It started as a tickle in my throat. Just a little soreness, a small discomfort. I ignored it. Told myself there was nothing to worry about. Lots of people feel funny after flying, and I had taken a long trip over the Atlantic Ocean to spend a week in Europe with my best friends. (Our first trip all together!) No doubt I would feel better soon.

But after a week, I felt worse. Much worse. My sore throat turned into a head cold, which then wormed its way down and made a home for itself in my chest. I started coughing and hacking and sneezing in public – you know, that person who you shoot annoyed glances at and stand far, far away from.

Worst of all, my home was on the other side of the planet. I couldn’t curl up in the coziest spot of my couch with a book and a blanket and my dog. I couldn’t hide from the world until I felt human again. Instead, I was stuck in a stranger’s apartment, which my friends and I had rented in lieu of a hotel room. The city outside our windows was cold and unfamiliar.

Of course this was the one time I had decided to pack light and leave my “just in case” meds at home. At first I thought I could tough it out, but it quickly became apparent (to my friends, if not me) that I would need some pharmaceutical assistance. Best friend and co-columnist Angie Liang dragged me to a little grocery store in Berlin, where I used my smartphone to look up “cold medicine” in German and bought a box that had those words on it. Erkältungsmittel, if you’re wondering.

Unfortunately the Erkältungsmittel didn’t do much. We later translated the rest of the package and discovered that I had basically purchased a natural supplement full of thyme. (Apparently thyme is a very popular herb over there.) It didn’t even give me a good placebo effect.

At this point my condition was sliding from “a little under the weather” to “completely miserable and useless,” so I gave in and went to an actual pharmacy. (Throughout most of Europe, this is the only way you can get real medicine.) A kind-faced pharmacist supplied me with extra-strength cough drops and nasal spray, plus a few travel packs of tissue “as a gift.”

Now properly medicated, I was ready to vacation in full force — or so I thought. But my body was not quite up to the challenge. Fortunately my friends were careful not to let me over-exert myself. They made me bundle up against the chilly spring air. (Angie even forced me to wear her coat.) When I ran low on energy, they urged me back to the apartment for a nap. They rearranged our schedule, delaying the most interesting attractions until the end of our trip, giving me time to recover. They made hot tea and cooked for me. They even let me have the single bed so that I could toss and turn and cough and snore all night, in privacy and without reservation.

Nothing they did could cure me of my cold — only time would do that. But knowing that I had such good friends, who were so thoughtful and generous in taking care of me? That made me feel better in a different, possibly more important way.

During the second half of our trip, when I was too weak to explore Copenhagen with them, I had a lot of time to think about how lucky I was. Yes, even sitting alone in a strange apartment in a foreign city in the middle of the day, I felt lucky. Because I could look outside and see tall, narrow apartment buildings in all shades of pastel, their windows shuttered and trimmed in white. I could watch people whizzing by on their bicycles with fresh fruit and baguettes for dinner. I could hear children playing in the courtyard, and neighbors laughing as they went down the stairwell.

I had the privilege of exploring two beautiful, magical cities with two beautiful, magical friends. Being sick was nothing in the scheme of things.


Call us what you will — BFFs, kindred spirits, or soul mates — Kristan and I are very lucky to have each other. Months ago, when New York City was feeling overwhelming, I made a quiet escape to Cincinnati. Kristan didn’t ask why; she just welcomed me with open arms. Her dog Riley did, too.

One might think I would be bored in Ohio, coming from a bustling city that never sleeps, but that was not the case. A recent National Geographic article highlighted great attractions in Cincinnati, and by coincidence, Kristan took me to a majority of them. All just to put a smile on my face. We dined at the tastiest restaurants, munched at the sweetest bakeries, admired the trendy contemporary art, browsed the farmers markets and antique malls, and even took day-trips to nearby places.

My favorite attraction was hiking Hocking Hills, a scenic park with trails and ancient hills. Kristan prepped everything, including carrying the backpack of supplies, while I just gaped at the views with my camera. We mustered our way through a forest blanketed with leaves, up and down small stone stairways, and over several bridges, as I snapped away. Finally we reached our destination: a vast half-walled dome called Old Man’s Cave.

The caves in Hocking Hills have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. History hypothesizes that the region was a meeting point for nomadic populations, who then settled in the area because of its natural resources and food supply. Now it’s a state park that draws visitors from all over, withstanding the test of time, just like Kristan’s and my friendship.

What’s our secret? We accept each other for who we are and communicate honestly. Being best friends means offering support, but also challenging each other and pointing out flaws. We’re both stubborn and opinionated, and we don’t always agree, but that is the perspective we seek from one another. And whatever decision we make, we always help the other fulfill it.

During the trip, as we walked Riley around a local park, I thought about how serene I felt with us just chatting away, contemplating life and our goals. Turns out, despite all the activities we did, what made me happiest was simply talking to my best friend in person. I might not get to see her often, but I feel very lucky when I do.

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Over Labor Day weekend, I visited Seattle for the first time. The city is an interesting mix of big business and hippie culture, with vibrant art and foodie scenes too. I saw all the main attractions — Mt. Rainer, Puget Sound, Pike’s Place market, the Space Needle, Chihuly Garden & Glass — but one of the most memorable highlights, at least for me, was something you probably wouldn’t find in a travel guide.

4th Ave. About 35 stories tall. Cross-hatching support beams that you can see from the outside, like giant X’s. I think it’s brown with black windows. And it used to be owned by a bank.”

This was the information my father had given me over the phone. Vague memories from decades ago. The reason my dad wanted me to find this building is that he had been part of the team that designed it, back when he worked for a big architectural firm. He has always done this: pointed out bits of history that are interesting or important to him, thinking they’ll be interesting or important to everyone else too. Growing up I thought it was cool, then lame, then annoying, then endearing. Now that I’m an adult, I think it’s all of those things at once.

Scanning the skyline from the Bainbridge ferry and later the Seattle monorail, I saw a handful of skyscrapers that were possible candidates — including an ugly brown one that I desperately hoped was not his. But upon closer inspection, none of them had the cross-hatching support beams that my dad swore would confirm his building’s identity. They were like a litmus test, or a birthmark.

Fueled by a sense of daughterly duty, I decided to reserve my last morning in Seattle for tracking down my dad’s building. The strap of my duffel bag dug into my shoulder as I hiked up and down the hills, certain that somehow I could find this thing. Certain that my dad’s role in the project would echo through the years and serve as a homing beacon for me to follow.

That didn’t happen. In the end, it took another phone call to my dad, and an assist from Google, to figure out which building it was. But at long last, I found it. Better yet: I liked it.

The building sits on the corner of Marion St. and 5th Ave, crisp and white, striped by dark windows. It has a little Asian restaurant in the ground floor, as well as a newsstand, an ATM, and other useful nooks. It’s clustered in with several other skyscrapers — some taller, some not — but its gleaming façade distinguishes it from the crowd. Though it was built 30 years ago, the building still looks modern. The materials are attractive and have held up to both time and weather. There is good attention to detail, such as the tidy angles, the orange accent panels, and the lovely contrasting textures. Those cross-hatching beams are subtle, but elegant.

After taking photos and admiring it from the outside, I made my way inside. The interior was similarly sophisticated and stylish. As I wandered around, grinning, I found myself hoping that someone would stop me to ask what I was doing. Then I could say, “Oh, I’m here because my dad’s an architect. He designed this building.”

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Though Asia has a reputation for being inexpensive, the truth is that prices for most things in Taipei were not that different than other cities. The food, however, was phenomenal and a bargain.

For breakfast my mom and I typically went to a stall in the food market, where the line was constantly out the door. They served the traditional greasy carb breakfast: fried pork buns, vegetable onion buns, lots of different types of dumplings, fried breads, and beef “sandwiches.” Of course, as any Chinese person can attest, you must have doufu nao (soft tofu soup), but it’s your choice between salty (my pick!) or sweet. No matter what we selected, my mom and I always arrived hungry and left happy.

My grandmother’s housekeeper also shopped at the food market early each morning to buy groceries for our lunch or dinner. I trailed behind her with my camera to capture the daily produce, which included not just vegetables, but also lots of seafood: seaweed, clams, shrimp, sea bass, and more. As part of every meal, she would pick indigenous fruit that could not be purchased in the U.S., such as liuwen (known as wax apple) and bali (a native guava). With these fresh ingredients, she prepared feasts for our family, often using my grandmother’s recipes. One popular Taiwanese dish is a thinly-sliced braised beef shank, served cold. She made it everyday for us because it was a favored treat.

When visiting Taipei, eating at a night market is a must! The streets are packed, and you shuffle along the herd of people with no personal space. When you find a food stand you must try, you crowd around and order. My cousins and I went to Raohe Street Night Market, sampling the most infamous dish, stinky tofu. (I still am not a fan.) We washed down the tofu with corn that was prepared like a blacksmith molding iron, fried Japanese octopus balls, and Asian pastries with red bean or ice cream. However, we shied away from the grilled crustaceans. Everything at the night market is cheap, which makes for a filling “second dinner.”

Before leaving Taipei, I went by Chia Te Bakery to buy their famous pineapple and cranberry “cakes” to share with friends back in the U.S. The ones baked in Taiwan are much better than the packaged supermarket kind, and Chia Te is considered the best. Lucky for me, I could walk there from my grandmother’s home. Every mouthful of the buttery soft crust, and the sweet-and-tart combination filling, was heaven.

I’d like to think my puopuo is enjoying a few Chia Te cakes in heaven as well. While it look grief and sadness to bring our family all together again, we celebrated her life and our bonds during this short trip to Taiwan – smiling up to the sky.

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Walking the streets of Taipei for the first time in ten years, I found myself chuckling. It was so much like New York, except the sidewalks were clean and the roads inundated with motorcycles. Exhaust was the perfume of the major boulevards, while the smaller streets were crowded with low-rise buildings hosting apartments on the top floors and retailers on the ground. For residents who preferred not to drive, the subway and bus system were both convenient and easily accessible – as long as you knew Chinese. And amidst all these people coming and going, the most amusing sight for me was that at any time of day, someone happily walked their little dog, usually unleashed.

During my time in Taipei, I made sure to visit the major tourist sites, including Taipei 101, the National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, and even Chiufen, a coastal tourist city.

On a clear day, it’s impossible to miss Taipei 101’s glistening green glass in the financial district. After all, the building is one of the tallest towers in the world. This art deco, modern pagoda-like structure is available for overpriced tours – unfortunately my visit occurred on an extremely foggy (or smoggy) day. Instead, like most tourists, I lingered around its adjacent shopping center. The mall is a multi-story galleria of luxury stores, where shop clerks eagerly follow your every move for a sale. It was quiet and eerily empty on a Friday evening as I admired the gleaming marble — an indicator that the Taiwanese were not spending here. The liveliest floor was the underground level, where you could find mainstream (i.e., affordable) retailers as well as the illustrious food court. This food court’s design and refreshments far surpassed those found in American malls — and even the food in U.S. chain restaurants.

The Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Halls are both beautiful to behold. They are very characteristic of Eastern-style architecture and feature an imposing main gate. Inside the Sun Yat-sen memorial, art galleries illustrate the story of his life and interpret the memorial through different artists’ perspectives. Just like Lincoln in Washington D.C., a large sculpture of Sun Yat-sen sits on his chair gazing out. He is protected by two guards who, like the Buckhingham guards in London, will not move or falter when approached. The outside of the hall is a vibrant orange, and a reflection pool and park border it. The scene is idyllic as many citizens gather here: a group of students practicing their dance routine, parents watching their children fly kites, photographers trying to capture the beauty of the Memorial, and friends chatting on park benches.

This time I only visited the outside of Chaing Kai-shek’s Memorial Hall, but despite being under construction, it is stunningly beautiful. The stark white stones are striking even against a gray sky, and the ocean blue tiles on the memorial and the entrance gate are one of the most vivid colors you see in the city. Though I was only able to spend a brief moment here, I found a sense of peace and stillness, a rarity in my life that I truly appreciated.

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A decade has passed since I last saw Taiwan, the island country where my parents are from. They spent their childhood until their early 20s there, before moving to the United States to advance their education and start a family. They have now lived here longer than they’ve lived in Taiwan, but as much as they love Texas and consider it home, I know how important their native country is to them.

Every few years when I was growing up, my parents would take my sister and I back to Taiwan to learn about their homeland and to know our family. We always stayed in the apartment of my puopuo (grandmother on my mom’s side), where she cooked with my aunts and spoke with a heavy accent. I often had to ask my mom to clarify her mother’s Chinese, but there was one thing I always understood: puopuo sweetly calling me by my middle name, Yen Tzu, and reminding me how good and wonderful I am.

One time I left my beloved teddy bear in her bed and flew back to Texas without it, crying. She assured me over the phone, “Yen Tzu, do not worry. I will watch him closely and take care of him until you return.”

I did return to see puopuo and collect my bear, but years later as an adult, I slowly started turning away from Asia and what I knew. When I first tasted the freedom of traveling on my own, I choose to explore the unfamiliar – such as Europe – wanting to create new, amazing personal experiences.

Over the years, my family has visited Taiwan several times without me. While I always wished I could go too, I never felt too much urgency, assuming there would be other opportunities. It was not until the beginning of this year, when my mom called me to say that puopuo had a stroke, that the need to return filled my entire being.

Unfortunately Puopuo passed away a few weeks before we arrived. (Fortunately my cousin had recently given birth to a beautiful and healthy baby girl, and puopuo had been smiling about this news before she passed.) So I was finally back in Taiwan, heavy with mixed emotions, missing the one person I wanted to see most. There was grief for my beloved grandmother, guilt for having waited so long to return, and curiosity to rediscover a part of me, to see where my parents grew up and how it had changed.

In the next JBU columns, I will share some of my thoughts and experiences in Taiwan. This beautiful country is full of wonderful sights, food and, for me, family. I know puopuo was proud as she watched all of us return, pay our respects, and explore our family’s homeland.

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Seven years ago, I fell in love with a boy. He was my closest friend in college – someone who made me laugh, challenged me to challenge myself, and listened to all my hopes and fears without judgment. One night while we were hanging out in his dorm, I confessed my feelings for him and then bolted out the door. By the time I got back to my own room, there was an email waiting. He had feelings for me too.

For the next month, things were perfect. Every touch was electric, every smile laced with the shared secret of our affection. When we left campus for winter break – me to Houston, him to upstate New York – I expected the absence to make our hearts grow fonder. I expected the new year to be better and brighter and blissfully full of our burgeoning love.

Instead, on our first day back for the Spring semester, he broke up with me.

Naturally I was devastated. I had no idea what I’d done wrong and no idea how to fix it. I spent the following two weeks in a depression, robotically going to classes and club meetings, doing my homework, and eating only because I had to.

Eventually I pulled myself from this abyss, forced myself to take care of my mind and body so that my spirit could mend. And when an unexpected opportunity arose to escape my regular life – which felt like the mere husk of an existence – I snatched it. An old friend was studying abroad, and a surprise stipend from my summer internship meant that I could afford to visit her.

Nine days in Spain didn’t heal my broken heart, but it helped. My feet kissed the cobbled streets of Granada, my arms embraced the scorching air of Sevilla. I drank in the architecture and history of Valencia. I floated in the shining blue waters off Barcelona.

On the last day of my trip, I took a stroll alone through Buen Retiro park in Madrid. Couples in rowboats drifted across the small lake, and behind that, groups of young people sat chatting and laughing on the steps of the big stone monument. The lush green park made me feel small, and the cheerful conversations made me feel alone, but in the best possible way. Because I was finally happy, all on my own, even on the other side of the world from everything I knew.

My lost and drifting love had found a new place to anchor, a new place to call home. The gaping emptiness inside of me had grown smaller, because Spain had started the process of filling it.

The rest I would have to do on my own, of course. With time.

* * *

Seven years later, I returned to Spain, very much happy and whole. This time, I came with the very boy who had once broken my heart. Between then and now, we had weathered many highs and lows. I supported him through a campus controversy; he supported me through drama with friends. We got back together and we broke up; we fought and we made up. He graduated and accepted a job in another city; I graduated and moved in with him. We met each other’s families, we adopted a puppy, we got a joint credit card.

We had started building a future together, so I wanted to make peace with our past by visiting Spain. In a way, I was introducing one lover to another. But there was no jealousy or fighting – just good food, good sights, and good company. As we strolled hand-in-hand through Buen Retiro park, I was reminded once again of why I fell in love. With both of them.

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