My Experience with Geisha Culture in Kyoto

I talk about getting dressed up as an apprentice geisha in Kyoto’s Gion District

It’s no secret that Kyoto is arguably well known (if not most well known) for being something of a geisha capital in Japan. Kyoto and geiko, at this point, seem to be inseparable; even ads for the city railways in Kyoto use geisha in them. In Japanese culture, geisha (literally, “arts person” in Japanese) are professional hostesses and entertainers, well-versed in manners, culture, and etiquette to make their customers relaxed at parties and events—unfortunately, Western misconceptions perpetuated with popular culture like the book and movie Memoirs of a Geisha have placed a different image on what geisha do and their role in Japanese culture. As a result, I have to wonder about my experience dressing up as a maiko (apprentice geisha) in Gion District, Kyoto.

Note: Geiko is another name for geisha that refers to a geisha in Kyoto (source); since I’m in Kyoto, I will be using geiko and geisha interchangeably. A maiko is an apprentice geisha that ascends the ranks for over five years before she becomes a geiko; there are distinct differences in appearance at each stage of being a maiko/geiko that are thoroughly explained in this article.

I am fully aware that I was not dressed as an authentic maiko (e.g., my collar was not right for being the level of maiko I was otherwise dressed as), and I realize that this is most likely by design. Because there are still working maiko and geiko, the companies that allow for these costume experiences have to be careful not to tarnish the real maiko and geiko‘s reputations, lest they risk getting shut down by the authorities (source). As a result, there were a significant amount of rules that I had to follow when I was in the full maiko regalia, like no eating (they never eat while working—likely also because they didn’t want to soil the kimono), no drinking (likely so as not to soil the kimono—also, I remember from watching a documentary on geisha that they don’t drink unless they’re offered drinks), and no smoking.

For this experience, I chose Kyoto MAICA for the price and the good reviews I saw online. They are nestled in a side street a short walk away from Keihan Railway’s Gion-Shijo station. They have different plans for photos and style options, starting at ¥6,500 (roughly US$65). They also have plans for guys to dress up as samurai! (For the record, this is not an ad for MAICA; this is just my experience.) I booked a reservation the day before, and I would highly recommend doing so, even if it’s not mandatory. One thing they told me to do was bring makeup remover, because you cannot leave the place with the makeup still on, and I did not see any makeup remover for guests to use (though I’m sure they had some in case people genuinely forgot to bring it). They asked for no photos during the process of hair, makeup, and dressing (in fact, they asked me to lock up my phone), so I only have photos of the finished result—sorry, y’all.

After I chose my photo plan, they asked me to select a kimono; I chose a rose pink kimono with a gradient to a soft golden taupe with flower detail, because I was nervous about wearing a more intricate pattern. They then showed me to a room with coin lockers for my clothes and bag, and asked me to put on a juban (the base layer of a kimono) and tabi socks before going into makeup. They then gave me a full face of makeup, including the white base makeup on my shoulders that left the nape of my neck bare (the nape of the neck is apparently an erogenous zone in Japanese culture, from what I remembered in my research), and then they put me into the kimono.

I imagined that wearing a kimono was likely an experience from what I saw on the Internet, but when they asked me if I needed the ladies’ before I got dressed, I then realized, “things are about to get real.” The maiko‘s obi is worn higher than a typical obi to mimic a more girlish figure, so it’s naturally going to constrict your ribs a bit (while I could breathe normally, I couldn’t help but think of Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean throughout this process), and a kimono‘s usual hemline trails behind you so that was something I had to be careful with (when we went outside, the ladies tied it up as you can see in the photos so the hem didn’t get wet). After the kimono was on, they asked me what kind of wig I wanted. Because my hair is auburn and short (even though I’m growing out my pixie), I went for a full wig, but they do offer partial wigs, depending on your plan.

After the workers made sure everything was perfect, we went downstairs to do the photo shoot. The professional photos you get with your plan are done indoors in a small studio area with screens and props like fans, a traditional tea ceremony display, and a parasol. My plan included going outside to take photos; it was raining that day, so we weren’t able to get a ton of photos outside, but I was still satisfied with the ones we got.

I ended up getting two professional photographs printed as well as tons of photos on my phone that came out really well. When we were done with photos, I was asked to wash off the makeup before I got back into my street clothes (one of the ladies working there helped me clean the makeup off my shoulders). They also had a room where the guests could reapply their usual makeup before they left, which I personally thought was a nice touch.

Final thoughts

If you want to dress up like a maiko or geiko and get good photos done, then this is perfect for you. That said, while I have no regrets about this experience, I do kind of wish that there was a more educational version of this for Japanese culture enthusiasts, or people who want to learn more about the maiko and geiko besides dressing like them. Because the maiko and geiko are renowned for their privacy and discretion, I’m not sure if “Life As A Geiko 101″ would be able to happen, but for Asian Studies majors like me, and other people who want to know more about their extensive training, etc., the makeup and costume are a good place to start, but might not be enough. As for me, I was worried that dressing like a maiko without learning more about their life was straddling the line between “culture enthusiast” and “stereotypical tourist”, especially in this day and age with our growing awareness of cultural appropriation. I will admit, though, that when I was in the kimono, I felt very feminine and graceful (minus my trepidation about the high-platformed shoes, especially with the state of my knees); with my research of Japanese culture, particularly that of the geiko and maiko, I hope to take with me their refined grace, poise, and appreciation of art and culture.

Tomorrow, I’m heading back to Tokyo for a few more days, so let me know what you want to read more of in the comments! Until next time, またね!

Themed Restaurants in Tokyo: A Food Diary

Eat ALL the food!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are my own.

One of the things I love the most about going to Disney back in Florida is how they execute a theme from the moment you approach the ride to the moment you leave, and maybe that’s why I love the themed eateries in Japan so much. American themed restaurants seem to have a reputation for being famously mediocre if not cheesy, with the food, the decor, the entertainment/service, or a combination of all three. I have not seen that to be the case in Japan, at least in my experience. I wanted to write about my experience eating the food in Tokyo. (This will also include some special first-time foods for me, like conveyor belt sushi!)

One thing that you have to take into account, though, is that some eateries in Japan require the customers to order at least one food item and one drink, some charge a service fee (the ones I went to charged about JP¥500, or US$5), and some restrict the eating time to two hours. One drink, one entree, and a dessert or appetizer cost me ¥4,000 (about US$40), give or take a couple hundred yen, at each themed restaurant I went to, so this was a treat for me. I had seen video reviews of these restaurants by Emma from Tokidoki Traveller (Alice in Fantasy Book and Vampire Cafe) so I knew I wanted to go here; if you’re on a tighter budget, I would highly recommend doing your research and going to the one you like the most (for instance, if you’re like me and are not a huge seafood fan, the Ninja Restaurant in Akasaka might not be for you, as cool as the presentation and décor appear).

Shirohige’s Cream Puff Shop/Tolo Café and Bakery, Setagaya

As a Studio Ghibli fan since I was six years old, this was a dream come true for me. This one doesn’t have as stylized of a theme as the other themed restaurants I visited (e.g., servers did not wear costumes), but there were Totoro plushies and references to Studio Ghibli EVERYWHERE, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that it’s nicknamed the “Totoro Café”.

Okay, so technically, the cream puff shop (apparently run by the sister-in-law of Hayao Miyazaki) is on the first floor while the bakery and cafe are upstairs and run by a different group, but nevertheless, the cafe serves the cream puffs too.

From Shinjuku Station, I took the Metro to Setagaya-Daita on the Odakyu line, and it was a relatively straightforward walk from the station to the cream puff shop. At the end of the road, there’s a little Totoro on top of a nearby building that says “Well come [sic]” so you know you’ve wandered into Studio Ghibli territory.

One thing I didn’t realize is that the Totoro cream puffs have cute decorations depending on what flavor they are. Since I ordered the strawberry cream, my Totoro came with a little cherry blossom on his head. The result was the first food that has made me feel like a heartless monster to eat, since it was just too precious!

The shop also sells little cookies in the shape of natural patterns like mini Totoro, leaves, mushrooms, and acorns! I got a box of assorted cookies for just over ¥1000, you can also get cream puffs to go for ¥400 (according to the Tolo Café menu). I ended up spending just over ¥2000 total (about ¥1000 for a cream puff and a coffee, and just over ¥1000 for the cookies). If you can’t get to the Studio Ghibli museum (which I couldn’t; all the tickets for the entire month were sold out), this will likely be a great substitute. My childhood was so happy here, and when the lady at the counter (who I’m 70% confident was the aforementioned sister-in-law, but I didn’t bother her since the store was pretty busy) handed me the cookies, it almost felt like I was being handed the bundle of nuts and seeds Totoro gave Satsuki and Mei in the movie.

While we’re on the subject of Studio Ghibli: as I mentioned before in my article about Kiki’s Delivery Service (you can find the article here), I’ve been looking for a Jiji mug. I FINALLY FOUND ONE at a Donguri (Studio Ghibli merchandise) store in Skytree Solamachi! As I picked up the mug, I kid you not, my favorite song from Hayao Miyazaki’s movies (the end theme from Castle in the Sky, in case you’re interested) started playing over the loudspeaker. I saw that as a sign to buy it, along with a phone charm with the Laputa crystal from Castle in the Sky. They had a lot of merchandise for Studio Ponoc’s new movie Mary and the Witch’s Flower, as well as Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, but not that much for the other Studio Ghibli movies like Howl’s Moving Castle (my favorite after Kiki), which kinda stunk but I’m not complaining!

Alice in Fantasy Book, Shinjuku

One of my favorite Disney movies is Alice in Wonderland, particularly the Tim Burton version; lucky for me, Alice in Wonderland is apparently really popular here in Japan, so visiting this restaurant seemed to be a no-brainer. This is in the T-Wing building of Shinjuku, and this was an experience. I did not have a reservation (if anyone from Alice in Fantasy Book is reading this, I’m sorry!), so they went over the rules about the service fee and one food and one drink before asking me to sit and wait for Alice (I think now’s a good time to explain, as far as the guests are concerned, all the servers are apparently named “Alice”) before showing me to my table.

When my waitress told me I had to call “Alice” loudly if I needed her, that kind of threw me off; I personally hate yelling, even if they expect it, and I kind of wish that they had a different system for people that don’t like yelling, or are nonverbal. I was thinking of something like the Vampire Café’s bell or like the “Run Forrest Run” license plates at Bubba Gump Shrimp, but with card suits or the white rose and the red rose—Diamond Dining (the company that owns both the Alice in Fantasy Book restaurant and the Vampire Café) is making good use of their imagination in executing the Alice in Wonderland theme so far, so I have full confidence they can come up with a good alternative to “go ask Alice” (yes, reference to the song intended). I kind of cheated and called for her at a normal volume when she was done introducing herself to a group that was seated nearby.

Needless to say, these restaurants are geared towards people who come in large groups, possibly for special occasions (quite a few groups were celebrating birthdays). Alice ushered me to a small table that would have been hidden to people who were walking in. (A similar instance happened in the Vampire Café, so it wasn’t an isolated incident.) I had a nice view but it did feel like I was being somewhat partitioned off from the other guests. I’m not sure if this was a foreigner thing, an eating by myself thing, or a this-is-the-only-table-that’s-suitable-for-one-person thing, but I didn’t mind; I imagine this is something I as a solo traveler have to get used to.

In terms of what I ordered, I ordered the Beef and Guinness pie with broccoli, carrots, and beef, the fries with cheese sauce (served in a teacup because why on earth not), and a seasonal (non-alcoholic) strawberry drink that gave me a Cheshire smile. I was also served a standard (if I remember correctly, it was complimentary, at least in this place) appetizer: a cracker with a heart shape in it and a cup of what I believe was a corn-based hot drink (this was obviously a reference to the “drink me” potion and the “eat me” cake). After I paid for my food, I was given a packet of strawberry tea as a sort of party favor; I guess it was to keep the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party theme going all the way to the end.

Final verdict: the food was pretty good, presentation was off the chart, but I could have done without the Disney songs being played (maybe cute instrumentals instead would have been nice). Given that Alice is so popular in Japan, that might explain why they went balls-to-the-wall with the theme.

Bonus #1: Gansozushi, Akihabara

There really is no special reason for why I chose Ganso; I just Googled “best keitenzushi [conveyor-belt sushi]” where I was in Akihabara, and Ganso came up, so I headed over there to try Japanese sushi for the first time. I had tried sushi and sashimi in America, with disastrous results, so I decided to give sushi another try in Japan, and even though I’m not quite sure if I like sushi just yet, I’m glad I ate here.

A very basic description of the way keitenzushi works: I sat at a diner-like bar counter that had a conveyor belt with plates of sushi going around on it (keitenzushi is often translated as “sushi-go-round” on signs). You take the plates from the conveyor belt and eat as much as you want. Each plate design shows how much it costs, so you keep the plates in a stack, and then you pay based on your stack of plates. I was able to have some kind of salmon nigiri (a type of sushi with raw fish on rice), an egg (tamago) sushi, and a tuna wasabi nigiri (it was then that I learned I do not like the taste of wasabi… I kind of liked the pickled ginger, though). I ended up having four plates for around ¥1,000 ($10 USD), which I find to be a decent price, considering the location in downtown Tokyo and the amount of food.

Final verdict: It was much better than I thought it would be, but I still feel like sushi might not be my thing just yet.

Bonus #2: Kin-No-Torikara, Shibuya

Once again, this particular suggestion was from Google, but the original idea was from word-of-mouth; I heard from a friend who had been to Japan that fried chicken almost anywhere in Japan was really good. Kin-No-Torikara is a takeaway stand at a shopping center in Shibuya, and I ordered fried chicken and loaded fries. I loved experimenting with all the sauces; my personal favorite (the red-tinted one on the left in the photo) tasted like a sweet chili sauce—for those of you who are familiar with the American fast food chain Popeye’s, it tasted almost like the Sweet Heat sauce. For about ¥500, I got a decent amount of food (but then again, I get stuffed with a small amount of food, so keep that in mind).

Final verdict: If you’re looking for good fried chicken in Shibuya, you might want to check this place out. That said, they do not have a place to sit and eat, so be prepared to walk and eat or awkwardly stand around their waste bin like I did.

Vampire Café, Ginza

Moving to the dark side of the themed restaurant spectrum, my second night in Tokyo, I headed over to the Vampire Café in Ginza. This was in a building that had a lot of different restaurants—one on each floor (I didn’t catch the building’s name, since I was following Google Maps). For a Monday evening in Ginza, it was rather empty (again, no reservation… don’t do what I did, kids).

As far as decor goes, I say this in the most loving way possible: they clearly designed this with Mundanes (to borrow a term for “normal people” from the City of Bones series) in mind—red blood cell pattern on the light-up floor in the entrance hall, cobwebs, black and red textiles, blood, skulls, coffins, spiders, and bats. Everywhere. The decor was a bit too hardcore for my taste, even with my appreciation of the Goth subculture, but I will caveat that the red rose theme in the food presentation really spoke to my soul. So, if you’re at least somewhat familiar with the vampire or Goth subculture, be prepared for at least a small degree of eye-rolling.

They call the Vampire Café a “café” but it’s more of a restaurant. The same rules applied as in Alice in Fantasy Book—one food, one drink, ¥500 service charge—as the server explained the notice on the menu’s front page. One of the things I noticed in some of the reviews was that the staff were allegedly cold and not very accommodating. That was not my experience at the Vampire Café, but I did notice they were rather hands-off. The sentiment I think they were trying to go for with their vampiric characters was “we’re trying to be polite enough not to drive you off, but we’re trying very hard not to bite you so we’ll keep our distance”, so I can kind of understand that that’s not what some people have in mind for good service. I had no issues with my service, and I think the glaring issue was the language barrier, but that was nothing Google Translate couldn’t fix (like when I asked if I paid at the entrance or at the table). To call the server, you ring a bell, which is loud enough to hear in the relatively quiet place (barring the music), so I’m really grateful I didn’t have to yell.

This is a personal preference for me, but I like to be able to look around the venue, especially if there’s a loft area or a top floor to look out on the street below (I think in a past life I was a ranger like Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, or possibly a bird of prey). In the Vampire Café, they had red curtains around the booths so I couldn’t see around the place. I imagine with a group of people that would make everything seem a bit more cozy and intimate, but by myself, it kind of felt like a warm and plushy form of solitary confinement. That said, if they were trying to get you feeling “whoa what was that” when the dark shadows of the all-black-clad staff walk past the gap in the curtains for a split second, they definitely hit that nail on the head. I heard a lot of nervous giggling from other patrons, but even if it was meant to be scary, the mystery just intrigued me more; I can’t deny the sartorial choices and overall aesthetics of the staff were a part of it (*shy blush*).

In terms of what I ordered, I got a non-alcoholic drink called the “Elizabeth Bathory”, the red-wine-stewed beef cheek (which was actually really good; it had a texture similar to that of pulled pork), and a strawberry-matcha ice cream dessert in the shape of a spider (I will admit, the spider was kind of cute with the big eyes, and I almost laughed out loud when I read that the spider ice cream was ¥666).

While the restaurant does have a good amount of English on their menu (though their seasonal specials card did not have any English—consider yourself warned), I used the website MyOrder to check the menu before I came to Japan, and they claimed the drink was blood orange, cranberry, and pomegranate juice with tonic water. Also, according to MyOrder, the beef cheek was called “the dead body of Van Helsing”; people who know me outside of the blog may understand why I found this hilarious (I had to flip a coin between the beef and a pizza shaped like a letter with a rose “wax seal”—the beef won). Be advised: the website seems to have not updated the menu in a while, so they might not have all the items you’re looking for when you eat at the restaurant.

Final verdict: Food was actually really good, design was a bit hardcore but I’m not complaining, and the style of service might not be for everyone. Also, if you don’t like enclosed dark spaces or sudden noises when the server opens and closes the curtains (they weren’t too startling for me, but I imagine that could get to some people), this might not be the place for you. For me, I’m highly tempted to go back before I leave Japan to get the rose-letter pizza that didn’t end up on my plate—after making a reservation, of course.

Final Thoughts

My experience with the themed cafes in Tokyo was really good, but I also noticed that they are either really cute and light and fun (case in point: Alice in Fantasy Book, or what I’ve seen of the maid cafes in Akihabara) or dark and creepy (e.g., Vampire Café and the prison-, ghost-, or ninja-themed restaurants I’ve seen on YouTube) with hardly anything in between. I imagine this either-or feeling is more apparent to me because I notice this in America as well as with my experience shopping in Japan; while I understand the ambience and the feelings you get at these eateries are meant to be temporary, like a sort of escapism, as someone whose interests are divided between both sides of the dark-cute spectrum, it was a bit annoying to have to choose. If they had a Phantom of the Opera café, or a Brothers Grimm-themed restaurant? I’d be on the phone booking a reservation in a heartbeat. (Ya hear that, Diamond Dining?)

What else would you want to know about my time in Tokyo? Let me know in the comments below! I still have a few more days in Kyoto, so until next time, またね!

Japan: My Impressions Thus Far

After three days in Tokyo, I’ve had a few things to think about.

As I’m writing this, I’m on a train from Tokyo to Kyoto. I’ve been in Tokyo since Sunday, and I must admit, by the end of it, I was getting overwhelmed by the amount of stuff to do in Tokyo! I want to put my experiences in Tokyo into more articles, but for now, I’ve been thinking about my overall impression with Japan thus far, and some points come to mind:

  • Stand to the left, pass to the right. I noticed in the metro stations that people tended to fall into a pattern of walking on the left side of the station (I imagine that’s because in Japan, people drive on the left side of the road), and standing on the left side of the escalator so people can pass on the right. In America, and even in China, that’s not as likely to happen, if it happens at all, and the chaos that ensues seems inevitable. Regardless, I’ve been saying sumimasen (“excuse me”) a lot, mostly because I would be focusing too much on Google Maps, or I’d have no idea where I’m going.
  • Durable is not always practical. I knew full well that hiking boots were not a good option for taking on and off when entering a Japanese home; however, I didn’t realize just how often people take off their shoes in Japan. Fitting rooms in clothing stores, some parts of museums like the Samurai Museum in Shinjuku, some places like the cat café I went to in Harajuku—all of them required me to take off my shoes. At this point, I’m wondering if Japanese people can tell if people are tourists by seeing if they’re wearing shoes with laces. I was tempted to see what kind of cute, durable flats I could find in my size, but I wouldn’t have had enough room in my suitcase for my boots, so for now, I’m soldiering on.
  • Few trash cans. I know that Japan has a rigorous system when it comes to recycling and trash disposal, but I didn’t expect how few trash cans or recycling bins I’ve seen on the streets in Tokyo. In America and China, you’d have at least one trash/recycling bin per street block. Japan? I once had to keep a food wrapper in my pocket for hours before I found a trash bin. I imagine if there were a lot of waste bins, though, in such a big city like Tokyo, trash would inevitably accumulate (“if you build it, they will come” and all that), and Japan doesn’t have much space for landfills, so I understand why this is the case, but it’s still a bit of an adjustment.
  • Not many places to sit. When I was researching customs in Japan, I read that it’s generally considered inappropriate to walk and eat at the same time. That said, when I would order food at a place that didn’t have seating, I would want to find a bench so I could sit and eat, but there wouldn’t be any, so it felt like a bit of a Catch-22. I realize that as a foreigner, I could probably get away with making some faux pas, but I didn’t want to be that person. Instead, I just stood in a place where I wouldn’t be in the way of foot traffic and ate there. Was that the best alternative? I don’t know, but I was trying to make do.
  • Just how many foreigners there would be. After being in Cili (and thus being one of only a handful of foreigners in the county, to my knowledge) for almost six months, I noticed that there were so many foreign tourists in Tokyo, and I kind of didn’t know how to react at first. I imagine this is going to be similar to reverse culture shock when I return to America.

I’ve been having a great time here so far, and I hope I can have an equally good time in Kyoto! I’ve been thinking about posting a sort of food diary about the themed restaurants and other places I went to in Tokyo, but I’m not sure if y’all are interested in that. Let me know what you want to read about in the comments! Until the next article—well, it feels weird saying zai jian since I’m in Japan, so I’ll say またね!

Here Come the Pre-Travel Butterflies

Disclaimer: This article contains references to anxiety. I am not a health professional; this article is based on my experience dealing with anxiety. Please consult your doctor or a licensed medical practitioner if you feel you need medical advice.

Being excited to go on a new adventure, but also constantly on the verge of crying from nervousness.

Suddenly second-guessing every single packing decision you’ve made.

Wondering why you’re so nervous about traveling when this is something you’ve always wanted to do, or something you have done many times before.

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Sound familiar? It might be pre-travel anxiety.

I’ve dealt with this kind of anxiety before, so I’ve been working to handle it in a productive manner. For this trip, however, I’ve been dealing with a potent combination of pre-travel anxiety and PMS, so it’s been an additional challenge. Do I actually need two more tops to go in my suitcase? (Jury’s still out.) Should I reschedule my flights so I’m sure I have enough time to get through customs? (I did.) Do I actually need to eat this whole bar of chocolate? (*hides the empty wrapper*)

Especially when I’m traveling solo, I view my peace of mind as worth every penny. I try to think about what I could be doing to help my nerves before I travel. Some tactics I’ve been using to calm my anxiety include:

  • Walking around to get some fresh air, sunshine, and exercise
  • Limiting caffeine and excess sugar to avoid exacerbating anxiety symptoms (e.g., restlessness)
  • Cleaning my apartment so I have a nice, tidy apartment to come home to
  • Writing how I’m feeling so I don’t bottle everything up
  • Adhering to the packing list (no crazy additions to avoid overpacking)
  • Finalizing last-minute details (e.g., how to get to my accommodations from the airport/train station and loading up my iPad with entertainment options)
  • Planning a daily routine when I’m in-country so I know where I can get breakfast and snacks near my Airbnb

I hope this gives you a starting point for dealing with pre-travel anxiety. I feel like planning a trip is part of the adventure, so I hope this makes the planning process much more enjoyable.

I’m not sure how often I’ll be blogging in the countries I’m traveling to, but I’ll be posting to social media as often as I can, and I intend to work on articles as I go. Let’s get this trip going! Until next time, zai jian!

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How I’m Packing for A Month in a Carry-On

You might be thinking, “say whaaaaa? You’re traveling for a month, and you’re packing everything in a carry-on?” Well, I’m at least going to try!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and do not represent those of WorldTeach or its affiliates. 

I’m really excited for this article because I finally get to reveal a big trip that I’m going on! In the month of February (so about two weeks from now, as I’m typing this out), I will be traveling to Japan, Thailand, and South Korea for my Spring Festival holiday! But I will be taking a lot of planes, trains, and automobiles with little time to drop off and pick up checked bags, so I’m going to do my best to pack everything I need in a carry-on.

Now, you might be thinking, “say whaaaaa? You’re traveling for a month, and you’re packing everything in a carry-on?” Well, I’m at least going to try, and I want to show you what I’m packing in case you’re inspired to do the same. (In other words, grab a snack and sit back—this is going to be a long one.)

Before I get into the list, I want to make a few things clear:

#1: This list may be different from what I actually take with me out my apartment door. In that case, I will make updates to this article, or do a follow-up article if I deem it necessary. I also have some caveats for certain items, marked with an asterisk  (*) and addressed at the end of the article. (13 April 2018: Updates have been made.)

#2: This time of year, Japan and South Korea are rather cold, and Thailand is rather warm. I realize that traveling with only a carry-on to a colder climate can be very tricky. Luckily, I’ll be traveling from a cold climate (they’re predicting snow in Hunan next week), so I can wear a lot of my warmer layers on my flights to Japan, and back to China from South Korea. Outside of that, I’m depending on wearing the same outfit many days (ego and fashion sense be damned) and doing laundry while I’m abroad.

Also, a little-known fact about me is that I very much admire Japanese street fashion, particularly mori kei (also known as the “forest girl” style, you can find an article about it here). Part of the reason I’m packing light is because I’m expecting to buy some clothes or accessories while I’m in Japan (and possibly Thailand and South Korea as well), so I’ll be able to incorporate those pieces into my wardrobe as I go. I like to think I have enough self-control when it comes to shopping, but we’ll find out how accurate that is when I’m actually in-country.

#3: I included some pictures to prove that all of this can fit in a suitcase, a backpack, and on my person (with room to spare, might I add!) but some of the items listed are not in the photos. I use a lot of these items on a daily basis and didn’t want to put them all over the place, or I was wearing/using them when I took the photos. I’ll do my best to post photos of my travels on my Instagram (shameless plug!), so you’ll probably see some of the items there if you don’t see them in this article.

Are we ready? Then let’s begin with the basics:

Essentials

Small rolling suitcase. Until I get my own ginormous trekking backpack, this will have to do. I got this for 99 kuai at Many, and I brought this with me to Inner Mongolia. This suitcase has 360-degree wheels, is fairly sturdy, and will fit in the overhead compartment of most airplanes.

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Suitcase and backpack (that’s an umbrella in the side pocket)

Commuter backpack. This bag will be my small personal item, so it has to be small enough to fit under the seat in front of me on the plane. I love this backpack because it has an area for your laptop that can zipper all the way flat, so you don’t have to take your laptop out for security screening. Since I’m not bringing my laptop, I’m using that compartment to hold my day bag.

Small brown backpack. I was tempted to use this bag that I got in Cili as my small personal item; it would be big enough to fit my wallet, my water bottle, my MP3 player, snacks, and anything else that I would need en route to my destination. I decided on the commuter backpack for transporting everything (and extra room), but kept the day bag for being out and about.

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Suitcase with pocket belt, travel wallet, and packing cubes

Travel wallet. I have a travel wallet that can hold my passport, tickets, printouts for my Airbnbs, etc., so I can have everything ready to go for check-in and security.

Belt with pockets. I’ve been very lucky with my personal belongings being safe when I travel, but even though I’m going to places that generally have low crime rates, I’m not taking chances. (Update: I never needed this, but it was so small I didn’t care about the space it took. Better safe than sorry.)

Packing cubes. I got my packing cubes on Amazon, and they have been a godsend with keeping everything organized. I’m currently working with the idea of standing my packing cubes upright instead of laying them flat against the bottom of the suitcase, and it seemed to work out.

Prescription glasses and sunglasses. I have contact lenses, but I’ve been wearing my glasses almost exclusively. I tried to wear contacts for my trip to Inner Mongolia but that didn’t work out well, so I’m sticking with my glasses for this trip. (Update: BRING A BACKUP PAIR. I learned this the hard way.)

Clothing (in packing cubes)

Three pairs of (thermal) leggings. These will pull double duty as extra layers and sleepwear. I will wear at least one pair (depending on the weather) on the plane from Changsha to Tokyo. I brought one extra pair of lighter, capri-length leggings for coverage when I’m in Thailand. (Update: I could have gotten away with leaving the capri leggings behind.)

One thermal top. Again, extra layers and sleepwear. I will wear this on the plane from Changsha to Tokyo.

One pair of lightweight pajama pants. These are for Thailand, because wearing shorts may be an invitation for mosquitoes (which is not good; you’ll learn why later).

A week’s worth of “frillies”, as I like to call them. As I mentioned before, I’ll be doing a lot of laundry, so I plan to bring a week’s worth of undergarments and then wash them. (Update: next time, I would bring a few spare pairs, and/or bring some laundry detergent. Don’t do what I did and assume that you’ll have laundry facilities everywhere you go.)

Two sports bras. I practically live in sports bras during the winter because they’re so much more comfortable (something that’s making me consider wearing them more often as we get into spring and summer). Plus, I’m wearing mostly black and darker colors and a ton of layers (at least in South Korea and Japan), so they won’t show as easily!

Two regular bras. One downside of sports bras is that they hardly ever come in skin-toned colors like regular bras do (which seems counterintuitive, considering the popularity of white T-shirts for sports, but I’m veering off-topic). A lot of traditional mori kei fashion is based on light colors, so if I’m going to be shopping for mori kei pieces, it’d probably be in my best interest to bring a regular bra or two. They’re small enough to justify bringing as a backup. (Update: I can’t remember using these ones, so I probably could have gotten away with only bringing the sports bras.)

Black tunic top. This is one of my favorite tops from Lula Roe (I’m wearing it as I’m writing this article), and I’m expecting this to be a staple when I’m in Chiang Mai. (Update: it was a staple almost everywhere I went.)

Black cotton maxi skirt. I’ve gotten so much mileage on this skirt in the month I’ve owned it! I can wear leggings underneath it for warmth (which is how I’m wearing it as I’m writing this article), I can wear it with a tunic or tank top when I’m in Chiang Mai, and it just makes a lovely swish-swish when I walk. One downside: the one I bought is hand-wash only, which is why I’m bringing the other skirt so I can wear that one while the other one is drying (no drying machines in any of these countries, from what I’ve observed). I’ll wear this one on the plane to Japan.

Brown cotton maxi skirt. I’m aware I’m breaking a rule of having one color scheme for a capsule wardrobe; however, much as I love black (and it’s easier to find black and gray clothes I like in China), a decent part of my wardrobe leans towards an earth-toned color scheme. I’ve pretty much accepted that much of my time in Thailand will have a relatively separate, earth-toned wardrobe. :shrugs: Oh, well.

(Update: I ended up buying a pair of harem pants in Thailand after multiple wardrobe malfunctions involving the hems of my maxi skirts. These skirts were not the wisest idea to pack, at least for a travel-sized person like me.)

Brown dress. Thai people are very modest, so I would probably layer this over my brown maxi skirt or leggings, or as a cover-up for my swimsuit. (With a super-low neckline and a rather short hemline, there’s no way in Oblivion I’m wearing this by itself.)

Green one-piece swimsuit. Chiang Mai is in the northern mountains of Thailand, so I won’t be going to beaches like I would be if I were going to Phuket or Koh Samui. That said, I might get the chance to go to a pool or spa, so I decided this would be a small enough item to justify packing “just in case”. This could also come in handy if I’m able to visit an onsen (hot spring) in Japan that allows patrons to wear swimsuits (most onsen do not allow any clothing). (Update: I ended up using this only once. I have no regrets.)

Two modest tank tops—one olive green, one cream. I plan to wear these tank tops with either maxi skirt, and the olive green one can go under my brown dress for additional coverage. (Update: I could have gotten away with bringing only the olive green one.)

Wide-brimmed sun hat. Any porcelain woman will tell you this is non-negotiable, especially in Thailand.

Folding fan. (Clearly, this is for the Thailand heat.)

Black sweater. Another layering piece for when I’m in Japan and South Korea. I may wear this on the plane to Japan. (Update: I remember wearing this only once or twice. I probably could have gotten away with not bringing it.)

Black oversized cardigan. (I warned you, it’s easier for me to find clothes I like in black.) I’m wearing this on the plane to Japan. (Update: for space, I didn’t bring this, and I didn’t miss it.)

Green oversized cardigan. This is to go with any earth-toned piece I bring or purchase.

Winter coat*. The good part is that this coat packs down very compactly, but the downside is that it’s not the most insulating for the bitter cold I’m expecting in South Korea. I’ll make it work, though.

Flip-flops. I will be staying at Airbnbs that have shared bathrooms. I don’t think I have to explain any further.

Hiking boots. These are the warmest shoes I own, and I’m going to wear them on the plane. I plan to wear them loosely laced so I can slip them on and off through security, if need be (and possibly when I need to take my shoes off in Japanese homes). (Update: if you have warm boots or shoes that have zippers, or slip on and off, pack those instead. These shoes were warm and supportive, but they were a huge nuisance to lace and unlace.)

Cozy socks. I’m bringing tons of these. I will need them.

Brown sandals. I will likely be much happier with these in Thailand than my hiking boots, both for the weather and for comfort. (Update: I was much happier with these sandals, but I regret hiking in them.)

Toiletries (all under three fl Oz/100 mL, in accordance with carry-on regulations)

Toothpaste, toothbrush, dental floss, and orthodontic retainer. These are not optional, if I want to make friends and influence people. I put the dental floss and my retainer in a separate bag since they don’t need to be in my toiletries bag.

Body soap. I use a small bar of Crabtree & Evelyn soap in a pomegranate scent because I love pomegranate. This does not have to go in the toiletries bag.

Stick deodorant. Especially with the heat of Thailand, this is a must-have. According to TSA guidelines, any size of solid deodorant is acceptable in carry-on luggage; all the same, do your research for what is accepted as a non-liquid toiletry on your airline.

Argan oil. I intend to use this as a substitute for hair conditioner and possibly as a pre-shower moisturizer, especially when it gets really cold in Japan and South Korea. (Update: the bottle cap ended up breaking, and the oil got everywhere. If I had to do this again, I’d probably just bring regular conditioner in a small bottle.)

Night cream. I’ve put my night cream into a smaller pot because the packaging is just too bulky. I have been slacking off in moisturizing my face before bed, and it’s starting to show, so I want to keep this habit going when I’m abroad.

Eye cream. I should be able to put my eye cream in its normal pot since it’s only .5 fl oz.

SPF cream. Especially in Thailand for a fair-skinned woman like me, this is non-negotiable. I poured my day moisturizer into a small bottle, and I did the same for regular sunscreen. I heard a lot of stories that sunscreen is really expensive in Thailand, especially in the southern islands; if I need more, then I’ll get more, but I want to see how long I can go with my own supply first.

DivaCup. I’ll be traveling for a full month, and you can probably guess what that means. Of course, if you ladies use pads or tampons, adjust accordingly.

Shaving razor. Even if I didn’t pack a swimsuit, I feel more confident when I shave (even in winter), so I’m definitely bringing a razor.

Cleansing oil for removing makeup. I lost or used up the travel size bottle I had, so I had to pour my cleansing oil into a smaller bottle; I only need one pump to cleanse my entire face of makeup. I’ve tried using makeup remover wipes, but they don’t do anything for me (some makeup products these days are just impossible to take off).

Hand sanitizer. In case there is no soap in washrooms, and for being on the plane.

Nail clippers/file, hair comb/brush, eyelash curler, and tweezers. While I imagine these things are easy to find if I forget or misplace them, it would be a long month without them.

Concealer. These days, I use Urban Decay’s Naked Skin Concealer in Fair Neutral (it’s one of the only American-brand concealers light enough for my skin tone). I imagine that most days I will just wear concealer, maybe some powder, and brow product so I look put together but still low-maintenance.

Brow product. I’m not sure which one I’ll bring yet, but this makes me feel more put-together. Right now, I’m using Nyx’s Tinted Brow Mascara in Chocolate, but when I’m on the go, I might switch to Anastasia’s Brow Wiz in Caramel so I don’t have to put it in my toiletries bag.

Translucent powder. For when I want to wear makeup on humid days in Thailand, or to make it last all day. This will not have to go in the toiletries bag.

Lip balm. I plan to get a tinted lip balm with SPF before I leave so I can get moisture and a light sheen of color without having to worry about fading, feathering, or smudging. If I don’t find one before I leave, my normal lip balm will suffice.

Liquid eyeliner. I’m tempted to leave my (small, but rarely used) eyeshadow palette at home, so I want some way to dress up my eyes if I want to.

Waterproof mascara. I don’t think I need to explain why waterproof, at least for Thailand.

Medical Stuff*

Generic lactase supplements. I’m convinced I have some kind of issue with dairy, so in case I run into that issue in my travels, I’ll have something to help out. (Update: I ended up taking these out and packing an anti-diarrheal instead. I regret that decision with every bone in my body.)

Generic Pepto-Bismol. In case I have stomach issues from food.

Band-aids. Just in case I get a cut or blisters from walking.

Multivitamins. To avoid getting sick while I’m on the move.

Bug spray wipes. Japanese encephalitis, a mosquito-borne disease, is common in southeast Asia, especially Chiang Mai. It’s too late for me to get the full vaccine (and even then, it’s super expensive), so I’m bringing Off! bug spray wipes with DEET (not the eco-friendliest, I know, but mosquitoes love me, so I’m not taking chances), and I likely will buy more anti-mosquito supplies while I’m in Thailand. If anyone has any suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

Antibacterial wipes. I don’t think I need to explain why, given the horror stories about cleanliness at 37,000 feet.

Medical masks. For the dry plane air, any air pollution, and in case all my health efforts fail and I get sick.

Electronics (in travel pouch)

iPad and charger. I thought about bringing my laptop, considering I will be gone for a month, but I can do everything that matters on my iPad and it’s lighter, so iPad it is! (Update: make sure you remember a USB wall adapter for your charging cable as well, which—shame on me—I didn’t do.)

Portable battery charger. Some of my flights are long (e.g., five hours or longer) so this will seriously come in handy.

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Some of the electronics I will bring, and the pouch that I will store them in

Camera and charger. The camera I have takes slightly better photos than my phone’s camera function, so I’ll want to use this for a lot of my photos. (Update: I ended up not using this camera, but if I had brought my laptop, I probably would have used it more often.)

Ear buds. For listening to music or audiobooks on the go.

Travel hair straightener. This is more important for me than a hair dryer (also, most of my Airbnbs have a hair dryer, so why bother bringing my own?)

Selfie stick. Because I get nervous about asking people to take photos of me.

Travel adapter. For different power outlets.

Fitbit and charger. I’m going to be doing a lot of walking, so why wouldn’t I bring a pedometer to keep track of how far I’ve walked?

Extras

Reusable shopping bags. In case I’m overestimating my self-control with shopping. (Update: These came in great handy when I had to put only my in-flight essentials under the seat in front of me)

Travel pillow. For long flights and train/bus rides. (Update: I could have gone without this; I never slept on the flights.)

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Some of the extras that will go into my backpack (pens and markers are in the rabbit-ear pencil holder)

Eye mask. For sleeping on flights and possibly in brightly-lit areas.

Ear plugs. Need I say more?

Stuffed animal. This is probably the least practical thing to bring, but this is for my own peace of mind. I can’t be the only twenty-something that sleeps with a stuffed animal. (Update: I did not bring her with me, for sake of space, and that was a blessing in disguise, considering how stuffed my bags were when I got back.)

Compression socks. For the long flights to Chiang Mai and Seoul.

Binoculars. For seeing things from far away (they’re technically opera glasses, but who cares—they’ll get the job done). There’s actually a reason why I’m bringing those, but I’d like to keep that a surprise for a little longer!

Diary/writing notebook and pen. I learned in Hohhot how important it is for me to be able to write my thoughts down, so this might as well be non-negotiable.

Bullet journal. I don’t know if I’m going to bring this yet, but it would help me stay on track with my daily routine and some parts of my itinerary.

Tissue and wipes. Not all public restrooms in China have tissue. I don’t think I need to say any more.

Two elastic knee stabilizers. Because I’m going to be doing a lot of walking, and high school cross country has definitely taken its toll.

Winter hat/earmuffs, scarf, and gloves. I will wear at least some of these on the plane to Japan. (Update: I ended up bringing both my hat and my earmuffs—for space, I would have only brought my hat)

Fast-drying travel towel. I can’t remember if all of my Airbnbs come with their own towels, so I want to bring one as a backup.

Pocket umbrella. If not for rain, then to prevent sunburn. (Update: even if I only needed to use it one day out of the whole month, I have no regrets.)

Reusable water bottle. So I can stay hydrated on the go.

Notes

* Not all of these items are in my possession just yet. Some of the stuff I’m hoping to get during my travels include:

Small layer-able warm jacket. It’s projected to be mildly chilly (around 50˚F/10˚C) during the day in Japan, but it’s going to get colder in the evenings, and I don’t think I need to explain how cold it will be in Seoul. I love my winter coat, but it’s barely cutting it with the cold in Cili. I plan to pop into a UNIQLO in Changsha before my flight to Tokyo and grab an Ultra Light Down jacket to layer underneath my winter coat, because I’ve heard so many good reviews about them and how they pack down so small. I will wear one or both of my coats on the plane from Changsha to Tokyo. Also, when I’m in Thailand, I can roll up my coats compactly and put them in my bag until I need them again in Seoul. (Update: In Seoul and Japan, I ended up needing to use only one of my coats—I could have easily just packed this one.)

Antihistamines (e.g., Benadryl). I made a very unwise decision not to bring allergy medication with me to China (I hardly use it back home), so I’m hoping I can find this in a pharmacy somewhere (I know they sell allergy medication OTC in Japan, but I’m not sure about Thailand). I don’t know if it’s stress/culture shock symptoms, PMS, the cold weather, or what that is giving me allergy-like skin reactions these days; regardless, if this happens, or if I learn the hard way that I’m allergic to certain foods like shellfish (a constant fear of mine, especially with a language barrier), this is a “just in case” I’d like to be prepared for. (Update: I did not buy this.)

Pain/fever/swelling reducers (e.g., ibuprofen). Again, another unwise decision not to bring with me (for the same reason as the antihistamines), but I’ve noticed that my PMS symptoms now include flu-like symptoms (low-grade fever, headache, lack of appetite, and fatigue), so I’m going to be on the lookout for ibuprofen or sodium naproxen (the active ingredient in Aleve and Midol). If for no other reason, then I’ll use it if my knees act up from walking everywhere. (Update: I did not buy this.)

Cold medication/decongestant. In case the multivitamins don’t do their one job. Normally, I’d bring my own, but my go-to decongestant is generic Sudafed, which uses the active ingredient pseudoephedrine. This is important because pseudoephedrine, codeine, and (meth)amphetamines like Adderall are illegal in Japan (source). In addition, my other go-to decongestant is Mucinex (guaifenesin), which is legal and easily available in Japan, so I might just wait until I need it before I buy it. (Update: I ended up not needing to buy this.)

Shampoo bar (optional). LUSH is one of the more well-known stores that have these available. While I understand my Airbnbs have shampoo, I still feel gross not bringing any with me. I’d love to be able to have one of these with me as a backup, and not have to use space in my toiletry bag to do so. (Update: I bought one, but sadly, it didn’t work well for me.)

 

That wraps up what I plan to bring with me for a month of traveling in the rest of Asia. If you would like to hear about specific things in my travels, please leave any ideas and suggestions in the comments! I’m looking forward to my trip, and I hope to take you along with me! See you then! Zai jian!

13 April 2018: I added updates to show what I ended up adding or leaving out. I also included comments about what I found to be really important, and what probably could have been left behind.

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The way I’m packing my packing cubes (featuring Clover the snow leopard)

Happy Holidays from Fenghuang

I talk about a trip to Fenghuang to celebrate the Christmas weekend

DisclaimerThe views and opinions expressed in this article are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of WorldTeach or its affiliates.

I hope everyone had a happy holidays, and that everyone has a safe and happy New Year!

My cohort Caileigh and I went to Fenghuang in western Hunan to celebrate the Christmas weekend. According to legend, Fenghuang (Chinese for “phoenix”—coincidentally, also the Chinese name I chose for myself) got its name because two phoenixes flew over the town and found it so beautiful that they were reluctant to leave (source). It’s known as a home for the Miao ethnic minority. Notable people from this town include Shen Congwen (a writer that has contributed to the development of modern Chinese literature), Xiong Xiling (the first premier of the Republic of China following the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty), and Huang Yongyu (a contemporary Chinese painter) (source).

I live a stone’s throw away from Zhangjiajie City, so I was able to get on a bus to Zhangjiajie and then get on a bus to Fenghuang from there. Be advised: Fenghuang has no train station, so trains are not an option. It’s about five hours by bus from Changsha, and three to three-and-a-half hours from Zhangjiajie. I felt like I was getting sick that day so it probably felt a lot longer than it actually was, but I was able to fit in some of Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses on Audible, so that’s good.

My entrance into Fenghuang was after dark, and each lamppost had a phoenix light display—it was then that I knew we were in Fenghuang. My taxi stopped at Hongqiao (虹桥), a pedestrian-only bridge with a lot of shopping. After I crossed Hongqiao, I was now in the old city, and I had to walk the rest of the way to my youth hostel.

Our youth hostel (AirBnB) was in a side street of the old city part of Fenghuang. The place is really clean, well-decorated in an old-world style (which I can appreciate), and—HOLY MEMORY FOAM—it had the softest mattress we’ve slept on in the five months we’ve been in China. According to the AirBnB site, the host spoke English, but since both Caileigh and I speak Chinese, we didn’t really push to see how much English she knew.

We spent a lot of time walking around the town, ducking into cute little shops (and petting some cute cats and dogs, in Caileigh’s case; we both recognize the health risks of petting animals in China, so proceed with caution). It was a really sunny day and even if it was supposed to be 17˚C that day (62˚F, which is a bit chilly for a Floridian like me), it felt really warm in the sunshine (but then again, I had a fever so take everything I say with a grain of salt).

Side street in Fenghuang with hanging decorations

We stopped at a café that looked like something out of a Studio Ghibli movie named 影子咖啡 (Yingzi Kafei). We spent a great time enjoying coffee and looking out on the Tuojiang River, not far from the step-bridge that is in all the photos of Fenghuang on Pinterest.

Yingzi Kafei

View of the Tuojiang River from Yingzi Kafei

In the evening, we went to a nearby restaurant (one of the perks of being in Fenghuang is that nearly everything is within walking distance) and went nuts with pasta, fries, and their take on garlic bread (which was like regular toast with roasted garlic but hey, we still ate it). There appeared to be a lot of bars and music venues in Fenghuang (which makes sense, considering its tourist appeal), but neither of us are bar-hopping people so we went back to our hostel and listened to the music they were playing there. Since it was Christmas Eve, our host gave us apples! (It’s apparently a Chinese tradition to give apples on Christmas Eve.) The next day was spent heading back to our sites, since we both had fairly long journeys home.

I think we could have spent another day here, taking in all that the town and the surrounding scenery had to offer, but I think we did a lot for the time we had there. I think we both had a really good time in Fenghuang, and I’m glad we were able to go!

I’m looking forward to winter break in the coming months! I have some ideas for traveling, and I hope that they can become reality. Once again, I hope everyone has a safe and happy holiday season, and I hope to see you in the new year with new content! See you then! Zai jian!

View of the Tuojiang River

Four things I learned in Inner Mongolia

I’ve put off this article about the lessons I took from Inner Mongolia for far too long.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of WorldTeach and its affiliates.

 

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One of my favorite photos I took out in the grasslands

Hello, everyone! I have returned! It’s been almost two months (!) since I got back to Hunan Province from Inner Mongolia, and I’ve had a lot to think about for what I want to write about my time there. I’ll probably write about what we did and where we stayed in another post, but I want to write about what I learned out in the grasslands, because quite honestly, I’ve put off posting this article for far too long. I know I hoped to have more articles after my last article, but the Universe had other ideas; we were without WiFi in our apartments for pretty much all of November. We are, however, now back online, and I’m hoping to make up for lost time and make good on my promise to bring y’all more articles! So here are the four things I learned in Inner Mongolia:

1.     I want to learn beyond the surface. It’s easy to just visit the tourist spots and say I’ve been to an area, but for me that almost feels like cheating, and it feels like I can’t say I’ve been to a certain place (e.g., I’ve been to the tourist attractions in Paris, but I can’t say I’ve seen France). When I was at Dazhao Lamasery in Hohhot and out in the grasslands, I could tell that the places we visited were old—very old—and I was curious to know about the history and the culture of the place. When we were out in the grasslands, I wished I knew Mongol so I could sit with our host families and ask about their story. There was one instance when I was sitting in the family’s kitchen, and I would have loved to be able to sit with who I assumed was our host’s wife, and talk with her about what she was cooking or how life was out there. The fact that I know Chinese is rather convenient for Inner Mongolia, but if I’m to travel to other countries like Thailand, Cambodia, or Nepal, or any other country where my language proficiency is less than ideal, an interpreter would be invaluable for this.

2.     I realized my privilege in America. I know that Pinterest and other social media platforms can make off-grid living sound really comfortable with the right tools and planning (when my parents learned we were living in a yurt, they asked if it was like “glamping”), but out in Inner Mongolia, we got a taste of no-frills off-grid living (AirBnB). When we were out in the grasslands, we had no running water, no paved roads, no power grid, no central heating, and no public infrastructure like police or medical centers. We depended on potable water, solar and wind power, a wood-burning stove in our yurt for heating, cars made for off-roading, outhouses, and a lot of hoping and praying that no one got hurt or sick. While it was easier than we expected, we were also staying there for only a few days. I imagine that there’s a lot of planning that goes into living out there, but they at least seemed to make it work. It just made me realize how much privilege I have living in America, not only to have that security of public infrastructure, but also having the opportunity to travel and have these experiences.

3.     I realized how much stuff I actually need.  When I was preparing to leave for a year in China, I realized how much stuff I had accumulated, even after only a year in my apartment at the time. I’m starting to begin my journey to minimalism as a result, especially if I want to travel somewhere else after my time with WorldTeach is over. In Inner Mongolia, I knew we’d be on the move a lot of the time, so I knew I had to pack light for the week we were traveling. I traveled with a small suitcase (my backpack wasn’t big enough) with all my warm clothes, which were only a few items like sweaters, a light coat, a leather jacket, and leggings I layered under my jeans (we were totally unprepared for the cold). Aside from that, I’ve realized how much I need certain things like my journal and my tablet, and how much I don’t need other things, and it’s been liberating to travel without lugging around a giant suitcase.

4.     I’ve questioned some of my views on traveling. Before I went on this trip, a lot of anecdotes I had read about traveling almost belittled the idea of youth hostels, claiming that they weren’t safe or they weren’t up to par with hotels in terms of cleanliness or service. That was not my experience when I stayed at a youth hostel in Hohhot near the East Railway Station (AirBnB). The woman was very helpful, she spoke enough English to have a basic conversation, the rooms were clean and comfortable, and I never felt that I or my belongings were not safe. Also, when I booked a standing (!) train ticket from Hohhot to Sanggendalai, strangers were kind enough to let me share seat space with them. I realized how lucky I was to have a place to sit down on a train, which was amusing to some of the train staff when they realized a waiguoren (foreigner) had to buy a standing train ticket. I never thought I’d do those things when I first came to China; I would be open to doing a standing train ticket again (but for a shorter journey), and I’ve stayed at another youth hostel in Zhangjiajie City since then.

I’m glad to be able to have this experience growing as a person, as well as being able to go out and see the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. If you want to know more about where we stayed and what we did, please leave suggestions and requests in the comments below!

A few life updates: I was able to win NaNoWriMo (*cue celebratory fanfare*) so it’s been good to work with my novel and hopefully get it published before the end of the academic year. Plans for the Christmas holiday are still up in the air; I get Christmas Day off (effectively giving me a four-day weekend, since I don’t teach on Fridays), so I will likely go and travel another part of southern China. I hope to get back into the routine of posting updates to the blog regularly after having no WiFi in the apartment for a month. See you then! Zai jian!

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Random Thoughts: In and Out of Love with THE SIMS 4

I’ve been thinking about video games and living the life I want after buying THE SIMS 4

In preparation for NaNoWriMo, which starts this coming Wednesday, I made the decision to purchase The Sims 4 to work through writer’s block and burnout. Whether or not that was a mistake is still to be decided, but either way, I’m glad I bought it—if for no other reason, then because I know more about myself as a result. It has taught me more about who I want to be, what I prioritize in life, and my relationship with video games.

I’ve noticed a common theme in the “stories” I’ve made in the game. The character I play the most is normally a young adult woman that lives in a smaller home (if not a home that would be considered a tiny house), is creative and a music lover, often achieves the maximum level of the Violin, Writing, Painting, and Gardening skills, is also highly skilled in the Cooking and Handiness skills, and often works as a writer, musician, or painter (to be fair, there aren’t many career options in the base game). I know enough of myself to discern that that’s the “fantasy me”—the person I would love to be in real life. I’ve been missing the violin here in Cili (although I hated practicing in the U.S. because I felt my playing always sounded awful, no matter how I tried), and I have been trying to grow a container garden in my apartment. I’ve even been trying to get back into watercolors, since I can’t easily find acrylics in China, but I’ve been frustrated with my paintings for this past year, so painting is not a pleasant experience anymore (but that’s another story). Also, I don’t dress like my avatar does, I don’t look like my avatar does, and I’m not as brave to publish my writing as prolifically as my avatar does. Why is that? There’s nothing stopping me in real life, much like in the game, so why do I find it easier to live the life I want in The Sims as opposed to real life?

I think part of the appeal of video games in general (and games like The Sims in particular) is because of the escapist element. We can be whoever we want to be, with the impact of failure or other people’s judgment minimized or nonexistent. Just like I can’t cast magic like the spells from The Elder Scrolls, or travel through space like in Ratchet & Clank in real life, I can’t do everything from The Sims in real life (for instance, I don’t have to worry about whether or not my neighbor is from outer space). Fantasy elements aside, however, who’s to say that I can’t be the person I’ve made in The Sims in real life? Who says I can’t hone my skill with the violin, find joy in painting again, have an amazing garden, or be a bestselling author? I think I now have more of an idea of who I want to be through playing The Sims, but now I need to summon the courage to make that happen in real life, regardless of failure or people’s judgements.

Until I have that courage, my time playing The Sims 4 is over. I’ll probably play if I’m burned out or facing writer’s block during NaNoWriMo (as I planned when I bought the game), but even then, I’ll need to be more intentional about why I’m playing. If nothing else, I need to be certain that I’m living my life in the here and now, and not through a computer screen. My goal now is to have it be so that, one day, I can be the person I wouldn’t need to play a video game to become.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for listening! This coming month will be chaotic with lesson plans, NaNoWriMo, and traveling for Thanksgiving, but I hope to get back into writing articles for this blog on a regular basis. I realize I’ve been putting off my articles about Inner Mongolia, so I hope to have those up later this coming week! See you then! Zai jian!

Shifting Winds: My Introduction to Digital Nomadism

I’ve only recently heard of the term “digital nomad”—being able to work remotely from anywhere in the world and travel full-time—and I’ve been curious about it ever since.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and do not reflect the views or opinions of WorldTeach or its affiliates.

I remember watching Raiders of the Lost Ark when I was four or five years old, and watching Lara Croft: Tomb Raider for the first time when I was ten or eleven. I remember being in love with all the locations that they were traveling to and everything they did, and that’s a major part of what got me into my Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. Unfortunately, that also made me realize that my options for anthropology invariably required a doctorate, which I was not ready to commit to right after undergraduate, so that took that out of the equation (at least for now; I’m not saying “never” because anything can happen).

I’ve been thinking about graduate school as a possibility when I’m done with my fellowship here, but after all the changes I’ve experienced already, even a year feels too far ahead to plan in advance. Even before orientation was over, there was already a bit of talk among us cohorts of “what happens next”—what we may plan to do after we return to the United States. I think a lot of us (myself included) are still in the “wait and see” phase, which I see as a bit problematic because a lot of deadlines in the U.S. for opportunities like graduate schools are rapidly approaching. I was lucky that the deadline for WorldTeach was this past April, so I could apply for this year’s fellowship! So, what happens next? I’ve written down a few ideas, and one involves digital nomadism.

 

 

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Digital nomads usually don’t work from the beach. The sun, heat and sand make working with a laptop very hard. The Instagram pictures are only to show-off.”- Digital Nomad Soul

I’ve heard of people working remotely, but I’ve only recently heard of the term “digital nomad”—being able to work remotely anywhere in the world and travel full-time—and I’ve been curious about it ever since. I know I’ve been curious about the idea for a while about being able to live anywhere (one of my dream home ideas involves a tiny house on wheels), so this is not helping my imagination at all (I’m laughing at myself as I type this). It seems like that was what attracted me the most about the lives that Dr. Jones and Lady Croft lived—the fact that they could go anywhere they wished and still do their work.

I’ve had a writer’s callus on the middle finger of my right hand for as long as I can remember, and I go nowhere without a notebook and pen to write any ideas for stories, poetry, or blog articles. Being here in China has helped me become even more productive with writing for the blog and writing my stories, and with my writing, I feel like I’m getting closer to where I belong in terms of what I’m meant to do. I’m tempted, now more than ever, to make a career out of writing, and with the idea of digital nomadism, as long as I had Internet, I could possibly write from anywhere in the world.

 

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This is not to say that I’ve already decided this is what I want to do. This is just to say that this has been on my mind for the past week, and I’m wondering if this could be something that I can do after my time with WorldTeach is over. I hope to travel to Southeast Asia and other areas of China while I’m teaching in Cili, and I would love to be able to share my experiences and combine that with my passion for writing. Having adventures and writing about them sounds like an ultimate dream for me; I’ve joked with my friend that I’ve become Bilbo Baggins, “I want to see mountains and finish my book!”

If I chose to take this path, I understand that the reality of digital nomadism is likely not as glamorous or carefree as it appears on social media (but then again, one could easily say the same about any lifestyle—even a “normal” one, by societal standards). I have no illusions that hardship would be nonexistent, especially when I’d just get started. One common thread I’ve seen, however, is that despite all the drawbacks and sacrifices that the bloggers and location-independent freelancers have to make, the end result—being able to travel around the world, having the freedom to live the life they wish, with only what fulfilled their daily lives—is more than worth it. Hopefully if this is the path that I’m meant to take for the time being, that it is well worth the hard work that it will take to make it a reality.

As I’m writing this, my classes have been cancelled for today and tomorrow so I’m taking the time to plan my next lessons and keep up to date with what’s going on with Hurricane Irma (I’ve checked with my family and friends, and everyone’s okay thus far). Random update: a group of cohorts and I booked our tickets to the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia for the National Week holiday! I’m really excited to travel to a part of China I’ve never been to with other people in my fellowship, and I hope that I can bring you along with me! Hopefully, I can be back here later this week with a new post! See you then! Zai jian!

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Stranger from a Strange Land: Life as a Foreigner in China

My take on life as a foreigner in China. (Spoiler alert: it comes with a lot of being stared at)

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and do not reflect the views or opinions of WorldTeach or its affiliates.

To my knowledge, as I’m typing this, I am one of two wai guo ren in Cili, a town of about 400,000. The last time I was in Zhangjiajie in 2014, I hardly saw any foreigners, so for all I know, I could be the first foreigner some of the people in Cili have ever seen. It makes getting around town very interesting.

Let me just clear up one thing first: even though the term wai guo ren means “foreigner” (“person from outside the country”), it’s (usually) not used in a negative context like English speakers usually use the term. (I’ve also overheard some people near the school calling me “wai jiao“, or “foreign teacher”, so I imagine most people assume I’m there to teach English.) When I was studying abroad in Beijing, I sometimes heard lao wai (literally, “old-outside [the country]”), but that hasn’t been as commonly heard in Changsha and Cili. It could be because Beijing had more foreigners out and about, even in areas outside of the tourist areas like Sanlitun and the area near the Forbidden City and Tian’anmen, but that’s just speculation on my part.

As someone who doesn’t like being stared at, it’s a leap of faith for me to be in Cili. I have to admit, sometimes I feel like Christina Ricci in the movie Penelope, wanting to hide myself whenever I go out and about, since I’m going to stand out no matter how hard I try otherwise. If nothing else, it reminds me to put on a bit of makeup and put a bit of thought into what I’m wearing; in my mind, they’re going to stare at me, so I might as well make it worth their time. I’m concerned, though, that one day, I might cause a traffic accident because someone was staring at me. That would be embarrassing beyond belief.

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I’d like to think I’m being a good guest in China. Interestingly, though, when it comes to how I come across to people, there appears to be some criteria for “how to detect an American wai guo ren” that I am not fulfilling. When I was in Zhangjiajie, I overheard people wondering out loud if I was French, Canadian, English, or Russian—never American. I never determined the logic behind their assessments, and to be honest, I didn’t feel comfortable asking. Either way, Cili is no exception; when I was getting my haircut this past week, the guy cutting my hair casually asked me if I was from Russia. Memories of standing on a Beijing subway platform and being asked the same question at random came flooding back. It’s almost incomprehensible for them that I could be American, and I’ve yet to figure out exactly why.

On a similar note to appearances, I’ve been told “You’re so beautiful!” as if that’s as common for them to say as it is for us Americans to talk about the weather during small talk. Part of me wonders if it’s because I, as a porcelain-skinned woman, fit an ideal beauty standard for China (it’s still considered beautiful for a Chinese woman to be fair-skinned). Another part of me wonders if it’s merely because I’m a wai guo ren—different, and therefore something of “exotic”. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

One minor annoyance is when people see me in stores and follow me around, whether or not they’re staff or fellow patrons. I imagine they either A) assume I don’t speak or read Chinese and hope to help, or B) are merely curious as to what I’m choosing, so I can’t be too upset about it, but it’s definitely something to have everyone stare at you (and/or take pictures of you; they’re not always sneaky about it, and I’m not sure how I feel about that either) when you’re trying to buy toilet paper or laundry detergent. I imagine this is close to how celebrities feel when they’re out and about.

I don’t let it get me down, though, because I imagine I would have to deal with it no matter where I went in China. If nothing else, it reminds me that I’m a guest here, and not to get too in over my head. I’m representing not only the United States, but also the rest of the world, in a sense, to these people, so I hope I’m doing a good job.

My first week of classes went well here in Cili, and I feel like I’m getting on my feet with teaching, slowly but surely. I’m expecting a week-long vacation coming up in October, and I’m hoping I can have some exciting articles about my travels! In any case, I’m hoping that I can be back later this week with another post! See you then! Zai jian!

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