The Same Sky Cafe: A Successful Evening of Travel Story-Telling

IMG_3487What do a wandering yak, a marooned couple with a jetski and a sad Laotian woman reminiscing about the war all have in common?  They are stories from The Same Sky Cafe: Travel Readings from Debbie & Friends.  And what a turnout!  62+ people showed up to celebrate our evening of storytelling on June 17th in NYC at the K-Lounge, a comfy lounge with delicious Indian food.  I shared readings from my published travel memoir The Same Sky including a harrowing yet intriguing story about how I got arrested in Tibet.  There were fab readings from CeCe Yuan about a Paris mishap and  Mackenzie Miller who read a delightful piece about self-reflection and traveling.

Then Sandra Pike took us on a photo journey to Cambodia and Burma, peppered with heartwarming stories along the way.  The Mom Wong Monologue was also a hit as I highlighted the comical yet realistic cultural divide for an immigrant mom raising her children in Canada so many years ago.

Crowded room!  Great turnout of 62+ people.

Crowded room! Great turnout of 62+ people.

And the panel moderated by Alex Damian, fellow Canadian, was very interesting as we heard about Kathryn Cooper’s intrepid journeys to far-flung locales while Kristin Fields’ hilarious yet heroic navy rescue during a not-so-great cave trip drew giggles from the audience. (“What do you mean your rescuers wanted to be paid by credit card??”)  I also described a silly story about how I was stuck in a tiny town in Burma and the whole village turned up for a pig roast in honor of our visit.

My highlight?  That it was an evening that touched us differently.  One woman shared how she felt inspired to travel to a remote off-the-beaten-track country soon.  Another person wrote that my reading about a Laotian woman who revealed her suffering during the Vietnam War reminded her of the bravery of those in war-torn countries “who remain compassionate, generous and determined.  I think we need to be reminded of the ability to overcome adversity and bitterness and still interact with fellow occupants of this planet.”  Great email!

Finally, a really touching moment:  I met a Canadian guy at the end of the evening as we were all shuffling out of the K-Lounge.  He asked to buy my book The Same Sky for his sister who is facing a similar situation of a breakup and the quest to find oneself, the main theme of my book.   Later, he sent me an email: “I walked away from that evening with a real sense of connection with you and your fellow panelists…and the mindset behind the decision-making to set out on a journey, to move forward and the many discoveries found along the way.”

Wonderfully written!  The whole purpose of the evening was to bring artists and travelers together to share the beauty of traveling and self-discovery so that we can open our hearts to other cultures.  I’m pleased that we accomplished our main goal for many who attended the evening.  More travel storytelling events to come!

I also sold some The Same Sky books that evening to interested travelers!

I also sold some The Same Sky books that evening to interested travelers!


Photographs by Kathryn Cooper and Sandra Pike on our promotion table

Photographs by Kathryn Cooper and Sandra Pike on our promotion table

Our presenters (from left to right):  Sandra Pike, Alex Damian, Kathryn Cooper, Kristin Fields and Debbie Wong

Our presenters (from left to right): Sandra Pike, Alex Damian, Kathryn Cooper, Kristin Fields and Debbie Wong


Happy Father’s Day!

Father's Day PicLast week, long after the moving trucks drove away and we had the laborious task of unpacking our boxes in our new apartment, I came across my father’s memoir.

Several years ago, I bought a tape recorder and I interviewed my dad, recording hours of dialogue about the history of my extended family and how we ended up in Canada. All my life, he had talked about the importance of our family history and where we came from and the hardship that our family endured to stay in Canada.  As a teenager, I had tuned it out in favor of listening to MTV music videos and gabbing on the phone with friends.  As an adult, and with my father getting older, I became curious about my Chinese heritage, and I needed to capture the family history soon.  Otherwise all the memories and stories would fade into the background and our future generation would never know the truth of how my parents left their Taishan villages in China to follow the dream of a better life in Canada.  So I recorded the long history of my family background including my mother’s, and then I transcribed them onto paper.

Our interview was one of the most touching things that my father and I ever did together.  He not only shared about his own experiences but he even went as far back as 1891 to describe how his forefathers toiled in China and eventually ended up in Vancouver only to face the unfair Head Tax imposed on Chinese immigrants back in the day.  I learned a lot too, including how my father suffered seasickness while on a boat from China to Canada, how he was a scared immigrant teenager attending King George high school with barely any English, and how he worked multiple jobs (i.e. taxi driver, milk delivery man, wrestling match ticket seller) over the years to keep the family going.

So when I discovered the memoir again, it brought back memories of his honest storytelling and the urgency to get this bit of history out there for my siblings and our children to read one day.  On Father’s Day, I would like to give a shout out to my courageous and generous father who has always put our family first and instilled in us a spirit of bravery and perseverance!

Happy Father's Day!

Happy Father’s Day!




Chance Encounters When We Need Them the Most

IMG_5018“Pork fried rice with wonton soup please,” I heard the man on the phone say after I picked it up.  The voice sounded familiar.

“Hey, what kind of joke is this?” I asked.  “I’m not your Chinese food takeout girl.”  Then the man said, “Okay sorry, wrong number.”  By the time he hung up, I recognized the person’s voice as a good friend of mine.  So I called him back.

“That was me!” I said.  We both had a great chuckle about it.  He had accidentally called my number when he meant to ring his local Chinese restaurant on Staten Island.  Maybe he got the wrong Wong?  How funny!

We ended up talking for a long time and it turned out that he was actually going through a bit of a rough time personally in his life.  So I listened and we shared perspectives.  Then later, he texted to say thanks for the accidental phone call and that it was good timing.  He needed a friend at that moment, as we all do from time to time.

I’m reminded about the chance encounters that happen out of the blue, a human connection that touches us even for a moment.  Like that time, years ago, when I had a falling out with a co-worker and I cried all the way home on the subway.  An older gentleman with the kindest eyes sat down next to me and offered a tissue.  He said, “It’s going to be okay.”  And when I looked up, he had scooted off the train and disappeared into the busy crowd.  For the rest of the ride home, I felt better that someone, even a stranger, understood that somehow the sadness would pass.

Or that time when I was on a bus in Vientiane, Laos.  A young Swedish girl sat across from me and she looked miserable.  Tears rolled down her cheeks as the bus jerked along on the bumpy road.  I was hesitant to say anything because I didn’t know her and I had just come out of a relationship and was backpacking through Asia to heal from it all, an epic story that became the basis of my travel memoir.  I couldn’t open my heart to anyone.  But suddenly, I did.  I leaned over, gave her a tissue and said, “You okay?”  She looked relieved and we talked for the entire bus ride.  It turned out her boyfriend had just dumped her (by email!) and she felt so hurt, so lost.  I also shared what had happened to me.  How wonderful that we were two strangers opening up and sharing our deepest thoughts with tears streaming down our faces.  When the bus arrived at our destination, we parted ways and I never saw her again.  But I’ll never forget how that chance encounter with someone touched both of us, just when we needed it the most.


“Stay beside death and cry? No, you keep moving…”

DSCF0915Neither one of us said anything for several minutes.  Only the occasional slurping of tea could be heard.

“When I little girl, I so scared,” said Ann, a Laotian I had met earlier that day and invited me in for tea.

“We living in village close to Sepon, near eastern border between Laos and Vietnam.   We so poor, my family.  Always not enough to eat.  And every day, I look outside and bombs falling and falling.  Everything burning:  houses, animals, my people.  One day, our village on fire so my father take us.  To another village.  For many days, we walking and walking.”

She paused.  Then she said, “And on road, we see so many dead bodies.  But my father always say to us to keep moving, must keep moving.”

Here was a woman who had seen her entire country razed to the ground and yet she thought I was brave for traveling solo in Laos.  She had done the bravest thing of all: to put one foot in front of the other on a corpse-riddled road.  Just to survive.  To not let the most ghastly sights slow her down.

It was a secret war in Laos from 1964 to 1973 that had raged all throughout the country, occupied by the Americans and Vietnamese at the cost of thousands of innocent lives.  Even though Laos was technically a neutral state, the Vietnamese stayed anyway and took over the eastern part of Laos along the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail.  And for many years, the Americans dropped bombs to stop the spread of communism in and around the Ho Chi Minh trail.  Not many knew about Laos and their unwanted role in it.  It was forgotten, hidden in CIA files and memos that only recently came to light.

“Ann, I can’t…imagine how you must’ve felt seeing all those dead bodies.”

“Yes, what to do?  Stay beside death and cry?  No, you move.  Always moving.  Must leave war and death behind you.”  She sighed, her long breath coming deep from her belly, and she set her teacup down for the last time.

She didn’t say any more about it. I prompted her to continue, but she was silent. Her face looked sadder, and I stopped my queries that seemed to pull down the corners of her mouth.  I knew I had gone as far as I could with her about the war.

Instead, she leaned back in her chair and we chatted politely about my trip to Lao Pako the next day, and the upcoming journey north to Luang Prabang.  We finished our talk just in time for the power to go out, as it always seemed to at the same time every night.  She lit a candle, placed it in a metal holder and then gave it to me, her palms encircling my own.

“Good luck to you.  I enjoy our talk,” she said, her eyes searching my face.

“Thank you.  I really appreciated it and more than anything I—”

“Ssssh,” she hushed me.  “No need to say.  My country suffer so much during war.  I lucky am alive.   Live your life.”

Bowing my head out of respect, I clasped my hands together and she reciprocated.  When I lifted my head, she had already crossed the room, the long back panel of her silk dress swirling behind her.

This was an excerpt from THE SAME SKY.  If you’re like to read more, you can click here.

Happy Mother’s Day!

My mum and me

My mum and me

Whenever I see this photo of my mum and me, I always smile.  We were both laughing about something, perhaps over a funny story.  I have such few photos of just my mum and me – I don’t know why.  Perhaps we are usually so focused on getting everyone else in the photo.

We live so far away – I in New York and she in Vancouver.  I think about my parents a lot, and today on Mother’s Day, I’m missing her.  Two cool things about my mum:  she has such a great knack for storytelling, and perhaps that’s where my sisters and I developed our tendency to over-dramatize a story!  My mum and I also share a favorite pastime:  we both love to eat and TALK about food, any kind as long as it’s delicious.

Mum – Happy Mother’s Day to you!  I hope to soon feast on  good Vancouver dimsum and share some funny stories again with you.

My parents and me

My parents and me