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Traveling Provence and Southern France in March

Traveling Provence and Southern France in March

My fellow friends and family looked at me in horror when I said my husband and I would travel to Provence and southern France in March 2022. When we bought the tickets to Paris in January 2022, the omicron virus was still raging in both the US and EU and the border situation was precarious. Regardless, we took a gamble on the tickets. It was our last chance to take a long vacation and go abroad (due to husband’s work duties), and we were itching to travel.

So why France, and Provence in particular? read more

The Best Winter Street Food in Asia? Sweet Potatoes

The Best Winter Street Food in Asia? Sweet Potatoes

There’s a certain Thanksgiving dish that, with one bite, takes me back to my favorite winter comfort food in Asia: sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are one of the most popular winter street foods throughout China, Japan, Korea, and basically any country in East Asia with temperatures that drops below freezing.

In the USA, we know the typical sweet potato dish at Thanksgiving as a diabetic’s worst nightmare: mashed yams sprinkled in brown sugar and baked with a blanket of marshmallows. In China and Japan, however, sweet potatoes are prepared au natural: just the potato, wrapped in foil or paper, and baked until soft and moist. read more

Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho: A Perfect Summer Roadtrip

Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho: A Perfect Summer Roadtrip

The Sawtooth National Forest near the Sun River Valley in Idaho is a perfect summer getaway for those who live on the West Coast. Why go to Sawtooth National Forest, you may ask? Not only does it lack the massive crowds that most other national parks have, but it also offers equally stunning hikes and activities.

Skip to the four day itinerary at the bottom if you want to go straight to the logistics!

Never heard of the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho? Me either.

My friend in Utah and I were looking for a nice halfway vacation in between Portland and Salt Lake City. When I opened google maps and scanned the geography, I saw that the Sawtooth National Forest was right smack dab between Oregon and Utah. read more

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

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.

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.

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
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.”


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.”


“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


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)

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.

Zhangjiajie with J!
Kumano Kodo!
Mt. Whistler in Canada!
Lake Superior!
Ethiopian food in Minneapolis!
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

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

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.

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.


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.


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.


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


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