Winter

Forgive me Love, it’s been awhile.

These words have been swimming in my mind. I wait and wait for the follow-up and none appear.

Winter is here. We have two options for weather: rain or smog. I haven’t seen the sun for four days. It rained for the past two. The old familiar anxiety rises to my throat: will this darkness last?

Winter is here. I look out my window and see the streets are no longer lined by green. The price of lamb has more than doubled.

The Happiness Project

New year, new theme.

The other night, as I rolled around in bed lamenting the hopelessness of life, David came to my rescue. He pointed out some rather basic items I have to be grateful for: a functioning body, family who loves me, the opportunity to work in China should I choose to do so after receiving my master’s degree. All excellent points. All basic points, which took me aback and made me wonder why I had overlooked them, even for a moment. David helpfully pointed out that I may be entering another depression, coinciding once again with persistent back pain.

I struggled with depression in the past year. Though calling it depression seems to me an overstatement, I prefer to call it an emotional recession. The exact cause still eludes me. If I had known it, if it could’ve been traced to one specific event or trigger, then I would’ve made the necessary adjustments and changes to turn things around. As it stood, I could only guess at the cause. David and I agreed that it probably had a lot to do with the back pain I was experiencing.

The fall into emotional recession is an easy one. I loosened my grip on life for one moment and watched years of work tumble down around me. The climb back to emotional surplus, on the other hand, is slow and tedious. After months of attempting to “wait it out”, I realized that happiness doesn’t fall from the sky into my lap, I have to work towards it tirelessly, pursue it relentlessly.

Thus, the Happiness Project.

It’s a simple idea. At the beginning of every month, I make a short and concrete list of daily/weekly tasks. I slowly rebuild the positive habits I had that kept me focused: daily stretches to help with my back pain, setting aside time every week to pursue my interests, blogging.

It’s also a lifetime commitment. Perhaps one day happiness will be second nature to me. That seems unlikely. Just as with everything else, our emotional state requires maintenance and upkeep and our relationship with happiness demands more than our complacency.

I’ll be blogging more this year. It’s on my list.

Berkeley, CA

I got lost yesterday on my way to Berkeley Espresso. I left the apartment believing I knew exactly how to get there; I didn’t even bother to look at the streets. After a few blocks it dawned on me that I had no idea where I was headed. Ironic how losing my way is almost always preceded by certainty rather than uncertainty.

Sometimes I won’t turn around when I realize I’ve gone the wrong way. Sometimes I refuse to accept defeat. I insist on going forward, charting a new path with my misdirection. Each year these instances happen less frequently — stubbornly continuing in the wrong direction, I mean, not getting lost, I get lost just as often as I always have. I’m learning to accept my errors. And also to not give in to every inclination of my ego.

Instead of Berkeley Espresso, I ended up at People’s Cafe. A rather fortunate turn of events really, I have very fond memories of this place. See the parrot on the wall? There’s a drawing of it in my notebook, a quite uncanny duplication if I may say so myself. And the table in the back with the bench against the wall, there we sat when I realized you were my happy place.


I’ve been missing Berkeley these days, missing summers on Telegraph Ave when blocks would be closed off to cars to make room for the tents lining both sides of the street selling hand-made jewelry, tie-dyed shirts, ceramic bowls, and special pastries, missing those four-day weekends when I’d spend an entire day leisurely cruising through all the shops on College Ave, always pausing inside the pet store to contemplate buying a pair of birds to bring some chirp to my apartment.

An entire album of travel photos can’t compete with a single photo depicting my previous life in Berkeley. If I could travel back in time and relive one of those days again, any old Sunday, waking up with you beside me, running errands all day, and ending with a dinner among friends. Just one of those days.

To Stay or To Go

I was in the library the other day working on my thesis when a woman came in and seated herself in the lounge chair across from me. She looked familiar but I couldn’t place her. I tried to make eye contact and smile but she was staring intently at something outside the window; I might as well be invisible.

An hour passed. I noticed the woman across from me had not moved once. Still, she sat, staring out the window. I followed her gaze to the outside: nothing but trees and parked cars. I observed her, happily indulging in a distraction from my paper.

Still, she sat, not moving an inch. Resting into the lounge chair, her hands folded in her lap, she stared, not at the world outside, but into the maze of her thoughts. It’s a process, reaching into one’s own soul searching for answers. Here lied the question: to stay or to go? Still, she sat, while her thoughts revisited the aggregate of cities and places she had collected in the past five years.

Every time she arrived in a new city, she gave herself an adjustment period. It varied depending on whether she needed to learn the local dialect, how much she liked the food, how easily accessible the city was via public transportation. Just when she’s mastered it all, when she’s learned the streets and adjusted to the customs, she began to grow weary of the same scenes. “I’ll come back,” she told herself. There are so many places she hasn’t seen yet, why stop here?

How was she supposed to pick a place to stay when they all bled into one another? How could she pick the right place when she hasn’t seen them all? So she kept moving.

It can’t last forever, this moving around, going from city to city, forming intimate relations with no long-term plans in mind. She longed for an anchor, a reason to stay, without which she had only her heart to guide her. And through five years of travels, she has not yet mastered the map of her own heart. So she sat, contemplating her next moves, immobilized by all the possibilities.

I looked out the window and there you were, five floors down, in a white tee and pants the color of the Caribbean Sea, the color of your eyes. Out of a city of tens of thousands, I picked you out. I recognized you by your walk. You smiled and I knew we were kindred souls, two pieces of the same puzzle. I packed up my bag and walked out of the library, leaving the woman there in the lounge chair, with her possibilities.

Chinese New Year

Celebration of the Year of the Horse officially ended on the day of the Lantern Festival, the 15th day of the new year. 15 days of feasting, drinking, covering various corners of Shanghai to visit relatives close and distant, at the end of which my holiday spirit was nowhere to be found and I was more than glad to face the rest of the year with quiet acceptance.

Right in the middle of all the busing, taxing around, tired of having to choose between entertaining guests that are not mine and hiding out in my sister’s room, I left the house to have lunch with a girl friend.

The Korean restaurant we had originally planned on visiting was closed for Chinese New Year so we went to get dim sum instead. I’d hardly warmed my seat when she asked me how my trip to Vietnam was.

“Great,” I responded. “I want to learn Vietnamese this year.”
“Do you have a boyfriend in Vietnam? Is that why you go back every year?”
“If I had a boyfriend in Vietnam, would I only visit once a year?”

How could I explain to her why I loved Vietnam? That if Europe stayed in the past and China focused on the future, as friends have postulated, then Vietnam was the present. That for someone whose thoughts are occupied by nostalgia and worry, the present is like waking up from a long nap, pulling aside the curtains, finding the world outside covered in snow and seeing it anew.

My girl friend stared at me for a minute and suddenly chuckled.

“What is it?” I asked.
“I was just thinking about how unpredictable life can be.”

Another pause in the conversation as I sipped my tea and stared out the window.

Summer Reading

My morning temper, which I had kept repressed since college, has reared its ugly head again. I thought I had put it to rest. The weather doesn’t help. We get some rain here and there in Shanghai and after each storm, for a brief few hours, the air is clean and crisp. Mostly, it’s been getting hotter, more stifling. It’s only mid-July; the worst is yet to come.

After finishing The World According to Garp, I felt haunted by the Under Toad. When I crossed the street, I imagined speeding cars and drivers with their diverted attention. When I rode taxis, I imagined turns taken too sharply and the steering wheel spinning out of control. Following Garp with A Dance with Dragons hasn’t helped; I dream of fire and ashes.

Unexpectedly, it was my morning temper that chased away the Under Toad. This morning as I rode the elevator, instead of envisioning some imminent calamity, I saw myself growing sharper teeth and claws, growling at the passenger beside me. Since then, I’ve felt surprisingly safe. Impatient and irritated, but safe.

I haven’t written much so far this year outside of school and work, but I have read plenty. Out of the ones I’ve read, here are my top 5:

I also really enjoyed This Is How Your Lose Her by Junot Diaz and and The Hours by Michael Cunningham. I’d recommend any of these for your summer reading. I wouldn’t call any of them “light”, but I think each of these has something great to offer.

I haven’t been writing lately. Not writing because I haven’t found the time and not writing because the words aren’t coming to me are quite different. The latter is much more alarming. I plan on reading through the summer then taking a short break early fall to gather my thoughts. I suspect once I start writing again, my morning temper will be gone. Looking forward to that, and feeling like myself again.