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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海外华侨女孩:金庸和我的小故事

Jin Yong

Remembering Louis Cha (Jin Yong), my favorite author, in the language I read him in. Today, he died at age 94. May he rest in peace.

今天,就让我难过一下吧。

六岁那年,爸爸几乎每晚都把我拉去公园散步。傍晚的树叶和微风很浪漫,是个听故事和讲故事的好时候。当时的我已经喜欢上了读书,但是天天手上捧着的都是西方读物:英国的艾尼德.布莱顿(Enid Blyton)、美国的《神探南茜》(Nancy Drew)、《甜蜜谷》(Sweet Valley Kids)系列,以及一箱又一箱的外国入门侦探小说。书本中的主人公虽然年龄比我长了几岁,但是都陌生的要死。他们需要喝下午茶,敢用姓名称呼他们的父母,出门要围围巾。

有一天我们又在绕圈的时候,爸爸通知我:“既然我们这几天散步你不愿意给我讲故事,那就我来。我来给你讲讲我最喜欢的。”

他选择了《射雕英雄传》。

说实话,一开始,我是很排斥他这个选择的。对于一个只背过唐诗、论语和三字经的我来说,中国文化是枯燥无味的条条框框。爸爸讲的那个故事的开端是一个臭道士,场景是一个年代久远的乡村,里面有一群叔叔阿姨天天在打架。我很不耐烦地威胁爸爸让他讲一个有公主和王子的故事,结果他告诉我这个故事里会有我这辈子都会想要的爱情。

他说的没错。

就这样,爸爸把这个故事的蓝图在我幼小的脑海里展开。我从不稀罕到走火入魔般地着迷。六岁那年,人生之三大难题如下:降龙十八掌到底是怎么打的?爸爸为什么不是桃花岛主?我应该到哪里去找武功秘籍好能称霸武林?但是,故事太长了,爸爸后来工作很忙,没有时间跟我在公园绕圈。我便开始去烦他,泪眼汪汪地求他继续把故事讲完。

他一指书架,对我说道:“都在那里,你自己看。”

结果是,我苦苦地啃了几个月,也没读懂。《射雕英雄传》分为了四册,我走到哪里都带着一本,搞得母亲对爸爸颇有微词。书中世界之丰富超过了我之前所读过的一切。里面形形色色的人和我有着类似的姓名,一样对长辈又敬又爱,年轻却充满了超越时代的侠肝义胆和令人动容的儿女情长。

后来,我慢慢长大了,却年复一年于这江湖流连忘返。在金庸的文字中,我似乎逐渐能从见自己,到见天地,却至今还是无法见众生。

现在,我二十岁了。我在新西兰出生,新加坡长大,美国读大学。从小到大,我在学府里读得最多的是西方文学,现在在哈佛主修的专业之一也是英语文学。至今,我读了荷马(Homer)、莎士比亚(Shakespeare)和简·奥斯汀(Jane Austen),也读了萨曼·鲁西迪(Salman Rushdie)、托妮·莫里森(Toni Morrison)和J.K.罗琳(J. K. Rowling)这些当代文学的泰山北斗。但是,至今,再也没有一个作家能让我如此留恋他笔下的世界,那些人的刹那芳华、仁义与柔情。

白马带着她一步步的回到中原。白马已经老了,只能慢慢的走,但终是能回到中原的。江南有杨柳、桃花,有燕子、金鱼…… 汉人中有的是英俊勇武的少年,倜傥潇洒的少年…… 但这个美丽的姑娘就像古高昌国人那样固执:“那都是很好很好的,可是我偏不喜欢。”

咱们就此别过,人生离合,亦复如斯。

金庸就是金庸。 四海列国,千秋万代,也就只有一个他呀。

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[Story] The Writer

Author’s Note: This short story was submitted as the final paper for a class last semester.

The protagonist of this story is the act of writing itself. I am fascinated by the idea of the separation of the writer and the person into two selves, of the tension existing within the diasporic writer. Set in the present day, this short story is about an assimilated, Westernized writer returning to a distinctly Asian world that she had rejected as part of her writing identity. The narrator’s inability to write without artifice in a literary tradition she couldn’t reconcile with her own experience as an immigrant is a rethinking of the myth of belonging in a postcolonial world. 

While this short story is a synthesis of the ideas that jumped out at me throughout my course (ENG 90CNC) with Professor Homi Bhabha, it responds to the concerns of a few texts in particular: the themes of writing in V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival and memory in J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus.

I’ve been thinking about these themes as I struggle to create and simultaneously grapple with (rephrasing from The Idiot‘s dust jacket) “the growing consciousness that I am doomed to become a writer” (maybe not doomed haha, not exactly).

Exit the gleaming train station through its marbled walkway, turn left around the towering office building with the glassy exterior, yes, spot the beige-colored mall seven stories high, cut through the swaths of people and brands to the back entrance and emerge on the other side, do you see it? A row of two-story shophouses, Chinese-Baroque style, with the ground floor sitting back from the narrow tarmac road you’re on, and overhanging verandas supported by a brace of columns. The footway with its glazed ceramic tiles is five feet wide. Once you pass the hardware shop, the porridge joint, the old men with hooded eyes lazily smoking and grumpy aunties gossiping in threes, stop before an iron-grilled door.

In the years after, I traced that route. In my mind, the iron grilles weren’t locked and the doors would be flung wide open. There would be a stooped figure sipping tea behind the counter, with stacks of drawers rising up behind her like library shelves, like dusty archives. She would hear the sound of my soles on the creaky wooden floor and look up through a veil of steam. She would say, eyes crinkling, Ah-girl, you’re back.

When I actually made that trip, after an even longer one before that from New York to Frankfurt to this tiny island, the door was unforgivingly closed. I stood there.

There was a spurt of pain from something digging into the soft moistness of my palms.

Someone piped up from the porridge joint in a raspy voice, Miss, that shop has been closed for months. Swee Mui’s in the hospital.

I never wanted to come back. If I did, I never wanted to return in this way. Many things had led me to this moment, this standstill between a woman and a door, a past she rejected but now faced her. The international long-distance phone call, the ceremony, the urn, the papers, the key. The key was now clenched tightly in my fist.

It slid easily into the keyhole, I turned it, and the grille swung open.

There were some mutterings behind me as I stepped into the shop parlor and closed the door. Who is she? Swee Mui’s syunneui? Then the room drifted for a moment on the receding tide of sound before sinking into silence.

***

I had been writing in New York for ten years. Before that, I studied Creative Writing in a small liberal arts college in Clinton for another four. In those fourteen years, I had stayed resolutely in the Americas. There were occasional getaways with one or two college friends to Puerto Rico or Cancun or Guatemala, but that dwindled into nothing as they built their lives—a banking job, a partner, a family—while I stayed in my apartment, writing, still trying to become a writer.

The journey that seeded all the others was the very first one I made to America. It was to be my first pilgrimage to New York City, the first trip that would take me out of Asia, and the beginning of a true writer’s career. I had just turned eighteen and had received a full scholarship to study writing at an American college. My parents had protested, but Popo was the one I grew up with and the matriarch of our family. She gave her stamp of approval and that was it.

In the cool, shaded corners of the shophouse, I had grown up reading James and Salinger and then Wharton and Fitzgerald. My idea of a writer was stuck resolutely in a faraway universe—an obsolete picture, I knew—but endlessly alluring: a woman wrapped in a blanket, typing away on a rusty typewriter or scribbling on a thick notepad, a glass of wine beside her, or even better, a fireplace while the world snowed outside. It didn’t matter who she was. With just a pen or a typewriter, the woman could evoke the sheer extravagance of the glittering parties and the vain hollowness of the lives of the privileged to a wide-eyed, scrawny girl in Asia. The woman could step into the skin of characters with last names like Abbot and Chadwick, know them inside-out, and live a thousand exciting lives. Under a whirling rickety fan, surrounded by the smell of herbs, I devoured those books. The ambition was born and it also offered me a personality I wished to assume. I wanted to become a writer—the cosmopolitan, worldly writer.

My conception of writing was an immensely private idea, apart from all the school compositions and creative contests for high school students with prompts such as ‘Imagine the world in 2050’. The first story I wrote at fifteen was about a girl who realized she had a long-lost twin. Their names were Emma and Rosalind Montgomery. It was set in Manhattan, a place I had never been to. They looked and sounded nothing like me and my friends. It was the beginning of the gap, one between the person and the writer.

I knew I had to go to New York, the nexus of my literary universe. I could not truly become a writer when my senses were engulfed by the heat, the utilitarian checkboxes of my education, and the dull routine of island-life. In New York, I imagined, I would finally have first-hand material that would befit a writer’s experience. More than that, simply being there would offer the assurance of continuity, of inheriting a tradition and succeeding a long line of writers, who in turn had trodden in the footsteps of the continental greats.

Until that phone call came, I had been unwilling to extract myself from the idea of becoming a writer, fourteen years in the making. By most measures, I had become the kind of person I wanted to become. During college, I started working at a middling literary magazine as an unpaid copy editor. After graduation, I assumed the role of the sub-editor before rising to fiction editor after the position became vacant. The job involved getting pitches, going through the slush pile, and hours of networking at book launches, reading parties, and personal gatherings. Little by little, I had embodied the kind of worldly persona I aspired to. I now spoke like the characters I wrote—gone without trace were the sharp bark and yo-yoing intonation of my accented English. I occasionally scored an invite to a lunch at a place in the Tribeca or some art gallery opening thronging with women and men drinking wine and munching on hors d’oeuvres—if I closed my eyes, they could almost pass for the fictional parties that so enthralled me in my youth. I could effortlessly toss around names of editors, publishers, and rising literary stars as though I knew them personally. Yet, in the weekends or before dawn, I would sit at my desk in my one-room apartment with its stained walls and pretend to write, only to draw up nothing. The blank document with the blinking cursor was terrifying. What prose I could get onto the page was forced and unnatural. All my adult life had happened in a foreign country where I was a stranger. To be true to that social experience was to write about things that I had refused to embrace—not the wider world, but the smaller, more confined world that I came from which did not exist on the pages of literature. But, I was adamant or almost obsessed with writing about the world I now lived in. To write about the claustrophobia and humanity of the island I grew up in was to acknowledge my inability to become part of the New York cultural milieu. I witnessed the artifice of my own charade, but could not and did not write about it. The gap between the woman and the writer grew.

The dread of failure plagued me. I purged all remnants of unsophisticated Asia from my life. My mother would call me once in a while to tell me about Popo, Still running her pharmacy, rain or shine… Bought three new tins of tea… Celebrated her eightieth… She misses you.

I didn’t have words for that feeling that ate at me. I couldn’t face any of them. The girl who wanted to become a writer could not write even when her life depended on it. The closer I got to the altar of the literary circle I worshipped, the more self-conscious I became. I couldn’t listen to the gentle words of those who loved me when what I felt about them was something akin to shame. There was no place for them in my life, just like there was no place for the island and its people in the pages of my writing.

In The Enigma of Arrival, V. S. Naipaul described eating a roasted chicken over the wastepaper basket after arriving in New York, acutely aware of the smell and the oil. The writer of the diary was ending his day like a peasant, like a man reverting to his origins, eating secretively in a dark room, he wrote. I would rather have starved till the hunger devoured me than to have succumbed to the pull of a previous life.

The anxiety I felt towards my writing might have indicated an awakening awareness of the gap between the person and the writer. The incongruence between the two selves had existed throughout my fourteen years. I refused to eat the roasted chicken because I, like Naipaul, saw embedded in that act the bead of shame.

In my final weeks in New York, I started trying something different. I attempted to include traces of my identity—the island I came from, its colonial history, its newfound prosperity I saw online in news and heard from my mother—in a story I was conceiving, but the act was distinctly uncomfortable. My first major character that bore some semblance to myself was a woman called Kristen Song—the most generic, palatable name I could think off that could pass off as Western. Almost unknowingly, I was exoticizing her character. She was elegant, with a Western pedigree and way of speech as well as the exquisite Oriental features and tics so often fetishized. In doing so, I was justifying her reason for existing on the page.

The week before the phone call came I was sacked from my job. The magazine I worked at had at last found a major patron, whose office reviewed the journal operations and set forth some recommendations. Among which was the recommendation that the magazine find someone with more writing experience as their fiction editor, and the patron’s office had just the right person in mind for the position. I found myself up in the air. Now what? I toyed with the idea of returning to the island. Had I exhausted all my options of becoming a writer? They had taken me in and spitted me out. I had failed to make myself anew.

When the phone call came, I was ironing my clothes.

From the other end of the phone my mother’s voice sounded low and cracked. She left you the shophouse, she said, so come back.

When the call ended, the screen showed that it was only 3 minutes 53 seconds long. Popo had passed away.

***

I tasted sea salt and vaporous sawdust in the glutinous air when I came out of the airport terminal. There was a construction site across the road. I couldn’t remember what used to be there, what expanse of steel, glass or granite.

What was familiar was how hot it was. A wave of heat assailed me with each step I took further away from the air-conditioning behind the sliding glass doors. It almost mockingly mimicked the journey that I made fourteen years ago, a sequence in reverse, of emerging from the stifling hotness into the crisp coolness of the departure lounge—seeing it as portal of transition, a shedding of old, sweaty skin, the bridge to the far bank where the calling of the writer had some meaning.

Returning was a much more sobering affair. I had surrendered. There was no romance left in New York for me. I did not know how to reconcile the person and the writer. I didn’t want to acknowledge it yet, but I was ready to give up the writer. I had lived without grief for as long as I could remember, but, all of a sudden, too much grief appeared at this one point in my life.

My father was here to pick me up. He had flown back from Thailand, where he had spent decades working in an agribusiness conglomerate when I was a kid and now spent his retirement days. My mother, he told me, had to take care of the guests for this afternoon’s funeral. I stared at the lines on his face.

We’re glad you are back, he said.

There was an awkward pause before we moved to hug each other. It was both unfamiliar yet assuring at once. The bristly ends of his hair rubbed against my cheek. When I pulled away, the concentration of white hair by his wrinkled ear startled me. My father was someone who diligently dyed his hair.

He didn’t mention a word about my writing in the car.

Why don’t you take a long break and see what you can do with Popo’s shop? he said. Stay for a bit longer before going back to America. How long of a vacation did you ask for?

I looked in the rearview mirror at his hopeful eyes. I had not told anyone about my recent state of unemployment.

When our eyes met, he blinked a few times and hastily looked back at the road.

I will stay, I said. For however long it takes.

***

For as long as I could remember, the drawers had always been in the ground floor parlor. There were ten cabinets of varying sizes made from empress tree wood, some built into the walls, some still portable. Each cabinet had fifty to several hundred drawers. In their previous life, they used to carry herbs, minerals, and animal specimens. Leaves, roots, stems, flowers, and seeds, painstakingly ground into powder, extracted into liquid, rolled into granules, made into capsules, shelved and slotted into these drawers. Popo’s snowy hands pinching, twisting, tossing, weighing, feeling between the thumb and index fingers the coarseness of leaves and the texture of each particle of powder. A reel of seasons and then, those hands turned gnarled, like the shriveled, shrunken leaves they had healed life with.

Growing up, I never thought that I might someday touch these drawers, decipher them and own them. Most of the drawers were empty since Popo had closed her pharmacy when her health started failing. Across the Pacific Ocean, I was so thoroughly consumed by the idea of writing that the rest of the world fell away. I saw now that I was pretending to be something I perhaps could not be. In a fervent eagerness to become someone other than what a person of my background could be, in placing the writing personality above all else, I had turned my back on Popo and the shophouse. I had just assumed that she was always going to be there.

But.

I began a clean-out of the contents of the occupied drawers. A few cinnamon bark that felt sticky to the touch, one ginseng that had mold on its tendrils, clumps of wolfberries that had turned from red to brown, a box of peeled peony roots which filled my mouth with a bitter, salty and cold flavor when, on impulse, I gave it a tentative bite. I threw everything away except for two things. One was a sealed container of canker roots, which despite their highly flattering name of goldthread resembled a mass of dried worms. By her scrawl on the label, they were supposed to help with inflammation, a feeling of stuffiness in the chest and insomnia.

There was something unexpectedly calming about sorting out dead plant parts. Each time I cleaned a cabinet, I brought my hands to my nose, sniffed them, and felt a jolt. It was a smell of age, of things dying and then—

Something sprouting beneath. The scent, against all odds, of a wisp of life budding from withered veins and dried flesh.

The other thing I kept was the consortium of tea. It was everywhere, in tin cans, silk pouches, jars, and wrapped in brown paper. I disposed in sequence the expired ones, but there were many more, brand new and unopened. I picked up the habit of drinking tea again, after years of drinking coffee and alcohol. It wasn’t an easy habit to cultivate. The first few cups I made confused me. The taste was not especially unpleasant but I couldn’t understand what the point of it was. It was so numbingly hot that my tongue swelled in my mouth and I couldn’t taste anything.

Two weeks into my cleanup, I found a tea set, complete with a tray, teapot, four narrow cups, four wide cups with lids and a motley tool kit of brushes, tongs, sieves, and a funnel. Using the set, I started making tea step-by-step, tool-by-tool. I watched my hands grow pink with sweat, steam, and spillage, clumsily grappling with the rims of the porcelain and clay which were almost scalding. Gradually, as the hotness abated into a comfortable warmth, the taste of the tea mattered less. The ambiance and the lull became everything.

***

It took me two months before I realized that I could finally put New York behind me. Despite the disappointment and panic associated with that city, there had always been a thought at the back of my head. Not “When should I go back?”, but “Can I write again?”. I had stopped writing since I returned. I didn’t know how to start.

Three months in, I decided to open the ground floor parlor again as a shop. A teahouse.

Unexpectedly, the heaviness that weighed on my writing lifted when the desire to fill the drawers struck. There were close to a thousand drawers of all sizes. I had tried counting them several times but inevitably lost count halfway through. Opening each drawer was like pulling out a window, an archive, or a cell. They were overwhelming in their emptiness, like a metaphor for something. While I didn’t have physical items, words were an economical way of taking up space. A single word could permeate the whole parlor, the entire two-story house, this island, this world.

I began writing letters to people who could no longer receive them.

Dear Popo, I wrote, I am here.

I wrote and wrote, all the words I repressed over the decades, the hazy and carelessly forgotten details that needed to be fleshed out, the unspoken sentences buried in the scrawny girl who always gazed outwards instead of at the multiple worlds contained within her. I wrote about the shophouse in the late sunlight and quiet moments, about the uncles and aunties sitting outside with cigars and kopi-o, and about Popo’s hands. I wrote about things that I was surprised I could remember—the swallowing of words in a seminar because I didn’t know how to pronounce them the right way, the mix of embarrassment and affection toward my three-syllable Chinese name, and the circuitous path my writer self took to find her way back to the person I was. It was not much, but, quite suddenly, the heart of life had opened itself to me. It was as though I had only been preparing to become a writer in all these prior years—I had refused to eat the roasted chicken not knowing that a starved soul could not create. In this moment, when person and writer started becoming one, I could finally write.

***

A few days after I opened the teahouse, people started wandering in. Some of them bought tea while some came to talk the afternoon away. The conversation with these customers inadvertently converged on the furniture in the parlor.

So many drawers, just like Swee Mui’s pharmacy, commented an old man with incredible sideburns when he peeked around the doorframe. His head was in the shop while the rest of his body was still firmly out in the five-footway.

He waddled into the shop to the upholstered bamboo pod at the corner and very naturally sank into the curved cushion.

Girl, he said, Swee Mui said you were a writer in mei guok.

Oh, I said. Oh.

What do you write about? Do you write about our island? he asked.

In my fourteen years away, my narrow conception of writing, my anxieties and my ambition had suppressed most of my memories of growing up here, even expunging them from my personal history. After the original impulse of writing letters had run its course, I found writing difficult again. The day before opening the teahouse, I had wanted to visit my neighborhood library opposite the beige-colored mall, two streets away from the shophouse, but in its very spot was a brightly lit supermarket. While I was gone, the island had continued evolving—demolishing and erecting. Much was unrecognizable. The writer may have come together with the person, but the person was adrift.

I have been away from this island for fourteen years, I said to the old man. I don’t know it as well as I want to. I sometimes feel like a stranger outside the walls of this shophouse.

Instead of answering, he eyed me through slits.

You sell tea? What kind of tea do you have?

You can choose, I said, gesturing to the tiny glass jars on the shelves and behind the counter. They are all here. I have the classic Puer, Oolong, Longjing, Tieguanyin and green tea.

How about a cup of tea for a story? he offered calmly.

We gazed into each other’s eyes. Since I first came into contact with English literature, I had doggedly tried to follow the sensibilities and aesthetic forms born in a different hemisphere at the turn of the twentieth century. But, as these words roll out from between the old man’s two rows of gleaming gold and yellowed enamel, I suddenly saw the far bank that I was looking for. Unfolding before me was a plain. Empty, curiously still, deceptively barren, its peaks and dips still unknown, no pattern or path carved out in its earthy brown and brilliant green, no road sign erected, no owner that laid claim to the land. But there was beauty in the wild, unruly, budding growth. There was something deliciously new in the blend of the spontaneous and the scripted.

Yes, I said, a story for a cup of tea, of course. Do you mind if I write it down?

Confronting My Worldly Fears

At some point in your life, this statement will be true: Tomorrow you will lose everything forever.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

At the most random of moments, I consider my own mortality. One such instance was as I was seated in the cozy office of Professor Racha Kirakosian, which contained books so numerous that they seemed to be spewing out from the shelves with a life of their own. Half an hour ago, I had bumped into Carissa outside Lamont as she was on her way to see our Hum 10 seminar professor. I took it as a sign from the universe.

Just being in Prof Kirakosian’s office, in the presence of someone whose interests and expertise range from German to Religion to Medieval Studies to Game of Thrones, someone so winsomely at ease, witty, and genuinely passionate about life, I felt almost ashamed of my own fears—those that emerged with the onset of sophomore year, creeping like vines over my humanities-centric class schedule (the next blog post!), over the obstinate, inarticulable aspirations I harbor, and harnessing my vulnerability to the capitalist onslaught on campus, emblazoned in two words: Recruiting Season.

As a freshman, cocooned in the bubble of the Harvard Yard, my days were largely buffered by a sense of exhilaration and lethargy, the four years of college unfurling before me like an unending yellow brick road. As a sophomore, I am now suddenly catapulted from the periphery of real-world concerns to the precipice of worldly success outside of college gates: the moneyed prestige of Wall Street, the ascendancy of Silicon Valley, coupled with the irrational but still visceral fear of unemployment.

I can’t recall the conversation between Prof Kirakosian, Carissa, and me in complete specificity—I just remember laughing a lot, feeling at intervals, a sense of wonder and the budding certainty that life can work out in magical ways for those faithful to what they love. The professor confessed, after I hesitantly voiced my fears, that she never expected to be doing medieval studies or to be where she was today, but it was all about following her instincts at every stage in life.

I think about it sometimes, she said, the fact that we don’t live forever. I ask myself if I want to be doing this today if I were to die tomorrow. 

There’s an army of people doing CS, she said, why force yourself to do that? 

I see you as someone constantly reinventing yourself, she said.

In that small room almost suspended outside of time, like being in an interstitial space between two selves coming of age, with the soft afternoon sun seeping in like egg yolk, I felt many things crack open over my head—the purpose of our individual humanity, the power of instincts, and how even as she said those words, I drew strength from what she saw in me.

Often, in a place like Harvard, I feel the simultaneous pull of opposing forces: the allure of worldly success and the devotion to growth in wisdom. On days like this, I am grateful for God’s gentle reminders and life’s role models.

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Professor Kirakosian ❤

Lots of love,

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Two Takes on My Harvard Freshman Year (My Year in Review?)

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TAKE ONE

Here’s how it happens: eyelids fluttering, an image rising, and a sudden plunge into the hot, wet mouth of memory. I’m walking on a boulevard and then this hutong catches my eye and before I know it I’m wandering down networks of neurons, lost. Or I’m talking to someone, laughing, and there’s a tug and I can’t remember what I ever wanted to say. There’s a face, a sentence, a moment. One minute I’m dancing to Bruno Mars on a raised platform in a swanky Beijing club at 1:58AM and suddenly I’m a freshman again in a long snaking line of sweaty, jittery bodies leading towards the First Chance Dance housed in the dark Northwest Labs. Some weird upperclassman guy in crimson is smelling the green tea bottle in my hand like it’s beer, a tendril of hair sticking out from his nostrils. The white cloth-covered tabletop is littered with askew metal plates full of crumbs and crumpled wrappers. Self-consciously, I’m dancing or trying to move to some insipid, synthesized track while the bones in my body hesitantly reconfigure. A crack. Flash forward a few months: I’m leaping around and jutting out my hips to Zumba at the Hemenway, all over me a sheen of sweat, like I’ve been dipped in oil. My shoes are scraping against the bare floor and screeching to Meghan Trainor’s hearty, sassy ‘No’. The air-con licks my skin.

Or, in the present, I’m sucking on a red bean popsicle by the curb near a symphony of honking from Beijing’s sea of vehicles or thirstily swallowing a spoonful of matcha soft serve in Kyoto’s heat and then I recall the first taste of J. P. Licks during a pre-orientation program, immensely hopeful, eyes squinting against the sunlight as we crossed the street like a beaming group of tourists. Samples of sliced, melting mochi ice cream from smiling aunties at H Mart in neat little cups, opposite the freezer with dumplings and banchan. Berryline on cold days, gloves stuffed into the pockets of a down coat. My breath hanging before me like a fog.

I could be scrolling through my phone to airdrop someone a photo, or enlarging a selfie, or searching for an ancient screenshot. Maybe I see a photo of a beige wall decorated with yellow post-its and fenced off by purple and red ribbons. That’s all it takes. One look brings back the quote wall, the dubious carpets, the spiderman gravity-defeating moves, and the laugh-addled screaming-cum-squealing sessions that invited some poor guy from the floor below to check in on us out of concern. Five minutes later I’d still be standing there, unsure what I was looking for, like emerging from a pool with a smile on my lips. The phone screen turns black.

Or, crowding beside roundtables of hotpot with floating shrimp, meatballs and spicy vegetables, rotating a glass turntable laden with Peking duck and thirty appetizers, sipping on cheese tea in a crowded mall, chewing on pumpkin seeds in a teahouse simulating the old days while a lady in cheongsam sings opera, suddenly it’s the third week of Fall semester again and I feel like a stranger walking into Annenberg and drowning in the din. Then I drift into another memory. My third bowl of golden hash brown nuggets, with a heavy green blob of guacamole on top. Eating breakfast food for lunch on Sundays because I never wake up otherwise. The times we sit at a table next to someone’s crush, or two guys who looked decently cute in the dim light, or just some awkward acquaintance from God knows where, and we communicate with only our eyes, collapsing into giggles on our way out of the hall.

It’s living several lives, curled up in a hotel room’s rumpled sheets, or the pristine homestay bedroom just a door away from my new Japanese family, or my familiar, old bed with three pillows and a fluffy panda in Singapore. And when I come back to the present, eyes blinking, I am typing on the same screen, listening to the same Spotify playlist, the yogurt cup on my desk leaving a rim of condensation. On my computer the same blinking cursor. Inside my mind, I am remembering and forgetting a thousand tiny things.

TAKE TWO

Very honestly, I was planning to seriously write out a comprehensive Year in Review post with bullet points, labels, a slate of photos, and coherent paragraphs of descriptions. As I tried to write that post, beautifully envisioned and probably much easier to read than whatever I wrote above, the inevitable came: my impressions of those moments were always shifting and being filtered through the numerous new experiences I had. It felt pretentious even to slip back into my own skin and write about how I feel about something at its most visceral when it happened months ago. But. To go back in time and capture how I exactly felt would have been near impossible EXCEPT for the fact that many of such moments and my reflections have been penned down in the 21 blog posts published over the course of freshman year. So here’s another way to look at this year.

In my freshman year…

  • I explored writing fiction: I’ve never written as much fiction. Ever. I’m most grateful for the tremulous beginning to this writing journey—when I applied, got rejected and subsequently got off the waitlist for Claire Messud’s workshop in the Fall. One year later, I’ve completed three short stories for class, enrolled in another workshop (with Neel Mukherjee), and still struggle with this lonely, poetic affair. But this is what started it all. Embracing Rejection At Harvard (also unexpected surprises)
  • My main extracurricular life could be boiled down to three words: Harvard China Forum—when I surprisingly pulled together, with the help of many many people, a panel of speakers that I never could have imagined coming face to face with before Harvard (director of my favorite 2017 drama! lyricist to my lifelong pop idol Jay Chou!!! sci-fi novelist! variety show producer! CEO of online fiction publishing juggernaut! veteran journalist!). This Fall, I’ll be doing it all over again, yay! To Harvard China Forum • 致哈佛中国论坛
  • I spent my winter break at Dumbarton Oaks interrogating cultural philanthropy, diplomacy, and art in the cold. Girl in D.C.
  • I spent this sweltering summer in Kyoto. When In Kyoto ≧◡≦
  • I also ate my way through Japan. From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit
  • I turned 2-0! From 20-year-old Me, With Love
  • I experienced my first shopping week, my first snow in Boston, a November of Taylor Swift, BBC’s Austen adaptations and daylight saving time, and made a list of things I love.
  • I told my own growth on this blog through stories. On navigating love after a bleary-eyed whirlwind Black Friday, on coming to terms with materialism in Gangnam, on those fleeting moments of great metaphorical meaning or unexpected snippets that we cannot capture behind every grinning photo, on combating drama addiction after a dreary spring break.
  • I deal with debilitating doubts about my writing; on bad days, I yearn for external validation like an addict. But, in the end, it’s really just the page and me. I feel extremely nervous about putting my edited works onto this blog for more eyes to scrutinize, but I would like to start doing more of that! Here’s a throwback to the two stories I’ve published here during freshman year: [Story] Why Believe in Fortune Cookies, and 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?.

Here’s to a sophomore year with more blog posts!!! To everyone I met during my freshman year and over this summer, wherever our paths may lead us, thank you for being part of this journey. I hope you will stay with this blog ❤

Lastly, Happy Birthday Daddy!!! 亲爱的爸比,生日快乐 🎂🎉✨ I’m not sure if I can keep myself from crying when I say goodbye to you both at the airport tonight, but I know that because of you, I can venture continents away with strength in my wings, love in my heart and an unyielding faith in the kindness of life. 没有您,就没有我。谢谢您总像魔术师般地将我的烦恼和忧愁化为动力和正能量。您的智慧、引导和关爱让我这棵小树一直在幸福的包围中茁壮成长。谢谢您为我撑起了一片天,为我遮风挡雨。我会让您骄傲的。永远爱您,爸爸!❤️❤️❤️

Lots of love,

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