26 Days in China

G and I arrived in Shanghai on 10/22/2015 and left Shanghai on 11/16/2015. During our 26 day visit in addition to time spent in Shanghai, we also visited Datong, Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, and Huangshan. More than half of G and I’s trip was dedicated solely to confirm facts for our book. The rest was to explore China and to show both G’s parents and my parents around Shanghai. Even though both sets of our parents were born in Shanghai and lived there until their 30’s, they no longer recognize 80% of today’s Shanghai despite have visited every several years since the 1990’s. It is no wonder as China is the third largest country in the world with over a billion people mostly concentrated in the cities and has undergone such a huge economic change during the past 30 years that it is a big puzzle to the world and even its own residents.

Myself, I was born in China (Shanghai) and lived there until I was 6 and visited in 1992 (month plus), 1994 (month plus), 1998 (month plus), 2002 (2-3 weeks?), 2006 (2 weeks), 2008(3 month stay), 2010 (1 week), 2011 (2 weeks), 2011-2012 (lived 14 months in Hong Kong), 2014 (23 days), 2015 (26 days). I speak Mandarin and Shanghainese like a native and read Chinese newspapers and books without problems. What I have discovered about China is that the more I learn the more I find there is to learn and that things change so quickly that what was in vogue or the way to do things this year will not be in the next year.

For our 26 day trip I probably spent almost 2 months to planning the trip with Plan B’s and Plan C’s in case Plan A fails. All major activities, all hotels, and all train tickets were purchased/booked in advance. 85% of my meals was planned prior to my arrival in Shanghai because there is too much good food in China to be wasted just eating out at random restaurants and stalls. Despite eating every single meal out for all 26 days, I only gained 3lbs during the entire trip due to walking 203 miles during the 26 days in addition to 25 minutes of yoga a day and weighing myself nightly to keep my weight in check.

Join me as I take you through a 26 day tour of China as seen through my eyes. Below is one of my favorite shots (unedited, shot with my Samsung Note 4 with HDR off) taken during my trip in China. Can you guess the location?

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Book Review: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

I am a clean person but not a tidy person. As in I wipe the floor 6 days a week, the sink is always clear of dishes, the counters and desktops are neatly organized. However it is what lies behind the surface that is a mess. It’s always hard to close the closet doors, and the drawers are a mess. This is despite doing a major clean and reorg twice a year.

Enter Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. I just finished reading it and it is a revelation.

In the past I have had trouble organizing because the question I always asked myself was “Should I throw this item away?” The answer would usually be no because of a myriad of excuses, it was expensive, I have only worn it three times, it was a gift, I can always wear this at home even though I won’t wear it out, etc. Bottom line is I feel guilty throwing things out. But I still do so anyway which causes even more guilt.

However Marie Kondo’s method of tossing things out is “The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: Does this spark joy? If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.”

She suggests that the best sequence is “clothes(including shoes and bags) first, then books, papers, komono(miscellany), and lastly, mementos.”

And that’s exactly what I did today for nearly 9 hours. I was especially mindful to not downgrade any of my clothes to “loungewear.” The books points out “It doesn’t seem right to keep clothes we don’t enjoy for relaxing around the house. This time at home is still a precious part of living. Its value should not change just because nobody sees us. Precisely because no one is there to see you, it makes far more sense to reinforce a positive self-image by wearing clothes you love.”

The result? 70% of my clothes are going to be donated. Shoes, I am keeping all of them as I only have 12 pairs of shoes (1 pair of hiking/winter/waterproof boots, 1 pair of Uggs, 1 pair of high heeled boots, 1 pair of ballet flats, 3 pairs of heels, 4 pairs of sandals, 1 pair of sneakers). Bags, only discarded 1 which leaves me with 11 bags.

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The Next Chapter: Leaving New York Again

As an adult, I have moved away from New York twice.

The first time was in 2007 when I decided to move to Charlotte, North Carolina. During my one visit there, everything seemed great especially the houses. An all brick house 4000sqft house with tray ceilings, wood floors, granite countertops, spa bathrooms, fireplaces, and much more was only around $400K with taxes of $3000 a year! A similar house in New York would be at least 2 million with taxes of $25,000 a year.

It was only until I moved to Charlotte that I discovered I did not fit in. I didn’t belong to a church nor did I have an interest in joining one. I wasn’t married nor did I have kids nor did I have interest in either. I don’t care for shopping so the huge amount of malls and strip malls held no appeal. I didn’t want to join gyms because I avoid places filled with sweaty people, the smell and the germs make me physically ill. Honestly, I should have really thought about the realities of living there before being seduced by the dazzling houses. Charlotte is right for many people. Just not for me.

But I did learn that I am not a fan of McMansions especially when the said McMansions is part of a subdivision. It gets rather boring when everyone has a McMansion built in the same cookie cutter style because they were all built by the same developer in one of the five styles available and then lumped into a subdivision with strict bylaws and what not. All the front lawns, fences, were eerily similar due to the strict bylaws. I have heard horror stories where you had to get approval to paint your door a certain color! Besides having toured enough subdivisions, I can tell you that it was easy to get lost as all the houses were so similar. And that is probably my deepest impression of Charlotte.

 

I came back to New York dejected and defeated. I had spent a lot of money, energy, and effort only to regret the entire process. Sure I may never live in a newly built McMansion in New York, but I would rather live in an apartment in New York forever than a palace in Charlotte. I want to state here that I know families that have relocated to Charlotte and loved it, but I also know of families that hated it and couldn’t wait to leave. It goes to prove that different strokes for different folks.

In 2011, the itch to leave New York hit me once again. This was because all my friends were having kids and I felt extremely out of place. I wanted a change of scenery and excitement so I talked G into quitting his job so that we can live abroad. Instead when G went to quit his job, they offered to transfer him to Hong Kong and that was how we ended up there.

I loved Hong Kong and love it still. The best thing about it is that as a female I felt extremely safe walking around at all hours in my neighborhood. I could wear pretty dresses without being hollered at. And I can wear jewelry without fear of being robbed. I never needed to drive, I can walk everywhere or take a cab. I made some good friends and there was a never ending list of activities to do. And the food! G and I ate out every single day. I probably used my kitchen a grand total of maybe 50 times in the 14 months we lived there.

However there are three huge negatives about Hong Kong that inevitably forced us to move back. The lack of living space. I just couldn’t see myself living in a 545sq apartment long term. To upgrade to an 800sq apartment in the same neighborhood, I was going to have to spend at least $6500USD (we were already spending $4000). Another negative was the huge amount of people. I felt like I was swimming in a sea of people half the time. In addition to the natives there are also tons of tourists and their luggage. How I hated their luggage! In the narrow streets they bumped into me numerous times. Not to mention my foot was run over at least several times by people’s suitcases. No apologies, nothing.

Last and certainly not the least was the fact that G was working 80 hour minimum weeks. The competition in Hong Kong is much greater than New York. After all Hong Kong has many more people willing to do more for less. But I will say this, if I was extremely rich I wouldn’t mind living in Hong Kong at all. =P

And so we moved back. But this time I didn’t come back to New York dejected and defeated. Instead I consider the time we spent in Hong Kong as one of the best experiences of my life. I learned, I grew, and I evolved into the person I am today. I learned what makes me happy, what truly mattered to me, and what goals I want to achieve in the future.

I also learned that I never wanted G to work more than a 40 hour work week no matter how much it paid. Free time is SO more important than a high salary. What was a point of having a grand house when you had to work yourself to death to pay for it? And that even though I didn’t need a McMansion to make me happy, I needed more than 545sqft.

If I had the money, the ideal living space to me would be a 2000sqft apartment in Oahu, Hong Kong, or the Upper East Side in New York preferably between 50th and 70th streets with a doorman and a pool. =) But it is not to G, even if he had the money.

You see G has always wanted to own a house, preferably with lots of land. And truth to be told, I am a bit curious about what it is like to own and live in a house as I have never done so before. Initially we considered purchasing a house in Fresh Meadows mainly because it is a nice area and because our close friends P&T lives there. However we are priced out of that neighborhood. Recently a 1600sqft rundown house across the street from them sold for $750K! P&T also told us that the house sold extremely quickly even though it needed at least $100K in renovations.

In order to purchase an $850K house, G will have to go back to working long hours. It makes no sense that the person who wants a house the most will have no time to enjoy it. Additionally, I am against spending $850K for a house as I am not 100% sure that I will even enjoy living in a house in the first place. Therefore after much discussion, G and I have agreed to look outside of New York on our house hunt.

Ideally I would like to buy a house in the $300K-$400K range because I view houses as depreciating assets. Sure in ten years the value of the house may rise, then again it may not. In Charlotte many of the McMansions are still being sold in the $350K-$450K range, the same price it was back in 2007. Even if the price of the house increases, the amount of mortgage interest one would have paid probably wiped out by the gains, not to mention all the upkeep and time that comes with owning a house. And factor in inflation, did the value of the house truly increase?

For me that translates to purchasing a house that will suit all of my needs and not the most house I can afford. Besides, I am not committing to owning a house forever but 5 years. As I have never lived in a house I cannot guarantee that I will enjoy living in a house. I can only promise G that I will give myself 5 years to see if I can adjust to living in a house and all the responsibilities that come with it.

They say that the third time is the charm. I certainly hope so!

Fed Up – A Documentary About Americans and Sugar

G and I watched Fed Up about a month ago and it was an eyeopener for him. It was one of those films where I constantly paused and turned to G and said “I told you so.”

To G’s credit, in the 5 years we have been together, he has dramatically cut down his sugar intake. He may call me mean and complains constantly but he does abide by my rules regarding food which are:

(1) Dessert (cake,brownie,cookies): Once a week maximum.

(2) Soda: No more than a 8 ounces a day.

(3) Snacks (chips, oreos, chocolate, ice cream): No more than twice a week.

(4) Vegetables: Must finish all the vegetables I put on his plate before the protein and the carbs.

(5) Water: Minimum of four cups a day.

But since the documentary, he no longer calls me mean nor does he complain. Instead he turned to me and thanked me for keeping him in good health. And ever since watching it, he has been actively reading nutrition labels on everything we buy. He is now much more agreeable to eating at home instead of restaurants because it is so much healthier.

Is eating healthy hard? YES! I especially love fried foods, spicy foods, and instant noodles. But I love being healthy more so I try my best to conquer my tastebuds. I fail constantly. But I comfort myself in that I exercise about an hour a day (At least 30 minutes of walking and 25 minutes of yoga/stretching) and that I eat at least one healthy meal a day to balance out an unhealthy meal.

No one is perfect and asking for a dramatic change overnight is a surefire recipe for failure. Ingrained habits are hard to overcome and each new idea should be introduced slowly and given time to take root before adding another new idea. Example: G and I did yoga/stretching daily for 8 months before we added on a mandatory daily walk of 30 minutes.

Tip: Watch out for low-fat and diet products, I used to eat them all the time and never lost a pound and in fact even gained. It’s because the fat that has been cut out is just replaced by sugar. Fat or sugar, I’ll take the fat as fat will make me feel full whereas sugar makes me hungrier. I haven’t eaten any low-fat or diet products in years and am fitter now than ever before.

Another tip: Watch out for sodium. The food industry has figured out that many consumers are now boycotting sugar they are now replacing sugar with sodium.

Carnival Splendor Review

Though this is my fourth cruise, I don’t consider myself a cruise person. I go on cruises to spend time with friends and family. Cruise #1 was with 7 female friends, Cruise #2 was with three other couples, Cruise #3 was with four other couples, a toddler, and my in-laws.

This time I cruised with my parents, my in-laws, my aunt Ying and uncle Yan, and of course G. I picked the Carnival Splendor because it sailed out of New York (dad hates to fly), and because I liked the itinerary, a 7 day cruise visiting Boston, Portland, Saint John, and Halifax. I am big on planning so before booking the trip I read pretty much every review on Cruise Critic and knew what to expect. I did not have high expectations but was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this trip despite injuring my left foot three days before we sailed off.

Embarkation: Carnival asks that you arrive after 1pm. My group arrived at Pier 90 at 11:20 and was on the ship in under half an hour with no waiting whatsoever. All four of our rooms were also ready so we dropped off our luggage before heading to the buffet.

Food: Out of all the cruise lines I have sailed with: Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Carnival, I actually like Carnival’s food the best. In my experience I would rate Carnival’s food offerings better than Celebrity, and Celebrity’s food offerings better than Royal Caribbean. In fact on my Alaskan cruise with Royal, I was craving an instant noodle so bad because all the food seemed bland. One pregnant friend that I was traveling with on the same cruise felt the same way I did and she got one off of our really nice waiter from Bali and then tipped him generously. Note: I did not try any speciality restaurants on any of my cruises because I don’t believe in paying extra for dinner when dinner is already included in the price especially when I eat very little for dinner in the first place. If it wasn’t for my relatives, I would opt for the buffet every night and just eat some veggies and fruit.

I found the lunch buffet to be well set up with three buffet stations serving the same kinds of food (various cold salads, 6 hot entrees, some days were better than others, especially on the day they served roast turkey with gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce). Additionally there were other smaller stations such as the Indian food station (tasted good most of the time), the burrito bar (not so good), the sandwich bar (not bad), The Grill (hamburgers were decent, hotdogs looked too scary to try), The Rotisserie (Never knew what the big deal about roast chicken was and still don’t especially when fried chicken is so much better), Mongolian Stir Fry (sucked, G can make better food than this and he is a very much a newbie when it comes to cooking).

With that said here are some of the food I enjoyed most on the cruise:

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Homestyle Chinese Cooking

On most days I eat two meals: lunch and dinner. For lunch I either eat out or get takeaways. Dinners I cook. Lunch is usually unhealthy as it’s mainly, fried chicken, fried pork chops, fried shrimp, fried fish, steak, pad thai, pizza, blt’s, etc. But I almost always eat a healthy dinner unless I am meeting up with friends. When that happens, I eat a healthy lunch. Food enjoyment for me is about balance, I will eat delicious artery clogging food only 50% of the time. No more, no less.

For lunch, we had bacon, eggs, hash browns, toast, so for dinner I made a simple homestyle Shanghainese meal. I normally make only 2-3 dishes, but since the dishes I wanted to make today are all pretty simple I made 4. I try to use minimal olive oil and definitely no MSG.:

homestyle chinese cooking

Total prep time for this meal is 1 hour and 6 minutes which isn’t too bad considering it is four dishes plus rice (made in a rice pot). I could have spent another 10-15 minutes prepping the raw ingredients to double up on every dish so that G and I would be able to have enough for another meal. But G hates leftovers and repetition so I only made enough for one meal.

egg and tomato dish

The egg and tomato dish is a classic Chinese dish, each region of China serves this in a slightly different way. Some add scallions, some add sesame oil, some add ketchup, etc. I cook it the way my mom always makes it. Just plain scrambled eggs and tomatoes with olive oil, sugar and salt. This dish is simple and it is hard to mess up once you have perfect the art of making scrambled eggs over high fire as opposed to the slow cooked Gordon Ramsey kind. A very quick dish to make and takes under 10 minutes. I made this dish in my stainless steel wok. If you have high quality stainless steel and know how to use it. It should never stick unless you are cooking fried rice or fried noodles.

Julienned potatoes Sichuan Style

Julienned potatoes Sichuan Style. The Shanghainese style would be with thinly sliced green peppers, but I was in the mood for something a bit more spicy. This dish is usually served cold so I made this dish first so it would have time to cool down. The trick to making this dish to to soak & rinse the potatoes several times in cold water so that the julienned potatoes will retain a bite even after it has been fully cooked. A lot of prep work in that it takes time to julienne the potatoes, around 25 minutes for 2 potatoes. But then again I am a slow chopper because I am extraordinarily careful when chopping. I have been cooking since I was 13, and no accidents ever. *knock on wood*

cabbage with garlic

Emperor cabbage with garlic. I usually buy whatever vegetable looks fresh at the supermarket. The emperor cabbage has more flavor than that of Nappa cabbage with a slight bitter undertone. Add a bit of garlic to it and its a healthy dish that takes under 10 minutes. I use a stainless steel wok to cook all my vegetables.

stirfry beef and onions

Beef with onions and fermented black beans. Originally I planned to stir fry the beef with bitter melon. Luckily for G, no good quality bitter melon to be found at the supermarket. Therefore I just used up the purple and yellow onions I had in the fridge. Add in a little soy sauce and fermented black beans, plus sugar and salt. And that’s it. Around 20 minutes.

Big John’s Texas BBQ Page Arizona Review

G and I stopped by Big John’s Texas BBQ after our tour of Antelope Canyon. G is always down for BBQ and since I had read good things about Big John’s on Tripadvisor we decided to give it a try.

Big John's Texas BBQ Page Arizona

We shared a Sampler Plate which contained beef brisket, pulled pork, spicy hot link sausage, 2 baby back ribs, cowboy beans, and cole slaw. It was a lot of food and I am glad that I did not order my own platter since we did not even manage to finish this platter. At $15.50 for the platter, it was a good deal considering the quality and amount of food. Is this the best BBQ ever? No, but it is very tasty especially dipped in their homemade BBQ sauce. Additionally the cowboy beans and cole slaw are probably the best I have ever had. Their coleslaw was so fresh and tasty with the correct tangy to mayo ratio that I bought one just for the road. I would have gotten another order of the cowboy beans as well but the nice cashier gave it to me for free.

What stood out to me was the service. The lady working at the cash register was so friendly and helpful. I happily left a tip in her tip jar which in turn led her to be over the top helpful in that she gave us a free side and wanted to refill our drinks before we left which I declined as I limit G’s soda intake.

If you are ever in the Page AZ area give Big John’s Texas BBQ a chance, it was the best meal we had in Page over the course of our two day stay. You can do far worse in Page than Big John’s.

Big John’s Texas BBQ
153 South Lake Powell Blvd. Page, AZ
928-645-3300

Zion National Park – Spectacular

I did not think I would love Zion National Park as much as I did. It was the highlight of my November 2013 Roadtrip. I now understand why so many rave people rave about Zion National Park. Springdale is also a nice base to visit the park. My pictures does not do the park justice.

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Can’t wait to go back. Next time I will be sure to spend more than two days. A three day minimum is needed to see Zion in all it’s glory.