Saturday, December 21, 2013

One Long Weekend in Austin

My first friend in Shanghai/roommate/girl who galavanted about China with me came to visit last weekend. It was bar none the most gluttonous four-day feeding frenzy I've ever undertaken. Austin is definitely a foodie city, but there's a distinct emphasis on fried, fat, heavy and spicy. My body was rebelling midway through, but we soldiered on.

I didn't take a photo of everything we ate, but here are some of the things:

Migas breakfast plate at Juan in a Million

Bloody Marys that almost double as salads from Rio Ritas, fun to watch the
bartender dollop shredded garlic into the glass

This was the best surprise delight of the weekend - deep-friend jambalaya on a stick from the Baton Creole food truck. I was a tiny bit skeptical, just because I couldn't even imagine jambalaya on a stick, but James said it was good. It was out of this world.

Here you can kind of get a look at the rice and fixings inside

Chicken and waffles with bacon bits in the batter from the restaurant Bacon (they cure their own)

Couldn't quite do it

And this is the line outside Franklin's barbecue. We arrived at 10am on a Tuesday (the place doesn't open until 11am), and 10 minutes after we arrived someone came out and said they probably wouldn't have brisket or ribs for those of us that far back. So we had to go elsewhere, too bad as I still haven't eaten there. James has a vegetarian friend who will only eat meat from here because it's too good.

We still got some very, very good barbecue out at Salt Lick. It was so smokey and delicious, eating it made my whole body feel like my inside were turning into barbecue. 

We split a plate. Not very hardcore, I know, but we really ate a lot that weekend. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

What if I had Mega Millions?

On Tuesday I went into a gas station to buy a coffee while a visiting friend and I waited in a two-hour line for the world's best barbecue (at 10a.m. they were already running out of ribs and brisket for slouchers far back in the line like us who only got there one hour before opening, so we wound up eating bbq elsewhere, but that's a story for another day).

On the way out of the gas station the clerk asked me - helpfully - if I was sure I didn't need a Mega Millions ticket too. We shared a laugh and I said no. Gambling in any form isn't in my nature, it's just not fun for me. $648 million is a lot of money, but I've heard the odds are infinitely better if you buy when the pot is down around $20 mill - I don't buy then, so why should I have bought this week?

James bought tickets in the Seattle Airport on the way home for Christmas. You can't get tickets in Alaska and his dad suggested he grab a few. Unfortunately, he wasn't the second as-yet-still-anonymous winner. But what if he had won?

We had this conversation on the phone last night, and not for the first time. Even though I don't buy tickets, I like to fantasize about winning. I know a lot of people like to say "oh I wouldn't really change the way I'm living," I think because it's natural to want to be satisfied with your own life (or to want to give the appearance of being so). But even if you are satisfied, that to me just exhibits a lack of creativity -- there's an awful lot you could do with MEGA MILLIONS.

James said he would finish school (why not?) but wouldn't feel like he had to get a career after that, that he'd probably just work on projects. Then next summer, we'd go on a giant American road trip (we're both most interested in seeing the South) in his VW Golf. Eat fancy food, stay in fancy hotels.

Then, I told him, when we got tired of the Golf, we could drive somewhere remote, stick a rock on the accelerator and shoot it off a cliff, then just hire someone to pick us up and take us to a car dealership.

James was aghast. He's a little attached. But then he got into the spirit and suggested we could buy the cliff. Then we decided we could continue to buy cars and shoot them off the cliff until the pile of cars was just an extension of the mountain. And then we decided we could shoot everything off the cliff when we were done with it: friends, personal trainers, maids...

If I had Mega Millions, I think I would live a pretty itinerate life for at least five years, switching between cities close to friends and family and countries I want to visit (presently, Japan is top of the list for both of us).

But eventually I'd have to produce something - maybe I'd back movies, or start a literary journal. Right now though, shooting a car off a cliff sounds pretty cool.

Monday, December 9, 2013


This morning I fired off the article I worked on all last week. And all day Austin had the most sleep-inducing weather: cold drizzle, heavy clouds, just enough wind to send the chill straight to your bones. That's Grade A movie-watching weather, right there. I wanted to reward myself by declaring it Netflix Monday. Alas, there are jobs to look for and other freelancer work to catch up on.

I think it would be much easier to make money if I had slightly more flexible ethics. Here are some things I think I could be really good at:

Financial Domination
Never heard of it? Me neither, until I read this. I couldn't do other sex work, just because of the germies and Ew. But I think I could tell somebody to give me all their money for the purpose of their pleasure and enjoyment. I could probably learn to use Excel to give my act some 'accounting' panache.

Psychic Readings
When I was little, I convinced the other kids I knew how to read just by picking up story books and making it up as I went. Then, years later, I went to theater camp and was pretty much unbeatable at improv games. My journo experience has honed my people skills, usually I'm okay at getting folks to open up. Therefore, I think I could build relationships with distraught people and fill them with baseless hope thanks to my fanciful predictions. And there is plenty of money to be made there.

Distressed Princess 
This is not just a Nigerian email thing, it happens in real life too. When I was interning at The Seattle Times, I did a story on people who fell for it. They were approached in a Costco parking lot by a man and a woman (the princess) from (insert exotic country) who had improbable money/bank problems and needed to temporarily hold millions in the victim's account. As a show of "trust" the victim went to the bank and took out $30,000. The princess and her dude friend (man servant? eunuch?) told him they were going to drive around the block with it and naturally they never came back. [The bank manager pleaded with the victim not to take out his money.] Once the story ran, I got a couple phone calls from other victims - presumably people who'd been too embarrassed or despondent to report to the police.

My understanding is this is a thing elderly people fall for. I leave a pretty good impression on old people. Plus, I would get to wear princess dresses. Grannies would totally believe me and give me their life savings.

Alas, all of these options are unconscionable and/or criminal. Maybe I could open a tarot reading social venture, where 10% of proceeds went to helping economically disadvantaged women open their own tarot businesses. Now who can argue with a little female empowerment?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

T-Day Recap

I had the best Thanksgiving Ev-ar!

Or at the least the best in a looooong time, many years - actually probably the best ever because if you haven't been to a giant, extended-family meal in 4+ years, it definitely seems more special.

Between aunts, uncles, cousins, boyfriends, spouses [2], baby [1], toddler [1] and stranded Californian roommates, about 20 people descended on the Oregon Coast for Sampson Thanksgiving. Luckily, I was first in the food line and had the opportunity to make fun of my slower blood relations who had to wait. Because it actually takes time to feed that many people.

I also found a GIANT agate at Siltcoos Outlet. If you saw this agate in a tourist shop, it would cost you at least $6. It is longer than my thumb and I have not weighed it but it has a solid heft and good marbling. I personally showed it to every single one of my relatives (well, almost) and made them acknowledge my supreme beach-combing skillz.

Now I'm back in Tex-as (ez? ess?). Our apartment complex is holding a door/patio decorating contest. I asked James if he wanted to partake (first reaction "Ugh. No." then justified by "I'm busy with finals!"). He did say he'd watch Christmas movies with me, though I'm sure he thinks I mean exclusively Die Hard.

I'm still trying to finish this next article. I don't think I've ever written anything so slowly, which is frustrating. And it's not like it's going slow because I'm churning out words in precious drops, like French perfume from a flower press. No, the exact opposite. I've written way too many words and if they smelled like anything it wouldn't be flowers. All that and I haven't even finished a draft (cue: violin screech from Psycho).

It has to wrap up though, firstly because I told the editor I'd have it "just after Thanksgiving" (and I NEVER miss deadlines), secondly because I don't want to get a haircut or go to Costco or do other pressing errands until I've sent the damn thing off.

Blogging though? Plenty of time for blogging...

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Job Search Farce of the Week

This week I answered one rather-cryptic ad from someone looking for a long-term freelance writer. The ad called for somebody with media connections, but I figured that was just to weed out people with no experience.

A guy with a PR company (which I'm sort of tempted to name) called. He said he was from a standard PR company representing 30 or so clients.

Then in so many words the guy tells me they're looking for someone to write stories about their companies and then place them in media, presumably without telling the editor that they are being paid by this PR company.


Me: "I don't understand. I've been pitched by PR people before and then I go to my editor with the story and ask whether or not they think it's a good story*** but then I only get paid on one end of that equation - you know what I mean?"

Him: "Right. This would be a different model."

A credibility-annhilating model! I said I wasn't interested and that was that. Perhaps I'm naive, but I'm surprised this exists. I don't even understand how it's a good business model, because it just sounds complicated with too slim a chance for success.

I immediately emailed a friend who works in PR to ask, "is this a thing?!" She said she'd heard of something similar, but that it sounded shady. 

I had one freelancer when I was in Beijing who was constantly pitching extremely boring stories about cars. My predecessor had let her do one. I figured out eventually that her roommate worked in PR for a car company, I figured she was just being lazy with her pitches and/or trying to do her friend a solid. But now I wonder...

My eyes are open!

***I've actually never had a PR person pitch me a story I actually was a good idea. I'm not saying it couldn't happen. It just hasn't. The only person who has successfully pitched me was a school teacher who invited me to accompany her class on a service trip to a mountain village in rural Anhui. It was a good trip.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Looking for Jobz

If my life were a sports team, I reckon the next year or two are going to be rebuild years. It's not easy to go from one country, where I'd essentially reached the top of the heap and had a good-sized network, to another where I have very little network outside of Los Angeles.

On the upside: I have another longish article in the works and I have one freelance job that takes  little time and covers about 30% of what I need to live on.

I was at a birthday party last weekend making small chat with one of James' grad school classmates. He asked me what I do and I said, "Just looking for work at the moment." And, spoken like someone who has never been out of school and simultaneously unemployed for very long, he replied - in sincerity - "That must be nice!"


Grad schoolers. I always envisioned grad school as something people went to after they'd been out of school for awhile, learned about themselves and the world, articulated what they actually wanted to do in life, etc. But a fair amount of James' classmates went into his program straight from undergrad. I'm sure this will work out fine for most of them, but I think James is maximizing what there is to be gained from the program since he can relate it to previous work experience.

Although my period of FUNemployment has now shifted to just plain unemployment/semi-employment/scrambling - I'm still having a pretty good time. Craigslist job searching is nothing if not entertaining. Most amusing job ads of late:

Earn $$$ from home! It's so easy - you will be amazed!

This one is perennial. There's always some variation. Who reads this and is like, "$$$?! From home?! Eeeeasy?!?!? Sign me up!" 

There's never any more explanation, but I like the accompanying picture, which sometimes will also be a jet flying into the sunset. 

nude/topless housekeeper

I clicked on this ad out of curiosity (it's not a serious consideration...yet!), because I think if I were inclined to this line of work I would go through an agency and not respond to some random dude's Craiglist ad, which read: Please send your age (MUST BE OVER 18) along with a topless photo.

...Who sends topless photos for free?! 

Adult Sitter

I assumed this was an ad for a caretaker for a special needs individual. I don't know why I read it because I am neither qualified or interested in said work, but oh man... Duties will include dressing , feeding , changing(diapers), bathing, disciplining ect. He is able to move around and does not need to be carried or moved. It will be like caring for a toddler, likes to watch cartoons color and be read to. Please let me know if you are interested and availability. I would prefer to have the sitting done at your house, i will provide all supplies and food needed. There is nothing physically or mentally wrong with him and there is nothing sexual about this. It is strictly care for and treating him like a toddler boy, which is very therapeutic and relaxing. PAY IS $25 PER HOUR

$25/hour is a seriously low-ball figure for this business. Maybe he forgot a zero or two. I had to read this ad twice before I realized the person was writing in third person about himself.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Surprising stuff about America

Since I spent the majority of the last five years in Asia and then spent the summer in the relative seclusion of the Oregon Coast, I find myself still in a period of readjustment to American life. 

When people talk about "reverse cultural shock," I always have a negative knee-jerk reaction to the phrase, I think mostly because it contains the word "shock": nothing in the US really shocks me, but I do often enough find myself thinking "oh that's weird..."

Yesterday I saw this post on Thought Catalog about things non-Americans couldn't believe about the US until they moved here. There were several things repeated by various respondents, here are the ones I find myself relating to the most:

Americans don't carry cash
Yeah. Weird. At the store, I'll fish out my coin purse to get rid of some pennies, but then I feel a little bit of anxiety for taking the extra time that wouldn't be necessary if I were just swiping my debit. Americans don't really pay with coins it seems. Maybe we should just get rid of them.

Credit rating is important/necessary
In China, expats would sometimes complain about renting at the "foreigner rate" (i.e. above what a local would get). And yet, my landlord in Shanghai took me with no references, no proof of employment, no bank statements. I could've bought a plane ticket home and never said a word and she would have had no recompense (well, except my security deposit, which was a deposit + last month of rent). In short, my rent situation in Shanghai was more about money in hand, not paperwork.

Americans don't walk anywhere
This still gets me. We have a grocery story that's a 10-minute walk away, but I felt decidedly odd walking there last weekend. Saw at least one car passenger lean out his window to stare back at me, because apparently walking is very curious.

Public toilets are nice
This is great. We have seriously nicely maintained bathrooms. If right now you're thinking, "but at the mall/grocery/restaurant I last went to there was-" Nope. You are wrong. That bathroom was clean. If you'd ever had to pee at a Chinese bus rest stop, you would learn to have warm fuzzy feelings for the bathroom you just wanted to complain about.

Omg we waste so much stuff. When I was in Burma, a Czech MBA student reminded me this was kind of good/necessary since America is still the economic engine for the world, but it's nonetheless shocking if you've been away from it. So much trash we make, so much food we waste.

Public transit is pretty crap

Return police/free refill/customer service
I'm still going out and being pleasantly reminded of how enjoyable service-oriented culture is.

There were other things on the lists I could relate to, but these are the main ones I notice in my daily life. 

I'm also enjoying reintegrating into American consumer culture. Shortly after I arrived, James and I watched Extreme Couponing and Extreme Cheapskates. Both are more entertaining than inspirational. We went to Walmart last night and were surprised by the quality and price of the produce. 

Groceries will probably cease to be interesting to me once I'm caught up, but right now I'm enjoying reeducating myself on what's a good value and where to get it.

Monday, November 11, 2013

I am a Texan

Not really. I've only been here two weeks and I still haven't decided if I should pronounce it Tex-ez or Tex-ess.

I like Austin. Last week a friend of ours from high school who'd been living in Houston blew through town on his way to a sweet flying job out west in Midland. He mentioned he doesn't like the bad attitude much the rest of Texas has toward hippy-dippy, liberalicious Austin.

Is Austin's liberalism that in-your-face? Yes if you measure it in the number of heavily-tattooed people my age who live here and have earnestly devoted themselves to selling delicious fusion cuisine out of food trucks. But that's probably not an accurate political gauge. The majority of overt political messages I've seen have not been left-wing. Actually, all that comes to mind are bumper stickers with pictures of giant assault rifles that say "Come and take it." Mm, no thanks (wouldn't know how to use it, and all).

On the topic of guns and politics, I had an educational experience last weekend: James and I popped into a dive bar before a concert. The doorman checked my ID, but was engrossed in a book so didn't notice I was carrying a water bottle under my arm.

Bars. Alcohol. America. I'm still getting used to all this, having spent most of my drinking-age life outside the US where everyone is a way less persnickety. Apparently bringing a water bottle into a bar is not cool?

The bartender curtly told me I couldn't have the bottle inside and offered to take it, but I wasn't finished (and I was thirsty!), so I headed back outside.

But then the doorman told me I couldn't leave! Seriously! You can't leave with that! 

I could not leave the premise with a water bottle because it is against the law to take drinks away (or into) a bar. "It's the LAW!" he said, now in a tizzy and having finally pulled his nose out of his stupid book.

I guess at some point between the door and the bar my lame little water bottle transferred ownership, it was no longer mine, it was the bar's. I cursed a little, finished my water in the doorway and we departed, bound for somewhere with better service.

Why have I troubled to relay this anecdote? Because I think it's important for everyone to understand that in the great State of Texas you can bring a concealed firearm into the Capitol building, but you cannot bring a water bottle into a dive bar. Yeeeep.

I know the right to bear arms is a big deal, but how about the right to personal hydration? Juuuust sayin'!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Special Announcement

On this day, Thursday, October 10th in the year two thousand and thirteen, I entered the mausoleum housing Vladimir Lenin.

I saw Chairman Mao in 2009, Eternal President Kim Il Sung in 2011 and Uncle Ho in April of this year. Lenin completes my pilgrimage of embalmed Communists.

Mom and I saw Lenin this morning, and having accomplished my years-long goal put an extra spring in my step for the remainder of our touring today. I still have two and a half weeks before I return to the US, and while it is a bit silly, I really feel like this final cadaver (of questionable bodily integrity - he did look a bit Madame Tussaud-ish to me) is a sort of capstone on my 5+ years of travel.

Huzzah! Now imagine me taking a 360-degree bow.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Phone Blog

This message brought to you courtesy of my iPhone and the free wifi in the Ulan Bator train station. (Thanks Steve Jobs, Al Gore, forward-thinking Mongolian administrators, human progress et al.)

What a week. Buzzfeed published the article I've been working on for the past month and a half. Technology has not progressed far enough for me to embed a link, so if you want to see said article and have not already, Google North Korean and Buzzfeed. It's called:

Was An American College Student Kidnapped By North Korea.

It went over well. I received my lifetime's validation: a retweet by a New Yorker staff writer. Aw yeeeah.

Now Mommy Dearest and myself are one week into our Transsiberian adventure. We saw Beijing, we saw a bit of Mongolia, tonight we head to Irkutsk.

I probably won't post pictures until the end, but if you can't wait that long my Instagram handle is lesleslielie.

We found the food wanting on the China-to-Mongolia train leg, so now we're prepared: we have a suitcase full of instant noodles, sausage, cheese, pâté and three (yes, three!) bottled of wine, so we ought to be good.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


I arrived in Austin Saturday night. I went to Houston for two days once at the end of college, but that was just a jam-packed interview session (for a job I didn't get, wah-wah). So this is my first time really seeing Texas.

The sky really does seem bigger and bluer. We've had a ton of good food. I had my haircut at a hipster barbershop, and within two days I saw two women with the outline of the state of Texas for tattoos. I think I'll like it here.

I go back to Oregon this coming Saturday, then I'll be back at the end of October once my mom and I complete our long-awaited Trans-Siberian trip.

A brief summary of first impressions: People are friendly and more small-chatty than they are in equivalent-sized cities in the northwest. Lots of people have tattoos. Grocery stores sell Catholic candles. All the UT sorority girls wear oversized t-shirts and short shorts. This reminds me of what I used to wear to bed when I was 8 and also makes me feel extremely old and out of touch. People say "y'all" a lot. There are a lot of food trucks. I've been getting puzzled looks from James' friends when I ask things like "So what's walkable around here?" because I keep forgetting that in the US, even in most cities, people don't walk to places. Plus it's reeeeeally hot, so you wouldn't want to anyways.

I'll feel better once I have a job situation sorted out, but I do think I'll enjoy living here.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Monthly Update

It's been a month. I owe a blog. I know some of you are like, "When you don't update, I forget to check!" To which I say... get an RSS feed. Feedly works nicely for me now that Google Reader is kaput.

I haven't posted mostly because my days are very similar. I get up, I write, I hangout with family, exercise, occasionally cook, go to bed and do it all over again. My Instagram feed is all pictures of slugs and the meals I sometimes I make. Wild times.

I write in the morning. A lot of people write novels in the morning. I reckon this is because the task is so daunting and the imperative to make marginal progress so horrendous that if you don't do it straight away it just looms over the whole day.

I thought I would be close to a full first draft by now (ha ha, joke's on me!). I'm close to half way. It seems kind of crazy that people start doing this and actually finish, and that some people do it more than once.

In recent weeks I developed some mild but persistent anxiety that I was spending an awful lot of time on something that might be complete, irredeemable garbage. But last week I went to the Napa Valley Writers Conference and the chapters I showed were well received, so that was encouraging.

I've been organizing travel photos this week, which makes me nostalgic. I miss China, or rather, I miss my community that was in China, much of which has scattered to the wind anyways. Sometimes I'm afraid nothing will ever be quite so exciting. Here I was so juiced to fly a couple states over on a freelance assignment -- I got to fly to Pyongyang and Urumqi for work when I lived in Shanghai. But I have to remind myself that I've never really been an adult in the good old US of A and I really need to give it a try.

The other tough thing about this writing-a-novel thing is, pretty much, you have to write a novel inside. And the weather in Florence is always best before noon, when the wind picks up. After all that time in polluted Shanghai, I feel guilty sitting at a computer instead of walking on the beach. Who knows when (if ever) I'll have this much time to walk on the beach again! So I've decide that this month I'm going to go a bit easier, try to write in the afternoons and get outside more. The novel is going to take a long time anyways, I want to hike and kayak the coast while I can.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy 4th!

This is my first time celebrating in the States since 2008 and my first time celebrating at home since 2006!

2012 - Beijing (That's Beijing)
2011 - Shanghai (That's Shanghai)
2010 - Shanghai (That's Shanghai)
2009 - Taipei (teaching English)
2008 - Seattle. And I had to work! But I was covering the parade and I interviewed Captain Sig from Deadliest Catch. (interning at Seattle Times)
2007 - Anchorage (interning at Anchorage Daily News)
2006 - Florence (ranger aide! Honeyman State Park)

Something on my Dad's satellite TV broke this week and my reaction was, "Don't you still have a warranty for that?" And both my parents looked at me: "Obviously not, it's seven years old ... Although to you it must seem like about four months!"

So much bouncing around, I'm really enjoying my extended sojourn on the coast. Today I am making chocolate cream pie and blueberry pie. Easy access to baking supplies and resplendent grocery stores are definitely two of the best things America has going for it.

Enjoy your holiday!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Best Photos from Yunnan

Most of these are on my Facebook already, but for continuity's sake, and since my whole trip log is here, I wanted to post here as well - albeit more than a month late. 

Flying Tigers wing at the Kunming Museum

Tibetan mastiff up north close to Tibet

A French lady, one American, an Aussie, and two Israelis hike to Yubeng Cun.

Along the way to Yubeng Cun

Temple in Yubeng Cun

Rock shrines made by others who went before us on the hike in

A bunch of prayer flags near the sacred waterfall

More Yubeng Cun

Hiking out

Yak attack!

Tiger Leaping Gorge

show off

The scrub brush in "heaven's first bathroom"

Sign asserts that, seriously, this bathroom is heavenly (it had a great view)

At the bottom of the gorge

This lady sold me honey

Delicious noodles made of very mild cheese

This lady sold me cheese noodles

This man sold hair (I did not buy any).

Pretty sure this is one of those inspirational signs brought to you courtesy of the local CCP.  Maybe one day I'll get motivated and translate it.

Goat cheese fried in honey? Yes please.

Another shrine along the sacred waterfall hike

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Wrong Wallet

In coming weeks, I'm going to post a few odds and ends about my trip. First order up is - what is the exact kind of wallet you should not bring on a four-month journey through Southeast Asia?

The answer: a wallet that looks like a giant wad of cash.

I brought this wallet because my normal one is a big purple pocketbook thing, too cumbersome for travel. Plus, I wanted to keep it simple, I knew on a day-to-day basis I would only need a bit of cash and maybe one card.

The wallet was a farewell gift from a friend in Beijing. She also gave me a couple stamps from North Korea (she was privy to my obsession).

I didn't realize my wallet looked like a huge wad of cash until I was in Vietnam and the guy renting me my scooter said, "Oh - I  thought you had a lot of money!" At that point, I had about six weeks left in my trip and probably should've traded it out, but I was cheap and lazy.

I was also inobservant. Since my friend had given me the North Korean stamps, I assumed the wallet was done up like North Korean money - it actually looks like an old Chinese Mao-era bill. People continued to ask about it as I made my way through Vietnam, Laos and southern China and I always gave the wrong answer, "oh this is what North Korean money looks like." Finally a Chinese person pointed out to me that, "it looks like old Chinese money..." Then I really took a look at it, and they were correct.

I wish I'd noticed earlier, because I got the most reactions to the wallet in China, and it would've been nice to contextualize them. Almost all of the reactions were positive. A lot of these reactions were just in passing, so people were maybe just being friendly. But I definitely got a few congratulatory (nostalgic?) old people, "this is very good!" Which is always a bit strange, since as a Westerner you learn from those ninth grade world history courses onwards that the Mao Era was categorically horrible.

I got one emphatic negative reaction. I didn't pay it any mind at the time because I still thought it looked like a Korean bill and I was in a hurry. I'm pretty sure the guy was some kind of driver. He was in his 30s or 40s. "This is bad." He said it two or three times, to be sure I heard it, and shook his head. Now I wish I could've picked his brain a bit.

Luckily, I never had any incidents. No one tried to snatch my not-that-giant wad of cash. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

I'm on The Hairpin

I interviewed my Mom for The Hairpin about the Better Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow award she received in high school. Check it out here.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

In America

I know my blog neglect makes it looks like I'm still in Yunnan, but actually I've been back in America for almost a month (!).

Last week I took my first road trip to somewhere outside Oregon for the first time in five years. Try that on for crazy. I went to Chicago for a wedding last October. Those two trips are it though. I'm so excited to start exploring and re-exploring my home country.

Since I'm solidly in my mid-twenties, obviously last week's trip was also to attend a wedding. A really sweet, wonderful one in Sacramento. So good to see so many friends I haven't seen since college.

On the way back, James and I drove up 101 (here he is in some forest or whatever - pretty puny trees, right?).

Part of the reason I haven't blogged is, in the back of my mind, I've been trying to think up something succinct to say about China and leaving China. But, after working in media there for four years, it's hard to find something that hasn't already been said. I don't feel like I have much to add to that dialogue. There are a lot of obvious good things about China and about an equal measure of bad ones. I could live there again, I might have a reason to someday, but I'm absolutely thrilled to be back somewhere with a vibrant, free, open dialogue that promotes arts, science and culture. And by that I mean, I'm absolutely thrilled to be back in a country with fabulous television.

Here on out, I'll try to keep the blog updated at least once a week through summer. I think. I'm not sure what I'll do with it now that I'm back in the US. I like it as a means of communication with family and the handful of other folks who care what I'm up to. On the other hand, my writing and creative energy is monopolized by other projects, so I don't think this will or can be the best representation of my thang. I think the compromise will be I'll keep the site, keep updating - however mundane - but de-link from my portfolio site. Meh. To be determined.

Summer on the Oregon Coast is fabulous. Two years away, I forgot how lovely it can be. One more time, it's good to be back.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Northern Yunnan: Hike to Yubeng Cun (雨崩村)

Note: I'm actually in the Seattle Airport now. In China I had to blog through email since blogspot is blocked, but apparently this one never sent and was relegated to drafts, so here it is.

I didn't get to Tibet. But I got a good slice of the Tibet experience: I saw the beginnings of the eastern Himalayas, I got winded climbing stairs at 3,000m, I saw a giant monastery that Chinese administration has sucked the authenticity out of, I saw massive public security buildings, I met Tibetan monks and laypeople who readily complained about authoritarian rule, and I saw shiny new schools with huge dormitories (necessary for far-flung village kids) and enviable sports facilities - hearts and minds campaign?

After Shangri-La I thought I was done with scary bus rides. Ho ho. The five-hour trip to Deqin was fine for the first half - new roads, good weather - but the second half was fogged in. Hairpin turns. Remains of several landslides that reduced the road to a single-lane. One overturned truck stuck in a gravel pile. Our driver was careful, but still, high up on a foggy mountain top, it felt like with any turn we might swing off into free fall.

Arriving in Deqin, the last major town before Tibet, I hooked up with an Israeli couple who'd also rode the bus. They were nice and grateful for my Chinese skills. I like when I can help people, but as anyone who has played translator can probably attest, people start to feel entitled to requests they would never dream of if you weren't there to mediate. Best example? "Can you tell him [waiter] how to make an omelet?" Answer: "No."

We linked up with two other hikers and the following morning took another horrifying hour-long van ride to the trail head. I was afraid the altitude would make it tough, but the five-hour hike to Yubeng Cun (translation: Rain Collapse Village) was easier than expected and included passing convoys of mules loaded with village supplies and forest alleyways dressed in prayer flags. Pictures to follow when I'm back in the US.

Yubeng Cun is tiny. Just 35 families, all Tibetan, and the economic mainstay is guesthouses. The trek has become popular with Chinese hikers and some foreigners, but we saw a lot less of the latter.

As it was Saturday when we arrived, that evening a bunch of village guys congregated in our guesthouse commons for drinking, darts and karaoke. To really get the party started, they ordered a whole chicken i.e. one that had to be snatched up from the yard and slaughtered.

Fine by me. But one member of our hiking group was a bald Buddhist French lady. So when a guy went out to take care of the chicken, she walked in a circle around him chanting a Buddhist mantra. Imagine me rolling my eyes farther back in my head than you thought humanly possible.

Why did this annoy me so much? For one, she didn't chant a Buddhist mantra for the stir-fried pepper and beef the rest of us ate for lunch earlier that day. Plus, these Tibetans have been Buddhist a lot longer than she has. Plus, the next morning she (jokingly?) told the sole remaining chicken to run away. 

Westerners are privileged in their dietary choices (especially those who can afford to travel). This village is a one-hour car ride plus a four-hour hike/mule ride/iffy tractor trip from the nearest town, and the people live - to relative extent - a subsistence lifestyle. So, ugh, don't tell their chickens to run away. 

The following day we hiked into the "Mystic Waterfall," where hardier people than me make pilgrimages to bathe (this waterfall is located above the tree line and there was snow on the ground).

That night I had a chat with a local guy. We talked about Buddhism, his family members who've ran away to Dharamsala, and life under Chinese rule. A lot of the Tibetans I met seemed especially happy to meet an American. In two days, I wound up trading away all my remaining American money to people excited to see dollars. I suspect this has to do with the notion Americans are sympathetic to Tibet. 

Favorite passing interaction of the trip? This one with a van driver outside Deqin.

Me: Oh look, there go the soldiers. [as military jeep passes by]
Him: Yep. Soldiers.
Me: Do you like them?
Him: [grinning] No.
Me: Yeah, me neither.

On a somewhat related note, the people least enthused about my Americanness on this trip were Laotians. There when I told my nationality, people quickly and politely changed the subject. No wonder as to why.

The following day we hiked out. It was downhill the whole way until we had to hike up to the van because there were rocks obstructing the path to the parking lot. This van ride was even scarier because it was just a gravel road with a bunch of switchbacks carved into the side of the mountain. At one point I was reduced to "Oh my god oh my god oh my god." We all sat on the mountainside of the van, as if that would save us from the precipice. Our driver was all, "Don't be scared, I do this every day!"

In Deqin, we switched to another van bound for Shangri-La. Two Tibetans rode along and I chugged a beer at their request (China: no open container law), which helped take the edge off the drive. 

It's amazing the lengths of construction up there to service relatively few people. I'm talking three-story concrete retaining walls built into the mountainside for stabilization (some of them crumbling in places...) Would've loved to do this drive with an engineer for an informed opinion.

I spent the night in Shangri-La and today took the most hair-raising bus ride yet. I pray/doubt that it can be topped: It was much flatter and all paved, but we actually saw a long-haul truck come around a curve, bust through the concrete guard blocks and roll over into the adjacent grass. I assume he took the curve too quickly, but I also saw a woman running out of the way, not sure if that was related to the cause of the crash. I hope the driver is okay. We didn't stop, but there were people in the area. I'm glad I only have three bus rides left. They're all day-time rides on well-maintained roads and will be of relatively short duration. 

Tomorrow I'm going up to Tiger Leaping Gorge for one more two-day trek, weather permitting.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Shaxi: A one tea-horse town

Yesterday I completed my Tiger Leaping Gorge hike. Anyone who likes hiking and plans on seeing China should do this hike. It was just excellent. And every few hours there are people selling sustenance, so it's pretty relaxed. I stayed in a $5/night dorm halfway through (the place is called Halfway Hostel, btw) and all you had to do was step out on the porch and you were eye-level with an epic mountain view. Oooh, it was so great. I'll post more details when I can get photos up.

This morning I took a bus and then a minivan to Shaxi. I met a German sinologist at the gorge who recommended I check this town out. Way back in the Tang Dynasty, Shaxi was a trading post for tea and horses and supposedly the buildings are relatively well preserved for China. Plus the surrounding countryside is bike-able.

I arrived in time to see the Friday market where all the local Bai people come down from the villages to sell and buy stuff. There were even a couple gentlemen selling bags of hair ... to put on your head.

I walked around for a couple hours but then it started raining so now I'm drinking coffee in the hostel with an adorable hostel doggy curled up in my lap. In a few minutes I'm going to go look for some local fried goat cheese. Mmmmm..

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Ray's Grill, Vientiane

I've staggered my posts so as not to inundate the blog, thus by the time you read this I'll be in Yunnan, but I have one final note for Vientiane.

Vientiane. Didn't do much. Woke up several mornings telling myself I was going to bike around town to see temples, stepped outside, decided it was too hot. Temples-schmemples. Read books in a cafe instead. And you know what else? I didn't even eat the local food

I mean, I ate some of it. When I felt like it. I've been permissive with myself on this trip. And that means eating Western food where it's available. At bus stops where the bearded white dudes in harem pants are loading up on plates of slimy noodles (rest stop food: never good), I'll go to town on a trusty sleeve of Pringles that costs twice as much. 

On the backpacker trail, there's this subtle pissing contest over who's being the most adventuresome traveler (never tourist). Alas, I'm traveling alone and sometimes the best comfort is a Snickers. I'm a shameless flashpacker. 

That said, I hadn't had any remarkable Western food on this trip. Until Sunday.

Ray's, located conveniently up the street from my hotel, got good reviews on the Vientiane wikitravel so I decided to check it out and ordered a Philly cheesesteak. Sweet Jesus, it was so good the first bite made me feel patriotic. 

Bread. Melted Cheese. Red meat. Carmelized onions. They say a Western diet leads to early death. This sandwich? Worth it. I would describe my feeling while eating it as akin to the deep gratitude I get snuggled next to James on a Saturday morning when the old thing on the agenda for the day is making brunch and reading books. I'm a bit embarrassed, but I think this is my favorite thing I've eaten on the trip. I'm going back tonight.

The chef, the eponymous Ray, was manning the grill next to my table. Turns out he's from Seattle. Used to deal in antiques and had a company that built websites. But after the dot-com crash he moved to Asia where life is cheaper, not so tied to debt. 

If you find yourself in Vientiane in need of a melty, savory American fix - make this it. 

North to Deqin

I'm in Kunming, headed into Yunnan's Tibetan hinterlands on the night bus tonight. 

I could've cried at immigration: the extremely nice customs guy flipped through my passport and decided it was perfectly fine for me to enter China on my work visa. "But I'm not working anymore!" He said it was fine, that way I could save my tourist visa for next time, which is all fine and well except it expires July 26. Curses! $160 and one passport page down the drain...

On a related note: Chinese customs officials are doing something right. They are so much faster and friendlier than what I'm used to returning to the US. 

In the 24 hours I've been in China, my mood has oscillated between poles, one being "aw, this is nice, just like I remember, I could live here again." The other: "THIS IS AWFUL!" The latter I usually succumb to seated in front of a computer, unable to open almost anything remotely interesting - Facebook, myriad blogs, Twitter, the New York Times app on my iPod, Gchat... 

Guess I'll just have to look at scenery or something.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Back to China

I should've applied for a China visa in the US. Guess I thought maaaybe my work visa hadn't been canceled. It had been. Applying in Vientiane requires a stupid pile of paperwork, it was so frustrating that I had to resurrect my China mantra, the one I retired five months ago: "No why, Leslie. No why..."

I assembled everything Friday and headed to the embassy. There was a sign posted outside the office saying it was closed for Labor Day. All the rage boiled up inside me and I thought I might start cursing the heavens and gnashing my teeth because if the office was closed Friday there was no way I was going to get a visa by Monday and thus no way to make the Tuesday flight I'd already booked, but then I walked inside and they were, improbably, open for business. "Yeah. Sure you can apply for your visa here. Today."

Of course it's not that simple, you file documents at the embassy, but you have to go to a bank across town to pay for it. Ugh. Whatever, China. At this point, I wasn't even surprised, still running on the relief of being able to drop off my paperwork.

I wandered outside and wondered how I was going to get to this bank since there were no tuk-tuks in sight, but then a Chinese guy who was behind me in line stepped out. Maybe he had to go to the bank too. He offered me a ride and was all excited and surprised that I speaka the Zhongwen.

On the way to the bank, he talks to me about a middle-aged Chinese person's favorite thing (or, one of) to talk to a foreigner about: Chengyu. He's a businessman here in Laos. He manufactures hard liquor and charcoal bricks (I had to look up the word for the latter later, I just knew he kept mentioning "wood something"). He explains a chengyu to me about how a poor man is always trying to get rich. Where other people might see poverty as the hand of God, he says, Chinese people see it as something to overcome.

After I'm done in the bank he offers to drive me back to my hotel, it's not far out of his way. When we arrive he says he has a couple hours of work but afterward he wants to have lunch. I've already made it clear I'm not doing anything, so I agree.

The restaurant has views of the Mekong, with Thailand visible on the opposite bank. Since that's where my trip started, it felt a bit like coming full circle.

Over several plates of seafood, we talked about everything. Or mostly everything about China - Xi Jinping, rich Chinese people, nouveau rich Chinese people, the exhausting hurry-hurry culture of Shanghai and Beijing that made him opt to set up in laid-back Vientiane.

At the end of the meal, he says he wants to take me to Sichuan hot pot for dinner. At one point at lunch I'd slipped in the advisory "My boyfriend blah blah blah" anecdote. I got zero creepy vibes from him. He wasn't nervous. He wasn't trying to impress or charm me. And I, once again, obviously had zero things to do. So I said okay.

But back at my hotel, I started to get cold feet. The afternoon sun was so hot and my brain was already exhausted from speaking Chinese for two hours. Plus wasn't two meals overkill?

I try to walk a fine line between being a cautious person and not declining things based on outsized fears. So in this case the fine line was deciding I was going to go to dinner, but I emailed James with my hotel details, local cell phone number and instructions that I'd email him again in several hours after the meal. Plus I wrote down the number for Vientiane police and the 24-hour US embassy duty officer hotline. Like I said, cautious.

Dinner went off without a hitch. I didn't expect to be eating delicious spicy Chinese hot pot - the kind where they give you a separate dish of un-spiced oil so you can leach off some of the fire - in Laos. And I was surprised and pleased with how my Mandarin held up after five months without practice. When we were finished eating he asked if I wanted to join his friends for karaoke but this time I begged off. Then he had a waitress take a picture of us together and said how glad he was to have made friends, that I was the first American he'd really talked to.

Ah-ha. Of course. Here was a fairly educated Chinese guy - living abroad, interested in what's going on in the world - but who doesn't speak English. There aren't so many of us Chinese-conversant Westerners floating around. I guess I forget that after living in Shanghai and Beijing where we're a dime a dozen. That's why I'm two-meal worthy.

He dropped me back at my hotel and we exchanged emails and emphatic invitations to each other's hometowns.

And so, my day of preparations to re-enter China started with the worst of what I've learned to expect from my home of three years (bureaucracy) and ended with the best, good food and hospitality.

On to Yunnan!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Death in Laos

I wanted to write about my kayaking trip first, but I also want to write about something that happened beforehand.

Leaving Nong Khiaw, my original plan was to take another slow boat farther south. I headed down to the dock, but there were only five other people who wanted to go, two Laotians and an American family, which wasn't enough - boats only depart when they have a big enough group.

I waited around with the others for a couple hours. One of the Americans, a guy from Minnesota, noticed people gathering down by the boats. A massive crowd made its way up the stairs from the dock. A dozen men were carrying the limp body of a young, thin Laotian man.

My first thought was, "oh maybe he's really drunk." I think I thought this because it was the least sinister explanation for a man to be incapacitated. But no one was smiling and it wasn't even noon yet. Sick then? I said a little prayer that he would get better soon as all the men let him down onto the bed of a truck converted for passengers, then piled in on the benches on either side.

The American guy was more inquisitive. He asked the boat ticket seller and he said the man was dead. An electrical accident with the engine. My stomach dropped.

"Was he a worker?" was my first question. This man was coming off the same kind of boat I was supposed to board. Yes, he was a worker. He'd been working on the engine when it happened, the American guy told me. Even still, I felt afraid. I don't want to die in Laos, I thought to myself. There are people I haven't spent enough time with yet.

A group of European girls, who'd planned on taking a boat north, left the dock and went to the bus station instead. And actually, all the boat men left on the truck, so there were no boats leaving Nong Khiaw that day. I headed back to the guesthouses.

Later I learned from a villager that when the man was working on the engine he had an old cord coiled around his neck and it electrocuted him. I didn't do much for the rest of the day. Everything seemed strange and trivial. I had a delicious chicken salad with mint and lemongrass for lunch, the waiter was warm and friendly, I got a cheap oil massage, I Googled "death in Laos" and "electrocution, Laos" trying to make sense, searching for context... I felt out of sorts but also acutely appreciative to be alive when someone else was not.

There wasn't any reason to avoid the slow boats. It was a bizarre accident and accidents happen all the time wherever there is water. Still, I was happy not to get back in one when the opportunity came up that an outdoor company was looking for people to join a kayaking trip. And although ultimately this incident had very little to do with me, I guess I can say, now that my trip is almost over, this will probably have been the scariest and saddest moment of my journey.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Northern Laos

I've been slacking on the blogs. I got up this morning and headed to a cafe to catch up, but when I opened Facebook for some pre-writing procrastination, I learned my brother had a bad fall pole vaulting at a track meet. A few minutes of all-consuming panic followed. I called my Dad at the hospital and he said Billy was moving his hands and feet. The x-rays came back with nothing broken. He was released from the hardboard they had him strapped to and able to go home, albeit in pain.

A few hours later, I'm happy and relieved. Although left wondering, in the wake of a brief but draining panic, how I will ever have kids when life with them can be so scary? "You just kind of live through it," was my Mom's answer. But what if your natural inclination in times of crisis is to recoil into an inoperative ball of anxiety? Oy. A small comfort is that - if genetics have anything to do with it - my children will probably be wildly nonathletic. Pole vaulting? I doubt it...

So Laos!

Presently, I'm in the capital, Vientiane. After northern Vietnam, there was a grueling nighttime bus ride (the highlight of which was a Polish couple, my heroes, shouting "DON'T SMOKE" at a Vietnamese guy who lit up on our little, packed-to-the-gills bus immediately after a pit stop. The Polish couple was like, "We are also from ex-Communist country..." by way of sheepish justification for their stern rebuke).

After the mountainous, curvy, not-totally-paved journey, plus a couple hours at the border processing, I spent an afternoon drinking beer with fellow travelers in a do-nothing stopover town. The next day there was a six-hour slow boat ride down the Nam Ou to Nong Khiaw, a beautiful little village with a relaxed backpacker scene.
Nong Khiaw                                            
More child labor! Another hiking guide.
She asked me if she could have my binoculars and tried to pull money out of my wallet. Then asked if I wanted to buy a beer, or if I wanted to buy her an ice cream. I appreciate the moxy.
I wound up staying a couple days, it was just so pretty. Unfortunately, my hotel was the buggiest place I've stayed yet. I left the light on at night so if I felt them I could see them. I also hoped they wouldn't be so bold when denied cover of darkness...

I couldn't get enough of the limestone cliffs and green riverbanks, so I decided to spend three days immersed in it on a kayak trip down the Nam Ou to where it meets the Mekong - a 123-km journey.

Future model? Lao girl in the village where we homestayed the first night                                            

It was great to see the river slowly. The guide pointed out things I would've never otherwise seen: a shaman performing a sacrificial ceremony for a tree spirit, dozens of villagers gold panning, a pair of hunters smoking an iguana out of a tree so they could shoot it with their extremely long-barrelled rifles. There were rapids on the river so my camera spent most the journey tucked in a dry bag. Sorry about that.

I did get a few shots, like of this gang of 10-year-old monks splashing in the river.

Getting ready to dive in                                 
Fun in the river
This was the second night. After we pitched our tent on the riverbank, I put on my swimsuit and joined them. They laughed a lot, mimicking me and practicing their beginner English ("Hello my name is..." "1,2,3,4,5,6,7!").

When I got out, I didn't want to track my sandy feet into the tent to change, but the sun was going down and the boys were lingering on the shore. After standing around a bit, I turned shrugging to my fellow kayaker, a Swiss woman, and said, "Well, if I were Scandinavian I would've already changed a long time ago." As anyone who's been in a dorm with a Swedish girl knows, those ladies don't give a hoot about getting nekkid. I think this is a cool testament to the gender-equality achievements of northern Europe. Guys think it's cool too, maybe not for the same reason...

So I went around to the side of the tent blocking their view, but as soon as I did, wouldn't you know, all the orange-robed brats started scurrying up the bank.

"You all should be ashamed of yourselves, I know exactly what you're doing - NAUGHTY! NAUGHTY!" I yelled and pointed (not really mad).

"Naughty! Naughty!" some of them parroted. There was also a "THANK YOU!" and an "OH YES!"

Lesson? Boys are the same everywhere. Even the orange-robed, shaven-headed ones.

The kayaking was tough enough I had the beginning of callouses on my fingers and palms and was totally exhausted every night. But in the end 123 km felt like an achievement. And navigating some of the rapids was pretty cool. Back in the US, I want to learn to Eskimo roll.

This view...
Pro Tip: If you stumbled across this blog looking for info on kayaking in Laos, I recommend Green Discovery. My guide spoke great English and was eager to explain everything along the way. He was trained in first aid and knew his kayak stuff.