Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Thursday is Launch Day!

Hi guys! Just thought I'd pop on here real quick and let you all know some super-exciting news:

I'm leaving for China on Thursday!

I actually went on an ACTS retreat this past weekend (if you ever have the chance to go on one, you should, I had such an amazing experience). When I got home and my parents picked me up, they pretty much went, "Welcome back! Guess what, you're leaving on Thursday!"

I still can't quite believe it. It was so sudden. But I'm really looking forward to this experience. Well, maybe not going through airport security and running from gate to gate. After that, though... that's the part I'm looking forward to.

So, keep your eyes peeled for more updates from me, but this time from CHINA! Yay! You might have to give me some time to get over jetlag first, though. 

What's something that's cheered you up lately, or that you're looking forward to? Share in the comments!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Packing for China: Luggage and Carry-on

Suitcase by Lasse C on Flickr, via Creative Commons
Hi, guys! So after a bit of e-mailing back and forth between myself, my sister, and the visa processing center, my visa is finally on its way to being approved and my passport should be back in my hands by Thursday. Yay! After that, I'll try to get a ticket to China as soon as possible. I'm so excited... and going a little stir crazy, to be honest. I'm impatient to be there and volunteering already!

I thought that for today's post I could go over a bit of what packing for China entails, at least for me.

The Luggage

I'll be bringing one large duffle bag for my clothes and such, and most likely another duffle full of things for my sister that she can't easily get in China. Last time I went there, I ended up packing more clothes than I really needed... filling up two duffles instead of just one. So for this trip, I'm making sure to pack only what I'm sure I'm going to wear regularly.

Since I'm headed there during the winter, when the temperature in Beijing is hitting single digits, important things I'll be packing (besides my staple t-shirts and jeans, underwear and socks, and a few nicer outfits) will be:
  1. Winter coat.
  2. 2 pairs thermal underwear.
  3. Sweatshirts and sweaters.
I get cold easily, so I'll definitely be piling on the layers, methinks! I'll also be stocking up on waterproof earplugs, since my ears get infected nearly 99% of the time if they get water in them. I use the earplugs in the shower, since I'm not a big swimmer. 

The Carry-on

My carry-on will be a backpack. I will be packing all of my important things that I do NOT want to lose in there, mainly electronics and my wallet, since it's a bad idea to pack valuables in your main luggage. It's also a bad idea to pack things that are going to make your carry-on heavier than you can manage running to and fro from gate to gate as they change your flight around (which they might, and most likely will. Ask me how I know this). 

Since it's a 13 hour flight from here to Beijing, I'll also want some entertainment that will help cut down the hours.

Into the carry-on will go:
  1. Laptop and charger, which will make up most of the weight.
  2. A couple of books.
  3. My Nintendo DS (fully charged) and a couple of games.
  4. My wallet.
  5. My medication.
Also, the seats in economy cabins are REALLY unergonomic. That means if you need special support for your back or hips, invest in a special cushion. Really. You will thank me for this advice once you take it and spend 13 hours on a plane in those seats. You CAN get up and stand in the back of the plane for a bit (in fact it's encouraged you do so to help your circulation and such), but a cushion will really help.

Special Packing Tip

If you're not sure you can get it in China, buy it before you go! You do not want to get there and find out that you can't get something you need or use regularly. For me, it's my waterproof earplugs. I'm sure they must make them in China... but if I end up being wrong, that would be bad. SO. I'm stocking up just in case.

If you take prescription medication, like I do, you might want to stock up on that too. Warning, though, it will cost a LOT more to get your meds prescribed for a year's time instead of just a month or so.

What I'll be doing, since I'm still covered by my parents' insurance, will be to (hopefully) get my medication from a hospital in Beijing that the insurance is accepted in. If this works, it will drastically cut down on the cost.

The End (?)

That's pretty much all I have to say on the subject of packing for the nonce. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask me and I'll do my best to answer.

Do you have any packing advice, or an interesting/fun travel story? Share in the comments!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Owning my Anxiety: A Small Victory

Stijlfoto on Flickr, via Creative Commons license.
Today I just wanted to share a little about a recent experience of mine. You might have read my earlier post about my depression; anxiety is also something that I struggle with, and have been struggling with since I was a teenager.

I approached a woman a few months ago about helping her with a project that she'd already been doing that really spoke to my heart. At first, I was raring to go, truly excited and on fire for the potential the project had.

Then I got anxious about a task of mine that I had taken upon myself to do. It was a small task, but for some reason it loomed larger and larger in my mind until it wasn't a simple task, it was a burden.

And I let that anxious feeling get the best of me.

Basically, I dropped off this woman's radar for a couple of months. I thought about that project, worried about it, hemmed and hawed over it.

Finally, I just got tired of being so anxious. I thought, "This anxiety is unreasonable, and I know it. And holding on to it is so not worth what it would feel like if I just at least tried to do this task that is, after all, not that scary in reality."

So I didn't let myself think about it anymore. Because I have a tendency to overthink everything, as was true in this case. I just opened the file I was supposed to look at. And I got to work.

It felt great.

I was focused, I had a purpose. Not 5 minutes into the task, I wondered why I had been so scared of tackling it in the first place. I finished it in about an hour, and then I e-mailed the woman I had been working with.

In that e-mail, I owned my anxiety.

Not that it was easy. It was not. I felt shame and remorse not only about leaving the woman hanging for so long, but also about my anxiety and depression. But I decided to 'fess up anyway. I did not make any excuses. I did not try to sugar-coat things... basically, I did my best to apologize sincerely.

And I told her the truth.

I just sent that e-mail, but already I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. I realize that I'd been hanging on to my anxiety, in a way. I had become complacent with my anxiety, feeling that it was better to know this constant burden rather than strive into unknown territory to try and right it.

I'm not saying that now I know how it will be next time and I can definitely overcome the anxiety when it strikes next. Because I've lived with this long enough to know that such things are not at all a guarantee when it comes to this.

Still, now I have this feeling of renewal from being truthful and honoring the disservice I did to the woman in dropping off her radar without an explanation.

No matter how it turns out now, I know I did my best and I was sincere.

What about you? I'd love to hear about a recent victory of yours, however small or large.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Visa Update & Current Favorite Songs

Visa Update

Hi, guys! I'm just letting you know how things are going. My visa application got to the processing place fine (according to the tracking system on the USPS site), so I will hopefully be hearing from them about how long I can stay in China soon. Sooo it's been pretty quiet around here.

I did get some packing done, and sorted through my boxes of stuff that were in the attic. I ended up taking most of it to the thrift store, where hopefully it will be reincarnated to a better life (or something).

Current Favorite Songs

I also thought that, for fun, I'd share with you a few of my favorite songs of the moment!

First up: Ellie Goulding's "Anything Could Happen." I first heard of her through her song "Lights," liked the style, and looked up some of her other music. So far I haven't heard anything beyond those two songs and "Only You," but I have to say I like what I hear. Here are two videos: the music video for "Anything Could Happen" and also a cool freerunning video set to "Lights."

Next is a beautiful song from an anime that I recently finished watching called Hakuouki. The song is "A True Love Tale," from the ending of a special episode made for the series. It's in Japanese, but even if you don't know the meaning behind the words, it gets across to you anyway. I love that about music.

And last but not least, Lindsey Stirling. She's an amazing violinist... it's apparent that she truly enjoys playing music, and I admire that. I particularly love this video and song put together of hers of a time that she spent in Kenya.

Your turn! What is a favorite song of yours, and why? Share in the comments.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Depressed Volunteer Abroad: My Story

Okay, so today is a day to be honest: my last time volunteering in China wasn't all bouncing babies on my knee while laughing amongst rainbows and flowers. I got hit with depression big time, which I strongly suspect was connected to my having gone on birth control to help regulate my hormones (obviously if that's true, that didn't work).

I was able to learn the basics of what I needed to help out somewhat in my volunteer duties...  but the last 3-4 months of the entire year were the hardest, and I basically just holed myself away in my room, only coming out to eat and use the bathroom. I was miserable, sometimes crying, not understanding why I felt this way and why I was so anxious about doing any kind of work or interaction with others.

I got home and quit the birth control around the same time (I stayed on my medication that I already took for depression, though, which I've been diagnosed with since I was a teenager). My mood/motivation improved gradually over the following months. I noticed, my parents (whom I live with) noticed. My sister and brother-in-law, meanwhile, really needed help with the nonprofit, and for some reason they asked my parents how I was doing, and the response was positive.

So they asked me to come back and help them. I was so excited, and also just really happy... I had been feeling like a complete and utter failure up until then. I still do, in a way; an experience and mindset like that doesn't go away overnight.

I won't lie, I'm nervous about the possibility of that happening again once I go back. But on the other hand, I feel like this time will be different. I feel like I've learned from what happened before, and come back stronger and better prepared about what to do should that happen again.

I'm sharing this because I feel it needs to be shared. My hope is for others who may have experienced something similar to read it and know that they are not alone.

What has been a learning experience for you? It can be as big or small as you're comfortable sharing.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

How to Apply for a Chinese Tourist Visa

blmurch on Flickr, used via Creative Commons license
Hi, everyone, I just sent off my visa application today! Whooo! I should be hearing back from the visa center within 3-4 days on how long/often I get to stay in Beijing, if all goes well. I thought you all might find it interesting/relevant to get a quick run-down on how to apply for a tourist visa for China these days. Note that this is from the perspective of someone who lives in the USA.

What is a Visa?
According to a Google search, one definition of a visa is:
An endorsement on a passport indicating that the holder is allowed to enter, leave, or stay for a specified period of time in a country.
To my knowledge, you can apply for a 30, 60, or 90-day visa. This means that you can stay in a country for that set amount of time.

So if you're in China on a 90-day visa (which is what I hope to get), you are legally allowed to stay in the country for 90 days. At the end of 90 days, if you want to continue staying in the country, you must leave the country, get your passport stamped saying that you've left, and then re-enter the country and get your passport stamped upon re-entry.

The last time I stayed in Beijing, I was on a 90-day visa. A common method of leaving and reentering China, which is the one I took, was taking a train to Hong Kong and back. The total length of time to get to Hong Kong and back to Beijing was around 24 hours, give or take.

90-day visas are ideal since that means if you're staying in a country for a year, like I plan to, you'll only have to leave and re-enter 3-4 times, as opposed to more often. And trains aren't that comfortable, especially if you're stuck in a compartment with a family whose young daughter is singing along, very loudly, to "I Just Can't Wait to be King" over... and over... and over... Ask me how I know this.

How Do You Apply?

A few things have changed about the visa process from the last time I applied (which was a little over a year ago). This time around, my sister and brother-in-law had to write up an invitation letter basically inviting me into China. If you don't have someone inviting you into a country, you must provide a copy of your round-trip airline ticket and hotel reservation.

Then you fill out the visa application and the order form for the visa. You can choose to get the application processed at the regular speed, which is 3-4 days, or pay extra to get it processed faster. You also need a small passport-style color photo of whoever the visa is for; I got mine taken at a CVS drugstore. 2 of these passport photos cost around $5.

Since I had already filled out the visa paperwork last time I went to China, my sister just re-did it for me and sent it to me to look over. I then signed the visa application, took the invitation letter and the visa order form (which my sister sent to me) and mailed those, along with my passport, to the visa application center.

Oh, and an important thing to remember is to send it all through Certified Mail. Basically with Certified Mail you can check on the US Postal Service site and track the mail you sent... it's an added form of security. Certified Mail ships at the rate of whatever shipping service you choose; I chose to send it Priority.

Now it's Waiting Time...

That was just a brief, informal explanation of the visa application process. In my experience, it's been pretty smooth and uneventful, which is a good thing! Hopefully this time around it will be the same way. I'm estimating it will take a  little over a week for everything to get done and my passport to be sent back; but if it's more, I won't be surprised.

I hope you all found that informative! If you have any questions about this that I didn't address, please feel free to ask me.

Did I omit something important? Do you have a question about this, or something to add from a different perspective? Share in the comments!

If this doesn't apply to you, well then; I told you about the singing kid on the train. Do you have any travel stories that are only funny in hindsight, or to people who weren't there with you?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Beijing Bound! Pre-Volunteering

Hi, everyone! This is my first post for this blog that will be dedicated to my year doing volunteer work in Beijing, China. I'll be volunteering with the nonprofit Little Flower Projects; they do wonderful work with babies and children, so please check them out.

Really Quick Background:

My sister Serena co-runs the charity with my brother-in-law (aka her husband). I've actually gone to volunteer with them once before, from August '11-May '12 (I'll go into more detail about how that went in a future post). They asked me to come back to help out just this Christmas... no really, literally on Christmas Day, I opened my e-mail to see a message from them. I won't lie, I kind of jumped out of my chair with excitement!

A Week (and a few days) Later...

They've now sent me all the paperwork I need to send in to apply for a visa. I'll be busy today working on sorting out things to pack and other things to get rid of so they're not clogging up my parents' house while I'm away. I might not be able to get to the post office today, so sending that stuff out might have to wait until Monday. Fun fact about me? I hate waiting.

Goals for the Year

Hey, it's the New Year, so I should be setting goals anyway, right? So, here are a couple of goals I'll be setting for myself during my time volunteering.

  1. Learn Chinese! I want to be able to carry out a conversation and be able to make it on my own around the city.
  2. Visit more places around Beijing. Like restaurants, and events such as plays. Mmm, food and entertainment. I can dig that.
This list may or may not change in the future, who knows?

Stay Tuned...

This was just meant to be a quick introductory post of sorts. I'll be making more posts later on about my previous volunteer experience, preparations for the flight over there, and of course be documenting my time there in general, volunteering and otherwise. I'll be putting up a page soon about what you can expect to see on this blog on a regular basis once I get over there. 

Have you ever volunteered, abroad or otherwise? Where did you volunteer and what was it like? Share in the comments!