[Writing Updates] June 六月

整个六月都在室内度过,三点一线的生活:床,餐桌,还有皮沙发。我倚着餐桌打瞌睡,在床上看小说,在皮沙发上码字和偷吃零食。窗外有烈阳,有蓬勃生长的仙人掌,依山(很矮的武吉知马山)傍水(游泳池嘻嘻)。

这个月至少读了十本小说。我流着汗,也流着眼泪,滴答在屏幕上,流成故事。

📚

The whole of June happens at home, facing rolling green hills. A defence camp hidden somewhere inside.

Every day, I write (though you can easily spot some bad days 😓). In June, I’ve written a total of 20,498 words.

I conceived the idea for IDOL last summer in New York and started thumbing it out in the iPhone Notes app before sleep. After the summer ended, I had mostly character sketches. In the fall of 2019, I enrolled in Claire Messud’s Advanced Fiction workshop. Over the course of a semester, I completely redrafted the first two chapters with drastic changes to both plot and character, and it became IDOL V2.

Early this year, however, after weeks of traveling over winter break, I was stuck in a rut. Everything I wrote tasted insipid. My main character, G, kept floating out of reach. A silhouette in a mist. The closer I got to him the hazier he was. Over and over again, I asked myself, What’s the point of this story? I wasn’t in love with my characters and didn’t know how they were going to grow as the plot developed.

Around the end of February, one morning, I sat up in bed feeling like I had just woken up from another life. A dream that stuck to the skin but was receding with each passing moment. Frantically, I typed out whatever I could remember. Version 3 was born in first person. I started afresh on a blank GDoc. I had crossed over the rut to the other side of the bank.

13,683 words and two months later, I felt good about the story.

On the third day day of this month, I was gripped by a scene in my head: a glittering product launch for a new tech, electrifying audiences like Steve Jobs’ legendary iPhone presentation. It blanketed every previous thread I was trying to sew into the story. I realized I had to sit down and rewrite, starting with this new scene that easily toppled the previous chapters as though they were a house of cards. Introducing, IDOL V4. The 13,683 words were now in the trash.

I carried on with V4 for the first three weeks. Then I collided into the inevitable. Where’s the story going? I knew the tech, the conceit, the style, the world but when it came to the plot, I rammed up against a cliff. I finally accepted the sad truth: Without a detailed chronological, chapter-by-chapter plot outline, IDOL was never going to go anywhere. Subconsciously, I had sought to delay it. Many writers write without a plot outline and, instead, allow the story to organically emerge. Me? Three discarded versions of IDOL accumulating to over 50,000 words are a testament to my inability to proceed beyond the first three chapters without a plot outline:

Plotting is arduous. It’s my major weakness and also what impairs every novel I have started but never finished over the past decade. In the hard-disk of my laptop, there are over at least thirty novel beginnings that were abandoned, virtual detritus accumulating dust.

In the past week and a half, as I plotted everything chronologically (a plot that stretches over twenty years), IDOL genetically mutated into a foreign creature. The bones are still there: future of entertainment, idol, ghostwriter. But the rest of the animal has gone wild. In July, my goal is to finish writing the plot outline in detail (by Week 1). Then, IDOL V5 shall begin.

Another 20,000 words for July — ready, set, go!

Stay safe, with love,

[Story] Third Space

Author’s Note: 4 photos, 4 vignettes! I’ve typed the scenes out just the way they entered my head when these images first came alive, each with their own stories.

The title draws inspiration from Prof Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of the third space — disjunctive, hybrid, in-between spaces beyond borders that make ambivalent structures we take as fixed or homogenizing. Happy reading!

First came the white tents.

People stared at it as they passed – evening joggers, drivers from the safety of their vehicles, families out for fresh air.

Kids tugged at their parents, asking what they were. Not the pasar malam, the parents said. Not void deck weddings. Not funerals. But close. Incubators of death.

Yellow metal barricades fenced the perimeters. Unused turquoise-colored portable toilets stood at the side. When the wind came, the white flaps billowed, their insides still empty. Behind the sentry-like rows of tents was an utterly different skyline – a sleek patina of glass and metal, the silhouette of skyscrapers thrusting their fingers into the blue sky. They stared down at the eerie circus waiting for its opening.

She glanced at the tents on her commute to and from the office. Even as the city ground to a halt, her work in the essential services had not stopped. But she had no complaints. The city was kind.

From the moment when she had first heard about an infectious disease from her parents in Sichuan – 3 deaths, Hubei, seafood wet market – to watching the contagion swallow entire cities amidst chunjie, she had felt the choking sense of fear and the baptismal touch of luck. Lucky that she was out. Free from a land with so much pain and suffering. Lucky that she had left ten years ago without looking back and built a new life. Lucky that her family, especially her two-year-old, was safe in a city that was clean, efficient, and treated its citizens well. Lucky even now, with hundreds of cases a day, that her citizen husband flying back from the UK could be quarantined for free at the Shangri-La on the beachfront.

But these white tents.

From afar, she had watched the virus tear a hole through fabrics she once thought were impenetrable. She watched it happen like an ant would watch a crumbling sandcastle, perched on a nearby rock. Slowly the castle had begun to collapse, an invisible tide encroaching it from within. She watched as the rest of the world drew moats, fortified their borders, and quarantined its particles. No one thought the tide would hit them. They called it names, traced its causes to reasons of ethnicity, and hid behind porous walls.

But the ant had originated from the sandcastle. Although she was now no longer a member of the castle, she could not erase her origins. She had shared the secret shame that her people were bearing as the rest of the world blamed them for the tide. She had felt the flare of indignity and anger at the racism, the hypocrisy, the myopia.

Now, she stared at the white tents that were to house this city’s other. White tents that were to hide its ugly truth. An ugly truth that breathed in the city’s cultivated oblivion and the complicity of its citizens. An ugly truth, which now exposed in daylight, was to be sanitized and belatedly cloaked in folds of purity.

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible, she thought. But the white tents paraded and displayed their bargain in the open. This was Omelas, but she didn’t know how to walk away.

***

First comes the aperitif.

The man stares out of the window at the roiling blue and absent-mindedly says thank you as a glass of ruby red Campari is silently placed before him by a brown hand.

“What day is it?” his wife asks across the table, fanning herself.

“Seventy-nine,” he grunts. “We haven’t felt land for weeks.”

“But we’re finally docking today, aren’t we? I’m running out of deodorant,” she says, “and the electric toothbrush charger isn’t working. It has been a nightmare.”

It has been. He agrees. From flushing the toilet to the rocketing wi-fi bill as they scour the internet for news of the pandemic, the past few weeks have been the ultimate test of their thirty-six-year marriage. When the cruise had left Genoa, the world was peaceful. There was some unknown pneumonia in a Chinese city he had never heard of. At Cape Verde, all was good. At Brazil, it was business as usual. By the time they reached Chile, cruise ships were in the news. A large outbreak had happened on a cruise that docked in Japan. After they left Pitcairn and started drifting, he realized that their “cruise of a lifetime” was hitting bumps.

He speaks between bites of the seafood cocktail, “Damn this Chinese virus. Good thing we’ve banned them from coming in. Now if only our government will get rid of all the Muslims and Syrians. Expel them all.”

His wife stops picking at the octopus carpaccio and leans forward to whisper, “I hear it’s because the Chinese eat bats.”

As he is finishing his poached pear and his wife her baked Alaska, the intercom crackles. The captain’s announcement is not well-received at their table.

“We will be refueling and resupplying in Fremantle – not disembarking,” said the captain in his heavy Italian accent. “This is a technical stop and unfortunately, no one will be allowed off the ship. Rest assured, all passengers and crew on board are well and we will continue along our scheduled itinerary.”

His wife’s face clouds over. Like all husbands, he knows what happens when his wife’s estrogen levels fall. But surprisingly, the storm passes over. Maybe it’s the red wine. She gets up from her seat and beckons. “At least let’s get some fresh air on the top deck,” she says, her hand lightly touching the camera hanging around her neck. “And look at land.”

They lumber to the lobby and head to the top deck with its full view of the dock. The blue sky is dotted with patchy, sheet-like wisps of clouds, looking like his weathered jeans. The next thing he notices are the police cars. Police? Why are the police here? There are uniformed officials patrolling the gangway. They are too far to see clearly but he spots bulks in their arms, the size of toothpicks from a distance, like guns.

A sudden burst of noise bubbles up, staccato-like shouts puncturing the hum of the ship’s engine and the sound of the waves. He pulls at his wife’s sleeves.

“Hey, honey, watch this,” he says.

A small crowd has gathered at the dockside, holding huge signs. Many are old people. They are Australians, in sunglasses, standing resolutely under the sun. He squints.

GO HOME.

STAY AWAY.

GET OUT OF OUR COUNTRY.

He takes a step back as though he has been stung. The heat and the smell of sea salt tinged with sewerage nauseates. A coldness courses through his veins and yet, he feels that his skin is burning. Burnt raw. Or is it cracking? He doesn’t know. All he can think of in this moment is how they could say this to people like him. How dare they?

Beside him, his wife is still fanning herself in the shade and asking, “What are they saying? Can you read the tiny letters?”

He opens his mouth but no words come out.

***

First comes the self.

He walks down the same carpeted corridors, the chandelier hot and heavy over his head like a sentence about to be dropped.

The air is cold and dry but he knows he is sweating. The back of his shirt tingles. So does his throat. Is it an irritation? It builds up through his throat and propels outwards into a cough. Hurriedly, he pulls down his mask and pops a Ricola into his mouth. Did his lip touch his glove? He sucks on its sweetness like a drowning man clamoring for oxygen. Imprinting its shape against the roof of his mouth, he feels coolness lace his tongue. Ah, better.

When will they give him another mask?

He knocks on the door, E101. He should just leave the meal outside. Would they complain? Yes, they would. “The passenger is king.” It’s drummed into him. They always have questions. They pummel him with frightened eyes and demanding tones and then try to conceal it with a thank-you. Thank you for risking your life to serve mine.

The door opens. It’s a white woman, the wrinkles on her face like lines drawn with a black marker under the garish light. He looks at her ruddy cheeks, her lashes thin and transparent under the light, and her Santa Clara University t-shirt. An American most probably.

“How are you doing, ma’am. Thank you for your patience.” He hands her the appetizer.

“It’s later than yesterday,” she says, “but thank you. Can we get more bottled water?”

“I don’t have any with me now. That okay? My colleague is coming later with the main course, drinks, and utensils.”

“We’ve been asking and asking—”

He wants to tell her that she can boil her own water the way he does, huddled in a windowless cabin shared with another person six decks below. Mess hall buffet laid out in the open, shared toilets, plates that are reused. She can bless the gods that she has fresh air and TV and three meals a day prepared, delivered, and cleaned by people like him, Indians, Indonesians, Filipinos, and—

The woman coughs. A wheeze. She turns her body inward.

He watches it unfold in slow motion. Each cough hits a nail into his frame. He digs his toes, holds his breath, and musters his body. He manages not to physically recoil.

“Excuse me,” rasps the woman, who closes the door.

He nods and half bows. People on this ship are going to die. One by one. He sees their faces briefly as doors open and close in a clockwork sequence. At least one of them will not be here tomorrow. Maybe more. On and on he goes. The corridor covers the length of the ship. The doors stretch out ominously before him like cards. Seventy-two more. He grabs the handle of the trolley and pushes. His palms are clammy in the gloves but he will not take them off. Maybe it’ll be me.

When it is all over he heads back down to the bottom of the ship. Down and down and down he goes. Past the empty lobbies and the chandeliers that hurt his eyes, past the occasional glimpse of the ocean, past the grand suites, suites, mini-suites, doubles, deluxe, interiors, past the hallways with exposed piping, and into the belly of the beast.

No one wants to play with life, he thinks. Back in his cabin, he scrubs his hands in hot water until they hurt. The flesh of his palm is pink. Life on the sea sounded romantic, like a movie. “I get to travel the world,” he tells friends back home. “And I wait tables at a fancy restaurant with ocean views.” It’s like a dream, he used to say. True, the hours are tough (and tougher now) and he has to be away from home nine months at a time.

But this – on a ship with three thousand people, where the virus stalks and floats unseen like a ghost, where they are exiled from land tantalizingly close, where he has to work to protect and serve the rich people when death looms – is a nightmare. A prison. Why is he sacrificing his life when no one is protecting him?

He has to protect himself.

All of a sudden, he knows what he must do. He rehearses it in his head, holds his phone up, and begins speaking. A video message. He starts over again. After nine tries, he gets a smooth take.

He introduces himself and his job. On the screen is a man who is asking for protection. It’s him but unfamiliar. He has never spoken up like this before but this is for his life. He stumbles over his words:

“We need help. We need extra manpower from the Japanese authority or from different authorities who can come and help us. The virus somewhere in the ship but the crew must continue working and cannot leave. Yes, we are ready to work all the time but only when the environment we are working in is safe. Right now, we don’t feel safe. Every day, the number has been increasing and we are scared for our lives. On the first day of the quarantine, there were ten infected patients, but now it has reached up to 218. Very soon we will all be infected.”

He swallows and presses on, “I’m not sure if I carry the virus. None of the crew has been checked. We don’t know why the passengers are being quarantined but not the crew. They have been quarantined since day one. We, crew members, have been working and serving. Even now, there are about 1,000 of us who are still working and not isolated.”

He stares right into the camera. Inside his head, he is praying. This part is the most important – the lifeboat: “My family and friends back home are praying day and night that we can come home safe. Please somehow save us as soon as possible, before it’s too late. I want to tell the government of India, Modi-ji, please bring us back home safely.”

Will he lose his job? He is, after all, breaking protocol. Cautiously, he ends the video with a hedge: “I do love my job and my company, I don’t have any complaints, I just want to feel safe.” I just want to feel safe.

What’s the point of following the protocol when he doesn’t know if he will live? When the tides of history hit, no one can remain dry. He can only pray that he stays above water. When the virus has engulfed cities, he is but a speck that wants refuge. He is six thousand kilometers away from home, with people from fifty other countries, but reality tells him that they are not all equal. They are upstairs, he is down, down at the bottom.

He will not accept it.

His fingers dance across the screen, like punching the buttons for SOS. The video is posted. He exhales.

***

First came the rumors after Chinese New Year.

Just a bad flu season. Somewhere in China. Nobody thought much about it but he noticed the Chinese workers murmuring amongst themselves.

One of them was Lu, his body golden and glistening in the humid heat. The air warmed whenever he came close. Lu, whose name required the pout of lips to push out the tender syllable. Lu, who had once crossed over to the other side to offer him a swab of medicinal oil – a cool stroke on his rough skin – when he bruised his leg slipping in the shower. Friendships were tentative magnets, impossible from a distance – each country, each language, each color in its own orbit – but he leaned into Lu, feeling the shifts in air pressure, the pull of a foreign body, and the willing surrender of his own as it went limp.

They didn’t communicate through broken English, hand signs, or pictures. Their language was one of objects and touch. A can of Coca-Cola, flavored lips under the rain tree in the dark. A squirt of toothpaste, a quick flirtation of hands. A clothes hanger, a fumble of fabric behind damp towels. Two minutes and forty-three seconds left on the phone card, fourteen hours and thirteen minutes apart. They lived in different rooms, worked on separate sites, each with their own people. But their dizzying dance imprinted the city to his soul. The city was his canvas, witness, host. Where he had once been marked by his dark skin, dictated as foreigner, laborer, migrant worker, work permit holder, he was now touched, desired, recognized. To the city’s occupants, his body was predictable in its life story, expendable in its replaceability, nondescript in its multitude – everywhere, cleaning, building, eating, living, but anonymous. But because of Lu he was no longer one of many. He was the only. The city’s grammar had changed from transaction to the syntax of desire.

On the lorry to work one morning, his body still sore from the worship of hands, an argument erupted. Forty heads bobbed and thudded against each other.

“One of us is dead,” someone asserted above the din, “my friend said so. In the other big dorm. They don’t want to tell us that it’s coming to get us.”

Another man hushed him.

“It’s a disease! Like TB and dengue, but it spreads even when you just touch.”

“That’s a lie,” yelled a man from the back of the lorry.

Someone behind him moaned and started intoning a prayer.

He felt a hole opening up inside him, edges jagged with sharp, frigid fear and covered with hot, sticky shame. Did Lu know? Would things change? What should he do?

When they returned that evening, the entrance to their dorm had a standing screen. Someone told them it was for scanning temperatures though no supervisor monitored it. It simply stood there like something that ought to make them feel safe. Other things were also added: yellow tape on the ground, volunteers coming to distribute soaps and little bottles like glue which they explain killed germs and needed no washing, posters on the walls telling them to wash their hands often, and masks (which he began wearing on the spot but was stopped by a frantic volunteer).

One volunteer, a young woman wearing thick-rimmed glasses, spent five minutes trying to explain to a group of them something called standing far away. There was a virus, she told them, that either spread in the air through droplets or landed on things they touched. So they must keep a distance. She demonstrated with another volunteer. He remembered her instructions, two meters apart (“A space of three men between one another!”). He laughed. He couldn’t even fit a finger between his body and Lu’s, sometimes.

Afterwards, he headed to the mass kitchen for dinner. Where was Lu? In the day, they worked at different sites. Everywhere he looked, there were people. How could they possibly stay two meters apart? He ended up cooking shoulder to shoulder with his friend. Upstairs, in his room shared with eleven other people, he couldn’t even get to his bunk bed without squeezing sideways. He went downstairs to Lu’s floor. The Chinese workers stared at him. He asked if they knew where Lu was.

The faces stared back at him in a mixture of curiosity and incomprehension. Again and again, he repeated Lu’s name, his tongue savoring the contours of the syllable. And then, one person, who he often saw with Lu, waved him away. “Go,” said the man in sharp bursts of English. “Lu, no, sick.”

He slept outside that night in the basketball court, staring at the rain tree which had once gently mantled their secret. He didn’t even have Lu’s number. Where was he? When would they see each other again? Then, as the night turned colder, he suddenly realized what it meant. Lu was taken away. If Lu had turned sick, and their eyes, noses, lips had touched even just yesterday, then he too was probably carrying the disease. In the middle of the night, he felt Lu’s tongue on the tip of his lashes but when he opened his eyes he realized it was drizzling.

He considered telling the dorm operator; yet, he displayed no signs of any sickness. A week passed. Lu never came back.

Then, the nightmare descended.

One, 29, 67, 298, 654, 931. The numbers in their dorm climbed with no end in sight. Every day he watched from the balcony as people were taken out. Ambulances came one after another without intervals. No one was allowed to go out of their rooms except to use the toilet. Gone was his nightly brush with death. Where once inside a shower stall, behind the stump of a tree, and between bed sheets hanging dry on a balcony lay the whole world, now there were only claustrophobia and confinement. When his roommate was taken away on the eve of Ramadan, he felt the desolation of a catastrophe of his own making. He began praying to Allah five times a day, a ritual he had abandoned since first setting his eyes on Lu three months ago – body arching to catch a packet of instant noodles, the tendons on his arms rising and falling like the bob of his Adam’s apple. Forgive my sins, Allah. If I am to be blamed, let me suffer too.

His roommate sent him photos from his isolation facility. There was no trash, grime, insects, and hanging laundry in sight. Everything was white. The bedsheets and pillows were white. The toilet sparkled. No wrappers, dead insects, or plastic bags stuck in the shower drain. No leaves, mud, or blood by the sink. And so much space, all to himself. Just one bed within four walls. It looked like Jannah.

He felt a frisson of jealousy that mystified even himself. Intimacy like theirs survived in the wilderness, in bushes, grime, the buzz of flies, the sweat trickling down under the flickering fluorescent light, down a dark road that led nowhere.

He tried to drive away the images. The tenuous thread of faith lingered. Without the glaze of love, the myth was broken. The city was kind. He was alive. He could be grateful. It did not have to be a lie. As long as he didn’t open his eyes.

 

[Story] Remembering Jamal Khashoggi

Author’s Note: Wrote this story in March. Today marks one year since the gruesome murder (and dismemberment) of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

One morning before class, on a misty pink spring morning, I went on Twitter for the first time in forever. Behold then: a trailer for CNN’s Saudi Arabia: Kingdom of Secrets.”

The video automatically played the following snippet of conversation. It blanketed me in a sudden drift of coldness — as though some invisible, icy fingers were slowly wrapping around my body. 

“Why would you bring a bone saw to an interrogation?”

“Any saw could dismember a human being.”

“Why did they bring any saw?”

In the bright daylight, I felt physically sick. Many months after his gruesome death, a morning post-daylight savings time, the story of Jamal Khashoggi made me want to draw my knees up against myself, numbly rock back and forth, and take deep breaths — a muted pressure behind my temples to pray for redemption and the assurance of goodness. I looked into the intelligence gathered on the last moments of his death, and in an attempt at catharsis, I recreated it.

***

He must have drawn a quick, sharp intake of breath when he turned around the corner. He’s here, in this quiet district in Istanbul, picking up papers. Papers that would allow him to marry Cengiz, with her wet lashes brushing against her thin-rimmed glasses. Cengiz who is waiting outside. Cengiz who is Turkish. Turkish whilst he is Saudi.

The consulate is the same as last time. At least, at first glance, it is so. But, he is turning this way and that, entering deeper into this flaxen yellow labyrinth. Towards the heart of it, towards the papers that he has come here to get.

The thought — just briefly, like the caress of whiskers — must have touched his mind. Suggestively. They wouldn’t dare. Of course not. 

When he steps into the room, glancing up at the man who comes to meet him, he knows that those whiskers — ticklish, impossibly so — should have stung him. This man should have been some nice, slow bureaucrat, who might have asked for a photo or offered coffee.

“What are you doing here?” he asks the man-who-has-come-to-meet-him.

He is old now, he cannot run, and there are another five men behind this one and more slinking in the shadows of the door frame. He is already at the heart of the labyrinth, staring into the mouth of the abyss, mid-swallow. He should not have been able to recognize this man, but oh, he does. Though how he wishes that he doesn’t. Because this man-who-has-come, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, is only the teeth. The darkness behind him is the man he has played chess with from across oceans. MbS.

Mutreb speaks, “You are coming back.”

His glasses fog up. He grows suddenly aware of the mechanisms of his body, like a fish out of water with all senses enlarged. His veins powderizing, his windpipe constricting, his skin papery, prickling, poised to be peeled any moment now. Their fragility made apparent by what could only be a revelation of mortality.

“You can’t do that,” he says, keeping his voice steady but there’s a sheen of perspiration on his head. “People are waiting outside.”

The air-conditioning is on full blast. Nobody speaks for a moment.

He watches what could almost be a smile stretch over Mutreb’s face. Blink.

The men are on him. There’s no more dialogue. They are grabbing him by his arms, and he flounders, tripping on the hem of his thawb. Someone grabs him from behind, thick hands closing around his neck. Another palm, sweaty and hot, closes over his face.

He fights for air. Loud gasping. He is buried alive in billowing folds, smothering hands, violent fists, and that steel-like grip around his neck. His world is screaming. He thinks Cengiz ought to hear this cry that is penetrating and shattering the roof of the universe, but when his mouth finally forms the shape of words, he only hears himself from far away. The weak rasp of a drowning man:

“I can’t breathe, I can’t—”

There’s a scuffle like a final tumble.

Panting.

The fans whirl overhead.

***

The story was written back according to this CNN report: ‘I can’t breathe.’ Jamal Khashoggi’s last words disclosed in transcript, source says.

More recently, a detailed transcript of the conversation between Khashoggi and Mutreb has been released by the Daily Sabah, so my rendition is actually inaccurate: Saudi hit squad’s gruesome conversations during Khashoggi’s murder revealed.

May you rest in peace, Jamal,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

[Story] Dog Days Are Over

Author’s Note: Found this buried in my drafts from 2018. Just a random little story on the impressionistic, surreal flicker of a college encounter between a girl and a boy (and dogs). 

Raining Dogs

She met him in the dorm room with a slanted ceiling. It was a mixer of about fifty people, with a makeshift bar (a scruffy-looking bookshelf colonized by dark liquor swimming in bottles), the washed-out glow from two sentry-like lamps, a lack of ventilation that put to sleep the dogs in her mind (a quiet bubble in a sea of noise), and the bright red cups swirling on sweaty hands like neon atoms in the dark.

He had a forgettable but good-looking face and an open, sudden smile. She had glanced up and there he was, a flash of white teeth and unfamiliar eyes.

It felt like it could be the beginning of the Play, which she didn’t know if she wanted to be a part of. Because that was only one day after she thought she had inspected the dust particles gathering on the stage. It felt impossible that any performance would ever start. She didn’t dare to read the opening lines of a new script that she might have to once more figure out. She walked away, cloaked in the memories of gray carpets of non-beginnings, unlived possibilities, and almost-heartbreaks. Her mind yelped, but she told it: Shh.

*

When she saw his name on her phone the next morning, everything was too quiet. In the stillness, she tried to remember how he looked like. She could only draw up hollows and shadows and teeth and eyes, an outline of a feeling, something close to being airborne. The dimness had rubbed his person of the valleys and ridges.

Her fingers tap-danced across the screen. Then the phone made a tiny arc through the air, landing on the cushions. The paws in her mind lifted by a whisker and with the pull of gravity, fell.

**

She didn’t expect a conversation to develop out of that encounter under the slanted ceiling. But, she found herself replying, enveloped in the rhythm of what could be an opening act.

When she made her way towards the T station, three days after the first phone message, she almost thought she might not recognize him in the glaring expanse of broad daylight.

He was wearing a white shirt, and he watched her as she came to him.

He wanted to say something, but she — more alive, less withdrawn than in the dorm-room light, was now full of sharp edges and splatters of colors — started talking. No scripts, no audience, just two people, almost strangers, barely friends, drawing an emotional asymptote on an unknown plane.

So he listened, the boy inside him first raising an eyebrow and, as the night went on, her animated words were punctuated by an undeniable pounding in his ears, like the sound of small palms fervently clapping in an empty auditorium. As she talked, he was nodding, and slipping, and tumbling down into a hole, gaping open. It was exhilarating.

***

She said goodbye to him by a bookstore.

I talk too much, she said, almost helplessly. The And Yet hung in the air between them, like subtitles. Anecdotes poured out, so did the crinkled, dog-eared details she thought she had long forgotten, drab, insipid, self-indulgent, confessional, strange, inconsequential bits and pieces of the arc of her life. And yet he listened. And yet she felt listened to.

Plans were made, a stroke here, penciling a vector there, in the blank space and black lines, a promise of something. And then a lull.

She felt the brief touch of his hands on her lower back. The enfolding of arms. The barest of hugs.

As she walked back to her dorm, she tilted her head to grasp the cacophony of barks in her head. Oh, shut up, she said, but couldn’t stop smiling. Shut up. Shut up.

****

He didn’t text her for five days.

The dogs were wild. They blanketed everything.

When she saw his name on her phone after the gap, everything was too loud.

*****

They stood close to each other like the first time, sat across from each other like the second, but she had the sense that everything was going terribly wrong. Somewhere between the crunched up movie ticket stub in her fist and the silences in the uber, between his distracted eyes and her reluctance to say anything, the tenor of this evening had changed.

They had not seen each other for merely a week, but it keenly felt like a meeting between two strangers. Strangers who knew too much about one another.

Tentatively, they tried to venture into unexplored terrains — Florence, childhoods, pasta — but each time they sought to erect a pole to build anew the tent that could house two souls, the earth turned to quicksand. So they kept scrambling, exerting force at All The Wrong Things, squinting in concentration, not meeting each others’ eyes, building a set like single-minded craftsmen, grasping at their shambling dignity and splintered ends.

The And Yet that had wafted over from the effulgent night a week ago, brimming over with everything said and yet so much unsaid, now crumbled into dust like moth wings between calloused fingers. She stared at him, and he stared at her.

He walked her back to her dorm. He responded to all her questions. He offered to pay for dinner. She laughed at all his jokes. She asked him one question after another. She allowed herself to be hugged. And Yet. And Yet. And Yet.

As she stood on the elevator, alone and watching the blinking lights move up each floor with a steady tick and a lurch, she felt she was leaving him on the ground as she went up higher and higher, back into a life without performance. All the memories of the three encounters were receding in the distance, he was becoming a speck, and the dogs nuzzled her solemn ego, her cool heart, her shredded script, and they were respectfully quiet in her mind in its moment of incredible stillness and clarity.

******

She learns two new lessons about gaps:

Lesson Number One:
There is a gap between the contours of Ideal Type and someone you can actually fall in love with. 

And
Lesson Number Two:
There is a gap between being in Love and loving the idea of falling in Love. 

*******

She knows that nothing in life will last. But, she says a little prayer as she lulls the dogs to sleep: to look at a boy and feel the whole world fade. And then she too can fade into old age, into ashes, into oblivion. With a rose in her hair and the dogs sighing in content.

Path in the Forest

April is tough. And brilliant. ᕦ(ò_óˇ)ᕤ

Easter Egg: Screenplay at the end of the post. 🥚✨

team

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🌏 Harvard China Forum 💡

April 12th to 14th, Harvard College China Forum happened.

Remember last year when I was the Programming Associate in charge of the Culture Panel (ft. Fang Wenshan 💕)? As the Programming Chair this year, I oversaw how my amazing team put together an entire conference’s worth of content together. China’s growth will be one of the defining stories of our time and perhaps, we have shaped that narrative somehow.

Nothing beats months of brainstorming, invitation-writing, cold-emailing, drafting of panel descriptions and discussion questions, numerous color-coded spreadsheets, coordination of individual speaker logistics (400+ WeChat notifications and overflowing inboxes every day), the introduction of panelists to each other, staying up late at night at the GSD (Graduate School of Design) reviewing design details, and of course, the three forum days when everything came together — like the greatest show, painstakingly and lovingly built, scripted, and performed by numerous hands; like something that seemed to pass too fast but still endures, gathering minds and presenting ideas like cradling two brilliant continental halves of an earthly heart before a thousand people.

The number of speakers:

120+ (including Kevin Rudd, Jin Liqun, Yu Zheng etc.)

Kevin Rudd at Harvard China Forum

With Kevin Rudd, the 26th Prime Minister of Australia, who spoke at our Closing Ceremony ✨

The number of panels: 

11. (Finance, Entertainment, Pharmaceuticals, Technology, Arts, Culture, Philanthropy, International Relations & Development, Music, Philanthropy, and Entrepreneurship)

The number of keynote ceremonies:

3.

 

The number of attendees:

1085.

Thank you to each of you who made this another great year. ❤ I’ve learned so much from this journey that never ceases to amaze me — at what other institution in the world would this be possible? The incredible caliber of speakers, the sheer depth of dialogue, the commitment from everyone involved, and the team that handles this professionally demanding role outside of our busy Harvard lives.

The other day at an IOP (Institute of Politics) dinner, I met another student who asked me intently, “Do you think we should be afraid of China? Like with their One Belt, One Road initiative?” It is moments like this when I’m convinced that there is a great need to bring thinkers from the U.S. and China in dialogue on all fronts, at a place of learning where misunderstandings and stereotypes really do still exist BUT, at least, where people are curious and seek more answers beyond the reign of media and the limits of historical subjectivity.

Blessed to be here and I hope I can keep growing alongside this forum.

(´・ω・`)

paper-writing woes 😪

In the dimly lit DeWolfe common room, I’m curled up on the couch against the floor-to-ceiling windows. I felt timeless. It could be 2AM or 5AM. The hours are collapsing into one other.

In the hours spent typing away, tiny black letters crawl over the blank page on my laptop screen like an ant army, expanding the boundaries, encroaching on the ever-expanding territory of whiteness… My thoughts flowing and flowing, like a stream punctuated by soft, rhythmic punches on the keyboard.

It’s a draft for my History & Literature sophomore essay — 3000 to 4000 words in length, on any topic that has to do with ’empire’ or ‘imperialism.’ My topic of choice? Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians (not the movie!!). What does CRA have to do with imperialism? At first glance, not much. After two days of reading, knee-deep in literature, all kinds of thoughts jump around my spinning head: what does the novel tell us about ‘Chineseness’? How can we understand class — in particular, the elite Chinese diasporic subject? How are capitalism and mobility in interplay? In the background, against which all the drama, catfights, and ostentatious displays of wealth are set, there is the postcolonial city-state of Singapore, where I grew up in.

Behind me, tiny filaments of light are seeping through the blinds, painting my bare legs in stripes. Bleary-eyed, I press one finger on a blind and peer out of the window. Gentle, pale sunlight touches my cheek.

I look at the digital clock. It’s 6:28 AM.

Here marks the first time in college I’ve stayed up all night writing an essay. It’s not cool — the big, red pimple on my chin will be a battle scar — but it feels like a college ritual that has finally happened. Here’s what happens when you have three papers due in one weekend.

April is tough, tough, tough!!!

ʕʘ‿ʘʔ

🤖 what have i been reading? 🧟

For the latest paper in one of my courses, “Forbidden Romance in Modern China,” I’ve decided to write a screenplay adapted from the most violent scene in Yu Hua’s Classical Romance 余华的《古典爱情》— it’s a short story that parodies the literary archetype of the Scholar-meets-Maiden romance (think: Peony Pavilion 《牡丹亭》) by subverting it with irrational, absurd violence that recapitulates the trauma of the Cultural Revolution. A climactic moment in the story is when the scholar is in a tavern and discovers that his long-lost beloved is being chopped alive for consumption in an adjacent room.

I decided to re-write that particular scene of monstrosity and bleakness into the format of a screenplay. (Scroll to the bottom of the post for my short 6-page screenplay. Hands down, the most violent thing I’ve ever written.)

How to represent the unrepresentable? How to imply violence? How to avoid explicit gore, yet still create suspense and dread?

As someone who is adamantly and unabashedly terrified of horror and thriller films — the scariest movie I watched until I turned 16 was Spirited Away (imagine your parents turning into pigs?!) —  I decided to approach this academically. I researched the best thriller films (they had dreadful names… Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre… And some that were more normal like Hitchcock’s Psycho.) and read their screenplays to study how they conveyed violence. 

The result? I was shivering in broad daylight and was terrified to turn off the lights at night. (My roommate also happened to be away. T_T)

In the meantime, to relax my English-addled brain, I also fell down the rabbit hole of Chinese novels which are CRAZILY GOOD. The genre of choice has been a mix of mystery and speculative fiction — one that I really liked is about being infinitely suspended in a Matrix-like game that simulates real-life unsolved cases.

Sigh, happily reading while floundering in a sea of deadlines. Now I’m five days away from leaving campus and ending my Sophomore year. Books are time machines!!!

Lots of love,

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