Whoops! I Missed UN Day.

UN Day, Makati International Nursery School

my daughter, R, in her brocade Chinese suit being hugged by her nursery school teacher

United Nations Day was October 24. I’d forgotten all about it until I turn the page on my calendar. And there it was: UN Day. For many years–thirteen to be exact–it had been the biggest school celebration for my three daughters.

The first school they attended was the Makati International Nursery School.


Then they moved on to the Manila International School. Most of their elementary and secondary school years were spent there.

The students at the International School came from every continent except Antarctica. No single national group made up more than about fifteen percent of the whole, so it was hard to find a holiday the school could celebrate.

UN Day

children representing New Zealand, Norway, and Okinawa

National holidays were out. For American children, that meant no Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Martin Luther King Day, Columbus Day, end-of-summer Labor Day, or even American Thanksgiving.

In a student body of varied religions, celebrating religious holidays didn’t make much sense either.

Since the school was located in the Philippines, a Christian (mainly Catholic) country, it didn’t need to celebrate Christmas and Easter. Reminders of them were everywhere … outside of the school.

Halloween can’t really be described as a national holiday or a true religious holiday. But however you want to describe it, it isn’t universally observed around the world. During our years in the Philippines, if a child had knocked on a door and shouted “trick-or-treat,” the homeowner would have greeted him not with candy but with a look of puzzlement.

UN Day Christine and Nasreen

my daughter, C, in a Chinese-style dress with her Pakistani friend, N.

The only holiday remaining suitable for an international school to celebrate was United Nations Day.

At my daughters’ schools, the UN Day celebrations often lasted for a week. The older children participated in mock-UN sessions and learned national dances. The younger children brought their mothers in to share games, crafts, and traditional dishes from their respective countries.


The culmination of the week-long festivities was the Parade of Nations.

UN Day, Manila International School

my daughter, C, in her pioneer bonnet.

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Culture, expatriate life, holidays, Philippines , , , , , ,

The True Story of a Foreign Ghost in a Chinese Cemetery.

Eugene and Anna 002

We’re fast approaching that time of year when souls and saints appear. A time for recalling and repeating tales of the unexplained. So come along, I invite you to revisit this true tale of a little boy who encounters a foreign ghost in a Chinese cemetery.

My late husband Eugene was a “ghost whisperer.” Or so some believe.

He saw his first ghost when he was still a child. It was wartime and he lived in a war zone—a place with more than its share of people who’d died before their time, more than its share of discontented, angry spirits.

Enemy troops occupied his island in those days. Still, little Eugene wandered the lanes, watching the flow of life, playing and talking to the shopkeepers. One afternoon, he found himself far from home as the sun was sinking into the sea, and he realized he’d never make it back before curfew unless he cut through the cemetery.

IMG_0631As he sprinted down the lane, shopkeepers on either side were pulling their metal shades down for the night. The cemetery was all long shadows and pools of darkness. He heaved open the iron gate and darted inside. Then, skipping and dodging around the tombstones and newly dug graves, he raced into the spreading darkness.

That’s when he saw the ghost. She was floating over the graves, a tall, shining woman in a flowing white dress with the long nose and round eyes of a foreigner.

He froze for an instant. Then he ran as fast as he could, stumbling over grave markers, rocks, and uncut grass. He didn’t stop until he reached the gate on the other side of the cemetery. Looking over his shoulder, he saw her. She was close behind, floating between the trees, watching him.

“Stop following me,” he shouted.

She reached her hand toward him.

And he took off again.

When he told his mother and grandmother what he’d seen, his mother scolded him for staying out late. His grandmother put her arm around him and asked if he’d ever done anything to harm a foreign woman.

“No, Grandmother,” he said. “Never.”

“Then you needn’t worry. Next time you see a ghost, remind her you did her no harm during her lifetime, and she will leave you alone.”

It was useful advice since the white woman in the cemetery was not the last ghost Eugene was to encounter.

Happy Halloween.

my signatureDo you have a favorite ghost story or a tale of the unexplained?

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Manila American Cemetery — Traveler on Foot



I’m re-blogging this post by Glenn Martinez because it reminds me of a day long ago. My mom was visiting us in the Philippines, and the American Cemetery was close to where we lived. I’d never been there before, but you know how it is, when visitors come to town, you take them to see the sights you’d never see otherwise.

As Glenn reminds us in this post: The Manila American Cemetery is the largest resting place for American service men and women outside the United States. My mom and I were surprised at how big it was. It’s a beautiful cemetery, well cared for and dignified.

Another personal memory from that day was how well my youngest daughter, who had recently learned to walk, ran up and down the hills.

MCKINLEY ROAD. Serious, simple, and sprawling, this is the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City. Established a decade after World War II in what is known then as Fort McKinley, it is the largest resting place for American service men outside the United States. The best way to reach the cemetery […]

via Manila American Cemetery — Traveler on Foot

expatriate life, Philippines, travel, Uncategorized

Elena Ferrante Isn’t Who I Thought She Was.

 Elena Ferrante

And I’m glad she’s not.

Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym for Italy’s most famous author. For twenty years her true identity has remained a carefully guarded secret.

Then, on October 2nd, the New York Review of Books published an article on its website by Claudio Gatti. Mr. Gatti claimed that he had discovered the woman behind the pen name. In the kind of investigation usually reserved for criminals or crooked politicians, he had combed through financial records and found all the evidence he needed.

Anita Raja, a Rome based translator was the real Elena Ferrante. Ms. Raja denies it, but his proof is pretty convincing.

So why, you may wonder, am I glad—not that she was outed—but that she probably isn’t who I thought she was?

Over the past year or so I’ve read the four books that compose her Neapolitan Quartet. The books follow the lives and friendship of two women from a poor neighborhood of Naples. The narrator, Elena Greco, takes us through more than fifty years of their lives.

If Mr. Gatti is right, the author of the Neapolitan Quartet was not a girl from a poor neighborhood in Naples. She was born in Naples, but she moved to Rome when she was three years old. And her father was not poor. He was a magistrate.

The four books are a testament to the power of the imagination. The author of the Neapolitan Quartet was able to imagine herself inside the skins of people who were different than she was. In my mind, that’s a good thing.

Not everyone agrees with me. These critics believe authors have no right to tell other people’s stories, especially if the people whose stories the author wants to tell are from a different socio-economic class or a different race.

The White Englishman, Chris Cleave, was criticized for presuming to write from the viewpoint of a Nigerian girl in his best-selling book, Little Bee. Another book, The Help, was made into a movie, but it was roundly criticized for the way the white author, Kathryn Stockett, portrayed its characters of color.

When I started my novel, Tiger Tail Soup, I knew how dangerous it was to write from the point of view of a Chinese woman. I didn’t start out with the intention of doing a high-wire act on my first novel. But I had a story to tell, and that was the only way I knew to tell it.

my cover, 5-27-14

I know. Anita Raja (if she actually is Elena Ferrante) was the same race and nationality as the characters in the Neapolitan Quartet. But she did step out of her comfortable middle-class world to write about women who lived in poverty. And that leap, which fooled everyone, gives me confidence to continue to imagine the lives of people whose experience is different from my own.

The Neapolitan Quartet:

#1 My Brilliant Friend

#2 The Story of a New Name

#3 Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

#4 The Story of the Lost Child

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Free to Paint My House Blue

 blue house2

Thirteen years ago. I was in the market for a new house. Or a condo. I couldn’t make up my mind.

The houses I saw—much like the house I was leaving—had lawns and extensive flowerbeds and overgrown trees, and I was tired of weeding and mowing the lawn. The condos, on the other hand, were small, expensive, and too far from the ground.

Then one day I stumbled upon this house. It belonged to a thirty-six house development in a quiet, friendly neighborhood, walking distance from town. And the price was right. Perfect!

Every choice has its trade-offs, though. I would have to abide by the rules of the homeowners’ association. No political yard signs, no dogs running free, and all the houses must remain the color the developer painted them: Seashell.

Fine. Freedom is never absolute. And what does the color of my house matter in the larger scheme of things?

Years passed in my Seashell colored house. And then last year, the homeowners voted to change the rules and allow more colors. The Architecture Committee got to work and came up with a pallet of six acceptable colors: Gateway Grey, Barcelona Beige, Camelback, Curio Grey, Cardboard, and Seashell.

I spent a few months staring at my choices. Nothing jumped out at me. Gateway Grey? Barcelona Beige? Ho-hum. Before I could make up my mind, the news came out. We could paint our houses any color we liked.


It seems someone had taken the time to read the rule book and found that there never had been a restriction on house colors. Go figure.

blue house

So … I visited the local paint store, poured over the colors in their extensive display, brought color cards home and held them up in sunshine and shade. The color I chose is called Blustery Sky, a shade of blue. It looks brighter on some days than others. I like the contrast with my Heavenly Bamboo.

blue house4

All those years I’d been fine with a monochromatic neighborhood. Now that we have a more colorful neighborhood, I’m really enjoying not only my new house color, but the combination of colors my neighbors and I have chosen.

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Secrets and Revelations

Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada

The allure of secrets.

Keep something secret, and suddenly everyone wants to know what it is. I’m thinking now of John Wayne, an actor who became famous for his portrayal of the strong, silent type of cowboy.

Watching his movies, I always assumed that beneath his reticent surface there were secrets we would never know. And that seemed like a good thing. The cowboy had hidden depths.

Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada

This August, we visited Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, and if ever a beautiful spot benefited from the allure of its hidden depths, it was Lake Louise. Canoeing on it, my daughter and I couldn’t see a thing below the surface. The very phenomenon that makes it beautiful keeps its secrets hidden.

The lake’s water is one giant suspension of rock flour. The glacier melt that feeds it is filled with silt-sized bits of rock made so small by the grinding of glaciers on bedrock that they form a suspension in the cold lake water. That suspension of glacial flour absorbs all the colors of the spectrum except blue and green. Hence the lake’s beautiful color.

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise


Though some of us were content to paddle on the surface of the lake, my friend, Perry, told me he caught a big trout deeper down.

When the water pulls back.

Following my theme of “Secrets and Revelations,” I’ll jump ahead from our trip to Banff and Lake Louise to the photos I took a couple days later near my home. We’d walked on the ferry to Kingston with the intention of skipping one ferry so my grandson could play on the beach before we sailed back for a big breakfast at Claires.

Kingston, sand castle

So while my grandson and son-in-law built an elaborate sand castle, my daughter and I walked down the beach to see what we could see.

low tide, Kingston

The little beach by the ferry isn’t a clam digging beach or a white sand beach. But at low tide, every beach has something to reveal.

low tide in Kingston

A stranded jellyfish …

low tide, Kingstonlow tide in Kingston

bits of seaweed …

low tide, Kingston

shells picked clean. Nothing special. But they looked pretty to me. Maybe it was the light … or maybe the fact that they’d been hidden until the tide went out.

I’m writing a novel now, so questions of secrets and revelation come up all the time. A character with secrets is more interesting. But what kinds of secrets? How much should I reveal and when?

My writer friends may be interested in this article by Heather Jackson: The Key to Writing 3-Dimensional Characters. The key to 3-dimensional characters, she says, is secrets.

Low tide probably isn’t the best metaphor for revealing secrets in novels. The tide goes out, and everything is revealed all at once. Heather Jackson uses the metaphor of an onion instead. You peel back the layers one at a time.

It’s like life. We say we want people to be open and transparent. And yes, in some circumstances we do. Most of the time, though, we enjoy getting to know people bit by bit. Layer by layer. We drop in a line and hope to catch a fish. We wait for the tide to go out and see what there is to see.

The interplay of secrets and revelations.

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Aunts and Uncles: So How Are We Related?

 rocking horse, at our house in Makati

In all the stories my husband told me about his childhood in China and Taiwan and his teenage years in Japan and the Philippines, he never mentioned any aunts, uncles, or cousins. It seemed reasonable since neither of Eugene’s parents had siblings.

So when we moved to the Philippines, I was more than a little surprised to be met at the airport by a smiling, friendly group of people Eugene called “auntie” and “uncle.”

They stood around with us, talking—sometimes in Hokkien and sometimes in English—waiting for us to collect our suitcases, and finally walking us to where we would catch our ride. As soon as we’d said our goodbyes, I asked Eugene who they were.

“They’re from Amoy,” he said. “Good friends of the family.” I quizzed him again later, and he was still hazy on the details. They might be related, somehow, he said, maybe on his mother’s side.

To me, that seemed like an extremely casual attitude toward relationships. In my family we made a point of knowing exactly how we were related. Coming home from family gatherings, we would double check the names and relationships. Aunt Esther was the sister of my maternal grandfather, Mom’s aunt, my great aunt. Her daughters were my second cousins. Aunt Gertie was Grandma Rose’s aunt, my great-great aunt. It went on and on.

Now, looking back through the letters my mom saved, I see that what Eugene’s aunts, uncles, and cousins lacked in definition, they more than made up for in kindness.

The day after we arrived, Aunt Patricia took me and our oldest daughter to the supermarket and bought us our first supply of groceries, including a carton of sweet corn ice cream, Magnolia’s flavor of the month.

The following weekend Uncle Gregorio and Aunt Catherine took us to the Army Navy Club for swimming, fried chicken, potato salad, and, for the kids, American candy bars.

swimming at the Elks Club, Makati

Uncle Luis treated us to dinner at the Elks Club.

Birthday party, our rattan table and chairs

rattan table and chairs


A few weeks later, after we’d settled on a house to rent, Uncle Gregorio, who knew all the best places to shop in Chinatown, took us shopping for furniture. In my letters home I listed all the things we bought: an air conditioner, fan, gas range, and three beds. After that, we went to a rattan factory and ordered a rattan dining table with a lazy Susan, ten chairs, a bar server, sofa, two arm chairs, a foot stool, two end tables, a coffee table, rocking chair, and two lamps.

Eugene and R, our new rattan furniture

Eugene and R with rattan furniture


The cost for the rattan: $556. Money well spent for living room and dining room furniture we used for many years.

Over the next nineteen years we continued to spend time with Eugene’s aunts, uncles, and cousins. We never did pin down how they were related or whether they were simply close family friends. I guess it doesn’t matter.

Are some of the people you call “auntie” and “uncle” actually close family friends?

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Related posts: The letters my Mom Saved

Everyone Has a Maid (or Two or Three.)

Two Maids? Really?

In the Days of the Dressmakers


my cover, smallNicki Chen is the award-winning author of Tiger Tail Soup.

Emotionally charged and lyrical, Tiger Tail Soup captures the drama and suffering of wartime China through the eyes of a brave young woman.

Where to buy: Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, apple ibook

expatriate life, family, Philippines , , , , , , , ,

Blogging, Three Years and Counting

 Canadian Rockies

I started my blog on August 7, 2013, more than three years ago. Since then, I’ve published 177 posts–not many in comparison to some of my more prolific blogging buddies. Still, when I started, I couldn’t have imagined writing that many posts.

So why do I do it?

It’s funny; no one has ever asked. If you’d asked me three years ago, I would have said that everyone says writers should have a blog and/or an active twitter account. (I ignored the advice about twitter.) By starting a blog, I was just following advice I’d read and heard in every book and seminar on publishing and marketing I came across.

Before long, though, blogging took on a life of its own. I liked it. I liked turning on my computer every Sunday morning and seeing my finished post come up. I liked reading the comments readers left for me. Unlike writing a novel, which can take years, blogging provides an immediate reward. All I have to do is hit “publish,” and it’s out there.

One surprise was how much I’ve enjoyed the relationship with other bloggers. There’s an unspoken courtesy in the blogging community of visiting the sites of those who visit yours. It’s like reciprocating for a dinner invitation. A fun way to make friends all over the world.

Recently, Kate Crimmins, a blogging friend, explained it this way: “There are tons of people I’ve met (metaphorically) through blogging. Some of them I know better than my next door neighbors.”

From the beginning, I set myself the goal of publishing at least once a week. It’s a self-imposed discipline, but it forces me to find something interesting to write about every single week. Some weeks are harder than others, and I’ve missed a few. But challenges make us stronger. Right?

In college, one of my minors was Philosophy (the love of wisdom). I’ve always been intrigued by the search for the meaning of things. Blogging gives me an opportunity to slow down and reflect on everything I’ve seen and experienced, past and present.

As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Blogging gives me a reason to take a second look.

Thank you so much for visiting my blog. And for those of you who feel so inclined, thank you for your comments.

I’ll leave you with some photos from a recent family trip to Banff in Alberta, Canada. During the last week of August, I met up with all three of my daughters and their families. Here’s the view from our vacation rental.

view from Hidden Ridge near Banff

view from Hidden Ridge near Banff

view from top of Sulfur Mt. gondola

view from top of Sulfur Mt. gondola

The gondola ride was scary and steep. Four of us rode it both ways; the other five hiked up–a two-hour, unrelenting, uphill climb.

Mt. near Banff. The power lines get all the best views.

Mt. near Banff. The power lines get all the best views.

light and shadows in the woods

light and shadows in the woods

airplane view of fields nr. Calgary.

airplane view of fields nr. Calgary.

Do you have some thoughts on why you do some of the things you do?

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Next post: “Aunts and Uncles: So How Are We Related?”

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In the Days of the Dressmakers.

dressmaker, T and R 001

When you move halfway around the world, all the basics of everyday life change. The moment I stepped off the plane in Manila, the first, most obvious difference hit me in the face—a blast of heat unlike any I’d ever felt. No more cool, drizzly Seattle days for me. I was in the tropics now.

We were going to need new clothes. Almost everything we’d worn back home was going to be useless in the Philippines.

My husband was fine. His new job was in an air-conditioned office. But the girls and I needed something cool to wear, fast.

It was 1971. In a few years, the Makati Commercial Center across the street from our apartment would have department stores and fancy boutiques. In the meantime, it was a shopping desert, especially for big foreign women. (At 5’4”, I was considered big.) There were dressmakers, though, plenty of dressmakers. Every woman I met had one to recommend.

seamstress, circle skirt 001I had experienced working with dressmakers, I thought. When I was growing up, my mom made most of my dresses …



seamstress, dance costume 001… and costumes.




My grandmother was also a talented seamstress. She made this little rabbit fur coat for me. According to my sister, she tanned the hide too.

rabbit fur coat

I even did a little sewing myself. (Two years of cooking and sewing in Home Economics classes was a graduation requirement in those days.)

So I was ready for the dressmaker. I even brought a stack of patterns from the States—Butterick, McCalls, Simplicity. I showed one to the dressmaker, and she just shook her head. She didn’t need a pattern. A simple sketch or description would do.

In one of my earliest letters home to my family, I described a fitting I had with the dressmaker. “She cuts all the dresses with a high round neck,” I wrote. “Then she asks me where I want the neckline, and she just cuts it on me.”

And what did she charge for making that dress? According to that same letter, $2.40. Or, in inflation adjusted dollars, $14.

dressmaker, Tagaytay 001

It was fun designing my dresses, even more fun designing dresses for our daughters.

dressmaker, batik 001

When my husband returned from his business trips, he often had fabric in his suitcase. Batik from Indonesia was perfect for this warm-weather dress.

dressmaker, Christmas 001Matching Christmas dresses for the girls.

dressmaker, party 001

The Year End Party sponsored by my husband’s employer, the Asian Development Bank, was a fancy affair. In this photo, Eugene is wearing a barong Tagalog, the traditional formal wear for men in the Philippines. My dress is made of Chinese silk that Eugene bought in Hong Kong. I don’t have it anymore, but as I remember, it was a kind of pinky peach color.

Those “days of the dressmaker” are long gone. Now I buy my clothes at the mall or at a little store in Edmonds called Sound Styles.

Where do you get your clothes? Do you sew? What about your mom and grandma? Have you ever had clothes made by a professional dressmaker?

This is my fourth post in the series inspired by the letters my mom saved.

my signatureSee also: The Letters My Mom Saved, “Everyone” Has a Maid (or Two or Three), and Two Maids? Really?

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Crossing the Mts., Scenes of Eastern Washington

Snoqualmie Pass

Snoqualmie Pass summit


When I visit my daughter, I start out on the cloudy, sometimes rainy, side of Washington State. The side of cedars and Douglas firs, salt water beaches, and skyscrapers.

I begin at sea level and head up into the mountains. The drive on I-90 takes me up 3022 feet to the summit at Snoqualmie Pass. From there, I drive into a whole different world.

Ponderosa pine near Cle ElemAlmost immediately the firs and cedars of Western Washington give way to Ponderosa pine.

sagebrush above YakimaBefore long, the forests are gone. Eastern Washington is farm country, sunny and dry, a land of deserts, rivers, and irrigation. Without the rivers and irrigation, sagebrush would be king.

I cross the beautiful Yakima River several times. But at 70 mph, I can only glance at its rapids and lazy places.

Columbia River

Columbia River

The biggest river, the one largely responsible for turning Eastern Washington green, is the Columbia.

park beside the Columbia RiverDuring my visit, my daughter and I took a couple of walks along its banks.

cornAfter dinner one night we drove a a few miles from her house. This is some of what we saw.




A corn field, a cherry orchard. (These cherry trees had already been picked clean.)

cherry tree






Hay stacks and irrigation and cattle …




And, of course, grapes for wine. Washington is the second largest producer of wine grapes in the United States, 99.9% of which are grown on the eastern side of the state.


Going home, even with my cruise control set at seventy, it takes almost five hours–four if the traffic is good and I don’t stop for lunch. So even though the scenery cried out to be photographed, I just kept driving, storing the beautiful sights in my mind, wishing I could share them with you.

My next post, “In the Days of the Dressmakers,”  will continue my series taken from the letters my mom saved.

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