April 2012

General wisdom says that life changes are stressful.  Whether getting married, having a baby, changing jobs, or losing a loved one, experiencing a big transition puts great stress on the body, heart, and soul.

It therefore did not come as much of a surprise that, as true firstborns, Leon and I ended up tackling three life changes at the same time.  Talk about being poster children for overachievers (or, as some friends have said, crazy people).

We are now 36 days away from our wedding, and things are only picking up speed from here.  Guest counts must be finalized, checks to vendors must be written, and meetings must be held with our pastor and church coordinators to go over details for the big day.  We’re both incredibly excited about the wedding, don’t get me wrong, but the wedding is one of many things on the checklist right now.

Besides working on wedding plans, we also just closed on a condominium in northern Virginia, not to mention that Leon is about to make a career change.  When we’re not discussing wedding plans, we’re arranging movers to move my apartment’s contents into the new place and reading over his resume.  My mom flew out for a weekend to help us look for furniture for the condo, and we spent 13 hours with one meal break running around D.C. to find things.  Granted, it’s a small (I like to say cozy) condo, but it takes a lot of work to furnish even a D.C.-sized place.

I asked my mother if being an adult would always feel like you were sprinting on a treadmill, just one second away from tiring out and flying right off the back (which I did in college once–it didn’t feel very good).  Her answer?  “You guys are just getting started.”

As I look over the “to do” list that just keeps growing, much like the stress lines in my forehead, my current goal is to get down the aisle without collapsing at the end.  At least, we’ve been telling ourselves, if we push hard now we’ll enjoy several benefits later.  We have our honeymoon to look forward to, with the daily grind being temporarily replaced by a French Polynesian bungalow and the beach.  Then we’ll return to an actual home.  One that we own.  As a married couple.

This time period feels a lot like running track in junior high, when I was completely out of shape  but the coach would not take the “I have no desire to be an athlete” argument that I should not be held to McKinney ISD gym class standards.  I remember running around the track cursing the day, feeling miserable, and praying that I wouldn’t throw up my peanut butter and jelly sandwich from lunchtime.

As the finish line approached during the last lap, though, I remember feeling a surge of energy.  And after crossing the line, it felt pretty good to know that I had finished the run.  Before I threw up, of course.

We’re at that point with life changes–the final lap is approaching, and we’re running toward the finish line of “adulthood, chapter one.”  Only this time there won’t be a snobby classmate watching me run around the track, yelling out in front of the class, “Douthit, I can walk faster than you run!”  (She’s not invited to the wedding).


This morning news resurfaced that President Obama had eaten dog meat as a child in Indonesia. Obviously, after Democrats gave Romney a hard time about traveling with his dog in a crate strapped to the roof of the car, this was too tempting for Republicans to resist hitting back with.

Not that I agree with our president on much, but I do have to say that if I ever ran for public office, the media might pick up on a similar story from my past.

When you’re living in a foreign country, you obviously want to experience the local culture and immerse yourself. (Within ethical, legal, and moral considerations of course). While living in Asia, I soon learned that dog meat was a delicacy and that people still enjoyed it.

In South Korea, where I lived for a couple of years, while feasting on dog meat was becoming less common as the world globalized, it was still popular. My friends there told me that when Seoul hosted the 1988 Olympics, local authorities required restaurants selling dog meat dishes to get licenses and to take down signs with pictures of dogs on them (to avoid offending foreigners). There are still restaurants with photos of puppies on them, to let you know that they serve dog meat there, and even I admit that those pictures kind of freaked me out. As my friends pointed out, however, in some cultures they consider it strange that Americans eat cows.

As well, according to my friends in Seoul, the dogs raised for dog meat dishes are not the cuddly, cute puppies we tend to picture or adopt as pets. They are a specific type of breed bred for eating, much like cows are bred and prepared for consumption.

I still wasn’t crazy about the idea of eating dog meat, but I told myself when I moved to South Korea that I would be open to cultural experiences. Before I left Seoul, some Korean friends from my church told me that I needed to at least try dog meat before I departed. They took me to a small place in the city that was known for its boshintang, or soup with dog meat. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel guilty when we sat down on the floor to begin the meal.

In the end, dog meat tasted–in my opinion–a lot like lamb, and even had a similar consistency. It was a little tough, but with the vegetables and other ingredients in the soup, it wasn’t that bad. I was told that Koreans eat boshintang for energy (especially men), because the meat is very high in protein.

So, not that I ever saw myself sticking up for our president, but I can empathize that when you’re in a different culture you sometimes do or eat something that might be puzzling to your native culture. Not that I’ll eat dog meat again, but I don’t regret trying it in South Korea. (I’ll still take a burger any day though).

The story of the Titanic has maintained a prominent place in world history and has captured imaginations for decades.  In essence, the magnificent ship was a symbol of decadence, luxury, and ultimately, human arrogance and tragedy.

That iconic luxury liner, which one crewman allegedly referred to as a ship that “not even God could sink,” will mark its 100th anniversary this weekend.  Mystery still shrouds the event, in which the ship sank on April 14, 1912, over a span of almost three hours until it was completely buried by the sea in the early hours of April 15, 1912.  Many media outlets have already begun to run feature articles on the anniversary, and the Titanic once again emerges from the pages of history to today’s headlines.

The Titanic was the biggest news source of its time and was celebrated as the grandest ship ever built.  It was heralded a “floating palace” and boasted every luxury item one could imagine, from gilded staircases to the finest china to rooms that would rival those at any 5-star hotel.  It began its first (and last) voyage on April 10, 1912, setting sail from Southhampton, England, and stopping at Queenstown, Ireland, with New York City as its unreached destination.

After sailing through quiet waters for its first few days at sea, one of the lookouts spotted an iceberg at approximately 11:40 pm on April 14, .  While he issued a warning, it was too late, and the Titanic slammed into the iceberg.  Within about ten minutes, water had already risen about 14 feet in the front of the ship, and the captain was informed that the ship would only stay afloat for two hours.  As we learn from our history books, there were only enough lifeboats available for about half of the approximately 2,227 passengers.  Women and children were given first consideration, meaning that most men did not survive, and even worse, because many lifeboats remained partially empty, only about 800 passengers actually survived.  The rest went down with the ship into the icy, eerily dark waters that night.  By 12:20 a.m. on April 15, the ship was gone.

Personally, I have been fascinated by the story of the Titanic since childhood.  Even before the film with Leonardo DiCaprio and the nauseatingly sweet Celine Dion song, “My Heart Will Go On,” came out, I was fascinated by the story.  (I admit it, I saw the movie about three times in the theater and cried every time, not to mention that I bought the soundtrack and listened to it repeatedly).  Before the “Kate and Leo” hysteria–when I was in the sixth grade–I submitted a story about fictional characters on the doomed voyage to the McKinney PTA’s annual writing contest, subsequently won, and had my picture published in the McKinney Courier-Gazette.  I remember thinking that millions of stories could have been written about possible characters on the Titanic and how they responded during that fateful night.

What made the McKinney PTA react positively to my little story was the same thing that was mentioned in a 1985 National Geographic documentary on Bob Ballard’s expedition in which the shipwreck was discovered after years of failed attempts–because the Titanic sank over such a long period of time, people had time to respond to what was happening.  Some acted with bravery, and others with cowardice.  Heroes were made, as were villains.  Subsequently, it is possible for people in modern times to wonder what they would have done if faced with the same situation.

To this day, stories of passengers aboard the Titanic continue to enthrall.  There is of course the story of the Strauses, a wealthy older couple who owned the Macy’s department store chain; when Mrs. Straus was in the lifeboat and realized that her husband was not allowed to join her, she voluntarily left her guarantee of safety and perished alongside him.  There was also the young man who had just turned 18 years old, who declined a spot in a lifeboat because, as he said, “No, I’m a man now. I’ll stand with the rest.”  And, of course, there is the iconic image of the orchestra members who played their music on the ship’s deck until they were claimed by the sea.

New attention is being paid to the Titanic, as the story still strikes a chord a century on.  Even this week, new photos are being published of the wreckage site, and some related artifacts (such as a handwritten account by the captain of the Carpathia, the first ship to arrive after the Titanic issued its distress call) are set to be auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars.

Titanic exhibitions and memorials of the disaster also exist around the world.  I was fortunate to have the chance to visit Cobh, Ireland (known as Queenstown when the tragedy occurred), a few years ago to see the place where Titanic docked for the last time before sailing towards New York.  I also had the opportunity to visit a Titanic exhibition in Belfast a few years ago.  There was also supposed to be a memorial cruise this week, reenacting the ship’s trajectory (people even dressed in period costumes to get the “real feel” for things, apparently), but the trip has reportedly been delayed due to rough weather and a passenger’s evacuation for medical treatment.

There are also some new theories as to what caused the ship to hit the iceberg in the first place.  One new theory, for instance, states that a rare astronomical event (i.e. a full moon and freak tides) in 1912 might have caused icebergs to detach from their usual positions and float into shipping lanes.  Another claims that crew members could not see the iceberg until it was too late because, on account of the unusually cold sea air that night, light bended abnormally downward and caused a thick haze.  That same downward light could have also distorted the Titanic’s distress signals, rendering the captain of the USS Californian (the ship that was closest to the sinking site, but whose captain did not take action after being alerted by staff) unable to recognize the signal as that of the Titanic.

These theories are, for now, being debated in academic circles, and time will tell whether or not they are generally accepted as plausible.  Either way, the story of that “unsinkable” ship remains a real reminder that human creations are not invincible, and leaves us to wonder what kind of character we would exhibit under such horrific circumstances.

Well, it’s almost that time of year again.

As the weather warms up, flowers start to bloom, and it’s possible to leave the house without that heavy coat, tourist season begins to awaken.  Individuals from around the world, perhaps including yourself, begin to pack their bags, plan how to best utilize their hard-earned vacation days, and look forward to taking a break from the daily grind.

Here in D.C., tourist season is already in full force.  Tourists have been trickling in for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, with this year marking 100 years since Japan first brought the beautiful trees over to Washington.  I have to confess, sadly, that the blooms come and go pretty quickly starting in late March, and local Washingtonians tend to feel bad for the tourists who travel up here in mid-April expecting them to still be on display.

Tourist season in D.C. tends to run at high speed through the balmy weeks of August.  Interns flood the city to fill thousands of summer internship positions, student groups come to study our nation’s history, international visitors come to take advantage of the warm weather on the East coast, and families come to complete the pilgrimage of bringing their children to the country’s capital.  In turn, the locals tend to brace themselves for impact.

Like any popular destination, D.C. is thankful for tourist season, but in a slightly begrudging way.  Politicians have gotten in trouble in the past, to be sure, for “dissing” the large groups of sweaty, tired tourists wandering aimlessly around the Capitol and distracting security guards by asking for directions. Locals tend to stay away from downtown D.C. at all costs, bemoaning the takeover of the city that causes yearly bouts of extra traffic, street congestion, and longer lines at places of interest.

To prepare for this year’s tourist season, local papers in the D.C. area have taken to Twitter and other social media to ask locals to give advice to tourists.  That got me to thinking.  After all, part of being a good tourist means preparing effectively for your trip, namely, trying to understand a bit about the local culture of your vacation destination and serving as not just an economic asset to the region’s coffers, but also as a graceful ambassador of your point of origin.

Case in point:  Study the local culture.  This doesn’t mean that you have to read dozens of books about D.C. and know more than your tour guide at the Smithsonian (which is comprised of several different museums by the way, not just one big one).  Instead, this means, as I like to call it, blending into the environment and stealthily eyeing how the locals live.  For instance, in D.C. it is an unwritten rule of culture that people stand on the right side of escalators and walk on the left.  I’ve seen Washingtonians fighting the rush hour on their work commutes find themselves trapped on the escalators by tourist groups chatting away, yell at them, and literally try to run them over.  The best remedy to avoid being “that person” blocking the escalator and irritating the locals who aren’t on holiday is to study how other people are acting.  If everyone is standing to the right of the escalator, that is not the moment to declare your individuality and repulsion towards conformity.  Stand to the right just like everyone else.

Another way to be a good tourist is to, in fact, pretend like you’re not a tourist.  Shopkeepers in D.C. tend to be very nice people, but they do get frustrated by the crowds who cram into their stores, don’t look at them, and proceed to aggressively paw through their merchandise and only address them if they want to know the price, often in a gruff tone.  To be a graceful visitor, slow down.  Take your time in a shop, greeting the shopkeeper or employee with a polite “hello” or “good afternoon,” and asking politely if it would be all right to touch items that look breakable.  Being in a different city should be treated as visiting someone else’s home.  As well, local shopkeepers, waiters, etc., can often give you valuable advice and answer any questions you might have.

In terms of sightseeing, everyone has their own travel style.  I have friends whose parents literally schedule every hour of family vacations, often starting at 7 a.m., with even bathroom breaks specifically slotted for certain times.  Others, such as myself, like to make a list of things to see, but also allow plenty of time to just “chill out” and enjoy the city.  Some of my best travel memories are of sitting in a cafe with a cup of coffee and just people watching all afternoon.  Of course, it is beneficial to see the major tourist sites, or to visit things of particular interest (if you’re a history buff, for instance, the National Archives in D.C. is a must), but it is okay to accept the reality that you will not physically be able to see everything and do everything.  I’ve lived in D.C. for almost three years now, and there are numerous things I haven’t done or seen yet.

Another rule of thumb I like to keep in mind while traveling is that it’s okay to leave something on the list unchecked.  When I was an intern in D.C. back in 2005, I felt like I had to see everything and do everything in the city before I left.  After all, I didn’t think I’d be back on the East coast ever again.  Then, several years later, I found myself there again, this time living and working in the city.  You never know when you’ll get to go back to a location, so if there are a couple of things you didn’t get to do on your vacation, it’s not the end of the world.

Another thing to keep in mind while traveling is the temptation to go overboard on souvenirs.  I myself have been guilty of this (hello Cambodian musical instruments that I can’t even play, or tropical sundresses that look great in the Caribbean but ridiculous anywhere else).  It’s tempting when you’re in a new place to snap up all of the local “must haves,” but then you get home with a heavy suitcase of extra stuff that you wonder what on earth you’ll do with.  My goal while traveling is to find one unique item that will always remind me of my trip.  It doesn’t have to be super expensive, and it’s also helpful to get a collection of something going.  I began to pick up pieces of jewelry during my travels, often a pair of earrings or a necklace, and they each have a story with a special meaning behind them. Plus I’ll be able to share them with my daughter someday, if Leon and I have one.  Beginning a focused collection of something takes away the pressure of feeling like you have to buy everything in sight and getting home wondering why you ended up with twelve refrigerator magnets.

When it comes down to it, the art of being a good tourist means relaxing and enjoying yourself.  Travel can be stressful if you let it, to be certain, but once you get to your destination it’s important to give yourself the mental break you worked so hard to earn.  It’s possible to strive for that balance between seeing lots of interesting things and also going along slowly enough to watch the local customs and abide by them.

Happy tourist season 2012 everyone!