorite subject, but when it’s right in front of you, it’s hard to feel that way. The massive tomb and insane number of true-to-size warriors, horses, and chariots is something I’ll never forget. There is so much history here, and I’m happy to be taking it all in.

 

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✔ Visit the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival

Another absolute must-do for us in China was the Ice Festival in the far north of Dongbei. We’d heard about and seen many pictures of this event, but being surrounded in buildings made of ice was way cooler (see what I did there) than what we could have imagined. Honestly, I’m still not sure if it was the cold or the beautiful sculptures that took our breath away.

 

47573080_10218296931362981_8222027968302546944_n✔ Devour the Dim Sum in South China

When people ask me what my favorite Chinese food is, I often say Guangdong style. Sweet BBQ pork buns, light and fresh spring rolls, fluffy pineapple pastries, never ending tea for the table; dim sum is my favorite, and the best version we’ve ever had was in the region itself, in the city of Guangzhou.

 

29186978_10216122142394616_4670802097008799648_n✔ Wander around West Lake

There’s a Chinese saying “in Heaven there is paradise, on Earth, Suzhou and Hangzhou”. These are two cities know for their beauty and ancient Chinese charm. Tucker and I have been fortunate enough to visit them both (multiple times), and can now say with certainty that West Lake is one of the prettiest places in all of China.

 

31347884_10216502220376328_7998563502147002746_n✔ Feel like a Kid at Disneyland Shanghai

Everyone knows my family loves Disney, so of course it was on our list to visit the newest of the parks. How can I describe it as anything other than magical? A large pink castle, new roller coasters to ride, completely different foods and snacks to try, plus, we went with my parents which meant that we also got a much-needed dose of family time.

 

34395359_10216784503553231_2112007591797194752_n✔ Learn about the Minority Groups in China

China is a big place with a lot of people, and in many regions that means there are different ethnicities mixed in. When we visited Yunnan (in China’s southwest corner), we were able to learn more about these groups of people, where they live, what languages they speak, and how they have coped with the rapidly changing, modern China.

 

35475218_10216887149439314_3449926763910529024_n✔ Celebrate Dragon Boat Festival

Every summer, China celebrates an ancient legend by racing their famous dragon boats and eating lots of zongzi (think Chinese tamales). We were able to take part in these festivities by joining the crowds at Hefei’s Swan Lake for the races and following them up with a home-cooked meal (including many varieties of zongzi) at a colleague’s house.

 

42409352_10217684087802275_4573337294823489536_n✔ Drink Tsingtao from the Source

One of the most popular beers in China (thus one of the most popular beers in the world) is Tsingtao, which comes from the previously German-occupied city of Qingdao. As beer lovers, Tucker and I were very excited to traipse around this coastal city tasting all the local brews. We also visited the brewery itself, which had surprises around every corner – including a drunkenness simulator and a pop-up rave with pandas!

✔ Show our Families around our Home

This is one of the things I’m most thankful to have crossed off our list. We have both been lucky enough to host family members in China. It’s so much fun for us to show the places we love to the people we love. My parents visited in the spring, and Tucker’s mom and aunt in the fall. So many memories made and priceless experiences shared in-person this time!

 

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✔ Explore some Rice Paddies

When you picture China maybe you picture vast terraced mountains like these. I can’t remember what I first pictured when thinking of China, but I hope it was this. Although now I know that views like this aren’t around every corner, it doesn’t change the fact that when you do happen across them, you can’t help but be amazed. Definitely makes me think about my daily bowl of rice a little differently.

 

45111553_10217993293292219_5974621691412742144_n✔ Walk along the Great Wall

The most famous landmark in all of China has to be the Great Wall. Of course it’s on every China bucket list, but we took it one step further. We have actually walked on the 3 most famous sections of the Great Wall: Mutianyu, Badaling, and Jinshanling. Three sections, in three different seasons. Maybe we’ll have to come back one winter to see a fourth, snowy section.

 

43104942_10217769755343910_2411993070099759104_n✔ Make Dumplings from Scratch

Although I’m not really into cooking, I did want to experience the magic of Chinese cuisine firsthand. We made a friend just after we arrived in China who said she loves to cook, and offered to show us how to make our own dumplings. Filling, wrappers, everything! We had a great time shopping, preparing, cooking, and eating, and now I can say I’ve done it at least once!

 

46485909_10218117963368893_9080195655615381504_n✔ Crisscross the Yangtze

Along with the Great Wall, the Yangtze river is synonymous with China in my mind. I wanted to walk along it, cruise down it, maybe even swim in it (hard “no” on that now though). The river is central to China in so many ways, and nothing seems to remind me of what I thought about China prior to coming here quite like the Great River.

 

✔ View the Real Pandora at Zhangjiajie

So many places ended up on our list because of the recommendations of others, and Zhangjiajie was one of these. It’s the inspiration behind Pandora’s floating mountains in the movie Avatar, but I think hands down the real mountains were more beautiful. We visited on a snowy day in December and were definitely drawn into another world.

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✔ Soak in some Natural Hot Springs

The most recently completed item on our list was to relax and enjoy some of nature’s jacuzzis (otherwise known as hot springs). Near Hefei is a city called Chaohu, which is home to one of the largest freshwater lakes in China as well as a number of natural hot springs. It was a great way to end the semester, and begin thinking about what’s coming up on our collective agenda.

Still to come…

See some Pandas in Chengdu

In just a few days we’ll be on our way to Sichuan – a province in the west of China, famous for housing the country’s national treasure and some of the spiciest food on the continent. Can’t wait!

□ Gamble in Macau

We meant to go to Macau last year, but due to poor planning and holiday crowds, we didn’t make it. Luckily it’s back on the schedule for later this month! It’s known as the Vegas of the East, so maybe we’ll finally have a little luck at a casino.

□ Try Acupuncture

While not as popular as I thought it would be in China, as a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) practice, both Tucker and I are eager to try it out. He’s not a huge fan of needles though – wish us luck!

□ Practice Chinese Calligraphy

Shufa (or calligraphy) is a well-respected art form here, and it’s easy to see why. Chinese characters are rich in meaning and symbolism, which is why calligraphy here is more than just nice handwriting. It’s often compared to poetry or painting, and I’m super excited to try out my abilities.

□ Sample the Top 10 Noodles and Top 10 Teas of China

One last ongoing item on our list is to try the most famous noodles and most famous teas from around China. We’re always on the lookout for items on our list as we travel around, but we’ve been able to scout out some imported noodles/teas around Hefei as well. Gotta try ’em all!

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In reality, there are so many more things that made it onto our China bucket list, and we seemingly add something new just about every week, ensuring there’s no end to our exploration. However, these definitely stand out as some of the highlights so far – experiences that we’re not likely to ever forget. What a truly amazing way to spend our 2018! Here’s to even more adventures in 2019!

 

Our Packing Process

37500336_10217149019145893_5591727216695181312_nYou might have noticed that Tucker and I like to go on trips. A lot of trips. 🙂 And since we typically try to travel as cheaply as possible, we usually end up with long bus/train rides, fairly small accommodations (usually hostels), and ultimately a lot of walking. All of these factors (in addition to my scrawny arms and general aversion towards planning) have turned me into somewhat of an expert packer. For anything from 4 days to 40 days, I pack everything Tucker and I need in 2 regular-sized backpacks and 1 duffle bag, and it usually takes me about 20 minutes. I have whittled down my packing process and have come close to perfecting it (at least for our needs), and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned with other trip-takers!

About Bags: I prefer to use regular backpacks, not backpacking backpacks, for several reasons. First, those huge ones that make you look like you’re about to hike the Himalayas are super expensive. I’m also a bit rough on my luggage (not to mention how the airlines treat them), so I just go with cheap back-to-school type bags. I like ones with only two pockets (one large and one small), and Tucker likes ALL THE POCKETS! Regular backpacks afford us a lot of variety, and they don’t break the bank when we need to replace them. In addition to cost is the versatility of a smaller bag. Often when we’re traveling we like to take day trips. It’s nice to have a smaller bag available for day-use as well. However, I will say that on occasion we have packed both backpacks a little too full and had to empty a bag onto the hotel bed before taking one of said day trips! You live and learn, I guess.

IMG_0672We also always bring a duffle bag as opposed to a rolling bag. The nice thing about a duffle is that it allows us to keep our hands free. One of us will sling it over our shoulder and happily traverse any sort of terrain (hundreds of stairs, cobble stones, dirt paths, etc.) all while holding a map, a phone, a water bottle, or anything else we might need. It’s also much easier to travel on a bus/train with a duffle than it is with a rolling bag. Our bag can be thrown in the overhead compartments, squashed under our feet, or stacked with other luggage in a separate area. We’ve also had zero issues with a duffle bag breaking (knock on wood!), and even if we did, they’re fairly easy to fix or replace. We have, however, broken wheels off of rolling bags, and that was not easily fixed. Instead it was dragged along behind us…rather loudly.

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Huge bummer

Toiletries: For our toiletries I typically pack two small pouches. I pretty much always have them prepped and ready to go with things like travel shampoo, body wash, q-tips, etc. Sometimes I separate our items into a sort of his-and-her situation, especially if we aren’t sharing a bathroom. Sometimes I’ll have them separated by stuff used in the shower/bathroom and other, non-wet things (like medicine, tissues, etc.). I also like to use Ziploc bags to keep things separate and leak-free. When you’re flying, you generally need them anyway, but even with ground travel, the Ziplocs have been lifesavers! We usually use them until they’re falling apart, so hopefully the environment will forgive me this use of plastic.

Clothes: This is probably where Tucker and I differ from most packers. We are rewear-ers. I’ll rewear most pants and shirts at least twice on a trip, which allows me to really cut down on the weight and bulk of our bags. For longer trips, we also rely on laundry facilities. We’ve done laundry in countless hotels/hostels, local laundromats, and yes, even in the sink (à la Rick Steves). The only thing we don’t skimp on is underwear and socks. There is nothing as bad as running out of clean underwear or socks! Another essential packing item for us is a trash bag. We use a trash bag to differentiate between the clothes we can still wear and the ones that must be washed before they touch our bodies again. This is really helpful because when rewearing clothes (especially in tropical locations) they can get a little ripe after awhile. Using a trash bag keeps that dirty laundry smell to a minimum.

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Other: Other things we pack include our collection of electronics: cellphone chargers, laptop, laptop charger, power bank, and adapters. I wish I had a nice tip for packing these things, but honestly we just shove them into an outer pocket. I will say that when traveling internationally, the smaller your adapter is, the better. We have some that fall out of the outlets because the adapter plus the weight of the plug/cord is just too much for the outlet to handle. We also always make sure to pack what we call “bag food”. It’s our supply of emergency snacks like granola bars, nuts, etc. Sometimes our transportation takes place in the wee hours, and as Tucker will attest, I can get pretty hangry. We try not to dip into the bag food too often, I mean, part of the reason we travel is to try all the local foods, but I will say that we have been extremely thankful for that Belvita on more than one occasion.

IMG_0670Souvenirs: Finally I’ve heard several people mention that they have had to buy additional suitcases for the souvenirs they bought while traveling (this may or may not have happened to us on occasion as well!). Typically I try to focus on collecting photos (and the occasional, functional item) for myself, but we often want to bring back souvenirs for friends and family as well. When looking for things to bring back, we typically aim for flat, sturdy items (wall art, bookmarks, games, etc.). They pack the best, whether for short or long-term storage/travel. I also really like to send postcards in lieu of gifts. If you travel a lot or live abroad giving gifts becomes expensive and exceedingly difficult to do in a timely manner, so instead I like to show I’m thinking of someone by sending a postcard from wherever I happen to be. I absolutely love getting mail, and I think most people would agree!

So that’s how we do it! It’s nothing special or groundbreaking; just taking the experiences/lessons as they come and adjusting as we go. There’s really no wrong way to pack though, and as we always remind ourselves when we’re walking out the door: all you really need is your ID, a form of payment, and a sense of adventure! 🙂

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Totally worth any packing hassle or mishap!