Photo Diary of 2013, Part 1

 At the end of each year, I go through my photos. This is what you do when you have a bad memory. I click through the folders, labeled by events or by season (big events – weddings, holiday parties, trips, etc., – have their own folders, while seasons, paired with a specific location, e.g. “Fall in New York” stand alone to represent the zeitgeist of the time). This year (and hopefully each year after), I’ve decided to share. It’s an effective way to remind myself of the people and places that matter and of that familiar paradox: how long a year is! And, how very very short.

Visiting the Getty with my mom, grandma from Taiwan, and Aunt Joannie at the beginning of the year.


There was a prerequisite trip to Vegas with my cousins and white friend Elena. Little did we know, there are actually six girls in this photo, as cousin Wendy was already pregnant. Coolest mom ever.
In terms of travel, 2013 takes the gold. Being unemployed and having family in Taipei, I was allowed to be quite ambitious. Taipei is a second home and makes a convenient launching pad for traveling around Asia. Two friends from college visited me there in January and together, we went around the city, then around the island, then to Hong Kong and Macau. I spent much of the trip telling them that no, these places were Not China.
The view from Elephant Mountain.
Erica and Carson in my barebones living room, on their first morning in Taipei. “So we’re not in China?” “No.”
The view from the ferry ride from Hong Kong to Macau. “Is that China?” “No.”
At Wong’s Noodle House in Hong Kong. Back in Taiwan, a bus full of Taiwanese people would stare at us and ask, tentatively, “Are you sisters? We can see the resemblance.” We would laugh. “She’s mexican. So no.”
Carson photographs fruit he has never seen in the outdoor markets of Kowloon.
The gorgeous gorge in Taiwan’s Hualien National Park.
On Taipei’s Eastern coast, two of the lankiest and loveliest people I’ve ever met.
On their last night in Taipei, we went to an American-owned speakeasy called Ounce. Here, Carson is studying the menu but really, thinking about proposing in eleven months. Thanks for never making me feel like a third wheel, even though I was, enormously.
After the Americans left it was time to start Chinese New Year festivities. In Taipei, the party gets smaller every year. People pass away. Cousins grow up and pursue graduate degrees abroad in England and the United States. Sometimes, they marry Indian men from India and settle down in quiet collegiate towns called Palo Alto. Some move back into their childhood rooms and work at large accounting firms where the hours suck but the coworkers are cool. Sometimes your brother works in Shanghai, marries a Taiwanese girl, and because he’s a poor planner, always pays a premium for plane tickets back to Shanghai around Chinese New Year. But always, you and the rest of the family are happy to see him. The family seems to be shrinking, but at some point things turn around and it starts to grow again.
My uncle grins, showcasing famous calligraphy that says “Wealth Prosperity and Good Luck!” The famous calligraphy goes in the hallway, along with our shoes.
The roundup this year at Lao Tao seafood restaurant, our Chinese New Year go-to.
The “kids” minus Min-Chieh and Vikas and Min-Shan aka Melody destroyer of hearts.
A few days later, I go to dinner with my Godfather and his family, much larger and rowdier than mine but family all the same.
And then for some of us, it was back to real life.
Cousin Karen at work during her Chinese New Year holiday. I joined her at the office that day and met the CEO, who was patrolling the office looking for dedicated, industrious employees. My cousin is neither, but happened to be at the right place at the right time. He handed her a red envelope and probably never thought about her again.
I took stock of my cousin Karen’s condition and of my own. She was always working and when she wasn’t working, was at home hanging out with her dad and the cats. I didn’t work and spent most mornings reading in my pajamas. She glowered at me every morning as she got ready for work.
“It’s 2013,” I said to her at the beginning of February, “We’re young and single.”
“Don’t remind me,” she said, “My mother reminds me every day.”
You’re not the only one,” I said, “What do you think she talks to me about when I’m at home and you’re at work?”
I grabbed her shoulders and gave her a firm shake.
“While I’m here, we are going out every. Single. Weekend.”
She looked at me, “Uh…” then shrugged and said, “I’m game.”
And so we did.
My cousin Karen wonders if she loves or hates me after one such weekend of going out.
Needless to say, my aunt did not approve and going out did nothing for our relationship status. Which is how on Valentine’s Day, we ended up at a sandwich shop with my aunt and uncle.
“I guess you’re our valentine this year,” I said to him.
“Hm?” he said, waiting impatiently for our sandwiches. My uncle hates to wait for food, but that day it seemed that all the restaurants in Taipei were booked by color coordinated couples. On the subway I saw a couple wearing matching burgundy velvet. The boy in a suit and the girl in a frilly dress. Even my slovenly cousin Larry was out with his girlfriend who had, no doubt, made all the arrangements herself.
“This is terrible,” Karen said, “I love my dad, but Jesus I hope next year’s Valentine’s day I’m not at a sandwich shop with him.”
My aunt leaned towards us and nodded at her husband, “Your uncle is about as romantic as a sandwich.”
My uncle had decided to stop listening to the women jabbering all around him and instead concentrated on asking us every five minutes if the table was ready,
Romance was relative. I looked at them, my second mother and father in Taiwan and my cousin who is more or less like a sister to me. We were single, but we were together.
“Let’s take a picture with Shu-shu,” I said.
Suddenly, my uncle came alive. As old fashioned as he was (he still did not really know how to use his cell phone which wasn’t even a smartphone and panicked whenever the computer stalled even slightly), he had read in the paper about social media and the art of “liking” something.
“Will people click “like?” on this photograph?” he asked.
“Oh hell yeah they will,” I said, already trying to come up with a funny caption.
“Excellent,” he said, “I like being ‘liked.'”
My most ‘liked’ photo on Facebook and Instagram that week. My uncle is more popular than we are.
I spent much of February and March exploring Taipei on my own. I walked around the neighborhoods I’d grown up in, photographing things I’d always seen.
The recycling man.
Creepy bus selfie.
On colder days, I hiked Elephant Mountain, which was easily accessible by bus. It was quiet up there and one afternoon I came across an elderly gentleman, slowly making his way back home. He and the slanted shack-like homes around me seemed to be relics from another era, tucked away and forgotten in the mountains. Of all the days I spent in Taipei, that one, oddly, stands out from the rest.
Going home.
And always there was family. On some days, I spent the afternoon with my aunt who despite marrying a regimented man who would go to bed at 9PM even if “The Queen of England came calling,” has made an art out of enjoying the finer things in life. Like an artful dresser who mixes high with low, she is an expert at both enjoying the present and remembering the past. When she wasn’t nagging me about being single, she shared stories about her poor girlhood in the south of Taiwan and life as a young college student in the big city of Taipei. A graduate of National Taiwan University, she loved spending afternoons revisiting the campus which was much changed, along with the students. We would buy coffee and sweet breads, walk slowly around the ponds and gardens and she would tell me what used to be where.
“Stand there and I’ll take a photo for you,” she would say when we came across a famous bell or tower. Looking at her looking at me, I could tell she was reminded of that certain, golden time, before men, before children.
“You can never get it back,” she said a little wistfully, but still completely content with her present life.
“But you can pass it on,” I thought.
Seeing this photo from work, my cousin said, “She’s wearing my sweater.”
Other days, I would accompany her to the market where she’d buy groceries for the coming week and we’d share a snack or two or three. We ate well together and my cousin, at work, would glower at my Instagram feed.
Delectable nigiri from Addiction Seafood. Yes that’s what it’s called.
My father’s youngest brother, Uncle Kwang Hua, known as the family’s workaholic, but lately he’s eased up a little. Something about his blood pressure and the realization that life should (and can be) long if you take care of yourself and enjoy an outing every now and then. They took me to a huge temple one afternoon with grandma. We ate vegetarian food in silence and oohed and aahed at the masonry. At one point, we had the opportunity to ask a question about the future. I’m not sure what I asked, but I left the temple smiling.
Is it just me or do we all look kind of wan? My uncle is thinking about meat.
One weekend I took a trip down south, to Kaoshiung to visit my relatives, a youngish couple (at least compared to my parents) whose children had also flown the coop. Their son was now in Seattle working at Microsoft and their daughter just starting her second semester as a freshman at USC. Just a few years ago I’d gone to England with them, Jenny and Wayne still little kids to me. But I guess at nineteen I was also just a kid…and I guess it’s more than just a few years ago. Now they were empty nesters and grandpa had just turned ninety-one. I didn’t plan my trip to make his birthday, it just happened that way in the way good things do.
A small cake for a small group.

On the weekend, we drove further south to Tainan, where my aunt had grown up. We walked down old streets that were now preserved and slowly being turned into art districts. It’s a trend, my uncle said, and I nodded, noting how different the south was from Taipei. I love Taipei, but I could see too, the charms of the south. There was so much food and the people were friendly, their hospitality rivaling that of American southerners. We ate various famous street foods until we could not eat anymore and at the end of the night, my uncle drove us back to Kaoshiung in a semi-food coma.

When we said goodbye they wished me good luck with my graduate school applications.

“I have a feeling,” my aunt, a psychotherapist said, “I have a very strong feeling that you’ll go back to New York.”

“Interesting,” I said.

Old wicker chairs on an old street in Tainan.

My parents arrived at the beginning of March.

My father begins to make plans with his friends, who like him are older and unlike him, are not in denial about their abilities to stay out late and drink. “Come out, you old farts!” he says, “I’m not back for long!” But nowadays they inevitably come back around 9 or 10PM and my mother smirks, “Now he learns he is not immortal.” 
We too, along with my grandmother, took a drive to the outskirts of the city – some cavern and orchid exhibition my mother wanted to see. We stopped in the mountains for a meal cooked almost entirely out of tender bamboo in a restaurant built almost entirely from old, sturdy bamboo.
Smiling in a panda’s paradise.
I took a photograph with my grandmother on a bridge.
On March 9th, my childhood friend Pearl got married. Our fathers had gotten their MBAs together at Cal State Long Beach (if I said to my father now, “I’d like to get an MBA from Cal State Long Beach” he would probably cry) and stayed friends for the next thirty years. She whispered her engagement to me on Super Bowl Sunday from Taipei just as I was walking through my California kitchen and after I’d screamed congratulations she whispered, “Okay, I’m going to bed now.” A few days later she asked me to be a bridesmaid and I happily said yes, knowing that whether employed or not, I would be there.
Pearl, appropriately dressed and Wayan at the rehearsal, which in Taiwan, happens about a half hour before the real thing. No pressure.

At Pearl’s bachelorette party I received my first letter of admissions to the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Pearl and I were in the bathroom and this time she shrieked for me. Not my first choice, I said, but not a bad choice. I danced with abandon (at least more than usual), knowing that I was guaranteed a spot somewhere for the next two years.

With the gorgeous bride Pearl. Many hearts were crushed in Taipei when she married. That day, I did my own makeup which was deemed inadequate and improved by Pearl, who is the only bride I’ve ever known to touch up her own bridesmaid’s makeup on her wedding day.
With fellow writer and bridesmaid Emily, whom Pearl met in college and who would later introduce me to POI.
And then I was off again. Because I am behind, I have yet to post about these trips, but writing about my recent jaunts to the UK has enlivened me and I’ve decided to devote similar blog space to the trips I took last year. But for now, these glimpses must suffice.
First stop: Seoul, Korea, where Mina, whom I met during my days at the Company, wined and dined me as though it were her job. I am still waiting to return the favor when she comes to visit New York.
Ordering a twelve-course temple food meal.
Korean girls are very stylish.
Mina anticipates the raw spicy crab which is a Korean delicacy and which I did not take to…but I happily ate the rice and panchan.

From Seoul I flew to Shanghai, where I was supposed to rendezvous with cousin Karen. We had planned to go out in Shanghai as well, to round out our Asian clubbing experience, but after a rather extravagant meal in Shanghai’s Koreatown (go figure), I contracted my life’s second to worst case of food poisoning and went back to Taipei early. Karen was crushed.

“Why are you so weak?” she whined.

Instead of going out on a Friday night I took this picture from my brother’s balcony. Shanghai partied without us.

In the middle of all this, I received an email of acceptance from the director of Columbia’s Creative Nonfiction Writing program.

“Are you available to chat?” he wrote, “I have some news.”

“What does that mean?” I asked my mother.

“I think it means you got in.”

I thought about my psychotherapist aunt and about the weird feelings other people had on my behalf. You’ll go back, a handful of them had said.

I would always shrug, because with these things, it’s hard to say.

When finally it was confirmed, I went to tell my parents.

My mother teared up, remembering the fright I’d put her through nearly ten years ago.

“Where you fall down is where you pick yourself up again,” she said, and though I felt it was cheesy, I nodded because I felt the same way. But I had not yet decided. I had said to New York before leaving that I wasn’t finished with her, but wasn’t sure on what terms I’d return.

My future somewhat stabilized, my mother, knowing how much Karen had been looking forward to getting out of the office, took pity on her and suggested we take a trip after I was recovered.

“Somewhere you girls want to go,” she said, “I’ll cover it.”

Karen and I brainstormed, not bothering to consult a map. Singapore sounded close. We looked up packages online and booked the trip.

It was not that close. And it was very expensive. $28 for a Singapore Sling. We opted for gelato in the Raffles Hotel instead and in the evenings, pregamed on terrible vodka before going out with her friend Rosemary, a pixie of a girl with a bull’s strength (and a whale’s liver, not a good thing to have in Singapore). I managed, miraculously, to catch my friends Lauryn and JQ on a rare jaunt back to Singapore. They were readying wedding arrangements for their September wedding in Singapore, around the same time I was starting school. Knowing I would most likely not make their wedding, I was happy to see them again.

The famed Raffled Hotel, which is preposterously snooty. Behind in the center,  is the Fairmont where we stayed.
At Hainan Chicken and Rice with JQ and Lauryn, who are now in Switzerland.
The view from Ku De Ta at Marina Bay Sands, where a drink will cost you an arm and a leg. We spent about three arms.
Completely sober. Karen wearing color, which just doesn’t happen in Taipei and Rosemary, who went wakeboarding or something equally exhausting the next morning.
Goofing off with my sister from another mother.

I left Taiwan on April 2nd to spend some time with friends and family back home and to make a decision about Columbia. There were a few more trips to take – Charleston, Kauai, and in July, a return to Taipei to attend my brother’s wedding reception. I bid Asia a temporary goodbye and said hello again, to home.

Summing up the first third of 2013.

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