Sky lanterns

Our hotel concierge was wrong. The sky lanterns, the ones you light up with a flame and release into the night sky, actually are going up tonight all over the city of Chiangmai, and fireworks still happened, just perhaps on a lesser scale. The viewing of the sky lanterns being released was not as picturesque as it is during the Yi Peng Festival, when they are traditionally in unison released, as the New Year’s sky lanterns release was really started because of its popularity with foreigners (like us), but it was still beautiful. We released one at a temple near the Thapae Gate, and thank goodness that it actually released properly and floated up into the sky with some others. We saw so many that failed to release, caught fire, and got stuck up in trees. At Thapae Gate, the local firemen were ready in the event of an emergency and had their fire trucks lined up at the center of the square.

2016 is ending. It’s been an intense year with our wedding, travels, Hillary vs. Trump, Trump disgustingly winning the 2016 presidential election despite being a complete racist, sexist, and ignorant moron, and work becoming tumultuous for me. It has been a bittersweet year, one where I’ve gotten more emotional and angry about politics than I ever have before, a time when I’ve been overwhelmed with gratitude for family and friends flying from all over the world just to see Chris and me exchange vows, and for their generosity in donating to my AFSP fundraising efforts. I hope 2017 has more positivity in store for us and the world, and that despite a Trump presidency that progress will still happen. I am hopeful in spite of the odds because if I weren’t, I probably wouldn’t be here today. If we don’t have hope, we have nothing.

Isaan cuisine

We arrived in Chiangmai this morning after a short flight, as we’ll be spending New Year’s here. The first few things on my list of what to do was… to eat as much khao man gai (the Thai version of Hainanese chicken rice) and khao soi (Northern Thai coconut, kaffir lime, and lemongrass egg noodle soup with chicken) as possible. I only recently learned of khao man gai earlier this year when a food-obsessed colleague of mine insisted we try it at a tiny spot in Elmhurst, Queens, my old neighborhood. When I went with him, I realized it was just like Hainanese chicken, just with added spicy sauces on the side (the Hainanese version uses a more traditional Chinese ginger-garlic dipping sauce). Thais have adapted it to make the dipping sauces for the chicken spicy, and the two places we visited that have khao man gai here have been both spicy and herby in a way that I’d never had before. The first place had a very gingery, nutty dipping sauce with a very hot ending. The second place had my favorite dipping sauce – a strong and forward initial burst of kaffir lime, lemongrass, and ginger, followed by a nuttiness likely from peanuts, and then a spicy finish from the chilies. The sauce was so addictive, as was the moo satay dipping sauce we had for our grilled pork skewers.

The khao soi we had was completely unlike the khao soi we first tried in Toronto at Chris’s brother’s favorite Thai restaurant when we visited him in September 2013. He told us that khao soi was his favorite dish at this spot, and when we had it, I felt that while the bowl of egg noodle soup was tasty, the coconut milk made it far too heavy to enjoy a single bowl all by myself, so luckily we were sharing all our food. In the khao soi we enjoyed today, the broth was far more chicken stock than coconut milk, as it just had a hint of coconut milk flavor. The dominant flavors were actually the same herbs noted above – kaffir lime and lemongrass. A bowl would have been easy to eat by myself, and the chicken on the drumstick in the broth was so tender that fell off the bone as soon as I poked my chopstick into it.

I’ve been lucky in that while living in Elmhurst, I was exposed to so much Thai food from the north that I’d never tried before residing in Queens. So much of the Thai food we have in the U.S. is generic – bland papaya salads with no heat, overly sweet pad thai. But this trip so far has been a food revelation. Americans in general love and accept Thai food, but the Thai food we’ve had here is so different than the average Thai food you get back home, with the exception of the authentic spots I’ve tried in Queens. This is a huge reason that travel is so exciting; it exposes us to the real flavors (literal and figurative) of a country that you cannot get just by reading textbooks, online articles, and seeing images in videos. It also makes you realize what you don’t know because you only know what you know and have been exposed to. Travel can help undo the stereotypes you had of a culture, whether it’s of its people or its cuisine, and help you understand what you previously didn’t understand.

the land of limes and chilies

Thailand – it’s a country that conjures up many images. It’s a country filled with colorful, ornate, and bejeweled temples and palaces, fresh flower strings and food offerings to Buddhist monks, and a complex and fiery cuisine known for its focus on spices, limes and lemongrass. It’s also a place on the map that is marred by its reputation for prostitution, human trafficking, and “happy ending” massages. Thailand is a place that tends to be either loved or hated depending on who you ask. Those who love it admire it for its spirituality, cuisine, and culture (plus how far the U.S. dollar goes here if you are American, as you can easily get by spending $3 USD/day or less here on food), while those who avoid it are like a friend of mine, who recently rolled her eyes and said, “Yeah, I have no interest in going there (Thailand).” She felt no need to explain herself, but I knew what she meant, as she was referring to all the negative aspects I mentioned above. That saddens me, though, because I think that after just two days of visiting, Thailand deserves far more respect than it gets. For the most part, people seem happy and healthy here. Their life expectancy actually exceeds that of the U.S. (another way that Americans are far less superior despite being a “developed” Western nation. Service, whether at a tiny open-air food stall on the street or at a mid-range restaurant in the middle of Bangkok, is always with a smile, even when I speak no more than three words in Thai.

The king recently died in Thailand, so the country is currently in mourning. This year’s New Year’s festivities have been toned down according to our hotel concierge, as the country’s government feels it would be disrespectful to have celebrations as big as in past years given his recent passing. And it was clear that the country was in mourning as we visited the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha this morning, as literally hundreds of people, men and women, old and young, lined up wearing all black and black ribbons pinned to their shirts to pay their respects to the king at the temple. Initially, we wondered given the sheer number of people dressed this way whether a black uniform was just a work thing in the country, but as we walked into the temple grounds, we realized… no, this is just the citizens of the country coming to pray for the king.

Although as tourists we are visiting these sites to see the temples for their architecture, intense handiwork in creating mosaic-like jeweled facades on these vast structures, and to simply see what makes cities like Bangkok and Chiangmai famous, I realize that everyday people come here in droves just to pray and give offerings to the Buddha. Spirituality runs deep here, as does respect for authority.

Respect in Asian cultures is so deeply ingrained. It’s rare to see the same type of respect and devotion in a country like the U.S.


Bad gifts

I sent my parents a dinner gift a couple days before Christmas to acknowledge the holiday indirectly since my mom cannot celebrate Christmas. If I sent her a gift on the day of Christmas, she’d be really mad at me and feel guilty to Jehovah. But December 23? Bring it.

I didn’t realize how spicy the food would be since the restaurant was labeled “Beijing cuisine” until I talked to my parents on the phone. My mom started her sentence with, “I’m grateful for the thought and appreciate you thinking about us, but…” That’s never a good way to start a sentence. She proceeded to go on for about a whole two minutes, telling me that the food was so spicy that it was nearly inedible, that my dad got worried his blood pressure would go up and something bad would happen to his heart. He got so paranoid about it that he kept checking his blood pressure with his at-home monitor. Ever since the heart surgery two years ago, the blood pressure and heart have been an easy method for both of them to use to try to make me feel guilty for anything.

This is always why Ed dreaded giving my parents gifts even though he always wanted to give them gifts – well, more our mom. He sporadically gave our dad gifts out of guilt but never really wanted to after he became an adult because he knew he was never grateful for them, and at times, he’d never even open them until literally years later. They’d always show their annoyance about something about the gift that would eventually cause us to get frustrated. Sometimes, our mom would make us return the gift (Ed fumed over that one). And for me, sometimes, the gifts I’d give would not be enough, as she’d expect more. I’ve never heard of any other culture other than Asian cultures acting this way when receiving gifts, even from their own families.

1950s again

When we first visited Chris’s paternal grandma in Patterson Lake our first week back in Melbourne, she was so excited to tell me that she had bought a little present for me that she’d give to me later. As I looked at her sink, I noticed a little heart-shaped scrub sponge sitting on it. “Oh, Yvonne, I got one just for you,” she said, as she gestured toward the sponge. “It’s very useful and good for cleaning stains and spoons with the mouth (of the sponge)!”

His Nana looks at me and thinks of her grand-daughter-in-law cleaning for her grandson. As Chris said when Nana was not nearby, “Wow, it’s like we’re in the 1950s again.”

To be fair, it was sweet of her to think of me. I just wish it wasn’t with such stereotypical gender roles.

Nana actually picked one out in different colors for all of her granddaughters, plus her three grand-daughter-in-laws. My female cousins-in-law were not enthused as we picked out our little “surprise” gifts out of Nana’s secret bag this evening. We all feigned our excitement over this domestic gift and then went to the next room to laugh about it altogether.

“I told Andy, ‘Look at what Nana got us to clean our house together,’” one of them said to us. “I emphasized that it was a gift for both of us, not just for me.”

“Oh yeah,” the second one said. “Because all I do other than raise her three great-grandchildren is clean Rob’s house all day.”

For the first couple of years, I didn’t always see the very opinionated sides of Chris’s family, but it’s refreshing and a complete relief to know that not everyone is happy with everything.

The great thing here is that Chris’s Nana got to live to see her first three grandsons get married so far, even if she wasn’t able to make it all the way to our California wedding. The not so great thing here is that her mindset is still stuck in a time when wives were really just there to cook, clean, and care for the home and kids. Well, I guess in her case, she didn’t do much cooking or cleaning because she had hired help, but she certainly expects her granddaughters and grand-daughter-in-laws to be doing that for her grandsons.

“A natural”

Today, I spent a long time holding Chris’s cousin’s newborn son, who is just five weeks old. He spends the majority of his time sleeping, a good chunk of time feeding from his mother’s breast, and a small amount of time crying and pooping. What a life. I kept inhaling him and that incredibly fresh, powdery baby smell. Now, if only parenting could be that simple – just inhaling and enjoying the moment.

As I held this little baby in my lap, Chris’s mother remarked to Chris’s dad that it looks like I’d quickly adapt to being a mum, and I already looked like I was such a natural. Chris’s dad later pulled me aside to let me know. “As you can tell, Mum is trying to send a message,” he said with a little chuckle.

It’s easy to look like a natural when all you are doing is holding a baby when he is soundly sleeping. It’s all the crying and the poop and the sicknesses and the fussiness that terrify me right now.

Another Christmas comes and goes

It’s Christmas day in Melbourne, and also Chris’s 35th birthday. We’re all getting older slowly but surely, but at least we will be getting old and wrinkly together.

That’s the thing about Christmases, birthdays, and every significant day of every year forever; time is moving on, wrinkles are slowly developing, hair is greying, and health will gradually decline. Every year, Chris exceeds another year that Ed lived, and I gradually get closer to the last year that Ed lived.

Every December throughout the month, I have small day dreams of what life could have been like if Ed were healthy and happy, if we could spend Christmas together with Chris and his family. He wouldn’t have been deprived of his favorite holiday, he’d have a Christmas tree to decorate and admire as the lights flickered, and he’d get excited about all the delicious varieties of food on the Jacob family table.

And every December, I get angry thinking about everything my parents robbed my brother of, the unconditional love and parental support he never got to experience. And it makes me feel pain and anguish. Ed was just like every other simple child until he realized that he was never going to have good role models to look up to, and then he just decided to stop caring. Why should he care when he didn’t feel like he was cared for?

Christmas is supposed to be a happy time, a happy day. But it’s always marred for me because it was Ed’s favorite holiday, and he’ll never get to see it again.

I still think about visiting a medium to speak with him directly. It sounds ridiculous, but I think I will always be angry that he was taken away so soon. There’s too much left unsaid and undone.

Dead battery

At the end of yesterday’s engagement party in a suburban Melbourne park, Chris and I got into the car to find that the car would not start. Even the side-view mirrors, which usually turned all the way out when you unlocked the doors, only turned out half way when I pressed the button. Fortunately, we weren’t too far away from home, and Chris’s parents hadn’t taken off yet and called for roadside support. We found out that the battery had died, which we suspected, and that while typical batteries for this type of car last only four years, Chris’s mother (who owns this vehicle) had this battery for going on seven years now. So, it was just lucky for all of us that this happened near home and with the family present, and not at a critical time for transportation needs. This morning, Chris’s dad called Lexus to come to the house to replace the battery, and everything now is as good as new.

As Chris’s dad explained all of this to me, he spoke with a smile, saying how happy he was that it happened yesterday with everyone present, that this was a blessing in disguise and how fortunate the car was to have had a battery that lasted seven years and not just four. The entire time as he is speaking, I am standing there slightly in awe, again wondering what would have happened if the same situation happened in my own family. It’s hard to get away from it, but I always have these “what if that happened in my family?” thoughts when things go slightly awry in Chris’s family.

In my own family, I could imagine how the scene would have been very different. Even in the calmest situations, my family manages to create tension and stress where it doesn’t even exist. So when real problems arise, it’s literally like hell breaking loose.

If it were me driving my dad’s car (I got shudders thinking about that), I’d be asked… did you make sure to shut off the headlights or running lights (well, that’s irrelevant in this case because with this model, the lights shut off automatically when you shut off the engine)? Did you have the AC going too much? What other bad things could you possibly have done to have caused this to happen? Why did you not see this coming? Did you have anything plugged into the car that could have drained the battery? All of this would be yelled in an accusatory tone. In other words, all of this is your fault, and you caused this to happen. In my family, someone is always to be blamed, and it’s never my parents. It’s always Ed or me. And now that Ed is gone, it’s pretty much always me.


“Free time”

This afternoon was Chris’s cousin’s engagement party. What was surprising was that her mother actually made one of the fanciest homemade cakes I’d ever seen. It was this incredibly tall, marshmallow-frosted white cake with intricate beading and lining, handmade red and white sugar flowers, and a chocolate fudge filling. The cake itself was moist throughout; I was completely blown away.

I asked Chris’s cousin’s mother how, when, and where she learned to do this type of cake making; I had no idea she had this talent. She said she hadn’t done cakes like this since all three of her daughters were young. Since she quit her job temporarily until the girls were around 5, she said she had a lot of free time after they’d go to sleep, and she got bored and missed adult conversation and interaction, so she decided to take up a hobby at the local community center, which offered cake baking and decorating classes. She became obsessed with it and started doing it all the time, and it got to a point where friends, church members, and friends of friends were asking her to make cakes for their birthdays, graduations, and even weddings, and paying her for her services.

Two things surprised me in this conversation: one, that she literally had this talent and hadn’t made a cake of this scale since the girls were that young (that’s 20+ years ago!), yet this cake still turned out immaculate and delicious; and two, that in retrospect, as a young mother she actually admitted to having a “lot” of free time, even with three children. Most parents of today think they don’t have enough time to do everything with just one child, yet Chris’s aunt thought she had too much free time and needed to consume herself with a new (and quite laborious and intensive) hobby with three freaking children and zero hired help. She said she enjoyed it, as it gave her another purpose and something else to focus on other than being a temporary stay-at-home mother, which oftentimes drove her crazy (as it probably would anyone).

That’s the thing about Chris’s family. Although they are certainly not without their own little dysfunctional bits, as every family is dysfunctional to some degree, somehow, what unites every individual in his family in my head is that every single one of them is so positive, always looking to new opportunities and ways to see the glass half full and not half empty. I’ll never stop being astounded by this.


Business class babies

I was sitting on a flight from Perth going back to Melbourne this afternoon in business class, thinking about how both on the flights to and from Perth, I sat next to mothers with their infant children in their laps. One baby looked like she was only a couple months old, still getting breast fed. Regardless of whether these mothers paid for their business class tickets or used points to upgrade, they clearly live privileged lives that they will then pass on to their children. Their babies aren’t even a year old yet, and they have already enjoyed flying business class; that’s an experience some people never get their entire lives. My parents are included in that so far.

It wasn’t until I turned 13 when I finally boarded a plane for the very first time. It was a short flight to Las Vegas, and it was also my very first time leaving the state of California. The first take off feeling was so exhilarating, as it literally felt like I was either flying or floating when the wheels left the ground. I was so surprised by it that I immediately started laughing, which made my dad laugh, too. Then, flying was not about the experience or journey in itself; flying was a means to get from point A to point B.

I think about the kids who are as privileged as the babies I sat next to on these two flights, and I wonder if they will end up being grateful for the privilege they have been born into or take it for granted. Because I grew up with parents who thought that holiday travel was only for the “rich,” I never knew when I was young that budget travel existed, or that average people could actually do world travel and not go broke. You know only what you know and have been exposed to, right? But I wonder what it’s like for kids who have always traveled, people like Chris or Ben or these babies, if they truly realize how lucky they are, and especially for kids who get first-class treatment when they travel. If you expose your children only to the very best and most premium experiences, how will they react and cope and adapt when they have lesser experiences? Telling them about your own lesser experiences doesn’t really resonate with children; children need to experience these things themselves.