Jumped the border to see the falls from Brazil. And to eat. Always to eat!
Little known fact about me: I’m from Hong Kong. Ha! Who am I kidding, I might as well have “HK” tattooed on my forehead seeing as I talk about it so incessantly. An actual little known fact about me though is that I wrote one of my college essays about my love of the MTR, the Hong Kong subway system. This isn’t as weird as it sounds, I swear. Hear me out. Subways are by far my favourite mode of public transportation. Subways are democratic and used by people of all walks of life. In Hong Kong, subway stops dot every part of the city and are connected in a rainbow grid of lines as vibrant as the neighbourhoods they service. Subways are great – easy to use, traffic free, and predictable. Though no subway system in my opinion comes close to the 99.9% on time, pristine, and air conditioned Hong Kong system, I’ve always enjoyed taking subways around the world.
You see, there’s nothing more local and authentic than taking a subway during rush hour. In Buenos Aires, I have gotten myself into a short-term but extremely committed relationship with the Subte (short for “subterranean”). I have a thirty-minute subway commute to work everyday. And while this seems mundane, some of my greatest personal victories, little moments of triumph and empowerment, have occurred while zipping around underneath the streets of this chaotic capital.
Little victory número uno: There’s nothing more satisfying than a good life hack. Something as small as figuring out the best place to wait for the train in the morning in order to guarantee finding a seat or a comfortable spot has really made me feel like I belong in this city. It’s very hard for me to look like I’m a local by virtue of my chinese-ness. Other than my Chinatown wanderings, I think the only times where I have come close to passing for a local have been on the Subte. I’ve really started to fit in with the dreary-eyed morning commute crowd, especially since I’ve started to read books in Spanish during the journey. Finding a good spot on my morning trip and relaxing with my book really just sets me up for success for the rest of my day.
Subte moment número dos: I knew I had made it in this city when I was one day stopped on the way to the Subte by an elderly couple that was lost. Like I said before, I definitely don’t look like a porteña local. However, I guess something about my fast-paced, self-assured, rush hour stomp to the Subte signalled to this lovely couple that I knew what I was doing. They stopped me on a street corner and kindly asked me where the closest Subte stop was. The poor things were visiting from one of the provinces and had been walking in the wrong direction for almost ten minutes! Feeling good about myself, and as surprised as ever by my actually decent Spanish, I walked with them to the station and even managed to tell them how many stops they needed to go before reaching their destination (I have the green line almost memorised at this point. Wasn’t kidding about being in a seriously committed relationship).
And finally, my favourite Subte moment: One day, at crammed-in-like-sardines-level rush hour, I managed to squeeze myself into a corner seat. However, at the next stop, this old lady who looked like she was about to faint stumbled onto the train. Naturally I let her sit. She looked extremely ill and I was very concerned for her. I worked up the nerve to talk to her in Spanish.
“Perdon señora, está bien?” (Are you ok ma’am?)
“Me duele la espina” (My spine hurts). I truly felt for her as I watched her grimace with every jolt that rocked the train. However, what inspired me was how all the other women around me came to her aid as well. This old lady had managed to find herself in a corner composed entirely of women. One of them offered to give her water, another to hold her bag, and another gave her a piece of gum. She asked for updates on how many stops she had to go and I gladly talked to her until she finally reached her destination. When I first got here, I was a little nervous about taking public transportation after hearing stories about robberies and what not. And while I’m still very cautious (I rock the front backpack/pregnant lady look everyday), I am happy to report that women on the Subte take care of their own.
Now, I’ve had my fair share of mishaps underground. One time, I had to wait for three trains to pass before I finally managed to elbow my way into a carriage during rush hour. It wasn’t that there wasn’t enough space in the first ones. It’s that I wasn’t confident enough to push myself in. Sometimes, the Subte really requires some grit. I’ve also found myself on trains that suddenly go out of service halfway up the line and have more often than I’d like to admit climbed out of a station at the wrong exit. That being said, the rhythm of taking the subway everyday has really made me feel like a porteña. I’ve loved spending hours reading on the train and I feel more and more local every time I swipe my Sube card or give someone directions.
And while I still think that the MTR is far superior, I will give Buenos Aires this: you’d be hard pressed to find a violinist playing Despacito in any other subway system in the world.
The Hague is the third-largest city in the Netherlands and is the seat of the Dutch government, Parliament, the Supreme Court, and the Council of State, but is somehow not the capital of the country (that’s Amsterdam. Don’t ask me why. I’m confused too). Additionally, it is home to the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. In other words, it is a MUN kid’s wet dream. Balim, Sunaina, and I all do some sort of international relations work and were very excited to go see what the fuss was all about.
The Hague is only a short train ride from Amsterdam (you can read about my love of Dutch infrastructure here). We got there bright and early and proceeded to explore this historic town.
In a nod to the international spirit of the city, we soon found ourselves wandering on cobblestone streets flanked on either side with Greek (or is it Turkish?) gyro stalls, Indian (or is it really more British?) curry restaurants, and Chinese (or is it Singaporean?) chicken rice vendors.
After stopping to say hi to Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis, we headed to an Indonesian restaurant for lunch. After all, the only Western city with better Indonesian food than Jakarta is Den Haag. The satay and nasi goreng did not disappoint us which is quite an achievement seeing as Balim grew up in Singapore, I grew up in Hong Kong, and Sunaina spent most summers in New Delhi. Our mini-United Nations panel of food critics came to the consensus that Dutch Indonesian food was certainly worth the hype.
But let’s take a moment to unpack how something like “Dutch Indonesian”, or rijsttagel (literally meaning “rice table”) even came to be. The evolution of food has always been a political process. The origins of rijsttagel are entirely colonial. Over the course of the 18th century, the powerful Dutch East India Company was the dominant economic and political power on the island of Java. In 1800, the company was nationalised and the area came under the administration of the Dutch government. Many Dutch business people and ministers relocated to the island in order to oversee its governance. Rijsttagel was created as a feast to showcase cuisine from all over the archipelago to those Dutch officials. It traditionally consisted of many (up to 40) small dishes including gado-gado (vegetables in peanut sauce), krupuk (shrimp crackers), and everything in between. All of these small dishes were ceremonially paraded up to the table and served with rice.
Though this is a gross simplification, Dutch rule in the area had all the classic trappings of colonial life: a rigid and racially based social order, establishment of Western models of infrastructure, exploitation of natural resources, and a certain degree of violence.
The words colonialism and its uglier cousin, imperialism, often illicit strong reactions, and for good reason – as concepts, they tackle complicated themes of self-determination, race, history, and globalisation. My purpose in writing this is not to make some grand statement about the Age of Empire (I might write about that some day, but not today). Rather I’m trying to demonstrate that something as seemingly simple as deciding what to eat while on a trip to The Hague is actually a decision laden with historical circumstance.
But as messy and complicated as that hidden history is, isn’t our consumption (literally) of that history the beauty of travel? The idea that eating like a local can be a history lesson, more vivid and salient than anything in a textbook, is very moving to me.
Food is primal. And food is often, for better or worse, tied up with national identity. The Turks and Greeks fight over who owns yogurt. A classic South East Asian fish salad is called yusheng by the Singaporeans but yee sang by the Malaysians. Both have pointed fingers at the other for “hijacking” the dish. Even the Aussies and the Kiwis, two peas in a pod, have fought over who has claim to pavlova!
So what does it mean to consume food and history from all over the world? What do we make of amazing dishes like rijsttagel that wouldn’t have been possible without colonialization? I’m honestly still not sure (although I’m certainly not going to stop eating Hong Kong’s classic egg tarts, a result of British colonialism, any time soon). Perhaps the answer lies in another sight from The Hague – a collection of hopes and aspirations from around the world on a wishing tree outside the Peace Palace. Between the three of us, we were able to read messages in English, Spanish, French, Turkish, and Chinese. The majority of the messages simply wished for world peace and international cooperation.
As Hallmark-worthy as it sounds, people from all around the world just wanted the same things: an end to violence and a better life for their children. Similarly, people from all around the world just want to eat good food. Though food will always been historically complex, I think the best of our food should simultaneously be a celebration of what makes our cultures unique while also being an homage to the fact that the love of food is universal.
But argh, enough of that cheesy stuff. Bringing it back to the title of this post. I’m sure you’re all wondering if I worked up the nerve to try pickled herring. The answer is: yes, of course I did. And it’s honestly pretty normal. It’s just salty fish. I quite liked it actually. But really, I was just happy to be eating something that was definitively Dutch… or is it Nordic (inlagd sill)? German (Bismarckhering)? Estonian (marineeritud heeringas)? Ah! When will I learn!
This past semester, I took part in a photo project by Diana Im, one of the cool seniors in my history of feminism class. For her final project, she decided to tackle the pressure that many young feminists feel to be perfect. To be intersectional enough, to be well-read enough, to be woke enough, and to be inclusive enough. While these are all wonderful aspirations, fear of imperfection often leads to silence for fear of getting something wrong. Diana’s project chose to highlight growth and effort – the process of being what she coined, an imperfect feminist. I’ve been struck by this phrase and I’ve decided to borrow it for some of my own writing.
This is a piece of what I originally wrote for Diana along with some cool photos that she took to go with it:
“ I think that it’s a beautiful phrase to capture how I feel about my own feminism, as someone who is still learning, I think that there is a tendency to want to be perfect because very ironically, I think studying institutionalized women and gender studies just ties feminism in at least for me with all the trappings of academia. It’s like always having to have read the right authors, to have been exposed to the certain theories and being able to talk about them and apply them properly… And so just being able to balance the imperfections of reality and of my own life with the want to be perfect in an academic sense has been really interesting. We talk about it a lot but there’s almost no way to translate what goes on in the ivory tower to what goes on in the real world, and so I am so down to embrace this idea that we’re all imperfect and we’re all bad feminists.”
Please check out her blog and the other entries here!
As with all things pure and good in this world, Harry Potter has been talked about far more eloquently and by far better writers than myself. However, I can not think of a better subject to start my “Let’s Talk About…” column. The timing is also fortuitous seeing as the world is currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first book. So, accio nerds, let’s talk about Harry Potter
Like many others, I am truly one of the Harry Potter generation. I haven’t lived in a world in which Harry Potter doesn’t exist. I’m one of those true potterheads who has read each book at least 20 times and can quote the movies backwards and forwards. I am the proud owner of a cloak, a Gryffindor scarf (I’m a gryffindor, obviously. Do not fight me on this), a stuffed toy cow named Hagrid, and all the spin-off textbooks.
But apart from falling in love with the characters, getting charmed by the spells, being engrossed by the storylines, and yearning for Hogwarts, Harry Potter is tied to real emotion for me as well. One of my favourite memories with my best friend Ashley is staying up all night racing each other to the end of the last book. We sat back to back through the night in total silence yet we had never felt more connected.
–Me and Ashley: Circa the time HP books were still coming out (taken somewhere in Japan) vs. As high school seniors (still a couple weirdos though)–
Another one of my favourite memories is watching the last movie with my dad. I remember walking into the theatre with my cloak on (we dressed up – obviously) with a knot of confused emotions in my stomach. I was excited, yet sad that this was the last one. This was it. At the end of it all, when Harry’s scar had stopped hurting for 19 years and all was well, I was in tears. I looked over and saw that my dad, my stoic dad, had glistening eyes as well. Harry Potter had been the one series of books that we read together and fell in love with together. I was glad to be sharing this moment with him.
The two of us, being the nerds that we are, later went on the Harry Potter studio tour in London together. I’m only half kidding when I say that it was the best day of my life. We walked through London to get to King’s Cross with my dad pointing out locations from his medical residence days in the city. We took the obligatory Platform 9 3/4 photo before heading to Leavesden Studio. It was a pilgrimage of epic proportions. I could hardly contain my excitement while walking through the studio turned museum, and my dad, my serious dad, wasn’t much better. The true magic of Harry Potter has always been the power of love and friendship – themes that were just as resonant with me, a geeky teenage, as they were with my father, an incredibly intelligent doctor. In my dad, I have always seen the wisdom of Dumbledore, the reserved dignity of Minerva McGonagall, and the level-headedness of Remus Lupin. That day though, I saw in him the fun of Fred and George, and the wonder of Harry the first time he walked through Diagon Alley.
–Other photos from that trip to London back in 2014–
Not to be left out, my mom also plays a part in this. Back when I was a freshman in high school, we watched JK Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement speech together. I didn’t want to admit it, even to myself, but I knew that Harvard was my dream school. Even as a freshman I knew I wanted to attend Muggle Hogwarts and Jo’s incredibly moving speech, as dumb as it sounds, felt like a positive omen (like a reverse Grim). Throughout the next years of high school, I kept this dream to myself, for fear of the stigma and of jinxing it by saying it out loud.
With my dream in mind, I threw myself at school in my best impression of my idol, Hermione Granger. Like her, I was a bit, shall we say… intense. But also like her, I grew confident in my own intellect and in the fruits of hard work and diligence. Despite all this, I knew that applying to Harvard was a total crapshoot. I knew that any number of factors, luck included (and I sadly had no Felix Felices), would be the difference between acceptance and rejection. And so, when I got my Owl from Harvard in the form of a 5:00am email, I was totally stupefied. Then came the flood of emotions: relief, joy, excitement, disbelief. All this was only amplified by my mom’s cries of “OH-MY-GOD-IS-THIS-REAL? Oh my god! OH MY GOD! CHECK IT AGAIN!”.
While I say that Hermione is my idol, my real idol has, and will always be, my incredible mom. Though my mom, having only read four of the books, is decidedly the muggle of the family, she is my Lily Potter, my Molly Weasley, my Nymphadora Tonks, all rolled in one. She was the one who calmed me down after episodic breakdowns when the stress of classes and test prep got to be too much. She was the one who drove me to band rehearsals, softball practices, piano recitals, dance classes and any number of other activities, all while being a full-time business executive. She was the one who held my hand in my high school counsellor’s office when I at last blurted out that I wanted to pull an Elle Woods and go to Harvard.
And on graduation day, she was the one who knew what present I would find most meaningful: a hardback copy of Very Good Lives, the book version of the text from Jo’s original Harvard 2008 Commencement speech.
–My wonderful parents at my graduation, Very Good Lives indeed–
So thank you Jo and thank you Harry Potter. You have been there for the entirety of my 20 years and you have made my family, my life, and the lives of so many others, immeasurably more magical. Happy Birthday Harry!
No prize for guessing the location of this particular memory correctly. In the list of thing-that-are-so-Dutch, bicycles and canals rank up there with tulips and windmills. incidentally, the latter feature in this story as well.
I was travelling with two of my dearest friends, Balim and Sunaina. We had decided to skip American Thanksgiving in favour of a trip to Amsterdam. We were dedicated to getting as much out of the Dutch experience as possible. After checking off Rembrandt and stroopwafles, bikes and windmills were in order. We decided to pass through Rotterdam in order to reach Kinderdijk, windmill capital of the Netherlands.
Now, at the time, I was the first to admit that I was pretty Type A. Ok. Very Type A. Make-my-bed-every-morning-type Type A. Consequently, I had planned our trip to Kinderdijk to a tee: walk to the train station, train to Rotterdam, ferry to just outside Kinderdijk, bike to the windmills, repeat on the way back. Simple! Luckily for me, the Netherlands as a country is just about as Type A as it gets. The infrastructure: amazing!
The three of us easily followed my plan and made it to Rotterdam. We had some time to walk around this very cool and industrial city before hopping on our ferry.
After hopping on the ferry, we were making good time to Kinderdijk. So far so good. We were having an (type) A+ day! We hopped off at our spot and walked over to the bike rental store. Alas! Despite all my planning the store was closed for the season. I was a little annoyed but don’t worry, I didn’t spontaneously combust right there and then. My particular brand of type A also includes A for Adaptability. Unfazed, the three of us set out to walk to the windmills instead.
Is there anything lovelier than a nice walk on a beautiful day with friends? Yes. A nice walk plus a hearty meal. After hiking along for quite a while, we stopped in a little pub in order to quell our growling stomachs. And, as luck would have it, the pub also rented out bicycles. Don’t you just love it when things work out?
After our little meal, we each hopped on and did our best impressions of effortlessly chic Dutch bike riders (with varying degrees of success – no surprises as to who was the least graceful). We biked for about ten minutes before finally reaching what we had trekked all this way to see: the stunning windmills of Kinderdijk. We had made it!
The three of us excitedly peddled up to the path that would take us in and amongst the mills. We zipped up the land exhilarated at the fact that we were finally here. Now, they say that you never forget how to ride a bike. While this is true, you can certainly be a little rusty after not doing it for a while – a fact that normally wouldn’t be a problem save for the fact that I was surrounded by canals on both sides. This by itself is also not a problem. What really screwed me over were my millennial tendencies. The lovely Balim was right in front of me and she had mastered the art of biking with one hand while taking photos on her phone with the other. Anything you can do I can do better, I thought.
Feet peddling wonkily, handle turning wildly, and hand flailing pointless, I looked less like a effortless Dutch girl and more like a toddler who had just graduated from training wheels to a “big girl bike”. I somehow managed to plunge my hand into my coat pocket and pulled my phone out. Never had I been more frustrated with my lock screen. Suddenly, I careened off the path and had to put both feet down in order to stop myself, phone and all, from plunging into a canal. I stopped seconds away from being drenched in weeds, mill water, and embarrassment. I learned my lesson. Live in the moment. Bike now – pics later.
I caught up to the other two and pretended like nothing happened. Not that they would have cared – they were two busy being mesmerised by the rosy sunset that was happening before our eyes. As we turned around to head back the way we came, the sky was slowly painted different shades of pink and orange. Sunset’s are natures version of HD TV. Never static, the colours faded into one another with each passing minute being somehow more beautiful than the last. We were speechless.
While peddling along in silence, I reflected on yet another lesson I had learned that day. Sometimes, the most Type A and thorough plans fall through for a reason. Had we rented the bikes from the ferry stop, we would have come and gone too early to witness the silhouettes of the windmills against the beautiful magenta sky. We would have completely missed the beautiful show that mother nature had put on for us. It was as if She herself had closed the first bike rental shop in order to ensure that we would arrive at the mills at the perfect time of day.
When we got back and returned our bikes, we realised that we had in fact missed the last ferry back. Somehow wiser and decidedly more chill than I was this morning, I laughed off the scheduling error and simply asked a local how we could get back to Rotterdam. She pointed us to a bus stop where the three of us waited patiently, still savouring the last of the ever-changing sky.
The whole experience is truly one that I will never forget. I wouldn’t say that I am no longer Type A. Nor would I say that I’ve turned my back on my picture-taking millennial roots (as exhibited by all the pics that I ended up with in spite of my near disaster with the canal). However, I do find myself putting the phone down more and living more in the moment and I would now call myself Type A-. I still make my bed everyday and my Google calendar is as color-coordinated as ever. But whenever I miss a bus or take a wrong turn, instead of freaking out, I remember the sunset, the windmills, and that one time I almost biked into a canal.
The only thing better than the good aires in Buenos Aires are the good flowers. It’s hard to believe that this is what they call “winter” in this amazing city.
Almost every street corner in Buenos Aires features a beautiful flower stand. The gardens of Palermo are also still stunning. I’ve loved walking around the city and encountering beautiful flora everywhere I go. Here are some shots from the Botanical Garden as well as the Rosedal of Palermo.
The tomb of Evita, Argentina’s most famous lady is likewise beautifully decked with florals. I’m fascinated by Eva Peron and plan on writing about her in another post very soon!
For now though, let’s all remember the importance of stopping to smell the flowers every once in a while.
I stumbled upon this beautiful piece of street art the other day while wandering around Palermo Soho, the chicest barrio of Buenos Aires:
It reads: “Woman! Start a revolution! Love your body!”
Wow. What an important reminder to us all.
I am currently doing a 2 month internship in Buenos Aires at ELA, el Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia y Género (The Latin American League for Gender Justice), an Argentine NGO dedicated to improving women’s rights, increasing female political participation, and bettering the lives of Argentine women. It’s a great organization and I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to work with them. I am very excited to learn more about women’s rights in this country and to learn about how advocacy groups operate and fight to make the world a better place.
I also encountered another more sobering reminder while walking the streets of Buenos Aires:
It reads: “One femicide every 24 hours – We want to Live!”
Estimates put the rate of femicide in Argentina, or the killing of females due to their gender or factors related to their gender, at somewhere between one every 18-24 hours. That. Can’t. Stand. The fight for women’s rights is one that very much must still be fought and I am constantly in awe of my colleagues at ELA for the work that they do.
It’s safe to say that I have been inspired by the incredible street art in Buenos Aires. The following photo was taken in La Boca, a colorful old barrio. Notice that little hood in right corner? That’s the symbol for Las Madres, a group of mothers who’s children were “disappeared” by the government during Argentina’s Guerra Sucia (“Dirty War”) of the 70s.
To this very day, las madres gather in the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday to publicly protest government corruption and to raise awareness for los desaparecidos, the term given to the dissidents that were taken against their will. The whole topic of the Dirty War is still quite controversial and it has been interesting talking to locals and hearing a wide range of opinions. I hope to head to the Plaza de Mayo myself one of these Thursdays to hear directly from these brave women.
Until I do though, here are some pics of other beautiful street art – work that reminds us that as much as art can be political, it can also just be beautiful.