Annie Bananie en Europe

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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!

Short travel reflection: Revisiting Lisbon, Madrid, and Barcelona

I’m currently in the middle of a week-long trip in Portugal and Spain (Madrid at the moment), visiting a friend who is studying in Madrid and joined by some other friends coming all the way from Canada and the USA. I’ve previously visited the three main destinations of our trip – Lisbon and Barcelona in 2011, and Madrid (and Lisbon again) in 2013. Lisbon was definitely my favourite out of the three, but revisiting all three of these major cities one after another will give me a whole new perspective, especially after so many years already.

Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal in March, 2016 – Looking down onto an alley leading up to São Jorge Castle.

We left Lisbon this morning and arrived in Madrid, and in three days we’ll be in Barcelona. In Lisbon, we got to see some of the places that I missed during the previous two trips, including the Alfama district and the areas around Sintra. For Barcelona, one of my greatest regrets was not entering the Sagrada Familia when I was there five years ago, and now I finally have a chance to make it happen. So, while I don’t get to visit new cities during this trip (except for Córdoba as a day trip in two days), I do get to have the new experience of travelling with buddies with whom I’ve never travelled before, and going back to the places that I’ve missed in the cities previously explored. I do hope to write about these experiences when I return to Glasgow – that is, if I don’t get swamped with work. Oh well, let’s not think about work at the moment – let the travels continue!

Short travel reflection: Solo travel

I love traveling solo. Without a companion, I get the opportunity to be completely in touch with my surroundings, in harmony with nature, and in sync with myself. It’s usually a chance for me to relax and recharge when I feel the need to get away from any and all things familiar, including people. Granted, there are few people whom I could talk to when I am on the road by myself. Of course, I could be making loads of new friends on the road but being the introverted one, that wasn’t the way I rolled. It wasn’t that I shunned people or anything, but when I travel solo, I really meant SOLO. What I mean is that if I wanted company on a trip, I would have planned it with a friend, so if I go somewhere alone, I’d like it to stay that way.

When I travel solo, I tend to stop talking altogether. Being by myself, words and expression are often not a necessity. During my week-long-mostly-solo trip to Switzerland, Austria, and Slovakia, I barely talked at all. My daily vocabulary consisted of the words “hello”, “goodbye”, “excuse me”, “thank you”, “sorry”, “please”, “where is…”, and “how much…”. When my friend arrived in Vienna to join me on my last day there, the number of words I spoke during half an hour of conversation exceeded the total number of words I used in the previous 6 days, I kid you not. It was amusing because I found myself struggling slightly with words, especially because we were communicating in Mandarin (and if I said anything during travel, it’d be in English or French.) At one moment I pondered, “Can one forget how to speak? At what point does one begin to forget how to speak?”

We put a lot of emphasis on having company and connections, and being able to express ourselves, and as a result, solitude and silence are often overlooked. I sometimes forget to just step aside, breathe, and immerse myself in mere appreciation, and traveling solo allows me to do that. To the friends who offered to come along when I said I was traveling by myself, at the risk of sounding like a jerk, thank you so much, but no thanks 😉

Tobermory, Canada, August 2011

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