After living as an expat in Beijing for several years, Vancouver-native Debbie Yee Lan Wong found herself at a crossroads. Her work contract was ending and her long-term relationship with a French man dissolved under dramatic circumstances. Heartbroken, angry, and with her self-confidence undermined, Debbie set out on a journey through Southeast Asia in search of inner peace.
Her memoir “The Same Sky” chronicles the three-month trek through Tibet, Laos, and Cambodia, and the many encounters with locals that helped Debbie distance herself from the situation and eventually heal.
Debbie talked to Jetting Around about her memories of the journey, starting a new life in New York City, and why it took her over 10 years to publish the book. She also shared her favorite places to see in Asia, along with advice for women traveling solo. Read on!
What comes to mind when you look back at your time in Asia?
Wow, hard to believe that it has been more than a decade since I lived in Beijing! I sometimes miss my old expat life and how interesting it was to step out my door every morning and experience the street markets and bustling life of the locals. Every day was an adventure. I definitely don’t miss the toll it had on me physically, like the terrible pollution. Fortunately, I’m blessed with a job that allows me to travel to Asia once or twice a year.
Looking back now, when my journey first began in Beijing, I was a scared vulnerable woman who had no one to turn to, nowhere to go except forward. I had built my whole world around someone and I was devastated when it suddenly ended. On top of that, it was also complex as I came to terms that my ex was an alcoholic, and the violence at the end almost destroyed me. So my solo trip really helped me see that I didn’t have to wallow in my sorrow, but that I could gain a different perspective from traveling and heal on my own. All along the way, the ghosts of my ex followed me on my trip and I faced the realities of my pain, only to discover a hidden strength I never knew I had.
I’m proud that I made the braver choice of traveling, so I could figure things out and find peace again. In fact, whenever I come across any hardship now, I am encouraged by how I overcame obstacles back then.
What was your favorite place and why?
Probably Lhasa, Tibet for many reasons. As mentioned in The Same Sky, Lhasa was my first stop after a disintegrated relationship. So in many ways, Lhasa has a special place in my heart because when I was there, I felt so depressed. However, I felt so inspired by the friendliness of the Tibetans, their courage to speak about the hardships there, and their generous spirit. Locals living in impoverished conditions who had hardly anything to give, offered butter tea and snacks. Despite the oppressive occupation of the Chinese, the Tibetans still manage to survive, thrive and try to practice their religion freely.
In addition, Lhasa is GREAT for trying different western cuisine (with a Tibetan twist) and yummy local cuisine including “yak everything”: yak dumplings called momos, yak buns, spicy yak on a stick etc. I particularly enjoyed the wonderful community of expatriates and travelers converging in one place before venturing elsewhere.
At the time when I was there, you could amble freely through Barkhor Square and their main market and turn the corner and discover the most amazing things to buy: a yak leather belt, a metal carrier for your chicken, and prayer flags by the meter. Brilliant! I loved shopping around Lhasa.
At what point, did you start healing? What were some of the moments that helped you?
Tibet was my first country of my three-month journey and it was there when I started to feel that I was healing after having felt undone for so long. Monks (at great risk for talking to me) invited me to the main halls of monasteries for yak butter tea (which tasted awful, but I endured it). Whether locals shared about the Chinese occupation in Tibet, or the residuals effects of the war in Laos, or the Pol Pot genocide in Cambodia, they all told similar stories of loss and resilience. They gave me the strength to believe that bravery came in the form of acceptance and the letting go of anger.
I remembered my Tibetan driver Nima, a gruff person, shared how it was better to accept the hardships and move on. He shared, “If you hold onto your anger, it will destroy you.” I had been so furious at my ex-boyfriend and the alcoholism that I didn’t realize how much that negativity was taking over me.
Finally, when I was in Laos, I met a lovely hostel owner named Ann who shared how the bombs that dropped on Vietnam spilled over into nearby Laos and destroyed so many villages, including hers. As a little girl, she was scared as she ran from her burning village and side-stepped dead bodies on the road. She said “And I should stay beside death and cry? No, you keep moving.” Then when I asked how she dealt with her own grief, she said: “To talk is the only way…to remember. To learn. For peace…People are too scared to move on from war in our hearts.” Her words of wisdom reminded me that the braver choice was to not always crowd my time with things to do and see, but to be solitary and to face our grief in order to learn, heal and move on.
Conversations like these throughout my time in Asia reinforced the cyclical nature of grief, anger and rediscovery of strength, and they spurred me on to feel better about myself.
The Same Sky is your first release. Tell us about the writing process.
It started off as a short story about when I was briefly detained in Tibet, to longer chapters, to a full-fledged memoir. For more than a decade, there was a parallel between my emotional journey of writing such painful stories and my initial years in New York. I had moved to NYC shortly after the trip and felt terribly lonely. So I wrote and wrote – first on cocktail napkins and then in notebooks.
I took a memoir writing class and met other authors to exchange ideas. For a few years, we met every two weeks to swap chapters and give honest feedback. Then I hired an editor who did a global read and I rewrote the whole manuscript. Another editor did line-by-line edits. Then I revised my manuscript again for the third time.
I remembered back in late 2009 when I finished my very last paragraph of my last chapter. I felt so proud and then I realized it was over – all the brainstorming, analyzing, character developing, writing until 2 am – and then I started to cry in the back of a coffee shop in Long Island City, Queens. What it took to get here! I pressed ‘save’ (very important), stumbled home and then didn’t touch it for a long time. I needed it to settle in me – so many years of writing and yet I hadn’t really figured out what to do once it would be finished. In fact, my manuscript sat in a drawer for two years, because I was freaked out about releasing such a personal story to the world. It wasn’t until I met my husband in 2010 and he encouraged me to publish it finally.
I revisited my original reasons for publication: to share my story so that women who have experienced a harrowing breakup can be inspired to overcome any calamities of the heart through traveling and opening up our heart to others.
I believe writing is an evolutionary process, because what we write about usually matches our emotional well-being at the time. I don’t think I could have completed my book in my first year. More than a decade later, I learned to be alone again, to grapple with my own vulnerability, and to love again before I could properly finish my story that underscores these same themes.
How did you handle the adjustment from living and traveling in Asia to working in NYC?
I found the adjustment to be fairly simple, because living in Beijing as an expatriate was often challenging and I missed being in the west again. Shortly after my trip, when I moved to NYC, I didn’t know a soul. I felt very lonely during those early days, but they were important as I learned to be on my own and start a new life. NYC has been wonderful to me because of the abundance of cultural events and diverse people and well, 14 years later, I’m still here!
From time to time, I sometimes think about my old life in Beijing …but that was then. This is my chapter of my life now and while I don’t regret my time overseas, I prefer living here.
Which Asian cities and towns would you recommend for a visit?
Luang Prabang – beautiful gilded temples adorn this lovely town in Laos. I find that the vibe here is energetic and artistic, compared to its sleepy counterpart Vientiane
Nam Tso Lake, Tibet – how cool to drive several hours from Lhasa to see the magnificent “Sky Lake” as the Tibetans call it. I described in The Same Sky that this intense blue lake was like a “large turquoise crystal that sparkled against the cloudless sky above”. Snow-capped mountains surrounded it like a necklace. You have to see it to believe it!
Sukothai, Thailand – I know everyone goes to the Thai beaches and bustling Bangkok, but I absolutely loved my time in Sukothai for its abandoned outdoor Buddhist statues/temples and yummy noodle dishes in nearby cafes.
Angkor Wat Temples near Siam Reap, Cambodia – if you’re not too “templed out,” you will definitely find your days filled with seeing the magnificent and intricately detailed ancient temples that dot the landscape. I know that Angkor Thom and Wat are the highlights, however, if you can, rent a scooter and venture to the outlying less-frequented temples to see the ruins and experience first-hand the peacefulness and quietude of these holy places.
What advice do you have for women traveling solo?
Trust your gut. Whether I’m exploring a neighborhood in Phnom Penh or New York, I always listen to my gut and observe the things around me.
Although I believe strongly that men and women are equal and should be able to travel freely and safely, not everyone shares that same belief (or even believe that a woman can do that). Being mindful of other cultures’ views and perspectives on women are key.
There’s a certain level of trepidation that most people feel when traveling and often we lose sight of how our openness to exploring can come across. So walking with purpose in safe, busy neighborhoods while observing people’s body language are all factors to consider when traveling alone.
“The Same Sky” had its official launch in New York City in February 2014, and Debbie hopes to hold readings at books clubs in other cities. She is also active in the Tibetan community in NYC, as part of her effort to help raise awareness of the China-Tibet conflict.
As far as writing, Debbie started a weekly blog series called “52 Travel Stories of 2014” and is considering another book. “I’’d like to write about my mother and her funny yet poignant perspectives about immigrating to Canada and the cultural divide she has experienced between her and her daughters. Until then, I will continue to travel for work and pleasure.”
Interested in reading the book? Enter the giveaway! [Ends 3/22/2014]