I was fortunate to recently review a copy of travel memoir, The Same Sky, by Debbie Lee Yan Wong. The book details her search for peace as she travels solo through Tibet, Laos and Cambodia on an expedition to piece her life back together after a devastating break up.
As the journey proceeds, Wong is accompanied at times by strangers, locals, and fellow travellers exchanging experiences along the way. Her experience prevails throughout the memoir with her growing confidence to handle the challenges that life presents.
Following my read of the book, Debbie was kind enough to allow me an interview; read her responses below.
After reading your book ‘The Same Sky’ I’ve been intrigued to learn about your experience as an expat. What was it like living in Beijing and why did you choose this city?
At the time, I had followed my Canadian boyfriend at the time to Beijing where he worked as a diplomat. but shortly afterwards we broke up. I ended up staying in Beijing to work and then I met Chris the French guy. I fell hopelessly in love with him as mentioned in my book.
I have a love/hate relationship with Beijing. At the time, in the late 90s, there was no Internet, CNN was banned and Hutongs (traditional Chinese courtyards) were still everywhere – they have since been demolished to make room for the Beijing Olympics. It’s fascinating because at the time, to cruise down a street in Beijing was fantastic: you could hear the vendors calling out prices. You could see people practicing tai chi in the morning. You could eat a freshly made jian bing or egg pancake from a street hawker on your way to work.
When I lived in Beijing, every day was a new adventure right at my doorstep with the bustling markets, the yummy cuisine and the friendships you develop with the locals. As with any place, you can get bad China days when it seems no one understands what you mean and it takes 30 minutes to buy a single stamp from three different windows at the post office. But then the next day you get up again and rediscover new things about China.
Pollution is a killer. Sometimes you can’t see the sky. Many expats whose kids have mysteriously developed asthma have packed up their bags to head home.
What was the inspiration for writing your travel memoir?
I wanted to write my travel memoir ‘The Same Sky’ to inspire other women (and men) who have experienced any calamity of the heart to bravely step out, travel and rediscover oneself again.
Travelling really provides perspective in the face of geopolitical issues and hardships in third world countries. People who have suffered far greater than me showed resilience, openness and generosity as they welcomed me into their home for tea. These heartfelt exchanges with locals inspired me to heal again.
Sharing my story meant sharing my spiritual journey. I wanted to give people hope that bravery is felt in exploring the unexplored both physically in travelling and emotionally in our hearts. Even if you’ve never been to Asia, my memoir has so many universal themes that everyone can relate to: love, anger from a breakup, grief and self-exploration.
As a woman travelling, at times, on a solo basis, what are the key things that you feel all women should consider before a solo trip?
- Embrace uncertainty
- Trust your gut
- Let go and relish in your aloneness – you don’t always have to surround yourself with people. You can enjoy your solitude so that you can self-reflect and think, which you may not always get to do when with people.
In ‘The Same Sky’ you visit countries that challenge political and religious beliefs. What was it like to witness such experiences?
I remembered when I was in Tibet, so many locals were cautious about talking to me since I looked Chinese. I had to explain that I was Canadian of Chinese descent, and then they relaxed and opened up about the hardships. Amazing resilience the Tibetans have and the fervor they have for their religion – wow. It broke my heart to hear that the Tibetans would be punished for carrying a picture of the Dalai Lama. Or that they couldn’t freely visit temples without being closely watched at all times by the police.
On the other hand, many Chinese were sent to Tibet to live and settle there (as part of the economic expansion plan set by the government) and so some felt uncomfortable living in what seemed like a foreign place. It’s no wonder that tension continues to rise between the Chinese and Tibetans.
In Laos with the aftermath of the Vietnam war and Cambodia with the genocide in the 1970’s, I met people who were still suffering from loss, grief or poverty. It can be very daunting. Yet everywhere I went, people opened up their homes and hearts and shared how they made do with what little they had. These interactions altered how I saw the world and made me more thankful and appreciative of the simple things in life.
Similar to myself, you have a fear of enclosed spaces and spiders. How do you prevent these issues from hijacking your travels?
Yes I didn’t dare enter that cave in Laos when I heard there would be narrow passageways and spiders! It’s a real curse that I’m so afraid of large bugs and yet I love hot tropical Southeast Asia. So I manage and try to avoid enclosed spaces like crowded buses or narrow caves as well as being in contact with too many big hairy spiders and bugs.
What was it like returning to the hubbub of a city like New York after such remote and rural experiences of Tibet, Laos and Cambodia?
After my three-month journey, I actually moved to NYC to accept a new job offer. Honestly, I felt relief because after months of living out of a backpack, it was nice to have my own place and experience normalcy again. Also NYC is a fabulous city with so much to do and see, all of which continued to enrich my exploratory mind. Fortunately, I travel a lot for work anyway so when I start to get enough of the concrete jungle, there’s usually a trip around the corner that I can look forward to.
Finally, what are your top tips that you’d advise for anybody considering an expat life?
1. Integrate as much as possible with the culture: take language lessons, eat the local cuisine and be open to meeting the locals. You’ll enjoy your expatriate life more.
2. Make friends with locals and not just with other expatriates. Having lived in first Hiroshima, Japan and then Beijing, China, I always felt like an outsider. It was often too easy to just hang out with other Canadians or Americans. So I tried to have a balance of both local and expat friends. I also learned a lot more about the culture that way, hearing it from the perspective of these two different groups.
Many thanks to Debbie Wong for providing a copy of ‘The Same Sky’ for a book review and also for participating in this interview.