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Reality is the story we tell ourselves

Not long ago, someone said to me “reality is merely the story we tell ourselves.” I’ve never given much thoughts to it back then, but after visiting the SF MOMA last week, Magritte’s exhibition jolted my memory and I want to talk about reality.

If I have a holiday to spare and the weather is perfect, I wouldn’t hesitate to head to the beach by myself with a book in my hand and enjoy a quiet afternoon under the sun; when I discuss this act with a friend, she finds the idea depressing. This is the story she tells herself.  The story I told myself is that I can be spontaneous, come and go as I please; to me, it is freedom. In other words, everything is down to how you interpret what happens in your life. You can choose to tell yourself the story whereby you’re the victim; or you can tell the story as a survivor. It sounds easier said than done you think, but the change of mindset can happen fast too if you only let yourself believe.

For instance, in these paintings by Magritte, has the apple/ rose expanded to the size of the room? Or has the apple/ rose been placed in a miniature room?

Both stories explains exactly what’s in front of our eyes, but which story would you rather tell yourself? The surrealist approach of the painter, that the apple is in fact as big as the room, because of the values it represent (of life, of vitality) or the realist approach so that everything “makes sense”?

Is this captured in broad daylight or in the midst of the night?

Is this sunset, or sunrise? Is this a shattered painting? Or merely lights reflected on broken glass?

Magritte is such a genius the way he triggers so many questions and room for imagination in his work. There is no right or wrong in interpreting reality, but I beg that you always pick the one that makes you the happiest. Because life is unpredictable and short, and I do not want you to waste even just one minute, on things that goes against your values.

This is just like any skill / muscle that can be improved through practice. For instance, I like to do random thought experiments when I am idle, usually on a train, a car or a plane, looking out of the window. How would I interpret a certain act if I were a certain person? Where would I be if I hadn’t make certain moves/ choices in life? What would become of me if I stuck with my childhood aspiration to be a teacher? What would my life be if I ended up with certain people for the rest of my life? 

I think this helps train your brain to be malleable and open to opportunities that life presents to you; it also reduces our tendency to be fixated on certain paths/ goals that may be imposed on us by society norms or peer pressure or cultural expectations. The door is both locked yet perpetually open.

I don’t know if it applies to everyone; but there has to be a point in life where everyone seems to be doing one thing, taking science electives, going abroad to study, getting an internship, aspiring to become an ibanker etc. I was too young and immature back then to stop and think about if that’s really for me. I’ve found myself to be like a fish in the dessert at times; but I’m happy to say that I’ve finally found my way back into the water. It is refreshing and so effortlessly good to be with like-minded people and an environment that makes everyday as easy as breathing. So no, I am committed to reminding myself not to fall into that trap again, to be blinded into believing that what everyone want/ think is desirable, is what I want. I will continue on my own path, and stick to my beliefs, no matter how absurd it may look to others.

It’s probably not directly related as my words are as scattered as my thoughts but I’d like to end on a poem that I’ve read recently. It encapsulated the idea of switching gears and looking at things via new, hopeful lens. Yes, I’m sure there are people out there who’d disagree with me, but heck, I’ll always have faith that life is good, and believe that people are inherently nice; I’ll always be a romantic in life. I like this photo of me 6 years ago, I was soaring and in complete and utter bliss 🙂

“What though the radiance which was once so bright

Be now for ever taken from my sight

Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor

in the grass of glory in the flower

We will grieve not rather find

Strength in what remains behind” – William Wordsworth 

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Random thoughts on a 14 hours flight

 

3I have always liked turbulence on planes (writing this on the flight to SF may be jinxing it since the entire plane is shaking even harder now). It’s like you always get it when you fly over Japan. It has just the right dose of danger within comfortable range that in those few seconds, you suddenly realize that your life is only hanging by a thread. There is no guarantee that you’ll live through the next millisecond.

4Despite knowing all the statistics about how unlikely the odds are, there is still that tiny sense of uncertainty, a hint of doubt no matter how many times I fly. Just WHAT IF my plane is the one that crashes? (at least I’d have higher chances of surviving since I’m poor I get to “avoid” the most dangerous front rows of the plane) What if this is the plane where co-pilots have high power distance? (No worries, even Korean Air has fixed this for a while now, I took it just 6 months ago) What if this is the unfortunate flight where someone absentmindedly brought along a Samsung Note 7? Or the one where mechanical teams made just a bit too many little mistakes that adds up fatal? If you are reading this now, by all means, I survived J and it wouldn’t even be surprising because you know and expect flights to land safely. Yes, we all take that for granted. A gigantic machine with WINGS that carry hundreds of people, fly over tens of thousands of kilometers over the ocean, the snowy mountains and the continental plates at 40 thousands feet altitude somehow made it to the destination! HELLO? How amazingly wonderful is that? Instead of complaining about the cold bread, the lack of wifi or bad taste in flight entertainment; shall we just be grateful that we reached our destination SAFELY? This not so simple act is almost a miracle in itself! And just because something incredible happens often doesn’t make it any less magical. Don’t wait until your plane flips over and land on the Hudson River to realize that.

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So perhaps just this thought of how fragile life is, just how easy we could vanish from this world, makes me treasure every single touch down and appreciates my presence in the world (however light weighted) to a greater extent. As I picture my not so perfectly shaped heart pumping just the right amount of blood that circulates my entire body with every pulse; I feel that much more alive.

Written on the 5th flight in 2017.

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Spread the love and fortune!

As I finished writing (actual words), I dropped my pen but my heart couldn’t drop the subject. Who knew this would turn out to be such a thought provoking experience?

9B573FC8-9E4E-4B37-A1BD-89CB52088441.JPGtl;dr (FYI, this stands for “too long; didn’t read” for adults) – You can be part of the change of someone’s life. Someone whose life depends on it. With a bit of money, and also with the power of knowledge and empathy shared amongst human beings.

3 months ago, a series of incidents led me to an epiphany – knowledge IS power. It is the most effective way to improve your life. This sudden and striking realization kept me pondering. My ridiculous brain came to the decision that the tiniest, most effortless thing to do is to sponsor a child! That way I will even receive handwritten letters on top of my monthly horror of credit card bills! Also, I get to use my beautiful letter papers. I must say what began with a really selfish motivation somehow turn into something rather meaningful.

Shortly after I filled in everything online, I received a call from World Vision volunteer who told me I should receive a package of the details of my sponsored child. I forgot about it as I travelled on business. When I got back, I received a letter from my sponsored child, written by her mom!E75E2ABA-1337-406A-88B8-7772B1AB13D1.JPG

She’s 5, from a warm and faraway country called Ecuador. Her favorite color is red.

I still haven’t gotten the package so I planned to call World Vision again but kept forgetting as I travel abroad. A while later, the responsible volunteer called me up again to check and made sure one week after I will receive it!

IMG_9819.JPGThen here I was, excited over a letter that is not urging me to pay up or borrow money. This packet told me my sponsored child has 2 sisters, her family works in agriculture and the exact city she’s in is Tixan. Wikipedia says that’s where one finds copper and gold.

So I put on Ecuador Top 100 from spotify and began filling in the questions in the default greeting letter. While latino music echoes in my room, I found it to be a rather daunting task to write this letter to my sponsor child.

“Her favorite food is rice.” – her mom wrote, as she is too young to write. Rice…plain, bland staple food.

I thought about my favorite food: sushi, uni, oysters, cakes, chocolates, ice cream… all these are beyond luxurious to her and many other underprivileged kids. It’s not until I spent several tough minutes going further down my mental list that I put down tomatos.IMG_9818.JPG

I checked out her horoscope and imagined her personality as a Pisces. As she grow up, she’d be “known for her passionate and experimental nature.” It is as if I have travelled into the future and imagined her to be my age. Would she already had all the education she needed to pursue her dream? Would she even be given equal opportunities to fight for what she want in life? For some reason, I already felt so attached to her. I want to learn more about her country. Does she get to study if she already has 2 sisters? Is Ecuador a gender equal society? Does she have pets with so many mouths to feed in her family?

80643C7B-AC31-49A2-B3BB-BBA02EEEA3F0.JPGThere is so much that I felt obliged to tell her: the beautiful vibrant city I live in that is slowly deterioating; my challenging and exciting job with so much possibility; the world that is full of promises and hope despite a weird 2016…but what will she understand as a 5 year old? So I wrote about my favorite color, my obsession towards giraffes and the origin of Snowy’s (my pet bunny) name instead.

In the end I just google translated my message into Spanish, in case the volunteers didn’t want to translate for me anymore as I wrote so much. Hopefully it made sense; in Google we trust. I carefully sealed it with my photo and snowy’s handsome baby portrait. Along with all my best wishes and goodwill, I mailed the letter to Ecuador, hoping she will soon be able to read the words herself.

In contrast to the humble and basic life she leads, I am splurging  excessively like Marie Antoinette while taking everything for granted. The difference between us also lies in that she doesn’t have a choice, but I do. And so do you.img_9817

With Valentine’s day coming up, it is the ideal time to make someone’s life significantly better instead of getting your special someone things (s)he already had or don’t actually need. For the indifferent ones with commitment issues, you can simply get them a gift that just might spare them from a life or death situation. Spread the love!

https://www.worldvision.org/sponsor-a-child

http://donate.worldvision.org/ways-to-give/gift-catalog

I’m obsessed with La La Land not only because I’m a musical lover, but…

FeaturedI’m obsessed with La La Land not only because I’m a musical lover, but…

As if the movie itself isn’t great enough, the apt timing it premiered makes me anticipate my soon to come LA trip even more! I’m already itching to trace the footsteps of Mia and Sebastian.
img_6046The last time I felt compelled to write down my thoughts post movie was Begin Again, and that was probably 2-3 years ago. La La land was so delightful that I watched it twice in the theatre (still planning to go again if I have the time) and looped its OST hundreds of times and counting. The first time I watched it, the movie struck me by the glamour of its tap dances and songs (I mean who doesn’t love a cheerful musical?), the costumes and the wonderfully crafted ending (some hated the ending I know, but for me, it is precisely the ending that furthered my obsession of the movie even more). The second time, I’m less distracted by the joyful songs and dances; I could finally notice the subtle details in the way the lead characters interact (I totally get why they won best actor/actress) and the beautiful cinematography left me in awe again. The scene in the Planetarium is just breathtakingly absurd yet hopelessly romantic at the same time. Those dancing silhouettes are so beautiful it gave me goosebumps. The blend of mellow colors, sparkling lights and the splash of sharp vibrant colors contrasted so well it’s just pure pleasure to the eyes.

“I don’t know what your name is but I like it” img_5630

One of my favorite song is “Another Day of Sun”. The melody simply gets you grooving in your seat! The opening scene demonstrated the essence of American culture, colorful people (both in their costumes and skin color) jamming in all sorts of dances: Hispanic in flamenco, Africans joining in hip hop and break dance, Asians in acrobatics; even the slow motion scene of “Someone in the crowd” paired up cross-racial actors deliberately. The brilliant thing is despite these differences in exterior, they are very likely all Americans. This vibrant clash of cultures is exactly what made America such a unique place; it’s full of conflicts and compromises.. just like Jazz! To me, this is the most brutal irony under the current situation in the US. Anyways that’s too depressing to get into so let’s move on to the characters.

“Here’s to the ones who dreamed, foolish as they may seem”

It is such a cliché that those who chase after their dreams always face numerous failures, countless hurdles and huge buckets of freezing cold water pouring down their heads. Let’s not forget that every single chorus actor in the movie is yet another Mia praying for their own “audition” for Paris.

“Even when the answer’s no and when my money’s running low”img_5754

But if you think about it, even if you’re just living your day-to-day modest and boring life, struggling to make ends meet; it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re free from rejections and self-doubts. And if that is so, we might as well spend our time on things that actually matter instead of churning money for big corporations right?

“Somewhere there’s a place where I find who I’m gonna be, a somewhere that’s just waiting to be found”

To me the difficult part is finding a passion to truly seek after; that’s why dreamers and believers are always my favorite people. It breaks my heart to see them fail, again and again, yet it still inspires me every time they dust themselves off and get at it again. But just like the way Mia and Sebastian helped each other through their toughest time, this whole process is rarely done alone. Without her, he wouldn’t have put down his artist pride and stubbornness to eventually gain the capital and reputation to open his own Jazz bar; without him, well obviously she wouldn’t even make it to the audition that eventually made her famous. Neither of them could have done it alone.img_2727

“A voice that says, I’ll be here, and you’ll be alright”

Sometimes all you need is someone to believe in you, to look you in the eye, and convince you that you are good enough, you can do it. So you can zip up those muffin tops, take a deep breath, flex your muscle and take a leap of faith. There is never guarantee to success, but the magic and purpose must be in the attempt. That’s why I loved the ending. Everyone enters your life for a reason, and for those who exit, they must have left for a better one. What more can you ask for when you’ve already had the best ride together growing alongside each other? To me, Mia and Sebastian has completed their roles in each other’s life and when that’s done, it’s only inevitable that they must go on with their own lives, following their separate dreams and eventually fade out from each other.

Thanks Damien, for this romantic movie just cured my heart. I think this will continue to be my favorite movie for a while.

“Is this the start of something wonderful and new? Or one more dream that I cannot make true?”

img_5411

p.s. I’ve read an opinion somewhere that coined Mia as the typical selfish girlfriend who jumped from men to men…well I viewed it differently. The way Sebastian assumed Mia would follow him on his tour while her performance is 2 weeks away is downright selfish. The way he missed her play is yet another proof. The way she got pushed away by the crowd during his first gig is a metaphor on how he is becoming someone she no longer understands. The final straw is when he thought she wasn’t genuinely happy for his success… what kind of self absorbed lunatic would think their loved one could be jealous of themselves? I’m not saying Mia isn’t selfish because the absolute truth is that human beings are all selfish; I think love is just a by-product when that selfishness somehow happens to benefit someone else too. (Since this thought seems a bit dark I’ll just keep it at the very end :P)

The ultimate survival guide to that 5 star hotel room (by yourself)

Warning: Below content contains some high level complaints and explicit images that may offend some narrow-minded people who has a habit of taking things too seriously. Reader discretion is advised; haters gonna hate though so this is just for laughs.

Oh the joy and pain of business trips…it still amazes me when I walk into a hotel room like the above, but no matter how often I travel, I can NEVER sleep well in a hotel bed. Sometimes I get lucky and will be able to fall asleep fast, get through the whole night safe and sound on the third try; other times I would have already checked out! So here I have complied a guide to surviving that luxurious picture perfect hotel room – all by yourself.

1) Make yourself at home. Whether that means making the room messy or setting up routines, find little ways to remind yourself that this is your habitat for the next few days. For instance, I always start by untucking the blanket…who even invented this because it’s so uncomfortable to be trapped like a caterpillar; I mean I’m clearly the butterfly already 😉 Next thing I usually do is open all the curtains; I always sleep on the right side if I can so I’ll also locate the tissue box and move it to the right side of the bed thanks to my allergies. On the messy part: I like to leave my toiletries all over the bathroom and instead of hanging up my clothes, I’d toss them around on purpose so I feel I own the place.

2) DO NOT DISTURB. It’s sometimes hard to communicate with housekeeping that you want to keep those towels, linens and even the soap so first and foremost, it is about being environmentally friendly. But I also like the fact that at least throughout my stay, I am the only human being to occupy the room, I’ll leave whatever hair, scent, dead skin etc. as I please but really, who needs new towels every day? This echos my previous point about keeping my room messy; why do hotels always assume guests like to have their room “tidied up”? Imagine next time the door sign actually says “Please make my room cozy”? I’d happily flip over my do not disturb in that case.

  

3) Find your happy place in the hotel and the room. Some people go for that breakfast in bed, some gym, I prefer to swim. As for the room, locate your favorite corner, sometimes it’s the balcony, the writing desk, that lounge chair, the nook of the sofa or most of the time, that bed that is way too comfortable and wide that would fit 4 of me. I like to just curl up and listen to peaceful guitar music, read or just reply urgent emails (ok the last part isn’t really “like” but need to).

4) Make a pillow fortress!!!! Because what else would you do with 3 other pillows?! One thing I never complained about are those fine, crispy cold white sheets.

5) Spend some time to dine in, order room service, do your favorite thing, wear that robe, enjoy that bubble bath, boil water (ONLY drink the second boil, no matter how nice the place is, I make sure to pour out the first boil BECAUSE..! mom said so) and make tea… I also enjoy writing letters with hotel papers and envelopes because their writing pads always feel so nice and they make it so easy (sometimes even for free!) to actually mail it. But if you REALLY ran out of things to do (like me), just write about how to survive a nice hotel room!

Let me know what’s your personal tip on this ! 🙂

 

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Random reflection (because, who cares whether it’s monthly/ quarterly or yearly?)

Today wordpress told me I have reached 200 likes in a new secret blog I’ve recently started (ping me if you want to know about it, I may or may not share with you 🙂 and so I went back to see the stats of this legacy one.

When I started in 2013, I dedicated most time and effort into almost 60 posts meaning I wrote more than once a week! I had 1600 visitors generating almost 4500 views…Over the next 4 years, I wrote barely once a quarter so the total views were only around 2500. My point though wasn’t the numbers at all…but the fact that real people do drop by from time to time to consume content I put out there. Recently several things has got me thinking about the whole idea of being responsible for your content, platform.

To the furthest extent, how do you make sure the content you put out there is correct (not fake news) factually and even politically and culturally? How do you present an idea when right or wrong is not always 100% clear and agreed upon? With a personal blog, of course I can be biased and put up whatever bullshit I come up with, but with a platform with massive influence… indeed with greater power comes greater responsibility.

This brings me to two incidents that I’ve only just recently connected. The first happened in 2013, mid way through my Europe exchange, I received a comment, then message from a girl of Islamic cultures (in her profile picture she had a hijab on). She was probably in high school at the time; somehow because I am this petite Asian girl barely reaching 1.6m, she was inspired by the way I tromped the continent with just a backpack sleeping in airports, catching midnight buses and planes with no internet while keeping myself in one piece. She told me that I made her believe in herself, that she too can explore the world when she have the chance. It was never my intention to do anything remotely close to inspiring people with my little space here. It started when I wanted to share the most authentic feelings and excitement I have being in Europe for the first time, without repeating myself over and over again to my mom, my aunt, my cousin, my friends etc. So my first takeaway is whether intentional or not, you are responsible for the people you’ve touched or inspired. It is a special bonding like no other, even more precious because it means we are bypassing the limitation of physical contact, not letting that hinders our ability to connect with others through merely a thought, an idea, big or small.

The second incident happened during my second exchange, also 2013 (what a year right!). I submitted my poem to the school literary magazine for the first time in my life and a few weeks later, received a facebook message from Nicole-

“Hi this might be really creepy but if you’re the X X who goes to X and has submitted to this X literary magazine, I just wanted to say that i love your poem “Always here” and it reminds me of my mom who passed away this past halloween. I’m really glad I came across it and I wanted you to know how much I enjoyed it. Hopefully this is the right X lol. Sorry ignore this if it isn’t !
First of all, I had no idea they actually published my poem. Secondly, that people ACTUALLY read it, and third! One out of the few people who read it, cared enough to write to me. Perhaps in a world where meaningful connection is so hard to come by, even a distant but significant one is worth the effort of acknowledging. Afterall, isn’t life just the sum of all genuine bonds we make with one another, however substantial or fleeting it is?

It may not be entirely relevant, but I want to end the post with a personal inspiration moment. I was in an internal training where the founder of a US Game company shared about his friend, who was, at the time, an app developer who writes code for their games. He is passionate in writing, but never seemed to get enough interests from publishers. Instead of just giving up and tossing it under his bed, he has decided to release chapter by chapter online, circling the contents amongst his friends so they can give him feedback. The most common one he got was how much they enjoy when the protagonist solve problems in a scientific manner. So he gave his protagonist more and more obstacles to solve. As he improves his storyline, he gained more and more readers until eventually, he drawn the attention of book publishers. You’ve probably heard of this poor protagonist, Mark Whatney, who was also played by Matt Damon.. in the movie adaptation of (one of) my all time favorite book, the Martian written by Andy Weir. The book that made me miss my train stop twice because I was captivated by the plot. I found strength in Mark when he relentlessly pick himself up failure after failure, with one clear goal in mind: to solve whatever problem that came in his way. If it were me personally, I’d probably gave up living on Mars by myself by the first month. But no, it was persistence and the belief that there are more solutions than problems that got him through. Because no matter how tiny are the steps you made, as long as it is in the right direction, you will eventually get there. Mark’s story reminded me of this quote I read off a chalkboard sometime ago “It is always too early to quit.”

So please stay tuned, my plan is to publish a book in 20 years’ time 🙂

No, they don’t say gracias here.

No, they don’t say gracias here.

I hate Portugal. Both Lisbon and Porto has insufferable slopes to climb, uneven cobble pavements and narrow alleys that just killed my legs, butt and lower back.

However, this actually adds to the magic of the cities because once my muscle pain wears out (soon I hope), what’s left in my memory would be the breathtaking viewpoints from the mountains, the hospitable locals who actually speaks English, the affordable and extremely delicious food with variety, the culture and literature that nurtured the cities (Jose Saramango guys!!) and the charming yet safe neighborhoods.

I had high expectation coming here, and unlike Paris (which was voted most disappointing city), both Lisbon and Porto still managed to exceed my imagination somehow and I didn’t even visit during its best season (summer)! So here I present to you the 8 reasons why I fell in love with the underrated country of Portugal! And no, Christiano Ronaldo, you’re not making the list.

   

1)Charm: Quick historical fact, it may be obvious that Athens is the oldest capital in Europe, but did you know which city comes second? If you’re following my logic here, you’re right, it’s Lisbon!

The reason why Lisbon is so well maintained throughout the years, is because they sold their tungsten (some metal for making weapons) very smartly during WWI. They declared neutrality and worked with both the Allies and Axis in supplying metals to make weapons. Or rather, they get paid for “not supplying” metals to one side of the war and get money as well for still selling it under the table. Portugal and Switzerland were the only two countries that came out of the war richer than before. Not to mention they got a lot of gold from Brazil back in the colonial days!

   

Lisbon and Porto held quite different personalities in my opinion though nonetheless equally captivating. Lisbon is more colorful, slightly posh and with shinier tiles; really got this presence of a capital city while still keeping that quaint little Tram 28. Porto on the other hand is more of a rugged and unpolished city with authenticity carved on the stone walls and bricks.

A bit more about my tram28 experience. I was told it gets so crowded and touristy during the day you can never get a seat. Since I was jet lagged anyways, I ventured out at 7am before the sunrise to make sure I get on the empty tram and I succeeded. I held on to my day pass and waited at the first stop bubbling with excitements. When I boarded, there was an old man behind me who’s apparently local as the driver knew him. As we ride up and down the narrow slopes of Lisbon, couples that looked probably as old as the tram came on and off the tram, sharing small chats with one another.

It was a completely different experience than what I’ve expected and even though I am clearly the outsider, the local passengers attempted to include me into their daily routines by nodding and smiling at me. No other gesture or physical movement is as universally kind as a genuine smile. As I stood at the back of the tram watching objects fade out backwards outside the windows, I realized everything I saw was what I have already passed by. The thing about trams is that once started, it can only go forward and such is life as well. Nonetheless, it is always tempting and reassuring to look back once in awhile at that beautiful scenery that you’ve passed by at some point in time. May be it’s a scene so far gone that you can’t be sure if it was real or an illusion anymore, but at the end of the day, does that even matter?

2)The weather: Even though I came in their coldest months, it was still a bearable and even comfortable 5-15 degrees, at least when the wind is not blowing. My friend used to tell me, just follow where grapes flourish, and you’ll get good weather. So no surprise, Portugal made the cut as they’re well known for their Port! Fun fact: The reason why 1)Port is so sweet 2)stronger in alcohol % and 3)different from red wine is that brandy is added to kill the yeasts and stop the leftover sugar from turning into alcohol. Basically putting a halt to the fermentation process, therefore, it is the spirit that spiked up alcohol content, and the leftover sugar gives it that lovely sweetness.

3)The people: I guess it’s not politically correct to stereotype, but I think I can be forgiven for generalizing in the positive direction right? Almost everyone I’ve met here in Portugal are really polite and friendly who love their city and are open to foreigners. I was told that is because they have a history of embracing different religions and people, namely the Moors and the Jews even during the Spanish inquisition. Instead of banishing the jews, they asked them to convert to Catholicism. At least that’s the case until crisis came. That’s why you see Arabian themed rooms in the Bolsa Palace, and also the style to build tiles on houses!

4) Architecture: Need I stay more? Apparently most tiles are traditionally painted blue and white to honor their royal colors (back in the days it wasn’t Red and Green) and they are used everywhere from residential buildings to churches and the vibrant paints just make Portugal that much more special 🙂

So here’s my elevator pitch on Portugal that I’ve practiced with my fluffy friend over breakfast on a warm sunny morning:

Unlike it’s neighboring country that is notorious for theft ahem *Barcelona* ahem, I felt perfectly comfortable roaming the streets at night by myself or venturing out early in the morning just to see the streets at dawn. It is a perfect mesh of old town and urban life. Unlike other ancient cities such as in Central Europe where they have super old metro and escalators, here the airport and public transport are all so modern and well maintained. Points of interests are well within reach, typically 15-30 mins walking distance which makes it the ideal weekend getaway. But let me warn you, Portugal will definitely sneak into a special place in your heart, leaving you wanting for more 🙂

Part 2 is coming soon. 

First (already) new country visited in 2018 :P

First (already) new country visited in 2018 :P

“Archaeology seeks answers to the fundamental question of existence. Who are we? Where do we come from? Why is the world such as it is?” – Quote from the Finnish National Museum

Part of the unofficial goal of 2018, is to really keep tabs on my travels because in the spirit of my official goal “do my future self a favor”, I’d really hate forgetting these fond memories abroad as time passes. Since getting hooked on traveling to Europe (I blame my academic exchange back in Nice), I have managed to visit new and familiar cities in the old world once a year but never writing any of those journeys down.

But as 2018 guarantees a fresh start (that + a 5 hour flight to Portugal and countless delays), I have found myself plenty of time to write about Helsinki! Or as I used to say “godforsaken Helsinki” because compared to its neighboring countries, Finland doesn’t seem too appealing. The last 2 days however, has completely changed my mind. Despite having spent only limited time in Helsinki, I have already a taste of how authentic, pragmatic and productive the Finnish people are, all incredible virtues that are so underrated in our generation.

Before I go into any details, I would highly suggest that you visit when it is warm because when it is -8 and it snows + you do not have proper shoes (or stellar balancing skills), you’re guaranteed to pok gai (Cantonese slang for falling, but really the imagery is more like slipping and slamming your face right on the ground).

I personally slipped every 10 mins but managed to stay upright at the cost of having muscle pain all the way from my lower back, to my butt, my thighs, my calves AND my feet. The silver lining to this though, is that I was forced to focus on landing my foot on solid grounds, tracing my footsteps intently, preempting any possible mishaps that involve getting my butt wet from falling on the snow.

Because I had to pay full attention to my walking, consciously and cautiously alternating my legs, my mind had no choice but to stay focus on the present, so captivated that I had no capacity whatsoever to think about the past or the future… that my friend, is meditation right there. My brain felt so refreshed afterwards; instead of the daunting and never ending worry of tomorrow and reminiscing of the past, I gave it this one basic, kindergarten level task of “not falling”. Instead of the default auto-pilot mode to walk while multitasking, those hours on the icy road was just my footsteps and my shadow. Sorry there were no shadows because there was no sun.

First day in Helsinki was a great day because I happened to land on a day with a strike so no public transport for me and my 20kg luggage+10kg hand carry and backpack! I mean from Madrid/ Copenhagen/ Paris/ to Chicago, I always land into cities right on the day they strike. That didn’t stop me from visiting the contemporary art museum on the only day of the month that it’s free though! Then I also happened to arrive at the national museum after 4pm which is ALSO free 🙂 Second day was great too if not better because all ticketing machines broke down so I had no choice but to take the Suomenlinna ferry for free. It was as if the whole of Helsinki is working together to help me save money to cover for my taxi fare.

First free entertainment is the Kiasma art museum. My favorite installment is the eerie room of the “sick” nature with black water flowing in pipes across the giant piece of…art. It made dragon noises and it was just out of the world cool. I just love how these arts are so eeeeeerie and almost alien like.

Second free entertainment is the national museum, I recognized right away the famous “baby box” that best demonstrate just how practical and logical the Finns are. Back in the days when they had high infant mortality rate, the government thought the best way to fix this is to give pregnant women body check early on. Given how vast the country is and back in the days when most people still lived in the rural areas, it was not an easy task to encourage them to visit the doctors.

So they came up with an incentive program where pregnant women who completed the body check early into their pregnancy will be handed out a “Baby box” with everything your baby need when they’re born. It includes diapers, baby clothes, milk bottles etc. all placed in a sturdy box that can be used as a crib too for the newborn! Not only is the box worth a lot of money, it simple took away the anxiety of being a parent for the first time! Although infant mortality rate is no longer an issue, the Finnish government still kept this tradition as it also brings a sense of belonging to the people. By sharing the color of your baby box, Finnish are able to identify the year they were born in 🙂

This got me thinking, there isn’t actually parenting classes or simulations, so how do you know how to be a parent when this is possibly the biggest responsibility anyone can have: to instill the right values, make early major decisions and provide for another human being YOU bring into earth? Here I’d like to salute to all parents in the world because even if you didn’t do a good job, it is totally understandable 😛 no one gets things right the first time.

Now back to Finnish culture. According to the museum, the Finnish people believe that there is an elf in every household’s sauna room. They’re supposed to keep your family safe and happy. However, they will only protect you if they’re happy so you certainly do not want to piss them off by 1) farting  2) talking too loud or 3) staying too long in the sauna! This reminded of how the Icelandic also believed in trolls that guard the land so Government will ask for permission before building a highway or something. In fact, can anyone tell me what’s the difference between a troll, a gnome and an elf?

The theme of the temporary exhibition is “Finnish treasures” where the museum invite locals to send in items they find to be of personal significance that best represent Finland. To me this was the most touching part because you see real life in someone’s wedding dress, christening robe that were worn by 3 generations and my personal favorite, a tool to pick berries owned by somebody’s grandfather. In a flash I imagined how my life would have been, if I grew up in the suburb of Finland.

My family makes a living by picking berries or tending to ewes. Every weekend, instead of going to the mall or dinning out, we will probably gather around the fireplace enjoying some homemade rye bread. You’re not defined by your college degree or your pay check, but how well you coexist with nature. It is not just a cozy dream because you can still raise a family like that if you so desire. To me, the purpose of traveling is to allow you to see possibilities, to see beyond your daily mundane routines and your own paradigm that there are, in fact, thousands way of living, of motivation and purpose in life that you can opt for.

May be it is the vast white snow or the freezing sea breeze, but I am overwhelmed with gratitude and content. Referring to the Art of Travel just a little, it is absurd to let ourselves be bound to where we so happened to be born and raised. In a world that is so well connected and informed, it is almost a sin to not fully explore what the world has to offer.

Now imagine sitting in an authentic bar with just the quintessential, no fancy redundant decorations like freakish fairies made of iron or nitrogen coming out from teapots or color changing ice; watching modest cars pass by the window while sipping Finnish G&T, listening to heavy metal music blasting in the background, this is Helsinki. I hope that the next time you’re planning a trip to the Nordic capitals to experience nature, artistic and design atmosphere or slippery grounds, do give Helsinki a thought, Finland has much more to offer than Santa Claus 🙂

They also say bo(n)m dia like in Barcelona though :)

Before we dive into the final 4 reasons why Portugal is the absolute best, I’d like to deviate slightly onto a more serious topic that had a massive impact on Lisbon.

There is a church in Lisbon with no roof where you can see right through the sky. It collapsed during one of most fatal earthquake ever recorded in 1755 that ruined 60% of the city. It was Nov 1st, All Saints Day when going to mass was mandatory. In the morning when every good Christian is indoor praying, the strongest earthquake of Europe history, 9 Richter scale (estimated as the system wasn’t in place back then) surprised the region and 50,000 people lost their lives.

Fire burnt for 5 days straight. Most people who survived were the “sinners” who didn’t go to church or happened to be outdoor (i.e. not at church). Since people back then were extremely religious and didn’t have our understandings of science, they must question, why would “God punish the good and spare the guilty”. It did not fit into the whole Noah’s ark bible story so this incident sparked a paradigm shift to logic and reason that perhaps god is not behind everything.

To me though, my takeaway is that if Lisbon can rise from fire and ruins and be great again, we too can certainly overcome any challenges that come in our way. Also, I still believe in the good in religion, whatever form it may be in as long as it gravitates mankind in the kind direction. Now let’s switch gear into the more lighthearted, final 4 reasons of why you should visit Portugal.

5) Literature: Even the national day of Portugal is to commemorate the death of a poet! The influence of literature runs deep in the Portuguese culture. At the very beginning, Latin is the written language and Portugese is merely a spoken dialect on the street until Camões wrote the first book in Portuguese that the people finally has a language that they can identify with!

Speaking of literature, I have grown really fond of the unique Portuguese phrase “saudade”. My local guide translated it as the presence of absence, of emptiness that is created by what is lost. There is also a high level of uncertainty involved, either never reliving the presence of what you long for, or a very slim chance of it happening. Sort of like the emotion that remains after the person or thing is gone. How beautifully melancholic is that? It is the bittersweet flip side of Love, because you can only feel saudade after you had a strong positive feeling towards that place/ person.

    

6) Food: OMG, from steak or other meat dishes to seafood, from tripe (which meant organs) to desserts, even the restaurants not on trip advisor that I just walked in were divine. My most fluent Portugese phrase is no doubt “pastel de nata”. I mean I have had those in Macau obviously, but here they bake the heart of the custard right between that luscious state of solid and liquid and I lost count of how many I’ve had after my 5th.

Anyways, since I’m not very good at describing food, I’ll just share two interesting stories about the local dish of Tripas and Francesinha. Being Chinese, I have no problem eating intestines or organs and what not (ok definitely not bunnies and dogs) but it is always good to see other cultures making the most out of our food source 🙂 Back in the days when Portugal sent all young men to fight the colonial war in Africa, the army called for all supplies from the village and the Porto people were so generous that they gave everything to the soldiers leaving only the intestines/ organs of the animals they slaughtered. That’s where this dish came from, a stew made of tripes and beans and now they also added ham and sausage as we’re no longer at war 🙂

Francesinha is another typical dish, where the locals would debate where they think has the best one and it is a tradition to eat one before their hometown football game. This is a crazy big portion of meat sandwich layering steak ham and sausage poured all over with a golden sauce that is the secret of every chef. It is slightly spicy and was supposed to induce the ladies to take their coats off back in the days 😉

7)Ridiculously good value of money: I am guilty of this having bought 2 pairs of made in Portugal leather shoes, 2 bags (at least I tried bargaining getting 10% discount at the end!), a scarf and a bracelet (that meant reborn 🙂 good quality stuff all for 160USD! Below is actually the street where I did most of my shopping; it is also the most expensive street on Portugal Monopoly 🙂 Rua Augusta.

Not only is shopping cheap, dining out can be as low as 8 Euros for a full course, transportation day passes are reasonable (6.5 Euros a day for all trams/ elevators, metros and buses!) and there are so much free stuff you can do such as the gorgeous viewpoints, gardens and churches. I would like to highlight churches because I have never seen that much Gold in my life. Even a random small chapel in the city is decorated with GOLD, we’re talking about 5-7 hundred kg of GOLD from Brazil in the major cathedrals. Just think about all the wealth Portugal is sitting on all these time!

8)Safe and friendly neighborhood: somehow several people has commented “Are you sure you’re going to Portugal alone?” as if I should know that it is dangerous to do so. Quite the contrary, it wasn’t exactly like the Nordics, but it definitely felt much safer than Paris/ Rome/ Barcelona etc. you name it. There were occasionally beggars or homeless but that’s pretty much all of Europe, at least they won’t bother you. Of course I did stay alert this time, having learnt my lessons in Barcelona, but in general I felt safe walking by myself even at night. My guess is there weren’t that many tourists here so pickpockets couldn’t make a career here.

Now that’s the end of the list from the bottom of my heart. Or as the Portuguese say “I put my heart next to my mouth” basically expressing all that I loved about Portugal. In case I did a poor job and you still need more reasons to visit… well I hope you’re a Harry Potter fan because 😉 JK Rowling was teaching English in Porto when she wrote the first Harry Potter book! Majestic Cafe is where she wrote most of it. Rumors had it that the bookstore and Sirius Black’s house were all inspired here 🙂

Scattered thought that would suffice as 2018 resolution

Today my freshman brother came home telling me their teacher asked him to write a letter to their future 12th grade self… this suddenly jolted my memory: my wise friend (actually so many of them are so wise indeed!) once told me “to do my future self a favour” when I was making a decision that I’ve now forgotten but must have been significant at the time.

It’s basically a reversed perspective; instead of using the logic of my (too young too simple sometimes naive) present self as the basis of decision making, I think about what my definitely older and hopefully wiser future self would do 5, 10 years down the road.

The way human brains work is that it is always flawed no matter how we meditate or train up; with our upbringing our cultural background and our education etc, we form certain filters that led to biases when we view things which in turn also impact how we make decisions. It always help to view things from multi angles hopefully reducing our blind spots.

Aside from using others as sounding boards, perhaps it would also makes sense to consult the person who knows you best – your future self. And that, is something I’ll try to do in 2018🖖🏻 and here are two perspectives of the world, deep under the ocean and high up in the sky.

other random wise words that suddenly came to my mind:

“Always assume the best intentions of people so you will in turn treat them kindly too and hopefully that gets a positive cycle going because the world has enough negativity going around already”

“no one is responsible for your happiness but yourself”

“worrying doesn’t stop things from happening”

“only do things with upsides to yourself but never at the cost of others”

“what you see reflects what your heart feels”