Tag Archives: growing up

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)

A Sunday

Telling a drunk story entails risk. For those who weren’t there, who weren’t involved, the recounting is never as enjoyable. Their appreciation – if it is to be found – derives not only from the merits of the story , but from how the story plays off their knowledge of the storyteller. Yet, even with the proper level of familiarity, finesse is required. Drunk stories, after all, are not intended to make the storyteller look good.

I’ve always said on these pages that I’m not much of a storyteller. With the right audience, however, in the right context, this is one of my stories. I’m not quite sure how it’ll translate to this format. But my buddy Jim is getting married next month. And in honor of that, a drunk story:

Kurosawa made this classic film called Rashomon. It centers on a crime that takes place, and the truth of that crime being reconstructed piecemeal through the recollections of three or four different characters. There are contradictions in each of their stories, embellishments, obvious lies. Each version though adds depth, each calls into question objective reality and whether it exists at all. This day was kind of like that for the three of us involved.

This drunk story takes place in Japan. Naturally. I don’t know how much longer my liver would have held out living in that country. It was the land of all-you-can-drinks, where getting fucked up under the cherry blossoms was not only socially acceptable but a national pastime. On weekends, public bathroom sinks were sporadically filled with vomit; pillars and walls in train stations adorned with slumped figures of the wasted, of both genders and all (adult) ages.

It was a Sunday.

Once, maybe twice a year, this sake brewery 90 minutes northwest of Tokyo would open its doors to the public. There’d be samples, sales, food: a grand old time. I hadn’t heard about it. It was the kind of festival that attracted primarily natives and presumably drunkards. Katsuya was a native, maybe a drunkard. I’d actually never met him before but he was a friend of Jim’s, which was good enough for me. He was the one who passed along the word.

The gates opened at 10 or 11, I forget. Either way, it seemed excessively early for a sake festival. It worked out nicely for me and Jim though, at least in theory. We had tickets that evening for a baseball game, and not just any regular baseball game. A Major League Baseball all-star team was in town visiting. American all-stars. We were American, so we wanted to be there. We’d check out the festival, stop home, then pop over to the game. Easy as pie. American apple pie.

We met at the train station near the brewery, the three of us – Katsuya, Jim, and I. We all had arrived about 20 minutes before opening, as per Katsuya’s instructions. Introductions were made, and we shared an easy laugh about the absurdity of preparing to get (reasonably) drunk before noon. Japan, right? We started walking towards the brewery, but stopped about halfway there. There was already a line about three blocks long – like it was Black Friday outside Best Buy, only with more alcoholics.

Once the gates opened at 10 or 11, the hordes streamed onto the brewery grounds. It was a bit chaotic, as you might expect from any alcohol festival, but not too much so, as you might expect from any alcohol festival in Japan. We got in line for a couple of sake samples here and there; generous portions were provided.* There might have been some informational displays around, but like everyone else, we didn’t pay much attention to them.

*I nearly got into a fight when this guy blatantly cut ahead of us in line. When I started to make a scene, his response was to repeatedly say “Chill, we’re all having fun here”; he then proclaimed that he would have expected a reaction from the Japanese, but not from another expat. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I wanted to stab him.

After downing several samples, we headed off to gauge the food situation on the grounds. The crowd was by now immense. It was at critical mass; the situation seemed less fun than overwhelming, as events in and around Tokyo can be sometimes. So, after each purchasing a wooden sake cup – filled with sake, of course – we huddled and considered our options. It was Katsuya, I think, who came up with an inspired plan: buy a bottle, get some food, and have an impromptu picnic at a nearby park.

In line, ostensibly to purchase a single bottle to share, was where it all started to fall apart. Katsuya deftly jumped ahead of me and Jim at the last second, then selected and paid for a bottle before either of us realized what was going on. It was a gesture to old friendships and new, he said. A genuinely touching sentiment. But in the heat of the moment, Jim and I responded in the only way that made any sense. We bought additional communal bottles. We ended up with six in all (roughly 750 ml apiece).

I was already drunk when we left the grounds of the brewery for a park Jim had located on Google Maps. We each had had at least three servings of sake by then, between the samples and the overflowing wooden cups. At a convenience store, a konbini, we bought some onigiri (rice balls) and chips, plus a few beers for alcoholic variety; I grabbed a piece of fried chicken as well, devouring it en route. It was well before noon when we arrived at the park.

We drank nearly four entire bottles of sake there.

Katsuya left us at the park. He had mentioned earlier that he needed to meet his wife and child. They were nearby, or back in Tokyo, or something – it was a little mysterioso. But at some point in my drunken stupor, I noticed he wasn’t with us anymore. While the trek to the bathroom in the park was substantial, he had gone for what felt like ages. He did reappear momentarily, presumably from the bathroom. Then he left for good. Jim and I both thought he seemed remarkably sober.

Ironically, Katsuya would later mention he thought Jim and I seemed to be in surprisingly good shape when he left us. All three of us were wrong. Later that day, Katsuya drunkenly dropped his baby while on public transit. …Yeah. Fortunately, there was no lasting damage, though Katsuya’s wife understandably was quite displeased with both him and us. To this day, and perhaps on a related note, I have not met her.

It was still early, maybe 1 or 2, but now windy bordering on uncomfortable. At some point, Jim and I realized we needed to make our way back to Tokyo. My head was pounding; I was blackout drunk. Jim still had the wherewithal to use his phone to figure out which way the train station was, so I followed blindly. I couldn’t walk straight. My head was slumped down; I was dragging myself along, hoping I wouldn’t slam into anyone or anything.

Of this journey, Jim does remembers being strangely overcome with a singular focus on reaching the station. He knew I was behind him, primarily because he heard this distinct clopping noise. That turned out to be me as I kept looping from sidewalk to street and back, in diagonals and circles. But we were both in dire straits. At the station, it took Jim about four tries to get his metro card properly scanned.

We must have been a sight at the station. Past the ticket gates, I made it up a set of stairs one at a time, slumped over the railing, hoisting myself along. I don’t know how I didn’t fall. Maybe I did and forgot about it. Thankfully, it was the terminus, so there was a train sitting, waiting to begin its journey back to Tokyo. Jim and I made our way aboard, collapsing quickly onto a bench. I closed my eyes a moment and lost consciousness.

I was sprawled on the train bench when I came to. I felt like garbage, even moreso now than before, as drunkenness gave way to the in-between before the hangover fully appears. It took a minute to process my reality, but I soon realized that:

  1. I was alone;
  2. The train was rested and emptying; and
  3. There was a Japanese woman yelling at me.

I dealt with the last and most immediately pressing bit first – the yelling and gesticulating stranger. Judging from her tone and volume, she was chiding me for being wasted on a train at 2 on a Sunday afternoon. But past her disgust, she seemed to be trying to convey something else. Eventually I followed her gestures, looking beneath my seat. And on the floor, I saw a cell phone: mine. I looked up to thank her but she was already gone. Eventually, I dragged myself off the train too.

I didn’t know where Jim was, but I was feeling worse and worse. I went straight to the bathroom in the train station, locked myself in a stall, and sat on the ground. It might have been a public bathroom in Japan, but it was not the kind of public bathroom in which anyone should be sitting on the ground; it was a squat toilet for starters. But I was in no position to be particular. I sent Jim a text, then rested my head on the floor and started moaning.

There, behind the locked doors of a squat train station toilet, I passed out again.

At some point, someone started banging on the walls, perhaps with an emergency of their own. I tried to respond by moaning my pain, but I couldn’t put words together. I was a drooling mess. Eventually they left me be. I ended up spending about an hour in the bathroom, lying down. Eventually, I used the squat toilet properly and without incident, a remarkable deed given my condition. When I felt slightly better, I checked my phone. There was a text: Jim was back in his Airbnb.

Halfway through the train ride towards Tokyo, Jim had apparently gotten it in his head that we needed to make a transfer. We did not. So, while I was passed out, he stepped off intending to check a map. The train took off, as a train does. Jim pounded on the window to try and get my attention, but to no avail. Then, left behind, he wandered that station for a bit. He vomited in public. Then he boarded another train back towards Tokyo.

The station I was at was about a 20 minute walk from the Airbnb, a mile away. In my condition, it might as well have been a million miles away. I threw myself into a taxi on the north side of Shinjuku Station – the busiest train station in the world. I thrust my phone at the driver, but he couldn’t make heads or tails out of the display. I couldn’t form coherent sentences yet, so eventually I grabbed the phone, dropped a pin near where the address was, or seemed to be, and handed it back.

The driver kept looking at my phone over the course of the drive – always a great sign. He ended up dropping me off at a hotel by the south exit of Shinjuku Station. My brain was fried though, and I figured it was not worth it to steer him to steer me in the right direction, so I paid and left.* Then I stumbled down the streets in search for Jim’s place. I got lost twice before I found the complex. I climbed up the stairs and banged on the door. …There was no response.

*To recap, I paid 1,000 yen (roughly $10) to take a cab from the north side of a train station to the south side of a train station.

The lights were out. It didn’t make any sense to my feeble and fragile brain. I still felt awful, so I lied down on the ground in front of his unit and curled up in a ball. I tried to catch a nap, but it was too cold, too windy by then. I checked the address again and again on my phone, shivering on the floor. Finally, after probably 10 or 15 minutes but what felt like 45, I banged on the door again. This time, there was some noise, some feet shuffling. Then the door opened.

Jim was holding the knob. He didn’t say a word and neither did I. We both turned into the living space, where two double beds decorated either side of the room. Jim fell into his bed, I fell onto the other one. I passed out immediately.

It was pitch black.

Groggily, I checked the time. More than an hour after first pitch.

I felt like garbage, of course. But I had a singular thought. We had spent about $35 apiece on our tickets, and we were going to this baseball game.

Jim would later tell me that his first memory of the late afternoon was waking up to my repeated cries of: “It’s gametime, man! Gametime!” After the transfer mishap, he had successfully made his way back to Tokyo and the Airbnb, but he had no recollection of my banging on the door the first or second times, let alone getting up and letting me in. I’m not sure why he didn’t protest when I insisted we go to the game 90 minutes late.

We made it to the Tokyo Dome that night around 9 pm. It was the seventh inning when we took our seats. But baseball being baseball, the game lasted another hour – enough time for the American team to score a few runs, enough time for us to get some curry rice. Mostly though, we sat still, moaning every once in a while, sipping our sodas. When the game finished, we joined the masses walking to the station. Jim rode to his Airbnb, and I went home.

I didn’t drink sake for about a month after that.

(Photo by Ralf Steinberger, CC BY 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Cinematic Paradise

A couple of weeks ago, I went and saw the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious. It was a memorable trip, even overlooking the movie itself. See, for the first time, I opted for the D-BOX experience: motorized seats that vibrate and move in correspondence to onscreen action. Fast 8 turned out to be the perfect movie for the system, as every rev, every crash, every explosion reverberated through the chair to my very core. It was so much fun. I was giddy – and sold – from the opening sequence.

I’ve loved movies ever since I was a kid. I suppose a part of that was due to me growing up in Los Angeles. I couldn’t help but be immersed in the culture of Hollywood. I’d go to the mall and it would be where they filmed Terminator 2 (Glendale Galleria) or Back to the Future (Puente Hills Mall). I’d recognize “fake” newscasters in any number of films as the real newscasters on my local television stations. When I was in middle school, my sister even took me along to be an extra in a crowd scene for a forgettable Billy Crystal movie.

But my love for the movies outstripped that of fellow Angelenos, perhaps a product of circumstance. My folks were working six, seven days a week, and I found myself with a fair amount of time to kill going as far back as my elementary school years. My cousin and I would roam the streets in our suburban neighorhood regularly on Saturdays, and we’d invariably end up either playing arcade games at Subway or stopping by the local multiplex. The employees there were lax about movie-hopping; it became a habit.

By the time I reached high school, I was a full-blown addict.* I loved everything about the theatrical experience. I loved seeing the marquees out front when we drove past, back when the only other recourse to find out what was playing was to telephone in or buy a paper. I loved seeing the giant posters and fancy cardboard displays that accompanied new and upcoming releases. I relished seeing a movie with one friend Saturday and another with someone else Sunday, or just going alone for a double- or triple-header. Once, I even stayed for four movies.

*I’d even read book adaptations of things like Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Little Big League; it was absurd. I’ve outgrown that, but even now I’m still drawn to stories that become movies.

It didn’t hurt that I simply liked movies. Even as I watched my fair share of awful new releases, I never walked out on any, and just about never regretted seeing anything on the big screen (though spending $22 at the San Francisco Metreon for the abysmal Men in Black II comes to mind). Every experience offered something worthwhile – a good line, a silly laugh, a striking shot: moments of novelty and genuine inspiration I held onto. I never considered myself a movie expert and certainly not a movie connoisseur; no, I was always a fan.

It was in college that I began to gain a greater appreciation for cinematic history. I took just a single film course – “History of the American Motion Picture” – but fell in love in particular with The Gold Rush (1925) and It Happened One Night (1934). They opened my mind to the timelessness of the medium. Conveniently, this was during the heyday of Netflix’s home delivery service. I kept a steady stream of DVDs flowing in my apartment, taking full advantage of my three-at-a-time plan, all in addition to my regular trips to the theater.

There was so much out there for me to discover – films of all eras, and eventually all languages. After a friend recommended The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, I went on a long run of spaghetti westerns, then shifted over to regular westerns. I’d get to The Magnificent Seven which would lead to the original Seven Samurai which would then take me down Kurosawa lane. Or I’d crush on Audrey Hepburn and watch from her collection, then Marilyn Monroe and hers. I was learning without the structure of a classroom.

The fact that I was at UCLA also meant I was a short walk from the historic movie palaces in Westwood. It added another dimension to my fandom. On weekday afternoons when the crowd was scarce, it’d be me and a scattershot of senior citizens and the self- or perhaps un-employed in any number of beautiful, cavernous halls. The well-worn cliché of being transported to another world for a couple of hours had immeasurable value for my state of mind, being depressed in college. The theatrical experience had evolved into both hobby and therapy.

After college came graduate school, and ten minutes down the road from the university I attended in Irvine, California, there existed a real, honest-to-goodness, 70 mm IMAX theater. It changed my life. Movies had always been an event, but broadcast on a 90’ by 65’ screen – roughly the size of a seven story building, they became more. Everything felt immersive, exhilarating, simply overwhelming.* I watched summer blockbusters in awe, my brain reeling from the stimulus, my heart full. IMAX was a high of an experience that I have never been able to replicate.

*Watch any of the Transformers series on a real IMAX and try not to feel like a kid. They’re objectively terrible movies; I’ve enjoyed all of them nonetheless.

Graduate school was a fantastic time for my movie fandom overall. With a little bit of pocket change and a great deal of spare time, I averaged 80 trips to the theater a year, cranking it up to 100 as I shifted from coursework to dissertation writing. I developed a regular rotation of five or six local theaters, my individual trips determined by showtimes or discounts or membership perks. My mom swam in free tickets and concessions. I maintained a blog exclusively about movies for a year; I even created and taught a course on “International Politics and Film” one summer.

Moving from Southern California – and later, the United States – has done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for film. Of course, as was inevitable, I even wrote a garbage screenplay of my own. But it has been fascinating to witness movie cultures abroad as an expat and traveler. To stand for the Thai royal anthem before the previews begin, to climb awkwardly over Japanese audiences sitting through the entirety of the end credits as a sign of respect, to wrap my head around three rows of subtitles (English, French, German) onscreen in Switzerland. They’re indelible memories.

Movies comprise a significant part of the tapestry that is my life. I can draw upon so many memories – good and bad – of childhood and adolescence, friendships and relationships, profound moments of self-realization to utterly unremarkable days, that are inextricably linked to films and film experiences. Granted, I will never in my life again movie-hop two or three screens every other weekend. But whether I’m in an uncomfortable chair in a last-run theater or a state of the art “motion system” on opening night, I will forever remain captivated by the wonder, the spectacle – the magic of cinema.

(Photo by I, Sailko, GFDL, http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html, CC-BY-SA-3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons)

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)

Of Crushes and Loves

(1983-2015)

She was pretty and smart. And she had a unique name that I still remember. We were in first grade. But my friend declared his own crush for her first. So I kept quiet. It didn’t matter much in the end. I moved and changed schools after less than a year. Funny enough, I did run into her a couple of years later at the public library. She stood there when I came out of the bathroom, openly staring at me. I recognized her back; I must have. Neither of us said anything though. It’s hard to explain why third graders act the way they do. I suppose the idea of fate didn’t register to either of us then. Anyway, after a beat, I offered her the bathroom key. She didn’t take it, didn’t react. So I went on my way. That’s the last time I saw her.

She was a pretty freckled girl. She and her best friend were the queen bees of my new elementary school. I remember vividly how big a deal it was when the two of them got in a fight in the girls’ bathroom once. The details of the fight – physical or emotional – were a complete unknown. I developed a crush, of course. But she was always hanging around the school jock. I had no idea if they ever actually dated (this was third grade, after all), but they seemed a natural match. Her friend actually liked me for about a week. That was her thing; she had a new object of her affection every week. Nothing came of it. I moved after fifth grade, and that was that.

She was the smartest girl in sixth grade. I might have been the smartest boy. (It was a small school.) We were friends. Acquaintances, really. I remember writing in her yearbook, “don’t let your brain fry in the summer heat.” It seemed clever at the time. She playfully threatened to chase me around the playground when we came back in the fall. A budding love, perhaps. But my family ended up moving again without notice. We actually ended up at the same college though. I saw her once on campus. She was older, obviously, but still pretty, still unmistakably her. But we had never kept in touch. So I let her be. I only saw her just the once.

She was the prettiest girl in middle school. I wasn’t particularly cute or cool or anything then (or now, for that matter). We sat together in a class, at a four person table, for an entire semester. But we didn’t talk much. Still, the topic of crushes did come up once. I became the subject of scrutiny. I didn’t say anything. She started probing, listing other girls in the class, being obtuse, the way attractive people can be about their own attractiveness. I didn’t admit anything to her though, or to anyone else. Years later, I learned that she would actually become the first love of one of my best friends in high school, totally unbeknownst to me. Years later, I learned she broke his heart.

She was the smartest girl in ninth grade. Seemed it, anyway. Freckled, curly-haired. Different. The creepy social studies teacher would make comments about her and the smartest boy in the class (definitely not me) like they were peas in a pod. It only made me like her more. Regardless, I made my way to my next crush. Four years later, I did ask her to sign my high school yearbook. My big move. She wrote something so generic another friend mocked her in the message he wrote to me. The last time I saw her was after senior night. I was driving home, she was outside waiting for her ride, and our eyes met for a moment. It seemed like closure, if for something that never was.

She was the kindest girl in high school. Seemed it, anyway. I didn’t much interact with her, certainly not outside class, but I projected all of my hopes and dreams on her. I don’t know how I got to that point. Before we graduated, I wrote her an absurd email about my not wanting to have any regrets, about wondering if there might be something there. I asked for a reply in the form of her presence, for a meeting at the Observatory. She didn’t show, of course. I still cringe about putting all of that on her, 15 years later. There’s a part of me that wants to apologize, even now. But it’s a selfish desire.

She had the bubbliest personality. Smart and pretty too. I was her teaching assistant. She never gave any signs, any hints. But I plowed ahead and asked her out via email after the quarter. She never responded. Horrifyingly, she ended up in another of my classes a year after that. I felt awful. I wrote to apologize for putting her in that position. She wrote back. Somehow, we became friends. She shared a lot about her life with me, her issues. To this day, we’re in touch – emails, texts, the occasional movie if I’m in town. My crush is still there, I suppose. But it’s just so irrelevant now. I’m more concerned about her, protective of her. Maybe this is how I’ve tried to repent.

She was older, seemingly far wiser and more experienced. A friend in graduate school. We weren’t too close, partly because she was married. Then she wasn’t married anymore. By then, we lived on opposite sides of the country, so lengthy phone conversations sufficed. She came to visit eventually, her birthday weekend. My first love. I had ridiculous fantasies about us, about our future. It was different for her. A fling. It took me too long to figure that out. I visited two years later, in town for a conference. She was cold, distant. She made sure we didn’t spend time alone. We had contentious conversations about other things. Everything fell apart that weekend.

She had a great sense of humor and a nice chatty way about her, if fueled by a fair bit of narcissism. She rebuffed me on our second date, but we continued to hang out, as friends. It was unhealthy. She came to lean on me during a tough time. I accepted co-dependence in place of love. She would speak about a friend in another country who was supposedly perfect for me – ostensibly because it wasn’t her. It was patronizing. After she moved away, I realized how shitty the relationship made me feel about myself. It was nothing she said or did in particular, just the whole of it. Our conversations became less frequent. The last was, and will be, in September.

She was the sweetest girl, intellectually curious and gorgeous too. We had a cute date, great conversation, some silliness that made for a perfect story. A second date followed, then a third, and more. In that brief time, she seemed like a true love, not just a fling, and not unrequited. But she had family things going on, and fell ill from the stress. She kept me at arm’s length. Our correspondence slowed when I went for a visit home, about six weeks in. When I returned, she had decided she needed to take care of herself. I wanted to share that burden, but she was resolute. She was to leave the country in eight months. She never reached out again. In the end, I suppose it was unrequited love too, if in its own way.

(Photo by Corwinhee, CC BY-SA 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)