Perks of Living in China

Many outsiders are unaware of what life in China is really like, and some of the lame stereotypes making the rounds are just silly. Expat life there has its perks, and China does many things well. In the wake of anti-Asian sentiment and hateful, ignorant racism, I’d like to chime in and brag on the positives of Chinese society for just a minute. Here is a compilation of what I miss about life in China which has been sitting in my draft folder since September.

Mobility – Transportation infrastructure in China is for the most part cheap, reliable, and ubiquitous. Busses and subways are easy to access in big cities; they run frequently and on time. Didi, the main taxi app, is cheap and super convenient. It’s a lifesaver for getting home safely from anywhere in town at any hour, and makes nights out with friends easy to coordinate. One downside is that someday you will have to show a driver how to get around the block because he’s clearly never driven a day in his life. (Just wait; it’ll happen eventually if you use Didi often enough – and you will!) Learn how to say “here”, “okay” “go right”, “go left”, and “go straight” and you’ll be fine.

WeChat Pay – This app is handy dandy for splitting the bill with friends or reimbursing someone for tickets or didi rides. AliPay is another payment app that to many feels slightly more secure than tying your bank account to your social media/messaging app, but either are fine. It’s so unspeakably convenient to be able to leave the house without a wallet or even a purse; just your phone and keys. Sigh…

Tea – Chinese tea shops seem to have every possible variation of fruits and flowers and other plants you can imagine! Only a couple menu options will be black tea, which most Westerners probably think of as “regular”, and that’s if you’re lucky. The great thing about chains like Coco Tea (one of the biggest ones, at least where I was) is that they let you choose your sweetness level. You get to tell them how much sugar syrup to spoon into the cup – none, 25%, 50%, 75%, or full sugar. Alternatively, depending on the chain, none, low, medium, full sugar. You can also customize whether you want many drinks to be hot, warm, cool, or cold, as well as how much ice you’d like.

The feeling of utter, sanitized security – It’s very safe to walk around at night, generally speaking – living in a police state does have a silver lining when it comes to dealing with crime. Cops and any authorities can access footage from anywhere without a warrant, even for the purpose of helping a girl recover a lost phone. They traced her movement through every bus and subway car she had taken that day until they found the moment she left the phone. (Sketchy didi drivers might be a bit harder to get off the streets – make sure to leave a scathing review if anything untoward happens, and you will get your money back for the ride. that’s all I know as far as consequences.)

Cost of living – On an English teacher’s salary and company-sponsored housing, necessities are so affordable, you’ll able to enjoy luxuries like nice dinners out and even big splurges like cheese and wine (super expensive but worth it when the cravings hit). Do NOT, under any circumstances, buy Great Wall or any other brand of Chinese wine. My expat friends would only have bothered to use it for cooking! Be careful of those reds that claim to be from another country but have only Chinese on the back label, too – the cheapest options are hardly drinkable. The markup on wine is really insane, if I might be allowed to complain for just a moment. A decent bottle will be about $20 USD. Any cheaper than that and you’ll be pulling horrible faces with each sip.

But I digress – water and electric bills are almost negligible, and you can find cheap delicious food if you know where to look. Your salary might not look like much if you convert it into US, British, Australian, etc, currency, but it goes so far and doesn’t have to cover housing. Your standard of living will be good, and people have saved up plenty of money to pay down student loans, etc, if they choose to live relatively frugally.

Big. City. Life. – You want burgers? A Margherita? Indian food? Thai food? Sushi? There’s a spot for that – several, actually, for each cuisine. Take your pick. In the mood for a staycation? There’s a nice spa inside that new modern mall, and plenty of bars and nightclubs to choose from. You can window shop some name brand clothes, purses, and shoes in the expensive department stores, and buy high-quality knockoffs online. Food delivery apps are cheap and speedy. Lovely parks with long walking paths, outdoor fountains, gyms, calligraphy classes, coffeeshops, ice skating rinks – you name it, any “mid-level” Chinese city is a actually a highly populated metropolis and probably has it. You could live in any one of those places for years and only scratch the surface of what it has to offer.

I’ll never forget the awe of staring at the light shows at night on the outside of Suzhou’s iconic, shiny, bluish-tiled “Pants” building over the Suzhou Center mall. It was the most lovely, futuristic night view of a city I’ve ever witnessed. Moving (LED?) pictures scrolled and gently exploded across the building’s surface. It was mesmerizing.

I was in awe, and genuinely moved by the long-famous beauty of my city. I don’t think I’ll ever experience anything like it again. Raised in the suburbs of mid-size American cities like Asheville and Chattanooga, this felt like the country mouse moving to New York City. Words may or may not fully describe my nostalgia and homesickness for Suzhou itself, and the sunny freedom of coming of age there, but that is a story for another time. That feeling and experience will always be one of the best memories of my life.

I know that Suzhou is “China lite”, being so clean and green and modern, and that most cities in north or central China are far dirtier with coal smoke and construction work everywhere. Air quality everywhere is icky and in many places is downright awful. China has lots of aggravating aspects that will drive you up the wall and likely cause you to decide not to stay forever. But everything else on this list still holds true. And yes, there will always be some sort of expat (fancy way of saying English speaking foreigner) community available for you.

Coronavirus has thrown a monkey wrench into the plans of nearly everyone in the world, but as things return to normal, people will have more opportunities to travel, move, study, and live abroad. To anyone thinking about going to China to teach English, do it! It’s a fantastic learning experience and you will grow so much from living abroad. There are plenty of reasons to choose China, but a lot of boils down to the fact that the pay is good and the jobs are plentiful. You’re not likely to regret it.

Jagalchi Fish Market

It was so rainy that day, but at least it was mostly a steady, manageable sprinkle. An umbrella would have been great. Instead of that, I had a light purple, quick-dry, button down shirt (my favorite for excursions), a pair of thin all-purpose black slacks, Chaco sandals, and hair pulled back so the raindrops could run directly into my eyes. Oh, and my big Motorolla cellphone sticking out of my back pocket. That indestructible device had a close encounter with saltwater a few months before coming to Busan, so I was hardly worried about the effects of a little rainwater.

Where are all the people? I wondered. There were no other foreigners anywhere in the neighborhood, at least that I could tell, but there weren’t many other people walking the streets either. Perhaps it was because of the rain, or the day of the week, or maybe it’s just busiest first thing in the morning like every other fish market in the world.

(Sure, this was summer 2020, but South Korea had masked up, implemented contact tracing and strict quarantine for arrivals, and been able to carry on most business as usual.)

It took a while to walk there from the guesthouse where I was staying at the base of Yongdusan Park and Busan tower – maybe somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes, if I remember correctly. Now, Tripadviser says it’s much closer, so perhaps making the trip in the rain made it seem longer than it really was!

I just strolled up and down the streets looking around me. Being slightly tall for this area of the world (I’m a 5 ft 8.5 in woman) the overhanging umbrellas caused me duck slightly a few times. Most of the workers were middle aged or older, and many of them were women wearing the famous East Asian grandma visors. Iconic.

Sure, it smelled a little fishy, but compared to the odiferous mounds of crushed dried seafood in Chinese supermarkets, this was fine. Lots of squids and little shellfish. Whole fish, flayed fish, big fish, small fish, live fish, dead fish, fish in water, fish on ice. Oh, and eels, and basically everything else too.

It was all quite photogenic if only I had an inkling of skill in that area. Someone with an eye for photography could have a field day.

Real question: Are these sea cucumbers in the picture below? Are they actually edible? Why are they selling them? I’ve never seen anything like them sold in any seafood section in any other market before. Definitely did a few double-takes that day.

The market consists of indoor and outdoor areas; on one side there are buildings behind the stalls. Here you can order fresh catch cooked to order! Speaking no Korean and having no one with me, I couldn’t order anything; I never saw a written menu, and if I did, I couldn’t read it. I did see some large dishes of pre-prepared food near the end of the street, but they looked too spicy for my taste.

Well, at least that was my excuse. Honestly I just didn’t know what a lot of it was, and didn’t like the idea of mystery stew. I couldn’t get into the beef knuckles, pig feet, and fish full of bones back in China, and I feared a repeat of that experience. Don’t do as I did; Korean food is famously good if you can handle a little spice.

Jagalchi is in the Nampo-dong area, a section of town which includes BIFF (Busan International Film Festival) square. It’s just a few minutes walk from the market and has plenty of restaurants for you to choose from if you didn’t manage to eat any of the open-air catch. I ended up trying a Thai place and an Indian place in that area before leaving town.

Jagalchi market opens at 8 am and stays open til 10 pm. It’s world famous as the largest fish market in Korea. I highly recommend going with someone who speaks Korean so you can get the full experience of ordering fresh seafood and eating it there. That’s not an experience you’re likely to get too often, unless you already live near the sea. If you’re in Busan, this is a fun excursion – rain or shine!

Singleness: A Woman’s Rare Good Fortune

We are the lucky ones. In a world rife with child marriage, teen marriage, and many more millions of women trapped in traditional patriarchal societies where women are expected to be household servants and treat their husband as an honored guest/helpless man-child, we lucked out. We made it. We got out. We dodged a bullet.

By refusing to play the game of mistaking mediocre relationships for love, we won. It really is that simple. We pulled back the curtain of society, and found that the Oz of male approval wasn’t really the best boyfriend or husband material we were looking for. And so we simply walked on and continued living. That wasn’t the path. There’s no love and no future in that.

We could have settled for any warm body at any point on the path, and that’s the truth, whether or not we realize it. As women we always have options, but if you want good options, that’s much trickier. Good men have always been rare. I’ve heard enough about my Chinese friends’ critical husbands and Albanian men’s 0% percent of household chores to learn just how grateful to be for my own freedom. According to the CDC, as many as 1 in 4 American women experiences some form of violence from an intimate partner at some point in her life. Some days, I am almost frightened by my good luck.

I can’t believe how luck I am to be 29 and single. What an unbelievable gift, to have had the entirety of my 20s to grow up slowly at my own pace, to finally blossom and start to lean into who I really am near the end of that decade. If I had met a life partner at any point before now, I would have missed out on the chance to make my dreams of world travel come true. I might never have found myself, and that would have been an unspeakable tragedy. Love is the greatest thing in the world, and being single means it’s still possible.

Spend these years living the hell out of your life. You don’t know how much longer you will have it. You are getting older, every single day, and I hope that scares you. Go out and live desperately, with abandon, for one day you will no longer be here. And honestly, how else would you ever meet a man of quality, who shares your passions, if you’re not chasing them?

You want a prince? So do we. Join us, sister. You’re not too old, you’re not expired goods, you’re a rare catch. Come in this room of successful women who didn’t get roped in and tied into a situation that sucked the life out of your life. Maybe you did, and you got out. We salute you. Your sisters all stand and applaud you when you enter this room.

The entire rest of your life is ahead of you. Anything could happen. As Frank Sinatra sang, “We’ve only tasted the wine/We’re gonna drain the cup dry/…The best is yet to come/And babe won’t it be fine”

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

When Strength Gets in the Way of Survival

Have you heard the (only slightly macabre) story of the Spartan boy and the fox?

Some context: Sparta, that famously militaristic city-state in ancient Greece, had a rigorous system of military education. Boy children were essentially on loan to their parents from the state until the age of 7, when they had to leave their families to live in barracks until the age of 30. Life in the phalanx was short on academics and long on stuff like learning to eat only enough food to survive. Training focused on anything that could be useful from a military standpoint, including – from an early age – the art of stealing. (Child soldiers, anyone?) A solider in enemy territory, after all, would have to find food without being caught.

But here’s the thing – the boys were punished if they were caught. Stealing was acceptable; being bad at it was not.

One day, a Spartan boy managed to snag a live fox in a nearby village. (Don’t ask me why on earth; I think it’s bonkers too.) Unfortunately for him, when he came back to camp, his trainer noticed him and asked what he had been doing. The boy had no chance to hide the fox anywhere except for under his clothes. As the trainer kept asking the boy where he had been, the fox started scratching and biting the boy under his shirt. The boy remained silent. The questioning kept coming, and so did the blood, but the boy must have been more afraid of the punishment to come than he was of his current pain. (And that’s an understatement.)

According to the story, the poor boy was so strong in his ability to endure pain that the fox kept on eating into his body until the boy fell down dead.

This was told as an example of the extreme stoicism of the Spartans and the boy’s extreme fear of punishment under the conditions of the army child-solider camps. Oops, my bad there, I mean, “the Spartan training and loyalty.” Please see https://www.ancient.eu/article/342/the-spartan-education/ for one source of this information, which I first encountered in a textbook in 3rd grade. (Due to the limitations of the human body when faced with extreme physical pain and/or blood loss, I suspect this story is largely apocryphal, like a twisted version of George Washington and the cherry tree.)

Sooooo, what have we really learned? Was it admiration of the boy’s strength and discipline?

No.

Don’t be like the Spartan boy. He let something kill him because he wouldn’t open his mouth about it. I don’t know what was going through his mind in this supposed scenario, but it must have been a mixture of fear, determination, pride, and stubbornness. And that’s what killed him.

Don’t act like that traumatized child soldier, paralyzed from an instilled inability to admit mistakes or weakness. The world is not waiting to descend upon you savagely, full of rage and punishment, if you ask for what you need – or for what you want, for that matter! Come in out of the cold. Knock on the door. If you knock long enough, someone will show up to see who it is.

I don’t want to die. I want to live.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

There is a dark side to strength that whispers that you have to keep proving it, that unless you’re exercising your strength in the midst of difficulty and deprivation, you don’t have a right to claim it. “Use it, don’t lose it” says the voice of self-sabotage, which is actually just your survival mentality. But it’s wrong.

You do not have to keep struggling for the rest of your life just to prove that you can. Thank your strength for everything it’s done for you, pat it on the shoulder, and tell it to sit down and rest for a while. I’ll be taking it from here. You’ve earned a break, strength. I won’t forget you. You don’t have to go away. You won’t be erased. I’m going to go get us what we need; you stay here and I’ll call you when I need you. Sometimes when we don’t have much else going for us, our strength/independence is what we craft our identity around. It’s horrifying to think of losing the only thing you have to be proud of, to envision the horror of becoming no better than anyone else. But you don’t have to be better than everyone else to be different, special, morally acceptable, and free of shame.

If your mental health gets bad, tell someone, and then keep telling and trying new things until you get the meds or the work/life balance or human interaction or counseling that you need. Fine is not your final resting place. You can aim higher than that. You don’t have to settle for white-knocking it through every day, or dragging yourself along with every last ounce of your strength. Please, I promise you, life can be so much better than you can even imagine right now, and it’s closer than you think it is. Like, crazy close.

When I got sick in China, several friends offered to bring food to my house. I said no, never having had to take a sick day before in my life. What’s the worst that could happen? Well…those pneumonia antibiotics were hella strong. Like, wobbly balance and racing heartbeat strong. Help would have been nice. Now fast forward. When my roommate here got sick, her sister brought over fruits, and her father brought over kindling and firewood and started our fire that day. I watched her support network rally around her and walk into our home to do easy, ordinary tasks for her, and I felt something cracking inside me – “Is it really that easy? Can you just have things like that if you ask? Are people that willing to help?

Some people are not able, or, unfortunately, unwilling, to help you. That’s okay, just ask someone else. Just keep moving. I’m thinking of one man who laughingly refused to haul up firewood from our basement, and another who agreed but forgot. (I should ask him again. He told me to always ask if we needed anything, and he meant it.) My mother always used to say, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.” Don’t be shocked if it’s not family or lifelong friends, but new friends and acquaintances that step up to help. Don’t ever feel bad for creating new friend groups, new support circles, and finding your tribe. Proverbs 27:10 says Better a friend that is near than a brother far away.

There is SO much more to who you are than your ability to “take it.” You don’t need to prove anything. You deserve a full, beautiful, thriving life. The only question to answer is, Do you want to be a person with a fox chewing on them, or not? No buts. It is absolutely that simple.

Let self-preservation drown out your other pesky instincts when it really comes down to it.

Open your mouth, so you can finally get that fox off your back.

Why You Shouldn’t Settle

Because your humanity is a tantalizing, tragic, inspiring mystery, and you have the God-given right and duty to use and enjoy it.

You were not made to serve; you were not put here to kneel to anyone on your level. All people are on your level, and you are on theirs. The outward stuff is just trappings. You will have duties, responsibilities, obligations, allegiance, and hopefully deep love and sacrifice for your fellow people, but only ever as a fellow traveller. Your souls are the same size; you may pay taxes, clock in and out, pay extra deference or respect to a few, but they hold no ultimate sway over you, and never let anyone convince you that their convenience and well-being is the reason you were born into this world. You deserve to ride this ride with head held high, and that has nothing to do with your sex, marital or relationship status, career or lack thereof, or tax bracket.

The courage to get what you want out of life is self care, just like taking care of your body after a long week. The little things matter, and if you don’t look after them, you might miss the big things because you’re so used to letting chances at happiness pass you by. You don’t need to do that anymore, love. You are worth it right now, right where you are, whether you feel it or not. Now have some kindness and compassion for yourself and act like you’re worth it. Be good to you, in every way possible.

Shake that monkey of fear and insecurity off your back, or better yet, bring it into the room with you until it runs away because it can’t stand the pain of the light of being in the presence of everything your heart wants. Its lie, that those things are not for you, that you’re not enough and that you can’t do it, will be exposed for the nonsense it is, and it will slink back.

Actually, scary things don’t get less scary, but you do get a lot more used to doing scary things. A level of nervousness or doubt that would have sent you packing before will just make you roll your eyes and think, oh great, here we go again, looks like I’m gonna have to do something hard again, ugh, this is really uncomfortable but there’s nothing for it. Here goes nothing; I know at least I won’t regret it. You have nothing to lose but time, and that is slipping through our fingers already. The pain of not going for it is always so much greater than the pain of going for it.

Who told you that you had to stay small, that you didn’t deserve to have your dreams come true when so many less deserving people have gone after what they want and gotten it? Do you think it’s hubris, a lack of humility or contentment, to chase greater things? It’s not wrong at all; you’re not hurting anyone by changing for the better, you were just made to feel that way by people afraid to do the same. You were hurting their comfort zone, and that’s okay – don’t be afraid to be brutal with your own. You’ll survive, and be so much stronger and happier on the other side of it. The rush of power flowing through your veins – it feels incredible.

Be brave; just try it on for size to see how bravery feels, and then keep doing it over and over every time an opportunity presents itself, no matter how small.

You deserve to have something in this life, something of your own to hold in your hand and say “This is mine, it’s the truth about me; I had what it took to accomplish this – and I still have.” You CAN level up in life. You CAN make some dreams come true. Go on, reach out your hand, and take it.

You’ve walked long enough. It’s time to start running. Run for your life – it’s quite literally waiting there for you, beckoning you on, saying “Come on, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Run.

ADHD and Painful Parenting

“Your voice, it chased away all the sanity in me”

– Evanescence, “My Immortal”

I wish I could convey the hopelessness and humiliation of walking into the room to face a person who treats you like a behind schedule construction project. If you know, you know. Having one’s “issues” monitored and managed by others can be an excruciating experience for a young person still forming their sense of self-worth, yet it is all too familiar to those of us with ADHD (or any other learning difficulty or mental health challenge).

Willpower cannot override ADHD. No amount of rigid structure, calendars, timers, reminders, discipline, consequences, and strict parenting can make your child’s brain neurotypical. Therefore, they will never act neurotypical. Even medication, as wonderfully effective as it can be, does not completely neutralize it. It helps improve focus and minimize distraction, but there are a host of other issues that it doesn’t really have the power to touch. We have the power to choose a lot of things in this life, but the brain we were born with is not one of them. Don’t hold your child accountable for something they can’t change any more than they can change their body’s need for sleep. It’s cruel to punish someone for not jumping high enough to reach a bar that was always set just out of reach.

Cutting out external distraction is useless, because the distraction comes from the inside. Stimulation is not the enemy for us, it is our friend. We run on an eternal stimulation deficit. When I started the first draft of this article months ago, I had 80’s hits blasting in my headphones so that I could focus. Slower music (Hozier, since you ask) came on and I had to immediately change it, or I would have slowed down to his pace and started feeling my feelings, and then I would have gotten stuck (“hyper focus” is the commonly accepted clinical term, but “stuck” is what we all say) for a couple of hours. In our heads, the rubber only hits the road when when our brain is vibrating at a higher frequency, if you will. If we spin our wheels a lot, it’s because we operate in a different gear – ADHD is best understood as an interest-based nervous system.

(I’ve used a boy’s image for this article, but please remember that girls are very under diagnosed due to different symptoms and not fitting the outdated stereotype of bouncing off the walls. The hyperactivity and impulsivity aspects of ADHD are more frequently absent in girls, leaving an inattention component that can be pretty non-obtrusive on the outside.)

If I could give parents one tip, it would be this: let students study/manage their life the way that works best for THEM, not the way that works best for YOU. Your kid has tried it your way. You think they didn’t, because it didn’t work. It always works, for everyone, as long as you try hard enough, right? Nope. In this case, throw the rulebook out the window. The only “right” way to learn, study, live, and get things down is the way that is most effective for them.

Think outside the box; there’s no moral virtue or brownie points for studying at a table instead of a sofa. (Or suspended from a trapeze or while running a marathon, if that’s what works!) If how-to videos online work better than reading the instructions, then hurrah and hallelujah – that’s why someone made them in the first place. You’re not responsible for raising a clone of yourself. The world’s great geniuses, and any highly successful person (many of whom have AHDH), got results precisely because they focused on results instead of one particular lockstep path to get there. Don’t bang either your head or your child’s head against a brick wall if something clearly isn’t working. Work with the grain of their nature, not against it. Oh, and pick waaaaaaay fewer battles. As they’re saying on the internet these days, that’s still too many battles. Put some battles back. Nope, still too many battles.

Children, teens, and college students with ADHD struggle mightily with issues like time management, organization, remembering to complete tasks, losing things, and other general life skills that may seem easy and straightforward to others. Because of this, even the sweetest, most eager-to-please children end up receiving more than their fair share of anger, disappointment and discipline from their parents, teachers, other authority figures, and even peers.

If you insist on trying to change them at a fundamental level, you will torpedo their self-esteem and your relationship with them, both now and in the future. If you harp on them and make a big deal about their issues, with constant criticism, they will first hate themselves, and then you, or both. I can personally assure you those are your options. Hopefully your child is well-adjusted enough to show love and forgiveness moving forward (good news: she or he very likely is).

If you choose to be authoritarian, unreasonable, or unsympathetic, your child’s spirit is in for the fight of its life. They’ll either be crying, thinking “What IS my problem? Why CAN’T I get it together?” or they’ll have an epiphany one day. They’ll look at you with a sudden distaste and it will all click. In a rush of compassion for themselves, a piece of them will snap and mentally stand up to you, and they’ll think, “What is YOUR problem? How do you not see that what you’re doing is not working? Why are you so delusional, so obsessed with control and with changing me, to think that your efforts are doing any good? BACK. OFF.”

It hurts. Please stop.

Contrary to popular opinion, rigid, militaristic outward structure doesn’t always compensate for our inner make-up. That’s a controlling viewpoint to adopt – we/I must be for you what you cannot be for yourself, until and only until you start doing it for yourself. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. (Please see the entire section where none of this is optional?!?) Keep the micromanaging to a minimum, and for goodness sake, guests are NOT going in your child’s messy bedroom! We don’t like controlling behavior any more than anyone else does; remember that this is a relationship, not boot camp.

Please, on behalf of every distraught child crying into a pillow, staring out of a window, or finding a questionable coping mechanism, no more. No more of the repeated lectures, browbeating, and stormy, tearful scenes. Enough is enough. I shudder to think of the storm of consequences that rains down on the heads of children who cannot fit into others’ molds. I really do fear that the (extremely understandable) frustration of their caregivers is at a higher risk of crossing over into borderline or fully abusive behavior, based on my own limited observations and experience.

Don’t think that the rebellious, hardened, “wild” ones don’t notice or feel the disappointment and disgust from those closest to them. They do notice how others perceive them, and that’s part of the reason for some of their more over-the-top, ungovernable emotions. (Difficulty regulating emotions is a fairly common but rarely talked about symptom of ADHD.) The quiet, sensitive ones will suffer from even a few harsh words; they are already hard enough on themselves on the inside. Up to 50% of people with ADHD also struggle with some form of anxiety, including rejection sensitivity dysphoria. I won’t even mention the high co-morbidity rates of having other learning disabilities.

Be your child’s safe haven and biggest friend, cheerleader, and supporter. When your child struggles, do you want them to hear your angry, condemning, disappointed voice in their head? Or do you want them to hear a voice saying, “It’s okay, no big deal, I love you and I believe in you; you can get through this”? Progress, not perfection, is key. Model this. Make sure your child knows to aim for progress, because she or he probably already knows damn well that perfection is out of reach.

We already deal with so much frustration and shame over these issues. You really don’t need to add more. It may seem like we don’t care, or that we don’t understand how our space-cadet tendencies are problematic, but believe me, we know. And we do care. We just can’t do anything about it, whether or not you believe it. We learn quick how to care less about this stuff. Perhaps you could learn too.

I’m here on this earth for a short time, so I intend to work around my issues instead of wasting my time pointlessly , impossibly trying to become a copy of someone else. And on those days when organization, planning, or productivity doesn’t happen?

I smile, look around me, and enjoy this beautiful thing called life. It’s worth living, to the fullest. We all deserve this. As a matter of fact, would you like to come along for the ride? We can show you things you’ve never dreamed of.

Yes, there were times
I’m sure you knew
When I bit off, more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all, and I stood tall
And did it my way

….

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows, I took the blows
And did it my way

Yes, it was my way

“My Way”, Frank Sinatra

Songwriters: Paul Anka / Claude Francois / Jacques Revaux / Gilles Thibault

5 Albanian Foods to Try

Albanian food is good, first of all. It’s heavy on meats and cheeses, but with Greek food alongside to balance things out. The nation Greece is just to the southeast, which explains the presence of giros as pretty much the only available “fast food”. (Hey, none of us are complaining!) This also means that Greek salads, God bless them, are on the menu wherever salads are sold.

A common lunch, pre-dinner first course, or side dish might consist of a plate of tomato, cucumbers, and djathe lope – a white cheese reminiscent of feta. And bread, of course – no Albanian meal is considered complete without bread! Sour cream is a universal handy sauce for everything. Baklava is commonly exchanged around Christmastime and New Year’s the way fruitcakes used to be in the west, and believe it or not, some foreigners get heartily sick of it! It’s homemade and of, uh, occasionally varying quality.

Below are a few more specific traditional dishes that I’ve had the privilege of trying in the months that I’ve been here.

Qofte -Sounds like CHOF-tuh. These fried meatballs are the national dish of Albania. Also popular in Kosovo, they were first introduced by the Turks and are the Balkan version of a dish popular throughout the Middle East. (According to Google, that is; ain’t learning great?) Sometimes they’re made into patties, like in the above image. They’re delicious, by the way. Shoutout to Arsi, my roommate’s sister, for making the lovely New Year’s Eve dinner pictured above.

Kernaçka – A kind of sausage or sometimes meatball unique to Korce, and a variant of qofte. Most times I have seen it ordered, it is served by itself as in the picture below, instead of mixed into other foods like I do when I try to cook them. Once time yours truly bought the raw frozen ones and accidentally undercooked them, leading to a speedily resolved case of food poisoning. Oh well, live and learn. They too are delicious.

Petulla – Fried dough balls, called pancakes but that seems like a bit of stretch. Served in the below picture with butter and honey, but can also be served with powdered sugar or with savory flavors like feta cheese. They’re good, but don’t go in expecting something as sweet as an actual pancake or donut or you’ll be disappointed. What can I say, I’m such a hopeless devotee of actual pancakes.

P.S. That’s the remnants of Turkish coffee in the picture, by the way. Goodness, I thought I was going to enjoy that a lot more than I did. “Brewed with sugar” – what could go wrong? Feeling like my teeth are covered with coffee ground sludge afterwards, that’s what could go wrong! No hate intended, but I think from now on I’ll stick to pouring sugar into espresso because it was served with sugar next to it, never mind accusations of how “weird” that sounds. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

Fasule pllaqi (sounds like fah-SUE-lay – PLAH-chee) – These gigantic white beans are huger than any others I’ve seen in my life. At least twice as big. I don’t know what flavors or ingredients go into the little bit of sauce they’re cooked in, but they’re pretty tasty even if they are a bit bland. I don’t mind; I’m aways down for a nice little protein-rich side dish.

Patate e tzatziki – French fries in Albania are often ordered with a dish of tzatziki sauce to dip them in. Ergo, my life is complete. I always dive for them; that stuff never gets old. No picture to go with this, but then, none is needed. Instead, here’s a picture of chicken inexplicably but blessedly covered in French fries and shredded cheese.

Chicken is usually served whole as a sharing dish for the table. The practice of ordering a variety of dishes for the table is the same as in East Asia (China, Japan, Korea) and other collectivist cultures. Color me a fan.

Oh, before you go, our picturesque town of Korce is renowned in Albania for more than its traditional serenades and cool summer weather – the capital of Tirana actually has several restaurants that serve Korce’s specific cuisine! We’re kinda special like that. To brag for just a sec, we actually really like it here and wouldn’t trade it for any other town around these parts.

The Sweetness of a Sad Christmas

My first Christmas alone was the saddest Christmas I had ever experienced. That’s what makes it so special. It’s one of my golden and blue mixed memory orbs like in “Inside Out”. 

All alone in my cold apartment, in the Xingxing Huayuan apartment complex, with the palm and pine and mangolia trees still green in the winter despite the winter chill. Getting through the Christmas season largely alone until the actual day arrived to spend with friends, missing a tree and decorations and a festive holiday environment around me. With a thin coat, because I never took proper care of myself, walking home in the dark in my work uniform each evening. Passing the black coated, Chinese red arm-banded security guards at the gate, and always stopping outside the dingy convenience store to stand in the grassy cobblestone courtyard to look up at the stars.

I sang the most beautiful Christmas carols to myself, then, about hope and a rescuer and love diving down to earth. As I shivered and put my hands against myself and stared at that one star, probably Venus, I thought of Sam Gamgee on his way through Mordor with only Mount Doom ahead of him, and how

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack…Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” 

Then I went down the other cobblestone path with the tall dark shrubs to my building, where I put my key in and walked up to the 4th floor and walked in, to the papers on the table, the dust bunnies on the floor, and the dirty dishes in the sink. But before I went up I could see my string of Christmas lights set on the windowsill visible from the outside. (It had been important to me, that year, that my place have colorful Christmas lights already turned on to welcome me home each night, because it was the only place in town I was likely to see them.)

And I went up and sat down on the red divan under the window. I turned on the heater in the corner but it was too far away across the big living room to reach to this dining room by the kitchen. So I sat and had a glass of mead (bought it at a random stall in Eslite bookstore, of all places!), which tastes like nasty watered down honey and alcohol, and draped the string of rainbow blue, red, gold, and green orbs around my torso, so the light would be as close to me as possible. They were warm to the touch – I wrapped my hand around and squeezed to feel the warmth, in a nation where hugging is rare – and the light reflected off my face and lit up the dark space around me and it was beautiful. It felt like the closest I could get to Christmas, the most of it that I could have, if I reached out and pulled it close and put it on my own self, so I did.

I was so homesick for Christmas, and yet I wanted to be right where I was, living my dream in China, and certainly not back in my parents’ house. I was grown now, and that wasn’t home anymore, not for the heart. I wouldn’t have gone back or pulled out of the story for anything in the whole world in that moment. The sadness was the most beautiful part of it all.

All my life Christmas was a phoenix to be resurrected from the ashes of the previous year’s holiday, a ghost of childhood Christmas past to be conjured up again and again with the help of my equally nostalgic and very home and family oriented mother. This year, for the first time, I was on my own far away, looking at the pile of ash and realizing that there was no life to be found there. It was time to stand up, turn my back, and walk away into the bleak but promising desert of the future. Christmas wasn’t back there, it was out there in the wilderness somewhere.

And I didn’t have it.

Wherever that warm cottage was, with lights and food and sweaters and drinks and embraces, wherever those laughing accepting people of my new tribe were, it was not here and it was not this year. That cold crisp realization brought the tears starting out and trickling down. But it was a victory. I had been on the wrong track of christmas and now I was on the hard, lonely, path to find the real, grown-up, too-good-to-be-true, deep Christmas. Admitting that I didn’t have it felt like the greatest essence of the first Christmas: the mundanity of the shepherds, the betrayal and heartbreak of Joseph before the angel came, the fear after the nativity on the refugee road to egypt, the confusion of the Magi on the journey, and the cry of the exiles for deliverance- “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here…”

Christmas wasn’t some past ghost at all, it was a living thing, and it was out there. I cried that I didn’t have it, but also for joy that it existed. Someday. A dream. A blow for love, to declare its reality. The first and boldest, noblest, most epic blow you will ever strike for what your heart loves and longs for is to declare that it exists and is possible. To stand up and eloquently defy everyone who said that your true, ultimate home was a myth and a fable that is just somehow rattling around all our hearts.

No, no it’s not. It’s our divine birthright. It’s the innate human memory of everything we were made for but never had. The number of Christmases I have left (I was 27 at the time, two years ago) is really not so many. Time flies cruelly quickly. There are only so many decades in me and I cannot afford to spend a single one of them, not one month more, living in the empty room of the past. It’s time to be a fierce, passionate wanderer in this world until the day I go home.

To sit and mourn what I didn’t have was so poignant that it was the sweetest Christmas experience I ever had. I learned that Christmas was so much bigger and better than I thought it was. There was more to it, and a treasure at the end of the rainbow. Simultaneously I felt both the discomfort of the cold and the warmth of those little lights, which seemed to represent a deposit of things to come.

The Holy Spirit himself is the deposit of things to come – “the already and the not yet”, to use a favorite phrase of our professors at Covenant College. How long, O Lord? God come to earth – God with us. This, finally, then, is what it is to want that. To long for it so viscerally that you can feel it in your chest. To sob for the absence of the faraway lover across the seas of space and time, and to clutch the beautiful promise that someday he will come back for you. And then to stand up and start walking out into that cold, peaceful, starry desert, the bare stretch of the journey in between where you were and where you want to be.

Since that winter I have had a very clear picture in my mind of someone standing up from a rest, perhaps at a campfire, and determinedly setting out again on a long walk into the dark solitude of the desert night. In one hand, or perhaps hanging out of the rucksack, is a glowing strand of blue, red, gold, and green Christmas lights.

May they live in your heart.

Stay in the Fight

Eowyn, princess of Rohan, wanted more than anything to ride out and go to battle. “A time may come soon,” said Aragorn, future king of Gondor, to her, “when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown…

Waiting is the unsung valor, the unrecognized courage that life demands of you right now. It hurts to hear, doesn’t it? Being told that when your time comes, your moment might consist of proving yourself alone in the dark? But this is how it always is. Fighting with no immediate reward in sight requires a great hope, a powerful, robust, beautiful, glorious love of the end goal. The kind of determined acts of hope that turn the tide of the story – your story – always happen when circumstances are grim and you are at your lowest.

Fight the good fight.

Stay in the game long enough to make it to the other side, just like Rocky Balboa did. He couldn’t fight worth a damn, he had nothing to show for himself, couldn’t even keep his hands up to protect his face, and yet his puffy, bloody self was still standing at the end. He reaped the same rewards as a better fighter would have! Can you feel how powerful that is?

You might not be handling Covid-19 very well. You might be an anxious, depressed, broke, lonely, over-drinking, over-eating, kid-wrangling, touch-starved mess, but you’re still standing. When Covid-19 is over – and with the new vaccine coming, light is peeking through the end of the tunnel – you will reap the same rewards as those who handled 2020 “well”.

You will reap far better rewards, actually. The harder the wait, the sweeter the triumph. That win meant more to Rocky than it would have meant to anyone else, precisely because it was so hard-fought. Bloodied or not, you can be standing when the final round comes. Make sure you are. You owe yourself that much. Do it for your future self, who is looking back at you right now from a much better place.

Much has been lost that will never be recovered – time past cannot ever be reclaimed. It’s gone forever. Yet life goes on, and so will we. We are all waiting for a lot of things that we really want during this time of Covid-19: jobs, relationships, reunions with loved ones, travel, parties, even something as simple and integral as an evening at the bar. Important opportunities that were normal back in January, that make life so sweet, are still not available for us. They will not be available throughout this winter.

Hang on. They’re coming back.

No hardship lasts forever. We will see the end of this and look back in remembrance, so buckle down and do your part. Love those kids and relatives intentionally, with gritted teeth if necessary, no matter how much they get on your nerves. Fight for your mental health instead of letting yourself slip into bad habits. Video call your older relatives – Lord knows they need it. Avoid crowded places religiously; you might save a life by freeing up a potential hospital bed for someone else. Do your part, alone, unsung – no songs, stories, statues, awards, or applause for consistently wearing a mask and social distancing.

Do it anyway. Prove that you are capable of valour without renown, for a long haul and not just a sprint. Hold onto hope, even when your grip on it starts to slip. We don’t prove ourselves in the sunny daylight with all our friends around. We prove ourselves in the deep darkness of grief and despair, when we crawl to our feet like skinny, pre-serum Steve Rogers in that 1940s Brooklyn ally, spit out the blood, and say “I can do this all day.”

St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)

John Parr

Growin’ up
You don’t see the writing on the wall
Passin’ by
Movin’ straight ahead you knew it all
But maybe sometime if you feel the pain
You’ll find you’re all alone, everything has changed
Play the game
You know you can’t quit until it’s won
Soldier on
Only you can do what must be done
You know in some way you’re a lot like me
You’re just a prisoner
And you’re trying to break free

I can see a new horizon
Underneath the blazin’ sky
I’ll be where the eagle’s flyin’ higher and higher
Gonna be a man in motion
All I need is a pair of wheels
Take me where my futures lyin’, St. Elmo’s Fire

Burnin’ up
Don’t know just how far that I can go
Soon be home
Only just a few miles down the road
I can make it, I know I can
You broke the boy in me
But you won’t break the man

….Just once in his life a man has his time
And my time is now, I’m coming alive….

Photo by Samuel Silitonga on Pexels.com

Unbreakable

Captain Hilts was gloriously unbreakable. He knew that no one alive had the ability to reach inside of him and break his will, and he really enjoyed that knowledge. It’s where his swagger came from.

Back in 9th or 10th grade, my straight-laced homeschooled self saw Steve McQueen’s character smirk and talk back to the kommandant on the family TV screen and had an instant crush. I was blown away by his chutzpah, his happy, confident determination to never stop rebelling until he succeeded. Sure, he was a hero, but his goodness was almost secondary to who he was in the classic film The Great Escape. His true essence, and the source of his power, was his proud, fierce indomitability. He was a thorn in the side of the Germans who flashed his smug defiance out of his eyes. He’s my hero and inspiration, and he always will be.

We first see his character strolling into the high-security prison camp with a rucksack of belongings, a blue T-shirt that brought out his eyes, a leather pilot’s jacket, the wheels of escape strategies already turning in his mind, and a fire for freedom in his belly. “Cooler King” they called him, because he was forever attempting to escape, and forever getting himself placed in solitary confinement in the “cooler” as punishment. He marched into that cell head held high, every time, baseball mitt and ball in hand. The sound of that ball smacking off the walls was the sound of his unbroken spirit, loud, happy, and defiant for all to hear.

At the end of the movie, Hilts is brought back alive after a mass escape attempt that claimed the lives of many of the men. He takes the news in stride, as to be expected in the face of such long odds, but also learns that their efforts have gotten the commandant fired. He stands there in handcuffs, sizing up the new commandant, and begins to smile. Captain Hilts has found a new boxing opponent, and he clearly relishes the thought of the upcoming battle of wills. Right before being escorted away, he turns back and says, smirking, “Oh…you’ll still be here when I get out?”.

Hilts lost the best attempt he was ever likely to get, but at least he was alive when others weren’t. As long as he was alive, he was in the game and fighting. That made him unbreakable, and now, in their darkest moment of defeat, the hundreds of men left in the camp fell in behind him. They crowded in, spirits leaping within them, to watch the most inspiring figure in camp get ready to accept his assigned number of days in a cell and then come back out swinging like he always did. His march back to the cooler, in front of everyone in the camp, becomes a march of triumph instead of defeat.

I’d like to think there was a seed of Hilts’ wonderful spirit deep in my heart, sustaining me through the difficult years. There was conflict at home with a mostly unyielding authority figure and I lost every time. His house, his rules, and he could change them when he liked. I remember ugly, tearful scenes because I didn’t want him to keep trying to micromanage my calendar the first two years of college. I remember angry, desperate arguments because I didn’t want him to keep assigning me squats as punishment for raising my voice and being “disrespectful” during arguments with my parents. It was humiliating, so horribly humiliating, to be told “no breakfast” and made to do squats in front of the whole family sitting around the table because I came downstairs for breakfast late. Which became the start to almost every day, because I am really not a morning person. This lasted from about 11th grade through the first year of college.

One brother wondered why I didn’t stand up for myself, but the younger one said “I saw you as the nail that wouldn’t be hammered down.” Now that I’ll hang my hat on. I tried my best, and often failed, to hold onto my dignity, but there is a deeper dignity that cannot be taken. It’s what Hilts had. When you’re independent and conscious of your individuality, you have a special power because meeting others’ standards holds no allure. And their disapproval means very little.

I hope that somewhere under my distraught pile of denial, resentment, humiliation, powerlessness, passivity, and self-condemnation was Captain Hilts, deep in the cell of my heart, tossing his baseball against the walls. There was a window in that cell, you know, that he could look out of. There’s always a window in your mind that you can look out of, and that’s how I survived. Imagination is a powerful, beautiful thing.

I outlasted.

I capitulated a lot, because when I did resist, it wasn’t effective. But I did hold onto my self-respect and bided my time. I can say that I outlasted, because I never tried to turn into what he wanted me to be. I only ever wanted to be myself.

Thank you, Hilts, for showing me what spirit looks like. It took a while, but the seed you planted has finally bloomed, and the happiness and confidence is intoxicating. I’m older now, 29. I’m sitting here in a cafe in Europe, next to a cobblestone street, listening to Higher Love with a big smile on my face. I finally have a leather jacket of my own now. Most importantly, I, too, know that no one alive has the ability to reach inside of me and break my will. I really enjoy that knowledge. It’s where my swagger comes from.

“Still I Rise” – Maya Angelou