I recently fulfilled my lifelong dream of going to Italy, but many (including my husband) wondered….
As many of my long-time readers know, I’m half-Vietnamese. My mom is a refugee from Vietnam and her native language is not English. While I grew up in an English speaking home, my mother struggled to adapt to her non-native tongue. Not being able to fully communicate with my mother made me feel like a stranger in my home.
Since I cannot speak Vietnamese, many of my friends often assume that I was not exposed to Vietnamese whatsoever. However, while my mom never spoke Vietnamese directly *at* me, the language was actually all around me growing up. My mom watched Vietnamese music videos and dramas constantly. In fact, whenever I hear the string of an erhu and guqin with the long winded cry of traditional Vietnamese singing, I am immediately taken back to my childhood living room. read more
Newly Moved to Portland: 5 Observations on My New Home
Ah, seems like only yesterday I was writing about what it was like to live in Dallas, Texas. One year later here I am, in the heart of the Pacific Northwest in Portland, Oregon. While the vibe of the Pacific Northwest is a much better match for my lifestyle and values, not everything is perfect. Here are my thoughts on Portland after two months in the city of roses:
1 – Is Portland like the TV show Portlandia?
Yes. Very much so.
This is doubly true for my particular neighborhood (east of downtown). Most restaurants are very vocal and transparent about where their produce and meat comes from; there are cute boutique shops on every corner that sell the most random stuff (including bird-stamped goods), and I’ve been in not one, but two feminist book stores within walking distance. And it’s only been two months!read more
I Did Not Like Crazy Rich Asians, and I’m Half-Asian
Crazy Rich Asians broke all sorts of records. It was the first American-made film to feature an all-Asian cast. In the US alone, it pulled in over $175 million dollars–and only cost $30 million to produce. It has a 91% positive score on Rotten Tomatoes and received praise from a diverse range of audience that includes Asian-Americans, Whites, Blacks, Hispanics–and just about everyone. With such glowing praise and rave reviews, I just had to check out the movie for myself.read more
How to Split the Check in China, Japan and in America
I think all Americans have at least one extremely unpleasant memory of splitting the check at a restaurant with friends. Let’s face it: in the states, when you go out with a group of friends and the check comes at a restaurant, it ain’t a pretty sight. You whip out a pen and a calculator, ready for the math to begin. You beg the server to swipe six separate cards, since no one ever brings cash anymore. You start fighting over who should pay for the appetizer, based on bites taken.
While Venmo and other money transferring apps have alleviated some of the headache, there is no denying one fact about splitting the bill in America:read more
How to Hike the Kumano Kodo in Japan – Nakahechi Trail
Almost three years ago I hiked the Kumano Kodo trail, one of Japan’s holy pilgrimages and only one of two UNESCO recognized pilgrimages in the world. I wrote about my experience here, but I did not follow through on my promise to write a guide.
Three years ago it was extremely difficult for me to find a blog post that detailed an itinerary on how to do the most frequented trail (Nakahechi) on the Kumano Kodo. I spent hours researching and I guessed on so many items. Even with my Japanese skills, planning this trip was tough.read more
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
There are many moments that make up the Ruby Ronin’s 2018–but none ring louder than one word that acts as a theme to the entire year:
The Year of Texas
This time last year, I was horrified at the prospect of moving to Texas. I remember sitting in our temporary Portland, OR home, staring out the window into a sea of gloomy skies and barren winter trees, wondering why the hell I was moving to Texas. As the days nearing my move inched closer, my anxiety only grew. Portland was starting to feel like home to me. I was finally with my husband. Life was good, despite being unemployed. Why was I leaving again?
When I set foot in Dallas, I knew I wasn’t in Portland anymore. Hoodies and tattoos were replaced with leather cowboy hats and boots. In place of Portland’s public transportation and walkable streets were sprawl and traffic. My European bakeries, a dime a dozen in Portland, were now replaced by Whataburgers, Chik-fil-a and jugs of iced tea. Most of all, the trees, mountains, and nature I was so accustomed to in both California and Oregon were gone. Now on the horizon were the flat, barren plains of America’s heartland.
Still, not all was bad in Texas. The people are polite, although distant. The food is actually insanely good, and diverse. The winters are mild. The cowboy culture is kind of cool. Many of my friends came to visit, and we had a great time exploring the city. BBQ is awesome.
Overall, for me, 2018 was the year of Dallas. It’s a year I’ll never forget–both good, and bad.
The Year of the Introvert
I moved to Texas and I didn’t know a soul. I didn’t even know a friend of a friend of a friend. My husband often wasn’t here, as he still worked in Portland.
So, I tried to make friends at work–but let’s just say, it’s extremely hard to break into the circle of the South (all of my coworkers are native to Dallas or the South). I tried Meetup groups. Classes. Group outings. A few language exchange clubs. It got me out of the house, but it was socially exhausting with few rewards–I didn’t make one single friend.
One Friday, instead of agonizing about how to meet people during my days off on the weekend, I said to myself: I’m done. I’m exhausted trying to make new friends in a new community yet again. I’d rather be alone than try to befriend someone I’m simply not compatible with.
Now I go to the movies alone frequently (I’ve seen over 15 movies this year). I read books like a maniac (one per week). I go on many walks alone. Binge watch TV. Explore coffee shops. Cook elaborate meals for myself. Exercise like a maniac.
I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing, but I’ve learned how to handle being alone for very long amounts of time. I have discovered my inner introvert.
But still, the loneliness was crippling. Worse than Japan. I hope I never have to relive this ever again.
The Year of New York
Despite forcing me to live in Dallas, all of my managers and teammates are in New York. I was flabbergasted to move to Dallas and find out that I’m actually part of a larger New York team and I’m working “remotely” from Dallas.
As a result, I flew to New York–a lot. Sometimes twice in a month. I went from never setting foot in New York in my life, to flying there every other week.
I love New York City–it’s the kind of place I always imagined it to be. The neighborhoods. The cast of characters. The food. The skyline. It’s a place deeply embedded with character, history, hope and ambitions–and honest to god, there is nowhere else like it. I may not want to live there, but damn, it’s a fun place to visit.
The Year of Jet Setting
If I wasn’t flying to New York for a meeting, then I was flying to Portland to see my husband. I had to go to the Bay Area for some holidays, and Utah for others, and a trip to New Orleans, Louisiana. In terms of international trips, my boss suddenly put me on a plane to Japan in July and I traveled across much of Canada for a wedding and leisure. In between, I hopped on a plane to see friends and family in California to keep my sanity.
In summary: I was on a plane. A LOT.
The Highlight of My Year
My husband took me to Montreal, Canada in August…. and I loved it. The European architecture. The good, French influenced food. The bilingual residents. Parks, natures, and adorable neighborhoods galore. Markets with fresh produce. Delicious beer and coffee to kill for.
I’ll (hopefully) write about Montreal in a later post. It’s a magical place and was my most memorable moment of 2018.
Overall, 2018 was the year of survival
I try to be grateful. I have my health. All of my limbs. My family is doing well. I’m happily married and, as a couple, my husband and I couldn’t be better together. We take vacations. We both have jobs. In some ways, we’re living the dream.
However, if I’m brutally honest on here–and somewhat selfish–I must admit that there were moments when I thought I wasn’t going to make it through my Dallas tenure in 2018. The learning curve at my job was steep, and as a “remote” worker in Dallas I had no one to rely on for help or training–and I had no colleagues on my projects. I failed again and again to make friends, and although in the end I was content with being alone, the isolation still stung.
I had no colleagues to vent frustrations to or ask for help, and I had no friends to fill the gap of loneliness created by my new workplace. While I was physically healthy and on the financial upswing, my mental well-being took a huge nosedive in 2018. This also explains my minimal updates on the blog in 2018… I felt no motivation to write.
As this kind of lifestyle away from my husband was simply unsustainable, I decided to confront my boss. A nervous Mary told a very high-ranking stakeholder that you either let Mary move out of Texas, or Mary’s going to move out of your company.
And I’m happy to announce that he not only consented, but was very supportive. I can finally reunite with my husband. We can finally be together–and I can keep my job.
The year of 2018–or Texas, as I like to call it–was a rough one. I survived, and I’m moving on up–back on up to rainy Portland with my husband.
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.
The Best Part of New Orleans? Bacchanal Wine
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.
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
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.”
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
It’s a question that all expats ask themselves sometime or another:
Am I in a foreign country because I really like it here, or am I using this culture as a form of escape from a deep-rooted problem at home?
I kept asking myself this after reading “Six Foot Bonsai,” an autobiography I read for a book club. It’s the story of a white woman from Michigan who is, to an unhealthy degree, utterly Japan obsessed. After marrying an abusive Japanese man and giving birth to two half-children (who are subsequently abused), she explains how her fixation on Japan essentially ruined her life.
“Japan was my drug of choice,” she wrote. “And I couldn’t get enough of it.”
This line had me thinking:
Were My Years in China and Japan a Form of Escapism? Was Japan My Drug of Choice?
I grew up half-Asian in a small coal mining town in Utah, so to say I was isolated and outcasted is an understatement. One medium that got me through the pain of adolescence was –yes, I must admit–Japanese anime and manga. This is the usual ‘gateway drug’ that gets most young tweens and teens sucked into the world of Japan.
Unlike my peers, however, I fell deep for Japan. Although I found out about Japan through anime and manga, learning the language and getting a minor in Japanese studies made me realize that I loved much more than anime–I loved Japan’s literature, art, culture and people. After my first exchange trip to Japan, I had fallen off the deep end and there was no going back.
And when I first moved to Japan, the “high” was amazing. The bullet trains, the clean streets, the polite locals, the untouched nature, samurai castles and sliding doors and kimonos–oh man, it was everything I wanted and more.
But Pretty Soon, the High Wore Off
I’m half-Asian, but most people think I’m 100% white. As most expats like to point out, being white (or non-Asian) anywhere in Asia elicits unwanted attention. People stare. They point. They treat you special. Shower you with praise. Immediately approach you to be their new, foreign friend.
Some expats relish in the attention. Others find it uncomfortable.
I was the latter.
Unlike other foreigners who got a ‘high’ from being the gaijin-center-of-attention, I loathed it. I just wanted to fit in.
But no matter how hard I studied Japanese and perfectly executed their customs, the Japanese never let me in. In their eyes, I would forever be a gaijin. An outsider. A foreigner.
I was distraught.
On top of that, I saw cracks in my perfect world that was Japan. I noticed people around me suffering from extreme bouts of loneliness. I saw emotional suppression brought on by a repressive society. My coworkers and friends were overworked and exhausted. My Japanese girlfriends turned a blind eye to their cheating husbands.
I wanted to be Japanese and fit in, but my core Western values found it hard to accept the above. I would never be able to tolerate a cheating husband. I found it hard to do staged overtime work for the sake of it. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself that this was Japan and I had to adapt to their ways, I could in no way persuade myself that I should change my core values for the sake of living in Japan.
After two years in Japan I realized that I couldn’t stay there for the rest of my life–so I went to China.
Again, Was I Running Away From the Real World? Did China Mask My Problems?
From the moment I stepped foot in China, I knew this place was better suited for me than Japan. It may sound odd, but after living in Japan it was utterly refreshing to be chewed out by someone on the street. To see such open display of emotion–even anger or frustration–was liberating. People screamed at me and I could scream back. The openness of Chinese society felt like a reassuring hug. I melted into Shanghai and it became the metropolitan life this small-town-Utah girl always dreamed of.
As I lived in China, switching between studying Chinese and working in various companies, I would talk to my friends in the US and hear about their mundane, yet stressful lives. Going to pharmacy school. Working the same job for four years and trying to get a promotion. Trying to pass the LSAT (law certification in US).
In my own way I was moving on with my life, but a part of me also thought:
Am I hiding in China while the real world goes on?
Long-time readers of my blog will know that when I returned to the USA after living in Asia, I had it rough. I had to play catch-up. It wasn’t easy, and there were times I wanted to hop on a plane and go straight back to China.
Yet despite all the ‘pain’ living abroad brought me, I often asked myself if I would do it all over again. Would I get on that plane to Japan at 22 years old again if I knew what I know now? Or would I stay in the US to build up my career?
Without hesitation, I always choose to get on that plane.
And it’s because China and Japan were not my drug–they are an integral part of who I amread more
I recently read an article about a tea specialist and her new tea franchise in an airline magazine. While these kind of articles are a dime-a-dozen nowadays, there was one comment from the tea-master that jumped out of the page at me:
“Every cup of tea evokes a memory, a feeling, a connection to something from your past.”
I couldn’t help but think just how true this statement was, as I reflected on my favorite types of tea and how they are linked to a particular moment in my past:
Whenever I drink Genmai-cha, all I can think about is Japan. The flavor is unique and difficult to describe–it’s earthy, but has a flowery and light finishing taste–like buckwheat, hay and dandelions combined. After steeped, the tea turns the water a light yellow color, almost like a chrysanthemum flower. It feels like the working man’s tea, the commoner’s tea, a tea that refreshes in both the summer and winter.
I had just arrived in Japan the day before. My senses were in overdrive as I took in the foreign surroundings. I kneeled on a tatami floor and looked around my host-grandparent’s old, wooden home: paper sliding doors (shoji) opened up to a Japanese garden outside. A wind-chime sang in the breeze. The humidity was oppressive, and I could feel sweat rolling down my neck. The grandma turned on a nearby fan that whizzed back and forth in an effort to cool the room. My host grandma and grandpa sat across from me and smiled, speaking quickly and fluently, forgetting that I wasn’t Japanese. My head was dizzy with culture shock and language comprehension, but I did my best and did what any guest would do: nod and smile.
Like a Japanese person, I picked up the small Japanese tea cup from the saucer with both hands, blew on it softly and sipped it gently without noise. I had green and black tea in America–but I immediately knew this tea was something else.
“What name is this tea?” I asked in broken Japanese.
The grandma giggled, “genmai-cha. Do you like it? Hold on.”
She stood up, ran to the kitchen and returned with a pouch of tea for me. I insisted it was unnecessary to give me a bag of tea, but she shoved the tea pouch in my hand with a smile.
Pu-Er Cha 普洱茶
Pu-Er Cha is a high-end tea grown exclusively in China’s Yunnan region. Although it’s somewhat easy to find low-quality pu-er tea in the states, wheels of high-grade pu-er tea are only available in China and sell for hundreds of dollars. Among all teas, pu-er is extremely unique in taste and almost resembles coffee in its bitterness and color. When I crumble pu-er tea in my hands, I feel like I’m crumbling soil of the Earth. It smells like trees, soil, dirt. It’s an Earthy tea with a rich, bitter flavor.
I had a sanctuary in Shanghai, and it was a teahouse called Da Ke Tang. The building is from the roaring 20s of Shanghai’s heyday and is a mix of French architecture with Chinese decorations. The teahouse is incredibly high-end, with a chandelier in the reception room and the sitting room itself covered in gold mirrors and finely crafted wooden tables. Old Shanghai jazz music plays here, and women in qipaos (slim Chinese dresses) stand at the bar mixing and serving tea.
Booths lined the floor-to-ceiling windows that opened out into the teahouse’s gardens. After being seated, the qipao server would place nuts, an ashtray and a menu for the customers. Although the menu was 10 pages long, there was only one item served:
Even writing this hurts, cause I miss that damn place so much. My Shanghai friends and I would simply sit, drink pu-er, and talk for hours. There were times we would sit in silence, hold our teacups, and stare around the room in amazement. It was a place that could only be in Shanghai–a memory I could only make in that city. I sometimes spent $30 on high-end pu-er there, but it was worth it. The server would add pot after pot of water and we would talk the hours away until our tea became too diluted to continue.
Oolong Tea 乌龙茶
I think we all know what Oolong tea tastes like. To me, it’s the quintessential tea of Asia. No matter where you go in Asia, it’s fairly easy to find a cup of Oolong somewhere, somehow.
I often drank Oolong tea in Japan, and it tasted just as it looked: slightly bitter with a strong barley taste. I wasn’t a huge fan of the tea in Japan (I much preferred Genmai-Cha), but in China that changed. For some reason, Oolong tasted different no matter where I went in China–although the smell stayed the same.
We had dinner at a Cantonese restaurant only a few feet away from my new apartment. Jenny squealed in delight when she saw that they had gong-fu-cha (kung fu tea).
“That’s like… a real thing?” I questioned with a raised eyebrow. “I thought it was only made for those cheesy Hong Kong kung fu flicks.”
“Of course it is!” she laughed. “It’s quite a show. Do you want to order it?”
The server came out with a tray that held three extremely small cups of tea (no larger than my thumb) and a matching clay teapot. As soon as he set the tray down, he began to flip the teapot around his hand, flip the tea cups up and down below at lightning speed—and all while pouring tea. I wouldn’t call it an amazing show; but rather, a waste of perfectly good tea (he literally spilled it everywhere).
“The tea spilled everywhere!” I exclaimed. “What a waste!”
Z laughed, “that’s how we pour tea in China, Mary. It goes all over the place.”
With the smell of oolong all around us, I took one of those tiny teacups and took a shot. “Well, douse me with another shot of Oolong!”
Irish & English Breakfast
I was never a fan of English Breakfast tea. It’s too bitter, and putting milk and sugar in my tea weirded me out (call me an Asian tea traditionalist).
Yet when I went to Ireland, I drank the stuff like crazy. Every morning our bed and breakfast hostess would ask if we wanted coffee or tea, and I would copy the locals and order tea. There was something satisfying and comfortable about drinking a cup of slightly sweetened Irish Breakfast tea on a cold and crisp Irish morning. The locals often served us ‘Barry’s Irish Tea’ and, as a result, I bought a few boxes to take home to America.
Now when I’m home and brew a cup of Barry’s, I add some sugar and cream and take a deep breath of the tea’s rich, black aroma. When I close my eyes I instantly recall the rolling hills of Ireland and those peaceful Irish mornings.