Figuring out your thing in life

There’s an episode of the Robcast called “Listener Questions“. As the name suggests, listeners write in with questions and Rob Bell answers them. Of all of his podcast episodes, this is one of my favorites. Lots of goodies in here, though I’d like to bring your attention to minute 4:20, when a woman named Susan asks, “How do you figure out what your thing in life is?”

Wow. Super succinct. I want to know the answer too.

Rob answers: “First off, we all have to eat and pay rent and mortgage and put gas in the car, […] so let’s take that issue and put that aside. And let’s talk about your thing in life.”

Okay Rob. It’s put aside ♣.

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Little statues in Nara, Japan.

Rob says, “Listen to your life, because its been speaking to you the whole time. […] Look for the thread, look for the base note, look for the connections.”  He asks: “When is it that you felt most alive? When is it and what were you doing when you felt the most peace? […] The most satisfaction? […] When is it and what were you doing when you felt like what you were doing mattered? Like it was bigger than you?”

Rob offers three ways to figure this out.

  1.  “What do you love to do? What is that when you do it, that you lose track of time?”
  2. “What fills you with anger? What is it that when you see it, you think – someone should do something about that. […] Somebody should fix that. The question is, are you that somebody? This is not a petty – like, someone hurt my feelings anger – but a divine, sort of injustice anger, like, that’s…not…right”.
  3. Curiosity. What vision of the future makes you most curious? What is it that you most want to know more about? A lot of my work is driven by curiosity. I write that book because I find that topic or theme fascinating. And I have to make it because I have to see what’s its like if I make it. […] Follow your curiosity.”
    • “One more thought. The Japanese have a word called ikigai 生き甲斐 – translated to ‘that which gets you up in the morning’, […] at a deep, soul, spirit level. What is it that you wake up going ‘I get to do this for another day’. […] What is it that’s exhausting but also exhilarating? Somewhere in there, perhaps is the thing that is your thing in life”.

Before we move on, let me just say that I love Rob Bell and his humour and wisdom. When I’m lost, I turn to his podcast to remind me of what’s important in life and the miracle of my own existence. So thank you Rob Bell, for all that you do.

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But let’s go back to that little clover ♣ , when Rob so sagely asked us to put aside the practical considerations of making money so you can support yourself/your family. It reminds me of this Venn diagram that went around on social networks about “purpose” –  defined as the intersection of what you love to do, what you’re good at, what the world needs, with what others would pay you for. In essence, Rob asked us to take out “What others would pay you for” when talking about your purpose / calling / thing in life.

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But, wait – that’s not what 21st century society tells me nowadays! I’m told I need to make money to live. But, I, coming from a rich, Western, developed country, shouldn’t be making that money in a soul-sucking job. I should be doing something that’s morally ethical,  environmentally sustainable, intellectually challenging, fulfills a higher purpose, serves a bigger community, and oh, answers the call of my soul. While getting paid big bucks.

 

Jeez.

I don’t know about you, but this sounds a bit like the Holy Grail. Times sure have changed from when work was just work, and what brought you joy and meaning was something completely different altogether. And to combine the two and not know the answer yet, does that mean I’m supposed to suffer in quiet, existential angst while I slowly [read: over the course of my lifetime] try to figure it all out? This type of “life design” will likely take years of experimentation, failure, lessons, and creativity. Am I destined never to feel fulfillment until I finally reach this “destination”?

I imagine I feel the same as Marie Forleo once did. In her video intro to “Why you’ll never find your passion”, she writes: “When I think back to my earlier self, I often had a hard time enjoying simple pleasures because so much of my mental and emotional energy was focused (umm, obsessed) with figuring out my life’s passion. In other words, I spent an extraordinary amount of energy trying to figure out exactly what I was supposed to do with my life.” Her antidote was to “stop thinking, and start doing. [….] Clarity comes from engagement, not thought”.

So on Monday, I will begin a week of Doing, rather than Thinking. I will stop consuming articles and inspiration on the Internet in the pretext of “researching”. I will stop agonizing over which of the three ideas I’ve picked is the “right” one to move forward with. I will stop anticipating what I will or won’t like/enjoy in future scenarios. And I will separate the ‘making a living’ from the ‘call of your soul’ bit.

I will experiment and try. I will create, rather than consume.

Here goes!

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The next right thing

There is something beautiful about watching lightly falling rain. Clear glass droplets falling off autumn leaves. Small pools of cascading ripples. Me, inside, with a cozy cup of tea. Writing.

It has been one month since I’ve moved to Germany. The PhD feels close yet far away. I’ve been learning how to slow down, to relax, and to take time. I’ve been learning not to measure the worth of my days (and indirectly, myself) by how productive I’ve been. I’ve been learning how to sit in the discomfort of not knowing what’s next, and all the anxiety, anticipation and questions of self-worth that it encompasses. It’s hard and scary. And sometimes, if I dare, exciting and electrifying.

I don’t know my path yet.

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StadtPark. Köln, Germany

So I bike around and explore the city. I try out new cafes and people watch. I read and think and draw. I get inspired. I write down ideas. I feel up. I feel down. I feel like I’m making progress and gaining clarity. I learn that clarity can’t be forced. In moments of quiet and stillness, I know I’m on the right path. In moments of fear, I’m itching to have it all figured out and am despondent I’m not there yet.

As Glennon Doyle Melton writes, “You are not supposed to be happy all the time. Life hurts and it’s hard. Not because you’re doing it wrong, but because it hurts for everybody. Don’t avoid the pain. You need it. It’s meant for you. Be still with it, let it come, let it go, let it leave you with the fuel you’ll burn to get your work done on this earth.

So I sit with this discomfort. I invite it for tea. Stay as long as you like, I say. It’s okay that I don’t know what’s next. I’ll just keep showing up. I’ll do my part and move forward everyday. I’ll sift through what I want and don’t want. As I do this, Clarity makes brief  appearances. Discomfort becomes a familiar friend. Process and Journey become my guide posts.

As Melton writes, “Just do the next right thing, one thing at a time. That’ll take you all the way home.”

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Marriage, the ever elusive shape-shifter

I’m getting married in a month. My partner and I have been together for 10 years. I’m still not sure what marriage means to me.

Let me preface this by saying that what prompted our decision to get married was not romance or a deep yearning to publicly declare our commitment to each other in front of family and friends. Rather, what prompted this decision was my desire to stay in the country. With a residence permit. And health insurance. And the permission to work, without needing to specify (at this moment), exactly what that work will look like. So that my partner and I can finally live together again, after five years of a long-distance relationship – first between continents, and then between countries.

Ah, “the realities of institutionalized companionship”, as writer Elizabeth Gilbert puts it.

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As our “special day” inches closer, I find myself trying wrap my head around exactly what marriage is, and more importantly, what it means to me. To be perfectly honest, I ain’t got a clue. But, dear readers, its not from lack of trying!

My desire to understand marriage started in my early teens. I was 12 and had just watched a Korean drama where a young girl was forced into an arranged marriage. It terrified me. I don’t want to get married, I thought. I’ll be stuck in the house all day cleaning and cooking! I’ll have to take care of babies! I won’t get to do anything fun. What a horrible way to go! (Note: Korean historical dramas may have led me to a slightly skewed perception…).

Later, at 14, I had my first boyfriend. If I could describe this relationship in one word, it would be “infatuation”. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage [yes, I love her, I’m going to reference her many times in this post], “Infatuation is not quite the same thing as love; it’s more like love’s shady second cousin who’s always borrowing money and can’t hold down a job.” Obviously, it didn’t last. At 19, I had my second boyfriend. More of a “real” relationship than my last one, though frankly, based on insecure, mutual dependency and all sorts of unhealthy, possessive behaviors.

At 23, I met my partner. He had dreamy blue eyes and a dazzling smile. I swooned when he held my hand, like a delicate damsel in a fairytale book. The world stopped when ….

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Just kidding.

Okay. So here’s what I really want to say. It’s been 10 years since our first date, and I find myself with an ever-growing love and respect for him and for our relationship. For the first time ever, I am with someone who has clear boundaries and communicates emotion in healthy ways (omg!). Someone who is so self-aware and calmly grounded in himself, that problems and disagreements actually get resolved, rather than pushed down and slowly brewed into resentment. Someone who apologizes when he messes up, and who has the generosity to forgive me when I mess up, royally – without the subtle and almost imperceptible ways that couples can punish each other in future, completely unrelated interactions. Someone who knows me to my core – my goals, hopes, fears and struggles. Someone who I can be completely vulnerable and not to mention, bratty with – in ways I would be embarrassed if even close friends and family saw me that way.

I know how precious this is.

But, what does this have to do with marriage? For some wisdom and advice, I poured over Gilbert’s book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, which spans centuries of history about the institution of marriage in the Western world while she tried to make her own peace with marriage (prompted by US Homeland Security). Here’s what I learned:

Gilbert writes: “Marriage, it seems, does not like to sit still long enough for anyone to capture its portrait very clearly. Marriage shifts. It changes over the centuries the way that Irish weather changes: constantly, surprisingly, swiftly. […] Marriage was not always considered ‘sacred’, not even within the Christian tradition”. In fact, “the early Christian fathers regarded the habit of marriage as a somewhat repugnant worldly affair that had everything to do with sex and females and taxes and property, and nothing whatsoever to do higher concerns of Divinity”.

Gilbert references the different types of marital unions throughout history – most commonly, between one man and several women, between one woman and several men (as in southern India), between two aristocratic males (as in ancient Rome), between two siblings (as in medieval Europe, when valuable property was at stake), between two children (as in Europe, orchestrated by inheritance-protecting parents), and even between a living woman and a dead man (as in China, called a ‘ghost marriage’). Such marriages were “pragmatic” – as “a tool for tribal clan building”, or to acquire land, wealth, inheritance and physical safety, where “the interests of the larger community were considered above the interests of the two individuals involved”.

It was only in the beginning of the 19th century that people started marrying for love. Ah, l’amour… But only love defined by certain terms. Interracial marriage was not legal in the US until 1967, where a poll reflected that “7 out of 10 Americans believed that it should be a criminal offense for people of different races to marry each other”. Moving on, a quick google search reveals that while homosexuality can be punishable by death in some countries, same-sex marriages became legal in the Netherlands in 2001, in Belgium in 2003, in Canada in 2005, in the US in 2015, and in Germany just one month ago in October 2017.

Indeed, as Gilbert so wisely states, “marriage survives, because it evolves”.

With one itty, bitty problem. Gilbert writes, “as marriage became ever less ‘institutional’ (based on the needs of the larger society) and ever more ‘expressively individualistic’ (based on the needs of …you) […] – divorce – which had once been vanishingly rare in Western society, did begin to increase by the mid-19th century”. This means that, “by unnerving definition, anything that the heart has chosen for its own mysterious reasons, it can always unchoose later – again, for its own mysterious reasons”.

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So, what neat, tidy conclusion have I come to about marriage – this elusive, institutional shape-shifter? Before we sign papers in city hall, I’d love to come to some kind of clarity on what this whole marriage business is.

But I don’t. I’m just as clueless now as I was ten years ago.

What I do know is this. I love my partner. We’ve built a strong foundation for our relationship – one that gets deeper and more wonderful over time. We’re committed to showing up for each other and to support each other in our dreams and goals. Hey, we don’t play a perfect game (who does??), but all we can do is learn and grow together.

As Rob Bell writes in The ZimZum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage,

“It is risky to give yourself to another. There are no guarantees and there are lots of ways for it to fall apart and break your heart.

But the upside is infinite”.

 

Let the current take you

There’s a scene in “The Shining” where Wendy comes up to Jack at his desk to ask him how writing is going. They’re in a huge hall with tall ceilings and shiny hardwood floors. A single lamp radiates a golden glow. Eerie music plays in the background and all you hear is the clack-clack of Jack’s keyboard, echoing loudly through the hall. Wendy walks up to Jack, and in a high, upbeat voice says, “Hi hon, (kisses him on the cheek), how’s it going?”

Jack: (Puts down his papers and takes his hands off the typewriter). “Fine.”

Wendy: “Get a lot written today?”

Jack: “Yes”. (Looks up at her blankly).

Wendy: “Hey, weather forecast says its going to snow tonight”.

Jack: “What do you want me to do about it?”

Wendy: “Aw, come on hon. Don’t be so grouchy.”

Jack: “I’m not being grouchy, (scowls), I just want to finish my work”.

Wendy: “Okay, I understand…I’ll come by later with a couple of sandwiches for ya, and maybe you’ll let me read something then”. (Smiles).

Jack: (Stares at her in disbelief). “Wendy, (clears throat), let me explain something to you. Whenever you come in here and interrupt me, you’re breaking my concentration. You’re distracting me (hits himself on the head dramatically). And it’ll take me time to get back to where I was (he tears up the papers he just typed). You understand?”

Wendy: (Wide-eyed). “Yeah”.

Jack: “Fine. And we’re going to make a new rule. Whenever I’m in here and you hear me typing (he hits a few keys on the typewriter), or whether you don’t hear me typing, or whatever the fuck you hear me doing in here – when I’m in here, that means I’m working and that means don’t come in. Now, (stares at her with those crazy Jack Nicholson eyebrows), do you think you can handle that?”

Wendy: “Yeah”.

Jack: “Fine. Why don’t you start right now and get the fuck out of here?”

Wendy’s footsteps echo down the hallway.

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Jack Nicholson’s typewriter tantrum – Watch him rip up little pieces of paper here

Whoa, whoa, ….whoa. 

I know what you’re thinking – what an abusive, temperamental asshole! And, what a surprising and uncanny resemblance to thesis writing!

My thoughts exactly.

Indeed, during those months of writing my dissertation, my temper was short, I was quick to snap, quick to laugh, and quick to cry. I avoided social interactions because they took away precious time and energy. I avoided information – any information unrelated to my thesis because it would take brain power to digest. I holed myself off in the library in hopes that the Writing Gods would bless me with abundant, free-flowing text. Instead I drank tea, went to the bathroom a lot, and hit the delete button till my carpel tunnel came back. Some days I succumbed to an overwhelming anxiousness and fear that chewed deep through my bones. Other days, I battled through that fear and directed my energy to focus on one – single – tiny – task – at a time. On those days, things got done, though I didn’t dare look back in case the fairy dust would wear off. I worked nights. I worked weekends. I took walking breaks in the forest. I felt frazzled and tense like a cold rubber band. If I was in an abandoned hotel in the middle of the mountains, I might have gone berserk and snapped too.

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Woods near the University of Limerick, Ireland.

Now that I’m done, I can safely look back at the five years I spent on this dissertation and view it from a distance. I have time to think, reflect, breathe. Slow down. As my dear friend C puts it, “to put a finger on the pause button”.

For the first time in five years, I have no commitments. No deadlines. No looming tasks or to-do lists. I can wake up and think about what I want to do today, rather than what I should or need to do. I have the space to try new things, experiment, explore. I can re-evaluate my life, where I am, where I’m going and who I want to be. And most importantly, I can nap in the middle of the day.

Though I learned many things in this PhD, perhaps my ultimate lesson was figuring out that I needed to surrender. To give up control, or rather, the perception that I had any control. To loosen my tightly clenched fists that were forcing its way with raw brute force in hopes to achieve tasks, deadlines, goals. To realize I don’t have all the answers and that its not going to be glorious and perfect, the way I envisioned. That dammit, I’m only human and I’m just doing the best I can.

So I gave up. Or rather, I gave in. I stopped trying to orchestrate things. Stopped trying to force and manage. I let the current take me.

As Lao Tzu said, “By letting it go, it all gets done. The world is won by those who let go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond winning.”

Lao Tzu, I think you’re onto something.

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Black sand on the shores of Iceland.

 

Surf school, Portugal

Day 1: Funny how time works. Just the other day, I was sitting in the “Bitte Ruhe” room at the University of Zurich, proof-reading my thesis one final time in air-conditioned climate control. Now, I’m here – surf school in Baleal, Portugal. Ocean wind, the smell of seaweed and the sound of crashing waves. We’re gathered in a circle and our instructor P is drawing diagrams in the sand. We enter the water here, go behind P, surf to here, and get out here. We take a circle route so we don’t get in anyone’s way. Surf etiquette is key. (No one wants to share the ocean with a kook).

P1150051I have that familiar feeling of anxiousness and excitement, my stomach churning relentlessly. I haven’t set foot in the ocean in what, 15 years? We warm up, jumping into the Atlantic. We splash water on our faces and necks. We dive into oncoming froth. The shock of the cold doesn’t last long. We pay attention to the intervals between waves. We drift with the currents back to shore. We introduce ourselves to the ocean.

Back on the sand, our instructors teach us the basics of surfing. Hands beside your chest, tucked in like chicken wings. Pop-ups, positioning and balance. Reading the ocean currents. We practice on big mounds of sand to learn how the board tips when we shift our weight.

It’s go time and we carry the board out. We move towards P. One by one, he tells us to turn the board so the tail faces the oncoming wave (easier said than done), get on said surfboard (again, easier said than done), then he pushes us forward with the white wave, yelling “Paddle! Paddle! … Up! Up! Up!” We float towards shore – popping up – successfully or not. We look like little dolls, black wetsuits against the blue horizon, standing up then falling down, again and again and again. This is Day 1.

P1150029Day 2: Our instructors do not have a single ounce of body fat. They’re tanned and ripped, their long golden hair blowing freely in the Atlantic ocean wind. The top of their wetsuit hangs freely off their body as they teach, but they tug it on last minute before getting in the water. Tuggity-tug-tug, and its on. What the f***? How did they do that? This morning I spent a full 10 minutes painstakingly tugging on one leg. Later, when both legs were finally on, I noticed the crotch and knees were in horribly wrong positions. Putting on that damn wetsuit is my first challenge of the day.

Day 3: My pop-ups are better today. I can stay on for a few seconds. I can also control the board a bit easier, the movements becoming more intuitive. But only in the morning. By the afternoon, it all goes to hell. My legs and arms turn sluggish. They drag and stick on the board when I pop up, taking away precious milliseconds from my time actually surfing. The ankle leash trips me often, as I swing my foot to the front of the board. The waves are rough now and my muscles are exhausted. It takes energy to even stand still in the water, without every wave forcing me back a few steps towards shore. I sit out the rest of the afternoon lesson.  Everything about surfing is hard.

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Day 4: Best day ever. I’m fresh and recovered. For a few magnificent moments, I manage to catch a few baby waves of my own. As I paddle out, salt water stinging my eyes, I grin and think to myself, “hey, this is fun”.

Day 5: Last day of surf lessons. Instead of walking out to meet the waves, the instructors tell us to paddle out. This uses more energy. Instead of surfing the white foamy waves (which are easier because they’ve already broken and are horizontal), we go deeper to the green waves (which are more vertical). Immediately, the green waves reveal that my position is off. I fall, over and over. It’s amazing how much of this sport involves falling. And amazing how so little of it involves actually balancing on the board. For me, at least.

Surf school is over. I’ve always wanted to try surfing and now I have. I’m in awe at how intricate and demanding this sport is – to balance and turn on moving water, to understand the different waves, swells and currents in this majestic and mysterious ocean. I go back to the hostel and watch a few videos of professional surfers competing in the Super Turbos beach in Peniche, just one town away.  This sport is nuts.

As I leave Baleal, Portugal – I have but one thought – surfers of the world – I bow down to you. You have my deepest and utmost respect.  Surf’s up, dudes!

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Seasons of life

My grandfather passed away at the age of 96. Five months have passed and I think of him often. Little things remind me of him and my eyes water and my heart aches a bit. It is the end of an era.

As author Joan Didion once wrote, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down”. So here I am, writing down the story of my grandfather – who he was to me, what I learned from him, and all the immeasurable ways he has influenced my life.

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My story begins in 1990 – the year we moved from Beijing, China to Edmonton, Canada. I am six years old. On the plane flying over the Pacific, my mom teaches me simple English phrases on cue cards with little cartoon drawings. I learn ‘where is the bathroom?’ and sport vocabulary like ‘shuttlecock’. I’m hot under my thick sweater and long-johns but keep them on, because Canada will be “very, very cold” (or so my mom says). I sense something exciting is happening, but am unsure what. I vaguely remember saying goodbye to my family in China, but mostly I dream about all the fluffy dogs I’ll get to pet in Canada (a promise my aunt made me before we left Beijing). Hours later, my dad greets us at the airport. After one year apart, our little family is reunited again.

And so, our new life begins. Like all immigrant families, my parents work hard to put food on the table. As my dad pursues graduate studies, my parents work multiple labour jobs – cleaning hotel rooms, washing dishes, waiting tables – making minimum wage. My parents gave up the comforts of their prestigious careers in Beijing, daring to venture to a new country where they did not speak the language and did not understand the culture.

While my parents experience daily struggles and hardships, I – enveloped in the warm bubble of their protection and love – enjoy carefree summers running wild in parks and memorable winters building snow forts. I attend birthday parties and come home with “doggy-bags”. I eat spaghetti and cheddar cheese, peanut butter on celery sticks – exotic foods I’d never seen in China. Within the timespan of a single summer, I pick up English, effortlessly, while playing with fellow classmates.

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Playing piano, photo taken by my dad. 2004.

Three years later, I am nine years old. One night, my parents come into my room and ask if I want to take piano lessons. They urge me to consider carefully – that if I say “yes”, I would have to commit fully. I close my eyes and ponder – not knowing what “committing fully” means. I nod an enthusiastic “Yes!!!”. Soon after, I perform on a beautiful hardwood stage, playing a “Canon in D” duet, alongside Teacher Zhang who inspires and challenges me. I delight in the feel of those keys and lose myself in a wonderful world of melodies and rhythms. Piano becomes a part of my soul.

Around that time, I also start drawing lessons. I first learn traditional Chinese painting from an older gentleman – how to hold brushes and mix black ink. We paint Rocky Mountain landscapes from photos. I learn to dry my brush and split it, so that it will look like pine trees when pressed on paper. Later, I study with Teacher Yuan, a professional artist who teaches me the foundations and techniques of sketching.  Every lesson, he pours me a big glass of delicious pulpy orange juice, while he sets up the fruit/egg/vegetable scene we would draw that day. Eggs are the toughest. They’re round and smooth and difficult to get the shading just right. (To this day, I get a bit nervous when someone sets a single white egg in front of me).

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Lotus flowers at the Summer Palace. 1998.

For a long time, I never realized what a privileged childhood I led. I was safe, happy, and loved. I had hobbies that fed my soul (hobbies that I turn to – to this day – for relaxing, re-energizing, to slow down from life’s hectic pace). Later, in my twenties, my parents told me that in their darkest times during those early years in Canada – it was my grandfather who said that a child’s potential should not be wasted. That no matter how difficult their financial circumstances, they must invest in and develop my talents now, because later, it would be too late. And so my grandparents supported my parents – emotionally, financially (if/when my parents accepted it), and in all the other intangible ways parents love their children and their children’s children.

pencil.JPGI am now 33 years old. I think about my grandfather and all the ways he has shaped who I have become. The little details of his presence.

The bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils on his desk. The way he would cut out newspaper articles, paste them and annotate them in his notebooks. He was always reading, thinking, learning. His accomplishments at work, he never boasted about or even mentioned at home. As a young adult visiting Beijing, I’d accompany him to events, sitting beside him in marvel as a never-ending stream of people (10-30 years his junior) approached him with a warm handshake and a “thank you for all the ways you changed my life”.

His white hair and long bushy eyebrows. Swimming with him at 北戴河, waking up at dawn to catch little crabs at the seashore. Lotus flowers and lazy dragonflies at 頤和園 (Summer Palace). His little gimped pinky that he sprained while playing basketball at 18, but never healed. How he knows the names of all the trees and flowers on our walks. How he always walked a few steps faster than my grandmother, but held her hand when going down stairs. The way he frantically brought me to the hospital the day I fell on my chin at four years old, blood dripping down my face and wailing for my mom. How he loves children, but didn’t get to spend much time with his own during his working years.

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I’ve never heard him raise his voice.

It is a fact of life that seasons come and go. This season ends and another begins. I’m grateful for all the moments I got to spend with him.

I’ll leave you with one final story about my grandfather: For as long as his shaking hands would allow, my grandfather wrote in his journal every single day. I once asked him “What if nothing much happened that day?” To which he shrugged, lifting his open hands in that matter-of-fact, playful way of his, and said: “Well – then I write ‘nothing much happened today’.”

Ha.

Impressions of Busan, Part 2 – Gamcheon Culture Village

April 23, 2016, late afternoon. I’m sitting on a rooftop cafe savouring a bowl of red bean soup. It’s thick, sweet and more filling than I expected. The sun is setting and the wind is getting a bit cold. I’m writing about the day as I overlook pastel-coloured buildings of Gamcheon Culture Village, fishing ports and ocean. p1070322p1070336To the west, a rooster is crowing. To my left, a man in sweatpants hangs up laundry on his rooftop. His silhouette moves slowly, occasionally blocking my view of the cheerful colours in this artistic village, painted by art students in 2009. A couple stray cats meow and wander through the streets, underneath a complicated maze of drooping power lines.

Most people here are tourists, Korean or east Asian, with very few Caucasians. Most look like they’re here for a day trip, like me. We sat on the same crowded tiny bus, winding up and around narrow roads to get up the hill. Together, we pass shops selling fruit, vegetables, and run-down restaurants. We get off and land in the tourist section of this village – lively and charming with cafes, music, food stalls, modest restaurants and paintings on almost every imaginable surface. I buy a stack of beautiful postcards, by an independent artist who depicts scenes around Busan.  His wife asks where I’m from and wraps my purchase in a plastic bag with little yellow hearts.

p1070146p1070155p1070173At some point, I wander away from the crowd. Down the stairs. Past mops and brooms. Plants in the alleyway, leaking pipes, the faint smell of sewage. Past an old lady who is quietly folding up laundry. Despite the intrusion on her privacy, she hands me a pack of newly packaged tissues, with a small nod – a gift, for me.  She didn’t smile but I feel a sincerity in her actions.

The people here live simply. They do not have the luxury of the life and opportunities that I’ve had.

At some point, I leave the village. I walk a different way up the hill, back to the bus stop. I buy fresh strawberries from a middle-aged woman who patiently waits for me, as I clumsily sort out my change. Behind her are three women – laughing, talking, peeling onions, cutting garlic, preparing for the week. Further up on the hill, is a gate enclosing a big building with green manicured lawns and white statues. I look in and wonder who lives there.

It’s almost dark now.

On the bus ride down, I think about the gift of being able to travel. To see, to hear, to feel, to experience, what others – different than me, yet the same as me – see, hear, feel and experience. As writer Gustave Flaubert once said – “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world“.

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