Empire State


midtown from downtown

I was out with my friend Frankie the other night. It was just the two of us after a show, which was itself after a party, so it was more-or-less the inevitable time just before you call it quits and find a cab home. We were at a bar. Some Williamsburg special with cut up playing cards festooning the tables. It wasn’t our first choice, but it was out of the cold and we could hear ourselves over the pulse of the jukebox.

“One day, I’m going to miss this,” Frankie told me. It was a thought that had come to him the night previous while walking home in Bayside, so late it was morning. It wasn’t, he explained, just a thought that struck him because he was walking home or because of the train ride before that (or the midnight movie before that); instead it was a strange awareness that passed over him, a pre-emptive nostalgia for being young and in New York. A knowledge that some day all of this will be over.

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I don't remember what this is called.

A work in progress: one of the last meals Mom ever made. I’d gotten…whatever this is because I thought it looked cool. She thought I was an idiot.

Mom never cooked with measuring cups, or really any tools that told her how much of anything she was using. And diligently, I’ve more or less inherited her style.

My brother-in-law took me grocery shopping on Saturday. We spent 200 USD and the fridge at this apartment was full for the first time I can remember. He seemed astounded by it all but, admittedly, it was at my instigation. This was the way I used to live: shopping happened every couple of weeks and it was for a family of five. A full house, if you will.

I guess I forget that now it’s just the three of us, and we’ve been eating most of our meals outside the home.

Which means I usually eat garbage. While it’s something you think you’re aware of, it struck home again that eating and eating well are such a privilege: food and time are both money.

But I’ve been fortunate enough to have the time lately, and, thanks to my sister’s job, have the purchasing power to buy soybean paste and fresh noodles, fruit and dark greens.

So I’ve been trying to remember what I know (knew?) about cooking. Like I said, I’ve inherited my mother’s style, but I can’t actually remember all that she taught me. And by that I don’t mean just her recipes or any specific dishes, but the things that I learned without her speaking: how her kitchen varied wildly from efficient to scatterbrained; how we used to eat burned meat because she was checking her email and not the stove.

I do wish I remembered more of her recipes. Not really the fancy stuff, but the simple things I sort of vaguely recall from when I was a kid and she’d make dinner for us after coming home from work. She never showed me these things really: there was always time. It wasn’t like either of us were going anywhere.

Strangely, even though I associate most of the cooking with Mom, I think my sister and I learned more specific things from Dad. Mom didn’t suffer fools in her kitchen, but Dad enjoyed teaching us: it meant he didn’t actually have to do any of the foot work. Instead, he could direct us around while we did all the chopping and stirring. That was probably actually the ideal food prep experience for him.

So it’s Dad I remember whenever I make fried rice, following his orders as he (figuratively) stands behind my shoulder and advises me on how much oyster sauce I should use. For Mom it’s more a measure of capturing her spirit. She was an infinitely pragmatic cook: always adapting to circumstance and incorporating new tricks. And even when she found a recipe, she never followed it exactly.

So I’ve been trying to find Mom while I have a fridge full of things to practice on and two or three other people who are forced to eat my results. So far, it’s going well. Most meals have been frankensteined from what I remember and a quick glance online to see what other people are doing. Using this method, I’m proud to report that I have not accidentally perpetrated a poisoning.

I’m sure, at least, that my parents would be proud of that much.

A Brooklyn Adventure

"Make art?" You've got the right idea, old newspaper bin at a random Bushwick gas station.

“Make art?” You’ve got the right idea, old newspaper bin at a random Bushwick gas station.

I went down to Brooklyn last night to hang with the J-Bird, because I haven’t seen him since the end of the school year when we were both strung out on stress and a myriad of other, less tangible things; he maybe even more than I.

The original plan was to head down to SummerScreen in McCarren Park to maybe watch The Goonies or maybe not watch The Goonies (J-Bird doesn’t like The Goonies…can you even imagine?), but I’m a moron who can’t get on the right train, apparently. And getting anywhere in Brooklyn is always needlessly involved. So by the time we entered the park the ground was completely covered in a blanket of Brooklynites sitting on bedsheets and newspapers, beer and picnic spreads within reach.

We stayed for a while anyway: no one minding that we were shouting over the dulcet chords of Hector’s Pets because everyone else was also there to shout over the band and just hang with each other. I should have gotten a picture of that I guess, the crowd of people and a movie screen that was about as big as a thumbnail in the distance, but I often forget to take pictures when I’m around J-Bird. It’s a thing.

We ended up leaving for Bushwick pretty early on, anyway. One of the previews was completely in French and my companion couldn’t tell because he couldn’t hear so…

I’m writing this, by the way, under the assumption that no one I met last night will ever read this, and by and large I feel that this is a valid assumption. Internet: don’t fail me now.

Anyway. In J-Bird I’ve found someone who navigates very much like myself. We both use the Google Maps app like it’s a game of hot and cold, staring at our dots to see if they’re going in the right direction and doubling back more often than not. We miss turn-offs and subway stops and always find the most convoluted way to trace our steps back. If I weren’t us, I’d be worried about us.

I’m worried about us.

Eventually, we did make it to Bushwick. And I think I may have fallen in love with that neighborhood. J-Bird’s cousin bumped into us by the food carts, which in retrospect isn’t that surprising considering we were just outside the L stop,  and he now makes three people I know who work at the same tech start-up. Obviously, this is a sign from the gods; I’m just not sure what it’s indicative of yet.

We walked together on the shuttered streets: houses cluttered against warehouses littered against stores with their doors and windows locked away tight. It’s dark down there, compared to Manhattan. Compared even to when I’m the only one walking down Mott at three in the morning. Sparser, when you move away from the main roads. And maybe the street lamps even carry more of an amber hue, diffusing their light more dimly in the darkness.

J-Bird and his friends found a really nice place. A two-story walk-up with white siding and a mural of a girl despairingly turning her face up at the light pollution sky pasted all down one side of it. Her face looms along a rooftop balcony that looks out onto the tracks of the M train, elevated high above the streets.

The house itself was full of crazies when I got there. J-Bird and our friend (and one of his roommates) the Philosopher were already confirmed as mild-mannered sociopaths, but I finally met the third of their trifecta and now I understand the dynamic. I met a dancer with no inhibitions: not even the ones that are instinctual and are never taught. I met a Russian girl who was almost unnervingly earnest, and taking time off to get her life together. I met another girl crashing in the living room on a futon who, by description, apparently was more married to her boyfriend than many husbands are to their wives, and a final sandy-haired boy I didn’t speak more than a dozen words to. He was fast asleep by some normal time: dead to our inconsiderate loudness.

New York is a vertical city. And I guess that’s true even when you’re way out of the way in a place where the highest structure is the subway. Because even then life happens on rooftops, where cigarettes are currency and conversation is smoke wafting away like so many words to the wind.

And so we laughed and spoke of many things. Music, obviously, because so many of us present straddled that weird divide of aesthetics and technology. But also of more obscure things. The Gospel of Thomas, where Jesus plays the part of a bodhisattva. Of monastic life and sweeper monks and the almighty janitorial service. Of what it means to want to create art for the rest of your life but having no idea yet what to do about it. And then came the lull when I watched the other girls dance: unselfconsciously sure of their bodies in a way that was at once completely foreign and also a reminder of what I’ve lost.

I’ll be fascinated to learn what everyone on that rooftop will become. It was a strange brew of the casual insincerity that I’ve become accustomed to and am an active participant in, of probing questions that were at once innocuous and unmasking, and of the sheer force of utter insanity packed into tight spaces.

I stayed late with them there. J-Bird saw me to the door in the small hours, a sloppy smile hanging crooked on his face. He’s always happier by the time I’m leaving, which always leaves me to ponder what kind of terms I’m on with him, as a friend. Whether he’s happy to or indifferent to see me. He promises we’ll hang out again, this summer. I hope so. J-Bird is chill. I want to get him to make music with me, but he seems to like the idea of the thing more than the thing itself. I respect that. I do that a lot, too. But I always want to make music with my friends. We’ll see.

He sent me off by telling me just to follow the M tracks until I got to a station, without indication of how far I would walk until I found one. Which was fine, because the unknowing leant generously to the eerie splendor of that evening. The huge, rusting stilts of the subway tracks bit into the pavement like the legs of some monolithic creature with the body of a segmented worm that snaked high above the streets. The B buses passed beneath it, their low-hanging maws scraping the pavement with screeches that echoed off of steel-shuttered storefronts. And from the sidewalk, the road blurred into a dystopic dreamworld of graffiti tags and solitary walkers, each going their own ways.

The path was interminable, and so was the wait for a late night train. I didn’t mind much: it was like walking in Blade Runner without the rain. It was like sitting in my own imagination. It was the infinite pleasure of seeing train tracks in the night, and not quite being sure where they lead.

Let’s Talk About Our Feelings

I can’t really keep it together right now, which is why I’m writing this. 

The hope, usually the hope, is to talk about these things to someone before they get to this point, but I guess the stupid truth is that it’s easier to tell everyone than just someone. Because these days, no one makes the choice to see me. Which is fine. I understand. If losing parents has taught me anything about my friends, it’s not to expect. Most of them are horrible with death. And I love them for it. I do. It’s fine. Except.

I just wish someone could say an impossible thing to me. I wish they could tell me that it would all go away. I want to be normal: that girl you actually like, who is not always sad and frustrated about everything, who is not inadvertently bitchy. I’m such a burden. I want to be someone who can work hard and never has to sleep or eat and never says the wrong thing. I’m trying, and I slip up, and I’m not her. I can never be her. And I think I might just be cementing my position as supremely not her by writing this.

I want someone to tell me that it’s not my fault, that it’s okay. But no one is going to do that anymore. I don’t get the reward system, too old for things like approval: achievement is expected, is adequate, is the default state of being. 

I want to know if my parents are proud of me. But I’ll never get to know that: not anymore. I want to know that it’s not my fault that they can’t be, that they aren’t here anymore. Please, I just want to talk to my mom again. I just want to see my mom the way she was before Dad died: before she got too thin. I can’t even remember what she looks like because my own traitorous brain won’t let me. Please if I could just see her in my mind when she’s not hurting. 

I want to know what my dad would think of me and what I’m doing with my life. I need his advice. I want him to help me with all these things I’m working on and tell me that everything is going to be okay, that I’ll be able to learn everything I’m trying to because everyone can learn it and that I’m just lazy for not understanding physics. Because it’s so simple. Everything’s so simple.

Please just make everything simple. I just want to understand why I feel so alone.



SoHo’s Skin

I want to capture the night before it slips away from me and becomes just another Friday in New York. They tore up Broadway, tonight, down in SoHo where the stores shuttered up early and tight. Friday’s usual victims were all just stepping out, all aflutter, clumping gorgeously in the streets with their high heels and blazers, pre-game faces on. But beyond them were great metal beasts, their maws tight against the ground as they chewed up the pavement, a layer of dust rising around them and blowing into the sidewalk. It swirled in the work lights hung low in the street, giving a blur to those holes punched in the darkness. I can’t quite capture what was ever so captivating, between the industry and the revelry, excess and renewal. But those great steel beasts giving Broadway a fresh skin of pavement drew attention to the scaffolding lining the streets, sometimes on both sides. It reminds me that this city is always changing, even if we don’t notice it at ground level, caught between sidewalks and skyscrapers, that it’s like a lizard that constantly sheds its skin. Let me remember that all things change around me, that they in turn change me.

Remembering Tiananmen

Photo from Tiananmen Square 1989: The People’s Movement (Photos) by The Epochtimes (click for source)

It’s June 4th again: the anniversary of the day tanks rolled into the Gates of Heavenly Peace.  That’s what “Tiananmen” means in Chinese.  Once a training ground for imperial soldiers and now one of the main tourist attractions in Beijing, twenty-four years ago this place became the epicenter of the most iconic massacre in contemporary Chinese history.  Over the years Communist leaders have softened language around this bloody day when they even mention it at all. In the West, there’s a common misconception that the events were purely the work of college students, a now-irrelevant generation.  In today’s China, the “June 4th Incident” or “June 4th Movement” is still heavily censored.  There is no commemoration.

This morning The Atlantic ran an article entitled “How China Made the Tiananmen Square Massacre Irrelevant” which enrages me.  I’m not disputing the content of the article.  I’m just angry because my life has been shaped in the shadow of the crackdown, even though I wasn’t even conceived until months later.  It isn’t irrelevant to me, and it shouldn’t be irrelevant to the international community or the Chinese nation itself.  The Party is making this irrelevant.  That’s wrong.

China in the eighties is a place that I know only from description.  From pictures of my older sister as a toddler, living with my grandparents.  It’s something I never learned from my father, as he left the country to pursue his PhD in Ohio in 1983, nor from my mother who followed a couple years later.  However, the fact that they could even leave the country was indicative of a larger change in Chinese society.  Then-leader Deng Xiaoping’s policies of “Reform and Opening up” meant students could start studying abroad, that economic policies went on the increasingly moderate track that have ultimately led to today’s diametric economy of foreign investment and extreme state control.  A family friend spent a car ride explaining to me once that it was during the 1980s when he finally heard Western classical music—even the Russians had been out of his reach before.  Another, a Chinese classmate of my parents’ at OU, described teaching English in Beijing as his carefree youth.

Exposure to new ideas is a hallmark of youth in this era, however they were by no means liberal times.  Professional opportunities were slim and largely unbalanced.  Political corruption was high, as was inflation. The citizenry had little voice in Party affairs and the Party, as it is today, existed mostly for its own interests.  Self-expression was limited, never mind political expression.  A few years ago, someone pointed out to me that there was still only a limited range of clothing available. If you look at photos of Beijing residents, white shirts and black slacks are the primary uniform of an urban male.  This cocktail of new ideas and discontents ignited into popular protests in April of 1989, with the death of Communist leader Hu Yaobang.

Hu was seen as a more reform-minded leader who was ousted by his hardline contemporaries in a political struggle centered around an earlier round of protests in 1986.  The day before his funeral, April 22nd, an estimated 100,000 students marched into Tiananmen Square.  Revolutionary fervor had ignited in Beijing, and the youth were once again instruments of change.  Student protesters formed organizations and their own leaders emerged. Similar protests in different cities turned into riots.  Sympathetic leader, Zhao Ziyang, urged a conciliatory attitude towards students.  He was pitted against hardliner Li Peng, who would go on to declare martial law in Beijing.

The discord of the events in May almost angers me to study or to think about.  This is the point where I want to scream. Don’t you understand that you’re writing history?   Why don’t you see that what you do has consequences for us all?  The struggle in the upper echelon of the Party was mirrored by the clamorous voices of students in the streets.  Protests weren’t enough: organized by student leader Chai Ling (who would, two decades later, controversially say she “forgives” the Party for its crackdown) hunger strikes began.  Protests continued even despite a visit from Soviet leader Gorbachev, which was seen as a huge embarrassment by the Party.  This coincidentally ensured that Western media were on the ground for the protests.  (It’s also noted that Gorbachev took this experience with him, and was very moderate when dealing with protests of his own.) With disorganization rampant in the students, conciliatory gestures by more moderate Party leaders were met with suspicion and discordant demands.  At the same time, the continuation of protests during the Gorbachev’s visit turned moderates within the Party conservative, and cemented the divide between China’s highest leaders: Deng and Zhao.

Zhao blinked first.  On May 20th, the day martial law was declared in Beijing, he would deliver the speech that would define his career as a politician, at the very end of it.  At closing in on five in the morning, Zhao spoke directly to students.  He was visibly moved.

“You are not like us, we are already old and do not matter. Now in your teens and early twenties you are sacrificing your lives!”  Did Zhao know how prophetic his words are?

For me, Zhao’s departure marks the point when events pile up and careen out of control.  For one thing, this wasn’t just a Beijing movement anymore.  By mid-May, the movement really picked up steam with protesters from across the country traveling to the capital, and more protests breaking out in hundreds of Chinese cities.  Critically, this included Shanghai, where Jiang Zemin, then a municipal official, was given the opportunity to shine.  With heavy-handed police action, a political purge, and total control of the local media he subdued his city.  Obviously, this was prime leadership material.  He would go on to destroy the lives of a hundred million people.

With the declaration of martial law, a first mobilization took place in Beijing.  Protesters thronged around tanks, preventing them from advancing.  A few days later, they made a withdrawal, but more trouble was brewing.  A total mobilization had been called, and military from all across China were on their way.

The numbers of protesters in and around Beijing are unknown specifically, but at their height it is believed that 1 million people were in and around the square.  Imagine the summer heat in Beijing.  It’s sweltering, I can contest to that.  So humid you can’t breathe. Imagine the pang of a week of hunger strikes.  Imagine the unorganized revolutionary fervor of youth: those one hundred schools of thought that sprang up and fought for of the bullhorn. Imagine, in the air, an impending tang of violence.  It’s there, and so is the weary disillusionment.  Sanitation and hygiene have become serious problems.  But compounded with that, there’s also a high of having “turned back” that first military tide.  The determination of wanting to hold the Square, a symbol of China from its dynastic period, Chairman Mao watching from overhead.

On June 2nd, the Party moved to clear the Square.  Tiananmen, it was decided, was to see…peace.

Events from here are again, complicated and tangled.  There are reports that military divisions were also preparing against internal attacks from other units, of a general who would only accept written orders to complete the violence.  But between June 3rd and 4th,  high estimates say 3,000 protesters and residents were killed.  You should know that any number from this point on is disputed.  In later years, accounts show that most of the violence took place in Beijing residential areas, where residents had set up barricades to stop the advance of tanks.  Eyewitnesses say that Beijing residents wanted to protect students.  They were rewarded with live bullets.  I am not inclined to believe the official account, which says that residents burned soldiers alive in their cars and threw molotov cocktails at them.  But again, there is confusion.  That isn’t to say there were no army casualties: there are reports of civilians reaching into tanks and beating soldiers to death.

Beijing residents gathered by broken barricades, wearing black armbands to show their defiance.  And in the smoke and darkness, rickshaw drivers carried away the wounded to safety, sometimes being shot themselves.  Roadblocks crushed, the military reached Tiananmen in the middle of the night.  They didn’t fire immediately, under orders to initially tell the remaining protesters to leave.  And those last protesters still there were divided: accept the military amnesty, or hold their ground.  In the small hours, they left.

Time Magazine (click for source)

There is debate about whether there was actually violence within the Square itself.  Conflicting contemporary reports say students were crushed by tanks and that soldiers unleashed indiscriminate fire, or that there was simply an empty standoff. Shooting happened in the aftermath: that is certain.  Live rounds were apparently fired at students who’d already left Tiananmen.  Anyone who tried to enter the Square the day after was shot, possibly in the back.  As they ran away.

The aftermath lives on.  We still feel Tiananmen.  Not just from a human rights aspect.  Tiananmen was a turning point for China.  The whole contemporary history of China could have changed here: those who fell from grace could have changed the course of history.  Most moderates, with the notable exclusion of Wen Jiabao, were out of the picture. Zhao Ziyang spent the last decades of life under house arrest, only emerging to play golf and attend funerals. Instead of Zhao, Deng Xiaoping picked Jiang Zemin to be his successor.  And he controls China’s hardline faction to this day, clinging to influence even over a decade after he left office.  His hands are scarlet with blood.  In 1999, it was under his direct order that the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners was declared.  I remember sitting around the dinner table at nine years old hearing about the first weeks of the persecution: clearly imbedded in my mind was the feeling of rice turning to lead in my stomach as my mother told me someone had died in police custody. So many have died since then.  People who I called auntie and uncle were thought for a period to be among that number. We lost contact with them for years while they were in labor camps. The sheer scale of persecution in China means that someone was friends with a Falun Gong practitioner.  Someone worked with a House Christian.  Someone’s mother lost her house, or her land.

This has shaped me.  I was on China’s blacklist before I even turned eighteen and I will be an activist until there is genuine change.  It’s ironic, because it was the Tiananmen crackdown that allowed for me to be born, an accidental second girlchild, because my mother could stay in the US.  She was on a student visa, which was, post-massacre, extended by an executive order from HW Bush.  (Note: this was after he killed a Dem-led bill to the same effect.)  I am a product of China as it is, someone who is for all intents and purposes an American girl, straddling the gulf of two cultures.  Someone who can never go home.

And so that it is today, I don’t just commemorate those who died.  I mourn the China that never was, the one that we lost in the smoke and the confusion.  Because “the revolution begins in the heart” and really, that’s something we can’t afford to lose.  Tiananmen has to stay relevant to show us the China that should have been.

Check this out.  Sign the petition.

2013 Commemoration in Victoria Park, Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters, retrieved from South China Morning Post (click for source)

Genius Loci and Jamais Vu


Neil Gaiman offering a little bit of inspiration up in here.  You’d think the solitude would make the words come to me more easily.  Untrue.  My greatest distraction has always been myself.  It’s how it always was: that blank page staring so accusingly, crushing your rosy dreams with its stark truth.  

My friend recently talked to me about the jamais vu phenomenon, which is best explained in relation to deja vu.  Deja vu is the feeling that you’ve been somewhere before, even though you’ve never actually been to that particular locale in your life.  But it’s not so much that the place is familiar to you seeing as the location is still alien. Rather it’s that the emotion it evokes from you, that rises like a treacherous serpent from your chest, is familiar.  Jamais vu is the opposite, sometimes more sinister phenomenon.  It’s when a familiar place suddenly seems foreign.

I’ll admit that it has come to me amicably.  Notably, on a clear, cloudless morning on my way to The Strand bookstore.  Union Square wasn’t its usual eyesore.  The farmers’ market blanketed the earth with its early harvest.  And the city didn’t feel like home suddenly, like my old stomping ground, but rather as a place wholly unfamiliar and utterly foreign.  It was amazing.  I should explain that I was suffering a great deal of wanderlust at the time.  For me, that morning was a chance to leave while my feet were still tied to the ground.  If I could bottle that feeling to take with me and give the world just a light spritz whenever I feel too stuck in one place, then maybe I wouldn’t have the urge to travel every few months: to tie up my scarf and roam like a nomad over the packed earth.

Still.  There are times when it’s not so pleasant.  Like my mother’s whole apartment after her passing.  All of its home-like qualities vanished, and an unnerving darkness settled there instead: as bleak as the River Styx.  It was clearly and irrevocably not ours anymore, or familiar except in surface.  If it weren’t, you know, actually sharing three walls with other people’s homes I would have wanted to torch that place to the ground.  When I’m writing, in the future, and I need a genius loci or two I will have a model for one that is wholly unpleasant to the point of being evil—not in the double double toil and trouble sense necessarily, but in the twisted sense of reality gone horribly, awfully wrong.  Of the world careening off axis.  Of the familiar becoming alien to the point of incomprehensible.  Jamais vu.

I have that feeling now, slightly, sitting on the floor I actually spend the majority of time at at school.  I’m technically working, actually.  It’s Friday night around ten o’clock and I am seriously wondering why I’m still here, seeing as it’s become abundantly clear to me this evening that no one else will be showing up.  And in the quiet stillness, there is a slight sense of jamais vu.  Not for any sinister reason, merely because in my mind, except for in the very, very early mornings, this floor is always packed.  At least one of the buchlas is always screaming like a theramin, music and AV clips are always leaking out of different studios, and there’s always a bunch of stupid undergrads like me with our feet blocking the aisle, cursing ourselves blue.  To be honest, it’s a bit unnerving not to have all of that.  It sounds kind of stupid but this place has been my bedrock this semester.  While I’ve been losing my last parent and burning my childhood and leaving home, it’s been kind of constant. Unwaveringly alive.  To feel alone here is foreign.

Nothing like a little jamais vu to spice up your Friday night.