Photography Abroad

Taking pictures can serve a multitude of purposes: an external record of a sight or place, capturing a moment, creating something visually beautiful or interesting. I started taking pictures with disposable point-and-shoot film cameras, before tackling the artistic (and scientific) challenges of first pinhole and later 35mm film cameras, before moving on to digital point-and-shoot and eventually interchangeable lens cameras. Through this process I have encountered many frustrations – mostly trying to make technology do things the technology was not designed to accomplish – and learned a lot.

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Rhesus Macaque; 2012; Mussoorie, India.

I learned, taking the above photo, that monkeys do not distinguish between intentional staring of a dominance contest and the studied look of a photographer trying to focus perfectly. I captured that image, and the next was slightly blurred as the monkey charged down the branch it was sitting on and hissed at me. I’ll blame “camera shake” for that.

I learned (painfully slowly) about how to reduce and limit noise in an image, and just because the thing you want to capture in an image is in the middle of your frame, it doesn’t mean you have framed it properly (both issues exemplified in the Taj image below).

And I learned that just because something is impressive to see, it does not necessarily translate into an impressive image, as Ramses the Great demonstrates here.

Perhaps the most striking are the images I captured that have an element of excellence, but now looking back at them I can see how to do something with that potential – if only I were standing there again. I’ll never forget these places, but without these images I would certainly have lost some of the details to the fog of time and age.

Yet every now and then, I’ll find an image that is sharp and clear and shows me a sight that brings back all of the memories – the adrenaline of nearly dropping a camera because of a terrifying, tiny monkey; the sweltering Indian heat and pressing crowds giving way to awe at the first glimpse of the building known as a monument to love; the burning skies of Egypt and the gaze of a king dead for three thousand years.

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Ramses; 2013; Abu Simbel, Egypt

Now I can look at those older images – some going back a decade or more – and see what mistakes I made. And sometimes I wish I was back there – with my new gear, and my new knowledge, and my new skills – to retake those old photographs. Because I know I can do better, and make better art from what I saw.

All I can do is move forwards, and plan for the next place I will visit, and the next pictures I will take. And while I wait, I will look back at these images, and remember the adventures hidden in the light I once captured.

Taj Mahal; 2011; Agra, India

Living in “foreign parts” is largely a question of mindset. The people who are the most successful at adapting to the expat life – or who are the most successful immigrants, if we are going to try to be a little less elitist in our description of those of us who move out of the west to work in other parts of the world – are those who are able to adapt to uncertainty and uncanny circumstances.

Life is not necessarily more difficult as an economic migrant; we leave our homes to pursue work for various reasons, but simply finding the right kind of work is a powerful motivator. Many find that they enjoy new lives in new places – humanity’s history is one of migration and finding new places and ways to live, from the first steps of our ancestors out of a valley in Africa. Many new places offer excitement,

Uncertainty, however, is guaranteed. Much of this comes from culture shock – the disorientation and discomfort of suddenly having a heap of new, tacit, confusing rules thrust upon you as you enter another culture. Some aspects of this can be mitigated by simply visiting a place for a time before moving there, but there will be difficulties with facets of life that will not occur to you until you are setting up a household and going about daily routines.

When we moved to India, some of the biggest issues were simply realities of what was and was not available there. Items like maple syrup were prohibitively expensive, beef was wholly unavailable for much of our time there. Cheese was available intermittently. Vegetables varied in quality and availability depending on weather and seasons. Some items were only available if one was willing to make a multi-hour long trip into the nearest city.

China is a different story – we are in a Metropolis here, so everything can be had for a price, if you know where to look. But it can be difficult finding out where exactly to look, since everything is in a language in which I am still – despite three years of practice – functionally illiterate. Language was an occasional irritation in India, but here it can border on being a debilitating restriction. We function largely through the help of our ayi, whose ability to understand us is the byproduct of years of familiarity. She in turn is tasked with many of the more complicated errands that involve dealing with customer service reps or vocabulary that moves beyond my infant/toddler level grasp of “this,” “that,” and a few basic nouns.

Both of these challenges – and the challenges that would be encountered moving to any other culture – come back to uncertainty, and how we manage it. Uncertainty in communication, material goods, relationships, all contribute stress. If you can tolerate the uncertainty, you will find a way to overcome any of the other difficulties.

CW: mentions of surgical procedures, with accompanying grossness.

So I have had the displeasure of needing several medical procedures recently, first at the beginning of February my lower wisdom teeth were removed, and more recently I have had an infected sebaceous cyst removed from my back.

Having medical procedures done is never going to be a fun experience (unless you love puns and the procedure involves your humerus), and can be even more stressful when in a country where your native language is not the same as the majority of medical personnel.

Procedures are done around you and to you, but you’re not really part of the process. Conversations happen over your head both literally and metaphorically.

While the medical professionals have all been pleasant and personable in their interactions with me, there is an undeniable disconnection between when they are Talking To The Patient, and when they are talking to communicate.

I sit while a loud discussion happens as they drill through a molar. They seem upset – something isn’t happening the way it should? Someone is doing something wrong? I catch a word in four – it’s enough to know a thing is doing another thing, but I can’t follow the accents at that speed, and probably don’t know the vocabulary in any case.

By the time they finish extracting the first tooth I feel fine. But it took three times as long as they expected. They had to give about six extra injections of local anaesthetic. Apparently I’m resistant. The dentist asks if I’m a heavy drinker – apparently that’s a cause.

I feel fine.

The Next extraction takes longer, hurts more, and when they finish it takes some time for the bleeding to stop. I feel wrung out. I don’t bounce back like the previous day. I can’t feel half my tongue, which is normal with the local anaesthetic. But it doesn’t wear off. They tell me this might take months to go away. 

The surgery on my back is faster, but infinitely less pleasant. A series of sharp pains as local anaesthetic fills the painful swelling on my back.

“Does that hurt?”

“Yes.”

“Is there pain here?”

“Yes.”

“Does this?”

“Quite a bit, yes.”

“Ok. There.”

“That hurts immensely.”

“Ok. This will hurt. Just hold still.”

The conversation continues, but I think we’re both just making noises. Different species flashing colours and making noises that the other doesn’t quite understand or seem to register. I feel like I am literally being stabbed in the back. Which, to be fair, is exactly what is happening, since the first three exchanges were accompanied by rapid incisions. I assume they are being done with a scalpel, but for all I know it could be a chisel.

The surgeon tells me that the anaesthetic is less effective because of the infection and swelling. While I appreciate the information, this does little to lessen the pain.

It gets worse as the surgeon begins to remove the pus from the swollen, infected cyst. At some point he stops probing the abscess and carves the cyst tissue out of my back. The sensation is not much different.

My hands are shaking from clenching in pain. The adrenaline is probably not helping. I wonder how much longer it will take. I can’t tell how long this has taken.

By the time they irrigate the wound to try and wash as much pus and necrotic tissue from the wound as possible, it’s actually a relief. The sting of the antiseptic as they clean up is a welcome pain because it means the procedure is over.

The wound is packed with gauze – eight pieces. The surgeon is sure to conscientiously confirm this with the nurse to ensure that when I return they are all properly removed. A massive gauze pad covers my back. A piece of plastic adhesive sheeting holds everything in place.

They leave me lying on the hospital bed, and tell me to wait twenty minutes for observation. Half an hour later I put on my shirt, I take my backpack, and I go home.

 

 

Before I say anything else, I will start by saying this is hard. Perhaps nearly impossible. Learning a language requires practice, and if your child is not practicing with you, it is much more difficult have any kind of input on the process.

At the same time, my own children are learning both English and Mandarin, and I have had the dubious pleasure of having my own pronunciation corrected by my daughter in not one but two different languages, as she had learned a fair bit of Hindi before we left India.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that language development is slow when seen from day to day, yet it can seem rapid when viewed from a little distance. Rohan seemed to have difficulty expressing himself, and although he is still not to the level Asha was at his age, he has made incredible progress in the last few months. He makes mistakes in English that may be common, but are also emblematic of errors made by English language learners whose first language is Mandarin.

Based on observations I have made of my students, children with monolingual parents are at a notable disadvantage in learning a second language compared with their peers whose parents are able to practice a second language with them and provide support. Perhaps the most important aspect of this is simply showing kids it’s ok to make mistakes. I practice my mandarin in front of Rohan and Asha, and although this means that Rohan is convinced I can’t really speak his language, they are both willing to speak with me, and make mistakes of their own.

Show your kids that something is important to you, and it will be important to them too.

 

Review: Red Wing Boots

These boots are one of my favourite pairs of footwear of all time. They took a long time to break in – they were still giving me sore toes where they were a little tight almost a month after I bought them – but once broken in they are comfortable and seemingly indestructible. I have owned them for about three years now, and they haven’t changed much in appearance in the last two and a half years. At some point I may need to replace the rubber outsoles, but other than that (and the laces, which I’ve replaced twice) these are still going strong.

I haven’t worn them much in the last few months, as I had to leave them in Canada over the summer in order to meet weight restrictions when flying home. As soon as I was back in Canada I pulled them out of storage and fell in love with them all over again.

There is something special about the leather soles and upper and welted construction that makes these boots feel like they are something special. They can take me on adventures, or will last through my life and tell the story of every footstep on every journey – or perhaps it’s just the three years of wear that have shaped them almost perfectly to my feet until they fit like a glove.

 

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Showing their age, but still going strong. Might be time for a polish, though. 

Christmas in Canada

For obvious reasons I could not write this post before Christmas, and with the chaos and effort of travelling to another continent and back (not to mention the start of a new term at school with all the accompanying chaos), it’s taken a few days to get back in the swing of things.

This past year we decided to give a very special Christmas gift: surprise surprise grandkids. The grandmas are always asking when they can have more time with Asha and Rohan, so last year around February Darcey suggested that we could fly back at Christmas and surprise my mother. I knew she would love it – Christmas is her thing, and she always wants to have the family together. I’ll see if I can find photos of her Santa collection later, but trust me, she goes in for all the trappings the season has to offer: wreaths, garlands, lights, bells, baking, cooking, gifts under the tree (and around the tree, because GIFTS!)… the whole kit and caboodle.

The problem (for anyone who knows my mother) was keeping her in Toronto without promising to bring the kids home. She is prone to spontaneous fits of international travel, and is not above flying to another continent for a bit of excitement or to see her family.

We had to concoct an elaborate set of excuses in order to convince her that we were going to visit friends in Australia, and as we would be relying on our friends’ hospitality, we could not possibly invite her to join us. My father was enlisted to ensure that she did not decide to book another vacation on her own – no small feat, I’m sure, since she retired in September and had nothing but free time to travel.

My sister was brought into the loop to make sure that she would be home to see us. This became especially awkward over the summer when we did not travel to St. Louis to see Claire, knowing we would be seeing her in December… but of course we could not tell my mother that.

My mother in law was also informed – we wanted her to be able to come up to see the grandkids too, and it would obviously require a little more planning on her part to drive up to Canada from her home in Maryland – and at one point had to stop communicating with my parents because she was worried she would let the cat out of the bag. At the same time she had to be in frequent communication with my father to make sure she could arrange their visit.

The close calls were numerous. At one point, my father asked if he ought to buy some steak “for when Adam and Darcey visit.” My mother did think it was odd that he’d buy meat in November for the following summer.

Finally, the day of our arrival came. 3 hours in the airport, 12 hours in the plane, dragging our carry-on luggage – that we had crammed three weeks of clothing and a small pile of Christmas presents into in order to avoid having to wait for checked baggage – through the hallways of Pearson International Airport, through customs, and out to find my father waiting in the crowd.

My sister called my dad while we were in the car from the airport. “Mom has no idea. I just talked to her, and when I asked where [my dad was], she said ‘I have no idea! He said he was going out to get a Christmas gift at Cloverdale (a nearby mall)! He had better get home soon, we have a party to get to!”

And so we arrived and rang the doorbell. My mother opened the door and looked in stunned silence from one face to the next for several seconds, before Asha yelled “Grandma!” and my mom realised that we were really there, and neither some hallucination nor mirage nor troupe of impostors.

A few minutes later she told me, sitting on the stairs in the front hall, that “there are some gifts that are so special you never forget them. Thank you.”

Flint and Tinder 10 Year Hoodie

I have two of these now, and I love them. They feel built to last, and a couple(? few? I need to check when I bought them) years into owning them, I believe they will live up to their name.

The Flint and Tinder hoodies, now a whole line of items guaranteed for a decade, started as a Kickstarter several years ago, and became something of a phenomenon, raising over a million dollars in initial orders. There were (of course) immediate imitators and a number of brands have grown up in the last decade offering quality goods built to last, more than brand labels and logos. The idea of buying something to last rather than as a disposable fashion of the moment is itself something of a fad – it remains to be seen how much society will subscribe to the ideals of fashion that is meant to last for more than a moment.

But to speak of the hoodie itself, it is a great item of clothing, and one of my regular staples when relaxing at home. The thickness of the fabric makes it feel substantial, and lends it an air of solidity and protection without feeling overly bulky. The zippers are good quality, and the stitching and drawstrings all seem well done. The pockets are big enough to keep hands warm without being overly spacious, but if you have a hand in you’ll need to think of somewhere else to keep anything larger than a pen or small set of keys. The inside cell pocket is a nice touch, too, and makes the hoodie feel almost more like a light jacket.

My only quibbles about these hoodies are the price and the fit. For the former, I think the product is well worth what they ask in exchange for the quality, and easily within the range you would pay for entry-level brand name clothing like GAP or L. L. Bean. My only other issue is that the sleeves run a bit snug, especially for their length. I think this may also have to do with the style of wearing sleeves ruched up, which is just something I don’t really do, but simply folding the cuff back on itself once makes everything just about perfect.

Two Years In Beijing

你好!两个去年我们住在北京,和现在我可以说和写一点儿中文。

That is probably half grammar errors, but I did type it entirely from memory, without needing to look up any words. And I even corrected a couple of characters where the computer suggested the wrong character. So it turns out I can learn languages, even if its not a particular area of strength for me.

My Mandarin is still barely strong enough to explain simple ideas to someone who is trying to understand what I am saying. I can follow maybe half of a basic conversation, and I am proud when I am occasionally able to make some basic concept understood to a native speaker. And despite this progress, after two years in Beijing, I still feel like a foreigner in a way that I didn’t in India. I don’t really have any personal connections with shop keepers or service people here like I did there. Some of that has to do with being in a city – Beijing has a thousand times more people than Mussoorie, and that scale translates into anonymity – but it is partially a reflection of the degree to which I don’t interact with anyone outside of the school community.

At the same time, everyone else in the family is feeling pretty well at home by this point. Rohan is the most localised, having arrived at less than a year of age means he doesn’t remember anything else, and he is a little 北京人 (Beijinger) in his own words. Asha is keeping up with him on the language front, and is able to carry on conversations with her predominantly Chinese-speaking classmates.

If it seems like I am focusing overmuch on language, I think part of the reason is that this was the greatest single aspect of culture shock that I wrestled with – and continue to wrestle with. India – for all that there are over 600 languages scattered around the country – is still a product of it’s colonial history. The British left deep scars on the country, and for all that they may have done that resulted in a stronger, more unified nation, the legacy of English in India is profound. But it means that almost anything official involves someone who speaks English, and English labeling on products is pervasive.

China, on the whole has been great – I’m still here two and a half years in, and despite some stresses and disappointments, it’s an incredible place that has changed how I look at the world.

One Tough Bag

A number of years ago I found out about Mission Workshop bags while looking for a new backpack. After falling in love with the idea of the Rambler, Darcey talked me into splurging and buying it, since it did everything I wanted in a backpack. It’s now about two years later, and I wanted to write a review looking at all of the pros and cons of this bag.

In the interests of fairness, I’ll put the cons up front. This bag is definitely not for everyone: the removable hip belt is a nice feature, but I have a very round mid-section, and it sits a little too high to be completely comfortable. Perhaps once I lose some weight I’ll like it more, but for now it’s not getting much use. Moreover, even packed down to it’s 22L form, it’s a big bag. Although not especially deep, the bag is very tall, and reasonably wide. When expanded to full capacity, however, the depth becomes considerable, allowing a nearly ridiculous amount of stuff to be stowed in it. Because of the shape (much of the expansion in capacity is at the top of the bag) this can make for an unwieldy form factor. If you pack carefully, putting heavier items at the bottom and on the side closer to your back, you can mitigate this significantly, but it’s still an issue that you need to be careful in managing.

Finally on the critique side, the organisation of the bag (or lack thereof): There is one (tiny) zip pocket on the front of the bag, the main compartment, and two separate compartments that take the form of sacks that are as deep as the main compartment, and dangle into it, only given structure by their attachment at the top of the bag. This means that inevitably any small object in the bag winds up in the bottom of the abyssal pit of whichever compartment it was placed in.

All of that said, I still love this bag. Why?

First, the internal structure means that I can protect and remove a laptop with cover easily – it goes in the rear compartment, and slides in right to the bottom of the bag. It’s not competing for the same space as all of the other stuff in the bag. Or it is, but it just does it better. And it’s easy to arrange things so that the laptop compartment stays closed while you rummage in the main body of the bag without exposing the laptop to the elements. The front compartment is the same – I keep small things that would otherwise wedge themselves into books and damage pages away from the books. And the main compartment is for books. Because that’s what I carry the most as a teacher.

And it is comfortable to carry books, even when you have a ton. The straps are very well padded, and wide enough that I have never felt like they were cutting into my shoulders, even when biking with a bag full of heavy groceries, or piles of students’ notebooks for marking.

Also, the material of the bag is stiff enough that the compartments don’t just cause the exterior of the bag to collapse under their own weight. Which brings me to my next point: waterproofing. The sides have yet to soak through, even biking or walking in the rain, and while I haven’t dropped this bag in a river yet, the material that covers the face of the bag and the top flap both repel water superbly, and feels like it would stop a bullet.

In short, this bag feels like it will last as long as I care to use it. And that is backed up by a warranty for forever. Their words. It doesn’t cover usual wear, of course, but if any defect in materials or workmanship is ever detected, they will repair or replace the bag, and cover the return shipping. The bag is built like a tank, and if it falls apart I get a new one.

Finally, and perhaps my favourite feature, is the fact that it’s expandable – massively. It’s a 22L bag that unzips around the sides and fans out to a 44L behemoth.

Packed down, it’s sleek. When it packs down it has no bulges, flappy dangly bits, or loose ends. It’s still sizable, but it feels tight enough that even half-empty (or half-full for the optimistic among us) it doesn’t feel like carrying an oversized empty bag. I can put a notebook or two in there with a camera and not feel ridiculous.

Expanded, it’s almost too big for everyday use. It may not quite meet the requirements of a serious trekker, but for anything in a city it will carry what you need and then some. I use this bag to go grocery shopping  on my bike, and at checkout I almost always get a double-take or two for the amount of stuff I can fit inside the bag when it’s properly packed. I might squish my bread on occasion, but I can still fit a week’s groceries in here.

So, it’s definitely not a bag everyone will like, but for the people who want versatility, flexibility, and a bag that they can do anything with, anywhere, forever… it’s amazing.

 

Unplanned Hiatus

It has been almost two years since our (or should I say Darcey’s) last post. Most of that is my (Adam’s) fault, for not contributing enough to our supposedly shared blog, and some of that is just due to life getting in the way.

We are now in our third year living in China, and although we continue to enjoy being here, the demands on our time are significantly higher, between two children who are running around and demanding attention every moment they are awake, to Darcey’s enrollment in her literature program through the University of London, to my own continual disorganisation and the demands of working at a top tier international school.

The purpose of this blog was always to let our friends and family know what we are doing, as well as to hopefully share something interesting with anyone who was interested. To that end, I am going to make more of an effort to contribute regularly to updates about what we are doing, things we are enjoying, and maybe the occasional bit of general advice.

So, to recap quickly what we’ve missed posting about in no particular order:

Rohan turned 3, Asha turned 4, they spent the summer of 2017 with their grandparents in the US and Canada while Darcey and I were diving off the coast of Borneo (Sipadan was amazing!), we visited Vietnam in April 2018, we went diving in Indonesia with Pam and Dean and the kids (lovely place, less amazing when feeling the effects of winter monsoon), diving in the Perhentians with my parents, and spent the summer of 2018 visiting friends and relatives in Canada and the US.

I have also gotten much more into photography and have been trying to do more art and writing, as Darcey has stepped up her fibre-arts (acquiring both a loom and a spinning wheel) and also started a vlog.

So here is my promise: I will share something I’ve been doing, using, or enjoying – or share something on our family’s behalf – at least once a month for the next year.

All the best until the next update,

Adam