Tag Archives: lifestyle

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.

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.

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)

By the Lake

I should experience the summer, I’m told. This in fact has been an almost universal refrain from denizens in Geneva, with the implicit – and sometimes not-so-implicit – suggestion that the other seasons are generally forgettable here. Quiet. Sleepy. Boring. It’s the general thrust of the city’s reputation. A colleague who has lived around the edges here for more than a decade could not name a restaurant within city confines that he frequented regularly. A collaborator now in Vienna volunteered she spent “a year in a month” here, chuckling as she asked how I was coping so far. I have met plenty of people who like the city, to be sure, but with reservations. Again, I should really experience the summer.

It is impossible for me to look at my three months in Geneva without doing so through the lens of the last place I resided – Tokyo, Japan. From that regard, my life is already so different that the idea of the cities being classified as the same species – let alone genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, or domain* – is an almost laughable proposition. My 20.35 square meter shoebox in the world’s hippest neighborhood has given way to a ridiculous 90+ square meter apartment in one of the world’s sleepiest. Shops close at 7 pm instead of seemingly never, crowds are the exception rather than the norm, and overall vibrancy is contained to a special event, a block or two, an evening or two. We’ve shifted to tortoise from hare.

*Because high school biology shouldn’t be wasted

But it is precisely the drastic character of the change that I don’t mind at all what Geneva has been so far. This is not Tokyo revisionism. I continue to miss the constant buzz and excitement, the pure visceral and frenetic nature of it all. I miss the comfort of familiarity with the space I had carved out, in an environment defined by its absence of boundaries. I miss my best friend (understatement). Still, I have alluded to the fact that my life in Japan did not seem sustainable – for my liver certainly, or my state of mind. I did feel compelled to hike just about every week, almost necessary to preserve my sanity. It would have been too easy for me to get lost there, in this contradiction of the familiarity of the surreal.

Geneva in some ways then stands as a perfect detox to Tokyo, a near antithesis that straddles the line of being an international city and sleepy suburb. This is not the most flattering image I am painting, I realize. But short of Seoul and a select few other locales, the down-scaling from a metropolitan population that nearly reached 39 million to any other was always going to be a move that was intrinsically a return to the ‘real world.’* And Geneva – on its own merits – has plenty of positives. It feels and is culturally rich and diverse, with a sense of history and even a couple of sports teams. The presence of so many international organizations, and the accompanying influx of young professionals and expats, lends it an aura of liveliness, even if only in spurts. Life overall appears sustainable, real – more often at least.

*an estimated 485,000 in Geneva

It is a running joke that residents flock to the train station and the airport to leave the city on the weekends. But the idea that this is an indictment on Geneva itself seems a patently unfair judgment to make. The public transportation system that links Geneva to all parts of Switzerland is a credit to the country, a cheap means to a nearby day hike, a jazz festival in Lausanne, a weekend in Zurich or Bern. After all, I too used Boston as a springboard to explore the Northeast Corridor. I left Tokyo regularly to see more of Japan than any non-local possibly could, to spend holidays (twice!) in Southeast Asia. The proximity of Geneva to any number of European capitals should stand as a point in its favor, not against.

The other day, a colleague offhandedly insulted Lexington, Kentucky, a place neither he nor I had ever been to. And I found myself being a bit offended by it. It seems silly, seeing as how I’ve eliminated half the US from the list of places where I want to work. Maybe it’s easy to be self-righteous and indignant in theory. But a few years ago, I spent two weeks in Syracuse, New York, for an extended academic workshop. I was quite dismissive of the experience then. Looking back now though, I went to a minor league baseball game, checked out a food festival, and took a day trip to Cooperstown. If I lived there now, I would find hikes, local shows, a farmer’s market or something. With university students around, it would have approached vibrant, I’m sure. I would bet Lexington has its charms, just as I can see now that Syracuse did too.

Perhaps then this is a matter of personal maturity, and an interrelated comfort level with my own needs and hobbies. What does it mean for a place to be boring, after all? What does a person want from the place where they reside? In Geneva, I have walked a weekend flea market (regularly), checked out a couple of art exhibits, sat for a hockey game and a play, and ate and drank through a street food festival and a beer festival, respectively. I’ve gone on a few hikes that started within the confines of the city, even gone for a swim lakeside when the weather permitted. This weekend, I’ll likely go to a Christmas market and a photo exhibition in Nyon (a 15 minute train ride away) in lieu of a concert orchestra at the United Nations. Next weekend, I’m off to Barcelona.

Okay, so Geneva itself is low-key, quiet. But boring? I don’t think that’s right. More to the point, I don’t think I want to be that dismissive of any place anymore, even if only in theory. Yeah, Geneva is certainly different from Tokyo or Boston or Los Angeles. But isn’t that the point of living anywhere?

Where the Heart Is

I went on a run with a friend a few weeks ago. I don’t much go on runs. I loathe them – the awkward flailing, the sweat everywhere, including on my glasses, the gasping for breath if god forbid I tried to pick up my pace a bit or attack a slight incline. Worst of all was the interminable walk-jog segment home after the actual run. Regardless, we were running. We got to chatting, and she asked when I had last ran regularly. I scanned the recesses of my brain. Four years? Five? Then it hit me. It was ten months ago. Yeah. Ten months ago, I lived on the outskirts of town, and another friend and I ran along a small stretch of river once, twice a week, just about every week. I had completely forgotten.

It’s amazing how much my life has changed in the past year. It’s amazing how much my life has changed in accordance with where I live. It has nothing to do with my being an ex-pat – no need to cover that worn territory. No, what I’m talking about is much more fundamental. The configuration of a city, the amenities it has to offer, the presence of natural bodies of water, the location of home relative to the job. My life has been virtually unrecognizable year-to-year over the past half decade, and that has had as much to do with where I resided each of those years as anything else. It’s kind of astonishing.

I hike a lot now. It’s a psychological thing. See, I live in the city. So on the weekends when crowds flood the streets from noon on, I feel a tremendous urge to get away from it, to simply not be there. It’s the same reason I bike the 25 minutes to work as often as I can. Otherwise, I’m a complete lemming. I’d walk to the station, cram into a packed train during rush hour, and walk up the hill along with thousands upon thousands of faceless suits. Then I’d have to repeat the process in reverse at the end of the day. I definitely like the city, but I have to make a conscious effort to carve out a little personal space, to see something other than concrete and pavement. So I do.

I lived in the ‘burbs last year, way on the outskirts of town. My home was literally a five-minute walk from the office, and on top of that, I pretty much made my own hours. I lived only a couple of miles from the river, easy miles at that, and so that’s where I would run with my friend. Every weekend, I’d go out on a long bike ride along the river as well. It was nice, serene. But I would also go into the city every three or four days, to get a taste of life, of energy and vibrance. I didn’t really need a destination. I’d go and visit a restaurant, a store. I’d go and walk around and do nothing in particular. I’d just go – because I needed it.

I went to the gym regularly in Irvine, running on a track. There wasn’t much to do around there. I’d drive out to the Spectrum pretty regularly for movies. I’d go to Target for no particular reason. I had season tickets to the Angels one year. In Waltham, I was so far away from it all. The car didn’t really help – parking’s a bitch in Boston. I took the bus all the time, but it was so unreliable. I was kind of a homebody that year, though I suppose I had a good reason, wrestling with the heart of the dissertation. Anyway, once I moved to Brighton, it was different. I’d bike everywhere: three miles to the office, five to see a movie downtown, thirty to get on the Minuteman bike trail and back.

I don’t know if it’s a good thing that I’m so susceptible to the environment. I suppose it’s nice that I’m a chameleon of sorts, that I can adapt. I’ve always felt like I don’t need much from the city where I live – a movie theater, a sports team, a venue for exercise. But it’s easy for me to just say that. I’ve never lived where a night life wasn’t available within a reasonable distance, a short train or bus or car ride away. I’ve never lived in a city without extreme diversity of people or cuisine or events. I spent two weeks in Syracuse in the summer once, and basically ended up drinking away the time. So I don’t know. I do worry that my adaptability ultimately belies a lack of center, a sense of myself. I guess I’ll find out at the next place.

Five Months on the Other Side of the World

Everyone wants a story. They want to know the best meal you had, or the most fucked up thing you saw. Whether it’s a weekend trip or an extended vacation, people will ask you to reduce your travel experiences to a packaged sound-bite, to the equivalent of a Facebook status update – if a lengthy one. It’s natural. It’s understandable. And when you’re talking about a place as seemingly foreign and extreme and overwhelming as Tokyo, it’s probably even warranted.

The problem is that I’ve never been much of a storyteller.* I’m not much of a list-maker. I’m five months into a year-long sojourn slightly west of Central Tokyo, and what I have is a rather random collection of occurrences and happenstances, of emotions and feelings and internal monologues, and the half-baked memories thereof. Certainly, there are a couple of reductionist stories in there somewhere, but what I have is something more akin to a montage – and not an easily navigable, Rocky-like one either.

*Perhaps I’m not much of a story-liver either.

I should begin by telling you what about half my days look like. This has been an essential part of the experience too, the unrelenting, non-glamorous reminder of the grind that will always be there, whether you live in Tokyo, London, or Boise fucking Idaho.* I wake up, exercise, and walk the 10 minutes to my office at the university. I accomplish just about nothing for an hour, and then grab a cheap lunch at the school cafeteria or a nearby shop. I return to the office and stare at my computer for another 5 or 6 hours. Then I go home for dinner and feel guilty about having wasted another day. Sometimes, I fit a movie in before I go to sleep.

*Sorry, Boise.

Beyond this insight into the depressing life of an academic, it’s hard to convey what my life has been like for the past five months.  It’s this strange, enveloping, almost indescribable amalgam of the pedestrian and the memorable and the extraordinary and the surreal-turned-mundane. It has been and continues to be sensory overload, not only at the extremes – the fetish cafes and neon signs and cosplay – but in the everyday fashions on the streets, in the ubiquity of vending machines, in the never-ending good-bye bows between acquaintances, in the Shinto shrines placed atop mountains as if there was nothing strange about that at all, because of course there isn’t.

The wonders of the city never cease. I am reminded of that every time I look out the window of a train. When I exit at an unfamiliar station, I am greeted by dozens, if not hundreds, of new restaurants – the vast majority of which I will never have the time, or perhaps the temerity, to enter. There is so much to digest. Sumo wrestlers in training wander the streets of Ryogoku. Elaborate kimonos found sporadically draped over young and old alike on the weekends. A young guy – somehow not me – vomiting purple stuff in sketchy Roppongi. Purple stuff. Perhaps there is too much to digest.

I have had as much fun at the cheap, automated, touchscreen-based sushi place as I did at Sushi Bun in the famed Tsukiji market. I will always remember the young chef at the shabu shabu place – the lone broken-English speaker – coming out excitedly to encourage me to drink his specialty soup. The guys at the grilled lamb place sweetly sitting a white customer next to me, fearing that I was lonely. I can say that I’ve had amazing sushi and tempura and ramen and yakitori, and I have. But the sporadic Big Mac at McDonalds has evinced as much joy from me as any of a considerable number of great Japanese meals, reminding me time and again – taste is meaning, context is everything.

I have been to Nikko and Hakone and Enoshima and Yokohama and Kamakura. I have hiked Mitake and Takao and Kobo and Tsukuba. When the names of those places recede from the contours of my mind, as they are wont to do, the moments are what will stick with me. The awe-inspiring and mildly terrifying wolf cry I heard during a solitary snow hike in Nikko. The kindly stranger who provided a ride down the base of Tsukuba after public transportation had ceased operations. There was the winding ride up and down the Hakone hills; I tossed my cookies in a public restroom shortly thereafter. Again, too much to digest.

There have been low points too. A frustration that seeps in with every awkward interaction, an utter helplessness felt with every failed attempt in communication. A longing for the familiar encapsulated in Big Macs, and in the way my heart skips when I hear English outside Central Tokyo, as though I were a stray dog perking up at the sight of would-be rescuers. It is the loneliest city in the world, with all the positives and negatives that the designation involves. But fortunately, at least to date, the bad has been outweighed by the good, and many times over.

Five months down. I don’t have a lot of stories – more snippets than anything else. But there have been enough memories, enough feelings, enough of an experience, for a lifetime. Seven more months to go.