A sentimental journey through the Americas

The holiday more than a year in the planning finally became a reality. The main inspiration for it was a family reunion with an Auntie and uncles who lived in different parts of the province Ontario in Canada, the siblings of my mother who had passed away on 2 January 1994 in Gold Coast, Australia. Dad, my two sisters and I decided to make a holiday of it as well, visiting New York, Montreal and Vancouver on the same trip. To make an even bigger holiday of it, I decided to also go to Colombia before meeting up with Dad and sisters in New York, thereby fulfilling a promise to visit Natalia in her hometown of Bogota. I had never visited South America before and was excited to do so.

Perhaps it is with age, weariness, my burned-out already anxious state due to a harrowing phase of work, that reading the Australian Government’s travel advisory for Colombia a few days before flying there, racked up my anxiety and kept me alert to personal safety. But it was a beautiful trip with time spent catching up with old classmates, sampling food mysterious to my palate and custom, shopping (I had been looking for accessory rings and delighted to find gold and emerald ones in Cartagena), visiting the wonderful Botero art museum, Gold Museum, National Museum and incredible cathedral carved out of a salt mine, and a weekend in tropical climate Cartagena with Luz and Natalia. It was a time of recuperation as well as I managed to catch up on sleep, recover from jet lag and adapt to the high altitude of Bogota, which helped prepare for the intense frenzy that New York would inevitably deliver.

I was so excited to be in New York with my Dad and sisters, an extreme concentration of attractive sights, sounds and tastes – the scope of which could only be skimmed across at speed in the four days that we had. I loved getting to the top of the Rockefeller to see the sunset, walking through Central Park, visiting the MoMA, seeing Matilda on Broadway, and eating at Russ and Daughters and the pastrami sandwich and salmon bagel from Katz’s Deli after we happened to stumble upon the famed eatery. Dad repeatedly expressed horror at the prices and 15% tipping and kept urging us to eat a bowl of noodles in Chinatown instead, which we actually did on three occasions – though splurging about USD250 on a steak meal. It was exhausting due to the mileage we covered by foot each day, even more so for Dad, Fi and Tam as they were suffering from jetlag, but exhilarating nonetheless. At the end of our entire trip, when reflecting on our favourite city, I was surprised to hear Dad say it was New York (it was for me too, but Montreal for Tam).

Then onto Toronto and London in Ontario, where the pace of life dramatically slowed down. The week we spent with Uncle Thomas, Auntie Ann, Uncle Chong and Uncle Kit, and their families was pretty special. After not having seen each other for about three decades, and actually only meeting Uncles Thomas and Chong for the first time, it felt like rediscovering long lost relatives. I guess that is what it was. I loved hearing their stories about mum, how she was brave, adventurous (travelling to Australia from Hong Kong as a single woman with her friends, in the 1970s) and a high-achiever (she didn’t want to stay as a factory worker and went to night school to learn Japanese in order to change jobs and travel). And we found out more about the story of mum’s descendants and siblings, how our great-grandfather had first travelled to Canada to work to send money back to his family in Hong Kong. He opened a laundromat in Ontario, and later in life travelled back to Hong Kong where he passed away peacefully while resting in a park. Auntie said he wasn’t able to adapt again to the heat. Our uncles and aunties said they had often wondered over the years how we had turned out after mum passed away, and were glad to see us doing well in life and so happy together. Dad and us three sisters were also happy just to be together as it happens so rarely, once every 1 or 2 years. It was unusually warm for that time of year in Ontario, and so we managed to catch the final days of Autumn where the leaves had changed their colours but only started to fall from the trees. We saw Niagara Falls, did factory outlet shopping, got spoilt with home-cooked banquets and re-discovered the joy of playing Chinese marbles together with just-met cousins.

While Dad moved on to Windsor to spend some time with friends, the three of us girls took the train to Montreal, where it was colder but nonetheless beautiful. We didn’t like the smoked meat at Reuben’s nor so much the famous bagels from St Viateur and Fairmont (not a fan of the sweet tinge that comes from the honey infusion), but the coffee at the Humble Lion (we search for good coffee everywhere we go), poutine at the Arts Café (near the Laurier metro station) and lunch at Olive + Gourmand were really great. And despite the road construction being done throughout many parts of the city, and the closure of many of the exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, walking around the city was still a marvellous delight. I have also never seen Sylvia that impressed with anything as when we were in the Basilica de Notre Dame, the interior of which is truly stunning. If we could ever attend a musical event at that cathedral, given the amazing organ featuring over 7000 pipes, she reckons we definitely should.

The last leg of the trip before heading home was a 5.5 hour flight from Montreal to Vancouver, which I thought necessary to visit Elizabeth and experience the widely-complimented city. Indeed the food (Dad said the dim sum at Neptune Seafood in Richmond was the best he had, and Tam doubted the dumplings at restaurants recommended on the official Dumpling Trail could be much better) and coffee (loved the flat white at Greenhorn Espresso) culture is impressive. And it is for sure a beautiful city, framed by mountains and sea, but the extent of homelessness was a surprise and walking down East Hastings Street, where several people who are sleeping rough, do sex work, or use drugs congregate, was a shocking and surreal experience. That it was sandwiched between the apparent prosperity on display in Gastown and to a lesser extent, Chinatown, added to the confusion. It was disorienting also because Vancouver is often placed amongst the world’s top-ranked cities for having the highest standards of living. It brought up questions about policy and poverty that I will need to look more into.

A constant theme throughout this trip was the US presidential election, given the timing. I am glad we visited New York before the outcome and in Canada by the time the results were announced. But the most important themes were family, love and God’s grace. Life could turn out in so many different ways and it is because at crucial moments we each were able to accept and forgive one another, and to choose love, that we can be grateful and appreciate so much the time together. God is good.

14 November 2016

 

 

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A twilight summer in Europe

I heard recently that the Eiffel Tower, Paris, is the most visited tourist landmark in the worDSC07484ld. Many people complain about rude people and dirty streets in perhaps the most romanticised city on earth – including me – and I’ve even had some of the most awful meals I have ever had in Paris, such as a soggy crepe with canned champignons, bad coffee, and overcooked meals drenched in a heavy cream-based sauce. I once read about Japanese tourists suffering from Paris syndrome after their fantasies about Paris were completely dashed after visiting it for the first time, who then became consular cases and had to be sent home early. This year I read about Chinese tourists suffering similar trauma. So when my little sister decided to travel to Europe for her first proper foray into the continent, I was anxious that she not suffer such depths of disappointment.

DSC07596But thank God, again my anxieties fooled me and i was proven silly for worrying. September must be the best time to holiday in Europe, a fact that seems to be entrenched by so many other friends (although all were Australian, funnily enough) choosing to travel there in the same month. The weather was perfect–not too hot, not too cold. Dragan, Sofia, Tam and I drove around South Spain, stopped over in Barcelona and Madrid, and everywhere the cities and landmarks were not overwhelmed with tourists, and the locals seemed to have returned from their holidays relaxed and joyous, celebrating days that were still sunny and warm–yes, even inDSC07654 Paris!

On arrival in Paris, the night welcomed me with a giant full moon as i waited to meet up with Kitty and Tam, and as we later stumbled upon a jolly-looking bistro which offered great steak and frites on Rue Rambuteau. Still didn’t manage to find good coffee in Paris, despite the best efforts of an Aussie hipster friend who took us to a hipster cafe near the Louvre. But Paris’ delights lie in wandering around the beautiful streets, amongst the intimate embrace of its old buildings, museums, and quaint shops such as the famed Shakespeare bookstore.

In Spain I remember the tender octopus tapas and dark vermouth aged in a barrel in a delightful bar in DSC07647Barcelona, all sorts of tapas, fresh oyster and cava at my favourite food market next to the town square in Madrid, good paella in Nerja (and an awful one in Seville), and the best coffee I remember having in Europe at the Coffee Shop and Lab in Barcelona which was all the more savored for having stumbled across it in the charming Passage Sert. Another delightful find were local, hand-sewn vegan shoes at the Maians shop nestled in the maze of alleyways in El Born, Barcelona, where I also loved making a pit stop of coffee, empanada and sweet biscuit at the El Born cafe, as recommended by the Luxe Guide, after visitng the wonderful Picasso museum. One of my favourite moments was ordering ‘dos cafe e dos bikinis’ – we discovered that a ‘bikini’ is a ham and cheese toastie in Barcelona – at a little cafe down the road from the Sagrada Familia, just far enough from the tourist hordes and just hungry enough to make it a moment to be seriously grateful for. We made an effort to at least be able to exchange basic pleasantries in the local language wherever we went and I think perhaps that made for more charming experiences with locals whether in Spain or Paris.

Madrid I adored for its relaxed, kind people and stately, minimalist elegance of the city. Living there has now become a little fantasy. For now, holding out until September each year to visit Europe can satisfy.

Change is a constant

Change is a constant in life. It is especially ingrained in my family, where moving to a new city or country every few years has become the norm. I’m surprised, and glad, that we lived on the Gold Coast and in Canberra, Australia, for as long as we did–though the former happened largely because my mum passed away in 1994, I think. I crave change, about every 3 years I feel as if it is time to uproot and leave whatever place I have made home. But God has taught me to question that instinct and to live a life led by His purpose. As a result 3 years on, I am still in Bangkok.

Bangkok itself is a city of constant change, much like other big cities such as London, Sydney and New York, where people tend to arrive and stay for a period with little intention to settle and build a life. Change can be exciting but as I’ve been reminded multiple times this year, naturally not all change can be good.DSC07175

I didn’t like it when a beloved friend and flatmate, Holly, left to return to her home in the U.S. but I numbed it because I want so much to see her happy, fulfilled and knowing that she is exactly where God wants her to be. It seemed selfish to allow any sadness to shadow the desire to see a loved one better off.

IMG-20140521-00460But when Tiger disappeared in October, there was no objection to that selfishness because none of us could know if he was in fact better off. He was a special one that I loved so dearly, and while I feel anguished that we didn’t say goodbye, there is probably no nice way of saying it that might make it hurt less. So in the end, perhaps the best comfort can be drawn from thinking that he left with the intention of dying in peaceful solitude.

The last few months has come with other bad news, a major one being Elizabeth forced back into immigration detention, not allowed to be released on bail, and recently moved to a centre 2-3 hours away from Bangkok where it would be difficult for us to visit.

The Lord is sovereign and He gives and takes away as He pleases. And He promises that His plans are to prosper us and that He loves us and wants us to reconcile with and live in Him. I don’t want to avoid facing and feeling whatever happens but I do want to surrender my hold on what I believe is best and right and trust that He knows better. His ways and thoughts are higher than mine, and I trust that seasons of pain will end and new seasons will bring renewed joy.

Change is constant but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8) Thank God for that.

P.S. One of the wonderful new changes that happened this year was Tammy’s first trip to Europe as an adult, including this trip to the beach in south of Spain:

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What it means to win

DSC06306I went back to Australia, the country I was born and grew up in, over the past month and I was reminded of things long past. That’s to be expected I suppose, when you reunite with people who have known you for most of your life. I’m sentimental and nostalgic, but possess a poor memory, so when I’m home I’m prone to being taken back to things that happened a long time ago, that had so much significance at a point in time. It’s funny how we remember certain details but not others. On this last trip, I remembered being in a dark phase during my teenage years after my mum fell ill and passed away. I lost my anchor and flailed, turning to success in school and controlling my body weight for security instead. I stressed and tried so hard to get the best grades I could, and to win tennis tournaments and debating competitions. I was never satisfied whatever the result and it wasn’t a happy time. After one debating final where my team did win, I was so exhausted from the stress of performing and anxiety of not winning that I just felt empty. DSC07380It was late at night when I returned home, to find my father and little sister waiting for me, wanting to know how it went. They were glad my team had won but now when I think about it, I think they had just wanted to see if I was ok. I don’t think they cared much whether I had won that debating final or not. I’m close to tears when I think about that incident because it reveals to me how much my family love me, yet I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

A few years later I made the decision to follow Jesus Christ and to understand what Christ dying for me means for my life. That was almost 2 decades ago and little by little Jesus has been showing me what winning really means. It is freedom–freedom from stress, anxieties and being deceived into thinking that coming first in any competition could bring true joy and make life worth living. It is the freedom that Jesus exchanged for His death on the cross.

DSC06285Without a doubt, I am so amazed that God has blessed me with so many earthly pleasures. He gave me the job and lifestyle of my dreams, beyond what I even asked for, and He made Australia my home country–a place that still makes me ache from the beauties of its natural environment, the awesomeness of its food, and the honesty and kindness of its people.

I get ecstatic about being home, even though i inevitably find something to complain about it, I indulge in all the pleasures it has to offer and i have to remind myself that I need to remember to live a life worth living in God’s eyes. And for now I’ve understood that to mean loving others, being forgiving, kind, generous and patient with others. Because I think living a life of love, loving and being loved, is the only way of winning.

P.S. Another thing I love about going back to Aus is hanging out with our lone surviving super-cuddly cat with fat paws, Miffy, who put on considerable weight during Dad’s visit. Like the rest of our family, he just loves good food.

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What it means to win

DSC06306I went back to Australia, the country I was born and grew up in, over the past month and I was reminded of things long past. That’s to be expected I suppose, when you reunite with people who have known you for most of your life. I’m sentimental and nostalgic, but possess a poor memory, so when I’m home I’m prone to being taken back to things that happened a long time ago, that had so much significance at a point in time. It’s funny how we remember certain details but not others.

On this last trip, I remembered being in a dark phase during my teenage years after my mum fell ill and passed away. I lost my anchor and flailed, turning to success in school and controlling my body weight for security instead. I stressed and tried so hard to get the best grades I could, and to win tennis tournaments and debating competitions. I was never satisfied whatever the result and it wasn’t a happy time. After one debating final where my team did win, I was so exhausted from the stress of performing and anxiety of not winning that I just felt empty. DSC07380It was late at night when I returned home, to find my father and little sister waiting for me, wanting to know how it went. They were glad my team had won but now when I think about it, I think they had just wanted to see if I was ok. I don’t think they cared much whether I had won that debating final or not. I’m close to tears when I think about that incident because it reveals to me how much my family love me, but I just didn’t appreciate it at the time.

A few years later I made the decision to follow Jesus Christ and to understand what Christ dying for me means for my life. That was almost 2 decades ago and little by little Jesus has been showing me what winning really means. It is freedom–freedom from stress, anxieties and being deceived into thinking that coming first in any competition could bring about true joy and make life worth living. It is the freedom that Jesus exchanged for His death on the cross.

DSC06285Without a doubt, I am often amazed that God has blessed me with so many earthly pleasures. He gave me the job and lifestyle of my dreams, beyond what I even asked for, helped me to achieve multiple degrees, qualifications, prizes, and He made Australia my home country–a place that still makes me ache from the beauties of its natural environment, the awesomeness of its food, and the honesty and kindness of its people…just mentioning some highlights.

 

I get ecstatic about being home, even though i inevitably find something to complain about, and I indulge in all the pleasures it has to offer. To the extent that I have to remind myself of what I need to be truly satisfied and what it means to live a life worth living. For now I understand that to mean loving others, being forgiving, kind, generous and patient with others. Because I think living a life of love, loving and being loved, has been the only way I have won so far. 

P.S. Another thing I love about going back to Aus is hanging out with our lone surviving super-cuddly cat with fat paws, Miffy, who put on considerable weight during Dad’s visit. Like the rest of our family, he just loves good food.

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Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Matthew 5:4

Uncle Pun, my father’s youngest and only surviving brother, passed away in April, and many members of the Lai family from various parts of China along with my sister from Singapore and myself gathered in Hong Kong for his funeral. I remember my uncle’s kindness and strong commitment to upholding respect for family traditions. I had never met our grandparents on my father’s side, and my father being a lot younger than his nine brothers and having moved to Australia, I never really got the chance to know my other uncles except for Uncle Pun. My father didn’t seem to enjoy talking about his family history much, so when I grew older and more interested in our family’s story, I enjoyed listening to Uncle Pun talk about childhood stories. I found out for example that he and Uncle Geenwah worked as engineers in a machinery factory, not as construction workers as I felt my father had led me to believe.

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At the funeral, I met family members that I had never known, among whom were others who also liked to share about our grandparent’s era. Trying to find out basic facts, such as when my father was born, has been a case of Chinese whispers. My dad thought he was 67 this year, based on the assertions of certain family members, but then our Shunde cousin insisted that Dad was born in 1944, making him 70! Our cousin and other relatives talked about how our grandmother was beautiful and a lot younger than our grandfather when they became married. She bore 7 sons while the first wife bore 3 sons, and an uncertain number of girls as it was common to give away girls at that time. I heard a lot of tales about the different uncles–many of them had died of lung cancer or kidney disease, partly because of smoking, hard labour and poor nutrition. I guess my father, having migrated to Australia (becoming a citizen when the Labor government granted an amnesty for all illegal residents in the 1970s) and eventually starting businesses in hospitality, real estate, education and seafood, might have had a less taxing life though he had his burdens to bear too.

I wanted to document the details of our family history, to know the kind of man our grandfather was, our grandmother, how the ten brothers grew up and spread out to different parts of China, and how my father grew up, as the adopted son of my grandmother’s friend in Hong Kong. Their lives amaze me, the upheaval occuring with the Cultural Revolution as backdrop, the choices made to travel and set up new lives in different parts of China, in Thailand, in the UK and in Australia. It seems like a tough life, yet maybe it’s fair to say that that is the life lived by me and my sisters now too.

We have many cousins, and I loved spending time with the ones my sister and I are closer to, where we got a sense of the Lai family’s expectations of us, especially in taking care of our father, now the most senior elder in the family. So it was a time of mourning, and a time of taking stock of family relationships and preserving the past for the future.

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This is my family, my blessings.

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Moments worth trying to keep

 London: on the way to workLike some friends I’ve chatted with lately, I’ve been getting this feeling that life is happening too fast. Too rapid to catch up with, as if it’s on fast forward and we don’t feel we can savor and appreciate all the moments that should be properly acknowledged, remembered. Maybe it’s having reached a certain stage (age?) in life, or just having experienced enough to know that a deep sense of gratitude is called for in being so extraordinarily blessed. Realising that comes through in glimpses of a day, like walking out of the Old Street tube station in London to face a brilliantly clear, sunny day (I know it’s stereotypical to talk about the weather in the UK, but not if everyone does it!).

Hampstead Health stroll

Like seeing the sun set when strolling through Hampstead Heath in London, at a rooftop bar opposite the Temple of Dawn in Bangkok, and while crossing a bridge in Vienna to experience my first sunset after an intense week of work. and afterwards jogging through a part of the grand old quarter that I had never been to, then going for dinner at a lovely place (named Finkh, in a groovy part of town) with colleagues I deeply admire and respect.

Bangkok sunset - Temple of Dawn with Dragan and SofiaVienna Sunset

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chiangmai hipster coffeeLike having Sofia suddenly decide to come to Thailand, and join Dragan and I for travels up to the north in Pai and Chiangmai then back to Bangkok through Ayutthaya to see the ruins. The hot water springs, walking through a canyon, train rides, eating experiences (Dragan’s first taste then smell of durian, and stuffing ourselves with fried noodles out of a plastic bag – leftovers from our cooking class before heading for the airport), and hipster moments in cool cafes and restaurants. I don’t want to forget.

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Like going for a morning run through Regents Park in London with Kitty, then stopping at Gail’s to pick up a carrot cake for breakfast (!) and a beautiful lentil, beetroot & goat cheese salad to sustain the train ride to Paris.

And Paris, well, it’s a cliche for that city to make life’s memorable moments. A group of beautiful souls gathered, rode bikes along and across the Seine, ate galettes at the Breizh cafe after an extremely agonising wait where I surprised myself by not exploding in hangry frustration, lapsed in vegetarianism for a bowl of beef pho at Pho 24 near Place D’Italie, was accidentally hypnotised in the world of Diptyque on Boulevard St Germain (getting a travel perfume set of the ‘L’ombre dans l’eau’, made from Bulgarian roses (!!!)), got swept up in a temple of chocolate at Alain Ducasse’s store in le Marais, and one of my absolute favourites: absorbed the Henri Cartier-Bresson photography exhibition at the Centre Pompidou – i love the geometry, humanity and historical momentousness of his pictures.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

These are moments I don’t want to escape my memory. I don’t want to forget how incredible they felt.

And above all moments worth trying to keep is the realisation of how Jesus loves me, died for me, saves me. It is Easter, after all.

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:16-19