Goodbye, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

A Quick Round of Favorites

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

Favorite Books: 12 Top Reads in 2020

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

Favorite Movie: Parasite
Honorable Mention: Little Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite Song: 《刻在你心底的名字》卢广仲

***

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

With love,

12 Top Reads in 2020

Hello dear reader, HAPPY HOLIDAYS! ✨

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

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

Whoosh goes the roulette of months—

January: My Name Is Red, Orhan Pamuk

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

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

I, Istanbul

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

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

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

February: The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

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

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

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

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

March: Outline, Rachel Cusk

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

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

on my desk: the pandemic stay-home edition

April: The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh

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

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

on my desk: the pandemic stay-home edition

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

May: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Gabo.

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

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

A conversation across time.

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

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

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

July: 《鹌鹑》它似蜜

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

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

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

“干净谁都喜欢,但它也太普遍了。”

“脏是难得的?”

“你是难得的。”

August: Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October: Transit, Rachel Cusk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November: Less, Andrew Sean Greer

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

In some ways, the novel is about age.

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

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

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

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

December: The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

What are your favorite reads of 2020? 🌱

With love,

2019: A Tale of Many Cities

Selina Xu Kaiping 碉楼

滚滚长江东逝水,浪花淘尽英雄。
是非成败转头空。
青山依旧在,几度夕阳红。
白发渔樵江渚上,惯看秋月春风。
一壶浊酒喜相逢。
古今多少事,都付笑谈中。

《三国演义》开篇

Roiling waves of the river flow,
Rippling tides sieve out heroes,
Wins and losses now hollow.
The earth lies here still,
Many sunsets come and go.

A snowy-haired elder perches by,
Seasons ebbing in his eyes.
History’s many tales
All washed down with wine,
Drowning in laughter with old friends.

(my translation)

Romance of Three Kingdoms Wuhou Temple 三国演义武侯寺

The huge stone engraving sits in a courtyard of the Wuhou Temple, carrying the opening verse of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Chengdu. Centuries ago, once the Kingdom of Shu. The Temple memorializes Zhuge Liang, who ought to have been forgotten by time — only a prime minister of a kingdom that lasted 43 years, dating back to close to two millennia ago; not to mention, China was split into three — no one could call himself emperor (帝), only king (王). Being neither king nor emperor, Zhuge Liang has posthumously found outsized fame. When I was a kid, my parents would say, Be as smart as Zhuge Liang. His is one of the first names that come to mind when one thinks of wisdom, strategy, or yin and yang (八卦). Ironically, in this temple named after him lies the tomb of Liu Bei — the King of Shu, who Zhuge Liang had served.

But why? Because of one book.

No one would remember Zhuge Liang, Cao Cao, Liu Bei, or Guan Yu, were it not for Romance of the Three Kingdoms (which, alongside Dream of the Red Chamber, Journey to the West, and Heroes of the Marshes, are deemed as China’s four great literary classics).

The temple is crowded with visitors. Every corridor, every statue, every inch of the bamboo-shrouded red walls are surrounded by bobbing heads and peering faces. Several of the famous generals whose statues loom are, in fact, fictional. So pervasive has been Three Kingdoms that legacies are invented and History reconstructed. Like everyone else chasing the words of the guide, my grandpa, my father, and I are devotees to a book that has grown larger than life — one that reigns over modern Chinese consciousness.

A Western pop cultural parallel that immediately comes to mind is Hamilton, which I caught this summer in New York. It celebrates history in the making and, in a musical spectacle, tears open the sinews of History to show us how it is written, construed, and remade. What captivated me most wasn’t those contemporary bits, but how it seemed that the audience was watching the arches and domes being constructed for a narrative-in-the-making. Letting the music wash over us was to partake in Hamilton‘s version of history; commemorating Zhuge Liang in a temple where a literary overture resides front and center is to blur the line between fiction and history.

You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

Selina Xu Chongqing 磁器口

这个冬天,我最后的足迹遍布了各大古镇:从开平的碉楼到顺德的逢简水乡,从成都的宽窄巷子到锦里武侯祠,从重庆的洪崖洞到磁器口再到民国街。中国的大江南北充满了历史残留的韵味与商业化的喧哗。不经意间,我扑捉到了很多很多梦想篇幅的一小边角:阁楼酒吧和茶馆驻唱的歌手、执着于快要失传手艺的老人,还有能写出《三国演义》的罗贯中。我们如此平庸的活着,怀揣着亦伟大亦渺小的梦想,品味着人生百态——不正是舌尖上的人生吗?

在重庆山城里,我扶着爷爷,闻着火锅的味道,淌着长江的风,看着姑姑录抖音。爷爷给我讲了他在文化大革命时候的故事、1966年来看武侯祠时的光景,还有他在十六岁时独闯哈尔滨的孤独与憧憬。我想到了命运的波折和转机,以及上帝神奇的手。我的爷爷出生于浙江,在哈尔滨谋生,在四川成家。他的孙子如今在东京,而孙女风尘仆仆地终于从新加坡飞到了他的身边叽叽喳喳。

在东莞,我握住了年迈的外婆躺在病床上的手,嘴巴里是咸咸的。小时候,我在公园里骑车,外婆总是追在我的后面跑。她是全世界最善良的人,总是为别人着想,为别人流泪。现在,她想吃一颗巧克力,我却不能给她。在医院里,我想到了疾病与死亡,想到了我的青春意味着长辈的衰老,想到了自己的幼稚与无知。怎么这么快我就已经成为了大人呢?

Chongqing Peijie Hotpot 珮姐老火锅

In 2019…

I turned 21.

In 2019…

I draw a map of cities. I embraced the new year with fireworks in Taiwan, visited startups in Beijing and Shanghai, scaled the insides of a pyramid in Egypt, watched 9 Broadway shows in one New York summer, turned 21 in Los Angeles, crossed the deserts to Vegas, cried over a book in Halong Bay. The final days of the year are spent in a roundabout of cities — the frigid winds by the Yangtze River and the misty fog of Chongqing, laced with the smell of hotpot; in bamboo-shrouded temples and dirt mounds masquerading as kingly mausoleums; by moss-covered bridges and dusty ancestral shrines.

Despite milestones and numbers, 2019 does not strike me like a circle, or a period, or a threshold. I think of the year as a phase, a transition, a map of footprints, another collection of stories to catalog in the library of my life. I think of growth — uncomfortable, alienating, redemptive, then hopeful. I feel the surge of days, the flipping pages of years. I see the new decade open before me, first like a horizon, then like a ravine. The minutes tick like I’m standing at the edge of an unfurling abyss, on the precipice of the untold. My hair rustles in the face of time’s inexorable pull. A quiver, and we free fall into the roaring twenties.

Thank you, 2019, for your blessings, lessons, wonders, adventures, and growth. Thank you, God, for showing me life’s difficult questions and inspiring me with the faith and strength to shoulder them. ❤️❤️❤️

Hello 2020!

Selina Xu Hongyadong 洪崖洞

May 2020 treat you each with love, ❤️

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

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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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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