昨晚的第二摊，我回到村吧Tap Tap吃“最后的晚餐”，顺便跟我这个假期中交的唯一一个“朋友”——Paul——告别。Paul是个10句话里有9句半都不是正经话的怪趣英国老头——他身形干瘦，茂密的头发白了一半，面貌么，是看得出鼎盛时期对异性的杀伤力的。在我心里，Paul就像是我的朋友Jorge和《shameless》里的无耻老爸Frank的合体：他和Jorge一样（甚至长相气质都很相似），习惯做人群中的小丑，以逗乐周围每一个人为人生最高准则活着；同时又和Frank一样，粗犷无耻，在行为举止上比较自我放弃。他开完一个自认为粗俗的玩笑，总会俯下身跟我“解释”：I’m 58 , I can get away with it. Also, this is called, sense of humor. 这解释，在我看来，总是比他的“笑话”本身更好笑。
Her name is Ella, she is a 34-yo woman that works as a content marketer by trade. Ella lives by herself, in an apartment under her name, on an island primarily occupied by families, kids and dogs, and she has a routine to keep her shit together. Ella prides herself on living an independent life, knowing this independence doesn’t come natural for her. For example, Ella is not the best feeder for herself. She hates grocery shopping and feels innately incompetent in the kitchen. Nevertheless, she tries her best to get this job done. Sometimes she lost track of what she’s doing as her noodle dances in the boiling water. Sometimes, she makes the ugliest egg in the world and still enjoys it.
Her name is Maude, and she never ties herself to the ground. Maude is full of curiosity about many things, behind her, there is a long list of “interests” and “skills” that she once tried to pick up but eventually let go: Taekwondo, Japanese, Photography, singing, guitar, French, yoga. And yet, she continues to want to learn new skills and fancies about being really good at random things.
Ella is always rushing to be on time for things, and she struggles to diagnose the root cause of this eternal state of rushing. As Ella lives alone through the pandemic, her self-dialoguing behaviour has significantly developed during this period.
Maude has the softest eyes for the world. If she wants, she can see beauty in almost everything, and she tries to not abuse this talent of hers. Still, more often than not, Maude is easily touched by many “unremarkable” things: A man reading in the park, fallen petu als in the shape of love, a city swallowed by an imaginary dragon of speed. Maude is always playing some sort of childish game with herself.
Strictly speaking, Ella is not so much of a pretty woman, and she has never been 100% happy about the way her body looks. Since she has memory, she has wished her legs are skinnier and longer, but she gets by with what she got. Like many other 30-something women, Ella works hard to keep in shape, and she’s very skilled at finding the most flattering angle of herself. But fundamentally, Ella knows her charm goes beyond that.
Maude speaks her own private language, and she is quite comfortable being the odd one out. She excites herself by walking the roads less travelled. And sometimes, she walks them with bizarre objects in her hand. She can easily make acquittances with literally just anything. For Maude, every object is alive, and each of them deserves to have a name.
Ella likes to dress herself in her own sometimes-quirky, usually-whimsical ways, and enjoys a kind of agelessness through the freedom of clothing. Sometimes, Ella thinks she is still the little girl that she remembers herself as, and she behaves like one when she is alone. But sooner or later, something would usually happen and reminds her the need to deal with many matters as the grown-ass woman that she is now.
Maude is as passionate about many things as she is indifferent to many others. She would emotionally engage in the life of literature figure like Isabel Archer, and she indulges her sentimentality in all sorts of music. Her heart would float every time she sets her eyes on the moon, and she’d shut off her receptor whenever the man she’s with starts to explain NFTs or democracy to her.
Among her friends and acquittances, Ella is often known as the mean one. She doesn’t say nice things easily, and hides her emotions behind ironical jokes. In her mid-thirties, Ella suddenly realizes she’s more closed off than she’s aware, and she has lost more friends along the way than she’s ready to acknowledge. But some friends do stick around — a tiny, close circle of people that keeps her grounded and accompanied — as they learned to live with the peculiarities of each other.
Maude treasures every physical and digital trace of the past, and looks after a whole garden of trivial memories. She sometimes dreams of the friends she has lost, and journals about the sense of loss when she wakes up. Maude keeps a detailed log of every stream of her emotions. Instead of hiding them, she lets her feelings out in every way she knows. Maude is convinced that, as long as she keeps digging into them, she’d be able to find gold.
Ella’s love life officially recessed 3 years and 4 months ago. Since then, she has dated numerous guys, been on and off apps a few times, had a couple of flings, and watched all of them slip away. Emotionally, Ella is jaded, passive, and she doesn’t suffer fools lightly. It’s always Ella’s first instinct to fight against the role that most men expects her to play, an approving audience, a human ornament that comes with some harmless wit, a freelance improviser of some convenient intimacy.
Maude, on the other hand, falls in love a little at every chance she has, and refuses to let her intelligence get in the way of her feelings. Maude is not shy of showing affections. She enjoys stroking the hair and gently touching the face of the person she likes. Maude is honest with her desires, and validates her sense of “being happy”, even a fleeting, shallow kind.
Over time, Ella is convinced that she doesn’t have much luck with men, and is determined to not make it her problem. She buttons up her strongest emotions, the need of being with someone, love and all that, and concentrate her effort on redefining a new, independent type of personal happiness.
Maude could always sense the moment when her “transitory happiness” starts to leak away, and quietly, she observes the familiar bleeding of her own. “One must be mad to want to voluntarily repeat this cycle,” she would write in her notebook. But still, no bleeding would stop her from embracing all the potential hurt in the world. Stubbornly, Maude believes there’s no pain she cannot endure.
At the end of the day, Ella is always striving to grow stronger and freer, and Maude is always the girl who just wants to feel everything.
It’s almost been 24 hours since I arrived at Cheung Chau. Out of which I’ve been distributing most of my energy towards keeping warm while failing to do so. It occurred to me before my setting off that my planned 3-day island stay would collide with the biggest temperature drop in this winter so far. Not an ideal time to be away from home and grinding into an unknown residence. I tried to prepare as much as I could, not just for how cold it has been, but also for how warm it will be by the time I need to leave.
As of now, I’ve encountered a few issues including 1) a mini cash crisis – had a lovely dinner at an Italian restaurant which billed almost 500 hkd but was told cash only so I ran to the only non-HSBC ATM on the island in the cold to find out the machine was out of cash as myself, which led to me having to withdraw money from an HSBC ATM against my principle for the first time in my life; 2) insomnia – the Airbnb host prepared 6 pillows (who needs that much pillows??) but no extra duvet other than a thin aircon blanket so I had to layer all my clothes on top of myself and stay as stiff as possible through the whole night to trap a thin supply of self-generated warmth. It’s funny how you’re supposed to stay still to sleep but when you’re too focused on staying still you might find it hard to fall asleep. 3) cold shower – long story short, I had to take a cold shower in the morning due to my lack of patience. If I waited another 20 mins, I might be able to have a hot shower – according to my host – and I surely will try that tomorrow, perhaps using the wait time to draft in my mind the review I’m going to write about this premise…
I guess I got a bit carried away with my rant, even though I wasn’t gonna write to rant. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if I want to journal at all as I felt the coldness and the sleep deprivation have got the better of me that it’d be hard to produce any words of meaning. As I went through these little glitches in the past 24 hours, I was inevitably reminded of many similar moments in my past solo trips – the real ones in a remote country or a remote city – and for this reason, this “staycation” – I use it despite my disapproval of this term – feels more like a real trip than the previous two short island stays I had this year.
Instead of the moments of enjoyment, it’s usually these less than ideal situations that make you wonder about the essence of traveling, or, in my current case, some desperate attempt to recreate any experience that resembles traveling. Would I have been more content at this moment if I wasn’t enduring the coldness and constantly solving some problems in my head – primarily involving how/where to spend the next hour – but idling cozy and warm at home? And isn’t the latter the precise reason why I wanted to spend some time away, to unplug my existence from the familiar and repeating routine and temporarily replant it somewhere less known?
We modern travelers are already so spoiled (and doomed) in many ways. With money and information, we can easily make the transition into this new temporary existence quite smooth and pleasurable, and like everyone else, I certainly intended to do so. What I cannot deny is, that coping with the unknown, and being part of the unknown, is after all what primarily itches at every wanderer’s heart.
Because we believe in the religion that life is elsewhere, even though no one ever promised life is necessarily easier there than here. We simply have to leave to answer to that urge of leaving, but what’s more, we also simply have to live somewhere, wherever we choose to be. Now, as my life-of-the-moment continues to unravel in Cheung Chau, I’m going to search for some supper.
Some lovely/quaint little anecdotes:
I went to a little massage parlour last night. The boss lady / masseuese is a middle-aged woman with a strong accent. For most of the time, she was quite preoccupied with managing her business on her phone while using the other hand rubbing hard at me. But in that one hour, we did have a short conversation. She: Do you live here, pretty girl? I: No, I’m just visiting. She: Oh, and you’re staying here for the night? I: Yes. She: By yourself? I: Yes. She: You’re not scared? I: No. She: Where are you staying? I: I rented some place online. She: Oh. I know most hotels and hostels on the island don’t accept single guests. I: Really? Why? She: They worry a single guest would commit suicide. I: ……!!!??? (inwardly gasping at this unintended insensitiveness )
Out of all the conversations I’ve had with strangers about me flying solo, this must be the most unexpected direction one has gone.
I had dinner at a small family-run Nepalese restaurant tonight. When the first thing I ordered – half portion of momos (Nepalese dumplings) – was served, I took a glance at it and continued to operate on my phone. Five minutes later, the Nepalese father came upon my table and concerningly nagged: “The momos are getting cold. Not good if it’s cold. You could check the photos later?” “Sure sure.” I blushed and complied instantly by eating all five momos at one go. Somehow, that felt like the warmest moment of the day.
I definitely drink a bit too often these few days. By 6pm, I felt suddenly drunk and lost the motivation to do anything when I came down from my roof with an empty can of Hoegaarden Rose – 3rd drink of the day. Losing motivation when you’re on your own during a trip – a “trip”? – is a terrible feeling. But right now, as I’m sitting at a fake Japanese izakaya, I still couldn’t help ordering more alcohol and am sipping at a glass of overly sweet plum wine. What’s the thing with this elusive connection between drinking and being on holiday? Why do people always feel almost compulsive to drink on holidays to manifest some sort of “vacation mood”? It seems we human beings just have to consume something to conceal the embarrassing fact that we’re wasting our lives, one way or another. Still, it could be worse, I assure myself. Better drinking than swiping, which would probably only make me wanna drink more.
This morning I went to a brunch place and sat at one of the two outdoor high tables, reading my book over a big breakfast. On the table behind mine sat another single guest – a western guy who seemed quite occupied with his kindle and notebook. Everything was great in that small shaded space, chill, warm, and rather insulated from all the buzz in the inside of the restaurant. So great that I was lingering on my lukewarm coffee so I could enjoy the moment longer. When I raised my head from my book again, I realized a group of four had taken that table and started generating noises louder than what my AirPods could block out. The western guy – my quiet fellow reader – had left! At that moment, with a feeble sense of loss, I traced back to a subtle codependence between me and him, or any two solo guests sharing some common air. The moment he was gone, so did the peace I was enjoying. So I drank up my coffee and left too.
I must have been to Cheung Chau at least five times before this stay. But it’s certainly possible to have a “new experience” in a place that isn’t “new”. Other than the fact that it’s the first time I’m here alone, and the first time I’m staying overnight, I also decide to avoid doing anything I have done before – the street food, the touristy spots I went with others, the paths walked, the restaurants dined at – and relieve myself from any ‘must-see’s and ‘must-do’s. Every day, I start with hungrily zooming and surveying on Google Maps to flag random places I wanna check out. Most of the time, when I’m not drinking or eating or reading, I’d be just wandering in the narrow lanes crossing through the residential villages – with nothing “worth seeing” and no business at all – and being fascinated by the fronts of people’s homes and the numerous simple lives lie behind.
Yesterday, I was intrigued by a “retreat home” on the map – I’m interested in all kinds of retreats! – and went to find it. I was very close to giving up as Google isn’t very accurate with small paths when an old gentleman stopped to ask if he could help me – I guess I did look rather confused in the middle of the way – and finally led me on the right way to the entrance. I buzzed the gate bell and someone let me in. I walked through the front garden and was “greeted” coldly by a female local staff outside the front office. “Can I help you?” she sounded nothing like she wanted to help at all. “Oh, I just passed by and wonder what kind of retreat program is available here,” I said. “You’re not supposed to just come over like this, you should have called to ask,” she said. “Well, I’m here now. Is there any information you could tell me?” I pleaded. “Are you Catholic or Christian?” “No.”I supposed I shouldn’t lie in front of God’s gaze. “Then there’s no need to continue this conversation. You don’t fulfill the basic religious requirement.” This woman just jumped on the perfect excuse to maximize her meanness. And just like that, I was sent off…and warned that I should not wander around in the retreat premise.
It took me a while to recover from the negative shock of this interaction, at a place that should technically be blessed by God’s love. This reminds me of how a trip – again, a “trip”? – is not always full of serendipities. Sometimes, you find something by not finding it. And you get satisfied from being disappointed. This is the deal, I guess, when you set out to explore things. You resign to whatever comes your way – even when it’s unpleasant.
Dear Mart, a few Sundays ago this time (1:14pm), I was in your bed, lying beside you, trying to arouse you for sex for one more time, even though I could feel you didn’t really plan for that to happen, just like when you tried to arouse me for sex for the first time a week before that, I also didn’t really plan for that to happen. But both times, it happened. We both managed to get what we wanted: for you, it was to have sex with me for the first time; for me, it was to have sex with you for one last time. I suppose we’d both have known what it feels to be having sex when we didn’t really want it, either not at one specific moment, or not with one specific person.
Dear Mart, I never wanted to have sex with you. I never thought I’d develop that sort of feeling towards you, truth be told. When I first saw your profile on the app, I thought, just looking at this guy makes wanna smile, as if I could feel your joy to life through the screen. You only wrote one line in short but it spoke well to me: Fond of fictions, long walks and cityscapes. I knew I wasn’t attracted to your physicality, but I wanted to know more about you as a person. Something told me we’d be able to connect well, and I wanted you to be my friend since then, even knowing – from experience – the odds of it won’t be in my favor at the end of the day.
Dear Mart, would you still think of the texts we exchanged in those first days? I read them all over again after we stopped talking, and I’m still very fond of them and fond of that part of you. You told me how my writing in my profile made you giggle too, and that you were stuck in your happiness since childhood to a degree that it started to annoy people. The things you said could so easily make me laugh. Don’t you think we should all try to remember how we used to make each other laugh in the beginning, no matter how things turned out in the end? Do you remember – you probably don’t – on the day we met for the first time and walked almost 20k steps across one district to another and there wasn’t one moment of dullness, and at some point you said to me, “I just feel you’re too good to be on tinder“. At that moment, the line I tried so hard to hold down in my chest was “can you be my best friend“. Maybe I should have said that. Maybe if I had said it, you wouldn’t try to initiate sex a few weeks later, and we wouldn’t have had sex, and things wouldn’t have gone wrong, and we’d still be talking, and fond of each other. Would it? I didn’t say it, obviously. I just posted it on my Chinese social the next day as a note to self. I couldn’t remember when was the last time I had talked to anybody for 8 hours nonstop and remained unfiltered as I was. And I didn’t wanna forget the preciousness of that feeling. At least that was what I felt. But when I think back, after everything, I wonder if you were disappointed that day, becoz when it was after midnight and we were still wandering in the streets, you seemed to be subtly inviting me to your place nearby, but I just hopped on a taxi and went home.
Dear Mart, I guess I did sense you want more than just friendship from that time. And I thought to myself, I would be able to manage it. I would be able to prove to you that my friendship, our friendship, weighs more than anything sex could possibly provide. Who was I kidding? I had never managed to convince any men of that. Before you, there was a stream of men like you that I’d tried to befriend but ended up either sleeping with and/or estranged from becoz I wouldn’t sleep with them anymore. The longest one lasted a few years, with intermittent sexual attempts by the “friend”, but still, it was long enough to make me believe it was a real friendship until the “friend” eventually bailed on it. He said I broke his heart. I don’t think he realized he’d broken mine too.
Dear Mart, when you told me your best friend is a woman the first time we met and you’d been living with her and her husband before they left Hong Kong, I knew something was there. As expected, a few weeks later, you told me she was your ex and you were together for six years. When I asked you whether/how you had grieved for the ending of the long relationship, it was also the first time I witnessed your determined denial of your feelings and emotions. It struck me there’s no such thing as “being stuck in happiness” as you put it, of course, and there’s definitely more truth beneath it, probably a strong unwillingness to deal with anything difficult. You convinced yourself there wasn’t any loss incurred becoz she’s still in your life, just with a different role – your best friend, your roommate, your work partner, someone you couldn’t stop mentioning a little too often. Your reaction to that question made me wonder if you’d ever truly walked out of that relationship, if you’re ever truly ready to intake another person as a romantic partner, becoz there didn’t seem to be much space left. I didn’t share any of these observations with you, after all, it was your private matter, and I wasn’t interested in that non-vacancy anyways.
Dear Mart, I think you know I like you. You are one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and I loved seeing myself through your eyes. I laughed a lot when I was with you. And I didn’t feel being resented for being smart. I like talking to you. I like how you make me feel it’s safe to confide my insecurities and deepest wounds, how you jokingly tried to think of a way to make me money out of my peculiarities, how you think I’m not weird, just neuro-diverse, which would be the next big thing after LGBTQ+. I even like how frequently you’d use an obscure English word that I need to go to a dictionary with. I told my friends and my therapist about you. I told them I met you on Tinder but I thought we could really become good friends. I can’t explain to them why I only wanted you as a friend, but in my mind, I knew clearly what I feel and what I want. Or at least I thought I did. My therapist told me, given my track record of always being attracted to the similar type of unavailable guys, (which is sort of true), that I should try to keep my mind open and don’t rule out any possibility of seeing you in a romantic way one day. So I didn’t once tell you I only wanted to be friends. I was trying to keep that “channel” open, even though I didn’t think I would want to switch it on.
Dear Mart, do you have any clue about women’s desires? I have little. People know so little about it coz women – in most parts of history and still many parts of the world today – are not trained to express them, understand them, explore them, or reconcile with them. I started making acquaintance with my desire fairly late in my life, I barely touched myself until my late twenties, and as a 34-yo woman I’m still frequently baffled at how my desire would choose to expose herself. But broadly, I believe women’s desires are destined to act as a complement to their minds, not a proxy, but a complement. My desire would complement my mind in situations of conflict so it’d find a way to make things easier for both. So how did it start with you?
Dear Mart, I’ve gone through many times in my mind what happened that night, when everything seemed to have changed in a split second. It was the 3rd time we’d met in a little over a month, and we’d managed to stay as friends and strictly friends until then. Even in texts, there wasn’t any trace of flirting. When we’d agree to meet that weekend and you suggested I go over to yours for a coffee first before we go out for dinner, I agreed without a second thought. What could go out of line with a coffee in the afternoon? But I did tell my therapist that day before I went to your place, that I hope my agreeing to meet at your place wouldn’t give you any wrong idea. It was the typhoon weekend and the weather was a nightmare. We couldn’t go very far for dinner so we ate at one of the few restaurants that were still open in your hood. After dinner, it was about 9 or 10, and you suggested we go back to yours for a glass. Until then, we were discussing everything possible as usual and I didn’t feel like stopping at that point yet just bcoz we’d finished eating so I agreed despite a slight hesitation. 10pm was an awkward time, I thought, but I could probably stay a bit longer. The next thing I knew, we’d finished a bottle of wine, or two? It was midnight, it was 1am, it was 2am, then it was just too late, coz every time I thought of leaving, the rage of rain and wind outside suggested maybe it wasn’t the best time yet. I was trapped at your place, at 3am in the morning. Fuck. How am I going to manage this? Even then, Mart, I still thought there was a chance it wouldn’t have to happen and I’d just stay the night over. Even then, Mart. When I asked if I could crash on the couch for the night, feeling slightly tipsy and extremely sleepy, and lay down on the couch with my eyes closed, and you started kneeling down by my side and caressing my right hand and asked if I would like to move to the bed to sleep properly, and I said maybe if you could find me a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, even then, Mart. Then I moved to the bed and lay at the inner side, facing the inner wall, closed my eyes, then you came from behind and asked if it was ok if you spooned me and I groaned ok with my half-asleep mind. I felt the warmth of your body against mine, curled in a ball. I felt your breath at my neck, and your hands wandering at my thigh, and I just let you, with my body frozen and my eyes closed. I didn’t want to interfere with what was happening, I guess if I didn’t interfere, I didn’t need to deal with what was happening. Then you turned my body to face up, and you came on top of me, I had to open my eyes, you kissed me, you held me tight and your movement started to heat up. It was then I said: I feel weird, Mart. I didn’t even know what I meant by that, I didn’t analyze it at all before the sentence slipped my lip. I guess that was the least I had to do, to let you know. If all my previous body language didn’t manage to send the message across, that would be my final attempt.
The words did seem to reach you indeed, you stopped what you were doing, and assured me we didn’t need to do anything if it’s making me feel weird. Instead, you said, you could just give me a back massage. Dear Mart, I wasn’t born yesterday and I knew what a back massage means. There I was, struggling to stay awake but feeling deeply confused about you, Mart. If I could like you as a friend, why can’t I also desire you? Maybe I do, and I just didn’t know that yet? Could that be why I’d unconsciously stayed till so late? Could it be that I actually wanted you? I was too sleepy to try to figure all these out at that moment, Mart, and I didn’t want to make you feel awkward. I stopped struggling, I knew it’d be easier if I just let it happen. So I let it happen.
Dear Mart, you see, this is what I mean. A woman’s desire can be very protective of her and it could almost always find a way to complement the mind. Because my mind likes you as a friend, my desire would find her way to complement the missing part in a situation like that. I am not your victim, Mart. It’s not that I was ever repulsed by the idea of having sex with you. It’s that I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to becoz I want you as a friend and a friend only. Friends don’t have sex.
Dear Mart, do you know how many times I’ve been in that kind of situation before – having sex only out of the ease of conformity but still managed to find a way to enjoy it or persuaded myself it wasn’t a big deal but years afterward the memories of those times still sting? You weren’t the first, obviously, and you probably won’t be the last.
Dear Mart, I really did enjoy the sex. It was better than I thought it’d be, and I was more attracted to your body than I thought I would be. Since you had touched me, I had started desiring you at the same time. You see, women’s desire can be so elusive and flippant, there’s nothing sacred about it. After all, it was just sex. Sex is never that much of a big deal.
The big deal is, dear Mart, I won’t be able to see you as a friend anymore. The week after we first had sex (without penetration, as you wanted to prove you could “hold back” even though we both know penetration doesn’t define sex) was such a wavy episode. In that week, I wondered what’d become of us. I wondered if it could possibly be the beginning of something actually great and meaningful, now that my desire had caught up with my mind and both of them liked you. I wondered if we’d still be able to scroll things back if the romantic channel didn’t work out becoz 10 out of 11 it didn’t work out and I’m not delusive about the stats. I wondered if I was getting ahead of myself and should just chill and take it one step at a time.
Dear Mart, I had wondered a lot of things, you see, when we were flirting with witty texts every day after that night. After all, I’m just a normal woman, having the normal feelings, wanting the normal things. But I never wondered one thing, that if you were a dick. The possibility of that never even slipped my mind. I had only felt slightly weird when you’d say things like “you are fun in bed”, “you’re so pretty”, “I really enjoy your body”. I mean, Mart, I just couldn’t help feeling something was off when hearing these from you. After all, you’re the “saint Mart” that claims you wouldn’t use any adjectives to describe people – not just their appearance – anymore because that’d be just too reductive.
Dear Mart, do you really think it’s a coincidence that we had discussed so many different topics – including politics, coming from different takes – and remained civilized pre-sex, but would have a fight in the first serious discussion after we’ve had sex? I still couldn’t believe having that fight was the first thing we did after being horny for each other for a whole week, at that stupid bar, talking about stupid art. It surprised me how you just wouldn’t let it go after I’d repetitively said I didn’t mean what you thought I meant. It surprised me to hear the change in your tone, the different light in your eyes, the harshness and judgment you could hardly hide but I’d never seen in you before. So what if we think art means different things and we have different standards for what makes a real artist? But I can’t help noticing this change of attitude in you, as if the breakthrough with the boundaries of our bodies has at the same time awakened your presumed supremacy over my separate cerebral existence. My thoughts, my views, and my emotions are automatically depreciated the moment I submitted myself to your cock. I’ve seen this change in other men before, but Mart, seeing that in you is the least I would expect. I enjoyed the sex with you, but I hate it for what it ruined for us.
Dear Mart, I wondered why you always meticulously used “make love” when referring to the penetrative intercourse each time it came up. On the first weekend, you said, “I can’t wait to make love to you.” On the second weekend, you said again, “would you like to make love” when you’d just gone down on me and I was lying on your rug expecting nothing but to be fucked. For someone as linguistically proud as you, I know you chose your wording for a reason. Do you think “having sex” or “fuck” is too vulgar? Were you just trying to make yourself feel good? Or was that for me? If what we did was making love, wouldn’t it be natural that we should expect to hear from each other afterward, instead of days of radio silence? You might also recall, on the first night when you initiated to have sex and I told you “I feel weird”, the rest of the conversation was: Me: “I don’t want sex to make things weird between us.” You: “But I’m a robot, I don’t have feelings.” Me: “But I have feelings.” and then you had nothing else to say before you offered the “back massage”.
Dear Mart, you and I are both very aware of the manipulative power of words, the fine line is, whether we can refrain from abusing them, especially with those that are dear to us. As a robot, you wanted to “make love”. Yet as a “love maker”, you couldn’t have disgraced the phrase more than you had, because Mart, love isn’t just the high and the fun, it is also the dark and the sad, the hurt and the heal, it is an experience that requires a full emotional spectrum to truly deserve it, the spectrum you know you have deep down but decide to disable the most of it for reasons only you’d know.
Dear Mart, maybe sex hasn’t ruined it for us, maybe it has just made us see clearly what we really are to each other. Maybe I was terribly mistaken, and you’ve never really seen me, you just pretended you did. Becoz I don’t believe if you had really seen me the way I am, sex would make you unsee that. You might have seen and liked the outward features of me – my funniness, my cleverness, my “you-are-so-pretty” kind of face and my “i-really-enjoy-your-body” kind of body – but you’ve never really seen or liked me, my soul, the full and complex picture of my humanities underneath all these, coz you were never interested in her.
Dear Mart, I’m not writing to blame anything. Because deep down I still believe you never intended for it to happen the way it did, neither of us had intended that. All of us are just struggling with our lives as they unveil, and I suppose we all did things that we later regretted. I’m writing to tell my perspective of the story – this story, and many others – which I never got to tell, which most people never get to tell when something dear to them was lost. I don’t have the talent to write it into a cryptic 70-word text the way you did and be with it, I have to do it in my own clumsy, exhaustive way with words. As I’m coming to the end of this letter, I realized my initial mentality of writing it has shifted from a place of upset to a place of grief. I guess I’m also just writing to grieve the loss of a friend, or the loss of the eligibility of “losing a friend”. After all, we can’t lose what we never had.
This morning, when I was reading and sipping at my coffee at the windowsill, and the characters in the novel I’m reading were corresponding with each other in their long, sincere emails, I couldn’t help desiring to correspond with someone like that myself. And here I am.
I hope you’d forgive me for being quite out of touch. Believe me, there were many times I’d tried to write, or felt I need to write to tell you things that were happening. But I just couldn’t. I couldn’t because I didn’t feel I was in the right place to write, not in a meaningful or organized way. I still don’t know if I can now, but I will give it a try.
I went to see a piano concert the other day. It was a random event I inserted into my two-and-half week break earlier in September, and I went by myself on a Sunday night. When I was walking towards the concert hall along the harbour pier, I saw a man and a woman – obviously on a date – walking to my direction from a distance, and at that moment I just reflexively lowered my head. I wondered why I did that, though I didn’t regret it. I dated that man. It was a casual thing that lasted for a while.
When we were casually seeing each other, there were a few times he’d say – quite affectionately – “I (really) like you“, and it was always after we’d just had sex, as if it was a meaningful confession. And I’d return a smile in the nicest way I know and feel slightly embarrassed for not wanting to say it back. But still, when I ran into him with his fresh date at the harbour sidewalk, I couldn’t describe how exactly did I feel, but I knew it wasn’t nothing at all. Strange, isn’t it?
I saw them again at the concert venue when the mass of crowds were slowly tubing themselves into the hall. For the whole concert, I tried to sweep them out of my mind. And after it was finished, I walked out of the concert hall as swiftly as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the concert, quite a lot indeed. But the whole evening just felt a bit tainted, emotionally.
There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up, said Oscar Wilde. I agree. I even put this quote on my Douban profile, when I was young enough to think putting some quotes on your profile is a “cool” thing. But this is not one of that kind of circumstances. This is when you see someone else with the thing you’ve thrown away and still wish you don’t have to see that. You wish you don’t have to see that not becoz it makes you sad seeing what you have lost, but becoz it reminds you even when having it how unlikely you could be made happy. And that did make me a bit sad.
I can’t explain why I wanted to tell this episode to you, which is really of little significance in the context of my romance life. It’s not something I’d waste time telling during therapy, let’s say. I guess it’s just easier to put something minor into words, when the major thing is stuck somewhere before it could be channelled out. Does that make sense?
I will tell you what I did tell my therapist in the latest session. It’s not sexy at all. I was complaining about a decision I had to make about work. And the more I thought about it the more it was weighing on me and the more I felt repulsed by the whole thing, the fact that such matter would take up so much of my mental capacity while deep down I gave so little fuck about it. Long story short, I got a new job offer that fell a bit short, and I needed to decide if it’s worth making a move for. It’d be very similar to my current job – some invented role in a big financial corporation that makes profit off of helping rich people get richer, and I happen to be quite good and experienced at this invented role. It was hard to make this decision, I realized, because deep down it means so little to me, and if I’m being really honest, there’s no right decision – maybe in god’s view there is, but in my mind there isn’t – becoz I couldn’t be more disinterested no matter what I decide. But on the surface I had to put on my big-girl pants and acted like a responsible adult knowing exactly what made best sense for her professional life as if that was the most important thing in the world. This made me feel nauseous, this pretence of self-importance.
I’m aware how ungrateful and entitled it might have sounded of me right there, whining about my decently-paid job while there are people suffering issues of real substance in the world. And I guess I whine to distract the real attention from the fact that I’m just deeply ashamed. Of the underserving privileges and compensation, of the means I make a living with, of the unimportance of my work, and of the lack of value of me as a person. I wonder if you’ve ever felt the same way, but from time to time I’d suddenly remember how my life has turned out to be a process of continuous shrinking of the initial wish list. I mean, don’t we all start off with some grand plans with our “future”, as to how to actualize our value? And as the future gradually looms over reality, you realize one day you’re right in the middle of this “future” that you dreamed of as a kid and nothing glamorous has happened, your sense of insignificance is only more pronounced, and your intelligence – that everyone said you have – land you nowhere. You absorb the shock quietly and re-adjust your expectation, you don’t wish for anything big anymore and decide you’d be fine leaving no trace on the planet for future human beings. You reposition your hope for a small, quiet, happy, private life. You want to love someone and be loved. You made some mistakes, and you’ve been failed a few times. Then a new era has arrived, an era where genuine affection becomes a plummeting currency and love is either a taboo or only exclusively exists in hashtagged forms as some sort of public affirmation. Eventually your goal is shrunken to just be less of a burden to the world – use as little plastic as possible, eat as little meat as possible – and you steer your pursuit to entirely inward, feeding on music, literature, any general form of art, developing a personal code of integrity, and wishing for an abstract placidity and happiness. This is just one example of a trajectory, obviously. What I’m trying to say is, I suspect most of us must have shrunken at some point, if not all the time, and we shrink because at that some point it seemed to be the only way we could still keep going.
I turned 34 in the summer. I didn’t write a birthday essay this year as I usually did for I was preoccupied at that time. I was in the middle of a thing that as of now I still struggle to find words for it.
I met someone from the app at the end of May. On the night of my birthday, we’d just known each other for two weeks, and I invited him to my dinner party. We were back to my place after that, both pretty drunk. We had a fight in the taxi over something stupid. After we got out of the cab, I started crying at the waterfront. He stood beside me, quietly waiting for me to finish. I asked him if it was weird to watch me cry. He said no, it was only normal. Then we were back home. We tried to have sex but were too drunk to finish. It was then that he started mumbling, more like to himself. “I probably shouldn’t be saying this but I don’t know, I feel like I’m falling in love.” I pretended I didn’t hear it. But I did, and it was electrifying. I wish I had said it back at that moment, because it would have been true. I didn’t know that it’d been the best chance I could have said it.
The thing ended pretty soon, it lasted a little over a month altogether. But it took me a disproportionately long time to restore a sense of normality and the structure of my life afterwards. It’s as if with just a few weeks’ presence, the absence of him had created this dreadful hole that didn’t exist. I was more shaken than I’d like to admit, you see. And I pondered a lot over the aftermath.
I guess part of me did feel I’ve made a fool of myself, by allowing myself to be vulnerable again, which I don’t usually do these days. Though a bigger part of me was only trying to understand why I’d fallen in love with someone without any obvious reasonings. I also couldn’t help running over and over in my head if there was anything I could have done differently to prevent that from happening, the in-falling, if there was any opportunity of it going down a different path, and if there was any chance I could have stayed, instead of withdraw. I was deeply frustrated not just for the loss of something that felt intense, but more for that with everything I’ve experienced, it turns out I still know so little about love. That it still remains such a puzzle to me after all, and I’m still completely under its spell.
At the end of the day, I suppose, maybe the only thing that matters in a story of love is that you’d know it happened. You’d know it’s real, no matter how hard the critical half of your brain tries to defy it. It might not be how you’d expected it to take place, but it did, in its own terms. As of the rest of it – who with, how flawed that person is, how it ended, what caused it, how long did it last – all these are just the side materials of the core story, the minimal and eternal story of love. I have nothing to complain about it, just as I would not complain about the tide rising and then falling. It happened probably only because it was time for me to fall in love again.
If I may circle back to what I was talking before, I guess trying to make sense of myself, trying to comprehend my own existence, and everything that happened on me, is always and still the one and most important item remaining on my diminished wish list. I don’t mean to ‘memorize a few glamorous quotes and forcefully apply them to everything’ kind of lazy job. I mean to really comprehend and straighten out even the most conflicted, confusing and miserable bit, and to repeat this process every time a new ray of pain pierce through, to understand them as part of myself, even though in my mind I wished for a better, more creative, more loving life. Only with this relentless effort of comprehension, we stand a chance of making peace with the individual truth of ourselves. And with this effort of comprehension, the intermittent occurrence of the desire to love, to create something genuine and good, would no longer come across as the “unattainable”s or the “nonexistent”s, but indeed the glittering moments in a lifelong river of mundane.
I hope the next time I write to you it will have cooled down a bit in Hong Kong. (I’m getting a bit fed up with this protracted summer, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the pink leather overall I’d impulsively purchased during my just-happened holiday.) Until then, I will try my best to comprehend every of my feelings.
I arrived at this airbnb apartment in late afternoon. It’d be my temporary home for three nights. I have no plan for the rest of the day, and no plan for the remaining days either.
I took my time to examine every single detail in this little studio flat. It sits on the second floor of a short village house building. It has a small balcony, facing some nice green trees. The view however is slightly compromised by several modern cars parked downstairs. The owner has good taste of small objects, and he/she stocked the fridge with nice basic stuff, yogurt, soft drinks, wines, eggs. My previous worry over food was slightly eased at the sight of that. There’s is a small wooden table and two chairs, I suppose this will be where I do most of my activities in the next few days – writing, reading, eating, drinking. The bed is bigger than my own and it looks comfy. I have yet dived into it.
There’s really not much more to be said about this place. It’s very simple, but for some reason immediately feels like home. After a while I slowly unpacked my stuff from the little suitcase I brought, and laid them out in the bathroom, the wardrobe, the entrance chair, the fridge. As I did that, there was a moment it felt like “i’m starting a new life here”. I wonder if this temporary imagination of “a new life”, this brief shift of existence, is – instead of a byproduct of going elsewhere – a more fundamental need itself. It doesn’t take much. It doesn’t even take a plane anymore.
For now, this “new life” is only lacking a toothbrush. (But I did remember to bring toothpaste, strange mistake.) And I wish I had a small speaker with me.
I can’t remember when was the last time that I was writing on my laptop with a glass of wine by my hand. Anyways, this is what I’m doing right now, writing, with a glass of wine that’s getting acceleratingly warm.
I left the house and walked towards the beach after 6. When I was walking towards the beach, people were leaving. When I arrived, it was almost empty. I set out the beach mat, sat down and enjoyed the private beach while it was still quite bright. There wasn’t marvellous sunset today, instead, the sky was emitting a greyish blue. Without me noticing it, the moon was already hanging up there, watching the beach quietly. She is in her perfect half shape today with an impressionist illumination, as tolerant as she always appears.
I didn’t bring any towel/tissue with me so I wasn’t planning to touch the water with my barefoot. But as the sky grew dimmer, the moonlight appeared brighter, the waves also looked more and more inviting as it repetitively rushed onto a people-less beach. I changed my mind and walked towards the sea. With the music in my headphone, I started dancing a bit in the shallow waves. It’s always great to dance when no one is watching. Again I realize, there’s nothing purer than the kind of romance you feel when you’re alone.
I’m still patiently waiting for my writing heart to reveal herself. While I’m waiting for her, I eat, I listen to music, I clean myself, I dance. I have plenty thing to do. But I don’t look forward to going out today, I got this conclusion by stepping out to the balcony for 30 seconds. It’s another scorching hot day.
I do realize one thing not so ideal about this apartment. As it’s on the second floor, if I wanna sit by the window in the warmth of the sun, everyone passing by downstairs would be able to see me, and perhaps my underwear. This morning, as I was sitting by the balcony door eating a banana, with the knee of my left leg raised to my breast level, a man walking his dog passed by and gave me a quick glance as he looked up. It was a very brief moment of awkwardness. I can’t help wonder what do I look at that moment to a stranger – an untidy-looking woman eating banana at 8am behind the half-open balcony door, facing outside…
Writing wasn’t happening much, but for some reason I’m quite content. I reviewed a few stories/ideas that I created files of but never finished as if I was looking at someone else’ documents, and decided to rewrite a yet-to-be-finished short story into a flash fiction. It was very slow, and I was basically just deleting what I wrote almost one year ago. But I guess deleting is sometimes a progress too.
Around noon I still hadn’t develop enough courage to go out, so I decided to cook. I made carbonara – practically the only thing I can remember the steps without checking any instructions. I wouldn’t say it tastes fantastic.
In the afternoon I had a video call with Jorge – we agreed to have a coffee together, in his morning and my afternoon. We haven’t talked properly for four years since he left HK. I reached out recently when I thought I was going to Spain for this break. It didn’t happen, obviously, but it made me realize how much I’ve missed Jorge as a friend.
There are very few people in the world that whenever I think of them, a small dosage of warmth would instantly fill up my chest. Jorge is one of them.
I knew it’d be a long conversation, but it still surprised me when it turned out to be a 2.5-hour call. It occurs to me that even when Jorge was in HK, we didn’t meet often, but every time we did, it felt special, and we’d wish to prolong the meeting as much as possible. It was always intense, but never dramatic.
After the call I left for the beach. It was earlier than yesterday so I read a bit with the last half hour’s sunlight of the day. When it became too dim to read, I walked a few rounds along the beach in the shallow waves, and ruminated everything I talked with Jorge. It was very relaxing to walk and let the stimulated thoughts and emotions gently sink in.
On my way back from the beach, I walked into the one and only Chinese restaurant in the neighbourhood for dinner. It was a very earthy little place, and I expected to have a plain and quiet meal.
As I took some time to look at the dinner board when trying to decide what to order (as a tourist alway does), and as the waitress auntie was impatiently waiting beside me, this scene unfortunately drew the attention of a guy two tables away from mine. He started talking to me by advising me what to order. The curry beef brisket is a must try if it’s your first time here, he said.
It was quite empty in the restaurant and he looks like an old harmless local uncle. Out of politeness, I mildly entertained his awkward attempts at making conversations, even though it was quite impossible. But soon I realized the questions were never gonna stop. And as most people I met when I was travelling alone, he was particularly puzzled by my solo existence.
Are you from here? Oh, where do you live? I’m the postman in this area. Oh, with your friend? Oh, how come you’re alone? No boyfriend? Why not boyfriend? You’re pretty. You’re Korean? Oh, Chinese? Where is your friend? Really alone? Don’t you have friends? ……………….
I grew more alerted when at some point he just walked over and sat opposite me at my table to continue the interrogation. Just when I was running low with my patience, the waitress auntie came out from the inner room and urged him back to his table. “Your beer is getting warm. Go finish it and leave the girl alone. ” And as he reluctantly drifted back to his table, the waitress came to stand right next to me, holding a small piece of paper towards me on the table. Assuming she was bringing the bill for my order, I realized it was actually a written message. It was in verbal-style cantonese writing and I didn’t have enough time to read it word by word in two seconds’ time, but I made out the general meaning: “this man is getting drunk, try not to engage him anymore…” She was tipping me off.
And just like that, what I thought would be a “plain and quiet dinner” became me eating crazy fast, dramatically fleeing the restaurant while making sure I wasn’t followed all the way back to my apartment.
As unpleasant as it was, the whole incident, especially the countless questions about “why are you alone”, did awaken reminiscences of when I was actually travelling.
When I had my morning coffee today, I thought of Jorge and our talk, and I missed him immensely. It’s the best kind of “missing”, the kind that doesn’t make your heart ache, but makes you feel the world is a better place becoz this person exists.
Jorge told me yesterday that I looked different, that he’d never seen me so free of tension. I guess I know what he meant, and I like this remark more than any other compliment about my appearance.
After a few hours’ writing in the morning I felt a little restless. I still don’t know how to proceed with the story so I decided to switch channel and made myself presentable. I took a few self-portraits with my film camera in different settings in the studio. I haven’t felt the mood for it for a long time, taking film portraits for myself. But today the urge came back, and I answered to it.
My plan is to go for a super late lunch around 3pm and stay out till after sunset. I left home when I felt too weak to wait further. The whole Pui O area seemed empty and dead at that hour. I wanted to give the local pizza joint a try but a black dog barked at me fiercely from inside the closed front. I hopped on a bus for Lower Cheung Sha beach instead, and ended up at Long Island again. It’s funny that I’ve been to Lower Cheung Sha quite a few times, and there are plenty options of restaurants there, yet for some reason I always ended up eating at Long Island, sulking at their overpriced menu and mediocre food.
I ordered too much food for one person, and left half of them for the flies to sniff. At about 5pm, I was already dozing off at my book thanks to the aperol spritz, and decided to move on to the beach. A loner buffalo had my attention as he (I assume it’s he) left the group and started marching towards the center of the sea. He appeared so purposeful and at some point I wondered if he was suicidal. Turned out he was just really craving a deep bath, and stayed in the water for a long while with only his head floating above the surface of the water.
My good time on this beach didn’t last long. When I finally settled down at some spot away from the crowd, and took just one sip of my take-away aperol spritz, a strong wind swept over and the sands started dancing. It was so strong that without any hesitation I knew I’d need to leave immediately. Huge dark clouds were creeping over and it was evident it’d pour soon.
The whole atmosphere grew quite gloomy all of a sudden but somehow the drastic change of climate made me quite excited. When I got off the bus in front of my village, the rain was on the verge of dropping, and I didn’t wanna go home yet. I indulged my instinct and stayed at the bus stop. It was a deserted bus stop by the road. I sat on one of the shabby chairs, watched people and vehicles flashing by in front of me, felt my hair flying to every random directions, and waited. Finally the rain poured down. It was a great moment.
It was the first day I used alarm to get up since I was on leave from 13 days ago. I wanted to have an early breakfast at the “garden cafe” – a cha chann ten – in the village. When I almost arrived there, I realized I forgot to bring my mask.
I wasn’t really wearing any mask in the past few days here coz on day one when I walked in the village I realized people look different here, after a while I figured out what was it: most of the local residents weren’t wearing their masks – either not properly or not at all. I happily adapted to the local norms during my stay, but still always had a mask with me in the bag.
But this morning when I left home it simply slipped my mind. When I realized that, I was half way there. I wondered if they’d not let me in without a mask, and hesitated if i should walk back and grab it…but decided against this stupid thought. When I arrived at the cafe, the waitress greeted me joyfully. No one gave a fuss about masks here.
It was such a small detail, but I was so grateful for this rare privilege, this old “normal”.
I’m leaving in half hour, with a sense of reluctance, as usual. It’s always very easy for me to grow attached to a place, a pattern, a newly developed existence, and it’s never easy to leave. I’ve become very used to the brevity of things, but being used to it doesn’t make it easier.
Now, I try to focus on the thought of reuniting with my piano soon. The book I’m reading is coming to an end and I’ll be able to start a new book today. There’s usually something to look forward to, no matter how trivial they might seem.
How is life? It might sound less than sincere to ask that when knowing there’s no way I could get a timely, substantial reply. But I guess every letter has to start somewhere, and I wish to not start from rambling about my own life, which, as you might already know, is what the rest of this letter will be about.
I took a whole week off at the beginning of April, of which, four days were spent screen-free. It could be seen as a latest, renewed attempt to replicate my experience of a short stay at a silent retreat two years ago – the previous of such attempt was documented here – but I guess this time, I see it less as a “challenge”, but a “self-indulgence”.
I wish I could relay in a precise way what I had gone through in the four days. But I don’t have that level of confidence in my writing, at this moment, as those days seem so distant already, even though they were only two weeks ago. So I think I will share some (selected) texts I’ve journaled out as I was in it. Although they might read dull and messy, they should at least offer some irreplaceable authenticity.
I’d try not to change/rewrite anything in this process of transcription/quick translation, if I could help it. I might, however, make some minor edits where I find it necessary, to facilitate understanding by an external reader.
April 2, 2021 (Day 2)
I didn't realize I've reached the end of this notebook when I was looking for some notebook to journal with and found this. I also didn't realize it's until April that I think of journaling for the first time this year. The first 3 months of 2021 happened like an eye blink. Yesterday I thought of the last time I met with xx (a female friend), which felt like an event just happened not long ago, but at a detailed reflection it was actually end of last year.
The distorted sense of time and the increasingly blurred memories, even of something relatively recent, reminds me of the importance of journaling. Even though, at the end, it might as well just be another attempt in vain to grasp anything at all. It is, at most, a conscious effort to offset, or to counter-balance, to sustain, the transitory nature of everything.
Who would read all my journals? Sometimes I'd think about it - probably not even myself. But I can't deny there's some comfort in doing it. And there's an intrinsic urgency/obligation to do it that I can't be blind to. It shows a genuine effort of being true to one's self. I hope.
It's been two years since I started with this notebook. I have a special fondness for this notebook, particularly becoz of the situation of the first time I wrote on it. It was such a precious and beautiful moment, alone, that I always feel a warmth every time I think of it. Oh, the magical power of Paris.
I'm on another isolated break at home now. Today is the second day. I realize I've never really figured out a proper term to name these breaks, that I've been doing several times already. Though to be fair, I also keep changing the rules. This time, it's four completely screen-free days. No cell phone. No TV. No laptop. The biggest inconveniences are, in order: not being able to meditate with my app; not being able to listen to podcasts; not being able to check words on the phone when reading; no being able to use Spotify for music; not being able to set alarm. But all these inconveniences adding up, I still find the eagerness to do this outweighs them all. So this is it.
I realize I'm not doing this to challenge myself (anymore), coz after the previous experiences, I know perfectly I'm able to do it without any suffering. I'm really doing it becoz I have a longing for it. My mind is calling for it so much that I have no choice but to clear all the obstacles and yield to it - a yearning for this quiet inner life - however brief I can afford at this moment. I guess if I have to give it a proper name, retreat is definitely one word I'd have in it. Becoz it is a sort of retreat - from the chaos and distractions that we're so deeply and mechanically involved with. But it's not a retreat becoz one is pushed to do so, like moving back one's bishop when it's pressured by a pawn. It's an active, conscious, calculated and planned retreat, to create a vacuumed state of perfect stillness, among which one can undisturbedly observe, and live the essence/core truth of one's own being, which is exactly the passing of it.
The retreat is really not to grab anything, but to be as just as possible, as conscious as possible, and as reflective as possible, to the minutes of life that one ultimately has no hold of.
There's nothing we can really grasp in life, but it's also a great blissed liberty to choose the particular way of not grasping.
10pm: I went out after dinner (cabonara) to look for moon, but she was nowhere to be found.
April 3, 2021 (Day 3)
刚才走路时我突然想到，何不将每个星期日都设为screen-free day呢？这个想法令我激动不已，由此我又想起在很多年前阳朔的day trip大巴上遇到的那个一个人背包旅行的澳洲小伙子，Marcus。那是2010年，他一个人在中国旅行，却没有一台手机。那时智能手机尚未成为主流，不知道今天的他是否还会一个人旅行，又是否仍旧坚持不用手机？
In the past few days, it seems that my sleep has been occupied by dreams that are too plot-heavy every day. I wake up in the morning and take a long time to digest. Recalling the dreams the night before, they are mostly absurd, which makes me ashamed. Still I can't help but believe that they more or less represent some hidden desires or unresolved issues. It's only in these dreams, that I get to meet again the people who I have completely lost contact with in reality. Last night I dreamed that I saved the second daughter of a woman who died during labor, and planned to adopt her.
The homeless woman who slept in the park wasn't there today. It may be that I came a bit later today, and she has no habit of sleeping in. After all, in this weather, one can get pretty sweaty even before 9 o'clock in the morning. But her bed - the cardboard box - was folded and placed in the grass nearby. I think she may be a frequent sleeper in this park, and it is possible to see her again.
When I was walking just now, I suddenly thought, why not set every Sunday as a screen-free day? I was very excited by this idea, along which I randomly think of a young Australian lad named Marcus, someone I met a long time ago on a day-trip bus in Yangshuo. It was 2010. He was backpacking alone in China, but insist on not having a mobile phone. Back then, smart phones weren't the dominating mainstream yet. I wonder if he still travels alone today, and if he still insists on not using a mobile phone on the road?
April 4: 8:10am in the park
I think I'd better start with a new notebook, leave a few blank pages for the previous one to breathe.
This morning I started early (relatively) from home. I left at 7:30 and walked fast so I can arrive earlier at the park to take a good spot to read. I realized I must look as if I was in a hurry of some sort. But that thought is funny. I was in a hurry, if any, to hear a louder concert of birds. I noticed I was early for real when I saw even the pier wasn't occupied by the usual group of elderly dancing women yet. And the old guy who always read newspaper (or just sit idly) on the same bench near the pier also wasn't there yet. I felt a pride for overtopping them. The promenade was quieter, but you still see some scattered old people, diligently patting at their limps when raising one leg up against some rail at an impressive angle, with an enviable indifference to the external world that's unique to people of that age.
When I walked through the spacious, wide passage by the mall to cut from the waterfront to the park area, which was usually empty and offered nothing interesting to observe, today there was a group of elderly people practising (huge) swords there. They were not just doing some slow movement with the sword, they were really studying moves to spar with each other. It's such an intriguing and refreshing activity to watch. I wanted to take a photo for them. I have my film camera with me (dear analog life), but I was too shy as usual. I just fixated my gaze on them as I slowly walked by, until my head was tilted at an impossible angle that I had to restore its direction.
I'm after all not sitting at where I wanted to sit now. The hill top garden of this park is, in my view, the most exquisite part and I've been reading there in the past few days. But there was always something not ideal. Either the shaded bench would be all taken, or some guy with a blue backpack would start playing radio out loud - either him or some dancing women. It's a shame people in this park have the publicly consented habit of playing whatever they want on their phones, out loud, overshadowing the natural soundtracks quietly flowing in the background. But I find it hard to be really angry with them. (I'm deeply annoyed though.) Becoz after all, I feel if there's any level of ownership of this park, it would probably be with them instead of me, who's really just an irregular intruder.
As I'm writing now, on a bench by the lake, the odd man with blue backpack just arrived at the park and stopped in front of where I'm sitting at, facing the lake, with his radio playing out loud. After a while he marched on (and I know exactly where he's going). There's something that makes me feel sorry for this man. I can't tell why. He seems like someone who's hardly accepted by the world outside this park and can only find his peace here. Am I sounding too patronising? And if I'm honest with myself, isn't that also a description that quite fit myself?
Today is the last full day of my screen-free retreat. It's hard to tell my feeling comprehensively. On one hand, I've been making a mental list of things I wanna do when I regain access to internet. On another hand, I'm dreading the end of this quietness, as I always do, and dreading the rush-in of distractions upon my return to civilisation. I can't tell whether I'm really forcing myself to face my personal reality, or just desperately running away from a public reality. Overall, I didn't do much, and although that was the plan, I still can't help feeling a little guilty.
I was thinking about going for a swim today. But my calf still hurts from the muay thai training several days ago. I finished reading <The portrait of a lady> last night. The level of details of this journal may be considered as a tribute to Henry James.
9pm: If there's any major thing I've done in the past few days, it'd be decluttering my apartment. I've taken all the time I could to go through if not all, at least 70% of things I own, and made decisions about their fate. It's a time-consuming but important process that people don't do very often. Therefore, we constantly forget how much we own and have the delusion of needing more. I'm ashamed by how much I own, how much I've bought and how much I've wasted. It's painful to be reminded of that.
It started with a little home decor project - the most natural thing to do when you're home all day and NOT spending time on any screens. So I thought I'd drill more holes and put up the little photo shelf that I bought from IKEA 4 years ago, in the study room. I did. I placed some books up there, to give my study room a little class and character. My poor study room, started as a minimal existence when I designed it about 2 years ago, has become a storage room throughout the pandemic year. It's time to do it justice. After I was done with study room, I started re-arranging my main bookshelf in the living room. That's a much bigger project and it took me half day. Again, I'm ashamed of how little I read the books on my shelf, even though I didn't own too many to start with.
Slowly I moved on to clear all the drawers. It's a total chaos. It's a rabbit hole. All the objects that you don't remember having could easily drag you down the memory lane a long way. I have MANY paper goods everywhere in my apartment - magazines, little artsy cards, postcards, notebooks...I need to decide where they go, and that means opening my mail box - a box containing all the letters, cards, any written stuff on paper that I ever received from people I was once close with. It's always sweet and sad seeing those memories. I also re-organized my travel fragments folder, which was just a huge yellow envelop full of all the stuff (paper goods) that I kept from many of my trips. They are mostly ticket stubs, museum and tourism site pamphlets, small handwritten notes from strangers (eg, a taipei taxi driver who wanna introduce his son to me), printed research material and travel planning emails......I went through each of them, categorised them by countries, and put them into different envelopes, before they all went into one. Again, it's a somewhat silly and time-consuming process, coz it almost always takes me a while to look at something and try to remember where/how it came from. But god, it's such a great feeling when I do, coz it feels like I can instantly regain the joy from that trip. When I went through these pointless little pieces of papers, I couldn't help asking myself what exactly do I keep these for? I guess I'd just keep them for when I'm 80 years old I'd have some obsolete things to go through and smile at.
I did throw away many things, things that survived several times of moving all these years, but eventually didn't make it this time. I've always had this fetish of things that I feel every single thing has its emotional value, and that makes it so hard to throw any of them away. So I've been hoarding everything and eventually it surpassed a threshold of practicality. This time, I decided it's not only the things that I need to say goodbye to, but also the sentimental value I attached to them. Maybe I've held on to them long enough that it's time to let them go.
There are still things I can't bring myself to throw away. I have this white cotton backpack that I wore in many of my early trips when I started travelling around. It's been with me to many places. It's even got my blood stain on it coz I was wearing that when I had the motorbike accident. (I tried very hard to bleach it but the blood is stubborn.) When I found it at the back of the bedroom sideboard this time, I'm very sure I'd never use it again, but something told me I can't just discard it, my longest companion in my young travel life. So she stays. She's NOT going anywhere.
This afternoon I examined my camera box and checked each of the film cameras (amazingly I don't have one digital camera in this apartment), two of them are completely and officially DEAD. I'm keeping their corpses. Throwing cameras away - I just can't do that. I salvaged one little film camera that I was intimate with at one point. I took him out at dusk time and filmed a roll of expired black and white downstairs. I remember doing something similar once with this same camera in my childhood estate when I was back in Shenzhen for a weekend some years ago, not long after I just bought it. I took some random photos that afternoon, mostly just trying to connect with this "new" second-hand camera. But it turned out to be one of the few pure and precious memories I have of my photography passion. How I once loved photography. I don't have much expectation of this roll I took today. It was a dreary afternoon. But I loved briefly being that girl with a camera at hand again. Always carefully observing, always eagerly capturing.
April 5, 8am at the park
It was way too dark when I woke up at 6:30 this morning. Another gloomy cloudy day. It took me a while to decide to get up officially. From my bed, I can see the athletic field of TY sports center and I can always see people running on the track, no matter how early it is. So seeing them is one way to motivate me to get up - all I need to do is open the curtain. The track always reminds me of the high school years, when we had to train early every day and run two lapses. Not exactly happy days, but those "bitterness" before I was 18, embodies a pureness and innocence that is deeply missed.
In my plan, this morning is still mine, where I have no obligation to switch on or be connected. I have a lunch at 12:30 and I plan to switch on at 11:30, when I need to leave home. I already know what I wanna wear today - a vintage pair of overalls that I got in Taipei 3 years ago, also a piece I'm struggling whether I should keep or not. I have a trick (?) of deciding about these struggles - I'd simply wear them one more time and see how I feel about my outfit that day, whether I can still feel connected with it or not. So this is the day for this pair of overall - the day that'd make its fate.
As I was preoccupied by the outfit thoughts, the alarm in my phone went off. At first I thought it was my neighbours' alarm. It took me a few seconds to realize it's my own. I have a weekly Monday morning 7am alarm! And just like that, my phone switched itself on, like it just can't wait anymore, against my plan and my will. I took a quick scan at it. As expected, I wasn't missed much by the world. Those who might would have been briefed, and there are only a handful of them. There's not much surprise except for one. A text I wouldn't even expect in normal times, came in at midnight last night.
I left the apartment quickly after that, refusing to let that text disturb me more than it should. The text reads, I don'd know why I never find closure with you. If there's anything I've learned from my past relationships, it's that no one owes anyone any closure. Closures isn't something you can be specific with the way you want it, and it has to be found from within.
I left the apartment as a gesture of leaving the unwanted trouble behind. I have a more urgent eagerness to be outside -- at the waterfront, in the park, breathing the air together with the early risers and the birds. That's where I wanna be!
I took the same route to see whether I can still find the sword practising group again. And there they were. I took a closer look today. There are ten of them, nine men, one woman. One/two of them still have black hair, but who knows if that's natural or not. And one younger guy was just there to film, not practise. They are such an interesting and vibrant group of elderlies, and I feel they are like acquittances already today. I figure, since I now know about their venue and schedule, I'd never lose them again. I can always reunite with them whenever I want.
There was more I wrote in the evening on the last day, to process how I felt about the text I mentioned. But I guess that can be left out as it’s drifting away from the original intention of sharing these journals – to lend you a first-row “live” view of those unplugged days, instead of a delayed recollection.
It takes longer than I thought to just transcribe, but by doing that, it feels as if I’ve fast-forwardly lived those days again, something I can’t say I have had enough of. I could only hope that through the tediousness of my texts, I’ve managed to convey an air of tranquility, that is essentially what I wanted to share with you.
You might be wondering about the inconvenience that I have short-listed, on which, indeed I might have something more practical to share. I’ve decided it’s ok to be not guided for my meditation for a few days and instead of the app, I’d put on a vinyl disc of ambient music as a timer. (I have the live album of “Two”, performed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto , which works perfectly as a 20-min timer.) I resolved to the dusted English-Chinese Longman dictionary for unfamiliar words encountered during reading, which I must say, made me feel very nostalgic. I have owned this dictionary since I was in high school and brought it with me when I arrived in Hong Kong 16 years ago. The ludicrousness is I probably used it less in the past 16 years than in those 4 days. I’d play some vinyls when I miss music. Bob Dylan, Teresa Teng, Cat Power, Beatles. I only have a tiny collection of vinyls so I’d just have to settle with whatever I got. The conclusion is, despite some obvious limitations, I’m luckily quite self-sufficient to live an analog life.
Before I end this note, I wanna return to the topic of music a bit. When I do my long walks, I used to usually listen to either podcasts or Spotify playlists. During those days, as the usual options were not available anymore, I’d instead turn to pay closer attention to the sound of nature – birds conversing, kids screaming, train roaring, runners panting, wind flowing. But during this shift of auditory focus, something else was revealed to me. I realized that without music, or the effect of it, I was compelled to walk with my own bare mood, one that is not intervened by any manufactured sentimentality, amplified joy, or condensed intake of information. When walking without music in my ears, I was almost startled at how disconnected I had been with this organic state of mind, as if I’ve been wearing make up on her so habitually that I forgot what she really looks like.
And yet what precisely is this organic state of mind? I’d venture to say it is a very lack of obvious drama, a sense of restraint, and a vast lake of calmness. With that, one would be able to see the greatness underneath the most ordinary and unnoticed existences, and one would be grateful to be fully there with them, for them.
I haven’t been writing lately. Things with writing haven’t improved much since the last time I wrote to you. I try not to let the anxiety get the better of me. Deep down, I hope this is just another rough patch that we’re going through. Writing to you, luckily or not, has become the last connection with it that I’m insisting on. I shall always write to you, whether the days are good or not. Because the condition of days is irrelevant to my reaching out to you. You never ask for it – it’s simply a promise I make to myself.
When I’m not writing, or contemplating about writing, I’m either walking or reading, two things that I think resemble writing the most. After all, what’s the essence of writing? Isn’t it just a process of channelling out one’s most urgent and genuine emotions, through words that one organises at his/her best capacity? To do that, you’d need a sheer clarity with your mind, and an extreme sensitivity and proficiency with language, be it your own or a borrowed one. For me, walking helps with the former, and reading the latter – at least that’s what I hope.
I’ve been doing the long walks for a few months now. I started it during the most rigid lockdown last year and relied on it to keep myself afloat over a delicate reality. But I’d admit, I was suspicious whether it was just a personal fad that’d pass like many things in life. But it sticks around, as of now, and I should guess walking to me has outlast sourdough to many. It’s probably nothing worth bragging after all, for I truly enjoy almost every moment of my walks, even when I struggle to find some interesting podcasts to put to my ears, and even when my route is 90% repetitive everyday.
You should know I’m very lucky to be living close to the water, and there’s a long waterfront promenade right downstairs of my building. I usually walk along the promenade to the very other end of it, overlooking the neighbourhood on the other side, the boats in the water, the outstretched bridges, the sun, the moon. It takes 30 mins one way. Sometimes I’d sit by the water or on a bench when I reached the end and read a few pages. Sometimes I’d take a detour on my way back to stroll around in the park. I adore the park in my neighbourhood – small but exquisite – and I love to be there when I’m listening to one of my favourite podcasts <modern love>. In fact, listening to <modern love> in the park is usually an intentional evening treat that I give to myself, when I’m in the mood. In the morning, I’d pick up a cup of coffee or a sandwich from the bakery in the mall before I go home.
I like to make inquisitive observations of the people I pass by on the walk, as if wearing a mask makes me invisible. My neighbours are the most idyllic and self-enjoying group of people in this hustling city I must say. Half naked man swinging arms in every possible directions as some form of exercise, grandmas dancing collectively to vulgar music, uniformed elderly playing tai chi or sword in groups. I often see one old man playing some unnamed tunes on his harmonica as he walks by the water, enviably unaware of the world around him. Every time I ran into him, I’d slow down my pace to enjoy this unintended performance for a few more seconds, and that’d be the highlight of my walk of that day. Generally, most of the people that interest me are older in their age. There’s a mix of humour and authenticity in elderly’s behaviours, and I say that with honour.
I hope I’ve managed to portray to the slightest degree why I’ve taken to these daily walks of mine. There’s a calming power in it, quietly generated from every pace walked, every inch of space glanced at, and every person passed by. I enjoy so much glimpsing at a frame of my stranger neighbours’ lives. So am I frequently moved by the proximity and irrelevance that co-exist in the time and space, a symbolic revelation in the context of our lifelong encounters.
I wonder if by reading this you’d think, what an awfully lonely woman she seems. I wish it doesn’t concern you, or anyone, because it concerns me very little. You might already know solitude is one of my favourite subject. I should warn you this won’t be the last time I speak of it, either. And I will never stop thinking about it, for solitude is not a math problem – once you find the solution it’s solved once and for all – but more like a never-ending literature with numerous layers, every time you flip through it you find some new truth (or myth) in it.
Sometimes I do wonder what do I look like when I’m walking in my trainer, my statement-agnostic clothes, with my hair unwashed and face masked – how do my neighbours read of me? I think about it out of sheer curiosity, not that it’s any of my concern.
I am indeed on my own, increasingly so. And I’m determined to make the most out of it. This is a commitment I make to myself. But when I think about it, even though I’ve been more or less in the same status in the past two years, I can remember the nuanced evolution of my solitude. And I will try to relay it in the least self-fulfilling way.
I will start with one simple truth, that I’m not born this way. I’ve merely learned to incline to this solitary state along the way. In the first 30 years of my life, I spent most of my time and energy questing for companionship, intimacy, deep connections, love, and I have experienced many. The quest of a harmonious solitude was never a priority, but at most a passive and temporary fix, in the intermissions between different people episodes. It was until the recent two years that I started to take my solitude gravely, first out of the rarity of it, for I felt I had so little control over if/when there’d be people coming in and out of my life, then, gradually, out of the gravity of solitude itself. For it comes to my understanding that a woman’s ability to contain her solitude is the ultimate talent she could have acquired.
You see, it’s hard for me to talk about my solitude without mentioning that I’m a woman. And I spend an awful lot of time thinking about this identity of mine, contemplating how is a woman supposed to escape from the “destiny” inflicted on her, in terms of her value, her relationship with men, her options, her experience, her “happiness”, or the absence of it.
We live in an interesting time that women seem to have a vast degree of liberty and choices of their own, and yet so much of it seem to only mask the sheer opposite of it underneath. At the center of it lies a woman’s fate in love, how feeble a voice she has in her own narrative, and how far she is from reclaiming it. Women today can be free on many accounts, but those who are substantially liberated from the perception of her “fate” is still in a pitiful scarcity.
I cannot claim I have managed to liberate myself from my own inherited perception, either. What I have is merely the determination to get myself there, however long it might take. In this process, I see that solitude is not my biggest opponent, but the one and only reality that I’m responsible for. In an effort of containing that, I learned the importance to make myself an ample and just company, and my solitary being an ample and neutral atmosphere. It takes time, as most things worthy of pursuing do, and time delivers progress.
You see, I do not wish to glorify solitude with more modernly preferred terms such as “independence”, for it’s not exactly the same thing. Independence can be an outcome, but it shouldn’t serve to mask or undermine the truth of one’s solitude. There’s sadness in a woman’s solitude, as much as there is beauty; but most importantly, there is strength in it.
I hope you wouldn’t take all these as an argument against love. And I certainly don’t think my loyalty towards my solitude is at odds with my best intention with human connections. If anything, the overweight in one’s inward relationship gives rise to a lightness in the external ones – a lightness that I didn’t have the luxury of enjoying, but with time I find is indeed instrumental.
I have let many people slip out of my life, and some of them weren’t taken lightly. I don’t just mean romantic partners, also close friends, with whom I’ve shared deeply intimate times with. I think of them constantly. I think of the weight they left in my heart, and how I must carry it with me. At times there’s a wave of sorrow washing over me. And I would try to emerge from it, like every time before. The thing is, our past is not always compatible with where we are, or where we wanna be. Yet they are so precious and so personal. Some people choose to defy it, or overwrite it, but I have the habit of filtering through it again and again in my mind. It takes time and nerve to do justice to one’s experience. And remembering them, with as much clarity as possible, seems to be the only thing left to do with what is lost to me.
It was valentine’s day not long ago. I was reminded of a photo of myself (thanks to social media) taken in my last solo trip on that day last year. In the photo I was sitting on a huge rock on the top of a mountain, overlooking another huge rock as the sun was setting. It was a stunning evening, hot and windy. Just by looking at the photo, I could unmistakably remember how much I was in love with the world at that moment, the air I was breathing, the life I was experiencing, and how much passion there was inside me that I was looking forward to share, as much as I was capable of.
As an unreligious person, this is probably the closest I’d ever get to a real confession.
I was awake at around 8. Played two games of chess on my phone and eventually got out of bed at around 9. I made a coffee and a smoothie for myself, and played the piano for about an hour to warm up my body. It’s the coldest day of the year today, and I was mostly ironing out some unsmooth bits in the tango piece I’ve been trying to graduate from (ie record a video of it) but failed two attempts thus far.
I then took a shower, moisturized my face and limbs, dried my hair, meditated with my fresh scented body for 20 minutes, and texted my friend Tom about my preference to stay in tonight. (We loosely talked about meeting tonight even though he loathed NYE and would rather hibernate through it.) I was playing chess against a bot when someone called, someone I’m casually involved with. I was remotely delighted to receive the call, but started to feel the need to hang up after 10 mins. A little over 11, I started to wash the rice. When waiting for the rice to be cooked I read my book in the living room (Housekeeping by Marilynne Robison). The music playing was Nina Simone. My lunch – braised ribs today – was prepared by my part-time cleaning lady, Lan, who comes every Saturday. Two weeks ago I asked if she could try making meals for me and she gladly jumped on the extra income. So every Saturday, she’d make the amount of food (two dishes) for about a week and I’d put them into boxes, and boxes into the freezer. For each meal I’d defrost a box and heat it up. I inherited the idea from a terminated tinder date that I went out three times with. I definitely mocked at him when he told me this was how he managed his work week meals and secretly I thought, maybe I should try that too. And I did. I have to admit it’s kinda genius.
I ate my lunch – braised pork and freshly cooked rice – with an episode of In Treatment. I cried a little bit at the end, (it was very moving), and realized it’s been a while since I last cried. After lunch, I got dressed properly and left the house for some errands. It’s the last work day of the year and I gotta go to the bank for some stupid reason. The weather was chilly and sunny, which made the walk to the mall a pleasant one. After the bank, I took a stroll to Muji and M&S and found nothing to buy. I snatched a takeaway coffee and on my way home, took a detour to the park and sit under the sun for a while, sipping my coffee. The last stop before home was the fresh market, where I bought two avocados, 3 pounds of sugar orange and two bouquets of fresh flowers, one purple-ish, one yellow-ish.
It was 4 when I was back home. I arranged the flowers into the vases and wasn’t sure what to do next. After two more games of chess, I put on some Thelonious Monk, and sat down in front of the desk for the first time of the day. The coffee was getting cold, so was the day.
I’d admit. I was contemplating writing a year-end essay all this time, as I usually do. But somehow, some part of me wasn’t convinced of the idea. Is it more of a gesture than of any actual meaning? Do I really owe myself, or anyone, such a gesture? Most importantly, deep down I know there’s nothing groundbreaking I could possibly write, as some kind of reflection of an unimaginable year. I’ve come across numerous “look back at 2020” kind of contents, people hastily making mental closures, plowing for the positive meanings and takeaways, and desperately wishing for a brighter, freer year. For the whole day, I was hoping these sentiments would arise so I could seize it and sugarcoat the hell out of it. But they never really came. There wasn’t a moment of epiphany. I went on with the day as how I lived most of my days in the past year, ordinary, alone, placid. I wrote it down becoz this is the only thing I could write about.
On the last day of this year, I still feel amazed at how I could live the kind of placidity that I always wished for in such an unexpected way; and how – despite my longtime yearning for the simple and solitary way of living – difficult it really is. Underneath the tranquil surface, is a delicate balance that I constantly struggle to strike. There are times I could have melt myself in the gentleness of being, and there are times I just wanna scream the solitude out of my flesh. I have briefly harboured some, mostly out of the need of companionship. Also have I remorselessly steered away from many. Ultimately, it’s a year I’ve been (voluntarily or involuntarily) more devoted to the single life than I could ever imagine. The “single” here isn’t referring to one’s relationship status, but rather an unreserved acceptance of one’s sheer existence, as imperfect as it might be, and a persistently conscious effort to be compatible with it. On this, as strange as it might sound, being through 2020 isn’t bringing me any sense of ending. It’s merely the beginning.
Last but not least, here’s a song for you, my dearest, mysterious readers. Until the next dance.