I presented a keynote, “Mirrors & Lenses: Exploring Racial and Cultural Identity,” sharing my story as a “3rd culture kid” (TCK) growing up in Korea, interspersed with some of the latest findings I’ve gleaned from neuroscience on the formation of racial identity and unconscious bias.
The conference schedule was packed, so I didn’t get a chance to discover the wonders of Sabah, from Mount Kinabalu to tropical rain forests to snorkeling off islands, but a group of us did get to downtown KK for dinner and souvenir shopping: painted masks, sarongs, batik, percussion instruments, and other beautiful crafts.
This area of downtown Kota Kinabalu, selling clothing, souvenirs and food, is called the “Filipino Market.”
Laima with pineapple fried rice, at a Thai restaurant on the harbor.
There’s a Chinese folk tale, variously called “Fortunately, Unfortunately,” or “That’s Good! That’s Bad!” A farmer loses his horse – bad fortune! But soon the horse returns, with a stallion – good fortune! The farmer’s son is thrown off the stallion and breaks his leg – bad fortune! But then military officers arrive in the village to conscript every able-bodied man and the farmer’s son isn’t taken because of his leg… And so on.
My five-day solo trip in China felt like a version of this tale. The first piece of seemingly bad fortune was the discovery upon arrival in Beijing that the reservation confirmation receipt for my Chinese hutong inn (a hutong is an alleyway or narrow side street) didn’t have enough information on it for the average Chinese person to be able to tell where it was located. The good fortune was finding one person after another, most of whom didn’t speak any English – and I speak no Chinese – to help piece together the next step of my journey, from airport to express train to subway to street. My final angel of mercy was Peng, who did speak some English and told me to call him Elton. He helped me with my heavy luggage, guiding me down the correct street to the front door of the inn, a welcome sight.
We exchanged enough information, with the help of my iPad photos, to discover that the city my grandfather grew up in in the early 1900s is Elton’s hometown! To have bumped into each other in one of the largest cities in the world seemed quite remarkable.
My grandfather, Horace Norman Sibley, center, with his parents and sisters, approx 1906.
The next day was a trip to the Great Wall, which I’ve wanted to see ever since I painted it for the book Talking Walls by Margy Burns Knight.
I’d chosen a tour to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, supposed to be one of the most scenic. I spent the day with an international group of tourists from Pakistan, Canada and the Philippines, our driver, and our guide, a young woman called Eva. Eva is married, with a 2-year-old son, and commutes two hours each way from her suburban apartment, because housing closer to the city center is unaffordable. The tour included some Ming tombs, a jade factory, lunch in a restaurant at the foot of the mountain (about an hour northeast of Beijing), and finally, the Wall!
No photos can do justice to the scale and sheer magnificence of the Great Wall. Seeing the height and steepness of these rocky mountains, it stuns the mind to think of the engineering feat that created this Wonder of the World – and of the millions of lives lost in its construction. The Wall is so high up that almost everyone opts for the cable car or chairlift up – with the option of a tobbagan ride down! It’s a real physical workout, just ascending and descending the stairs and walkways on top of the Wall itself.
Saturday I flew to Dandong, on the northern banks of the Yalu River, which forms the border between China and North Korea. In addition to growing up in South Korea, for the last eight years I’ve been working on a young adult novel set in North Korea. (The day I was leaving on this trip, I received some very exciting news about this novel – TBA in a future post!) I wanted to travel to this part of China to trace the steps of my fictional characters, who in the book’s climax end up on a section of the Great Wall, called Hu Shan (Tiger Mountain), not far from Dandong.
I was tremendously excited to discover upon arrival that my 6th floor hotel room looked out over the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge and the North Korean city of Sinuiju, barely visible in the smoggy mist:
A North Korean village on an island in the Yalu River. We are traveling between the island and mainland DPRK – clearly in North Korean waters. The woman herding goats waved and smiled when I called hello to her in Korean.
When I did finally get out of the taxi on the way back to Hu Shan, the entrance to the Wall was indeed closed; inside, a grounds crew was gathering and burning brush. Exploring around the edges on my own – including scrambling up one steep slope, hanging onto branches to keep from slipping in the sandy soil – I stumbled upon paths and views that I never would have found if I’d been on top of the Wall.
And on the south side, there is no gate!
I was able to climb part way up the Wall, just as I’d imagined, and sit to paint a panoramic view of the North Korean countryside.
All in all, an amazing adventure, full of good fortune!
Saturday night I landed in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, the first (22-hr!) leg of a trip that will also take me to China and Malaysia.
Catching up on my spring: back in March, my second Southeast Asia stop was the Philippines, where I visited the three campuses of Brent International School. It was fascinating to experience the differences between the schools, from Subic’s 200 students (80% Korean) in a building on a former U.S. military base, to Baguio’s hillside cluster of buildings with 300 students (60% Korean), to Manila’s student body of more-than-1000 diverse students from all over the world.
and students were very excited by autographing.
Then back down the mountain and across the plain, driving through Manila and to the southern suburbs…
to the main campus of Brent Manila.
Throughout, I was accompanied by librarian extraordinaire Debbie Kienzle, and welcomed so warmly and graciously by her library staff, the schools’ personnel and students, and the Filipinos I met everywhere we traveled.Read More
In October, I spent two delightful weeks at Shanghai American School. The school has two campuses, one to the west (Puxi), one to the east (Pudong) of downtown Shanghai, and an international student body of 3200! (I was told that it’s also the largest employer of expats in China.)
I connected with SAS through my sister-in-law’s brother, Jonathan Borden, who is the current high school principal at the Pudong campus, and his wife, Soon-ok, who teaches kindergarten. (We all worked together on Koje Island in Korea in 1975.)
Soon-ok’s class, like the entire student body, comes from all over the world.
There was even time for sharing writing and reading with individual students – so sweet.
Most of my time was spent in the international school community, but I was taken on a few forays into the city, where I ate some fabulous meals – soup dumplings!, Szechuan, Yunnan, Thai, Japanese; explored local markets; met new acquaintances …
and got a glimpse of the extraordinary contrast between people’s lives at different ends of the economic spectrum.
It was amazing to travel to China, retracing a journey my great-grandparents made one hundred and twenty-one years ago. I can’t wait to go back!