20 by 30

(三十岁前要做的20件事)

After moving to New York City, speaking 4 languages, sterilization, marathons and one half Ironman, I need to come up with something crazier to conclude my 20s.

  1. Speak semi-fluent Arabic 说半流利的阿拉伯语. My goal is to be able to deal with most situations likely to arise while traveling in an Arabic speaking country, capable of  producing well organized sentences on topics that are familiar or of personal interest, and can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and give brief reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
  2. Climb Mount Kilimanjaro 爬乞力马扎罗雪山. It’ll probably happen one month after turning 30, in December of 2020, when it’s summer time in Tanzania. Then I’ll fly to Zanzibar and eat lots of kitumbua!!!
  3. Bungee Jumping over Zambezi River at Victoria Falls 去赞比西河蹦极跳. It is rated one of the scariest, here’s a video about it: https://youtu.be/xlbXTMk0Hlw?t=2m14s.
  4. Move to another country 搬到下一个国家. Other than China, United States and Japan, of course.
  5. Not dress my age 穿和我年龄不符的衣服. Still won’t, tank tops, shorts and flip flops all day until I move to a Muslim country :)
  6. Go on a multi-day hike or ride 去多日徒步旅行或骑行. I’ve planned a two day, 170 mile bike ride to my alma mater but didn’t find time for it last year. Since the starting point is NYC, I should do it before I move away.
  7. Write a story 写一个故事. I always wanted to share my own experience about being abused (physical punishment and verbal humiliation, nothing sexual) in the first two years in junior high by my geography teacher. I just started working on it.
  8. Watch sunrise on Mount Sinai 去埃及西奈山看日出. Or simply, visit Egypt and speak as much Arabic as I can with locals.
  9. Ride a camel in front of Giza Pyramids 在埃及金字塔前骑骆驼. A continuation of No. 8. I’ve never been on any animals in my life until I had the chance to ride a camel in Mombasa, but decided to wait and do it elsewhere more epic and fitting.
  10. Visit Madagascar 去马达加斯加.
  11. Visit Bolivia 去玻利维亚.
  12. Visit Peru 去秘鲁.
  13. Go white water rafting in Zambezi River 在赞比西河漂流. In the same trip with No. 3.
  14. Go on a vacation with my parents 和爸爸妈妈旅行. I want to take them to Kenya for Maasai Mara, but I’m almost certain that my dad wants to take me to historical sites in China so as to “re-educate” me on Chinese history, and my mom wants to go shopping in Europe.
  15. Improve rifle accuracy 学习打猎枪. Maybe I’ll even try sporting clays.
  16. Get Lasik 做角膜手术. I have congenital myopia in my right eye. It doesn’t affect my daily life at all, because my left eye is dominant. However with my plan to improve shooting, it’s better corrected.
  17. Have abs 锻炼腹肌. All the time. Not just after running many miles, dehydrated and haven’t eaten.
  18. Learn more about religion 了解更多宗教. I was raised atheist, and all my family members (except my aunt) are atheists. I always thought the idea of religion absurd and was ignorant toward religion. Then I moved to NYC and became friends with people of different religions. I still know next to nothing, and will remain an atheist, but I’d like to learn more about religion by taking online classes and reading books.
  19. Create an emergency fund 建立应急基金. I blew my last emergency fund with nips and tucks so it’s time to save again — for more nips and tucks. (1.5/10)
  20. Read books in Spanish 读西班牙语书. Still need improving even though it’s not likely that I move to a Spanish speaking country anytime soon.
  21. Keep dreaming 继续折腾.
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Why is Arabic so hard?

When I walked into Arabic class last week, Ahmed, my teacher, cheerily greeted me As-salamu Alaykum and asked me how I was doing. I said, “bi hair, alhamdulillah,” which means, “Good, praise be upon Allah.” But I was struggling. I just spent a full day at work sitting in front of a computer, and I was about to sit down for a full night in front of mind-bending grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.

I am not one of those people who dread the thought of learning a foreign language. While everyone else was struggling with English in high school, I already spoke fluent English, which led to receiving a scholarship to study at an American university. So I left high school and enrolled in a Japanese language institute and took Japanese full time for a year, and I loved it. Then I studied Spanish after I moved to New York City and now I’m able to watch Spanish movies and read Spanish books with only occasionally checking dictionary. I have also taught myself some half-decent rudimentary Swahili. Languages are usually fun until I started Arabic.

Unlike your usual demographics for Arabic learners, who mostly study Arabic for work, I do it purely for fun. I figured as I’ve learned some of the world’s most popular languages, Chinese, English and Spanish, Arabic should be next.

However, my confidence, as I always boosted, “I speak 4 languages” stopped as soon as I started Alif Baa. The first challenge, the script, is a tough one. But it is by no means the biggest. Arabic has an alphabet, so it’s easier than my native Chinese, which has a set of tens of thousands of characters. There are just 28 letters, and it does not take long to get used to writing and reading right-to-left. (Though it still gives me a headache.) Most of the letters have four different forms, depending on whether they stand alone or joined at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Even then, so far so good. But the Arabic alphabet is an abjad, meaning that each letter represents a consonant. There are also long and short vowels. Long vowels can be ambiguous and short vowels are not generally indicated in writing. Maktab, or “office,” usually is just written as mktb. Short vowels are included in the Qur’an so as not to confuse the meaning, but usually not anywhere else, so you have to get used to reading without them. Tht whn y knw th lngg s tht hrd. But when you’re struggling with comprehension, to begin with, it’s pretty formidable.

Then there are the unfamiliar sounds those letters represent. I was shocked by my first Arabic class because I could not make any of them! Arabic has one “h” akin to the English h, and another one that sounds like a Spanish j as in Juan. That’s not to be confused with another kh, that is the ch familiar to Russian-speakers as the sound in “Rachmaninov.” And “r” that sounds like the rolling rr in Spanish. There’s also ‘ayn and ghayn, a “voiced pharyngeal fricative,” which are like a glottal sound of ah and hah, or as Ahmed put it, “just make it like you are about to vomit.” Unwritten in Roman-alphabet transliterations, it’s actually a consonant that begins many common words and names, including “Arabic,” and “Iraq.” and “Morocco.”

The sounds are tough, but the words are tougher. Spanish has genders and complicated conjugations but it is nothing compared to Arabic. In Arabic, there’s a dual form,  so nouns and verbs must be learned in singular, dual, and plural forms. A present tense verb has 13 forms. Every noun has nominative, genitive and accusative cases and two genders, which means put any word you learned from a textbook “vocabulary section” into a sentence, it probably writes and sounds differently. When Ahmed explains that numbers are marked for gender—but numbers from 3 to 10 take the opposite gender from the word they are modifying—we students stare at each other in slack-jawed solidarity. When we learn that adjectives modifying non-human plurals always have a feminine singular form—meaning that “the cars are new” comes out as “the cars, she are new”—I can hear gasps and heads banging on the desks around me.

There are other times we learn about Islamic culture. Arabic is peppered with a lot of Allah, like appending insha’Allah, “God willing,” to almost any statement of intent, as in, “I’ll see you in class on Wednesday, insha’Allah.” Or “bismillah” we recite at the beginning of our class, or “Masha’Allah” when we acknowledge anything.

The Foreign Language Institute reckons Arabic as one of the hardest languages, at level 5, the same level as Chinese, Japanese or Amharic, (the language of Ethiopia where the script አማርኛ looks like little people). There’s a joke that Arabic is only hard for the first ten years, and I’m now a second-year Arabic student, so I have nine years left.

That is if I work my ass off.

Insha’Allah.

My First Encounter with Sexual Assault on the Subway

My first encounter with sexual assault happened this Tuesday during my morning commute on the F train. I will spare you the details other than it was deliberate, since I tried to move away but he followed. It has been a while since the #MeToo campaign on social media and I have read many accounts of women who experienced sexual assault and harassment. I learned that many women in NYC had experienced sexual harassment on the subway, but few would actually come forward. So when I saw the man getting off the train, I decided to follow him and took pictures.

The man quickly realized I was following him, so he circled the block in an attempt to lose me, but I followed closely since he already found out. Eventually he stopped so I had the chance to confront him. And he said nonchalantly, “come on, I fell asleep.” Those were his exact words, and he actually said “I fell asleep” many times, and sounded like I was the one who was causing trouble.

At the time I had some decent pictures to identify him, so I left for work since I didn’t think I would make any progress continue following him or questioning him.

Right after I got to work, I tweeted the pictures to NYC Subway twitter account, and also from their old tweets, found a link to report sexual misconduct on the subway to NYPD, so I did. By noon I received a follow up direct message on twitter and an email reply from NYPD, that a detective will be in touch with me soon.

In the evening, I received a call from a detective, described to him what had happened and we scheduled to meet the next day.

The following day, in the morning I met with two detectives. They accompanied me on the train, and I walked them through what happened, how I followed the perpetrator and also pointed out the food truck where he had stopped to get breakfast.

On Friday, three days after the assault, the detective from NYPD notified me that they had the man under arrest and asked me for a written statement. Just this Monday, a bomb attack happened at Port Authority, and there have been police officers everywhere. I could image this must made it harder for any criminals to hide.

I chatted with several friends about what happened to me and they have been nothing but supportive. I could picture the man doing the same thing to other women, at any other time, or all the time in the past. I have always been an outspoken feminist, and I would feel personally responsible if I hadn’t done anything in this situation. During the entire time since it happened, more than feeling violated, I have felt anxiety, guilt and humiliation, but I never felt powerless.

When We Were Young

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I am sometimes asked if I am married or have children. When I say no, mostly to friends of my parents, they would feel sorry and occasionally would try to set me up with sons of their distant relatives through my parents. They seem to believe I would make a great wife and mother, “she’s so smart, their son will go to the best university!”

In fact I was with a man for almost 6 years, before we broke up earlier this year.

We met in college, in a class about database systems. I was 20 and he was 31, we were poor but we were in love. We moved in together when we had been together for six months. After we graduated from college, we moved to New York City. Brooklyn first, then Queens.

We were happy together most of the time. It was the type of happiness that we could sit next to each other on the couch and code, for hours without uttering a word. And felt happy.

Then he got his dream job. It was the job he had been preparing for the past decade. He was happy. I was happy for him. The job was in another city far from New York. So we broke up and he moved away.

It can be awkward to describe this ending to people I don’t know. They tend to ask follow-up questions: “Why didn’t you just get married and move with him?”

“Why didn’t I?” I ask myself.

The answer is: many reasons. Because I was 26 and unsure how long the relationship would last. Because I wanted a career for myself. Because neither of us believed in marriage and we wanted to be adventurous more than we wanted to be married. Because I needed a work visa sponsorship and it was unlikely to find a company that sponsors in a small town, and I was too independent and embarrassed to get married for a green card.

But I don’t say any of these things. What difference will it make? We were in love and we wanted to set each other free. So we did.

Marriage and children. I got asked more often in Latin American and in China than anywhere else. My grandmother once asked me, if I don’t get married and don’t have children, what happens when I get old? And what happens if I get old and then get really sick? Who is going to be there to take care of me?

My grandfather passed away and my uncle had been a criminal and a disgrace to the family. I wanted to ask her where was her husband and her son when she got sick.

“But don’t you like children?” someone will then ask.

No, I don’t like children. In fact, I often reply with, “Tengo la discapacidad de sentirse amor ni compasión a los niños. (I cannot feel love or compassion towards children),” as honest and matter-of-factually as admitting “I’m vegan” or “I drank 3 cups of coffee this morning.”

I understand the financial and legal benefits of being married, like there’s higher deduction for couples filing a joint tax return, and there’s no surcharge for an additional driver for a rental car. But should we get married simply because of these? I’m certain there are successfully and happily married people, but I think marriage is slavery. We are in this world to love, not to enslave each other.

I recently found out an old friend of mine had been depressed and suicidal for the past year. He was in a long term relationship and had a good job, and I had thought they were happy. But you can never know what goes on between two people by looking at their Facebook updates.

Later in the year I met another man. We could not be more different and there was a bigger age gap, as much as I was 4 when he graduated high school. In front of such a man it is hard not pretend to be who I am not, or the most perfect version of myself.

I am still unsure.

I think love is like feeling your way through a dark tunnel; you have to get your hands dirty. If you hold back, nothing interesting happens. At the same time, you have to find the right distance between people. Too close, and they overwhelm you; too far and they abandon you. How to stay in the right distance? I think I still need to figure this out.

After 27 years, I still want to have my life for the unexpected.

Arabic Class Updates

I guess I cannot sustain a 4 hour sleep per night too long. I was exhausted after my Arabic class, so I decided to Uber home. My uber driver happened to be Pakistani, so we exchanged some simple greetings in Arabic before I dozed off. Arabic remains one of the hardest things I ever attempted to learn so far, and I still struggle.

Una Pequeña Lección

El otro día escuché un podcast sobre la vida de los inmigrantes indocumentados en Estados Unidos. En este podcast Recién Llegados de Radio Ambulante, la periodista visitó a una escuela en California para los estudiantes extranjeros que han llegado hace poco tiempo.  Y me acordó un encuentro con un chico joven guatemalteco.

Cuando estaba en Guatemala, después de saber que estoy viviendo en Nueva York, el chico Eric me dijo que uno de sus amigos también hizo el viaje cruzando México para venir a Estados Unidos, y ahora vive en Long Island. Le dije que sabía el viaje atravesó del México es muy peligroso, y me dijo que sí, por eso finalmente él no fue, y consiguió un trabajo en Guatemala. Me contó los esfuerzos de su amigo, que tiene más hermanos para apoyar, y con su nivel de educación, hay muy pocos trabajos en su región, y por eso no había otra salida.

De pronto la conversación con Eric me dio cuenta de que estoy privilegia. Y la verdad fue una pequeña lección de humildad, porque con la mejor intención yo quería relacionarme con ellos, solo pasé mi infancia en pobreidad y la mayoría de mi vida es cómoda y próspera. El privilegio de ser la hija única, de haber estudiado inglés desde pequeña y recibir una beca para estudiar en Estados Unidos. Parece que obtengo todo lo que quiero fácilmente. Aunque no soy estadounidense, mi país China también es cada vez más fuerte en su economía y reconocimiento del mundo.  También el privilegio que yo ser la raza asiática por parecer más pacífica o más inofensiva, que hace que no me detengan como lo detuvieron a Eric y los otros de América Latina.

I was robbed in Guatemala City

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I was robbed today a little while after taking this picture. It was about 2pm in the afternoon, a bright sunny day. I was in Zona 10, right under the Torre de Reformador, at exactly this location. I was waiting for Uber with my phone in my hands and two guys on motorcycle stopped by me, grabbed my phone quickly and went away.

I’m glad at least I’ve synced my photos with Dropbox whenever I can, so I can post this one from my computer. I only lost a couple photos from Museo Popol Vuh. Now I need to either buy a cheap digital camera or a single use film camera, as I’m leaving for Tikal tomorrow. While it is not my intention to speak about the relative safety of other third world countries, except to say that I did not experience similar events in my recent trips to China, Mexico and Honduras. I feel that most Guatemalans are nice, friendly, and honest people who would probably be more enraged what had happened to me in their country than I was. I’m simply sharing this information and hoping other travelers who also plan to visit or already in Guatemala to be careful.

For The Love Of The Long Run

I signed up for an Ironman 70.3 yesterday and was in denial for the rest of the day. What have I done?

Even though I’ve been running for more than a year, I barely know how to swim freestyle and I don’t even own a bike. I swam a lot in college but my background is in breaststroke. As for biking, my background is none. I rode a bike to school when I lived in Japan. But it was a commuter bike with no gear, and I have no knowledge of how to fix a bike either. Something even worse is that I actually hate indoor cycling: went to my first SoulCycle class two years ago and left half way because I just couldn’t take it anymore.

An old Chinese proverb says that sometimes people are brave because they are ignorant (无知者无畏). And I’m sure that is my case. I don’t know what it takes to complete an Ironman 70.3 so I thought it’s manageable.

Perhaps this is insanity at its purest level.

The real  reason for signing up an Ironman 70.3, besides showing off and being insane, is that I always skip cross training in order to do more long runs, because I simply love running anywhere for more than 15 miles. A triathlon will force me into swimming and cross training more, and it enables me to challenge myself while experiencing an amazing, healthy lifestyle. Having to train in 3 disciplines gives me much needed structure while challenging me to be a better athlete every single workout, every single day. I don’t know what had happened but I fell in love with running after my first treadmill class at Mile High Run Club, in May 2015. At the age of 24, I started running for the first time. Within a year of running, I did my first marathon and fell in love with the distance. While training for my second marathon, I had an injury and that led to my first DNS for the Rock’n’Roll Brooklyn Half. Though eventually I crossed the finish line of my second marathon healthy and happy, I don’t ever want to repeat another DNS like this again, so I decided to run less for some time and training for an Ironman 70.3.

Soy

Me di cuenta de que había muchos visitantes de México a mi blog, entonces decidí escribir un poco sobre mi misma.

Soy Daniel Zhao (mi apellido Zhao se pronuncia como Ciao en italiano), nací y crecí en China, y cuando tenía 18 años, me fui a la universidad en EEUU. Tengo licenciatura y maestría en la Ciencia de Computación y en 2012, viví un año en Japón como una estudiante de intercambio. Hablo 4 lenguas con fluidez, son chino (mi lengua nativa), inglés, japonés y español.

Ahora soy programadora, y en mi tiempo libre, me gusta correr, especialmente las carreras a distancia. También me gusta nadar, ir al cine y comer afuera. De hecho, no puedo cocinar y desde hace 7 años, desayuno, almuerzo y ceno en restaurantes todos los días. Me gusta viajar mucho, y mis momentos favoritos de viaje incluyen andar en bici a un faro en Key West, comer smorgasbord en Amish Country, correr el Maratón de Festival Derby de Kentucky, tomar el estrecho tren de Yunnan a Vietnam sin pasaporte, y visitando el sagrado santuario sintoísta de Tokugawa Ieyasu en Nikko, Japón.