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Dear Diary 2019 Edition: end of year(s) reflections and new resolutions

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AHHHH!!!

Being a millennial is really weird.

Before you go on, you should know this post has been adapted from a literal diary entry I was writing i.e. unfitted, not-so-sexy-stream-of-consciousness style; but then again, aren’t all my blog posts? 😉 TL;DR: it is a summary of (some of) the things I’ve been thinking, what I’ve been doing, reflections on where I am and where I’m going.

Now that that’s out of the way, where was I? Ah yes: being a millennial is really weird.

I guess not necessarily being a millennial, per se, but being at the point in my life where I’m starting to get some things together, but at the same time if not by virtue of that “progress” I’ve become estranged from the things that have defined me, that mean so much to me, that are, well, me? How can that be? How can it be that I am both progressing but also regressing, improving but degenerating, confused out of my goddamn mind about who I am, who I’m working towards becoming, and figuring out whether these are linear paths that become intractable with time and motion.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just tired.

I just got back to Palo Alto after what was a restorative and joyful two weeks with my family in Northern California (even further north than this godforsaken town). Dang, I don’t mean that, really. But I do! Ah here comes the crazy. I’m laying in bed–correction, on my mat on the floor that has served as my bed for the past 9 months. In my $2400/month apartment, one of 5 in an old converted Palo Alto house that has no (perceptible) heat and is, according to my downstairs neighbor who is as trustworthy a source of local gossip as any, infested with roof rats. Maybe goes without saying that I’m deflated (to say the very least) to be here again after such a nice break with my favorite people. But! in an unexpected plot twist, weirdly reassured that I’ll feel differently soon enough–that work will bring a welcome if not somewhat unexpectedly energetic sense of fulfillment, eroding the memory of my current despair and emotional lethargy. In short: feeling the feels, feeling like I should write something down. It is, after all, the start of new year.

Photo break: said Palo Alto apartment, in the near present

Finally hung up a chicken my grandpa painted
Apollo, 10/28/18

Let’s back up a bit. I’m 26, soon(ish) to be 27. I work at Facebook. I live in Palo Alto, CA. Prior to that I was living at home in Michigan, working towards a degree that came at the onset of a quarter life crisis. This was, if not utterly clear from previous blog posts dated circa 2014, induced by what was one of the most discombobulating years of my life living in New York City, where I was working at a photography studio on the Upper West Side (special s/o to Steve Friedman who owned the studio, became a great friend, taught me so much about New York, exposed me to all the great NY things, etc.). But, cutting right down to the gnarly chase, during this 2014 year I spiraled into a deep situational if not melodramatic depression characterized by an inconsolable post-college disillusionment—what to do with my life? where did all my friends go? why don’t they teach you that money is real? and that you need it to pay rent and buy food?!! yadda yadda yadda—I sought out to make a career change. In retrospect, it’s amazing where and what I’ve stumbled on given that at that particular juncture I knew just as much where I was going and how I was going to get there as I did where I wanted to be going in the first place, which is to say zero none at all I didn’t. I just knew that I was so completely desperate for an escape that was 180 degrees from where I was at, but beyond that was shooting in the dark praying that one, just one stray arrow would stick.

Photo break: 2014 in NY, at the time

This was me, contemplating shrimp dumplings, at the time
This was my window overlooking that brunch spot at the time
These were, and still are, best friends at the time
This was my partner at the time
These were ingredients to an actual meal I made at the time
Mother fing delicious donuts I ate at the time
These were the streets at the time
This was the subway at the time
This was times square at the time
And this was Nicki at the time

So, for the sake of getting back to the more immediate point, suffice it to say: that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been working. I’ve been trying to “figure it out.” I’ve been doing everything to distance myself from the things and places that made me so unwell. And in some ways, it really worked. I’m no longer questioning my existence in the same ways (those ways being: should I?). I’m certainly no longer fantasizing about how wicked and satisfying it would be but also terrifying-to-be-entertaining-the-thought of jumping out my window to bring reprieve to the mind-numbing predictability of Saturday brunchers happily, if not foolishly, enjoying their insta-worthy patio brunch. On the contrary, now I am one of those brunchers. That’s gotta be progress, no? Sarcasm aside, I’m no longer sad beyond belief or bitter beyond reason. Yet still, I worry that somewhere between being that morbid 22-year-old and being this salad-eating, fitness-fiend, altogether balanced 26-year-old, I’ve lost part of my soul. And before you say it’s not healthy to “fetishize sadness”, as I was somewhat understandably told recently, hear me out.

Am I missing part of my soul because I’ve become too complacent? Complacent with the choices I’ve made and the impact I have on the world, with my general “I’ll get to that later” attitude about so many values that I Morally. Ethically. Spiritually. Believe in. Hold dear. ? Complacent with the same unhealthy psychology that afflicted me 5 years ago, just now justified by a bigger paycheck? Yes, I no longer have fantasies about jumping out of the window, but my god did that experience force me to learn about myself and identify what, past all the bullshit, is important to me. That year, I discovered these things about myself:

  • I care about my family. A lot.
  • I care about community. A lot.
  • I cannot survive without the previous two bullet points.
  • Leaving home, “flying the coop,” doesn’t de facto make you successful. There is no shame, and in fact there is so much beauty, in being with the people, around the places, that raised and love/d you.
  • I need to see nature. I need to hear nature. Every day.
  • I want to be constantly learning and get bored very easily. But constantly learning is:
    • Talking to new people
    • Seeing movies I haven’t seen before
    • Listening to music I haven’t heard before
    • Reading things I haven’t read before
    • Staying open-minded, engaging with the world remembering that I am no better than any other person.
  • I cannot live in an environment that promotes so much vanity, so much materialism, so much consumerism. I am susceptible to it, and it destroys my soul. The excessive advertising of product, of fame/celebrity, of oppressive lifestyles is the means by which I had learned to hate myself in order to create profit (not for me, and if it were, at whose expense?), had learned to hate myself in order to create profit (not for me, and if it were, at whose expense?). It is truly the definition of Stockholm syndrome.

And to date these remain the most steadfast, most real things that I know about myself. It is undeniably a great thing that I am in a better headspace now than I was then, in 2014, when I started to discover these things more fully for myself. But what have I sacrificed to get here, to stay here? Have I been moving closer towards my values, or have I just been thrashing aimlessly, making a whole lotta noise? In some ways, I’m more fulfilled than I have ever been, but in others I’m still spiritually starving—starving for family, for community, for culture art people energy, for growth towards the reality that external validation does not make life meaningful, having a good job does not make life meaningful, making money does not make life meaningful, updating your Instagram does not make life meaningful.

Being a good friend makes life meaningful. Being a good sister, daughter, partner, niece, granddaughter makes life meaningful. Being curious about and engaged in the world and in people makes life meaningful. Being good to and patient with yourself makes life meaningful. Having values and standing up for them, even when they are unpopular or make you unpopular is what makes life meaningful. *correction: apply “imperfectly trying to” to all of the above

So ok I say I love my job. I’m happy. But I’m also not happy? I’m “spiritually starving?” Ugg, stop it already. But, well, erm, what I can say is 2018 was a really great year, in part for these reasons:

  • I really, truly, genuinely love my job.
  • I’m not so fretful and scared of “where I’m going to be in 5 years” anymore. I’m actually kind of…excited? If for no other reason than I kind of kind of believe in myself. ?
  • I love the community of people I work with–because they are engaged, they are curious, we are working towards something together, they teach me new things daily. In some not so trivial ways, this community is my antidote to the vapid, vanity-obsessed messages constantly being shoved down our throats as 1. people in general and 2. young millennials who are still impressionable, still trying to figure our shit out and 3. young women who could use relief from all this toxic patriarchal expectation. What do you mean what do I mean? I wear a sweatsuit to work daily and no one says shit to me about it. Case in point. *(Though also not trivially, sexism in tech is A BOOMIN’)
  • I saved money, for the first time in my life.

But at the same time, 2018 was not so cool for the flip side of same exact reasons:

  • I kind of kind of believe in myself these days…because I got a job that society finally signed off on
  • I am provided the conditions and environment, work and autonomy that allow me to love my job as a direct result of the fact that big corporations, big governments, big anything with a lot of money, are able to accumulate so much resource off of the very people who are left in the shadows of these towering monoliths.
  • I have prioritized work over friends, over family, over relationships.
  • I didn’t buy a car (or furniture!) that would bring me one to many degrees closer to nature to more culture to a life, because I was so focused on saving money.

So here we are, lists drawn out, feelings splattered all over all of our brain canisters. And as is promised of any good cathartic journaling, I’m starting to finally see what I’ve been meaning to say but unable to understand…until…now ?, which is this: I guess life–living with joy, integrity, purpose, and meaning–is not about scoring the perfect line-up of actions (or in my case over-corrections) that make you rich, successful, envied, attractive. Maybe it’s about identifying the attitudes and psychology that bring you suffering and heartache, and building up the defenses to counter them, whether they be negative self-talk, unrealistic and arbitrary societal expectation, de-prioritization of your own true self to accommodate someone else’s definition of you (someone who doesn’t care about you no less!), etc. Maybe it’s about practicing how to honor yourself and trusting your will and strength to unlearn all of the shitty things society teaches us about what it is to be worthwhile, what it is to be kind and conscientious, what it is to be worthy of love—your own and from others. Maybe, even if we’re not desperately depressed, we have to force ourselves to stop and ask the Really Hard Questions that make us better, that align us closer to our values, that pick us up and put us not on the path of least resistance, but of greatest heart and conviction. 2018 was the culmination of (years of!) lots of self-reflection, lots of over-correction, lots of work, and I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given, the things I’ve experienced; I try to and do reflect on that with positivity, not just criticism and negativity. But I also don’t want that to dictate my whole sense of self—my sense of purpose, value, direction, worth, and personhood. I don’t want to think I’ve become everything I could hope to be or that eurka! I’ve made it and am happy as an unthinking clam just because according to society I should be. I am hoping that this new year may be full of conversation—with myself, with family, with friends, with unacquainted but welcome company—conversation that, little by little, makes me more human, makes me more me.

And on that note, finally, goodnight. Thank you to anyone who made it through this blogpost lol. I love you too.

A goodnight selfie, from a life past. 3/21/2018

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China Part I: Shanghai

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As some or less than some of you may know, after a grueling 9 months in the real world, and perhaps at the brunt of it all in the sweat soaked streets of Manhattan, I sought respite through a 4 month vacation (that is still largely ongoing) beginning in China, specifically Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. For the first few days after landing in Shanghai I felt really good, maybe a little too good. There was something very unusual but also incomparably comforting about entering into a sea of bodies just like mine that made me feel at home even though I was thousands of miles from it. The first week in Shanghai was a national holiday so everyone was off work and on the streets, slowly ambling along the river that separates the old Shanghai from the new.  You couldn’t escape the luxuriously slow rhythm both because people had nothing else to do but enjoy the sun and also because it’s nearly impossible to upset the pace of a million people walking in tandem. It’s hard to explain the “at oneness” I felt there, maybe it was the realization of my unconscious habit to give a tip of acknowledgment or self effacing smile to Chinese couples on the street or to groups of mandarin speaking cliques moving inseparably through crowds of brown and blonde hair, or maybe it was looking around and seeing every phenotypic variation of myself without the need for that same reminder of solidarity.  The fact that I pored over thousands and thousands of faces in what felt like complete disguise -no one had a reason to look or not look at me- and yet I wasn’t incognito, I just was without any need for explanation or justification. I was just another face in an ocean of black hair and brown eyes, which surprisingly made me feel even more welcome.

But eventually this romantic impression left me for a much less satisfying one. It wasn’t long after these first few days in Shanghai that I became increasingly annoyed with the different cultural norms that showed themselves at every available opportunity. Perhaps it was the brazen lady who shoved her way to the front of a dense mass of people waiting altogether civilly for their turn to get on the subway, or the middle aged man in a tank top barely big enough to cover his pouting belly who hocked a wad of semi opaque loogie right next to my foot, or the woman squatting at the top of a staircase refilling used and thrown out water bottles to resell downstairs while I looked on in horror, speechlessly shoveling boazi into my jaw dropped mouth. Yes, it must have been one or all or a lot more of these moments that made me crane my neck in nostalgic comradeship when overhearing a tourist say “general Ts-oh’s chicken please” or “no American toilet? Never mind then”

But then there were enchanted moments like when Jenny, the restaurants manager at the Grand Hyatt where I was neither a guest nor patron, walked me down deep into the mall to hand deliver me to a box of tampons that was so fortuitously the literal only box that it seemed as if it’d been hand selected and reserved for me, or UFC who drove us two hours to and from a sparsely populated beach framed by two heaps of seemingly floating mountain that looked straight out of the movie Avatar, or distant relatives I’ve only ever met once and ten years ago who treated me like a combination of their best friend and master.

Which leads me to a slew of somewhat obvious and less obvious conclusions.  I’ve determined the feeling, maybe even rush I got when I first arrived in China is similar to waking up on a Saturday morning, strapping on my maize and blue and making my way to the Big House for a fall afternoon football game–everyone’s fumbling through the streets as obnoxiously as you, people are hanging off wooden porch beams screaming because everyone else is and no one cares cuz we’re all in this together. That sense of unity is forgiving and justifying, you don’t have to have a reason why you’re laying face down in someone’s lawn, you’re part of a greater shared experience that exempts you from judgement or explanation.

Yet the fact remains that sometimes I think people in China do gross and/or rude and/or strange things, but that’s ok because I’ve realized (and have been realizing through different experiences abroad) that I’m much more than I’d like to admit a spoiled, often ignorant, and entitled American. And as much as I’d like to rage with people wearing the same jersey as mine, I wasn’t brought up with the same school spirit. While I uncompromisingly appreciate, protect, and am proud of my ethnicity & background (and I can’t emphasize this enough), I’m still more culturally American than I am anything else–I’m used to sitting on a toilet that stands off the ground when I have to potty, to people who are polite even if just for formality sake, and to whining and complaining when things aren’t as entirely convenient as I think they should be. I guess for better or for worse that’s what makes me feel at home, even if we’re not all Chinese.

 

Our first day in Shanghai looked something like this:

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Occupy Central with Love and Peace

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It’s not easy to always have a clear picture, partly because information is distorted by those who own it, partly because misapprehensions are made by those who don’t live it.  So as best as I understand it, this is what’s been happening. In 1997 Hong Kong was returned to China after 150 years of British rule with the promise that in 2017, it would be able to democratically elect a leader, a function of the “one country, two systems” principle that acknowledges Hong Kong as a semi-autonomous state that, unlike Beijing, is not communist.  But as of this year and breaking its promise, China decided that a committee from Beijing was still necessary to appoint its leader (presumably to carryout the interests of the mainland). This violation of basic recognition and political trust rippled through the region as people united in their outrage and took to the streets. Their position stands that Hong Kong citizens deserve the right to a democratic election and society—a right to which they were promised. Instead, they’ve been faced with mounting force tactfully used to villainize and silence the movement. On our fourth day in Hong Kong, we met two 20 year old students walking in Admiralty, a zone of peaceful protesting bustling with door to door single occupancy tents decorating a major highway. They were passing out yellow ribbons for individuals to wear in solidarity with the movement. A few minutes later and our interest piqued, they were wide-eyed spewing their passions and frustrations about the government conspired police perpetrations against the protestors, urging us to stay away from more dangerous areas of protest where the police employ third party triade members to ambush peaceful protesters, often times with harassment and violence. They explained that the peaceful movement was being falsely demonized for refusing reconciliation efforts when in fact it was government representatives that had purposefully missed scheduled negotiations. They confided their concerns for the future—the growing class divide, the increasing unaffordability, and the fissuring culture of Hong Kong. They lamented on the immigration policy that has allowed a fast growing population of mainland immigrants to overwhelm the Hong Kong population, resulting in fewer jobs for Hong kong citizens and exorbitant housing prices. The students worry about their present lives, their future selves, and how they’ll get a job and place to live after college. They seek to be heard, considered, and validated as a member of their own community, condemning the abuse of power and failure of mainland China to recognize Hong Kong’s right to democracy and autonomy. 

A few days earlier in Beijing, my brother and I met for the first time, and my mom for her third, an old friend of my grandmother’s. Uncle Feng Cheng was wistful and stoic, as evidenced from his entirely unexpected yet poignant Christmas letter that we received last Christmas to our Michigan address after decades of lost contact. Dressed each day in tan khaki slacks, a navy wind breaker, and Nike tennis shoes that predate the ’90s, he recounted stories of his impoverished youth, his love of Jane Austen books, and harangued somewhat sarcastically and somewhat seriously about the power and inevitability of cats to mystically possess their owners. We spent an evening in his home, which is sparse but well adorned– turn a corner and you’ll find a collection of classical music records even though there is nothing with which to play them because he has given both of his record players away to friends. The small details, and the big ones—his overt and unfaltering generosity, his openness and warmth, his calm and collectedness reveal a whole,  contemplative and earnest person. In the following days in Beijing and then on our travels back to Hong Kong, we shared brief but resonant discussions of his views about the protests (of which he was not in support but neither vocally opposed). He recounted fleeing with his father to Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation of China at a time when there were only roughly a million people living in Hong Kong. Desolate, removed, and extremely poor, they lived on the beach in a small hut. From an early age he began to memorize lines of English literature on his way to and from school, eventually memorizing whole books at a time. Finally at 16, he left for the states to attend Harvard, and came back two years later to Hong Kong where he’s lived and worked at Hong Kong University ever since. He reflects on this with a certain air of melancholy, emphasizing that he grew up in very dire circumstances but insisting that hard work, above everything else, created opportunity for him. It’s with this conviction that he believes that everyone deserves an opportunity, and, defined by his experience, believes that mainland China is in a very good position to provide everyone with that chance. To him, he sees the economic boom and prosper of his country, a country that not long ago was vastly poor and rural—the empowerment of his people and reform that has transformed living standards, social rights, infrastructure, education, and global involvement & prominence. He believes in the strength of China, in its values and politics that have given rise to a rebirth of a faltering country. He believes in its future for him, for Mainland, and for Hong Kong. His experience is as genuine as the students’ handing out ribbons of solidarity in Admiralty, both equally as valid and supported by experience and passion.

I personally don’t know enough of the history or current political climate to make a claim as to who’s more “right” or “wrong,” but see the purpose in at least trying to understand the emotional and intellectual reasons that affect both sides of this or any conflict, because undoubtedly if you don’t no progress will ever be made.