NoDa

My road trip with family in May this year had a destination: Charlotte, North Carolina.

In Charlotte it was hot, unlike back home 650 miles further north.

We spent a few hours in the arts district, NoDa. Our walk down the street was a visual feast, with murals, trompe l’oeil, and a lady selling hand knit bikini tops and purses. We saw a bachelorette party on a “Trolley Pub” (a new concept to us). Later, the same women showed up at the place where we had fish tacos, a popular restaurant with surfboards on the walls and a bit of a wait. During the meal, there were several bearded waiters that kept us guessing. What is that term—facial hair bias? After lunch, my mom chatted up the restaurant hostess, who gave us stickers with the establishment’s name and logo on it.

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Mosaic bench. Is this a southern thing?

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Fishballs, Warehouses, and Sunsets in Sunset Park

On a recent weekend, I explored Sunset Park, Brooklyn with a local. You may not know from the name, but Sunset Park is a neighborhood, though it also contains the park after which it was named.

Among several other immigrant groups, there is a large community of Chinese people. We had Fuzhou food at a small, casual place whose sign was only in Chinese (so don’t ask me what the name of it was) and whose menu was half translated into English (I guess they did what they could and didn’t bother with the rest). I am actually not familiar with different Chinese regions’ cuisine. To me, Chinese food is my mom’s home cooking and New York Chinatown food.

We shared fishballs stuffed with meat in a clear broth (I grew up with fishballs but had never heard of a meat-filled version); fried dumplings; short, fat noodles with squid; and sweet peanut balls in a bowl of hot water. The food was cheap and plentiful. The place was casual.

We walked to Sunset Park in the heat and took in the views of New Jersey and Manhattan and sat on the grass. After what must have been a few hours lounging, we headed out of the park, but not before taking a quick look around for elderly Chinese women dancing, which my companion had seen on other evenings. We only saw one woman slowly dancing by herself. Was she practicing before her fellow dancers arrived? I kept looking back to check, but she remained alone, inconsciente of people walking by.

Before continuing our walk to the water, we looked for a bathroom for me (story of my life). We passed a Catholic church that does activist work. I like visiting churches when Mass is not going on, so I asked if we could stop inside. I lit a candle. We both agreed that St. Michael’s Church was beautiful. And there was a bathroom! The toilet paper dispenser was so high that you had to reach up to the heavens.

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All set, we went off the beaten path, down a street almost completely quiet besides a group of family and friends barbecuing on the corner of the sidewalk. We meandered deep into a stretch of silent warehouses. My companion said he wasn’t completely sure we were supposed to be there, but nothing was blocked off, and no signs prohibited pedestrians from wandering in between the blocks of buildings. We came to a nice view of the sunset and stood on a large plank of wood to see it over the fence.

We got on a slightly, though not much more, beaten path in a nearby new park called Bush Terminal Park. Here, families walked down the long path and stopped to view the beautiful sunset by the water.

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A walk to the end of the park led us back onto the sidewalk and past a mural in Spanish that we pondered a bit before peeking at the de Chirico-esque view by the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which I recognized from a prior visit with friends and which took on a magical quality in the evening. Then it was onto the subway for me to pack for an international trip.

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Charlottesville

In spring I was Charlottesville, Virginia for a few hours on the way to North Carolina. Those not familiar with that region (including myself) probably know it for the white supremacist rally in 2017 where one person died. Americans may remember learning in school that the city is historical and that presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe lived there. Southerners know that it is cute and charming; that’s what my friend who is from Florida told me when I asked where I should stop during my road trip with family, anyway.

The Downtown Mall, a pedestrian street, was indeed adorable. Only mid-May, it was a hot day in the south.

We had lunch, popped in and out of a few shops, and strolled down the street.

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This drugstore had a soda fountain in the back. Notice the mortar and pestle above the sign.

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This compact carousel was “operated” by a man manually pushing it! I was endlessly entertained.

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I loved this wall with the First Amendment etched into it. Words about freedom of speech overlaid with chalk writings and drawings by the public.

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I left a message too.

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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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New Yawk

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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