[Valentine’s Day Short Story] April, I Arrive on The Shores of Your Love

Author’s Note: Here’s the first short story I wrote in college. It’s from 2017. I workshopped it in the first creative writing workshop I took at Harvard — thank you to Claire Messud and everyone else who gave me their precious feedback. The writing might be kitschy at parts and the style is also rather different from how I write now. But, here’s a story for those yearning for love and also those who are happily in love. Happy Valentine’s Day! x

All illustrations below are by a talented Vietnamese artist I came across on Pinterest tonight, Xuan Loc Xuan, whose artworks somehow tie in astonishingly, effortlessly with the lives of three women. 

Parrot

The bar is closed. Sometime between darkness and dawn. Kento sits behind the counter, surrounded by pyramids of bottles from floor to ceiling and an assembly of shimmering glass. His fingers, bathed in the dusky retro lighting from the lanterns overhead, drums on the mahogany. This is his crystal vestibule. But, right now, his fingers look like they are rubbed with faint streaks of blood. He is almost afraid to touch the book before him. What if he sullies it?

He unbuttons his vest, rubs his hands, and noiselessly mixes the cocktail that gave him his first sip of fame; it has been a while since he last made the Taiko for himself—It’s her favorite drink here, he thinks, as he downs it in a gulp. When his tongue swipes against the residuum of bitter matcha powder on the roof of his mouth, he wonders if this is why she drinks it so religiously. It has been exactly four years and eight months, he thinks, since she first walked in. Wearing sunglasses past midnight. Looking like a lost tori. That night, she sat there in silence staring at the Taiko she ordered. He alone saw the drops that trickled down from under her metal shades into the green swirl. He said nothing.

She came back the next week, and then, the week after. It took him a while to realize that she wasn’t frigidly aloof like those other moneyed Japanese women who frequented the bar. She was just painfully awkward. It took him even longer to realize that she was, in fact, a writer—her unsmiling photo on the back covers, hesitantly staring into readers’ souls from the bestselling racks. Her most recent novel published last year was even getting adapted into a film starring Ume Yuji.

Just yesterday, she asked him, “What is the Taiko to you, Kento-san?”

“Taiko? It’s love. I’m not sure if you’ve fallen in love before, Yuri-chan, but it’s everything. Bitter, sour, sweet, and a burning feeling that then dulls into solitude.”

Her eyes flew to his hands before looking down. A quiet moment passed between them. Then, she took out a book from her handbag. “This book to me is like the Taiko to you. It’s my gift. I hope you read it,” she said. She left without ordering anything.

Now, the Taiko has given him courage and awakened a long-dormant thought. Can it be?

He holds the book, feeling its smooth spine. His curved knuckles rest against the hard wood. April is scrawled across the light brown cover, which has printed creases. It looks like a piece of cardboard, he thinks.

He flips open the cover, his index finger briefly touching her printed name, and begins.

***

on a train

— March 31, 2013 —

She couldn’t help staring at him. She didn’t expect to see him again. An anorexic girl sat a few feet away, giving her the side-eye every so often; on the other end, a tiny kimono-clad grandma with a silver bun primly perched on a seat, orange Daiei grocery bags pooling around her sandaled, flaccid feet; and, sprawled across four seats, two high school boys with brilliantly bleached hair who, considering the hour, must have skipped school. While her usual rush-hour mornings were spent on trains brimming over with men and women in monochrome suits, this was a sparsely occupied carriage with specks of personality.

And there he was: a tousled-haired young man slouching against the white train door—of a small build, but lean instead of stocky. His dark eyes looked like they had been mascaraed—framed by very, very long lashes, she decided—below gently arched brows, resting slightly far apart above a roundish nose. There was a shadow on his left cheek, which turned out to be a dimple on second look. He wore a long-sleeve navy and white striped shirt, a ticket stub sticking out of the cotton pocket on his left chest. He didn’t look too poorly-shaven for a homeless boy. Perhaps, he lied that day?

She wondered how others saw him, a face constructed in delicate strokes, maybe soft and unthreatening, an underlying glint of narcissism in every curve and every line. He knew he was attractive. If so, she did not see him the way they did. He was to her violently tantalizing, appearing out of nowhere each time, searing her sensibilities. Her lips parted a little at the thought of walking up to him. She smacked them and tasted the bitterness; ah, the shimmering warm pink of Marc Jacobs Have We Met? 108. She inhaled sharply.

You are already late for work, she reasoned with herself. You told him off that day, why change your mind? You rarely change your mind. But, she could already feel the gears in her mind eagerly reverting their course. Let them watch.

His eyes darted down from inspecting the ceiling to meet hers. It was a disinterested glance. Bored, almost goading. He flicked his gaze away after a few seconds too long. She wasn’t sure if those seconds held in them any gleam of recognition, but she would know in a moment.

He looked back at her as her stiletto heels clicked across the carriage. She smoothed down her pencil skirt, wiping the sweat that gathered on her palms since she saw him.

“Hi, I’m Etsuko-chan,” she spoke quickly, before this spurt of crazy courage ran out.

“I remember you. But I don’t need a lady friend.”

At work, no intern around his age would have dared to treat her this way. But, right now, this didn’t bother her at all. The words tore out of her rouged lips awkwardly: “I’ve changed my mind.” She was trembling like a loose leaf, autumn-red.

He looked less wary now, the hard set to his mouth softening like the bowed wet edge of the cardboard in that Tuesday’s downpour. Ever since she had lifted the soaked lids of the cardboard box—a box that read “UNWANTED PET” in a Sharpie scrawl—beside the back entrance to her apartment building three days ago, she had been haunted. Angled towards her widening eyes, his striking face was lit by the dusky glow of the streetlamp. The raindrops slid off his cheeks onto the hollow of his collarbone. That day, he was curled up like an umbrella handle.

This face now seemed almost hopeful.

Taking a deep gulp of air, she continued rapidly, stumbling over words, but the invitation tumbled out before his warming gaze, “Have you been—uh, have you found a place yet? If not… if not, you can stay with me.”

“Why?” The question trailed out before them both. He uttered this one word in wonder.

“I don’t know,” she replied in equal wonder, “I don’t know.”

***

Ume ashore

“Cut!” the director, grinning through his grey stubble, yells in a hoarse voice. He sounds strangely choked up. His bloodshot eyes aren’t the only misty pair in the studio. A round of appreciative applause breaks out amongst the set crew.

Ume’s head hurts. This is a bit too much for her, she knows. Every engaging script is like this. They suck you in and then spit you out, rearranging the configuration your soul. It must be almost midnight.

He withdraws his lips from hers, and bows slightly. “Thank you, senpai. I thought you were really good, as usual, ” he says, eyes crinkling. She smiles, but her involuntary raised hand to her lips betrays the fact that somewhere in the middle of that long, passionate kiss she had completely forgotten that the reel was running. She has been exceedingly careful thus far not to let her budding attraction to him spill over the boundaries of their professional relationship, but now that she is no longer attached it is far too easy to indulge in her attraction and let herself fall.

Her assistant’s head pops up from behind one of the cameras, sending her a wink.

As Ume collapses onto her cushioned chair, she kicks off her heels and massages her sore feet. It feels good to forget for a while, no matter how briefly, the scrutinizing eyes, sympathetic looks, or, worse still, veiled messages from that smug harpy Ayane who must have been praying for her breakup since they competed for the same role two years back. When Ume started dating the heir of the Toshiba Group last year, she thought that she had finally found the right man—he might have been balding, but he certainly could be considered good-looking for a wealthy guy. Here was a man who was finally as successful as she was, if not more. Even the newspapers thought so, deeming them the power couple of the entertainment world. She must have been congratulated at least a thousand times. Yet, their perfect match began unraveling once Ume started filming April this year against his objections and the bald pig in turn got caught with some unknown model in the tabloids within a month of her strict filming schedule. What a joke.

Since breaking up publicly two weeks ago, Ume has been trying to figure out why she had felt the strangest tide of relief wash over her when she told Mr. Toshiba, “Let’s end this.” And then, there’s the tricky matter of her feeling a little too much attraction for her younger costar on set. At the first script reading in January, she had taken one look into his gentle eyes, single lidded, almond-shaped and slightly drooping, the white of his eye like fish belly, and felt the tension from her fights with Mr. Toshiba caressed away by softly lapping waves. She liked him immediately then. He may be seven years younger, but there is an almost Buddhist serendipity to his quiet demeanor. Being around him makes her feel light. Yet, the outside world will chew them up if she does anything about her attraction; she can already imagine the headlines in bold font: “Ume Yuji Dating a Toshishita after Losing Toshiba Heir”.

Feigning nonchalance, she turns slowly to glance at him, sitting a few feet away and diligently annotating his script. He seems to sense her gaze, suddenly looking up. Instead of averting her gaze as she usually does, this time she holds his eye. She catches the mild surprise on his face. He arches a brow, and makes a move as if to get up. It breaks the spell and she looks away instantly. What is she thinking being so forward?

Is it the script? The narrative is doing weird things to her. She has never thought about dating a younger man before reading the script and the novel of the same name that it is based on. April has a resounding sense of loneliness that resonated with her even while she was still dating that Toshiba heir. The novel’s last sentence encapsulated what she yearns to feel but has never felt despite dating several men:

Many years later, as she stepped onto the train, Etsuko would always remember that last day of March when she looked into the eyes of solitude and found another, arriving again and again onto the shores of a shared loneliness that can only be love.

Perhaps, Ume is, as much as she is unwilling to acknowledge it, lonely like Etsuko.

Despite how utterly bizarre April is as a love story, Ume has never felt this close to a character before. Her character, Etsuko, is a beautiful and successful twenty-seven-year-old woman. Yet, Etsuko is also broken in some way, always wearing a mask of control that everyone expects of a Todai grad; this nags at Ume the more scenes they shot. After a string of failed relationships with men who are inevitably intimidated by her intelligence and accomplishments, Etsuko adopts a homeless twenty-year-old young man like a pet, settles into what most would definitely consider a taboo pet and owner relationship, discovers genuine companionship and even the possibility of love, but one day finds him missing from home. Everyone tells her that they have never seen a young man with her. Etsuko checks the CCTV tape of her apartment building to try to find out when he left, but realizes as she goes further back that no such person existed in all these months. As she wanders out, Etsuko sees the same cardboard box labeled with “UNWANTED PET” again, opens it to see a cavalier puppy staring back at her, and smiles. What a great story. Ume knew without a shred of doubt that she was going to take up the role the moment she closed the book covers.

Yet, during the January script reading, the director had blithely announced, “Look at the powerful ending! We have a wonderful film in our hands about feminism and about finding oneself, which has been very popular since Hollywood’s Eat, Pray, Love. We might have a good run at the box office.”

She had immediately protested then before the round table, “Kubota-san, I don’t see how that can be the case. I read the book and it’s honestly all about solitude to me. I wonder if the writer-sama might be here to share?”

The writer, Yuri Yoshizawa, had not been there and never did come to the set at any point in the filming. After a month and a half on set, Ume has all but confirmed that the mysterious Yuri Yoshizawa is a recluse, but that is beside the point. Even if Yoshizawa-san were at the script reading to endorse the director’s interpretation, Ume would have still refused to concede that this is what the story is all about.

In that glass-paneled room, crowded with the primary cast and the director, assistant-directors, and assistants of assistants, Ume had asked, “Is Etsuko schizophrenic?” But the director had declared, “No, no, making Hisao up in her head is just a coping mechanism! At last, our dear Etsuko-chan realizes that she needs no man. That’s more important, that’s way more important. We want to leave it open-ended for the audience.” If Ume were Etsuko, she would have wept bitterly when she opened the box only to see a dog. She knows what it’s like to want to fall in love so badly with someone who will love you unconditionally in return. It’s a yearning for someone to share in your loneliness, a yearning that can overcome pride, societal conventions, and render all the petty checklists you have inconsequential. It seems to her that April is a lonely woman’s plea for love. She feels herself echoing this plea wordlessly, with every laden line that she acts from the script. If she doesn’t do something, she might go crazy like Etsuko.

“Hey, Ume-chan,” a voice sounds from above her. Her costar has made his way over to her chair and now looms over her.

She looks up at him searchingly, curiously. So this is how she falls: despite every rational fiber in her body telling her how unwise it is, despite how she knows even if he says yes their relationship will not be fondly looked upon, she is about to exhilaratingly, unwaveringly throw herself onto the path that Etsuko wanted so badly to tread upon.

“Ume-chan? Are you okay? There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you,” he draws a deep breath before speaking, droopy eyes unblinking, and crouches down to her eye level.

She knows her mind is made up in that moment. She inches her face towards him, places a finger on his moving lips, and whispers, “I have something to tell you too.”

“Hmm?”

“I want to ask you out on a date,” she says to him. A pause and then, her bold red lips, still slightly smudged from the prior scene, open and close: “Thoughts?”

As she watches his eyes lit up, Ume finally thinks she can grasp that feeling of arrival that Etsuko mentioned, that marvelous feeling of stepping ashore when your feet expects watery depths but instead finds an assuring foothold of solid earth.

***

April

Yuri gets off at the Yushima station when it’s dark. Outside, there are the few usual men drinking scotch and smoking cigarettes on the curb. She drags her luggage down the steps leading to her favorite bar with some effort. One of the men—half-drunk and pretending not to be—sways to his feet with an outstretched hand and yells slowly, “Blind obasan, d-o y-o-u n-e-e-d h-e-l-p?” By then, she is outside the basement entrance, but she would not have dared to answer anyway. She pushes her sunglasses further up her nose bridge before entering.

Her eyes make out the inside with accustomed ease. There are the same few Mesdames surveying the bar like hawks; they must have been beautiful once, with subtle, artful touches to their eyes and lips and cheeks that remind people constantly of that fact. Poaching rich men? she thinks to herself. She cocks her head as Kento appears behind the bar. The Mesdames’s alert faces melt into what might even be a smile when he slides the drinks to them.

She looks away. Beside the Mesdames sits a lone foreigner—male, in his mid-forties, and white. Definitely American, she knows this from his ill-fitting San Diego Zoo t-shirt inside a boxy blazer and the bowl of fries set before his Budweiser. Next to him is a young couple, too busy making out to drink their glinting Golden Daiquiri originals. And in a dim-lit alcove towards the side of the bar, huddles a group of adults—some sort of bonding gathering after work, probably—slurring “Kanpai!” amid bottles of Black and White, ties and glasses askew.

Kento, who she is here to see, wears a white slim fit tuxedo. His black hair, streaked with silver, is slicked back as usual, adding some color to his outfit, alongside a maroon red tie. He is shaking up a drink, as though cupping a heart in his weathered hands, when she pulls to a stop before him.

“Yuri-chan,” Kento says when he sees her, “you haven’t been here in three weeks.”

She can already feel her body trembling. “Oh,” she manages a reply, her voice humbled, “you’ve noticed.”

“And you are wearing sunglasses again. Like you did on the first day you arrived.” He pauses and then adds quietly, “I notice everything about you.”

Before Kento had opened his mouth, she was positively certain that he would have been taken aback by her book. Yet, here he is telling her that he remembers the first day she came to this bar.

She remembers it too. That night when she first met Kento was also the day her closest friend got married. At the dazzling wedding banquet, Yuri had looked around and felt then as though time had solely left her behind when it was busy transforming every woman she knew from girls to girlfriends to mothers. On the train back home, she caught a glimpse of herself in the window—an expressionless, unremarkable face lit up by the bluish phone screen, blurring with the rolling dark hills that receded into nothingness—and had the strong impulse to be anywhere other than on this train heading back to her empty apartment. She got off at the next station. When she found this bar after a quick Internet search, she had already begun regretting her rash decision. That night, the bar was crowded with a big group of raucous revelers that did nothing to drown her loneliness. She felt lonelier than ever. 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.

“Oh really?” she asks hesitantly, “Did you read April?”

“I did.”

“Then, do you know why I wrote that Etsuko and Hisao met on 31 March?”

Before he can answer, the American man gestures at Kento, taking him away from Yuri’s end of the bar, and requests for a Taiko in a butchered pronunciation. As she watches Kento make the drink, she feels her eyes moisten—fortunately hidden by her sunglasses. Kento is like an artist condensing the human experience into a glass: a few drops of rice wine, some green tea liquor, a spray of matcha powder, ice clinks and then, a sudachi citrus slice sinks into the shades of green, before finally a gold leaf rests with a sigh at the top.

In the past three weeks of self-imposed exile from the bar, Yuri had realized acutely for the first time how intolerable her suburban apartment was. How she had used to spend all her time within those walls for years was now unfathomable. Totoro her pet parrot, who was trained to squawk “I love you” passionately in twenty-four languages, no longer entertained. There were nights when the ceiling seemed to be descending on her and she got to as far as the train station. But, the thought of Kento having read her book and disliking it—disliking her—kept her away from the city. She returned to her dull apartment in Setagaya-ku where even Totoro did not bother to talk to her. In the silence, she allowed her fears to take root and grow.

Kento pushes one of the two glasses towards the waiting American. The other Taiko he places gently before her.

He says, “It’s because we met on March 31st in 2013. Tell me if I’m right.”

Yuri takes off her sunglasses, eyes still fairly red and eye circles a garish greenish-black from weeks of insomnia, and stares at Kento.

“We are also seven years apart in age,” he continues, looking at her so closely that he seems to see into her and past her at Etsuko.

He says, “And I am also as lonely as you are.”

Yuri knows she is crying but she finally doesn’t care.

“So, Yuri-chan, will you accept this from me?” he asks, cupping the Taiko in two hands, sliding it slowly but steadily across the mahogany countertop at where the wooden edge meets her heart.

She remembers the plot that stretched back four years, eight months and three weeks, on the first day of April when she emerged from the bar into a kinder, more hopeful world and felt the wet sunlight on her face; when she locked herself in a dark apartment to write another woman’s life and her own intertwined, wondering if it could say what she would never tell him to his face; when she ventured into the city once a week on a fifty-seven-minute commute past rolling hills to observe another’s solitude, murmuring a soft prayer each time that perhaps he would one day consider sharing it with her. She feels a heaviness as if she had just awakened from a years-old slumber with unspoken words, imagined moments, and fully-written sentences in her body. She finally arrives ashore.

Ashore

In the mood for love:

[Story] 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?

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

[Story] Macau: Casino Lights Dancing

Yuri and kento

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. 💓💓💓

cof

Lots of love, peace out 2018,

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Happy 53rd Birthday, Singapore!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Story] 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

In silence, she searches her skirt pocket for coins.

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

She freezes for a moment before hiding a smile.

Your English is good, she comments, looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

Really? he replies nonchalantly.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

He just tilts his head.

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

***

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

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

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

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Movie Review: Pride & Prejudice (2005)

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Pride & Prejudice | Starring Keira Knightley & Matthew Macfadyen | 2005

This review is full of spoilers.

Gloriously, hopelessly romantic.

Pride and Prejudice is the novel that cemented my love for romance. It’s my initiation into romantic literature, the etchings of a lifelong silhouette of Mr. Darcy behind all contours of romantic aspirations henceforth, and the story that told my childhood self that there is someone out there who will respect and admire my mind for its worth.

Reading Austen and entering her world through film is akin to intoxication. It’s the giddy effect of a good love story told with incredible flair and finesse—the logic is impeccable, the witticisms offer both levity and plot-progression, and the motivations are ground in such human concerns and practicalities that they still reverberate in contemporary consciousness. Women are still trying to find a Mr. Darcy—why? After shifting structures, broken ceilings, and epochal milestones, something still rings true: bound to varying degrees by societal norms and the expectations of those around, is there not a voice within all that genuinely, forlornly, ardently yearns for someone who can simply see us as who we are—different and independent we may be—and love us? Two centuries later, the yearning endures: that is, to find a partner equal in mind. How ahead of her time Austen was.

This movie captures that evolution from affronted pride and conditioned prejudice to the amorous reconciliation of two souls underneath the cloak of first impressions (interestingly, Austen’s original title for the novel was “First Impressions”). A few scenes in particular stick out to me for constant revisiting:

At the ball, in the background of this frame, Darcy pronounces to Bingley: “Perfectly tolerable, I daresay, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” In the foreground, half of Elizabeth’s face is in the shadows of the alcove; the slight dimming of her bright eyes and the lingering remnants of a now-gone smile are evidence of a wounded pride.

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This really does set the stage for the rest of the story to unfold. As Elizabeth says,

I could more easily forgive his vanity had he not wounded mine.

Not long later in the movie, Darcy’s hand appears to help Elizabeth get onto her carriage and the camera zooms into that hand as he walks away, capturing its tense trembling and a flexing that is laden with inklings of a growing attraction. It was breathtaking to catch such a glimpse past the seemingly impenetrable, unflappable exterior of Darcy. In the 1995 BBC adaptation, Colin Firth’s Darcy while wearing hauteur like a second skin, never really does shed that facade to show the emotional ferment and vulnerabilities within. In contrast, Matthew Macfadyen’s sensitive portrayal has an immense tautness of character. The internal struggle that Darcy undergoes comes out movingly in such tiny moments of things unsaid that make his later articulated declaration in the rain, “I have struggled in vain and I can bear it no longer”, so much more poignant for the audience.

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The consummate scene of mutual romantic confession is one of pure cinematic magic. As the piano soundtrack suffuses the shot to dissipate the early morning mist (Your Hands Are Cold), Darcy emerges from blue landscape towards Elizabeth. He is without a cravat and she without a corset. He is walking, neither on carriage nor horseback, just as she did to Netherfield Park. As the warm golden sunlight shines through the silhouette of their touching foreheads, I felt something altogether wonderful. I felt almost incandescently happy.

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While there are some minor deviations from the novel, it was easy to surrender myself to their love as the Elizabeth and Darcy surrender to it themselves. The Austen concoction is absolutely there in generous doses. To embrace yourself and your ideals—especially when they transcend the conventions of your time—takes courage; to find someone who can appreciate and love you for that takes luck. That is what’s so moving about this Austen adaptation. Elizabeth and Darcy. Darcy and Elizabeth. What a lucky pair. Whilst Mr. Bennett lovingly tells Elizabeth towards the end of the movie, I cannot believe that anyone can deserve you, another softer, yet perennial message resounds, There is some person in this vast world who will deserve you as you are. So I offer this kernel to you, dear reader.

❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Lots of love,

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