My last 10 days in India were spent on the beautiful crescent beach of Palolem in Goa, living in a beach hut 50 meters from the Arabian Sea. It was the epitome of relaxation and laziness, but also of rest and appreciation. Rest from the past 6 weeks of moving from city to city with a giant backpack. And appreciation of the coconut trees that lined the beach from one end to the other, the moon that glistened and lit our path home every night, the young chatty seasonal workers that came down to Goa for 6 months and up to Ladakh for another 6, the dogs that lounged by day and loyally guarded their territories by night, the sea of attractive half naked European men, and most of all, appreciation of how privileged I am to have had 10 days as a beached cow.
You know when you meet people who, when you part, make you think Wow, he or she was just so awesome, and you know that in many years you will still remember him or her even if your time together was as short as a hour-long conversation? I felt that way about many people during my travels through Nepal. And as I travel more and more, I have come to realize that it’s the people that shape my memory of a place.
All these people above taught me something valuable about life. I can’t pinpoint exactly what those things are, but what I learned about them and from them as individuals–their unselfishness, openness, generosity, kindness and universalism–impacted me in a large way, edging me to self-reflect and think about what it means to be human. Who knows if I’ll ever see these people again–some more likely than others–but no matter, they are instilled in my memory, and I thank them for making Nepal as special and memorable as it was.
I am sitting on a rooftop in Varanasi, India, inhaling dust and chai, and reminiscing my time in Nepal. In just 10 short days, I learned so much from so many different people from all walks of life. I still can’t believe what a thoroughly awesome experience Nepal was. A big chunk of that owes to the fact that all the Nepali people I came across were genuinely kind, open-hearted and so full of life, and I felt welcomed.
Feven and I arrived in Nepal with absolutely no expectations but the eagerness to be out of Beijing. We had done little research on the country as the bulk of our travels this winter would be spent in India; Nepal was just a stopover. We obtained our luggage and visas within 30 minutes on arrival in the unlit immigration hall. It was a breeze. Little did we know this would reflect our next 10 days in Nepal.
We exited the airport already with a new friend, a German farmer, and together were greeted by a rush of enthusiastic taxi and tuktuk drivers. There also happened to be a fiery red sun setting over the mountain across from where we stood. We stepped into a miniature cab to take us into the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu, down narrow lanes, past goats, past barefoot children and elders, past a zillion signs advertising language and study abroad programs in countries from Japan to Latvia.
Our hostel was located right outside Thamel, a maze-like neighborhood lined with souvenir and trekking shops for tourists. One could not walk down the skinny lanes without nearly getting run over by motorbikes, nor without receiving offers of hashish. We settled on Thakali Thali (dal baht) for dinner at “Kathmandu’s best Thakali House”, one of several million; a curry, dal baht (lentils), stir-fried green, pickles, and a heap of rice served on a large round metal tray. The highlight of this dish came with the unexpected second-helping of each item, including another helping of white rice. All-you-can-eat, no complaints here!
On our second day in Kathmandu, the German farmer, an American volunteer nurse, plus Feven and I headed towards Boudhanath, a beautiful and holy white Buddhist stupa to which devout followers make their pilgrimage from mountains away. There were little and old monks chanting, and men and women from different countries prostrating under Buddha’s eyes, or walking clock-wise around the stupa spinning the prayer wheels. Tibetan prayer flags stretched from every corner to the tower of the stupa, adding color to the otherwise simple structure.
A surprising but lovely fact about Boudhanath, and I realized reflected in Nepali society in general, was that regardless of it being a Buddhist temple, Hindus and Buddhists alike worshipped together. There was a small section at the entrance of the stupa with Hindu gods and decorations. Earlier we had passed a temple with a sign that read, “Followers of all faiths welcome.” And at the Royal Palace Museum we saw signs that labeled resting areas not for the disabled, but for the “differentlyabled.” How inclusive and loving to all! That explains another sign I read on the mountain during my trek in the Annapurnas–N-E-P-A-L: Never Ending Peace And Love. Amen sister.
One evening, on our way home after a 10-hour stroll in Kathmandu, we were approached by a super outgoing Nepali girl. Her name was Bika, she was 16, supposedly spoke 20 languages, including perfect Chinese, English and German, and was a henna artist by trade. She was also HILARIOUS. At first, I was cautious of being “too friendly” in case she turned out to just want our money (which happened a lot in Sri Lanka). But after a few laughs, she just handed us her hand-made business card and told us to call her if we ever wanted henna done. We bumped into her again on the following night, and this time I did get henna done. Alas’, overpriced, but so worth it.
Bika had joined me and a group of other travelers for dinner, but she was noticeably uncomfortable. At one point, I asked her if she wanted to study abroad someday since she spoke so many languages. She said she would love to go to Australia or China. I gave her my contact information and told her to contact me if she ever did come to China. During this exchange, I noticed that her eyes got watery, and she became quiet and subdued and didn’t look up at me or laugh as she usually did. I couldn’t help but feel sad for her, wondering if her fate had been predetermined.
The last moments in Kathmandu were spent on the balcony of our hostel, chatting about life. We came from Germany, China, America, Ethiopia, Israel and England, but something brought each of us to Nepal, and we would each leave with something unique and special to us. For me, I left Nepal with the reminder of what humanity is, or at least what it ought to be. I’ll have to save the elaboration in another post, as well as the stories from other parts of Nepal I visited.
It’s one of those days where everything is dandy and not necessarily coming up roses, but pretty yellow weeds.
The sun is up, the sky is blue, the pollen content is off the charts, the wind is strong and all the girls (including me) have to hold down their skirts because they didn’t wear the right underwear today.
I’m enjoying a very romantic moment by myself, waiting for my department’s International Friendship Day Picnic (yes, do laugh at this!), sitting in a little park on campus next to running water from a man-made pond, pondering the meaning of friendship and wondering if there will be enough food at the picnic.
What a perfect afternoon…
These past two weeks of island-hopping in Malaysia and scrambling around in Sri Lanka felt like months I had been out of China. Now I have returned to Beijing tanned and exhausted, but still, good times never last long enough.
First stop: Malaysia
Feven and I spent a week on two islands in Malaysia — Pulau Penang and Langkawi. Islanders everywhere are generally Bob-Marley-loving, friendly people, but I felt it was especially true in Malaysia. Locals were surprisingly gracious to foreigners; they smiled, they were willing to give directions, and most satisfyingly, they didn’t give “tourist prices” (at least not that I was aware of). Best of all, Penang with its array of cuisines was absolute heaven for a food-junkie like myself. Let’s just say I’m all curried out…
One of the best things about traveling is meeting new people and being totally incapsulated by their stories as well as their ability to drop everything and travel for months and even years. Feven and I met a group of backpackers in Malaysia which consisted of 7 people (including us) from 7 different countries with diverse backgrounds and personalities. But the desire to see the world brought us together, squeezed in a car, touring Langkawi, enjoying one another’s companies and the island’s relatively untainted natural landscape.
The most unforgettable site was 700 meters high up in the mountains (thank goodness for cable cars) watching the sun set over an island in Thailand, and then getting engulfed by clouds.
As soon as Feven and I arrived back in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, to catch our flight to Sri Lanka, the contrast between the bustling city and the chilled island life was scarily drastic. But I suppose that’s true all over the world.
Next stop: Sri Lanka
Eight days was not nearly enough to see all that I wanted to see in this tiny island country. Between ancient cities, wildlife, the hill country, tea plantations, and beaches, Feven and I made tough choices to squeeze in as much as we possibly could. That resulted in cutting most hikes out and breezing down to Unawatuna beach for a couple days of rest and relaxation before returning to reality.
Sri Lanka was an interesting experience for me and a particularly tiring one. I thought the Chinese were bad when it came to haggling, but OH MY WORD Sri Lankans were 10x worse!!! Unlike Malaysia, everything was at tourist prices, even the so-called “local prices.” Don’t even get me started on tuk-tuk drivers who depend on commission and will take you anywhere except where you asked to go.
Most of the people we came across were men, usually because they worked as tour guides, in the guesthouses, as tuk-tuk drivers. Very rarely did women speak to us, and those who did could not speak much English. At first, the persistent haggling drove me to the point where I did not want to speak with any local men because I couldn’t trust them (i.e. our hotel manager insisted that we avoid the southern coast because of flooding and heavy rains and suggested we head over to Trimcomalee in the northeast instead, but we arrived to sunshine and perfect waves in Unawatuna; the ticket salesman at the train station sold us tickets at 100 rupees more than the listed price; a “monk” brought me and Feven to the altar and pressured us to donate money; on and on and on). Later, I relaxed and began to find their ridiculous schemes quite laughable. Simply ignoring them helped too.
I think Sri Lanka is in an awkward in-between phase of increasing tourism and lagging infrastructure to host. It was awesome to be able to travel from place to place on public transportation with the locals at (mostly) local prices, but once I, the tourist, arrived at a popular tourist site, I’d pay up to sometimes 200 more than the local counterpart for admission. Of course it is wonderful that locals should not have to pay ridiculous admission fees to visit places within their own country, but when I’m ushered to the booth that says “Tickets for Foreigners”, am told to pay 2000 rupees to enter Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage when the Sri Lankan at the local booth paid 100, am tricked into paying another 1000 rupees to the staff who just offered to take my photo with the elephants, and then spot the “Foreigners Only” restroom…well, talk about segregation! 2000 rupees, or $15, is not a lot, but it adds up and worst of all, it gives you a feeling that it is unfair to have to give significantly more just for being a foreigner. And that in turn might drive (poorer/backpacking) visitors away in the long run.
On a positive note, there were parts of Sri Lanka that were absolutely stunning (including the elephant orphanage)!
If there’s one thing I loved most about Sri Lanka it would be the train rides, particularly the one along the southwestern coast. Just like in the movies, I rode those trains hanging out the doorletting the salty wind sweep up my bangs. It was a glorious feeling. Even when I got an orange thrown at me from a group of boys hanging by the train tracks.
Unawatuna, a beach town off the southern coast of the island, was the perfect place to end our Sri Lanka adventure. Feven and I stayed in a fancy little hotel called Banana Garden at one end of the U-shaped beach, literally right on the water during high tide. Thanks to monsoon season, we were the only guests and we felt like royalty! It was such a wonderful stay that I left them a good review on Trip Advisor! Waking up and falling asleep to the sound heavy ocean waves felt like a dream that I didn’t want to wake up from. But alas, all good things come to an end.
It’s difficult for me to sum up how I feel about Sri Lanka. I guess it’s somewhat of a love-hate relationship (hate the incessant haggling, love the natural beauty) but if I ever have the chance to go back, I would definitely say yes because there is SOOO much more to see.
Yesterday a cab driver asked me if I thought China and Japan would go to war. Then today I saw this sign outside a real-estate agency in Wudaokou, the local hub of international students:
I was taken aback by the cab driver’s question because though I was aware of China and Japan’s territorial dispute over the East China Sea islands, I hadn’t realized the seriousness and scale of public discontent it had brewed up throughout China. That is until today.
At first when I read the bright yellow sign, I laughed and took a picture thinking My instagram followers will get a kick out of this ridiculous sign. I had noticed that the Japanese flag was crossed out, and it had bothered me initially, but I didn’t think too much of it. A few hours later, however, as I kept thinking about the flag it increasingly bothered me to the point where I felt angry. It should’ve occurred to me the moment I saw the sign that the crude image of a bleeding Japanese flag could offend a Japanese passer-by. There were, after all, many Japanese students at the surrounding universities, including mine.
With the surge of my own discontent, I marched out of the cafe where I was “doing work” and walked determinedly back to the real-estate agency. I went straight up to the sign with paper and tape in hand and covered up the threatening image.
One of the real-estate agents hanging-out outside (I’ve never seen them working) asked me what I was doing, so I said innocently that I was covering up the bloody flag because it made me uncomfortable. The next thing he asked was if I was Japanese — I had expected this question. Then another employee, a young woman around my age, accused me of vandalizing their property and that that was disrespectful. To this I rebutted it was disrespectful to display such a threatening image in a neighborhood where many Japanese students roamed the streets. These Japanese students came to China to study, to study our language, our culture, and possibly one day to improve Sino-Japanese ties. Regretfully I didn’t say this out loud because I couldn’t think fast enough, especially not in Chinese. Besides, before I could say anything further another employee came at me exclaiming, “Was the Rape of Nanking not disrespectful?!?” Of course it was; it was disgusting and devastating and plain old wrong. But it happened in 1937, and I’m not saying it should be forgotten or forgiven — definitely not — but if we hold onto these bitter grudges we will never move forward.
What the first employee said next was extremely disturbing. When I asked him why they had drawn blood on the flag, he told me it was because the Japanese should be killed, roughly in those words. And he dramatically ripped the paper off to re-expose the bleeding flag. A very strong sinking feeling, similar to nausea, grew in the pit of my stomach. Finally, I left the situation (which captured the attention of a few nosy passerby’s) and went back to the cafe feeling totally defeated and unsettled.
I’ve never been good at defending my arguments, but I know inherently that what I did was right, or at least okay, even if I failed at it. Looking back on what happened, however, I don’t think I handled the situation effectively. It might’ve been more diplomatic if I had asked the real-estate agents who had made the sign if I could cover up the disturbing image explaining that it made me uncomfortable, rather than march right up to it and arguably “vandalize” their property. I think they would’ve at least considered my argument if I had respected their opinion first (even if it was ill-conceived).
I don’t have strong opinions on who should control the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, but I don’t think they are worth going to war for. And although I don’t think tensions will actually escalate to that level, the cab driver’s question alarmed me and brought to light the intensity of current unrest — everyone is talking about the dispute and protests broke out in various cities in China, including Beijing, this weekend. I am all for free speech (I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts), but when it infringes on the livelihood of people around you — making people scared to admit their nationality, making them scared to even come out of their dorm rooms — shouldn’t there be some kind of (non-violent) intervention? Of course not to the scale of attacking the embassy and killing the ambassador…but something.
My uncle, a former historian, is not a fan of the Japanese. He individually protests by boycotting Japanese products, but he would never resort to disrespectful slurs or violence to express his dislike.
Yes, the Chinese are very patriotic (how can they not be? Patriotism is instilled, internalized, forced into the Chinese people) and their protests against the Japanese is a form of nationalistic pride, but throwing eggs and rocks at the Japanese embassy, blowing up Japanese cars, pulling the flag out of the ambassador’s car and making petty little signs do not make you look good in the international eye and it certainly isn’t a mature response to the dispute.
My own little dispute with the real-estate agents today was a slap in the face. It woke me up to how real the tensions are between the Chinese and Japanese. I came home and caught up on all the news about the East China Sea islands as well as the South China Sea islands territorial disputes, and tried to form my own opinion on who should own the islands. But I just can’t help thinking how ridiculous it is for people to hate one another because of pride and power and possession. On the other hand, it also showed me how unified the Chinese can be during times like these. If only people could aim these collective efforts towards something more domestically beneficial, like protesting against political corruption, or improving urban and rural sanitation, or building safer infrastructure, instead of worrying about piles of floating rocks in the ocean that the ordinary citizen will never be privileged enough to step foot onto anyway.
**I’m curious to know what you would’ve done if you had seen the sign above. Should I have just let it be (in the end it remained anyway…)? Did I try to cover up someone else’s right to free speech (even though there isn’t free speech in China) by attempting to cover up their drawing? Should I protest Century 21 (the real-estate agency)?? What are your opinions on the territorial disputes? And what the heck is this world coming to (with political unrest all over the world)????????
In March, I made a spontaneous and skeptical decision to apply to grad school in Beijing. When I told my friends in America and my Chinese students my plan, both groups asked, “Why on earth would you go to grad school in China??!” Here’s what I told them after convincing myself these were legitimate and good reasons:
1) 10 months in China wasn’t long enough; there was more to accomplish! And if I’m going to stay longer, then I’d like to make friends, and if I’m lucky, also find that twinkle in my eye. It has been long enough.
2) A Master’s degree in International Development is relevant to my career goals.
3) Tsinghua University is the Harvard of China.
4) I can live in the dorms and have some privacy from my nosy parents.
So…in August, without great expectations, I moved into my dorm room single, filled it with plants and ikea goods, and stayed up ’til 3 in the morn’ because the bed is so hard. Aside from an uncomfortable bed, controlled hot-water hours (very inconvenient, especially on weekends!), and mediocre dining hall food, living on campus is actually quite nice. The paths are lined with trees and there are plenty of sports fields (being built). There are also sculptures dotted around campus and even a famous water-lily pond, a hotspot for tourists.
Three weeks in and I’ve met dozens of people from all over the world, and for the first time in my life, the number of my Asian friends to non-Asian is greater. I’m surrounded by them! In my program of 17 people, we represent 10 different countries: America, Canada, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Peru, Ethiopia, Italy, England, and South Korea. The school of Public Policy, which I’m in, also has a Master’s program geared towards government officials from various African countries, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Grenada, Cambodia, Laos, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan, among many others. They’re a generally older crowd, and the fact that I am sharing a dormitory with these accomplished, government officials and leaders is somewhat laughable.
Judging from the first week of classes my professors are not stimulating enough. I want to be challenged, pushed, treated like a knowledgeable adult with lots of potential (I can pretend). But like I said, I didn’t enroll with high expectations. The International Development program is a relatively new one (to all of China, actually), so administrators and professors are still building it up. Unfortunately this means I’m one of the guinea pigs, but with a title of “Tsinghua University Graduate” it still puts me ahead of the game, at least in this country.
Tsinghua and Peking University are China’s Harvard and Yale, respectively (I think…does Harvard have a better reputation than Yale?), and getting into one of these top schools is the dream of every Chinese family. If you are admitted into one of these universities, you and your family will be forever celebrated in your hometown because it is such a great and near impossible feat that you’ll make your entire hometown, or even province, proud. When my family found out, I got text messages left and right and a personal phone call from my grandma in Chongqing congratulating me. Of course I didn’t tell her how unjustly easy it was for me, an international student, to apply (30 minutes to fill out the application including the personal statement, 2 emails to professors for recommendation letters, and an online request for my transcripts and graduation certificates to be mailed to Tsinghua). Chinese students, on the other hand, go through a grueling application and testing process. Might I add, they don’t have air conditioning or hot water in their dormitories (they have special shower areas); we do (international students live separately from Chinese students).
The choice to attend Tsinghua binds the next 2 years of my life–I’ll be 26 when I graduate, ah!–but I’m happy to be here. It’s a new experience and it feels great to be sharing it with a group of new friends (who are all brilliant by the way).
Okay. Now that I’m a student again, I must set a curfew that requires me to get into bed by a reasonable hour (it’s already 1 am). Then, it’ll take another 2 hours to fall asleep after tossing and turning on a slab of concrete. By the end of my 2 years, if I don’t learn anything valuable from school, at least I know I’ll have an iron back.
Attn: Friends with horrible exes, Christmas/Hanukkah present ideas
If you’ve ever questioned your man’s love for you, just take a look at the presents that you’ve received from him during the course of your relationship. Perhaps you can the remember the story behind that 50th birthday diamond necklace, or the memories from your 10th wedding anniversary when you were whisked away to a remote tropical island, where there were straw huts with thatched roofs and monkey butlers serving you meals in hollowed-out coconut shells, while playing The Girl from Ipanema on their mini-accordions.
But if you’re like me, you’ll wonder why you have a soup ladle that’s larger than the size of your head and ass combined. It may also take several months for you to realize that no amount of washing and drying that size “L” Turkish bathrobe is going to bring it down to a “XS”. And, despite your best efforts, you discover there really are…
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