Tag Archives: Love

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.

 

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)

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)

Peggy

My second year in Boston, I lived on the third floor of this cute little multi-family home in Brighton. I found it on Craigslist just in the nick of time – and ended up with two guys who were a little older than me. Perfect roommates, really. We divided up chores and everything.

The homeowner lived on the first floor of the building. That was Peggy (short for Margaret). The home – built in 1920 –  was her childhood home; Boston was all she ever knew. By the time I met her, she was in her mid-80s. She dealt with a lot of pain. She couldn’t make it up the stairs anymore, not even to the second floor where her sister Rita lived. So she spent just about every day, all day, at home on the first floor.

I didn’t see her much at first. I could tell that she was awake from the sound of the television when I entered the building to get to the main staircase. But I only ran into her once in a blue moon, out on the walkway. See, once a week or so, her nephew or someone from a private transport company would come by, pick her up to run her errands, get her medicine, and so forth. It was a laborious process, the transfer from home to car, and eventually back.

Peggy was fragile. She couldn’t move without a cane or a walker. She could grab her mail from the table in the space between the front door and the door to her unit, but someone would have to get it from the mailbox and place it there. She’d be able to drag her garbage out onto the front porch, but her nephew would have to sort it and take it from there to the curb.

Eventually, I started doing some of this. I don’t know why. I guess I could see her nephew seemed a bit rushed every time he came by – the guy had his own family in another part of town, and clearly had his hands full helping Peggy and Rita out with other things. I figured it wasn’t a big deal. The trash was on the porch, and I had to take our own from the third floor to the curb anyhow. The mail was even easier.

I suppose this was how our relationship really started. The nephew noticed and thanked me one day. So did Peggy, separately. Eventually, unofficially, her trash and mail became my domain. We still didn’t see each other too often, her being inside most of the time, but she would make it a point to meet me by the stairs every once in awhile. We chatted about little things. That’s how I learned about the house.

Peggy had always been alone – never been married or had kids or anything like that. She had Rita, and Rita had children, and that seemed to be good enough for Peggy. I remember vividly her recapping a family reunion she had just attended outside of Boston, and talking about how nice it was to be reunited with cousins and nephews and nieces and grandnephews and grandnieces and so forth. It was the happiest I’d ever seen her. The only time she left the city in the year I lived there.

We didn’t have deep talks or anything. She was a pretty hardened soul, kind of a cantankerous personality – a true Bostonian. She asked about my work a bit, and would ask about my mom every once in a while (they would meet briefly when my mom visited, but the language barrier prevented anything more than polite greetings). Mostly, we talked about my flatmates. She didn’t like one of their girlfriends – that was a pretty regular source of conversation.

Boston, as I said, was all she ever knew. I like to tell the story about how she excitedly told me once that some Chinese people had moved in across the street a few houses over; the implication that I would become fast friends with them. I found it endearing; her way of connecting to me. I have a feeling she wasn’t exposed to too much, didn’t travel too much. Obviously by that point in time, it was out of the question.

I would think of my grandmother whenever I saw Peggy. My grandmother, at that point nearing 90, still managed to take herself down to the park every day, where she would do some exercises and chat with her best friend. Then she would come back up to the apartment she and my aunt shared, fix herself lunch, take care of laundry, nap and fiddle around before my aunt returned from work.

It was about that time that my grandmother suffered a bad fall. After a period of rehab, she continued with her routine, but it became a lot harder. It got especially difficult after her best friend couldn’t take care of herself anymore, and was finally moved to a home (at 96!). Still, my grandmother managed. And knowing that reality, as compared to the one I saw Peggy live through every day, just seemed so surreal.

Peggy loved having me as a tenant. She would tell me this from time to time. Ours wasn’t a particularly special relationship (I don’t think I went above and beyond, really), but she appreciated that I would always pay the rent before the first of the month, would chat with her once in a while, would take the time to help her with some chores.

I got the fellowship in Tokyo while I was living in Boston. So I had to tell Peggy I’d be leaving, a month ahead of my lease’s end. She invited me into her home when I gave her the heads up. It was the first time I sat inside her place. She was saddened, of course, but excited for me too (if a little apprehensive). She told me a little about a nephew who had spent some time in Japan, loved it there, I think married a local.

We chatted some more that day. A little about her pain, about her day-to-day. There was a resignation to the conversation. Then, unprompted, she told me she wouldn’t charge my last month. It was the only way she could thank me for everything, she said. She insisted on it.* She said she didn’t want to get too emotional at that point, so I gave her a hug and left. I promised to visit her if I ever came back to Boston.

*I ended up slipping her half a month’s rent and giving her a farewell gift.

I never got the chance to visit these past three years. Once when I was in the States, I called, and we chatted, briefly – conversation never either of our strong suits. Every once in a while though, I’d send over a postcard, an update. Peggy wrote back just once: a Christmas card that she admitted was overdue. I have that letter somewhere. She mentioned that she really didn’t write much. She gave an update: not much had changed, and most of it was about my roommates. But I treasured that I got her to write.

A week ago, my sister told me that my now 94-year old grandmother had been diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer. She has a few months left, at most. I was fortunate to visit a couple of times when I lived in Japan; I’m not sure I’ll be able to return again before she moves on. I was never too close to my grandmother, moving from Hong Kong when I was six years old, but she’s my last surviving grandparent – and the only one I’ve had since I was two. I’m 33 now. It’ll be tough.

Today, I got a text from one of my old roommates. He informed me that Peggy had passed away a week ago, surrounded by family after apparently suffering a stroke. She was 88. I’ll miss her.

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?