Word of the Year: LIGHT

This year’s word is “light.”

Light — sunlight/sunrise. I want to wake up early and develop a morning routine that may include exercise, prayer, reflection/journaling, meditation, or even just pleasure. I want to greet the day with enthusiasm. (This means going to bed at a decent hour every night and perhaps tracking my time for a week to see how I can better approach my days). 

Light — the opposite of heavy. I tend to take myself (and everything) too seriously. I feel like I am getting even more uptight with age. This year, I want to lighten up a bit. I want to see humor in awkward situations and I want to let things go instead of overthinking everything. (But please don’t tell me to lighten up... that probably won’t end well. :) 

Light — clutter-free. I want to create and maintain streamlined systems to lighten up my environment. This means figuring out (once and for all?) how to keep papers organized at school and clothing organized at home. 

Light — I want my (newfound?) positivity to be evident to others (Matthew 5:16) and I want it to be contagious. I’m especially thinking about my children and my students, who carry burdens of their own. I want to lighten their burdens instead of adding to them (even when I am piling on the homework).

Light — My faith is complicated and can be a source of disquiet rather than strength or comfort. I know this isn’t right — God says he is our light and our salvation. (Psalm 27:1) I want to know this deep down. 

Happy 2018, everyone. 

Books I enjoyed the most in 2017

I set the same reading goal for 2017 as I did in 2016 — 52 books, or a book a week. Happily, I hit my goal — and exceeded it by 10 books. (You can see the whole list of books here.) It actually started off as a rough year for reading. I hit a dry spell between April to June (I pretty much didn't finish a single book for two months)! I got so behind on my reading challenge, I considered giving up. Then I picked up just the right book to kickstart my reading and I ended up completing 31 books in November and December!

Without further ado, here are the books I enjoyed most in 2017 (in no particular order).

Disclaimer: if you are one of my students and you happened to find this, please note my reviews are based on personal enjoyment and are not meant to be recommendations. I have included warnings; nonetheless, if you're interested in one of these books, please talk with me or a parent before reading. 

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My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

I actually didn't hear of The Neopolitan Series until The Story of the Lost Child came out last year (I remember reading several articles debating the ethics of attempts to uncover Ferrante's true identity), but somehow felt inspired to give the series a shot before Thanksgiving break this year. I couldn't put the books down — I finished the books in 5 days, the first three crammed around hectic work days. (I remember choosing to walk to school instead of biking so I could read for an extra five minutes before work!) I can't quite put my finger on why these books are so compelling — for sure, there are quirks to the storytelling I found unfamiliar or even odd — but there was something about following the two main characters over decades of growth and change that absolutely kept me invested. (Warning: dark themes and perhaps graphic scenes—I can’t remember!)

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall

I bought Anna the first of this series maybe two years ago and she was never interested in reading it. Luckily for both of us, I preloaded it onto her Kindle (a Christmas present!), and she read it because she didn't have other options. She LOVED the book and flew through the rest of the series — and I loved it, too. (In fact, I am currently in the middle of Book 3.) There is something wholesome, heartwarming, and somewhat old-fashioned about the four sisters' adventures. This would be a great series to read aloud.

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

I've loved Chabon since I found myself captivated by The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay more than a decade ago. This — a fictionalized account of Chabon's grandfather's life — was right up there in terms of reading enjoyment. Part of what I love about Chabon is his (hyper-intellectual) vocabulary and his obscure allusions; I'd say this is his most accessible book yet, but it doesn't suffer for it. I really enjoyed this.

Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

This is a very recent read — I purchased a copy during our first bookstore visit here in the Philippines last week. I knew I was in for a treat within the first few pages. The book is ostensibly a mystery centered on Crispin Salvador, a (fictional) Filipino writer who is found dead in New York City under mysterious circumstances. The protagonist, who shares the author's name, takes it upon himself to write about Salvador's life, and as such heads back to the Philippines to conduct interviews with acquaintances and relatives. I've read that the real-life Syjuco doesn't like this designation, but I'd consider this book post-modern (or post-post-modern?) in its style and structure — it's very meta. The book is comprised of the aforementioned narrative thread as well as chunks of writing from fictional Salvador's works, but also includes another layer adding to the main narrative, in which portions of the protagonist's first-person story is also told in an omniscient third-person point of view. Confusing? The book is a little confusing, too, but I found it plenty fun to just keep reading and enjoy the ride. I liked the book because of its familiarity (so many of the scenes and cultural references hit close to home) and because of its subject matter — the Philippines and its complicated identity, literature and its power (or lack of power) to incite change — but I wonder if a reader unfamiliar with the Philippines would find it less compelling. 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

I find Green's brand of heart and braininess so attractive, I often wish I could jump into his books and become best friends with all the characters. I enjoyed this much more than The Fault in Our Stars (which is actually perhaps my least favorite Green book, although I liked it better upon a second reading). Aza, the protagonist, struggles with anxiety and OCD and, while my own challenges aren't exactly like hers, I found her story so relatable, so recognizable. I've loaned my copy out to several high school students and they've all loved it. (Warning: could be triggering.)

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

I lucked into reading this because my colleague (and much-appreciated reader-friend) happened to be reading this with students he is tutoring and loaned me a copy. I ended up reading the entire thing in one very, very emotional evening. I have trouble putting my finger on where exactly the power of this narrative comes from — is it the complicated relationship between the speaker and his father that makes it so real, or is it the depiction of Jews as mice (and the Nazis as cats) that lends it both enough distance and enough proximity to make familiar horrors new? Each page is painful but infinitely worth reading. (Warning: this is obviously a dark and disturbing book. Please read it anyway.)

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I read this multiple times this year because it's part of the curriculum for a new class I'm teaching (AP English). I initially read it quite grudgingly, not sure I wanted to teach it at all. I'm glad I didn't skip it, but I happily admit it was the discussions with my students that really made me enjoy this book. (I'd argue one of the best parts of being an English teacher is having a ready-made book club, with members that sure as heck better read the book and be prepared to discuss. :) My students helped me see interpretations I hadn't seen on my own. My favorite takes are a questioning of the monster's reliability (and thus the ending of the story) and an interpretation of Frankenstein's creation as a Faustian bargain. There's much to unpack in this book and it's so enjoyably dark and "emo."

Green Island by Shauna Yang Ryan

I'm not aware of too many English-language books about Taiwan, so I was pretty excited to stumble upon this at our local bookstore. Paul picked it up right before he took a group of students to Green Island and he found it absolutely gripping. When I read it shortly afterward, I shared his sentiments. This book made me feel ashamed about how little I know about Taiwan's politics and how unaware I've been about the brutality of its history. The story follows a young girl whose father is accused of being a political dissident and is subsequently arrested during the now infamous 228 Incident. He reappears more than a decade later, but his return is painful and complicated for the whole family. It's an ambitious book, as the narrative follows the daughter's own growing political awareness after she moves to the US as an adult. It's also beautifully written. (Warning: some graphic scenes but they’re fairly isolated.)

The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen

This is an unusual pick for me — I prefer fiction, and I have complicated feelings about books centered on spirituality. I read this for work and, happily, I'm so glad I read it. Nouwen explores the faith practices of the "desert fathers and mothers" (a group of people I admittedly am not too familiar with). What I loved about this book is its message of simplicity — anyone who knows me knows I overthink everything, and overthink nothing more than my spiritual beliefs — and it was so refreshing and relieving to hear someone say (so gently) that maybe all we need to pray sometimes is "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." 

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

I reread this after I randomly took a quiz purporting to tell me which literary character I am most like (Franny, apparently). I'd read this before but remembered very little about it and am so glad I read it again. Yes, I absolutely relate to Franny — her emotionality, her instability, her simultaneous shallowness and depth, her desperation to find peace and truth. If you've read this, you'll know she is fixated on the Jesus prayer, the very prayer mentioned in the Nouwen book above. At any rate, the Franny story hit very close to home and, while I find Zooey quite insufferable, reading this made me want to take another deep dive into Salinger's body of work.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han

If we were to play "Which of these is not like the others?", this book would take the cake. It's the third and final installment in Han's To All the Boys I Loved Before series. I would perhaps be embarrassed to love a book that is so obviously a fluffy teenage love story, but I really enjoyed this series. I love that the main character, Lara Jean, is half-Asian. I love that she is dorky and innocent. I love that she loves her family. I love the relationship between the sisters. This is a series I will no doubt reread again because it is just so fun.

Honorable mentions:

The War that Saved My Life — Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Read this upon (4th grader) Anna's recommendation. It's about Ada, a girl with a club foot, who evacuates London with her brother during the second World War and finds herself in the care of a distant (but ultimately kind) woman. It's a lovely story that anyone would enjoy.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  — Gail Honeyman

This is a quick read that is both funny and dark. I found the twist in the end unnecessary, but I still liked this book a lot. (Warning: could be triggering.)

Little Fires Everywhere — Celeste Ng

Wow. I can basically copy and paste the lines I wrote for Eleanor Oliphant above. Funny but dark, easy to read but with surprising depth. Also felt like some of the drama was unnecessary, but it was still good.

New page: book reviews!

I've long said a dream job would be any job that would allow me to request books from publishers. I recently realized I don't need to quit my day job to make that a reality. I've joined a couple of review programs that allow me to request books for review. So far, I've read and enjoyed The Heirs by Susan Rieger and The Golden House by Salman Rushdie. Check out those reviews (and more to come) here! You can find my reviews and other book-related posts by clicking on the "Book Reviews" tab above.

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Design Mom Living With Kids House Tour

I love Design Mom (Gabrielle Blair seems like she would make an excellent friend — she is so smart and thoughtful) and it is very cool to see our humble-but-beloved Taiwan apartment featured this week! I am especially happy about this little tribute to our home because we'll be in a different apartment next year.

Working on this post reminded me, yet again, to be thankful for our home and life here. 

Enjoy! (Warning: it's long.)

Catching up

SPRING BREAK

We decided a mere four days before break to head to the Philippines for Easter vacation. I'm so glad we did! It was a very relaxing week. My parents live in a high rise apartment building right in the middle of a shopping district. It's such a change of pace to live an elevator ride away from a mall. In the week we were there, we got to go out for coffee every day, swim in a rooftop pool, and — best of all — spend time with family.

The sunrise from our apartment window our first day in the Philippines.

The sunrise from our apartment window our first day in the Philippines.

ORCHID ISLAND

The school asked Paul and me to be chaperones for the 9th grade biology trip to Lan Yu (Orchid Island). I was mostly excited to spend time with my former students, whom I love and miss, but it was also really cool to get to explore a new place. Orchid Island is a two-hour ferry ride away from Kenting. I was blown away by the island's relatively untouched beauty. We had an amazing time! Highlights for me were snorkeling in the Pacific, hiking a steep and muddy path to a crater lake, and yes, hanging out with the students. I feel so lucky we got to go.

A panoramic shot of Orchid Island from the outgoing ferry.

A panoramic shot of Orchid Island from the outgoing ferry.

RECENTLY READ

It's been a while since I checked out books my students are reading — I figured spring break would be a good opportunity to do so. I read all three of Stephanie Perkins' "name" books (they're pretty much exactly what I expected by judging the books from the covers) in quick succession. While I normally eschew these types of books, it's hard to deny that they're fun. They also remind me of how it feels to be a teenager, which doesn't hurt since I am surrounded by teenagers every day.

I randomly wandered onto Powells.com and saw they're having an Earth Day sale (buy two used books, get one free). I made a large purchase in record time: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love & Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed, Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami, Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins, Aimless Love by Billy Collins, All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren, Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, and The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay. I got all of these for the price of roughly 3 books here.

MOVING!

We'll be in a different apartment next school year! There are always housing shuffles when staff come and go. We decided to move when a first floor apartment in the neighboring building opened up. We LOVE our current 7th-floor apartment (it's so bright!), BUT there's much to anticipate about the new apartment. Our talented photographer friend Michael kindly agreed to take some photos of our current apartment for memory's sake. Here's one of our record player/map wall.

Taken by Michael Chang. 

Taken by Michael Chang. 

Polaroid Zip Photo Printer Review

I recently ordered a Polaroid Zip. I've had it for about two weeks now and have gone through a pack and a half of film (there are 10 sheets/pack). 

Things I Like:

  • Paper is inexpensive, especially compared to Instax.
  • It doesn't use ink! The "ink" is in the paper.
  • The prints are stickers! I love that I can peel the back off a shot and immediately stick it in my journal.
  • Since the photos print without a frame, you can print two (or more) images on one sheet and cut them up. For example, I printed six (tiny) images of book covers, cut them out, and stuck the images in my journal.
  • The printer prints quickly.
  • It is rechargeable via USB! (Most Instax cameras and printers run on a CR2 battery.)

Things I Dislike:

  • The app is SUPER buggy. Seriously. I can't believe I didn't think to look up app reviews before purchasing because you are 100% reliant on the app to print pictures.
    • As mentioned in many iTunes reviews, pairing is not intuitive. The app makes it look like you should pair the printer with your phone within the app, but really, you first need to manually pair through your phone's bluetooth settings.
    • Cropping and resizing are buggy. For some reason, you have to click into the edit tool to see how the image will print and often, the app will automatically zoom into your image (and you can't zoom back out). It's hard to explain, but the sizing is really weird.
    • Even worse: sometimesonce you have the image sized/cropped the way you want, the printouts don't match what's on the screen. It will at times print correctly; other times, it will print the zoomed-in image (see below).
L-R: 1) This is what you see when you first select an image. You’d THINK this is what would print if you hit the print button, but instead… 2) This is what will print. If you want to print the WHOLE image, you can rotate it, like so… 3) SOMETIMES (like what’s pictured), the app will keep the image zoomed out and it looks great. Other times, it will zoom in again when you rotate and your picture will print all wonky.

L-R: 1) This is what you see when you first select an image. You’d THINK this is what would print if you hit the print button, but instead… 2) This is what will print. If you want to print the WHOLE image, you can rotate it, like so… 3) SOMETIMES (like what’s pictured), the app will keep the image zoomed out and it looks great. Other times, it will zoom in again when you rotate and your picture will print all wonky.

  • The print quality is meh. I don't expect much from an instant printer, but the print color IS always off — often there is a reddish tint. I know Instax prints always come out a little off, too, but I expect that and consider that part of the charm. I think it's easy to expect Zip prints to equal that of your home inkjet printer, but they don't come close. If I think of the Zip printer as a novelty item and not an actual replacement for professional photo printing, it's fine.
Here's a comparison between original images and how they look printed out.

Here's a comparison between original images and how they look printed out.

Verdict:

Even though my "dislike" list is longer than my "like" list, I don't regret my purchase. For my purposes (journaling), photo quality isn't a huge priority. The app is annoying, but it (mostly) works and I can generally figure out how to get my desired outcome. It is really, really convenient for printing mini pictures and I've loved what it's added to my journal.

We the People

We happened to discuss the First Amendment guarantee of the freedom of assembly in Government class last week. We were reminded that so much of the good that America stands for is a result of peaceful protest (and at times, civil disobedience) and the willingness to STAND UP. Thankful for and proud of all my friends who marched for their convictions. ✊🏻✊🏼✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿

Image by Ana Gambuto via Cup of Jo

Image by Ana Gambuto via Cup of Jo

Wellness

Last year's word was equanimity

I had many moments of discouragement and outright failure in 2016, but I think my family, friends, and students would agree that I am more equanimous this year than last. I don't know if it's simply because I'm no longer a first-year teacher adjusting to life in a new country... I don't really care! What matters is I no longer completely feel like a slave to my emotions. 

Things that helped:

  • better planning/organization at work
  • better habits: I work like crazy at work and try NOT to work (too much) when I'm at home
  • NOT TEACHING 7th GRADE (ha!)
  • therapy: identifying and treating anxiety
  • more sleep (I charge my phone in the living room and bring a book to bed between 9:30 - 10:30 every night)
  • discussing struggles with the right (positive, level-headed) people

Last year's word leads right into this year's word: wellness.

I don't have any interest in starting a major health/fitness regime, but I do want to establish (and continue) better habits. 

Specific goals:

  • continue getting at least 8 hours of sleep every night
  • actively exercise for at least 20 minutes every day (starting small here)
  • continue NOT taking my phone to bed
  • continue limiting work to work hours (as much as humanly possible)
  • start eating breakfast every day
  • keep personal spaces (desk, closet, etc) organized
  • perhaps... blog more? I am trying to decide if some sort of regular journaling would be helpful

That's it. 

My previous years' words/goals tended to be more philosophical, but 2016 wore me out. I am happy to focus on practical actions and hope that leads to an overall sense of wellness. 

The best books I read in 2016

Published in 2016:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
This should become required reading for all Americans.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I escaped to this book the week of the US presidential election. It was the best kind of immersive experience. The titular character is one I'll never forget.

The Nix by Nathan Hill
I picked up this book during Thanksgiving break and promptly devoured the 600+ pages in two days. So much fun.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
This is the best-written book I read this year. Wow. 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
It is hard for me to believe Gyasi is a first-time author. This is a beautiful and devastating book.

In the Country by Mia Alvar
I loved this collection of short stories particularly because it is about the Philippines (and I am a Filipina), but I would recommend it to anyone.

Published prior to 2016:

Silence by Shusaku Endo
This rocked my worldview, very much like Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory profoundly affected my faith. This is a book you read once and think about for years after.

Between the World and Me by Te-Nehisi Coates
I read this book in conjunction with The Underground Railroad, Beloved, and Homegoing. This set of books completely changed my perspective on America's history and legacy, especially as a newly-minted American.

Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
This is another extremely well-written collection of short fiction by a Filipino author. 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I know not everyone felt the same way, but this totally lived up to the hype. It was the perfect book in which to lose myself during a vacation — long and rambling, but also extremely compelling. 

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
I read this for a book club and it surprised me in so many ways; it's funny, subversive, and dark.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
Gorgeous, haunting, and worthy of every bit of acclaim it has received.

Honorable mentions:

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
This reminded me of The Great Gatsby, except (dare I say it?) I found it even more enjoyable.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
I didn't love this as much as Bel Canto or State of Wonder, but you really can't go wrong with Ann Patchett. This book feels like a modern take on Anne Tyler, which is a very good thing. 

You can see a comprehensive list of all the books I read here

All by myself

Paul's job takes him back to the US twice a year and this time, his parents asked if the kids could join. The girls are so excited about seeing their old stomping grounds and, of course, friends and family. 

It just so happens that their departure date coincided with MY departure date for a professional workshop in Hanoi, Vietnam. So we went up to Taoyuan Thursday, stayed the night at a hotel, then parted ways in the morning.

I KNOW so many moms crave time by themselves (and the thought of a week alone would be amazing) and I've definitely had periods when I would've LOVED it, too, but I think working full-time for the past few years has taken away much of that desire and I am just genuinely sad (and a little anxious) to be on my own.

That said, this weekend in Hanoi has been fantastic! I'm here for a professional workshop so (sadly), aside from two dinners out, I've pretty much been in a conference room or the hotel... but it's fun to be back in Vietnam (and I've certainly LOVED the delicious food). 

Last night, we were all so exhausted from the meetings that my colleagues and I said goodnight at the insanely early hour of 7:30. I promptly crawled into bed with a tub of strawberry gelato and started a new TV series. It was pretty wonderful.

Now it's back to reality; I'm just about to board my flight to return to Kaohsiung. Will arrive home around 11:00 PM — and then it's back to school in the morning!