Saturday, March 17, 2007

One Year PT I: Reflections and Revelations

When I say that we've been home for about a year, I always feel shocked. It's so strange that the passage of a year can go so fast. Traveling, time went slower – but it didn't feel slow, it felt right. It felt like a lifetime, but in a good way. And now that I'm home, and I'm back to the "real world' of my life, things are fast... and consequently short. One year here is the equivalent to a few months on the road. It's still hard to get used to.

Since coming home, Benjamin and I have looked upon the calendar in a whole new light. Instead of seeing 'June', we saw 'our second month in China', and instead of seeing 'March', we see 'the last month of our trip'. And in this way, the trip has lived on and on, long after the official end, when we boarded a plane on April 5 (2006) from Bangkok to LA. I like this, the unexpected continuation of the grand adventure – the fact that we can place ourselves somewhere else 'a year ago' means that we can live vicariously through those experiences in some remote way... a bit like living in the past I suppose, but sometimes that's not a bad thing.

So here we are, on the brink of the year anniversary of our return home. From this point on, we can't say refer to an amazing foreign experience of the year before, but one from home... and unfortunately, those experiences seem so mundane in comparison. I feel like this is REALLY the end of our trip. It's not actually the date that we returned home, but instead, it's the date that we can no longer look back on the previous year with the eyes of a traveler. It means that our year abroad ended longer ago than it feels, because as I stated before, time here is lightening speed. And it also means that I am farther and farther away from the thing that makes me feel truly alive.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Back on the Road

Yay, we're traveling again! We're off to China tonight to promote the book we just published:

It's funny how during our 13 months on the road, the act of traveling became so much a part of daily life... so normal... that it felt like second nature.

Now that we've been home for some months, the excitement and anxieties of travel have surfaced – these feelings so long forgotten – and it reminds me that one of the best things about travel is the period of time before you actually leave. From the moment the idea pops into your head, there is research and planning and dreaming about the places you'll go... It's a trip in and of itself. And I'm happy to be enjoying the romance of it all again.

Packing my bag, though, brought the daily ins-and-outs of travel back to mind quickly. It's like riding a bike: everything has a place and I automatically put things in the places they belong. Although I must say, my bag has much more exra space than the last time we left for Asia. It brings back memories of the manic packing and repacking of my bag when we first arrived in India. Oh, how I've learned...

We'll be on the road for one month this time, traveling in the Southern half of China, from Hong Kong to Chengdu, up the Yangtse to Wuhan, over to Shanghai, and then back to Hong Kong. Perhaps this trip is more organized in a way, in that we have a rough plan of where we'll go ahead of time. But true to the moniker of DestinationTBD, you never know where we'll end up.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Cultural Jetlag

I can't belive it's been so long since I've posted here. There's been many times, many days, that I've thought about writing up an insight, a memory, a revelation... but I haven't because I don't have time.

I know it's not 'realistic', the way I was living while traveling. While I don't consider it a vacation, it was a 'vacation' from life. Meaning: no work, no to-dos, no schedules, etc... There was time to do whatever I wished. Sometimes there was too much time – I'm speaking of nights when I was bored but didn't feel like doing anything; an uncomfortable state of mind. But I'm not complaining –

Lately, I've been thinking about the slow pace I got used to in Asia: it's physical, mental, spiritual. And I miss it. I feel rushed to do things, to think of things. I feel like I'm running through the weeks instead of strolling. It's not because I choose to; I'm forced to in the society here, to keep up.

Sunday, May 28, 2006


Well, we've been back long enough to really 'be' back. You have to be adaptable on the road, waking in one country and going to sleep later that day in another... Likewise, you adjust to home -- I've said it before on this blog: humans are adaptable. It's amazing to discover the small and uncomfortable spaces you can put your body (and deal without too much suffering).

So we've been home over a month, my skin is turning white, and I'm amazed at how quickly the last year has faded to memory -- it almost seems like it never happened or if it was a dream. This is exactly what I was afriad of: the experience becoming memory... still accessible, but blurred. But, life goes on... I know this. You can't live in the past. Well, not if you want to have any friends...

I knew I was 100% back when I paid $5.00 for a salad and thought to myself, "wow, what a good deal!". That's an extravagant price to pay for a meal in Asia and sticker shock was the hardest thing to get over on return. Perhaps I do live more frugally now; we go out to dinner less often (aside from the $$, the portions are too damn huge). We dropped 70 bucks at a sushi place the other day. I nearly fell off my chair when the bill came. That's 3 days (accomodation, food, etc) on the road and I ate it in less than two hours. I've just gotten used to living with a constant eye on my budget so now it's difficult to live without making such comparisons. I'm sure this will disappear in time. It annoys me, so I'm betting it annoys you...

But, whatever. I would still be shocked by the prices if I never even left. San Francisco ain't cheap.

I'm back.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Return Home: Entry #4

Random Thoughts:

We have collected a giant ball of plastic shopping bags... if we took them apart at the seams and sewed them together, the resulting mess would rival a circus tent

I'm still shocked by the impatience of people. The pace at which they move... and talk. People seem aggressive. I never noticed it before I left for Asia becuase it was normal to me. Learning about Asian cultures, you hear that Westerners often make the people feel intimidated with their fast-talking, loud, and direct ways. Now I understand that notion.

I still feel foreign, like an outsider looking in... alien. I'm wondering when I'll fit in again, if I'll fit in again. I'm not sure people will understand me anymore... just like in Asia I felt like the locals didn't and couldn't truly understand me b/c of cultural differences, I'm back home and feeling similar disconnects.

I have a hard time constructing full sentences with sales people. I'm used to saying, "I don't pay high price." Now I have to say, "Really? That candle is $20.00 -- way too expensive for me. Do you have anything cheaper?"

And the bargaining... I miss that. It's fun and you are really shopping when you can haggle the price. I have the urge to say, "How about if I give you $12 for the candle Or give me 2 for $20"

And then if they say, "no," I can walk away knowing they will chase after me yelling, "OK, OK" because they're still making a profit even though I've nearly cut the price in half.

Transactions here take forever. Buying a computer monitor, it took the guy longer to type up the invoice/receipt than it took Benjamin to research the product, find parking downtown, find the product in the store and find a sales person (all lengthy activities in SF and at Comp USA)... the computerized system is a big waste of time. Technology is supposed to make life easier, but even an old-fashioned punch resgister from the early 1900s would be faster. Why are we wasting so much time (hey, you see, now I'm becoming impatient...).

Shopping: we find ourselves walking through stores, looking, almost waiting for STUFF to make itself known to our needs that we didn't know we had. We're trying not to have extra stuff, lots of stuff... we are anti-stuff. So here we find ourselves caught up in the aisle-surfing activity. Ah, the retail store: designed to suck consumers into making unnecessary purchases. Yes, added convenience (maybe), but not needed. Forget the trick of putting last-minute stuff at the register, the entire store is designed that way.

I'm surprised at how lazy I've become. I can spend a day sitting on my butt in front of my computer or the couch whereas in Asia, I was constantly on-the-go. A shitty hotel room is the last place you want to spend your time! On the other hand, the thought of jumping out of bed each morning (and every morning) and striking out into SF to explore all the city has to offer seems really tiring. How did we do it for a whole year? Who knows, but it was easy.

I miss my camera. In fact I almost forgot about it until I dug it out of the cabinet the other day. It's been there since we got home and being that it's only been several weeks, that may not seem like a long time. But to me, it's eternal. I'm used to taking it with me everywhere for 13 months. I'm used to charging batteries and cleaning the lens and downloading, organizing, and editing pictures on a daily basis. Honestly, the camera was an albatross around my neck on the journey. I hated toting it everywhere in the heat (it's very large and heavy). On the other hand, I couldn't step out the door without it in hand just in case I saw something interesting. The lack of its daily presence in my life, somehow, speaks the loudest about how different life is for me now that I'm home...

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Return Home, Entry #3

It's interesting to watch all the immigration stuff going on in the U.S. at the moment. Having been gone for so long, I can view the goings on with a fresh perspective. Or maybe a fresher perspective. OK, certainly a new perspective -- you're the judge about whether it's fresh or not.

When I arrived to LAX, at the immigration counters, I was intrigued by the array of nationalities and races working there. I smiled inside, thinking 'This is the Unites Sates. This. The variety of people'. This is something I love about the United States. This is something, in my opinion, that really makes us different -- and unique -- as far as the rest of the world goes. This is our appeal. This is our greatest attribute.

We don't have a corner on democracy. There are plenty of democratic countries in the world (and more to come if we have our way). We don't have a corner on the marketplace -- sure we're the biggest consumers of everything in the world (OK, that's unique), but look how we import so many things with stickers that read 'made in China' on the bottom...

What I'm saying is that of all the things America IS or DOES, our population is what makes us stand apart from the crowd. After traveling in countries where there is no such diversity, or if there is diversity it's very minimal, I am asounted to see the mix we have here, especially in SF. I guess I was used to it before leaving home and so it was invisible.

I did miss it while traveling. In restaurants, on the bus, on the street, looking out at a sea of all black hair was a disconcerting experience. Everyone was the same. It's like eating plain oatmeal instead of the kind with brown sugar, raisins, honey, and bananas in it. What they say is true, "Variety is the spice of life." This comes from William Cowper's poem, “The Task” (1785): “Variety is the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavor.”

Obviously, we was onto something. No one's ever heard of William Cowper. He's not exactly a household name, but everyone knows the line from his poem.

So. America: you're beautiful because of the many faces in your crowds. Another perk: the menu. In India, I ate Indian food. I love Indian food, but after a few months, I missed the variety of choices I had back home. I'll eat Italian one night, Indian the next, Mexican after that... maybe a little Spanish or French here and there. Because of our country's diversity, our taste buds get to travel the planet whenever they like.

Variety IS the spice of life.

Now, I write this from San Francisco, a place known for its diversity. I know that in Ohio, where I grew up, things are much different. Or maybe just more subtle. Maybe you don't have the numbers of Asian or Mexican communities we have... But you do have Germans, Irish, Polish people (and lots of jokes to go with them). They look the same, so perhaps are not thought of as 'foreingers' like many other immigrants. In fact, Asian Americans I know get upset when people look at them and say, "Wow, you speak such good English." Their reply, "Well, I was born and raised in Illinois so maybe that has something to do with it, you idiot."

I have to admit, when I was IN Asia, I was always taken aback when I heard an Asian person speak with a perfect American accent. It never surprised me before traveling. I never even thought about it. But on the road, when everyone with a similar appearance is speaking a foreingn language, it started to surprise me. And I was surprised that I was surprised.

In China, I saw a group of Chinese Americans being led on a tour through the streets of Lijiang. Their Chinese guide was speaking to them in English. They are Chinese but don't speak Chinese. This was always surprising to the people of China. They didn't understand why the Chinese Americans didn't understand them.

But back to the subject...

Here we have this immigration thing going on. It's complex because people are marching for immigrant rights and people are also marching for illegal immigrant rights. To me, these are two separate issues... now they are all tangled up in each other and complicating things.

I can't think of any country that welcomes illegal immigrants. From recent experience in Thailand, they are constantly checking ID cards at roadblocks, looking for people (workers) from Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. I heard from Dutch, French, English, and Spanish travelers about the problems in their own countries to do with immigrants & integration, legal or not.

If I secretly moved to Thailand and then got into trouble, I would have no rights as a foreign national in Thailand illegally. So, do the illegal immigrants in America have rights? I'll leave that one open.

My opinion on the matter: separate the issues -- keep our many faces -- make my taste buds happy

The Return Home, Entry #2

I've had more time to settle in and notice a change in my perception of this strange place called 'home'. Different things surprise me, make me uneasy, make it hard to feel reintegrated.

I'm still shocked by the pace and the assertive manner in which things get done. Why can't it be like the post office? I went there today to mail a few souvenirs off to contributors. The employees there don't move quickly; they're not concerned about lines. They do things in their own sweet time. It used to drive me nuts, but I am in league with the postal employees now: slow and leisurly. But one thing is to be said for the fast-moving world in the U.S., shit gets done. The phrase, "Make it happen," seems to be burned into everyone's psyche.

Not that things didn't get done in Asia. Often, I found myself marveling that amidst all the confusion, things did get done... anything. Looking to hire a car & driver? Looking for a beat up motorcycle to rent? Looking for a shoe shine, a single banana to buy, an escort for the night? You didn't have to look far or hard for someone to do something for you, take you someplace, or refer you to at least 50 others who could. All you have to do is stand on the street corner.

Maybe the difference is the way things get done -- here there is more pressure. And perhaps its because at home, I have a different role in society. I am a 'do-er' instead of a 'do-ee'. Meaning, people come to me to get shit done, whereas while traveling, I was always the employer. I had no responsibilities, no job to do. People dindn't want anything from (well, except for my tourist dollar).


I ventured out to the financial district at lunch time yesterday. I hadn't really been out a lot since coming back. Yes, I've been to many of our 'super stores', but they are generic experiences and don't count. I've been around my neighborhood (and the Haight is so preposterous, it doesn't count either).

I was surprised by the darkness. Everyone dressed in dull, monochromatic clothing. I, myself, have a wardrobe of mostly black. As I unpacked a few weeks back, I was surprised to pull black shirt after black shirt after black shirt out of the box. Black jeans, black socks, black jackets, black sweaters. It reminded how once a friend told me he thought I was cool, "because your wardrobe is all black." And here I thought it was a witty sense of humor or intelligent advice or something like that. But no, he thought I was cool because I bought black clothes. Lots of them.

I looked into the sidewalk windows of fancy restaurants and saw business people, serious business people, talking over 20 dollar sandwhiches, or silver platters of oysters fanned out on beds of shaved ice, or hunks of rare ahi tuna plated with a fancy side dish with a strange name. Everyone solemn, everyone 'getting shit done'.

This is when I felt my most foreign, being home. I didn't really fit into the business world before my trip. The design agencies where I've worked are one step up from hanging out with friends to work on a hobby. But now I feel even more foreign -- not having spent a lot of time on the road in urban business centers, it's like going to another planet. A boring planet. A black, pin-striped planet full of acronyms and people 'doing lunch'.

I am struggling with the pace, the work world, the things I left that are now re-entering my life. When rocks come flying into our atmosphere from outer space, they fire up. That's how it feels inside my head now. A little fuse has been lit. It's flaring. And using oxygen.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Return Home, Entry #1

Now that we've been back for a few weeks, and our apartment is 90% back in place, I have a few minutes to start recording my thoughts on returning home. I better start now before I forget -- for new things enter my head with a frequency that threatens to push other things out before I've written them down...

Flying into LAX, just as the sun was setting, I looked out the window of the plane and perceived a strange landscape of asphalt and giant box-like buildiings with even larger parking lots surrounding them. Bits of green –– a yard here, a tree there -- seemed like afterthoughts to the paved landscape. The ground below looked like a train model, an imitation of reality. Clean, orderly, efficient and methodical.

This sense of un-reality continued as we drove along on the streets. There were no street vendors or open markets and food stalls lining every street. Everyone, single individuals, stuck in their own worlds, their own cars as they pulled up obediantly to stop lights. Houses were spaced widely apart. There was no-one on the sidewalks. I was struck by a feeling of boredom with my surroundings and a sensation of isolation. My very first impression of landing back in the U.S.: people are disconnected from each other, cloistered in their own private spaces, out of contact with the rest of humanity: their neighbors, communities... they live in orderly grids and wide boulevards, and quiet streets. There is no room for the chaos and commotion that define street scenes in Asia. This pained me -- life seemed dull.

But people seem happy in their isolation I've noticed. There are no smiles and 'hello's to strangers on the street (and there are only a few strangers on the street in comparison to foot traffic in Asia). People just don't seem interested in each other. Or maybe they're too busy. The pace of life in the U.S. is frenetic. People seem panicked. Rushing, impatient, frenzied. That's the irony: in Asia, the streets may be crazy and hectic and bustling with life, but the people are relaxed, mellow; they do things in their time. Here the streets are dull and lifeless yet the people are hectic and manic: in their goings and comings, in conversation... they move at the speed of light. And they are impatient, waving their fists in the air if they have to wait too long at a stop sign. I was seriously stressed out placing an order for a sandwich during the lunch rush hour the other day -- the counter clerk was in such a frenzy I felt like I'd been plowed down by a giant speeding truck after placing my order. There is no time to think, to pause, to consider one's options in the sandwich line.

Of course there are the usual things that are 'different' in the U.S.: the cool weather, the high prices, the large people (even cats look like giants compared to their counterparts in Asia), the high-profile signage of chain stores, chain restaurants, and chain superstores from the freeway. I was surprised by the number of SUVs on the streets, especially in light of the gas crisis... in Asia, motorbikes are the standard method of transport. I'd forgotten about the miles and miles of smooth and efficient multiple-lane highways. I'd forgotten about stop lights and stop signs and driving rules (what's a speed limit?).

People look different: their dress, their hair styles... they look foreign to me yet they are "my people". I don't know what it is... it's one of those indescribable yet evident things -- they look different than everyone I've seen in the past 13 months: Asians and European travelers alike. I know, now, how easy it is to spot an American... I just can't tell you how it's done. And walking down the street or browsing in a superstore or standing in line at a sandwich shop, people sound different. I mean no offense, but a lot of them sound dumb -- they remind me of yellow lab puppies: eager and a little dopey, but well meaning.

I'm amazed by the wealth I see. People dropping hundreds of dollars on groceries and housewares. People in Asia think in the U.S., money grows on trees. Perhaps it does. The other day at Costco (one of the very first superstores I visited in the 'big move in' process), the cashier told the woman in front of me that her total was four hundred and some odd dollars. I was shocked but she didn't blink an eye. Entire families live on similar sums for months on end, if not an entire year in Asia. I understand there is context to this money thing. As I traveled, I was constantly reminded by locals how rich and lucky I was (am). To them I'm a millionaire, but at home I get by. Obviously I get by well enough to take off and travel so far away for so long, but in the grand context of things, I am just a regular person in the U.S. Not rich, but not poor either. Our standards of wealth are on a different scale (on many different scales), that's for sure.

In Myanmar, for example, I had a conversation in my hotel room with a woman employed by the hotel as a cleaning lady. She told me I am lucky to be American: it's such a wealthy country. We have it easy. Somehow the conversation turned to food. She thought our food must be very, very cheap. But when I told her 4 chicken breasts cost about nine dollars, she was amazed. This sum was more than half of her monthly income ($16.00). She, on the other hand, probably has chickens in her yard. And fresh produce is a fraction of the cost than in the U.S. My talk with her reminded me that everything is relative. We may make more money in the U.S., but we spend more, too. And we've made our lives complicated with our fast pace and to-do lists and stress (there is no road rage in Myanmar). Perhaps she is the wealthy one -- forgetting about money. She knows her family members well (they all live together, three generations in (possibly) one room). She lives a less complicated life. But one thing is for sure: we all face the same challenges in life, whether we're from the first or third world. We're all just trying to survive.

One of the hardest things for me, reintegrating, is the expense in moving back into our place. We've bought things, we've painted, we're making our space a comfortable place to be. But after months of living on twenty bucks a day, spending hundreds seems insane. I've gotten used to living on a small budget, and thinking about that budget every day: with every meal, every purchase, every rupee or kip or dong or baht spent. When I was traveling, thinking about the budget almost bordered on obsession (but this is not because of frugality or stinginess... this is the traveler's modus operandi). It's been hard to refurbish our apartment or do the grocery shopping with this engrained mindest.

I'm also not used to having a phone. It was nice not having one for so long -- I just got a cell phone and it seems like a strange and alien object. I have a reticense to learn the multitude of features and functions. I find myself lax in memorizing my number.

I can't get used to the concept of weekdays and weekends. I nearly scald myself in the shower with the abundance and intensity of hot water coursing through good plumbing. I feel strange accepting or giving things from/to others with my left hand (a big no no in Asia) and seeing people with shoes on indoors. I'm not used to leaving my passport at home -- after carrying it around with me every day for so long, it's become a part of me in a strange way. I am bowled over by the size of a large coffee (and I used to drink several of them in the morning). I get excited by the convenience of simple machinery: washing machines and dryers, microwaves. And after 8 countries and 8 currencies, I feel no familiarity to U.S. money; I cannot get used to the new design (coins in particular). This was, oddly, a big letdown. Like it or not, people identify with money and my home currency no longer feels like 'home'.

I have indulged myself in all things I missed: red wine, cheese, mexican food, lazy days on the couch (OK, only one). There is much more to do in this arena... though I find the things I missed on the road are not as good in reality as they were in my mind at the time. Perhaps this is the biggest lesson in my return -- maybe this realization will help me "let go" of thoughts about my freedom and the adventure of life on the road. I am here now and I need to be here... I know I won't be happy if my thoughts revolve around 'there' and 'then'. For now, my happiness is found in thinking about 'next time'.