Year of the Bird

Depending on how you choose to translate it, we are now in the Year of the Rooster (or Cock, which of course has spawned all kinds of sex jokes both in Chinese and English).

“I’m calling it the Year of the Chicken,” a fellow American friend of mine said. “Chickens are blah. That’s how I feel right now.”

Years can mean whatever we choose to make them mean, since we are the makers of our own traditions. For year of the Ram, I told myself that I would persist and be tougher, like the Ram. For the Monkey, I decided that it would be a year of more mischievous glee and flexibility. The year of the Rooster…well, I’m not sure yet.

For me, Chinese New Year is a second chance to reflect on my year, but more specifically my time in China. I started a tradition in 2015 in which on the first day of CNY, I think of four major regrets from the year and release them into the elements. One in the wind, one in the sea, one in the earth (preferably on a mountain) and one aflame. After releasing them, I tell myself “Okay, you’re done stewing over them. Regrets…gone!” and even though it’s a very arbitrary ceremony, there is something to be said about physically casting aside something that holds you back.

Last year, I had to whittle down my list of regrets. I was working in a hostel on a beach in Southern China, and I recall watching the waves roll in and out, washing away the sand no matter the shape.

But this year, I didn’t have any regrets.

Obviously, there have been tiny things I’ve regretted, like “Man, I shouldn’t have eaten that last piece of pizza,” or “Wow, I shouldn’t have said that,” but I’m talking about real regrets. Things you play over and over in your head until you’re haunted by the faults of yesterday. And I know, as an American facing a Trump presidency, there ought to be tons of regrets stewing in my head (and all I can say about that is: A wall? Censorship? Less emphasis on environment? Gee, for someone who rails against China so much, Trump sure is sounding a lot like China!) I know that a lot has happened in the past year, and that there have been moments that I haven’t handled well.

Yet…for once in my life, they aren’t weighing me down or holding me back.

I don’t know if every year can be this way, but I hope anyone reading this knows the feeling of being at peace with our decisions. I hope you know the clean feeling I got when I stood deep in the trees and the whisper of leaves on wind, running my hand through a stream. I hope this next year brings a sense of a strut, like the Rooster, in which we can feel confident in our steps, even if they are aimless. I hope we can make whatever traditions we can out of ourselves and find meaning even in made-up rituals. I hope that even if the Year of the Rooster is more like the Year of the Cock, we can laugh about it and make jokes together.

I hope that this time next year, we can be regret-free.

Happy New Year.

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Where Next?

Spring Festival is approaching, and for the first time in a long time, I have no major trips planned. Not because I’ve stopped liking travel, but because a) I just got back from a 3-week trip to America to see family and friends, and b) am going to be staying back to watch the cats while my roommate goes home to see her own family!

With all of the people off and traveling, it’s made me think about remaining trips to be had in China. Of the 34 “provincial-level administrative units,” the 23 provinces, the 4 municipalities, the 5 autonomous regions, and the 2 “special administrative regions” (Hong Kong and Macao), I only have FOUR left to go.

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My map of past trips. The lines are different routes for long-term travels. The dots are for single trips to a specific location.

What are those 4 regions? Here’s a quick run-down of where I have left to go.

Liaoning

In the northeast, or “dong bei” part of China, it’s a place full of awesome dumplings, winter-hardened people, and from what I hear, decent mountains. All of this sounds nice, but what I hear most about this area is the large sea-side city, Dalian. This is a relaxing place along the sea with tons of seafood, sailing, and a laid-back atmosphere. If I were to go here, I might not make it to the rest of the province, just saying.

Jilin

Also in dong bei, right next to Liaoning, Jilin province is a place best known for its natural scenery. Like Liaoning, it also has mountains, but as most photographers will tell you, it’s the lush red forests that are worth the trip. The red seaweed mentioned in the link sounds surreal, and I’m all about surreal. Added to the strangeness is the fact that beyond the mountains of Liaoning and past the forests of Jilin, North Korea lies in wait. (Though with a begrudging friendship with China, so no worries on that front).

**NOTE if you look at my map, you’ll see a line going through both of these provinces, indicating that I’ve been there. Not so! I rode a train through them, which doesn’t really count.

Qinghai

Located in the wild west of China, Qinghai is a desolate province bordering Xinjiang and Tibet. More than half of Qinghai is part of the Tibetan Plateau, which means that the elevation is high. According to some travelers I’ve talked to Qinghai is Tibet, but without the bureaucratic red tape. You’re still on/near the Himalayas, and the Tibetan people live everywhere in Qinghai. Something else that draws me to Qinghai is the Chaka Salt Lake. I love the thought of swimming in the mountains, and since I’m a mediocre swimmer at best, will appreciate the buoyancy.

Tibet Autonomous Region

This one hardly needs introduction, since it carries so much romance and imagination. Mount Everest is in Tibet. Religious mystery is in Tibet. One of the highest ferries wheels in the world is in Tibet. I have not yet been in Tibet. Many travelers are frustrated with Tibet, and it’s no secret why. Whereas back in the 90’s, travelers could carry a backpack and tent and just ramble on through, now it’s required to have a permit, a planned tour, and a guide. Sort of takes the mystery out, but I still want to go all the same. Though, I have also been told that Tibetan areas of Qinghai and Sichuan provinces are almost better because there is less government intervention.

China is very big, and even once I hit all of the provinces, there will be more to see. For now, this is what’s ruminating in my mind for the summer/fall when the weather is not brutal and I can catch some nice nature scenery.

Until then, it’s time with the cats!

Productive vs. Busy

Before I had even landed in China from my trip in the US, a fellow violinist in Hangzhou was asking if I wanted to be in his string quartet.

“We would need to take photos and get recording of ourselves to get gigs, but I’m sure it would work,” he said. I could tell that he was very serious about violin. His profile picture was a professional shot of him cradling his instrument, and every post he made was violin-related. Professional gigging for him would be, well, professional.

About 2-3 years ago, I would have responded with a quick “yes!” and entered the fray, balancing all of my other commitments with coffee and rattly late nights.This time, I said I’d be happy to be a substitute, but that the answer was no.

(“What!” I can almost hear some of my music friends saying, “How could you refuse such a great opportunity? How defeatist! Where’s your sense of adventure?”)

Sometimes I feel like there’s a lot of pressure to “seize the day” and say yes to every opportunity that comes along. It’s the message I grew up with in school, that “opportunity waits for no one” and that if you wait too long, it will disappear and never come back. There is absolutely truth in that, but what I’m increasingly discovering is that “seizing the day” is not about taking every single opportunity that appears, but seizing the best opportunities that will lead you to where you want to be. It’s in part letting go of things, in part making yourself available for the opportunities you want to seize.

In this article from Lifehack, Conor Neill highlights the difference between busy and productive people. Of the 11 differences, mentioned, one sticks out most to me: “Busy people say yes quickly; productive people say yes slowly.” I should mention that when he says “productive” people he doesn’t mean soulless machines, but rather people that are able to achieve their goals, whatever they are. He says “If you don’t say “no” to most things, you are diving [sic] your life up into millions of little pieces spread out amongst other people’s priorities.” I think this is really important.

Contrary to what our society tells us, refusing things and saying no is actually the great secret to accomplishing what we want to set out to do. It’s easy to hitch onto something that’s already moving and then shrug your shoulders when it lands in the wrong place. It’s much, much, harder to wait for the right ride to come along and take it all the way to the end. The difference is responsibility. You don’t feel responsible when your thousands of tasks keep you from finishing your goal. You feel very responsible when you really turn to face that goal and make active efforts to reach it.

Anyone reading this blog knows perfectly well that I do take chances and take advantage of opportunities that come my way. But with the new year in full swing, I’m aiming to be less busy, and more productive, to actually make conscientious steps toward the places I want to go. Maybe this means letting go of certain things, like that quartet, or even an opportunity to go to Morocco (though that “no” was mainly because I straight-up didn’t have the money). I told myself on January 1st: “Do better.”

Do better.

I already know what I want/need to improve in my life and I think many of us do, too. It’s just a matter of making those conscientious steps and agreeing to stop hiding behind busy-ness and begin being productive.