I can’t believe 2016 is over, and how all over the place it was. I spent time in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Canada, Mexico, and rediscovered my love for California and the United States. I survived missed flights and parking tickets, and put out some work I’m proud of. Here’s a look at some of my favorite stories from the year:
[Los Angeles Magazine] How to Drink Scotch Like Anthony Bourdain – The most terrifying interview I’ve ever conducted. I was in a sheer panic the week leading up to meeting and interviewing my idol. I ended up only using 9 of the 15 minutes I was allotted with him. Not my best interview, not even close, but a priceless learning experience.
[Food Network] The Best Things to Eat In California – It was fun driving up and down California in my Jeep to research this story for FoodNetwork.com. After spending time in Asia, I loved taking time to explore my home state and its culinary treasures.
[VICE Munchies] Singapore’s Cocktail Scene is on Fire – I only had a handful of days to spend in Singapore staying with a friend’s parents, so researching this story was frenzied. Running around town finding speakeasies and meeting the city’s most influential bar industry players was a great way to take in the Singapore sights without feeling like a tourist.
[VICE Munchies] Why Chef José Andrés Wants You to Eat Old Meat – It was surreal to be in Vegas sandwiched in a booth with José Andrés for nearly two hours of wine drinking, meat tasting, and industry talking for this story on eating mature livestock.
The incident quickly revealed some differences between American and Taiwanese culture. I didn’t love the photo used in the story. When I showed the story and photo to friends/family back at home, their response went something like, “Oh it’s not that bad!” When I showed Taiwanese people the story and photo, the responses were, “Why do you look fatter and older?” and “That is a very bad photo, why do you look like that?”
Varying angles aside, my time here in Taiwan has been interesting. My Taipei neighborhood had some sort of hawk store, or medicinal hawk facility, I’m honestly not sure what the place actually was but there were hawks involved. It was a bizarre sight to pass every day for about two weeks.
I piggybacked on my friendship with Bangkok-living Taiwanese cool girl Etty (check out her blog) and stayed with her family in a few different cities to get a taste of real life in Taiwan. My first stop was Taichung to meet her parents, Judy and Pi-Jay Liu.
The Liu family takes hospitality to another level. I was welcomed beyond belief, not only given a place to stay but treated to feast after feast, whisked away to sightseeing destinations, introduced to new friends. I couldn’t have been more taken care of (or full).
After a few days of being fed to maximum capacity (and then some), I took the train to Taiwan’s east coast, first to do research for a story in Yilan, and next to Hualien where I was shepherded by Etty’s cousin, Eric.
It was so nice to be shown around different places by locals who are obviously much better at navigating Taiwan than I ever will be. I can now say I’ve eaten chicken feet, worn a Taiwanese aboriginal outfit, visited a Taiwanese elementary school. None of that would have been possible without the generosity of Etty and her kind, friendly family.
Taiwan’s high-speed train situation has made it really easy to hunt down Etty’s family all over the country. One day sweating your way through a night market in the southwest, and the next morning you’re sweating in the mountains clear across the island nation (see also: it’s humid AF here).
On a less cheerful note, somewhere in the whirlwind of my first weeks here I got sick and still haven’t recovered. This happened the last time my Asia trip was coming to a close; maybe my body is just rejecting the idea of going back to America.
I decided to cut my east coast exploration short and return to Taipei early to heal. Fresh air is great, but I’m a city person and feel more relaxed in a bustling metropolis. The end of the trip is closing in on me quickly. With less than a week until I fly to California, I’ll cram in some more work while I’m here and try to reflect on the three months abroad (conveniently glossing over the shortcomings, of course).
tl;dr – (ﾉ◕ヮ◕)ﾉ*:･ﾟ✧ I LOVED SEOUL!!! Now I’m in Taiwan for 3 weeks.
I did not want to leave Seoul this morning.
It was raining and I had this feeling of dread as I walked through the terminal to my gate. The kimchi withdrawals were already beginning to kick in.
The overwhelming sadness was not helped by the fact that I had just spent the night sleeping in the airport on a bench for just 4 hours.
While I had intended on rounding out my Korea trip the same way it began (lounging in the Incheon Airport spa), things did not pan out the way I’d hoped.
I got to the spa at midnight and the place was fully booked. The train back to the city had already stopped running for the night, so I trudged through the airport until I found a decently cushioned row of chairs to curl up on.
At 5 am, I woke up to the shrieking sound of packaging tape being wrapped around luggage. A huge group travelers chatted loudly about whatever there is to chat about at 5 am. I heaved my backpack on and checked into my Taipei flight.
I hadn’t expected to love Korea, and I definitely didn’t expect that I was going to LoOooOooooOooooOooOoove Seoul. It actually hurt to pass through immigration.
It didn’t matter whether I was eating tteokbokki alone at a restaurant or drinking soju with new friends, I loved nearly every moment of my time in Korea.
The city is so livable and interesting. The food is weird (to me) and incredible. The public transportation is thorough and convenient — even if I did manage to mess up every time I took it.
Speaking of getting lost, I botched the one big sightseeing adventure I attempted in Korea. Getting to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, was a true nightmare.
For those headed wanting to visit the DMZ themselves, here’s a step by step guide to doing it wrong:
Step one– Get lost at Seoul’s main train station. Literally run around the massive station trying to catch a 9:20 am train. Ask for help. Get conflicting information from every employee. Do this for one hour.
Step two – On the verge of crying, finally get on the right train to Munsan Station. After about an hour of travel, get off the train at Munsan and walk to the bus stop. Twenty minutes later, get on a bus to Imjingang Station.
Step three – Get off the bus at the wrong stop. Note: The key to this step is to not know you are at the wrong stop.
Step four – Walk around the ghost town of a stop and feel like giving up. Try to find a ticket booth you saw on some travel blog. Stare at the buildings and notice that nothing is written in English. Feel like a failure.
Step five – Open up Google maps, tell yourself that you won’t wasted 4 hours of your life only to give up on your DMZ dreams now. Start walking along the highway toward Imjingang Station. Don’t cry.
Step six – Hail the taxi that comes along, as though by magic. Show him your Google Map and understand exactly zero of his Korean. Sit back and revel in the air conditioning.
Step seven – Get dropped off at the wrong place. (In lieu of steps 6 & 7, maybe just light your money on fire instead. Same result.)
Step eight – Seek out help from a kind Korean man working at a kiosk. Sort of understand him and start walking down the highway again.
Step nine –MAKE IT TO THE DMZ PARKING LOT!!!! Be weirded out by the amusement park blasting Justin Bieber music. Find the ticket booth and pay for a tour of the DMZ.
Step ten – Get on a tour bus. Realize you’ve just committed to a 3 hour tour. Feel overwhelmed.
Step eleven – Look with your very own eyes at the southernmost part of North Korea. Walk through tunnels that the North Koreans built to try to infiltrate after the Korean war. Feel lucky to be there, but feel exhausted.
Step twelve – Take one bus and two trains back to Seoul. Mess up twice.
So visiting Korea wasn’t a piece of cake, but it was a dream – a dream I am sad to wake up from. I could honestly see myself living in Seoul, getting lost on the subway every day and consoling myself with Korean desserts.
But that chapter of this trip is over. It’s time to enjoy Taiwan, even if it has a hard act to follow.
tl;dr – My mom came to Asia and we went to Vietnam. Now I’m alone in Korea.
Last week in Hoi An, a 52-year-old woman named Tina playfully slapped my cheeks and called me a baby.
She had wrangled my mom and I into her shop to remove our unwanted peach fuzz (lady facial hair), and now she was using the threading technique to rip the fine follicles out of my jowls. I was wincing and maybe almost crying. It hurt, a lot.
When she finished torturing me, she slathered on some face cream said to make the hair “never come back again.”
She had quoted us 100,000 Vietnamese Dong (the currency in Vietnam, about $4.50 US) for the painful service, and in the end demanded 800,000 for me, 600,000 for my mom. The only thing I hate more than peach fuzz is getting hustled.
I saw it coming but didn’t think we’d get charged 8x more (I didn’t think I had so much facial hair either). It wasn’t the first time I’ve been hustled, and it sure as hell won’t be the last! We paid Tina and took our waxy, smooth faces back into the insane Hoi An heat.
The face cream she applied ended up giving a bad red, raised, rash that lasted nearly a week. Also, the hair is coming back already.
Scams aside, my mom and I had a great trip in Vietnam for about a week and a half, splitting our time between Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, and Hoi An. The country is rich with history, good food, addictive coffee.
My mom fought jet lag well and was always more energetic than me to go out and see the sights, even though it was almost 100 degrees every day with 80% humidity.
We were up every morning to go jog around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, out and about every afternoon trying not to get hit by scooters in the crazy traffic.
One of the best parts of the trip was our overnight boat excursion to Ha Long Bay. It’s just as beautiful as the Google Images make it out to be.
We swam, hiked, sweat, and took 40,000 pictures over the two-day experience. The views were alone were worth the 8 hours (round trip) in a bus to get there.
I also got very lucky in Vietnam, not once, but three times. On our first night there, we’re sitting in a randomly chosen restaurant when who walks in the door? OH I DON’T KNOW, JUST RATATAT!!!!
If you read the last blog post, you may remember that I lost my voice for four days screaming at their show in Bangkok recently. And here are Mike Stroud and Evan Mast in the same restaurant in Hanoi. Stars, they’re just like us!
I had a fangirl panic moment and couldn’t decide whether or not to play it cool, or ask for a photo, or get up and run into their arms. I ended up blurting out some words to them as they walked by our table, saying that I had seen them in Bangkok and now here we all are, or something mediocre.
The real MPV of the conversation was my mom, who made them laugh. They walked upstairs and ate dinner and I was in shock for another few hours.
Lucky situation number two. Still in shock after the whole Ratatat thing, I tell my mom that Bourdain is also in Hanoi that night (so is President Obama, nbd), so we go to his hotel to do some light stalking at the bar. While getting out of the taxi, I thought I slipped my phone into my purse, but it fell instead to the floor, under the seat.
I realized this later, of course. Once we get to the Hotel Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, I go to pull out my phone a few minutes after we’ve been dropped off and realize it is missing. The panic! I run outside of the hotel to see if the taxi driver is still there, maybe waiting for another customer, but he’s gone.
The hotel staff see how distressed I am and ask what’s wrong. I tell them I left my phone in the taxi, and three of them take off running in different directions. I’ve accepted the fact that it’s gone at this point, because Hanoi traffic is insane and there’s no way they’re going to find him.
A few moments later, one of the hotel employees is walking down the street toward me, and he’s not alone. He’s with the taxi driver! He said that he had remembered the license plate number from when we were dropped off, “it’s my job.” The cab driver had gone around the corner where taxis wait for customers.
I was totally stunned for the second time in one night. Also so happy that I could have kissed the guy. I said thank you about 80 times and then 30 more times.
Lucky moment number three: We flew from Danang to Hanoi and then took a cab into the city (it’s a 45 minute ride.) Once we’re checking into the Hotel de L’Opera Hanoi, I realize that I left a small bag that I keep in my larger bag on the plane. Inside that small bag? My wallet with my credit cards, cash, debit card, driver’s license, etc.
I wanted to die. HOW AM I ALLOWED TO BE AN ADULT.
I told the concierge at our hotel and asked if he could call the airlines, the numbers I had tried weren’t working and most of the information was in Vietnamese. He took over for me, and after about 7 calls he told me that they had FOUND THE BAG!!!
The hotel arranged a taxi driver to take us back to the airport and call the right people once we arrived. He did, and we got the bag back fully intact. I gave the concierge a gift and a letter thanking him in addition to the barrage of verbal thank yous.
The moral of the story: everyone in Vietnam is my hero and I (per usual) need to be more mindful.
My mom and I left Vietnam on the same day, but many hours apart. Her flight took off at 11, and mine at 1:45 AM (technically the next day, but you get it).
I said goodbye to her (knowing that I’ll see her again in about a month, which is nice) and spent the day doing some work, killing time at the hotel until it was time to head to the airport.
I left Vietnam humbled, tired, and bloated (there had been a LOT of eating in the past week). Once my flight landed at Incheon International Airport, I didn’t have the energy to take the train into the city. Instead, I paid $12 to use the airport’s Korean spa.
Best spent $12 of my life! I soaked in hot tubs, cold pools, sweat out the exhaustion in the sauna and steam room, then slept for 4 hours on a thin cushion in the napping room.
I finally left the airport and made it to the heart of Seoul. I put my stuff down at the traditional Korean guesthouse I’m staying at, and started walking around the city. I have been here once before, but only for a 10 hour layover.
This place is nuts and reminds me a lot of Tokyo. I think I’m going to like it here, despite feeling very lost already.
TL;DR – After hopping around, I’m back in Bangkok and running out of money.
Well my hair seems to be falling out. Maybe it’s because I spent the past few days in Laos washing my hair with bar soap (thanks, shampoo-less guesthouse!) or maybe it’s because I’m stressing out about my financial situation. The money’s low, my dudes!
No shock there, although it’s still somehow a shock. In my last post, I talked about hemorrhaging money. Instead of turning that around, I decided to not do that and keep on balling out of control. Going to Malaysia and Singapore did not help, and it didn’t help to go on a spontaneous trip to Laos either. Still happy to have those experiences, I guess?
Allegedly I get paid on the 20th, so all should be well (for a while).
So a recap of what’s happened in this past month here in Southeast Asia:
Seeing Tame Impala in Kuala Lumpur was AMAZING. I’ve never been to a concert where so many people were diehard fans before. Everyone was screaming all of the lyrics, jumping and dancing like maniacs. Unreal. After a week in KL, I took the train to Penang where the joys of street food eating were only slightly lessened by the painful, painful heat.
Singapore was a completely different ballgame. I loved how clean and modern it was, but it was way too expensive for a person of my means. Fortunately, a friend’s family opened up their home to me, even going so far as to cook me delicious Indian meals daily. I will be forever grateful for their kindness! I worked on some stories for Munchies and got the F out of the city as fast as possible.
I moved into a little apartment in Bangkok for the month of May and love it. I seem to be an oddity in my new neighborhood. Not many foreigners, in these parts, so when I walk down the road, I’ll hear people say “Farang! Farang!”(foreigner) then turn to stare at me. At first it was a little off-putting, but now we have a neighborhood camaraderie going on. Everyone says hello, people ask me where I’m going, try to speak Thai with me. I wish I was staying here longer, it’s a fun community.
I got back from Singapore just in time for RATATAT TO PLAY IN BANGKOK. Even though Ratatat is one of my favorite bands, I didn’t realize how excited I was for the show until we arrived at RCA Live.
We waltzed up to the front row, no one put up a fight. In fact, there was a huge space in the front, so huge that we wondered if people were allowed to stand there. It turns out, we WERE allowed to stand there, and we did! Ratatat warmed up in front of us, and I started losing my mind. RATATAT IS STANDING RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME, WARMING UP FOR A SHOW.
Then the show started, and I lost whatever part of my mind was left.
I’ve never had such a weird reaction to a concert. Because Ratatat doesn’t have any lyrics to their songs, and because I was SO SO SO SO SO SO EXCITED, I just started screaming. Lunatic fan screaming. “What is wrong with this person?” screaming. The rest of the crowd seemed to be pretty calm, perhaps wondering what the actual F was happening to the farang in the front row.
After the show, as though it was the most normal thing in the world, I MET RATATAT AND DIED. Just had a normal conversation like no big deal. I don’t even remember most of what we talked about because of the adrenaline. I do remember Evan Mast mentioning going to a friend’s wedding in Sicily.
I lost my voice from all of the wild screaming and could barely speak for the next four days.
In between story writing and Ratatat fawning, I’ve been loving my newly-minted GuavaPass subscription. It’s like ClassPass in the US, but for Asia and Dubai. It’s allowed me to get into Muay Thai, get back into yoga, kill myself at kettle bell classes. The app is a life saver. There’s no way I’m working out outside in this heat, and I rarely walk anywhere. Without GuavaPass, I’d be a sweaty, sedentary blob.
I’m still not sure if Laos was real. What I saw in Luang Prabang was unbelievable. It’s an hour flight from Bangkok, but you feel like you’re stepping back decades. No skyscrapers, just lush scenery and a slower pace of life. The Kuang Si Falls are stunning. No complaints when it came to Laotian food either.
I would have loved to stay in Luang Prabang for weeks (despite the struggling WiFi situation). But Bangkok was calling, and, as mentioned before, the money was/is running low. I needed to get back to a more productive routine.
Back in Bangkok
Only one week left here in Bangkok. I happen to be leaving the week that the “hot season” is finally breaking. The heat wave is over, and rainy season is kicking off. It’s been HISTORICALLY SCORCHING since I got here, every day in April hit at least 100 degrees. But I lived to tell the tale!
Anyway, now it’s time (but really…) to be productive and get some more invoices going. Freelance writing is like a marathon, and I keep taking excessive water breaks.
On Monday, I’ll be meeting my traveler extraordinaire mother in Vietnam for a week of fun in the sun (protected by layers and layers of sunscreen). Once we part ways, I’ll be headed to Korea and Taiwan.
I booked a flight back to the United States, and I booked it on the Fourth of July. If that isn’t patriotism, I don’t know what is.
TL;DR – I’m in Malaysia feeling productive and sometimes lost.
Moving slowly on this first morning in Malaysia after a night of tossing and turning. Poor sleeping aside, it’s fun and challenging to be in a new city again.
I flew from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur yesterday to come see Tame Impala play on Saturday. Walked around KL’s Chinatown and found a popular street food spot for dinner. Ate durian ice cream. All very standard tourist stuff for day one, nothing groundbreaking. Just trying to figure out what KL is all about.
I’ve been back in Asia for a little more than two weeks, but it feels like WAY LONGER. My time spent in Bangkok was pretty productive for arriving right before the Songkran holiday (four days of nonstop water fighting to celebrate the Thai new year). Happy to be churning out more stories lately.
Writing a second blog post has been a challenge. I’ve started different drafts with wildly different tones depending on the day. I’m striking while the iron is hot – or rather, while I’m feeling more positive about the whole situation. My last draft was filled with a lot of WHAT AM I DOING HERE in both the immediate and the broad sense.
Well, what am I doing here? The plan had been to come over here, write, travel around, see old friends, etc. Then TAXES HAPPENED. This was my first year paying my taxes as a freelancer and the amount I owed was way higher than I imagined it would be. A chunk of my savings has now vanished, so instead of floating around Asia as I had hoped, I’m going to spend more time lying low in Bangkok.
I need to stop hemorrhaging money on things like massages, too.
OK, the cry baby is going to stop crying (and apparently start writing in the third person??) and go back out into the Kuala Lumpur torrential downpour and eat some roti.
TL;DR – After 6 months in the USA, I’m back in Asia (Not for very long)
Yesterday I stood in line at the skytrain station and tried to tell myself to calm down. I wasn’t going to die from being this hot, but HOLY F IT WAS SO HOT. The combination of oppressive heat, dense humidity, and the slight burn of bug spray on my neck was coming together in a near panic-inducing way.
I stared at the cashier’s computer as she processed my ticket, occasionally pulling out a spare sock I brought along to wipe the sweat out of my eyes. By the time she handed me my new pass, sweat was rolling down my legs too and I just wanted to get the F on the train.
Dealing with the heat in Southeast Asia is a Catch-22. Power walk to get to the intensely air-conditioned train, and you’re going to warm your body up. Walk slowly to the train and you’ll endure the wrath of the tropical climate longer. You can’t win.
So I’m back in Bangkok.
After floating around in a lazy limbo for the past six months in America, I wanted to come back to Asia and do some freelance writing and exploring again. Because this trip will only last a few months, coming here hasn’t felt as momentous as it did when I left for Thailand in 2014. This isn’t a move, this is a trip.
Maybe that’s the reason my emotions feel stunted on this return, or maybe it’s jet lag. I got to the Bangkok airport and thought “yep, this is it.” I barely looked out the window during my taxi ride into the city. I’d like to let go of the stresses of the motherland (i.e. what the f am I going to do with the rest of my life?) and focus on enjoying every moment of being over here. I think some Thai street food will help with that.
After hopping between Thailand, Malaysia, and some other nearby countries, my ultimate plan is to go back to California by July and post up permanently (or semi-permanently) in Los Angeles. I loved being so close to my sister and new brother-in-law (who just married each other last month, mazel tov!) and I miss having roots somewhere. It was fun being an expat once upon a time, but I’d rather be a regular pat right now.
Before that new chapter of full-time LA life begins, I’ll revel in this Asia Rumspringa and file as many stories as possible—and by file as many stories as possible, I mean spend 97% of the time looking for air-conditioning.
Some people have asked me how I have been able to do this, just pick up and travel. It seems so glamorous! But I’d like to throw out a disclaimer: I am in no way a financially stable adult. I do not have any money saved for retirement, I do not have a steady income (freelancing pays poorly and slowly). I’m still on my parents’ insurance! (#ThanksObama)
I was lucky enough to live rent-free with family in America, and saved some money with freelance jobs. I’m not over here balling out of control; that’s not possible on the ~3k that I have to my name. I stay in a mixture of hostels and hotels (only if I find epic deals), I fly on suspiciously low-budget airlines, and I only own like four outfits. It’s not glamorous, it’s a little risky, but it works for now.
These next few months will be a challenge to work as hard as I can, build up an arsenal of invoices that can help me get an apartment once I’m back in LA, and experience this beautiful part of the world. Will this be possible? Maybe not. I’m happy to find out.
TL;DR – I’m still in America / Reverse culture shock is a thing / I’m happier now
One minute you’re eating mooncakes in Beijing and the next you’ve been living in Los Angeles for four months. Where did that time go? More strange than the speed with which time has gone by is the feeling that my year in Asia didn’t actually happen. It still feels more like a movie that I watched than ~365 days of my life.
A few weeks ago, my sister asked me when I was going to write another blog post. I cringed. Why would I write another blog post when I’m basically just exercising my license to chill these days? I’m not looking for crocodile blood in Bangkok. I’m not singing karaoke with strangers in Tokyo. I’m working a few days a week at an LA Thai restaurant and churning out a few articles a month. Who cares?
That self-pitying reaction reminded me of how hard it was to come back to California. Reverse culture shock turned out to be a very real thing, and I was hit with the classic symptoms of sadness, confusion, frustration, and it sucked. I slept a lot, ate my feelings – I saw how cliché it was but couldn’t stop. The life narrative I was following for a year didn’t apply to life in America, I lost my identity. I even started eating meat again (after 7 years of chicken/beef/pork abstinence) in a half-hearted, half-panicked swoop. All dramatic given the circumstances: I had a stunning home to live in rent-free in Los Angeles (thanks Crystal and Michael!), I was back with my family, I had a BEAUTIFUL new baby niece. Things were going to be ok/things had been ok!
It took a while, but I think I’ve made it past the funk. The first chunk of 2016 has been incredibly fun. I went with friends to Vegas for a low-budget New Year’s Eve, then made it to Boston for a four day walkabout. I’m ramping up my writing again and remembering how good it feels to be productive.
Even though I’ve been happy lately, I still miss Asia. I miss seeing new parts of the world. I have two months until my sister’s wedding, which was originally my deadline to leave again. Problem: I haven’t saved any money although my intention for the past four months was to save money. If I want to make a big move happen soon, I need to stop wasting money on expensive fresh-pressed juices and Uber rides. If I can make it through blistering winter nights in Boston, I can make more good things happen in sunny Los Angeles.
TL;DR – I’m in America for the first time in a year, it’s weird / Japan was hard
I am in a Jamba Juice in San Leandro staring out the window at a Togo’s and a car wash. I am back in California, and it feels so weird.
I return after an emotionally tumultuous three weeks in Japan. The country turned out to be way more isolating than I had predicted thanks to a number of things. First, I don’t speak any Japanese and most people in Japan do not speak English. Second, the Japanese culture isn’t all about chatting up strangers, especially foreign strangers. Third, it’s very quiet in Japan, so I spent a lot of time trying to stay as silent as possible and blend into society. Toss all of that together and you have one tough trip for an extrovert.
I honestly can’t believe how intensely sad I got in such a short period of time, but I really struggled to stay happy in Tokyo and Tahara. Some days I slept for 13 hours, then spent 3-5 more in bed just looking at the Internet. Mind you, I am completely aware of how melodramatic this sounds. I’d do my fair share of walking around, exploring, taking random ferries or busses, then I’d feel exhausted/defeated and go home. A few things got me through my time in Japan: running, drinking with strangers, and working.
Jogging was a godsend. Released endorphins, upbeat music, fresh air, and happy fellow joggers lifted me out of the inexplicably heavy darkness. My favorite jogging routes were along the seemingly endless Tama River, and around Tokyo’s Imperial Palace at dusk ( minus the swarms of gnats that frequented the palace moat. I had to constantly rub them out of my eyes and when I was finished running, I had dead gnats smashed against my arms, neck, and face ).
Drinking with strangers rescued me from my silent loneliness. No one is going to talk to you on the subway, or in line at a coffee shop, so the only places to strike up conversations were in intimate Tokyo bars – I’m talking 7 seats intimate, these places are tiny. The later the better was the recipe for success. If I hit up a bar too early, my Japanese neighbors wouldn’t have enough liquid courage yet to find out what the crazy gaijin (foreigner) was doing there.
After 10 or 11 pm, tongues loosened (mine included) and broken English conversations ensued. Befriending foreigners was also crucial, and those rare times hanging out with fellow westerners were fantastic. It was nice to hear that other people felt the same melancholy I did in the biggest city in the world.
Working was the last element that kept me sane in Japan. Retreating to cafés to work on stories let me check out of my immediate reality for a while and focus on something other than my ridiculous misery. Unfortunately, there weren’t many places with free-flowing Internet access, so I ended up paying a small fortune to spend time at co-working spaces.
Despite all the first world problems bringing me down, I could not deny that Japan was absolutely incredible. The country is unreal on a million levels. Wildly clean, efficiently modern, and infinitely cooler than me. Everyone is impeccably dressed from the salarymen in perfectly tailored suits to the Shimokitazawa hipsters layering random things and looking great doing it.
The bottom line is that Japan is amazing. Everyone should go at some point in their lives, but prepare yourself before the journey. Learn a little Japanese, IT GOES A LONG WAY. Carefully choose where you want to stay. Get mentally ready to be an outsider.
I had a 17 hour layover in China that I spent mostly standing in infuriating lines at the Beijing airport. I did get the chance to explore the Forbidden City a little and eat some “Old Beijing” pastries, then it was time to hop on my 11 hour flight back to the USA.
The flight was a breeze. I did my best not to look at the clock and tried to ignore my increasingly uncomfortable head cold I caught in Tokyo. Before I knew it, the plane was landing at SFO. I was home. The flight was so easy that it was anticlimactic stepping off the plane. SFO has greatly improved its foreign entry process, and going through customs was a breeze. Suddenly I had my backpack and was sitting on the BART headed into the city. San Francisco was as beautiful as I had left it. It was all so completely normal and familiar. I cried three times.
I came back to be with my family, but my cold prevented me from meeting my sweet baby niece so I stayed in the Outer Sunset for a handful of days. The mix of being sick, being home for the first time, and being in the otherworldly Outer Sunset gloom was weird. I felt like I was walking in a dream. It was way too normal to be true. Did I even leave? Was I really gone for a year? Surreal.
Reverse culture shock isn’t the only reason I’m off. Since the decision to come home was made so suddenly, and I spent so much money in expensive AF Japan, my next move isn’t clear at the moment. I don’t think I have enough money to leave right away, so suddenly I’m feeling a little trapped and confused. It has also been overwhelmingly nice to see loved ones again, I’m not even sure if I want to leave.
So I’m in California. I have no apartment, no sense of home, and no proof that the last year in Asia even happened (other than the memories in my brain, the scar on my forehead, and this blog).
TL;DR – I’m in Japan and celebrating a year of living abroad
Twelve months ago, I left foggy San Francisco and moved to Asia. I guess it’s fitting that I’m ringing in the milestone in overcast Tokyo.
When I got to Thailand last September, I had one main goal of making it abroad for at least a year. I had this fear that I would crumble financially or emotionally at three months and have to crawl home. I also had this reoccurring nightmare that I’d be on an airplane for a visit to the States and realize “oh my god, I don’t have enough money to get back to Asia” and that would be it, I’d fail the goal.
It’s a little surreal that I made it, especially surreal considering two girls dressed up in Sailor Moon costumes just walk by. You’ll see a lot in Japan.
This post could very easily turn into a mega cliché with me reflecting on this year abroad. I rolled my eyes every time I heard a backpacker talk about his “spiritual journey” and I’ve always been the first person to joke about coming here to “find myself” like the rest of the spoiled western foreigners.
That being said, it turns out there’s a reason that’s such a well-known cliché. It’s not like you set off a floating lantern at a full moon party and suddenly you’re reinvented, but spending a year out of your element challenges you in ways you’d never predict. I’m not even saying I’ve changed in a good way, but I’ve definitely changed. For example:
-I have a backpack full of clothes – and that’s it.
I started this journey (barfs in own mouth)with just a suitcase and a carry-on bag, then accumulated some things while I spent 9 months in Bangkok. When I decided to hop around freelancing, I gave away everything that didn’t fit into my traveler’s backpack and purse. So wearing the same four things has been new. [Full disclosure – I have some cold weather clothes and apartment furniture stored at my parent’s house. So by “that’s it” that’s not totally it.]
-I’m much more comfortable being alone.
Moving to a city where I didn’t know anyone was a good introduction to solo life, but backpacking around bolstered my confidence operating as a one man wolfpack. Meals alone, movies alone, sightseeing alone, sometimes it’s great and sometimes it is totally depressing. I have to remind myself that there’s nothing wrong with traveling alone. Emile Hirsch looked badass doing it in Into The Wild, so why do I feel like a total loser every now and then? It’s nice to fall back on the security blanket of saying “I’m traveling for work” when I don’t feel like being brave.
-I’ve learned a lot of helpful and useless new things.
For example: During my first week of working at HotelQuickly, my coworker said “and he didn’t even know that Singapore was a country.” I laughed out loud with the rest of the people in the conversation, but in my head frantically noted “OK SINGAPORE IS A COUNTRY AND A CITY, JESUS HOW DID I NOT KNOW THAT WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME.” So that was an important thing to learn. Less important are things like if you don’t take off your shoes in the Gap dressing room in Japan, people are going to yell at you. Or that teens sling their backpacks really low in India.
I could go on, and I’d probably disgust anyone reading this in the process. So I’ll leave it at this – and bear with me while I’m shamelessly gross for like two more sentences – it’s been the best year of my life, even despite the head wound, the loneliness, and the excessive sweating. For anyone debating whether or not to take the plunge and live somewhere new (out of the country or otherwise), do it. Life is short.
Reflecting aside, after a year of being gone, I’m finally going home for a while. Some of the best and worst things to happen to our family happened in August, and I’ll be making my way back to California to spend time with loved ones. At this point, I don’t have a plane ticket out of the States yet. I’m still figuring out what to do next. Until then, I’ll just keep wandering around Tokyo.