The Big 21

On May 31, 2019, I turned 21.

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Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner 

The big 21 is sundrenched in Californian heat, pulsing in road trip vibes, and peppered with desert sand and surrealist tree-like cacti with muscled arms (think: the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter). Outside of the window are lonely gas stations, abandoned houses, and then a humongous pink ice cream rupturing the barren, earthy landscape. Glitzy outlets in deserts. 50’s diners in ghost towns. A candy factory by the highway. Wasteland dotted in green thorns.

The big 21 is 1,500km over three days. Being on the car for hours at an end, with my legs up on the seat in front, light filtering through the windows, my fingers shuffling songs on Spotify, basking in the shadow of mountains. Highways nestled in endless expanses of land. So much land that my dad says, America must be blessed. There’s so much history — historical injustice — and circumstance wrapped up in that statement, but as the land whizzes past, it seems true.

The big 21 is perching on a hot, red rock at Grand Canyon West’s Guano Point, wind ruffling my hair, and sun in my eyes. It’s gazing into the canyon abyss on a glass skywalk. It’s the glory of nature’s hand, so close to mankind’s own feats, but those pale in comparison.

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The big 21 is returning from that display of nature to the haven of capitalist excess. It’s being surrounded by temptations in the desert oasis that’s Las Vegas. It’s weaving in and out of the glittering sprawl of casinos, amidst the intensely colored slot machines making cute sounds. It’s marveling at the incredible, gravity-defying feats of Cirque du Soleil acrobats at KÀ (which had multiple VERTICAL combat scenes?! and people strewing rose petals as they make an arc over the air). It’s learning the danger of unchecked desires. It’s beginning to make new principles.

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The big 21 is spending the day at Universal Studios Hollywood (it’s really becoming a tradition! my 20th was at Universal Studios Japan 🥳). It’s licking cotton candy (shaped like Marge’s hair from The Simpsons) off my fingertips, drinking Butterbeer at Hogsmeade, taking my favorite Revenge of The Mummy ride (which I almost know by heart now), seeing the Bates Motel set from Psycho, wearing a bright blue birthday badge and hearing birthday wishes from buoyant voices all day long. It’s feeling like a kid still, and acutely aware and grateful that I’m 21 but always my parents’ baby.  

The big 21 is feeling grateful for all the love and wishes from friends, old and new. Growing up is realizing that some people might only stay with you for a short station in life’s journey but that some people do stay, for a very long time. Time and distance can change things, and somehow I am further apart from friends geographically unlike younger days when we all lived within twenty minutes’ drive. For the friendships that last, I am immensely grateful. For the friends who I’ve met at Harvard, I’m so thankful that college life has been spent by your sides. To everyone who remembered, very blessed to have you in my lives. ❤

The big 21 is about family. Parents who will fly eighteen hours with me across the Pacific to celebrate my birthday. Parents who tolerate my childishness (even when I’m now legally an adult T_T) while treating me like an equal in many matters; who educate me when I make mistakes while always growing and reflecting alongside me; who give me the freedom to fly far away and explore to my heart’s content while opening their arms in wide, warm embrace each time I return to their harbor. 爸比妈咪,我爱您们!💕💕💕

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The big 21 is realizing God’s hand in guiding my life in the smallest, most moving details. At so many points on the West Coast, I’ve realized His wisdom only in retrospect. Thank you, God, for carrying me on Your shoulders. I hope to keep growing into a better version of myself under Your love and to do You proud.

The big 21 is also about this blog, where I pen these thoughts down. I started this in 2017. Now, this is my 57th post. Over 30,000 of you have visited, and many of you have kept reading. My last wish here is to keep growing alongside more of you, to keep writing, and to tell life’s magic in stories that can stay. Thank you for reading the story of my life. ❤

Wishing you, dear reader, all the love and happiness in the world,

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Selina Xu Birthday Cake

2018: An Autobiography of Seasons

The countdown of days to the end of the year starts with a burnt nose. As I am steaming my face, eyes closed in bliss, my head dips too far down the basin—nose first. The boiling hot water scalds the tip. When I whip my head back up, there’s a pimple-shaped red blotch on my face. My mom calls me Rudolph (“Roo-doll-fffff”) in a singsongy voice for a whole day.

I wear the blotch onto the plane, from one city to the next. In the sky, I think about the cities I love. My last days of 2018 have been spent in Taipei, slightly chilly, with a misty rain kissing the cheeks, spraying over a labyrinth of little streets, old roofs, and fat boulevards.

In many ways, 2018 can be an autobiography of cities. Washington, Cambridge (US), Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, Seoul, Beijing, Cambridge (UK), London, Singapore, Taipei. They are inscribed within my stories. But, I like to think of 2018 more as an autobiography written in seasons.

春水 Springlike Eyes

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Saiho-ji, Kyoto

In March, Matthew Macfadyen kept saying in my head, You’ve bewitched me, body and soul. I would be eating an apple, washing my face, staring into space and his voice would start. Outside, it was still drearily cold. Somehow, I think of that as the first sign of spring.  The sudden desire to hear someone telling me urgently, or casually, or predictably, or not: I have to see you again.

Spring is feeling sprouts of warmth from between the cracks. When someone seems like the weather even amidst the springlessness of it. Even later, when the flowers came out, when in the thick of spring’s greenery, when I might have stopped looking, I knew spring began a long while ago in the interwoven frost and heat, in the first quickening. Someone’s 19th-century smile.

夏日 A Summer Day

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Tsinghua University, Beijing

My long, languid, baking hot summer seems almost like a midsummer night’s dream.

Summer is the season I grew up in from young, like a second skin. Life’s eternal equilibrium is heat. A temperature that I can wrap myself in but sometimes still shiver.

Summer comes in many shades. I fell in love with the rustling rice plants in a green square fenced between stout houses on my daily runs in Nagaokakyo, the water lilies and the sea of bowl-shaped leaves that crowd the ponds in Beijing, the mirror-like lake almost searing to the eye under the sun in forty degrees Celcius heat in Arashiyama. The matcha green soft serve, cold to the tongue, the milk green tea with black bubbles, and the green bean bumps of the popsicle I suck by the curb. The eddy of dark green tea leaves in the cup when I swirl it unconsciously, lifting it to my lips. A Sichuan opera performer doing bian (change) lian (face) in Lao She Teahouse, the striking, ruthless green mask briefly there before it vanishes. The flowering vines climbing the gray concrete walls of Huashiying hutong.

One of the happiest summers in my memory. Very very hot, but still evergreen.

秋籁 Autumn Songs

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Cambridge Station, Cambridgeshire

Fall writes itself in the margins of my mind. It always seems like one moment the world is summer and then the next moment winter has dawned on us all.

It’s in that shapeless space between us, the press of cotton silk against polyester nylon, between Tianyi in the halcyon days of summer and me in the depths of winter.

It’s Friendsgiving spent in Cambridge, UK. A friendship that traces its roots to days of sultry heat in classrooms with fans, lecture theatres with air-conditioning, and empty libraries soaked with the glare of the sun. Now, it’s a friendship across continents, nestled for a brief few days in the little town of Cambridge, where we huddle and squeal in front of a laptop, share one pair of slippers, finish a bucket of popcorn ten minutes into Fantastic Beasts 2, march all across town in search of Xu Zhimo’s rock, and collectively ignore the thick tome of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason that Tianyi painstakingly borrowed for me and I completely forget to touch.

It’s the gothic spires of a chapel. The hymns soar, dancing in the curved ribs of the fan vaults and against the stained glass. In the patch of twilight framed by my drooping eyelids, I catch candlelights flickering against the curl of someone’s hair, the solemn flipping of pages, wraith-like visions dressed in red and white opening their mouths wide. Unearthly.

Please pinch me, I whisper to Tianyi, if I fall asleep. 

She shoots me a kind look that still manages to convey Don’t you dare.

But still. When we are all up and reciting Bible passages, I start swaying on the balls of my feet, head lolling. There’s a touch. Tianyi gently props me up.

冬阳 Winter Sunshine

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Glenstone, Maryland

My year now starts and ends with winter, bookended by the cold, the mist, the layers.

Winter is like the ouroboros, a circle of time that passes so fast that it’s almost like none passes at all. I close my eyelids. The year flips a page.

It ends on a hotel balcony in Taipei, the balustrades red like the Forbidden City, like Chinese New Year’s angpaos, like good luck.

It starts with a mortal lake, frozen over with ice, 15 miles outside of Washington, D.C. I’m sitting on a couch in a monastic, empty pavilion, reading Anne Carson’s annotations of Roni Horn’s works. It’s a thin, blue book that I finish in one sitting, pages turning in a fierce race against time. When I put it down, everyone else is gone. I race out, footsteps ringing, and see the bus waiting at the curb. Sorry, I apologize breathlessly to all the curious faces, but I can’t stop smiling.

Today, writing this, I think back to a page in that book I took a photo of.

years from now, these
notations in the address book, this frantic hand.

Years from now, these
words on an internet page, this wandering mind. these dancing fingers. this spilling heart. this reel of seasons.

Favorites

Favorite Things I Read This Year:

  • Novels — In A Free State by V. S. Naipaul, Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee, My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki, The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (will try to read it in Chinese too!), The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
  • 言情小说:侧侧轻寒的《簪中录》、Twentine的 《炽道》、丁墨的《挚野》、面北眉南的《嫡谋》
  • Short Stories — The Reading by Ivan Vladislavić, The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, State Change by Ken Liu
  • Screenplays — The Grand Budapest Hotel, (500) Days of Summer
  • Books re-read — The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, 关心则乱的 《知否?知否?应是绿肥红瘦》 ❤
  • Articles — On Becoming A Person of Color by Rachel Heng, The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma by Junot Diaz

Favorite Things I Watched This Year:

  • Feature films — Coco (2017), Pride and Prejudice (2005), 3 Idiots (2009), Ready Player One (2018), Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
  • Shorts — Curfew (2012), Stutterer (2015), 《年少有》李荣浩MV
  • Dramas — Reply 1988 (2015), currently watching 《知否知否应是绿肥红瘦 The Story of Ming Lan》 which just started airing on Christmas (based on one of my favorite Chinese novels!)
  • Reality TV — 《声入人心 Super-Vocal》 (2018) (Literally, my entire family is obsessed with this show!!! It’s a singing competition with 36 male — also, very good-looking — contestants from opera and musical backgrounds competing for 6 seats, with multiple rounds of evaluations, face-offs and strategic teaming in different formats, e.g. solos, duets, trios. The first season is still airing, but it’s all on Youtube. You can thank me later. ^_^)

Individuals I’m Thankful For:

  • All of you, reading this and maybe more. (✿◠‿◠)
  • 2018 is the first year I’ve charted in entirety on this blog, a full year’s worth of stories told in this tiny space. I hope to continue sharing my life through stories with each of you here in 2019.
  • This autobiography of seasons captures only some of the strongest strokes of feelings — broad in arcs, bold in colors. Many of you who have been a true blessing to my life (you know who you are!!!) have not been mentioned by name. To each of you, thank you for teaching me every day how to be a better friend, roommate, daughter, student, team member, and human being. ❤
  • Thank you, God, for weaving all these stories into my life — these people, these cities, and these seasons that make 2018.

Happy New Year! 🌟🌟🌟 May your 2019 be magical from spring to winter, full of warmth in the coldest days and wonder and faith when sweat pours down your back. 💓💓💓

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Lots of love, peace out 2018,

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my pillow book: the pathos of November

Inspired by Sei Shōnagon’s diary-lists in The Pillow Book.

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Things That I Will Remember

Shivering as we tread the familiar path to Annenberg in the canopy of night. Everyone holding signs celebrating the declaration of their concentrations. Shimmery silver streaks, Trophy Wife and Sugar Daddy signboards, bare cookies, beaming faces, flashing lights, postcards sent into the future, holding my choices in my palm: History & Literature and Philosophy.

Classroom to Table with Professors Ellen Song (History & Literature) and Musa Syeed (Screenwriting). Faculty Dinner at Leverett House with Philosophy Professor Samantha Matherne. ❤

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Professor Matherne, who chatted with me about Kant, Kyoto, the imagination, grad school, and teaching philosophy. 🙂

Stepping into the dim, timber lighting of Border Café, looking left and right, before my gaze falls on a face I haven’t seen in person since 2014. Many things change, her smile (and our appetites) stays the same. Aspirations are different, more uncertain, still fervent. Our eyes as bright, as clean as our sixteen-year-old selves.

 

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The hasty, just-right moment of picking up the phone, hearing a strangely familiar voice and only being able to utter Oh my God again and again until we both start laughing. Falling into an easy camaraderie built from a patchwork of a few days — some friends are only made in a handful of hours but seem to have been known to me from a past life. Laughing in an empty dorm room strewn with red solo cups and curious, sullen bottles of alcohol, like the aftermath of some alien abduction scene, the three of us the last ones standing. Talking till 4AM, bleary-eyed, yet feeling like if sleep was not gravity, we could float till infinity in this ether of honest intimate conversation.

Eating hotpot with ginger ale and lemon tea, slurping a big bowl of ramen under the veil of steam and the wise words and heartfelt advice from Tim & Ee San, tasting first snow on the tip of my tongue.

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To the wisest and the kindest. Thank you for guiding me and bringing me to eat yummy food! ❤

Going wild at Berklee’s Jay Chou Tribute Concert, in stark contrast to all the other mild concert-goers. Singing like no one can hear us, dancing like no one is watching us.

Doing Harvard-Yale as a room, all deck in Harvard gear, rubbing numb fingers, smiling in the wind, rosy cheeks, furry hats, munching on fries, cheering confusedly, posing for photos, and collapsing into giggles over how good we look.

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Walking from Fenway Park (in Boston) back to our dorm (in Cambridge) in the cold, noses red, sipping on bubble tea (milk green tea, mini bubbles, 50% sugar, no ice) and talking about everything under a sky thick with clouds and fecundity.

Things That Constitute A Bad Day

Waking up at 7AM after snoozing my 6AM alarm for an hour, once every eight minutes.

Writing a paper already due which I got an extension for. Clock ticking.

Stomach growling but no real food in sight.

A throat parched and scratched from two chocolate chip granola bars and a hundred goldfish crackers.

Waiting in front of the printer for ten minutes, paying three times, refreshing, and nothing stirs.

Being late for class. Again.

Falling down the stairs of Quincy, wrapped like a maki roll in my puffy ankle-length down coat, tumbling, crashing into the long legs of some bewildered, terrified guy who grips me tight and sets me right on the stairs. Glasses askew.

Not wearing contacts and glasses fogging up when I blow my nose.

Limping back to my dorm room in the darkness, puddles sprouting in front of me like invisible tiles.

Purple bruises on my legs when I want to wear a skirt.

What I Wrote This Month

A 20-page screenplay titled UNWIND ME about the inexhaustible variety of college life. Three characters. One night. Sometimes we don’t see how much we need someone to care or just how lonely we are. 

A paper using the lens of trauma to inspect the complexity of white liberal guilt in Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine: its historicity, hypocrisy, and fantasy of a return to innocence.

A comparative paper on the extent of fictional repair in Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats vs. Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt.

Coming up next week: revising UNWIND ME and writing my second PHIL 129 midterm paper.

Things That Don’t Last

Strawberry yogurt-coated pretzel crumbs. Squashed juice boxes. Empty bottled iced tea. Lindt chocolate wrappers like aluminum petals.

Negativity. Bad days. Writer’s block. Being upset at a friend. The absence of a response, the limbo before a decision, the length of time called waiting.

A month like November.

Lots of love,

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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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[Story] On Black Friday Morning, in a Sun-lit Café

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BLACK FRIDAY — 10:40AM, Friday

She sits there, her heart a solid thudding of the metronome, an old man’s pace. The café is a startling white, clean like a repurposed showroom. The rows of baked goods behind the open-air counter are a dash of brown-gold, like yolk nestled in egg-white. Patterns crawl across its interior; grey wisps swim on the marble tabletop; black tiles mark out the honeycomb mosaic floor her brown boots are tapping on. The monochrome is artificial to the strained eye. She has been up since midnight and it’s already almost noon.

To her right, another girl is collapsed against the bistro chair with shopping bags pooled at her feet—the little red star of Macy’s peeks at the trio.

“I guess this is the American Black Friday experience,” the guy on her other side says, somewhat in wonder.

She is too tired to make a scintillating comment. Her cleverness has abandoned her in the wake of the sheer exhaustion from staying up beyond 24 hours, the rapidly dwindling adrenaline of battling in the discount-strewn aisles, and the curious, surreal feeling that Thanksgiving night half a day ago seems like a fraying memory several-years-old.

The plate and cup before her are empty except for crumbs and foam on the rim. She remarks, “I’m starving.”

“Still?” the girl on her right laughs. She’s about to say something else when a server stops in front of their table.

“Oh, my food is here,” the guy says, sitting up, as the server places the croissant sandwich on the table and whisks away the number stand.

She might not know now but she will remember and thank this moment to come. This moment as wet sunlight is touching her weary face and a warmth buds unexpectedly, as the realization washes over her that perhaps all she thought she had known about what love means is wrong, as he nudges the sandwich towards her—stubbled face, black-rimmed glasses, blood-shot eyes, incompatible sexuality and all—and tiredly says, “Eat up.”

It dawns on her gently, an idea of what matters in this waiting and searching for someone to like simply and wholeheartedly. She hugs it close to her.

THE DAY BEFORE, THANKSGIVING DAY — 11:40PM, Thursday

She is in the car, listening. Her fingers are numb from the cold. She pulls out striped gloves from her pockets, wears them concentratedly, but cannot block out the la-di-da voices around her.

She knows, in this tiny vehicle weaving through the night, that she is placing something down. As she casts aside old understandings, she is uncertain what to think next. Some new understanding is taking shape in the dark, still nebulous.

She doesn’t know now that she will—in a sun-lit café the next morning after an unbelievable night—finally understand that perhaps reputation means nothing, as do complexion and pretensions, superficial impressions and fleeting interactions, and too much a dosage of self-assurance.

But, there and then, in the car, all she thinks is yes as her phone screen lights up with the message: Black Friday shopping? Like in 15 min?

Her gloved finger starts typing out a reply.