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Rain Drops on Roses

January 28, 2013

in this i believe

One of my favorite movies, as cliche as a cliche can be, is indeed The Sound of Music. I often thought to myself, “I should start a list of ‘My Favorite Things’ just so I could remember the little things in life, the fleeting moments, the silly indulgences, that make the sun shine, that remind me what it feels like to be free and alive.”

I should clarify that these are the things that demarcate the “me moments”. I guess this is ultimately a selfish list… These moments insulate me from the outside world, everything that is Not-me. They suck the air out of the space around me and create a vacuum that is almost imperceptible (except, of course, if this were literal, I’d be gagging for air. Duh.) Do you know the feeling you get when you put on a pair of noise cancellation headsets and you switch the noise cancellation voodoo magic on before you turn on the music? There is an indescribable (to me but probably not to somebody like Raymond Carver) yet tangible texture of tranquility, of emptiness in that split second.

To put it plainly, these are the moments that make it easier for me to imagine I am a heroin in an aimless, plotless European art-house movie, wandering the cobblestone streets looking for discarded playing cards appearing in random corners.

1. French bread sticking out from a paper grocery bag. ha ha.
2. Stomping in puddles in my rain boots
3. Burrowing myself into a pile of towels or bed sheets fresh from the dryer on a cold dreary day
4. Flowers sitting on my kitchen table. Or the idea of it since I seldom buy flowers…
5. A good book (or my Kindle) and a cup of tea or coffee
6. The sound of rain
7. The smell and fluffiness of freshly laundered plush 100% Egyptian towels
8. The scene in The Sound Of Music when Maria teaches the children to sing “My Favorite Things”
9. Toblerone
10. Falling into a perfectly made bed when I check into a hotel on a business trip
11. A bath surrounded by lit candles. Alone.
12. Hanging out at the Starbucks in the Metra train station with my laptop on Saturday mornings
13. Pathétique by Tchaikovsky, especially the 4th movement. No multi-tasking. Simply, listening.
14. December by George Winston. ibid.
15. Brushing my hair with long, calming strokes that are disturbingly similar to creepy brush strokes seen in scary movies
16. The feeling of my hair against my back when I tilt my head back
17. Lying inside a patch of sunshine coming through the window on the floor
18. Bench seat at a bay window
19. The delicate fragrance of flowers from a tea olive shrub
20. A piece of black forest cake, of course, at a quiet corner inside a darkened cafe. No ants.
21. A cup of tea on fancy china, with proper cup and saucer
22. Full moon that looks monstrously huge
23. Any moment when I am alone yet not lonely

This would be a laundry list that never finishes, kind of like my laundry in real life. Many more little things will be remembered and designated as a favorite thing only if I become self-aware and consciously register my enjoyment of it. That designation itself is fleeting for I will also need to remember to add it to this list. #FirstWorldProblem I know. This exercise has been good for my soul though as I walked through the minutes and hours today forcing myself to dig deep into the recess of my memory for the forgotten, precious moments that made me exclaim silently, “I am so glad I am alive.” Another #FirstWorldProblem yes. But you don’t live inside my head so please don’t judge too harshly my neurosis.

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I know that I suffer from a severe case of liberal guilt and that’s why I don’t think I can truly relax in places where there is a clear demarcation, often times physically, between the privileged and the underprivileged. You can accuse me of being a hypocrite if you want. I would not know how to defend myself. So there. 

I am in Shanghai now on a business trip. I never feel truly comfortable when I am in China because people mistake me easily for a local (I can fake a Beijing accent when speaking Chinese vs. my natural, Taiwanese-accented Mandarin Chinese) and yet they could tell that there is something off about me. They’d ask me where I am from. When I explained that I grew up in Taiwan and now live in the US, inevitably there would be lots of questions about the comparisons between Taiwan and China, the US and China, and the topic always leads to, uncomfortably at least for me, how I have a much better life.

“You went to good school.” They’d conclude with regret or longing or something in their voice, if the person I’m speaking to is from outside of the upper-middle class.

The hotel I am staying in provides massage services until 2 am. It sounded like an awesome idea: travelers with jet lags will LOVE to be able to get a massage when they have trouble going to bed anyway. So I called the extension and booked a 60-minute acupressure massage session in my room.

“So where are you from?” My masseuse asked as she tried to figure out in which direction I should lie on the bed. I was still confused because she had come in with nothing. Where’s the oil? The lotion? The blanket? The towel?

“Taiwan? Wow. It must be a lot nicer over there.” I tried to deflect the conversation by suggesting that people love coming to China nowadays because of the opportunities.

“More opportunities?”

“Yeah, you know. More land. More people…” My voice trailed off as I backed myself into a corner. Sure enough, she told me that she’s not from here. “We came from [another province].” Instinctively, I understood that she’d meant “we, the masseuses working at this hotel”. She was here, like many other migrant workers from rural China, by herself leaving behind two children and aging parents.

She told me about the farms back home, how before she got married at 23 she was already considered to be an old spinster, how massages were unheard of because god forbid if the neighbors got wind that either you got a massage from a man or you gave a man a massage.

She said that she wished she could visit Taiwan some day. I suggested jokingly that perhaps she should visit other places before Taiwan if she ever has a chance. “But when will I have a chance to visit another country? It costs so much!” I simply forgot how much it costs to travel, to fly on an airplane overseas. My plane tickets to Shanghai cost almost $2000 USD, which translates roughly into 4 months of her wages if she works every single day.

Finally came the question I dreaded the most, “How much are you paid over in the US?” (Yes, people do ask you this question sometimes.)

I gave a lame response of how salaries may be higher in the US but our costs of living are higher and also we have to pay more taxes. Lots more. She didn’t seem to mind my not answering her question.

“I am paid 100 yuan a day. I did so many massages today but I will still get 100 yuan.”

I was surprised. And embarrassed somehow. In my panic, I also wished that I had pretended to speak no Chinese. Then I felt extremely guilty and ashamed of myself.

“You know, you are smart [why’s she so sure of that?] and you went to good school [ibid]. Me? I don’t know how to do anything. No skills. No brains.” She said, matter-of- factly.

Fortunately for me our conversation veered off when she got to my derrière. She said jokingly, “You look so thin but oh your [backside] is so big!” I was not offended the least because I was so relieved.

“Hey. That’s what they call Son-bearing hip, ok? All the grandmothers loved me when I was young. They know I’d be popping out boy babies.”

“Oh, my butt is huge too.”

We bonded over son-bearing hips. And thick thighs. Yes, once I turned to lie on my back, she was surprised by how “there is no meat on your face”. She proceeded to wonder out loud how it’s possible that I could have such thick thighs since my arms and my mid region looked great. I wanted to hug her for the compliments. These were sincere and not backhanded at all.

By the end of the session, I had determined to give her a great tip even though tipping is a complex matter in China. Yes, hotel workers cater to Westerners may have come to expect tips, most Chinese are not accustomed to it. Some people actually resent the thought that “foreigners are training workers in China to expect tips from all”.

“I don’t have the exact change. How about you bring these to them and keep the change. Will they let you keep the change?”

She looked utterly confused. “Don’t you have exact change?”

“No. I am sorry. That’s what I meant though: go downstairs with the money, and keep the change. If I give you these bills, will the change go to you at all?”

“Oh no. No. They’ll never give me the change.”

“Ok, here’s what you are going to do: Give them the bills. Tell them I asked you to bring the change up to me. But then just go home.”

Now she looked scared. “They may catch me leaving with the money… I will bring the money to your room.”

As she hurried out, it dawned on me that this might not have been the best idea because what was I trying to prove? What was I trying to do to this poor woman so I could feel better about myself?

A knock on my door.

“Hi. Good evening. Here’s your change back.” Standing there, holding out the money was not my masseuse but a better-dressed, more cosmopolitan-looking young woman.

Somehow I was not surprised. Of course they wouldn’t allow her to bring the change back to me. I was saddened, imagining my masseuse’s disappointment caused by me.

Why did I try to meddle in somebody’s life?

Another knock on my door.

“Oh, I was so scared! Did she bring you your change?” Now she’s embarrassed. “I just want to make sure that you’ve got your change. They told me that I could leave. So I made a turn when nobody’s looking and came upstairs.”

Giving someone a tip should not made either the giver or the receiver feel as if they’re having an illicit affair. I was really upset at “them” by this time. The irony did not escape me of course.

Her eyes widened as I pushed the change into her hand. “What are you doing? You are nuts.”

“Well, you know. I used a coupon and I think you the person who did all the work should enjoy this reward and not me.”


It’s now past 3 am here. I am not sleepy at all. I don’t know what I am trying to say by recounting my encounter with my impotent conscience.

Maybe I am hoping that one of you will call me out on it as an atonement.


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July 25, 2012

in therapy in session

Before she started telling you the story, she would have said, before anything else, “This journal entry has a happy ending.”

The red light on her phone was blinking. Somehow she’d missed a phone call when she knew that nobody would be calling her. Not on her cell anyway. Her husband was out of the country, her children only TXT now, and her mother would only call the landline (because she’d never bothered to give her her cellphone number) and always when it was way past bedtime (because figuring out time zone difference becomes a lot harder once day light savings time change is (not) taken into account)

The unfamiliar number shown had the local area code. With smart phones nowadays our relationship is discreetly judged by whether you show up as a name (from Contacts) or as a mere phone number. The persistent blinking red light indicated that the person had left a voice mail. She was annoyed. Really. Who in this day still leaves voice mails? She dreads checking her voicemails on the very few occasions when some un-indoctrinated people leave them. The problem is they never ever come out clear. Press 1 to repeat the message. Press 1 to repeat. Press 1. Often she ends up pressing 7, reasoning that if the message is important enough, the person will surely call back.

It was a call from some doctor’s office but she could not make out which. She did not think twice when she missed another call from the same number later that day. The call showed up as a mere number and therefore automatically deprioritized. Funny how stupid her logics sound in hindsight.

She jumped when her phone suddenly rang in the midst of the somber silence as she and her children huddled in front of the television, watching the retelling of the horror in Aurora, CO, unfold.

Hello. You need to go in for a follow-up. It’s probably nothing. But we just want to make sure. They noticed something… that looked… calcification…

She held her breath and blinked. She’d forgot about the mammogram the day before.

The doctor wants you to schedule an appointment with the hospital right away and she will fax the order in. Call me right back and let me know the time.

She knew that the doctor’s office was concerned when they waited to hear from her. She went back to sit in front of the television at first as if she had just received a phone call from a telemarketer. The chaos on the screen made her comment out loud how fragile life is.


She remembered the call and what it could possibly mean. She wanted to cry.

What if? No… It can’t be, right? No way this is happening to me. Maybe I should be freaking out now? She asked herself. Let’s see how good I really am at compartmentalizing.

She shook her head violently. Stop thinking about it! There is nothing you can do about it except waiting until Monday morning.

When her mind immediately, out of habit, presented silver linings to the worst case scenario, “I can finally quit my job!” I am such a fucking idiot, she chastised herself, ashamed and worried that if her friends who had fought and survived knew this was her first thought, they’d be offended by how she’s trivializing the whole thing. It’s not a fucking excuse! This is no child’s play. For some people, this is real. Too many people actually.

She shook her head violently. Stop thinking about it! There is nothing you can do about it.

She did not tell anybody about the phone call. In fact, by Monday, she herself had forgot about the follow-up appointment and almost missed it. She woke up late on Monday morning because for three nights she stayed up channel surfing. She cried through Brideshead Revisited.

At the hospital, the technician made her stay for the result. Just in case he needs to see something more, she said.

When she pulled her book out from the purse, she felt guilty for not feeling anything. Maybe I should cry, she wondered, what’s the proper behavior at a moment like this? When the radiologist walked into the gowned waiting room and called her husband’s name, she was startled by how scholarly he looked. Almost bookish. Like a professor. He blurted out even before their hands parted, “Everything looks fine,” and smiled. “I didn’t want you to walk down the hallway wondering.”

The humid air rushed into her lung when she pushed open the heavy door to the garage. Her breath suddenly caught in her throat. She fled into the car and shut the door before the violent tears came.

You are such an idiot, she murmured.

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