Monday, December 9, 2013

My 5k run: Lifting the curse of the high school gym class

I ran a 5km race yesterday. Those who know me well will understand just what a miracle this is. No, not a miracle, because it’s not as if I’ve ever been injured and told I won’t ever walk again or anything like that. But it’s pretty amazing, considering that for most of my life I’ve hated running. 

I was trained to hate running in high school gym class. Every day at the start of class we had to run a mile, and we were required to do it in less than 10 minutes. This was impossible for me, having come from the most unathletic of parents and being rather more of the studious type than the sporty type. I was the kid who, on a beautiful, sunny day, would rather stay inside reading a book than go outside to play. (This has changed, by the way, although sometimes it simply amounts to reading the book outside!)

Sunset along my usual Hanoi running route.
There was one teacher who took it further. He told us to run a mile and a half, in less than 15 minutes. Again, for me, damn near impossible. One day I ran it in 15:30, my best time ever. However, instead of congratulating me on my achievement, he simply yelled at me that it wasn’t good enough, and that as punishment I had to run another mile, this time in less than 10 minutes. How on earth did he think, if I couldn’t run a mile and a half in less than 15, that I would then be able to run another mile in less than 10? I cannot explain his logic, except to say that he was a horrible bully of a teacher.
At the time my inability to live up to my gym teachers’ expectations frustrated me, but them berating me every day for not doing that run in the required time frame did not make me work harder, but simply allowed me to accept that I would never be able to do it, and thus I stopped trying. Now, I know, I was not the most energetic of teenagers and I’m quite sure I did not push myself as hard as I might have. I guess I didn’t quite realize that it was SUPPOSED to be hard work, and as soon as I got tired I’d stop running and simply walk. I can even understand the gym teachers’ frustration with me (and others who were equally, or more, unathletic). However, what I do not understand is their lack of effort towards me. 

Would it have been so hard to, say, on the first day of class, have us do that run, record each student’s time, and then set individual goals for each of us? It seems unrealistic to set the same goal for each runner. Obviously some kids had no problems at all coming in under that 10 minute mark, but for those students they could’ve set tougher targets. At the race I did yesterday, everyone had different goals, depending on all kinds of factors such as levels of general fitness and athletic ability, length of training, past injury recovery time, recent illness, and so on. Some people wanted to win, others just wanted to finish, and everything in between. That’s totally normal and much more realistic. And everyone was supportive of each other, no matter what the goal or achievement. So why couldn’t it have been like that in high school?

Me, Ruby, and Samantha before the race.

When I think about this, it just makes me angry. The class is called Physical Education, which to me says that their job was to teach us to live active lives. All they taught me was to hate every sport I ever tried. It wasn’t until I hit my mid-20s and was in a hostel in Australia that I learned that athletic activity can actually be fun. A guy staying there suggested one evening that we take the basketball and go down to the local court, just to play around. I resisted, but he convinced me and I was amazed to find that I had a good time. That this basketball thing didn’t have to be some kind of competitive, awful game where I was simply ignored and taunted for not having the same level of ability as the other players. It could actually be fun.

Along my usual Hanoi running route.
Sometime after that I tried running, and discovered that it wasn’t so bad without the anticipation of an angry gym teacher at the end. That it actually felt good to get outside in the fresh air and push my body more than usual. Since then I’ve run sporadically, in between traveling and illnesses and injuries and busy weeks at work and traffic and rain and simply making every excuse in the book not to. I have found that when I really dedicate myself to it, stop making excuses, and run regularly I can start to get into a groove when I run, it isn’t such a chore and is even a good way to relieve stress and anger (I have the best runs when I’m angry about something!) When I can set my own, realistic goals, I have discovered that I can actually reach them and gain the confidence to set them higher. I have discovered that I can improve, I can run for longer without stopping to walk and my runs (very gradually, mind you) get faster and my body doesn’t hurt as much during or after. If I can do this now, at age 36, I certainly could’ve done it in high school.

The three of us feeling happy and proud after the race.

Perhaps others from my high school days will disagree with me. Maybe this is all in my mind. You could even say I'm blaming others for my own faults. But I do think that those teachers failed me. They didn’t do their jobs, and all I can think is shame on them. Now you’re going to say, hey Jenny, you don’t know what it’s like as a high school gym teacher, and you’re right, I don’t. But I do know what it’s like to teach teenagers. I know full well that you can’t make them do anything they don’t want to, that they’ll say all the right things and then do the opposite, that they’ll often make any excuse they can to get out of doing the things you ask. I know it’s frustrating and often easier for the teacher to just give up and let them fail. I know that all too well. I also know that if something isn’t working with your students, you try something else. That berating them for not doing what they should isn’t always the answer, and that many teenagers respond positively to encouragement.

Temple at sunset, yep, where I usually run in Hanoi.

I honestly don’t know how the 14-year-old me would have responded if my high school gym teachers had actually encouraged me. Maybe I still would’ve resisted any physical activity, but maybe, just maybe, I would’ve risen to the challenge of a target set just for me, something achievable rather than the seemingly impossible same goal that was set for everyone. Perhaps I would have pushed myself to reach that goal, and would have learned in the process that it does take hard work, but that I could get there and that I did not have to be the one who stood on the sidelines, believing she couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t have been so hard for those gym teachers to try, but they just didn’t bother. I’m just glad that I did finally discover that being physically active is possible for me and that it doesn’t have to be such a horrible chore.

I ran a 5km race yesterday. That’s 3.11 miles. It took me 33 minutes and 44 seconds. So guess what, that’s STILL not a mile in less than 10 minutes. But for me, it's a pretty good time and I'm damn proud of it.

Did you have a similar high school gym class experience? Or did you have good teachers who taught you to love physical activity? Leave me a comment and tell me what you think!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

AWE '13 - Pre-conference outing with Food Tour Malaysia

In my latest post about AWE '13, I mentioned that we started off with a food tour. Our host was Charles of Food Tour Malaysia, who has an absolute wealth of knowledge about not just Malaysian food but also history and culture. Sharing food experiences was a great opportunity for many of us AWE speakers and attendees to get to know each other.

We started off with banana leaf rice, eaten with the right hand. This is available all over Kuala Lumpur, and I would eat it again in a second. In fact, I think this was my favourite dish of the day!

They were giving us one banana leaf each, but it was so much food that most of us decided to share, knowing we had a lot more food to come!

We were a big crew!

We then wandered through the streets of KL, stopping here and there to look at things and try all kinds of random things, from crunchy, spicy snacks to fried savoury doughnuts, to a dessert made with shaved ice, coconut milk and palm sugar.

Some of the snacks we tried along the way. So colourful!

Fried savoury spiced doughnuty treats.

Cendol - ice with coconut milk, palm sugar, and jelly noodles.

Just as we stopped for the cendol it started to rain, which didn't quite suit the refreshing icy dessert, but it was delicious nonethless! Thankfully we were quite close to the MTR station where we hopped on the train and made our way to Chinatown. This is where we ended the tour, stuffing the last empty space in our stomachs with two different noodle dishes.

Some kind of noodle dish that I can't remember the name of.

Another Chinese noodle dish that I can't remember the name of!

I love a good food tour, because it's one of the best ways to sample a large number of a country's specialties in a short time, and then you know which ones to go back for! The only thing is, Malaysia has SO much more food than just these few dishes. I'll definitely have to go back for longer sometime so I can try some more!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

An AWEsome weekend

Weekends are good. Some weekends are great. Once in a while, you have a weekend that is truly spectacular.

Two weeks ago I went to Kuala Lumpur for the Asian Women's Empowerment conference, and I'm so glad I did!

The whole thing kicked off with a wander through KL's streets sampling various goodies with Food Tour Malaysia. It was a great chance to try some local food while getting to know some of the other conference speakers and attendees. I'll post some photos from that soon!

After the food tour, some of us went to a bar called the Helipad, which is, strangely enough, on an actual disused Helipad! There are no barriers, so they're pretty strict about making sure you don't go past that yellow line! It was a bit pricey, but gave us a great sunset and a view of KL tower and the Petronas twin towers.

After the bar, believe it or not, some of us were a bit hungry so we went for Roti Canai. Yum!

Saturday began with a brilliant speech by Juno, in which she told us that it's OK. Ok to to be who we are, do what we want, and live our lives our own way, despite the objections our families, friends, or society in general might have. Now, this isn't something I've really had a problem with, as my family and friends have all been very supportive of the life that I lead, but even so, these issues still come up from time to time. Even at work now it seems that everyone is so career-focused, and I feel like I should be too. I'm the odd one out because, honestly, all I want to do is travel. (I maybe shouldn't say this on a public blog, but whatever) I know I SHOULD go do a Master's degree in TESOL, but I can't quite get motivated to do it. I got into teaching English because of the travel possibilities, not for the love of teaching or the English language. So it still means a lot for me to be told that it's really ok if I want to leave my job and just travel.

Anyway, Juno went on to point out that to truly be independent, we need to be dependent. That everyone needs a support network, either at home from family, or from friends, or from other like-minded people (as in, everyone else in that room!) My life abroad would definitely be a lot more difficult if I didn't have family at home supporting me, looking after the odd bits of bureaucracy that just seem to come up randomly, and just generally being available for me to call up for help or to talk over any thoughts or issues I've been thinking about.

The Keynote speaker on Saturday was Sangduen 'Lek' Chailert, the founder of Save Elephant Foundation. She first fell in love with elephants as a child and has dedicated her entire life to freeing elephants from working in the tourism and logging industries. She had us all in tears as she spoke about the brutality elephants endure in the name of tradition. For her efforts she has faced criticism from her family, her hometown, her society, and even her government. To stand up and speak out for what she believes in in the face of all of that takes an astounding amount of courage, which she just seems to have in spades.

Me with Lek Chailert - what an inspiring woman!
On Saturday afternoon there were simultaneous sessions on freelancing, travelling as a solo female, writing, travel fashion, social media, and initiating social change. Unfortunately, because they ran at the same time I could only attend half of them but I'm looking forward to the video of the others being available.

Saturday finished off with the conference dinner, complete with giveaways! Of course I didn't win anything, but some of my new friends won some great prizes, such as a stay at Tune Hotel in Melbourne and a package trip to Phuket!

After dinner a few of us decided to go to KLCC to see the big towers and have a wander around. We even found a Krispy Kreme donut shop so Pamela and Aggy got to try them!

Sunday morning began with a few of the conference participants telling their stories. Makiko, Won, See, and Deborah shared their experiences and inspired us to be more and do more!

Next, it was my turn! Well, me and five others. We sat on the 'Travel Talk' panel and answered any questions the participants had on various parts of the world, solo travel, security, visas, and global work opportunities.

I think it went well, and was quite pleased when afterward one woman came up to me and was all excited to talk to me about the possibilities of doing a working holiday abroad! Yay! I inspired someone! Me!

Last up was final Keynote speaker Ligwina Hananto, who gave us a surprisingly lively and entertaining talk about finances! Her main point was that women in any situation need to have control of their own money, and that everyone should have an 'emergency fund' of at least 3 months' living expenses.

Me with the lovely Ligwina. What a character!

I was sad that it was the end! It all went by so fast and I met so many amazing people. 

I'm so glad I went to this event. I wasn't sure exactly what to expect but I came away from it inspired, motivated, and like I could achieve anything . I sat on the plane home feeling more positive and certain about what I want to do than I have in a long time. And most of all, I feel now like I'm part of something. There's a whole community out there, which I now belong to, that I can turn to at any time for friendship, support, and advice. I hope all the other women there left feeling the same way.

Thanks AWE '13, and I hope to see you all next year!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Tamarind Laos Cooking School

A while back I posted about my trip to Luang Prabang, Laos on the September long weekend of 2012. You've read about the market tour I did there with Tamarind Laos Cooking School, so now it's time to hear about the cooking class!

They drove us to their base outside of town, complete with a flat tire on the way so we had to get out and walk for the last bit! The kitchen area is in a peaceful setting next to a small pond where they grow and catch their own fish, and has separate preparation, cooking, and eating areas.

We started by making jeow, which is a dip made from pounding up a bunch of vegetables with garlic and chili. I made jeow mak keua (eggplant dip), which started with me pricking the eggplant a few times with a knife, then roasting it over hot coals along with garlic and a big green chili.

We used these great ceramic barbecues, similar to the ones that were used at Freedomland on Phú Quốc Island.

When the everything was thoroughly cooked and the eggplant was black on the outside, I took it off the barbecue and pounded it all together with a mortar and pestle.

This is excellent with sticky rice balled up in your hand and dipped in it!

 Next was mok pa (fish steamed in banana leaves). Again, I pounded up a bunch of herbs with a mortar and pestle, covered a piece of fish with it, then wrapped it into a little banana leaf package to be steamed later.

This is how it came out, and I know it doesn't look very appetizing, but it tasted amazing and was one of my favourite dishes of the day!

Next was Tamarind's specialty, oua si khai (stuffed lemongrass). Now, you might ask "How could you possibly STUFF lemongrass? I'll show you.

First, we pounded up minced chicken with a bunch of herbs and let it sit while we prepared the lemongrass. This took a very sharp small knife and a lot of patience and skill. I had to slice the lemongrass a bunch of times all the way around, through multiple layers for about a 10cm length of the stalk, all without slicing any of my fingers off!

Then you kind of push the lemongrass from each end and stick your finger in the cut part and hold it to make sort of a basket, and stuff the chicken mixture inside.

After letting them sit while we prepared the next dish, we rolled them in beaten egg and deep fried them until the chicken was cooked and the outside was crispy. It was served with jeow som (sour peanut dipping sauce) and was absolutely delicious!

Then we made laap, or what most people would call laap but is actually koy (minced meat and herb salad) because it doesn't have an eggplant base. We used buffalo meat cut very finely, and cooked it with a bit of fish sauce and salt. Then we added a ton of other ingredients and herbs and mixed it all together and voila!

 Then we sat down to eat this entire delicious meal! The tiny basket is full of sticky rice for eating with the jeow and koy, but I didn't eat much of that because there were so many other tasty things and I didn't have room in my belly!

 After all of that we still had dessert, which was khao gam (purple sticky rice with coconut sauce), which simply involved heating coconut milk with sugar and salt, then pouring it over purple sticky rice and leaving it to sit and absorb the liquid. Then top it with fruit of your choice and dig in! Yum!

This was an excellent way to spend the day, and if you're going to Luang Prabang, I highly recommend Tamarind Laos Cooking School. Don't eat before you go because you'll be stuffed by the end of it!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

AWE Conference '13

So, this post is pretty un-food related and I apologize for the lack of posts recently, but this is one I really want to spread the word about. 

In a couple of days time I'll be headed to Kuala Lumpur for the first ever Asian Women's Empowerment Conference. It's being hosted by my dear friend Jiyeon Juno Kim of Runaway Juno, and aims to inspire and enable women to live the life they want to lead, rather than the one expected of them.

Juno and I at Chinese New Year in Singapore, 2006.

Juno herself has broken free of that mold. I first met her when we were both traveling in Singapore, but she was on a very short trip because she had to go back to Korea to finish her Master's Degree in Mechanical Engineering. When she graduated, she got a job in what she calls the 'cubic farm', where she was expected to work ridiculous hours in exchange for a promising career that she could work at for the rest of her life.

Having a ride in a ridiculous rickshaw in Melaka, 2006.

The problem was that she longed to see the world and hated the environment she was stuck in. She finished her work within a normal work day, but was expected to stay in the office for many more hours, all for show. So what did she do? With all that spare time and solid internet access, she started the travel blog Runaway Juno. 

How much further to the top?  Batu Caves, KL, 2006.

After a year or so of blogging and looking for a way out, she made the huge decision to leave and travel the world. Everyone thought she was nuts. Why would any good Korean girl leave a stable job in her home country, where she was supposed to get married, settle down, and pop out a couple of kids? I know she dealt with a lot of negativity from just about everyone around her, and I completely admire her courage in standing up to all of her colleagues, family, and friends to live her life her way. 

On a big night out in KL, 2006.

A couple of years on, her travel blog is hugely successful, she's quite an accomplished photographer and a social media expert. And now, she's hoping to inspire other women caught in the snare of family and societal expectations to stand their ground and do what they want!

At Trấn Quốc temple, Hanoi, 2012.

AWE is all about that. It's a three day conference featuring successful women (and a man or two) speaking about how they achieved their goals, and empowering other women to achieve theirs. There's everyone from writers and travel bloggers to small business owners and even the founders of charitable organizations aimed at literacy and conservation. And me, ESL teacher and traveler! I'll be sharing stories and advice in the 'Travel Talk' panel on Sunday morning. 

I've been living a somewhat unconventional lifestyle myself for the past several years, as a traveler and expat, but I don't think I get nearly as much flak from people back home as many Asian women do. However, I too need inspiration, ideas, and direction, and am looking forward to meeting all of the amazing people who are going to be attending AWE '13.

The Asian Women's Empowerment Conference is being held at the 5 Elements Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from November 8-10, 2013.

At the Welcome dinner on Saturday night there will be giveaways from sponsors Sedunia Travel, Back Home hostel, and Emila Yusof.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Tamarind Laos Cooking Class - Market Tour

This post goes back a ways. More than a year, in fact. Vietnam's National Day is September 2nd, which is the day in 1945 when the Japanese surrendered after occupying the country during the Second World War. The previous French occupiers were still around but while they weren't looking, here in Hanoi "Uncle" Ho Chi Minh gave a speech in Ba Dinh Square declaring Vietnam an independent state. (The French fought this quite intensely for another 9 years before finally being defeated.)

What it means now is that on and around that day every house is flying a Vietnamese flag, it's a day off work and there are probably communist concerts on street corners around the city. I'm actually not sure because when I get a long weekend I tend to go away!

On this weekend in 2012 I went to Luang Prabang, Laos. If you haven't been, it's a smallish town on a peninsula in a big river bend, and is full of wats and monks and tourist shops and a night market on the main street every evening. Yes, it's touristy, but it has somehow managed to retain its lovely charm and become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's a great place to wander, rent a bike and ride around, chat with the monks, and just relax in Laos' completely chilled out atmosphere.

View of the Eastern side of Luang Prabang.

On Phou Si hill.

Of course, being me, I couldn't leave it at that and I had to do a cooking class! The one at Tamarind came highly recommended online, so I gave it a go.

As with most cooking classes in Asia, it started with a market tour, outside of the touristy area.

Various herbs, one of the definitive ingredients in Lao cooking.

A large pile of banana flowers.

Various sizes of baskets for sticky rice.

I think it's dried fish.

Look at all the starfruit!

Inside the market building: fish sauce, chili powder, garlic and shallots.

In the meat section. I think it's congealed blood. Not sure what animal.

Pig trotters anyone?

TONS of dried chilies.

Wat (temple) necessities: candles, incense, and statues.

Visit the drink stand for a refreshing coconut.

Nap time for the market ladies.

We used these ceramic/metal contraptions as barbecues to cook our food. I want one!

A variety of ceramic cooking pots and accessories.
Shops across the street from the market.

They use these to transport entire meals for monks I think.

Inside a shop.

There you have it! Soon I'll show you the rest: the actual cooking class itself!