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.

30 Lessons I’ve Learned in My 30 Years

1This month I turned 30, which of course has me reflecting. Reflecting on the now three decades of life I’ve lived, and perhaps more importantly, on the three decades of lessons I’ve learned. I truly feel I learn something each and every day, and sometimes these lessons are what I consider to be “life lessons”, nuggets of advice that I try to take with me and live by, not just in the moments that test me, but throughout all the moments I’ve been given.

Of course, this can be tricky to do – there’s a lot to process in our daily lives, and it can be hard to focus on keeping the things we’ve learned front and center. For this reason, for my 30th birthday, I’ve listed out 30 things (in no particular order) that I personally try to remember and further infuse into each of my currently 15 million+ minutes of life.

You can always learn something. At any time, from any person, in any situation, there is always a way to learn and grow.

3Ask questions. One of the best ways I know to learn and grow is by asking questions. I used to be embarrassed to be the person who always had a question or two, but now I realize how valuable questions can truly be for our own understanding and for others’.

Try everything. Now I just think of the Zootopia song, but honestly, it’s great advice: try anything and everything. Always be open to new things because you never know what you might discover.

Experience and wisdom are not necessarily age-based. We have a tendency to believe that our added years bring us wisdom, and while for many of us it feels that way as we continue to progress through our lives, I don’t think age and experience/wisdom are mutually inclusive. It’s important to remember that each person brings their own unique experience and wisdom to the table, and that respect should have no age limit.

6There will always be someone _________ (insert comparative adjective here) than you. It’s no use chasing labels like “the best _______” or “the most _________” because somewhere out there someone will burst that bubble. We really shouldn’t compare ourselves because we’re just not the same.

Live your own life. Speaking of not comparing, our lives and choices should also go on without any rivals. We commonly talk about the detriment social media has on this regard, but keeping up with the Jones’ isn’t a new concept, and it has never been healthy.

Work to live don’t live to work. Somewhat morbidly, I like to read what people say about their lives when they’re close to the end, and one of the most common threads is that “work took up too much time, focus, and energy”. We need to work, but our work days aren’t what we’ll look back on in the end.

10Find things that make you happy and do them often. So when you’re not working, find and do things that you like. Enjoy your hobby, spend time with people you love, take trips, do all the things!

Keep moving forward; always have a goal. Possibly the opposite problem of living just to work, is living without a purpose or goal. It’s never easy to decide in which direction to go, but having any direction at all can often spur the most incredible, unexpected opportunities.

We are our own captains driving this ship. I heard this in a yoga class once, and while it was true in the moment (on a physical/exercise-based level), it’s also true in the grand scheme of life. We get to choose so many things for ourselves day in and day out. Make those decisions count.

Home is what you make it. Another very personal lesson for me after years of having a not-so-traditional “home”. I’m not exactly sure I’ll ever settle on “where” my home is, but I’ve found that the place itself is not important at all. Who you’re with, what you do with your time and space, this is what makes a place feel like home.

16Stay positive. Especially right now, it can seem impossible to see the glass as half-full, but there’s always a silver lining and “happiness can be found even in the darkest of places” if you keep looking. Staying positive not only helps us get through tough times, but it allows us to move forward with hope for a better future.

Complaining doesn’t change anything. Shockingly, complaining won’t help solve any problems, and, in fact, it might actually make you feel worse. Ignore the impulse and skip ahead to the possible solutions or mindset changes that are needed instead.

Think first, act second. The human existence version of “measure twice, cut once”. Our actions can have drastic consequences, so we better be sure to act only after conscious consideration.

18Some things don’t need to be said. Together with thinking before acting, we should definitely also think before speaking. I’ve had to edit a lot of papers in my day, so I’ve learned the art of reticence. I really love the proverb: “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates. Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”

Focus on doing good/being good. We love wholesome memes and feel-good stories, so we should work on being a part of them ourselves. How can we actively do more good? Imagine how much more good there would be in the world if we all worked on this!

Believe in something. Whether it’s your faith, your passion, or even yourself, having something (or some things) to believe in can really help narrow down your goals, choices, behaviors, etc.

20People are more alike than different. Another truth that makes itself known to me every day is that we are all more alike than different. It’s fun to share and learn from our little differences, like customs, slang, preferences, etc. But ultimately, we’re all human, and we’re so much better off together.

Empathy defines us as human. As with most virtues, we can choose which ones to cultivate and bring into greater focus, and for me, empathy is one I would very much like to continue striving for. In our individualistic society, it’s so easy to say “everyone for themselves”, but that is the very last thing I want for our collective future.

Try to build a longer table not a taller fence. Another great quote that I try to live by. Our connection and cooperation bring us together and strengthen our bonds like nothing else. We’re truly all in this together.

21Awareness and open-mindedness are necessary for growth. We simply cannot hope to improve or progress without awareness and open-minded thinking. It can at times feel uncomfortable or strange, but the end results can be truly life-changing.

Embrace and then learn from your mistakes. Easy to say, tough to do, but so useful if it can be managed. We often tell our kids “mistakes are how you learn”, so let’s take our own advice for once!

Don’t dwell on hindsight. Another task that seems easy until you actually try it. Everything looks so different in hindsight, but we can’t get caught up in the “shoulda, coulda, woulda”. It’s impossible to go back and do it again, so do the best you can in the moment and then pull an Elsa and let it go.

Patience is a virtue (and at times an absolute lifesaver). The more we can work on this particular skill, the happier we’ll all be. Trust me patience is precious.

22Be thankful and reflect on how/why. We all know we should be grateful for what we’ve been given in this life. It could always be worse, after all. Gratitude can really give us that big picture perspective and prompt so many other positive thoughts and actions in our lives.

Perception is everything. We each see the world a little differently, and it’s important to always keep that in mind. The media isn’t the only one with bias; we each have our biases and filters, and we should be aware and thoughtful of our own and others’ perspectives.

Change is inevitable; flexibility is gift. Most people don’t like change (and while I typically thrive in it) sometimes I find myself rejecting change as much as the next person. Unfortunately as much as we might not want things to change, they undoubtedly will. Best adapt a strategy sooner rather than later!

25Not always having the answer is freeing. I have a motto: embrace ambiguity. It’s healthy to not have all the answers, and even healthier to recognize that we don’t.

Drink more water. Just do it; you won’t regret it.

Don’t be afraid to share. Contribute, participate, commiserate, teach, post, whatever! We all have something valuable to add to this world, so let’s do that.

I’m happy to be able to share my lessons with whoever is interested enough to read this, and I’d love to hear some of your most important life lessons. What did you learn in your first thirty years or even in the last thirty days? What do you try to work into your everyday thoughts and actions? We’ve got lots of time to reflect, and with all the people out there, the amount of lessons we can learn from each other is limitless!

29

Country Curiosities

InkedAround the World_LII don’t intend on writing about my 30 Day Challenges (see January’s blog) each month, or even ever again; however, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share some of what I have learned this month with my “read about a different country every day” challenge. For each day in February (more or less), I selected a country to explore digitally (i.e. with the help of various web resources), and in the process, I have gleaned a plethora of fun facts!

I went with a round-robin style selection process, where I purposefully chose countries (fully sovereign and UN recognized) that I knew very little about from each of the continents in alphabetical order (Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, South America). And even with a few missed days, I was still able to read about 24 lesser-known places: 4 countries from each continent.

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My checklist

To say I learned something new every day would be a gross understatement of this process. It is absolutely incredible how much there is to learn about each and every little corner of the globe, including our own. And now, to help pique your interest in some of these places, here are some of the most interesting tidbits I picked up in my daily readings:

 

Togo: This small country in West Africa was originally claimed by Germany as “Togoland”, which to me sounds like an amusement park rather than a country.

Georgia: Nestled in the Caucasus Mountains, Georgia (the country, definitely not the state) has two disputed regions that are currently vying for independence: Abkhazia and Adjara.

Andorra: A country (located between France and Spain) that is so tiny, there are no international airports within its borders.

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Beautiful Andorra 

Costa Rica: In 1949 Costa Rica abolished their army, working instead to replace it with “an army of teachers”, thus focusing on education rather than military spending.

Federated States of Micronesia: Includes over 600 islands extending almost 3000 kilometers in the Pacific ocean (that’s about the distance from Atlanta to Salt Lake City).

Suriname: A small country in South America where the official and most commonly spoken language is, you guessed it (not!), Dutch.

 

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Stars, stripes, guns, and tools

Mozambique: Located on the southeastern coast of Africa, Mozambique has a machine gun and a mattock on its flag, which gives a bit of insight into its checkered (and complicated) past.

 

Kazakhstan: means the Land of Nomads, who fortunately have a lot of room to roam in the world’s largest land-locked country.

Cyprus: A small island in the Mediterranean that was inhabited by humans before boats were invented (gotta love a good ol’ Ice Age story).

Trinidad and Tobago: Only seven miles off the coast of Venezuela, this pair of islands is the birthplace of Limbo.

Limbo
Think they limbo to Cotton Eye Joe?

Papua New Guinea: PNG is one of very few places on Earth where you can straddle the equator and see snowfall in the same country! Elevation is no joke!

World CupUruguay: A country consistently providing the world with incredible soccer players, Uruguay was the first country to win the FIFA World Cup (in 1930).

Tunisia: I was most interested to learn that the ancient city of Carthage is in modern day Tunisia, but I was told others might find it more interesting to learn that several Star Wars movies were filmed here.

Bhutan: A small, mountainous country in between China and India, the highly Buddhist Bhutan has a Gross Domestic Happiness index, which is used to measure and develop the collective happiness of the nation as a “fundamental human goal”.

Denmark: In the smallest country in Scandinavia, you’re never more than 52 kilometers (32 miles) from the coast.

Belize: Despite sharing English as a national language, Belize has opted not to share in American fast food chains. No McDonalds or KFCs in this Central American country.

Nauru: One of the smallest countries in the world at only 8 square miles, Nauru also has one of the highest obesity rates at almost 72%.

Bolivia: This landlocked country in South America boasts the world’s largest salt flat, half of the highest lake, and an annual rainfall of over 5m (one of the highest in the world). Talk about biodiversity!

Salt Flats
Salar de Uyuni

Chad: Named after Lake Chad, this large central African country lies mostly in the Sahara desert giving it the morbid nickname the “Dead Heart of Africa”.

Pakistan: Although extremely far from Europe, Pakistan was a prominent stop on the Hippie Trail of the 1960s. If you haven’t heard of the Hippie Trail, I highly suggest a quick Google!

Romania: We might know it as the Land of Dracula, but Romania is also home to the heaviest building in the world (at just over 9 billion pounds)! And no, it’s not Bran Castle.

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Palace of Parliament

Dominica: Often confused for the Dominican Republic, Dominica is a separate island nation known for electing the first female prime minister in the Caribbean (back in 1980).

Kiribati: Another impressive set of islands in the Pacific ocean, Kiribati not only celebrates the New Year first each year, but is also the only country to have land in all four hemispheres.

Paraguay: In part due to its central location, Paraguay was subjected to the bloodiest international conflict in the Americas, the Paraguayan War (1864-1870), in which the country lost 50% of its population in addition to 40% of its land.

Believe me when I say these are just the tip of the iceberg! Each of these countries, and indeed, every country and culture is unique and inspiring. I think this will be an easy challenge to extend past 30 days…I mean there are almost 200 countries out there! What are some of your country curiosities to share?

24 Countries

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!

 

Eating Our Way Through Japan

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Ready to eat!

Japan was absolutely amazing! This summer we spent over three weeks there, traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka, up to Hokkaido (Otaru, Kutchan, and Sapporo), and back down to Tokyo and Fuji – shout out to the JR Rail Pass for all that travel! During our trip, there were so many interesting tidbits that I wanted to share, but I think what I most want everyone to know about Japan is how incredibly unique and delicious the food is! As a non-seafood eater my expectations going in were a little low. Prior to our trip when I thought about Japanese food, I thought of things like sushi, tempura fried shrimp, and wriggling octopus tentacles…so I was a little afraid that I’d be spending the three weeks eating chicken teriyaki while everyone else sampled the bounty from the sea. However, after only a few days I began to realize that the Japanese cuisine in my mind was seriously off the mark. Here are some the abundant, delicious, not-so-seafood-in-your-face meals we enjoyed on our latest trip:

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Omurice

Omurice – As you might have guessed, omurice is a combination of the words “omelet” and “rice”, and that’s exactly what this dish consists of. Fried rice wrapped in a fluffy omelet covered in sauce. What’s not to love about that?! The original version is covered in ketchup, but more commonly in restaurants they’ll have demi-glace or cream sauces – the ultimate comfort food.

Katsu – Pork katsu is a Japanese dish I had heard of but didn’t really try until moving to China (where it became one of my favorites at a nearby Japanese chain). In Japan though, it was easily ten times better! Crispy breaded and fried pork cutlet served with rice and a crisp cabbage salad – so good! Plus, of course, Tucker loved all the dipping sauce options. In addition to the traditional katsu dishes, we also loved the katsu sandwiches that often came in the ekiben (boxed meals sold on the go). These were great for train rides and baseball games, and although they look quite simple, the sauce is so delicious!

 

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Okonomiyaki

All that Yaki – Yaki means “grilled” in Japanese, and there are a lot of variations beyond the teppanyaki that we know in the States. Okonomiyaki, yakiniku, and yakitori were probably my three favorites (although the takoyaki “grilled octopus” might have been the most popular). Okonomiyaki roughly translates to something like “everything you like grilled”. Basically you choose all your favorite ingredients and fry them up in a thick pancake/hashbrown thing on a griddle that’s set into the table in front of you. Think Waffle House meets Hibachi – truly a one of a kind combination! Yakiniku is more like what I always call Korean BBQ. Lots of meats and veggies all grilled to perfection right at your table! Yakitori (or grilled skewers), on the other hand, don’t require any table-side cooking. Typically the skewers are ordered in sets and come covered in the most delicious sauces. Chicken is the most popular yakitori, but we also had beef, quail eggs, okra, mushrooms, etc.

Gyudon – Gyudon means “beef bowl” in Japanese, and while it is incredibly simple, it might be my favorite thing I ate while in Japan. A pile of beef and onions simmered in soy sauce, mirin, and dashi sitting atop a mound of sticky white rice served with fresh cabbage: as a lover of plain, simple foods, I was in heaven! I stumbled into this dish when we first ate at Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain, after which I subsequently ordered it three times at various restaurants and eateries!

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Gyudon with rice and miso

Karaage – Karaage is a Japanese style fried chicken that pretty much blew my mind. Unlike the fried chicken I know, which really only comes in two flavors: spicy and regular, karaage has a plethora of options. Some of my favorites included soy sauce, ginger, and spicy garlic. And the absolute best part? No bones! A popular spot to enjoy karaage is at a local izakaya, or Japanese pub. Cheap beer paired with fried chicken, always a great combination!

 

Curry – Tucker and I love curry. Thai curries, Indian curries, homemade curries: we eat them fairly often, but we had definitely never had Japanese curry before. It’s usually dark brown and served with either chicken or pork katsu, and although it looks similar to other curries, it’s really quite a bit different. Japanese curry is much sweeter and thicker than the typical renditions, and aside from the katsu addition, it also occasionally comes with a hard boiled egg.

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Ramen and kimchi

Ramen – Ah, my favorite type of men…ramen! Before our trip, this is one of the dishes Tucker and I were most excited about. We really love ramen in all its forms abroad, so surely in Japan it would be amazing! Well, I’m happy to say that it absolutely was! All the bowls we had were massive, and the broth was literally worth licking out of the bowl. I was surprised with how many variations of ramen there are though, from a more traditional soy sauce base to the sweet corn miso broth famous in Sapporo – they were all delicious!

Sushi – Of course I can’t write about eating in Japan without mentioning sushi. Surprisingly, even as someone who doesn’t enjoy eating anything from the water, eating sushi in Japan was a highlight for me. We went to one of the sushi conveyor belt restaurants, which are always fun, and we blindly let Tucker do the ordering – the insane number of possibilities of ingredients, preparations, pairings, etc. was really quite impressive. Ultimately, the food was beautiful, and with enough wasabi, I tasted nothing seafood-y. Haha!

Bento – Train food is always a guilty pleasure of mine. In Poland, we got little ham sandwiches, in China, instant noodles, and in Japan: bento boxes. Bento boxes are pre-packaged meals, that are typically quite beautiful as well as delicious! Each little compartment in the box has a different dish, which also gives a lot of variety even when cooped up on a train/plane all day. We paired our bentos with some bīru (beer), and had a wonderful train ride along the coast of Hokkaido.

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Train food perfection
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Famous cheesecake

Otaru Cheesecake – Sometimes you run into a “famous” dish or cuisine on accident, and that’s what happened to us with the cheesecake in Otaru. We stayed in the small port city of Otaru towards the beginning of our trip, and as we were walking around the city, there were signs everywhere for a local cheesecake. Of course, we tried it, and were blown away by how good it was! We never associated Japan with cheesecake before, but it was clear that other tourists did because we then saw this brand of cheesecake for sale all over Tokyo, in the airport, as gift-wrapped souvenirs, etc. I like to think it was much better at the source though.

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Haven’t had enough!

Other Snacks and Experiences:

Onigiri – flavored rice balls often wrapped in nori

KitKats – the infamous crazy flavors of the beloved candy bar

Shabu Shabu – Japanese hotpot or fondue, usually all you can eat

Croquettes – creative new take on the fried food classic, I loved the green tea ones

Goyza – Japanese fried dumplings

Uni – sea urchin (tastes like buttery sea water)

Matcha – green tea power, which can be found in anything and everything

Mochi – sweet, squishy rice cakes

Cheese Dogs – corn dog plus, especially since we had ours in colorful Harajuku

Vending Machine Meals – everything from fried chicken to corn soup

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!

Map

Student Perspectives: To Me China Is ______

This semester I’m teaching an English Stylistics course where we delve into the various styles of written English including official documents like resumes and letters of recommendation, but also more creative forms of writing like poetry and blogs. To finish out the unit on creative writing, I had my students use the features we’d been discussing in class to write a blog post of their own, and for added excitement and authenticity, I told them I’d share the best ones with all of you on my own blog.

We decided on the topic “To Me China Is _______” as a way for them to reflect on their own culture and harness their own unique points of view to share something new with an unknown audience. I honestly wish I could share all 46 of them because they all did an amazing job, but for now, here are the links to some of my favorites:

To Me China Is…Golden

To Me China Is…Unequal

To Me China Is…A Land Full of Beauty

To Me China Is…Superficial

To Me China Is…Diverse

To Me China Is…A Peaceful Haven

To Me China Is…Full of Magic Power

To Me China Is…A Treasure-trove of Specialties

To Me China Is…Possibilities

To Me China Is…Changing

 

 

New Skills Brought to Us by Life in China

Last month I wrote about the things we’ll be leaving behind when we say goodbye to China, but this month I want to focus on the things we’ll be taking with us when we go: the skills and perspectives we have been developing over the past 20 months.

Flexibility and Patience
Our taxi drivers might need to work on their patience levels.

The first two skills that we have undoubtedly been cultivating during our China time are our flexibility and patience. Any time you’re in an unfamiliar place or situation these two traits are brought to attention, but China has a unique talent for testing just how flexible and patient a person can be (red tape anyone?). In order to cope with some of the more annoying aspects of life as an American in China, we’ve picked up the phrase “cha bu duo” – it’s a Chinese phrase that has become our hakuna matata, but rather than “no worries” it means “alright” or “close enough”. We use it when plans fall through, when new arrangements pop up over night, or when something that should have taken a few hours ends up taking a few days. It’s all cha bu duo, and it’ll all work out in the end. We’ve definitely become pretty zen in China.

Adaptability
Fruit juice in blood bags? Sure, why not?

Another trait we’ve been honing is our adaptability. China is certainly full of surprises, and keeping up is all any of us can hope for. In fact, early on in our move here we visited Wuhan, a large city in central China, and learned that they have a slogan: “Wuhan: Different Every Day”. However, we’ve long suspected that this particular saying really applies to the country as a whole. I can’t count the number of times we’ve been bewildered by something we’ve seen or heard, but I can say that now it doesn’t really phase us. We’ve learned to take it all in and roll with the punches better than we’ve ever be able to before. From unexplained detours and missing reservations to chicken feet pasta and drinking hot water on 90 degree days, whatever comes, we’ll keep calm, cool, and ready for anything.

Ambiguity
But which way will the cars be coming from?!

Accepting ambiguity is definitely another newly acquired skill. Living abroad always comes with a lot of ambiguity because we’re never quite sure what’s going on (even after asking our thousandth question of the day). However, with China, the ambiguity is off the charts! Partially because the writing system is more like code than language and partially because things have been done in a certain way here for thousands of years – even the locals aren’t always sure why! Luckily rather than frustration, we’ve found peace in not always knowing everything, and more than that, we’ve found that trusting others can really help ease the uncertainty and fear that often accompany ambiguity.

Positivity
On a double-decker bus! Yay, simple things! 🙂

Perhaps a surprising virtue to have further developed in China is our positivity. Before coming to China most of what we heard was negative, in fact, even while living here, we hear a lot of negative things about the people and culture we’re surrounded in (and other cultures and people as well), but rather than bring us down, it has actually increased our positivity and positive associations. We’ve asked a lot of hard questions, and we’ve be given a lot of really great answers. We’ve met so many friends, colleagues, and students that are extremely positive and excited about both the present and the future of their lives, their country, and the world that it has began to rub off on us. The smallest things now seem to bring us joy, and a positive attitude is our norm. We all really are more alike than different, and it’s easy to stay positive when faced with that reality every day.

Accepting Compliments
Works for accepting gifts too!

While I’m actually still working on this one, I think we have developed a bit of a knack for taking compliments. It is very common here to give compliments to your friends, and at first it made me super uncomfortable. I’ve had compliments about my “jade arms”, my “3D face”, and my “beautiful nail shape”, which all left me completely embarrassed and occasionally speechless. With time, however, I’ve learned to take my well-practiced American/European self-deprecation and turn it into a humble reply followed by a reciprocating compliment. A very useful skill!

Focus
Cameras, cars, crazy onlookers – no problem!

Another really useful skill we’ve definitely sharpened over these two years is our ability to focus. Noise essentially means nothing to us now. The daily (very early) singing street sweeper, the constant construction clatter, the whirring of air filters, all sorts of clamoring people and blaring traffic are so easily blocked out now. Living in close quarters with 8 million other people has allowed us to focus our attention as never before, which is something we’ll forever appreciate as we intend to continue city living for the foreseeable future.

Communication
Her face says it all

In the process of all this development, another set of skills has subsequently been brought to our attention in China: communication methods. It’s clear to me now that words are not truly needed for communication. Gestures, facial expressions, pictures, and so many other visual cues end up being more than sufficient. I’ve actually really enjoyed exploring work-arounds for complex topics such as how to get the grocery store people to understand the fundamentals of American life (ie we need deodorant, garlic powder, and tortillas to sustain life!). We’ve also refined our questioning techniques because in English, questions can be complicated and often ambiguous – another skill I had no idea I needed. And if all else fails, we’ve learned to embrace the complex language of emojis and stickers (although my students say my particular style is old-school…and not in the cool way).

Cultural Skills
Tea expert Tuck

There are also a handful of cultural skills we’ve been able to adopt such as the precise methods of selecting, brewing, and sipping some of the finest teas in the world. With that, has also come the ability to drink and occasionally be splashed by scalding hot water. We’ve also perfected our chopsticks skills. I actually now prefer them to a knife and fork, which Tucker finds a little strange, but hey, I’m adaptable. 😉 And finally, one more modern skill we’ve picked up: the art of online shopping. I was never really into Cyber Monday and often failed at buying products online in the US only to end up giving them away rather than attempting a return and redo. But here in China, we’ve become experts at scanning reviews, looking for the tiniest details in photos, measuring twice and buying once. Taobao has been our teacher, and I can’t wait to test out my new found talent on Amazon when we next visit the US.

So many useful skills and so many new perspectives and changes to our collective mindset. I have to thank China and my Chinese culture guides for so effortlessly guiding us through 20 months of one of the most demanding self-development courses I’ve ever been a part of. Just like when we left Poland, I was sure there were changes we’d undergone that would forever be a part of us, and so it is with China as well. Living in a new place changes you, and for that I’m thankful.

Fitting in
Here’s hoping we’ll “fit in” wherever we go next! 😉

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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