missing

Danshui Harbor

Danshui, Taiwan

Sometimes you don’t know how much something means to you until . . .

I looked. I looked again. What on earth?

My jewelry box was missing.

Where could it have gone?

It was late. I was tired. But I couldn’t sleep–not now. I began searching. Under the bathroom sink, behind the toilet, in my backpack, in the trashcan . . .

In the trashcan? you’re probably thinking. Are you crazy?

Perhaps I should explain. Continue reading

the power of kindness

night-road-300x187

I follow the rules of the road!

I was riding my bike tonight—at the top of a long hill, huffing and puffing, watching the full moon rise—when suddenly a car passed, and someone inside yelled, “You rock!” The youth then stuck his hand out the passenger-side window and waved it up and down, and continued waving it until I waved back, as though he wanted to be sure I’d heard him.

And it took me surprise.

No, no. It’s not that I’m not used to being yelled at while I’m riding. I get yelled at all the time. “F- you!” people say. Or, sometimes, “You idiot!” Sometimes they honk their horn and scream “Ahhhhh!” just to scare me.

And, unfortunately, it works. Continue reading

success, or something like it

I used to feel guilty for being who I am.

motherteresahelpingI am a U.S. citizen. I was born to two loving parents who worked hard to provide for their children. I have never had to worry about food or shelter. I have never been abused, raped, or neglected. I have a college education and have been privileged to travel to many different parts of the world.

Why?

Why me? Why did I laugh as a child while other children cried? Continue reading

greater than all these

Taiwan_temple05

Dragons are the most exalted “animal” in Chinese culture.

I was struck by its colors. Bright red and yellow and blue and green . . .

But then it was gone. Nick* was driving too fast. But, oh wait! There was another one. This one looked similar, only it was bigger. Rainbow-colored dragons with yellow spines leaped from its peaks. Black-bearded men holding whips perched nearby. I was agog.

But then it was gone.

“Would you slow down?” I wanted to punch Nick.

“You want to see temples?”

I said nothing. Continue reading

the luckiest girl in the world

qianhua elementary school

View of the school from our office.

I was forgetting something. What was I forgetting? This was important. But . . . Ohhhh. Sigh. The others were waiting for me. I’d already kept them too long. Forget it.

I grabbed my stuff off of my desk—including the portable heater and laundry bag I carried back and forth and back and forth between work and home—and ran out the door, down the cement stairs, over the wet tile, past the sewer vents, through the mud, to the van. I could tell the others were annoyed. “I’m sorry, guys!” I said as soon as I’d slid the sliding door shut. No one said anything. Suddenly I realized why. It was my turn to drive. “Oh, sorry.”

I fumbled for my keys in my purse and moved to the drivers’ seat. The gray sky began to cry as I drove down the hill. It was just as well. The pitter patter was soothing. No one felt like talking. Continue reading

backwards and forwards

nikeWhen I turned 25, I was sooooo old. That was before I went to Taiwan. I knew everything by then.

When I turned 26, I went hiking and ate “authentic” Italian food at Pizza Olmo in Sanjhih.

When I turned 27, I was the director of an English camp in Taiwan.

When I turned 28, I was a teacher in Hong Kong. I learned that love can be like a pile of laundry—and that that’s a good thing.

When I turned 29, the pope abdicated his “throne.” I visited friends in San Francisco. I realized I have 365 days to accomplish all of the goals I set out to accomplish before 30. And I remembered: Continue reading

no man is an island

island3

“Heyyyy! I thought that was you!”

I didn’t recognize the man who had appeared out of nowhere beside our table.

“How’s that arm?” He touched my shoulder. “Your dad was so worried about you—and not just about your arm, about your life! How long ago was that, anyway? . . . And how ’bout Hong Kong? Your dad told me you were over there. What were you doing there? Bet ol’ Placerville feels small now! I’ve never been to Asia. Born and raised in SoCal; moved up here and never left. Did a rotation in Dublin once, though. One of the best times of my life. What ya doin’ in ol’ Placerville?”

I wondered, briefly, how the man breathed. His lips hardly seemed to keep up with his mouth. Continue reading

let her

IMG_0043ed

Sunset in Sanjhih, Taiwan

Dresses in white,
Flowers, the like.
Parties and favors,
Tokens to savor.

Girls and dreams,
Valentine’s scenes.
Weddings and wishes,
Tickles and kisses.

Strange girl, strange dream,
Off of on her own, alone in her stream.
She doesn’t want much,
No flowers and such.
Give her the land,
Give her her hand.

Let her write,
Let her fight.
Let her be,
Oh, memory.
Let her look,
Let her wait.
Let her, seeking, find her fate.

from the ground up

For the past several posts I’ve been talking about “how to not die” in honor of the ten-year anniversary of my rock climbing accident. Part five is almost done. Today, however, I want to take a brief break from my story to share some breaking news:

I just got rejected. Again.

Those of you who have been following my blog for a while know that, back in December, I applied for graduate school at Berkeley. I thought getting my masters in journalism would be a step towards something I desperately want—which is, of course, to write.

I looked at many programs. There were thoughts of MFAs in Creative Nonfiction (an elusive degree that doesn’t exist in many locations), MAs in International Affairs (I do want to go abroad again), and, what seemed most practical, journalism. Continue reading

how to not die: the missing piece

Ten years ago today (January 25, 2003), I fell 80 feet (24 meters) while rock climbing at T-Wall, a popular climbing site in Tennessee. The doctors said I might not live; when I did, they said I’d never be the same again. Today, not only am I “normal,” most people don’t even know this incident ever happened. This is part four of my story. (To read parts one, two, or three, click here, here, or here.)

mp 2

THE MISSING PIECE

For an audio recording, click here:

There’s a piece of my story that’s missing
the piece that is all about you.
It’s the piece that I’ve struggled the most with
the piece so many assume true.
I recovered from my accident eventually.
My rehab is on the next page.
But what of my soul, of “God‘s purpose”?
What is it that I owe to you? 

Something that has been hard to explain is the disconnect I feel from what happened to me during those weeks in the hospital. When I woke up in the ICU three and a half weeks after I fell, I was a little girl. A sick little girl. And that was all. Continue reading

on privacy

It was dark. Suddenly, as I scurried about my apartment cleaning and folding laundry in shorts and a tee, I realized my blinds were open.

Oh, no!

viewwindow

The view from my window.

I live on the first floor near the entrance of a busy apartment complex. Directly outside my bedroom window is a sidewalk lined by grass and trees. Across the street is a pool and fitness center. A nice location, for sure, but not when one considers a little thing called privacy.

Here in the West, privacy is held in high esteem. Close the blinds, Johnny! Someone might see! Even when I lived on the second floor of a large home on several acres—when a person would have had to climb a tree to see in my window—still, as soon as night fell, Close the blinds, Jess. Someone might see! Continue reading

silent spaces

By Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer.
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake

wishes for the new year

There are moments, instances, experiences that shape our lives. Both good and bad, big and small, these are the things that make me me, and you, you.

These are the comments from your mother, the good mark from your teacher, the accident in February, your father’s death in June. They’re acceptance into grad school, the crazy trip to Tokyo, the man you bumped on the subway, the loss of your job, too soon. They’re the traffic jams, coffee breaks, playground brawls, road trips, pregnancies, broken hearts . . . These are the fabric of our lives. Continue reading

a teacher’s perspective

His eyes flashed.

“I won’t.”

“Alex*, put it down. Please,” I added, glancing nervously at the many small children buzzing and flying and sword-fighting and princess-playing all around the room.

“No.”

“Alex . . .” But it was too late. The plastic shopping cart was in the air, flying towards a ballerina with a baton. Crash! The girl and a Lego tower behind her crumpled into a heap. “Whaaaa!!!”

Alex, 7, was running from the room. Continue reading

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):

looking back

One month later, another post.

Hi ho. Hi ho.

I am crouched, elbows at knees, fingers at keyboard, huddled beneath a blanket on my bed. My heater is keeping company next to me.

It’s cold.

Today it’s 9 degrees Celsius. It feels like -9 in here. It’s also raining, and there’s no indoor heating. If I remember anything about Asia when I leave, it will be the insufferable heat and humidity during the summer, and the penetrating cold and clamminess of winter.

It’s off to work we go.

I’ve been looking back at my blog from Taiwan, tai tao. It’s been a little more than two years, now, since I landed for the first time in Taipei. Since I spent that first miserable weekend in an igloo apartment with an ice-cold shower and without any heating of any kind. Since I realized that no one spoke English and a rickety-rackety bus was the only way to get around. Since I realized that the food stared at you (some of it) with real eye balls, and that the buildings were (some of them) decrepit and falling down, and that the people were (most of them) all the same—and that they thought I was weird. Stop and stare. Look at that white girl—she’s got blonde hair. And I remember I was mortified. I had no idea how I was going to last seven days, let alone seven months, in that kind of an environment.

Hi ho. Hi ho.

And I remember I had little hope that things were going to get any better. How could they? Taiwan had obviously been ass-backwards since before the beginning of time, and hadn’t changed much since, so how could I expect that anything would improve during my short stay there?

I couldn’t.

I couldn’t, but that meant that now I was in a dilemma. Now I’d really done it. I’d kissed all my family and friends goodbye, not planning to see them for months. I couldn’t head home now after only a couple of days. I also knew a few people who lived there who said, “Eh, it’s not always bad. It gets better.” I didn’t believe them, of course, but . . . God knew what he was doing when he designed people, I’m telling you. I may not have had hope, but what I did have was pride. Lots of it. If Taiwan was going to be stubborn as hell, well, so was I. I was going to stick it out in Sanjhih if it killed me, and I was going to like it, even, if I could.

And so I did. And I did. Shock of all shocks, I grew to like it!

I don’t suspect many people reading this post will look at my blog from Taiwan, but if any of you ever did, you might be amazed by my transformation. The transformation was so great that a year and a half after my arrival I was still in Taiwan and was heading to Hong Kong where I expected new and even greater (if different) sets of challenges.

[Pause.]

And here you find me six months later . . .

And the number of posts I’ve written in the last six months should tell you:

I was right.

I hope to write more soon. I’m on break for Chinese New Year and, unfortunately, too broke to travel right now; hence, I finally have the opportunity to write.

Hi ho. Hi ho.

Ho.

in my classroom with my kids. more photos coming soon…