Pressure

I have a difficult time knowing when I cross the line between self-discipline and being overly tough on myself. I was raised to believe that anything is possible when you try hard enough, and I derive genuine happiness from feeling “productive”—a dangerous recipe for stress, impatience, sleep deprivation, and a frustrating inability to relax. Sylvia Plath’s proverbial fig tree speaks volumes to my perpetually anxious self. So much to do and learn; not nearly enough hours in a day, or days in a lifetime.

Years ago, I wanted a senior position at a start-up company whose imminent IPO would make me a millionaire. On the side, I wanted to be a writer, data scientist, programmer, electronic music producer/DJ, singer-songwriter, celebrity gamer, poker player, photographer, weight lifter, and marathon runner. Preferably all at the same time, with a bustling social life to boot. I also liked cooking and cleaning my apartment frequently. Every day after work, I stood at a crossroads with an overwhelming number of to-do items and only a handful of hours for tackling a single one. I knew it was crazy, but I needed to do everything and embody this overachieving ideal built up in my mind. If other people could juggle multiple major endeavors, so could I.

Last year, I decided to focus on writing. I have still been pursuing other hobbies and interests, but to a lesser degree. I enrolled in a twelve-week writing workshop at the local county college, rebooting the creativity engine. At the beginning of 2017, I vowed to post an essay or short story here each week. Much more reasonable, right? But now I have missed three or four weeks, and I am beating myself up pretty hard for it. Things have been ramping up at work. I have been spending more quality time with my boyfriend and his family. I have been traveling, attending talks, visiting museums, reading, and watching films—all experiences from which I seek storytelling inspiration. Are these positive signs of a more balanced life, or pathetic excuses for slacking off from a simple goal? My answer fluctuates with the time of day and my mood.

I think I am finally ready to start working on a novel, but is that merely another excuse for not writing any more weekly essays? The weekly essays have been a challenging yet satisfying exercise. I would love to keep them up for the rest of the year, and a big part of me feels like a failure for stopping them a third of the way through. However, I am excited about this novel idea and I want to give it an earnest shot. Maybe once I finish it, I can finally ease some pressure off myself.

Regardless of what happens, hopefully you’ll hear from me again soon enough.

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Mortality

Last year was an especially bad time for my dust and pollen allergies. Every morning, I would wake up exhausted from a night of grabbing tissues for my alternately stuffy and runny nose. I would feel as if I hadn’t had a sip of water in days, even when I’d had a full glass right before going to bed. My throat was constantly sore, and my skin itched and peeled all over. I tried running extra laundry cycles, scrubbing and rescrubbing my floors and surfaces, installing an air filter, and adjusting my diet—all of which only marginally helped. When I finally went to the doctor, she told me it was “just allergies” and to take allergy medicine every morning. Almost immediately, my symptoms stopped.

The most bewildering part of all this, and the reason I didn’t try taking allergy medicine sooner, was that this was happening in March. Allergies were nothing new to me, but typically they weren’t triggered when greenery was still struggling to reemerge from the last grey clutches of frost. This is my life now, I thought dully as I continued to pop my daily Zyrtec well into October. As with the onset of puberty, something in my body had changed forever and I simply had to deal with it.

Two days ago, I went to the doctor again for an annual checkup. “There are some abnormalities in your blood work,” she said in greeting as she entered the room and took a seat before me. I was taken aback. I had in fact noticed some minor issues or changes, but dismissed them as inevitable side effects of aging. In the two seconds before her next sentence, my mind fluttered frantically from one conjecture to another. It’s cancer. I’m a mutant. It’s Zika. The lab couldn’t even identify my sample as human blood. Then she said, “You have hypothyroidism,” and the pieces clicked into place. That explained the variation in bowel movements, feeling of dryness, and struggle to lose weight despite cutting my caloric intake and going to the gym five days a week. Now I have to take medication for this every morning for the next three months, and then follow up more blood work and another doctor’s visit to see if my thyroid gland has gotten any better. If not, this will be yet another uncooperative corporeal component to deal with for the rest of my days.

This is the beginning of the end, I thought during the drive home. As human beings, we are naturally concerned about mortality and tend to say this about a lot of things that make us feel old. When we stop running around, jumping, and skinning our knees with reckless abandon, and instead start calculating odds and assessing risk before acting. When we can no longer drink all night and wake up energetic and hangover-free the following morning. When a childhood friend has a baby, gets a divorce, or passes away from a heart attack. When friends and family move away, lose touch, and move on. When kids born in the year 2000 can drive. Hypothyroidism is hardly cause for doom and despair—especially when it’s as mild as mine appears to be—but it means more pills, restrictions, and yet another speed bump on the great slowdown.

Yet these days I find myself able to reflect on beginnings of ends with a lot less bitterness and franticness, and more serene acceptance. It helps to recognize and remember all the positive changes that have transpired among the negative ones. I’m no longer perpetually depressive, anxious, angry, self-hating, or meek in the face of bullshit. I’m much more confident and focused on achieving personal goals, which I never used to have at all. Most importantly, I don’t dwell on regrets for hours a day. If this is what approaching mortality means, it’s not necessarily so bad.

Classical Music

When I was a child, my mother purchased pop-music CDs almost compulsively. Many a car ride was accompanied by the likes of Celine Dion or the Backstreet Boys, even though the lyrics often escaped her. It was difficult to say whether she did it more out of genuine enjoyment of the tunes or as a way for us all to assimilate into American culture. Perhaps as testimony to the latter, she took the Now, That’s What I Call Music! compilations as gospel and bought volumes one through fourteen.

However, my parents have always been music enthusiasts, with an impressive collection of CDs and vinyl records acquired prior to immigrating to the United States. Some were by contemporary Chinese or Japanese artists. Others were more familiar to me as a fledgling music student: Bach, Beethoven, Handel, and more. But compared to the catchy hooks and refrains of the pop albums, these were stodgy and uninteresting.

I started learning the piano at age five, but it was a perfunctory chore. Even when I started playing the flute in the school concert band three years later, which I liked a great deal more than the piano, it was simply something to do. Sonatinas were indistinguishable from études. Pieces didn’t have melodies or harmonies; they were merely a mess of notes on a page, until I could brute-force through them and get that validating checkmark from my instructor. With no one telling me otherwise, I assumed the twofold purpose of practice was to get faster at calculating rhythms and triangulating chords, and then train the fingers to reproduce them from muscle memory. I remained staunchly unmoved by the power of music for years, despite being surrounded by and participating in it from such a young age. I didn’t even know emotions were supposed to be part of the picture.

It wasn’t until my eighth-grade concert with the Central New Jersey Regional Orchestra that I felt music. As I listened to the swelling, spirited strings in Brahms’ majestic Academic Festival Overture, something stirred, awakening, within the stone-cold machinery of my performance engine. I had a sudden sense of being part of a great movement with all these other players, something ineffably noble and timeless and beautiful that was carrying us like a tidal wave up and away from these rigid chairs under the hot stage lights. For the first time, I played my brief solo with an intent to shine, not merely to get the notes out. And as the piece slowed to its final booming notes, I didn’t resent having to take those extra-deep breaths and sustain the sound; instead, I reveled in our collective triumph and glory.

That transformative moment affected not only my playing, but also the way I heard pop music. Though I still appreciated its catchiness (and loved to perform it at karaoke sessions), it was no longer something I cared to listen to all the time. Finally I understood why all these works of classical music had survived for hundreds of years and attracted listeners from China to the US. I fell in love.

Congee

My mother does not consult cookbooks or recipes. Her cooking flows from an inner font of raw knowledge and talent sown in China, cultivated by the immigrant experience, and harvested in motherhood. She has a gift for spinning threadbare ingredients into nourishing meals, throwing them onto the stove with a mysterious bit of this and that. The dishes always emerge expertly prepared, the flavors perfectly balanced. No recipe could have directed or captured those nuances.

As a child, I never took much interest in observing the process. I didn’t think food was particularly interesting, or her cooking anything special. We were far from rich, but privileged enough never to go hungry. It was my inherent understanding that mothers simply made meals appear in the household. Whenever family friends asked, “Don’t you think your mom is a great chef? Don’t you feel lucky?” I figured they were being polite. Mothers were supposed to make food like this for their children. If I ever became one someday, I would find myself naturally able to do the same.

I realized how silly and misguided these assumptions were when I went to college. I knew how to scramble eggs and boil spaghetti, but I had a long way to go to reach my mother’s skill level. There was no way this gap could be magically bridged upon having a child. Furthermore, I had no idea how to prepare proper Chinese food. This was a daunting mantle for a daughter sprouted in a different country and language, and I was so concerned with authenticity that I didn’t dare approach it.

Since college graduation, I have been going grocery shopping on a regular basis and primarily subsisting on my own home-cooked meals. I have taken a cooking class in France and followed dozens of recipes of various cuisines. I consider myself reasonably adept in the kitchen. Yet, absurd as it may seem, still there remained a mental block discouraging me from tackling even the simplest dishes of my heritage, such as congee or stir-fried shredded potatoes. The handful of attempts I did make throughout the years left me feeling fraudulent and unsatisfied. Cooking was just one more thing proving I wasn’t a “real” Chinese person.

My Indian boyfriend’s mother told me a few months ago, without a trace of shame or embarrassment, that she sometimes used recipes found online. “You can Google lots of good ones these days,” she said to my great surprise. Her cooking seemed to be executed with the same kind of effortless perfection as my mother’s, which I assumed could have only been derived from their similar lifestyles, milestones, and cultural values. Hearing that this magic could be reproduced from recipes—and more importantly, that it could still be “authentic”—finally unlocked something in me.

That weekend, I went to the local Chinese supermarket and picked up jars of pickled vegetables. I went home, looked up a recipe for congee, and made it for the first time in my life. As I ate it with the pickled vegetables, I couldn’t help laughing like a joyful salad lady. It was merely rice and water, which I had always known, but it was from my childhood. And at last, I was no longer weirdly intimidated by it.

Dating Archetypes

The Abuser

The Abuser does not value or respect you as an equal. His own thirst for control takes priority over your health, happiness, and well-being. You find yourself doing things you would have previously believed to be out of character, and never in a good way. Apologizing for having the nerve to go out with your own friends for once instead of his. Crawling for his forgiveness after spilling the beer and making him hurt you. Needing to prove your love in various ways from which he himself remains curiously exempt.

(There are plenty of existing studies and literatures that describe abusive behavior far better than I am qualified to do, so this description is by no means comprehensive.)

You stay with him because he is uncannily manipulative and knows how to charm you into believing he is not a monster even after you’ve felt his claws and fangs.

The Loser

This type of partner offers little to no value to you in a relationship. Although he does not actually hurt or manipulate you, he is still a burden who drags down your sense of self-worth lower than it would be if you were simply single. He is a leech and perpetual work-in-progress wholly uninterested in making an effort.

Be careful not to assume someone is a Loser simply because earns a lower salary or does not know how to cook. A partner can and should improve your quality of life in many other important ways: emotional support, quality time, exposure to new interests and experiences, humor, assistance with chores, and so on. A Loser may achieve some of these from time to time, but the overall picture is bleak.

You date him when you think you don’t deserve any better.

The Oscillator

When the circuits are on, this individual can be a great Friend—maybe even a Saint (see below). He spends tons of time with you, makes you laugh, and remembers key details. When they’re off, he is cool and distant, leaving you wondering what he’s up to or what you might have done to push him away. This fluctuating, unpredictable behavior can make him seem addictively mysterious and intriguing to the unseasoned dater. Furthermore, because there seems to be so much potential for a real relationship, you can’t help thinking you might be able to change him and/or get him to fall in love with you someday.

You see him when you crave those intense intervals of passion. When you become surer of yourself and what you want, the lack of communication and commitment becomes unacceptable.

The Friend

This is not about the “friendzone,” a fallacious concept typically popular with immature, disgruntled victims of unrequited infatuation. Rather, the Friend is someone you date because you have a lot of things in common and get along well. You both love outdoorsy activities, evenings of wine and board games, and the HBO show Westworld. You have generally similar worldviews and life goals, though some of the nuances may differ or even conflict.

Occasionally, you may undergo periods of restlessness and wonder if there should be “more.” Maybe you should be looking for someone with a value system that aligns more closely with yours, or who inspires more passion and drive. You then dismiss these questions as side effects of having heard too many fairy tales as a kid.

Ultimately, you stick with the Friend since he is loyal and has never done anything wrong, and you do not know if you would be able to find anyone better.

The Saint

The Saint is infinitely, mind-bogglingly patient. He is always kind, understanding, and respectful. He is never angry with you when you forget “one last thing” on your way out the door, lead him several blocks in the wrong direction in search of a restaurant, or accidentally punch him in the stomach in your sleep. He makes you feel motivated, energetic, and stronger.

Dating the Saint is undoubtedly easier and better than the Abuser or Loser, but it comes with its own surprising set of difficulties. You feel ashamed for being annoyed at him for trifling matters because you know he would never do the same to you. When you hurt him, the awareness inflicts deeper pain within yourself than any rage-filled screaming match. You are forced to reflect upon your own faults and how to become a better person.

You hold onto him because he is the embodiment of grace and unconditional love.

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.

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.