Taiwan: Chinatown Island

Remember how I wrote about Christmas in China last year? It’s a little déjà vu-ey to be writing about being back in China over my winter break again, especially when I didn’t think I would be. (More on that later.) A little bit of Chinese history, to get us started. Before the 17th century, it was mainly inhabited by Chinese aborigines, so it’s got a bit of history all its own. However, in the 20th century Taiwan changed: it was relatively unaffected by the political movements of the Communist Revolution, but it received a lot of the Chinese that decided to move out. In fact, it is actually free from communist rule. If you visit Taiwan today, you’ll find a lot of ‘traditional’ Chinese culture that was brought over and preserved. They were allowed freedom, in a sense, to do their thing without a government and rule in flux. Kinda like an island of Chinatown, minus the fortune cookies, and plus 100% authentic food… Chinatown Island? Well, it’s not that simple. There is still a tension between mainland China and the islands of Taiwan, and if you’re a history buff like me, go read more about it yourself! However, for my purposes right now, Taiwan will be very much like China and Taiwan is one island. My point is, Taiwan has preserved some traditions of China in different ways. This is fantastic for: the lNight marketanguage, the sights, and (of course) the food. Disclaimer: while very Chinese, Taiwan also has a Japanese influence – see Taiwan history for why that is. Don’t worry: it’s not too much, just enough for you to get Japanese translations and eat good sushi at the Night Market. 😉

Now for a little geography! Taiwan is on the map for the Ring of Fire – that is, riding along the tectonic plates that continually rub against each other, creating mountains and valleys (depending on how they rub). For Taiwan, that has resulted in beautiful mountain ranges. Yesterday, I went and saw some. They are GORGEOUS. Yes, the water really is that color!

Hualian coast

While I have been to mountainous areas of China, I could never seem to create in my mind the depictions of mountain ranges that Chinese paintings do. Going here helped me fill in the gaps.The pictures don’t do these views justice. I wish you could see these for yourself, they really are amazing!

You might be wondering: “What are you doing in Taiwan?” Well, you probably aren’t. But just in case you were, I’m here with my mom for 5 days as a part of her 50th birthday present. My dad flies a lot for his job, and as a result, he has a lot of air miles that he can use for other trips. He allowed my mom to choose one destination and one person to go on a trip with her, as a birthday present (husband goals!). My mom said she wanted to go to Taiwan, with me. Woo hoo! After I heard the news, I figured: if we’re going on a trip all the way out to Taiwan, why don’t we make a stop along the way and make a long layover? So with a little sweet talk, we’re also going to Rome for 5 days – which I’m sure will be amazing. Yup, I am traveling a LOT! Honestly, I’m pretty proud of myself for surviving more than 24 hours of travel, so I’ll write something about that eventually. Regardless, I still have 3 days in Taiwan (AKA Chinatown Island)! I feel very privileged and blessed to be here, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of my trip has in store. I’ll make sure to keep you posted!

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound and all that is in it -Psalm 96:11

A Vermont ‘Spring’ Break

So, I know I haven’t written in a while. A huge thank-you to goes out to Jack and Andrea! I got your email, and greatly appreciate your loyalty!

I haven’t written about my life since my China trip. To make a long story short, after leaving China, my family went landed into San Francisco, meeting my mom’s brother and his family. We stayed at a nearby motel. Let me tell you, it is warm there! I felt like wearing shorts – a huge change from the cold that I had just escaped from. Time with family was nice, especially on a side that I don’t see very often. I came home, feeling that my Chinese had greatly improved. (It leaves you fast when you’re surrounded by English-only speakers!)

However, the winter I had left was absolutely nothing like the winter I was about to face. The thing about moving from Virginia (a place where the bulk of winter takes place December to January) to Massachusetts (a place where winter is November to February, March even), is that you get disappointed very fast when you hope for spring to come in March.  Well, it is March 13, and there is still snow on the ground. Albeit, this is (almost) a record-breaking winter. So. Many. Storms. Four days off school in three weeks, almost all on Mondays – and last year, there was only one day off the entire year. Let’s just say, for sake of all of our sanity, it was a LOT of snow, and a LOT of days of school to make up for!

The snow outside the library. It got to be taller than a lot of people!

Some snow outside the library. It got to be taller than a lot of people!

Besides that, the new semester has been okay. Not incredibly exciting, but not out-of-this-world challenging. However, I have grown to appreciate my friends and my roommate a lot more this year. This semester has had its’ fair share of challenges, and my friends have really been there for me. For Valentine’s Day, most of these friends are single for something we nickname “Single’s Awareness Day”. But it was okay – the day fell on a Saturday, so we went out to a diner for brunch, and had a secret Valentine exchange (like Secret Santa). It was really fun, and I love how my friends are so fun and there for each other.

Friends

Friends

Now, I’m writing from somewhere I’ve never been: Vermont! My friend, Kirstin, invited me to her house for our week-long spring break. Except it’s not really spring, because there’s still snow everywhere and your average day is somewhere below freezing. Kirstin technically lives on a farm – although she doesn’t consider it to be, it fits all the farm requirements for me! – horses, goats, chickens, a rooster, barn cats…. the works.

IMG_4520

The meadow

Have you ever been to a farm? The closest I’ve ever been to a farm was a petting zoo, but of course that isn’t really a farm. Although I love being at Kirstin’s – her family is great, and we watch great TV (see the new show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt!). Of course there are boring moments, but it is definitely an experience to be somewhere you’ve never been before!

Sometimes I think about where I am right now, and then I think of the places where it is warm – even hot! Places like Florida, California, New Zealand – I have friends who currently live in or are visiting those places, and I am incredibly jealous. It will be sunny soon enough, and summer will come. It might be a bit of a wait, though.

 

 

Winter China 3: A Chinese Family

After our glorious days in XiShuangBanNa, we had to leave. No vacation lasts forever, especially ones to tropical places! We took the plane to KunMing, followed by a transfer flight to NanJing, in the JiangSu province – my mom’s hometown. The plan? To visit (albeit distant) relatives, friends, to lavish on them gifts, and stuff ourselves at every meal. I mean, what else is there to do in China, besides to give & receive gifts and stuff yourself with food?

My dad decided that my mom should take the reins in JiangSu – as in, make all the travel arrangements and be the ‘tour guide’, something that my dad has always done. Was that a good decision? Well, that is neither here nor there. All I can (or should…) say is that we had an adventure: wandering the streets to find a hotel, figuring it all out as we went – and we eventually got to our destination. I don’t know about your family, but with my family, you just have to take things as they come. Almost nothing is a surprise to me, and I’ve just learned to go with the flow, keeping hopes high but expectations low. (hey, that rhymed!)

After getting off the flight, we searched for a dinner in NanJing, then decided we would get to our destination best by bus. So we boarded a bus for a few hours, and got off at ZhenJiang, my mom’s hometown. We wandered around a bit, and then found a place that seemed relatively decent to spend the night, and then went out for Papa John’s with my mom’s cousin, aunt, and family. Yup, Papa John’s! (Although it is not quite as big as Pizza Hut or KFC. KFC and McDonald’s are huge in China. But that’s irrelevant!) The next day, we went out for actual Chinese food. We went to lunch with the same cousins and aunt, as well as good family friends. The days following consisted of more meals to stuff ourselves, attended by different people: more family, other friends, as well as a trip to Pearl Buck’s house along the way. Although that was an extremely brief summary, there are times I’m especially thankful and happy that I have Chinese heritage in me. My family and I talked a lot about Chinese culture – if you will, let me enlighten you on a couple aspects, on meals in particular, in case you’re ever hosting a meal in China:

  • The seating around a round table at a meal is an essential part of the meal. The person sitting directly across from the door is the host. If it’s not the host, it’s the most important person in the room. At a fancy restaurant, their napkin will likely be the poofiest. The person sitting to their right is the most important guest; the person to their left is the second-most important guest. The seating arrangement rules don’t end there – but I will, for both of our sakes.
  • It is VERY important that you argue over who pays for the meal. Fight over who will bring out their wallet. The fight might become physical, and that’s okay. Continue to do argue as loudly obnoxiously as possible for as long as you can until you sense that the fight could be a fight to the death. It is at that time you can tell your guest(s) that the meal has already been paid for, or slide your wallet to the waitress.
  • Force food onto a guest or honored person’s plate. It is extremely impolite to let a guest go hungry, so to make sure that doesn’t happen, put food on their plate whenever a new dish joins the lazy Susan, or whenever you remember to. They will probably say that they do not need more food. Pay no attention – it doesn’t matter what they say; their plate needs food on it regardless of how full they say they are. Remember to honor your elders and those who are honored, so do the same to the them too. On the flip-side: as a guest, you should never finish your plate or bowl. If you do, you are insulting your host by making it seem like they didn’t give you enough to eat. That would not be okay; do not finish your plate or bowl at all costs.
  • A concept derived from the above rule (never let a guest go hungry) is to ALWAYS give and do far more than necessary. So your guests will most likely bring a gift of some kind – any kind, really, but just so you know: chances are high that your gift will be food or tea-related, possibly extravagant and entirely unnecessary. But it’s the thought that counts. (Note to guest: never go without a gift to a dinner by invitation.) There might be a time when actually want some of these gifts (e.g. money or snacks for the train), but it is vital that you DO NOT accept any gifts right away. Make sure you say tell them that no, you DO NOT need or want these gifts at all, that they are too generous and good to you, it really is okay – at least three times. Once those three times have passed, you can then feel free to exhale loudly and accept the gift with gratitude, thanking them many more times than necessary.

These rules seem ridiculous, but the Chinese people take them 100% seriously. In Eastern cultures, it is the host’s responsibility to make the other feel honored, welcomed and appreciated by sacrificing a lot of yourself for them (sometimes a little too much!). As the receiver, one should not find themselves accepting everything; they are not actually in need of help, but the gesture is greatly appreciated. Fighting over who pays? It is the act of generosity that matters. You want your friends and family to do well, so it is almost your obligation to oversee that, as much as possible.

The days of ‘continually going to meals and eating’ continued when we traveled back to Beijing. We have friends there, so we had lunch with my brother’s host family (the one who is studying in Beijing), and lots of meals with friends. Every time, my brothers and I would practice our ‘Chinese manners’ and, of course, dramatize everything.

Being Chinese has its perks – for instance, the monetary gifts! Of course money isn’t everything, but it is definitely nice to remember that your family has always got your back. When China decided it would roll with us (that is, make conditions about everything but make it seem like the New World), we decided we’d roll with China. (It’s a pretty sweet ride.)

Next time: California and Home. We left China eventually, leaving Jon behind and going to California to see my mom’s brother, family, and parents. Dumplings ensue.

Winter China 2: The tropical land of China

I left off last time at leaving the cold, freezing-my-butt-off mountains of Yunnan. We left there for… wait for it… XiShuangBanNa – A.K.A. the tropical land of China! A little about the area: it borders the country of Laos, it’s a big tourist attraction, and has palm trees and sun year-round. Pretty much the opposite of where we just came from!

Plenty of palm trees, and houses that are built on top of poles to allow animals to live underneath.

Plenty of palm trees, and houses that are built on top of poles to allow animals to live underneath.

We moved into our hotel on the 22nd. We were definitely happy to be there! On the 24th (Christmas Eve and my dad’s birthday), we did whatever my dad decided he wanted to do – which was rent bikes, bike to a hot springs, and eat at his new favorite café, MeiMei Café. The rest of us were happy to oblige, as MeiMei’s suited everyone’s taste. Western food is not hard to find in China these days, but good coffee and Belgian chocolate is, and MeiMei had all of the above. Of course we had to have a birthday celebration, which we kept rather low-key: a candle on the cheesecake he ordered delivered to the tune of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song. After we got home, we gave a couple presents. Of course, the presents didn’t end there as tomorrow would be Christmas.

As you can probably guess, Christmas spent abroad in a tropical place is a bit unorthodox, to say the least. (No chance for a white Christmas, for starters!) Don’t worry, the hotel had a massive Christmas tree with a ton of depictions of Santa Claus. To make sure that we had enough Christmas spirit, I brought a couple ‘spirited’ elements: a Santa hat, light-up necklace, and Santa bobble-headband, all from the Dollar Store. We put the presents on the bed, and opened them as we usually do: we go around in a circle, each person choosing then opening one present at a time. It was… different. But still good, because the entire family had been reunited after six months apart. We spent most of Christmas day at a botanical forest, seeing plants that are hard to believe even exist, and then at an highly-sexualized minority group performance that we decided we’d leave. So although location definitely helps with the nostalgia and traditional homey feelings, location doesn’t determine who the family is. You can’t chose your family, but you can chose to love and have fun with them. I’m just glad I have a family that’s easy (most of the time!) to have fun with. 🙂

After XiShuangBanNa, we knew we were headed to my mom’s hometown in the Jiangsu province (she is Chinese and originally from that area), but we didn’t know we were just rolling in without a plan. Definitely an experience and adventure. More to come!

“A happy family is but an earlier heaven.” -George Bernard Shaw

Winter China 1: Yunnan, or Real China

You may have heard that I went to China over my winter break (and I’m just now writing about it. Without the weekly update requirement like I had at NDFH, it’s easier for me to slack off! Plus, I didn’t have my computer with me half the time, which doesn’t help anything.) China isn’t a top winter destination – especially considering the big sights are absolutely freezing this time of year. My family and I went because my brother, Jon, is doing his senior year of high school abroad in Beijing (the big city outside of which I was at this summer), and we wanted to spend Christmas with him. So we did. Not everything went as planned, though…

After taking my last final exam at school on Thursday, 12/18, I finished packing and a lot of other last-minute things before I got on a plane – a direct flight headed to the Beijing airport. I flew Hainan Airlines there, which was alright except literally everyone was 100% Chinese… let’s leave it there and just say they don’t especially cater towards non-Chinese people. I arrived in the evening. From there, I took a taxi to the serviced apartment that my family was staying in. (A serviced apartment is half-hotel, half-apartment – you pay rent and then you can come whenever you want and they’ll clean for you if you like. Pretty sweet deal!) The rest of my family had gotten in a few days earlier, because my two younger brothers don’t have final exams. Anyways, a little after I arrived and found the apartment, the rest of my family came back from an event at Jon’s school. Lots of hugs ‘n stuff. Well, all I unpacked was my pajamas, because the whole family was hopping on a plane the next day.

The plane was headeYunnand to KunMing, the capital of YunNan province, which is in southwestern-most China. Don’t be deceived by the ‘south’, though – dependent on where you go, it can still be very cold. We were headed to Wenzong, my parents’ missionary friend’s, village. His village is in the remote mountains of YunNan. We hadn’t been to the village in some time, and since Wenzong is good friends with my family, we wanted to see how he was doing too. Some friends came with us, wanting to spend some time learning in a very different version of China.

Shanghai

Shanghai

One of the things that I’ve started learning about is that China has changed so fast. Not even 100 years ago, Chinese men were wearing the half-shaved head braid and being ruled by emperors. We went on a lot of walks – looking around, visiting homes in the village or going on hikes – and Jon and I got to talk a lot. We talked about all sorts of things, but we also talked about China’s strange-but-true history – the crazy Cultural Revolution, the changes, how Western cultures often overlook China’s history, and now everyone’s shocked that China’s economy is going to overtake America’s in just a few years. Quite honestly, I don’t know that much about Chinese history. Jon has been learning a lot of it in his classes, so he shared with me about the Long March, the Cultural Revolution, and how is was so, well, revolutionizing. I realized that it was not simply a cultural, but more like an Every-aspect-of-life Revolution. We later brainstormed up an idea – that one summer when we’re both in college, we should go on a two-month-long or so trip to China, taking the public transportation to just about everywhere, and exploring real China – finding China for what it really is. As we talked about this, we walked by mountains and small cement-if-you’re-lucky houses, on the main road that had just recently been paved, in a village that had just gotten running water. This was real China.

We spent a total of three days in Wenzong’s village. Meals were simple, and life wasn’t complicated. My parents had thought spending Christmas in the village would be nice, since it came very close to what the first Christmas had been like: in a barn, with animals, without the glamour that we put on it today. The one thing was that it was so. dang. cold. Every day we put on all the layers we could fit under the biggest jacket we brought. It was below freezing, all the time. Staying inside wasn’t any better, because there were no heating systems. Radiators weren’t great either, since you could only feel any of its warmth when you were right over it. My first night, I was shivering because I had thought my normal pajamas would be okay – I would have to put on socks, long sleeves, with three blankets covering even the top of my head, to be okay. The entire time was below freezing. People around me lived in these conditions, though, so it is humanly possible to live like this. Sometimes I appreciate being in places like this, because it makes me appreciate where the Chinese have been, and where they’re coming from. Sometimes I feel like I’m not getting the whole China experience when I’m staying at a Marriott and drinking apple juice with breakfast. I feel a bit cheated of my China experience, because I know my experiences don’t align with so many of the Chinese people’s. This time in the village, though, definitely came much closer to that experience.

The teachers at the school that Wenzong had started were interim teachers – they would probably only stay for a couple years. We got to see class in session, and take a group photo. One girl had the same Chinese name as me! After three days, it still wasn’t Christmas, but we so cold that my parents decided they’d spent enough time in the village, and our friends agreed.  My youngest two brothers, Peter and James, got the chance to herd goats and ‘be farmers’ with some nice villagers for an entire afternoon. At dinner that night Peter told us about their day, adding that the goats would need them tomorrow. My dad told us about XiShuangBanNa – a county in the ‘state’ of YunNan, if you will. Oh, and it’s tropical and warm. “The goats really need me tomorrow – wait, good thing I brought my swimsuit!” – in the same sentence, Peter had totally changed gears. We were fine with that. We were going to XiShuangBanNa the next day, and we prepared ourselves for anything warmer than what we felt at the moment. Sometimes I’m glad that China’s westernized, but I’m thankful I got to experience ‘real China’, at least for a few days.

 

(Note: It is with great sadness that I write about the one tragedy of my China trip: my phone, forgotten in a taxi ride. Just so you know, the pictures that I have of China are not my own – they’re going to be from someone else. 😦 )

Christmas, China, and The Office

SantaBond

From The Office – a great show!

 

What is Christmas? To you, to me, to anyone. In China, a country where there are very few Christians (especially when compared to America), Christmas is still very much in session. However, it’s not for the reason that Jesus came to earth in the humblest of ways: in the form of a baby, born in a smelly, poop-filled stable. All the Christmas festivities celebrations we have were born out of the celebration of that fact. Now, if we go back in history there are some things that are simply for the joy of the winter season (e.g. hot cocoa, fireplaces, white snow, etc.) – and the Christmas tree a pagan tradition turned to a Christmas one. But things like Santa Claus/St. Nicholas, Christmas music, festive lights, gift exchanging – those all came out of the fact that God gifted Jesus to come on earth to be a light to us.

In China, Christmas is a time to make everything look awesome with light decorations – aesthetic only. They skim over the part about Jesus, but hey – even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah or other religious winter holiday, it’s still fun to get presents and listen to cheery music. Right? Even if Christmas wasn’t a thing but the traditions were, I would definitely still get excited over getting presents, telling friends how much they mean to me, getting together with family, all the retail sales… generally speaking, it’s a fun time of year. At least, people work hard at making it so.

Thing is, Christmas used to have more meaning than lights, sales, and being a fun time of year. Sometimes in the cheeriness of it all, we forget the meaning and the joy – a god of the universe came to be human, sacrificed – for everyone! That’s something I get excited about when I think about it. Because of that, we can have peace – that we don’t have to be ‘good enough’ so that we can prove something to the rest of the world, but instead out of the saving of us we can find joy in doing good to others because of what God has done for us. One of my favorite Christmas songs is Joy to the World (which also happens to be playing in the airport right now):

Joy to the world, the Lord is come

Let Earth receive her king!

Let every heart prepare him room,

And heaven and nature sing!

Joy to the world! the Savior reigns

Let men their songs employ

While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains,

Repeat the sounding joy!

He rules the world with truth and grace

And makes the nations prove:

The glories of his righteousness

And wonders of His love!

So, my challenge to you is to find a meaning for Christmas, beyond the looks of it. Maybe it’s family, memories, or Jesus. But let it be more to you than how good it looks and sounds. Find a reason to be joyful this Christmas! Maybe it’s family, what God has done for you, happy memories of tradition.Whatever it is, don’t settle for the lights. Search and find a reason for this season.

Don't be Stanley! :)

Don’t be Stanley! 🙂

I’ll Be ____ for Christmas

Listening to the song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, in a place where it’s natural for so many people to be home for Christmas, makes it a little awkward that I will not be home for Christmas, to say the least. I’ve spent every Christmas I can remember at my house, so this year will definitely be different. I will be with my family, but I will miss seeing friends and having a Christmas tree decorated with the strange ornaments my family has, and doing all the Christmas festivities there. I was fortunate enough to spend the beginning of the ‘official’ Christmas season (that is, the weekend after Thanksgiving) at a friend’s house, where we decorated a tree at her house. It was beautiful (and pictured below!).

The Buckley Christmas tree

The Buckley Christmas tree!

Thinking about it, it’s been six months – yes, six! – since I have last visited home, and it will be seven by the time I get home. Some of my friends have a difficult time even with two. How am I not super homesick? Well, for starters, I’m a fairly independent person. That eliminated the need to cry every night or to call my family constantly during my freshman year of college. Secondly, my school feels so much like home, especially after a year. Whenever I go off-campus, I will say things like “When I get home, I’m going to…” – and we all know that place is in Massachusetts, not Virginia. I refer to my dorm, my school, my campus as home. It’s become natural, almost instinct, to think of this as my home. So when I’m not going home for a break when it seems like everyone else is? It’s not that big of a deal.

On the other hand, as much as I do, in fact, miss seeing a lot of people that I love, my home isn’t any one place – no, I’ve found that home is where your heart is. It’s where you feel like your family is. I’ll be with my family in China for Christmas. That’s kind of hard to explain to most people because home is home – it’s a location you always go to – but if home is where your heart is, I’ll be home for Christmas.

P.S. China for Christmas?? Sounds very exciting, doesn’t it! And yes, for those wondering: I AM going to be at NDFH (albeit a very short time, especially when compared to six weeks), and I WILL be taking a million pictures! I’ll keep you updated 🙂