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?") 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!
(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:

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!")

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Middle of Middle East

Do you hold onto many email or post drafts for years? I do. Below is one from June 2009. I probably wanted to add some meaningful photos, but screw that. Here they are, my raw thoughts from our trip to Damascus, Syria - while it was still peaceful.

p.s. It doesn't mean the postings on life in Sweden will come in, uhm, 5 years. It will be sooner. I promise to reflect faster this time around. Okay, I try, okay?


As Yamen, a fellow CouchSurfer, claims excitedly that Syria is in fact in the "Middle of the Middle East", I can't help but agreeing with him. In the middle of Syria is Damascus, and that's where we spent a three-day weekend trip. Here are some more random notes from the trip:
  • I am here at the Damascus airport bathroom. I am squatting without toilet paper in sight. I am smiling. The strange comfort of inconvenience reminded me how much I love travelling.

  • Lying naked on the grey-white checker marble floor, I'm getting scrubbed down by a rather rough-looking motherly-looking woman. I was too afraid to open my eyes. The whole Hammam experience is already bizzarre enough - can I handle more? As I opened my eyes slowly, the sight is intimidating - a 12th century house is making me very self-conscious: am I worthy of showing my body to it?

  • From the many screaming kids on the plane, to the house cat spraying in Esfan's room, to the variety of local fruits, "fertile" is the word to describe Damascus.

  • The city feels so old. In fact, it is hard to find something that looks new!

  • Unlike Cesky Komolove, a fellow UNESCO old town, which is well-restored and essentially frozen with a 17th century look, the old city of Damascus is still very much living and aging. Families gathering in court yard, groups of seniors playing board games, kids never seem to get tired of playing tag-chase with neighbour friends. All among houses that are so old that you wonder if they would last another car scratching past it. I wonder if the lack of plastic surgery is of choice or lack of funding? Either way she is a beauty one would always be intrigued by.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

We are Moving, Again!

This is the news update part of the blog posting: We are moving from Canada to Sweden! Q found a job as an air traffic control training specialist in Malmo, Sweden, and has been working there since this April, and he's loving it! Thank you, Sweden! :)

March 26, 2014 - When Q left Toronto for Sweden with his bicycle!

I really want to blog about Q's job searching journey - with his consent of course, but that will be for a different day. Today I want to talking about how I feel about leaving Toronto.


Moving from Toronto is harder this time than I experienced last time - that was seven years ago.

I realized that when I tell people about our move this time. I find myself holding back... Holding back on what I call Toronto. Toronto is so wonderful. I was simply intimidated to call her home. I carry a Canadian passport, I live in Toronto, but to call her home? Someone commented, "Ahh, you were 18 when you immigrated to Toronto? So you didn't grow up here? That's not too bad then." Does that mean I don't qualify? So I doubt, so I hesitate and so I question...

But then in recent weeks this separation anxiety and sadness just keeps on building up, and I realized I just have to honour my feelings towards Toronto by calling her what she is to me - home.

The city. The supportive friends. The traffic jam. The road rage. The polite apologies. The sweet air. The colorful leaves. The extreme political correctness. The occasional loud American tourists. The family gatherings. Yes, our infamous mayor. The authentic cuisine aroma. Wow, Toronto, you are such a mad house and such a comfortable home. 
Korean Town on Bloor
Home is special. It is inside of me. It is inside of us. As much as I don't have the absolute confidence on my Canadianism, I must find courage to recognize my roots, ground and heart. I may be physically away soon, but a part of my heart will be always attached by a long loooong invisible yet strong string to Toronto because home is where my heart is.

Sometimes It takes a move away from home to realize how precious home is. I would like to think that we all have a place, sometimes many places, that we call home. Where are your homes? Where is your heart? Don't be afraid to say it out loud. Don't be afraid to show it proudly. Don't be afraid to love it passionately.

I love you, Toronto. You are my home. Always.

Hart House Library at University of Toronto downtown campus - one of my safe havens in Toronto.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Going up north from Toronto into ‘cottage country’ is a favourite past time for many Torontonians, summer or winter. We rented one such cottages close to Algonquin Park in February of 2006 and did a myriad of winter activities, including barbecuing at –23° C, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and ice skating. We considered going dog sledding, but, for whatever reason, we didn’t do it then.
This video was shot using a GoPro action camera strapped to my chest. You can see me dismounting and running at one point, and Shu had to get off as well when we were going uphill because the dogs can't burden the weight of people on the slope.

This winter, being one of the harshest in the past few decades, was an excellent opportunity to finally do it. And we couldn’t have picked a better day; the sun was shining, the temperatures were positively mild at just above freezing. Check out the photos below:

The day started with a 45-minute introduction on what we were about to set out to, including instructions on how to pick up the dogs, harness them, prepare the sled and all the commands to make the dogs go, stop, turn right or left. Then we went out to fetch the dogs and do everything that the guides had taught us.
A loud and excited ‘Readyyyyyyyy, let’s GOOOOOOOOOO!!!’ will make the dogs start. They actually go like crazy! There’s nothing more these dogs want to do but run! Most will even do their business while running, doing a very funny running squat position.
‘Eeeeeeeeaaaasyyyyyyyywooooow’, said in a subdued way is the way to stop the dogs. That and using the brakes… One tries, but the dogs are so excited to go that you have to fully step on the brakes to get them to stop!
Here's another video, shot with our compact weatherproof Panasonic. You can see the dogs from the sled following us up close.

This trip was amazing! We loved every minute of it. I would recommend doing an overnight trip as opposed to the one-day trip we did. It involves camping in a remote area and should be nothing but spectacular.
We did our trip with Chocpaw Expeditions, the people were nothing but kind and  professional and I cannot recommend them highly enough.
How was your winter? What are your plans for the spring? Let us know!