MFA Dispatch: My Last Writing Workshop

Usually, I was looking out the window.
Yesterday, I had my last workshop ever. It sort of just snuck up on me. On all of us, I think. I haven’t been the best student and it didn’t take me going to graduate school to realize this. I would have flunked out early and efficiently if my program was slightly more rigorous than it was, and I knew this going in. It wasn’t hard – I’m not bragging – but after twenty-five years as a student of somewhere or other, you get to know yourself as such. You learn where to invest your limited academic energy.  Continue reading “MFA Dispatch: My Last Writing Workshop”

The Sunday Seven: Unemployment

“She doesn’t even go here.”

Greetings from a Starbucks in Charlottesville, Virginia, where yesterday I saw my first college basketball game: UVA Wahoos vs. Virginia Tech Hokies. UVA won. I’ve never seen such a united display of school spirit, even though it seemed my classmates had plenty of it. I just didn’t. I also never paid attention nor participated in any sporting events aside from badminton. Though I did go to one football game at Berkeley (vs. Oregon) and sat on the wrong side. In a sea of folks dressed in forest green I said very loudly, “What color are we?”  Continue reading “The Sunday Seven: Unemployment”

Photo Diary of a 2013, Part 2

At the beginning of April, I left the bustle of Asia and came home to this:

The road. 

I flew to New York to attend Columbia’s admitted student’s night and stayed with Albert, an architectural student from Taiwan whom I’d met many years ago through my cousin. He never slept and smoked like a chimney and was constantly complaining about his monumental workload, but ask him if he’d prefer to be studying anywhere else and he’d shake his head. “New York is where I want to be.” His apartment was my temporary home and despite it being dark, with critical windows facing brick walls, I could see how when life is full and you’re doing what you love (and hardly ever come home because you’re at studio), things like that matter just a little less.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” says Albert, “But I’ll sleep when I’m dead (or when I run out of cigarettes).”
I was, obviously leaning towards Columbia but two things helped seal the deal: 1. They gave me more money. 2. I found my dream studio, minus the nightmare of five flights of stairs and no elevator. Also, the passionate urging of others helped. “It’s New York! What the hell are you going to do in the middle of butt-fuck nowhere North Carolina or West Virginia! New York, Betty! New York!!! Every writer’s dream!”  
I have yet to set foot inside that building. 
With the minor detail of where I was to spend the next two years of my life out of the way, it was time to settle into a peculiar routine: three days a week I lunched with my grandfather. I would get to his house around 11AM, read for a half hour, then put together a simple meal while he watched TV or read the paper. We’d eat, chat about things – sometimes he would tell me stories, sometimes he would be quiet and shake his head, wondering what was to become of me. All the time he would think about his old half, my grandmother. Lunch was always short, a thirty minute affair at the end of which I would clear the dishes and ask him if he wanted dessert. 
“None for me,” he would say. But I would push and push and eventually he would share a pineapple cake or have a bite or two of ice cream. We would read for a half hour more and he would retire to take a nap. I would move to the couch and try to continue reading, but eventually, the whirr of the water pump in the fish tank, the breeze from outside and the warming afternoon sun would cause me to nod off and for an hour Grandpa’s house would be silent but for the slow, even breath of an old man and a young woman, an anchor and a sail. 
Because sometimes glasses just don’t cut it. 
And around these afternoons I saw friends… 
Coworkers who turned into great friends, Grace and Enny. 

 …family….

Babies galore at Lucas’s (on the right!) One Month Celebration held, where else? At Sam Woo’s in Irvine. 
May rolled around and I turned twenty-seven. A damn good age, if you ask me. 


I took a trip to Charleston to see Grace, a cellist who was playing in the Spoleto Orchestra (longer post to come). I fell in love with the south and southern food, but that was expected. I went to my first southern beach and wondered what the hell southern Californians were so proud of. We wore summer dresses. I let my hair down and played bingo and drank with classical musicians who were surprisingly raunchy when they weren’t playing classical music. We walked a lot, ate a ton, and I pretended to understand the opera she got me tickets to.

Woohoo, culture! 
Grace walking at Sullivan’s Beach. 
When we weren’t stuffing our faces with fried everything we were trying to walk it off.  
Like that one ride at Disneyland. 

And immediately after that, my mother suggested an impromptu trip to Kauai. She popped into my room one evening and asked, “How much are tickets to Kauai at the end of May?”

I looked for her, then asked, “Who are you thinking about going with?”

She seemed surprised, “Oh, you! Do you want to go?”

This is what’s called a no-brainer. So we went, just the two of us.

My mother thinks about her mother. 

On our last day there, we went swimming in the hotel pool, then my mother took a nap while I wrote a letter to my brother. When she woke, I asked her how she felt about barbecue. She said fine. I ordered it by phone and drove to pick it up. My mother stayed in the kitchen, peeling papaya and when I returned, I saw that she’d been crying.

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

She started crying again.

“I was just thinking about grandma.”

“What were you thinking about that made you think of grandma?”

In hindsight, it was a stupid and insensitive question, but I think my mother understood what I meant.

“I am so lucky that my daughter can travel with me and we can spend time like this, but I can’t do that anymore with grandma.”

I hugged her, because you can’t really do anything or say anything but hug a person who misses their dead mother.

“Let’s eat outside on the balcony,” I said, and she agreed.

I poured us each half of the small bottle of wine we’d gotten from the airline and when everything was served, she raised her glass to me, something I’ve never seen her do. My mother is not a big drinker.

“I wish you a good happy life in New York,” she said. Her voice broke and her face crumpled and I choked up too, but did not cry. I said thank you. I said, “I already have a good and happy life.”

My mother thinks about me. 

At the end of June, it was time to return to Taipei. This trip was much shorter than the first, but no less fun. For starters, my cousin Karen and I returned to Hong Kong:

Traveling for business, obviously.  
Before our feet started to hurt. 
Do this panorama some justice and click on it. 
My brother got married (again, to the same Cathy), at the W Hotel in Taipei. He cried the whole time and Cathy, was like, “What is wrong with you.” It was very touching. 
Bubbles and my brother’s tears. 
Some Ho’s and then some. 
I spent some quality time with family in Taiwan, and it felt a little different this time because I wasn’t sure when I’d next be back. 
My uncle at the office. He looks at numbers, then reads Buddhist scripture, and is in bed by 9PM. Every. Single. Day. 
My cousin Melody was also home from Boston over the summer, taking a break from breaking hearts. Over Din Tai Fung, we talked about the elusive Mr. Right and the ubiquitous Mr. Wrongs.  
I ate Chinese food as though my life depended on it, unsure of what awaited me in New York. Pasta, it turns out. 
And a lot of the time, marveled at the fact that this guy was in a relationship with a girl who really really likes him. “I don’t know why either,” he says. 

I returned to California in the middle of July, hoping to return to a somewhat normal schedule, but it was crunch time. There was another trip to Vegas with the girls I go most often and have the best time with: 

Elevator selfie. 

A short trip to SF. First stop, two nights at Erica and Carson’s:

TPE – HKG – SF! Taxicab selfies are now a thing. 
I had lunch with Emily from Pearl’s wedding. She lived in SF and was trying to convince all her single girlfriends to move out there. 
“The odds are so much better for women in SF,” she said, “I heard it’s hard to meet someone in New York.” 
I nodded; I had heard the same thing. But a month later Emily would make it very easy for me to meet someone in New York. 
“What about POI? He’s offensive and so is Betty.” 

And the main event: Jaime’s Bachelorette party, which was supposed to be tame but ended up like this:

The bachelorette and a very drunk man who liked very much to “back it up.”  

My cousin Wendy’s baby shower:

Remember earlier in the year she was in Vegas! 
And a quick succession of hangouts before I had to leave town: 
I watched a lot of movies with this girl, equally as obsessed with Benedict Cumberbatch as I was until we realized he was probably gay. But we still really like him. 

With cousin Michelle in Venice, aping an ape. 
At plate by plate with Enny, whose outfit was pretty much the talk of the town. 
Billy’s dad salting seasoning their salmon during a random weekend at their mansion in Upland.  
With Angie and Lynn at a Phoenix International event. 
Getting In n’Out with Grandpa. 
With Auntie Linda, a few days before leaving. 
Pint-sized houseguests from Taipei. 
An impromptu mexican feast at Grace’s.  
Then, on August 17, 2013, I moved to New York. 
Well. Sort of. 
The early days. 
Grace and Charlene were there to help make things better. We went to HomeGoods and bought mirrors and lamps, you know, essential things. They helped me haul three giant boxes filled with Forever 21 crap up five flights, something the UPS guy failed to do. 
Best moving service ever 🙂 Way better than UPS. 
Then in my giant mess of an unfurnished room, we got ready for my first girls’ night out in New York. 
And it was never this messy again. 
Cleaned up and celebrating Charlene’s birthday belatedly, at Robert in Columbus Circle. 
And it was back to California for Jaime and Alvin’s beautiful wedding in San Clemente. I’ve known Jaime since middle school, when we met in science class and giggled together at the teacher’s giant armpit sweat stains. Four months later, she and her husband would fly through a snow storm and battle massive flight delays to visit me in New York. 
With bridesmaid Emy, also an old friend from high school and Jaime, one of the most low-maintenance brides in the history of brides. Emy and I always look like her bodyguards.  
I like to think that some of my photos were better than the wedding photographer’s. 
At the wedding, just as I was sitting down to dinner, Emily texted me. 
“Hey! I want to set you up with someone.” 
“I’m game,” I said, taking a bite of fish. 
A few minutes later POI texted, asking me to dinner sometime the following week. I’d let him know tomorrow, I said. First I had to eat cake and dance. I was at a wedding, after all. 
The next evening, I boarded a red-eye flight from Long Beach to JFK. And just like that, it was back to New York. For longer, for real. 

Personal Statement – Other People Helped Me Do It Better

It seems appropriate today, on my first day of school (how quaint that phrase is!), to reflect upon how three years after graduating from college, I ended up in a small but airy classroom on the fourth floor of Columbia’s Dodge Hall. Let me, for a moment, pretend that this is an award acceptance speech (because you know, it’s so almost the same thing): I’d like to thank my friends for their undying support in my “craft” (even though I’d throw up before I referred to it that way without quotes), my family and especially my parents for acknowledging that hey, I’m probably not suitable for anything else, my professors for taking the time to write recommendations (or not – incidentally if you’re wondering how much weight Columbia’s MFA program places on letters of rec, one of my professors completely forgot to submit the letter, leaving me with two out of three required letters), and of course, I’d like to thank every darling who reads my blog.

Your readership means plenty if not everything because I don’t have other writing to show my dedication or seriousness. What you see here is what I write. On top of that, I’m a bit of a philosophical ham, which means if I write but no one reads it, it’s like that proverbial tree felled in the proverbial forest: is it really written if it’s not read? Didn’t think so. In short: thank you. A million thanks for taking the time.

And, lastly, for the nuts and bolts required to build the actual application, most painful of which is the Personal Statement, I’d like to thank Adam Gopnik.

It is not a stretch to say that Adam Gopnik helped me get into Columbia’s MFA program. I thought briefly about lifting entire passages from his book, Through the Children’s Gate and pawning them off as my own in my personal statement, but disgraced plagiarists told me that wouldn’t be a wise course of action. Instead, I used his book as a jumping off point, allowing his insightful paragraphs to act as muse:

What New York represents, perfectly and consistently, in literature and life alike, is the idea of Hope. Hope for a new life, for something big to happen, hope for a better life or a bigger apartment. When I leave Paris, I think, I was there. When I leave New York, I  think: Where was I? I was there of course, and I still couldn’t grasp it all. I love Paris, but I believe in New York and in its trinity of values: plurality, verticality, possibility. 

In the end, Gopnik gave me more than a leg up. This is what I submitted:

I did not start writing in New York, but in New York I began to see myself as a writer.
I was unhappy when I first started college eight years ago and blogging seemed to be a respectable way to broadcast it to friends back home and random web surfers who were interested to know how life was for a NYU freshman from SoCal. In New York, I learned the benefits of writing for oneself yet at the same time, discovered a small audience. Rather than attend class I began to explore nonfiction and often browsed independent bookstores around the city. I discovered Russell Baker and David Sedaris at the Strand; Adam Gopnik and Betsy Lerner at Shakespeare and Co., and heard chef Anthony Bourdain speak at Barnes and Noble in Union Square – a big chain store, but it stayed open late – before returning to the Strand to buy his books. Theirs was great stuff, much like the essays I aspired to write.
I ended up dropping out of NYU and six years later, graduated from UC Berkeley, where I was admitted to a creative nonfiction workshop taught by Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise. In their workshop, I gained confidence practicing a well-worn cliché: writing what I know. It is the one thing I have done consistently, day after day, year after year. Some would say I know very little, but what I do know – my work history and its carnivalesque collection of colleagues; my family, divided amongst sprawling Orange County, the tiny island of Taiwan and the glitteriest of all glittering metropolises, Shanghai; and the myriad of tiny moments observed at home and abroad – I know quite well.
On a recent trip to New York I revisited the Strand, where Adam Gopnik’s Through the Children’s Gate lay on a display table. I had recently quit my job as Executive Assistant to focus on MFA applications, but visiting friends and eating cupcakes in New York was not particularly conducive to this. However, standing in the Strand and reading Gopnik’s descriptions of New York after having been away, I found myself immersed in his and his wife’s hilarious apartment hunt, their first Thanksgiving, and the beauty of New York’s “quiet places” of which Gopnik had lost sight until his children pointed them out again. He writes, “We fill our eyes and head with things already seen and known, and try to see them and know them again.” This, I think, is a writer’s – especially of nonfiction – ultimate goal. I was reminded of why I started writing in the first place, and why I want to do so at Columbia University. 

I’ve just been in the classroom for a day – not even, just a mere two hours – but I felt not-so-strangely (despite the presence of my strange-looking classmates – but that’s MFA superficiality for you) that it was a sort of homecoming. I’m not an academic (at least not yet?) but there’s something right about the classroom. A writer is always learning. Should always be learning. The classroom offers but a facet, but when it comes to writing and reading and talking about both, the classroom is probably a good place to start what I’ll never finish. So it was the right thing to do. A year ago, it was the right thing to write, and now I’m in the right place.