Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Privilege of Traveling Abroad

First day back to school. Fourth grade. I hated this day; with its "get-to-know-yous" and "icebreaker games". But what I hated, most of all, was "sharing with the class" what I did during my summer vacation. Because while everyone else went to Disneyland or Epcot Center or San Diego, no one ever went to Hong Kong. Or abroad, for that matter. Hawaii was the most exotic destination anyone named and was met with interruptions of, "Do they speak American there?" when the state was mentioned. But I spent most of my childhood summer and winter vacations in Hong Kong. And I was so embarrassed.

"Okay!" said the teacher brightly at the front of the class. "I want you to tell me where you went on your summer vacation, what you did, and one new thing you tried. Remember, just one new thing!"

I was ten. How could I tell a roomful of ten-year-olds from a tiny, small town in western Washington, that I went to Hong Kong, watched my grandma prepare a special fish soup by buying the fish live from the fish market, and, while it was still swimming, knock it on its head once with a hard mallet before dropping it into a fragrant broth whole? How could I tell them that the "one new thing" I tried was chicken feet at dim sum and that it was delicious, and that I then went to burn paper money at my ancestors' graves and prayed that they were happy in the afterlife and that they enjoyed the feast that we laid out before them of smoked meats and vegetables? How could they understand the sticky, oppressive heat that made my skirt cling to the back of my legs when I climbed into a red, Hong Kong taxi cab and the contrast of this against the icy cold rush of air conditioning on the Hong Kong metro? Or the way the night was not silent, like the night they knew, but was constantly full of noise - men shouting, swearing, spitting, women laughing loudly, horns honking, chickens arriving at the restaurant across the street at dawn to be slaughtered?

The teacher interrupted my thoughts. "We're waiting!" she said cheerily, looking at me with a kind smile. But the other faces in the room weren't kind. 

"Um ..." I started. "I went to Hong Kong with my parents ..." I trailed off. 

"Okay!" said the teacher. "So, you were in China!" she trilled. The boy at the desk next to mine used his fingers to pull up his eyes into slits and stared at me through his newly-formed, "Chinese" eyes.

"Um, no ... actually, Hong Kong is not really ..." I tried to say, but then I faltered. I didn't feel as though I had the energy or authority to correct my teacher and explain about British imperialism and colonial rule - something my parents had explained to me when I was very young.

"That must have been such a shock to you," observed John one day, when I told him how I went to Hong Kong every year as a child. 

"What was?" I asked, confused.

"Well," he said. "To be dropped into such a cosmopolitan and sophisticated environment only to be yanked back to an entirely different world when you returned home. It must have been very conflicting for you as a child."

"Yes," I said. "It was. It was confusing. I had feelings when I returned from Hong Kong, jet-lagged and weary, that I didn't understand. I missed it so much - the hustle and bustle, the Cantonese voices on TV. I remember coming back and turning on the news, only to hear it in American English and feeling so disappointed. When the Cantonese talk-show hosts spoke, I felt like they were speaking to me, as though I were special because I understood. I almost expected them to wink at me."

The desire to travel starts somewhere; somewhere deep inside your belly. Sometimes, it starts with anger. And that is how it started with me - in that fourth-grade classroom, where I felt trapped, misunderstood, and totally, completely, confused. My parents, wanting to foster a sense of wanderlust in me, paid for a school trip to England when I was thirteen, where I promptly fell head-over-heels in love with cobblestones, red telephone booths, and the English countryside.

From that point on, I knew I didn't want to stay in my small town forever. I worked extremely hard in junior high and high school - to the point of a nervous breakdown - hoping that I would be accepted to a prestigious college on the East Coast and as far away from "home" as possible. I believed that this would be my ticket out of Small Town, U.S.A. - and I was right. Nearly eight years after my first trip to England, I returned again: this time, as a visiting student at Oxford. And after that, as a graduate student at York.

When I moved to London and stepped onto the first rung of my publishing career ladder, I had a teeny tiny budget. I lived in East London (before it was trendy and cool) and didn't eat out much except for the occasional takeaway at my local Indian restaurant. A Toptable set-menu offer at a high-end restaurant in Central London was considered a treat but it certainly was not the norm.

But then my life changed as I moved up in my career and John moved up in his. Suddenly, we began to eat almost exclusively at gastropubs and made use of Toptable almost every Friday night. Soon, we abandoned Toptable altogether and frequented newly-opened restaurants and pop-ups that I'd read about online. When John traveled for work, I tagged along too - to Paris, Madrid, and New York. When it was cold and grey in February, we jetted off to Thailand for a week spent lounging in a private pool villa in Koh Samui or riding on the back of a city moped in Hanoi, Vietnam.

"Oh my goodness," I said to John as I sipped my coffee and looked up at the Flatiron Building in New York last week. "I haven't been this excited about a trip since ... since I went snorkeling in Koh Pha Ngan! How is this my life?" I asked, gesturing to my surroundings.

One evening, as I was walking home from dinner with a friend, I reflected on the restaurant experience I'd just had. Five years ago, I would have thought that the restaurant I'd just eaten at was the best I'd ever tried. Now, I filed it away with the other, forgettable restaurants that were simply "mediocre", if not "just okay". The chips (fries) were not triple-cooked, I reflected. The steak was not as buttery soft as the one I ate in Paris a few weeks ago.

What had happened to me?

I received a lot of comments on my blog post yesterday about the mostly negative reactions I receive from people in the U.S. when I reveal that I live in London. But two comments stood out to me; particularly one from my mother, who named something I had failed to address: privilege. I had quickly forgotten how privileged I was to travel in the way that I do and to live my London life the way I do. I had forgotten that - while my £17.99 pork belly with a savoy cabbage slaw and truffle-infused mashed potato was mouth-wateringly delicious and I couldn't understand why anyone could say the food was "real nasty" in London when this was available - that my experience of London is not the norm. Zone 1, central London living, with frequent trips abroad spent in nice hotel rooms, classical music concerts in the evenings and food market stall browsing on the weekends is not the norm.

Sure, it's easy to criticize or sniff at people who haven't been abroad (if I had a penny for every, "Did you know that only X% of Americans own a passport? Can you believe it?" I've heard ...), but traveling abroad is expensive; and to do it well is a luxury.

So, that pity and bewilderment I hear in peoples' voices when they ask me, "You live in London? Why?" ... that pity comes from somewhere deep too. If they don't understand, it is because they are unable to understand. Sometimes this is due to an unwillingness to understand (prejudice), but often it is because they have not been afforded the privilege to understand (ignorance) - as I have. 

And I should check my privilege.

What do you think? Do you travel abroad? A lot? How have your experiences of international travel changed or shaped you?


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"You Live in London? Why?"

When I went through customs and immigration at JFK airport last week, the US immigration officer took a look at my declaration form and groaned with mock disbelief: "You live in the UK? Why? Why?" He shook his head with a wry smile. "You know, the only reason why someone would live there is because of work or for love. So which is it? Work or love?" he asked.

"Both, actually," I answered. "I don't know," I said. "I might head back here one day."

"But then you gotta bring him over!" the official said with a sigh. I'm not sure if the sigh meant that he was foreseeing the complications that international borders and green card applications would bring, or if he was sighing because he disliked the thought of an "alien" (which is how they refer to non-U.S. citizens in the States) being granted permission to stay in the U.S.

Either way, that's typically the reaction I get from people in the U.S. when they find out where I live - regardless of whether they're from New York City or Tacoma, Washington. It's usually shock, then disbelief, then this expression crosses over their faces ... like they feel sorry for me.

"It's real ... different out there, huh?"

"How's that working out for you?"

"Wow. London. Why did you pick there? Is the food nasty? I heard the food is real nasty."

I might as well have said that I lived in Timbuktu. Or Syria. Or in outer Mongolia.

Then, the inevitable: the most pressing question they ask is, "So when are you coming back?" It is difficult for them to comprehend that, given the choice, I chose to live in the U.K.

On the eve of her move back to the States, blogger Robin, of Second Floor Flat, recently wrote a post about her fear of "losing her cool" when she leaves the big city of London behind. Living in London as an American expat has, to an extent, contributed to the definition of who she is and has made her interesting to others.

But the people - my parents' friends, high-school friends I haven't seen for years, the sales assistant who asks for my zip code at Victoria's Secret when I just want to pay for my damn underwear and looks up briefly when I say, "I don't have one; I live abroad" - their reactions are not of interest, they are of pity.

Of course, this is not the reaction I get all the time. Just most of the time. Like, 90% of the time. The other 10% of the time, I'll get, "Oh my gosh, that is so cool. You are so lucky."

I'm not hurt by the negative reactions; I, for the most part, find them amusing. A little irritating (the food thing gets so old, so quickly), but mostly amusing. Yet after these interactions, I can't help but ask myself, "Why?"

Not, "why am I living in London?" I know why I'm living in London: because it's an amazing city with fabulous opportunities; because I have culture on my doorstep and new restaurants to discover every day; because I can be in Paris in two hours and eating steak-frites for dinner or fly to Madrid for the weekend; because I can have lunch at the British Museum and browse the collection for free; because strangers don't approach me in grocery stores and ask me, "What are you? Are you Korean? Are you Japanese? Are you Chinese?"; because no one stares when I speak in a different language or shouts at me, "Speak English, your in America!" when I do (yes, I imagine that every single person who ever utters those words uses 'your' rather than 'you're'); because I'm a shopaholic and my fashion influences here are largely Scandinavian and French; because I play with a symphony orchestra whose concert venue is a 5-minute walk from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament; because all of these reasons and more.

So, I'm pretty damn sure I know why I live in London.

But I just don't get the pity. I ask myself, "Why is this the first reaction?" Is it because they hate big cities? Is it because they think their city is the best? Is it because they've never been abroad, let alone outside their state border, and therefore believe what they hear on the news or TV or read about in books, blogs, and opinion pieces in magazines?

Help me out here.

Monday, September 22, 2014

What's The Best Book You've Read Lately?

Yesterday, I spent the dreamiest afternoon just snuggling up on our couch in the living room under a thick, white comforter and reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which Justine passed on to me. It was blissful.

After last weekend's whirlwind trip to New York and next weekend's departure to Sicily, all I wanted to do was just curl up and be a homebody for once! I made myself a cup of tea and kept some snacks next to me so that I could fully indulge in a big, fat reading afternoon. It was so nice! I read until it was dark outside and John came in to turn some lights on - he found me in the same position I had been in four hours ago.

When I was a child, I devoured books from the library like they were candy. I read so much and so often, that my eyesight worsened when I was 8 and I had to wear glasses by the time I was 9. In college, I majored in English and brought all my favorite books from home to place on my dorm room bookshelf because I found it comforting.

As an adult, though, I'm having a lot of trouble a) finding the time to read and b) discovering new books that I like. This may sound ridiculous, since I've worked in book publishing for over seven years now, and follow a lot of bookish types on Twitter. I own a Kindle and my shelves are full of books I haven't read yet. In fact, I'm constantly getting recommendations from friends, but a good book still seems hard to come by. I even joined a book club a few years ago but soon discovered that it really wasn't for me.

So I'm curious: what are you reading right now? Are you loving it? I'm nearly half-way through Americanah and am completely in awe of Adichie's writing. It's beautiful, personal, raw, and evocative. I'll let you know what I think of it when I'm finished!

p.s. an example of a book I loved. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Breakfast at The Standard Grill @ The Standard Hotel, New York

We ate at a lot of fabulous places during our whirlwind stay in New York this past weekend, but one of my favorites, by far, was the amazing breakfast we had at The Standard Grill (part of The Standard Hotel).

After an early morning stroll through The High Line, we worked up quite an appetite - but the food stalls in the park were only setting up. What to do? We spotted The Standard Grill from across the street, as it seemed to be the only restaurant open at that hour. Little did I know that I was walking into one of the best breakfast experiences ever ...

You know those places where only beautiful people seem to congregate? The Standard Grill is one of these places. Everyone had glowing, gorgeous skin (including the host, whose impeccably groomed brows gave me serious brow envy). And everyone seemed to have just returned from a morning jog in chic, all-black ensembles and Nike Flyknits without even having broken a sweat. John joked that it was lucky we were early, since they probably wouldn't have let us in later - ha!

The interior was stunning, with an extensive, sparkly bar and reclaimed antique furniture that worked well in the naturally lit space of the breakfast room. We took a seat at a little table for two and I ordered a cappuccino, which arrived topped with an adorable foam bear. John had the cornmeal pancakes with blueberry maple syrup and I opted for the almond-crusted French Toast with cherries and Vermont maple syrup, which were both divine.

The thick, almond-crusted bread was a revelation! Once toasted, it formed a deliciously crunchy exterior, while preserving the lovely, fluffy texture of the bread inside. And John's pancakes looked cooked to perfection: all even and beautifully formed, though I liked my French Toast so much, I didn't do the normal annoying thing of reaching over to steal myself a bite from his plate. Of course, we also couldn't resist ordering a side of crispy bacon as well (I like British bacon but I love American-style bacon the most), which we promptly drenched in maple syrup.

All in all, a delicious breakfast which set us up for the rest of our morning as we wandered through the Meatpacking District and Chelsea Market (where I managed to pick up a birthday present for a friend - hurrah!) before having a hilarious time trying to hunt down some decent flowers to bring to Justine's apartment in Brooklyn Heights for lunch.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

An Impromptu Weekend In New York

So, I did something crazy last week (crazier than confessing my love for ginger beer): I went to New York for the weekend without having planned the trip in advance! John found out on Wednesday that he would be there for work and asked if I wanted to tag along ... I originally said "no" because a) I was sick and b) that's just crazy to jet off to New York for the weekend. But then a little voice in my head screamed, "You're crazy for turning this opportunity down!" So, on Thursday morning, with a slightly shaking hand, I booked my flights on British Airways with one click of the mouse (thanks for the Avios points, John!) and, with the permission of my boss, left work early on Friday to fly that evening.

I arrived to JFK airport at 9:30 p.m. and couldn't help the smile spreading across my face as I directed the cab driver to Midtown Manhattan, where John was staying at Langham Place on Fifth Avenue.

I was so excited. I hadn't been to New York in years! And, Fifth Avenue - shopping heaven!

Here's a photo diary of the things we did, if you're interested:

1. Wandered to the Flatiron district, where we grabbed a donut and coffee from a stand and had breakfast in Madison Square Park.

It was a little cloudy on Saturday (we got drenched on our way back to the hotel in the afternoon!), but the air was warm and lovely.

2. Had dinner at Spring Street Natural with friends from college and walked back to the hotel via Times Square.

Views like this (with the Chrysler Building jutting out from between buildings or the Empire State Building suddenly looming over you in close proximity!) are what make New York a fantastic city.

3. Went for an early morning stroll through The High Line - a long stretch of park formed from a disused rail line between the Meatpacking District and Chelsea.

4. Had breakfast at The Standard Grill at The Standard Hotel (which was so amazing, it deserves its own blog post!), then brunch at my friend Justine's Brooklyn Heights apartment (the first photo in this post was taken from her building's rooftop terrace!). We also had a waterside walk along the Hudson, next to Brooklyn Bridge where we picked up the tastiest, thirst-quenching maple syrup lemonades at Smorgasburg - a Brooklyn-based street food "flea food market". Everything looked and smelled ah-mazing, but we were so full!

 5. Went dog-walking with Justine and had a magnificent evening walk through Central Park when the sun was setting.


Earlier in the day, John and I had been walking through the park trying to stay awake, when I heard the amazing sound of a violinist coming from the opposite direction. Normally, I just walk straight past buskers, but this time, I turned to John and asked if we could go sit and listen to her for a while. Her tone was so beautiful and her intonation so incredibly perfect, she had to be a professional violinist. After dropping some money into her collection box, I thanked her and asked if she played professionally (of course she did!). "You must be a musician!" she said, after I complimented her on her bow technique. I told her that I played in an amateur orchestra in London, to which she exclaimed: "Oh, now, that's the dream. London! To live in Europe must be amazing. So much more cultured than America." I protested at her dismissiveness, gesturing to the small audience she had gathered, saying, "But look at how many people you've touched with your beautiful music this afternoon!"

The sunset in Central Park was beautiful. It cast a rose-gold sheen over everything and there was a gentle hush throughout the park even though plenty of people were out. 

6. Dropped into The New York Public Library to have a peek at the incredible reading rooms, where I bought a New Yorker card for John and left it on his pillow to discover after a long day of meetings.

7. Went shopping on Fifth Avenue and lusted over the Christian Louboutin nail colors at Sephora. I got my nails done earlier that day since New York is known for their cheap (a manicure starts at $8!) and ubiquitous nail bars. I also bought these snazzy new shoes at Lord & Taylor, which were just what I'd been looking for - something between a loafer and ballerina flat with just a little bit of heel and a whole lot of detail.

On Monday, I dropped into our US offices and had lunch with one of my American colleagues, which was so much fun. A downside: I hadn't anticipated how many friends would be free at such short notice, so I wish I had the chance to meet up with more people. Oh! I also had a coffee date with Rebecca Tuite, author of Seven Sisters Style and she was lovely. We talked about all things Seven Sisters and US vs UK living, since she's a Brit living in New York.

I felt like Cinderella after the clock struck midnight when it was time to go. I bid farewell to our amazing room at Langham Place (where the bathroom mirror has a built-in TV ... call me a hick, but I'd never seen that before and was fascinated!) and headed off to find the A train to the airport.

New York, I had an amazing time - and I think I love you.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Currently Addicted To: Ginger Beer

Want to hear something crazy (but not that crazy)? I've been addicted to ginger beer recently, which I never had before I moved to the UK. My throat is sore today and all I want is a can of ice-cold, carbonated Old Jamaica ginger beer poured into a tall glass with lots and lots of ice (you can tell I'm American because of the emphasis on ice).

I used to hate the taste of ginger beer. Ginger ale, I loved, but ginger beer? Too ginger-y. But then I went on this food walk by Fox & Squirrel in March and we had home-brewed ginger beer at a couple of stops ... from then on, all I wanted was ginger beer with everything!

For someone who doesn't drink a lot of alcohol, non-alcoholic ginger beer is a great alternative to the usual Coke or Sprite when I'm at the pub. Our "local", The De Beauvoir Arms, serves Fentimans Ginger Beer, which is delicious - spicy, but not too sweet - whereas Old Jamaica, which I sometimes pick up at the corner shop or Tesco is pretty sugary.

What about you? Do you like/loathe ginger beer? Do you think you could become a convert like me?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Royal Orchestral Society's Weekend in Cambridge

I know it's Tuesday already, but how was your weekend? I had an amazing time with the Royal Orchestral Society in Cambridge, playing through Mahler's 1st Symphony at the St. Chad's Site of St. Catharine's College (not to be confused with the other St. Catherine's, at Oxford, where John and I met! Different spellings.). But I was so pooped yesterday and now I think I'm coming down with something flu-like! Currently adding honey to my tea as we speak.

I joined the Royal Orchestral Society in 2010, a few years after my initial move to London. Previously, I had been the concertmaster of the Mount Holyoke College Symphony Orchestra and my high school orchestra before that. I never thought I'd pick up my violin again when I came to London, but my father-in-law (whose knowledge of classical music is astronomical - no pun intended, since he's an astrophysicist) encouraged me to join an orchestra and I found one that rehearsed near where I lived at the time in St. John's Wood (convenience is everything!).

Four years later, I've performed some amazing repertoire in beautiful locations (we perform at St. John's Smith Square in Westminster twice a year) with world-famous soloists. On the 30th of November, we'll be performing at Cadogan Hall in Sloane Square, which is a dream come true for me. I've seen some of my favorite musicians perform on that stage, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and cellist Julian Lloyd Webber.

But back to this weekend.

This was my view for most of it (if you're a musician and notice that I'm sitting directly across from the cellos, that's because I was sitting first stand, first violins. Yup, scary! Oh, and, surprise solo in the 3rd movement? Check.). I caught a train to Cambridge with Alice (which was not without a little drama at King's Cross when my tickets refused to print and the National Rail staff were extremely unhelpful!) and we arrived in time for rehearsal to begin at 11 a.m. We had a lunch break between 1-2 p.m., but were back in our seats to rehearse after that until 7 p.m. Five hours of Mahler (with a half-hour break in between) is enough to drive anyone nuts and I was getting very, very cranky! My arm also felt like it was about to fall off and my collarbone was bruised.

But it was so much fun. In season, we typically rehearse on Monday evenings, after work, for three hours. After that, you don't really want to talk to anyone - you just want to get home. But during the weekend away, everyone was much more relaxed and it was nice to get to know each other better.

When we weren't rehearsing, we were eating breakfast and lunch here, at the St. Catharine's College Hall. We also stayed in the student halls, so it was just like being a student again and really reminded me of the time I spent studying abroad at Oxford.

We all went out for dinner and drinks on Saturday evening and stayed out way later than we should have (for a group of people who needed to rehearse at 10:30 a.m. the next day, that is). I don't know how it happened, but I somehow ended up playing "I Have Never ..." at the bar and the next morning, I couldn't look a bassist and an oboist in the eye. Yikes.

Basically, like John joked when I got back, it was kind of like being at band camp. Except with much older people and a lot of alcohol (no flute jokes, please).


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ines de la Fressange for Uniqlo

The Ines de la Fressange collection for Uniqlo launches tomorrow and I couldn't be more excited: Uniqlo has been one of my go-to favorites for basics like merino and cashmere sweaters, tailored trousers, and perfectly cut tees since I started shopping the Causeway Bay location in Hong Kong years ago. 

When it arrived in the UK, I was overjoyed and more than happy to find that the price point was just as affordable here and that the quality just as good. Anytime I'm looking for a simple shift dress or comfy tunic, I head to Uniqlo. In fact, I'm wearing one of their extra fine merino sweater dresses today with bare legs and chunky heeled sandals from & Other Stories - I'm especially a fan of their slightly longer lengths so I don't have to worry about constantly tugging down my skirt/dress hem at work!  

Tomorrow, French model, designer, aristocrat, and muse, Ines de la Fressange's collection of extra fine merino Breton tops, perfectly cut wool trousers, winter coats, and other chic basics will go on sale at Uniqlo and I'm sure it'll sell out in no time.

Here are a few items that I've got my eye on:

This thick, sweat pull-over that will no doubt be gone in an instant at only £19.90 ... perfect for chilly flights, lounging in over the weekend, and wearing over a white collared shirt. Which brings me to ...

This simple, cotton twill long-sleeve shirt, which would be perfect for layering under sweaters during the cold winter months. I especially love the red-stitched detail on the collar and cuffs (not seen). At £29.90, it just might be the perfect shirt that I've been searching for - especially with that elegantly curved hem.

And finally ...

This cashmere turtleneck sweater with a dipped hem. I just love the huge chunky collar - you can pull it over your face on windy days! Plus, it's cashmere. Luckily, it's not available until October (i.e. after my next pay day), so I can possibly shell out the £69.90 for this piece which is sure to last for years.

I'm so excited about this collection. Would you buy anything from it?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

ChattyFeet Giveaway! Kate "Middle-Toe" Socks


Last week, I posted a hilarious photo of the newest (royal) addition to the ChattyFeet family, Kate Middle-Toe, to this blog's Facebook page and it received so much interest that I decided to do a giveaway! Yes! I love you so much, I'm willing to give away this pair of socks, which I'd very much like to keep for myself!

Aren't they great? They capture the essence of Kate Middleton perfectly: from the swoop of her immaculate blown-out bangs to the v-neck of what I can only imagine to be an Issa wrap dress, down to the signature eyeliner and slightly awkward smile.

To enter:

1. "Like" Angloyankophile on Facebook and follow me on Twitter (it's okay if you don't have a Twitter account, just "like" the page on Facebook)

2. "Like" ChattyFeet on Facebook or follow them on Instagram (trust me on this one, you'll get laugh-out-loud entertainment from their photos 24/7)

3. Leave a comment below or on the Angloyankophile Facebook page to tell me where you'd wear your Kate Middle-Toes to!

I'll pick a winner at random on Friday. You have until midnight, PST, for all my West Coast friends and I'll announce the winner on Monday morning. Good luck!

p.s. Also, these entertaining GIFs of the Duchess of Cambridge's most awkward moments from HuffPost.

Kate Middle-Toe socks provided courtesy of ChattyFeet. If you can't wait to get your hands on a pair, you can order them here with worldwide shipping.
© angloyankophile

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