Monday, January 26, 2009

My grandfather the farmer

I visited Taiwan in the winter of '07, but it was warm. It's like that in Taiwan. My grandfather didn't recognize me.
"Grandpa, it's me," I said. "It's Strange Glory."
He looked into my eyes. He told me to take off my glasses.
"Doesn't look like you," he said.
He walked away, knees unbending, toward his bedroom.
I would only be in Fuli, in the town where my father grew up, for a few days. In those few days, I would only see my grandfather a few times. I suppose it made sense considering I'd only met him about five times in my life. He'd emerge from his bedroom when it was time to eat, then he'd return to his room to sleep. And again.
Those two days stretched like weeks because it's like that in Taiwan. I lay awake at night, under a mosquito tent, picturing my father doing the same. I took a chair outside to look at the surrounding mountains, picturing my father doing the same. It was a small house for six people. The math on the rooms didn't add up.
My mother took me for a walk on the second day. We went behind the house, an area I didn't even know existed.
"Your grandfather won't sell this land," she said.
She waved her arm in a sweeping motion, a motion I took to mean a lot of land.
"Your relatives have been trying to get him to sell it for a while now, but he won't."
I saw sugar cane and unsugared canes that were just trees. We ended our walk at a stone structure with several engravings.
"That's where your great-grandmother is buried," she said.
I might have nodded. Or made a face. We walked back to the house.
We were leaving that day, and my grandfather came out from his bedroom. He sat me down on a couch and reached into his cardigan pocket. He pulled out a wad of bills and placed it in my palm.
"I don't need this," I said.
"Take it," he said.
"I don't need it," I said. And again.
I won the argument by telling him I had a job.
"You work?" he said.
The cab arrived a few minutes later to take us to the train station. My grandfather put his arms around me, and he felt small and large all at once. I thought of my first trips to Taiwan, wrapping my tiny arms around his waist as I sat on the back of his motorcycle. We would go to the market, and he would pick up sweets and toys one by one, asking if I wanted them. I didn't need them, but I took them.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Things My Parents Say #2

It took me about 5 minutes to convince my friend Scott to buy an iPod Shuffle. I know what you're thinking. iPod Shuffles are stupid. I also thought this at one point. At many points, in fact. So just give me 5 minutes (depending on how fast you read) to establish a scenario.

1. You have a regular iPod.
2. You want to exercise to music.
A. You can spend $20-$30 for a special case for your iPod suited for exercise OR
B. You can spend $50 for a 1 gb iPod Shuffle.

In case A:
You will be running with your regular iPod. I broke one this way. You sweat on it. It attaches to your upper arm or something awkward. You have 7 million songs on it. Yes, you can make an exercise playlist to narrow it down. Do that. But you will have to swap out cases whenever you want to exercise. Do that. It will be enough of a reason not to exercise.

In case B:
The Shuffle is the size of a postage stamp. The Shuffle itself IS a clip. Clip it anywhere. Make an exercise playlist. Put it on there. Hit random or play it in order. Run away from all your problems.

I bring this up because my father asked me about my iPod Shuffle. After I explained the utility of such an object, he had this to say:

"So my students can record my lectures and listen to them while they exercise, yes?"
"Yeah, Dad. But I don't know if they want to listen to lectures while exercising."
"Some of my students probably already do this."

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Tipping Point

If you were to look up "affable" in the dictionary, you would find the definition of affable. But say you had some magical dictionary that had pictures of people you knew next to certain words. Say you had one of those. You might find a picture of my friend Yamanashi Dave. There was only one person in the entire prefecture that disliked Dave, and that guy wrote a thesis in the teachers' newsletter about becoming a musical lute. I wish I could make this up.

So I wasn't surprised when Dave was essentially hired as he got off the plane into customs. I picture an interview process where they keep trying to throw more money at him while he refuses. "No, kind sir. I'll work from the ground up!" Dave has helped in cultivating the right frame of mind for my unemployed self, and one point of advice really stuck out: It only takes one offer for everything to change.

That offer came yesterday.

The advertising agency that I had been interning at (read: for free) wants to see me around more. They want to give me the green papers so that I will come to the office more often. It's still on a part-time basis, so I will spend part of my time at the office and part of my time at home on weekdays. But we're getting somewhere.

What tipped their hand? I wrote a letter to clients in the voice of a child away at summer camp. It only takes one offer for everything to change.

Friday, January 9, 2009

My father the farmer

I have a certain habit when I read books. For one, I always make a new bookmark by folding a post-it note in half. Next, I always make sure to have a pen around when I'm reading. If I come across a line that resonates with me, I write only the page number on the bookmark. The idea is to later look back at my collection of books, my collection of page numbers, and see if any quotes jump out at me. It's a measuring stick of growth. I want to know what resonated back then and still now. If anything.

Unfortunately, I can't post-it note everything in my life. Which is why I have no idea where this line came from, nor can I quote it accurately. To paraphrase (which is just quoting with less accuracy), there comes a time in every man's life when he must walk away from his father. He has to become his own man.

My father did this in the 1970s, and he did it in a remarkable way. My grandfather was a self-sustaining farmer in rural Taiwan. Which means my father grew up riding cows, tilling the land, and literally living those made-up stories about walking to school with broken shoes. He had a faint idea of something better, so he left for America to pursue his PHD. I joked about it in the last post, but this is the American dream. If he can go from redneck to professor in a foreign country, what mark do I stand to leave?

But it's not about living up to him. It can't be if I ever want to be happy. So when I think about walking away from my father, it's not about escaping responsibility. In fact, there's quite a bit of levity in it. I'll call it nurturing my nature. Now I will stop being alliteration-ist (made that up) and just give you some examples.

A good way to talk about my father is to talk about my mother. My parents' home is littered with trinkets (see: tchotskes, brick-a-brack, tokens). I'm talking about Happy Meal toys from the '80s. Which is even more surprising because my parents never let us buy Happy Meals in the '80s or any other decade. My sister once tried to clean up the mess, and my mother uttered one of my all-time favorite lines: "No! They're for my projects!" My sister and I often quote this line at random. Now before you assume my mother throws cats at strangers, she teaches Pre-K. There's truth to this.

So when my sister became an elementary school teacher, she became equally obsessed with crafts. With projects. She handmade keepsakes for everyone at her wedding. And when my mother gave her and her husband a box of gifts for Xmas, my sister was very interested in the festive box.

As much as you resist, there are things you can't walk away from.

I didn't notice how much I was becoming my father until I was paying my own rent. I'd turn the thermostat way down in the winter and way up in the summer. This, of course, annoyed my roommates, but I couldn't help it. I figured grinning and bearing was worth a few dollars. I hated this as a kid, wearing sweaters inside during the winter, wearing t-shirts and boxers in the summer. It's the only thing that makes sense to me as an adult.

The other day I had a long conversation with a friend I grew up with who now lives in New York. When I say "grew up with," I mean her parents still live in the same neighborhood as my parents, where I currently live. They ask about her when we pass the house.

We talked about living in "the city," about how what you want changes when you actually have it. She was in NYC, in the media, but it wasn't all sweet cakes and puppy breath. It hadn't become that after three years. I think part of her is still incredibly driven to live that New York City lifestyle, but the other part wants simply what her parents have: a house in the suburbs, a two-car garage. I too feel the pull of NYC (though it was much stronger when I was living in Philadelphia), but mainly because living month to month has a certain romantic humanity to it. Who has ever created anything worthwhile without suffering? But I also want to own land.

So are we supposed to surpass our parents? And what defines "surpass"? Is the point of walking away to figure out that we need to return? I don't know. But it's cold outside and inside, and it's January.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

You've got to admit it's getting better, Part 2

I met the Indian last night. His arms were nicely tatted up, and he told me a story about meeting his girlfriend's grandfather. The two men hit it off quite well, yet the grandfather later shared these words with the family: "He's nice, but don't let her go over to that side." He could have been referring to one of many things (marriage, India, tattoo parlors), but we all know it is every minority's wish to kidnap a white woman and take her to the country his parents were born, where he has never lived. We call it the American dream.

The Indian also mentioned saying "Merry Christmas" to his girlfriend's mother, who replied "Thanks for saying that," as if he had really put in the effort. Way to go, champ. You're one step closer to becoming America's Next Top American.

The conversation turned to comparing ignorance and racism, whether the grandfather's 87-year-old ideas would pass with his passing. Are we continuing to breed racism in America?

I'm unequipped to answer such a question, but it's not as if I haven't done the field work. Every human interaction I have could be viewed with a racial relations magnifying glass, but I try very hard not to do that. The best analogy I can make is of the recent hot button issue of athletes carrying guns. After the Plaxico Burress shooting, a former NFL player revealed that he carried a gun during his first two years in the league. He said that it only added to his problems because he started to see every person approaching him as a potential danger. Would he have to reach for his gun? What if he had to use it? After two years of going nuts, he tossed the gun over a bridge. In a matter of speaking, I try not to carry the gun.

My sister has a great story about an Asian girl who walked up to her in a bar. I believe the two of them were the only Asians in the bar, and the other girl said something to her about solidarity. She then said, "What's your authenticity?" I'm no statistician, but I'd have to go with 100%. My sister is a completely real human. Now I wouldn't deem her question racist or ignorant, but the girl was definitely of our generation. So the ball keeps rolling. The apples keep falling close to the tree.

I recently spent some time in San Francisco, a city that I was shocked to discover still boasts one of the highest percentages of race-related crimes in the country. Of course, this has a lot to do with the fact that every type of person lives in SF, so the chances are higher. An entirely homogenous community isn't having many race-related crimes in its boundaries.

I quite like San Francisco, though I get very introspective when I'm there. Chinatown, for one, is a real Chinatown. There are old men spitting tobacco in courtyards, and they're unlikely to know any English. Everything they need is within that community, and so the live the way they want. And though I like the vast number of cultures all living within the same space, I must admit that I lose a little of my identity in SF. I'm suddenly far from the only Asian in the room, the only one with square glasses and a mullet haircut. I'm suddenly in tune to the fact that maybe I'm not so unique. I'm terrified of talking to the other square glass mullets. In college I met a fourth generation Asian-American, and his existence blew my mind. His family has been here for a long time.

A friend recently went on a date with a guy with a French name. I asked if he was French, and the friend said no. His parents are from France, but he grew up here. So he's American. And how am I different from him? How is he more American than Mr. Fourth Generation? Why isn't he French-American? It sounds odd, I know.

I will never have the answers. I've come to accept this. As I mentioned in Part 1, the best I can do is keep learning. I try to keep the right people close, and I try to live up to my own principles. 100%, baby.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Because Prince is playing everywhere

My parents were surprised when I told them I wouldn't be around the house to ring in the new year. They asked where I'd be.

"I'm 25," I replied. "Where do you think I'll be?"

I can be a rhetorical jerk, I know. But New Year's Eve changes as the years pass. As a child, it's the rare day of the year when you're allowed to stay up until midnight. It's the annual glimpse into the adult abyss. Every December 31st, there are a few guarantees: something will drop from somewhere, people will kiss people, and Dick Clark's face will look exactly as it did the year before.

As far as I can remember, my first taste of alcohol was on New Year's Eve. My whole family went down the street to my friend Arthur's house, and his parents asked mine if I could have some champagne at the turn of the year.

Another memorable NYE was senior year of high school, when I went to a party (with girls, omglulz) and played spin the cellphone. The antenna landed on this redhead with braces, and she had this terrified look on her face before mumbling "no." Or something. It definitely wasn't good. For me.

And maybe it's the fact that moments like these happen every year on the same day, close to the same time, during your most impressionable ages that December 31st becomes this meaningful mountain. What did I do that year? Who was I with? Never drink an entire bottle of champagne by yourself.

This time last year, I was at a friend's party in Japan. We cooked tacos and watched Japanese boy bands live from Tokyo. Call it redhead braces karma, but more than one person had her eyes on me and the clock. I did everyone a favor by jumping out of the window. Or something.

Last Wednesday's plans came together at the last minute, as a good friend unfortunately (disregard the previous post) split with his girlfriend the day prior. We would go to a tiki bar, and I would try to get a newfound interest of his to that same tiki bar. It happened. They danced with each other a lot.

By the end of the night, I would find myself in a photo studio somewhere in Atlanta. I told a lawyer I was glad she practiced good law instead of evil law, and I enlisted the help of a thirtysomething, half-Asian woman in stripper boots to revive the dance party. We failed. She gave me this awkward half hug/half shoulder rub as she left.

As I stood on the steps of the studio waiting for our ride, I loosened my tie and bummed a cigarette. There was no special someone. There was no Dick Clark. But it was definitely good. For me. And I barely remember the countdown.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The boys of summer

None of my close friends from high school left Georgia for college. I can still see Ira's arm undulating like a sine wave out of the window of his early '90s, light blue Honda. I was driving behind him in an '87 Cutlass, probably leaving IHOP or Waffle House or wherever suburban boys go in the last days of summer. It would be the last time I saw him and our group of friends before leaving for Philadelphia, and the moment felt large. I felt tiny in that cushy, grey felt driver's seat.

Someone special was supposed to see me off the next morning, but she never came. I sat in the passenger seat as my father headed up I-85, and I cried a certain cry that has rarely come out since. With seven years of hindsight, I don't think it was exactly about her. I was putting a lot of faith in a new place, and there was no way to know what would happen. I had an idea of Philadelphia, of college, and that idea was supposed to be bigger than her, bigger than home. This was growing up.

Throughout my years in college, I would be back for breaks, back for a few summers. I didn't speak to my friends from home much while I was away, but I knew they were there. They would know what day I was coming back, and we'd all get together at IHOP of Waffle House or wherever suburban boys go when they have words to say. I always ordered sweet tea.

Before I left for Japan, I spent a few months back in Atlanta. Friends had graduated, gotten jobs, and were living their lives. Two good friends were now roommates, and I spent much of my time at their apartment. We were 18 again.

I expected nothing different when I came back from Japan.

My friend Lauren recently asked if I thought someone's significant other should also be his/her best friend. I definitely think so, but I also think there are intangibles that come from having another close friend of the same gender.

I mention this because every close male friend I have in Georgia got into a serious, committed relationship while I was in Japan. I couldn't be happier for them, but I could be less bored. I could feel more necessary. So is this growing up?

For the sake of brevity, I'll limit this to the curious case of Architect Ira. This man has it all. Seeing as he is an architect, he works a lot. He also lives with his girlfriend. But as far as I know, that is what he does. He architects and he lives with his girlfriend. I managed to steal him one day for lunch, and I felt like he hadn't laughed that much in years. I could have told him a chicken crossing the road joke, and the chicken and rice he was eating still would have fallen out of his mouth.

I admit that I'm being selfish. And maybe his girlfriend (who I know and like) is all that he needs. But is this growing up? I don't know. Show me that undulating arm. Give me the humid, mosquito summer. The Cutlass has long been scrapped, but let's go for a ride.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Like Dylan Thomas, but not at all

My friend Cassidy just moved back to her hometown of Boulder. She, like me, spent a few years working in Philadelphia after graduating from Penn. Whenever we get into long conversations, we tend to reveal something about ourselves that we only thought was true of ourselves. It's refreshing and humanizing. Yes, it's a wonderful feeling to confirm that you are indeed a human person. We talked about the novel nature of our current situations.

The answers used to come simple. Up through high school, I tried to get the best grades so that I could go to a good college. In college, I tried to get good grades so I could land a job after graduation. These things happened. Around sophomore year of college, the crazy notion that I could write about music for a living entered my brain, and I pursued that goal. I did that for a job. But what happens when you don't know what you want?

I have a long list of reasons for leaving music journalism as a full-time pursuit, and I won't name those here. I'll save it for later because that's not really the point of this post. But I will reveal one very important reason: I just didn't feel the job was that important. I'm talking about the big scheme of things, the deathbed-looking-back-what-have-I-done scenario. I wanted more, so I let it go.

Now the following line has been trademarked and inserted into an upcoming screenplay by Cassidy, so don't go anywhere with it. (It actually came from a conversation she had with a friend of hers, but I'll let them settle the royalties.) I have bad unemployment days and good unemployment days, but Cassidy summed up my frustrations with one line. She called it "raging against the realization that you are just becoming an average person."

I'm not throwing a pity party. And I say this with much humility when I admit that I am proud of the choices I've made so far in my life. I went to the only college I applied to, I've written for national magazines, and I've lived abroad in a place where I didn't know the language. I like these choices. But what now?

So I live with my parents. I'm raging against getting a job just to have a job. I'm seeing more and more what's important to me, what brings me joy, who matters, and who I matter to. And I'm going to keep raging because I do see some light, however faint, at the end of some cliché filled metaphor. We all want to be big stars. But we don't know why. And we don't know how.