Despite being just over two hours away by plane, Steve and I had never been to Macau, a former Portuguese colony which is also a hop and skip away from Hong Kong. We decided on a whim to visit this week, and it was a fabulous decision. Macau is a strange little contradiction – a Chinese city with a strong Portuguese presence and heritage, an overseas European settlement now turned Special Administrative Region (SAR) but also a part of China at the same time. We spent two days walking through very twisty streets and ate a lot of sticky sweets and delicious food, and enjoyed seeing some awesome sights.
We flew into Macau on Tuesday in the middle of the day, and it was a bit rough of a start. First, we had no Internet access initially, because the 2G internet afforded by our T-Mobile cards overseas in almost every other country we’ve been to didn’t seem to be working. The driver of the 26 bus that Google had told us to take into the city gruffly informed us we should take the MT4 instead, and I was trying frantically to figure out if we had enough coins in HKD to get on the bus. After purchasing a SIM card out of a vending machine and identifying the MT4, we finally were on our way.
Macau is best known for its gambling, huge lavish and opulent buildings like the Venetian, Sands, and the Wynn. The golden flower shape of the Grand Lisboa skyscraper loomed over the city peninsula and was visible everywhere we went. Since neither of us were much interested in exploring the gambling aspect, though, we decided to make our focus the food and European legacy of Macau. After dropping things off at our hotel the Ole Tai Sam Un, we set off by foot for St. Paul’s Ruins. It’s the second best known thing in Macau, a former church that had been rebuilt and burnt down several times, with the 1843 conflagration leaving just its front façade intact. It sits above a wide flight of stairs and a small square, and today figures into the selfies of pretty much every tourist who visits Macau. The façade is beautiful, and about two feet thick, retaining weathered green bronze statues of St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier. We roamed around, and then walked up the hill beside it to the Fortaleza Monte, a small fort which had some beautiful views of the city and was also home to the Museum of Macau. We walked through the small museum, learning about different architectural styles and the history of the numerous forts that had been there before. Continue reading Two days in Macau.→
Other than “Where are you from?”, this is the question I’ve been asked most frequently in Taiwan. I’ve met dozens of people in both Taichung and Taipei this summer, and invariably within a few minutes of meeting me, they either say, “Oh, wow, you speak Chinese really well,” or “How come you speak Chinese so fluently?” Here is the long version.
I was born in Beijing, and grew up speaking and reading Mandarin Chinese as my first language. My parents, both academics, had many books around the house, and I was a voracious reader from the start. A very memorable photo shows me at age five poring over a dictionary of Greek mythology while holding a dripping chocolate ice cream cone. I went to kindergarten in Beijing, and afterwards, took the exam to go to elementary school. And yes, there was an exam for elementary school, and I remember clearly that one portion was to add together two-digit numbers mentally (for example, 18 and 35) and tell the proctor the answer. Continue reading “Why do you speak Chinese so well?”→
When we first investigated the possibility of living in Taiwan, I heard from my mother and several others about the virtues of Taiwan. One of them was that Taiwan had preserved Chinese tradition and culture better than China itself. I have seen a lot more signs of religious and traditional beliefs here, from both individuals as much as institutions. For example, every Monday, many businesses bring out onto the sidewalk a metal container where they burn yellow paper, which symbolizes money in the afterlife. The metal container is accompanied by a small table of offerings to the ancestors, which invariably contains oranges and some products that would be considered good presents in Taiwan, like Coke and Lays potato chips. Small shrines and temples to Buddhist and other deities are everywhere — smaller ones can be found inside people’s living rooms and kitchens, and bigger ones sandwiched between clothing shops, and occupying prime spaces on large street corners. It’s very much a part of modern day Taiwan.
One sign of a strong culture could be a strict adherence to traditional taboos, in which my mother has indoctrinated me thoroughly. For example, don’t send old people clocks as a present — the Chinese character for clocks, 钟 (zhong1), sounds the same as another character, 终, meaning final or end, so it sounds like you’re cursing them to die. Also, don’t stick your chopsticks vertically in your rice bowl; that’s how they prepare a bowl of food for the dead (maybe because it looks like incense sticks that way?), so it’s a bad omen. Do you see a trend here? And definitely don’t give a couple an umbrella as a present, because the umbrella (伞, san3) is pronounced very similarly to 散, the character which can mean to split up.
Long term travel is like a marathon. Now I haven’t actually run any sort of race in my life (not even a 5K) so you know, take it at face value. But from what I’ve learned about exercise and how to push yourself, my take on it is that it is a mental challenge as much as it is a physical one.
I am reflecting on what it means to be traveling for a whole year (when it already feels like it’s been half a year) thanks to a video I first watched several years ago. Christophe Rehage, a German, documented a year of walking through China from Beijing to Urumqi on his camera, and stitched the scenes together with two lovely songs (“L’Aventurier” and “橄榄树/ The Olive Tree”) in French and Chinese.
As crazy as a year around the world sounds, I feel like our plan is a lot more tame than Christophe’s, because we’re not actually sleeping under the stars or trekking 30 km a day on foot. But the mental journey is similar. On his blog, he wrote about what pushed him to do this journey and why he stopped. He originally planned to trek from Beijing all the way to Bad Nenndorf, where he grew up in Germany, but he called it off a year in for personal reasons. He talked about how he looks so free and unfettered on the road, in the desert and under the sky, but how he was also just living by a set of rules that he had constructed about his trip. Occasionally, he felt like even taking a short bike ride and not walking every single step was cheating. Sometimes living under a different set of rules is freeing, and sometimes, you just have to put yourself into a really different environment or frame of mind to discover that there are elements of yourself or elements of life that you can’t escape.
While living in Asia means that we have to do without some Western amenities (like an oven), Steve and I have gotten quite used to a few innovative things here. We’ve also learned that necessity is truly the mother of invention. Asian cities are some of the world’s most densely packed places, and constrained natural resources and space made these innovations not only helpful but necessary.
One of the first things that we saw in Japan (literally) was a toilet with a small faucet and sink on top. We were at our host Ken’s house, and I swore up and down I’d get a photo, and of course, I forgot, but luckily, plenty of other people online have documented these toilets. Much like some European houses, Japanese toilets tend to be in a different room from your sink and shower business, so to make it easy for you, when you flush, the water comes out of the faucet. You can wash your hands, and the dirty water will flow directly into filling the tank. Pretty brilliant. My family uses a number of water-saving techniques in the bathroom, but it’d just be simpler if versatile water usage were the norm that we strived towards!
Like many travelers, we have discovered the truth of packing light; there’s something about travel or when the rubber hits the road (no pun intended whatsoever) that makes you prioritize about your luggage. No matter how little you pack, you end up making it work and what’s more, there will always be something you don’t end up using. When Steve and I were contemplating our choice of travel luggage, Erin, our BFF and dogmother to Stella, was the first to advise us not to purchase a large backpack, because we would simply fill it. So I got a 46 liter Osprey Porter, and Steve got the 22″ Osprey Meridian, which have both been great!
A few days, while we were getting ready to go to Shanghai, I was worried over the issue of how to fit my birthday presents (a beautiful green windbreaker/ raincoat and two new dresses) into my bag. Steve was also packing, albeit carefully rolling his pants and shirts into small cylinders. I knew he had a theory about this sort of thing, but wasn’t too clear on it, and as I watched him pile his clothing this way on compile all of his clothing this way, I couldn’t resist asking: why does rolling your clothing save more space?
Have we only been gone for such a short amount of time? Steve and I find it incredible to believe that we only left Chicago on September 7, which was barely three weeks ago. It however, feels like months and months ago that we were last around English-speakers and other flip-flop wearers. (One of the many signs that we are such foreigners.)
If you’re reading this post, congratulations, because you went here to look for an update on our situation rather than Facebook or Twitter. At approximately 4:30 pm this afternoon, we touched down in Beijing, China, and virtually disappeared behind the Great Firewall of China. Goodbye, social media, for at least a few weeks, or until Steve figures out his VPN. I for one will not miss it that much; a forced exile from whatever new list of 26 GIFs of Ryan Gosling’s face or ’90s pop culture that BuzzFeed has to offer would be welcome. What I really mean is that If you’re trying to get in touch with us via Facebook or Twitter, just email or comment on this post instead!
Steve is already fast asleep, after an epic bout of traveling that began nearly 24 hours ago. Last night, we boarded an overnight bus from Kyoto to Tokyo (7 hours square), took an airport express train (a little over an hour), and at Tokyo Narita, boarded two planes to Shanghai and then Beijing (three and two hour flights, respectively). In retrospect, not our finest decision making process, to squeeze all this travel together, but I cheered Steve up by telling him that train travel in India was almost certain to be worse. Right?