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How to Split the Check in China, Japan and in America

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

The Ruby Ronin’s Review of 2018

The Ruby Ronin’s Review of 2018

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.

See you soon, Portland!

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.

Tea Evoked Memories

Tea Evoked Memories

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:

Genmai-Cha 玄米茶

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.

Genmaicha is a green tea with roasted, popped brown rice

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

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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.

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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:

Pu-er.

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.

After my former roommate booted me out of her apartment because I failed to find her a white husband, I had fully moved into what I deem the best apartment I ever had the rare luck of living in. I invited Z and Jenny, my new coworkers, to look at the apartment and decided to get dinner.

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).

A ‘gong fu cha’ (kung fu tea) set

“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.

What kind of memories do tea evoke for you?

Discovering My Irish Roots in County Galway, Ireland

Discovering My Irish Roots in County Galway, Ireland

Kylemore Abbey in Connemara

Countless Americans make the journey across the Atlantic for one reason alone: discovering their Irish roots in the homeland of Ireland.

I’m no different.  When my father first told me that I was Irish (around six years old),  I went to the library and checked out every book on Ireland I could find.  Each page was filled with green pastures that stretched out to the ocean, castles dotting the rolling green countryside, and cobblestone streets in cute seaside villages.  As a young girl growing up in the deserts of coal-mining Utah, Ireland looked like the setting of a faraway fairy tale from a Disney movie.

My Irish Grandma

My Grandma Winnie left Ireland when she was in her early twenties.  Her father was a strict, Irish farmer who fit the stereotype: when he wasn’t drinking at the pub, he was beating his kids.  My grandmother loved to dance and sing so, despite my grandfather’s strict household rule, she would sneak out of the second floor window and run to the dance halls.  Usually she was able to sneak in and out undetected, but one evening her father caught her climbing back in the window.  She was beaten bloody.

“Winnie,” my great-grandmother told my grandma the next day. “Your brothers are going to inherit the farmland here and you’ll get nothing.  If you stay here they’ll make you labor on the farm and work you to the bone for nothing.  If you marry another Irishman around here it will just be the same.  Take this ticket to America and find your own future.”

Winnie journeyed to America, moved to Boston, and lived and died there.  She was a single mother to two children and worked a hard life of physical labor to give her kids the American dream.

I loved my grandma Winnie and was proud of my Irish heritage.  If I was going to Ireland, then I just had to go to her hometown in…

Carna in Connemara, County Galway (aka, the Irish boonies)

Aint nothin here, man

Connemara used to be its own county, but it was so small and unpopulated that it was eventually merged with neighboring County Galway for efficiency’s sake.  Connemara is a vast swath of bog and plateaus that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  Connemara is rugged, untouched by man, expansive and stunning in its purity.

When husband and I were driving to Carna, we were surprised to see… well, absolutely nothing.  Much of Ireland is rural, but the area around Carna is so rural, you have to wonder if there are more sheep than men wandering around the hills.

Carna!
The old, Irish style cottage–still in fashion (this one was newly built)
The focal point of the town: a church
Pharmacy across the street

The town was tiny–basically, there’s only one supermarket, one church, and two pubs.  The ocean is so close you can hear the waves from the main road.  The church is the central point of the town, and next to it is a pub (go figure).  It was surreal to be in my grandmother’s hometown and think that she wandered these streets and went to this very same church.  Since there are only two pubs in the town, we go to the one that’s open and walk in to get some lunch.

A model of the famous Galway boats was in the restaurant. These boats are super cool!

As soon as we walked in three elderly men at the bar craned their heads at the door.  They gave us a long, hard stare until they went back to nursing their pint of beer.  The peppy woman at the bar sat us at a table and took our order.

“Mary,” husband whispered to me. “I think I’m the first Asian person to ever be in this bar.  Or even set foot in Carna.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I laughed.

The pub!

Everyone in the bar spoke Irish gaelic.  The waitress told us that everyone in Carna actually does speak Irish with English as a second language.  In fact, Carna is known for being the last remaining town where Irish is spoken daily; thus, people in Ireland homestay in Carna for the sole purpose of attaining fluency in Irish.  Hearing the Irish-Celtic going around the pub had me feeling like I stepped back in time to a pub from Ireland in the 1800s.  I’m quite sure little had changed.

At the grocery store everything was written in Irish. Even the books for sale.

We didn’t spend long in Carna and, much to my disappointment, I didn’t learn more about my grandmother or any surviving relatives.  Being there felt surreal to me and it was hard for me to approach the locals to ask about her family.  Emotionally I didn’t have the strength, and I hope that someday I can go back to Carna better prepared to find some long lost relatives.

Rural Connemara near Carna

Although Carna is not a tourist destination, it really is stunning.  It’s rare to find a patch of Earth that has changed so little over the centuries.  The scenery around Carna is burned into my brain–it’s literally unlike anywhere on Earth (and is very different from other parts of Ireland).  If you want to hear people speak Irish, eat the best damn meal of mussels you’ll ever have, and discover a patch of Ireland untouched by time–maybe Carna is worth a stop.

Best mussels of my life. Freshly caught off the coast of Carna that morning.

But for me, it was definitely worth it.  To see where my grandma came from.  To see where I came from.

And If You’re Going to Ireland, for God’s Sake go to Galway City: It’s a Must

When people ask me where they should go when planning a trip to Ireland, I immediately say:

“Skip Dublin and go straight to Galway.  Trust me.”

I’m not just saying that because I’m from Galway–I’m saying it because Galway City is the shit.  It’s like stepping into a modern, medieval city.  It’s a stunning city on the seaside that has cobblestone streets, charming medieval homes, and pubs that feel like they came right out of a fantasy film.  When you walk down the main street in Galway, you’ll find Irish performers dancing in the streets.  Smell freshly baked bred or a pot of Irish stew brewing nearby.  Hear the music of Irish guitars and tin whistles from the lively pubs flood onto the street.

Latin Quarter!
The old clan flags of Galway
Failte!
Look how bustling it is!

It’s a nerdy reference, but I kept telling my husband that walking around Galway City felt like I was in a fantasy village in a video game.  The music would change depending on which pub or restaurant we happened to walk by, the medieval buildings and music felt like it was straight out of a renaissance fair, and approaching a random local to ask about the city was not only easy, but encouraged.

Proof I’m a Galway Girl

My Irish last name is not very common.  I’m not an O’Malley or an O’Hara.  In fact, husband teased me throughout the entire trip saying: “your clan must have died out, because I don’t see your Irish name anywhere.”

When we visited the National Irish Museum in Galway and we looked through the local history, I not only saw my last name right smack in the main exhibition–I saw that my clansmen were the original settlers and leaders of Galway.  I took a photo and beamed with pride.

Maybe my clan is dying out.  Maybe after the British ran the original Celt settlers out of Galway and killed many of them, a good chunk of my ancestors died too.

But I’m very proud of my last name and my heritage–it’s one reason I didn’t, and won’t, change my last name (even after marriage).  Luckily, I got a good husband who not only lets me, but encourages me to keep my last name.

I’m proud to be Irish.  I’m proud to be from Galway.

How Do You Know Where to Settle Down?

How Do You Know Where to Settle Down?

Whenever I travel somewhere new, especially a city, I always find myself asking the same question:

Could I actually live here–or better yet–settle down here?

In Utah’s middle schools, I was brainwashed–erm, I mean, taught, that when the Mormon Pioneers hauled their wagons to Salt Lake City and first set their sights on the blue skies and the Great Salt Lake, they cried:

“This is the Place.”

Thus, Utah became the home of the Mormon Pioneers…. and Salt Lake now has a (ridiculously) named “This is the Place” museum.

But that slogan–tagline–whatever you want to call it, really stuck with me.  I thought that someday, somewhere, just like those Mormon Pioneers supposedly did, I would finally end up somewhere and say:

“This is the Place.”

Deutschland!

When I was younger I thought that, after traveling the world and living in a handful of cities, I would eventually find out where that certain somewhere was.  I had a guess it would be Japan.  Maybe somewhere in Asia.  Being from a small town, I thought living in an exciting, metropolitan city like New York or Paris would suit me.

But Even After Traveling the World, I Still Can’t Figure Out Where to Settle Down

LA Traffic on a good day

It seemed like that, no matter where I went, I was able to pick out some quirk or cultural aspect of the location that just didn’t fit my future needs.

Japan was safe, comfortable and rich with culture; but it was also an extremely overworked society that was alienating and socially repressive.

China had a lot of jobs, was home to some of the best people on Earth (Chinese friends got your back for life) and was extremely convenient.  On the flip side, the pollution and authoritarian government was kind of worrisome–especially if my husband and I ever planned to have a family.

Los Angeles has awesome food, beaches, diversity and great weather–but dear god, that traffic.

Minnesota was nice, but insular and…. flat.  Not to mention it gets -20 F (-6 C) in winter.

Dallas is not a bad place at all; but again, the sprawl and reliance on a car is something I would like to avoid.  Traffic here is also gnarly.  And the lack of nature and greenery gets me down.

Portland is by far my favorite pick of the bunch in terms of US cities, but the job market is flat.  It’s housewife or nothing in Portland.

Salt Lake City, my home, would be great because my family and friends still live there–but again, the job market is nil for me.  Plus, the car thing.  Ugh.

China was great! … But didn’t care much for the pollution

And this is where you’re probably thinking:

Jeez Mary, nitpicky enough?

When I was mentally analyzing why I could never settle down in Dallas and all the above locations, it dawned on me:

Maybe the Problem Isn’t the Place–Maybe it’s Me?

Move to Paris?

I once asked my classmate, a 55 year old lawyer turned grad student and mother of two teenagers, when she knew that she wanted to become a mother.

“Did you wake up one day and think:  Wow.  I feel it.  I really want a baby.”

“Nope.”

“What?  Really??  Doesn’t that urge for motherhood kick in eventually?”

“I was 35 and it didn’t kick in Mary,” she told me with a smile.  “You just gotta make it happen.”

…. which made me think….

….maybe that same logic applies to settling down as well.

Maybe instead of over-analyze what is the best place and why, perhaps it’s just better to put your foot down and adapt.  Maybe no one knows where they’re actually going to settle down, but sooner or later they end up making a conscious choice.

Stay here, or keep moving.

Man, would love to live in such beauty…

My husband and I are agonizing over where we should settle down.  Where we put our bags down and say “this is the place.”  Because after all of our moving, we’re exhausted.

After traveling the world for years upon years, I’m ready to put some roots down (for a while, at least).  I want to decorate a home.  I want to enjoy my neighborhood.  I want some familiar faces and stability in my life.

I’m still hoping that someway, somehow, I’ll arrive to that special place one day–look around–and think:

This is the place.

How did you decide where you were going to settle down?  Or have you thought about where you’ll settle down? read more

The Ruby Ronin’s 2016 Year in Review

The Ruby Ronin’s 2016 Year in Review

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As social media and the internet have already proclaimed, 2016 was not exactly a great year.  Dozens of amazing, life-changing and truly respectable celebrities passed away–and most of them, in my opinion, left this world too soon (Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Prince… just to name a few).

The most devastating public tragedy to occur in 2016, in my personal opinion, is the election of Donald Trump.  I’m in disbelief that a bigoted, low-intelligence, tax-evading, rapist could become president.  I go into 2017 with a heavy heart and sincere concern about the U.S. and the world.  As someone studying foreign policy day-in, day-out, I am extremely aware of the damage an unpredictable president like Trump will do, and it is very frightening indeed.  I went into graduate school with the high hopes of graduating, working hard to get a job in the federal government and serve under the first female president–and now everything has changed.  My future looks uncertain.

The end of 2016 also invoked personal pain and heartache.  My hometown in Niigata, Itoigawa City, was engulfed in flames on December 22nd.  Over 140 buildings were lost to the fire.  However, because of the tight-knit community and the warning systems put in place, no one was injured or dead.  Over 800 people were safely evacuated.  My friends lost their homes and the entire downtown of Itoigawa is now charred to a crisp.  It was heart breaking.  A city with so many memories and so much history–lost.

Yet if there is one thing I know the Japanese do best, it is rebuild.  After fighting the fire for 1.5 days, the town got together on day 2 and already started preparations to rebuild Itoigawa.  I wish I could be there to help them–the Itoigawa community is my second home, and I truly love them.

Aside from rather gloomy world events, how did my 2016 fare?  Thankfully, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, although there were some rough spots.

The Year of Travel (and seeing old friends)

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Sunset in San Diego with Z and Jean

I traveled a lot in 2016.  I went to Japan and visited old stomping grounds (Takamatsu and Hiroshima) as well as new ones (Kumano Kodo and Kamakura).  I stopped by Shanghai and saw old friends and had an epic journey with J to Zhangjiajie, Hunan.  I went to Canada for the first time with Richard, where he took me to Vancouver and Whistler (and I’ll definitely write about this amazing country later!).  We also ventured to Minneapolis, Duluth, Lake Superior, Napa, Sonoma and finished off the year in Costa Rica.

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Zhangjiajie with J!
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Kumano Kodo!
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Mt. Whistler in Canada!
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Lake Superior!
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Ethiopian food in Minneapolis!
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Z soakin up the sun in La Jolla, San Diego

This year taught me that frequent travel is possible without being a nomad.  Sure, roaming the world from one destination to the next with a backpack and a camera is exciting and fun; but the road can get lonely, and not having a home to return to starts to burn a hole in your heart.   It’s nice to travel and explore… but it’s even better to return to someone you love and a cozy, stationary home.

Family and Health Concerns

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Brought my dad to San Diego before his operation

Earlier I wrote about this briefly, but my father was very ill this year.  He suffered from congestive heart failure and underwent a complicated quadruple bypass surgery.  The before-after process for surgery was truly heart-wrenching, but luckily the procedure and his recovery was smooth and successful.

My father is already his usual jolly self and nearly 100% recovered.  I am beyond relieved.He still has some other health issues to tackle, but for the most part he is doing just fine.

Although I truly miss life in Asia, it’s moments like this that make me glad I’m in the United States.

Graduate School Highs and Lows

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One high is definitely living here

2016 was the year I took the plunge and quit my job to go back to school.  The mental trauma the entire process of graduate school incurred was monumental.  One month prior to graduate school I had nightmares and cold sweats about whether I was doing the right thing or not.  I am not rich and I do not have the luxury to go to graduate school to get a humanities/political science degree, I frequently told myself.  Is this going to be worth it?  Am I doing the right thing?

Oh my goodness readers… days before my first class, I almost quit the program.  Making the decision to spend thousands (like, thousands and thousands) of dollars on education was one of the most difficult decisions of my life.

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San Diego sunsets for healing

Also,  I don’t know if it’s my program or what, but graduate school is tough as shit.  It’s like undergrad on steroids, crack and LSD all at once.  I spend every waking hour of my life (not exaggerating) either in class learning or at the library studying.  I probably read close to 500 pages of text and write up to 5 papers per week.  I realized that graduate students are the ultimate masochists, because we pay so much money to suffer.

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Yet, I have no regrets.  I’m learning an insane amount of information.  My view of the world, and the U.S. government, has been flipped upside down (and in a good way).  My program has four career coaches to help us find employment.  95% of the graduating class is employed.  I’m in good hands.

I also have to say that: If I went to any other graduate school (including the expensive ivy-league ones), this degree would probably not be worth it.  My school is highly ranked, has incredible faculty; teaches us applicable, real-world knowledge and is affordable.  The value of graduate school is definitely in the caliber of the school and faculty more than the piece of paper.

And Finally, The Big Announcement

Atop the peak of Mt. Whistler, Richard popped the big question.

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I now have even more to look forward to in 2017.  Time to plan that wedding.

Happy New Year Everyone!

2016 had some bad (ok, a lot of bad), but it definitely had some good.  I’m hoping that, despite our idiot president and all, 2017 will be a good year.  I will graduate, get married and hopefully find that career I’ve been striving after for so many years.  Although I’m not looking forward to the wedding planning, I’m definitely excited about the next chapter of my life after graduate school–and most of all, starting a new life with Richard.

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Have a happy 2017 everyone!

Cost of Living: Los Angeles vs. Shanghai

Cost of Living: Los Angeles vs. Shanghai

Shanghai Los Angeles Cost of Living

One of my biggest forms of culture shock upon moving back to the United States was cost of living.  It felt like everything in the United States was way, way more expensive than Shanghai.

In my previous post, I calculated and compared the cost of living between Los Angeles and Tokyo, and I found that living in Tokyo could actually save you 10,000 USD per year compared to life in Los Angeles. I’m a huge advocate for living abroad to not only broaden horizons, but to also save money.

So how does life in Shanghai fare when it comes to cutting costs?

First Off, Let’s Talk Salary

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Like Tokyo, the level of salary you’ll receive in Shanghai is much less than what you would make in the United States.  In fact, Shanghai’s wages look so low you’ll actually question how people in Shanghai even survive at all.  Also keep in mind, the wages listed below are real wages that my friends and I have earned, and reflect the foreigner’s salary and not the local Chinese salary.  Believe it or not, locals in Shanghai only make 7k RMB per month (1,000 USD) on average, which is considered a “high” salary.

Again, this scenario is based upon the typical salary of an English teacher in China since that is how most foreigners get their foot past the great wall.  The average salary for an English teacher in Shanghai is about 110,000 RMB per year, or roughly 22,524 USD per year. 

We all know that living in Los Angeles on 21,000 USD per year is madness, so instead I’m going to compare with the same salary benchmark we used in the Tokyo scenario, which is 35,000 USD per year. read more

Europe Highlights: Three Countries in Ten Days

Europe Highlights: Three Countries in Ten Days

Europe Highlights

So I traveled to three European countries in ten days.

And I highly recommend you don’t do it.

I’m a firm believer in traveling slow and enjoying the sights, but since I’m American and I only get a whopping 12 days of paid holiday per year, I had my limitations–so I made do.

My plan was to head to  Paris (for a bachelorette party), then Berlin (to see my good German friend) and, finally, Brussels for the wedding.

I only scratched the surface of each city/country, but here are the highlights:

Paris – Totally Worth it

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It’s more than just a tower

Paris is romanticized to death.  I heard mixed reviews about the city that ranged from ‘epic’ to ‘dirty’ and even ‘disappointing.’

Let me clear up everything now: Paris is everything you imagined it to be.

It’s a white city that lights up at night.  It’s full of couples kissing in parks, creperies around every corner waiting to sell you a delicious, nutella filled pancake; and dotted with al-fresco cafes perfect for people watching and sipping coffee.

As I walked around Paris, the only words I could muster to describe my surroundings were:

“This place is too, too beautiful.”

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In my dreams, I own one of these apartments (preferably the one at the top)
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Charming.
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This is what Paris looks like. How can you not be enchanted?
Paris Flower Shop
Europeans love to buy flowers. Paris was full of flower shops.

The architecture.  The history.  The river flowing through the city.

It’s magical.

It’s also easy to see that the French have a totally different way of life from us Americans.  People take their time to eat meals (lunch or dinner is usually 2 hours long, with coffee or wine included), they take life slow (thus they sit in cafes people watching and reading newspapers) and they don’t sweat the small stuff.  They revel in the good things in life, such as fine cheese, wines, and bread (I’m convinced I was French in a past life).

Oh god, bread.  Croissants.  Baguettes.  Pastries.  If you need reason to go to France, just do it for the bread.

My top recommendation for Paris?  Go to the city center near sunset (preferably near Notre Dame or the Louvre).  Find a bridge, stand there, and watch the sun melt into the river and paint  the city in orange pastels.

Sunset on the Seine
Sunset on the Seine

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After night descends on Paris, all of the buildings light up (it’s not called the City of Lights for nothing) for some great night strolling.  Much to my surprise, the city is empty and quiet at night.  Walking around a silent Paris, gazing at the old houses, Notre Dame, and the small bars open for late visitors-it was peaceful, serene and magical all at once.

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paris - night

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I didn’t want to leave Paris.  I thought of ways I could return; perhaps maybe take a French course (or two).  I was entranced by Paris, and France as a whole.  I want to go back.

Berlin – An Up And Coming City

Biew from the Top of Berlin Tower
View from the top of Berlin Tower

As soon as I landed in Berlin, I knew I wasn’t in France anymore.  The area surrounding the airport felt like I traveled back in time to communist, East Germany.  Compared to France with its stylized balconies and gothic architecture, Germany looked like an industrial wasteland.

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That is, until I reached the city center.

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The buildings in Berlin are tall and colorful (not white like France) and still retain a sense of history from decades long before the war.  It’s a blend of old and new, in the best way possible.

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Berlin is hipster haven.  New, hip coffee shops are popping up on every street corner.  There’s musicians and artists everywhere.  Quirky bookstores and mom-and-pop craft stores selling the latest fashion and home decorations were in every neighborhood.  Swanky restaurants that serve the best of Asian fusion, authentic Italian, and even modern takes on American burgers (fig burger, anyone?) were a dime a dozen.

Walking around Berlin is a treat in itself.  So many shops to explore, so many places to eat, and so many events to participate in–like Shanghai, it’s a city that will never bore you.

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My friend also took me to all the historical, tourists sights.  We saw the city symbol, Brandenburg Gate, built in the 1700s to signify peace after the 30 years war, but later became a sort of barrier that separated east and west Germany.  Nearby, there is a memorial in honor of the Jews.  It’s beautiful and eerie.

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Jew Memorial in Berlin
Memorial for the Jews. Each square is supposed to resemble a grave. A modern work of art in the city center.

Our last stop in Berlin was the Berlin Wall; or at least, what’s left of it.  It’s now a crumbling wall of Graffiti, a kind of mini art museum out in the open for all to see.

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Berlin Wall
Represent.

It’s easy to see that Berlin is a city that has risen up from the ashes of its communist days and still continues to thrive, grow and become one of the most innovative cities in Germany.  While Berlin is looking forward, it’s still easy to see much of its past speckled throughout the city.

Berlin Sunset
Sunset near the famous bridge located by the wall. Known as one of the best spots to watch the sunset in Berlin.

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“My parents lived in East Germany before the wall came down,” my friend said. “People didn’t have refrigerators, stoves, cars… it was a terrible place.  My parents were going to risk their lives and cross the wall, but luckily it came down before they could execute their plan.”

He smiled, “they never imagined that only a few years later they would have a son travel to America.”

Berlin City Center
My German friend–miss you!

My personal tip for Berlin: Visit the neighborhood Prenzlberg.  It’s the neighborhood I stayed in and it’s quiet, quaint and full of great restaurants and shops.  Walking around the neighborhood alone is entertainment in itself, and the sheer variety of local shops selling books, vintage clothing, stamps, stationary, pottery and more will keep you entertained for hours.

A normal street on Prenzlberg

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And Finally, Brussels

Brussels houses
I love how different all the houses in Brussels are–so cute!

Beer.  Chocolate.  Fries.  And a wedding.

This was my time in Brussels.

The french fries are divine (crispy with just enough salt, but still warm and soft on the inside), while the chocolate is simply the world’s best (Godiva isn’t a Belgian brand for nothin’), and the beer…oh, the beer….

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Belgian Beer in Belgium! Livin’ the dream!

I love my Belgian beer.  Going there and drinking it in person was like a childhood dream come true.

Belgium is a trilingual country with three national languages: French, Flemish and German (and just about everyone speaks English).  The country is very inconsistent with its languages, with some trains running in French, some advertisements in Flemish, and a few restaurant menus written in German.  It’s a city that feels like a mix of France and Germany combined.

My favorite part of Brussels was the size and the atmosphere.  Although Brussels is the fortress city for the European Union, it has a very small-town feel.  It’s cozy, comfortable, and easy to get around (you could probably walk from one end of the city to the other in less than 2 hours).

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Central Brussels at dusk
No car day in Brussels
September 20th was “no car” day in Brussels. The city was completely void of cars–it was amazing!
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Bikes, bikes and more bikes! Having no car day in the USA would be impossible…
Brussels Grand Place at Dusk
“Grand Place,” the most famous landmark of Brussels

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Brussels Cathedral
I literally stumbled upon this gigantic cathedral out of nowhere. The light at sunset lit it up beautifully.

I never imagined in a million years I would go to Belgium (hell, I just discovered Belgian beer 4 years ago).  Yet one of my very close friends, a former classmate from my Tsinghua days in Beijing, moved there recently with her fiancee and decided to have their wedding ceremony there–and I just had to go.

At the wedding there was out-of-this-world food, free-flowing champagne, the best damn vintage of red wine I’ve ever sampled, and most importantly–my friend, her (now) husband, and their happiness.  It was one of the most enjoyable weddings I’ve ever attended, and I met friends both old and (mostly) new.

Forest in Ixelles
To get to my friend’s wedding, you first had to traverse a forest in the city center of Brussels….
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… then use a boat to cross a lake to reach the jaw-dropping reception area.
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The cutest wedding cake ever. My lovely friend and her fiancé.

My tip for Brussels: Eat, eat, eat.  The food here is fantastic.  The best fries to be had are not in restaurants, but little shacks outside that sell them in cones.  Try the shack at Flagey station (it always has a line) for some real, authentic Belgian fries (and don’t forget to find a bar and wash it down with some Belgian beer).

Chocolatier in Brussels
Chocolate stores are EVERYWHERE in Brussels.
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A real Belgian waffle–topped with gelato! Waffles are sold on the street and cost a whopping 1 euro.
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We need more of this in America–and for 7 euros! What a deal.

Europe, I’ll be back

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Europe, I hope I can see you again someday soon.

And maybe stay for the long run.

5 Ways Travel Has Changed My Personality

5 Ways Travel Has Changed My Personality

Changin' through Travel
Changin’ through Travel

I know.  I disappeared for a month.

I wish I could say that I did something cool, like randomly bought a one way ticket to Iceland and partied in Reykjavik for 30 days straight–but alas, my life is not that exciting.  The last month was mostly sucked up by a web design class that taught me little, but did force me to build a website (I actually constructed a website for the boyfriend that should be up soon).  I also spruced up The Ruby Ronin a bit in hopes that it will inspire and motivate me to write on a regular basis.

Like one of my favorite bloggers Rosie mentioned on her recent post, when you fall into monotony it’s hard to find inspiration to write.  That’s exactly where I was–but I hope it will not happen again.  I apologize, my readers.

Anyway, this post isn’t about the broken state I’ve been in for the last month–it’s about change.

After one year of living in the states, I’ve not only noticed differences in my new American surroundings, but also in myself.

Thanks to my life abroad, I can now…

1. Stand up for myself (thanks, China!)

Standing up to the Winds in San Diego
Standing up to the Winds in San Diego

In America we smile, say hello, ask how your day is and mind our manners by saying “thank you” and “you’re welcome.”  In fact, almost all pleasantries end with the sentence: “Have a wonderful day.”

In China?

Pff, yeah right.

When meek Mary first went to China, she was kicked and tossed around like the newb foreigner she was.

My ‘please’ and ‘thank yous’ in Chinese were met with a grunt and a snort.  When Chinese people cut in front of me in line, I sulked and let them butt in.  When the taxi driver took the scenic route to up the meter, I merely paid the extra fee with a tear in my eye.  The Chinese knew my weakness, and exploit it they did.

Chinese people are highly aggressive.  Unless you put your foot down and stick up for yourself, they are not afraid to nickel and dime you.  If you don’t persistently demand for your rights in China, then you simply won’t get any.  Teary eyed Mary learned how to fight with the cab driver, she got the courage to tell the lady cutting in line to scram, and she even learned how to barter for discounts on fruits, vegetables, and her cell phone bill.

So now in America, instead of letting the server get away with charging gratuity when it clearly wasn’t stated–I get mad.  I shove the bill in their face and say, “What the hell is this?”

Before, I would have waved the problem away and said it wasn’t worth the fight.

But China taught me that if you let people step all over you, then you’ll be at the service of others and never yourself.

2. Be More Considerate (thanks, Japan!)

Puttin on My Japanese Face
Puttin on My Japanese Face

When it comes to manners, Japan reigns supreme.

Although no one in Japan taught me how to be hospitable, I caught myself copying the Japanese without even thinking.

Always prepare a snack, tea or beverage when guests come over.  If food is served, spoon out and distribute rice and other dishes immediately for the guests.  If your friend/colleague’s beer or wine glass if empty, fill it up.  When grabbing food from a communal dish, use the back end of your chopsticks (it’s more sanitary and polite).  When in an elevator, push the ‘open’ button to let everyone else out first.  After eating a meal at someone’s home, clean up (even if they insist you don’t have to).

In Japanese, there’s a phrase called “omotenashi“… which basically means: damn good hospitality.  No one else is as considerate as the Japanese.  They can read your mind.  They know what you want.

Now that I’m in the U.S., I still find myself practicing these habits (and more) that I picked up in Japan–and I’m glad I did.  It always pays to be kind and considerate.

3. Improvise in Any Situation

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When you travel frequently, you have to be quick on your toes.  Trains to the airport booked solid?  Try a taxi.  Rainy day ruin your tour to the temple?  Find a show or museum to go see in the city instead.  Can’t read the medication you need to buy?  Call a local friend, or use your dictionary and limited English to work with the pharmacist at hand.

My ability to improvise has proved to be a golden asset here in the states.  I can usually handle any curve ball thrown at me, mostly because living in a foreign country was like being hit with twenty curve balls on a daily basis.  Whether it’s going to the doctor, paying your phone bill, or finding a new apartment–everything is a challenge where improvisation is almost always needed.

4. Learn to be at Peace with Solitude

I walk alone, I walk alone.
I walk alone….

When I moved to middle-of-nowhere Japan at the tender age of 22, I lived alone in a large apartment surrounded by rice fields, spiders, cockroaches and crickets that roared (yes, roared) through the night.

It was my first time living alone, and I was deathly afraid.

The loneliness I endured in Japan was tough.  I was the only foreigner in my village, with my closest western connection being a McDonalds that was  2 hours away by train.  I came to Japan with no friends.  I spent many nights and weekends with only myself for company.

Yet I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything, because it made me one tough bitch.  Once lonely and self-conscious Mary is now able to waltz into a bar solo, take a spot in front of the cute bartender and chat it up in Japanese.  I’m now comfortable going to a restaurant alone, with nothing but myself and a book.

More importantly, I was able to travel solo and discover who I am, grow as a person, and become an independent and confident individual.

5.  Be Open and Compassionate

Compassion, Kindness, Courage... there's a character for all of them words!
Compassion, Kindness, Courage… there’s a character for all of them words!

Moving to a new country feels much like being a puppy lost on the streets of Manhattan.  It’s a big world, there’s people out there to get you, and nothing is familiar.  It’s pretty damn scary.

So now that I’m back in the states, I try to help out those from other countries so that they can settle into this big, scary place called America (cause god knows it still scares me).

I can’t even count the number of kind souls that helped me out in China, Japan, and all of my travels.  Without them, I probably wouldn’t have made it through the experience alive.

While I don’t live in China and Japan anymore, or even travel half as frequently as I used to, the experiences from these places have forever changed me for the better.

How have you changed from living abroad?

Working as a Doctor in India

Working as a Doctor in India

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My second featured guest for the bi-weekly MyAsia Monday post is none other than my boyfriend, Richard.  After laboring through four long years of med school, he’s currently a resident doctor at a local hospital.  While he may be a doctor in title, he is actually a traveler at heart.  During his last year of med school, he volunteered to work in India and Thailand on an exchange program with his school for his first foray into the land of Asia.

I always write about the far east (and sometimes southeast) Asia.  For a change, however, I would like to write about a country in Asia that hardly gets any light on this blog: India.  My boyfriend is absolutely in love with India, and his visit there only deepened the connection.  I asked Richard if he could share his experiences in India as a doctor on the blog, and he jumped at the chance to post on here gratefully accepted 😉 

First off, give us a little background about yourself (aside from the fact we’re dating):

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I was blessed to have grown up all around the world.  I lived in China, Scotland, England and Canada, which has given me a different perspective compared to most Americans on world events and life outlook. When I went to school in undergrad, my original interest was in computers so I double majored in electrical engineering and molecular cell biology.  Looking back, I was probably headed to a traditional 8-5 job in tech or medicine until I went backpacking through Europe for a month with my friend from high school. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to design my career around a lifestyle of travel.

How did you get into medicine, what do you enjoy about it and what do you find frustrating?

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It was a combination of parental pressure (my parents didn’t think a career in tech is stable enough), a tough job market when I graduated from undergrad in 2009, and a desire to work in some form in public health.

Medicine is, overall, a rewarding profession. It offers lots of avenues for personal and professional growth. Of course, seeing patients is the mainstay of the job and incredibly satisfying overall, but doctors these days can go into pharmaceutical companies, academic research, global public health, and even business/consulting. The biggest frustration is all the paperwork and dictates from the government. They’re really making it hard to practice pure medicine. I like to say that we spend half of our time documenting our work rather than seeing patients.

Appreciative patients can really make your day, but it’s definitely a negative when they’re unreasonable, demanding, or difficult. We’re all really trying to do our best and that kind of behavior makes our work harder. Another negative is the incredible sacrifices doctors have to make. They literally spend their best years (mid-20s) stuck in the basement of a library, work 60-80 hour weeks during and after training, graduating with $200k+ in debt but still face public accusations of making too much money. At the same time, we see our peers (and even juniors) from undergrad who rake in the actual big bucks in Silicon Valley or Wall Street.

Why India?

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My medical school (University of Minnesota) has partnerships with various hospitals and universities around the world that sponsor exchange trips to these places. They even subsidize part of the trip and give course credit for the experience! Normally the trips are 4-6 weeks in duration, but I signed up for two back-to-back trips to Thailand and India in advance (they’re close to each other).

As for why I chose India, aside from it having a partnership with my university, I have to say it’s due to the incredible diversity. I’ve always thought of India as a magical place quite different from the west. I wanted to see rare tropical diseases, eat incredible food, and see the amazing sights. It’s also incredibly affordable, which is an important point for a poor medical student.

So tell us about where you worked in India, what was the village like?

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I worked in a large university hospital in Bangalore, India. You may know it as the IT capital, where a lot of outsourcing and consulting firms are based. I also spent some time in nearby rural community clinics.

How was the hospital, what did you do there?  What were some of the main health concerns in India?

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Health care is very different in India. There are so many patients to see and so few doctors that they’ve had to make compromises. There are no appointments to see doctors. Instead, everyone takes a ticket and sits in the large open waiting area. Each visit is of variable duration. As soon as they’re done, they kick you out of the room to make way for the next patient. The approach is very patriarchal. You the patient are told very bluntly what to do and what medicines to take. The doctor doesn’t hold your hand and explain the disease process as much as in America. They just don’t have the same emphasis on the “bond” with your physician. After all, doctors in India see 50-some patients in a single morning, compared to 10-14 in the US. As a result, each visit takes about 1-2 minutes.

The same goes for hospitalized patients. Wards are actually open wards with large hallways and beds side by side, separated from each other with a curtain. Patients have the option of paying extra for a private room. They take it well though, and accept the arrangement as a necessity to keep costs low. There’s not nearly as much VIP-ism as in America.

People in India are like people anywhere else. They have the same aches, pains, and complaints. Overall, I’d say there are a lot more people with advanced infectious diseases, which is in part due to poor sanitation, the tropical environment, and a tendency for people to delay care, in which those infections can fester for much longer. In the US, we tend to see the doctor at the earliest bump or bruise. Not so in India.

Any big shockers you experienced while working at the hospital?

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Tuberculosis! It’s so easy to transmit this chronic bacterial infection just from coughing. In the west, even if someone tests positive for a previous exposure to tuberculosis (latent TB), they’re treated as a medical emergency and are put on long-term eradication meds. In U.S. hospitals, someone with active TB is put in isolation, and all health care personnel have to put on heavy-duty masks. Nurses really freak out almost as much as for someone with Ebola.

In India, they have open air clinics for TB patients. The doctor will sit calmly in front of a coughing patient without a mask. They don’t even have the concept of latent TB because in their words, “everyone has TB already”. Only those who develop severe disease are even considered for treatment.

Tell us about a fun memory you had there, something that has stayed with you. read more