A Labor Day weekend free of writing 

My family went up to a cottage in St. Germain, Wisconsin, and for the first time in months I didn’t do anything writing related for three whole days. Didn’t open my laptop once, even on a rainy day. So refreshing ☺️



Now I’m excited to get back at it.

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So…I’m moving from Singapore back to Wisconsin in less than twenty-four hours

…and this is me:

14-melissa-mccarthy-dancing-gifI feel like this should be a post about all the wonderful things I’ve learned about myself and the world, the new perspectives I have on what it means to be American or a Wisconsinite, or my plans for dealing with reverse culture shock and reintegration into Wisconsin life…or something deep like that.That’s all coming, I’m sure, but as I’m trying to cram my life into suitcases (yes, suitcases, because we’re not shipping anything back), I just don’t have the cognitive energy to reflect on all that yet. Especially with the whirlwind of goodbyes the last few days has been.

It’s been a good run, this year and a half in Singapore. I’ve written and edited a novel, and just gotten an agent for it. I’m well into the first draft for another. I’ve visited: Australia, Cambodia, Indonesia (Bali and Bintan), Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Oh, and Singapore. I may have broken my face a lil bit in Cambodia–just one of many interesting travel stories I now have. I’ve frolicked with elephants. Seen kangaroos, koalas, and kookaburras in the wild. Done extensive field research into vocabulary and spelling differences between American and British English. Made lots of friends from around the world–even converted one English friend into a Packers fan. Got into the Singapore schools a little bit, to teach a creative writing course to local 4th graders and also teach a Saturday enrichment class to local five-year-olds. Spent a year and a half relying solely on public transportation which, thankfully, is pretty great in Singapore. Ended up stopping at at least 47 out of 113 MRT stations (Singapore’s subway). Yes, I was keeping track 😛 Lived being the minority, an Ang Moh, which I think everyone should experience. There’s another post I’ll write some day; it does help you appreciate different aspects of white privilege to be sure. And I could go on and on.

I’ve NOT been as food-venturous as I should have, I’ll admit that. I have this thing about fish. And mayonnaise. And sketchy-looking chicken. And meat on bones. So…that’s my bad. I’ll miss satay and prata and iced Milo (and flat whites, though those are Aussie). I wish I would have explored more of Singapore, as in the Heartlands and parts where expats don’t go. I did a little bit while working in the schools (Pasir Ris and Alljunied areas), but I wish I would have learned more about Singlish and local cultures. I’m sure as I’m plugging back into my old life, there will be many more things I regret as well.

I’m excited to get back to my family and the niece and goddaughter I barely know. I can’t wait to go back to working in the schools and trying to make a difference in the lives of children and families. I’m excited for cheese curds and good, cheap microbrews and snow! Yes, snow! I cannot wait for seasons and cold and being able to run in the middle of the day. And a car. I cannot wait to have a car again. Can I still have one and not pay thousands of dollars a year for it? Not having to make car payments or pay for insurance or gas or repairs has been amazing.

After the dust settles and I’ve wrapped my brain around plugging back into my old life, I’ll write those posts on what being American means to me and Midwest culture and how living abroad changed my entire worldview and self-view. But for now I think I’ll go make some cookies or something 😛 Or maybe I’ll stop by the coffee shop in Chip Bee Gardens that knows my order one last time. It’s a blue orange mocha by the way.

1623390_10100702177044105_1832868065462732496_nSome of my favorite pictures from Singapore:

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To this:

Downtown Sparta 1472931_10100396258013295_1544796563_n 945408_10100396323586885_1528026072_n 1551746_10100402888435875_978291620_n 1509810_10100406851698465_1346135851_n 1509211_10100407359475875_1718564115_n 1476445_10100399083236525_620240967_n 1506736_10100397524984275_644816372_n 1476281_10100397525807625_1962971806_n 1499504_10100402888336075_2082870151_n289056_808394788935_1998542658_o 532166_978935833315_519093868_n314213_10100127013087285_1663191494_n  557168_10100111065895585_2043205287_nphoto 3

Christmas in Singapore

So Singapore’s an interesting place. A city-nation-island. One of the safest cities on Earth. Home to over 200 malls. You can find a Hindu temple right next to a Catholic church. A Buddhist temple right next to a mosque. This year, I decided to travel around a bit and document Christmas in Singapore.

Singapore’s about 18% Christian, but Christmas is still a very big deal. The malls and and Orchard Road, Singapore’s version of Times Square, get decked out. Honestly, Singapore may be more decorated than what I’ve seen in the United States, at least in the Midwest.You can also buy real Christmas trees. Though small, they actually go for a reasonable price. Malls somehow create fake snow and you can go and play in it at certain times of the day. Others have foam snow parties.

So here’s my photographic Christmas journey through Singapore.

Each mall and Changi Airport has it’s own Christmas theme, which can range from typical US mall to Alice in Wonderland and Smurf Christmas.

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Orchard Road goes all-out starting at the end of October. I’m pretty sure you can see it from space. Orchard Road has over 20 malls, most of which are connected by underground tunnels. It’s literally a maze of malls. The first time I went there, it took me 15 minutes just to figure out how to cross the street!

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Gardens by the Bay, home of Singapore’s famous Super Trees, also gets a festive make-over. It was a very teddy Christmas, complete with fake snow.

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There were attempts to “Keep the Christ in Christmas.”

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And a few other random shots of Christmas around Singapore.

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This is actually a mostly “Muslim” hawker centre. Most of the stalls feature halal food and Malay food.

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The airport in Langkawi, Malaysia, which is a predominantly Muslim country.

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Children from the Hmong hill tribes near Sapa, Vietnam

Please refer to this post for back story 😛 Professionally, I am a school psychologist, so I am interested in the lives of children around the world.

So women and girls both try to sell crafts to tourists.

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Hoping tourists will give them candy for the new year.

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Entering into a Hmong village/tourism area, where buses drop people off.

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Hmong boys at the market in Sapa.

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A girl and her friends hoping to sell bracelets to tourists.

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Hmong boys following a group of three girls. It is tradition for boys to kidnap the girls they want to marry. I can’t say if that’s what these boys were up to 😛 That’s just what our guide told us.

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Hmong girls doing laundry while men fish.

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Kids carrying a bag of apples home from Sapa.

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The yellow building on top of the hill is a school. In Vietnam, government buildings are yellow.

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A picture from the front of a school. Ho Chi Minh loves the children.

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Portraits from hill tribes living in the hills near Sapa, Northern Vietnam

I visited Northern Vietnam during Tet, lunar new year, which was in February this year.

P1110026My favorite place was Sapa, a town nestled in the mountains 30 miles from the border with China. We took an overnight train ride from Hanoi to get there, followed by probably an hour bus ride. The area around Sapa is breath-taking.

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Terraced rice fields have been cut into all the hillsides, farmed by the hill tribes in the region, including Hmong and Dao. The Hmong were trained and used as soldiers by the US during the Vietnam War (or the American War as all our Vietnamese tour guides called it). After the Vietnam War, thousands of Hmong refugees came to the United States, to places like Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison WI, LaCrosse WI, and cities in California. There are estimated to be 300,000 Hmong now living in the US.

These tribes were once nomadic, but the Vietnamese government has confined them to plots of land, where they now construct houses. Because of the climate, rice can only be planted and harvested once a year. In Southern Vietnam, they can have three harvests. Indigenous families still living in the hills around Sapa survive by sustenance farming and selling handicrafts to tourists, often a bit too…enthusiastically, let’s say. But it’s for their survival and the survival of their children. Our guide, who comes from the Red Dao tribe and still lives in her hill village, said reproductive education is basically non-existent, so, without knowing how to prevent pregnancy, families can grow too large to support.The Vietnamese government has built schools for the hill tribes and expects children to go, but farming and other more survival-based activities can often take priority over education.

Sadly, the villages we went to almost felt like a zoo maybe? Or a museum? Like it the tribes were on display for tourist reasons. Though it perhaps wasn’t as bad as the Long Neck tribes on display in Thailand–which is a completely different, terrible story.

Here’s an example of what seemed to me to be a typical house from a hill tribe village:

P1110703The terraced rice paddies and tribal villages:

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For this post, I’ve focused on portraits of the women who hike miles in and out of Sapa every day to sell the things they made to tourists. On our hike to their village, we were followed by a group of women who were very nice and would help you (unnecessarily) on rocky parts of the path, ask you questions using the English they’ve picked up from other tourists, and give you little animals or flowers they’ve made from blades of grass. When you get to their village, they become…pushy, let’s say…in trying to get you to buy their crafts for really quite cheap prices (like $1). It can get tricky because if you buy from one, then the others also want you to buy, too, especially if they come from different families. What makes it even harder is that you know it’s about feeding their families and likely an outcome of having their traditional ways of life changed by modern influence and tourism.

Women wearing black outfits are Black Hmong; different Hmong groups have different colors: black, blue, green, white, flower. (I cannot guarantee I have all the colors of the Hmong tribes correct). Woman wearing red scarves on their heads are Red Dao.

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A Black Hmong woman who dyes textiles using indigo. She uses beeswax on the fabric before dying to create patterns on the cloth, then embroiders the fabric. I bought a bag from her. It took her three weeks to make. Cost: $25.

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A young family hiking to Sapa with their baby.

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Our Red Dao guide, who was AMAZING. Such a nice woman and provided insight into the culture of the Hmong and Dao peoples and the history/politics affecting their lives. Also, tourists heading into Cat Cat Village, a Hmong village tourist town.

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It takes years for a family to save enough money to buy a motorbike.

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Our guide showing us the indigo plant, used to dye textiles

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Red Dao and Hmong women hoping to sell their crafts to tourists in Sapa. They hiked miles from their hill villages to get there.

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Hmong women following us from Sapa as we hike with our guide toward some of the hill tribe villages.

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Though I will say things seemed better for these people than what I saw in Cambodia, which will be another series of posts.

If you would like to learn more about the Hmong history and people, here’s a great resource.