2013: Moment

Moment. Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year. Describe it in vivid detail.

In 2012, it was using the ocean as a “big toilet” while floating outside Palawan. In 2011, it was my birthday moment. In 2010, it was the success in Journey to the End to the Night.

Well, it’s quite obvious in 2013.

Yasar and us

I always talk about the man in Istanbul. The ice cream maker who was orphaned and because of his ice cream love, he snuck onto a boat to Italy where he learned the art of gelato. Then he returned years later after becoming a maestro to bring gelato to his home neighborhood.

Yes, there’s some logic that doesn’t make sense. And that there is so much romanticism in that.

But I remember that event so distinctly that it impacted me. I watched him tell the story. Not in two to three lines as other ice cream makers would. In Turkish, he told his story over minutes, continuing and continuing in the dark night, lit by protestors waving flags and the like.

At the time, I was impressed with myself. The fact that I was able to convince a friend of a former coworker who introduced me to his Italian teacher in Bologna. I met the Italian teacher and she introduced me to her student who introduced me to her college friend in Istanbul. He helped us translate and made our difficult interview successful.

And it was all that struggle to just get this interview. And how his eyes were so proud that somebody finally listened to him. Although in all my writing Chris is regulated in the background, without him, I would have dragged my feet in depression. He came, helped me with the photos, the audio, and eating the ice cream.

At the very end as we were about to depart, the ice cream maker said, “The best memory is my first day. The second best memory is when you came here to speak with me.”

2013: One Word

One Word. Encapsulate the year in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2014 for you?

The one word that captures this year (from 2012, 2011 and 2010):


I first wrote “reflection”. But that wasn’t quite right. That is everything that I write in this blog. But rather, it’s understanding.

In Istanbul, an ice cream maker responded to me in Turkish. I watched him carefully as he said words that I didn’t understand. His face seemed to show so much joy. So much pleasure in his work. He looked between us—a local friend, Chris, and me. In his 5 minute response, I thought that he was describing a typical answer. A response to a standard question of “what is your happiest moment?” I expected the pleasure of the first day and the first customer. Yes, it did contain that. But there was more. He said that it was when we came to speak with him. And in that very moment, he voice wavered. I didn’t notice in the harsh fluorescent lights in the late evening. My local friend did and mentioned it to me later.

I always strive for understanding. For why people do things. And even though I missed that moment. This year, I better understand others and myself. I can see clearly why people fight and why people say nothing. I mentioned to a friend once why his brother didn’t want to visit their dad. “Because he’s afraid,” I said.

My friend was stunned for a moment and said, “I never thought about that. Thank you.”

Some may say that I was crazy to go on a journey around the world to taste ice cream. What I actually believe was that I wanted to understand happiness. I wanted to understand if happiness is the same throughout the world. I wanted to understand if we became happy the same way. I wanted to understand why my happiness was so fleeting despite having everything.

I wanted to understand my boundaries and where I could not let others cross. Where it was enough for me. Where it was okay to stretch. And simply to understand myself so that I could accept myself.

People are the same everywhere. That is, everyone likes pizza (except me).

Everybody loves ice cream. Especially their first time.

Everyone wants to know their father.

Next year, I hope that it’s more of understanding. I hope that it’s revelation. I hope that it’s innovation. To gain a different perspective.

Was I allergic to Christmas?


I brought up the white towel to my face again. I blinked, and my head throbbed. My nose felt rubbed raw. Why wasn’t the antihistamine working? I drank the hot tea, pointing my nose into the steam. But in a moment, my nose dripped and a single tear formed down my eye.

Several years ago, I would wake up on Saturday and as Chris called it, I was a hot mess. For three consecutive Saturdays, my face would run dry and I refused Benedryl, unhappy with its side effects of drowsiness and disorientation. But always, I would relent, wanting to decrease my suffering and the day would be again shot.

So yesterday, I was like that. At an afternoon holiday party, during the gift exchange and parading around plates of catered Chinese food. At an evening holiday party, I crouched in the corner of the sofa, trying to be attentive and open, but my eyes blinked and I wanted to put heavily wet towel over my face and lie down.

Then as we left (partially due to my demand), my allergies ceased. I felt better in the car as we zoomed away. Done with Christmas for another year. In the car, I passionately argued with certain lucidity about mobile technology and big data. Then as I stepped outside the car, the San Francisco wind blew past me. I felt fine, breathing the air. No tickles. No stuffiness. It’s as if the suffering never happening.

So then, was I allergic to Christmas? Or to just the spirit?

My grandfather passed away…

It was very unlike how my grandmother, his wife, passed away. Very unlike the night that I suddenly woke up around 3 am. I knew it then. When I was around 12 or 13. The night was quiet then, and I was lying in my childhood room lit by my trust night light. Then I heard the phone ring in a distant room and a soft patter down the stairs. The garage below my room opened, and a car roared out.

I closed my eyes then, and when morning arose, my parents told me. What followed was dizzying days of relatives arriving, visiting a funeral home, and seeing adults cry and wail for the first time in front of me. My sister and I gave an odd, awkward speech. Optimistic, because we never were quite close to her. Some people called our speech very un-Christian because we talked about how our grandmother may be in another animal, another human, another life. But we sensed that no matter what, her long suffering of years from various ailments was finally at an end.

On the other hand, my grandfather fell into a downward spiral only in the last few months. In clear lucidity, he begged to move on. Perhaps frustrated that nearly everyone he knew except his children and their children were no longer alive. Yet in his last days, he told the chaplain that he wanted to live because his children wanted him to live. My family may seem simple, happy even…but deep inside, we harbor deep wounds and complexity despite all the lasting marriages and successful careers. So I wondered what he really meant. That he wanted to be a good person despite it all? To say that he lived for his children was the best thing to say? To say…most importantly, I am a good father.

Insomnia stole my lucidity

As I backed my car into my narrow garage, the walls looked different. Was it higher? Was it closer? A faint headache seemed to rise at the back of my head. Blaring its presence. The walls whimpered, and I climbed the stairs. Every single dark stain shivered.

I let the water from the shower rinse everything off. Wrapping myself in the hot water, I breathed deeply. But it was seemingly different. A pit inside me felt anxious and fearful. Of possibility, of fear, of failure. My door seemed to waver. Was that a doorbell? Chiming three times? Was it my ears yearning for familiarity? Images pass through my mind. I blink, and they skitter away. A dullness settles over my eyes.

Sleep roars it gentle head. But insomnia is so much bigger. It engulfed me last night, and I hope that it is locked up tonight.

As we walked through the lavender fields…

…he looked to the valley below and said, “Isn’t that amazing?”

I faintly smiled and retreated to my true self, “I see green. The mist covers the green. I don’t feel anything. It’s only sugar cane. It’s the water on both sides. Didn’t I see this at Ko Phi Phi?”

In this world, there are so many moments captured about the sunset, expansive vistas, and the water. I struggle all the time when I see these vistas. When friends return from trips, they boast about the amazing fauna and sunsets. I trick myself into believing that it can be possible. I study the photos and imagine the emotions that I am supposed to feel at the edge of rocks. The colors, the sweeping vistas, the clear water trick me again. That truly I will feel something when I stand on a peak of a mountain and look at the green pasture.

But standing in the upcountry of Maui, I felt nothing. Wasn’t there supposed to be majesty? Why do all the doctors and everything tell that nature is incredible for you? Sure, I enjoy the warm rays of sunshine, but the greenery feels cold and unwelcome. I yearn for the comfort of my own bed and a roof over my head. I like hearing stories of farms and people.

Last year, a filmmaker intrigued by my story invited me out for coffee. He was fascinated that I watched his film even though I did it out of politeness. In my living room alone, I painfully sat through his film watching stills of nature interspersed with a woman’s narration. The narration was moving, but the long scenes of the clouds moving and the trees waving bored me. I wanted movement. I wanted the eyes of something, anything. I wanted the stories of why, not what.

Now sitting in Dolores Park with the cold San Francisco sun, I felt out of place. I didn’t like the feeling of sitting on the lawn. I didn’t like the wind brushing against my cheek. The filmmaker asked if I would accompany him to a secret place. “A secret place up in Marin where you can see the ocean and have the forest surround you in a special way never found anywhere else in the Bay Area,” he said. “It’s a hike, but the view is so rewarding.”

I politely smiled and said, “Nature isn’t for me. I don’t like walking. Trees and views don’t do anything for me.”

Stunned, he gave me a look of disbelief. He said, “I never met anybody who doesn’t like nature. I don’t understand.”

I changed the subject, feeling the distance increase between us. We parted ways at a nearby cafe after I started shivering in the wind. I never talked to him again.

Impressions of Maui

In addition to writing, I did many things that a typical traveler would do in Maui. Snorkle, scuba diving, eat, play in the water, play in the sand, drive to Hana, visit local farms, watch whales, and….yet.

If I had never traveled to South Thailand or Palawan in the Philippines…and so many other beaches in the world, would I feel different about Maui? I have seen majestic beaches and swam in warmer waters (even a beach where the water was boiling hot). I have seen coral and fishies (although this was quite nice). But I wonder too is it because the love of nature never was grown inside me. That when I see hiking trails, when I see the opportunity to camp, the trek across beaches…all I can think about is how uncomfortable it is. I want to view it from the comfort of my own home and the pleasure of my own mattress.

Having trekked across almost ten countries in the last two years, have I just gotten to the point where everything blends together? And it’s the comfort of sleep and the ease of travel that drives me?

Although I have to admit that the best thing that I loved was that English was the common language. American culture was the norm…and expected (even if it’s practicing Aloha).

After a 2 hour whaling trip off the coast from Lahaina, we trekked and found a trendy noodle restaurant…completely off the beaten path, discovered only because many of my foursquare friends visited. We played on the beach in the north, covering each other in sand. Then we looked at the coral. Then we tried our best to wash the sand, sneaking into parking lots and showers where we weren’t supposed to be. We went up to the top level of the mall, poking our head into shops…and walking out. Then walking into a museum asking each other…hey is this worth it? then we backed out. Like a typical weekend. Wasn’t it?

Favorite movies, quick!

For my own reference (since I was asked in class recently), in no particular order:

  1. Before Sunrise (and its sequels Before Sunset and Before Midnight)
  2. Hable con Ella (in English, Talk to Her)
  3. Twin Falls Idaho
  4. The Rock (even if it’s super mainstream, there’s something about it that I really love—maybe it’s Sean Connery?)
  5. Good bye, Lenin!
  6. Say Anything
  7. Zombadings!
  8. Battle Royale
  9. The Departed (yes, even more than the movie it’s based on, Infernal Affairs)
  10. The Conversation

Honorable mention (aka movies I used to say were my favorites, but now I am not too sure anymore): Finding Nemo, Seven, Run Lola Run, Inception, The Shawshank Redemption, Gravity (undecided)

Maybe just a dash of flour and a drop of milk

This morning, I looked at the microwave where two bananas laid in wait. That is, fruit flies also laid in wait. A few weeks ago, I found a great deal and bought up a bunch of bananas. And today, as I guiltily got morning drink (today: fresh ginger and fresh lemon), my eyes rested on the yellow objects in a plastic bag where I could see black dots moving.

I told myself, “Today is the day.”

I stripped the bananas. Removed the single black part (I am not that disgusting!). Then proceeded to estimate a recipe for banana bread. Of course, being that it was two bananas, the resulting mixture was less than optimal. The flour was still dry, sticking to the egg and butter. It looked like a barely recognizable pizza dough. I grabbed milk from the fridge. Whole milk that I used earlier for a bread pudding that I disliked for its overpowering taste of rum. I poured a little in. Then with a swoop, I poured the whole thing in.

Now that looks right, I thought. Something felt wrong. I poured it into my loaf pan and set it for 350° F. I went away and checked on it in a hour. It looked like it needed more time. So I promptly forgot about it for another 30 minutes, immersed in writing proposals and creative nonfiction workshop…also flitting from my ice cream travel guide to personal essays.

I ran over to the kitchen from my desk. It looked pretty good. I turned it over on a plate and the innards, the banana mush, the milk banana mash spilled out of an opening. Banana cereal. Banana-flavored milk that is. I hesitated and covered it with a paper towel, pretending it never happened. I retreated back to my desk, drinking my ginger lemon drink and absently munching on the dark-colored Jelly Belly beans that I didn’t like. I forgot about the banana bread mess until now.

The most salient memory of Hawaii

It’s not when I replied “Yes!” to a classmate’s comment of “You’re so lucky”, and then she frowned, “That’s not nice.” It’s not the black sand on the beaches that got stuck on my feet and I got it all over the car. It’s not when we went through a gift shop and tried out all colored clothing. It’s not when we walked near the active volcano, and the heat pleasantly touched my face. It’s not when I got off the plane, and a lei was put over me as tears streamed down my face as a result of anger against my parents.

It wasn’t any of those things.

It was my sister in despair at the luau. My sister and I sat near the front. They had performances of traditional dances. And it was that moment when the host asked for volunteers to come up to the stage. I don’t remember the exact words he used. I only remember him laughing as he waved the kids up. As they ran up, he suddenly said, “Oh I am joking!” And my sister came back to me, her excitement killed, and her eyes brimming with tears. I whispered words of comfort and anger toward the host.

For years, I never was compelled to return. I always wondered if that was the reason that I preferred travel away from beaches and the tropics. But hearing my friends and coworkers speak wonders of Hawaii, I started wondering why not? Moreover, I had my fill of cities—after spending an obscene amount of time in Italy, traveling from city to city, never quite seeing the ocean. I touched the water in Sicily, but the pebbles on the beach shattered the experience. So a few months ago, I took all my mileage and purchased a pair of airplane tickets. I found a small vacation rental in Maui for under $100/night.

I hope that this time that the memory is something better. Maybe even typical. Because what “paradise” deserves such sad memories?