Hey there, I'm Jimin.

Your little dosage of everything and anything.

Journey to the South

We left Princeton on the cold, cold morning of the 25th. Several hours later, we were in Durham, North Carolina, where we stayed with a wonderful woman with six cats and an insane piano; several days in, we walked by the bittersweet pastel homes of Charleston, South Carolina, before meandering below the sprawling embrace of Spanish moss in Savannah, Georgia.

Our ten day trip to the South was an interesting mix of moments both happy and troubling. In the evenings we would cook haphazard ‘international’ cuisine — like bibimbab or pre-packaged Thai curry — and eat ice-cream straight from the tub as we talked or watched TV. In the daytime, we explored neighborhoods that were at once quaint and somewhat eerie, not least because of the slave history that haunts many of Charleston and Savannah’s streets.

Amidst the colourful façades of the townhouses along the Battery in Charleston, for instance, we learnt about the slaves who ran these homes; at Drayton Hall, an old plantation, we walked the grounds wondering how the traces of slavery had all but disappeared (the old barracks had been torn down for reasons not fully explained); and in an indoor ex-slave market we experienced narratives of the harsh conditions many faced as they trudged in chattels down to the South.

It’s fitting that February happens to be Black History Month. As someone who grew up in an ethnically homogenous environment, I’d never been exposed to black culture before coming to live in the US. I didn’t know what ‘soul food’ was, nor the significance religion has in many black communities. Historically speaking, slavery was also something I’d thought about in Brazil, but never really delved into; still today, I can’t grasp the gravity of the pain caused by forced displacement and harsh labour to people who did nothing to deserve it.

Still today, I have a lot left to learn about the African influence in the US — but I’m grateful that I had the chance to experience a small part of it on my trip to the South.

(Recently, I’ve been experimenting with keeping my pieces more succinct… and I’ll try to make this one such experiment.)

***

Ten days later, what remain with me?

  • The significance of religion and community. On our Sunday morning in Charleston, we attended a service held at the Mother Emanuel AME church — the site of the tragic Charleston shooting in 2015, where nine churchgoers died after being shot by a white supremacist. Being in that space, albeit as an outsider, was incredibly moving. As it was incidentally the birthday of Susie Jackson, one of the victims, there was a special liturgical dance performed by young members of the congregation. By the end of it, many were in tears; one particular dancer had to be chaperoned off stage. I found it difficult, and amazing, to think about how the congregation continues to worship in the same space even after what happened.

    In Savannah, we visited the First Baptist Church, a significant site for African American churchgoers— and allegedly part of the Underground Railroad. We visited the Pin Point community, the birthplace of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, and not only learnt about its crab and oyster businesses but also the strong community values — often strengthened by religion — that makes it what it is. Observing all of this made me question my engagement with my own spirituality, and has inspired me to seek out spiritual spaces back on campus.

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    Murals at Pin Point.

  • The eerie shadow of what isn’t said. Cities like Charleston and Savannah (and perhaps Durham, although we didn’t stay for long) are haunted with a troublesome past. Yet in many spaces we felt like the reality of the slave trade was glossed over, if not ignored: on our tour of the Drayton Hall grounds, for example, more time was spent talking about the design of the house ceiling than the working conditions of the slaves who were owned by the Drayton family. As mentioned earlier, the slave barracks no longer exist; when asked why, our guide told us that the Draytons were ‘big recyclers’.

    Later, the operations manager of the Old Slave Mart Museum in downtown Charleston would tell us that there are still many spaces that fail to fully confront the region’s slave history. I wonder when, if at all, this will change… and also what significance slave history has here at Princeton, and whether or not we gloss over it more than we should.

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    Drayton Hall on an overcast day.

  • Southern food. Now I get it. Many a BuzzFeed video later, I finally tried the dense, gooey, butteriness of Southern soul food — and survived to tell the tale. The very first time we ate soul food, we ate at a roadside establishment named Martha Lou’s Kitchen where we were served huge portions of fried chicken, mac and cheese, lima beans, bread pudding, and the like. Suffice to say, we couldn’t eat more Southern food for the next two days. Biscuits and cornbread were a hot commodity on our trip, and grits became a thing towards the end. I ate okra for what felt like the first time since Brazil, and it was interesting to see how African cuisine feeds in to food in the South. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it a lot.

***

There are a lot more stories to tell: the eclectic hosts of our Airbnbs, the friendliness of convenience store clerks, the long walks, the long drives (and even longer podcasts). But I’ll leave the photos to illustrate more of that.

(Note: hyperlinks are included for reference only.)

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Reading Period Made Human

Back in high school, I remember writing a blog post during my final exams about the art of keeping perspective.

“What I’ve tried to do over this exam period is balance my obligations as a student with my want to be involved with something greater in this world. I’ve ‘studied’, yes, but more than that I’ve read, I’ve sketched, I’ve painted, I’ve watched movies and I’ve written poetry. It not only kept me sane, but kept me rooted to the reality that’s more ‘me’ than a number will ever be. And it honestly made all the difference.”

In retrospect, it feels a little too cloying and clichéd to be half as profound as I originally intended it to be. Yet on the night before all my fall semester work is due, I find myself reflecting upon my first reading period here at Princeton and thinking about what has kept me ‘rooted’.

With that I present: Reading Period Made Human (Fall 2017 Edition).

***

Exhibit A: walking through snow-laden landscapes and getting my companions to stand in the deep parts. Commending myself once again for the wise purchase of a pair of duck boots during Thanksgiving’s Black Friday sale.

***

Exhibit B: seeing my pen-pals. This past week has been a crazily serendipitous one as far as snail mail correspondences go: on Monday I visited Hailey in her hometown and drove up the driveway where my letters have been arriving for the past 3 years; on Tuesday I received a visit from Vlad, the pen-pal I’ve been corresponding with since 2013 and have never (!) met before. Incidentally, we passed the student mailboxes on our campus tour and found that Vlad’s latest letter had arrived just in time.

***

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Exhibit C: long walks. I’ve been trying to get back to the 10,000 steps-a-day game after coming back and, despite the cold, it’s been working out. I walked to Lake Carnegie and got to see it in a semi-frozen state, just in time for the 5PM sunset.

***

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Exhibit D: my roommates won’t be too happy about the fact that I’ve shared this photo with the Internet, but this evening was a gem. I exposed the inhabitants of Campbell 28 to the wonder of Korean face masks and we spent the next half hour doing a meditative ‘study break’ at 11PM. Suffice to say, the night was long.

***

“The thing they say about how the IB is a two-way choice between sleep, social life and academics? Lies, all lies! It just depends on your attitude, that’s all (and how many sweet potatoes you have lying around at home).”

I’d say something similar about Princeton, but that’d be a little contrived; all I’ll admit is that I’ve been sleeping a little less than I should be. There were sweet potatoes for dinner at one of the dining halls on Thursday, however, and I’m pretty sure that made all the difference.

Vignettes from Home

I. You survive an excruciatingly long plane ride. The cat has come to pick you up, along with the sister you haven’t seen in almost two years. Get into the car, hands frozen stiff, and wait as your parents try to figure out the impossible Jenga game of mismatched suitcases occurring in the trunk.

II. The first thing you do upon returning home is eat. Unsurprisingly, it is a recurring theme throughout the next two weeks. There’s 감자탕 (spicy potato stew) the first night, your mom’s special 닭볶음탕 (chicken stew) the second night, the ten-kilo box of 고구마 (sweet potatoes) in the guest room, the bowlfuls of kimchi that accompany almost every meal. You can’t remember the last time your entire family sat around the same dining table to share a meal.

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아빠 with his bowl of noodles

III. Each day bleeds into the next so seamlessly you lose track of the days. In the mornings you walk 엄마 to the metro station and, soon after, accompany 아빠 to work. On your solitary walk back home, you half-listen to people warble in Spanish through your barely noise-reducing earphones or, more frequently, to your own meandering thoughts.

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The walk home

IV. Just before you make the turn into your apartment complex, you see a sliver of a brown-bricked hillside neighbourhood further down the road. You can’t help but be reminded of where you were a year ago: in the summer heat of Salvador, growing plants and dancing and talking to the neighbours in a place that looked exactly like the view. You take a photo for your homestay mom, who messages you Christmas day to tell you she still thinks about you when she eats sweet potatoes for breakfast.

IV. You and your sister pass some of the many hours at the gym. One time you decide to try her weights on the deadlift and spend the following week wishing you hadn’t.

V. So much and so little happen every day. You visit your mom at work. You visit your dad at work (and stand outside the building eating freshly bade 붕어빵, red-bean filled waffles shaped like fish) and listen as your dad tells you — for what feels like the hundredth time — that it is cold and you should put on your gloves. You go window shopping with your sister, then spend the evenings curled up in bed binge-watching YouTube or finally reading books for leisure. Every once in a while you meet up with a friend and stroll through neighbourhoods familiar and unfamiliar. In the evenings, the family takes excursions in the car to go grocery shopping. You go to bed without setting an alarm.

VI. On Christmas Day, you make a reservation at the restaurant where you worked over the summer. It is an evening full of such warmth and good company that you emerge from the restaurant, stomach full from churrasco and feijoada, feeling a trembling kind of over-happiness in the heart. It is always a wonderful feeling when two worlds you hold dear — be it that of your family at home, and your family at work — collide so serendipitously.

 

VII. On New Year’s Eve, you go to 광하문 with your parents to listen to the ringing of the New Year bells… only to realize that a neighbouring political rally is so loud the bells are barely audible. You think about the cacophony of 2017, when you welcomed the new year kneeling in an Evangelical church listening to people shout and pray out loud. You tell your parents you’re still glad you came, and together you walk all the way home.

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VIII. It is the first day of your last week at home and, incidentally, it is also the first day of the New Year. As this winter break comes to a close, the quantitative side of your mind asks you to think about what you’ve done.

The answer: not much. It is then the qualitative side of your mind steps in, puts a hand on your shoulder and says: that’s fine. This is what it means to come home. It’s quiet. Slow. Nothing, and everything, happens at once.

The Economy of Silence

“Don’t tell me things I already know.” — somewhere in Tove Jansson’s Fair Play 

Yesterday, I thought a lot about silence.

It began in my comparative literature lecture, in which we discussed Swedish-speaking Finnish writer (cum graphic artist) Tove Jansson’s Fair Play: a short yet brilliantly rich novel that features quiet vignettes illustrating the relationship between its protagonists. One of the defining elements of the book is a profound silence that punctuates the characters’ conversations: there are no filler words, no stock conversations, no needless how are yous. In their stead you find utterances that sometimes make no sense when uttered alone, but that are understood nonetheless; conversations laced with emotions one rarely finds in trite conversation, like disappointment, frustration, exhaustion; and small, but heroic, moments of choosing not to speak when speaking is an option.

Because — oh boy! — is speaking an option.

One thing I’ve come to realize, and detest, but nevertheless internalize, is that small talk comes part and parcel with life here in the USA. As someone who generally doesn’t like awkward silences or hellos left unsaid, I’ve found it to a culture not too foreign to what I’m used to. Yet this also means that how are you? is a question that slips so naturally past my tongue, even when I know what’s next in the script: I’m good, how are you? 

And that’s exactly what Tove Jansson opposes in Fair Play: the incessant tendency for people to follow and verbalize ‘the script’, even when it is clearly a chore for all parties involved. Instead, she argues that it is worthwhile to choose silence when there is a mutual agreement between parties, and that practicing the economy of silence is an act of generosity, of giving “artistic, intellectual and emotional space” (my lecturer’s beautiful words) to those who need it.

“There are empty spaces that must be respected — those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.” — somewhere else in Tove Jansson’s Fair Play 

In a culture of excess, verbal excess included, it’s a challenge to practice silence. Yet it’s something I want to experiment with as a way of being more mindful of gauging how people really are — if I really do care, that is. One thing I’ve tried to practice is ask better questions: instead of how are you?, opting for what has been the highlight of your day? has led to a faster leap into the kinds of conversation that might actually enrich your day: like talking about a good meal, a friend you haven’t seen in a while, a particularly invigorating class. I encourage everyone to try that too.

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Fun fact: Tove Jansson was the creator of Moomin!

Before the day was over, another incident led me to mull over the significance of silence. After my lecture ended, I quickly scurried over to a nearby building to attend the film screening of a new Brazilian film entitled VazanteI don’t really know how to describe it, but it’s a film that comments upon the history of slavery that was pervasive throughout Brazil (specifically in the 19th century, before abolition in 1888).

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A still from Vazante, where (very young) Beatriz gets married to (not so young) Sr. Antonio.

The movie was two hours long, and I’m pretty sure the dialogue, combined, would have only taken up ten minutes.

(The rest, as you might’ve guessed, was silence.)

At first, I was a little bored, and found myself getting antsy whenever characters would stare at each other for a really long time. Several times I wanted to walk out, and the only reason why I stayed was because I really wanted to ask why the director had chosen to produce the movie in black and white — and why there was so much silence.

Unfortunately the questions weren’t really answered in a way that I found clear, which was a bummer, but I had some interesting thoughts nonetheless. Perhaps, as is the case with Tove Jansson’s book, the characters were acknowledging a shared script not only between themselves but also with the audience: Brazil’s history with slavery is a communal one, and all Brazilians carry with them their consequences. For that reason, perhaps there was an expectation for the audience to understand the dynamics that were at play between the characters.

Or perhaps the director wanted to give people the “artistic, emotional and intellectual” space to create the dialogue for themselves, and thus personalize the issue of slavery. Maybe the reason why I didn’t find the movie terribly exciting or moving was because I didn’t exactly feel the cultural pull or the connection — maybe I need some time to understand the script, especially when left unsaid.

And that’s okay. I sat in silence for two hours and watched.

Fall Break

A week before fall break, I remembered the existence of my summer’s most glorified purchase: a round-trip ticket for the long voyage between Newark and Los Angeles, bought on StudentUniverse for the wonderful week in which October would become November.

Up until then, I hadn’t planned a thing. I have time, I thought. My essay thought the same, so we conspired together until the week was up, midterms were over, and I was lugging my potentially oversized carry-on to the Dinky and thinking, damn, is this too big? I should’ve Googled this. 

The only thing I’d planned was a budget, and it was unwilling to part with the twenty-five bucks Virgin America charges for check-in bags.

***

Thankfully, the bag was fine. Less thankfully, I was still woefully unprepared. Upon arriving at LAX, I boarded a shuttle bus and proceeded to spend three hours passing cacti and Chinese convenience stores and brown suburban homes and wondering how on earth this country could be so big. I should Google this, I thought. Then I remembered how much I enjoy bragging about my spartan nine-dollar-a-month phone plan. It doesn’t come with data.

***

Upon arrival in Pomona, I was almost toppled over by my excited best friend, who, after the initial exclaims of disbelief regarding my physical presence, proceeded to inform me about all the cool things she had planned: dinners with her closest friends, a sculpture class, DIY pizza in the Claremont Village. I should’ve Goog— I thought, but then I stopped, and smiled, because if there was anything that could absolve me of my planning sins, I genuinely believed that thing would be spontaneity.

Ah, spontaneity. What a spunky word.

Over the next few days, however, my lack of foresight woke me up each morning with a punch in the face: it was cold in California, and I hadn’t brought any winter clothing. My shorts and tank top collection was so miserable I wore the same pair of borrowed khaki pants for the rest of the week.

***

One day, I decided to head into downtown LA. Without the aid of Google Maps, I asked around for guidance until I ended up on a fifty-cent ride heading to the heart of the city. I felt old-school and cool about it, until I happily observed the proximity of my destination and, not so happily, my inability to make the bus halt. I think I must’ve looked flustered or something, because the lady behind me pointed to a long yellow wire stretching from pole to pole, and when I pulled it a voice boomed on the loudspeakers and soon I was exiting the vehicle and wondering what would’ve happened had I stayed looping around Los Angeles forever.

***

But there is an art to it, this act of being so unprepared it seems somewhat ironic — or even wonderful. It is wonderful to stand beneath a persimmon tree on a random dirt path, discovered — or, more accurately, stumbled upon — within a campus you do not know. It is wonderful to hold a single, hard persimmon in your wind-bitten hands and think of the times you used to scoop out the orange flesh with a spoon.

It is wonderful to stand at an information phone booth and ask the lady on the other end for directions from Union Station to Little Tokyo. Although you understand none of the city lingo, you stay on the line anyways just to hear her bid you a good day, and best of luck, which you wear like a charm for the bus rides and long walks.

And it is wonderful, at the end of it all, to board the flight back home, only to realize you’ve downloaded none of the readings and movies you were supposed to read and watch before the week ahead. So you decide to watch a mediocre coming-of-age movie about a boy growing into his skin as an employee at a waterpark, and your complimentary in-flight napkin is soaked by the end because it reminds you of your summer of plate-clearing and order-taking and how validated you felt in that space. How much you miss home.

***

Days later, I sit in an armchair in the Rocky common room, half-asleep and desperately trying to capture my fall break in words. I could choose to write about the good food, the conversations, the long and languorous evenings spent too quietly for my own good.

But in the end, what sticks out are the moments of mindlessness. And in the same spirit in which I endured them, I write them.

 

Oh, poetry! How I’ve missed you.

There is a folder on my desktop named, and very creatively so, ‘Writing’. Inside you’ll find folders of prose and poetry divided up by the years in which they were written. The first folder, 2012, features a prolific total of one poem, which happens to be the gushy, lovesick kind one writes at the age of fourteen. You’ll notice that the number and quality of the poems grows over the years: 2015 is especially stuffed with an assortment of works inspired by places all over the world (I travelled a lot that year), whilst 2016 is full of pieces that I’d consider some of my best.

2017, however, is a little slim. The truth is, I haven’t written half as much this year as I did the last, and the year before.

It’s not a fact that’s been completely lost on me. Many a time I’ve stopped and wondered why I’m no longer writing like I used to. Am I becoming jaded? Have I lost the ability to create beautiful lines? Will I ever be able to write in the way that I have in the past?

Suffice to say, it’s a tiring mental process that, ironically enough, doesn’t inspire me to write anything. Frequently I toss the matter aside with the common diagnosis of ‘writer’s block’, and convince myself that poetry will come back someday.

Besides, in lieu of poetry, my blog posts and various assorted articles have kept my fingers flying over the keyboard — and I thought that as long as I was still writing, that would suffice.

Until one day, poetry came back.

It began with an essay I had to write for my Portuguese class. At one point, I decided to use the word ‘ephemeral’ — or efêmero in Portuguese, for those interested — to describe the relationship between two protagonists in the text we were studying. Just to make sure I was using the word correctly, I searched it up in the dictionary and stared at the definition for a while.

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And for some reason, I thought: wow. This word is so beautiful. It reminded me of a wonderful dinner conversation I’d shared with a new friend a few evenings before, and the fleeting — ephemeral, you could say — joy I felt on my way back to my dorm. (Fleeting not because our friendship went downhill from there, but rather because my mind then had to focus on other, more banal, things).

So I wrote a poem about it.

And due to some fortuitous alignment of the stars, it seems that poetry has returned to me. The past two weeks have been a fountain of ideas and feelings that have given me that great and breathless compulsion to capture something intangible into something real and seeable and visceral, and I am so excited, so relieved, so happy. 

Last night, I had dinner with the same friend who inspired that first night of writing, and I talked to him about my experiences with poetry.

“Poetry,” I told him, “is a way in which I punctuate my life”.

(Incidentally, he found that phrase pretty poetic.)

But meta-poetry jokes aside, it’s true. If you go through my Writing folder, you’ll find references (both obvious and cryptic) to people and places and experiences that have touched or moved me to some capacity. For some, the poems might just seem like a jumble of words. To me, they are memories, markers in my life that reflect the times that made me who I am. (This includes all the gushy love poems, although gosh — they are embarrassing.)

I’m glad poetry is back. It might not be here to stay — and I’m fine with that. We all need times of coming and going in our lives, of being present for others then taking time for ourselves. Maybe my move to Korea, then to the US — both of which involved building a new life elsewhere — was a lot more emotionally taxing than I thought, and perhaps that’s why poetry — which requires deep emotional investment and thought and time — rested for a while. But now that I’m settling into a new routine and a new identity, things are different. Looking upwards. And I’m excited to write.

***

I thought it’d be nice to close this entry by recounting the one instance that sparked off this entire thought train. Let’s go back to the Portuguese essay and the word ‘ephemeral’.

After writing my poem (which I called ‘ephemera’), I proceeded to drag the Pages file into my Writing folder — and decided to stay. Out of curiosity, I re-read the poems I wrote this summer in Korea and came across one I wrote about moving in to a new space.

It was unfortunate that I was in a dead silent library, because after I finished the poem I found myself in tears. I missed the summer, I missed home, and, more than anything, I missed writing words like those. Poetry does that to you: it makes you feel like you’re living an experience all over again.

***

Back to the Old House

In those days we sat in empty space, our stomachs full

of summer melons sold by the yellow bagful. When the rain fell

we talked about how loud the wind was, and how strong.

Meanwhile, the tomatoes spent weeks sleeping

under the cat’s watchful, and wondering, eyes. We ate

from newspapers spread out on the wooden floors

that pounded whenever we stepped— umma would say

be quiet, the neighbours will hear you walk.

 

Then the house became full.

One day the things came, crawling up a ladder that reached

skywards until the room where the sun lay, resting. Soon,

books crept across the shelf we bought the other day.

Paintings found homes on the walls. The warm smell

of baked sweet potatoes greeted the morning, as if saying

it’s been a while, my old friend! How good it feels

to thicken and grow sweet.

 

In those days the house was a structure

of open doors and empty cabinets. It was the sound of rain

whispering throughout the evening, the two porcelain cups

huddled together by the sink. Today the house

is a collection of things that we brought across the sea.

A mix of who we were and we are. A home.

What Keeps Me Grounded

These push-and-pull days feel like tidal waves: when one task leaves another comes, straddled gallantly atop an endless to-do list of invigorating tasks diluted, unfortunately, to something common. When there are so many things to do, and to do well, it’s easy for the most interesting things to become yet another chore.

Easy, but melancholy. I’d hate for these incredible four years to go to waste. And so I do what I can to punctuate my life with moments that ground me: conversations or tasks or movements that remind me how lucky I am to be where I am, but that this fortune should never come at the cost of what makes me human.

I. The Orange Apron

After a summer of clearing churrasco and championing financial independence, I decided, upon my arrival at Princeton, to join the ranks of the Dining Hall staff. Once a week I don a notoriously orange apron and spend three hours re-stocking the cafeteria that feeds up to 900 mouths a night. Twice I’ve worked in the dishwashing room, where the industrial dishwashing machine swallows and spits plates and cutlery at a pace that I, a newcomer, have never been able to keep up with.

At times I enter my three hour shift with a niggling sense of doom: here, where time is a commodity, the idea of spending three entire hours shifting plates and pans seems like a call for impending overload of work. Time spent waiting for plates to be cleaned is often tinged with anxiety.

Yet I end each shift with a welcome calm that I can’t fully achieve elsewhere. There is contentment to be found in little things, which eventually amount to a lot: greeting friends who have come to dinner and laughing with them in the middle of work; sharing conversation with my colleagues over heavy crates of cups; entering the underground corridors of industrial fridges and freezers where no other students really go, or getting half my daily step count and feeling a well-deserved sense of exhaustion post-work.

The best part? For three hours I’m no longer accountable to piles of work. I’m just another cog in a machine, eager to be helpful somehow.

II. Dinner Conversations

The beauty of living in a closed campus is the access you have to everyone. It is no secret that all humans need to eat — and hardworking students more so. Over the past couple of days, I’ve attempted to schedule lunches and dinners with people who I want to get to know and enjoy spending time with.

Last Friday I had dinner with Camila, a wonderful individual with whom I shared a room back at Bridge Year orientation and whose nine months in India I was very eager to hear about. For almost two hours we talked about the things that went very right and very wrong on our respective years, our mutual difficulty in answering the question ‘Where are you from?’, and various other social and identity issues that had been bubbling within me since my arrival at Princeton.

Suffice to say, it was an incredibly refreshing experience — and a meal I’ll never forget.

III. Movement

For a long time I thought I was forever destined to be a dad dancer and only a dad dancer. In other words, that person who pulls the embarrassing moves at clubs and parties. Well, here at Princeton I have found that this, thankfully, will not be the case: after a year of joking around with Asia about joining Raqs, Princeton’s belly dance troupe, I can now proudly say that I have, indeed, done so.

Suffice to say, this is a different experience: I’ve never identified myself as a ‘dancer’. Yet whenever I’m at a rehearsal with a group of girls who are as unique as they are talented, I feel like I am capable of being anyone I want to be. As someone who has struggled  — and is currently struggling — with body image, I find it empowering to see myself in a mirror and observe myself in harmony with my own body and those of others.

After watching a yellow-skirted, red-shoed dancer doing the lindy hop this summer, I realized that all bodies are extraordinarily beautiful when in movement. The specific aesthetic of one’s physicality no longer matters when the capacity to harmonize takes center stage.

V. Here, in the Hamilton Courtyard

I cannot end this post without mention of where I began: seated on an inclined deck chair positioned haphazardly in the center of Rockefeller’s Hamilton Courtyard, the sun illuminating each individual dust mote on my neglected laptop screen. The fall cold is chilly on my bare fingers and toes, but the brightness of day — and the prospect of lunch — is warming enough.

This was a moment I never anticipated would be a part of my day. After several hours spent watching video lectures, however, I decided to take advantage of the noontime sun and the green spaces that make Princeton so exquisite.

There is room for spontaneity here, after all; it is waiting, longingly, to be filled, and all one needs to do is find it.

And when one does, the result is sweet: like the green of a sprawling lawn against the blue October sky, idling lazily up above.

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Hamilton Courtyard at sunset. Spot the deck chair!

 

College, Clichés and Challenges

Hello blogosphere! How long it’s been since I last checked in!

Here in the warm vastness of Princeton’s Firestone library, I find it appropriate to write about where I’ve been. Closing my life in one place and starting anew in another is a feat both exhilarating and exhausting, and recently it’s been a little skewed towards the latter: yesterday I attended my first, very sweaty and sugar-filled Lawnparty, and the rest of the week has been filled with scheduling and shuttling to meetings and shows and classes.

But prior to flying to the United States, I set myself a goal of writing at least one blog post a month about college. I have so much to write yet not much at all, as I — a lover of cute categories and fittingly alliterative titles — can’t really think of a theme to begin with.

So I guess I’ll start with what’s been the challenging parts of my experience. A little clichéd, but somehow I’ll make it my own (plus it’s good for the alliteration).

***

The first great challenge of college is meeting people. At very few points in your life are you thrust into a massive community in which everyone is vaguely lost. The upside of this scenario is that everyone is willing to make friends; the downsides are the generic conversations, the constant need for energy, and the occasional, ironic feeling of being lonely in a big crowd.

Coming into college, I was lucky to have around me a community of familiar faces from Bridge Year, high school and other motley identity markers of my past. This didn’t exclude me, however, from the same overwhelming feeling of wanting, yet failing, to know everyone around me.

The orientations were tiring, and what remains with me are two things: first, a general intolerance for lackluster conversations that include the question ‘What’s your major?’, and second, a handful of special moments shared with friends both old and new — like taking a long walk by the tow path with Gilron, my Israeli neighbour, during international orientation; dancing in the room next door with my sweet roommates, and walking to Hoagie Haven after a night on the Street (i.e. an avenue of suburban mansions-turned-clubs) with some fellow Bridge Year friends.

What I’ve found is that there is only so much emotional energy you can expend in the first few weeks of making friends, and you might as well prioritize making special moments with certain people as opposed to spreading yourself too thin.

***

Another, greater challenge has been the courses. Classes started last Wednesday and I’m already finding them kind of hard. Coming into college, I believed I’d be fine; academics in high school are straightforward and pretty much fit on a checklist of key words and spoon-fed facts.

In college, I can already sense that it’s different. Classes exist to truly test one’s intellectual rigour and curiosity, and there is no individual guidance: you are given the resources to take advantage of as you please. The independence is challenging as I often find myself wondering how best to interpret the readings and lectures I am given. Whenever I catch myself trying to memorize certain concepts, I always question: so what? Simple memorization won’t suffice. What is the importance of these ideas?

I’m hoping that the intellectual demands of college will help me ground myself. My whole life I’ve felt like an outsider looking in: whenever I read the news or learnt about certain subjects, I felt like an observer who was purely absorbing the information for no concrete good. Here, the challenge is to understand how the information I am receiving can be directly applied to my daily life, in the hopes of one day serving the world.

I guess that’s what I owe with this very expensive and privileged education. What I’m scared of, however, is over-intellectualization: I don’t want to run the risk of hyper-analyzing concepts to the extent where I become a machine of academic jargon. I don’t want my education to be exclusive, and I need to find a way to make it applicable. 

***

My classes in themselves have raised some pretty interesting reflections about myself, my learning style and my character. This fall semester, I’m taking a sociology class on the relationship between languages and national identities, a Portuguese language and culture class, a comparative world literature class and, finally and most dauntingly, an introduction to computer science.

It’s pretty obvious what I’m interested in when one looks at the selection above. For me, the most difficult choice was (unsurprisingly) the CS course, as I’ve never ever coded anything in my life. A part of me took the course because the language-lover in me has always wanted to adopt the language of code and the world of opportunities that come with it. Another part took it because of my sister (who is a CS major), in the hopes that her explanations of interesting personal projects will finally make sense.

The course is incredibly challenging, and there have been times in the past few days when I’ve considered dropping it. But I find that studying it is a true test of willpower and character; besides, the added incentive of getting to know my sister better adds a soft, human element that assuages the theoretical confusions I encounter. At college, I’ve found that it’s important to stay human despite the constant scheduling and responsibility. Doing things that’ll last beyond one’s academic year is what will ultimately be most rewarding, and so I see these tasks (such as writing this blog post!) as equally important as doing well at school.

Portuguese has also raised some interesting thoughts. As I’ve never studied Portuguese in an academic environment, reading about Portuguese grammar in a textbook feels very surreal. Sure, I have a lot to learn, yet I can’t help but feel a certain kind of sadness when my mind tries to wrap itself around concepts and grammatical specificities. I miss the days when learning Portuguese was just conversing with a street vendor about Korea or delicious Bahian food, and I miss the easy flow with which I used it without necessarily worrying about the correctness of the language.

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And they say Bridge Year is like a cult… 😉

But I know, in the long run, that this is worth it. By learning a more academic form of Portuguese, I’ll be able to tap into Brazil — and the rest of the Lusophone world — in a more intimate and meaningful way… which I guess is my ultimate goal.

***

Lastly, but probably most significantly: the independence. I now understand why being an adult is so hard. Somehow I have to juggle more intuitive college things like studying and taking part in extracurriculars with minor yet important tasks like laundry, scheduling, getting around, earning money, eating well, being punctual, etc. At night I like to mentally go through my day, and I’m constantly shocked by how jam-packed it was.

The independence can be great. I can leave my table an absolute mess and no one will shout at me for it (sorry, mom). I can eat cake after dinner every night if I want to. I can spend as much time with friends as I want, I can wear anything I want, I can choose to go to any event I want without anything but conflicting commitments to stop me.

Yet I’m still learning the ropes. Ideally, I want to develop better room-cleaning habits so the space is a little less cluttered (I can’t even begin to imagine what a mess my space would be if I wasn’t an aspiring minimalist). I also can’t wait to develop a better sense of what my on-campus activities will be, so that I can schedule accordingly.

***

As for the rest — I guess we’ll wait and see. 🙂

 

Becoming Strong Again

This week, I’ve decided to take a break from the gym. As I write this post I’m eating a hearty breakfast and not feeling guilty about it, even if I did eat two-thirds of a box of Krispy Kreme donuts, by myself, after work last night (bless my parents, who surprised me after a month of daily donut cravings).

And I feel good. I’m feeling calm, content and no anxiety to ‘compensate’ for indulging: a state of being which I wouldn’t have imagined possible a mere three weeks ago.

Because three weeks ago, things were very different. After coming home from Brazil, I was itching to do a lot of things I’d wished to do during our last month of routine-less travel: I wanted to try ‘tracking my macros’ as I’d seen people do online, I wanted to go to the gym on a regular schedule, and I just wanted to feel more comfortable in my own skin.

There’s a really powerful Sylvia Plath quote that goes as follows:

“If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at once, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”

In a nutshell, I’m pretty damn neurotic when it comes to my body. Sometimes I think I don’t have enough muscle (which is somewhat true — I don’t have much of it), in which case I want to build myself up. But at other times I think I’m too ‘big’ and wonder if that’s why I can’t see the (non-existent) muscle to begin with. And so I cut myself down.

At the beginning of the summer, I was in the ‘cut myself down’ kinda mood. Like really, really intensely in that mood. And being the kind of person who is very goal-oriented, I gave myself a numbers-based goal to reach before I started college.

And thus began a process that, although regretful, has led me to where I am today.

In the beginning, I used macros as a fun tool that helped me great creative. I’d come up with different recipes and foods that I liked making and I’d know all about their macronutrient content. Going to the gym was something I genuinely enjoyed, and craved — there’s something wonderful about the endorphins that come when you move a lot and lift heavy things, and the calm you feel after you’re done.

I continued doing pretty much the same thing, sans the macro counting, when I got to Korea. The macros were gone not because I wanted to stop tracking, but rather because I couldn’t when the weighing scale was on a boat heading my way. I continued to mentally count calories and macronutrients however, and also experimented with something called ‘intermittent fasting’: I wouldn’t eat either breakfast or dinner to make sure I was falling into the ‘calorie range’ for my ‘goal’.

When the weighing scale arrived, the macros continued. When I ate communal Korean-style meals with my parents, I’d weigh out my banchan (side dishes) separately and get overly worked up about my bowl of rice. Sometimes my parents would start eating without me as I took too long to measure and track everything to the gram. Whenever I ate out I would always mentally calculate my macronutrients and calories, which meant that whenever I was eating something deemed too ‘calorie dense’ I’d get anxious and lose my appetite. The worst part was when I was eating with friends and family who mean a lot to me — I couldn’t bear the idea of not being emotionally and mentally present for a loved one because my mind space was too occupied by food anxiety.

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Yup. The family contrast is real. (And not worth it, unless I’m really craving something fresh.)

Throughout it all, I was working out at the gym 4-5 times a week. In the beginning it was really great to get my body moving, but at one point I began to get, well, bored. And easily tired. I’d get dizzy whilst lifting weights lighter than what I’d lifted before, and I wouldn’t feel too good afterwards. I continued this all while struggling constantly with food-related anxieties, and the combination of the two just hit me one day — quite like a truck, one might say — and I realized that I was doing something very, very unhealthy.

I thought that a condition for me to ‘grow tough skin’ was to endure a demanding physical and mental process to help me reach an ideal goal. But I realized that regardless of how I looked, I’d always find something I wanted to change about myself. Part of it is because I am image-conscious, but I believe it goes deeper than that. As someone who’s a stickler for control, I wanted to prove to myself that there was one pillar in my life I could have total control over. Throughout the whirlwind of the transition to Korea, fitness and nutrition were two things that I knew how to tailor and tailor well.

Having this realization was perhaps the biggest eureka moment of my summer. I understood, for the first time, that the most beneficial thing was not to exercise discipline, but to let go of it. What would make me happy with my body — an ultimate goal — was not reaching a certain ‘look’, but rather not worrying about how I look at all. Eating intuitively as opposed to eating with anxiety. Working out because I want to, not because I ‘have’ to. If I could achieve this as a homeostasis of sorts, my default way of being, I knew I’d be a lot more content to be who I am — and not feel the need to always be ‘fixed’.

Besides, feeling terrible for the sake of looking good is really just not worth it. 

So for the past three weeks, I’ve been trying to achieve a greater sense of balance. I’ve used a food measuring scale maybe once. Bathroom scale? Never. I’ve eaten out as much as I wanted to, and I’ve let myself eat whatever and whenever. I decided to take advantage of the renovation happening at my apartment gym and take a week off.

Sure, some things are difficult: there are times when I get antsy because I feel like I’m missing something. Sometimes I still feel a little guilty after eating too much of something, or eating really late at night after I finish work. Calorie counts still filter in and out of my head, and I sometimes worry about whether or not my fitness journey — something that gives me a large sense of purpose — has pretty much come to a dead end.

But when I look at the big picture, I know I’m on the right track. This is the healthy, motivating goal I needed all along. When I went to visit my aunt in Gyeongju, food played a big part of our reunion — and I enjoyed all of it whilst being completely present for her and her husband and her beautiful home (not to mention, her adorable dogs). I’ve been going out to see friends for dinners or lunches where I’ve been focusing more on conversations and generally having a really good time.

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My aunt, my uncle and their dog Hun at their local bingsu (shaved ice dessert) spot! It was delicious!

However quixotic this may sound, I think I’m becoming better at treating myself like I treat others. I’m a lot more patient with myself than I was before: one stressful evening, after eating a lot more snacks than I anticipated, I just told myself you should rest, cleaned up, promptly went to bed, and woke up the next morning and continued on as usual. In the past, this ‘slip-up’ would’ve left me paralyzed with guilt and the need to compensate for my lack of self-control. This time, however, I felt a strange, yet welcome, sense of calm. I knew that worrying about things wouldn’t make anything better — and that ultimately, my goal was to treat my body fairly. In this circumstance, I knew that I was going through a lot of stress and that my body was probably very, very tired, and for that reason I made a mental effort to not compensate, to not fast or go to the gym, and just be. 

Being is both physically and mentally liberating. After many, many years of struggling with food and body image, I know it’s time that I stop beating myself up for something that’s actually quite insignificant. The only significant part is the root of it all: the need for control. This is something I’m still struggling with, but by cutting off one unhealthy habit at a time I hope I’ll eventually get better.

I know that there are lots of people out there who can relate. And if you’re one of them, I just want to say this: that being interested in your health and fitness is great, but you should be wary of when you grow fatigued, unmotivated, and feel not-so-optimal. Remember, your health — both physical and mental — come first. You have the rest of your life to work hard on whatever goals you may have, but what matters before it all is getting into a healthy head-space that’ll make the process sustainable. We can do it together. 🙂

From One Dreamer to Another

A few weeks ago, I told my mom I wanted to go on a solo backpacking trip. I’d like to visit Germany, I said, and Canada as well. My goal was to do so before graduating college.

My mom’s reply was blunt, somewhat jolting but not at all surprising. She said: sure — but only if you pay for the entire trip on your own. You see, my mom doesn’t want me to travel alone, and so she sees no reason to pay for a journey she doesn’t endorse.

Which makes sense. If you’ve worked hard to earn whatever money you have, you have the right to do what you want with it… because it’s yours.

It was in that moment that I decided the following: I want to be financially independent by the time I finish college. If I want to have agency over my own life experiences — in other words, if I want to live in the spaces that enrich me most, with the people who inspire me most and doing things that I love most — I need to be able to afford my lifestyle choices.

Thus, I decided that, this summer, I would begin this journey to financial independence. Whether I’ll actually reach the aforementioned goal is somewhat dubious, as my current savings don’t look too promising thanks to my money-related ignorance throughout my adolescence (which I now regret).

Several weeks into the summer, however, I thought it’d be interesting to share my progress with the wider world. It’s definitely not a get-rich-quick kinda set-up, but it’s certainly a this-is-worthwhile-so-you-might-want-to-consider-it kinda deal. Because beyond experiencing the freedom that well- (and honestly) earned money brings, becoming financially independent opens doors to many, greater journeys, like understanding a city or a place better than you would’ve otherwise, becoming more empathetic and self-aware, and understanding that once you see the human faces of ‘scary’ adult concepts like investing and saving, they don’t seem so scary after all.

***

 

I’m very lucky to say that he most rewarding part of the journey has been the work itself. Working at Tabom has exposed me not only to the sheer diversity of Korea’s non-Korean population, but also a series of faces and names — namely, those of my colleagues — that give me a sense of home. Nowadays the work feels like muscle memory, and in place of the previous stress there exists a certain rhythm that keeps me rooted despite the uncertainties of a new city.

But all work isn’t made equal. I recently started a teaching job that hasn’t been the easiest — the preparation and expectations involved have required a lot of mental and emotional energy from my part, and of course it’s very draining. It’s important, however, that I understand that the reality of money-making is that it’s hard. That’s why they call it earning money, and why each dollar spent deserves some acknowledgment of what was endured to earn it.

So here’s where the difficult part comes in. I think it’s important to be mindful of where money comes from, but there’s always a risk of being overly mindful. After the first week at Tabom, as I was getting into the groove of using my own well-earned cash, I started getting very anxious about how I spent even the smallest quantities of money. I’d pick up a Coke at a convenience store and put it down again because it’d cost me twenty minutes’ worth of work at the restaurant. When I ate out, I’d try to find cheaper locations — and never feel fully satisfied, as I always ruminated over the option of a) something cheaper or b) something more soul-filling. When friends or family suggest I do an activity of some sort, I’d always hesitate if it involved spending money.

To make a long story short, it was unpleasant. But on a minimum wage, it was inevitable — and I only got out of the anxiety once I found my second job. I’d made budget sheets and everything for my first job, and I was set to end the summer with a fair amount of savings only if I’d continued as I’d done. Which just goes to show that, again, making and handling money is difficult. Truly understanding this fact not only on an intellectual level, but also on a visceral, day-to-day level, is an important skill I think all teenagers should have.

And speaking of important skills, I think financial literacy is so, so underrated. It’s problematic that we don’t learn how to do things like save money at school, let alone learn what investments are, how to create budgets, learn about financial risks, etc.

Because the truth is, the earlier someone starts saving, the more money they’ll have after a certain period of time versus if they’d started later on in life… which means more opportunities to do the things that you love, and less stress when it comes to emergencies. I could explain this concept in more depth with information on interest rates, time value of money, etc, but all I’ll say, for now, is this: take advantage of the internet and educate yourself!

There are lots of awesome free online courses that teach you the basics of money management, and it’ll do so much good in the long-term. I started my four-week Coursera course ‘Financial Planning for Young Adults’ as someone who didn’t even know how credit cards worked. After the course, I can’t believe I didn’t learn all of it earlier — and I want, more than anything, to spread the word that these courses are available and accessible and so, so important for everyone. Besides, good courses will teach you that concepts like mutual funds and interest rate formulas are not scary, alienating topics reserved for the financial geniuses out there. They are intimidating buzz words, but beneath them all are simple human experiences — like being able to go on a vacation, or pay for college — that provide the empathy that makes this whole process worthwhile.

It’s also worthwhile to take advantage of other technological tools that make money management so much easier and less stressful. One thing I’ve been doing is using an app to track my expenses. I can use it to see how much I’m spending on certain things — like eating out, transportation, leisure — per week or per month, which can then help me prioritize how I want to spend my money. Tracking things on an app is much easier as it’s visually and systematically easier to navigate. I’m currently using an app called Dollarbird, but there are tons of other free options online that you can peruse.

(Wow, this post is sounding almost ad-like, which feels a bit strange. But it’s for the greater good!)

***

I may sound confident and knowledgable about this whole money-management affair, but the truth is quite different.  To this day, there are still many financial concepts that I have yet to understand, and there are times when I’m still anxious about doing things well. Am I saving enough? Am I using the tools that I can take advantage of? And so on and so forth, the anxiety continues — and it doesn’t really help with the other stresses going on in my life (like sometimes working two jobs a day).

But at the end of the day, it’s important for me to take a step back and have patience for myself. The journey to financial independence is a steep and difficult one, and I deserve self-appreciation and respect for even taking the first step. This applies to most other personal projects, and it is necessary that I commend myself for even the smallest things. This is the first time that I’ve ever prioritized making and saving money for myself. This is the longest length time I’ve lived my life without much financial support from my parents. And I’m doing it all in a country I’ve never lived in before as an adult.

Choosing not to be anxious about certain things is also important. If my primary goal was to save as much money as possible by the end of the summer, I’d probably tell myself that it was necessary to undergo this level of overthinking. But with my primary goal being to do the best that I can whilst taking care of myself, I’ve made the conscious decision that I’ll allow myself certain joys without worrying — like eating out at places I really want to try, with people who mean a lot to me. (Of course this comes with a level of privilege, which I wholly acknowledge and am grateful for.)

And again, as stated before, this whole money management thing is a very human affair. It’s not all figures and diagrams and fancy words. It’s about the freedom with which one lives their life, and I find that incredibly uplifting.

On that note, I hope this post inspired at least one person to embark on a similar adventure, because it is so very worth it. If you decide to do so, then I’d love to hear about it. 🙂

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Found a cute picture of these two (Ju Young and Won Hwa, who work with me at Tabom!) on my phone, and I thought it’d be appropriate for this post 😉