9-27-15: Moon gazing

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It’s Mid-Autumn today.

At least… in Hong Kong it is.

Here in North Dakota – our new/old home – well, there really is no such thing.  I mean, there IS a Mid-Autumn, but it most certainly wouldn’t be today.  I mean, the autumnal equinox was only, what, 6 days ago?  Today is not “mid” anything.  We like to keep things literal in these parts.

Though to be fair, in a land where the first snow and ice of winter can come at any time — who knows?  Autumn may only last 12 days after all!  One can only hope that is not the case.

IMGP8451The arrival of Mid-Autumn festival makes my heart homesick for Hong Kong.  It’s one of my favorite holidays there.  The long weekend away from school, the lanterns, the moon cakes, the “would-be-tacky-if-it-didn’t-light-up-so-cool-at-night” park displays.  I love the children running down the promenade with their lanterns dangling ahead of them and the hint of a breeze reassuring us that relief from the oppressive heat and humidity is just around the corner.  I love Shatin Park.  I love the look of the full moon hovering over the skyscrapers and reflecting off the canal.  I love the relaxed atmosphere of the holiday — nothing like the noise and frenzy of Chinese New Year.  Mid-Autumn Festival is like taking a deep breath and slowly releasing it out in a contented sigh.

And these images that dance across my brain of my home — my other home — make my heart hurt tonight.



Tonight in North Dakota we had our own celebration of the moon.  And this one tiptoed in quietly with nothing to buy and no crowds to shuffle slowly through – though it certainly did not lack an impressive light display.

Tonight we experienced a lunar eclipse of a full harvest moon.

For two nights we’ve seen this beastly-sized moon rise over the prairie, breathtaking enough to stop you in your tracks.  Right now the moon is as close to Earth as it can be, and out here, with no trees or houses or even small hills to impede your sight line – well, you feel as if you can almost reach out and touch it as it sits perched on the horizon. For two nights I’ve struggled to fall asleep because of the sheer amount of light emitting from that heavenly body.  There is, after all, no city light to wash out the full impact — no smog to haze over it.

And tonight, my friends, the big show arrived.  The full eclipse.  Out on the prairie, all house lights shut off, bonfire dying down – it was just us and that mid-Autumn moon; and it was glorious.

But more glorious even than the moon was what happened when it went away.  Because, my friends, that is Sept 27 Full Moon Eclipsewhen the sky exploded with stars.  Hong Kong has a thousand beautiful sights to behold, but it admittedly suffers from a significant star-deficiency.  My son used to actually COUNT stars at Ma On Shan park… on one hand.  Inevitably one would always be an airplane, but I chose never to tell him so – letting him believe he’d seen five instead of only four.

But tonight?  Tonight as I directed his gaze upward his eyes turned to saucers.  The lad said, “Mama I will count them!”  and then proceeded to say, “1, 2, 3, 4 (thoughtful pause)… Mama, there’s 100 stars up there!”

“Only 100?” I asked, eyebrows raised.

“No.  There’s a million, silly-on stars!” he replied.

And he was right.  There were stars upon stars stretching across the entire dome of the sky.  With the moon completely shielded from view you could see deep into the heavens and drink in as much as you could handle until your neck begged you to return your gaze to terra firma.


Hong Kong celebrates the moon.
And so does North Dakota

And while these two celebrations look about as different from one another as I can imagine — my heart holds each close because the moon I marvel at tonight is the same one that dangles over Shatin Park, peeks through a maze of skyscrapers, and dances across the waters of Tolo Harbor.

Tonight I am blessedly reminded that our homes are not so far away after all.

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Photo credit for the eclipse goes to my dear friend Christine Baumann – a fellow Hong Kong/North Dakota transplant

9-9-15: A matter of trust – mamas, teachers, & the art of release

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I have been teaching other people’s children for 10 years now. They come into my room and they leave my room and we share moments together and sometimes authentic, beautiful things occur. And sometimes crappy, frustrating low moments occur. And some days I teach critical life lessons that have the potential of altering a child’s way of thinking… and some days I put on a tutu and we pretend to be seals and elephants and other such nonsense (which may also alter a child’s way of thinking).

Today, however, I did not teach other people’s children. Today, if only for the briefest of 5 hours, I sent my first born to be taught by someone else. And I realized something that hit me for the first time ever with new clarity:

Fellow teachers – parents trust us so very very much.

For the first time in his life, I really have no honest idea what Lucas did today. I have no full understanding of how much lunch he ate, if he sang along or just listened, or how long he stood waiting at the gate for me, resolute that I was coming back and patiently refusing to join in the games (though I do know it was the better part of an hour).

Unlike in the past where my husband gave me a play-by-play of what I’d missed while at work – today I must be content with the adage, “No news is good news.” I have to trust that any real issues would have been brought to my attention. I have to fill in 5 hours worth of gaps with my own imagination and common sense… and I have to let go of my control.

And this is where it begins. Everything from here on out – every step he takes forward – is another tug where Mama has to trust and let out a bit more line. Heaven knows how my middle school parents even breathe some days for the weight of that letting go.

And how humbled I am that they have trusted me with so much.

Teachers – today I realized something that I didn’t “get” before. When you are sitting at your desk, already squeezed and strapped for time, and wondering whether it’s even worth it to fire off a quick update e-mail to parents… please know that it matters. It’s not expected – I know that oh so well – but oh how much it matters to parents just learning how to stand on the unsteady legs of trust and release.

And to parents of my former students – thank you. I did the best I could with your children, just like I know my son’s teacher did today, and you have my deepest respect for handing them over to my care when I still had no idea of the weight I held.

11-30-14: A week without walls

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My school is pretty much the coolest.

Each November we take one week out of our regularly scheduled lives, shake things up a bit, and scatter our entire middle school throughout Hong Kong and SE Asia for some genuine learning experiences.  This year’s trips included service trips to Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, and mainland China; adventure trips to Vietnam and Malaysia; and Hong Kong based activities like golf lessons, movie making,  running a restaurant, camping, and art workshops.  Needless to say, teachers and students alike come back from that week exhausted, but also renewed and invigorated.

Over the last four years I have had the pleasure of chaperoning trips both in and out of Hong Kong and have found that each challenges and changes me in different ways.  This year took me to Chiang Mai, Thailand and the results were, as expected, extraordinary.


Our group included four teachers and 24 students.  Upon gathering at the airport that Monday, it was clear that each Thailand welcome pic 1of us carried big hopes for the week, but also no small number of fears.  It’s a tough trip, after all – one that takes responsibility on the part of everyone.  The Thailand trip is not for slackers or side-line sitters; we expect hard work, which can be mighty intimidating.

Plus, not everyone knows one another.  Mixed age groups and social circles takes time to navigate, especially in middle school.

And on top of THAT, please don’t forget that a good number of these kiddos are only 11 years old and traveling to a foreign country without Mom and Dad to help them.  I mean let’s be honest, sometimes I felt anxious just sleeping down the block at a friend’s house when I was that age.

One cannot downplay the significance of this moment in the lives of these kids and their parents.

And oh, the parents.
How humbling (and terrifying) it is to be entrusted with someone else’s child.
To manage passports and arrival cards.
To be given insulin refills and reminders about Jennifer’s diabetic requirements.
To watch a child quickly wipe tears away with the back of his sleeve and realize that this is way harder for him than it is for you… because you’ve already learned how to say goodbye.

The weight carried through the security checkpoint is different for everyone.


The purpose of our service trip was three-fold.  First, to work in teaching teams at a village school teaching English.  Second, to do a service project for the school – in our case, refurbishing their playground area. And third, to do cultural exchange activities to learn more about our host country.

Thailand teaching 1


I won’t ramble about the trip here.  Without having been there, the stories simply don’t resonate properly.  They don’t have the right lightness, or weight, that I want them to have.

My words cannot show you the twinkle in Ohm’s eyes as he and eight other Thai littles chased after me at the end of a hot day, creating an impromptu game of “ice cube tag.”

Thailand kids 2

I can’t properly boast about how quickly new became normal for our kids – be it washing their own dishes after lunch or absentmindedly using the squatty potties (nevermind the spiders in the corners).

Thailand greeting 1

My words will never recreate how good it feels to laugh until your belly aches with teenagers who are not yet too cool to hang out with their teachers.

Thailand dish crew 1

I cannot make your head spin from hours of exposure to turpentine and oil-based paints… nor can I make your heart burst with pride at the sight of a shiny new playground and the students wearing their stained clothes as a badge of honor.

Thailand working 2  Thailand playground 1

I cannot properly express the honor we felt when the village elders gave us cooking lessons, or the humility that came when, on our last day, the school we came to serve sent a traditional hot air balloon into the sky – the letters “ICS” trailing behind on a banner – serving us instead.

Thailand cooking 2  Thailand hot air balloon 1

Most of all, I cannot make you feel the deep hurt and heartbreak of new friends parted – our students sobbing as the vans pulled away; their students sobbing and running from one entrance of the school grounds to the next, just to wave goodbye one final time.

Thailand goodbye 1


It was a powerful week.  A week of firsts.  A week of frustrations – some overcome, and some simply powered through for lack of any other choice.  It was a week of true learning – the kind that only comes from getting your hands dirty.

Thailand working 1
That week my students had to do things they didn’t want to do, like take the reins and improvise lessons when materials weren’t available.  They had to learn that failures happen – sometimes epic ones – but that never has to be where the story ends.  And they had to learn how to say goodbye because some relationships in this life are only meant to be yours for a four days.

Thailand kids 1

They had to be teachers and students simultaneously – and so did I.


Next year I am not coming back to ICS.  I have decided to be a stay-at-home mom for this next chapter of my story.  This also means that after four beautiful years we must prepare to leave Hong Kong and go… well, we don’t really know yet.

Some days that sense of uncertainty is terrifying, and some days it’s exhilarating… and sometimes it’s both all at once.  But like my students in Thailand, I have to remember that the best learning happens when we get our hands dirty.  Sometimes we are called to jump in and do it – comfortable or not.  And it’s good to remember that the failures need not drown us; that we can ride the waves and have faith in the craft that carries us.  After all, haven’t the years taught me that my Lord is a sea-worthy vessel and my family a hearty crew?

All we need is the courage to, yet again, push away from the shore.

Thailand hot air balloon 2

11-25-14: A good day

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Today was a good day.
It was ordinary
Indistinguishable in a line-up
Run of the mill.
Pound for pound weighing in pretty much —
The same as any other 100 Tuesdays one might encounter

And to be honest,
I can’t name any one big thing that happened…
… but I can name 100 little ones
All coming together to raise this little day’s status to that of:

In the pages of my life, this one won’t be dog-eared
For later reference.
No highlighted passages or emphatically circled phrases will garner
Second glances from a casual browser
Maybe one or two brief notes in the margin —
Something about how many bites of sweet potato my two year old ate
Or the way his hair curled up in back tonight, sweaty from our evening of play
Maybe a reminder to buy chicken stock on my way home from work tomorrow
Or an exclamation point next to the passage about necessary lesson plan adjustments.

The stuff intended for an audience of one.

The normalcy of today —
The soup stock and the curls and the bug bites and dirty fingernails and withered old balloons hovering in corners, leftover relics from month-ago birthday parties —
It fills me with gratitude.

Oh, dare I say it?

The cynic in me wonders if
Hallmark’s ingenious seasonal marketing campaign
Has demanded I feel this — subliminally forcing my hand towards optimism.

But she is immediately shushed away, put in time out until she can behave and play nice.
Because it doesn’t matter how I got there.

Divine intervention
A toddler’s laugh
A glass of wine and a good friend

I am thankful for my ordinary.
Because if today is ordinary
Than that means that my ordinary

…is good.

And if ordinary is good
Just imagine what extraordinary looks like.

Yes sir — thankfulness is too small a word
for so much wonder.

7-18-14: Midwest Asian General Store

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If you blink more than once, you’ll miss it completely.

The miniature town of Solway, Minnesota, tucked quietly to the west of Bemidji, doesn’t even have a gas station to lure in travelers zipping down Highway 2. There are no restaurants, no hardware stores – not even a farm implement wholesaler to meet the needs of locals. Then again, with only 96 residents, a business might be hard pressed for clientele around those parts.

And yet… when traveling with a toddler, when you gotta stop, you gotta stop.

A bathroom had become essential around Bagley, but we pressed ahead seeking greener pastures. Ten minutes later when the tiny town of Shevlin dashed our hopes of finding relief we began to feel urgent, and by Solway we were on red-alert. A small town family ourselves, we knew our chances in Solway were slim given the dusty nature of the single turn off and the hand-painted signs marking local proprietors… and we were right – no bathrooms. Wasting no more time, we pulled a quick U-turn on the abandoned mainstreet and returned to the highway.

And that’s when we saw it:

The American-Asian Food Market.

Eyebrows raised and curiosity whetted, we knew now was not the time to give in to temptation, our 18 month old dictator calling the shots from his carseat. Even so, we vowed resolutely to stop in on our return trip.

And so we did.

Two days later, bathroom needs being carefully managed ahead of time, we pulled our Tahoe into Solway once more. As before, ours was the only car on the street, but the paper sign in the window read “Open” so we made our way in. A small tinny bell tinkled to announce our entrance and I stepped in with baited breath, expecting… well, I’m not quite sure.

  • A half-hearted display of chow mein noodles and cans of water chestnuts tucked in somewhere between the Corn Flakes and motor oil?
  • Shabby red lanterns and cardboard poster cut-outs of Chinese boys and girls in traditional attire?
  • A middle-aged, second-generation Hmong immigrant perched behind the counter, wondering just how his father ended up relocated to this map dot in northern Minnesota?

What I didn’t expect were four old American farmers, sitting around a rickety metal table playing cards, drinking coffee, and listening to the All-Star game on the radio. As we entered, one man rose from his seat indicating that he was the man in charge. Pushing 75, he wore a farmers cap, a worn denim shirt, and spoke with a thick Minnesota accent.

“Hello there. Anything in particular I can help you folks find today?”
“Not really, just looking around. We saw it was an Asian market and had to stop in and see what you had.”
“Well, we’re the only one up in these parts, so we’ve got lots of items. Let me know if you need any help.”

He returned to his cards, turning down the radio a notch as he went.

We turned to peruse the shelves. It seemed a standard small-town general store at first glance, but upon inspection I was shocked. Boxes of Pocky and salted plum hard candies lined the checkout aisle. The fridge and freezer section featured Mangosteen juice drink, Char Siu Bao, ready-made pork dumplings, and cuddlefish balls amongst other hot pot morsels. Taking a turn down the canned goods aisle we were greeted with lychee and jack fruit in syrup, nata de coco, and oxtail soup. The spice and noodle aisle was jam-packed with products offering instructions only in Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Thai. Large rice bags imported direct were stacked knee high on the floor. At least 12 varieties of soy sauce were available. And the cup noodles – oh the ever-present array of cup noodles!

For a moment, I was in Park n Shop all over again – the smells, the packaging, the products. This old man had actually managed to bring a true snapshot of an Asian market to this tiny hiccup of a Minnesota town. Gotta hand it to him – he was legit.

We picked up some rice noodles and spice packets for making Vietnamese pho, assuming we’d just “wing it” with those foreign instructions (we’ve become accustomed to such kitchen antics). As we paid, we shared with him our interest in his store given our residency in Hong Kong, and thanked him for providing such a unique stop on the prairie. He politely bid us farewell and returned to his pressing afternoon business of card playing; the other men barely seemed to notice we’d been there at all.

In this part of the country, “ethnic cuisine” sections of grocery stores generally lend themselves to Mexican delicacies alone. I’m not knocking it, after all, you gotta play to your main demographics, but looking at it through the eyes of a new Chinese, Vietnamese, or Thai immigrant – it’s got to pose some serious dining woes. I know firsthand how much food can soothe a tired and overwhelmed soul in a new land. With that in mind, I can only imagine what an oasis his little store must be to those desperately seeking a taste of home.

I’m so glad that quirky little store in that quirky little town exists.

And the pho we made was delicious, my friends. After a month of American cuisine (well loved, to be sure) it was a welcome return to standard Hong Kong fare. Now if only he’d have sold us a bubble tea on the side!

4-4-14: Wind in the Willows

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As a woman living and raising a family abroad, one thing I often ache for is a feeling of stability that comes from being rooted.  Certainly my childhood home has roots that run deep, catching me gently in their complex and gentle web, regardless of where I may run… but I have got to admit, it’s not quite the same as having established one for yourself, your OWN family.

I sometimes catch myself comparing my life to those of my friends and family “back home.”  While this treacherous act is often immediately followed by self-admonishment for such a ridiculous exercise, it doesn’t stop me from sneaking just one more peek into the life I “could” be living.  And this coming from a gal who LOVES where she’s at right now – the opportunities, the community, the job…

I could not possibly ask for more.

Until I do, that is.

Because we are rootless.

The ache is there.  And I want to fill the void that establishing your life overseas can sometimes bring.


This has been on my heart more than usual as of late, particularly because of my trip back the United States coming up TOMORROW morning (Ahhhh!  How my heart leaps at that phrase!).  And you know how things go when you have something tumbling around in your heart… you find signs of it everywhere you look.  That phenomenon being what it is, the other day I stumbled upon a passage that sums up so much of what I feel… in a classic children’s story.  Like most children’s stories, however, I have discovered that The Wind in the Willows is not for “children” at all – but is, rather, a story for all of us.  It simply uses woodland creatures to lure in unsuspecting parents who may have otherwise chosen Captain Underpants and hoped no thinking would be required so close to bedtime.  Or maybe to soften the blow so we actually listen to the life lessons instead of simply bristling and becoming defensive.

Adults have a way of doing that.

So here’s my moment of clarity and peace, brought about by a conflicted and confused Mole, burrowed away in the home he had broken away from so long ago.  And as I sit, only mere hours away from returning to my home country – I savor these words and hold them dear tonight.

But ere he closed his eyes he let them wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him, and now smiling received him back, without rancor.  He was now in just the frame of mind that the tactful Rat had quietly worked to bring about in him.  He saw clearly how plain and simple – how narrow, even – it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence.  He did not at all want to abandon the new life and its splendid spaces, to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to the larger stage.  But it was good to think he had this to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.

 – The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame



2-10-14: So you need a getaway?


One thing I’ve learned about blogging is that nobody really wants to listen to you expound for paragraph after torturous paragraph about your incredible beach vacation – especially not your friends and family Stateside who are experiencing one of the coldest, harshest, below-zero winters on record.  Anybody who does listen has either just been on such a vacation themselves OR they are being polite (and grimacing on the inside).


And to be perfectly honest, they don’t want a photo blog either – especially not if all you’re going to do is post annoyingly cliche pictures of palm trees silhouetted in the sunset, footprints being gently erased by the rising ocean tide, or your own freshly pedicured toes wiggling in the sand.  Definitely do not do that.  Ugh.  It’s the vilest of vile.


Yes indeed, waxing on about waking up with the sun, the water gently lapping away against the stilts my hut balanced upon; dozy naps in breeze-rocked hammocks, baby nestled in one arm, a book perched in the other; nighttime shrimping excursions in the shallows; sun-kissed cheeks and noses from swimming at the peak of the day; splashy baths for the little one on the patio at dusk… well, I wouldn’t talk about those things because let’s be honest, that would just be mean.


And yet, I feel like I must blog about it because I really want to give the Telunas Beach Resort in Indonesia a HUGE shout out.

This place is many things.
It is beautiful, a collection of stilt huts perched delicately over the water and a quiet beachfront with no other resorts edging it out for space.


It is down-to-earth, simple in its design and its offerings – no internet, television, radio and phone service to distract (or detract) from your time in the present.


It is family friendly, with a staff dedicated to treating you like real people, not just a credit card and people who love on your kids and give you the freedom to breathe a little easier.


And for all the transport required, it’s actually relatively easy to get to – just a plane to Singapore (the best airport in the world), a 50 minute ferry to Batam, Indonesia, and a 90 minute ride in a long-boat to Telunas (completely staff-directed, they actually meet you at customs and guide you through the whole process so you don’t even have to think) to Telunas.   Piece of cake for even the most timid of world-travelers.

Lucas in long boat

The truth is – I needed this vacation in a big way.  When we left for this trip I felt overwhelmed, stressed, and lost in the muck of day-to-day busyness.  And now?  Well, I return from Telunas this Chinese New Year with a heart full of quality family time and a soul that feels rested.  I also pack with me a resolve to go back – not something that happens on every trip we take, mind you!  There are few places we visit more than once on our travels, but this is shaping up to be one of them.

Thank you, Telunas Beach staff, for compelling me to write about this special place.  You’ve got a good thing going.


Trying the low-ropes course


Low tide by the pier


Exploring the mangroves


Chinese New Year, 2014

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