Skinwalker’s Thailand Story-Travel-Time-Guide!

After spending the majority of 2012 living in and traveling around a few different parts of Asia (China, Thailand, and Japan), I moved to Seattle in the late fall. It’s been a lot of fun living here, but I’ve been feeling the desire to be back in Asia growing rapidly. So a dear friend of mine and I just purchased one-way tickets to Thailand for early April, just in time for Songkran (a colossal, country-wide, three-day water-fight/festival)! While visiting a travel forum about Thailand, I began writing a response to a question about finding cheap flights to Thailand and general pointers for a first-time visitor. My response began to fill the little response box, so I opened a text editor and began to expound upon the tips and pointers I was typing up. I then thought about how I’d love to share some more of my Thailand travel stories with my travel partner for this upcoming trip (this will be her first time visiting Thailand). And I suddenly felt inspired to write a sort of Thailand travel tips article and use it as a medium for telling some of my personal stories. As I began writing, I found myself wanting to elaborate more on each topic and story, so I thought it would be fun to spread the article out and write a short series of mini-articles rather than one longer, more general article. So that’s what I’m going to do! I’ll cover a particular practical topic in each article, such as haggling with merchants, the dark art of flight searching, or getting around within cities. It should be noted, however, that these are all my personal stories, observations, and experiences. Additionally, my time in Thailand was largely spent in Pai, Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Koh Samet, so that’s where most of my stories and experiences will be coming from. Regardless, this should be a fun process for me, and I’ll hopefully come up with something that people will want to read! Keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming first mini-article in Skinwalker’s Thailand Story-Travel-Time-Guide!
Looking toward the mainland from the dock on Koh Chang island.

Looking toward the mainland from the dock on Koh Chang island.

Create Every Day 2013!

It's January 1st, 2013, and the culturally expected thing to do is to make some sort of resolution for the new year. I'm not one for drastic diet alterations or promises of major personality changes (I believe behavioral changes are difficult to sustain if they're not easily measurable and tangible). However, I have decided to use the new year as a concrete starting point to try something that will help me grow creatively and overcome the fears that prevent me from progressing as far as I know I'm capable of. I love to create and I consider myself a creative person, but I've come to the realization that I'm afraid of sharing my thoughts or ideas until they're in some final, polished form. Since I generally feel inspired to start new ideas and projects before completing previous ones, I never end up sharing anything. Hence the reason I've been a "musician" for over a decade, but have only a handful of songs posted anywhere - most of them consisting of work I did with mötæ and Summerstone (where others relied on me to actually finish things). I want others to hear my ideas, and I want to continue improving as an artist, so I've come up with an idea to help me achieve these goals: Each day for the entire year of 2013, I'll be posting one new creative idea, and I'm fittingly calling this personal project Create Every Day (CED). My aim is for most of these posts to be musical ideas since that's the creative area in which I want to improve the most. I've already accepted that many posts will be extremely raw - some may be nothing more than me singing a melody into a voice recording app on my phone and posting it, or a few lines of lyrics that I felt inspired to write. And that's exactly what I want - raw ideas posted just as they are. I also want this project to grow organically, so I'm not going to put any restrictions or limitations on it. By the end of the year it may have morphed into something entirely different, but as long as I'm posting personal creations each day, I will have achieved my goal. Keep your eyes and ears open, and please check back here every once in a while under the Create Every Day link to see what audio experiments I've been up to. Also, feel free to comment, criticize, or give kudos for anything I post. I know not all my ideas are going to be awesome, and that's part of the process of growing. Here's to a creative 2013!!! Create-Every-Day-Logo   Here's the most recent complete song I've written through my Create Every Day project. I began this song as just a single guitar riff for one of my Create Every day posts, and after some experimentation I decided to create a full song form it in a style that reminds me of music from my favorite types of modern video games. I was particularly inspired by the Bastion soundtrack (composed by Darren Korb), and I'm really happy with the way it sounds. I decided to name it "The Adventure Begins!" as I think of it as a song that would be played as the overworld theme when your character begins their journey into the heart of the gameplay.   To see my most recent posts, check out my Create Every Day page.  
Create Every Day 2013! Jan01

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Outside the Castle Walls

The lute player played late into the night, and the peasants danced and drank until they were filled with merriment. They knew their master would follow through this time and that everything would be better now. They had hope, and this hope filled their hearts with joy. As the sun arose the next morning, I peered into the castle from afar. But to the surprise of the people within the walls, nothing had changed. Everything was just as it always had been. An eerie familiarity crept over the people as their elation slowly faded into the morning mist and memories of promises broken. Even the minority who had wished for a new master were shocked, for they had drifted off to an anxious sleep expecting chaos and death to take them in the night. Yet they, too, awoke to find that the stone walls were still standing, just as they had stood throughout the reign of countless masters prior. The only considerable damage that had occurred was in the spirits and relationships of their fellow peasants. Good intentions, swept up in masterful theatrics, had been transformed into vicious support for one of two nearly identical brands of continued servanthood. Passion and fervor blinded rationality and threatened friendships with the flick of a strawman or a tu quoquo. And now that the selecting was over, the peasants fell quickly back into the routine of their busy lives, never to think of the atrocities that had been, and would continue to be committed in the name of a lesser evil. Gazing in, I felt saddened. I wanted others to see the beauty of the world outside the castle walls. A world where all interactions and exchanges are made peacefully and voluntarily. A world where good ideas don’t have to be enforced with the edge of a sword. A world where violence and murder are never justified as a method of achieving peace. A world where people don’t choose between a greater evil and a lesser evil, but between love, peace, freedom, and evil. As the days pass and reality once again sets in for these hard-working, good-willed people, I hope those who become disheartened begin to peer outside the castle walls. For once they do, I believe they will see that their economic problems, the continual wars with neighboring kingdoms, and the immoral laws they are forced to obey cannot be fixed by placing a new master on the same throne, but that the system of masters, majorities, and rule by swords itself is what is flawed. I understand that gazing beyond the walls is frightening. And I know that curiosity about what lies beyond is discouraged, even condemned by the master, his council, the lecturers, the enforcers, and even your family and friends. But I hope that you will look outside and find this other world as I did. I hope that you will join me, for there is a peace, a freedom, and a beauty here that exists only outside the castle walls.  

High-Heels, Cigarettes, Trench Coats, and Uggs: Sounds Like it’s Time to Exercise!

Now, before you picture me wearing high-heels with a cigarette in my mouth, remember that I don’t smoke. As for the heels… well, I had to leave some precious items behind when I moved overseas and unfortunately, those didn’t make it.
I'm not kidding.

I'm not even kidding.

I currently live on the edge of the Nanjing University campus, which houses a great outdoor exercise facility about a ten-minute walk from my apartment. There’s a full-size track, basketball courts, soccer fields, volleyball/badminton courts, and various other fitness apparatuses, such as parallel bars, chin-up bars, etc. I go here every day or two to run on the track and use some of the bars for various exercises. Since the area is open to the public and it’s in the middle of a city of eight million, there are always a ton of people of all ages using the facilities. This provides plentiful opportunities for interesting sights and experiences. So how does the title of this particular blog entry relate to exercise? Well, on my first day visiting the university exercise facility, I witnessed people either jogging or playing basketball or soccer with all the things described in the title. Yes, there were people (more than one) smoking cigarettes while exercising. I don’t mean they were sitting on the sidelines stretching or something; I mean that I was watching a man weaving through defenses with a soccer ball at his feet and a cigarette in his mouth. And before I could completely comprehend that cardio-vascular contradiction, I ran past a middle-aged woman jogging in high-heels and a trench coat. I immediately began imagining logical reasons as to why she may have chosen this outfit as her sportswear, but after visiting the facility regularly for three weeks, I’m beginning to think that’s just what she wears to exercise. Also, I have observed that in China (or at least in Nanjing) Ugg boots are popular for men as well as women, and apparently they make great exercise shoes. These are just a few of the numerous sights I have seen that have left me scratching my head. Whenever I visited a track on a university campus in the states, I primarily encountered other twenty-something year olds wearing what I considered typical exercise clothing, such as shorts or sweatpants, t-shirts, hoodies, and running shoes. However, just as I’ve had other cultural eye-openings since arriving in China, I’ve learned that many of my notions regarding exercise are definitely not universal. I mean, I see just as many people running in jeans and dress shoes as I see elderly men doing pull-ups shirtless in sub-freezing temperatures, which is quite a lot. While I have pointed out some of the stranger things I’ve seen at the exercise facility, I mustn’t leave out some of the other memorable moments I’ve had. We recently had a day with some light snowfall, and I decided to go out to the track for a run. I was surprised that there were still a fair number of people at the facility, one of which was an elderly man flying a kite. As I rounded the track, I peered up at the tiny dot of a kite high above the track, over the stadium and the trees, up near the top of a nearby skyscraper, barely noticeable in the white sky. The contentedness of the old man flying the kite in the falling snow gave me a sense of serenity I hadn’t experienced since arriving in this bustling city a month ago. Just as I began to drift off into a sort of jogging daydream, I heard little feet running rapidly behind me. I looked back and noticed a preschool-aged girl wearing an enormous pink jacket sprinting behind me with a huge grin on her face. I smiled back and continued at my pace, which she maintained for another few seconds before tuckering out. The next time I came around to the part of the track where she was walking with her mother, she excitedly said something to her mother and then started sprinting next to me again. When she finally slowed to a stop, dramatically emphasizing her tiredness, I turned and clapped for her and gave her two thumbs up. She looked up with bright eyes, smiled a huge smile, and then turned to run back to her mother’s side. These special moments are something I have begun to appreciate more and more the longer I’m here. Living among millions of frantic and weary people who seem to be losing their souls more each passing day has helped me to begin to truly understand the value of an honest smile from a child.

Hot & Sour Fish Soup Flavor Potato Chips: Just another Day in Paradise

      Other than being physically assaulted my first night in China and experiencing a fireworks display that made Disneyland’s fireworks look like a toddler with a sparkler, things have been relatively relaxed thus far. As for the experience of living here in China, it’s very China-like; I'm in real China, not tourist China. The culture is obviously quite different from what I was used to in Oregon, and there are some things I still don’t understand at all, even after spending a couple weeks here last year with my brother. The traffic is an unimaginably chaotic system where what westerners call road-laws are completely disregarded, but it seems to work and it’s relatively efficient. Regarding this phenomenon, a fellow American summarized it as such: It’s as though when people drive here, it’s always the first time they’ve ever driven a car. To that, I would add, horns are honked so regularly that one would think they’re supposed to summon Skittles to fall from the sky. Grocery stores have huge varieties – there are dozens of different flavors for every product you can think of, and areas like the meat section are just tables with a bunch of meat all over them. I’m being quite literal – pre-packaged meat isn’t terribly common – you just grab a couple plastic bags, shove a few pig’s feet into one, a few handfuls of minced beef into the other, and you’re good to go. As for the flavor variety, there are honestly close to a dozen flavors of Oreos alone; mixed berry, green tea, orange mango... and if you’re talking chips, grab yourself a bag of Lay’s Hot & Sour Fish Soup Flavor or Numb and Spicy Hot Pot Flavor (both a part of their Intense and Stimulating series). Wash those down with Tropicana’s jujube, aloe, dragon fruit, and lychee juice blend, or maybe you’d prefer to grab a mushroom & shrimp sandwich at McDonald's? Aside from a huge variety of flavors, dairy is rather rare, expensive, and nothing like I was used to in the agricultural northwest. However, there are a few foreign food markets where real cow’s butter can be purchased at a handsome price, and I’ve been able to find a couple restaurants that use seemingly real cheese on their sandwiches or pizza. Speaking of restaurants, let it be known that American Chinese food is just that – American. No Chinese national has ever heard of General Tso’s chicken or fortune cookies, so if you plan on visiting China for an extended period of time, get your fill of Chinese food before you get here. Really. Check out this TED Talk for more great info on this topic: http://www.ted.com/talks/jennifer_8_lee_looks_for_general_tso.html One thing I really do love about venturing into grocery stores here are some of their marketing tactics; in the U.S.A, it’s common to see a small coupon attached to a bottle of something that gives you a dollar off another product. Or if you’re lucky, maybe you get a free 2-liter of Coke if you buy two bags of Tostitos tortilla chips and a jar of dip. But that’s not good enough for China – either that or it’s not clear enough marketing for people to grasp in this overstimulated society. So instead, they will literally tape a mixing bowl to the front of a bottle of orange juice. Or they’ll tape a bottle of orange juice to a bottle of orange juice. That’s a great deal easier than attaching a single “buy one get one free” tag to the shelf. These aren’t exaggerations whatsoever; I almost bought a liter of soda just for the free colander taped to the bottle. The prices of most goods and services are quite different here than they are in the states. I had to buy a towel after arriving, and the cheapest one I could find was $12 (vs. the $3 I paid for a towel in the states that was made in China). However, I went to lunch with three others at a nice restaurant where we each ordered our own personal pizzas with several toppings and our total bill was about $12.50 for the four of us. You can fill an entire backpack full of bacon for about $15 and a 22 oz. bottle of beer is about 45 cents, but a Gillette razor is $8. I wish I had brought razors! As for other aspects of living here in Nanjing, it’s incredibly dirty and noisy. I don’t mean a little dirty and a little noisy, I mean it smells like a sewer outside (partly because there is sometimes fecal matter or vomit on the ground [responsible parents will hold their toddlers over garbage cans so their child’s feces are at least mostly contained in a trash can]). Most of the people talk as though they’re standing next to a fighter jet preparing for take-off, regardless of how close they are to the person to whom their talking or whether they’re indoors. And the relentless horn-honking on busy streets reaches decibels comparable to the front row of a metal concert. This morning around 7:00am, I was awakened by a barrage of fireworks that sounded like a military rifle practice occurring in my bedroom. As I type this, fireworks are being shot off somewhere close by in our neighborhood. You know how some Americans continue turning on their Christmas lights each night through the second week of January? That’s how the entire three weeks around the Chinese New Year are, except instead of quiet holiday lights on their own homes, it’s ear-drum bursting explosives outside my bedroom window. I do appreciate the fun and excitement of fireworks, however, and I have (mostly) fond memories of lighting fireworks as a kid growing up in small-town America. I was reminded of this as I walked back to my apartment last night when I saw a father and son shooting off Roman Candles over one of the main roads downtown. It was nice seeing people enjoying fireworks in the street without some police officer harassing them or writing them a ticket - a freedom I couldn’t imagine having back in the states. In general, my individual liberty is much greater here and my anxieties around “the law” have been alleviated quite a bit. “In Communist China?” you ask. Yes, remember that things aren’t always as they seem, and that propaganda is a mighty and powerful tool. All things considered, things are pretty good here. The apartment I’m in is relatively nice, there are tons of food options close by, and it’s really affordable to live here. Additionally, I’m surrounded by people all engaged in philosophy and self-knowledge, which provides just the environment I need to become more open, honest, and curious about myself and others. As for my current plans for the future, I’ll be living in Nanjing for a couple more weeks, then in mid-February I’ll be moving to Beijing where I’ll begin seeking English teaching positions. As for how long I’ll live there, I don’t know, but it can’t be any longer than a year because that’s when my visa runs out. I guess we’ll see what happens.

Welcome to China, Lǎo Wài: Round 1… Fight!

I realize my most recent post was about the Chinese New Year; therefore, this post is actually chronologically backtracking. So if you’d like to some additional context before reading what follows, read the post below titled: Cholo Jeans, Dragon Shirts, and Rainbows: An Oregonian Lands in Shanghai – dated January 21st. After my friend Steven picked me up from the Shanghai airport on Friday the 13th, we ventured through the subways of Shanghai until we came to the stop near the Holiday Inn Express I had booked for us (using my free hotel nights, of course). Finding the hotel was an adventure in itself, but after finally making our way there and checking in, we decided it was time to get some food as it was already after 9:00pm. What happened next, neither of us could have anticipated, but I’ll try my best to concisely explain the events that followed. After stepping outside the hotel, we noticed a group of people pushing each other around in front of the businesses across the street from us. We decided to cross the street to get a closer view of the action. As we began crossing the four-lane street, I noticed a drunken woman kicking and clawing at a few drunken men. As we got closer, one of the men ran up behind the woman, dove through the air, and tackled her to the ground. At this point, Steven and I rushed across the street to get a better idea of what was happening. As the man and woman rose to their feet, the man held the woman back from trying to kick the other men in the group. Since there were pedestrians all over, we walked up a bit closer to get a better view of the action. I pulled out the new camera my mother had just bought me as a parting gift and started filming the scene. Soon after, the man pulled the woman off around the side of the building while the other men continued to shove each other around and exchange words. We followed the couple around the corner and Steven suggested we get a bit closer to film the scene, so I handed him the camera and trailed him as he stepped a few steps closer. We were quite amused by the situation, and as a bit of commentary, we began singing Tim McGraw’s “Don’t Take the Girl.” We joked with one another for another minute when the woman suddenly spun her head around and noticed we were there. Within a second, the woman had transformed into a zombie from Dawn of the Dead and began screaming and running at us. She first ran toward me so I quickly jumped back and held my arms out suggesting, “I have no beef here… chill out.” She grabbed at me for a moment, and when I pulled away she turned her attention to Steven who was jollily jogging away and laughing. She then returned to zombie mode and sprinted after him until she caught up to him and ripped the hood off his jacket. I then began walking at a brisk pace toward them as she was clearly not in nearly as jovial a mood as we were. As Steven turned to look for his hood, the man who was previously restraining the woman (the same one who dive-tackled her to the ground) sprinted up from behind Steven, and without warning, performed the same WWE flying-tackle on Steven. As the man and Steven tumbled to the ground, I realized crap was getting real and that these drunken people were in state of complete irrationality. My brisk walk became a sprint and I dove onto the man, ripping him off of Steven’s back in a headlock. As we rose to our feet, Steven pulled the man up by his collar and cocked his fist. In that moment Steven made the critical decision to let the man down without laying waste to him, but by this time the camera was in the woman’s hands as it fell to the ground when Steven was tackled. I tried to regain the camera, but the woman was incoherently drunk, and she completely crushed the lens attempting to access the photos on the camera. She gave the camera to the man, who demanded I delete the video. Since she had broken the camera, it was impossible to delete anything from it. We told them they owed us money for the broken camera but they refused to reimburse me for the damage they had done to it. They then said they wanted the SD card, so I offered to sell them the SD card alone. Once they refused my first offer and demanded I simply give it to them, I doubled the price. That was definitely their first economic lesson in supply and demand. After additional struggling over the camera, I convinced them to let me take out the SD card. Once I removed the SD card, Steven regained control of the broken camera and I put the SD card in my pocket. The man then began calling over toward the rest of the group of drunken men and tried to convince Steven and me to walk over there with him. We stood our ground and refused to further engage with him. Within a minute, the woman was back over attempting to attack the men in the group again, distracting the attention of the man who attacked us. We used that opportunity to disengage and leave the situation, a few scratches, bruises, and one broken camera later.
My camera didn't necessarily look this bad, but its functionality was uncannily similar.

My camera didn't necessarily look this bad, but it functioned similarly.

I’m happy that the rest of the men were too drunk to be aware of what was happening between the couple and us, for I fear that things could have escalated much further if that were the case. We managed to escape the attack with minimal bodily damage, but I definitely learned to never underestimate the savagery of drunken, morally undeveloped people. Thanks for reading this far and keep checking back – my next post will be about some of the eccentricities of living in a completely different culture. I’ll find a way to include something about Oreos in there, so it should be quite a bit lighter than this post.

It’s a War Zone! It’s a Zombie Apocalypse! Oh… Yeah… It’s Chinese New Year.

I’m in the midst of writing a blog update about my first night in Shanghai, but I felt the urge to post this update because tonight was the Chinese New Year. The Wikipedia page does a really good job of explaining it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_New_Year, but for those without the patience for that, I’ll just say that this is the most important holiday in China, and the actual festival goes on for a couple weeks. In short, this is a big freaking deal. The past few days leading up to the festival have been interesting because most businesses have been closed – the few that are open are fast food restaurants like McDonalds and KFC or establishments that cater to ex-pats, with the exception of an occasional small market. This has made finding food difficult, but the upside is that the streets have been nearly void of cars, bikes, mopeds, and pedestrians. I felt as though I had strolled into a zombie apocalypse film as I walked through the streets to find lunch today; where there are usually thousands of unnecessarily loud people scurrying about, perpetual horns honking, and numerous mopeds trying to run me over on the sidewalk, there were few traces of life other than a pair of children playing badminton in the eerily empty streets. This quiet and piece was welcomed for I knew that within a matter of days it would all be replaced with the noise and air pollution of eight million people and their respective modes of transportation. While I enjoyed the lunchtime walk, my silence was quickly stolen by the sounds of fireworks in the distance. By 2:00pm, the sounds of firecrackers could be heard as a somewhat constant white noise. By 4:00pm, it sounded as though I were holed up in a bunker in the middle of a war zone. This would go on for the next 9 hours until things started to die down around 1:00am. There are still several fireworks going off outside as I type this (it’s 3:00am now), but it has calmed down enough that I should be able to sleep with earplugs in. What was most impressive about all of this, however, was the view from the top of my apartment building as the clock struck midnight. I assumed that the fireworks display would be rather exciting, but I don’t think I could have prepared myself for how fantastic it would be to see thousands of fireworks simultaneously fired amongst skyscrapers in the center of a huge city. I didn't have a camera to record the scene, but the picture posted above is one I found online, and it’s from part of the city I’m in so you’ll have an idea of how intense it was. I also found video footage that somebody took of the fireworks display here in Nanjing in 2009: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOswG9QAN6o From the looks of their footage, it seems that they’re right in the same part of town as me, so this footage is actually pretty close to what I saw tonight. Skip ahead to about 3:00 in the video to get an idea of what kind of experience I had. Also, take note of the fireworks exploding right next to the cameraperson – since I was on the roof of a ten story building, this was happening to me as well because people were lighting off fireworks from the ground next to the apartment building. The whole experience was somewhat surreal, and I realize it’s very difficult to explain it in a way that makes it real for others, but suffice it to say, it was absolutely fantastic. I’ll be posting another blog soon that details the reason I didn’t have a camera to document the fireworks this evening, so keep checking back and I’ll keep posting updates. Xīn Nián Kuài Lè!

Cholo Jeans, Dragon Shirts, and Rainbows: An Oregonian Lands in Shanghai

So, I have a blog now. I don’t really know much about blogging (believe it or not). But since the intent of this blog is mostly for updating the folks back home in Oregon, I think I’ll just ramble and story-tell and hope that some of you find it interesting. On Wednesday, January 11th, 2011, I spent my last day in the United States. While I would have loved to have spent the day relaxing with family and friends, I instead spent it frantically packing up the last of my things, cleaning my portion of the house in which I lived, working out final details with my roommates, banks, and landlord, and attempting to enjoy a few final moments with my family and my partner. I obviously made it out in time to catch the plane, but I must say my parents were instrumental in helping me accomplish these final tasks, and Carolyn was there for hugs and support when I became overstressed. After a long and stressful Wednesday, my parents, Carolyn, and I took off to PDX around 3:00am, Thursday the 12th, so I could catch my 6:30am flight. Once we had all had our hugs and goodbyes, I was off through security and onto the plane for my first leg down to LAX. While the plane ride could have been less comfortable, I decided I can greatly increase my comfort in the future by wearing fewer layers. You see, in order to maximize the space in my suitcase, I wore several layers of clothing which resulted in me feeling and looking like a marshmallow. This wasn’t a huge deal while I was still in Oregon where it was near freezing temperatures, in fact, it was rather cozy. But walking into LAX wearing three layers of pants, four shirts, and two coats where everybody else was wearing shorts, tank-tops, and flip-flops made it quite apparent how Oregonian I am, not to mention unbearably warm. Navigating the LA airport in my marshmallow suit was a bit tricky and uncomfortable, but soon enough I was in the relentlessly long security line for international departures. When I finally got to the checkpoint, the TSA agent gave me a smile and nod and pointed to the rainbow patch on my laptop bag. He said he wished he could be so forthright, but that he was worried about such an upfront display of personal identity in his line of work. He joked about giving me a pat-down and then let me on my way. While this was just one simple and short-lived interaction, I was struck by the reality of this man’s situation. It evoked feelings of empathy for the man and feelings of anger toward the people and organizations responsible for the environment that provoked this fear. To speed things up a bit, the flight was long – over 14 hours – and I was quite happy to step off the plane into the airport in Shanghai. One wonderful surprise is that my friend Steven took a train to Shanghai to pick me up so I would have someone to help me navigate my way after arriving. As I strolled through the arrivals archway wearing my cholo jeans and dragon shirt, he spotted me right away. We exchanged smiles, and once I passed beyond the gate, I was greeted with a bear-hug. We were soon on our way through the airport, chatting as though it hadn’t been nearly a year since we last saw each other. As we ventured through the Shanghai subway system with all my stuff, I felt strangely at ease, partially because I had been here once before, and partially because I knew I was beginning a great adventure of personal growth and learning.