A Love Letter to Asia


Arrival in Singapore, 2012

Arriving with a scaffold of expectations doesn’t help if you’re setting sail on an ocean of possibilities. I learned that lesson the hard way when I moved abroad the first time in 2006. Moving to Singapore in 2012 was different. I went without expectations and maybe that’s why it turned out the way it did.

I pushed my forehead to the airplane window and marveled at all the ships lining up to enter the port. The sunlight radiated off the water with searing, unfamiliar intensity. I landed, collected a mountain of luggage and walked out of the terminal into the hot, steamy embrace of Singapore.

Life was different at first — far different than life in the mountains where I had spent the previous six years and much of the rest of my life. I never expected that I’d live in the tropics. It demanded a new approach. I traded my hiking boots for flip-flops, hung up my jacket for the next three and a half years, and accepted that air conditioning would be an important part of my new life.

The food took a lot of getting used to. There was confusion about pork floss, durian, century eggs and carrot cake — not the kind with yummy cream cheese frosting. Popiah was like Asia’s worst attempt at making a burrito and everything in the hawker centers smelled and tasted of fish sauce and Chinese Five Spice. There were infinite kinds of jiggly kueh, and glutinous rice presented a weird new texture to chew on. But coconuts and mangoes? Okay, that was a good place to start getting to know the cuisine and, thank Buddha, I eventually found laksa and thunder tea rice.

As I interacted with people I adopted a few local customs. Our household became a shoeless household. I used two hands when exchanging business cards and money. I learned to call the older cabbies “Uncle” and came to understand the brilliance of simple Singlish phrases: Can, lah! No, sorry cannot, lah. Sometimes can but sometimes also cannot.

My curiosity guided me all over Singapore. Arab street became a favorite outing with shop after shop of exquisite fabrics and Persian rugs, and I was soon on a first-name basis with a few of the rug sellers … Bobby Singh, Mehdi, Ibrahim. Little India fascinated me too, mostly with the rich decorum of Deepavali and the haunting occasion of Thaipusam. And of course, Chinatown. I never tired of walking through the heart of it. The mid-autumn festival introduced me to mooncakes and the irresistible frenzy leading up to Chinese New Year affected me so much that now I relish celebrating the new year twice, every year. Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy Year of the Fire Monkey.

I ventured beyond Singapore to explore cultural and geographic treasures within a plane ride from the Little Red Dot. I saw the richness of history at Angkor Wat, Bagan, Borobodur and Tiger’s Nest. I viewed the force of the earth manifested in the Himalayas and the Saiq Plateau. I savored the biodiversity of Borneo, with Proboscis monkeys and Orangutans found nowhere else on the planet. I dove below the surface in Sulawesi to see the brilliant, exotic results of what happens when we protect our oceans. I saw elephants and a leopard. I received a name for a child (I don’t have) from a monk in Bhutan and got a lesson in living off the jungle from a wise woman named Saloma. The diversity of Asia enchanted me.

The "haze" from mass rainforest destruction

Singapore’s “haze” from rainforest destruction in Indonesia

But as some “expats” will tell you, living abroad often includes an uncomfortable education about the darker sides of life, too. I experienced gender discrimination and ang mo discrimination, and saw the difficult conditions women and minorities face throughout Asia. I witnessed the inhumane treatment of animals and saw the horrific byproducts of shark finning. I felt the sad reality of a nation still recovering from the bloody hands of a dictator, and struggled to understand the antiquated laws in several countries still dictating personal identity and lifestyle. I saw the appalling amount of trash affecting our rivers and oceans, and lived with the hazardous seasonal “haze” from the burning destruction of rainforests caused by the world’s demand for palm oil.

The world is a beautiful, terrible place.

In the midst of all the coming and going and learning and exploring, time passed and I lost myself. Asia became a part of me and I became a part of Asia. I was no longer the person who had arrived in Singapore three and a half years earlier. Putting that into words would take far more than a blog post but at the very least I can say my definition of “home” had changed and expanded. I felt at home in a world where everything was foreign, everything was Asian.


I left Asia seven months ago. To have enjoyed that experience — good and bad — so completely … I realize now that the opportunity came at a time when I was old enough and wise enough to embrace it, adapt to it and learn from it. I had seen enough of the world to dive in head first with the confidence that no matter what … I could swim. I could find my way.

Through it all, I carried with me the most important lesson my mother ever taught me: treat all people equally. Without this lesson my experience in Asia would have been vastly different, or perhaps I wouldn’t have wanted to live abroad at all (so thanks, Mom). I found that people are mostly good, rarely bad, and the amazing kindness and hospitality of strangers is ubiquitous. The basic desires of life — food, love and a place to call home — are pretty much universal, and the struggles that people everywhere are dealing with often exist in the common context of seeking a better life.

My experience living in Asia also taught me to be present, be here, be now, soak up everything happening around me. There is no need to dwell in the past or look too far into the future. Today is enough. I’ve come to believe that THIS is what creates that crazy, insatiable yearning to travel. Leading up to our vacations we plot, we plan, we imagine. Returning home from our vacations we tell stories, we remember, we even lament that life as we know it has returned. But in the midst of traveling we live moment to moment, hour to hour. We are present. We mindfully create our experience.

And finding a place to call home while you’re out there traveling? Sometimes can but sometimes also cannot.

I was lucky. I found a place to call home and I have nothing but gratitude for the most wonderful, enlightening years of my life (so far). To call Asia home feels natural and implies that someday I’ll probably return.

Can, lah!

I can’t wait.



  • YAAY!!! WORDS! Simply a beautiful, magnificent reflection. And I don’t know how you get such good photos of people, even when they pose for you, they are somehow very emotional (when they pose for me, they seem so…um, stiff). At some point, I am going to quote you on a couple of your lines in this piece: the first sentence is awesome. And this one is thrilling: “The world is a beautiful, terrible place.” I miss the soup they sell in Singapore, especially in this one stall one block away from Raffles.


    • Thank you!! So happy you enjoyed the words and the photos. It feels good to write again. (You’re like my subconscious with your comments about words — my missing words.) I rarely photograph people looking directly at me, but for this post I wanted to show the faces of Asia. I combed through all my photos and realized I had a dozen or so people who were making eye contact. When people don’t smile, as is often the custom in foreign countries, I think it creates a more emotional result. But in the moment, I’m always thinking … why aren’t you smiling at me??? πŸ™‚ What soup did you have near Raffles?


  • I have never been to Asia. Now I want to. A lovely post and moving reflection about how travel changes us. Merci!


  • A really beautiful post. Asia is indeed so diverse, crowded, exciting, delicious, and at times bewildering. I agree with Badfish about this line: “The world is a beautiful, terrible place.” — That’s really how I also feel about the world and all the human beings who live on it. Your photos are magnificent, Kelly! And speaking of the annual haze, I’m glad you were not in Singapore when the worst forest fires in history happened last year, destroying many parts of the already fragile rainforests in Sumatra and Borneo. The government is taking serious actions this time (it should have many many years ago) and hopefully the people in Sumatra, Borneo, Singapore, and Peninsular Malaysia won’t have to deal with the choking haze anymore in the future.

    Anyway, I LOVE century eggs! πŸ˜€


    • Thank you, Bama!! Always wonderful to connect with you about our experiences in Asia. Really?! Century eggs?! Okay, I tried them and they weren’t terrible but they are not my preferred format. πŸ™‚ I agree — I am very happy I wasn’t there last fall when the haze was at its worst. I hope this year there is cooperation among governments to address the problem. I just fear that small farmers will still opt for the most efficient way to make money from their land. Who can blame them? Again, it comes down to seeking a better life. What we need to be better at is educating people about the entire problem and cycle and why it’s unsustainable and destructive, along with teaching the benefits of a protecting the rainforest. No doubt it will be an ongoing issue and conversation for quite some time. Thanks again for the kind words!


  • Kelly, what a heartwarming and honest tribute to a continent you love. I should send this to my uncle in Canada who has no interest whatsoever in travelling around Asia, even though he was born in Hong Kong. He prefers the more passive approach of sipping wine and coffee in Europe. Growing up, I took all the complexities and vibrant culture around me for granted. It wasn’t until I moved abroad that I realised Asia was such an amazing part of the world.

    My mother taught me the same valuable principle as yours; it was passed down from my grandfather who taught her to treat everyone with respect. He said that it was wrong to look down on street sweepers/trash collectors because they were making an honest living. Sadly discrimination is rife in Asia and just about everywhere else in the world. I was name-called when I lived in England and Spain, even if I did my best to integrate and speak the language.

    And you’re right, environmental protection is one area that Asia urgently needs to work on. It is encouraging to see the dropping demand for shark fin, and a growing awareness of animal rights, but there is so much else that needs to be done. Banning ivory for example, and better law enforcement measures to protect rainforests and coral reefs. I would love to see effective education programs about recycling, reducing waste, and teaching people not to throw plastic by the roadside or into the ocean. But we can celebrate the small victories that crop up every now and again. Just yesterday I read that Nepal recorded zero poaching of rhinos in 2015.

    Thank you for giving us a window into your regional travels and your experience of living in Singapore – durians, haze and all!


    • James! Thank you. Your comment is packed with wisdom and experience. I love that you credit the lesson of treating all people with respect to your mother and grandfather. I think it’s interesting that people who live by this principle know exactly who it was who taught it to them — usually someone very important in their life. So interesting that moving abroad was what showed you the uniqueness of Asia. Contrast is a wonderful way to learn. I referenced moving abroad in 2006 — I spent 18 months in London and it was full of contrast — and not in a good way! But I was a different person then, too. Wow, I had not heard the statistic about rhino poaching in Nepal. That’s great news. Did you hear Ethiopia has banned the importation of plastic bags? Good to see developing countries taking a stand about major issues that greatly affect them. Thanks again for your thoughtful comment! And I hope your uncle sips some wine and reads my post, haha! πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  • I live in South East Asia and have visited many of the places you write and photograph. I see through your lenses a love of people and the culture of my region. Now I want to visit every place all over again


  • “Can, la…” Perfect way to view your experiences, wonderful post. You mention the most important thing about enjoying the time out here in Asia, taking both the “good and bad β€” so completely” the only way to do it πŸ™‚


    • Randall! Wonderful to find you here. Thank you so much for your comment. Coming from an amazing traveler, writer and photographer like you, I’m very flattered. I saw you featured on Discover! Congrats!


  • Ah, I have yet to learn how not to bring expectations with me on my travels. For now, I can only try to manage them as best as possible. How wonderful that you were able to leave yours behind while experiencing this vast and diverse continent.


  • I greatly enjoyed this post and am glad I left it to read when I truly had time to focus on it. So many truths here; others have lauded you for them, so I won’t repeat them all! I am a planner and a summarizer, but I so agree that the heart (and value) of travel lies in the time between those two things – the just being there, taking it all in, living in the moment. I live for that.


    • Thank you, lexklein! Um, why have I not been following you for … ever? Just popped over to your blog and saw your wonderful post and beautiful photos of Guilin. And you say in your side bar that you might go to Mongolia this summer (top of my list). I hope you get there!! Seems we have a lot in common. I love (real) books and languages, too. Thanks for the kind words. I look forward to reading more of your posts and exploring your site. ~K.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I felt the same way when I discovered your blog! We do have lots of trekking and travel adventures in common (and I did laugh when I saw your reference to Mongolia as well!). I really loved this post of yours and hope to see more, often!

        Liked by 1 person

  • Wow, great read, and sounds in lots of ways the same as my experiences since moving to KL 2 years ago!
    Such an amazing part of the world, lah πŸ˜‰
    Happy travels and greetings, Ron


  • The words, the words! The photos, the photos! So intertwined and complementary, yet such perspective and color and essence. One of your best!


  • Kelly, what a beautiful essay that perfectly captures your expat experience. Your open mind and gracious heart obviously serve you very well, both then and now. Your words really lifted my heart, with many reminders of my first expat experience moving to Khartoum, Sudan. I came away thrilled, humbled, educated, and determined to experience so much more of this wonderful world. Thanks again for your beautiful, thoughtful words. Al the best, Terri


    • Whoops! I meant “All” not “Al”! πŸ™‚ ~T


    • Thanks, Terri! Great to hear from you! You inspired me to go back to your archives and re-read James’s post about the coup in Sudan. I just can’t get enough of reading about expat experiences living abroad. I agree with you — they can be so motivating in what else you see and do in the world. Thank you for reading my post and sharing your very kind thoughts. Enjoy your day, wherever you are out there! πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  • Love this KFresh! xox


  • I met you and your husband just before your move to Singapore. He came in to sell your vehicle as one of the last to-dos before leaving. I remember the conversation we had during the 30 minutes or so we spent together and I was excited for the adventure the two of you were about to go on. I shared that my wife is from Asia and we talked about the fact that Asia, while being so different than what we grow up here in the US being comfortable with, has a way of grabbing you and becoming part of you. I haven’t commented much in the past, but I’ve kept your site bookmarked and I frequently visit and am envious of your ability to experience so much of that part of the world. Perhaps one day I’ll have the resources, job, etc., to do the same. Every other year I do get to travel to Asia for a couple of weeks to visit my wife’s family, but as I think more and more about retirement I believe that I will one day be able to return “home”. Thanks for sharing your adventures!


    • Mike! Wow, it’s so great to hear from you! I remember the day we sold that car and Jay remembers that conversation with you. So cool to find you here and know that you’ve been following our journeys all over Asia. I really appreciate you visiting my blog. Living in Asia was the adventure of a lifetime and I’m so grateful for the experience. How wonderful that you get to visit every other year, and even better that you may find yourself there for retirement. Sounds like you have some great journeys ahead of you yet! Thank you for getting in touch. I so enjoy connecting with people over mutually loved destinations — even better that both of us consider Asia “home”. Awesome. Keep in touch and thanks again for reading!


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  • What a wonderful post – both your excellent photos and wise reflections on travel and life. I found this by way of Plus Ultra. I have learned so much from him and Bama and now from you also about a part of the world I have never visited. Thanks to all of you for sharing.


    • Thank you so much, Marilyn! James and Bama are such wonderful people and I’ve learned a lot from them, too. Their travel stories are always enlightening and inspirational. Very happy you found my blog! I’ll hop over and check out yours, too. Thanks for your comment. πŸ™‚


  • It’s like a contemplation of your last journey in Asia, so touching. And so many words can be underlined. Nice post anyway …


  • Beautiful, beautiful post Kelly. Your touching ode to your life and travels in Asia reflects a rare compassion and sensitivity that I sensed in one of your earliest posts on the Thaipusam ritual. I was struck by your balanced approach then and am equally impressed now.

    I do believe you ought to patent that brilliant phrase you have coined! I can see “The world is a beautiful, terrible place.” being widely quoted πŸ™‚


    • Thank you from my heart, Madhu. Your comment means the world to me. I’m at a crossroads with my blog but when someone like you recognizes me in this way, it’s very inspiring to keep doing what I love. Yes, that phrase seems to have struck a chord with a handful of readers! Perhaps I’ll look into protecting it! Great to hear from you and thanks again. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

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