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.

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.

Reading The Stranger

There’s a young woman sitting at the table across from me. Every time I look up from my book, I notice how beautiful she is. A beauty entirely hidden if not for the soft brown curls that frame her face and the lazy Sunday mornings she reminds me of despite her apparent agitation with the notebook under her pencil.

Every time the door opens with the tinkling of a bell, I look up expectantly. Except I somehow missed Ton coming into the cafe. He startled me when he sat down next to me in one quick, fluid motion. I don’t remember telling him where I’d be, but I must have. My mind still hasn’t recovered completely from the lack of sleep. The latte on my table is getting cold. “Sometimes I think of you as I’m drinking my tea, and it is getting cold and the day isn’t even half over.” Every time I read that line, I think back to my days working in San Francisco, when I used to will time to carry me to 5 o’clock. Now I’m constantly marveling at how quickly time passes, how many hours are lost in conversations and how there is never enough time to read.

As my latte cools, I’m reading Camus and thinking about how trite it is for me to finally settle on a cafe in this city and it is called Cafe Belong. More people are coming in, the noise level is rising, and I realize there are people who go to cafes to socialize, to go over pictures on their cameras and chat with their friends. The bell by the door keeps tinkling and I keep glancing up. “If you want to give it another shot, I’ll be there till 4.” I tried to not read too much into the message as I wrote it. I tried to keep hope at bay, disappointment and hurt out of my voice.

I think about consciousness and the burden it places on our souls, that with consciousness ends our ability to be content, to be satisfied and the effort we put into numbing that consciousness. With alcohol and drugs, with sex and love, with travels and escapes. With meditations. With a yoga mat under my feet, Dvorak playing, and lightening splitting the sky.

Let’s (Not) Get It On

I met up with an expat friend for lunch yesterday. Over dessert, he asked me what it’d be like dating a local girl. I told him the local girls around our age date with one goal in mind: marriage. It changes everything: the conversations, the expectations.

Then there’s the logistics. Young adults in China, who are unmarried, tend to live at home with their parents. Now you know why there are love seats in every theater, rooms available at an hourly rate, and couples hidden in every dark corner of every park.

Dating locally poses different challenges for me.

I like to date privately and in peace, which is almost impossible to do in Shanghai. The most common way for couples to meet here is through introduction via a family member or family friend. I’ve been offered to go on dates through these means but dating is complicated enough without that added pressure. I’m also afraid of running into a family member while I’m on a date. Shanghai really isn’t as big as you’d think and I cannot date under scrutiny.

I just want to enjoy my uncomplicated single life and my freedom a bit longer.

When Claritin Fails

I was kept up till 4:30 in the morning by my allergies last night, this morning, whichever.

The first few hours weren’t too bad. I was up reading anyway. I’m in the middle of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedman. It’s not a page turner in the usual sense but it is fascinating.

By 3 a.m., I had used three different types of nasal sprays. I wandered down to the kitchen and heated some soup. Then I returned to my room with both the humidifier and air purifier turned on high.

By 4 a.m., I no longer had the focus to read about the identification of the feminine in the 1950s, so I delved into my old journals. A piece of loose-leaf fell out of one of them; it was covered in my handwriting.

“This music is making me feel a very strong love for you.”
“Just this music?”
“This music and whatever hormones that are produced in me.”
“Why does it have to be anything? Why not just because I’m good to you and I feel the love for you?”

“a costume of indifference” — when he’s got a grasp on his words, they’re impeccable

Maybe he would’ve done this more eloquently, maybe he would’ve used more literary devices, but it probably also would’ve been longer, much longer. 

And I thought about you everyday. A day hasn’t gone by when you didn’t find your way into my mind. That’s the work of nostalgia. 

I like to think it was nonfiction but it could just as easily be a story I was working on. There were no names or dates. I was so succinct with my words back then. Now everything is described in detail, entire conversations are documented. I used to write to strength my hold on the past, now I write so I can forget. It is a terrible burden trying to carry the weight of all my memories.

This World of Realities

I’ve been having a difficult time lately living in this world of realities.  Sure, I’ve gotten used to the engagements and weddings, graduations and baby showers, all of which now make regular appearances on my news feed. But the funerals and hospital visits, the real markers of time, of the frailty of life, they seem to affect me more rather than less with each occurrence.

It seems there is barely a moment to catch my breath between the news of various tragedies.

And so, because I can afford to, I provided myself with the luxury of spending many hours in bed this week, with a book, with my journal, with my laptop watching Harry Potter.

During those weeks of backpacking solo in Southeast Asia, my comfort zone expanded until I couldn’t see the edges. But now, my comfort zone is no more than the size of my bed. I exert most of my mental energy attempting to control the uncontrollable, drawing lines that seem to vanish just as quickly as I conjure them.

There are loads of articles about being in your 20s: what to do, what not to do. Most of them consist of lists feigning wisdom to the lost souls clumsily groping through their quarter-life crises. “Live,” the words cry. There are no mentions of tragedies or deaths. As if we emit a golden, invincible shield protecting us and all those around us.

If only.

I spent all that time in bed seeking comfort and finding none. While I tried to escape the realities of life, time continued onward and the world outside remained, unyielding. So I finally got up and carried on.