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

My dear friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours, affectionately and one-year-older,


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.