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

Spring to Spring

It’s been five weeks of living under semi-quarantine. In my state we can make essential trips to places like the supermarket and go out for exercise. Contact between people from different households is to be limited to necessary activities like caregiving.

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and thought about how I danced in the street in Portugal last summer. A friend and I happened upon some people dancing to music in an outdoor plaza in Lisbon, and I was drawn in by the beckon of a lovely woman to join her for a few moments in the evening sun. It wasn’t a wistful thought, more of a “how lucky was I to have that experience.” Which led me to revisiting other travel moments in the past year:

Briskly walking at night in Montreal with a friend while she huddled over our takeout poutine to keep it warm until we reached our hotel.

Sharing a gyro sandwich from a food truck in chilly Washington, D.C. with my beau before we went back to our hotel to order dinner.

Taking photos of murals with family in hot Charlotte, North Carolina.

Lounging on an airbed in my sister’s new apartment in Massachusetts.

Camping for the first time with friends in Washington state.

Taking the tram in Portland, Oregon.

Walking a quiet woodsy path with a friend and her baby and dogs in Connecticut.

Standing under a waterfall with a friend in New York state.

Running through Epcot with a friend to catch a ride ten minutes before it closed.

And to think all those trips were done with different family and friends whom are near and dear to me, so to speak! Not to mention all the local outings with other friends (you know who you are). Now that most of us are apart, these experiences are all the richer as I dig into them.

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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.

Anna Sui, Scarves, Dumplings

In the fall I suggested to a date that we visit the Museum of Arts and Design on a Thursday evening, the weekly time that it is suggested contribution (I got all those free museum days down). I was interested in the exhibit on fashion designer Anna Sui’s work. I didn’t know much about her but had an inkling that the exhibit would be enjoyable based on my past visits to MAD and a few images of her creations. The World of Anna Sui was indeed a colorful walk through her different styles.

My date was drawn to her grunge looks because they reminded him of his high school days, whereas I unsurprisingly loved the room with feminine and whimsical pieces.

And how about this horse?

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There was a wall of color themed inspiration boards that I took a photo of for possible inspiration in my own work.

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We hopped to another floor for the exhibit Vera Paints a Scarf, which as you may have guessed, displayed… scarves. By Vera Neumann, to be precise. It was surprisingly entertaining to look at and comment on the displays, which in addition to scarves included her illustrations of patterns that gave insight into her design process; newspaper advertisements from the mid to late twentieth century for the scarves; and a video of a woman semi-seductively standing on a staircase demonstrating different ways to tie a scarf. We also spent an inordinate amount of time standing in front of a crossword puzzle silk handkerchief in a glass case to mentally do a few clues.

After, we had a bite from one of the dumpling counter underground in the subway station nearby. It’s nicer than it sounds, I swear. That hallway of eateries is pretty new, well-lit, and clean, and I had walked through it before but never sat at one of the public tables lining the center of the tunnel. And it’s, well, convenient, since it’s literally a few steps away from the turnstiles to enter the subway. Too bad I then put us on a slightly incorrect train, one that got us fairly close to our respective stations but was not the most direct route. But as I remind myself sometimes, though it is difficult to remember in New York City, life is not always about efficiency.

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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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.

George Nakashima Woodworking Studio

I was looking through some old books at home and found a paperback collection of American poetry for students. There were a few poems that spoke to me, including:

I May, I Might, I Must

By Marianne Moore

If you will tell me why the fen
appears impassable, I then
will tell you why I think that I
can get across if I try.

Earlier this year a friend and I visited the George Nakashima furniture studio complex in New Hope, which is literally the first town we entered in Pennsylvania when coming from New Jersey. We had invited a couple of others along, but it ended up being the two of us, a nice girls’ trip. She picked me up in the morning, and we drove along highways and across the Delaware River to arrive at the peaceful grounds.

Funnily enough, only a week or so before I had become aware of Nakashima (1905-90), whose low, wooden table and wide-seated chairs were on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. My museum date had wanted to show me them at the Arts of Japan temporary exhibit before it closed. We sat around the table with other visitors. I found the hidden wall label that spoke about Nakashima’s intention to honor the tree.

Now I was seeing the distinctive wooden bow on chairs in his studio miles from the city. My friend and I wandered around the finishing department, the chair shop, and the showroom; took a peek into the main shop; and lingered by a small pond surrounded by a structure that made me feel like we were in Japan.

While my friend and I love nature, we don’t possess the instincts of country girls—at one point, I thought that an alarm was going off and tried to figure out where it was coming from. Then I realized it was the sound of… frogs.

It so happened that a Pride festival was going on in New Hope. We drove on the main street decorated with rainbow flags and found an Irish restaurant for lunch. After, we popped in a few boutiques and a coffee and doughnut shop before driving back.

I’ve mentioned the woodworking studio to friends, and no one has known about it. It was an easy, relaxing getaway for a few hours.

Bridge

On the outer edge of the George Washington Bridge from New York to New Jersey is a pedestrian path. Rather than driving or taking the bus across, you can walk between the two states with the cars rushing on one side and the vast Hudson River on the other. Earlier this year, a date and I did this, our destination being the park on the other side. The park turned out to be huge, and over a few hours we only explored the southern part of it. Though it was a beautiful day, we came across few people (score!). It was quiet and peaceful. The part we explored wasn’t quite hiking—there were paths and a couple of steep staircases—but around those paths it was definitely wild, plants and trees growing where they may. We saw chipmunks and deer, both of which were very exciting for me. Sometimes the animals were right next to the path where we were walking. Clearly I am not used to seeing wildlife on a daily basis, though there do seem to be more and more raccoons in Central Park, and it wasn’t a pigeon that nipped into the pumpkin outside where I live.

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Frenchies in New York

My first year in Paris, I had a group of American girl friends. We had dinner at each other’s apartments every Tuesday and shared ups and downs and a ton of fun in the city. Amazingly, years later, we keep in touch online and see each other when we can, sometimes in our respective cities and sometimes in a different country altogether. I was one friend’s conference spouse in Liège, Belgium and we made a side trip to Aachen, Germany after. Another girl saw the other during a long stopover in New York. Three got together in Greece. Once, four of us managed to reunite for a weekday lunch in New York.

This week a friend from the group forwarded us an email thread from over four years ago. I didn’t understand half the references we made in them (I would say you had to be there, but I was…), and there was some embarrassing stuff that reminded me why I should save some stories for oral telling and my diary. The excerpt below, however, is appropriate for sharing with you. I wrote it after spending a summer day with a friend and her boyfriend and their three friends, all Frenchies.

Today I hung out with French people visiting NY, and here were their observations:
No one smokes.
There are a lot of ads for storage space.
It is shocking that at a bar the server takes one person’s credit card to open a tab and doesn’t give it back till the end.
It is surprising that they could wear shorts to go to a fancy rooftop bar. (Most of the people at the bar were dressed up, but my friends were in shorts.)
It is freakin’ humid.
The subway stations are HOT.
They were surprised at how many people were wearing warm clothing like jeans and boots when it’s so warm today. (This really amused me, because this is what we always say about the French.)
The Nespresso boutique doesn’t have George Clooney’s face.

Two other things that happened that day:

My friend and I agreed to meet on Broadway in Soho. On the phone, I described to her where I was and couldn’t understand why she didn’t see the same stores. Turns out she didn’t realize that the little ‘W’ on the Broadway street sign she was looking at meant that she was on West Broadway, a different, but nearby street. And yes, it is confusing.

The six of us went to a rooftop bar, the first they had ever been to. We sat down and looked at the view of the city. One of the guys said he would go up to the bar to ask if we should order there or if we would be served at our table. He came back, a baffled look on his face. “According to the sign, you have to be a group of 21 to be served,” he said. That’s strange, I thought, until I started laughing. “Must be 21 to be served means you have to be at least 21 years old,” I explained. Understandably, this meaning wouldn’t necessarily occur to someone who is from a country where the drinking age is 18.

Snowshoeing without Snowshoes

I skipped out of work a couple of hours early (having worked late several evenings this month) and hopped on the Metro-North train to visit a friend who got married last summer. A few weeks prior, I was sitting in a restaurant next to three young women, one of whom was espousing the line to her two friends: “The Metro-North is the way to travel. It is like, so sweet.” I’m not sure I would go that far, but it does tend to be on time (great if you’re early, out of luck if you’re running late).

My friend and her husband picked me up from the train station in New Haven, Connecticut. Along for the ride was their big Doberman puppy, who jumped all over me as soon as I got in the back. She alternated between being very conspicuous—bounding on me and chewing the crocheted lanyard on my bag—and almost invisible, as she is black as that Friday night.

In their town about half an hour’s drive away, they had left their door unlocked for the other friend who would be joining us for the weekend and had arrived shortly before. We certainly weren’t in Kansas anywhere—or maybe we were closer to Kansas? In the Jersey suburb where I’m from, we wouldn’t leave the door unlocked if we weren’t home.

Here were wide open spaces. A long, wide driveway leading up the house. Peaceful, snowy trees out back. Birds flitting around a feeder on the deck. A kitchen that could fit two, perhaps three Parisian studios.

The weekend was a lovely one, with a BIG pancake (to quote the menu), laughter and talks, the making of not one but two cakes, music and movies, cuddling with the two dogs, and a hike up snowy hills and along a frozen reservoir.

In Paris I used to visit a friend in Marseille every few months. Since coming back to the States, I’ve done the same with my friend in Connecticut. The Metro-North is not quite the same as the TGV, but it’s still “like, so sweet” since it takes me to scattered parts of my heart.dsc00223dsc00224dsc00226dsc00229dsc00234dsc00235dsc00237dsc00240dsc00242