letter #7 – on turning 35: what we talk about when we talk about ageing

My dear friend,

I’m turning 35 recently, or have turned, by the time you receive this letter. A few months ago, when I realized 35 is the number I need to befriend myself with next, I admit it felt unthinkable.

I’m not saying I don’t feel my age at all, or I have any reluctance to the steady increment of it. (Quite the contrary, I have to constantly remind people of it so they don’t mistake me as someone less experienced or mature.) It’s that if I gave myself a long and intent look, irrelevant of any outer appearance, I would realize I have, maybe outgrown my self-perception in terms of age and time. And the last time I was met with this “surprise” was when I turned 30. At ages with these zeros and fives, it always feels it’d take a bit extra work to make the reconciliation, doesn’t it?

For my generation, in this part of the world that I was born and raised, we grew up more or less with a societal value that “there are certain marks to make at certain ages”. By that standard, which, to my regret, some people still hold on to today, I would certainly be frowned upon. On the other hand, we live in a time where an equally (if not more) prevalent slogan would tell us “age is just a number,” as if the length of our very own existence bears little significance. This, I feel, while it might sound good on a birthday card, one would fare better if one doesn’t take it too literally.

The thing is, age is indeed a number, and if this number must be carrying some kind of message, a very personal one, that my life is trying to send across to me, what, is it? It’s with this question in mind that I start writing this letter to you, my friend.

At 35, as any other ages, there are inevitably some age-specific annoyances I must deal with. For example, my weight seems to be permanently fixated at 52 kilograms and see no signs of change no matter how much I exercise, or how constraint I am with my chicken nuggets addiction. The emergence of grey hair on my head has basically reached a point that I know I must develop a more scalable solution than cutting them off one by one. I spend way too much time than I want to on screens and devices, and yet, I regret not staying as connected to some people that I do care as I could have. It seems that each year, there are more to grieve over in the department of lost friends. With work, the means of which I make a living of, I guess I’m doing alright generally, (but that is) if I could resolve with the bare fact that a big chunk of my time and my mind is indeed occupied by something I can’t call it passion. And, I hate to mention, I do increasingly ponder over the matter of a potential motherhood, a phase that most childless women at my age are bound to struggle over. 

Beyond all these discontents I just laid on the table, my friend, I hope you’d be pleased to hear that, I am generally in agreement with how my life is steering towards, and I don’t say this with a light note, as if everything is naturally as good as the way they are. On the contrary, I say this with the considered prudence of someone who has just started steering her life in the way she wants. (I guess I am kind of a late bloomer in that way, but it is only until recent few years that I felt I am in control of my life, instead of passively letting it happen.) And this is when I realized how the most substantial changes, instead of some big moves as we might imagine, are usually less visible. For me, the change is, I’ve become a much more balanced company to myself, and that means I’m finally being more productive and purposeful with the time I spend alone, which is, as you might know, quite a lot.

Based on my recent observation, a good week of mine goes like this: In the morning of a work day I’d start with half hour by the piano while sipping at my first cup of coffee. Sometimes I’d alternate to half hour of reading for a change. (I am two books behind schedule already for this year’s reading challenge.) On Monday and Friday, which I normally work from home, I’d go for a jog when the sun is sinking. On the days I go in to the office, I’d do my 10-minute meditation on the train in the morning, which otherwise happens in the evening at home. If I have lunch alone, I’d sit in the park and eat with my book. Once or twice a week I’d have some sort of class – fitness or music-related – scheduled in the after-work hour. In the evening I like to have my dinner with one episode of something to watch. After that, I’d practice any instrument I feel like – piano or ukulele – and end the night with a 1-or-2-page journaling, where I tend to perform a microscope diagnosis of my little pains and sorrows, progress and setbacks, and sometimes joys and elations. On the weekend if there’s any social activities, I’d try to schedule them all in one day and reserve the other day to myself to relish all the activities mentioned above, only at an extended degree, with a loose sense of time.

I feel, as insipid as it might appear to others, with this little framework of tasks that I carefully cultivated, I am able to access a private quietness in my mind as long as I need it. And it’s in this private quietness, that I feel, I acquire a sense of timelessness, insulated from the official realm known to everyone else.

My dear friend, you see, if we zoom out from this little domestic life of mine, and examine it from above, connecting this existence with what it means to be 35 years old, we would get the message that I was looking for at the beginning of this letter. With many rounds of trials and errors, I could now say, that 35 is the age I’m no longer in a constant seek of external stimulations and excitements to be interested in my own life. It’s that, outside the parts which I participate to maintain a relation with the official realm, for the first time, I have created an inner world that’s equally tangible, a solid and organized space where I can entrust myself with, where I harvest tiny happiness and savour lingering sorrows, where I test the boundary of my own craziness and observe them dissipated into the river of history, where I can temporarily exist outside Time. It’s a section of my life that nothing really happened, while so many things have happened.

There is of course, an undying hope for love within me, something I protect with great care and quite like fiddling with. If you ask me, love, both giving and taking, as many other things, is an ability that takes a lifetime practice to master. It’s also through this practice that I learned love can be cast upon so many things. In the absence of a narrowly-defined romantic love, not a day has passed that I don’t experience a more boundless and shapeless kind of love. The love for a brilliant story, a fictional character you deeply relate to, an infectious piece of music, a section of beat that pumps right into your blood, a specific time in a day, a lucid revisiting dream, a sweaty run, a gentle shade of light in the sky, a content idleness, a subtle smell in the air, a high-purity solitude, a sincere exchange of greetings, an inside joke among a close group of friends, an endearing baby in the lift, a peer stranger reader on the train. The thing is, my friend, none of us can say with assertion that we have seen the truth of love. We can only feel it through the reflection of it, the reflections in our eyes, or any other eyes. And if you look scrupulously, you’d see love can take so many possible forms, and meet an inexhaustible universe of receivers, including ourselves.

Now, it is with this slowly radiating love inside me that I am concluding this letter.

Yours, affectionately and one-year-older,


Ella & Maude

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.

「week 13」It’s been a while

It’s been a while that I don’t feel like doing anything. I don’t feel like working, don’t feel like reading, don’t feel like running, don’t even feel like watching tv, probably the most effortless activity available in the world. It’s like all of a sudden, I’ve lost the interest in all the stuff I’ve been doing, or used to enjoy doing. I took myself to the theatre to watch a movie. I ordered McDonald’s. I wear make-ups everyday so I look 20% prettier than what I really am. I tried many different way to please myself, but still, I don’t feel a thing.

The good thing is, it’s nothing new. Once in a while, it happens, the ultimate boredom, the lack of interest in the world I live in. When it comes, it’s like someone you know a long time ago suddenly arrive in town — you don’t particularly like her, you don’t really wanna do it, but you kinda have to entertain her when she’s here.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m living too lonely a life. Lonely not as in that I have no one to hang out with, well maybe a little of that too, but more in a way that I have no attachment in my heart. The other day when I arrived back in hong kong after my red-eye flight, sitting in the taxi home at 4am, I looked out from the window, watching the city passing by in the damp darkness, at that moment of sheer fatigue and fragility, I realized I have no one to think of. No one here, no one elsewhere. There I felt a hole in my heart. It’s been there for a while. It’s been there for a reason.

I’ve been single for ten months now, probably the longest window in my romance life. But that’s not the point here, in today’s world, being single is most of the time merely a choice of statement, instead of the reflection of a real status. The point is the lack of attachment. I almost always had some sort of attachment no matter if I’m single or not in the past, some a fleeting intimacy, some a persistent anomaly. In some way, I feed on attachments. I fed on it so I could feel something.

I’ve been free of attachment for a while now, after withdrawing from the old ones and freezing the new ones. It wasn’t a smooth ride, but here I am, in my attachment-neutral ground. It feels like an emotional rehab.

I’d rather think of my recent inactivity as a small setback in my rehab process. There’s nothing new I’m dealing with here. I’m most lucid when I’m alone. And I’m most lonely when I’m lucid. Honestly, I have no idea what I’m talking about. Thank god I can resort to playing some piano these days. Piano is my new porn.

PS. I’ve vowed to not buy any clothes for a year. (*From Aug 30 2019 to Aug 29 2020). Now this is something new I’m dealing with. And it is for sure gonna be the HARDEST thing I ever have to do. Only if I succeed, obviously.

Again, alone in Kyoto.

I spent the past few days alone in Kyoto.

On my second night, when I was pretty tired after a frustrating event (my bicycle was taken away for improper parking) and some revenge shopping, I searched on Google Maps for an Izakaya for some decent simple food and sake, and landed at this super tiny place in a side alley in Ponto-cho which is very easy to miss even with constant Google Maps direction guidance. 

It’s a typical little Japanese Izakaya run by solely one man, who’s also the owner. When I entered, there were two groups of guests sitting by the bar. The master (restaurant owner) greeted me cheerfully with his limited English and put me between the two groups of guests, one middle age woman on my left side and two young women on my right. The master asked me where am I from, I said Hong Kong. And he told everyone else in the restaurant in Japanese that I’m from Hong Kong, and encouraged them to speak English to me. 

He asked me what would I like to drink, I said Sake. He recommended one kind to me, said it’s from Kyoto. I happily accepted. He asked me what would I like to eat, I said anything, small portion, more variety. Since there’s no English menu, he said “ok, I’m gonna prepare some thing for you.” When a man’s life is all about making Japanese food, I simply have no reason to not trust him.

The girl sitting next on my right started to chat with me, her English is not perfect, but enough to make a real conversation and she seemed eager to speak English, which is pretty rare and I appreciated it a lot. She offered me to try their food, their sake, and asked me many questions about myself, Hong Kong, and Hong Kong airport, which is apparently a famous international topic now. 

Through chatting over sake, I learned that her name is Akiko, she’s my age, has a 9-month-old son and is taking a year off work being a full-time new mum. She asked me how do you call it in English, I said probably “maternity gap year”. She was having a rare day off that evening and that’s why she was drinking with her friend and met me. “It’d only happen in three month, how do you say it in English?” I said “once every three months”. She seemed glad to have learned some new expressions. 

Sometimes the master would try to join in the conversion as he was making food behind the counter. When he didn’t know how to say one word in English, he stopped things on his hand and said “wait, I have a dictionary.” And he would open the cupboard behind him and take out a real paper dictionary to check. Together with that dictionary there were also some other simple language books for Spanish, Chinese, French, etc. He pointed at them proudly, “this is my library.” 

The master, Yoshi-san, in his early fifties, came to Kyoto 33 years ago from near Tokyo for university and stayed here ever since. He studied Psychology but has only been working as a chef after he graduated. For the first few years working in a restaurant, he did nothing but sharpening the knife. He didn’t even have a chance to use a knife. Now, he has had his little restaurant for 17 years, working all by himself. 

Everyday he’d wake up at 8am and go to the market to buy fresh material, and come to the restaurant to make some preparations. And then he’d go back home to sleep for a few hours, and come back to open the restaurant at around 5pm, and close after midnight. Do you ever take holidays? I asked. He said, sometimes I take holiday, the first day I rest, the second day I start to think about my restaurant, the third day I just came back to open the restaurant. I love working. “For many other people, their work is decided for them. For me, I decide it myself.”

Akiko left with her friend at some point and I was a bit disappointed. After 20 mins or so, she came back by herself. “I don’t need to go home until 11pm, I wanna fully use my day off.” She bought a pack of cigarette and started to smoke, with more sake ordered. Akiko asked me if I’m married and I told her no, and I don’t know if I will be. She immediately said “I think you’re right.” She told me she really enjoyed being a mother but was not sure about her husband. Sensed her dissatisfaction of her marriage, I didn’t ask more questions. Who am I to be talking about marriage anyways. 

Everyone in the restaurant seemed like regulars here. I asked Akiko if she has been coming to this restaurant for a long time. She said she’s been coming here since she was 16, with her ex-boyfriend. She used to work part-time here even. I was very surprised at that. I can’t think of any place I’ve been still going since I was 16, in any city I’ve lived in. “You must really love it here,” I said. “Becoz of him, he is really nice, to me.” I can imagine that, as a first-timer, I can already feel what a warm person Yoshi-san is.   

Before long Akiko had to go home for real, she told me if next time I’m in Kyoto, I can stay at her house if I want to. “Only if you want to, coz you know, I live with my son and husband. But I have a spare room for you.” As she was paying, Yoshi-san made her a small plate of blueberries. “To clear the mouth,” he said. “She will be back to a mother and wife now.” He said to me, smiling at her. 

At the other end of the bar table sat one guy and one girl, both relatively young. “They are on their first date,” Yoshi-san told me. I looked at them, they look happy and comfortable together, as if they’ve known each other for a long time. I tried to confirm: “It’s your first date, and you end up here?” They laughed and said yes. After a while and a little more communication, I learned that this is where they met, they are both regulars at this little Izakaya. Yoshi-san helped set up this first date after the guy told him he thought the girl was cute.

Before I realized, I had been sitting at that little izakaya for four hours, a place so tiny and hidden that almost no tourist would bump into unless they were specifically looking for it. On my walk back to my guesthouse, I was absolutely tipsy and genuinely happy. The whole evening felt like I just stumbled into a Japanese movie scene, warm, casual, simple, and earnest. Instead it’s real life. It’s real to people in that scene. And even to me, it was real, as temporary as it might be.

Many people have heard me talk many things about Kyoto. This was my 5th time in Kyoto. I’ve been going back every year ever since I visited there for the first time 4 years ago. I’ve been there alone, I’ve been there with a friend, and I’ve been there with a boyfriend. I’ve been there so many times that sometimes my memories got mixed up when I visited a place I’d been before: did I come here myself, or with that friend? or what that boyfriend? Sometimes I could figure out if I think hard, sometimes it’d just have to stay blurred. Sometimes when I looked at those repetitive scenes, even I myself can’t believe that I’ve been there so many times. And even I can’t help asking myself: with all the places in the world, why do I come here over and over again?

Other than the most obvious reasons, the ubiquitous elegance in the city, the sense of history, the secluded temples and the inner peace shortly found there, I guess, the kind of evening randomly spent at Yoshi-san’s little izakaya probably attributes the most to my obsession with Kyoto.

Since the first time I was in Kyoto, I’ve been lucky enough to have met some decent and genuine people living there, each of them with a simple and humble life. A divorced single airbnb hostess Keiko who’s passionate about making clothes and told me buddhism is her backbone. A bartender Takeshi-san who’s been running his one-man-band bar for more than 20 years and insist on only making unpretentious drinks. An Izakaya owner Yoshi-san who’s been devoting all his life to making Japanese cuisine and running his humble restaurant for 17 years, a home-like place to his regular customers. Every time I have a conversation with people living in Kyoto, I feel their earnestness towards life. Their life can be really simple, so simple that you’d almost have doubts: is this really it? Yet looking at how calm they are about their simple life, it’d make you reflect: isn’t this what life should be? On all these people, I don’t see discontent, I don’t see anxiety, I don’t see aimless desires or idleness. I see most people in Kyoto living their simplest lives in the most genuine way. The Kyoto people generates this energy that it always reassures me of what life really is, and reminds me to return to the basics of all.

I guess this is why I kept going back, and I will keep going back, to the adopted hometown of my heart.

P.S. Attaching the casual notes I wrote on my first night in Kyoto this time.

2019 Aug 17
今天再次来到京都,这个我四年前来过第一次后便不断回来的地方。几乎认识我的每一个人都知道,我对京都情有独钟。我常开玩笑说,京都就是我的领养的故乡,尽管我连一句完整的日文都说不利索。然而这次回来,老实说,心情是惴惴不安的。因为去年的京都行是带着前男友C一起来的,以至于在这次行程之前,当时的回忆开始陆续浮出来,我们去过哪里,做过哪些事,那些以为被扫在记忆底层不轻易触碰的东西,随着京都之行的一天天临近,竟然自动开了闸,在脑袋里上蹿下跳。 出发前我已跟Therapist说,我真担心京都就这样被和他一起来过的记忆给毁了。我怕自己会陷入回忆的片段,被伤感的心情吞噬。所以这次来之前,内心的忧虑很大,我最深的害怕是,京都还会是那个带给我无限慰藉的存在吗?

Spring has Sprung

Not a single moment will ever reoccur, and to seize those that matter is probably the sole meaning of taking photos and the cause of that incurable love for it. The fact that a low-priced second-hand “Instamatic” film camera works unexpectedly great makes me the happiest in a really long time. Regardless of the nonstop rain and the disagreeable dampness floating in the air these days, the spring has already sprung in me.

A city trapped by itself.