The family under the full moon

Ever since I moved out of my parent’s house 2 years ago, I’ve begun to enjoy weekend visits back to their house.

Whenever I peer through the thinly veiled glass door, I can see my mum emerging from the kitchen. Both her and my dad are always making traditional Chinese food like rou bao (pork buns), dumplings, man tou (plain buns) and tian bing (Chinese pancakes). The kitchen always has a warm glow, despite it being winter here in New Zealand.

Going over to my parent’s house reminds me of the family gatherings we used to have when I lived in China.

Even though I left my hometown when I was 4 and visited sporadically every few years, I can still remember clearly the large gatherings we’d have at various family members’ houses.

My Uncle’s house was a popular gathering spot. His house had a blue wooden door with the edges falling apart. It was the only house on the street with a blue door, so you’d never get lost trying to find it as an eight year old. I remember the round table in the dim living room where all the adults gathered together to play mahjong, their voices louder than the other, falling and then rising in crescendos.

I remember playing alongside my cousin on the street in front of the blue door, and when it grew dark, we’d come inside and play in the narrow space between the dining table and the toilet. I look back in admiration at myself for using that toilet. It was one of those squat toilets with a hole on the ground. Back then I didn’t mind it, as those were the only toilets I knew, but now, I shiver when I think about using those toilets. I’m afraid I’ll accidentally fall through the hole.

There were lots of small shops on that street. Everything was made of stone or concrete. And my sister and I would hop on our Agong’s bike as he rode us along the street looking for sweets.

Getting to people’s houses was interesting. I remember falling asleep in one of those rickety wagons while we were travelling to go to another family member’s house. Because I was sleeping so soundly in my mum’s lap with my foot sticking out of the wagon, when I woke up, my right shoe had fallen off on the side of the road.

It’s so funny how clear some of these memories are. It almost feels like a whole other lifetime just because of how different my life here in New Zealand is, compared to back then.

Now, most of my family members live in New Zealand. The last time my Uncle went back to visit his old house, he said it was unrecognisable. The blue door is gone, so are the shops, and the old streets. Everything is gone, replaced by newer, fancy buildings. I feel a tinge of sadness that I’ll never be able to go back there and recreate those memories, laugh or play on those streets. But the conciliation is that most of my family members now live in New Zealand, just a few blocks from one another.

We still hold gatherings, and have dinners to celebrate Chinese festivals. We are together, just in a different country and time.

Letters to grandpa

Dear Grandpa,

You clasped your hands like an old buddha, fingers intertwined together. You did that out of habit, even when you lay there unconscious on the hospital bed. We’d unclasp them and watch you clasp them back together. That small action told us you were still there.

The caretaker told us a funny story. Even though you had forgotten who most people were, you knew what 300×450 was. You’d work that out on the back of the pillow, your fingers drawing out long, imaginary strokes.

You were so excited that we had arrived, your breathing became too frantic and I had to stroke your chest, the lest I could do to soothe the pain.

There were so many questions that I wanted to ask you. Like how did you find your way out of your village and into the big city? You were just a small boy then, and the roads were unpaved, but you took that journey all by yourself.

It is comforting to know that you did things like that. If you can do it, then I can do it too. After all, we are related, I just haven’t found my stride like you did.

Had I known earlier about your feats, before your memory faded away, I would’ve asked you over and over how you did it, until your memory became mine.

I know you forgot about a lot of things. Dad filled me in on your condition over the years. But when I leaned over your white hospital sheet, and shouted my name into your deaf ear, I saw you nod and shed a tear behind those closed eyelids.

Because as forgetful as you are, that gentle nod told me that no illness can make the heart forget.

So grandpa, even though you are not there to answer my question: how did you find your way into the big city, when you were just a little boy?

When I leaned over and saw your teardrop, you gave me your answer.

The heart always knows.

Written on the two year anniversary of my Grandpa’s passing.

Why I started writing Asian stories for a mainstream audience

Two years ago, I had the worst dating experience with an Austrian man.

We met while staying at a backpacker’s lodge on Christmas Eve. He seemed fascinated about history, especially Chinese history. The more ancient it was, the better. We got to talking, and surprisingly, I found it really easy to open up to him.

We caught up a few times afterwards at his place, and that’s when I began noticing things, niggly things that started bothering me.

My point of view

We’d order takeaway online and instead of offering to come to the store with me, he’d sit on his couch and wait for me to pick it up.

It was raining that day and I wasn’t too familiar with the area, so I got a bit lost in the rain while walking from my car to the store. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling and made me feel like I wasn’t worth his time, especially since we were just getting to know each other.

When I brought this up with him, he told me that it was such a petty thing to bring up, that if I really wanted him to come, then I could’ve just asked.

I found this to be really weird. I’m pretty sure that there is an unspoken rule of hospitality, that the host is responsible for serving food to the guest, and not the other way round.

Maybe the rules of hospitality don’t apply when you’re dating. But why would you treat someone you’re dating worse than the way you would treat a guest?

This honestly perplexed me. I asked him what his previous girlfriends had thought about his hospitality, and he said that they didn’t care. If they wanted him to come, they’d ask. If they didn’t ask, he didn’t come. He made it seem as though his actions were totally normal.

Overcoming writing anxiety

I was in my last year of high school when I experienced my first bout of writing anxiety. A sudden, overwhelming panic that I couldn’t write, that I wasn’t good at writing.

I was sitting the end of year exams. The all-important exam that would get me into university. Halfway through, I realised that I had interpreted the question wrong. There was half an hour left on the clock. The essay I had written was brilliant, but it didn’t answer the question correctly. So I scratched out the entire essay and decided to rewrite everything.

That decision cost me my love of writing. Although I ended up getting a B on my essay, something changed inside of me when I wrote.

I would pick up the pen to write something amazing that had popped into my head, but my chest would twist into knots. I became critical of every word, every sentence, every flow. It had to be right, it had to be perfect or else I would scratch it out and throw it away. My writing stalled. For seven years, I couldn’t write.

Near the end of those seven years, I realised that every time I tried to write, I was being transported back in time to the exam room, where I was being tested and judged under the clock. The beautiful, flowy way I used to write, morphed into a rigid, emotionless piece of writing.

I cared more about whether my writing would fit into a particular style, or earn me money. I dabbled in instructional writing, advice writing, copyrighting — writing that would earn me money, as those were the only ‘right’ kinds of writing. Before beginning any piece of writing, I’d ask myself, “Is this what other people wanted to read?” It sucked the soul out of me, and I fell out of love with the laborious act of writing.

The day I started to break out of my writing anxiety, was the day I stopped holding my writing hostage to an invisible clock inside a dark exam room.

I began to be more playful. I set myself a writing challenge during lockdown, where I wrote a 20,000-word story for children. I started writing more personal stories on my blogs, nysgirl.com and almondeyedwanderer.com, as well as on Medium as @almondeyedwanderer. None of these blogs are shared across any of my social media platforms. None of my friends or family have ever read my blog. Instead, I made the decision to give my writing a private space to grow and nurture.

Slowly, I began to crawl out of that dark exam room and into the light. There are moments now, where I can see my old self shine through my writing.

The heart is brave enough

In every single love story that I have ever lived through, I am the bad person. That’s what I’ve always told myself and others. I am the bad person because it always ends by my doing, by my hurtful words. Because in the end, like every story, it is the final act and not the opening scene, that matters. And although I may have the most wonderful opening scenes, I befall to the most tragic endings.

Before I write any further, I want to address the long break I have taken from writing, unplanned, ofcourse. Many times I had thought of writing something, but nothing came out of me. And so I started living a more external life, spurred on by a psychic’s advice, and little by little, the juice came trickling back. I was never worried, really. I had always known, that writing would call me back.

So here I am again, a few months later, when that thought passed through my head and I just had to write it down. This little story that’s been in my head for a while. The one that says it’s all my fault. But that’s only part of the truth. It is a simpler narrative, to paint myself as the bad person, because then I don’t have to waste too much of my breath telling someone a more complex version of me.

But if anyone were interested, if anyone is reading this, I would tell them that in every single love story I have ever been in, I tried to listen to my intuition. I tried to do everything that was right by me. I told men that I wasn’t interested in them when things felt off, I told guys that I couldn’t be friends with them because I didn’t want to lead them on. But that is the funny thing about men. When you are not interested, you are the world to them. When you give them a chance because it is the kind thing to do, and you develop feelings over time, you’d think they’d be happy, but no, suddenly you are lights out to them. Can you see how frustrating that is?

One man once told me that he enjoys the hunt. I can’t remember what he was referring to, the sport or the women, but in my life, things aren’t a hunt for me. I like to build and create. I like to make long lasting contributions. The shortest hobby I’ve ever had was for a year, and even then I felt bad for giving it up.

I felt bad. That is what I’ve always felt for telling the truth. Bad. And so for a while, I completely shut down. My voice, my willingness to even utter a sound. Gone. Why bother? When standing up only hurt you and the people around you? Over the past few months, I have come to find a sad truth. People only like you when you say things they want to hear. When you say things that sound nice to their ears. So I just became silent.

But like I said earlier on, I have been living life externally, taking up a few hobbies, picking up a particular set of skills, and somehow the energy is starting to return to me. I am beginning to have words to say, things to write again. It is like entering spring after a long winter. Who knew writing has its seasons too?

I guess that is all I will write for now. Tomorrow is another day, and more thoughts will come to me. In the meantime, this girl’s gotta get herself to bed.

Sweet dreams.

The climb

My friend and I have set ourselves a goal: we’re going to climb the 45 degree wall at our rock climbing center.

I call it the 45 degree wall, because at the halfway point, it juts out at 45 degrees, making it near impossible to climb. I’ve seen some experienced climbers falter at this point and fall down. Just watching them climb makes my palms sweat.

My friend, Chris, and I got the idea to climb the wall when we were on a plane ride to Japan. We sat there on our 8 hour flight watching Free Solo, a movie about a professional rock climber who scaled the El Capitan, a 900 meter vertical wall in the Yosemite National Park.

We couldn’t stop talking about it afterwards. The way he was able to find grips in the wall and cling to them with the tip of his fingers, it was like watching someone who had memorised a map of the wall in his mind.

Not that Chris and I are planning to climb free solo. No way. We’ll be strapped in our harnesses, with experienced staff around us. We just want to do it for the challenge and to gain confidence in ourselves.

Chris told me that he used to climb regularly with a friend of his back at university. He said that his friend started climbing when he got a lung transplant, and hasn’t stopped since. Now he climbs regularly, scaling these great big walls. It’s pretty inspiring.

I haven’t told Chris about my heartbreak last year. It’s not something I want to keep talking about. But a big part of climbing the 45 degree wall, is to distract myself from the pain.

Anyway, to make this goal happen, Chris and I will be meeting up regularly and training our upper bodies. So far, I can climb the kid’s wall, and do 1 lap of the monkey bars. That’s pretty much how strong my arms are.

Chris says that I’m lucky. I’m slim enough to easily gain muscles and pull my body up. He’s a bit bigger. He says he’s got chicken arms. Even his dad who used to body build has chicken arms, so it’ll be harder for him to pull his weight up the wall.

We are planning to climb to the top of the 45 degree wall by the end of May. Right now, I can’t even lift myself up the wall because the grips are too tiny.

I will try to keep this blog updated with my progress. I really want to achieve this goal. Imagine being able to climb Excalibur in the Netherlands! Anyway, I am thinking too far ahead.

I’ve learnt that if you are always chasing the thrill, you will never be disciplined enough to commit. So I’ve got to start small and practise consistently. Challenge accepted!

Not all hearts want to be cured

I was naive to think that the heart wants to be cured.

Sometimes the heart enjoys wallowing in its own self-pity, curled up in a blanket replaying scenes from a happier time.

Other times the heart forgets it was broken in the first place and carries on living half-heartedly.

But this kind of amnesia of the heart is dangerous. It makes excuses for evenings spent on the couch, invites left unopened, and meals left uncooked, all in the name of comfort.

It’s comforting to do nothing in the dark, when the moon curls up, wrapped in the shroud of night.

But darkness is for sleeping, withdrawing and the closing of curtains. The heart mistakes this for comfort, because the light blinds us in the dark.

But the heart needs to wake up every morning to breathe in the freshness of the morning dew. That’s how it knows it’s still alive.

To wake up every morning to the rising sun is something I sorely miss.

Love hypothesis

I started off this year with a single question: “How does one possibly get over heartbreak?” Much like a scientist in search of an answer, I sought out a number of sites, articles, and videos from so-called love experts, and whittled down my research to five hypotheses.

To get over heartbreak, you have to:

  • Do something meaningful with your time
  • Cut off all contact with the person who broke your heart
  • Go out and meet new people
  • Share your feelings with your friends
  • Give it time

I set out to prove/disprove each of these hypotheses, hoping that along the way, I would find a cure for this fragile, and weary heart.

The most beautiful sentence in the world

I used to recite William Nicolson’s lines in the back of my dad’s car:

“Where you go, I go. Where you stay, I stay. I will pass my days within the sound of your voice, and my nights within the reach of your hand. And none shall come between us.”

I remember feeling overwhelmed by the depth of his words. I liked the sound of them. I liked drowning into their overwhelming depths. I was drunk on his words. That was the first time a window to my emotions opened up.

I began asking myself questions. “Where was my beautiful sentence? Where were the people who’d let me have conversations as deep as Nicholson?”

After every encounter, a birthday party, a social gathering, I’d leave with a sense of hollowness. There was a missed opportunity of connection behind those pleasant exchanges.

When I searched people’s faces, testing the depths of their emotions, a wall bounced back up, blocking me from seeing.

I was forever in search of a conversation that would never happen.

But then I met my friend. The kind of friend one could only dream of. And that changed my world, in small ways, like undercurrents rippling through a big sea. Our conversations have accompanied us under the bright lights of Tokyo, during humid evenings in Fiji and back home in New Zealand.

During our conversations, I listened and I noticed. The most beautiful sentence in the world is quiet enough to let you speak, but loud enough to let you know this: “Don’t be afraid to hear the sound of your own voice.”

So cheers to my friend who gave me a voice to my thoughts and an ear to share it with.

How to get yourself out of a rut

Getting yourself out of a rut is like playing a video game. The first few levels are easy, the next few levels get harder. So you’ve got to level up if you want to move onto the next level.

How to level up

Level 1 — Learn a new skill.

When I wanted to get myself out of customer service and into a digital career, I learnt all the basics on how to code. I went to the library, I searched up online. I filtered out the good information from the bad. I was soaking in so much knowledge.

Productivity-wise, it wasn’t too hard. I was 24 at the time, so I had the energy to study in the evenings. I would come home from my easy customer service job, and study 3 to 4 hours before I went to sleep. I did this for a few months, then I started building a portfolio.

At this stage, I was on level 1 of the game. Things were easy. My life was easy. I lived home with my parents. Ofcourse, at the time I didn’t think it was easy. But looking back, the only skill I needed was to pick up a book and learn about the basics of coding.

Level 2 — Put the skill into practice

I applied for a few different jobs with my portfolio. Eventually, I landed a role in a design studio, creating digital modules for clients.

Looking back, transitioning from customer service to a new career wasn’t too hard. It only took two months of job seeking. But now I realise that it was because I was applying for entry level jobs in the digital field.

I was still operating at level 2 of the game. The only tool I needed really was my portfolio.

Level 3 — Find out what you need to improve on

After 3 years working there, I wanted to move on. More specifically, I wanted to move up. Somewhere where I would get better pay. But I didn’t know how to. Nor did I trust myself to take that leap.

At this time, I started paying attention to the things that I was good at, and also noticed the areas where I consistently needed help with. For instance, my boss would tell me that I was really good at instructional design, breaking down complex learning into simple steps. But my design skills were not up to scratch.

To advance to level 4, I needed 2 skills. Specialised knowledge and confidence.

Level 4 — Learn again but be specific.

This is where I’m currently at. Level 4. I need to hone in on my skills. More specifically, I need to identify the skills I need improving on, and work on them to become more efficient at them.

However, the game just got harder. I’m no longer 24. I’m now 27. Yeah, it’s not so old. But I have a mortgage, I get tired really quickly, getting to work and back takes 2 hours a day. There’s absolutely no way I can study the same way I used to at 24.

That’s why at this stage, when you’re pretty burnt out and exhausting all your energy, the only way out is to educate yourself. Really identify those skills that you need to get right. Don’t spend unnecessary time working on skills that aren’t going to get you out of a rut.

For example, I mentioned how I need to improve my design skills. Now that’s too broad and there’s so much I would need to learn to become an expert. But due to years of experience, I know exactly what areas of design I need to study:

  • I need to understand which pairs of font look good together.
  • I need to understand how to use the grid system to lay out eye catching pages.

I’m not going to learn things like how to create beautiful, handwritten typography. Or how to draw. None of these skills will help me advance in my learning design career.

And I also need to learn the theories behind how adults learn. This isn’t design related, but it’s specialist knowledge that I need to learn to advance in my field.

So, levelling up becomes a continuous cycle of learning and improving. Start by putting your current skills to practise, so that you can identify what skills you lack. To move onto the next level, you have to keep filling up your inventory with more specialised skills.

If you want to finish the game and be at the very top, keep learning.