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Finding 永和里

Word might have been passed through the grapevine already, but I wanted to let you know that I’m currently in the process of finding the Moy family village. My program allowed us to organize independent research trips. Originally, my group had planned on traveling to Hong Kong, but new restrictions on research travel destinations forced us to think on our feet and come up with a new location. In a crazy turn of events, I ended up bringing two classmates to Guangdong Province to try and trace my family’s trajectory from China to the United States.

We arrived in Guangzhou a couple of days ago, and had an interesting time walking around the city. My Great-Uncle Tow had said that the family had once owned an apartment near Central Park, and we walked around the area to get a feel for the place. The park still stands though they’ve gotten rid of the gate that once enclosed the gardens. We’ve heard that parts of the park have expanded over time, and that the installation of the subway system caused the old apartment to get pulled down. The subway station at the park is huge – there’s a giant underground mall there now which reaches down three floors.

After leaving Guangzhou, we made our way to Taishan – the town closest to our family’s village. It took us two hours by bus to get here, and the ride was really pleasant. We booked a hotel close to the bus station here in Taishan, and were able to take another public bus route to get to the Moy family village.

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永和里 (Pronounced Yong He Li in Mandarin, and Wing Wo Lei in Cantonese) is about a 30 minute walk away from the bus station. The road to the village is paved, although you can still see a lot of hallmarks of village life. Lots of farming still takes place in the area, and while electricity has reached most homes it’s not necessarily a given that every home has plumbing. Each village along the way typically has a public bathroom, and many also have other common spaces/public services (like schools, village canteens, etc.) that serve the whole community.

Something that interested me a lot about this area (and our village as well!) is that there’s a massive number of Chinese abroad that still have connections to these villages. Wing Wo Lei currently has about 150 residents, and an estimated 300 people abroad that continue to support family members living in the village. Many public amenities are donated by Chinese abroad – such as the school that GongGong & Uncle Tow’s father helped build.

The house where my GongGong was born still stands – and has been unoccupied since our family left for America. Because nobody has been tending to it, it has fallen into a state of disrepair – though I’m shocked by how much has been preserved. The beams in the roof have fallen through, and there are a number of plants feeding off the rain and sunlight growing wild in what would have been the central room of the house. There were still some pieces of furniture left over in the first and second floors, and a few ceramic pieces and bottles sitting in cabinet shelves.

It’s a strange but beautiful thing for me to come back to this home during Qingming Festival – a holiday devoted to the cleaning and sweeping of graves, and the remembrance of ancestors. I think that there’s a strong sense of identity in China that gets wrapped up in places and memories of people – almost as if you cannot truly find direction moving forward without having an idea of where you came from. What a surreal experience it has been, to have the opportunity to stand in the same house where my grandfather was born over a century ago.

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Our family name “梅” (Pronounced Moy in Cantonese, and Mei in Mandarin) translates as “Plum”. It’s a surname that’s shared widely among the villages surrounding ours – though in the United States, I can’t say that I’ve ever met another Moy that wasn’t a close relative. So it was a lot of fun to come through these villages and say that I was part of the Moy family and that I was from 永和里, and to have some people recognize the name and the place.

I made two visits to the village – the first time was spent wandering around and discovering which building had been my GongGong’s home. I had gotten some details about the home from my Uncle Tow, and had asked questions to a woman in the village that we met when walking around. She wasn’t certain which building we were talking about, so she took us to the home of the village head. As we were walking, I looked at one of the homes and just felt certain that it was the one I was looking for. There was a kind of resonance – seeing a sight from an old photograph, remembering a place that you’ve never seen before in person.

We went to the house of the village head and together we were able to come to the conclusion that the building that I had passed was mine. They let me get into the house to look around, and then into the old school building. I was told that the old school building is going to be taken down sometime next year to make room for a new public dining hall for all of the people in the village – so I’m especially happy that I was able to come back now and see it while it was still standing.

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On the second visit, we once again wandered around and took in the sights. I was able to convince the village head that I wasn’t afraid of heights, and he brought out a ladder for me to climb onto the roof of my GongGong’s home. Afterwards, he invited us back to his home to have tea and dinner with his family. I had a lot of fun playing with the children in the village – chasing them down the alleys in the darkness as we played hide and seek or tag. A nice thing about being around children is that language barriers don’t really matter quite so much – I can hold some simple conversations with them, but they’re generally more impressed with the fact that I can pick them up and spin them around. Being surrounded by laughter like that is a really simple & lovely pleasure.

My classmates and I are going around other areas in the south of Guangdong for the next few days, and then I’ll be heading back to Guangzhou on Friday so that I can catch a flight to Hong Kong where I’m going to take a long weekend vacation. I really do like the village a lot though, and hope to make more trips back sometime soon. For now, I’m happy to be in touch with the people there over wechat. I needed to rely a lot on my classmates to help me translate when I was in the village, but having written text messages to exchange gives me a lot of time to compose what I want to say and talk to them myself. It can be slow, but it’s rewarding – and it’s making me really motivated to become more fluent in speaking and writing.

Lots of love,
Kristen

Myanmar: Mandalay and Bagan

Sorry for messing with a chronological posting order, but I’m just getting to sorting through some of my photos and the notes that I jotted down earlier this trip! The following talks about my time in Myanmar (a leg of my trip that I’ve already completed!) and I’m currently writing from Vietnam. I’m also simultaneously posting about some of the things I’m seeing (and eating!) while I’m traveling between Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Hanoi, so sorry for any of the confusion that might happen as a result!

After Thailand, Marta and I flew to Myanmar – taking a flight from Phuket and stopping over in Bangkok for a few hours in a layover. We made it to Mandalay and stayed there for just over a day, which gave us a chance to get a glimpse at the city. We walked around Mandalay a fair bit, even though we were only there for a little more than 24 hours. We landed at 12:30, but going through immigration, withdrawing money, and catching a bus to ET Hotel ended up taking a few hours so there wasn’t much left of the afternoon once we had unwound at our hotel.

We walked to a restaurant called Aye Myst Tar, which offered a full menu with a lot of options neither of us had tried before. We were pretty obviously lost, and (more than once) had to ask the waiters to explain what some of the side dishes were. Our meal was really delicious, and left me totally stuffed. Before coming to Myanmar, I had only tried Burmese food once – so it’s been a really positive experience to expand my understanding of culinary traditions around the world. It’s no secret that I love tea, so I’ve been thrilled to be in Myanmar where leaves from the tea plant are both brewed as a beverage and eaten in salad form! Consider me a very happy camper.

In Mandalay, we had time to see the Mandalay Palace, which we had walked past the evening before. While there, we asked another couple of travelers to take a picture of us, and we ended up starting to talk and going out to lunch together. I really like how friendly folks are, and being a twenty-something backpacker seems to give you enough in common to strike up a conversation and become temporary friends. We didn’t have much more time for sight-seeing after we parted ways with the rest of the group, so we did miss out on Mandalay Hill and U Bein Bridge, but I don’t really regret it.

Our hotel helped us book a bus to Bagan, and we left Mandalay around 4 pm. We passed time on the bus by snacking (I swear, Marta is the ultimate travel companion because she insists on buying chocolate wherever we go) and watching Children of Men. A co-worker gave the movie to me over the summer, though I’m just getting around to watching it now. While the film was quite good, I have to say that it felt pretty unnerving to watch this while we were on the road – there are multiple scenes with violent car chases, and the uneven rocky roads taking us to Bagan certainly made you feel like you were part of the film. We got to Bagan in one piece, and settled into Innwa Hotel.

Two classmates from Yenching were also in Bagan, though we only overlapped for the first night that we arrived. After some back and forth debating where we should meet, Marta and I caught a motorbike taxi over to their hostel where we spent the night hanging out. Mikk and Luyolo gave us some suggestions for things to do and places to see, and we took down the name and location of a temple where they had caught a particularly beautiful (and semi-private!) sunrise and sunset.

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Bagan is noteworthy for its many sacred spaces – more than 2200 temples and pagodas stand today as holdovers from an architectural frenzy that lasted between the 11th and 13th centuries. During the heyday of the Kingdom of Pagan (which would go on to eventually become modern-day Burma), 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries were erected. For three days, Marta and I explored the temple ruins, and caught a number of breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. Without exaggeration, I think that these couple of days can claim the titles for the most beautiful beginnings and endings that I’ve seen in my life.

In the mornings we’d wake up at 4:30 am, and rent the e-scooters from our hotel reception that we’d use for the rest of the day. With vague ideas of where we were heading, we made our way down the roads that frequently forked and turned from pavement to dirt, and dirt to sand. When we found a temple that would give us a good vantage point, we’d slip out of our shoes and climb narrow staircases and perch on the stones and wait eagerly as the deep blue of early morning to give way to the warm blush that comes with the dawn.

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There’s something really quite magical about mornings in Bagan – there’s a heavy mist that hangs above the earth, and when you’re on one of the many temples scattered throughout the archeological zone, you’re just a little above it all so you can see the grey of the fog dissolving as the sun breaks over the horizon line. Once the sun has started its climb, a modest army of hot-air balloons is launched and they take lazy paths across the landscape.

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Most people in my life can attest to the fact that I’m not usually one who wakes up quite so early. But I loved the routine of waking up, wandering around, and then returning to our hotel once the sun had risen. We’d eat breakfast on our rooftop, sipping teas and coffees to shake off the morning chill, and then take a few hours of down time before heading back out to explore again under the sun.

We rented e-scooters every day that we were there, which is (in my opinion) the only way to cover a lot of ground. Marta and I managed to escape injury while driving, which is no small feat considering that neither of us has been behind the wheel much before. I loved zipping through Bagan this way, and peeling off from the main roads whenever we caught sight of a temple that we liked and wanted to check out.

Sunsets felt just as otherworldly as the sunrises did, and altogether too brief. In fact, we spent our first evening chasing the sun, racing against the clock as it dipped beneath the faraway mountains. We caught the colors streaking the sky, and took in the last of the retreating light with drinks along the Ayeyarwady River, at a bar attached to the Bagan Thande Hotel. So, even on the nights where we missed the main attraction, we still got a chance to appreciate the beauty of Bagan. Other evenings took us to different temples, and each sunset was gorgeous and gave us new and different panoramic views of the archeological zone.

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My favorite vantage point for both sunrise and sunset was the view recommended to us by our classmate – the Winido Temple. It was fairly close to the hot air balloon launch point, so we got to see the balloons take off and fly away. We never had a wholly private sunrise/sunset to ourselves, but I’d consider the crowd at Winido to have been a modestly sized group that didn’t distract from the views that we were taking in. While I can understand the appeal of a private sunrise or a private sunset, I also think that it’s nice to be able come together and share these moments with total strangers. In the moments leading up to the sunrise and sunset, there’s a quietness that spreads over the crowd where you’re all there waiting for the exact same thing. It’s equally calming and electrifying to have this sense of common ground with people from all walks of life, and I’m pretty blessed to have experienced it here.

I’d like to say that there’s a lot of beauty in the world. It’s something that I guess I forget about when I’m entrenched in routines and get such tunnel vision that I fail to see the bigger picture. So I’ll take this as a small reminder that there’s a whole lot more going on out there.

Overall, I feel really glad that I got to make this trip and doubly glad that I got to share being here with Marta, who is one of my closest friends from China. It wouldn’t have been a trip without taking a few moments for personal vanity and snapping a couple of portraits here and there. So here are a couple of shots of Marta and myself that I’m pretty fond of.

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We ended our time in Bagan after three days, as Marta needed to make it Yangon to catch her flight back to Beijing. So, we took a nighttime bus to Yangon, which departed at 9 pm. I was glad for this – the overnight travel meant a night that we didn’t need to find a hotel for, and leaving late gave us a chance to catch one more sunset.

I hope to return here someday, but until then I’ll have to keep myself satiated with the huge number of photos that are now saved to my computer. While I hope to be able to share some more of these pictures with loved ones in the future, it’d be a dream come true to share the experience in person and have the chance to see some of these sunrises and sunsets together. Missing you plenty.

Love,

Kristen

Seeking Shade in Pathein

Pathein, a city located on the Ayeyarwady river delta in Myanmar, makes it into the margins of travel guides in footnotes about stops to make when traveling south to the beach, or in reference to the scattered workshops in the city that produce handmade umbrellas. It is the fourth largest city in Myanmar – a surprising fact given the calm low-density feel of the place (a sharp contrast to the bustling city of Yangon just 190 km to the east). Few buildings reached above three stories, and many facades proudly proclaimed mid-century vintages in dates elevated on their concrete walls.

When I found the first mention of Pathein in a tour guide, there was something that told me I needed to see it for myself. I don’t really know why, but I’ve had a long-term love for umbrellas. There’s something fun about them, I suppose: strong but delicate, functional but beautiful. I like the contrasts they present, the not-quite contradiction there is about them. A few photographs of these umbrella workshops sent me on a string of online searches for information. I quickly found that the city was a little bit more off the beaten path than I was used to, and if I wanted to learn more I was likely going to have to go there and see it for myself.

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The trip to Pathein was straightforward enough: I bought a bus ticket the day before, and only needed to arrive at the station a half hour before departure. Our bus pulled out of the station close to 10:30, a little later than the original 10:00 schedule. We made a few stops along the way to pick up passengers and took a half-hour long lunch break, but other than that experienced no delays. We arrived a little after 3:30, and I wandered along the Strand Road until I found a guesthouse to book for the night.

Wandering around was a nice way to spend part of the afternoon and evening, though it didn’t turn up much in the way of the mysterious umbrellas that brought me on this quasi-pilgrimage. Sometime after the sun had set, I started to feel a little bit dejected. I tried unsuccessfully to find the workshops I had dog-eared when the inspiration for this trip first struck, but none of the addresses were registered by my usually trusty Google Maps. (As a millennial, I am thoroughly dependent on my smartphone in more ways than I like to admit, so this was a horror and made me feel acutely betrayed by technology.)

New days bring opportunities for new runs and new adventures. I’m still working towards a goal of running 50 miles while on vacation (though Yangon has not been a kind city to run in), so I headed out first thing in the morning to explore some side streets and head out towards Kanthonzin Lake. The meandering route that I took led me past a line of Buddhist monks collecting morning donations, a local school, and a public playground. And then, suddenly, I was in front of the Shwe Sar Umbrella Workshop.

I looped back to Shwe Sar to see where the magic happens an hour later, after I had finished my run and taken a much needed shower. I was ushered in and promptly handed a cup of milk tea to welcome me to the workshop. The owner, Ko Min Naung, was happy to answer whatever questions I had and let me poke around and take photos of everything that was going on. He told me that umbrella making was a family trade, and that the business and workshop had been in his family for several generations. He traced the history of the craft to a forefather who worked for the royal family in Bagan, under the last king of Myanmar. Their workshop migrated first to Mandalay and then to Bagan, as the family fled from colonial troops expanding the reach of the British Empire in Asia.

The frame of the umbrella is made entirely out of bamboo, while the top and handle is crafted out of lathe-turned mango wood. The woodworking took place at one end of the workshop, where an enormous machine hummed and spun out curled wood shavings that lifted up in the air and stuck to cobwebs hanging off the corrugated metal walls. I’m sure that my old woodshop teacher would have been taken aback by the machine’s set-up: one part circle-saw, one part lathe, powered by a single cord that dropped from the ceiling and rotated a motor that revolved a rubber fan belt longer than my legs.

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These frames are threaded, and fabric coverings are later added over the ribs. Silks are used for parasols – a more delicate accessory, only intended to protect from the sun and not other elements. Cottons are used to make the canopies for more durable umbrellas, which can be used in both Myanmar’s rainy and dry seasons. The fabrics are painted with different designs – silk parasols were given delicate floral motifs, which Ko Min Naung told me made them popular among visitors from China and Japan.

The cotton umbrellas were decorated with traditionally styled graphic patterns in black and colored washes. I was most interested in these traditional cotton umbrellas for both their aesthetics and multi-purpose functionality – while I was looking around, a number were unfurled in the garden to receive a waterproofing wash, which ranged in size from child-size accessory to patio-sized coverings.

To waterproof these umbrellas, a paste is made from a local variety of a persimmon fruit. While persimmons of a Chinese variety are sweet, pulpy, and popular in various dishes and desserts, I was told that the local cultivars were bitter, firm, and not as frequently used for culinary purposes. The sealant had a slight golden color to it, which spread thin over the umbrellas and gave off a clean familiar smell that was not unlike wood stain.

I couldn’t resist buying one more souvenir (as thoroughly impractical as it will be to get back to Beijing). Ko Min Naung agreed that the blue one that I had been admiring was a good choice, and demonstrated a stoic faced pose for me.

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When it was time to say goodbye, he lit another cigarette and took a few minutes to find a guest book that had accumulated the signatures of a number of visitors to the workshop. He came back with not only the guest book, but also a pair of hand-carved bamboo drinking cups, which he insisted that I take as a gift. (Really, I’m running out of space, and now definitely keeping my fingers crossed that they don’t weigh my backpack at the airport.) Paging through the notebook, I saw a combination of notes in both Burmese and foreign languages – some that I could recognize, some that I couldn’t. I added my own email and my address back in the US, and I’m hoping to stay in touch.

As a final favor, Ko Min Naung insisted on making sure that I get back to the guesthouse without walking or paying for a taxi – so we said our goodbyes and I hopped on the back of a motorbike driven by a family friend who had been sitting around the workshop that morning. As we sped back to the Strand, I couldn’t help but think that it has been a weird, but wonderful, string of events that led me here.

I have to say that traveling to Pathein has undoubtedly been one of the highlights of my time in Myanmar. It gave me an opportunity to have conversations – and not just about umbrellas! As soon as I arrived, we began with easy small talk about how people around the world take their tea, and later about my education in Beijing, my travels thus far this winter, and Ko Min Naung’s family. I was shown a picture on a phone taken of an old photograph, a brother who had moved to America a few decades before and set up a business in Connecticut. I was told that I should visit, next time I was back in the United States. I was told to remember faces, to visit again, and that friends of mine would be welcome whenever they came. It’s wonderful to feel so warmly received, especially at times like this when I am traveling alone.

I’ve spent the last few days bouncing around Yangon, and hope to catch up a bit with writing some more about the places I visited & post some pictures soon. For now, I’ve been putting my finishing touches on this while in the airport, and I intend to post everything tonight when I arrive in my hostel in Ho Chi Minh City. While in Vietnam, I’ll be meeting up with a few more friends from my program, taking some cooking classes, and staying with my cousin Claire! So I’ve definitely got a lot that I’m looking forward to. 🙂

Until the next update, I’m sending you all the best,

Kristen

No Ban, No Wall.

I began this post as a letter to my loved ones, and then more words came and I was left with something that was hard to contain in a single email. So, I’m sharing this with you here, and now, because I like you and I love you, and I want to begin a conversation together. If we don’t’ see eye to eye, please feel free to reach out to me and we can exchange thoughts.

I just wanted to share something that I’ve been thinking about, and encourage you guys to consider supporting some of the organizations that have been mobilizing against Trump locally and nationally. It would mean a lot to me if you would give this some thought, and start having conversations about this at home and with others. I wish that we could be having his conversation in person, but I’ve tried to collect some ideas that I’ve had and would love to talk to you guys some more about these things if you’re interested.

My friends are immigrants. 

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Going to Penn gave me a huge network of friends that hail from all over the world. I’m really lucky to have learned from their perspectives in my classrooms and conversations, and owe a lot of my personal growth in the past four years to the places (like PAACH and the other cultural centers) that gave me a chance to explore and develop my interests. I have friends and classmates who were undocumented, and friends and classmates who arrived legally from the countries that are now targeted through immigration bans. My friends are afraid, and that scares me. We’re an interfaith community that is rich with diverse traditions and love for one another. I want to believe that love trumps hate, especially at a time like this.

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More recently, I’ve been lucky enough to be part of Yenching Academy, which brings together scholars from around the world to study together here in China. This is something that has also continually expanded my perspective and broadened my definitions of diversity. I’m fortunate to be here, but I can’t help but think that this chance to build international friendships becomes increasingly unlikely in an America that is driven by xenophobic policy and where thinly veiled hate-speech (and sometimes, hate-speech that is not veiled at all) becomes a norm.

We are immigrants.

I am an American today because my great-grandfather was an undocumented immigrant to the United States. He broke the law to enter this country, crossing a border that was tightly regulated by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. My family was fortunate that he was able to make this journey successfully and eventually set up a life and advocate for his wife and children to join him. His case, while not unique, is extraordinary to me and speaks to the resilience and resistance necessary to exist as an immigrant in the country that I now consider home.

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The Chinese Exclusion Act was an inherently xenophobic law, rooted in the belief that all Chinese immigrants were morally depraved, unassimilable, and their culture was fundamentally incompatible with core American values. It was the first immigration law that targeted specific ethnic groups, but was by no means the last. Immigration bans today continue a sad tradition of intolerance and underscore the role that white supremacy has had in defining who is allowed to enter the country legally and become American.

Though I know most of the research that I’ve done has focused on tracing our Chinese family’s roots, and learning more broadly about Asian immigration policies and practices, there’s a lot also to be learned from the history of Irish immigrants and their reception to the United States. When the droves of Irish immigrants through Ellis Island, they were not faced with the same degree of scrutiny as Asian immigrants to the West Coast’s Angel Island. This was an enormous privilege. Still, the Irish faced discrimination and mockery for bringing their foreign faith to America’s shores, and living conditions in Irish tenement slums were far from easy.

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A political cartoon featuring caricatures of Chinese and Irish immigrants, devouring Uncle Sam. 

I think about touring through Hoboken with my Grandfather, having him point out buildings throughout the neighborhood where his family lived before they shuffled to yet another tenement for not being able to make the rent. These neighborhoods are now gentrified, housing the chic New York City commuters that have little in common with the Irish barge-workers barely two generations before. There is enormous privilege granted in the ability to assimilate into the United States – anti-Irish sentiment cannot be compared to the continued racism, xenophobia, and discrimination against immigrants and communities of color today. Still, we have to remember what history has taught us: that arrival has never been simple, and that coming to America is never a decision made easily. Nobody leaves home unless they believe that the world that they are moving to is safer, more prosperous, and more kind than the one that they are leaving behind.

The pictures above feature my paternal and maternal grandfathers – both the children of immigrants, and in the case of my GongGong, an immigrant himself. I encourage other friends to consider family immigration narratives and to contemplate how processes of inclusion have long been built on the forcible exclusion of others. Please do not be complacent: intolerance cannot be taken as a norm.

Where we can support:

I’m donating to the ACLU today, and hope that you’ll join me and support organizations that work to ensure that all people seeking a home in the United States will be treated with respect and dignity.

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. – Winston Churchill

American Civil Liberties Union

Donate to the ACLU today to help protect the rights and liberties of people across the country. Right now, we’re:

  • Protecting free speech and the right to protest
  • Defending reproductive freedom
  • Fighting anti-LGBT discrimination
  • Advocating for expanded privacy protections

This vital work and more depends on your support. Make a donation to the ACLU today — help us fight back.

The National Immigration Law Center

The National Immigration Law Center will fight against unjust new immigration laws and policies at every turn, using the courtroom if necessary. We will not back down. We will not stop fighting for justice and dignity for all. Join us!

National Immigration Forum 

In these divisive times, it is more important than ever to remember that immigration is about people not politics. Your gift helps provide new Americans with the opportunities, skills and status to reach their fullest potential.

If you have other organizations that you’re passionate about, and that you’d like to see included on this list, please reach out to me and let me know! I’d love to have this as a working list of groups supporting immigrant issues, and know that there are many gaps that need to be filled.

Give what you can. For me, while I’m away from the United States, financial support is one of the greatest things that I can offer because I cannot physically stand in solidarity at protests. For friends and family members who are still students, recent graduates, and otherwise not in a position to donate money – there are so many ways to help. Showing up and being present is just as important. Making calls is important. Giving your time and energy when and where you can is important.

Much love. Holding everyone in my thoughts right now.

Kristen

 

Happy Lunar New Year!

Lunar New Year, also referred to as the Spring Festival (春节), is one of the largest holidays celebrated in China. It’s a time rife with traditions, and often entails returning home to be with your immediate and extended family. Back in the US, I often celebrate the Lunar New Year by cooking for my friends, visiting Chinatown to watch the lion dances and other performances, and going home with my brother to eat with our parents. Festivities spill out into the days and weekends bookending the actual holiday: city permits play a role in determining street closings for Chinatown celebrations, class schedules and midterm dates dictated our free times to return home, and friends availabilities were something to consider when planning multi-course meals.

This year, life has seemed to stop and revolve around the Lunar New Year. Being part of Peking University has meant that the academic calendar is catered to Chinese festival dates, and so we’re given ample time off to celebrate the holiday which falls in the middle of the break between our semesters. Though I think it would have been interesting to ring in the Lunar New Year in the Mainland, I decided that I needed to get out of Beijing and have been traveling through Southeast Asia for the past three weeks.

I’m currently writing this post to all of you from Myanmar. I’ve got a lot that I want to write about this country and the different cities that I’ve seen thus far, but I thought I’d try to send some new years wishes out to everyone first. While the holiday is frequently referred to as “Chinese New Year”, it’s an important holiday for many people in different countries and ethnic diasporas. Officially, Myanmar does not celebrate the Lunar New Year (New Year in the Burmese calendar actually falls in mid-April), I was lucky enough to be in Yangon’s Chinatown to get a taste of what I’m missing back at home and in Beijing.

 

For a few basic Chinese phrases to share with you, to prove that I’m still studying even though I’m on vacation:

  • Happy New Year: 新年快乐! Pinyin: Xīn nián kuài lè. A quick and easy way to wish a happy year ahead in Mandarin.
  • Since my family is Cantonese, I’m more familiar with the phrase “Gong Hey Fat Choi”, or 恭喜發財.

Special traditions that are often observed during the New Year often include cleaning the kitchen before the new year begins (to appease the Kitchen God), buying new clothing (Chinese people pretty much invented the “New Year, New Me” phrase with this one), and giving Red Envelopes (红包 , or Hong Bao, are filled with lucky money and given to bring prosperity in the new year).

Wechat, a popular texting app used in Mainland China, has also brought some fun new takes on some of these traditions. I’ve loved sharing and receiving red envelopes with friends through the app, which can randomize the amount of money that is in different envelopes for friends in your groups. It becomes a bit of a game to see who can open the envelopes first, and who gets the most from a given envelope. Stakes are always pretty low, given that we tend to split 10-20 RMB (about 2-4 USD) between a group of 10-15 people, but it’s silly and a fun way to stay in touch with friends who have gone on different trips for the winter holidays.

Anyways, that’s all for me. 新年快乐! Happy New Year,

Kristen

P.S. According to the Chinese Zodiac, this year is the Year of the Rooster. When in Thailand, I encountered two GIANT plaster chickens and decided to get a photo with them. I’ve already posted it to Facebook but thought that I’d grace you with this one a second time, in case you’ve forgotten what I look like (or, more importantly – forgotten how good my puns are).

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cock-a-doodle-doo! it’s time to stop monkeying around. I’ve got egg-cellent news: the year 2017 may have already ruffled your feathers, but a lil birdy told me that the year of the rooster promises not to be so fowl. Wish that I could be home with family and friends for the Lunar New Year, but sending my love (& paltry poultry puns) to all of y’all.

Time in Thailand

The first stop on my trip this winter was Thailand. I arrived in Bangkok with Marta and Agustin on the 12th of January, and we went around Bangkok, Phuket, and Phi Phi Island together. It’s a pretty radical shift to leave the cold of a Beijing winter behind and exchange it for the heat and humidity of Thailand in January. Can’t say that I’m too homesick for the pollution and weather back in China when I return.

Our time in Bangkok was probably the most exciting for me – we walked around the Grand Palace, and some of the temples. I love how colorful architecture is here – the tiles on the high steeped roofs, the mosaics, the golden statues. All of the color and ornamental design made it into a visual feast.

Speaking of feasts… I’m loving the food here a lot. Not sure if I’ve eaten my weight in Pad Thai and coconut milk yet, but I’m getting close. Marta is a fan of banana pancakes here, and I’ve developed a certain weakness for rolled ice-cream and Thai iced coffee.

Besides our time in Bangkok, the rest of our trip was spent in total relaxation at beaches in Phuket and Phi Phi Island. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen water so blue or beaches so white before. My apologies to the Jersey Shore, but the beaches back at home really can’t compare. Even though there are plenty of tourists here, it’s not hard to find a nice place for yourself to swim or lay in the sand. The water is pretty salty as well, which makes it so easy to float – I think it would be easy to fall asleep like that, surrounded by the hum of the water all around you and the soft rocking of the waves.

Really, I have to say that this feels pretty perfect. I started running again when I was in Phuket, which has been a welcome addition to my daily schedule. I haven’t been so physically active back in Beijing – the smog definitely saps my energy and will to exercise. So having a run in the morning for a few miles really helps to clear my head, get some energy out, and feel more in touch. I’ll have to figure out a routine back in Beijing, but for the purposes of this vacation I’ve set a (very attainable!) goal of running 50 miles over the 40 days that I’m on the road.

My last two days in Thailand have been spent on Phi Phi Island. It was raining a little bit yesterday morning, which made for a slow start to the day, but perfect weather for hiking around and finding the island view point (after a series of wrong turns)! Glad to have gotten a gorgeous panoramic view before I left. This afternoon, I’ll be taking the boat back to Phuket where we’ll spend another half day, and then our group will split up. Marta and I will be flying to Myanmar, taking an early morning flight from Phuket with a short layover in Bangkok. Agustin is going to be spending another day in Thailand, and then returning to Beijing (and later, going to South Korea and Japan).

In Myanmar, we will be seeing Mandalay, Bagan, and Yangon. I’m looking forward to exploring and updating you about that trip soon!

Love,

Kristen

Belatedly, December.

 

Hi everyone! The past month seems to have gone by in a blur. I was kept busy as classes wrapped up, and spent a lot of time in the library in my last few weeks writing final papers. Here’s the quick summary of the month of December, with a few of the big highlights:

Organized a winter holiday party

I worked with my classmate Belinda to organize a winter holiday party for YCA with members of the office. Most of the students who were on campus attended, and we had a few student performances and a nice buffet dinner. We were celebrated 冬至 (DongZhi), the Winter Festival, and everyone got to participate in folding dumplings for good luck. My roommate Candy explained that eating dumplings is supposed to keep your ears from falling off in the winter cold – so always eat an even number of dumplings on Dongzhi!

We had a bunch of decorations and supplies that we were supposed to receive for this party, but unfortunately we experienced a number of delays because of the poor air quality! (Curses – another red air alert!) Instead, most of our decorations were scavenged from various parts of the campus… but we made it work!

Celebrated Christmas and New Years with friends

This was the first holiday season I spent away from home, which did make me feel a little bit homesick. I normally spend my holidays in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., spending time with friends and extended family. I was happy to have a chance to Skype in and talk with some of my cousins, aunts, and uncles though when they got together for brunch! As far as holiday celebrations go in Beijing, I went out to a few Christmas dinners, and had a really nice New Year’s Eve. I think that having a close group of friends to celebrate with has definitely made this holiday season pretty special – though I can’t be around my family, I also have a family of friends here to keep me company.

New year, new me!

This one’s a bit of a minor thing, and definitely more focused on personal vanity than the others. But, I decided it was time for a bit of a change so I dyed my hair and got a new pair of glasses. I haven’t done much to change my appearance in the past couple of years besides getting periodic haircuts – so it’s a welcome difference I think.

Finally, I’m writing this on the road! I’ve started a forty-day trip through Southeast Asia, going through Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, and ending in Hong Kong. I’m going to be spending some time with classmates in my program, some time with family, and some older friends from my summer spent studying at Cambridge and working in Hong Kong. I am looking forward to getting some time out of Beijing and breathing fresh air, and seeing a little bit more of the world.

My Grandma and Grandpa had a map mounted on corkboard that they used to keep above the staircase in their New Jersey home, marking every place they’ve been to with little red pins. It was always inspirational for me – seeing so much of the world, and experiencing life in a way that is different from what you’ve grown accustomed to. I’m looking forward to following in their footsteps over the coming month and adding a few pins into my own (mental) map.

Note to self: invest in a real travel map once you’re back in the USA!

Lots of love,

Kristen

What a nasty woman.

 

I had pledged to write more throughout the month of November, and I’ve been keeping to these goals a little half-heartedly. I was finishing up the blog posts I had written about my trip to Hangzhou and Nanjing when the US Election took place. And then I went into this strange feeling of radio silence, where I didn’t know how to react, what to write in public, what to read to help me make sense of what happened. While this blog is supposed to document my life here in China, I’m sharing a bit of what I wrote in my diary just after the election to help me sort out some thoughts.

Well, the results of the presidential election were strange and unexpected. I woke up Wednesday morning feeling filled with this sense of excitement and confidence that by the afternoon, I would be celebrating the historic election of the first female US president. Instead, over the course of the day, I was filled with a sense of confusion and anxiety about the presidency and the direction of the country.

I know that I live in a liberal bubble, and it has meant that most of the media I see is heavily left leaning. Watching the results play out in real time was bizarre. I’m half a world away, thirteen hours ahead, and separated from the home that is immediately impacted by the choice of this candidate. Instead, I’m in a country where democracy is a foreign practice, and it makes me feel a weird sense of disconnect from reality back in the US.

Here are some things about Trump: he’s been a proud homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, misogynist, sexual predator, etc. etc. etc. Honestly – the list goes on. It’s disappointing that someone with such a history has been elected to office. I’m frustrated because his proposed policies are personally insulting to me and to many of my friends – he wants to reverse laws that provide me with bodily autonomy as a woman, he wants to advocate for discriminatory immigration policies, he wants to reverse laws that have provided increased equality for LGBTQIA+ people.

After the election was called, I posted to Facebook – “In Quaker Tradition: Let’s have a moment of silence & hold each other in the light.” I don’t really think that I’m at a place of positivity yet – in fact, I think that I’ll be in a place of extreme negativity, frustration, and confusion for the coming days & weeks & months. But, I also want to find ways to make sense of this and to better understand what I can do moving forward. So I’m trying to find ways to be proactive and productive and supportive in the ways that I can.

I’m wondering what I want to do in the future. Many of my close friends here are studying International Relations and interested in pursuing politics in the future. This election has made people doubt this – people who are competent, wonderful individuals, no longer wish to be involved in a system that has brought Trump to power. While I don’t see myself going into politics, I feel like this election has made me consider spending more time outside of the US. Living outside of the country at a time like this is a luxury, I know, but at the moment it feels impossibly difficult to go back to a home that no longer feels as safe and loving as it once did.

Besides this, I’m wondering how I can stand in solidarity with the communities that I was involved with back in Philadelphia. The BPSOS Office in Philly, a non-profit organization that serves Southeast Asian refugee and immigrant communities in the Delaware Valley area, was vandalized days after the election with Pro-Trump messages spray-painted on the walls. This is a group that I’ve volunteered with, where friends have worked as community-organizers, where other friends participated in programming during their high-school years. This brings the election close to home: places that were sanctuaries for friends are being put at risk, and people that look a certain way are being made into targets. Being so far away is difficult – I want to be close to home where I can be more physically present. Instead, I’ll be making a donation to BPSOS, and looking for other organizations that I can help support.

I am disappointed by the outcome of this election, but I have to admit that it puts something into context for me… you can be a qualified female politician with a lifetime of experience, running against a circus clown with as number of racist, sexist, etc. comments behind him – but you still won’t come out ahead. I feel like this brought out a lot of ugliness in a country that I love, although I can have a complicated relationship with patriotism at times. With all that said: I aspire to be a nasty woman – I want to be someone who is powerful and driven. I don’t want to let set-backs stop me, or let the nastiness of this election cycle prevent me from making positive changes where I can.

This is the first big disappointment I have felt politically – I’m a regular voter in local elections, and think that it’s important to continue to exercise the right to vote outside of the presidential election cycle. I know that local elections do so much to shape my day-to-day experience back at home, and that regular political participation is valuable. For that reason, I’m going to try and stay abreast of developments in my city, and make sure that I continue to cast my ballot even while I’m an absentee voter.

I know that I don’t have that much novel insight to offer about this whole political process, so I appreciate you sticking with me through this. Like most things on this blog, I think that I use the writing process as an opportunity to sort through my own thoughts on different experiences and issues. Though this is technically a public website, I doubt that readership ever extends beyond a few family members and friends, so I’m glad for the chance to share some of these thoughts with you.

Though the election & the time following the election has kept me mentally preoccupied, I’ve also been doing a little bit of journaling about the travels I’ve done around China over the month. I’m going to get back to posting some of the things I’ve queued up – covering a short vacation to Hangzhou and Nanjing, as well as a week long field-site visit that I took to Xi’an with the rest of my program.

In short, back to regularly scheduled writing soon.

 

Love,

Kristen

Cha(t) Time: All the tea in China

Friends might know that I like tea. (If anyone has seen my collection of teas back at home, you’d know that this is a massive understatement. I REALLY like tea.) I’ve been drinking a lot of tea lately, as the weather gets colder here in Beijing, so I thought that I’d talk a little bit about the different things that I’m brewing. 🙂 There’s a lot of history to tea here in China, as well as tea traditions from around the world – and writing this gives me an excuse to justify learning about & sampling more teas!

I’ve just started to host a weekly tea social for Yenching students – continuing a tradition that began with a member of the first cohort. I’m waiting to get official recognition as a student group from the Program Office so that I can get a budget and have tea purchases reimbursed, but until then, I’m sharing some of the small collection of teas that I’ve gotten in the past two months with my classmates.

So, here’s a little bit of 茶话 (Chá huà), or tea talk! I’m going to try and cover some of the history/background to the types of tea I like, explanations of how tea is processed, and some thoughts about what I’m drinking. The word for tea in Chinese is 茶 (chá). With that in mind, you’re more than welcome to groan at the Cha(t) Time pun that I made in the title of this post.

So, here’s a quick run-down of tea, a couple of pictures, and some thoughts that I’ve associated with each type. I’ve found that the smell and taste of tea evokes a lot of place-specific memories for me, so I’m writing a few of these down too to give you a peek into my culinary psycho-geography. (This is, after all, a personal blog. While I’m sure that tea brewing techniques are really the #1 reason that you, my dear reader, are following this blog about my life in China, I thought it would be nice to throw in some less tea-jargon type things.)

So, in short, thank you in advance for your patience as I write WAY too much about hot leaf juice.

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Teas are often divided into several categories – the most popular to find in the United States are white tea, green tea, and red tea. However, tea can actually be broken down into six different groups, which I’m sharing below:

白茶 Báichá White Tea

绿茶Lǜchá Green Tea

红茶Hóngchá Red Tea

黄茶 Huáng chá Yellow Tea

乌龙茶 Wūlóngchá Blue Tea (Oolong)

普洱茶 Pǔ’ěr chá Black Tea (Pu’er/Pu-erh Tea)

Interestingly, although we call 红茶 Hóngchá a red tea and Pu-erh a black tea, the tea known as black tea in the United States is actually a red tea. (Confused yet? I won’t blame you if you are!)

Ready to be SHOCKED and AMAZED? (Or, at least perhaps somewhat surprised and slightly interested?) Though each tea has different flavors, brewing techniques, etc., it all comes from the same plant! The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, has three major varieties – the China Bush, the Assam bush, and the Java bush. Within these categories there are many subdivisions and hundreds of sub-varieties of plants. Gee whiz!

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When in Rome, do as the Romans do – and when in China, drink as the Chinese drink! So I’ll be talking about the Camellia sinensis China bush, which is a durable little evergreen that grows in mountainous regions at elevations of 2,000-3,000 meters, or 6,500-9,800 feet for my non-metric friends. The shrub is regularly pruned to give it a flat top, which makes it easier to pick the new growth. Harvesting leaves happens at regular intervals, with the timing being dependent on the local climate and tea types.

The differences in flavor profiles comes from the differences in the harvesting and preparation of the leaves. Green tea, for example, is best when the leaves are picked young and tender. The leaves are then air dried in a process known as primary drying. This prevents oxidation, which distinguishes green tea from black tea and oolong, and gives the tea its namesake green look. Each of the six types of tea I mentioned earlier has a similar set of conventions associated with it. Some types of tea also include additives, which lend flavors to the tea leaves – jasmine tea, for example, gets its delicate floral scent by being processed with night blooming jasmine flowers. Want to know how to describe some of the things that you’re finding in a cup of tea? This tasting wheel by Counter Culture Coffee breaks down different flavor profiles & is super useful in making sense of what you’re drinking! Even though it’s intended for coffee, it works really well for tea!

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I was surprised to learn that many things that are marketed as tea are not actually tea products per-say. In order to be properly considered a tea, it must have leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant – which means that herbal teas are actually considered infusions or tisanes. Popular infusions include ginger, rose, barley, rooibos, chrysanthemum, or chamomile.

So, how should one drink tea? There are plenty of ways to enjoy a good cup – I’m always a proponent of drinking it with dim sum in the morning, or with biscuits in the afternoon. 🙂 In order to make the most of your tea, it can be helpful to look up brewing instructions, as different types of tea are best prepared with different water temperatures and steep times. Under-steeping tea runs the risk of producing a weak/watery tea, while over-steeping can result in an overwhelmingly strong/astringent taste. Bagged tea is generally not as good quality as loose-leaf – teabags often contain broken leaves and dust, which results in a loss of complex flavor and makes the taste more bitter. While tins of loose leaf tea might initially seem more expensive, a little bit goes a long way and you can often brew a pot more than once. Of course, at the end of the day, too much snobbery about anything ruins the fun of it – so drink your tea however you like it best. ❤

My favorite way to drink tea is with friends – and next time I write something, I’ll hopefully have some pictures from the first and second tea social I’ve organized to share with you. Until then – here’s a picture from a tea shop that I went to last Sunday. I stopped inside when I was waiting to meet someone, and the shopkeeper let me sample one of their pu’er teas.

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She wanted to take a picture together, and I asked her if we could become wechat contacts. So, we took the photo, she sent it to me, and now we’re texting back and forth a little bit in Chinese! I know that I still can’t say much in this language, but I was pretty happy that while I was in the shop I was able to ask her about her tea preferences, and bought one cup of her favorite flavor to-go. 🙂

再见 (Zàijiàn)! Goodbye!

Kristen

Hello, November!

Well, October came and went, and I spent the last day of the month dressed up like a woodland creature and pranced around Beijing. This month when my stipend was deposited, one of the first things that I purchased was a Halloween costume off of Taobao. Sure, there were plenty of options that I could have gone with from the adult section… but I was charmed by a shop selling children’s onesies and managed to find a deer costume in a 170 cm size. How could I say no?

Here are some pictures of me, my friend Miri (dressed as Mario!), my friend Olivia, and my friend Hannah (who I convinced to buy a dragon costume from the same online store where I got this deer). For comparison, I’m also including the picture of the costume on the adorable child model from the online shop where I bought this… with this side by side comparison, can you tell who wore it better???

Halloween in Beijing was an interesting experience. On Friday night, I went out to one of my favorite bars in Gulou, which has recently been dealing with some unexpected closures because of a redevelopment project in the hutongs. (I’m hoping to write more about this later in the month, so if none of that sentence made sense… stay tuned!) It was nice to see that inside, nothing much had changed, even though the street has been completely changed. I guess that’s the pace of life here – you can’t get used to anything!

One of my classmates, Miri, is part of a local band that was performing that night, and it’s been awesome to see her singing live a couple of times. We went out again on Halloween night to see her, so I got two excuses to wear this costume. I’ve found it pretty comfy, to tell you the truth, so I might start wearing it as pajamas or to the library to study. 😉

It’s definitely starting to get colder here in the city, and there’s times when I miss the feeling of a good Philadelphia fall. My dad sent me some pictures of one of his recent bike rides, showing off the changing foliage out in Valley Forge – definitely inspired a bit of envy! Life on campus is turning a shade of gold though, as there are a surplus of ginko trees here. I really like the pattern of the leaves, and I’m eager to have a good weather day to wander over to Weiminghu Lake here at Beida, or over to the New Summer Palace, to see some more trees & nature there.

As it’s getting colder and darker, we also found time to celebrate another holiday – Diwali. Diwali, or Deepavali, is a Hindu festival of light celebrating the victory of good over evil. It’s celebrated in many parts of the world – and my classmates from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Trinidad and Tobago helped set up an event on our sixth floor lounge and shared some of their memories of Diwali celebrations.

There was food and desserts, Bollywood music, and some swing dancing at the end of the night. (Swing dancing to Bollywood music might not be very traditional, but this was a Diwali celebration with Yenching characteristics after all!) I’m sharing a picture of the beautiful Rangoli that was made on the floor of our lounge – these patterns are normally made in the courtyard or living room of a home, and assembled with colored sands or flower petals (as it was made here)! I helped light some of the votive candles in the Rangoli – it feels really lovely and warm to be included in this celebration, and sharing these holidays with friends.

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This might be a short post, but it’s the first of (what I hope will be) many, thanks to my month-long writing challenge! That’s it for me for now… but keep an eye out for the next post, where I’ll be talking about tea and sharing some more pictures of Yenching! Coming up soon – I’m heading out on Friday with my friend Vaishnavi to travel to Hangzhou and Nanjing, so I’ll be sharing thoughts and photos of this trip as well!

Best,

Kristen