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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Vocabulary of the day: 甲狀腺 (jia3zhuang4xian4) 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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Voices of the village

Living with my relatives in Taiwan has really turned up the scrutiny on my everyday decisions. Back in New York, I often had to deal with the invasive questions of my father, the only close family member I’m not out to. Here in Taipei, I have to fend off the well-meaning questions and comments from relatives while struggling with language barriers.

Ah-ma monologue:

Context: AH-MA comes over to JOE FLYNN and tells him the same thing every day.
Setting: Dinner table

AH-MA: (In Taiwanese, with flourishes of Mandarin) Did you get enough rice? Hardly enough rice. Aiya, stop being afraid of being fat. You hardly eat anything. Eat the pork! Don’t forget the bitter melon! (JOE FLYNN eats the pork, bitter melon, some eggplant, and drinks some soup.) Did you eat the eggplant? Have some more. Did you drink soup yet? You did? I didn’t see you. Okay, eat fruit now. Here’s a box of sliced guava. Here’s sliced papaya. Here’s some pineapple. (JOE FLYNN rushes through this dinner, trying to eat stuff before Ah-ma points at more dishes to eat. Eating is not enjoyable with grandma, uncle, and auntie watching his every chew and swallow. By the time he’s taking a break on the sofa, exhausted, AH-MA talks to BIG UNCLE and AUNTIE) AH-MA: Joe’s gotten so round. He’s not as big as his other cousin, but he’s pretty round.” (BIG UNCLE and AUNTIE murmur in unison)

Big Uncle Dialogue

Context: said to JOE FLYNN, while JOE is in his room studying, books open. BIG UNCLE, a serious man with graying hair, barges in. He is shirtless looking for clothes. BIG UNCLE’s clothes are all placed in various places in JOE’s room, a temporary room for the summer.  BIG UNCLE lets out a long sigh and stern expression, rummaging through his clothes closet. He dons a white undershirt and lets out a giant fart. He sighs again and stares at JOE FLYNN for 30 seconds. Finally, BIG UNCLE comes over and squeezes JOE’s shoulder, then his arm.

Setting: Joe Flynn’s room JOE FLYNN is writing his Chinese homework, trying to form sentences.

BIG UNCLE: God, it’s all meat there.
JOE: All right, stop prodding at me. I’m not a pig that you’re eating for dinner. (BIG UNCLE reaches out to pull at JOE FLYNN’s hair, Grabbing chunks at a time.)
BIG UNCLE: Your hair is so dry. And it’s getting curly. JOE says nothing and continues to write Chinese homework. (BIG UNCLE grabs one of JOE’s index cards and writes a few characters.) BIG UNCLE: You should be able to write in script like this, instead of such boxy characters. (JOE writes some vocab words on his index cards.)
BIG UNCLE: Why are you writing one word per index cards? There’s so many you could put on one card.
JOE: Yeah, mhmmm.
BIG UNCLE: And why is it so cold in here? This AC is too strong. (BIG UNCLE lets out big sigh and adjusts AC remote. Then he leaves the room.)

Scenes Analysis Though they are well-intentioned, relatives are so suffocating. It hurts to hear them talk about my body and my everyday life choices like that, as if I, a capable twenty-something year old, cannot handle myself. My life has become a long commentary and I either fear my Mandarin/Taiwan skills cannot muster up a comeback or explanation, OR I’m afraid of talking back to relatives who are hosting me. Beyond my relatives, there are other acquaintances who have expressed their dislike with me. If I become upset by what my relatives say about me, how will I withstand all those naysayers in the world? I have often surrounded myself with people that care about me, but as I grow older, connections and networks expand; relationships become less black and white, and more complex. I will not always be able to avoid those people who criticize me, badmouth me, or even loathe me.

The voices of “the village” will always exist. I have heard those voices as a child, amongst those Asian American moms at family friend gatherings. I was/am afraid of those very voices when I consider “outing” myself to someone. And I fear those voices and my inner shame when I think about career paths or future life choices – I hear people ridiculing me for my foolishness to even attempt such things. Cackles of laughter sneering at my sorry self. I want to build up self-confidence and self-reliance to withstand all that unnecessary clamor. Developing thicker skin takes some time, but I’m hoping I can turn those little daggers of gossip into drops of rain water, falling away from my shoulders. If my head is cleared, I can truly focus on the family, friends, and issues that matter.

Clouds of naysayers, be gone. I banish thee.

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Book sale

Mobile lending library in Tamsui

I told myself not to buy too many books. I told my cousin those same words, assuming that if my statement was uttered aloud, it would all become true. Logistically, I guess it made sense since I’ll be traveling through Vietnam before I head back to the States. No use in carrying extra baggage. But it’s me we’re talking about here! I dropped by Shilin’s Eslite bookstore, leafed through a book I was tempted to buy. “Maybe I’ll come back another day.” I thought to myself, exhibiting some self-control.

Later in the week, I wandered into Whose Books, a secondhand bookstore. Compared to the sleek wooden design the Eslite chain, Whose books possessed an oddball charm – books stacked to the brim, with a narrow flight of stairs that went up to the second floor. On the second floor, there is an entire section of books in English – a wall of English fiction novels and a good number of other English nonfiction books and travel guides clumped together. I imagined the expats who may have left these behind this hodgepodge collection. An overzealous language learner who traded in their Modern Chinese Grammar textbook. A Berkeley sociology student who brought along Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams and an anthology on subcultures. The NYU Steinhardt aspiring foodie who lugged Marion Nestle’s anthology Food Politics. The bored teenagers who accompanied their parents and packed the entire series of Chicken Soup for the Soul and Teenage Soul.

Whose Books is a wondrous land of vagabonds passing through and leaving behind an old piece of themselves and maybe trading it in for something new.

I left Whose Books with two small books: $6.00 total. One short story collection by Taiwanese feminist author Li Ang, entitled “The unsent love letter,” and the other book a collection of Chinese short essays with analysis questions and citations. Soon, I’m meeting up with my mom’s NYU classmate, a bookish academic who specializes in USSR-China history. She has a book ladder. When her office book shelf opens up, there are more book shelves with her research. I have a very strong feeling that she will be entrusting me with a few keepsakes this time around. I’ll need to make sure I don’t buy off more than I can chew. Will need some time to process all that food for thought!

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San Diego

five years since school
makes me miss
school. forget
there are things,
things other than homework.

I forgot
and bashful look-aways.

food sustainability
is a subject,
dork in clean plaid
and lanky slacks,
earth tones breathe
urban farmer
of the sun.

eyes look
green slides
hear sweet grass
quiet bitter

Summer, I forget
creeps up
you swap tartan
polo pastel
and stone black tattoo intrigue
peering from polo sleeve

not quite, not quite.


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Pedestrian Surprises

Part of my regimen of staying healthy is to keep a sense of humor, especially when it comes to living in a thriving metropolis.  Just because the weather or some people are rather drab, it does not have to influence my outlook. It’s a city – find some surprises, jot down inspirations and innovations. Keep my head in the game and my spirit alive. If the sky shits on you, just get up and brush the dirt off your shoulder like nobody’s business.

Counting my blessings and gentle surprises from the last few days. This entry is dedicated to a young lady and an elderly woman who I encountered on different occasions.

Surprise#1: Today I saw a young girl wearing a pale pink shirt with the word “TUESDAY” in black bold letters. It is Tuesday today. How clever. It raised so many questions in my head. Does she only wear that shirt on Tuesday? Does she have a shirt for every day of the week? Is there a reason she chose Tuesday? Or did she just like the way the font looked? Is Tuesday her bizarre ill-fitting English name? Simple and understated look, yet so thought-provoking! (But really, does she wear that Tuesday shirt on Fridays to be funny?)

Surprise#2: Was just crossing the street at a busy Taipei intersection, walking briskly to the MRT station to get to school. Motorcycles were turning on the green light as well, with one impatient one heading right towards my unsuspecting self. Out of nowhere, an elderly woman walking from the other direction, grabs me by the arm with one fell swoop of the hand, pulling me towards her. Her grip is strong. I look up to see she had reached out her left arm backwards (a difficult feat!) to grab me, shooting out her arm with her sharp assassin reflexes. The mysterious  warrior with a sun-blocking umbrella and 90s-inspired blue denim hat. She said nothing and kept walking forward. I was too shocked to even thank the woman who saved my life. She looked like every other Ah-ma around Taipei.  Thank you, everyday stranger-warrior.

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A weekend trip to Hualien was a back-to-basics refresher for the anxious mind.

Hualien county occupies a thin strip of land wedged by mountains on both sides. At Taroko Gorge National Park, I got a closer look at the veins of the rock cliffs, shaped by the varying forces of water over the years. As a New York City boy from suburban Queens, it’s difficult to imagine the majesty of nature within the confines of your suburban lawn. In Hualien, urban life takes a back seat and nature extends itself in every direction in epic proportions.

Crossing a perilous suspended drawbridge at dizzying heights, I explored the depths of “Water Curtain Cave” (水廉洞). “Curtains” of cold water streamed from the mountains and splattered against my poncho. When William Carlos Williams wrote about those plums in the icebox during the summer, he must have been thinking of a moment like that. Up to that point, every step in the meandering dark caves and humid weather was totally worth it. What rejuvenation!

It is sunset at the pebbly beach of Qixingtan (七星潭). There is no sand and the water is too unsafe for anyone to wade in it. So people are just sitting on the rocks gazing out into the horizon. The ocean has molded a yellow sponge material into a rock form as well. My cousin and I begin throwing rocks at it, forcing the sponge back into the ocean. Yet just as we knocked the sponge back into the water, the ocean returned it to the shore. 

I could have gotten angry at the sponge for being tenacious. At the ocean for being defiant. But I acquiesced to the ebbs and flows of the tide. I accepted this as a truth about the ocean.

I am small and the ocean, so vast and grand. The waters have undergone so many cycles of ebb and flow, ebb and flow.  In the spirit of the Aborigines in Hualien, I humble myself before the elements of this Earth. Some may interpret this as my surrender in my personal convictions, in my belief in “where I should be.” 

It is none of those. I am giving up the tightened grip on something that I try so hard to hold on to, like the determination I had to place the sponge in the ocean. It is helpful to question my convictions – why am I spending so much effort on this task? Is it reasonable given the odds of myself against the wide, open sea?

In this truth to accept that which I cannot change, it releases a hardened tension in my brow, my neck, my shoulders.

Let lightness wash over me. Let anxiety subside with the tide. Let me connect again with this world in a return to the basics, beginning with the peace that comes with water.

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