I am 31.

This past weekend, I turned 31 years old in the way that I am now accustomed to – with little fanfare, a bit of reflection, and too much ruminating about all the things I could not accomplish since my last anniversary of birth.

I know that the societal expectation for birthday celebrations is to have some raucous soiree where I throw up between 2 vehicles on Market Street. Having done that on my 29th birthday and ending up with the acid reflexivity of an old Asian grandmother, my birthdays have transitioned into a quieter affair – heavy on the thinking, light on the festive puking.

I’m not sure what it is about birthdays that send my brain into a checklist manifesto of the broken promises I made to myself – all the incomplete pieces of writing, missed deadlines, an imbalance of work relative to hanging out with family and friends.

I don’t know what it is, but here’s my attempt to balance the narrative with moments of gratification – a reminder that although things don’t always as planned, there’s always some unexpected joy along the way.

So here’s 14 things – cool things, weird things, random things – that are bringing me joy on this 31st year of life:

  1. I chose “14 things” because 31 could be 3×1, which, if you change to 3+1, equates to 4. 4 is the equivalent of 1×4, which could be written as (1)(4). If you remove the parentheses, this is 14. Thus, I chose 14 because it’s my blog and I’m too old and tired to write 31 things and you’re too busy and prone to boredom to read 31 things.
  2. I’m 31 years old and yet almost all my Pandora stations somehow turn into Pitbull stations.
  3. I’m 31 years old and when I see a trampoline, I’m going to fucking jump on it…as gracefully as a 31 year old would:

 

  1. In my adolescence, I always thought that my adulthood birthday gifts would become more refined over time – you know, Swarovski crystals, Celine Dion perfume, really tiny silver forks to eat with tiny finger foods or whatever else I believed sophisticated white people got for their birthdays. Instead, my 31st birthday gifts were BETTER including:
  • A donut shaped, travel-sized portable fog machine.
  • A plastic goat that screams like this when you push it.
  • Abraham Lincoln Bandages (“I will heal your wound as I healed a nation.”)
  • GIF(TS) featuring otters playing basketball:

You otter play basketball.

  1. Instead of reading things like Camus or Dostoyvesky (or whatever else 31-year-old people read), I have revisited my love for the Ann M. Martin Series The Babysitter’s Club because why the hell not? As a kid, I was absolutely smitten with the character of Dawn – a staunch environmentalist from California who doesn’t eat junk food and is kind of obnoxious about sustainable culture and…
  2. …OMFG, I’M MARRYING DAWN IN REAL LIFE.

My California Girl.

  1. Speaking of sustainable living, check out my dog in a sweater that my mom made out of her old leg warmer.
  1. In reference to my mom, I found it beautifully coincidental and poetic that construction on her hurricane damaged home began on her birthday in December and ended near my birthday in January.
  2. Sometimes it takes difficult circumstances to remind me of how lucky I am to be surrounded by friends and family who contributed to our rebuild efforts – through financial contributions, countless hours of labor, and so much emotional support.
  3. During Hurricane Harvey, I lost almost all of my books, photos, and physical manifestations of childhood, high school, and college memories. As an exceptionally nostalgic person, it’s still devastating to think about this. Luckily, just two months prior to the hurricane, I went home and felt compelled to bring some of my favorite items from childhood back to San Francisco – fatefully salvaging some of my memories that are still important to me at the age of 31 (like my bomb ass 6 year old bangs):

Salvaged Memories.

  1. I saw this brilliant drawing by the 9-year-old child of a family friend and thought, “THAT’S ME.”

Self-Portrait @ 31.

  1. On my birthday in 2018, I had a chance to watch the movie I, Tonya, and relive Tonya’s moment of glory – being the first American figure skater to land a triple axel in competition.  But, really, the point of me telling this story is to tell you that Kristi Yamaguchi is still a stone cold fox.
  2. Kristi Yamaguchi lives in the Bay Area.  This means I still have a chance, right?
  3. 31 is 3×1, which, if you change to 3+1, equates to 4, which is the equivalent of 1×4, which could be written as (1)(4), which is 14.  Really, that’s all I want to be at the age of 31  a 14-year-old teenage kid at heart.  So, my hope for this 31st year of life is to preserve that adolescent wonder, optimism, and dreaminess that’s been essential to my moments of joy.

I am thinking about 1978 and 2017.

Escape

That night, mom, when the hurricane blanketed our house with reservoir waters, did it feel like that evening in 1978? Back then, you were 22, packed anything you could eat or sell, and walked to the shore of a Danang beach. You boarded a fishing boat headed anywhere except Vietnam. I wonder, what was in your bag? Did you pack enough snacks and underwear? Did you ever step back towards grandma’s shuttered candy shop? Were you scared?

You never told me about the full journey from Vietnam to Houston, but I know slivers of the story. One day, in Galveston, we stood on the seawall and looked into the opaque waters. It’s scary, you said, being on a fishing boat for days, surrounded by nothing but infinite ocean. Once, you and I boiled water for a package of ramen. You laughed thinking of grandpa, standing portside, heating seawater for his bowl of noodles. He didn’t need salt, you said with amusement.

Before each first day of school, you would buy me a pair of Lee Jeans. One August, you proudly showed me the logo tags that I loathed to feel against my skin. You sewed those on in a Hong Kong factory, you told me. You were able to make a few dollars for boxed char sui fan lunches as you waited to be sponsored by a brother in Texas.

That night, when Harvey drove the floodwaters up to your ankles, I called you past midnight. I was 2,000 miles away, uncertain if what I read was what you were living.   The voice that picked up the phone was not the one that had once lulled me to sleep singing “Que Sera, Sera”. It shivered in tone, perforated with muffled splashes of you scooping away water with a cup. An abrupt electric pop severed one of your sentences. What’s that, I asked. You had to go, you said. You still haven’t told me what that sound was.

Hours later, through articles and our hurried conversations, I pieced together tatters of your escape. At sunrise, you put a few bottles of water and some valued papers in a bag. With our dog in your arms and a lifejacket on your chest, you left the house, walking into waist-deep water. As you waded, a boat found you, pulled you from boundless floodwaters and offered to steer you anywhere except home. I’m still waiting for the rest.

I wonder, what will we eat or see or touch that provokes the next scrap of story? The whirr of a boat engine? The feeling of wet shoes? The smell of salt? Will it remind you of that night in 1978? Mom, were you scared?

Editor’s Note: Houston is home to a significant refugee population, many of whom fled from their home countries over the last 50 years.  In the 70s, the refugees were Vietnamese.  In the 80s, they were Central American and Cuban.  Today, many of the refugees are Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani.  A lot of them fled their countries by boat.  In 2017, during Hurricane Harcey, a lot of them were rescued by boat.  This includes my mom.

I am traveling.

In response to the confounding internet phenomenon of over-romanticizing travel, below is my interpretation of the “Stages of Cultural Adaptation” chart:

 

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Pre-Departure Phase:

  • (1) Futile, apocalyptically stressful attempt to do 2 weeks worth of work in 3 days.
  • (2) Anxiety about Zika and Dysentery.

Arrival Abroad/Honeymoon Phase:

  • (3) “Fuck yeah, this bag of indeterminate fried things is 4 cents.”

Culture Shock Phase:

  • (4) “Someone is slowly and systematically stealing my underwear from this Vietnamese laundry.”

This is a true story. Please see what I wrote in 2008 about my experiences with underwear theft during my study abroad experience in Vietnam:

Two weeks ago, I became very disillusioned with my inability to maintain a steady, reliable supply of underwear in Vietnam.  I had just washed my clothes at the giat ui – a place which will now be referred to as the black hole of Jen’s multi-colored floral undergarments.  In my confusion, I decided to count my underwear, a rather awkward scene in and of itself since I was both counting them and folding them into little squares because I am an awkward person.

As it turns out, currently walking the streets of Saigon is a small Vietnamese woman adorning my pink and blue speckled cotton fruit of the looms.  On one hand, I am an advocate for Vietnamese people wearing underwear.  It is a good thing.  On the other hand, I am not a fan of Vietnamese people wearing my underwear – and if they do, they should at least ask before deciding to put them on, thereby allowing me to stare at them for being nuts and, to an extent, very Vietnamese.

According to the inventory of my folded square underwear (it saves room), the giat ui has been stealing underwear from me.  This has been a consistent trend since they have also stolen underwear from the other Americans on this trip.  Not socks, not shirts, not pants.  Underwear.  The best part of this story is that none of us know where else we can possibly go to wash clothes and thus drop our clothes off every week at said giat ui knowing that we will suffer further underwear depletion due to the underground world of pastel panty trade in Vietnam.

Adaptation Please:

  • (5) “I found a trusted supplier of new underwear, but my American body only fits size 6XL.”

Here is the second part of my harrowing tale of the underground underwear theft circa 2008:

Facing a shortage of underwear, I ventured into the supermarket to purchase more.  Complicating the process is the fact that my American, calcium fortified diet has afforded me, in the words of my sister, Asian J-Lo-esque “Bronx booty magic”.  Yay calcium!  Although this bodes well for long motorcycle rides, it makes things infinitely harder when one must purchase underwear, resulting in situations like stretching underwear in the middle of Vietnamese supermarkets or, as I would like to call, a typical Sunday morning.

Vietnamese people at the check-out counters have a tendency to judge people for their purchases.  On one particular Sunday morning, I was in need of underwear, water, and crackers.  This story ends with the check-out lady looking at me with amusement as she scanned my underwear, my Aquafina, and my saltine crackers.  If I had enough Vietnamese in me, I would have looked her in the eye and said, “Why yes, I eat saltines and drink water in my underwear.  Thanks.”

Pre-Return Ups and Downs Phase:

  • (6) “Oh!  Meat on a stick.”
  • (7) Shitting in a literal pile of Chinese garbage.

Also a true story:

After a long hike through southwest China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge, I hastily consumed a very greasy, satisfying bowl of fried rice. I proceed to a tour bus en route to our hotel nearly 2 hours away. Within 5 minutes of sitting, I develop painful, debilitating pains – the kind of pain one obtains when you ravenously consume dubious bowls of fried rice. I can best describe the pain as feeling as if a wild, rabid raccoon was stuck in my bowels and desperately clawing it’s way out – and down.

My partner, who is fluent in the Chinese dialects of Cantonese and Toisan, knows approximately 10 phrases of Mandarin. She somehow strings together a few of these phrases to successfully halt the bus so that I can scamper to a bathroom stall in the middle of a rural market. In my anxiety about holding up a bus full of Chinese people, I am too nervous and ultimately fail to go to the bathroom. I return to the bus. The pain returns. I teeter on the edge of exploding.

A sweaty, painful hour and 45 minutes later, I cannot hold it anymore. My partner convinces the driver to let us off in middle of a street, in an unknown town, in the middle of China with 10 phrases of Mandarin known between the two of us. I desperately search for a bathroom. There are no bathrooms, but there is most definitely a field of garbage.

End of story.

  • (8) Hella fluids.
  • (9) “I feel like I am going to die of dysentery.”

Return Home/Missing Other Culture Phase:

  • (10) “Life was so care-free abroad, except that time I almost died of dysentery.”
  • (11) Full-blown travel superiority complex.

Editor’s Note:  I will be traveling, developing new materials, and intensively working on a new digital and audio project in the months of July and August.  This blog will be back in weekly form on Monday, 8/28.  I’m looking forward to sharing more then!