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!


Outside in the light sprinkling rain, we stood under umbrellas to admire the plum blossoms.  They clung to the branches like pink mist.  Water beaded from the branches like pearls and no matter how many times I exhaled, I swore that I wasn’t breathing. 

“These blossoms are the best in our town,” she told me.  “There are others, but they are not as good.”

The only thing I know about plum blossoms is how they are supposed to represent the Chinese spirit: the flower that blooms despite winter chill and other hardship.  How someone singled out this detail and made it publicly known, I’m not sure.  But then again, poets have that right.  And so they exercised it–creating a living poem, a thing that never needed to be analyzed or explained. 

So we went inside to a warm room where her son was examining plum blossom petals under a microscope.  He’d already looked at pieces of leaves and other unlabeled samples that were tucked into glass slides in the microscope case.  The rain pitter-pattered outside on the pavement.  And a part of me wondered how long I would last through snow and rain. 

“Hannah,” he said, gesturing me to look under the microscope.  The plum blossom petal was the item on display.  “It’s amazing!”

I swished my hair over my shoulder (I have too much hair–a side effect of not getting it cut for almost two years) and bent closer to the eyepiece. 

Amid the red-pink of the blossom’s petal, round deep-red beads were embedded in rows.  Fallen beads from a pearl necklace, scattered within skin.   

As I leaned over the microscope, I felt my skin prickle.  I let the chill of it shiver along, the cool mist of petals fluttering.  “I am, I am not…” the very question of it falling into the wet grass as others held firm to the branch.  And I thought about what others have said about being brave, and how it means doing something difficult and letting the journey have its way.  Pushing your body to its limits, going farther and faster than before, and oh, the places you could go to do that.  Biking around the world.  A solo hike in the mountains.  I thought about the blossoms on the branch–the small but fierce grip of stem upon wood.  How it doesn’t take much in the vast scheme of ambition to accomplish this.  How more impressive flowers with colors I haven’t even seen before exist in the wild.  And yet it is this one, this stalwart bloom, that made me forget I was breathing out there in the pink mist.  Maybe this is the real story of bravery.  Maybe it is not a single act of courage, but a combination: little moments of strength adding up along the way.  Managing to hold on and keep holding on.

Plum blossoms don’t just bloom in China.  No, I see them everywhere I go, and I admire them not under a microscope but out in the world.       

They have pearls in their skin, all of them out in the snow and rain.