Single life

I was awake at around 8. Played two games of chess on my phone and eventually got out of bed at around 9. I made a coffee and a smoothie for myself, and played the piano for about an hour to warm up my body. It’s the coldest day of the year today, and I was mostly ironing out some unsmooth bits in the tango piece I’ve been trying to graduate from (ie record a video of it) but failed two attempts thus far.

I then took a shower, moisturized my face and limbs, dried my hair, meditated with my fresh scented body for 20 minutes, and texted my friend Tom about my preference to stay in tonight. (We loosely talked about meeting tonight even though he loathed NYE and would rather hibernate through it.) I was playing chess against a bot when someone called, someone I’m casually involved with. I was remotely delighted to receive the call, but started to feel the need to hang up after 10 mins. A little over 11, I started to wash the rice. When waiting for the rice to be cooked I read my book in the living room (Housekeeping by Marilynne Robison). The music playing was Nina Simone. My lunch – braised ribs today – was prepared by my part-time cleaning lady, Lan, who comes every Saturday. Two weeks ago I asked if she could try making meals for me and she gladly jumped on the extra income. So every Saturday, she’d make the amount of food (two dishes) for about a week and I’d put them into boxes, and boxes into the freezer. For each meal I’d defrost a box and heat it up. I inherited the idea from a terminated tinder date that I went out three times with. I definitely mocked at him when he told me this was how he managed his work week meals and secretly I thought, maybe I should try that too. And I did. I have to admit it’s kinda genius.

I ate my lunch – braised pork and freshly cooked rice – with an episode of In Treatment. I cried a little bit at the end, (it was very moving), and realized it’s been a while since I last cried. After lunch, I got dressed properly and left the house for some errands. It’s the last work day of the year and I gotta go to the bank for some stupid reason. The weather was chilly and sunny, which made the walk to the mall a pleasant one. After the bank, I took a stroll to Muji and M&S and found nothing to buy. I snatched a takeaway coffee and on my way home, took a detour to the park and sit under the sun for a while, sipping my coffee. The last stop before home was the fresh market, where I bought two avocados, 3 pounds of sugar orange and two bouquets of fresh flowers, one purple-ish, one yellow-ish.

It was 4 when I was back home. I arranged the flowers into the vases and wasn’t sure what to do next. After two more games of chess, I put on some Thelonious Monk, and sat down in front of the desk for the first time of the day. The coffee was getting cold, so was the day.

I’d admit. I was contemplating writing a year-end essay all this time, as I usually do. But somehow, some part of me wasn’t convinced of the idea. Is it more of a gesture than of any actual meaning? Do I really owe myself, or anyone, such a gesture? Most importantly, deep down I know there’s nothing groundbreaking I could possibly write, as some kind of reflection of an unimaginable year. I’ve come across numerous “look back at 2020” kind of contents, people hastily making mental closures, plowing for the positive meanings and takeaways, and desperately wishing for a brighter, freer year. For the whole day, I was hoping these sentiments would arise so I could seize it and sugarcoat the hell out of it. But they never really came. There wasn’t a moment of epiphany. I went on with the day as how I lived most of my days in the past year, ordinary, alone, placid. I wrote it down becoz this is the only thing I could write about.

On the last day of this year, I still feel amazed at how I could live the kind of placidity that I always wished for in such an unexpected way; and how – despite my longtime yearning for the simple and solitary way of living – difficult it really is. Underneath the tranquil surface, is a delicate balance that I constantly struggle to strike. There are times I could have melt myself in the gentleness of being, and there are times I just wanna scream the solitude out of my flesh. I have briefly harboured some, mostly out of the need of companionship. Also have I remorselessly steered away from many. Ultimately, it’s a year I’ve been (voluntarily or involuntarily) more devoted to the single life than I could ever imagine. The “single” here isn’t referring to one’s relationship status, but rather an unreserved acceptance of one’s sheer existence, as imperfect as it might be, and a persistently conscious effort to be compatible with it. On this, as strange as it might sound, being through 2020 isn’t bringing me any sense of ending. It’s merely the beginning.

Last but not least, here’s a song for you, my dearest, mysterious readers. Until the next dance.

A moonless night.

There is a deep wound in your body, and it’s bleeding quietly. Nothing you can do about it other than asking yourself, why, again, did you give the permission for someone to cut it open, the softest little patch in your heart. The bleeding will stop eventually, as it always does. Every open wound will find a way to seal itself. It’s only a matter of time, people say. It’s also the shape and size of the scar. You can’t remember how many times you’ve failed to make it work. The disappointment is an old news, you are shattered, not surprised. You light up a cigarette, you open a bottle, you order some chicken nuggets, you listen to sentimental songs. The first stage of a routine process. It didn’t even work that well, just the only way you know how to react. You make an attempt to cry and you did. It doesn’t last long and your eyes dry quickly. You give it another try but there comes no more. You remember now you are not 23 anymore, your sadness has lost its density and become watery. Sadness used to feel more exciting, now it just makes you impatient. You broadcast it on social media and block random people from viewing it and eventually you get bored of that too. You sit in front of the piano only to find that there’s no song you can play to your mood. You walk out of the apartment and you walk like there’s no end to the road, taken by a desperation for the mechanical movement. You wish you could go on forever, till it drains the last drop of oil in you. You think of the hairy crab you had last weekend and how much you enjoyed it and how disgusted it made someone. Their death seems more validated now that the person who belittled you for eating hairy crab is no longer a standing threat. There is always a silver lining to a shitty situation and hairy crab is yours. You defended the honour of hairy crabs against the odds of love, even though that wasn’t your intention. Or maybe it was, maybe you care about hairy crab more than you care about your most innocent fantasies about human beings. How pathetic it would be if that was the case. There are easily a dozen of discrepancies that could help you put your loss into perspective and make it seem like a bliss in disguise but really, what good is that. A loss is a loss. A hurt is a hurt. It has happened and nothing you do can undo it. You own it, bite it, shove it up your ass and keep carrying on. On your walk you saw people with their dogs, baby trolleys, big objects that occupy their attentions. In a split of second you wish there was something like that in your life, anything, that would mercilessly take your priority away from yourself. There is nothing. Nothing but your empty water bottle, your health app recording your steps and reminding you of the sex you had eight days ago, your low-battery headphones playing songs of artists you can’t care to pronounce. There is not even moon. You search every corner in the sky but there is no sight of it. You feel exhausted suddenly and can’t wait to be back to your bed, curl into a ball, make it all stop. You wish to have your eyes closed and imagine a moon behind the clouds. There must be a moon behind the clouds. There is always a moon behind the clouds. It’s just one of those nights, a moonless night.

letter #2

My dear friend,

I’ve been wanting to write to you for months. Obviously, for some reason it hasn’t happened until now. There are so many moments when I was outside, walking alone, drifting in the crowds, I found myself subconsciously drafting a letter to you. The thoughts were naturally flowing out of my mind and I had an urge to connect. But when I sat down properly, facing a blank screen and a blinking cursor, I struggled to find those words.

I recently took an 11-day break and was underwhelmed by how little I managed to do. I should be mending my last story now, or continue to squeeze something out for the new one, but instead, I am writing to you. I feel the calling of writing to you. Or maybe I just feel the calling of writing in a way that is free from any sort of anticipation. Maybe I’m writing in the hope of protecting myself from being hurt by it. I think of you every time I feel frustrated by my relationship with writing. I think you’d be able to understand, or at least, you’d care so little that it’s a comfort to me.

Generally, I believe I am taking good care of myself. I eat healthily (in my own standard). I work out as much as I can (or want?) and my weight hasn’t changed at all no matter what I do. At 33, I take that as a good sign. I meditate daily, journal frequently and masturbate rationally – a variety of attempts at keeping a self-dialog going. I go back to paper books and bought more than I can read. It serves as an effort to counter my insecurity over a gradual losing of my English. Losing here is a merely subjective feeling, it might as well be an objective revelation that I’ve never “had” it.

I start to feel I’m losing my English after my last break in July, which I used as a writing retreat. After that, not being able to keep up with that amount of writing has created an anxiety for me. I feel I’m losing my English in the same way that one is losing muscles when you don’t train them consistently. English words become grains of sand slipping through my fingers, no matter how hard I try to hold on to them, there are only so few left in my palm. I couldn’t help questioning my subconscious intention of exiling from my native language and focusing on writing in a second tongue. Is it really worth it, making so much more effort to write in a language I will never be as good as the natives, creating lesser stories and proses. I used to be proud of my Chinese, now all I have left for it is guilt. When the whole world is in a big existential crisis, I have a mini one of my own, with my languages.

As a result, I’m spending more time with music and piano playing now. And I can’t help comparing it with writing to understand what both of them mean to me. After all, these are the two things that I spend most time on out of my bill-paying job. Unlike writing, I know for sure I have not much talent in music, and that is almost a bliss. (No who am I kidding of coz I wish I was born a music genius!) With music, I’m happy enough to just reproduce; while the one and only goal of writing is always to create something original, something personal, and something good. It’s real work. It is the carbs of life, I love it as much as I dread it.

Meanwhile, music is wine. I don’t have to drink wine, but I can almost always enjoy it. The fact that I’ve embraced my mediocrity makes it a pure pleasure. The only exception is when I try to record a video of a piano piece – a self-defined graduation from a song – and could’t get an ok version after 100 takes. It was time-consuming and physically exhausting. But ultimately, it’s a satisfying process, no matter how flawed the end product is. (My neighbours might beg to differ.) I guess that’s the difference – with music, I don’t tend to beat myself up for not being good enough. There is a lightness that I don’t get to experience with writing. And that might be what has been drawing me closer to it. Would it be so condemnable if I only wanna do things that feels “easy” ? Is it a dangerous situation that I find it so easy to sit down and play some broken piano while it takes so much for me to go back to the story I’m bound to redo? These are only rhetorical questions, of coz. The answer was written in the question itself.

I was briefly back in the dating scene. It wasn’t much of a pleasure, as expected. As I was experiencing it, I was also taken aback at how the sentiment associated with dating can be so amusingly negative these days. It’s like a filthy public bathroom, you made fun of it, you hated it, you really wish you’d never have to go in there again, but for some reason you had to use it. Eventually, you convinced yourself to brave in, masked, praying it wouldn’t smell as bad as the last time. When you were in there, you were holding your breath all the time. You got out just before you could faint in there. You kept walking away wishing no one could see or smell that public toilet flavor from you. And you swore to yourself you’d never be back there, until all the above happened again.

The truth is, despite my cynicism and jadedness with the act of dating, I do not forget the reason why we do it nonetheless and I retain the most serious assumption of love, that it’s worth hoping for. Moreover, I hope for a chance of giving love, as properly as it can be given. In this latest cycle of trial and error, I see what’s really at stake isn’t that there’s no right person or that love is after all unattainable. The real peril of dating is that every setback in this process, significant or not, makes a dent in that hope — the delicate, timeless, yearning of something genuinely good. The space is eventually jammed with hopeless meat lovers, ready to settle for whatever that’s left to be taken.

If I have to choose between building a wall around myself and the ability to feel, I’d always choose the latter, even tho it means feeling hurt. The nuance lies in a balance act of allowing yourself to feel, to get frustrated, to be vulnerable, and not letting these feelings wear you off. In some way, I feel the dating episode is a testament to the fundamental core system that I spent the past two years building. In the past, when I returned to my inner space after every defeat, I was depressed by how empty and purposeless it felt. Now, when I came home to myself, the disappointment was real, the sense of loss was real, but the void was gone. There is something solid I could fall back into. It enables me to always hope for love, but never depend on it.

There are much more I’d love to mumble on, but I should probably stop now to keep this letter a pleasurable read. It’s a lovely time in Hong Kong these days. The summer heat is officially brushed off and it’s so delightful to be under the sun. In the evening, a gentle chillness breezes over your body like a stranger’s hug, ambiguous, lingering, transitory. I wish I could put a stamp on this magical Hong Kong weather and mail it to you, or someone, anyone.

It’s 10:30 in the evening and I’m going for a night stroll before bed. I’ve been taking a lot of long walks recently. There’s a satisfaction associated to it that feels both elementary and novel. And it really helps me think. I figure if people can walk and write at the same time, there must be a lot more great writers in the world. Or maybe it’s just me, going through a boring version of a pre mid-life crisis.

Enclosed a Dylan/Cat Power song I covered recently. I would die for the sandy smoky voice of Cat Power but this is the best I could do.

Until the next time.


Cover of a Dylan love song and (brief) thoughts on the sincerity of music.

Think I’d share my latest cover song here with a few words.

I first wanted to do a cover of this song as early as May this year, but was stopped by the intensity of affections in the lyrics. I didn’t remotely have anyone in my mind that’d make me feel singing it is a genuine act, the cover thought was thus halted for a few months. (Although, I’m also curious how genuine Bob Dylan was when he first wrote the lyrics.)

I don’t usually ponder over this matter that much, not when I did my previous other cover pieces. I have covered songs which the story basically felt quite irrelevant, but merely out of my appreciation of the music itself (eg Hallelujah, Santa baby). I also covered some songs which I could more or less relate to but the emotion was kinda water under the bridge when I recorded it (eg Mad world, End of the world).

It’s usually easy for people to sing a song without fussing over what it means, and most of the time I enjoy the simplicity of this approach. And yet, somehow, with “Make you feel my love”, there is something in the lyrics that alarms me of the basic sincerity of music. Maybe it just steps above the comfortable level to which I’m willing to give a dramatic license for my own covers. Maybe the lack of an imagery in my mind was too much at odds with the affections in the lyrics. Or maybe, I’ve simply passed the age that one is able to sing an ordinary love song lightheartedly.

Fast-forward to 5 months later, I covered this song eventually. As vigilant as I am of how pop love songs can be self-fulfilling and shallow the realness of the subject, I do consider myself lucky that I was feeling an inch closer to the emotional state that (I think) is required to cover this beautifully composed Dylan piece.

And, for the sake of everything I just said, I added some personal footnotes for the lyrics to my own interpretation below. Consider it another laughable and serious act from me. Hope you’d enjoy the song.

Make You Feel My Love

Bob Dylan

When the rain is blowing in your face
And the whole world is on your case
I could offer a warm embrace
To make you feel my love

(Yes, I guess I can and will do that. I don’t think I need to “offer” that – I’ll just do it.)

When evening shadows and the stars appear
And there is no one there to dry your tears
I could hold you for a million years
To make you feel my love

(A million years…I don’t know. I’d rather not put a time stamp on it.)

I know you haven’t made your mind up yet
But I would never do you wrong

(No seriously, this is something I’d rather not promise, and not be promised on. )

I’ve known it from the moment that we met
No doubt in my mind where you belong

(This sounds quite condescending and I don’t feel all comfortable with it)

I’d go hungry, I’d go black and blue
I’d go crawling down the avenue
And oh, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do
To make you feel my love

(Alarmingly dramatic.)

The storms are raging on the rolling sea
And on the highway of regret
The winds of change are blowing wild and free
You ain’t seen nothing like me yet

(I feel this is the part that’s most real in the whole song. And I love that it implies “I” am a flawed character but “I” am also confident that I shall be a new experience to “you”. If it only takes one line in a song to wrench a heart, “you ain’t see nothing like me yet” is this line for me. )

I could make you happy, make your dreams come true
Nothing that I wouldn’t do
Go to the ends of the earth for you
To make you feel my love

(Another dramatic verse, but I’m touched by and can relate to the intention of “make you happy and make you dreams come true”, which I believe is something shared by everyone ready to love, at the great length a poet can go.)


When I look into your eyes, I am motionless.
I fear the slightest movement will wobble the idea of you.

When I look into your eyes, my eyes can’t focus.
They get lost in the gaze of you.

When I look into your eyes, my mind quivers.
All my wild blood goes into this silent intercourse with you
conceiving a possibility of something anew.

When I look into your eyes, you are a blur.
I try to see you clearly, instead
I see the risk of being happy.

「Weekly Writes – Week 5」A New York story

Prompt I picked this week:

Write a piece of flash fiction about a case of mistaken identity. A stranger might be mistaken for an old friend, an outsider might be mistaken for a member of the community, or a person who has met someone a handful of times before may be confused for someone else.

I was on a trip to New York several years ago. It was for a friend’s wedding and I stayed in town for one week after that.

I had just gone through a brutal breakup right before the trip. A wedding wasn’t quite the event that’d excite me at that particular time. I tried not to make any association but still, the ceremony that officiated my friend’s love story felt like a magnifier of my own freshly failed attempt at it.

It was the first time I was in New York in summer. I didn’t know the city can be so agreeable in mid-June – sunny and fresh in the daytime, cool and breezy in the evening. Before that trip, I had only been in New York from late autumn to early spring and had known some of its worst temperament.

And there I was, after the wedding, left with my emotional jadedness in the perfect Manhattan summer. I had no plan for that week. I didn’t think I’d need one for New York. One day, I found myself wandering aimlessly in the Central Park. People looked very happy everywhere – couples having their wedding photos taken by the fountain, families boating on the lake, entertainers joggling at the center of a crowd, teenage girls in school uniforms selfie-ing in the best angles possible. I was immersed in the happiness of others. It was possible to feel happy by just witnessing happiness. Eventually, I lied down on the grass in a shaded corner, squinting at the blue cloudless sky. Everyone must have a story to tell about New York, a voice came upon me. I wondered what would be mine, if that was the case.

The next day, I woke up on the couch in my friend’s downtown apartment with a strong crave for a big meaty breakfast. My friend and her husband had left for work. I snoozed on the couch while swiping on Tinder.

In a few minutes, I matched with Andrew, a 48-year-old eye doctor on the profile. I asked if he would love to have breakfast with me.

An hour later, at an outdoor table of a restaurant near Union Square, I met Andrew. He had deep sepia eyes and a good physique. We started to exchange casual information about ourselves. I told him about the wedding, the breakup, and my sudden craving for sausages that morning. He told me he was from Boston, shared a flat in the city with his cousin, his last serious relationship was with a Korean, and anecdotes of his job as an eyeball repairman. Andrew was not a bad breakfast company.

We went out again one evening that week. It was the night of the NBA final game, Warriors vs Cavaliers. I joined him and his friends at a dive bar in the downtown. After the Cavaliers championed, we moved on with more bar-hopping and shared some edibles. The whole night we were laughing our heads off, yet most of it was a blur. It was a runway night. We opted in to an altered reality with a relative stranger just so we could opt out from our absolute reality, as far as the night could last.

When we came out of the last bar on the Lower East Side, too drunk to walk a straight line, it was a few hours until daylight. The street was dim and empty. A sense of void was taking over the hysterical joy.

We were a few steps away from a signal-controlled junction, not clear where was next. I took out the eyedrops that I carried with me and applied some to ease an acute dryness in my eyes. Andrew’s eyes lit up at the sight of that.

Is that the menthol type that gives your eyes a strong cooling sensation? He lisped.

Yeah? Aren’t all eyedrops supposed to make you feel like that? I lisped back, blinking my watery eyes. The menthol eyedrops were the only thing I ever used and they were the most popular type in the Hong Kong pharmacies.

Of course not! Only Japanese brands do that and it’s only sold in Asia! They don’t add menthol to eyedrops here.

Are you serious? I had no idea! I sounded more amazed than I intended to, like every drunk person.

I’ve always wanted to try it! Oh my god, can you give me some now? Andrew pled.

I will give this whole bottle to you as a gift. I said, amused by his exaggerated excitement.

Before I realized, Andrew already kneeled down beside me with his head tilted up, waiting for me to put in the eye drops for him. He wasn’t kidding when he said “now”. In the middle of the street, I held his forehead gently and pressed the eyedrops into his sockets. He started to make a growling sound from the minty coolness in his eyes, entertaining me with his little performance.

As we stayed in that posture, Andrew on his knees and me on my feet, facing each other, a cry broke the peace in the midnight street. “Yes! Just say Yes!”

We looked to the direction of the voice and saw this driver waiting at the junction sticking out most of his upper body and yelling at us. “Say Yes! Did you say Yes?!” Both Andrew and I halted for a moment, and burst into laughter at the same time. The driver seemed even happier as he saw us laughing hard. He held up one arm to “congratulate” us before he drove away.

At that moment, it occurred to me this was my New York story. It wasn’t quite what I would imagine for myself. But I enjoyed it all the same.

「Weekly Writes – Week 4」Home out of home

Prompt I picked this week:

Research an occupation that takes place in an unusual or interesting environment that many readers are unlikely to know much about. Then, write a character profile of a person who works in this place.

It’s Nicole’s most delicate enjoyment and sensitivity to be sitting in the treatment room. 15 years she’s been practising as a psychotherapist, she stills feels a subtle pressure at the very back of her chest when sitting opposite a patient. She can’t easily explain that, not to her colleagues, not to her friends. But deep down she knows it’s what attracted her to this line of work in the first place. The hurtful interests in humanity. The prospect of nudity between people’s minds.

She rents half a floor in an unimpressive commercial building in the downtown with some other therapists. The six of them share four therapy rooms. There’s a small reception desk where people enter, but no receptionist. Cards of different therapists quietly serve themselves on the desk. It’s part-time work for most of them there, same for Nicole. One of her own painting is hanging up in the hallway, where patients sit and wait. It’s a big oil painting of a Japanese vase she did many years go. It’s a painting in yellow color tone and she likes to think it brightens up the hallway a bit as people wait there. Nicole hasn’t painted anything for a long time. She is in a constant struggle of time in the past few years, ever since she became a mother.

She is seeing less than 10 groups of patients every week. She used to receive more patients when it was still just herself. It’s her most profitable job and she could use the ease with finance. But there is a fine-line to be kept as she tries to maintain a balance among different roles now. In her early 50s, Nicole is a psychotherapist, a university instructor, a volunteer psychologist with autistic children, and a single mother to a 7-year-old boy she adopted 5 years ago. Her therapy approach wouldn’t allow her to have too many regular patients. There are only so much space one can spare to take in the heaviness from other people’s lives and still keep themselves intact. As a mother, it’s more important now to ensure a main part of her is intact for her son.

There are different kinds of therapists in the world. Some takes it as a job that pays as if they are just dentists for people’s minds. Therapists like this can always manage to withhold themselves and keep a distinct distance between their professional lives and their personal ones. Nothing could possibly go wrong because they are barely truly interested in their patients. There’s another kind that are truly interested in their patients, but profoundly through an academic lens. Their minds are so centrally wired around the academic architecture of psychology that they take keen interests in every patient, not as a flesh human, but as a sample human in a lifelong experiment. Most of Nicole’s colleagues are these two types and she learned it from their weekly seminar discussions. She sometimes wishes she could go with either of them as they are easier approaches. But she can’t. Nicole takes interests in her patients in a way that she truly cares. Even when she doesn’t like some of her patients as a person, she still cares. It’s in her instinct to care. It’s something she cannot just switch off.

Nicole believes she is helping her patients. Or, it’s important for her to know she still believes that. As a therapist, she is skilled with her tools. As a person, she comes with the qualities that make a good therapist: approachable, trustworthy, empathetic, compassionate, a “healer”. Unlike some therapists, Nicole is never rushing the attribution, nor is she obsessed with the “break-throughs”. She has a way of controlling the tempo and at times she’d rather hold it when it’s obvious what is the next question to ask. Instead, she substitutes it with a short silence. A few seconds for the mind to just breathe. She does it as if she is a mechanic constantly fine-tuning the airflow in the room and most of the time, she knows she is in control.

But there are still times it would come to her sheer realisation that there’s so little she can do. She can make a husband and wife see the cause of their marital problems, she can’t salvage the wrecked ship. She can convince a young girl of her own lovability, she can’t find her a lover that she deserves. She can guide a pair of parents through their grieving, she can’t fill up the hole left by a lost child. From time to time, she is overwhelmed by the sense of helplessness that it aches.

In any case, she has deep affection for her treatment room, where stories of unrelated lives are told and unknowingly intersect with each other. She thinks of the treatment room as a “home out of home”, for herself, and everyone who ever entered it. When a session ends and the patient leaves, she lingers a little while in the treatment room, looks at the empty sofa and recalls what just happened there. She indulges herself with a moment of private softness and vulnerability. Then she knows it’s time to go home, where her beautiful boy awaits.

「Weekly Writes – Week 3」Lonely Light

Prompt I picked this week:
Using the first-person plural, “we,” write a piece of flash fiction—no more than 500 words—about a fictional city or town. This city/town might be a slightly altered version of a real place or an entirely imagined place in which magical events are possible.

We arrive at the village house in the early afternoon. It’s a very hot summer day. Both Eric and I are fairly sweaty after the little uphill walk. Before that, it took us one hour on the bus and 40 minutes more on a private speed boat to reach this deserted island, where the owner of the house picked us up.

It is a two-story house in a pretty wrecked condition, but very spacious and in a good structure. There is a backyard, with a stone table and some stone benches at the far end of it, shaded under a big tree. They look like they’ve been for forgotten by the whole world. The whole house looks like it’s been forgotten by the whole world, and in some way, that might be the intention of it. A place exists only to be forgotten.

The island we’re at is one of the few little islands around the city that are either completely abandoned or half-deserted since the 80s, due to their small sizes and tricky locations. There are less than twenty households still living on it now. All aboriginal fishermen’s families with their own boats. I only heard of it — the moonlight island — for the first time when Eric told me about the house for rent he found online two weeks ago. It’s quite a romantic name for such an unknown island, I thought.

The owner is a middle-aged local guy, who inherited the house from his late farther two years ago. He lived in the house when he was young but now lives in the city. Take your time, I will take a walk nearby, he tells us and then descends into the woods behind the house. On our short hike, he told us the house was listed online in the past two years and had only had one tenant for six months. Every now and then there came in a viewing request from people like us. He’d receive them, show them around, and eventually never hear from them again. It doesn’t seem to bother him though. He talked about it as if he’s talking about one of his friend’s business.

So? what do you think? Eric breaks the silence after we have wandered round examining the huge house for about 15 minutes.

I love it, I say. It’d definitely take some work. But I could imagine us living here.

Me too, he said. We could have our separate writing areas on the upper level and a shared lounge for hanging out in the evening. Downstairs could be our music zone. You can have your piano there and I’ll have my recording system and drums at the other side. How does that sound?

I look at this Irish man in his late 30s, talking in all seriousness, with beads of sweat still hanging on the side of his face, and start to wonder if he’s any serious at all.

It’s the second time we meet. We talked about going somewhere remote on the weekend. Eric found this place and suggested we check it out. As a game, we’re pretending to be this artistic couple looking for live-in studio space. In fact, I don’t think the owner cares at all about our story. In reality, Eric is an editor in a publishing house and I work in marketing for a company helping to make rich people richer. We both do a bit of writing in our spare time.

It sounds lovely, I smile at him. I will not be the first one to call off this game.

We walk over into the backyard. I sit on one of the stone benches in the shade. Eric is pacing around. He looks back at the door where we exit and spots two big Chinese characters on the beam carved in faded reddish paint.  

What does this say? He points to the beam.

Lonely Light. I read-translate for him.

How wonderful, one murmurs.

How wonderful, one echoes.

「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.

To write, or to retreat.

Just recently I took a 7-day holiday using some of my annual leaves to stay home and write, or a writing retreat, as I call it.

The idea was to withdraw from the routine activities and all worldly connections and take an intensive period of time to focus on writing. I had a clear quantifiable goal in my mind: to finish a short story in 7 days. The result was, I finished the story as early as day 4 and managed to write something more. I was 100% in my own world, stayed out of contact with the outside world, lived a strict and healthy daily schedule, and wrote a little more than 10,000 words. I was quite satisfied with what I have accomplished. But to some extent, that didn’t matter that much anymore afterward. It’s the process that seems more like an accomplishment to me than the story itself. I was feeling something substantial from it, as if I was finally able to connect with a missing piece within myself. When I was going through that 7 days, I knew I’d have to write about it, for no other purpose than to create text evidence of what I have felt. I could tell, it’s something too important to be forgotten.

I started to develop this idea a few months ago. After I was back from Sri Lanka in Feb, I realized traveling probably wouldn’t be an option for a long time. It’s devastating for me, who takes travel as a mental commodity. As the virus spread, my hope of breaking out was dimmer day after another and I knew I’d need to create a holiday that doesn’t involve traveling.

Last year I spent 6 days disconnected in a silent retreat and it was a truly restorative time. My heart was lingering over that for a long time afterward and I secretly decided I’d do it once a year from then. Apparently, it doesn’t look possible now. So I thought, why not recreate that experience at home myself? I was very excited but also slightly scared by this idea.

You must be a little crazy to even think about it. And yet, I have learned to accept my own neuroticism and try my best to indulge it. After the crazy has developed the idea, it’s the rational half of me that had to do her job and started to gauge the possibility of pulling this off. In a silent retreat facility, everything was taken care of. I had food, nature, enough activities and service at my fingertips; all I needed to do was to enjoy all that. At home, I’d need to take care of my own 3 meals a day, arrange my own activities, and resist the distraction in a wifi-enabled small apartment right in the busiest city in the world.

I did quite a lot in planning — I learned a diet which required minimal effort, prepared necessary ingredients and planned a rough schedule of replenishment; I set up an hourly schedule from 6 am to 10 pm to make sure I always have a behavioral compass and wouldn’t end up wasting my time; I carefully arranged how to stay connected in a way I can listen to music and research for my writing while also resist the rest of internet; I made a list of entertainment options, from piano to cooking, from bubble bath to pedicure (I even bought the toolkit for that, but ended up having no time at all for such things). But after all these, until the last moment, I still didn’t know if it was enough planning and if I was really all set for it. After all, it’s not something I have any experience with nor there are existing well-documented references I can look to. It feels like jumping into a well without knowing where is the bottom.

Then I gave myself the final green card: It’s ok if I failed to finish the story. After all, it’s supposed to be a holiday, and I’m supposed to enjoy it. With this re-adjusted mentality, I started my 7-day solo trip as usual. Just that this time, it’s a trip in my mind.

My days went like this. I’d get up at 6 (though I’d usually snooze for 30 mins to one hour…getting up early is really not my forte), have coffee, and meditate 15 minutes with flowing music to slowly wake up in the first half-hour. Then I’d shower and have a simple breakfast. Oatmeal, blueberries, or some convenient packaged milkshake. In the beginning, I didn’t wanna spend too much time on food preparation before I develop a rough idea of my writing rhythm and progressing speed.

Then I’d focus on writing from 8:30 to 12. The story I was writing is one I already have started with during a trip last year but could never find time to finish in the past year. So I more or less knew what I wanted to write, with a fair amount of draft notes to refer to. It was more about putting my mind to it and doing the actual labor work. When it comes to creative writing, or painting, or any kind of art creation, I constantly wonder which is the heavy-lifting part, having the idea itself or executing the idea. I guess it varies for different people and they are equally important for the final work. But this time, I’m glad I mostly only needed to focus on the latter. In some way, I see it as the more challenging part coz writing in a second language usually requires extra effort to get it right, and that is assuming I have what it takes to get it right.

From 12 to 2 are lunch and nap. I’d usually have some carb for lunch — dumplings, fried rice, one dish and steamed rice, etc. Miraculously, without too much thought on it, I managed to do different things for lunch every day. And instead of watching one episode of something on Netflix (as I always do when I eat), I’d listen to music and read Murakami’s essays as I ate. Theoretically, watching Netflix doesn’t break any rules. But I particularly wanted to avoid doing things in my old routine and develop a new routine largely centered around texts and music, the tone I’ve preset for this break.

Murakami’s essay is the perfect light reading for this purpose. It’s never too engaging in a way that it diverts you off the track you’re on, (in this case, is to finish my lunch in a sensible time) while it also makes everything you’re doing seem automatically more purposeful and enjoyable. I love Murakami’s essays, probably even more than his novels. In this break, I re-read his memoir < What I talk about when I talk about running> one more time. In a way, I was purposefully seeking out that calming power in the tone of his essays, which always refreshes and comforts my mind.

Then I’d try to nap for 20 mins or so before I resumed writing in the afternoon from 2 to 6. Throughout the whole time, I’d play light jazz or piano tunes to just have some music flowing in the back of my head. Most of the time, it was either Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis. I selected the music for the same criteria as my reading — something not too engaging but effectively constructs the vibe that I was in need of — classy, delightful, and tranquilizing.

I tried to stop writing at 6 sharp, regardless of how the progress was going. Previously, when I was writing some essays on the weekend, I barely made any effort to keep track of time. I’d continue until I reached a point where either I was finished or I was too exhausted. Often, when I reached that point, I had been typing in a completely dark apartment for hours and it had way passed the sensible hour to eat or sleep. Evidently, that’s not good writing habit and I was determined to change that this time. Hemingway once said you don’t write until you’ve exhausted the last drip, even tho that’s counterintuitive; you always stop when there’s still something left in the fountain so you have enough to start with the next day. I like how sensible it sounds. Though for me, with creative writing, I don’t even think I have that fountain yet. It’s more like I was still restlessly drilling for it with every word I wrote. Indeed, it wasn’t too hard to stop at a designated time.

I’d then do some light exercise as the day transitions into the evening. I alternated between running on a treadmill for 20mins and swimming for 1500 meters. One day, I did fast-walking for an hour along the seafront for a change. Both walking and swimming are very good exercise to keep an active thinking process going. I’d usually take this time to go over some details in my story: is everything on the right track, how to address some specific bits, do I wanna include or exclude some materials, how much progress am I supposed to make next day, etc. It’s rather technical mostly, but sometimes it can get a little emotional too when I really go deep in. Running, on the other hand, is still too painful for me to have any meaningful thoughts simultaneously. I wonder if the day will come that I’d have a sudden surge in my tolerance with the act of running after enough attempts. It feels quite unlikely.

Dinner was always the same — chicken salad. I prepared enough chicken for 7 days and put them in the freezer. So every day it took only 15 mins to make the salad, and that was my most relaxed time of the day. I’d put on happier/funkier music and improvise some hideous dance moves as I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Then I’d eat at my coffee table sitting on the rug — my multi-functional station and primitive position in the apartment — with something to read. I picked some random issues of New Yorkers from my hardcopy stash over the years and read the short stories in them. I guess this is one good thing about having print subscriptions — you can’t really do it this way with a digital-only subscription. When I got tired of reading, I just lay back at the edge of my sofa and stared at the ceiling for a short break, with food still in my mouth and music in my ears. It was the moment I repetitively fell in love with, the solid contentment from spending the whole day exactly the way I wanted, with all sorts of things that I find pleasure doing, including the intermittent idleness.

After dinner, I’d play the piano for half an hour or longer. In fact, I played the piano in bits and pieces anytime I want during the day, even writing hours. I was working on a song that I want to do a video with so making slow progress at that did give me a concrete sense of satisfaction. If writing the story is the main dish of the day, playing the piano is the coffee, something equally important that I don’t do without.

I’d move to bed before 10 and write a quick journal in bed, updating my word count log, summarizing my day and jotting down some observations, whatever came to my mind at that moment. At this point, I must say I was usually already exhausted and couldn’t wait to go to bed; I could barely hold my pen straight and my handwriting became hardly recognizable to myself. I thought of how Murakami said writing is more a labor work than a mind work and realized full-time writing, which was more or less I was trying to do, is indeed both a challenge to my mind (in terms of focus level) and my physical strength. I don’t even know why I was so tired. I could fall asleep in five seconds.

When I try to reflect on what this week means to me, what is the “substantial” thing that I felt, it comes to my realization that it’s probably the first time in a long time in my adulthood that I know for sure I wasn’t just frittering away my life. Instead, I lived it precisely how I want it with a clear sense of purpose and a conscious effort directed towards that purpose. Unlike when one was younger, a lot of “purposes” were planted into our minds or we acquired them through external influences, the purpose this time comes solely from within.

For years, I was trapped in a powerless mindset about this purpose, of being a writer, to just write, with no specific agendas. When asked about what’s the thing that I wanna do most, or what’s my dream job, I’d always tell people I’d like to be a writer (a financially free one). I remember one ex-boyfriend asked me this question quite early in our volatile relationship. He was also the first and only one who judged/caught me outright:” You keep saying your passion is writing but I don’t see you doing anything about it at all. “ His words hit me quite hard, I must say, partly coz I knew he was right. I wasn’t doing anything about writing other than talking about it. I was too trapped/preoccupied in the stupid worldly life that I feared touching on the one thing that I love. I thought, what’s the point if I can’t afford to dedicate all my time to it and I’m probably not as talented as I think I was? For years, I had a very unhealthy relationship with writing.

From last year, I bought this domain and started to write more regularly here, this little unreserved private space. In the past year or so I gradually overcame the uneasiness I had with writing, and this 7-day retreat feels like a mirror from a parallel future — it helps me see in sheer clarity what kind of life I could be living and what kind of person I could be one day. I enjoyed every moment of it and I adored the person I briefly was in those 7 days. It happened so quickly and left me with a writer’s blue when I was back in my full-time job the next day, the job that actually pays. But deep down I know, just a transitory taste of it is already worth it.

As I’m writing this, a plain moment from years ago came back to me. I was with the just-mentioned ex-boyfriend and we were having a quick breakfast in a cafe and talking casually. He randomly said, you know, if you really wanna be a writer, I can support you for one year and you just do your writing thing, so at least you have that one year to try it out and see if it’s really your thing. I must have laughed it off at that time, probably a little amused by the fact that he was even offering, as what he was making could barely support his own passion. Thinking back, knowing perfectly it was just a casual remark, I wonder if that’s indeed the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me. Not becoz I’m moved that someone wanted to provide for me, but that he was the only person who took my writing dream more serious than myself.

If this 7-day writing retreat serves any purpose, I think, it reassures me that with enough effort, a lot of things are possible. It’s possible to take a meaningful vacation without flying. It’s possible to go ahead to do something even though it’s not something people would normally do. And it’s possible to keep trying — talented or not — with the best one can afford. Maybe a year, maybe 7 days.