Big Buddha

The first time I took a real vacation from work for more than one or two days was in November 2009, when I went to Chicago for a long five-day-weekend with two girlfriends to celebrate Thanksgiving. My then-boss asked me what I was planning to do in Chicago, and I said one of the activities I was most looking forward to was visiting the famous Art Institute. He was eleven years older than me, a very jaded and cynical native Brooklynite who thought and cared little of the world outside of New York City. “Why do you have to go there to see the paintings?” he asked me as he rolled his eyes. “You can just Google Image it.” He half meant it as a joke to tease me, but I know he half meant it, as well.

Yes, I can Google Image it. He can, too. But I don’t think that’s enough, especially with things with such immensity as the Tian Ta Buddha in Hong Kong. We took the Ngong Ping cable car trip to the area of the famous big Buddha, and when we arrived and walked all the way up those grueling stairs, even with my ribs aching from my lingering whooping cough effects, I really felt in awe. Like many sites, the photos on Google or anywhere on the web do this place no justice. The Buddha was far bigger than I even imagined it to be, and it looked so regal and grand sitting atop its own hill in the midst of the endless Hong Kong greenery that caught me off guard. And I never thought much of any Buddha’s facial expression until I looked at this one’s — he actually seems extremely content, like he’s at peace with the world despite all the insane events that continue to happen. At least one of us has genuine hope for the future.

Lost in three languages

Last night, we arrived in Hong Kong, the “fragrant harbor” city, the land where East supposedly meets West. It’s a city where all the announcements are in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English (in that order), where signs are labeled in traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, and English. I was lazy about reviewing Cantonese before we arrived and figured I could get by with my decent Mandarin and English, but because I am not used to speaking Mandarin on a daily basis, I was caught off guard a few times when I needed to respond in Chinese and paused for uncomfortable seconds, which indicated to others that I wasn’t a native speaker.

After checking into our hotel in the Central/Sheung Wan area, we proceeded to scout out our first desired meal — roasted duck and goose. We arrived at a restaurant where a friendly server greeted us at our table and asked me in Cantonese if I spoke Chinese. I responded back in Mandarin after a two-second pause, and said I could speak Mandarin Chinese, yet when ordering, I ordered certain dishes in Mandarin, certain dishes in Cantonese, then stumbled on how to say the word “goose” in either language. The server could see I was trying to read the Chinese and told me how to pronounce “goose” in Mandarin – “e4 (4th tone).” Friendly Chinese people always compliment you when you are trying, and this one said to me, “So smart – you can speak both Mandarin and Cantonese!” It’s kind of funny because even though it literally sounds like a compliment, the underlying meaning is, “We feel sorry for you because you aren’t fluent in what should be your native language based on your ethnicity. But we’ll make you feel good about yourself for at least trying.”

I really never properly learned Cantonese since my grandparents’ native language was Toisan, which is what I spoke when I was little, so all my Cantonese knowledge has been based on listening to Cantonese and identifying its similarities to Toisan, even though native Cantonese speakers say they are two completely different language and that Toisan is pigeon/loser Cantonese. Looking back, I wish I had made more effort to learn Cantonese. But when I look back at my college experience, though I majored in economics and minored in women’s studies, what I am most happy that I did was study 3.5 years of Mandarin Chinese. It’s helped so much with communicating with other people, developing rapport, getting around China and ordering food, and even understanding cultural nuances based on the idioms used.

The other thing I wasn’t expecting was how friendly in general people would be here. The only thing I could compare Hong Kong to would be mainland China, where I spent four weeks in the summer of 2006, so in my head, I was just preparing myself for rude service and pushy people. Service overall has not only been smooth and easy, but also warm and smiley — not what I was expecting at all. Sometimes I forget that Hong Kong is technically a part of China as an SAR, but it certainly feels like a world in itself — different currency, different passport, different standard of living, higher level of cleanliness, and even higher level of friendliness and service as I am seeing now.


After my course of antibiotics ended for my whooping cough, I read that a convalescence period is to be expected for the following two to three weeks, when I would still have cold-like symptoms of coughing, stuffy and runny nose, and phlegm. What I was not actively thinking about was that my back muscles and ribs were sore and bruised from all the coughing and vomiting, which was all exacerbated by the constant laughing from the Jacob-Barber family Christmas celebrations of games and food. Since Christmas festivities typically begin in the family from Christmas Eve through the last full day we are in town, that’s five days of nonstop talking, laughing, and coughing induced by laughing. By last night, my muscles and ribs had flared up so much that it hurt just to speak, so I had to lie down, use Deep Heat and tiger balm, and take anti-inflammatory pills. Then this morning, I woke up at 3am feeling like someone was stabbing me in the right side of my ribs, but it was just the pain of the rib bruising and the desire to vomit that woke me. I coughed up a lot of phlegm over the toilet and wondered what terrible things I’d done in a past life to have this feeling. The center of my throat felt like something was stuck in it, but I couldn’t vomit it out because it hurt my ribs too much to exert that level of effort. It’s like I was stuck in a state of pain that I couldn’t rid myself of, and it was all ultimately exacerbated by laughing and having fun. How masochistic. These are the things you learn about your body when you are really sick. I never thought that I could bruise my ribs or make all my back muscles sore just by coughing before, but here it is.




Marriage and children, again

We caught up with a couple of Chris’s friends separately before heading over to Chris’s cousins’ house for our last family get-together before leaving for Hong Kong tomorrow, and as I was chatting with his best friend, we watched his three-year-old son play in the children’s play area of the mall we were having coffee at. He said that although he loved his son, he was looking forward to time away from him in March for our California wedding, and even more so if his wife would be able to come, since her attendance was still pending due to employment uncertainty. He said he’s been spending a lot of time catching up with a mutual friend of his and Chris’s, who has been with his wife for years now, and they have a few children together. He was troubled when his friend said to him that without the kids, he wouldn’t know what he would talk about with his wife. That made me feel troubled, too, just hearing that. It seems to be a common thing with new parents, forgetting why they got married in the first place and having their children be their number one priority in their lives, before even each other. Children should of course be the priority of their parents, but the parents can’t forget about each other as husband and wife, wife and wife, life partner and life partner – whatever the pairing is. I don’t think most of us get married thinking that our number one reason for getting married is procreation – at least, I hope it isn’t. I don’t think it’s a selfish thing for married couples to want to have time away from their children and just be together; if anything, I think that is a human need. And those types of needs should not be ignored.

Hen’s night

Today was Chris’s buck’s day/night, which is British/Aussie slang for bachelor party. He decided to have a multigenerational celebration, so his uncles and dad came, as well. While he was away with his male family and friends, his mom treated me to afternoon tea at the Hotel Windsor, one of the oldest and most glamorous hotels in Melbourne. On weekends, they have a special treat for afternoon tea guests, as they serve you a glass of French champagne and have a full dessert buffet in the middle of the tea room that includes a tall chocolate fountain, in which you can dip various chunked fruit and cakes, a Christmas pudding station, a custom crepe station with a server making each delicate crepe from scratch, and what seemed like an endless variety of petit fours, French sweets, and other individually portioned cakes, pies, slices, and desserts, everything from mango cheesecake, crème brulee, vanilla mille feuille, pistachio and raspberry cakes with intense pistachio flavor, fruit mince pies, multiple flavors of macarons, and mousses.

The usual tiered afternoon tea stands were gracefully presented at our table with a layer of crust-less tea sandwiches, little savory eclairs, mini meat mince pies, and savory pumpkin tarts, and topped with these perfect little scones, some plain, some with dried fruit. The variety of mango and passion fruit desserts made this experience uniquely Aussie vs. American, as well as the fruit and meat mince pies. The savory use of pumpkin was also more expected of the Aussie use of pumpkin in food, whereas I’d never seen this before at any afternoon tea spot in San Francisco or New York. Another thing that made this experience more Aussie was the subpar service. At afternoon tea at a five-star hotel in the U.S., such as the Plaza Hotel in New York, where I’ve had tea once, they present your tea almost immediately after you choose your leaf selection, and they eagerly come to refill your tiered trays as soon as they are even just half empty. There, they constantly come to dote on you and ask you if you need anything else. Here, a server came to ask to replenish only once, and our individual tea pots came out almost 20 minutes after our tiered trays came out, which was pretty ridiculous. No one came to replenish our hot water until almost an hour and a half into our dining session, too. And when I exclaimed in excitement, “Wow, there’s a custom crepe station?” when I saw the crepe chef in the middle of the room flipping, she grunted, “Yes, there is,” with the most surly facial expression possible. The servers here really seemed to hate their job and hate serving.

We came back home, and in a few hours, all of Chris’s female cousins, aunts on his dad’s side, and mom’s cousin and daughter in the area came for a semi-surprise “hen’s night” party in honor of me. We enjoyed food, conversation, a game that included a video of Chris, another around clothes pins, and Loaded Questions, and so many laughs that triggered the lingering effects of my whooping cough and further exacerbated the aches and pains in my back muscles and ribs through the night. We were all together for just over five hours, yet when I think back to my original bridal shower and bachelorette weekend back in San Francisco and Monterey in September, I realized I probably laughed more and harder tonight than I did at my own event with my own friends and family then. I guess it makes more sense since everyone here knows each other really well and we have a connection to each other, as opposed to the people back home who didn’t really know each other at all and were meeting for the first time, but it was just an observation and take away I had at the end of the night. We did have Chris’s mom’s cousin and daughter come, the daughter I met once last year and really liked, and the cousin I was meeting for the very first time tonight, and somehow they fit in straight away and got into all the inside jokes.

I guess if I really had to sum it up, the group of ten women tonight vs. the group of six in Monterey and about 16 in San Francisco are just more laid back and easy going. Uptightness doesn’t seem to exist in this group (a smidgen with Chris’s mom, but even that is so mild compared to my circle back home), and everyone truly does go with the flow and doesn’t take anything that seriously. I don’t know if uptightness is a disposition that one is just born with or something one is conditioned to be or not be based on nurture and environment, but it’s a relief to not worry so much about what I am saying or doing, fearing that I may offend someone in the room. I know if we were ever to play Loaded Questions or listen to Chris on video answering questions about himself and then me answering and comparing, a lot of my own female family members, if not ALL of them, would decline or refuse to partake in the activity, and some, like my mom, may even get offended at Chris’s answers or some of the Loaded Question questions. What will be really interesting to see is how all these women get along during our wedding week coming up in March, and if my side will even make the slightest effort to get to know these women traveling so far over beyond “Hi. How are you?” and “How do you know Yvonne/Chris?”


Last night, I dreamt I was at home, and my dad was showing Ed how to do something in the kitchen. My dad has a lot of good qualities, but teaching is not one of them. In fact, he’s probably the last person I know who I’d ever ask to teach me something because he gets extremely impatient and frustrated easily when showing anyone how to do anything. He thinks people can read his mind when he has explanations that he chooses not to verbalize because they are simply “common sense.”

Needless to say, this session was not going well, and my dad starts criticizing my brother, saying he’s doing it all wrong, that he’s useless and can’t do anything right. Ed immediately walks away from the kitchen and goes into the back room of the house. I follow him and start running after him. Ed is facing the window, and I said, “Hey… turn around. Let me give you a hug.” He reluctantly turns around and looks at my face and then opens his arms towards me. I hug him and hold him tightly, and then I start crying. “It’s okay, Ed,” I said to him, rubbing his back. “You’re not useless. You can do lots of things well. I know you can. I love you. You’re going to remember that, right?” He says nothing, but I can feel his tears dripping on my back, and he tightens his grip on me.

And a happy Boxing Day to you, too.


Today was Christmas day and Chris’s birthday (which he always annoyingly tries to ignore and says he is trading birthdays with someone else every year), and this year, his parents hosted the day at their house. Everyone brings food, games, and gifts over for the two little boys and Nana, except for Chris and me, since he insists every single person in the family needs a gift (and guess who has to wrap it all?) and he doesn’t follow rules. We have a gift giving and opening session when the boys open their endless toys and Nana opens all her God- and crystal-related “prezzies” (Aussie slang for “presents”). And inevitably every year this has happened, I am bored to death and want to escape.

It’s not that I don’t like exchanging gifts; I actually love the act when everyone is exchanging and opening gifts… and the people are adults. Adult presents are interesting when they are opened; sometimes, they have inside jokes, hidden meanings, or are symbolic. Children gifts are never like this; what child is that complex? Children presents are so repetitive, and generally almost always very gendered. Because the family so far has two boys, all the toys and gifts are around things like cars, trucks, and Thomas the Tank. And because they are so young, they think all wrapped gifts are for them, so they immediately run to the Christmas tree and try to unwrap all the gifts even though they aren’t all for them. This is not a stage of childhood when I have my own children that I will look forward to. I wonder if I can ever host a child’s birthday party and get away with not opening gifts in front of everyone. Chances are, I probably won’t because that’s what everyone’s expectations are.

License plate

We did the usual Melbourne-at-Christmas-time routine today on Christmas Eve: prepared food for Christmas day, went to pick up more food for Nana’s grandchildren’s gathering, went to the cemetery to remember Appa, Chris’s grandpa, and had an evening of food and Carols by Candlelight on TV at Nana’s. On the drive back to Chris’s parents’ after the night was over, I noticed a car in front of us with a license plate that began with “1ED.” I stared at it for a while and thought about Ed. Ed has actually crept up on this trip a few times — once in Sydney during my walk to the fish market, another time in Tassie while on the road, and now on the way back to Chris’s parents’ the night of Christmas Eve. I’ve noticed streets named after him. On the way to the Sydney fish market, I saw the back side of a man who resembled my brother, everything from the way he walked to the way he moved his arms.

Christmas time is generally a happy time for me because I love Christmas trees, decorations, carols, and food, but at the same time, it’s always a little agonizing and painful because I not only remember Ed and how he isn’t here, but I am reminded yet again of my own broken family and how unhappy they all are. Some people say that maybe if Ed were still here, I wouldn’t feel this way, but I know that isn’t true. If Ed were still here, I might even feel worse, knowing I was thousands of miles away from him during Christmas day, which would prevent him from having any of his own celebration, even with something as simple as just exchanging gifts together. It’s never the same when you send gifts and open them separately. There’s not that much joy in that, especially for someone like Ed. It would be unlikely I’d ever be in San Francisco for Christmas even if he were still here, as selfish as that sounds. I’d consider flying him somewhere I would be, but he’d likely resist and say he wouldn’t want to go. That was typical Ed — never wanted anything, even though he criticized me for the same thing. Ed never really wanted things; deep inside, I know he just wanted love, affection, and acceptance. It hurts to remember that he never really got any of those things from anyone, but it’s all in the past now. There’s nothing left to do.

He finds his way to me even though he isn’t here anymore. He’d be a hard person for me to forget even if I really wanted to. I hope that in his way of reaching me, whether it’s through my friend and her husband in a photo frame, through street signs, in dreams, and even via Australian license plates, that he is expressing he knew how much I loved him, and he’s acknowledging he loved me just as much and misses me… even though he chose to leave this life.

Mum meetup

After coming back from Tassie, Chris and I met up with his two good friends from college who are both his age, and also married with two kids each of their own. Both had their youngest children just this past year and were sharing their stories about expensive childcare, au pairs, and how being parents has changed their life (and eliminated most of their free time). I told them the horror stories I’ve shared with everyone about how even farther away I felt from motherhood after seeing Chris’s cousin’s wife not being able to enjoy her brother and sister-in-law’s France wedding as much because of her two screaming children, and they insisted to me, “Oh, no! Don’t let that put you off. Children are so cute and fun! You will love it once you have them!” They asked me if we were planning to have children soon after the wedding (I’m sure they just assumed I was closer in age to them and Chris), and I immediately said no.

We spent most of the time talking about their children and their experiences with being parents in general. They are both intelligent, interesting people outside of being parents. But listening to them talk about their parenting experiences made me feel so bored. I know that sounds mean, and parenthood and raising children are very important and certainly not things to take lightly, but I wanted to hear more about them and their own lives. Oh, wait. Their own lives are all about their kids now. I forgot. They did say that they wanted more outside of being mothers, and that they would continue their careers even though of course, it would be a challenge. It’s always a challenge, whether external or internal, to have children and then have a life outside it. You always feel guilty because you think, what if I did more for my children and spent more time with them — maybe that would make the quality of their lives better? These are endless thoughts for a topic that has no definitive answer.

Uh oh

I haven’t talked to my parents over the phone in over a week. It’s mainly because I was scared for them to hear my voice; this is the worst I’ve ever heard my own voice, and it often hurt just to speak given how heavily coated with phlegm my vocal chords were. I didn’t want to scare them into thinking I was dying, so I just emailed my dad to let him know I was a bit under the weather and would call when I felt better and could speak. I guess this didn’t go over so well with my mom, who freaked out and thought I was dying. I eventually revealed to them that I contracted whooping cough, so of course, dad printed out Web MD articles about the most extreme cases of whooping cough, where people have broken ribs, gotten brain damage, and had to suffer from extremely violent coughing for over 100 days, and I’m sure this added to my mom’s paranoia. The important thing, I thought, was that I caught it before the 3-week mark (that’s when my doctor said you would be doomed to violent coughing for three months because it would have reached maturity in your body and at that point be indestructible), so my antibiotics would work and help cure me by Christmas day. I thought they would be happy about this, but my mom freaked out even more.

“I know who is responsible for you getting this, but I’m not going to say,” she said in her accusing tone. That’s her nice way of saying she blames Chris. “You traveled and got this in that country.” No, not really. It’s not Australia’s fault. Everyone’s immunized from it here. Colds in New York don’t just magically become whooping cough in the Southern Hemisphere. I picked it up in New York. She wouldn’t hear it, though, and insisted she was right and “has wisdom,” and that she didn’t want to hear my lies and excuses. “And why didn’t he bother calling me when he knew you were sick and I was worrying? There’s absolutely no respect here.”

You can never really win with irrationality and paranoia.