The toxic woman who shaped my life

The first time I saw her, she reeked of bitterness, like sweat clinging to a damp body. She moved with a heavy gait, her left leg digging deep into the carpet before switching to her right.

She had a curtness about her which she displayed everytime she spoke about teenage girls. She hated — no despised teenage girls. To her they were loud, and gossipy. But deep down, I could tell that she was envious of youth and the hopes and dreams they still had. Thank goodness she only had boys.

I often wondered, “how the hell is she even married?” But of course, we choose who we show our best side to. And she reserved her nasty side for me.

One Friday morning, after I’d finished hosting my regular community event, I was having morning tea with a colleague when she stormed in and accused me of not packing up.

I was frightened and embarassed of being outed in front of another colleague, so I quickly took off in her direction, leaving my food and my phone sitting on the table. Later, my colleague returned my phone to me and reported this incident to a superior.

There were many instances like this where she would be hostile towards me, and then switch to her good side when talking to another colleague. You never knew which side of her you got and that was the scary part.

Fortunately for me, I was young and ambitious. Despite my naive and loofheaded demeanor, I was no pushover. And although my heart would prickle with anger everytime she spoke to me like that, I used it to work harder behind the scenes.

At the time, I didn’t have any marketable skills, so I couldn’t up and leave my job for a new one. But I took her threats as a challenge for me to change. At night, I’d teach myself how to code, usually waking up at 3am with a sudden clarity of thought, telling myself, I don’t want to be like her. I don’t want to be like her. That would drive me to study harder, writing in my notebook until the wee hours of the morning.

One day, I caught her in a good mood — a rarity. I was alone in the back having morning tea when she popped in to talk to me. My shoulders tensed when I saw her, but I kept my composure and engaged in friendly chitchat with her. I was surprised to find that she had romantic inclinations in her youth. She told me how she always wanted to be a blogger, and write, but life had gotten in the way; she had met her husband at university, had gotten married and had children. Thirty years later, her soft and luscious dreams had crisped and dried out, turning her into a bitter woman.

At the time, I found it strange that she had popped in to talk to me, but now, looking back, I think it was a sign that I needed to get my act together and start working hard towards my future.

Eight months later, after one failed interview, I finally got a job at a small design studio.

I remember her last and final dig at me. We were packing up for the day. I was standing behind the counter, tidying some books when she confronted me about something that I cannot remember. By then, there was a steadfastness in me. I had accomplished what I’d set out to accomplish, and I wasn’t going to let this lady push me around anymore. So I spoke back to her. She spoke back and we engaged in a bit of sparring. I waited for her to have the last word, but instead she grunted, huffed and puffed and to my surprise, no words came out of her mouth. She backed down and I knew from that day on, she wouldn’t scare me anymore.

A week later, I left to start my new job.

The last I heard of her, she had resigned out of stress-related reasons.

Now, 4 years later, it’s time for change again. Thinking about it brings up memories of the first time I brought about change. Back then, I didn’t remember feeling scared. I think I was so driven by the need to get away from that woman, that there was such an overpowering need to change. Often, when I look back, I feel grateful that I met her. If she had not been in my path, I would have stayed where I was, comfortable, but limiting my potential. We all have our reasons for change. But when the time comes, don’t be afraid to strike.

The Simmer dim

One weekend, during the height of summer, my friends and I went on a roadtrip to Paihia. This was months before the nationwide lockdown. The days were long, and the nights were still very warm.

It was 9pm. I was sitting in the back of the car, and had just begun winding down from a long week at work. The sky outside was coloured with hues of purple and blue, the landscape had merged into a blur of pine trees, and the kabump of the car tyres on the winding roads fell into a steady rhythm.

It was around this time of the night, that I felt a familiar hum – that tingling feeling I got whenever I passed through a place or a moment that held the beginnings of a story. The hum was telling me to pay attention.

So I shifted my attention away from the window and back to the conversation in the car. My friend was telling us about something called the Simmer Dim. I asked him what it was. He said it was the name given to a day in the year when night never reaches complete darkness.

I recalled having this conversation because despite it being 9pm, it was still bright outside.

Simmer Dim, Simmer Dim, the words hummed in my ear. I pictured a glittering pool of water with animals congregating around it. There was something unusual and mysterious about that word. Like “the witching hour” in Roald Dahl’s book. It all contributed to the air of mystery around a certain time of the night.

That evening, I learnt that night-time had three shades; twilight, night and dark, like the shades of blue in a paint swatch.

It was dark by the time we arrived at our accommodation. I woke from my deep slumber and looked up at the house. A row of solar lights lit up the front porch, throwing hues of greens and blacks against the wall. My friend said something that made us all laugh. “Is this your parent’s house, or is this a hotel?” It was magnificent. Even in the darkness.

We grabbed our bags and clambered up the porch steps, tired but eager to see the house. Barely able to stand upright, we stumbled into the living room and dumped our bags on the floor.

Someone switched on the light and magically, one by one, our tired eyes lit up. In front of us was an island, with a walk-in pantry shelved with food. We drifted from room to room, admiring the paintings, the neatly-folded bedsheets, the warmly-lit bathroom and the dusky scent emanating from a nearby candle.

My sister and I chose to sleep in the bedroom with the cute window wall. It framed the backyard behind the house, like a painting. This wasn’t just any backyard. It was a forest, as dense as any forest here in NZ. You could walk from here all the way to another town. That was how deep it was.

My friend told us that one evening, when he was sitting by the front porch, he sensed that something was staring at him. When he looked up, he saw two eyes staring at him from inside the forest. A boar. He was sure of it. It was also what had eaten the meat his grandmother had left outside.

That evening, I drifted into a peaceful slumber, sinking my head into the soft pillow, a deep smile on my face, knowing that tomorrow was going to be a big day. This is the pleasure I derive from being in nature. This is the magic of nature.

The day I realised I was average

I remember watching a David Attenborough documentary. There was a scene where a gazelle was running away from a cheetah.

I remember watching with bated breath thinking, ‘for sure the cheetah will catch the gazelle. She is the fastest animal on earth.’

But as the gazelle ran round in circles and zigzagged left and right, the cheetah slowly became tired.

And a thought popped up in my head.

Strong animals have weaknesses and weak animals have strength.

The cheetah’s strength was its speed, and it’s weakness was turning corners.

The gazelle’s weakness was that it couldn’t run as fast as the cheetah, but it could turn sharp corners with incredible speed.

I watched in awe as the cheetah slowly became tired, and turn by turn, the gazelle made its way to safety.

So I began to tell myself.

If strong animals have weaknesses and weak animals have strength, then go find yours.

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.

I wrote a 20,000 word story during lockdown

It might seem as though I haven’t written in ages, but that’s only because when I’m not writing here, I’m writing elsewhere.

During lockdown, I decided to make use of my time at home, by writing a book. I decided to enter a writing competition, because the only way I was going to finish writing a book, was to have a deadline.

It was one of the most mentally draining things I’ve ever done. Mostly because I still had to work from home, with deadlines being thrown at me left and right by my boss and our clients. To top things off, I got a 20% pay cut due to the lockdown, so I was starting to feel like I was slowly chipping away. The only time I had to write was during the evenings after work, but I was already so tired that I barely got much done.

But I was determined to finish. I wrote one word after another until I got to 15,000 words. By now you’d think that thing would start looking up for me, that I’d start to get my juices flowing, but it took a turn for the worse.

Three days before the deadline, I realised that I still had another 15,000 words to write. That was a painful blow. The goal that I set in mind, was beginning to fade away. I was running out of time. It was impossible to finish, so I did the only thing I could. I started writing anything. It didn’t even matter how good it was, I just needed to put one word in front of another to hit the 30,000 word mark.

On the second to last day before the deadline, I stayed up till 4am just so I could write 5000 more words.

And then I read the fine print. It said: 30,000 words is the minimum standard, but we’ll still read you story even if it’s under 30,000 words.

So I basically butchered my story just to reach 30,000 words, only to realise that I didn’t need to in the end.

If I were to describe this writing process, I would say that it was like running a quarter marathon (I’m referring to a quarter marathon because I’ve never run a full marathon before) where the last 2 km are just so excruciatingly painful that it feels like your ankles are going to fall off. But you keep running anyway, because you don’t want to be the person who gets stuck in the middle of the road and needs a lift to get back to the finish line.

Anyway, I’m still glad I wrote the story, because I’m treating that as the first draft and now I’m rewriting it a second time. Things are much clearer, I know how to make it flow, what’s going to happen, which parts I’m going to keep, all because I wrote a crappy first draft that exposed all the story’s flaws and shone a light on its strengths.

20,000 plus words is the longest I’ve ever written. Doing this has given me the muscles to write longer, and write better. I’m super proud of my story. I really am. I can see it coming together nicely and I can’t wait to show you guys a little bit of what it’s about.

Anyway, I’ll stop writing now because I’ve got to go sleep and I’m super tired. It’s 12:30 in the morning and I have to wake up early for work tomorrow (or I mean today). Goodnight!

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.