Signs of Spring in the Gray of Winter

The Pacific Northwest isn’t the worst place to spend the winter. So far in Edmonds it has snowed only once, and it melted the next day. In the past month, the temperature hasn’t dropped below freezing more than a handful of times.

But it’s cloudy and gray. This is our rainy season–usually not much hard rain, but lots and lots of drizzle. By February, we’re getting tired of this dull, gray world. We stay inside too much. We worry that we’re getting fat.

When, we wonder, will this dull gray winter end? Where is color? Where’s the sun?

There are signs of hope, though.

Little shoots promising the return of spring. Hardy primroses that someone planted before I bought this house fifteen years ago.

Tulips breaking through.

Brave little crocuses.

We had a sunny day or two in January. Cute clouds that almost made you laugh.

Dog owners take their dogs out no matter the weather, but these fluffy pups looked especially festive on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Blue skies called us to the beach.

Most of the boats at the marina stayed tied up at their docks,

their bare masts

reflecting in the cold water.

One lone sailboat was out, though, still sailing as the sun prepared to set, perhaps forgetting how short the days are in January.

This couple in jackets and warm hats seemed to  be enjoying a winter’s picnic and a beautiful view of the Olympic Mountains.

If the short, gray days are getting you down, have heart. Spring is coming. Signs of it are everywhere.

And if you live in the Pacific Northwest, spring may be early. A serious birdwatcher says the geese on their way to the Arctic are two weeks early this year.


Edmonds, photography, seasons, winter , ,

Beach Chairs and Group Dynamics


They seemed courteous and friendly enough, our fellow vacationers at the Nassau Beach Melia Hotel. They held the door for the next person, and at breakfast they waited their turns to be seated. They smiled at appropriate times; they weren’t too noisy. A nice crowd. A little more than half were American; the rest were European.

So how can I explain the thing with the towels and the beach chairs?

Every morning, early, the hotel staff put up lounge chairs on the beach and around the swimming pools. Lots and lots of chairs. More it seemed to me than the hotel guests were ever going to use.

And early every morning a staff member opened the window on the towel shack and started checking out towels.

We soon found that by the time we finished breakfast, changed into our bathing suits, and grabbed our books and sunscreen, the lounge chairs would all be taken. Not by people, but by towels. By the towels of people who may want to come down to the beach sometime later in the day and wanted to be sure their group had chairs when they decided to use them.

As I said, the hotel guests seemed like a nice group of people. They were from various countries with a variety of customs. And there were more than enough lounge chairs for everyone to use.

So why did everyone ignore the common good and act instead in their own selfish interest?

Well, I’m no social scientist, but I suspect it has something to do with group dynamics. Or maybe with “perceived scarcity,” a phenomenon that retailers use to encourage you to hurry up and buy their products. You’ve heard it: “Hurry down. Available only as long as supplies last.”

My son-in-law, who’s a big reader and often skips breakfast, did save a few chairs for us on some days. But a time or two we found ourselves at the beach or swimming pool with no place to sit.

You guessed it. Eventually we had to fall in line. We had to succumb to the invisible command of group dynamics and, like everyone else, claim our beach chairs early and keep our towels on them all day long.

We were stubborn enough, though, to wait until the last day or two of our summer vacation.

Culture, People, travel, vacations , , , ,

Book Reviews and Other Acts of Kindness

This week I had a group of writers over for a meeting. It was nice having them here. They brought food and flowers. They volunteered for upcoming projects. They sprinkled our time together with good will and all those small courtesies  that help make our days together pleasant and productive.

You might say their acts of kindness and generosity were only small and ordinary. But I went to bed that night feeling happy and grateful.

The next evening, I was looking for something on Amazon, and I decided to check my novel’s page. My book, Tiger Tail Soup, was published in 2014, and I haven’t been doing anything to market it for a long time. So I was surprised to see a number of new reviews and also happy to see that some of them were quite good.

Despite the fact that I haven’t been bothering to market my own novel, some readers have taken the time to write reviews of it. That’s so nice!

It’s a lot more fun to read than to write a book review. And writing a good one isn’t easy–at least not for me. So I really appreciate the effort these readers made to review my novel.

No matter how hard you work to write a good book, you never know whether people will like it, especially when, like mine, it tells an unusual story.

Reading the reviews left me feeling reassured, confident enough to keep working on my second novel. Thank you, all you book reviewers.

Here are some excerpts from the newest reviews:

– Kay in Seattle, One of the best reads of my year! 5 stars – I was immediately immersed in the story because the author was immersed in the culture, dyed in it. The book was long, but so was the war, as An Lee reminds us at the end, “I am still the same woman, wounded by eight years of war and occupation.”

– Maureen, Unforgettable tale, 5 stars – I can only add more praise to the writing skill and storytelling ability of Nicki Chen. She brings to life An Lee, a young Chinese woman dealing with the reality of war up close.

– Laurel, What I really enjoyed most were the richly detailed glimpses into the everyday … 4 stars – Tiger Tail Soup was an unexpected journey and thoughtful read. Raised by a mother born during the depression era, I was well acquainted with the perceptions and vernacular of western culture’s view of WWII, but entirely ignorant of the human experience and perceptions felt by those eastern societies trapped by the scourge of that same war.

May 2018 be a year of peace, respect, and kindness for us all.



book reviews, books, China, historical fiction, home, Tiger Tail Soup, writing , ,

Images from the Bahamas

It snowed this year in Seattle for Christmas … or so I’ve been told. I wasn’t here. I escaped to the Bahamas.

I’m back home now, grateful for my week in the sun with my family and hoping you’ll enjoy seeing a few pictures from the beautiful country we visited.

We stayed at the Hotel Melia Nassau Beach, where the sand was as fine as powdered sugar and the sea was calm and warm (once you got used to it). I was charmed by the silvery sheen the water took on in the late afternoon.

It was the time of year for Junkanoo, and the hotel provided its own little Junkanoo parade. The beat and energy were irresistible.

On Christmas day, Santa arrived in a horse-drawn cart. But with all the kids crowding around, I couldn’t get a good shot of him.

After water aerobics, I sat on the side of the pool with a piña colada. Mmm. Love piña coladas.

An unusual dark cloud that soon blew away.

In this year of destructive hurricanes, the Bahamas was mainly spared. The country has 700 islands. Inevitably, a few of the small, largely uninhabited islands were hit. The capital of Nassau on the main island of New Providence was missed, though.

In 1492 Columbus’s first landfall in the New World was the Bahamas. The Spanish never colonized it, but they enslaved the local people, the Lucayans, and sent them away to Hispaniola. According to our taxi driver, the Lucayans eventually disappeared from the face of the earth.

The Bahamas is a terrifically popular destination for tourists from North America and Europe. One reason: good weather. In December, the average high temperature is 79.2° and, on average, there are only eight days of rain.

Afternoon shadows and warm, shallow water protected by coral reefs.

Kayaking was one of the water sports our family enjoyed.

We also had plenty of time to read a favorite book …

… and sample a variety of desserts … every single day.

If you think people would have left their cell phones at home, you’d be wrong.

Back home now, I can’t complain. No snow, and the temperature is in the mid 40s. Not bad for winter.

Happy New Year.

Christmas, holidays, photography, vacations, winter , , , , , , ,

The Trials and Joys of Traveling on the Holidays


I woke up this morning to bright sunshine. Bypassing the coffee pot, I stepped out onto the patio and checked the thermometer. It was cold, 39o, but it felt warmer with the sun shining. Coming back inside, the first thing I did was check the weather app on my phone. Seventy-nine degrees in the Bahamas. Nice!

In a few days my daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren, and I will be in Nassau, soaking up the sun and swimming in the sea.

We’re not there yet, though. I checked one more app on my phone: maps. If I left home right now, it tells me, I’d arrive at the airport in 58 minutes. I’m writing this on the Wednesday before Christmas, though, I won’t be leaving until December 24th. Anything can happen on I-5 or at the airport during the Christmas holiday.

My sister’s near miss taught me that. She had a ticket for the train from Seattle to Portland today. Today, not Monday. Thank goodness! On Monday, Amtrak was trying out a new route. For some as yet unknown reason, the train came around a corner going 50 mph over the speed limit and derailed, many of the cars falling off the overpass onto I-5 or into the woods. You’ve probably seen pictures of the train car that was left dangling. It was a huge and terrible accident, fatal for three passengers.

As of this writing, the southbound lanes of I-5 are still closed. My sister has decided to pass on the train. Instead she’s going to bake cookies today and hope the freeway will be open tomorrow.

Most years, my kids and their families come here for Christmas. They fly in from all over the country. Almost every year their travel has been uneventful. The only exception I can remember was one year when it snowed so hard we couldn’t get out of our street.

When you travel during the holidays, you just have to have faith that everything will work out. And I do have faith that it will.

So now I’m going to unzip my suitcase and fill it up with sundresses, shorts, T-shirts, two bathing suits, and a big tube of sunscreen. The beach is calling.

family, holidays, vacations , , ,

Christmas Cards–Keeping in Touch and Losing Track


I’m all in with Christmas cards. Even in these days of emailed Christmas letters, I still do the cards and the enclosed printed letters and the personal notes.

I know. There are other simpler ways to do this. And yes, the price of international stamps has gone up to $1.15. But I like sending out (and receiving) Christmas cards. And you have to admit, it’s less fattening than baking cookies.

I like choosing cards from the UNICEF catalog.

I like summing up my year in a few paragraphs.

I like carrying the cards, one stack at a time, to the mailbox.

Most of all, though, I like keeping in touch with those friends and relatives I may not see all year, even in some cases for decades.

My senior year of college five of us girls (We called ourselves girls back then) roomed together in an off-campus apartment. Over the years since then, Mary and I have shared our lives in Christmas letters and emails, and a couple of times in person. Unfortunately we’ve lost track of the other three. For me now, Annie, Gail, and Madeline remain frozen memories from the days before our 1965 graduation. I wonder what their lives have become. I wish we’d kept in touch.

When you’re an expatriate, as my husband and children and I were for many years, people come and go a lot. And when they go, it’s usually to some distant place. You can make new friends, but they don’t really replace the old friends.

Like Doreen. She and I were friends in Manila for many years. Our kids grew up together; we vacationed together and partied together. It would have been a shame to lose track of her when she moved.

After she left Manila, Doreen lived in Singapore and India, in London and again in India. Still, it’s easy to keep track of someone like Doreen, Christmas card or not. If you knew her, you’d know what I mean.

I could go on and on about the people on my Christmas card list. But the mailman just came, and I want to go check my mailbox to see if there are any Christmas cards among the bills and advertisements.

Christmas, expatriate life, holidays, Philippines , ,

Stories to Go with My Paintings

Ah Chew with goats

 Three weeks after we moved to the Philippines I started taking Chinese brush painting classes from Professor Chen Bing Sun. Four years later, I could pretty well handle the basics. I’d learned to paint bamboo and plum blossoms, chrysanthemums and orchids. I’d moved on to animals, people, and landscapes. I ‘d done sketches of my kids and painted other non-traditional subjects.

Maybe, I thought, I could use what I’d learned to try something different. Maybe I could write and illustrate a children’s book. How hard could that be?

But, just in case writing children’s literature turned out to be more difficult than I imagined, I signed up for a correspondence course from The Institute of Children’s Literature in Connecticut.

My timing was great. Rents in Makati where we lived had skyrocketed, and we’d moved to BF Homes, a new development far from every place we needed to go. We arranged semi-adequate transportation to the International School for our two older daughters. But we couldn’t find anything for our youngest who was about to start half-day kindergarten. It looked like I’d have to drive her there and back.

Having two-and-a-half hours to kill when she was in school, I came up with the perfect solution. I could go to the Metro Club, swim a few laps, and then sit at one of the poolside tables and work on my course from the Institute of Children’s Literature. It was lovely. Palm trees, a calamansi soda, a book, and a pen and paper … five days a week.

It was a fun course. I earned my certificate. And R moved on to first grade.

In a nutshell, here’s what I learned:

  1. Writing good children’s literature isn’t as easy as I thought.
  2. I enjoy the challenge of writing fiction.
  3. You still have to get your book published, though. And …
  4. Publishers prefer to choose their own illustrators.

It was those last two items that discouraged me. I experimented with a story or two. Then I forgot about writing and moved on to a range of other activities.

Eleven years later finally I returned to writing. The time was right. Our two older daughters were in college and the third would be leaving soon. I signed up for a low-residency MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

It was a challenging, fun course. And … since we’d moved to the South Pacific by then, I was able to draft my stories in a variety of beautiful spots.

As a result:

  1. I graduated.
  2. I developed a passion for writing fiction.
  3. But I still find publishing a lot of effort.
  4. And I no longer aspire to illustrate my own stories.

Although I’ve never published a book for children, that course from the Institute of Children’s Literature was how I got my start.

Chinese brush painting, expatriate life, Philippines, Vanuatu, writing , , , , ,

Halo-halo Especial

The main characters in the novel I’m writing are a husband and wife. I’ve set the scene for them in lots of different places. They talk and fight in the car and at the beach. They talk and laugh and cry in the kitchen, dining room, and bedroom of their Manila apartment. They talk on the phone, and they go out to eat, together and with friends. That gives me a chance to write about food.

Like most cities around the world, Manila’s restaurants serve a variety of cuisines. So far my characters have talked and argued over eggs and pancakes at McDonalds. They’ve invited guests to a Spanish restaurant where they ordered paella Valenciana and sangria. When their electricity went out, they had Japanese food at a hotel restaurant.

Now they’re about to stop for a snack. And I can think of no better snack to go with the serious conversation I have in store for them than halo-halo especial. Unfortunately, a full description of halo-halo isn’t going to fit into the narrative of my novel, so I thought I’d write about it here.

Halo-halo (meaning mix-mix) allows for many variations. This is the way I remember it. They serve it to you in a tall, old-fashioned soda shoppe glass, the kind with a pedestal. If you ask for especial, it comes with a scoop of ice cream on top—mango or ube being the favorites. Through the glass, you can see crushed ice over messy layers of colorful, exotic ingredients.

The whole concoction requires some stirring with a long spoon. It’s up to the customer how much he or she wants to stir it and whether to eat the ice cream first or stir it in.

Here are some of the ingredients you might find in the messy, colorful layers at the bottom:

  • Sweet red beans and/or sweet white beans
  • Nata de coco and/or nata de piña
  • Macapuno
  • Jack fruit
  • Sago (tapioca)
  • Sweetened saba banana
  • Sweet corn kernels
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Ube (a purple sweet potato)

Before topping the halo-halo with a scoop of ice cream, sweetened evaporated milk is poured over the ice.

A few explanations:

Nata de coco and nata de piña are small, translucent, slightly chewy, jelly-like cubes. The nata de coco is made by fermenting grated coconut, coconut water, water, and sugar with acetic acid and a starter. Nata de piña starts with pineapple juice. They’re both delicious! Here are some instructions for making nata de coco. It’s easier, of course, to buy it already bottled.

Macapuno, another interesting and delicious ingredient, is the meat of a coconut from a naturally occurring mutant dwarf coconut tree. The coconut meat, instead of hardening into the firm, white solid coconut we’re used to seeing, remains soft and slightly translucent. It’s usually preserved in long shreds in a heavy syrup.

Saba bananas are a Philippine variety of plantain. They’re used in cooking, mostly for desserts.

Here’s wishing you a happy Thanksgiving, a great holiday for counting your blessings and enjoying family, friends, and lots of good food.










food, Philippines, writing , , , , , ,

Another time, Another Place

 I’ve always liked autumn—the bright colors, the golden tint of the light, the scent and crackle of newly fallen leaves. You’d think I would have missed it when we lived overseas. Somehow, though, it never occurred to me.

For more than twenty years, we lived in the tropics where the only two seasons were rainy and dry.

I heard other expats lament the lack of seasons, but the sentiment slipped through my consciousness without making a dent. Four seasons was something that happened in another time and place. I was busy living my life where I was.

Eventually we moved back to the States. There were daffodils and tulips in spring, lilacs and petunias in summer. Then it was fall. Wow! How had I forgotten about this lovely season?

The distinctive fresh scent of fallen leaves brought back memories from childhood of walking to school, leaves crunching under my feet, memories of sifting through those leaves for the most beautiful ones to bring to my teacher or press in a book.

Experiencing fall again brought back to me how special the autumn light is. It’s slanted and golden, more dramatic than light at other times of year. Shadows and light conspire to show each other at their best. Some trees are so brightly colored they seem to be lit from within.

People have asked me if I’ve been back to Manila or Port Vila for a visit. Don’t I want to go back? they ask. But for me, that was another time, another place. I’m here now and happy to be.

How about you? When you were a child at camp, did you miss home? Do you long for days past or for some place you lived before?

This year we’ve had a gorgeous fall in the Pacific Northwest. Here are a few photos from my iPhone.

Yellow against the blue

scarlet beside the green (a burning bush?)

scattered leaves


my stewartia

reflections in a puddle

looking up

a rose in November

delicate leaves starting to turn

at Third Place Books for a meeting of my critique group

at the edge of the parking lot








expatriate life, fall, seasons, Washington State

Bookcases and Hot Air Balloons


Hot air balloons, Prosser WA, 2011

This past weekend I drove across the mountains to spend some time with my daughter, T, on her birthday. When I left home on the coast, it was raining, sprinkling when I reached the pass. Even with the sprinkles, there was enough sunshine to bring out the colors. Bright yellow leaves against the evergreens. Pinky-red bushes climbing the mountains. Snow more than a thousand feet up.

Driving through Eastern Washington is a real treat in the fall. If it wasn’t such a long drive, I would have stopped to take pictures of the orchards blushing with red apples, the grapevines dressed for autumn, and the sparkling rivers. And overseeing it all were two solemn mountains, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams.

On Saturday, T and I celebrated her birthday with Indian food and cupcakes. We had planned to take in the Balloon Stampede in Walla Walla early Sunday morning. Balloonists seem to prefer the calm of dawn to take to the sky.

Prosser, WA 2011

But sometime in the middle of the night, all hope for calm disappeared as a vicious, noisy windstorm blew in, rattling the windows and bending the trees. And it just kept on blowing.

Before the sun rose, the festival website had announced that the balloon launch was cancelled. I guess hot air balloons and high winds don’t mix.

No worry. We had a backup plan. Or rather I did. I’d noticed books spilling out of T’s bookcases. Wouldn’t this be a good time to weed through them? T gave me a skeptical look. But she just couldn’t resist my enthusiasm and my mother-power.

So … while she sat on the floor in the TV room, I carried stacks of books in to her. All she had to do was divide them into piles:  TBR (to be read), TBK (to be kept), GA (give away), and LMTAI (Let me think about it.)

Within a few hours, the LMTAI pile had been reduced to nothing, the TBR pile had been given its own convenient shelf, the TBK books were classified and shelved, and The GA pile had been stuffed into nine large bags and donated to the city library.

I’m an author who hopes to sell lots of books, still, collecting them doesn’t hold the same appeal for me as it used to. I remember once, about twenty years ago, staying in a bed-and-breakfast in a college town. The owner was a very literate woman, an English professor, I think, and her walls were covered with bookcases. At the time, I was impressed. Now, not so much.

I still have lots of books. But I’ve been weeding through them, giving a few bags to the library every now and then. Most of my reading lately has been on my Kindle.

I did bring three books back from my daughter’s house, one for my sister and two for me: What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton from the TBR pile and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz from the GA pile.


See also: Up, Up and Away in a Hot Air Balloon.













books, home, Washington State , , , , ,