Of Whiskey and Pearls

Ten years ago, when I had just turned 20, I don’t think I had any concept of what being 30 meant other than thinking it some kind of deadline. It felt like a threshold you could never un-cross, a kind of dividing line between potential and reality that once breached could never be undone.

And yet, here I am, and the world has not shattered.

I turned 30 this past week and it was not followed by an existential crisis. I turned 30 and I was not suddenly ushered toward the Adult Table where everything at last made sense. I just turned 30 and enjoyed my cake.

“How does it feel?” a coworker of mine asked.

“Disappointingly fine,” I said.

My 20-year-old self probably would have liked to see a little more aplomb, a little more drama, maybe even a little more soul-searching from some grand, vaguely-Victorian overlook. Or maybe that I had become a totally different person (ideally Scarlett Johansson).

But no, I’m disappointingly fine because I’m more me than ever.

This year is pure celebration for a decade well-spent. And for one spent not always in ways that make sense.

There was the classy: I graduated from college. I went to Vienna to perform with the orchestra, even going to the Officer’s Ball white-gloved and all. I learned Chinese and got a master’s degree in comparative literature, all taught in Mandarin. I wrote a graphic novel. I’ve been publishing articles around the internet and have discovered a love for translation. I wrote and performed songs with a band. I co-founded a poetry society in Hangzhou that’s still going strong. I made it to every province in China.

And so, I wore pearls and a classy dress and sipped a fine cocktail on my birthday for this reason.

There was the ridiculous: I made utter blasphemy in the kitchen when I tried to freestyle cook Chinese food. I hitchhiked… a lot.  I somehow visited House on the Rock three times (and deep down know I’ll go again). I marathon-wrote a script for a three-act play in a month (it’s not great) and sent garbled, loopy voice messages to a friend about ice skating costumes after pulling an all-nighter. I crafted a 90-minute lesson around punctuation and instilled a not-insignificant fear of the splice comma into my students, which may have been due to the way I was screaming, “Don’t do it!!”

And so, having learned how to do a Tim Tam Slam (sipping milk through the Australian cookie) I and my friends agreed it only made sense to try it with whiskey, which I did for my birthday for this reason.

There was the intense: I spent far more time than I’d care to admit feeling awkward in my own skin. I moved across the world to a strange place and spent a year trying to make it un-strange, at times feeling the loneliest I had ever been, at times feeling so loved it hurt. I went on a lot of crap dates because I felt it was the thing to do, ultimately realizing that there is such a thing as a not-crap date if you just give it time or don’t pressure yourself into going on crap dates. I did a lot of soul-searching (Victorian vista not included) about my career path and direction in life, only to realize that all you can do is arrive at an answer for now and pick up the search again when the time comes.

And so, I decided to stop worrying about the answer, which is only penciled in anyway, for this reason.

It was a great decade. It was not an easy decade. It was not a smooth decade. But it was great, and I don’t regret a second of it.

And now, looking at the start of another, I know so much more is to come. The classy, the ridiculous, the intense. The hard, the easy. The great. I feel fine about who I am. Disappointingly fine about the whole thing of getting older. Because of all the things I’ve done and all the places I’ve been, above all I’ve made it back to myself. And isn’t that the best place to be?

Cheers to the next great decade!

Adulting, Take the Wheel: Apartment Hunting in Hangzhou

I’m interrupting this string of travel posts because I want to talk about the fact that my friend and I got an apartment in Hangzhou.

So what? Plenty of twentysomethings get apartments. It’s called Adulting and it’s what any respectable 26 year-old like me ought to know.

Oh, just you wait.

See, since graduating from school, I’ve been in housing provided either by the school where I taught (Zhejiang Sci-Tech University), or now, a dorm as a student (at Zhejiang University). The first place was great. The dorm…well, after having your own place for over two years, it’s hard to go back to sharing a bathroom or a communal kitchen (I’m looking at you, Indonesian feasters).

How do you find apartments in China? We weren’t totally sure. We went through an agency, Lian Jia, and were paired up with an agent we named Jimmy. Jimmy was gawky, constantly forgetting his notebook, and also his keys, and while we first thought it was adorkable (was he just nervous around foreign women?), it became clear that he was not going to be much help.

First, he took us to an apartment in the middle of an active construction zone. “Can we live here?” we asked. “Yeah, it’s okay,” Jimmy said. “But…” (Enter our catchphrase: Jimmy, whyyy?) “They’ll be done in a month,” he said.


Being the Chinese-speaker of the duo, I tried to push him to show as many places as he could. One day, he showed us 4, and there was one we wanted, though one of the beds was a little short. “Can you ask the landlord if pets are allowed?” I said. “I’ll try.”

Long story short: he failed, and the place was rented to someone else.


I asked him then to keep finding us places, and he didn’t have much of a response. He’d found only one. In the meantime, I checked a website someone had told me about, thinking ‘Maybe I don’t even need an agency! Take that, China!’ But whenever I called a number on the listing, an agent answered. I checked my social network, and made a few back-up plans. We decided to give Jimmy one last shot.

We pulled up on Katie’s e-bike, ready to follow him, and he told us to wait while he got the key from his rival company, Wo Ai Wo Jia. We waited, running through our backup plans, when he came back looking sad. “They didn’t give me the key they’re supposed to give me the key why didn’t they give me the keyyyyy”


Jimmy rode off on his scooter, and we decided to proceed with something that would have put him to tears: we went to his rival agency, Wo Ai Wo Jia.

When we walked in, Katie saw a line of awards. “Wow, there are so many! I wonder if they’re fake!” I told the realtor what we were looking for. “Could we look at more than one today?” I said, expecting him to whine and say “Oh, it takes a while to find them” and instead hearing “I HAVE FOUND YOU FOUR” and then when I pressed him to get it in our price range, he said “Oh, I’ll get the price down. No problem.”

He earned the name Bruce. As in Bruce Wayne.

Within 2 hours, we’d found places that we liked, and began considering normal things like layout and price, rather than, you know, construction debris. Meanwhile, Jimmy texted me a picture of a horrible squat toilet asking “Could you guys deal with this kind of bathroom?”

Oh, Jimmy.

Bruce won, we signed the lease, and then went for celebratory drinks to compose our break-up text to Jimmy. The cruel irony of it all is that the apartment we ended up renting was the one that Jimmy would have shown us, had he been able to get the key. Instead, I told him that we had decided to rent a friend’s place.

No matter what happens in my life, I want to remember this: if we can go apartment-hunting in Chinese, we can do ANYTHING.