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Travel in America

Why Montreal is my Favorite City in Canada

Why Montreal is my Favorite City in Canada

Notre Dame Basilica

Many are surprised to learn that my husband is a Canadian citizen. Before his parents took the plunge and moved to the United States, they started the first chapter of their North American life in the frozen North of Canada. My husband waxed poetic about Canada like it was a lost paradise. Mary, he often told me, I will take you to Canada–the country of my childhood–and I will show you why I love it so.

Well, husband came through. I’ve not only visited Toronto, Ontario and Vancouver–but to my surprise, my husband proposed to me on the top of Mount Whistler in Whistler, Canada. Like husband predicted, I fell in love with Canada. From my point of view, Canada is basically a friendlier, cleaner, and more egalitarian version of the United States. read more

My First Weekend in New Orleans, Louisiana

My First Weekend in New Orleans, Louisiana

A few weeks ago I went to New Orleans, Louisiana for the first time and enjoyed a blissful weekend there filled with historical sights, classic soul cooking, and most of all–jazz. (Travel tips at the bottom of post)

For most of my life, I wasn’t much of a jazz fan and never once considered the thought of going to New Orleans.  In fact, I took a “survey of jazz” class in undergrad mostly to 1. get an easy “A” and 2. catch up on lost sleep.  For most of my life, jazz was music to be played in the waiting room of a doctor’s office or in an elevator.

Then, I met Tohko.

Tohko is my Japanese soul sister.  She dragged me to live jam sessions in Shanghai where the jazz (and Tohko) literally swept me off my feet.  When I lived with her to escape my flea infestation, she would put on her favorite jazz tune, take me in her hand, and whisk me away to dance on the living room floor.  We toe tapped while we cut vegetables, listening to jazz as we cooked dinner.  When we cleaned the apartment, Louis Armstrong was blasting on her stereo.  I was an easy convert.

“Mary,” she pointed at me. “Me.  You.  We’re going to New Orleans.  We have to see jazz in its birthplace.  We just have to.”

Going to New Orleans never once crossed my mind until that moment–but after she uttered those words, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Then, I moved to Texas.

Welcome to New Orleans: A City of Many Cultures

As fate would have it, Tohko and her new boyfriend arranged a visit to New Orleans while I was living in Texas and graciously invited me to be the third wheel–I mean, be a lovely addition–to their New Orleans vacation.

And wow, New Orleans blew all my expectations out of the water.

New Orleans has a culture that is uniquely… New Orleans.  It’s a blend of cajun and creole, French and Spanish, American and Southern.  As the birth place of Jazz and Cajun culture, the city has a unique identity that is simply not found anywhere else in the world.  It’s the kind of place you can walk around and hear music wherever you go–the whimsical noise of a jazz trumpet seeps out of every doorway, every window.  Foots are tapping everywhere in some kind of rhythmic beat that has entranced the whole city.

The music in the air.  That charming European architecture. That sweet smell of beignets and sugar wafting from the center of the French Quarter.  The echoing laughter of tourists on vacation, the tack-tack-tack of the old trolley carrying visitors around the city on century old rails.

It’s magical.

The Best Part of New Orleans?  Bacchanal Wine

Bacchanal Wine Stage
Bacchanal Wine Stage

I could wax poetic about New Orleans architecture and jazz all day, but let’s go straight to my favorite part of New Orleans: this outdoor wine and jazz bar a stone throw away from the Mississippi, and far away from the French quarter.

Bacchanal Wine came highly recommended to me by all my friends (and even travel shows); and wow, it’s one of those places where you’ll have an enchanted evening no matter what you do.  It’s a no-frills house converted into a wine cellar selling some of the best pours you’ll ever have, with some simple southern fare to match.  While the wine and fish may be top notch, you’ll enjoy these delicacies sitting on a humble plastic lawn chair matched with a metal table in the outside courtyard, listening to some of the best jazz New Orleans has to offer on a make-shift wooden stage.

One of the best cooked fish I’ve had in my life….!!!

Like many places in the south, the Bacchanal Wine bar is as low-key and local as they come.  It was the kinda place one could frequent in a nice dress, a suit, jeans, or shorts and a t-shirt–and no one would feel it was out of place.  It was the ultimate hangout joint.

Tohko, her new boyfriend and I all ate delicious fish, drank a bottle of wine, and listened to live jazz until the stars twinkled above us.  It was one of those magical evenings that only New Orleans–and Bacchanal–could offer.  I can’t recommend this place enough.  Take a taxi/lyft, get out of the French Quarter, and spend a few hours here.  You won’t regret it.

And the Best Jazz Clubs?  The Spotted Cat and Fritzels Jazz Cafe

The Spotted Cat Music Club

It’s been a struggle for me to find half-decent jazz bar.  Since my return from Shanghai, most Jazz clubs I’ve visited are filled with half-assed bands ready to make a quick buck.  Others are a little too orchestrated and stiff for my tastes.

I will say with certainty: the jazz in New Orleans is the real deal.  They play the classics mixed in with their own creations, followed up by the passionate outburst of random jam sessions.  At these two venues in particular, the music ultimately captivated the audience in attendance.

The Spotted Cat feels like a jazz bar built for swing dance–and that’s because you’ll most likely spot some professional swing dancers twirling at the front near the stage.  It’s a popular joint with a mix of locals and tourists; with the real locals twirling and dipping and jiving and tapping in full swing-dance gear near the band.  The energy of the venue is infectious and, while it can be crowded and noisy, the music is still the star of the show.

Fritzel’s, on the other hand, is a more low-key joint where one can sit, have a beer, and enjoy the music.  Wooden benches line the stage (with plenty of room for standing when it’s crowded).  Although the bar has a low hum of conversation in the background, most of the audience is enchanted by the energy and class of the Fritzel Band.

“Come on down,” the lead sings sweetly in the microphone, taking a break from his trombone solo. “Come on down to New Orleans.”

 

The Real Deal: Preservation Hall. Unchanged since the 1940s.

And finally, if you’re a real jazz fan, you know you gotta fork over the

$20 to go to Preservation Hall, the supposed birth place of some of the most legendary jazz songs in history.  In summer it’s a sweltering shoebox of people, and in winter I hear it’s as cold as death–but for the jazz-dedicated, this is a must. read more

3 Day Itinerary for a Yellowstone National Park Trip (with some tips and tricks)

3 Day Itinerary for a Yellowstone National Park Trip (with some tips and tricks)

Despite living in Utah for 22 years of my life, I had never once visited Yellowstone National Park.  So when all of my bridesmaids (minus one) flew in from China and Japan to be in my Utah wedding, I wanted to treat them to something special post-ceremony: a three day trip to Yellowstone National Park.

I won’t lie.  It was extremely stressful to plan both a wedding and a Yellowstone trip.  A mere day after my wedding, I hauled three Chinese and Japanese girls into an SUV and drove five hours to Wyoming.  It was a whirlwind, but I also knew that having all of my Asia friends in Utah was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.  If we were going to do Yellowstone, it was now or never.  (For more logistical tips and tricks, scroll to the bottom)

Our trip was an absolute success.  Here are the hot spots we visited on our short, but wonderful journey:

Day 1: Mammoth Hot Springs & Lamar Valley

Mammoth Hot Springs Yellowstone
It’s hotter than it looks
Looks like another planet!

Going to Mammoth Hot Springs felt like stepping into an alien world.  You can physically feel the heat of the bubbling hot springs, hear the roar of the waters and..

“Oh god,” Jean held her nose.  “What’s that smell?”

“Euch,” Z gagged.  “It smells like rotten eggs!”

“Oh my god!” I faced Tohko.  “That sulphuric smell reminds me of an onsen (Japanese hot spring)!  This makes me want to hop in!”

“You’re right!” Tohko jumped toward me and grabbed my hand.  “This smell.. ahhh… it makes me want to dip in a hot spring and eat onsen-tamago” (eggs boiled in an onsen).

Z looked at us, horrified.

“You Japanese people–I’ll never get it.”

Cool rock formations made from the hot springs

Afterwards we went to =&0=& approximately one hour away from Mammoth Hot Spring.  The tourist office said that it was a great spot to see wildlife, but when we got there we just saw more Bison.  If you camp out all day (like some photographers did) you might see some wolves… but yeah.  We were happy photographing the bison and called it a day.

Wildlife refuge in Yellowstone
River near the refuge

Yellowstone Bison
So many bison!
We’re obviously way too excited to see bison

Day 2: Artist’s Point (Grand Canyon of Yellowstone) & Yellowstone Lake

I won’t say much about Artist Point (also aptly named ‘the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone’), because the photos do all the talking.  It was my favorite spot in the whole park and, honestly, it really does feel like you’re in a painting.  We did a few trails that gave us both a high and low vantage point of the falls.

Artist Point Yellowstone, Grand Canyon Yellowstone
Gorgeous or what?
Nothing says “tourist” more than matching t-shirts

Yellowstone Artist Point Observation Deck
Hiking down to the observation deck
Up close and personal with the waterfall

“Look at this view!” Tohko pointed to the waterfall as we stood on the observation deck.  “It’s so beautiful… it makes me want to do Acro yoga!”

“Do what?” I repeated, thinking I misheard.

“Acro yoga!  Feel that fresh air, hear that water, look at the view–come on, we just gotta do it–it will make this even more unforgettable!  Come over here Mary, I’ll lift you.”

“No way!” I jumped back.  “I’m too fat, I’ll fall over on you.”

“I’ll do it!” Jean raised her hand.  “I’ve never done it, and I’m scared shitless, but it will make a great photo!”

“Oh my god,” I put my face into my palms, embarrassed. “I can’t believe we’re doing acro yoga here…”

It was a bit weird and drew quite the crowd, but I must admit that Tohko was right: it made the moment even more unforgettable.

Yellowstone acroyoga
I think Jean’s face says it all here

Later we did a hike nearby Yellowstone Lake, in bear country.  When we realized we were the only ones on the trail (and we heard constant rustling around us), we were spooked.  Nearby signs told us to make noise so the bears would stay away, so Tohko taught us a Japanese song about bears and we chanted it the whole hike.  We laughed nervously while walking out of the park, singing the Japanese bear song, scared shitless that a bear would pop out at any moment.

So yeah, rent some bear spray.  Don’t be stupid like us.

Relaxing at the lake

Singing to stave off the bears

Day 3: Old Faithful, Lower Geyser Basin and Old Faithful Lodge read more

Moving to Texas for Work and What Life is Like in Dallas

Moving to Texas for Work and What Life is Like in Dallas

A few months ago I mentioned that I received a baller job offer, but with one catch: I had to move to Dallas, Texas to take the job.

It’s already been four months since I first set foot in the heartland of America.  Before coming here, I had no to connection to Texas whatsoever–no family, no friends, no nothing.  To be quite frank, I probably could have gone through life without visiting Texas and been totally ok with it.

If you told me four years ago that I would be moving to Dallas, Texas, I would have rolled over laughing and said you were out of your mind.  Now, here I am.  Just goes to show: you never know where life will take you.  From Niigata to Shanghai to LA to Dallas.  I literally ask myself everyday–how did I end up here?

Anyway, Texas is a very interesting place….I’ll give you that.  Here are some of my observations (scroll to the bottom for best of Texas recommendations):

People in Texas are friendly and polite.  Like, really damn friendly.

Friendly bartenders at Deep Ellum brewpub

I mentioned this before, but people in Texas are the friendliest I’ve ever met in the states.  They’re not pretentious; they’re very down to Earth and approachable.  People address each other as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ here.  It’s the kinda place where you can walk up to someone and strike up a conversation and it’s not awkward at all.

The Lyft/Uber drivers here are the friendliest I’ve ever seen and they’ve given me great tips about the city.  My coworkers are helpful and warm.  Servers at restaurant are truly top-notch–they are prompt, considerate, and well-mannered.  I’m very impressed with just how lovely it is to interact with locals.

Yoga in front of the capitol? Only in Austin

The only drawback?  Like the Midwesterners (and Japanese), Texans tend to put up a wall.  They’re friendly and nice, but to a point.  Many Texans I meet are tried and true Texans–in other words, their family has been in Dallas for generations and they’ve already got a well-established network. They have a close circle of family and friends and they’re very selective about who enters that circle.  This is a big change from California, a state chock full of transplants who are more open (and forced?) to let others deeper into their social circles.

Everyone is Moving Here for a Job

View from my new company window 😀

Transplants may, however, outpace the population.  Texas is booming.  Techies fed up with Silicon Valley are flooding into Austin.  Big businesses are relocating to Dallas for the business friendly atmosphere and low taxes.  Houston is filled with oil/energy money and all the cash it brings.  There is a strong economy in Texas (tenth in the world!) and it’s very apparent.  Cranes are everywhere.  The population is increasing year on year.  Every car that passes my street is either a BMW or Porsche.

I used to think that I was a weirdo for moving to Texas for a job; but the longer I live here, the more people I meet who are in my very same predicament.  Like me, I’ve met many twenty/thirty-somethings with no connection to Texas, but who moved here for a job.

American Culture is Strong Here

Even Trader Joe’s Feels More Texas

I was always at a loss when I had to teach Japanese students about American culture.  To me, American culture was a melting pot of different cultures–it was more than just hamburgers, hot dogs, and baseball.  There was no such thing as “American food” or “American culture.”  We were a mix of different cultures–a country of immigrants–and it was hard to condense that into one, simple lesson.

But man, if I was from Texas?  I’d have a whole lotta culture to teach the kids.

Fortworth Stockyards
A super cool Saloon

I feel more American here.  It may be somewhat stereotyped, but going to a honkey tonk; visiting a real ranch, seeing people wear cowboy boots and hats (and look cool in them) and going to a real rodeo make me feel like I’m in a place uniquely America.

My parents came to visit last week and I took them to see a cattle drive; eat authentic and downright delicious Texas barbecue, and drink in a real-life saloon.  When the bartender saw my dad in a cowboy hat and found out we were visiting from Utah, she gave us a wink and poured us a round of beers on the house.  Again, the combination of old-west plus friendly folks create a uniquely American atmosphere that is hard to find anywhere else.

Texan Women Dress REALLY Nice

What can I say?  Texas women are stunning.  My coworkers look like they walked out of a fashion magazine.  From their earrings, to their necklace, the color of their dress and down to the style of their shoe–everything matches.  I haven’t seen women this nicely dressed since Tokyo.

Texas Cities are Super Clean

Downtown Austin
Ausitn was Pretty Darn Clean

Downtown Dallas sparkles.  I live near downtown and man, the city glows.  I just went to Austin last weekend and it was equally spotless.  Compared to downtown Los Angeles, Dallas looks like Luxembourg.

Maybe the suburbs are a little trashier (?), but metro-area Dallas is one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever seen in the USA.  Good job, Texas.

Texas = Affordable

My neighborhood. This would cost 3k+ in LA–only 1k ish in Dallas

I keep telling my husband that Dallas/Austin/Houston are probably the last cities in the US where one can achieve “the American dream.”  Not only are houses affordable here, but jobs are plentiful and wages are high.  I’m quite sure that if I worked my current job in LA I’d make the same salary–except with double the cost of living.  This is a huge Texas perk.

Ok, some of the bad

Green! ….but flat
  • There’s no nature here.  I know, some Texans might argue with me, but as someone from the rocky mountains who spent the last four years in California–I’m sorry.  The nature here is just not that great.  But hey, at least it’s green?
  • Traffic is pretty gnarly in Dallas and Austin.  Not as bad as LA, but close.  Freeway design makes no sense either–it’s really confusing.
  • Texas drivers are out of their mind.  I was pretty sure LA drivers were the most reckless and dangerous in the US, but I take it back.  Texas is much worse.
  • Dear god, it’s hot.
  • Hard to make friends.  But maybe this is true everywhere.
  • read more

    Guns, an American Way of Life

    Guns, an American Way of Life

    My husband and I went to see Black Panther last weekend.  Although my husband has had enough Marvel movies for one lifetime, I was quite stoked to see this one in particular.  It wasn’t just the all-black (and beautiful!) cast, but I was also excited to see a unique marvel world crafted out of African culture.

    The movie was great—until a group of young teenagers a few seats behind us began to provide loud and offensive commentary on the film.  I won’t repeat what was said, but let’s just say they said the ‘n’ word twice, among other things.  From start to finish this group of teenagers just kept at it—and no one said anything.

    I thought about standing up and telling them to shut up, but I must be honest.

    I was afraid.

    In America, it is very possible that a group of young, aggressive teenagers could turn hostile.

    …. And since we’re in Texas, the likelihood they have a gun is very real.  I was afraid to risk it.

    Although I was seething in my seat, I was also surprised that no one else spoke up.  These teenagers were so loud I’m sure people from across the theater could hear their offensive remarks in stereo.  What about the people sitting right next to them?  How could they keep quiet?

    “I liked the movie, but didn’t appreciate the commentary,” my husband told me when we were driving back from the movie.  “I was going to say something, but since we’re in Texas, I held back—I mean, what if he had a gun?”

    “Oh my god!”  I cried.  “I THOUGHT THE SAME THING!”

    “I don’t think I can live in Texas,” my husband said, shaking his head.  “Maybe I was spoiled in California.”

    I nodded in agreement.

    And believe it or not, that’s not the most alarming part of this story.

    When the lights came on at the end of the film, the group of teenagers in the back of the theater weren’t the racist rednecks I imagined.

    They were black.

    But that’s a different post entirely.

    A few years back I wrote about how America sometimes isn’t the paradise we think it is—especially when it comes to physical safety.  The biggest culture shock I had when moving abroad was how many East Asian countries—even those third-world ones we look down on so much—are much safer than almost all urban megacities in the USA.  It’s much safer to walk around Hanoi at 2AM than it is to wander the streets of downtown San Francisco.  Trust me on this one.

    There is a wealth of arguments as to why this is.  It could be socioeconomic circumstances.  Culture.  Religion.  Hegemony.

    Me?  Well, I blame the availability, and proliferation, of guns.  Especially those used by the Las Vegas and Florida shooter—the type of weapons used for mass killings in war zones.

    Basically, because it is so damn hard to get a gun in Asia, the worst thing that could happen to anyone is getting stabbed.  And yes, getting stabbed would really suck, but we can all admit it’s definitely harder to enact a mass stabbing than a mass shooting.  Stabbings, while lethal, keep the kill count down to a minimum.

    Even then, stabbings rarely happen in Asia.  Pickpocketing is probably the worst thing that will happen to any tourist in Asia.

    When people in Asia told me to watch out for pickpockets, I laughed.  I don’t care if they take my purse, I told my friends, at least I can walk the streets and not fear for my life.

    At least I can walk around and know no one will shoot me.

    In the USA, the fear of guns—and mass shootings—is very real.

    At my previous job, we had to undergo specific training about how to hide from an active shooter in the building.  Those training videos were traumatizing.  How to attack an active shooter (yes, they told us not to run from him/her!).  Where to hide.  What numbers to call.  How to help students/co-workers/victims.  How to tend a gunshot wound.

    Lo and behold, a few weeks later, there was a school shooting only five miles away from the University I worked at.

    One survivor of the most recent Florida mass-shooting told reporters that he had undergone survival drills to prepare for mass-shootings since elementary school.

    In other words, if I someday have a child in the USA, they will have to undergo mandatory drills on how to run away from a maniac with a gun running rampant in their school.

    That’s sad.

    As my husband so poignantly stated after the Las Vegas incident:

    “If a mass shooting at an elementary school (Sandy Hook) won’t put a halt to gun proliferation, then nothing will.”

    When I told new friends in China and Japan that I was from the USA, they often followed up with a question.

    “Do you have a gun?”

    And if they didn’t ask me about a gun, then they often assumed I had one.  When I told them that my family never possessed a firearm, many of them were shocked.

    “You’re American and you don’t have a gun?  I thought everyone in America had a gun.  Don’t you guys always shoot stuff up?”

    I even had some friends from Asia come to my home and ask me where I keep my gun.

    I’m sad, because my friends from Asia assume I’m a trigger-happy, gun-toting aggressor just because I’m American.

    I’m sad, because I can’t walk around late at night in fear of either being shot or held up at gun point.

    I’m sad, because when people flip me off or curse at me on the highway, I don’t do anything in response because there have been incidents where retaliation has led to gun violence and death.

    I’m sad, because I can’t go to the movies and tell someone to be quiet—in fear of guns.

    I’m sad because guns negatively influence the American image.

    I’m sad, because even subconsciously, guns dictate even the most simple and menial actions in my everyday life in the USA.

    Is there good news?

    After way too many mass shootings, a group of very brave students (the survivors of the latest Florida shooting) decided to step up and fight for change.  Their courage and determination to stand up to the NRA and Congress reminds me of movements only found in history books.

    In other words: I think the new generation—a generation sick of seeing their peers die from senseless violence—is not only willing to fight for change, but might make it happen.

    I know America will never fully rid itself of guns or the assumed power of the second amendment.

    But here’s to hoping that America can, at the very least, pass some simple reforms to ensure tighter gun control (like Australia or Switzerland).  I personally hope someday the US can better control guns in our lives, instead of guns controlling how we live.

    Are All Americans the Same?

    Are All Americans the Same?

    In the last year alone, I’ve managed to live in almost every single region of the United States.  West, Pacific Northwest, Rockies, Midwest, South–you name it, and I’ve probably lived there for a month or two.

    The experience was eye-opening and made me realize an extremely important fact: not all Americans are the same. In fact, the US does not feel like one country at all.  Each region is so culturally and geographically different that, when I travel from coast to coast, I have to remind myself that I’m still in the same country.

    So… how are these regions different, exactly?  How is a west coaster different from an east coaster?  What else makes these regions so vastly contrasting?

    West Coast (aka California)

    People from the west coast are friendly.  They smile.  They take life at a leisurely place.  They stop to enjoy the roses.  West coasters like to keep it casual, and can usually be found in a coffee shop or at a bar wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and some flip-flops.  Sunglasses are a must.

    The west coast is, compared to other regions of the US, also quite diverse.  With the Mexico border nearby and the Pacific ocean connecting the west to the Asia Pacific, it’s easy to find great Mexican and Asian food just about anywhere.  The diversity (particular in California) is refreshing.

    Drawbacks can be found in the rampant growth of materialism popping up in the big cities in California (lookin’ at you, LA and SF).  Also, people on the west coast, in their efforts to be friendly, may actually appear fake.  They may converse with you in a bubbly voice and ask you out to dinner or an event, but in truth they really want nothing to do with you.  It can also get tiring pretending to be friendly and happy all the time.

    Pros: Laid-back vibe, friendly people, epic natural beauty (beaches and mountains, oh my!)

    Cons: Crazy California drivers, fake people who are nice to your face but hate your guts, high cost of living

    Mountain Region (aka Rockies)

    My home.  I usually like to lump Utah/Colorado/Idaho with the West Coast, but when I do this Californians usually laugh at me.  Plus, these states are in another time zone, so I guess  the Rockies are ‘officially’ a separate region.

    The people in the rockies are quite similar to the west coasters.  Compared to Californians, however, locals in the rocky mountain range are more down to Earth.  We don’t have fancy Hollywood or Bay Area tech jobs, which has helped us keep income inequality at a reasonable level.  We’re not as materialistic as the big city Californians, either.

    Plus, thanks to the rocky mountain range, the natural beauty here is–no other way to say it–quite epic.

    Pros: Laid-back vibe, majestic nature, friendly folk, low cost of living, not as fake as the Californians

    Cons: No diversity, pace is a little too slow (shit needs to get done!), snow sucks

    Midwest

    The Midwest was HUGE CULTURE SHOCK FOR ME.  As someone from the West Coast, I have experienced more culture shock in the Midwest than any other region in the USA.

    First, there are no mountains.  Midwest is super flat.  Second, Midwesterners have a great sense of family and community, which is great if you’re from there–but really sucks if you’re new to the area.  Midwesterners are skeptical of those who fall outside of their ‘in’ group, thus making it quite difficult for a new transplant to fit in.

    People in the Midwest are also EXTREMELY friendly.  You know how I said west coasters are friendly?  Well amplify that by 10, and you have the Midwest.  Everyone says hi to you on the street, in the elevator, or at the store.  Someone is always willing to outstretch a helping hand.  People are smiling.  The kindness here is not bubbly and overdone like California–it feels wholesome.

    Pros: Friendly people

    Cons: Can be insular, crazy cold weather, no mountains, lack of diversity

    The South 

    Ok.  I’ll admit that I have never really lived in the South until moving to Texas (which may not even be part of the south–it might be a region all its own–but for convenience sake we’ll lump it into the South).  Before moving to Texas a quick visit to Tennessee was the only experience I’ve had in the south.

    People in the south are friendly without the California fake.  They’re charming and straightforward.  Texas in particular is a no BS kind of place.  They give it to you straight, but in a friendly sort of way.  I’m totally charmed by the accent.

    I’m blown away by southern manners.  Addressing people by ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ are the norm here.  My coworkers all sit with impeccable posture.  Table manners are top notch.

    Pros: Friendliest Americans I’ve ever met, love the frankness, culture here is vibrant, manners

    Cons: Lack of diversity, CRAZY drivers, too many guns, humidity

    New York, D.C., Boston metro areas of the Northeast

    I probably have no right even attempting to write about the East coast because I’ve never lived there.  I can’t speak for all the states on the East coast (and it’s rude to lump them all together, considering Florida and Rhode Island are vastly different), but based on my limited time in these big East coast cities, I want to throw in my two cents.

    Those from the East Coast will run you over to get to a meeting.  Pace of life is fast.  Go-go-go.  No time for pleasantries, no time to say hello, no time to talk about the weather.  It’s not a smiley place and, for the most part, you feel like no one gives it a shit about you.  Deal with it.  Friendly doesn’t exist here.

    But wow.  Great nature.  Culture is vibrant and alive.  Diversity is everywhere.  You can smell the ambition in the air.  Shit gets done here–and it gets done fast.

    Pros: Great for the ambitious, don’t need a car, diversity, architecture, great nature, fast pace of life, strong sense of culture..

    Cons: Cutthroat, inequality, people are aggressive, fast pace of life, cold winters, humid summers

    So What Area is the Best?

    I’m a rocky mountain girl and proud of it

    Really depends on your personal preference.  If you’re a go-getter who wants to make something of yourself, maybe the East Coast is right for you.  If you want a slower pace of life with a good tech or media job, perhaps California fits the bill.  If you want a nice community to raise your family, maybe the Midwest is where you want to be.

    I’m still not a huge fan of US cities (especially after my stints in Japan and China), but I have to admit the diverse regions of the USA create a wealth of options for those looking to move here.  We have epic mountains in the West, metropolitan powerhouses in the East, beaches on each coast and a unique sense of culture in each particular region.

    Personally, I’m a Rockies girl through and through.  I love me some mountains.  However, the slow pace of life and lack of opportunities has drawn me to other areas of the USA.

    Where Have You Visited in the USA?  Do you have a favorite?

    Exploring Fall Colors in Rural Minnesota

    Exploring Fall Colors in Rural Minnesota

    I could hardly contain my excitement when my husband told me we were moving to Minnesota for the month of October.  After living in the land of eternal sunshine (aka Southern California) for the past three years, I was in eager anticipation to finally enjoy a proper fall season.  I couldn’t wait to wrap myself up in sweaters and scarves, make pumpkin scones, wash it down with spiced cinnamon tea, and most of all:

    See the colors that make Autumn my absolute favorite season.

    Minnesota is renown for having some of the best fall foliage in the US, so last week I set off to Itasca State Park to see just what the state had to offer…. and this is what I found:

    Itasca State Park
    Itasca State Park
    Itasca State Park

    This is My Happy Place

    When I took a few steps into the Two Point Trail at Itasca State Park, I felt as if I was suddenly transported to another world.  The air was cool, yet crisp and refreshing.  An intermittent breeze rustled through the trees and sent a shower of golden leaves dancing in the air.  I was surrounded by hues of yellow, red and orange.  A warm and inviting sun glimmered through the rows of trees lining the trail.

    It was just me on an empty trail.  The only sounds I could hear were the rustle of the wind in the trees above and the crunch of fallen leaves beneath my feet.

    It was utter bliss.

    The entrance to the trail
    Itasca State Park
    Itasca State Park
    Itasca State Park
    This little guy was my hiking buddy for a while

    Where are the Mountains!?

    Minnesota is covered in trees, meaning that during the months of October and November the entire state is red and yellow.  Although it was great getting a ground’s eye view of the fall colors, I was dying to see what the rows of color looked like from above.

    Unlike Utah, however, Minnesota is flat all-around.  No matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t even find a mini hill to climb to gain some elevation.

    Although Minnesota may not have mountains, they have the next best thing: water towers.

    No mountains? No problem! Climb a water tower!

    Although it wasn’t a water tower per-se, this old observatory tower (previously used by the Itasca fire department) was now one of the main attractions of the park.  Boasting the highest elevation for miles around, it’s one of the few spots in the state where one can climb up and get a good aerial view.

    Up and away!

    Although the tower looks fairly sturdy, it was actually an intensely frightening climb.  The entire tower wobbled with each gust of wind, and its open-frame design definitely had me imagining just how far I would fall if I lost my grip and tripped.

    The view at the top, however, was worth the perilous climb:

    Treeees!
    What a view

    As I stared at this perfect Autumn panorama, I couldn’t help but think about how much I love (and need) the seasons.  Growing up in Utah and later moving to Japan made the changing seasons an integral part of my life.  The changing seasons remind me that the colors of fall and the flowers of spring are all the more beautiful because of the cold snows of winter and the heat of summer.

    The Japanese have a phrase called ‘mono no aware,’ or ‘the transience of things.’  Fall foliage and cherry blossoms are often mentioned in Japanese literature and art because these objects are poignant, beautiful and short-lived.  They are a reminder that we have to sit and enjoy the beauty of what is here and now before it slips through our fingers, just like the falling cherry blossoms petals or the maple leaves of fall.

    My Minnesotan Life

    This is my first time living in the Midwest–and it’s been a trip.  People talk with an accent.  Minnesotans are insanely friendly.  The streets are clean and there’s great public transporation.  There are even Tim Hortons everywhere!  Sometimes I stop and ask myself: did we accidentally cross the border into Canada?

    It’s hard for me to imagine myself living the Minnesotan life forever, but I can see why my husband loves it here so much.  Family values are strong.  People are kind and helpful.  There’s a strong sense of community and trust.

    We may not stay here forever, but this will definitely be a special Minnesotan Autumn that I will never forget.

    Graduating, Leaving California, Traveling to Ireland and Getting Married

    Graduating, Leaving California, Traveling to Ireland and Getting Married

    I apologize for the long, silent hiatus on this blog.  I usually try to update once a month, but since May ’17 my life has been absolutely crazy.

    Graduating

    I honestly thought going back to school would be a nice break from “real, work life,” but it was actually more demanding and taxing both mentally and physically than my previous 8-5 office job.  In graduate school I literally spent 10 hours a day in the library reading (and comprehending) the 500+ pages of literature, as well as write an average of 2-3 essays per week.  Graduate school was a repetitive schedule of sleep-study-eat-study-sleep.  That was my life for ten months.

    Although it was honest-to-god painful to do so much studying in such a short time frame, it was refreshing.  Instead of the repetitive, administrative tasks I was assigned during my previous job, I was pushed to think critically and write my thoughts clearly and with conviction.  I was given so much homework that unless I worked smarter and more efficiently, I wouldn’t finish.  The amount of knowledge I took in from graduate school is simply immeasurable.  Despite my initial hesitation and anxiety about going to graduate school, I can now say it was probably the best life decision I ever made.

    Not only was I slated to graduate in June, but I also had four 20-page papers due for finals; my family was visiting from Utah, I had three days to pack up all my things and leave San Diego forever; and somehow I also had to make time to say farewell to the friends I made there.  It was really intense.  There were many, many, many sleepless nights.

    And then, somehow, I graduated.  Unlike undergrad, I felt proud.  Like, holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-I-finished-this-hard-as-hell-program proud.  Myself and fellow classmates were beaming, smiling, giddy—we all were—because we all suffered together and somehow, someway, we made it.  Personally, it was a huge achievement and one of the proudest moments of my life.

    Leaving California

    I had approximately five days to move all of my belongings, fix my damaged car, return the car to the dealer (since it was a lease), fly to Northern California to help my man move, then say farewell to family and friends and leave California forever and ever.  It sucked.  I was almost too busy to be sad.

    But for some reason me, the girl who hates driving with a passion, became an emotional wreck when I handed the keys of my red Prius to the dealer and said farewell to my very first car forever.

    All things said and done, my Prius was “just a car.”  Yet to me, it symbolized my life in Southern California.  The first thing I did when I decided to stay in Southern California was go to the dealer and get the Prius.  It was almost like making a three-year contract with the state itself, because it’s impossible to cancel a car lease.  I remember feeling like a true adult filling out the papers for the lease agreement as my aunt and uncle stood by my side to help guide me through the process.  That Prius took me all over Southern California and was always by my side.  Fom LA, to the inland empire, to San Diego, and beyond.

    And now it came full circle.  With my aunt and uncle by my side once more, I took the keys and gave it back to the dealer.  The return of one’s car in California can only mean one thing: Your time here is up.

    California was a weird stage of my life.  It probably wasn’t the smartest place to move as someone who was trying to re-acclimate to US life (moving to the city with the world’s worst traffic? Brilliant idea, Mary!); but despite the initial pain, there was also a wealth of happiness and pleasure.  I met the man of my dreams, my socal coworkers became life-long friends, I spent more time with and got to better know my family in LA, and I went to one of the best graduate schools in the country.

    California, despite my complaints, you’ve done a lot for me.

    I don’t know if my life path will bring me to California again, but those three years not only matured me—they also blessed me with a wealth of fond memories.

    Ireland

    Immediately following our move from California, my man and I were on a flight to Dublin.  We spent two weeks touring the north and west of Ireland.

    And man, Ireland does not disappoint.  Like Japan, it fulfills all your expectations.  Ireland is now one of my favorite places in the world and will definitely become a repeat destination.

    I’ll write a separate post on Ireland later, but all I can say is: just do it.  Just go to Ireland.  You’ll love it.

    ….And Getting Married

    You know when people say weddings are stressful?

    OMG THEY ARE SO STRESSFUL.  IT’S ALL TRUE.

    Especially for the bride.  I mean, let’s be real, the bride usually plans the whole wedding.  It’s a long story, but neither my parents or in-laws really helped with the wedding planning, so I had to rely on my man and my maid of honor for all sorts of wedding advice.  Throw in a bridesmaid who threw out her back and canceled a few days before the wedding, along with a groomsmen who is—well, no other way to put this—an asshole and also canceled mere days before the wedding, and I had a complete stress fest on my hands.  Getting 20 Vietnamese relatives, 10 friends from China and Japan and a whole lot of out-of-towners to a venue in the Utah mountains was no easy logistical feat.

    But we did it.

    Thanks to an awesome groom, a stellar maid of honor, my aunt and her daughter,  helpful friends, some good vendors, an amazing venue and dumb luck—the wedding was perfect.  Our wedding was a smash success and almost everyone who attended said it was the most enjoyable wedding they have ever been to.

    And of course, I’m happy to marry my companion, my soul mate, my best friend and my one and only.  He was so patient, understanding and helpful during the whole chaos of the wedding, and we were a happy, giddy couple on our special day.  Now that we’re married nothing really feels different—and honestly, I think that’s what leads to happy and long marriages.

    Post-wedding my now-husband returned to work and I took my friends from China and Japan on a one-week road trip to Yellowstone.

    I returned from Yellowstone, dropped off my rental car keys, went back to my parent’s home and crashed.  After almost three months of nonstop life events, I can finally give a sigh of relief.  It’s over.  It’s all done.  I’m free.

    Will the Ruby Ronin Keep Writing?

    Uh, duh.  Of course.  I have a slew of posts ready that range from Ireland, to Yellowstone, to wedding mishaps and more.  I promise to never leave the blog silent this long ever again!  I apologize dear readers—and trust me, I do miss writing—and you!

    5 Reasons To Visit Washington DC

    5 Reasons To Visit Washington DC

    This week, I just traveled to my nation’s capital for the very first time.  Despite traversing most of East Asia, I have yet to explore much of my own country–in fact, my trip to DC was only the second time in my entire life I set foot on the East Coast.

    Although I was only there a mere five days, I have to say that I enjoyed the city immensely… and here’s why:

    1. The architecture
    This is what 90% of the US West Coast looks like

    The West Coast is ugly.  I’m sorry, it’s the truth.  Much of the American west looks post-apocalyptic with its vast swaths of deserts, strip malls, and architecture that makes a Soviet commune look beautiful.  There are few, if any places in the west where one can take a city stroll and honestly say it’s charming.

    DC, on the other hand, blew me away.  When I was walking near the International Trade Commission (ITC) building, I had to pinch and remind myself that I wasn’t in Europe.  Many of the homes in DC are reminiscent of London and Europe.  The government buildings are epic and grandiose, beautiful colonial townhouses line the streets of DC, and old cathedrals still dot many of DC’s famous neighborhoods.

    It’s a pleasure to stroll through DC (if the weather is nice) because the city and its buildings are hundreds of years old and thus are rich with history.  Europe rubbed off on the east coast–and it shows.

    2. The Monuments

    WWII Memorial

    The national mall is an 2 mile (or 3 km) long stretch of road in the heart of DC that begins with the Capitol, is middle-marked by the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and ends with the Abraham Lincoln Memorial.  Aside from these major landmarks, the national mall also encompasses the Vietnam War Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the World War II memorial, and more.  All of them are beautiful or heart wrenching and, as an American, a must see.

    There are still dozens (if not hundreds) of monuments and landmarks to explore outside of the national mall, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to do so.

    3. The museums are FREE

    Freedom–the statue that was placed atop the capitol during the Civil War

    Did I mention that the Smithsonian and all 19 of its museums are free?  FREE.  These are some of the best museums in the country and they are complimentary to the public.   This perk alone makes the trip to DC worth it.

    4. Convenient and affordable public transportation

    Most of my blogs contain at least one or two sentences about my abhorrence for driving in the U.S. and our lack of public transportation.   LA traffic almost made me lose my sanity.

    DC, on the other hand, has Beijing level quality of public transit.  The Metro is expansive and frequent (and fairly inexpensive).  Buses are everywhere.  Hell, even uber and lyft are half the price of California.  The compact size of DC also makes it easily walkable.

    In DC, you don’t need a car.  At all.

    And to me, that’s glorious.

    5. History

    I took AP US History in high school.  It was one of my favorite classes and I passed it with flying colors.   I used to think US history was boring, but after the enlightenment of this course I was convinced that our history was anything but dull.

    It was amazing to go to the capitol building and imagine the forefathers and later presidents meeting there to discuss and delegate future law to shape this country.  As a history geek, I was giddy to see the original constitution and bill of rights in person.  At the national archives, I literally spent ten minutes gazing in awe at the magna carta (they hold one of the four original copies).  Even outside of the museums, just walking around proves to be a worthwhile historical tour.  In DC every corner, every home, every alley, every monument, every building… they all hold a story crucial to the making of the United States, and in that simple fact I am truly humbled to be in the city’s presence.

    Dome inside of the Capitol Building with Washington Fresco

    I told my American friend I saw the constitution, and she said she probably wouldn’t really care to see it.  It made me sad.  Yes, the constitution is just a piece of paper–but it represents a set of ideals that not only changed the US, but democracies around the world.

    History is important.  More and more Americans are forgetting US history and the principles it stands for.  We need to learn it, remember it, and honor it.

    DC Afterthoughts

    I was a bit hesitant to go to the East Coast because of my dad.  My father is originally from Boston, but he said he fled to the West to escape the high-pressure, cold-weather, upfront attitudes of his east coast brethren.  After spending a few days in DC, I can see his point.

    However, DC felt somewhat like China.  People didn’t wear fake smiles and pretend nice–they were real.  Perhaps for some, they were too real (few people asked how my day was going or smiled, I often received a grunt as a greeting); but for me, it was refreshing.  It was nice to have genuine interaction without the sugary smiles and platitude greetings I often find in Utah and California.

    DC wasn’t perfect.  Crime is high, although improving.  Gentrification is on the rise.  Going out to eat was god-awful expensive, where food (and rent) prices are reaching San Francisco levels of insanity.  Food, sadly, was not as good as Southern California (but honestly, if SoCal does anything right it’s food).  DC can also feel a little stuffy since everyone is running around in a suit trying to look important.  The tension of the city is palpable–basically, you can feel the desperation and passion of everyone trying to move up in the world.

    Despite the drawbacks, DC is definitely worth the visit.  DC is so easy to get in and get around I don’t even need to write any tips.  If you speak even minimal English, you’re good to go.  Just head to the national mall and surrounding area and you’re set for DAYS.  Honestly, it’s probably the easiest city for a foreigner to travel in.

    And personally, I think DC is a mandatory trip for all Americans.

    My First Time in Latin America: Spending One Week in Costa Rica

    My First Time in Latin America: Spending One Week in Costa Rica

    Costa Rica

    Years ago, my boyfriend (now fiancee) approached me and said: “Let’s go to Costa Rica in December 2016.”

    Knowing absolutely nothing about the country, I said “Sure.  Why not.”

    Since boyfriend planned our previous trip, he said Costa Rica planning was up to me.

    As I mentioned before, I knew jack shit about Costa Rica.  To be perfectly honest–I had to look the country up on Google Maps.

    Where does one go in Costa Rica?  How do we get there?  How do we get around?  Do we rent a car?  Can we drink the local tap water?  What’s worth seeing, what’s not?  How’s the weather?

    Most of all… is it worth going to?

    Brief Intro on Costa Rica

    costa rica blog waterfall

    When I told my American friends I was going to Costa Rica, they all said:

    “Oh good.  That’s a U.S. territory so it will be safe.”

    Um, no.  First off: Costa Rica is not Puerto Rico.

    costa rica map

    Costa Rica is located in between Nicaragua and Panama and is one of the safest countries in Central America.  It’s also home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity–basically, a slew of different animal species call Costa Rica home. Costa Rica is also the only country to meet all five standards of the UNDP criteria for environmental sustainability.  Most of all energy in Costa Rica is sourced through dams, solar panels and windmills.  In other words, Costa Rica takes care of the environment, and the environment takes care of Costa Rica (through tourism).

    Costa Rica, once an uninhabitable jungle populated by only a few sparse indigenous people, experienced an industrial boom through banana, coffee and chocolate plantations.  Although the country still does a lot of banana and coffee trading, the economy mostly thrives on tourism.

    Another fun tidbit: Besides the United States, Costa Rica is the only other country to successfully adopt a presidential form of government (see, I actually learned something in graduate school).

    The Volcano in the Jungle

    Costa Rica Arenal Las Colinas
    Our boutique hotel in La Fortuna, Hotel Las Colinas

    So we (my fiancee, H and her husband) spent the majority of our time (four days) in the Arenal Volcano region.  Instead of haul ass and try to hit every tourist spot in the country, I thought lingering in one location and taking it easy would make for a better, more relaxing vacation.

    Active Volcano Arenal
    Active Volcano Arenal.. hasn’t erupted since 2010

    I was right.

    This region is in one of Costa Rica’s most lush and vibrant jungle areas, and it’s easy to see on the drive there.  Whizzing by your window you’ll see rolling hillsides spotted with grazing cows and sheep along with lush jungles filled with wildlife.  We had to stop the car once to let a herd of meek rats cross the road.

    Costa Rica Arenal 7
    Green, green, greeeeen!

    The activities in Arenal are endless.  Rafting.  Ziplining.  Canoeing.  Hiking.  Swimming in waterfalls.  Chocolate plantation.  Repelling.  Wildlife safaris.

    Our vacation was fairly tame (no ziplining or repelling for us), but we did go on a few hikes, swam  in some waterfalls, visited a chocolate plantation and did some safaris.

    Costa Rica 3
    The waterfall in Mistico Park

    My personal highlights of the trip were hikes through Mistico Park (a jungle famous for its hanging suspension bridges and waterfall) and the area surrounding Arenal Volcano.

    Costa Rica Mistico Suspension Bridge
    Suspension Bridge in Mistico Park

    After living in the deserts of Southern California for three years, I gotta say: Seeing this much green felt so good.

    Costa Rica Arenal La Fortuna Waterfall
    The hike to La Fortuna Waterfall
    Costa Rica Misitco Park
    Everything feels so alive

    And one simply cannot visit an active volcanic region without taking a dip in some natural hot springs nearby.  We went to Baldi, the grand daddy of Arenal’s natural hot spring resorts that houses over 25 different thermal pools.  The entrance fee is $34 per person, but it’s totally worth it.  I could easily spend half a day there.

    Beware of the Beach

    costa rica beach Sugar Beach
    Our “private” beach on the coast

    As I write this, I am suffering from serious food/water poisoning from Costa Rica.  Really, it’s hard for me to focus on the positive aspects of my Costa Rica trip through all of my stomach cramps, frequent trips to the toilet and nausea.  Yet I know Arenal is not to blame–it is the beach.

    Arenal has safe drinking water (we drank the tap water and were fine).  The coastal cities do not.  I am almost positive that we were served tap water on the coast, because upon our return from Costa Rica my fiancee, H and her husband were all running to the toilet.  H and I have been bedridden for three days.

    Alas, the beach was not all bad.  It’s more expensive than Arenal and feels much, much more touristy.  However, we lucked out and stayed at a place called Sugar Beach Hotel where we got our own private beach.  The next beach over (Dantitas Beach) is also famous for having the best (free) snorkeling.  If you’re looking for R&R and no crowds, I highly recommend this hotel (and bring mosquito repellent!).

    Thoughts and Tips

    Costa Rica Blog

    Costa Rica felt like.. a vacation.  It wasn’t an eye-opening cultural experience.  I didn’t have any life-altering epiphanies.

    But I had a great time.

    I think Costa Rica is a great getaway for North Americans, especially since it’s so close (we flew there from California on a $400 round trip flight via Southwest) and the tourism infrastructure is highly developed.  If you live in the U.S., are new to traveling and scared to venture out too far, Costa Rica would be an excellent start.  It’s safer than Mexico, the people are friendly, food is good, and there is a ton of fun stuff to do there.  The wildlife and jungles alone make the trip totally worth it.

    Traveling Costa Rica also made me realize: hot damn, Spanish is way easier than Japanese and Chinese (for English speakers).  I never studied Spanish in my life and I could pick up the gist of most conversations in Costa Rica.  By the end of the trip I was ordering food in Spanish.  Compared to Japan and China where I couldn’t read menus for two years or faintly understand anyone, Spanish was a walk in the park.

    Costa Ricans were extremely friendly and open, and unlike my ‘fake’ service in Thailand I felt them to be genuine and honest.  The locals were open about their culture and way of life, and in the jungles of Arenal it was apparent they lived very much at peace with the jungle and its inhabitants.  Most locals could list the different species of wildlife either from daily interaction or from memory.  I sensed a deep connection between the people and surrounding jungle.

    Tips for travelers going to Costa Rica

    Costa Rica Arenal 2

  • If your party is 2+ or more, rent a car.  Just do it.  Public transportation is terrible.  It will cost about 600 USD/week, and that’s that.  There is no way to get a discount.  We used Vamos and they were excellent.  It is fairly easy to drive in Costa Rica, just beware of the massive potholes and some rocky roads.
  • Costa Rica has wet and dry seasons (dry season is from Dec-April).   We visited at the brink of dry season, but we still hit a lot of rain in Arenal–which was actually nice.  Visiting a lush, green, tropical Costa Rica is totally worth it.  The rain also comes and goes, so non-stop downpours are unlikely.
  • Eat at “sodas.”  This is where the locals eat.  Sodas are small joints that serve “casados” (the working man’s mish-mash of rice, beans, and fish/meat) along with other local staples.  Sodas are good, authentic, and CHEAP.
  • Costa Rica is not cheap.  In fact, it’s almost on par with the U.S.  Food is about 10 USD/dish, tours cost around 30-70 USD/person depending on what you want to do, and hotels are around 80-150 USD/night.  This aint Southeast Asia.
  • DON’T DRINK THE TAP WATER ON THE COAST.  In fact, my food/water poisoning was so bad I am hesitant to drink tap water in any foreign country again (except for Japan, of course).
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