cloud sunset with pink glow and blue skies

A week of (un)familiarity, peace & frantic-ness in Maryland

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My friend and I decided to do an impromptu road trip to head up north to Maryland from Charleston for a week to visit her family and for her to run some errands. For some context, my plan this summer was to stay with her for 6 weeks in Charleston, taking advantage of the fact that I am still working remotely. She is one of my high school best friends and we grew up together in Taipei, Taiwan and bonded over late night talks mixed in with studying and cramming for AP exams. In Taipei, we were essentially neighbors, just a 20 minute walk away from each other. Nowadays, it takes more effort to spend time together. I had not seen her for 1.5 years primarily due to the pandemic and we also missed each other when we had each headed back to Taiwan in the last year to see family.

Large green trees against a cloudy sky in suburban Maryland. Photo has yellow borders.
Maryland is very green and lush at this time of year

I’ll write about Charleston another time. Instead, today’s post is more about my experience of visiting Maryland. No, not in a formal touristy sense, but just the various things I observed and noticed in a week of…franticness. Truth is, it was busy, but it wasn’t my busy, it was me tagging along. So I got many moments and breaths of peace and reflection. It was a mild rollercoaster of sorts, hence the writing and recalling it here.

Driving the I-95 across state lines (South Carolina <> Maryland)

First thing’s first, I have never driven for a road trip in the U.S. Actually, I only got my driver’s license in January 2020 at 25 years old, so I am a bit late to the driving game. My longest drive was probably 3-4 hour long rides in Taiwan. But I have also driven in the U.S. a fair amount since I got my license, this was just one of my first U.S. long drives.

A burger with fries loaded in ketchup in a take out box with person holding burger. Photo has lilac borders.
This burger was from our drive back to Charleston. Stopped by a small diner with very Southern vibes. The food was great!

The drive between Charleston and the part of Maryland we were headed to (suburb outside of D.C. metro area) was around eight hours without traffic. We departed around 8am and got gas. My friend drove first for 2 hours then I drove for 5 hours straight (out of my personal choice btw!) and she took the rest. There was heavier traffic on this Saturday so the total drive ended up being around 10 hours. We also stopped briefly to get some food in North Carolina. I got McDonald’s (my first McDeees in a long time) and she got Taco Bell (they got her order wrong and gave her pork when she asked for potatoes).

I found surprising when driving the I-95 that there were only two lanes. It meant that you had slow cars in the right lane, and supposedly fast cars in the left. But what really ends up happening is you get cars who try to surpass the slowest cars but are still too slow for the fast lanes. Idk, I could write an entire blog post about navigating highways and cars.

The real “feeling” of crossing state lines and being in the American South (a part of the world I am very unfamiliar with) were the billboards! I don’t remember the slogans of exact ones I saw, but let’s say that a lot of them were about Jesus and God, repenting sins, and we even saw one that let you know what exit to take to buy guns. A billboard about buying guns is NOT something I have ever seen. Back in the Bay Area, literally all billboards are by a technology company advertising themselves with jokes, nice designs, and diverse faces… So here I am getting advertisements for guns, Jesus, and oh yeah, adult stores. We also drove past an amusement park called “South of the Border” that had images and logos of stereotypical caricatures of “Mexican” folks…I have no words, but just why was all of this so expected but also still shocking to see?! It’s a polarized country, ya’ll.

As for for the driving aspect, let’s just say that I grew more comfortable and engaged with the act of driving on the way back. I actually made a game out of analyzing other car/driver psychologies that it became really engaging to drive on the highway, haha. But the ride there? It was a struggle to stay engaged and find a podcast on my long list of subscribed to podcasts over the years that I just did not have any ones I automatically knew I’d enjoy. But hey, we made it! We made it there around 7pm on the same day.

A Taiwanese American bubble

My friend’s family and extended family are all Taiwanese American. Some grew up in Taipei, some grew up in suburbia Maryland. I had visited this particular aunt and home for Christmas in 2019. It was a great experience in that I was received with open arms and made to feel part of the family. On our first night back, the aunt welcomed us with take out congee and Taiwanese popcorn chicken. I was so excited to eat this food, having just been in Charleston for 3 weeks where there was only one main Asian grocery store. A stark contrast from the months prior where I stayed in Chicago.

Take out containers with congee, squid, and Taiwanese popcorn chicken on a round table
Congee and Taiwanese pop corn chicken. What a nice first meal post-10 hour drive!

Very quickly, as her family members and guests came home or wandered around the home, though they were not people I personally knew, I immediately felt comfortable. The constant switching of English and Mandarin (Taiwanese Mandarin accent) was familiar to me despite me not having any actual Taiwanese American family. This was just an environment I was familiar with based on my high school experience. The fridge, freezer and pantries were filled with familiar foods and Taiwanese snacks. It was just starkly noticeable how accessible Taiwanese and Asian food was in this suburb and how there is a bigger Asian population here.

It’s not like I’ve ever lived in Maryland, but after talking to my friend, it became immediately clear that this is a bubble of sorts and it is a very comfortable one. She has quite a few aunts and uncles in the area and they are all part of the same family, so they get to see each other often. A lot of her cousin’s spouses are also Taiwanese American. So here I was, in an environment that was both familiar, but also very unfamiliar because it’s not like I grew up in the U.S..

One of the evenings there was actually a big family dinner where all the aunts, uncles, cousins, guests, partners, grandparents all came over for one big meal. Besides the fact that the food was very good, I found myself also getting flashbacks to my childhood in South Africa. It wasn’t the same because back then it was Taiwanese community getting together for big braai’s (barbecue) and people coming together to hang out. I had not been exposed to a Taiwanese immigrant hang out situation since then, or at least since Christmas spent at this same friend’s aunt house in 2019.

Here, I was surrounded by people with Taiwanese ancestry who have spent either most of their life or most of their adult life in the U.S.. They still speak Mandarin to each other, but English is also very common, especially between the younger generations. The aunts speak Mandarin to all of us and we get it immediately. Here I was though, Taiwanese and American, so Taiwanese-American solely based off of my nationalities and experiences as an American school student in Taiwan, but not as someone who grew up in America. Not as someone who calls America home just yet. On the surface level we all look same-same, but there are huge gaps in our experiences. From the aunts who immigrated from Taiwan to the U.S. in their twenties, to their kids who were born here and only visited Taiwan for short trips to me and my friend and her siblings who grew up in Taiwan but in an American education system. It’s not the same story.

Taiwanese Pineapple bun (bolo bao) next to nice ceramic mug. photo has blue borders
Enjoying a Taiwanese pastry for breakfast. I call this a pineapple bun (Bolo bao)

Big family dynamics

I’ve been friends with this friend for over a decade by now. One of the biggest things that are different about us is that she comes from a huge family. She has 4 siblings and her mom has 4 siblings too (or more?), and this is only counting her mom’s side. She grew up with many cousins, aunts, uncles, and now nephews and nieces (I actually can’t really keep track anymore). I spent a lot of time with my friend in Taipei so I was often exposed to her nuclear family, but it wasn’t until visiting her in 2019 and now that I understand the true extent of how BIG her family is.

Plate with food including chicken drumsticks, sashimi, shrimp fruit salad, and sushi. Photo has yellow borders
I got to meet a lot of the family at a big Sunday gathering and dinner

I have a small family myself. I have a brother and my parents. Though my mom has a lot of siblings, only one of them had kids (2) and I am not close to them. I also don’t know much about family from my dad’s side. I grew up with a very fragmented family experience, and cannot relate to the stories of my friend’s who have big family gatherings and maintain relationships with all their siblings and cousins. Well, this trip reminded me of what having a big family is like. It was both endearing and chaotic. I loved to see the amount of love that went around the family and what it meant to be familiar with so many people and having been in each other’s lives from baby-age. It is a kind of special closeness that only family understands. They are with each other through thick and thin no matter what, even when friction happens, it ripples through all the circles. People are up in everyone’s businesses and also forgiving. I mean, you kind of have to be when you’re in close proximity with personalities of all sorts. I was a mere guest so all I did was notice just the pure chaos of it all, while also appreciating the amount of love and sacrifice that takes place.

At the end of the day, I could feel a sense of what I’ve missed out from not being part of a big family, while also appreciating the experience I had, seeing what could be possible, and being grateful that I was welcomed as a guest to this aunt’s home.

Deer in the distance in a grassy yard behind some towering green trees. photo has green borders.
I have never lived anywhere where deers are a common sighting

Baltimore through the eyes of my friend

For various personal and work reasons, we made it out to Baltimore a few times during our time in Maryland. I had been to Baltimore maybe 2 or 3 times before. Each time was to visit the same friend back in our college days and also in our young adult lives. My understanding of Baltimore is very much through her eyes. There are not many places in this world that I have experienced purely as a guest to someone else. I usually always have the autonomy to move around and explore on my own, out of an intrinsically motivated interest. My experience with Baltimore is different though. This is very much a city that was not on my radar much until my friend lived there for years. Hearing about the city and social dynamics through her words has shaped my understanding in a way where I feel like I know Baltimore in a theoretical sense. But also after having lived in cities like Minneapolis and Oakland, there are so many similarities and connections I am able to think of and make.

Baltimore good neighbors cafe has gochuang paneer sandwich and iced tea.
Breakfast at “good neighbor’s” cafe. I loved the design and vibe of this place!

One major one is how Baltimore’s gentrification looks like a butterfly, known as “The Black Butterfly”. Basically, meaning that the segregation in the city looks like a butterfly with the wings of the butterfly being predominantly black and poor while the “L” running down through the city is where the white and wealthier people are.

My visits to Baltimore have always been brief, just a few days or for a long weekend. I vaguely remember my first visit included eating crab cakes at a market, another visit included seeing undercover police cars coming to life (I didn’t know cops had disguised seemingly normal looking cars before this), and another visit I attended a local AAPI activist group meeting. This time, I got to work from my friend’s nonprofit office and observe her banter with coworkers she had not seen in person since the pandemic started.

Sushi rolls in Baltimore
Sushi rolls & friends

Baltimore was unfamiliar, and yet familiar in some ways. One of them being it’s a place I’ve returned to numerous times but each time for short visits and always with the same friend, so it’s like I knew this city through her, and I had come and physically been in this space before. The other kind of familiarity is the same sense of being in an American city that has predominantly black roots (thinking of Oakland here). It is still a city with plenty of black folks, but people are being gentrified out. Additionally, it’s also a city with a lot of immigrants and diversity as well. I’ve spent most of my time in the U.S. in Minneapolis/St. Paul, San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago and had made frequent visits to L.A. and NYC. Baltimore was familiar in the same way these other cities were familiar to me and have a lot in common, while also being very different. The main commonalities are around social justice consciousness and being in a diverse environment. There’s just something about seeing racially diverse as well as queer folks often on the streets or in cafes. It’s something about specific cities or parts within cities that help me feel at home.

Nature & moments of peace

Sky with sunset. Blue, white and orange colors in the sky. Sun ray shines strongly on one side of the sky.
Sunset walk

I have not spent a lot of time in suburbia in my life, and a week living in suburban Maryland is definitely not going to be the reason I become familiar with suburbia. Also, suburbs may have a lot in common around the U.S., like I’m thinking big houses near each other, wide streets, strip malls, chain restaurants, can’t get anywhere without a car etc. But what was different about this specific suburb was that we were easily in the woods when we went to my friend’s aunts house. Like there are tall trees and the spaces between houses had lots of green surrounding. My idea of suburbia is still strictly my experience in California where things were flatter and browner. Since we were in a pretty green and heavily wooded area, it meant there was always nice fresh air, lots of speeding cameras, and spotting of many deer!

I’d go for short walks with my friend when we got the time to do it every day and always see a deer on the way. The deer would just be casually eating grass and chilling in people’s yards. On the morning we left, there were at one point 3 deer crossing right outside of my window. It was nice to just look out the window and see these peaceful deer going on with their lives, wandering around.

Looking through a window with a mosquito net, see two deer in the distance
1 deer walked by, then 2, then 3

There’s just something about this area…the trees, the deer, the skies, the sunsets. It was refreshing to be a part of, and maybe I am able to appreciate it only because it is such a transient experience for me. I can not envisioning myself living in a suburb like this…like ever, only because I cannot imagine having to drive everywhere just to get somewhere. Literally, when we went for walks it was tricky because we’d be on the main road and had to step aside for cars. the fact that there were no sidewalks or trails for human walking in this area blew my mind. So maybe it’s because I can never see myself living in such an isolated situation (but convenient if you have a car), that I was just able to take it all in and appreciate it. I guess you could say this was a trip of…appreciation, because I got to observe so much as a bystander, and see close up the life of someone I am close to, but have not been physically present in for a while.

Sunset with fluffy clouds that have pink/orange glow in the cloud in suburban Maryland
Another photo from a sunset walk

Receiving a future letter 4 years late (from 2013 intended for 2017 me)

It was by coincidence that I found out there was a future letter written for me. Shortly after getting back from our Maryland trip, I randomly asked my friend if she still had a piece of art I gave her back in high school. Since my mind has been hyper focused on making art lately, I wanted to take a look at my high school work to see if it could help with inspiration and motivation.

She went to look for the art piece I was describing and ultimately did not find it. Instead, pulled out a letter addressed to me. She nonchalantly said “oh this is for you!” She told me she wrote it before starting college and it was meant for 22 year old me, 4 years after high school.

Letter that says "do not open until 22 yrs"
“Do not open until 22 yrs” (old)… Me opening this 4 years after that, haha

Umm…I told her, she’s 4 years late. I’m 26 now. Which means this letter is really 8 years into the future. I was laughing at the situation because if I didn’t ask to see my art, when would I have received this letter? Maybe in another decade? Maybe never?

I’m not going to share the details of the letter here (duh! lol jk). But I do want to share how the letter made me feel! First of all, I do like surprises and this was a nice surprise for both of us. I never knew such a letter existed so it was fun to be like wow what did my friend write at 17 years old to a future me?

Surprisingly, the content of the letter is applicable to me now and it feels like she could have written the letter last year. I didn’t expect it to, but the letter actually brought tears to my eyes. I think it’s because some of the letter addressed our friendship and the future in a way that aligned with our lived experiences since our high school selves. It’s like what she wrote was applicable to past me, and can still be applied to future me. I felt warm after reading the letter because it made me feel appreciative of life and how a piece of our 17/18 year old selves was able to come full circle back into my life now at 26, an age where I am leaning into my authentic self and embracing my dreams once again.

Sunset photo. Sky is blue orange and yellow.
Beautiful skies

That’s it for today! Hoping to write & blog more regularly writing and sharing thoughts from small everyday moments rather than writing formal blog posts. This was fun. Cheers xxx!

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