My initial three days on Koh Mook, Thailand stretch into 2 ½ weeks. It’s the perfect deserted island in Southern Thailand. No cars or ATM machines, white sand beaches with crystal blue water. Every morning, I drink ginger tea and eat banana pancakes. Walk two minutes to the gorgeous beach and settle down in a lounge chair in the shade. Read and swim for hours. Eat a delicious $2 curry lunch. Take an afternoon nap before sunset yoga on the beach.

Occasionally, I venture to the other side of the island for the only spot with a strong internet connection. My side of the island was developed for tourists. There are no local businesses, just restaurants, hotels, bars and dive shops exclusively catered to tourists. The other side of the island is a fishing village, primarily for the local residents. The journey is a short 5-minute ride by motor bike. Most of the houses are on stilts, several feet above muck and garbage, with no sewer systems. There is a rank, putrid smell in the air, like the nose-shriveling aroma of old water in a vase. Because of the heat, the smell just rolls over you in pungent waves. The stark disparity between the locals and tourists is like a slap in my face. My paradise is pretty one-sided.

Arriving in Phuket is a complete shock. It’s loud, crowded and overpriced and I spend most of my two days holed up in my air conditioned room watching TV. So it’s a total delight to arrive in Bali. Less than an hour from the airport, we pass by rice paddy fields and my entire being sighs. My first three days in Ubud, Bali, I stay in a small guesthouse nestled in the rice paddy fields. The owners treat me like family and the grounds are gorgeous – flowering trees, Hindu statues, birds of paradise and teak furniture. I attend yoga classes daily and it’s amazing to gaze into the rice paddy fields and hear the croaking frogs and buzzing cicadas.

Now, I’m on Gili Trawangan, a small island off the coast of Bali. The snorkeling is sublime. So much color with neon blue, yellow, pink and aquamarine fish. Can’t believe nature has such extraordinarily bright colors. The coral is reminiscent of Dr. Seuss and I want to create jewelry or paint these amazing shapes. I chase after a turtle, laughing underwater and smiling with glee.

I have perfected the art of doing absolutely nothing. I’ve been on this small island for six days, and still haven’t rented a bike to see the other side of the island. Hours and days pass, and sometimes I feel a fleeting pang of guilt that I’m not more ambitious in my plans. Going to the beach and yoga class are major events, and I have many more months to be more adventurous. In a few weeks, my friends from Seattle will arrive in Bali and we’ll be jam-packed with plans. For now, I’m content to just lounge about and contemplate where to eat my next meal.



Price of Pleasure

Massage tip #1: don’t ever ask a Thai masseuse for a strong massage.

I consider myself an expert, a connoisseur, of massages in Southeast Asia. I’ve had about 100 massages in this part of the world – on the beach, in fancy hotels, down back alleys, from blind masseuses, women in lingerie, in Bali, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. And my absolute favorite are Thai massages.

In the United States, massage therapists use their fingers, hands and sometimes their elbows. But here in Thailand, they also use their forearms, knees, shins, and feet. Their foot is bracing your thigh while they’re leaning back and pulling on your calf. They get into each and every crevice, frequently I have to open my eyes and see what contortionist trick they are employing this time. It’s amazing.

I’m still on Koh Mook, Thailand, a small island with only one massage business (usually there are hundreds of masseuses in Thai cities). They have three open-air massage huts on the beach, and since they have a corner on the market it’s almost double the going rate at $11 an hour. I walk up to the desk and ask for a Thai massage. She calls over to another woman who approaches me. My usual strategy is to seek an older, thicker woman, and always steer clear of the inexperienced 18-25 year olds weighing under 100 pounds (in Vietnam, most of the masseuses match this description). This masseuse looks a bit green to me, so on the recommendation of a friend, I ask for Cat, telling her I want a strong massage. The receptionist tells me she is Cat, looks me up and down, sizing me up, shakes her head as if I can’t handle her and insists on the other woman.

It turns out Meow is an amazing masseuse and really works on my frozen shoulder. She clucks in sympathy when I occasionally grimace in pain from my shoulder. A few days later, I return and ask for Meow again. By the end of the second massage, Meow tells me if my shoulder is still hurting, I should ask for Cat. Finally, I’ve been greenlit to see Cat!

So a few days pass and I return asking for Cat. I’m lying on my back and she starts on my left leg. From her first touch, she is rough and it hurts, and not the good kind of hurt. Usually masseuses ease into it but Cat is immediately manhandling me in unpleasant ways. I grit my teeth, breathe deeply and tell myself this is what I wanted. By the time she gets to my second leg, I realize I’m being silly and there is no way I can enjoy this so meekly ask her to make it a bit softer. Cat immediately laughs, mocking me, repeating my request for a “strong massage!” Not wanting to get on her bad side, I return her laugh and tell her she is too strong for me. She tells me she is not too strong, waggles a single finger at me and softly presses it into my thigh and it hurts like crazy. As she starts working on my frozen shoulder, her cell phone rings and she answers it, cradling it and chatting away. Now she’s really not focused on me while she’s continuing her rough style and I start to yelp in pain. Even after she hangs up the phone, she is digging into my shoulder and I’m screaming and laughing at the same time at the absurdity. Occasionally raising my head to look at the other prospective customers, drooling and telling them not to worry, I have shoulder problems.

The next morning, I wake up and my shoulder really does feel so much better! But I also notice my legs, arms and back are littered with bruises. So I’m taking a break from massages for now. And next time, I’m asking for Meow.



This is Paradise

My final weekend in Seattle was rough. I’d spent weeks saying goodbye to friends and running errands. So my last 48 hours were mostly spent alone. I packed up my room so my mother can find a roommate, and portioned all my future belongings into three bags. A backpack for six months of travelling (weighing in at 32 pounds, way too heavy!), another bag some friends are bringing to Bali next month so I’ll have personal effects when I settle down in Vietnam mid-2012, and a final box my mother is bringing when she visits me in January 2013. It was fun to select my must-have items and imagine my new life in Vietnam, including occasions to wear my many party dresses! It wasn’t all smiles though, and I cried a lot that weekend. Phone calls, emails, in-person goodbye’s – I was a mess. Fortunately, a friend drove me and my mom to the airport as we clutched each other for a tear-filled ride. Once I got to the airport, I was absolutely fine and ready for the journey ahead.

I’ve been in Southern Thailand for one week and it is absolute paradise. Stayed in Ao Nang, Krabi, a small beach town and did a whole lotta nothin’ – just the way I like it. My quiet resort was outside town, just a short one mile walk to a lovely yoga studio. A few weeks ago I developed a frozen shoulder, and hauling a 32 pound backpack across 10,000 miles has only worsened the pain. Daily yoga practice has really helped with increasing my range of motion and reducing the pain. Three massages in one week has been pretty amazing as well! And lots of swimming in the sea. Staggeringly beautiful Railay Beach is a short 5-minute boat ride away. It’s the beach scene of movies. Limestone cliffs surrounding a white sand beach. Crystal blue water so clear I can see my toe-nail polish. Craggy islands dot the horizon. And it’s not even crowded!

My first yoga class was bliss. It’s an open air studio with the sounds of the country wafting through the room. Chickens clucking, birds chirping, trees rustling. A smile lights the corner of my mouth, a deep sigh permeating my body. The Thai yoga teacher comes around adjusting people, and during the final relaxation (savasana) he gongs the bowl next to me and I feel heat and electricity between us, instantaneously developing a crush. After class, he immediately approaches me and we brazenly flirt, to the point I feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s one thing for me to have a private crush, but would I really go on a man-date my second day in Thailand?!?

Today, I’m in transit to another beautiful quiet island, Koh Muk. I’ve taken the long cheap route that takes 8 hours and includes 2 mini-vans, a ferry and boat ride. But I don’t mind at all because while waiting for my next van, I went to the local outdoor market and ate delicious chicken satay and cucumber salad for $1. I’m staying in a $16 bungalow near the beach, with sunset yoga at the local dive shop. Maybe I’ll even go scuba diving on Christmas!



Giving Thanks

I delayed my big move to Southeast Asia for a month and am leaving in two weeks, gulp! The extra month gave me more time with my best friend in Vancouver, and her new baby daughter. Honestly, I started getting nervous about the move and needed more time state-side.


It’s Thanksgiving weekend in the United States, and I’m taking stock of all the joy and fortune in my life – and most of it is because of the people in my life. I am so thankful for my community, and it’s hard to let it go as I move to Vietnam.


This fall has been a whirlwind and I spent two weeks with friends and family on the East Coast. Siblings, father, aunts, uncles, cousins, and nephews. High school friends I hadn’t seen in 20 years. New friends I’d met while travelling in Vietnam and Laos. And then one day in New York my brother, sister, nephews and I were driving home from the pumpkin patch, laughing and chatting as we pulled into my brother’s driveway and suddenly were sideswiped. The other driver t-boned the car and both cars were totaled. The ambulances came, we went to the hospital and fortunately we all survived. It reminded me how fragile life is and I should treasure every moment.


Now, I’m back in Seattle and saying endless goodbyes. I’ve already cried twice today as I’ve exchanged final hugs with two sets of friends. Lots of late night poker tournaments, marathon majong sessions,and karaoke at Bush Garden. Of course, Vietnam has poker, mah jong and karaoke, but I know it won’t be the same. In March 2010, I left Seattle on what I thought was an indefinite move to Vietnam (I came home in the fall due to my mother’s cancer diagnosis). This time around it seems so much harder, so definitive, so many more tears.


Although I’m sad, I’m also excited for my new life which begins with six months of travelling and volunteering in Southeast Asia. Yoga on the beach in Thailand, meeting friends in Bali, volunteering in Burma – many adventures ahead!

I am cramming a whole lot of living during my final months in the United States. The minutes, days and weeks are flying by and I want to savor every moment. Two-week vacation in Hawaii with my mother  and brother to celebrate the end of her chemotherapy. Weekends at the beach  with friends filled with long walks, games, food and laughter. Visits up north to Vancouver, BC for my best friend’s wedding and baby shower. I know that everything is about to change and this will be our last visit before we have children. Trips to the Korean spa will soon be replaced with children’s museums. And even then it will be many years before I return to Seattle with my daughter, surrounMy brother and I enjoy shave ice at Waiola Store – lychee is my favorite!ded by my community, friends and family.

The other morning I was walking my friend’s son to day care. Every time we crossed the street, he reached up to hold my hand. When we arrived on the sidewalk he’d drop my hand and speed ahead with the energy of a 4-year old boy. People walked by and smiled at us, at the happy image of a mother and son. And in that moment I realized this would be my life. Next year, I’m adopting a daughter in Vietnam.

Last weekend, I was reminded to live in the moment – don’t dwell on the past or skip ahead, all we really have is this moment, this breath. My mother and I attended a 3-day workshop at Harmony Hill, a cancer retreat center in Hood Canal. My mother’s treatment was completed five months ago and her CT scan and blood tests have come back clean – she’s cancer-free!  Every time my mother tells people she has cancer, I correct her with “had” cancer. Many of the retreat participants have had recurrences, and most survivors live with this ongoing fear. These women and men were amazing, and despite the statistics are trying to live each moment with joy. Caregivers also expressed their challenges, and I was able to let go of my guilt for leaving my mother to move to Vietnam. This past year has been phenomenal, and I don’t regret a minute of my time in Seattle. My mother will have tests for the rest of her life, but I need to move on with my life and go to Vietnam.

Tomorrow, I head to New York for two weeks on the East Coast with family and friends in New York, Connecticut and Vermont. It’s my final journey back east and there will be many goodbyes. In November, I return to Southeast Asia starting in Bali and Vietnam. And there will be many more hellos.

I just celebrated my 42nd birthday. As a child, my mom always made a big deal of birthdays, even though culturally birthdays aren’t really celebrated in Vietnam. We didn’t have much money, but there was always cake, presents and festivities. A few years ago I was flipping through old photos and noticed she recycled the party hats for many years, but I still felt like a princess every single year.

As an adult, I’ve spent my birthdays surrounded by friends, family and partners. White river rafting, kayaking, dinner parties and BBQs. This year, I decided to spend my birthday by myself in the woods. My days and nights are booked solid and a quiet retreat for some Annie-time seemed like a perfect way to celebrate my big day. My car turned off the highway and the Buena Vista Social Club was blaring on my Ipod. My body visibly sighed as I zoomed by rivers, trees, farmhouses and cows, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the beauty of the Northwest.

I stayed in my family’s cabin in Cle Elum, Washington – a huge house that includes 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, 2 lofts and a hot tub. Every morning, I’d wake up, brew some coffee and walk out to the river watching the swallows darting in the water and trees. My fatal flaw was reading a scary novel that made me a bit jumpy. Lots of noises in the woods and houses creak. I love being alone, but instead found myself feeling lonely. Lately, I’ve been getting nostalgic for Seattle, preparing myself for the big move to Southeast Asia this fall. I watch 4th of July fireworks and in between the ooh’s and aah’s realize it will be many years before I’m back for this holiday.

In a few months, I’ll leave Seattle again and will have plenty of solo-time in Vietnam. As I turn 42 in the woods alone, I realize now is the time for friends and family.


For months, my mother was heralded as the poster child for chemotherapy. Her spunk always brought a smile to the nurses and oncologists. We felt so fortunate that she was relatively free of side effects, attributing her success to acupuncture and medical marijuana.

But after my mother’s eighth chemotherapy treatment she quickly began to deteriorate. The deadly cocktail finally took a toll and was ravaging her body. She had several falls and needed to walk with a cane, and even then had problems getting around. She was audibly grimacing in pain and it was hard for me to watch her rapid descent. Before the cancer, she was going to the gym seven days a week, and now she couldn’t even walk on her own. Several times, her blood count was down and we had to skip or alter treatments.

Last week, my mother confided in me if she had to endure another chemotherapy treatment, she felt she would die from the pain. I suggested she discontinue her chemotherapy after ten treatments, and we met with the oncologist to discuss her options. In the waiting room, I surveyed all the patients, each at different stages of their treatment. Patients in wheelchairs and walkers, overweight, emaciated and bald. Cancer doesn’t discriminate and it was a racially diverse crowd, including other Vietnamese patients with medical interpreters. Some people were alone and my heart squeezed as I imagined their isolation during this challenging process. The oncologists agreed with my mother’s decision to end her chemotherapy early, and I felt like skipping home.

Easter was three days later. And miraculously, my mother was able to walk unassisted on the third day!

Seven months ago, I received news of my mother’s cancer diagnosis while in Greece. I’m so thankful I could return to Seattle to help my mother and be surrounded by supportive friends and family. Tomorrow, we are headed to Harmony Hill (www.harmonyhill.org), a cancer retreat center in Hood Canal, for the next stage in her healing journey.

Halfway home


I started this as a travel blog, and haven’t written in three months since I’m not travelling. But I’m still sucking the marrow from life every single day, so am reviving my writing while I’m in Seattle.

My mom is halfway through her chemotherapy and has completed six out of 12 treatments. I’ve spent more time in medical facilities the past four months then over the past 41 years. Hospitals, clinics, emergency rooms; visits with oncologists, nurses, acupuncturists, doctors, financial counselors and social workers. Navigating the health care system is a part-time job, and I’m so happy to be home to help my mom with her journey.

The doctors are amazed by how well she’s handling the chemotherapy with minimal side effects. After her first treatment, my mom tells me she wants to get a prescription for medical marijuana. We visit the oncologist, and at the end of the visit, the doctor asks if we have any further questions. My mom suddenly gets shy, so I broach the topic of medical marijuana. The doctor is happy to help us, and my mom whips out a medical release form. I’m shocked since we don’t even have a printer at home. When the doctor steps out of the room, I ask my mom about the form. She tells me she has already contacted and visited a local non-profit dispensary that she found from an advertisement in the Stranger (Seattle’s alternative weekly newspaper). The doctor and I are smiling at my mother’s resourcefulness.

A few weeks later, I enter my mom’s room and am bowled over by the smell of marijuana. While I was spending the weekend at the beach with friends, she was stocking up on supplies – including one small plant! The supreme irony is I’m a recovering drug addict/alcoholic and have been sober for 24 years. And now my mom wants to grow pot in the house! Fortunately, she doesn’t smoke pot and prefers to ingest via brownies and pills. Her brownie supply runs low, so I accompany her to the marijuana dispensary and again am overwhelmed by the odor. This time, we get some marijuana-infused butter and the next day I’m baking her magical chocolate chip cookies. My mom has sacrificed so much for me and I’ve always felt indebted to her. As I’m baking the cookies, I am laughing out loud and starting to feel like we are finally even!

Last month, I set up a small business and started non-profit consulting. I haven’t worked in 14 months and relished every moment. Never felt bored, unproductive or experienced low-self esteem. My main client is a Native American non-profit and it’s a mutual love fest. It feels great to provide expertise, but I’m drawing a limit at half-time work. I still need time to help my mom and enjoy my fabulous life.

People always ask me if I miss travelling or wonder if I still like Seattle. I love Vietnam, but it will be there in the fall when I’m ready to return. For now, I am savoring every day in Seattle and the benefits of living in the United States. Thanks to the magic of lab tests, I’ve just discovered I have giardia. A parasite has been living in my intestines since Africa, wreaking havoc until I obtained health insurance and visited my doctor. I knew there was something with a tail and a face inside of me (okay, they don’t have a face but there is a tail!).

My mother’s surgery goes without a hitch. I make jokes throughout the surgical check-in process (it’s my coping mechanism when I’m nervous, you should see me with immigration agents or cops!). My mother is a bit embarrassed, but understands that I’m nerve-wracked too. They let me accompany her as she changes into her hospital gown, puts all her valuables into a plastic bag, and the nurses go over her vitals. It’s time to wheel her into surgery and the nurse tells me, “This is a good time for hugs.” I panic for a moment, as if she’s implying this is the last hug I’ll ever give my mother. I wait for many hours, and am so relieved when the surgery is over and I can hold her hand, look into her eyes. She spends the next five days at the hospital, and is so happy to get back to the comfort of her home.

One day, as I’m visiting my mom in the hospital, I get an unexpected call. The prior week, I received a free mammogram and they want me to return for a diagnostic mammogram. There are several panicked phone calls about coverage and my lack of health insurance. It seems unimaginable that my mom has colon cancer and now I could have breast cancer (and be uninsured)! I take several deep breaths, plaster a smile on my face and re-enter my mother’s hospital room. No need to worry her about anything. I find comfort from my friends who all tell me they frequently have follow up from mammograms. The last year has been about staying present, and I try not to skip ahead to the mastectomy.  A few weeks later, I return for my mammogram and when I get the cancer-free results jump up and down and whoop with joy. All the women in the waiting room are wearing identical smocks and quietly smile at my reaction, probably hoping for the same outcome. Once I’m alone in the dressing room, I collapse with relief and cry. It’s exhausting being strong and positive all the time, and I just need to relish in the real fear that I had for myself and that I have for my mother.

A few weeks pass, and it’s time to meet with the oncologist to review her pathology results and treatment options. I surround myself with love and support, and we cram four people into the exam room, my mom, my friend who was a social worker, my uncle who is a nurse and me. They tell my mom she needs chemotherapy and I feel like I’ve been socked in the stomach. A protective wall goes up and I’m skeptical to their advice, suddenly dubious of the entire medical industry. Six months of chemotherapy called modified FOLFOX 6, it sounds like a bad science fiction character. As we leave the hospital my friend quietly asks me, “Why wouldn’t you want her to get the chemotherapy?” And she’s right. In the end, it’s not up to me either. My mom wants the chemotherapy. She’s almost perky about the entire thing. She wants to kill cancer forever, and alleviate any fear of recurrences. I’m the one who feels scared and sad, and it’s not even my disease!

It takes me less than 24 hours to decide to stay in Seattle for her treatment. At first, I toy with the idea of returning to Southeast Asia for the first few months. The chemotherapy is cumulative, and the side effects are supposed to be harder in the final months. I try to imagine myself lying on a beach in Vietnam while my mom is undergoing chemotherapy and I know I would get an ulcer from the stress and worry.  I tell my mom that I’m going to stay and she simply thanks me. She never asked me to stay, and when she doesn’t try to get me to leave, I realize how much she needs me to be here. Later, she tells me I shouldn’t work and should relax, start writing my book and we will buy a desk for my room. The next day, she gives me a hard drive for my laptop, convinced my writing will overflow the memory-ha!

Up until this news, I had every intention of returning to Vietnam at Thanksgiving to travel, volunteer, and then settle down in an apartment in Danang, adopt a child, write a book and start consulting. I was on a path. I had a new life waiting for me. This sudden shift feels like I’m putting my life on hold. But then I realize nothing is on hold. I am still living every single day of my life. I love Seattle. I’m so lucky to have the flexibility to be able to stay in Seattle to help my mom. This time with her is really a gift, since we haven’t lived together since I was 14 years old.

Home sweet home

After my mother’s diagnosis with colon cancer, it doesn’t feel right to laze on the beaches of Greece and ogle hard bodies. So I head to Milano and Amsterdam seeking the comfort of longtime friends. In Milano, I visit a friend from high school that I haven’t seen in 20 years. She was always one of my most fashionable friends, and I’m embarrassed to show up in my plastic sandals and nylon pants that zip off into shorts (really practical for travelling, but not very stylish!). I have been living out of a backpack for six months, and it’s such a treat to have all the comforts of a real home, including a divine mattress. As the weather shifts to a frigid 60 degrees, I get sick and fly to Amsterdam. It’s even colder and I spend the next few days holed up in my friend’s apartment, drinking endless mugs of tea and watching dozens of episodes of True Blood and Cougar Town.

I arrive in Seattle and hug my mother tightly at the airport. Choking back tears since I want to be strong for her during this time. It’s a complex web of emotions – relief to be home with my mother, fear of the unknown and looming cancer, happiness to be surrounded by comforts and familiarity. My mother is  typically Asian, and has packed the refrigerator full of food for my homecoming. Friends from Vancouver visit us and fill the house with life, love and the joyful company of their three year old son. There are many surprisingly sunny Seattle days, and I go on many walks marveling at the fall foliage. Friends cook us dinner, or I meet friends for meals and never pay a dime.

Everything is so easy, comfortable and convenient. I can read menus, ask for directions (and understand the answers) and take rapid transit without getting lost.  Overseas, the smallest task can feel like a huge negotiation. Navigating language and culture can be challenging. Friends ask if I’m going to stay home, and I quickly answer NO! I love Seattle and this will always be my home. But Vietnam has a vibrancy that I want to plunge into and I won’t be lulled by Seattle and easy-to-read street signs.

My mother and I spend five hours with her medical team in preparation for her surgery. Everyone is friendly, accessible, thorough and professional. My experience with surgeons is limited to television and movies, where doctors are overly cautious and cryptic for fear of litigation. In contrast, her medical team all confidently proclaim they have caught the cancer early and there shouldn’t be any further treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation.  I cancel all my fall plans to travel in Vietnam and Laos, and volunteer in the Philippines. Right now, I just want to be home with my mom, surrounded by my friends, family and community. My mom is her usual spunky self, and continues to attend her Latin dance class twice a week. Occasionally, I have a wavering negative thought about the cancer. These are fleeting moments, and instead I feel so happy to be home, with the steadfast knowledge that my mother is going to be just fine.