You Can’t Take It With You

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In the past year, I’ve mastered the art of of packing an entire life into two suitcases. The first, a practical black carry-on that has long since pledged its loyalty me. The second, a large soft-shell Samsonite sturdy enough to sustain the weight of any pillar. I’ve learned to do without a good deal of worldly luxuries. And yes, I’ve learned that you can survive without two dozen iterations of the same black shirt.

Now I’m getting ready to make the trip back across the Atlantic for good – or, at least, for now.  I’m starting learn that there are some things, both material and immaterial, that will never fit into my two trusty suitcases. The things that have shaped me the most: these are the things I am forced to leave behind.

From my childhood home:

  • My piano. I remember, I was seven when the movers heaved it up the steps. An upright from Kranich & Bach,  made of warm mahogany and with a sostenuto pedal that never quite worked. I lovingly, sometimes loathingly, worked my way through Hanon finger exercises, through Fur Elise and Sonatina in C. Then on to the Romantics, Chopin and Schumann and Mendelssohn and Listz (all of which, I still struggle through from time to time). Between the classics, I mixed in movie scores and showtunes and all the Beatles’ greatest hits. A song for every mood and every occasion. When I played, the music would fill the house and my mother would say it made her feel rich.
  • My library. Treasured books with worn creases, read over and over until the stories knitted themselves into my brain. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Ella Enchanted and The Book Thief, all still near and dear to my heart. My annual summer reread of the Harry Potter series became my marathon training. Eventually, I trimmed down my completion time to just over a week. My thirst for magical plots and magical people fed my growing imagination but ruined me for the real world. It inspired me to write the stories that I wanted to read. From my messy scrawl emerged a voice of my own. From the bookshelves, the books chanted: Write! Write! Write! And so I did. And so I became a writer.

From Boston (where I did the rest of my growing up):

  • The euphoria. That feeling of being young and invincible on a crowded dance floor, when you realize that everything is going to be alright when just hours ago life seemed so shitty. The feeling that no mountain is insurmountable. The naive resilience. The bombastic bounce-back. I can’t take it with me.
  • The connections. I can’t pack those 3am conversations, full of empathy and understanding and awe. Lovers and friends I have since lost. On my twin bed. On the docks of the Esplanade. On the ninth floor study lounge overlooking Fenway. The first time I’d felt that elusive spark. Chemistry: I finally understood what it meant. Both platonic, and, well, something more. Two intellects meeting, it’s a kind of electricity that you’ll never replicate. This person. This person! You get me. You get me!
  • The heartbreak. It had been my first. Just a few short months, I hadn’t known it would hurt this much. A fire that burned out too quickly, suffocated by all the things we didn’t know about ourselves and about each other. The words that we didn’t communicate. The feelings that we couldn’t convey. We colored in the spaces with the absolute worst. One minute, it was Thanksgiving and I had engorged myself on your story, my heart swelling with the wonderfulness of you. The next, it was Christmas and you slammed the door in my face. If you’d opened it, if I’d insisted… What if? Tearfully, we asked each other this question one year later. Already, the divide was far too big.
  • The “we” that never was. The boat we both missed. Call it chronic heartbreak, for lack of a better word. There were so many things I wanted to blame you for. Maybe that’s where I went wrong. Not blaming you, that is. You were the first spark, long before any of the others. School hadn’t even started and I already decided that I liked you. You were a puzzle to be solved, so I let myself become the mystery. You were wrapped up in your own Personal Legend, while I was convinced that you would somehow be a part of mine. Cursed with my childhood imagination, I didn’t know if any of it was real, the way you searched my eyes when you said you wanted her (i.e. not me). If you’d wounded my pride, I wouldn’t have let you see. I know I never made it easy. Only let you guess at how I felt. Kept half of myself hidden and called that victory. Perhaps I should have never placed you on that pillar. Perhaps the boat was only ever sinking. I’m flying away now to a place where I know who I am, to where timing has never stopped someone from loving me.

 

Z is for Zeitgeist

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“Talkin bout my generation…”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “zeitgeist” lately, and what it means for my generation. I remember stumbling upon this word in an excerpt of Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday. He speaks of a lost world of “security,” Europe in those pre-war days. I write this in the year 2017, and I can only guess that this feeling of loss, of dread, will stretch well into my adult years.

Born in 1995, I toe the line between the Millennials and Generation Z. We are assumed to be materialistic and self-centered, but these stereotypes cannot be farther from the truth. When I entered college in 2013, I found myself surrounded by passionate individuals who were genuinely committed to making the world a better place. The Obama years, how faraway they now seem, only pumped optimism into the public consciousness.  It was easy to get swept away in the upward momentum. Our world was moving forward: Yes we can, yes we can.

And now? Foreboding. A doomed spiral. The imminent fall of Rome. The death of the liberal ideals that had been instilled inside me from a young age, beliefs that I still cling to, a vision of the way things should be.

Everything, an entire worldview, toppled overnight.

How to describe our generational zeitgeist? In a few words: resentment, blame, injustice. A sense of powerlessness having been screwed over by the Baby Boomers in everything from elections to climate change, again and again and again. We were born into a world of uncertainty. An eternal war on terror; fear that cuts into youthful invincibility. Historical atrocities on repeat.

The façades have begun to peel away. Generation Z doesn’t buy in. We say no to traditional advertising, to the 9-5. We mourn the American Dream. There’s a desire to become masters of our own fate, to define our own success (once we free ourselves from the debtors’ shackles, at least).

It’s freedom from delusion, paradoxically coupled with the fight for idealism. Just as we reject the established standards, we condemn the wrongdoing we see all around us. Because, despite everything, we still take to the streets. We still believe that humanity can be rescued from the rubble. There is still a part of us that is worth saving – whatever that may be.

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Protesting in Boston Common after Nov 2016 election
photo credit: http://www.Michie.ru Mirror mirror via photopin (license)

NYC – CDG, W/ LOVE

I never thought I’d be one of those college kids who comes back from studying abroad a pretentious asshole. Now that I’m well-travelled and on my way to complete bilingualism, I can look upon my native land with a fresh pair of eyes and say: Europe changed me.

I’ve been home for three weeks now and I can hear myself saying things like “I can’t drink American coffee anymore” or “American guys don’t do it for me.” Now when I look around, I notice for the first time the obvious differences in fashion tastes and social norms – even perceptions of average weight and how different they are compared to other countries.

I call my poor Frenchman, who often stays awake until the wee hours of the morning (Paris time). We can only Skype right after I get home from work. When I speak to him, I sometimes struggle with phrases that just a few weeks ago came to me so easily. Then when I hang up, I have to catch myself from responding in French to my English-speaking family.

On the plane home from Paris, I read with a heavy heart In Other Woods by Jhumpa Lahiri. I found it incredibly fitting: my Paris was her Rome. I read the English translation, as she had written it entirely in Italian. She describes her struggles with learning the language, the passionate love affair she had with its linguistic complexities. She found the struggle rewarding – something I could certainly relate to.

In the process of language learning, she speaks of exile – the feeling of being alienated from both Italian and English. There are times now that I construct my English sentences the way a French person might have directly translated, and vice versa. I remember a time when fluency in any language other than English seemed like a daunting prospect. When Paris was no more than an unattainable pipe dream.

I’ve lived in the shadow of New York for most of my life. After having lived in Paris for more than four months, it feels more like home than New York ever has. In the mornings I still struggle with my commute into Manhattan. I long for the Paris metro for all if its deficiencies, because those same deficiencies have become so familiar to me.

I miss being surrounded by the French language. I miss the lifestyle, the moderation. I miss the novelty of quotidian life that comes with living abroad. I wish I could walk up to a boulangerie during my lunch break, pick up a sandwich or a baguette. I wish I could still eat refined carbs and forget to feel guilty. I miss la pause; stopping for an espresso instead of scarfing down a cappuccino in the street.

I miss beauty for beauty’s sake. Meticulously framed monuments. French gardens and their unrelenting quest for symmetry. I miss the grands boulevards and winding streets. A French fuck-you to utilitarianism; an appreciation for artistry at the price of convenience, those comprehensible grids and numbered streets.

The French language doesn’t quite have a word for homesick. I have to rely on my native tongue to describe how alien I feel. There’s a pang in my stomach for words I have yet to fully master, for a country that does not yet belong to me.

 

On Living, and Loving, as an Asian-American Woman

When I first arrived in Europe at the beginning of the semester, I got asked the usual “What are you/Where are you from originally” question a lot more often than I had expected (including the case of the drunk Italian in Rome who tried to pick me up by slurring “Manila, Manila!” in my ear).

The French have a slightly different way of asking the same question (which I have found to be much more favorable when compared to the Italian alternative). Shortly after meeting a person for the first time, I am often asked, “Tu es de quelles origines?”

I like how this question is phrased better than “Where are you from originally?” as I am often asked in the United States. The latter implies that I am from the Philippines, as opposed to my parents or my grandparents. As someone who has never once step foot on Philippine soil, Tu es de quelles origines somehow lands more easily in my ears. At least the way I interpret it, it implies that the other is not solely referring to my origins, but those of the generations that came before me.

As for my origin story: I am a second generation Filipino-American. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in the 1990s. I was born near the end of their early struggles trying to achieve the American dream. I spent the majority of my life in New Jersey (far away from any extended family) and went to a prestigious public school in a predominantly white neighborhood.

Despite my desire to get in touch with my roots, I feel more American than Filipino. My ears perk up when I hear Tagalog in the streets, but I can’t speak the language and can only understand half of what is being said. There are some familiar words, like sinigang, the taste and sound of which slide smoothly off my tongue. My mother, who has long since lost her Filipino accent, blends in with white middle class America just as well as I do. Last year she went through a kale-mason-jar-smoothie phase (as I once joked, that’s more basic white girl than I can ever hope to be).

I’ve been told by my friends that they sometimes even forget the Filipino half of me because I’m “so white.” I’ve been told that I “act white,” and that I even “talk like a white girl” too. But despite being raised by a mom who makes kale mason jar smoothies, I will never be able to completely forget the half of me that is Filipino. Maybe it’s because I’ve taken too many sociology classes, but there are things that make conscious of my “otherness” every day.

I think about it when I walk around the richest areas of Paris and wonder whether all of those Revolutions really changed anything. I think about it when I talk to the man who cleans my host family’s apartment every Monday and Thursday. He too immigrated in the 1990s. He remarked on how American (and, I suppose, not Filipino) I sounded, and told me that many Filipinos in France are housecleaners.

Back home the majority of Filipino immigrants I know (including my father) are healthcare professionals – part of the Philippines’ decade-long problem of brain drain. I often forget about the other Filipinos who work overseas, and the drastic difference between my family’s immigrant experience and theirs.

I know that I’m lucky. Very, very lucky. And yet whenever I walk up the swanky staircase in my host family’s Hausmannian apartment in the 6th, and I can’t help but wonder if the other residents ever mistake me for the Filipino “help.” And this is something I’m ashamed to admit.


However, men (of all cultures and nationalities) tend to remind me the most of my Filipino “otherness.” Take the case of the drunk Irishman I encountered on the streets of Madrid who caught my attention by making masturbation gestures at me. He told me he wasn’t racist but that he’d love to “drop his load all over that.” After confronting him, he apologized and said that he didn’t mean to insult me (and who said that chivalry is dead?).

Not long after coming to Paris, I found myself head-over-heels for a very wonderful Frenchman. About one month into our budding relationship, long before I had confessed to him (and myself) that I was hopelessly in love with him, he explained how sometimes he was unsure about my feelings. How at times it was like I was just dating him because it would be cool to have a French boyfriend while I was here in Paris. That maybe I was using him.

Of course, this was shortly after we started dating. Although it is still early on in our relationship, I know things are different between us now. There is a stronger connection, a certain understanding. We’ve come to know each other and care for each other so well by now that we have moved way beyond these early insecurities.

It wasn’t until he confided in me about this that I realized: oh my god, he feels fetishized – and perhaps for the very first time. I didn’t realize that Hot French Boyfriend could be considered just as stereotypical, and just as dehumanizing, as Hot Asian Girlfriend.

What I didn’t tell him is that I, too, shared this fear. That perhaps all he saw in me was rice paddies and porn – another island adventure. Underneath it all, the nagging fear that he was only dating me because he has a type, and that type was based on the various stereotypes the world still holds about Asian women.

In those uncertain early weeks, I couldn’t help but dwell on those offhand comments, lighthearted jokes his friends had made when he told them I was dating me. That uncomfortable, irrational fear that my boyfriend was just another guy who likes those “exotic girls.”

Sure, my boyfriend has a type, and perhaps so do I. But how can talking about racial preferences without sounding accusatory?

This is a fear that I try to ignore, and one that no longer bothers me as much as did before (because, come on: a guy who listens to me explain the process of HIV transmission has to be interested in more than my ethnicity). I have yet to bring this up to him, because in our seemingly “post-racial” society, there’s something about being in an interracial relationship that makes talking about race so freaking awkward.

I know now that him being attracted to me solely because of my ethnicity simply isn’t the case. At the end of the day, we’re more than stereotypes; we’re just two fools in love. For this is a man who has read my words, listened to my thoughts, and seen me in all of my bare-boned vulnerability – and together we share a bond that goes more that skin deep.

An Ode to Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a cool city – and it sure as hell knows it. With it’s unabashed adoption of sex and drugs, Amsterdam is like the guy down the hall from you freshman year. The one who repeatedly stank up the halls with Afghan kush, all the while writing hallucinogenic-induced poetry, freestyle rapping, or justifying his decision to become a casual Buddhist practitioner.

I have to give it to Amsterdam. It is perhaps one of the few places in the modern world that has managed to make a spectacle out of the world’s oldest profession. At night, Amsterdam’s main attraction is no longer its canals nor its Dutch gables, but its women – women of comical proportions, garbed in outlandish lingerie and sporting ridiculously large breasts. Some of them play the showgirl, press their bodies against the glass; they purse their lips and wag their fingers enticingly we pass.

It is here in the red light district that hoards of young men invade the streets to ogle at the women in their glass cases and marvel at the view. I couldn’t help but think of the freshman crawl known to many a college student, and the cliques of guys who would get turned away from frat parties for not having a good enough male-female ratio.

However, it seemed to me that, in this odd blend between an aquarium and a circus, people do a lot more looking than fucking. These women – does anyone even pay them? I watched them in their rouge-tinted window displays. Half the time they were on their phones – scrolling through their newsfeeds, Snapchatting, and looking incredibly bored. Some them were making calls. I imagine at least a few of them had to be talking to their mothers.

But for all of its inflated embrace of vice, Amsterdam has a unique kind of romance, with its boats and bicycles – the Venice of the north. When I visited with my boyfriend last weekend, we had a magical time walking along the water’s edge.

“I understand it now,” I told him we passed the Prinsengracht canal. “The hype.”

It was uncharacteristically sunny while we were there. Before we left, we were able to have drinks on the terrace without the warmth of a heat lamp. I had shed my jacket as I sipped my Heineken, thinking that this was such a great place to be young.

Good beer, plentiful sunshine, and the man I love.

For a moment there, Amsterdam tricked me into thinking it was summer.

Waiting Game

In response to “Women Wait” by meganhana : 

Nobody likes to be kept waiting – at restaurants, on the phone with customer service, or in the supermarket checkout line. And yet we force ourselves to wait nearly every day of our lives. We wait for the other person to text us first, and then we wait the customary two to five to forty-five minutes to text them back.

Waiting, with its unwritten rules and regulations, has become both a universal survival tactic and a metric by which you can gauge romantic interest. If you wait too long to send that first message, the other party might have lost interest. If you don’t wait long enough, you may come across as too eager (or worse – needy). When it comes to relationships in this strange digital age, you have to play the game.

…At least, that’s what I thought. In the past couple of months, I have come to love a man who refuses to wait. He never liked this game, and it became clear that my perpetual waiting was starting to drive a wedge between us.

At the beginning, I played the waiting game because I had no clue that there was an alternative. On our first date, I waited for him to as to reach for my hand, the same way I waited for him to reach for the bill. Each step of the way, I waited. Reflected. Tried to anticipate his next move. I did what I knew how to do – always on the defense, never offense.

I waited for him to define the relationship, the confirmation that not only he wanted what I wanted, but that he wanted it more. Never to be the more loving one – a true race to the bottom when it comes to denying your true feelings time and time again.

What’s more, I waited for him to say, “I love you,” first. Even though there were times when I felt as though the words were bursting from my chest (I had to bite my tongue to subdue the declaration, a sure sign of weakness, to keep it from forcing its way past my lips).

I hadn’t known then that the game was one-sided; that waiting, ironically, was the very thing that was pushing him away.

If I’ve learned anything from falling in love with a man who refuses to wait, it is that love cannot result from passive waiting. Such an approach no longer works in our swipe-saturated dating culture, where you have to compete for another’s attention (i.e. affection) amidst not even true candidates for love, but those who represent a mere swish of a finger, the ghost of a possibility.

We imbibe on the potential for love. We are paralyzed by the abundance of choice. We turn dating into this torturous game. As a result, we wait and we wait and we wait. And in most cases, to no avail.

The truth is as old as time itself: life is too short to wait. We need to stop condemning ourselves to the same self-imposed purgatory, lest we lose our shot at love due to our own stubborn passivity. The key is to act – to act now and to love freely. To embrace all of the hurt and embarrassment and vulnerable emotion along the way.

 

Easter Sunday

There’s a certain stillness in Paris on any given Sunday – but on Easter Sunday, this was not the case. The last few Sundays I had spent in bed with my Frenchman. I did not consider it a waste of my limited time in Paris, for lying in bed with him for hours on end was as culturally immersive an experience I would ever get. But this Sunday was singular in that I was alone. My French host family had gone off to their country home for the weekend. They entrusted me with their beautiful Haussmannian apartment in between the seventh and the sixth. Since they left, I’d spent every day traipsing around the place, singing French songs, reading by the window overlooking the courtyard, and pretending that this life was truly my own.

But it was Easter Sunday. Even though I didn’t feel particularly lonely, I certainly was alone. I had not spent much time alone since I met my Frenchman and I truly did miss the splendid silence of solitude. However, it was Easter Sunday and Paris was abuzz with spring – if I truly wanted to benefit from my semester abroad, I know I couldn’t spend it watching television in my underwear.

After a concerted effort, I got dressed in my Easter best so that I could balader dans les rues like a true Parisienne. It was springtime in Paname and I was in the mood to be inspired. I had originally intended to head toward Montparnasse so as to imagine taking my place as an American expat in Paris’ rich literary history. Instead, I found myself heading north to the Luxembourg gardens, thinking perhaps I could set there and read.

The gardens were packed with families and tennis players and tourists alike. I had just found myself a chair facing the palace and took in the warmth of this glorious day. But, keeping with the Paris tradition, I had scarcely reached into my purse for my book when it started to rain.

I, along with the rest of the crowd, scrambled for my umbrella. An exodus followed – all of us in a lazy panic, rushing to take shelter in one of Paris’ many cafés.

I felt myself getting hungry – for it was nearing la pause quatre heures. In New York, it is not at all uncommon to see people hunched over books and laptops, eating alone in crowded restaurants. The sacred communal meal time in France – I wondered whether or not I could find a place where it was acceptable to enjoy my cappuccino and pain au chocolat in solitude.

I settled for the Paul on Boulevard Saint Michel. Maybe it was very American of me to seek out a commercial coffee shop chain in order to feel comfortably alone and anonymous.

It turns out the only people who spend Easter alone in coffeeshops are old Frenchman and me. There was the man in the corner, nose buried in a book (Politics? Conspiracy theories?), whose skin faded into his cashmere sweater which faded into his khakis – all yellow-brown, all the color of desert sand. His eyes were small and black as dung beetles. As I scribbled into my notebook, I could have sworn there were times that he knew I was watching him; whenever he looked up, his beady little gaze would lock onto me.

And then there was the old man seated at the table diagonally across from mine. He resembled a nervous turtle, wrinkly and bald, a thin red scarf dangling from his stout little neck like a half-assed noose. The moment he sat down he absolutely devoured his tarte aux framboises. I glanced over once to see he was pouring his Minute Maid orange juice into a cardboard cup. The next time I looked up the orange juice was gone and the turtle-man was craning his neck to watch the passerby down on Boulevard Saint Michel. I thought then he seemed too jittery to be a turtle – more of a jackrabbit perhaps, or a canary.

I could have spent another two hours likening people to animals in that coffee shop. But the rain had stopped and the sun was shining – outside, Paris beckoned to me.

So I left (the beetle man watched me leave, as if to say that he knew exactly what I had done and he was complicit in my little acts of espionage). I continued down Boulevard Saint Michel, thinking perhaps I would be a good Catholic for once and attend the 6:00pm Easter mass at Notre Dame. Then I saw the monstrous line circling around the square – you would think it was for a Beyoncé concert. So I decided I was far too agnostic to wait; and, no matter how magnificent the cathedral, today was far too beautiful to spend indoors chained to a parish pew.

I walked alongside the Seine. Past le Pont Neuf, under le Pont des Arts. I thought about how once the river was once full of shit and how Notre Dame wouldn’t still be standing if not for Hugo’s imagination (and dear old Quasimodo). I thought about Hemingway: “All you have to do is write one true sentence.” I thought about Simone de Beauvoir and her beloved Chicago man and how they forwent love in favor of their work and their respective cities; then I thought about my Frenchman and what they could possibly mean for us.

I was blinded by cliches and I thought about how Paris is hands-down the most magnificent city in the world (and how when it rains for five days straight – or when, god forbid, I get pickpocketed a second time – I would find myself eating my words). I thought about changing my return flight, and how much I’d like to stay here for the rest of my life (or until I drain my bank account or the presidential election begins or my visa expires).

I thought about what people must have thought of me as I walked past – who is that girl who traded in her leather jacket and scuffed shoes for a new trench coat and Italian leather boots?

Then I looked at my reflection in the Seine, which today is far from the cesspool it used to be. And I thought to myself: damn – that lucky bitch is me.