Tea and Empathy


Summer was ending soon, I was down on my luck, still scrambling for a job post-undergrad. My high school friend Tesla and I found our muse in a tea shop called Physical Graffitea in the East Village. S smiled to us as we came in. Her long black hair was tied in a loose braid, as if she had tied it spontaneously. A few wisps of hair were astray, her gold earrings and bangles twinkling. A bold red plaid hung from her body, contrasting with her soft brown complexion.

Tesla had her curious face on, scanning the rows and rows of tea. She asked, “Um, excuse me, could you give us an introduction or something?”

S nodded. “Here is our roibos collection, which features a fruity, tangy flavor. Here are our green teas for calming effects.”

For some reason, Tesla and I were entranced. We just keep nodding and smiling.

S continued to the next shelf, “And here are our mates, which will awaken your senses but still keep you calm.”

Tesla broke the silence with her squeaky exclamation: “Wow, you know so much! This was so informative. You must love your job.”

S laughed. Not a “yes-now-get-out-of-my-face” laugh of typical New York haughtiness. But one that made you actually believe S thought what you said was funny. S said to us, “I love my job, but I have to close up and head out in an hour. Heading over to Williamsburg tonight to watch my friend perform. Do you guys want to order anything?”

We ordered ourselves some yerba mate and one alfajor (made to perfection!), our spirits bursting with childish bemusement and inexplicable levity. How did S have that effect on us?

Her aura. Tesla and I concluded that S’ aura emanated this joy and easy-going effortless-ness that we wished we had. S was down-to-earth. Approachable. Knew how to do her job. How to tap into her own bohemian sense of style. How to talk to people. How to be a supportive friend.  

And achieving “effortless-ness” in my daily life became my number one resolution of 2013.

Some people’s resolutions are formulated with particular quantifiable goals – lose 20 pounds, get that promotion, have a baby. Yet somehow in the search for numerical indicators of success, the qualitative is forgotten. How happy am I? Are my relationships with those around me healthy?

After a whole year (or more?) of depending on adrenaline, winging presentations and projects, it is evident that Tesla and I only saw one side of S. How did she do it all? She must have worked her freakin’ ass off.

It was so counterintuitive to me before, but it takes much effort to look effortless and make other things look effortless. Isn’t effortlessness just an illusion that not everything in life comes easy – that it is in fact the impression/feeling of effortlessness that you instill onto other people. Perhaps that ultimate effortlessness come from in part the preparation, in part the self-confidence that you can deliver. A final piece of this effortlessness enigma is this strange “aura of goodness and empathy” that requires me to dig deeper into myself and address the insecurities I must let go, the obstacles keeping me from empathizing with everyone around me.  

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Word of the day: 逆風 against the wind

Just from my wardrobe, I’m surrounded by bright colors. Capricorns like me are said to be pretty stubborn. Want to change, but afraid of change.

I want to switch it up, add some prints, to test out some out-of-this-world accessory or hair style, but I end up sticking to what I know. Monochrome over stripes and polka dots. 

Definitely an improvement from high school though. Ma always bought clothes for me. My closeted self was never quite show how I wanted to present myself. Would people “find out” about my true sexual preferences if I wore what would make me look good? Was I even able capable of looking good?

High school summer vacation, about to be a junior, at a mall in Raleigh. I was out of state doing “big kid” things, about to start a one-week Habitat for Humanity project with my friends and a chaperone, building homes for the less fortunate. We had some time to shop wherever we wanted. Despite all that, I could only sit in the sofa of a dark Hollister or wait outside an Aeropostale, being mad at myself. They asked me what I wanted to look for. What was my style? I couldn’t say.

Yet all this time, it is my family that buys me things that are out of my usual comfort zone, but damn, they really what looks good on me. Ma gave me a flowery shirt once that I learned to love. Thanks to my brother for that velvet bowtie and my sister for my favorite grey cardigan. They know I can take that big risk and leap of faith, if I could just rid myself of worrying what the gossip-mongers of the world would say. The loudest amongst them, myself.

These days I know I’ve discovered my love for loud colors, but I’m yearning for some patterns or details. I’m usually stuck in a solid technicolor world, but I’m pushing myself towards a more nuanced reality.

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Word of the day: 意志力 willpower

Weak stomach all week.
Under doctor’s orders: no milk products. no fried stuff. no iced drinks.
My entire diet, basically.
So much food in Taiwan left to eat, so little time to enjoy it before I return to the States.
No night markets for now. 
All hail plain old congee, fruit, and water. 
Note to self: avoid over-sugary beverages as part of my personal healthy living initiative. Sustainable body, sustainable life. I hope, at least.

The stomach keeps gurgling and I fear pains will strike me at inopportune times. On the MRT, I’m hunched over like an old lady or a leper. Makes me unwilling to get up and move around in public. More excuses not to go the gym. 

Bloated. 脹氣. 
Big bubbles 咕嚕咕嚕 keep on churning.

Am I hungry? Or am I not digesting everything well?
When the doctor asks me during follow up, I pause.
Auntie thinks
I’m not sure how to say things in Chinese.
The truth is
I’m not sure how I feel.

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Like this, like that

Word of the day: 比喻 analogy

This uneaten banana in my bookbag, a representation of how un-mindful I am while eating. I’m running for the bus banana in hand, insert metrocard, sit down, checking work e-mails on the phone, scroll, scroll scroll, reach inside bookbag, and then wetness of a smushed, half-eaten banana. Must be present, in the here and now, or I’ll never catch up to myself.

Guy said once that I find metaphors in everything. Sometimes its even biblical in proportions. Reading too much into things. “You could fabricate any story about anything to match your thinking,” he says.

Yet finding meaning in the quotidian habits of life is for me (and perhaps you) a beautiful thing. Too much in this world goes on unappreciated. How much more present could I be if I walked around with all my senses full-throttle awake and thus amplified?

If we all had a little empathy with the world around us, how much better off would we be? 

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The Happiness Campaign

Blog Joo DeeWhere else but Thailand can you experience ostentatious sex tourism under a military-backed regime? Sometimes the groups of masseuses standing outside stores will grab your arm to go in. Middle-aged men holding photo books of “chicks”, or after a few seconds, they may ask point blank, “dicks?” And other times, you see military personnel with guns on the mass raily transit. Or blockades at any large plaza areas. And large photos of the king or queen, either vintage or current, usually framed with tons of gold leaf.

MBC, K, and myself landed in Thailand two months after the 2014 coup d’etat and several weeks after the curfew was lifted.

We went to a mall where we met our Thai friends M and A for dinner. “Thai people are lazy,” M said. “We like to buy all our things in one place and not move around too much in this heat. That is why we have malls.” Amidst the humidity, we were definitely not complaining. The mall was on a piece of land owned by the Thai princess, who also owned the next door office space.

To enter the mall, we had to walk through a security checkpoint guarded by the military junta. The plaza in front of the mall was completely fenced off to prevent congregation of too many people. The junta would not be tolerant of protests or demonstrations of any kind.

The curfew was gone, but the country was still being run by the military since the May 2014 coup.

Our friend A was thankful for the end of that 22:00-5:00 curfew since it caused so much chaos. During the curfew, by the time A got off of work at 18:00PM, if she tried to grab a drink at 19:00PM, most of the restaurants would refuse to serve because they would be closing up by 20:00PM, leaving restaurant workers about two hours to get home before curfew began. Regular Bangkok traffic can get you stuck in a pickle for 1-2 hours. Imagine the mad dash once the curfew began.

In the “Land of Smiles,” talking about the King is like speaking Voldemort’s name in Harry Potter.  Even though the King has not made a public appearance in years because of declining health, one of our tour guides had hastily denied such a thing. “She said, “He needs a wheelchair, but he is in perfect health!” When we were chilling at a mall, K asked our Thai-born friend A if she cared about the King at all. A’s tensed up and immediately stopped chatting, looking around at the other people on the escalator.

In the “Land of Smiles,” taxi drivers smile at you but do not run the taxi meter like they’re supposed to. A ride worth 100 baht becomes 900 baht in the blink of an eye. Taxi drives make up some excuse about a place having to much traffic (not always true) or “mishearing” something we had already pointed to in Thai. Thailand is where the military junta hosts happiness campaign events to bring joy to the people through song, dance, beautiful dancers, and the works.

The overall atmosphere of precarious peace makes me think of Joo Dee from Nickelodeon’s Avatar series (spoilers alert!). Amidst a brutal war, the fortressed city of Basingse is a stronghold for the Avatar and his friends to visit. The Earth King of Basingse sends courteous and smiling Joo Dee to be Team Avatar’s tour guide the entire time. Though there is a war raging outside the fortress walls, the Earth King’s administration vehemently imposes an illusion of safety and punishes those who bring up “unpleasant” matters. Joo Dee is not only Team Avatar’s guide, but also the babysitter that makes sure Team Avatar doesn’t discover any ugly truths. If she fails, Joo Dee is replaced by other “Joo Dees” who look exactly like her.

Another similarity of Basingse and Bangkok is rampant corruption and inefficient bureaucracy. Our friend M worked as a doctor in a public hospital and after growing disillusioned, became a worker at an “aesthetics” center. As a doctor, he witnessed government officials favor certain people and assign grunt work to those from disadvantaged backgrounds like himself. Promotions were assigned to military friends and/or family. He actually makes more bank now by seeing a few patients a week and administering their botox injections. The corrupt government makes it a difficult work environment. M also announces that he bought a new condo, but it may never be finished by Chinese developers  who have not punctually and adequately completed their tasks. The communal pool in the complex was filled with polluted water. The supposed waterproof building material rusts after the rain. If M sues the contractors, will he ever make it to housing court? It would take at least a year.

Our Thai friends seemed quite nonchalant about the coups. After several, it seems so commonplace you might as well start a Buzzfeed of “which Thailand coup are you?” A said a military coup could mean no school! I guess kinda like our American “snow day?”

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Let it all hang?

For all the guilt I’ve ever felt about “going wild,” Thailand has certainly slapped a wet t-shirt in my face during this vacation.

On the island of Phuket, families shared the sands of Patong Beach with gyrating women at open air bars. God forbid the children pass by the women playing “ping pong,” which is really performers shooting orange ping pong balls out of their special places.

And here in Silom district of Bangkok, you really wonder what money can’t buy. Old men can purchase sexual favors from young Thai boys. There are bubble bath strip shows and clubs teeming with shirtless Asian bodies in unimaginable proportions. Damn, sex really does sell. And wow, do these guys know how to party til the break of dawn. 

Self-control is a funny thing, as it inherently captures the push-pull tension of letting loose and exercising inner restraint and discipline. How does that valve work? Once you turn it towards one way, can you turn it back the other way at the snap of a finger?

It’s been a while since I’ve gotten home at 4:00 am and chugged endless gallons of water. How long has it been since I looked my “Saturday best” and went out? Clubbing to let loose and let go are not unspoken vices if done in moderation. In fact, I think I’ve lately limited myself in my means of self-expression,and this little bit of liquid courage has reminded me I do have that confidence and swag if I can just channel them at opportune times.

The valve of restraint-release can be unpredictable. Take Thailand’s recently lifted curfew after the military’s coup d’etat. According to K’s Thai acquaintance, G, a lot of G’s gaysian friends ended staying out even later at the clubs because they couldn’t go home until a certain time in the morning. Overall, morning yoga classes and dance classes began to overcrowd because others were sleeping earlier and were finally able to make the morning classes. Who would’ve predicted the military curfews would actually prolong people’s clubbing time and increase exercise?

In my hostel now, the owner herself may have been inspired to instill her own strict no-nonsense, “Mama knows best” rules. No outside guests. Shoes must be left in the lobby. No sexual tourism. If you break beer bottles in your room, you must notify the staff and be charged. Such a contrast, this isolated hostel being just a stone throw away from the dizzying alleys of Silom. Like Thailand itself, the borders between pleasure and restraint are porous. The hostel’s rules-heavy environment pulls you back before you’ve released the ropes too fast and fallen in too deep in the pleasure pit. I definitely appreciate that balance. 

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Word of the day: 甲狀腺 thyroid gland

The moment I complained of sore throat, my grandma took me straight to the doctor. A bit incredulous since every time I was sick growing up, my mother always told me to sleep it off, drink more water, and eat more fruit. (“Too much internal heat!”)

While I did consult a doctor of Western Medicine for antibiotics, it was my later visit to the doctor of Chinese medicine that really put things into perspective.

When I mentioned my sore throat, Dr. X started listing off my symptoms before I even told her. Frequent nose bleeds. Chapped lips, Often gets cold sores and headaches. She pressed my wrists to listen to my pulse and asked if I hadn’t been sleeping well (true). Five years ago, I had inexplicable headaches that would paralyze me from doing work, that I associated with being closeted and stressed. I went to several doctors in New York, and later thought it was my wisdom teeth, but never really solved my problems.

And after all this time, Dr. X managed to pinpoint two elements – insufficient exercise and over-reliance of breathing through the mouth instead of nose.

I’ve heard that 西藥治標不治本, or Western medicine cures the symptoms, but not the root of the cause. When I consulted the Chinese medicine doctor, she emphasized how to improve habits to help my overall body condition over time. How to be aware of the hot and cold of the body in order to live a balanced life.

I have to re-learn how to breathe, something simple that I though I’d already knew how to do. Back to basics and fundamentals, and from there I can build. Get the body moving and the energy flowing. Some daily nose therapy is required. From the apartment, go across the street to the clinic and waft some sour-smelling bubbly concoction into one nostril for two minutes. Then the other nostril. What the hell, what do I have to lose? Shit will never work if I don’t go along with the regimen!

Since health system is so great here, I get to see the doctor for a weekly check-up. And the co-pay is about $3.00 USD. Come on, U.S., hope Obamacare can step it up over these next few years. Meanwhile, I’ll use this time in Taipei to re-adjust and assess my bodies and my habits.

The root word for “inspiration” in Latin means “breathing in.” What a great place to start. Inhale!

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