Brooklyn, The Place Where People Say Hello

I have been in New York City for 2 weeks now, visiting friends and places I’ve missed in the past 9 months of living in Beijing.

As happy as I am to be surrounded by friends again, I can’t help but feel out of place here. Feeling out of place in the city I considered “home” is a truly shitty situation to be in when I only have 2 months to re-immerse. Perhaps it’s counter culture shock, or I feel lost because I can’t remember the name of every station and connecting line of every subway train, or maybe I’ve just changed a lot. I can’t pinpoint the exact reason for this strange feeling, but it better go away soon because I’d like to enjoy myself thoroughly this vacation.

Now how about the good stuff. Well as the title of this post says, Brooklyn is a place where people say hello and it’s awesome! I’ve done a lot of strolling these past few weeks, reacquainting with my old neighborhood. During these strolls, countless people said hi, waved, smiled, nodded, said hello in Chinese, cat called. One guy, middle-aged, waved hello and said hi to every single person he walked past, including people in cars. A little boy with long, curly blonde hair ran past an elderly man sitting on a lawn chair in front of his Park Slope apartment on a busy sidewalk yelling HELLLLOOO! These are just two instances of friendly greetings that put a gigantic smile on my face.

When I was walking up 2nd Ave. in Manhattan, I noticed a short, Latino man karate-chopping some scaffolds. I gave him a smile, acknowledging his Jackie Chan-equivalent skillz and continued on. Then I heard, “China (‘chee-na’), China, do you like to eat?” to which I responded, “YEAH I like to eat (duh!!!)” “You wanna get some lunch with me? Or some coffee? I’d like to buy you something to eat.” “Oh, no thank you, I just ate. Look at my leftovers! Maybe another time.” “Alright…another time baby.”

At the Delicate Steve show last night at Mercury Lounge, somebody mistook me for the Asian keyboardist of the opening band, People Get Ready. I was chatting about China with a bouncer I used to know from my days of frequenting bars. The bouncer had just said something about me wearing all red (haha, China, Communist, get it?), when another dude interrupted to ask me something. I thought he asked, “Are you a spy???” thinking maybe he was just chiming in on our China conversation, so I said, hahaha yes, I AM a spy! He was like, huh? Well, did you? Did I what? DID YOU JUST PLAY? I finally understood he thought I was the girl from People Get Ready. No siree, I know all of us Asians look exactly the same and I’m flattered you thought I was her because she was beautiful and hip, but unfortunately I am not her. I am Emily He, queen of all that is good and holy.

I’m sitting in a sunny cafe called Tiny Cup drinking delicious Counter Culture coffee (HOW IRONIC) and life is good. My mind is all over the place, likely from too much caffeine in one sitting. The brownstones on all the tree-lined streets and people hanging out on their stoops are so Brooklyn-y. Drinking coffee, listening to indie music and blogging on my Mac is so Brooklyn-y. Mommies pushing their babies around, mail-men and -women chatting with the locals and kids running through the streets after school is all so Brooklyn-y. Everything takes time. It’s going to take time for me to get back in the swing of what it means to be Brooklyn. But wait, I think what I loved most about Brooklyn is that everyone can be exactly who they are and still find their niche or niches or even complete isolation if that’s what they want.

So, I need to let down my hair (after I get my haircut tomorrow!) and just be myself and embrace every moment I have in this awesome city I once, and still can, call home. Oooooh, optimism is a good feeling. It’s good to be back.

 

 


My Blooming Neighborhood

February

March

April


to be a kid again

If Peter Pan showed up at my window and asked me to join him in Neverland, I would fly away in a heartbeat. I’m only 23, but I can feel that as time ticks away, so do bits and pieces of things I treasured most in my childhood, like my imagination.

When I was little, the rooms of my dream house were connected by tunnels and slides. I built forts out of sofa cushions and blankets and it never felt small. One year the Tooth Fairy left me a purple crystal with my tooth in it, and other years she left me money under my pillow. But now that I’m an “adult” who “knows better,” I won’t expect an allowance under my pillow when my teeth begin to fall out, because that’s Life, as much as I wish it wasn’t.

The other day I noticed a little girl, maybe 2-3 years old, who stood wide-eyed before paper butterflies that hung from the ceiling at a mall entrance, marveling at the slight flapping of their wings from the breeze of the swinging doors. I had walked by this display earlier and thought how cheesy the decorations were, but watching the girl in fascination over the fake flowers and butterflies, I realized how much I miss seeing beauty in the ordinary. For a second I tried to envision what the girl saw–a thousand rainbow butterflies floating above a colorful meadow, sparkling with reflections of the sun. In that moment, I too could see the beauty of the cheap  display at the mall entrance. But a moment later, I walked out the swinging door and yelled at a driver for running a red light.

One of the reasons I love kids so much is that I am fascinated by them. They find beauty in ordinary things; they can make things come alive; they find life in obscure places and aren’t afraid to approach them; they don’t complicate things unnecessarily; they don’t discriminate; and they are fearless. Life can be taken at face value when you’re young and untainted. And when Life gets hard, kids can escape to worlds conjured up in their own minds, whereas adults hide their pain behind beer and pill bottles. It’s a shame we have to grow up.

Before I got into my first relationship, I remember wanting to feel heartache. I thought it was part of growing up, of  being human, and I wanted to experience it. Of course it hurt a lot when it actually happened, and rather than having spent hours upon hours analyzing what went wrong, I wish I could’ve just escaped to Neverland, or to an island where the Wild Things live. Reality would have been much easier to cope with.

After my parents’ divorce, I was glad to be far away from them so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. Unfortunately, like Dementors, Life seeped its way across the ocean to interfere with my usual cheerfulness. During that time I often wished to be a kid again, where living in blissful ignorance innocence veiled any and all miseries.

No one should have to grow up “too fast” but when they do, it’s nearly always a painful process. My family members often tell me how 单纯 (danchun), “simple, naive” I am, a fact that I think is ascribed to my Americanized upbringing. My cousin, on the other hand, grew up in China with divorced parents — still a taboo at the time — and a mother who didn’t act like one. While her parents carried on with their own misery or when her mother was absent, my cousin had to fend for herself. Besides what she dealt with at home, she saw ugliness outside too. She learned about Life and all its hardships at a young age when kids I grew up with in Brookline, Massachusetts were playing tag and painting pictures at daycare. Now at  22 years old, my cousin looks, acts and thinks far beyond her age, and definitely far beyond me. The painful part of all of this besides a lost childhood? She wants to be close to her mother.

Perhaps this is a generalization, but from my observations and conversations with adults and children alike, I’ve concluded this: Chinese kids grow up too fast. By the time they’re teenagers, imagination is drilled out of them. One of my biggest difficulties when teaching is getting my students to be creative. They are not yet adults, and they are playful, but their minds have been molded to fit exam bubbles. And this is just the result of the education system; Life, as it was for my cousin, is the other predator.

I started volunteering at a migrant worker community center on the outskirts of Beijing a couple weeks ago. Just being around the kids there is uplifting and even refreshing. They remind me how even the simplest things, like throwing a hackeysack in the air by yourself, can be fun. And getting dirt on your clothes, hands and face is no big deal (as long as you wash up with soap before sticking anything in your mouth). My responsibilities at the center are lacking, but just spending time with the kids is worth the 1 hour 45 minute commute.

As you can probably tell I’m reminiscent of childhood (but I wouldn’t go so far as to start acting like a baby). I like to believe that some of my imagination is still intact and that the rooms of my future house will be accessible by slides. Also, perhaps as subconscious resistance to growing up completely, I find the most enjoyment in stories/plots with child protagonists. Stories like The Little Prince, Where The Wild Things Are, Harry Potter, and Millions take me back to the best days of my life and remind me how precious it is to be a kid. Yes, they are all written by adults, but by adults whom I admire very much for their ability to tell stories from the point of view of size 2 shoes, a wolf suit, and a crown.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m living at home again, or the fact that babies are everywhere in China, or the fact that Life throws negativities once in a while that has stirred me to think about my childhood so much lately. I also recently read Dave Eggers’ The Wild Things. More likely, though, it is a combination of all these factors. I can’t remember when my first time saying “I wish I were a kid again” was, but it has since become a commonly used phrase in my life. I know it’s never going to happen, but maybe if I wish for it at my next birthday and blow out all the candles, it will come true.

Meanwhile, I’m just “drafting through Fairyland…”

I thought I should mention, as I was writing this post, “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell came on, brilliantly summing up everything I just babbled about and gently bringing me back to earth. The world works in funny ways, even for adults, doesn’t it?

Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star

Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like when you’re older must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game *

Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels thru the town
And they tell him take your time it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There’ll be new dreams maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

– Joni Mitchell


Sonya, will you be my Valentine?

In light of V-Day, I dedicate this post to my best friend, Sonya (don’t cry, Sonitchka!), with whom I have already shared 15 years of Grade A friendship.

This is Sonya kickin' butt all over the globe.

It all began in Mr. DeLong’s 4th grade class. At 9 years old, we went on our first double date to see The Man in the Iron Mask, chaperoned by her mom who ate all the popcorn (don’t deny it, Sonya). We spent so many hours of our childhood playing Rummikub and Spit, eating McDonald’s sneakily behind the bushes in front of her apartment building, hanging out on street corners and at each other’s homes playing Mario on old-school Nintendo, having sleepovers, watching Pay-Per-View and eating the best Russian food at her house, and giggling about boys like any girl at that age. I also spent Hanukkahs with Sonya’s family and their Russian friends. Then on Christmas Day, we would go to our school field to make snow angels while singing Christmas carols. That is one of my all-time favorite memories of us.

When we got to high school, we still spent every waking hour together. We walked to school together every morning, until I could drive, then I would pick her up. Sometimes we’d stop in Starbucks for a slice of Lemon Loaf and a Caramel Frappucino, or at Finagle a Bagel for Lox. At lunch, we’d go to Sealey’s, a nearby diner, for tuna melts and turkey clubs until we decided it was too greasy and changed up our routine to include Virginia’s deli-sandwiches. For dessert, we’d pop by Eddie’s, a snack truck parked at our school, for ice cream. Sonya and I were obviously very health-conscious.

Without exaggeration, Sonya and I were attached at the hip throughout elementary, middle and high school. It was rare to see one of us without the other.

Unfortunately, college severed the invisible cord and we became individual beings, an inevitable part of growing up. While she stayed in Boston I went off to Ithaca (is Gorges), NY. We made new friends and new memories that didn’t include the other. Naturally, we grew apart a little bit even though we saw each other here and there. We reunited after college when she moved to New York City, and while it wasn’t the same as our childhood years–we were more health conscious, more mature, had jobs, and had our own friends–Sonya and I still share something untouchable.

A happy Sonya is a happy Emily.

Funny thing is, we are very different people. She’s clean, I’m messy. We have different interests and taste in men, and we view the world differently. Somehow, even though we agreed we could never be roommates because we would eat each other alive, we are still friends. What I love most about Sonya are her sense of humor and maturity. She’s very different from most people because she’s real and does this thing I call “craugh” where she laughs and cries at the same time. She doesn’t beat around the bush like I do, and she’s a fierce debater. We often bicker about stupid things like whether palm trees can grow indoors (she won this one), but we get over it and laugh about how ridiculously the other person behaved.

(circa 10th grade)

While I am showering Sonya with compliments, here’s another one: Sonya is a goddess in the kitchen (and probably in other rooms, if ya catch my drift…oh lala!). She can bake a mean apple crisp and stir up chicken fajita like nobody’s business. I haven’t had this in years, but I’m still reminded of it any time I see strawberries. In middle school, Sonya blended me the best strawberry milkshake in the world, one that I cannot recreate without her magic touch. Whoever she ends up with–somebody who will never be good enough for her according to my standards–will be one damned lucky fella.

Sonya, I know I can be difficult and say stupid things and date even stupider men, but I still hope you can be my Valentine…for the rest of my life!

LOVE YOU LIKE A FAT CHINESE KID LOVES DUMPLINGS (I’m talking about myself of course)!

Me and Sonya all grown up with the tip of our triangle, Jett. We are the Triumphant Trio.

UPPITY WOMEN UNITE! UPPITY WOMEN UNITE! UPPITY WOMEN UNITE!

(I had to come back and insert this video:)


I’m Back!

For the past 2 weeks I have been visiting Grandma He and paternal family in Chongqing to celebrate 春節 (Chūnjié), Spring  Festival/Chinese New Year  (Year of the Dragon!). This was my first Spring Festival, a 15-day celebration (1/15-2/6), in the motherland. In the States, this holiday meant little to me but huge potlucks with our Chinese family friends in Boston, an annual event that sadly diminished as I got older.

Grandma He, the cutest most grandma-ey-ist grandma on earth!

The spirit of Spring Festival is equivalent to the entire holiday season back home which explains why the spirit I was missing around Christmas was far but made up for. Red lanterns hung everywhere, businesses offered special 春節 discounts, train tickets sold out, a week off from work, traffic cleared up (AMAZING), bags packed and most everybody was back home with their families, and I with mine.

Spring Festival has a lot of traditions that I don’t think my family keeps to. But the ones we did maintain this year included eating a Reunion Dinner,  cringing as we watched the annual Spring Festival Evening Broadcast (6 hours of flashy, cheesy music, dance, and comedy) on TV, exchanging red envelopes ($$$!), eating “rice dumplings” filled with black sesame (nom nom), and setting off fireworks (terrifying). I read in the China Daily that at least 70% Chinese people gain weight over this break, and according to my scale, this is accurate.

Right next to our balcony!

We did a whole lot of sitting around this holiday, but that’s part of the tradition: being at home. However, when I wasn’t at home learning how to knit socks with my grandma, stifling her dogs with my love and affection, munching on snacks, playing games on my phone, sniffling because of my cold, and freezing my buttocks off because there’s no indoor heating in the south, I was out and about with my parents, throwing ourselves in the mix of massive crowds. My uncle, a Chinese history professor turned businessman, took us to several awesome places I never knew existed including Dazu Mountain, Longxing Ancient Town, the former Communist Party headquarters in Chongqing, and Baigongguan (Kuomintang’s cruel prison for Communists in the 1940s). We even took a 2 hour train ride to Chengdu, the city with the best food–and pandas–in the world! Don’t you worry, I’ll write more about that trip in another post.

If there were a sudden natural disaster, we would all be doomed. (Photo taken at Ciqikou)

Sakyamuni Entering State of Nirvana at Dazu Mountain

Longxing Ancient Town: Mahjohng Haven

A room in the Communist Party headquarters (photographs were not allowed so don't tell!)

Cave for Interrogation at Baigongguan

Me and Yoshitomo Nara's Little Red Riding Hood at Chongqing's Three Gorges Museum

I’m back in Beijing now, 10 degrees colder outside but infinitely warmer and more comfortable indoors, and fireworks are still exploding (quite an annoyance). I have many, many more photos to show you but I’ll post them in installments to keep you comin’ back for more!! I will, however, leave you with this:

My dad.


The Christmas Grouch

I woke up a real Christmas grouch.

I know how you feel!

From having to work at 8:30 a.m. to misplacing my itouch and prickling my finger fumbling through my bag in search of it (don’t worry, I found it), to doing a mad-Christmas-gift-dash in the busiest part of the city, to coming home to an empty house, you might understand why I was not feeling the spirit.

Christmas Crowd

Yesterday was more eventful. To start the day off pleasantly, I received a package all the way from Boston from my friend Grace, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more awesome.

!!!!!!!!!!!

I requested that if my friends ever send me anything in the mail, it be themselves. So, thoughtful as Grace is, she sent me a mini-cardboard cutout of herself (to the right of the cookies) on top of the best box of cookies ever, a life-size Santa hat and a children’s book which I’ve already read twice to my students (Grace and I have a tradition of giving each other children’s books as gifts–I think that’s pretty cool). It’s hard to beat those gifts, especially when my students came over later with gift-wrapped fruits and a can of cola. I was so confused.

Rather than calling Christmas Eve “Christmas Eve,” the Chinese refer to it as Silent Night, or literally translated from Chinese, Peace Night (pinganye, 平安夜). The tradition–I now understand–is to give apples (pingguo, 苹果) to wish someone peacefulness. I also got an orange (juzi, 橘子) to symbolize good fortune and a can of Pepsi (kele, 可乐) to symbolize happiness. Clever, but also a waste of plastic–oh negative Nancy, it’s the thought that counts!

As for Christmas Day, my spirits were eventually lifted when my aunt and uncle arrived from Kunming, and we rushed off to catch my cousin perform in a typical Chinese “gala”–the kind of event you see on any Chinese TV channel–which consists of food, drinks and live performances. We ended the night eating hot pot, not exactly Christmasy, but it was shared with family. If I recall correctly, this is the first Christmas since junior year of high school that I’ve spent with my parents because they were always either working or were already in China. Growing up, I mostly celebrated Christmas with family friends, which–while I consider them family too–was always still a bit lonely.

Well, Christmas flew by this year; it came and went. But this is just the beginning of the holiday season! I expect Chinese New Years to be explosively festive (lots of fireworks involved I hear)!

Any-Cindy-Lou-Who, it’s time for bed. Stuffed to the brim, it’s going to be hard to fall asleep tonight…

To end another Christmas, I leave you with a classic. Wham!

Merry Christmas (to those who celebrate)! Happy Holidays!


Missing Brooklyn

I had a Cranberry White Chocolate Mocha (my parents insisted) at Starbucks the other day while waiting for my flight at the airport. Normally, I don’t step foot in Starbucks, but the cozy couches and the Christmas decorations lured me in. That was the first moment I felt homesick for America.

I was disappointed they didn't have Peppermint Hot Chocolate.

Around this time of year back home, I would be walking out of my way just to step in piles of dry, crinkly leaves to hear the crunch, crunch, crunch under my boots. My roommate would probably be working on her stewed beef recipe or baking something delicious with Golden Girls or Christmas music playing in the background. Our apartment would be decked out in oranges, yellows and reds in preparation for Thanksgiving. I would be brewing up a Hot Toddie with fresh apple cider from the farmer’s market…

Just writing this is making my Brooklyn-sickness stronger. This is the best time of year to be in the States, and particularly in my former neighborhood, South Park Slope, where everything inside and out just feels so homey. I miss window shopping in the cold and stepping into one of the many cozy coffee shops to warm my hands and stomach with a hot cup of coffee. I miss walking down the block to my favorite neighborhood bar (Bar 718, if you’re ever in South Slope, you should pop over for a visit–you’ll feel at home in no time) for my typical whisky-ginger and a good chat with good people. I miss the smell of apple pie, the excitement for the holidays, the decorations, and even the music. I miss my backyard.

The most beautiful Red Shack in my backyard

One thing to be grateful for this holiday season, however, is that I will be spending it with my parents. I can’t remember the last time I spent Thanksgiving or Christmas with them. My mom moved back to China 6 years ago, my dad 4, but even when they were still living in the States, they always worked then. But life is about compromises, so I guess this year–and maybe the next–I will compromise the Hot Toddies, the decorations (I don’t know where to find a pumpkin around here!), the crunch, crunch, crunching, the apple pies, and the strolls in Brooklyn for time to spend with mom and dad. That’s what the holidays are all about after all–family! This winter won’t be Park Slope homey; it’ll be a different kind of homey, but that’s just as well.

Besides, I can still watch Love Actually.

Photo credit: http://millefiorifavoriti.blogspot.com/2011/11/autumn-in-park-slope-brooklyn.html This blogger captures in photo precisely the stroll I was reminiscing above. Take a look!