daily life

My life as a traveler

I never finished my posts recapping my trip to Nepal. That trip, save for a bout of food poisoning that hit during my 30-plus hours on flights and in airports on the way back to Texas, was incredible. Seeing Everest from a plane was incredible. Becoming friends with the people I met on that trip was incredible. But then I just felt uninspired writing about it. Like writing about it somehow took the trip away from me.

I went to Nepal in December 2015. I went to Taiwan and the Philippines (Boracay, specifically) in October 2016. Then I was in Guanajuato, Mexico, in January; Medellín, Colombia, in February; and Antigua, Guatemala, in March of this year. Thanks to my location-independent job, my trips to Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala were for the full month each – I worked full-time during those jaunts abroad.

Even with all the travel and adventures, I still had no desire to write. I journaled a little. But no blogging. My domain renewal notice came up, and I let it expire. This blog just sat. Dormant.

I’m going to Peru in September for a much-needed vacation. I’ll share photos on Instagram, as I have with my previous trips; where words have refused to flow, my photos helped me tell the stories.

Everest, Nepal. December 2015

My search history would show you my efforts to figure out if I can work abroad again sometime soon. Paris. London, maybe. Berlin? Or Frankfurt? Tel Aviv looks incredible. As does Dahab, Egypt. And I found out about this place in Tanzania…

That’s when I push my computer away and tilt my head back, eyes closed. This always happens. I start with a potential location – for vacation, to work remotely, to live – and then zoom out of the map little by little to explore more options until entire continents fill the screen and I’m overwhelmed.

The world, and the possibilities within it, is overwhelming.

I tried to quell that feeling of being overwhelmed by places to go by moving to Taiwan in August 2010. This site was born not long after; I’d started a listserv called Mandy’s Pushpins to keep friends and family updated on my life abroad. When that listserv turned out to be a pain to maintain, I bit the bullet and signed up for WordPress. I wrote regularly about my life in Taiwan, the trips I took in the two years I lived abroad, and how I handled coming back two years later on September 1, 2012.

(Spoiler alert: I didn’t handle it well.)

Then this blog became my personal space for feelings, some of which should have stayed in my journal, I’m sure. When I settled in Dallas and tried to join the dating scene there, the name of this site should’ve changed from Mandy Travels to Mandy Dates. Instead it became “Mandy travels… and stuff”.

“Stuff” is a vague word. It’s the kind of word you throw around when you’re not sure what word you actually want. And that signified where I was at the time. I wasn’t sure want I wanted. I’m still not sure what I want.

“Hey, Mandy. What are you doing with your life?”

“Oh, stuff.”

Boracay, the Philippines. November 2016

In order to better shape what I meant by “stuff”, I did what I tend to do when I get antsy: I moved. Thanksgiving of 2015 found me on the road with a U-haul full of the belongings that survived the great cull of 2015. Northern San Diego County, I decided, was where I’d figure out my life. Dating, exploring – LIFE – was going to happen. I was finally going to feel like I had my act together.

The itch started again about six months ago. It’s inescapable, powerful, and not necessarily something I’m happy about. Even my mom, as we talked on the phone Sunday evening, asked if it was coming back. I told her I wasn’t ready to leave, which is true, but that I’d started thinking about it. And, for the first time, that I was torn about moving.

This past Wednesday night I had a very “hippie California” experience, and that’s when everything seemed to become clearer.

I went to see a friend who practices Eastern Medicine. As I rested on the table, we talked about my physical aches, and with my guidance she poked, pinched, and prodded before administering acupuncture needles. My right knee and foot were a mess, which I expected. When she moved to my head without my prompting, I lay quietly. She put one in my left ear.

“What’s that one for?” I asked.

“Anxiety,” she said.

Guanajuato, Mexico. January 2017

The needling itself hurt very little. But randomly I’d really feel a needle. My eyes were closed, but I knew exactly where each needle was, especially when a particular one kind of… pulsed. My body was relaxed, but every few minutes it felt like a charge of some sort coursed through it. Not electricity – more like my body was adjusting and resetting back to how it should be. It was a wave of energy that gently passed as I lay there with a dozen tiny needles sticking out of me.

Lindsey asked how I was, and I told her what I was feeling. It was normal, she assured me. She then stepped out so I could just be. I asked if I could fall asleep, but even with her permission it didn’t happen.

Two minutes after she stepped out, I teared up. No warning, no reason, just tears in my closed eyes that eventually made their way down my cheekbones. I wasn’t sad. At the time, my mind was fairly blank. She let me be there, alone and responsibility-free, for roughly 20 minutes.

When I left, I felt good. Tired. Since I was close and the sunset looked promising, I made my way to my favorite beach, where a wooden set of stairs takes people down to a local surf spot. The tide was up, so onlookers stayed on the stairs, and there were over a dozen people in the water catching the last waves of the day.

 

The sunset was beautiful, but I was fascinated watching the surfers. They would casually launch into a wave, none of which were larger than a few feet. At the end of their run, each surfer would fall into the water.

What brought me immense joy was how they fell. It wasn’t a graceful hop or dive. Legs splayed, most of the surfers crashed into the ocean on their backs or sides in a full surrender. They’d resurface, violently shake their hair out of their faces, pull themselves back onto their boards, and paddle out to the next wave.

One let out a gleeful, surprised yell as he crashed out. From 100 yards up, I watched and laughed.

Several surfers surfing at sunset. San Diego. July 2017

I realized at that moment that I’d love to be as in-tune with the ocean as those surfers were. But I’m not a surfer. As the night went on, I realized what causes my antsy moves and my near-constant wanderlust.

Most people describe themselves with an -er. Hiker, biker, entrepreneu(e)r, surfer, mother, father, homeowner, volunteer, shopper, skier. Even the non-ers, like wife or husband, still have a way they identify themselves. And where they live needs to fit them.

I struggle with feeling like I fit in. In Dallas I wasn’t a wife or mother, a shopper, or a proud Texan. In Southern California I’m not a surfer or hiker. All I know to use to identify myself is “traveler”. I don’t have many other -ers that feel right. And when a traveler cannot travel, they get antsy. Since I want a home base in the States, that complicated things a bit, too; otherwise I’d hop place to place and be a permanent digital nomad.

There are two key steps to take now. The first is that I need to adapt better. I’m in one of the vacation capitals of the country, and I need to take advantage of that and try everything it has to offer. I might find another -er here. In fact, it’s highly likely I will. But that takes more effort than I’m currently putting forth.

The second step is to be able to afford to travel. That means making hard decisions and committing to some major lifestyle changes. At least, I think it does.

Flying over Los Angeles

As far as this blog goes, I’m not ready to delete it. I considered it multiple times over the last year, but I don’t feel done with it. For a while I thought I wanted to become a travel blogger, and I was going to use this as my launching point. I even contacted Intrepid Travel, the company I used for my trip to Nepal, and let them know I was blogging about my trip. I’m now connected to a couple people from Intrepid on Twitter, but nothing else came of it.

It’s taken time, but I realized I don’t really want to be a travel blogger. Nomadic Matt does a fine job, but a lot of travel blogs are just content for the sake of content (and popularity) (and free, touristy trips). If I see one more faked photo or fluff piece about a place, I will do nothing of consequence, but I’ll be annoyed.

Really, the travel blog “industry” shouldn’t bother me. I think the frustration comes from thinking for years that it was my dream job. When a long-term dream fizzles out, you start to wonder if you’ll ever figure out what you want to do.

I still want to tell stories. Hopefully my stories help someone somehow. I don’t know. But I need to figure out a new name for this site, because “Mandy travels” isn’t my entire life, and “Mandy travels… and stuff” is such lazy copywriting.

I’ll figure it out.

(Now it’s “No time for regrets”. We’ll see if that stays. I kind of miss “Mandy travels” already. The tagline, “Figuring out life by running directly at it”, stays.)

For now, it feels good to have written again. I wasn’t sure I could still do it, to be honest. Cory Richards, a photographer who has worked extensively with National Geographic, puts it well.

I can go months without touching my camera. Most of what I make is garbage. I’m relentlessly hard on myself for not shooting more. I’m often paralyzed by the fear that if I make something, it will suck. I can sit for months in despair without ever making a single image. I’ve struggled the last two years with photography… but occasionally it rises new again in a moment of surrender and I remember why I love this so much. I don’t have to be prolific to be passionate. But I do have to show up.

I need to show up. Find my -ers, find out how I can travel more, find ways to tell more stories, and find the time to write. It’s up to me to make it happen.

Dear 2015 Me

Dear January 3, 2015 Me,

You turn 33 this year. That’s weird to say, since I’m only 31 now, but I am talking to one-year-in-the-future me, after all.

This is weird. I don’t know if I should tell you what I hope life is like in a year, or if I should remind you what it’s like right now. Maybe I’ll do both.

I’m in the midst of a challenge Jeff Goins is putting on – 500 words, every day, for the entire month of January. It’s only January 3, and I’m wondering how I’m going to manage throwing together a grand total of, at the minimum, 15,500 words. I had to use Google to find a prompt today. I took, “When you look back at your blog on January 2, 2015, what would you like to see?” from The Daily Post on WordPress and morphed it into today’s topic.

Yeah. Before editing, as of right now I’m at 135 words. Here we go.

Friday, January 3, 2014: you’re fat. I’m fat. I weigh, at my last weigh-in, 234.4 pounds. I have a belly – I’ve never had a belly before. I feel it in my ankles, in my back, in my lungs. My face looks like the Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters – wide, fleshy, and white. My underarms are constantly eating my shirts and staining them because I sweat a lot.

I keep saying “you” instead of “I”. I’m correcting them for clarity’s sake. This letter is awkward to write. I hope I like it in a year.

My current celebrity crush is Zachary Levi – whom I saw last month in First Date on Broadway when I visited Caitlin. Maybe Alex O’Loughlin, too, but that could be because I’m watching Hawaii 5-0 right now. I watched a marathon of The Game a couple weeks ago and had a short-lived crush on Jay Ellis. Then I read that he preferred women in stilettos.

Nope. Moving on.

I’m sitting in my apartment, on my bed. I moved in here on October 11. That weekend was rough. Maybe you remember that, maybe not. Two weekends later Mad got married. October was a stressful month, to say the least. I’m still trying to dig my way out of the little bit of credit card debt I accrued, which sucks, because I had no credit card debt for a while. Life has calmed down a lot, finally, and right now it feels good to have less on my plate; I’m sure I’ll be bored again soon, though.

I was in a “relationship”. Oh, yeah – that one. Thankfully, I officially moved on in June of 2013. It was a beautiful epiphany: I was sitting at a red light after work, talking to a guy on the phone, and realized I was flirting. The pang of guilt I usually felt when entertaining thoughts of dating someone other than X never materialized. I was over him. I was free. I was relieved.

X never read this blog. You’ve stopped being bitter about the nevers, right? I know I need to let go of the frustration, but I’m having trouble. Please tell me I’m not harping on the nevers anymore. It’s so not worth it.

I’m hoping to start dating again soon. Thanks to my weight socking my self-confidence in the gut, I shouldn’t get involved just yet. BUT. Within a year, I hope my love life isn’t a joke. Please say it’s not. It’s kind of pathetic. Laughably bad.

Maybe I’ll finally be dating some hot CrossFitter. Hel-LO.

(You’d better be in CrossFit. You’d better not be this fat.)

I want to go to Taiwan to visit. And Hawaii to see Marianne. I have to stop thinking about travel because every time I start thinking of all the places I want to go, it makes me panic that I’ll never be able to. Has that feeling gone away yet? Am I traveling more? That hot CrossFitting boyfriend you have better love travel.

In a year, especially now that I have a really good idea of which direction I want my career to go, I’d better be making more money. I don’t want to live paycheck to paycheck anymore.

Do I still live in Dallas? I’m torn right now. It’s great being so close to Mad and so many good friends, plus Mom and Dad (and Sawyer) right down the road. It sucks being surrounded by people you love, but not loving the city where you live. Are you in Colorado?

Holy cow, do you still get the, “Oh, you want to move to Colorado because they legalized pot!” question? I’m sick of it. I want to move to Colorado because mountains. Outside. Snow! Healthy lifestyle. Living in a vacation state. Nature! Cool weather!

Have you figured that out yet? The west coast or just west. Something. Maybe you met someone from Vancouver. A CrossFitter from Vancouver! If only God took requests like a DJ. I’d like living in Canada. All the jokes about how nice Canadians are make me want to live there.

I’m hoping for several big life changes in 2014. If you didn’t get them all done, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Get to it.

If I did have a very good 2014… what’s in store for 2015?

All done,
January 3, 2014 Me

(894)

Love her

Tapping into my joy

Today, several months after she first told me her plans, my friend, and now former coworker, Sabrina left for her RTW (‘Round The World) trip. Italy. Slovenia. Switzerland. Thailand. Vietnam. The Philippines. Those are the countries set in stone – there’s no telling where else she’ll find herself.

Excellent photographer

I made it black and white so it could be even more flattering. You’re welcome, Sabrina.

I’m happy to see her go. She’s exactly the type who needs to travel the world and have adventures, and she’ll be an excellent ambassador for the West.

On several occasions she tried to convince me to go with her. I don’t have the money saved… but the thought catches me. Could I leave again? Instead of moving abroad, could I take the plunge and go RTW?

I don't follow her anymore.

I don’t know what I “feel wildly unqualified for”, but I do feel like I need to face my fears and do SOMETHING. But WHAT.

I’ll be meeting Sabrina in November, after my sister’s wedding, in Vietnam. My hope is to travel with her a while, then detour to Taiwan for a week, then head back. However, depending on my life at the time, I could see myself doing my own version of a shorter RTW.

I just don’t know. I thought by now, nearly a year after moving back to the States, my life would have a clear direction. I’d be dating, hoping to soon move into my own mortgage and life of roots and comfort zones.

My life is blessed and I’m happy. There’s something missing, though, and it’s deep and profound. I feel like I won’t find it until I leave Dallas. That mindset is poisonous; the grass is always greener, and Shangri La doesn’t exist. Location shouldn’t matter as much as my drive to grow as a person and make my life interesting anywhere matters.

Why am I so unsettled?

I'd fall over.

All the women have crossed legs and look ridiculous standing like that. This is the type of thing I’m most concerned about these days: marketing and advertising.

I am happiest right now when I’m active and participating in endurance events. When Julie and I ran the Wounded Warrior 10K a couple weekends ago, neither of us had trained properly, and everything was against us to succeed.

Wetness

The start line. My phone was in a Ziploc bag when I took this picture because the clouds had opened up: it was a little wet.

However, we both crossed the finish line, got our medals, and I was high on that accomplishment for a week. I was so sore I could barely walk, but my spirit was overjoyed.

I have a huge support system here, one I couldn’t be more thankful for. I enjoy my coworkers,

She's got skills

Frances was transplanting a picture of her supervisor’s face onto a picture of ferrets to make him laugh when he returned the next day. This crew takes care of each other like that.

I enjoy my job,

Ouch

In the atrium of our office building, there’s this water feature and sculpture supposedly dedicated to a man decapitated by a propeller. I find the sculpture represents the way the man died a bit too well.

I enjoy living with Mel and Mikey and their lovely family,

Mel's hand

I was slightly (very) intoxicated while celebrating Mel’s 30th at the Glass Cactus. This is the most terrifying picture of me ever, and a fantastic shot of Mel’s fingers.

I enjoy being close to my family,

insane

I bought these to wear at my sister’s rehearsal dinner. They’re as heavy as they look.

I enjoy my friends,

Love her

I was fairly emotional when I was telling her about my 10K – Rachel was the first person I texted when I finished.

and I enjoy Dallas’s convenience. My life is enjoyable.

But I’m not full of joy.

So. What to do now? Sevenly, a great organization that raises money for different causes, posted the following quote today:

We believe many of you have untapped gifts that could change the lives around you. So we felt compelled to ask what talent could you use to bless someone else?”

That quote is the direction I need to take. Now. What?

thank goodness

Mapquest

I collect maps dot WordPress dot com. Mandy travels. That’s this blog!

I haven’t written in months. Currently I’m not collecting maps, and I’m not traveling, save for the driving I do around Texas.

Scary spinning wind!

North Texas. I’m currently living under all that red. That night was a special occasion: it was the first time I’ve ever heard a tornado siren. Outwardly I kept my cool. Inwardly, I was cowardly.

It’s kind of been nine months of a pity party, if I’m being completely honest. I don’t know what to do with myself, with my career, with the next several decades I have left.

Dog friendly, not horse friendly

Texas. It’s hard to see, but that sign has a person riding a horse with a red circle-slash over it. That means No riding horses in this park. Yeehaw!

Then, one day last week, while perusing my feed on Facebook, I came across a blog with a not-for-the-fainthearted-or-children title, full of self-help without the floofy sugarcoated baby talk. She cusses. It makes me laugh.

Monday the 13th, she posted “Fill In The Blank: I’m Not a ‘Real’ ____”, and I laughed, nodded along, and got back to work. In the back of my mind, though, it sat, and I thought about it. I read it again later. I found myself wondering what my Real ____ was.

Bigness

Texas. 15,000 people can fit in this building. It’s not a community college or a sporting arena: it’s a church. Welcome to the South, where churches are larger than most towns.

Yesterday I was late to work and in a slight panic because I couldn’t find my ring. Thin, gold, unremarkable… but I bought it, and it has sentimental meaning behind it; it’s my ring. I bought it. I wear it when I want to feel like I’m in control – I can take care of myself. It’s my Me ring.

thank goodness

The room was set to be vacuumed fifteen minutes after I found it. Can you see it?

I was explaining to my coworker the significance of the ring, and I figured it out… I think. I figured out my Real ____. I’m not the Real Me. Kind of. I’m not the me I want to be. Nicole Antoinette (ALLB’s author) asks this: ““What are the top three things that I believe make someone a real ____?”

bam! take that, bag!

I read self-help blogs and, instead of seeing an expensive therapist, I go punch things.

What are my three things?

  1. The Real Me is an athlete. She regularly participates in endurance events and grins when she feels the muscles in her arms from doing perfect-form chest-to-deck pushups.
  2. The Real Me has a full passport. My current one expires January 1, 2015. I need to hit up a bunch of little countries all in a row or something.
  3. The Real Me doesn’t live paycheck to paycheck. She has a savings account, and she saves! She has money for a rainy day! She has money to hit up a bunch of little countries and fill her passport!

None of these are surprises, I know. The title of this post could be “Mandy says stuff I already know”, or “Duh”. But this is my new map: my map to me. It’ll have to do until I get back to the passport business and blog about Mandy traveling and collecting road maps, instead of psychological maps.

beep beep

You know who probably doesn’t need a map? This limo’s driver. He parks at the end of my friends’ street. I wonder what his life is like.

I’m working hard on the athletic thing. I go to boxing/therapy twice a week and try to get a jog or two in the other days. I have a 10K on June 9th –

– but wait, Mandy! I thought you were signed up for a half marathon! Well… I am. Yeah. But I’m “downgrading” to a 10K. If you’re going to judge, I’ll meet you out there June 9th and you can jog next to me and tell me all about your feelings. –

– and I want to get back into triathlons.

I have more athletic shoes than heels

Post run. I’m wearing toe socks. The saleslady told me they would make me run faster. Lies. Or maybe she just said they were comfortable. I dunno.

Later this year, after my sister gets married, I’ll hopefully be taking a trip with a friend of mine. The wanderlust monster has me in its clutches. And as far as the financial stability goes… well. Buy me dinner and I’ll tell you all about it.

those things are disgusting

My dream is to put all this space to good use. An athlete would have a bike or a canoe in here. Sweaty boxing wraps and my workout bag don’t really fill it up.

In the meantime, I’m happy. Great friends have taken me in give me a bed and a place to shower. I love being within walking distance* of my sister; especially after my grandfather’s passing, my priorities have changed, and my family and close friends are more important than ever.

It’s an interesting time, and I’m struggling with being impatient. I want to know how everything’s going to turn out. Until I know, I have my map. Mandy travels – to realness and emotional stability! Huzzah!

 

*6.5 miles. Walking distance for an athlete.

Just out of reach

I’ve been in bed since 10:20pm. Between then and now I wrote a cover letter and applied for a job, then tried sleeping. It refuses to happen. According to Gmail, where I received a confirmation email from the company after I submitted my application, I finished at 11:34pm.

Seeing how it’s 1:04am now, that means I tried to sleep for an hour and a half, to no avail. I’m sleepy, my eyes warm with the urge to stay closed, but I toss and turn. Left side, right side; on my stomach with my legs in marathon-runner position; arms under the pillows, on top of, hanging off the edge of the bed.

It doesn’t come. I blame myself. Earlier, I ate and drank what I knew would keep me awake so I could work on some applications. When I decided to quit after just one, I thought I could handle the caffeine searing through my system, and I lay down, in a state I would describe as “extremely tired”.

And then my mind started its gymnastics, leaping over thoughts and tumbling through every idea.

Me: “I’m tired. Calm down.”
Brain: “THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS. What was that noise? Feelings! Overthinking.”
Body: “I’m cold. This position is uncomfortable.”
Me: “Quit staring out the window. Fall asleep, please.”
Body: “I’m hot.”

This is the idiocy I’m facing right now. It’s 1:13am. Nine minutes, and all I’ve typed is absolute nonsense.

Under normal circumstances, I’d be dreading tomorrow because it would start in less than five hours, as I would be crawling into the shower and getting ready for work. In Unemploymentville, there’s a different dread. It’s the dread of waking up and having no purpose. I’ll wake up, carry my phone and laptop downstairs and, after checking various sites, face down the job applications for the day.

People who haven’t ever visited Unemploymentville are a little in the dark about what it’s actually like here. Imagine showing up for a class every day, putting forth a ton of effort, and failing the class. You spend hours on assignments, but you fail. After a while, it’s all you can do to keep going; it all feels like a waste of effort.

I’m applying to jobs for which I’m fully qualified. I study company sites and make sure they know why I want to work there. I include facts and figures and references. If I want a good job, I need to put in the effort in my application. There are 36 unique cover letters on my computer, and those don’t include several more letters written online, instead of in Word.

Trust me: I’m trying.

Being unemployed doesn’t mean I’m lazy. It doesn’t mean I’m weak, underqualified, undereducated, or unworthy. It doesn’t mean I’m not trying hard enough. I get the feeling sometimes that people who have never been unemployed think it’s a matter of not wanting it enough. I hope they never have to go through what I’m going through. It would be nice if they could “get it”, though.

I’ll be fine. It’ll happen. I took a risk in moving back to the States without a job, and I don’t regret it. That said, it’s been scarier moving back than it was to move abroad. I’m home-of-my-ownless, gratefully filling guest rooms at friends’ houses for weeks at a time. My savings from Taiwan are slowly draining.

This “time off” isn’t relaxing or fun. I’m not able to focus on myself or do much beyond think about how I’m going to make it past this month, then through November.

Unemployment is lonely. It’s rejection after rejection and hours of time alone working on job applications. First, I was the weirdo because I lived in Taiwan for two years, so my thought processes are a little different now. Now, I’m an even bigger weirdo because I’m also unemployed. Very few people understand one or the other. Fewer still understand both. It’s ostracizing.

It’s being awake at 1:35am, knowing that the only item on the docket after I finally do fall asleep, then wake up late tomorrow morning, is job applications.

1:41am.

Still wide awake. Maybe I’ll write another cover letter now.

It’s scary to go “home”.

Describing what it’s like to live abroad, then plan a move back to the United States, and all the feelings and fears that accompany the move: it’s hard to put it into words.

If you haven’t gone through it, it’s confusing. It doesn’t really make sense. What could possibly be so difficult about moving home?

The thing is, for a lot of expats, it’s not really home. It’s “home”.

I suppose the best way to describe it is if you had the opportunity to go back to college, with all the knowledge you have several years later. You’ve been there before, but it’s different this time. It doesn’t feel the same. Sure, some things have changed, for better or for worse, but overall it’s the same experience.

Once you’ve been out of college for a while, going back would be a strange experience. Same with returning home after being abroad: you’re not the same person anymore. At least, I’m not.

It’s reverse culture shock. You become acclimated to this new culture and way of life, and then it’s over and gone. There are plenty of stories of expats returning home, having some trouble, but being okay. Then they go to the grocery store.

“After adjusting to a new culture for an extended period of time, your body is physically, emotionally and mentally required to make another switch when you return home. The result? What once seemed to so familiar now seems foreign, and you may be experiencing an unexpected learning curve.”

You’ve already lived in your home country before, so why is it so hard to move back? And what’s the deal with the grocery store?

For some reason, that’s just where reverse culture shock overwhelms you. All the choices. So many. Too many. It happened to me last August when I went to HEB with my mom. She was getting other groceries, and I jogged over to the drink aisle. I remember staring at the long shelf. I’d see one option I liked. Then another. Then I got frantic I’d choose the wrong one. Did I want root beer? But there were three kinds. Would I rather have Cherry Coke? Or cherry limeade? Maybe Vanilla Cherry Coke. Which root beer do I like better? And what’s that drink on the far end of the shelf?

There’s a similar scene in The Hurt Locker. It makes a lot more sense to me now. You’re overwhelmed by something that used to be completely normal and you want to run away. I managed to move to Taiwan and live here for two years, but a bunch of two liters make me want to curl into a ball on the floor?

I leave Taiwan in 43 days. I’m excited, but scared. I’m terrified (No. Don’t gloss over “terrified”. Read it. TERRIFIED.) of not having a job, not finding a job and, therefore, not having income. I don’t have Daddy Warbucks financing my life. If I don’t make the money, I don’t have the money.

I’m also worried I’ll be bored. “On the road, each day brought new faces, new places. Back home, you may feel you’ve plunged into ‘same old same old.’” I ran away from the “same old same old”. I can’t go back.

My past two trips back to the United States, I’ve exhibited nearly every sign of reverse culture shock. It’s not that I don’t love America. It’s just hard to come back “home”.

There’s a brilliant article on Thought Catalog called “What Happens When You Live Abroad”. If you want to understand me better, read it.

“Living in another country, in another language, fundamentally changes you. Different parts of your personality sort of float to the top, and you take on [new] qualities, mannerisms, and opinions…You wanted to evolve, to change something, to put yourself in an uncomfortable new situation that would force you to into a new phase of your life.”

I have changed. From the way I talk to the way I view the United States and the way I view myself: I have changed. So has everyone else while I was gone.

“To live in a new place is a beautiful, thrilling thing, and it can show you that you can be whoever you want — on your own terms. It can give you the gift of freedom, of new beginnings, of curiosity and excitement. But … you cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, you will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things you’re missing out on back home.”

It’s going to be strange not speaking my broken Mandarin to the cashier, or breaking up my English so it’s easier for my coworker to understand me. It’s going to be strange driving a car instead of a scooter. Fixing my hair instead of putting it into a low helmet-ready ponytail. Growing out my fingernails, which have to stay short here because they get disgusting from exhaust. Understanding commercials. Walking on carpet. Not taking my shoes off at the door. Not having concrete walls. It’s going to be strange to be part of the majority again. Not seeing stray dogs everywhere. Not calculating the time difference when I call my family. Leaving voicemails. Using my debit card instead of cash. Drinking milk again. Eating American cake and pie. Seeing my friends still in Taiwan going about their normal lives when I’ve left. Seeing my friends and family in the US whose lives continued on even after I left, and realizing just how much I missed.

I’ll be a stranger in a strange land, because it’s true: I can’t go home again. It’ll be good to go “home”, though. I just need a chaperone for my trips to the grocery store.

Disposable Camera Project: Doris’s Taiwan

I gave my coworker and friend, a 24-year-old Taiwanese named Doris, a disposable camera.

39 exposures. No zoom. No chimping/deleting. Click and go.

She loves photography, so I figured she’d be perfect for my little art project. Her instructions were to take pictures of what she thought was interesting, special, unique to, or important to Taiwan.

I’ve given out 16 cameras. Even if no one else finds this project as fun as I do, I’m going to post some of the pictures here. It’s my blog, after all.

A rat ran into the sewer, and now a stray cat is waiting for it to come out.

Some days at work we all order drinks from a local drink shop. This is Doris’s bubble milk tea. My new favorite is caramel milk tea.

Doris took this to show how easy it is to live in Taiwan. Almost everything is convenient. Need a quick lunch? Family Mart, 7 Eleven, Hi Life, or OK Mart is right around the corner.

Parked scooters outside a residential building. The flowers are in full bloom right now.

Sitting outside a small, neighborhood temple. Temples are relaxed, communal areas.

Kids playing hide and seek. Doris: “They called me paparazzi!”

A very small plot of corn and a vegetable garden

Narrow, blind corners are a Taiwan staple

Doris took this picture because of all the exposed power lines. “Other countries try to hide them, but in Taiwan, they’re really obvious.” I also love that this showcases the blind spot mirrors that are all over the place.

No matter the size of the temple, the roof will have some kind of elaborate decoration.

At a local theater

Rice fields in Taiwan are as common as corn fields in the US.

Inside an open-air breakfast shop

This cartoon character, Tatung, is famous in Taiwan. Apparently they don’t make these porcelain figurines anymore, and the day after Doris took this picture, this one broke.

Before washers, clothes were hand-washed using wooden boards like the one in this outdoor sink

A “loofah” is an edible vegetable that looks a lot like a cucumber. After it dries out… or it’s baked… it’s ready to use to scrub dishes or skin clean. Yeah, so LOOFAH = VEGETABLE. Who knew? Apparently every Taiwanese person.

Old Japanese coins and makeup tins in her grandfather’s bedroom

Betel nut trees, which I initially mistook for palm trees, behind a clothes-drying rack

An unkempt field, once a vegetable garden

A field near Doris’s grandfather’s house. There were once more trees, but they were cleared.

The two red tins hold tea leaves.

Doris’s grandfather’s work truck. He puts up the roadside signs and announcements around Miaoli.

These leaves are cooked, then wrapped around Taiwan’s famous rice dumplings.

Rice paddies with new and older houses built next to and on top of the fields

A pedestrian bridge in Miaoli

Two blind men practicing using their canes near the pedestrian bridge

Huge lily pads, except not. Doris told me they were something else, but I don’t know what they are.

Bei District in Hsinchu (55 pictures)

Bei, pronounced “bay”, means north in Mandarin. This is the fourth neighborhood I’ve lived in since moving to Taiwan two years ago, and it’s a quirky, traditional area with so many pictures begging to be taken. Yvonne and I followed the routes I took when walking Nalla, Daisy and Shadow. We met at 7:30am on a Saturday, sweat through two hours of photographing the neighborhood, toured a small rice noodle operation, and took over 500 pictures between the two of us. Yvonne’s picture post is linked above.

Combating language barriers

Originally published on ExploreThere. New thoughts in blue.

Language barriers are tough. You have to pay attention to body language, read the person’s comfort level, and converse without accidentally being rude to the other person (which, let’s face it, is really easy to do). Communication in general is pretty difficult anyway. Ask 90% of divorcing couples. 

Following are my thoughts and tips – what’s worked for me both when I’m speaking to someone in English and when I’m trying to communicate in a language other than English. Or when I’m talking to an idiot… or when I’m the idiot.

Separate words – enunciate – but don’t be idiotic about it.
Make sure you’re speaking words clearly, with a tiny bit of extra space between words. Speak with a normal, just slowed, rhythm. I used to mumble a lot. Now I get in trouble for over-enunciating words. Where’s the happy medium, Self?

Say a few words, have a slight pause, then continue.
This saved me in the Dominican Republic. With all the translating I was doing every minute in my head, having a brief moment to concentrate on what the other person had just said was always appreciated.

Use fewer words.
I’m in a restaurant. The person I’m with just told the waitress, “Oh, my gosh, I’m so thirsty! I want water. Can you bring me water right away?”

How about, “Water? Fast!” And say it with a smile. Depending on how the server responds, you might get some insight on how much English she knows.

There are a lot of unnecessary words thrown into sentences in every language. Non-native speakers do better with fewer words. It’s less to translate and reply to.

It’s interesting when you notice just how many unnecessary words are used in everyday conversation. Add to that the sound fillers like “uh” and “um” and there’s a smorgasbord of fluff. I’m personally a big contributor to the fluffplosion, but I’m trying to be more mindful of my fluffiness.

LISTEN. Nod. Smile. Encourage.
Do this anyway, no matter who you’re talking to. You’re going to miss talking to Grandma when she’s gone.

When they talk to you, pay attention. Unless they’ve asked you to, don’t correct their grammar. Let them consider their words – don’t finish their sentence unless you can tell they want your help. This isn’t a lesson; it’s a conversation. Be polite.

DON’T TALK LOUDER.
TALKING LOUDLY IS LIKE READING ALL CAPS. IT’S ANNOYING FOR EVERYONE, AND IT’S RUDE. They’re not deaf, and you look like an idiot. A culturally obtuse foreigner just yelled at some guy – was that really necessary? Normal speaking volume, no megaphone voice.

Avoid colloquialisms.
“Dude, I wanna go Mortal Kombat on that guy that just cut me off.”

That doesn’t even make sense to some English speakers. My Canadian roommate and I get into little debates all the time about ridiculous things he says and things I say that he claims make no sense. If English speakers have trouble understanding each other – British English, Scottish English, Irish English, Boston English, Valley Girl English, Louisiana Bayou English, Surfer English, Prep School English – imagine how hard it is for non-native speakers.

Raise your hand if you make up random words and phrases on the spot and expect people to understand exactly what you mean.

…only me? Okay. That’s cool.

Don’t give up.
Maybe they don’t understand what you just said. Reword it. Use hand signs and body language. If you think you need to, slow your speech. Be friendly and understanding. The person you’re talking to isn’t stupid; you’re just using words or an expression he or she doesn’t understand. Don’t react negatively or make them feel like you don’t want to try anymore. It’ll leave them feeling slighted.

Don’t ever let language barriers get in your way.
Most people are a lot smarter and more interesting than we’ll ever know. When you have the time, use everything at your disposal to converse with someone, no matter how difficult it may be. Chances are high it’ll be worth it.