letter #1

My dear friend,

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? When I wrote at the end of last year, I knew I wanted to take a break. What I didn’t know was it would be so long. Almost 5 months. What I also didn’t know was, in just 5 months time, we’re living in a completely different world now.

So where do I even start? Since I started with the new job in November last year, my work-life balance has completely gone off the track. The job is much more demanding than I expected or ever had experienced and it took me a while to accept the fact that I’d just be eternally busy. Calling oneself busy sounds like such a convenient excuse to account for the writing hiatus – in fact, I wish this was just another excuse – but unfortunately, it’s true this time. Or truer at least. The upside is, if I must stay positive, it does keep me occupied and exhaust me in a way that everything else in life just automatically matters less. And let’s admit it, being occupied is kinda a luxury nowadays, when a third of the global population is under lockdown. Still having a job, a pretty busy one, isn’t something one should ungratefully complain about now.

I had a dreadful a few days around the new year’s eve and let me just skip that for now. In fact, the heartburn I had to go through back then seems so insignificant now, relative to where we’re at. Any personal pain that doesn’t concern life or death seems insignificant.

Then it was Chinese New Year. I remember taking the train back to Shenzhen to reunite with my parents on that Friday close to the end of Jan, also the first day I wore a mask, which I hurriedly bought at lunch break from a tiny pharmacy store near work. Little did I know, that would be the last stash of masks available (at a normal price) everywhere. Little did everyone know, in a few months, the whole world would be so surreally united, through a common trauma. I’m certain you must be also experiencing it one way or another, and you wouldn’t wanna listen to me ramble about it. Repeating information that are publicly acquirable, factual or not, isn’t for me and you. It’s for the elevator small talks that no one really enjoys but everyone still does it anyways.

After Chinese New Year, you probably saw it somewhere on social, I went on a trip to Sri Lanka, which I planned last year. I anticipated I’d need a break 3 months into my new job. In February, travelling was still possible, although probably already not the most sensible thing to do. But I’m barely sensible when it comes to executing a trip. In hindsight, it feels like winning a lottery to have gone on that trip.

To some extent, Sri Lanka to me means the last personal memory when I was out there and unreservedly enjoyed the world. To tell you a secret, I’m still wearing the white cotton string on my right wrist which I received from a Buddhist temple on the last day on the trip. It’s now the 73rd day I’m wearing it, which I was only supposed to wear for 7 days. The string is balling and has turned yellowish and is probably full of bacteria, but every day I looked it, I feel like I could still faintly connect to the tremendous and innocent joy I had experienced. I’m so reluctant to let go of it.

The longer I wait, the harder it is to make the cut. When I was brushing my teeth the other day, I looked at the string on my wrist in the mirror, a thought flashed into my mind and I made a pact with myself. I will take it down after the next time I have sex, which, you could imagine, is quite a small probability event in the current condition.

Speaking on which, with already one and half years in the single universe, I do have new revelation these days and believe I have further advanced in the ancient art of being alone. The pandemic has definitely intensified the purity of single-hoods. I don’t just mean on the love and sex level, I mean on every level. Cutting off the physical contact with some casual dates is, in fact, the least I could worry about. At first, I realized I couldn’t visit my parents in Shenzhen anymore for at least 3 months. Then, I could barely see my friends in Hong Kong, which was already a handful to start with. Just when I thought my level of social contact couldn’t possibly get lower, I was cut off with the gyms, the beauty salons (where I go to trim my brows every month so they don’t grow into a jungle) — almost all the routines that keep me in touch with the outside world, is gone. The only thing left is my piano lesson once a week (my teacher tried to persuade me into doing it online and I rejected) and my therapy appointment, which doesn’t happen so often. I am my own island, even more than ever.

I do everything at home now. I work at home, I play music at home, I exercise at home. I spend a stupid amount of time with Netflix and I developed a serious bond with my kitchen for the first time in my life, which, knowing me, is a small miracle.

Before this, I was deeply convinced I am just the kind of person who’d live her whole life without knowing how to cook, and I was convinced this is perfectly ok in a time where all kinds of services can be available at a price. Well, I still think the latter is true, but after having three McDonald’s meals in two days once which made me feel my organs had dried up, I decided to face my utmost incompetency: cooking.

When I was a kid, I detested a fresh market. When my mum picked me up after school and she needed to go to the fresh market to get groceries on the way home, I’d insist to wait outside coz I couldn’t stand the smell, the fishy, earthy odor of daily lives. I grew up knowing I have zero interest in cooking, knowing there was so many other advanced and interesting stuff that’s more worthy of my attention and time. I also don’t seem to have any talent in it at all, in my very few short-lived attempts in cooking in the past years, it always ended in vain as I was just too frustrated with the mess I created that could barely be deemed as food.

When I most recently reattempted to take up cooking in late Feb, it was purely for practical reasons and I just hoped I could at least develop some basic capability in this area. As I delved into the process, started to try out different recipes based on what I’d like to eat and go through failures and minor success and so on, even though it still annoys me sometimes that all the time and effort spent doing the grocery and jumping up and down in the kitchen was merely for the amount of food that can’t even last a whole episode of “friends”, it occurs to me that the process of cooking is more than making food and eating food. For me, it means facing one of my deepest insecurity, my incapability of taking care of myself substantially.

I start to have these flashbacks when I struggle my way in the kitchen. I thought of how my mother could function seamlessly in the kitchen and sometimes when I was home, I’d just stand on one side and watch her doing her trick, as she’d always make it look so easy. I tried to replicate the dishes that I’ve always liked when my mother cooked them. I realize what an uneasy thing it is to be cooking day after day for a family, no matter how she makes it look so easy.

I thought of the men who used to cook for me. I always have a thing for men who makes me food. I can easily forget about others, but not the ones who’d cooked for me. One morning when I was cutting strawberries into small pieces to put into my oatmeal, I suddenly remembered this moment when I just started dating my first boyfriend and he cut a plate of strawberries for me, in perfectly neat shapes. I felt surprised, why bother cutting it? I can just eat it as it is. And he said, coz I think you deserve to have strawberries this way.

One day I was pondering what kind of salad I could make myself so I can cut down on carbs for dinner. It wasn’t an easy thing as I’ve always hated salads. I thought of one salad that someone used to make for me years ago and I actually loved it. My memory was blurred and I only know there was some sort of meat and strawberry in it, and nuts. At that moment, I felt utterly sad and I cried. It’s the best salad I’ve had and I didn’t even know what it was.

More and more memories like these came upon me as I developed my cooking skills day after another. Through cooking, I was also going through my personal history of being on the receiving end of food and the people who have made me happy through food, from my mother, to my first boyfriend, to the guy who convinced me salads can be tasty, to my exchange roommate in the one fall in New York, to my last boyfriend who made me the most exquisite birthday meal. I don’t know if it’s coz I’m spending too much time alone, but all those dusted moments feel extraordinarily precious now that I’m going through my own journey of making food. I realize I’ve always subconsciously seen cooking as a way of giving love, and refreshing those memories made me see how much I was loved.

These days, for the first time in my life, when I wander about in the fresh market, instead of revolting the fishy smell, I see now the poetry of everyday life, as if I’m living life as it is eventually. It’s funny how it takes a pandemic for me to understand the earthiest pleasure, but if there’s a silver lining to every disaster, this would be it. As I grow increasingly committed to adopting cooking as a way of life, in the reflection of the food and love I once received, I could sense I’m also progressing at loving myself properly. And I don’t mean it in the way that your yoga teacher would tell you in a lululemon-cult-like session. I mean the kind of real hardship it takes to turn the heavy anchor around in the opposite direction. As Oscar Wilde said, to love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance. On top of that, I guess I could say with experience, that only when a person has proper self-love in place, is she/he able to receive love properly. I hope I’m now one step closer.

If I’m being honest, this unexpected period of heightened aloneness feels like what I’ve been always longing for, having the luxury to cut off all unnecessary distractions and just devote time to myself, take care of myself, entertain myself, inspire myself and eventually, appreciate the company of myself.

I’ve been reading some news and contents covering how couple-hood has evolved during this time, in some cases, couples become more intimate and co-dependent, in others, the divorce rate spikes. Much less coverage was paid to single people, which I guess, partly coz we’re in a less complicated status. Without the option to divorce ourselves, we have to make it work.

At the end of the day, you must admit the pandemic, despite all the damage it has caused, is an extremely humbling experience for most of us (the one exception I can think of is Donald Trump).

And there it is, what I’ve been up to. Apologies for writing such a lengthy letter. If by any chance you’re feeling stiff under the lockdown in your part of the world, I hope it could help a bit in passing the time. Who knows when would be the next time I write to you. Until then, take care, my friend.

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