this was all I had, you see

All I had in hand was a sheet of paper with pairs of sentences, one in English, one in Japanese.

Please show me how to buy a bullet train ticket to Kyoto. (Japanese translation)

Please show me how to buy a local train ticket to the Kyoto University neighborhood. (Japanese translation)

Please show me where I can call for a taxi. (Japanese translation)

It was my first time traveling alone. I had my suitcase, this paper, a map, and a small amount of trust in strangers. My parents dropped me off at the airport, and suddenly I was alone with my excitement, alone with my fears, alone with my issues. I had more baggage than just my suitcase. I slowly inched through the security line, passing the same faces as the line weaved, back and forth, back and forth. A large group of obviously close friends was traveling together, and I shamelessly eavesdropped on their conversation because what else is one to do in a line so long, so tedious? Well, my eavesdropping proved to be quite serendipitous as these turned out to be friends of friends, and beyond that, they were people that I had been hoping to meet for awhile because they were of wonderful reputation. And here was our most unexpected introduction. A long time to sit otherwise alone, now blessed with company. Twelve hours later, we parted at the bullet train station, my courage strengthened. With each remaining leg of the journey to Kyoto, I stopped any person wearing a hint of kindness and pointed at the appropriate sentence. There were nods and hand gestures and a lot of bowing, ‘arigato.’

By the time I stepped off a small local train near Kyoto University, I had been traveling for over 18 hours and it was near midnight in Japan. I was jet-lagged and exhausted. I still had to walk the remaining few blocks to the University itself with my suitcase, but it was summertime, and it was midnight. What would I do if the dorms were closed? I called the number on my wrinkled paper, and mercifully, a voice answered on the other line. I could not stop the trembling as I tried to explain, I am here for a summer school program, I just need to know if I can get in, I’m sorry it’s so late at night. It was obvious the person on the other line did not fully understand my English, but he understood my fear. “Ok…. ok.”

I arrived, both hopeful and resigned, at the door to the dormitory. I knocked, and I waited. A tentative face appeared at the window, and then slowly, the door opened.

It was a summer of strangers, new friends, a new culture, a summer of shedding the old me. A summer when a complicated relationship intensified and ultimately ended. A summer of getting to know myself, getting to know God’s voice in the thunderstorms that shook the earth, getting to know God’s humble friendship when I walked the streets, heavy with homesickness but known, so deeply known. I brought my paper, my suitcase, my excitement and my fears. I left with a heart that was full, known, broken, healed, loved.

the time the post office sent me to the Dominican Republic

It was a beautifully sunny day outside but the disposition indoors was not. The air was thick with the tension of people driven by a strong need for efficiency, straightforwardness, and personal justice. I had forgotten how time stands still in the post office. Few things there feel straightforward when you’ve got a frail package in an odd shape that needs to arrive at the other side of the world yesterday, and no I’m not willing to pay that much to make that happen but could you somehow just write “expedite” on the outside for free? Few things feel straightforward there, which means few things feel efficient. Which means that some will violate the justice of a line that everyone must wait in to jump in front with “just a quick question, sorry.” You are reduced to staring at the back of peoples’ outfits, eavesdropping on the conversations at the windows, some pleasant and some inane, and making fast judgments about people.

Smiles waned. Arms crossed. Throats cleared. Sighs escaped. Strangers slowly connected with one another in mutual frustration and the growing desire to gang mob those who disregarded the line and scurried to an open clerk with mumbled apologies.  I saw the cameras mounted in the corners of the post office and thought, how those cameras must capture the quiet worst of people, day after day, here in the US post office. I wondered if they caught me staring, ok well, glaring, too long at the man who jumped in front with his “quick question, sorry to interrupt.”

When I left, a memory surfaced of my experience with my summer internship at the International Services department of the American Red Cross during my public health grad school years. Our American team had traveled to the Dominican Republic to develop and conduct nutritional surveys among hurricane-affected communities in the DR. We had a 9:00AM meeting lined up with local leaders who worked with the World Health Organization and the Dominican Red Cross. By 10:30AM, it was still only the American team present in the conference room. Sometime close to noon, the Dominicans showed up with big smiles, firm handshakes and no apologies. My supervisor turned to me and said, “Welcome to Dominican time.” That was just their way. The American need for timeliness and efficiency was completely foreign to them. It was not an issue of disrespect or unprofessionalism. Their worldview was simply not like ours.

Sometimes my world becomes as small as a US post office and all of a sudden everyone is at everyone else’s throat. Which is ironic because in theory, the post office tells me that the world is a big place, beyond me, beyond us and our efficiency-driven culture.  I don’t know that my personality type would allow me to live as lax as a Dominican. But at the very least, when I find myself being overtaken by the muted but heavy tension in the post office, I fight to remember that I don’t have to give into it, feed into it, become a bit of it. Not at all. God is on His throne, the sun still rises, and the world is so much bigger than this.

Set me free.

Portland in pictures

I feel as though I haven’t posted much of real significance recently, be it in the form of writing or photography, and it has been rather dissatisfying. And so it seemed like a good time to share a few more photos from our recent trip to the Pacific Northwest. These particular photos are from Portland. We didn’t get to spend a lot of time exploring the city, which is just as well since it gives us a reason to go back up there. And besides, whenever I think of Portland, I just think green. These pictures capture a lot of the wonderful greenery that characterizes so much of that area.

The first series of photos were taken at The Grotto, which is a beautiful Catholic botanical garden. It was refreshingly serene.

We also thoroughly enjoyed our time at the Portland Japanese Garden. If the water looks a little red to you, it’s not because my post-processing skills are that off. They were treating the water for some parasites that were making the koi fish ill.

I took a lot more photos, but am only posting these for now. Life has been so busy and I haven’t had as much time as I would like to sort through and process all my pictures. I think that means it’s time to head back up to Portland for another getaway sometime soon.

out of my way

The husband and I just returned from a most fantastic vacation to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. And the one thing I quickly realized about both of us is that we will go out of our way to find really good food, really good coffee, and good photo opps.

Sterling Coffee Roasters in Portland most definitely met the coffee and photo opp categories. This awesome little vintage-style stand with the. world’s. best. mocha. EVER. Think dark chocolate. Top notch espresso. Perfectly creamy steamed milk.

I think I need to book another plane ticket. Soon.

chicago sightings

I have this thing when I travel someplace and am taking photos. I have a strong aversion to taking the pictures I know everyone else has taken. Even if it’s a beautiful shot, I still just hate the thought that the perspective is so unoriginal. Nonetheless, to some degree, I suppose you simply can’t get away from it.

So let’s get the predictable shot out of the way…

Alas, the bulk of my visits to the more touristy spots in Chicago took place before I developed an obsession with my camera. Now, when we visit my sister out there, we just eat, lounge, walk, and repeat that 3x daily. Once in awhile we will think of a new place to explore, but in terms of photographs, it becomes less about the place itself and more about what is interesting right in the place(s) where I am at.

So here are some recent shots from this last trip. The first few were taken inside the architecture firm where my sister works.

This next shot comes from the inside of a small Chinatown store. Super placenta! Why not?

Next we have the zombies who nearly took over the city…

But thankfully the clouds brought in a hailstorm and chased the zombies back underground.

The clouds eventually cleared and made for an incredibly beautiful day at the Botanical Garden:

The above is the flower of an artichoke, which I found fascinating!

Finally, just a few random fun shots that caught my eye:

Headwear of some patron at The Yolk, a hipster restaurant popular for its brunches.

The combination of ongoing development in the city, together with the good ol’ local spots like this Italian lemonade stand that is only open in the summertime, is, I think, what makes Chicago so intriguing and unique.

Hope you enjoyed this visit to Chicago! I haven’t gotten to the point of putting a copyright stamp on my photographs, but if you would like to share them, I would ask that you kindly put a pingback to this site, or at the very least give proper credit. Thanks!

the food of my peoples

Every time I plan a trip, the food is one of the key highlights around which I will plan all other activities. I will spend hours on Yelp to make sure I know exactly where I’m going and why. When the husband and I return from a trip and friends ask how it was, our answer is either, “The food was so good!” or “The food was just ok.” Never mind that we were in Spain or Colorado or some other breathtakingly beautiful location. We just always come back to talking about the food.

Well, my parents and I went to visit my sister in Chicago this past weekend, and any foodie knows that Chicago has no dearth of incredible cuisines to choose from. The Parthenon in Greektown, Rosebud Steakhouse, Shaw’s Crab Shack, and of course the plethora of coma-inducing deep dish pizzas are must-visits. Caramel ice cream french toast at the Bongo Room for brunch? Yes please.

But on this particular trip, what we really craved one morning was dim sum in Chinatown. The food of my peoples. The shared understanding with the other immigrant families in the room that this food is at the heart of our own hearts, and hence it never gets old. The yuppy brunch boutiques couldn’t compete with the carts of savory deliciousness brought to you by women reminiscent of that favorite jovial-but-borderline-bossy Chinese auntie who glowed with pride at the morsels they offered, and hardly hid the fact that they were more than slightly offended when you declined their offers. Only in a bonafide dim sum restaurant would this attitude from your server be both expected and appropriate, and earn them a better tip. After all, it only showed how much they cared.

There is, of course, the pork or shrimp siu-mai. Savory, salty, juicy, deceptively light morsels of meat and finely chopped vegetables enclosed in the thinnest of wrappers, subsequently dipped in soy sauce, hot sauce, or hot mustard. I don’t need the fancy overpriced dumplings at Din Tai Fung. Sit me in an old B-rated Chinatown restaurant anyday, so long as I see the aunties with their carts and the wrinkles of pride on their faces, I know what they have to offer must be authentic.

My sister and I reminisced about how adding the thousand-year-old-egg always made the best pot of rice porridge. Don’t let the black-and-green color or the pungent garbage-like smell of those eggs fool you. That stuff is nothing short of gourmet. Barbeque pork steamed buns, taro cakes, deep-fried sesame balls with red bean filling, and egg custard pastry cups are non-negotiables.

But somehow, what we look forward to the most are the chicken feet and the cow intestines. Frightening as they may appear, these delectables deserve a spot on “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Even if you need to close your eyes to eat them, or need a good Tsingtao beer afterwards to help you forget what you just consumed, the flavor in these dishes, when prepared correctly, is absolutely incomparable. (I have to admit though, when we found a small hair in our cow intestine dish, it seemed rather pointless to complain about it to our waiter. I mean, how clean can this cow intestine dish be, really?)

I could tell you plenty of other stories about the crickets and deep-fried waterbugs offered at Typhoon in Santa Monica. The live snake at the hole-in-the-wall in China that was subsequently sauteed into two dishes – one based on the skin, and the other based on the scant amount of meat running along the snake’s slithery skeleton. (That snake dish left me reeling with dizziness in the airport later that day, but it was so worth it.) The raw beef lips that I gleefully found in a 99 Ranch supermarket as the ultimate tool for a future practical joke. The brain soup of some poor unidentified creature that my uncle offered to me in a Taiwan night market. Just a brain in a bowl of broth. (No amount of Tsingtao was going to help me out with that one. I passed.) But alas, this post will remain dedicated to the glorious, incomparable cuisine known as dim sum, the food of my peoples.

Life on the throne gets complicated

Every time I enter a public restroom, my eyes shoot to the same spot every time, without fail. I look for the number, size, and…well, freshness…of stains on the toilet seat. And then I answer the burning question, “Should I stay or should I go?” Go, as in, evacuate. I mean, go, as in, leave the room. Hmm. That was an awkward intro.

Anyhow, I’ve been in all kinds of, shall we say, unique toileting situations beyond just your classic port-a-potty at your local fair. I’ve been in remote villages in China where you enter a small bathroom stall and see little more than a deep pit available for the relieving of your needs. The pit is deep but not deep enough to not see movement. Oh yes. Movement.  (Externally. I mean… *sigh*  …never mind.) The shiny, subtle movement of hundreds of maggots, deep down in that not-deep-enough pit. And that’s when you just look up, whistle, and try to push your too-close-to-reality-imagination out of your head, and then bolt out of there before the tickling you feel on your legs becomes real.

Then there is the infamous squatty potty. What’s that, you ask? Oh you’re missing out! There is a humorous but rather educational blog post about the squatty potty, complete with bonus side tips about toileting in Asia. Suffice to say, I don’t think I ever really got the hang of this, but some international friends tell me that they find the squatty potty much easier to use and much more sanitary than Western toilets. Some, apparently, have found it so difficult to transition to the Western toilet that they would prefer to climb on top of a Western toilet, somehow manage to balance themselves precariously over the bowl, and take care of business, squatty-potty style. I only know this because I’ve seen footprints on the McDonald’s toilets in Taiwan. I can’t even imagine how that doesn’t eventually involve a very embarrassing call to 9-1-1.  I hope that McDonald’s is well-stocked with toilet seat covers, at the very least, for those with less-than-perfect aim…and all who follow afterwards. (I think squidoo’s advice about keeping your pants at your ankles probably gets thrown out the window here, but who knows… I’m no acrobat.)

And of course, the Japanese bidet. My first (surprise) encounter with this clever contraption was in a charming, traditional Japanese restaurant in Gardena, CA. You know, the type of restaurant that only has the menu handwritten in Japanese on the wall. I don’t know why I thought the instructions for flushing the bidet would be any different. For a relatively simple machine serving relatively simple purposes, there were a whole lot of buttons to choose from. I started to wonder if I was on one of those secret Japanese prank shows. I stood up, and after one tentative round of eeny-meeny-miny-mo, I pushed a button encircled in green and this happened. Oops. I bet that bathroom door needed cleaning anyhow. I left a generous tip that day.

All this to say, well, nothing, really. I intended this post to eventually be about how toilet etiquette is a funny reminder that we live in community, and the awkward quirks we encounter when we enter into shared spaces with one another.

But all those deep thoughts have apparently gone…  yes, I’ll say it.

Down the toilet.

what was once my ordinary, everyday life

I stood in my living room and stared for a long time at what was once my everyday, ordinary life. It was as if it was the first time in my fourteen years of living that I had ever really noticed my television, sofa, the very roof over my head.  Traveling away from my middle-class, suburban American life had turned my world upside down with the revelation that not everyone in the world lived the same way I did. I could still hear the cry of the infant I saw sitting alone on the dusty road in that poor village. I picked him up and he pointed to a shack up the hill, a shack no more than 7 feet long, and 7 feet wide. I did a poor job, I am sure, hiding my shock when I pulled the curtain to the shack’s entrance to be greeted by six dusty faces. Where was the television, the sofa, the roof? I slept on the ground beside my bed for weeks after that trip out of some inner compulsion to try and remember that not everyone in the world shares my same ordinary, everyday life.

Why I should be so surprised by the little and big lessons learned from traveling, I’m not completely sure, but I am. Maybe because of the way it shakes me out of the illusion that the rest of the world is at once all that similar, or all that different, from mine.

For example, I learned that not everyone in the world dances to Beyonce.

I learned that what may appear charming and endearing to one person could just be a long, hard day for another.

I learned that there is no time and no place where people are not searching for solace and hope.

I learned that it doesn’t always take magnificent architecture to find moments that take your breath away.

I learned that somewhere, on many unmarked street corners throughout the world, there are nameless people with haunting voices who have something to say.

I learned that I can be in the most fascinating part of the world, and yet those simple, familiar things still have the power to draw me in like nothing else.

And finally I learned that what is someone else’s ordinary, everyday life can be like a dream to the one who is beholding it for the very first time.