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Category: Thoughts

Random thoughts on my life

What Christmas is like with an Asian Mom

What Christmas is like with an Asian Mom

Growing up, I dreamed of a Christmas like the one I saw in the movies. A big shining tree, a table surrounded with family, a house decorated in lights, and most of all the anticipation of waking up on Christmas morning to a tree filled with presents just for me.

Well, with my Asian mom around, all of the above seldom happened.

My Irish dad expected his wife to be in charge of making Christmas a joyous, holiday season — just like his mother did for him as a child. Instead of do it himself, my dad (like most men) had the unsaid expectation for my mom to accomplish all these things for his children. read more

A Year of Change: Making Big and Difficult Life Decisions

A Year of Change: Making Big and Difficult Life Decisions

One of my greatest faults is my inability to make quick decisions, even about minor issues. I am so indecisive that I will see-saw back and forth for mundane decisions such as what to wear for the day or what meal I should select at dinner. So when I’m faced with the task of making a big and difficult life decision — such as relocating or pursuing a new career — I am usually paralyzed with anxiety.

This year was filled to the brim with life-altering choices that I saw as junctions in the big road we call life. read more

The Constant Exhaustion of Being a Minority

The Constant Exhaustion of Being a Minority

I recently listened to a podcast where a New York Times journalist interviewed employees at Conde Nast about corporate culture at a company famous for being predominantly white and upper class. The journalist focused on one employee in particular: a black woman who served as the personal assistant to one of the chief directors. The personal assistant said she was treated well, her opinions were heard, and she was given the utmost respect from her boss and colleagues.

Yet in the end, after a year and to the shock of her colleagues and boss, she resigned. read more

My World is Flipping Upside Down

My World is Flipping Upside Down

When I first moved back to Portland after my horrendous year in Dallas, I was angry and flippant. Once again I was moving to a random US city for my husband’s job, and to top it all off we purchased a house that would ultimately lock us to an unknown place I had never lived in. When we signed the papers to purchase the house, I had to repeatedly ask my husband that the house would not make Portland permanent for us. That we could sell it. He said yes. With hands shaking, I signed the papers to the house located in a city I knew nothing about. I was scared. I was nervous. I was confused. read more

Happy Holidays from Utah

Happy Holidays from Utah

Happy Holidays from Utah! Like I do almost every year, I’m spending Christmas and New Years in my home state of Utah, where I usually share a plate of turkey with my small family of four (plus husband). Unlike previous years, however, there is a big difference in 2020.

I didn’t just fly in for the holidays. I have been in Utah for the last four months — almost half a year.

The Full Wrath of 2020

At least I have a cat to cheer me up in Utah

Saying that 2020 sucked is an understatement. Similar to many others out there, I was also hit by a storm of misfortune. Most notably, the decline in my father’s health in spring 2020. read more

Is Moving Abroad Just a Form of Escape?

Is Moving Abroad Just a Form of Escape?

It’s a question that all expats ask themselves sometime or another:

Am I in a foreign country because I really like it here, or am I using this culture as a form of escape from a deep-rooted problem at home?

I kept asking myself this after reading “Six Foot Bonsai,” an autobiography I read for a book club.  It’s the story of a white woman from Michigan who is, to an unhealthy degree, utterly Japan obsessed.  After marrying an abusive Japanese man and giving birth to two half-children (who are subsequently abused), she explains how her fixation on Japan essentially ruined her life.

“Japan was my drug of choice,” she wrote.  “And I couldn’t get enough of it.”

This line had me thinking:

Were My Years in China and Japan a Form of Escapism?  Was Japan My Drug of Choice?

I grew up half-Asian in a small coal mining town in Utah, so to say I was isolated and outcasted is an understatement.  One medium that got me through the pain of adolescence was –yes, I must admit–Japanese anime and manga.  This is the usual ‘gateway drug’ that gets most young tweens and teens sucked into the world of Japan.

Unlike my peers, however, I fell deep for Japan.  Although I found out about Japan through anime and manga, learning the language and getting a minor in Japanese studies made me realize that I loved much more than anime–I loved Japan’s  literature, art, culture and people.  After my first exchange trip to Japan, I had fallen off the deep end and there was no going back.

And when I first moved to Japan, the “high” was amazing.  The bullet trains, the clean streets, the polite locals, the untouched nature, samurai castles and sliding doors and kimonos–oh man, it was everything I wanted and more.

But Pretty Soon, the High Wore Off

Some of these buds still need to bloom

I’m half-Asian, but most people think I’m 100% white.  As most expats like to point out, being white (or non-Asian) anywhere in Asia elicits unwanted attention.  People stare.  They point.  They treat you special.  Shower you with praise.  Immediately approach you to be their new, foreign friend.

Some expats relish in the attention.  Others find it uncomfortable.

I was the latter.

Unlike other foreigners who got a ‘high’ from being the gaijin-center-of-attention, I loathed it.  I just wanted to fit in.

But no matter how hard I studied Japanese and perfectly executed their customs, the Japanese never let me in.  In their eyes, I would forever be a gaijin.  An outsider.  A foreigner.

I was distraught.

On top of that, I saw cracks in my perfect world that was Japan.  I noticed people around me suffering from extreme bouts of loneliness.  I saw emotional suppression brought on by a repressive society.  My coworkers and friends were overworked and exhausted.  My Japanese girlfriends turned a blind eye to their cheating husbands.

I wanted to be Japanese and fit in, but my core Western values found it hard to accept the above.  I would never be able to tolerate a cheating husband.  I found it hard to do staged overtime work for the sake of it.  No matter how hard I tried to convince myself that this was Japan and I had to adapt to their ways, I could in no way persuade myself that I should change my core values for the sake of living in Japan.

After two years in Japan I realized that I couldn’t stay there for the rest of my life–so I went to China.

Again, Was I Running Away From the Real World?  Did China Mask My Problems?

From the moment I stepped foot in China, I knew this place was better suited for me than Japan.  It may sound odd, but after living in Japan it was utterly refreshing to be chewed out by someone on the street.  To see such open display of emotion–even anger or frustration–was liberating.  People screamed at me and I could scream back.  The openness of Chinese society felt like a reassuring hug.  I melted into Shanghai and it became the metropolitan life this small-town-Utah girl always dreamed of.

As I lived in China, switching between studying Chinese and working in various companies, I would talk to my friends in the US and hear about their mundane, yet stressful lives.  Going to pharmacy school.  Working the same job for four years and trying to get a promotion.  Trying to pass the LSAT (law certification in US).

In my own way I was moving on with my life, but a part of me also thought:

Am I hiding in China while the real world goes on?

Long-time readers of my blog will know that when I returned to the USA after living in Asia, I had it rough.  I had to play catch-up.  It wasn’t easy, and there were times I wanted to hop on a plane and go straight back to China.

Yet despite all the ‘pain’ living abroad brought me, I often asked myself if I would do it all over again.  Would I get on that plane to Japan at 22 years old again if I knew what I know now?  Or would I stay in the US to build up my career?

Without hesitation, I always choose to get on that plane.

And it’s because China and Japan were not my drug–they are an integral part of who I am read more

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

http://aboutteas.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/puer-tea-1.jpg

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.

daketang

IMG_2626

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?

Is a Flexible and Remote Work Environment Really Better for us?

Is a Flexible and Remote Work Environment Really Better for us?

This post has nothing to do with China, Japan, or even travel.  It’s just about the monster that has taken over my life and kept me from writing in this blog: my job.

Despite relocating to Dallas for this job, the nature of my role allows me to have a mostly flexible and remote working environment.  I haven’t visited the Dallas office in over a month.  In fact, I work from home and on the road almost all the time.  Many envy me when I tell them I work from home, but whenever I hear their words of longing, I can’t help but think…

Is a flexible, or remote, working environment really better for us?

The Line Between Work and Personal Space Begin to Blur

I used to tell people that I loved work more than school because, unlike school, work didn’t give us ‘homework.’  As a graduate student, the worry of papers and homework always loomed over my head even after class ended.  I thought back to my work days when work ended at 5pm and didn’t follow me around.  It was great to clock out, go home, and not worry about the monster that was my job until the next day.

I’ll tell you now:

a flexible work schedule destroys that clear barrier between work and personal space. read more

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

Guns, an American Way of Life

Guns, an American Way of Life

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

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

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

I was afraid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded in agreement.

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

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

They were black.

But that’s a different post entirely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s sad.

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

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

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

“Do you have a gun?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there good news?

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

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

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

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