On Travel to Asia

FAQ: Have you ever been to North Korea?

Posted by on Jun 27, 2017 in Author's Korean Connections, Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: Research & Process, On Travel to Asia | Comments Off on FAQ: Have you ever been to North Korea?

No… and yes.

I’ve never officially visited the DPRK, but I have been in a speedboat cruising along the border with China — in North Korean waters!

I didn’t intend to do this.

In 2015, I was invited to speak at a school in Mongolia and a teachers conference in Malaysia. In between, I took myself to two Chinese cities, Beijing and Dandong. I wanted to see the Great Wall — the regular one, and the piece of it that’s in my novel: Hu Shan, or Tiger Mountain Great Wall.

When I got to my hotel in Dandong and stepped to the window of my room, I discovered that I had a view straight across the river to North Korea, just half a mile away.

Two days later, I set off on my journey to see Hu Shan Great Wall, a 20-minute drive east from Dandong. Through a series of unexpected developments, I ended up in this speedboat with a pilot and two Chinese tourists, cruising west on the Amnok/Yalu River. To the right (north) in this photo is China. To the left (south) is North Korea.

When we got near the North Korean coast, our boat pilot told us to stop taking photos. This is the closest one I got.

To the north, Hu Shan, or Tiger Mountain, from the river. You can barely make out the Wall, climbing the slope.


We got close to this island, to the north of us. I don’t speak Chinese, but I’d picked up the names of the two countries: “China?” I asked, pointing to the island. The pilot shook his head. “North Korea,” he said. So if it was North Korea to our right, and to our left… then we were technically in North Korea!

I waved to the woman on the shore tending goats, and called a greeting to her in Korean. She beamed and waved back.

On the way back to the boat dock, we pulled up to this sandbar where a couple of North Koreans had a boat with products for sale — cigarettes, preserved eggs. When the Chinese men didn’t buy anything, the entrepreneurs muttered curses about them in Korean.

A few hours later, I was sitting on Tiger Mountain Great Wall, looking out over the North Korean countryside (the straight line cutting diagonally through the middle of the photo is the border; beyond is the North Korean island, then the river where we cruised, and finally the North Korean mainland).

So that was it, my trip to North Korea.

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Posted by on Mar 31, 2015 in On Travel to Asia | Comments Off on Malaysia!

After late winter in Mongolia (30s) and early spring in China (60s), I arrived in Kota Kinabalu (KK), Malaysia, in the state of Sabah on the northwest coast of Borneo, to temperatures in the humid 90s.
The East Asia Region of Overseas Schools (EARCOS) 3-day Teachers’ Conference 2015 was held at the gorgeous Sutera Harbour Resort.
Checking in, I discovered that EARCOS had upgraded keynote speakers to luxurious suites – mine had a view over coconut trees of the marina and the bay! It felt as if I’d landed in paradise.
The resort complex includes two large hotels connected by a boardwalk, dotted with swimming pools, tropical gardens and flowering plants. Enormous breakfast buffets tantalized with platters of fresh papaya, pineapple, watermelon and pomelo, Malay and Indian curries, Chinese dim sum and Korean kimchi, as well as the usual Western options of cereal, eggs, and breads – everything imaginable except pork, in deference to Muslim citizens who comprise more than 60% of the population.


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.

Some 1200 teacher delegates attended the conference from 116 English-speaking international schools in 15 countries: Cambodia, China, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
It was great to reconnect with teacher and librarian friends I’d made on previous author visits to Seoul Foreign School (my alma mater), Shanghai American School and Brent International School in the Philippines, to make new friends – what fascinating stories these teachers have! – and to have exciting conversations about the possibility of author visits to other schools. I also got to catch up with Peaks Island neighbor and author Laima Sruoginis, who’s spent the last two years teaching high school English at the American International School of Hong Kong.
Teachers enjoyed taking photos with the visiting author to show to their students.

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.


L to R: With new teacher friends Holly Blair (art teacher in Hong Kong, orig. from Canada); Paulina Cuevas (counselor in China, orig. from Chile); Florence Flesche (5th grade teacher in Hong Kong, orig. from Hong Kong and California).

Browsing with Holly (center) and Lukas Berredo (gender identity advocate & educator in China, orig. from Brazil).

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.

On the last day, there was time for pina coladas by the pool bar and a sunset over the bay, before the closing reception.


L to R: Susan Keller-Mathers and Heather Maldonado of SUNY Buffalo State 
(offered course credit for conference hours, sponsor of my keynote); Paulina 
What a wonderful close to a spectacular trip!


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Posted by on Mar 25, 2015 in Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, On Travel to Asia | 3 comments

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! 

Our tour group at the Ming Tombs.

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: 

At night, Dandong is aglow in neon, while across the river Sinuiju shows only a few pinpricks of light.




Dandong is where I really entered the Chinese tale mentioned above: On my first day, I explored transportation options to Hu Shan, successfully locating the train station, the local bus station across from it, and the exact bus that would take me to the Wall, using a combination of Pictionary and Charades. Unfortunately, when I got there the next morning, I found that the next bus didn’t leave for 2 hours. Fortunately, there were two Chinese men who were also going that direction, so the bus station official hailed us a taxi. Unfortunately, when we got to Hu Shan, we discovered that the Great Wall was closed for the day! Though I indicated I’d like to get out anyway to walk around, the taxi driver just sped by, giving me reassuring gestures. Fortunately, it turned out that the two other passengers were looking for an up-close view of the DPRK, and we ended up on a speedboat, cruising down the river into North Korean waters!



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!

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Itinerary for an Adventure

Posted by on Mar 15, 2015 in On Events & Presentations , On Travel to Asia | 4 comments

Saturday night I landed in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, the first (22-hr!) leg of a trip that will also take me to China and Malaysia.



I was invited to Mongolia for an author visit at the International School of Ulaanbataar where I’ll spend two days meeting with students grades preK-8.
Thursday, March 19, I fly to Beijing for a Friday tour of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. 
On Saturday I’ll travel to Dandong, China, on the banks of the Yalu, directly across the river from Sinuiju, North Korea. While in Dandong I plan to explore the Tiger Mountain section of the Great Wall, particularly exciting as it’s the site of the climax of my first YA novel and I’ll be following in my characters’ footsteps. The top of the Wall offers a panoramic view of the North Korean countryside.
Finally, on Tuesday, March 24, I fly from Dandong to a resort in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, for the EARCOS conference, to present a keynote address and 3 workshops for the 1100 teachers attending from more than 120 schools.
You never know where writing and illustrating children’s books might take you!
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The Philippines!

Posted by on May 17, 2014 in On Events & Presentations , On Travel to Asia | 2 comments

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 I got to travel and experience wonders of the Philippines, from Subic Bay on the western coast… starting with breakfast by the bay, and fruit bats in one protected area.


then across the central plain and up twisting roads to mountain-top Baguio,
where I was the first-ever international author to visit,

and students were very excited by autographing.

Baguio had some of the most amazing jeepneys I saw.

Then back down the mountain and across the plain, driving through Manila and to the southern suburbs…

Another  hotel breakfast with a very different view!

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.

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Posted by on Nov 12, 2012 in On Events & Presentations , On Travel to Asia | 2 comments

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.

Jonathan shared my books with librarian Barbara Boyer (here, with me and staff member Ruby, on the Bund, with some of the world’s tallest buildings behind us), who invited me to SAS.

The extraordinary team of librarians had planned a full schedule of presentations, from pre-K to high school Art, focusing on about a dozen of my titles.

I had fun surprising the Korean-American students by introducing myself in Korean.

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!

My grandfather, H. Norman Sibley, as a boy (center), with his parents and sisters, in China, around 1905.
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