The Dawning of the Age of 40 Part 2: Running towards the Big Achievements’ Deadlines


This week, I am sharing a four-part series on turning and being 40. This is the second vignette.

Ten years ago when I turned 30, I figured the three big achievements an adult could obtain were being well-established and successful in a career, being in a long term committed relationship, and being a homeowner. In my mind, the early 30s were also a time for me to begin to get on the right track after muddling through the novelty of adulthood in my 20s. I considered that I had a decade to figure out how to achieve those goals and that 40 would be a reasonable deadline. Understandably when a person has such lofty and perhaps unrealistic goals, the pressure starts to build up and by the time I reached my mid-30s, 40 became a dreaded and feared symbol for the possibility of not succeeding. I can sum it up that I feared I would not amount to much and accomplish anything respectable.

I like to think that I was not alone in this fear and that many of my peers may at times also struggle with feelings of inferiority. The world is becoming more and more cut-throat and competitive and every time you turn around, someone has discovered the cure to cancer, or is single-handedly solving world peace. I myself used to dread receiving the alumnae magazines from my college which would have updates of fellow former classmates’ latest life happenings and achievements. For years I shirked away from sending in news of my own life because I just didn’t think I had any worthy accomplishments to share.

Oh very young- Back in the days when I had a very skewed sense of my futureself

Oh very young
Back when I had a very abstract sense of my future self

Recently, I found a class project I completed when I was 12 back in the seventh grade in 1987. The assignment was a chronicle of my life and I reflected on my past, my present and my future. For my future, I had predicted that I would swim in the 1996 Olympics, attend Julliard for my violin playing, marry my college sweetheart, be a swim coach at the YMCA, and be the mother of a three year old- all by the age of 27! I’m afraid my 12 year old self would be disappointed to learn that I didn’t achieve any of those goals- not even 13 years past the age 27 deadline. Of course I could say my sense of future accomplishments for myself were extremely warped, but I also can’t blame my younger self for predicting such ridiculous achievements. I was only extending on what I was familiar with and good at in my life at that time. Anything else would have been too abstract. It is also understandable that my younger self assumed that I would meet my future husband and start a family by 27 because it’s what my own parents and grandparents had done. At 12, my ideals of success and normalcy were based on those previous generations.

Similarly, in my late 20s and early 30s, my ideals of success began to be based on what I witnessed peers achieving. This included friends of mine, family, those fellow college classmates who wrote to the alumnae magazines, famous peers who had achieved notoriety for whatever achievements, and even fictional peers. Every time a peer would reach an achievement, whether it was purchasing a home, publishing a book or becoming director at a company, I would reexamine my own current life standing and successes.

Perhaps some of my fellow- new 40 somethings similarly have compared themselves to peers or have been doing that their whole life. My struggle of measuring myself to others is mostly a thing of the past now. At some point in my late thirties, I began determining my own markers for success and achievement. My goal of being a homeowner was dropped after actually being a homeowner in a situation over my head. My goal of being a success in a career was exchanged for achieving fulfillment not only through work but other pursuits as well as achieving a work-life balance. I am learning that the fulfillment I get from family, friends, community and even strangers brings me happiness, as does occasional solitude. This realization that I am essentially happy has allowed me to slowly let go of my unrealistic measures of achievement based on others’ successes and continue to reflect on and reexamine my own measures of success.

Oh, and I’m happy to say that a few months ago, I finally wrote to my college’s alumnae magazine for the first time to share my life’s events.

Next in this series on turning and being 40:
Part 3: The tragicomedy of the shelved woman

For further listening, viewing and reading:

Dan Gilbert’s 2014 TED Talk: The psychology of your future self

An appropriate song for this theme: Cat Stevens’ Oh Very Young

The Dawning of the Age of 40: Four Reflections on Turning and Being 40


When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I remember sifting through the different c40ategories of birthday cards in a Hallmark store. Besides the usual Sweet 16 cards and so on, there were a selection of cards with messages about being “over the hill”. At that age, I couldn’t think in metaphors, so when my mother tried to explain what “over the hill” meant, I kept drawing blanks. “What do you mean your life is a hill? Your life is a hill you ride up and then it’s all downhill from a certain point??” When it was finally explained to me that the peak of the hill was middle-age around the age of 40, I tossed the notion aside because it was far too removed from my life then. At that time, 40 was the age I associated with my parents’ generation. Even 13 was abstract! As I got older, into my teens, twenties and even my thirties, 40 still remained a distant and abstract age. Then suddenly friends just a couple of years older than me entered into their 40s and there it was on my own doorstep. In the six months leading up to my 40th, I contemplated a lot about my health, my happiness, my mortality, my accomplishments, my lack of accomplishments, and other big questions.

When I finally did reach 40 in February and in the months that have followed, I have felt somewhat heavy hearted about it. When scoping out the profiles and status updates of friends on Facebook, I realized that many of my fellow turning-40 peers also experienced similar anxiety and deep reflection around the milestone age. Some of us expressed it with a little trepidation with status updates like, “Reflecting on my life on the last week of my 30s”. Others of us tried to put on brave faces with status updates like, “I’m 40 and fabulous!” or “40- here I come!” On my own status update, I proclaimed I was “Embracing 40”.

So what is it that is so significant about turning 40? I suppose turning 30 is just as significant, but something seems more weighted, graver and intense about 40. Therefore, over the next few days, I will share four different aspects, perspectives and reflections about turning and being 40 based on my own personal experiences. I hope these vignettes will simply serve as a launch pad for further discussion, thoughts, funny stories and sharing of heavy concerns. Here we go..

Part 1: Life’s halfway marker

Extending on the theme of “over the hill”, perhaps some of the anxiety about turning 40 is that it is indeed a reasonable marker for half of a lifetime. Consider that the average life expectancy in the US in 2010 was 78.74 years. In New Zealand, there is a little more of an advantage with 83 years for females and 79.3 years for males. No doubt, these ages will increase by the time my peers and I reach our 70s. On the flipside, it’s a bit jarring to read statistics about life expectancies from previous historical periods. For example, the global average life expectancy of a person born in 1950 was only 48 years young, and for 1900, it was only 31 years young!

I suppose it can be assuring that so many medical advancements have been made just within the last two generations and that people’s quality of life, access to decent diets, education, shelter and health have improved overall. Every once and a while, I stop and consider that I won the cosmic lottery for being born in this modern day and age and in a developed country with so many comforts and conveniences. Unlike people in some parts of the world or from previous generations, I haven’t had to battle life threatening illnesses, work my way in the middle of the night to outdoor primitive toilets, wait for once-a-month-only baths or showers, toil and labor over backbreaking work twelve hours a day and seven days a week, nor stop with my schooling at the age of 10. Thanks to not being dealt those unfortunate cards, my life expectancy has a very good chance of pushing at least 80.

But with the increased likelihood of living longer comes certain modern day burdens that many of our 19th and early 20th century 40-year old predecessors didn’t have to consider so deeply. Burning questions and concerns such as, “Will I live too long? Will I have enough money to last me until I die? Will I have to work until I am really old? Who will care for me?” I’m guessing that in previous centuries, these concerns were less relevant because people simply didn’t live into healthy old age and quite literally worked until the day they died (yes- I’m talking about you, person born in 1900 with an average life expectancy of 31). Also, for a long time, even in the US (and still to this day in many places all over the world), people knew they would be cared for by their families and younger generations and that they would even live together under one roof. When my grandparents were in their 40s, for example, it was assumed and common practice that their parents would eventually move in and live with them in their twilight years. Indeed my mother’s parents did have both their mothers living with them in their last years. Somewhere along the line though, that changed and elderly loved ones started to live independently or in rest home facilities. So for our parents’ generation and younger, including us 40 somethings, this is the reality of what we will likely be facing when we reach our more mature years. We grapple with saving enough for our life in the present while also trying to set aside money for the possibility of living to 2075 and even onward.

Another note on the topics of age and the later chapters in life is that we 40-somethings are now beginning to face the reality of our parents’ aging. When we were younger, we got a glimpse of what’s ahead in this realm when we witnessed our grandparents’ aging and our own parents facing the ups and downs of those years. Over the last couple of years I have had an increasing number of conversations with peers about their parents and what considerations they have for accommodating them and being closer to them. One friend has shared his hope to soon buy his dream farm home with peacocks and fruit trees and have his parents join him there. Another friend anguishes over being halfway around the world from her parents and how she may balance the current demands of her work and life in her present home with that of more substantial, meaningful times with her parents. I too struggle with such guilt sometimes and how I will be able to contribute to my parents’ happiness in their later years, just like they did for my grandparents.

Perhaps these heavy, weighty thoughts are necessary in order to come to terms with the cycle of life. And perhaps 40 isn’t any more special than 10, 20, 60 or 80. 40 itself is just another marker along life’s journey.

Next in this series on turning and being 40:
Part 2: Running for the Big Achievements’ Deadline

For further listening and reading:

Laura Carstensen’s 2011 TED Talk: Older people are happier

Dr. Atul Gawande’s documentary on PBS Frontline: Being Mortal

Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Mind slip: Coping with absentmindedness and forgetfulness


My mind sometimes slips into a fog. It’s true. There may be countless times in a day when I stand up, walk with purpose into the kitchen at home or open a drawer in my desk at work and then simply stop dead in my tracks. I stare blankly into the desk drawer or the open refrigerator for several moments. Squinting my eyes and biting my lower lip, I then chant quickly under my breath, “Why I am here? Why am I here? Why am I here?” until I can at last remember what I originally set out to do. Sometimes I correctly figure out my original mission. Other times, I end up completing something else only to realise moments later in another part of the house or deep into another task that I didn’t achieve my original task.

This may seem like a completely normal, human thing to do. To comfort myself, I try to chalk up my scatterbrained moments to what I call a “brain overload” and that I once again awkwardly have put myself in a situation in which I am processing too many ideas and tasks simultaneously. Just a couple of weeks ago, a work friend tried to carry on a casual, easy-going conversation with me while I tried scanning a book on the copy machine at the same time. I simply couldn’t manage this ostensibly simple task of a pleasant conversation and pressing a button on a machine at the same time. My friend finally sympathetically turned to me and said, “I think I’ll leave you be. You’re not a multitasker, are you?”

Sometimes when I make a “brain overload” goof or an absentminded blunder, I joke that I just had a “blonde moment”, unfairly playing up the stereotype about dumb blondes. I realize that it’s a cheap shot and this overused and untrue generalization needs to be retired. I don’t really believe that my blonde hair causes my forgetfulness and absentmindedness, so obviously it can’t be true. Some people also refer to such absentminded instances as “senior moments”. When I catch myself in such a moment for others to witness, I may get a remark like, “Oh Stephanie, you’re far too young to be having such a moment.” To which I think, “Right?”

I can’t help but feel so isolated, ashamed and indeed alone in such moments of my mind slipping. In recent years, it has caused me embarrassment and also has caused those close to me frustration. When I have actually been called out on such moments, I get over-defensive and want to scream out, “I’m not dumb! Really!” I remember a few years ago going through days of anguish and consternation when a work supervisor had been tasked to delicately mention to me that I had behaved inappropriately at a recent meeting for asking questions that had been covered a few minutes before. Other times, I have been softly rebuked by friends and loved ones for retelling stories I have shared two or three times previously or for repeating a conversation for the umpteenth time. Although I’m sure the messages are well meaning, the effect can sometimes make me want to seclude myself and hide away for a while.

My absentmindedness and forgetfulness sometimes causes me to feel like I'm facing an isolated and upward struggle.

My absentmindedness and forgetfulness sometimes causes me to feel like I’m facing an isolated and upward struggle.

Sometimes I wonder whether my absentminded and forgetful moments are simply that or whether they are teasers of the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are sadly very much realities in my family and I have in recent years witnessed them take their toll on brilliant, vivacious, energetic minds of family members very dear to me. I guess secretly I have feared and am increasingly coming to terms with the reality that I may too someday walk down that path. Recent articles I have read about young people being diagnosed with Alzheimers as early as their late 40s have helped stoke that fear in me. As far as I know, there are no cures for memory loss and these cruel inflictions of the mind. The mind loss an individual may experience is equally cruel to the pain that their loved ones must endure as they witness a once full of life, exceptional person who is close to them transform and slowly wilt away before their eyes. Yes, losing my full memory capacity and my mind and then subjecting the pain to my loved ones is probably one of my greatest fears.

Why am I contemplating such a heavy topic? Inching my way up to 40 in a couple of months, I am actually coming to the point in my life where I will be middle-aged. My own mortality isn’t staring me in the face but I can’t help but reflect on the cycle of life and the different stages as I approach the middle chapter of my life. My last grandparent’s passing last year and my parents entering their 70s this year has me more contemplative about life stages and perhaps my own last chapters.  Meanwhile, I hope that by confessing my fear of mind deterioration, I will send the message to others of all ages experiencing similar slips and fears that they are not alone. Indeed, I recently heard even the grandmaster of horror, American writer Stephen King confess in an interview that not the mysterious bogeyman but memory loss and ultimately losing his mind were very much his greatest fears. Hearing such confessions from him or witnessing mind slips and absentminded moments from others are constant reminders that they are in essence human and that I don’t have to feel alone and ashamed in my struggle.

A few months ago while teaching, I finished giving directions to my students about an assignment. I was very careful and methodical in my oral instructions and also passed out written instructions to my students. No sooner did I finish explaining my instructions when I asked the obligatory, “Any questions?” A student in the front row then raised his hand and proceeded to query about something I had just gone to great pains to finish explaining. One of his classmates belted out a laugh and quickly covered her mouth to try to cover up her astonishment and rudeness. Can I confess that I took such great comfort in the first student’s mess up? While initially I wanted to sigh and give him a look that said, “Really? Seriously?” I stopped myself and thought, “Careful, Stephanie…He may be one of your kind.”

Such moments have helped me cope with my own mind slips, absentmindedness and forgetfulness. They teach me to be compassionate and sensitive to others, and how people process and develop their thoughts and ideas. Whatever the cause of my own absentmindedness and forgetfulness, I try to compensate for them with my sharper long-term memory and by making sense of my knowledge of random, so called trivial facts and information (For example, when I was in college and in the days before widespread internet and quick Google searches, I would occasionally get phone calls from my sister in the middle of the night desperate to find out the name of that actor who played Gopher in Love Boat or some other random information). By repeating, reviewing and reciting (re being the key prefix here) ideas, stories, thoughts and ideas that have just been shared with me, I know they will become more ingrained, even if not necessarily at the same pace as others. Self-deprecating humor also helps me cope. Another tactic I may employ before launching into a story or relaying events, is simply citing a, “Perhaps I have mentioned this before…” or a “Let me know if I have told you this before”, thus avoiding embarrassment on both my part and my listeners’ parts. And if my mind does indeed someday go the dreaded route of Alzheimer’s, then I shall embrace and celebrate whatever whit and memory I have for as long as they both may last.

We absentminded and forgetful people indeed are not alone. We are from different backgrounds and walks of life. I like to think that many of us are actually great thinkers and achievers as well. As friends, family members, work colleagues, classmates and teachers, let’s not silence or shame those close to us if they may need something repeated or reiterated. Take pleasure when your grandmother or close friend tells you that funny story from her childhood for the umpteenth time, especially if it transforms them to another place and even allows you to relive the events vicariously.

Dedicated to the memory of my brilliant aunt, Dr. Barbara Merkens.

Finding my way in the world as a free spirit


I didn’t plan to take a hiatus from writing but that’s what it has turned out to be. Without China as my backdrop, I struggled to find my muse. All my ideas for writing came to dead ends and read like whiny diatribes. When I would try to pick up with writing I had started months before, my emotions or feelings has changed. This piece below was started back in May. I couldn’t find a reasonable end to it, perhaps because I didn’t feel like I had actually experienced the end yet. Finally, I forced myself this week to finish this posting. Below isn’t so much a story with an end as much as it is an update of my life and where I am at the moment.

Although I’d like to make a commitment to write often and continuously, I know I may not be able to keep my word on that. Here’s hoping that with getting this post out there, that I can at least pick up and get the momentum going again.

“Steph is our free spirit friend.” These were the words close friends of mine used to describe me to other guests and friends at their wedding a few years ago. I’ve often reflected on the accuracy of that description of me and how my friends used it in a complementary way. Nevertheless, over the years I’ve wondered whether being a free spirit is one of my personal assets that sets me apart from others or whether it is actually a curse and character flaw. Because of my free spiriting ways, I have always been able to easily imagine and then ultimately follow through with living in whichever place my heart desires for the moment. I am often resilient to change and being in a new place. On the other hand, my free spiriting ways have prevented me from ever feeling I could settle down in one place. They make me fiercely independent at times and unable to speak of the “we” with important people in my life, while ironically at other times make me seek, latch on and cling to people I hope may offer me a sense of roots. Thanks to my free spiriting ways, I no sooner start to feel comfortable in a place, embraced by a community of friends and satisfied with my living surroundings and daily life routines, when suddenly I have this overarching need and urge to seek and find a new place, a new lifestyle and a new beginning. I’m programmed every three to five years to reposition and uproot my life to somewhere new. Suddenly, I’ll find myself again in an obscure, remote and far away corner of the world and wonder, “What just happened? How did I get here? What am I doing here?” Even worse, I pine and ache for all the collective chapters of my life from all of the previous places I left behind. Remnants of familiarity, such as a song or smell, will trigger a mix of nostalgia, homesickness and longing.

This roller coaster of emotions is what I rode on during the first six months I lived in New Zealand. One would think that this being the third major move for me within ten years, let alone to another English speaking country, and the fact that I practically jumped at the opportunity to move here, that it would have been easy for me to plunge in and get on with my merry life. On paper, it happened that way. My partner and I both secured employment in jobs we enjoyed, and moved into a house where we could relax in the evenings, garden on weekends and easily visit his family within two hours. Nevertheless, in spite of that wonderful settling and nesting, I struggled with feelings of confusion, isolation and loneliness during my first six months. I found myself resentful of going into winter in July. Other days, I longed for the beauty of the Pacific Northwest outdoors or the impressive views from my parents’ Montana cabin, while being oblivious to the spellbinding nature surrounding me. I would sigh at an outdoor surrounding and simply say, “This reminds me of…..” with my voice trailing off and reminiscing about some far away location or experience from a not so distant previous chapter in my life. Ironically, I even missed the very aspects of China that used to drive me crazy- busy, crowded streets with lots of activity and hubbub. In contrast, New Zealand was so quiet and peaceful. Streets emptied by 7 pm and I was left scratching my head wondering, “Where did everyone go?” The roller coaster ride also included the pining of friendships. I had reminders of people who touched my life so profoundly and relived tearful farewells over and over in my head. The slow, painful realization that our friendships would slip into eventual occasional contact, no matter how sincere and well intentioned we were when we parted.

Am I alone in having such conflicting feelings and attachments towards different places? Am I the only one who struggles with the answer for where or what “home” is? The writer and fellow free-spirit Pico Iyer described in his TED talk last year that there are now over 220 million people worldwide living in countries other than that of their passport. Soon, according to Iyer, we free-spirits will make up the “fifth largest nation on Earth”. This comforts me to know that I am part of club or sorts and that there are countless others of us out there walking in the same shoes.

More than eight months in since I moved to New Zealand, I like to think I have coped well and made it through the lowest dip of the roller coaster ride. This wasn’t without a little bit of cheating along the way. Going back to the US for two weeks in August helped infinitely by giving me a dose of summer and allowing me to spend much needed time with my mother, sisters and some friends and family. While I thought a trip home would only make me more depressed to come back to New Zealand, it had the opposite effect and recharged me. When mentioning to some people in the US that I lived in New Zealand, they seemed to perk and brighten up. They would gush, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go there. It’s my dream destination!” or “I’ve seen from pictures that it’s stunning!” It took these remarks from both friends and strangers to help me realize that indeed I now lived in a special place. It reminded me that I chose this path in life so that I could be with someone dear to me and be part of his world.

I arrived back in New Zealand in the second week of August with optimism and a new attitude. Since then, I can say I have been happier thanks in part to new friendships, the love and generosity of my Kiwi family, a growing vegetable garden in our backyard, new found nature escapes, and my rediscovery of swimming. Although I may still make comparisons with other places and may still miss certain elements of my previous life chapters, I’ve also realized that I don’t have to seek full closure on those previous chapters in my life. In the meantime though, it’s okay to focus and embrace this new and current chapter in my life.

Two weeks ago, we drove fifteen minutes out of the city where we live and soon found ourselves on a gravel country road. Driving past hilly and luscious, green pastures, we witnessed herds of ewes and their baby lambs. Bright yellow gorse blanketed entire hillsides as we wove our away along the road. Taking in the splendor around me, I realized for the first time that I wasn’t actually comparing it with anywhere else. I’d finally arrived. Maybe not home but at least I’d arrived to a feeling of contentment and living in the moment.

Happy to live in the moment but honor my past

Happy to live in the moment but honor my past

For further reading/ viewing:

Pico Iyer: Where is home?

Lest we forget


Reflecting on the national, personal and emotional significance of Anzac Day

With no set plans or agenda for the day off, I woke up on Friday, 25 April and spontaneously decided to observe the local Palmerston North ceremony and commemoration for Anzac Day. Similar to ceremonies and observances held in cities and towns all over New Zealand and Australia, the ceremony I attended remembered the lives and sacrifices of New Zealanders and Australians who served in wars. Anzac is an acronym for Australia New Zealand Army Corps and the day was originally observed in both countries to remember the horrific loss of lives of Australian and Kiwi soldiers who landed at the Gallipoli Peninsula in the Ottoman Empire on April 25, 1915. The campaign dragged on for months and thousands of soldiers from New Zealand, Australia, the UK, France, British India (all fighting for the Allied forces) as well as countless enemy Turkish soldiers fighting for the Ottoman Empire, died in battles. News of the Gallipoli battles made their way back home and had a heavy impact on the morale and national psyche. Impromptu observances were held already in 1915 and the first official Anzac Day was held on the first year anniversary of the April 25th landing at Gallipoli. Today, almost a century on, the Gallipoli campaign has become for both Kiwis and Australians a symbol of almost legendary proportions as well as national pride and sacrifice. Following World War II, Anzac Day became a day to remember the sacrifices and lost lives of Kiwi and Australian men and women who have served in all wars and conflicts.

As I walked on the almost empty streets of Palmerston North to make my way to the cenotaph and war memorial in the town square, I reflected on what I hoped to achieve attending the Anzac Day event. What could I, a newcomer, whose identity here as an “American” is given away as soon as I open my mouth and the flat toned accent rolls off my tongue, gain from going to the ceremony? As a relative newcomer to New Zealand, I was curious to observe how the symbolic day would be marked and as such try to understand its significance to ordinary Kiwis. I am grateful to New Zealand for welcoming me here, recognizing my relationship with my partner and allowing us together to have the opportunity to live, work and enjoy life here with relatively few obstacles. Perhaps in some sense, I felt it was my duty to witness and take part in the day and pay my respect to those who sacrificed their lives so that I could build my life here today. In addition to paying my respects; understanding its significance to my Kiwi neighbors and the community; I think I also hoped that in some small sense, participating in the Anzac Day ceremony would help me feel more integrated and closer to feeling more at home here and at least for a few moments, identify with being a Kiwi.

While attending the Anzac Day community ceremony, I was indeed overwhelmed with emotion. Unexpected tears welled up in my eyes as I walked up to join the crowd and we started to sing Amazing Grace, a song so familiar and sentimental to me and which I have always thought of as a true American anthem. I was moved by the words of the pastor who spoke to the crowd and reminded the community to remember those who had died, those who had come to our aid, and most poignantly to also remember enemies, as they too were bereft and had lost many loved ones. Within the crowd were families with young children, military personnel with their families, university students, older veterans, as well as attendees from all communities including Maori, Pacific Islanders, and various immigrant and national communities. Following the pastor’s sermon, various members of the community were called upon to place wreaths on the war memorial. Uniformed veterans of different wars or family members were first called upon, following members of different community organizations and schools. High schoolers as well as primary schoolers all proudly represented their schools and community and placed wreaths on the war memorial. Regional foes in conflicts over the last couple of centuries, the Greek and Turkish communities of Palmerston North symbolically placed a joint wreath together at the end of the wreath placing ceremony. The ceremony ended with a moment of silence, a military gun salute and the singing of the New Zealand national anthem. Following the ceremony, the participants in the wreath placing marched out on the middle of the square and along its periphery while the crowd followed and clapped.

Community members gathering around the war memorial after the ceremony

Community members gathering around the war memorial after the ceremony

Whereas my informal participation in Anzac Day did allow me to understand firsthand the significance of the day to New Zealanders, I couldn’t help but reflect on the implications of such as day back home in the United States. While I’ve always considered many Americans to be patriotic, involved in their communities and politically active and engaged, I believe that a day such as Anzac Day in the US does not seem to have the same significance as it does for Kiwis. While it’s true that Memorial Day and Veterans Day are observed in the US, I personally have never felt any overpowering sense of importance leading up to those days such as here. Americans seem to participate at the same level of involvement and engagement on the Fourth of July (Independence Day) but curiously do not come out in the same numbers for Memorial Day or Veterans Days. Rather, these days seem to be embraced simply because they give Americans much needed long weekends or allow retailers an excuse to lure consumers to holiday sales (of course the same might be said for here). Perhaps the US is too politically divided and its current involvement in wars has made more active participation and greater involvement in the day a thorny issue for many Americans. I learned that throughout the last century, Anzac Day ceremonies have also seen their share of protests and controversies in Australia and New Zealand but in recent years, the political implications have been overlooked to remember the lives of all victims of wars and to offer gratitude, united comfort and closure to those who fought as well as their families. Perhaps someday when the US is also more removed from its conflicts, Americans too will more willingly embrace and offer similar sentiments for the men and women who have served the country in the armed forces.

Following the Anzac Day local community procession

Following the Anzac Day local community procession


As I was at a remembrance day event and my emotions were raw, my mind began to wander and remember people no longer with us. April 24, 2014 marked what would have been the 100th birthday or my grandfather George Ball Stephan. He was and still is an important part of my life. I also remember the life of a neighbor who recently passed and left this world too soon. He and his wife were once only briefly in my life but I remember him for being part of my life at one point and my heart goes out to his wife and two daughters.





Goodbye, China


It’s been over six weeks since I left China and I know that the time has come for me to wrap up Inside the Middle Kingdom. It’s taken me a while to collect my last thoughts on this experience as if I need to get some sort of closure. I haven’t emotionally been in the right place to reflect on my departure as well as the culmination of my time in China- mostly because I have been living for the moment and focused on starting this new chapter in my life in New Zealand. Before the time away from China becomes more distant, here are (for now) some of my final thoughts.  

Dear China,

When I first met you, I was only 10 years old. The year was 1985 and I was a skinny, curious, naïve kid whose senses were stirred thanks in part to my strange first encounter with you. You yourself were just coming of age and slowly and cautiously opening your doors to the outside world. My family came over on a bus with other curious foreigners on a group visa for a day trip organized by a travel office in Macau. Until then, I knew very little of you other than its famous Great Wall or images of throngs of friendly people wearing grey Mao suits and blue caps on bicycles careening by the famous, larger than life portrait of Mao at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.   Maybe I half imagined we were going to the Great Wall or to wave to those Tiananmen Square cyclists on our brief day trip. I did sense it was a very special opportunity, although I was a bit unsure of what to expect and probably had a mixture of nerves and excitement the night before. On that trip, we only got to see some glimpses of the world of ordinary people. We were shuffled along to the birthplace of Sun Yat Sen, the father of modern China and then to lunch in a restaurant I can only surmise was reserved for foreigners and important officials. I learned about the One Child Policy that day when our guide pointed out a large propaganda billboard extolling the virtues of the policy. At that time, there were no tall skyscrapers nor even a skyline, nor any large development and construction projects. Roads were very dusty and only partially paved, and no sidewalks, trees or stylish, glitzy shopping areas graced their sides.  Transportation was limited to the odd bus, truck, tractor and bicycle (although I don’t recall seeing throngs of people on bicycles). My main delight and keenest memory of that day was visiting a village of one-level cement block homes. The street was relatively empty but suddenly a friendly woman in her 30’s or 40’s came out with a little girl of about 3. For the special occasion of the foreign visitors, the little girl has a red ribbon in her hair. The woman took delight in her daughter meeting my sister and me and the little girl bestowed us each with kisses on our hands.  Whatever came off that village, the small girl and her mother- of course I will never know, but this brief encounter has always left a permanent impression on me. I imagine that skyscrapers now stand where that village once was, and the little girl with the red ribbon is now a successful businesswoman and mother. The ghosts of 1985 spend their days wandering the crowded streets looking for remnants of the past.

My first encounter with China in 1985 on a trip to Guandong Province.

My first encounter with China in 1985 on a trip to Guandong Province.

I didn’t return to you until 25 years later when I arrived in August 2010, bewildered but eager to start a new adventure. Even though I had already had an encounter with you, I was nervous again just as I was on that night before that first trip in 1985. I had different conceptions shaped by others. From a very talented, charismatic and knowledgeable 8th grade social studies teacher, I first learned about your over 4,000 year history, your dynasties, your geography and your complicated, often strained relationship with the outside world. It was also at that time that I along with the rest of the outside world tried to learn and understand what happened, what went wrong in June 1989.  My next encounter with Chinese was favorable with my first contact with Chinese peers in 1993 when I went away to college. From them, I formed the notion that Chinese are hardworking, diligent and are under immense pressure to not settle for second best. From friends and former coworkers who had spent time living, working and studying there back in the 1990’s, I formed the notion that even then, you were still a wild-west frontier in which some venture capitalists started to dabble. Still in those early years, only a few adventurous people actually seemed to have the gumption or smarts to delve into your world. The excitement of the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of Eastern Europe meant that many people, myself included, seemed to focus their attention on that part of the world for a while. When you were nominated for the Olympic Games for 2008, you came into the spotlight. Still, you remained a relative enigma to me and unfair opinions were formed by American statesmen and media that became alarmed with your new economic might and were also quick to point out your human rights abuses.  So pre-arrival impressions of you in 2010 were very muddled and I knew that I would have to form my own impressions by having my own experience from within.

I was and remain astounded with the transformations you have undergone in the 25-30 years since 1985. No longer shy and closed off to the rest of the world, you now have thousands of foreigners living, studying, enterprising, teaching and discovering their niche in your cities. No longer are you an unknown, wild frontier but a tame, booming conglomerate of metropolises offering both exoticism and the comforts of home. So often, there were days I might have even forgotten I lived in your world and I worried about you losing your own identity as you embraced the stores, trends, lifestyles, food, fashion, technology, entertainment and education of outside realms.  But really you integrated these outside elements while maintaining your own principles, traditions and way of doing things.

During my three and half years living in your world, I wasn’t immune to my occasional bouts of frustration with you. At times, I bemoaned how packed public places were, sighing, for example, with annoyance while squeezing into overcrowded busses or for there being a lack of taxis during rush hour. I cursed the inconsiderate driving habits and hierarchy of traffic in which pedestrians such as myself were left to fend for ourselves, hastily fleeing loudly honking, speeding cars in pedestrian crossings. The disruption of early Sunday morning sleep by fireworks (on any given day of the year) or by elderly neighbors outside my window moving to the shrill commands and directions of their tai chi exercise recordings left me frequently grumbling and irritable. At times, I had my challenges with lack of notice and planning for holidays even by public institutions, throwing my arms up in defeat when learning about a holiday in the next week and then the subsequent sudden make-up day on a forthcoming Saturday. I grumbled over the difficulty in finding clothes, shoes and acceptance for women my size and shape in China. “Do Chinese women have no hips or butts?” I remember indignantly whining to the shopkeepers who wanted to comfort me but could only shrug their shoulders when nothing in my size could be found. And at times, I probably came off as an uppity feminist when I complained about the 1950’s role I perceived women, men and marriage to have.

However, there were days I felt overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude for the experiences I encountered with you. Were it not for the opportunity to come teach in your world, I would never have become a confident educator. Scarred and doubtful of my abilities from previous teaching experiences, I found my comfort level in the classrooms at the university, where I was left to experiment with designing my own lessons, teaching methods and approaches while working with patient, mostly diligent, disciplined and eager students. I thrived in a setting in which education was embraced and educators were revered. The university teacher lifestyle provided me with the right work-life balance which allowed me to live comfortably free of stress and juggling too much.

Living in your world also helped me learn more about patience (although still a work in progress) thanks to dealing with the frustrating situations above. I also started to learn that it’s pointless to worry about things that are out of your own control.

But my fondest, most heartwarming memories of you will be my encounters with people. These included the community of other teachers; friendships with Chinese teachers and colleagues; the friendly interaction with neighbors, shopkeepers and people from the community around where I lived; as well as the random acts of kindness or ordinary actions of strangers. I never felt lonely during my time in China. As I’ve shared in my blog before, there were those ordinary moments I witnessed between human beings or of which I was a part that moved me. An hour in a park where I could witness people coming together to play music and sing ancient love songs would catch me unexpectedly choking back my tears and emotions. The exuberance and friendly tidings a stranger on the public bus who upon seeing me, proclaimed, “Welcome to China!” and proceeded to give up her seat.  The familiarity and simple sociable banter that developed between me and the owner of the local copy shop or the local hairdresser; the husband and wife and their twin daughters; or a new friend my own age with whom I bonded over sharing our very different life circumstances. The steadfast and persistent nightly gatherings of neighbor ladies to exercise and dance on the tennis court in front of my apartment building. Even as the days shortened, the temperatures got colder, and their group got smaller, I would take comfort in their presence, their faint figures moving in the dark to the dim light from adjacent buildings.

During my last weeks living in your world, I found myself nostalgic and reverting to the same wonder I found in you when I first arrived in a 2010. Knowing my time was coming to an end, I tried to soak up the everyday experiences or routines that had become a part of my life and that I would soon miss. Eating jiao zi and guo tie in our favorite local dumpling shop, visiting my frequented stands in the cai shi chang (vegetable market), and enjoying the smiles and loving moments shared between parents and their little ones. Although I didn’t find myself fighting the tears on the day I departed, I realized it may have been because I wasn’t mourning an end to this meaningful, significant chapter in my life. Rather, I was continuing on my journey onto a new chapter in my life with feelings of contentment, confidence, ease and inner peace which I was only able to achieve thanks to my experiences in your world.

So for now, I say 再见 (Zai Jian) but I’ll forever have a tie to you.

With gratitude. 谢谢,

With some of my students after exams during my last semester

With some of my students after exams during my last semester

I took joy in seeing the love between parents and their little ones- and the willingness of people to have me share in such moments.

I took joy in seeing the love between parents and their little ones- and the willingness of people to have me share in such moments.

A friend and her husband whom I met in my last few weeks.  We were the same age and bonded over sharing our different life experiences.

A friend and her husband  with Nick and me. She and I met in my last few weeks. We were the same age and bonded over sharing our different life experiences.

Getting my haircut by the local hairdresser.

Getting my haircut by the local hairdresser.

This vegetable seller was a  comforting, constant presence in the neighborhood.

This vegetable seller was a comforting, constant presence in the neighborhood.

Moments I enjoyed witnessing

Moments I enjoyed witnessing

I enjoyed seeing these little twins grow over time.

I enjoyed seeing these little twins grow over time.

The local copy shop I frequented. I enjoyed interactions with the staff/ owner.

The local copy shop I frequented. I enjoyed interactions with the staff/ owner.

Shangri-La: The life, death and rebirth of an ancient Chinese town


A few days ago, I read the sad news that the ancient part of the city in Shangri-la in Yunnan Province in China had been ravaged and almost completely destroyed by a fire. I stumbled on an article about the fire half way down the page, deeply embedded in the middle section of the international news page of the local newspaper where I now live. Having visited the city myself exactly two years ago, I had to carefully reread the headline and subtext to make sure it was indeed the same obscure city. A remote city in the northwest corner of Yunnan Province called Gyalthang in Tibetan by it mainly Tibetan inhabitants, the ancient city was formally a trading post along the Southern route of the Silk Road and still serves as an isolated springboard for travel into Tibet. Known in Chinese as Zhongdian until 2001, it was renamed “Shangri-la” by the Chinese government in the hope of attracting tourists. Before moving to China, I knew nothing of the namesake for Shangri-la, a fictional Tibetan utopia in the 1933 novel “Lost Horizon” by James Hilton, nor was I aware that there was in fact a real place bearing that name.

Although Shangri-La had apparently attracted a lot of tourists both from China and overseas in the recent years, it was almost completely shut-down for tourists when I arrived there in January 2012 with newly-made hiker friends. It was the week leading up to Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and most accommodations, shops and restaurants were shut for the winter. Ice-chilling winds blew through the empty, narrow, cobbled streets of Dukezong, the ancient part of the city. Walking gingerly along the icy roads, stray, rugged dogs escorted us through the streets as we wandered around and explored. The tucked away, elevated remoteness of Shangri-La reminded me of a frontier town in the Wild West, thanks to the lack of foreign and Chinese national big brand commercialism. Entire families putted by on tractor pulled carts, cows and wild turkeys shared the streets, and Tibetan techno pop music blared from local bars and shops. A 15 minute walk outside of the old city center was a busy market. Monks in their long auburn robes sashayed by while other locals sold brightly colored prayer flags, brass bowls and a variety of produce.  A short uphill walk behind the ancient city, prayer flags flapped from hilltop monasteries while wind whistled past my face. Lacking a skyline of tall buildings and any construction, clear views of the residential city in the valley below offered a calming backdrop. It was a welcome escape from the overpopulated chaos, noisy traffic and urban sprawl typical of other Chinese cities.

shangri-la collage

The question remains as to what will now come of the ancient part of Shangri-La. Having been branded as a tourism getaway by the Chinese government, it will most definitely be rebuilt. How will the new ancient city be reborn? Will it be completely gutted, flattened and then developed with new upmarket shopping malls, KFCs, and fancy new high rise apartment buildings similar to those popping up over other cities in China? Could the ancient city be rebuilt to resemble another Lijiang, the Unesco World Heritage city a few hours south in Yunnan that tends to be overcrowded and overpriced with its theme park depiction of the local and ancient culture? Part of Shangri-La’s charm was in its remoteness, ruggedness, and it not being another concrete replica of an ancient town fashioned by an eager developer from elsewhere in China. I do hope that the ancient town of Shangri-La will be rebuilt again. Certainly the income will help support the local economy. Here’s hoping it will be rebuilt similar to the original form as well as with a majority of input and involvement from the local population.

From a hilltop monastery overlooking the old part of Shangril-La below, a monk collects old prayer flags to burn.

From a hilltop monastery overlooking the old part of Shangril-La below, a monk collects old prayer flags to burn.