hello, June

Where did the month go?

I was cleared by the doctor today, after last month’s medical adventures, but it still feels like that all just happened yesterday. In Spain.

Today, I’m sitting in Pittsfield, MA, home of King Kone, although the weather is definitely not cold enough for ice cream this week. It was blazing when we arrived, but in the space of 5 days we’ve gone from A/C to heat. Welcome to the Berkshires.

Within a few months, we’ll be settled down with our two dogs, in a hopefully somewhat permanent residence. It will feel nice to know that I won’t have to pack up and move in a few months. Life has been so nomadic for the past two years. In a way, I’ve come to love the changes and challenges that come with this. It’s hard to be disappointed with a place when you know in less than six months, you’ll be living somewhere else. But I miss having roots and a community and a sense of belonging.

I still hope that even as he gets older, we’ll continue to travel with Cam. I don’t know how to balance a stable home and job with the thrill I get from discovering new place – but I’m sure we’ll find a way.

In Dubrovnik, Croatia

Waiting to miscarry

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It’s a strange position to be in, to fervently wish for a miscarriage.

The evening before leaving for a 7 day Mediterranean cruise, I had a hunch. I peed on the stick and sure enough, two little lines showed up. “Honey,” I called into the bedroom, “bad news about all the wine we bought for the cruise…”

He was ecstatic. I was overjoyed. It was like the movies, where the woman freaks out at the pee stick and the guy gives her a bear hug and a big, sweet kiss. Little C was just turning 18 months, and it seemed the perfect time for him to get a sibling. All vacation we were giggly and happy. I started browsing maternity clothes online and thinking of baby names. I knew it was way too early but couldn’t help blurting out the news to a couple of people. If people asked when we were thinking of having another baby, I started to grin maniacally. I wanted to shriek, “9 months! In 9 months! Wheeeee!!!”

We estimated I was about 6 weeks along, though I’ve never kept track of my periods, so I couldn’t be sure. M actually came with me to the first appointment, having missed most of C’s due to work. I was so excited that he’d be with me when we got to see the little tadpole for the first time. I must have asked 10x while the doctor was going through my medical history, making sure we would do an ultrasound that day. “Yes, yes” he said, although he added that he couldn’t date the embryo– he’d have to make another appointment for the radiologist to do that.

We were all staring intently at the screen when the doctor found the gestational sac. And…. that was it. No embryo. No yolk sac. Not even a shadow. A black, empty hole where everything should be.

In Spanish they call it “huevo vacio” – empty egg. In English it’s known as a blighted ovum or an anembroyonic pregnancy. An egg was fertilized and implanted, and the amniotic sac began to develop, but for some reason the embroyo did not. Because there’s a gestational sac and the beginning of a placenta, the body still reacts as if it’s pregnant – producing the same hormones and symptoms as a genuine pregnancy.

The doctor said it was still possible that the embryo was simply too small to see. He moved my ultrasound appointment up to the next day. But a day’s wait changed nothing, and the radiologist simply confirmed his diagnosis. Back at the doctor to discuss my options, M started asking what would happen if I didn’t miscarry naturally, seeing as how I was scheduled to fly back to the U.S. in less than 2 weeks.

The doctor started outlining my options. Follow up ultrasound in a week, elective surgery or misoprostol immediately after. My brain went numb after that. I simply couldn’t process going from pregnant to not so quickly. What if there was a mistake? Maybe they just didn’t see it. There must be an embryo there. I felt pregnant.

I convinced myself that I had simply misread the calendar. They would definitely find an embryo next time.

Tick tock tick tock…

The appointment dawned. The reality began to set in. My radiologist this time spoke English. She told me, gently, that she saw this in perhaps 25% of pregnancies. That, given the size of the sac, it wasn’t possible for the zygote to simply be too small to see – there ought to be something visible. This all fit with what I’d read online. I’d also asked the doctor to test my hCG. It was back at non-pregnant levels – if I took the pregnancy test now, it wouldn’t even register. (The spike in hCG due to pregnancy is pretty amazing – check out this chart here).

The doctor wrote me a prescription for misoprostol. I took it, my lab results, and my ultrasound print out in hand, and sat in the waiting room studying them while M made another follow up appointment. I fervently wanted to miscarry naturally, but I wasn’t getting much choice about the matter. In another situation, where I would be covered by health insurance for the upcoming month, perhaps. But, looking over the test results in my hand, I stared at the black hole in my uterus and accepted it for what it was. A chromosomal abnormality. A moment of hope and joy quickly crushed and dissipated. A body that wouldn’t accept in time that there was no embryo within the 7 week gestational sac.

I went home and I took the pills.

Magic Meteorites

I’ve written a couple of posts about my friend G’s short but bittersweet visit, during which our cultural clashes made me feel so very American.

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My friend G was like a mouse in our apartment. She was always timid and seemingly unsure of herself, and I don’t know if that’s because these characteristics are encouraged in Chinese girls or that’s seen as politeness in China or something else entirely. She would knock before entering any room – not just the bathroom or our bedroom, but even the kitchen if I was making coffee. She seemed to need incessant guidance and responded to many things that I considered normal with complete disbelief, such as when I told her that childbirth classes were considered the norm in many countries. She couldn’t understand why anyone would need to learn how to give birth – even though I had done it and she hadn’t. Her naiveté was sometimes striking.

Among the many “huh?” moments of G’s visit were several where she was suddenly sure of herself regarding a topic, but one which usually baffled me & Matt. One evening we got onto the topic of health and longevity, and she started talking about the place in the world where people live the longest. “Oh yeah,” we responded, “It’s in Japan, right?” She looked shocked. “No,” she responded, “It’s in China!”

M looked unsure. He glanced at me. We weren’t longevity experts for sure, but pretty much everything we’d heard of or read pointed to Japan as the place people live the longest. All the fish, soybeans, and rice, or something. But G kept going, totally sure of her topic now. “It’s because of a rock that fell from the sky,” she insisted. “What!?!??!” M exclaimed, “A meteorite???” I kicked him under the table. Whatever was going on, I was sure, was probably a product of some sort of Chinese propaganda, and M’s very American insistence on research and facts was going to get him nowhere.

Apparently, according to G, a meteorite that landed somewhere in China gave off some sort of vibes that were making everyone who lived there live longer than anywhere else in the world. She insisted that a study had been done, and M, ever the tactful skeptic, asked if it was done by Western scientists. At this point, I gave him a good thump on the ankle and his questioning ceased. I began to clear the table and that ended the discussion.

After a bit of internet research, I found this report on a village in China called Gulong, where the villagers “rarely get sick so it is known as a longevity village.” It was the site of a meteor impact about 50,000 years ago which, apparently, causes the water and earth to be oily and flammable. A Chinese scientist confirmed the existence of the meteor, though there’s nothing about the meteor causing the villagers to live longer. To Western ears, the claim sounds completely outlandish and irrational, but it was one that G was willing to accept without question and defend with complete sureness. The mind boggles.

One of the things that irks me the most about Western vs. Eastern culture is this:

In the East, it’s perfectly acceptable if not downright expected to base decisions and beliefs on spirituality and tradition. For instance, my uncle always consults the tao before making a business decision. Questioning something based on spirituality is unheard of, especially looking for a basis in science.

In the West, we rely more on science and logic, but there’s this curious fascination with Eastern spirituality. If something comes from China, especially if it’s herbal, it must work! The Eastern world has a magic link to nature, and going there will make you some kind of zen warrior.

Neither belief is totally wrong or right. There must be a balance between the two – a healthy dose of spirituality grounded by a basis in science and fact.

Here’s the balanced, tasty, and healthy meal that I served that evening:

Fish tacos with Pico de Gallo, Mexican rice, and sour cream sauce

Make Pico de Gallo. I really have nothing to add to this recipe – it’s the best, and a crowd pleaser. Everyone loves it, except weirdos those who don’t like raw tomatoes. Just kidding, I love you guys!

Start your Mexican rice. Sauté half an onion, chopped, in some olive oil. Add a quarter cup of tomato sauce or a couple spoons of tomato paste.  Add 4 cups of broth of your choice and 2 cups of uncooked long grain rice. Bring it all to a boil, then turn the heat down to low and cover the pot. You may have to crack the cover if the rice starts steaming too vigorously. Cook for 15 minutes, then remove from the heat and let sit for another 5 minutes. Don’t touch it while it’s sitting! After 5 minutes, give the rice a stir and add salt to taste and lots of cumin. You can also stir in corn, chopped tomatoes, or peas at this point.

While the rice is cooking, take a few boneless, skinless, fillets of white fish – one per person is a good number, with an extra thrown in for good measure. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and cumin. Broil in the tray or pan of your choice until done – usually 5 minutes or so. Set aside.

Stir together a can of tomatillo sauce with sour cream for the sour cream sauce.

Flake up the fish with a pair of tongs or a couple of forks. Serve with warm tortillas, sour cream sauce, rice, pico de gallo, jalapenos and hot sauce for self assembly at the table. Enjoy!

Photo credit: SuperFantastic, Flickr

round and round (the world) she goes

My parents weren’t the world’s most adventurous travelers, or the best prepared, or the most unflappable. Most of our trips started off with a crazy, chaotic rush out of the house, probably forgetting a few things, yelling, stress, followed by icy silence in the car for several hours. Still, this never stopped us from traveling throughout my childhood and adolescent years.

Mom came to the U.S. while pregnant to join her husband, a student at Utah State University, of all places, and so I was born in a tiny town in the middle of Utah – a most bizarre place for a first generation Taiwanese to be born. They had no misgivings about packing me up and going cross country and there are photos of me in places that I never remember visiting, from Chicago to Washington D.C. We ended up in upstate New York for a time, but by the time I was 3 we moved to Pennsylvania, where we settled for the remainder of my childhood.

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Me, 9 months pregnant in Barcelona.

I think that’s part of the reason I didn’t hesitate much when I was also faced with the prospect of giving birth in a foreign country with a student husband. I knew it was doable, and my mom’s horror stories, perversely, just made me want to do it even more. It’s funny that I didn’t get turned off by my parents’ approach to travel, which generally consisted of a lot of last minute panic, poor preparation, arguments, and getting lost. This is how they approached everything from a day trip to Lancaster County to trips back overseas to Taiwan.

My mom had a way of just packing me up in the car and disappearing for a while when she was fed up with things. I was never quite sure what was going on, though looking back now of course, I realize a lot of my tendencies to run away from confrontations and problems come from her. Once, she even flew me back to Taiwan with her, leaving my father to explain to my school what I was doing there for a month in the middle of third grade.

I remember that trip as a grand experience – bouncing from relative to relative, walking barefoot among rice paddies, eating lychees and sugar cane, helping at my uncle’s cake topping factory (made in Taiwan!). I even attended a local school, which was an eye-opening experience. Every morning, before class began, students would wash down the school, mopping floors and washing windows. Everyone learned to take pride in their classroom and school. Lunch was nutritious, light, but filling, usually a clear broth served with rice, vegetables, and roasted water chestnuts for dessert. Ice pops could be bought during recess but it was a rare treat for most kids. And corporal punishment was the norm for things as innocuous as answering a question incorrectly.

During this whole trip, my mother left me with relatives, and to this day I don’t know where she was or what she was doing. I might never know, although lately we’ve become a little better about opening up about the past.

As an adult, and now a mother, I try to travel more to discover than to escape. If you travel to escape, your problems are all still there when you return. If you travel to discover, you have a much better chance of alleviating your problems, either by finding ways to fix them, or realizing that they really are quite manageable. I try to travel with less stress, less fear of the unknown, and less disagreement, though old habits can be hard to break. Still, as with most things, with practice comes improvement, and travel is one thing I sure love to practice.

Post inspired by the BootsnAll Indie Travel Blog Challenge Prompt #18 

moon beams and moon dreams

When I was a kid, I wanted so badly to be an astronaut. I’d go outside with my red-tinted flashlight and sky chart, picking out constellations. I was that annoying smarty-pants in science class who called out all the answers to the teacher’s questions: supernova! comet! moon! orion! Even through high school, when my astronaut aspirations had faded into the reality of my good but not stellar academic achievements, I spent a summer lying on the roof with a friend, watching shooting stars.

This video just got to my heart in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. Of course funding NASA isn’t going to fix our education issues, and my steadfast hope is that private companies take over space exploration, making it cheaper and more accessible to the average Joe (and Jane). But there’s something to be said for the national pride engendered by NASA. It’s sad that by the time they ended the space program, shuttle launches had become ho-hum, even though the technology behind them never got any simpler. It should be inspiring – and humbling – that we went to the moon on less computational power than is in most cell phones (or pocket calculators, for that matter). I feel in many ways we’ve lost a lot of our national pride, and going to war did nothing to bring it back. What is going to be America’s next inspiration? What will drive the next generation to excel and believe, in the way only Americans can, that anything truly is possible?

I used to tease Matt for wanting to be president. It seemed like such a big dream for such a small town kid. But today, I realized that Elizabeth Banks – the blockbuster Hunger Games actress – comes from his small town. Going through IMDB, he personally knew many of the actors, producers, and artists from his town. He told me they even had an astronaut. No wonder he thought being president was a totally feasible goal.

These days, C has become totally fascinated with the moon. He noticed that you can see it in the daytime sky, especially lately, when it’s been incredibly large and visible even in the height of day. He’ll point to it non-stop and ask to see it at night. He can tell you that it’s in the sky, and tell you that we have to go out the door to see it. Door! Door! Momma, Moon!

What will I tell C when he gets older about his moon dreams?

Barcelona Visitor’s Guide Part 1: Gaudi & Montjuic

Lots of people ask for advice on what to do in Barcelona, which is a difficult question to answer when the city offers so much. After living here (especially with a baby), I tend to gravitate toward non-tourist attractions, which might be disappointing to a visitor coming from overseas with limited time on their hands.

I’ve decided to break this visitor’s guide down into the better known tourist attractions, then recommend interesting things to do around those attractions. I’ll offer the pros, cons, and highlights of each item (in my opinion) to help people make the most of their time here.

I start with two of the most popular attractions: Gaudi, Catalonia’s famous architect, & Montjuic, a hill overlooking the city on one side and the sea on the other.

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1) The work of Antonio Gaudi

One of the main attractions in Barcelona is the work of Gaudi, a Catalan architect best known for his flowy, drippy, mosaic work accented with twisted ornamental flourishes. Although his architecture can be found all over town, the most popular destinations for viewing it are Parc Guell and the Sagrada Familia.

If you came here to see Gaudi, then you really need to go see Gaudi in those two locations. But if architecture isn’t your biggest interest, I’d say you’re okay skipping the visit. I took one friend to Parc Guell who was way more interested in visiting the beach and having tapas than trekking around a crowded park looking at weird columns. That being said, the stuff in Parc Guell is really pretty cool, even to non-architecture buffs. If you’ve got an extra day, go take a look, especially since admission to the park is free. You’ll also have great views of Barcelona out to the Mediterranean from the park, which is located up a steep hill. Be sure to wear your walking shoes. If you go to the Sagrada Familia, splurge and do the audio tour with commentary – it’s worth it, according to those I’ve talked to. To avoid lines (and the line is long), tickets can be purchased online beforehand.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found much of interest near either Parc Guell or the Sagrada Familia. For something closer to the main tourist areas, or if you just want to view Gaudi’s work in passing, stroll down the Passeig de Gracia (note that this is a different road from the Travessera de Gracia). Here you’ll find Gaudi’s famed building, the Casa Mila, as well as expensive shops, other interesting buildings, and museums. I like to wander down this street for people watching, and there are often fun, free exhibitions. The last one I visited was on El Bulli through the years.

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2) Montjuic

There are so many things to see and do on Montjuic, a cliff jutting into the sea on the non-beachy end of Barcelona. The cool thing is, you can fit quite a few of them into one day because there is a bus line that conveniently loops up and down the mountain. The 193 will take you right from Plaza Espanya to the Castell de Montjuic and back down. You can also choose to take the cable car up or down, though the bus is the more inexpensive option (and the views from the cable car not worth the ticket price in my opinion).

One of the first stops on the way up is at Poble Espanyol, a recreation of a small Spanish village, with traditional architecture and arts. Here you’ll find an open air museum showcasing traditional ceramics, jewelry, engraving and weaving. A few times a year there are traditional Catalan food festivals, such as calcots (roasted spring onions) in the spring, and a pork festival after Lent. Be aware that admission will run you E9.50, so this attraction may not be quite so attractive to you.

After looping around a few times, the bus will stop by the Olympic Stadium, site of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. What’s pretty amazing is that the stadium was actually built in 1929 but stood unused for decades because of the Spanish Civil War. I really love the area around the stadium, which has some beautiful fountains and parks, from which you can see great views over Barcelona. You can pretty much stop at any point and take a lovely walk through a garden which could have anything from cultivated cacti to sculptures in it.

On the summit side of Montjuic, the bus will stop at the Castell de Montjuic, which was built in the 1600s. It’s an honest to goodness castle, with a moat and everything. It’s pretty amazing to stroll around the fortress, checking out the turrets and old cannons. There’s a small café on the top, with drinks, snacks and souvenirs. On the ocean side, you can see the bustling port of Barcelona, teeming with cruise ships and cargo ships.

At the bottom of the mountain, there is a gorgeous palace – the Palau Nacional, home to the National Art Museum of Catalonia. I’ve never been inside, but the outside is just stunning and I hear it’s a nice exhibition. In front of the Palau is the famous Magic Fountain of Montjuic, which performs with lights, music, and water in summer evenings. During the day, it won’t be on, and it isn’t very exciting when it isn’t on.

Another thing I like to do in this area is visit Caixa Forum, a free art exhibition housed in a beautiful building. It isn’t out of the way, and it isn’t very large, so it’s easy to just pop in for a quick visit.

Also in this area is the Arenas, a mall which just opened in 2011. You might wonder what’s so exciting about a mall. Well, I’ll tell ya. This mall was built over/in an old bullfighting arena. You can still see the façade, and from the inside, some of the brickwork. The roof of the arena is a large, circular promenade, from which you have gorgeous, panoramic views of the city. It also has an assortment of really nice looking restaurants, with open air bars. It’s a lovely place to have a pre-dinner cocktail or afternoon snack.

Stay tuned for the next chapter, where I’ll talk about the beach, La Rambla, and general tips for getting around!

Career wise

In a previous post, I mentioned a houseguest of mine, G, whose stay taught me a lot about deeply ingrained differences I have with my mother culture. Although G is my age and was raised much the same way I was, her reaction to her upbringing, and indeed, her entire approach to life, is much different than mine because of where we were raised.

I realized this while we were watching Cam watch Sesame Street videos, ubiquitous in the United States. The songs teach numbers and letters, to be sure, but they also teach individualism, creativity, positive thinking and so many other things that are, literally, totally foreign to G. The idea that you would encourage a child to think for himself and possibly even question his parents and direction in life is not one that ever seems to enter her mind.

G and I were both pushed by our parents into specific careers, but that is where the similarities end. While I, like many first generation Asian Americans, resent this pressure and blame all sort of psychological ills on it, she is fully accepting of her fate. She isn’t morosely resigned to it, either- rather, she seems to recognize that her parents chose a career for her based on what they felt would be best for her, and that even though she hates it, they were doing what was right for her. And so, she will continue down that path. There’s no resentment, no anger, and even the idea that you should be angry is perplexing to her. She hates her career, but she still loves and respects her parents, even though they were the ones who chose it for her.

M told me that in one of his management classes, they had a guest speaker – a director at a major luxury hotel brand. Each employee at the hotel is given a certain stipend which they are directed to use for the good of hotel guests. For example, a bellhop can use his stipend to send a piece of luggage accidentally left behind by a guest. The hotel found it incredibly hard to implement this policy when they opened in China. The people they hired were simply incapable of making decisions on their own and continually asked their managers for permission before each act.

For this particular meal, G had wanted to help, so I asked her to make the salad dressing. I am not a very good manager, and any other task would have required too much supervision and direction for me to handle!

Steamed mussels with fries & aioli

De-beard and scrub 500g (about 1 lb) of mussels into a bowl. Let them sit with cold  running water for 30 min to an hour, until they have disgorged their grit. In a pot, heat olive oil and add half an onion and 2-3 stalks of celery, chopped. When the onion is translucent (2-3 minutes), pour in half a cup or so of wine (I like lots of broth with my mussels) and a handful of cherry tomatoes, halved. Add a pinch of thyme, some salt, pepper, and the cleaned mussels. Steam until mussels have opened and the meat within is firm, usually less than 10 minutes.

Make fries, however you like to make them. Make some aioli – I honestly prefer a few cloves of roasted garlic blended with premade mayo to the aioli I make from scratch. Serve with a salad and lots of crusty bread to dip in the broth.

Simple Salad Dressing 

Blend olive oil and vinegar in a 2 to 1 ratio. Add salt, pepper, basil and oregano to taste.

How to Fatten a Visitor

I had a friend stay with me last week, G, a girl I met in New York who was a Chinese graduate student. We hit it off and I invited her to stay with us in Barcelona while she traveled after graduating.

Having her here taught me a lot, in just a few days, about the deep cultural differences between China and the western world. Many of the things I’d often identified as issues with my mother turned out to be issues between our cultures, and I found that I was often frustrated with G in many of the same ways I was frustrated with my mother.

To make things even more confusing, I found myself reacting to G in many of the same ways my mother acts. I’ve had more experience living on my own, doing things on my own, and well, being a mother, so in many ways, I “mothered” G. This included, of course, feeding her as much and as often as possible… something my mother does to a preposterous extent.

One evening, as we were washing up from dinner, G joked that I was going to make her so fat, her mother wouldn’t recognize her. That brought me back to college, and I told her about how my mother had said to me, upon my arrival after freshman year, “Ah, you so fat!”, a statement which is somewhat horrifying to American ears. G asked how I had responded, and I incredulously replied, “I was mad, of course!” She said, “At least you could have the American response.” Now I was really surprised. What other response was there? What would she have said? She thought for a few minutes. “I would have say, ‘I’m sorry, mom, I’ll lose weight.’”

Just take a moment to let that sink in.

I’m sorry, mom, I’ll lose weight.

I’m going to do a series of posts on what I made for G during her visit. How, despite our cultural differences, and my aggravation with them, I tried to show her that I cared in a language which is truly universal. Cooking for someone. Caring for them. Being a mother, who doesn’t care how fat you might turn out from really enjoying some good cooking.

Spinach and caramelized onion pizza

Blanch, steam, or otherwise cook about 500g, about 1 lb, of spinach, washed. Chop roughly. Mix with a cup of farmer cheese – ricotta, any sort of bland, crumbly cheese will do – salt, and pepper. Spread an uncooked pizza crust – your favorite recipe, or store bought will do – with olive oil. Top the crust with the spinach mixture. This is a hefty pizza, though, so those paper thin delicate crusts probably won’t work so well.

Chop 2 onions into strips no more than 2 cm (1 inch) in length. Caramelize, over slow heat, with olive oil, a dab of butter, salt, and thyme. Spread the cooked onions over the pizza and top it all with a little more cheese – farmer’s cheese, or mozzarella if you want.

Bake until cheese is melty and crust is brown.

Serve with a green salad.

Photo from libertygrace0, Flickr

a day of happiness

Good morning! Mornings are cuddle time. Me, mom, and Mr. Tiger.

We’ll share some warm cornbread crumbled into milk. Delicious!

After breakfast, it’s time to get some chores done.

Then we get the day’s groceries. My secret? Norwegian salmon. 5E a kilo, can you beat it? We’ve got half a salmon in the freezer now.

After lunch and a nap, it’s off to the park…

…. or maybe the beach….

I like the beach.

Maybe we’ll get a coffee…

… and some tapas…

… or one of Tanja’s cakes. Plum cheesecake on a sunny patio! The best.

I’ll ride my bike…

… and you ride yours…

The perfect ending to another great day.

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