Thursday, 15 June 2017

packing up and moving on

Today is June 14, 2017. As of today, I have been a resident of New York City for twenty-five days. Twenty-five!

I think twenty-five days is sufficient time. Sufficient time, I mean, to have let elapse before sitting down in front of a screen and trying to cobble together some words that might help me, at a later date, remember the experience of packing up almost-seven years of cold, windy summers and bunk beds shared with best friends and delicious, impossibly moist, tomato-sauce-less, meat-less pizza such as you'll never find anywhere outside of the Bay Area (because who in their right and sober frame of mind would think that pizza without tomato sauce and meat could be a good idea?) and love, so much unfathomable, bottomless love, and stuffing it into suitcases and boxes and moving all of it, the winds and the blankets and the pizza and the love, as indelible memories, across the country and into a new city.

Moving itself isn't new. I've moved before, and not just a few blocks down the street. Across a couple of continents, across an ocean. South Woodford to Seoul, Seoul to Berkeley. In 2002, my dad finished his PhD at the University of London; we went back to Korea ("Back? What do you mean, 'back,' Mum? I never lived there!" "Don't cry, you can just come back to England for college."). In 2010, I finished high school; my parents shipped me across the Pacific ("Yoojung-ah, don't go to college in England. You already lived there. England is boring. America is so much bigger. Just go to Princeton.").

So I've left homes before, made new ones in new places. But leaving California was the first time I left a place not because someone with the last name Kwon had finished a degree, but because... I chose to.

I felt like it. I felt like a change.

While this is true, it also makes it sound like I moved entirely on a whim, which is a bit misleading. For some people, "I feel like it" simply does mean "I feel like it, so I'm doing it." I am in awe of and slightly terrified by these people. (Also I'm convinced they don't exist.) For me, "I feel like it" means "I feel like it, but I can't really decide if I actually should or if this is just a quarter-life crisis creeping up on me, and I've been thinking about it but, agh, I just can't decide, and I've been praying, but God is being all mysterious about it and won't just tell me what to do--so annoying--and I really don't want to leave my church, and no YOU need to stop freaking out, and no, no, I do want to go but I can't so maybe I will just live in Americana Apartments forever and be buried in the Bay, and what do you mean I need to calm down I'm totally calm I still have my chill look it's right here, it's good, everything's good, I'm fine, we're fine."

I mean that's...that really about sums it up. The whole thing at the beginning about packing up seven years of sun and pizza and frigid summers--when it came to it, the packing was easy. (Emily and I started early, like responsible adults. It's the most adult-like behaviour we've ever displayed.) The deciding to pack was what was so enormously hard.

Mostly what it came down to was that I felt life had become stagnant for me, in the Bay. I was very happy--I generally am, most days, as long as I haven't run out of milk for my tea or stubbed my toe on the dresser--but it felt too comfortable, too still. There were a lot of days I walked down Shattuck Avenue and found myself thinking, if I have to walk this exact path down Shattuck one more time I'm going to lose my mind. (Dramatic, am I? How dare you!)

I think someone wiser, more mature, and more grounded than I would have been able to stay put and still find new challenges and ways to grow in an already-familiar environment. I, however, am not that wise, probably still less mature, and about as restless as a five-year-old suffering through a long, dull church sermon.

Eventually, like any good five-year-old, I tugged on my mother's sleeve and whispered loudly that I was bored and wanted to go outside, or in other words, after several months of sitting on the proverbial fence, I walked into my boss's office and asked her if I could transfer to our New York office. And then, much sooner than I had expected, she said yes, and to let her know when I wanted to go, and I promptly clambered back onto my fence, and sat there some more, until I finally just fell off and landed on the side that said "New York."

And suddenly, faster than I could say "wait can I maybe get back on that fence for a little longer," I had to say goodbye! To friends, to my first home in America, to a very full and happy life in California with unlimited access to good tacos and boba. Saying bye sucks. So much. Livingwater was the hardest, of course. I cried so hard on my last Sunday that I was surprised to wake up the next morning and find that I could still see.

How do you leave behind a community that has nurtured you and loved you so well, so genuinely, for the better part of six years, that has played a crucial role in helping you to understand, with a startling clarity, your identity as a daughter of a loving God, that has shown you time and again the very great joy to be found in walking with Christ, with others?

If I sound like I'm obsessed with Livingwater, it's because I am. And I miss it, and all the people in it. But you can't hold on to perfect, or near-perfect, or not-anywhere-near-perfect-but-I-still-love-you things forever. You treasure them while you have them, say a sucky, weepy, snot-filled goodbye when it's time, and move on. Livingwater, my Berkeley friends, my coworkers, In-N-Out, Elmwood Cafe and Moe's Books, the deep bond I'd formed with another physical place I'd taught myself to call "home"--all of these were things I had to reckon with as I sat on my fence and let myself fall.

Falling was painful, but I'm glad I did it. Leaving a place behind is one sucky, sad thing, no matter how ready you are to leave; arriving in a new one is another, tremendously exciting and life-giving, thing entirely. I feel newly energized here in my new surroundings (although who knows how long that will last, with a very hot and humid summer fast approaching--place your bets now!), and happy to be living in a crowded city again.

Contrary to most expectations and all well-meant warnings from other people, New York and its residents have been kind to me so far.

I will not jinx it by elaborating too much, but I will just say that the lady at my local Dunkin Donuts gave me two free Munchkins with my coffee the other day when I asked if I could just buy a single Munchkin instead of the minimum four, so.

If free Munchkins are not a harbinger of a bright new chapter in New York, I don't know what is.


I wrote most of this sitting at a little table in Bryant Park after work today, enjoying the warm summer evening outdoors and eating a quinoa-chicken-salad bowl with avocado. Avocados, in my mind, will always be associated with California. Californians love few things more than they love avocados. They might as well be the state mascot.

It is funny what little things can make you feel connected to another place, a previous home. If ever I get homesick for the west coast, maybe I will just run to the nearest bodega and buy an avocado and the Bay will suddenly feel not so far away.

Until then--I think free Dunkin Donuts are about enough to help me get adjusted to New York. Change is good. So are free donuts.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

advice extorted from my friends for a newly 24-year-old (me)

I turned twenty-four yesterday, April 23, 2017.

Can we dwell for a minute on the fact that April 23 is also 1) Shakespeare's (observed) birthday and (actual) date of death, and 2) World Book Day? (A fact that I will probably never tire of beating people over the head with?)

I mean, what the hell. I never stood a chance. I basically emerged from the womb declaring my undergrad English major. My first wails were probably the expression of a primal instinct that sensed all the budget cuts to hit English departments in institutions of higher learning across America in the years to come. Or the rise of Amazon and the slow death of independent bookstores, exacerbated by the pain of knowing that I, too, would one day contribute to this, in my early twenties, just because "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" would turn out to be cheaper on Amazon than at Moe's Books.

If Moe's ever goes out of business I know this decision will haunt me. Please Lord, that I may live guilt-free, let Moe's flourish long and happily and continue to bless generations of students and bookworms with their complimentary candystriped bookmarks for decades to come.

What was I talking about?

Oh: I turned twenty-four yesterday.

Turning twenty-four is a solemn affair. Twenty-four, in my eyes, is just over the brink of "real"' adulthood. Past denying liability and getting away with it, the way you might be able to at twenty-three. No one takes twenty-three very seriously. Probably because it's a prime number. Being a prime number age is the worst. That is a Fact. I know it's a Fact, because I say it's a Fact, and we now live in an age when anyone can declare something to be a Fact, and that automatically makes it so. That is another thing that has changed from twenty-three to twenty-four.

Because twenty-four is thus from the outset presenting itself as a year of many challenges, not the least of which include trying to act like a real adult and also moving across the country, I gathered some of my older, wiser friends in one place yesterday (with a couple of exceptions for the two friends who are still a prime number and therefore not to be taken seriously), ostensibly to stuff ourselves with Korean BBQ and drinks and "celebrate," but actually just to squeeze them for advice on how to be good at being twenty-four. (This is one of the many benefits of being the youngest/near-youngest in your friend group.)

As you can imagine, I received a range of responses. Some thoughtful, some funny, some spectacularly unhelpful, but all most very appreciated. I'm recording them here, so I can look back and remember, when twenty-four gets hard.

1. Brace yourself. Alternatively, embrace yourself.*

2. Get married.

3. Don't do drugs. Well, maybe just once, just to see. But not the stuff that gets you addicted on your first try, like cocaine. Maybe a brownie?

4. It's okay to be confused.

5. Keep reading and writing.

6. Twenty-four...is the year before you turn twenty-five. THE YEAR BEFORE YOU TURN TWENTY-FIVE.**

7. Make friends with more people who are very different from you.

8. Travel solo.

9. When you move to New York and your cost of living suddenly increases, don't let that hinder you from being generous with your finances. Continue to find ways to give, and bless others, with your money.

10. When you make new friends in New York, and you will, and it will be great, don't forget you will always have friends here, and don't be afraid to reach out whenever you need.***

11. Keep loving the Lord and other people, with joy.

12. Eat healthy. Take care of yourself physically, because as you get older, your body will start healing more slowly.****


*This is a reference to a Livingwater Church-wide joke, but the advice still stands, I think.
**This one is blatantly not a piece of advice, but a statement of a fact. I included it because it was presented with great urgency and significant emphasis on and repetition of the last six words (italicized/capitalized to reflect this emphasis).
***I will admit this one made me a little bit teary on the inside.
****This one also made me a bit teary on the inside, but for multiple different reasons.

Writing this all up and looking it over again, I can see clearly that this list contains (for the most part) some genuinely good advice; it is practical and wholesome and fun and I aim to follow it the best I can in the year ahead. But I also see that this list is more than the sum of its parts, more than just discrete tips; this list is love and laughter and encouragement; it is "we love you" and "we will make you laugh" and "we want to help you be the best version of yourself" and "we are here for you."

It has been said by so many people all the world over who have all believed it to be true for themselves and themselves alone, but:

I have the best friends.

Everyone else who has said this sentence before me was obviously deluded, because mine are, Objectively Speaking, the best.

Mine make twenty-four seem a little less daunting and a whole lot more exciting, and for that and for everything else that they do and that they are I am very grateful.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

what i watched in 2016

So I've come to a point where I've realized that if I procrastinate any longer on writing this post I'll find myself in 2018 and by then this will be neither timely nor relevant. Also, it's too late at night now to start the next episode of ์‹œ๊ทธ๋„ (Signal) without effectively committing myself to nightmares about serial murderers tonight, so here we goto follow on from my "what I read in 2016" list, here is my "what I watched in 2016" list, and accompanying reflections. And to clarify, "what I watched" here refers to movies only, because if I included TV shows the total number of hours I spent looking at medium-to-big screens last year would skyrocket to frightening heights. The partial truth is much more bearable.

The first thing to note is that I watched an unprecedented number of movies in 2016. That is, unprecedented for me, in my own life, not unprecedented in the history of the world, obviously, because, movie critics. It was a good year for personal entertainment, escapism, and empathy, and a bad year for my wallet, which now has burn marks from the hole that Hollywood put in it.

So why so many movies? What's with the obsession? When did it start?

I'm not sure when exactly it started, but the why it started is easy. There's a quote from a piece by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker from a couple of years ago called "The History of Loving to Read," which I really liked—mostly because of how much it talked about Jane Austen—that about sums it up. "The rise of TV and movie fandom—with its generous affection turning, when it’s betrayed, into lavish scorn—seems to be an extension of our love affair with books. It’s a way of loving a canon in the present tense." In short, I came to love movies because I've always loved books. I've always loved books because I've always loved stories. It was a natural, inevitable progression from an obsession with one medium of storytelling to another.

As for why so many movies in 2016, well, the easy explanation is that 2016 was such a spectacularly crap-on-a-cracker year that the movie theatre and all that it offered in terms of escape became more appealing than ever. And that's partly true, but also I think it was, very simply, that I realized last year that I have a good amount of free time outside of work and ministry, and that there are few ways of spending this free time that I enjoy more than watching movies, whether with friends or by myself.

Where my "what I watched" list differs from my "what I read" list is in the fact that it doesn't reflect who I was and what I was thinking in 2016 so much as it reflects who society was and what society was thinking in 2016. The former list is dictated (mostly) by whatever comes out in theatres in a given year, the latter by my more deliberate choices of which books, from a span of centuries, I am curious to read. So while my annual books-read lists will maybe paint a picture of who I was in a given year, it will be interesting to see how my yearly movies-watched lists will maybe paint a picture of the backdrop against which I found myself in that year (Zootopia and Moonlight, together, might just sum up 2016 for America).

So. Favourites from 2016. Zootopia, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Captain Fantastic, Sing Street from the spring/summer. Miss Stevens, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land from the fall/winter. And Moonlight, Lion, 20th Century Women, and Hidden Figures—though since I actually watched all of these in 2017, I haven't included them on the bulleted list below.

Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land, Moonlight, and Hidden Figures all had plenty of noise around them during awards season (and rightly so). I loved them all, but everyone on the planet has already said every good thing that can be said of them, and then some. So here are some thoughts on a few of the others that I loved from last year.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople: So damn funny. It probably elicited the most laughs out of all the movies on this list. But it was also heartfelt and sincere. I loved it because I loved its hero: Ricky Baker, an overweight juvenile delinquent who writes haikus as a way of dealing with his anger issues. (My favourite haiku: "Kingi you wanker / You arsehole, I hate you heaps / Please die soon, in pain.") I loved him and I believed in him and in his relationship with his crusty foster "uncle" Hec (Sam Neill), and I somehow also believed in their shared run from the police through the New Zealand bush, absurd as it all was. Wilderpeople was smart, hilarious, warm and unassuming, and thinking about it eight months later still makes me smile. (Side note: the director, Taika Waititi, is next going to helm Marvel's Thor: Raganarok, which is a jump that makes me think of Colin Trevorrow's leap from Safety Not Guaranteed—one of my favourite movies of 2012—to Jurassic World. Are we going to keep losing all the good indie people to impersonal franchises?! Don't answer that.)

Captain Fantastic: I'm still upset that Viggo Mortensen didn't win the Oscar for his role in this movie (and angry that Casey Affleck won instead, but that's a whole separate issue), even though I knew it was probably the least likely outcome and that I should celebrate the fact that he was even recognized with a nomination at all. But Viggo Mortensen was really, truly fantastic in this movie, playing a progressive, countercultural father raising his six kids completely off the grid in the Pacific Northwest and also raising questions about parenting. Watching him and his interactions with his kids and with other characters made me feel as if I were watching a real person, with very real emotions and flaws, not just a tidily crafted character. And I appreciated that while the film's sympathies were obviously for Viggo's character, it also highlighted the many questionable aspects of his parenting. Other good things: the kids (all of them!), the humour, the emphasis on thinking for yourself and talking about your ideas, the costumes, the colours, the lack of fear of being sentimental, the story itself—all wonderful. But really this movie is all about Viggo. Viggo, I love you. Please be my adoptive father.

Sing Street: Here's the thing. La La Land was amazing. But my one gripe with it will forever be that its splendor completely drowned out the other great movie musical of 2016, which was Sing Street. To describe Sing Street is basically to create a word bank of all the words that describe the type of movies I like best: sincere, feel-good, triumphant coming-of-age. With great music (tributes to 1980s pop/rock). And lovely accents (Irish). And so much sympathy for its young protagonists and their dreams that you feel heartened by their every small victory and plunged into the depths of heartbreak with their every pitfall. Everything about this movie was so lovely. I'm going to go and listen my way through the soundtrack again and soak in the "happy-sad"-ness of it all. And then be amazed all over again that none of the songs were nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. But oh well. I am just happy this movie exists (and now on Netflix!).

I think I'm done now. Here's the full list of movies I watched in 2016, and again, most memorable in bold:
  1. Hail, Caesar (2016)
  2. Zootopia (2016)
  3. Love and Friendship (2016)
  4. The History Boys (2006)
  5. The Jungle Book (2016)
  6. The Departed (2006)
  7. The Lobster (2016)
  8. Finding Dory (2016)
  9. The Fundamentals of Caring (2016)
  10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
  11. Captain Fantastic (2016)
  12. Star Trek Beyond (2016)
  13. Seoul Searching (2016)
  14. Indignation (2016)
  15. When Harry Met Sally (1989)
  16. Whiplash (2014)
  17. Sing Street (2016)
  18. Eye in the Sky (2016)
  19. 13th (2016)
  20. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
  21. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
  22. Breach (2007)
  23. Arrival (2016)
  24. Moana (2016)
  25. Manchester by the Sea (2016)
  26. La La Land (2016)
  27. Don't Think Twice (2016)
  28. Nerve (2016)
  29. Miss Stevens (2016)
  30. Howards End (1992)
  31. Cafe Society (2016)
  32. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Monday, 6 February 2017

what i read in 2016

I have been keeping a list of all the books I've ever read since 2006. The list started out in a free notebook I got from Starbucks one year as a token of appreciation from the green mermaid herself for buying more caffeinated drinks in a year than was likely healthy for a pre-teen who needed to grow, and since then has moved into a Google spreadsheet home more suited for this digital age.

It's a fun list to look at. It tells me that I was at my most literary in the year 2009, when I read 41 books (only a few of which were for school), and that I apparently forgot what a bookstore was in the years 2014-2015, when I read a total of 14 books over the two years combined. I'm inclined to think that can't really be right. The only explanation I can come up with for this dismal number is that I graduated from college in 2014 and spent much of the following year worrying about whether I would be able to stay in America. Thus, the time I would normally have spent reading books I spent instead defeatedly reading articles explaining how I essentially had less chance of getting an H-1B visa than I did of weightlifting for Korea in the next Olympics. I wound up getting the visa, so the joke's on me, I guess, and on all the bookstores that otherwise would have made much more money off me.

I thought it would be nice to start writing up my yearly books-read lists here. I have a hunch—or maybe it is wishful, romantic thinking—that I will be able to look back on a particular year and paint a picture of who I was that year, what I thought, what I wanted to learn about, based on the collection of books I read.

I say this, and then I look at the books I read last year, and it strikes me that a significant fraction of them are stories or memoirs written by celebrities/actors/musicians/entertainers. Which, you know. Doesn't really paint me as the bookish intellectual I'd otherwise pretend to be. Though this is not to say those books aren't great, of course. Mindy Kaling is one of the funniest writers of all time, and B.J. Novak's short stories are clever and poignant and feel so acutely unreal-but-real. But Kaling is not Kipling and Novak is not Nabokov and what my 2016 list accurately reflects is that this was the year that I reached new heights (or depths?) of immersion in pop culture, and consumed an unprecedented amount of TV and film. And it spilled over into the books I chose to read. I am more than fine with this. If anything, my 2016 list serves as a reminder of my first time watching "The Office" (both UK and US versions), and of the weeks of endless laughter it brought me. That will always be a happy thing.

There are other hints too, from my book list, as to what I was thinking about last year. 2016 was the year I stepped into a greater awareness of how important my Korean identity is to me. It's the year I began giving voice to the feeling that has increased over the past few years of my living in America, that I do not really, wholly belong on this soil, that there will forever be a part of me that cries loudly to be on another soil across the Pacific, and that such a cry cannot be so easily tamped down beneath a love of Hollywood movies and a deep-rooted attachment to Chipotle. And so last year I read a novel by a Korean-American author for the first time in my life, recognizing in it a something from within myself that I had not found in other books, and reveling in the novelty and the joy of it. The following month, I made my way through a collection of short stories by Tablo (of Korean hip hop group Epik High) and reveled more. Both books were lent to me by friends, both of whom are Korean, and it made the experience of reading them so much the more wonderful.

My 2016 list is a marked, intentional improvement, quantity-wise, on my 2014-2015 lists. But looking at it does make me want to set some goals for my 2017 list. More books by people who have been dead for over a century. More books by people of colour. More books by women. (I'm on the right track so far on that last one: the first new book I read in 2017 was The Devil Wears Prada—a very important book in the modern fashion-literature canon by a highly talented female writer, obviously.)

So, anyway. The first of many of these lists to come, here are all the books I read in 2016 (not counting those I re-read for the seventieth time, like Anne of Green Gables or Little Women)—most memorable in bold:
  1. Girlboss, by Sophia Amuroso
  2. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman
  3. Undine, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque
  4. A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
  5. The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss
  6. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews
  7. The History Boys, by Alan Bennett
  8. One More Thing, by B.J. Novak
  9. The Haters, by Jesse Andrews
  10. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, by Mindy Kaling
  11. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
  12. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, Jack Thorne
  13. Howards End, by E.M. Forster
  14. Why Not Me?, by Mindy Kaling
  15. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
  16. A Gesture Life, by Chang-Rae Lee
  17. Pieces of You, by Tablo
  18. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  19. Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal
  20. The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty, by Amanda Filipacchi

Thursday, 19 January 2017

january things, or, let's not be afraid to record the mundane

It is January in the year 2017. It is a prime number year, which I hate. I lamented about this long and loudly in the weeks leading up to the new year to everyone who was unfortunate enough to find themselves in my immediate vicinity, until someone got tired of my complaining and told me to get over it, after which I largely kept my dislike of specific numbers, prime or otherwise, to myself.

I am twenty-three years old (another prime number) in January in the year 2017. Twenty-three and three quarters, to be precise the way you are in elementary school when being eight-and-a-half means you are significantly older and wiser than your friends who are only eight-and-a-quarter. I have been twenty-three years old for nine months and in those nine months I have learned a few things about what it is to be twenty-three.

None of those things are very profound.

One of those things is that when you are twenty-three, decisions gradually begin to feel like they have more weight attached to them than you remember them having. What to do, where to go, how to live, who to be. It happens slowly, imperceptibly, like gaining physical weight. You don't feel it as it's happening, until one day you step on a scale at your friend's house and squint at the number, hmm, that can't possibly be right, I didn't feel like I was putting on more pounds -- but if the scale says it, it must be so. Choosing to live in America at this current stage of my life had never seemed to me a big deal -- or even like a conscious decision -- until last year when it began to dawn on me faintly that it was in fact a Big Decision, with Significant Consequences. Most significant of which: having to accept that it meant being far away from family. It is hard to explain why this was such a new realization, after five, six years of already being separated. I suppose it is the difference between being a student and being an adult.

--

Things that have happened in my life as a twenty-three-and-three-quarters-year-old in January in the year 2017, so far:

I spent the first half of the month at home in Korea, as I've been fortunate enough to do every year since I came away for college. Edwin came for a portion of the trip as well, and did important things like meet my dad, and the Sullivans, and teach my sisters how to play Settlers of Catan, and watch a lot of Korean broadcast network awards shows with my family. I did a couple of things for the first time on this particular visit home, like spending a 24-hour (count 'em) period making a single batch of cookies with Eugenie, and taking Izzie shopping for clothes, just the two of us.

Samie came to San Francisco with her boyfriend, and I spent a full, glorious (jet lagged) day with them, walking along the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building to Pier 39 to Lombard Street. She exclaimed several times about how pretty San Francisco is. It made me realize I have been here for a long time, to take it so for granted as I do now.

I received another email from my high school AP lit teacher Mr. H, in the sporadic but flourishing email correspondence that sprung up between us after I graduated. His email was characteristically pithy; my response was characteristically, uncontrollably wordy. I am twenty-three, the age he was when he taught me and my peers, which is very weird. He is now married and living in Beijing, and I am now flailing about as I try to navigate the unpredictable waters that are post-college young adulthood. He still asks me about the books I am reading, and I ask him about the books he is reading, and on occasion I also ask him things like "how do you do this whole adult thing and does it get any less hard" and he says wise, encouraging things in response like "don't get overwhelmed by it all" and "trust your intuition and trust God" and "get excited about what's going to happen and how cool it will be."

One of the earlier emails in this particular chain was the one in which he had wished me a happy birthday last April as he has done every single year without fail since I graduated. In my reply to that email, I remarked that it had been six years since I graduated high school and I was still receiving happy birthday emails from my AP lit teacher, and that this was how I knew that life was kind to me.

I still know it now, from these emails that are sent my way every so often from a computer in Beijing: life is very kind to me.

--

I like to think I am becoming more okay with the uncertainty of everything in my life, but I am not sure if that is actually true. What is true is that I am becoming more okay with saying that I am becoming more okay with the uncertainty. I think part of me hopes that in saying it more often, it will eventually become the truth. If you say something enough times, does it become true?

I like tomatoes I like tomatoes I like tomatoes

I forgive you I forgive you I forgive you I forgive you

I am okay with uncertainty I am okay with uncertainty I am okay with uncertainty

--

I took some time earlier this month to sit down and reflect on the state of my faith, and on where my walk took me over the last year. The two words that impressed themselves upon me were intimacy (as in, a lack of) and idolatry (as in, far too much of). There is still repenting to be done, and still -- thankfully -- grace to be sought and received.

--

It is January in the year 2017 and I am twenty-three going on twenty-four and a lot of things about my life feel uncertain and still more things feel deliciously sturdy and I am feeling hopeful for what this year will teach me. It is a nice feeling.





Saturday, 3 September 2016

how Marie Kondo changed my life, a little bit

I have always loved stuff. I use the word “stuff” here in the most specific sense, not in the vague sense that a conversationally awkward thirteen-year-old boy might use it, accompanied by a noncommittal shrug, when asked by their mother’s overly friendly, talkative friend Aunt Clare what they like to do in their free time outside of school: “Uhh... you know, stuff.”

When I say that I love stuff I mean that I love stuff. Material things, worldly goods. I exult in possession. For most of my life I have trodden a fine line between “collecting” (respectable, as in, “Oh, you collect porcelain teddy bears, how delightful!”) and “hoarding” (concerning/faintly repulsive, as in, “Why do you have so many ancient tubes of solidified lip gloss in your drawer?”). This also means that I’m generally reluctant to get rid of or give away things that belong to me. Actually, reluctant paints a flatteringly gentle picture. “Stubbornly resistant to the point of being hostile” come to mind as traditionally more accurate words. This extends to just about everything: clothes, books, stuffed animals, homework assignments from second grade, decorative knick knacks, and the innumerable blank journals I continue to buy under the pleasing delusion that I will someday actually fill them (I will, just watch, haters).

The earliest instance that I can recall of this possessive materialistic instinct manifesting itself was when I was about six. My friend Nicole had come over to our house for a playdate, and we had amused ourselves with the standard games that suburban British children played in the 90s (I don’t actually remember what these were. Bop It? Snakes and Ladders?), but by the late afternoon we had reached a lull. Bored, we sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor, racking our brains for a new diversion, when Nicole had a flash of inspiration, and proposed that we dress up in all my clothes and put on a fashion show. Not having any better ideas of my own, I agreed to this proposal.

The next half an hour or so was spent rifling through my wardrobe and putting together several outfits each -- with more energy than taste, it has to be said. When we were satisfied with our work, we dragged my mother out of the kitchen and into the living room to patiently watch us parade down the world’s shortest imaginary runway wearing various items of exceedingly ordinary clothing. The whole thing went about as well as you could expect for a fashion show conspicuously lacking in fashion, though we had a highly enthusiastic -- if very small -- audience.

Once it was over, I started to take Nicole upstairs to my room again so she could change back into her own clothes. I was halfway to the hallway when my mother called out to me, “Yurie, why don’t we give those trousers to Nicole?”

I turned and looked at her, my little six-year-old heart dismayed. She was cheerfully saying something about how they didn’t fit me all that well anymore (lies!) and how they looked great on Nicole (more lies!) and how I had too many pants anyway (that one was maybe fair), but I barely comprehended any of this because I was too busy being distressed at what was happening. My mother, whom I loved with all my heart on most days but not on this particular day, was asking me to give away my favourite pair of uber-cool khaki combat pants under the baseless pretence that they no longer served a purpose for me. And I did not want to do it. Fine, they may have been getting close to becoming a little too snug on me, but that was hardly relevant. What was relevant was that those were MY pants. Mine! While I stood there in stunned silence, my mother went ahead and made up my mind for me. “Let’s give these to Nicole, Yurie. Nicole, would you like to keep those trousers?” She smiled benevolently as Nicole’s face lit up.

I still have questions for my mother about this particular afternoon, seventeen years later. These include the following:
  1. In what alternate reality did you think it would be a good idea to give away my favourite trousers without even giving me any warning?
  2. Were you temporarily blinded when you had this idea because those trousers definitely looked better on me than they did on Nicole?!!

Nicole, on the other hand, had no questions, and jumped at the offer gleefully. (Traitor.) Her mum arrived shortly after to pick her up, Nicole drove away happily in my trousers, and I had my first significant experience of having to give away something that belonged to me, and decided I didn’t like it that much.

After that episode, I clung to my material goods with a stubbornness bordering on obsession, and often accompanied by a sentimentality that conflated sentimental associations with intrinsic value. Over the years, I filled my drawers with endless amounts of stationery, accumulated enough decorative pillows to furnish the display room floor of an IKEA, and, of course, refused to give away clothes that weren’t either riddled with holes or physically impossible to fit my body into. With every cry of “declutter!” that came from my long-suffering mother I immediately went on the defensive. In response to every surprise attack, I provided her with a hundred elaborate reasons, both practical and sentimental, for why I could not throw out my toy bunnies or get rid of just one of my hoodies, until she eventually became overwhelmed by the torrent of words I unleashed and had to go lie down.

When I moved into my first apartment in sophomore year of college, I was in materialistic heaven. A whole apartment all to myself (and three other roommates, but I dismissed this as an unimportant detail) that I could fill with as much stuff as I wanted? And that I could keep? Without having to battle my mother for the right to not declutter as I pleased? I was free at last. To say I got a little carried away when I went on my first apartment-furnishing Target trip would be an understatement. The items I returned with that day that I did not need (a polar bear pattern blanket, a miniature whiteboard, a bowl made expressly to hold popcorn, and a scented candle) far outnumbered those I came back with that I did actually need (a kitchen trash can). The days of having to give away my clothes just because I had “too many” were long behind me.

Fast forward to January of this year, and to the apartment I’ve been living in with Emily since we graduated college two years ago. We had just returned from our respective Christmas vacations at home with family in Taiwan and Korea and were in the process of unpacking. As was customary, we had both brought back from our pilgrimages several mountains of Asian snacks, Asian pens, and Asian socks. Emily had also brought back a few new books. One of these was the famed tidying-up guru Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which she pulled out of her suitcase and plonked down onto the coffee table. I reached over from the couch and picked it up curiously.

I had heard of Marie Kondo and read a few articles about her supposedly magical life-changing philosophy on organizing and decluttering, but chalked it mostly up to hype. Having always been a naturally very neat person despite owning a lot of things, I was inclined to be skeptical of this tiny Japanese lady with perfect bangs who had apparently built an entire business and earned worldwide fame for being an expert at something I regarded as an easy skill.

I opened the book, ready to make fun of whatever I found inside, and started to skim the chapter titles. Not the chapters themselves, just the titles. And then, much against my will, I felt it happening: Marie Kondo working her magic. My life was indeed being changed, before my very eyes.

The best way I can explain the unexpectedly profound impact these chapter titles had on me is just to list out some of the ones that I felt resonate on a deep personal level, so you can see for yourself the startling truths I found myself faced with:

  • Selection criterion: does it spark joy?
  • Unread books: “sometime” means “never”
  • Sorting papers: rule of thumb -- discard everything
  • Komono (miscellaneous items): keep things because you love them -- not “just because”
  • Sentimental items: your parents’ home is not a haven for mementos

It is a disarming experience to be impressed where you had been prepared to ridicule. With each chapter title I read that struck me, I let out an involuntary “whoa” like some kind of awe reflex and read it out loud to Emily, who was still unpacking. “Whoa, Emily, listen. ‘Unread books: sometime means never.’ Damn. Wait, whoa. ‘Keep things because you love them -- not just because.’ Whoa, no, this one: ‘Your parents’ home is not a haven for mementos.’ Fudge, dude!” I went on like this for a while, probably irritating the hell out of Emily, and then flipped to page 89 to read the full chapter on organizing books, but by that point, I didn’t need to. The chapter titles had been enough.

The rest of that afternoon saw me cheerfully emptying a third of the clothes in my wardrobe into garbage bags to donate to Goodwill; removing all the books from my bookcase which had sat there since freshman year and which I’d always said I would read “sometime” but never did (it felt incredibly liberating to finally acknowledge that I would just never read The Last of the Mohicans in this lifetime. Goodbye, James Fenimore Cooper! See ya never!); and eliminating my desk, drawers, and closets of all the komono which I knew deep down I didn’t need and which didn’t “spark joy” when I picked them up.

The whole process took me a few hours, and once I decided I was done, I curled up on the couch and looked over at the bulging garbage bags lined up by the door and the stack of unread books piled next to them, feeling light. And fresh. Like I had just washed my face with a lemony face wash. And then I vaguely remember reaching for my laptop and buying some new stuff online, but that part’s a bit hazy in my memory. Rome wasn’t decluttered in a day, you know. Although if it were up to Marie Kondo, it probably would have been.

It’s now been eight months since Emily brought it back with her, and I still haven’t read the whole book (then again, neither has she). I think I was afraid that actually reading the chapters themselves would force me to take even more drastic measures, and I wasn’t prepared for that. Nor have I undertaken another such comprehensive materials cleanse. Because I still love my stuff. I like owning lots of blankets (every single one of them brings me joy in a unique way!), my bookshelf continues to expand despite my ruthless purge in January, and I’ve come to accept that I’ll just always own more earrings than is strictly necessary.

But all that being said, Marie Kondo really did change my life that afternoon. Not drastically, because I wouldn’t let her go that far. But enough that I maybe don’t attach quite so much importance to my things just because they’re my things anymore. Enough that I now actually comprehend that things are just things. Yes, it only took me twenty-three years to realize this very basic truth. Not all of us are sage ascetics from birth, okay?

And my zealous one-day decluttering session really was freeing, in more ways than one. Giving away all the books that had stayed unread on my shelf for so many years allowed me to turn my energies to ones I was genuinely excited about. Whittling down my wardrobe was a healthy reminder of how much I live in excess. Throwing out all the random objects and unimportant keepsakes stored away for so long and serving no real purpose showed me just how much I had let myself, unknowingly, be controlled by my possessions and by the fear of what I would be saying if I threw certain things away. And, amazingly, it did not kill me to give up any of those things! I made it to the other side alive! Truly, Marie Kondo is so magical that her chapter titles alone will urge you to this kind of action, and have this kind of impact.

So thank you, Marie Kondo, for changing my life just a little bit. You did what my mother could not: make me feel okay about giving away a pair of pants that don’t fit just right anymore. After all, pants, even the most awesome khaki, combat kind, are just pants.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

when someone asks you why your face is so flat, ask them why their brain is so small, or then again, maybe don’t

One of the more unpleasant memories that sticks out vividly from my childhood growing up in suburban England is of a little girl I did not know coming up to me in a local park where I was playing with my best friends and bluntly asking, “Why is your so face so flat?”

She asked me this without even so much as a hello! No preamble whatsoever! Did your parents not teach you to properly greet and introduce yourself to strange people before you fling insulting questions in their faces, flat or otherwise?

I was highly affronted. Partially by the fact that she hadn’t even tried to preface this outrageous question with some sort of greeting or conversation (and our age was no excuse; eight-year-olds are perfectly capable of making comfortable small talk just as well as adults, damn it!), but mainly because it was straight-up racist and rude.

I was only eight, but I had already faced down my fair share of insulting remarks about my flat nose, small eyes, and nonexistent eyelashes at school from classmates, and I needed another unoriginal jibe about my very Asian face like I needed a well-sharpened HB graphite pencil shoved up my nose. Which is to say: not at all. And beyond just the indignation of the racist question, there was also the fact that I had by this point in my life accumulated a too-large collection of Insults I Wish I’d Come Up With Better Comebacks to on the Spot, and I was not in the market for any new ones to add to it.

Because herein lay the unfortunate truth of the thing, the sting of the thing: I never found myself quite able to retaliate whenever I was on the receiving end of insults from sassy little brats like this girl in the playground. I had a passably good eye roll reserved for such occasions, but beyond that and an elegant, all-purpose, “shut up stupid” (which over years of receiving the same idiotic questions evolved into an increasingly incredulous “oh my God you can’t actually be that stupid”) I was none too quick to fire back scathing insults of my own - largely because I just didn’t want to.

Attribute it to what you will - a cultural heritage that valued meekness, or an upbringing in a home that emphasized the virtue of politeness, or a deeply ingrained moral code acquired from reading too many Enid Blyton books in which the girls who were sharp and brash and confrontational had a harder time making close friends, or maybe, just maybe, and this is the explanation that I still don’t really like to consider, that it’s just my personality - the fact remains that from a young age I did not give as good as I got.

By the way, this isn’t going to be a race thing. You thought this was going to be a race thing, didn’t you? I guess I did create that impression with that lead. If you have read this far because you were expecting a poignant essay on How I Learned to Embrace My Flat Korean Face Growing Up in South Woodford, England, I am sorry to disappoint. Maybe that will be my next piece, and I’ll post it on Medium and all ten of my Asian-American friends who follow me on Twitter will share it and it’ll go viral, and then BuzzFeed will publish a post called This Girl’s Essay About What It’s Like Growing Up Asian in a White Suburb Is So Real and Gives Us All the Feels containing screenshots of entire chunks of the whole essay, and then I’ll receive a phone call from a Random House editor and sign a book deal for a memoir expanding on my original essay and then spend the next year of my life sitting in coffee shops with my laptop and a London Fog trying to figure out how to make my very boring childhood spent in an actual London fog sound more harrowing than it was.

Anyway. The point I was trying to make before I got distracted following my wildly imaginative ego down a rabbit hole was that if you were here for the poignant race essay, now would be a good time to stop reading. Because this isn’t a race essay. No no, this is far more self-centered and far less profound. This is an essay (well really it’s a blog post but I’m going to call it an essay because “essay” sounds intellectual and high-brow while “blog post” calls to mind your Xanga from when you were thirteen) about my inability, or reluctance, or whatever it is, to convincingly stand up for myself, to give what I get, to be, in short, confrontational. It is an affliction that has plagued me for years.

So back to the park in South Woodford, England, circa 2001.

I stood there on the jungle gym as this four feet of brashness looked at me, unblinking, with a smirk on her face, and waiting for an answer. But it didn’t come from me. Instead it came from my two very angry best friends, Anna and Jess, who had appeared out of nowhere and now flanked me as we all stared down my offender.

I don’t remember what they said, exactly, but it was something to the effect of, “That’s so racist, she’s Korean, stupid, but I bet you don’t even know where Korea is because you’re soooo stupid.”

Whatever it was that they said, the girl turned and fled, intimidated by my loudmouthed friends, and the three of us ran to Jess’s mum, Tracey, to tell her what had just transpired at the jungle gym and shamelessly point out the guilty party from across the park, so Tracey could go and have A Word with her.

This was a recurring scene from my childhood. If someone was mean to me (not that this happened all that frequently at all, in case you are starting to feel too sorry for me) I would at worst tell them to shut up, and then try and move on with the rest of my day. More often than not, however, my friends Anna and Jess and Zak would chime in to stick up for me, regaling the opposition with barbed insults that could have flayed the skin off a crocodile.

I don’t think I was a pushover by any means, but I didn’t exactly spit flames either.

And it didn’t really change as I got older. There was, maybe, a brief spark of fiery-ness in middle school, after I had moved to Korea, when I discovered that sarcasm was a free weapon for anyone to wield, and that I was in fact more adept at brandishing it than some of my more slow-witted classmates, but this spark quickly died out, as sparks do. The fact that I found myself perpetually getting in trouble around this time for being snarky probably contributed to its fizzling out. (I’m sorry, Mr. Baker! I didn’t mean to sass you, honestly!)

It was in high school that I really learned how non-confrontational I was. Because people were actually mean in high school. (Yes, news flash! High school is full of jerks.) One person in particular. I won’t say the name, given that this is all in the distant past but also given that I have now amassed a loyal following of about four readers on this blog, who I am sure would hunt this person down on Facebook and spam them with indignant messages on my behalf - no, really, friends, there’s no need. I appreciate your righteous anger, but it is unnecessary, because I am such a magnanimous person. And if you’re still patiently reading at this point, please imagine me saying this while draped in a queenly robe with a scepter in one hand and the other hand extended gracefully, because this is always the image that comes into my head whenever I hear or read the word “magnanimous.”

Anyway, people-slash-person were jerks to me in high school for various reasons and non-reasons, and I learned many new Korean curse words during this time from being on the receiving end of a dazzling variety over the years. And in the face of these sporadic verbal attacks I for the most part sat quietly and just tried to ignore them. Because, as I was learning about myself at this time, whether it’s nature or nurture (psychologists, please email me when you’ve figured that one out) or just too many Enid Blyton books, it is just not hardwired in me to be able to slam my hand down on my rickety front-heavy desk when I’m being cussed out and tell someone exactly where to get off, or to tell a girl on a jungle gym that I’d rather have a flat face like mine than a small brain like hers without missing a beat.

I sometimes look back at my eight-year-old self and my sixteen-year-old self and fault them for being too meek and taking crap from other people without giving any back. Most of the time, I like to distance my twenty-three-year-old self from these selves and think that I’m a little fiercer now, a little less likely to take crap from people. But I don’t know if this is actually true. It’s hard to accurately measure that now that I’m not daily facing jerks who are actively trying to insult me or annoy me every hour. Which is a good thing, in case that wasn’t clear.

And realistically, if you were to ask someone who knew me to describe me today, it’s a safe ten dollar bet that the first thing out of their mouth wouldn’t be, “Yurie? Ooh, she’s so fierce. She doesn’t take crap from NOBODY.” (Yes, I’m aware that’s a double negative. It was for effect.) It would probably be, “Yurie? Uhh… well she’s weirdly obsessed with Anne of Green Gables, and she hums like all the time, and it can get really annoying. What was the question again?”

So a big part of me wishfully thinks that I’m a little less passive now, but there is also a small part of me that tells the big part to stop whining and trying to be something it’s not and just get over the fact that this is who you are already, and why can’t you accept that, jeez. It’s this small part that reminds me that I don’t have to know how to be brash and confrontational to get on in the world, contrary to what, well, the world might say. The small part that says maybe there is something to be said for not retaliating.

Again, I don’t know. If someone were to walk up to me tomorrow and curse in my face or mock my lack of a nasal bridge, I’m not sure what I would do. Maybe I would actually tell them to go screw themselves. More likely, though, I would give them a scornful stare and just walk away without saying anything, and they would probably think that was the most incredibly lame response they’d ever met with. I think I would be okay with that.

This is not at all a satisfactory conclusion, I know. Is it a cop-out to say that the early twenties aren’t exactly all about satisfactory conclusions anyway?

One thing I am pretty comfortably sure of at twenty-three that I was not sure of at sixteen and at eight: not firing back does not mean you are weak.

Also: my face isn’t that flat.