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.

Heartbreak means I can no longer be lazy

When I woke up this morning, I cried. Then I wiped my tears, got up from the couch and started doing the five fundamental stances of Shaolin: The horse stance, the bow stance, the cat stance, the drop stance and the cross stance.

I am doing this to heal myself from heartbreak.

I’ve been lazy, letting my mind replay all the toxic emotions of heartbreak. Even before heartbreak, my mind was lazy. I left all the promises I made to myself for tomorrow.

But after heartbreak, I can no longer be lazy. After heartbreak, it is now necessary for me to keep the promises I made to myself. This is the only out I have.

Yes, the novel I’m writing sounds bad. But I’m finishing it.

Yes, people laugh at me when I practise Shaolin. But I’m sticking to it.

These two acts of commitment are a form of self love.

If I criticised someone for not being able to commit, then I have to commit to myself to show love.

Heartbreak means I cannot be lazy. Everything that I have been putting off is now necessary.

Undefined sadness

There are different kinds of sadness. Sadness from losing a spouse, breaking up with a boyfriend, or saying goodbye to a friend. There are people who know from experience what you should do, articles telling you the stages that you will go though. But what happens when your sadness doesn’t belong to any group? What happens if it’s undefined? How are you supposed to feel? And are you even allowed to be sad?

“Was there even anything between us?” I had asked him.

I was not sure how to define this relationship. We were never together, but we had spent a good amount of time together. We hiked one time around Piha, I often went over to his place and we went grocery shopping.

He told me that he wanted to be with me. For 6 months, he continuously told me that I was “the one.” But we were never “together.” He was never my boyfriend. Just someone I opened my heart to.

So how are you supposed to feel when somebody you’d spent so much time with suddenly leaves? Somebody who was not your boyfriend? It felt like I wasn’t supposed to be sad because our relationship was not defined. Maybe he wanted it that way so that it would be easy for him to leave, so that he wouldn’t be doing anything bad.

Somewhere along the 6 month mark, he changed his mind, but never told me.

I called him up one night and asked him in a faint whisper, “Do you still like me?”

He wasn’t sure. He said something like, “I don’t want to be with you, but I still like you.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that you had stopped liking me?”

“I didn’t think it was that serious.”

And so I told him that we could remain friends if he could keep it neutral between us. I thought, better to be direct and set boundaries now, than not and regret it later.

But he never kept to that agreement.

And so after the 1 year mark I told him I didn’t want to be friends with him, and stopped all contact. Two weeks later, he texted me saying “I miss you.”

He did this a couple of times and at this point, I turned into a crazy, uncontrollable person, the details of which are too embarassing to share. I became the crazy person, the one people always say you should stay away from. And that made me feel so isolated in the process of my anger and sadness.

The hardest part has been replaying my part in this. Was I being too pushy? Or emotional? There are moments throughout the day where I have hated my actions, and as an extension, hated myself.

I don’t want to define the road forward. All I know is that I need to continue writing to make sense of the things that don’t make sense.

In the beginning, it was too hard for me to write about what happened, I was too caught up in the emotions so I was afraid I wouldn’t be honest with myself. I have been writing in bits and pieces, letting the truth come out slowly. I feel like I did everything right in the beginning, but even then everything turned wrong, and I am the one left reeling with this.

Emotions are something I need to balance. From time to time I feel guilty for letting my emotions ruin this thing between us. But then I think, what is a relationship without emotions?

What I am guilty of

What I didn’t say was that I was the one who decided to let him go. Then I went back and retracted it because I felt bad. I should have kept to my decision rather than feel sorry for him. Because in the end, he stopped caring and I was the one left with a broken heart.

For the past few weeks, I have been letting my heartbreak sink in, feeling its ebb and flow. But there is something that I keep going back to, something that I constantly feel guilty about. That something is self-sabotage.

From the beginning, he would tell me that “I was the one”. My internal response told me that this wasn’t true. He couldn’t possibly like me without knowing me fully, my flaws and all. But still, I was flattered. So I chose to believe even though I knew the truth.

The truth is, I am shy when I first meet people, then when I get to know them, I am direct and honest. The truth is, I knew that what he liked about me was just the surface-shy girl.

Then after getting to know me, he told me that I was not the kind of person who would go out and travel, that I was sensitive and fragile, even though deep down inside I knew that I was strong in my own way.

So I started acting out. I got angry. I got defensive. I sabotaged all my chances of ever being with him. And what I believed in the beginning became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The truth is, it wasn’t him who broke my heart. It was me. And I blamed him because it was easier to blame someone else, when really, honestly, I was angry at myself.

I am the one who hurt myself. And I feel guilty about it. That’s a thought that takes a very long time to get over.

So I’ve been thinking of doing something to help myself heal. I’ve been thinking of beginning Shaolin training. I’ve always admired the discipline and craft of Chinese martial arts and I feel not only would it be good for my body, but also for my mind.

How am I doing? There are days when I feel angry, and then days when I feel sad. But the pain is not as strong or as intensifying. There are moments when I feel a strong urge to start a new life, and moments where I feel an overwhelming need to stand up for me and defend myself again.

But I know that after all that has happened, this is the moment I will stop practising self-sabotage.