Today, I woke up with a can-do attitude

Although I only peeled myself out of my bed shortly after 10 am (after an hour of meandering through the Internet and getting lost through clickbait articles and sudden inspiration from Cheryl Strayed and oddly enough, the zola twitter story), I suddenly thought: what if.

I ate my breakfast—a bowl of fluffy scrambled eggs, thyme pear & potato hash—that I made yesterday. I prepared a mug of tea, leaves from Boba guys, chocolate honey from a family farm in Marin, and Kirkland lactose-free milk. I read the first issue of Peeps—a story of Chinese “losers”, a population that the mainland Chinese government believe is dragging down the economy. Then I reorganized my scarfs, jackets, and two drawers. I put away my clean laundry and cleared my desk. I put on my power music mix, the kind that I hope will blend into the background. Then I think now that I sit down, I will get many things done.

At least, that’s how my days start where I think that I can do many things.

Conversation with my neighbor

Background: I had been in Brazil, and my roommate notified me that the landlord left a rent increase notice. But there was no way I could handle it effectively from afar. And the moment I touched in the United States, I started research. When I was in LAX during a layover, I texted my downstairs neighbor to investigate. Did he get an increase too? Or was the landlord just targeting me?

Then the following conversation ensued…while I was delirious from lack of sleep on a red-eye 11-hour flight from Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Me: And it’s too bad that our landlord is increasing the rent
Him: He told me if I made out with him he wouldn’t raise my rent
Me: What??
Him: He said I’m the best kisser in the house though
Me: That sounds like sexual abuse. If you report it, you might get free rent for the rest of your life

I haven’t had a regular conversation with my downstairs neighbor yet. Beyond mild morning greetings when we pass each other through the front gate.

What is it to not know?

I have always been satisfied that if I stick my hand out, I know what it will be. I know the texture, the temperature, the weight. I am satisfied with the known. The unknown that remains is okay.

But what if it is all unknown? What if when I stick my hand out, I don’t know what will land there? That I won’t know if it’s heavy or light. Or rough or smooth? Or hot or cool?

To not know the touch and the needed adjustments to anticipate.

That is a strange process for me. I usually have known. Doubt never crossed my mind. But there are rare moments when I don’t know, but it’s the most exciting thing ever.

I dreamed of being uncomfortably anxious

It’s not just uncomfortable. It’s also the awareness that the anxiety was irrational and unneeded.

But I felt the deep pit in my stomach anyway. I felt its dark grip—not ever overwhelming, always manageable—on my body, spreading and taking hold of all actions I wanted to take. Like a spider seeping its venom and paralyzing all the nerves that controlled muscles. I could see and hear, but inside, I felt trapped.

In my dream, like many real-life situations, I was in a public space. Surrounded by people I wanted to impress. And whatever the event was, an opportunity suddenly open for my input. Was it make a valid suggestion? Was it to ask a question? I don’t remember.

What I do remember is the dark spider paralyzing those muscles to stand up and speak. A bright light wanted to say something, to shout and release the ideas. But it was trapped. And in my body, to appease the dark spider, I soothed the dark spider by telling myself that it wasn’t important anyway. And the bright light grew softer and softer. Until it was dimmed into nothingness, leaving a small piece of regret behind.

Where are you from?

In Brazil, unlike many places, people were satisfied with my answer to where are you from?

I say “Americana” if I want to establish that I speak English fluently and am unsure whether the speaker even understands English. I say “San Francisco” if the speaker speaks English fluently to differentiate myself from other English speakers and to suggest my interests (food), world perspective (progressive in the sense of San Francisco), and professional background (techy).

It was one of the few countries where I wasn’t questioned about my origin. Where limited by their fluency in our “common” language—be it sparse words in English or gestures, they wanted to ask “where are you really from?” Sometimes, I would play dumb and insist that I was American or San Franciscan. But from time to time, I do say, “my parents grew up in Hong Kong” to appease people’s interests. And no, I don’t speak Japanese.

Because of that, I felt at ease in Brazil. While in Sao Paulo, during a lunch break from the conference, I wandered on my own (probably to the fear of fellow attendees who have been educated that SP is a very dangerous place) to local malls. Within minutes, I found myself ushered up escalators to sprawling food courts. English potatoes, the Brazilian style of Japanese food, the grill bbq, the sandwiches, the hamburguesas, the American fast food, the everything. As I walked, there were Asians. They had the ABC look. The kind that wasn’t quite fobby—their manner of walking and speaking was very Western, or perhaps, here clearly South American. Expressive, emotion, nothing held back. But I knew that staring at them, they were at their core, very Brazilian as they chatted with coworkers in fluent Portuguese. Most likely gossiping about work, about their colleagues, about the usual things that I would on a lunch break. I really blended in. And even too, throughout my trip, Brazilians asked me for directions, for confirmation (is this the right line?) and the usual things you would ask strangers. I would always have to answer hesitantly with my poor command of Portuguese: falo ingles

But only twice. And although it seems quite racist, two dark-skinned Brazilians came up to me on two separate occasions and said something. Almost leering at me making me grasp my belongings closer to my chest. The first time I had to ask him repeatedly what he said until I picked up the word that seemed to mean Japanese. The second time the tour guide had to explain that I didn’t speak Japanese and was not Japanese. “Why would he ask that?” I said annoyed.

“Because there’s many Japanese in Brazil,” she said and shrugged.

I wish people would stop and wonder first.

Brazil Accounting

Taxis: 4
Taxi called by 99 taxis, the uber of Brazil: 1
Planes (including layovers): 11
Subway: ~8
Buses: 22
Tour buses: 3
Airport buses: 2
Failed attempts to take airport buses: 2
Failed attempts to take subway: 1
Cable Cars: 2
Train up a mountain: 1
Rental car: 4 days
Walking: Moderate in comparison to trips in Italy, Turkey, and New York
Boats: 5
Boats under crushing waterfalls: 2
Passenger ferries: 2
Kayak: 1
Bikes (that were so-so quality): 4

Living Quarters
Hotel: 2
Airbnb: 3
Airbnb that turned out to be a hostel: 1
Pousada: 1
Locations with loud music: 1
Location that lacked AC: 1
Locations with ceiling fan: 3
Locations without breakfast: 1

Beaches (touching the sand and dipping into the water): 5
Average hours of sleep per day: 5
Times Chris and I were separated for more than an hour: 4
Bitten by mosquitos and the insane black fly: 30+
Expensive meal of $100+ USD per person: 1
Meals less than $10 USD per person: Many
Time tricked into buying something unnecessary: 1

Being Cantonese

I never thought about my ethnicity that much until I visited Vancouver as an adult a few years ago.

My parents are from Hong Kong. That is, at least, my mom was born and raised there. My dad, like many Chinese at the time, arrived in Hong Kong as a child, fleeing the Cultural Revolution with his family. He has faint memories of mainland China, barely recognizable for concrete real memories. Whatever the case, the language came with them to the United States and growing up, that was the dialect I knew.

It is language of the local chinatown—in Oakland and in San Francisco. But the big difference was to all the people we encountered there was that after we finished the grocery shopping, the dim summing, and hob nobbing…we returned to suburbia. There was barely any Cantonese classmates at my school and granted, it was mostly Caucasian. But the few Chinese classmates, they were from Taiwan. Rich, elaborate and we spoke English of course.

The few that were Cantonese were the ones that made some deal to attend the schools in my area. Whether it was to use a local address to qualify for education even though their house was miles away in a lower income neighborhood. Or that their parents still worked in blue collar jobs unlike the professional jobs of engineer and nurse that my parents worked.

But the differences in my own subtle privilege never came to light until I was in Vancouver. I had always referred to the city as Hong Kong 2. Visiting at the age of 10 and 20 with my family, the city was so annoyingly Asian. It felt like Hong Kong and I didn’t want to be there, being dragged from Chinese restaurants to Chinese restaurants to Chinese relatives to Chinese relatives. But when I returned at the age of 30, it was different. I was around people who were yes Cantonese, and from Hong Kong, but they were highly educated and embedded well in society. They were not stuck in blue collar jobs, forever hoping that someone will break through the barrier. They already had broken that barrier.

Educated people beget educated people.


I learned that I unconsciously seek people like myself. If I don’t find any, I feel awful and cannot explain why. And I don’t mean just people who look like me, but people of similar background. It explains why when in Berlin, I was stuck with a very uncomfortable otherness that I couldn’t even articulate until I set foot on US soil. That nearly all minorities, even Chinese, were behind service encounters asking me in German, Did I want one or two?

The oddest pseudo-compliment

In the usual Jenn-like way of resolving conflict, we took a walk outside. We went up the hills, around the blocks, and back around the underpass. Walking much like driving is one of the few activities where two people can be “together”, but not necessarily require eye contact.

I knew this, because she wasn’t comfortable with eye contact. But I liked her innocent, childlike nature. The kind that was giddy and excited. I could see our male colleagues swoon whenever they work with her—her cuteness robbing their hearts.

I wasn’t jealous of that per se. Rather all I wanted was her friendship. At first, it was gossip about work. But it quickly became crushes and non-crushes, dislikes, likes. We imed each other constantly, our words piercing our laptops through gchats, illustrating vivid stories and our mundane lives. I thought we could be really close friends.

And then one day, it wasn’t. I still don’t remember the exact cause. Was it when I balked at a piece of advice and took it to mean that she thought of me less? Was it when I took photos of her on my phone, she immediately shied away? Or perhaps my recommendations appeared like demands rather than a concerned friend? We were angry and we were essentially stomping across the concrete sidewalk.

“Why?” I demanded. “Why this? Why are you so hard to reach?”

I felt my insides crumbling. It felt too painful to fix and yet there we were. I pushed her to answer, unsatisfied with the silence. She said finally, “I don’t like that you make me think so much. It makes me too aware of myself. I learn things about myself that I don’t want to know. It’s uncomfortable.”

Things I learned in Brazil

I have returned from a few weeks in Brazil, and the few things that have stayed with me are the food (from bad to good), the Portuguese (tudo bem?!), the culture, and the bug bites.

Floating outside Rio's Botanical Gardens

Floating outside Rio’s Botanical Gardens

The trip, of course, reawakened the desire to live abroad. To travel…but then again…

And so here are the things I learned:

  • Acai bowls served in Brazil are nothing like the healthy ones served in the states
  • Acai berries are perishable, so Brazilians get acai frozen just like in America
  • Sucos or juices are everywhere. I love the naturally made ones or ones made from fresh fruit. Why need they be so expensive here?
  • Abacaxi e hortela (pineapple and mint) is my favorite new combination.
  • Del valle is the Minute Maid (possibly even the same company) processed juice of Brazil
  • Kuat!, guarana-flavored soda, is a flavor that you will never anywhere except Brazil (obviously owned by an American company)
  • When I travel abroad, I always miss American-style bathrooms of toilets that flush toilet paper and high-pressure, hot showers
  • Also, when I travel abroad, I miss central AC
  • Bug bites are the biggest souvenir that I brought back
  • Breakfast in Brazil is often eaten at home and rarely eaten in restaurants
  • Sao Paulo has one of the largest populations of Japanese outside Japan
  • Sao Paulo is multi-ethnic, and I frequently see Brazilian Asians who don’t speak a word of English or an Asian Language. They only know Portuguese.
  • Don’t think about manslamming here in Brazil. It doesn’t end well.
  • Be wary of little kids.
  • If you know Spanish, you may be able to get by pretty well in Brazil
  • Sao is a version of “San”. In Brazil, San Francisco is known as Sao Francisco
  • Iguazu falls has more than 200 individual falls
  • The current exchange rate between the American dollar to the Brazilian reai (1:4) instead of the former 1:2 made everything seem cheaper than it actually is
  • Do not buy fruits from mercado municipal in Sao Paulo. The prices are exorbitant even if the fruit is incredibly tasty. I paid $6 USD for one dragonfruit!
  • Never turn down a mortadella sandwich
  • I have no arm strength of kayaking over 9 km
  • Brasilia is an interesting city, but touring it takes only 2 hours
  • A city of the future built in the sixties (aka Brasilia) means that it believed the future was all about car transportation, not pedestrian movement
  • Walking is nearly impossible in Brasilia. I say that now, but it’s so very true
  • Bike rental in Brazil equals poorly maintained bikes
  • Rio locals will always question why you want to visit the favelas
  • The favelas are not as bad as portrayed in media and by the locals, especially when you have a guide
  • Favelas do not have homeless people, because why would they ever live there if nobody can give them anything?
  • Favelas are always located next to the richest neighborhoods, showcasing class disparity
  • People who live in favelas work hard (according to our guide) and never ask for anything
  • If you live in the favela and need something fixed, a directory does not exist. Rather, you just ask someone who knows someone.
  • All wiring, plumbing, construction are done by people inside the favelas and never by someone outside the favelas
  • The gang that controls Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio, is considered a “peaceful” gang. They provide marijuana for the Rocinha residents and cocaine for non-favela dwellers. Rocinha dwellers that get involved with cocaine are severely punished. A generous trade? Perhaps.
  • Pao de Azucar (Sugarloaf) mountain was named such because it sounded like the Inca word for the mountain. Plus the mountain looked like a loaf of sugar when the Portuguese arrived
  • Skin color matters in Brazil. I still wonder what being Asian meant, although the Asians I spotted tended to be like that in American — highly educated, upper class
  • Foursquare is the best for finding highly rated locations when traveling. Don’t use Yelp! It’s never well-used abroad
  • Getting a prepaid refillable SIM card in Brazil is quite cheap. As long as you can figure out the Portuguese. You don’t even need a CPF (the social security number version of Brazil).
  • Buses in most Brazilian cities run frequently and don’t run according to schedule. On the weekends, they sip by bus stops very quickly. Sometimes if Google says that the bus will take one hour, it may be 30 minutes, because very few people ride the buses
  • As expected, Hostels are super social, but they are impossible to sleep in.
  • Just because the architecture is whimsical and beautiful does not mean that you can sleep well in it
  • 2014 Guidebooks are out of date, especially with the listed prices, because Brazil is experiencing issues in the economy
  • Being Asian meant that everyone treated me like a Brazilian. I didn’t feel like a stranger in a strange land.
  • Staying with a host that doesn’t speak English was super delightful as I forced myself to learn Portuguese and use our translator app to converse
  • Brazilians love to rock out at night. Sleep is not an option
  • Like a pre-programmed robot, music will make Chris dance
  • Drivers will not turn on headlights at night to save battery. How annoying and unsafe!
  • Aggressive driving is the only way to stay safe
  • Driving cautiously means potential of rear endings
  • Lanes are narrower in Brazil
  • Brazilians love to cut people off. In fact, it’s not rude. It’s just normal.
  • French cars are popular in Brazil
  • Any America-originated conference held abroad is always the best and international
  • I love ethnography so much and would do it more if its results could be more effective
  • When thinking about a ship, it doesn’t have be a ship that floats on water. What about a rocketship? A jaegar? What about a submarine? Let’s think outside the box here.
  • Ice cream, just as I have learned the last few years, gets people’s attention. Immediately.
  • It is possible to eat too much (see: my experience at an all-you-can-eat Churrascaria in Rio).
  • Estamos en greve means “we are on strike”
  • Striking often means hanging out in front of the business, drinking and playing chess, unlike the method of protest in the states
  • Always say yes. Even though you’re not sure why you’re saying yes.