making the holidays bright

It’s that time of year again. Time to deck the halls, sing Fa-la-la-la-la, and rush to the stores for those oh-so-amazing deals on Black Friday.

I don’t go shopping on Black Friday, but, if I did, it would remind me of shopping in Hong Kong. Hong Kong malls are crashing-into-strangers crowded all the time. In fact, almost everywhere in Hong Kong is crowded all the time. When I moved home, and the streets emptied out by 9 p.m., I felt like I was living in a ghost town. Where were all the people?

I still feel that way.

People talk about reverse culture shock. It’s real, they say. But, unless you’ve experienced it, no one really believes it. This is your home! they think. How can ‘home’ be something you have to get used to?

Trust me, it can.

This is especially true if, since you’ve been gone, everything at home has changed. I don’t usually talk about personal things on this blog, but, two months after I arrived in Taiwan, I found out my parents were getting divorced. Over the course of the next few months, everything I’d ever known was turned upside down. My parents sold the house I grew up in, my stuff was boxed up and placed in my dad’s small apartment, and our family dynamics were changed for forever. Nothing would ever be the same.

For an idealist raised on the idea that divorce is (almost) never okay, this was a tough pill to swallow. I recognized many of the reasons behind the divorce, but I still fought back tears every time I thought about my family. And now, with new people coming into my parents’ lives, there’s a whole new prospect of becoming a stepdaughter and stepsister. It’s enough to inspire an identity crisis.

But, oh yes, I got off track. It’s “that time of year” again, and suddenly I can relate to articles about holiday depression I wrote for work a few years ago. Here in the States, we build up Thanksgiving and Christmas to be such a joyous time of year. But what if your holidays don’t live up to their name?

Sometimes the holidays are something to survive, not enjoy. But, no matter what, they are always a time to be looking outside of yourself. I may be having a rough holiday season, but who isn’t? Maybe money is tight for you this year. Maybe Grandpa just died. Whatever it is that is holding you down, I’d encourage you to look for ways to make the holiday season bright by doing something for someone else. Maybe it’s a shoebox filled with toys or a donation to the Salvation Army. Maybe it’s a letter to Grandma or a surprise dinner for Dad. Whatever it is, if it is heartfelt and has nothing to do with you, I guarantee it will leave with more joy than any gift Santa is going to bring you this year.

This is my challenge to myself, too. ;)

(For another post about happiness, click here.)

Image credit: coconnections.wonecks.net.

alone in an igloo

I couldn’t escape. There was nowhere to go.

The apartment building, a tower of brick, lay a mile off the ocean. There was no heating. There was no insulation. It was 9 °C (48 °F). The December chill went straight to my bones.

The water was ice.

I’d been in Taiwan for 24 hours, been traveling for 20, and hadn’t showered in 72. And the water was ice. It felt like needles. My skin was turning blue.

I shivered and looked for warm clothes. I hadn’t brought very many. My roommate, a girl I’d just met, was gone for the weekend. I was alone in an igloo. I had no idea what to do.

And so I grit my chattering teeth and curled up on my bed. It felt like a rock. And I cried. What have I gotten myself into?

•       •       •

Thus began my time in Taiwan. I was 6,000 miles and seven months from home. And I was miserable. Really miserable. Honestly. What was I going to do?! . . .

I was going to grow, that’s what. I was going to learn about and adapt to a new culture, not to mention make many amazing friends along the way. I was going to grow so much that my seven-month stay would turn into a year and a half, and, at the end of that year and a half, I wasn’t going to want to leave. Taiwan would have, in many ways, become my home.

You see, the reason the water was ice? My gas tank was empty. The way to fix it? Call Wei-Ming or Yenhsuan or Sueching and ask them to call the gas guy for me. (I couldn’t speak Mandarin; he knew no English.) The way to get warm? Buy blankets and portable heaters, and layer in as many clothes as possible. (The Michelin Man look was in, man!) The way to feel connected? Look with open eyes and an open heart at this new world around me. Absorb everything possible. Find at least one thing positive for every thing negative.

And never give up.

Because, as I would soon see, Taiwan was nothing like home, but, also, everything like home.

Just one way my Taiwanese friends helped me. More stories like this on the way.

The view from my apartment.

Me laughing at Sueching.

Me and Vanessa

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this contradictory life

Ever notice how life is full of contradictions? Like, the thing you love most about something is also the thing you like the least?

  • “I love the early morning, but I hate getting up early.”
  • “I despise cleaning, but I love my house clean!”
  • “I love his energy, but I wish he would calm down!”

“Landing” in Taiwan… “Well, *some* things are the same.” (image: cartoonstock.com)

That’s exactly how I feel about Asia.

I grew up in a small town in Northern California. Everyone drives cars here and goes to supermarkets to buy their groceries. There is no night market, and no one sticks out here, no matter where they’re from.

Not so in Asia. As a blonde in Taiwan, I often felt like a celebrity. (“Hi! Hi! Can we take your picture?”) People drove scooters there and shopped markets that spilled from tiny stores onto crowded streets. Fresh slabs of meat hung in open-air stands. And let’s not even talk about the food at the night market!

Taiwan was so different from California, in fact, that I was often surprised to see the same stars there that I could see at home. Surely I was on a different planet, wasn’t I?

It was this difference that made adapting to Taiwan so difficult at first, but which made sticking it out so satisfactory in the end. When I couldn’t handle things on my own or had questions I didn’t understand, I had to rely on Taiwanese friends. This gave me insight into Taiwanese life and forced me to reflect, sometimes with startling effects, on my own long-held beliefs. (I.e. How much of religion is cultural? What is so great about the States? How could I not love a country whose people would bend over backward to help a stranger?)

I could tell story after story of how my Taiwanese friends helped me time and time again . . .

For now, I leave you with a question: When was the last time you were out of your comfort zone? What did you do? How did you cope? Did the overall experience harm you, or help you? What might be the benefit of getting outside of your own box?

farmers’ market in taipei

much more than language exchange friends

shilin night market in taipei—this happens *every* night

this is how you get *your* hamburger, isn’t it?

mmm. squid on a stick.

learning to live with geckos

Some people think geckos are cute. Cute? A four-legged reptile who climbs walls and never blinks is cute? I fervently disagree, and I blame GEICO.

GEICO is a car insurance sales company in the States. In 2000, GEICO created Martin the GEICO Gecko®, a new mascot whose Cockney accent (voiced by English comedian and actor Jake Wood) and catchy quips stole America’s heart and left children begging, “I want one!”

And I’ve got to hand it to them: Martin is pretty adorable. With his sunny disposition and humorous clips, the GEICO Gecko® engages viewers and employs advertising strategies that best most of its competitors. “Fifteen minutes could save you 15 percent or more on car insurance,” says the gecko . . . Well, who wouldn’t want that?

But I’m not here to sell car insurance.

I’m here to tell you that the GEICO Gecko’s® cuteness is a LIE.

Geckos are a common sight throughout Asia. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, where I spent most of the last three years, the most common species is the “house gecko.” House geckos live in homes and other buildings and are actually quite helpful—they eat bugs, including cockroaches. Most of the geckos I saw were small, but in some places they can grow to larger than one foot (36 centimeters)!

a gecko in my home in hong kong

Now, perhaps you think sharing your home with a gecko would be no big deal. They kill cockroaches, right? That’s a good thing! But, tell me, the next time you’re brushing your teeth and suddenly realize you’re not alone, and the next time you see a four-inch gecko staring at you, well . . . Tell me how you feel. ‘Cause it made me jump!

But, actually . . . You’re right.

It’s a lesson I learned the hard way. The first time I saw a gecko in Taiwan, I threw shoes at it. “Get out of my house!” I yelled. My apartment was incredibly clean, and I wasn’t accustomed to sharing my living quarters with lizards, or any other creatures, for that matter. I’d spent weeks getting rid of cockroaches and mosquitoes (with poison baits and plug-ins); the spiders were easier (tissue paper and a broom); and I was praying I would never see a snake (thankfully, I lived on the fourth floor). But, now . . . What was I supposed to do with this?

It was only later that I learned about the benefits of geckos, and, eventually, I—almost? sort of? kind of?—got used to having them around.

And I realized . . . Maybe I’d been overreacting?

Maybe I’d been overreacting about a lot of things?

Could worrying less about the little things help me focus better on the big things?

I still don’t think geckos are cute, though.

Check out one of the GEICO Gecko’s®  latest ads (below):

hello, my name is ___?

What I didn’t expect was the identity crisis. Some things aren’t supposed to change.

Perhaps you’ve been there, too.

When I was a child, life was simple. Decisions were easy. Choices, slim. And everyone around me was doing the same: college was the horizon.

Fast-forward five years.

Life’s still simple. Life’s still good. A desire previously unfulfilled has been achieved: At college, 3,000 miles from home, I have freedom. I have independence. I’ve left childhood behind and have thousands of years to go. The only trouble? What comes next?

An English degree, a couple of jobs, and a life-changing, three-year tenure in Asia—that’s what . . .  Not to mention the splitting of my home, my 28th birthday, and the poignant realization that, just as time passes, so does youth. No matter how hard I try, I am limited by my lifespan.

I can never see it all, travel it all, write it all, learn it all. I can’t fix it all, have it all, understand it all, or even love it all.

The horizon has become the horizon, and, by its infinity, shown me my limitations.

And, suddenly, I am wavering. Many things I believed to be true have proven to be false, and many things I thought would never be have, in fact, become reality.

And I find myself wondering at the mysteries of life and the way time passes . . . And the energy of youth and the wisdom of age . . . And the fact that I believe in God but have difficulty trusting Him . . .

Or knowing how I fit into His plan.

on discipline

A note about “beating your children” in Asia: As with any culture, the discipline of children (or lack thereof) often takes different forms depending on social status. While it is true that some parents beat their children for even minor offenses here in Hong Kong, the same could be said of parents of lower classes in the United States. We often do as has been done to us.

By comparison, there are many well-off parents in Hong Kong who are too lax. Poor Johnny got kicked out of school? Again? Well, I guess we’ll just have to find him another one.

The biggest cultural difference, then, is the demand for respect for elders and other authority figures. I am your father. You will obey me.