Surf school, Portugal

Day 1: Funny how time works. Just the other day, I was sitting in the “Bitte Ruhe” room at the University of Zurich, proof-reading my thesis one final time in air-conditioned climate control. Now, I’m here – surf school in Baleal, Portugal. Ocean wind, the smell of seaweed and the sound of crashing waves. We’re gathered in a circle and our instructor P is drawing diagrams in the sand. We enter the water here, go behind P, surf to here, and get out here. We take a circle route so we don’t get in anyone’s way. Surf etiquette is key. (No one wants to share the ocean with a kook).

P1150051I have that familiar feeling of anxiousness and excitement, my stomach churning relentlessly. I haven’t set foot in the ocean in what, 15 years? We warm up, jumping into the Atlantic. We splash water on our faces and necks. We dive into oncoming froth. The shock of the cold doesn’t last long. We pay attention to the intervals between waves. We drift with the currents back to shore. We introduce ourselves to the ocean.

Back on the sand, our instructors teach us the basics of surfing. Hands beside your chest, tucked in like chicken wings. Pop-ups, positioning and balance. Reading the ocean currents. We practice on big mounds of sand to learn how the board tips when we shift our weight.

It’s go time and we carry the board out. We move towards P. One by one, he tells us to turn the board so the tail faces the oncoming wave (easier said than done), get on said surfboard (again, easier said than done), then he pushes us forward with the white wave, yelling “Paddle! Paddle! … Up! Up! Up!” We float towards shore – popping up – successfully or not. We look like little dolls, black wetsuits against the blue horizon, standing up then falling down, again and again and again. This is Day 1.

P1150029Day 2: Our instructors do not have a single ounce of body fat. They’re tanned and ripped, their long golden hair blowing freely in the Atlantic ocean wind. The top of their wetsuit hangs freely off their body as they teach, but they tug it on last minute before getting in the water. Tuggity-tug-tug, and its on. What the f***? How did they do that? This morning I spent a full 10 minutes painstakingly tugging on one leg. Later, when both legs were finally on, I noticed the crotch and knees were in horribly wrong positions. Putting on that damn wetsuit is my first challenge of the day.

Day 3: My pop-ups are better today. I can stay on for a few seconds. I can also control the board a bit easier, the movements becoming more intuitive. But only in the morning. By the afternoon, it all goes to hell. My legs and arms turn sluggish. They drag and stick on the board when I pop up, taking away precious milliseconds from my time actually surfing. The ankle leash trips me often, as I swing my foot to the front of the board. The waves are rough now and my muscles are exhausted. It takes energy to even stand still in the water, without every wave forcing me back a few steps towards shore. I sit out the rest of the afternoon lesson.  Everything about surfing is hard.


Day 4: Best day ever. I’m fresh and recovered. For a few magnificent moments, I manage to catch a few baby waves of my own. As I paddle out, salt water stinging my eyes, I grin and think to myself, “hey, this is fun”.

Day 5: Last day of surf lessons. Instead of walking out to meet the waves, the instructors tell us to paddle out. This uses more energy. Instead of surfing the white foamy waves (which are easier because they’ve already broken and are horizontal), we go deeper to the green waves (which are more vertical). Immediately, the green waves reveal that my position is off. I fall, over and over. It’s amazing how much of this sport involves falling. And amazing how so little of it involves actually balancing on the board. For me, at least.

Surf school is over. I’ve always wanted to try surfing and now I have. I’m in awe at how intricate and demanding this sport is – to balance and turn on moving water, to understand the different waves, swells and currents in this majestic and mysterious ocean. I go back to the hostel and watch a few videos of professional surfers competing in the Super Turbos beach in Peniche, just one town away.  This sport is nuts.

As I leave Baleal, Portugal – I have but one thought – surfers of the world – I bow down to you. You have my deepest and utmost respect.  Surf’s up, dudes!





Seasons of life

My grandfather passed away at the age of 96. Five months have passed and I think of him often. Little things remind me of him and my eyes water and my heart aches a bit. It is the end of an era.

As author Joan Didion once wrote, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down”. So here I am, writing down the story of my grandfather – who he was to me, what I learned from him, and all the immeasurable ways he has influenced my life.


My story begins in 1990 – the year we moved from Beijing, China to Edmonton, Canada. I am six years old. On the plane flying over the Pacific, my mom teaches me simple English phrases on cue cards with little cartoon drawings. I learn ‘where is the bathroom?’ and sport vocabulary like ‘shuttlecock’. I’m hot under my thick sweater and long-johns but keep them on, because Canada will be “very, very cold” (or so my mom says). I sense something exciting is happening, but am unsure what. I vaguely remember saying goodbye to my family in China, but mostly I dream about all the fluffy dogs I’ll get to pet in Canada (a promise my aunt made me before we left Beijing). Hours later, my dad greets us at the airport. After one year apart, our little family is reunited again.

And so, our new life begins. Like all immigrant families, my parents work hard to put food on the table. As my dad pursues graduate studies, my parents work multiple labour jobs – cleaning hotel rooms, washing dishes, waiting tables – making minimum wage. My parents gave up the comforts of their prestigious careers in Beijing, daring to venture to a new country where they did not speak the language and did not understand the culture.

While my parents experience daily struggles and hardships, I – enveloped in the warm bubble of their protection and love – enjoy carefree summers running wild in parks and memorable winters building snow forts. I attend birthday parties and come home with “doggy-bags”. I eat spaghetti and cheddar cheese, peanut butter on celery sticks – exotic foods I’d never seen in China. Within the timespan of a single summer, I pick up English, effortlessly, while playing with fellow classmates.


Playing piano, photo taken by my dad. 2004.

Three years later, I am nine years old. One night, my parents come into my room and ask if I want to take piano lessons. They urge me to consider carefully – that if I say “yes”, I would have to commit fully. I close my eyes and ponder – not knowing what “committing fully” means. I nod an enthusiastic “Yes!!!”. Soon after, I perform on a beautiful hardwood stage, playing a “Canon in D” duet, alongside Teacher Zhang who inspires and challenges me. I delight in the feel of those keys and lose myself in a wonderful world of melodies and rhythms. Piano becomes a part of my soul.

Around that time, I also start drawing lessons. I first learn traditional Chinese painting from an older gentleman – how to hold brushes and mix black ink. We paint Rocky Mountain landscapes from photos. I learn to dry my brush and split it, so that it will look like pine trees when pressed on paper. Later, I study with Teacher Yuan, a professional artist who teaches me the foundations and techniques of sketching.  Every lesson, he pours me a big glass of delicious pulpy orange juice, while he sets up the fruit/egg/vegetable scene we would draw that day. Eggs are the toughest. They’re round and smooth and difficult to get the shading just right. (To this day, I get a bit nervous when someone sets a single white egg in front of me).


Lotus flowers at the Summer Palace. 1998.

For a long time, I never realized what a privileged childhood I led. I was safe, happy, and loved. I had hobbies that fed my soul (hobbies that I turn to – to this day – for relaxing, re-energizing, to slow down from life’s hectic pace). Later, in my twenties, my parents told me that in their darkest times during those early years in Canada – it was my grandfather who said that a child’s potential should not be wasted. That no matter how difficult their financial circumstances, they must invest in and develop my talents now, because later, it would be too late. And so my grandparents supported my parents – emotionally, financially (if/when my parents accepted it), and in all the other intangible ways parents love their children and their children’s children.

pencil.JPGI am now 33 years old. I think about my grandfather and all the ways he has shaped who I have become. The little details of his presence.

The bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils on his desk. The way he would cut out newspaper articles, paste them and annotate them in his notebooks. He was always reading, thinking, learning. His accomplishments at work, he never boasted about or even mentioned at home. As a young adult visiting Beijing, I’d accompany him to events, sitting beside him in marvel as a never-ending stream of people (10-30 years his junior) approached him with a warm handshake and a “thank you for all the ways you changed my life”.

His white hair and long bushy eyebrows. Swimming with him at 北戴河, waking up at dawn to catch little crabs at the seashore. Lotus flowers and lazy dragonflies at 頤和園 (Summer Palace). His little gimped pinky that he sprained while playing basketball at 18, but never healed. How he knows the names of all the trees and flowers on our walks. How he always walked a few steps faster than my grandmother, but held her hand when going down stairs. The way he frantically brought me to the hospital the day I fell on my chin at four years old, blood dripping down my face and wailing for my mom. How he loves children, but didn’t get to spend much time with his own during his working years.


I’ve never heard him raise his voice.

It is a fact of life that seasons come and go. This season ends and another begins. I’m grateful for all the moments I got to spend with him.

I’ll leave you with one final story about my grandfather: For as long as his shaking hands would allow, my grandfather wrote in his journal every single day. I once asked him “What if nothing much happened that day?” To which he shrugged, lifting his open hands in that matter-of-fact, playful way of his, and said: “Well – then I write ‘nothing much happened today’.”


Impressions of Busan, Part 2 – Gamcheon Culture Village

April 23, 2016, late afternoon. I’m sitting on a rooftop cafe savouring a bowl of red bean soup. It’s thick, sweet and more filling than I expected. The sun is setting and the wind is getting a bit cold. I’m writing about the day as I overlook pastel-coloured buildings of Gamcheon Culture Village, fishing ports and ocean. p1070322p1070336To the west, a rooster is crowing. To my left, a man in sweatpants hangs up laundry on his rooftop. His silhouette moves slowly, occasionally blocking my view of the cheerful colours in this artistic village, painted by art students in 2009. A couple stray cats meow and wander through the streets, underneath a complicated maze of drooping power lines.

Most people here are tourists, Korean or east Asian, with very few Caucasians. Most look like they’re here for a day trip, like me. We sat on the same crowded tiny bus, winding up and around narrow roads to get up the hill. Together, we pass shops selling fruit, vegetables, and run-down restaurants. We get off and land in the tourist section of this village – lively and charming with cafes, music, food stalls, modest restaurants and paintings on almost every imaginable surface. I buy a stack of beautiful postcards, by an independent artist who depicts scenes around Busan.  His wife asks where I’m from and wraps my purchase in a plastic bag with little yellow hearts.

p1070146p1070155p1070173At some point, I wander away from the crowd. Down the stairs. Past mops and brooms. Plants in the alleyway, leaking pipes, the faint smell of sewage. Past an old lady who is quietly folding up laundry. Despite the intrusion on her privacy, she hands me a pack of newly packaged tissues, with a small nod – a gift, for me.  She didn’t smile but I feel a sincerity in her actions.

The people here live simply. They do not have the luxury of the life and opportunities that I’ve had.

At some point, I leave the village. I walk a different way up the hill, back to the bus stop. I buy fresh strawberries from a middle-aged woman who patiently waits for me, as I clumsily sort out my change. Behind her are three women – laughing, talking, peeling onions, cutting garlic, preparing for the week. Further up on the hill, is a gate enclosing a big building with green manicured lawns and white statues. I look in and wonder who lives there.

It’s almost dark now.

On the bus ride down, I think about the gift of being able to travel. To see, to hear, to feel, to experience, what others – different than me, yet the same as me – see, hear, feel and experience. As writer Gustave Flaubert once said – “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world“.




Good Helen, Bad Helen, and the Evolving Self

I sometimes feel like there are two versions of myself. Good Helen and Bad Helen. Good Helen is kind to others, appreciates beauty in the everyday, is immensely curious, hopeful, self-disciplined and likes to ponder the state of the world and how she can contribute to make it better. Bad Helen, on the other hand – is unmotivated, pessimistic, could give a crap about other people (especially those she doesn’t know), selfish and sometimes behaves like a cantankerous old man. When I wake up, I’m not sure which version of myself I’ll get that day, though I’m pretty aware these two voices are always hanging around somewhere. And depending on which voice I listen to, I make certain decisions and take certain actions, some of which benefit Future Helen, and some of which don’t.

Today is a hopeful kind of day. A ‘Good Helen’ day.  I’m pondering about the state of humanity, and how I can best use my strengths, skills, passions to contribute to this world. Specifically, I’m pondering – what do I want to do after my PhD? When Good Helen is around, I want to use her focus and self-discipline towards a goal that is meaningful, not only to her but for humanity. (Idealistic, I know). Of course, given such meaningful goals, Bad Helen is bound to turn up too sometimes. When that happens, I’ll invite her to the party but I’ll probably make her sit in a corner and twiddle her thumbs. Yeah, she can hang out, but no, she can’t touch the music or talk to any important people.

P1050970.JPGIn Kelly McGonigal‘s talk “The Willpower Instinct“, she relays that neuroscientists have long said, “though we only have one brain, we actually have two minds. We are completely different people depending on which mind if active or which systems of the brain are active”. Thus, the ‘ideal you’ competes with the ‘less-than-ideal you’. McGonigal presents some fascinating research on how simple factors such as how much sleep you get, what food you eat, your goals and expectations, or how critical versus compassionate you are to yourself, can significantly impact which version of ‘you’ shows up that day.

p1050175The same ideas are discussed in “The Evolving Self” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock. Csikszentmihalyi states that human beings evolved from “earlier mammalian roles” such as “a tiny shrew who kept stealing dinosaur eggs ~250 million years ago”, to the homo sapiens today who “started walking the African plains about four million years ago. […] We now know that “94% of our genetic material overlaps with the chimpanzees”, where we have evolved to have “a thin overlay of tissue stretched over a solid reptilian brain”.  While our reptilian brain controls our body’s vital functions (heart rate, breathing, body temperature) along with the limbic brain (emotions, value judgements), what about that “thin overlay of tissue”? According to Rock, that’s our thinking brain – responsible for our “conscious interactions with the world”.  This part (called the “prefrontal cortex”) was the last major brain region to develop during human evolutionary history, occupying a mere 4-5% of the volume of the rest of the brain. Yet, it is the prefrontal cortex that takes on the role of “self-reflective consciousness”, an achievement unique to our species (Csikszentmihalyi).

As Csikszentmihalyi writes, humans are “thinking beings“, who in our consciousness, can “reflect the immensity of the universe“.

So there you have it. [Good You vs. Bad You] == [Ideal You vs. Less-than-ideal-You] == [Instinctual reptilian brain vs. Evolved prefrontal cortex]. So the question is, what will we do with this information? As Csikszentmihalyi states, “at this point in our history, it should be possible for an individual to build a self that is not simply the outcome of biological drives and cultural habits, but a conscious, personal creation. [That self] will enjoy life in all its forms, and gradually become aware of its kinship with the rest of humanity, and with life as a whole.” 

On the other hand, as Csikszentmihalyi later states, “Birds and lemmings cannot do much damage expect to themselves, whereas we can destroy the entire matrix of life on the planet. […] We still have an awfully long way to go before we can overcome what is innate in our behaviour”. As the human presence becomes ever more central in the natural world, “we realize that being at the cutting edge of evolution on this planet means we can either direct our life energy toward achieving growth and harmony, or waste the potentials we have inherited, adding to the sway of chaos and destruction” (Csikszentmihalyi). He poignantly asks, “Will our race go out, either with a bang or a whimper, because we can’t figure out what life is all about?”

I don’t know. I have no idea where humankind will be in 50, 100, 200, 500 years. Will we evolve to be more conscious beings, reaching out beyond our tiny circle of empathy to a larger global scale? As the Germans say, “Ich drücke die Daumen” – I press my thumbs for us!

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 1994. The Evolving Self: Psychology for the Third Millennium

Kelly McGonigal. Google Talks, “The Willpower Instinct“. 

David Rock. 2009. Your Brain At Work.

Aikido Nara

Week 2 in Nara, Japan. January. Wednesday night, 6:40pm: My stomach is rumbling. I’m a bit nervous. I’m wearing two layers of pants, and my big winter parka. Its 10°C but I’ve never felt as cold as I do here, even compared to the depths of Canadian winter. I dawdle a bit, delaying the short ten-minute trek from my dorm to my next new adventure.

As I walk in, a little boy in a white gi and blue belt scurries up the stairs. I take off my boots, lining them up neatly beside everyone else’s. I can hear the thumping of feet upstairs. As I enter the dojo, the Senseis look at me curiously. Bowing slightly, I introduce myself and ask if I may try out the class. In my hand, I fidget with a scrunched up piece of paper with handwritten Kanji – questions like “May I join your class today? How much is it?” Sensei realizes I’m not (actually) Japanese and motions to someone. A woman with long black hair wearing a Hakama runs towards me. Her name is Y…san and she translates for me in simple English. She has big eyes and speaks in a gentle, quiet way. I smile at her and ask her questions. She covers her mouth as she giggles. I like her already.

aikidoBefore I know it, I’m practicing Shikko (the Samurai walk, a.k.a. knee walk) with a man named Y……san. His eyes are curious and bright, his whole demeanour brimming with positive energy and enthusiasm. He wears a white belt but is an incredibly good teacher, demonstrating each step carefully, showing me little details of what, why and how, at exactly the time I’m ready for them. A while later, I find myself practicing Ikkyo and Shomenuchi with a mother and her bubbly teenage daughter. Despite my “absolute beginners” Japanese, they’re playful and goofy and it cracks me up. Sensei comes around once in a while, gently correcting my hips, my feet, my hands.


Sunset in Nara, Japan.

Before I know it, my first aikido class is over. Two hours, gone in a flash.

By the time I leave Japan, this small intimate dojo, the people I met, and the memories I had are some of the highlights of my 3-month stay. The dojo heating up with warm bodies, winter air drifting in through open windows. Sitting in Seiza, watching the beautiful twirls of Hakamas as the black belts demo exercises for partner-work. The circular fluidity of the movements, harmoniously and meticulously executed. The meditative concentration of people here. The kids class before ours – energy, laughter, acrobatic flips, cute little faces and flushed cheeks, yelling “onegaishimasu!” and “arigato gozaimashita!” in out-of-breath unison. Finally, my small detour home, walking my new friends through the narrow streets of Naramachi. Moonlight and new experiences.

I’m lucky to have this life.

Impressions of Busan – Part 1

Korean drama playing on the TV. An old man watching beside me, seven little empty plates and metal chopsticks on his table. She comes over and I point to the first item on the menu, characters I can’t read. Soon, this charming little hole-in-the-wall restaurant run by my new favourite two ladies becomes a nightly routine for me. Every evening, after stumbling about in a daze in this loud, booming, energetic city, I come back to this place of solace, just a few steps away from my hotel. And every night, after picking a random item on the menu, she brings me a big jug of water, a little paper cup, and seven little plates of delicious random goodies. The first night, I got a spicy fish soup, with side dishes of kimchi cabbage, seaweed, potato salad, and some intriguing green vegetable. The second night, a scrumptious bowl of rice with cucumber slices and fried egg. I eat slowly, savouring every mouthful, while writing in my journal between bites.

P1070114P1060810My hotel is tucked away on a tiny street near Yeonsan station, run by three brothers (or friends), each with matching haircuts and plain black sweatshirts. The wallpaper in my room has cows, cows and more cows. At reception and in the hallways, is Harry Potter music, always the same suspenseful segment. (I guess they just really love Harry Potter).

The city is well-connected. On Tuesday morning, I take the subway to Jagalchi Fish Market, sitting next to men and women retirees, who wear colourful hiking clothes and talk gaily. Young people on their smartphones, texting and gaming. I get off the subway and wander through rows and rows of red and yellow umbrellas. Live octopus, eel, crab, and mussels, and the occasional stray cat. Puddles on the ground. Fishing boats and fishermen, back from a long haul, sleeping on the ground. The smell of the ocean.P1060718P1060743P1060750

I eat lunch at a food stall in BIFF square – gimbap, green onion pancakes, fried dumplings with glass noodles and a hot broth of some kind. The woman is friendly and motions me to move out of the sun.

Later, I find myself at Dongbaekseom Island. High rises overlooking the ocean. Rough waves and crashing ocean, rising, falling. All-you-can-eat seafood buffets. Tour buses and school outings, screaming kids running past me on the island hiking trail. Meagre greenery and forest, eaten up by the Westin Hotel and Trump Towers. I’m dizzy and overwhelmed in this big city of tall buildings and flashing neon signs.

I’m in a cafe now. Smooth jazz on the speakers. Ella Fitzgerald and my soymilk latte. Spacious couches. Big gulps of time to sit and be quiet. Ah. The best part of the day.


Introducing Nara artist, Satoshi Tatsumi

Tatsumi5February 11 was National Foundation Day in Japan. I had the day off work and wandered around the small streets of Nara again. It was one of those slow, carefree days where I walked around with gratitude and no expectations of the world. The sun was shining and everyone was out. Doesn’t get much better than this. An old man feeding pigeons at Saruwaka-Ike pond. Children running, playing, laughing. Tourists with big cameras and curious eyes. A shop selling fabric and multicoloured textiles, displayed on tables made of polished wood. Sun shining through the windows and light harp music playing the background (seriously, harp). Pagodas, temples and deer in their winter coats.

Eventually, I stumbled into a small shop in Naramachi with three sections. The first outer section was holding a private glass blowing workshop for two women. The second section sold art and other random goodies. The third section was a little jewelry shop.  All in one small space, but one of the most efficient uses of spaces I’ve seen.

Tatsumi3Tatsumi6I found myself mesmerized in the second section.  I must have spent almost an hour, marvelling at the gorgeous sketches and paintings displayed on the walls and printed postcards. I ended up buying a dozen postcards of these prints, secretly wanting to buy the whole store if I could.  In my non-existent Japanese, I tried to express to the woman at the cash register how beautiful this art was, how moved and how deeply it touched me.  The intimate corners of Nara so skillfully and exquisitely portrayed by black ink, diverse shades and bold brushstrokes. The surprising yet delightful colour combinations of the Buddhas and Deities – each with their own personality, emotion and meaning. I felt like part of my soul was ignited by this exploration of creativity and spirituality.  While we talked, a man walked in. At first, I thought he was another customer but she introduced him as her husband – Satoshi Tatsumi – the artist. Despite the language barrier, I slowly learned that Satoshi Tatsumi is from Nara, and has exhibited his artwork in San Francisco in 2009. Now, every year, he showcases his work in their shop in Naramachi.

Eventually, we said goodbye and I promised to visit again. I went home, remembering the magic of that day, posting postcards of Tatsumi’s artwork on almost corner and wall of my little dorm. The photos you see here are the postcards I bought. With permission from Tatsumi, they are shown here.

Pablo Picasso once said, Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life“.  Yes – I’d say that pretty much sums it up!



Satoshi Tatsumi’s artwork. My favourite is the bottom row, middle. It’s like he’s saying “Who, me??”