The Familiar Feeling Of Leaving

I’m bad at goodbyes.

I’ve had to say a lot of them this week, and it’s not the first time. It was two years ago to the day that I left for Nepal on a one-way ticket. Two years later, a lot has changed. But one thing remains the same: the presence of fear, anxiousness, and excitement.

I recently re-read the blog post I wrote right before going to Nepal. At that time I was struggling with mental health challenges as a result of being burnt out from working with CBC and because I had associated my entire identity and feeling of self-worth with that job.

At the end of this summer I left another full-time job for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was to build my capacity to work in a hybrid international development and journalism field. For me, these are not lessons that can be learned sitting behind a desk at a 9 to 5 job.

So come September I was once again going to be unemployed. But this time around I knew what to expect: uncertainty matched with freedom, anxiety balanced by excitement.

I picked up freelance jobs all over the place – in Ottawa and with new clients across North America. Still, when people asked what I had been up to, I found myself deferring to the usual “traditional” work: filling in at CBC Ottawa, freelancing for a local magazine, etc. I still felt the need to associate myself with jobs linked to a tangible level of success and value.

I’m too hard on myself, but consider the social pressures that mount around many of us everyday. Our society values worth in very specific ways: employment, economics, education. I was raised among these traditional concepts of success, and thought for a long time that my life trajectory would be one where I went to university, did well, got a job, and bought a house.

If there is one thing I have been grateful to realize early on, it’s that there is no black and white when it comes to living your life. What’s right and healthy for one person may not jive with another. Or that person may not have the opportunity to do what makes them happy. None of these factors discount the path someone has chosen. They’re just different.

I remind myself of this daily, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared of this coming turn in the road. I fear uncertainty, I fear missing out on major events with family and friends, I fear never having a long-term relationship. I’m scared of having no money (and worry about putting too much emphasis on this).

When I feel insecurities creeping in, I reflect on a single metaphor.

I picture my life as a pile of blocks. Each block represents some aspect of my life: my personal and professional experiences, my personality traits, my goals, my values, and my relationships. They’re stacked on one another and form the structure of who I am. By making the choice to disrupt the traditional trajectory – to quit my job and move overseas, I’m knocking over that tower of blocks.

But looking at the pile around me, those blocks are all still there. No matter where I go or how many times that pile of blocks is knocked over, every block can still be accounted for. Taking a chance is not a removal of what makes me who I am. It’s a slight disruption, and an opportunity to reflect on how I want to rebuild my life. That new structure of blocks will likely look a bit different, but what matters in the end is that I recognize I am an ever-shifting person with more to offer than any one thing.

I want my life to be a constant disassembling and reassembling of those blocks. With any luck I’ll be able to add a few new ones with each experience.

**

My parents have long known that I ask for their support and not for their permission.

This fall I was at a fork in the road. Do I return to Nepal as a freelance journalist or do I go to Tanzania and work with a Canadian NGO?

Neither option was particularly appealing for my family. One night when I was home, my mom came into my bedroom. “Where did your interest to go overseas come from?” she asked. “You were never interested in this before. How will you be sure you’re not doing more damage than good?”

I got defensive, as I too often do with my family (#25goingon16). But my mom’s question struck a cord. The same thoughts concerned me.

I’m not one of those kids who grew up wanting to be any one thing, and that’s still what I’m like as an adult. Ask me where I see myself in three years and I have no idea what answer to give. That makes me insecure. Don’t passionate people always know what their passions are?

But then I realized I’m asking myself the wrong question. As a wise friend recently told me, it’s not the what that matters, but the how. It’s a mindset shift that focuses more on your values than the title on your business card.

That mindset shift made my mom’s question and my subsequent concerns null.

It doesn’t matter that I didn’t grow up reading National Geographic or having a deep understanding of social justice issues. I am who I am now, and that’s because of the experiences I have opened myself to, and the opportunities I have been privileged to have and worked hard to achieve. I don’t want the person I am to remain static.

For me the “how” is this: I want to approach life with an open-mind and a desire to learn more about the world’s diverse cultures and communities. I want to gain a greater respect for what makes all of us tick, and I hope my work can help other people gain that respect, too, and debunk some of the fears and misconceptions they have about the world. I believe it’s a basic matter of human dignity for all.

And so, just as I finished my 2013 blog post in a darkened airport terminal in Doha, Qatar, I finish this one at the airport in Istanbul. In two hours my flight leaves for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. For the next eight months I will be working as the communications advisor with a Canadian NGO called EQWIP HUBs where I’ll be supporting the team to develop locally-relevant communications and recruitment strategies for their entrepreneurship and employment programs.

After that – who knows. East Africa is a diverse place and I’ve always wanted to explore the Great Lakes region. I’ve got my recorder, my camera, and my notebook, and I’ll hopefully get to share some stories.

And when I find myself dwelling on the uncertainty of what comes next, I will remind myself of this: there is no such thing as a right or wrong life path, the important thing is that you make a decision and own it – fear or not. This is who and how – I want to be when I grow up.

Just as at the end of my Nepal blog post from 2013, there are many more photos and words to come. I’m excited to share more with you.

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Vignette #1: That Old House

This is the first in a series of short reflections I’ll be posting in the coming weeks. I’ve always enjoyed writing vignettes – small snippets that capture a very specific moment in time, a person, or a place. My writing often takes this form, and I thought I’d tug these words out of my notebook and Google Docs folder, and start posting again. This is actually a monologue I wrote for a radio club I’m a member of. We were partnered up and told to create a soundscape/experimental sound piece around the other person’s words. My partner and I have yet to do this, but the written piece alone means a lot to me. Here’s vignette number 1 – I hope you enjoy.

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When I was growing up, I always thought it was a castle. It was the biggest house I had ever seen, which wasn’t much, coming from small town northern Ontario. The house held equal part memory and personality. That clinically-mint kitchen-bedroom combination on the second floor, those floral sheets spread clean over single beds. The back stairway that led from my parents’ room down into the kitchen. The couches wrapped in plastic that squeaked as I flipped through a decade of dusty yearbooks.

It was my gramps’ house and it was our summer retreat, until it wasn’t anymore.

We got older and that house got older and my gramps got older, too. Today only the first two remain, and no one looks the same.

A few summers ago I returned to that town and stood on the sidewalk across the street from that old house, the castle of my childhood. It had been years, and I expected it to look different – reclaimed by another family and by other children with active imaginations and toys to scatter the front yard. But it was the same. The red paint on the porch was peeled back, worn clean along a track where I learned to ride my tricycle. The doorbell was the same white turn knob, a rusty ring that percussed along with the sound of screen door slams.

Inside the front window, there was a ladder, and a room half painted. Memories were in the midst of being covered and refreshed, but they would never be forgotten. They run deeper than any paint, than any furniture. Still the transformation was underway, from a place that was mine, to a place that was theirs.

I spent my summers growing up in that old house, but never as much as in that moment.

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)

TIME

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.

YOUTHFULNESS

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.

PASSIONS

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 student..my 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.

Kathmandu to Hong Kong: Culture shock central

Hi all,

Part of me wishes (and will always wish) I was still in one of the two places mentioned in the title of this blog post. International travel is an intoxicating mix of new encounters and humbling experiences. I feel fortunate for the adventures I had and the lessons I learned last fall and winter, and can’t help but yearn for when I will be lucky enough to have them again. At this time when I feel myself struggling with a couple of complex feelings around place and direction, I’ve been thinking a lot about the journey I took earlier this year. Because of computer logistics and less notebook scribbles, I never posted anything about my final trip days. I’m hoping to do a bit of that over the coming weeks, as I reflect back and start a new chapter in my life. More on that later.

—-

Leaving Nepal on January 28 was bittersweet. It was dusk in Kathmandu as I took the taxi from Boudhanath, where I’d had dinner with a new friend, to the airport. One last ride on the pockmarked streets, horns blaring around corners and into the night sky.

Saying 'bye bye' to Boudhanath and Kathmandu - so bittersweet, but I'll be back!
Saying ‘bye bye’ to Boudhanath and Kathmandu

During nighttime take offs, one of my favourite things is to look out the window at the lights of the city below, snaking their way around waterways and geometrically into grids. Not so in Kathmandu. Our plane soared off the runway and up into the sky. I turned my head to the window, and found we left behind almost complete darkness. I shouldn’t have been surprised. January and February are two of the worst months for power load shedding in KTM, and at this point in the evening, the sprawl of the city was blanketed in black. Still, I said my final farewells to that temporary home, and imagined leaving behind all those now-invisible behind-a-curtain restaurants, street vendors, and mountains.

This in mind, Hong Kong hit like a bag of bricks. Kathmandu is a sensory experience because of the honking and monkeys and traffic and dust. In Hong Kong, it’s the never-ending light. Electricity everywhere, screaming at you with the equivalent of a thousand caps-locked novels. I felt as though there were more lights in one square block of HK than in all of Kathmandu. It was jaw-dropping. I felt like I had just been caught escaping jail, every floodlight of the institution suddenly shining down on me.

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A constant theme throughout my travel-related blog posts were experiences that provided dramatic foils – concepts of day and nightmadness and calmness in Janakpur and Ilamplaytime in the Western world versus in Nepal. The contrast between Nepal and Hong Kong was one of those so-called opposites. I went from a country that is in the midst of such development, to one of the most high tech and densely populated cities in the world.

Kathmandu (left) to Hong Kong (right)
Kathmandu (left) to Hong Kong (right)

The culture shock hit the moment I got to the airport. I realized I had “forgotten” how to use an automatic soap dispenser and was surprised when the toilet flushed itself. I got nauseous and motion sick on all forms of public transportation because my body was no longer used to travelling faster than 40 kilometres an hour, not to mention on smooth roads. There were street lights, street signs, garbage cans, and skyscrapers. I stared at my sweaty, backpacked reflection in the window of Dolce and Gabanna and Gucci stores. Starbucks and McDonalds waved with Western World hello’s. Everything was efficient and clean and everyone was in a rush.

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It was easy to feel overwhelmed by the change. I think Hong Kong would have been intense coming from Canada, but it was even more so coming straight from three months in Nepal. Still, I was grateful for the order of travel, and the perspective Nepal gave me for this new city at hand.

Suddenly, “Western” ideas of consumerism and capitalism in Hong Kong seemed absurd when compared to the poverty I had witnessed in Nepal. In Gatlang, one of the only opportunities for women to “shop” was when two young men walked the five hours from a local village, peddling Hello Kitty polar fleeces and fake leather jackets. In Hong Kong, material items seemed much more important. Shopping malls marked every corner like a neighbourhood coffee shop.

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Market scenes
Market scenes

It’s here that we should note that Hong Kong is not China (no, really, it’s considered a “Special Administrative Region” and is so much more British/Western because of that controversial little thing they call colonialism). When I talked to some people at home about going to China, or even going to Hong Kong, the reaction was: do you know that China is a communist state? A: sure, in theory.

But despite the cultural revolution, Maoist hate-on for capitalism and the bourgeois, China, to me, is really the ultimate expression of Capitalism (in what I thought as a sweet bit of irony, I was even able to buy my very own little red copy of “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” and a lovely wristwatch where Mao’s raised arm is used to indicate the changing minute). And, since we’ve already established that not only is HK not really China, but was also very much Western-inspired, the city’s culture reflects this. HK has one of the highest per-capita incomes, but also one of the highest rates in income inequality among developed countries.

I felt the sudden urge to get rid of most of what I own.

When do we want a revolution? Right Mao!
When do we want a revolution? Right Mao!

All this in mind, HK was exciting, too. It felt like being in a non-stop amusement park. I ate oily, deep-fried fish balls and squid sold at corner street vendors, chunks of eggplant oozing with cheese. I wandered market after market, taking great thrill in haggling for fun; I ate noodles and drank beer in outdoor night markets. The Hong Kong subway and mini buses hurtled me around the city, to take in the sights and scents at Taoist temples, and awe over manicured city gardens contrasted with the highest of skyscrapers.

Hong Kong Island (Kowloon in the distance) from Victoria Peak, the highest point in the city.
Hong Kong Island (Kowloon in the distance) from Victoria Peak, the highest point in the city.
Food stall
Food stall (the woman is telling me off in Cantonese)

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Incense burns at Wong Tai Sin Temple in Hong Kong - Chinese New Year offerings.
Incense burns at Wong Tai Sin Temple in Hong Kong – Chinese New Year offerings.

To be fair, I was also in the city during Chinese New Year celebrations (as I had eagerly intended), so things were perhaps even more frantic than usual. Stay with me over the next little bit as I explore the fun follies of cultural identity, colonial remnants, celebrating three New Years in one year, and the impressive hilarity of choreographed water fountains!