[Story] Hills

materialism

“Self Improvement is Self Destruction” by Lexy Gaduski (http://lgfoundobjects.blogspot.com/)

She isn’t sure what it is, the colors—Supreme red, the blocky black letters of Balenciaga, the wild marbled swirls of Dries Van Noten—sharpening like psychedelic blotches, the strap on her shoulder suddenly prickly and leaden, an indignant discomfiture that rises like a gorge in her throat until she furrows her brows and realizes with a start that it’s something akin to humiliation.  All the while the slanted-eye lady with a silk scarf wordlessly scans her from head to toe, a deliberate pause here and there.

Whatever it is, she hates the naked appraisal. What she hates more is what collapses within her, as she inadvertently, guiltily adopts that gaze and turns it onto herself. She doesn’t have time to control her drifting thoughts because almost instantaneously she regrets carrying the unnamed bag with the guitar strap she fancies so much. She wonders why she wore that funny pair of horn-rimmed sunglasses she bought on a whim in a shoe store instead of a logoed one. She even feels a spurt of what could be called gloating triumph or conceit—she doesn’t dwell on it—when she catches the glint of approval in the lady’s eyes as they land on her watch. She thinks—

Oh my God.

All her education, upbringing, and higher aspirations are stashed in some locked room. She doesn’t know how she became like this, whoever she is—like observing an unfamiliar reflection in a funhouse mirror, or discovering some other self that has been latent for a while—in this moment of encounter. But, it painfully occurs to her that she has become the kind of person she detests. She remembers the Horatio Alger books she grew up reading and then the Bennett sisters and suddenly of Daisy Buchanan and even briefly of a passage from American Psycho. She goes over the -isms one by one: capitalism, consumerism, materialism. The brand name dropping that she had an instinctive aversion to when immersed in the vulgar mind of Patrick Bateman. The superficiality of the Buchanans. Her favorite heroines and heroes always undaunted and untempted by wealth but devoted to a cultivated mind and character.

She feels sorry for herself, but her feet—she imagines invisible tendrils snaking down and down into an abyss of something frightful but delirious—stay rooted to the glossy floor. For a moment, she looks at the shimmering mess on the racks like a child in a candy store. There’s a whisper of a younger, simpler innocence, but a surge of anxious restlessness overtakes her. She’s on the other side of the hills now but she can’t remember where she wanted to go or how to go back.

*

She’s fishing out a bottle of peach juice from a vending machine when she gets it.

The hills that she has crossed, the path that she is fumbling through, they are all one person’s journey alone—hers. This new world she thought she has entered has no power over her unless she chooses to lose herself in it. There’s no external metric for self-worth, no essentiality of looking outside oneself for another’s evaluation, no actual force other than her own vanity (and perhaps, even greed) pushing herself to excessively covet, compare and subscribe to the material value of things. She lets the temptation of consumption and display roll over the tips of her fingers and tongue and the tightrope across her mind, and then surrenders it.

The past week seems like a dream now that she is back along the train tracks again, rice paddies by her feet and electric lines overhead.

She slowly breathes in through her nostrils and then out through her mouth.

She feels the roiling tumult within her finally quieten and she presses the softness of her belly.

She is, for now, content.

[Story] 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?

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When she trudges home that night, it’s forty minutes later, after two transits and twelve stations. She is about to turn left, head down the bridge, cross the crossing under a flickering street lamp and follow that path she has walked for twenty-one days when she notices the 7-Eleven store. Undimmed, the fluorescent white from its windows beams steadfast into the night’s dark canopy. The orange, green, white and red stripes wrapping around its boxy edges are cheery, like a loud invitation to wandering souls. A stop for replenishing. A sanctuary for the untethered. Pre-packaged warmth, microwaved sentiment and cold douses of refreshment are for sale.

She pauses. On a night like this, hungry from dieting and exhausted from interaction, in a mood that can only be called ‘sunset’, the too pristine, uncomfortably synthetic, universally bright convenience store she has seen hundreds of times over in three continents suddenly looks welcoming.

The bell rings overhead when she walks in and a male voice intones a greeting. She moves briskly down the aisles. No one else bothers her after that initial welcome. Packets of food stare dully at her. The undemanding isolation of this shopping process ought to comfort her, but she feels a darkness descend. Whatever she has come to find, there is nothing here but the overwhelming urge to leave. She gives the fridge before her a perfunctory flick, chooses a small carton of strawberry milk and strides to the check-out counter.

There are a few prolonged beats of silence after the milk is scanned as she fishes out the coins from her pockets. She heaps the fistful of pennies and dimes onto the small tray, forming a tiny, tumbling glossy hill.

Sorry, sorry, she says, flustered, fingers clumsily picking out the unnecessary coins. Her head is bent in concentration because, after three weeks in this city, she still has trouble telling the coins apart. The cashier’s fingers enter into her vision, swift and practiced.

She’s pulling back her hand when her little finger and his index finger accidentally touch.

When she glances up, the cashier is blushing. He is slender but not skinny, with a buzz cut, a slightly tanned face, cat-like eyes, and an inscrutable countenance behind the practiced smile. Yet, as he blushes, his eyes crinkle and the banal demeanor ripples. She holds back a laugh. A sunrise, suddenly. Arigatō gozaimasu, she says. And unlike the other thirty-five times that she has said it today, she means it.

He stares at her and then, the blush recedes before he nods politely and recites the ritualized thanks, eyes unblinking and his role reassumed.

When the automatic door closes behind her, she eyes herself from torso to toe. She’s dressed in a baggy t-shirt and shorts, with sore feet clad in dusty sandals. Altogether unremarkable. She considers it for a moment and then sips her strawberry milk before turning left.

***

She goes through the same routine with him the next few times she visits the store on different days, at 11:07PM, 8:13PM and 8:30PM. She even feels something close to disappointment (but not quite yet) once at 3:23PM when it’s a glum-looking middle-aged man with an oily forehead who gives her change while cheerlessly smiling and bidding her thank-you. She doesn’t have time to stop by the 7-Eleven in the next three days. Serendipity, she thinks. And then she kills the thought.

On June 24, 2018, at 10:58PM, the local train pulls up at this nondescript station, twenty-seven people disembark and stream out through the gates. One of them feels her bloated stomach from a dinner of kishikatsu, furrows her brows almost imperceptibly and then gravitates towards the brightly-lit convenience store—standing like a beacon in the roiling silence of the night.

She feels his eyes on her the moment she enters the empty store. Did she imagine the swallow in his voice? The staple greeting sounds different to her. Her footsteps grow lighter. She doesn’t bother to think why she loiters at the central aisle in full view of the check-out counter as she blithely scans the fridge. The strawberry milk has grown on her, and she carefully picks one up after scrutinizing the expiry dates.

His lips twitch when he sees her in front of the counter.

After reading aloud the payment amount in his hackneyed intonation, she does not expect him to say anything (the sonata he performs has three movements: he announces the amount he has received from her; there is a lull, followed by a clear statement of the change amount; then, it all culminates in the dramatic thank-you—his unvarying finale).

In silence, she searches her skirt pocket for coins.

Strawberry milk again, he says slowly in English. His voice, stripped of the affected intonation, is unexpectedly boyish.

She freezes for a moment before hiding a smile.

Your English is good, she comments, looking up.

I’m having an English test. Tomorrow. he says, as he respectfully receives her handful of coins.

Daigaku? she casually asks. Her summer program classes take place at a private university a few subway stops down from Kyoto station.

High school, he corrects her in English. He meets her eyes steadily when he says those two words.

She tries to hide her surprise. You’re younger than me, she thinks.

I’m older than you. That’s what she says.

Really? he replies nonchalantly.

He thanks her as usual when she turns to leave, but before she’s out of the door, she hears him speak into the air behind her, Goodnight.

***

She comes back again the next day and the next. Ever since that first off-script conversation they had, a tacit agreement has been reached. He no longer bothers performing his sonata.

Not strawberry milk? he asks when she places a cup of yogurt on the cashier counter. She wishes she could have bought the strawberry milk but she doesn’t have enough coins with her after using them daily at the store. She thinks his English has gotten significantly better since she first remembered his face two weeks ago.

ī e, yōguruto tai, she replies. So has her Japanese.

He watches her empty the handful of coins from a pouch and blinks.

He suddenly bends down behind the counter and surfaces a few seconds later. There’s a dollar in his outstretched, sweaty palm.

You drop this? he says, slightly stumbling over these three words.

She is first confused. No, I didn’t— Oh, she says, oh.

When he gestures at the fridge, she floats there and back, a carton of strawberry milk in her grasp. She doesn’t even remember to check the expiry date.

***

So they keep talking—a few words here, a few words there. She mostly never lingers for too long. He never asks her to stay. Sometimes, there’s another customer and then, he gives her a shrug from behind the counter and she hears herself humming as she crosses the crossing.

Sometimes he tells her about this girl in his class he finds cute, or the Germany World Cup match he streamed on his phone. She would lean against the counter, sipping her strawberry milk.

Once in a while, in that winding two months, she watches a World Cup match with him on his cracked phone screen after he is off-duty, the phone propped up by two boxes of sour gummies between them on an unused countertop. He would pass her candy and recycle the wrappers. She would find herself stepping across the threshold into darkness hours later, the convenience store light a halo behind her silhouette.

***

She tells him that the date of her departure flight is near.

He just tilts his head.

I’ll send you off at the station, he finally says. It’s right beside the store, I can sneak out for a few minutes.

***

On the flight, she wonders what the past two months meant. She wonders about the first feather-like brush, the once-stale sonata, the coins passed between them and the blurry-eyed World Cup matches. She wonders how she ever thought to look up that day, from the isolation and her sunset, to glimpse a human face.

One person wanders, as she did. But two people are always going somewhere. She doesn’t know the route they treaded or the destination they wanted to reach. When he had leaned in beside the gantry to whisper ‘mata ne’, so close as if to kiss her, she had stuffed a carton of strawberry milk in his hands and pivoted on her luggage, darting into the station.

Moments later, he would have seen what she had written on the side of the carton and he would have smiled. He would.

strawberry milk carton

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.

sixth station vsixth station

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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From 20-year-old Me, With Love

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Today I turn 20! I wonder how past birthdays feel like because this one feels very homely despite the fact that I’m in a country I’ve never been before. Last night, I was sitting cross-legged in a hotel room on the 46th floor of Japan’s tallest building, wearing a dripping sheet mask, clad in Mickey Mouse PJs, typing out this blog post while my parents enthusiastically exchanged scintillating tidbits of gossip and news glimpsed from their phone screens, engrossed faces enclosed in bluish halos.

We’ve got to close the windows, my mum comments, curled up on the bed.

However pretty the view is, my dad concurs, you can’t eat it.

As always, when I occasionally tune in to my parents’ conversations, my brain thinks: hmm…?? It’s so weird, but so them.

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The last few times I’ve been on a family trip were Bali and Macau at the beginning of 2017 (read about a countryside episode in Bali here and a heart-pounding first encounter in a Macau casino here). This time, our vacation to Japan was entirely planned by me. To celebrate my 20th, my parents submitted themselves to my whims and bucket list items for a full ten days. The day after tomorrow, we will be on the last leg of our trip, Kyoto, where my parents will drop me off for a two-month Harvard Summer School program from June 3 to July 28.

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Today, I spent my birthday at Universal Studios Japan (featuring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter!!!). What a dream. How amazing it is that people of all languages from across the world—there’s a smattering of Cantonese, Chinese, English, and some European tongues mixed in the staccato lilt of Japanese surrounding my ears—are enchanted and invested in the world that J. K. Rowling created. Her words have taken on a life of their own, to be re-woven by each person. We take a slice of this fictional world and make it ours—even the tiny granny sipping Butterbeer while tottering in Hogsmeade on wooden clogs and the excited forty-year-old lady in a pink dress waving her wooden wand in front of Ollivanders. How powerful stories are when they seep into our concrete architecture to become tangible, tangible things. They compel into existence a new physical reality. It’s every writer and reader’s ultimate fantasy.

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Spending time so intimately and completely with my parents on this trip has grounded me. They pronounced at the beginning of our trip, as I was happily munching on dim sum in the airport lounge, that their main present to me was to help me to slim down. My saddest takeaway from freshman year had been fifteen pounds of flesh (mostly fats. biological inaccuracies not considered)—when people laugh about Freshman 15, BEWARE. It is real. After a winter of snacking, hibernation, and a final month of belated awakening, I returned to my parents’ arms a much chubbier version of myself. This trip, surrounded by matcha everything, gyoza, unagi, cheese tarts, okonomiyaki, takoyaki and all sorts of infinitely tempting foods presented exquisitely (even the fake food put on display looks absolutely delicious), I’ve been compelled by my parents’ withering glances and snarky remarks to exercise self-control. For someone who loves food as much as I do (e.g. our Japan itinerary is basically a food-centric sightseeing, extensively researched based on food blogs, gourmet guides, GURUNAVI, Tabelog, TripAdvisor ratings etc.), this has been tremendously painful. My parents had the weirdest conversation about how I would have thrived in medieval times when chubbiness was desired since the state of plumpness represented sufficient resources at one’s disposal. Time spent apart from my parents abroad has heightened my awareness of how precious such face-to-face contact is. Talking to them almost constantly in every waking minute about everything and anything is a real blessing. They love generously, unconditionally and wisely, with an empathy that is almost intuitive and most singular. On this day, I am most grateful for them. 爸爸妈妈,我爱您们!💕💕💕

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Tonight, after a day of Harry Potter, roller coasters that go backwards, 360 degrees and parallel to the ground, yellow minions and pink Hello Kitty, virtual reality headsets, and 3D and 4D rides; of eating fudge and exploding bonbons, drinking Butterbeer (heavenly calories in a mug); and of puking after a ride, squelching across park zones in the rain and waiting in some queues, it’s a good day. When I left the park, I was cold, shivering from wet toes, hungry but ineffably happy. 😊

It has been slightly more than a year since I started this blog. Thank you, always, for interacting with this corner of my world and pieces from my life—for reading (as you are right now in your inbox!), commenting and sending messages, and for your support, criticism, and attention. Thank you for coming along for this ride and becoming part of this experimental space that I started on a whim in 2017. To be utterly honest, I had no idea how long this blog was going to last. Many short-lived blogs have preceded it. But, somehow, in my 19th year, documenting my life became a habit. It’s disarmingly easy writing here, to you, you and you. Among you are many wonderful, precious friends, old and new. I’m thankful for your friendship ^_^

I told my parents that I had no idea what to wish for this year, but as I clasped my hands and closed my eyes before blowing the candles, I ended up taking more than three minutes to run through in my head all the wishes I had.

My wish for this blog is for it to keep growing with stories, with footsteps of those who come and go, with a trace of my words in your thoughts and feelings, with an honest account of my personal growth—mistakes and jubilations, stumbles and detours, ascents and conquests, explorations and experimentations alike—as I step into my twenties.

I hope we’ll all grow alongside each other.

Here’s to my new decade on Earth! 🌏

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Lots of love,

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Girl in D.C.

Dear You, what is art for?

Last week, I was in Washington, D.C. with seven other Harvard students on a 10-day Wintersession at Dumbarton Oaks revolving around this topic:

Culture and Power: Art, Philanthropy, and Diplomacy in America.

In those 10 days, I’ve seen art like this:

And this:

Interestingly, this:

But also this:

Lastly, my favorite:

While wandering around all these private collections-turned-museums, I wondered: why do so many rich people collect art? Does collecting art offer the hope of immortality?

If I were a millionaire and bought artworks according to my own taste, and then proceeded to open my artworks to the public, am I doing philanthropy? Is this then effective altruism?

As a student in the humanities, I recognize that this is an increasingly data-driven world. A dispassionate assessment of value is involved in most things. Similarly, in the field of philanthropy, the value of the practical (a medical cure) is much easier to measure than that of the cultural (museums). Few people would deny the value of art museums or art itself. But, the act of opening a museum, or donating works to an existing one, is one that deals in the intangible currency of beauty, inspiration, creativity, memory, and joy. The outcomes are often measured in stories. That scruffy boy-artist who was once inspired by a green dinosaur sculpture that breezy afternoon, hands chilly and heart thumping. A girl in pigtails who gazed into the face of a Buddhist sutra on a silk tapestry and found ignited a lifelong ardor for the study of religion. On opposite totem poles balance narratives and metrics. It seems trivial to stand in a gallery and ponder the question of beauty, the virtues of Renoir, or inspect the unspeakable allure of an artwork to our eye when temperatures are rising, geopolitical depression beckons, democracy is arguably under assault, and all sorts of polarizing tensions are erupting at the surface.

Knowing all that, the question is then: is being motivated by “passion” instead of “reason” in philanthropy immoral in a world where there is need? Or, turning the gaze inward, is being motivated by passion instead of reason in choosing my studies and life’s work an ineffective use of resources?

I don’t know.

This wintersession was an incredible course. I loved going to a museum each day and discussing with professors the gospel of wealth (an interesting—and short—read: Wealth by Andrew Carnegie), the culture of giving, the economy of prestige (naming rights of buildings are a key instrument in philanthropy, as the greatest longevity is embedded not in capital but in culture), the disturbing inequality of our times, and—

The grey areas of philanthropy. By all measurements, we are living in an era of growing inequality and the consolidating power of big money. A statistic that scared me is this: the richest 62 people are as wealthy as half of the world’s population. But rich people don’t just own the wealth, feel la-di-da, and spend it on private jets and Chanel bags. Intentions aside, they are shaping our lives in unimaginable ways using philanthropy. Call me ignorant, but this is the first time I really wrapped my mind around the fact that philanthropy is not an inherently good thing—it needs to be used well. Unlike the government, most philanthropic foundations (from Gates to Carnegie) have no checks and balances. They own wealth enough to rival national economies as well as social resources (tax exemption), but their agendas are set by a few individuals. What kind of impact do such megafoundations generate? For instance, Bill Gates is fixing education in the U.S. with his Common Core State Standards initiative; that means, putting it generally, one man can decide what millions of kids are going to study.

How adequate are the institutions of philanthropy to the needs of the day? How can we shape this system?

I vacillated between wonder and the alienating sense that all these questions I was contemplating in the first place were inaccessible and removed from most people’s realities. I’m sitting here in my dorm room back in Cambridge choosing classes, two days before Shopping Week begins for the spring semester, and I’m trying to make sense of all these intellectual endeavors. So here’s my tentative goal this semester: to go beyond simply reading and analyzing class texts (mostly fiction and books written by old white men; sometimes it feels like we are still discussing the same ideas as centuries before) to figure out how to apply that narrative lens to the social realities around me.

For those of you also coming back to campus, here’s to a semester with classes that tear apart your assumptions and equip you to rebuild them, self-discovery, friendship, and happy adventures!

Lots of love,

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(From top to bottom, the artworks can be attributed to Claude Monet, Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Jeff Koons, and Marc Chagall.)