In Vietnam, shopping is a battlefield.

I’m not that avid of a shopper. Most of my clothes are hand-me-downs from my sister. I hate trying on clothes, and shopping for extended periods of time gives me a headache. Shopaholics, I know– I’m weird.

But when I went to Vietnam, I experienced none of the above. That’s because shopping in Vietnam is a whole different kind of experience. Whether this is a better or worse experience depends on your personality.

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For example, if you’re my sister…

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…you thrive on the constant shouting, yelling, and bartering of the Vietnamese marketplace. It’s unavoidable. People will try to scam you, and you’ll have to fight to get the correct price.

So, if you’re me…

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…you hate confronting people and will flee at the first sign of conflict.

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That’s how I was when I visited my first Vietnamese market, the famous Bến Thành Market in downtown Saigon.  Bến Thành is actually one of the more tourist-friendly markets out there. The place sells all sorts of little souvenir magnets, handicrafts, and trinkets.

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Sellers actually have a good handle on English. Tourists, then, tend to swarm the place. Myself included.

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It doesn’t help that Bến Thành, and most Vietnamese markets, are very claustrophobic places. The stands are packed together and the aisles narrow. Walking through is a squeeze.

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I had trouble just adjusting to the chaotic atmosphere of the marketplace– it’s overwhelming, especially when people selling all sorts of products are yelling at you from all directions. Thus I proceeded to buy nothing at all.

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The Bến Thành Market is quite overpriced. That’s what I told myself when I walked out empty-handed, anyway. And what would I do with all those little trinkets?

But food is a little harder to resist.

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I love fruit. Vietnam is chock-full of all sorts of exotic, tropical fruits, sold daily on the street.

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Half these fruits, I’ve never even tried!

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Yes, I would have to do it. I would have to confront a seller, bargain with them, and buy some fruit!

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So my fear of buying things continued. It got worse when my family ventured into An Dong Market, a wholesale clothing market in Saigon. We wanted to get some custom-fitted áo dài, the Vietnamese traditional dress. 

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But finally, I encountered the greatest and most spectacular type of Vietnamese market yet.

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The night market!

Many cities in Vietnam have a night market. Unlike the functional produce or wholesale markets, night markets are usually designed for pleasure shopping. Stalls will be devoted to selling trendy purses, or the latest coats, or sparkling jewelry. Teens will hang out, eating Vietnamese snack food sold by various old ladies.

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These night markets are fun. My sister and I enjoyed wandering through them together, whether it be in Ho Chi Minh City, Hội An, Hà Nội, or wherever else we could find one. And then, while visiting the night market in Đà Lạt, I saw it.

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A lady had a whole tray full of the most adorable crocheted Totoros. I have never seen a crocheted Totoro before. Perhaps I would only ever see them in Vietnam. Now was my chance!

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There’s a strategy to bartering in Vietnam. First is to speak Vietnamese if you can. English pegs you as a tourist immediately. Tourists have money.

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Second is to demand half of the selling price.

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This will almost always elicit the same reaction from the buyer, no matter how reasonable your price is. Items, especially in tourist markets, can be severely overpriced. The sellers might be making a huge profit margin even at your demanded discount. Regardless, I would always hear next:

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Third is, if the seller doesn’t accept your price, to walk away.

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Often, the seller will be willing to meet you halfway.

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Fourth is to repeat until you get the price you want.

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And then… success! I finally made my first bargained purchase!

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Now, I could face the Vietnamese markets without fear! Though, depending on the seller, this strategy doesn’t always work. Sometimes they’re unwilling to lower the price. And bargaining can be quite stressful after a while. Still, now I could venture out, knowing that I could stop myself from getting scammed!

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And for the first time in forever, I actually enjoyed shopping!

 

…though I probably would’ve saved a lot of money had I not gotten over my fear.

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The Real Life of a Newbie Runner

Last year, I resolved to eventually run a half-marathon. This year, I’m actually going to do it.

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Back when I was in Sydney, I unexpectedly picked up running. I had always hated running. When they made us run the mile in high school? Torture. But I hated the high price of a gym membership more than I hated running. With the help of a friend, I was soon pounding away 5k’s regularly.

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And thus I was introduced to the weird world of running.

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I’m not just running, either– I’m training. After my return to Boston this January, I signed up for Boston’s Run To Remember, a half-marathon that takes place at the end of May. In Sydney, I ran whenever I was in the mood. Now, I have a schedule. I’ve had to push myself to greater and greater distances.

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Along the way, I’ve met a few surprises. I’m a noob to all this running stuff. I’ve always had an image of what a runner’s life is like…

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…but the reality is much different.

Mother Nature is cruel.

Photos of runners can be deceiving.

Outdoor Running Series

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Silhouette woman run under blue sky with clouds

For some reason, nobody ever told me how hard it is to run in bad weather. I become complacent in Sydney, where it’s always sunny and beautiful. Even in the winter, the weather sticks around 50 to 60 degrees. Imagine my shock when I walked out of the Boston-Logan airport upon my return in January, dressed in shorts and a tank top.

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There are many people who man up and run outside. I am not one of them. I run in my sport shorts from middle school and that free t-shirt I got from my university. I don’t have any fancy thermal running gear. When I tried to run outside, I was very uncomfortable.

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I’ve ended up running at my school’s gym, which has a miniature indoor running track. The track is only about 1/12 of a mile, though, so I have run around that track literally hundreds of times.

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Thank goodness it’s spring!

Contrary to popular belief, not all runners are stick-thin athletic models.

Photos of runners can be deceiving.

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First of all, those expressions. They all look like they’re simultaneously running and achieving enlightenment. I, on the other hand, am a little less zen when I run.

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Everyone’s seen those hardcore runners in their neighborhoods, right? The ones all tricked-out in fancy running gear, with seemingly 0% body fat and rippling lean muscle.

Or maybe that’s just my neighborhood.

Either way, those runners gave me a false perception of what I would look like if I started running.

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But after running for several months, I still look like this:

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Even though I cross-train and watch my diet, I am not a toned, athletic model. Nope, I still look pretty much the same. All you other runners out there, what are your secrets?!

Shoes actually matter.

I’ve done many sports before, but I’ve never paid attention to my sneakers. Usually I’m clad in some cheap pair that I picked up at Marshall’s.

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However, as I’ve been running longer distances, this no longer seems like a good idea.

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Thus, I went to a sports store in Boston and wandered to the shoe department, which happened to be staffed by a long-time marathon runner.

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This marathon runner also happened to be quite enthusiastic about shoes.

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After trying on many, many shoes, I did successfully buy a new pair of sneakers. On that very day, I tried running in them.

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Who knew that sneakers could make such a difference?

I am now the weird breed.

Like I said before, I have never been a runner. I actually hated running. I was on my middle-school track team but only did long jump, never any running events. I played lacrosse and tennis and was always the slowest runner on the team. Runners were just an entirely different kind of people from me– or so I thought.

Now that I’m running, I’ve become that different kind of people. My friends react to me the same way that I used to react to runners.

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Then they go on to describe how much they hate running.

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I used to try to explain to people that I was the same way. I used to hate running. It’s a difficult sport to pick up if you’re out of shape. But the beauty of running is that anyone can do it, as long as the determination to train is there.

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Now, I just accept it.

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Because no matter how much I argue, people never believe that they can run too, just like believed about a year ago. It’s weird, being on the other side of it. If only they knew my good ol’ middle school track and field days!

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Despite all the pain, sweat, and tears, running is actually quite nice.

Don’t get me wrong. Running is exhausting. You’ll sweat. You’ll burn. You’ll wonder why you ever decided to do this in the first place.

And indeed, I’ve been wondering a lot about why I decided to do this. Running long distances is incredibly time-consuming. I get tired, and thirsty, and hungry.

But last weekend, Boston had one of its first good-weather weekends in a long time. The winter here is finally starting to break, and spring is starting to show through. Last weekend, then, I went running outside. My route took me along the Charles River Esplanade, a walkway along the river that looks like this:

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The sun was warm.

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There was a gentle breeze.

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Sailboats filled the river, taking advantage of our first true spring days.

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Yes, last weekend, I experienced it:

Outdoor Running Series

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Despite the difficulties and surprises of being a runner, it’s been rewarding. A few years ago, I could barely run a mile. Last weekend, I ran ten. Sure, I might not be the poster child of athleticism. Sure, maybe I run at a snail-like pace. But I can do it! I can run!

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It’s only going to get weirder when I run my first half-marathon in a few weeks. Coming soon!…too soon.

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Wish me luck! Because I’ll need loads of it.

 

Screw castles, I want to live in a Vietnamese temple.

As my family and I traveled through Vietnam, we started to notice a theme.

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Buddhism is strong in Vietnam. Temples pepper the Vietnamese landscape with the same frequency as churches in Europe. These temples can reach the same vastness and elaborateness of churches in Europe, and they consequently draw in large numbers of tourists.

My family and I  became part of these visiting tourists.

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Elaborate dragon railing!

Elaborate dragon railing!

Massive bonsai!

Massive bonsai!

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The temples we visited were in all sorts of locations. Chùa Linh Ứng was on top of a mountain, overlooking the towns around it.

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I highly doubt it’s convenient to build a temple on top of a mountain. Regardless, many of the temples we visited were on mountains. And these temples could get massive. 

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Not only were the temples on mountains, they were sometimes in the most remote mountains possible.

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The temples were not only on mountains, but in mountains…

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And were often impeccably well-kept.

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Some temples were ancient. Literally, ancient.

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We visited so many temples that they began to blend into one another…

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…and eventually, my sister and I began assuming that everything was a temple until proven otherwise.

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We were just overwhelmed by the sheer number of temples we visited, though. Don’t get me wrong– all those temples certainly did not look the same…

Chùa Một Cột, or the One Pillar Pagoda, in Hanoi.

Chùa Một Cột, or the One Pillar Pagoda, in Hanoi.

At Chùa Bái Đính, aka the Bai Dinh Temple.

At Chùa Bái Đính, aka the Bai Dinh Temple.

One of the many boats used to ferry visitors to Chùa Hương, the Perfume Pagoda.

One of the many boats used to ferry visitors to Chùa Hương, the Perfume Pagoda.

At Chùa Linh Ứng, near Đà Nẵng city.

At Chùa Linh Ứng, near Đà Nẵng city.

…and were in fact some of the most incredible structures I have ever seen.

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So I might not be living in one of these grandiose temples anytime soon. Still, the temples of Vietnam are definitely worth a visit. Whether you’re Buddhist or not, the size, diversity, and beauty of these temples are really a sight to see!

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How to up your game at your next anime con

I can’t claim to be a convention connoisseur. There are people who convention-hop, traveling from con to con in their area. There are those who rent hotels with their friends, hanging out with all the anime geeks night and day. There are those who go hard, hitting up one of the local clubs when the convention closes each night.

I’m not one of those people. I went to my first con five years ago, an itty-bitty one called Zenkaikon. Two years later, I moved up to Boston, where I have conveniently attended Anime Boston for the last three years. Each night, I can go home and snuggle up in my own bed.

While I’m no expert, there are some things I wish I knew before attending my first convention way back when. So I wish to impart this knowledge on whoever is interested– because nothing’s wrong with making your anime con more awesome!

Preregister.

Some events like PAX sell out within hours. Luckily, other cons will allow registration up until the day itself. During my first convention, I decided last-minute to attend. When I arrived at the convention center, though, I was faced with this:

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The lines at Anime Boston can get even larger. Additionally, registering beforehand can be cheaper than buying it the day of. If you’re going to be attending for sure, save time and money– register beforehand!

Resist the Dealer’s Room.

Most conventions will have a dealer’s room, full of shiny sparkling merchandise from your favorite shows and games.

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I was a broke high school student during my first convention. Although I wanted to buy everything, I simply didn’t have the money.

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And it’s certainly possible to stay on a budget! Some people only bring a limited amount of cash with them. I tend to shop around first, choosing the items I want the most and prioritizing what to buy. At my first convention, I only bought one thing.

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Don’t resist the Dealer’s Room.

On the other hand, if you do have some money to spare, shopping around the Dealer’s Room can be the greatest thing ever.

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For example, take my friend who attended Anime Boston for the first time this year. I watched as she navigated the Dealer’s Room on the first day of the con.

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My friend and I walked to a Lolita stall, where a Lolita girl invited us to come in and look at the dresses.

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My friend agreed to try it on. Soon, what was supposed to be a quick look turned into an entire shopping trip.

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That dress turned what would have been a fun weekend into an awesome weekend. People approached and asked her for photos. She talked to people about the adorableness that is Lolita fashion. And sometimes, you just want to dress up in a sickeningly frilly dress, you know?

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Whether you buy anything or not, shopping is fun!

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Don’t lose your way.

Kill la Kill fans, please don’t slap me. I mean it! Depending on the size of the convention, the convention hall can be large and confusing. Dozens of rooms, multiple floors, hallways that all look the same. During my first Anime Boston, I had no idea where I was at any given time.

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This also makes it hard to stick with your friends.

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My best advice? If your event uses the Guidebook app, download it! For Anime Boston, the app included maps of the entire convention center. The app also included all the panels and performances for the entire weekend, allowing you to create and customize your own convention schedule. This made it a whole lot easier to find my way!

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Be prepared to go to panels early.

During my first Anime Boston, I would arrive at panels right when they were about to start. As a result, I heard this sentence a lot:

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If the panel is covering a popular topic (such as Pokemon or Studio Ghibli, for instance) a lot of people will be interested– and a lot of people will show up. The lines at the Penny Arcade Expos can get so bad that there’s a whole Twitter devoted to them.

Be prepared to go to concerts and other main events REALLY early.

Panels fill fast. Main events, like a concert by a popular artist or a Q&A with a famous actor, can be even worse. One of the most popular events at Anime Boston is the cosplay masquerade. I remember talking to some of the people who were waiting in line.

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Therefore, be ready to hang around.

If you do have to absolutely see the Video Game Orchestra, or the JAM Project, or whoever else is presenting/performing that year, you might have to wait in line. For a while. When I attended PAX East last year, people knew this and came prepared.

Seriously, this happened! I'm stealing this image from a post I wrote last year.

This really happened! I’m stealing this image from a post I wrote last year.

The long wait becomes much more tolerable when you spend it playing Cards Against Humanity or Spaceteam with your friends. Or, in this case, with complete strangers who happen to love the same things you do.

Dress it up.

If you weren’t able to tell, I’m a big fan of cosplay. Why wouldn’t I be? There are so many reasons to like cosplay.

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And while anime conventions are certainly enjoyable in normal clothes, I find that cosplaying makes it so much more fun. When I’m in costume, and when others are in costume, it becomes a conversation starter.

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It’s easy to find people who love the same things that you do.

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An anime convention is kind of like a big dance for geeks: everyone comes looking their best, except instead of formal wear everyone’s in their finest costume. These geek conventions are the only times where dressing up as Naruto or Monkey D. Luffy is socially acceptable, after all. Not to mention it’s a nice ego boost.

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Speaking of photos…

Bring your camera.

Maybe this is just me. My urge to take photos runs stronger than most people. Photos are a great way to preserve your memories, though, and a great way to share all the cool cosplay you’ll see.

Asking cosplayers for photos is normal at a convention, so don’t be shy! People even enjoy being asked for photos. It’s flattering, you know? So I didn’t hold back, and asked tons and tons of people for their photo.

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If you’re me, you bring your giant Nikon DSLR, extra batteries, your battery charger, and some extra SD cards in case. If you’re a normal person, you bring your phone and snap photos from there. Either one works– just be sure to bring a charger for when your camera runs out of juice.

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Talk it out.

One of my friends, a newbie to Anime Boston, asked me this question near the end of the con:

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Another friend– the one who had gone Lolita that weekend– chimed in.

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I nodded. That sounded about right.

But then I paused. Everything I’ve described here were reasons to come to Anime Boston. Going to panels. Shopping. Cosplaying. Yet there was something else to it. There was something about these nerd conventions that ran deeper than just buying wall scrolls and watching Attack on Titan characters walk by.

I thought back to my first Anime Boston.

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I ended up hanging out with those complete strangers for the entire day, a friendship based purely on a mutual love for Final Fantasy VIII.

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Well, the guy in red is from Final Fantasy X.

I thought about a guy we had met in the subway that day.

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I thought about all the people I had talked to over the weekend.

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With a female Kakashi from Naruto!

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With Uncle Iroh from Avatar!

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With Mitsukuni “Honey” Haninozuka from Ouran High School Host Club!

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I thought about it, and realized: While the panels and performances and picture-taking is fun, it’s really the people that make the whole experience for me. There’s a strong sense of camaraderie at Anime Boston. Everyone is accepted, whether it be the tall guy in a Lolita dress or the girl wearing bunny ears and a fox tail. People become incredibly friendly, eager to talk to you about their favorite anime or manga or video game.

I was shy at my first few conventions, hesitating to ask anyone for even a photo. Now, I love approaching people at conventions. Chances are, they’ll have a good story to tell– or at least a decent anime recommendation.

It’s that openness– that sense of community– that I find to be the core of Anime Boston. It’s not often that you’ll be surrounded by thousands of people who have the same interests that you do, eager to fangirl over Avatar or debate over the Legend of Zelda timeline. Approach people about their costume. Ask them about their favorite series. Geek out– because here, it’s okay!

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With Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon!

And that, I find, is my favorite way to enjoy a convention.

Don’t just listen to me, though. Go to a convention yourself! Chances are, you’ll find your own ways to enjoy it. And when you do, let me know– I’d love to know how to make a great time even more awesome.

Even better, let me know how to deal with that post-con depression.

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I’m already planning my next cosplay.

 

 

 

For those who don’t know, I went to Anime Boston this year dressed as Yuna in her Final Fantasy X-2 outfit! I’ve compiled a little gallery of my favorite Anime Boston photos from this year. Check it out if you’d like!

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How I landed an internship on the other side of the world

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Those were my thoughts as my semester in Australia neared its end. It’s a pretty common sentiment among college students, especially those reaching the end of their college career. Which includes me.

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I couldn’t graduate yet. I wasn’t mentally ready.

Yet, at the same time, I didn’t want to just take extra classes and drag out my degree. That would just be delaying the inevitable and creating an extra financial burden on my parents. No, if I was to delay graduation, I would do it by doing something worthwhile.

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For those who don’t know, my school– Northeastern University– has a program where students work full-time for 6 months in between taking classes. It’s a great program, one that I really believe in. After all, kids get real-life experience in the field that they’re studying, bolstering their resume, helping their personal development, and allowing them to discover what they really want to do. I completed a co-op last spring and was keen to get another one.

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Though Northeastern has a lot of connections with local companies in Boston, students still have to go through the job-seeking process. We write resumes, contact employers, and go to interviews. Sending off my resume and applying for jobs was no problem– but I had one little bump to get over:

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I e-mailed my co-op advisor in concern, who believed that it wouldn’t be a problem. We live in an age with internet and video calling. Any employer should be willing to interview via Skype, right?

Wrong.

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Since I have a good bit of work experience, I was contacted by many companies. All of whom reached the same conclusion:

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Soon, no fewer than five companies had asked me to interview with them– only to retract their interview soon after. I was starting to lose hope.

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I was reaching the end of my semester in Sydney, so finding a job was becoming urgent. My friends and I were leaving Sydney after exams were over. Soon, I’d be on the road, traveling through the Australian boonies. Who knows if I’d even have internet?

My co-op advisor was really on-the-ball for this one. Stunned that so many employers were unwilling to give me a chance, she went the extra mile to help me out.

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And then, as my semester came to a close, a ray of hope appeared.

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Could it be?! Someone was actually willing to Skype me! My co-op advisor even arranged the time and webcam for the interview to happen.

Thus, from my bedroom in Sydney, I went through my first Skype interview.

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I was nervous, of course, but I thought the interview went well regardless. A few days later, I was even contacted for a second interview!

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Additionally,

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And…

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So. Two weeks from then, in some hostel or campground, I would have to interview for two hours in the middle of the night. I was a little freaked out by this. What if the hostel we were staying at didn’t have internet?! What if it was a loud, rambunctious party hostel?! My friends offered up their smartphones if I needed them.

But I lucked out. The night of my interview, we were staying in a campground. The family running the camp had an area of their house set up for guests with wi-fi. The owner was kind enough to keep the area open for me that night.

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And thus, the interview began. I would be talking to 5 different people over a course of 2 hours.

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It wasn’t the greatest interview. As I discovered, I barely knew anything about the equipment I worked with the previous year. I was also falling asleep by the end of it. The interview concluded and I finally went to bed…

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…only to wake up 4 hours later.

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All during that tour, I tried not to think about my interview. I was convinced it went horribly. I obviously didn’t have that much technical knowledge, and I was half-asleep the whole time. Plus, they had other candidates that they could interview in person! How could I make an impression over that?

But I still held on hope.

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I got the job.

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No way. 

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For some reason, the people had decided that I was the best fit for the job. I have no idea why they thought this.

Seriously, though. I was about to fall asleep during my interview.

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But I’ll take it.

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Now I’m happily employed until the end of June, working for a pharmaceutical research company in Boston. I still can’t believe I managed to land such a good position after that insane Skype interview.

And that’s how I netted an internship while on the other side of the world. Life is crazy sometimes, you know?

The tourist trap

Vietnam likes tourists. Tourism boosts the economy and creates jobs, after all. Apparently over 7 million people visited Vietnam in 2013 alone, a number that has been growing each year.

People have been trying to capitalize on that tourism. All sorts of hotels, entertainment centers, and luxury shops seem to be popping up around the country. As foreign travelers in Vietnam, my family and I got to experience the full force of the Vietnamese tourist traps.

You see, back in December, I met up with my family in Vietnam for the trip-of-a-lifetime: a three-week journey in Vietnam. My parents have been planning this trip for years, but expensive plane tickets– and a lack of school vacation time during the winter– hindered their efforts. Finally, since I was going to be on that side of the world anyway, my family decided that they might as well make our trip finally happen.

This wasn’t just going to be any family vacation, either. Oh no. My parents booked a massive tour through Saigon Tourist, starting from Ho Chi Minh City and going all the way up north to Hanoi. Hotels, meals, and destinations would all be arranged by our tour. It was a pretty unusual arrangement for my family, since we typically plan our vacations ourselves.

As a result, we got a different sort of trip from what we’re used to.

“Saigon Tourist,” as we should have expected, is, well, touristy. The company knows that the people using Saigon Tourist have money. They’d also like their tourists to spend that money. One of the first destinations on our tour, for instance, was this place.

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That place, we found out, was the “Rang Dong Wine Castle,” the first and only castle in Vietnam. Fashioned after the valleys of Napa, California, the castle was built and opened just a few years ago. Inside, we were treated to an informational video and a tour.

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We even took a tour of the wine cellar.

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fire

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It was clear that the place was only built for show. Even the small vineyard outside was struggling in the hot Vietnamese climate. In the castle, finely dressed employees carried signs advertising the various luxury Californian wines we could buy.

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That was the beginning of a series of luxury shopping sessions. During our tour, we visited a silk shop…

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…a sculpture store…

pot

…a sand art store…

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…an embroidery store…

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…and even this one that sold weaver bird’s nest. The store claimed that the birds’ nests (made from the bird’s own saliva) had medicinal properties, and sold them at an extremely high price.

That converts to about $300 per pound. No joke!

That converts to about $300 per pound. No joke!

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But I didn’t mind all the shopping. While the stores we visited were certainly touristy, each one carried something unique and new to me. I actually enjoyed visiting each one despite the premium tourist prices.

beards

Made from bamboo roots!

Shopping isn’t the only way that the Vietnamese locals have capitalized on tourism. Resorts have sprung up around coastal areas, serving tourists who need a trip to the beach. Some resorts have been successful, but many others have long since been abandoned.

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My favorite places, though, were the amusement parks. 

That’s the best term I have for them, anyway. I don’t mean the sort of amusement park you’d find in the States, like Six Flags, Disney World, or Cedar Point. No, these places were a an odd assortment of random entertainment. I’m not sure how to describe it. The best I can do is show what I mean. For instance…

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In Đà Lạt, Vietnam, one of the most popular tourist spots is a place called Thung Lũng Tình Yêu, or the Valley of Love. For a admission fee, you can come in and enjoy the attractions (all which cost extra, by the way.)

For instance, with your loved one, you could

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Another park in Đà Lạt is Thung Lũng Vàng, or the Golden Valley. Here, you could

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There was one park that was particularly memorable, though.

We drove into the amusement park intending to just have lunch there. We had some time, though, so our group insisted on seeing the rest of the sights at the park. Pushing past the people at the entrance…

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…we walked down the deserted path. Huts of tables and chairs lined the road, obviously unused.

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First, we encountered a ball pit that I probably wouldn’t let my kids play in.

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A lovely, but somewhat random, garden followed.

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All sorts of statues and swings added to the decor.

Like this super cool dragon!

Like this super cool dragon!

For a fee, you could try the shooting gallery to win a pack of gum.

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There was a crocodile pond where you could pay to feed the crocodiles. It made me rather uncomfortable– after what I had seen in Australia, it was obvious that these crocs were overcrowded and unhealthy.

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The weirdest part, though, was the foot spa.

For a dollar, visitors could opt to have their feet “massaged” for a half hour. Amazingly cheap, right?! Probably because these little guys were going to be our masseuses.

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You see that right.

Fish. 

I’ve heard of these “Doctor Fish” before. They exist in the States, although they’ve been banned in many states for health and humanitarian reasons. Vietnam, it seems, doesn’t care much for strict regulations. Here, we paid our dollars and stuck our feet straight in.

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Having fish nip at your feet tickles like no other, man. We soon started a contest of who could attract the most fish to their feet– the fish swam away if you moved, so to accumulate a lot, you have to stay completely still. That’s no small task if you’re tickle-sensitive.

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I eventually got the hang of it, though.

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We left the amusement park entertained, but a little confused.

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Indeed, a lot of the places we saw in Vietnam felt a little like that. Children’s rides rusted and broken down by the street. Entire shores full of crumbling, vacated resorts. Other spots of eccentric, disjointed entertainment clearly targeting your wallet.

No matter where we went, though, it was always intriguing. Behind every shooting gallery, every rusted children’s ride, was a person trying to make ends meet. And where else could you get a $10 horseback ride? The amusement parks really were, well, amusing. 

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Tourist traps usually have a negative connotation. They lack authenticity. They’re designed to take your money. All of this is true. Yet sometimes, they become an experience all their own. When I think about it, I sure wouldn’t be able to find any of that stuff in America.

Yes, I’ll admit it: I was ensnared in the Vietnamese tourist trap. And I’d gladly be caught in it again.

Grocery shopping in Vietnam is a little different from the States.

I love open-air markets. Boston’s Haymarket, for instance, is one of my favorite places in the whole city. Where else can I get (sometimes) fresh produce at ridiculously low prices?

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As much as I go to markets, though, I hadn’t yet seen them all.

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Cần Thơ, a city in southern Vietnam, is located on a bank of the Mekong River. There, my parents told me, was a famous floating market. Apparently early each morning, hundreds of Vietnamese venture out on boats in order to buy or sell produce.

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Boats seem to be the thing around Cần Thơ. Or, at least, Cần Thơ tourism. Tons of tiny, natural canals branch off the river there. Tourists can hire small boats to traverse these canals, boats that are often propelled by hand.

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We took a larger boat out to the floating market, however. It would be more comfortable, the tour guide told us. I was okay with that– since we had to wake up before dawn in order to make it to the market, a little more comfort was a-ok.

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The sky was barely beginning to light up as we sailed down the river.

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We reached the main marketplace just as the sun showed its face.

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If we had arrived too late, I would have never known. The place was organized chaos. Dozens and dozens of boats putted along, covered in people and produce alike.

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I’m sure there was a system to the madness. In addition to the numerous homes set up by the shore…

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…it was clear that some had made themselves at home right in their boat.

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Much of the produce was being sold wholesale to locals. Yet there were also many smaller boats catering to the large flow of tourists visiting the market. Several vessels approached our tour boat, yelling in Vietnamese about their fresh mangoes, delicious steamed buns, or excellent bananas. Some came equipped with hooks to latch onto the railings.

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Often the boats were a family affair.

This boat had a lady, her husband, and her adorable child.

This boat had a lady, her husband, and her adorable child.

Heck, people had full-on floating kitchens set up.

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So basically? It was

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I love marketplaces on a normal day, and this was taking it to a whole new level. First of all, we were on a boat. Secondly, both food and produce were totally fresh. Thirdly, you didn’t have to shop– people came and brought their stuff to you, leaving you to just sit back and barter.

Well, sit back isn’t really the right way to put it.

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My family has never been one to sit back, anyway.

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So we might have went a little crazy on that boat. But why not? The whole place was a little crazy. Tanned men, sleeping in a hammock on a boat that is both their storefront and their home. Floating huts where fishermen’s wives beckon you to come and take a look at the day’s catch. Your favorite foods delivered to you fresh. All this as the sun is rising over the Mekong delta.

Thus, at the conclusion of our trip, my family ended up like this:

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And we carried that bag halfway up Vietnam.

5 things I’ve learned from a year of Weight Watchers

It’s been about a year since I started doing Weight Watchers.

For those who didn’t know: at this time, last year, I was overweight. It wasn’t by much, and people never believe me when I tell them this, but it’s the truth. I was eating poorly, exercising less, and really was just on a downward spiral that was only going to get worse.

When you keep a bag of chocolate chips in your car to absentmindedly snack on at stop lights, you know it’s bad.

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It was time to change.

So, for the last year, I’ve been using the Weight Watchers online tools to control how much I eat. Contrary to popular belief, Weight Watchers isn’t one of those weird “meals delivered to your door! Lose 5 pounds in a week!” sort of diet plan. It allows people to eat whatever they want, but has them keep track of it. Weight Watchers also encourages daily exercise, a healthy diet, and overall lifestyle changes.

Believe it or not, it’s actually worked for me. Over the last year, I’ve changed how I view food and exercise, and have really strived to improve my health. I’ve actually been able to shed a few pounds! Not without a few hiccups, though.

I’ve tried to face and resolve the problems I’ve ran into as best I can. Yet, a year later, it’s hard to not pound my head against a wall. Weight Watchers isn’t a gimmick. It’s a true lifestyle change. You’d think that, in the last year, it would have become easier, but it’s still a learning experience. Here’s some of the challenges I’ve faced:

5 Things I’ve Learned From Doing Weight Watchers

1. Delicious food will always be delicious. Sorry.

People claim that once you stop eating greasy food, or sugary food, or straight-up-artery clogging food, that you’ll eventually stop liking it. Suddenly the McDonald’s burger is too greasy and the Cheesecake Factory is too sweet.

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I think they’re all nuts. Cookies have always been and forever will be delicious, and it’ll always be a challenge for me to eat 1 at a time instead of 20. I guess I’ll just have to accept this, and use my willpower.

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2. Traveling makes staying healthy really, really hard.

Weight Watchers is all good and fun when you’re at home and can stock your own fridge and prepare your own meals. When you’re on the road, though, it’s a whole new ball game.

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Besides, food is an integral part of every culture. I’m not going to go to Vietnam and refuse to try the coconut-flavored ice cream, or decline my long-lost family’s home cooking.

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3. Self-motivation is also hard.

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I decided to do Weight Watchers for myself, and nobody else. As a result, I’m the only one who cares if I screw up.

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I’m the only one who holds myself accountable. In fact, most people don’t even know that I’m doing Weight Watchers. This makes it hard to stay on track.

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I avoid buying junk food, but sometimes, the junk comes to you. Even a year later, I find it difficult to resist.

4. Sometimes, good is never good enough.

Despite all the challenges, I really have lost a bit of weight using Weight Watchers. My family noticed it when I visited home for Lunar New Year’s last month.

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I was glad to hear that my efforts had bore visible fruit. However, the compliments were followed up with comments like these

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There really isn’t any winning this battle. Sometimes, good is never good enough…

5. …especially to me.

The one least satisfied with my progress is me. It’s been a year, yet I’m not even close to my target weight. I miss the times when I could eat without thinking about every bite I take. Sometimes, staying on track is just as difficult as it was on day 1.

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The more I try, the more discouraged I get. I know it’s silly, but how do models get as thin as they do?!

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Every writer and their mother has talked about the pressure to stay thin as a woman, especially for Asian women. I’ve come to realize– though I know people come in all shapes and sizes and can still be healthy– though I know models are always photoshopped and it’s all fantasy, all fake– I still hold myself, as I do for most things, to unrealistic standards.

It’s not as though the last year has been a total failure, though. I know I’ve improved. I’m healthier. Fitter. I’m training for a half-marathon, for goodness’ sakes. The difference is visible.

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I’m no longer waging the battle to be healthy. I’m going to run a half-marathon in May, so I figure that fight is well in my favor. Now I’m grappling with something much harder– the ability to like myself the way I am.

And that, my friends, is way more difficult.

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But, in spite of all this, it’s fine. Don’t give up!

That’s what I tell myself every day when I log into Weight Watchers and obsessively track my food. I’ve stuck with it this far. I have to keep going. Despite my long list of failures and defeats, I’ve had little victories as well. I view food differently now. I no longer compromise my health for school. I still have trouble refusing when someone offers me free cake, but sometimes– once in a while– I’m able to say no.

So… I guess I learned not 5, but 6 things.

6. It’s possible.

Even after a year, changing the way I eat is hard. I’ve fallen on and off the wagon so many times. But little by little, I’ve been getting better at this. Even if I haven’t reached where I want to be, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished so far.

Because I have accomplished something. It’s possible.

And knowing that– despite the difficulties– despite my seemingly insatiable appetite and absolute love of sweets–  it is possible for someone like me to take steps towards a healthier lifestyle. That’s what they are, steps. Nothing big. Nothing sweeping. But at least, a year later, I know it’s possible for me to get what I want.

I just have to keep trying, one day at a time.

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In which we sleep in huts in the middle of nowhere, with only the platypuses to keep us company.

While we were planning our trip to Australia, our Danish traveler had an idea.

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After being flat-out rejected, she came back with another idea.

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That’s how, several weeks later, we found ourselves driving to what seemed to be The Middle of Nowhere, Australia. This bush camp is located near Finch Hatton Gorge, a rainforested area by the coast of Queensland. After hours of driving past farmhouses, fields, and forest, we finally pulled into the camp.

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The camp owner, an eccentric old man named Wazza, waved his mid-day beer in greeting. He had totally forgotten that he had guests staying that day.

Here's a picture of Wazza taken by some other tourists.

Here’s a picture of Wazza taken by some other tourists. He looks a bit younger here than when we met him.

He led us down a narrow, forested pathway through the rainforest. My friends and I marveled at the place, apparently built entirely by Wazza himself. Interestingly enough, Wazza didn’t always live in the bush. According to him, he actually grew up near Sydney! But I guess that, at some point, he grew disenchanted with the city, preferring a simpler life closer to nature.

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The shower and toilet hut.

While the platypus bushcamp welcomes campers, my friends and I were there for something a little more high-class. Wazza, in addition to his house, a kitchen, and a bathroom with showers, built four small, open-air huts for guests to sleep in.

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The platypus bushcamp isn’t named that for nothing: platypuses really live at the camp. There’s a swimming hole in the camp…

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…where platypuses actually live.

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In fact, the whole area is known for being one of the only places platypuses reside. My friends and I took the chance to drive through Eungella National Park, where we tried to see if we could spot a platypus.

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We also took a quick walk through the forest to see the Araluen Cascades.

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We soon returned to the camp, hoping to avoid driving in the dark. Besides, we needed to cook dinner– there aren’t many restaurants in the middle of a national park, after all.

When we returned, though, we found out that we were no longer the only visitor.

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One of Wazza’s friends, a wildlife photographer, had decided to randomly drop by for the first time in four years. You wouldn’t have known it, though, as Wazza greeted him like family. The two had met when the photographer was taking photos by a stream near the camp. Wazza went down to berate him, thinking the photographer was a rogue fisherman. After clearing up the misunderstanding, the two became friends. The photographer frequently stayed at Wazza’s camp.

Something else is a good way to put it.

Something else is a good way to put it.

The sun began to set, so it was time to make dinner.

The majority of Wazza’s camp does not have electricity. The bathroom is dark, the huts are dark. Only Wazza’s house and the kitchen have lighting. Unfortunately, the kitchen lights were not working while we were there, so we wielded both frying pans and flashlights that night.

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Well, I guess we also had these old oil lanterns as well.

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But by some miracle, we managed to cook our meatballs and boil our spaghetti…

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…and even got to hear some of the photographer’s adventures.

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And then it was off to bed.

The platypus bushcamp is beautiful, without a doubt. There’s nothing quite like being in the middle of that rainforest, knowing that you’re surrounded by miles and miles of the wildest forest. Of course, this means that there’s the wildest of the wildlife as well.

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Despite what the brochures claim, there were creepy-crawlies around as well.

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It was alright, though. Our bedsheets, damp from the rainforest humidity, was protected by a mosquito net. And besides, we had Rocky the grumpy cockatoo…

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…and Wazza’s dog, “Dog”

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…to keep us safe.

The next morning, Wazza saw us off.

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I can’t be Wazza, I guess– once a city girl, always a city girl.

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Though I can appreciate a little nature once in a while.

Koalas eat their own poop and are riddled with chlamydia. Let’s give one a hug!

I only had two goals for our trip to Queensland, Australia. One was to go to the Great Barrier. The second was to hug a koala.

Despite being in Sydney for the last four months, I still had not hugged a koala. I had been able to pet one, sure. But I hadn’t yet been able to hold one in my arms, give it a squeeze, and pretend, for just a second, that it was my own.

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So my friends and I ensured that, during our trip down Queensland, that we would visit somewhere that would let us hold a koala. We found a place called the Billabong Sanctuary, which has this banner across the front of its homepage:

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Consider us sold.

The Billabong Sanctuary isn’t your typical zoo, though. Unlike Wild Life Sydney or Taronga Zoo, where animals are untouchable behind their glass enclosures, the Billabong Sanctuary encourages interaction between its visitors and animals. Which is why, at the front entrance, they sell these bags of seed.

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It seems like visitors of the Billabong Sanctuary have been feeding the animals for years. The ducks knew exactly what to do as soon as we stepped into the park.

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We were immediately swarmed by hordes of wild whistling ducks, all quacking and hooting and fighting each other for food. While it was fun feeding them at first…

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…they continued to follow us and fight each other as we walked around the park.

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Those ducks weren’t the only fans of bird feed, either. Wallabies approached us, hoping to get in on the action.

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Kangaroos joined us too!

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The crazy part is, a lot of the animals that live at the Billabong Sanctuary are wild. The park had humble beginnings: A Sydney schoolteacher, ready for a change in his life, moved to Queensland and spent two years building an artificial lagoon. Locals offered up native animals to add to the park. Today, the Billabong Sanctuary does host rarer animals like wombats and colorful cockatoos– but those ducks? The geese that later flew in to fight with the ducks? The tons of turtles, swimming in the ponds? They’re all native to the area and moved into the park on their own. The Billabong Sanctuary is a pretty ideal place to live, so why not?

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In order to deepen the understanding between humans and animals, the sanctuary runs talks every day. They’re interactive! That morning, for example, we were introduced to Hope, a baby cassowary that lives at the park.

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Not only were we able to feed her…

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…we were allowed to feed the larger and slightly scarier adult cassowary as well.

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One of the park rangers took a wombat out of his enclosure and gave a a talk about wombats in Australia. She didn’t even flinch when the wombat proceeded to pee on her boot for a minute straight.

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I still couldn’t resist petting this fat fella, though.

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For $99, you can even feed one of the gigantic crocodiles that live at the park. My friends and I decided to skip this, though, content to watch the park rangers do it instead.

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This was crazy!

And then, finally…

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The koalas!

While admission to the park allows you to view and pet the koalas, to hold them costs a little extra. My friends and I had traveled all this way, so we coughed up the extra $16. This included a professional photo and a print, so I suppose the price could be worse.

We were led to the side of one of the lagoons (gotta have that scenic background, after all) where the ranger took our photos one by one. My friends went first, gingerly clutching the koala and smiling for the camera. And then, my turn came!

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The ranger carefully placed the koala in my arms.

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And fixed my unruly hair for the photo.

Then, finally, I got to hold a koala!

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It was the crowning moment of the entire day.