「Weekly Writes – Week 2」Ghetto Child

I joined a weekly writes program, from which I receive 3 writing prompts every week. I will try to write something based on one of the prompts as it lasts, and below is the “something” of this week. (well yes I got lazy in week 1.) The prompt is:

Create a portrait of an environment where you once lived or worked that is much different from your current circumstances. Include factual information and specific sensory details about this environment as well as the people who surrounded you in this place.

When I was little, we lived in Huangmugang — one of the biggest run-down areas in Shenzhen in the 90s — for three years. It was a 40-sqm studio flat with a tiny bathroom connected to an equally tiny kitchen at the entrance; at the back of it was a small balcony. We had some simple furniture, a dining table, a wardrobe, a TV cabinet with a tiny TV, and a queen-sized bed, which I shared with my parents from when I was 4 to 7.

Our flat was one of the twenty-ish on the same level. We lived in level 6 in the 7-level walk-up building. According to my father, it was officially called “the temporary unit for single-persons”. But I don’t recall ever seeing a single person living in those flats. In my memory, they were all crammed up by families similar to us, if not bigger.

It was part of the make-shift housing projects subsidised by the city government to place millions of young immigrants from inland China. My parents were one of those young immigrants, wishing to find their place in a city designated to pilot economic reform and opening-up. They made the decision to move to Shenzhen from a little-known county in Hunan province, where I was born. I was two and half when I first arrived with my mother after an overnight train ride with one seat ticket. I remember none of that, obviously. But till today, my mother still enjoys complaining about what a heavy baby I was, and I always enjoy listening to her retelling this bit of our early days.

My own memory sort of only started with the Huangmugang flat. I learned most of the basic skills in that flat. In the tiny bathroom, my mother taught me how to brush teeth on my own, how to wipe my own ass after shitting, and how to take a bath independently. As a kid, I couldn’t stand the flavour of toothpaste and for a long time, after my mother trusted me enough to let me handle teeth-brushing myself, I discreetly wiped them off from my toothbrush and spread them on the back of the bathroom door, which was filthy enough that no one would notice some extra fossilized toothpaste.

Outside the flat was the public corridor facing the outer of the building, sealed by steel bars. It was about two-meter wide and my mother taught me how to skip ropes there. It was a pretty open and harmonious vibe in the building. Men would chill out in the public corridor on hot summer days, topless. Some households would leave their doors open when they were cooking to ventilate the flat. At dinner time, the corridor was always filled with a mix of cooking fragrance. I’d run up and down the corridor sometimes to peek at other flats. I was not a shy child at all. One time, I was standing at the doorstep of a neighbour a few units from ours and watching the family having dinner, curious at something they were eating that I had never seen. The Cantonese man in the house saw me and invited me in to eat with them; I gladly joined them and tasted stir-fried clams for the first time. Soon my mother came to fetch me home and I told her the shelled meat tasted really delicious. Coming from an inland province, we weren’t in the habit of eating seafood. But since then, my mother started to buy clams in the market and it’d show up from time to time on our dinner table.

My parents were both teaching in middle schools. The school my mother worked at was very far from where we lived so she left very early in the morning to catch her bus. As a result, I had to get up very early too becoz she’d braid my hair before she took off. Afterwards my father carried me to kindergarten on his bicycle before he rode to work. The bicycle was the major transportation tool we used back then. It was a short ride, 20-minute or so. On rainy days, he wrapped me underneath this huge red rubber raincoat and I would sit at the back of the bicycle, listen to the raindrops hitting the rubber fabric and try to adapt to an altered reality of a damp reddish shade. I remember feeling extra safe under that red raincoat. Without the sight of the outside world, my father’s back was the whole world.

In the evening, my parents usually watched some domestic drama series from the bed – serving the function of a sofa – and I’d watch with them together. The series were usually portraying family ethnics in China and not meant for kids at all, but I always watched with keen pleasure and got addicted to the plots. I was not allowed to watch anymore after 9, the universal bedtime for a child. I’d sleep in the inner side of the bed facing the wall while my parents continued to watch the series. The next morning, on my way to kindergarten at the back of the bicycle, I’d request my father to fill me in with the rest of the episode that I had missed. Sometimes my father tried to skimp on it and I’d keep asking “what about that xx thread? nothing happened after xxx? what about the xxx character?” to squeeze more details out of him. As a kindergarten kid, I never felt the wish to watch any cartoons and instead, I was fascinated by those “real-life struggles” of the adult characters in those tv stories. I felt a strong wish to grow up overnight, so I could watch as much TV till as late as I could.

Occasionally, on a breezy summer evening, we’d go to the nearest department store as a “family night out”. My father would ride the bicycle with me sitting at the front on the beam and my mother at the back. On the bike they’d have a brief discussion about where we’d go for dinner – usually some earthy little place they know – and they’d inform me the decision as if it was a big thing. I was excited at whatever they told me. I remember enjoying roaming through the city in its vibrant night scene. The traffic lights looked dazzling and the air smelled sweet and hopeful, merely for the fact that we were on our way to the department store. In fact, I don’t remember of any major purchase in those trips. Maybe my parents never really bought anything. But nights of such always felt particularly satisfying, the three of us going out on one humble vehicle.

When I try to recollect the details of the years we lived there, there are very limited things I could remember and most of them are blurred. But one thing I’m sure of is, I was evidently a cheerful, outgoing and verbally expressive child. Despite the objective “bitterness” implied in the conditions, I thought of those days fondly. Every detailed scene that I managed to recall is like a dusted pearl at the bottom of a time capsule, glittering, quietly.

My parents remember those years differently, of coz. When I asked them about some details, they’d tell it as the hardest time in their lives. It was. I can’t imagine how they got through those years, with so little money, so little space, and so little visibility. As I’m at the same age as my parents were back then, I marvel at how perfectly they managed to shield me from the bitterness of their difficult times, and the endurance and strength it took to do that. They never once made me feel we were in a less than ideal situation and they raised me as a perfectly happy child as best as they could.

When I was in my second grade in primary school, my parents got the quota to buy the “welfare apartment” in a new big public estate. When they told me the news, that we were gonna move and I would soon have my own room, they were excited. I don’t remember feeling over-excited about that, and I didn’t really understand what was the excitement about. I felt fine living where we were.

Shenzhen is a different city now, every decade drastically overthrown the previous one. I belong to the generation that grew up with the city and benefited from its rapid development. I experienced its transformation without even noticing it, as I was too much a part of it, with my own life transformed in a way out of my realisation. The run-down area we lived in was gradually torn down for urban makeup since the early 2000s. I could only find the trace of it from dated news reports of the urban renewal projects. It’s one of the old pages the city has remorselessly turned in the past 30 years.

I know my parents’ decision of moving to Shenzhen has changed my life, very likely in a good way. But I don’t know if it changed their lives in a good way. My father was a young aspiring writer in his twenties with a promising prospect. But he barely wrote anything after we moved to Shenzhen, at first probably due to the condition, afterwards perhaps due to lack of motivation, or a change of heart. In the early years he was still keen to tell me stories about his writing life anecdotes, how he used to join those national pen club gatherings and how his short stories won prizes and got him a few hundreds of bookstore coupons. But he gradually stopped telling those stories. Instead, he advised me since I was in primary school that it’s not a good thing for a girl to be too absorbed in literature. He insisted on this value till I became an adult and was faced with critical choices of my own future. Looking back, I wonder if he was too wounded by his own unfulfilled talent that he tried to protect me from the same sort of letdown.

Our living condition significantly improved after those earliest years. I got my own bedroom. We started to have a telephone, air-conditioners, a real leather sofa, a piano, a car. And it seems, the complexities of life also started to emerge after that, those of my own, those of their marriage, those of us as a family and two different generations. The “hardship” of cramming in the studio flat, in retrospect, was probably a disguised bliss to us, a young family striving to take root in the big city.

It strikes me nothing really beats that after all these years, the solid sense of closeness I felt when the three of us were making our way to the department store on one bike, humbly, hoping for a better life.

Why is my English “so good”?

Let me apologize for the boast implied in the title first. But please rest assured, I’m not writing this piece to boast. Mostly, I just can’t think of a better title for now.

Often I’m asked the question by strangers: “Why is your English so good?” It’d happen on many different occasions, and it’d come from people who speak little English, people who speak English as their second language as myself, and people who are native speakers.

I’ve got it mostly when I was travelling in a foreign country. When people see an Asian girl on her own travelling abroad, I guess they would have a certain level of presumption of her English level. That is understandable. So when they realize I can converse in English at a level more fluently than expected, the above question would sometimes follow.

I’ve also got it on first dates (when I was still dating). Sometimes some European men would be really impressed by my English. At times like this, I got a little annoyed. Because please, we are on a date, isn’t there anything else about me that you can be impressed with?

I also got it when people read my writing in English for the first time. I’m told many times that a lot of native speakers can’t write English as well as I do. I don’t know if that’s true, but I guess it has something to do with my personal interest in writing and my fundamental English learning experience in China which makes a sheer focus on grammar. (This I will touch on later).

A more unconventional occasion I’ve got this was in an interview once. I was being video-interviewed by an American guy sitting in Califonia in a fund company, and after a few minutes of normal conversation he out of blue said “I don’t understand why your English can be so good?” I didn’t get that job in the end after 10 rounds of interviews, but I’m certain it has nothing to do with this guy.

In the beginning, I took these questions as compliments, becoz they are. And I was flattered. I honestly never think my English is so good (on the contrary, it’s never good enough) and something worth this many compliments. But gradually, as it happens so much and so often, the joy of receiving compliments starts to wear off, and instead, it starts to bother me, becoz I never know how to respond to this kind of comment properly. For a start, I’m not sure if I should take it as a real question or it’s just something people say. And then, if it’s a real question and people do expect a truth-revealing direct explanation, I don’t think I have anything like that to satisfy them. It bothers me to disappoint people unnecessarily.

A typical conversation would go like this (*I’m not making this up):

Your English is really good, why is that? I can’t hear any accent.
Oh, thanks. But I do have an accent. I can hear it myself.
Not really. You might have some American accent. Did you study overseas for a long time?
Never, I always wish I had though. I just did a 4-month exchange in New York during my undergraduate study.
Oh, it must be that then!
Hmmm, not really. I didn’t speak a lot to anyone when I was in New York. I was a little depressed in that semester.

And then it gets unnecessarily awkward and the conversion kinda goes to a dead end. But all I’m trying to do is simply to tell the truth. I can’t recall how many times this kind of conversation has happened and I really wish there was a quick fix to this. A convenient explanation that can satisfy people’s curiosity and just get it over with. But here’s nothing like that. There wasn’t any miraculous switch. It didn’t happen in one day, nor one concentrated period of time. All the effort I’ve put into English since I was little, is a slow, cumulative, and ongoing process. On that, I’m sure many people who have devoted their lives to a foreign language and master it as their own would resonate. And my experience isn’t anything special nor my skillset impressive.

Thinking back, I don’t think anyone has really asked me any details about how I learned English. People usually see the outcome and assume there must be some trick behind the outcome and that seems to be all they’re interested to know, your trick, not your process. So I’m writing this now, my personal history of adopting English as a language I use every day to live, work and write, with no tricks involved. And why? Simply becoz no one ever asked.

I will start by laying out all the facts that are unique to me first. There’s really only one – my mother was a middle school English teacher all her life until she retired a few years ago. Now you must think, no wonder. Ok. Has my mother being an English teacher helped with my English? I guess yes. I must give her some credit, but not becoz she passed on some great tricks of learning English or amazing language talent. I never for once was impressed with my mother’s English level or the way she teaches. (Don’t get me wrong, she is a great teacher, and her English level is that of someone who learned English as her university major but rarely used English as a language in her real life. For her, English is a job, a means of livelihood. And she was great at that.) I must give her credit for the fact she made me think, at a very young age, that I must excel in English becoz otherwise, it’d disgrace her. I don’t mean it in a negative way. Everyone has to face some specific parenting style as they grow up. And my mother, when I just started in primary school, made sure I feel a certain pressure, generally, but also specifically with the subject of English. It was with the determination that “I must excel in English” did I start my English learning journey. Compared to talent, I think that “determination” mattered much more at an early stage.

As a result, I did excel in English, as a mandatory subject, all the way from primary school to the day I graduated from high school. I’d always get the top grades in English in the whole school and met little competition. In both the high school entrance exam and the national college entrance exam, the two most important exams in every Chinese student’s life, I received scholarships for my outstanding English grades. These are ancient history. But back then, English to me was more of a glory than a language I’d use. No one used English back in school. We had oral English lessons taught by foreigners but it was more like a joke. I started to listen to English pop like Avril Lavigne, Linkin Park, and I’d skim through the lyrics book and check any new words I came across. I even faintly remember some childish attempts at writing poems in English. But really, the one and only objective with English in my mind was to do good in exams, a skill I more or less mastered since I was 6.

Then I came to Hong Kong for university, and English was the language used in almost everything. That was when I realized my “good English” was merely an illusion masked by the good grades that no one would give a shit in the real world. I was amazed by how other students my age could already speak English so fluently and quickly realized the education system where I came from didn’t really prepare me for competition at that level. There was a big discrepancy that needed to be filled up. We had a lot of language classes in the first year and it was a nightmare in some way. Overnight, English turned from my source of glory to my source of self-abasement. It was a difficult time, the first two years of college. I was also suffering some other issues such as an undiagnosed depression and compulsive eating disorder. Being fat, unhappy, and losing my English is how I remembered that one to two years.

I spent the rest of college time chasing up, on English and everything else. In some way, in retrospect, I know that getting back my pride in English is part of the process of regaining a sense of normality. I needed that to feel ok again. And I did feel ok again. The gap wasn’t too impossible to fill up and soon I felt my English was at least back to an acceptable position among my school peers. I started to notice some good English writings by people from a similar background as me and I greedily studied them and wondered if I’d be able to write like that in English one day.

Then it was the year of master in Journalism. Inevitably, it requires a lot of writing. I started to write English more seriously from then and also started to do some personal writings in English. I’ve always loved writing and in some way, I know it’s one of the few things I can be pretty good at. So I diverted some of my Chinese writing time to English, just for practice’s purpose. In the master’s program, my grades were back to the top again and English helped a lot. Upon graduation, I dreamed of getting a job in a foreign press, any foreign press. As a fresh graduate with top grades from an ok journalism school, I didn’t think it was too out of my reach. And the reality was, I couldn’t convince any foreign press that my English was good enough to get an interview, mostly becoz (I guess) I’m not a native speaker on paper. The best I can get is English-related jobs in local media. I did that briefly (English reporter, translator) before joining a Chinese TV station and lost touch with English on a professional level for about 4 years.

It was a rather frustrating time. Not only was I facing some conflicting career choices which could be a lot to take on when one was young, but I also felt rejected for something fundamental that I could’t change despite all the effort I put in. But thinking back, it was probably at that time that a renewed determination started to root in me, that one day I will be able to use English as good as any native speaker does.

That of coz, never happened. And I don’t think, or expect it will happen anymore. Throughout these years, I’ve understood that there’s no point trying to conceal my Chinese accent or feel shy becoz of it, (what other accent could I possibly bear anyways?) nor do I fuss over the fact that my writing will never be “native” enough. If I may to jump to a major revelation here, it takes accepting one’s true origin to really excel in a foreign language. 

Back to the timeline a bit. (Sorry if it’s boring, but I have to tell it this way) After I joined the Chinese TV and have more or less settled career-wise, I felt strongly that my real adulthood had begun. And it was from then I started to really adopt English as a life tool, instead of a tool to exchange for a life. I started to travel myself as much as I could. I read novels in English as long as an English version was available. I subscribed to The New Yorker even tho many articles in it were beyond my understanding. I wrote half-half in English and Chinese to dispel an overwhelming youngster’s angst/blue. I had my first English-speaking relationship and new “daily life” vocabularies started to flow in; I still remember the huge frustrating feeling when I had my first couple-fight in English and was seriously disadvantaged due to my lack of words. And so on and so forth. Life has its own way of pushing you to things you’re determined to excel in. 

By the time I was more settled in my adulthood, I had also reconnected with English in the professional space. After four years with the Chinese TV station, I happened to be at a crossroad in my life in every aspect. I decided to come back to Finance for a change and quickly got a transition job thanks to my “good English” (a translator for an investment bank) before I gradually found my way in content marketing. Today, my job requires some writing in English – not just on a daily emailing level, but also on a ghost-writing thought leaderships for (native-speaking) fund manager’s level. Sometimes when I was writing those pieces, a strong sense of oddity came upon me, like who am I to be writing a thought leadership piece in English about something I’m no expert at? Why do they even trust me for that?

My English writing is not perfect of coz, and I would send in every piece I wrote to my UK colleagues for a quality check and it’d usually make my day when I got a brief recognition like “really like this piece”, “very interesting” or “your English writing is great.” In a similar way, it weighs as much as the highest grade I got when I was in primary school. 

I also still do my personal writing in English. In fact, I almost only write in English now, for reasons briefly mentioned in my previous piece on Being Chinese. Writing in English takes much more time and I struggle all the time to find the right words to fit in a sentence and a right way to put a sentence, but I kinda enjoy this constant struggle, despite the time-consuming nature. Many writers, such as Murakami, Kundera, have shared the same feeling of using an adopted language to explore a different channel of expression, a more straightforward, freeing way. For me, I started to write in English more or less out of a need to practise, and that comes from my deep-rooted unexplainable determination to excel in English. In this process of practising, I slowly realized the charm of expressing oneself in a second language and developed a need for the distance it provides, the distance that can be so valuable when it comes to translating minds into texts, a distance I don’t have with Chinese.

And practice does make perfect. After the numerous attempts of writing unheeded personal essays in English, I do feel I’m getting slightly better at it. As I’m writing this piece now, I have just finished my second short story (or novelette, the word count guideline is kinda confusing). In hindsight, I guess it’s something the 6-yo little girl couldn’t possibly have predicted she’d do one day, not even with her determination to excel in English. As I said, life has its own way of pushing you towards things you’re really determined to excel in. But I guess there has to be something more than the determination, there needs to be some sincerity, some craziness, and a ridiculous amount of effort. 

These days when I’m complimented for my English again I usually just laugh it off, same way when people tell me I don’t look my age at all. Am I supposed to still feel flattered after hearing it one third of my life? No. You just let it in from the left ear and let it out from the right one. I never forget how old I am just becoz people tell me I don’t age, as much as I don’t forget my English is not good enough. And it never will be. I don’t pass a day without learning something new in English, a new word, a new expression, a new way to tell a feeling. I gather them here and there, or I just create a new sentence myself. I constantly keep a monologue in my head (I do that in Chinese too), reorganize a same sentence in my mind a hundred times and write down the one that I like, which very likely I’d realize I don’t like anymore the day after. I don’t think I need to go on with my list of peculiar behaviors. 

The point is, I know no shortcut of being “good” at English, but I try to share as much as I can. When I think about it, I admit I might have a little talent with language. The so-called language talent might have given me a headstart, but it was really the amount of time I put in it that brings me where I am now, which, to be honest, is nothing to brag about. 

A friend told me her young cousin has been reading my essays to learn English, and she often encountered new words that she’d need a dictionary with. This makes me really, really happy. I wanna tell her, this is exactly how I learned English, and it’s still how I learn English.



I turned 33 yesterday.

One day recently when I was cleaning up my apartment, I found some dusted packaged home objects that I bought from Ikea years ago when I just moved in but never managed to put up – a small window blind, two short photo shelves. I never put them up becoz they all require hole-drilling in the wall and having to rely on some worker to just do that is something intrinsically annoying to me that I chose to procrastinate. Then the procrastination (of 4 years) turned a bit out of hand.

I decided to just get it over with this time. I went to a hardware store in the neighborhood and asked if someone can help me drill some holes. The shop owner looked at me and said: “you know, having a worker make a trip to your home would cost you minimum 500. Why don’t you just buy a drilling machine and do it yourself? You can drill as many holes as you want from now on.” I knew he was just being lazy and trying to up-sell me, but somehow the idea of gaining hole-drilling-autonomy got the better of me and I ended up coming home with a case of new hammer drill that was almost too heavy for me to carry.

I hastily took out the drill when I got home, couldn’t wait to try it out when the tutorial instructions were still fresh in my head. I moved the furniture, assembled the drill and plugged it in, held the drill against the wall, activated all my non-existent biceps to hold it upright, and pressed the power button. There it goes, I drilled the first hole in my life into the wall. Then a second one, a third one, a fourth one…… It wasn’t as easy as it might seem, and it wasn’t a pretty scene at all. My finger eczema were cracking from over-dryness, my wrists were shaking, I stank of sweat and I had to spend twice the time to clean up the mess afterwards. I have to admit, the newfound hole-drilling autonomy was exhausting. But it did make me feel good. I feel so physically empowered and independent that it spills into an overall sense of empowerment and independence, something I thirst for all these years.

The holes I drilled in my walls are so insignificant that no one would pay any attention to, but their existence is also so indispensable to the home structures that make my place notably more functional and aesthetic. I can’t help but feeling this little anecdote of hammer drill is a miniature of this past year, the year of my 32.

On face value, the past year was a placid year with my personal life. I’m at the same weight, seeing more or less the same people, watching the same shows, frowning over the same problems. Other than the job, almost everything remains unchanged in my life, I’m as alone as I was this time last year.

My relationship with solitude has evolved from a rocky one to a much more stable one. I have built up pillars to support this castle of one and I keep strengthening them in my daily practice. The music exercise, the fitness routine, the home decor execution, the regular grocery trips, the food-making explorations, the instagram story improvs, the one glass a day, the Saturday mornings and the Sunday nights. A younger version of me would probably disapprove of life of such plainness; and yet, the 33-yo me, on the contrary, is truly appreciative of the strength and poetry in such plainness. In some way, I have been drilling holes with my life throughout the year, holes that are almost invisible in their own existence, but only I’d know how crucial they are to my inner space, the core system I spent so long to build up brick by brick.

Other than the eternal project of straightening out my self-relation, one of my new year resolution this year is to develop more genuine relationships out of the romance sphere. It’s kind of a missing piece in the past few years when I was too preoccupied with the romance turbulences. I’ve allowed romance to dominate my world to the extent that I’ve been on autopilot mode with almost all my other relationships, with my parents, school friends, work friends, internet friends, people that I appreciate and adore, people who nurtured me in the most earnest way, people who keep me grounded.

In the meantime, my growing cynicism about people had cost almost all my interest in making any new friends, and my demanding requirement for purity in a people relationship makes it even harder. I was so worn out by the app-intoxicated hypocritical social relation atmosphere that I stopped at all to look for any potential meaningful ones.

With human, I understand there’d always be people who’d disappoint. Often, the closer you are with someone, the bigger the disappointment. Having been on both sides of the disappointment, I have come to accepted that developing the allowance to be disappointed is part of the path for any meaningful relationships. And it takes a strong core system to dissolve the potential disappointment and to remain as intact as possible. I guess the bottom line is, never let the disappointment consume your own passion in life, however sparse that is, nor let it impair your faith in deserving anything good.

After a shift of focus to relationships other than romance, I have relearned to enjoy the simple pleasure from being open-minded and earnest with people and the magic of it. I have reconnected with people I’ve lost touch with and I even made one or two new friends, who I genuinely appreciate.

I guess in the past year I have been subconsciously practising one thing, that is to acknowledge that love is not the only subject and source of pleasure in life. In the absence of it, there are always other sweets in life to be cherished.

Yesterday I hosted a small party at my place and invited some friends over. I was debating myself a lot over the idea, but at the end decided to go ahead despite the amount of work implied. I didn’t do it becoz I feel compelled to have some sort of birthday celebration (there are easier ways to do that), but rather out of an urge to connect, and the hope to reinvent the sort of ideal human connections that I’ve been yearning for. In my imagination, it does’t take being a social animal to enjoy a party. It should only take good music, good space, good intention and of coz, good wine.

After my guests left, I had a little after-party of myself with all the leftover wine and loud music. I was so drunk and so happy, one independent of the other.

Waking up with an expected hungover today, the first thing I did was to check what ridiculous contents i posted on instagram last night. And I was somewhat amused by my own drunken toilet cabaret, and decided to leave it there (instead of deleting all and pretended nothing happened).

It’s a bliss to have the power to entertain oneself. At 33, I do understand youth is a fleeting bitch. If there’s anything I wish from time, I genuinely wish it’d never take away my superpower of dancing narcissistically on my toilet lid.

The crier monologue.

I cry a lot. If it’s a social norm that we all need to identify ourselves based on tear-secretion habit, I’m definitely a “crier”, same way as I am an occasional drinker, party hater and used-to-be smoker.

On a recent weekend, I cried on the taxi on my way home. I was a bit tipsy after a whole evening’s game-playing/drinking/laughing at my friend’s house-warming party with people that I knew from head to toe. I walked on the empty street for a few minutes after the party ended. I got on a taxi and looked out from the window, as the city in the midnight passed through my blurry gaze, a sudden rush of lowness crept on and my tears started to emerge. When the taxi arrived at my doorstep, I knew it wasn’t over. So I got off and walked along the waterfront nearby, facing the darkness glittering through the water surface, my favourite emo song playing in my ear, and started to cry as hard as I could.

I can’t remember how long it lasted, perhaps half hour or longer. I just let it flow, the fluid of my eyes, with my face wrinkled at its maximum and my upper body involuntarily twitching. Often when I was crying like that, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the same time, at how little control I had over my own behavior, how powerful sadness can be, and how inexhaustible my tears are. It was a good cry that evening, for I happened to be at a perfect place at a perfect hour to enjoy the luxury of crying in public open air without worrying being embarrassed. Even more, I received messages from someone I wanted to connect with most at that moment. On a scale from 1 to 5, it was a 4.9-rated cry in my extensive experience of crying.

The above behavior, which I wilfully exposed a bit on my instagram story (as I usually did), has generated concerns from some friends and stranger followers. Which, wasn’t my intention but also wasn’t surprising. As much as I appreciate that, I genuinely couldn’t respond with a better explanation than “I just like crying,” which, I know, could sound perfunctory and almost disappointing, in a way that my crying wasn’t driven by any dramatic event and failed to satisfy the sympathy-mixed curiosity. And this was not only to general acquaintance or strangers. My ex-boyfriend, for one, had tried to get to the bottom of my tears. There was once I cried unexplainably when we were both in an altered state and he was desperate to understand the reason behind my sadness that I just couldn’t give. I remember he had this dissatisfied/dubious look on his face. It was the kind of expression that pained me, for I couldn’t share more, and it wasn’t becoz I didn’t want to.

The myth of crying had stayed with me for many years. I first noticed it when I was in the second year of college. I was drinking with some uni-mates one night and it was probably the first time ever in my life that I “over-consumed” alcohol and entered an alcohol-driven emotionally-heightened state. At a moment when everyone was still laughing and high, I quietly started to cry, at first only to myself, wishing no one would notice. When someone saw that and it became a group-wide event, I just gave up and let it out. And inevitably, I quickly killed the night. That was the first time I met this incontrollable, inexplainable, and inexhaustible stream of sadness inside me.

There were of course, many times when I’d also cry for more specific reasons. Like the night when my first serious ex-boyfriend told me he was engaged, half year after our two-year relationship ended, and he said “I wanna personally tell you instead of you finding out from facebook or something.” Like that time when I couldn’t get out of bed in a tiny hotel room with no window in Toronto after being thrown out by someone who I flew all the way there to meet. Like when I first found out in primary school that my father was having an affair and I thought “this is it, my whole world is broken and I would end up like one of those miserable unloved kids“. But these aren’t the kind of cry I’m talking about, these disaster-driven emotion breakdowns. The kind of cry I’m talking about is something that doesn’t have a clear trigger, not from outside at least. It happens as if someone left the tab on, or there’s a leakage in my body somewhere. It happens as if the sadness creek inside me has accumulated to a point that it just has to empty out to keep it going. It happens as if there’s a little weeping girl living inside me and from time to time she just badly wants attention.

Throughout all these years, I’ve spent numerous nights with her. And our relationship wasn’t always as smooth as today. I used to resist and feel shamed of her, the incontrollable sobbing. As many people would, I had taken her as a sign of weakness. For many years, I thought I couldn’t help crying becoz I was a weak freak who couldn’t contain her emotions better. And I did feel weak when I was crying, among other things. I had felt helpless. I had felt there was no way out, and that my existence made no sense but only pain, endless pains. I had felt it was impossible to connect, no matter how much I wished for it. I had felt wronged, hurt, all alone, and simply sad. I guess these are pretty generic feelings shared by mankind when we cry. And I guess I was indeed a weak person, for a long time. Until the day I realized I’m not as weak as I thought. (It happened last year) And I’m actually stronger than many people in many ways. Ironically, if there was one witness to the process of my toughening up, it’d be my tears.

But the crying didn’t stop. She still showed up out of nowhere from time to time. I started to understand I didn’t cry becoz I was weak. I cry becoz I have this intrinsic sadness in me that needs a mechanism to be funnelled out. I start to take my sadness as part of me – an important part – which makes me who I am, and is core to my sensibility. I don’t confuse sadness with weakness anymore. And I start to recognize sadness as a source of my strength, even though it doesn’t seem that way sometimes. Most importantly, I have no shame for my sadness, no matter how unpopular it is in today’s world.

Today, when I cry, besides the unexplainable sorrow, the cathartic and liberating feeling, I actually am relived. I’m relived that I’m still connected, with the used-to-be weak version of me, and the latest version of me with a part that would be eternally soft and fragile. I’m relieved to know that they’re still there, despite how far I’ve gone, as a safety-net knitted through time.

Make no mistakes, I’m not writing to promote sadness in any ways, and I envy people who doesn’t have to deal with this much sadness in their lives. I’m writing, I guess, to self-certify a small finding – the best (or only) way to connect with ourselves is to accept the shadows that come with it.

I’ve developed a habit of taking film portraits of myself when I was crying in the past years, given, I’d like to make the time I spent on crying more productive. The output, however, is pretty low as most of them are just not decent.

Several years ago I happened to know of a random acquittance’s negative comment on me to my friend, that he thinks my instagram feed is awkward, which seems to be full of selfies of me being alone and sad. His original language is something like “who does she think she can impress with those selfies showing she’s all alone at home?” I was a bit offended hearing that years ago. It was hard to imagine someone in the “art community” would make such insensitive comment about people he barely knew, not to mention I use instagram primarily to document the trace of my being instead of a tool to make inflated impressions. Thinking back these days, I guess I can sort of understand why he’d think that. It can be uncomfortable to come across contents that one can’t makes sense of. He is probably one of those people who somehow never need to confront their solitude or sadness (which is indeed a shame for an “artist”). And it’s definitely too much to expect for people to resonate with the sad states that I captured through images, when even I myself can’t fully comprehend them.

To make sense of my very own sadness is perhaps a lifelong solo journey. After all, crying to me, as much as writing, is the most private act in all human’s behaviours. The most and least I can do to share, I’m afraid, is to instagram-story about it that would last 24 hours.

「week 20」Leaving Central

Suffering a huge hungover and a splash of self-loath, I finished my last working day with my old job. It was also my last working day in Central, after four years and four months. 

I was the last one to leave the office on my last day, waiting for my gym class at 7pm on a Friday evening. As I walked out of the office building with several bags carrying all my remained office belongings, the evening was quietly falling with an early autumn chill. I stood at one of the busiest crossing in the middle of Queen’s Road Central waiting for the light to turn green, and just at that moment, an unexplainable sense of emptiness came upon me. And I know that’s something I cannot fight against. It’s what one is supposed to feel in the situation of a substantial ending, despite of what leads to it.

I remember making the decision of coming to Central four years ago. A lot happened in 2015. I ended my 2-year relationship, quit my 4-year job at the TV station, and moved out of my 3-year apartment in Tai Wai. I’m not quite sure how my mentality exactly rolled out back then, except that I was desperate for a change, any change. It was probably for the first time, I felt the need to take back some control from life and I needed all those big gestures to make that point.

I remember telling myself, I need to find a job based in Central. And I took the first offer of a job I randomly found. It’s a really boring job, translator for an investment bank. But I didn’t care. All I needed was a job that can get me to Central, a transition in my non-existing career path. In July 2015, I started to work in The Center, just like I wished. I remember feeling odd at the beginning when I found myself blended in the central crowds, a mix of curiosity, repulsion and constant awareness of my otherness. 

I didn’t stay long on the translator job before I found another job in the same building. Dark amusingly, what motivated me to leave wasn’t the lifelessness of that job, but that I realized the medical leave benefit wasn’t good enough for me. And it wouldn’t have mattered at all if not for the illness I had to cope with at that time. As such, after 4 months of translating at machine speed but better than a machine, I moved to another job that granted me more medical leaves that I needed and a starting point in marketing, on which I spent the past 4 years at.

Thinking back, it was for pretty random and reckless causes how my whole Central chapter has happened. And it was pure damn luck that I met my previous boss (also a great mentor, role model and reliable friend), who gave me that job and enabled me to find my position in the marketing field, which I can now more or less see it as a career, instead of just a job. I really can’t take any credit but simply exclaiming at how life somehow just managed to connect the random pieces together.

From the moment I accepted the new job offer and knew that I’d be leaving Central, I’ve been in the mood of a mild grief and panic. In one way, my life sphere and activities in the past few years has been heavily based around Central. My regular gym, my boxing gym, my go-to massage parlour, my bars, my secret happy hour/people watching place, my lunch takeaway spot, my midnight snack place, my brow-trimming salon, 90% of my blind dates and 95% of my social activities… In another way, no matter how demoralising and nakedly materialistic Central is, I can’t help but feel that it did play a big part in the becoming of me. It’s an intimate witness of how I have struggled through my late-twenties crisis and landed into my thirties. It’s where it all happened. Even though I could somehow still relate to the sense of otherness that I was feeling four years ago, it doesn’t bother me anymore.

When I just started working, at the end of the first year, I wrote an essay to examine what change had working brought to me. My outcome would be utterly different if I did the same by comparing my current self to who I was pre-Central. Back then (in 2011), I was relieved I didn’t change much, while this time, I’m glad I did. I’m living a better life, not just becoz I’m making fivefold what I was making, but for that I’ve evolved from the girl who would take whatever was given solely for location’s sake, into someone strong enough to make a well-thought-out career move, even if it means leaving Central.

P.S. This piece was written in the McDonald’s at ChiangMai airport on my way to Luang Prabang. #funfact

Being Chinese.

Two weeks ago, we had the National Day of China. It’s a big thing this year, the 70th birthday of a rebuilt nation. Living in Hong Kong, it’s also a big thing this year, for quite a different reason. I, among all other normal citizens, had to endure a complete lockdown in the midst of the most severe crisis this city has ever seen since the handover 22 years ago.

I’ve never felt so spilt up the way I felt on that day, Oct 1 2019. On one side of the border, where I was born and raised, the whole 1.4 billion population is fanatically celebrating the greatness and unprecedented strength of this country, while on the other side of the border, where I have lived in the past 14 years, people are enveloped in a state of extreme nervousness and busy telling each other “stay safe” to express their care and concern for each other, if any left. Moreover, as a smallest unit being swirled up in this history-making turbulence, I can’t help but feel, for the first time in my life, that being a Chinese, at this moment, means more than ever, not even on a collective level, but on a personal level.

Growing up in China, a country with the reputation of “brainwashing” its people with patriotism education system, I actually never think of myself as patriotic. This is consistent with my natural lack of sense of belonging to anywhere, any group. The idea of functioning as a group, taking pride in being part of a group and looking up unconditionally to the leader of that group is simply nowhere to be found in me. Since little, I already know I can only function as my own proxy. This individualism nature of me, when I tried to trace the source of it, is probably related to my family education when I was little.

A very early memory that I still quite vividly remember was when I was in kindergarten, the schoolmaster was a man very popular and well-respected in our campus and all kids would endearingly call him “Grandpa Jin” as instructed by the teachers. I mentioned this to my father one day on the back of his bicycle when he came to pick me up, telling something like “Grandpa Jin came to see us today in the kindergarten, I was very happy”. To my surprise, my father immediately corrected me in all seriousness, “He is not your grandpa, you shouldn’t call him that.” And just like that, as little as a kindergarten child, sensing from my father’s negative attitude towards a suspected attempt of personality cult, I learned for the first time in my life that, I don’t wanna be part of these campaigns, it’s a silly thing to do. Thinking back, I’m still not sure whether Jin’s popularity was naturally or tactfully developed – in fact, I have nothing against that man but respect, he might indeed have been a great educator, as the founding headmaster of the school where I spent my whole adolescence years – but I never called him Grandpa Jin again, while everyone else continued to do so until the day he passed away two years ago.

At 18, I came to Hong Kong for university. My individualism ideology was further strengthened with the western values that I was immersed in all these years. It felt like one key theme in my twenties was to fight against the traditional Chinese values that are widely rooted in the society and family environment that I came from, but made little sense to me. Most of them involves my identity as a woman, how I wish to live my life as a woman versus how I am expected to live my life as a woman, more precisely, a Chinese woman. I have been deeply enraged by comments from my relatives and my parents’ old time friends, the people who I felt close to in my childhood but more and more estranged as I grew into adulthood. Gradually, spending Chinese New Year holiday at home became more of an unpleasant duty rather than a festive tradition. The difference in our values are becoming more and more unbearable that it saddens me to look back.

For a long time, I desperately wanted to break out of the invisible shackles that I found almost suffocating, my Chinese parents, my Chinese relatives, all the Chinese values that I cannot resonate with, all the injustice and imperfection in the system so powerful that it cultivates a fundamental pessimism in me. I gave up my Chinese Hukou without too much hesitation when I had the chance 7 years ago. When being asked, I always tell people I don’t think I can go back to China, becoz I don’t want to, becoz I’d feel a reversed cultural shock when I’m back. I stopped developing my Chinese friend circle, all my Chinese friends are people I had known for a long time. I thought I’ve heard enough of the stories, perspectives, absurdities, misfortunes, miseries, everything that could possibly happen to a Chinese, I had enough of it all. I didn’t want to hear anymore about any life of any Chinese, which only either made me sad or made me angry or made me wanna scream or made me utterly bored, like my own life to me.

My language preference started to shift without any conscious thinking on it. I started to heavily adopt English as my everyday language. I speak in English, socialize in English, date in English, dream in English, and eventually, I started to write my personal writings in English, however clumsy an effort it may seem. I can’t exactly explain why, or I don’t want to yet touch the heart of the matter. But one thing I know is, to write in an adopted language is, apart from all the extra effort, an even lonelier journey. Lonelier, because I’d be free of all the noises that I wouldn’t be able to block out when I write in Chinese, therefore more real, more sincere, more honest. I could write very well in Chinese. In high school, my essays would be printed and shared as models to the whole grade of students. When I blogged in Chinese, I had much more reactions and praises. With Chinese, I know too well how to get people’s attention, how to be subtly deceptive and play with words, becoz that’s the skill I was well trained to master since day one. There are many people making a living this way, people with the same or higher level of proficiency in Chinese, using it as a tool instead of a genuine approach of expression. The more I realized the manipulative power I could have in Chinese, the less I feel comfortable using it. I wished to be at a safer place with my texts, I started to write in English, in search of that “safe place.” In a strange way, I’m using an adopted language as a safety net to protect me from myself, my Chinese-speaking self.

In the process of pursuing my independence, free spirit and the dignity that I believe I deserve, I had no choice but to renounce myself from so many parts of my Chinese origin and therefore, inevitably grew somewhat distant to China as a whole. I could say, in the past decade, I was being Chinese in a very passive way. If I’d be honest, I was somewhat disturbed by my nationality, not the symbolic meaning of it, but the actual personal pains it put me through. But one cannot choose their heritage, just like one cannot choose their parents.

Over all these years since I left mainland China, I have briefly resided abroad; I had imagined how much freer I’d feel if I wasn’t Chinese; I had wished to live somewhere far from home, New York, London, anywhere, and then that wish had extinguished itself. I remember on the first date with one of my ex-boyfriend who is French, he was telling me about how many places he’d moved in his life like it was a very easy decision. And I told him for me it’s impossible to move like that, I can’t just leave everything behind, and there’d be many factors to consider, such as how to convince my parents. And he immediately said in an almost judgmental tone that “You just have to action on it. If you don’t like Hong Kong, just leave.” I remember feeling sad at that moment, not for how unfree I am with my Chinese mental shackles, but for how impossible it is to make a non-Chinese person to understand that, no matter how intimate we’d become.

In all these years that I’ve lived my life in Hong Kong and kept a delicate distance from mainland China and everything it entails, I have also traveled to enough places and encountered enough people to understand the vastness of the world and moreover, to see the limitations everyone is bound to due to their own personal background, just like my limitation I’m bound to due to my Chinese roots. And it’s through my growing exposure to the outside world, that I’ve learned to be more tolerant and compassionate with my Chinese roots, everyone and everything that used to bring me pain, and are probably still bringing me pain. I stopped hoping a change of place would miraculously change the sense of helpless I was feeling in my twenties. And I stopped thinking “life is elsewhere”. I learned life is always here, wherever I am, and it’s up to me to make myself a better person, and my life a better kind. And I finally made my peace with Hong Kong, a strange little place I couldn’t care much for at the beginning but eventually started to see it as “home”, or something similar to home.

Last weekend I was back in Shenzhen. Out of curiosity, I went to the cinema with my parents to watch the 70th anniversary campaign movie “My People, My Country”, a huge box-office success in China as the enthusiasm of patriotism recently hit a new peak. The movie is made of 7 stories, each marking a memorial moment since the foundation of PRC in 1949. Among them, one story was about the return of Hong Kong in 1997. As usual, I didn’t feel much after watching the whole movie, as I still instinctively resist to feel anything from any sort of propaganda. But the episode of Hong Kong did generate a mixed feeling in me. It also reminded me of a memory I had almost forgotten.

I was ten, alone at home watching TV on the night of the returning ceremony, when both of my high-school-teacher parents were out there with their students in an organized parade to see off the PLA Garrison as they crossed the border from Shenzhen to Hong Kong in the midnight. I couldn’t exactly remember how I felt at that time, probably not too much, only slightly concerned with how exhausted my parents must be having to be out so late while it was heavily raining. I remember watching the ceremony on TV as the actual handover took place. For a 10-year-old, I couldn’t possibly comprehend the meaning of that moment, other than accepting it as a big historic event as I was told. For a 10-year-old, I also couldn’t have guessed how my life would roll out to be so deeply entangled with this strange little place because of that historic moment. For a moment, sitting in the cinema, I felt paralyzed, by an ironic realization of how my personal fate is connected to China, the evolvement and development of China, in a way completely out of my control, and probably out of everyone’s control.

It’s probably the 70th anniversary propaganda, it’s probably the unrest happening in Hong Kong and the absurd localism and uncanny racism that’s quickly taking on, it’s probably both of them adding up at the same time, nevertheless, I can’t help but ponder, in today’s world, what does it mean to be Chinese? While it can easily be argued it’s the best time to be Chinese, I can’t help but feel it more as an unprecedentedly complex and controversial time to be Chinese. It’s becoming more difficult to maintain the fair consciousness of being Chinese when I can easily see people of different biased extremes in my social circles, Chinese patriots, Chinese dissidents, westerners crazy about China, westerners habitually demonizing China, Hong Kongers hysterically denying their Chinese roots.

Being patriot is, in some way, the shortcut of being Chinese. But I’ve been off that route for a long time. Now I can only try to find my own route, the route to being a conscious Chinese. I don’t quite have the solution yet, but I guess, overall, being a better, conscious Chinese wouldn’t be too different from being a better, conscious person.

Amusingly, as I’m writing at this moment, it suddenly strikes me that the complex feeling of being Chinese is in many ways similar to being Gemini, or Virgo, or any other horoscope group. The idea is, you can’t stop people from judging you by this label that you can’t possibly tear off, you can only use your own existence to help shape/change people’s perspective of this label. (but Gemini is of course the best, non-arguably.)

Am I proud of being Chinese, an identity that instantly bundles me with another 1.4 billion people? Honestly, it’s a tough call. If I could choose, I probably wouldn’t choose to be Chinese. But we don’t choose who we are, we can only make who we are. And I know that at the end of the day, being Chinese is not about an outward statement, it is a war against myself, my past, my pain, my memories and my struggles. It is a long and winding journey of departing and returning, a personal story of trying to erase and attempting to retell. There would always be some place that I will never be able to go back, and there would always be some part that I will never be able to let go.


me reading the essay in my compromised sick voice.

If my memory serves me right, it’s probably the first time I ever spend my birthday alone. I’m never an outgoing kind with a wide circle of acquaintances, but I do have a few close friends and a pair of parents who care about me so much that it hurts. But this year, no one is around. My best friends are not in town; I’m not intimately involved with anyone at an “I wanna spend my birthday together” level; and my parents are, my parents.

At the risk of sounding self-serving, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing. When I started to register the fact in my mind a while back, I quickly made acceptance and was even kinda looking forward to it. Taking a birthday as a normal day, to me, is something worth trying as much as not having one posing photo taken during a whole trip, it brings you closer to the intrinsic value of things, something dramatically forgotten in our time. When I look back in the past 31 years that I more or less have made some effort to make my birthday a special day, there surely is a lot of loving and sweet memories, but I also remember the faint anxiety that lies underneath and the sense of relief afterward. It felt like putting on a Disney princess costume for 24 hours, and you’re all sweaty inside but you keep smiling to everyone and act like you’re born into that dress. I can’t help wondering, does anyone spend their birthday alone these days?

But don’t get me wrong, I do wanna spend my birthday with people I love. I just know that, if the best option is not available, I don’t have to search for a second-best option to make it happen, not to mention there’s no such thing as second-best for me.

Let’s be real, a birthday is not about cakes, presents, or feeling like a princess. Essentially, a birthday is nothing but a reminder of the trace of one’s very existence. If it serves any purpose, it’s the one best day in a year to reflect on oneself, to rewind, regroup and reset from where you’re at. When I turned 30 two years ago, I wrote a very confessional essay to go over my past, my shame, my darkness, and my hopes. So truthful that when I read it again, it still hurts and I feel embarrassed. I feel embarrassed coz I have evolved further from that version of me. And luckily, I deem, to a slightly better way.

For a start, to my own surprise, I have become a much tougher person. In the past year, I did go through some major phase transitions. But during the seemingly volatile times and events, I realized I managed to go through them in a relatively composed manner. My (very serious) relationship ended abruptly. I cut contact with a long-term dark and complicating influence in my life. I spent new year’s eve alone in a hotel in the middle of nowhere in Bali. I was faced with a vicious crime committed against me. Just to name a few. But none of them freaked me out, at least not as much as they used to. When things like these happen, I’ve learned the first thing to do is to take a deep breath, I’ve learned to pour myself a glass of wine when I cry, I’ve learned to sweep my broken pieces of heart aside and worked out a logical thread in my head first, I’ve learned to leverage all the tools I have to ride with the waves without a complete emotional collapse. And then I did. The wave passed and I’m ashore. And that’s when I realized the trick of being tough. It simply takes time and enough practice. Through all those years that I was weak but had pretended to be tough, it eventually happened. It happened thanks to all those pretending, and it happened without any formal notification. You only realize that when a crisis happens, that’s the moment the secret talent called “toughness” reveals itself and comes quite handy. For the first time in my life, I no longer see myself as the girl struggling in the middle of the sea hoping to be rescued by someone, anyone; for the first time, I recognize myself as a fully fledged woman who is capable of handling her own life, even if it’s a mess. It is the kind of sense of security that no one else can give me but myself.

And the mental strength (as an unexpectedly acquired skill) also helps me become a better loner. It might be a surprise, but even for me, someone who is almost obsessed with being alone, spending time alone is never an easy thing. Actually, I don’t think it ever will be. (After all, what a monster I’d have to be if one day I find being alone is easy?) In the past year, especially in the time when I’m single, I involuntarily and voluntarily spent a lot of time being alone. I stopped going out and meeting random people that I knew would eventually leave little trace in my life. I took three solo trips, one specifically to spend time in sheer solitude and silence. I started to treat solitude like a bad-tempered old friend, instead of an eternal enemy. I stopped feeling anxious and insecure when I needed to spend Friday night alone. I started to look forward to every Saturday morning when I’d wake up in sunlight and make myself primitive but satisfying breakfast and dance to some outdated music while the sausages are burning on the pan. I learned to find pleasure in doing the most tedious housework. Most importantly, I started to write again. Even with traveling alone, something I’ve been doing since I was 20, it’s only until this year that I don’t really feel overwhelmingly lonely anymore on the road and could truly be at ease and enjoy myself.

It is, however, for sure that I still have my moments of fragility. And I will never dare to claim that I’ve mastered the skills of being alone. I still have the sadness attacks and cry often. Some times harder than others. But I don’t try to fight against the urge to cry anymore, nor am I ashamed of it. I believe it’s a kind of self-protective mechanism, it is my body trying its best to console my soul. All I need to do is simply to witness it happen and wait for it to pass.

On top of making peace with the old sores, in the recent half year, the thing I think about most is how to be a better person. This might make those who are close to me laugh, but I’m genuinely keen on becoming a warmer, milder, kinder person, a more tolerant, multi-faceted and open-minded person. It is difficult as hell sometimes (how to be tolerant with stupidity? I’m clueless), but every day is a repetitive practice. It can be as simple as smiling to the lady who sells me breakfast every day. It can be spending a few minutes to chitchat with the cleaning lady in the office. It can be asking some normal questions like a normal person to my colleagues to show that I care. (yes, it doesn’t come naturally with me). It can be taking a deep breathe before replying an infuriating email and repeating “always assume positive intention” in my mind. It can be trying to be less impatient with my parents and be more communicative and open with them about my life and my real thoughts. It can be being nicer to people closest to me, becoz somehow we always mistakenly assume that we can make little or less effort with people we’re most familiar with. It might be a bit slow to only realize this now, but I’m finally ready to be a more compatible and less cynical human to the world. In my life I’ve been a lot of things — I’ve been “cool”, I’ve been “intelligent”, I’ve been “courageous” and I’ve also been informed of my charm to some, and none of these are hard-earned traits. But currently, nothing intrigues me more than simply being a good person. It takes real work to be a good person.

Then it is love. Love is always and still my biggest weakness. When specifically staying away from it in the past half year, I don’t spend a day not thinking about it. I wonder what could I have done to right my wrongs. I wonder why I keep disappoint and hurt. I wonder why I seem to be so deeply flawed. I wonder if I am capable of giving love. And I wonder if I deserve the kind of love that I long for. I wonder a lot of things that I have no answers for yet. But I do believe that, if through all the daily practices, I manage to become a better person, the answers may follow. And I can’t wait to be ready for it again.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with where I am. As a pessimist, I’ve finally seen some significant progress in life. In some way, I am fully aware that I’m in my prime year. And I know I have a few more to come. I remember telling this to a tinder date one time when we were having brunch. He was a guy in his 40s, extremely wealthy and very enthusiastic in me. When I told him this, he laughed and said, my dear, your prime has passed. 28 was your prime, you’re only going down now. I thought about it for a while and told him: No, I am very sure I’m at my prime now. When I was 28 it didn’t feel prime at all, not even close. You have no clue about a woman’s prime. After that date, also for many other obvious reasons, I didn’t see him again. Mostly, I don’t see the necessity to see anyone who, despite the claimed fondness, tries to tell me what my value is based on my age. No girl ought to take that shit. Every woman is in charge of their own prime. And I, at 32, am looking forward to another prime year to come.

Smoking kills, smoking heals.

I’ve lost the urge of smoking.

When I told this to people, almost everyone immediately tried to rephrase for me: “you quit?”

The fact is, quitting smoking has never even crossed my mind once in my longer than 10 year’s smoking history. What happened is I’ve lost the urge to smoke. I don’t know since when, but when I realized that, I’ve already stopped smoking for a while. Even tho I’d still sneak one or two if it’s one of of those social situations, but I know it’s already an absolutely unnecessary act for me — either I have that cigarette or not at that moment makes no difference to me.

To be clear, smoking has never been a physical addiction to me, at least not to the extent that I can feel. I started smoking when my first serious relationship ended. It was the first time in my life I felt the need of self-decadence in the hope of numbing or simply matching up with my pain. For unexplainable reasons, it became clear that smoking was what I wished to do. I learned how to smoke so earnestly that it’s almost like a new useful skill to acquire, instead of a bad habit to pick up. When you’re young, you don’t care about bad habits.

Over all the years that I kept smoking, I’ve smoked for a lot other reasons — it looks cool, or at least it makes you think you look cool; it’s effectively cathartic since it stimulates the movement of intestine, for a long time I relied on smoking to poop; it comes in natural with alcohol and after a big meal; it eases up my social anxiety, or makes you look less alone; and sometimes, it’s simply easier to smoke than not to.

But underneath all these reasons, I know the original urge of smoking was always there, the need of self-decadence, and the assurance of caring little enough to afford self-decadence. I was almost secretly proud of the outward identity of “a girl that smokes”, which gradually turned into part of my self-perception: I am someone that smokes.

My relationship with smoking has gone through difference phases.

There was the time when smoking was new and faintly exciting. It was more like an act of formalism instead of a true interest at the beginning. I was so eager to break the self-reflection of a behaving and believing girl. I was trying to re-identify myself through the act of smoking. It went on smoothly until my parents found out. It was one day in the winter break of my final year in college, I was back home from hanging out with friends, casually left my bag half open on the sofa. My first instinct was to deny when my parents confronted me with the pack of cigarette that slipped out, my mother crying and my father furious, both of them deeply concerned. I had no choice but to deny it so their feelings could be protected. “It belongs to my friend,” I insisted. I didn’t stop smoking because of this parental intervention of course, but the fact that I had to hide my behaviour and that I continued to do it without even truly enjoying it make the formalism nature of smoking stand out more. It wasn’t before long that my father had another calmer conversation with me. He told me, he understood it had become more socially acceptable that women also smoke these days, even tho it would break my mother’s heart, he did’t think it’s the biggest problem here. What he concerned most was why I smoked, if I was in trouble or if I was in misery. It was at hearing that I burst into tears as an adult for the first and only time in front of my father. It was in front of my father i realised I wasn’t the same girl anymore. I’ve had my first taste of pain. I was 21.

There were the intimate times when smoking felt like an inseparable element in life. When I was on my first job as a newspaper reporter after graduating from master of journalism, I’d compulsively take one at every specific moment in a day — right after getting up, right before leaving home, right after coming back home, right before going to bed. And when I was out in the day doing the reporter job, I would take one after every press conference/event, as long as time permit. Smoking was like a ruler of time, a secret daily ritual, strictly marking the passing of my days and quietly burning my anxiety as I stood on the brink of a full-scale entrance to the real cruel world. I was 24.

There were also the times during all the disastrous events in my personal life, where I’d rediscover smoking as my one last resort, the loyal friend who always helped me get through heartbreaks, depression attacks, and moments of sheer solitude and misery. In moments like these, overconsumption of cigarette was almost a guarantee. I’m not sure how they helped, but I’m also not sure how I would get through without them.

There were finally the easier times, when smoking had little to do with any emotional struggles or major phase changes, but merely remained a natural habit, a companionship that doesn’t require any extra thought. This was the time when I’d always make sure there was a pack of cigarette in my bag wherever I go, no matter if I do consume it or not. I’d smoke whenever I want, wherever I want as long as law permits. I’d still do the ritual smoking thing but less, like every time I was at the airport to embark on a solo trip, I’d take one after checking in and before going through security. I’d smoke solely to reflect my free will. When I watch a movie or tv show, say Mad Men, when I see them smoking in it, I’d light a cigarette myself too in front the screen as if I’m part of the scene. I was almost enjoying it. I did enjoy it. In those years I’ve gone through several more rounds of emotional turbulence, several major life changes, mid-twenties crisis, late-twenties crisis, but my relationship with smoking had always been stable. Years passed by and it never crossed my mind it would stop being the case one day.

I can’t pinpoint from when I started losing the urge of smoking. I can only remember situations started to happen as such that I would easily say “no” when people invited me for a smoke, or that I actually needed to persuade myself into taking one when I didn’t really feel like it, or that I’d suddenly realise it’d been several days since the last time I smoked. I’ve also tried e-cigarette with innovative flavours in the hope of renewing my bond with smoking, but I quickly realised it’s a vain attempt. I cashed out by re-selling my iQOS and gave away all the cartridges I bought in Japan.

I came across a research paper the other day, which says someone giving up smoking at the age of 25–34 can eventually have a mortality close to the level of a “never smoker”. I giggled at this finding, it feels like winning by a fluke.

Today I’m still constantly struggling with my existential crisis, I still feel emotionally fragile from time to time and I guess I’m still largely not a high-spirited person, but I have lost the urge of smoking through all these moments. She left, without even saying a proper goodbye. In hindsight, I realize like many other things, she was just a visitor to my life, a visitor that stayed for 10 years.

I think of the saying “we don’t really make big decisions, big decisions make us” and wonder if this is one of those case. I wonder if this is part of growing old. I wonder if she left because she knew I’m not that person anymore, a girl who needed to do unnecessary things to harm herself. At any rate, I’m standing on the other side now, the side where people don’t feel the need to smoke. It’s almost like gaining a new identity, except that nothing is worth being excited about. I can already feel a remote mourning with a mixed affection for the smoking version of me, together with a mild anxiety with the new-found identity. I don’t know what would be the alternative ritual before I embark a solo trip. I don’t know what can I use to cover my social anxiety if I happen to be at a party full of people I sort of know but don’t feel like talking to. I can’t even take photos holding a cigarette and doing the whole looking-cool thingy anymore, and even if I do, it will only make me look more of a poser than I already am. But honestly, I think it will be fine.

I think I will be fine.

Experience and hope: a 30-year-old little girl

I turned 30 a few days ago.

If I may disclose a public secret — being 30 feels exactly like being 29, just like being 29 felt exactly like being 28…I don’t need to go on. But I can’t deny that the imaginary threshold is working on me, like an itchiness at the back of my brain, a phone ringing in the midnight that you’d eventually have to pick up — I can’t help thinking what does 30 years’ life mean, if it means anything at all, and what kind of existence should a 30-year-old person stand for.

I’ve always been a pessimist. And I had all these peculiar beliefs that I held on to firmly when I was little. For example, since I started to form the minimal level of independent thoughts (ie. mid-primary school), I had been telling everyone around me that “I’m going to die before 30.” I was so certain of it for 2 reasons: 1, I couldn’t bear to even imagine I would be a 30-year-old woman one day — it simply sounded dreadful. I didn’t consider how exactly I would die (apparently I thought I would have loads of time to work out a plan) if it doesn’t happen naturally, I just knew I had to; 2, I thought 30 years was more than enough to live — in my young immature mind, everything I ever wanted to experience (eg, being able to go to bed as late as I want; being able to watch TV as much as I want; having a job I like and getting paid, having a boyfriend and sweet love, etc) would definitely happen before 30 and everything afterwards would just be repetitive boredom.

The other this kind of bold and “laughable” statements I’ve made also include: I will never get married. (coz i don’t believe in it — the concept is too perfect for imperfect human beings); I will never have kids. (coz I can’t bring myself to pass the underlying pain of life to another person while I couldn’t even convince myself my life is worth living. The whole deal of giving birth — creating life for the enjoyment of oneself or whatever other selfish reasons — makes little sense to me.)

As I am 30 now, I guess this is the first time “things go against wish” for the younger self of me and her assertive pledges — I have disappointed her, by turning 30. I almost feel sorry, while at the same time, I, as the 30-year-old present self, take it quite well. It even feels like a pleasant surprise — having lived for 30 years in this world trapped in this body is, in my own standard, quite an achievement, no matter if it felt like one or not.

So what kind of 30-year-old person am I? (deep breathe.) I guess it’s time to do a reality check. (/damage assessment)

  • I have no savings (at all).
  • I am a property owner in paper thanks to Chinese parenting and I’m very much in debt (only 29.3 years left).
  • I am single, with baggages, inevitably.
  • I have a job, one that numbs my soul and pays the bills.
  • I have been living in a city I dislike for 12 years.
  • I have identity crisis. Being culturally marginalized for almost half my time, I barely have any sense of attribution to any cities I’ve lived. I’m rather detached political-wise and the priority level of my mother language is fading in my brain.
  • I have an estranged relationship with my parents, who still treat me like I’m 15 and incapable of living my life. It unsettles me when I try to imagine the discrepancy between the daughter in their mind and who I really am.
  • I am self-diagnosed as sociopath and misanthropist. My sense of socialness is decreasing and it’s almost impossible for me to make new friends. Obsessed with deep, intimate and intellectually equal connections, I find it unbearable to carry most casual conversations with general acquaintances.
  • I started to see a therapist a while ago when I sensed symptoms of depression.
  • I am evidently not a happy person. (But even for me it takes some courage to admit that.)

Obviously I can’t say I’m at my prime state at this point of my life, but if I’m being fair to myself, I would say I’m not a terrible person, even faintly likable, with a certain quaintness; I’m definitely not dull, somewhat intelligent, and I don’t believe my life is on the boring side on a scale of interestingness. I’ve always known myself as an experience-driven person, and I did experience things, even tho I never went out of my way to seek for them. Thinking back, my experience portfolio is probably the only thing I unquestionably possess.

But don’t get it wrong — when one is at my age (now I’m starting to sound like I’m 30), one should have realized that experiences are not always valuable, not even for someone who lives on experiences like me.

Of course I have had many nice experiences, ones that at some point did convince me my life is worth living just to have that. The moments of falling in love, even with the most impossible persons; the girl history, without which I wouldn’t know first-hand the existence of spectrum and the possibilities in sexuality; the places travelled, roads walked, people encountered, the ultimate excitement of doing something adventurous as a solo traveller; the day I got my first and only tattoo; the sweet moments in relationships like when he knelt down to help me redo my shoelace; the evening of my best friend’s wedding and the MOH speech I had to get myself half-drunk to deliver; the years working in the newsroom and the primitive satisfaction despite of the realistic limitations and being poorly paid; the sparkling and witty conversations on a breezy night with someone like-minded that made me feel like I was in Woody Allen’s movie; the shivering in heart when greatly moved by cinematography, literature, architecture and art; the perfect state of mind briefly found in Kyoto; the late night picnic by an abandoned reservoir overseen by a sky of stars, the rainy getaway weekend on a local touristy island, the psychedelic camping on a remote beach, the rooftop sex, and all the crazy and romantic situationist love-making.

Then there were those experiences that only served the purpose of opening your eyes, those you don’t mind but probably wouldn’t wanna have again. The drugs, the bad trip, the ridiculous parties and clubs, the threesome, the junk boat, the motorbike accident in the middle of nowhere in Thailand, the moment of lying in my own blood and not sure how alive I was, the ultimate fear and loneliness.

Then there were those that you secretly wish they never happened. The cheating that ended my first relationship and damaged my trust system. The cheating that ended my last relationship and the continuous suffering from the guilt and remorse even two years after the breakup. The alcoholism of an ex-boyfriend. The afternoon of being sexually assaulted in primary school, which I subconsciously chose to forget for the whole childhood and only remembered it years into adulthood. The phase of being sexually confused and lost. The dark passage of self-decadency. The illness. The dreadful moment of getting a call of “bad news” and the horrible 24 hours before I found it out. The demoralizing days that I had to force myself to face treatments, surgeries, medical reports and expensive hospital bills. The embarrassment of dragging myself to SLAA meeting, sitting with a bunch of random strangers and realizing knowing there’re people like me or even more fucked up does not help.

I can’t bother to even try to be comprehensive and logical when I disorderly list out my experiences, and there must be a lot others hidden in the shadow along the memory lane. But I do wonder if these will all flash up at the moment before I die like what people always said — your whole life playing like a fast-forwarding movie in 30 seconds, a condensed capsule to give you a conclusive push.

The thing is, even though I’m dealing with my complexities and polarities, trying to neutralize the self-loathing that evades frequently, when I think about it hypothetically yet seriously, I still wouldn’t say I’d rather swap my life with another kind given the chance — not because I am narcissistic in nature (though it may be factual), but that I wouldn’t be able to imagine who on earth I am if I had never experienced all the pains and struggles, love and hurt. I am tamed by my personal history, my 30-year-long life. I’ve come far enough that I wouldn’t even intend to live differently from scratch, not to mention that I can’t.

For a long time I thought finding happiness is the goal of life, and wanting normal happiness is a humble wish. If there’s anything I could say based on my 30 years’ life, I’d say that is perhaps a bit too aggressive for my kind. I still hope for happiness, unmistakably, but I have also come to the realization that attaining happiness could be beyond my reach,while making peace with pain is less far-reaching.

30 years in life, you’d have realized it’s time to let go of the “wished self” and deal with the “status-quo self”; it’s time to let go of the “wished life” and deal with the “status-quo” life. 30 years in life, you’d have realized life has never been so cruelly real the way it is now, and even more, it had actually been so cruelly real all the time without you noticing; you’d feel like you have a lot to catch up in terms of the realness and you might feel tired already just by thinking of what’s waiting ahead, but it’d also give you a sense of relief, that life, is unavoidably happening. 30 years in life, you’d see it’s not about trying to decide what kind of life you want anymore, it’s only about remembering to breathe, living it, being it, it’s about putting yourself on the spot, giving it out, taking care of every trivial detail wholeheartedly, and praying that it would not be as terrifying as it seems. 30 years in life, I’m still not quite sure what this is about, if there is any meaning, why am I here, but one thing is affirmative, life itself has creepingly convinced me to stay longer than I ever planned, with everything it has put me through.

I do still have a vision of myself, however vague it is. I will still be cool, even tho being cool is not important to me anymore. I will be able to love unreservedly again and it will be worth it despite of everything. I will do a few things I’m proud of, out of the daily banality. I will experience more and hopefully I will know how to contain it better. I will deal with more pain and I will be a stronger person by then. My boldest guess of life — I might even be a mother one day, and if it happens I will be able to tell him/her: “You’re a wanted child, you are here for a reason.”And of course, I will let them know what a miracle it is for a girl who used to only want to live for no more than 30 years.

Aloneness, Fear, and the Dearness of Being.


I walked to the public clinic in my neighborhood after breakfast that day to have the gauze on my right arm (which was balling-up already as it had stayed there for 5 goddamn days) taken off forever. As I was on my way, the expected unpleasant feeling of finally meeting the ugly scars out of 8 stitches was offset by my excitement about finally being able to have a proper bath in half a month. I felt calm, and alone. The aloneness, definitely not in a pathetic way, refers me to the aloneness I felt the moment I fell off that motorbike, lying in my own blood. I shall call it the “ultimate aloneness”. I realized people were piling around me asking whether I was okay, but knowing that I was getting help from warm-hearted strangers didn’t to the slightest degree lighten that aloneness I was feeling – the kind one would never had any idea of until one went through the sheer moment in peril of ceasing to live.

The aloneness, as I tried to reason it, was because the intense emotion, the tremble of soul after visiting the edge between being and not-being is in no way to be shared with anyone else, not even your closest ones. You may try with all the words you know and all the languages available , but you gathered it would be a doomed failure. You would never be satisfied enough with what you could possibly deliver, nor could you stop suspecting others when they claimed they understood. You had it all to yourself. It became a locked secret that you never intended to keep.

I insist that it has to be after I get rid of the last piece of bandage that I’ll start to put things down in words. Otherwise I can’t be chilled enough to look back and think over the whole incident, knowing that the leftover of the self-sympathy in my body would always come in the way to keep me from a neutral confession.

However, as I’m finally determined to give it a try now, when I close my eyes, retrieve my memory and replay that scene, the sense of alienation I spent so long to build up become flooded by the same old fear in an eye blink. So I just said it, fear. It was fear that swallowed me at that moment, so huge a fear that made me forget to pull the brake at my left hand, forget to let go of the accelerator at my right hand, forget to turn the vehicle around, forget everything I was supposed to do. I was completely absorbed in that dark-hole alike fear that I gave up doing anything but simply waited for it to happen — letting it be whatever it ought to be. (If I was gonna die, I would die. If I was gonna be a disabled ever after, I would have to live with that.) It happened, the “Bang!”, the crash. The process was very quick, but not quick enough. I waited for a while, confirmed with myself that I was still alive, then there started the unbearable pain.

Today as I revisited the scene, months after it, just as every single time I revisited it ever since it happened, I couldn’t help gasping at it with my heart rate going straight up as I had no choice but to go over that dreadful fear. It seems to not decrease at all as time goes by. I doubt if fears of this kind will ever fade away after all.

People say I was strong to bear with the whole thing. It wasn’t true. I was at my weakest, body and mind. I cried frequently, sometimes due to the pain, while other times I simply just wanted to.

But you see, I was actually unbelievably lucky, underneath all. My body got to retain its full function with no bones broken, and my face was miraculously unmarred. No, “lucky” is too superficial a word for my luckiness. I hold no intention to overrate or underestimate my luckiness, just as I’m not inclined to exaggerate or understate my unluckiness. Whatever it puts me through, to endure is the only fair solution I’m left with.

I have no answer for what alteration this incident exerted on me in specific terms. For all I can say, if there was one occurrence that revealed my earnestness for life I tried so hard to defy, this is it.





而这一刻,当我终于决心坐在电脑前,打算将这一切写下来,当我闭上眼睛,搜索着记忆,在脑中一帧一帧地回放事故的过程时,我在那么长时间里构筑起来的疏离感,顷刻便被溢出的恐惧所淹没。是的,无论我如何不愿承认,或者不敢提及,是恐惧。我被黑洞一样的恐惧吞没了,是恐惧令我在那一刻忘记按左手的刹车,忘记松掉右手的油门,忘记扭转车身的方向,忘记在那个境况中我本应该采取的一切行动,我被恐惧绑架着,放弃了挣扎,仅仅是等待着将要发生的一切。在那段时间里,我迅速地说服(其实是强迫)自己去接受一切可能的后果(如果我会死,那我就死好了,如果我会断手断脚,那世界上也只好多一个残废了)。我将一切决定权交了出去,保证自己必须服从于命运,然后,“砰!” 该发生的发生了。这个过程只有短短的几秒,却让人觉得拖得太长了。我等了一会儿,向自己确认了“我还活着”这件事,其后才轮到去感受一阵排山倒海的疼。