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.




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?

“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.

Dreams of Debut

Recently, a friend of mine joined the ranks of Japanese anime culture lovers.  He has been excitedly telling me all about his new findings, most especially his surprise at the large differences in relationships between Japanese and Western culture.

For instance, how important confessions of love are.  Also, that following a confession of mutual feelings, the relationship naturally progresses into one of officially, exclusively, dating.

I sighed and simply observed his shock as he recounted these observations to me.  To me, these weren’t shocking in any way.  Although my formative pre-teen and teen years were spent in North America, I had grown up with these ideals captured in Japanese anime/manga culture.  My expectations of society, high school, relationships and more were significantly shaped by my heavy consumption of Japanese manga; creating a little bubble that cushioned me from North American practices until I confronted them head on at a later stage in life.

Japanese manga/anime culture (I have lumped the two distinct media together as genres, themes and even plots or series are shared between the two) encompasses a broad range of genres, but the one I sunk my teeth into as a female pre-teen/high school student was (unsurprisingly) shoujo.  Shoujo directly translates as “young girl”, which refers to its target audience.

Many shoujo plots are set in un-extraordinary, every-day settings like contemporary Japanese high schools.  Romance is almost always core to the storyline and achieving it tends to rely on a few recurring themes and plot devices.

The “high school debut” is one of these common themes.  Entering a new high school, which makes up the last three years of secondary education in Japan, offers characters an opportunity to start afresh and embark on new adventures.  A huge hype builds around entering high school because characters are able their past flaws or leave behind dark histories to present their ideal selves to their new surroundings: their peers at high school.  Whatever first impressions characters leave can drastically impact their social life, making or breaking their important high school experience that marks a bittersweet transition into adulthood (further education in university or work).

Having said that, the high school debut is quite flexible because it doesn’t necessarily have to take place at the start of high school, it can take place during high school as well.  In many cases, this ties in the makeover (another common theme).  Similar to entering a new school, the makeover offers the character new opportunities as it redefines the relationships the character has with their surroundings, given the change in their appearance or personality (e.g. increased confidence, resulting from the change in appearance).

Both the debut and the makeover work towards the single most important goal of shoujo manga: romance.

To compare it with North American culture, I’d say that the high school debut idea in Japanese manga/anime is quite like college films.  More than North American high school films, college films seem to capture the excitement of new surroundings and finding a place in life.  As for the makeover idea, that’s common enough in North American culture as well!

So, the high school debut can happen at any point during high school.  And oh, how I hoped and kept hoping for my time to shine.  Be it my first day in high school, school dances, camps, special field trips – I saw all these breaks from regular school as opportunities for a change in the relationship between myself and my peers.  To finally make my high school debut, a splash that would signal a new chapter of my life and hopefully, the beginnings of romance.

And yet, nothing.

I never confessed.  Never dated.  Never had any romance or near-romance of any sort that made me incredibly anxious or nervous like it made the female protagonists in the dear mangas that I read on a daily basis.

I finished high school, subconsciously slightly disappointed at how lacking my experience was in contrast to all the expectations I had.  I never had a high school debut, makeover, or romance where I blossomed into the full expression of myself.

A few pages from the sketchbooks I kept throughout high school – further evidence of how deeply anime/manga permeated my life, inspiring me to emulate the drawing style and copy favourite characters in my art.


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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.