Two Takes on My Harvard Freshman Year (My Year in Review?)

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TAKE ONE

Here’s how it happens: eyelids fluttering, an image rising, and a sudden plunge into the hot, wet mouth of memory. I’m walking on a boulevard and then this hutong catches my eye and before I know it I’m wandering down networks of neurons, lost. Or I’m talking to someone, laughing, and there’s a tug and I can’t remember what I ever wanted to say. There’s a face, a sentence, a moment. One minute I’m dancing to Bruno Mars on a raised platform in a swanky Beijing club at 1:58AM and suddenly I’m a freshman again in a long snaking line of sweaty, jittery bodies leading towards the First Chance Dance housed in the dark Northwest Labs. Some weird upperclassman guy in crimson is smelling the green tea bottle in my hand like it’s beer, a tendril of hair sticking out from his nostrils. The white cloth-covered tabletop is littered with askew metal plates full of crumbs and crumpled wrappers. Self-consciously, I’m dancing or trying to move to some insipid, synthesized track while the bones in my body hesitantly reconfigure. A crack. Flash forward a few months: I’m leaping around and jutting out my hips to Zumba at the Hemenway, all over me a sheen of sweat, like I’ve been dipped in oil. My shoes are scraping against the bare floor and screeching to Meghan Trainor’s hearty, sassy ‘No’. The air-con licks my skin.

Or, in the present, I’m sucking on a red bean popsicle by the curb near a symphony of honking from Beijing’s sea of vehicles or thirstily swallowing a spoonful of matcha soft serve in Kyoto’s heat and then I recall the first taste of J. P. Licks during a pre-orientation program, immensely hopeful, eyes squinting against the sunlight as we crossed the street like a beaming group of tourists. Samples of sliced, melting mochi ice cream from smiling aunties at H Mart in neat little cups, opposite the freezer with dumplings and banchan. Berryline on cold days, gloves stuffed into the pockets of a down coat. My breath hanging before me like a fog.

I could be scrolling through my phone to airdrop someone a photo, or enlarging a selfie, or searching for an ancient screenshot. Maybe I see a photo of a beige wall decorated with yellow post-its and fenced off by purple and red ribbons. That’s all it takes. One look brings back the quote wall, the dubious carpets, the spiderman gravity-defeating moves, and the laugh-addled screaming-cum-squealing sessions that invited some poor guy from the floor below to check in on us out of concern. Five minutes later I’d still be standing there, unsure what I was looking for, like emerging from a pool with a smile on my lips. The phone screen turns black.

Or, crowding beside roundtables of hotpot with floating shrimp, meatballs and spicy vegetables, rotating a glass turntable laden with Peking duck and thirty appetizers, sipping on cheese tea in a crowded mall, chewing on pumpkin seeds in a teahouse simulating the old days while a lady in cheongsam sings opera, suddenly it’s the third week of Fall semester again and I feel like a stranger walking into Annenberg and drowning in the din. Then I drift into another memory. My third bowl of golden hash brown nuggets, with a heavy green blob of guacamole on top. Eating breakfast food for lunch on Sundays because I never wake up otherwise. The times we sit at a table next to someone’s crush, or two guys who looked decently cute in the dim light, or just some awkward acquaintance from God knows where, and we communicate with only our eyes, collapsing into giggles on our way out of the hall.

It’s living several lives, curled up in a hotel room’s rumpled sheets, or the pristine homestay bedroom just a door away from my new Japanese family, or my familiar, old bed with three pillows and a fluffy panda in Singapore. And when I come back to the present, eyes blinking, I am typing on the same screen, listening to the same Spotify playlist, the yogurt cup on my desk leaving a rim of condensation. On my computer the same blinking cursor. Inside my mind, I am remembering and forgetting a thousand tiny things.

TAKE TWO

Very honestly, I was planning to seriously write out a comprehensive Year in Review post with bullet points, labels, a slate of photos, and coherent paragraphs of descriptions. As I tried to write that post, beautifully envisioned and probably much easier to read than whatever I wrote above, the inevitable came: my impressions of those moments were always shifting and being filtered through the numerous new experiences I had. It felt pretentious even to slip back into my own skin and write about how I feel about something at its most visceral when it happened months ago. But. To go back in time and capture how I exactly felt would have been near impossible EXCEPT for the fact that many of such moments and my reflections have been penned down in the 21 blog posts published over the course of freshman year. So here’s another way to look at this year.

In my freshman year…

  • I explored writing fiction: I’ve never written as much fiction. Ever. I’m most grateful for the tremulous beginning to this writing journey—when I applied, got rejected and subsequently got off the waitlist for Claire Messud’s workshop in the Fall. One year later, I’ve completed three short stories for class, enrolled in another workshop (with Neel Mukherjee), and still struggle with this lonely, poetic affair. But this is what started it all. Embracing Rejection At Harvard (also unexpected surprises)
  • My main extracurricular life could be boiled down to three words: Harvard China Forum—when I surprisingly pulled together, with the help of many many people, a panel of speakers that I never could have imagined coming face to face with before Harvard (director of my favorite 2017 drama! lyricist to my lifelong pop idol Jay Chou!!! sci-fi novelist! variety show producer! CEO of online fiction publishing juggernaut! veteran journalist!). This Fall, I’ll be doing it all over again, yay! To Harvard China Forum • 致哈佛中国论坛
  • I spent my winter break at Dumbarton Oaks interrogating cultural philanthropy, diplomacy, and art in the cold. Girl in D.C.
  • I spent this sweltering summer in Kyoto. When In Kyoto ≧◡≦
  • I also ate my way through Japan. From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit
  • I turned 2-0! From 20-year-old Me, With Love
  • I experienced my first shopping week, my first snow in Boston, a November of Taylor Swift, BBC’s Austen adaptations and daylight saving time, and made a list of things I love.
  • I told my own growth on this blog through stories. On navigating love after a bleary-eyed whirlwind Black Friday, on coming to terms with materialism in Gangnam, on those fleeting moments of great metaphorical meaning or unexpected snippets that we cannot capture behind every grinning photo, on combating drama addiction after a dreary spring break.
  • I deal with debilitating doubts about my writing; on bad days, I yearn for external validation like an addict. But, in the end, it’s really just the page and me. I feel extremely nervous about putting my edited works onto this blog for more eyes to scrutinize, but I would like to start doing more of that! Here’s a throwback to the two stories I’ve published here during freshman year: [Story] Why Believe in Fortune Cookies, and 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?.

Here’s to a sophomore year with more blog posts!!! To everyone I met during my freshman year and over this summer, wherever our paths may lead us, thank you for being part of this journey. I hope you will stay with this blog ❤

Lastly, Happy Birthday Daddy!!! 亲爱的爸比,生日快乐 🎂🎉✨ I’m not sure if I can keep myself from crying when I say goodbye to you both at the airport tonight, but I know that because of you, I can venture continents away with strength in my wings, love in my heart and an unyielding faith in the kindness of life. 没有您,就没有我。谢谢您总像魔术师般地将我的烦恼和忧愁化为动力和正能量。您的智慧、引导和关爱让我这棵小树一直在幸福的包围中茁壮成长。谢谢您为我撑起了一片天,为我遮风挡雨。我会让您骄傲的。永远爱您,爸爸!❤️❤️❤️

Lots of love,

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Happy 53rd Birthday, Singapore!

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Local icons for the 2017 National Day designed by homegrown illustrators The Fingersmith Letterpress & Festive Folks, http://thesmartlocal.com/read/quirkiest-hdb

To the sunny island-state who fed me a diet of chicken rice, pineapple tarts, dim sum, herbal soups, bubble tea, zi char, and Pokka green tea,

To the towering institutions, well-worn wooden lecterns, scribbled whiteboards, laughter-filled halls, bleary-eyed mornings before sunrise, and the strict, snarky but wise teachers who educated me, equipped my mind and oriented me towards the world,

To all the exams I’ve taken, the essays I’ve written, this looming belief in meritocracy that pulsates in the system and dominated much of my life, all the invisible privileges I’ve received growing up in a place that values the mind and its gauged merit, the unprecedented opportunities that would not have been possible for an immigrant family elsewhere,

To this country that anchored a girl to a metaphorical homeland that rises to the fore, even amidst the many heritages that crowd within her frame,

I say: Singapore, you have a big heart—you embraced into your fold a family with three nationalities and, although your own culture is hotly debated and nebulously defined, you embedded in an itinerant girl something she can never abandon—a love for cities that are created in the shape of you.

I also say: in times when people tightly grasp at territorial borders and erect concrete walls between one imagined community and another, I look back in wonder at the path that led me to where I am today,

And I could not have stood here, were it not for you.

So, happy 53rd birthday, my dearest Singapore! 🎂❤️☀️

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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