Wednesday, December 19, 2012

One Month Away

I've been on the Oregon Coast 11 days now, and I'm still not used to the good-smelling air, big, wet, green forest and beautiful Woahink Lake and the Siuslaw River. I love getting in the car just to look out the window, and I don't really mind it's been pissing rain since I arrived. Six months in Beijing lends a lot of perspective.

In about a month I leave for Bangkok. My plans are vague, I haven't thought too hard about where exactly I'm going because every time I sit down to contemplate where I want to go the list gets bigger.

I am nervous about being on my own for so long. It will undoubtedly be lonely in parts, but my friends who've traveled in SE Asia brush off my concerns, it's such a well-traveled route I can always meet people. Still, I don't romanticize the lone wolf aspect of it, I'm traveling alone because (surprise) most people can't take off for a four-month, mostly-unplanned walkabout.

On Monday I stumbled across the essay, Every Woman Should Travel Alone, and have decided I'm going to start thinking of the solo aspect as a challenge rather than something to be anxious about. I've been interested in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (by Cheryl Strayed, who hiked 1,100 miles alone when she was about my age) since it was released, but I think I'll make the effort to read it before I go. And my last source of courage, but by far the most relevant, is my good friend and freshman roommate Lily who has been traveling the world alone for over a year now. We'd hoped to travel together for part of her journey, but I couldn't get out of China fast enough, so she preceded me in many of the places I want to go. She blogs here.

What I'm reading:

Just finished
Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman

An excellent, incredible read. Some parts are so crazy, it seems like science fiction. I listened to a Longform podcast with Reitman. She talked about struggling as a hard news reporter and "surviving on kill fees" for magazine articles that never quite came together for years. She could be my cool big sister, alas, I'm stuck with two stinky brothers. Curses!

Currently reading
The Best American Travel Writing 2008

I've read many of the essays before, but thought I'd give it another gander before my travels. I'm in the middle of a piece about river travel in Congo.  My favorite so far has been a journalist who hung out with a bunch of pirates in the Strait of Malacca.

Madame Bovary

While I'm not working, I want to fill in as many gaps in my classic lit knowledge as possible. There are two great things about reading a bunch of classics: 1. They rarely disappoint and 2. I have a Kindle so a lot are free. So far, Gustave Flaubert is doing a pretty good job making me sympathize with his bored and despairing country housewife, Emma. And I love this description of the sinister rich folks she comes across:

...And through all their gentleness of manner pierced that peculiar brutality, the result of a command of half-easy things, in which force is exercised and vanity amused -- the management of thoroughbred horses and the society of loose women.

Timeless, no?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Old writing station (in Shanghai)

New writing station (in garage - garden view)

Last work day in Beijing. This is the dream team. They saved me on several occasions and made work (even when it was taking place at 2am) fun. I'm going to miss these ladies. 

But then this happened on my first full day at home. First tree I've helped put up in years. I'm so happy to be here.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Closing a Chapter

I've passed the crown, relinquished the keys to the kingdom, I am no longer the chief editor of That's Beijing. I am appropriately sad, or I was last Friday. Now, I'm sitting in a French Concession cafe feeling supremely relaxed. I took the high-speed train to Shanghai sunday night. After six months away, it felt like coming home.

But for the times when being chief editor was exceedingly stressful, I had a comfortable life up north and I learned a lot. I was sent to Beijing to make major changes to the publication and I'm satisfied with what I accomplished. I had excellent roommates and I formed meaningful friendships with my work teammates. Last Tuesday evening I went for my final free massage. Alas, as I step away from the swaggy world of lifestyle magazines, I reckon I've had more spa treatments in China than I'll have for the rest of my life.

Even if it hadn't come with a generous helping of free facials and comped dinners, I couldn't have dreamed up a better way to have spent the last three years. I went to rural schools in the mountains of Anhui Province, to crab farms in Jiangsu and to China's richest village, Huaxi. I've been to Tibetan mastiff kennels and movie lots and inside plainclothes police vans. I went to Guangzhou and Hong Kong and all the way to the Kazakh border in Xinjiang where I scored a Saddam Hussein nesting doll.

Last week my mom sent me a note she found on her computer. She'd typed out a conversation we had early one morning my freshman year of high school. I had awakened her to write a letter for me to put in a time capsule to be opened my senior year, and I was waking her up because I'd forgotten about it and it was due. So far, this all sounds about right. I didn't usually forget homework, but I was always a bit contemptuous of any assignment I saw as sentimental. Not for any good reason, in retrospect it was a nice thing for our teacher to organize, I think my feeling at the time was if you weren't challenging me then you were wasting my time. Or in this case, my mom's!

I recall she wrote a longer letter later, but the one she sent so I wouldn't miss the deadline was as follows:

You are a great daughter, a good student, in wonderful shape from all of your JROTC drills and RECONDO training.  I appreciate your sense of humor, wit and ability to write, how you read books all the time, how you pay attention to current affairs and engage your father and I with questions about world events.  

I like looking back on this now because, thought it was something she wrote quickly, I think it shows that at 15 I was well on my way to becoming who I am today. Three years of JROTC was enough to learn that the military wasn't for me, but I still try to make fitness a part of my life, except when I get too busy, or when the temperature drops in Beijing (a cold apartment is deeply demotivating). Reading and writing are still the two most fulfilling things that I do. And I'm still insatiably curious about the world. I want to see the whole goddamn thing. This winter I plan to take a sizable chunk out of that goal. I'm going home for Christmas and then flying to Bangkok in January. 

I'm only in Shanghai for the week to finish up a bit of banking and say goodbye to friends. I've taken a lot of long walks. Last night I went to my second Shanghai Sinterklaas celebration (the Dutch version of Santa, only their Santa rides a boat manned by his black "helpers," and he stuffs naughty children in a sack and hauls them back to Spain - horrors!). I've fielded the "what are you doing next" question a dozen times now and still haven't perfected my answer. So far I'm responding with something along the lines of "uh, writing?" Question mark included, as if the person I'm speaking with will maybe have a better idea than I do.  

But actually, I'm very excited about what's coming next. I'm thrilled to be the sole master of my creative energy for this next season, to have time to read and write, and to keep filling up my passport.