June 12, 2011

15 years ago...back to where it all started

I had the amazing and humbling honor to address the 2011 Morehead High School graduates at their commencement.

My supportive family, amazing friends, Peace Corps and travel experiences have been the inspiration.
Here is a transcript of the speech...thanks to those who helped me practice and compose it.

Principal Harrington, Teachers, members of the School Board, special guests, parents and especially the 2011 graduates, thank you for this honor to speak to you today.

Wow, this is crazy I just gave a talk like this to a group of students a few months ago…it was in a tiny village thousands of miles away on an island where I was a Peace Corps volunteer.

Let me tell you about this place…they speak Bislama, a pidgin language with English and French influence and something that I was asked often when I was walking to go somewhere is “Bae yu go we?” which simply means…where ya goin? While the person asking is literally wondering where I was going…I often analyzed that, thought of the question metaphorically…where was I going in life…on this path?

I imagine many of you are thinking this now. Bae yufala go wea? Where are y’all goin? And since recently returned home from Peace Corps service, I have truly come full circle, back to where it all started.

T.S. Eliot once wrote, "What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from." Ok, so I found that off some website which I found fitting…confusing yes, profound perhaps if you have time to digest it. But let’s put it in a more current context. Katy Perry once wrote…”Do you ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?” Whether you get T.S. Eliot or Katy Perry…I think they are both saying that there can always be a new beginning.

Who’s really going to remember this speech, maybe a few of you, or just one of you…I certainly don’t remember the speech or speaker 15 years ago probably b/c I was thinking about the beach trip.

So I’m trying to put myself in your shoes…many of you are excited, some are anxious, or relieved, some scared to death and perhaps all of the above…some will say that it's the end of the best years of your lives, some say it’s just the beginning. Some are hoopin and hollarin and some go into it silent. No matter how you react or feel, you’re all thinking, what’s to come?

When I graduated from Morehead in 96, I was ready to leave, ready to travel, ready for college, ready to get away from small town Eden and I didn’t look back. And now that I am back, I am rediscovering my hometown and reflecting on my years away…so I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned on my journey, on my path. I’m not saying move to Chicago or join the Peace Corps. What I am saying is to find your passion and choose your path because you can.

I’m a first generation American, born here to immigrant parents from China who worked hard to put me through college and graduate school, I then worked in advertising and I was comfortable, enjoying the city life. Then decided I wanted to experience another culture, to stretch my limits, to fulfill some itching desire to do something different and maybe give back. So, don’t be afraid of change and perhaps veering off to another path.

So, I joined the PC in 2008 and was sent to Vanuatu in the South Pacific and when I got there, I’ve never been so discouraged and down, ready to quit because of the solitude, incessant mosquitoes and having to poop in a hole (yep, I just said poop) Anyways, I was struggling. 2 years…could I do it? And now, 2 years later, I survived.

But what I realized while complaining about not having electricity was that I get to leave, I had a choice and that joining PC was my choice so deal with it. This is one thing that I feel we as Americans forget…we have freedom to choose. We have opportunity. Unlike people in other countries and where I was a volunteer…people are either born into a path that is set for them or there just aren’t chances to do what you want in life. It makes me think of an arranged marriage in my village and I would talk to this young girl who felt stuck, her life set forth for her. She had no choice. So take advantage of your freedoms…find your passion and choose your path.

I often think about my students at the training center in my village and how they would always want to hear stories about my life here, was it better, did everyone drive a car and watch TV? I would always respond that it wasn’t necessarily better, just different. And I would often ask if they had heard of McDonalds or Brittany Spears and they would say no. Now, that was great. Or I would talk about cosmetic surgery…”people got surgery for bigger what?”

So the different perspective I got from them will stay with me forever and I learned a few lessons along the way…first, I fell down, literally and mentally and emotionally…a few times…don’t be afraid to fall down, just get back up, learn from it and become stronger. Embrace the good and the bad…it’s a part of life. All you can do is move forward.

Second, build relationships, meet people and discuss, learn about otheir viewpoints. Empathize…put yourself in their shoes. It was the relationships I formed with my host family and community that got me through those 2 years and I sometimes would witness things that were sad or disturbing such as domestic violence, abuse or cultural situations but my host family and friends would help me to understand or just comfort me. There are people in your lives…family, friends and acquaintances who will forever be there for you so trust them and be thankful for their support, no matter where your path leads you. Your teachers now could very well be your friends one day. And with this new beginning means new friends, even if they aren’t like you.

Third, have no regrets…think of your future self…would you regret doing it or not doing it? I think about one of the things we learned in Peace Corps training was how to kill a chicken (ok, barbaric but you know that packaged chicken at the grocery store was killed, right?) so now during this training, I was in the make a fire group and so avoided killing the chicken and thought, I would do it once I got to my village. And so, there I was a year later, my host mama is holding the chicken and I am determined to do it…it had a good life running around and now we needed dinner. Think now how you would kill a chicken…chop its head off, wring its neck? Can you believe I am talking about chicken killing at your graduation? And this is likely the only thing you will remember, so be it. And there I was, braced to do it. Where else would I ever have this chance? I stared into its eyes held its neck….........but I couldn’t do it, I just could not do it. Other PCVs had done it, why couldn’t I? I guess you can say I chickened out. But I came to realize that you just have to accept that you can’t do everything or what others might expect of you.

Fourth…enjoy the view and slow down. After the primitive life on the islands, I had so much time for once in my life and this was a struggle. There was no TV or internet, no facebook…it was me, my village, nature, the ocean. Find time to cut out the noise. And don't be in such a hurry...it's ok to be independent. Explore the world if you want, bungee in New Zealand, learn Italian by living in Rome, become a glacier guide…you don’t have to settle down just because everyone else is doing it. For me, it’s my schedule, not everyone else’s that I followed. Like I’ve mentioned, you have a choice.

And finally, give of yourself…I truly believe that this world would be a better place if everyone gave a little of themselves for the good of others. That can be to your church, your community or to a small village in the South Pacific. The village where I was a volunteer was so grateful for the workshops I would hold or training I would give but I feel I got so much more than that and it’s forever changed my life. So often you receive a lot more than you give.

So, I end by asking Bae yufala go wea? Where will you go? Make your path, learn along the way and always keep learning. Explore and take risks. Face your chicken. Fall and get back up. Laugh, cry and love.

To the graduating class of 2011...congratulations and best of luck as you venture along your path.

February 22, 2011

A happy day reflection...full circle

Well, I'm 33 today...wow. Not wow, I'm old but wow, what an amazing 33 (or more like 28 yrs that can be recalled) years it's been. I grew up in a small NC town, surrounded by southern accents, people who knew me as "Catherine's daughter" from the "oriental", I mean, Chinese restaurant. With my embarrassingly large photos on the wall there, I have enjoyed helping my folks out and catching up w/ people I've not seen for ages or "since you were this big." Being one of the only Chinese families in Eden, people ask me if I faced any racial issues but I can honestly say that I had a easy-going, typical childhood and youth here. Thank you, Eden, NC.

I LOVE birthdays and make a big deal out of them. It's usually a week long...celebrating in NC and Chicago. My 30th was an event, hand-made invites, hotel gift bags...a wedding to myself in Chi-town. My 31st, my first year of Peace Corps, my cohorts and I killed a chicken, had kava, played with fire and watched the sunset.

My 32nd, I was with my village family on Paama, picnicing on the beach, hula hooping with kids and storian with my wonderful community

And this year, I'm back where it all started, full circle...in my beloved home town where I am reconnecting with and rediscovering.

I hate to admit that growing up here, I was ready to get out once I graduated MHS. But now after exploring the world and back after 7 years away, I'm seeing NC in a whole new light...in appreciation for its beauty and charm.

I didn't have a party, I didn't see any friends (just my family), I didn't even have cake but I did waitress at the restaurant, ate a delicious meal my dad cooked and drove around Eden, seeing its picturesque roads, houses, rivers and run down factory buildings (pics to come). Though sadly these decaying buildings show the demise of small towns resulting in families moving to larger cities, they were also beautiful and peaceful...a reminder to me that no matter how far and wide we go or how busy with our lives we are...that where we came from, our foundation, our support, our family and friends will help ground us and keep us going in this sometimes chaotic world.

So on the dawn of my 34th year of life, I thank my dear friends who are always understanding of my spastic demeanor and life...for sticking by me and especially for keeping me sane. To new friends and those I've met traveling and abroad...y'all inspire me to keep exploring and to enjoy the view. And last but certainly not the least, I am forever grateful to my parents who have supported and encouraged this journey. happy birthday to me :)

December 23, 2010

Trains, Planes and Zebras

Spent a night in Nelson, NZ at a cute little hostel…wandered the city, jogged to the marina, imagining the Alvei (http://www.alvei.com/) and Darcie would be there but alas, they didn’t make it and met a fella who not only grew up in Asheville, went to med school at UNC-Chapel Hill but also did Peace Corps in Mongolia. What a small and beautiful world we live in!

Headed to London to meet up with Alex and later Rob (GAP volunteers on Paama with me last year) and my girls, Carly and Kate. A bit overwhelming with all the hustle and bustle of people, cars and choices…wow. So many ways to have coffee and a pastry! We explored the city…Big Ben and the Parliament, Hyde park, the London Bridge and the wonderful London underground…MIND THE GAP!

Carly returned to Sevilla to teach and Kate and I headed to Slovenia by train. Dravo Slovenia! We spent the night in a former prison converted to a hostel, rented a Smart Car and drove to Lake Bled and Bhinji then down to the coast town, Piran where we had an amazing meal of mussels. Our last evening before we board an overnight train to Milan, via Venice, we had to try out the much acclaimed Skeleton bar. Upon entering we were surprised at the brighter than what a crypt would be venue. There were indeed skeletons adorning the walls but the mood was far from eery or dark. Top 40’s and a little house music. Also 1 for 2 drinks.

Duomo in Milan

Enroute to Milan, Kate and I have a 10 hour layover in Venice, the city on water. We store our, what felt like 100 lb bags and set off to do Venice and we certainly did. The art museum, cathedral, pizza and panini in the sun on the plaza, people watching. We wander our way through the maze of cobblestone streets hugged by old, beautiful and weathered buildings with their rainbow of hanging flowers and waving laundry.

Arrived by train to Milan, Italy and stay at a B&B which is actually a three bedroom apartment of Giovanni, a Moby look alike and his dog Kika who he inherited after a guest left him as a puppy! We spent most of our time window shopping and seeing the sites. We were also on a mission to find a Milan bag and yes, did purchase one. More expensive than I would have ever spent but hey, it's Milan. (And I call myself a Peace Corps Vol, pfft)

Sevilla, Spain with Carly, where she is teaching...sunny days, quaint, cobblestone streets, delicious tapas and FLAMENCO! New friends, Jeremy, Julia and Maria.

Carly and I venture to Lisbon, Portugal and during our first few hours there, her purse is swiped...right from under our noses, at the tourist info center, just next door to the police station...what?! We spent the day at the police station (at least we didn't have to travel far) and the U.S. Embassy to get a temporary passport. Nightmare...We shrugged it off the best we could and spent a fun night in town...bar hopping and enjoying the beautiful lights.

Our last day there, we met some fellas in our hostel and again...this small world, I meet Travis. He pegs me immediately with my southern accent and "hey y'all"...come to find out he went to Chapel Hill too! A Tarheel bond :) Carly and I catch a ride with them to Sintra...it's raining but we make the best of it...Travis and I doing laps around the forest.
Our next stop...the land of windmills and wooden shoes, Sunny meets Carly and I in Amsterdam. The beautiful canal ways, friendly people, food and indulgences...don't miss out on eating a stroopwafel and oliebollen or fried dough ball...
And don't forget to check out the zebras, Van Gogh and especially the zoo on a Saturday night.

I then journeyed over the English Channel and spent a few girl bonding days with Daisy in Brighton, England...the last time we hung out was in Vanuatu and we relived some of those moments by making kava!

Then back to Spain to one of my new favorite places...Granada with Carly and Julie. The Sierra Nevada, the singing gypsies, the artists and Al Hambra. Amazing.

Next, Christmas in Morocco with Julie and Carly...Casablanca's beaches, hooka and salon day to Marrakesh's vibrant souks, colorful fabrics, leathers and metal, delicious mint teas and fragrant market foods.
What a whirlwind trip...a nice way to decompress after Peace Corps and reconnect with friends in Europe. Now it's back to NC...where it all started.

December 21, 2010

What's next Amy Chan?

Outbound from the South Pacific…emotionally drained after all the goodbyes. So hard to say farewell to my hut but it's been a month away from Vanautu and I'll be doing some traveling before I head back stateside. Some backpacking in Europe...England, Slovenia, Italy, Spain, Holland, Portugal and Morocco. Whew...a whirlwind. It’s hard to believe that 27 months have passed and my service has ended, although our service truly never ends as we continue to share our experiences with others.

It's been quite overwhelming...the traffic, news, entertainment, technology, choices and people! The anonymity has been great. Not to be stared at and to talk to everyone you meet. Although I was the only metalo (whiteman) on Paama, I feel more alone traveling sometimes, but it's ok really. People aren't as nice, friendly and smiling as they are in Vanuatu either. I do miss that. The hustle and bustle of big cities like London...wow. Slow down people. And I won't get into a rant about the frivolousness of our consumerism because I'm right into it too.

So, a big thanks to my parents for allowing me to travel instead of head straight home. My mom is meeting me in London early January and we will visit Ireland for a few days. Looking so forward to seeing her. Then back to NC January 11th. Can't wait to see my Dad, Cousins and get some of my Dad's delicious cooking!

Counting down my beloved NC friends! Chi-town peeps...hope to get up there in the Spring!

Sending lots of love and peace.
Merry Christmas and a Beautiful 2011!

No regrets?

Wow...what can I say? My two years of Peace Corps...living on a primitive island, being the only "white man"...has come to an end. Bittersweet is the best way to describe how I feel. It's been a roller coaster of experiences and emotions and I have little regrets. My only regret is that I've missed out on 2 years of my family and friends' lives back home.

And I know I've missed out on alot...case in point. When I was in Port Vila, I was chatting with Lauran Combs and because of the bad connection, I did not catch that she said she was expecting #2...so I find out on facebook and then ask her about it, thinking she hadn't told me...she now understands why I wasn't more excited on the phone.

Sure, I can see on facebook...new babies, kids growing up, vacations and new jobs but not to be able to reach out by phone instantly, to just chat about the day and to know what is really going on in your lives...I know I've missed out and it's hard. To think that I will return to the same people I love but to possibly changed friends. I know I've changed in many ways...time no doubt does that. I just hope that the changes don't create a bigger gap than the distance had.

But what's to come, the future...settling down in N.C...cook outs, dinner parties, getting to know my friends' kids...so much to look forward to. And with this experience, all that I've learned about myself...I am forever grateful for the amazing support and encouragement I've had from my family and friends over these past years. Even though I was far away from home, my foundation, the people I love and who know me were never far away from my heart and mind.

November 15, 2010

My last village days...on Epi

I wasn't ready to say farewell to village life, lap lap and island dresses, even though I am officially an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer)! I went to visit Lauren, Amy, Kathy and Dan on Epi.

Lauren and her family

I fell in love with her Avu woman

4 stages of PCVs (newbie Kathy; half way, Amy O; RPCV, Amy C; and 3rd year senior, Lauren)

Our 6 mile hike

Lauren and our foul

Went spent our last night sleeping in a treehouse on the beach...here's our view. Hemia nao.

November 14, 2010

My last weeks on Paama

My namesake...Emima / Emi
Cleaning our reef...removing 600+ crown of thorns!

Ordaining a church elder

Mama's tea
SDA last kakae (meal)

Last kava with the papas
RTC graduation

Saying goodbye to my family at the airport