Friday, March 13, 2015

Breathing Contraptions

Air quality in Hong Kong sucks. Not as bad as Beijing, but it sucks nonetheless. As a lifelong wheezy asthmatic mess, it's particularly hard on my overall well-being. My health history is basically a list of upper respiratory tract infections, walking pneumonia, asthma attacks, bronchitis, hives, sinus infections, allergic reactions and real pneumonia. Good fun! I'm also highly allergic to pollen, mold, dust, mildew, trees, grass, and cute fluffy animals, which is normally manageable with daily anti-histamines and occasional injections of steroids to the ass when I have an allergy attack.

I identified with Chuckie Finster as a kid-
We both lack a sense of smell

I've been going through a hard time this last month as I had what I thought was a cold that basically shut my body down, sent me to the hospital, and made me miss a week of work. I couldn't get better! I scrubbed every inch of my apartment and kept finding little bits of mold growing on book covers, spice bottles, shoes, jewelry, clothing, and furniture. The combination of Hong Kong humidity and filthy air was too strong a foe for my feeble attempts. No matter how much I sterilized surfaces, mold kept popping up. I knew what I had to do.

Look at my sad face during my recent lungpocalypse

Even though I dropped a shit ton of money on an air purifier earlier this year and strategically hid dehumidifying pots all over my apartment, it clearly wasn't enough. I went ahead and bought a dehumidifier as well. Lo and behold, the mold stopped. I can now sleep through the night without waking up in coughing or sneezing fits. My apartment has become a little sterile bubble. The downside?

THIS MEANS I HAVE NOW SPENT OVER 1,300 US DOLLARS ON BREATHING CONTRAPTIONS. (Not to mention all the hospital and pharmacy bills I now have).

What in the name of fuck. To breathe like a normal human being, I had to drop an obscene amount of money. Hong Kong needs to get its shit together.

My air quality control officers

These machines are bulky (which is not good for a small HK apartment), loud, and annoying. I have to dump out the water tray in the dehumidifier at least once a day and who knows what sort of effect it is going to have on my electric bill. Aren't more appliances actually contributing to the pollution problem? Oh, the irony.

This is a photo I took of the harbour on my way home-
at 4 in the afternoon, fully light out

Over 3,000 people in Hong Kong die every year from pollution related illnesses. It's a vile environmental hazard. The University of Hong Kong created this cool interactive website tracking daily drawbacks from the terrible air quality. The number of people visiting the doctor every minute is especially telling. The economic and health implications of the air quality is real, and I am a living example of that.

Victoria Harbour on a good and bad day

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Attention: Solo Female Independent Travel Twenty-Something Expat Blog

Is this how I want to be advertising my blog? Well, sorta. Bookworm Vagabond, and a lot of my other favorite blogs as well (such as Adventurous Kate and Young Adventuress), would be labelled this way without any second guessing. But it's a description that only blogs written by women could use. Imagine if my life were exactly the same, but I was a man. A twenty-something, white, American man living in Hong Kong and working as a history teacher. How ridiculous would it be to label my blog in that way? ‘Solo male travel with safety dos and don'ts’, ‘An independent man and his adventures’, or ‘Twenty-something man, young and single and taking on the world!’ It’s not an accomplishment for a man to be independent. A man doesn’t need to boast that he is doing a courageous solo trip around the world, because that’s not really a big deal for a dude.

Age plays a role in what I am trying to get at as well. Only women would advertise their blog as being for 'twenty-somethings.' A 26 year old man doesn’t need to reinforce the fact that he is still a twenty-something, and therefore relevant. He's young! He's hip! Ha! I can't think of any travel blogs written by men where they would use that label 'twenty-something.' When I turn 30 in a few years and I drop that label, will my blog suddenly become a little less attractive?

Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins do NOT approve
of being boxed into a label, thank you very much

Men my age who are doing the exact same things and blogging about it don’t have to label themselves in any way. They get to be nomads, adventurers, vagabonds, and their stories are universal. It would be absolutely ridiculous to think that their writing was only for men of their age, and yet so many female bloggers my age label themselves in exactly that way, myself included. Women read travel blogs by men and watch tv shows about men (Entourage anyone?) and read GQ and it’s perfectly normal. Why then, am I supposed to aim for a female readership here? Why can’t my stories be universal?

If Orphan Black was about a group of male clones, 
would more people be watching it?

I am constantly reminded of how different my life experiences are as a woman. Feminism is going to be important to me until people stop looking at me in awe and telling me I'm so independent. I label myself that way too, and it's a problem. Men don’t need to brag about being independent, and yet for women, it’s an amazing accomplishment. When will the fact that I am single, and exploring the world, and adventurous, stop being so impressive because I’m a female, and start being impressive because I’m a person?

Here’s another way my life experiences have been shaped by my gender recently: I was told by a male colleague to be more assertive, to stop apologizing. Men don’t get it, that as a woman, the bigger the personality, the louder we are, the more space we take up, the more we have to apologize for. The world is really hard on girls that like themselves. I feel pressure to complain about my body (even though I love it), apologize for being smart (even though I pride myself on it), and downplay my talents (even though I am a kick-ass dancer, I can hula-hoop and play the ukulele and cook up a feast on a whim). Realistically, if I was as blunt or assertive or non-apologetic as my male colleagues, I would face consequences. I could be labelled cold or intimidating or a bitch. This happens regularly both in and out of work. So for a male colleague to tell me to be more assertive, well, I take that with a grain of salt.

Women are conditioned to be hard on themselves-
This clip does a great job of poking fun at that

The girls of Broad City never apologize
and for that I am thankful

Just in case you aren't entirely convinced yet that women have day to day struggles that men don't have to deal with, here's one more little anecdotal nugget. I recently obtained permission from a movie producer to screen a clip from an upcoming documentary about genocide, which I shared with my teaching team at school. Someone in my department asked if I 'put out' to get the film rights. Seriously?! No, I fucking attended a planned teachers’ workshop and stood out (not put out) by participating in an intellectual conversation with the organizers and asked permission to screen a part of the film in a classroom setting. Would a male colleague ever be asked if they had to hook up with someone for a classroom resource?! That this was even suggested in a professional environment is infuriating to me.

It’s maddening how engrained sexism is in my daily life and how constantly reminded I am of how much further society can still progress. Maybe I can start by getting my guy friends to simply stop calling hot girls ‘pieces’… Piece of art, piece of ass, I don’t give a shit, either way is equating a female to an object to be ogled. I’m not an object. I’m not impressive because I am a female who travels. Maybe I am impressive because I am a person who travels, that's for you to decide.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Weekends in Hong Kong

As much as I love my job here in Hong Kong, I still look forward to the weekend with my friends like any normal human being. While Hong Kong has a lot to offer every night of the week, I'm a bit of a homebody on weeknights partially because of my hermit tendencies and partially because of my early teaching schedule. I save my madness for the weekend.

Friday night family hotpot to get the weekend started right

I love that I can go nuts with my friends at a happy hour and tear up a dance floor in a basement club until 7 AM, or I can take it easy and hit the trails hiking super early on a Saturday. I can hop over to an island for the afternoon and lay in the sand for a few hours, or I can do a booze infused brunch with girlfriends. Where else can you start your weekend with some family hotpot and end it with a dim sum feast overlooking the harbour?

Hiking a bit of the Wilson Trail and stumbling 
across the Iron Man house

El Botell√≥n in LKF amphitheater was a free 
wine-themed block party

My only issue with Hong Kong weekends is that people here hit the bottle hard. Hangovers are all too common, as are scrubbing a passport's worth of stamps off my arm in the morning while cleaning out piles of drink receipts from my bag. It's easy to jump from free flow brunch to happy hour with friends, because life on the island is a non-stop party if you want it to be. And at this point, why not? Most of my friends are still single, and none of them have kids or any real financial obligations (mortgages, car payments, etc.). Might as well get it out of our systems now.

Some of my favorite afternoons have been spent in 
Victoria Park with friends (and my ukulele!) 

Drinks at one of my favorite happy hour joints 
in Hong Kong- Linguini Fini

I've known people in Hong Kong that have tried to stop drinking. Normally they last a few weeks and then give in to the booze infused Central district on a Friday afternoon after a particularly stressful day at work. I like to be clear headed for yoga practice on Saturday mornings, but I also love a Friday night jumping up and down on the dance floor surrounded by friends with no cares in the world, so I struggle to find balance here.

Free-flow brunch with some lovelies 

How do I stay grounded in a grown up's playground of excess and indulgence? I surround myself with good people. I take care of my body while still allowing myself to have fun without feeling guilty about it. I give myself downtime every weekend to curl up on my couch with a cup of coffee and listen to folk music and read books. If I ever start getting the urge to drink alone or rage on a weeknight maybe then I'll start reflecting on my behavior, but until that day comes I'm just gonna keep on following my bliss.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

My Expat Blog

It's easy to run out of things to say on this blog whenever I've gotten into a routine of normalcy. Yes, I travel a lot and yes, I eat in new restaurants and yes, I see new places in Hong Kong, but so much of it just seems normal now that it's almost not worth writing about. Sometimes I stray from the 'solo female expat' theme and talk about books or love or hobbies or politics or feminism or music (and will continue to do so), but it all comes back to me being true to my voice and sharing my experiences abroad.

This was the original template I used years ago

I'm interested in so many things- hula hooping, playing the ukulele, yoga, reading books and comics and newspapers, travel, belly dance, discovering new music, new beers, new movies, but I'm always hesitant to write about anything other than travel/expatriatism because that was my whole reason for creating this blog in the first place. I wonder how much of myself I should share online, or how much of what I write here is going to come back and bite me in the ass someday.

Bookworm Vagabond has now been active for over 5 years, and I keep writing. With another two years in Hong Kong, I'm gonna need to sit down and some point and think about how to proceed, because I want to give the blog a fresh spin so I don't spend another 5 years writing the same old 'ooo amazing new restaurant' or 'ooo this country is wonderful.' Blogs have personalities and I want mine to have a voice. I want a little piece of the internet that radiates McKenzie, and maybe that's silly or selfish, but I've been called egotistical for having a blog before and it's never phased me. Bookworm Vagabond is in it for the long haul.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Settling Down

I recently renewed my contract in Hong Kong for another two years and it was a frightening experience for me. I’m a nomad- the idea of two months without visiting a new country is daunting for fuck’s sake. I've got this itch deep down to live big and to adventure and explore and grow and it’s difficult to imagine those things being possible when I am choosing to stay in one place for four years.

At this rate, I will most likely spend my 20s abroad. I’m not so much worried about missing out on that experience back in the States of a being a poor twenty-something with loads of fun roommates and a neighborhood bar and weddings to attend, but it’s just that I thought I would either be in Europe by now, or in NYC getting my PhD. But I ended up in Hong Kong, and now I’m making the choice to remain here for a substantial amount of time.

Look, life here is good; can you blame me? My friends are lovely and kick-ass and super tight, my job is exhausting but exciting, the city is vibrant, safe, and active. There’s not really any one thing I can put my finger on and say, ‘this is why I need to go,’ it’s just that this stupid travel itch wants me to avoid settling like the plague. But maybe someday I am going to want a cute flat with a million bookshelves and be part of a community and have a cabinet full of whiskey and a pet and dinner parties and I just don’t know what I’m going to do with myself when that urge kicks in.

The thing is, I have a feeling that I’m going to be really good at settling down someday. I’m great at setting up a routine of cooking for myself and collecting vintage books and nesting and getting to know all the familiar faces in my neighborhood. My life in Hong Kong suits me for now though, and I still need to visit Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Korea, and New Zealand before I can leave Asia. So another two years it is. Cheers, Hong Kong! the meantime, where to next?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Mad Week in Vietnam

I’m ticking off Asian nations one by one, and this winter break Vietnam was next in line. I was lucky enough to travel with two good friends, and we decided to spend a week relaxing in Nha Trang, doing a couple nights in a cheap local hotel, and splurging the last three nights with a stay at Novotel.

We started our trip in lovely Hanoi

I’m more of a hostel traveler myself, but it was pretty fun to stay in a really nice hotel room, ordering room service, lounging by the pool, playing the ukulele on our private seaview balcony, and just generally over-indulging in some ultimate relaxation. I wouldn’t normally stay in a nice hotel on my own, so it was great to be able to share that experience with friends.

 Our balcony view at the Novotel

So, how was Vietnam? Loads of fun, food, and drunken shenanigans mostly. I did manage to get my bag stolen at the beach with my Nikon in it. At this point, I’ve been pick-pocketed so often I leave everything in the hotel room so I got really lucky. The fuckers who snatched my bag may have gotten my camera, but that was it. Money, cards, passport, iPhone, sunglasses, earbuds, etc. was all back in my hotel room. Of course there was the initial feeling of being violated, and becoming suspicious of everyone I encountered in the street for a day or two, but it was a swift recovery. For the record, I heard loads of stories and met many traveler who had been robbed in Nha Trang, so it’s something to keep in mind if you are traveling in Vietnam. Beware the bandits!

At least they didn't get my ukulele...

We did some really cool activities in Nha Trang, like a cooking class and a trip to the mud baths and hot springs. I make a mean mackerel claypot, by the way. I also got to jump off a 7 meter waterfall, which was a highlight of the trip for me. Us three girls also made friends with a trio of Australian soldiers that were willingly along for the ride of late night shisha and tearing up the dance floor at the sleaziest bar in town, which made for some very good photos that were robbed from me in an untimely manner by the dirty beach bandits. Other than said dirty beach bandits, the Vietnamese people were SO friendly and kind. It reminded me of Albania- at first, you think everyone is trying to scam you but then you realize that they are just that nice. Weird.

Feeling fresh after a soak in the mud baths

Hiking around the jungle 

Jumping off a 7 meter waterfall

For me, travel in Asia is all about the food. Taiwan was a blur of beef noodle, street sausage, dumplings, and mango shaved ice. Vietnam was a blur of pho, fresh spring rolls, sugar cane pork, claypot, and pomelo salad. In fact, Vietnam could possibly be the best food country I’ve ever been to. Every meal was an experience, and even the most lackluster run-of-the-mill quick bite on the road was an explosion of flavors. Overall, Vietnam was stupidly cheap, easy to get around, welcoming, and generally awesome. I’ve only been to Hanoi and Nha Trang, so I could easily be convinced to go back and spend more time in Vietnam.

The cooking class at Lanterns in Nha Trang 
was one of my favorite parts of the trip

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Nomad's Nomad by Luke Armstrong

I was super excited to hear recently that my friend Luke wrote a book, because he is one of the best storytellers I know. It’s a collection of short stories about his travels around the world, and Luke’s strong voice and huge personality really shine through. When I say that Luke is a character, I mean it in the best way possible, because it's a character you'd wish you known longer and you always wish you had more time with. It's a character that makes an awesome guide for a series of adventures assembled into a book.

I spent an awesome summer living with these guys, and yes-
Luke, Ray and I went out drinking in these getups one night

I am pretty much constantly anxious to hit the road, and  Luke’s stories about travel were so vivid that it was almost ok that I was reading them while stuck on a public bus on my dreary commute to work. The book had me genuinely laughing out loud as I was reading it. Luke writes about smuggling cigarettes and insects, almost getting arrested in Kenya, getting attacked by a raccoon clearly possessed by a demon, and still has some touching moments along the way. The stories feel like extended blog posts and they whip you around the world, which is appropriate considering Luke writes a really great blog.

I think had anyone else written this book, it would have seemed like fiction, but knowing Luke, it’s all real. This is a guy who hired a mariachi band to follow his friends around on a pub crawl of Antigua, my roommate who used to convince the police to give us a ride home in the back of their trucks when we were too drunk and/or broke to figure out a tuk tuk. Oh, Luke. Luke once made me pretend to be a journalist so we could sneak into a Guatemalan circus so he could flirt with the contortionist. If any of these antics sound exciting to you, check out his book The Nomad’s Nomad over at Amazon. 

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