How to Write (?)

Greetings from Hualien (花蓮), Taiwan.
I'm sitting at a small desk in our hotel in Hualien, blogging for the first time in 2015. I had thought, at the end of December, that I'd take the time to write a thoughtful post on January 1st, and blog somewhat regularly after that from Tokyo, then Nagoya, Takayama and Nozawa Onzen, but while we had consistent internet access (though our ryokan in Takayama was too high up in the mountains for our WIFI hotspot to get a good signal), I was usually too tired or never quite focused enough to do it at the day's end. There was always something more fun and less mentally taxing to do (e.g. play poker with Tom - I currently owe him $10.50 - or eat a late night super expensive Kobe steak dinner at the Park Hyatt Tokyo).

It's not that blogging isn't fun, but when I try to blog while traveling, it's a bit taxing to sit down, sift through the days' photos and remind myself a.) what I did/ate/saw and b.) figure out, "What is the point of sharing this, aside from just sharing it?"

The same goes for my writing, in general.

Before I left for my month-long Asian winter escapade, I received from a professor critiques on a final assignment. It started with kind enough words.

"You have a voice, a slant, a twinkle, a feeling for types and mood, and, God, a great enviable ear for dialogue - but," and he asked the question I've come almost to expect in an essay critique: "how can these individual set pieces be amalgamated into something larger? Only your ambition can answer that..."

I had sighed and shut my computer, not because my feelings were hurt, but because it was an old criticism, one other professors and readers and writers have asked as well, and, this evening, prior to leaving our hotel for the night market, Tom too.

"How's the thesis coming along?"

In case you didn't know, I'm entering my final semester of grad school and the deadline for my thesis is close though not quite looming (and in case you're wondering what kind of student I am, I've no idea when it's due...). It isn't the first time he's asked me, but it is the first time my old answer of "Oh it's going okay," didn't seem to work, especially because Tom has also told me several times point blank that he doesn't get the point of some of my posts, though to his credit he doesn't do it in the irritating self-important way of certain too-serious English majors who favor, "But what's at stake?"

I told him I still wanted to focus on relationships. Mine and ours, and the relationships I grew up observing: my parents', grandparents', friends'. And even if it didn't seem like it in my writing both on and off this blog, I was still trying to make a point...about what, well, I guess my ambitions to make the points clear aren't strong enough yet.

We left for Zi Qiang Night Market (自強夜市) and as we first walked amongst the stalls, surveying the offerings and deciding which delicacies to try, I thought about my thesis, and about writing in general and how I felt I knew but how possibly, I might not write like I know. The point of it all, that is.

Assignments were made: "I'll wait in line for this while you get a table for that" and, sharing paper plates and plastic bowls of stinky tofu, pork chili wraps and fragrant lamb stew rice, we batted around ideas about structure. I thought about the essays I've submitted and the ones that received good feedback and the ones that made people scratch their heads and wonder aloud, politely, carefully, "Okay, the point?" and thought about things like vulnerability and consistency and voice.

Over stir fried young cabbage and snow pea shoots, I thought too, about the ones that are still in progress, floating aimlessly on Google Drive, that perhaps are actually on their way to being strong essays but just nowhere near finished enough for me to share and not simply be wasting a reader's time.

We ended up at an ice cream stand, sharing a cup of taro and strawberry sorbets. I thought about Tom's idea - one I'll keep to myself for now - and how more than any I've entertained thus far, seemed particularly attractive, though it would be daunting.

Back at the hotel we readied for bed. Or at least Tom did. I sat down at the desk and opened my computer. It had been a while.

"I am interested to see how you'll approach your thesis,"  Tom said.

I thought about the months ahead and the time it would take to make even the essays I already have written coherent and cohesive. That sounded daunting too.

I shrugged, "I guess I'll just start writing."

"Well, I think you need to come up with a structure first before you start writing. Otherwise you're just throwing shit at a wall."

I burst out laughing, "I'm not a crazy monkey in a cage."

"No," he said, "but you know it's true."

Still laughing, I nodded and he, yawning loudly, went to sleep.

Before Christmas, In Paris

We planned very little to do in Paris except eat and drink. Ducks confit and magritte, wine, pastries, chocolate, steaks and more pastries. More wine. The occasional sliced fruit or glazed berry that came glistening atop whatever tarts caught my eye. It was Paris. Even if we died from heart attacks, they would be the most delicious heart attacks in the world.

Tom and I had both been to Paris before. I first visited with my parents in spring of 2005 (when, thanks to my father's adventurous tastes, we dined at the same Chinese restaurant twice) and again with my cousin Karen at the start of 2010. Tom had traveled there just after college with an ex-girlfriend as part of a five-week EuroTrip.

“I was poor as fuck the first time I went to Paris,” Tom said, “It'll be nice to not have to eat only baguettes and cheese with Vegemite, though even that was super delicious.”

I pitied his girlfriend at the time. Though unemployed, I don't travel with people who are poor as fuck (PAF). It just isn't fun, you know? Thankfully Tom is no longer PAF, and I went about trying to secure some restaurant reservations. I considered too, implementing a few cultural things on our itinerary, but our time was short. The first most highbrow thing we did was stand in front of the Centre Pompidou on our first night there.

"I've never been inside," Tom said.

"It's nice," I murmured.

I snapped a photo and we went on to dinner. A la prochaine, Pompidou.

The second most highbrow thing we did in Paris was stand in line for the Catacombs on our last morning. The line was very long. We had both a lunch reservation and a train to catch. We bought sandwiches, ate them in line, then checked our watches and decided we had to leave for lunch. A la prochaine, Les Catacombs! 

While Paris captures hearts, it seduces stomachs. And we - certainly I - pretty much let ours rule.

So we ate. We ate, and then we walked. And then we ate some more. 
On the Eurostar, I, hungover from Tom's company holiday party the night before, napped. When I woke up, Tom had placed before me a ham sandwich, orange juice, and champagne. "Let's celebrate! We're going to Paris!" Thus was born a new train tradition (a drink and a "sando" as Tom calls it) and one of our favorite memories of the entire trip. 
The cheery, well-appointed lobby of the Hotel Observatoire Luxembourg, in the Latin Quarter. Big beds, small rooms, good location. My policy is never to stay in the same hotel twice, but I'd recommend this one. 
Typical Parisian scene. Typical. 
Cultural excursion number 1. 

We both agreed this was way better than looking at art. 
And then came real art: dinner at Le Barav. A wine shop cum bistro. Buy the wine next door and bring it to the restaurant to have with your dinner. That is duck confit and a prosciutto salad with cheese medallions. Coming from London, where food is getting quite good if not already there, we still cried a little.  
For those who ask, "Who took this?" I did! It's a photo of our reflection; my phone is on the table. 
We ended our first night with drinks at Candelaria, a taqueria and bar. It's a speakeasy type place with the bar hidden behind the taqueria. A pretty young, international crowd as it's opened by some NYU grads. 
You're never too old to stop and smell the fir trees. 
Where he was headed, I wanted to know. 
I showed this photo to my mother, because I thought both the red door and Tom were very handsome. She said, "He looks like a beggar."
On Saturday morning, we had brunch with friends at their brightly lit studio in Le Marais, my favorite neighborhood. This photo was taken a bit early, before the entire spread was laid out, but there was champagne, Badoit, croissants, cheese, prosciutto, a tart and amazing tea from Mariage Freres. After the brunch our mission was to find the tea. 
But first a stop along the Seine. To redirect your attention from Tom's wonky nose, that is a huge boat filled with trash. 
 Le Marais is maze-like. But we found the tea. 
"Excuse me? Could you please take a photo for me?" 
Tom took the task quite seriously and took many shots of her. 
I asked her to return the favor. Tom is holding the bag of tea, for which we hunted high and low. When we returned to New York, we realized a.) Tom's roommate had the exact tea because b.) "You can buy it at Dean and Deluca."  
Our last dinner at Au Pied du Sacre Coeur, located at...the foot of the Sacred Heart in Monmartre. That is lamb on the bottom and another duck under Tom's knife. So many ducks, so little time. 
Indeed it was. 

Readying to head back. 
Hearts in Paris, on the Eurostar going back to London. 

Address Book: 
107 boulevard Saint Michel
75005 Paris
Luxembourg, 5ème
+33 1 46 34 10 12

6 rue Charles François Dupuis
75003 Paris
Marais Nord, 3ème
+33 1 48 04 57 59

Le Comptoir du Relais (we stopped here for a carafe of wine and salad with foie gras)
6 carrefour de l'Odeon
75006 Paris
Saint-Michel/Odéon, Saint-Germain-Des-Prés, 6ème
+33 1 44 27 07 97

52 rue de Saintonge
75003 Paris
Marais Nord, 3ème
+33 1 42 74 41 28

85 rue Lamarck
75018 Paris
Mairie du 18e/Lamarck, 18ème
Lamarck - Caulaincourt and 2 more stations
+33 1 46 06 15 26

30-32 rue du Bourg-Tibourg
75004 Paris
Marais, 4ème
+33 1 42 72 28 11

Encounters: London

I remember the contents of Tom's small, mini-bar sized fridge because I took a photo: 
A bachelor's diet. 
Everything was moldy except for the bread, Thai leftovers and condiments.

“Tea and toast,” he said when we arrived at his apartment, and presented me with a slice of toast with too much butter and a lukewarm cup of tea. It had cooled when he left to bring me up to the apartment. We sat on the couch smiling at each other for twenty minutes. I had barely slept on the plane and was now feeling cold and tired. Tom had to go back to work.

“Nap,” he said, “We’ll meet up later tonight.”

I thought about his apartment's soaking tub, something my New York studio lacked. “I’ll take a bath first,” I said. 

“Go for it,” Tom waved magnanimously towards his gleaming bathroom, kept spotless by a cleaning woman of Eastern European descent whom Tom called, on rotation, “Olga,” “Svetlana” or “Helga.” “You’ll be the first person to do so since I started living here.”

He left again for work and I unpacked while running a bath. The water was disappointingly tepid, but I got in anyway. When the water began to feel colder than the apartment air, I got out and turned the knob below the faucet, which was meant to raise the stopper. It was stuck. I turned it the other way. It moaned, as though I was causing it great pain, then became stuck again. I tried to turn it back, but it wouldn’t budge. I twisted, pulled and pushed. My skin was beginning to dry and the steam to evaporate but the bath remained quite full, and now, filled with my filth. There was no handle or chain on the stopper for me to pull it up manually, nor was there a plunger about for me to suck it up. It appeared that within thirty minutes of setting foot in Tom’s apartment, I had broken the bathtub and left it filled with dirty water.

I dressed and paced around the apartment wondering what to do. It was still early-ish Friday morning. I could wait until Tom came home to fix the issue, though I doubted his plumbing fixing abilities. And what if he wanted to take a shower right after work and he couldn’t without standing in my filth? That was sad. I couldn’t do that to someone, especially not Tom, to whom I wanted to appear clean and ladylike for as long as possible. And, even if I did wait for Tom, it was nearing the end of the workweek and where would we find a plumber? Our weekend would be pretty gross if neither of us could shower.

I reasoned that as it was a rental, there was probably in one of the kitchen drawers, a list of numbers to call in the event a foreigner came and stopped up one’s bathtub. I was correct. I dialed the maintenance number to his complex from an old apartment maintenance notice, which Tom had stuffed in the drawer beneath the microwave.

“Hi! So.” I said, when a friendly sounding young woman finally picked up, “I’m staying with a friend but he’s at work and I took a bath and the stopper won’t come up, so now the bathtub is filled with dirty water and I’d like to have the problem fixed as soon as possible so my friend doesn’t come home and find his bathtub filled with dirty water.”

“Oh, right,” said the young woman on the other end, “Completely understandable.”

She made a few calls while I waited on the edge of the sofa, from which I could see into the bathroom. I hoped that the drain might change its mind during the length of my call. After a few minutes, the young woman came back on and told me she had dispatched someone to Curtain Road to right the issue. 

"They're just down the street fixing a similar issue at another unit, and should be here soon," the woman said. 

An hour later -soon by any standard for appointments like this - the buzzer rang. In keeping with my narrow ideas of who should take care of things like plumbing, I expected a man's voice, but it was certainly a woman and by the time I had buzzed her in and opened the front door, it saw that she was not just any woman. She was of-all-trades, a Romanian McGuyver, robust and matronly with vibrant red, curly hair tucked into a handkerchief (a handkerchief!) and ruddy cheeks. Heavyset and huffing from hurrying down the street in cold air, she wore a thick down jacket, beneath which a flower print skirt billowed around ribbed tights and Adidas sneakers. She looked like someone’s Aunt Olga who might have, just five minutes before, been undercover selling root vegetables at a Borough Market before being summoned via some secret exchange to take care of business. In this case, Tom's bathtub. She carried no toolbox (she wouldn't be the best at her job if she needed a toolbox) and held just a plunger, wrapped politely in a plastic Sainsbury bag.

“I here to fix tub,” she said in a thick Romanian accent.

I let her in and she got to work immediately. She unwrapped the plunger with a flourish, plopped it into the water and after five or six emphatic plunges, the stopper was out.

She stood triumphantly at the edge of the tub as we watched my American filth drain into the Thames, or wherever the bathwater in London goes.

“Easy,” she said, “But I have them come fix the drain anyway, later next week.”

I wondered if "them" were more Romanian ladies like herself. As thanks before she left, I offered her cookies, which I’d baked and brought from America and which Tom would comment tasted like bland granola bars.

“Ho, no, no,” she smiled, shook her head, and patted her down-covered waistline, "I'm on diet. I need to lose so many pounds." 

She gave me a once over.

"You are so fit."

I smiled thanks. Not to brag, but I get that a lot. 

She shook her head regretfully, "If I did not work these hours I could go to gym. You go to gym?"

I didn’t and I don’t, but I wondered what she might think of me. Did she think I was some young, idle housewife who had nothing to do all day but take baths and bake cookies? I wondered if she saw my suitcases in Tom’s bedroom. What would she think of those? I felt a sudden urge to explain the situation. I was visiting my significant other! I was a student, not an idle housewife! I stayed "fit" by her standards by walking a lot around the city where gym memberships sometimes seemed to cost as much as rent. But I was getting tired – I had yet to nap. Oh god, I thought, a very idle thing to do. I took the easy way out. I lied.

“Yes,” I said, with as understanding an expression I could muster, “I go to the gym, but I completely understand what you mean, it’s very hard to find the time with work and such.”

She seemed satisfied with my answer. Ah, her expression seemed to say, a not-so -idle young housewife who also works, who can relate. She wrapped the plunger back into the Sainsbury bag and turned to leave.

“I tell them come early next week to fix drain,” she emphasized with a helpful smile. I had the feeling she was doing me a favor.

I smiled thanks and thanks and good-bye and happy holidays, then closed the door and napped.

London Memories

Lost souls please go to Nunhead
This time last year, I was readying to visit Tom in London a second time. 

The plan was to spend a weekend in Cambridge, return to London and rendezvous with some friends who were also visiting the city, attend Tom's raucous company holiday party and then, the morning after and presumably hungover, board the Eurostar to spend two gluttonous days in Paris before heading back to London to pack and move Tom back to New York.  

I packed, among other necessities, a white party dress dress, a pair of velvet heels, and a leopard coat. I thought Tom liked the leopard coat because I had sent him a photo of it and he had replied, "Hot." Over text message, I could see neither a look of disgust nor hear a groan. 

So I thought, “Yeah, super hot.”

I landed at 7AM on the morning of Friday, December 6th and met, at the customs border, a surly, sleep-deprived woman who could be classified as “matronly” in the worst way possible, and “bitchy” in its usual way. Her hair was thinning and her skin, sallow and splotchy, sagged like the elbow patches of her dumpy blue sweater uniform. I wondered how many cigarettes she smoked during her infrequent breaks and how often she thought of shooting herself. Or cheery young foreigners like myself, who came with the expectation to have as much fun as possible. I smiled at her as I always smile to such personnel. I read in a magazine that sometimes smiles are infectious and she looked like she needed one. However, my smile bounced off her soulless eyes and she remained dour. She dully asked how many days I was staying.

"Ten," I said. 

"What are you here for?" 

"Visiting a friend." 

"Male, female?" 


She nodded as she paged languidly through my passport, yawned. Perhaps she found it boring - I had renewed my passport prior to starting school in New York and had just one stamp in it, from my first visit to London back in October. 

"How did you meet him?" 

"We met in New York." 

She stopped turning the pages and looked up at me. Her expression grew annoyed, then weary, like a haggard schoolteacher having caught her student in a lie.

"So he's a boyfriend, then?" 

"Um...” I thought back to a half a month before, when Tom and I had defined the relationship but had also not said expressly, the terms “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” 

“...I guess?” I started to explain that we were dating and we hadn’t really ever said those words, and I cringed as I spoke, part of my consciousness stepping out from my body and watching me explain a rather simple but in the same way complicated situation to a woman who honestly had no business but who seemed at once to care too much and too little. She didn’t have time for incoherent explanations, thank god. 

“Look, he's your boyfriend,” she snapped, “So just say 'boyfriend' and not 'friend.'" She manhandled my passport, stamping it with a withering look and then waved me off.

A few feet past her cell there was a massive, brightly lit banner that said, “Welcome to London!” and showcased many a smiling Brit. Not surprisingly, my customs officer was not among them.
The view from Tom's window. 
Two hours later I was at the corner of Curtain Road and Old St., where Tom’s corporate apartment was located. We stood across the street from each other for a few moments, waiting black London cabs and red double-deckers roll by. I smiled between each vehicle. Tom waved to me from across the street. I waved back, the hem of my leopard coat billowing in the brisk London air. The light changed and he walked over. I thought he was smiling but as he came closer, saw it was a pained expression with a smile plastered on.  
"What are you wearing," he said.  

I was confused. Hadn’t he said it was “hot?” 

“You don't like it?”

"You look like you escaped from the jungle." 

I was thankful to have brought along another coat in a much more subdued black. But still, I liked the leopard and felt that he should know. 

"Okay so what? If I wear it you won't walk with me?”

“Oh I'll walk with you,” Tom said, taking my suitcase, “Right into a coat store.”
Sure that's all they took? 

Out in New York: Dinner and a Musical

This post is a bit past due, but I still wanted to share photos from our day-after anniversary (mostly because I am now obsessed with VSCO cam and have a new iPhone). We spent the actual day eating homemade pho with Minh and Paul, which was more romantic than you'd think.
As a surprise for Tom, I got rush tickets for $42 each because actual tickets for this Tony-award winner are quite unaffordable. I texted this photo to Tom and said, "Tonight!" 
We began with small bites and a bottle of wine (we are now incapable of drinking anything less) at Briciola, an intimate and very mildly priced find in the theater district. 
Often, the hardest part of our days. 
 "Where are all your 'ho dresses?" Tom asks. "I gave them up when I started to date you." Though looking at this photo, I agree, I really must stop dressing like a librarian. 
If you ever wonder if a pile of goat cheese submerged in tomato sauce and olive oil and basil tastes good, the answer is a very loud and forceful "Yes." 
"Wait," I said to Tom's patient hands, "Let me get this photo first." (Not pictured: rolling eyes). Recommended: the tagliatelle bolognese. Not recommend: the lamb. 
And lastly, showtime! I think the only other musical I laughed as loudly in was Monty Python. 
Essential info:
370 W 51 St
New York, NY 10019
(646) 678-5763

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 W 48th St
New York, NY 10036
Order tickets here (or do same day rush, as I did, and get pretty good balcony seats!).

Anniversaries: My Mother's Take

Leaving the theater on Wednesday night, I checked my phone and saw that my mother had called during the show. She left a message:

"Zhen Bao," she sang her Chinese nickname for me, which translates almost directly to "Precious Treasure" (why are you smirking - I am.) "It's been such a long time since we've talked. How are things? Good with you and Mr. Tom? Call me back when you have time."

Back at Tom's, I went downstairs to return the call.

She was at Costco with my father. I could picture the cart filled with bulk sized boxes of oatmeal and bags of whole wheat toast, a rotund watermelon rocking from side to side, and a prickly pineapple poking a bunch of large bananas for their morning smoothies, which my father makes for not just my mother, but my aunt and uncle too. They come each morning to do flexibility and strength exercises with my mom, and after, everyone sits down to eat the breakfast my father prepares. A morning routine revolving around love and gratitude.

"How is everything?" my mother asked.

"Great, great, really good," I said, "We just came back from a musical, and yesterday, we had dinner with friends. It was our one year anniversary yesterday!"

"Oh!" My mother laughed, and repeated this to my father.

"One year," he snorted, "so what."

"One year!" my mother said, and I thought she would follow it with a congratulatory, "That's wonderful!" and between the brightly lit aisles of the Yorba Linda Costco, the one I'd practically grown up in, begin to dispense some motherly wisdom about the year ahead.

Instead, I heard bemusement in her voice.

"What's the big deal about one year? It's not like you're married."

I was taken aback and began to say something. Nowadays, it was a big deal! Didn't she know people broke up left and right and who says marriage was the only big deal because hadn't she been there on the other end, when I called a year ago to say, "We're officially 'boyfriend' and 'girlfriend!'?" (Though revisiting that moment now I recall she had also laughed lightly). And, whenever I'd called to seek advice or complain about something, hadn't she always said, "Calm yourself and be thankful, be positive," because she knew her relationships - not just with my father - flourished because she focused on the good? And didn't she know that in this world of fickle feelings and broken promises and flakes and liars and cheaters it's always a big deal to find yourself happy in a good relationship? Even if it had only been a year or month or day?

But I had barely began to sputter when I sensed her attention drift away. She was now asking my father if he had remembered to get those bagel thins she liked so much. You know, the ones that she toasted each afternoon and topped with a fried egg?

I heard my father, her husband of thirty-four years, say, "Yeah, I got them. What else do we need?"

She must have made a gesture, or they must not have needed much; her voice turned back to me.

"Well, we're going to go check out now," She said, and laughed again, "But I'm glad you two enjoyed your 'anniversary.' Tell Mr. Tom we said hello."

I sighed, feeling childish, but said that I would. We hung up.

I sat on the big squashy couch - the one Tom threatens to bring with him if, sometime in the future, we find ourselves sharing an apartment (another big deal!) - and pictured my parents, who've I've never heard utter the words "Happy Anniversary" to each other or say anything else remotely romantic in the conventional sense ("I love you," "You complete me," "What would I do without you, Honey Buns,"). I pictured them strolling through Costco on a Wednesday evening, their 1,768th Wednesday evening together as husband and wife. I saw them walking side by side behind the large cart filled with large items. They were not holding hands - my father doesn't do that - but were instead connected by happy anniversaries, thirty-eight and counting.

Loving Couples Dimly Two by Two*

It was our anniversary yesterday and I had given Tom the actual day to plan something and taken the Wednesday after for myself (we are going to Briciola, a wine bar, and watching "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" at the Walter Kerr Theater).

Then, on Sunday night he said, "Minh and Paul invited us over for Pho on Tuesday."

He brought it up casually as though it was a passing observation rather than a suggestion, but we both knew it was a suggestion.

"It's our anniversary," I said.

"I know what day it is," Tom said.

Neither of us, however devoted to the idea of "us" we were (I unabashedly place more emphasis on birthdays and special occasions than he does), would ever feel it natural to turn down anything Paul cooks. It is always that good.

"Okay, let's go."

The hostess with the mostest. 
Tom, hungry for pho, grows despondent. 
"He'll have to wait a little longer," says Chef Paul. 
The final product, with vibrant garnishes and cat chopsticks. 
Discussing "Gone Girl." The guys just didn't get it. 
After dinner whiskey and an HBO comedy special. 
*The title, from a Henry Green book, stuck with me. I didn't even read the book but saw it while paging through it in class. I was pretending to search for the passage the professor was referring to.

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