Oct 062014

Picture of spotted jellyfish

Aquariums are some of my favorites places to visit. I think I get more excited to see the animals than any of the kids there. And the great thing about aquariums is that every visit is a unique experience. I always see at least one new thing. There’s always one fish that stands out to me more than any other and becomes my new obsession. For instance, in 2007, my family and I went to the aquarium in Salt Lake City, where they had triops. I’ve only ever seen triops at this aquarium. You could buy a “triops kit” from the gift store to grow your own, though. So I did. Sadly, while these things are supposed to be resilient and typically grow in stagnant pools of water, mine kept dying. I guess I wasn’t meant to have an exotic pet fish.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2014, and my family and I visited the new, remodeled SLC aquarium. I’m pretty sure that was the first time I’d seen seahorses (alive, not deep fried on a stick at the Beijing night market). Or even if I had seen seahorses before, I’d never watched them “court” each other. So that was pretty cool. There was also some spider/crab thing hanging out in an upside-down jellyfish display, stealing food from the other fish and shoveling it into its mouth. It was a very candid and memorable moment.

Later in the year (in fact, just this weekend), my wife and I went to San Francisco and stopped by two different aquariums. The Monterey Bay Aquarium was one of the most impressive ones I’ve seen, possibly more than the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, which is a huge place of its own. Monterey had a very diverse collection of jellyfish, though, my favorite being the spotted jellyfish (pictured above). They also had sea gooseberries and leaping blennies, both of which are so bizarre, it’s amazing things like this exist in the real world.

Picture of spiny lumpsucker

But my favorite animal on the trip was at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. A small display that nobody else seemed to really care about featured several spiny lumpsuckers. They’re like cute, little, underwater helicopters. These guys were the marine highlight of the weekend. They were extremely fun to watch. I haven’t had an aquarium of my own since high school, but now I really want one again just to house a couple of lumpsuckers. I’m sure they are a lot of work, though. Hmmmmm. Considering I couldn’t even raise triops correctly, maybe I should pass. Sad face.

Sep 102014

I realize I can be very critical of China sometimes. My critiques are often met with a lot of opposition, whether that’s in the form of a negative book review or an angry blog comment. Hey, it happens. That’s the risk you take when you have an opinion! What surprises me are the people who are so quick to jump to China’s defense. I’m not saying that, because I expect every laowai to vehemently hate China. Sure, there are antagonists out there who delight in lambasting China over everything from Tibet to dog meat. But there are plenty of sensible people, too, who recognize their home isn’t perfect, either, and China’s just another country with its own problems. Except that… some of the reactions I receive to my writing suggest that not even China’s allowed to have problems. Or is it that I’m not allowed to have problems with China?

The frustrating thing is that many of these “critics” haven’t even been to China themselves, or they have been, but they went to a different area for only two weeks instead of two years. Huh. Funny how we might have had different experiences. But that doesn’t stop them from proclaiming, “Well, I didn’t see any of the horror stories this guy talks about, so he must just have a stick up his butt.” Trust me, guys… it takes more than two weeks for China to wear on you. It’s like the commenter who called me a jerk for not liking China’s slow train. Hello! Nobody likes the slow train! Chinese people don’t like the slow train! When has slow, crowded transportation ever been fun? That’s why, once the novelty of your new city wears off, things like traffic become a huge bother.

Maybe that’s where I went wrong in writing my book. Originally, it was only about my first five-month stint in 2005 when everything was new and exciting. But I went back to China in 2008 for another 18 months and… well… your outlook changes after you’ve had to deal with certain “peculiarities” for over a year. Yep, too many rides on the slow train. That first teaching position is still the most memorable and meaningful, after all. It was hard to match. It’s hard to find a good teaching job, period. A lot of teachers bail on their contracts and go home early (or look for a new school). If you’re one of the lucky few who lived in a nice city and worked for an accommodating school with polite and eager students, then that’s great. I’m seriously happy for you. But don’t tell me I’m too negative when you weren’t there with me.

Oct 212013

Picture of a tree in Sequoia National Park

My wife and I just got back from a short weekend trip to Sequoia National Park. This is only the third national park in the US my wife has been to (preceded by Yellowstone and Arches), but I think that’s enough to get a good sense of what parks in this country are like. So I asked her to give me a list of things that stand out when comparing American parks to Chinese parks. Her thoughts:

1. They’re so cheap!
A seven-day pass to Sequoia for both of us was only $20. When we went to Zhangjiajie in China last year, one ticket was 250 yuan (almost $40) per person for three days. A three-day ticket is somewhat of an anomaly, too, since every other park I’ve been to in China only granted one day per ticket. And it’s not like 250 yuan is chump change for a Chinese family, either. That’s actually pretty expensive.

2. There aren’t any snack shops!
If you’re lucky, you might stumble across a lodge with a restaurant in a US park right around lunch time. Otherwise, you gotta bring your own food. In China, however, there’s no worry about going hungry. Every trail is littered with food stalls selling everything from ice cream to instant noodles to hot dogs on a stick.

3. You can drive in the park!
A Chinese park will most likely have buses or trains or elevators or gondolas or any combination of those inside, but the roads (if there are roads) aren’t available to private cars. You’re completely at the mercy of public transportation and often have to pay extra for it. Fine by me. Can you imagine how congested those parks would be if people were allowed to drive in them?

4. You can actually be alone in the woods!
Obviously, China’s a crowded place. You’ll never have a Chinese park to yourself. The more popular spots in a US park can be the same way, though not nearly as bad. What’s nice about a US park is that there are so many side trails you can take. Many of them aren’t paved (something you won’t find in China), are very quiet and secluded, and still offer a great photo op at the end:

Picture of a stump in Sequoia National Park

Sep 132013

My first travel book, Yes China!, has been out for little over two years now. I stopped recording monthly sales about the same time my wife and I went to Thailand, though, so I’m not sure how many copies it’s sold overall. What I have noticed is that paperback sales are nonexistent again while e-book sales continue along at 4-5 per month. At one point, monthly sales were in the 20s, but that was right after I did a free promo on Amazon. I told myself I was only going to do one of those. That said, if you haven’t read Yes China! yet, just leave a comment here, and I’ll send you a free copy of the e-book. For reals!

As for my second book, Yes Thailand!, it’s currently selling twice as many copies as Yes China! We could probably chalk that up to its newness and more attractive $3 price tag. I reluctantly tried a free promo with this one, too, but the results weren’t as great. I think there are just way too many free books out there now. Free and cheap. Interestingly, whenever I toy with the price of Yes China!, I sell more copies of the book as it gets cheaper, but it’s never enough to make up for what I lose by not sticking with $6. So I’ve given up on the idea of writing becoming a viable part-time job. It pays the Internet bill and nothing more.

But writing has hardly been a waste. The best thing about publishing these travel books has been talking to those 4-5 people who buy the book every month. I periodically get e-mails from total strangers who read Yes China! and thoroughly enjoyed it, and sometimes this blossoms into a long-term dialogue. Many of the people who contact me are hoping to teach in China themselves and want to follow up with questions the book raised. I love helping out, and in the event that these readers actually do go to China, I love hearing their stories. Some of the anecdotes in my books may suggest otherwise, but my writing has always tried to encourage people to take these kind of adventures. It’s nice to know that it really does ring true for some of you.

Jun 182013

My wife got her green card back in 2011, and while that was a major relief, it wasn’t the end of our immigration journey. The first green card is only good for two years, at which point you’re expected to file for “removal of conditions.” If this is granted, you’ll receive a ten-year green card that, until you become a US citizen, must be renewed every ten years. I feel like this is a “gotcha” step, because I don’t remember ever being officially told to do this. We were just supposed to know and remember. That’s how the whole process has felt, actually. If it weren’t for the help of websites like Visa Journey, we’d be completely lost.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be an immigration application without feeling totally demeaning. Once again, we have to provide proof that our marriage/relationship is still strong in the form of pictures, bank statements, apartment leases, car insurance policies, and tax returns. Sarah will need to go in for another biometrics appointment, and the likelihood that we’ll be called in for an interview is greater this time around. Plus, there’s the $590 fee. I swear, sometimes it feels like we’re being punished. But we haven’t hit a single snag this far, so I imagine the 10-year application will go just as smoothly.

Jun 102013

Picture of Yes Thailand! book cover

It’s here! The long-awaited follow-up to Yes China! is now available as a Kindle e-book. I don’t yet have any plans to release a paperback version, but that may change. It makes sense as an e-book, though, because Yes Thailand! is only about half the size of Yes China! My wife and I simply weren’t in Thailand long enough to fill up 80,000 words. And you know me; I like to keep things succinct. Much like its predecessor, then, Yes Thailand! reads like a series of essays that are sometimes about Thailand and sometimes about other things.

The subtitle for the book is A Bittersweet Second Attempt at Teaching English Overseas, but don’t let that scare you. Teaching plays a much smaller part here and only constitutes maybe a fourth of the content. The rest of the chapters are about the weather, the living conditions, the bugs, the animals, the food, the transportation, the Internet, etc. etc. I also mix in a lot of reflections from my childhood as well as a few things about China that didn’t make it into the first book. Readers of this blog might recognize a few of the moments, but they’ve been rewritten and fleshed out, and there are still plenty more stories you haven’t heard before. Plus… it’s funny!

Jun 022013

I’m currently working my way through a book called There’s No Toilet Paper on the Road Less Traveled, a collection of travel essays from various authors. And it’s hilarious. Granted, not every chapter is a winner, but so far, the majority of them have left me laughing… or at least grinning like an idiot. It’s been a while since I’ve read a travelogue with a good sense of humor, so this has been a welcome change.

Several months ago, I did an article on a sampling of travel books. While I have continued to post short reviews on Goodreads, as well as posting my more highly recommended books on the Yes Travel website, I thought I’d take this opportunity to, once again, discuss what I’ve been reading recently.

First up, there’s No Sense of Direction by Eric Raff. Holy crap, this guy had one hell of an adventure. I truly, truly envy his trek across a ridiculous number of countries as he meets new friends, sees amazing sights, and has the time of his life. Unfortunately, the book itself is an absolute bore. So much of his trip plays out without a hitch (lucky him), and the few snags he does run into are mostly self-inflicted moments of stinginess. Two-thirds of the content could have been cut, and the tone/message of the book wouldn’t have changed at all. I simply didn’t need the excruciatingly detailed accounts of what were, for anyone not there at the time, mundane events.

Jill Dobbe’s Here We Are & There We Go, on the other hand, would have benefited by being two-thirds longer… or by being three separate books. She and her family spent ten years living in a handful of countries, and each one (each chapter, as it would be) comes across as an amazing experience. Well, the chapter on Mexico wasn’t very exciting. But Dobbe is refreshingly concise in her writing, skipping over the day-to-day routines but not shying away from some of the more personal and touching moments. I’m kind of torn about how I feel with this one. I rag on books all the time for being too wordy, but I really would have liked to get to know more about Dobbe’s life in these different places. One chapter per country isn’t nearly enough.

English Teacher X is another traveler whose writing isn’t relegated to just one country. I liked his other book, To Travel Hopelessly, though I found it hard to like him as a person. This particular book, How to Survive Living Abroad, makes his personality even harder to swallow. Here, he attempts to be a “self-help” coach of sorts, but most of his advice caters to the sleaziest of travelers. Even if that happens to be you, the humor grows stale very quickly, as X really only has two jokes that he repeats ad nauseam: that you’re going to unwittingly hire a transvestite hooker or that you’re going to get raped in the butt.

On a more respectable note: An American Teacher in Taiwan by Ken Berglund. His story is very similar to mine, right down to meeting his wife while teaching in Asia, so maybe I’m biased by saying that I loved his book. Berglund is brutally honest, sharing personal information about his ex-wife and Taiwanese in-laws that not even I would dare do. He’s also not afraid to talk about his teaching experiences, something I always appreciate, which makes his book a good resource for prospective teachers as well as a fun memoir overall. The blog-to-book conversion was a little sloppy, but if that doesn’t bother you, it’s worth a look.

The last travelogue I read was Catherine Howard’s Backpacked. I hate to end on a sour note, but this book was difficult to get through. Like Raff’s No Sense of Direction, she spends a lot of time getting hung up on details that don’t mean anything to the reader. The view was great. Got it. Let’s move on, please. Howard can be very funny, though, so she’s got that going for her. But this is countered by her tireless anxieties. She worries about everything and fills up pages and pages of herself justifying every action on a pampered “backpacking” trip that couldn’t possibly be any more uneventful. I actually had to give up halfway through, which I hate doing to an author. I mean, maybe there’s some great revelation or lesson learned at the end. Alas, I just couldn’t make it there.

Mar 192013

Picture of Starbucks in China

I thoroughly enjoy coffee, but it does terrible things to my body. In fact, the only coffee I can drink that doesn’t leave me feeling utterly sick for the rest of the day is Starbucks. Does that make me a coffee snob? But you also have to take into consideration the atmosphere, and my wife and I both revel in the idea of hanging out at a coffee shop and using somebody else’s Wi-Fi for an hour or so. It’s no different when we’re traveling overseas. Starbucks is always a haven to us.

The prices don’t change much from country to country, though. My wife’s favorite drink (a green tea latte) costs about $5 in the US, China, and Thailand. For Thailand in particular, that’s an expensive drink. You can catch someone on the street selling iced coffee and Thai tea for as little as 50 cents a cup. Even the brand name shops like Coffee World and Amazon Cafe don’t mark up their prices that much. But my wife wasn’t able to find another shop that made a good green tea latte, so that’s still worth something.

However, all of the Starbucks we went to in Thailand didn’t have free Wi-Fi. Thailand is funny about its wireless Internet. That kind of service is surprisingly hard to come by, and apparently you can’t even rely on global establishments like Starbucks for it. Luckily, China doesn’t suffer from the same problem, but then the Internet in China sucks, anyway. I could never get a good connection at a Chinese Starbucks.

I know there’s this need/want to support and try out local shops while you’re abroad. Hey, I’m all for authentic food. But when it comes to drinks in between meals, I’m kind of complacent. While I did try a lot of coffee shops in Thailand, I gotta be honest… most of them were not very good. The best drinks are out on the streets, but where are you going to sit down to fiddle with your phone? As for China, most sit-down shops are also smoking shops. Starbucks is one of the few places in China that enforces its no smoking rules. I’ll pay $5 for a cup of coffee just for that.