Recognizing Where the Needle Is

At a weekly (virtual) meditation group I attend, the guide said today, “It feels like the world has changed since last week. But it’s not that it’s changed, it’s that we have become enlightened to it.”

I think that’s right. Yes, the world changes, but not overnight in either direction. I think if we’re doing it right, we’re constantly awakening. Awakening and expanding our perception to include more and more realities of others in this world. That might be through getting to know the stories of people around us. It could be through reading. It could be through research. It could be through podcasts. It always means having an open mind.

This week, like many in the United States, I was searching. Dejected, I signed on to the vast e-book collection of my region’s library network. In searching for a number of titles on race, I was heartened to see that all of them had a waitlist. Other people were looking to educate themselves.

The internet is now flooded with reading recommendations, but for those who might want a glimpse into what I’ve read in my corner over the past few years, here is a selection. They range from humorous, irreverent memoirs by Black comedians, to fiction that takes the reader through real neighborhoods, to thought-provoking nonfiction.

Memoirs
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Essays
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now by Maya Angelou
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Humor
Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay by Phoebe Robinson
The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell
The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

Fiction
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Queen of Harlem by Brian Keith Jackson
American Street by Ibi Zoboi
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Nonfiction
Tell Me Who You Are by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi
Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time by James Kilgore

A couple of quotes from these books that struck a chord with me:

“It does not matter that the “intentions” of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, “intend” for you is secondary. Our world is physical.”
– Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

“But no matter how it panned out, I knew I’d at least done something good for myself in speaking up about my needs. There was power, I felt, in just saying it out loud.”
– Michelle Obama, Becoming

In Tonight and Every Night

It’s week 6 of working from home for me. When I talk to people in my circles, we ask each other how we’re doing, and my answer is, “Every week is different.” I’ve also found that the things that made me happy before this semi-quarantine still bring me joy, and the problems that existed before it still worry me. Of course, daily life and stresses are different, and they bring with them new joys and worries as well.

Week 1: Feeling the confusion and excitement that comes with a blank slate. Trying new activities to create a new routine. Tried yoga for the first time. Worked out at home for the first time. Wasn’t sure when to eat snacks or what to eat when, as I am used to bringing all my snacks to work and eating them throughout the day at my desk. Every conversation with anyone was about coronavirus. Spent the workday tapping into the dialogue being had all over the country in my field. Felt part of a larger community and invigorated by the possibilities for new initiatives and ability to create positive impact through work. Talked to my mom on the phone almost every day, which was not in my previous normal. Stayed home every night, also definitely not in my previous normal. Took a walk in the middle of the day and enjoyed the beautiful weather. Every day made a little progress on organizing my work space. Talked to my beau frequently.

Week 2: Slid down. Discouraged at work and stressed by the news. Worried about people in my life who are struggling in different ways.

Week 3: Climbing back up. Not reading a lot of coronavirus news because I receive it from family and friends. Need to know the essential points, such as local restrictions. Routine is stabilizing. What I find most worrying is hearing my doctor friend’s accounts of the worsening situation in the hospital she works in. There’s no escaping the reality of the pandemic there.

Week 4: Emotional highs and lows. Being in a temporarily long distance relationship with someone in the same state is… not hard, exactly, when you’re with someone who communicates well… but not ideal. Remind myself to not let the nighttime thoughts run wild too often. Work is fun again. Phone and video conversations with friends do me good. We talk about the challenges and also laugh. Good conversations with family make it into my gratitude journal.

Week 5: Going to sleep later and getting up later. Productive during the time I am working. Walks are now in the afternoon, after work. A couple of quality nighttime conversations with the beau. Still with the highs and lows in life happenings, but that is life. I notice that green is replacing the cherry blossoms that I have witnessed over the past five weeks. On Saturday I had probably the most screen time I’ve ever had, hosting a language group for an hour and a half and playing an online board game with a friend and his friends for three and a half hours (!). On Sunday I broke my undesired streak of getting up late for the past two Sundays. Biked for the first time this season.

It has been interesting to see how people in my life have reacted to being under quarantine (I say quarantine for brevity, but in my region we are still allowed to go out for exercise, unlike in some other countries). Introverts seem to do better, but not always. Some are glad to be living with people, and some are glad to be living alone.

What I noticed in the first week is that we will always find a way to stay connected. Right away people found alternative ways to communicate with each other. Technology makes it possible, but human nature drives it.

Seattle, Washington

On the heels of a trip to the South (literally the weekend after), I flew to Seattle and stayed with an American friend I had made in Paris. Seattle had been on my list for a long time, but I had not yet been there. In truth, I’m not sure that I knew much more than a snapshot in my head of Pike Place Market and that it was a city on the west coast that I had never traveled to. I think I also learned about the Seattle Public Library in my Intro to Architecture class my first semester of college, and the buildings I saw for the first time on slides in a dark classroom gave me the desire to one day see them in person.

I opted for Air Alaska after booking and then cancelling a United Airlines flight that I had not initially realized did not include a carry-on. Did you know that regular (non-budget) airlines are doing this now? At the time I did not, but I have certainly become aware that many airlines have this type of ticket. They call it “basic economy” or some other such name that should actually be called “less than basic economy.”

Standing outside the Seattle Airport, I saw that my friend had texted me that she would be picking me up in her “dirty silver pick-up truck.” She was indeed hard to miss. I like my friends.

We dropped off my belongings at her new apartment, then walked to Pike Place Market. It was much vaster than I had imagined. I had thought it would be a fish and produce market, but beyond that there were halls of little stands and shops. We stopped in a Native American store.

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Shepard Fairey murals always catch my eye.

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The gum wall was… unique.

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After a walk around the market, we went outside, where it was drizzling. Surprise… not. One of the items my friend had told me to bring was a rain jacket. I do not own a rain jacket, nor had it ever occurred to me to purchase one. However, apparently it is a Northwest staple, especially since they do not use umbrellas. My sister happened to have a rain jacket that I borrowed.

My willing tour guide took us past the original Starbucks, which I was more than happy to take a photo of instead of lining up to go inside.

I got good use out of that rain jacket.

Durham

Driving back up from Charlotte (yes, I am still writing about a trip that happened in spring—this is why I have a blog and not an Instagram), we stopped at Durham for a few hours at my request. The night before, I had quickly messaged my friend who is from Durham and asked for restaurant recommendations. One of her suggestions was a barbecue place.

There was hardly anything around the restaurant besides an ice cream shop; we definitely wouldn’t have found it just driving down the main street. Perfect.

The spacious restaurant was almost empty on an early Monday afternoon. As hoped for, portions were generous with multiple sides so we could try southern fixins’.

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Décor was blatant: pork comes from pig.

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One of the reasons I wanted to visit Durham was that a colleague told me she loves it. After lunch, we parked in what seemed to be downtown. It was very quiet. Thinking we might have missed something, we stopped in the tourist office, where we were greeted by a very friendly man. He was enthusiastic and cheerful. He recommended visiting the American Tobacco district, which was redone and included shopping. I asked what he’d recommend in an hour (poor guy). He directed us to the sculpture of the bull, symbol of Durham. I made note of directions, not wanting to get lost, and it turned out the bull was pretty much behind the tourist office.

Days later, back home, I asked my colleague what attracted her to Durham, and she said the restaurants and the breweries. Somehow I had translated that in my mind to a lively downtown. She, who is from the south, told me that it was a typical southern city.

On quiet Parrish Street there were some sculptures commemorating historic black-owned businesses, or what was known as “Black Wall Street” in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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A short drive away was a breathtaking gem—the Duke Gardens. Part of Duke University, it is free and open to the public (parking is paid). We could have spent a whole afternoon there, but we had to hit the road to drive up north, so my mom and I enjoyed a brief exploration of the gardens under the sun. I suppose drinking in a portion of those gardens is enough to last more than the standard walk.

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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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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.

Lotus Flowers, A Snake, Gospel

A few weeks ago I met up with a couple of friends in the Bronx to have lunch on Arthur Avenue and visit the New York Botanical Gardens. Since a friend organized this pairing of activities over two years ago, I’ve continued to suggest it to other friends since we don’t go up to the Bronx that often. It’s an opportunity to have Italian food and see an amazing variety of flowers and plants.

My friend was a little late meeting me at the subway stop in the Bronx (due to the eternal subway issues), and was I glad she was. First, while waiting I saw a man with a huge snake draped over his shoulders and curled around his waist. I followed him for a little while. He went into a pet store.

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Then I walked a little more and saw a small church with open doors.

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When my French friends came in February, one of them wanted to go to a service at a Baptist church. I’ve found that this is a common item on French tourists’ lists in New York, which surprised me when I first learned it. As far as I know, American tourists don’t seek this out, and I would not have thought of attending a service. I thought I would feel conspicuous since I didn’t belong to that denomination and would stick out. When I asked my French friend why he wanted to go to one, he explained that he wanted to experience Gospel music and that it was an especially American thing.

Before my French friends came, I did some asking around and research online. It seemed that some big churches were indeed used to receiving tourists and even had a different section for them. A friend advised me to show up early because from her experience (with her French visitor), the line to enter could be long. In the end, we didn’t end up going, but years of hearing of French friends and acquaintances interested in Baptist services peaked my curiosity when I saw this little church in the Bronx.

Inside, the service was in full swing and most of the members of the congregation were standing in song. An usher standing by the back door welcomed me warmly, and when I said I would stand at the back instead of sitting in the pews, she insisted I sit in her chair. She gave me a program. One woman in the church was standing and swaying back and forth with her arms in the air, singing along with the song “My Soul Says Yes,” which I had never heard before and was indeed moving. In the song, for a long time you sing, “My soul says yes” over and over again. There are other lyrics, but when I walked in they were in the full refrain.

I couldn’t believe after all that research I just stumbled upon this church. There were no crowds of tourists, and there was plenty of seating available.

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After the song, there was a reading. The usher went to a shelf to get me a Bible in case I wanted to follow along. She was so kind.

After listening for a while, I went back out into the summer heat to meet my friend. We walked to the Italian neighborhood and had a lunch of fresh pasta on the backyard patio of a restaurant, then walked to a nearby bakery to get an iced coffee and a tiramisu (her) and a black and white cookie (me) to go. We walked to the botanical gardens to meet another friend.

In the gardens, we chatted at the café for a bit, then headed to the Haupt Conservatory to see the flower show “Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai‘i.” Signs described her stay in Hawaii and how she was inspired by the flowers there. The flowers in the conservatory were varied and beautiful, and the water lilies and lotus flowers outside were amazing and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Also, it was just our luck that hula dancers of a hula school in New York were performing when we arrived at the conservatory.

After getting our fill of the flowers, we took the garden tram, which was a hilarious experience. Because it made multiple stops in the gardens but was at full capacity, thus not having room for passengers wanting to get on unless some got off, the driver loudly tried to sell each stop. “This library is very historical…” “It’s only a 2-minute walk to the Rose Garden from here… you can get off here for the Rose Garden instead of going to the Rose Garden stop.” Translation: Get off! Get off!

It was one friend’s first time to Arthur Avenue, and the other’s first time to both the gardens and Arthur Avenue. It was my third time, but first time in the summer. I love summer in the city. In the summer I never remember what it is I did for fun in the winter.

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We All Got Our Own Thing Going On (And We Find People to Share Them With)

A few weeks ago I saw in the morning on my way to work:

A bunch of people in the bus station looking up, mouths slightly agape. They were watching a huge TV screen that had been temporarily set up in the bus station to show the World Cup. A guy energetically said to people who passed by, “Koozie koozie koozie,” offering free foam cup holders from the TV channel that sponsored the viewing.

A large group of people in the park listening to someone praying over a microphone. People were dressed up, milling around, and some were carrying platters of food. They were Muslims celebrating Eid, the end of Ramadan.

A woman walking two dogs whose back halves were paralyzed and were walking with dog wheelchairs. An older man bent down to pet them. A woman with two dogs of her own stopped to talk to her, and they chatted about their dogs. The first woman described the disabled dogs’ different personalities.

Glimpses of different worlds and the important things happening in each of them. I loved coming in contact with them in the span of twenty minutes.

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