Japan

I love Japan but I have an issue with all the stereotypical people that dream of going there.

First of all, Japan is totally warped by upper middle class white people all around the world. It’s like, the place they all want to go. Japanese food and anime are placed at a pedestal. I’ve met so many Americans that dream of going there but show no interest in seeing the rest of Asia. As an Asian-American, I immediately cringe when Japan is brought up in a conversation because it is so awkward being in the same room as someone who is clearly fetishizing Japan!

On the other hand, I’ve been there twice and each time I’ve visited, it is a really neat place with the most interesting culture. There are things in Japan that don’t exist anywhere else. I don’t understand any Japanese but their cities are easily accessible. Everything is orderly and predictable. They also have every kind of food imaginable. I even saw a Denny’s in Tokyo.

Osaka is kind of crazy at night and a home to a different type of counter-culture. I ate a lot of seafood there. I think I would want to return with girlfriends in the future because it looks like a fun place to party.

Tokyo is a shopping mecca. My mom and I really liked Kappabashi, a street devoted to restaurant supply and kitchenware. But all their malls are winners because they hyper-modern malls have all the unique brands from around the world. 

Kobe is would probably be my favorite city in Japan. The streets are almost picture-perfect and lost in time. I had the opportunity to stay at a private onsen. The onsen had a private house-like hotel, with only five rooms. Each room had a private tub, but my favorite was the group bath. It was outdoors. I love bathing in sulfur springs and laying on rocks. It’s such a mood. In Kobe, my mom and I also discovered omakase dining. It’s a fun way to eat but I was not about it. I eat embarrassingly fast.

Another problem in Japan is that I end up drinking way, way too much tea. I get brain fog from caffeine, yet I kept downing cups of tea. It’s similar to when I go back home with my parents.

Japan is a beautiful country with both large cities and small towns. The food is incomparable because of the care and precision chefs put into preparing Japanese food. It’s not just ramen and sushi.

Kyzyl

When people ask for advice for where to go in Russia, they ask, “Do you like Moscow or St. Petersburg more?”

My honest answer is neither. I appreciate both cities but if you really want to understand Russia and meet Russians, I say go to Siberia. In both Moscow and St. Petersburg, it’s pretty difficult to meet locals unless you already know people. In Siberia, any new comer is a friend because they don’t really have the same amount of tourists.

My absolute favorite place in Siberia is Tuva. Tuva is a small Asian ethnic republic in Southern Russia, on the Mongolian border. It is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. It is also extremely remote. They have everything – mountains, steppe, domesticated reindeer, salt lakes, spring water so pure you can drink it off the ground, like, everything. 

If you’re coming from Moscow, there’s a weekly flight to Tuva. But other than that, most people ride a train to the neighboring republic, Khakassia, to the city of Abakan. From Abakan, you take a private van for eight hours into the capital of Tuva, Kyzyl. The private vans are stuffed with passengers they pick up in Abakan and don’t leave until they’re full. So if you’re claustrophobic, you’ll have to deal with that. 

Tuvans look like me! And speak both Russian and Tuvan. Tuvan is a turkic language with Mogolian and Tibetan roots. Tuvans are buddhist and some practice shamanism. It is such a neat place with the most interesting culture. Tuvans have dual identities because they’re both in Russia but they have a different culture from the dominant Russian identity. So when they meet an Asian-American, there are no confusing looks. It is such a remote place that many people in Russia do not know that it exists. 

In Tuva, Greco-Roman wrestling is popular. The small republic is proud of its athletes and you can see that in their streets, museums, and media. People talk about their athletes all the time. Since the population is so small and word travels fast that a foreigner is in town, there’s a chance you’ll meet an athlete or someone married to one.

I worked for two weeks at a summer camp in Kyzyl. I rode in a small bus to the school everyday with the students and it was pretty typical to have kids on laps. I love places that don’t mind getting close up, because it’s so different from life in the US suburbs.

The children there were really unlike other kids I have worked with. I have worked with small kids in Samara, Ulan-Ude, and Nakhodka, and these were kids that radiated kindness, positivity, and an atmosphere of inclusion. I was just an onlooker. I was really impressed by what kids were capable of and how easy it was to feel spiritually and emotionally connected to the community while living there for only two weeks. I was so impressed I ended up writing a paper about the children in Kyzyl.

Tuva will always have a special place in my heart. 

New York City

I’ve lost track of the times I’ve been to New York City. If I had never met my partner (who’s from New York), I probably would not have had the chance to see it in all the different ways that I have. I don’t know if summer or winter in the city is better. For one, summer in the city means a happier Long Island. But being bundled up in New York doesn’t stop New Yorkers.

The first time I went to New York City, it was for a month. I stayed in both Nassau County and the Upper East Side of the city and took everything in for the first time. It was Christmas and everything in New York was exactly like I had pictured it. Plus, my partner’s mom is a New York City Tour Guide (apparently there is an exam you take for this certification). We went on one of her tours.

Then we went back three different times for three different weddings. Two in the summer, one in the winter. Perhaps I am not from the East coast and only came into this habit as an adult, I feel cool telling others I go to New York for weddings

One winter, I went to hang out with my uncle and watch musicals. I think in one weekend we saw three shows. We’re crazy. I stayed at one of my high school best friend’s apartments. It was an awesome time that involved too many late nights and junk food. 

One winter I went to the city to a conference. I got to know a small aspect of Columbia University. I showed one of my other best friends around Coney Island and Brighton Beach, the gritty Russian side.  

One summer I spent a whole week lazing around Long Island. I hopped boardwalk art fairs, got my nails done, and ate a lot of pizza rolls. 

New York has always been a place of good memories. Despite it being portrayed in the media as a place that is fast-paced, I’ve only seen the casual laid-back side of New York, and I don’t really want that to change. 

Mexico City

I visited Mexico City the fall of 2015. I had just come back to Austin after traveling nonstop for a year. And within weeks of being back, I knew I had to go again. Travel is an addiction for me. 

One of my best friends, David, and I planned a trip to Mexico City. We stayed in a hostel. We spent our days eating tacos al pastor and cruising the city. Mexico City has a Central Park type area with museums and neue-bohemian book stores and coffee shops. I was in heaven. I’m so easily tricked by topiary, coffee, and pseudo-eco spaces in large cities. I am a millennial after all. The anthropology museum is great. While it is totally aesthetic, I am working to unpack the trauma and looting that probably went into the creation of that sterilized, magnificent place. 

My favorite place in Mexico was Xochimilco. It is an area of Mexico City with historic canals and artificial islands. Tourists ride in beautiful wooden gondolas along the lake. There is music, food, parties, and even strange folklore that accompany Xochimilco. 

Another great place David and I went to was Plaza Girabaldi. It was just a few streets away from our hostel. Music played all night. I love taking it all in. I am especially fascinated with nighttime traditions around the world because I’m such an early sleeper. Mexico City is a truly city that never sleeps. Also, don’t you think street food tastes better at night?

While in Mexico City for a short time, we saw a few protests and marches. I don’t know if that was just a tumultuous time and as a traveler we get the privilege of not learning about it if we don’t want to. But it reinforced notions I had about Mexican Americans and Mexicans in general, that they frequently speak up and speak out in injustices. I feel that resisting is engrained in Mexican culture, and I admire it so much. One such protest we came across on the street involved over two hundred naked farmers, men and women, running down the street angrily. I think the uprising was about how farmers were being screwed over by the government, but I’m not sure. Suddenly, the anger, resentment, and everything else built up, gets absorbed by the city and onlookers. It’s a gut-wrenching feeling. 

Marin County

Marin County is the area north of San Francisco, on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. I had heard a lot about that area from fellow mushroom collectors and identifiers. It is moist, mountainous, and has great trails. My boyfriend and I shared a special weekend there this Valentine’s day.

We liked Mount Tamalpais so much we explored three different trails in the park. It was a dry season but we were able to find some north facing slopes. Some common species of mycelium we found were Turkey Tail and King Alfred’s Cake. We found our first Pink Oyster. We also discovered many Turret Spider nests, mistaking them for mushrooms at first.

At night, we stayed at The Gables Inn. There are only thirteen rooms on the property. It is homey and cute. They have a great breakfast spread and wine and cheese happy hour in-house every night. Sausalito closes very early at night, so we were lucky to get a table at The Fish Peddler. I had a three pound snow crab.

Marin County was an idyllic place next to the sea, perfect for hiking. Only a week later, they were one of seven California counties to vote Joe Biden instead of Bernie Sanders. I’ll probably never forgive them but I’ll appreciate the time we spent there.

Phoenix

Most of my time spent in Arizona is in Tucson. I went to school there for two years and all my cousins live there. Tucson is low-key and funky. Phoenix feels more corporate, cleaned-up, and built out. I definitely prefer Tucson even if it doesn’t have much of the same conveniences that a large city has. For example, finding good Asian food in Tucson is near impossible.

This year, I spent an entire week in Phoenix. More specifically, Scottsdale. I’ve never spent more than a day in Phoenix. I got to know Phoenix through the lens of my sister, who recently moved there.

As much as I wanted to hate Phoenix, the beautiful desert landscape is unbeatable. The Sonoran Desert is my favorite ecosystem in the world.

One day, we went to the Desert Botanical Garden. There was a kitschy art exhibit and a variety of desert plants. But it was gruelingly hot even in February. I learned what a brushetta board was shortly afterwards. I kind of understand the Arizona wine mom stereotype now. Wine in the desert just hits differently.

There was so much good food in Phoenix. I gained nine pounds in just five days. My sisters are amazing at finding the best brunch and happy hour spots. One of my favorites was The Henry. The patio was beautifully decorated with colorful tile. The drinks were all artisanal cocktails of gin and tequila – yum! I had a Ginger and Fig Mule. It’s part coffee shop, part restaurant, part happy-hour patio.

The shopping in Phoenix was good, too. There are so many boutiques on 4th Avenue. But there was one place that stood out among the rest. It’s called Last Call. There are only few Last Call locations in the country. Items that don’t sell at a Nordstrom Rack get shipped to one of the few Last Calls in the country. As a result, they are crazy. The stores are packed to the brim, not consistently organized. You can literally find anything. The shoppers act like it’s a life or death situation. Tensions are high. It doesn’t help that the Phoenix location is underground, lacks windows, requires walking into a dungeon-like room, and is in a dying 80’s-like linoleum-tiled shopping mall. My sisters and I liked it so much, we went twice. On my first visit, I scored Blundstones boots for only $60. On my second visit, I found some $30 Uggs. If you love thrifting or the thrill of the hunt in shopping – there’s no experience quite like shopping at Last Call. Enter with caution, I say.

On one of the last days, my sisters and I headed to Sedona. It’s less than two hours outside of Scottsdale. We went on a hike, saw an infamous Catholic church paved on the side of a rock, and Slide Rock State Park. We had Argentinian style-burgers. Sedona is filled with new-age shops, similar to other “holy” spots in the US.

Although the home of John McCain and private prison paradise will never be one of my favorite cities, I’m glad I got a taste of Phoenix.

Yosemite National Park

I went to Yosemite for the first time in October. I’ll be honest – I don’t like the idea of Yosemite. Apple (and capitalism) has ruined the name for me. The kind of affluent, oblivious Colorado-loving kind of American that I despise – really love going there. Two super cool documentaries were even made this year about El Capitan, a stupidly steep rock mountain in Yosemite. It seems so intentionally unsafe to climb it, why does everyone need to climb this mountain? Can’t we just appreciate it as a natural wonder and not need to prove our human finesse on it? It bewilders as well as irrationally angers me.

When I’m looking for a hike I love my local parks like Monte Bello Preserve (in Palo Alto) or Big Basin Redwood Forest (in Soquel). I really dislike the idea of using nature as a fitness aspiration. I am unfairly assuming that Yosemite, along with Yellowstone, has been co-opted to represent pure human sport and superiority by the very same people I’ve been generalizing. I’ve let myself associate examples of breathtaking natural beauty with consumption-happy white people who put their lives in danger on purpose while millions of people literally live in danger they cannot escape. In short, I am not inspired by an “against all odds” kind of story when it involves climbing a mountain for reasons other than survival.

In total, we stayed two nights in a cabin at an RV park. October was already chilly in Northern California.

I kept both a journal and artifacts while at Yosemite. The journal was nice to have on the trail to write and doodle in, especially at the nightly traffic jam leaving the park. It was the most awful traffic jam of my life and I’m not even joking.

The first day was a short hike. The second day was a more difficult hike. It wasn’t El Capitan thank god, however. I learned the meaning of gorp. Except I kept calling it glorp and glorb.

The second day ended with dinner in the nearby small town, Groveland.

Overall, Yosemite was a great experience. I saw a lot of amazing natural rock formations. No picture could ever do Yosemite justice. However, it was indeed crowded and the trails were lined with speedy college kids in Patagonia carrying wretched conversations loudly with the backdrop of prehistoric trees and rocks. I’m not used to hiking in such crowded places and I typically avoid those kind of trails. It was difficult to contend with.

Morocco

I had never been to Africa before. When I found out a friend had just finished Peace Corps in Morocco, I jumped at the chance and had to visit her. I spent some time in Spain, then headed to Northern Morocco, specifically, the city of Tangier and Chefchaouen.

Tangier

Morocco was not what I thought it would be. I thought Tangier would be a bohemian escape with stereotypical Eastern “delights” like pastries and shisha and string-y music. At least that’s what documentaries make Morocco seem like, even Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode about Tangier made it seem like that. It was just a regular city, a balance of “new” and “old”, entitled men acting like fools, and everyone else trying to make it with their small wages. The average wage does not match the cost of living so again, as a tourist here I profoundly understand my privilege abroad.

I was lucky enough to have some local tour guides, and they made sure I got to try every Moroccan dish.

Moroccan food that I got to try:

Tagine Kefta – A traditional way of cooking in Morocco involves a ceramic tagine. That’s a skillet that comes with a cone-like top, which allows spices to be trapped in the dish while being cooked on a stovetop or open fire. Kefta is lamb/beef meatballs in a tomato-ish sauce. It was good but not my favorite dish here.

Bastilla This ended up being one of my favorites. It’s chicken pie. Not chicken pot pie, American style, but imagine a regular apple pie, but instead of hot apples inside, it’s hot chicken. With cinnamon and honey on top. It’s like ten year old me dreamed of a meal, and it’s bastilla.

Bessara – A frothy soup of beans or peas. I wish the keto or paleo community would adopt more foreign soups because literally every country does soup better than the US.

Rfissa – Ok this dish was CRAZY. And also my favorite. Imagine a whole oily rotisserie chicken on top of shredded tortilla. That’s what rfissa is.

Moroccan Breakfast: Baghrir, harcha, miloui – Moroccan breakfast is basically ten types of carbs and some dip. I’m very cool with it.

Chefchaouen

Other than eating my way through Tangier, I made a small trip to Chefchaouen, also known as the most Instagrammable city (TM)

Apparently, Chefchaouen was a Jewish safe haven during World War II then which is why the entire city is painted blue. I’m not sure about that, but it remains a very picturesque little town that was a breath of fresh air, tucked into the mountains. I got there by riding a shared taxi from Tangier.

The entire town is walkable. Cars can’t even get through even if it tried because of the tiny, winding paths. The kasbah is cute. The men are less stalker-y here.

I stayed at Hotel Souika. I was feeling fancy and got my own room there. I had been staying in hostels or dorms for the past two months, it was a very affordable luxury in Chefchaouen. Warning: Moroccans do not sleep at regular sleeping hours so appreciate that cultural fact in your own way. So even if you have a private room… it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get sleep.

I met an artist and had mint tea with him. I sat in a rooftop cafe and listened to the call to prayer. I got the full body treatment at a hammam. I almost thought I wouldn’t be able to get back to Tangier, but I found a group of British tourists last minute and found myself on a taxi back to town. Chefchaouen felt like a summer camp or church retreat with how incredibly relaxing it was.

London

I’ve been to London twice. Once in 2014 and again in 2019.

When I visited in 2014, it was at the very beginning of my solo travels. It was my first stop in my 15 months abroad alone. I was only there for twelve hours on a layover to Moscow. I was so scared of traveling alone that I had my mom reach out to a family friend to show me around. She event sent me a subway map, months in advance. Jet-lagged and nervous, I met up with her, only to truly discover how much I needed to be alone.

She took me to many of the “tour guide” places in London, many of which I honestly do not even remember because of the a jet-lagged daze I was in. I think we went to the London Eye, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and Hyde Park. I’m not really sure because I was so exhausted. She was much older than me and we had extremely different interests. But I kindly appreciate the companionship and everything she offered to me on that day. What I really needed that day was a nap. Or mindless people watching. Or just… not that. Anything but “tourist sights”.

Looking back, I’m glad I had that experience because since then, I never felt the need to meet up with people when traveling. I’ve become keenly aware of what I like to do and am proud say that at many of the cities I’ve traveled to, I’ve neglected their most “famous” or “must-see” sights, instead creating my own “must-see’s” and going off the beaten path.

In 2019, I went to London again. This time, I didn’t call up anyone before. I stayed at a hostel, based on my own interests and budget. I let what I wanted to do take me… wherever. I ate whatever I wanted. I took a nap wherever I wanted. And I had three days there. Instead of ticking off the boxes that a typical London trip should entail, I headed straight to an art museum. It felt right already.

I’d been obsessed with taxidermy animals for a while. I’m interested in the now-defunct-ish study of zoology, at least in the colonial way the British do it. I love seeing rooms full of animals classified only by type. I fell in love with this at Kunst Kamera in St. Petersburg. With no formal science background, I just love seeing tons of ravens in a row, different only slightly or by gender. This tickles the need to organize and list in me, as well as fascination for animals. My boyfriend describes what I like as “a drawer full of birds”. With that in mind, I made sure I visited the Horniman Museum and Grant Museum of Zoology in London.

San Francisco

I moved to San Jose three years ago. San Jose is an hour south of the world famous San Francisco. Every movie and TV show takes place there, everyone abroad dreams of visiting San Francisco. However, in my three years here, I’ve only managed to visit SF a few times and sort of end up hating it every time. Why? San Francisco is dirty. San Francisco isn’t an easy drive. San Francisco is expensive. The people of San Francisco are all transplants. It doesn’t feel sustainable. And start-up culture is the worst! Just watch HBO’s Silicon Valley or watch any interview of a tech billionaire. They’re the worst.

I prefer my sleepy town of San Jose. But some times, you just have a perfect day planned out and SF is part of the plan. That was my cousin and me in April of this year. I hadn’t visited the deYoung Museum yet, and there was a Claude Monet exhibit there. She and her boyfriend are plant lovers and artists; we had to catch that exhibit.

After the museum, we headed to the Conservatory of Flowers. Oh. My. God. It is one of the coolest places I have ever been. It’s a Victorian-style greenhouse filled with the most exotic plants. Each room creates a different ecosystem. There are the most unique plants, many of which I’ve never seen in my life. It was crazy! It also has a corpse flower. That corpse flower is the most starkly alien creature, wondrous and unforgettable. It makes me wonder why I wasn’t taught about something this cool in school.

It was early in the day but we had enough of SF. We headed to Berkeley and Richmond afterwards. In Berkeley, there is an employee art store called Artist & Craftsman Supply. Aren’t co-ops or union-run companies just better? We lost ourselves there for a bit.

We ended the night in Richmond with fried Taiwanese snacks, Asian beauty, and bubble tea. While SF is mostly horrible (still), the places around it contain gems and make the trip up worth it.

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