Creating Lifetime Memories Togetheri

A few weeks ago my son turned thirteen. I wanted to write something to celebrate this important milestone for him and for myself, but was not sure what to write about. One day I was flipping through some of the trip pictures we have taken over the years, and I came up with this idea: how about a blog on our travel experiences–all the places we have been to and all the memories we have created!

People who know us know we love to travel, and we love to travel as a family. We have been fortunate enough over the years to see, to visit, and to explore many places around the globe, stuffing our eyes with wonder. And travel is almost second nature to my son, since the days he was a small baby.

I could think of many ways how travel has enhanced my son’s learning experiences–his love for adventure, his interests in geography, world maps and airplanes, his appreciation for multilingualism, his empathy for others, his curiosity for how things work, and his ease in adapting to changing situations. But most of all, travel has strengthened us as a family. We each find a happiness anchor through travel–in the fun and joy of experiencing and figuring out a whole new place together. We relax, rewind, and recharge. These experiences will become some of the most cherished memories for us to remember many years down the road.

So rather than diving into the thickness of raising an ever-independent teenage boy, I’d like to pause for a few moments and savor some of the sweetest and most unforgettable memories we have created together–through the many family trips we have taken over the years.

2005: An Italian Renaissance Baby

Our family adventure began in 2005. Barely 7 months old and snugged in a Baby-Bjorn, my son ventured out with us on our very first family trip to Italy. Immediately he became a great travel companion. Happy and content, he napped wherever he could and whenever he wanted–in a bassinet by the bulkhead seat on the airplane, in the open air under the Tuscany sun,  and in a Baby Bjorn with which we carried him around. I nursed him along the way, often at the most unforgettable places–on top of the magnificent Duomo, inside the amazing Uffizi Gallery, in front of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, David, and on the one-of-a-kind Gondola

When he was awake, he giggled and bounced with endless energy while we strolled leisurely admiring the Italian beauties: the Arno River, Ponte Vecchio, Piazzale Michelangelo, Boboli Gardens, Piazza San Marco, the Grand Canal, the Campanile, Rialto Bridge, the Querini Stampalia Foundation by Italian architect Carlos Scarpa and many many more.

The success of our first overseas family trip inspired us to continue to travel to many other places over the years. With each trip we took, we became more relaxed, more spontaneous, and more adventurous. So we came up with a tradition: for each country we visited, we would buy a small flag for my son to keep. Now 13 years later and 24 countries down the road, he has a small collection of country flags, each bringing back many wonderful memories. I chuckle every time I look at the many old and new airline tags on his carry-on luggage.

2006: A Little Explorer in Prague and Vienna

Our second family adventure took us to Prague and Vienna. He was 1 1/2 years old. Like a little explorer, he ran, he hopped, and he giggled. We cut back on our museum visits and followed his cues: chasing pigeons, picking flowers, surveying the streets, flipping through the guidebook, playing hide and seek, and even sipping from a giant empty beer stein.

His playground included these fabulous sites: Charles Bridge, Old Town Square, Prague Castle, Schönbrunn Palace, St. Vitus Cathedral, Vienna State Opera House, Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord by Slovene architect Jože Plečnik, and Austrian Postal Savings Bank by Austrian architect Otto Wagner…One could not have asked for better places to have fun!

2007: Oh, Lego–These Wonderful Color Blocks 

In 2007 we traveled to three countries in the Caribbean and Europe: the Bahamas, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Sometimes the best trips are the ones that have no agenda. That was our trip to the Bahamas. In a family re-union to celebrate my in-laws’ 50th anniversary, we stayed in a beachfront cottage. No car-horn noises, only the ocean sounds and laughing seagulls. We roamed freely along the beaches, picking up seashells, building sand castles, swinging in hammocks, splashing in lukewarm ocean water, and watching sunrise and sunset from our cottage…Nature could not be more beautiful and peaceful than what we had.

As an architect and a world traveler, my husband’s deep and extensive knowledge in art, history and architecture has been truly an asset in shaping my son’s (and mine for that matter) travel experiences. We often visited the most unusual places a typical tourist would not have known or considered. And with a live encyclopedia by our side.

In Netherlands and Denmark, we visited the major tourist sites, having so much fun watching the windmills in Amsterdam, admiring the Little Mermaid and playing at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. But we also visited a few Dutch architects-designed buildings–the Kunsthal in Rotterdam by Rem Koolhaas, the Schröder House in Utrecht by Gerrit Rietveld, the Hilversum Town Hall in Hilversum by Willem Dudok, and the Bagsværd Lutheran Church by Danish architect Jørn Utzon. At the time my son was too young to appreciate the exquisite beauty of these architectural landmarks, but over the years his ability to name buildings and identify design styles, and his love for geography have expanded exponentially.

But the highlight of this trip was his discovery of Lego, these simple and elegant bright-colored Danish plastic blocks. He was completely enamored of them and had his first Lego acquisition in Copenhagen–a 4-piece Duplo tractor. I still remember vividly that huge grin on his face when he finished building the Lego tractor. Since then his love for Lego has taken off and he has become a huge Lego fan. Nowadays he often designs his own Lego structures and can build sophisticated sets very fast. Here is a picture of him holding his Saturn V Rocket–a 2000-piece Lego set he finished building within an hour on his 13th birthday.

2008: Rome, Paris and London through the Eyes of a Toddler

Rome is a heaven for adults and children alike. If piazzas are microcosms of Roman life, these marvelous open spaces are natural playgrounds for young children too. This year we had the best time touring around Rome, not through museum hopping, but by running around with our 3-year-old boy. He had left trails of belly laughs on the Spanish Steps of Piazza di Spagna, by the fountain of the stunning Piazza Navona, in the open space of the grandeur Piazza del Popolo, and around the sculpture of the charming Piazza Mattei...

In Vatican City he “wrote” his very first postcard and mailed it to himself back home. He looked so tiny inside the magnificent Colosseum. He followed an old tradition and threw not one but two coins into the Trevi Fountain, eager to come back again. He played hide and seek for hours end in the garden mazes of Villa d’Este, and he made friends with gold-fish and turtles in a pond at Villa Giulia.

Our introduction of Paris and London to him took place this year. Two of my favorite places in the world, Paris and London have special meanings to us too. Paris is where my husband and I went on our honeymoon in 2003, and London has a landmark that bears my son’s name. Needless to say we had a grand time sightseeing and entertaining in these two great cities.

We climbed up the Eiffel Tower, walked under the Arc de Triomphe, strolled along Avenue des Champs-Élysées, and attended a beautiful service in Notre Dame. But what my son enjoyed the most was running around in the courtyard of Musee du Louvre, playing with sailboats in a Tuileries Garden fountainchasing pigeons in front of Notre Dame and admiring the bold colored sculptures at Pompidou Center designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. In London we walked on the Tower Bridge, took pictures under the Big Ben, rode on the London Eye, and watched the change of guards in front of Buckingham Palace. He was thrilled to see Paddington Station in person, one of his beloved train stations from his story books.

Looking at the radiant smiles on his face, I know my son, influenced by his mom and dad, has found his happiness anchors in globe-trotting at a very young age.

2009: Three American Vikings in Two Nordic Countries 

In 2009, we visited two Scandinavian countries: Sweden and Norway. We took a slow-paced trip to enjoy Stockholm, Oslo and Bergen. Stockholm had a lot to offer in its orderly and quiet manner: we walked through Swedish history in the Skansen Open-Air Museum, Drottningholm Palace and Storkyrkan–Stockholm Cathedral. In Oslo, we strolled inside the Vigeland Sculpture Park enjoying the many displays of Gustav Vigeland’s works. We took a cruise trip along Oslofjord, completely in awe with the beautiful Norwegian coastline.

For my son, however, this trip was all about ships, boats, vessels, and sea maps. In Stockholm Vasa Museum had a lasting impression on him. It largely told the story about how the Vasa ship capsized and sank in Stockholm in the 17th century, and after 300+ years on the sea bed how the mighty warship was salvaged. I remembered watching him listen attentively to his dad tell the story, and gaze at the giant ship quietly, absorbing all in. A few years later, when he heard the story of Titanic for the first time, he immediately asked about Vasa, a connection that he had naturally drawn from this trip.

In Oslo’s Kon-Tiki Museum he climbed up the original vessel, Kon-Tiki, that took Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl on his expedition from Peru to Polynesia. At Viking Ship Museum, he was fascinated with the various ships in the Viking Age, including the beautiful Oseberg ship.

In Bergen, he played with a giant anchor on the street for hours end, and took the Fløibanen funicular ride many times to Fløyen, 300 meters above the sea level, enjoying fantastic views of Bergen.

Over the years, I have watched in amazement how these experiences have slowly shaped his various interests and skills growing up. For example, his understanding of world geography has come naturally and effortlessly, it seems to me. His transportation vocabulary has expanded by leaps and bounds to include the Metro in Paris and the Underground/Tube in London, the Metropolitana in Rome, the Tunnelbana in Stockholm, the T-bane in Oslo, and Mass Transit Railway in Hong Kong, all of which have remained his favorite subway systems till this day. His knowledge about airplanes is also very impressive: every time he finds an airplane in the sky, he can tell exactly what airline is and what type of the aircraft is, to the smallest details…

2010: Spain is Beautiful, and So is Our Bunny’s Story

In the following year, rather than visiting two countries on one trip, we decided to visit a few cities of the same country. Spain was on our mind and Barcelona, Seville and Granada were on our top list.

Arguably the most influential Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí has left a trail of his masterpieces in Barcelona, both highly individualized and distinctive in style. We had a grand time touring around in Casa Milà, Park Güell, Casa Batlló, and Güell Pavilions. It was inside the still-incomplete Sagrada Família where my son told us he would take us back again in 30 years when Sagrada Família would be finally finished. And he remembers his promise till this day.

This trip also took us to three unforgettable places–the Alcázar of Seville, the Alhambra of Granada, and Barcelona Pavilion in Barcelona.

My husband has had a strong fascination with the Alcázar ever since he visited this royal palace with his family as a young boy. I, on the other hand, had never heard of it until this trip. Visually stunning and architecturally mesmerizing, the Alcázar was truly one of the most magnificent places I have ever visited, and it opened my eyes for the beauty of Moorish Culture. While my husband was busy enjoying Alcázar’s spectacular architecture, my son and I roamed around inside the palace, from courtyard to gardens. Everywhere we went, we would run into a kaleidoscope of stunning colors, gorgeous mosaics, and beautiful interiors… Simply an amazing experience.

Equally incredible was our visit to the Alhambra, an imposing castle on a picturesque rocky hill in Granada. With plain walls of the fortress exterior, the Alhambra was originally designed as a military base, and eventually became the residence of royalty. Its interior spaces were exquisitely detailed and highly ornate, often connected by gardens, gates, and paths. Perhaps because of its breathtaking beauty, the great American writer Washington Irving spent a year inside the palace writing “Tales of Alhambra,” a series of essays and stories about Moors and Spaniards that were instrumental in re-introducing the Alhambra to the western audience.

Enchanted by the exquisite gardens and paths, my son often hopped from one fountain to another, searching for the beginning and end of the water. It was quite entertaining for him.

But the highlight of this trip for him was his happy encounter with the baby bunnies along Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s famous promenade, where Barcelonés set up many stands each morning selling a variety of goods, including small pets. There we found a rabbit stand with a few cages that housed white, grey and black colored baby bunnies. My son was so enamored with these tiny soft furry friends, he kept going back to these cages. That joyful experience inspired him to adopt his very own pet bunny upon getting home. Ollie, a name he gave to his bunny, has since become part of our family.

I cannot leave this section without talking about our visit to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe‘s Barcelona Pavilion. Originally designed as the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Barcelona Pavilion was minimalism at its best: its simple form, its infinite tranquility, its “floating” roof, its spectacular use of extravagant materials, such as marble and red onyx, and its iconic Barcelona Chair have inspired many important modernist buildings. To a layperson like me, Barcelona Pavilion has left a profound impact: it quiets my mind every time I think of it.

2011: Instilling a Touch of Fun-Loving Latin Spirit

In 2011, we flew to the southern hemisphere. A fun and low-key trip, we visited Argentina and Uruguay. In Buenos Aires, everywhere we went, we could feel the Latin vibe. On the streets and in the parks, at the crack of dawn or under the midday sun, children played soccer like pros, and men and women tangoed with passion and style. My son, wearing a No. 10 Argentina soccer team jersey, had a big kick taking pictures in front of a mural of Diego Maradona, a super soccer star in Argentina.

At the famous Independence Square of Montevideo, capital of Uruguay, he played tag with us, kicked soccer balls with local kids, and ran from one end of the square to the other, laughing and giggling.

Though food is not the topic of this blog, I must say we had the best mouth-watering steaks in Buenos Aires. Ever.

2012: A Friendly Donkey and Never Enough Italy

To say we will never grow tired of Italy is not at all an exaggeration. In the summer of 2012, we went back to Florence and Venice. This time we rented a villa in Rufina, a quiet town in the rolling hills, about 15 miles northeast of Florence. Perched in the natural landscape and with a sweeping view of Tuscany, our villa was surrounded by flower-covered meadows, fruit orchards and olive groves. A stone staircase led up to four double bedrooms and a large country-style kitchen. All bedrooms had French doors to the garden with shade provided by cherry trees.

Down the hill from our villa was a small farm where a donkey lived in a shed. Every morning on our way to the local commuter train station, we would go past the donkey. We made a point to stop to greet him. As if anticipating our arrivals, the friendly donkey would walk slowly to the gate upon seeing our car. My son fed him with apples or hay every time we stopped by, an activity he enjoyed very much.

In the evenings we often came back to our villa to cook hearty meals with the freshest ingredients we could find in the exquisite local shops.  For a week we lived a simple, quiet and un-hurried life, the Italian way.

We watched with the locals the UEFA Euro semi-final game where Italy beat Germany, experiencing first hand the Italians’ unmatched enthusiasm for soccer and their soccer super stars. It was quite enchanting.

In Venice, we stayed in the same hotel as we had during our first trip, tracing our footsteps to discover changes in the places since the last time we had been to. Some shops were gone but Venice‘s charm stayed.

2013: A Camel Safari into the Sahara Desert: Once in a Lifetime Experience

The 2013 trip to Morocco was our first trip to Africa and a magnificent one, to say the least. From Marrakesh to Casablanca, from Rabat to Fez, from Merzouga to Ouarzazate, from the High Atlas Mountains to the Sahara Desert, the people we met, the food we ate, the places we visited, the things we did…I could devote an entire blog to this trip, but still feel there is not enough space to write about our incredible experiences.

If I were to choose one experience to write about, I would definitely choose our journey into the Sahara Desert. The afternoon we took a slow and soulful camel safari deep into the desert’s heart, the evening we ate the most delicious chicken Tagine around a mesmerizing campfire, the night we camped out on a soft bed of sand beneath the clearest stars on earth, and the morning we watched sun emerge slowly and naturally behind the seemingly eternal sand dune. Two African camels, one Moroccan guide and three American travelers, we had a truly once in a lifetime experience.

I remembered sitting on a vast sea of orange sand and watching my husband and my son climb up and run down the perfectly wind-sculpted sand dune, laughing, shouting and giggling, tears started to well up in my eyes. The awesome expanse of nature seemed more humbling than some of man’s most grandiose structural creations, I thought. Right at that moment, I had achieved peace of mind, the closest I’d come to understanding of happiness. In a fount of solitude, I couldn’t think of a single thing I lacked. The magic of nature.

The pictures are probably worth a thousand words. These are the colors of Morocco, bright, bold, exquisite and unbelievably beautiful. We will forever cherish this trip.

On the way back from Morocco, we stopped in London for a few days. This time we paid a special visit to the famous Abbey Road to please the hearts of two Beatles fans–a boy and a man.

This year also marked the 10th anniversary for my husband and me. We decided to take our son to see Paris again, where we started off together as a globetrotting couple. We revisited the restaurants, cafes, churches and museums we had been to during our honeymoon. We showed him the tiny hotel room we had stayed in before, just big enough to keep a double bed and a small desk in. We told him how we thought French baguette and fromage–two food items we had eaten so much during our honeymoon–could be so unbelievably delicious and affordable. We wanted to show him that travel didn’t have to be luxurious in order to be fun.

The only disappointment was we didn’t get a chance to take him to Poissy, a town on the outskirts of Paris, to see Le Corbusier’s masterpiece, Villa Savoye, the first and the best (besides Barcelona Pavilion) modernist building that I came to know. But there was always next time to be back to Paris.

2014: Enjoying a Quiet Life in Florence

Third time is a charm, and indeed, we went back to Florence for the third time in 2014. To the same villa. For a longer period. The friendly donkey had moved away, but Florence was still as charming as one could have possibly hoped for. Now my son was older, he was more receptive to a formal introduction to Italian Renaissance arts. And we did just like that. We hopped into many museums and galleries, big and small. We drove around here and there, and added Lucca and the Cinque Terra to our “have-been-to” list.

But most of the time, we stayed in our villa and enjoyed a quiet life. We read books, played tag, had sprinkler fights, walked along the olive groves, home-cooked meals, and watched sunsets and sunrises from our bedroom. On the villa terrace, we invented the most ridiculous family games to play–watermelon seed spitting and watermelon skin throwing contests. We would find a target around the villa and throw watermelon skins or spit watermelon seeds at the target. Whoever threw or spat the farthest would win. Of course, I lost every single time.

We stood on Piazzale Michelangelo, taking one more photo with Arno River as the backdrop, same spot, but different time. I marveled at how fast time flew–10 years apart, between his first trip as a baby and this trip when he almost reached a double-digit in age.

On the way back home, we did a swing-by in London. Old places, but new experiences. The highlight was our visit to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. We stood over the Prime Meridian Line, a metal strip that divided the Eastern and Western hemispheres. My son would later tell his friends that he had stood simultaneously on both the eastern and western sides of the globe. A wonderfully unique experience.

2015: The Beautiful Adriatic Sea and Beyond

As a child I used to think all communist countries were like the former Soviet Union–authoritarian, monolithic and imposing. Perhaps because of this psychological bias, I had rarely equated nature’s beauty, in its most delicate and exquisite form, with communist regimes. Strange as it sounded, it was true. So when my husband proposed that we visit Croatia, part of the former Yugoslavia, and Hungary, I was doubtful at first. I was so glad that we went to these two countries– this trip had changed every bit of my old assumptions.

In Dubrovnik we had a grand time walking on the spectacular stone walls encircling its Old Town, browsing through shops and restaurants along the pedestrianized limestone Stradun, and admiring Gothic-Rector’s Palace and Renaissance Sponza Palace. In Split, we enjoyed strolling along the long and gorgeous stretches of promenade and visiting the magnificent Diocletian’s Palace. On the Hvar island we went near and far exploring the many secluded coves, beaches and lavender fields. My son, while watching passengers get off of a boat on Hvar, made a beautiful drawing of the “Jaddrolinija” on the blue water. At St. Mark’s Church of Zagreb, an imposing medieval-style cathedral, we had much fun watching a Croatian traditional wedding ceremony and dancing along with the crowd like true wedding crashers…

But it was the Adriatic sea that made our trip to Croatia so unbelievably memorable. Breathtakingly beautiful, the Adriatic sea was warm, calm, clear and infinite, shimmered with the intoxicating blue, and yet every bit was on the human scale. It forged intimate meeting points with many small islands.

On the Dalmatian coast, we strolled along the seafront, swam off the pebble beaches, and searched for tiny sea urchins under the crystal clear water. I remembered watching on shore my husband and my son swim deep into the vast expanse of the blue sea, everything around them disappeared. It was like admiring a blown up photo with a single detail, every cell in my body responded to that with sharp acuity. How many children at this age could have such incredible experiences!

The capital of Hungary was our next stop. Unlike many charming and intimate Croatian cities, Budapest was as grand as one could imagine, but equally beautiful. The Gothic-revival style Hungarian Parliament building was a perfect testimony to the city’s scale. My son never forgets the magic of our waterbus ride on the Danube. We floated under the famous Chain Bridge that connects Buda and Pest, and past Fisherman’s Bastion and Buda Castle, admiring the sweeping view of the city while being gently rocked on the rippling waves. It was an unforgettable journey.

2016: Iceland, Nature’s Magic Land

Our B.L.O., beautiful-landscape-overload, continued in 2015. Until we came back from Iceland and flipped through hundreds of pictures we had taken during our trip did I realize pictures couldn’t justify the beautiful Icelandic landscape.

From exploring the capital Reykjavik, and visiting the Maritime Museum and Harpa Concert/Opera House on the water front, to playing foosball game in our hotel…From driving around Snæfellsjökull volcano mountain, and watching birds flying over the cliffs on Snaefellsnes Peninsula, to soaking in the magic Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa in a lava field in Grindavík…

From watching the Great Geysir hot spring erupt high into the sky, and watching Gullfoss‘ water plunge over 100 feet in two steps over a deep, dramatic crevasse into the Olfusa river valley, to walking in the Thingvellir National Park rift valley by putting one foot on the North American tectonic plate and one foot on the Eurasian tectonic plate…

From riding a special bus converted from a mobile NATO missile launcher along the rugged highland terrain, and hiking deep into the Langjökull glacier cave tunnels, to feeling the wild excitement when we caught a glimpse of the amazing Northern Lights…This trip was all about exploring and experiencing the forces and beauty of untouched nature that was so distinctively Iceland. It was magical for my son.

As for my architect husband, a visit to Finnish architect Alvar Aalto’s Nordic House in Reykjavik was just as satisfying as experiencing Icelandic nature’s wonder.

On a personal level, this trip has transformed me in a way I had rarely experienced in the past. I developed a deep emotional connection with nature. Every day we drove through miles of land, these uninterrupted mountains and plains. The sky took up half of our vision, clouds hung low right above our heads, and rivers cut through the vast landscape. In the far distance, layers of snow-capped mountains were like powdered sugar on top of crushed Oreo cookies. Wind howled and cloud darkened. In a few hundred yards, with a small drop in temperature, we could drive on a road with one side farmland and one side snowy mountain. Simply amazing!

It was our last full day in Iceland. We were on our way back from the Langjökull Glacier hiking trip at night. The clock was ticking towards the midnight. We decided to try our luck to chase the Northern Lights. Driving along a vast expanse of plain in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by complete darkness, we felt totally alone. We stopped the engine, and stepped out. It was freezing cold. The only sound we could hear was the squeaky snow under our feet, and the only light we could see was the faint glow from the camera screen. I had seldom felt this close to nature before, excited and hopeful, right there and then, we witnessed nature’s most amazing fireworks – the magical Aurora Borealis in its glorious color. At that moment, the untouched nature, liberating and powerful, had moved me to tears.

2017: Germany, a Country with a Complicated Past

Germany was our destination this year. It was my son’s top choice, out of his love for Deutsch soccer team and his fascination with World War II. We started in the southern Bavaria and traveled northeast to the Brandenburg region where we visited Berlin. The trip was as much a cultural excursion and sightseeing as it was a powerful history lesson.

In Munich, we visited the Residenz, the largest palace in Germany; Frauenkirche–the Church of Our Lady, a landmark and a symbol of the Bavarian capital city; and Asamkirche–the Asam Church, a tiny Baroque church with a memorable interior. We experienced everything and anything German: we had the best beer at Hofbräuhaus am Platzl, the famous brewery that inspired the song “oans, zwoa, g’suffa,” the Bavarian dialect for “one, two, down the hatch.” In Viktualienmarkt, a daily food market, we had the best pretzels and Brätwurst. At Neue Stats Neuschwanstein Castle, we were awestruck by this idyllic palace, Germany’s fairy-tale castle. On top of Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany, we had four countries under our feet: Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland. In BMW Museum, we experienced first hand the top-quality craftsmanship German engineers had put into their most famous automobiles, and truly understood what Sir Henry Royce meant by “Strive for perfection for everything you do.”   

However, it was the sober experience we had at the Dachau Concentration Camp, the first Nazi concentration camp in Germany, that made our trip to Munich so incredibly powerful and meaningful. I still get chilled to the bone every time I think of Dachau: from the sign on its entrance gate–“Arbeit macht frei“–“Work sets you free,” to the powerful words by Holocaust survivors; from the cramped bunk beds in the prisoner cells, to the crematorium ovens where thousands of prisoners perished; from exhibits of Nazi human medical experimentation, to photos of malnourished nothing-but-skin-and-bone prisoners…Simply put, Dachau is a symbol of crimes against humanity in the extreme. It was an important history lesson for my son to learn and understand. Here are two examples of life in the concentration camp narrated by a Dachau survivor and a Nazi officer:

“When we arrived in Dachau, dragged from the train to the camp and beaten into a corner here, a kind of public interrogation began from an entire herd of so-called officers…Every nasty joke was received with applause. Every bit of indecency was met with vile laughter.” —Account from a Holocaust survivor.

“You are without rights, dishonorable and defenseless. You’re a pile of shit and that is how you’re going to be treated. –Address from the protective custody camp leader to new prisoners.

Berlin has captured my imagination since I was a little girl. In my memory it was a city with rich history and mystery. Its front and center role in World War II and Cold War, its intrinsic linkage between the past and present, its complicated relationship between the East and West, and the symbolic meaning of the Berlin Wall and its subsequent fall as Berlin’s moment of freedom…These events have always intrigued and inspired me to search for answers to many questions.

On June 14th, 2017, we stood in the very heart of Berlin looking right at the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of the tumultuous history of Europe and Germany, but also of European unity and peace. A few hundred yards walking past the Gate, we could see the street marks where the former Berlin Wall once stood, and Checkpoint Charlie, a Cold War symbol that had kept Berlin in two separate worlds, not only physically, but also ideologically for 28 years. I could almost imagine the exuberant moments when the Wall was finally demolished on November 9th, 1989, a day that lives on above all as an image of peaceful liberation. Thousands of east Berliners walked across the crossing and set foot for the first time on the west side of their own city. It was said that a young East German scientist called Angela Merkel walked across the same crossing on the same day who has since become the chancellor of united Germany. A moment to remember.

Our visits to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church captured my son’s attention. The old Gedächtniskirche was built in the 1890s as part of a Protestant church-building program in Germany, but was extensively damaged in 1943 in the Battle of Berlin, a British bombing campaign to prevent the concentration of defenses in Berlin. Today the ruined tower characterized as the “heart of Berlin” stands prominently alongside with a new modern church designed by Egon Eiermann. Chunks of the tower walls were gone and bomb imprints and holes were visible, reminding people of the damages World War II has done to civilization. My son scanned each of the WWII photos and examined the bomb damaged walls carefully, and asked many questions, as if he was doing research for a history class…

We couldn’t leave Germany without visiting two Olympic stadiums: the Berlin Olympiastadion and the Munich Olympiastadion. These would be the third and fourth Olympic stadiums we had visited together–the other two were Beijing Olympic Park and Atlanta Olympic Park.

The Berlin Olympic Stadium was constructed for the 1936 Summer Olympics under Hitler who wanted to use the Game to promote Germany as a stronger, unified country. Massive, monolithic, and commanding, the Stadium was a case of embodying the Nazi politics through architecture. But perhaps for my son, the most memorable moment of this visit was the story he learned of Jesse Owens, an African American sprinter and long jumper whose incredible performance had earned him four Olympic gold medals.

The Munich Olympic Stadium was constructed for the 1972 Summer Olympics. In a sharp contrast to Berlin Stadium‘s heavy and authoritarian style, the Munich Stadium, with its sweeping tensile tent-like structure, was more of a whimsical architectural response to emulate the game motto –“the happy games.” But unfortunately the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team has made the Munich Olympics anything but happy.

Our trip to Schloss Charlottenhof, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, on the other hand, was like a visit to landscape architecture’s heaven. Simply breathtaking.

During this trip, we also spent a half day in Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, the sixth smallest country in the world. From Vaduz Cathedral to Vaduz Palace, from Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein to the Liechtenstein National Museum, we caught a glimpse of Vaduz’s charming and contemporary flare. Every minute was well spent.

2006-2017: Cultivating a Cultural Sense and Sensibility–Our Annual Trips to China

Perhaps the most meaningful and deeply personal trips for me were our annual visits to China, a country that is dear to my heart. As a first generation immigrant, my affection for China grows deeper with each year passing. To be able to go back to see my second home and witness its tremendous changes with my son on a regular basis has been truly special.

We started our annual trips to China when my son was 2 years old. These precious pictures often bring big smiles to my face every time I look at them: from his happy stride on the Great Wall, to his carefree on-dady’s-shoulder-ride in the Forbidden City; from his first visit to the Chinese pandas at Beijing Zoo, to his many rides on Hong Kong’s one-of-a-kind Star Ferries; from his mischievous smile on top of the Hong Kong Peak, to the excitement on his face watching the American flag rise up inside the Birds Nest at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics…Every picture captures a special moment in his life and our lives that is memorable.

Visiting China also means keeping contact with my past and having my son keep in touch with his Chinese side of the family–his Chinese grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousin. It is an important tradition for a multi-cultural family like ours. Now every so often when he uses simple Chinese to talk to his Chinese granddad on the phone, my heart sings with tremendous pride.

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These have been some of the most memorable travel stories for my family so far. As we move forward, our travel experiences will evolve to include more discoveries and more memories. No doubt that travel has opened our eyes and enriched our experiences, but most importantly, travel has brought us closer as a family. We stay together on a journey, in the fun and joy of experiencing and figuring out a whole new place. I am hoping this learned wisdom will guide me through my journey to raising an ever-independent teenage boy.

Hive Five, Team Wild

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“Let’s go, Team Wild!” With these simple words uttered by my husband, we, the three musketeers of a New York family, joined 5,200+ other New Yorkers early Saturday morning at the Bronx Zoo, in successfully completing a 5K-run to raise money for the endangered wildlife.

Two months ago I signed up for the biggest physical challenge in my life: I will be joining thousands of other women warriors on Oct. 14-15 in New York City to walk 39 miles to raise breast cancer awareness. With the help of my family and friends, I quickly raised more than $2,200 for the Avon Foundation for Women. I was totally energized and inspired.

While training for “Avon 39,” I had another thought: I’d like to inspire my family to join me in an impactful event we all felt passionate about. Then one day on my Facebook page I came across an event notification for the “Bronx Zoo 5K Run for the Wild.” How fabulous it would be to run together as a family! I thought. I approached my husband and son with this idea. It turned out I was preaching to the choir: they were equally as enthusiastic as, if not more, than me. Almost immediately we rolled up our sleeves and started fund-raising and physical training. We named our team “Team Wild.”

I was very proud of my 12-year-old son. He not only rose up to the challenge, but also showed a strong sense of commitment. With the wonderful help from his family, teachers and neighbors, he quickly raised $355, twelve times the minimum participation requirement, and he earned his way into the event. Together we raised about $1,000 for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)!

As parents, we all want our children to be happy, healthy, successful, and perhaps most importantly, to be good people. In all honesty, my son is a wonderful boy. He is smart, gentle, empathetic, and has a great sense of humor. In my husband’s words, “he has a good soul.” But for better or for worse, my son also lives a life of privilege: he is well provided for, has two parents who love him unconditionally, travels around the world since a young age, attends an excellent school, and is surrounded by friends.

Although not his fault, privileges sometimes do hinder upon a person’s ability to understand the world in a broader term. So we’d like him to develop a more keen awareness and mindfulness of the planet he lives in—to appreciate the importance of interdependency among all living creatures. We’d also like him to understand that with every privilege comes with responsibility. We hope his participation in “Run for the Wild” serves one of the many building blocks for him to grow into a strong and compassionate global citizen.

“Run for the Wild” was truly a wonderful event to bring people together. New Yorkers of all body shapes, skin colors, young and old, men and women, ran alongside with each other, free of politics and judgments, and for one cause and one cause only: to save the endangered wildlife and preserve a healthy planet we live in.

On a personal note, in taking on this challenge, we had the most wonderful way to blend a fun family outing into a great cause on a gorgeous weekend day! To use my husband’s words: “We started together as a family, we stayed together as a family and we finished together as a family.”

High five, Team Wild!

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I Am An Immigrant

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By my bed, gathering a little dust now, is a small treasure box. I’ve kept it for over twenty years. In the box is an old 3”x5” photo, color slightly faded. It shows a scene of the observation deck at the old Beijing airport on a hazy summer day. In it, my mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law and my little niece are clustered together, with their backs facing towards the camera, gazing up into the sky. On the back of the photo is a short handwritten paragraph in Chinese:

            The airplane rumbled into the sky, taking with it a daughter, sister and aunt…Across the ocean to the other side of the world. They gazed up into the sky, looking, searching and yearning…As if they could see her, tears in eyes. Her good-bye waves, slow and tender. Oh, a bird has just taken off from its home soil and flown high into the blue sky, farther and farther away…

            A heart-felt farewell and blessing to our dearest daughter!

                                                                                                                              Dad

                                                                                                                              July 24, 1990

On June 23rd, 1990, I boarded on an Air China Boeing 747–the first time in my life I’d ever been on a plane. From there I started a long journey away from home, with uncertainty and foreboding in my heart, and yet full of hopes and dreams, heading towards America.

Twenty-seven years later, it still seems like yesterday. In the moments of reflection, thinking about the touching words from my poetic dad, I can’t help but feel emotional. Over the years, people have asked me time again: “Why did you come to America?” “What brought you here?” These questions seem no longer relevant to me now, but if you ask me this question instead: “Is your journey worth it?” My answer will always be: “Absolutely!”

But what made my journey worthwhile? Novelty in a new world? Opportunities in the land of dreamers? Promises of diversity in a melting pot? Well, none of these, I am afraid. Novelty can wear out, opportunities can become trapdoors, ambitions can dwindle, and cultural fusion can just be a fantasy. Rather, it would seem to me, it is the struggle for learning to define who I am that has made my journey memorable and worthwhile.

I was lucky to come to the US with a student visa and a full scholarship, and I had the freedom to pursue a higher education without enduring much financial hardship. Yet my story is still similar to those of million other immigrants. It is a story of constant struggles: struggle to become self-reliant, struggle to overcome homesickness, struggle to brush off the feeling of inadequacy, struggle to fight prejudice—veiled or not, struggle to feel comfortable in my own skin, and struggle to have my voice heard. It is through these struggles that I have grown from an innocent-beyond-articulation young Chinese girl into a strong, independent and feisty woman.

You may argue that, as humans, we are born to struggle, and that struggles are the necessary building blocks of character. All of that is true, but I would say that what makes the struggles distinctively immigrant experience lies in the fact that we have a unique brand of struggles.

Twenty-seven years ago, I flew across the Pacific with two large suitcases and $700 in my pocket. I not only uprooted myself from the comfort of my home and family–the cozy place that had every remnant of my childhood bliss and the very people who loved me unconditionally, but I also removed myself from the only culture that I knew well—its look, its touch, its feel, its smell, its landscape, its language, its holidays and its traditions…Suddenly, all my touchstones were no longer valid. A part of my life vanished. I was forced into situations that I didn’t have the references to understand.

I was completely alone and forever on the outside. But quitting was not an option. Self-reliance quickly became a necessity for me. I was no longer that naive Chinese girl who used to enjoy making ridiculous pranks on my dad without getting into any trouble. All the sudden I assumed a sense of responsibility–I became the front and center of my family, representing them in a new and distant land. I took refuge in my study, buried myself in a shell of solitude, with fierce determination and an iron will, charging ahead.

Every small achievement seemed like a giant step forward for me: my first English class that I could understand easily, my first “A” on a test, my first driver’s license, my first graduate degree, my first job offer, and my first paycheck in US dollars…For any native-born American, these might seem nothing extraordinary but simply part of the natural process into adulthood. But for me, these were hard-earned milestones when I could finally breathe a big sigh of relief and give myself a pat on the back: “I’ve made it!”

What was so remarkable about my immigrant experience lies not only in the self-reliance I have developed over the years but also in the confidence I have always had knowing my parents had my back no matter where I was. They were the strongest pillar in my life, helping me keep things in perspective with a sense of humor and positivity, and making my struggles in a foreign land bearable. In return, they took tremendous pride in me–the Zhao family representative in America–whose trivial accomplishments seemed so much amplified in their loving eyes. Till this day, my dad still brags about my “magnificent driving skills.”

Over the years I have never asked my parents what went through their minds on that hazy summer day of June 23rd, 1990, watching the rumbling airplane take away their younger daughter. But as a mother of a 12-year-old boy myself now, I can only imagine how hard it must have been. From time to time I take out that photo. Gazing at it, a cascade of emotions washes over me. My parents, by sending me onto an immigrant journey far away from home, did not ask me to realize their ambitions or to redeem their mistakes. Rather, with their hearts open, they gave me their blessing and let me make up my own story.

I am hoping one day I will be able to do the same with my son: sending him to a life-long journey–with an inquisitive mind, an upbeat spirit, and a great sense of humor: “Go explore the world, make up your own story, and I will always be watching you from afar!”

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Marriage Dance

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My smile was radiant. His was dazzling. It was my day. Our day. Our wedding day. Thirteen years ago, today, we tied the knot: a Chinese woman and a Caucasian man. No language barrier. No cultural inhibition. Two individuals, overcome with joy, love and passion, greeted each other at the altar. Eyes met. Tears welled up. The intense emotion we felt towards each other.

Thirteen years later, it seems like yesterday. Gone with the It-can-make-you-blush romance. Come along with the I-know-what-you-need/How-you-feel rapport. Perhaps we were destined to meet. As a Chinese saying goes, we are connected by an invisible red thread. The thread can be tightened or tangled, but will never be broken.

But we could have chosen other mates. Perhaps someone of the same culture, the same skin color, or the same religion. Perhaps someone richer, younger, or more attractive. What makes us click then? Curiosity? Shared interests? Love at first sight? Deep connections? Willingness to open up to each other? Yes. All of them, and a lot more.

If I were to come up with a few qualities in my husband that I am most attracted to, I would list the following:

His intelligence. Vast and deep. From politics, history, art, literature, to science, engineering, architecture, and everyday life. He can carry a conversation on any topic. Fact based. Well informed. Witty and nonjudgmental. He has the vision and wisdom of a global thinker. He is the Wikipedia of our family.

His passion for life. Genuine and earnest. In his words, “the fun in life is what makes all worthwhile.” He loves what he does and does it well. He enjoys travel. He is into nature. He lives in the present. He appreciates every day. Fatherhood gives him the opportunity to share and cultivate the same sense of adventure and fun-loving spirit in our 12-year-old son. We travel together as a family to see the world and to experience life. He embodies “living life to the fullest.”

His sense of humor. Witty and wry. He is funny and fun. His self-deprecating jokes often show the humble side of him. I laugh at them. A lot. But most importantly, he never ceases to amaze me with his ability to laugh in good times and bad. It would be easy for me to get frustrated and distracted by small bumps and hiccups in our daily lives, but he sets life priorities, and rolls with the punches. He is a beacon of light, an ultimate optimist.

Last but not least, his humanity. Compassionate and inspiring. It manifests in the lives he touches and the people he loves. His colleagues. His friends. His family. He takes young people under his wing, mentoring them with passion and sincerity. He cares about his elderly mother. Never missed a single time talking to her on Sunday evenings. His loving relationship with our son is what I am most proud of. Deeply involved in every aspect of our son’s life, he teaches him not only life skills, but also life values and lessons, big or small. Largely because of this, our son has grown into a kind, loving and empathetic gentle soul on his own terms.

I am proud of my husband. I also feel good for myself. I am lucky to have found the right man.

But finding the right one is only half of the equation in a marriage; learning to live together as one is the other half. It is much harder.

We all come into our relationships with our own baggage; perhaps a failed courtship in the past, the idiosyncrasies of our upbringing, the differences in our beliefs, our rituals, or our habits. We are who we are- weird, flawed, and self-centered, each in our own way.

There is a cynical line about marriage in a hugely popular, Chinese social-satire novel called Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu. I can recite that line by heart: “Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.”

Truth be told, after 13 years, we can be not so kind to each other at times. We are both head-strong, stubborn, and particular in our own way. We’ve got shares of our fights, sometimes each unyielding to the other with fury and frustration.

With two careers and a family to juggle constantly, we are tempted to wonder if our lives would be simpler, easier, but not necessarily happier, if we were still single. After all, grass always seems mysteriously greener on the other side.

But we haven’t given up. We haven’t “consciously uncoupled” ourselves. We still choose each other. For thirteen years.

What makes us stay together then? Money? Our house? Our son? Our commitment? Yes- all of these tangible and practical considerations. But more importantly, it’s our unshaken love, friendship, respect, and shared values that keeps us united.

It has to do with acceptance. Appreciating each other’s strengths. Accepting each other’s flaws. Since the day we met at the altar of marriage, we have accepted ourselves as the best possible mates for each other; we have accepted our marriage as the best possible union for us. With this conviction in mind, the myth that “Grass is always greener on the other side” will always be, well, a myth.

It has to do with compromise. I am a firm believer in shared responsibilities in marriage. But this does not equate to 50/50 division of labor. With a more time-demanding job he has, I take up the lion’s share of our household chores. He appreciates my endeavor and always puts forth his best effort to support me. His rock solid love for me and our son makes all my sacrifice worthwhile.

It has to do with forgiveness. We all have flaws. We all make mistakes. If you believe love is in the eyes of the beholder, you should also believe love is patient, kind and deliberate. Thirteen years of marriage. We both have made many mistakes, big or small. But time again, we have forgiven each other’s mistakes. Shared reciprocity.

Marriage is a dance. It requires partnership, with each taking turns and supporting the other. Sometimes it is waltz, smooth and joyful; other times it is tango, passionate and sensual; still others, it is cha-cha, lighthearted and fun.

Marriage is a shared journey. We accept and appreciate who we are. We inspire and encourage each other to be better. We laugh and cheer each other on in good times and bad.

To me my husband is the one whom I can always count on. From here to eternity.

Happy Anniversary!

 

A Peaceful Warrior

 

I went to my Sunday Yoga class. Agitated. I repeated these words again and again in my head: “May this world be peace and love.” How impossible could it be!

Earlier in the morning, my Chinese community chat room and social media were exploded with angry responses to a hip hop song called “Meet the Flockers.” Its lyrics seem to advocate robbing a Chinese neighborhood because Chinese people probably have lots of cash on hand and they may not even believe in bank accounts:

First, you find a house and scope it

Find a Chinese neighborhood, cause they don’t believe in bank accounts

Second, you find a crew and a driver, someone who ring the doorbell

And someone that ain’t scared to do what it do

Third, you pull up at the spot

Park, watch, ring the doorbell and knock

Four, make sure nobody is home

They gone, okay it’s on

Don’t be scared, nigga, you’re in now

If the police come you gonna find out who your friends now

That ain’t them talking, that’s your mind playing tricks on you

You’re conscious cause you know you got nines with two clips on you

But fuck that, motherfuck that plasma

And fuck that laptop, go and get that jewelry box

You tryna paid?

Go take that jewelry box to the Slauson they’ll give you cash back in the same day

…..

It even has a YouTube video tutorial showing armed and masked men burgling home. How incredibly sickening! Sure. One could argue it is merely a rendition of an artist’s imagination. No malicious intention. No harm done. Sure. No one could do anything about it. Not petition. Not protest. America has the First Amendment to protect freedom of speech. But no, it is not OK to use my people as a punching bag or to stereotype us. Not on my book.

I googled its producer, a California-based rapper named YG. He has seized mantle of rap’s most outspoken Donald Trump critic. How ironic! If he feels the urgency to combat Trump’s bigotry and racial hatred, and to use his “platform to speak up and bring our brothers together and put some light on some of this s— that’s not right for our people,” perhaps he should educate himself about racial sensitivity to embrace other ethnic groups in the same battle against Trump’s bigotry. Perhaps he should know what he advocated in “Meet the Flockers” is equally, if not more, offensive and distasteful than those of Trump’s.

But I am here not to demand his contriteness, nor to be a willing victim of racial prejudice. If you believe silence is gold as I do, here is what I will tell you: I am a peaceful warrior, but first and foremost, a warrior. The warrior chooses to act; the coward reacts. The warrior doesn’t give up what we love.

So today I will take the high road. I will keep praying for mutual respect and for racial harmony. I will invite you, regardless of your age, gender, skin color, racial background, or ethnic identity, to join me as a peaceful warrior.

So next time when I do my warrior poses, I will simply hold them a touch longer. For peace. For love. For wisdom. For fearlessness. For our collective hope.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

Peace Peace Peace

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Summer Camp through the Eyes of a Boy

This summer, my 11-year-old boy went on a sleep away camp for the first time. This blog is our first writing collaboration in which he narrated to me his experiences at the camp, and I simply put his words down on paper. The exercise has proved to be a fun and exciting experience for me too because I get to access to some of my son’s private thoughts in dealing with his homesickness, gaining self-confidence and thriving at camp on his own terms. Where relevant, I have also included, with his permission, some of the photos he took at the camp. Hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I do. 

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The Drop-Off Day

When my mom and dad first told me that I would be going on a 3-week sleep away camp, I thought I would never survive. As the days before the camp drew nearer and nearer, I began to worry, but at the same time I felt excited because they told me this was one of the best sleep away camps they knew. A friend of my dad’s recommended it to us because his kids all loved there. Earlier this year, my parents invited the camp director to our house. He looked like a very nice guy. He showed us a slide show of the camp in previous years. Watching the slide show made me feel more interested in going but I still couldn’t shake off the fact that I would leave our home for 3 weeks.

In the morning of the day when camp started, I couldn’t help but feeling sad even though I knew the camp was going to be fun. My parents and I drove for 5 hours up to the camp site. Those 5 hours were probably some of the worst hours I had ever had. I couldn’t imagine what I would be like during the next 3 weeks when I was so far from home. I had already missed my pet bunny Ollie.

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When I arrived at the camp, my parents stayed for a short while to take a small tour to see what the camp was like. Then they walked back to the car. Standing there alone and watching them walk up the dirt path and disappear behind the trees was probably the hardest thing for me. I walked down to our cabin with small tears in my eyes. I was sad to see them leave!

Our Daily Routine at Camp

My first day at camp was tough! My mom and dad had just left me the previous night and I was all alone. Not knowing what to do, I followed other campers by watching them and wondered when I would finally catch on. Things eased up a bit on the second day. I started to get the feel of what it felt like being on my own and getting to know other kids. Things were not all bad.

IMG_3381I shared a cabin with 4 other campers (2 were new) and 1 camp counselor. All our cabins were named after the 46 Adirondack mountain peaks. Ours had a cool name; it was called Skylight. There was no electricity in our cabins. We shared 3 shower stalls and 2 bathrooms in a cabin about 20 yards away. If I wanted to go to the bathroom at night, I had to use the flashlight I brought with me from home. It freaked me out a bit at first, but I got used to it soon.

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At camp, we woke up to the sound of the bell ringing at 7:30am. We got out of bed and waited for the next bell to ring which signaled the waiters going up the hill to help get breakfast ready (we took turns to be waiters). Fifteen minutes later, a third bell would ring and we all went up to the lodge to eat. Breakfast, lunch and dinner all followed the same sequence. I have to say, our camp food was pretty good.

Our bedtime was different for different age groups: 9:10pm was the time for our group, the junior section, to go to bed. We were allowed to read in bed for 10 minutes with flashlight until 9:20pm when all lights were out.

Writing Letters Home

At camp, we were not allowed to have electronic devices except for iPod for listening to music. So the only way we communicated with our families and friends was through mail. Every Sunday after lunch we would go back to our cabins to write letters. I loved writing letters to my parents. It was a great way to keep in touch with them and know what was happening at home. My mom and dad had kept their promise and they wrote me almost every day. I always looked forward to receiving their letters. Reading their letters made me feel really happy when I missed them.

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My Nana, aunt and cousin also wrote to me and sent me fun postcards or newspaper clips. I exchanged letters with a friend of mine whose family had just moved down to North Carolina. I even received a letter from a former Lower School teacher of mine who had been here as a camper, a camp counselor and a camp director since 1998 until last year.

When I came back from camp, my parents told me my letter writing has improved quite a bit. They said I wrote with more details, expressed more feelings and used larger vocabularies. Yay!

My Favorite Activities

I loved all my camp activities, but of course, I had a few as my favorites.

My first favorite activity was swimming. Who doesn’t like swimming? But at our camp swimming was very special–we got to swim in Augur Lake. The water was clear, the air was fresh, and the dock was beautiful! There were a few things we could do at swimming. The first was the general swim, the second was the diving board, and the third was a 10-foot high jumping tower.

IMG_3372To be able to jump from the diving board and the tower, we had to take a series of Red Cross level swim tests: we needed to swim from the main dock to the boat dock for 16 laps–each lap was about 40 feet in distance; we needed to put a life jacket on in the water; we needed to swim in our clothes and shoes for 4 laps; and finally, we needed to swim across up to the other side of the lake, about 1,200 feet away. I passed all four tests in my first week and I jumped from the tower into the water in my second week. It was awesome and I was very happy about it.

How did camp counselors keep track of us in and out of water? We used double-sided tags on a board. Each time we went swimming, we would flip the tag to the red side to indicate we were out in the water. When we finished swimming, we would flip the tag back to the white side. So nobody got lost. That was super important.

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At camp we had an awesome wood shop where we could create and make all our arts and crafts. In the wood shop, all the tools were man powered, like saws, drills, hammers, screw drivers, wood chisels, and a lot more. I got to use them all. I made a wooden boat which I named “the Dragon Boat,” two bridges for my train layout using Popsicle sticks, a ring holder for my mom and a bookshelf for my dad. The coolest part was I got to design them from scratch, make and glue them together all by myself. I had a fantastic experience at our camp’s wood shop.

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During my weeks at our camp, we had the option of going on many different types of overnight trips. Each cabin would go on its own cabin overnights, which meant that we would canoe across the lake into two spots, Cubs Point or Pirates Cove. Our cabin went to Pirates Cove; it was a bit farther than Cubs Point in a hidden area on the other side of the lake behind a large cliff.

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We would load up canoes with camping gear, paddle across the lake to Cubs Point during lunch time, and continue on to Pirates Cove. When we arrived we would pitch a couple of tents and put our gear in. We then went swimming in a small beach area, cooked on a large campfire for dinner, hung around and explored the area. In the morning we would go down to the campfire, cook and eat breakfast, and paddle back to our main campsite. I learned some basic survival skills in the wilderness. My dad said these were important skills to have.

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Another of my favorite activity was hiking. There are 46 main high peaks in the Adirondack park area. To be a high peak, the mountain we were climbing had to be over 4,000 feet. Many campers have tried to get their 46ers over the years, which means we have to climb all 46 peaks.

This summer I climbed 2 of the high peaks, Cascade and Porter, plus 2 lesser peaks, Rooster Comb and Hurricane, which were below 4,000 feet.

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I had never climbed up that high in the past and this was a whole new experience for me. When I reached the peak of Cascade and looked around at the landscape in front of me, it was just like I could see the whole world. The view was amazing! I couldn’t believe I was that high up. Looking down at the valley, I could see small towns and ski jumps and bob sledge courses at the Lake Placid Olympics. The small cars were like little ants running around along the road. I reached the top and touched the summit marker knowing that I had climbed up the mountain and I could finally relax my legs. I had conquered my first High Peak. It was an amazing experience.

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Perhaps my most favorite activity this summer was archery. It was my first formal experience in this sport. Somehow I connected to it naturally. At camp our instructors told us in order to do well in archery, we needed four things: be physically strong, have a firm footing, a good aim and a strong focus. For me archery was really fun and exciting.

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For safety reasons, at the archery range, we were not allowed to cross the line unless permitted. When we wanted to shoot, we were instructed with four commands: pick up your bow, knock your arrow, fire at will, and retrieve your arrows.

At our camp there were three major ranks: Tracker, Path Finder and Guide. Tracker being the lowest was the easiest to earn, and Guide was the hardest to earn. In every activity there were also their own made up ranks. In archery, for example, there were altogether 18 ranks. To get each of the three major ranks, we had to be able to shoot at 15, 20 and 30 yards and got points from 60 to 160, depending on which rank we were going for. The archery tracking system was recorded on a chart on the door of the shed at the range. As we received a rank, we would color the square in red.

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I started at the first level of 15 yards. Looking back now, that was so easy, but it was not easy back then as a first time archer. When I got my first rank, the Tracker, which was 15 yards and 60 points, I felt really pleased with myself. I then set myself a goal for this summer: to get the highest official camp rank in archery, the Guide. On my third to the last day at camp, I finally got it. That was one of my happiest moments at camp! I have received 11 out of the 18 ranks in archery this summer. Way to go, Ben, I said to myself!

That’s all I have to say about my summer camp. I was worried about going to camp at first. But when these three weeks were over, I was ready to go back next year!

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When my son finished the last line of his enthusastic story, my heart was bursting with joy. He had fun, he was happy and he had an awesome time. He is growing into a confident outdoor adventurer. Just what we had hoped for at the beginning of the summer. I am so proud of him!

I have to say, his amazing camp experience is just as valuable to him as it is to me. I am gaining new perspectives because of this. A year ago I couldn’t imgaine myself sending him away for 1 week, let alone 3 weeks, but just like him, after this summer, I am ready for a longer session next year. I’ve learned to trust his judgment and let go of my fear. 

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An Unlikely Friendship: Three People, Two Cultures and a Single Bond

In the summer of 1994, after four years of studying and living in the US, I invited my parents to visit me for the first time. First time for my Mom to come out of China; first time for my Dad to come to this side of the hemisphere—he had only taken business trips to Japan in the past. So before they arrived, I had prepped them with a few “Don’ts,” things that Americans were typically uncomfortable talking about but we Chinese never shied away from.

“Do not ask people how much they make.”

“Do not ask woman how old they are.”

“Do not ask people whether they are married or not.”

I told them. “Do not describe people as ‘fat’ but use ‘big’ instead,” I also warned them, “because unlike in China where ‘fat’ is a neutral word, in America it is a bad word; it borders on moral judgment like ‘stupid’.” For whatever reasons, Chinese had been intrigued and even fascinated by why Americans often looked taller, larger and stronger. We were so convinced that it was the cheese eating that did it. So I thought if they knew these unspoken social norms, they would ultimately avoid unnecessary awkward situations with my friends, my professors or people they might meet. After all, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

I lived in a small house, one of the few house-turned dorms for graduate students on a quiet street in downtown Princeton. The University owned them all. Each house had three floors, and each floor 3-4 rooms. The students shared three bathrooms and one kitchen in each house. My room was on the top floor, like an attic, enough to fit a single bed, a desk and a chair. Small but cozy.

We had a janitor take care of the common areas of our house. His name was James, a tall African American man with very dark skin complexion, a bit on the heavy side, maybe in his early 40s. Gentle and friendly. Every morning around 7 o’clock he would pull up his beaten-up Pontiac into the driveway promptly and stayed until 6 in the evening. During the day, he would go around the houses cleaning the kitchen, hallway and bathrooms, mopping the floor, mowing the lawn and taking away the trash. He would also do some light repairs for our rooms. When he walked around, a long string of keys dangled from his hip would give away the clicking sound as if to announce his arrival. Sometimes he would heat up the lunch he usually brought with him in the microwave and eat with us: white rice and black beans. Same food. Every day.

My communication with James was quite minimal. As with every graduate student, I went about with my crazy schedules, rushing in and out of my room like lightning. I would cook up simple meals quickly and return to the library. But whenever I saw him in the hallway, on the street or around the house, I would politely greet him, sometimes cracking a couple jokes here and there. That was about it.

Then my parents’ arrival changed everything.

During their visit in the summer, my parents stayed with me in my cozy little attic. I shared a bed with my Mom, and my Dad slept on a mattress on the floor. Don’t ask me how we did it, but we did. My parents were early birds. They got up before 6 o’clock every day and went about with their morning exercise routine, often doing Tai Chi, walking and strolling around the blocks. My Dad, being a quintessential extrovert, was charismatic, outgoing, curious and not afraid of making mistakes (I am anything but that unfortunately). He could read some English but did not speak much of it. Nonetheless, he often carried conversation with people he met with his halting English. My Mom on the other hand, an introvert and observer, was more on the quiet side. She did not speak or read English.

At the beginning, as with any new acquaintances, James and my parents were friendly and cordial with each other: they would wave, smile and nod whenever they met. But within a few days, quite remarkably, my Dad and James had become like old pals, often laughing and talking with manly handshakes and bear hugs. To help him better communicate with James, my Dad often brought with him an English-Chinese dictionary to look up for words and expressions that he might not fully understand. My Mom on the other hand, was not so quick to embrace such warm gestures. She continued to smile and nod at James but kept a healthy distance from him.

One time after greeting my Dad with a bear hug, James tried to give my Mom a hug, too. Visibly uncomfortable and guarded, my Mom had quickly pulled herself away even before he pulled her closer. Unfazed by the moment of awkwardness, James hugged my Mom anyway. I watched them on the side, part embarrassed and part amused, but I was not surprised. Apart from her personality as an introvert, cultural inhibition was also a key in my Mom’s reaction. Like many Chinese of her age, she had never known a single person whose skin color was different than hers, let alone stood so close to one. Besides, she was only 5 feet and 110 pounds, and James 6 feet and over 200 pounds. I could imagine what went through her mind, but I knew all this would change with time.

One evening after dinner my Dad casually said to me: “James is a good man. He works really hard.” He continued, “You know, he didn’t have a father growing up. He lived with his mother and grandmother as a child, and now lives alone in Trenton. Is that the place we accidentally ran into the other day?” I knew exactly what he talked about. A few days earlier on our way back from Longwood Garden, while looking for a gas station, I accidentally made a wrong turn into, shall I say, a not-so-desirable neighborhood. It was the first encounter of urban poverty for us, a family from the other side of the world. Though my parents had been through a lot in their own lives under China’s Communist regime, this experience was still quite dramatic for them. I remember we sat quietly the entire time afterwards until we reached Princeton. If I were to guess what was on their mind, it was the despair in people’s blank stare that shocked them the most. It was also the sharp contrast from the beauty, grace and affluence of Princeton, the not-so-far-away picturesque town they were first introduced to. In their mind, hunger and poverty should be rare in this country.

So I told him: “Yes. It’s the same Trenton.” My Dad then said: “Well, since I have nothing else to do, maybe I can give him a hand. What do you think?” Having known my Dad all my life, I knew even if I said “No” to him he would offer his help anyway. So I said: “Sure, but don’t overdo it.” Just like that, my Dad started a self-appointed pro bono job as a janitor’s helper in a country thousands of miles away from home. Initially he helped clean the kitchen mess, like wiping the table, washing the stove, and gradually, he started taking away the trash and sweeping the floor. The two men’s friendship had also deepened. My Dad even picked up a few slang terms from James. Don’t ever “get high” was one I still remember vividly.

I bumped into James on campus one afternoon. He was very complimentary about my parents, saying how lucky I was to have them. Then he said, “I have been thinking about this. It must be uncomfortable for your Dad to sleep on the floor. There is an empty room on the same floor as yours and no one is going to move in until in the Fall. If you are OK with it, I will unlock the room before I leave in the evening and your Dad can go sleeping in there. Lock it back on in the morning.” Wow, that was a very generous offer and would be of tremendous help to us, I thought. But I said: “It is so very kind of you, but I don’t want to cause any trouble to you.” “No trouble at all.” He said, “The room is empty this summer anyway.” With that, my parents were finally able to have a couple months of comfortable living arrangements during their short visit. What a wonderful gift from James!

As with international students studying in this country, one common thread we all shared was our constant homesickness. The smell of a familiar dish sometimes could quickly trigger a mysterious and overwhelming nostalgia. So it was quite a treat for me to have my parents’ company in the summer that year. My Mom was a great cook who could whip up some delicious hearty meals in authentic Sichuan style that I had not had for a long time. I felt like a princess. Every day. There were two other Chinese students living in the same house at the time. Knowing how I missed homemade meals, my parents often invited them to join us when we made dumplings, steamed buns and other delicious dishes together to share. Always a happy occasion.

James was curious about Chinese food and often watched my Mom cook. She would patiently explain to him through my Dad what ingredients were needed and why they were needed. Gradually they had built a nice rapport. Each time she made some delicious dishes for me, she would save some for James. One day she said to me: “James seems to eat the same food everyday for lunch—rice and bean. How awful. Maybe you can ask him if he wants to join us for lunch.” Ever since then James had become a frequent guest at our lunch table during the summer. My parents were very happy to have him eat with us. To use my Mom’s words, it was just “a matter of adding an extra pair of chopsticks.”

Three months flew by quickly, and by the time my parents were about to go home, they had become a big fan of James. My Dad not only continued his pro bono janitorial work, but he also appointed himself as a house inspector, frequently reminding my housemates to clean after themselves. The two men continued to exchange laughs, jokes, hugs, and even fist bumps. My Dad’s English seemed to improve quite a bit, often chatting with my housemates on subjects like politics or China and US relations. Perhaps the biggest transformation was from my Mom. Though she was still on the quiet side, she had completely let her guard down. She was more receptive to James’ bear hugs, and on occasion, she would reach out to James with handshakes. She even started to greet strangers on the street. From time to time she would invite James to come with us to the Chinese grocery store, so that she could show him a few Chinese dish ingredients that he might be interested in later.

On the day when my parents were heading out to the airport, James gave them a card. I forget the entirety of what he wrote, but one thing has stuck in my mind all these years. He told my Dad that he was like a father to him that he had never had. The two men stood there holding each other’s hands for a long time, their eyes welled with tears. An unforgettable scene.

In 1998 when my parents came to see me again, I had already graduated from the University but still lived in an apartment in Princeton. When they knew James still worked in the same houses, they asked me to invite him over for a re-union dinner. We made dumplings together. Just like the first time they met, my Dad and James carried a lively conversation with the help of an English-Chinese dictionary, and my Mom listened quietly, smiling and occasionally pitching in. Just like that, three people of different ages, different races, different cultures, different languages, and different skin colors, shared a single thread—a beautiful friendship across continents.

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When I write this blog, my mind travels far back to these hot summer days, with a mixed emotion of nostalgia and sadness. Now my Mom is gone, my Dad is slowly finding solace in the loss of his lifelong partner and I lost contact with James quite sometime ago. And yet the thought of their unlikely friendship has brought heart-felt warmth to me. I marvel at how people transform in the process of building a friendship, moving away from the place of fear to the place of bond.

In Yoga practice, we believe in the teaching and spreading of kindness, non-judgment and mindfulness. Indeed, we don’t have to be the same to be human to each other; we can be different but still be human. The fun of human interactions is to celebrate and relish the differences. We let our guard down, we embrace the unknown, we open up to endless possibilities, and then we find a common thread. The friendship between my parents and James reminds me the importance of celebrating what bonds us rather than what divides us.