Vanishing Acts

The Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel first came on my radar when my mother told me about her debut novel, Last Night in Montreal. In it, protagonist Lilia wrenches holes into the lives of the people she touches by constantly leaving. Partly it's to escape the law, but she's also running away from herself - avoiding confinement and being tethered to one place and one identity. Her life is one of endless reinvention and freedom. Lilia refers to each instance of taking off to start over somewhere else as "vanishing." And, to my mother, I suppose, I have a habit of vanishing too.

I relate to the notion of being drawn to change; of always needing something new; of knowing how to leave but not knowing how to stay. I left my hometown for college in another state. Two weeks after graduation, I moved to Paris. When I was done with France I traveled the world for three months. I made my home in San Francisco for a year. I went abroad again. I came back and took a new job that I love, and yet I can't help but wonder how long it will take before I am drawn away. Every time I throw myself a goodbye party, my friends ask me if I'm coming back and, if so, when.

I am the type of person who never stops asking questions and being curious. It means that I can learn new things quickly but, by the same token, it's hard for me to be content in the place I'm in. Because I am always wondering what is going on everywhere else. Because while most people strive to attain a tangible equilibrium, I thrive in a state of flux. 

I feel more restless than ever, now that I'm 25 and more and more of my friends are getting married, thinking about starting families, buying properties and generally becoming rooted through mechanisms that are not easily broken. It terrifies me.  For if there is such a thing as hell, my idea of it is not so much a specific place, but rather the understanding and acceptance that I am stuck there for the rest of my life.

Continuing the tradition of spending my birthday in a city and country different from the previous year, I spent my first several days of being 25 in Montreal, a place I'd been wanderlusting after for quite some time. Not even halfway into the five-hour bike tour we'd taken to get acquainted with the layout of the city and its neighborhoods, I found myself thinking, "I could live here."

I loved the external stairs and balconies where, in summer, people sit, smoke, drink and eat; the parks, like in Paris, that are perfect for picnics; the way people greet you with bonjour; the bike-friendly roads; the back alleys where people hang their laundry using pulleys; the patios and terraces; the lively buzz from having over 100,000 students clustered near the city center; the markets; the mish mash of cultures; the townhouses and condos - more formal than pastel San Francisco but less austere than London's brick with iron balustrades; the cafes and coffee culture; the French street names; the blanket of solitude that seems to cover Parc Mont Royal; the bring your own wine restaurants.

I can't say when it's going to happen, but one of these days I'm coming back for you, Montreal.

See more photos from this trip here

Just a Job?

In a similar vein to how techies squirm watching the satirical Silicon Valley (or just avoid it altogether), there are times when I find its HBO sibling, Girls, difficult to stomach. Now that I'm navigating post-grad life, many of the characters' predicaments feel a touch too relatable so, for a comedy, I don't find myself laughing that much. Perhaps when I've achieved more distance from my early twenties self, I'll be able to replay events (both the show's and my own) and see the humor in them. But for now, many scenes are #toosoon and #tooreal.

Case in point: season three, when protagonist and aspiring writer Hannah lands a full-time job with GQ's "advertorial" department. The plum office, free snacks and sizable paycheck are all sparkly distractions from the fact that her team exists to produce revenue-generating fodder thinly disguised as passable content. Hannah initially considers herself above her colleagues; she being a "true" writer who knows that the magazine stint is just a means to financially support her real artistic endeavors. Then one day, break time chit chat shatters the illusion she has of her co-workers.

Rather than the schmucks she took them for, they all turn out to have MFAs and/or prestigious literary prizes. They, too, took the position with the men's glossy thinking that it was only temporary, and yet years later they're still there and haven't published anything that they're proud of.

"You guys write, right?" says Hannah, slowly realizing that the job she thought was the express ticket to a stable lifestyle is also a creative death sentence.

***

Sometimes when I take stock of the things that make the F&B industry simultaneously exhilarating and torturous (by normal people's standards) - the hours, the physicality, the fringe personality types that the work attracts (e.g. felons), the medieval hierarchy imbued with tacit rules like cursing as much as possible in a given sentence, I feel far removed from where I started out as a kid who liked baking treats from scratch and sharing them with people.

People ask me if I still bake at home, and the short answer is no, not really. It's well-documented that chefs hate cooking in their off-hours (when you do something for 9+ hours straight it's hard to muster the motivation to continue in your free time). But also in a professional kitchen we are spoiled by nice equipment, storage rooms bursting with quality ingredients and produce and, most importantly, stewards who wash the tools as we use them. Most home kitchens feel like a downgrade after being spoiled in comparison.

I love what I do (most of the time) and can't really imagine doing anything else, but I do wonder if I've become numbed, both literally and figuratively. 

"Want to taste this?" asked a line cook, handing me a skewer of succulent grilled chicken during a lull at the beginning of service.

"I think it's too salty but I'm not sure. My palate is totally fucked."

My own tolerance for sugar and sweet things has noticeably declined since I started working in the industry. As cooks we are encouraged and expected to constantly taste our products, but quite often these days I'm no longer quite sure what I'm looking for when I do.

***

I occasionally fantasize about what might happen if I tried writing full-time. Would I still show up to film festivals and round table interviews with the same wide-eyed anticipation that I currently have? Or would I be bored and jaded like a majority of the professionals I encounter at these events? 

They say that if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life. But as far as my experience goes, it's not that simple.

Falling in Like

So while I teeter between anger with myself for not admitting how I feel and anger at him for not figuring it out, neither of us can be blamed. (Or we both can.) Without labels to connect us, I have no justification for my feelings and he has no obligation to acknowledge them.
— Jordana Narin, "No Labels, No Drama, Right?"

This is for the cumulative hours spent getting ready for first dates. (Or seconds, or thirds). For the agonizing moments between when your phone goes off and when you actually look at it; your hope that it's him quickly dashed by the press of a button. For pretending that it doesn't matter when he changes or cancels plans because you resolved long ago, even before Gillian Flynn hit the proverbial nail on the head, to always be the Cool Girl. For the algorithms designed by faceless, nameless engineers who think that they can analyze, quantify and execute a connection between two people. 

This is for suppressing the butterflies in your stomach before you see him and, later, the urge to picture what a future together might be like - the places you'd go and the things you'd do. For the note (since deleted) that you made on your phone when you brainstormed potential birthday presents for him. For the book you read and the movie you watched that you know he'd like. For life's unexpected moments that you wanted to share with him, like that time that will.i.am was seated about twenty paces away from your spot on the pastry line but, oh yeah, you deleted his number. 

This is for missing the rhythm of his heartbeat as you lay next to each other with your head on his chest. For taking his hand in yours during movies even though it was always slightly clammy. For his scent, and the tiny imperfections that were only really noticeable up close; the ones that made him endearing and prevented him from being impossibly good-looking and therefore unapproachable.

But memory is like a mine field. And when you eventually look back with clear eyes free of tears and something verging on objectivity, you tell yourself that the signs were there all along - his avoidance of certain subjects, the ever-increasing response times to your texts, and the way he never introduced you to his friends and roommates, as though you were invisible. Or the fact that he miraculously had tampons and makeup-removing face wash in his bathroom the first time you spontaneously slept over. How many others have already come and gone before you? It's as though you are interchangeable while he goes about getting his fix, beholden to only himself.

So when he told you, in no uncertain terms, that "things" would not "work out" in the "long run," why were you so surprised? You had been careful not to mention commitment, exclusivity, and other key words that implied any kind of recognizable togetherness, because you had thought it better to see him on his terms rather than not see him at all. Even so, you weren't prepared for this: that the demise of a non-relationship still hurts as much as an actual break-up. 

After all, this is supposedly what people your age do. Go out, mingle, juggle multiple partners at once ("partner" being used, of course, in the loosest sense of the word). Dating just to date in a sociotechnological ecosystem that fosters an attitude of always being on the lookout for someone better; the promise of a good match just after the next swipe left. There are no rules any more, no guidelines or advice to follow. In a bygone era, he was expected to take care of the bill. Now when he puts his credit card on the table it feels like a transaction. (Either that, or maybe he's just from the South). Do you go home with him after? Kiss? Something more? 

Your generation was spoon-fed female empowerment and ownership over one's body. Yet when you leave his apartment the next morning - you in last night's clothes, he freshly shaven, showered and ready for work, something in the dynamic has shifted. Because even before you say your goodbyes, you know that you'll be the one waiting for him to text, to call. (And, of course, you'll answer when he does).

Around and around you go, feigning intimacy while pointedly avoiding the conversation that will either make what you have into something more, or break it. Until one day, you take a deep breath, and out comes a watered-down version of the mental speech you had prepared; an automatic self-defense mechanism that shows you care but not too much. 

Regardless of how he extricates himself, you will never get a satisfactory why. Maybe he's sitting next to you on his couch when he tells you it's over, or texts you, or simply responds less and less before ceasing altogether ("ghosting," we call it). Closure remains elusive (for how can you break up if you were never truly together?) and yet afterward you feel as though missing something that almost was and now never will be.

The next match comes along, and whether it's out of spite, bravado or misguided optimism hoping that you won't end up back where you started, you say, "Game on."

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Being Young

In Noah Baumbach's While We're Young, which I watched on a rainy afternoon in DC, a childless forty-something couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) befriends a twenty-something couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). Identity crisis as well as confrontation of social pressure and expectation ensue. At first, the older couple feels inspired and revitalized by the boundless energy and free-wheeling lifestyle of the youths. But after a certain point, they come to realize that there is a limit to the things that they can do at their age (or are they just succumbing to the conventions of society...), ranging from the superficial (wearing fedoras and brogues unironically) to the practical (embarking on spontaneous trips) and the biological (having children).

Meanwhile, the younger couple embraces everything that previous generations eschewed in favor of new technology (e.g. vinyl records, VHS tapes). They're fun and seemingly free from the responsibilities expectations that befall their elders, but they also have no money, ever. And yet they have a chic industrial loft in Brooklyn. (It becomes a running joke that whenever the twenty-somethings go out with the forty-somethings, the former never even attempts a courtesy reach for the wallet, instead leaving the latter to foot the bill).  

The juxtaposition of two couples' everyday lives and the unfurling of their friendship is masterful but then, of course, everything gets derailed. Stiller's character becomes convinced that Driver's is out to destroy him. Their ideological differences fissure and threaten what was once a promising mentor-mentee relationship, for those who grew up in the age of the internet regard everything as public property, good for the remixing and appropriating. To them, truth is mutable and malleable. Stiller's character cannot abide by that mentality, and for that he appears obsolete. And because both male characters are documentary filmmakers, authenticity, veracity and verisimilitude all figure heavily into the story.

Youth has luck, blind ambition and the power of reinvention on its side. And, ultimately, that's what the older couple misses - not the actual packing up and moving somewhere on a whim or doing hallucinogenic drugs, but rather the possibility of being reckless; of having the option to make decisions that lead to drastic changes while being at a point in life where the consequences are negligible. In other words, being able to fuck up and know that things will still be okay, and to not be held accountable by the world at large; to truly live in the moment with little to no regard for the future.

The film resonated with me not only because I identified with the younger couple (and on a deeper level than just having a penchant for old and vintage things), but also that the friends I visited on my east coast trip were, in their own way, trying to navigate the same issues as the characters. 

"I'm glad I got to enjoy part of my 20s," said a friend who, after taking a few years off after undergrad, is heading to medical school this fall.  

"Everything I'm doing right now is the result of a decision I made when I was 18; when I was too young to make it," said another, currently a second year med student. 

They are wondering whether if by shouldering one responsibility they are sacrificing some part of themselves that they won't be able to get back. Not time, per se, but rather the perception that they are missing out on whatever it is that most other people their age are currently doing, and will do while they're still in school and, later, in residency. It's like youth is merely the illusion of a great long hallway with infinite doors of opportunity that, as the years pass, are more often closed than open.

The year that I graduated, 2012, an essay entitled "The Opposite of Loneliness" was making the rounds on the internet. It wasn't just that it was an impeccable piece of writing that beautifully articulated how it felt to be leaving the place you'd called home for the past four years, but also its author had tragically passed away not long after publication.

...let us get one thing straight: the best years of our lives are not behind us. They’re part of us and they are set for repetition as we grow up and move to New York and away from New York and wish we did or didn’t live in New York. I plan on having parties when I’m 30. I plan on having fun when I’m old... ...We have these impossibly high standards and we’ll probably never live up to our perfect fantasies of our future selves. But I feel like that’s okay.

We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time. There’s this sentiment I sometimes sense, creeping in our collective conscious as we lay alone after a party, or pack up our books when we give in and go out – that it is somehow too late. That others are somehow ahead. More accomplished, more specialized. More on the path to somehow saving the world, somehow creating or inventing or improving. That it’s too late now to BEGIN a beginning and we must settle for continuance, for commencement.
— Marina Keegan, "The Opposite of Loneliness"

 

The fear. The pressure. The sensation of being stuck on a pre-determined track. While We're Young suggests that they never really go away, but that there is a solution. Both the film and the essay encourage seeking comfort in those around you. For Ben Stiller's character, it's his wife. For Keegan, it's her classmates.

We're twenty-four years old. We have friendships that have withstood cross-country moves and bad wi-fi connections. The best is yet to come.

The Homecoming Myth

Despite my pedigree (parents who met through the Asian student union at Cal; a great uncle whose name is on the San Francisco Chinatown branch library for contributions he made to Chinese American studies), I never really - never truly - embraced the Asian American identity until I went to Asia. No, not just went to Asia but actually spent considerable time there. Previous visits were a whirlwind of sightseeing, getting stuffed with local delicacies and going out at night, but this time was different. Camped out for a week or more in one spot, you realize that even though from the outside you look more at home than anywhere else you've ever lived, your mannerisms and your words betray you. Consider it a different form of passing, one which the locals are always quick to spot.

Growing up half-Japanese American and half-Chinese American (fourth generation on both sides) in the Pacific Northwest, I've always unquestionably thought of myself as Asian. After all, that was the box that I checked each time I took a standardized test. I had a sense that our family wasn't quite like some of my peers, whose parents were immigrants, but I felt secure in embracing that identity. People could tell by looking at me that I was Asian, and if pressed I felt confident claiming both halves of my heritage, even though I don't speak either language and by most standards would be considered "white-washed."

But then I went abroad to Europe, and suddenly the image I had of myself and who I was no longer matched up with what others perceived when they looked at me. It was like standing naked in front of a funhouse mirror. To foreigners, I could not possibly be American, as I claimed. (Because Americans are obviously either black or white). But nor did it make sense (to me, at least) to say that I was Asian because, under the circumstances, it would imply that I was from China or Japan. The simplest explanation, because of my Japanese name, was to say that my father was Japanese and leave it at that, but even that felt misleading. If I thought that somehow I would be more accepted traveling through the nations of my ancestors, I was quickly disillusioned.

The Japanese are too polite as a society (at least to your face) to do more than look pleasantly surprised when you claim ancestry and exhibit a toddler's grasp of the language, but the Chinese are brutal. When stepping out with any non-Asian acquaintances, they will automatically address you first, in Mandarin, and then make no effort to conceal their scorn when your inability to understand manifests. If they are elderly Chinese, they will repeat themselves, louder and slower, as if that will help.

"But..but you look Chinese!" splutter the ones who can speak English.

A Chinese who can't speak Chinese is unheard of. I'm sure the same train of thought runs through the Japanese subconscious, but they just don't say it out loud in front of you. To them, living in [relatively] ethnically homogenous societies, language may as well be passed down through DNA. I wish it were.

I didn't jet over to Asia with the pretense of "finding my roots." Even though other relatives have located our distant relations in China and Japan, it wasn't a reunion that I particularly yearned for. Because, even if I could communicate with them, what would I say? What is there to say? All of the family I've ever known are American born and bred. If there's anything in our genes, maybe it's identity crisis.

The lack of understanding between Asians and Asian Americans is practically tangible, perhaps on one side of the Pacific more so than the other. Being judged, ridiculed and stared at in disbelief when you can't read a menu but you recognize the food on sight; it's something that only other Asian Americans can relate to. 

I think I know who my people are now. And they're not in Asia.

The Retreat

In a few days I'll be leaving the cabbage fields, virgin forests and shrines of the Irago peninsula, where the nearest convience store is a thirty minute bike ride away and the few local restaurants change their schedules on a whim. It gets dark early and there are no street lamps. Many people would probably find it too quiet, but it's felt like the perfect stop between urban jaunts. To me, the past few weeks represent The Calm Before I Go to China. 

When was the last time I watched the sun set and saw the stars at night? When have I ever not had to worry about locking up my things? (An aside: there is even less security here than in the cheapest hostels I've stayed in during my travels. I was worried when I first arrived, until I noticed that V kept his DSLR and laptop in plain sight from the door, which all but faces the main road).  

I've embraced the bland-smelling eco soap that we use for everything, the minimal electricity use and limited wi-fi access, and relished not shaving my legs or wearing makeup. Instead of checking my email and social media accounts before lights out, my new ritual is a mug of herbal tea and a good novel. Although I miss certain foods like brie and tacos, obasan's home cooking has led me to embrace the simple deliciousness of miso soup and a bowl of freshly made rice. I feel better, calmer, more productive.

Of the questions people ask me about travel, the most common are whether it gets lonely on the road or if it's hard to acclimate to a different culture. And my answer is that no matter how many thousands of miles you are away from your geographic comfort zone, it's just as easy to slip into a new one somewhere else. Getting there is usually the hard part.

Maestra, Sensei

I have a little note pad that I carry around with me throughout the day, scribbling odd Japanese words and phrases. I would never dream of becoming conversationally proficient in the little time that I'm here, but it always surprises me how stimulating just hearing the language is. Stirring long-lost lessons from the Saturday Japanese classes that I attended as a child from the recesses of my brain, I can often grasp onto particles of concepts - verb endings for the past and future tenses and the command for, phrases like "be careful." I can't force it though; it's like trying to remember a dream from the night before. Best to let it bubble to the surface on its own, and even then it's only bits and pieces.

If anything, though, it's my Spanish that's been getting exercised of late. The owner's daughter decided a while ago to teach herself Spanish and, now that V is gone, I've become the de facto teacher. (Not that I'm totally unqualified - in total I've spent some eight years or so learning it in school). We make an unlikely good student-teacher pairing. She's learned quite a bit on her own, but is not so advanced that I can't stay ahead of her. And while I'm rusty on compound verb forms and more literary grammatical rules, I still know the most commonly used conjugations like the back of my hand.  

On light work days when there are no guests, we'll have "lessons" where she comes to me with a page of handwritten questions and vocabulary that she wants to learn. We'll practice speaking, me sometimes having to mentally extricate the Spanish from the French, and before I know it an hour has gone by. And then I realize how much I miss it - languages, learning, classrooms.  

I've also become the unofficial photography mentor, as she purchased a DSLR kit several months ago and is earnestly trying to improve her style and technique. This I feel more unsteady about; once you've mastered how to use the hardwear, it's a little impossible to teach artistry. Regardless, I provide feedback when I can on lighting, framing and which lens to use. Together we've gone out to shoot near the beach a couple times at sunset. Watching us one day, her mother joked that I was like the big sister even though she's a few years older than me.

This, of course, reminds me of my own older brother, who for many years growing up I believed knew everything. Literally. As in I took whatever he told me to be the absolute truth. Maybe that's part of why he continued to feed me such tall tales even after I was old enough to know better - there's something warm and fuzzy about someone putting their complete trust in you when, half the time, you don't even believe in yourself all that much.