WOMEN ARE COMPLEX reads the last page.At the end of this brief, I think we can all agree that women are complex. Like many problems in society today, they deserve a complex solution. Maybe it’s important to realize it’s not a problem in the first place, The answer was never pastel, It is about empowerment through authenticity, and money, fame, and most importantly, glory, will follow.
You feel like mini-Don Draper, throwing in your childhood for Kodak, not sure how many emotional marbles you have left to sell shoes. Drake’s “Over My Dead Body” plays for the 156th time. His mass appeal is pretty devastating. He’s cooler than an Apple keynote. We’re all walking keynotes now, walking in these smog cities, dying in these smog cities.
I used to listen to white people music when I’m feeling complex. Now I can only listen to black music. I wonder if this is a consequence of seeing race. If only America could see it more, we’d all be listening to Kendrick out of affirmative action for our iTunes playlist.
No, I have not tried Apple music. Don’t you know it’s not cool anymore? If you haven’t trade in your 6 for Xiaomi you’re insane. Think about it.
Think about your Kodak childhood and what actually mattered. The days when you didn’t see shoes, or race for that matter. When it was just you and your Nana, dirt and grass, bubbles and handkerchief. Except you never called your grandma Nana and this is all a commercial about soap.
On OptimismIt wasn't until 14 miles and 12 hours later did I realize I'd trekked 14 miles and used up 12 hours in the day to do so (from train station and back). In the process I've missed out on one party and the chance to thwart existential loneliness. Ken says he doesn’t know what existential loneliness means. I call him my big smart simple bub, partly out of envy. Pragmatic, smart, chill people have it really good. Instead I feel my father's philosophy-major, serious intellectualism creeping on me day by day. The good thing is I have a tendency to bend anything toward the positive. It is the structure of all my blog entries: emotional strife, deep learnings, eyes toward the sky. Some say this is very American behavior.
I don’t know where this deep-felt optimism comes from. Some might think it’s worse than ignorance to “know” and turn a blind eye. In my case I always plead optimism is contingent to action. Optimism isn’t knowing there are problems in the world and feeling sad about it. Optimism is knowing, and in some strange manner, feeling that you can do something about it. Hence, the better we know our enemies, the better we’ll be equipped to battle. Better not to see the world as enemies in the first place, because they were once probably all like us — wide-eyed, artistic, and hopeful.
On Music No, I have not used Apple Music. In fact, the only music app that I’ve been a fan of is Songza, and even that I’ve only used sporadically. The truth is, when you have 8753 songs in your library accumulated from age 14, that is the world you want to play in instead of re-curating another life on Spotify, or worse, having to face the decision of figuring out what new music to listen to on Spotify, or worse, venturing into Spotify’s never-spot-on playlists.
For example, I spent this afternoon reading while listening to my “Wo Qui Non Coin” genre, which is basically code name for all the anime music I have from back when. The 205 songs in there of mostly Sailormoon, Cowboy Bebop and Miyazaki soundtrack music are simultaneously a relief and heartbreaking. I’m familiar with every single song, the moments they are associated with, as well as the time that have gone by. We love music not for the music, but for the moment they stand in for. That is why the process of choosing sucks… This goes for Tinder too. Maybe I’m just old.
On Anime I fucking miss it. I wish I wasn’t too cool for it, but the idea of watching any new anime feel daunting. Instead, I just wish I haven’t seen all of Cowboy Bebop 12 times and could spent my afternoon bleeding my heart with Spike and Faye. Cowboy Bebop was possibly the moment of my life where fictional life was better than real life. Then again, sometimes I think my teenage-hood was spent in fiction based on the amount of anime, fanfiction, and j-rock I consumed. I know a lot of people talk down on being a teenager, and I was probably awkward as shit, but never in my life will I reclaim the 150% commitment to a fantasy life that was going in my head.
Unfortunately I spend my Sundays now reading about the fall of Barnes & Noble instead of reading slash. Sadness.
One quote on love that’s stayed with me is by the late Christopher Hitchens: “To be the father of growing daughters is to understand ... to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else's body.” The truth is I’ve been trying to write about Vietnam for days, and each time I am stopped by a force that renders me a little speechless. At the risk of sounding sentimental, I am entirely startled by love. The past two months at Hyper Island has made a warrior woman out of me, even less prune to hugs, more drawn to nights alone in the theatre, desexualized, intensely resolute on something: anything… Then came Vietnam, who was humid, soft, lush, chaotic, and everything I no longer was. Then came my lover, who was strong, tough, smart, and with him I morphed into a woman who leaned and sighed and savored.
At first this surrendering of power feels unfair. After all, haven’t I worked hard being whatever it is that I am? I don’t care to haggle anymore. I could stay there and count his white hairs. To this he said, “you don’t have to be so hard all the time.” His friend, the last one we met on the last day, added, “you’re clearly an independent woman, and he protects you while giving you room to breathe.”
It’s hard being a woman who has this awareness - the awareness that love calls for the surrendering of power. If I could surrender anything, it might be the awareness part, the part that spirals into measurement of actions, an analysis of what is biological and instinctual. Design teaches us to be more mindful and more aware, but in my lover I find the only time when my mind is in the right heart-space, completely befuddled, a beautiful fool!
So instead of rationality and beautiful type, I want to celebrate nonsensical, emotional, chaotic, heavy, and soft moments. There were many of them in Vietnam. There was walking through an unkept but gorgeous Imperial City with him and Nam, talking about Babe Pig in the City and all the years that have past. There was watching the sunset and feeling the yoke roll over your body. There was meeting the infamous Nowathip, who regaled you with stories and films and music in a way of talking to you that made sense of everything. There was walking back from the restaurant, dying a little, then back to the hotel and waiting for Eclipse (who is a man), fading. There was the groom, who of course started to cry on mentioning his parents. There was the scooter ride across the most Orientalist landscape you can imagine. Then there was of course, him, who beyond anything was a force to be wholly crippled by.
Matthew 5:44 "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." You meet your Sasha. You do. A fantastic call from the memories of youth. You take long walks. You find Rilke like a forgotten tome from memories. She has tomes too, sometimes religious, and it's comforting to have something grounded. You are enraptured by the allegories. Mostly, you are both 120% committed to kindness and optimism, and that helps in these times.
Because it is not very easy. At the same time of being repulsed, you are then repulsed by yourself. A circle of bitterness forms. Then you shut down. Then again, it really isn't as if you are Jesus Christ persecuted. It isn't very hard at all.
I shall have silence and kindness, and that is all.
It’s easier to sink into fiction instead. The forgotten novel that you haven’t finished reading, or the short story you try to finish writing in your dream. That’s how you go to sleep these days. Always the same damn scene with the same characters, always stuck in the moment, never really living beyond. That’s the power of characters you suppose, the pull of narcissism as you inhibit their world. Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D City remind you of the headier days. He inhibits characters too, a chameleon rapper dripping sweat and push. Earl Sweatshirt is 120% committed to being Earl. You wonder how many verses he can come up with about his interior life, delivered in simple beats and a voice inside your head. Kanye is just crazy. Kanye you can’t touch. You can’t be friend with him, you don’t understand him, you just kind of look at him and his designer boots from below. Good riddance. Good artists are always good characters. This is why Vampire Weekend is really forgettable.
All I want to do is go to this music festival next weekend and melt my brain. The way brains melt over steam engine trains, castles in strange cities, the night before presentations. Apply fiction and go. Apply fiction and go.
A$AP Rocky's new album is pretty dope.
"When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun." - First sentence of Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy.
Here's what you do. You stuff your head with the image of sheep running off a cliff before you trek through the woods and emerge into sunlight. Well, I've never been one for Victorian romance. They tend to cover the emotional gamut from here to the next man. I watched Far From the Madding Crowd mostly for the subtle work of Carey Mulligan, who is one of the finest actresses today. She's fiercely feminine and absolutely lovely to watch.
It turned out to be a good primer for a walk in the countryside. There were lots of sheep. No sheep jumping off cliffs, and mind you, much dirtier sheep with color markings. But finally, in the eight hours of trekking up, down, around, against wind, with wind, gritstone and pasture, you come away with a good wedding palette. You begin to understand why this was a country of poets and storytellers.
1. She will give you a “heart hug,” which is a hug of the heart touching the heart.2. It’s hard to think of any actress that Ryan Gosling doesn’t have good chemistry with. 3. Design brief: what’s it like to live on Mars? 4. “Apparently I have a wall.” "It’s hard to read when you’re uncomfortable, but that may be because others haven’t learned how." 5. The Asian man in a gray suit stopped in front of Slice, fixed his Fedora, looked pointedly toward the right, then strode forward with purpose. He reminded Wanda of Tony Leung in Wang Kar Wai’s In the Mood for love. 6. It is best to eat your biscotti with tea or coffee. 7. So it’s a storytelling game! 8. There is sensory overload. 9. There can be no one more hip than you. 10. So is your plan to become a mogul? 11. You were like a mad-scientist genius at your podium.
In Manchester all you listen to are mandarin pop ballads - the saccharine 278 songs you have in your “Iching Sodapop” playlist that hasn’t been updated since, oh my, June of 2012. Some routines don’t change though, the fact that you still only light candles when you do deep writing, preferably staring out a window. To be fair, listening to music of the opposite origin seem to have always been your schtick. As a preteen in Ohio, you grew tired of Hot101 and the moment Internet happened it was gorgeous melancholy Japanese rock and glam all the time. The walk from your apartment to the bus was always dark, and therein the best time to growl to Shiina Ringo. China was the opposite, in China you took all the “Music Mondays” Urban Outfitters music from your co-worker and lived on Pitchfork like you were going to step out to Bedford for lunch. When you were learning about the Middle East you listened to Lebanese bands like Soap Kills, and of course, Beirut, even if they have nothing to do with Lebanon.
It probably would have been better if you turned up to, say, Costa Rican birdsong.
You do so many pitches. You do so many pitches the same way, the familiar feeling of sculpting the stories, the wee hours into the night, the heart racing before the presentation. Some of the emotions are shadows. Most are different. More are the non-stop talking. Instead of sculpting in silence, some brooding, mostly maniacal, you are working on some hybrid, futuristic, larger than imagination statue with five strangers. In one week you get to know them better than your mother (in some ways). You grow to love them, just a little. In the way that you love humans, and their idiosyncrasies, their fallacies, their tenacities. You write a Wechat message to R telling him that, “bro, we worked together beautifully,” because more than anything else you’ve learned at Hyper Island, it is the act of knowing it and saying it.
You hear they can edit genes now like cutting a scene from a movie. Hello Gattica. You hope the scientist in China editing Monkey genes know that imperfections are the stuff of great art. NEVER SURRENDER YOURSELF TO PERFECTION.
You keep watching the movies in the theatre alone. It has become, shall we say, therapeutic. It’s wonderful unlike Beijing or New York. There are no lines, and 20 minutes of commercials and trailers! And when the movie starts you shed layers and layers from the day and almost climb into the screen until you are clandestine and consumed by giant trees, giant buildings, and giant heroines.
You wonder if the world had always felt like it was on the brink of something big - Mars, Arctic Drilling, A Planet Dying, China Ascending.
Even the movies and floating cities couldn’t save The Avengers. You can’t wait for a big beautiful film… my god. A tree to the moon. You can’t wait to be swallowed up, lifted away, and forgotten in the darkness.
China is almost becoming a burden. A self-assigned burden. A wounded ego with a sustaining bruise. The key is probably to be Buddhist about it. Let it go and enjoy the five seasons in a day in England, and the air! What air! The air is probably already enough. The key is not to feel obligated. There will never be an answer to this. She will always be familiar, and alien, deeply-moving, constantly-heartbreaking, suffocating, dying, and living just fine, with or without you.
Then again, so will you, with or without her.
You begin with a number of books, articles, and studies you haven’t read. Everyday consists of an interesting link, a wonderful insight, strands of emotions flying at you from all sides. At the end of the day you’re drained, a little numb, tougher maybe, but you can’t seem to move beyond playing the “Drive” soundtrack over and over again. That was the soundtrack from the summer of 2012, something so familiar that the instant moment it plays, you are reminded of those long sticky nights spent on trar, wine, scooters and bikes. Familiarity is comforting. Even if you enjoy the present and want to hold onto it as long as you can.
“…and how does that make you feel?”
That is the mantra of our Hyper Island, our Hyper prison, our dome of feels. Feelings explode around you everyday, and rather than like sad little volcanoes of hurt, sharing feelings generate empathy, empower, and humanize. One of the astounding things one of my crew mates said to you before the Adidas pitch was “just remember you are talking to humans. The client is human and we’re all human.” For some reason it clicked this time, because you’ve seen these humans in action. Even if it’s only been two weeks together. You’ve witnessed nerves, guts, excitement, elations, tears.
Lauren says, “you have to find your nutrition.” To have hope, you have to find your allies, find the people who give you hope. We talk about changing the world so often, and when the world launches the assaults, it’s much easier to curl in a ball and curse. China hangs on like a curse for all of us who made our way back. When you have the choice of a world that just seems to make more sense, it’s hard to remember that “benign impulses surely flourish under the frantic and gaudy surface of modernizing China.”
Will you go back? You hope you will, and you hope it is with renewed hope, an iron will, and an army of allies. Or you could remain here, and bury yourself in the books, and drain as much as you can from these books, articles, talks, and emotions. That is nice too.
Remember that you are not the one with the burden, that in fact you are lucky, because you have a choice. Remember that changing the world starts small. It starts with one person and one moment. So in the spirit of “service design”, let’s leave with a quote from Louis C.K. on the importance of serving…
"I saw a movie once where Spencer Tracy catches this woman about to kill herself — it's a pretty dark movie for the time — but I forget the name of the movie, but Spencer Tracy is on a boat and sees a rich, young girl about to throw herself off the boat because her fiance left her for another woman and he's trying to talk her out of suicide and he says to her, "Do you have a job? Do you have anything that you do in your life?" which was a funny thing to ask because she's, like, a 1920s socialite and she said, "No," and he said, "I think you should get a job, because it's very hard to be sad and useful at the same time."
Ever since I saw that I keep that in my head. If you can be useful, which means to somebody else, not to yourself, if you can be useful, it just makes you feel better. So I live in service for my kids, that's the first priority and then things like my career, they feed into that, they're part of that, because I'm providing for them but also it's just not that important. If something's not important, it's more fun."
No I cannot sum up these days with all the right words. Words escape me. What remains is a sense of urgency, momentum, and the feeling of being in something so good you are beginning to miss it already. The last time I had this feeling was 2007, when I went to China and fell into what felt like the center of the universe. Eight years later I still really only like one song from Sonic Youth (“Incinerate”) and the China years part beaux (2011-14) is just a stream of night music. Rather than reflecting what’s happening in the kaleidoscope world of Hyper Island, here’s what’s going on the periphery.
1. Champagne Kills 2. Alone in the Theatre 3. Reverie at Noon
One, one glass of champagne under the sun and I managed to fall on my face like an anime character. Two, going to the movies alone is as good as anything. Three, cooking works too.
Revelation: I don’t miss China at all. I don’t miss the food. I don’t miss the street corners. I don’t miss the wide lanes. I don’t miss shopping centers. I don’t miss the view. I don’t miss the subway. I don’t miss my biking route. I don’t miss the coarse air. The only thing I miss are the people, and so I consider this a great stride toward maturity. To love not a place, but simply the moments of a place. I feel the same for New York.
Maybe there’s no perfect place. Maybe the perfect place is to be moving from place to place. I have always, always loved the state of in-betweenness.
Ready, Set, Go.
In Japan I wished I was 19 instead of 19 + 10. At 19 I would've carved down the streets of Tokyo with a thin volume of Hitomi Kanehara's Snakes and Earrings in my pocket, Shiina Ringo would be singing in my head, and Osaka's Denny's my destination (this was a favorite hangout spot of my favorite band, L'Arc-en-Ciel). Instead, at age 29 I'm happy bumming along with my parents on the JR Train, running from one tour spot to another, not connecting any dots other than this place must have been ripened for so much weird art only because the rest of it is so perfect. Our Airbnb hosts gave perfect 20-paged instructions on way-finding, unlocking the door, using the washing machine, taking out the garbage. We never saw any of them and have a feeling that the perfunctory handshaking, key-handing, face checking your guests to make sure they aren't serial killers or orgy organizers just didn't exist in this country. Instead, an invisible hand of order pushes things in a web of efficacy. Everything seems designed to perfection in Japan. My morning jog saw houses, rivers, parks, temples, and towers, all in the quiet cacophony of Tokyo. A walk in Shizuoka with dad saw kids walking with plastic bags of recycling, kindergartens with bright colors in one corner, and after rows of uniquely designed houses, a cemetery sits quietly and with dignity. Life, death, and recycling in one neighborhood. Beautiful crows included. It's exactly like all those Japanese RPG games.
Yet beneath the surface of perfection and order, a touch of rebellion stirs in myself. At all the temple sites of Kyoto were signs of "touring route this way," and the tourist is guided into a sightseeing route that offers both the best experience and maintains order of the crowds. The offending tourist who ventures upstream is admonished by the site guardians, whose other job includes sweeping any rocks disturbed to the paths back to the bed of rocks. The loud, uncouth, social Chinese tourists must be a nightmare for the Japanese, but even the American in me wanted to go the other way just for the hell of it.
Suddenly I understood the conditions that breed all the weird people in Japan. At the end of a full day of bowing and "hai"s and "domo arigatou arimasu"s I too was ready for beers after work or submerge myself in a subculture that let me live a little harder. Suddenly I missed the uncouth and unruly that was China.
No culture is perfect. Between the pros, cons, and in between are very real heritages shaped by time. There was something so serene and tough spirited about Japan that it made me exasperated that such a place isn't "succeeding" right now, but what is success, really? If it's long life and health, they've got it. If it's beautiful design, they've got it. If it's order and efficiency, absolutely. If it's dynamic leaders and innovation, difficult to say.
Living China, and having a father as an intellectual has inevitably meant many conversations about government, culture, and systems, and moreover, what is the "perfect system." As Ken said, sometimes the thinking gets too macro, and it might be better to simply live for the immediate. So I'm becoming that "irksome brand of American liberalism: an activist mindset that contemplates, criticizes and mourns but does little to alter the conditions that permit both apathy and atrocity."
One thing that thoroughly destroys resolutions of any sort is sickness, the sort that begins with innocent stuffy nose and transforms into a monster of a thing that corrodes routine. I caught a cold somewhere between bed and ski slopes, that was, woke with a head cold, made worse by snowboarding and having slushy ice down my waist in several occasions. Was it worth it? To have resolve slaughtered so quickly in mid-first-month, for the momentary euphoria of slicing down a mountain-hill? I think so, I think yes. Growing up, I've always been athletic, a penchant for speed left me running from A to B. If I couldn't run I would bike. Cars made me sick, like having my limbs supplanted by something alien and uncontrollable. Biking always felt like a way of being that was more natural and superior. Snowboarding affords that similar feeling of travel, to negotiate, indeed, command the earth beneath your feet as you leave a trail of S curves. The ride always unearths something primal and ferocious in me. Such is the case that any sign of a head cold vanished during the day, only to resurface the moment you put away all the gear and sink your bag of bones body into the tub like you wish to not return.
Still I'm dreaming about those slopes, the way I dream about riding, the way I dream about going back on the treadmill once the body heals. My mind, and body are now acute aware of the passage of time. Only with deadlines do we treasure the seconds given to us, and I fill these days with rage, rage for books, rage for words, rage for the run, to plant my feet wholly to the ground, and utter a rage and love for a world that I want to earn with my limbs.
1. Wake up at 6AM- Monday/Friday: Yoga+Running, Wednesday: Rest/Write, Tuesday/Thursday: Write/Yoga
2. Read in a combination of one nonfiction, one fiction, and one Chinese book for a total of at least fifteen books. - Currently fiction/An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine; nonfiction/Empress Cixi Dowager, Jung Chung; Chinese/胡适，介绍我自己的思想
3. Complete one writing project, however ambitious. Because it's still dark out at 6AM in winter time.
We accidentally venture into something new by way of reading a productivity magazine and noting that everyone wakes up at 6AM. It's three-part flippant, three-part foolhardy, three-part a habit I want to keep for the rest of my life. Part of it is not really waking up early, but to establish a routine that will allow for more vision-driven possibilities, and to have the hours assigned to blocks of activity instead of cruising by whim.
To be fair, 2014 was the anti-music year. The biggest personal trend being putting down the music and picking up books, which might explain the three day delay on this post. If 2013 was inhaling album after album (Kanye, Jay-Z, Kendrick, Earl Sweatshirt, Blood Orange, Autre ne Veut, Sky Ferraira, Lorde, James Blake, Daft Punk, Rhye to name a few), 2014 was seeing my iTunes "last added" tab stop at January 14. The remaining of the year was a fragmented landscape of music sourced from Xiami at work and replaying a "best of" mix from 2013. The lack of music this year was the result of an actual lack of good new music, and the final act in the erasure of music ownership. Streaming made listening more difficult because everyday begins from the vast sea of "where do I start now" that usually ends with something you've been listening since you were sixteen (Goodbye Mr. Lawrence). Since Xiami doesn't have sophisticated playlists by mood, time of day or song, more time will probably have to be invested in curating music this year... and going old school and finding music blogs that do so.
This year was notable for stumbling onto two blogs: The State, found after visiting Dubai's art district, is a zine on the Arab/UAE diaspora and post-colonialist condition that happens to put out mixtapes, and 20jazzfunkgreats, a music zine based in Brighton found after searching for the Akira soundtrack. Both of these sites are interesting not just for the music, but condition wherein the discovery of music is considered. That is, it used to be that we found music through a narrative (current conditions of our present life, friends, stuff we read, people we admire). The Internet has made discovering new music and trends a breeze, but we're losing the surrounding elements that shape the musical experience. I appreciate these music zines, especially 20jazzfunkgreats for their foray of emotional weight in the binary landscape. They could be introducing anything, not just music. Oh, the gorgeous design helps too, of course.
Nevertheless, for the sake of keeping a record, here are the songs that were on repeat this year. Most of them, per usual, are not from this year.
"Aranis," Soap Kills I don't know how I found Soap Kills, probably in my continuing phase of interest in the Middle East and random searches for a Beiruti band. As far as Beiruti bands go, this indie electro-pop duo seem to have it all - a minimal sound combined with the sensuous Arab song, hip young faces - the only thing is they are from the late nineties, and who knows how their lives have folded with history.
"Kaneda," geinoh yamashirogumi It's true. I didn't see Akira until this year, and while that's embarrassing for the professed anime geek who loves Cowboy Bebop, I can't think of a better year to have seen Akira, a movie that would have been too weird for my fifteen-year-old self to grasp. Dystopian futures are all the same sexy in 2014, along with the lush cityscapes and a soundtrack that shot me to pause the movie several times to look up the soundtrack. Turns out the composer, the appropriately named geinoh yamashirogumi is a Japanese musical collective consisting of hundreds of people from all walks of life: journalists, doctors, engineers, students, businessmen, etc. The idea is already fantastic enough, but this soundtrack, an eclectic jungle of gamelan, chorus, and drum, is horrifically wondrous.
"Crow," 18+ 20jazzfunkgreats had the best description for this song. 18+ is a dope band. 18+ is two people, half LA, half New York, a potent mix for the hip American.
"18+’s Crow is a nightmare. Not like those almost comforting sketches of horror; linear and formulaic with a beginning a bloody middle and a cathartic end. A nightmare in the maddening repetition of that crow sample. Like Game of Thrones web art . An avian layering: one atop another, compressing into a insane chant."
"The Rip Tide," Beirut I was never into Beirut, and then this year I got into Beirut too late, and also for all the reasons that you probably shouldn't get into Beirut, which is a fascination with Beirut the city, and a superficial penchant for old Europe without really knowing either (old or new Europe). It's hard not to get into operatic songs like "The Rip Tide" and "Postcards from Italy" though, and in the end you are thankful for an imagination that carried Steve Condon from Santa Fe to the womb of Eastern Europe.
In New York City we took naps between five to seven in the afternoon, nine to eleven at night, catching dinners afterwards as if a new day. In consequence, we inevitably woke up in the middle of night to find ourselves answering work emails or playing retro SNES video games. When I asked why he was up too at three in the morning, he said "have to go find bub, what if bub runs away?" in a voice that resembled what one might imagine Babadook sounds like. And so, Babadook and Tonton comprised of New York vol. III, when no effort was made at overcoming jetlag, and simply letting the delirious days made of re-tracing a city that you knew by heart through subway stops, consume it all. On Christmas Day we went through my old neighborhood in Sunset Park. We ate Bahn Mi at Ba Xuyen (best in all of NYC), got spring rolls, an avocado milk shake, and a vietnamese coffee like it was 2010 all over again. New York stays the same even as you grow old.
Somehow I hungered for Chinese food through all of this. I missed the sautéed vegetables and the comfort of rice soaked in sauce through all the fusion-y spectacles. I hungered for it until I ended up in Chinatown in front of a preserved egg and pork porridge, ordering in Chinese because there was no other way. I hungered for it like it was something I will be losing soon.
Because here's the thing with being in China, it's a terrible way to live, and we all know it, and it breaks your heart because you utterly love it with all your heart. I think of my father who lived through these years of chaos and conflict, and wonder if I'd failed him somehow for choosing to be in this iron-clad, nonsensical world that fundamentally rejects goodness, openness, and progress beyond economic facelifts. America may not be perfect with its unabashed capitalistic outlook, its terrible reality shows and endless commercials, but it is a collective conscience that learns from its ill-doings and combats its failings, even as it struggles at the darkest hours. It is a cacophonous world held together by idealism. It is not this machine, governed imperviously, slowly closing its tentacles on itself.
Farewell Gmail. May this day be remembered as the day that China chose to remain in 2004, which is what my QQ email account's interface looks like, but at least it doesn't carry a numbered address like 126, 163, or another lazy man's spit into the universe, unheard. We mourn for you motherland. We mourn.
My best friend from high school loved to read. She always had a book with her, and occasionally talked about them with a peculiar, fanatic, dreamy voice that only happens when a high school girl falls in love with Leonard Cohen's Fishing from Pavement. I managed to evade her love for books. Being a good student but a non-reader, I read what was required in school and stopped at rants about Gatsby. Instead I wrote bad love stories and somehow believed that non-readers made better writers because we had no influences to draw upon. Today I read not because I write, but simply for the pleasure of reading. If 2013 was biking, music, and management books, 2014 was learning to read in order to better understand a wider world.
2014 / Chronologically
1. Dance Dance Dance, Murakami Haruki, January
Wherein a last grasp of youth (spent on j-rock, lit, films and anime) succumbed to Dolphin Hotels, Sheep Man, elongated hallways and a fleeting memory of reverie. Murakami never fails to present cinematic, dream experiences, but maybe it's me who's outgrown one man's lonely, fantastic tunnel vision, and need a bigger piece of the pie.
2. The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan, January 3. The City of Oranges, Adam LeBor
Read before the trip to Israel, and, for an American who knew embarrassingly little about the Middle East beyond headlines, both of these were sweeping epics in their emotion weight. Even though it was difficult to hold on to the facts while Evan recalled timelines and events like a historian on a documentary tour, it helped with the gravity of being in the Old City. Arduous. Complex. Heartbreaking.
4. Quiet, Susan Cain, February
One week of conversation followed this book in the vein of "so do you think you're an extrovert or introvert?" In the end, bestseller semi-self-help books are all the same, a few forgettable anecdotes, statistics, lab tests, and a well-meaning thesis.
5. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, Adele Waldman, February
This novella is the act of drinking gourmet coffee in Williamsburg. Everyone is interesting looking and smart and funny and attractive, until you realize we're all the same. Impressive close read on the inner-workings of the Brooklyn writer man-child, but not really a story that needs to be told. In fact, I'm going to say no more New York stories period.
6. Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, March
The naiveté of which I came to this book and left with shiny eyes only reveals the extent of my lack of understanding of feminist literature and history. The bullish voice Sheryl writes with may not be a nuanced enough, but as with other "feminist" work that gets criticized for not being big enough, diverse enough, at least it's a beginning. Role models take time, just because she's white, privileged, and has a supportive husband doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile fight.
7. Interpreters of Maladies, Jhumpa Lhari, March
The first story in this short story collection, "A Temporary Matter" about a husband and wife who can no longer cope after losing their baby in labor complications, is literally a study of how a universe can be created between the emotional synapses of two people. Loss, told with silence, coupled with secretes, blanketed in dark outs, induces the strangeness of how ephemeral a connection can be. Simply brilliant.
8. On Love, Alain de Button, March
I read this book and skimmed a few of the author's work after listening to a talk of his on TED. Alain de Button makes the inscrutable (philosophy! love! architecture! proust!) digestible like a SOMA pill, made for the modern man dogged by a pressure to succeed. While I appreciate his switching frameworks and unconventional thinking (in one memorable instance, we should all have a day of fools where we fuck other people in donkey suits, more or less), his witticisms can be forgettable, and more an entrepreneurial reaction to first world problems: i.e. School of Life.
9. City of Gold, Jim Krane, April
Read before going to Dubai in my burgeoning interest of the Middle East, this told the short history of a desolate place that found oil and a man who ran a country like a corporation. Wonderful, zipping, perplexing development in the middle of everything impossible… Dubai is willed into existence by man's aptitude for the impossible.
10. From Beirut to Jerusalem, Tom Friedman, May
I barreled through the Beirut section before bed, on buses, on subways, enraptured, but couldn't really claw my way through the Jerusalem section. Somehow Israel really paled against Beirut throughout its Civil War years of death as norm. Still, another good book to gain a foothold into understanding the Middle East. Written with precision and typical Friedman ease.
11. Age of Ambition, Evan Osnos, June
There it is, a China book by an old China hand. Osnos is such the impressive writer who can wrought a meta-narrative through several disparate pieces, pieces that are already incredible strong on their own, but that overall, offers a look into China in the 21st century as a place made of both promise and fake prestige. The cliffhanger is China itself, no one will know what will become of her.
My third year in China has somehow rendered me uninterested in Chinese literature. I guess reading Osnos is at least a bit of a redemption despite it not being in the language. He is missed.
12. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides, July
This fast read of the love and life of Brown kids intertwined in romance and destruction is just that, a very fast read. Eugenides is a smart and good writer, but the characters are limp and uninteresting, except for introducing the effects of Manic-Depression for me, applicable to a dear friend in real life so that I may more empathetic.
13. The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer, August
The idea of the interestings probably reminds all kids with an arty bent of a youth dominated by thinking we were the most interesting people who've ever graced the earth. This book was about that, but also the aftermath, the banality, life's every little mundane play after therein and the nagging fear/reality that, maybe you too are ordinary, and that may be ok as long as you try to stay good and kind. This was entertaining. The geek main character was a treat, but otherwise nothing heartbreaking.
14. Little Birds, Anais Nin, September 15. Diary of Anais Nin, Vol II, October
Anais Nin marks the year that I try to reclaim Feminism 101. At first it's love, like OMG writing quotes to Tumblr love if I only I had know her when I was 16 man! Then fear of narcissism and emotional over-indulgence floods in, and so ends the reign. It's too bad. She, and her writing is sumputous, fearless, and beautiful to the teeth and bone. If only we had the audacity to embrace all that we are: a crazy bundle of emotions, un-honed, beatific, horrific. Such is life. As for Little Birds, a collection of erotic stories, they deserve to have as many hits as pornhub except with far better orgasms. I would masturabte to Anais Nin erotic stories anyday.
16. Bali: Heaven and Hell, Phil Jarratt, October 17. Surf Stories, Stormriders, October
Read during and after the Bali trip in my newfound ritual to read about a place before I go, this was also a call to youth when I went through a minor surfing phase (in Ohio, dreaming of groms). Bali turns out to have had quite a vibrant expat creative scene dating back to before WWII, led by one charismatic German primitivist painter Walter Spies. The convergence of an artistic community around him reminded me, at times, of our little bubble in Beijing. Unfortunately he met his end during the WWII, drowned on a ship of prisoners.
18. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt, November 1. This book was nearly all Boris for me. 2. I picked it up because Kate Bosworth took a photo of a chapter entitled "Morphine Lollipop". Since then, I've been following Kate Bosworth. Then Instagram was blocked. Blue Crush was awesome. 3. It's one of those books that you read knowing "this probably has been optioned," then wondered if the writer purposely wrote it that way.
19. White Tiger, Aravind Adiga, December
The theme of book I read this year is basically IndiaMiddleEastChina, or so I like to think. This book, recommended by a friend, is written from the perspective of a Indian entrepreneur / murderer in a letter to Premier Wen Jiabao. The premise is clever enough, and the book moves swiftly and bitingly as the main character makes his way from countryside to Delhi, from the darkness to promise. It's hardly a favorable view of India, which only makes me think that ironically, even while Balram notes of China's ostensible success compared to India's "failed democracy," such a story would be hard to be told in China, period.
20. Midnight in Peking, Paul French, December
I don't read or watch much horror/mystery anything, so this was read mostly for Beijing as it makes rounds in the expat community here. To my delight, this was a great book to wade through while knowing the invisible lines that make this ancient city. Geography plays a big role here, as in most murder mysteries between people, places, and alibis. At times I literally pulled back at the mention of Hutongs and British girls who speak perfect Chinese, not to mention ample references to my dearTianjin (Tientsin), Edgar Snow, and an expat scene that brimmed of gossip. Beyond the perks of historical fiction and re-living Beijing in 1937, the book was simply a thrill, an astoundingly well-paced tragedy, a beautiful, proper girl lost to the throes of a licentious underbelly, a brokenhearted, obstinate father who waged his own investigation, a sympathetic hermaphrodite, villains with nudist colonies. In some ways, maybe mystery is fiction at its purest form, to make us wonder ceaseless until we hurtle to the end.
2015 / reading, to read
The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine Serious Men, Manu Joseph Creating Effective Teams: A Guide for Members and Leaders, Susan A. Wheelan
You are so excited lately that you get insomnia at night, staring into the abyss of the bedroom with your fingers in a ball, toes curled, body rigid. Any second you want to spring forward to scratch more meaning into the day. Anais Nin has nothing on you on pretension, poetry, and the female psyche. You are so excited that you even start getting carsick in the car, when the city fade in and out between Weixin moment scrolls. One of your best friends leave Beijing and you played Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" followed by Billie Holiday on the street, spun out on whether you were in Beijing, New York, or a music video. Life is only a series of meetings and goodbyes.
You like feeling alive again, like a fucking Radiohead song. The city is made of a beauty that only comes from cruel familiarity. It is in our tiredness of it that we find meaning. It is in our compromises that we find little triumphs.
Finally these strange steps we take lead somewhere nowhere all the same.
See you somewhere someday my friend. Remember to dance dance dance!!!
You're getting too old for the Akira soundtrack. The drums, the stops, the skits, the gamelan. Yet when you look into the crater of the city from the apartment nook, you imagine that the crevices hold just as many secrets. I loved this city once, came as a 21-year-old with more hunger than I had even for New York, because this was it, this was home, this was a crater on the rise. I'd met too many good people in its claws, and I'd punched, willed my way to belong here. Yet I leave. I leave because I'm getting too old for Akira, and one should never feel that way. Instead of gamelan drums paired to dystopian anime, soon it'll be the Smiths and Joy Division. Life should always be a struggle, because where else is the fun, if not in these flashing lights, in the decayed?
I'll be back.