Annie Bananie en Europe

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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!

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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! >_<

The places I called home, part II

Part II of the “Places I Called Home” series brings us to Waterloo and Glasgow, two very different but both very important and special cities to me. Waterloo was where I spent my university years, where I struggled through my classes and somehow fluked my degree, and where I met the best friends of my life. As for Glasgow, I’ve lived and worked here for almost two years and I am still discovering new things about the city every day! (Read part I about Guangzhou and Toronto.)

Waterloo – My undergrad years

Waterloo was more chance than choice. If I hadn’t by chance watched a show on nanotechnology on TV the year prior to my entrance to university, and if Waterloo didn’t happen to offer nanotechnology engineering as a new program that very same year, I would probably have stuck to the safer choices of either neuroscience or chemical engineering. Well both of the above happened, and so Waterloo happened. I won’t bore you with details of my academic life, but the decision to leave Toronto for university would become my threshold to a vast world that I had never known was out there. Waterloo would eventually bring me to Taiwan and the US (next post) as an internship student and ultimately lead me to Europe. However, Waterloo itself was already far away enough from home that I think my destiny of moving all around the world began there.

We used to joke and say that Waterloo was “the place where dreams are broken”, but I think without Waterloo, I wouldn’t even know what a dream is. Life in Waterloo was anything but boring. There were sleepless nights of studying for and worrying about exams, followed by crazy nights of board games with housemates and random bubble tea outings. The train tracks that run from DC to downtown Waterloo that I loved to walk on, the chill of waiting for the bus outside on a freezing winter morning, the animals at Waterloo Park that I wish we had visited more often – tidbits of life like these made up the moments that defined my undergrad years. Love, indulgence, anger, disappointment, infatuation, despair, hellos, goodbyes, see you later, good luck – these were the emotions and words that marked my growing up, leaving my teenage years behind and entering the fascinating world of the 20s. It’s been 6 years since I’ve graduated from university, but it may take an eternity to forget a place as special as Waterloo.

Glasgow – Where do I even start?

By the time I came to Glasgow, I had been so used to moving that it felt like just another usual event, another ordinary day. When I was in France, almost every day I thought, “Wow, I am IN FRANCE?” And when I came to Glasgow, it was more like, “Wow – how did I end up BACK in Europe again?!” Glasgow was a stranger that welcomed me warmly…or well, most of the time not so warmly because it is SO RAINY AND WINDY. If there is a day where the sun shines, I cherish it dearly because it is indeed a rare sight – so then here, I learned to appreciate many things that I often took for granted, like the sun. Like solitude.

While all of the other “places I called home” are in the past tense, Glasgow is in the present tense and one of the few that may appear in the future tense. At least I will be here for another year. Many people have asked me, “What next?” My default answer is, “Who knows?” A question to answer a question, because the future is questionable. Would I choose to endure the perpetual rain of Glasgow and stay here indefinitely? I can’t say yes definitely because as much as I adore the lifestyle in this Scottish city, I fear that the rain will drive me crazy one day. But maybe…I’ll get used to it. For now, I have one more year to continue enjoying and exploring my current home away from home, or let’s just say, home.

In part III: the internship cities – Hsinchu, Taiwan and South Bend, USA!

The places I called home, part I

Throughout the course of my life, I’ve lived in different cities on different continents. “Home” is sometimes difficult to define as I’ve gotten used to a nomadic style of moving from here to there. Yet, at every stage of life, I had been fortunate enough to have a “home” to go back to so that I didn’t have to say that I was going back to “my flat” or “the residence” or “the studio”.

I had wanted to do a “Places I Called Home” series three years ago but somehow it never took off. However, over the course of a whole year, I had completed the “Places I Called Home” series on Picture Worthy, highlighting the eight cities where I’ve spent significant periods of my life. It’s about time, I thought, to share it here.

Guangzhou, China – Where I was born

Guangzhou is my hometown and my first ever home. As much as a part of me is deeply rooted in and connected to China, as much as I’m always going to be Chinese by blood, and as much as my heart always yearns for China, I can’t really call Guangzhou a real “home” anymore. So much has changed since my departure from the city when I immigrated to Canada with my parents 20 years ago – and wow, it HAS been 20 years. In fact, my childhood memories of Guangzhou are feeble and fading. Yet, a visit to China would never be complete without going back to the bustling city that gave me life.

There is a Chinese poem describing the feelings of one revisiting one’s hometown after a long period of absence, and one line translates roughly to “the closer you get to your hometown, the more apprehensive you become”. Not very poetic in English, I know – please excuse me for destroying the essence. It’s quite true, though. I’ve felt for a long time that I don’t belong in Guangzhou anymore, that I’m an outsider. The fact that I had to stand in the “foreigner” line at the airport made me a little sad, but that was what I was – a foreigner in my own hometown. That feeling is indescribable, to say the least. But I will keep going back, if you accept me, Guangzhou.

Toronto, Canada – I am Canadian!

Toronto. Ah, Toronto. I must have written about Toronto several times already on the blog. If there is a city that I can call my true home, it would be Toronto. With my immediate family there, familiar faces and familiar places, Toronto is the point of departure and the harbour of safety. They say that “home is where the heart is”, and sometimes I say to others that no matter where I am, in my heart I am always a Toronto girl…but am I?

Recently I’ve been more and more unsure about going back to Toronto after my time in Glasgow is done. I’m talking about finding a job there and living there again, and there is something about that thought that troubles me. Toronto was a home that was chosen for me. As a child, I really had no say in where I wanted to be (of course I also didn’t know any better), and Toronto became my de facto home after my parents settled there. I do appreciate their hard work over all of these years in creating a comfortable environment for my sister and me…in Toronto. However, the fact still remains that Toronto is not and never was my choice. This only became clear to me when I HAD the privilege to travel and to CHOOSE where I work and live, for which I am grateful beyond words. A whole new world was opened before my eyes and I thought…could it be that I’m not meant to stay in Toronto forever? Then, is it then a little too greedy and self-centered to want to find a place for me and leave my home behind, as if with my restless heart, I’m never satisfied where I am?

I’m sorry, Toronto. I owe you my apology a thousand times, I really do.

Well, it’s only the first post of the series and I’ve already talked about perhaps the two most important cities that I’ve lived in. Next up: Waterloo and Glasgow!

2014 in pictures

Happy new year! The end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 came and went like a flash. So much has happened within the past 2.5 blogless weeks, but I will fill you in on the details slowly as I organize the countless photos that have been taken. The arrival of 2015 signifies that the third year of Picture Worthy (PW) is about to end, with 11 more days of taking one picture a day. And this has been going on for 3 years continuously…wow. I had compiled summary posts of PW for 2012 and for 2013, where I chose one photo per month and wrote my comments and thoughts on it at the end of the year. So of course, this post is the summary for 2014. It may also be the final one as I am planning to end PW at the end of 3 years. It’s been a long run, and it’s gotta conclude somewhere. I intend to focus my time on some new projects after wrapping up PW, but more details on that in a few weeks. For now, please enjoy 2014 in pictures 🙂

January 30, 2014 – Eve: “On Chinese new year’s eve, dad decided to cook up a grand meal: king oyster mushroom with pea shoots; mixed stir fry with shrimp, chicken, char siu, and a variety of vegetables; steamed fish; fat choy (hair moss) with dried oyster and pork; stewed chicken and shiitake; and roasted duck. Happy new year!”

Comments: I went back to Toronto at the end of January 2014, a month after I had graduated with my PhD. Of course at that time I didn’t know that I would be leaving again near the end of the year, but that’s a story for a later photo. I was just in time for Chinese new year, and my dad, being the big family chef that he is, prepared a fabulous feast. I guess it doubled as a welcome back dinner as well because it happened the day after I arrived in Toronto. Home sweet home, and home-made food is always the best!

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