China People's Republic

I take a “leaf in the wind” approach to traveling, relying less on planning and more on just doing whatever looks fun and interesting.  With that attitude I arrived in Beijing looking forward to ten days of adventure and discovery.  On my very first day I met a pair of nice young women who spoke English.  They invited me to have tea with them at a traditional Chinese tea shop, followed by drinks and karaoke at a nearby bar.  At first I was filled with the kind of joy that came from smug self-satisfaction.  I was seeing the real China, not the one manufactured by organized tours and guidebooks!  Well it wouldn’t have hurt to crack open a guidebook before I arrived in Beijing, because then I would have been aware of a scam where tourists are taken to overpriced bars and tea shops and bilked out of large sums of cash.  By the end of the evening those nice young women had taken me for nearly $300.  

Needless to say I was very upset once I realized I had been scammed.  Not just because of the money, but because once again I had reached out my hand in friendship only to have it slapped down.  I had struggled to make friends my whole life with little success.  Sometimes I tried too hard and sometimes I didn’t try hard enough, but either way I spent most of my time alone.  On the one hand it allowed me the independence to travel anywhere I wanted on my own terms, but on the other it fostered a deep sense of loneliness that made me fair game to any con artist with a smile and a few kind words.

I decided to get out of the city and visit Chengde.  The town is best known for Mountain Resort, an imperial palace and garden that served as the summer residence of China’s last emperors.  I went there with no intentions other than to look around, eat, and go back to the hotel.  The grounds were enormous and took all day to explore.  I was awed by the beauty of both the terrain and the buildings, some of which were older than the United States.  While walking through a field I thought I heard someone yell out “hello!”  I ignored it at first, but then I heard it again.  I turned around and saw a small group of people sitting underneath a tree, inadvertently making eye contact with the woman who had been calling out to me.  “Hello!” She shouted one more time as she gestured me to come over.  I suddenly found myself walking in her direction, reasoning that it wouldn’t cost me anything just to say hello.

The woman smiled and introduced herself as Lin, and then she introduced me to her two children, her sister, and her sister’s two children.  We sat and chatted until the sun began to set, and then she invited me to have dinner with them.  Despite the huge red flag being waved in my face, I said yes.  We ventured into town to a very nice restaurant, where we met up with Lin’s husband, brother-in-law, and parents.  Dinner was a meal fit for an emperor.  We enjoyed traditional Chinese dishes such as crispy peking duck, savory pork dumplings and tender steamed vegetables.  Only Lin spoke English well enough to carry a conversation, but the rest of the family was very friendly and tried to make me feel welcome.

Unfortunately due to my previous experience with friendly people I was unable to relax completely, fearing that I would be stuck paying for everything again.  Why did I agree to this?  Why was I such a sucker?  Why was I constantly setting myself up for crushing disappointment?  My questions were answered when the bill arrived.  Lin picked up the tab, expressed how happy she and her family were to meet me, and hoped I would enjoy the rest of my time in their country.  And I did.  I saw many amazing places and met many nice people, none of whom tried to rip me off.

The world isn’t always such a great place.  There are some people who will try to take advantage of you, and that doesn’t change just because you go on vacation.  Every time you put yourself out there you run the risk of getting burned, and sometimes you will.  But if that’s the price to pay for a lifetime of wonderful memories, then I’ll bring some burn cream when I set off on my next adventure.

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Serenity and Strength through Quiet Contemplation

China

On the tail end of a solemn, exhaustive and grief-filled trip to witness my grandfather’s passing, Dad and I made a stop in Hangzhou, a city in Zhejian Province, a quaint and naturally scenic spot southwest of Shanghai. We thought that a quiet diversion would cox our battered spirits into better shape place before returning to New York City. When we arrived, the sky was an even gray, the air awash with a light and cool breeze typical of the region’s spring. The bus dropped us off near West Lake, a sprawling expanse of water whose temperament ranges from that of a demure, crystalline portrait glass to that of a tempestuous, roaring stream. In fact, standing under an open, three-tiered Chinese gazebo, I was unsure if the lake even had an end were it not for the soft undulating hills obscured by clouds in the distance.

                We strolled for a while along the stone-paved shore, crossing a small arched bridge while admiring the willow tendrils strumming the air. Our minds absorbed the calm of the water and we escaped our recent loss by assuming the form of two small specks submerged in nature. Dad suggested we take a guided boat to learn more about the culture of the place. While the lake was lined with smaller rowboats, some built with rectangular dwellings covered by wood-thatched awings, ours was a modern double-decker engine with floor to ceiling windows. Once on, the guide began to explain the legend of Leifeng Pagoda, a five story high octagonal tower considered the defining feature of the West Lake estate. Like all great monuments, the Pagoda has now been built and rebuilt several times. The cause of one instance of damage can be explained by a myth claiming that the pagoda’s bricks could would cure miscarriages. The tower has been raided and burnt by Japanese invaders and even struck by lightning. I stare at the lofty structure, contemplating the layers of history that had transpired in its place, as the boat hums past.

                Later in the day, we travel to Linyin Monastery, an oasis of tranquility and spiritualism among an otherwise dense patch of wooden, residential homes.  As we walked from the bus toward the opening of the monastic grounds, we passed several middle-aged women roasting freshly picked tea leaves in open air woks. The sights and smells of the stirred, charred tea leaves set the mood for the impending introspection and meaning that awaited. Before stepping through the monastery’s gate, our minds were tested by two disfigured people, beggars cumbered by melon-sized tumors, laying dirty and ill in tattered clothes – living reminders of the ubiquitous suffering the Buddha embraced as inevitable to life.  I make a donation and proceed through the red, wooden archway under the words “Linyin Monastery,” written in forceful calligraphy by a now-retired president.

                An instant wave of serenity and peace break in my mind as I enter the hallowed Buddhist grounds. The air smells of the moss covering the gray precipices that lines the walkway. The outside world loosens its grip on as I indulge in the never-ending here and now – the plants, the stones, and the sentiments of the Buddhas carved into the side of the mountain. As we walk onward, we pass several gazebos – engraved wood covered in red paint, roofs lined with lacquered logs, their curved ends pointing toward the sky they worship. I separate from Dad and take a short side trail, climbing higher until I reached an open clearing containing a small five story pagoda. I can see the grounds of the monastery and beyond, open clear and full of possibility.

 After my descent, I rejoin Dad in the main courtyard, a space lined with tall pine trees and iron incense alters – large vats weighted by sand and adorned with burning incense that permeates the yard with smoke. People stream into and out of the temple; a single word “Buddha” hangs on pink parchment, blessing travelers and reminding them of the religion’s purpose. Though I am not Buddhist, I swing my legs over the high entrance barrier into the temple’s main hall, stare at the golden statues reposed in meditation, close my eyes and take deep breaths. As I enjoy the air flowing through my lungs – the same air that grandfather could no longer lift his chest to take in – I start praying softly and earnestly ‘may my family be well, may my family be well.’ Dad does the same and we both find some strength to face the future.

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It has been two weeks since I came back home.

I was nineteen when I decided to leave for Shanghai to pursue my undergraduate education. I was ecstatic of the idea of being alone in a foreign country, or rather, to be able to leave the grey monochrome metropolis I was supposed to regard as home.

Streets of Shanghai were ghostly during the frozen months and thick crowd filled them even till the late of summer nights; I was infatuated with this novelty. So hopelessly spellbound with the city’s dynamism that I approach every ways and means to avoid returning home before the allotted time of my graduation. Lost in the endless of schemes, I opted the one deemed most possible: travel. I packed not only the necessities into my brand-new backpack, but also the vain hopes and wild plans of a young soul, and flew off to my first destination – Cambodia.

The fervent desire for an adventure was burning. I put it out by climbing the historical ruins in Siem Reap, and had the fortune of catching a heart-stopping sunrise. The rest of my humanly adrenaline rush was mostly cured through a skydiving experience in Thailand. But nonetheless the need to take a breather arose. As soon as I can, I packed my belongings, ready for a flight to New Delhi.

I paced myself to the flow of the placid waters of Ganges River and the still air around it. At that moment, I was more than just escaping; I was traveling. Older by a few weeks of contemplation, I then set foot on the Nepali land that homes Mount Everest. A lust for a new place was looming within, albeit the wonders of Nepal. Nearly two weeks of brisk weather incite the urge to swim in the sea under the sun. And soon enough, I picked up the frayed straps of the backpack, hauled it onto my back and hit the road to Taiwan.

What I received was warmer than the great golden orb hanging relentlessly above the skies of Taiwan; the people’s genuine hospitality. I was starting to truly enjoy traveling. But even so, it was but an evasion from settling. I bid my goodbyes in silence as I stood astounded before HongKong’s skyline. I told myself that it was my last stop before returning to Shanghai.

I sat looking out the window of the plane when bits and pieces of the trip were painted on the amorphous clouds. I bought a ticket to Shanghai and reckoned to stay put. Almost a month passed and something unexplained robbed me of my senses. I took the liberty in spite of myself and came back home. 

I have no regrets making this decision. Months of unplanned travels and it is home that bestowed me the courage to embark on every new journey; it is this home that would be waiting for me wherever I will be. As my mother said “Even the most adventurous person needs a place to call it their own.” However a platitude, it represents the truth. 

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All Warfare is Based on Deception

When my parents set out to adopt a child, China seemed like the natural place to turn.  One-child limitations imposed on some members of the population led families to leave their infant daughters on the streets to be found to try again for a male child.  After a bit of research online, they found documents for a girl named Guao Sho-Li.  My parents remember more bureaucracy than I do during the ten-day trip to China a year later, but they never regretted a minute of it.  I would like to think we found her a good life, and that the name Victoria suits her better, but I also know that she was not the only one whose life was touched by the trip.

Two days before I met my sister for the first time, we went for a walk in a local park.  It had many of the staples of an American park, but it was substantially more scenic.  Old men still played chess and other board games, children still ran, fountains flowed, and rows of bushes were cut in labyrinthine patterns.  That, I remember distinctly twelve years later because I wanted to walk through them like a maze, but my mother told me not to.

Luckily and, in hindsight, oddly, I was allowed left to my own devices for short while.  By the time I was let alone, I had forgotten all about the maze-bushes, but shortly, I crossed paths with something much more powerful and even more impressive: a dragon.

As an eight year-old, I called it golden.  In hindsight, it was probably just a cheaper metal with a gold tint, or a stone statue given life by an excellent painter.  Unlike the stocky, winged dragon of European folklore, the Chinese dragon’s body flowed like a serpent’s in the air, bending and winding like a river.  The eyes were the same as those of most statues- a blank, godlike stare not marred by pupils.  Stepping up to its pedestal, I stood beside it proudly.  Something about the piece just resonated with me.  I could not place the feeling until it set in when an old man began to speak to me in stern Chinese.

Typically, I was a good kid.  I did what I was told, and ten years after this trip to China panned out, I was recognized as ‘the easy one’ by my parents. Still, beside that dragon, I may as well have been one myself.  Without speaking a word of Chinese, I knew exactly what he was telling me.  It hardly took a genius to figure out that he wanted me to get off the statue, but at eight years of age, I decided not to listen.  If I would ever get a chance to play Dumb-American-Kid in my life, now was the time… and if I played dumb as I channeled the heart of the dragon, I would play dumb to win.

So, I shrugged.  I held a hand over my ear as if to tell him to repeat himself.  Looking back, I was definitely overacting, but I was still young enough to think I was slick.  Either way, I was beyond eye-level from him where I stood, cutting down on the intimidation factor that an adult’s height might have had.  He dressed casually – a pair of simple pants, and a jacket over a plain white shirt.  It may not have clicked then, but I may have subconsciously assumed that he had little authority, cutting the intimidation down to something even smaller.  He spoke once more in Chinese, and for lack of desire to understand, I explained: “I don’t speak Chinese.”

He seemed to give up.  There was no heavy sigh or palm on his face, but he said no more, and walked off without another comment.

Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, put it best: “All warfare is basedon deception.” I would like to think I did the ancient strategist proud. I was fortunate that the consequences ended with my mother telling me that I should have listened when I bragged about the incident to her.  I regret telling her anything, because the day after that, when I wanted to suggest taking my new sister to see the dragon, I was met with a dirty look and a hasty objection.

I would like to imagine that, if I ever find myself in Guangzhou again, I would find strength in the dragon once more.  If that were to happen, though, there would probably be no touching or climbing.  I can’t afford to end up in a Chinese prison.

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Feeling Ironic in China

Gratitude; a place that makes me feel strong, free, hopeful and inspired.. as I was pondering this, with my cranberry white mocha with extra cinnamon sprinkles I wandered to my retreat, a small wooden pagoda overlooking the Han River. I cast my mind back to my busy summer. A place I had felt empowered? I thought of the summer I had spent working in Italy, relaxing in the Tuscan Hills, cycling down picture perfect canals just outside of Milan, stargazing on warm nights outside the Vatican in Rome. I reminisced about Canada and my time in buzzing Toronto and how alive it had made me feel, the magnificent roar as the Bluejays scored their only homerun, how the giant buildings engulfed me but yet I still felt a sense of importance walking around this city, as my dear sister phrased it, in her bizarre mix of Yorkshire and Canadian accent, “It’s like everyone here is connected by the fact we all know that here, in this city, were all a part of something amazing!”. I pondered Scotland – its beautiful moors and mountains that made me feel free and wild. It’s juxtaposed castles and cobble streets with trashy bars offering 2 -for-1 shots, and the food that made me never want to leave.

 

I scribbled notes on all these pages, manic spider diagrams webbed across my page, these incredible places and the different ways they had made me feel, but none were right. Gratitude? Then I realised, ironically, the place I felt most free, hopeful and inspired was here, in my Pagoda, overlooking the Han river, Fushun, Liaoning province, North East China.

 

This plain sweet pagoda is located on an island between two main roads overlooking the river. I have never encountered anyone else here, and I can understand why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. The roads enclosing the island are constant with traffic; red lights one way white the other. These roads are chocha with irate taxi drivers blaring their honking horns , tyres screeching and people yelling – yet amid this sea of anger I feel calm. The star of my show, is the dark slow river that so beautifully reflects the cityscape with its neon lights. It perfectly mirrors the arches of the bridges creating almost symmetrical circles.

 

And it is here looking at the reflections I come to reflect on my day, to recharge my soul. It’s half an hour’s peace where I can curl up in the benches embrace, surrounded by a sea of people rattling around in tin cans, each living their own soap operas, and feel alone. Away from my ever questioning, ever enthusiastic students. Away from my ever demanding, ever pushing employers. Away from lifes dramas; the illnesses, the stress, the grief. This pagoda where I can empty my mind and fill my lungs with (polluted) air. I can watch the mirrored buildings flicker and become hypnotised by the lights, I can wade through my mind and plan my next years travels.. to find next years retreat..

About the author: I’m Holly, currently living and working in China.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

When I first moved to Hong Kong in 1990, there was a part of the city that was off bounds. It was an ungoverned slum called the Kowloon Walled City, with layer after layer of tenement buildings so close to one another that daylight sometimes never reached the minuscule alleyways. In the center of the slum was an ancient Chinese yamen, or government building. Although Hong Kong had been a British colony for about 140 years by then, the Kowloon Walled City was officially still a part of China. But it was largely run by organized crime.

KWCP model outside
Model of the Kowloon Walled City. Photo by Tom Kason
Model of the yamen. Photo by Tom Kason
Model of the yamen. Photo by Tom Kason

I left Hong Kong in 1991, only to return a few years later in 1994. By then, the Walled City had been demolished and a traditional Chinese park was under construction on the very space where the slum once stood. I often passed the general area of the Walled City–after it was demolished–on bus rides to and from my friend Janice’s apartment. I write a little about Janice’s place in my memoir, Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong, but was so involved in my own drama back then that I didn’t give the old Walled City or the new park (when it opened in 1995) much thought.

Kowloon Walled City Park sign

Years have passed since I left Hong Kong eight months after the Handover in 1997. But I’ve often thought of the Kowloon Walled City and a missed opportunity to 1) see the old tenement buildings, 2) watch the demolition, and 3) visit the new park.

So when my husband Tom and I visited Hong Kong last month, I put a visit to the Kowloon Walled City Park at the top of our list. We traveled out to the Lok Fu MTR station and took a cab to the park. On the short ride, the driver told me in Cantonese that we should have just walked to the park. It was that close. But I didn’t want to waste time looking for it and Tom wanted a break from the sweltering temperatures. Once we arrived at the park, it was difficult for me to imagine the former Walled City in its place. The park was one of the most peaceful places I’ve found in Hong Kong.

KWC old building
photo by Tom Kason
Yamen
yamen
KWCP stone formation
photo by Tom Kason

We walked around the grounds and found a garden with statues of the Chinese zodiac.

KWCP zodiac statues
photo by Tom Kason
KWCP dragon
photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason

There was a nice pavilion surrounded by water. A woman sat under the pavilion reading a book. I wondered if she was taking a break from work or chose to spend her day off at the park. I also noticed the modern apartment buildings in the background, many of which probably weren’t around when I first lived in Hong Kong.

KWCP pavilion

We also found remains of the old south gate and an old rickshaw, one of the few left in Hong Kong. Even the tourist ones aren’t so numerous anymore.

KWCP ruins

KWCP rickshaw

We also came across a few walls with calligraphy and this old vessel.

photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason

Tom and I were both happy we’d taken time to visit the Kowloon Walled City Park. He learned about a dark period of Hong Kong’s history and I was able to visit a place I’d thought about all these years. For first time visitors, there are docents who walk throughout the park, offering free information about the history of the buildings and artifacts in the park. We lucked out and met a lovely older Cantonese man who spoke to us in English and another group in Mandarin.

photo by Tom Kason
photo by Tom Kason

We hope you enjoyed this article from Susan Blumberg-Kason. Learn more about her adventures in her book:

Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

Please enjoy this excerpt from

Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

 by Susan Blumberg-Kason

Susan's inlaws' hometown in ChinaThe Chinese University of Hong Kong sits atop a mountain, north of Hong Kong Island and twenty minutes south of the mainland China border. When I arrived on campus in 1990 for a college exchange year, I had imagined Hong Kong would be a city of skyscrapers and neon. But the only lights around the campus came from the occasional barge or leisure boat in otherwise quiet Tolo Harbour. On the weekends, the campus was almost deserted. Local students returned home to their families, and the few overseas students studying abroad left for the bustling expat areas of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.

Upon my return for graduate school years later, new residential skyscrapers had popped up across the harbor. The campus was beginning to look like what I’d first imagined. But the most significant change on campus was that the mainland Chinese population had blossomed from a handful of people to about two hundred graduate students. I was fascinated by these newcomers and their alluringly mysterious culture, so utterly different from my own.

On one of those still-­quiet Saturday nights, a month after I started graduate school, I locked myself out of my dorm room. I was on my way to call a friend, using the hall phone around the corner, and as soon as I closed my door, I knew I had left my key on my desk. My roommate, Na Wei, hailed from Harbin in northeast China, but she slept in her boyfriend’s single room most nights and only returned to our room during the day when she needed a change of clothes or a short nap. So no luck there.

Then it hit me. The guard downstairs kept spare keys. I could borrow one from him.

My stomach fell when the elevator opened on the ground floor. The lobby was empty. I inched over to the guard’s desk to read a tattered white sign perched upon it. Although I couldn’t speak the local Cantonese dialect, I had studied Mandarin, the official language in mainland China. With five years of Mandarin behind me, I could almost make out the meaning of the Chinese characters on the sign: if, need, something, and return. But one character came up as a blank. If you need something, I will return blank.

Susan pregnant in Hong Kong (photo by Annie Galpin)
Susan pregnant in Hong Kong (photo by Annie Galpin)

If only I could read the one character describing when the guard would return. I usually got around Hong Kong without having to resort to my little, red Chinese-­English dictionary. Now, the one time I needed it, it was locked away in my room, not far from my coveted key.

I decided to take a seat on a vinyl bench near the front door in case someone came by who could translate that mysterious character. Worst case, I would have to stay up all night until the daytime guard arrived.

And that would indeed be the worst case for me. Other than on long international flights, I had never pulled an all-­nighter. I was the type of college student who worked ahead to avoid cramming all night before exams or writing a paper the night before its deadline. Thinking about the daunting prospect of a lobby all-­nighter, I looked up, startled, as two men and a woman suddenly entered the building.

Cai immediately caught my attention. Like a movie star, he stood six feet tall with confident eyes and an infectious smile. His hair was cut in the popular Hong Kong men’s wedge of the early 1990s—­longish on top, tapering down to almost a crew cut a few inches above the neck. He carried himself with the self-­assurance of someone used to drawing admiring glances. He looked striking in his stylish brown corduroy pants, short-­sleeved shirt, and hunting vest, but I couldn’t place his nationality. Based on his more sophisticated appearance, I figured he was from Taiwan, or maybe an overseas Chinese from Japan or another developed country.

His friends, however, weren’t so hard to identify. The shorter man wore an olive business suit with the white label still stitched to the cuff, and the woman was dressed in a long, striped polyester skirt and a mismatched floral blouse. Definitely mainland Chinese.

On my first trip to China in 1988 with a group from high school, I had noticed this eclectic fashion trend. Up until the late 1970s, fashion in China consisted of simple “peasant pajamas” or “Mao suits.” In the years after the Chairman’s death, people started to experiment with colors and patterns, including bright stripes and flowers. So this distinct mainlander fashion was easy to recognize in stylish Hong Kong.

Once Cai’s friends turned toward the elevator, I knew I had to act quickly before he left the lobby and I had to face my all-­nighter again.  “Excuse me, can you read this sign?” I hurried after Cai, speaking in English. No answer. Oh God, what if he only knows Cantonese? I thought. But I was determined not to sit on that bench all night, so I repeated my question in Mandarin as I felt a pearl of sweat trickle down my neck.

Cai glanced at the sign and said nonchalantly in Mandarin, “Tā jiù mashàng huílái.” He will be back soon. His Mandarin was clear and articulate, without the slurring of the northern Chinese accents.

“Oh, thank goodness! I locked myself out and need a key,” I explained to this attractive, well-­spoken stranger, stumbling in choppy Mandarin. The relief I felt, knowing that I wouldn’t have to camp out in the dorm lobby all night, seemed insignificant compared with my sudden desire to know everything about him. I needed to find a way to prolong our conversation.

Méi wèntí.” Don’t worry. He nodded slightly, as if locking oneself out happened all the time.  “Actually, I need to buy a phone card from the guard.” He went to sit on the bench I had just occupied. I couldn’t believe my luck.

We hope you enjoyed this excerpt from

Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

 by Susan Blumberg-Kason

coffee1

The coffee is from the Taiwanese bubble tea stall. Served in a super size plastic cup, pushed forwards by the smiliest server before he retreats back into the throng of waving receipts. Twenty-four Hong Kong dollars- almost the same price as my shrimp noodle lunch. Half luxury, half necessity- I am too tired to indulge caffeine guilt. In this city, marching to this pace and cramming onto these trams and trains and towers, I take my coffee strong and iced.

The paper Hello Kitty cup announces that it is a Happy 2009! I notice as I sup the thimbleful of Nestle instant, the tiny folded handle giving me a paper-cut. It is, in fact, Easter 2012 and rainy season in Yangshuo, China. My rented bicycle stands lonely underneath its tarpaulin tent, the handlebars dripping rainwater like a runny nose. Even the noodles taste like rain, sopping in dirty puddles of soy sauce and chilli flakes and soaking through the polystyrene plate. Mist clings to Moon Hill and my heart strings crack with remembering English Novembers, minus the Mandarin.

Hannah Thompson yates india“Didi, didi, where you go?” Bimala pulls at my elbow, looping her tiny arm through the crook and trying to swing. She has spotted me leaving. In three to five seconds the others will emerge from the bedroom, the same melting chocolate eyes blinking in confusion. It is week three and I still have no idea what to say. How do I explain that I am going for a walk and a coffee instead of playing with thirteen attention hungry children? I can just about cope with unhooking her clammy fingers, firing my other arm out of reach so she can’t reattach. I squint out at the Nepali sun, then back into the dimming corridor of the orphanage. There is nowhere for them to go.

‘Chai, chai, coffee, coffee, chai, chai, coffee, coffee…’ The boy sings out on the Chennai train, his voice carrying through the steamy carriages and stirring the dozing men. Heads wobble that Indian wobble. Most mean no, some, somehow, indicate yes. Soon the samosa, samosi boy will come and the newspaper triangles will be handed out, hot in the hands of hungry travellers. Green chillies and ginger and cinammon and masala and all the smells and savours of wonderful, wonderful India and its ever tightening grip on the senses. I barely even remember the coffee here. Just the lemon infused hours of Kerala evenings and coconut breakfasts and street side Agra dhosas. Camels and tuktuks and motorbikes and Khan and Afsal and dolphins and mosquitos and the rose terracotta of Jaipiur’s sunset; a rolling reel of moments that were cut too short and too soon.

Hannah Thompson Yates IndiaWe like to joke that we are turning into teachers already, brewing our coffee mugs in the staffroom before 9am and clipping back up the stairs for briefing. Gone are the bikini strings and elephant pants, though braids are still pulling hair back from shiny faces and a few bamboo tattoos peek out from underneath waistbands and flip flop straps. Everyone tries to understand the future perfect tense and how to teach idioms, filing away game ideas and making mental notes to never, ever plan a lesson about religion or attempt to pat a Thai student’s head. Then a mosquito lands on an arm and you become distracted, thinking about a Koh Phi Phi weekend or a pad thai special. Coffee is the answer to rum bucket hangovers and sunburn sting.

Home. Home. Hoooome. My favourite mug, warm inside tanned hands with silver rings and unkept nails. Hot against chapped lips and steaming in the over-freckled face of one just returned.

Hannah Thompson-Yates

China MountainsRacing the green light, a massive group of cyclists rode by on a busy China street. I stopped and listened to the people; time became slow as I tried to take a mental picture. Blink. The light turned green as my father, sister, I, and twenty or more people hurried across the street. That is what the trip to China was for me, the amazing food, the beautiful culture, and the colorful people. Then the two weeks seemed to vanish in thin air as we boarded the airplane home.

I am adopted from a Chinese orphanage and in the June of 2010, I learned that my family would be traveling to China for a heritage tour. This huge opportunity would allow me to not only see the world, but to discover what I had missed for 17 years. We toured several fantastic Chinese cities together: Beijing, Guilin, Chongqing, and many others. I was so eager that I was always the first to try new foods, wander off to take a photo, or to get a lesson from women leading a fan dance class in the park.

One of the things that truly defined China was the various types of food. Heaps of dumplings, soups, and noodles made my mouth water as I tried every food they offered. The most memorable food I had was my first meal in Beijing at our hotel; I had a simple noodle soup, and maybe it was the jet lag, but that was most astounding soup I had ever tasted. Everything in the cities was within walking distance, and the sun beat down on us throughout our tour; occasionally the tour guide would stop for all the kids in my heritage group to buy peach ice cream. Each time made me smile as I took a bite knowing that it would be a long time again before I would eat traditional Chinese food again.

Vendors, travelers, tour guides, and the general population brought a personality to China as a whole. The people we met in restaurants or in the towns were always polite and inviting. We had several tour guides but our favorite was Xi Xi; she was funny, informative, and knew the best restaurants everywhere we went. The vendors were the most amusing people to talk to and one of the highlights of my trip was watching my determined little sister, Isabelle, bargain with the vendors on the price of a purse. Other people within our heritage group also had stories to tell of their choices of adoption; it was heartwarming to hear someone else’s discovery that adopting a child was one of the greatest decisions ever made.

Everyone wants to see the Great Wall of China as one of their activities, but I think the Temple of Heaven in Beijing had so much more to offer. While the view from the top is gorgeous and the history is intriguing, I found less appeal when we walked on it. In the Temple of Heaven there was a large group of people doing Tai Chi, there was a man on the sidewalk practicing his calligraphy, and so many other people interacting that it would have been a wonderful place to relax and watch the world go by. Other activities included on the trip were holding an adorable baby panda, playing hacky-sack in Tiananmen Square, shopping in the Pearl market, but I think the Temple of Heaven showed the personal side of China.

I stood looking over the Li River as the mountains of Guilin passed by in fog, and I came to the realization that I would never be tired of exploring my home country. I will always be searching and trying to immerse myself in the culture that seems foreign to me now. I would try to reconnect myself with the world I left behind as a baby with the hope that maybe one day I could return once again.

About the Author: I am currently a high school senior and anticipate to major in International Studies. I love reading and learning about other cultures. This summer I am planning to travel to France and Spain with my school.

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jumboNights In? Not in Hong Kong!

I have never been a massive fan of the ‘nice night in’. Like many things, I think the idea of an evening on the sofa with the TV on is a lot nicer than the actual reality of it. Sure, when you’re exhausted or stressed or fed up of the rubbish weather, a Friday night snuggled up in your onesie might sound appealing. I get that. But by the time it gets to 9pm you’ve remembered just how bad TV really is, you’re stuffed from all the comfort food you’ve treated yourself to and you’re probably perving on all the fun things everyone else on Facebook is doing. I would much rather power through, celebrate the end of the working week and start the weekend with a bit of fire in my belly (or a few too many gins).

The problem is I am not a massive fan of extortionate taxi fares either. Or of the three buses I have to catch to my best friend’s flat. I hate the ‘to drink or drive’ debate. Neither am I particularly fond of almost everyone I know being half of a romantic couple and wanting ‘quality time’ together instead of great craic with everyone, single people included, in the pub. And then, without me even realising it at the time, moving to Hong Kong in 2011 was the answer to all of these problems.

coffeeSuddenly, the notion of ‘staying in’ was taken clean off the table. Just like that, answering the obligatory ‘what are you up to this weekend?’ question became a case of sifting through options, trying to piece all the choices together without missing something, or someone, important out. Hong Kong’s energy, like its fried rice, is addictive. People live and breathe the ‘work hard, play hard’ mantra and, regardless of how tired you are or how busy your week has been, your down time is always exciting. Picking which rooftop bar to visit on a Saturday night, which happy hour to make the most of, which beach to recover on the next day … these become the burning dilemmas of the weekend. And, best of all, getting anywhere and everywhere is simple, fast and all part of the HK experience.

I lived six stops and less than twenty minutes away from Central Hong Kong on the MTR. The station was approximately four minutes from my apartment and the journey cost me next to nothing. Even better, the trains were fully air conditioned and clean- my hair would stay looking straight at least until I got to the first bar. That’s one option. Another would be to just hail a very cheap taxi from right outside my front door. Squeezed against the thighs of my friends, laughing and singing to the Canto pop on the radio, pre-empting the drama of the night to come; we would curve past stunning Victoria Harbour and rip-roar into the centre, coming head on into the throng of Chinese, English, Irish, American, expats, locals, all of them. Our friends would be among them somewhere, clinking glasses in one of the bars on Lang Kwai Fong.

We’d worked all week, taught lesson after lesson, caught train after train, ran to make spinning classes and gym sessions and yoga clubs. We’d skyped far away family and emailed long lost friends. Now it was Saturday, the week was behind us and our Sunday stretched ahead like miles and miles of untouched beach, waiting to be dug up in our weekend footprints. The price we all paid, of course, was having only one full day off a week. Yet, somehow, this one blissful day seemed to last forever. Rather than vegging out on the sofa, hungover and dreading going back to work the next day as I would do at home, Sundays were spent hiking in the country parks, cycling in Sha Tin, catching a ferry to one of the outlying islands or simply sleeping on a sunny beach. Hong Kong’s transport system means all of these are quick, easy, cheap and hassle-free options. Spending your precious Sunday in your shoe-box sized flat, however many cocktails you’ve sunk the night before, is out of the question.

Now, I don’t want this to be an alcohol friendly argument. It is quite possible to live in Hong Kong without indulging in its crazy nightlife and free-drinks-for-girls ethos. In fact, I have a friend who became completely tea-total and still wouldn’t live anywhere else. My point is, in Hong Kong, there is always something amazing to do. And, rather than have to plan it for months in advance and struggle to afford the expensive train-tickets, people actually do it. Every day. Long hours at work are sandwiched between junk boat parties, going out for dim sum, having coffees on the Avenue of Stars and getting the tram to the Peak when you want some fresher air. Even my yoga classes were exhilarating. There is nothing like being in the downward dog position and seeing that incredible skyline to make you feel alive!

When you do succumb to that ‘nice night in’ it is because you genuinely miss your sofa. You look forward to cooking in your kitchen for once, and you enjoy every second of doing nothing after having such a packed schedule. It is not because you can’t brave the miserable weather or summon up the energy to meet your friends on the other side of town. Hong Kongers live life in the fast lane…full throttle and with an incredible view.

HK

 

Hannah Thompson-Yates