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Posts published in “Columnists – Just Between Us”

Finding My Father’s Mark

By Kristan Hoffman

Over Labor Day weekend, I visited Seattle for the first time. The city is an interesting mix of big business and hippie culture, with vibrant art and foodie scenes too. I saw all the main attractions — Mt. Rainer, Puget Sound, Pike’s Place market, the Space Needle, Chihuly Garden & Glass — but one of the most memorable highlights, at least for me, was something you probably wouldn’t find in a travel guide.

“4th Ave. About 35 stories tall. Cross-hatching support beams that you can see from the outside, like giant X’s. I think it’s brown with black windows. And it used to be owned by a bank.”

This was the information my father had given me over the phone. Vague memories from decades ago. The reason my dad wanted me to find this building is that he had been part of the team that designed it, back when he worked for a big architectural firm. He has always done this: pointed out bits of history that are interesting or important to him, thinking they’ll be interesting or important to everyone else too. Growing up I thought it was cool, then lame, then annoying, then endearing. Now that I’m an adult, I think it’s all of those things at once.

Scanning the skyline from the Bainbridge ferry and later the Seattle monorail, I saw a handful of skyscrapers that were possible candidates — including an ugly brown one that I desperately hoped was not his. But upon closer inspection, none of them had the cross-hatching support beams that my dad swore would confirm his building’s identity. They were like a litmus test, or a birthmark.

Fueled by a sense of daughterly duty, I decided to reserve my last morning in Seattle for tracking down my dad’s building. The strap of my duffel bag dug into my shoulder as I hiked up and down the hills, certain that somehow I could find this thing. Certain that my dad’s role in the project would echo through the years and serve as a homing beacon for me to follow.

That didn’t happen. In the end, it took another phone call to my dad, and an assist from Google, to figure out which building it was. But at long last, I found it. Better yet: I liked it.

The building sits on the corner of Marion St. and 5th Ave, crisp and white, striped by dark windows. It has a little Asian restaurant in the ground floor, as well as a newsstand, an ATM, and other useful nooks. It’s clustered in with several other skyscrapers — some taller, some not — but its gleaming façade distinguishes it from the crowd. Though it was built 30 years ago, the building still looks modern. The materials are attractive and have held up to both time and weather. There is good attention to detail, such as the tidy angles, the orange accent panels, and the lovely contrasting textures. Those cross-hatching beams are subtle, but elegant.

After taking photos and admiring it from the outside, I made my way inside. The interior was similarly sophisticated and stylish. As I wandered around, grinning, I found myself hoping that someone would stop me to ask what I was doing. Then I could say, “Oh, I’m here because my dad’s an architect. He designed this building.”

New Ways of Getting the News

By Kristan Hoffman

A few months ago I was coming back to Texas to visit my parents, and my dad asked me to bring a copy of my local newspaper for him. The Cincinnati Enquirer recently switched to the smaller “tabloid” format, and as a fellow publisher, my dad wanted to see how things had worked out.

Then he and I started talking about where people get their news nowadays. Each format — print, broadcast, online – has benefits and drawbacks. The key factors are accuracy of information, speed of distribution, and cost. Which reminds me of a saying: “Fast, cheap, or good. You can only get 2 out of 3, so choose wisely.”

When it comes to staying informed, I am definitely part of the Millennial generation, meaning that I mostly depend on Google or social media. For example, I learned about Osama bin Laden’s death via Twitter, and about the Boston Marathon bombing via Facebook.

I do catch snippets of the 10 o’clock news sometimes, usually after one of my favorite shows is over. However, while all formats contain a mix of stories, I find that TV focuses the most on “sensational” topics like robberies and shootings. Or they reel you in with teasers: What popular new toy might kill your child? We’ll tell you right after this commercial break, so don’t change that channel!

Print news, on the other hand, seems to be the most community-focused. Because of their built-in delay and their smaller coverage areas, newspapers aren’t trying to capture an audience with speed or general interest, but instead with quality and relevance. They try to keep us informed about what’s happening in our city, our neighborhood. Changes with the school district, what the congressmen are doing, new roads being built. The stuff that truly impacts our daily lives.

Talking about all of this with my dad gave us both a lot of good food for thought. His newspapers already have websites and Facebook pages, but he’s looking into other ways to make subscriptions convenient and timely for his readers. Maybe an email list so people can download a PDF copy. Maybe a Twitter feed.

Another innovation that social media has brought to news coverage is “common man reporting.” Through Twitter, Instagram, blogs, and other online tools, people can instantly broadcast their mobile photos and eyewitness accounts, sometimes before journalists even arrive on the scene. More valuable than any one individual’s testimony is the conglomeration of them all.

But just as easily as information is spread this way, so is misinformation. People jump to conclusions, often without the background knowledge needed to make them in the first place. And like a bad game of Telephone, things usually become more distorted with each transmission.

So the internet is fast but bad with details. Newspapers are specific but slower. Television is somewhere in between. Because there are pros and cons to each format, we consumers have to be aware of them when we choose where to get our stories.

Most importantly, technology may be changing a lot about the way news is reported, but hopefully all journalists will stay focused on and driven by the heart of why news is reported. It’s not about subscriptions, advertisers, or “getting the scoop.” It’s about empowering people through the delivery of relevant and accurate information.

The Tastes of Taipei

By Angie Liang

Though Asia has a reputation for being inexpensive, the truth is that prices for most things in Taipei were not that different than other cities. The food, however, was phenomenal and a bargain.

For breakfast my mom and I typically went to a stall in the food market, where the line was constantly out the door. They served the traditional greasy carb breakfast: fried pork buns, vegetable onion buns, lots of different types of dumplings, fried breads, and beef “sandwiches.” Of course, as any Chinese person can attest, you must have doufu nao (soft tofu soup), but it’s your choice between salty (my pick!) or sweet. No matter what we selected, my mom and I always arrived hungry and left happy.

My grandmother’s housekeeper also shopped at the food market early each morning to buy groceries for our lunch or dinner. I trailed behind her with my camera to capture the daily produce, which included not just vegetables, but also lots of seafood: seaweed, clams, shrimp, sea bass, and more. As part of every meal, she would pick indigenous fruit that could not be purchased in the U.S., such as liuwen (known as wax apple) and bali (a native guava). With these fresh ingredients, she prepared feasts for our family, often using my grandmother’s recipes. One popular Taiwanese dish is a thinly-sliced braised beef shank, served cold. She made it everyday for us because it was a favored treat.

When visiting Taipei, eating at a night market is a must! The streets are packed, and you shuffle along the herd of people with no personal space. When you find a food stand you must try, you crowd around and order. My cousins and I went to Raohe Street Night Market, sampling the most infamous dish, stinky tofu. (I still am not a fan.) We washed down the tofu with corn that was prepared like a blacksmith molding iron, fried Japanese octopus balls, and Asian pastries with red bean or ice cream. However, we shied away from the grilled crustaceans. Everything at the night market is cheap, which makes for a filling “second dinner.”

Before leaving Taipei, I went by Chia Te Bakery to buy their famous pineapple and cranberry “cakes” to share with friends back in the U.S. The ones baked in Taiwan are much better than the packaged supermarket kind, and Chia Te is considered the best. Lucky for me, I could walk there from my grandmother’s home. Every mouthful of the buttery soft crust, and the sweet-and-tart combination filling, was heaven.

I’d like to think my puopuo is enjoying a few Chia Te cakes in heaven as well. While it look grief and sadness to bring our family all together again, we celebrated her life and our bonds during this short trip to Taiwan – smiling up to the sky.

The Sights of Taipei

By Angie Liang

Walking the streets of Taipei for the first time in ten years, I found myself chuckling. It was so much like New York, except the sidewalks were clean and the roads inundated with motorcycles. Exhaust was the perfume of the major boulevards, while the smaller streets were crowded with low-rise buildings hosting apartments on the top floors and retailers on the ground. For residents who preferred not to drive, the subway and bus system were both convenient and easily accessible – as long as you knew Chinese. And amidst all these people coming and going, the most amusing sight for me was that at any time of day, someone happily walked their little dog, usually unleashed.

During my time in Taipei, I made sure to visit the major tourist sites, including Taipei 101, the National Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, and even Chiufen, a coastal tourist city.

On a clear day, it’s impossible to miss Taipei 101’s glistening green glass in the financial district. After all, the building is one of the tallest towers in the world. This art deco, modern pagoda-like structure is available for overpriced tours – unfortunately my visit occurred on an extremely foggy (or smoggy) day. Instead, like most tourists, I lingered around its adjacent shopping center. The mall is a multi-story galleria of luxury stores, where shop clerks eagerly follow your every move for a sale. It was quiet and eerily empty on a Friday evening as I admired the gleaming marble — an indicator that the Taiwanese were not spending here. The liveliest floor was the underground level, where you could find mainstream (i.e., affordable) retailers as well as the illustrious food court. This food court’s design and refreshments far surpassed those found in American malls — and even the food in U.S. chain restaurants.

The Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Halls are both beautiful to behold. They are very characteristic of Eastern-style architecture and feature an imposing main gate. Inside the Sun Yat-sen memorial, art galleries illustrate the story of his life and interpret the memorial through different artists’ perspectives. Just like Lincoln in Washington D.C., a large sculpture of Sun Yat-sen sits on his chair gazing out. He is protected by two guards who, like the Buckhingham guards in London, will not move or falter when approached. The outside of the hall is a vibrant orange, and a reflection pool and park border it. The scene is idyllic as many citizens gather here: a group of students practicing their dance routine, parents watching their children fly kites, photographers trying to capture the beauty of the Memorial, and friends chatting on park benches.

This time I only visited the outside of Chaing Kai-shek’s Memorial Hall, but despite being under construction, it is stunningly beautiful. The stark white stones are striking even against a gray sky, and the ocean blue tiles on the memorial and the entrance gate are one of the most vivid colors you see in the city. Though I was only able to spend a brief moment here, I found a sense of peace and stillness, a rarity in my life that I truly appreciated.

Returning to Our Family’s Homeland

By Angie Liang

A decade has passed since I last saw Taiwan, the island country where my parents are from. They spent their childhood until their early 20s there, before moving to the United States to advance their education and start a family. They have now lived here longer than they’ve lived in Taiwan, but as much as they love Texas and consider it home, I know how important their native country is to them.

Every few years when I was growing up, my parents would take my sister and I back to Taiwan to learn about their homeland and to know our family. We always stayed in the apartment of my puopuo (grandmother on my mom’s side), where she cooked with my aunts and spoke with a heavy accent. I often had to ask my mom to clarify her mother’s Chinese, but there was one thing I always understood: puopuo sweetly calling me by my middle name, Yen Tzu, and reminding me how good and wonderful I am.

One time I left my beloved teddy bear in her bed and flew back to Texas without it, crying. She assured me over the phone, “Yen Tzu, do not worry. I will watch him closely and take care of him until you return.”

I did return to see puopuo and collect my bear, but years later as an adult, I slowly started turning away from Asia and what I knew. When I first tasted the freedom of traveling on my own, I choose to explore the unfamiliar – such as Europe – wanting to create new, amazing personal experiences.

Over the years, my family has visited Taiwan several times without me. While I always wished I could go too, I never felt too much urgency, assuming there would be other opportunities. It was not until the beginning of this year, when my mom called me to say that puopuo had a stroke, that the need to return filled my entire being.

Unfortunately Puopuo passed away a few weeks before we arrived. (Fortunately my cousin had recently given birth to a beautiful and healthy baby girl, and puopuo had been smiling about this news before she passed.) So I was finally back in Taiwan, heavy with mixed emotions, missing the one person I wanted to see most. There was grief for my beloved grandmother, guilt for having waited so long to return, and curiosity to rediscover a part of me, to see where my parents grew up and how it had changed.

In the next JBU columns, I will share some of my thoughts and experiences in Taiwan. This beautiful country is full of wonderful sights, food and, for me, family. I know puopuo was proud as she watched all of us return, pay our respects, and explore our family’s homeland.

Loving Spain, then and now

By Kristan Hoffman

Seven years ago, I fell in love with a boy. He was my closest friend in college – someone who made me laugh, challenged me to challenge myself, and listened to all my hopes and fears without judgment. One night while we were hanging out in his dorm, I confessed my feelings for him and then bolted out the door. By the time I got back to my own room, there was an email waiting. He had feelings for me too.

For the next month, things were perfect. Every touch was electric, every smile laced with the shared secret of our affection. When we left campus for winter break – me to Houston, him to upstate New York – I expected the absence to make our hearts grow fonder. I expected the new year to be better and brighter and blissfully full of our burgeoning love.

Instead, on our first day back for the Spring semester, he broke up with me.

Naturally I was devastated. I had no idea what I’d done wrong and no idea how to fix it. I spent the following two weeks in a depression, robotically going to classes and club meetings, doing my homework, and eating only because I had to.

Eventually I pulled myself from this abyss, forced myself to take care of my mind and body so that my spirit could mend. And when an unexpected opportunity arose to escape my regular life – which felt like the mere husk of an existence – I snatched it. An old friend was studying abroad, and a surprise stipend from my summer internship meant that I could afford to visit her.

Nine days in Spain didn’t heal my broken heart, but it helped. My feet kissed the cobbled streets of Granada, my arms embraced the scorching air of Sevilla. I drank in the architecture and history of Valencia. I floated in the shining blue waters off Barcelona.

On the last day of my trip, I took a stroll alone through Buen Retiro park in Madrid. Couples in rowboats drifted across the small lake, and behind that, groups of young people sat chatting and laughing on the steps of the big stone monument. The lush green park made me feel small, and the cheerful conversations made me feel alone, but in the best possible way. Because I was finally happy, all on my own, even on the other side of the world from everything I knew.

My lost and drifting love had found a new place to anchor, a new place to call home. The gaping emptiness inside of me had grown smaller, because Spain had started the process of filling it.

The rest I would have to do on my own, of course. With time.

* * *

Seven years later, I returned to Spain, very much happy and whole. This time, I came with the very boy who had once broken my heart. Between then and now, we had weathered many highs and lows. I supported him through a campus controversy; he supported me through drama with friends. We got back together and we broke up; we fought and we made up. He graduated and accepted a job in another city; I graduated and moved in with him. We met each other’s families, we adopted a puppy, we got a joint credit card.

We had started building a future together, so I wanted to make peace with our past by visiting Spain. In a way, I was introducing one lover to another. But there was no jealousy or fighting – just good food, good sights, and good company. As we strolled hand-in-hand through Buen Retiro park, I was reminded once again of why I fell in love. With both of them.

Lessons on Humanity from a Cheetah

By Kristan Hoffman

With the spots of a Dalmatian, the build of a Greyhound, and the paws of a Great Dane, Savanna is clumsily put together but unbelievably cute. She’s also entirely feline — a cheetah cub, about 7 months old and 38 pounds. (Full grown, she could weigh double that.) I met her at the zoo, but not with bars or glass or a moat between us. No, she stood less than an arm’s length away at times, restrained by a simple leash.

This happened at an event for Andy’s work, hosted at the Cincinnati Zoo. As part of their “Ambassador” program, Savanna has been acclimated to a variety of human sights and sounds so that she can attend functions such as our party that night, or more importantly classrooms, to help teach people about wildlife studies and conservation efforts. Savanna stayed with us for nearly an hour, during which time she calmly sat for pictures, climbed on a table to monitor the room, and even nuzzled her 3 handlers like a house cat. With such affectionate gestures, and some of her baby fuzz still visible, it was easy to forget Savanna’s true nature.

Despite her training, Savanna is still a wild animal, ruled mostly by instinct. She was one of two cubs born to the zoo, but her brother didn’t survive. Apparently cheetah mothers won’t raise just one cub, because after 18 months cubs are left to fend for themselves, which would be hard to do on their own without siblings. Thus Savanna’s mother abandoned her, and Savanna became an orphan.

That’s when the zoo stepped in. They hand-raised her, secured her a spot in the Ambassador program, and even partnered her with a puppy of similar age and size to be an adoptive playmate and brother. The two will be best friends until she matures, at which point instinct will kick in again, because female cheetahs live alone. Fortunately one of the handlers is already eager to adopt the black lab, Max, when Savanna outgrows him.

The push and pull between the laws of nature and the intervention of mankind has defined Savanna’s life, and in some ways it defines ours too. Do we let things occur as they may, or should we step in and control when we can? That’s what I kept thinking about later that night, long after Savanna had left our party. It’s a pretty philosophical takeaway from a mere hour with a cheetah cub, but then, hanging out with Savanna was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that I both enjoyed and was affected by.

And that, to me, is the mark of a great ambassador.

Our Holiday Break

By Kristan Hoffman and Angie Liang

Kristan

While there was no snow or sleigh bells, my holiday was otherwise fairly traditional. I flew home to Houston and was greeted with lots of hugs from my parents — as well as lots of kisses from mosquitoes.

That first weekend, we battled the crowds to do our last-minute shopping. Funny enough, nowadays my parents and I tend to buy our own presents and then wrap them as a surprise to everyone else. It may sound weird, but we enjoy it. Makes Santa’s life easier too.

After Christmas, my half-sister came to visit with her granddaughter, and we showed them a few of Houston’s highlights: Moody Gardens, Kemah Boardwalk, NASA’s Space Center, the Galleria and the Waterwall. We also drove around nice neighborhoods to look at their sparkling holiday lights. Though I had done it all before, it was fun to see my hometown through a newcomer’s eyes.

For me, the new experience was babysitting my cousin’s daughter for 3 nights. She’s now 5 years old, which is a fun but exhausting age. We colored Hello Kitty activity books, read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and watched My Little Pony. I gave her a bath and brushed her teeth. She ate the ham and eggs out of my kolache. I felt like I was playing Mom for a few days, and it was… illuminating.

Now it’s 2013, and I’m back home, back to my regularly scheduled life, back to work. I don’t have any specific resolutions, but I would like to continue applying a few themes across all areas of my life: (1) Don’t try to do/have it all; (2) Don’t worry about what people think; (3) Keep It Simple, Stupid; (4) Push yourself; (5) Be more assertive/decisive; and (6) Don’t aim for perfection, just keep getting better.

Angie

My parents and I always celebrate Thanksgiving in a big way — lots of friends and a massive feast — but for whatever reason, we don’t do any of the December holidays. So after a wonderful extended stay at home in November, I decided to do something different this winter: Freeze my butt off in Canada. At –10°F to be precise!

Why give up the balmy Texas climate for arctic Canadian weather? I wanted to learn how to ski. Also, as a child I had visited Banff National Park, a World Heritage Site notorious for its scenic beauty, in the summer. Now I wanted to witness firsthand its breathtaking views in the winter.

I was not disappointed. I spent a couple days touring the towns and then three full days skiing the popular sites: Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Mount Norquay. Each day as I arrived on the slopes, with an instructor leading the way, I ooo-ed and ahh-ed – even falling once because I was so captivated by the view.

Needless to say, I fell quite a few more times trying to complete a green (“easy”) run on the second day. Although I picked up the basic skiing techniques quickly, gravity sometimes won. Nevertheless, I slowly but surely conquered the mountain, turning and braking my way down the steep inclines. By the third day, I felt confident on the slopes, and eager to return for more someday.

After my skiing adventures, I spent New Year’s Eve in Seattle with one of my best friends, eating and exploring the city. We even toured the old city underground and then watched the fireworks shoot off around the Space Needle.

On January 1st, I flew back to New York City, with sore legs and a clearer mind, ready for change in 2013.

After the Storm

By Angie Liang

We Houstonians are no strangers to hurricanes. Living in former swamplands about an hour from the Gulf Coast, we’ve had to stock up on non-perishables and supplies, fill our bathtubs with water, board our windows, and evacuate. Our city has experienced major flooding, power outages, and even the loss of homes and lives. Recently, those on the East Coast experienced similar devastation. Sandy caused enormous damage, and some people lost everything.

The New York City area was hit particularly hard. Living next to Times Square, I was very lucky. While my office was closed for three days, other than flickering power, my apartment was fine. It was surreal, however, to witness for the second time since moving here, how empty and quiet the City That Never Sleeps had become because of a hurricane.

When we finally returned to work, one of my friends set up a volunteer effort for my team. With the little gas that we had, four of us made it down to the Rockaways early in the morning, with hot food and supplies – all generously donated by a local diner and colleagues.

We walked amidst the destruction, amazed not only by what was lost, but also by how many others had come out to help. We spent the day at a local church where the National Guard was also present, all of us organizing, distributing and delivering supplies. Despite being inside the building, we were very cold, which led us to worry about the dropping temperatures and wonder how residents would stay warm.

I have only these few words and pictures to share from my experience volunteering in the Rockaways. It will take a while for everyone to recover from Sandy, but what I saw growing up in Houston is very present here in New York: People helping people.

To Russia with love

By Angie Liang

Michael* and I went to school together for a decade – middle school, high school and even college – but we were mostly acquaintances who rarely talked. It wasn’t until two years after we got our diplomas that Michael and I really connected, when he asked me one day about a picture on Facebook from a recent trip I had taken.

From there, we started talking, and our conversations quickly grew more personal, philosophical and profound. We began to meet over tea, then dinner just to talk. In just a couple of weeks, we had become true friends and surprisingly close.

During that brief time, I received and accepted a job offer in New York City, giving me only one more month in Texas. Normally, I would have found it silly to continue a relationship with someone when I was on the verge of leaving, but Michael insisted that we should make the most of whatever time we had left together. So we did.

I don’t think Michael will ever know the impact he had on my life. Perhaps part of it was the timing: I was graduating, growing up, and taking that large step of moving to a different city. Life was messy and thrilling, and I thought, how lucky I was to find a friend who understood my messy, thrilling self. Through the chaos, that enormous transition, Michael was there to offer calm and practical guidance. He never attempted to solve my problems, but he listened as I rambled on, confused and overwhelmed by all the possibilities in front of me.

Of course I also had my wonderful family and best friends, who have always provided me with support and love. But looking back, I believe I was supposed to grow close to Michael at that particular time in my life, a time when everything was changing. He opened my eyes with a fresh perspective to help me navigate.

Thanks to Michael’s different way of thinking, I started to understand multiple sides of a situation and became more open-minded. I tried to step outside the borders of my cookie-cutter life, and I even learned to embrace my mistakes – because, as Michael convinced me, they can help shape you into a better person if you make the most out of them.

After I moved to New York, Michael and I talked less and less. We went from phone calls to emails to eventually just text messages a few times a month. Recently, through one of those texts, Michael informed me that he would be moving to Russia – a dream of his – where I know he will flourish, after a roller coaster career in Texas.

I wished him well and meant it – hopefully conveying my hope, love and excitement for him – but I am unable to hide the sadness in my own heart at this new chapter in his life. We have grown further apart with time, and the physical distance will only deepen the space that separates us.

No matter what happens, I’m grateful for the impact Michael has had on me. He supported me during a critical time in my life, and now I have the opportunity to do the same for him. Maybe we’ll go back to the edges of each other’s lives, the way we were for so many years in school, but we will always have the memories of a closer time.

And maybe that’s just what some people are meant to do. They are here to guides us during a chapter of our lives, so that we will meet the people we’re supposed to meet and become the people we’re supposed to be.

*Name has been changed.

* * * * *

Best friends Kristan Hoffman and Angie Liang both grew up in Houston and interned for the GrafikPress newspapers. Now Kristan lives in Ohio and writes novels, while Angie lives in New York City and works in market research. You can email them at JBUcolumn@gmail.com.