Annie Bananie en Europe

A blog about travel, life, and everyday tidbits

Category Archives: Others

In and out of my comfort zone

While looking through the MiMe (now part of CeMi) members on the web site today I realized that a lot of my former colleagues stayed in the lab after they finished their PhD. This made me think of two things. First of all, would I have been able to stay if I wanted to? I guess that is based on the premise that there was a project I could have applied to and that they would want me to continue working there. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to stay in MiMe or Glasgow – in fact, I had gotten so used to that life that it was perhaps easier to stay if I had the choice. This leads to my second point – stepping out of my comfort zone. I hadn’t thought of this in-depth but I ask myself now: was coming to China stepping OUT OF or INTO my own comfort zone?

There was a transitional phase between my departure from Glasgow and arrival in China, and obviously the deciding factor was J (my fiancé), but China was constantly hovering at the back of my mind as I was struggling to make a decision, even before I met J. Thinking back, I owe myself a round of applause for not looking back on this important decision (though I often complain about the downsides of China), being assertive, and MAKING IT HAPPEN.

It is often tempting to stay in the comfort zone rather than venture into the unknown. The path may be foggy, and it will be difficult to see the way. It takes some courage to accept change. The fog won’t fade away, but you will learn to see with new eyes.

For a long time, I’ve had this confusing identity crisis where I feel like a mixed product between western (Canadian) and oriental (Chinese) culture. Still, I always felt like I could and would identify myself as Chinese, no matter where I am. In that sense, by coming to China, I was actually stepping INTO a zone of comfort – familiar language, good food, and physically looking like everyone else around me. At the same time, China has perhaps been much more of an anti-comfort zone for me, especially in terms of expectations, cultural norms and phenomena, work habits, weather, etc. I had expected the challenges and knew that it would not be easy living here, but I was less ready than I thought I was. It’s not about being capable or incapable of adapting to the new environment and lifestyle, but the struggle to resist assimilation into a person whom even I would despise, because of the influence of my environment – that is ultimately what I fear and want to avoid.

Several points emerge from this. The fact that I say this means that there are people around me whom I despise (perhaps unjustifiably), and I attribute this to the way they are due to cultural norms. I also place the majority of the blame on environmental and cultural influence, and even though it can be resisted, it takes the patience, stamina, and wisdom of a saint, which I do not have. I acknowledge completely that this is a hypocritical statement but my opinion remains. This also brings to light my inherent arrogance and lack of empathy, which are areas that I have to work on.

The entire experience so far has been a tug-of-war between me, myself, and I. Society, culture, and the world are not obliged to change for any one person, so I will have to continue adapting to, accommodating to, and accepting – with principle – even the things I cannot seem to comprehend. The conclusion? There is no real comfort or discomfort – the process of bettering oneself will always be filled with pain and tears, but it is also during those moments that I realize how lucky I am compared to most people, who may not even know the meaning of “comfort”. It is indeed as much a lesson of gratitude and satisfaction as it is of self-discipline and self-development.

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My stories 02: Chinese New Year

It is no surprise that the Lunar New Year is the most important event of the year for the Chinese, and growing up in a Chinese family, we observe it every year. We didn’t go all out with the rituals and celebrations, which themselves vary among regions across China. For us, it’s usually just a simple meal with the immediate family. The last time I spent Chinese New Year at home was in 2014, and my dad cooked a huge New Year’s Eve meal. I remember, though, that my mom unfortunately had to work that evening and was absent, so it was a dinner for three – my dad, my sister, and me. This year, however, I was finally able to spend New Year’s Eve with the entire family, after five years.

During the Chinese New Year celebrations, elders are obliged by cultural norms to give youngsters red pockets containing lucky money, or “lai-see” in Cantonese. When I was a kid, I would receive lai-see from many relatives and friends of my parents. What did I do with the money? Well, I’d be lucky if I knew how much money was in the lai-see. Why is that? Well, my mom (and many Chinese moms do the same) would claim that I was too young to spend money anyway, so she would “save up the money” for my future. After that, I would never find out the whereabouts of the lai-see. Another thing is that only married people are expected to give out lai-see – I think this is a Cantonese norm, but I’m not 100% sure. So, even though I’m in my 30s, I still receive lai-see from my relatives and am not condemned if I don’t “return the favour” by similarly handing out lai-see to their kids. I guess that’s another reason not to get married yet…

And then there are firecrackers. Perhaps it’s an irrational fear, but I’m deathly afraid of sudden, loud noises – popping balloons, thunder, and firecrackers. I can’t recall what prompted this fear in me, but I do remember shivering and hiding in the house when the firecrackers were lit in my childhood days. Nowadays, firecrackers are prohibited in many cities in China, but are still a widespread form of celebration in the countryside. It does seem like traditional Chinese heritage is being compromised by the diminishing popularity of firecrackers, but at least it effectively alleviated my pain and suffering from the deafening noises that remain in my memories.

Red pockets containing lucky money, given out during Chinese New Year.

All things beautiful

When life is less than ideal, I have to learn to look on the bright side, and I ought to know. Somehow I’ve forgotten to do this, and I blamed my environment for distorting my worldview of everything and killing my passion for all beautiful things, which is unfair. We are inclined to put the blame of our dissatisfaction on anything and everything but ourselves, and strangely, we feel justified to do so. Rarely do we look deep within our hearts and souls to dissect the root of our problems. Perhaps more sadly, we don’t admit it and fear having to change, and so we close both eyes and blindly conform to all that strangles us. Then I try to remember the little joys in life – the smell of sweet osmanthus in the breezy autumn air, that graceful butterfly that danced without a care, and the people who still choose to love and put up with me in spite of (not because of) who I am – and I steal a breath. I live not so that I would die – how good it is to be (still) alive!

Butterfly dating a flower in the Ma’an Hill Forest Park, September 22, 2018.

The places I called home, part IV

Grad school opened the doors of Europe for me as my PhD program was a “co-tutelle” between Bordeaux, France, and Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, which meant that every few months, I had to move between the two cities and work in two different labs. If it weren’t for my choice to come do grad school in Europe, I would probably only ever be in France as a tourist and never as a resident, integrating into and loving the culture of a country that I’ve always wanted to visit. As for Belgium, who knew how many surprises it could hide? (Read Part I, Part II, and Part III of the series.)

Bordeaux – Le Port de la Lune

I was fortunate enough to live in Bordeaux for almost 2.5 years during my PhD studies, and what a blessing that was! The very first time I set foot in Bordeaux, a city known as the “Port of the Moon”, I only needed to use the word “elegant” to describe it. Till the moment I left three years later, it was still as elegant as ever and I would use no other word to describe this French beauty. The smell of the sweetest red wine in every corner of the city, the sound of the gliding trams on the tracks, the sight of the glamour that is the Grand Théâtre and Place de la Bourse, the taste of succulent magret de canard and irresistible canéle (duck breast and rum-based pastry, both specialties of Southwestern France), and the touch of the gentle breeze as you stroll along the Garonne on a late summer morning…Bordeaux is an experience that conquers your every sense, making you fall in love with it with every breath.

Many feelings are intertwined when I think about Bordeaux because of my life experiences. The mid-20s was for me a time when the search for identity formed an invisible mission, and Bordeaux became part of that search. My studies, my interactions with the people whom I met in Bordeaux, whether locals or overseas students, and my plans for the future all contributed toward the search and consequently are a part of who I am today. To me, Bordeaux is not just a beautiful city, but also a name that resonates with me just by its utterance. My heart still yearns to go back one of these days, this time as a visitor and perhaps never as a resident again. But thank you for what you’ve given me, Bordeaux, that gift of the memories that only you could ever bestow.

Louvain-la-Neuve – Learning to appreciate

And finally, we come to Louvain-la-Neuve (LLN), a university-city-that-isn’t-really-a-city that once made me feel trapped and miserable. I was there during different periods of my PhD studies, for up to three months each time I went. Compared to Bordeaux, LLN was small and boring and definitely NOT elegant. I had learned to cope with not being happy in LLN, until autumn came. And magic happened. Autumn in LLN truly transformed the place. Maybe my eyes just decided to open one day as I noticed the golden orange colours of the autumn foliages, and LLN was never the same again. Gradually I began to appreciate the little details of LLN and discover its hidden faces – the little shops with such delicate gifts (Zig Zag is my favourite), the murals that are some of the best I’ve ever seen (in addition to the ones I would discover later in Glasgow), the enjoyable walks around the lake and through the Bois de Lauzelle, the various small neighbourhoods, the cats that are everywhere, the crazy 24-H Velo events, the delicious sandwiches at Mie d’Oli, and the Brussels waffle. YES, LLN has the best Brussels waffles I’ve ever eaten – take that, Brussels!

Belgium itself is a wonder and before I went to LLN, I couldn’t even point it out on a map. I didn’t know that the country has three official languages (French, Flemish, and German) and that LLN split from the University of Leuven as a result of language differences. Most importantly, little did I know that its capital, Brussels, would become one of my favourite European cities, if not my all-time favourite. Just like that, my studies brought Belgium and LLN into my life and this place, which I still hesitate to call a “city”, has stolen a part of my heart. To quote myself from a post that I wrote almost four years ago: “…travelling has taught me that it is only with an open heart and mind that you can learn to appreciate your surroundings…if I’m going to be living in a city for a relatively long period of time, rather than complaining about how it sucks, why not look for things that make a city unique and beautiful, and enjoy it to the fullest?”

This post concludes the “Places I Called Home” series and more than three years after its conception, I’ve finally managed to write it! And what a journey down memory lane that was! Be sure to check out Part I (Guangzhou and Toronto), Part II (Waterloo and Glasgow), and Part III (Hsinchu and South Bend) for the entire story. Until next time, my friends!

The places I called home, part III

During my undergrad years I had the privileged opportunity to go abroad for internships as part of the University of Waterloo’s co-op education program. These experiences expanded the range of my travels, and even though each was short-lived, each of the cities that I’ve worked and lived in added a new “home” to my journeys. (Read Part I and Part II of the series.)

Hsinchu – A first taste of Taiwan

When my Taiwanese then-boyfriend mentioned the possibility of going to Taiwan for a four-month internship, I knew that I had to seize the chance. After all, it’s not every day that you get to travel to a whole different continent for work experience. Taiwan is so close to mainland China (where I was born) but vastly different in terms of environment and culture. I had already become so unfamiliar with my own country of birth, but to experience a place like Taiwan with such close and intricate ties to China yet with its very own identity – that was a treat that only Waterloo could offer me. So I packed my bags and with my then-boyfriend, we were off to his hometown, Hsinchu, for a work term at the Industrial Technology Research Institute!

One thing I regretted many years after my four-month stay in Taiwan was the fact that at the age of 20 back then, the notion of TRAVEL didn’t really occur to me. Aside from Hsinchu, where I lived and worked, I only visited Taiwan’s large cities, Taipei and Kaohsiung (and briefly Tainan for a lantern festival). If only the idea of travel came to me then, I would have spent so many weekends exploring places like Taichung, Taitung, Pingtung, Kenting…and all the places of beautiful nature! The Alishan area, the Sun and Moon lake, Yangmingshan…ah, what I’d give to go back and recapture what I’ve missed! However, that is not to say that my stay in Hsinchu was wasted – quite the opposite, in fact. I got to know what it’s like to live in a city where motorcycles ruled the streets, where political fervour resulted in my Chinese identity being a subject of interest during a time when the 2008 presidential elections were happening, and where street food was my heavenly consolation for everything! Yes, Taiwan is famous for mouth-watering street food everywhere, whether in night markets where you could find more varieties of food than you could name or in inconspicuous booths or shops in the corner where a bowl of shredded chicken on rice might be the best meal you’d have in a week. Writing this has just inspired me to do a whole post on street food in Taiwan after the “home” series…stay tuned!

South Bend – The American Notre Dame

The final internship of my undergrad years took place in South Bend, an American city that is probably known to a few but is home to the University of Notre Dame, where I did my research. It wasn’t quite by chance that I got a second international replacement. Knowing that with eight months of international experience, I would be able to get an “option” added to my degree, I actively sought a second international work term by only applying for jobs that were outside of Canada. By a streak of luck, I landed myself a job at Notre Dame, in South Bend, an hour and a half away from Chicago and this time, for an eight-month term!

The winter of 2009 was a frigid and snowy one, especially in South Bend where lake effects were prominent, yet it was beautiful! Living in Glasgow now, I will still say that I would always prefer snow over rain, even if it means I will freeze! The eight-month work term was long enough for me to get to know my housemates and lab colleagues quite well, and for once I felt like I had sufficiently integrated into a work place that I was actually quite sad to leave. The joys and drawbacks of mobility always have to be taken into account – you get to know so many wonderful people with whom you become friends but in the end, parting is inevitable. I will always remember the big Mexican feast that was hosted by the Mexican kid Aaron in our lab…at OUR Canadian house, FOR the Canadians! In fact the house had been designated as the official “Mexico-Canada embassy” in South Bend! How I missed those times!

This concludes the “internship” version of “The Places I Called Home” series, and perhaps it is the most unique of all – short stays, but lovely memories of home. The final part will highlight the two European cities that shaped my mid-20s, the homes that I adopted during the years of my PhD – Bordeaux, France and Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Let’s hope I don’t take another 2.5 weeks to write the next one! >_<

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