Dating Advice

“What you order at Chipotle says a lot about the type of person you should date,” read a friend’s Facebook post. I paused in scrolling through my feed of recent updates to give this some thought. Horoscopic and facetious for sure, but could it mean anything regardless?

Could there be an underlying personality trait motivating someone to order a burrito versus a burrito bowl? If one person preferred chorizo and the other tofu, was their relationship doomed? Or was this more about the options and add-ons: double meat, brown rice, that extra $2.75 for guacamole?

I liked pretty much everything at Chipotle, so I wondered if this meant I would be compatible with pretty much everyone.

I always imagined myself capable of “making it work” with most people. Another friend once wrote on her high school blog, “The three things that matter in a relationship are timing, location, and personality—in that order.” This stuck with me ever since, and I was reminded of it again now. You could meet the same person at multiple points in your life, and whether a bond developed could depend simply on whether you both happened to be in the right emotional place for it to happen. Whether you were both at Chipotle, so to speak.

Many relationships fail due to unrealistic expectations of romance and love. Those who haven’t been brainwashed by Disney movies agree, “Love is a choice.” I didn’t see why two people couldn’t stay together as long as they shared similar goals and tried to be kind to each other. Tolerance, acceptance, and compromise were more important than sparks and red-hot passion.

Maybe liking all the menu items at a fast food restaurant was comparable to being open-minded about giving chances and trying to make things work in a relationship.

~

My first boyfriend was a chubby white Japanese major I met at a party in my first semester of college. He wasn’t particularly good-looking, but neither was I, so I figured it would be hypocritical to be shallow. At least he had nice eyes.

It didn’t occur to me that he had a creepy Asian fetish. My best friend at school looked like an eighteen-year-old Nicole Kidman, and I was flattered that he focused on me, instead. (After we broke up, he dated a series of other East Asian women, eventually marrying a Korean who barely spoke English.)

He sometimes cracked jokes that made me uncomfortable, but I went along with them because I wanted to be cooler and less uptight. When he took his shirt off, I thought about the funny feelings I would get from looking at pretty girls and wondered if I would ever get them from a guy. Sometimes I agreed to sex when I didn’t really feel like it, because relationships are about compromise.

I believed I loved him because he was kind to me and called me beautiful. In the back of my mind echoed a line from The Perks of Being a Wallflower: “We accept the love we think we deserve.”

~

It was a weekday, but I did not go to work. I was lying on the couch at home and watching a romantic comedy on TV called This Means War. Reese Witherspoon was struggling to choose between Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, unaware that the two were friends and coworkers at the CIA. The movie was formulaic, but entertaining and well paced. Good enough for passing time when I was too depressed to move or think.

When Reese’s bawdy best friend (played by Chelsea Handler) advised her, “Don’t choose the better guy; choose the guy that’s going to make you the better girl,” I started sobbing. I don’t usually get emotional during rom-coms, but I must have been the first and only viewer to cry during this one.

My boyfriend came home a few hours later, at around seven in the evening. He headed straight to his computer, asked me to tell him when dinner was ready, and started playing a game.

I met this boyfriend, my third, through a mutual friend. At the time he was a financial analyst, but he quit because he “wanted a long vacation.” He worked temporary gigs for two years, until he signed on to a secretive new job that paid under minimum wage and turned out to be with a multi-level marketing company.

It never occurred to me during our three years together that he was supposed to inspire me to be better and stronger. When we moved in together and I had to do everything his mother used to do at home, I accepted it as part of “making it work.” That he cared more about partying with his new cult than spending time with me felt like a natural progression of a relationship long past its honeymoon phase. That I was more or less the sole source of income seemed to be a reasonable, if less than ideal, result of feminism.

Something in me finally clicked into place that day, after over a decade of contemplating a myriad bits of relationship advice. In all those years of following what I thought was expected or obligatory, I never truly considered my own wants or needs. I could do better—even if it meant being alone.

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Names

In middle school, I went through a brief phase of having people call me Melvin. It was mostly an inside joke with a few friends, but I was its own originator. People always hesitated at and stumbled over my Chinese legal name, and my unofficial name was too bumpy with plosives. Melvin was easier, smoother, and surprisingly more comfortable.

The name conjured a mental image of an awkward, nerdy white boy, and I was definitely an awkward, nerdy tomboy. I often claimed to be “white on the inside,” too. A banana, a Twinkie, whitewashed—and proud of it. While my Asian friends were watching Meteor Garden and practicing the dance moves to K-pop songs, I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and rocking out to Metallica.

My parents sent me to Chinese school for ten years, during which I learned to speak the language like a fluent eight-year-old and made half-hearted attempts at traditions like calligraphy, braiding, and dance. I hated every minute of the language classes and put as little effort into them as possible, because it seemed stupid and pointless to learn Mandarin when we were living in America. I disliked the other activities merely for interfering with my Saturday cartoon time.

Meanwhile, my mother entrenched herself in our town’s substantial Chinese community. Her English grew paradoxically worse the longer she lived here. I was embarrassed by her inability to integrate, irritated by her clinging to the culture that she had intentionally left behind, and resentful of the multiple barriers growing between us.

During my fifth-grade winter break, we took a family trip to the motherland for me to meet my extended family for the first time. I couldn’t understand most of what was written on signs and menus or what anyone was saying to me. When I made my best efforts at interpreting and answering questions from my parents’ friends, they laughed with a condescension that made me uncomfortable and annoyed. Even their younger children snickered at my clumsy phrases.

I learned that being Chinese-American meant being in limbo. If I wanted to belong somewhere, I would have to choose one culture or the other.

So I chose to be called Melvin, which meant being white, which I equated with being American. I wanted nothing to do with this crazy language that required so much repetition and memorization. I wanted nothing to do with these tedious traditions that were irrelevant to my life. And I definitely wanted nothing to do with these people with whom I had nothing in common.

It took a lot of learning after high school to undo this damaging, self-hating mentality—even just to realize that it was damaging and self-hating.

When I went off to college in a state that wasn’t New Jersey, New York, or California, I learned that the rest of America has a lot more white people, and I wasn’t really one of them after all. Pride in being “whitewashed” was in fact pride in being brainwashed. It was trying to efface a natural part of me, like cutting off an arm or a leg. And my tacit compliance paved the way for white people to efface us, too.

When my white boyfriend and I broke up, and he went on to date a series of other Asian women, I learned that even so-called open-minded progressives carried implicit biases. No matter how I thought of myself or what I considered to be my most salient qualities, certain others would always see my yellowness first and foremost.

When my classmate in a study-abroad program in Spain made a video interviewing Chinese immigrants, I learned to view my own mother’s experience in a softer, more empathetic light. The barriers between us had grown so tall that it was only through someone else’s class project that I could begin to understand her and the similar struggles of other immigrants. I began to wonder, what other stories lay quiet on the other side of the wall?

A few years ago, I had a moment of shock and panic when I couldn’t picture the characters for my Chinese name. Fortunately, my fingers still knew how to move the pen. I felt a strange combination of surprise, relief, and resignation in acknowledging the immutability of my Chinese identity.

Snapshots

A friend asked the other day, “Remember Elaine from our high school? Did you hear she got married to an NFL player?”

Of course I remember Elaine. We were in the same fourth-grade class, with a borderline psychotic teacher who would go on epic rants and flip over students’ desks whenever they upset him. That year, the school offered free weekly music classes to those interested in learning to play an instrument. We both signed up for flute lessons, and the school ordered elementary étude books for us.

Somehow the music teacher fell under the impression that Elaine was no longer interested in the lessons. Either she missed the first class or two, or something got mixed-up with her registration. He crossed out her name on the book’s printed label, wrote in mine, and gave it to me.

The following week, the book was missing from my desk. Elaine confronted me about stealing it, and told me with a matter-of-fact smirk that she had taken back what was hers. I snatched it back a few days later while she was outside during recess. She enlisted the aid of two friends, and this little war continued for several more exchanges.

Eventually she demanded, “If this is your stupid book, why does it have my name printed on it?”

I didn’t have an answer. It never occurred to my eight-year-old self to take this to the music teacher for one.

Somehow, I know I ultimately won the war because I was able to keep up with the lessons without having to get a new book. I played in school and community ensembles, winning auditions and awards. Twenty years later, I still play gigs today.

Elaine never wound up doing anything music-related at school. She and I never spoke again after that year.

When the friend mentioned her name, I felt a jolt. The mind can be such a strange and powerful thing, with the way it discards information deemed no longer necessary for survival. The conflict with Elaine had frayed my nerves and chafed at an already anxious temperament. It had made me doubt my own sanity. Worst of all, it had marked the defining moment when I realized I was not one of the cool, confident kids like Elaine and her posse.

Yet some years later, the memory of it was buried entirely. After high school graduation, so was all memory of her existence—until it was suddenly exhumed by my friend’s question.

The mind tends to reduce events and interactions to fragments and snapshots. I remember my fourth-grade teacher shaking a classmate’s possessions out of his desk, but not a single lesson from that year. I remember Elaine only as a haughty, annoyed fourth-grader, brandishing my own book in my face. Does she remember me as a spiteful jerk who kept stealing her book for no reason? Does she blame me for singlehandedly discouraging her from studying music forever?

Most likely, she doesn’t think of me at all (especially if she is now happily married to a professional football player). We flatter ourselves with the assumption that others expend mental energy on us as we might want or expect.

After high school graduation, the school organized a party at a local college campus. Someone from my fifth-grade class approached me at the tables of catered sandwiches and asked if I had indeed climbed onto the roof of the school some weeks ago. Yes, I had—though I didn’t really know why I did it. “Power to you,” he replied, raising a fist and nodding respectfully. I didn’t really know why he respected that, either, but I was amused.

The next time I encountered this fellow again was at our ten-year high school reunion. He approached me at the bar and asked if I remembered climbing onto the roof of the high school. How did he retain this useless piece of information for ten years? We had been in the same school system since the fifth grade; why was this the only thing he seemed to know about me? What about all my musical accolades, academic achievements, and scintillating personality?

The knowledge that most people don’t think of you the way you think of you can be a double-edged sword. It can be disappointing or embarrassing to know that your interactions with others have been reduced to only the lowlights. On the flip side, most people aren’t obsessing over (or even noticing) your stumbles and trips, which can be quite liberating.

Best thing to do, as with most things in life, is try to have a good sense of humor about it.

Prophecies

There’s this pattern in my life: whatever happens on New Year’s Eve sets a precedent or theme for the overall year to come.

On December 31, 2013, I drank so much at a coworker’s house party that I puked and passed out at around eleven o’clock. Pretty much all of 2014 was then spent partying, sometimes for a week straight. This in itself was only a minor uptick from what had already become my standard behavior. What was unusual and concerning was the frequency of my getting sick from it. I must have marked my territory in vomit all over downtown New York and outside every PATH station.

The end of that year, I slipped and fell on my coccyx while playing beer pong. While the injury was not severe, the ache lasted a full month into 2015. Some time after, I tripped while jogging outdoors and fell unfavorably on my left wrist. Again, the pain lasted an unexpectedly long time for something that didn’t require any actual medical treatment. I also wounded a knee on a separate occasion. These may not sound like much, but I had been a relatively sedentary creature in years prior.

I decided to take it easy for 2016. I stayed in and hosted my own New Year’s Eve house party with fewer than a dozen close friends, an assortment of snacks, and many bottles of beer and liquor that went largely untouched. I have since reconnected with several old friends and made some wonderful new ones. Though my drinking still went dangerously unbridled at times, I didn’t puke or get hurt nearly as much. And I enjoyed a greater variety of meaningful experiences that didn’t center around alcohol, from visiting a museum a month (my New Year’s resolution) to traveling.

Last Saturday, I found a key, a sock, and a ring that had been missing for weeks to months. I am thus anticipating 2017 to be a year of rediscovery and reaffirmation. Old questions answered. Loose ties resolved. A cleaned-up act, at last. I know what you’re thinking: Grouping events by year is astrological hocus-pocus. Hindsight is 20/20. The future is filled with self-fulfilling prophecies.

In fact, this is less of a superstitious matter and more of a mechanism for calibrating perspective and setting goals. Reviewing events within the framework of a day and a year provides a straightforward way for me to extract lessons from the past, and envision a future to work toward or against. As human beings, we naturally seek meaning and symbolism in everyday settings. Personal goals are essentially positive feedback loops.

My sicknesses, injuries, and (re)kindled friendships were, in all likelihood, cases of correlation without causation. But when I view them under this sort of inside-joke-with-myself lens of New Year’s Eve omens, I can then apply this same lens to formulate a guideline for the future.

This year, I’m striving to be more receptive to new ideas to fuel my rediscovery of writing and reaffirm the kind of person I want to be. Ray Bradbury came up with the short story “Skeleton” after his doctor’s appointment. Eminem wrote the song “Stan” after hearing the beat and chorus to Dido’s “Thank You.” We can find ideas, inspiration, and guidance wherever we open ourselves up to them.

Year-End Reflections

2016 was an active, exciting, productive, joyous year for the many amazing people I am fortunate to have around me. In this year alone, my friends, family and I stood by each other as we:

  • forged new friendships, ignited flames that burned brightly but briefly, and fell in love with someone who finally feels right
  • got brunch, went to museums, hiked, climbed rock walls, read, watched movies, stayed out late drinking, stayed up late playing board games, laughed, commiserated, and embarked on other adventures
  • landed new, fulfilling jobs
  • launched business ventures in different countries and from our own homes
  • hosted our own successful events and concerts
  • contributed to and promoted numerous causes and charities
  • traveled across the country and the world—trying new foods, marveling at breathtaking sights, gaining new perspectives, and interacting with so many kind and interesting people
  • got engaged and married
  • developed new passions and rediscovered old ones
  • poured heart and soul into art, music, writing, crafting, baking, building, and communities

If you think this post is about you, you’re probably right!

I don’t say this enough, but I am deeply proud and appreciative of everyone’s achievements, whether they may seem big or small. We all have so many different interests and work on so many cool things.

I have seen so many complaints and lamentations on social media this year. Celebrities, innovators, and influencers passed away. Human rights were violated domestically and internationally. Truth has become a matter of opinion, science has been dismissed as conspiracies, and personal entitlement has taken top priority.

It’s easy to get lost in the chaos and forget to embrace the positives. The Internet is a wondrous platform for education and awareness, but it can also lead to dangerous misinformation, a mob mentality, and an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. Never forget to strive for progress and to be the best possible version of yourself.

Here’s to more hope, cool things, and fighting the good fight in 2017.