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.
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 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.
I’ve experienced a wildly swinging pendulum of emotions these past four days. India has been so much more intense than I predicted.
All of the pre-trip reading I did made me pretty anxious about spending time in New Delhi alone before my friends joined me a few days later. Nothing sold the country as a dream destination for women, especially women traveling solo. I arrived to New Delhi on Wednesday night on high alert and got a taxi to my hostel. It was pouring rain when the cab driver started to slow down in one of the sketchiest neighborhoods I’ve ever been in.
I thought to myself, “This has to be a mistake.“
Stops Hostel, said TripAdvisor reviews, was “great,” an “Oasis in Delhi” with “excellent staff” and I found it to be none of those things. The hostel was located in a bleak part of Darya Ganj, and even in the dark of night, I could tell that this was not a neighborhood I should be in alone.
In the morning, I was able to confirm that yes, yes this wasn’t a choice pick of locations for a solo lady. Darya Ganj was a clusterf*** of haphazard construction where I saw the sadness of abject poverty in full light. I also saw a fully nude man casually strolling in the street. I didn’t arrive in Delhi expecting to find San Francisco, but I had booked this particular hostel expecting to be in a safe location.
Although the hostel itself seemed safe with security guards, I wasn’t loving the place. The front desk staff turned out to be cold and inhospitable. I had booked an all-girls dorm, yet on my second night my roommate was a 30+ year old man lounging around the room in nothing but a bath towel for way too long. I couldn’t handle the dodgy area, the front desk staff’s demeanor, or the unreliable WiFi, so I ended up booking a private room at Moustache Hostel in the GK-1 neighborhood.
I spent the next few nights in a little 2nd floor studio apartment reached by a quaint spiral staircase. The place was perfect, and free of semi or fully nude men.
So things were off to an interesting start from the get go with the accommodation issues. Day one I spent shopping for India-appropriate garb, adjusting to the culture, and meeting with locals who could help me with some Delhi-focused stories for Munchies.
For one such story, I needed to find a place in Old Delhi’s Chawri Bazar called Jain Coffee House. On day two, I set out to try Jain’s mango and paneer sandwiches. One metro trip, three failed rickshaw rides, and two and a half hours walking in the rain later, I finally found Jain hiding in an alley.
I approached the counter and asked about the sandwiches, to which the staff simply replied “no.” I was confused. No sandwiches now? No sandwiches ever? The language barrier made it impossible to find out what the actual f happened to the sandwiches. I was obviously killing it my first 24 hours in Delhi.
I spent the next 15 minutes simmering in my failure over a cup of their excellent chai tea.
The rest of days two and three I filled trying to research a story on a popular snack beloved by Delhi residents. The momo is a dumpling that originated from the Tibetan Plateau, so I went to different Tibetan colonies and Nepalese restaurants stuffing my face with the doughy spheres, Delhi Belly be damned! A highlight of the trip so far was being welcomed into the kitchen of Big Apple restaurant in Majnu-Ka-Tilla Tibetan refugee camp to photograph the pre-cooked momos.
When I’m wasn’t thinking about dumplings, I kept finding myself wondering, “where are all the women?” On the streets, there are so few women out and about. There are very few on the metro (compared to the number of men), even in the women-only cars. Most of the vendors I come across are guys. I guess I get it; being in public as a lady isn’t very comfortable when you have men shamelessly stone-cold staring at you. I feel it myself and watch the way other local women get thoroughly stared at from every angle.
There’s also a clear reason for those all-women metro trains. During rush hour I was waiting in line (with other women) to board a co-ed train when a man placed his forearm on me like he was trying to get in between my butt cheeks. When I tried to move away, he moved with me, readjusting to make sure he got his arm right back in there. I pivoted and he pivoted. Finally I just power walked to a wall and put my back to it, forcing him to choose between continuing to harass me or miss the train. He left me alone.
Despite the unfortunate issues related to the country’s patriarchal culture, not everyone is the aggressive metro offender or the leering pedestrian. I have met really great Indian men (and women) who have been more than welcoming and helpful. In a city of 9.8 million people, you are bound to find bad apples in with the good.
Ending on a good note, I’ve had the pleasure of eating some damn good Indian delights even though I’m worried about getting Delhi Belly. I have this very unscientific theory that I’m less likely to get sick from Indian sweets, so I’ve had my fair share of gulab jamun, laddu, and the sweet mother of all street desserts, jalebi. Thus far, my theory seems to be working out although I am on a sure path to diabetes, obesity, and toothache ( #WorthIt ).
Tomorrow is a new day, and we’re are headed to Agra to see the ol’ Taj Mahal before trekking north to Shimla, Kasol, and Manali. Outside of Delhi, I’m sure India will continue to surprise, shock, and delight, and I can’t wait to find out.
CLICHÉ ALERT: Part of the motivation to move abroad was to have an experience that could make me a better person (key word could, because who knows). I thought I’d be faced with challenges, work through them, be forced to operate outside of my comfort zone, and then one day BOOM, you’re changed for the better. So I knew that it would be hard coming into this, but I didn’t know exactly how that difficulty would take shape. Turns out, a good chunk of my experience living abroad is spent feeling humliated. Sometimes it feels like a constant onslaught of humliation, just one cringe worthy dose of awkard terribleness after another.
I’ll give you an example – Living in Thailand seems to be just about the worst thing possible for my skin. I am putting my skin through hell in this tropical sun. The UV rays are one thing, but the real issue is the heat. I’m constantly pouring sweat from all of my pores — really, all of them. I mean it’s almost impressive — and I feel like I’m back in high school with all of the breaking out going on. Every day, I put on makeup to cover up the breakouts, then I sweat off said makeup, put on more makeup (to continue pore clogging!), sweat that makeup off, put more on, and repeat this depressing cycle until I get home.
Even the breakouts aside, the sweating is enough to embarass the F out of me. I get to events for work where elegant Thai ladies in slacks and blazers are functioning gracefully and I am straight up soaking, my wet hair clinging to my face. It’s a delight. They look at me sympathetically as beads of sweat roll down my forehead and I try to escape small talk to run to the bathroom and dry off.
Ok so the good thing about feeling constantly humliated is that it really breaks down your ego. If I lost sleep over all of the cringeworthy moments, I would really not be sleeping ever. I’ve gotten to the point where I just have to tell myself, “well, this is happening so you better just roll with it” (or I guess it’s more of a “wow, just kill me. How is this real life?”). I have to accept the awful reality and keep on keeping on.
Ultimately, I survive! I’ve learned that even when I do something and feel completely terrible (like almost die at a company retreat HAHAHA), I make it through the situation and the consequences are usually not as bad as I predict they’ll be. Counterintuitively, my self esteem is getting better the worse that things get. I’m learning how to deal with my body, my personality, my strenghts/weaknesses and it’s all very uncomfortable and very real. The byproduct of this learning is making me a better journalist. I’m less embarassed during interviews I conduct because I’ve let go of hangups I can’t control. I used to think that I wasn’t qualified or worthy of talking to people as a writer and that obviously threw me off before the interview even started. Now that I no longer feel capable of impressing people based on social graces or appearance, I can just focus on being better at a job I love to do.
Hopefully, this is all part of the “becoming a better person” scheme.
TL;DR – I’m starting a new career, things are good
Ambition is downloading the Thai keyboard for your iPhone before moving to Thailand. Reality is the guilt that stems from switching to the English keyboard every time you open up your phone.
I thought I’d be texting and Googling in Thai by now, but that is 0% the case. Nearly six months in Bangkok and I can get around in a cab, order some food (incorrectly) and count. I definitely dropped the ball on the whole fluency thing. When I first moved here, I talked a lot of shit on farang who didn’t learn Thai. I preached about how rude it was to waltz into a country and not attempt to speak the local language. Lo and behold, here I am doing exactly what I openly chastised. In English, that’s what we call a hypocrite. Who knows what they call it in Thai.
Big changes for me over here in Bangkok. In March, I’m getting out of public relations and joining the Burda International‘s Prestige magazine as as a full-time writer. Backstory: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but never thought it was a viable career option. I listened to people foreshadow the death of journalism for years and figured that even if it did survive, I didn’t have a chance in the industry. When I finished school, I got into public relations because it was safe, not because I particularly loved sending out press releases. See also – sell out.
I moved to Bangkok and did more of the same. My job at HotelQuickly was a blend of PR and copywriting, but at the end of the day I was still doing public relations instead of journalism.
Suddenly I found the motivation to change things. DON’T SQUANDER THIS FLEETING, PRECIOUS LIFEwas my main takeaway from the accident. I could only blame myself for not going after the life I wanted, so I actively pursued paid and unpaid writing gigs in my spare time.
I’d been freelancing for Vice Munchies, Coconuts Bangkok, and Lifestyle Asia for a while when Prestige came to me with a dream job offer. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to grow as a writer and finally pursue a lifelong passion.
Don’t get me wrong, being a publicist was a great learning experience, and so working for HotelQuickly. Being a part of the Southeast Asian startup scene was exciting and the job was challenging. The team treated me like family, made me feel welcome here, held my bleeding skull together, etc. I can’t thank everyone at the company enough.
So now things are really falling into place. I have a new visa, new work permit, and a lot to look forward to in the coming months. Tonight, I’ll take an overnight train to Chiang Mai to see Haley and drink a lot of coffee. Next week I’ll be heading to Myanmar to spend time in Yangon and write some things for Vice. Time permitting, I’ll make a trip to Mawlamyine and check out an old, old distillery there. If anyone has any Myanmar tips, please shoot them my way.