State of my year

One of those blog prompt books that I crack open to get the brain juices flowing spat out this theme three months ago.  It’s only now that I have found the words to convey the theme that’s been running through my 2017:

Small potato in a big world.

From my seat at the top of the Lions/Binkert trail in West Vancouver, the urban areas of Greater Vancouver marked a grey puddle to my left.  To my right, I stood over a tranquil Howe Sound and Bowen Island, both which looked surprisingly large compared the urban areas in the distance.

The city of Vancouver, which I am surrounded by daily, makes up the whole world as I know it.  I know where landmarks and neighbourhoods are within that city, but what lays outside is (and still is) a mystery to me.  And what’s outside is infinitely bigger than Vancouver, as I saw from the top of the Lions.  As a person from the small, small puddle of concrete grey amidst vast expanses of land; I realized that my existence was quite minuscule and insignificant.

This sense of small-ness marked the beginning of this year as well when I began working in Ottawa.  In the first week, my workplace hosted an orientation event for new employees.  Twenty or so fresh, young faces filled up an entire boardroom.  I elatedly rode on the energy in the air – of course, I was excited for the job, but moreover, my past workplaces never had orientation events of such scale.

From meeting others and asking about their backgrounds, I learned quickly that I was likely the youngest in the room with the least amount of experience, since I was still an undergraduate.  The other new hires in the room had Master’s degrees and were working on fascinating projects with actual impacts on people (unlike undergraduate papers that are only read by professors and my mum).  Some even had extensive professional experience under their belt in various sectors.

It hit me as I looked out at the circle of focussed, keen faces that some of the brightest minds in the field from across the country were right here in this boardroom.  These people had obviously done extremely well in their academic programs to proceed onto graduate studies, and likely received funding for their graduate studies too.  Furthermore, they proved their extraordinary intellectual and interpersonal capabilities yet again by securing highly-coveted (at least, according to my immediate peers and myself) employment at this organization.  Compared to them and their achievements, myself as an undergraduate student from a tiny corner in Canada was nothing much.  I may have held what I consider as some fairly significant leadership positions on campus, but if my accomplishments could be measured on a metre stick marked in centimetres, theirs were measured by measuring tapes marked in metres.  In other words, their work was on a whole other scale from mine.  They were in a whole other league.

So, whether it was from the top of the Lions in West Vancouver or in a boardroom in snow-covered Ottawa, my understanding of the world (and thus, how I fit into the world) changed as I saw things from a new perspective.  From these vantage points so unlike my everyday point of view, I developed an appreciation for how awesomely immense the world is, and how small my presence truly is.

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Dear student behind me on the bus

Dear student behind me on the bus:

You sound awfully anxious as you recount your current struggles with school to your friend on the phone.  Please don’t be so dismal.

It must be difficult, moving cities to pursue a graduate program.  Starting school in general is tough, what with new profs and new sets of expectations to get used to.

I agree, reading all the opinion pieces from your classmates each week on top of the 300 plus pages of readings sounds difficult.  The readings you mentioned, with works from philosophers like Foucault and Derrida, aren’t going to be easy readings either.

However, just because you know they’re challenging works to read doesn’t mean you can’t overcome them.  You ought not to prescribe the outcome before you’ve even started the fight.  You’re precluding the possibility for success.  What if…you can do it?

You said that you feel very small in your cohort, that you don’t belong amongst the group of older, seasoned students with professional experience.  But think about it: if the program didn’t think you could handle the rigours of the program, they wouldn’t have selected you for it.  They believed in your ability – can you?

I recognize that I come from an outside perspective and have no idea of your history, other than what I overheard from your phone conversation on the bus.  Still, I hope that you take a look up and notice the things that are going well.  You might find it hard right now, but I think some optimism would help in the long run, so please give it a try when it is available.

Sincerely,

A concerned eavesdropper

Dear Opportunity

Dear Opportunity,

I believe that I just missed you.  You were virtually on the other side of the street, just a few keyboard strokes away.

I was very aware of your presence in my peripheral vision.  You were that message that I could’ve sent to someone and that application to some cool experience that I could’ve filled out.  I didn’t summon the energy nor courage to type my way to you though.  I didn’t send that message, nor that application.

We make calculated decisions.  Mine was to ignore you, for a variety of reasons.  Usually, it was because you looked too time-consuming, even though you look very promising – the chance for a new relationship, perhaps, or a fascinating adventure.

I don’t want to regret not taking you up as I have a strong distaste for regret, birthed from mental debates regarding my commute in high school.  Back then, I evaluated on a daily basis whether I should exert myself and run for my bus which was infamous for rarely coming, or take it easy and be content with potentially watching bus rolled into and out of sight as I strolled to the stop.  I learnt to embrace whatever decision I made and the emotions that came after through this, but it’s hard applying this to the rest of my life.

Since I’m writing to you about out of these potential feelings of regret, I am clearly still learning to and practicing how to accept the consequences of my actions.

I recently heard a helpful piece of advice that helps with this coping process.  A person that I look up to told me to not see my next actions as a finite, be all end all decision.  Choices certainly can irrevocably change a life, but they do not necessarily close off all doors.  They can open other ones too.

Opportunity, I may have missed you this time, but that’s alright.  I believe it’s alright.

Another time then, Opportunity.

The Corax

P.S: Looks like I did ultimately use more than a few keyboard strokes on you, writing this letter.

Never “local” in Hong Kong

In honour of my heritage and the irreplaceable childhood years that I lived in Hong Kong for, I tell people that I’m from Vancouver “slash” Hong Kong.  Without a doubt, the time I spent there and my connections to the people there are deeply entwined with my past and my future growth.  Consequently, Hong Kong is tied to my identity.

Be that as it may, it seems that Hong Kong won’t have me, as I’ll never pass off as a local in Hong Kong.


In a shoebox-sized shoe store packed in with dozens of others in a multi-floor shopping complex, I picked out two pairs of heels that I quite liked.  As a university student looking forward to future internships, work experiences and other settings that have Western business or business-casual as a dress code, I was on the hunt for practical work heels.  Here, in this tiny store, I had surprisingly found two that fit the bill: they were of good quality and were not going to blow the student bank account.

The only problem was that I only carried cash since I had no bank account, let alone a credit card in Hong Kong.  I reluctantly informed the two sales assistants that I would only take one pair.

“Oh?  But the other pair was so nice too,” one of them remarked.

“I know, I’m not carrying enough money at the moment,” I answered, underlining the latter part of my response with tones of regret.  My parents were always nagging me about how I carried so little cash with me, and it was now my turn to regret it.

“Aiyah, just use your credit card like all the other returning overseas Chinese do!” advised the second sales assistant, gesturing by motioning of her hands the action of pulling a card up and out of a wallet.

That instantly made me freeze my smile into a thin, cold line as I shook my head and proceeded to pay for my heels.


“So, where are you coming back from?” asked the sales assistant.

“Ah-,” I hesitated, looking up from the shoes I was trying on.  “I’m coming back from Canada.”  The sales assistant grins and nods in acknowledgement.  I return to the task of tying up the shoe laces.

“Actually, how did you know I was from overseas?” I asked the sales assistant, while I studied the brown oxford now on my foot.

She takes a seat on the dark brown bench by me and looks somewhere to upper right of her vision as she ponders.  “I would say that it’s because of the way you speak.  You can hear the difference.  It’s the way you use words and say them.”

My lips press into a slight smile, conveying silent thanks for her answer.  “I see, is that how it is?” I ask, rhetorically.


Riding the train, on which I spend a significant amount of time people-watching, I feel out of place.  It probably is an imagined sensation, but somehow I feel that my whole person, appearance-wise, is distinctly non-Hongkongese.

From my half-bleached, naturally wavy hair; to my shorts that expose most of my thick thighs that stand atop of rounded calves; to the clutch on top of which I balance my notebook to which I have taken to writing thoughts down in (in English) wherever and whenever; I am pretty much a foreigner with a Chinese face.

In comparison, the local girls my age probably have permed, ruler-straight black hair.  They wear lightweight culottes that only look flattering because they end midway down their thin calves, and most definitely are not toting clutches as bags (satchels, totes, backpacks, anything but clutches).

My sense of other-ness is reaffirmed whenever I catch someone look in my direction, particularly when I notice that someone is watching my rapid scribbling of barely legible lines (that almost don’t resemble English) into my notebook.  But what counts is that the curls and loops are most definitely not Chinese, and that my speed betrays my distinctly non-local identity.


The thing about identity is that others’ recognition of it appears to play an important in validating it.  What’s a Canadian without a Canadian birth certificate, passport or other document confirming Canadian citizenship?  What’s a doctor without a medical license to practice?

Try as I may to affirm that a part of me is irrevocably connected and influenced by Hong Kong, I am fighting a futile effort.  Those that reside in Hong Kong do not recognize me as part of them, what with my accent, my appearance, and my atypical life experience growing up on two sides of the Pacific.

I remain an outsider to Hong Kong – never local.  Hong Kong, with the energy of its seven million inhabitants, slips free through my grasping hands.

130, Part 3

130, Part 3: Outgrowing 130

Slowly, slowly, I am learning to let go of this number.

After returning to Canada from exchange, I dropped long-distance running in favour of muscle-building exercises at the gym, largely due to limitations of the weather.  My gym routine nowadays is to do bodyweight exercises, lift free weights and end my workouts with a bit of cardio.

I am fascinated by the changes my body has undergone as part of these efforts.  I can feel dense muscles right underneath my skin here, see a defined line there…

Now, thanks to months of this latest phase in my fitness journey, I believe that I can say that I’ve let go of 130.  In fact, I am actually back at 140 or so.

Somedays I still feel awful about my weight, but those days are fewer in number now.  When those days do come, narcissistically admiring the muscles in my arms that I never had a year ago helps remind me that a number on the scale doesn’t differentiate between fat or muscles, the latter which enables me to do more push-ups or can carry me over long distances.

As I said in a post following my half-marathon, I’m learning that happiness isn’t found in a number, but rather in an ability.

130, Part 2

130, Part 2: An unhealthy obsession with an insignificant number

If my mother thought 130 pounds was bad enough, I couldn’t imagine how she would react if she found out that was a generous 10 pounds under my real weight: 140 pounds.

For years I kept 140 a guarded secret.  I told friends about this awkward, horrible incident at the driver licensing office, but I only told one close friend shortly after the incident about the actual number.

For the same number of years and more, I focused my energies towards achieving 130.  It became a target weight that I set out to achieve by going on a ridiculous no-carb diet; attempting to do yoga, running, martial arts and core workouts on consecutive days or on the same day without care for recovery periods; and obsessively recording my weight and food intake.

And the results of these efforts: I caught a cold in the summer from insufficient protein intake, I strained my back and was put out of commission for two weeks, and I was extraordinarily disheartened by the lack of progress I seemed to make.  Oh, and I didn’t reach 130.

130.

130.

130.

Could I ever reach that barely-acceptable weight?


With encouragement from two friends who were fans of running running, I signed up for a half-marathon in South Korea.  Over the course of eight weeks that I had before the race, I followed a training plan that involved running five days a week.  I committed to not screwing up my body through lack of training, eating unhealthy food or eating unhealthy amounts of food.  On top of that, I practiced Taekwando three times a week.  Fortunately, there was only one day where I had running and Taekwando on the same day.

I did make it to 130 during this period.  I also completed the half-marathon way faster than expected, but this was not enough to satisfy me, as I recounted in an earlier post.

 

130, Part 1

130, Part 1: Trauma at the Driver Licensing Office

“130 pounds,” she stated to the customer service assistant standing behind the chest-high counter.  Having said that, the teen shot a sidelong glance at her companion, a middle-aged woman who stood by her side.

“WHAT?” screeched this woman, likely her mother, mouth slightly ajar.  Her daughter paled.

The customer service assistant averted his gaze away from the pair, directing it downwards.  He focused an uncommon degree of concentration towards punching the numbers on his computer’s keyboard.  It would be best to not intrude in this personal, private matter; to just be invisible and pretend that he saw nothing.  To pretend that he didn’t see the teen hesitantly turn her face to take in her mother’s questioning look, nor how the teen’s strong eyebrows sagged with weakness.

The next time he looked up, he did his best to address the pair neutrally.  “We’ve just got to take a photo for the driver’s license now.  Could you please stand in front of the screen?”

“It’ll be just like a passport photo,” he explained to her.  When the teen shuffled to the white screen and looked up at the camera, her oval face was one of dispassion and indifference.  Her eyes no longer were blurry.  They glared straight at the camera, although more so blankly than fiercely.  Her jaw slackened, making it take on a broader, squarer, more angular dimension than it had earlier.  There was clearly no need for him to remind her not to smile.

“Thank you. Is that alright?” he asked, showing the girl the photo.  She nodded, face still wearing the same cold, detached expression captured by the camera.

He rushed through the rest of the typical licensing questions and forms.  Though the pair of females did not make eye contact much in the first place, it was evident from the outright avoidance of eye contact that something had shifted between them during the time they stood at the licensing counter.  If their relationship was akin to the bridge, something like an earthquake had just shook it.  Perhaps it had even caused cracks.

Communication between the pair halted.  They didn’t exchange any more words, even as they exited the driver licensing office and out of the customer service assistant’s sight.

130.  Who knew a single number could cause this?