on my desk: the pandemic stay-home edition

Selina Xu On My Desk (Letters from Library)

on my desk is a new feature on the blog where I jot down brief thoughts on the books I read, usually for class (and now also for leisure). Here are some of the books I’ve read since returning home from campus, during my hermit, 100-step count days inside the house. 

What’s in your library?

What do you read in your midnight hour?

What do you read when you’re in crisis and you’re afraid?

(questions posed by the inimitable Profé Carrasco)

outline rachel cusk

Outline, Rachel Cusk

FREAKING BRILLIANT! I started this on the plane back home and fittingly, the first chapter occurs on a flight. Following a writer who heads to Athens to teach a course on creative writing, the novel flits from a conversation with her seatmate on the plane to those she has with strangers, writers, and students in the city.

Often, I had to pause in the middle of reading just to underline the sentences that would leap off the page about anything: a piece of furniture, a waitress, the ocean, a dog, the back of a man. Cusk has a knack for spinning profound revelations about marriage, motherhood, or writing from the smallest of objects, which can hit you in the gut.

I suppose it’s a bit like marriage, he said. You build a whole structure on a period of intensity that’s never repeated. It’s the basis of your faith and sometimes you doubt it, but you never renounce it because too much of your life stands on that ground.

His aged back seemed to maroon us both in our separate and untransfigurable histories.

There is something incredibly radical and even divisive about this novel. It’ll either alienatingly subvert all your expectations about novelistic conventions or arrestingly reinvent them. A novel in ten conversations, the narrator’s own story and interiority never comes to the foreground, only emerging in contrast to the tales of those she meets. She is no longer the subject but only a vessel, a cipher, an interlocutor. Or as the novel puts it, a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

Koolaids, Rabih Alameddine

Koolaids, Rabih Alameddine

Carnivalesque romp through time and space! A book unlike a book. There is neither a plot nor a clear sense of whose head we are in. Instead, the novel is a pastiche of genres, vignettes, quips, scenes, religious texts, dialogue, emails, and diary entries about the HIV/AIDS crisis and the Lebanese Civil War at the tail-end of the 20th century. The metaphor of war and contagion is particularly resonant right now, amidst the pandemic of our times. Critics have dismissed this novel, but I think it provides a telling glimpse into those whose lives are engaged in a perpetual war against a virus. For the characters, death — social death, and actual death — is the pathos of everyday living because intimacy gains the violence of warfare. Are the parallels not uncanny?

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli

Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli

Short but moving, with a brilliant title that grasps the soul of the book. Centered on the U.S.-Mexico immigration ‘crisis’, the slim book is about Luiselli’s experience working as a translator for child refugees at the New York immigration court. The forty questions the novel presents are drawn up by immigration attorneys but cannot encompass the complexity of the children’s lives. Yet, their responses determine whether they will be granted legal sanctuary in the U.S. or be repatriated to their old lives of horrific violence. The novel’s answer to the conundrum of interpretation — legal, cultural, narrative — is a reminder to all of us who search for neat answers and resolutions when wrapping our minds around a harrowing, ongoing crisis:

The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

When narrative closure must be negotiated, then perhaps undocumented migrants and refugees are in no position to negotiate an end. They can only pray to arrive and to stay:

Before coming to the United States, I knew what others know: that the cruelty of its borders was only a thin crust, and that on the other side a possible life was waiting. I understood, some time after, that once you stay here long enough, you begin to remember the place where you originally came from the way a backyard might look from a high window in the deep of winter: a skeleton of the world, a tract of abandonment, objects dead and obsolete. And once you’re here, you’r ready to give everything, or almost everything, to stay and play a part in the great theatre of belonging.

[…]

Why did you come here? I asked one little girl once.

Because I wanted to arrive.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

If you’re interested… read Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria E. Anzaldúa; Fronteras Americanas by Guillermo Verdecchia.

The Great Derangement- Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh

In a moment when we are encountering the crisis of our own times, in a magnitude that seems to dwarf all that had come before, Ghosh’s treatise is a reminder that the looming threat of our time is climate change, lest we forget. Compellingly, by approaching climate change from his standpoint as a novelist, Ghosh argues that the modern novel in its fundamental tenets — the ordered regularity of bourgeois life, the gradualist predictability of nature, the human-centric ideals of the European Enlightenment — is complicit in concealing climate change. The climate crisis is, for Ghosh, also a crisis of the imagination.

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what can they do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.

While there are alternative modes of writing in dealing with climate change than the realist one that he presents, Ghosh is still remarkably prescient in diagnosing the representational challenges that climate change poses to our imagination. A seminal work.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

If you’re interested… read my Hist & Lit junior essay, “Reimagining the (Post)Human in the Age of the Anthropocene: the Cyborg Figure in Frankenstein and The Windup Girl,” which I’m happy to send to you ٩◔‿◔۶

Living to Tell the Tale, Gabriel García Márquez

Living to Tell the Tale, Gabriel García Márquez

(Please recommend to me your favorite memoirs, if you have any!! A character I’m currently writing is a ghostwriter, so I’m on a memoir reading streak.)

Impossible not to fall in love with the man and his life. Gabo’s memoir contains an imagination (and a language) so rich that it creates a world of its own.

Unexpectedly, Gabo’s entire life (and his fiction) pivots on the two-day trip with his mother to sell their childhood house. The memoir opens with that trip and goes on to his childhood, his education, his struggles as an emerging writer and journalist, the Barranquilla Group, the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, his influences, and his community. Parts of it gets heavy, especially with the exhaustive introductions of names and places, and yet, the moments of resonance between his real life and his fiction are captivating to stumble upon.

I recommend the first half of the memoir. His childhood bears a haunting, almost unbelievable resemblance to the world in One Hundred Years of Solitude. As Gabo points out in The Fragrance of Guava, a book of interviews, “All I wanted to do was to leave a literary picture of the world of my childhood which […] was spent in a large, very sad house with a sister who ate earth, a grandmother who prophesied the future, and countless relatives of the same name who never made much distinction between happiness and insanity.” How lucky we are that he found it irresistible not to put it onto the page.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

Chronicle of A Death Foretold, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabriel García Márquez

Compact, stunning novella on murder, complicity, and premonition in a town that’s like an open wound. Based on a true story that happened in Colombia, the novella gives us the ending in its title and on its opening pages: Santiago Nasar is murdered. In a reportage style (no doubt reminiscent of Gabo’s own training as a journalist), the narrator unravels a baffling murder that the whole town knew about and yet no one intervened in. The inevitable conclusion is secondary to the question of collective guilt and human intentions. No single person is guilty because everyone is. The real suspense is not the whodunnit but why those who could have saved him and wanted to simply did not.

I recall Marquez’s observation in his 1982 Nobel lecture, The solitude of Latin America:

A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.

Storytelling is always a second opportunity. To engage in the creation of opposite utopias when reality is disillusioning and truth constantly eludes. In interrogating our darkest sides, a master storyteller like Gabo saves all of our souls.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

***

What I’m currently (re)reading — links go to Goodreads: One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Hungry Tide, Lost Children Archive, and Coin Locker Babies.

Stay safe, with love,

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on my desk: 1984, The Bluest Eye & more!

Selina Xu On My Desk (Letters from Library)

on my desk is a new feature on the blog where I jot down brief thoughts on the books I’ve read for the week, usually for class. This first installment covers some of the books I’ve read from week 2 to week 4 of Junior Spring. 

Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

An immediate classic. So incredibly fresh and vivid despite the years between us. I never did like Mr. Rochester (in Jane Eyre) growing up and this book does not redeem him. Rhys has created a backstory for the madwoman in the attic, who only appeared in brief glimpses in Eyre. Yet, the novel very much stands on its own, almost cannibalizing the original with its ferocious exploration of the Creoles in the Carribean. It’s not a retelling, but instead a creative translation across tropics, temporalities, and epistemologies — of a white woman growing up in Jamaica during the time of the British Empire. How does Antoinette become Bertha, locked up in the attic? The chambers of your mind will never be quiet while reading this.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

1984 George Orwell

1984, George Orwell

Can’t believe it took me 4087823 years to read this classic. This is one book that has seeped into our collective consciousness and been normalized — we think of Big Brother when we articulate surveillance; we think of Room 101 when we describe a torture chamber, we now think thoughtcrime as not very surprising at all (politically unorthodox thoughts). The recent past, and even pockets of the present, is in a sense ‘Orwellian’. The policing of thought, interestingly, is tied to the policing of desire — of sex, of the body, of love. The subsuming of love and reproduction under the socialist agape of the state abhors us instinctively. Yet, Winston and Julia’s supposed ‘love story’ is never quite about love. It’s a temporary digression in desire that is rectified. The stark, satirical ending is a diagnosis of dictatorships — every authoritarian regime has power, but they want it to be bolstered by authority (which has to be gained). Even when totally secure of power, there is that eternal fragility and insecurity towards achieving ‘one body, one nation, one mind’ and the constant use of the language of ‘for the people’. At least, 1984 strips its authoritarian regime bare of any pretension or instinct for amelioration — the contradictions are there for all too see. Elsewhere, in real life, the masquerade goes on.

WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

a mercy Toni Morrison

A Mercy, Toni Morrison

A powerful story of suffering — as bond or bondage? — and wilderness, told through Florens, a young black girl enslaved in the early years of European settlement in America — 1682 when “Virginia was still a mess.”

The criticism of the capitalist apparatus of slavery is subtle but impossible to ignore.

There was a profound difference between the intimacy of slave bodies at [Ortega’s plantation] and a remote labour force in Barbados. Right? Right, he thought, looking at a sky vulgar with stars.

The Puritan task of an errand into wilderness also takes shape through the stories of the women, each struggling to keep their internal wilderness restrained. But I’m left thinking, what is ‘wilderness’ in the first place? It’s nature and what was there before. Or is it very much a colonial construction, an attempt at legibility, of rhetorical erasure to justify their settlement (it’s raw, it’s clean, it’s up for grabs!), a patriarchal way of control and of domestication?

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕

The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Painful to read. In the first few pages, Morrison tells you the entire story. And yet, we cannot help but read on, driven by the urgency and rawness of her language. It’s about a little black girl who just desperately, fervently wanted blue eyes. The desire is a sign of an internalized inability to recognize her own personhood, worth, and beauty. One thinks of racism in quiet, insidious ways: reifying the violence of the normative subject in the West (Pecola is “the good subject”). But also in terrifying ways: the cosmology of whiteness is still ever-present — I wonder if the pursuit of certain beauty standards reflects that even for myself. We could call it, as Profé Carrasco does, the cosmological conviction of racism:

You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. ‘Yes,’ they had said. ‘You are right.’ And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.”

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

Dark Princess W. E. B. Du Bois

Dark Princess, W. E. B. Du Bois

Part romance, part quest, Dark Princess is unlike anything else I’ve read. At times allegorical, often a blending of genres, it meshes sharp critique of local politics (flushed by money), of racism, and most piercingly, of the color line within the color line: peoples who are oppressed, or even with the same oppressor, will not understand their oppression in the same way. How do you form an ethical community of resistance across faultlines (class, cultural, racial)? What does it mean to construct international solidarity when there is an uneven experience of violence? Even now, the chasm exists: the cosmopolitan elite seeking to liberate the masses despite widening gulfs.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖

A Woman Named Solitude Andre Schwarz-Bart

A Woman Named Solitude, André Schwarz-Bart

A Woman Named Solitude reads like part magical realism, part fairytale, part oral tradition. Yet, every once so often, historical dates and figures rupture the poetic shimmer of the language and we are reminded: all that we are reading — atrocities, revolts, humans treated like cattle, the cosmological upending of an entire continent’s lives — is in fact reality, or truth. The novel starts with “Once upon a time, on a strange planet, there was a little black girl named Bayangumay” (1). While the reference to “the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto” on the last page of the epilogue subtly ties two human holocausts together, Schwarz-Bart does it so much more sparingly and movingly than Philips.

The narrative distance (a detachment that’s no less passionate) brings a certain universality and oneness of human suffering to the story of Bayangumay and later, Rosalie who will metamorphose into Solitude. As Sarah De Mul terms it, the “forgotten holocausts” of the world in the case of this novel zoom into the brief span of years when the Africans enslaved in the Carribean vacillated between freedom and return to slavery, under the political machinations and Anglo-French rivalry of the metropole.

Caught between her yellow body and her black heart, Solitude is not just one “whose nation no longer exists, whose village has been destroyed and whose ancestors are dead” (64), but also one who loses her mother at a young age, abandoned with a yearning for Africa and Man Bobette’s secret. That Rosalie grows into Solitude, with her soulless eyes and her laughter is a soft yet powerful resistance. Her laugh — alongside the guttural laughs of other women, from her mother to the Congo woman Euphrosine — unsettles. In a land of “lies” (81) and “madness” (77), ruled by white men and (to a less extent) women, the unsettling nature of laughter represents a particular discursive contract that subverts — a moment of irrational recognition, rehearsed unexpectedness; it brings to mind Freud’s theory on jokes and their relation to the unconscious. In the face of such violence, Solitude mows over white men — surprised at the blood on her own hands — but ultimately, in the face of death, can only laugh.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔 🌕 🌖 🌗

The Nature of Blood Carl Phillips

The Nature of Blood, Carl Phillips

The many different strands of The Nature of Blood reminds me of what Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes called ‘multinarratives’ in a multiracial and polycultural universe and also one particular mode of Friedman’s three juxtapositional comparisons: collage. Stephen, Eva, Othello, the Jews of Portobuffole, and Malka’s stories are put side by side, each in its own distinctive context, but read together for their in/commensurability. The form of the novel itself refrains from the prescriptive and the didactic. Instead, the collage of narratives across time and space presented to us puts the autonomy in the hands of the reader. What rises to the surface when we see things side by side, whether we choose to make that comparison ourselves, and what constellations/collisions we end up holding in our hands is ours. The novel is suggestive.

What I really liked about the novel is its almost palimpsestic nature of time, which reflects the traumatic nature of remembering, of repetition, of unknowability. The narrative time frame defamiliarizes known stories (I, for one, didn’t realize that Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was an intertextual piece) — for instance, Othello remains nameless throughout, and his own observations of Venice (full of “enchanting promises” as well as “betrayal”) flesh out his diasporic subjectivity which fleshes out all the invisible and unsaid blanks within Shakespeare’s play. Othello’s inability to see the parallels between him and the Jews living in the ghetto is made all the more stark given the coeval story of the Jews of Portobuffole happening in Venice. Similarly, I found myself spotting the ironic, painful symmetry in Malka and Eva’s experiences — the feelings of being dehumanized into animals (“monkey-people” for Eva; “cattle” for Malka); their flashes of first-person confession that drowns amidst their silencing within the larger society.

In their respective experiences of dislocation, trauma, dehumanization, and othering, there is sameness in their difference, and difference in their sameness.

Verdict: 🌓 🌔

***

Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts? Do you like this new feature? ٩◔‿◔۶

Lots of love,

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From A Foodie: California Dreamin’

Read other From A Foodie installments:
From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit 
🍙
From A Foodie: Tasting Taipei — worn, but lovely 
🍹

Before you start reading this post, first play this song: California Dreamin’ by The Mamas & the Papas.

Looking for, you guessed it, good food.

Los Angeles is like an idea. There’s Hollywood and its entire edifice (Disney franchises, Universal Pictures, Walk of Fame, the Academy Awards, and all that celebrity fanfare). And then the films I associate with all that: The Mummy, The Sound of Music, La La Land, Pretty Woman… The list goes on.

LA is supposedly the city of stars. The idea, I think, is lived out better in the imagination than in the concrete. The real Hollywood Boulevard is like a backwater town, with dusty streets and gaggles of tourists. The Dolby Theatre — without the red carpet, flashing lights, and yelling paparazzi — looks rather nondescript. The most powerful part of Hollywood is not what I can touch. It lies in its promise, which has had a hold on the global imagination for generations.

Selina Xu Hollywood Walk of Fame

Some of that creativity can be found in the food. On my last day in LA, my family wandered over to The Broad art museum from the Grand Central Market. On my first day in LA, we went to another food festival, Smorgasburg. The former had some tourists and the latter was almost filled with local crowds. Full of local vendors selling food presented with unique artistic flair, both were melting pots (side note: I can never use this phrase non-ironically since reading Israel Zangwill’s eponymous play) of cultures and cuisines all in one bustling place.

The Broad also featured some of the most famous and trendy names in contemporary art like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and the one and only Yayoi Kusama (I remember when Kusama’s exhibition came to Singapore and suddenly her polka dots and yellow pumpkins were all over my feed; I ended up skipping her work this time since there was a two-hour wait).

So, here’s a look at some of the most interesting local foods I tasted in LA, interspersed with some cool art. 

Shrimp Daddy (Smorgasburg LA)

Hawaiian garlic butter shrimp inside a bright pineapple boat with macaroni and rice. Tasted good, but not as good as it looked. Sadly, since the pineapple was hollowed out, I couldn’t eat it. There was a tiny serving of some pineapple chunks at the head of the boat, which lightened the palate between bites of the crispy, heavy shrimp.

Selina Xu Smorgasburg Shrimp Daddy

Lobsterdamus (Smorgasburg LA)

A whole lobster YUM! My mom and I cleaned it off every last scrap of meat. Grilled on the spot with Cajun sauce, it was hot and chewy just like good lobster meat. For my mom, who enjoys eating from the shell instead of prepared meat, the experience itself was a plus. Very fresh.

Selina Xu Smorgasburg Lobsterdamus

Blue Plate Oysterette (Santa Monica Pier)

Two lobster rolls, one with fries, one with macaroni and cheese. Fried calamari. Very good crab cake! SUPER FRESH SEAFOOD. Which made sense. That’s honestly all one asks for at a restaurant by the beach.

According to my parents, who each took care of a lobster roll, the bread was very delicious (and more unforgettable than the lobster meat?!).

Selina Xu Blue Plate Oysterette

But, most of all, phenomenal key lime pie!!! However, I’m biased because I love lime/lemon-flavored desserts. Still, the BEST key lime pie I’ve eaten.

Selina Xu Blue Plate Oysterette Key Lime Pie

When I was looking at the Jeff Koons pieces at The Broad, which included huge balloon dogs that were made from stainless steel and then coated in translucent colors, I thought about his famous Lobster.

Jeff Koons Lobster.jpg

He said:

I’ve always enjoyed balloon animals because they’re like us. We’re balloons. You take a breath and you inhale, it’s an optimism. You exhale, and it’s kind of a symbol of death.

Isn’t that sort of like the entire affair of eating? The tension between interior life and exterior life, like an energy, like a dialogue. Open up two palms towards the sky: on one hand is what we consume; on the other hand, how long we’ve got to live.

Sari Sari Store (Grand Central Market)

A Filipino concept store. In Filipino, sari sari translates into ‘whatever.’ Out of the various savory rice bowls (silog) on the menu, I ordered the Pinoy BBQ bowl which features garlic pork ribs, garlic rice, atsara (pickled papaya), and a runny fried egg. The rice was SO GOOD. Almost as good as the Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore, but not quite yet. So simple, but so filling. 😇

Selina Xu Sari Sari

Glad that the egg I ate was not the ones in the painting below. Presenting to you: Joe, who seems to be frying eggs innocuously. But, look at his eye sockets. What a startling resemblance. 👀

Eyes and Eggs JEAN‐MICHEL BASQUIAT

Eyes and Eggs by JEAN‐MICHEL BASQUIAT.

I ended up seeing a lot of references to food hanging on the walls of the museum. (Possibly because I was hungry.)

Campbell's Soup Can ANDY WARHOL

Campbell’s Soup Can by ANDY WARHOL

Happiness Capsule by The Base (Smorgasburg LA)

Blueberry charcoal base with cold brewed tea in a huge jar that reads Bee Free (not a spelling mistake). No artificial sweeteners, so I was expecting something quite light. First sip and that was the case. After shaking the jar and almost dropping it, the drink got much more even in its sweetness. Would happily drink this every day.

Selina Xu Smorgasburg The Base Happiness Capsule

Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner

On the road back to LA from Las Vegas, we turned off the freeway into Yermo — a town in the Mojave Desert — to stop by a small, 1950s-style diner with American classics such as meatloaf & chicken-fried steak on the menu. The waitresses were all dressed in turquoise and pink with vintage-looking white hats; there were a bunch of men in uniform munching on huge burgers at the table beside us; the walls were plastered with photos of Elvis (who also had a life-sized doll in a fortune-teller glass box). Definitely worth a stop if you’re looking for a roadside diner near the Interstate 15.

Selina Xu Peggy Sue's 50's Diner

More interesting than the food was the nostalgic interior. The food was quite forgettable (I got cheeseburger and fries), so I didn’t even bother taking a photo. Loved the quirkiness, however. For instance, guess who I saw in the women’s bathroom? : )

Selina Xu Peggy Sue's Women's Bathroom

James Dean, how dare you!?

***

Out of everything I ate over my seven days in LA/Las Vegas/in between, these are some of the most curious or memorable. They light up my memories of Southern California. Therein lies the magic of good food. They soften your eyes in reminiscence, sharpen some hazy outline of a feeling, or illuminate an ordinary day with a silver lining. They are interwoven with the fabric of the city and how I taste the contours of its syllables on my tongue.

Finally, ending with this.

Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, Skulls, And Fountains TAKASHI MURAKAMI

Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, Skulls, And Fountains by TAKASHI MURAKAMI.

From New York with Love,

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Beauty Diaries: My College Skincare Routine

IMG_1727

Today, I talk about one of the loves of my life: skincare. ✨

After more than a year of wanting to write this post, it finally gets written—yay! People have reacted with varying levels of curiosity and astonishment when they first hear about my daily skincare routine. I still remember my American roommates’ jaws dropping when they first saw the bevy of bottles on my shelf and my collection of sheet masks during Opening Days. 

How I Discovered Skincare 🙈

I began developing a semblance of a skincare routine only towards the end of 2016. Before that, for a good decade, all I did was wash my face with two towels (one hot, one cold) every morning before scrambling to school at 6.30 am. In secondary school, I started using a foam cleanser. After A-levels ended in 2016, I wandered into Kiehl’s with a skincare-loving friend (Junru!) and bought my first products. The journey started there and then. Subsequently, K-beauty aficionados like Xin Min and au naturel organic purists like my mother showed me the path. 

Since then, my routine has evolved with the season, with experimentation, and by trial and error. Many products have fallen in and out of favor, but I have found a go-to routine with a certain set of core products that I’m most comfortable with. One thing for sure: my skin and complexion have improved!

My Skincare Philosophy 💡

  1. Be kind to your skin and it will be kind to you.
  2. Though a routine might not make a big difference to your young dewy skin now, your future self will thank you for it.
  3. Expensive/cult products don’t always work. The best products are the ones that work for you.
  4. Skincare can be a good alternative to make-up. 
  5. Habit and routine is key. The length/complexity of a routine is less important than how regularly you do a routine. Tedious routines are not going to last. So keep the number of products at a level with which you’re most comfortable and can persist. 

My Current College Routine ⏰

I do 90% of these steps in college. In total, they take me roughly 10 minutes in the morning and 13 minutes at night (unless I do a sheet mask). 

If you’re new to skincare, I advise that you start with 3 core steps (don’t overload your skin): sunscreen, cleansing, and moisturizing — absolutely crucial to any and all skincare routines in the universe. 🌏

At home, I also steam my face, which has been transformative but quite impossible to do in college. 

 

Below, I’ve listed both past and present products I’ve used in each step of my routine, with ratings:

🌸: Stopped using it after the first few tries.

🌸🌸: While using it, I couldn’t wait to finish and replace it. Made little difference to my skin.

🌸🌸🌸: Nothing phenomenal, but at least it made my skin feel good.

🌸🌸🌸🌸: My skin improved markedly, and I would use it again (and again).

🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸: Holy Grail. I cannot do without this in my routine.


Step 1: Cleansing (ESSENTIAL)

I use a foam cleanser in the morning (just a tiny smear). At night, in the shower, I do “double cleansing” — an oil cleanser to remove my sunscreen and a foam cleanser afterwards. Choose low-pH cleansers that do not strip away essential layers from your skin.  

Sulwhasoo Gentle Cleansing Oil Ex 🌸🌸🌸🌸

AmorePacific Treatment Cleansing Foam 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸

AmorePacific Treatment Cleansing Oil 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Illi Total Aging Care Cleansing Oil 🌸🌸🌸

Neutrogena Deep Clean Acne Foam Cleanser 🌸🌸

Step 2: Exfoliator (once in a while)

In my freshman year, I used the Cure Natural Aqua Gel about once every two weeks — it was very therapeutic rubbing away all the dead skin that has accumulated on my face (you’ll be surprised). I left my bottle at home this semester, so I occasionally use the Murad Skin Polish on my nose to prevent blackheads.

Apart from that, I’ve stopped physical exfoliation, i.e. scrubbing, (because of laziness) and now primarily use the COSRX Pimple Clear Pads as a substitute — the pads are pre-soaked in betaine salicylate and willow bark water to chemically exfoliate. 

COSRX One Step Original Clear Pads 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Murad Pore Reform™ Skin Smoothing Polish 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Cure Natural Aqua Gel 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Neogen Bio-Peel Gauze Peeling Wine 🌸🌸🌸

Step 3: Toner / First Treatment Essence

Toner is not essential (it’s for balancing the pH of your skin), unless your cleanser is stripping. Any essence or serum that can boost the absorption of your subsequent steps will do the same work. 

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸

Naruko La Creme Face Renewal Miracle Essence 🌸🌸🌸🌸

MISSHA Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence 🌸🌸🌸

Mizon AHA & BHA Daily Clean Toner 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Kiehl’s Calendula Herbal-Extract Alcohol-Free Toner 🌸🌸

Step 4: Sheet Masks (when you feel like it)

Pamper your skin, scare your roommates, and don’t leave it on for too long!! Usually, I just wear it and do my readings or read the news on my phone. I’ve tried many, but here are the memorable ones.

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For porecting: 

  • [Bubbling Charcoal Sheet Mask] Dr. Jart+ Porecting Solution 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸
  • [Charcoal Sheet Mask] Dr. Jart+ Pore Minimalist 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸

For hydration: 

  • [Rubber Mask] Dr. Jart+ Hydration Lover 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸
  • [Bio-Cellulose Mask] FOR BELOVED ONE Extreme Hydration  🌸🌸🌸🌸
  • [Hydrogel Mask] Naruko Snail Essence Intense Hydra Repair Mask 🌸🌸🌸

  • Dr. Jart+ Vital Hydra Solution 🌸🌸🌸

  • Dr. Jart+ Soothing Hydra Solution 🌸🌸🌸

For clearing:

  • [Rubber Mask] Dr. Jart+ Clear Lover 🌸🌸🌸🌸
  • Dr. Jart+ Clearing Solution 🌸🌸🌸

For brightening:

  • My Beauty Diary Imperial Bird’s Nest Mask 🌸🌸🌸🌸
  • Dr. Jart+ V7 Toning Masks 🌸🌸🌸🌸
  • Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask 🌸🌸🌸
  • Freeset Donkey Milk Skin Gel Mask Pack Aqua 🌸🌸🌸
  • SK-II Facial Treatment Mask 🌸 (Cult-favorite, award-winning, but BEWARE! The leftover serum pilled and balled up on my face. This happened several times. And I had to wash my face again right after, which defeated the whole point of doing a sheet mask. I subsequently gave them away. What a waste of money. -_-)

Step 5: Oils / Essences / Serums

As many or as few as you like. I recommend going simple and not tiring your skin. I currently only use the Kiehl’s serum, which I’ve bought more than five times.

Kiehl’s Hydro-Plumping Re-Texturizing Serum Concentrate 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸

COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence 🌸🌸🌸

Naruko Supreme Rejuvenating Elixir Oil 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Innisfree Green Tea Seed Serum 🌸🌸🌸

Step 6: Eye Serum / Eye Cream

Splurge on your eyes, darling.

Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair Eye Concentrate Matrix 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair Eye Supercharged Complex 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Step 7: Moisturizer / Night Cream

I currently use two moisturizers per routine (instead of one) since Boston’s wintry weather makes the skin around my nose really dry. In the morning, I will use the COSRX Snail Cream to touch up the sensitive skin around my nose and at the edges of my mouth, followed by AmorePacific’s Creme to seal in the moisture. At night, I will use the COSRX Snail Cream, followed by the Sulwhasoo Overnight Mask.

AmorePacific The Essential Creme Fluid 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Day)

Sulwhasoo Overnight Vitalizing Mask EX 🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Night)

COSRX Advanced Snail 92 All In One Cream 🌸🌸🌸 (Winter)

COSRX Ultimate Nourishing Rice Overnight Spa Mask 🌸🌸🌸

Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Oil-Free Gel-Cream 🌸🌸🌸

Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream 🌸🌸

Step 8: Sunscreen (ESSENTIAL)

The most essential step towards good skin. Uneven pigmentation? Dark spots? Premature wrinkles? Sun protection is the best anti-aging product out there. I used to hate sunscreen because the European products I tried always left my skin feeling greasy (which can be a real nightmare in Singapore’s sultry humidity).

In 2017, I started wearing sunscreen on a close to daily basis and it took me a while to change that into a daily habit. Now, it’s second nature and I put sunscreen on even if I’m just going to be indoors all day long. Depending on the season, I use different types of sunscreen. For instance, in the summer, I use the spray versions of the ANESSA and Biore sunscreens on my body.

Shiseido ANESSA Perfect UV Sunscreen Skincare Gel SPF50+ PA++++ 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Face) (All seasons) (Waterproof)

Shiseido ANESSA Perfect UV Sunscreen Skincare Milk SPF50+ PA++++ 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Face) (All seasons) (Waterproof)

Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence SPF 50+ PA++++ 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Face) (Indoors) (Not waterproof)

Nivea Sun Protect Water Gel SPF 50 PA+++ 🌸🌸🌸

Dr. Jart+ Every Sun Day UV Sun Fluid Broad Spectrum SPF 30 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Avène Ultra-Light Hydrating Sunscreen Lotion Spray SPF 50+ 🌸🌸

Others (throughout the day)

Kiehl’s Cactus Flower & Tibetan Ginseng Hydrating Mist 🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Good for flights and after exercising) (Portable)

Crabtree & Evelyn Soothing Hand Cream Therapy, Goatmilk and Oat 🌸🌸🌸🌸  (Winter)

L’Occitane Cherry Blossom Hand Cream 🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Winter) (Portable)

L’Occitane Verbena Cooling Hand Cream Gel 🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Summer) (Portable)


If you’ve read all the way till here, I applaud you for your dedication!!!

So, what’s next?

I’m definitely no expert and my choice of products is limited to my skin type, my budget, and the weather I have to surrender myself to. If you are hungry for more, Fifty Shades of Snail (one of the only beauty blogs I read) will be a great portal to the world of Asian skincare and the infinite options (product formulations) available for customizing your own routine. Delve right in!  

Do you do skincare? What are your favorite products? 💖

Wishing you all healthy, glowing skin, 

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From A Foodie: Tasting Taipei — worn, but lovely

Read other From A Foodie installments:
From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit 🍙
From A Foodie: California Dreamin’ 🌴

I ushered in 2019 in Taipei with my parents — the three of us were there on family vacation for nine joyful, tummy-filled days.

Taipei is a place where the best foods are found in the street-side stalls with no air-conditioning, or nestled in an obscure alley, or at its thronging night markets (which I didn’t thoroughly experience because we were dieting as a family -__-). The meals we had at the hotel or in upscale restaurants were all less satisfactory than the intimate hole-in-the-wall eateries, overflowing with customers by word of mouth.

For fellow bubble tea lovers, I’ve highlighted all the bubble tea I tried at various places with a pink flower. 🌸 A new milestone has finally emerged in my study of the art of bubble tea-drinking. I finally figured out the difference between pearls (珍珠) and boba (波霸). I would like to share this important category distinction with all of you:

Pearls (珍珠): small
Boba (波霸): big

Ta-da!

Shilin 士林

Breakfast 早餐

Since we stayed at The Grand Hotel near the Jiantan and Yuanshan stations, and considering how hungry my parents were when we headed out of the hotel at 11am every day, we mostly had breakfast nearby. There was an abundance of options though! I did my research well under the limitations of proximity.

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  • Man Jia Ziang 满佳香

A nook in the alleys that come to life by nighttime. By day, all the Shilin Night Market stalls were closed or kept, but this all-day breakfast store was bustling. Order the warm milk tea with fresh milk and their egg pancakes with fillings ranging from tuna to steak to hash brown. Also, order the fried dumplings and scallion pancakes! Prices are incredibly down-to-earth.

  • Fong Sheng Hao 丰盛号

Called one of Taipei’s top 10 must-eat breakfasts, it pairs charcoal-grilled toast with milk tea. Both my dad and I ordered the classic meat, egg, and cheese toast while my mom got hers with spicy meat. Easy to eat and oh so delicious when downed with milk tea.

  • Lin‘s Chinese Pizza 林家葱油饼

A stall right outside the Shilin station. Always a long queue. We had this three times throughout the trip since it was located close to our hotel. Many combinations for your picking. My favorite is the original with chili and cheese. My mom likes hers with egg. My dad likes his with pickles.

Shilin Night Market 士林夜市

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  • Hot-Star Large Fried Chicken 豪大大鸡排

Bigger than my face. No picture to show because I was so hungry that I ate it without first taking a photo. Not any different (other than atmosphere-wise) from the branches it has opened in Singapore. But here’s a picture of me posing with happiness above.

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  • Smoothie House 思慕昔

We were too full to try this CNN-endorsed dessert at its original store at Yong Kang Street (read below: because we dined at Kao Chi), so we tried it at the one at Shilin instead. We got the Super Fruits Mix Mango Snowflake Iced with Sorbet, which was just okay. And that’s disappointing. 😦 At least it looked pretty.

  • GomanMango

Better than Smoothie House! Not too sweet, not too sour. As it happens with all good food encountered at the peak of hunger, I forgot to take a photo.

  • 🌸 TP Tea 茶汤会 🌸

Tieguanyin latte is quite good. Would have been better without pearls! Middle of the pack in Taipei but still better than any bubble tea I’ve had in the U.S. T_T I’m going to be impossible to satisfy. Argh.

Ximen 西门町

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  • 🌸 Tiger Sugar 老虎堂 🌸

OMG. The first time I’ve had brown sugar with my milk and it was LIFE-CHANGING. Unlike at other places, the sugar level, amount of ice, or toppings aren’t customizable here. Everything is perfectly balanced!!! They know what they are doing, trust me.

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  • Ay Chung Rice Noodles 阿宗面线

This feels more like a tourist experience than a tasting experience. Not because the noodles weren’t good, but because of the crowd that gathers on the curb collectively slurping from their paper containers.

Tamsui 淡水

  • 🌸 Bubble Lee 李圆圆 🌸

Best boba!!! The chewiness, the subtle sweetness, the heat that dissipates in the milk and on the tip of my tongue.

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  • Mochi99 麻吉奶奶鲜奶麻薯

Delicious. The mochi made from fresh milk leaves it with a creamier aftertaste. I ordered the classic peanut flavor. Mixing it in the peanut powder was really fun (could have been a messy affair).

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  • Kakigori 朝日夫妇

The line for sit-in was too long, but there were only limited flavors for takeaway. I chose the pineapple and dragonfruit flavor and it looked so cute! A bit too cold by the sea though. I was sniffling halfway through this.

Taipei Main Station 台北总站

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  • Zheng Pork Knuckle 郑记猪脚饭

We arrived right before the lunch hour crush. Best pork knuckles I’ve ever had (aside from my mom’s). My parents were initially quite put off by the sparse surroundings, but they were won over by the taste. The different types of pickles offset the heaviness of the pork skin (good for your skin!). A simple bowl of greatness. Right as we sat down to eat, a line of fifteen people formed at the counter. Phew.

Jiufen & Shifen 九份、十份

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  • A Mei Tea House 阿妹茶楼

The tea house that inspired Hayao Miyazaki. The building behind Yubaba’s Bathhouse in Spirited Away, a film that terrified me in my childhood and still moves me to tears with its heart, its touch of innocence, and its ethical complexity. The stairs leading to the tea house was so crowded that we moved about a step every half a minute. At 8pm, the teahouse was all lit up with red lanterns and thrumming with a flurry of voices, clinging of teacups, and waiters in black and white patiently demonstrating the traditional art of tea-making. A set includes four tiny bites — sesame and peanut crackers, one green bean cake, two sugared plums, and one mochi — and a pot of tea that can be refilled by the kettle bubbling beside the table. Ask for the top floor window seat if you can.

  • 🌸 Hanlin Tea Room 翰林茶馆 🌸

Love the white bubbles.

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  • 🌸 Xing Fu Tang 幸福堂 🌸

As good as Tiger Sugar! The ceremony of preparing the drink is more aesthetic — the server lights up the surface of the cup with a flame.

Yong Kang Street 永康街

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  • Kao Chi 高记

I’m going to say this three times: better than Din Tai Fung. Better than Din Tai Fung. Better than Din Tai Fung. Every dish we ordered was a pleasing aesthetic and gustatory experience. Must-orders include: the beef cubes (melt-in-your-mouth tender) and the Shen Jian Bao (pan-fried Pork Buns) served in a hot pan.

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  • 🌸 Chun Shui Tang Cultural Tea-house 春水堂 🌸

The world’s original bubble tea!!! Its hot drinks — sesame milk tea, ginger milk tea, and milk tea with bubbles — are so good on a rainy, cold day. We ended up here by accident after touring the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. The original, iced milk tea with pearls is also quite stellar, but nothing innovative.

Others 小吃

Pineapple Tarts & Nougat 凤梨酥、牛轧糖

  • Chia Te 佳德

BEST PINEAPPLE TART OF MY LIFE. I recommend the pineapple tart with egg yolk most. It was melt-in-your-mouth kind of heavenly bliss.

***

Read this on a hungry day! Hee hee. Or as I currently am, sniffling and eating porridge in a hotel room in Beijing, but with a Happy Lemon strawberry milk tea within my reach. All delivered by Meituan. God Bless China.

Lots of love,

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