I love flying and I don’t care how passé that makes me

I love it. I love all of it. There’s always some small part of me that’s watching from the shadows saying, “holy shit, this is cool. We’re doing it.” When I was walking a mile down a road in a Chinese city in manifestly inappropriate shoes to get to an international terminal with the baking heat reducing me to a puddle, there was still that part of me, that little girl from Nowhere, Georgia who was elated to be there.

For several years, I have made it my mission to travel as often and as widely as I can. Often that meant for very little money. And traveling with very little money can be a bit uncomfortable. It can be sitting too close to smelly people. It can be not being able to charge your phone so you’re lost and suddenly aware of how dependent you are on your little device of choice. It can mean paying an exorbitant amount of money for the shittiest coffee you’ll drink in your life just to stay awake for your eighteenth hour of constant travel-induced anxiety.

I love it. I love all of it. There’s always some small part of me that’s watching from the shadows saying, “holy shit, this is cool. We’re doing it.” When I was walking a mile down a road in a Chinese city in manifestly inappropriate shoes to get to an international terminal with the baking heat reducing me to a puddle, there was still that part of me, that little girl from Nowhere, Georgia who was elated to be there.

I mean, don’t get me wrong- she was very quiet. But she was still there.

I know it makes me gauche to still love flying but I do. Every part of it. I love the stress of making it to my gate. (I am notorious for showing up unfashionably early.) I love trying to make it through TSA with as little fuss as possible. It’s like a game. I love finding my gate, again, unfashionably early and then snuggling up to wait with a good book and a cup of coffee. I like falling in love with strangers a dozen times and imagining rich stories. I like to be fallen in love with and imagined about by the strangers around me.

A particularly shitty coffee on a particularly difficult day.

I don’t like boarding. People can get a little pushy. I just try to lead by orderly example.

I have made a promise to myself that I will always pay attention when the flight is taking off. Even if it’s a thirty minute flight, I promise I will always take time to appreciate that minor miracle of modernity.

I like being especially nice to flight attendants. Years in the service industry has taught me to respect the fine art of being trapped in a steel tube thousands of feet in the air with the customers who just don’t get it. Flight attendants are saints.

I also have a compulsive need to be liked that comes especially to the forefront when traveling if you couldn’t tell.

I’m always a little sad when the plane touches down. Truly, the getting there is often my favorite part. Even with the recycled air and the neighbor who is too close and the screaming baby and the endless layers of bureaucracy which keeps me from getting whatever vegan meal I requested through the appropriate channels months before. Even with people rushing to get off the plane before the plane has even parked (a personal pet peeve), I love flying. And I don’t care how passé that makes me.

for the barefoot dreamer-

As years pass by and I grow older, I look back at my upbringing with less and less of the anger and shame that I carried with me throughout my adolescence. I am grateful to come from a class of people who work hard and who have clear convictions about right and wrong (we will withhold judgement for now on whether or not these ideas are in fact truly right and wrong).

I always think of my mother when I am insecure. My mother is loud and unapologetic in her delight. She enjoys the finer things of life but defines them for herself, thank you very much. A Bota box and some day-after-Valentine’s-day candy are just as well received as a night out at a fine steak house. Better even, for going light on the wallet. What’s more amazing about my mother, is she doesn’t feel the need to share either night on social media. It is, after all, her night, her love, her fun, her light- what business is it yours what’s she’s doing? She’s got nothing to prove.

Of course, this is a gross romanticization. We can unpack all the reasons why my mother is the way she is and they probably look as human and mundane as everything else. But that’s part of raising a dreamer with eyes on the horizon in a little southern town. As soon as I knew there was a world beyond the ridge, I wanted it. I wanted everything. I wanted to swallow the whole world in little decadent bites and great gasping gulps. And that means romance. I’m in love with the whole world and I’ve never even met it yet.

Moving from community to community, culture to culture, taught me a few things. What it tried to teach me, was that I ought to be embarrassed for my upbringing. We can save the conversation on the vilification of the poor and what years of pumping poverty porn out of Appalachia have done to our collective psyche. But for now, let it suffice to say my accent has been a cultural trigger which informed the people around me they could disbelieve and discredit what I had to say. This in turn taught me to resent and hide my accent and my upbringing. After all, I was surrounded by people who were so much more worldly and sophisticated than me. I desperately wanted to fit into the whole world seamlessly.

From my first day of my first solo trip. I went to New Orleans. It was exactly as romantic as I imagined it would be.

Turns out, that’s a sure fire way to waste a lot of everybody’s time. Here’s the thing about all of that. I am proud of who I am. I am proud of the good parts of me I inherited from my mother and the land that raised me. I am working to improve the bad things about me. But there’s just not enough differences between me growing up in Georgia and you growing up in New York. Especially not if I meet you out on the road.

Though I have spent much of my adult life traveling, I have made it my mission to never lose that tingle of excitement in my stomach when a plane lifts off. You may think I’m crazy but I’ll tell you, the little girl who dreamed of the world beyond the ridge line is still in my every step of the way when I travel. She loves the grumpy TSA agents and the shitty coffee we drink. She loves sitting next to other travelers and imagining their stories. She loves travel and no longer being in her life for a few days. Sometimes I think I lose her among the mistranslated dashes from terminal to terminal or dog tired trudges to a hostel after hours of stress and anxiety. But she’s still there- egging me on, bright eyed with the rush.

She’s like my mother. Hungry for the rush and the business. Hungry for the romance and the new. It may make me gauche but I unabashedly love every part of traveling and especially the hard parts- because they’re proof that I’m doing it, I’m showing that little barefoot girl the world and feeding it to her a bite at time.

This is from the last day of that same trip. I wish I could go back and squeeze that young lady and tell her what a great job she’s doing.

Why China?: The Inappropriate Response I Never Give at Parties.

People often ask me, why Beijing? I never have a good answer that fits well into that particular politely interested slot of the conversation. Here is the impolite, outsized answer.

People often ask me, why Beijing? I never have a good answer that fits well into that particular politely interested slot of the conversation. Here is the impolite, outsized answer.

I turned 25 in Beijing. Unlike some other more organized, successful people, I was not living there for any particular reason. I did not have some great job with an awesome company that elected me to represent them in China’s capital. I didn’t speak the language. I lacked any sort of niche political or economic knowledge that would make my being in China make any sort of sense. It’s only thanks to some technicalities that I can say my time there was even mostly legal.

I was in China because I was depressed and I don’t know how to cope with my depression so I make rash decisions and overcommit myself to responsibilities and goals I can very rarely stay interested enough in to achieve. This time I did achieve my entirely arbitrary goal and found myself living in Beijing. It could have been anything. I could have found myself in a master’s program or in a serious relationship or working four jobs or a homeowner. But that’s not what I did. I moved to China.

There was never any particular excitement or anxiety connected to my move. I was in a place where I felt so little of my own emotions that it took my body physically breaking down before I even had a clue that I might be suffering from some fairly serious anxiety. When I began to board my flight to Beijing and the stewardess spoke in Mandarin before she spoke in English I was a little uneasy but, overall, I was just glad to have something to think about besides how bleak I found my own existence.

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That’s heavy. Here’s a pic from Beijing.

Then, after landing, I had these daily, short bursts of exhilaration. I had all these mini goals to accomplish. Order my coffee correctly. Buy lunch by myself. Take the subway. I was also finishing my degree online so that served to center my goal-oriented mind. The satisfaction of having accomplished my goals, large and small, is what kept me waking up every day.

But then, of course, I graduated and I became complacent and the depression I ran from back in the U.S. ambled up and belched, “Nihao,” right in my face.

I considered moving home early but, no, that’s too much effort and the shame would kill me. Maybe I should go to law school? Nah, I’m probably not smart enough. I know! I’ll start a blog to document my exotic, exciting life abroad! (Welcome to the fruit of that particular fever dream.) I made multi-faceted, complex plans that involved tons and tons of research. I planned a trip to Europe. I took my expired prescription given to me during my last, particularly awful panic attack back home and cried for 24 hours straight.

I. Was. A. Mess.

I’m ok right now. Eventually, my beautiful, crazy friends strong-armed me into being with them and that was the right amount of validation to feel like I should stay a bit longer. I went to Europe and then I moved back in with my family in comfortable, sweet Chattanooga, Tennessee. My transition back has been easy because of the soft landing I had with my folks who are more than happy to help me though I’ve done nothing to deserve that help. Now I work, go to yoga, practice my language skills, and read books. I am briefly healthy.

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Make it a point to meet good people everywhere you go.

I say briefly because this health is always temporary. I always feel the crushing dread of the rest of my life breathing hot and wet on my cheek. How will you pay your student loans? Can you even buy a house if you wanted to? Will you die alone because you’re an absolute lunatic? The litany of my shortcomings is nonstop and softened only when my active, goal-oriented mind gets its grubby hands on any sort of validation.

Sometimes I cry at the end of my yoga class when the teacher says something like, “Thank yourself for coming to your mat today.” I cry quietly so that no one knows and I’m usually sweaty enough that the teacher couldn’t tell the difference if she looked. But I’m telling myself, “coming to yoga today was enough to save my life again and I really, really am grateful.”

The same is true of my time in China. I was in China because my greedy, insecure brain needed to know that I could accomplish this impossible thing. Beijing, like so many other crazy things I’ve done in my life, was me setting my teeth and pushing back hard against the voice inside me that thinks the rest of my life will be as pointless as Sisyphus’ stone.

I don’t know what the answer is for your depression. I don’t know how to tell you to get out of bed because the world is worth it because, mostly, I don’t think it is. But I know that I want to keep trying and part of that trying is accomplishing impossible things to convince myself I deserve to try again. I moved to China to save myself and I wrote this post for the same reason.

So, when people ask me, “why China?” I want to say, “why anything?” Because it saved me for a little while longer.

 

 

Home is Where the Cats Are: Cats in Rome

Rome is a fascinating city full of thousands of years’ worth of history but, the hours and days you spend walking among those ghosts can leave you feeling a bit cold. The cure is to be found at Torre Argentina. Here among the ruins where Julius Caesar met his end, Rome’s feral cat population is protected and adored by all. Walk in and snuggle with any of the cats completely disinterested in you.

Rome is a fascinating city full of thousands of years’ worth of history but, the hours and days you spend walking among those ghosts can leave you feeling a bit cold. The cure is to be found at Torre Argentina. Here among the ruins where Julius Caesar met his end, Rome’s feral cat population is protected and adored by all. Walk in and snuggle with any of the cats completely disinterested in you.

Within walking distance from the Pantheon and the Jewish ghetto, Torre Argentina sits nestled within the busy streets of Rome. I hadn’t heard of the sanctuary until I was on another tour and the guide was kind enough to indicate where the cats were. As soon as our tour was over, I went straight over to fill up with as many ear scratches as I could. (I’ve been away from my dog for nearly a year now and I’m desperate for furry affection.)

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I mean, who wouldn’t miss this face?

Walk up to the square and descend the steps into an underground room full of cats and an international cast of volunteers. As one can expect, the cats range from those eager for attention to those who’d really rather we’d all die off at once and leave the food behind. In the front room, you’ll find well-mannered cats who’ve perhaps wandered in and decided to stick around since the food is good and the rent (permitting head rubs) is cheap.

All cats who come in are spayed/neutered and given an impressive array of vaccinations and tests. Feral cats are fed and left to their own devices after the surgery. Kittens who are surrendered are given to volunteers to foster for their first few months. But the real heartbreakers are the dozens of cats who are there because they’re too old or disabled to make it out on the streets. In the side room, where a volunteer can take you, are the older, sicker cats. Some are totally blind like a little black cat named Ray Charles. His blindness didn’t stop him from trying to climb on my friend and me and we were more than happy to let him.

A cat named Zebra had lost all her teeth and seemed to delight in the opportunity to finally be allowed to gnaw on all the people pawing at her. A dainty little black cat named The Duke watched me with his tail tightly tucked around him until I got my heart right and started petting him. There are earless cats who, through a combination of cancer and intense sun exposure, lost their ears and were left with peculiarly round heads.

All this to say, when the ghosts of Roman past are weighing you down, feel free to wander over to Torre Argentina. There’s nothing to jumpstart your vacation like a cat sanctuary. Feel free to leave a donation with a volunteer and help do your part to support this incredible organization.

 

As usual, thanks to Bobby Albritton for the excellent photos. 

From Zero to Roman Food Snob in Hours

I came to Rome full of the best intentions. I had itineraries and back up itineraries. I memorized the train system and my requisite five words of Italian to communicate to locals that I did not speak Italian but grazie, grazie, grazie.

And, of course, when you come to Rome you must see the big sites. There’s the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the endless amounts of beautiful churches crammed into every corner of the city. Indeed, every step you take will be dogged by people trying to sell you their ticket to whatever attraction you’re breathing closest to. What could be more unimaginable than coming to Rome and missing any of the above?

Easy. Not enjoying deeply, thoroughly, and intimately the delicacies Rome has to offer.

Food tours always fill me with a certain amount of dread. I’m a vegetarian and I’m often in cities where a) I don’t speak the language and b) the food being pushed on tourists is chock full of the strange bits of animals. After a few hours (ok, minutes) of research, I found this tour company- Eating Italy Food Tours which allows you to declare anything that needs to be known about your eating habits. I chose the Sunday Rome tour, dropped the veg-bomb and away we go.

Rome is the sort of place where just walking to the supermarket invites you to trip over some fabulously beautiful and ancient piece of architecture. So, on our walk to the meeting point, our day was already well on its way to being dazzling as we strolled past unpronounceable piazzas. Fortunately, despite our delightful tour guide’s promise to keep the history talk to a minimum, Chiara provided us with enough context to enjoy the walk between mouth-stuffing moment to moment.

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I mean, come on, how is this a real place that we’re just walking along in? It’s absurd.

But, on to the good stuff. Holy cow, did we eat. In a city where I had done little more than inhale pizza Margherita and Prosecco for the previous three days, I didn’t think I could be much more impressed. I’m happy to report I was wrong.

Our first stop was the Roscioli Caffè Pasticceria where we indulged in what Italians have a true skill in- decadent, delicious pastries for breakfast. Enjoy a beautiful, creamy maritozzo. The slightly sweet, puffed pastry is soft enough to not squeeze the delicate whipped cream out into your face as you might think it would at first glance. (Though, full disclosure, when I went back later for seconds, I did have an embarrassing moment when the barista asked me a question while I had the cream on the tip of my nose.)

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eat your heart out, Dunkin Donuts.

After a quick lesson on the Roscioli food empire, the tour moves on to the nearby pizzeria owned by the same family, Antico Forno Roscioli. Here, pizza is served the way Romans like, by the slice. But, in case you didn’t know, these are no namby-pamby triangular slices like we’ve come to expect in the U.S. Instead, Romans indicate by weight or price how much pizza they’d like and then it’s cut to serve. Sink your teeth into pizza margherita and simple pizza bianca so perfectly savory, it’ll move you to tears. Perfectly crispy, thin crust with ingredients that are fresh and local- this is a pizzeria not to be missed and what every tourist hopes to uncover.

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One oft-overlooked portion of Roman history is the Jewish history. But missing that history on a food tour is unforgivable. Chiara took us into the former Jewish ghetto and explained some of the particular points of history that lead to the rise of Jewish-Roman cuisine as it is today. I won’t spoil the surprise for you. Suffice it to say, everything is fried and, thus, everything is delicious. The tour does a great job of switching back and forth between sweet and savory and that holds true in the Jewish quarter as well.

As a person fairly dedicated to budget travel, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself seated at the well-coifed Ba’Ghetto (milky) where we were served artichoke in a way I was a wholly unfamiliar with. The double-fried smashed open ‘choke more closely resembled a sunflower than what it actually was. Crispy on the outside while meaty on the inside and, of course, drowning in olive oil, it was the perfect savory treat paired with a nice pinot grigio.

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I mean, come on.

A few doors down, a line 2-dozen deep was queued for the Cake Boss-esque Kosher Cakes. The secret is to move just to the right of them and step into the smaller, more unassuming section of the bakery. Because this was a Sunday, the welcoming, wide-grinned proprietress stood out front dropping honeyed batter with dried fruits into a deep fryer. She pulled the delightful, sinful nuggets out before topping them with a simple icing and handing the whole package to each of us in a napkin. Readers, when I tell you my clumsy grazie was not enough, it was not enough. I don’t know what it was she served me and I don’t care. She is a gift and what she gives you is a treasure.

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be still my beating heart.

After much cheek-kissing and rubber-necking, we made our way to our penultimate stop.

Open Baladin is an early leader in the Italian craft beer scene. Through clever marketing and truly intelligent product development, the Baladin business is booming. Here we enjoyed a thoroughly Italian beer by the name of nazionale and cacio e pepe potato balls. The cheesy, bite of the potatoes was an especially intelligent pairing with the beer. I won’t embarass myself by trying to describe it. Just know, it’s worth your time.

 

At this point, we’re all pretty much stuffed. Finishing our beers was tough enough. However, when Chiara mentioned gelato we all managed to perk up for one last round the way you only can when really good dessert is on the line.

Gelateria del Teatro overlooks the River Tiber and, as your guide will tell you, is all real. Now me, I don’t like ill-defined words. After I asked for clarification on what a real gelateria is Chiara gravely informed me that some (much less noble gelaterias) have stooped to using powdered ingredients in their (shamefully fluffy) gelato. Carlos at Gelateria del Teatro, on the other hand, has his gelato made every day in the attached workshop with real locally sourced ingredients. The pale green of the pistachio (sourced from Sicily) and the density of the cream let you know you’re working with the real deal.

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It was here, with much regret, that we finally split ways with our delightful host and the treasures she revealed to us. After the tour, I’m afraid I turned into an incontrovertible Roman food snob. Who could be so passé as to eat the swill passing for pizza near the Trevi fountain when the perfect pizza by the slice is a mere twenty-minute walk away? My formerly lukewarm relationship with Italian food has been blown away by this incandescent three-hour walk through Rome. All this to say, friends, when in Rome, do as the Romans do- eat. And, eat well.

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make sure to take the time to meditate on the shameful amount of calories you’ve consumed as you walk over the Tiber and enjoy every second of Rome.

 

With exception of the pictures of the maritozzo and the pizza, all picture credit goes to Bobby Albritton. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.

 

On love, aimlessness, and people-watching in Paris

The joie de vivre soaks into you the more you let it. I found myself today, for perhaps the first time in my life, wandering with no real idea of where my feet were taking me. I have lived for so long with the words, “move with a purpose” essentially tattooed across the backs of my eyelids that this careless degree of meandering was as foreign to me as the pursed-lipped French being euh’d all around me.

The sun is setting on my final day here in Paris. I take a vicious delight in checking my stats near compulsively. Calories burned and consumed (I’m positive I’m coming out red here), elevation gained, steps and miles walked all adding up to quantify my time here in this city. But one thing my trusty Fitbit can’t monitor is the sheer number of times I’ve fallen into and out of love with this city and the people in it.

There’s the barista who struggles to understand me through my southern drawl but who laughs gamely enough. (I’ve imagined at least a dozen times the entirety of our future together.) Don’t get me started on all of the beautiful doe-eyes I’ve held with my own on the subway and on the street.

My tour guide (with whom I have imagined particularly charming scenes of his discomfort at meeting my family for Christmas dinner) sent me an article on Thomas Jefferson’s time here in France back in 1788. I found what I liked best about this article is the value of aimlessness Jefferson discovered here. One of the original American Francophiles, he indulged in a three-month-long journey through Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Aix-en-Provence before returning to his home in Paris on the Champs-Élysées. Upon returning, he struggled to justify just what it was that he did while decadently exploring France and its people. I can relate. He was perhaps the first American to be captivated by the frank disinterest the French have in our never ceasing striving.

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achieving a particularly distressing number of steps in a day at Versailles [credit: Robert Albritton]
 

But truly, that is what Paris has done to me in these few short days. In America, when you enter a café you can expect to find every table full of wrinkle-browed caffeine addicts hunched over laptops. Sitting in a café without something to do is nearly tantamount to shouting, “I’m a sociopath!” to every passerby.

In Paris, on the other hand, I’m delighted (and, alright, a little unnerved) by the sheer number of people simply enjoying a glass of wine with the newspaper or espressos and a chic cigarette with a friend. That’s not to say that people don’t occasionally meet just for a chat and a coffee in America. But, well… the to-go cup reigns supreme back home.

The joie de vivre soaks into you the more you let it. I found myself today, for perhaps the first time in my life, wandering with no real idea of where my feet were taking me. I have lived for so long with the words, “move with a purpose” essentially tattooed across the backs of my eyelids that this careless meandering was as foreign to me as the pursed-lipped French being euh’d on every doorstep.

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Notre Dame is an excellent place to indulge in the beauty of the moment, even in the rain.

A word to the wise- this feeling did not find me while I walked around the 1st arrondissement. Nor in Versailles. In these places where tourists crowd around national monuments to ooh and ah I felt the same sort of bustling energy you feel in most international tourist attractions around the world.

No, it was in the less popular 14th arrondissement where my hostel is that I found myself slowing down to indulge in the moments I found myself in. Here, where people shamelessly strut about gnawing on two feet of baguette, seemingly oblivious to the carbs waiting and willing to destroy their lives. Here, where an older gentleman sipped wine at two in the afternoon and people-watched in a way that was at once the most intense and most relaxed way I have ever seen in my life. His eyes never left the lazy street in front of him and a blush never came to his politely disinterested face. The basket of rich brown bread in front of him was to be enjoyed entirely at his leisure as were the people moving about in front of him.

Insanity.

Tomorrow, I will wake up far before the dawn and fly to Rome to continue, as I told a briefly amorous Scotsman recently, to do Europe as only Americans unspoiled and unspooked by distance can do. However, as the rush hour kicks up, I think I’ll shut the computer, order un verre du vin rouge, and begin my very own unstudied perusal of the world around me. The carbs of my baguette will surely wait until my return before wreaking their havoc. Even they would not dare to intrude on the peace of this evening, my last night in France.

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My thanks to the inconquerable Bobby Albritton for the pictures of me at Versaille and in the café in Paris. For more of his work, check him out on Twitter and Instagram @bobbyalbritton

The Controversy of the Au Pair

The term ‘au pair’ translates to ‘at par.’ Less opaquely, it means ‘as equal to.’ This indicates the unique place the au pair is expected to play in the family. Unlike the traditional domestic help, the au pair is meant to be considered a member of the family.

The term ‘au pair’ translates to ‘at par.’ Less opaquely, it means ‘as equal to.’ This indicates the unique place the au pair is expected to play in the family. Unlike the traditional domestic help, the au pair is meant to be considered a member of the family. She eats family meals, joins their outings, and participates in family activities. The au pair provides a simple service to the family (usually helping with children or around the house) and, in exchange, receives a small allowance and room and board. She is to be considered a member of the family, albeit a temporary one.

That all sounds well and good, but mention the word to ten au pairs and nine of them will shudder and, with a distant, haunted gaze whisper, “never again.” If you check Reddit you’ll find eager au pairs looking for advice and a wave of lascivious innuendos in the comments that assert she will serve as little more than a live-in mistress. When I told my friend that I had accepted a contract as an au pair she, having served five years in Germany, begged me not to do it.

Having now been an au pair for eight months, I’m more confused than ever at what I was meant to hate about my position. No, I’m not a mistress. No, I’m not “the help.” I have no Cinderella stories to tell. My family is lovely and, what’s more, feel like my family in every pertinent way. The annoyances I face are of the run-of-the-mill variety over how hot the house should be, leaving a dirty sink, or their insisting I join them for some family event when I’d rather lie around in bed reading and writing.

What factors contribute to my success as an au pair? Perhaps it’s because I serve in an Asian country and not a European one. The idea of being an au pair is clearly imported from Europe straight to the upper-echelons of Asian families. After all, lacking legally mandated parameters means we can create our own rules and that each family might have a different relationship with and expectations of their au pair.

The early-childcare industry is booming here in a way I doubt I could convey in words. The Washington Post’s Heather Long recently published an article with a study from OECD Social Expenditure Database which shows 75% of Chinese children are students by age three. To compare, in America, only 55% of children can say the same and in only one language at that.) Competition is fierce in China. I consider it an unofficial duty of mine to talk my host mother down from enrolling her 4-year-old son in yet another class. Between studying English with me five days a week, piano as often, and taking an online English course on the weekends on top of being enrolled in kindergarten, I don’t see how the little guy doesn’t lose his mind. From a lower-middle class American perspective, I long for my “little brother” to have the carefree afternoons of my childhood and to experience the exquisite privilege of boredom.

Being an au pair in Asia instead of Europe is no guarantee that you’ll have a positive experience. Parents who hire au pairs do so because they want to put their children ahead by fostering a live-in English environment. There are other au pairs I know here in China who have had these horrible experiences I’ve heard so much about. Some of them, I maintain, have brought it upon themselves but it doesn’t change the seriousness of the consequences of having a poor experience with your family.

 

Objectively, being an au pair puts you in a vulnerable position. In Europe, where the tradition is established, you have some legal protections. (Read this study for information about specific European countries and their protections for au pairs.) But in countries where being an au pair is legally considered little more than an extended couch-surfing session, you have none of those. If my family decided they were done with me tomorrow, I’d be out on the streets of Beijing with no legal reason to be here, not enough money to do much of anything, and having a very limited grasp (at best) on the national language. I know one girl who was kicked out of two different families and ended up owing the company she worked for something like 10,000 RMB (around $1,500.) Scary stuff.

This, I think, is the root of misery for so many au pairs. If our relationships turn into a power play, we’re in the vulnerable position. A la the Stanford Prison Experiment and a general understanding of human nature, we know what that can mean. Families demand more and more knowing their au pairs are actually little more than “the help” if they wish them to be and the au pair does what they’re told fearing the consequences of being rejected by their hosts.

These are real vulnerabilities and a real risk you run when signing up to fill this position.

That being said, being an au pair has been among the best decisions I’ve ever made. I finished my university courses during the day until I graduated two months ago. Now, my days are still free and I use them to develop this blog and my second and third languages. I spend relaxed evenings playing with a little boy who loves me and who feels, for all intents and purposes, like another little brother. My weekends are always spent with other expats here in Beijing making memories and friends that will last a lifetime. Why is my story successful? Why am I the one in ten au pairs who has this experience?

Frankly, I’ve no idea. But I can give you my theory.

My family had never hosted an au pair before and I’d never been an au pair. This was key to our success because both of us came in with no expectations of the other. I spoke to them genuinely about my qualifications- both what they were and what they weren’t. For instance, I told them I’m a babysitter and I have three younger siblings under the age of eleven right now. I told them I love to play with kids but I also am in no way qualified to develop lesson plans. I don’t even have an ESL certification yet!

For my family, that was fine. They wanted what I had to offer which was a big sister who speaks English with a good accent. My family provides the teaching materials they want me to use and I give them my honest opinions about what I think is working. When I first arrived, I was pretty depressed due to all the changes in my life and my little brother wasn’t super interested in hanging out with the scary stranger suddenly living with him. I asked them to be patient with us and they were.
That patience paid off because now, after a few hours of reading every night for these past few months my little brother can verbalize wants, likes and dislikes, and imaginative gameplay in a second language. For that matter, so can I!

It seems to me that a huge part of our success has been in open and honest communication of expectations and problems. When I came home late one evening from the gym and my host parents were worried about me they told me so and we dealt with that.

I’m not saying the mantra ‘communication is key’ will solve every au pair’s problems. I’m not saying being an au pair will definitely be great and I’m not saying it definitely won’t. What I want you to take away from this is that being an au pair is a genuine and excellent option for someone like me who finds themselves a little lost and unrooted in their 20s and looking for an answer in the world. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in another culture and work on your language skills and an even better way to grow as a person. It requires a leap of faith, humility, communication skills, and, above all, some dumb luck. If you can muster all that, you should be just fine.

Get out there and try. There are lessons to be learned.


If you’re curious about being an au pair in China, feel free to email me. I’m happy to let you know how I did it, what my average day looks like, and answer any questions you might have.

Learning Humility Beneath Beijing’s Summer Sun

No one ever wants tourists; maybe their money but not the tourists themselves… We’re bumbling around like curious sumo wrestlers wearing tutus at the ballet. We don’t fit, we want to fit, and everyone is a little uncomfortable.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Chinese home with a perfectly functional air conditioner will still be really stinking hot for no reason all throughout the summer.

I will never forget the day that summer arrived here in Beijing. I walked home from the nearby café where I’d been working. I was wearing a light scarf and a three-quarter length shirt that had been perfectly reasonable yesterday. Sweat pooled on every possible part of my body and my scalp was wet by the time I finished my ten-minute journey. There is no heat quite like heat that refracts and intensifies through the impenetrable layer of smog that covers Beijing.

I was so eager to get home and finally, finally feel some blessed relief. I opened the door and… nothing changed. All the windows in the entire apartment were opened. My host family sat still as death save for the lazy movement of their fans. I was… horrified. That’s the only word for it.

I quietly walked into my room and shut the window that had been opened there. I turned on my tiny air conditioning unit and did not open my door again until it was necessary. When I came out to teach my nightly lesson, I sat on the play mat in the living room and soon had a pool of sweat beneath me. Are they just not sweating? Do Chinese people not sweat? What is going on? What am I missing?

When the boy I teach did what little boys do and commented on my outrageous perspiration, Sixun, my host mother asked innocently, “Is it hot?”

I wanted to scream, “it’s over 80 degrees in here! Are you crazy?!” But instead, I forced a smile and said mildly, “It’s pretty hot.” She hurried over to the AC unit… but didn’t close the windows.

Over the next few weeks, this was my life. I would come home and feel defeated at the open windows and the unbearable heat of the apartment. I would go in my room, close the window and door, and turn on my own small AC. I would come out for the smallest amount of time possible and disappear again as soon as I could.

Eventually, enough was enough. I tried to approach this as a funny cultural difference- a curious quirk of our different perspectives.

“You know, in America,” I tried one blistering afternoon, “we always close our windows when we turn on the AC. And we always have our homes very, very cold in the summer.” I forced a laugh like isn’t that so funny?

She smiled and nodded. “Yes, when it is hot we will close the windows.”

“When it’s hot?!” Hysteria lined my voice as it broke into a higher octave.

She nodded and looked at me with bright, curious eyes.

“When-” I squeaked and then cleared my throat. “Ahem… when will it be hot?” I couldn’t resist adding, “because it’s already pretty hot.” It was 87F that day.

I can’t remember what she said. It didn’t matter. She finally, blessedly saw what I was angling for. After that, when I came home the AC was running and the windows were (usually) closed. I took this as a little victory and complained no more.

 

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I’m smiling but drowning in my sweat.
 


I tell you this story not because I want to use this space for my #laowaiproblems but because of what I kept coming back to this summer. Every time I walked in the door to see the windows wide open in 90+ degree heat I held my cool (ha) for one very simple reason; I am a guest.

I’m a guest in this house where I serve as an au pair. I’m a guest in this city and in this country. And though I may be a hell-raising liberal, I’m still from the south where manners matter.

Being a guest in another country is more than just minding your manners. It’s a matter of humility- making yourself a listener instead of a speaker. In America, I feel plugged into the very heart of the culture around me. The opinions and arguments I have and make matter in some substantial way. My American voice is welcome and expected to imprint itself on the landscape around me.

But in China well… no one wanted me to come to China. No one ever wants tourists; maybe their money but not the tourists themselves. I mean, let’s not pretend that tourists aren’t universally awful and I say that as someone who can reasonably be called a constant tourist. We’re bumbling around like curious sumo wrestlers wearing tutus at the ballet. We don’t fit, we want to fit, and everyone is a little uncomfortable.

Some mysterious (to me) tenant of Chinese traditional medicine and culture is the belief that it is good for your body to be hot and it is bad to be cold. This manifests in a million ways: drinking hot water all year long, not using the air conditioner during a baby’s first month, not drinking cold water with your meal. The list goes on and on.

I knew this and had spoken about this phenomenon with other laowai friends in Beijing. Being faced with this constant, grating heat should have been expected. Respecting the cultural norms of this new family was part of being a good guest. I had to acknowledge that the threshold for acceptable heat was just higher here in China. Eventually communicating to my host family the problem I was having was also a part of being a good guest.

This seems to hold true for most problems or discomforts I face here in China. I don’t love being called meinu, the general name for all young women. It literally translates to ‘beautiful girl’ and that’s just not something I’d be ok with in America. But I’m not in America and that isn’t the hill I want to die on. I don’t want to put my elbows out and force my way onto the subway during rush hour. In my mind, it’s horribly rude and, truly, outside of China, it is. But here, a certain amount of aggression is just part of getting around. And that’s ok. I don’t want to see people eating fertilized duck eggs but it’s not something I can feasibly waste time being upset about.

Every minor and major inconvenience you face while abroad must be filtered through this idea: you are a guest. This doesn’t necessarily mean that things are morally relative. All the things that make me liberal or a feminist or a vegetarian still hold true. But those things are true of me as an American with my specific background and cultural experience. Outside of the culture that fostered my beliefs, it’s imperative to remain open and receptive.

When you travel abroad you will come across moments (probably many) that are distinctly uncomfortable but these are the moments we grow in. When people come back and they speak about being changed, these are the times they did the changing. We change by listening to, respecting, and sympathizing with perspectives wildly different from our own. Without humility, you run the risk of missing out on the best part of discovering the world- discovering yourself in it.

In Defense of Loneliness

We’re currently living through the #solotraveller trend. People today, especially millennials, are choosing more and more frequently to make travel a priority no matter what. The issues and benefits of this phenomena are often spoken about on a socio-economic level but rarely do we speak about one personal consequence of this priority-making.

People who make travel a priority often must make that choice alone. If you are one of the people privileged enough to be able to put your sedentary life down and walk away for any amount of time it’s not especially likely that you have a companion who can do the same. (Of course, this is outside of the niche of #vanlife nomadic couples who seem, to my jealous eyes, to have it all.)

No, by nature of making one thing a priority, other things must fall to the wayside and, for many of us, that means companionship and relationships. It means leaving your family to live their lives and make their memories without you. It means meeting and loving people briefly before they’re gone again and distance separates you in more ways than one.

And so this question appears again and again on message boards for travelers I frequent.

How do you avoid loneliness on the road?

And the short answer is simply, you don’t.

Being alone, especially when you’re not used to being alone, nearly invariably leads to loneliness. Travel exacerbates that tendency because of the intensity of what you’re experiencing and learning. Wouldn’t it all be better if you could share these moments with someone else? But that’s the cost of making travel a priority. You won’t always have a companion.

And that’s okay. I want to go beyond just indicating the unfortunate consequence of your choice to travel. I want to defend loneliness, and aloneness, and what they teach us.

 

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Taken as I traveled (alone) through the Wenshu Monastery Gardens in Chengdu.

 

Loneliness can be crippling. In our worst moments, we can convince ourselves that we’re lonely because we’re unwanted or unloved. Loneliness can lead you down a pit of depression so deep and dark, you’re unable to see or enjoy the world around you. But loneliness is more than that. It’s a vital part of our human experience. Loneliness carves you out deeply but it leaves spaces for you to love and appreciate love just as deeply.

Loneliness teaches us empathy, if we’ll learn it. Being isolated, especially while traveling, puts us in a unique position to experience the world without the sounding board of companionship. When we filter our experience through our loneliness, we’re bound to see humanity in a new and, hopefully, kinder light.

Loneliness is one of the dozens of things that doesn’t kill us; it makes us stronger. Feeling lonely is difficult and painful. But eventually, it does go away. We feel that depth and then things change and we’re not lonely and we’re stronger for it. Eventually, through repeated exposure perhaps, we learn to be alone.

Being alone is similar to loneliness with the added bonus that it doesn’t hurt so damn badly. Being alone can be thrilling and empowering. Perhaps that’s the draw of the Solo Traveler. The implication is that I am brave enough, I am strong enough, smart enough, clever enough, intrepid enough, to see this world all on my own.

Trust me- the first time you tell the story of the time you navigated a brand-new city in a foreign language at 3 AM and all alone to boot and see the amazement on your friends’ faces, you’ll appreciate your abilities.

Eventually, you can come to revel in your aloneness. Being alone and quiet with myself has always been something I enjoyed; especially in contrast with how much I loved being with my friends. For me, it’s always been balance. But traveling alone heightened that through the trial of loneliness. I learned to appreciate the unique perspective and benefits I had as a solo stranger in a strange land.

 

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One practical approach to loneliness while traveling is taking a tour like this Haunted Tour in New Orleans.

 

Traveling alone taught me first that loneliness is there and it’s ok to be lonely, even when you’re chasing your dreams and seeing more of the world than, statistically, has been allotted to you. You can both know what an incredible privilege and miracle it is to experience what you’re experiencing and also be pretty bummed out you’re doing it alone. These two things are not contradictory.

You must learn not to let the guilt of not being totally, completely, Instagram-ready happy 24/7 in you travels push you deeper into your sadness. Learning to push past that loneliness and the joy of knowing yourself, depending on your wits and being accountable for your actions alone is an experience more empowering that any number of leadership retreats I’ve attended.

Be lonely and learn to be alone. Learn to be alone so you can learn to be a better citizen and traveler. Learn to be lonely so you learn to be a better friend and lover and companion. These are vital and important parts of our human experience and nothing we should shy away from if travel is the priority you want to set all on your own.

 

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And when you do find someone to travel with, you’ll appreciate them all the more… no matter who exhausted from climbing straight up a mountain you are. (Taken at Stone Door in Cumberland Gap, Tennessee with my friend Noah.)

 

 

 

Sipping Time: Tea in Sichuan Province

The steeping of the tea and watching the tea settle in the glass are a vital part of enjoying it here on this mountain in Sichuan province, thousands of miles away from my world of to-go cups.

Hao kan (好看), pronounced how kahn, literally translates as “good to look.” When I was taught this word first it was from a cheap Learn-to-speak Chinese book that was riddled with errors and typos. My book said it means “handsome.” Handsome, of course, has very specific connotations in English- that of male beauty. I tried my best to use hao kan correctly in my day-to-day life in Beijing but found that the more conventional piao liang (漂亮), which means pretty or beautiful, seemed to work easier in my conversations. (Anyone struggling to keep up in a foreign language with native speakers knows the particular kind of pause in conversation that comes when you use a word that’s just not quite right.)

On a trip to Chengdu, the capitol city of Sichuan province, I found myself intrigued by a tour described as “Giant Buddha/Ancient town/Tea Plantation.” That’s an awful lot to cover in one day but sure, why not. The day before I’d been struggling to remind myself not to over-romanticize country life in China as I recalled the resentment I held for my own country upbringing back in the states. This would be a good way to get in the country, clear my lungs from Beijing’s smog, and put myself in the reality of the country living in China.

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The Giant Buddha was a humbling way to begin my surreal day.

By four in the afternoon, my tour guide, Patrick, was winding at breakneck speeds around the intimately tight curves of Mount Emei. In heavily accented English, Patrick told me this tea plantation had been owned by the same family for 400 years. 200 years ago, the tea had been so beloved by the nation it had been shipped directly to Beijing for the Emperor himself to enjoy. I’ll admit- as a rather die hard coffee fanatic I was skeptical about how good this tea could actually be. Honking at the curves and driving dangerously far off the road to avoid motorbikes careening down the mountain, I hoped the tea was worth it.

The homes were large compared to what I’d come to expect in the city. On the paved road, they were concrete, stout affairs, with large, empty windows. Our car stopped rather suddenly in front of one and a man as short and solid as his home came out to greet us. Li Zhi Quan, the current patriarch of Ya Kou Chaye (丫口茶业) greeted Patrick as only two old friends can. Patrick delighted in letting me know that Zhi Quan had the best English during high school but Patrick’s was much better today.

I believed it. Zhi Quan had intelligent eyes and a curious, open face. As we walked together up to the plantation we began to speak together, both shy in our grasp of the other’s language. I told him, over and over again, how beautiful his home and his farm are. He stood next to me as I snapped pictures of the village nestled into the valley and, after a moment of contemplation, agreed. As we slowly moved up the mountain, a farmer was harvesting the walnuts that fell into the path. He offered us as many as we could hold. With practiced ease, Zhi Quan and Patrick cracked the nuts in their bare hands. Embarrassed by my un-calloused, city-slicker grip, I hid my walnut in my pack and said I’d save it as a souvenir. Undeterred, they cracked away and offered me the earthy, bitter white flesh from their own walnuts.

Further up, we plucked fresh dates from the tree. The grainy sweetness is best enjoyed after spicy hot pot but, a second best is as you run your hands over bamboo growing over your path and look down into a green valley. The rows of tea plants stretched in front of me in ordered, delicate paths and delineated the curves of the mountain. Between them, I was surprised to find something of home. A rich, rust-red earth that, in Appalachia, we know as Georgia Red Clay. The grittiness on my palm was nostalgic and I wondered if there were anything like this back in the states.

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A village lies nestled in the valley with tea plants stretching like cartographer’s lines around the mountain.

We passed a dark building whose smell announced pigs or, at the very least, pig shit. Patrick took me inside to meet the dozens of pink animals eagerly snorting at my hands. While they were confused by my enthusiasm, my guides allowed me the time to run my hands over the sweet, curious animals and feel their soft bodies and insistent snouts.

Near to the top of the mountain, we stopped at a building with a wide open courtyard. Zhi Quan quickly put out a short table and stools and went about preparing two types of tea. The first glass was Jasmine tea and the second was tender green tea. Patrick, who lives at Baoguo Monastery, has an “impure mind” so, as the tender green tea slowly began to fall to the bottom of the glass where they would then stand up straight, he described the particular type of beauty of these leaves. “Typical Chinese girl. Large breasts. Small waist. Good behind. Beautiful.”

Zhi Quan had a more measured approach. We sat together and both took pictures of the leaves as they fell. “Haokan shenme yisi?” He wanted to know what the English translation for hao kan is. Patrick began a lengthy lecture on hao kan. When he said, “The fish in the pond,” he ran his hands in a slow, circular movement, “are hao kan,” it suddenly made sense for me. Hao kan is more than just beautiful; it’s good to watch.

Kan (看) has a more active meaning than I’d previously attributed to it. One uses kan for reading a book and for watching TV. One uses kan to direct someone to look at something but also to watch something. It connotes an active, purposeful engagement.

The tea was hao kan. The steeping of the tea and watching the tea settle in the glass are a vital part of enjoying it here on this mountain in Sichuan province, thousands of miles away from my world of to-go cups. In America, my enjoyment of tea was based only on the quick sipping of the too hot cup as I hurried on to be productive elsewhere. I’d been divorced from this watchful, meditative part of the experience with my opaque mugs. Instead, my experience of tea was of settling for something with less caffeine than my drip coffee to calm my jittery hands while working late into the night. I’d set a timer on my phone so I’d know when I could drink and never stop the flow of productivity. Tea in America, at my desk, was a mindless process meant to excise some of my excess, frantic energy.

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Jasmine tea (left) and Tender Green tea (right).

Here, on this mountain, I suddenly understood. Every time a tea leaf fell away to the bottom of the glass to stand erect and proud was a moment worth being present for. We fell into comfortable silence as we were all absorbed in the careful, active watching of the tea leaves. When they all stood in a small garden at the bottom of the glass, I was poured a small bit into a clear shot glass. Zhi Quan didn’t pour himself any but when I asked if he would drink any with me he hurried away for a glass. Patrick explained that Zhi Quan had drunk so much tea in his life that watching was enough for him.

After we finished our easy enjoyment of the tea we wandered farther up the mountain and I stained my hands, clumsily picking my own tea leaves. In the time I picked an ounce, Zhi Quan’s efficient hands picked enough to fill the bamboo baskets we carried. The tea we picked now in early autumn was the cheapest kind of tea to pick. That is, all the tea is the same sort of plant but the time of the year it is picked dictates its worth and how it is prepared for consumption. The tender green tea and jasmine tea we enjoyed earlier was picked, appropriately enough, in spring when things are virginal and new again. It was carefully dried and sold as is. However, this late summer tea was not so fresh and good. This would be prepared as a black tea. Black tea is cooked in a pan, not just dried like green tea.

Back at the shed, we went inside the building and Zhi Quan showed me this process. Two large woks were settled deep into a wood burning stove. Using a hard bristled brush he cleaned out one wok and Patrick started a hot fire beneath it. Zhi Quan, after testing the temperature of the wok by hovering his hand over the surface for a few moments, emptied the leaves into the tough, black pan and tossed the leaves about for about two minutes. The leaves sizzled in a way not dissimilar from what you might expect from cooking your stir fry as Zhi Quan burned off the first of the moisture.

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Zhi Quan does the initial fry over high heat to burn off any excess moisture.

After this initial frying, he gathered the leaves into a large, flat basket and carried them outside. He squatted in the courtyard with the mountains rising up to embrace him in the background. A caterpillar made its busy way past, every leg working toward its goal. My heart raced to think of the generations of his family who had worked here in the same way, working in time with the mountain next to the caterpillars and all the other busy, striving things here on this mountain lost to the technicolor world.

The leaves were rolled into a large ball and squeezed, the moisture falling into the already dark stained basket. This process rolled the leaves into the cylindrical shape we’ve come to expect. As he worked the leaves, I quizzed him.

“When did you learn to prepare the tea leaves like this?”

He squinted down at the leaves. “Before twenty.”

“In peak season, in spring, how many kilos of tea do you prepare a day?”

My awkward Chinese left him glancing helplessly up at Patrick and I tried again in English.

“The ladies pick maybe 200 kilos a day.” I found out earlier only women and very old men pick the tea. The men all work in the factory which mechanizes the process he was showing me now. “At the end of the day, maybe we have 20 kilos of prepared tea.”

The leaves were returned to the wok and were turned ceaselessly in a counter-clockwise motion. I stood beneath the single, bare light bulb hanging in the center of the room and watched. There was something meditative about watching the motion of his strong hand move with practiced ease through the leaves in the hot pan. Occasionally a pair of chopsticks were used to toss the leaves. The rhythmic, shh shh, as Zhi Quan pressed the leaves into the dry pan was hypnotic and calming. Would this too be considered hao kan? I managed to keep my potentially embarrassing question of Chinese semantics to myself.

Patrick bagged up some of the previous day’s prepared tea and gave it to me. A little disappointed I wouldn’t be leaving with the tea I had picked he shook his head. “This tea must wait another four hours in the heat. Too long.”

Alarmed, I asked would Zhi Quan have to turn the tea by himself for four hours? But no. Only for the first hour. After that, the tea would be ok to leave alone.

We made our way back down the mountain. Zhi Quan and Patrick answered the questioning gazes of the farmers. She’s American. She’s twenty-five. No, not married. They offered cigarettes to the men and explained to me, “This is my friend.” Everyone on the mountain was a friend.

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An old woman makes her way past us down the mountain.

Back in LaShan, the city which had previously seemed so slow and quiet to me now appeared raucous and dangerous. We went into Zhi Quan’s tea shop, an open-aired affair, while Patrick tried to find a cab that would take me back to Chengdu. In the meantime, Zhi Quan offered me a new cup of tea. This was a wild tea from uncultivated plants. Elders in the village had wandered into the forests for these leaves and they were quite valuable.

With new, more patient eyes I watched in silence as the leaves gently opened. They fell slowly at first, just one at a time. But in the time I glanced up at the old woman staring at me as she passed by and then down again they were all falling at once. There was something miraculous about the moment and I felt my throat inexplicably tighten with tears. Zhi Quan met my gaze when I looked up and, for the first time that afternoon, language wasn’t a barrier for us. This ineffable, arcane moment was a gift from his family and it was clear to me what an honor it was to be invited into it. It was haokan.


If you’d like to visit Patrick and ZhiQuan you can reach Patrick at patrickyanglong@aliyun.com. He also offers a variety of other unique tours of Sichuan province you won’t find elsewhere. Visit his website at www.emeiguides.com

Further, if you’d like to purchase any of the teas from Ya Kou Tea Plantation you can email Patrick for more details.

Price

I booked through Chengdu Mix Hostel in Chengdu, Sichuan (which is so well reviewed it hardly bares any more accolades) for 550RMB ($85 US.) This covered

  • the shared car drive from Chengdu to LaShan
  • A ferry to see the magnificent giant Buddha
  • Lunch at the ancient town with undeniably authentic, local Sichuan food (vegetarian options are easily accessible upon request)
  • An intimate tour of LiuJiang, a 400 year old ancient town
    • Includes stops at the local market and a visit to a tea house
  • visit to the Ya Kou Tea plantation where you’ll enjoy authentic, country life in China, drink local tea and tea to take home with you, and you can try your hand at picking tea yourself
  • Your way back to your hostel or hotel
  • A knowledgeable English speaking tour guide

To compare prices, to rent a car and go it alone from Chengdu to LaShan and Mount Emei would cost around 800RMB.

 

If you have any questions or want to hear more about my time in Sichuan province you can reach me at ericaonearth2017@gmail.com