09. Harry, is that you?

Oxford, one of the oldest universities on this island. Wikipedia (the all-mighty source for all facts–and fiction–) doesn’t even have an established foundation year for it. It could only offer up 1096 as the year with evidence of teaching there, whatever that means.

I first set foot in this university town by myself back in March 2011 when I was an exchange student at Sciences Po. It was one of three daytrips I made from my friend’s dorm room at LSE Holborn.

This time around, I went with an Oxford Alum. Oh the doors you open when you are a lifelong member of such an old, prestigious (almost legendary in its reputation in some parts of the world, ie. China) educational establishment.

My guide was a graduate of Balliol College, which, conveniently, stood on the main square/street of the university part of town. It was, naturally, our first stop.

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The entire time we were walking the grounds of Balliol, there was a nostalgic, joyful glint in my guide’s eyes. He was remembering everything. I, on the other hand, couldn’t close my mouth, gawking at the beautiful history of its buildings…

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its gardens…

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and its Harry-Potter like dining hall, which was where we had lunch. Although, we didn’t get the chance to sit at the head table where the professors would sit. The seats proved too popular for us to grab two. But I didn’t mind, I already felt like royalty. The food was delicious by student-meal standards. Oxfords are a well-fed bunch.

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The afternoon was spent strolling through Christ Church College’s meadow (they have meadows!) and walking past one of the most popular sports in action. A sport that incites intense competition between colleges and in the eternal Oxford-Cambridge dichotomy: rowing.

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The amount of equipment that some of these colleges possessed were incredible.

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But what’s most incredible was, of course, some of the men who rowed these. Think of the Winklevoss twins from The Social Network, tag on a pleasant British accent, and you’ve got yourself some of these athletes. Drooling was a big part of the day.

After a quick visit to one of the hauntingly beautiful chapels

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It was time to continue the Harry Potter hunt I never got to finish back in 2011. Somehow, we were able to smoothly walk past the porter at New College, and a few turns later, we came upon a holy site…

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I’m not going to lie, I had tears in my eyes. I excite easily. Also, Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley, Professor (fake) Moody, Draco Malfoy and his gang, and Professor McGonagall all convened at this exact spot at one point in time. I think my tears of joy were justified.

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Yes, it warrants a second close-up.

A round of hyperventilation, several minutes of wide-eyed fan-girl bedazzlement, and dozens of thank-you’s and omg-I-love-you’s later, I was dragged out reluctantly.

As we walked down the corridor that also featured several times in Harry Potter, I was told that one of the dares Oxfords would cast upon their fellow college-mates was to walk around the entire corridor at nightfall, when everything would be thrown into darkness with only weak moonlight as the source of light.

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You can’t see it in the photo but there stands some truly horror-inspiring stone statues along the wall. They look as if they are crawling out of the stones to take your soul, or eat you alive. Whatever terror your imagination likes to conjure up.

Suffice to say that only the brave and perhaps the very foolish would complete the task.

One of the last stop before we hopped onto the Oxford Tube back to London was the locally-famed pub where, chalkboard has it, a certain ex-President of America once did not do something…

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A final walk through the central square that housed the Bodleian Library, where coincidentally, a wedding reception was taking place (hence we found out wedding receptions of a measurable size could be held here), under the bridge of sighs, through a cobbled winding road that was made eerie by dusk, and it was time for a quick dinner, a dash in the evening rain, and back on the home-bound coach.

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Gorgeous, ancient, awe-inspiring university, I will be back for more someday, armed with my student visitor library card and HP-hunting GPS wand (Christ Church, I’m looking at you).

08. The Royal Imaginations of George IV

Now that Lent term has officially ended and all students are in limbo between end of classes and exam revision period, I decided to take a day trip to see my favourite place of all: the sea.

Naturally, Brighton was selected.

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Our first steps off the two-hour coach from Victoria Station led us straight to the waters. My anticipation for the smell of salty blue, the sound of lapping waves, and the sight of glassy reflections falling off the horizon could no longer be contained.

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It was exactly as I remembered it. Majestic. Calming. Breathtaking.

After gawking at the Channel for a good half an hour and clumsily trudging on the stony beaches of this city, like this heart-meltingly bundle of joy…

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The weather made a turn for the worst.

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As we made out way through the snaking streets filled with boutique shops decorated with the upmost attention and care, hail hit us. It was the perfect time to be inside the other main Brighton attraction: the Royal Pavilion.

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George IV spared no expenses bringing his imagination to life in this labyrinth of a pleasure palace. History has it that he hosted many lavish, grand parties in its spaces, hence the nickname “pleasure palace”.

The décor was very Indian, but walking through past the reception area, and all became so, so shockingly Chinese.

It became a Chinese wonderland, a middle kingdom emporium, constructed out of the imaginings of a king who has never been to China. Chinese figurines nodded at your as you walked down the first hallway past the Jade-coloured welcome area. The walls were covered with bamboo shoots and illusions of bamboo that were actually made out of metal. There would be more of these as you ventured deeper into the pavilion, including bamboo railings, handles, door posts, and much, much more.

One of the most shocking spaces was the central dining space. Enter it and your eyes will be immediately drawn to the ceiling, where a thousand-ton chandelier dangled precariously above the long dining table. A mighty, fearsome dragon sat at the top of its crystals. You would soon realize, as the audio guide played in your ear, that there would be hundreds of dragons to encounter as you walked through the dozens of rooms of the pavilion. Dragons of all shapes and sizes, but mainly ones with a snake-long body and wings. Sometimes, their foreheads would even be adorned with a horn. (Note here that traditional Chinese dragons have no wings or horns, just a snake-like body and four claws)

Another major feature of the dining space and the pavilion are the portraits of Chinese people and life in China. The ones in the dining room were larger than life, literally. As you make your way through the space and into the gigantic kitchen then swerve back into the dinning room, before you exit it completely, on your right hand side, there would be a painting of a man dressed in imperial Chinese-style clothing, but with an unmistakably Caucasian face, peering at you.

Onward you would march after that little curiosity, through teal-filled sitting rooms and dark bedrooms, to arrive at the other splendid, over-the-top, imagination-come-to-life room: the red carpeted ballroom. You would either sit by the couched bench along the wall or on the carpet in the centre of the room and just gawk at the inner fantasies of George IV. Ultimately, the Royal Pavilion was intensely interesting not for its Chinese-styled depictions, but rather how China was seen in the eyes of a future king. It rests as the physical manifestation of a king-to-be’s fantasies of the Far East, a man who dreamt of being the Emperor of China.

Regency exoticism embodied.

Curious thing, even though Brighton is known for being a seaside town, there are barely any view of the sea from the pavilion. I guess George didn’t care much for it. Queen Victoria, who inherited the pavilion, was most unsatisfied with this aspect of the palace.

After this most exotic of experiences, it was back to the sea to watch the precious sunset.

The pier was open for business, but due to the low-season, only the arcade was really open. It was perfectly fine with us though, since the main attraction is always in season.

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We got a chance to walk around amongst the eerily quiet playgrounds, food stalls and amusement rides. In the end, we stood by the railing and just inhaled it all. Orange, yellow, blue, grey, and red glittered across the glassy surface of the sea, reflected off the gold and mirrors of the carrousels and roller coasters, and into our smiling faces.

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Thanks Brighton, you were intriguing, walkable and quaint. You were definitely a well-needed trip for me. Sometimes, one just needs to get away from stuffy London town for some breathing space.

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07. The Sound of Rain

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One of the many things I have a love-hate relationship with is the rain.

On days when I have am running around outside like a headless chicken, aka. errand days, rain is the most unwelcome of all.

But on days when I do nothing more than curl up under the duvet, with my laptop propped up on my tummy and my head held slightly above sleep by the efforts of two pillows, the rain is happy company.

The heavier the better.

For one thing, it doesn’t make me feel exorbitantly guilty for wasting sunshine.

More than that though, is the sound raindrops make while tapping on my window. If I was back in my Vancouver room, the soothing noise would also be echoing overhead on the rooftop. It would be surround-sound, perfect for a lazy, cozy day in.

I would look out at the grey and dreariness, and feel protected. I’d feel even more cuddled, not just by the softness of my covers but also by the room, the house. It’s like they were giving me a hug, offering themselves up as a secure, big umbrella to keep the rain at bay.

But this is all just a very poetic way of saying that rain gives me the excuse to be lazy and in bed, which coincidentally, is my favourite way of spending a day.

Living in one of the wettest cities in the world could mean a match made in a heaven since I love rainy days or one made in hell, since I might just turn into a lazy blob of inactivity.

Study Spot: Teapot Review

I go out a lot.

So I thought, instead of simply having them take all my money, I’d squeeze some purpose out of these pleasure trips. I’m starting a new series of posts where I review random places, cafes, restaurants, study spots, etc., I’ve been checking out.

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Name: teapod
Location: 31 Shad Thames, SE1 2YR
Purpose for the trip: hunting for a new study place

Experience:

The entrance caused a slight confusion, it is located between two false doors that are locked and up a small ramp. But the initial surprise quickly faded as Norah Jones met the sweet smell of caffeine. More than a dozen containers of every-flavoured teas sits dutifully on the shelves behind the waitress as I ordered my white Americano. Pay. Sit. Order’s Up. They bring it to you.

Four other small square tables of customers, the speaker right over head, and the noise level was just a little too above ambient to bare. As much as I like the songs drifting off of the playlist, I plugged my earbuds in for some less distracting Spotify sounds.

The menu holds a wide variety of drinks ranging from tea of every colour, black, green, red, green, herbal and even blue, to the usual assortment of coffees, plus smoothies (with real fruits!) and iced drinks. Little “LC” (Low-Caffine) and “CF” (Caffine-Free) signs tell you just how much caffeine you are feeding into your body.

Flip the menu over and you get a nice selection of breakfast and light lunches. If you like meat with your first meal of the day, perhaps this isn’t the place for you. They offer pancakes, bagels, tea and toast! (exclamation mark included), oats and yogurts with dancing honey, strawberry, and bananas. Midday delights promise potatoes, salmon and cream cheese. Lots and lots of cream cheese. If you want to be soup-ed up, they have daily specials (for that day, it was pea & ham, or leek & potato, healthy stuff). But if you want a little something different, why not try their curry stew. Sounds like a palette adventure!

Of course, no cafe or tea house can exist without sweets! Brownies are a must and so are muffins and cakes of all kinds. Here, they promise to be all “home-made”. Big shoes to fill.

I started out with my usual white Americano. But two hours in, and I was ready for my midday snack and tea. So I asked to be served up with rosepedal green tea, although I’m going to have to come back and try the beautifully named “Jasmine Dragon Pearls” (green) and “Light Spring Darjeeling” (black), not to mention the “Pure Rose Buds” herbal tea. Tea! Give me tea!

Now probably the most important aspect of any cafe, especially for a student like myself, is the wifi. How strong is the force? Very. The wifi is fast and glitch-free. Just ask one of the three waitresses/waiters for the password and you are ready for a few hours of inside the black hole that is the Internet.

Service: Average, smiles once in a while.

Noise Level: Earbuds needed.

Would I come back? Yes. It’s close to home. It’s affordable. It’s not too crowded. It’s warm. And it has tea. Lots and lots of tea.

Final Verdict: 3/5

Best for: Tea-drinkers, wifi-users, afternoon chatters, and if you have the noise-defiant earbuds like I do it’s a good place to spend an afternoon reading or studying away.

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06. I am Chinese.

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The first impression I usually make on strangers is that I’m westernized, so much so that I am only Chinese in appearance.

I shrug this off most days. I don’t care because I am comfortable in my multicultural identity. Yes, I possess an obvious spectrum of Western outlooks and mannerisms, but I am also solid in my Chinese roots, history and values.

However, catch me at a moment of weakness or identity crisis and this comment of my westernization will irritate the living day lights out of me. And you can bet I will defend my Chinese-ness until you back away slowly in hopes of not being injured by the shrapnel that is the remains of the bomb you just set off when you uttered those words.

Don’t worry dear readers, there are no shrapnel here. This post is not a result of someone blatantly, inconsiderately verbalizing their unprocessed inner thoughts to me. It is inspired by Lianne Yu’s “17 Signs You Were Raised in a Chinese-American Family“.

Although there are millions of little signs that make up that special part of identity, I doubt you’d be interested in reading through that. So I’ve picked out 10.

A little disclaimer before we get started. Don’t mistaken these as me generalising them as Chinese and nothing but Chinese. Many other societies and cultures retain similar customs and characteristics. Plus, everyone is idiosyncratic. These are merely what I see as originating from my own Chinese background and upbringing.

1) I shower at night. I cannot get a good night’s sleep without being squeaky clean and moisturized. This is especially essential in the cold winter months because crawling into bed with cold toes and fingers are not acceptable. My bed is a sacred place of clean sheets and lavender scents, ain’t no outside dirt gonna get up in there!

2) I have to handle “interesting” family expectations. I was recently made aware that my entire family’s biggest New Year wish for me is to find a suitable boy. My grandmother has become so desperate she’s lowered her expectations and has explicitly told me to not to have high standards. I’m pretty sure they already have plans to matchmake me, Chinese-style. So, my face and all my personal details and credentials will be put up in some random park in China with hundreds of other singletons’ leaflets in hopes that someone will find my qualifications up-to-par. They’ve probably began talking to their friends and colleagues about potentially pulling together their single daughter and their single, eligible sons. Who knows, maybe I’m already engaged and I don’t even know it. Either way, the push is strong with this family.

3) I still get red envelopes full of money. But as long as I stay single and unwed, I can use my family and family friends as cash cows come Chinese New Year, every year. Mom and dad, if you want me to get married, you should ban this tradition from my life. Money is the ultimate disincentive for that put-a-ring-on-it call.

4) I have a Type-A tiger mother. My room is quite clean according to the standards of people my age and older. You can see all of the floor. My desk is neatly arranged with tons of room to spare. My bed is always made. My clothes are stacked in their proper places. But my mother would walk in and be exacerbated at how unkept my space is. Our house back in Vancouver is always, always clean and dustless. She would also prefer I have my life mapped out down to the minute. When she plans something, there’s nothing that will stop those plans going forward, not even an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse. But I wouldn’t have her any other way. Love you mum! (Oh, in case you’re wondering, yes I have inherited many, many of these neurotic type-A traits, but dialled down a few notches)

5) I am all about avoiding trouble. Videos of Chinese people standing around or walking swiftly pass a guy who just got severely beaten up or a little girl crushed under multiple vehicles is infamous around the world now. This type of behaviour could be attributed to the indifference of the society. It could also be a result of the fact that getting oneself involved with situations that have nothing to do with you could get yourself into trouble as well. For instance, helping an old lady up from a fall, she turns around and accuses you of tripping her in the first place and then sues you for everything you’ve got. Rare. But it is nonetheless, a story some Chinese tell themselves and their family to scare each other into inaction. So, it is better to stand off to one side and/or ignore it. Don’t “inconvenience” yourself. This is, unfortunately, something I’ve internalized and tend to practice. Don’t start screaming at my inhumane, apathetic behaviour now. I am changing, slowly.

6) I speak Chinglish. I attribute my horrible but still intact ability to speak Chinese to the fact that I have to speak it to my father whose English is elementary. This is probably the sole reason I can even still speak Chinese, so thanks dad! But even when I do talk to my dad, quite a few English words still slip out. With my mom, the flood is overwhelming, and the few Chinese vocabulary that have not been drowned out is barely afloat. Still, there are certain terms that are just easier to say in Chinese instead of its inadequate English counterpart: mafan (inconvenient), fanren (annoying), diulian (losing face), and all Chinese produce and condiments. The other day, I just couldn’t think of the word for nashou, the english equivalent of which, as it turned out, was forté. So in the moment, I used Chinglish on a flatmate of mine who didn’t speak a word of Chinese. Not going to let that stop my proud-to-be-Chinese march!

7) I eat rice, all day every day. Chinese food in general. I eat it for every meal. My toast is not buttered, it’s lathered in Chinese spicy sauce (gross to many, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it). I cannot go more than two days without rice and spicy food. Even during my sickest days, I indulge in hotness.

8) Red is my lucky colour. Ask anyone who knows me well, they will say I am unhealthily obsessed with the colour. It is my absolute favourite colour to wear. I don’t walk out the door unless I have something red on me. I know it’s pure superstition and irrationality, but that colour keeps my confidence and fortunes above water. I have been referred to as a communist for loving red so much. They’re just jealous that my complexion goes so well with it.

9) I am completely uncomfortable with discussing sex with my mum or any member of my family. Sex education in China is infamously bad. There’s no birds-and-the-bees talk tradition of any kind in families. Schools don’t teach the subject properly. Any public (ie. TV programmes, sexualized music videos, posters, etc.) display of anything close to sexiness is banned (ie. recent dynastic drama banned from airing due to too much “cleveage”). This tense and forbidden atmosphere surrounding something so basic to our nature has wormed its way into my relationship with my family. It’s probably going to stay this way. My mother will probably ask me to take this point down. Sorry mum!

10) I know my parents love me, without ever hearing an “I Love You”. Don’t be fooled by the exorbitant amount of times I complain about my family and all their craziness. No matter how much I rant against them, you will never ever convince me they don’t love me as much as I know they do (and probably more). I have never heard this love verbalized in the explicit “I love you”, but we Chinese all understand that their nagging, their excessive worrying, their “put on a sweater or you’ll catch a cold” and “be vigilant” because you’re in a foreign city they’ve never been to, are all implicit expressions of their unconditional love for us. We are reminded every day of this love even if that word is never uttered.

No matter how long or how short this list is, most of these are all just superficial really. None of it matters because all that matters is that I feel Chinese. I am Chinese, and proud to be.

05. Not Another New Year Resolution

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I am the type of person who makes resolutions.

But this year, I am giving them a different name: New Year Goals.

Yes. Goals.

Goals say they are detailed and more attainable. Goals say I’m not your typical New Year Resolution Making basic chick. Goals say…

Basically the same thing as resolutions.

But I’m hoping to fool my brain into actually, actively and consistently pursuing them instead of spending a day seriously thinking about them and then promptly go on to forget every last one of them before the first week of the new year has even unfolded.

So, my 10 goals for 2015 are as follows.

1) 30 books before 12:00am 2016. Once again, I am pursuing this. If I keep at it, eventually, I’ll wear it down. Right? Also, a sub-clause (because that makes it sound substantial and serious): 5 of these have to be non-fiction.

2) Exercise at least 3 times a week. This will consist of me trying to outrun the jogging machine, and then promptly falling on my face because I am an uncoordinated idiot. But that will still keep me healthier than sitting all day. Plus, squats, all day every day!

3) Study French in half hour blocks at least twice a week. My struggle with this language has been eight years going on nine. French might hate me, but it has got to admit, we were meant to be together (unwilling) forever.

4) Study Japanese at least twice a week. A new language to fight and wrestle with. Yey.

5) …And Chinese for at least twice…a week…as well… 

6) Graduate. I mean, this is what I should be achieving anyway. But I thought, why not throw it in here for good measure.

7) Be financially self-sufficient by end of summer 2015. This include being able to pay my own rent and shopping impulses, while still keeping myself fed.

8) Make new friends. Yes, another one of those, I-should-be-doing-this-anyway. But it’s here to remind that that it’ll be much, much harder to make new friends once I’m out of school.

9) Make one big life change. Vague. Now this sounds like a resolution pretending to be a goal. So I will give it a bit more substance. What I mean are things like, have my own place (proper place, not student dorms, not a makeshift living-room-to-bedroom kind of situation), or be in a stable relationship, or settle down in a city (instead of moving all over the map like I’ve been doing for the last four years and a half), or write a book (ha! as if), etc. etc. Feasible, foreseeable changes that can and might happen if I put in buckets-load of effort and with a little bit luck.

10) Develop a passion. Also a resolution pretending to be a goal. Some details: this year I want to focus on one of my passions, most likely writing, and put some meat on it. What a weird expression. Let’s try another. I want to give it some volume, pack on some weight, plant some seeds. I give up. Anyway, you get the point. Grow it, practice it more often, develop it professionally. This will most likely lead to more blogging. Yey! You now have more horribly-written and uninteresting posts to look forward to. That’s my new year present to you. You’re welcome.

Happy February!

04. 2014 in Review: A Bibliophile’s Take

“You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.” -Charlie Jones

That’s a pretty big responsibility for the books I choose to determine who I become in five years. So, although I was 6 short of my 30 books challenge for 2014, the 24 books I have now added to the substance that comprises my future self is worth a look back on. Here’s what I’ve learned from some of them, in brief.

Matilda by Roald Dahl


Books are magic. No matter how young, how small, how powerless you are and may appear to be, with courage, kindness and a little bit of tricks up your sleeve, you can change your fate.

The Circle by Dave Eggers


Google is evil and planning world domination. I still want to work for them.
Also, stories don’t always have to end with the protagonist seeing the light and doing the right thing. They could be written to be just like us: foolish, gullible, and insufferable.

World War Z by Max Brooks


Don’t automatically write off things that you think you might not enjoy. Always give it a try before stubbornly refusing it.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera


It’s OK to not like a classic. It’s OK to not grasp its depth. All the more reason to return to it when you are ready to. Or not. If you really didn’t like it and didn’t find much value, move on. That’s alright too.

Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang


“They” are not mere numbers. “They” have girlish quirks, aspirations, midnight conversations, outlooks just like I do. We are simply born to different life circumstances and environments which have made one fortunate and one not. Immensely humbling.

Harry Potter VI & VII by JK Rowling


You are never too old to read this. It is not just some children’s series. Stop taking yourself so seriously and give it a whirl.

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Everyone you meet has their struggles, some heartbreaking and tragic, others small but no less profound. So always stay open, and listen.

On Writing by Stephen King


If I ever have the courage to pen my own story, this will be the book I return to for guidance and inspiration.

The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland


Stories don’t have to take place in extraordinary places filled with otherworldly adventures. Sometimes, the most ordinary spaces house the best tales. Sometimes, a Staple’s store can contain the most ordinary, extraordinary people. What matters are the writing and the thoughts of the characters, the small details that makes you pay attention.