Feeling Today’s Right Yesterday’s Wrong

I often feel today’s right yesterday’s wrong. I don’t know why. It’s strange that it is rarely the other way around, although let’s be fair each has equal claim to be correct. Well, how about I grow wiser as time passes by, which obviously benefits today more than yesterday? That’s possible only to a certain degree. It’s also possible that we don’t grow wiser as much as we think we do, but rather we become different under different circumstances. That’s why when we look at yesterday from today’s perspective, we feel that yesterday is so wrong. It is so wrong that I don’t even feel yesterday’s me is really me; it could have been somebody else entirely.

Don’t you just hate hindsight? If hindsight is 20/20, it is an arrogant 20/20 that brings no solace, only regret. Last night, having another episode of insomnia, I somehow recalled several incidents when one of my friends talked with me about one thing that bothered them–boyfriend trouble, husband behaviors, varied things that are unfair, missed chances etc.–and I often failed to respond in a way that is satisfactory and often ended up creating distance.

Why is that? I am very sympathetic and empathetic. Is it because I don’t know how to express myself conversationally? It is true that I prefer writing to speaking, but not to the degree of not being able to express myself orally. Why can’t I in that crucial moment of friendship behave in a way that I am proud of?

I think and think, and come up with an explanation. It is because I had complained to my friends about my mother–at least three or four of them in separate occasions–before but didn’t receive sympathetic response. My mother died years ago. Otherwise I won’t write about her like this. I think when I complained to one of my friends, I received the response that her mother is worse than my mother, and we ended up in a competition of who has the worse mom. This competition was so pointless that I am ashamed to bring it up now. When I complained to another one, I got the response that I could not understand my mother. So basically I was blamed to be too insensitive or too ignorant to understand others. Yet another day and another complaint to another friend, I received the response that one doesn’t have to love one’s mother and I shouldn’t feel guilty about it. I didn’t even know I feel guilty about it until she pointed it out.

I think and think again about this, and here is my conclusion–I really should not accuse my friends of not understanding me. It is me who didn’t have the skill to make this communication work. This communication is very important to me. A friendship without self exposure is like a life without self examination. In order to make this communication work, I need to try different ways, for example hint and allusion. If I suddenly come up too strongly, people would feel uncomfortable. Another way is to talk about this repeatedly and from different angles to convince my friends what I’ve said have valid points. It’s not a woman’s idle complaint or a selfish grievance. I obviously didn’t practice this. I bought the topic up once enthusiastically. When feeling not being understood, I gave up on the topic entirely.

When will I ever master the art of conversation?

I Know I Won’t Finish These In November

“Nine Horses” by Billy Collins
Even his complaints are delightful to read. I wonder why?

“Forgotten Wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia” by C.A. Bayly, Tim Harper
The end of WWII is just an opening for new battles. It’s as thick as two books, but I hate speed reading, which takes all the fun away.

“Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir” by Amy Tan
I hope this book is as fun to read as “Joy Luck Club”, and the first several pages gives me the hope that it’s probably better.

“Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It” by Ronald Aronson
I don’t believe Simone de Beauvoir nags Camus and pesters him for love. Camus is not suitable for her. Even I, from the vantage point of 70 years later, can see that. I am sure she can see it too.

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
I like “Even The Stars Look Lonesome”, which is part poetry part prose–my favorite format. I am expecting this book to be better. I expect it to be part better poetry part better prose.

“How to Live Like a Crazy Rich Asian: The Ultimate Guide to the Fashion, Food, Parties, and Lifestyle of Singapore” by Philip Choo
I am interested in Southeast Asia and how people live their life there. I hope there’s a book with more details but this one suffice for now.

“Great Brand Blunders: Marketing Mistakes, Social Media Fiascos, Classic Brand Failures…and How to Avoid Making Your Own” by Rob Gray
I haven’t had time to read this one, but I really want to. Marketing is as much a wild jungle as everything else in this world. Haha.

“Pangs of Love” by David Wong Louie
I suffered a lot while reading “The Barbarians Are Coming”, but as soon as I finish it, I take on this book. Do I ever learn? Am I an incorrigible self torturer?

Unfinished October Reading

It’s different from what I planned a month ago, but several lovable books have made it all worthwhile.

“If I Had Your Face” by Frances Cha– This is the first book I read about South Korea. Isn’t it strange that I used to watch many South Korean movies, but never think of reading a book on contemporary South Korea? I even read three or four books about North Korea and shed tears of despair as the characters are doomed for risks and misfortunes. Anyway, a lot of things described in this book is so real that it feels like a non-fiction. Ruby’s suicide especially rings true since there’s a real case of it I know from several years back. Other descriptions also echo with what I knew before–the poverty and desperation and competitiveness of the service industry workers. I mean people in service industry of any kind. In a society of severe inequality, these people suffer the most and the majority of these people are women. Also a lot of these people are either small business owners or working for small businesses. And small business is a curse phrase in many countries–long hours of work, no break, low pay, often on the brink of bankruptcy. It is said in South Korea, if you can’t get in the three best universities, you won’t be able to get in big companies; if you can’t get in those big companies, you are destined for small businesses of hard work, low pay, and a series of financial woes. This book is just another demonstration of this unfortunate fact.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales” by Oliver Sacks is recommended by many different sources. Whenever I type a search for books on psychology, it pops up. Somehow the title throws me off as being too long and subconsciously I rejected this book for several years until I couldn’t anymore. Now I read it and it is nice. I guess our brain is just as hopelessly dysfunctional as other aspects of our life, just as I expected.

“Bluebird Memories: A Journey Through Lyrics & Life” by Common is an audio book I hope I read earlier. Somehow I think rap lyrics are particularly suitable for immigrants learning English as a second language, not only because they are fun, they are clever, they rhyme, they are as colloquial as possible, but more importantly because there’s the sense of having fun in a life of struggle in a world that’s not made for you and you are not ashamed to express your otherworldliness–that is so immigrant like. However it is very hard for me to make out the lyrics in singing. I can follow speeches, but it is impossible for me to follow a song. Obviously in singing, English becomes a new language, to non-native speakers like me at least. Or perhaps I don’t have ears. When I was young, my art teacher told me that I don’t have eyes. I also know for sure that I don’t have nose since I am not sensitive to smells. Goodness. What do I left with?

Feminasty: The Complicated Woman’s Guide to Surviving the Patriarchy Without Drinking Herself to Death” by Erin Gibson. Although the author read this book with a real passion, and probably a real intention to be “nasty”, she is not saying anything nasty. Also the woman is rather normal and fair minded, not too complicated to be understood. I think she can survive very well in any kind of “-archy” or “-cracy”. It’s a delightful book.

How to Write Great Blog Posts that Engage Readers” by Steve Scott. It’s a short book but I still haven’t finished it. I’ll try.

Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” includes 40 or so half hour long stories by 40 different authors, who are trying to be honest about their love and relationships. As I expected, honesty creates a lot of anxiety and anguish, which I think is good catharsis.

“The Barbarians are Coming” by David Wong Louie. It tortures me to no end. I gave up in the middle of it, then picked it up, then gave up with 70 pages left, and finally I couldn’t stand it anymore with 20 pages to go.

“Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems” by Billy Collins. It’s always a pleasure to read his books. Somehow I feel that the poet possesses the power to torture the readers, but he’s too polite to do it.

“We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop” by Eric Olsen. At first I am not used to the deliberately unstructured format, but after a while I am used to it. The rent is really low in Iowa, which is probably why the famous workshop is established there. Most writers are poor and if the workshop is in New York, most won’t be able to afford it.

Mini Story: Chul And Jool

My friend H told me this story and H heard this story from her colleague Chung, who grew up in a town in the Midwest, somewhere within 200 mile radius of Chicago. Chung’s parents run the only Asian restaurant in town, which serves a range of items from Vietnamese rice roll, Mongolian BBQ, to General Tso’s chicken. And the only other Asian immigrant family is from Korea, who run the only laundry service in town. They have a boy Chul. Chung and Chul are of similar age. They become friends both by choice and by circumstances. Eventually the two boys came to the East Coast to attend college. This story is about Chul and his girl friend Jool. It all started when Chul started to talk about his roots.

“Roots? What are you? A tree? Well, even for trees, I mean, you don’t think of roots when you think of trees, do you? You think of branches, leaves, and flowers. Roots are brownish, knotty, and unseemly, which is why they are naturally underground.” Chung said to his friend.

“That’s not true. I like roots. Not all roots are ugly.”

“I agree and retract my insults. Still if you want roots, eat yams or carrots. That’s my advice.”

“Chung, you are so cynical. I want to know something about my culture.” Chul said.

“Your culture? You don’t even know how to say ‘culture’ in Korean, do you?” Chung said.

“No, I don’t. And you don’t know how to say it in Vietnamese.” Chul said.

“So? Why do I want to know how to say ‘culture’ in Vietnamese? Give up. Let’s do something fun together and forget about your roots.” Chung said. “You know my mother’s side migrates from Thailand and Myanmar to Vietnam, and my father’s side comes from Northern China and Mongolia. If I really want to find my roots, I have to dig …”

“Is that why ‘Asian Star’ has so many different entries?” Chul asked. “Asian Star” is the restaurant Chung’s parents were running.

It’s a recurring topic between them which the two couldn’t agree on.

“The Vietnamese dishes, you know, are from a lush tropical area. The Mongolian BBQ–that’s like in Gobi Desert close to Siberia. General Tso’s chicken–that’s created in America, which has more connection with deep fried chicken here than with any real Asian dish. Anyway, these things can’t be more different from each other. I mean in style, flavor, location. How could your parents put them in one restaurant and in one menu? Also how could a chef master so many different cuisines so different and so unrelated?” Chul chuckled.

“The chief chef is my father, OK, with two assistants and my mother pitching in from time to time. He’s an Asian chef and of course he masters all Asian dishes. For once, common misconceptions work for an Asian. You are not who you are; you are what other people think you are. Plus how do you think my parents can survive in that town if they only sell Vietnamese food? You have to sell all kinds of dishes so that whenever any Midwesterner around us wants to eat something Asian, he comes to us.”

“I really like the pickled radish from your restaurant. You said your mom make batches of it.” Chul said.

“You are into roots, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am going to take a Korean course.”

(To Be Continued later)

Struggle With Broth

Last weekend, I had to struggle with the question–what broth to use–all because the local Trader Joe’s runs out of the low sodium organic chicken broth. This Trader Joe’s on Route One in the township of North Brunswick is too small, probably only three thousand square feet, which as a store is not much at all. Every time I go there, I find at least two or three of my favorite items missing. The non-firm tofu has been absent from the shelf twice in the last two months; soy powder not to be found anymore; pea powder nonexistent. Refrigerated soy milk disappeared permanently for a while while the non-perishable variety only show up half of the time. Once I started to like a specialty tomato sauce in a little jar, only to find it off the shelf two weeks later. I guess they are just teaser items, not meant to be liked or favored and desired for a permanent presence.

I had to switch to vegetable broth, but the taste is just not there. The wanton soup made from the vegetable broth tastes funny, though still tolerable. However one cannot live with tolerable food. One aspire to tasty food, preferably with minimum preparation time. That’s the dilemma about food. We want it tasty but without too much labor to obtain the taste; healthy but without losing those tastes that fat, cholesterol, salt can bring. We love starch but not the calories that come with it; we love sugar but not the negative aspect of it. Every meal is an act of achieving the impossible.

Now I am wondering if I can make my own vegetable broth. Just get the fresh vegetable, dice them, blend them, strain them. Isn’t that a better broth than the store bought one? Yet my days of cooking enthusiasm is gone. One has to be inspired to be able to plunge into such a labor intensive activity. Just to have a tasty meal? That’s not enough of an inspiration, not for me, not right now.

Mini Story: A Non-Greek Tragedy

My friend H told me this story, and I have since changed the location and the background setting of the original story to make this a fiction of fictional characters.

It’s about the neighbor of my friend H, an Asian immigrant couple, both engineers, which are not uncommon among Asian immigrants in New Jersey. They have twins, one boy and one girl, who are attending the same local middle school. Let’s just call the boy B and the girl G for the sake of this story.

The couple is continuously putting pressure on B to perform better in school. B’s not a bad student, but not as good as what his parents expect him to be. The thing is G always outperforms her twin brother B academically, which gives their parents the ammunition to press B. They often point out B’s deficiencies in comparison with his twin sister G. They tell B that he is the hope of the family and will carry the family name. B’s current performance just can’t live up to the name he’s inheriting. Actually B’s grandparents are farmers turning shopkeepers in a huge Southeastern Asian city. There’s nothing glorious about B’s heritage, but the couple see no harm, and only benefits, in glorifying the nonexistent ancestral title and upholding an imaginary family tradition of excellence.

One day the neighbor, only the wife not the husband, comes to knock on the door and tells my friend H that they just had a big row at home. B runs away and G is crying. H promises to take care of G while the parents go out to look for B. It turns out G just received a scholarship to go to a summer camp somewhere, which triggered a new wave of criticism from the parents and pushed B’s response to a new dramatic height.

“It’s said every family is a Greek tragedy.” I say but regret immediately that I’ve said that.
“It’s an Asian tragedy.” My friend H says. “A Greek tragedy is more bloody.”
“The Greeks dramatized and stretched a real life story into a bloody tragedy, don’t you think?”
“Well, how do you dramatize and stretch this real life story into a bloody tragedy then?” H asks.
“I can’t. I feel uncomfortable to add more drama to your neighbor’s story.” I said. “However I heard this one a while ago that a boy was pressured by all his relatives to be a medical doctor. When he didn’t get in the medical school, he faked it. He pretended that he went to medical school every day just to make his relatives happy. When it eventually revealed that he’s never admitted, he just bought a gun and killed all of his relatives. And himself.”

“Does it qualify as a Greek tragedy?”

Haiku: Falling Leaves

A night of wind and falling leaves.
Everywhere I go,
I walk on the carpet of leaves.

Remember last October,
Twelve months as if a blink of an eye.
I'm one year older but not a bit wiser.

Can't get rid of the inertia,
can't change my habit.
A continued cycle of misunderstanding.

Mini Story: The Battle Of Love

“Yesterday I threw all his books out the window.” Lulu says to me.
“Really?” I feign surprise but I’m not really surprised.
“I made sure the car is not parked in the driveway first and the screens were taken down for the winter.” Lulu and her husband Tun live in a tenement style townhouse and the driveway is right underneath the living room window.
“I liked the sound of the books hitting the asphalt. He ran out to pick them up while shouting that I’m the meanest woman he’d ever known.”

We were sitting at the dining area of H Mart, a Korean grocery store, in Edison, New Jersey, and sharing several steamed red bean buns. Originally we planned to go to Menlo Park Mall together afterwards, but Lulu’s obviously not in the mood. I guess the shopping trip is off. I have to be careful when Lulu complains about her husband. If I don’t ask for details, she is going to be hurt that I don’t care about her; if I ask too many details, she is going to think that I am too nosy; if I don’t criticize Tun, she’s going to think I am not on her side; if I criticize Tun, she may be annoyed. Two months ago I gave Lulu several suggestions when the couple was having a spat. When they reconciled afterwards, she told Tun everything I said. Tun has not spoken to me since and probably will never speak to me.

“You know his parents were against our marriage and thought we are not suitable to each other. Now I think about it. They have a lot of foresight.” Lulu says.
“Why did they say you are not suitable?” I ask.
“His zodiac sign is sheep and mine is dog. They think the dog will eat the sheep. At the time I thought that’s just nonsense old superstition.” Lulu says.
“It is nonsense. You are not saying you start to believe it now?” I say.

Lulu and her husband Tun met in Singapore where she was working on her computer science degree. Tun moved there with his parents several years before Lulu. Tun’s father is the best player of an obscure string instrument in the world and also a rare scholar in a pictograph language with dwindling native speakers. Under a new diversity initiative of the Singapore government, scholars like Tun’s father were recruited to the universities there to give lectures and demonstrations. Tun’s father didn’t want to move. They were living in Northern Thailand at the time and had a modest income and a stable job and very high social status. However Tun’s mother were interested in the opportunity and persuaded her husband that it would be good economically for the whole family. In this tropical city state, both Tun and Lulu were immigrants with very few friends and very limited resources. The locals shun poor immigrants socially if not professionally, and the couple felt lucky that they found each other.

Several years later, Tun worked as his father’s assistant and Lulu’s company opened a new office in New Jersey. Tun and his parents didn’t want her to come, but she didn’t listen to them. She came and settled down and battled with her husband and in-laws, who eventually caved in. Her husband came but could only manage to get very ill paid jobs.

“I gave him an ultimatum–either he starts to learn computer to get a good job or…” Lulu says.
“What if he doesn’t want to learn computer? He’s not like you.” I shrug my shoulders.
“Oh, he has to. He has to sacrifice for our family.” Lulu says, “and you know we have an opening for web testers and document writers. If he just learns a little bit of computer and passes the entrance test, he can triple his current salary.” Lulu says.

Two weeks later, Lulu calls me. She kicks her husband out.
“Isn’t that a little too dramatic? What are you going to do?”
“I threatened to kick him out and now I did it.” She says with a sad triumphant tone.

Three months later, I meet Lulu again. She happily informs me that her husband has just moved back home.
“Is he learning computer skills now?” I ask.
“No. He’s just his old self.” She says, a little crestfallen.
“I am glad it’s blown all over now. Let’s just relax and be happy. This is love, you know? You just have to accept who he is.” I smile at her. There’s never a crestfallen woman happier than Lulu, I think.
“OK, I’m accepting him all right, but can you talk with him? I mean to persuade him to learn computer?” Lulu asks.
“What do you mean? You can’t persuade him yourself. How can I persuade him?” I’m a little panic.
“Well, you deal with people and you know how to persuade people.” Lulu insists.

Just when I think their battle of love is over, I realize it is not.

Poem: It Is A Ghost

A common Friday, 
not bad enough to be tragic,
not funny enough to be comic,
not good enough to be happy,
not unproductive enough to be 
a total waste of time.

Every method of human contact
can be used to thwart real communication,
which is the best way to lie
without really lying. 

An advice I gave, 
too conspicuous, too rational.
I know it's going to be rejected.
Why bother to give it then?
Just to rid myself of guilt later on
of not helping the best way I can. 
Or do I have other motives
that I wouldn't admit I have?

Let's hope you never wake up 
from the wishful.
That's a luxury your life's twists and turns
refuse to give you.
That's a deceptive knot your experiences
can't stop to unravel. 

It's October--
all kinds of phantoms and ghosts 
come out to play
in our mind, 
messing up our reality. 


That’s No Joke

“Alexa, tell me a joke?”
Silence. My Kindle Fire is hitting a mini glitch.
“Alexa, hello.”
“It’s Sarcasm Awareness Month, and I say ‘hi’.”
“Alexa, can you tell me a joke?”
“Why do zombies make such excellent golfers? They really know their way around a corpse.”
“I can write better jokes than that.” I say to my friend immodestly.
“Really? You know you are never funny.” My friend says in equally immodest criticism.

This is the moment that I usually prefer sweet lies from my friend, but as usual I receive bitter truth instead. Not that bitter truth ever prevents me from pursuing what I want to pursue–only delays. Not that I aspire to be funny, but still I think I have a joke or two in me, just like everybody else.

I see jokes in more places than my friend, who tends to have a stricter standard. For example, the fact that we all want to listen to sweet lies while still expecting the liar to be a true friend. Is that a joke or not?

Good And Bad On Standing Up

I can’t remember who told me this–a person has to stand up or walk around for at least four hours a day. If not, the bones will not be healthy and the body will be in decline. Well, if the decline is impossible to stop, at least the four hour rule will help slow it down. It’s a good advice since for people who have a sedentary life, maintain certain hours of standing up time is common sense.

However I’ve never really thought about this rule before. Some days, I’m probably only in non-sit position for an hour. I can’t have a timer with me to monitor my standup time. That will be strange. Only a very nerdy person will do that, but I am not so nerdy. Without resorting to accurate measurements too eccentric to be deployed, I can only guess how my time is allocated between different postures. My estimate is that I just can’t live up, or stand up, to the four hour rules.

Once I met an old lady who lives in Cranbury, New Jersey and she’s eighty years old, but she walks like a thirty or forty years old, talk without pause or hesitation that people of her age sometimes do, drives her car, and swims every day for an hour or two. When I met her, I thought to myself that I wish I could be like her when I’m eighty. I think she can certainly meet the four hour standard. I mean the one hour swim probably is equal to two hours of standing up already. By the way, I met her because she’s a friend of my then acupuncturist. I helped the acupuncturist get rid of the virus in his computer. The next thing I knew, one of his patients wanted me to help her with her computer. I am no expert on computers. I only know how to read the instruction online and reset the computer to a previous time.

I know I know. People don’t like big mouthed women like me who can’t stop talking about what she knows, but I just can’t help myself. During the medieval time I would be burned as a witch, not for any lofty idea such as the earth circling the sun, but for the fact that I talk too much about things that people don’t want women to talk about. My grandmother, my father, and my brother have all warned me of my tendency to reveal my knowledge and make other people uncomfortable. It’s not that I know a lot. Actually I don’t know much at all, but my relatives know less. Among them, I’m considered too knowledgeable for my own good.

Now back to this advice I received. How can I increase my standing up time after a prolonged period of sedentary life style? Should I get a high desk? I mean a table with long legs so that I can stand up and type? I’ve never seen a desk like that. Then I thought long legs are not enough and they have to be adjustable legs. How do I know how high is comfortable for typing before I even try it?

With no desk with flexible height, I use the bookshelf to anchor the laptop. When standing up and typing, I feel that something is different. I don’t know what but something is definitely differently. The different kind of vibe is vibrating around me and I hope good ideas may start to pour in, which I have always wanted but which has never really happened before.

Haiku: Memory

A sunny day,
A simple breakfast. It's there--
the memory smiling at me from the charred toast.

I stop the car,
raise my eyes. It's there--
the memory appearing, hanging on to me, like my handbag.

I walk past the familiar hedges
of careless landscaping. It's there--
the memory recurring, like someone repeating a tired tale.

Why the tenacity, 
why not disappear,
like other memories, content with oblivion.

It has something to tell me.
I know it has,
but what's the message?

Such a vague figure, uncertain shape,
like a ghost, wandering and haunting. 
I know it will not go away until I get the message.

Friendly Advice

I got a friendly advice today when N told me to sanitize the second hand book I ordered from betterworldbooks.com in case there are remnants of Covid19 clinging to the pages ready to jump on anybody who touches it and send the person to fever, ventilator, or even an early grave.

“You know the virus is discovered on seafood packages and groceries.” He warned, eyeing the book suspiciously.

I opened the package and revealed the thin volume, while he took a step back as if to avoid something contagious. In the past, I would have deliberately thrown the book at him just to have some fun at his frightened reaction, but this is no normal time. People are very nervous.

“New Jersey has 1100 cases yesterday.” He said.

“I’m not going to add one more case on the pile just by reading this book.” I said. I was a little disappointed at the thin volume, but I know I need to read poetry. As a non-native speaker, my natural sense of English is rather non-natural and non-instinctive. Reading poetry has helped me feel the language.

“I will spray rubbing alcohol on every page.” I told him, but I knew I wouldn’t bother to do that and I knew he knew that I wouldn’t bother to do that. Whey did I say that?

When will this end? It has been more than six months of restrained activities and rumors of health hazard–some say the virus can get a free ride through a building’s air-conditioning system and one person with no symptom can super-spread to everybody in the building.

N has an abscess and it’s painful for him to walk. At least that’s my diagnose, just by listening to his description of symptoms. I hate myself for being such a busybody who has opinions and suggestions just about everything and can’t seem to shut up. If I were living in the Medieval time, I would have been drowned as a witch for talking too much. N’s doctor is only half active, meaning that she only sees very few patients. The problem with New Jersey is that the state has no-cap for victim compensations in case of medical malpractice. Doctors have to pay very high professional liability insurance. A lot of good doctors end up migrating to neighboring states which handle such issues with more reasonable policies.

“I don’t think my doctor can handle this. I will ask her to refer me to a specialist.” N said. N really doesn’t trust his doctor. The only reason he selected this one as his primary doctor is because it’s easy to get certain prescription drugs from the doctor. I actually think N only has an abscess. No big deal. It really doesn’t need a specialist. Just my opinion. Like what I said, I have an opinion about everything. I just can’t help it.

“You can go to emergency room, but emergency room is not safe, right? I mean you may contract Covid19 when you sit there for five hours waiting for your turn.” I said.

When will this end?

Life’s Discrepancies

Years ago one of my acquaintances told me this. At the time, I didn’t really think about the merit or the moral of the story. I should have, but I didn’t. I am not completely impervious to learning, but I pick up hints or wisdom very slowly. Now I can’t even remember it was a party or just a chance encounter somewhere. My memory is so bad. Yet despite my bad memory, I remember what this person told me.

At the time she was an immunology researcher working in a lab associated with a hospital in upstate New York. For years, she didn’t have any publication. Year after year, she grew increasingly desperate. Her future depends on these publications and yet despite all her effort, she was not able to. Her boss was equally desperate since his grant was also depended on the experimental results and published papers. Without any paper to show for it, he would soon be losing his eligibility to apply for new grants. At a conference, he met a brilliant post-doc from NIH who asked him for a favor. In return for the favor, he asked the post-doc to come to his lab and help him troubleshoot what the problem is. The lab people were working very hard, but…

So here is the diagnose. The post-doc said people in this lab, though working very hard, always considered the lab result should conform to certain standard. They would discard all the results that didn’t conform. The post-doc reviewed their past results and said they could have published several papers if they could relinquish their ossified standard and understand how to interpret data. The real world never really conforms to the human standard.

There were four of us hearing her story at the time. One said, “this is like the Watson and Crick and Rosalind Franklin story, isn’t it? Franklin worked hard on the X-ray crystallography of DNA and obtained her result, but she didn’t know how to interpret it.”

“That’s theft. How can you use this example?” Another one said.

“I am not talking about the theft part. I only said the data interpretation part is similar.” The first one said.

“How about MaClintock’s jumping gene? For years, people just can’t accept the jumping gene because it doesn’t conform to people’s scientific views.”

The reason I thought about this today is because a girl asked me for advice on something that I am not at the liberty to write about. However it’s another story that the real world event just doesn’t happen in the way we think it should be happening. Sometimes I wonder how many data I’ve failed to interpret, how many events I’ve wrongly discarded as things not worth noticing.

Things I Don’t Want To Do

Things I don’t want to do, like weekly chores, suddenly don’t seem to be so bad when I am stuck, blocked, not able to proceed for one more line. At such a moment, my self doubt is everywhere, sitting on this very chair, filling up the four corners of the room, clinging up to the walls and the ceiling. Even the fall leaves out the window seem to shake with disapproval and misgiving. Nothing is spared of the touch of insecurity and self loathe. At such a moment, tidying up, wiping counters, mopping kitchen floor can be a welcome diversion. At least this is something I can do for certain. Something I can accomplish and the result is exactly as I would expect. Certainty is a wonderful thing. No wonder we often opt for a life of certainty even if we are bored to the point of madness.

It’s really the fault of our ancestors who decided to switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Hunting and gathering are surely more fun, but with uncertain results; agriculture, on the other hand, adds a lot of certainty to life, but the fun part is probably reduced. With so much repetition of work, long hour of labor, often in one backbreaking position of bending over during the plant season for hours if not for days, our ancestors continued year after year. I think they probably didn’t really enjoy the switch in the beginning. There must be a lot of people who reversed back to hunting and gathering in the beginning. Then during the lean season without much wild animal to prey on or without anything to gather, they went hungry. Hunger is a worse enemy than boredom obviously. So it ended up that people went back to planting and harvesting. So this tradition of aversion to uncertainty was born and passed on to posterity.

Read And Misread In October

Reading often goes hand in hand with misreading. Being an immigrant and reading English as a second language have taught me this fact. At first this made me rather uncomfortable–the sense of uncertainty and self doubt following me like a shadow in a bright sunset, which means the shadow is much bigger and longer than my own figure. However, I’ve since got used to it.

“Modern Love” audible book by Daniel Jones, who’s the editor. It includes more than 40 tales, each around ten to fifteen minutes, by more than 40 authors. It’s easy to misread the title to consider this book as a collection of modern romance stories, which it is not. A more accurate title will be “Love And Unlovable Consequences”. The problem is that love is in a modest amount and consequences are huge. It could be that our industrialized social structure and value system are incongruous with out emotional needs. Is it so that any social structure will be a hindrance to our natural flow of love and emotions and human connections, which prefer a random unstructured existence?

“The Barbarians are Coming” by David Wong Louie. I thought of dropping the book when I had 70 pages left. I trudged through the first 300 pages and was at the end of my meager strength. Somehow I continued, not without a lot of mental flagellation to keep myself going. Now I still have 20 pages to go, but I know I would really enjoy throwing it away. Years ago I read “Jude The Obscure” and was so depressed by the story that I had to give up half way. These two books, about entirely different subjects and with very different writing styles, are similar in its depressing hopeless, almost suicidal, view of life.

“Aimless Love” by Billy Collins. It’s a delight to read his poems and he can always animate an inanimate object and award significance to the insignificant.

“Feminasty” by Erin Gibson. Half way through the book. I wouldn’t call it “nasty” at all. I would say it is asking questions of equality and can be named female in shining armors ready to fight and shout.

“We Wanted to Be Writers” by Eric Olsen. Finished it, but still find my own writing lacking. I feel like a movie director who imagine a lot of interesting scenes, but not able to reproduce them through the camera.

“How to Write Great Blog Posts that Engage Readers” by Scott Steve. Great suggestions, but whenever I try to follow the suggestions, I feel that my hands are tied and my writing just don’t flow as naturally. Why? I don’t know the reason.

Backyard Farming

I call them backyard farmers, but they probably don’t agree with me. It’s popular among Asian immigrants in New Jersey to engage in backyard farming every year. I even know a couple who don’t live in a house and don’t have a backyard to grow their produce. What do they do? They rent a plot from Rutgers University for $25 a year to grow half an acre of vegetables from May to October.

It’s an arduous task. The seeds have to be bought and planted. The Asian grocery stores here sell cucumber, loofah, long bean, and even winter melon seeds. The cucumber has to be the kind with little spikes on the dark green skin, not so prickly to bleed your hands, but rather gentle barbs to tickle your fingers. The inside is so crispy that you can hear the crunchy sound when you take a bite. The loofah is the most popular since it is quite expensive and non-fresh from the store. Planting is the first step. What follows are months of labor and vigilance. Fence has to be erected to fend off rabbits and deer; frames to be constructed for tomato vines to climb; fertilizers are bought and deployed. There are also various tools to dig, till, twist, rake the soil for the best planting condition.

Once I was staying in a place in upstate New York. The couple I was staying with had a backyard more than an acre, on which they grow cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions, leeks, and several other items as well. The couple invited me to go to the backyard to pick vegetables to make salad for dinner. They are very proud, sort of a back to nature kind of style for them. I had no interest in their backyard farm, but I had to accompany them, offering my compliments and pretending that I envy their food, self sufficiency, organic life etc. I feel myself so fake. Why can’t I just say I have no interest at all in planting, farming, or harvesting?

When I was in high school, we were sent to a village not far away from the big city for two weeks. Our whole class of 50 or so students lived in two separate farm houses, one for boys and one for girls. It’s the harvest season and the rice field is endless. The farmers didn’t really want us there since we didn’t know how to do things. Harvesting rice with a sickle is not as easy as we tend to think. I couldn’t advance even three feet within half an hour. It ended up that I had to give up my sickle–a big curvy knife–to somebody more skilled than I was. The most menial job was assigned to me–to pick up the stalks with grains and yellow hulls that were left in a harvested field.

The farmers worked from dawn to dusk. They didn’t go home for meals. The whole village became a collective unit with only several older women cooking for the whole village. They cooked and delivered the meal to the field. At the end of the day, the villagers were not going home to take a rest. They continued to get the crop husked on whirring machines at a corner of the village. Then the husked rice were laid out on the ground to dry. They worked all night, taking turns to go back home to sleep. The machines never stopped for one minute. This went on for as long as it could last. Rain is the biggest enemy for the harvest season. All stalks that have been cut down need to be husked and dried before the rain come. In the subtropical region it is hard to find a whole week without rain and things need to be organized well and executed efficiently and swiftly.

I really admired these farmers and their hard work, something that I can never do. When we went back to school, I submitted my homework assignment on the backbreaking work of the villagers. My teacher disliked my essay and criticized me for being too negative, which I vehemently denied.

When You Don’t Have An Appetite

I don’t have an appetite today and I don’t know why. Is it because of the melatonin pills I’ve taken these past two weeks for my insomnia? It could be. It is said online that melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in our body and taking a little won’t have any side effect on the body. Probably I just have some rare reaction to it–loss of appetite. I dislike any medicine or chemicals, like a typical Asian. I know many women who refuse even to take pain killer tablets for their menstruation pain. I am not going to such an extreme though.

So what can one eat when one doesn’t have an appetite. I can eat the grass jelly I bought from the store. I can’t remember which Asian grocery store I got it from. Am I losing my mind? I used to be able to remember which store I got which, but not anymore. The grass jelly will be the best if mixed with canned lychee, but I’m out of canned lychee.

I can make a tofu jelly with the agar powder I have, but that’s too complicated. I can’t believe how lazy I’ve become nowadays as far as cooking is concerned. My grandmother was practically living in the kitchen most of her life. Several years ago I went to a party at a friend’s friend house. She’s living with her husband and two sons at Bucks County, right at the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. When we arrived, she just pulled out a tray of baked chicken legs and wings out of the oven. By the way, she’s one of very few among Asian immigrants I know to utilize the oven. Most of us just use it as an extra storage space. Her sons and two or three other kids came over. She insisted that each put food on a paper plate. Minutes later, the tray was almost empty. And the kids ran away. Suddenly the hostess said to us out of blue, “I cook all the time, but still not enough. Look the tray is empty again.” We stared at her and my friend W said, “What do you expect? Your two boys. They can finish everything in sight.” Somehow I sensed that the hostess and W were talking about different things. The hostess was talking about herself. There’s ennui in her tone. Obviously she doesn’t really enjoy cooking but found herself spending so much time on it. W was talking about the healthiness and the activeness of the boys. W’s tone really means she’s trying to praise the boys and hiding her praise behind a faint complaint. However W’s compliment missed the point. Sometimes we lose real chance of communication, just like this one.

I poured a big glass of soy milk and toasted a slice of cinnamon raisin bread. Now I can’t help dreaming of all those delicious things my grandmother cooked–bamboo shoots braised with pork belly, dried fish simmered in a pot of soup with mutton and potatoes. I am going to write a story of an immigrant who’s dying for a childhood dish her mother had cooked, but couldn’t reproduce it.

A Mini Love Story

G is my distant cousin and he is always considered, by my parents and my relatives, to be the most intelligent and most unfortunate among all my cousins. His life started well–a cute kid, indulged by his parents, growing up to be a handsome teenager. He’s half Mongolian, just like me, but he looks more Mongolian than anybody else in my family, the very handsome kind of Mongolian. Actually Mongolians are not as homogeneous as we tend to think. They come from many different tribes scattered among a vast area and people have quite diverse physical features–some are short and some very tall, some with thick black hair and some with soft thin kind. G is the best looking boy. He’s also talkative and gregarious. Everybody loves him. If he’s not my cousin and if he’s my age group, I would have fallen in love with him.

When he’s about 15 years old, due to political reasons, he was sent to a remote area at the border of China, Russia, and North Korea. Nobody could save him from his fate. He went and stayed there for 20 years. Actually among the same group of young men who were sent to the region, he’s the last to leave. I don’t really know the particulars, but I suspect that G refused to bribe the officials, either on moral ground or economic ground. From my observation, he is rather high minded and also very stingy, both working against him for the purpose of an early return. My parents always insisted that G is too intelligent for his own good. He doesn’t go with the flow as others do, and he ends up making himself conspicuous, usually in a bad way.

When G came back to the big city, he was so unskilled and so uneducated that he couldn’t get a job. His mother had to quit her job so that G could replace her. It’s a low level clerk job, but it is a good job in a convenient location. If G could keep his mouth shut and behave well, promotion was very possible.

Now everybody started to introduce girls to him. His parents–my aunt and uncle–were very anxious to see their only son settle down as soon as possible. They saved for him for decades. He also had his own savings. The only thing lacking was a wife. But he’s difficult. My parents said again he’s just too intelligent and his aim too high. His intelligence obviously works against him again–especially in the marriage market. He’s 35, with no marketable skills. What could he expect? Just like what my parents said, G rejected all the girls people introduced to him.

Then one day he came home with a girl, X, who’s almost as tall as him, almost as old as him. She’s quite nice and elegant, working in a place very close to G. On closer inspection through a deliberately prolonged dinner, my aunt and uncle found that X is actually from a different ethnic group. I won’t name this ethnic group since my relatives have strong prejudice against this group and often criticize this group. Now I realize how prejudiced my relatives were. At the time I followed their example as if that’s the only valid opinion in the world. Everybody was against this marriage. My parents were called upon to denounce this girl and they did.

The wedding eventually happened despite all the objections. I think the reason G likes X is that X loves theater as much as G. They like plays, movies, operas of various kinds. Not that they had so much money to spend on these, but in those days everything was broadcast on TV and they watched everything and discussed it endlessly afterwards. It’s a Mongolian tradition to love theater. I guess everybody living in the far north with long winters would eventually develop a penchant for theater. There’s no entertainment available in winter except watching people dressing up and posing as fictional characters.

Soon after the wedding, their married life became a common topic circulated among the relatives. My parents couldn’t go visit them since they were not welcomed anymore due to their strong objection to the marriage. However, my parents talked with my uncle and my aunt to get all the details. The newly weds were waiting to get their own place, but while waiting, they lived with my uncle and aunt.

First X had a bad eating habit. My uncle and aunt whispered to my father, who related it to my mother at our dinner table. X didn’t eat formal meals, only snacking here and there throughout the whole day. My cousin G didn’t mind this at all since his mother always cooked. G had his meal with his parents while his wife X was either coming home late or finding some excuses to go talk with neighbors. My uncle and aunt considered this as a serious breach of long-held tradition. Also X didn’t cook and had no intention of cooking for the family as a good daughter-in-law should have done. My parents discussed this piece of information and attributed X’s habit and her non-filial attitude to his ethnic background. She’s just not as civilized as us, which was the reason she couldn’t get herself married until she’s 35 when my unfortunate cousin came calling. My parents concluded.

My uncle and aunt wanted to exert their authority and train their daughter-in-law into a “civilized” being. At this time, both my uncle and aunt had retired. They could have an early dinner themselves without having any food left for G, which they thought could force X to cook for G. They devised this plan. One day, when G came back home and found no food on the table. G asked his wife X to cook something. X just came back from work and was having a cookie. She offered him some. G declined and insisted on some cooked food. “Why don’t you go out to the corner restaurant to get a bowl of noodle?” X said. G agreed and went out. This went on for three days and eventually my cousin G threw a tantrum. X treated him as if he’s an incorrigible teenager and brushed him aside. She stepped out to go talk with the neighbors–it’s part of her indispensable entertainment that she talked with neighbors.

My cousin G and his wife X end up having a better relationship than my own parents, or my uncle and aunt. G’s macho outbursts usually have no effect on X, probably because of the cultural difference between the two. I always wanted to tell my parents that I like X, but I never dared.

Poem: The Season Of Leaves

Rain all night and all morning.
The bright yellow leaves in tears,
shaking on the branches,
sprawling on the ground,
carpeting everything–the lawn, the paths, the cars.
The season of leaves,
a beautiful death,
a colorful eulogy,
a spectacular funeral.

The slice of toasted bread
turns soggy quickly.
Rains pouring from
the broken corner of the gutter.
I say to myself I can’t believe that
leaves have a better life.

Born in the spring,
the promising new green,
fresh from the winter’s waning chill,
pretty in the soft breeze.
Thrive in the summer
in lush dark green.
When the fall comes,
they turn more attractive than ever.
The older they get, the more alluring.
In death, they are breathlessly beautiful.

For humans, the birth is a struggle,
growing up uneventful, middle-age so-so,
striving for an unreachable goal.
While every leaf is beautiful,
humans are mostly plain.
And old age is full of indignity
of bodily decline.
If not illnesses, fear of illnesses.
Life is unfair.
Nature favors leaves over humans.
Where can we submit our complaints?