Fiona Lam, Doctor
Fiona Lam is a radiologist in London. She is originally from Hong Kong. Fiona and I have been best friends for thirteen years.
Tell me about your first time abroad
My first time abroad that I can consciously remember was going to the Philippines at the age of seven or eight. My father was in some financial trouble at that time, so he had to shut down his factory. The only alternative job he was offered was a position as a factory manager at a clothing factory in Manila, the capital of Philippines.
I remember going to the ridiculously crowded Kai Tak airport, the old international airport that used to be right in the middle of the city, and getting a certificate saying something along the lines of “Congratulations! You are taking one of the last flights departing from Kai Tak Airport!”. We actually used to live right next to that airport, and to us, seeing airplanes taking off and landing a stone throw’s away from our flat and the accompanying deafening noise,was a somewhat normal thing. For others, it must have been a very dramatic experience!
We had a driver and a car, and I begged my father to let me sit in the front seat, hugging my yellow backback and my stuffed Hello Kitty, just to be able to better see what was going on outside the car windows. To me as a child, driving through a foreign country was absolutely fascinating! People selling coconuts behind street stalls; people manically dashing about; people knocking on your car windows offering you a myriad things to buy right off the street! My mother was always interested in cleaning products up for sale. Your first time abroad, especially as a child, leaves a permanent impression in your memory: everything you see is just so memorable, the colours are exceptionally vibrant, the smells are very intense!
In the 90’s, Philippines was quite a dangerous place for Chinese children, as they were easy and tempting targets for kidnappings; they were usually later returned in exchange for money. Since I was the only child, everybody was a little apprehensive, especially my father.
On some days, I would tag along with my parents as they went to the factory. I particularly loved coming along on Fridays, since it was the day that the factory workers would be paid. My parents would sit me down with the accountants, and I would put money into a brown envelope and write each worker’s name with a blue ball pen, for instance, ‘Marlene, 400 pesos’. In the late 90’s, the average worker’s salary in the Philippines was very low; 400 hundred pesos is the price of a pack of cigarettes in Hong Kong! In fact, this was a really humbling experience, as this little money was everything to these hard-working people: it was essential for food, clothing, and education! These factory workers, on the other hand must have wondered, ‘What on earth is this child doing here?!’
Around Christmas time, the fashion industry in the Philippines becomes really hectic with the production of spring/summer collections, as it takes two months to ship these clothes to Europe just in time for March. So one day in December it was far too busy at work for my parents to entertain me. They left me with a maid at home. I was sitting in my huge bedroom, watching Sailor Moon, a Japanese cartoon that was very popular in Hong Kong back then. At some point the chandelier started making noises. I looked up and it was shaking! There was no wind, so I thought that it was rather strange that it was moving… A moment later, my maid rain into the room, knelt on the floor, and started praying in Filipino. Then I realised that the TV and all the other things in my bedroom were also shaking… And then I realised that this was what the geography lesson was teaching us all along… it was an EARTHQUAKE! I thought, ‘This is amazing!’, so when it was over, I felt somehow disappointed. My parents rang soon afterwards, frantic, but I told them, ‘ I want to do it all over again!!!’
When did you catch the travel bug?
I suppose I caught the travel bug when I was doing my cardiology rotation, which was my first job after five years of medical school. About a month in, one Friday evening I had to cannulate [put a tube into someone’s vein in order to deliver drugs more efficiently] a 93-year-old lady. Sometimes, in order to seem more confident, I strike up a conversation with a patient. I asked this lady what she was doing before she came to the hospital. She told me, ‘I was the swimming club president of North London. I have been fit all my life. I was a national swimming champion. By the age of 85, I was still running the swimming club. By the age of 93, up until a month ago, I was still doing laps in the swimming pool. Look at me now: my heart is failing. I probably do not have many days, or even hours, left. However, I am alert, and I think about all these times I had, and I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to travel a bit. I do, however, deeply regret that there are certain places in the world that I have not visited’. And I realised that life, seemingly long, is in fact very short, and our world is enormous!
Once, a friend told me that the map that we are used to seeing is not the true representation of the world. A more accurate representation of the world is the Gall-Peters projection. It is a different type of map: our earth is a sphere so a two dimensional map cannot represent the true area of each continent and country. So when I saw the Gall-Peters projection of the world map, I was completely blown away: China and Europe are actually very small, and Africa and Australia are in fact HUGE. Then I thought since the world is so big and I could die any minute, I must see as much of it as I possibly can!
What is the most unusual place that you have been to?
Tibet, for sure! [Click here for a full post]
Tell me a crazy story from your travels
In early 2013, I went to a wedding that was taking place in Aswan, a city in the south of Egypt. It was around the time when the revolution started. Prior to the wedding, I was meeting some friends in Alexandria. I flew into Cairo, and had to take a taxi to Alexandria, which is roughly a three-hour car journey away. I though it would be absolutely fine, a young Chinese woman travelling on my own, regardless of the fact that there was mounting sense of unrest in the country. Regardless of the fact that it was very early morning (I landed in Cairo at 5am that day) I was wide-awake, looking outside the windows… There were many men standing around with guns. We would stop from time to time, these men would peer in and I would smile back at them innocently. When I arrived in Alexandria, my friends asked me how I got there, and I said, ‘Oh I just got a taxi’. They all stared at me in disbelief, and told me that there have been instances when people were assaulted and robbed on the way, and apparently I was very lucky that nothing happened. In hindsight, I suppose, I was rather reckless….
Has travel made you grow as a person?
Travel has definitely made me grow as a person. It has made me really appreciate the life that I have in London. It has inspired me to work harder, so that I can get more money to travel.
Travelling makes you stronger, especially if you travel on your own. You become less dependent on others for your happiness, which is one of the most important things in life. Once you stop depending on others for your happiness, you find that the world is your oyster. You realise that the world is full of treasures. If you know how to appreciate beauty, you will find happiness in a little cactus in the middle of the desert!