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
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
Hiking in China: 7 Habits of the Modern Day Chinese Traveler
J and I were descending one of China’s greatest treasures: the National Park of Zhangjiajie.
Every corner we rounded presented us with a new jaw-dropping landscape of carved sandstone valleys poking through a sea of lush green trees. J and I took a deep breath, inhaled the clean air of the countryside and lost ourselves in the sea of clouds swirling in between the mountains.
That is, until Avicii arrived. You know, the Swedish DJ. The Chinese tourist who came bouncing down the trail behind us was blasting him full volume from his iPhone speaker.
Now, I have nothing against Avicii, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of music I imagine when hiking down one of China’s most treasured valleys. This Chinese tourist didn’t stop his playlist at Avicii–oh no–we heard Calvin Harris, Rihanna, some Selena Gomez and even Justin Bieber.
After 20 minutes, J lost it.
“Excuse me,” she walked up to him and spoke to him in near perfect Chinese.
“Your music is not appropriate for the scenery and it’s causing a disturbance to myself and the other travelers. I think you should shut off that crap and appreciate the beauty of your country around you.”
His jaw dropped.
He shut off his music.
J pierced into his dumbfounded eyes.
He stepped back and cried,
“wow, your Chinese is AMAZING!”
While he totally missed the point, we were able to hike the rest of the mountain without club music. At least, for a little while.
This was only one of many delightful “habits” we faced when hiking with fellow Chinese travelers.
When hiking with Chinese tourists in China, one is bound to put up with enjoy one of these five lovely habits: 1. Shouting and Screaming. Without end.
Chinese people scream and shout on mountains. That’s just how it is. One scream prompts another scream and pretty soon the whole mountain sounds like a banshee.
I’ve lived in China for five years total and I still can’t figure out why they have to shout their lungs out on a mountaintop.
Maybe they get a kick out of the echo it makes. Maybe they feel like they’re on top of the world and want everyone to know it. Maybe they’re tired and want to vent their frustrations.
Either way, it drives me crazy. J and I were greeted to these lovely echoes and screams on almost every trail in Zhangjiajie, and we wondered what would happen if someone ACTUALLY screamed for help on the mountain.
Oh well. 2. Boombox on the Mountain
Chinese people love to blast music on their iphone speakers. J and I did not hike Zhangjiajie in the silent serenity of nature—oh no. We had the Frozen song “let it go” as the OST to one of our treks, Avicii on another (as mentioned above), and of course Taylor Swift and other American pop hits following us on almost every trail.
Whenever I’ve gone hiking in China someone is always bound to be blasting music. If you’re climbing a mountain in China, get ready for some noise. 3. Smoking. Everywhere.
Is it just me, or is China the only place in the world where national parks have multiple designated smoking spots on almost every trail?
I was alarmed at the number of people smoking AND hiking (actually, I was kind of impressed). J and I were constantly waving away the stench of smoke and stepping over cigarette butts that people casually tossed onto the national park grounds.
One man was even smoking ON THE BUS. J stormed up to him and commanded that he immediately stop smoking, or she was going to give him the smack down.
He put out his cigarette. 4. Littering
China has more garbage cans readily available than any other country I’ve been in—yet the littering problem is enormous.
J and I saw a middle-aged Chinese woman throw an empty yogurt bottle into this lake.
Seriously? I know that the previous generation wasn’t trained in social graces, but this is a bit much. I feel like it’s common sense not to poison or litter an area as beautiful as this.
J and I saw so much garbage scattered throughout all of the national parks, our hearts were broken by the end of the journey. I really hope the younger Chinese are more respectful of the environment and learns to preserve these natural treasures for future generations to come. 5. Loud, loud, loud voices
J was paces ahead of me. I couldn’t catch up. I was weaving through the tourists, wondering why J was in such a rush to reach the end of the trail. The nature around us was lush and gorgeous, yet she was on a mad dash to reach the finish line. When I finally sprinted ahead to catch up with her, I asked.
“Are you worried about time?”
“No, sorry Mary,” J sighed.
“I just can’t stand the ayis (old ladies) behind us shouting and blabbering.”
It was then I realized that we were surrounded by screaming (yes, screaming) and shouting middle aged ladies talking about god-knows-what. It was difficult to hear myself think. If I wasn’t surrounded by screaming old ladies, then I was being blasted by the megaphone of a tour guide addressing a herd of tourists. Totally took the tranquility out of nature.
Luckily Zhangjiajie wasn’t too crowded, so our fast pace helped us outrun the tour group where we were able to find (some) peace and quiet. 6. Spitting
Yeah, yeah, I’m sure most of us who have been in China know about the spitting–but I still can’t get used to it.
J had a front row view of an older man swirl a loogie in his mouth, accumulate foam, then hurl the yellow blob onto the floor with a deep throated snort. She almost threw up her lunch in response. 7. Shoving
J and I were about to board the public bus, and like good foreigners we tried to queue.
Three older women literally pushed a mother and two children to the ground to grab the last three seats on the bus. Screaming and shouting ensued, but in the end, the three older women got on the bus and the mother and her two children were left in the dust of the bus that sped away.
Basically, to get anywhere in China, you have to shove. I hate being shoved and I hate shoving, but it’s survival of the fittest here. Very tiring.
As I observed the habits of the local tourists, I had an epiphany:
Chinese people really dislike silence.
China is a society that values 热闹 (re nao), which literally means hot noise. The definition of ‘re nao’ is loud, energetic, vibrant, vivacious… it’s the noise of peopled gathered together, talking enthusiastically, eating, being alive to the fullest. It’s a trait of the Chinese I love, but it’s also a double-edged sword. During the holidays and at parties, being re nao is awesome, good fun–but it can also grate your nerves when you’re looking to relax. Anywhere.
Chinese people scream on mountains, shout at each other, talk in loud voices and constantly eat and snack (and thus litter) because that’s their idea of a good time. Keeping the spirit of “re nao,” even outside of the home, is a natural trait of the Chinese.
It’s been a few years since I’ve lived or traveled in China, and to be honest the seven traits above wore me out on my most recent journey… especially the pushing, shoving, and loud voices. It was hard to find a moment of peace almost anywhere (even in one of China’s most beautiful national parks during low season), and to be honest it was quite exhausting.
So next time you’re traveling in China, mentally prepare yourself for the above. It will happen, but how you handle it is up to you. I suggest learning a few phrases in Chinese (like stop smoking or please be quiet) and do what J did. Many Chinese don’t know what they’re doing is a nuisance to others, and when told to stop they usually do.
Despite the above, traveling Zhangjiajie was totally worth it and, though I was worn to the bone, I have no regrets.
No pain (spitting, shoving, smoking, littering), no gain (gazing upon this).
Have you had any experience with Chinese tourists? Do you have any habits to add to the above?
I check my e-mail to see the response I have been waiting for sitting there in my inbox, calling my name. I told my friends this is “my dream job,” even though I knew the chances of me actually snagging the position were to slim to none. Still, this organization called me in for an interview (to my surprise) and they seemed impressed at my credentials and skills. Since the position was in Washington DC, I knew the likelihood of me being selected as a candidate from halfway across the country was extremely unlikely, but I still had hope.
I opened the email. I don’t even read it all, just scan to the middle to look for the one sentence that determines everything.
I see the word “unfortunately” and “other candidate” and I close the window. I had a gut feeling that I wasn’t going to get the position, and I was right. I sighed and put my phone away, then concentrated on making dinner for my aunt and mother. This wasn’t the first rejection letter I received, so I knew that I could handle it. I knew that my chances were slim, I knew that it probably wasn’t going to happen, and I knew this wasn’t going to be the last rejection–life goes on, I told myself. The right opportunity just hasn’t presented itself yet.
Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and maybe that’s precisely because this isn’t the first time I received a rejection letter and it definitely won’t be the last. After weeks of job hunting, the “unfortunately” e-mail has come all too often. After scouring countless websites, contacting various friends, inputting my information at dozens of company portals and interviewing at over 30 positions, the most recent rejection really hit me hard.
Moving back to America has been really difficult
I don’t want to lie and say that life in L.A. has been full of martinis on the beach and parties with movie stars. It’s been a rough adjustment to a life I find hard to return to. I don’t have a car of my own, I have no place to call my own and I am starting from scratch once again. I feel more lost than ever… even though this is supposed to be “my home.”
The ex-pat returning home already struggles when it comes to reverse culture shock in their search for a new sense of belonging, but the more pressing and difficult task at hand is the setting up of basic necessities such as finding a place to live, a means of transportation, and most of all a job.
I attend weddings of old friends married to their sweethearts. I go to graduations of loved ones receiving their doctorates or law degree. I swap drinks with old acquaintances that have developed careers as bankers, lawyers, doctors, or even a CEO. I tell captivating stories about China and Japan and make my life sound as attractive as possible, yet I still hold a strong feeling of disconnection between myself and the friends that stayed behind.
While they moved forward here in my home country, I find that I’m just the opposite. When I left for China and Japan I was almost certain that the international business experience I would gain would make me an attractive candidate and open up a floodgate of opportunities–but what I didn’t expect was a market crash the year I graduated (2008) and a sluggish economy where the job market is cutthroat and everyone is struggling to find a job.
And then, I think the worst.
Maybe my life abroad didn’t benefit me at all. On the contrary, maybe it just made me fall even further behind.
Was living abroad a mistake?
I remember waking up in my apartment in Shanghai. My room faced the rising sun, so I always woke up to a stream of sunlight filtering in through my window. Every morning I made a fresh cup of coffee and my usual breakfast of eggs and toast, then strapped on my heels and suit and headed out for another day at the office.
The walk to my office in the morning was always my favorite part of the day. I had a 20 minute walking commute in the French concession, with bike peddlers all around me, street vendors selling Chinese breakfast of soymilk and dumplings (bao zi), and fruit vendors bringing out their fresh produce of the day. Chinese and foreigners alike whizzed by and meshed into a literal sea of people that washed over me in their rushed commute to work. I walked the same path to work everyday, passed the same shop owners, security guards and dog walkers. In this routine I felt a sense of peace and belonging: I felt like I had a real life in Shanghai.
I took the crowded elevator to the 10th floor of my office. I said “zao” to all my co-workers until I reached my desk next to Takada-san. She mostly wore a suit, sometimes a leather jacket, but one thing never changed: She always looked up at me with a smile, and I greeted her with a “good morning.” I shared lunch with my co-worker turned close friend, and in the evenings I created magical memories with a smorgasbord of people from around the world either dancing, listening to jazz music, eating delicious food or cooking at their home which was wrapped in a warm blanket of friendship, comfort, and happiness.
After remembering Z, and J, and Shanghai and Japan… all I can do is ask myself:
How could something so wonderful be a mistake?
The Traveler and the Journey Home
The time I spent in China and Japan has given my life so much meaning, depth and joy. I didn’t cure cancer, I didn’t put an end to world hunger, and I didn’t develop an app to change the world–but I met and impacted groups of people from all walks of life, and in turn they made me feel more alive in 5 years than I had in the previous 20 years.
The traveler thrives on the unknown. A new city, a new destination, a new group of people, a new experience–this is what makes the nomad feel alive.
Yet despite all the traveler has faced in the past, the most difficult obstacle the traveler will ever encounter is ultimately:
The return home.
Like many return ex-pats, I’m in constant conflict with my emotions as I struggle to fit back into my “home” society and find a job. After fulfilling my dream of traveling the world and learning the languages and cultures s, really… what’s next? What goals do I have? What do I want to do for the world? What work would make me happy? Where do I want to be in the next five years?
Finding a job and a new place of belonging in a country that is supposed to be “home” is paralyzing and frightening. Re-joining a race that we left many years ago has us feeling far behind the other athletes, and even further from the finish line that we call “success.”
Yet honestly, I think that race isn’t for me. We need to find our own path, our own means of happiness, our own personal meaning to the everyday. Everyone doesn’t have to run the same race.
And I think all of us returnees know that if we had the chance to redo it all over again–we would.
Standing Back Up Again
It’s been two months since my return back to America. There are times I feel absolutely defeated, and there are other times when I look out to the horizon and feel that chance I’ve been waiting for is almost within reach. I’m working hard to find a job, and I know if I can survive 2 years in the boondocks of Japan and throw myself blindly into Shanghai with nothing to my name, then starting a new life in the USA should be a piece of cake.
It’s been a long battle, but I feel job opportunities are closing in and all of those days laboring over a computer, perfecting my cover letter and writing the perfect resume are finally paying off. I feel hopeful, and more than that, I’m learning to find peace with myself in this new environment.
I miss Shanghai. I miss my friends. I miss that near perfect life I set up for myself over there.
But I’m here in America now, and I have to give it my best shot.
Call me spoiled, but after almost two weeks of this..
I thought: Enough. I can only lounge on a beach and read a book for so long. I need some exploration. Adventure. Excitement. And besides, if I drink anymore cocktails on this beach I’ll turn into the drunk that passed out on the shore and washed out to sea.
I want to see more than the beach. I want to see a part of Thailand no one else dares to explore.
I want to go to the jungles of Khao Sok.
Khao Sok made it into my itinerary mostly thanks to the word of my well-traveled Italian friend:
“You must go to Khao Sok. I have been to all the beaches in Thailand, but I still think the Khao Sok jungle is my favorite part of the country.”
With a review like that, I was sold. I started googling photos of Khao Sok and was absolutely blown away by the scenery. I had never been to the jungle and I was filled with anticipation to go somewhere exotic.
After hopping on the local bus from Phuket to Khao Sok (it’s only 60 baht!) I was dropped off in the middle of nowhere. I was immediately greeted to this:
Khao Sok Town
The village of Khao Sok is literally in the middle of the jungle with houses built right smack in forestation, fully equipped with creepy animal noises and alien insects that lurk in the night.
I definitely wasn’t on the beach anymore.
If you want bed in breakfast, air conditioning and a five star spa service–then don’t come here. There is no nice hotel here, period. It’s all local in Khao Sok. Although there is new ‘development’ in progress, most establishments are still family run and only offer the most basic of necessities. A good place will have hot water and a mosquito net. The most ‘luxurious’ offering here will have a room with air conditioning–and it’s going to cost you at least 1000 baht a night.
After browsing one crap room after the next, I settled on The Bamboo Inn, a small guesthouse that offered a semi-decent bungalow room at a killer price: 300 baht a night.
Khao Sok was also the only place in Thailand where I actually talked and connected with the people. I got chatting with the manager of The Bamboo Inn and he told me about the history of Khao Sok, the corrupt Thai government and the spike in jungle tourism.
After playing badminton with his kids and finishing our chat, I shared a few beers with my fellow female solo traveler and then we hit the bungalows–after all, we had to do a jungle trek in the morning.
I booked a one day adventure tour (they’re everywhere in the town) and deeply regretted not doing the 2 day 1 night deal they had. Really. I had time constraints, but if you can manage it I highly recommend to do the overnight raft set up. It’s amazing.
Before I go any further, I just have to say:
GO TO KHAO SOK AND EXPLORE THE JUNGLE. JUST DO IT. IT WILL BE YOUR HIGHLIGHT OF THAILAND.
After being on the beaches of Thailand and experiencing tourism at its worst, it was extremely refreshing to go somewhere real, wholesome, and somewhat unspoilt by the masses. Khao Sok jungle is in a national park that is clean (look at that water in the picture up there!) and feels like some locked away and preserved piece of heaven. If you’re going to Thailand, please, just drop by here for a day or two.read more
When thinking of a female solo traveler, I’m sure the first image that pops into mind is a 24-27 year old girl simply sick of her 9-5 desk job and craving something more. These women decide to toss the boring life of monotony and, instead, don a backpack and travel the world. They’re young, they’re fresh, and they’re ready to make the most of their “younger years.”
As I near the dreaded 3-0, I start wondering about the possibility of solo female traveling mid 30’s and beyond. I have found a slew of blogs featuring women that have braved the roughest frontiers with nothing but a bag on their backs–but I have yet to encounter a blog that has a 34+ something woman traveling the world.
It made me think: Do people simply tire of the backpacker lifestyle after their 20s? Not only women, but do men also become exhausted sleeping in dirty hostels or smelly rooms and gradually trade in the adventurous life for a 5 star hotel with ironed sheets and a continental breakfast? Especially in the case of women: Do they feel ashamed or embarrassed to travel alone as they get older? Particularly in Asia, an older, unmarried woman in her late 30s traveling the world is not only unbelievable to the locals–it’s completely alien.
But on this trip, I’ve encountered not one, but two older, solo female travelers.
The local bus stop
Three days ago I was waiting at an extremely local bus stop in Phuket, Thailand when another American traveler came my way. She was tall, blonde, and in her late 30s (by the looks of it, and later she further disclosed the fact). We were relieved to see one another, and after the initial greetings we started swapping stories.
This was her second trip traveling alone. She was unmarried (with a boyfriend) and had nothing but a backpack slung on her shoulder and a Lonely Planet in hand. She was bright, bouncy, fun and vibrant. I found out she was a flight attendant for almost ten years, and her boyfriend is a pilot currently working in Afghanistan (they meet multiple times throughout the year in different parts of the world).
“This will not be my last trip alone,” she said to me with a smile. “It’s exhilarating to be do things solo, and having the freedom of doing whatever I want is refreshing. I love it. I decided I’m going to continue doing this once a year for the rest of my life.”
She hopped off at Khao Lak, a beach stop closest to the Similian Islands in Thailand where we parted ways. I continued into the jungle alone.
After arriving at my jungle stop, I wandered into the jungle village of Khao Sok in a daze. Although Khao Sok is pure jungle, the village on the outskirts has become a bit of a hotspot for backpackers in recent years, offering bungalows, restaurants–even wifi and an atm machine.
As I was on an empty road searching for a bungalow, I noticed a tall, brunette woman walking behind me. She looked like she was in her late 30’s.
“Excuse me,” I turned to her. “Where are you staying?”
“Right over there,” she pointed. I heard a British accent in her voice, “it’s not bad, that one. Only 300 baht (10 usd) a night.”
I reserved the room, took a seat beside her at the outdoor cafe and popped open a Singha beer. Along with the beer, conversation got flowing.
She was also traveling alone. An HR contractor from Holland (that studied abroad in England), she takes multiple journeys throughout the year due to flexibility in her job. Last year she went to South Africa, only a few months prior she was in Greece. I was brimming with envy as she told me about the travels of her life. We decided to go to dinner where things became a tad more personal. After four large bottles of Chang, she looked me in the eye and said:
“How old are you?”
“28. And you?”
“Just turned 51.”
I dropped my fork and it clattered on the plate. This woman could pass for 38, definitely no older than 45. When she uttered those numbers I could only reply:
“I was just wondering if women still continue to do solo traveling even when they’re older–and you’re living proof of that. I haven’t met anyone that has been so many places in the world, and you’re still at it. It makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to do that too.”
“I am not married. I have no children. I have the freedom to go wherever I want whenever I want. The fact of the matter is: I enjoy life. I love sailing. I love diving. I love seeing the world and I love to live life to the fullest. I still date and have boyfriends–hell, I even had a fling with a 28 year old not too long ago. I ran a 5 hour marathon just 3 years ago.”
She paused. I was listening intently.
“Mary,” she pointed at me. “You keep traveling. Continue to see the world.”
I nodded, “I will.”
“Good,” she sat back.
“But you know,” she sighed. “I don’t know if it’s my age or what, but I noticed I don’t meet as many people when I travel solo as an older woman. Maybe it’s the age gap, or the party mindset of the young backpackers–but I find it harder to connect with others. It’s been a real pleasure meeting you and having dinner with you tonight.”
I enjoyed it as well–but maybe too much. All those Changs (6% Thai beer) really caught up with me, and the two of us were stumbling home.
When I woke up the next morning, I was hungover. And I had a jungle to trek and a cave to explore. It was amazing, but damn doing it hungover didn’t make it any easier.
The Lake at Khao SokYou’re never too old to travel. I know people say that all the time, but really, traveling solo as a woman even in your 20s can be frightening and wearisome. It’s more dangerous to travel alone as a woman, and more than that it can be a tad lonely. When I went to Bali alone surrounded by honeymooning couples, it made me self conscious and–I’ll admit it–a bit envious. I can only imagine that feeling becomes harder to overcome as you get older.
But the main point is to just forget all of those social stigmas. Throw away that veil of self-conscious pity that you give yourself. You’re free and alone, no matter what the age, and you’re seeing the world.
So I hope to find more blogs with older female travelers, and I hope to meet more on my journeys in the future. I think it takes guts to travel alone, even more to do it as a woman, and as woman in her 50’s doing it? Phew, cheers to you.
I write this in the Phuket Airport as I head to Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia and Singapore, here I come!