Small Thrills

Recently I realized that I have become comfortable being uncomfortable. Sometimes I am socially fluid; other times, not. But I usually don’t let the possibility of being uncomfortable prevent me from doing something. If anything, I am glad that there are still new frontiers to cross.

I am not someone who seeks thrills in roller coasters or skydivers; these everyday encounters outside my comfort zone are what send a tingle to my soul.

I wonder if I gained an ease with not understanding what’s going on from living in a country where the language was not my native tongue.

Earlier this year, a friend invited me to join her and her friend at a concert by a Ukrainian pianist. I hear “piano concert” and I go.

I arrived about an hour early after having spent hours at my friend’s Galentine’s Day party in Brooklyn. It was cold outside, so luckily there was a nice waiting space inside the cultural center where the concert was to take place. I munched on the bagel and homemade chocolate doughnut with heart sprinkles from the party.

My friend and her friend showed up, and we chatted a bit before finding seats. It turned out that the concert was a performance of old American songs, some little known and others recognizable. In between pieces, the American singer and the Ukrainian pianist explained the background of the songs and the influence between the United States and Europe over that time period.

Afterward, we stayed for the little reception. The reason my friend’s friend had heard about this concert is that her daughter had gone to the same music school as the pianist. She is Russian, and my friend is Kazakh and speaks Russian (in addition to Kazakh and French). Within a few minutes, I realized that almost everyone attending the small recital spoke Russian. I stood with four or five people as they conversed. My friend didn’t say much but clearly understood everything, and once in a while she’d translate for me. Being in that environment kind of tickled me since it was such a surprise. Saturday night with a bunch of Russian speakers after an intimate concert of American songs—why not? I love these kind of “random” events. It felt so cultural, and maybe even more special to be an outsider—that is to say, not typically part of this community. In another way, I did not have the impression of being an outsider at all—I felt that I belonged there.

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Overheard this month:

“A $600 pair of shoes. Hah!”
– An older woman walking through the bus station, exclaiming to herself. Amen, sistah! I’ve never spent anything close to that amount on an item of clothing.

“Don’t be ashamed to cry. Crying is good.”
– A man to a man who sits on the floor of the subway staircase landing every morning. Casual conversation (no one was crying).

“An elevator full of women of color at [company I work at]. I dig it.”
– Young black woman. There were seven of us in the elevator, six young black women and me (Asian American).

Sure, sometimes I witness negative or disturbing interactions, like the other night when I saw a woman sitting on the sidewalk screaming and crying while a man stood next to her and two police officers tried to handle the situation. We’re constantly bumping into people’s pain and skirting around it. It’s nice to encounter positive interactions too. In the span of one week I saw a woman laughing aloud, a man encouraging the expression of vulnerability and emotion, and a woman who infused positivity in an elevator of strangers. There are reasons to hope.

Pink

When my sister and I were kids, my mom was dismayed that our favorite colors were purple and green, respectively. Isn’t part of the fun of having two little girls dressing them in pink?

Maybe her love of pink sank into my penchants subconsciously, because as an adult I found my wardrobe becoming pink and red.

The first time I realized that I had developed a style was around sophomore year of college. I bought a sleeveless red shirt with a lacy crocheted trim around the neck in a secondhand store. When I got home, in my closet I saw my dark red sleeveless dress with lace for the neckline. Without realizing it, I had bought an item I basically already had.

Since then, I have gone through other color phases—black, gray, navy blue—but I still have a lot of pink and red in my closet.

Naturally, when I heard about the Museum at FIT’s exhibit “Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, Powerful Color,” I emailed several friends I thought would be interested and asked if they’d like to join me. Being the kinds of friends I have, they were enthusiastic, and we planned an outing.

Several of us had been to the museum together for “Fairy Tale Fashion” a few years ago when our friend was visiting from Boston. Since then, I keep the Museum at FIT’s exhibits, which are free, on my radar.

This time I got in the spirit of the exhibit, wearing a pink coat, pink scarf, and pink purse, which wasn’t too far a stretch from my normal outfits.

After viewing the exhibit “Fashion Unraveled” on the ground floor, we went downstairs for pink, pink, pink.

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Does anyone remember this dress? I saw it at Sotheby’s pre-auction exhibit in Paris a few years ago! Now I know who bought this John Galliano. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly knowledgeable of high fashion, but I guess I do get out there. I would not have thought that not only would I see the same dress in Paris and New York, but also that I would remember it.

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Speaking of connections, I was surprised to see a caption featuring the book Pink Sari Revolution, which was sitting at home waiting for me to read it. A few weeks earlier, I had borrowed it from my local library after a quick browse of the nonfiction shelves and finding the book flap summary interesting. When I picked it up, I had no idea whether it was well-known. Now I was even more intrigued to read this book about a women’s movement in India.

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There was also some vintage children’s clothing to illustrate that in the early 1900s, pink was actually seen as masculine, a boy’s color.

I remember that in grammar school, most of my classmates, boys and girls, said their favorite color was blue (or were some of them pretending in order to fit in?). Mine is still green, but from my wardrobe, you’d think it was pink.

Year of the Pig

The Lunar New Year began earlier this month, on February 5. I sometimes mention it in conversation leading up to the day, which leads people to ask how I celebrate. In recent years, I don’t have a particular “big” tradition. Instead it’s the “little” practices that I observe—wear red, eat three meals, have long noodles, don’t cut your hair, don’t clean (that should be done the day before), and other dos and don’ts. This is all to attract good luck and avoid bad luck in the coming year.

My paternal relatives in China get together for a large, multigenerational gathering at their regular restaurant to celebrate the Spring Festival, as they call it. It’s quite a different experience here; my immediate family doesn’t have relatives nearby, and my parents separated some years ago. So every year is different.

A couple of years ago, a friend who is from the same region my family is from (the Fujian province in southeastern China) organized a weekend meal in Chinatown with some of her French friends and me. It was nice being with her because she knew what to order.

Last year, my colleague and I had dinner in Chinatown and then dessert at a new place with piled-high Instagram-able desserts. Bright streamers littered the streets.

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The weekend after, two friends and I attempted to see the parade in Chinatown, which was extremely crowded (I wouldn’t seek it out again unless I knew of a good spot where there was breathing room), then had lunch before they went off to watch “Black Panther” and I took the subway to the Flatiron District to meet two French friends who were visiting New York City.

This year, I had dinner with my dad the day of and lunch with my mom the Sunday after. In between, I suggested to a date that we visit the Museum of Chinese in America in Chinatown and have dim sum afterward.

Every year, at least one person in my family (nowadays half the time it is me) seeks out tikoy, a sticky dessert that is called many different names depending on what Chinese dialect you speak. And tikoy isn’t a Chinese word, actually, though it comes from one—it’s what people in the Philippines call it. We only know of one bakery in Chinatown New York that makes it the way we like it. To prepare it, we take it out of the round aluminum pan, slice it, dip each piece in egg, and fry them. When heated, they become gooey with a slightly crispy outside.

I guess I—no, we—celebrate Chinese New Year more than I thought.

Can I Get a Connection

If at some point I thought that my years in France and my years in the U.S. were separate, compartmentalized chapters of my life, I certainly don’t think that now. Last night it hit me that those years “away” expanded my circle and that the lines crisscross all the time.

That evening, I attended a friend’s dinner party to celebrate her birthday. She and I first met in Paris. She now studies in the northeast U.S., and she was back in her hometown of Long Island, New York, for winter break. It not my first time to Long Island, but it was my first time on the LIRR (Long Island Railroad), a fact I announced to everyone I met. I had heard about this train line from colleagues and friends for years but never had to take it. It wasn’t that different from traveling on the Metro-North, which I have now ridden to Connecticut a number of times over the past few years, but in my mind it had a mythical quality. It was practically empty on that Sunday night.

I thought I wouldn’t know anyone at her party, but her brother said we had met when he visited Paris, and she said I had met her mom at that time too. I have a good memory, and it is unusual for people to remember meeting me and not vice versa.

On top of that, her younger brother had invited one friend to the party, and it was someone that I interviewed in Paris six years ago. I am a volunteer interviewer for my American alma mater, which involves meeting high school seniors who are applying to the school I graduated from. Six winters ago, I evaluated five candidates, most of whom were studying at international high schools in Paris. Well, that “kid” I met with for coffee happened to be my friend’s brother’s childhood friend, and he was now working in New York! Apparently we had both been warned ahead of time that the other would be at the party, as my friend’s dad said to this guy as I approached them, “Here’s your interviewer!” Way to establish the dynamic off the bat.

Also, did I mention that my friend’s mom is on the mailing list of the organization I work for?

A similar discovery happened recently when I was having dinner with this same friend and our other friend. The other friend was talking about how our mutual acquaintance works at an exercise studio in the area, and I said, Oh, you mean the studio that my colleague goes to almost every day and is having her birthday party at tomorrow that I’m going to!? I had met that mutual acquaintance in Paris when she was visiting our friend, and I’d interacted with her at a couple of parties in New York since then. I messaged my colleague after dinner, and she confirmed that she does know that girl.

If you didn’t follow all the connections, I don’t blame you. My point is, it is a small world, and we probably all walk past people every day who are connected with other people in our lives. No matter where we travel, we’re all living on this planet. I find that quite fun and somewhat comforting.

Nighttime Park Activities

A few months ago, a friend and I and a group took a walk in Central Park in the evening. The first time I remember going to Central Park at night was New Year’s Eve 2015. Three friends and I got there right before midnight to watch the fireworks and ring in 2016. It was so relaxing. If you’ve seen the Times Square Ball drop on TV (or in real life), it’s the opposite of that. Central Park is so big that there’s space for everyone who wants to watch the fireworks, and you can show up right as they start, as we did. Afterward, it feels safe to walk through the park because there are a lot of people around.

Many people, locals included, think Central Park is dangerous at night. Maybe it used to be, but I’ve discovered that there is an above-the-board nightlife there. Joggers, groups of young people sitting by the lake, and people walking their dogs form the park life. It isn’t busy by any means, but the people who are out aren’t dealing drugs or otherwise creating an uninviting atmosphere. If there are shady activities being conducted, they are well hidden enough that I haven’t come across them when walking on the paths. I wouldn’t go to Central Park alone because it is dark, parts are isolated, and there isn’t a lot of security patrolling, but in the past two years I’ve gone with friends and dates and felt safe.

One time, I was sitting with someone on a bench on the north side of the park, not far from the green Pool, when we heard someone come up behind us. As it was dark, it was my first time in the park at night, and there were no other benches around us for the person to approach, we were a bit startled. It turned out that it was a young woman who had left her keys in plain sight on the bench we were sitting on. She quickly retrieved them and went off.

There are some characters you won’t see during the day—one time I saw a woman feeding dog food to about a dozen raccoons. I like animals, including raccoons, and have an affinity for some that many people don’t like, such as pigeons, but there was something about the loud chewing of a dozen raccoons in the dark that freaked me out a bit. We could hardly see them, but their eyes glittered as they chomped.

On the most recent walk with my friend and our group, I saw the Bethesda Terrace at night for the first time. It was quite magical.

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Over the Moon

Last week I took myself to a French restaurant for dessert during my lunch break to celebrate my lunar birthday. I had only been there twice.

The first was for lunch with my boss over a year ago, and while I don’t remember what I ate, the warm madeleines she and I shared were divine.

The second was around this time last year. I went for dessert with the person I was dating at the time to celebrate my birthday. We ordered some kind of chocolate decadence to share, and it was so good that when we were done, he asked me, “Should we get a second one?” in a way that said, “We should get a second one.” So we did and got to experience it all over again.

It crossed my mind that going there this year might make me sad since we’re no longer together, but the dessert was tempting enough, and I’m one to want to make new experiences in old places. I went in, glanced at the little table where we had sat, and was glad to be seated in another spot, a cozy booth with a view of the room. People around me sat in pairs or groups, eating and chatting.

The server came around and asked “Sparkling or still?” Of course, it was the same server we had had almost one year ago. I responded, “Still,” hoping that it would be tap water (it was).

One thing had changed since last year—the menu. It’s just as well that the chocolate dessert was not there. I ordered the lemon tart, which had preserved lemon chunks and a shock of black and white sesame seeds. It was delectable.

I found I was able to sit there and look around the restaurant and remember being there before and wholly savor being there at that moment. Alternating between a bite of the tart lemon tart and the warm decaf coffee in a tasse whose handle was too tiny to fit a finger through, I wondered if they purposely chose those cups so you had to use both hands, thereby preventing you from eating with one hand and drinking with the other and effectively slowing down the process. In any case, it surely extended mine, as I had a taste of lemony goodness and then had to put down my fork to pick up the cup. I did this many, many times, and I was glad I had come.

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We Traveled to ’80s France

So, I played with a Minitel.

The Mintel, invented by the French in the 1980s, was a precursor to the internet as we know it. Shipped to you by the government, it was a little computer that hooked up to your phone line. You could chat with strangers, play games, search the phone directory, make online purchases…

It also became popular for steamy chatting, referred to as Minitel rose. Not long ago, the podcast Reply All interviewed a man who for a while posed as a girl and instant messaged with men as his job.

There were “racy” images online that were pixelated and hardly very enticing by today’s standards (it makes me think of the how at the Musée de l’Erotisme in Paris my friends and I saw an old black and white video of two women in bathing suits playing volleyball). Apparently there were poster advertisements in France that showed scantily clad women and directed people to the Minitel, whose images on the screen were a far cry from the quality of a photographic image.

Anyway, why was I, an American in the U.S. in 2018, hunched over a Minitel with a platter of charcuterie and cheese in the vicinity?

The author of a recently published book on the Minitel held an event in a hotel bar/café in New York. Three Minitels sat on a coffee table, available for public use. One appeared to be off, but the author explained to me that there was no backlight in the machine and therefore the screen was not visible in the dim light of the hotel lobby. He had asked hotel staff to bring a lamp, which they were now in search of. A young man sat in front of one of the other Minitels, whose chat feature appeared to be working, as my friend and I saw text appear on the third Minitel in front of us. She and I tried to type a response, but every time we hit “envoi” (“send”), the machine rebooted.

After the young man left momentarily, I moved to the working Minitel. With a lamp now shining on the previously dark Minitel, my friend and I were able to write to each other in the chatroom. What was funny is that users were displayed in numbered order of their arrival to the chatroom with what they had typed beneath their name, and the order didn’t change. Therefore, you might see a conversation that appeared thus:

  1. Michel:
    I’m fine.
  2. Jeanne:
    How are you?

If you were more than two people and looked away from the screen for a moment, when you returned it would not be obvious in what order you should read the conversation.

At one point, at the top of the screen appeared, “Les préservatifs préservent de tout, sauf de l’amour.” It seemed funny to see that all of a sudden since it was unrelated to what was on the screen, but the former co-founder and coder of the site Minitel rose 3615 SM who was present explained to me that it was a message from the French government. The Minitel was invented in the 80s, when AIDS was a huge issue, so they included public announcements to promote protection.

There were seven options on the home screen, which included chat, games, humeur, and annonces, but only the chatroom and games seemed to work.

The keyboard was interesting—it had all the letters and numbers and some punctuation options, but I couldn’t find an exclamation point.

The Minitels kept malfunctioning, which was all part of the experience, in my opinion. The organizers of the event were a bit dismayed and would come around and try to fix them, but my friend and I thought it was hilarious. This is why I invite her to weird happenings like this—she is a good sport.

What amazed me is that the Minitel was only officially shut down in 2012. The telephone provider France Télécom no longer wanted to support it. My question was, who was still using the Minitel in 2012?

The coder told me that up till then, there were farmers who checked prices on it and elderly people who used it.

Hunched over the Minitel and typing “Ce truc est marrant,” I thought, my life is weird and wonderful.

The next day, a French friend who is in his mid-40s told me during a phone chat that even he had never used one. He was a kid when his parents had a Minitel at their house. It tickled me to tell him I had spent the previous evening tinkering with this French throwback.

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The guys around me who chose the user names had some kind of sense of humor

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This is Normal Life as a Woman

I’ve been thinking about:

– that time I was walking with two friends down the street and a man walking by poked me in the breast. I was wearing a zippered hoodie and jeans.

– that time a stranger grabbed my butt in a club and by the time I turned around, he was gone. I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and jeans.

– that time the guy I was dating tried to pressure me into doing things I didn’t want to and then made me feel bad that he couldn’t sleep because I hadn’t given in. This is after I said I didn’t want to go over to his place and he insisted we would just sleep.

– that time a male classmate in grammar school made a thrusting gesture behind me with a broom.

– that time a stranger told me to smile.

– all those times I repeatedly dismissed advances from the same guy in a light-hearted manner so as not to hurt his feelings.

– that time I said I wanted to take it slow and he said that was fine and then didn’t respect it.

– that time he kept putting his hand on my knee even though I moved my leg away. And chose a table that literally put me in a corner. And played with my earring even though I leaned away from him. And then was confused about why I didn’t want a second date. And how I said I didn’t feel a connection because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

These are all things I’ve told my female friends. Scratch that—most of them are things I’ve told my friends. Others I haven’t, because they happened so long ago or they’re embarrassing or I didn’t think to—they things happen to us too often over the years to make a “big deal” about it every time.

When we tell each other these stories, we know they’re true. We have no reason to make them up. They’re part of our everyday lives.

And have any of the people committing the acts suffered any consequences? No.

These experiences, I’ve only recently realized, seem unbelievable to some people.

Why didn’t she just say no, some people ask.

My response is, I did. And, there are many times I wasn’t given the chance to say no. And, no isn’t taken seriously by some men.

She was drunk, some people say. She was wearing revealing clothing, some people say. My response is, I have been sober and worn modest clothing, and these things still happened to me.

I am thankful, of course, for friends and family who have heard and believed and shared these stories. More recently, as these conversations have come up more often with men I know, I am thankful for those who are equally horrified that other men do these things that they would not think of doing.

I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance who, without even a word from me defending Dr. Ford, launched into a defense of Kavanaugh and how many people have testified to what a great guy he is. He touched my shoulder and asked if I would report him thirty-eight years from now, as if I didn’t know the difference between an acquaintance tapping my shoulder and someone trying to rip my clothes off. Later, after my heart stopped pounding and my anger died down, I realized that this acquaintance was defending himself. Neither of us knows Ford or Kavanaugh. Neither of us was there. Why do we get so riled up about it?

Because we know ourselves. We know our values. We know how we perceive our experiences. This guy has offered to take me home. Has had the potential to make me feel uncomfortable with suggestive remarks if I weren’t so self-possessed around him and therefore comfortable brushing him off. I always laugh it off with him and chalk it up to him being an incorrigible flirt, which is true. But the truth? I can laugh and joke and talk with him, but I would never take him up on an offer to go out or be given a ride, whereas I wouldn’t hesitate with other men I know. This is based on instinct, not on anything he has done wrong—surely he and many other people would say he has done nothing wrong. And he hasn’t with me. But I sensed a long time ago to set boundaries with him because he wouldn’t respect them otherwise. And now, after this conversation, I know why I felt that way. The way he kept urging me to make my arguments about Ford vs. Kavanaugh after we had already discussed it a bit and I repeatedly said I didn’t want to talk about it anymore showed that a clear and direct “no” is not enough for him. He wanted to keep talking about it and he wanted to prove his point.

Before I go channel my anger in a productive manner, I am reminding myself of:

– that male friend who told me about how at a bar a male acquaintance of his wouldn’t leave a female acquaintance of theirs alone, and how he took that guy aside and told him not to go near her again.

– the man I once dated who, at his place, asked me if I wanted it to go any further.

– the male friends whom I have slept in the same room with and made me feel comfortable and safe.

– the man who told me he can’t believe some of the creeps his female colleagues have to deal with when online dating. How speaking with them has opened up his eyes to the differences in men and women’s experiences.

– the male bosses I’ve had who have always treated me with respect.

– the males in my family who have set a good example.

– the man who took my ‘no’ graciously and maturely.

– the man who, months after reacting poorly to my ‘no,’ apologized to me for treating me unfairly.

I don’t know any woman who wants to take out her anger on good men. Good men don’t have to worry. Good men are what give me a bit of faith.

What I want is for my word to be respected and taken seriously. For my body to not be viewed as something to be poked at or taken lightly.

I’m not going to speak for Ford or my female friends or family. They have their own stories, and I’ve heard and witnessed many of them. But I guarantee that in speaking for myself, my experiences resonate with them. This is our reality.

Jetted to My Doorstep

I was on a first date the other week (don’t ask), and my date mentioned that he once applied for a job at jet.com. I had never heard of it. After we parted, I went home and saw this when I picked up the mail:

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Now, all of us who have used the internet have seen ads appear on our sidebars for products that we previously viewed. A lot of people even think that Facebook is listening to their real-life conversations. However, how did Jet send snail mail so quickly to me after eavesdropping on my dinner conversation, which was well after the regular mail delivery time?

Modern day ad targeting, like dating, is a mystery.