“Inside every person is a universe”

“Since I was a young child, I have been aware that inside every person is a universe, and that we’ll never know what it feels like to be another person.  Which is horrifying.” – Elizabeth Strout

I came across this quote from Elizabeth Strout in an interview she did with Time Magazine.  I had never heard of her before, nor read the book she is most well-known for, Olive Kitteridge, but the image this quote paints has stuck with me.

It stuck with me so much that three days after I finished that edition of Time Magazine and recycled it, I fished out the magazine from the recycling box to take a photo of the quote, in case the interview was not published online.

Strout has beautifully captured how deep individuality runs in each person by comparing it to an entire universe.  Her quote implies that we’re all distinct persons: we are all universes that are totally different from one person to the next, so (unfortunately and horrifyingly enough) we can never fully comprehend each other. 

This quote intersects with another quote and a story for me.  If all people are total universes on their own, it means there’s a lot we can learn a lot from each other.

My Chinese textbook introduced this proverb: “三人行,必有我师”.  If you translate it along more literal lines, it means, “When three people walk together, my teacher must be there.”  The essential gist of it is that you can always learn something from the people around you.  Somebody nearby will always be able to teach you something.

A recent interaction drew the connections between Strout’s quote and the Chinese proverb.  A classmate asked my professor a question that was smack dab in my region of interest, East Asia.  I thought I could suggest some further reading for her as I had taken a course abroad that was closely connected to her question, so I approached her after class to extend this offer.

After I introduced myself awkwardly, I quickly learned after exchanging a few words that she was already very knowledgeable about the region.  The conversation rapidly deviated from what I had originally approached her for (i.e., to share my knowledge), to her telling me about herself, her research interests, and her research findings.  I was the one learning from that conversation.  And it was so cool.

In sum, this interaction was a real-life reminder for me about the awesome depth each person has within, and to be humble enough to recognize it and learn from it.

Mari Kondo and Me: What I learnt from a crazy Japanese woman

Why I followed a crazy Japanese lady’s advice to completely reorganize my wardrobe, and how it changed my life

When you’re a college student with a paper due tomorrow, a job application due the next day and a midterm sometime in the near future on top of that; the last thing on the priority list is closet organization.

This likely goes beyond college students too.  Who cares if clothes or folded or not?  As long as you can wear them, right?

My mother was always puzzled as to why I typically let unfolded clothes pile high on a rather redundant pink chair in my room (to be honest: I detest pink, that was part of the benefit of having it covered with clothes).  My experience working in retail added to this mystery.  I used to work in a Western business-casual store, no less, where most of my eight-hour shifts were spent folding blouses into neat little squares with a board.

Anyhow, the point is that I never thought folding my clothes was particularly important.  I would do clean-up of my wardrobe and refold clothes twice a year so everything could actually fit inside.  Otherwise, as long as my shirt fit inside a drawer, then it was cool with me.

On the opposite end of my likes/dislikes spectrum is the joy I find in beautiful design and aesthetics.  I adore a particular clean, cluttered-yet-perfectly-disarrayed look, the sort you find in Ikea catalogues and on the Instagram feeds of my favourite bloggers.  I tried emulating their sparse composition but gave up because my colours simply didn’t coordinate as well as theirs did.

Two winters ago, “The Magic of Tidying Up” by Mari Kondo ended up in my hands as I was winding along Main Street with a friend one winter day.  I read a few chunks of it and my reaction was, “This lady is crazy.”

For those of you unacquainted with Mari Kondo, she is a Japanese woman who makes a living out of helping people organize stuff.  In her bestseller, The Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo details her “KonMari” method of tidying up, from theory to practice.  She tells you how to store your bags, tidy up your desk, and even how to fold your clothes (because not all methods of folding clothes are equal).  Interspersed are accounts of her own experience. 

One story I remember in particular is her description of how she loved tidying up so much that a daily pastime of hers in high school was to turn the contents out of a few drawers upon returning home and reorganize them.  She did this so often that she found herself going through the same drawers time and time again.  Sure, it taught her an invaluable principle about tidying up: that you need to tackle it by category, not location.  That means rigorously tidying up drawer by drawer isn’t sufficient, rather you should go by category (e.g. all your makeup, no matter where it’s located).  However, this anecdote to me was clear proof of madness.

Still, I was intrigued by how Kondo’s book became a bestseller, so I went online to learn more.  I found several blogs on how following Kondo had transformed crammed and jammed wardrobes into displays pleasing to the eye.  It was very soothing to look at the vertically folded, colour-sorted clothes that Kondo advocates for, even if they weren’t in the monochromatic pallets that graced the Instagram feeds that I subscribe to.

Prior to departing for South Korea, I was planning to clean up my stuff so it wouldn’t simply sit around for months.  If I was going through all my clothes, I figured that this would be time to try out Kondo’s method.

I originally planned on only sorting through my main wardrobe as I thought my drawers were reasonably organized.  But as I started sorting out things, some new categories no longer fit where they used to.  This made me recall Kondo’s advice to tidy up things by category.  I ended up tipping the contents of all my drawers onto my bedroom floor so I could move sections around.  My pants now had a small drawer to themselves and my shirts had a large drawer. They previously were intermixed in one vertical and inaccessible pile in my closet.

Key to the KonMari method is the mantra to keep only things that “spark joy”.  This simple principle was incredibly useful to me. It boiled down all my considerations and concerns to one single question.  It didn’t matter whether the item was wear-able or not, whether I had worn it five times or fifty times.  If it made me happy, I could keep it.  If it didn’t make me happy, I was probably wearing it not very frequently  or not at all, so there was no point in keeping it and having it take up valuable space in my room.  In practice, how I answered this questions ran along these lines in my head:

Thin sweater that I rarely wear because I don’t ever feel fantastic enough to pull it off?  Bye.

Worn hoodie that I’ve owned since high school but is fantastically comfortable and something that I would wear every day? Staying.

This was very different from how I used to approach reorganization.  Before I cleaned out my room KonMari style, I thought that I needed more storage space to store everything.  I was wrong.  It turns out that I had more than enough room for all that I needed.  I just previously kept so many clothes that were of high quality enough to wear, but that I didn’t actually wear because I didn’t like them.  Those took up a lot of valuable space.  When I demanded myself whether these “sparked joy” for me and whether I would really like to keep it, I “gained” a lot of space and a much freer mind.

The most important outcomes for me: lighter mind, joy in how beautifully my clothes are arranged, joy in knowing that everything I see is something that I enjoy wearing, joy in knowing I can live with less, joy in visual sparseness.

Other outcomes: making stuff I wasn’t even using available to others who might like it, or in other words, passing things on that I wasn’t appreciating fully to others who might appreciate it more.  These additional outcomes are no indication of altruism.  They were just externalities to me.

However, the process was no easy task.

I still remember scheduling four hours for this overhaul (I typically refolded all my clothes in an hour or two before)…but four hours was actually how long I simply laid on the floor of my room spread out like a starfish, arms resting on piles of clothes around me.  Just taking everything out and chucking them into categories of “shirts”, “home wear”, “formal wear” and “not keep” was an incredibly exhausting hour that demanded a recovery period four times as long (ok, maybe there was some Daniel Deronda or period drama in there.  Ok, there was definitely Daniel Deronda).

Here are some of the results:

Closet organization 1

Closet organization 2

Pretty snazzy, hey?  I am so incredibly proud of it.  It wouldn’t meet the colour scheme standards for Instagram, but I think it would be worthy of #organizationinspo tag anyways because this is real.

But more than looking like the minimalists I always aspired towards, listening to Mari Kondo helped me embrace this lifestyle for real, beyond the definition of “lifestyle” as newspaper or magazine categories propagate.  Minimalism is about focussing on the things you care about and spending time on those things, which is essentially the keep only things that “spark joy” principle Mari Kondo preaches.  I apply the “spark joy” principle to more aspects of my life now: to things I buy, to things I do, to where I spend my time.

So, it turns out that even a few phrases from a crazy Japanese lady planted a seed for extraordinarily positive change in my life – or should I say, “sparked joy”?

Letter to an enemy

Dear Lord Elgin,

At first I thought you were just one of many white men that had a street named after you for goodness knows what historically important reason that nobody can recall anymore.  Then, I found out that you weren’t just any old, dead, white man.

As someone who identifies as Chinese, you are horrid person in my history books because you commanded British forces during the Second Opium War.  You ordered the destruction and ravage of the Summer Palace, an extraordinary, fantastical sample of Western-Chinese hybrid architecture.  Thanks to you, the expansive compound amounts to a pile of dirty, grubby rubble today.

Ever since I learned of the things you did, I saw you as an enemy.

It wrecked my heart to walk on the street that bears your name in Ottawa.  It’s at the heart of my country’s capital, because apparently you were a decent Governor-General.

However, I know now that perhaps you aren’t the enemy.  Hating you and your legacy will do me no good.  You are a part of history and a ghost, but nothing that should ever strike fear or sorrow into my heart because I will make sure that no one ever does something like you did.

I will not aim to actively tarnish your name, but I will endeavour to tell people about the not so pretty things you did, in sum, rampaging around the Qing empire.  I won’t advocate to change the name of Elgin Street in Ottawa, but I won’t forget that you were commander of British forces in the Second Opium War before being Governor-General of Canada.

For Lord Elgin, while you may not be my enemy, you certainly are not my friend.


This post was in response to the following writing prompt: write a letter in response to the first word that pops out on page 29 of the nearest book.  For me, “Enemy” screamed out from a chapter title in Vanity Fair.

I’ve been thinking a lot about modern Chinese history as a result of a course I am taking.  I’ve talked about some of my struggles with this part of history in an earlier post: Hurt.

A proud moment

I had a proud moment this past weekend.  It marks another step in my health journey.

While walking through a train station, I glanced at an advertisement that read, “Get Gorgeous!”

My next thought, an instant reaction, was:

“I already am.”

Although I know I am not the fittest I’ve ever been, and although I am struggling to find a way to make exercise and eating in moderation more routine since leaving Ottawa; I think that I, however I look right now, might just be enough.

It feels damn good to know that I believe that deeply enough, as my immediate response to the advertisement proves.

Being present

When yoga teachers make sense

Although I faced an unexpected over limit fee on my credit card, had to stay late at work, didn’t get to go to the gym or yoga as often as I wanted, and most definitely overstuffed my face; I strangely felt alright and satisfied this week.

I attribute this unfamiliar new state of contentment to the words the yoga teacher said on last Sunday’s class sticking with me. Often, I tune out the stream of wishy-washy words that teachers spout (I don’t understand how breathing enhances my practice really, so I just try to get some physical exertion in for the week), but what the instructor said last Sunday resonated with me.

He declared we were all there for class because we were seeking a connection. Initially, that prompted me to begin shutting down my brain.  I foresaw a torrent of abstract concepts coming towards me, until he asked: “When you’re walking, are you aware of how you’re distributing your weight across your feet?”

I instantly snapped back into attention because my left knee has been bothering me. So yes, I’ve been very aware of the pain in my knee, but not whether I’ve continued to stress it out as I walk.

So I tried taking this advice and I’ve been paying attention this week to the way I walk.

This has unexpectedly impacted my commuting experience.  Instead of thoughts and plans for what I’d do once I get into the office, or what I’d do once I get home ricocheting around my head, I have been aware of where I was and of what my body was sensing.

Yes, I think I’ve started to grasp what yoga teachers or mindfulness guides are always seemingly directing students to do: to be aware, to be present. It’s the first time any of those oft-repeated phrases I’ve heard and read have held some meaning and significance to me.

I still let my mind wander around a bit on my commute. I looked back at how this differed from past commutes and I see that previously, my mind was constantly, relentlessly directed forwards. I was (and still frequently am) fixated on the future. In my head, I am persistently working on the next steps, extending my focus to a place or time very far away from where I currently am. I am always fighting to get to the next hour, the next day, the next weekend, the next month.

I never basked in the moment. Or, you could say that I never stopped to smell the roses.

The impact of simply paying attention to the now has been subtle, but I really believe the relatively okay and even positive attitude I’ve had despite those upsets I mentioned earlier are largely due to this new mindfulness.

Being present. A small, simple joy and useful practice that I learnt about from an unexpected source.

 

Baking lessons

I baked quite a bit this past Christmas holiday.  I’m not new to baking – I’ve frequently helped my family since I was young and did a year-long foods course in high school.  But this intense period of baking while working around holiday schedules taught me a few things.

Most of my lessons learnt stem from my initial belief that “I’m not bad at cooking”. I strongly believed (now, somewhat believe) that I can make anything as long as I have the recipe.  I’ve previously done things pretty well just like that, after all.

Moreover, I’ve also armed myself with hours of observation.  During my exchange term, I devoured hours of Youtube cooking videos on in my dorm room.  Going further back, I grew up on the original Japanese version of Iron Chef.  That was the first television show that I can distinctly remember pursuing.  I would ready myself in front of the television every Friday night without fail in anticipation of the show.

This self-confidence prompted me to choose an ambitious project for my family’s Christmas dinner: croquembouche.  It is a tower of custard-filled puffs glued together with caramel.  It’s sweet and crunchy, and a show stopper whose tedious preparation demands a significant celebration to justify it.

Another factor in my decision was that I was intrigued by the profiterole making process.  As such, I announced my intentions and put them into motion.  SortedFood, Cupcake Gemma and BBC were my tutors.  There was no chance that this wouldn’t be as straightforward as I imagined.

Well…

From working my way around all the challenges that cropped up, I know why people pursue baking as a hobby now.  There’s ample room to improve and hone skills.  Just within my croquembouche experience, I ran into three obstacles.

Challenge 1: Making the puffs

One of the first challenges I encountered was before I even got any actual baking done, as I worked eggs into the dough.  Since my handheld electric mixer whisks were in the dishwasher, I attempted to hand whisk the eggs in like I had seen many chefs do.

It was a precarious and dangerous process: cracking an egg and whisking it into the hot dough mixture as quickly as possible to avoid scrambled eggs.  I recruited a family member to help pour the eggs in until my tricep started screaming for relief only two eggs in out of eight eggs required.  I conceded to washing a larger pile of equipment and resorted to the stand mixer.

Challenge 2: Baking the puffs

Baking the puffs was anxiety-inducing.  For the longest time, they weren’t rising.  Then, they weren’t crisping up. When I tapped them as a test of hardness, my fingers often crushed them.

My heart was caught at an impasse when I considered deviating from the recipe.  The time the recipe recommended just wasn’t long enough, but was it worth ruining the whole batch for just a bit of crunchiness?

With a heavy heart, I made my decision.  I closed my eyes in silent prayer as I betrayed the recipe and shut the oven door on the puffs.

Thankfully, the puffs crisped up all right without burning.  But what a nerve-wracking ordeal it was to have the recipe fail on me.  I could only hope that the next parts would go smoothly if I kept following the recipe.

Challenge 3: Assembly under time pressure

There’s one vital skill you need in the kitchen in addition to cooking techniques: time management.  Clearly, I lacked this, as I found myself surrounded by a growing crowd of curious guests while I glued the puffs together with past-boiling-point caramel.

Inquisitive guest one: “How have you been??”

Me: “Fine, thank you, now excuse me as I have to weave through this crowd of people to the kitchen to reheat this very hot pan solidifying caramel in order to work with it again.  Please don’t stand in my way and get hurt.”

Inquisitive guest two: “What are you making??”

Me: “Croquembouche, or just think of it as cream puffs in a tower.  Yes, I did make the puffs and the custard filling too.  Sorry, could you stay a very good distance away from the caramel and me?  I wouldn’t want to burn you.”

Family member, also under stress: “Are you done yet?  We need to get the appetizers out!”

Okay.  That was the last straw: I really needed to get this thing done and interaction from guests on all sides was only slowing me down.  With an ungracious bellow that would immediately eliminate me from Dinner Party Wars, I requested declared that everyone leave me alone until I finish assembling the dessert.

Final thoughts

Mad props to the fierce, talented souls who not only cook up a delicious storm for the holiday feast, but get it done on time and with grace.  You are heroes and magicians, though you may wear an apron instead of a cape and a spatula instead of a wand.  On behalf of ungrateful louts like me who even assumed that pulling together dessert would be a no-brainer, I thank you for the silent hours of dedication you put towards making the holidays what we remember them for: a joyful celebration of family, friends and thanksgiving around an incredible holiday meal.

Some photos of my baking craze during the holidays:

Freshly baked olive & red onion bread 🍞 #yvreats #homemade #homebaking #bread #holidayfun #diy #nofilter

A post shared by The Corax (@the_corax) on

Missing: Bailey’s brownies, gingersnaps, almond cookies and “Almond Joy” chocolate chip cookies.

Her Story, My Story – Our Story

How I learnt that discovering surprising shared experiences is key to overcoming ridiculously large obstacles like gender constructs, while I was at home and wearing my pyjamas

Through a slightly convoluted and long chain of events, I was given the opportunity to watch two incredible documentaries: Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In, which are both directed and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom as part of The Representation Project.

To be honest, I was looking forward to doing school work instead of spending last Saturday night watching these films for a responsibility I had signed up for.  However, after only fifteen minutes into the documentary, I changed my mind completely.

Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In address the gender constructs that society propagates, their devastating impact on the development of youth and how their effects have been magnified to new heights today with increased exposure to media.  For example, images of hyper sexualized women teaches girls that their value lies solely in their appearance.  As for boys, they are taught to strive for an extreme masculinity where what matters is economic success, physical prowess and sexual conquest.  Since these ideals are unrealistic for both genders, it undermines both genders’ sense of self-worth and consequently, their confidence that they can effect change.

Overcoming gender stereotypes is an issue near and dear to me (related blog posts 1 and 2), so I appreciated how these films laid out the problems and provided evidence with shocking statistics.  I could see that this had the potential to impact people who are not so well acquainted with the problem.

However, the documentaries’ explanation of the gender constructs that society perpetuates and their negative impacts wasn’t what blew me away – gender as a social construct isn’t a new idea to me.

Neither was the way that the film told the story through personal testimonies interspersed among expert interviews – it was pretty typical of documentaries that I have seen, there was nothing new there.

Yet, these documentaries struck some essential chord in me.  I found myself crying as I listened to snippets of young girls of various backgrounds and from places that I have never been.  As they recounted their frustration and sorrow with how unfairly women have been portrayed in media and how gender limits women’s advancement in society, I shared their frustration and sorrow too.

One girl retold how she struggled with body image – another girl’s anecdote was about how she seems to be treated differently than white male counterparts in leadership positions.

I cried as I listened to their stories because I realized that this was not just some other girl’s story.  In her story, I heard mine as well. It was her story, my story, and the story of so many other girls.

From this, I understand better now that the struggle for gender equality isn’t a personalized challenge for each individual to overcome on their own, but rather, a shared challenge that we ought to tackle together by utilizing the shared experiences that connects us.  There are many other factors that influence our experiences and make them unique, but if we look carefully, we can find the common ground that provides the foundation for collective action.  We need to recognize how our experiences relate (and differ) from each other’s, because these problems that are exponentially larger than problems that the individual can solve on their own.

So, whether gender as a restrictive and harmful social construct is a new issue to you or not, I highly encourage you to take a look at those two documentaries, which are both available on Netflix.  If not to educate yourself on the issue, then to understand better how the experiences of very different people intersect and even intersect with your experiences.

The films were also a reminder to myself to not perpetuate these constructs – there are so many ideas we think and say that we incorrectly believe are “natural” and “common-sense”, like: “She ought to pay more attention to her appearance since she’s a girl,” or “He gets way too emotional for a boy.”

Are you with me here? What are some of the experiences you’ve had with gender as a social construct?

Let’s talk about them take down these gender constructs, together.