Maybe Sheep

I find this hilarious for some reason.

The doodle started from a discussion about the questionable dining establishment across the street from where my friend lives. They supposedly sell lamb kebabs, or “chuanr” (串儿), but at below market value for fresh meat. Immediately I told her 一定不是羊肉, “definitely not lamb”, and she comes back with 不一定是羊肉, “might not be lamb”. We argued back and forth like six year-olds for a while and eventually dropped the 肉. Same characters, different order, big difference in meaning!

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Follow that impulse!

I’m excited about life.

I’m unemployed, in-debt, grinning like an idiot, eating cheesecake in Beijing while inhaling pollution, moving to Hong Kong next month without even half a plan, excited about all the world’s possibilities, and extremely excited about life.

Of course, life will probably kick me in the teeth sometime in the near future and make me depressed as hell, but right now I’m feeling more optimistic than I have in a long, long time. Maybe it has something to do with finding one’s calling, or at least accepting people are so ever-changing that finding that one, singular, calling is only possible to a lucky few.

Too long have I lurked in the shadows watching others live life! Too long have I been a coward and afraid to take a risk! Too long have I… done nothing! Too long, too long.

I’ve always declared myself a ‘creative type’. My notes for PSY101 was covered in little stick people and stick brains declaring ‘Freud is a fraud!’, all the while declaring majors in International Relations, Economics, and later, Political Economy. My one concession to a more creative self was a minor in Art History. I’m not regretting any of the amazing education I’ve had – it has led me to my friends, to my experiences, to my beliefs, to the me that I am today, and I rather like that person… all except my inner sloth. And today, I will am doing something about it. Kind of.

More than ten years ago I discovered deviantART, an amazing online community for artistis and art-lovers alike. I created my little account, which still stands to this day: kuami.deviantart.com. This is how I know I’ve been neglecting a part of myself for too long. See where it says ‘Deviant for 10 years’? An entire decade. Mostly of emptiness. That’s where I’ll start.

Last year, a friend gave me a copy of Notes to Myself, My Struggle to Become a Person by Hugh Prather, a collection of writing which has made me ponder a lot of different things, with a note in the back. “Don’t compromise yourself, you’re all you’ve got”, it says. I’ll do my best.

Some of my initial excitement is gone, clearly, and I am breathing normally again. And worrying about the absurdly high rents in Hong Kong. But I will move and this cheesecake is delicious. Life is good.

On Family

The past three months of my life has been mainly about family. Being a nomad can be tiring, and I needed a good dose of doing not very much. I ate, slept, read, procrastinated, worried about The Future, and spent time with my family. I haven’t lived with my parents in more than six years and a part of me has missed them dearly. In February, I traveled to the opposite corner of the country for Chinese New Year. It was one of the biggest family gatherings I can remember with everyone there on my dad’s side. It was a week and a half of easy smiles and relaxation and fireworks and enormous amounts of home-made deliciousness. I had to tactfully reply to questions from my younger giggling cousins, mostly about boys. One insisted I let her be a bridesmaid when I inevitably get married very soon (her words, translated).

They told me about their lives and their difficulties and showed me around the city. One afternoon, my future bridesmaid went on a tirade about how much her teachers charge for supplementary weekend lessons. 100 RMB per student per hour was obviously way too much considering the class is overcrowded with more than sixty students. The lessons are supposedly optional, but teachers often skip important material (which will be on tests) in class so students are forced to pay on weekends to keep up with the demanding curriculum. All the teachers do this, she said, but some just charge too much. With the increased fees, they can make more than a year’s basic salary with one weekend of extra lessons. My cousin complained about the worst offenders, but it was accepted practice. She also told me about her daily 14-hour schedule and the backdoor approach to getting students into well-known middle and high schools. She told her stories like it was the most natural things in the world. For her, that is her reality… so far removed from my own. In retrospect, my teenage complaints seem trivial. Again, I’m so very grateful that my parents are my parents and I have the family that I do.

I’m an only child. My entire family, with the exception of one cousin and one second cousin (I had to look this up to make sure – my dad’s cousin, I mean), are all in China. Having spent the majority of life in North America, I’ve had very few family gatherings and even those were small. I know my grandparents, aunts and uncles and their families… and very little beyond that. My mom doesn’t speak of her extended family very much. She isn’t certain where all her aunts and uncles are. My dad occasionally tells stories but only if I specifically ask. This past month, my grandparents came to spend the summer at my dad’s townhouse in the middle of a large housing development (where I am now). The majority of properties here are owned by people from large cities who hold onto them as an investment and the occasional weekend getaway. Few live here on any permanent basis (with the exception of an old couple across the street and a random Portuguese family with two young girls who love our dog. They’ve been here for at least three months. No one knows why… or even how they found their way here.) To me, it was already full house – my grandparents, my parents, myself, and the dog.

Last week, my dad casually informs me my grandpa’s younger brother, whom he has not seen in over forty years, will be visiting from Heilongjiang with his son. (I think he’s called my great uncle… and another second cousin?) This great uncle was driven from their home village for unspeakable reasons (literally, since no one will tell me) and fled to Heilongjiang in the northeast, where he has been living since. He grows grapes. After so many decades, he’d finally earned enough to fund a cross-country journey to seek out his siblings. He found us through my great aunt who hadn’t moved all this time and then… there I was, standing dumbstruck in the middle of the airport watching my grandpa and great uncle embrace and cry and laughing about how much the other has aged.

The same week, my aunt’s husband came to the city for surgery accompanied by my aunt, later joined by his brother and his brother’s family. My parents couldn’t deny dinner with either side of the family and we ended up with a table of 12 somehow-or-other-related people. Great uncle, second cousin… even a cousin’s cousin’s wife. It was so surreal, because my dad had arranged dinner at a rather fancy place with servers who insisted I have varying glasses of water, tea, corn juice, wine, and baijiu (strooong Chinese alcohol). There wasn’t much space left around my plate. Conversation around the table was animated with lots of introductions and questions and toasts. It was surreal and I felt absolutely out of place among family who spoke with at least four noticeably different accents.

Next month, I’m moving to Hong Kong. For now, the plan is some short-term future planning. I never imagined actively choosing to live there since apartments are outrageously expensive and are the size of shoeboxes. But it’s a great place to be, where I have great friends, and though I’ll never admit it to my parents (who won’t be reading this blog since wordpress.com is banned in China. Thank goodness for VPNs), I want to be close to them. Guangzhou is just a train ride away and I could come back and plague them whenever. In the past, I’ve been sadly inconsistent in contacting my parents while living on another continent. Timezones, work, school, stuff sometimes just got in the way. My parents were so understanding it hurt.

Though my grandparents and aunts and uncles have all agreed vocally I should live in Hong Kong, my parents have never voiced that opinion. For them, my choices are my own and if I go back to Canada or Europe or wherever else, so be it. Airplanes are convenient and the world is easily accessible. I would never make a decision based solely on my family’s wishes (self-centered that I am), but I’ve come to realize that their proximity has at least played a part in my upcoming move. Granted, right now I’m certain I won’t stay in HK for forever… but that’s silly, because uncertainty is the only certain thing in the world. Ah, but I’m preeetty certain I won’t be reuniting with a brother I haven’t seen in forty years any time soon. Okay, so I still can’t get over the presence of my great-uncle. Here. He looks a lot like my grandpa. They recognized each other right away at the airport – no preliminaries, no questions, just a look and they knew they’d found their brother. Family. Nothing else like it in the world.

Memories of Thailand

In comparison to today’s insistence on the instant, more than a month is forever. Here are some photos from my visit to Thailand, forever ago.

Wat Arun

Two days into Bangkok, we visited Wat Arun. Across the river from a majority of the city’s other sights, it was thankfully not nearly as crowded as the Grand Palace. Any attempt I made to capture its entirely failed, but even from just this detail, you can see it’s an amazing structure.

Wat Mahathat

A day trip to Ayutthaya is definitely recommended if you have time. This is a glimpse of Wat Mahathat, the most famous wat among many in the ancient Thai capital. It’s where the buddha head rests among roots.

Forgotten Pieces

We rented bikes while in Ayutthaya and got hopelessly lost trying to find a floating market by following a series of arrows. Only near the end did a sign have the date: 2005. The reward for our journey was to discover a completely out of the way wat. The only people we saw were a few children playing near the broken structure. Inside the wat without a roof, behind what’s left of the altar, was the broken buddha’s torso. On top rested these broken golden pieces.

Preserved

The next day I was determined to visit the Grand Palace and one of the roads on the way there was decorated with these shops on both sides. Altars and statues stood facing the street, including some scarily life-like ones. The monk is a statue. The guy next to him is not.

Angry Bird iPad - CLICK

I won’t scare you with other photos from the Grand Palace because almost every one is filled with ‘people mountain, people sea’ (unless it was only of the roof). With luck, there was only one person in here – a little girl stopping to take photos with her iPad. The future in action.

Aftermath of a Market

After a week in Bangkok, we headed for Chiang Mai. We arrived on a Sunday evening, just in time to catch the last hours of the Sunday Market. It was a grand affair and spanned almost the entire width of the old city. I was determined, and dragged my friend all the way to the other end, oooh-ing and aaah-ing at all the offerings on display. By the time we headed back, it was after midnight and the market had disappeared with amazing speed. This was one of the views on the way back.

Chiang Mai Streets

Chiang Mai is the perfect city to bike in and I spent at least two days getting lost in and around the old city. Some people prefer motor bikes because they can see more and go farther, but there’s nothing like wandering and stumbling upon hidden treasures. Although if you’re on bicycle, stay away from the major streets near the river to the east! It takes much bravery.

Fishing, fishing, fishing, fishing and fishing

The road we took out to the river wasn’t too crowded and we ended up spending a good while lazing in the shade of an ancient tree by the water. There, we spotted this man as he fished, fished, fished, fished and fished.

Market in Progress

Later, wandering the streets on bike again, I came across another market only just being set up this time. People were all business and concentration and didn’t seem to notice a stranger slowly passing through.

Blue Skies

Having been in China this past year, the weather in Thailand soothed my soul. The air was pristine to me and skies have never been so blue.

Park Sunset

Near the end of one of our Chiang Mai days, we came to a part at the southwest corner of the old city. There were ponds, people finishing up picnics… and an entire army of pigeons. There, we caught this sunset.

Lanterns for Wishes on New Year's Eve

Chiang Mai was a fantastic place to spend New Year’s Eve. The square itself was too crowded and we opted to sit just south of it by the water. Paper lanterns filled the sky as more and more wishes were sent. Then there were fireworks. A lot of fireworks.

The Gold of Doi Suthep

The temple atop the hill west of the old city, Doi Suthep. When no camera can capture it all, I focus on the details. The colours, gold of the stupa, red of the temples, blue of the sky, were so rich and bright and it was an amazing place to be for New Year’s Day.

Chiang Mai in general is an amazing place to be, any time. It was tempting to stay there forever and our guesthouse especially was a wonderful place to be. The city has everything you could ask for including (but not limited to) history, exploration, markets, friendly people, calm side streets, unique shops and cafes, an active nightlife and most importantly, spectacular food. And it was affordable too! Looking through photos now only makes me wish I were there…

On Our Way to the Future

Having a keyboard makes it exponentially easier to type. I’ve been away from mine for over two months and though it was available for the past three days, there was some sort of fear-avoidance in play because I stayed away from it. Because turning on of the computer means reality would come back with it. Though it was wonderful catching up with friends, going through emails and job postings and news didn’t entail nearly as much fun.

Oh, life. Oh, world. I’ve been asking for tips and advice from just about everyone along the way. One person said we’re never as smart as we are right now because our brain cells continue to diminish each day. Another said to do yoga because health – and flexibility – are incredibly important. The majority of advice I got (after lamenting about doom and gloom of The Future) state simply ‘do what you want’. If money weren’t an issue, if family pressures weren’t in play, if it were just the world, me, myself and I, what would I spend time doing? That’s what we should do. That should be our future and our goal. What are we interested in? Because no matter how obscure, others will be interested too. Is there something that we think needs to be changed? Then change it, work towards making an impact. Focus on a point in the future and move.

There are a million different things going through my head right now, from surprise that this blog has so many posts (looked back to make sure I wasn’t repeating myself, thank you for those who’ve liked and followed) to annoyance that Pistorius is dominating the headlines. I also want to ramble about the thinkeatsave campaign to reduce food waste and complain about Beijing air pollution. I also feel a sense of dread because The Future is descending and it’s nearly the end of February. Where will I be in a month and what will I be doing and how will I be funding… life? This is when all the mantras we should live by start repeating themselves: don’t sweat the small stuff, don’t worry about things that haven’t happened yet, focus on what you can change instead of what you can’t. One task at a time, one task at a time. Blog entry? Check.

A book with pages

I bought a book. It cost USD17.83, or 49.90 Malaysian ringgits and is titled “21 Speeches That Shaped Our World”. I wandered through the bookstore for a good half hour before choosing the first physical book to buy in a long, long time. Before when I read during this trip, it was with my iPad. However, with another day ahead before I get to my destination, I fear the battery (currently at 74%) will not last. Without much money left, the choices were to either buy a converter to use this once because I have another at home, or an actual book to keep myself occupied after the battery runs out and keep it after. It’s a specter to be feared, having electronics that have gone dry. I chose the book and have adjusted the screen to be as dim as possible.

Technically, this is the second time I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur. The first was to the low cost airport in transit from Hong Kong to Mumbai. Now I’m again in transit, but at the main airport and from Phnom Penh to Guangzhou. There’s more than enough time to go into the city before my 9am flight tomorrow, and yet I felt reluctant to go despite having planned which route I would walk and which guesthouse to stay in. I’m using the rain as an excuse, because it has continued to rain in the two hours since the flight landed. Somehow the prospect of going into KL for half a day didn’t appeal as much as loitering around an airport (and stalking people for their converters…). In the back of my mind, I know someday I’ll return to KL for Malaysia, so it’s all okay, isn’t it? Until you run out of battery.

It’s taken two hours for me to give up the outlet/converter search after going back and forth between gates c and h via the aerotrain. Now I am exhausted, having woken up at 4:30 am for the taxi from Sihanoukville. Eyebrows,,, heavy… nap.

Goodbye, paradise

The boat leaves paradise in an hour and a half. The ticket away means my trip is coming to an end. A temporary end, I told my friend this morning, and he seemed puzzled. Indeed, as much as I want this journey to continue, it will be a new and different adventure when I go traveling again. This portion, through northern Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, will end tomorrow with a flight from Phnom Penh. Though there is a guesthouse here by the name ‘Paradise’ (we’ve encountered three thus far), I think specifically of the 7 kilometers of pristine white beach on the southwest coast of Koh Rong, an island off the Cambodian coast. Three hours from Sihanoukville by boat, the island is in its early stages of development, meaning a cluster of guest houses where the boats arrive with peace and tranquility on the opposite side, especially after the daily visitors leave. We were among the daily visitors yesterday, having trekked an hour in the noonday heat and departed by boat after sunset. The moment we were close enough to water, we dropped all our things and ran straight in. The water was crystal clear with nothing as far as the eye could see, neither fish nor leaves nor debris. There we spent the day, swimming and napping and sunning before endless beach and ocean.

That was just yesterday. Two weeks have past since my last blog update and so much has happened and I’ve written so much in that time! But if no Internet was readily available, I would write on an iPad journal and have since realized the tone of what’s written can be very different. Though unintentional, it seems I ‘speak’ more via blog, versus the stream of consciousness that comes from writing in a journal. Not good or bad, simply observed fact.

It also seems odd to post writings after the fact. I am no longer in the shadows of Angkor Wat, barely containing awe and wonder, no longer on a bus, passing stalls of dried insects, no longer puzzled by the people praying before the Grand Palace in Phnom Penh (which later I realized is for the late King Father’s funeral) and no longer staying in a room with construction on three of the four sides. It also doesn’t make sense that I rewrite about those events, those experiences, because what was typed before is infinitely more authentic with those emotions and thoughts unaffected by time.

Although… some things take time. Thinking back on my short time in Cambodia, the day spent in S21 and the killing fields near Phnom Penh is among the heaviest memories. The genocide at the hands of Pol Pot happened only some three decades ago! On a beach in Sihanoukville two days earlier, speaking to people we’d just met, we all agreed on the feeling of distance between us and history even though it’s really not so far. Even a generation before us, our parents, perhaps older siblings, have experienced the history we can only interact with in museums and books. Visiting the sites brings us closer and even then, we’re only affected a fraction in comparison to those who’ve lived through these events. S21 prison and detention center stands in seemingly a typical neighborhood in the Cambodian capital and only the barbed wire among its walls gives it away for what it once was. At the beginning of its existence, they were school buildings – a high school and a primary school. That was one of the most haunting facts to me. The day of and immediately after, it seemed we were walking through a dream, or a nightmare, seeing the unchanged brick cells where a person can’t extend their arms and later, seeing the bits of bone rising to the surface as we walked among burial sites for countless, nameless thousands. A heavy memory like this takes time and deserves time because the impact these places have on their visitors is far beyond an immediate rush of emotion.

How lucky are we?