What A Year!

One year anniversary celebration golden vintage logotype. FirstMy last day with EY was July 9th, 2018. Therefore today marks a full year since I officially started my “work break”. Reflecting on what I accomplished during this time, I can say without hesitation that the experience has been very fulfilling. I am grateful to have this opportunity to devote much time and energy to what is important in my life.

My new journey actually started on June 25th, 2018, when I shared my plans on this blog before boarded a flight to Europe. A whirlwind of activities followed, as documented in Much needed R&R. Things didn’t get as crazy since then but I have been quite busy nonetheless. I can’t believe how fast time flies.

I set out three priorities during my time off – 1) travel; 2) spend time with family and friends; 3) read, write, exercise, and relax. I did pretty well in all three areas. My post at the beginning of 2019 included the first half of this one-year adventure, and below is a brief overall report (all numbers are for the time period 06/25/2018 to 07/10/2019).

Travel – I visited 14 countries, 11 of which were new to me.

  1. Denmark (Copenhagen, Bornholm)
  2. Poland (Gdańsk)
  3. Lithuania (Klaipeda)
  4. Estonia (Tallin)
  5. Russia (St. Petersburg)
  6. Finland (Helsinki, Aland)
  7. Sweden (Stockholm)
  8. China (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong)
  9. Philippines (Hundred Islands, Manila, Boracay, Coron, Palawan)
  10. Malaysia (Kota Kinabalu, Kuching)
  11. Brunei
  12. Singapore
  13. Costa Rica (San José, Fortuna, Guanacaste, Manuel Antonio)
  14. Cuba (Camagüey, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Remedios, Havana)

Additionally, David and I did a 2000-mile road trip in US Northwest from Crater Lake to Glacier National Park via Columbia River Gorge. We fully immersed ourselves in the beautiful nature. We also drove down to Charleston, SC and spent a few wonderful days exploring its rich history and culture.

Spend time with family and friends – Believe it or not, I flew back to China four times this past year for various reasons. With 53 days there, I got a chance to catch up with many old friends, some of whom I haven’t seen for decades. I spent three precious months with my mother during her recent visit, including three trips to Pennsylvania to see my aunt. I was also on four long road trips to New England to visit David’s family, a total of 19 days. Throughout the year there were numerous get-togethers with friends and ex-colleagues as well. I greatly cherished all these wonderful personal interactions.

Read, write, exercise, and relax – I ended up more or less on track with my reading schedule, even though I was four books behind at times. I still wasn’t able to finish the books piled on my floor, nor the many classic Chinese books that I was hoping to re-read. At my friend’s prompt, I wrote 7 Chinese articles on travel (about 20,000 Chinese characters). I didn’t write as many English blog posts as I should though. In terms of exercise, I swam less than before but walked a lot more, averaging 8,209 steps a day. I also attended 12 hot yoga classes and played tennis 5 times. Not sure how much I relaxed this year, given all the hectic activities, travel stresses, and family events, but I feel quite refreshed at the moment so I guess I relaxed more than I remembered. 🙂

All in all, it has been a very rewarding year with many unforgettable memories. I am so glad I made the big decision and carried it out. Now I am getting ready for the next chapter of my life, and I expect great things to come in the near future.

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Hope to visit you again, Cuba

It has been a week since I returned from a wonderful trip to Cuba with Road Scholar. We started from Camagüey and visited several cities across the country by bus, all the way to Havana.

Cuba Map

I think about those precious 10 days often, and I felt really sad when I learned of the new ban a few days ago. To me, Cuba is no longer just a ‘communist country on an island not far from Florida’; it is all the people I met during this trip – artists, dancers, musicians, professors, farmers, doctors, business owners, pedicab drivers, street vendors, and children. They are talented, hard-working, friendly, optimistic; they try to make the best of their lives no matter how dire the situation is, and I was both touched and inspired by them.

Our trip was not a superficial one where people just hang out at tourist sites and ride a classic car in Havana. We used toilets where there was no seat or paper or flushing water; we visited local markets and a ‘ration’ store; we stayed in a small town where we lost power three times; our bus shared roads with horse carts and tractors avoiding water-filled pot holes. We experienced more of the ‘real’ Cuba, even though our food and accommodation were still far better than what most local people could afford.

We greatly enjoyed the many people-to-people interactions, when we talked to various artists, danced with professional dancers, asked business owners questions, learned to play dominoes, discussed with kids about environment protection, etc. We drank a few mojitos every day, made in different ways. I cherished the fun time spent with our group leaders and intelligent, curious, caring fellow travelers. The memories will stay with me forever.

 

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There are so many photos to share and so much to write about. It is a great pity that Americans could no longer visit Cuba to experience its rich culture and art. And Cuba people could not benefit from the gifts we bring in – school supplies, art supplies, powdered and canned food, hygiene products – daily things that we take for granted. I heard it mentioned more than once during this trip, that relationships and policies built on love will endure. I look forward to the day when I could visit Cuba again.

Write, Write, Write

It has been nine months since I decided to take a break from work and begin a new journey. I am happy to report that I have accomplished most plans I set out – unforgettable trips to new countries; time well spent with family and friends especially my mother during her visit to US; lots of reading and exercising.

However, there was one thing that I fell short of, and that was “write about my trips and family stories”. I did write a few posts here and there, but not the paragraphs and chapters that I intend to organize into a book (or books) later on.

Today my good friend Jun called me and we talked for about an hour. She is a very accomplished author and she encouraged me once again to write. I ended up promising her that I would write 25,000 characters before May 20th, which is about 1,000 per day. Note that these are Chinese characters, not quite the same as English words count. For example, ‘Italy’ is one word in English, but its Chinese equivalent has three characters. But in many cases one English word does equal to one Chinese character. On average, I estimate 25,000 Chinese characters would translate into about 15,000 English words. Achievable in a month, right?

I will write about my various trips, and this would give me a chance to organize my photos. While I am at it, I will also catch up on English writing for this blog. My current plan is to set aside three hours a day for writing. As David mentioned in his post, “developing a writing routine is essential”!

I will start a routine immediately after I return from a trip in five days…

camera-contemporary-desk-905877(Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels)

Mom’s visit to the US

I just returned from Beijing after accompanying my mother back home, concluding her successful 2.5-month visit to the US.

She arrived at Christmas Eve 2018, and departed on March 10th, 2019. She celebrated Christmas and New Year with us while still jet-lagged. We visited my aunt (her younger sister) twice in Pennsylvania and had a wonderful Chinese New Year together. Then I had a very special birthday celebration with her, which I hadn’t done for more than two decades!

My mom wasn’t the adventurous type, but she adapted to the new and completely different environment pretty well. She was creative in setting up her room, and strengthened considerably from being intimidated by the steep stairs in the house to racing up and down without a problem. Every morning, she came downstairs to the living room with her thermos, and a handbag that holds her Sudoku pages, pens and pencils, notebook, phone and charger, glasses, needles and threads, etc., then carried these back upstairs at bedtime. I joked that she was commuting for work from 9am to 9pm.

She cooked often and had a specialty in vegetable dishes, some of which David and I never tried before. I learned a few tips from her, and could prepare decent meals at times. David also successfully tried out new recipes. All three of us were determined to lose weight, so our food was healthy in general. One day both my mom and David had the same comment about that day’s dinner, in different languages, that it was like feeding rabbits. Eating out was a bit fattening but we did once in a while so she could try different cuisines – Italian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, American, etc. Visiting my aunt was similar – a nice mixture of eastern and western food, home-made and dining out.

I don’t go shopping much on my own, but I did quite a lot with my mom. She was curious about everything in the stores – from fabric and craft supplies to kitchen utensils. Of course, she was happy to find clothes, shoes, and handbags that fit her well. As a result, she came here with one big suitcase, and returned with two.

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We also walked a lot, even though the weather wasn’t really cooperating (arctic vortex, snow, rain, wind). We went to the library where she could read Chinese newspapers and magazines. We strolled on university campus among all those young people. My mom played ping-pong with my aunt during her visit, and also learned to play piano. She spent sometime everyday to watch shows on YouTube and talk to her friends on WeChat. And she chatted with me all the time.

Even with all these activities and the quality time we enjoyed, she decided to go back to China early. Lack of autonomy was her main issue. She couldn’t drive and doesn’t speak English, so she couldn’t go anywhere or buy anything on her own anytime she wants. Also, there were too few people around compared to the lively crowds she saw in Beijing every day. Mostly she missed her friends and the group exercises and the freedom. I totally understand. I am just grateful that we had a chance to be together, with my taking a break from work and her being healthy and energetic to experience new things. I will cherish these memories forever and hope to do it again in the future.

Games (Part II)

Games (Part I)

Push BoxAnother game I liked a lot was “Push Box”. The goal was simple – figure out how to move the boxes to the target locations by pushing them. Some levels were quite difficult indeed and required lots of brain power. This game was quite revealing of different personalities and styles – some people thought ahead and plotted all the moves in their head first; while others just started pushing and restarted whenever a box reached a dead end.

Computer hardware and software progressed rapidly, and the image and sound quality of games improved accordingly. I tried out many games but none held my interest for long. I vaguely remember capsules and virtual cops and missiles and sim cities. Every time I went back to China, my niece also introduced new games for us to play. I really enjoyed those precious moments when we laughed and screamed together.

I had a Palm Pilot for a while, the early primitive black-and-white version. Sometimes during my long commute, I played sub-hunt. It was a simple and boring game. Thinking back, I really should have read books instead. Then came Xbox with awesome games. Their effects and sceneries were comparable to movies. Fortunately, I didn’t indulge too much on them due to my neck/shoulder problems. Wii became available after that. At least Wii games involved physical exercises, be it tennis or golf or bowling or yoga or other body-moving fun activities. I really enjoyed it for quite a while, until my interest waned. I am considering picking it up again.

SONY PSPIn 2009, a good friend lent me a Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) for about two months, which reminded me of the hand-held Tetris console in the old days, only with much better high-quality games. Again, I kept refreshing my own top scores. I believe various records on that little machine are still mine even today.

So far, I had been playing solo most of the time. If people wanted to play together, they needed to show up at the same location. For example, boxing on Wii. With faster internet and all-time connections, game-playing began to reach a new level. The social aspect of games became more important. I started to play on Facebook by accepting friends’ invitations and challenges – Bejeweled Blitz, World Traveler IQ, Kitchen Scramble, Candy Crush, etc. Competing, helping, and making new friends added a lot more fun to these online games.

Next up, as you might have guessed, were those addictive games on smart phones and tablets. To be continued…

A Legend Left Us

Jin YongThe first thing I learned this morning was that the legendary martial arts (wuxia) novelist Jin Yong passed away in Hong Kong at age 94. Here is an Obituary titled “Jin Yong fused martial arts fantasy, history and romance into must-read novels.”

Must-read they were! My generation more or less grew up with his novels. Everybody was so familiar with the vivid characters and stories that it became a cultural phenomenon. His books spawned many movies, TV dramas, video games over the years. Even here in US, I was once pleasantly surprised when I was chatting with a Vietnamese coworker and found out that she was a big fan as well!

Jin Yong published 15 martial arts titles from 1955 to 1972, then he announced that he would write no more. I ended up reading them all, several of which multiple times. During my forming teenage years, I learned honor, love, loyalty, courage, history, and many other things from these precious books.

Jin Yong novels

I forgot when they first became available in mainland China – probably in the mid-1980s. My father bought “The Legend of the Condor Heroes” and a few others and locked them in a cabinet. My sister and I were not allowed to read them because it would take up too much of our study time. One thing my parents didn’t know was that we found out where they hid the keys!

So, when we were home alone during school breaks, we took the keys (after memorizing how each key was laid out), opened the cabinet, noted how the books were laid out, grabbed a book, locked the cabinet, put back the keys as we found them, and read greedily. We were equally careful and meticulous while returning the books shortly before parents were due to come home. This way my sister and I read all the martial arts books in that cabinet without our parents’ detection. To this day my mother still marvels at our ability to accomplish such a feat.

Just two weeks ago I considered re-reading some Chinese books that I read when I was young, including a few novels by Jin Yong. Now I want to do it even more. I am sure I will have whole new feelings and insights after decades of life experience.

Today’s WeChat updates were filled with news and tributes; my friends both in China and US were talking about Jin Yong with sadness. Given that he stopped writing novels in 1972, it was not a sentiment as in “too bad we can’t read any more new novels now that he is gone”. It is quite amazing, really, that we still feel such a deep loss after so many years. I think my sister got it right – we are paying tribute to our own youths.

 

Beijing 798 Art Zone

While I was in Beijing this summer, my good friend Jingbo and I met up to spend a day together doing something fun, as was our tradition. She suggested two options and both sounded great, so the temporary plan was to do 798 Art Zone for half a day and then onto Blue Bay. Well, we were still at 798 when night fell. Talking about severe underestimation of how interesting the place was, especially given the fact that it was Monday and many galleries were not even open.

The Art Zone is a re-purposed abandoned factory complex in northeast Beijing. It was built in the 1950s involving both the Soviet Union and East Germany. For those who are interested in history, the Wiki page has many details on its construction, operation, and artistic rebirth.

We strolled on the streets and alleys in the zone and checked out galleries, studios, bookstores, cultural centers, museums, shops, cafes, sculptures, graffiti, and time just flew by. The combination of old industrial buildings and contemporary art forms, of childhood-era antiques and modern-day high-tech, made the whole experience a bit surreal, like time travel.

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Some walls still have slogans like ‘Long Live Mao’ from cultural revolution. Strange sculptures at street corners remind people of those days.

King Kong graffiti and artwork in a shop. Similar red brick buildings and walls were everywhere.

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I believe those display tables with rotating wheels and foot pedals were once sewing machines.

There were also plenty of weird stuff popping up here and there for us to marvel, to discuss, and to take loads of pictures.

By the time we left, we were reasonably certain that our footsteps covered all the streets in the zone and we saw all there was to see, except those galleries that were closed on Mondays. We also had a simple but good lunch and bought a few cute things. It was such a fun day and I wouldn’t mind going back for another visit.

If you are in Beijing and have already done all the “tourist highlights”, check out this odd but chic place. 🙂 Oh, did I mention that it is free?