Goodbye, 2020

2020 is a year of records set, plans broken, trajectories transformed, passions lived.

It marks the first time I’ve stayed indoors for four months straight. For 120 days, I didn’t take a single step out of the apartment. (!!!)

It marks the most words I’ve written in a year, ever. All these years I’ve talked about writing a novel and turns out, it really IS doable.

It marks the first time I’ve managed to draft so long and so complete a novel manuscript, currently at 101,000 words. It’s uneven at parts, needing some serious editing in 2021, and has a few potholes here and there. But the road has been paved from beginning to end!!! The goal is to smoothen and varnish it with sustained rounds of revision in the months ahead.

It (probably—though I don’t keep count) marks the most books I’ve read in a year. Never have I had so much time just to read, think, and write (strip everything else away and only these three pillars are left in life’s ground structure).

It marks plans dashed—spring break in Israel, summer in D.C., senior year on campus—and in the chaos of scattered itineraries and occasionally splintering faith, I found a haven of peace, a reason strong enough to withstand all that derailed, and a purpose that anchored me in these weird times. What I thought would frustrate ended up freeing me. As the space of my physical world constricted to the size of the household, creatively it grew to contain multitudes: the worlds in the pages I read, the worlds growing under my pen, the worlds I dreamed feverishly about. Instead of claustrophobia, I strangely felt more liberated and less burdened than I have in a long while. Distractions were axed, choices were made for me by the external state of affairs, and all I had left before me was a desk, a laptop, and an open, blank calendar for my mind to inscribe upon.

Standing on the last square of 2020 and gazing back, I’m grateful. I’m lucky to be in Singapore, where community cases number mostly zero on most days, things are opening up (Phase 3!), vaccines will be provided to all for free, and the death rate is low. I’m blessed with a stable, loving, and supportive home and “a room of one’s own.” My life is animated with stories and colored by characters who knock at midnight, in visits of imagination. I’m lucky that writing has found and rescued me. It became my lifeboat, an open door when all windows were closed, and showed me an existential purpose—melodramatic as it sounds, call it destiny.

To my parents, who I have spent most of 2020 with, thank you for respecting my dreams, giving me full autonomy with all your faith, and creating so much happiness in my life. Thank you for illuminating my moments of weakness, motivating me when I lose my way, and loving me in the best way possible. I love you more than words can say, Mommy and Daddy.

To God, thank you for teaching me the most crucial lessons in the gentlest of ways, for forgiving all the times I’ve disappointed you, for showing me a purpose that electrifies and makes me want to wake up every day, for all the opportunities to do you proud. When I see one set of footprints in the sand, I know You are carrying me.

Who knows what 2021 holds? Uncertainty is the only thing that’s certain. I don’t know when I’ll be back on Harvard campus, what will happen to my manuscript, where I’ll be next summer. But 2020 has fortified the bits of me that used to doubt incessantly, cushioned my blind optimism, and taught me that the only way to make things happen and reach seemingly big, impossible goals is to start small and persist every day.

I’m ready, 2021. Let me hurtle into you, like the bullet leaves the barrel.

***

A Quick Round of Favorites

(Note: some of the places/things mentioned were released before 2020. My only criteria is that 2020 was the year I first discovered them.)

Favorite Books: 12 Top Reads in 2020

Favorite Skincare Product: Sulwhasoo Herbal Clay Purifying Mask
Honorable Mentions: L’Occitane Cherry Blossom Shimmering Lotion, AmorePacific Moisture Bound Rejuvenating Eye Treatment Gel

Favorite Movie: Parasite
Honorable Mention: Little Women

Feels like I watched Parasite ages ago but it was actually back in February before the world went off the rails. I remember the four of us in a packed AMC theater beside Boston Commons, all leaving the cinema amazed by the sheer artistry and incision we had just witnessed on screen—a brilliant story seamlessly stitched in a perfect choreography of acting, writing, and directing.

Sadly, I’ve watched very few movies this year. If you have must-watch recommendations, send them my way!!! : )

Favorite Album: Evermore, Taylor Swift
Honorable Mention: Folklore, Taylor Swift (Read my review of the album here.)

Both are tributes to fantasy in a time when brutal reality demands our attention. Honestly, it’s a close call between E and F. Evermore wins in my heart because of a few standout tracks: “marjorie” (the Youtube lyric video features footage of Taylor’s opera-singing grandmother), “tolerate it” (I know I keep saying this but the lyrics in this bridge is her best one yet), “gold rush,” and “long story short.”

Fictional songwriting blends good storytelling with ear-catching composition. Who can do both the autobiographical AND the fictional better than Taylor? No one. My fictional favorites are the infidelity-driven crime anthem “no body, no crime” and the unlikely love story between two con artists in “cowboy like me.”

More wistful and adventurous and less sad, Evermore has chiseled away the parts of 2020 that we wish we could forget and carved out what can last.

Favorite Song: 《刻在你心底的名字》卢广仲

***

Wishing each of you a happy, healthy, and fruitful 2021! See you next year ❤️

With love,

12 Top Reads in 2020

Hello dear reader, HAPPY HOLIDAYS! ✨

I was drafting my annual Year-in-Review post but became spoilt for choice when trying to narrow down my favorite read of 2020 to one.

So a happy sidetrack: I pick my top read for each month of the year. What better way is there to sum up 2020 than to do a merry-go-round of books? 🎡

Whoosh goes the roulette of months—

January: My Name Is Red, Orhan Pamuk

Reading this in Istanbul has taught me something: read a novel about a city while you’re there. Your eyes will capture vibrant snapshots of a vanished past while gazing upon the present’s palimpsest. With stories, the city does not forget.

As I type this post, pausing ever so often, I am casually flipping through the dog-eared pages of My Name Is Red, which has traveled with me from Istanbul to Singapore to Cambridge — I started reading it on the rocking ferry across the Golden Horn and finished it on the red-eye flight from Istanbul to Singapore. Even a continent away, now, the pages still immediately engulf me in the chill and mystery of winding streets; the sheets of rain tickling a Bosphorus that has seen far too many conquerors and armies on its banks; the incredible awe that leaden domes, cypress trees, stone walls, minaret towers inspire at first sight; the bitter burn of çayı (tea) when gulped down too fast; the clink of teaspoons against the curve of the glass; the sound and fury of lives past; the romance of Istanbul.

I, Istanbul

Set in Istanbul in 1591 during the Ottoman empire, the novel begins with a murder mystery of one of the Sultan’s miniaturists (the illustrators of manuscripts). Call it a philosophical thriller, a romance, or an ode to art. There is a dizzying array of characters, a dazzling tapestry of ideas, and a language so vivid that all the paintings come to life in my head. Pamuk is a master of ekphrasis.

The rise of Europe and the decline of the Ottoman empire set the stage for a clash of civilizations. Front and center is the encounter between two different artistic meanings: the European realist style (pursuing the subjective gaze/individualizing perspective; i.e. as seen by the artist) and the Islamic tradition, which aspires to apprehend an objective truth (capturing an object’s essence, to be as close to Allah’s omniscient, timeless gaze as possible).

A must-read for any art-lover; a delight for anyone interested in the Ottoman empire; a revelation for any traveler who has been to Istanbul.

February: The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

I read this on the plane, which says something: it’s readable enough on a red-eye and captivating enough to hold my attention over the in-flight movie catalogue.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces… So begins this novel of a Captain in South Vietnam who sympathizes with and spies for the Communists in the North. Ironic in copious doses, especially when the Captain lands a job as “the technical consultant in charge of authenticity” for a Hollywood movie on the Vietnam War, the narrative takes all the tropes America has accumulated about Vietnam and exposes how absurd they are.

The Captain’s experience of settling in California as a refugee after the Fall of Saigon in 1975 is poignant and hilarious. He finds a job, for instance, doing academic “Oriental hocus pocus.” (HAHA!) The ending too, which I will not spoil, is graphic but powerful, reminding me of the passages of psychological torture in 1984.

The Sympathizer is a satire with heart. I like how it’s not scared of offending, not prone to translating itself (in the broadest sense possible), and dances acrobatically across continents, battle lines, and ideologies.

March: Outline, Rachel Cusk

I’m a Rachel Cusk convert. The only author featured twice on this list is Ms Cusk and, I have to say, she has unlocked a way of writing that reveals the most startling observations without ever revealing anything about the narrator herself. Impassive, cool narration; spare, elegant style. Her writing is oh-so penetrating that I maniacally fold pages and draw lines.

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

on my desk: the pandemic stay-home edition

April: The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh

Does literature deal with climate change? I am intrigued by Ghosh’s argument, which I laid out in an earlier review:

Compellingly, by approaching climate change from his standpoint as a novelist, Ghosh argues that the modern novel in its fundamental tenets — the ordered regularity of bourgeois life, the gradualist predictability of nature, the human-centric ideals of the European Enlightenment — is complicit in concealing climate change. The climate crisis is, for Ghosh, also a crisis of the imagination.

on my desk: the pandemic stay-home edition

But what about science-fiction and literature featuring the posthuman? I was persuaded by Ghosh initially and then could not resist complicating his reading. The solution was to write an essay. 🧠

May: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

ONE OF MY FAVORITE BOOKS BY ONE OF MY FAVORITE WRITERS.

Worth a reread once a year. I don’t know what it is about this book that sets it apart from everything else I’ve read. Everyone should read it at least once in their lifetimes. Just look at the first line—embedded within it is the immensity of a whole world, a new kind of creativity, and a language of life:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

That’s it. Cyclical time, rememory, war, imminent death, family, and the familiar turned unfamiliar: ice. How does one “discover” ice?

It’s a crazy big novel. Critics have said that OHYS is a parable/allegory of the history of humanity. Professor Davíd Carrasco suggested that, perhaps, the author was simply trying to create a literary picture of the world of his childhood. Marquez hinted as much in his memoir, Living to Tell The Tale (reviewed here).

OHYS contains plagues, wars, a massacre, murders and incest, and ends with a windstorm that wipes the Buendía family from the face of earth. And yet, I finished reading it feeling immensely alive. Macondo feels contemporary, the apocalyptic begins from within, and the seed of solitude is the soul’s greatest magic and mystery.

Thank you, Gabo.

PS Hear Profé share how OHYS awakens the soul in lockdown in a six-minute New Yorker video.

June: The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin + Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

A conversation across time.

Ta Nehisi-Coates writes in the vein of Baldwin, thematically and structurally. In a year of racial reckoning, both writers’ ability to look beyond their situation even as they are trapped within it illuminates the gaps in America—the gap, simply put, “between the world and me”: the difference within one’s own community, the condition of being a citizen without full social participation, the humiliation of not belonging.

What kind of solidarity is there out of these differences? Baldwin and Coates negotiate solidarity that comes from vulnerability, that is, to use one’s history and memory to interrogate the future instead of surrendering to total identification with generational trauma.

Baldwin’s writings are timeless; Coates’ book is more in the moment. Both are necessary reads in order to understand the United States as it is today.

July: 《鹌鹑》它似蜜

独一无二的一篇文,看得我又压抑又痴醉。两个疯子,两个不爱世的人学会爱的故事。他们彼此之间不懂得如何好好的爱,但也只有他们才能拴得住对方,也只有他们能让彼此痛苦,也只有他们彼此需要。说杨剪是薄情人,是山间的风,但他也愿意被拢住,有牵挂,愿意对那只与他伴舞的蝴蝶温柔。冷淡却迷人的男孩呀。他是黑色的明月、月下的湖山、山峰的暗面。

在网络文学中,它似蜜的文笔令人惊艳,如水墨画,如缤纷、浓烈的内心世界。李白是不一样的,他单纯又极端,厌世却又不撞南墙不回头。在他的眼里,他有一个杯子,但只有杨剪让杯子里有了第一滴水。没有杨剪,这个杯子又怎么会满呢?

所以,李白会爱上杨剪,是必然:“当然这也是情有可原,幽默有才华笑起来带点邪气忽冷忽热又偶尔温柔到死的男人谁不喜欢。” 那么杨剪会爱上李白是他自己都无法启齿,但永远潜藏于心的秘密。我相信他爱他,如此难得。

“干净谁都喜欢,但它也太普遍了。”

“脏是难得的?”

“你是难得的。”

August: Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

What unconventional form! The novel is written like a screenplay and it reminds me of my screenwriting workshop days when I typed in Courier font, titled section headings with INT./EXT., and centralized dialogue. I love Yu’s formal experiment, which serves a dual purpose: he critiques the type-casting of Chinese by Hollywood while seamlessly executing the Shakespearean conceit, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Every character in the novel is an actor on set. Introducing Generic Asian Man, Background Oriental Male, Delivery Guy, Disgraced Son, Striving Immigrant, and the most coveted role of them all (the ceiling for any Asian American male), Kung Fu Guy.

It’s delicious to read, weird at times, ambitious in scope, and often funny with a pang.

At times, the novel might seem to skirt too easily over knottier ideas, going for style instead of substance, but the moments of gold redeem it.

You came here, your parents and their parents and their parents, and you always seem to have just arrived and yet never seem to have actually arrived. You’re here supposedly, in new land full of opportunity, but somehow have gotten trapped in a pretend version of the old country.

PS There is always something rather meta in Yu’s writing. The first novel I read by him, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (which I wrote a paper on in my sophomore year — check the ACADEMIC tab), has the same surreal, metaphysical vibe; except that, instead of actors, everyone in it is a time-traveler.

September: 外卖骑手,困在系统里” 赖祐萱,《人物》(Translation: Delivery Riders, Trapped in The System)

An essay that made me reflect on how I as a consumer treat delivery couriers and the ethics of the business models of food delivery giants in every continent (Grab, Uber, Meituan Dianping, etc.). In the capitalist juggernaut, a few sit atop billions while the rest race against time like uniformed worker ants. Money and profits lubricate the wheels. User demand determines the direction the wheel goes. Paid less than minimum wage are the couriers — the gig workers — who are the cogs, pushed here and there, struggling even to make a living.

In a pandemic, when people are confined to their homes, the quarantine economy all the more operates on the backs of these delivery couriers. Yet, the most exposed and essential ironically lack employment protections and sufficient financial compensation. They are whipped by the timer and manipulated by the algorithm (read the NYTimes’ article, “How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons”); they are perpetually at the mercy of a bad rating, no tip, or confusing address instructions; they are a byte in the cloud of big data, treated less like humans with real-world safety constraints and more like a stray code to be behaviorally engineered into optimum.

And in this triangle of the user, the platform, and the courier, aren’t we all complicit?

October: Transit, Rachel Cusk

This is the second book from Cusk I’ve read, which still deserves a FREAKING BRILLIANT. Few living writers make me feel this way. I remember thinking as I closed the covers, Honest to god, she might be one of the best writers of her generation.

In her writing lies a deep skepticism towards language, perception, the self, and reality itself. In an interview, Cusk once said, “I have lost all interest in having a self.” Creative death liberates. As the narrator renovates her flat, attempting to start life in a new place after divorce, so too does the novel upend any semblance of a story arc, tearing apart facades. Nothing really happens but much more is dismantled then rebuilt.

Cusk imbues life’s most ordinary details with lurid, laconic clarity. The excoriating is delivered with the lightness of a feather and with startling honesty.

It seemed so strange that these two extremes – the repellent and the idyllic, death and life – could stand only a few feet apart and remain mutually untransformed.

I asked him what he used his freedom for, since he defended it so assiduously, and he looked somewhat taken aback.

I said a lot of people spent their lives trying to make things last as a way of avoiding asking themselves whether those things were what they really wanted.

PS Currently reading the last book in the trilogy, Kudos.

November: Less, Andrew Sean Greer

Happy. An unabashedly happy novel. How rare it is to read a novel so optimistically romantic with fantastic prose. An affectionate, tragicomic tale of a gay writer, Arthur Less, who turns 50 on a globetrotting trip of self-reckoning (a picaresque dance from Mexico to Italy to Germany to Morocco to India to Japan). Crowding the page are lovers, writing woes, the befuddling rituals and occasional artifice of the publishing industry, and the evocative sensory detail with which Less fleshes out each place he goes to. Hovering in the background is the wedding of the love of his life, Freddy, to a man other than him. For a man about to turn fifty, is it too late to find true love?

In some ways, the novel is about age.

The city of youth, the country of age. But in between, where Less is living—that exurban existence?

But at its heart, Less is a love story with every shade of romance: first love, co-habitation, falling out of love, a string of casual lovers, foreign flings, fleeting flirtations, heartbreak, redemption, and somewhere in between, the sensation that “it feels like it could never be anyone else.” Our bumbling hero endlessly endears through these romantic mishaps and professional missteps:

He kisses—how do I explain it? Like someone in love. Like he has nothing to lose. Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can use only the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you.

I adore the novel’s wistfulness, moments of tenderness, and the innocence that beams through the absurdity and heartbreaks to deliver an ending that satisfies any romantic. All hail, love! 💙

December: The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

Achingly gorgeous. The novel is swollen with longing amidst a decaying world, in the abandoned theater of war, in a shell-shocked Italian villa. Three men and one woman: a sapper, a spy-thief, a nurse, and a burnt man, who does not know his name. All damaged by the Second World War.

While the first section was a bit difficult to get into since it floated around like a sensual cloud, by the second section I could barely tear my eyes away from the page. The writing, with its rhythm and pauses, ellipses and elapses, is so rich that it compels the reader to labor over every word. It’s no easy read, but hell is it worth it.

What an experience to read this novel in the midst of a pandemic. Hana who reads to grieve, Kip who defuses bombs as a personal mission long after the war is over, Caravaggio who gets by on morphine after having two thumbs chopped off during the war, and the English patient whose love affair with a married woman is all he clings onto after a plane crash in the desert… All of them drift, in their separate loneliness; the war has done away with everything. Shut off from the rest of the world, they are knee-deep in memory, in unfulfilled longings, in search of an anchor, a meaning, some way to get by.

The war obliterates intimacy. So has the pandemic, in a way. We are left untethered, alone, yearning. A world with a new interface, needing another lexicon of behavior, begging to be reinterpreted. What then? In the ruins of the villa, in the aftermath of detonations, there is tentative love, the removal of the clothing of nations, the building of a small utopia. And there is also immense loss.

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography—to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.

Wars, tribes, borders, languages. There is no moment like right now to remind us that we are communal histories.

***

What are your favorite reads of 2020? 🌱

With love,

Overheard in New York

Thank you, New York. Many things you were, but boring you were not. I will miss you. x

Finished typing this list as I was standing in line at JFK — it’s surreal how fast these two months passed (although there were patches when the days felt meandering and Mondays when I could not get up), but there’s something intensely liberating and restless about living in Manhattan by yourself, a certain je ne sais quoi.

A list of anecdotes.

***

1. (Walking down Times Square with two finance girls behind me talking about Type A guys.)
If some guy is going to reject me just because I make less than $200K a year, then I’m out, one of them says.
Well, that’s what all guys are thinking, her friend says, some are just better at articulating.

2. Everyone, after meeting me, asks within three sentences: Where are you from? 

3. When she hands the Phantom his mask, I say solemnly to Z, she is handing him his dignity.

4. I’m walking down the street and some guy keeps yelling behind me, Jesus is coming for you with a sword!
What kind of sword?
a man passing by shouts back.

5. A friend and I have an in-depth discussion about the statistical possibility of true love on dating apps. We conclude that it’s very low.
But the next day I meet E, who used to teach me physics. She has moved in with her boyfriend and it’s getting serious.
You and your boyfriend are so cute, I say, how did you guys meet?
She tells me with a shoulder shrug, Coffee Meets Bagel. 

6. I believe God has a plan for all of us.  And I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet, croons Elder Price.

7. People seem to think entertainment should be paid for, but that news should be free, we discuss at the bar over meatballs.

Do you have a Spotify subscription but still refuse to pay for the New York Times?

… You’re right.

8. The stock markets are going to crash in 2021, the man tells me on a cab, silhouetted against the streetlamp light outside the car window.
That’s the year I graduate, I murmur.

9. Climate change. Climate crisis.

10. But first, here’s my take, says Fareed Zakaria.

11. The girl walks out of her room in a bright pink bathrobe and closes in on me, asking while she holds out her phone, Have you seriously never listened to a BTS song?

12. The one and only day I had to wear a suit, he said, gesturing wildly, happened to be Pride Day. And here I am, standing on the subway with my suit and tie, and everyone else is in suspenders or wearing nothing or in every single color ever invented. Goddammit!

13. (I actually talk to a neighbor. Surprisingly rare in a sprawling apartment in Midtown of Manhattan.)

We stand in awkward silence in the elevator.

Do you happen to know if it’s raining outside? the neighbor suddenly turns to me and asks.

I checked the weather app and it shouldn’t be. And I didn’t bring my umbrella, I answer truthfully.

Yeah, it’s a hassle sometimes.

Exactly, I’m going grocery shopping so… I make a gesture of carrying heavy bags with two hands (belatedly, I realize as I’m motioning that it makes me look like a 🦍).

He laughs. If it rains, he says, you can always take an Uber.

That’s the plan!

You mean, Uber there and Uber back?

I shake my head. I walk there, I emphasize the word ‘walk’, and Uber back.

Oh, Trader Joe’s pretty far.

A beat. Yes! I’m going to Trader Joe’s!

The elevator door opens. We amble.

Wish there was a Trader Joe’s closer to us, he says.

Well, I just finished dinner so it’s good to walk.

As I speak, he is wrapping up his umbrella like peeling lettuce. It’s done. He hands it to me.

You want it? he asks.

I’m strangely moved but I say, No, but thank you, thank you.

14. We’ve been looking a lot at China — Do they want to be a superpower? What’s on their agenda? — but we should also look at us. Regardless of China’s ambitions, they will become rich and powerful. So the question we need to ask ourselves is: are we comfortable with another country being rich and powerful, and one day as rich and powerful as us?

I find myself nodding.

15. I tried to be famous on Twitter, but it was too much effort, he said, thick brows furrowed.
How long did you try? I mumbled, chewing a matcha beignet.
Quite a while, he said, almost begrudgingly, like two weeks.

16. There is another kind of math that kids in the US study – Singapore math, he said, chewing a fry.

Oh, I said, Wait. WHAT.

17. My stomach is colonized by cookies.

18. I feel like we are all collectively held captive by the MTA, she said into my ear.

***

Goodbye, my New York summer! You’ve been good to me. ❤️🗽🌉🍕👩🏻‍💻✨🎧🚕

Lots of love from Singapore,

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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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2017, Thank You for Everything

2017 is my most paradoxical year yet in that it is both the most monumental and the most peaceful one in recent memory. For the first time in a long while, I found myself without any clear-cut, measurable goals. Since I was a kid and could grasp the concept of a university, Harvard had been my dream. After 13 December 2016 when the dream actually came true, I became suspended in a haze of euphoria. This happy bubble finally knocked against the edges of reality once again (as it should) when I stepped into college. I began wondering what the next big thing in my life was going to be. On the first day of 2018, I can tell you honestly that I still don’t have a concrete answer; I’m confused and conflicted about my aspiration for significance. But, 2017 is the first of many years in my life that I will spend figuring that out. As a yearly tradition, I write down the lessons I’m most grateful for on the first day of each new year. This year, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned with you:

  • Solitude is fertile. Solitude is okay. The capacity to be still and to soak in the uncertain, the unknown, the unresolved, and the uncomfortable sensation of being in your own opaque yet intimate psyche can be raw material for deeper self-understanding and even creative work. For instance, it gave birth to this paragraph and a story revolving around a theme of loneliness:

It was then when she saw the bartender, silent and smiling, like a priest intoning a mass to well-ordered rows of glasses. In the pool of warm light, she saw his dancing hands concocting drinks that swallowed worries without prejudice; his clear-headed sobriety in an inebriated world; and, through her sunglasses, she saw plain as day his brilliant solitude.

— “April, I Arrive on The Shores of Your Love” (the final story I submitted in December 2017 for the CFMR Fiction Writing Workshop, one of my freshman fall classes)

  • Boredom too is fertile. In fact, I’ll argue that it’s necessary. I used to get really anxious about being idle, but I’ve since come to terms with how it renders my messy and at times incomprehensible life into something less perplexing. Instead of striving to be productive constantly, being present in the moment and to simply rest idly allows for me to imagine—to imagine a mosaic of meaning for the web of my life.
  • The best way to become better at writing is to write and to receive honest no-frills critique. When I was at a literary reading by Jeffrey Eugenides a few months ago, he told all of us, Inspiration is a myth. It’s something produced by exertion, not grace. I’ve found that increasingly true.
  • “I don’t know” is one of the most freeing and rewarding sentences ever. Surrendering myself to not-knowing is liberating. I’m far more at peace with making uncertain what seems certain than with claiming certainty.
  • Our lives are a constellation of chance and choice. There have been frequent moments in 2017 when I was struck by an incredible wonder—will I be who I am at this moment if I had given up in a period of despair in 2016 and didn’t apply to Harvard? What if I had filled out my Housing Questionnaire differently and winded up with an entirely disparate set of roommates? What if I hadn’t applied to the Fiction Writing Workshop this semester as one of my classes—would I still be thinking about concentrating in English instead of Government or History? What if my parents hadn’t changed their minds at the very last moment on the matter of scholarships, and then I might have headed off to college with a wholly different set of priorities? I sometimes think about this when crossing the streets, rushing across the Yard, or lying awake in bed at night. Then, I realize that maybe we’re all just a cosmic aggregation of the lives we lead and the lives we don’t.

I do not know where I might have been led… What is certain is that I am satisfied with my fate and that I should not want it changed in any way at all. So I look upon these factors that helped me to fulfill it as so many fortunate strokes of chance.

Simone De Beauvoir

  • To my future self: be wary of choosing the ‘easy path’ and be wary of prestige. If I am equally torn between two paths, but one is more ‘prestigious’, as a general rule I really ought to choose the other. My thoughts on what’s desirable are always going to be slightly influenced by prestige. So, if the two choices seem equal to me, I probably have more genuine desire for the ‘less prestigious’ one. I hope I remember that.
  • What a lucky accident it is for us to be alive. There is no redoing, no perfecting, and no rehearsals to life. As it happens to us, we happen upon it. There is a strange serendipity to life, of such a delicate balance of infinite little accidents and intuitive encounters and contingencies that a single miss would have meant that this me I so concretely know vanishes into oblivion. Whenever I feel very down, I think of this and it makes me a feel a lot better. I am reminded of the magnificence of even existing. How can any single existence be ordinary?
  • Life is but a moment, so living it happily matters more than anything else. I really like how this phrase sounds in Chinese, so I’ll write it again: 人生就是一瞬,自己每天高高兴兴地过最重要。

Thank you to my dearest friends, family, and most of all to God for all the goodness, blessings, and wonder in my life. Without Him, I wouldn’t understand the importance of waiting, of growing, of failures, of tiny milestones of awareness, and of new understandings that push me into a braver, stronger, kinder, and better version of myself. It’s strange how life works—something that seems monumental, defining, or inescapable no longer amounts to much (if anything, at all) when we perceive it from many steps ahead. That’s life—it’s to keep moving forward and not wallow in the despair or jubilation of a moment.

HAPPY NEW YEAR! ❤️


Lots of love, and thank you, always, for reading,

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