One Year

Last year at this time I was on a plane across the world.

November 5, 2013 was when the great adventure that was Nepal began. It was my new chapter, my new start, exactly what I didn’t know I needed.

I have been click clacking away at this post for a couple of days now, and have struggled with the focus. But I think I’ve worked it out: I want it to be about concepts of time, youthfulness, and finding your passion. There we go. The first step is stating your thesis, right?

(Strangely enough, when I wrote this post last year, I had a similarly hard time grounding my focus. Life confessionals – with a toss of the dice they spill like red wine, like molasses)


Since November 5 of last year was such a defining date, the last week has been met with a case of the “what I was doing at this time last year” syndrome. Despite those days being filled with so much confusion, I find myself re-experiencing it with such clarity. It was a sense of clarity and grounded-ness that went on to fill the next three months.

From my experience, the concept of time gets wonky when you travel. That’s why I’m not surprised Nepal changed my life, despite me only being there for three months. Those three months were experienced at a hyper-active speed – everything jam-packed into hardly no time at all. I met so many people, had countless experiences, and learned lessons that would normally take much longer at home. Travelling is life on steroids.

That’s why since coming home, I feel like the time-experience continuum is, to put it technically, outta whack. For three months I was chugging full speed ahead, and then the brakes were liberally applied.

Now I find myself sitting in a coffee shop, listening to a song that reminds me of the sun coming around mountains, feeling as though I’m missing out if I don’t immediately press the fast forward button again.

Which brings me to the next theme.

Not sun coming around the mountains, but rather leaving for the night.
Not sun coming around the mountains, but rather leaving for the night.


God I am such a baby. I know I am. I am 24-years-old, but at the same time, hooooooly crap, in March I will be 25. That is halfway to 50 which is halfway to a century. Whatever, roll your eyes, but we all have our own baseline insecurities.

I have a common young person problem. They call it “fear of missing out,” or FOMO, for short. It involves the fear that any one decision you make will dramatically shift your life in such a way that nothing else that came before it will ever be possible again. Like, to use a personal example, the perpetual fear I have over my decision to move back to Ottawa and take a full-time job (but I’ll get to this in a couple of paragraphs).

The best way to describe my FOMO is a sense of anxiousness and urgency that manifests itself several times a week. It’s triggered by many things: stuff in the news, insecurities caused by all the fun friends look like they’re having on Facebook, daily encounters with different people. Lots of stuff.

Right now, the result of my FOMO is that there are some very specific travel-related things that I’m scared I will never get to do. They mostly relate to reporting in different parts of the world, and one very specific project I want to undertake back in Nepal. Sometimes I want the latter of these things so badly that I feel as though I’m going to be sick.

The pragmatic part of my brain knows life is not just an abacus that suddenly has all the pegs on one side. There is time, says that sane voice. Is there, though? Why can’t it all start now? My inner, irrational (but endearingly adventurous) self pouts like a five-year-old.

This is what I try to tell myself in situations like this: the goals desired through FOMO can be better attained with time. Right now my ideas are these beautiful, tempting pieces of fruit. Seriously, they look awesome. But they’re not ripe yet. That’s the analogy* I tell myself in between wanting to book myself the next plane ticket to Kathmandu.

Everest, as seen from Gokyo-Ri.
Everest, as seen from Gokyo-Ri.


Being in Nepal was a gift in so many ways, and I learned a lot (these few lessons selected from my beloved green Moleskine travel companion):

  • If lost when trekking, the right path is almost always up, and complaining about it and standing there staring upwards at a trail is not going to get you to the top any faster
  • Talent is distributed equally, opportunity is not
  • The best way to overcome a childhood fear of non-conventional toilets is to spend three months in a country where you will frequently be squatting, often with the aid of a headlamp
  • Take calculated risks
  • Sometimes the right tool for the job isn’t available. Make do, and be creative.
  • After a while you will stop caring about whether there is a wifi network around. Everytime a phone vibrates, you will not instinctively reach for your own

Etc. etc.

One of many romanticized writing spots, with that precious green notebook.
One of many romanticized writing spots, with that precious green notebook.

Nepal also provided me with an epiphany moment.

Let’s talk about the epiphany phenomena for a second. Earlier this week I was talking on Facetime with one of my best university friends, and we were talking about these moments. Moments that give a direction to ambition – the discovery of something you didn’t know you had a passion for, yet after that moment you know your entire life will be seen through a different lens because of it.

Up to this point, my life has had four epiphany moments. The first was sometime in elementary school when I discovered I love photography. The next was the grade 11 discovery that I wanted to be a journalist. The third was the university discovery that I loved (and was good at) cooking. Looking back, all seem like such, “well of course!” moments, but they really weren’t clear until that aforementioned Epiphany put on the cloak of fate.

The fourth epiphany was the one that happened in Nepal, and it was the discovery that I wanted to work in either the international development field, or in an international context.

Something so deep shifted in me in Nepal. I’ve always had a sense of social justice, but it wasn’t truly articulated until I met people who had little chance of accessing the things I so casually took for granted. It would have been easy to diagnose Nepal as slow-moving and backward. Seeing ways of life as a problem, rather than accepting that the “Western way” or the “Western speed of doing things” was not the only way to go about making progress. Privilege can be a funny set of blinders sometime. The people I met in Nepal, a couple of them I’m now happy to call my friends, had the most incredible stories. Sad ones, happy ones, banal ones – stories few people outside their community or family would get to hear because the capacity wasn’t there to tell them.

To make a long life plan short, I basically want to have the skills and knowledge to go back and help them share those stories.

This is a big reason I made the move back to Ottawa. I’m working for an international non-profit that gives youth in countries around the world the training and access to technology in order for them to become entrepreneurs and leaders, whether it’s in their own families or in their communities. It’s so they can hopefully move past subsistence-based work to a point where they can improve their lives and the lives of future generations. I’m learning a heck of a lot, and I know it’s going to make me more broadminded when I do eventually end up working overseas. Because it will happen.

But oh hi! Hi! Irrational Hilary still here! And she wants to leave pronto.

So that’s the state I’m in…this internal struggle, wherein I tell myself to breathe and give it time, cognizant of the fact that my reassurances sound like a Lululemon bag.

Okay, let’s try to wrap this up in some kind of “the moral of the story is” sort of way. I guess what I need to take away from this (yes, I did just life coach myself), is that I have many more years (knock on wood) to experience all the things I frantically want to pack into the dwindling months of “24.”

So on the day of this one year anniversary, I will go about my Wednesday routine of 2014. I will go to work, and I will go to my pottery lesson, where I will spend a wonderful three hours cathartically syncing mental and physical focus as I occasionally spin muddy clay into my eyes. I am learning and I am focused and I am working towards something.

And hey, who knows what November 5, 2015 will bring?

One year can be a short time, and it can be a long time. I just need to have the patience to wait it out.

Bad at waiting (look at that face!)
Bad at waiting (look at that face!)

*apologies for always using food analogies


Cultural identity conundrums

In my last post, I mentioned I would be talking about culture and cultural identity sometime in the next to near future. Well now’s the time – the wee hours of a Wednesday night, sleepless tossing-and-turning resulting from evening run endorphins, a screaming baby in the basement apartment, and a sale on Lindt coconut chocolate eaten before bed. This is a very personal post. After all, what is the Internet if not a place to toss ideas out into the empty ether, and have them come back ripe with similar thoughts, the occasional sympathy, and ever-reassuring cat gif?


I’ve struggled with the concept of cultural identity my entire life. I don’t mean this in a “well we’re Canadian and isn’t this whoooole country really, like, just trying to figure out what it means to be truly Canadian? Doesn’t our national identity have something to do with Kraft Dinner?!” I mean it to be that I don’t always feel fully Canadian, if that makes sense. But I don’t know what culture is supposed to fill those gaps, either.

Some background information on my background. I’m half Chinese, half Irish, a mix spawned after my parents met playing squash in Timmins, Ontario. As a kid, I would holler about the schoolyard that I was “Chirishadian” – a unique moniker combining my three nationalities, a way to surmise the confusion I didn’t realize I felt until later.

My Gramps and I at Sandbanks Provincial Park in southern Ontario (l), Nana, Pop, and I at their home in Ireland.
My Gramps and I at Sandbanks Provincial Park in southern Ontario (l), Nana, Pop, and I at their home in Ireland.

If we’re talking about physical appearances alone, I stump many.

There’s going to be the acknowledgement of stereotypes here, so bear with me for these sweeping statements: I’m not completely slight as all of my Chinese relatives are. I have almond-shaped eyes, ones my brother say shrink to slits when I smile in photos. But they’re green. The colour my dad’s were when he was my age. I’m tall, strong, and have been called ethnicities ranging from Mongolian to Nepalese to Portuguese (who knows how that last one happened). I’ve been interviewing First Nations leaders when they’ve asked me what reserve I’m from. In grade 12, my high school guidance counsellor asked if I wanted to be nominated for a scholarship for outstanding First Nations students. Cab drivers assume I’m Inuit as they glance my way in the rearview mirror. Perhaps these last few assumptions are really the boldest expression of “Canada” I can claim. People have been placing me in specific “ethnic boxes” my entire life. It doesn’t really bother me (just like the “Hilary Duff” name thing, I’m kind of used to it, frankly). But in all honesty, it’s gotten me a little messed up.

So how does this link to recent travels, you might ask? Good question.

My cultural identity thoughts really came to light when I was in Hong Kong last winter.

An aside: Though I understand the multi-racial make-up of Canada today (and even as a kid growing up in the 90’s), you have to understand where I was raised. At my elementary and high schools in Timmins and Sudbury, I was one of a few Asian students. In grade 11, a girl came up to my locker and asked why I spoke English so well, assuming I was a recent immigrant to Canada. Multiculturalism in big cities is all fine and dandy, but it wasn’t even close to being a given where and when I grew up.

So keep that context in mind. Suddenly I’m in Hong Kong – a place where I’m not the minority. Everyone looks generally like the ethnicity from whence I come. My mom’s family was from the southern part of China, from a region next door to what is now Hong Kong. For the first time in my life, I fit in – appearance-wise, anyways. But it ended there. It was an interesting phenomena being in Hong Kong. I walked into restaurants and up to street vendors and they spoke to me in Cantonese. Because I looked like I would know the language because I looked like them. I spent a day in Macau with my friend who does speak Cantonese, and he had to explain to several exasperated salespeople that no, I wasn’t ignoring what they were saying to me, I simply couldn’t understand.

I was struck with this huge sense of unbelonging. I didn’t look like people at home, and in the place where I do “fit in,” I was ‘othered’ because of my lack of cultural knowledge and language. Boom. The unique, racial ambiguity of the future – where the assumption of ethnicity – even if correct – can’t and shouldn’t be affiliated to an inherent knowledge of that ethnicity’s culture.

My Chinese heritage was neither taught nor hidden from me. Rather, it appeared in wisps – a toonie in a red envelope on Chinese New Year, a trip to my Gramps’ house where, on a plastic-wrapped couch, I would look at the odd relic of our shared heritage. Meanwhile, every other summer we would visit my dad’s family in Ireland, where my cousins, brother, and I would march around town pretending to be the von Trapp children, boggling the minds of strangers as we told them we were blood relatives.

Cousins in Ireland, circa about 1998.
Cousins in Ireland, circa about 1998.

I’m not bitter about my parents’ choice to not instil a deeper sense of cultural values in me. As kids (or at least as a university dad immigrated to Canada in his early 20’s), my parents looked to Canada as a place to create a new life. It’s not my place to talk about my mom’s life growing up as a Chinese girl in Loyalist southern Ontario, but it’s safe to say that neither of us were exactly raised in places that embraced the value of being different. So they, we, I…were folded into the mix of Canada, an attempt to create a homogenous mixture out of many diverse ingredients.

I mention that I’m not bitter…but I’m sad. I’m sad my grandparents passed away before I had the chance to ask them their stories, their histories. I’m also scared my surviving family has forgotten theirs, or has filed them so deep in their mind archives that they’ll never again see the light of day.

My struggle for cultural identity continues, for now. But I’m trying.

At the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong.
At the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong.