Category Archives: Personal

A Piece of the Pie

A few years ago, looking to furnish my new shoebox apartment in Tokyo, I made my rounds of the secondhand shops in the area. At one place, a little far from home, I spotted two super-cute vintage chairs – around $50 for the pair. I loved them. I wanted them. And I bought them. It would have been a hassle to bring them back on public transport, so I ended up paying another $20 or $30 for shipping. It felt much relative to the cost of the chairs. But I liked them enough to overlook it.

I had never properly shopped or invested in furniture before, even $25 chairs, primarily because I had never quite settled in a place of my own. In Irvine, where I lived for six years in a university-owned apartment – the longest I had lived anywhere in my entire life – my biggest purchase was an arcade basketball machine. My residences had generally been furnished by roommates. And where items were lacking, I would fill in the gaps with unimaginative, cost-effective options: a bedside table from Ikea, a desk from Office Depot.

My reticence to invest in nothing but the most basic, low-end items was certainly linked to the transient nature of my existence. I could not help but think about the inevitability of having to get rid of that furniture in due course: nine months, a year – it would go by in the blink of an eye. Indeed, my approach to furniture reflected broader sensibilities linked to the moving around, as I heralded utility above all else. This was reinforced by the fact that I was both a cheap and relatively poor bastard.

As I have mentioned on these pages before, luxury was unknown to my family growing up. We were never quite uncomfortable, but nor were we ever comfortable either. We rented, never owned. We bought Corollas and paid them off over the span of years. I only had two or three years during my childhood and adolescence in which I did not share a room with my sister, until she went off to college. Given how hard my parents worked, given how hard money came by, spending extravagantly simply could not enter the realm of possibility.*

*Naturally, I wasted money anyway, being human and a child. But it was within reason.

Opportunity, however, began to present itself as I grew older. I made a little money working as an undergraduate, then more as a teaching assistant in graduate school. With some semblance of financial independence, I began to do things with regularity that would have been unfathomable when I was younger: engaging in fun travel (if almost exclusively within the States), attending sporting events, and simply going out on weekends for food and drinks and the like.

Thus it was that luxury too came to manifest, even if in spurts and with limits. I had nosebleed seats for my favorite baseball team, but they were season tickets – thousands of dollars’ worth. I bought a laptop or two on sale, even when my existing one was only aging rather than nonfunctional. I picked up small items like DVDs, books, comics, etc. without even thinking twice. I no longer had to dwell on such transactions, but for entirely unexpected reasons: because it WAS possible and not because it was not, as in the past.

Still, I struggled – and continue to struggle – to reconcile the reality of my present with that of my past. Of course, that my mother remains a blue collar worker, that many of my relatives and their social circles remain decidedly lower-middle class (or perhaps upper-lower class), provides a constant reminder of a life that is not quite in the rearview mirror. Additionally, that my own career instability continues to loom provides a constant reminder too of a lifestyle that can be all too fleeting.

Whatever the reason, I certainly have developed mixed feelings about the kind of life I am able to live sometimes. About the kind of world I live in that values a particular skillset over others to the tune that it does, with the kind of inequality that the difference entails. The effect is exacerbated by how it is represented in my own life: in comparison to my parents and how hard they work, in comparison to my sister and the societal value she brings, even in comparison to my own life (and duties) just two or three years ago.

I am able to live my life without dwelling on it most of the time, of course. I am not as good a person as I would like to think. But there are times when it becomes too obvious, too naked – with things that are small and tangible and all too easy to compare. In those moments, I feel somewhere between apprehension and full-fledged guilt. And thus I cannot spend over certain unwritten amounts for clothes, for electronics, especially for extravagant meals, even if I am all too aware that the limits I have set are quite arbitrary.

Indulgences take many forms. I have written of my ability to travel to more places than I could have ever imagined. And while I can rationalize such trips as genuine experiences that will be lodged in my mind in a way that a tangible thing cannot be, in reality one is not too far from the other. Ultimately, I am spending sometimes obscene amounts of money in one go – for a day of fucking around in a new city, for a weekend at a friend’s wedding on the other side of the world, for a week in the woods.

It seems of course misguided to deny myself the opportunities that I have been able to attain – no matter how unfair the world that offered them to me might be. To do so appears as self-righteousness to the extreme, an act meant primarily to assuage my own guilt. The solution then, broadly speaking, is to channel what luxury I have access to now to improve the world around me, to help others when I can. It is something I think about as I continue to pursue that elusive stability. And it is that awareness that allows me to live with myself.

There is a bookend to this. After I left Japan for Switzerland, my friends cared for my two chairs for the better half of a year. But when they left Japan too, I did not want them to simply get rid of the chairs. So, after contemplating my options, I asked for them to ship the pair over. They’re out on my balcony now, the exceptions in what is again an otherwise furnished sublet. It cost me about $250 to ship them over. I’m not particularly proud of that. But for now, I’m still all too conscious that I shouldn’t be proud of that.

Snapshots of a Friendship

I met him six years ago in Boston. He was my officemate. We had to feel each other out a little at first, the environment being what it was. But we became fast friends: hitting happy hours, watching sports, bitching about everyone else there. I met his on-again, off-again girlfriend (she sucked), some of his friends in the area (they didn’t), even his parents at his graduation ceremony. It was a good year.

He left for a year stint in Japan before I knew I would end up there after he left. He struggled, the same way I would my first year. For him, it was mostly the long-distance thing with his girlfriend (the one who sucked). We Skyped once or twice, exchanged occasional emails. A mutual friend and I visited him out there together. We drank sake, ate conveyer belt sushi, celebrated my 30th. It was a good week.

The next time I saw him was either DC or Japan; I’ve forgotten the timeline. DC was when I stayed with him and met his new girlfriend (she didn’t suck). We chatted, drank, played with their dog. It was a good couple of days. Japan was longer. This time around, I lived out there, and he had come out to do some fieldwork. We hung out, drank too much, took a trip up to Sendai. It was a good few weeks.

We met up in Atlanta last year. His girlfriend was there; the dog didn’t make the trip. We were there ostensibly for an academic conference, but managed to sneak in a basketball game. We hung out the next night too, catching up and drinking a fair amount – while bitching about acquaintances we had been talking to just hours earlier. It was a good day and a half.

I saw the two of them again this past weekend in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was their wedding.

A year and change, a handful of Skypes and emails. It doesn’t seem like much, not in the grand scheme of things. Snapshots. But it seems representative of most my relationships these days. A past period of close proximity, sporadic reunions, but otherwise, infrequent, almost nonexistent communication – and a fundamental lack of involvement in and intimate knowledge of each other’s daily lives.*

*There is one exception, but she is truly the exception that proves the rule. I write about the rule here.

It makes me wonder about the nature of friendships, certainly the nature of my friendships. There appears a thin line between space denoting comfort and ease with the relationship and space reflecting the harsher reality that the relationship is simply no longer what it was. Proximity – or lack thereof – might appear an easy excuse, but it seems hardly determining, potentially (easily?) overcome by effort.

Perhaps though this is the natural evolution of a relationship, as friends move out in different directions, stages of life, geographic locations. It is quite difficult sometimes to disentangle the relationship from the shared life experience that created its foundation, harder still to predict whether the former can survive in the absence of the latter, especially as people themselves change.

I think about the people I consider among my closest friends and I can recognize that it has been ages since I have had a real conversation with the majority of them. We exchange sporadic texts and emails, either for the most significant of life occasions (an impending child) or the opposite extreme (fantasy sports or political commentary), with little in between, regarding for instance aspects of our daily lives.

And yet I feel even with only snapshots of their current realities I still know their essence, due either to the length of the relationship, or the previous close proximity shared, or both of these. I wonder though if that too is a mirage, akin to what I wrote of the image conceived and acted upon by family members who profess to know the “real” you. I wonder then to what degree I am lying to myself.

I hope the distance is not because I take friends for granted. I hope there exists an implicit mutual understanding that relationships persevere even as they evolve and in some cases devolve. But maybe this is all semantics. The real question has to do with the kind of friend I am and want to be and am capable of being with each individual. It is about fit and connection and love, again even as I change and they do also.

Relationships are fraught. I know this is universal, having attended the aforementioned wedding in which the best man mentioned he was surprised to have been selected as such, in which mutual friends I expected were not even offered invitations, in which there appeared nobody from the locale in which the bride and groom were currently situated. Connection is not easy – to make, to maintain.

Then again, maybe this is precisely why I went out there. Even if I am no longer involved on a daily basis, even if I do feel somewhat detached from their present realities, I still could be there for a moment of genuine significance, for an updated snapshot. And as a result, the idea that I still know his essence a little bit, that we still had some of that first year in Boston in us, doesn’t seem so farfetched.

Every relationship is different. Thus, every relationship has to be examined on its own merits. Not all of each is in my control, of course, and perhaps too often, I cede responsibility – whether purposely or not. I’d like to think that I give enough, hopefully more than that, to those who ask, those who want. But I am picky too. Maybe that’s why the snapshots mean something to me still.

(Photo by Mayaoren, CC BY-SA 3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Glass Half Empty

On my worst days, I indulge my narcissistic tendencies.

I wallow in self-pity.

I linger on my myriad flaws.

I feel painfully insecure.

I can’t remember the last time I flew with anyone. It’s kind of a random thing to linger on, recognizably a first world problem, but it feels a microcosm of something, to me at least.* Maybe because there’s no one to ride with to the airport, to chat with until boarding, to hold onto in case of turbulence. I’ve been alone so long I’ve just about become resigned to the feeling, only it makes the fleeting moments of connection that do occur that much more visceral, haunting, eventually painful.

*Maybe I’ve just seen one too many Richard Curtis films.

It takes all of four hours for someone to figure me out – at least on a basketball court, spread out across two nights on back-to-back Tuesdays. A guy who I had never met previously – friendly and well-meaning, but clearly slightly exasperated – gives a shout as we leave the gym. “Wilfred.” There’s a pause, as though he’s weighing his words. Then a shake of the head and a knowing smile. “You gotta stop playing scared, man.” It’s a simple, brutal assessment, one that cuts right at me. He’s right.

I’m not aggressive with the ball. I’m more comfortable being guarded than I am cutting to the basket unmarked. I feel overmatched no matter who I play, all too aware that I either 1) lack the kind of coordination and body control they seem to possess naturally, or 2) contain an almost paralyzing sense of self-doubt almost entirely absent from others. Somehow, in a game that has no meaning beyond the 10 minutes it takes to get to the next one, I am scared – of letting teammates down, of looking stupid, of failing. It’s painfully obvious, even to a near-stranger.

I have always been a bundle of nerves, no matter the stakes, how big or small, or however many times I have found myself in similar spots previously. I take after my dad in that way. For all my efforts to maintain a facade of perspective in the grander scheme of things, I still suffer internally, making mountains out of molehills with a degree of regularity. Worse, I compound the psychological tendency by often fulfilling the prophecy myself, getting into troublesome situations of my own making.

Just a few weeks ago, for instance, I wandered unwittingly from a marked hiking trail, instead following along an unending ridgeline of limestone cliffs. It was stupid. I was supposed to make a left upward, rising above the clearing, but went opposite instead. Driven by a faint recollection of the description I had read the previous night, overriding all logic and common sense, I stubbornly plowed ahead – even as the ridge narrowed, the gradient steepened, and the trail became rocky and sandy.

Later, I would discover I was mere minutes from the peak when I veered off. It should have been obvious. The trail, the surroundings, the directionality – none of it made sense. Still, it takes me a half hour before I turn around. It’s harder going back. I climb through some sections, literally claw my way up others. Ahead of a particularly narrow section, I cramp. I’m writhing in pain on the ground, surveying the edge, pondering my mortality. It’s sobering: I’m genuinely terrified.* How did I get myself in this mess?

*It’s reminiscent of a previous experience I’ve written about. In this most recent instance, I even contemplate “if I don’t make it” texts to a couple of people, but it seemed like a terrible burden to put on them. So I hold back. Ultimately, I make it back and through, unscathed but for my psyche.

It seems a metaphor. I get so far in, then I pause for a breath and realize I still don’t quite know what the fuck I’m doing. That feeling of inadequacy; it’s a killer. It’s not that I fear I’m still not a finished product at 34, but the opposite – that I am a finished product and this is all I am and all I ever will be. I can blame timing and luck and nuance, but sometimes life feels like a series of dichotomous outcomes I can’t quite turn in my favor. A steady job. A sense of direction. Love and companionship.

On my worst days, I just don’t feel good enough. And I feel like I never will be.

I don’t know.

Maybe I gotta stop living life scared too.

Blood and Water

What is it about family that can be so frustrating, difficult, even infuriating? My mom sometimes reminiscences about how patient, how obedient, how “good” I used to be, wonders what changed. I tell her it’s because I’m not a child. I have thoughts and beliefs of my own, draw upon experiences and knowledge that I have acquired. And because I no longer take what she says at face value, because she no longer thinks on my behalf, I appear more disobedient in her eyes.

I wonder though if there’s more to it than that, than my growing up.

I have this image of myself as a person, an image of who I am and who I aspire to be. There’s a bit of embellishment, naturally, a bit of it skewed favorably on my behalf. I imagine that is the case with all of us. We have this slightly idealized image of ourselves, of how we present ourselves to the world. And with family, I think, their vision of us – and for us – is every bit as fleshed out, as real and fully-formed and stubborn, as our own.

My third or fourth grade class hosted an open house. On my featured art,work my family noticed that I signed my birthyear instead of the current year, and they teased me about it. I felt embarrassed and I got mad. In turn, they got mad at me for taking it too seriously. It felt demoralizing to lose control of the situation, to be painted as this goof, then a brat.

These two images of the self – the one we envision, the one envisioned by family – are not altogether independent nor irreconcilable, of course. But I think the external image held by family appears to them as more true because of its basis in history, whereas our internal self appears to them only as a tiny slice of what they believe to be true. In other words, the image we cultivate and present to the world is inevitably, constantly, and fundamentally challenged by family.

But how well do they know us, really? I’ve seen my family about three or four times in the last four years. They don’t really understand what I do, workwise. And they’ve met only some of my friends, fleetingly. Our daily realities are just so far apart, and not only geographically.

The dynamic works both ways. There’s a reason why we prep ourselves before spending extended time with family. We anticipate what is to come, because we too have fostered an image of who and what they are. We too fit their present self into a far greater narrative of what we “know” them to be – interacting on multiple levels, across myriad moments. And because of this, we not only confirm our vision and our narrative but project those outwards.

In my junior year of high school, I retook the Scholastic Aptitude Test but received a disappointing score. I got home and told my mom, and her face said enough. Before she verbally reacted, I left the house and drove around for hours, going nowhere, avoiding confrontation. It was the environment she had fostered. …Asian parents.

There’s more to it though. The relationship between the images, which interact and are inextricably linked. The fact that we can have so little in common yet still retain an elemental, intangible bond in which family appears as a reflection of our own self. The subsequent effect of seeing in someone the traits that are so familiar to what we see in ourselves – good and bad, only far more exaggerated, or at least far more obvious.

One Christmas, short on ideas, I found a little holiday gift pack for my sister: a stuffed penguin, hot chocolate mix, and marshmallows. Completely independent of me, she – needing a gift for an exchange at her friend’s party that year – somehow ended up buying that very same pack at the very same department store.

Family thus forces us to reflect. Even if we acknowledge the biased lens through which we see ourselves, we look and make ourselves out to be an improved specimen, a 2.0. Because to see any alternative suggests something far worse – a hypocrisy in which we can recognize the flaws in those who reflect ourselves the most (even if in an elemental, intangible manner) and yet choose not to address them, in effect turning our backs to self-betterment.

My mom’s martyrdom, her hard-headedness, her pettiness and long-memory, her judgmental nature and fear of so many things and self-doubt and need for validation. The way she sees love, the way she has to be all-in. All of that is me.

It feels odd, the whole of it. Perhaps the lack of choice exacerbates the frustrating, difficult, infuriating moments, with an undercurrent of feeling that we cannot be comforted, let alone rescued, by the simple recognition of agency, of effort, of desire – as we might with such moments in the context of friendships or partnerships. In contrast, family, in all but the most extreme situation, exists unquestioned and unchallenged.

A good friend made fun of me harshly at a movie theater because I thought that Finding Forrester was non-fiction. He was tactless; I was embarrassed.* I went off to the bathroom to get some space. But then I got over it. I had to, enough at least to drive him home. That’s the best analogy I have for family. Family is stuck in a car together.

*It is kind of funny to reflect on these things that seemed to matter so much in the moment.

So we question and challenge by other means. We make less effort to suppress our frustration. We act more pettily, brushing aside the image of the self they present and imposing the grand narrative over them – their every action thus a confirmation of what we already know to be true. We push a little harder understanding that there is an element of non-choice to the matter. We take family for granted.

Then again, I don’t have a relationship with my dad, so I guess family can be a choice too.

Family is difficult. It seems to get moreso. But maybe that’s just me.

Man in the Mirror

A few years ago when I was living in Boston, my friend Jim and I ran into a mutual acquaintance on the train. Neither of us particularly liked this guy. He was the stereotype of an Ivy Leaguer: too confident in his own intelligence, too eager to let the world know. As we ran in the same social circle however, we greeted him politely, made small talk until he reached his station. After, Jim and I did a quick post-mortem. “Man,” he observed with amusement. “You could barely look him in the eye.”

I hadn’t realized my disgust was that evident.

The interaction resurfaced in my thoughts this past weekend. See, my sister and brother-in-law are in town, visiting. And yesterday after a museum but before dinner, I led them to a coffee shop for a brief respite. Immediately, I could tell my sister was displeased. She apparently wanted to go straight to dinner, though she hadn’t been that vocal about it. And so, she pointedly didn’t order anything, asked passive-aggressively why I took them to this particular cafe, and then admonished her husband for something completely unrelated.

My brother-in-law and I stayed quiet. We exchanged knowing looks, and later, a short word. We both recognized what had happened, that she had taken her frustration with the situation out on him. It was tense for a while after. In fact, it took dinner and a movie before the cloud really lifted. But details aside, it was just fascinating to see the situation play out, both 1) to know someone so well that I could recognize how the scenario was unfolding, as though in slow motion, and 2) to share that knowledge with someone just as familiar with my sister and her temperament, if not more so.

I am my sister, though mine has always been more of a simmer than a boil. Indeed, I have always been aware of the transparency of my own feelings. But, and this was a lesson perhaps first driven home by Jim, I can still severely underestimate the degree to which I am transparent about my feelings, can still remain painfully unaware of how I come off to others. And the fact that I have felt more intensely these recent years suggests a further amplification of that effect.

I think about all this for a number of reasons, fundamentally because I think we should always strive for self-improvement, and a little healthy introspection is critical in that regard. I think about this because I feel genuine connection with less people in my current circumstance than my previous one, and as a result must tread more cautiously. I think about this too in the context of evolving relationships – more infrequent and primarily digitized – with friends and family no longer in my geographic vicinity.

Everything, I think, stems from the fact that I am all-in with people. I could not contain my disgust for even a few minutes on a public train because I had categorized that guy. I did not care to play nice because he was not my friend and would not be my friend, and represented someone who simply could not be my friend. Someone once described my relationships “like mafia.” It’s an extreme characterization, especially in light of some lost friendships over the years*, but there is something to that – for better or worse.

*Um, in nonviolent ways.

I judge people too easily, too wholly. I let my feelings with the negative aspects of their beings dictate my feelings about them as a totality, and I define those negative aspects by projecting qualities I find off-putting for my own existence (if sometimes to my detriment): Confidence bordering on arrogance, ease nearing lack of self-awareness, pride to the point of egoism. Perhaps I am perplexed by and even slightly envious of those who appear not as insecure, self-conscious, or simply lost as I feel at times.

From that, it follows that I can be too close-minded, too dismissive; all too often unwilling to grant second chances for perceived slights of personality. I focus too much on – not necessarily the wrong thing, but the only thing, at least as I see fit. I see a colleague who chats incessantly about his hobbies as an attention whore rather than an excitable, multi-faceted, even lonely soul. I am annoyed enough by the persistent humblebragging of an acquaintance that I overlook his obvious work ethic and intellect, his obvious professional insecurities.

From that, it follows that I demand too much of those I do let in, and am unfairly disappointed when they do not meet my arbitrary standards, even as they remain oblivious of the grievances I hold them accountable for. I simmer rather than boil over, I simmer and hold onto things far too long. I remain needy and insecure, wanting constant validation even when it is so clearly inherent in the nature of the relationship. And, falling back on the mafia conceit, I am far too willing to cut bait – to rid myself of the grays of situations, of relationships.

There is progress to be made then. Even if I cannot change who I am fundamentally, even if I do not think I want to. I can still be better to those in and out, from best friend to casual acquaintance on a train, whether in outward treatment or simply in how I perceive. Given how I am, after all, the internal is bound to seep into the external anyway. As for my sister? She apologized the day after, acknowledged she was irritable from hunger. I was touched. She wouldn’t have done that five years ago. I told her I should have communicated better myself. We’re all striving for self-improvement, it seems.

 

The Whole Wide World

In the midst of my grandmother’s final days, I couldn’t help but think about how different her life had been from mine, how everything she had been through had made things possible for me, my sister, our cousins. I received the news of her passing in Porto, on New Year’s Day. It pained me to be on the other side of the world, away from family in both the US and Hong Kong, away from friends even. Yet at the same time, I thought about how far we had come, as a family, that I was able to be there, a spur of the moment trip to Portugal over my holiday.

My grandmother never left China, never left Hong Kong really. Growing up, even after my parents moved with me and my sister to the States, our vacations were rare, and quite modest. A few road trips to Las Vegas and San Francisco, once to Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. Our big getaway was New York and DC – to deal with immigration paperwork. That was the extent of it. My parents always provided for us, and I never was left wanting of anything. But luxury was unknown to us: we rented instead of owned, moved around a bunch to save. And we rarely traveled.

I was at a museum in Paris when I received what turned out to be my last call from my grandmother. I was spending the holidays there with my best friend – she a half-Spanish French native whom I had met in Tokyo. About a week later, I reflected on the moment, the trip, and I thought too about my last couple of months working in Geneva. I had been to Brussels and Rome, spent a weekend with a good friend over in Barcelona. I didn’t think about this in a self-indulgent way. Rather, I thought about the fact that I was able to see so much, and experience so much, on behalf of my grandmother, on behalf of my parents.

I never once took for granted what I had gained because of my family’s move to the US. Still, I don’t know that I ever envisioned what my life was going to be like when I grew up. Until the point of graduate school, I never really thought about what my life could be like. Even as my personal travel expanded, it never quite seemed like real life. Things only felt different, I think, when it was my studies – my work – that opened up the world. Conferences in Chicago and New Orleans, in Seoul and Berlin. Field work in New York, Geneva, and Vienna. The world simultaneously became bigger and smaller, less bounded but more accessible.

I have admittedly struggled with expat life at times, as has been well documented on these pages. These recent weeks in particular have provided plenty of triggers. Missing the holidays, the milestones, the passings. Just watching La La Land this past weekend, and seeing the spirit, the hope and beauty, the melancholy of the city I grew up in, captured onscreen – it made me yearn for life back “home,” for the experience of being there. But I don’t think I would prefer that alternative, don’t think that I would be happier being in LA, or even the US. In fact, at this stage of my life (however long it may last), I can say resoundingly that this is not the case.

Perhaps it has to do with my tendency to settle, to be comfortable. Even in Japan, in a shoebox apartment with a modest fellowship stipend, with no hope for professional progress and almost no love life, I was a little too content. Maybe the inherent discomfort of being an expat is the very thing I need then. A friend suggested once that expats are people who are in search of something, who lack something in their lives. I suppose I’m still  searching. But what I’ve found so far has propelled me a bit in my life, has challenged me in ways I could never have conceived.

The people I’ve met – they’re the core of it. I have learned so much, from one-off dates and fleeting encounters, but especially from the kindred souls I will forever hold close to my heart. I have a friend in Hong Kong who still tells me regularly she misses our days as graduate fellows in Boston. A Japanese friend in Singapore who checked in on me every time he was in Tokyo, even if he had to meet with luggage in tow. The couple who I spent a full week with in a studio in Paris, nonstop, on their holiday; the aforementioned best friend who took me to all her family functions. They are in my life because of a confluence of coincidence*, but also fundamentally because I moved from comfort.

*”Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world”

When I told my mom about my trip to Rome, she asked how long the flight was from Geneva. She asked a few more questions about Italy  – something my sister and I both picked up on. They, along with my brother-in-law, were to visit me in Switzerland later this year. After the conversation, my sister put Rome and Venice on their itinerary too. I think about that, and the hundreds of places my sister has been to in her life. I think about my mom, a homemaker until we moved to the States, who then – and to this day – would have to wake up before the crack of dawn six days a week for her blue-collar job. And I think about her being able to see Italy and Switzerland and France and Japan.

I think about my grandmother.

Leaving Los Angeles was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Being an expat continues to be the privilege of my life. I know it. I just have to remind myself of it sometimes.

(Photo by bm.iphone, uploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Be Good

By the time I was three or four, I only had one surviving grandparent – my dad’s mother. I have pictures of our family visits, though my memories of those are quite spotty.

When I was six, my family immigrated to the United States. My grandmother – along with many aunts and uncles and cousins – stayed behind. A few eventually came to visit us in the US, but the trip was too much of a strain for my grandmother. Our relationship was confined to the sporadic greetings we would exchange over the phone to the other side of the world.

For a myriad of reasons – personal and financial – my family didn’t visit Hong Kong for many years after the move. Not until I was 19. The trip was surreal. I still remember the warmth with which we (my mom, my sister, and I) were received, by faces and personalities that seemed to me both vaguely familiar and yet so very faraway.

My parents had divorced by this time, and not in an amicable fashion. So during that trip, my sister and I went to visit my dad’s side of the family by ourselves. My sister always had warmer relations with our dad, and so she spent more time with our aunt and with our grandmother. I was in the background – quiet, polite, secondary. I don’t remember too much about the interaction.

With my Cantonese limited, and my memories few, Hong Kong never did quite call to me. Even as I shifted to adulthood, with the relative freedom of a graduate school schedule, I didn’t make the effort to go back and visit relatives. My sister was much better about this, about family stuff. It wasn’t until when I was 30, and had just finished my degree, that I made another trip back, with her and her now-husband.

My grandmother was happy to see us. She didn’t have an exuberant personality, but that much was obvious. She was particularly tickled to interact with my now-brother-in-law (who spoke only the few words of Cantonese that my sister had taught him). We had missed the occasion of her 90th birthday, but she saw our visit as a second celebration. And it was; I even saw my great-aunt for the first time since I was six. Everyone spoke about how much more talkative I had become, how much my personality had developed.

I ended up moving to Japan later in 2013, and visited Hong Kong two more times. Once that same Christmas, and once for the New Year in 2016. I stayed with my aunt and my grandmother both times. My grandmother suffered a fall in between, and so the latter visit was tougher, more solemn. She spoke of her physical pain, about the frustrations of her limitations. We made small talk, mostly. It was the first real quality time I could remember spending with my grandmother.

In early December, I learned that my grandmother’s health had taken a turn. She had been diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer and had months to live – at most. I ended up arranging a video call on Christmas Day. She was in the hospital, tubes attached, looking terrible. I was not prepared for the sight. It was hard to keep up a cheerful front. The connection was spotty, and so the conversation was short. She told me to be good.

The next day though, while I was at a museum in Paris, my cousin texted – as my grandmother was apparently in better spirits. I ended up sitting on the floor somewhere, away from the crowds, in order to connect. She did look more energetic. Still, the conversation was short. Again, she told me to be good. I told her I would be. I said that she didn’t have to worry about me or my sister anymore. I started choking up. It felt like goodbye.

I didn’t feel like partying New Year’s Day 2017. I was in Porto at the time, but the crowds were just a turn off. I ended up returning to my Airbnb early, watching a movie or two.

Twenty minutes after midnight, I received the text that my grandmother had passed.

I was not a good grandson, never was. I did not put in the effort to forge a real relationship with her – I was too young and immature, too impatient and too easily dissuaded by the language barrier. I don’t even remember her real name; I only ever called her “a mā” (grandma in Cantonese). I’m only pretty sure she was 94, and I know she grew up in deep poverty – having to literally beg in her youth. I don’t know much else.

Still, I know my grandmother was loved. My aunt lived with her for over 20 years. My father went back to Hong Kong to spend time with her, frequently. My oldest cousin had purchased a minivan expressly to drive her out once in a while, and another cousin made it a point to take her to tea almost every weekend. After her fall, my sister bought her a better stroller to move around in; they chatted on the phone with regularity.

And I know that my grandmother loved. I know she was terribly sad when her best friend had to move to a nursing home about a year or two ago. I know she still cared about my mom: she would make it a point to ask about her in my recent visits. I know she enjoyed flipping through the photobooks my sister and I had sent over. Mostly, I know she was proud of all of us, especially my sister and I, and all that we had accomplished.

She still worried, as grandparents are prone to do. But like I said, she didn’t need to anymore. I’ll be good.

(Photo by Typhoonchaser, CC-BY-SA-3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons)