Rain Drop Drop Top

HONEY WE’RE GOING DOWN SWINGING

It’s been six months. Six months without soft pretzels, Rita’s and sour patch watermelon candy. Whenever I had a gruesome workday back at Penn, I would walk to the pretzel factory, buy a roll of doughy goodness and proceed to devour five fresh, perfectly salted pretzels in less than ten minutes…with chocolate and cinnamon sugar dip on the side, of course. You know, I have never thought to enter a food eating contest, but my appetite gives me reason to believe that I would perform very well. On the contrary, my adventures  in Asia thus far have been insurmountable and worth missing all my favorite philly snacks by tenfold.

Month four was rough. I was so people-sick. There wasn’t a burning desire to return home; rather, I was yearning for my friendships back home. I miss the real-ness of East coast USA.  I appreciate knowing where I stand with everyone: the straightforward demeanor and down-to-earth people. Nonetheless, living in a developing country has taught me to adopt more patience.  Processes that seemed so pragmatic and simple at home take three times as long to complete here: installing wifi for the house, getting approved for a project, or even just dealing with difficult people. It brings me back to those days where I would struggle to hold a pose during yoga class. As my body quivered and struggled to breathe my instructor would calmly repeat, “Cat, this is hard but like life, all tough things shall pass. Just breathe.” That mantra has done wonders for me.

I’m a planner. It’s in my type-A DNA. You all know that. Mai Yer, one of the fellows I have grown particularly close to has recited on numerous occasions, “weakness is your strength overdone.” This line helped me reevaluate my past decisions. In college, I couldn’t say no. As a matter of fact, this is my whole life. I am scared of disappointing others, especially my family –I am a “yes” girl.  I still struggle to find balance in making my parents happy while trying to keep myself sane.  In hindsight, I was way too involved in college. I do not and will never regret my decisions because the experiences and people I met have blessed me greatly during those four year.  However, I am jealous of those who got to just chill. My idea of “chill” was trying to squeeze in an hour nap after a sleepless night crying from stress before my next meeting or rugby practice and trying to look like I was keeping it together.  

The second semester of senior year was difficult. I felt as if I had to live up to an invisible, unattainable label. Don’t worry Cat, you’ll be okay… you’re going to do great things. How do you know? Are you sure? Because my mind is currently freaking out. Am I allowed to not be okay? I went through these weird moods and went out a lot and cried all the time. I was so relieved when I graduated college.  All the pressure was finally off. Or so I thought. I felt as if I had to keep living up to these expectations from everyone around me. Why aren’t you in Med School yet? Why are you paying off your student loans now? Just go to school. What grad school are you applying to? You don’t have to worry, you’ll figure it out. You make things look so easy. Am I allowed to not have it figured it? It wasn’t until then that I actually practiced self care. Pat Moore, if you’re reading this, you are an angel. Pat would drive thirty minutes three times a week to help jump start my lifting regiment.  Through lifting, I learned confidence. I learned patience. I learned how to overcome my insecurities. I learned how to say no.

Accepting this fellowship to Laos was a big step. I received so much backlash from relatives who claimed that I was  “selfish” for leaving my parents and moving overseas. While this year has been a time of “yes” for most people in my fellowship, I chose the opposite.  I take the time to discern and process my thoughts. I don’t go out all the time anymore and some days I just want to lay there and just chill.  It may seem a bit anti-social to those that do not know me but key word… they don’t know me. It’s weird putting yourself first- being selfish is still new to me. But I’m worn out. The energizer bunny is going through a battery recharge and the bear is in hibernation. Or, you can say, “I’m doing me.” Sometimes I wish I would have developed this attitude in college, but I appreciate the journey it has carried me on.

And this journey has been wonderful with the many people who have been intertwined in my life. For example, in a few short weeks, a bunch of rugby girls are flying to Asia. (You guys are reading this right now…heeeeeey) We’re going to spend a week in Thailand. I’m so excited to show them this part of the world! These girls are also part of the reason why I am so strong together. I think about the word “beautiful” a lot while living here. Beautiful to me is what Coach Ali said when I finally perfected my spin on the throw, when Teleah delivered a death defying stiff arm, when Lexi tackled someone to the ground, or when a rookie impressed us by bonging a beer in five seconds.  Beautiful to me is inner strength. But beauty is always about physical appearances in Asia.  I feel like I am in a petri dish being observed by the world under a microscope whenever I leave my house. I hate it. To combat that uncontrollable factor, I stopped wearing makeup everyday. They’re going to judge me anyway so here I am, raw and vulnerable. Yes I have sun spots on my face but it is from exploring all of the beautiful sights throughout this new region of the world. My legs are adorned with dark blotches from bug bites but they are still fast and strong from running to catch flights to new cities. My waist is not a size 0 because I am enjoying all of the delicious cuisines and trying new delicacies. What you consider imperfections have taught me to count as my blessing.

During the month of December, I went on a whirlwind of an adventure to four countries. These are some quick, collective thoughts throughout the month of December-January. Pictures are complemented through my facebook, which you have already stalked.

 

NEW YEAR SAME ME

On the second day of New Years, my true love (me) gave to me… a $13 ice cream cone.  Ya girl was sitting at Emack & Bolio’s in Hong Kong eating a rice crispy waffle cone, double stuffed scooped ice cream (cookie monster) complemented with toasted marshmallow. My stomach was happy but bank account was wailing. Nevertheless, the sweet goodness was worth every single penny.

 

IT’S THAI-ME TO EAT: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thailand was a whirlwind of a time.  I took the bus from Vientiane to Khon Kaen for my first stop to pick up Julian, a laid back, west coast, Seattle proud guy who interestingly enough compliments my Philly sass.  Khon Kaen reminded me of a busy, suburban town in the US: maybe like Alexandria, Virginia? Everytime I cross the border to Thailand it’s a new world, one that I will never be bored of.

Julian and his friends had a BBQ at his house that night and I was very glad we didn’t go out because I subconsciously walk upstairs into my room for the night and immediately passed out. I mean, what else do you expect from me? I can fall asleep anytime and anywhere.

The next morning, I thought it was a good idea to go running with him in the blistering sun around the college campus. Why I thought it was a good idea after a 12K the day before still baffles my mind so I opted for a walking tour around the university. We gorged ourselves with a fabulous Thai meal before jetting off to the airport. Destination: Chiang Mai.

We were staying with Clayton, another PiA fellow who teaches at Payap University. Backstory: Julian and Clayton were one of the first fellows I befriended last April when I was at Princeton for my TEFL certification. Julian and I bonded because we have both been out of college for two years, in which I proclaimed, “hey you’re old too!” I’m so good at first impressions.

My favorite place we visited was Sticky Waterfalls. The name was given because you can literally climb up the waterfall without falling off, cracking your skull and have your blood splattered among the rocks. I felt a little bit like Spiderman scurrying up the rocks and feeling a little proud for defying death a little bit. My adrenaline rush for the day was satisfied.

We went out one night but I was falling asleep on the bar during our pre game. Julian suggested that we walk to 7/11 and buy espresso shots. After I downed the coffee, Julian bought me a beer to shotgun… outside the 7/11.. In an alley. My own personalized Four Loko.

Later in the evening we went to a club and at one point it was packed with obnoxious, extremely drunk tourists who jumped on stage and disrupted the performers. After living here for a few months I can’t help but cringe when I see a tourist wearing elephant pants and a bright neon tank top and a bucket hat.

Chiang Mai was so wonderful. We went to night markets, hiked to mountaintops, ate too much pad thai, danced like we knew everyone was watching, drank unpalatable local liquor and shared stories for hours. Thailand never disappoints and it was fabulous time. I can’t wait to go back in April because La Salle Women’s Rugby is taking over Bangkok! (please inquire if you would like to join the old fossil ruggers)

 

MALAYSIA TRULY ASIA: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The beginning of my plane’s descent in Kuala, Lumpur, Malaysia was interesting, to say the least.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, as per health regulations with the Malaysian government, we will not fumigate the plane. Please keep your head down if you have any sensitivities to the process. We apologize for any inconvenience.’ Um, excuse me what?! Imagine waking up from a nap hearing that. Ten seconds later, the plane, I heard fizzing from the aerosol cans being sprayed by up and down the plane. Besides that tid bit, I was so excited to be there and most importantly to try the food: a hybrid of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures melted into many delicious dishes. My appetite was ready.

You know what’s crazy? In the capital city alone, I went to five malls (three unintentionally) during that weekend. Five. And there’s about ten more, I’m not even joking. Can you imagine being in walking distance to some of the world’s best shopping malls?

When Joe and I were on the train to the Batu Caves (a mountainside cave with temples that were built into the stone) we almost went into the Women’s only train. At first, I thought all the cars were separated into male/female so I panicked a bit but quickly realized it was only the first three. In the car, there was a big sign emblazoned with pictionary of actions that were deemed indecent. Surely enough, the fourth cartoon depicted a couple kissing. Malaysia doesn’t like PDA guys. Duly noted.

Another amazing thing about Malaysia? I got my eyebrows threaded for $1.25! Go ahead, judge me, but I am never going to look at the aesthetician the same ever again when she charges me $11 back in the states. My brows were very happy that I finally had them tamed after three months.

One of Joe’s college friends from Edinburgh lives in Malaysia so we got a personal tour of the city and went to the Islamic Arts Museum and the National Mosque (women had to wear hijabs and I’ve never worn one before and it was really cool). My favorite part of having a local guide was the food. He fed us local, delicious, cheap meals and my stomach was overjoyed with happiness.  We went to a night market on our last evening and I think that’s where Joe witnessed first hand how much I could really eat. People underestimate me when I say I can eat. I’m pretty sure it’s borderline gluttony.

Because I was missing Christmas at home, it was beautiful walking through the city center at night. There was a big christmas tree, adorned with lights and decorations. There was also a colorful light show on the lake and I enjoyed this view while eating a green tea kit kat ice cream cone. Yes, they’re a thing. I could’ve died happy that night.

 

VIETNOMS: Saigon, Vietnam

Twelve year old Cat did not appreciate Vietnam. To date, it was the best family vacation in 2004 and I did not fully appreciate the experience until growing up.  I stayed with my Uncle’s girlfriend- she owns a travel agency and her daughter is a fashion designer. Saigon is the complete opposite of Vientiane: it’s energy was undying, horns were honked in every direction and it has become an international economic hub.  They had Uber!! One interesting fact: you can request a motorbike Uber to bypass traffic and swerve in between the cars. My motorbike driver was so impressed with my Vietnamese that he didn’t even kill me when I got us lost and doubled our commute time home.

I was walking through a market before meeting with Peggy and Molly, two PiA fellows, for dinner one evening. The merchant loudly exclaims, “man, these westerners are so big now!” I really wanted to turn around and say something to shut her up but I refrained. Matter of fact, that happened a lot in Vietnam. Everyone thought I was Indian or Spanish so they would openly talk about me and then become super embarrassed when I responded in the native tongue. It felt so good.

It was so nice to explore the city on my own terms. Growing up, I feel as if I learned about Vietnam’s relationship from two biased points of view: my parents and the textbooks provided in school. It was nice go to the museums on my own and formulate my own thoughts and opinions.

I gorged myself on many hot, steaming bowls of pho and refreshing ice coffees the next few days before heading to Hanoi.

 

PLEASE DON’T HANOI ME, VIETNAM

I remember I hated Hanoi when I was twelve. People were so straight-laced, boring, and my Gameboy Advance was fifty times more interesting. At least that’s what puberty-prime Cat thought.

Old lady Cat loves Hanoi. I met up with some Princeton fellows who live with me in Vientiane and we explored Hanoi together. We even took a day trip to Ninh Binh, a beautiful UNESCO world heritage site.  In Ninh Binh, Kathy and I rented a motorbike and drove through literal mountains. We rented a boat to go through eight caves in one of the most serene places I have ever been. Earth, you never cease to amaze me.

One day, Kathy and I met up with Johnny, a Scottish lad I met back in Vientiane who has been living in Hanoi for three years. He works for Pass it Back Rugby and his language skills are impeccable. As much as I am impressed by his ability to speak my native tongue, I am shamefully embarrassed. How can I only speak, write, and read sixty percent of my language and this guy was passing me with flying colors? It brought me back to a saying my dad always repeated when I was younger, “As long as Vietnamese is spoken there is Vietnam.”

Spending Christmas away from home was really tough.  Christmas Eve is a big celebration in the Ta Family. While Kat spent the evening with her family, Kathy and I treated ourselves to a fancy western asian fusion dinner completed with egg nog. Then we went to happy hour and had drinks with Michael, another PiA fellow who was visiting with his mom. Michael brought us gingerbread cookies from his hotel. I was in Heaven. It may have been the most unconventional Christmas ever but I was so grateful to have inspiring, wholesome and wonderful humans around me.

 

KING KONG IN HONG KONG

Hong Kong is the best kept secret life has kept from me thus far.  I was meeting up with twenty other PiA fellows there for New Years. After having the flu for the past two NYE celebrations I was excited to even be walking and breathing on that day. I stayed with Forrest’s family.  I wanted to drop dead when I got to his house. He lived fifty feet away from the Beach in one of Hong Kong’s most expensive and beautiful neighborhoods. His family invited me to have a lunch with their family friends the next day. This “casual lunch” included taking a private yacht to an island to hike to our restaurant. Somebody pinch me please. The next week was filled with Michelin Star (yes, you read right) meals, the most beautiful scenes and…GOING TO DISNEYLAND! Julian and AJ are such beautiful souls who came along with me to the happiest place in Hong Kong. You would have thought I was 2.4 instead of 24 during that day. I also got to check another box off my bucket list and go to a horse race. I never wanted to leave Hong Kong. It has been my most favorite place to visit thus far in Asia. If you ever have the opportunity, do not hesitate to book your flight!

Smiling’s My Favorite

LET’S TACO BOUT IT

Boy oh boy would I do dangerous things for a mean ol’ juicy, stuffed burrito from Chipotle right now. Okay let’s be honest I always got the salad bowl because I swapped those calories for extra guac. Yes, guacamole is mandatory and worth the extra $2. I had subpar Mexican food here three weeks ago and it made me want to cry literal tears of disappointment.

ICE ICE BABY

It’s a steady seventy degrees here in the mornings and nights when I am driving home from work and boy am I cold. You’re all laughing at me right now, I know it. My body is adjusted to function above eighty degrees- this “winter” weather is not going to work. I’m also kicking myself real hard in the tush for not packing any warm clothes.

A-LISTER

I have officially reached local status. There’s two places I go to every so often to get khao piak, a crisy pork noodle soup and khao neaow gap laap, sticky rice and minced pork salad. One is a street food stall whereas the other is a legit hole in the wall restaurant near my gym. Because ya girl is frugal as hell, I only spend $2.25 on the soup and $1 for the later. One day, both of these places recited my order before I had a chance to say anything and I responded with a 100-watt-smile. One of the owners speaks minimal English and invited me to sit and have brunch with them. I was so over the moon but embarassed by my limited Lao so I made up a terrivle excuse. It would have been wonderful but I was feeling awfully shy that day.

Oh yes. I’m part of the cool kids club now– please pass my me membership card for coupon savings.

Another instance happened about a week ago (cue the song…now it’s going to be stuck in your head) when I was teaching my Senior Intermediate class. Their English is at a very high level so I don’t speak as slowly as I do in my other classes. When I asked if they understood the directions I heard a resounding “yes.”

Immediately after they began their project, Bo looked at Tiger and asked, “What is she talking about?” in perfect Lao.

“Bo, I know what you said. You guys just told me in English you understood the directions.”

Jaws were dropping on the floor I tell you. I’ve been studying my Lao. Y’all can’t talk about me anymore playas.

In this same class, we had a discussion about sports and female participation. Bebe told me she really wanted to play soccer but she wasn’t allowed to because of her sex and it wasn’t supported in her community. The boys in my class agreed. So what did I do? We watched “She’s The Man” in my next class because what better way to show them that the status quo is a no go. I could’ve made my point by tackling some of the boys but I would like to keep my job.

Also, because I forget and underestimate the power of a teenager’s stalking skills, these kids figured out my age by googling my name, finding my rugby headshot pic from la salle’s website, and then calculating my age from the provided information. We were discussing where they wanted to go to grad school and asked me about undergrad, but now I realized it was so they can find out my info. Is anything sacred anymore?

‘WHINE’ AND CHEESE-IN

Now that I’ve been here for a while and not freaking out over rudimentary nuisances such as learning to ride a bike or dealing with spider bites (I came home at 2am one night and my roommates padlocked the door so I had to sleep in our hammock and spiders feasted on the booty that night), I’ve been reflecting and analyzing life here. Back at home I feel like I was working all the time. It was so stressful in health care and when I wasn’t at work I was at the gym trying to de-stress, sleep, eat, or drink away a bad day. I loved my job and adored my patients but I wanted to be the doctor, not the medical assistant. When I’m here I feel like I can be present and actually have time to take care of myself. I get to enjoy my meals rather than scarf down a salad before running to do treatment on a patient and I have time to read and learn new things and actually talk to people. I love the quality alone time I get to have with myself here, it’s so nice.

For instance, the other day this man stopped me outside of the gym and proceeded to speak a mile a minute in Lao and I responded with a smile complimented by a blank stare.

“You look Lao.” He answered in English.

When I was in Cambodia, they thought I was Khmer, Phillipino or Malaysian. I’m like a one size fit all yoga pant, except just ethnic identities.

I LOVE CHEAP THRILLS
While I’m slowly but surely improving my Lao, I have also been working on my Vietnamese. Knowing Vietnamese has helped me so much here. I was buying fruit at the morning market and really wanted seafood. I’m not confident in my ability to order poultry or seafood yet—it’s so intimidating. If I do want chicken I’ll go buy it at the restaurant. Anyways, I spoke Vietnamese to a lady and she helped me—just because we spoke the same language! I also want to kick myself for rebelling my parents when I was younger. I hated going to Viet school on Sundays. I wanted to be watching cartoons and chilling in my Pokemon shirt and eating cereal. Besides, that was the “ching chong” phase of the 90’s when kids on my block would make fun of me for speaking what they thought was Chinese. It also wasn’t cool to be different than everyone else when you were younger. If only I could go back in time like the Ghost of Christmas Past and smack myself across the head.

IS THIS REAL LIFE ?

I still can’t get over the fact that I can just take a bus and cross over into Thailand. Everything there is thirty percent cheaper. Since Laos is landlocked, most of our things are imported from Thailand and sometimes I’ll find goods or food that cost the same as the states. This gal ain’t made of money.

I attended a women in leadership conference hosted by the Australian Chamber. One of the speakers was Lao Khang, a member of the national lao rugby team. She spoke about Pass it Back, an organization that you should definitely Google.

“Sport is a way to education…the Lao ministry has finally recognized rugby as an elite sport…we aim to change the perception of value of girls…sports is a path to leadership.”

I was so emotional after hearing her story because I feel as if I am starting to get sucked into the stereotypical submissive female role here. My landlord often dismisses my comments yet is compliant with Zach. This was the female power booster I needed to remind myself to fight the status quo.

BREAK OUT THE CHOCOLATE ADVENT CALENDARS

I didn’t anticipate being homesick when I was moving; I always experience wanderlust and knew that this year would satisfy my curiosities. However, Thanksgiving came all ripped out all these fuzzy emotions .

I miss dad’s terrible puns and corny dad jokes. I miss mom especially when she sends me precious picture quotes (she recently discovered picture text messaging).I long for the nights when my sisters and I would binge on fast food and belt obnoxiously to ballads and I would be the first to fall asleep during sister bonding night.

I miss happy hour on Wednesday’s because Annie, Tom, Dan, Austin, Molly, Maura and I still got to pretend we could still drink like college from 5-7 before passing out in bed by 9pm. I miss Zach taking me to greasy brunches or Mexican restaurants to break my eating streak every time I told him I was paleo. I miss Lauren’s willingness to eat back all our calories at shake shack after lifting at the gym. This is followed by Pat sending me a series of messages about how I will never achieve a six pack. They’re overrated anyways. I miss my adventures and sharing my fears and dreams with Kara, my patient and loving college roommate(she literally just called to check up on me as I type this). I miss Dan and I miss just laying there and openly talking about anything with Muffy. I miss David waking up to go on River runs and being a life coach during our car rides. I miss Vito being my cheerleader during the MCATs even though he’s busy as heck in Med School. I miss Crystal and Lan because they teach me to be resilient. I am heartbroken that I cannot be there to babysit and watch baby Sebastian grow up. I miss my group chat with Rachel and Danae filled with all things random. I miss sending obnoxious texts of outrage to Gina while we watch Greys Anatomy. I miss Claire feeding me avocados as well as my wanderlust. I miss me and Ducky’s bond- our rugby friendship has grown stronger even with distance. I miss my teammates. If you don’t know me that well you should know that I will always defend La Salle Women’s Rugby forever. They have been so loyal and kind and generous to me and days like this make it so hard.

Today is the last day of classes and then I’m off to doing what Cat does best for the next few weeks — diddy boppin’ around.
PeaceLoveAndSorryYouCantGetChristmasCardsFromMeThisYear,

Kitty xoxo

Turn Down for Angkor Wat

“I Can’t Wait To Go Home.”

This is what I said to my country director from Princeton after missing my flight. Ten days in Cambodia was enough. I wanted my bed. Except home meant Laos. But Philly has always been home. However, that term is now associated with my house in Vientiane, adorned with coconut trees, Maddy’s hammock, and the Laos themed beer pong table perched against the wall which Zach painted.

We had a midterm break at school so I took advantage of it to get away and explore another place. Cambodia was awesome! I stayed in the capital, Phnom Penh for six days and Siem Reap, a city five hours away, for three days in total. Phnom Penh is the complete opposite of Vientiane. It’s grittier, louder, sassier and rough around the edges: a hybrid of Philly and New York. Even my journey to get to Phnom Penh was an adventure within itself: I took a Tuk Tuk to the border, hopped on a bus to get to Thailand, took a Taxi to Udon Thani and flew to Bangkok, and then had a seven hour layover in the middle of the night before  my one hour flight to Phnom Penh. After I got my visa, I had a bizarre interaction with immigration.

Officer: Why are you traveling alone?

Me: Oh, I’m meeting my friends because they live here.

Officer: Why you no travel with your boyfriend?

Me: I don’t have one.

Officer: Why not?

Me: *laughs nervously* I don’t know. Because I don’t have one?

This was followed by the officer and his partner exchanging words in Khmer and laughing before they let me go. I was too tired and annoyed to let it get to me. When I left the airport I took a tuk tuk because it was three dollars cheaper than the taxi. And I can spend that three dollars on more important things, like ice cream. I was staying at two of the PiA fellows’ apartment- there’s five princeton in asia boys who work in Phnom Penh. All I had was a screenshot of their address and hoped to sweet baby Jesus this man knew where to take me because my phone was on 20%.

During that week, I visited all the tourist spots: Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, Friendship Monument, Riverside and of course, ate too much food like always. I ate pizza for the first time. Phnom Penh has more western influence than Vientiane so I went to a pizza shop called “Brooklyn Pizza” whose owner is actually from New York and split a pizza and wings with Mai Yer. We spent $30 on that meal and I do not regret it one bit. The best part is USD is used as currency and the cost of living is way cheaper than Vientiane so I gave no second thoughts whenever I was spending money. The two parts which stuck out to me were the Killing Fields and The Tuol Sleng Museum, which was a school that turned into a prison from 1975-1979 during the Khmer Rouge in which thousands of innocent victims. I remember learning about this sophomore year of high school and just being so sad. I messaged my history teacher from that class two days before I visited the museum, which Joe and Diogo, the two Princeton fellows I stayed with lived only five minutes away from. Isn’t that crazy though? They live in the neighborhood where thousands of innocent people were killed and forced to confess to false crimes.

I was so happy to be going to Siem Reap because it was a tourist town and we were not going to visit any sad war museums there. Angkor Wat was so beautiful, stunning, and magestic. I went with Joe and his friend from home, Christian, who now lives in Singapore met us there. We saw sunrise, sunset, and about ten hours of just visiting different temples. My favorite temple was one that was completely surrounded by a lake and you had to walk on this little bridge pathway to get to it. There was also a temple called Ta Prahm where Angelina Jolie filmed Tomb Raider. Since we were there during Halloween weekend, I didn’t feel as if I was missing out on the celebration from home. We went to this bar called “Temple” (so original right), and at one point they turned off the lights and there were these people in masks that would just pop out of no where. If one of those fools came up and tried to scare me I would’ve dump tackled them because I’m not about that life. Also, one of the highlights was going to a Bug tapas bar. Yes, you read that right. Joe and I had a bet that if I came to Cambodia he would have to eat a deep fried tarantula. When we actually saw them on the street carts my stomach became queasy so we went to a bougie, western-friendly, restaurant where we were sure it was clean and safe. Honestly, it wasn’t that bad. It tasted like a deep fried soft shell crab. But I will never do it again. Sorry I made yall vom.com on snapchat!

When we got back to Phnom Penh, our country director, Audrey was there. Our directors fly to meet us during the year to check up on us and have one-on-one meetings with each Fellow.  I had just missed Audrey in Laos, so I went back to Phnom Penh to meet up with Audrey. She’s so amazing- she’s optimistic, a fearless leader and just so comforting to talk to. There were so many wonderful things about Cambodia but if you want, just stalk my Facebook album. It’s so much easier.

 

It’s Been A Lao-ng Time Coming… 

I knew something was up when it’s been two months and I haven’t gotten an injury yet. We all know I’m a magnet for bruises, cuts, and concussions. A few nights ago, I was driving home after work. It was dark and raining pretty hard. Before the lights turn green there’s this one period where everyone has a red light at the intersection so people just gun it and drive so they don’t have to wait for the lights. I’m not justifying my actions but I was tired, and impatient and wet. I wanted to get home. So I stepped on my gas pedal and drove. But so did the truck on the other side of the street. I tried to stop and hydroplaned but was not quick enough. I flew off my bike and onto the truck, my helmet broke my fall and smashed his windshield. And, I only left with minor cuts and bruises. What the hell, how? I’m telling ya, the Big Man upstairs keeps looking out for me. I was so lucky, and I learned my lesson big time. And because I’m the queen of concussions I’ve been getting little headaches here and there.  It’s nothing major but I’m going to get checked out at a hospital in Thailand this weekend. Might as well make a day trip out of it and try new food. Never stop eating.

I’ve learned to laugh at things I can’t control because why let negative things affect your life? One weekend, all of the Fellows were away. They actually went to Cambodia the weekend before I did because I do not have the same vacation days as they do. During those few days, I had my first stomach bug, a flat tire, and our power surged in the house, resulting in a broken iPhone charger and a fried laptop. I was so sad because I bought that laptop right before I left for Asia. That Sunday I went to Church because I haven’t gone since I’ve been here and I needed Team Jesus badly. The mass was in Vietnamese, Laos, and English. They only sang one song in English during communion and it was “10,000 reasons.” I was so shocked to hear the song because it’s a christian worship song that would never be sung at Church back at home. The first time I heard it was at a Presbyterian service I went to this summer where my younger sister interned. I started tearing up during communion because I was having such a rough weekend and before I went to Church I was telling God, “Okay, sorry I haven’t been to Church in forever but you need to give me a sign dude.” And that was my sign. The Big Man was telling me that’s he’s always looking out for me.

This weekend we have a rugby team from New Zealand coming to play and I’m so bummed! Of course I had to get into a motorbike accident this week. Secretly hoping they will do the Hakka and my dreams will come true like when I watched it in person in college. A girl can dream.

how precious is our house photo?14

peaceloveandCantWaitToSeeYouInBali,

Kitty xoxo

just a city girl, living in a laos-y world

Facebook Official

Now I understand why people fall in love with this city. It was midway through my second week and I was driving on my motorbike to the gym around 6 am. The night before, I was driving Jessica, my PiA fellow in crime, on my motorbike at around midnight. We were driving past the Phoenix nightclub near my house and there was a big van that stopped abruptly and pulled to the side. I swerved just in time and my bike got christened with projectile vomit, compliments of the driver. I went to bed disgusted but Jessica and I laughed about it over my last bag of Hershey’s chocolate nuggets. RIP American candy. The air that following morning was crisp and breezy, my hair was blowing in all directions and the monks were participating in their morning alms giving. This is when the monks leave their temple at sunrise and receive food from the local families and business who offer them rice, sweets and other dishes which serves as their meal for the day. While I was busy looking at the scene and taking in scents of delicious food cooking on the makeshift fire pits, a dog storms across the road and merely misses its death by .5 seconds. I slam on my breaks, which doesn’t like to work at times and the car behind me honks a very vicious beat. Typical Vientiane. You always get the bad and ugly. I fell in love with this city that day.

Nevertheless, I’ll always be a Philly girl through and through- even after visiting beautiful cities such as Paris, Amsterdam, Bangkok,  Venice and now Vientiane. It has a unique charm; it’s a hybrid of the previous French colonial influence and traditional Lao while a modern scene strives to emerg into the city. It’s such a cool vibe.  The people are so selfless and giving and understanding of my ungraceful moments. For instance, the merchants at the markets are so patient with my inaudible Lao, the barista at the French coffee shop Chan Malay caught a Geico after it climbed next to me and I threw an embarrassing fit, a gas attendant read my mind and he gave me two bottles of water before a long one hour drive to a waterfall park, and a man in my neighborhood literally chased me down to remind me to turn off my bike lights because it was daytime and the cops  love to find any reason to hand out fines. I think they like me, they really really like me.

 

Fancy Seeing You Here 

Before arriving to Laos I was aware that I still had relatives living here- they actually live twelve minutes away from my house. When my dad’s family moved to the States’ they gave their house to their cousins.  When we visited twelve years ago they took us to their farm and my sisters and I got to visit that very same house my dad lived in. Now that I’m older, I can’t imagine how emotional it must have been for my dad when he returned. He never really lived in Vietnam because of the war and was a resident in Vientiane for twelve years, so Laos is technically his home country. He probably never imagined he would be return decades later with his family. Now his daughter is breathing and eating (way too much) in the very house he grew up in.

Let’s rewind a bit. I was hesitant to reach out and so was my dad. They’ve lost contact since 2004 and we didn’t know how they were doing and I am not making that much to financially support a family.  So my dad put me in contact with his childhood friend here who helped me tremendously during my first week.  Coincidentally, my uncle was vacationing next door in Vietnam so he, his girlfriend and his friends from France and Australia who lived on the same block as him growing up came to visit Vientiane. I am always at my Uncle Quang’s house back home in Philly- he lives five minutes away from me and I’m very close with his daughters: Huyen and Thuy. They’re basically my older sisters. Anyways, Uncle Quang picked me up in a tuk-tuk he rented for the day and we decided to surprise his cousin.  As we were approached his house, I saw a sign that read “Kung’s Cafe.” My dad’s house has turned into this cool al-fresco dining cafe completed with hanging flower pots, bamboo decor and even a mist machine. This was also the week of the ASEAN Conference so the waitresses were wearing ornament Lao clothing and there were all these reporters and important looking people with their ASEAN lanyards eating in the cafe. My aunt was so overwhelmed: this was the first time she saw my uncle in forty years but she was also busy entertaining these legit looking diners. I randomly started talking to a guy who looked American and it turns out he works for NBC and he was only here because there was buzz that Obama was supposed to come and he found out about this cafe on the Lonely Planet Website. How stinking cool is that?! I showed the reporter the pictures of me in the living room from twelve years ago which is now one of the dining areas and he was so shocked. “So I’m meeting a Legacy of this house,” He said. I felt like Mia from Princess Diaries when she found out she was the ruler of a country. Except my famous owns a cool ass restaurant. And that’s better. Food is always better. So Obama was supposed to come one day but thirty minutes before his arrival it started to downpour. It’s rainy season here so the rain is absolutely unpredictable and bonkers. It’s like living in Florida. The White House staff that was there before him said secret service wasn’t letting him come anymore because you have to walk down an alleyway to get to the cafe and it would interfere with their communication system. So the staff ate but POTUS did not get to come. Bummer. This would have made my blog post 50x cooler.

After my Uncle left, I went to my Aunt’s the Sunday after to get to know them. It felt weird without my parents. But I have to remember that I’m basically an adult now and I have to learn how to do things on my own. It forces me to improve my Vietnamese because I feel rude speaking to my aunt in English and I barely know any Lao yet. My two nieces, who were five and two when I met them are now lively, charismatic and adventurous teenagers. We ate lots of food and went to the night market together. Now I come there for dinner on Sundays and help tutor Numwan, one of my nieces, English. Before my Uncle died he was her English teacher but they haven’t found a tutor that she worked well with so I told my aunt I would give it try. Numwan even roped me into helping her with French homework and I surprisingly remember more than I know. Thanks Ms. Cargan!

 

 

Teacher On Tap

Honestly, I don’t know what Princeton was thinking when they chose me to be a teacher in Laos. I was applying for an non profit position in Thailand or Singapore. During Orientation, my director, Maggie, who coached the National Lao Women’s Rugby Team, told me “you have a teacher voice. Your voice will sound nice in Lao.” All I did was smile because I didn’t believe her. All I did in college was dissect animals and study chemical structures and cry because I didn’t understand those chemical structures and bonds. I had no official classroom management training. And yet they still trusted me to teach at the top language school in Vientiane.

On my first official day of work, one of the directors told me that they completely changed my classes. I thought that all my students would be ages seventeen and up. Nope. Not at all. Two hours before my first classes I found out that my students were ranging from 15-26 years old among three different classes. This was a joke right? I was ready for Ashton Kutcher to pop into the office and shout, “You’ve been Punk’d!” Long story short- it went fine. My toughest class has been my 13 to 15 year olds.  The girls love to flirt and the boys think they’re all on the cover of GQ. I would love to tell them to get over themselves but then remind myself that I went through the same phase not too long ago. And they know I’m not that much older. But I am persistent on answering “100” whenever the class clown, BeBe, asks for my age. Keeping the mystery alive.

Vientiane College is not funded by the government; it’s a private tuition run school and the students’ main goals are to get the scholarships to attend grad school in New Zealand. So you basically have to have money or be on scholarship to attend classes here. Two weeks later, one of the directors asked if I can cover a level one beginners class. I was terrified- I don’t know how to teach seven year olds! Rob, this hilarious and amazing teacher I’ve grown fond of told me, “Just do it. You accepted this Fellowship because you wanted a challenge right?” So I said Yes. My “substitution period” is now continuing until the first week of November. I have a feeling I’m going to finish out the term as it ends the first week of December. But I don’t mind because I have grown so attached to these little ones. Surprisingly, they have taught me the most. Their English speaking level is comparable to my Lao. Whenever I teach them a new word they excitingly translate  in Lao so that I can learn as well. Their eyes widen and they clap animatedly when I pronounce the tone correctly. They are so eager, so lovable, so carefree and innocent.

One aspect I admire from my students is how much they value their education. Each class is an hour and a half. If you ask me, that’s forever and a day in teaching time. I’ve never had any awkward silences where I do not know what to say and I just do these “teacher things” that just happen. Big man is always looking out for me.  During my first week, I didn’t lesson plan correctly and tried to end class five minutes early. This was my advanced class so the students just sat there and looked at me. One boy, Bie, spoke up and said “Teacher, at VC we have a saying that every minute is 1,000 kip.” I was so embarrassed yet motivated to be the best teacher I can be for them. English is their key to get out, to earn an collegiate education at an international institution. I think back on the days when I basically ran out of class whenever lab ended early and here my students are hanging onto every word I say until the very last minute. They put life into perspective for me.

Teaching at Vientiane College has been a blessing in disguise. I am so surprised at how natural it feels.  Actually, if I didn’t have teaching assistants I would be dead. Is this real life? I am twenty four and have teaching assistants. This would never happen at home. Disclaimer: I grade the tests and assignments myself. Sure there are days when I want to snap and give my students all F’s- but that’s all part of the process right?  Thank you, Audrey, Maggie, Alex J, Alex C and Emily — y’all really know what countries to plant your Fellows to help them blossom.

 

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

My first week was challenging. That learning curve made me even more resilient. Now that week five is almost completed I feel as if I am starting to find my place here. I know my favorite/cheapest vendor to buy grilled chicken, sticky rice, and pho. I love riding my motorbike now- it’s the adrenaline rush I look forward to everyday even when my bike decides to randomly stop in the middle of traffic. Why haven’t I driven motorcycles at home? It’s so convenient. I’ve learned that I hate waiting for red lights and it’s so easy to swerve in an out of tight spots on the road– totally getting rid of the car when I get back to the States. Shout out to Mai Yer, the fantastic and caring second year fellow who got me to overcome my fear of motorbikes and save me from a year of sweat and buying a push bike.

I am taking Lao language lessons once a week with a private tutor which will help me feel more accepted in this community. I am still hesitant to tell people I am Vietnamese but the locals here think I am Lao anyway. The administrative and maintenance staff at my school are Lao, and they love it when they see me eating the local food in the teacher’s lounge when I’m doing work. They don’t know that I’ve been eating it my whole life and plus, it only costs $1 in comparison to the $12 I would spend if I wanted pizza.  Every day I try to learn a new street by going down a wrong road on my way to school or the gym. I have also grown fond of eating alone to learn new restaurants and practice my Lao and Vietnamese. I was so proud of myself for overcoming one of my biggest fears– eating alone in a restaurant. But here it feels so aesthetic and I’ve grown to like my alone time.

I haven’t gotten homesick yet really, except for the streams of snapchats I received from Austin, Annie, Tom and Dan Black one afternoon. They all made Laos T-Shirts and wore cat ears for their beer Olympics team. La Salle Rugby has always been so loyal and way too kind to me– playing for a women’s French team here has not been the same.

 

Miss you all as much as I miss Nyquil, chocolate, sour patch watermelon and almond butter.

 

PeaceLoveandSnailMail,

Kitty

 

Vientiane College
ATTN: Catalina Ta
PO Box 4144
23 Singha Road
Vientiane, Lao PDR

 

 

ToTo We’re Not in Philly Anymore

Toto, We’re Not in Philly Anymore…

            Vientiane, Laos. The city I’ll call home for the next year. My journey started from Los Angeles, California. There was no one else sitting in my row so naturally I kicked off my Toms, grabbed the other two pillows and laid out for the next thirteen hours. My first layover in Taipei, Taiwan went by fairly quickly because it was only three hours and I used the Wifi to tell my parents I was still alive. The airport was so clean and super cool- at every gate there was a different theme in the waiting room and it was decked out so I spent about an hour and a half just walking up around to the different terminals. Most favorite: the botanical room filled with fresh orchids in big white pots and ceiling to floor mirrors.  Least favorite: Hello Kitty. Enough said. My next layover in Bangkok was eight hours and it was pretty brutal. First, the airport tried to make me pay for a Thai visa (which by the way US citizens do not have to pay for a Thai visa) just to go downstairs and pick up my suitcases at the baggage claim and check in again. I was hungry and sleep deprived and my Philly sass was not about that life. I ultimately ended up speaking to a Thai airlines rep and they transferred my bags for free. I rewarded myself with a four hour nap on a random sofa while clutching onto my schoolbag for dear life because there was about $2500 in cash stowed at the bottom. The flight to Vientiane was only fifty five minutes which was perfect because I was starting to get antsy– I was going on twenty four hours of travel by now. While the plane was taking off, the overhead cabin above me snapped open and the lady across the aisle from me jabbed on my shoulder and pointed to the ceiling. “Oh great” I thought. I haven’t even gotten to Laos yet and I’m about to either get another concussion or black out from this obnoxious bag.  Luckily, an airplane attendant sprinted down the aisle and slammed the compartment before rushing back to his seat. My knight in not shining armor. When I got to Laos, I accidentally stood in the customs line for ASEAN Summit Diplomats. Of course I was sticking out like a sore thumb with my casual getup while the others were sporting suit jackets and fancy ID lanyards. I got pulled aside by a guard and thus began the next fifteen minutes of questioning.  I was mortified. My roommate Zach picked me up at the airport because Lord knows I had no idea where to go. When we got to my house I immediately fell in love. It has a super big yard with palm trees and Maddy brought her hammock so I’m living a dream just laying underneath coconut trees.  I have a king sized bed but after living on a twin size bed the past twenty four years I am conditioned to sleep in a small space. After dropping my things off at our beautiful house, we immediately drove to another fellow’s house because Jade and Jeff, the two summer interns were leaving the next day.  The last time I saw everyone was at orientation in Princeton so it was cool to finally meet again in a different country. I talked to another fellow, Sara, for most of the night. I feel as though I know Sara because I’ve been reading her blog posts before arriving in Vientiane and I definitely was a Stage Five creeper when I would answer “Oh I already knew that from your blog” whenever she would tell me a story of things I have been missing out on. Great start, Cat.

Just Keep Swimming..

               The next two days were, shall we say, cloudy with choppy waters. Kat, one of the other fellows, didn’t have work my first day so I hung out with her. I went to lunch with her and Spencer, another PiA fellow (she and Spencer both work at the same NGO) at a really nice restaurant that Zach picked out.  Afterwards, we went to a coffee shop so Kat could get some work done and I contacted my family to let them know I was still alive. The SIM card I bought for my phone wouldn’t register and my house doesn’t have internet yet so once I left the cafe I was disconnected from the world. That evening, I played in a tag rugby tournament. I haven’t played anything close to rugby in almost two years but it felt so comforting once I got going. My teammates know that I am a calm kitten but once I’m on the pitch my anger comes out and I accidentally threw the F bomb. I was so embarrassed and apologized profusely. 

The next day Zach didn’t go to work because he wasn’t feeling we went to run errands and picked up my motorbike from Kat and Spencer’s house. The motorbike I bought had a flat tire, loosened brakes and has all these special quirks I have yet to learn to even get the engine to start. It’s a semi-automatic bike which means nothing to me and it’s name is “Little Red.”  Now usually I’m always up for a new adventure and any activity adrenaline filling but i was just so terrified to ride this bike. Spencer was so patient with me as I tried not to crash my bike into the wall driving up and down the small road on his block. He’s a saint. I practiced for about fifteen minutes when Zach came back from running an errand and asked if I was ready to drive the bike back home to our house. Honestly, my confidence level was at about a 25.5 but I just smiled because I have no other choice. I.Was.So.Terrified. I ended up being that super slow grandma driver that everyone hates because shifting gears makes absolutely no sense to me and my bike would randomly jerk while we were on the main roads. Spencer, Maddy and Zach made a little barricade around me as we drove to our house. If I didn’t look like such a wimp we would’ve looked so cool, like the guys on Sons of Anarchy all riding down the street with our motorbikes. After that, I was pretty much traumatized and wanted nothing to do with riding. One afternoon I tried to get over my fear and did little donuts in our driveway to practice while Zach played on the Ukelele and walked in circles around me sporadically yelling “Catalina, foot on your brake!” Our neighbor across the street came home around that time and just stared at us because we definitely looked crazy. Yes sir your neighbors are crazy.

 

She Doesn’t Even Go Here…

               There’s this taboo that a Lao woman cannot live together with a falang (westerner). I started to notice that people would stare when I rode on the back of Zach’s bike. At first I thought it was just me but he said he noticed it too– I think it just bothers me more because I don’t like standing out. We went to run errands one morning and went to this mom/pop shop right outside our neighborhood. There were some Lao men socially eating outside the store and they asked if I was Lao. I haven’t learned the language yet so Zach told him I was Vietnamese. This man’s face immediately turned into a scowl as he stomped back to his friends, staring me down while talking to them. I immediately felt so unwelcome and uncomfortable and nervous. We bought the dish sponges from the lady and as I was strapping my helmet back on the man walked over to Zach to whisper something while pointing to me. Zach didn’t fully understand what he was trying to say but he said the man was telling him to watch out for me. I felt so uneasy the rest of the day. When I went to the coffee shop with Maddy I called my cousin and immediately broke down. The tears just kept falling– I was jet lag, scared, and hated being so dependent on the others because I feel like a burden.  Maddy told me to just focus on the little victories during my first few weeks here because it will make my transition so much more bearable. That pep talk got me going and for the past few days I did start focusing on the little achievements. 

 

I’m All The Way Up..

                Literally right after my crying session, I got in contact with my dad’s childhood friend who still lives here. She’s retired now and used to work for the Red Cross. She picked me up at the cafe with her driver and took me to her home where I had lunch with her family. Her grandson fixed my iPhone and her guard gave me some tips on how to ride because he has a semi-automatic bike as well. I called my parents from her house and they were relieved that I was fine. Her daughters are a few years older than me and we exchanged phone numbers.  One of her granddaughters actually goes to Vientiane College where I’m teaching at so it was cool. Apparently VC is the top English school in Vientiane and they have an awesome reputation. Oh man, the pressure was on. I started to feel so nervous about teaching.

When I got back I went to Buddha Park (a big tourist spot) with Kat, Maddy, Sophie and Caitlin. Sophie is this British girl working with a textile company who I dubbed “the Victoria Beckham of Laos” because she is so stylish and super fun. Caitlin is from Australia and she works for a water non profit and I called her “Aly Raisman” during our tag rugby tournament because she’s in the frisbee, rugby and running club. Also, after three rugby games this girl was doing cartwheels and flips across the field. Holy Moley. I visited Buddha Park when I visited with my family twelve years ago so it was a nice walk down memory lane.  Maddy has a nice fancy camera so she took all these awesome pictures- like the professional ones you see in magazines. 

 

Insert Vulgar Rugger Song Lyrics Here..

               On Tuesday night Maddy and I went to rugby practice. It was supposed to start at 6pm. We got to the field at about five to six  and I was immediately nervous because thanks to my college coach, Ali, I have PTSD from all those sprints I had to run if anyone was ever late to practice. Basically the women didn’t show up until about 6:30 so Maddy and I practiced with the men’s team for a bit. I got this sense that the men thought they were automatically better than us because we’re girls which is awkward because back at La Salle the men and women’s team practiced together. So as soon as the guy tapped the ball I sprinted up and tagged his waist because I was not trying to have them play me. Let’s just not get me started on the male/female divide in society. We started off doing simple defense and practice drills for the women’s practice. Then we started rucking drills with pads. Oh man, I’m gonna feel this tomorrow I thought when we started. The men’s rugby coach commented “what, did you play for the NFL?” after I went to which I muttered “no i played in college” because two years ago is an eternity in rugby life and I did not want to be put on the spot. After twenty minutes we did live drills (finally) and there was this girl that plays on the national Thai rugby team.  Now, Catalina Ta does not like to get dirty especially in this muddy field (I was always the one who showered before rugby socials) so sorry gal but I am not letting you tackle me without a fight. The coach told me to swap out and be the next tackler. I was nervous because I have not done so in two years but it was like this switch just turned on when the girl started running towards me. I could hear Ali’s voice in my head “Cat get low and wrap around” and laid her out. The woman’s captain exclaimed “wow you’re a natural!” But Maddy blew my cover and said I played in college. It felt so awesome to play again. This was my first personal victory in Laos. Things were starting to get dramatically better. Who would’ve thought getting thrown around on a muddy field for an hour would be such great therapy?

Wake Up, Wake Up- First Day of School!

                  After six days in Vientiane, I was scheduled to  meet my directors at the college on Wednesday. I was actually supposed to start teaching Sept 5 but Obama’s visit pushed school back another week– thanks POTUS! I woke up and of course it was raining outside. I threw on some shorts and put my dress in my schoolbag because I planned to take my bike to a repair shop before my meeting at 10. Of course, the bike didn’t start and after fifteen minutes of unsuccessfully revving my engine, swearing at the bike, and groaning a couple times, my British next door neighbor was driving past my house and rolled down his window. “Are you alright,” he asked. He couldn’t help me with my bike but it turns out he’s also a teacher at VC so he gave me a ride to the school. Big man upstairs has really been looking out for me. When we got to the school I realized I still had my running shorts and a T-shirt on but too late– the directors were already coming to greet me. There were three other new teachers from England, Denmark and Australia and of course they were dressed to the nines. And here I am this obnoxious American in workout gear and damp hair– boy did I leave a first impression. The first floor of the school was populated with frantic parents trying to register their students for classes and I was informed that the New Zealand prime minister was visiting (oh just a casual day at VC)  in a few hours. They provided me with my class material and the four classes that I would be teaching and boy did I feel overwhelmed. I know how to write chemistry lab reports not lesson plans. I got assigned with a fellow teacher who will serve as my mentor this following year. She was so chill- she’s from Minnesota and has been living in Laos for six years. Her fiance is Lao and he’s currently in Australia right now and they’re going to split their time in America and Laos after they get married. 

 

Ta-Ta for Now

State of the Union: I am enjoying my first week in Laos. I anticipated these challenges before moving here but it’s different when you’re actually experiencing them. I know I’ll look back and laugh about this in a month, I’m actually starting to because blogging about it is sort of therapeutic. Here’s to hoping I have all limbs in tact by the end of the year.

 

PeaceLoveAndBeerIsOnlyOneDollarHere,

Catalina Wine Mixer