Beijing // The Great Wall of China

remember that time Husband went to Beijing without me and got to visit the Great Wall? well, I made him take my camera so he would bring me back pictures for a post. I'm going to try something a little different though. since he was the one who actually visited the Wall, I'm handing the blog over and letting him tell you his experience firsthand...

What can you say about a wall? Let alone what is argued to be the greatest wall of them all? Here’s a thought that came to mind.

Footsteps. Consider those who came before you. Consider your story in a place. I’m a history teacher, so naturally my thoughts often rush towards this avenue. In my classroom we call it point of view analysis, or POV for short. The analysis is a discussion of what POV existed and why it existed in the form that it did. My thoughts were on the people who came before and who were with me on that brisk November morning. A thought occurred to me halfway through our hike to the top, and I shared it with E, a student of mine who made the trek with me.

“Seriously, why bother with the wall? Isn’t climbing over a mountain enough for a Mongol?”

“I don’t think that’s the point, Mr. Walker. Besides, I’m pretty sure a Mongol could climb up here no problem.” E possesses gumption, that quality in a person that respectfully cries “bullshit” on whoever is speaking; it’s part of the reason why I like teaching her so much.

Our conversation made the trek seem lighter, but I couldn’t help but think that E had a point about the relative health of people. Here I was a pampered, somewhat “husky”, white guy. I could feel my heartbeat in my throat. I was motivated for a scenic view and the ability to say, “I climbed the wall.”

Those that came before must have had better motivation for their climb. “There are riches to be gained through conquering.” Or “I climb, because my life is to protect what’s on the other side.” These thoughts occurred to me between deep breaths and countless steps up. I’d have to imagine that be you a Mongol or a Chinese dynasty defender, you must have had a better standard of physical health and prowess. The fatigue in my quads, hamstrings, and calf muscles would later attest to that. I’m fairly certain a Mongol could pull 300 pounds on a deadlift and perhaps push half as much in an overhead squat. I was humbled; I’ve been eating more vegetables since I got home.

Those first few steps onto the wall, looking out onto the surrounding countryside awash with fall colors; my first words were an epiphany “Ok, I get it.” I’m sure that there are both practical and symbolic reasons for building and protecting or climbing and conquering; for me it was quite simple: this was a spot worth owning.

What’s the POV story behind my kids and I dropping our studies in Taiwan to wing our way towards Mainland China? We came, to Quest like A Tribe does, but more importantly we came for H20: Hope, Humanity, Opportunity.

In addition to my daily teaching duties, I’m also a faculty advisor for our school’s chapter of the Global Issues Network (GIN). If you’ve never heard of us here’s a link to learn more. The short version, it’s an organization started by one who became disillusioned by the top-down nature of solving global issues (i.e. the UN, World Bank, etc.). GIN embodies a mentality of “think global, act local.” The idea is to inspire local community efforts, and a network of communication between these local communities. The hope is to inspire the growth of globally minded citizens whose work can aid in the resolution of global issues. Think dialogue vs. debate. It’s a model I can get behind. To give you an example, last year my kids worked on the issue of global migrant labor. Specifically we dealt with domestic migrant labor in Taiwan, and the exploitation rights that these people suffer under. It’s an eye-opening glimpse into the reality of how a great deal of labor is accomplished in the world. But this isn’t the place to discuss last year’s work.

What does this all have to do with traveling to Beijing?

Well, it was our annual conference, BeiGIN 2013. The conference theme was water, hence the H20: Hope, Humanity, Opportunity. The entire weekend was devoted to helping students and teachers alike to come together, share ideas, foster connections, and stimulate globally minded civic action. It was like being in a pressure-cooker of awesome. The caliber of people who attended was tremendous. I’d urge you to check out the conference website, especially the keynote speaker videos. Fun fact the website was made by 3 teenage girls at the International School of Beijing.

How did we end up on the Great Wall?

The host school provided this activity as an outlet to help a local issue in their community. Education for all, is a hot a topic in global issues. Our hike to the top of the wall was a part of the “Walk for Change.” An annual event focused on supporting the Love and Hope Center. The money raised will serve as school tuition for young people trapped in cycle of poverty.

Footsteps. My time on the Great Wall was brief. As one colleague put it, “I wish that we had a day to just keep walking up here.” I couldn’t agree more. I also think it’s important to stop and be mindful of your footsteps, and those that came before. Added time in this regard would’ve been welcomed by me. I imagine that the wall has seen a great deal of footsteps in its time. Its memory must be as long as the countless miles that it winds into the horizon. With regard to my memory, and to my footsteps, I’ll keep my moment of epiphany; “Ok I get it.” It’s that moment where I stood, where I saw the land, the faces of my students and thought about my footsteps—that is a spot worth owning.

after reading this, I have to say I'm more convinced than ever that I need to take a trip to the Great Wall someday... and also that I married a pretty incredible person. I hope you enjoyed hearing from my other half!


life lately + ww #5

happy monday! it's finally feeling like fall here in Taiwan. the weather has cooled off and Husband and I have tried to take full advantage, spending weekend mornings or sunsets walking in various parks. it's sweatshirt + moccasin weather. drink tea or spiked cocoa weather. but not yet turn-on-the-space-heater-my-bones-are-cold weather.

the past few weeks have involved a lot of Starbucks writing and sushi dates, attending high school basketball games, sending + receiving international mail, pulling over on the scoot home from dinner to watch spectacular sunsets or climb the rainbow bridge, ginger lemon tea and making plans.

what kind of plans? well, for starters, we just booked a trip to Tokyo Disneyland for next spring! we plan to see some of actual Tokyo too, but the main point of this trip is to go to Disney, because that's what I wanted to do for my birthday. a girl only turns 29 for the first time once, right?

I also have to mention, last friday I went on a Taipei adventure with a friend. we did some masterful MRT navigation, devoured a few platters of middle eastern food, and wandered around IKEA. I almost bought a stuffed broccoli toy for Husband, but opted for apple cinnamon candles and some new curtains instead [above.]

which means we should mention last week's wishes [or 2 weeks ago, whatever.]
1. have 2 or more writing sessions for the book.
2. go to Ikea and buy some bedroom curtains.

3. finish organizing my bookshelf.

in case you're looking for proof - I posted a picture of my finished bookshelf on instagram last week. but blogger is being weird tonight about square photos, so you'll either have to click the link or take my word for it.

this week's wishes:
1. hang up the new curtains. since my walls are cement, this will involve a system of 3M hooks and maybe some string. I am 98% sure my ninja improvisation skills are going to work.
2. have an awesome time at the Thanksgiving potluck. right now we have almost 25 teachers + family members planning to gather for dinner. definitely one way to beat the expat holiday blues.
3. start decorating for Christmas. I'm usually a strict not-until-after-Thanksgiving kind of girl, but this year has been tough to hold out. I am sooooo excited to start stringing lights + hanging ornaments!


coffeeshop ramblings

my writing sessions typically take place at Starbucks. [trust me, I'm rolling my eyes at the stereotype I now fulfill.] but I have trouble focusing on serious book writing when I'm in the apartment and attached to the internet. so I load up my tote bag with my laptop, a notebook, a journal, pens and markers, and sometimes my iPad, and head across the street.

when I write in the afternoons, I try to keep myself from a caffeine overdose by sticking with tea. I'm about to further reinforce another stereotype, but my drink of choice has become a black tea latte with soy milk and only one pump of sugar. [lately though, my Starbucks had been out of soy milk. I'm hoping this is not like when Costco ran out of V8 and it never returned. because that would be sad for my lactose intolerant self.]

when I write in the mornings, I drink black coffee. because in the mornings I need caffiene. desperately. and though I could easily make coffee at home with my adorable tiny french press before going over to sit and write, I choose to support a multi-billion-dollar corporation by sipping a $2 coffee because... I like it.

for months I just did my best to ignore the Chinese chatter around me and the generic music being pumped over the speakers. but a few weeks ago I had a most brilliant [and obvious] idea: headphones. since then, most of my writing has been done to a combination of Fleetwood Mac's greatest hits, Lana del Ray, Sufjan Stevens, and M83.

M83's hurry up, we're dreaming album was one I listened to endlessly while driving carloads of my life  back and forth from NJ to MI last summer. it's electronic, but soothing, and I formed an emotional bond with this album relating to our move abroad. this morning at Starbucks I sat down with my grande brew and as the "intro" track played for what must be the hundredth time, I finally heard the opening lyrics. and at the risk of stereotyping myself, yet again, I will share those lyrics with you.

we didn't need a story, we didn't need a real world
we just had to keep walking
and we became the stories, we became the places
we were the lights, the deserts, the faraway worlds
we were you before you even existed

[you can also listen here, though the nature video is completely unrelated.]

I'm not entirely sure what the band meant, but what matters is what I heard in those words. I've been struggling with how to write this book, what to write this book about, and why I'm even bothering to write it. but I get it now. it's not about finding a story to write, because I am the story.

and that's all the random writing-related and vaguely philosophical thursday thoughts I have to bring you.

linking up with Nicole's new "treat yo self" thursday. watch this, then go here to join in.


5 ways to beat the expat holiday blues

life overseas can be difficult, but especially so during the holiday season. at a time when you normally gather with family, your family is on the other side of the world. and even worse… they are all gathering without you.

I know, I know... I chose to move abroad and give up a lot of great things about life back home. but it doesn't make missing birthdays and weddings and holidays any easier.

for me, late October is when the expat holiday blues start to kick in. and depending on which holidays you celebrate... they can last all the way through Lent. American Thanksgiving is next week and that means I am starting to feel it in full force. BUT. here are some strategies that worked for me last year, to adjust my attitude and make my holidays a little more merry + bright. hopefully they can work for you too!

close, but not quite.
1. celebrate, even if it’s not what you’re used to.

last year when Thanksgiving approached, I was so depressed that I wouldn’t have my usual big family celebration that I didn’t want to do anything at all. but pretending that the holiday no longer exisits doesn’t make anything better. so I got my butt in gear and decided I wouldn’t let only having a toaster oven keep me from baking something, and went out and rocked my first expat Thanksgiving. if it’s something you celebrate, celebrate it.

3. make new traditions.

I’m not going to lie. the fact that Husband has to work on Thanksgiving and Christmas really sucks. the usual lay-around-in-pajamas-all-day was not an option [for him.] but we actually had quite an awesome Christmas, and started a bunch of new traditions we hope to repeat: decorating our tiny tree, Christmas Eve buffet dinner with friends, Christmas morning pancake breakfast, holiday movie marathon, and a feast of appetizers for Christmas dinner. this year, instead of bemoaning that we have to do non-traditional Christmas shopping or that no one we know owns an oven big enough to roast a turkey, we're looking forward to finding new ways to celebrate.

yes, I skype with my cat sometimes.
3. keep in touch.

so you can't be physically with your family while they open presents. but there is this great little thing called technology... use it! my family has a tradition of playing board games together [and drinking] after Thanksgiving dinner. one year when I lived in New Jersey and couldn’t make it back to Michigan, I played a game with them via text message. last year, I played over skype. and for once, the time difference came in handy. I was able to skype with my family on their Christmas eve while it was my Christmas morning, and with Husband's family their Christmas morning and our Christmas Day evening.

4. splurge on some comfort.

buying imported food items can be expensive. but if you’re only going to make green bean casserole once a year, it’s worth spending $8 on french fried onions for that taste of home. [or at least I think so!] if you are living in a location that doesn't have overpriced import stores, check out sites like iHerb for online delivery, or ask your family/friends to mail you some ingredients in their next care package.

5. come together.

chances are, you aren’t the only expat in your area. being with friends who can commiserate is helpful. being with friends who can turn it into a celebration is even better. and hey- maybe some of your local friends would live to experience an American Thanksgiving dinner too. last year our expat friends all got together for a Thanksgiving potluck, and this year we are planning to have twice as many people. and for Christmas, we all went to a nice hotel for a fancy buffet. it's more fun to celebrate with friends... and there are fewer dishes to wash!

hopefully some of these tips can be helpful for anyone out there who won't be spending the holidays with family, expat or not. the trick is you have to choose to make it a great holiday, regardless of where you are or who you're with. I'd love to hear your ideas too - how you fight the holiday blues?


Ayutthaya // Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Wat Phra Si Sanphet was the second temple complex we visited on our tour of Ayutthaya. the ruins on this expansive site were once home to the royal palace [in 1350 AD] and a monastic site a century after that.

on the day that we visited, the site was full of children on school trips... including several who asked us to sign a paper stating they gave us a tour, and others who asked to pose for pictures. [obviously I had to take a picture of the picture taking...]

there were also some dogs - easier to spot than the cats at Wat Pho.

next to the site of Wat Phra Si Sanphet there is a more modern temple with a giant golden buddha inside, a decent size market where you can find local souvenirs, snacks, and drinks [we stopped for some coconuts] and also restroom facilities. in fact, this is the place where I lost my squat toilet virginity - a mere six days shy of my one-year expat anniversary. but that's a story for another time...


a letter to my pre-expat self

every month, Belinda hosts a link-up called the Expat Q&A where expats answer questions about... being expats. the questions for this month were: What advice would you give to your pre-expat self? and How do you reconcile what you thought life would be like in your new home and it is in actuality? this is my first time joining in, and I took a less traditional approach to writing my answers. I decided to write a letter to my pre-expat self. the girl I was then really didn't know what she was getting into... but I like to think it worked out ok.


dear me:

you're moving abroad. to Taiwan, of all places. [bet you didn't see that one coming.] right now you are riding the high of endless possibilities. hold on to that feeling. put it in a box where you can take it out and savor it again from time to time, because you're going to need it. there will come a time when your adventure won't seem so wondrous and exciting. there will be a time when you question... everything. there will be days when you want to give up and break down and admit defeat by moving back home. 

but you won't do it.

you'll stick it out through culture shock and bouts of depression, because you're nothing if not stubbon. and because there will be days that make all the trouble more than worth it. the things you will see, the places you will go, the world you will discover will amaze you. with everything you know stripped away, you will finally be forced to learn about yourself. you'll find how strong you really are. how brave. 

you'll learn new things about your Husband too. things that ten years of knowing each other in a safe and normal environment never unearthed. how alike you are. how much you can rely on each other for support... because you will be all the other has. it certainly won't be easy, but it will bond you tighter together than anything else.

life won't be what you expect.

you really don't know much of anything about life in Asia. half of the foods you assumed were made of rice and are gluten free... are not. glutinous western food will be everywhere to tempt you, and you will have to make a conscious choice not to eat it. you will have to be wary of tiny shrimp, too. they will be everywhere in your food, hiding in places you would never think to look. [stock up on bendryl - epipens aren't available in Taiwan.]

not everything will be cheap just because it's not America. make sure you check price tags carefully and do the math to convert the currency. otherwise you will end up paying $100 US for a clothes drying rack. [though, in your defense, it is a very nice drying rack.] don't waste your money at the import store either. go to the local markets for your fruits + veggies, and Costco for your cheese + tortilla chips. also... eat as much baby spinach, ranch dressing, and bacon as you can get before leaving the states. strangely enough, those are the three foods you will miss most. they will have "bacon" in Taiwan, but you'll soon discover that it is [as with most other Western foods] close, but not quite.

don't bother buying that $300 Rosetta Stone program, because you won't use it. you aren't going to need it because getting around Taiwan comfortably requires little to no knowledge of Mandarin Chinese. and because a few weeks into life in Taiwan you're going to realize that you actually enjoy not having to overhear other people's conversations. DO buy the expensive scooter helmets. they are going to save your noggin, though unfortunately not your knee.

everything is going to change.

the way you look at the world will be altered. your experiences will make you both appreciative and embarrassed of your nationality. you'll lose the need to plan everything down to the details, and the tendency to panic when things go wrong. [because - I hate to tell you this - things will go wrong.] you'll gain some perspective about the things and people in your life who truly matter. and once you realize this, you'll change too.

you're going to become a whole new person. one who non-ironically sits in starbucks with your laptop... because you're going to write a book. one who stops trying to blend in... because people will stare anyway. one who does what you love and embraces what makes you happy... because you'll finally realize that choosing to do so is an option.

some people will think you are crazy. and it might be true that no one gives up their job and friends and entire life to move far far away without being at least a little crazy. but the people who love you will support you, even if they don't understand. 

but most of all, don't let it become normal. just as you can live a wild and interesting life anywhere you are if you do it right, you can live a predictable and boring one anywhere if you do it wrong. if you can be brave enough to embrace a little madness, you can have one hell of an adventure.

you're going to be uncomfortable - embrace it. you're going to feel fear - lean into it. that's where the growth happens. trust me. or really... trust yourself.


Chicago // the bean

growing up in Michigan, I have been to Chicago several times. but. I had never been to the bean. so when I went to visit my cousin this summer, I knew we had to go to Millennium Park and see it.

technically this silver sculpture is called "the cloud gate," but everyone just calls it "the bean". it's one of those ultra-touristy but still iconic things that you just have to do once when you visit Chicago. [like going to the Empire State Building in New York, or the Eiffel Tower in Paris.] typically I like to attempt to blend in when I'm traveling, but sometimes you just have to ham it up and wear the tourist label proudly.

the bean is huge and reflective, and it's pretty much impossible to get a clear shot without anyone walking through your path. we handed our cameras over to a bunch of teenage boys from New Zealand and this was they best they could give us. [my phone came back with a few new selfies.]

my favorite thing about the bean is how it reflects the city skyline. we had a bright, clear day and the sky was almost blindingly blue. actually, I bet the clouds would look amazing reflected, and that's probably where the name comes from. maybe I'm getting a touch of homesickness looking at these pictures... but the midwest has sky like nowhere else I've been.

I don't really have much else to say about the bean. it's a just big rounded mirror swarmed by tourists, but you should go see it anyway. you can always stop by the nearby Art Institute or check out the lakeshore while you're there. or you can head to the overpriced cafe on the lower level of the terrace... maybe you'll luck out like I did and find five dollars there.


weekly wishes #4

it's weekly wishes time again! this post is going to be short and quick because Husband got back late last night from Beijing and [no offense] I'd rather spend time with him than staring at my screen. this week's photo theme was "hobbies" and the one I've been practicing the longest is photography. this particular picture is from 2011 when I did my first 52 weeks project of self-portraits, and I shot it on the trail I used to run on most mornings. so... two hobbies in one! [side note: that trail is one of the things I miss most about living in Princeton. that, and Wegman's.]

last week's wishes:
1. have 2 or more writing sessions for the book. I wrote tuesday and friday last week, and friday turned out to be a really awesome writing day. some of it was actually blog stuff which you'll see later this week, but the majority was book-related.
2. catch up on Everyday Happy homework. I finished this afternoon... and so did the course. I can't believe it's over, but I'm so glad I decided to take the plunge and sign up. Melyssa and Erika did a fantastic job!
3. actually organize my bookshelf. this... did not happen. or at least, did not finish. I bought some baskets to help sort craft supplies and nailpolish, so at least that's a start

this week I want to:
1. have 2 or more writing sessions for the book. again. because I'm trying to form habits here. and somebody needs to keep Starbucks in business.
2. go to Ikea and buy some bedroom curtains. yes, we've lived here for over a year and we don't have real curtains in our apartment. this needs to be remedied. because for some reason I feel like curtains are a sign of a "real" home, and I'm adult enough to want them now.
3. finish organizing my bookshelf. hopefully. I feel silly that this is still on the list, but it's one of those things I keep putting off but I know will feel SO GOOD to finally be done with.

The Nectar Collective


my photography workshop experience

while I was in Michigan this summer, I had the opportunity to attend a photography workshop. I know several of you might say “but your pictures are already awesome! why would you go to a photography workshop?” first, thanks. second, because as awesome as my photography has become [it didn’t start out this way] it could still be even more awesome. and because even though I have owned a camera capable of it for five years... I have not been shooting using manual mode.

the workshop was actually a much-belated birthday present from my parents. they have a condo in the town where it took place and we had planned to be over there at the time, so it was convenient for us. it was my Dad’s idea to attend together as a father/daughter activity. and no offense to anyone else, but this was one of the best presents I’ve ever received.

I was really nervous going into the weekend. really nervous. I mean... showing your work to someone who is a professional at something which you consider yourself to be an amateur is nerve-wracking. but everyone was there to learn, and it turned out to be a fantastic experience. the workshop was hosted by Todd and Brad Reed. you might recognize their work from a little old thing called the Pure Michigan ad campaign?

I can't say enough good things about Todd and Brad. they were fantastic at explaining the basics in a way that was easy to understand, and then showing us how to put them to use. they answered everyone’s questions, from those us of with moderate experience to those who had only a little [or a lot.] they were encouraging and constructive in their critiques, and the passion they have for their craft was contagious.

the workshop was hosted at the Cartier Mansion bed + breakfast in Ludington, a gorgeous old home and carriage house with a friendly and accommodating staff. the food they served us was incredible. and they made gluten-free biscuits just for me! I ate about a dozen. AND they gave us a private tour of the house.

over the course of the weekend, we ventured out on two shoots – seeing the sun rise over Lake Hamlin was worth getting out of bed at 5am in 37 F weather. our sunset at the state park was a bit of a dud, but I still has a great time crawling through the dunes. in fact, the photos you see in this post are a few of my favorites I shot during the workshop.

I had a great weekend, learned a ton, and have some fantastic photos to show for it. this isn't an official review or anything... mostly I wanted to share my photos and my experience. but if you are interested in a photography workshop, have the money to spend, and live in or can travel to west Michigan, this is definitely one I would recommend! if you are interested, you can check out their workshops here.

oh. I should also mention that I'm not afraid of manual mode anymore. in fact, I can't imagine going back. 


five ways to have a better day

I'm going to be honest with you: I've been a little cranky these past few days. right now, Husband is in Beijing for a long weekend. he's chaperoning some students for a conference, and they are participating in a walk-a-thon on the Great Wall of China tomorrow. seriously. on the Great Wall.

I am NOT in Beijing this weekend, and I do NOT get to see the Great Wall. and that is the source of my crankiness. you see, getting into China is actually a little difficult. since China considers Taiwan to be part of China, there is no Chinese embassy here. which means you have to go elsewhere [usually Hong Kong] to apply for a visa before you can actually go to China.

note: even if you have a Taiwanese visa, one does not simply walk into Mordor fly directly to China. you still have to apply for a visa in another country that has a Chinese embassy.

where I'm not. photo via.
when Husband started organizing this trip for his students, I was still back in the states. he asked the travel agent who was making the arrangements when I would need to apply for my visa. after a few days of working through the bureaucracy we discovered that there would not be enough time for me to apply after I got back to Taiwan. why? because I am not currently employed and do not have a work visa in Taiwan [only a resident visa] my passport would have to travel all the way back to the United States in order to get an entry visa for China.

the other option would have been for me to apply for my visa separately, in person while I was still in the states. but I was unable to due to a. the travel agent had not yet booked flights and I needed proof of my itinerary to apply for a visa and b. I had less than a week in the states and didn't want to risk missing my flight back to Taiwan being passport-less.

SO. this is all to say that I was not in the best of moods this morning. or yesterday while Husband was packing and I was... not. but my being upset about something completely out of control wasn't going to change the fact that I couldn't go to Beijing this weekend. so I made a conscious effort to cheer myself up and have a better day. and you know what? it worked.

five ways to have a better day:

1. take a nap. no, I'm serious. take a nap. go back to bed. Husband left for the airport this morning before 6am and for some reason I thought I would just start my day then. nope. I went back to sleep and woke up at 9 feeling much better.

2. go outside. fresh air and sunshine always make me happier. giant inflatable ducks help, too.

3. treat yo' self. I don't know where that phrase came from, but I like it. I stoppped by the mall and didn't find what I was actually looking for [instax film] but picked up an adorable fairy-tale themed planner for 2014 and a berry macaron. I'm going to have to show you more of this planner later, because it's ridiculous. in an awesome way.

4. sweat it out. there are studies [somewhere, really] that prove moving your body produces feel-good endorphins. I stopped by the 18 peaks park on my way home and climbed all the way to the top. there were a lot of stairs involved, but the view was worth it.

5. do something you love. when I finally made it home I started writing this post. I skyped with Husband [who, yes, made it safeley to Beijing] and now plan to spend the rest of my evening with guilty pleasure DVDs + a bottle of cider.

have a good better day!
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