As part of my preparation for China this fall, I’ve been compiling a reading list that will help me put my travels into context. So far I’ve come up with the following:

Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux (I’m probably the only travel writer who has yet to read this account)

Red China Blues by Jan Wong

A Comrade Lost and Found: A Beijing Memoir (Jan Wong’s follow-up)

Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China by John Pomfret (I’ll make an effort to also keep up with the author’s Washington Post blog, Pomfret’s China)

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler

Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China by Peter Hessler

Hong Kong by Jan Morris (I remember my parents reading this years ago, but didn’t get around to it myself before it got packed away when the house was remodeled)

Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng

Out of Mao’s Shadow by Philip Pan

Taiwan: A New History by Murray Rubinstein (this is more academic but should give me a good background on Taiwan)

Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood

Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei by David Mura (Even though this is by a Japanese-American, I’m sure that his story about spending a year in his ancestral homeland will resonate as I prepare to make a similar journey)

And if I can manage to dig out some of my books from my Chinese history class in college, I’ll look over them again. It looks like my reading future is going to be pretty China/Hong Kong/Taiwan-centric for the next several months.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve come across a couple of articles about the expansion of Chinese-language programs across the country, in particular Chinese immersion schools,  where the curriculum is taught in both English and Chinese. These programs are spreading exponentially, and will continue to do so, with the rise of China as the world’s second-largest economy. China’s government is also lending its hand to the cause, sending teachers abroad to spread the language and even paying a portion of their salaries. The new Chinese classes have been enthusiastically embraced, even at a time when schools are cutting their programs in German and French because of a lack of funding and decreased interest. In the coming years, an increasing number of students could be choosing Chinese over Spanish in the United States, and internationally, it could be just as necessary to be proficient in that language as English.

I’m always hesitant to let people know of my proficiency in Chinese, since I’m not sure how to describe it. Fluent? I’d say hardly, since there’s no way I could attend a university or do business there. Some people might, since I can at least get by. I’ve pretty much got the basics down, since I can pretty much understand everything that’s covered in CD language courses. But I’ve still got a long way to go before I can say I’ve mastered the language and can live and function confidently in China or Taiwan.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve avoided traveling to China for years in part because of my lack of fluency. Sure, I traveled through Croatia and Poland without a background in Slavic languages, and bummed around Italy surviving off a scant Italian vocabulary with some English and Spanish thrown in. And I suppose at least 90% of foreign tourists in China can get by not speaking a lick of Mandarin. But while the majority of foreigners can be forgiven for their linguistic shortcomings,  in China, I would be a dreaded “ABC,” an American-born Chinese who failed to maintain her language and culture while living abroad. And that fact wouldn’t go over well with a lot of old-school Chinese in the United States, either.

For years, I felt I had no choice but to hang my head in shame. After all, Cantonese had been my first language, and starting in kindergarten, my parents drove across the Bay Bridge every Saturday to take me to Chinese school in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Then in 5th grade, when my friend’s mom asked if I would be interested in joining her Mandarin class, my mom signed me up, and I stuck with it until the end of high school. And I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, not Wyoming.

So all that exposure to the language should have given me a solid background in Chinese, so that I could read a newspaper, right? Uh, I think I’d have an easier time reading Don Quixote – en espanol. Over the years I’ve come to realize that I’m far from the only ABC who struggles with the language, especially the written aspect of it. It wasn’t a conscious effort on our parts to neglect our ancestral tongue. Inevitably, growing up in an English-speaking country, and being exposed to the language only at home, while attending Chinese classes for only a few hours once a week, we wouldn’t be able to match the linguistic capabilities of our counterparts in the motherland. Even among cousins and Chinese-American friends (some of whom didn’t speak our own dialects) we weren’t inclined to speak Chinese.

It took me a while to realize that our linguistic incompetence wasn’t just about laziness or an outright rejection, but more than anything, it was the way we were being taught. We spent our class sessions copying characters and memorizing stories about Confucius, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, or going to the gas station, word for word, and then regurgitated them in both written and spoken form.  But we had no idea what any of it meant. It would be like learning to read and write English by memorizing passages about Shakespeare or George Washington. And what’s more: there is no written language for Cantonese. There is just one single written system for all Chinese dialects, the one used for Mandarin. And these dialects are as close to Mandarin as English is to French. So now imagine that there is no written language for English, and instead we Anglophones must learn to read and write French to be literate, so that “once upon a time” would read as “il etait une fois.” But no one ever bothered to tell you that, much less explain the meaning of each word.

All I ever knew to do was to memorize and regurgitate, week after week, year after year. I couldn’t make sense of the passages I was searing into my memory, formulate a grammatically coherent sentence of my own, or read the Monkey King stories the way I absorbed the escapades of the Berenstain Bears and the Sweet Valley Twins. If you ask adult Chinese-Americans about their childhood Chinese school experiences, the sentiment is likely to be overwhelmingly negative, because they faced exactly what I did.

When my parents decided to put me in Mandarin classes, it seemed like a smart choice, since it was, after all, the official language of the People’s Republic, and at the rate China was moving, it would become just as crucial for me to be able to speak Mandarin as Spanish. But my classmates were all native speakers, and my class was not for beginners. Everyone else could complain to our teacher and tell her what they had or hadn’t learned, and I could barely muster out a “hello” or count to three. I lagged at least 10 paces behind the rest of the class, trying to catch on in a new language that everyone else already spoke fluently. And we were expected to write essays, which I’d never done in all my years at my Chinatown Chinese classes. I could barely even write a sentence, or dissect the ones I was reciting out loud in class. I had years of catching up to do, but at age 11, I wasn’t willing to work hard at it, when none of my friends had to.

Some of my cousins would have the option of taking Mandarin as their language requirement in high school, but at my school, our only choices were Spanish and French. The former had been part of my school curriculum since the third grade, so I opted to continue it in high school. Conjugating verbs and memorizing vocabulary may have been tedious, but it helped me make sense of the language in a way that I never could with Chinese. It seemed to come to me naturally, and I made sure to maintain A’s for all four years to boost my chances of getting into a prestigious college. I couldn’t get out of my Mandarin classes, although I did manage to weasel my way out during my pressure-cooker junior year and first semester of senior year, when I would be occupied with my APs, SATs and college applications. Between Spanish and Chinese, the one I chose to neglect was Chinese, because my prospective colleges wouldn’t be aware of my progress in a non-curricular class, and thus could care less that I could only read at the level of a first-grader.

In college, I decided to pick up Japanese during my first year, and I’ll admit that knowing some Chinese helped with learning kanji. Then after coming back from Europe after my third year, I started taking French through UCSD’s extension program. I followed up my college graduation by heading to Europe to improve my Spanish and French, where I realized that language learning depends largely on: 1. the desire to learn the language and the effort you put into it and 2. the difficulty of learning it and how close it is to your mother tongue. I never had a desire to master Chinese, especially since the vast majority of my peers didn’t have to, and it was one of the most difficult languages to learn. Spanish and French gave me much less grief because they didn’t require me to tackle a new writing system and their grammars were similar to English. And with all due respect to polyglot Europeans, they stuck with languages that are for the most part closely related to their own, rarely studying even moderately difficult languages like Russian, let alone Arabic or Chinese.

Still, I’ve carried an enormous amount of guilt for having blown off my Chinese language studies. I can’t help but think about all that my parents invested to ensure that I didn’t turn out the way I did. Relatives are often shocked to discover that I can’t read or speak it fluently, despite all my years of instruction in both Cantonese and Mandarin. The idea that I put more effort into learning two other foreign languages doesn’t help matters much either.

Do I wish I’d gone to Hong Kong or China or Taiwan to work on my Cantonese and/or Mandarin instead of to Spain and France? No. I wouldn’t trade my experiences in Europe or my proficiency in Spanish and French for anything. And I’m OK with my level of spoken Cantonese and Mandarin, even if it’s just enough to get by. There are gaps in all of my languages, so I’m not sure that I could say my Spanish is better than my Cantonese. I suppose that after spending a bit more time in Asia, my Cantonese and Mandarin will start to improve.

I realize now that there’s no shame in failing to master written Chinese, at least if you’re an ABC like myself. No one could have realistically learned through the teaching methods used at my first Chinese school, and the only appropriate way for me to learn Mandarin would have been to take a class geared towards beginners, so that I would have had a proper introduction to the language. I’m not sure if Chinese schools have changed much since my day, but the fact that there are immersion schools popping up is a sign that parents and teachers are starting to recognize that the best way to pick up a language is by immersing the students in it. Memorization and regurgitation is definitely not the way to go. I wish I could have attended one of those immersion schools, but there’s no point dwelling on something that never was.

A few years ago, I purchased the Integrated Chinese textbook series that my sister used when she took Mandarin in college. After coming back from Europe, I’d become motivated to work on my Chinese again, and managed to learn a few new words. It’s going to be a while before I can read the books magazines my parents and I purchased in Hong Kong and China. In fact, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read them with as much ease as El Pais or French Marie Claire. Above all, in order to master Chinese, you have to be good at memorization, and I know I’m not good at that. Perhaps if I was willing to devote myself exclusively to learning Chinese for a few years, it might be possible, but I’m not sure I’ve got the patience for that.

Tim Patterson’s post on BNT today got me thinking about the idea of “home.” For about 5 months of last year, and at least a month of the year for several years before that, I was on the road, sleeping on bunk beds in comunal dorm rooms with shared washing facilities with unknown souls, occasionally crashing with friends or relatives, but otherwise seeking out the temporary company of strangers in a similar situation as myself before we’d each go our separate ways.

For the most part, I’ve relished my constant change of environments, rarely staying in the same place for more than 3 nights at a time. Sure, it gets tiring after a while, packing up my rucksack every few days and wearing the same set of clothes for weeks. But the world is a fascinating place, and I’d like to see as much of it as possible before my time on earth is up.

For my entire childhood, Berkeley was the only home I ever knew. My family traveled often, but there was never a doubt that we would return to our house, with our white Jetta sitting in the driveway, to my friends who I’d grown up with, and most of my extended family within an hour’s drive away.

But when I thought about where I’d go for college, I couldn’t see myself attending UC Berkeley, just a 10-minute drive from my house. It just felt… well, too much like home. Some of my relatives thought it was only natural that I would go there, since my parents had, and hey, I could just live at home and save my parents the cost of room and board.

I had other ideas. My first impression of college, which I’d developed when I was in elementary school, was that it was a faraway boarding school for big kids. I’d come to believe that because at the time, my oldest cousin was attending Princeton, far away from her family in Pittsburgh, meaning she had to live at school. My next cousin to go off to college also lived at school, though he went home practically every weekend because his college was only about an hour away from his parents. I’d assumed that I would one day be in a similar situation. Boston sounded like a good place to go to school. Didn’t it seem like everyone was going to school there? A cross-country move seemed daunting, though, and I didn’t end up applying to any schools out of state, though I did check out some college campuses there prior to my senior year of high school. Whenever I imagined myself in college, I’d always seem to get a picture of me in a warm climate with plenty of sunshine and palm trees. After I got my college acceptances and rejections, I settled on UC San Diego, which seemed to fit the bill in almost every way. I was a bit nervous moving 500 miles from home (it was, in fact, the longest distance from home of all the schools to which I’d applied) but relished in the excitement of leaving home for the first time.

I may not have left the state, but I quickly realized that there were divisions between Northern and Southern California that I had not anticipated. Even the boundaries between those two geographic entities were loosely defined. One of the most obvious differences I noticed was that San Diego was conservative-leaning, meaning that in the fall of 2000, I was seeing Bush-Cheney election posters and bumper stickers for the first time. In the run-up to the Iraq war two years later, anti-war propaganda was quickly trashed, and when I left in the spring of 2004, it looked once again as if the county would be leaning right once again. All of this was a shock to my system, coming from ultra-liberal Berkeley.

I couldn’t complain about my digs, though. While friends at Berkeley wailed about their dingy yet expensive apartments, I lived in a newly-developed apartment complex complete with a fitness center, swimming pool, and hot tub. But yet it didn’t feel like home. Though Trader Joe’s was just a few blocks away, it took at least 20 minutes to walk there because the blocks were so massive, and in fact I had to walk over I-5 to get there. Car-less in auto-centric Southern California, public transportation was functional yet patience-testing. And while I met wonderful people and enjoyed my classes and professors, and enjoyed visits to the beach, I felt that my heart had remained in Berkeley.

The summer after my junior year, I made my first foray into city living when I went to London for an academic internship. For the first time, I was living in the center of a major city, with historic sites and big-city life just a subway or bus ride away. My flat was next to the Dutch Embassy, and across the street from Kensington Palace. I could walk to the shops on High Street Kensington, and when there was a subway blackout, a flatmate and I walked all the way from Oxford Circus back to Kensington. Continental Europe – where  I would encounter new laguages and cultures – were just a few hours away by train. Why couldn’t I have grown up here? I wondered. I felt gypped. But as much as I wanted to stay, I missed my friends and family too much. By the end of the summer, I knew it was time to go. The same was true a year later when I returned to Europe, this time to Madrid and Paris, then Eurailing around the continent. I couldn’t get enough of travel, or of Europe, yet I knew it would be impossible to stay. What would I do? I didn’t have EU citizenship, nor a hunk of money I could live off of without working. I wasn’t sure if I could handle another real winter of freezing temperatures (I never knew what seasons were until living in Paris). And while I did have friends there, none of them were as familiar or reliable as those I’d left behind.

I went home to Berkeley, living at my parents’ house, the last place I’d hoped to be after college. I tried applying to publishing jobs in New York, but without success. Some of my childhood friends were still around, which helped with my transition. But I was discouraged. What was I supposed to do now, after 4 years of college, a year of study abroad and travel? With little choice, I wound up taking a series of temporary jobs, which allowed me to save up some money and travel some more. I’ve repeated this routine for the past 4 years. And each year, I’ve returned home. This is how Tim described that place today:

Home is a community. Home is a refuge. Home is wherever our loved ones live.

It’s now been close to 10 years since I first left this place, the familiar environment that in many ways I didn’t get to know or fully appreciate until I returned in 2005. It’s been the one place I can come back to and feel secure, safe, and know that there are people looking out for me. Many of my childhood and high school friends left home for college, but many returned or are planning on returning. I went back to Southern California briefly, this time to Los Angeles, but couldn’t make that move permanent even though I found some things to like. I still entertain the idea of living on the East Coast or overseas again, but in the end, I may find myself back in the Bay in the end.

Because one blog wasn’t enough, I’ve started another: Chocolate and Raspberries (, named for my favorite dessert combination. This one will be dedicated to my interest in food. Please join me as I share my culinary adventures around the Bay and around the world. It should be delicious!

As soon as I return from a long-term trip, that’s what people ask me. And as usual, I’ve known my answer since before I even took off.

Next year, I’m headed for Asia – specifically, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, with (hopefully) a stop in South Korea on the way. This is a trip I’ve had in mind for a few years now. At times, I’ve wondered why I didn’t do it sooner. Why did I take the extra-long route and traipse through over 30 other countries before finally heading to the motherland?

I actually have been to all three of these countries before – twice to China, three times to Hong Kong, and once to Taiwan, though the last was for only about 30 minutes at the airport. But I have yet to visit China or Taiwan on my own terms, without my family, and explore them the way I have countries such as Spain, Italy, and Australia. One of my uncles keeps reminding me of that, and my response has been that there are so many fascinating places in this world that China just has to wait.

Next year marks a couple of milestones for me – it will be 10 years since my last trip to China and 10 years since my last Chinese class. I’ve had a complicated relationship with that country and its language. To me, they’re both like those distant relatives I was never properly introduced to before I was forced to get to know it intimately.

My mom signed me up for Mandarin lessons when I was in 5th grade, after my Taiwanese friend’s mother asked if I wanted to join her class. It wasn’t a beginner’s class, and I didn’t speak or understand a single word of it at the time. Cantonese was my first language, and I’d been going to Cantonese classes since kindergarten, geared toward developing my reading and writing skills, so I guess my mom figured I’d be able to pick things up before long. I did manage to catch on to a certain extent, but I was always 10 paces behind my native-speaker classmates, who had a background in written as well as spoken Chinese that I had never been adequately schooled in at my previous Chinese school or at home. I basically dozed through classes, letting the teacher’s words fly right over my head without acquiring or retaining much from her lectures. Homework was always a major struggle, and even now I can barely write a simple sentence or read a children’s book, let alone the newspaper. Somehow I managed to put up with this routine all the way through the end of high school. As soon as it was time for me to head off to college, I abandoned my Chinese language studies, never to resume them again.

My first trip to mainland China was in 1998. The country was booming by then, well on its way to becoming the next major world superpower. I was looking forward to visiting my ancestral homeland, eager to finally be in a country in which everyone would share my ethnicity, after having been a racial minority my entire life. But after I arrived, I quickly realized that I was not considered to be “one of them” but as much a foreigner as other North Americans or Europeans. And while people back home assumed this would be a trip for me to discover my heritage, I found it to be anything but. The locales we visited on this trip, as well as the subsequent one two years later, were nowhere close to where my ancestors had lived. They didn’t even speak the language my family spoke. Even after a few years of studying Mandarin, it was still as foreign to me as Spanish. We visited sites with a lot of historical and cultural significance, but to me they might as well have been in India or Ukraine.

I wound up in Eleanor Roosevelt College at UCSD, where study abroad was enthusiastically promoted, and my parents initially tried to push me to go to China. But my dream had always been to go to Europe, so they had to resign themselves to the fact that I wasn’t going to embrace motherland travel anytime soon. Besides, if I was to study abroad, I wanted it to be a truly foreign experience, and China just wouldn’t be completely foreign to me. I figured I’d had enough exposure to the language and culture at home that I didn’t need to go abroad to immerse myself in it. And backpacking through Europe – drinking sangria on a night out on the town in Madrid, nibbling on croissants from a Parisian patisserie, and seeing the Colosseum up close – was a rite of passage for a lot of young Americans. I didn’t want to miss out.

So I spent the summer between my third and fourth years of college in London doing an internship. Then, instead of entering the workforce after graduating college, I studied abroad in Madrid and Paris and gained proficiency in two languages in the process. I Eurailed around the continent on weekends, breaks, and for 7 weeks before it was back to reality for me.

Of course, I couldn’t give up the vagabonding life for good. I continued my travels to countries like Thailand, Australia, Hungary, Argentina, and even Hong Kong. China has been on my horizons, but each year I’d hear about yet another amazing country I need to visit right away, pushing it farther down my list. And now, for the first time, I’m feeling more of a pull towards Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei than I do to Rio, Istanbul, or Santorini.

My Mandarin is rusty now, after more than 9 years of neglect. I can still understand basic conversations, but I fear I’ll be tempted to speak Spanish in China because it was the last foreign language I used in my travels. I have felt the guilt of abandoning it, and of not putting more work into it. But in my defense, none of my learning experiences has been ideal. My family has  raised eyebrows at the fact that I showed interest in mastering pretty much every language except Chinese. After all, my younger sister, who had quit her Chinese classes while in high school (prematurely in my parents’ minds) and a cousin who did not grow up speaking or studying Cantonese at all, spent time studying Mandarin in college. I’d entertained the idea of taking a course in Beijing, but it’s still a 12-year-long nightmare that I’d rather not revisit. I still feel obligated to master it, but it might never happen.

My plan is to start in China, working my way from Beijing to Nanjing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, crossing the border to Hong Kong, and ending the trip in Taiwan. I’m hoping to document this in a book, a sort of “Eat Pray Love” in which I’m re-discovering the motherland and two countries to which it has historic links. It’ll be a timely subject, since China is a country that will be on the international radar for years to come, and so many people still fairly ignorant about it, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan. Hopefully, I’ll be able to convince a publisher that it needs to be in print. Otherwise, I’ll just print out copies for anyone who’s interested.

So I had started this blog over the summer but obviously didn’t get around to writing my first post until today. In the meantime I spent a few months traveling across the United States, checking in on friends and relatives I had neglected to visit over the years and re-discovering the diversity of  landscape, cities, and people of this country. I wouldn’t have predicted at the beginning of this year that I be traveling to places like Minnesota and Wisconsin, but I found those visits to be about as enjoyable as any I’d had in Italy or Malaysia.

Then about a week and a half after I came home, I suffered a little bike accident that sent me to the ER and left me unable to eat properly for at least a week. I’m slowly recovering, but it’s going to be a lengthy (and expensive) process.

Which brings me to this past weekend. I attended the wedding of a second cousin, the latest in a series of family weddings over the past few years. I’ve watched as my cousins have gone to college, graduated, launched careers, buy houses, and get married. Society would expect me to have done the same, or at least be on my way to doing so. But it’s now been over 5 years since I finished school, and a steady career is nowhere in sight, and neither are marriage or homebuying prospects. I’ve put them on hold to pursue international travel, which should have come years after the getting married and buying a house part (presumably I would have had kids somewhere in there as well, just as a couple of my cousins have already done).

My parents had a hard time accepting this for a while, but have since made peace with and now support it, and have helped me out when they need to, even if I probably don’t deserve it. They’ve allowed me to live at home rent-free, drive their cars, eat their food, and are helping me out with the hefty medical bills that will be coming my way. I’ve always taken all of this for granted. I’m definitely more grateful for it now.

So back to the rest of my family. I’ve had some relatives express their disapproval over me for the last five years about my lifestyle, about how I should be working a prestigious job by now and not think about having fun anymore. “Look at ____,” they’ll say, “she’s your age and teaching school and bought a house already. You need to take a cue from her.”

I have wondered about that. I had actually considered giving up my travel habit and staying at my last job because it seemed that I had happened upon an opportunity that I didn’t think of as a throwaway gig. Maybe finally I’d settle into that 9-to-5, 52 weeks a year routine that everyone else seems to have.

Ultimately, I gave it up so I could go to South America.  I’d dreamed about doing that trip for years and had spent a good chunk of my downtime at work staring at photos of Buenos Aires and Valparaiso. But what if I had stayed at that job? Would I be any happier or more secure? I realized that my position wouldn’t have been made permanent for at least another year and a half, meaning I’d be working for a measley pay rate that probably still wouldn’t allow me to get my own place or move in with a friend. And I’d still be incredibly envious of those with the freedom to travel months at a time, while I was stuck behind a desk for most of the year, having to settle for traveling vicariously through them. I could only wonder what Chilean ceviche tasted like, admire Colorado’s landscape from photos, and wait for my always faraway cousins to visit me.

So was it worth giving up that job to eat fish, ice cream, and cupcakes, hike some mountains, admire some lakes, and explore some of the greatest cities in the world? Well it definitely beats transferring phone calls, ordering supplies and cleaning the breakroom. And I can check a few more places off my list. Was it worth flying over the handlebar of my bike and smashing my face into the ground for? Probably not so much, but that could have happened even if I was still working.

That’s my take on it. Of course, not everyone can travel like I do. As Christine Garvin once wrote on Brave New Traveler, we need people like my cousins in the world who work and raise their children. I’m glad that Brandon, Chris, Allie, and Katie (my little nephews and nieces) exist and that their parents and aunts and uncles are contributing their skills to society. Everyone moves at their own pace in life, and hopefully we’ll all end up where we need to be.