When In Kyoto ≧◡≦

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With the most adorable Sae-chan ❤

Kyoto is one-hour strolls along train tracks, washed-out pink carpets hanging on strings, bottles of sake behind second-storey windows, two scrawny girls trying to catch a pale yellow butterfly with a net, watery rice paddies beside a parking lot full of Toyotas & Hondas. Kyoto is that moment my hair almost rustles as my bones quiver with the ground, with the rumble of the passing train across a few thin walls. The train tracks are embedded in a sea of rocks, streaming to where the horizon meets the sky—so clean yet intense that, despite all differences, it’s almost reminiscent of the sixth station scene in Spirited Away.

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Kyoto is light grey sheets of rain on wooden houses, bright red gates before tiled rooftops, the simultaneous terror and wonder of Yayoi Kusama’s black dots in an endless space of yellow, the swish of the obi in a maiko’s (apprentice geisha) kimono in spotlight, the cool softness and stickiness of mochi against a parched tongue, and the heavenly pleasure of matcha ice-cream in all possible weathers and places. It’s touching a love rock in aged temples and above waterfalls, and trying but failing to touch a deer grazing freely in the precincts of Nara.

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Kyoto is spending buckets of coins at a game arcade with a six-year-old, a thirteen-year-old and a fifteen-year-old, in a ruthless game of air hockey, in deceptively promising claw machines that cheated my feelings (I swear, it’s rigged), in the pew-pew sounds of Jackpot, in the vortex of Coin Pusher which sucked all our money away, in the tiny space of Purikura photo booths (the photos help you discover new levels of cuteness that you never know existed within your features), in the din, the clamor, the furrowed brows and upturned mouths.

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Kyoto is waking up earlier than I ever did since college, at 7.30am every morning, being greeted in a cascade of murmurs of ohayo gozaimasu, being ushered out of the house with itterashai and welcomed back with okaeri. It’s the simple warmth of daily dinners, eating at a table of more than three, of strangers who now seem to be almost like another family.

Kyoto is the daily routine of three-hour classes—one on East Asian religions, one on inequality in contemporary Japan—in a cool, white classroom. It’s venturing in underground malls, running down alleyways in the rain and tasting food samples with newfound friends. It’s everyone in the photo below. 😊

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It’s also my first experience of an earthquake. Fingers crossed for the days to come.

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Little Princess, Sae-chan~ 💓

Praying, with love,

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Before It Ends (Part I & II)

Part I

Typed on May 5, Sunday in the Canaday basement while waiting for my laundry (surrounded by the humming of the washing machines and dryers).

Freshman year is ending, it really is. I can feel it in my bones. I’m flying off in four days; I’m done with three out of four of my classes and doing my last take-home final oceans away in Singapore; I’m drowning in packing (too many shoes and books and clothes); college already feels like a dream.

How to capture this feeling? Winter break felt like a short interlude between acts. Yet, this time round, departure evokes the closure of a final curtain call. To simply call it the most transformative year of my life, the year of adventures and expanded horizons, seems too pale.

When people say that college might just be the best time of your lives, I now admit with wonder that it really may be.

What a week. On May 3, Thursday, I emerged from the depths of Lamont (the only 24-hour Harvard library) with my roommate cum project partner, Emily, after nine full hours in the café. From 10.30am to 7.45pm, we churned out a 12-page (single-spaced!) business case study. On May 2, Wednesday, I wrote and submitted a full 14-page creative project from scratch (procrastination woes) for Professor Homi Bhabha’s English seminar. On April 30, Monday, I revised a 3000-word short story and expanded it to 4750 words for final grading. Altogether, I wrote a total of more than 13,000 words this week for the final papers of three classes. Crazily unforgettable. Could I have started earlier? Possibly. Do I regret this? Not really.

As everything winds down, it also feels deliciously like we are all on the precipice of new beginnings. What individuals are we as we venture home after this weird, incredible, crazy, electric first year at college? College will be a different experience next semester as we leave the Yard, declare concentrations, take new classes and find our paths crossing with new people that we’ve yet to meet out of the 6,600.

Part II

Typed on May 8, Tuesday on the plane before it takes off from the Boston Logan Airport (a race against time).

It’s funny that a year ago I wrote a post about packing and leaving home (I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane + Life Updates) and then, freshman year happened in a blink and once again I’m packing and leaving, again and again like some iterative pattern. Packing was a thorough nightmare this time round when completed all by myself—in the end, my belongings were distilled into two suitcases, three boxes, one fan and one clothing rack for storage; and then, there are the two suitcases that I’m bringing back to Singapore.

A few minutes before I got onto the Uber to the airport, I stared at the empty room with the sad-looking mattress, brown desk and drawers, stripped bare of all signs of my former habitation. Sometimes, when we walk across the Yard—a flash of brilliant green, the throng of tourists, the crimson bricks—it’s easy to think that Harvard is ours. But, as my belongings were picked up, the room emptied out and the keys I had kept in my pocket for a year were dropped off in the metal mail slot, I realized how brief our time here is. Canaday E-44, however fleetingly, belonged to us. As did Annenberg (I hope I don’t miss you).

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Posting this before the plane takes off–

Lots of love,

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Quirky Snippets of An Untold April

I guess there’s an untold side to every story.

Professor Kishore Mahbubani!

He handed me a Whole Foods bag. I took a peek and saw a glass bottle of red wine vinaigrette resting against some other random-shaped items.

“There’re some salt, olive oil, and chili,” he said, “and chocolates.”

“Okay, I don’t cook, but thank you, Prof.”

I was sweaty and flushed from a run, but it struck me that it was the last day of his sabbatical at Harvard. His daughter’s boyfriend, a bespectacled, blonde man, offered to take the photo for us.

Later, it took me two trips to the Lost and Found counter in Science Center, three awkward conversations with a homeless person, a security guard and a janitorial staff, and more than half an hour before I resigned myself to guiltily abandon the condiments in the Canaday common room kitchen.

That was how my first student job came to a closure—the brown bulging bag, the watery red chili sloshing in my hand, and the almost psychedelic glint from the fluorescent kitchen lighting. They all felt like metaphors for something. I just wasn’t sure what.

***

We were sitting in Lamont.

“I’m going to press confirm?”

“DO IT.”

The laptop screen generated my freshly purchased flight itinerary. $452.80. A trip to Puerto Rico smack in the middle of Reading Period. We would arrive there on the 27th and return to Boston on the 29th, a day before I had a paper due. It sounded crazy. It sounded wonderful.

My phone buzzed with an incoming text. Don’t arrive on the 27th!

We exchanged glances.

It might be the baby back ribs we ate in Annenberg during dinner or the neurotic air in Lamont. We made snap decisions. It took no more than five minutes before we charged another $123.00 to our credit cards. The email with the changed itinerary appeared in the inbox—everything was pushed back by a day. Now, I was going to arrive back in Cambridge groggy-eyed at dawn after a sleepless night in flight, attend a rescheduled class at noon and then miraculously submit a final paper by midnight. I felt sorry for myself, but not sorry enough.

I thought about not going, but that would mean throwing my accomplice for the past hour under the bus. It would also mean that I couldn’t be the kind of person who could both turn up on an island during the weekends and still ace my work. That was a difficult reality to own up to.

At least it was until my mum, absent-mindedly playing poker on the other end of the phone, blithely commented, “Don’t be ridiculous, sweetie.”

It made me feel peaceful when I clicked cancel. I didn’t understand how a person could change her mind so fast. Why did I never know what I wanted only until the very moment after I acted? If I reversed every decision I made, where would I end up? How was any choice better or worse than another? It was all so arbitrary.

***

Two of my roommates and I went running.

We managed to stick together from Canaday to the MAC before dispersing once the river was in sight. One of them ran in her boots.

“I didn’t bring running shoes,” she said. “I asked myself, Would you really exercise in college? Nah.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I ran in heels every P.E. lesson in high school. My feet fit the shape more.”

I told her I was very impressed.

I was soon jogging by myself, down an endless path of asphalt merging with dirt then receding into concrete. The river flowed endlessly, like a long brushstroke, underneath sooty clouds. The ducks sitting on the banks looked almost human, studying the panting creatures in shorts trying to shed their freshman fifteen with an unflappable air. Could ducks get fat? I thought about J. M. Coetzee’s character Elizabeth Costello, who said that everything was an allegory. According to her, a dog could be a vessel for revelation, and each creature a key to all other creatures.

Amongst themselves, did each duck notice if one of them was fatter or skinnier? I saw my roommate standing there in her black, chunky boots at the end of the bridge and then, it no longer mattered.

***

The room was doused in mauve.

Yardfest had ended that evening. I had bobbed my head in the lawn for thirty minutes, grabbed three slices of watermelon, said hi to every effusively enthusiastic person, finished an ice cream cone and went back to my room to complete my draft—a modernist retelling of Song of Everlasting Sorrow—due at midnight.

At 9:34pm, I decided I was going to go to a karaoke outing. With a writing speed that I didn’t know was possible, I finished four pages in an hour and submitted it on Canvas.

I sprinted in heeled boots to the Widener Gates to catch the awaiting Uber. Half an hour later, we were in a karaoke room warm with cigarette smoke, beery exhalations, and some kind of dancing disco lights that painted everyone indigo. I didn’t know where to place my hands.

Then the familiar music I had heard in three continents started playing, Jay Chou started crooning, and my hands grasped a microphone.

Emily! Who is graduating T_T

Lots of love,

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To Harvard China Forum • 致哈佛中国论坛

Harvard College China Forum happened! 🌻🌻🌻

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感谢你,哈佛中国论坛。这一年过得忽快忽慢,有时磕磕碰碰,但终归时常能让我深夜里兴奋得睡不着。从一开始担心文化分论坛一个演讲嘉宾都请不到,到奇妙地看到一位位重量级嘉宾加入,再到最后在Seaport会展中心看着座无虚席的剧场和台前分享的方文山、李路、童之磊、杨晖、陈楸帆和刘林老师,也许那一刻感受到的是几百人思想上的碰撞和略微不可思议的欣喜。这是一个有魔力的平台,吸引着太平洋两岸、各行各业的人才一起前来贡献他们对于这个世界的想法。谁能想到一年前在香港红馆《地表最强》演唱会挥舞着荧光棒、亲眼看到台上的周杰伦时泪流满面的我,一年后能有幸邀请到方文山老师出席文化分论坛?反正我一年前跟全家一起追着看《人民的名义》时,完全想也想不到一年后我能亲自与李路导演交谈。

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作为大一新生参加哈佛中国论坛的团队是我2017年做的最好的决定之一。感谢向我强烈推荐HCCF的Zara Zhang学姐(who happens to run an amazing blog; she was also last year’s Co-President)、整个Organizing Team (尤其是我所属的Programming Committee),以及热心帮助和引导我的每一位学姐学长。团队的力量真的令人震撼。一年前的我很青涩,但这一年来我学会了如何待人处事。这些点点滴滴我会放进人生的行囊里。感激每一次成长的机会和与我一同成长的你们。

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Now, time for some life updates! It has been a week since Harvard College China Forum concluded at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston. Time has been hurtling forward since Spring Break came and went. Classes are ending in two weeks’ time (on April 25th), with a week of Reading Period, followed on its heels by college-wide finals (I don’t have any sit-down ones), and before we know it—

My freshman year at Harvard will be over.

Sometimes there are days when nothing seems to happen other than the routine cycle of classes, paper-writing, and endless piles of readings. And then there are weeks when a lifetime takes place in a blink, which is how April feels like thus far.

This past week has been spent religiously in the world of fiction. By sheer chance (or luck, depending on how the imaginative process unfolds), two of my classes allowed for the option to do creative projects in lieu of a final paper/graded assignment. Counting my fiction writing workshop class, I have three creative projects to complete before Spring semester ends—a piece of fiction to workshop (which I will craft in this upcoming week), a personal essay on the genealogies of global imagination (I’m currently envisioning something to do with arrival and displacement, in the style of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival), and a modernist retelling of Bai Ju-yi’s Song of Everlasting Sorrow 《长恨歌》 (which I just finished a draft of last Friday—maybe I will post it here?). These characters I have been or will be in the skin of—my fictional self, Yang Gui-fei, Emperor Xuan-zong and their motley crew, and the yet-to-be-conceived ones dancing in my skull—seem to exist corporeally in a different time and space. Yet, the more I write, especially in such a concentrated stretch of time, the more I’m struck by the constructedness of fiction and creativity itself. Where do all these stories come from? Am I some conduit of the invisible? It’s a fathomless, marvelous process of magnitude and mystery:

Out of the dark emerging, out of nowhere: first not there, then there, like a newborn child, heart working, brain working, all the processes of that intricate electrochemical labyrinth working. A miracle.

The quote above is from a book I just finished reading last night—J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. Is writing creation out of the void? A transition from non-being to being? Words, from an unknown place of shapeless thoughts and abstraction, translate onto the blank pages as a concrete gospel of the human condition.

It’s funny how easily I oscillate between the abstract and the ultra-practical. During the three days of Harvard College China Forum (April 6th to 8th), my psyche was orbiting in a different hemisphere. The Culture Panel I organized was decidedly rooted in a business perspective of the Chinese cultural landscape. As an avid consumer of new models of content,  I came up with a panel topic that was very close to my heart. I’m not sure where these varying concerns will take me as I explore, but in experimenting on my own and hearing the thoughts of those who have been in the creative industry for decades, I hope to slowly formulate why culture matters to me and what I want to do as an individual.

Culture: China’s Contemporary Content Revolution

China has one of the most dynamic and fast-changing culture industries in the world today. Contemporary Chinese society avidly consumes and creates avant-garde culture, from music streaming to web literature to video streaming. What underlines such shifting cultural trends is the content revolution that is taking place in the form of IPs (intellectual properties). Originality and creativity are key markers of valuable IPs, which can be translated into various artistic mediums, constitute well-known franchises, and form a crucial part of China’s cultural narrative. In an age when content lies at the heart of cultural consumption, we will explore how lyricists, directors, writers, and producers create resonant, defining, and thought-provoking content that captures the modern imagination. We will also look at the challenges and opportunities these content creators face in the midst of China’s unprecedented content revolution.

These are just some of the thoughts darting around (or brewing) in my mind. Since I’m writing so much for my classes in the last 21 days of Freshman year, I’m really excited to share some of these pieces with you in the coming weeks!

Will be making announcements on my Summer plans soon! Still finalizing some loose ends.

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With Fang Wenshan, the lyricist to the soundtrack of my youth (i.e. Jay Chou’s songs). 和方文山老师的合照—我青春乐谱中的字字句句都出自他笔下。

Lots of love,

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When Reality Beckons: Confessions of a Drama Addict

Recently, my dad sent me this photo which expressively demonstrates my aggressive territoriality over a french fry (or my incurable love for food since I was a kid). When my phone ding!-ed and the screen lit up with this incoming message, I was in the midst of a rough week built up from a lack of sleep, exercise, and healthy food—I ate a record-breaking number of four fat cup noodles in a span of five days—and this photo which loaded on the screen made me laugh so hard that the world seemed like a gentler, funnier place to be in.

I kind of fell into an emotional rut over the past few weeks. Around the time I posted my Pride & Prejudice movie review, I had just embarked on the first steps of what would be an all-consuming fictional marathon, in which I watched an accumulative seventy hours of movies and dramas. At the peak of this obsession, which was during Spring Break (10-18 March), I holed up in my dorm room during a gusty snowstorm, passionately consuming twelve hours of movies continuously (Titanic, You Are the Apple of My Eye《那些年,我们一起追的女孩》, The Sound of Music, The Proposal, and the final stretch of Moulin Rouge).

Outside my windows, the world was rocked by invisible, tempestuous hands into a topsy-turvy blend of thudding grey rain and ferocious pale flakes (with some irony, I now recall my enraptured post on First Snow last December). Inside the room, I was under a spell. On an empty campus engulfed in inhospitable weather, I found myself in almost complete solitude, thoroughly enthralled by the binding power of storytelling. When my stomach growled, I would order food delivery to the door. It was a frenetic, seemingly psychedelic week. On the Sunday before classes resumed, I collapsed into tears. I had finished the final episode of Reply 1988 (twenty episodes of two hours each) and felt as though someone had dug out my soul with a shovel. After days of being utterly immersed in a world of true-to-life characters, my own life seemed faint and colorless to me in comparison to the intense, stirring world of the drama. I was untethered to my reality and desperately wanted to hand the reins of my life to another drama or movie. Escapism was transformative. Real life was unpalatable.

Needless to say, I knew I had a problem. My subsequent steps out of the shadows of this unhealthy addiction to fiction constitute a very individualized recommendation of “How to Re-engage with Reality”. For all I know, most of you might never have this problem. But here’s an honest account of what I did:

How to Re-engage with Reality (in a severe case of drama addiction)

  1. Stop staying in your dorm room. What I did this week: I spent as minimal amount of time in my dorm as possible, by exploring the far-flung libraries in Harvard Kennedy School and Divinity School, eating breakfast in CGIS, and just simply walking in the sun to buy pastries (Monkeybread!). A lot of traveling and walking that I used to deem as a waste of time was whole-heartedly embraced. I averaged 10,000 steps a day this week.
  2. Make a pledge to give yourself a period of drama-cleanse. What I did this week: I made a promise to myself to not watch any dramas or movies at all until Harvard China Forum (happening 6-8 April) ends. Speaking of which, if you’re in Boston, please come! I’m organizing the Culture Panel, which will feature Fang Wenshan 方文山 (famous Chinese pop music lyricist best known for his collaboration with Jay Chou), Li Lu 李路 (the director of the top-rated Chinese drama in 2017, In the Name of the People《人民的名义》), Stanley Chan 陈楸帆 (sci-fi writer), and Yang Hui 杨晖 (CEO and Founder of Vivid Media, which has produced several notable Chinese variety shows). Check out the Facebook event →
  3. Talk to your close friends about your addiction. What I did this week: Not that it came as a surprise to anyone who knew me well, but I confessed to them about my addiction to dramas/movies. They gave me their observations about my behavior and unexpectedly kept me accountable to my pledge. ❤
  4. Find something substantial to occupy your time with. What I did this week: Unexpectedly, I got a job! I officially began working as a Research Assistant at the Ash Center with Professor Kishore Mahbubani, who is a visiting fellow from Singapore at the Kennedy School. He first sparked off my interest in international relations in secondary school when I read his book, The Great Convergence. I thought it would be vaguely surreal working with someone who I greatly admired (as one of Singapore’s most eminent diplomats, he was my idol in those years when I wanted to join the foreign service), but it’s instead rather humanizing—it brings them down from the pedestal that you put them on. Thank you, Harvard.
  5. Laugh at yourself a little. Feel the weirdness and ludicrousness of life’s punches and presents. What happened this week: My water bottle leaked in my bag and my notes from both semesters for two of my favorite classes (Hum 10 & Fiction Writing Workshops) were soaked to the point of illegibility. I waited for some extreme sadness to well up, but then the sheer absurdity of this tiny episode struck me—helped by my roommate Ani who snapped a photo of the drenched notes, commenting that it looked like artwork—and the moment became oddly tender.

This is a cathartic post for me and I thank you for reading. I vacillated briefly between writing this and keeping it to myself, but to write this was to acknowledge a problem I had over the years, which exploded this month. Drama addiction, which sounds laughable and vaguely embarrassing, happens to everyone.

After only a week, I am surprisingly much more engaged with life. Perhaps, it’s when reality falls short that I turn to the fictional world. But the more lasting antidote is to take life—as dull, messy, stressful, and imperfect as it is—by its horns and to live it. Find tiny moments of pleasure, of emotional tugs at your heartstrings, of unannounced humor in unpronounced places, of the subtle thrill hovering in the unsaid, and of the plot that is embedded in our own lives. As fun as it is to live vicariously through fictional characters, the only script we get to pen is our own.

Here’s wishing all of you happy, concrete adventures! 🌱

Lots of love,

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