Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Soap Dispenser: My First Report from Kenya

Two weeks. For two weeks every day, I was mocked silently by the soap dispenser in the work bathroom.

It is one of those pumps that dispense soapy foam on your palm when you press on it. Day one. I pressed on the soap dispenser and nothing came out. Okay, odd, but no worries, I am sure it would work the next day. A second day, a second try: I pressed and nothing came out. More days, some more presses and some more disappointment. Soon I became convinced that the soap dispenser was simply empty and left empty.

Or so I thought.

The soap dispenser mocks me every day.
After all, it was not the first time since I arrived in Kenya that I have experienced the uniqueness of Kenyan work protocol - I learnt quickly that you cannot just expect your request would be responded after initial request. You have to follow up. In fact, over and over, and then some more. And if you are lucky you may get the right person after what seems to be never-ending phone calls and office visits over the smallest things.

In the case of the soap dispenser, I made up my mind to have a friendly chat with the cleaning lady. Even if the rest of Kenya has varying degree of clean/untidy public bathrooms, c'mon people, this is an UN office, and we've gotta uphold some standards, y'all! You can probably imagine my sense of righteousness when I ran into the cleaning lady in the bathroom, Finally. "Uhm, excuse me. The soap dispenser is empty."

Upon my gesture, the cleaning lady reached over the dispenser and opened it up - it was half full. "There is", she said. I looked at the dispenser and then at her as if I just saw a Las Vegas magic show, "But look, I press on it and nothing comes out." I showed her my empty palm.

"Ah," the lady reached over to demonstrate for me, "You have to use a lot of energy." A few hearty power-presses later, a small pile of soapy foam appeared on her palm.

As the cleaning lady casually rinsed off the soap and carried on her way, I was left dumbfounded in the bathroom and then I burst out laughing. "You have to use a lot of energy." The sentence encapsulated the essence of my experience in Kenya so far. From negotiating prices for a mango or pineapple with fruit vendors, to practically staging a protest in the IT office before getting a work login ID, to trying to track down a handyman to schedule a visit, to waiting for the taxi rides that are always late, to trying to open a bank account and not getting any responses, to subsequently cancelling the account opening process after weeks of not getting anywhere. Just about everything in Kenya demands so much more energy. "You have to use a lot of energy", as the cleaning lady taught me. I guess this is the culture shock that I had expected.
Lining up for a matatu (mini-bus) ride.
Don't worry though - I am actually doing really well under the circumstances and in a way, loving the challenges. But as you can imagine, it is all quite exhausting, and it is no wonder I get so tired at the end of the day. After all, I will need all the sleep I can get to wake up with "a lot of energy" - to keep pressing those soap dispensers here in Kenya. :)

The walking path is between an electrical fence and bushes and fenced walls. It is beautiful if I let myself relax enough.
p.s. To all our friends and family for your lovely and encouraging emails from my last post, sorry that I haven't been able to response to them, but I promise I will do so soon. Your support means the world to me. Really. Thank you! :)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Next Six Months

By the time you read this, Q and I will probably have been long gone from this beautiful country Lithuania - two weeks go by very quickly when there are so many trees to admire, storks to count and mosquitoes to feed. Upon returning to Sweden, we will be in the heat of packing up our apartment, and away for at least the next six months. I know, after only living two years in Sweden, this sounds either completely out-of-the-blue or like a lot of bull. Trust me, the idea hasn't quite completely sunk in with me yet, and I hope it will a little more by the time I finish typing and sharing this with you. So here it goes.
In Aukštaitijos National Park, Lithuania

Kenya, here I come!

To continue my master's study I have decided to take on an internship as a credited course, working with the World Food Programme Kenya country office to increase disaster preparedness capacity of some selected counties (more on this in future blog postings). So why Kenya?

Okay, let's get these out of the way first. The following are NOT the reasons why I am going to Kenya:
  • To change the world. Or to save the world. Or whatever glory and pride one may associate with jobs of this nature. (For that matter, or to convince any non-believers that climate change is happening and our energy habits have either directly caused it or indirectly contributed to it. But more on that later.) 
  • To run away from Q. As some of you may know, Q has been working in Ireland pretty much since my study began last fall, and I can assure you it is not fun, so living apart for the next few months will be difficult. Yikes.
  • Driving on the left (read: wrong) side of the roads. Who knew?!
  • I am clueless with my life,
Okay, that helps me come to some of the reasons why I am going to Kenya:
  • Respect. Respect for myself, respect for others/ourselves, respect for the planet we live on. This is the key reason and I will discuss more below.
  • Because working with the United Nations sounds cool, okay? Yes, even if that means as an intern - I am that shallow. 
  • I want to know how it is to work and live in Kenya. After China, Canada, UAE and Sweden, Africa would be a new continent for me to live in. As Q pointed out in dismay, "That is one more than me!" That really is the extent of my ambition and competitiveness, everyone. :) 
  • I am clueless with my life. Okay, maybe not completely, but just enough to keep my curiosity going.
In Aukštaitijos National Park, Lithuania  

On Respect

So this is the part that will sound like a lot of bull to some of you, but heck, I have been sitting on it for so long it is time that I come clean about it. Feel free to skip if you think Q is more interesting to read about. :)

Respect for myself. Life is too short for boredom. I guess I am a bit of experience junkie in some ways and working in Kenya sounds very exciting, don't you think?! On the other hand, international development projects can be quite daunting to someone who has mostly worked in private sectors. I am not naive: Kenya is very different and the public sector is a different beast. But I know if anyone can do this, it is me. :) It will be a very worthwhile way of spending part of my life. 

Respect for others/ourselves. Many of you have inspired me in the past. Looking back, what I appreciate most about those experiences are the differences in opinions and perspectives. The past year's study at Lund University highlights this even more to me. For example, you may know that I am not the world's most patient person (the world's most understated comment BTW), and I noticed having more respect was a key for having more patience and enjoying life better. I see Kenya as a good opportunity for this as I expect to be exposed to a wide array of differences, and I will try my best to remember to always bear respect and patience for others and ourselves. (Hmm, not sure if my logic makes complete sense, but I hope you get my drift.)

Respect for the planet Earth. Here is the key connection between disaster risk reduction work and the planet earth I hope to achieve: less disaster risk -> less disaster destruction -> less loss/consumption to respond and recover to disasters > more sustainable planet. If this doesn't make sense, don't worry, I promise to add my voice to this in future postings.

What about Q?

I swear I feel like I am Q's personal assistant in the past year answering questions like "Where is Q?"or "How is Q?" or "What about Q?". Okay, fine, I guess if that is what marriage means, oh well. Right, where am I? Hey, I didn't say that I am an effective PA. 

So as for Q, he is heading in the same direction - by that, I mean in a literal sense - due south, but a lot not far from Sweden. Q will live in Amsterdam and reconnect with his roots. Having returned to Toronto once before, I feel slightly qualified to assess the situation, and call it no less challenging than my journey. But something tells me that Q will enjoy every bit of it.

In Dzūkija National Park, Lithuania

Can we look further beyond the six months?

Maybe, but I would rather not - the possibilities are too many and my head is not big enough for it. Beyond the six months, your guess of our whereabouts is as good as mine. So let's not go there yet and just sit back and enjoy the packing, yeah?

Oh, did I mention we leave for Kenya/Holland in a week?! Do wish us good luck! :)

(Video link if the above video does not load properly)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Unfamiliar feelings

If you met me in the past few weeks/months, sorry to tell you this, but most likely I was feeling constipated. Both mentally and okay, occasionally, literally. This little too much information was disclosed for a reason. It is why I haven't blogged for a very long time. Until now.

My lack of blogging probably bothered very few people, except Brian (Hello, Peterborough!). But it bothered me. It took me a very long time to figure out why I was so blocked. Yesterday it finally came to me when I sat down after a refreshing morning run... There has been a lot of unfamiliar feelings. That is why. The much-needed realization allows me to write this update to you. It is about time.

Back in May, Q and I flew to Cape Town, South Africa to attend our friend Gee's wedding. Yes, take note: we only befriend people with funny names like our own. It was my first time in Africa - allow me to ignorantly broaden this to the entire continent - and I was thrown into the deep end. With two warm and loving local families - I/we loved it! But staying with families also means deep in someone else's hair: we took a lot of effort to be good guests and adjusted to different family cultures. I managed to go for some runs while staying with Danielle and her adorable girls. It was a fenced-off golf course community living outside Cape Town. It was so deafening quiet at night that I got frightened from the automated sparklers going off. I am a little hesitant to use the South African expression here, but that is just my Canadian politically correct side freaking out: it was a "white" community.


Then we moved to stay with Gee's brother-in-law family, Deon and Karen, in Cape Town. It was a "colored" community. I was told not to run in the neighborhood. It was "a little risky". I don't want to come off as a racist, and you know I am not one. I only bring in the race topic because it is really a matter of fact in South Africa. In fact, it is in your face so much so that it would be wrong for me not to mention it. Read about colored in Wikipedia. I know many Americans and Canadians would most likely feel a bit uneasy with this topic - I know I was, but luckily the family adopted us into theirs with open arms, and that helped make me feel more at ease. The video below is me trying very badly to imitate Capetonian gangster walk and talk - thanks Brian (different Brian) for leading me. Again, I don't want to offend anyone, particularly not the Capetonian gangsters, with my silliness.


In June I was in China. I spent five weeks with my relatives. It was my first time in life spending so much time with my extended family alone, i.e. without parents or spouse. Just me. The dynamics was very tricky and rewarding. There was more interactions and I got to know my relatives much more and better. It was exactly what I needed and wanted, although very stuffy and overwhelming at times if you know what I mean.


University started in end of August, and of course it was easy since I have been away from university for only some 13 years... Not! Academic reading and writing was a tough learning curve for me. It still is, but it is getting better. There are 22 other individuals in the programme with 13 different nationalities - think many younger and more dynamic versions of me.

Group "sitting" (university campus dinner)

In October (this was previously incorrectly indicated as "November", my apologies) my father-in-law Bart passed away peacefully at his own home. He was surrounded by lots of love. In Bart's own words, he was "a Sunday's child". If you have to look up in a dictionary to see what the expression means - he got you and is probably gloating about it somewhere high above. It is a little too personal to discuss more at this point. A very unfamiliar feeling and I haven't got my head and heart around it yet.

Bart's study - very Bartish

Phew, so many unfamiliar feelings this year. Knowing me/us, we will likely continue having many changes and challenges. You see how I dropped running along the way as the cold and wet winter descended in Sweden. I recognize now that it is one of the easiest cures for constipation. My goal is to make plenty of runs in the new year and years to come. The number of blog postings will tell if I succeed or not. But what I loved about it is that I/we had the support and companion of all those we love - from Gee and Ali in Cape Town, to my cousins in China, to the pamily in Den Haag. We come together. Thank you.

Anyway the time now is 9 AM and it is time for a run. We wish you a Happy, not constipated,  2016!

So nice to have visitors especially family! :)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Swedish Vacation and a Swedish Essay

Q and I took at a Swedish vacation during the past three weeks. What's a Swedish vacation, you ask? It means taking a summer course studying Swedish while living in a boarding school - yes, here in Sweden. We got to study Swedish language, watch Swedish movies, have Swedish conversations, eat Swedish food, meet Swedish residents... basically doing a lot of Swedish things. Okay, I know it sounds a bit overwhelming, but the course was super nerdy and cool - I loved it! (And Q survived his as well. At least I believe so. :)

My roommate Markella from Athens and I

For my class, each of the students were asked to write an essay on the topic of Mitt möte med Sverige (My meeting with Sweden) to enter a contest by Riksföreningen Sverigekontakt (National Society Sweden Contact), the hosting organizing agency. Guess who won? :) Actually I had a real hard time at first, but luckily I got inspired, and in the end I was very proud of what I came up with... Naturally now even more proud since it would get published in the organization's September magazine. So before my head gets any bigger, here it is. It is in Swedish first, then translated into English. I feel it is important to translate it instead of rewriting it because it is a better reflection of my Swedish train of thoughts, which seems to be still very wobbly, but it is getting there...

Me with my teacher and organization representative - I got three Swedish books as my prize - woohoo!

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Stigen upp för berget

Medan jag klättrade upp för det lilla berget mittemot Billströmska Folkhögskolan kunde jag inte låta bli att undra hur jag exakt hade kommit hit. Kanske planerades min utflykt när jag kom från Malmö för två veckor sedan? Eller kanske min kurs planerades när min man hittade ett jobb i det här gamla och vackra landet? Just det. Kanske mitt möte med Sverige planerades när jag träffade min man, en holländsk, i Kuba för flera år sedan. Det är precis hur jag, en kinesisk kanadensiska, hittade mig själv i mitten av Sverige, precis som livet har planerat. Livet rör sig på ett hemlighetsfullt sätt, eller hur?
Det var en fin och bekväm sommarkväll. Solen sken och en bris blåste längs stigen. Det kändes lätt – jag skulle orka det utan mycket kraft, tänkte jag. Det påminnande mig om mina första veckor i landet förra året för att min man hade varit i Sverige i flera månader och allting arrangerades. Det skulle vara en lycklig semester för mig.

Men snart tog jag en fel väg och stigen försvann under mina fötter – ”Oj”! Jag kom ihåg tillfället när vi förlorade vårt bostadskontrakt och var tvungna att hitta en annan plats om bara en månad. Vilken oro och ångest! Svårt var det att hitta någon som inte var på semester i augusti, för att inte tala om hur vi lärde oss att göra allting på svenska, ett helt nytt språk för oss. Vem visste att man kunde kolla på Blocket så ofta som man kunde fika?! Det var nog som hur jag försökte att hitta min egen stig nu bland taggiga buskar och hala stenar.

Jag svär att berget verkade mycket lägre från mitt rum tidigare. Det mumlade jag till mig själv när plötsligt halkade jag på en klippa, ”Ai!”. Vilken tur att jag var oskadad. Pust! Det var lite pinsamt, men inte så mycket som de oerhört många gånger när jag talade svenska fel. En dag i mitt bostadshus försökte jag hjälpa en pojke som bar många påsar. Han såg förvirrad ut medan jag sa,”kan jag hjelpe dig?” och ännu mer när jag repeterade tre eller fyra gånger. Stackars pojke – även nu springer han snabbt iväg efter han vinkar till mig.

Stigen blev svårare och jag blev väldigt svettig och smutsig. Det tog mycket mer tid än jag förväntade. Som att plugga svenska. Tålamod måste man ha enligt några kompisar, ”Det tar tid.” Det slog mig att ge upp. Varför inte? Många andra hade gjort det. Men det är inte ett alternativ, inte ett bra alternativ i alla fall. Ansträngning krävs det om jag vill bli en riktig del av samhället och inte bara en fluga på väggen. Jag var bestämd att fortsätta klättra upp, ett steg i tåget, precis som hur jag kan lära mig svenska – ett ord i tåget. Det ska hjälpa mig.

När jag äntligen var framme hittade jag en otroligt vacker utsikt på toppen av en stor vit sten. Skolbyggnadens röda tak skimmade och skärgården glittrade i havet långt borta. Ensam var jag men jag kände mig inte ensam. För jag visste att många människor hade hjälpt att bygga stigen som hjälpte mig komma hit. För jag visste också att många mer hade kommit och ska komma hit. Det känns skönt att veta att jag är, som vi är, inte ensam i våra vandringar upp för berget.

Missförstå mig inte – jag älskar att cykla runt landets platta cykelvägar, men vilken fri och öppen känsla här på toppen! Det är ganska fantastiskt med tanke på att jag inte hade kommit upp så högt. ”Om du ska studera på ett internationellt program på engelska”, många hade frågat mig, ”varför vill du lära dig svenska?” Svaret låg precis framför mig – att se mer och se ytterligare. 

När jag kom ner såg jag en gul skylt, ”Här uppe är ett berg med vackra mönster.” Men jag vet att det inte var det viktigaste att nå bergstoppen. Syftet är att hitta våra egna stigar. Syftet är att bli bättre och starkare människor genom våra upplevelser. Oavsett hur jag kom hit ska jag fortsätta klättra stigen upp för berget. Vill du gå med?


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The path up the hill

While I climbed the small hill opposite of the Billströmska Folk High School, I could not help but wonder how I exactly had come here. Maybe my excursion was planned when I came from Malmö two weeks ago? Or maybe my language course was planned when my husband found a job in this ancient and beautiful land? Right. Perhaps my meeting with Sweden was planned when I met my husband, a Dutch man, in Cuba several years ago. That's exactly how I, a Chinese Canadian woman, found myself in the middle of Sweden, just like life has planned. Life moves in a mysterious way, doesn't it?

It was a nice and comfortable summer evening. The sun was shining and a breeze blew along the trail. It felt easy - I could manage it without much effort, I thought. It reminded me of my first weeks in the country last year because my husband had been in Sweden for several months, and everything was arranged. It would be an happy holiday for me.

But soon I took a wrong turn and the trail disappeared under my feet - "Damn!" I remembered the moment when we lost our apartment contract and had to find another place within only a month. Oh, the anxiety! It was difficult to find someone who was not on vacation in August, not to mention how we learned to do everything in Swedish, a whole new language for us. Who knew you could check the housing website as often as you can drink coffee (N.B. Swedes drink a lot of coffee.)?! It was probably like how I tried to find my own path now among thorny bushes and slippery rocks.

I swear that the hill seemed much lower from my room earlier. I mumbled it to myself when suddenly I slipped on a rock, "Ouch!". Luckily I was unhurt. Phew! It was a bit embarrassing, but not as much as the incredibly many times when I spoke Swedish incorrectly. One day at my apartment building, I tried to help a boy who was carrying many bags. He looked confused while I said, "Can I hilp you?" And even more when I repeated three or four times. Poor boy - even now he runs away quickly after he waves to me.

The path was difficult and I was getting very sweaty and dirty. It took much more time than I expected. As for studying Swedish. One must have patience, according to some friends, "It takes time." It occurred to me to give up. Why not? Many others had done it. But it is not an option, not a good option anyway. It is required effort if I want to become a real part of society and not just a fly on the wall. I was determined to continue to climb, step by step, just like how I can learn Swedish - a word at a time. It'll help me.

When I finally arrived, I found an incredibly beautiful view on top of a large white stone. The school building's red roofs shimmered and the archipelago glistened in the sea far away. I was alone, but I did not feel lonely. For I knew that many people had helped to build the path that helped me get here. For I also knew that many more had come and will come here. It feels good to know that I am, just like we are, not alone in our paths up the hill.

Do not get me wrong - I love biking around the country side's flat bike paths, but what a free and open feeling here at the hill top! That's pretty amazing considering that I had not come up very high. "If you will study in an international program in English," many had asked me, "why do you want to learn Swedish?" The answer lay right in front of me - to see more and see further.

When I came down I saw a yellow sign, "Up here is a mountain with beautiful pattern." But I know it was not that important to reach the mountain top. The aim is to find our own paths. The aim is to become better and stronger people through our experiences. No matter how I get here, I'll continue to climb the trail up the mountain. Do you want to join?

Me on the hill top

Monday, March 9, 2015

Speaking (a tiny little) Swedish on Radio!

Speaking of challenges... I am organizing an open house for the Malmö Toastmasters Club, and our PR team did a fantastic job reaching out to the local media outlets. As a result, another club member, Magnus Andersson, and I were given an interview opportunity on the Sveriges Radio (SR) P4 Malmöhus radio station!



It was particularly challenging for me because the interview was mostly conducted in Swedish. In addition, it was live broadcasting, and there was no script! Luckily Magnus did most of the weightlifting - God, he has a gorgeous voice! I understood the conversation somewhat, and actually attempted to speak a little Swedish here and there, and that was nerve-wracking. My head was looping something like this in the first couple of minutes, "Ahhh! *Need to calm down otherwise you won't understand anything.* Ahhhhh!Check out the SR article and audio here!

They say be careful of what you wish for, eh? It is so true. :)

Friday, March 6, 2015

"It is F!@&ING challenging!"

"So how do you enjoy life in Sweden?" I remember when the curious question came up from one of Q's friends at a casual Christmas gathering (sans Q, of course). By then I was already midway into my visit in Holland, so admittedly I got a little boring after answering this type of questions. "It is ... challenging", I answered. "Oh, is that a diplomatic way of saying that you hate it but you can't really say it?", the question persisted. It made me smile when people want real meaningful answers and not just some BS - it is Holland after all. :) "No, I mean it is F!@&ING challenging" I emphasized with a even broader smile, and was pleased to see some mildly shocked and definitely satisfied looks. I continued,"It feels like riding a motorcycle on a tricky road full of twists and turns, and I'm loving it."

Okay, no twists or turns here, but snow helps pose as interesting biking condition in Malmö.

A few months back I took one of those super comprehensive personality tests that apparently the HR departments in Scandinavians love using. Out of some 25 scale categories, I ranked "high" for the "Experiences" scale, which shows "how prepared one is to try new activities and be emotionally stimulated by the world". The real surprise to me was in how others can perceive this. "People around them may become frustrated and fatigued by this impulse to always want to try out new things and rarely or never use existing experience or knowledge..."

This reminded me of a story back in 2011 when a friend congratulated me in returning to Toronto. I know the friend meant well and is a most caring person, but the following comment caught me off, "It is about time for you to settle down, eh?"

Then it dawned on me that this friend is not alone in the chorus. I recall several people felt it was a very risky move to, well, move. And some think that it is just a phase thing that I would pass through eventually. The comments almost made me doubt my mental maturity level. Then I realized that I like being immature anyways, so it really doesn't matter, ha!

Back to now and 8 months after moving from Toronto to Sweden, I still don't know what settling down means. I think the thought somewhat terrifies me. I feel that the world is full of roads with twists and turns. Settling down just seems like ... having a beautiful motorcycle - yes, a yellow & black one named Casa for example - and only ride back and forth to the office. Don't worry. It is just a metaphor and not at all what Q does.

Sure, one can experience plenty of new things while still living in the same place... But moving to another country just changes the landscape completely that it is so crazy! I have no choice but to adapt quickly. It is effing challenging and I am learning to enjoy the process more and more.

Sometimes I have to be so focused that I drop other important things in life like blogging for example. Here are some "challenges" that had kept me busy in the past couple of months...

- I promised myself not to work for the first year in Sweden, and I broke that promise - trust me, I really hesitated in breaking it, but it is also important to embrace the opportunities life presents sometimes. Anyway, over January and February, I prepared and taught a 6-week pilot course on public speaking with a small group of participants. It is an fantastic entrepreneurial exercise as I launched it under the talk&awe banner. It was very "challenging" as I set the goal for myself to put together a most fun and rewarding positive learning experience for everyone involved. And what fun and rewarding it was! After receiving some glowing review from the participants, the organizers and I plan to give the course again in mid-April - WOOHOO!


- In February I passed the Swedish National Test for immigrants! The test itself was quite gruelling: lasting over two days including four parts: reading, listening, speaking and writing. It is quite a feat. Now I continue to study on my own while waiting for the next level's class to start. I feel that I built a fairly solid Swedish language foundation, now I just need to build on top of it and keep progressing... which may be a little "challenging" because of the next point...

- Last but not least, I applied for university study and was accepted to the Disaster Risk Management and Climate Change Adaptation master's programme at Lund University. It is a two-year programme, and it was an incredible journey to put together the application package and network to secure the spot. Can't wait to put on my backpack and go back to school in a few months!

Sorry, Toronto - spring is already here in Malmö!

So yes.... Life continues to be challenging and I continue to love it. I wouldn't take it any other way, you know. It is in my blood. And to my/our lovely friends and family, thanks for cheering me/us on!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Magic of Home Experience

November in Barcelona can get rather cool. Q and I tried to warm up ourselves as we followed Sara up the staircase into her parents' apartment. As we climbed up step by step, she reminded us repeatedly - yes, over and over as Sara does sometimes which I used to have no patience for, but God, I love that about her now. Where was I? Right, Sara warned us about the language barrier with her Mum, Dad and Grann, over and over. Okay, we get it, Sara. When we finally stepped in, we were immediately hugged by her Mum's broad smiles and immersed in the sweet aroma of a home-made paella bubbling on the gas stove. I doubt that I would ever see a paella more gorgeous in my life. Needless to say, we loved Sara's Mum and Dad and Grann, and that is not just because of the paella, but also because we were in their lovely home.


The truth is... Magic often happens when we step into someone else's home. There is something quite terrifying and comforting about visiting, or even better, staying at someone else's home, isn't it? Personally I love it. I cannot get enough of it. I am possibly addicted to visiting people's homes, and enjoying the surprises that come with having guests. Quite selfishly, I feel that the "home" experiences just gives back so much! When I close my eyes and think back about this year, my mind is racing with memories of those trips that I made this year when I stayed with family and friends, and those of you came to visit us - I think I am rather private and don't like to name names, but you know who you are, "Thank You!" for spending the quality time with me/us!

You see, it is more than a latte in a coffee shop. It is more than a 2 or 3 hour proper sitting at a fancy restaurant. It is a lot more than all that. It is about seeing the chaos and madness of finding a darn plate before food gets burned, and helping each other in those vulnerable moments... or eating burnt food together. It is about simply enjoying each others' presence and afterwards savioring those moments of content silence. It is living life to the fullest. It is heavenly.

I guess this is my long-winded pitch in convincing you, our friends and family, to find ways to come visit us in Sweden in the coming years. (Okay, we do live on the 4th floor so you can use that as a convenient excuse if you like.) And also my own pledge to myself of visiting more of you in the future. (Just speaking for myself so my therapist doesn't have a fit about me speaking for Q. :) Because you know as well as me, life is indeed short, but love like that in Barcelona is truly long-lasting.

To our friends and family who have spend "home time" with us, and who want to, and who will -  Have a wonderful holiday season in whichever home you find yourself in. I hope it is warm and it smells like a delicious paella! :)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

My Swedish Miracle

I didn't believe in miracles. Let alone believe that I, yes, I, a normal human body, can make one happen. But three months after arriving in Sweden, I am seeing my own little Swedish miracle. #Oh yeah, oh yeah!# (yes, I'm doing my disco hand move.)

My first week was truly a fresh-off-the-boat experience with the Swedish language. Just about all the printed information was in Swedish. That means shop signs, newspapers, government forms, and, #sigh#, supermarket flyers. Apparently those are very important to me if I want to do well as a hemmafru ("housewife"). Not to mention if I want to really be part of the society, and not just a subculture, to know Swedish is essential.

Most Swedes speak English very well, and they are very happy to speak English with you... So much so that my biggest fear was that I would easily carry on living here with English as my life jacket, as some expats/immigrants do. (To each of their own choice.) But I was determined to learn swimming in Swedish sea on my own. Personally I feel very important to live in a society where I can function normally without the constant language barrier.

"Speed bump"

But boy oh boy, did this goal of speaking Swedish feels like a miracle. Did you know that Swedish has three extra letters: å, ä and ö. If you do the math, that is over 10% increase from English. Apparently that pushes my brain over the edge. I was drowning in a sea of strange words and letters. One time I went to a språkcafe (language corner for new comers), and I left half way feeling so mad with myself for not understanding anything. It sucked big time.

So I worked hard and I worked smart, really hard and really smart, for three months. And now, I was very pleased to see a miracle budding. Earlier today I was carrying a pseudo Swedish conversation for a good five or ten minutes, where I understood maybe a handful of words. But those words are my precious air. It feels so terribly refreshing to be able to come up and tread the water somewhat. I am incredibly proud of this achievement knowing that three months ago how depressed I felt about the situation. Hey, you try listen to the alphabets 100 times and still not getting it.

Having said all this, for those who are curious, I am going to share with you what I have done, and who knows, maybe you will find one or two things helpful for your own study.

- Immersion. Yes, it sounds intense, but it is like jumping into a cold shower, it doesn't work to wet a finger at a time. I took the plunge in converting my environment setting from English to Swedish, from declining restaurant menu in English, to getting a Swedish keyboard, to changing the mobile phone language setting... Which was quite disastrous - for a good few days, I couldn't use my phone properly. :) The hardest part of this is to ignore the lazy voice in my head, the one that wants to read English and just gloss over Swedish. I know it will continue to be a struggle, but it is getting easier day by day, and it feels very rewarding to discover more and more Swedish words that I understand as I read more material. A bit like solving little Sudoku puzzles.

- Stay calm under water. A while ago I completed a personality study, and was told that I ranked low in the "temper" category. ("You don't say!", says Q.) During the language study process, I have panicked so many times that it is bloody annoying... I just end up swallowing bitter water, and lose some precious energy and time. The good thing about aging is that I am getting better at the self-awareness, and I would have these one-on-one conversations with myself. I give myself permission to feel frustrated, but with a time limit, because we need to move on and get back on track. I like having these heart-to-heart conversations with myself. :)

- Stay focused and move quickly. I am very grateful to Matteus from my Toastmasters club for offering me this tip. The argument here is that if I drag out my study, my mind and my friends will get used to the fact that I only speak English, and I would therefore miss some important opportunities to establish a Swedish mindset. It was one tip that helped me tremendously. Before moving to Sweden, I planned some extensive travelling. But after receiving this tip, I decided to stay in Sweden and focus on language studying.

- Listening and speaking over rules. Schools tend to focus a lot on grammar. I like grammar. Some rules help to make sense of the language structure, but quite often we become grammar book and don't know how to verbally communicate in every day conversations. To tackle this, I made it a priority to spend time listening and speaking before taking more school lessons. I would highly recommend these four tools: 8sidor.seLingQ.comSwedish Core 2000 Anki and Fabulo.

- Think and speak like the Swedes do. Nigel from the vill du prata svenska? ("Do you want to speak Swedish?") Meetup.com language group gave me this valuable tip. What it means is that instead of translating English expressions and sentences word-for-word, I must learn Swedish expressions, otherwise I would just end up with some Swenglish that nobody can understand! I find this quite challenging and fun. For example, I was told there is no such a thing as "sweet tooth" in Swedish, instead it is gottegris ("candy pig"). On a related note, Q is min gulle gris ("my cute pig"), ha!

- "I don't speak English." Milada from Toastmasters shared this trick with me. Because Swedes are very eager to practice their English, they would be so quick to switch the conversation from Swedish to English, so the idea is to pretend that I only speak Chinese, and not English, so they have no choice but speaking Swedish with me. I took this a step slightly different. When I start just about all the conversations here, my opening sentences are jag pratar lite svenska, men jag försoker att prata svenska. Är det okej? ("I speak a little Swedish, but I try to speak Swedish. Is it okay?")

Maybe you don't quite see it as a miracle, but I do, and maybe the next time I see you, I will be able to demonstrate it to you. :) I know they are just first steps, but I am on my way up, fast-and-furious style. It is all happening. Yesss! ...Now only if Q would speak more Swedish with me, hmm... Jag skojar, min gulle gris, jag skojar. :)

 Swedish waffles also help motivate language study.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Today I Feel Different...

This morning I slept through my usual 7.30 AM alarm and I didn't even feel bad. I took my sweet time with the morning yoga practice and wasn't checking for time. I didn't rush from going to dentist's emergency service or to my Chinese teaching appointment. Then it occurred to me... it almost seems like that I am ... relaxed. For the first time in the three months that I have arrived in Sweden, I am actually r-e-l-a-x-e-d. :)

And I think I know exactly why. After 6 months for Q and 3 months for me, we finally finally, YESSSS FINALLY, have a space that is completely and utterly livable and all to ourselves. A home we call our own. Here is the journey we took to get here...

BEFORE coming to Sweden, Q has done some hard work and found an apartment for us to live in. The contract was signed and we were all set. I shouldn't have laughed so hard on my flight to Sweden because -

A WEEK after my arrival, we were informed by the landlord that the apartment has been, surprise surprise, SOLD! We were back to look for a place to live. This would have been relatively easy in a lot of part of the world, but not in Sweden, and definitely not in August. Allow me to explain:
- Not in Sweden: There is some really messed up rental apartment supply and demand situation here. I don't get the whole gist of it, but it is something of a government-controlled rent control. We put ourselves on several waiting lists and were warned that it could take years before we get to have a rental through "proper" channel. Read more in these news reports: here and here.
- Not in August: August is the time when a lot of the Swedes take their month-long vacation. There is even a law in place to make sure companies allow employees to take month-long vacations in July and August, and the employees sure all do. Top to bottom. In and out. That means housing market is slow and we had a real hard time finding anyone or anything!

ANOTHER WEEK passed and we realized that us finding an rental apartment was like Rob Ford quit drinking. It just was not going to happen. Okay, at least not in the near future. So we had to change our strategy. We decided to take the plunge and buy an apartment. Yep, just like that, two weeks into the country, I am faced with my biggest purchase ever. I cannot speak for Q's reaction to this, but hey, Q loves shopping. :)

Sleeping on borrowed mattresses in an unfurnished apartment temporarily while looking.

TWO MORE WEEKS passed, and we found an apartment that we like. Okay, I am probably brushing over the apartment shopping effort here considering we are new to the city and didn't speak the language, but we did just that. We found an apartment that we fell in love with. It was love at first sight... Mind you, we were oh-so desperate either one of us could marry someone with an apartment! But I digress. On my one-month mark of moving to Sweden, I, my dear friends and family, I made a bid for us on the apartment following the Swedish way - with an SMS. Yes, a short short text message that read something like this,"Dear agent, we would like to put a bid for the apartment we saw for the ###### amount. Thank you." If you do the math, each character was worth essentially thousands of dollars. If hitting that "send" button doesn't get one high, I don't know what would.

ANOTHER WEEK's back and forth negotiation, yes, mostly by text messages. Some phone calls and emails on our part, since I can't stand sending texts. Anyway, we got the final agreement and a loan from the bank. That is another situation that is unique to Sweden. You can get a huge loan, and don't need to pay the principle ever, like EVER. Fine, don't believe me, read this.

WHEN we finally got the keys to the apartment, I wish I could tell you that I was happy as a new home-owner, but I wasn't. I really felt like we were forced into this commitment. A little sad, right? But no time to dwell in that, we literally got our shipment from Toronto the next day. Yeah, let's just say we went from no apartment, to an empty one, to one with just boxes, a lot of boxes. So many that Q and I were playing hide-and-seek. I still haven't found him yet.
But hey, at least it was a livable place, right? Uhm, NOT quite. The living room ceiling was falling apart and we had to get it fixed. That turned out to be a BIG job. Who knew. Okay, newbies here, remember? ONE WEEK, for one whole week, we tried to remove the old paint with friends' help. Oh that was so fun. I wish more of you were here, so we could share some of the fun with you, and have a little less fun ourselves. Really.

Then it comes to the moment of realization that we couldn't simply repaint it over ourselves because of the cracks in the concrete - apparently normal in these century-old buildings. Well, since Q had to work during the days, it fell on me to find a painter. That was real fun with the language barrier and cultural differences. Reading back at my notes, we contacted a total of TEN painters. Yes, that was a lot of Google Translation. And the quotes we got were all over the place. When we finally decided to go with one reputable company, it quickly became a communication nightmare. I was getting second hand information from Q, who was the initial contact with a home renovation store, which has a contract with a painting company, whose boss sent his staff to assess the job. When we realized the assessment wasn't done correctly, the staff informed his boss, who informed the store manager, who then emailed Q and Q told me. And this went back and forth a couple of more rounds, and I gave up. I found another painter, and worked with him directly. The new painter did a quick and fabulous job. ONE WEEK later, the living room was back to normal. And that was just in time for our first house guests' visit. Yay. :)

That was ONE WEEK ago, it was nice to have our visitors, but it was very well deserved when Q and I got to enjoy our apartment for the first time in its normal state just to ourselves. Ahh... home sweet home. Today I feel more relaxed, thanks to you.

p.s. Come visit us here. :)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Help Me, Help You!

(Take two on posting this to include video link and fix up the formatting... Previous posting will be deleted. Thanks.)

Hello hello, you... I find it very difficult to talk about what has been happening to us here in Sweden, only because there are too many things going on and my head feels very big these days. Q thinks that I make things hard for myself sometimes. I have to agree, but that's me. I am very driven and focused about things that I deem important. Below is just one aspect, specifically around the language study.

This update will come in the form of a 6 minute speech video. For those of you who prefer to read, below is the script, more or less, but you would miss my awful awful rapping, in Swedish nevertheless! Enjoy and feel free to share your feedback!
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(Note: The Speech title is Help Me, Help You. It was presented at Malmö Toastmasters club's humorous speech contest, and I won! So I will go on representing the club at the area-level on Sept 20th competing against other club winners from Denmark and southern Sweden.)



Video link: http://vimeo.com/104399450

I have been here in this beautiful country for six weeks. Jag talar lite svenska. I speak a little Swedish. I realize that I have this deep, strong, fundamental need to learn more.

It is not because I need to find a job and make money. Nah. That's what my husband is for. It is not because that I want to understand people. Don't tell anyone - I don't like people. And it is not because I need to understand the postings, the signs, the newspapers... "Blah blah blah". I sit on the beach. I get my drink. I enjoy the sun. Every day has been like a vacation in Thailand or Vietnam. Fantastic!

So why do I need to learn Swedish? Well, to help you. You want to help me with my Swedish to help you! I am going to give you three reasons.

First reason. Help me with my Swedish will help save you money! That's right. Let me tell you what happened when I first got here. I was told to go to the old city area, to this street with a very loooong name. It's hard to read. You know what. I am pretty smart. I will remember the first part and last part of the street name. I was sure I would find it. Walk my way there. There is my street. "Nor... Gatan". Another "Nor.. Gatan". And another "Nor...Gatan". I am confused - why are so many streets start with "Nor" and end with "Gatan"??? (N.B. "North...Street") I am pretty desperate when I get lost. Do you know what I do when I get lost? I look for the police officers. Smile. "I am lost. Would you please take me back to my home?" What do you know. The Swedes are very polite and helpful. The police officer took me home... on your tax dollars, or, kroners. Now I get lost a lot, so that is a lot of police taxi rides, as I call them. That is a lot of money that you can help save if you help me with my Swedish.

Second reason why you want to help me with your Swedish is to... Save you time! Do you see those long lines at the supermarkets? Do you know why they are there? Me. I find it very intense when it is my turn to walk up to the cashier. It is like smuggling hundreds of bottles of liquor into Sweden and walking up to the Immigrations. I get really nervous, and I try to stay calm. The cashier just casually scan the items and says in lightening speed,"Var du bra så?" (N.B. "All good?"), and continues scanning. I on the other side, am completely stunned. What just happened?! I scratch my head and think to myself, I must be careful with my answer now. I don't want to get charged double for that chicken! "Ja...? Nej...? Ja..? Nej..?" (N.B. "Yes...No?") Wait wait, I signal to the cashier. I quickly pull out my smartphone and look up the dictionary, "Igen?" "Again?" And that was only the first question. By the end of this immigration-like or cashier session, the line almost goes out of the supermarket door. And everyone looked a bit upset, understandably. Some of them might have been you. And guess what? I quite like shopping. I do that many times a day. So if you do the math, you want to help me with my Swedish to save you time that you can use to line up somewhere else!

The last reason why you want to help me with my Swedish? To bring you entertainment. Yah! Have you noticed that Swedish has a very nice rhythm to it, beautiful language, singsongy. I quite like that when I listen to the Swedish language audiobooks. It gets boring listening to them over and over, but you know what, I can feel the rhythm. I can get it. And the more I listen to it, the more it becomes clear to me. There is some serious music talents under this Chinese skin here. Yo yo yo! "Jag, jag, jag heter Shu. Jag, jag, jag kommer fran Toronto. Jag, jag, jag bor i Malmö!" That's right. Now you can see if you help me with my Swedish, next year, at the Eurovision Song Contest, I think I have a shot!!! I can go out there and represent Sverigeee (N.B. "Sweeeden")! Are you with me? Yesss. :)

So help me with my Swedish to save you money. Help me with my Swedish to save you time. And finally help me with my Swedish to bring you yo-yo-yo entertainment. Help me, help you. Help ME, help YOU! Tack så mycket. (N.B. "Thank you very much!")