A life well-lived

I dreamed a dream where I had someone to hold my head, lean my head on, walk alongside, and giggle quietly with.

I woke up with a sense of longing for such company. I distracted myself by thinking of lighter things like The Beatles’ “I wanna hold your hand”; distancing myself from the non-reality I just experienced.

I remind myself that what I saw is only an idealized concept of what a romantic relationship is. So, even as I reassure myself that I may find the love of my life in the next chapter of my life or elsewhere, whatever it is will not all be sunshine and rainbows.

What’s more, I remind myself, is that I am a whole and complete person with or without a partner. To be myself is important. I must be able to do so myself, and must be able to do so while in a relationship too. The strong women around me that I admired when they were single, I still admire all the same when they have a significant other because that has not changed who they are. They are still fiercely themselves, with a distinct and solid shape to their selves.

I know that relationships do not simply fall out of the sky, so if I were to want one I would need to actively seek one. But if I spend my life focussing on myself – realizing and actualizing myself – that very much is a life well-lived.


A Brave Thing

Sometimes bravery doesn’t look like overcoming physically challenging feats like slaying dragons or jumping out of moving vehicles. For me on a Sunday two weeks ago, bravery was purchasing two pairs of shorts.

I don’t like buying trousers or shorts because I keep thinking that I might get smaller so the things I buy will not fit me for very long. I hold off on buying anything because I keep believing I will fit into some smaller size. I also hate the feeling of measuring myself against a number and feeling, “Yet again, I do not fit into a size six. The last time I bought something for my lower body was over a year ago, partly because of my fear of not fitting into the “appropriate” size for me.

I thought I was overcoming my body image problems as I overcame my fear of 130 pounds, but I see now that this reluctance to purchase trousers or shorts is another manifestation of those problems. Measuring myself by clothing size is still measuring myself by arbitrary numbers, regardless of whether it is six or 130.

In March, I had the small thought of, “What if…I just bought clothes that fit me, no matter what the size was?” The thought faded as I hit lower points in my mental wellness, but in early June the stars aligned. I found myself feeling confident enough, close to a mall and with enough time to shop.

When I browsed the racks, I was hung up on size six, but I tried the next size up anyways upon the sales person’s advice.

The larger size felt so much better.

I got them.

I have new shorts and they fit. For me, by buying those shorts, I’ve dealt a blow to a fear that has lingered about me for a long, long time.

Welcome to my wardrobe, my new size eight shorts!

Review: Nine Dragons

Image source: Tim Nguyen, in this CBC article

What a show.

Nine Dragons is a fictional historical mystery set in 1920s colonial Hong Kong. Chinese cop Tommy Lam confronts racism and discrimination from British superiors as he works to resolve a series of murders linked to his stark opposite, the wealthy Anglophile Victor Fung.

Hong Kong, crime mystery, and 1920s glam were the words in the description that stuck out enough for me to purchase tickets. I thought it a good way to support the local arts scene and as a fun night out for my theatre-loving family, but received much more than I ever expected.

I was blown away by the effective execution of a complex, layered dive into discrimination. The discrimination in Nine Dragons was not one-sided, nor did it appear in only one form. The play drilled deeply into the topic by showing the obvious and less obvious ways in which racism manifests, and how the marginalized and oppressed perpetuate aggressions onto others too. It was simply torturous to see the awful scenarios that characters like Tommy were in: suppressed by British colonial superiors, yet inflicting pointed accusations that others (like the one woman character) could never relate to his struggles.

Of course, the plot is part of the key to Nine Dragons’ effect. It kept me on my toes and engaged in the story. I realize though that the plot alone was not the element that impressed the struggles upon me the most.

Rather, it was the dialogue and interactions. They explored the topic and conveyed its tensions so well. On top of major scenes that presented divides amongst characters, Nine Dragons managed to naturally sneak in small quips about discrimination into the dialogue. Meanwhile, staging played an important role in physically symbolizing or playing around with hierarchy. One simple yet effective example that I recall was how Tommy or Victor stood on a box a head above others as a white tailor took their measurements. Another was how the play took advantage of the height of Tommy’s actor. His height made for some interesting moments as he stood taller than most of the cast.

For me, the sum effect of Nine Dragons’ parts was a dense, layered examination of discrimination. No character held the solution to addressing it. Tommy points out that he is on the receiving end of discrimination but his drastic actions understandably undermine his supervisors’ trust in him, and he also puts harmful labels on others too. Sean Heaney, Tommy’s partner for the case, attempts to defend Tommy and ensure Tommy gets the respect he deserves. However, Tommy lashes out against Heaney, saying that Heaney’s help only undermines Tommy’s ability to prove himself. Victor Fung represents an attempt to fully assimilate, imposed by forces above and from within, to the point where he cannot relate at all to Tommy.

A family member remarked how although he couldn’t dislike Tommy, he couldn’t bring himself to like him either. I believe that’s the point of Nine Dragons, which it has successfully achieved.

Nine Dragons is showing at the Gateway Theatre in Richmond, BC until April 21, 2018.

Coming back and moving forward

Fourth post in the Architecture and Design series

On my last day of undergraduate classes as a social sciences major, I looked more like the architecture student futurity that I abandoned prior to entering university.

With a black oversized blazer and culottes, I fit the (completely fictional) stereotype of architects wearing dark-coloured clothes. What completed the architecture look was the large portfolio bag I deftly carried around, in order to keep the the final tabloid-sized (11×17”) prints for my final presentation flat.

For my last class was not a class for my major, but rather the city visuals course. To top it off, it was presentation day, for which we had to bring in our final drawings for one last crit session thus the large print outs.

All throughout today, I mused how it was very neat to finish my undergraduate classes this way, doing a presentation like the architecture course I had in high school. Being the architecture student that I might have been, rather than the social sciences major that I actually am.

Since starting this course in January 2018, I’ve had the sense that I was returning to a past version of me. Through this course, I was exploring the future as an architecture student that I never had.

I made use of experiences from the summer high school architecture course in this university course. I attribute part of the success I had in my final project to the “Why” lesson I learnt all those years ago. From the get-go, I saw the need to establish a strong narrative to unify my project. I think I successfully achieved that as I did not receive any questions during crit about why certain components were relevant. Rather, I only received questions about the execution of my project, which did not dig deep at whether I successfully conveyed my concept or not.

In this course, I built on those experiences and deepened my understanding of design. I learnt about drawing principles, how to convey hierarchy of importance, and applied those lessons to real-life examples. I figured out how to use Adobe Illustrator for my final project. I wasn’t designing spaces, but I created visuals with purpose and demanded “Why?” as I contemplated designs, much like what an architect does.

All this reminiscing about my architecture and design history and the future I might have had is what prompted me to do the Architecture and Design series. This course has reaffirmed my interest in the way things are visually represented.

A friend who has read the posts asked me if I regretted not choosing to study architecture five years ago. To her, it sounded as if I saw greener grass on other side.

I reassured her that it was the opposite. Perhaps it sounded like I yearned to have done things differently and that I only declined my BArchitecture offer because I felt that I was not capable of doing well in that field. In reality, I love where I am nowadays. I also knew when declining my BArchitecture offer that is a Master’s degree in Architecture that is essential for an architecture career, and so I have always known that I could pursue that if I was still interested after my Bachelor’s degree.

That is not happening though. I will be pursuing further studies in the social sciences and I cannot recall pausing to consider architecture at any point during this undergraduate degree. I love what I am doing right now too much!

At the same time I began exploring the potential architecture student me when I started the city visuals course in January, I already realized how important my current interests are to me. While the prof went through examples of how visuals were biased, my mind instantly screamed, “Politics! Politics!”

So, though I came back to my interests in architecture and design during this term, I simultaneously am moving forward. Onwards, onto new adventures.

The word for pain in architecture

Third post in the Architecture and Design series

I mentioned in the previous post of this series that the architect’s design process involves a series of kicks to the gut. These kicks to the gut come rapid fire in a condensed period known as “crit” to architecture students.

Crit is short for “critique” or “criticism”. In the summer architecture course that I attended, crit is the name for the session where students present present their work to the prof and their peers, and receive feedback in return.

Feedback does not only come in the form of demands of, “Why?” It also comes through audience suggestions and having the brilliance of your peers shoved in your face.

Indeed, the most vivid memory I have of crit from all those years ago is not of how a prof roasted me. Rather, it was how another peer had chosen a concept similar to mine, yet had executed it much better than me.

I had managed to escape my presentation relatively unscathed, but my feeling of relief came too early as crit had not ended. I began to feel a sense of unease when I listened to another classmate explain his concept, which was essentially the same as mine. The prof, renown for being a particularly tough cookie with extremely restricting standards, actually got excited about his design. She applauded my classmate’s design with a smile and a nod.

The prof then turned to me and said, “See, Corax, isn’t this a much better execution of your concept?” Behind her, my classmate smiled brightly, gleaming with pride from his hard-fought success.

My heart sunk down and so did my shoulders and head in embarrassment. I meekly nodded. I somehow had managed to get crit even though my own session was over what were the chances?

I was reminded of the pain of crit sessions after a class I had a few weeks ago emulated that process. The prof didn’t call it crit but it sure was one, for we had to present our infographic works-in-progress to our peers in small groups while a teaching assistant looked on.

With my past experience of crit sessions, and all the times I have received feedback on my performance since then, I was prepared. I was on the defensive this time, ready to take option two: justify and bluster my way through because I was determined to prove myself the superior one this time.

The defensiveness was not helpful though. When I got advice on how I should broaden my horizons, such as by considering other ways of presenting my concept or including different information to support my concept, I initially shuttered them out because I felt that they were coming from people who didn’t understand my purpose and reasoning.

A few hours after class, when I had relaxed a bit, I reconciled myself to accepting these suggestions. They were valuable since they were coming from my audience, and design must have an audience after all.

I did have a hard time getting over one particularly painful comment. I scribbled the encounter furiously into my journal as I attempted to blow off the frustration that bubbled up when I thought of that comment.

A classmate had remarked that I had not collected enough data in my infographics. My eyebrows flared in anger when she repeated that again even after I explained my design again, assuming that her first remark came from not fully understanding my work. My data was there in the bar graphs! My data was there in the colours that I used to categorize information! My drawings went beyond the two dimensions of the flat sheet of paper as I had at least four different types of information in each drawing. I had painstakingly recorded information on a daily basis over two months for this and had categorized hundreds of people on my Facebook friend one-by-one. To say that I didn’t have enough data was the biggest insult.

I could dismiss that comment and the rest as the consequence of an inattentive classmate, or my rushed presentation that skimmed over important information as class went overtime. Unfortunately, I can’t, because her reaction too is valuable. Clearly my message wasn’t clear enough if they didn’t understand that I had indeed collected large amounts of data. So, I have to take their response as part of crit as well, no matter how unreasonable the comment seemed.

No matter whether I was defenceless as I was in that summer architecture course, or defensive as I was a few weeks ago in class; neither of those recourses to crit were helpful. You have to take the crit you get. Having to take all feedback, regardless of the circumstances surrounding its delivery (when it came, who it was from,  whether you thought it was accurate…) – therein lies the true pain of crit.

While “crit” is what such painful sessions were known as during my past architecture course in Hong Kong, interestingly enough, I learnt that it is not a localized abbreviation. A friend whom I was venting my frustrations to did not bat an eye when I used “crit” without explanation. She doesn’t have a design background and nor is she from Hong Kong, but it turns out that her friends abroad (in a country other than Hong Kong) used that term too. She recalled seeing friends’ Facebook posts declaring “crit” as a time of serious significance, accompanied by photos of boards pasted with drawings and posts embedded with a barrage of emotions.

Crit: the word for pain to architecture students across different countries.

The almost-wannabe-architect tells you how to be an architect

Second post in the Architecture and Design series

When I was an elementary student in Hong Kong, I enjoyed collecting stacks of apartment brochures. I would nervously run by the front door of real estate agencies, fearful of interaction with staff lest they discover I was not purchasing or renting a property. With my speed and diminutive height, I would avoid detection and covertly nab a few pamphlets from the wire stand at their door.

In the safety of my home, I’d spread my collection out for inspiration as I in turn designed my own apartments. I kept a multi-tab folder to sort designs that I had completed. They had different floor plans designed with different sizes of families or different scenic advantages in mind. Like the glossy brochures I picked up, they were only complete once they had stylized calligraphy announcing the name of the estate that I had come up with.

For a kid who hated tedious detail-oriented work like colouring within lines, it was strange that I loved whipping my ruler out to get the straightest lines and erasing curves until I had them just right.

I was very happy to pore over my loose sheets of apartment designs and my purple folder because I loved imagining spaces. Everything and anything could come from the tip of my pencil. I could produce dream spaces; dream homes that I would love to live in.

That dream did not fade away as I grew up. In high school, I decided to seriously consider architecture (the art of designing and constructing buildings) for my postsecondary studies. I enrolled in an architecture summer course for high school students in order to determine whether this was the field I truly wanted to enter. I wanted to take that childish excitement for designing spaces and elevate it into a career. I was excited to imagine and create.

Except, architecture was much more difficult than imagining and creating. It was exhausting and involved frequent kicks to my ego.

Architecture is not about doing whatever you like. Not only are there physical or assigned constraints on size or location for the space, there’s one frequently-used word that causes immense stress and the most hurt: “Why”.

“Why” is the word that our professors, all practicing architects, could ask about any part or all of your design. Why does your design have a wall here? To be precise, by “here” the prof was asking why it was in that exact place, and not any more to the right by a centimetre or any more to the left by a centimetre. Why is there a window here? Why does your design have these two doors?

For a younger me who saw “design” as an outlet for my imagination rather than a purposeful endeavour, these demands for explanations hurt my confidence. I had waltzed in with preconceived ideas of what spaces ought to look like, but no reason for why they ought to look like such, other than “that’s what they typically look like.” Thus, when the prof demanded reasons, I had none. As the prof questioned the drawings and models that I had spent hours putting together by hand, all I could do was either silently look flustered and pray for the torture to be over, or attempt to bluster my way through with BS answers.

I did have peers that thrived in the course. They stood out not because their models or designs were more impressive, but rather because they were able to answer, “Why?” Those peers had a strong concept in mind and represented it in their well-thought out design.

As such, the true nature of architecture and design lies in providing a convincing answer to “Why?” Architects are those skilled at posing that question from all angles so as to develop a strong, comprehensive answer.

As I write this, I may not be an architecture student on the brink of graduating with a Master’s in Architecture, but I did leave that summer course with that one essential skill that all architects have. If you want to sound like an sophisticated, learned, architecture aficionado, just ask, “Why?”

Why is the building that colour? Why is that material used? Why is this column here? Why? Why? Why?

And with that one word, you too can be an architect.

Comforting anonymity

How public buses can act as private spaces

Lately, I have been talking about very “private” things openly in public spaces like the bus.

I spoke about my recent mental health endeavours to friends on the bus on two separate occasions. It’s a conversation that I have purposely tried to have only when I am speaking to a friend one-on-one – away from other ears, with enough space to let myself carefully choose my words to best describe my situation and to reassure my friend that I am moving in a better direction. So, I surprised myself when I found it easy to talk about how my recent counselling sessions have gone, all while I was on a crowded bus.

During the after-school rush, people are standing shoulder-to-shoulder (albeit not pressed together, as Vancouver transit-riders maintain a half-foot wide personal bubble). Pairs or trios of friends that may have departed class together chat about their assignments, while most other commuters silently scroll through their phones.

Faces surround me as I recount how a sense of incompetency gripped me so tightly last term that I was reduced to tears over several papers. Despite knowing that there are eyes that may glance at my face or ears that will hear this story that is really only intended for my friend, I am alright.

There is a comforting anonymity in being one of the many passengers on a busy bus. I share this space and journey with dozens of people, but I feel quite assured that they will never know who I am. They will not see me again. What they hear today they will forget.

I know this because this is how I treat my fellow commuters. Instead of recognizing the person as a distinct individual, their interactions and stories are shelved under wider categories. I’ve written about past cases of my eavesdropping on public transit where I’ve overheard a grad student expressing their troubles and a high school student pressuring their peer. As those posts show, those subjects remain anonymous although I delve into details of their personal lives. Moreover, I could not point these people out in a crowd if I saw them again. To me, they remain representative of broader themes that I see reoccur around me.

And so, as just another commuting student experiencing academically-induced stress on the bus, I remain comfortably anonymous as I discuss one of the most difficult periods I have had to overcome in my life. The bus, a supposedly public space, acts like a private environment where I am able to discuss personal matters.