I came across this old photo and a flood of memories came back: I was arm-wrestling with a Tibetan monk at a Buddhist monastery just outside of Lhasa. What started off as a joke turned into a serious arm-wrestling match. And when I lost (even after using both arms), I had to down a cup of yak butter tea, which was a strange concoction of bitter tea with a thick film of yak butter on top. Not too tasty. But I was glad to drink it because all the monks I met were so good-natured and generous. I found the Tibetans to have a wonderful sense of humor and a positive attitude, despite the hardships they often face. Moments like these remind me of how the best parts of traveling are not so much the places we see, but the rich and heartfelt experiences we share with the locals.
My book launch of THE SAME SKY last Friday was a big hit! I remembered how nervous I was in the days and then the hours leading up to my event. And as I saw more and more people stream into the Tibet House, I relaxed. I felt warmed by all these people I knew over the years from all facets of my life. And that TODAY was the big day to release my book to everyone. It is finally the end of a long literary journey, and the start of a new beginning for THE SAME SKY, which has been “my baby” as I’ve watched it develop from an idea to a full fledged memoir. To me, the book is grown up now and ready to explore the world!
1. When I came to New York in 2000, I didn’t know a soul. So I was thrilled to see that so many of my friends I’ve made over the years turn up to show their support. Some of them I haven’t seen in years including work colleagues (former and current), writer circles, Canadian expatriates, biking team members, hair dresser, strength trainers, and neighbors. Many came as far as Washington DC, Vancouver, North Carolina and Prince Edward Island. Wow! Their beautiful smiles in the audience reminded me of how all of us touch people in their lives, and they in return have a soft spot in our hearts. Heartfelt exchanges I had with the locals during my trip are just as special as the friendships I have made here in NYC and I’ll never forget them.
2. What an interactive event! I wanted to ensure it was a creative evening with lots of readings, including Q&A which my best friend Jenny helped host. Well done! I read several excerpts from THE SAME SKY and then I invited other readers to share their stories from traveling to Saudi Arabia and Mali.
3. Since the event, a few have reached out to me to share that they feel inspired to travel to Southeast Asia. Wonderful! One woman described how she recently suffered a breakup and would like to read THE SAME SKY as a way to reflect on her situation and rediscover herself again. Good for her.
Interesting facts and figures:
-110: actual number of attendees! (we planned for 70!)
-60: number of gyozas or dumplings I made
-33: books sold!
-12: bottles of wine that were gone at the start of the event
-10: years to write the book and another 3 to publish it
-4: readers who shared a portal of their lives
-3: Buddhism books I gave away during the raffle
-2: references to my mother (in THE SAME SKY reading and also Mom Wong)
-1: awesome and successful book launch!
What’s next? Stay tuned for more readings in NYC and elsewhere, even a debut of Mom Wong, a monologue that describes the hilarious yet poignant perspectives of immigrating to Canada.
If you missed it, here’s the book launch on YouTube: THE SAME SKY BOOK LAUNCH VIDEO
Thanks again for all your support over the years!
A few days ago, my husband Eduardo gave me a “travel” notebook with names of cities printed all over the cover. I instantly loved it. He said, “Welcome back.” What do you mean? I’m here. I’m not traveling. He smiled and said, “A long time ago, you went to Tibet, Laos and Cambodia. And now, you’ve written a book about it. This whole journey has taken you a long time. More than a decade. Welcome back. And congratulations on your memoir. You did it!”
My literary journey of planning, writing and ultimately publishing my travel memoir THE SAME SKY has come full circle. I have arrived! This Friday February 28th is my official book launch event with 70+ people expected to come to celebrate its release. I’m so thrilled!
The story began in 1999 when I was a Canadian expatriate in Beijing. Following a breakup and traumatic event, I packed my bag, camera and journal and went on a solo journey through Southeast Asia. I was truly at the lowest point of my life. However, heartfelt exchanges with locals inspired me to rediscover my strength and the peace I was looking for. And most importantly, I found a courage in me that I never knew I had on my own. I was a survivor and I didn’t want to wallow in my sorrow and waste away.
I had to tell this story. I wanted to inspire women to believe that after a breakup, you can discover a strength tenfold in yourself and that you can overcome any calamities of the heart. Traveling is also a wonderful way to explore and heal once again.
Thus, in 2001, after settling in New York, I started writing my travel memoir – at first on cocktail napkins, then on post-it notes as thoughts came to my mind. I purchased a used IBM Thinkpad and carried it everywhere and frequented every Starbucks in my neighborhood. While consuming a ton of lattes, I wrote my story in fragments, in themes, and then in chapters. I joined a writing group and they became my dearest friends as we swapped chapters and encouraged each other on with feedback and honesty. I booked trips to Greenwich, CT where I holed myself up in hotels for days to think and write. The walls of my apartment were decorated with flip chart paper scribbled with story arcs and character development. I kept writing.
Then I put my story away in a drawer for two years. I faced an impasse. I had reached the part in my literary journey where I had to really open up and share about the breakup and betrayal that had devastated me. The lingering pain was still present. I wasn’t ready to release it to the world.
In 2010, on my birthday, I crashed my bicycle into an SUV. I flew over it and landed on the ground. Hard. After a frightful trip to the hospital, luckily I suffered no broken bones but I was pretty shaken up. I survived that accident but it was a wake up call. Life is short! Get my memoir out there!! I locked myself in my apartment with my manuscript and finished the last several chapters, the most painful part of my story. Three years later, after several rounds with an editor, and a crash course in social media, I finally released it.
I’m proud that THIS FRIDAY February 28th is my official book launch at the Tibet House, a beautiful art gallery and community center that promotes Tibetan culture. I couldn’t have found a better place since so much of my memoir takes place in Tibet. As the first stop on my journey so many years ago, Tibet reminds me of the vulnerability of solo travel, and how I ventured out on my own.
I’m here now…returning home after a long literary journey. But I won’t stay long – I’m ready for the next adventure.
Booths lined the perimeter of Barkhor Square. At such an early hour of the day, Tibetans were setting up their wares, stacking items in a haphazard way as early-bird shoppers perused the merchandise. One booth sold everything metal: pots, pans and utensils in every imaginable shape and size, stacked one on top of the other on the ground, spilling out the sides and front. Another sold everything plastic: buckets, containers and plates. Other booths sold meat, vegetables and grains like barley, a Tibetan staple. At one stand, a vendor called out prices while locals picked up pieces of imported fruit, smelled them and placed them back carefully.
I wanted to buy everything, even the things I had no imaginable needs for—a metal carrier for a live chicken, a barley sifter, a three-foot prayer wheel, a yak leather belt—anything for such cheap prices. Instead, I bought a set of prayer flags for ten cents, twenty of them strung together, rolled carefully and wrapped in the daily Chinese Communist paper. The flags would remain in my backpack until I reached the highlight of our Tibetan journey—the Mount Everest Base Camp. There, at the highest destination at 5400 meters above sea level, we would string the prayer flags with the rest of the flags from other visitors, travelers and pilgrims.
I couldn’t bargain too hard when I knew the Tibetans relied heavily on purchases by foreigners, and competition was fierce with so many stalls selling similar items. The owner’s wife was squatting behind the booth, delicately gluing tiny pieces of coral and turquoise beads onto metal jewelry boxes while her toddler played with a mini set of prayer flags, fanning them out like paper cutouts.
When I turned around again, a beggar woman with a small child in tow pressed up against me, her dirty palms gently prodding my arms. She was possibly the same age as me, perhaps younger but it was difficult to tell from the permanent creases on her forehead and her tired eyes. When she opened her mouth to plea for money, I noticed her gums were black and most of her teeth were gone. She was poor. And not poor like back home in Vancouver. Even the beggars I had encountered in Beijing were never this disheveled. This Tibetan beggar’s clothes were so shabby and covered with large holes that at first I thought she had mistakenly missed the armholes when she put on her shirt.
I felt embarrassed and ashamed for the exotic ideas about Tibet that had held for so many years. All I had seen so far was suffering, squalor and oppression. It was almost too much; poverty crowded my vision wherever I turned my head. With my clean clothes, wad of cash in my money belt—more than any of them would see in a lifetime—and a passport that could take me to practically any country in the world, I was always going to have more, always going to be ahead. My fingers would never be caked in mud, with lines of dirt making their permanent place under my nails. And I didn’t know if I should feel pity, relief or guilt.
I had grown up in a middle class neighborhood in east Vancouver, a popular hub for newly landed Asians because of its affordable housing. I always had enough growing up, but our family couldn’t afford too many luxuries, like annual vacations or new clothes. While my elementary school classmates showed off bright crisp clothes in September, the price tags clipped the night before, I wore hand-me-downs. While the other kids took piano lessons, I taught myself a few bars on my fake piano: a wooden desk etched with keys. At dinner, my mother would urge my sisters and me to eat the vegetables that lingered in our bowls: Be proud of what you have. Some people don’t get enough to eat.
Now I was in a country where the class divisions were poor and poorer. These were the people that my parents had used as a bargaining tool to get us to eat our horrid spinach.
I slipped a few yuan in the beggar’s hand. She nodded and carefully folded the bills, which disappeared in the tattered folds of her clothes. Then she was gone. And I was left with guilt that I couldn’t do more for her.
My curiosity about Tibet went way back. As a kid, I was an avid stamp collector, and I remember scouring the globe for this obscure place, Tibet, that didn’t have its own stamps. Every other country had its own.
“Because they’re part of China,” my dad shrugged and went back to mowing the lawn, the air thick with the smell of grass and new spring. As I pulled out weeds with my small fists, I was determined to get to the bottom of it. How strange. Even odder that their leader, the Dalai Lama, with his big thick dark glasses and his kind warming face that reminded me of hot soup on a rainy day, wouldn’t go back to Tibet. He seemed to travel a lot but just never went home.
I learned years later that the Dalai Lama’s life had been threatened, and he had fled his homeland to escape the Chinese occupation. I couldn’t imagine another country invading Canada and our Prime Minister having to escape or be killed.
Then I hit my teenage years and forgot about faraway countries that had no stamps and a homeless leader, and I concentrated on school, boys and why my body was changing so much. It wasn’t until after my university days that a BBC documentary about Tibet awakened my desire to travel there again. As my eyes followed the procession of Tibetan monks trailing the prayer wheels circuit, I thought: I have to go there one day. Everything seemed so peaceful. The way the colorful prayer flags decorated the exterior of temples and mountain passes, like ribbons on presents. The way the saffron robes graced the creaking floors of wooden temples, while the low, soothing sounds of Tibetan trumpets echoed in hallways.
This isolated place, tucked away in the Himalayan Mountains, where McDonalds and Coca Cola hadn’t penetrated, fascinated me. There would be no Starbucks on every corner, no ads constantly flashing in my face, or at least I didn’t think so. I wanted to experience that seclusion, to let my fingers run down the walls of temples where only my footsteps could be heard padding up and down the stairs.
My curiosity for Tibet never left me, but it would be many years before I would travel near that region. Not only was it difficult to get there, but Tibet had been closed to tourists for many years. Instead, shortly after university, I traveled to other places in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. But now that I was at Tibet’s doorstep, it was time.
And then there was the lure of Mount Everest, its first base camp by the border between Tibet and Nepal. Imagine standing at the foot of the highest mountain on earth! Throughout high school, I had read fascinating stories of those who succeeded and many who perished climbing to the formidable peak, the ground littered over the years with their frozen corpses.
I could go anywhere after that. Thailand, with its beautiful beaches. Burma, with its hundreds of abandoned Buddhist temples dotting the landscape. Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temples.
I wanted to cruise down an unknown street and try a different concoction of food every day, to get lost in a crowd, to be nameless, to relish the transience of meeting others who didn’t care about knowing my past or belonging to my future. I wanted the here and now, the freedom to be engaged in the moment.