On Solo Travel (Midpoint Check-in!)

Thoughts

I left Taipei for this solo round-the-island trip about 20 days ago, which means that tomorrow, I will have been on the road for exactly three weeks. I roughly sketched (well, Excel-ed) out a 35-day itinerary, vowing not to arrange everything upfront but to leave room for spontaneity. As such, I’ve been booking accommodation a stop or two before I head over, which has allowed me to add days where I feel like it. My planned 35-day trip will probably be something more like a 40ish day trip, which makes today halfwayish.

Some context: I moved to Taipei in March because my work visa stipulated I had to enter by March 14th. Since I don’t start my new job until the end of May, I decided to get to know Taiwan a little better (I’ve previously visited in the spring / fall of 2015 to Taipei / Kaohsiung). It’s a “thing” to do the round-the-island trip in Taiwan, although the most legit way to do it is (in my opinion) via cycling. I am neither in good enough shape nor have the mental motivation to cycle 100+km / day for two weeks, and I am not good enough at riding a scooter to do that either…so I’ve been mostly taking trains (and boats where needed) to get around.

Travelling alone gives you so much – arguably too much – time to think and to feel. I’ve been trying to be as honest as possible on my Instagram trip updates, sharing not only pretty snapshots but also the ups and downs that I’ve encountered along the way. Now that I’ve been travelling for three weeks, though, I’ve noticed some recurring emotions, and so for this post, I want to dig into some of these, rather than record a stop-by-stop description of my itinerary.

1. Fear. I’m really not used to feeling the sensation of fear. I’m not talking about these mental battles we have like fear of failure or fear of awkwardness, but rather immediate fear for my physical safety. I’m not sure if it’s because I just got out of the Singapore safety bubble, but there have been several times on this trip that I’ve felt the kind of fear where my heart races and the hairs on my neck prickle and I’m hypervigilant, relieved only after I’m out of the danger zone. I’ve been chased by aggressive stray dogs more than once; when they’re barking and sprinting after you, it is terrifying – I’ve never felt so lucky to be able to zoom away on a two-wheeled vehicle. I’ve also been scootering along on pitch-black roads, where the only light is that of my ride. As a female traveling alone, I worried that a bear or a rapist or both would jump out from the shadows, relaxing only when another vehicle came in sight, or a street lamp finally reappeared. Even though Taiwan is incredibly safe, it’s hard to shake that feeling of being scared that if something happened to me, I would be alone. I am sure that a lot of this fear is exaggerated because I’m traveling by myself; even as I marveled at a Jurassic Park-esque landscape on the volcanic Green Island (not a single other soul was around), I dryly thought to myself that if a volcano really erupted right then and there, I would die quite literally alone. I’m also more afraid of the ocean when I’m solo; even snorkeling, I became a lot more risk-averse in venturing too far out when there were no other humans around, afraid that a shark or a strong wave would pull me into the ocean nethers.

2. Loneliness. Dear God, I hate feeling lonely. Earlier this week, I actually had a moment where I considered ending this whole trip early and heading back to Taipei. The problem was, I realized, that even if I returned to Taipei, I didn’t have anyone to really go back to. I haven’t seen any family in over a year (almost 18 months), and I haven’t seen any close friends in over a month (since I left Singapore in March). I don’t mind solitude at times and have recently gotten into a hotpot + podcast habit, but around the two-week mark, I started feeling lonely more frequently. Similar to the start of the MBA, I am constantly meeting people, which is both exhilarating and exhausting. I genuinely love conversations with the food stall owners and shopkeepers, but they’re almost always one-offs. And in places I’ve stayed a bit longer, I’ve felt a surprising amount of insecurity and social anxiety – which, similar to fear, I’m quite frankly not used to feeling. Recently, I’ve left places wondering whether I was annoying or boring or both, struggling to accept that relationship-building didn’t flow quite as easily as it normally does. I’m understanding more and more why people tend to stick to similar people, and yet I refuse to accept that this is how I should operate, no matter how awkward it feels. Despite feeling utterly out of place as a goody two-shoes white-collar American hanging with carefree chain-smoking tattooed SCUBA instructors this week – exacerbated by the language barrier of local Taiwanese – I forced myself to sit with the discomfort of feeling lonely and potentially even rejected. It almost feels lonelier when you’re surrounded by people who pay you no heed. I just wanted to show that I was fun and interesting and not a weirdo lame freak, but I’m pretty sure I failed. I miss my family and my friends.

3. Awe. Everywhere I go, I keep stopping in my tracks. In fact, I annoy myself with how often I want to stop to take photos, which (unsurprisingly) never even come close to doing justice to the scenes I’ve seen. In the mainland cities, it’s been a lot of marvel at how familiar the streets feel, like the ones I used to run through as a little girl in Yokohama, Japan. I am shocked at how familiar Taiwan has felt already despite my barely having spent time here, but it makes complete sense that it does due to the island’s history. Out on Taiwan’s islands (lol islandception), I’ve been gaping at the insane scenery, both on land and underwater. Every time I’d round a corner on the islands (which is a lot, since the roads tend to wind around the mountainous islands), I would laugh out loud in disbelief at how stunning some of these sights were. Several times, I have said aloud to myself: “This place is not real.” The deep green mountains and azure ocean waters have been absolutely gorgeous, as are the rock formations. Underwater, I have been amazed by the sea turtles flapping their arms calmly, unfazed at me swimming alongside them. Same for the fish, some of whom were mean and territorial and bit me (although, to be fair, I was in their territory). And the underwater sun rays that beam in a perfectly visible crown, so clear that I kept putting my hand out to try and grab them between dives. I love feeling in awe; it feels like the world is so big and full of beauty and wonder and it is the perfect combination of surprise and pleasure, a feast for the eyes.

4. Gratitude. Last week, I was kindly reminded that “Not all of us are on a month-long vacation,” which is completely right (well, kind of. Technically, I’ve been free since like, mid-December, so this will really be almost a six-month long vacation by the time I start in May). But seriously, it is not lost on me how incredible it is that I have this swath of time to not just travel but to do whatever I feel like doing. In the first few months of this year, I finished the first draft of my book project (37,000 words!) which I have become woefully behind on editing due to my travels. Not once have I felt that I have been bored, in Singapore or here in Taiwan; instead, I try to make the most out of each day, even in the most mundane ways, knowing that this chapter will soon come to an end. I’m thankful that my new job is in a place that has handled COVID the best out of any other place in the world, which is the reason I can travel freely without guilt. I’m thankful to be in these interesting and beautiful places, meeting interesting and beautiful people. I’m thankful that I learned about investing back when I started my first job and have, for the most part, managed to avoid lifestyle creep, which is how I’m able to use savings to fund my travels. I’m thankful that I get to have all these experiences in these new locations, even the fear and the loneliness but especially the awe. Research shows that those who are happy are also those who are grateful, and I feel lucky that I’m constantly surrounded by things to be grateful for. I’m especially thankful for my family and friends whom I love enough to miss, who are quick to suggest a phone call (or, in some cases, drunkenly call), always reminding me that even if they aren’t here, there are people out there who do not think I’m a weirdo lame freak.

While all of the above emotions can be felt while traveling with others, I’m a staunch believer that it is only through moments alone that you can begin to feel the full magnitude of fear, and loneliness, and awe, and gratitude. There’s a certain gravitas that is difficult to squeeze out when you’re sharing the travel experience with others, an uninterrupted solemnness that makes life feel somehow fulfilling, wondrous, meaningful. Off course, traveling with friends comes with its own set of beautiful moments that are impossible to have when you’re alone. For example, I have also thought to myself several times that I wished I could share the beauty, or the tastes, or the smells, or the sensations of this trip with those that I love.

This is not the first time that I have travelled alone, but it is by far the longest. Next week, I’ll be meeting up with a friend, so I’m looking forward to a break from the solitude before finishing up the last leg of the trip. It’s already been an incredible ride, and I’m excited to make the most of the remainder of my solo travels – and see what else I learn on the way!

On Asian American

Thoughts

Let me just start with this: when there are days you want to just hide away from the world, it’s wonderful to be under quarantine in a hotel room that you’re not allowed to leave.

It reminds me of when I worked in Shanghai, where I felt like I hid away for not just a day but almost an entire year. I was so carefree and happy; my biggest worry was that my life was too hedonistic, as if the burdens of the world didn’t exist, leaving me free to pursue pure pleasures like food and travel. But it was true, certain burdens of the world didn’t exist for me in Shanghai: for example, I was free from the concept of race.

When I left in 2015, I reflected on my time in Shanghai:

“…for the first time in my adult life, I also forgot about “race”. Isn’t that funny? I went to a place where everyone looked like me, where I suddenly was no longer a “minority”…and I completely stopped thinking about racial stereotypes…It’s hard to explain, but at times I feel like it’s difficult in the US to feel totally American – for example, why “Asian-Americans” and “African-Americans” who have been in the US for generations are still labeled with the Asian/African hyphens, but white Americans don’t get hyphenated into “European-Americans” unless they’ve just recently immigrated? This was the type of question I was honestly glad to be away from (even though I know can’t be avoided forever).”

As the 24-year-old Susan noted, it was indeed impossible to avoid these questions forever.

People often ask me why I want to be in Asia, especially now that I’ve moved to Taiwan for a full-time job even after school ended in Singapore. My answer varies depending on how serious of a conversation I want to get into: if I’m feeling lazy, I just say, “Food, duh,” but when I’m feeling a little more candid, I give a different reason. “I’m so much more comfortable when I’m in Asia,” I explain, “Because I don’t have to explain as much. I never feel inferior just because I’m not white. But in the US, I feel like no matter how good my English is, I can’t trust that I’ll always be seen as ‘equal’ or ‘normal’ or even ‘American.'”

This is, of course, due to a lifetime of conditioning.

I grew up being warned by my parents, when certain events transpired, to never forget that I was not “the same.” At the time, I brushed it off; “No one’s racist anymore,” I’d roll my eyes, “Look at my friends! And my teachers! I fit right in with everyone.” My parents would sigh at my stubborn idealism, knowing better than to continue their futile attempts to warn me against the pains they could not shield me from.

But even as I said this, deep down, I knew something was off.

I could tell in the way I tried to hide my food, reaching into the brown paper lunch bag that looked just like everyone else’s on the outside, sneaking pieces of sushi rolls one by one straight into my mouth so that I wouldn’t have to take it out in its entirety. I was afraid of people asking questions, of giving friends another reason to call me “so Asian,” even innocently, because it meant that I was different, that I didn’t fit in.

I could tell in the way I tried to make sure I had friends who were not just Asian but all the other races, an intentional diversification of my friend portfolio, a habit I still haven’t quite shaken off. I was afraid of being associated in a group that was all Asians, of people pointing us out like some nameless homogenous entity that held only broad stereotypes and no individual traits. Despite my efforts, I of course still hung out with my Asian friends, but when I did, I always worried about whether others were thinking in their head: “There are the Asians.”

I didn’t want to stand out, and I didn’t want to blend in.

This, I realized, was because I would be standing out or blending in for the wrong reasons. It was because I wanted to be seen as an individual, known as a person, understood as a soul. Any generic association with the term “Asian” was a direct threat to my identity, and a potentially ‘inferior’ one at that: even though they called us the “model minority,” I knew that no one was modeling themselves after us. Except ourselves.

In 2016, I moved back to Chicago and wondered, as I walked around with my white then-boyfriend, whether people saw me as another stereotypical Asian girl dating a white guy – because, if I’m being honest, I looked at other similar pairs and thought that too. In 2017, I grew frustrated when a friend told me she didn’t want to go out for Korean food because she’d had Thai the previous day, as if all Asian foods were the same (“They’re so different,” I fumed, “It’s like saying you can’t have pizza today because you had pasta the night before. But worse!”) In 2018, I was walking in Chicago’s Chinatown when a man taunted me with “Ni Hao”, and, just like every other time, I just played deaf instead of addressing it head-on because I was scared. In 2019, I grimaced as a horrible hookup experience consisted of the guy smiling at me, “Since you were born in Japan, you must be obedient, like a geisha.” In 2020, I realized that even at an international business school, subtle divides in culture and race were unavoidable, and ugly. I heard, months down the road, that in some ways, I was stuck in an impossible impasse – some classmates assumed they’d have nothing in common with the Asian students (“but I found out later, she’s actually pretty cool), while other classmates joked that I myself was biased (“she only started hanging out with us after the white people left”).

But 2021, I have to say, has been the worst of them all. Unlike the above experiences, none of the recent anti-Asian American violence were personally directed to me or even anyone I know – and yet each one I read about feels more painful than anything I’ve experienced before. Perhaps because now, the hate is fearless, out in the open of broad daylight and patchy security cameras, neither of which do much to deter violence. Perhaps because now, the stakes feel higher, a death count growing to twist the knife even deeper, as if mere verbal or physical assault wasn’t excruciating enough on its own. Perhaps because now, the cries are louder, and yet somehow still not as supported or shared or comforted in the way we deserve. Perhaps because now, my heart feels more tender, every attack on an elderly grandma or grandpa reminding us – me – of the family I haven’t hugged since 2019, the family I’m dying to see.

I hid in my bed for most of the day today, simultaneously wanting to avoid the world and wondering why the world wasn’t reaching out. I alternated between digging through news and distracting through Netflix, trying to muster up the energy to write about this topic that has been looming over me since the start of this year – the violence of this week is not just from this week; Asians have been targets of violence for months and months and months. I tried to avoid thinking about whether I was a coward for just moving to Asia again, because it was just easier, rather than standing my ground by establishing my life in the United States and living through the discomfort. And all of this on top of the glaring fact: I am in such a position of privilege compared to those Asian American women who don’t speak English as well, who have less of an education, who are working labor intensive jobs, who are living in poverty.

As I squirmed and moped and mused through today, I realized: being an Asian American is the single most important part of my identity. It is what helps me to stand out, and it is what helps me to blend in; it is also what makes me the individual that I am. And right now, it feels really, really, really terrifying and worrying and infuriating and agonizing to be an Asian American, to even entertain the unthinkable thoughts of this hitting closer to home than it already has. But as exhausted as my heart is, I feel a patch of hope: today, I am prouder than ever of being Asian American, and of being part of this brave, beautiful, bold community that is broken but not defeated.

P.S. If you’re looking for a cause to support, SafeWalks NYC is a service of volunteers who began walking people to and from NYC subway stations in light of recent anti-Asian violence. Learn more about them and donate here.

On Singapore

Thoughts

It would be impossible to extricate my experience in Singapore from my experience during COVID; instead, I can only think of my time in Singapore as a time that happened not despite the pandemic, but because of it. After all, if there was no COVID-19 during 2020, the year that I happened to start a French MBA program on its Singapore campus, it’s entirely possible that I would have focused more on those first few words – “French MBA program” – rather than the latter two – “Singapore campus.” In fact, that’s almost how it was during the first few months: life in Singapore was more of a filler between all the other plans I had, be it trips or campus exchange or internships or, ultimately, whatever new job I’d find.

But as it turns out, COVID-19 not only hurled into Singapore at the end of January 2020 but then invited itself to stay, like an annoying guest who shows up uninvited at a Chinese New Year reunion dinner and is so unpleasant that it literally drives everyone else away much earlier than you would have preferred. And so that’s how I found myself in Singapore for 360 straight days, trapped in this 17-mile radius island with a permanent summer, watching it transform from a multicultural wonderland to a locked-down ghost town to a literally regrowing jungle to what it was when I left it this week – a rare city in this pandemic world where, other than the presence of facemasks and absence of nightclubs (AND KARAOKE), life actually felt back to pretty normal. Like, normal to the point where there would be days that I kind of forgot about COVID altogether, living in this bubble of safety that has, for better or for worse, conditioned me to scan a SafeEntry code and take my temperature when entering any space, mindlessly chatting away as if I had been doing this all my life.  

Anyway, I use the word “trapped” very loosely; the truth is, with the right passports and visas – both of which I am lucky have – I easily could have left Singapore, just like many people around me. And yet somehow, each time, when push came to shove, I found it immensely difficult to leave, and both times chose to stay. Even this time around, now that I have indeed finally left, I found it incredibly hard to say goodbye, for good, for now. For the last few weeks, as this date came closer and closer (along with the nose swab I needed to get in order to travel), I’ve been ruminating on what it has been that kept me here until I was finally forced to leave for Taipei before I missed the entry date printed on my Taiwanese work visa. 

It helps, of course, that when I visited Singapore for the first time in 2015, I adored it; I loved it then, and I love it still. Many of the reasons I wrote about during that trip – the colors, the Singlish, and (of course), the food – still hold true, and I got to experience all of it and more for so many months this time around. But when I set foot in Singapore in January 2020, I was a completely different person from the one I was in September 2015. I was, obviously, older, but I mean that in every way – I was tired and wary and confused and a little sad. Last time, I had come to Singapore to explore. This time, I had come to Singapore to…escape? Take a break? Maybe even start over? I had no idea. All I knew was that I was now a little more serious and a lot more selfish; the former happened inadvertently, but the latter was intentional.

As it turns out, Singapore softened me again (unfortunately also physically, but in a place with food like this, I couldn’t help it). It enveloped me in its unbearable humid warmth, forcing me to search every corner and discover the intricate moments of life within. I discovered that I did not have to travel to see this; rather, I could see it even better, more clearly, when I forced myself to just be.

I spent a total of 15 months in Singapore. In that time, I lived in 5 different apartments, went on 4 different trips (all prior to the country’s lockdown on March 16, 2020), worked on 3 education-related projects, completed 2 treks on the Coast-to-Coast trail, and lived through exactly 1 lockdown. I mourned at a Buddhist funeral, beamed at a Malay wedding, toasted to Jewish holidays. I swam, hiked, biked; went wakeboarding, prawning, and yachting; played hockey, squash, and tennis (only to dislocate my shoulder again); I went on staycations, hung out at the airport, took a peek at Malaysia. I ate at peoples’ homes; I ate at incredible restaurants; I ate at hawkers from Chomp Chomp to Bedok 85 to Adam Road to Sembawang Hills to People’s Park to Tiong Bahru and so, so, many more.

And through all this, I spent time with people: my fellow MBAs, of course, some of whom are now more family than friends. I reunited with college classmates, former colleagues, hockey teammates, and Shanghai friends; one of my favorite things about Singapore is that it’s such a hub, which means lots of people seem to be here at any given moment. I crossed paths with many strangers through projects and networking and dates. Of course, I met Singaporeans. The intern-turned-friend from my summer job, who taught me that the youth now say “bopes” in place of “bo pian.” The kopi uncle at my local hawker, who called me “granddaughter” when I asked for a photo before I moved away. The bilingual man from Holland Village, who evangelized to me while I waited for my drink, ending with, “Return to God.” The widower in that bright flower shirt, who sat with me as we had assam laksa and shared about her life in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur.

Finally, I spent time with myself; forced myself to spend time alone on writing and walking and thinking and being, to sit (sometimes on the cable car) with the fears and tears and insecurities, but also the joys and the gratitude – the gratitude, which got me through this year so much more easily than I could’ve imagined. In Singapore, even in this past year, there was so much to be thankful for. All the stuff I wrote about above, the activities I did, the people I met, and the things I saw. The otter gangs and the weird monkey-cat-squirrel thing (a ‘civet,’ supposedly). The stunning view of Marina Bay Sands that never got old, no matter how many evenings we passed it. The way how, even though I missed having seasons, it was also pretty nice to feel the sun hitting my shoulders as I walked out in a tank top every day. The ease with which I could access the sea, from Labrador Park to Punggol to Pasir Ris to East Coast Park, and, of course, Sentosa. The marvel with which I attended my first post-pandemic symphony concert (I cried, overwhelmed by how far we’d come since a year ago), and the glee with which I attended my first Singaporean standup comedy show (I laughed, proud at how many ‘local’ jokes I understood). The fact that the government’s pandemic management meant we barely had to worry about the actual virus.

Living in Singapore during the pandemic allowed me to live my life to the fullest in a way that I never would have done otherwise. I’ve written about this before, but I believe that living life to the fullest means leaning into all of its highs, all of its lows, and all of the seemingly mundane moments that we tend to try to escape. In my pre-pandemic life, I was traveling nearly every other weekend, hopping from weddings to conferences to volunteer trips to grandparent visits like nobody’s business (“How many vacation days do you get again?” I frequently got asked). For the first time in my life, I was forced full stop; to be (relatively) still, to listen, to learn, and to appreciate what was right around me. There was no escaping when I was angry or sad or even bored; no trip to look forward to that would ‘reset’ my mind. I would have to deal with it.

To my surprise, it all turned out okay. With time, the thirst for travel was replaced by a daily fullness; even without trying, I found that life in Singapore often gave me so much satisfaction, so much joy, and so much peace. Everyone says that Singapore is convenient to live in, too convenient, too easy; that Singaporeans are spoiled, and that’s why they complain so much. But I will say this: in a year where there was so much to complain about, the persevering grit, the collective sacrifice, and the matter-of-fact spirit of this island nation made Singapore a place I was so proud to call – if only temporarily – home.

On Community

Thoughts

I’m writing this with the weirdest mixture of disappointment and determination, tinged by a hint of deliria that comes as a result of the 3.5 hours of sleep I got last night. If things had gone according to plan, which I had stubbornly refused to abandon until the last possible moment, I’d be at Changi Airport right now, settling into the first of several Fontainebleau-based Zoom classes I’d be taking before boarding my flight to Paris for a final MBA semester on our France campus.

Instead, I’m sitting at a cafe in one of my favorite places in Singapore, the Flower Dome, occasionally glancing up at Marina Bay Sands as I try to sort out this mixture of emotions running through my mind. Last night, I stayed up until 4AM to listen to Macron’s announcement of the France lockdown, as if hearing it myself would somehow make the resulting measures seem less formidable. All month, I had administratively prepared for the move: securing my visa, finalizing housing, booking a flight. All week, I had mentally prepared for the move: scheduling the farewells, packing my belongings, doubling down on my plans to move even if there was a lockdown. And all day yesterday, I had emotionally prepared myself for the move: savoring my “last” day, memorizing my favorite memories, reflecting on Singapore and all it’s meant to me through one last cable car ride.

And then, last night, I finally gave up.

People keep asking me what finally changed my mind, and I can actually tell you very clearly what it was: immediately after closing the Youtube stream of Macron’s announcement, I opened my Telegram to multiple messages from my friends and classmates in France, all with the same message: “Don’t come.” I had been talking to people all week about the imminent lockdown, trying to visualize life in French lockdown and preparing for the worst. Through the past several days, I had been continuously blown away by the generosity of my classmates and friends: the offers to call and talk through what life would be like, the honest opinions given with my best interests in mind, the consistent trickle of real-time intel for every rumor that was heard about details on the restrictions. What I appreciated the most, though, was the space people gave me to make the decision that was right for me: as I stated my priorities and my goals for moving to France, my friends didn’t try to convince me to stay. Instead, they told me that they respected and understood my decision. Despite the teasing “Are you still going today?” that I got almost every hour, I never once felt judged for pursuing what, by all means, might have been considered an unwise move.

I’ve thought a lot this year about community, about what it means to build one, be a part one, to desire one. One conclusion I’ve had is that, while we constantly roll our eyes at FOMO – both those of others and of our own – maybe…just maybe, we actually need FOMO. In fact, I believe community and FOMO are two sides of the same coin; like Harry and Voldemort, you can’t have one without the other. The fear of missing out is driven by a need to belong, and a collective need to belong is what creates a community. Imagine, instead, a world where no one cared about belonging: you might have a group of independent individuals all of whom are immune to FOMO, but, as a result, lack a strong need for community – in which case, a community might never be built.

It’s this community that led me to where I am right now: yes, so very, very, very disappointed that I’m no longer headed to France, but also determined to stay resilient, confident that I’ll bounce back after this one day I’m giving myself to wallow. It’s the community that helped me to think through my decision, patiently listening to me ping pong back and forth for weeks and weeks. It’s the community that supported my choices, delicately stepping back once my mind was made up. It’s the community that gave me the strength to admit defeat, clearly nudging me to recognize that after a certain point, I was just being stubborn and maybe even foolish. And it’s the community that’s risen up today to catch me in my disappointment: I’m overwhelmed by everyone who’s checked in, offering up everything from being a wallowing buddy to providing a listening ear to places to to stay to encouragement about my new decision. My community has done the best job of expressing empathy – “I’m sorry you can’t go” – while cheering me up – “…but I’m happy you’re staying.”

I had my heart set on doing both campuses as part of the INSEAD experience, and until last night I was convinced that I could still salvage my 2020 MBA. I wasn’t able to maximize the campus exchange part of this program, but I genuinely feel like I’ve hit the jackpot in finding this gem of a community both here in Singapore and in France – and, after graduation, all over the world.. For all the times I felt FOMO, it has been more than worth it to have built this network of friends, friends whom I can rely on – sometimes even before I realize I might need help. Even though this year has been strife with changes, emotions, and quite frankly, disappointment, I’m incredibly thankful for the relationships I’ve made this year and the community we’ve built together.

On Circuit Breaker

Thoughts

A few days before Circuit Breaker was going to end (well, technically enter Phase 2, but let’s face it, Phase 1 still felt like a CB-extension), I had a strange realization: I kind of didn’t want it to end.

I started testing my thoughts with a few of my friends here: “Is it crazy…that I already miss CB?” I mostly got replies of horror, mixed with immediate shushing: “Don’t you even SAY those words,” they admonished. It’s now been five whole days in Singapore of relative normality; we can legally gather in groups of up to 5 at restaurants and host up to 5 guests in our homes. While it has of course been lovely to see people again freely and start eating out at restaurants, I’m also determined to retain some of the things I learned during Circuit Breaker – both about myself and about the world around me.

My roommates and I used to discuss how we’d sum up our Circuit Breaker experience in three words. To celebrate the Easter holiday, we’d ordered a cake from a local baker that I’d found in a Facebook group for supporting local businesses during COVID-19. This was the start of one of our words – “cake” – because we began a ritual of sharing cake and tea, sitting around our large dining table, the three of us voicing thoughts and jokes and opinions and memories. In honor of this tradition, I’m going to sum up my CB experience using some words:

1. Steps. For 71 days – from April 7th through this past Sunday, June 21st – I made it a goal to get at least 10,000 steps every single day. Some days, this involved doing YouTube videos inside or walking in circles around a living room; other days, I went on runs (read: long walks), even in the rain, to hit that 10,000 minimum. Over those 71 days, I walked a total of 989,532 steps – an average of 13,927 per day. My obsession with steps culminated this past weekend in a 33 km / 20 mile walk from one end of Singapore to another (this took over 50,000 steps); after getting home at 3AM from this 10-hour walk, I finally allowed myself to rest up on Monday without hitting the minimum 10,000. It felt fitting to wrap up my step streak with the end of CB; I credit this random goal with keeping me accountable for not becoming a potato and giving me something small to ‘accomplish’ every day. This also helped me to stave off calories, which leads me to…

2. Kopi. On Instagram, I’ve been posting about the beverage stall uncle at our local hawker center. We were allowed to go out for essentials during CB, which included getting food and drinks, so I would visit this stall quite frequently. As he started to recognize me, the uncle began to joke around whenever I came: if I arrived late in the day, he’d tease me that I was sleeping in too late, and if I ordered more than one kopi – sometimes I’d get an additional one or two for my roommates – he’d wonder aloud whether I could drink all three. Occasionally, he’d wistfully tell me that soon, we’d be able to sit down in the hawker center to enjoy kopi. Visiting this beverage uncle became something I genuinely looked forward to between Zoom classes; this was as close to being a ‘regular’ as I could become in such a strange period of time. Asking the uncle for my kopi-c kosong or a kopi siew dai (always bing!) made me feel more intimately immersed in local Singapore life, which leads me to…

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kopi uncle called me ‘granddaughter!’ when we took this photo

3. Culture. I have to say that there is nothing quite like deep-diving into another country’s culture than living abroad during a global pandemic. While opinions differ wildly among my peers about the way Singapore’s government handled COVID-19, I felt like I lived through a crash course in better understanding the way Singaporean society functions. There’s a high sense of collective responsibility and accountability; it was fascinating to hear the opinions of my classmates, who come from all over the world. Some felt that it was unnecessary, stifling, even Big-Brother-ish, to have this degree of vigilance (and sometimes social shaming), while others admired the government’s actions as efficient and thorough, praising the obedient society. I felt my views constantly challenged as I attempted to reconcile the tensions between Western and Eastern perspectives. Talking about this happened in many different forms, which leads me to…

4. Conversations. I’m so thankful for the conversations I had with people throughout this Circuit Breaker period. I had long, get-to-know-you Zoom chats with peers I hadn’t gotten to talk to in person. Acquaintances and classmates turned into friends via chatting on Telegram throughout class (much to the detriment of my grades, but definitely worth it). I grew through meaningful conversations with good friends about many, many, different topics; I even had several disagreements – which forced me to practice holding crucial conversations. I noticed myself being increasingly judgmental through my chats and am actively trying to improve on this growth area. I loved sitting around the dinner table with my positive, drama-free, kindhearted roommates, ordering in food together and congregating after our days spent ‘apart’ on our respective laptops. I’m so deeply thankful to the people in my life over the last three months for keeping me sane and grounded. And I had weekly Google Hangouts with my family – something I didn’t make the time to do when we were at school in-person. In fact, CB forced me to redesign how I was spending my time, which leads me to…

5. Purpose. So many things occurred during CB that pushed me to think about how I wanted to live my life. There was the obvious fact that I am so lucky to be healthy, safe, and well, living off of savings in a relatively stress-free environment; I became acutely aware of my privilege and hope I continue to remember this frequently. The BLM movement back home also pushed me to hold myself accountable for taking real action on matters that matter, no longer using “being abroad” as an excuse for inaction. During CB, I got involved in several courses and activities – taking leadership positions in the education and social impact clubs, starting an internship and a project with two different edtechs, winning our SDG bootcamp with an idea for a socioemotional-development tool, and entering a global social innovation competition (which we recently received some good news on!). These activities reinforced my desire to have a long-term career in social impact and education. I found myself spending nearly 20 hours on making a music video that included as many people as possible from our INSEAD 20D class, and I remembered how important it is to me to build communities and enable inclusivity. Finally, I reflected a lot (through conversations, Instagram, and of course, blog posts) – and hope to always make time in my life to do this.

When COVID-19 first started changing our lives, there were many attempts to reframe the situation to be ‘positive’ – about learning new skills, finding peace and quality time, being thankful for our loved ones who were safe from the disease. And yet by reframing – or even just seeing the positives – we risk losing sight of the nature of this tragedy, the myriad lives gone, the jobs lost, the people affected. In fact, early on, I made a tone-deaf comment to some friends back home, asking whether anyone was maybe ‘enjoying’ this lockdown period. And now, post-CB, I’m already quickly getting sucked back into the world of spending too much time socializing and not enough time getting important work done.

In writing this post, I’m hoping to document my experience so that, when I refer back to it in a post-COVID world, I can recall my individual experience – remembering that I must stay disciplined, listen to locals, understand the culture, hold conversations, and remain focused on purpose – to be empathetic, ultimately to wield my privilege and resulting power to make the world a slightly better place.

On Snails

Thoughts

The first time it happened, I didn’t even realize what I had done.

“You just KILLED a SNAIL,” Sonia declared, raising her eyebrows in reprimand.

It slowly dawned on me that the crunch under my right foot was not, in fact, a giant dry leaf. I cringed in horror as I realized that I’d stepped – no, stomped (being lightfooted is not one of my strengths) – on a large meandering snail that was minding its own business.

A snail shell acts to protect the snail’s body, including its heart and organs; it helps to retain the snail’s moisture. While the shell, which can be compared to a human’s nail, can still serve its purpose despite small cracks and holes, when it is crushed completely…the snail can dry out and die.

So when I realized that I had killed a snail, not just that first night, but a few more sickening, unexpected, dreadful “crunch” sounds after that, I vowed to become more careful. I began looking at the ground more as I went out on my nighttime runs, scanning the shadows on the sidewalk and attempting to navigate what felt like a snail landmine.

Frankly speaking, I feel like I’ve become quite the expert navigator over these past few months. I’ve been constantly navigating around my work, my relationships, my thoughts, cognizant of the fragility of it all. It feels exactly like stepping on a snail shell: if I don’t pay attention, I move so quickly through each day, and before I know it, I’ve broken a shell that I didn’t even see in front of me. And sometimes when the shell is broken, what’s underneath gets exposed: a heart that’s fighting hard as hell to make it through this objectively challenging time, refusing to become drained, daring to find purpose, striving to survive.

In fact, it feels like there have been so many so-called snails on this recent path, each with a shell more delicate than the next. It started, of course, when the rising COVID cases finally triggered the circuit breaker (read: lockdown) in Singapore. Week after week, we made the best of Zoom classes; some of us by sleeping, others of us by chatting more on Telegram, all of us – at the time – daring to hope that an end was in sight. I navigated this the best way I knew how: by deep-diving into relationships, engaging in endless walks and Zoom catchups and Telegram messages. To me, the value of my MBA experience was teetering on this fine line between tragically wasted and necessarily redesigned. I chose the latter because it empowered me; in creating my own joy and carefully selecting my surroundings, I softened the blow of this less-than-ideal year – although I acknowledged that, at any moment, this thin shield might be broken, and the crushing weight of a broken year might come crashing down.

Every day of these past three months, I have understood this fact: if I don’t navigate this time carefully, intentionally, gently, it is too easy for something fragile to be broken, and these days, everything feels pretty freaking fragile. The spirits of my classmates, as we repeat grim conversations about this seemingly endless circuit breaker and its impact on our MBA. The relationships we’ve developed, as people make decisions about staying or going, truncating friendships that perhaps might’ve blossomed in a different time. And even – especially? – the impressions we’ve built of each other, to each other: with limited physical interaction and heightened emotional tensions, impressions have become particularly fragile as it is harder to give generous assumptions and easier to just judge. Finally, the farewells: delicately crafting each goodbye to adequately honor the friendship, enough so that the goodbye is meaningful, but not so much that it is too painful.

The fragility is apparent in the plans of my friends, who smile through the disappointment as they postpone weddings to next year and move baby showers online. It manifests in how quickly my eyes well up when I start missing the people I should miss, and also missing the people I shouldn’t. It’s present in conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement, as I find myself tiptoeing and wordsmithing despite knowing that it’s not about me. It shows in our reactions to the movement itself: the tears we’ve shed from oceans away, frustrated that no amount of donations or discussions will bring change about quickly enough, pained that we can’t be back home to march alongside people we love.

I have been so focused on navigating these matters of the heart, recognizing that this is precisely what makes all of this so fragile: when you care about something deeply, you open your heart up to become particularly vulnerable, and tender, and exposed. It’s not about avoiding sadness, but about keeping the heart healthy so that it can continue to feel sadness, and joy, and disappointment, and hope, and most importantly of all, so that it can continue to care. So I continue to navigate through the landmine: whether it’s a snail’s shell or a delicate shield over my spirit, I’ll do what I can to keep it safe from being crushed. Because it’s worth the extra emotional labor to look out for what’s ahead, to be conscious of where I tread, ensuring that I can keep trudging along…even if it’s as slow as a snail.

Yesterday, I got off the phone with my grandparents and burst into tears, for no other reason than that I simply miss them so much and am desperate for China to open its borders so I can visit. “We miss you so much,” my grandfather said, “We keep counting how many more times we’ll get to see you. Maybe once, maybe a few more times. Who knows how long we’ll live.” For the first time in a long while, I was sent over the edge; no amount of careful navigation can save you from the heartbreak of loss, even if it’s hypothetical. And yet – even though I’m exhausted from all the emotions that have come with these past few months, I also feel stronger than ever, confident that I’ve kept my heart safe for the matters that matter, and that I will keep inching on until the end of this time.

Photo Credit: I spent an hour and a half outside looking for a snail to take a photo of, and I couldn’t find one on the one day that I needed one (of course). A quick Google search taught me that they are actually nocturnal, so thanks Miao for having this photo at the ready! 

On Bubbles

Thoughts

On Sunday night, I flew back into Singapore from Myanmar – making it in 24 hours before the expanded Stay-at-Home requirement issued by the Singapore government went into effect (the expansion added ASEAN countries to the previous list of countries from which travelers were required to stay at home upon entering Singapore). I was dreading flying back: I hadn’t purchased a data plan while in Myanmar, and so it was so very easy to become fully immersed in the sights, experiences, and people – in effect, willfully and blissfully ignorant of the incessant coronavirus updates coming in from the INSEAD community and the Singapore government.

Since I love elephants, let me address the one in the room: I probably shouldn’t have been traveling in the first place. But here in Singapore, we’d already been taking precautionary measures for months; we’d booked this trip in anticipation of celebrating the end of our first set of final exams; and when we left for the airport on Wednesday of last week, the virus seemed under control here in Asia. I never, for a second, considered pulling out of the trip, and even as my dad expressed his disapproval upon finding out about it yesterday morning, I found myself justifying my actions, using the excuse that “everyone else” was traveling as well. Call it herd mentality, optimism bias, or even stupidity – in fact, as I reflect on what my actions say about my priorities and values, I can only conclude that it’s probably just plain old selfishness.

I’d love to claim that the selfishness is an act of self-preservation during these trying times, but I don’t think it is. I didn’t want to leave Myanmar because I felt so insulated from the corona-drama around me; I loved being in this peaceful bubble, surrounded by pagodas in Bagan and by water in Inle. When we were riding our electric bikes through the dirt backroads, I felt so carefree as the wind blew past me, as if coronavirus didn’t exist. As our boats floated through the houses-on-stilts of Inle Lake, I felt worlds away from the onset of urgency that awaited us back in Singapore, the debates around classes moving online and students arriving from France. And even after we learned that our dean was the first INSEADer to test positive for COVID-19, I was determined to stay in the bubble of colonial buildings and street art and one final temple during our last day in Yangon.

I briefly wondered if the people living in Inle Lake knew about coronavirus; the people we saw selling produce, weaving lotus stems, building boats and fishing the lake seemed to go about their daily business, entertaining us tourists from the moment our boat floated up to their homes until the moment we left (seldom making any purchases). I thought to myself, again, how it felt like we were in a bubble away from the rest of the world, and I worried about how the village would survive if one of us tourists somehow brought coronavirus to them, and I realized how easy it would be to burst that bubble of peace, of safety, of ignorance.

With all the resources I have – my network, education, technology – this ignorance can only be called willful, albeit blissful; I have no excuse. And I have a proclivity for bubbles: during my year in Shanghai, I distinctly remember taking full advantage of the hedonistic China bubble I lived in, thoroughly enjoying a break from thinking about race, politics, or anything that exerted pressure on my civic duty as an American citizen. While I’ve always been involved in some form of volunteering, it wasn’t until I started working at LEAP Innovations in Chicago that I cognitively began to appreciate and value the importance of pushing myself to live outside the bubble. Because how beautiful the world becomes, when each of us ventures outside of our bubbles, and we all come together to tackle collective challenges – of a relentless coronavirus, of undeniable climate change, of the vicious cycles of poverty, of access to quality education.

I firmly believe that getting outside of my bubble is something I’ll continuously struggle with for the rest of my life. It is not only easy to find myself in bubbles – of INSEAD, of MBAs, of the corporate world, of people who share my values and perspectives, of environments that allow me to disregard social responsibilities – it is not only easy, but oftentimes preferred because it’s also fun, usually pleasant. And yet I’m confident that a life like this would be utterly unfulfilling, although of course there will be times that it is necessary to take a break, to think of yourself, to be selfish with your time and energy and love in the name of self-preservation. So despite being reluctantly back from my bubble (by the way, I also essentially ignored the Ronhingya crisis during my ‘vacation’ in Myanmar, which is just another example of how even within my bubble, I filtered my experience), I now also feel prepared to engage in the crisis happening around me, making decisions that I believe is right – this time, not only for myself, but also for those around me. Above all, I’m thankful to have friends who are willing to push me outside of my bubble and challenge me when I’m being lazy or selfish, making this journey feel a lot less alone and a little more manageable.

On Cliques, Coronavirus, and Closure

Thoughts

Somehow, in the span of just a month, I feel like I’ve lived another year’s worth of thoughts and emotions. I came to Singapore and to INSEAD on a personal high after an upwards climb during 2019, capped by a rejuvenating volunteer trip in Kenya, treasured time with family in China, and of course an irreplaceable last few months with my community in Chicago. I felt secure in my relationships, confident in my identity, and proud of my growth over the last year.

That lasted for about a week into my business school journey. The first thing that shook me was the emergence of cliques: their general existence at INSEAD, whether or not I was part of one, whether or not I would or could or should be a part of one. For the first few days, I reassured myself by remembering the people I love back home: my own tribe of mentors, my “personal board of directors” – friends who had have seen me at my best and my worst, who oftentimes know me better than I know myself. And yet even this anchor I knew I had wasn’t heavy enough to keep me steady as waves of insecurity washed over me in these first few weeks. Every time I heard about a hangout I wasn’t invited to or a Telegram group I wasn’t a part of, I wondered whether people liked me – even though I knew, cognitively, that it was impossible to become friends with everyone. Now, a month in, I’ve become more comfortable with my individual relationships here; I still get bouts of feeling left out but I’m also feeling much more myself again. I designed my social life around my specific needs – finding like-minded individuals who are excited about self-development, world impact, and everything in between; holding personal conversations over 1:1 chats to supplement the huge group hangouts; getting off campus to play hockey, see non-INSEAD friends, and remember that life very much exists outside this business school bubble.

The second thing that shook me was the arrival of Coronavirus – not of the virus itself, but of the social and political conversations that came with it. The last time I lived in Asia, I had a renewed sense of confidence in my identity as simultaneously Chinese, American, and even a little bit Japanese. So when news of the virus spread and general fear began to straddle Sinophobia, I felt angry and defensive. We received surveys asking us to self-report if we’d been in “close proximity” with anyone who had traveled to China recently. The question was worded in a way where the entire student body began questioning whether to self-quarantine, recalling their recent interactions: after all, hadn’t we been interacting with the Chinese students who had just moved here for school, like the rest of us? As the virus spread across the world, I read more articles and heard more conversations – many of them blaming “the Chinese” as an entity, implicating a population that includes citizens who by no fault of their own had caught the illness. China isn’t perfect, but it’s important to recognize that not all of its citizens are eating “exotic,” “weird,” or “disgusting” meats; that its tourists are not all infected with Coronavirus and out to bring it to other countries; that its government, while flawed, is not as malicious as Western media often makes it out to be. I’m really lucky to be in a diverse student body that’s made up of nearly 70 nationalities with many, many different perspectives, and I hope that this year pushes me and my classmates to continue having difficult conversations while challenging the stereotypes we hold – especially during times like these. On the one hand, being both Chinese and American is a privilege I could leverage into having more open conversations, and yet I’m struggling to channel my emotions into productive actions that might help broaden perspectives and deepen empathy.

Finally, I’ve had to face the hard truth that starting a new chapter doesn’t mean closing the old. Life here is stupidly stimulating; there is no shortage of socializing, schooling, and schmoozing – all excellent distractions. But I worked really hard last year to lean into everything I felt: the grief, the pain, the loss, the uncertainty, the hope, the joy – and the guilt of leaving it all behind. So it’s honestly been a real piece of work to somehow reconcile the two: allowing myself to fully live in the moment here while stopping to catch my breath when I need it. The hardest moments here in Singapore have been those moments when I just miss Meghana, or I think about the breakup, wishing that the heart would just heal faster and wondering if it ever fully will. These are the moments when I feel most alone, not because I don’t have anyone to talk to – on the contrary, friends here have been an absolute dream in offering listening ears – but because those memories are so deeply personal. I don’t really want to admit this, but a maybe-subconscious part of me wanted to just leave it all behind in Chicago and gain closure of sorts on that part of my life. Unsurprisingly, that’s really not how life works, and, knowing me, that’s not really how I work either. If anything, closure feels artificial and arbitrary, and these memories of people I loved are a part of my story, whether I’m in Chicago or in Singapore. And when I think of it that way…I think of this quote by A.A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh: “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

It’s only the start of 2020, and I know there will be many, many more learnings to come. In the meantime, I’m trying to be brave, vulnerable, and authentic, fully aware that I’m in an environment where I’ll be challenged constantly on all three fronts. I can’t wait to look back at this in December of this year and reflect on all that will happen between now and then. Here’s to the rest of my time at INSEAD, the rest of my time in Singapore (who knows how long that will be), and the rest of 2020!

On Food

Thoughts

Happy post-Thanksgiving! I’m a few days late, but it’s the perfect recipe for another blog post right now: it’s a time I should be sleeping (been up since 3AM…thanks jetlag!), it’s a time when I feel reflective (transitions to come), and it’s a time that I feel pretty emotional (a common side effect of visiting my family in China).

I left Dalian on Saturday evening. The previous night, after another three hours of mahjong – we’d played mahjong for hours every night for the entire week – I came out of the bathroom after having brushed my teeth to find my grandma rummaging through the freezer. It was midnight.

“Lao Lao, what on earth are you doing? I thought we said we were going to bed five minutes ago!”

Without turning her head, she explained, “Your Lao Ye said you wanted to eat ‘mian xian’ tomorrow for breakfast, so I’m looking for shrimp that he can put in it.”

Exasperated, my mom and I waited until Lao Lao found what she was looking for; we knew she wouldn’t stop until she did. Luckily, it didn’t take long – and sure enough, the next morning, the shrimp proudly topped the steaming bowl of needle noodles that my grandpa made for my last breakfast in Dalian. Despite his shaking hands and slow movements, Lao Ye insisted on cooking for me himself. He completed the noodle soup from his native Fuzhou with an egg and stuffed fishballs, the way it’s traditionally made: “My mom would make this for me every morning growing up,” he told me as I ate.

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My whole life, I’ve loved food. I’m not exaggerating: this trip, my grandma recounted the story, again, of sneaking noodles to me when I was just a few months old because baby me wouldn’t stop staring at the food until she did. In Philly, I started exploring different cuisines through restaurant week; in New York, I tackled a list of 100 cheap eats; in Shanghai and Hong Kong, I photographed each mouthwatering dish; in Chicago, I even became a Yelp Elite (not anymore, since I got lazy) and used the a la card to try new restaurants.

And throughout all of those years, every time I visited my family in China, it has been the same routine: every meal is deliberately planned around what I (and my sister, and my parents) like to eat. In fact, I almost feel like I’ve been conditioned to elevate the importance of food, feeding (pun intended) my innate affinity for eating. Because my whole life, that’s also been how I’ve been shown love by my family.

Love is…

    • When my paternal grandma, Nai Nai, sent an insane amount of milk tablets back with my dad when he visited because she remembered that we loved them;
    • When my dad’s younger brother, Xiao Shu, snuck us to street vendor lamb kabobs because he knew that we were obsessed with lamb kabobs;
    • When my cousin Shan Shan takes me to hot pot or barbecue every single time I see her, laughing at how I’m a true “Liu” because of how much I love meat;
    • When my mom’s younger brother Jiu Jiu takes us to the fish and produce market every day of our visit, buying too much of everything and cooking it to perfection – better than any restaurant;
    • When his wife, Jiu Ma, stocks the fridge with ‘suan nai’ – yogurt – knowing how quickly my sister and I will devour the pouches;
    • When Lao Ye ignores Jiu Jiu’s pleas not to go out (worried about Lao Ye’s age) because he insists on taking the bus to go buy ‘dou fu nao’ – savory tofu soup – at 7AM so it would be ready when we woke up;
    • When Lao Lao climbs back out of bed at midnight to make sure that the right ingredients were available for that traditional needle noodle soup that her oldest grandchild wanted for breakfast in the morning

It’s the incessant thoughtfulness of remembering exactly which foods we like, no matter how long it’s been since we last visited. It’s the unnecessary self-denial of saving the tastiest snacks in anticipation for our visits, even if it’s six months away. It’s the insistent commands for us to take the best, biggest, last bites of every dish. It’s the meticulous effort put into finding the freshest ingredients, even if it takes extra trips to the market. It’s the loving heart put into creating each dish – from the simplest of steamed eggs to sauerkraut dumplings that are wrapped one by one – no matter how busy, how tired, how old the chef may be.

I was so grateful to spend this Thanksgiving in China with my extended family, feasting on crabs and shrimp and oysters and fish – a port city, Dalian is known for its seafood – instead of turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes. Jiu Jiu had taken us to the market again that afternoon, buying whatever we pointed at while expertly navigating stalls for the freshest hauls. And I saw it again: love, delivered through actions, manifested through the meal on the table that evening.

Like every other time I’ve visited China, there’s a hole in my heart from just missing my family already: I hate being so far away from them. But, like every other time, I’m also so full, filled to the brim with my favorite foods and love from my favorite people in the entire world. Until next time, Dalian!

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On Kenya

Thoughts

“So, how was Kenya?”

Even before I returned, I started to dread answering this question. How do you adequately encapsulate an experience that left you on an inexplicable high, in a way that is meaningful and non-cliche? In the past nearly week since I’ve been back in Chicago, my mind has run endlessly through the different memories from my twelve days in Kenya, bouncing from gratitude to longing to wonder to joy – blobs of feelings that refused to be synthesized.

I know I laughed a lot, laughed really hard and really frequently. Whether it was hanging out in the volunteer house (which felt like a reality TV show) or bouncing around for hours in the safari van (which requires a surprising amount of arm strength), there was always something to laugh about. It ranged from mistaken names (Ibrahim, Hostage) to miscounted lions (ugh); from love-hate bromances (“Kiss!”) to love-love rafikis (Wakanda Forever!); from mercilessly making fun of each other to seamlessly syncing in unexpected circumstances – laughing even when we had to get out of our van in the middle of the Maasai Mara to push it out of the mud. If laughter is medicine for the soul, my soul could probably stock the entire medicine section of the Carrefour that we shopped around together on our first day – the memory of this bizarre adult field trip still makes me want to laugh until “crocodile tears roll down my cheeks, forming the number eleven” (one of many entertaining phrases we read while grading essays at school).

I learned to become comfortable just rolling with things – we established quite early on that there were many details about the program that weren’t clear, from the address of the volunteer house (much to my mother’s chagrin) to our specific placements. But as they say, “Hakuna Matata” – an attitude that I grew quite fond of in my time there, a way of living that forces you to let go of planning and trust that all would be okay. When Ayub, our school director, took out a good chunk of his morning to unexpectedly take Dave to the hospital on our second day volunteering, I marveled at someone so busy being so flexible and generous with his time. Going with the flow kept things exciting: I didn’t know when an NVS staff member would show up to the house to say hi; I didn’t know what time I was technically supposed to be at school every day; I didn’t know what we were expected to teach in music class or even how many students would show up. But each unknown turned into an opportunity to build trust with those around me, having faith that we’d figure things out eventually, and together.

I also had to be honest with myself about my volunteer experience when I realized that I’d really only be teaching music for a total of 3 days (Monday was orientation and Thursday was Bible Study). This was my second foray into voluntourism, and I felt pressured to come out on the other end with a life-altering experience rooted in deep bonds with the community – in this case, with the kids and the teachers at school. As it turned out, I was only at KAG Olympic for a total of 3.5 days (I tagged along to the hospital for half a day). And while I adored the 3-year-old “babies,” their lunch leaders (Steven and Grantu), the 5th grade music class (Daisy, Gloria, and others), and the lovely Olympic staff (thank you for the chapati, chai, and conversations!), realistically, I felt that my short stay limited the depth to which I would bond with the people at school. I hated the fact that leaving on Friday was not as excruciating as other farewells I’ve bid, that there’s even room for doubt whether a piece of my heart was left in Kenya. I’m sad that I didn’t forge the same emotional bonds in Kibera as I have formed through other similar experiences, and this feeling is only compounded by the fleeting nature of the impact of a short-term volunteer.

I recognized discomfort several times – not so much from being in a new country, but from a heightened sense of awareness of my own reactions to what I saw. Walking through the Kibera slum left me with many mixed feelings – it was uncomfortable ‘touring’ the area because, as Ekaitz put it, “It doesn’t feel great to make a spectacle out of someone’s poverty.” And yet – what was the alternative? To ignore the slum’s existence? I felt baffled by the sheer randomness of birth, the luck of the draw that determined what kind of life you’d be born into. It was burning on my mind that we would leave the slum just as easily as we’d entered it, leaving a few bags of maize and some mzungu high-fives that masked the guilt I felt about the gap in our lifestyles. Actually, I wasn’t even technically a ‘mzungu’ – kids shouted, “Chinese! Chinese! Ni-hao!” as they pointed as me. Instinctively, I felt offended, and yet when I reasoned my way through the intent and understanding of a child in a Kenyan slum, it felt silly that I felt even remotely hurt.

I was repeatedly inspired by the stories I heard. People were so willing to share their life stories: stories about rising out of poverty, pursuing education again later in life, caring for sick loved ones at a young age. They shared about the school’s role as a safe haven for children facing traumatic experiences in the slum; school was a place where they had space to play and food to eat. I learned from my fellow volunteers’ experiences working with kids with special needs and teaching children from Spain to Mexico, echoing challenges in education that sounded oddly familiar, hinting at universal barriers that prevent our kids from receiving the best possible educational experiences. We shared with each other about career goals and transitions; about life and love; about loss and grief; about our journeys to pursue our best selves despite the obstacles that might have come our ways. If laughter is medicine for the soul, vulnerability is the sustenance that actually feeds mine, and I’m just as thankful for the walking commute chats, nighttime pillow talks, and under-the-stars conversations as I am for the belly laughs on this trip.

There’s so much more I could write about – the joy I found in making music every day with the students as well as with Dave and Oscar; the cheers from the babies when we showed up with plastic bins of ugali and kale; the majesty of the elephants and giraffes and lions and leopards and all the other animals we saw on safari; the serenity of gazing out at the savannah and feeling the wind blowing through my hair; the awe at watching the sun rise – twice! – and realizing that, despite all that has happened, yet another day had come, and the sun had risen again. Writing in depth about all this would take too much time and do it too little justice.

So, how was Kenya? It was living through all of the above, staying present and mindful in these memories as they were being created. It was exhausting but rejuvenating. It was one of the best trips I’ve had in the past few years. It was wonderful.