[Story] Hills

materialism

“Self Improvement is Self Destruction” by Lexy Gaduski (http://lgfoundobjects.blogspot.com/)

She isn’t sure what it is, the colors—Supreme red, the blocky black letters of Balenciaga, the wild marbled swirls of Dries Van Noten—sharpening like psychedelic blotches, the strap on her shoulder suddenly prickly and leaden, an indignant discomfiture that rises like a gorge in her throat until she furrows her brows and realizes with a start that it’s something akin to humiliation.  All the while the slanted-eye lady with a silk scarf wordlessly scans her from head to toe, a deliberate pause here and there.

Whatever it is, she hates the naked appraisal. What she hates more is what collapses within her, as she inadvertently, guiltily adopts that gaze and turns it onto herself. She doesn’t have time to control her drifting thoughts because almost instantaneously she regrets carrying the unnamed bag with the guitar strap she fancies so much. She wonders why she wore that funny pair of horn-rimmed sunglasses she bought on a whim in a shoe store instead of a logoed one. She even feels a spurt of what could be called gloating triumph or conceit—she doesn’t dwell on it—when she catches the glint of approval in the lady’s eyes as they land on her watch. She thinks—

Oh my God.

All her education, upbringing, and higher aspirations are stashed in some locked room. She doesn’t know how she became like this, whoever she is—like observing an unfamiliar reflection in a funhouse mirror, or discovering some other self that has been latent for a while—in this moment of encounter. But, it painfully occurs to her that she has become the kind of person she detests. She remembers the Horatio Alger books she grew up reading and then the Bennett sisters and suddenly of Daisy Buchanan and even briefly of a passage from American Psycho. She goes over the -isms one by one: capitalism, consumerism, materialism. The brand name dropping that she had an instinctive aversion to when immersed in the vulgar mind of Patrick Bateman. The superficiality of the Buchanans. Her favorite heroines and heroes always undaunted and untempted by wealth but devoted to a cultivated mind and character.

She feels sorry for herself, but her feet—she imagines invisible tendrils snaking down and down into an abyss of something frightful but delirious—stay rooted to the glossy floor. For a moment, she looks at the shimmering mess on the racks like a child in a candy store. There’s a whisper of a younger, simpler innocence, but a surge of anxious restlessness overtakes her. She’s on the other side of the hills now but she can’t remember where she wanted to go or how to go back.

*

She’s fishing out a bottle of peach juice from a vending machine when she gets it.

The hills that she has crossed, the path that she is fumbling through, they are all one person’s journey alone—hers. This new world she thought she has entered has no power over her unless she chooses to lose herself in it. There’s no external metric for self-worth, no essentiality of looking outside oneself for another’s evaluation, no actual force other than her own vanity (and perhaps, even greed) pushing herself to excessively covet, compare and subscribe to the material value of things. She lets the temptation of consumption and display roll over the tips of her fingers and tongue and the tightrope across her mind, and then surrenders it.

The past week seems like a dream now that she is back along the train tracks again, rice paddies by her feet and electric lines overhead.

She slowly breathes in through her nostrils and then out through her mouth.

She feels the roiling tumult within her finally quieten and she presses the softness of her belly.

She is, for now, content.

From 20-year-old Me, With Love

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Today I turn 20! I wonder how past birthdays feel like because this one feels very homely despite the fact that I’m in a country I’ve never been before. Last night, I was sitting cross-legged in a hotel room on the 46th floor of Japan’s tallest building, wearing a dripping sheet mask, clad in Mickey Mouse PJs, typing out this blog post while my parents enthusiastically exchanged scintillating tidbits of gossip and news glimpsed from their phone screens, engrossed faces enclosed in bluish halos.

We’ve got to close the windows, my mum comments, curled up on the bed.

However pretty the view is, my dad concurs, you can’t eat it.

As always, when I occasionally tune in to my parents’ conversations, my brain thinks: hmm…?? It’s so weird, but so them.

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The last few times I’ve been on a family trip were Bali and Macau at the beginning of 2017 (read about a countryside episode in Bali here and a heart-pounding first encounter in a Macau casino here). This time, our vacation to Japan was entirely planned by me. To celebrate my 20th, my parents submitted themselves to my whims and bucket list items for a full ten days. The day after tomorrow, we will be on the last leg of our trip, Kyoto, where my parents will drop me off for a two-month Harvard Summer School program from June 3 to July 28.

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Today, I spent my birthday at Universal Studios Japan (featuring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter!!!). What a dream. How amazing it is that people of all languages from across the world—there’s a smattering of Cantonese, Chinese, English, and some European tongues mixed in the staccato lilt of Japanese surrounding my ears—are enchanted and invested in the world that J. K. Rowling created. Her words have taken on a life of their own, to be re-woven by each person. We take a slice of this fictional world and make it ours—even the tiny granny sipping Butterbeer while tottering in Hogsmeade on wooden clogs and the excited forty-year-old lady in a pink dress waving her wooden wand in front of Ollivanders. How powerful stories are when they seep into our concrete architecture to become tangible, tangible things. They compel into existence a new physical reality. It’s every writer and reader’s ultimate fantasy.

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Spending time so intimately and completely with my parents on this trip has grounded me. They pronounced at the beginning of our trip, as I was happily munching on dim sum in the airport lounge, that their main present to me was to help me to slim down. My saddest takeaway from freshman year had been fifteen pounds of flesh (mostly fats. biological inaccuracies not considered)—when people laugh about Freshman 15, BEWARE. It is real. After a winter of snacking, hibernation, and a final month of belated awakening, I returned to my parents’ arms a much chubbier version of myself. This trip, surrounded by matcha everything, gyoza, unagi, cheese tarts, okonomiyaki, takoyaki and all sorts of infinitely tempting foods presented exquisitely (even the fake food put on display looks absolutely delicious), I’ve been compelled by my parents’ withering glances and snarky remarks to exercise self-control. For someone who loves food as much as I do (e.g. our Japan itinerary is basically a food-centric sightseeing, extensively researched based on food blogs, gourmet guides, GURUNAVI, Tabelog, TripAdvisor ratings etc.), this has been tremendously painful. My parents had the weirdest conversation about how I would have thrived in medieval times when chubbiness was desired since the state of plumpness represented sufficient resources at one’s disposal. Time spent apart from my parents abroad has heightened my awareness of how precious such face-to-face contact is. Talking to them almost constantly in every waking minute about everything and anything is a real blessing. They love generously, unconditionally and wisely, with an empathy that is almost intuitive and most singular. On this day, I am most grateful for them. 爸爸妈妈,我爱您们!💕💕💕

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Tonight, after a day of Harry Potter, roller coasters that go backwards, 360 degrees and parallel to the ground, yellow minions and pink Hello Kitty, virtual reality headsets, and 3D and 4D rides; of eating fudge and exploding bonbons, drinking Butterbeer (heavenly calories in a mug); and of puking after a ride, squelching across park zones in the rain and waiting in some queues, it’s a good day. When I left the park, I was cold, shivering from wet toes, hungry but ineffably happy. 😊

It has been slightly more than a year since I started this blog. Thank you, always, for interacting with this corner of my world and pieces from my life—for reading (as you are right now in your inbox!), commenting and sending messages, and for your support, criticism, and attention. Thank you for coming along for this ride and becoming part of this experimental space that I started on a whim in 2017. To be utterly honest, I had no idea how long this blog was going to last. Many short-lived blogs have preceded it. But, somehow, in my 19th year, documenting my life became a habit. It’s disarmingly easy writing here, to you, you and you. Among you are many wonderful, precious friends, old and new. I’m thankful for your friendship ^_^

I told my parents that I had no idea what to wish for this year, but as I clasped my hands and closed my eyes before blowing the candles, I ended up taking more than three minutes to run through in my head all the wishes I had.

My wish for this blog is for it to keep growing with stories, with footsteps of those who come and go, with a trace of my words in your thoughts and feelings, with an honest account of my personal growth—mistakes and jubilations, stumbles and detours, ascents and conquests, explorations and experimentations alike—as I step into my twenties.

I hope we’ll all grow alongside each other.

Here’s to my new decade on Earth! 🌏

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Lots of love,

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To Harvard China Forum • 致哈佛中国论坛

Harvard College China Forum happened! 🌻🌻🌻

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感谢你,哈佛中国论坛。这一年过得忽快忽慢,有时磕磕碰碰,但终归时常能让我深夜里兴奋得睡不着。从一开始担心文化分论坛一个演讲嘉宾都请不到,到奇妙地看到一位位重量级嘉宾加入,再到最后在Seaport会展中心看着座无虚席的剧场和台前分享的方文山、李路、童之磊、杨晖、陈楸帆和刘林老师,也许那一刻感受到的是几百人思想上的碰撞和略微不可思议的欣喜。这是一个有魔力的平台,吸引着太平洋两岸、各行各业的人才一起前来贡献他们对于这个世界的想法。谁能想到一年前在香港红馆《地表最强》演唱会挥舞着荧光棒、亲眼看到台上的周杰伦时泪流满面的我,一年后能有幸邀请到方文山老师出席文化分论坛?反正我一年前跟全家一起追着看《人民的名义》时,完全想也想不到一年后我能亲自与李路导演交谈。

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作为大一新生参加哈佛中国论坛的团队是我2017年做的最好的决定之一。感谢向我强烈推荐HCCF的Zara Zhang学姐(who happens to run an amazing blog; she was also last year’s Co-President)、整个Organizing Team (尤其是我所属的Programming Committee),以及热心帮助和引导我的每一位学姐学长。团队的力量真的令人震撼。一年前的我很青涩,但这一年来我学会了如何待人处事。这些点点滴滴我会放进人生的行囊里。感激每一次成长的机会和与我一同成长的你们。

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Now, time for some life updates! It has been a week since Harvard College China Forum concluded at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston. Time has been hurtling forward since Spring Break came and went. Classes are ending in two weeks’ time (on April 25th), with a week of Reading Period, followed on its heels by college-wide finals (I don’t have any sit-down ones), and before we know it—

My freshman year at Harvard will be over.

Sometimes there are days when nothing seems to happen other than the routine cycle of classes, paper-writing, and endless piles of readings. And then there are weeks when a lifetime takes place in a blink, which is how April feels like thus far.

This past week has been spent religiously in the world of fiction. By sheer chance (or luck, depending on how the imaginative process unfolds), two of my classes allowed for the option to do creative projects in lieu of a final paper/graded assignment. Counting my fiction writing workshop class, I have three creative projects to complete before Spring semester ends—a piece of fiction to workshop (which I will craft in this upcoming week), a personal essay on the genealogies of global imagination (I’m currently envisioning something to do with arrival and displacement, in the style of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival), and a modernist retelling of Bai Ju-yi’s Song of Everlasting Sorrow 《长恨歌》 (which I just finished a draft of last Friday—maybe I will post it here?). These characters I have been or will be in the skin of—my fictional self, Yang Gui-fei, Emperor Xuan-zong and their motley crew, and the yet-to-be-conceived ones dancing in my skull—seem to exist corporeally in a different time and space. Yet, the more I write, especially in such a concentrated stretch of time, the more I’m struck by the constructedness of fiction and creativity itself. Where do all these stories come from? Am I some conduit of the invisible? It’s a fathomless, marvelous process of magnitude and mystery:

Out of the dark emerging, out of nowhere: first not there, then there, like a newborn child, heart working, brain working, all the processes of that intricate electrochemical labyrinth working. A miracle.

The quote above is from a book I just finished reading last night—J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. Is writing creation out of the void? A transition from non-being to being? Words, from an unknown place of shapeless thoughts and abstraction, translate onto the blank pages as a concrete gospel of the human condition.

It’s funny how easily I oscillate between the abstract and the ultra-practical. During the three days of Harvard College China Forum (April 6th to 8th), my psyche was orbiting in a different hemisphere. The Culture Panel I organized was decidedly rooted in a business perspective of the Chinese cultural landscape. As an avid consumer of new models of content,  I came up with a panel topic that was very close to my heart. I’m not sure where these varying concerns will take me as I explore, but in experimenting on my own and hearing the thoughts of those who have been in the creative industry for decades, I hope to slowly formulate why culture matters to me and what I want to do as an individual.

Culture: China’s Contemporary Content Revolution

China has one of the most dynamic and fast-changing culture industries in the world today. Contemporary Chinese society avidly consumes and creates avant-garde culture, from music streaming to web literature to video streaming. What underlines such shifting cultural trends is the content revolution that is taking place in the form of IPs (intellectual properties). Originality and creativity are key markers of valuable IPs, which can be translated into various artistic mediums, constitute well-known franchises, and form a crucial part of China’s cultural narrative. In an age when content lies at the heart of cultural consumption, we will explore how lyricists, directors, writers, and producers create resonant, defining, and thought-provoking content that captures the modern imagination. We will also look at the challenges and opportunities these content creators face in the midst of China’s unprecedented content revolution.

These are just some of the thoughts darting around (or brewing) in my mind. Since I’m writing so much for my classes in the last 21 days of Freshman year, I’m really excited to share some of these pieces with you in the coming weeks!

Will be making announcements on my Summer plans soon! Still finalizing some loose ends.

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With Fang Wenshan, the lyricist to the soundtrack of my youth (i.e. Jay Chou’s songs). 和方文山老师的合照—我青春乐谱中的字字句句都出自他笔下。

Lots of love,

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When Reality Beckons: Confessions of a Drama Addict

Recently, my dad sent me this photo which expressively demonstrates my aggressive territoriality over a french fry (or my incurable love for food since I was a kid). When my phone ding!-ed and the screen lit up with this incoming message, I was in the midst of a rough week built up from a lack of sleep, exercise, and healthy food—I ate a record-breaking number of four fat cup noodles in a span of five days—and this photo which loaded on the screen made me laugh so hard that the world seemed like a gentler, funnier place to be in.

I kind of fell into an emotional rut over the past few weeks. Around the time I posted my Pride & Prejudice movie review, I had just embarked on the first steps of what would be an all-consuming fictional marathon, in which I watched an accumulative seventy hours of movies and dramas. At the peak of this obsession, which was during Spring Break (10-18 March), I holed up in my dorm room during a gusty snowstorm, passionately consuming twelve hours of movies continuously (Titanic, You Are the Apple of My Eye《那些年,我们一起追的女孩》, The Sound of Music, The Proposal, and the final stretch of Moulin Rouge).

Outside my windows, the world was rocked by invisible, tempestuous hands into a topsy-turvy blend of thudding grey rain and ferocious pale flakes (with some irony, I now recall my enraptured post on First Snow last December). Inside the room, I was under a spell. On an empty campus engulfed in inhospitable weather, I found myself in almost complete solitude, thoroughly enthralled by the binding power of storytelling. When my stomach growled, I would order food delivery to the door. It was a frenetic, seemingly psychedelic week. On the Sunday before classes resumed, I collapsed into tears. I had finished the final episode of Reply 1988 (twenty episodes of two hours each) and felt as though someone had dug out my soul with a shovel. After days of being utterly immersed in a world of true-to-life characters, my own life seemed faint and colorless to me in comparison to the intense, stirring world of the drama. I was untethered to my reality and desperately wanted to hand the reins of my life to another drama or movie. Escapism was transformative. Real life was unpalatable.

Needless to say, I knew I had a problem. My subsequent steps out of the shadows of this unhealthy addiction to fiction constitute a very individualized recommendation of “How to Re-engage with Reality”. For all I know, most of you might never have this problem. But here’s an honest account of what I did:

How to Re-engage with Reality (in a severe case of drama addiction)

  1. Stop staying in your dorm room. What I did this week: I spent as minimal amount of time in my dorm as possible, by exploring the far-flung libraries in Harvard Kennedy School and Divinity School, eating breakfast in CGIS, and just simply walking in the sun to buy pastries (Monkeybread!). A lot of traveling and walking that I used to deem as a waste of time was whole-heartedly embraced. I averaged 10,000 steps a day this week.
  2. Make a pledge to give yourself a period of drama-cleanse. What I did this week: I made a promise to myself to not watch any dramas or movies at all until Harvard China Forum (happening 6-8 April) ends. Speaking of which, if you’re in Boston, please come! I’m organizing the Culture Panel, which will feature Fang Wenshan 方文山 (famous Chinese pop music lyricist best known for his collaboration with Jay Chou), Li Lu 李路 (the director of the top-rated Chinese drama in 2017, In the Name of the People《人民的名义》), Stanley Chan 陈楸帆 (sci-fi writer), and Yang Hui 杨晖 (CEO and Founder of Vivid Media, which has produced several notable Chinese variety shows). Check out the Facebook event →
  3. Talk to your close friends about your addiction. What I did this week: Not that it came as a surprise to anyone who knew me well, but I confessed to them about my addiction to dramas/movies. They gave me their observations about my behavior and unexpectedly kept me accountable to my pledge. ❤
  4. Find something substantial to occupy your time with. What I did this week: Unexpectedly, I got a job! I officially began working as a Research Assistant at the Ash Center with Professor Kishore Mahbubani, who is a visiting fellow from Singapore at the Kennedy School. He first sparked off my interest in international relations in secondary school when I read his book, The Great Convergence. I thought it would be vaguely surreal working with someone who I greatly admired (as one of Singapore’s most eminent diplomats, he was my idol in those years when I wanted to join the foreign service), but it’s instead rather humanizing—it brings them down from the pedestal that you put them on. Thank you, Harvard.
  5. Laugh at yourself a little. Feel the weirdness and ludicrousness of life’s punches and presents. What happened this week: My water bottle leaked in my bag and my notes from both semesters for two of my favorite classes (Hum 10 & Fiction Writing Workshops) were soaked to the point of illegibility. I waited for some extreme sadness to well up, but then the sheer absurdity of this tiny episode struck me—helped by my roommate Ani who snapped a photo of the drenched notes, commenting that it looked like artwork—and the moment became oddly tender.

This is a cathartic post for me and I thank you for reading. I vacillated briefly between writing this and keeping it to myself, but to write this was to acknowledge a problem I had over the years, which exploded this month. Drama addiction, which sounds laughable and vaguely embarrassing, happens to everyone.

After only a week, I am surprisingly much more engaged with life. Perhaps, it’s when reality falls short that I turn to the fictional world. But the more lasting antidote is to take life—as dull, messy, stressful, and imperfect as it is—by its horns and to live it. Find tiny moments of pleasure, of emotional tugs at your heartstrings, of unannounced humor in unpronounced places, of the subtle thrill hovering in the unsaid, and of the plot that is embedded in our own lives. As fun as it is to live vicariously through fictional characters, the only script we get to pen is our own.

Here’s wishing all of you happy, concrete adventures! 🌱

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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