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!

Christmas with Chinese Characteristics

I had a bunch of balloons wrapped around one arm, a Santa hat comically cocked on top of my head, and was carrying an apple in a small box.  A gaggle of girls stared at me, and then a child pointed and said “Foreigner!  Foreigner!”  And then, as I crossed the road, a girl looked to her friend for support and said “Merry Christmas!” before running away. 

I walked down Number Four Street and heard faint Christmas carols playing alongside the theme song to a popular television reality show “爸爸去哪儿” (Father, Where are we Going?).  I saw cakes and candies, and neighbors crowding around the fruit shop to buy small parcels filled with sweets to hand to children.  The Christmas lights dangled from the entrance to the apartment complex, Christmas trees twinkled in the corner of shops, and the music, off-key and all, tinkered along.  Students periodically sent me text messages (and I honestly don’t know how they manage to get my number) to wish me a Merry Christmas, and friends ask when they can see me and when I can see them to share the cheer.  

It’s amazing, but once you start to look, there it is: Christmas in China. 

I got together with a class of mine for dinner, and there was Christmas amid the games, the laughter and the extravagant toasts (a scrawny kid named George yelling “Merry Christmas!” any chance he had as his girlfriend sort of shook her head and grinned–this was the same student who downed an entire bottle of beer in one gulp–a feat I did not expect from a guy whose legs are about the same width as my arms).  I ate Sichuan-style fish, and then later listened to Christmas music, and there was Christmas, too.  I went to a party organized by a class of mine, and they all created funny paper hats and played games and yes, there was Christmas in the mix of it all.  I got lost in the alleyways of old-Hangzhou looking for the get-together for magazine contributors, and with a guy who looked like David Bowe, a handful of Chinese people, and a smattering of westerners like me along for the ride, there was Christmas.

No, it’s not a white Christmas here (unless you count the smog), nor is it a Christmas “just like the ones I used to know” but it is Christmas in spite of it all.

And that’s just the way I like it.