Friday, April 16, 2010

The American Dream

We've all heard talk about the death of the American Dream; that the American Dream is no longer possible to achieve here in AmericaI can't speak on the reality of the rags-to-riches stories or the problems with our class mobility.... but I can assure you that the American Dream is alive and well.  There are millions of people all over the world hoping that one day they'll get that all powerful green card and be allowed to immigrate to the US.

Everyone has a different reason for wanting a green card; a better chance for their children, freedom from oppression, a chance at a new start.... Even in Taiwan, an advanced and politically free country with great opportunities for entrepreneurs, it seems like everyone is working on getting a green card. (Although they view it more as insurance so that they have a means of escape should China ever attack Taiwan).

But the point isn't why people want to come to America. The point is that everywhere in the world are people just waiting and praying for a chance to come here.

I've always loved my country and had a strong sense of national pride, but it took me leaving for 15 months to really appreciate everything we've got here in America. Even so, I still found myself wondering why. Why would some people risk everything they've got - give up everything they know - for a chance to live here in America? 
As soon as I arrived at my parents house, it hit me. This is why people come to America:
For a chance at owning their own plot of land, their own sanctuary from the craziness of the world. For a yard, and a picket fence, and 2.5 kids, and a dog. For a chance to get away from the smog and noise and people... for a chance at freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

It's funny though. I never thought much of American suburbia, never had too high of an opinion of it, until I really lived in the alternative. The American suburbs are great! Clean air, good schools, low traffic, low crime rate, they're quiet and convenient, and every where you look birds are singing and flowers are blooming... all around, the suburbs are just a great place to raise a family!

What I came home to is why people come to America. My father is a first generation American, his father came here from Germany as a young man. And here my parents are: with three kids, two cars, and a house. Their own land and the freedom to do (almost) anything they please with it. This is why America is a great country. 

Now I'm not delusional, and I know we've got a lot of problems here in the USA - racial inequality, an increasing gap between the rich and poor, trouble with our schools and prisons, not to mention our screwed up foreign policy.  I also know that it's not the only (or the best) place in the world where the "American Dream" is possible to achieve, but the fact remains that anything is possible here. This is a great country. I am proud to be an American, and it is good to be back!
A shot of my home town of Pittsburgh from atop Mt. Washington

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Americans are Fat! and other observations...

When Nick and I were living in Taiwan, I used to read a lot of other people's Taiwan blogs. At the time, I noticed that lots of bloggers kind of just dropped off the face of the earth once they returned home. I thought this was peculiar. As a reader, I was interested in how they felt upon returning, what surprised them, what wisdom they'd gained by looking back at it all... I wondered to myself how they could just abandon their blog and all their readers without even saying goodbye???

Then I came home. And here I am having not written a blog in 10 days. What do I have to say for myself?

Over the last week, I've vacillated between chastising myself for being lazy and reminding myself that after 15 months out of the country, I have every right to take a week or two to myself. I have a right to be lazy for a little while. I'm not sure if I really buy that excuse, but for now I'm using it as a way to rationalize sitting on my butt for a while and avoiding the real world.

But since I've been home, I have done some pretty cool things, noticed things I'd never noticed before, and had a couple revelations.
One of the biggest problems I've had in adjusting back to life in the US has to do with toilet paper. The plumbing in SE Asia is not really equipped to properly deal with the flushing of toilet paper. As a result, over the last 4 months, I became used to throwing my toilet paper into a waste bin next to the toilet.

It turned out to be a tough habit to kick. For the entire first week I was home, I was regularly not flushing my toilet paper. Every so often, I would remember to flush it and then marvel at the efficiency with which our plumbing whisks it all away here in America. Even so, 5 days after arrival, I found myself carrying my toilet paper around looking for a trash can to avoid clogging the toilet. It literally took me a full 7 days to get accustomed to the novelty of just tossing it in the bowl.

Over the last 10 days, in between bouts of laziness, I've gone to the Pittsburgh Pirates season opener, gone to the recording studio with my dad, gotten my hair done, gotten a pedicure, gone shopping, and met several friends for lunch.   
Enjoying America's favourite pass time on our first day back in the USA
me at the recording studio with my daddy

My time spent out an about has lead to my biggest realization since I came back to the US: Americans are BIG! We're huge. Seriously.

Even the people that are not fat by any estimation are big when compared with people in Southeast Asia; we're taller, wider, thicker... we're just bigger all around. I was amazed just noticing chest-size alone! No one in Asia has boobs like American girls do. (Is it all the steroids that ends up in our beef and dairy products???) We've got regular sized Americans who are much bigger than anyone in SE Asia, and then we've got the bigger Americans that are absolutely super-sized when compared with people in Asia.

I tell you, it's certainly opened my eyes to this obesity problem we have in America. And it's also opened my eyes to the root cause of it: our food is HUGE as well!

Massive chicken salad I got in Pittsburgh including french fries, a pile of cheese, and a tub of ranch dressing

I'm finding it very difficult to eat healthy now that I'm back. Our portion sizes are completely out of touch with the amount of food someone actually needs to sustain life. Aside from that, our meals are far from balanced. One day this week, I found myself eating meals that consisted of 90% carbohydrates for the entire day! It's almost impossible to eat like that in Asia. I couldn't even if I wanted to!

This says nothing of all of the processed food, high fructose corn syrup, and fast food we've got available here. I don't know what has happened to our country, but it is sad that the cheapest and easiest food is the high calorie, processed food. In Asia, it is easy and cheap to eat healthy and fresh. And this is our problem. 
The chicken sandwich my friend ordered had 2 huge patties!! who needs two patties on a chicken sandwich!??

And so here I am, trying not to gain all the weight back that I lost while I was gone (which eventually will require me to get off my ass and do something productive with myself). And trying to figure out how to eat healthily in a place that makes it so difficult to do so!

Monday, April 5, 2010

I'm Home!

Well, here I am! After over 24 hours of travel, Nick and I have finally made it home! I can't believe it!

And what an emotional 24 hours it was. Nick and I both knew we were in for a bit of a roller coaster (emotionally speaking) when we found ourselves a bit too moved by the in-flight showing of Sandra Bullock's movie The Blind Side.

Neither of us actually kissed the ground when we arrived on American soil, but we both wanted to. I got a little choked up on the jet way, but kept my composure and hummed patriotic songs all the way from the gate through immigration and then through customs - the Star Spangled Banner, You're a Grand Ole' Flag, Proud to Be and American, My Country Tis of Thee....

The first thing I did once we cleared customs was to drink water from a water fountain (something I haven't been able to do for over a year!) Then, I called my parents collect from O'Hare airport (mostly just because I could!) and let them know I was back in the good ole' USA. After a short conversation, I proceeded to cry on Nick's shoulders for several minutes - tears of joy - because we were finally HOME!

Except that we still had a 3 hour lay-over plus a 60 minute wait on the tarmac for some maintenance. We arrived just after 8pm, an hour late. In anticipation of seeing my parents for the first time in 15 months, I shed some tears on the tram connecting the gates with baggage claim. Then, a couple minutes later when I actually saw my parents, I started to cry again!

But after that, it was all out of my system and we collected our bags and headed home to my first home-cooked meal in many many months - lasagna, pumpkin pie, and a 6-pack of Bud Light for Nick!

This morning, after only 6 hours of sleep, Nick and I awoke bright and early to a chorus of birds chirping outside of my parents' house. At first we both thought it was a recording being broadcasted over a PA system, or maybe some song birds hung in cages outside the window.

But it didn't take us long to realize that it wasn't a recording, but it was actually NATURE! We woke up to the sounds of NATURE! and beyond the chirping birds was blissful, American silence.

I still have another post about Singapore and then.... I'm not really sure what will happen to my blog, but I'm not quite ready to think about the future past my first day home yet. So all I have to say for now is It's good to be home!!!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Ha Long Bay

For our very last stop in Vietnam, we spent 3 days in the gorgeous Ha Long Bay.
Just when I thought the chance had passed, you went and saved the best for last!!!

I know I've said this about a lot of places over the last four months,but Ha Long Bay (Ha Long meaning "descending dragon") has got to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. It looks like one day God became bored with regular old rain, so he decided to mix things up a bit. He replaced the boring rain drops with massive lime stone rain drops, whipped up a thunderstorm, and waited to see what would happen. Ha Long Bay is the result of that fateful day.
once you're deep inside the bay, the water is like glass

Ha Long is a lot like Tam Coc, but on a much larger scale. Instead of the limestone formations jutting out of rice paddies, they are towering majestically over the expansive sea.  As you approach the bay from a distance, it looks as if you are sailing straight into an impenetrable mountain range shooting out from the depths of the ocean.
As you get closer it becomes apparent that what you thought was a continuous chain of mountains is actually the worlds largest optical illusion. Slowly, the mountain peaks separate and it is revealed that the bay is instead littered with massive limestone monoliths, 2,000 of them, some up to 100 meters high.
This one is appropriately called 'toothpick'
After some careful research, we decided to book a 3-day tour of Ha Long Bay with Ocean Tours.  I have to say we were not disappointed. When we arrived at the dock in Ha Long City, the place was packed with tourists waiting to begin their trips and the docking area was just bursting at the seams with thousands of "tourist" boats.
I was expecting the bay itself to be a bit clogged up as well, but once we set sail, we left the crowds behind us and floated through the bay in almost complete seclusion. Ocean Tours gave us an awesome boat as well. It was able to seat maybe 40 people, but there were only 7 of us on the trip - including Aimee, Nick, and Me.
hanging out on the deck
We were served a fantastic meal for lunch on the boat and then spent a couple of hours just enjoying the ride through Ha Long. At about 3:00 we stopped deep inside the bay and spent an hour exploring in kayaks. The water was so still and flat that it looked like a mountain lake just after sunrise.

Finally, we hopped back on the boat and headed to our own little private island for the next two nights. In total there were probably less than 15 people on the island; everyone quietly doing their own thing. It felt like we had the place all to ourselves.  While we were there, we stayed in a little beach bungalow where we could fall asleep and wake up to the sounds of the sea.
bungalows lined up on our small private island
Nick relaxing on our bungalow's porch

We spent the whole next day just relaxing on the island (and taking lots of pictures!) and on our third day set out for one more cruise through the bay.  With limestone islands towering above our boat, we rode through the bay in silence, lost in our own thoughts.
 Ha Long was an awesome way to finish our time in Vietnam and our trip in general.  With nothing on our schedule but cruising through the bay, we were free to just soak it all in and enjoy the surroundings. It was definitely the cherry on top of our Southeast Asia Sundae and we enjoyed every minute of it.
dinner on the beach at our private island

48 hours

Wow... here we are. In 48 hours I'll already be on an airplane on my way home, after 15 months. So how do I feel??

Well, to be honest, I'm not really sure. Every time I think about going home, I have a different reaction; sometimes I get butterflies in my stomach, sometimes a lump in my throat. Sometimes I'm really excited and sometimes I'm depressed and disappointed.

Until recently, I didn't even realize that it has been an entire 15 months since I was last home. 15 months is a long time! A lot has happened over the last 15 months and I'm not sure I can even appreciate it fully until I finally get home and process it all; get some perspective.

I have to admit though, that as excited as I am to finally go home and return to normalcy, a big part of me is really really sad that it's over. It's hard for me not to feel like, "this is it." It's over. I'll never do something like this again. I'll never have 4 months with absolutely no obligations, no place to be, nothing I HAVE to do - just 4 months to exist; to learn new things, see new places, to live life and to experience it in any way I choose. And that really depresses me.

But I have to just keep reminding myself that it doesn't have to be like that. I don't have to go home and get a job and get married and get a mortgage and have kids.............. I don't have to do anything. I think more than anything else, this trip has taught me that.

Life is full of choices - the world is my oyster.

I hope that I get the chance to do something like this again, but if I don't, it will be because I chose to do something else with my life. Something else that makes me feel  happy and fulfilled.

But I do hope that I resist the urge to settle too much into normalcy. One of the things that I love about travelling is that it gets you out of familiar surroundings and forces you to think. You constantly have to think about things that you never have to think about in your normal life:

Where am I going to sleep? How to I eat this? How do I get from point A to B? What the hell is that? What should I do today? (with more options than ever possible at home). What is this person trying to communicate to me? How do I communicate? How do I use this toilet??

All of this thinking leads to lots more thinking and before you know it you just spent 15 months thinking; looking at things from a different perspective, learning about other world views, learning about your own world view... just thinking and learning and thinking some more. I never even realized how much of my life was spent not thinking, until I left everything that I knew and tried to survive in a completely foreign place.
Just thinking about all the thinking I've done is making my brain tired!

In the first two months of our travel alone, I read 13 books! Never before did I have this much time to spend on enlightenment. It was wonderful.

So, when I think about going home, I have to admit that a part of me is very depressed about the whole thing. But with home being only 48 hours away, a larger part of me is excited beyond words.

Home has a really nice ring to it right now.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Photo Shoot on the Beach

While in Ha Long Bay, we had an entire day to hang out at the beach on our own little private island. Since it’s not exactly the best beach weather, Nick, Aimee, and I were the only three people on the island for the day.

We spent most of our time reading and relaxing, but in the middle of the afternoon, Aimee and I had an awesome idea. We rounded up some of the resort’s resident reindeer and headed to the beach for a photo shoot. Here is some of our best work: