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Archive for the tag “travel”

30×30: Lesson 25: The world is big, and life is long

From the airplane, 2014

Leaving Pennsylvania, 2014

Every time I climb into a plane to leave Europe, I’m filled not with regret but with longing. I was abroad last summer for seven weeks, but I did not manage to see my friend Abdel in Metz nor my former roommate Tobias who just had a baby. I had tried to go to Morocco to see my friend Jen but didn’t make it — too expensive, not enough time. I’ve never seen Rome, never been to Spain, never made it to Berlin. I just backed out on an opportunity to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro (again, finances, time) despite my extremely strong belief in the importance of spending time in a place that’s neither Western nor developed.

When I first began to travel, I was told, “Life is short. Go now, or else you never will.” On some level, this is true. Traveling is aided by the certain freedom that comes from not having a mortgage or a typical job, by the open mentality that is most often cultivated when the soil of your day is never packed and firm. One never knows, either, at what point his access to travel will close, or if/when his body will fail.

But as I kissed my teary-eyed host mom goodbye in Nantes, when I think about the book that I want to write, when I imagine owning a piano in a house in which I live for more than two weeks at a time, I have to believe that life is also long. This is not an excuse to endlessly defer dreams but simply to admit that no one can have it all — at least, not at the same time.

Believing that life is long requires a different type of openness than does taking the plunge. A belief that life is long is a subdued pressing-back against time, a stubborn belief that many things remain possible if you don’t stand in your own way, a gracious placement of faith beyond yourself.

Believing that life is long is a patient bravery that discerns between which choices are not in your power — as well as which choices are.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

Living above the land down under: All about… New Zealand {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by my cousin Stephan Troost of the Netherlands. Stephan is currently studying human geography and urban/regional planning at Utrecht University in Holland. In the fall of 2012, he spent five months living and studying at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. His favorite memory of living above the land down under is hitch-hiking the South Island — a total of 2000 beautiful and exciting kilometers — and only paying $20 New Zealand dollars to do so.

Fall 2012

90-Mile Beach, Northland; Fall 2012

On beautiful countrysides. Some people call New Zealand heaven on earth. In terms of nature, I’d definitely agree — New Zealand is perfect. I’ve had experiences before where I’ve gone to places that are supposedly amazing but have ended up being a bit disappointing. However, in New Zealand, anytime someone told you that a certain place was great, it always was.

When you’re driving, especially on South Island, the landscape can change drastically in just ten minutes — going from golden beaches to high mountains, waterfalls, forests as thick as green walls, and everything in between. Because New Zealand is so far from everything, there’s an incredibly diversity of species that exist nowhere else.

Too many landscapes!

Kepler Track, Fjordland; Fall 2012.

Landscape love

Coromandel Peninsula; Fall 2013

The temperature is quite moderate — around 14 degrees Celsius in an Auckland winter. The countryside is extremely green because it rains regularly, and the weather changes just as drastically as the landscape. This happened especially in Auckland. One moment, there would be a really big rain shower, and the next minute, it would be sunny like crazy. We say in Holland that our weather’s always changing, but at least in Holland, we can mostly predict what’s going to happen next!

On cultural history and diversity. In my opinion, New Zealand was not heaven on earth when it came to the people, but that’s usual. People will be people. New Zealand was colonized by the British, so most people are still from European descent. However, a lot of people come from different Pacific islands or Asia — like China, Malaysia, or Thailand — to work. I found the different cultures very interesting, especially the colorful and exotic Pacific Islander culture, since it is so different from the culture I’m used to in the Netherlands. Some kiwis — that’s what New Zealanders call themselves because of the kiwi bird — struggle with the fact that immigration has been really high since the 1980s. There are only 4.5 million people on the island, and 45% of Auckland’s population is non-European.  In a few years, no ethnic group in Auckland will have the majority.

The indigenous people are called the Maori, and New Zealanders recognize the Maori as the original inhabitants of the country. An aspect of Maori culture that is often seen is an aggressive type of dance that they used to do to scare other tribes: the haka. It’s good for tourists, but it also shows that New Zealand has a really different history than just a British one.

Multicultural New Zealand

Multicultural New Zealand; Fall 2012

On government, food prices, and public transportation. In Auckland, people live close to one another, but large suburbs are also common, so having a car is a must. Like the States, public transportation is horrible in comparison to that of Europe.

Since New Zealand is so far from everything and everybody, I found the government to be really liberal and independent. In Europe, the news often focuses on events from all over the world, but New Zealand news was mostly about New Zealand, Australia, and random other world events.


Auckland, New Zealand; Fall 2012


The Waterfront, Auckland, New Zealand; Fall 2012

A lot of internationals go to New Zealand, so there are a ton of American fast food restaurants in New Zealand, like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, and Dominos. People are very active in New Zealand, but they eat a lot of fast food as well. Maybe it has to do with the fact that groceries are very expensive.

On its difference from Australia. New Zealand is not Australia. People think it’s simple to fly from Melborne to Sydney to Auckland, but a flight from Sydney to Auckland is still three and a half hours. Both countries have British influences so there are some similarities, but since they’re far apart, it’s more like how it would feel if Canada and the States were separated by 1300 miles. In New Zealand, rugby is the big sport, so a match between Australia and New Zealand is a big deal for Kiwis.

On accents. I found the New Zealand way of speaking English to be really funny. A lot of Americans are familiar with Australian and British accents, but a kiwi accent is different – kind of blend between British and Australian. In the US, if you would say, “I’m expecting somebody,” in New Zealand, you’d say, “I’m expicting somebody.” Find a Youtube clip of Prime Minister, John Key, and you’ll know what I mean.

In general, everyone was relaxed, friendly (“no worries, mate”), and real. They did not act like Americans who pretend to like someone just to be polite; they also didn’t act like Europeans who have to say everything they think. In the countryside, people just helped each other — that’s how I got to hitchhike so much. It’s common and safe there.

Culture-wise, I felt like New Zealand was rather British, but maybe it was more like a combination between the States and Europe. Or maybe it was just an even better combination than all that together.

The future we’d hardly hoped for: All about… Taiwan {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

Wan-Jiun (Paul) Chiou is a professor of finance at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. He specializes in portfolio management, international finance, financial institution management, and the impact of law environment on financial markets. He used to teach in several colleges in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Taiwan. Paul always enjoys being with young people and sharing ideas. He also likes to play games with his family. 

When some people first meet me and learn that I originally come from Taiwan, their first response is “I love Thai food!”

Oh, thanks. I love Thai food too. But you’re thinking of the wrong country!

Taiwan is located in southeastern Asia and is a group of islands off the southeastern coast of China bordering the East China Sea, the Philippine Sea, the South China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait. (Thailand, where Thai food is from, is a small country on the Indochina peninsula, bordered by Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia.) Her size is about that of Maryland and Delaware combined.  Though the weather is mostly tropical, two-thirds of the country is mountainous, making Taiwan vary in its ecological environment. The highest mountain, Mount Jade (Yu Shan), is more than 13,000 feet high and is the highest mountain in East Asia.

Ken-ting National Park

Ken-ting National Park

Another question that I get often is “Is Taiwan part of China?”

The fact is: NO. If you want to visit Taiwan, the visa from China’s embassy will NOT work.  You need to go to a Taipei Cultural and Economic Office (TECO) for the visa.

What?  Why go to the “Taipei” office, but not the “Taiwan” one?  In addition, why is there no Taiwanese embassy in the United States?

This is a very complicated issue caused by powers like China, United States, Japan, and the rest of the world.  In the past, Taiwan was like a small leaf in large waters, pushed by waves from different directions. Now more and more Taiwanese people realize they need to fight for the better future that their ancestors hardly hoped was possible.

Currently the population of Taiwan is more than 23 million, similar to the size of California. The majority of Taiwanese (84%), mainly Holos and Hakkas,* are of mixed decedent, including aboriginals, Chinese immigrants, Europeans (primarily Dutch and Spanish), and Japanese. About 14% of them, including my family, are mainland Chinese who fled China after the Nationalist’s defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. The 13 indigenous tribes—like the Native Indians in the U.S.— represent the remaining 2%.  In recent years, due to work and marriage, more and more new immigrants from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and the other countries are coming to join this big family.

Ang Lee (director of film “Life of Pi”)

Familiar Taiwanese-American Faces: Ang Lee (director of film “Life of Pi”)

Jeremy Lin (NBA Linsanity!)

Familiar Taiwanese-American Faces: Jeremy Lin (NBA Linsanity!)

Familiar Taiwanese Faces: Jerry Yang (co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo!)

Familiar Taiwanese-American Faces: Jerry Yang (co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo!)

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Taiwan, also known as Ilha Formosa (meaning “beautiful island in Spanish”), was the stepping stone for pirate groups and merchandisers from sailing from Japan, China, the Netherlands, Spain, and others. This island had been an independent kingdom until some troops from the Ming Empire occupied Taiwan for 30 years. After about 200 years of ineffective and corrupt ruling under the Qing Empire, Taiwan and surrounding islands were ceded in full sovereignty to the Empire of Japan in 1895. After the end of WWII in 1945, the US Navy ferried troops from the Republic of China (ROC) to Taiwan in order to accept the formal surrender of the Japanese military forces, but there was not an international treaty signed to settle the future of Taiwan. After being defeated in China’s civil war in 1949, the Chinese Nationalist Party ruled that the ROC would occupy Taiwan as a “base” to fight against the communists in mainland China. Therefore, believe or not, the official name of Taiwan is the Republic of China. Do not feel guilty; you are not the only one getting confused by the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (China).

After more than 38 years of being ruled under martial law and the dictatorship of the nationalists, the people of Taiwan started to fight for basic rights in mid 1980s.  In 1996, Taiwan held the first direct presidential election under the military threat of China. Now more and more people believe that Taiwan and China should be two different countries due to their differences in lifestyle, democracy, and freedom.

“Mr. Democracy,” Dr. Lee Teng-Hui, President of Taiwan 1988-2000

“Mr. Democracy,” Dr. Lee Teng-Hui, President of Taiwan 1988-2000

As China becomes more powerful, Taiwan is often pushed aside, occupying the place of an “international orphan.” She lost her seat in international organizations (including the UN) in 1970s, is being cut diplomatic relations with other countries (including the U.S.), etc. Today, there are only five countries in the world without diplomatic relations with the United States.  Does America want to continue to treat Taiwan like she treats other hostile countries like Iran, Cuba, or North Korea, just because of her relationship with China?

But visiting Taiwan is wonderful. I should add that you do not need to spend much money to easily enjoy Taiwan’s scenery and delicious cuisine.

Travel in Taiwan is generally convenient and safe. You only need to pay less than $35 to take a train or bus 200 miles from Taipei, the capital, to Kaohsiung, the second largest city in south. The old capital, Tainan, has much history, or you could visit the famous Ken-ting National Park in Pingtung. The eastern coast of Taiwan, Taidong and Hualien, also showcases the power and beauty of the gorgeous Pacific Ocean.  In Taipei, the National Palace Museum is a must for visitors. The exhibits there represent the finest artworks of China’s history.

The first official academy of Taiwan in Tainan

The first official academy of Taiwan in Tainan

Taiwan’s high speed train travels 200 miles per hour between the south and the north.

Taiwan’s high speed train travels 200 miles per hour between the south and the north.

The National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium in Ken-Ting National Park, Pingtung

The National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium in Ken-Ting National Park, Pingtung

One of the best reasons to visit Taiwan is to experience the core of Chinese culture that is preserved there.  Language is the best example. Though people in Taiwan and China share the same official spoken languages, the Taiwanese use traditional characters while the Chinese use simplified ones that were created during its Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s. In addition, the Taiwanese are also open to western culture and are always ready to embrace new ideas. In Taiwan, you certainly will not feel that you are a stranger!

Ma-chi (rice cakes) ready to eat!

Ma-chi (rice cakes) ready to eat!

No matter where you want to visit, you certainly need to visit the local night markets and try turkey rice bowls in Chai-Yi, Tainan dan zai noodles, Changhua ba-wan (meat sphere), oyster omelets, and other yummy yummies.

It’s not Thai food, but it will not disappoint!

Night markets are the best (but inexpensive) place to explore the delicious Taiwan!

Night markets are the best and most inexpensive place to explore the delicious cuisine of Taiwan!

* Holos are people who speak a dialect in southern Fujian in China. The language spoken by the Holos also is regarded as the Taiwanese language. The Hakkas were primarily from Guangdong in China and immigrated to Taiwan 200 years ago. Hakka means “guests” in Chinese and have a situation similar to that of the Jews in Europe. In 1990s, the leaders of the three Chinese countries — China (Deng Xiaopin), Taiwan (Lee Teng-Huie), and Singapore (Lee Kuan Yew) — were all Hokkaese.

Friday Photo: ‘Curiosity of their eyes’ – thoughts on seeing

Palais des Papes, Avignon, Spring 2005 (Katrina Charysyn, All Rights Reserved)

Whenever I’d beat my friends at the Tourist Game that we played on the Rue de la République, it had only been because I knew the Regulars of Kathy’s Deli in Shippensburg. Having worked there for four years, I had the advantage of knowing the face of a Regular, and because of this, I could spot any tourist within a French crowd before my friends did by the way they held open their eyes—shameless, like French windows without shutters, trying to drink in the sight of the pastry shops and the roasting chestnuts on the square. Trying to notice people’s lack of familiarity with their surroundings—so that I could help them order a sandwich, taste the pasta salad, make life easier—had once been my job.

And so every afternoon, my American friends and I sat at the café on the Place de l’Horloge and watched the tourists, guessing the nationalities of the people who passed our table.  Tourists from the United States were the large, fleshy ones with white Nikes, crashing their laughter against the city walls.  Italians were always draped with neon-colored scarves, wearing their dark hair in a shaggy cut as they merged for photos by the Palais des Papes.  The Germans and Swiss always made me think of Rubbermaid containers, their bodies sturdy beneath plastic windbreakers and deep blue backpacks.  But then, there were the French—thin whips of people clothed in black who sliced through the crowds on the gusts of Avignon wind.  The French were always careful to freeze away their gazes from public intimacy, knowing that they already belonged to their country like a Regular belonged to my deli counter.  Whenever I played the Tourist Game, I remembered the Regulars of Kathy’s and distinguished the tourists by the curiosity of their eyes, for only a tourist would let their eyes give away the fact that they were not at home.

— “Making Change,” RiverCraft, Susquehanna University, 2005-06


I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in late August. It’s the largest city I’ve ever lived in with a population of over 300,000 within the city limits, at least according to the 2011 U.S. Census. (Harrisburg, where I moved from, has 50,000.) The University of Pittsburgh, where I am now a graduate student, has 24,000 students, which is three times more individuals than has my hometown. I grew up on a road that sliced between my family’s house and our farmland, but now, when I look out my bedroom window, I see a low city skyline. When walking down Forbes Avenue to go to class or get a coffee, I pass a seemingly endless stream of people that I may never see again while in Shippensburg, I used to be stopped on the street to be told: “You must be a Grove. I knew your grandfather.” Living in a world different than that in which you grew up often shifts your perception of the normal actions that you take for granted, such as the way that people show their awareness of those around them.

The first city I in which I lived was Avignon, France (population 90,000) in 2005, where I was a study abroad student through the Institute for American Universities. Before I left the United States, we students had given a glossy brochure explaining what differences to expect between French culture and ours, including eating habits, TV watching, and electricity usage, but none of this could prepare me, a small-town girl, for the simple difference of being in a larger place than the one I’d left. I was shocked, for example, with the different way that people appeared to see.

When I walked down the street in Avignon, I wanted to look around. Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder as a kid had trained me to key in my senses, to “be eyes” for those who were not there, and I wanted to drink in all the details on France so I could write them all into emails for my family. Look at these cobblestones! How old’s this church? How many flower shops am I passing? Is that really an H&M? The trees were different: scaly sycamore, scraggly olive shrubs. The sky was different, unclouded blue.

But when I turned my eyes to the people, I noticed an acute difference: nobody else was looking at all of this except for me. On my morning bus ride into the city, the punk rocker next to me stared out the window or looked at the floor. The elegantly-dressed businesswoman leafed through a copy of La Provence. All riders chimed a pleasant “bonjour” to the bus driver when getting on our bus and finding their seat, but then, I watched their gazes shutter back, fall inward. Observing this made me feel miserable. If I was to “become French,” in a sense, while I was there, how was I supposed to “see”? I had been told that white sneakers and low-cut spaghetti strap shirts could target me as a “tourist” — that dreaded word that equated to self-centered ignorance — but how was I to know that I could also express my foreignness by my eyes?


Eye contact in a variety of cultures means different things. In Shippensburg, eye contact means recognition and acknowledgement. In New York City, extended eye contact — a staring contest — on the subway is rude at best. Occasionally, eye contact can be a flirtatious invitation. And in Russia — as I recently learned when talking to a perfect stranger on a Megabus — eye contact on the subway is a power struggle. When on a Russian metro, you look other riders up and down and analyze them, discovering them, questioning them wordlessly, as shamelessly as did the tourists of Avignon.

What, then, is our relationship with seeing? It’s easy to acknowledge that sometimes our eyes don’t take in everything around us; all of us have been so deep in thought that one time or another, for example, that we don’t notice a friend who passes us on the sidewalk. Being so open to seeing all the details, as I try to do in moderation when I’m a tourist anywhere, is tiring. I never take more naps than I do when I’m in a new culture or a new place. A sign of cultural acceptance, or simply in feeling safe, is the fact that we have the luxury of stopping to see the details, or that these details cease to demand our attention because they have become normal.

But in terms of people, this phenomenon has a specific name. The avoidance of eye contact in certain cultures — whether Pittsburgh, New York City, and even France — is known as “civil inattention,” which is described by Wikipedia as “a process whereby strangers who are in close proximity demonstrate that they are aware of one another, without imposing on each other.” In The Art of Self-Invention (2007), author Joanne Finkelstein explains that civil inattention is “a sign of recognition that others have claims to a shared space or environment” and a signal of “boundar[ies] and self-enclosure.” This notion explains that the lack of eye contact is not the same as ignoring someone; it’s a gesture of being polite or self-preservation. In a 2011 article in the New York Times entitled “Look at Me, I’m Crying,” Melissa Febos echoed the same sentiments — that, in more populated areas, we have “train-faces,” or exterior faces that we sometimes don to preserve our interior sense of privacy. If eyes are the window to the soul, we sometimes avert our gaze not just because we don’t want to see someone else; we’d prefer that they don’t see us.

The rules are much more complicated, however, than choosing to see or not to see. In Harrisburg, there were still few enough people on the street that I could look at each of them individually and, with a brief glance, nod to acknowledge their presence. Sometimes we’d say hi. Sometimes we would not. In Pittsburgh, I have yet to make eye contact with strangers on the street or on the bus, although within structured contexts — asking for recommendations on teas at the Té Café on Murray Avenue, for example — people are deliciously willing to talk. When Lynn Palermo and I were hiking in northern France and were clearly not locals, we were carefully watched and spoken to with hesitant humor. Choosing to truly see with open eyes as well as an open heart perhaps is something that not only differs between areas of more or less population; it seems to depend on how accustomed an area is to strangers, and whether or not those strangers have hurt them in the past.

In the moment of looking at someone else, we unconsciously size them up — well-dressed or not, aged or not, capable of stealing our wallet or not — whether the judgements we make are fair. Walking amid strangers in public can be vulnerable business, and looking at those around us helps us find our relationship within the current social hierarchy. But it’s more than this. In walking on a street with those of a city or town that we share, we must acknowledge within our lack of seeing that we are not disconnected entirely — that we are still willing to reach out a hand to someone who trips on the sidewalk, to spare some change for the homeless, to point out directions to a father with an unfolded map and a furrowed brow. It’s maybe an act of self-preservation to do this selectively, but the day that our eyes see only inward is the day we miss the point of the community in which we live.

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