Hello friends (or salut I shall say). As much as you all are probably tired of my walls of text, ‘blog more often’ was indeed one of the items on my list of summer goals. So here I am again, sitting at a corner café in Paris, sipping on a kir pêche (an apéritif – like a pregame for a meal) as I type to the sprinkle of raindrops and occasional breeze from the canal down the road.

vibes of my neighborhood (ft. many street-side cafes and bars – like the one I’m in right now)

There isn’t exactly a theme to this blog post. I’m simply just… vibing. I feel that so much change has transpired in my life in the past several weeks that I haven’t yet found the opportunity to sit and digest. Even my writings have become more disorganized and less introspective. I’ve taken to “sketch-journaling”, wherein I mindlessly scribble into a notebook for 30 minutes, attempting to capture some element of the scene before me but adding so many random symbols and nonsensical words that the outcome is abstract expressionism at best and a psychiatric textbook case study at worst.

But perhaps the change is good for the time being. Change distracts me from reflection, and for someone who is prone to over-reflection, sometimes there’s benefit to simply reacting instead of analyzing. So, for now, even as threads of spider-silk interactions continue to weave themselves into my psyche like code running in the background of my CPU (elusive until it crashes), I’m trying my best to experience the present moment before the past catches up.

And at the present moment, I’m quite enjoying Paris. Sure, things are expensive, all the running routes reek of piss, and when I say ‘merci’ everyone responds with ‘you’re welcome,’ but there’s so much charm to the city that I often find myself stopping at random street corners to simply absorb. The beauty of the architecture. The locals out with their vin et fromage, speaking French with perfectly-rolled r’s. The culture that I will never truly integrate into but for now am just okay with admiring from afar.

Canal Saint-Martin, where I am staying for the next 2 months 🙂

There’s something in the spell of leisure life here – very much absent from American cities – that draws me out onto the streets each evening in a mix of intrigue and what I can only describe as fomo (I googled and could not find a better word lol). A coworker told me on my first day that there’s never a set end point to apéros, and that’s quite an apt metaphor for the entire vibe of the city. Any given night of the week, restaurants and bars are packed, rivers and parks are littered with picnic blankets, convenience stores have long queues of people carrying bottles of chardonnay, loaves of baguettes, various types of saucisson… People actually look like they’re living rather than surviving.

My sample might be biased by the liveliness of the area around my apartment, but the atmosphere in any part of the city (or continent really) is audaciously distinct from the morceaus of American culture I’m used to, whether Boston’s fifty-shades-of-vanilla or the sheer soullessness of suburbia. And honestly, one cannot help but feel deprived. I’m even reminded of Beijing a little. Of the vibrant hutong bars and street food joints bustling with people late into the night. There’s a culture of xiǎng lè (which directly translates into hedonism, but I’d describe it more as enjoyment of life) in these places that permeates beyond social class or geographic boundaries. It’s something that I didn’t realize how much I missed until experiencing it once again.

a typical weekday evening by the canal

I’m also reminded of my time in Shenzhen, because, like back then, I’ve been wandering a lot (and I also lived in a tiny tiny studio). I’ve always preferred traveling alone because it gives me a unique kind of freedom, to go wherever I want, to be whoever I want to be. Although it’s a little more difficult this time because my strong American accent follows me everywhere, I still appreciate the opportunity to become a new person. That’s another good thing about change I guess – the allowance for a semblance of a fresh start, the ease to evolve unconstrained from the past.

one of the highlights of my day is the walk back from work (lots of cute shops to discover!)

And speaking of evolutions (or revolutions?), I turned 23 recently. Another new city (it’s been a new one for the past five years), another new type of cake (a fraisier this time). I also realized that this was probably the first birthday I’ve actually celebrated completely alone, which was quite nice in its own way. I explored the galleries of Marais, treated myself to an exquisite but overpriced dinner (only getting full from the free bread), sketched and sipped by the canal (creating another nonsensical thing) … Although I never quite liked the number 23, at least my bike wheels didn’t get stolen this time (or did they, Kevin?), so this year is already off to a better start than the previous. Hopefully.

birthday-morning latte and sketch-sesh (ft. a French-Taiwanese graphic novel I picked up from a comic store)

Regardless, it’s nice to slow things down for once. I am eating a lot of pâtisseries, experimenting with new coffee, writing a bunch, and trying not to think about the past or the future too much. Apéritifs are supposed to whet your appetite for the meal ahead, and I’m not sure what I’m ordering yet (or even what the full menu looks like). But if there’s no set end point to this period of pre-dinner tipsiness before which one must make a choice (or starve?), then let’s see how long we can make these breezy times last.


And not to spam another audience with endless bullet points, here are some random observations of the city so far:

  • Croissants here are on average 1.5 euros (~$1.62) each. So I will consume as many as I can before I go back to paying $4.50 for Flour. (I do miss Flour though)
  • There’s a lot less plastic. Food items usually come in paper packaging, cafes don’t give out straws (or use paper ones), and I can’t even find sandwich bags at the convenience store.
  • Produce is fresher and more seasonal, which makes me very glad that I’m here during stonefruit season! I currently have apricots, plums, and two types of peaches in my fridge. 🙂
  • I haven’t seen a lot of Asians (besides the ones in my lab), which is interesting given that it’s tourist season and France isn’t an unpopular destination for international students. Not sure if I get stares on the street because of my ethnicity or my hair (not a lot of unnaturally colored hair either)
  • Coffee comes in much smaller sizes :’)
and an obligatory apricot croissant to end this post 🙂


thoughts from the week

You start writing this post on your middle school best friend’s birthday. You haven’t spoken in years, but you still remember the smell of her house, of the fresh salsa and corn tortillas her mother would whip up for you guys each afternoon when you overstayed your welcome to avoid going back to your own, scentless home. You like to tell people that Rosa’s cooking forever raised your standards for Mexican food. You’ve told fewer people that she was the one who first taught you how to make carrot cake, whipping the cream cheese to the right consistency and adding canned pineapple for that extra sweetness. You’ve made countless since, modifying her recipe just a little each time until you yourself have forgotten what she had meticulously demonstrated all those years ago.

You don’t know why you’re suddenly thinking about these things now, but you have a tendency to forget the kindness in others, so perhaps this is a good reminder of where some things began.


Kindness. That was one of the first things you noticed when you arrived. You were surprised that people could drop everything they were doing to help you with a problem set. Or simply to talk to you. You didn’t grow up with this. Generosity back home had strings attached, and you learned to attach strings to every act of human interaction. Yet, somehow, there were people here with kindness that flowed so freely and naturally – an extension of their being rather than a hastily-constructed outer shell. You’re grateful to French House for introducing you to kind people. Since then, you’ve met many more. And you’ve spent five years trying to snip away those strings. You hope you’ve at least somewhat succeeded.


You remember the scavenger hunt during orientation, when you bonded with Cindy and Sophia over poor-quality selfies and the prefrosh urge to obtain a free Mass Tech shirt. One question asked you guys to submit a photo outside your future department. You didn’t know where Course 20 was, but you happened to be in Building 5 so you snap one by the nearest lounge – Department of Mechanical Engineering.

You think about that photo a lot because you sometimes look to arbitrary coincidences as assurance that you’re on the right path. Like a nod from the universe. Or just another thing for you to overanalyze.

It wasn’t until meeting Josh that you were convinced that all those stumbles had guided you in the right direction. And now you walk with a little less hesitation. Follow your bliss. Even if they set you on a road that would stray further and further from everyone else’s.  


Fast forward to two years ago. You sit in the Royal Sonesta with a pile of luggage and N95s, watching the morning fog bloom over the Charles as you gave instructions on how to bake the hundredth variation of Rosa’s carrot cake over WeChat video, feeling like laughing and crying at the same time. You tell Li Bo that the cold brew here is cheaper. You wave at Yang Yue and the cats. You like to joke that you’d come back and open a café with them after you save the world.

That afternoon, you move into WILG. You unearth your belongings from pre-pandemic and tape your new family onto your wall.

You returned with much more clarity than before. But also jadedness. Disillusionment. You tell people your experiences outside the bubble better informed your path within, but they also distanced you from others. You returned, but only part of you did.


Fast forward to today. You’ve only baked one carrot cake since. You’re about to leave again, counting down sunsets from that same place across the river, clanking tote bag muffled by the honking geese. Everyone asks you how you feel. You don’t know. You feel things differently – starting off numb, then, slowly, the fragments seep into you, cutting you up from the inside. Will you start bleeding in Paris, Beijing, or Freetown?

You’ve started packing. The last time you packed like this was after Reif’s email in March 2020, taking an entirely different set of photos off your wall. Pack as if you will not be returning until the fall. Your Polaroids comes down with a lot more ease this time, ready for the next wall, and the next one after that. Home is wherever you stick them onto.

You take time to shop for gifts this week. You promised Will you’d get him an MIT shirt to replace his Harvard one. You finally get Edith those RBG socks on display at Porter Square Books. You get something for Tia, Walter, and Kaia, who livestreamed your 2.009 showcase all the way from Hawaii. You remind yourself that you’re lucky to have people to get gifts for, even if your universes only intersect once in a blue moon.

And you talk to a lot of people, trying to absorb some more insights before you fly off into another unknown. You ask people for advice but instead seek assurance. You’re still friends with Professor Deng from 2.005, whose quote left such a deep impression on you when you first started blogging during the pandemic. Nobody wins and everyone dies, because energy is conserved and the entropy of the universe always increases, an inevitability akin to death. She alludes to the First Law and tells you that certain choices come with certain sacrifices. You don’t know what you’re sacrificing yet, but less-entropic realities just seem so much less vibrant.

The evening before commencement, you find a group of strangers on the steps of Lobby 7. You all sit and chat until the middle of the night, about lost silver bracelets and the rise of polyamory and whether the emotional rewards of vulnerability trump the pain of getting hurt. You realize how much you missed these kinds of interactions, of simply conversing without regard for past identities or future expectations.

A guy from China attempts to explain the definition of yuan fen. Like destiny, he says. You’re always curious about how others interpret that phrase because you feel that some meanings in your native tongue are only clear once you internalize them. The other example you can think of is xing fu. You have yet to grasp xing fu, but perhaps that night is proof that you’re doing okay on the yuan fen part.


You inherited your regalia from Cindy. The tassel still says 2022. It doesn’t matter; the cap is too small for your head anyways. You sit in the heat and listen to Diane Greene speak in her old-white-woman drawl. You remember her mispronouncing the speaker’s name multiple times last year. (She shouldn’t have a problem this time). Then the chaplain starts her ever-so-vague invocation in that smooth calming voice and you look at the dome above and you feel it for just a split second. A shard. A flashback to taking a photo here during orientation on a similarly sunny day a lifetime ago when you were a different person. And you wonder exactly how everything happened that made you into what you are.

They serve carrot cake at the reception. You look at the Cambridge skyline on your finger. The black hole over Mass Ave looks like a shooting star. You only wish for things you can’t have.


Fast forward to right now. The rain simmers. Then storms. You sit in your room and type to blank walls. You feel like laughing and crying at the same time.

Your diploma sits on your desk. You got it this morning, in heat even more blistering than the afternoon before. They called your other name by mistake and you remember flinching before approaching Sally Kornbluth. Both hands. You held on to the red envelope and posed with your Crocs. You finally wore the earrings Hui got for you.

The last time you wore those earrings was also the last day you saw Yang Yue. She read your last post and told you that you can be your own light. You’re still processing how you feel, but you know you’ll eventually be okay. You have a way of making things okay. You just wonder how long you will burn. You wonder how bright.

april is the cruelest month

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

T. S. Elliot

I recently discovered this quote from T. S. Elliot’s The Waste Land, and it now comes to mind whenever I gaze out the windows at yet another dull grey sky. Sprinklings of acid rain that never actually pours but kind of just lingers, shunning away the sun, forever keeping at bay that warm weather I crave.

April seems to be especially cruel in this specific part of Cambridge.

I had thought those jars of vitamin D supplements and an IV stream of caffeine would keep my dreariness under wraps, until the eventual slivers of sunlight melt away the annual accumulation of dread. But alas, here I am again, trying to put these shadows into words so I can at least attempt to decipher their shapes.


In another April a lifetime ago, I thought for the first time that I was happy. Fragile happiness that I kept within the palms of my hands, afraid that even the calluses between my fingers would bruise its outline. I was a different kind of lost, but at least I knew where I would eventually return to, once I was done living a different life and using up all the joy the universe would allow me to have.  

It was a warm spring. Flowers, sunlight, kittens on our rooftop terrace. Carrot cake, bad latte art, even worse margaritas. Biking through half a dozen hutongs for vintage earrings. A 17-year-old teaching me how to bartend. Dancing inside a theater at midnight.

There was a kind of hope back then. Lost but being okay with spinning in circles at the present moment. For it was still spring – there was still time.

And perhaps, among other things, time is what distinguishes that sort of lost with this tangled configuration of life that I attempt to make sense of now. It feels that time is slipping away from my fingers, but I am letting it slip, because I feel nothing for the hours that are passing, as no April days can surpass the ones from back then. Yet simultaneously, I am apprehensive about this passage of time, for what comes after is completely blank. I used to think I would be guided by passion, that I would always follow the brightest and warmest light. But now there are no lights that I can see, just a blank, grey slate. Like stepping into a mass of thick fog but not feeling the expected rush of vapor against your skin, only coldness. Coldness with an occasional sprinkle of acid rain.


Others I know are drafting their farewell posts, an almost-obligatory reflection upon their time here before they move on to more pragmatic endeavors. I thought that I would do the same, yet as my fingers brush the keyboard, the words simply would not flow. It seems that my thoughts about this place have been drained – this place that objectively changed my life for the better yet left me feeling like I could no longer feel.

If I had to conceptualize these past four (five?) years, it would be something like a before and after, with the split in the middle more interesting than the sum of what it fractured. Everything in the ‘before’ was a blur. I was living in a mold, thinking that if I tried hard enough, I could eventually blend into this scene of talent and privilege, be a potted plant in the backdrop of their lovely canvas. I remember joining two dance groups despite my aversion to dancing. But I was a marionette, moving my limbs at the instruction of others, copying those around me as cameras flashed and the audience screamed names that were not mine.

Then I left. And thank god I did.

Fall and winter were full of lights. The blinding ones. The scent of butterscotch-flavored shisha and lychee sunrises served in Erlenmeyer flasks. A field of sunflowers in the middle of the city. Black hair becoming pink.

Spring and summer had a different kind of light, swallowing me in its warmth. Cats running around the courtyard. Theater festivals by the sea. Memories that straddle the border between bliss and sorrow as I think about all the things I cannot hold onto. A family that exists only in Polaroids.

I returned feeling that I had done everything right. Because no matter how ridiculous that marionette doll looked on stage, those crooked steps had somehow taken me to the right destination, where I experienced what it felt like to actually be a part of the canvas. Not just as an element in the background. The art itself.

But what about the ‘after’? I found that I could not hold onto that light, despite all my efforts to preserve that centeredness, looking over my shoulder at the moth on my back, reminding myself not to reverse-metamorphosize. But this place drains you. I feel that I became a ghost in the last two years, drifting from commitment to commitment, leaving only the briefest of impressions, letting connections fade while refusing to forge new ones. When was the last time someone has spoken my name out loud? When was I more than just a passing memory? I didn’t want to be absorbed by my surroundings, but it seems that in my unwillingness to conform I have erased myself from the pages altogether.

When does the ‘after’ become another ‘before’? The after is prolonged, stagnating, suffocating. I miss feeling like I’m living. Or simply just, feeling. I miss allowing myself to be changed without worrying about what I would become. Perhaps this is the sign to leave again (though it’s not like I can stay anymore). Leave and go somewhere far, until I can once again color a piece of myself on the canvas.


My go-to fun fact is that I fantasize about dropping out of school to open a bakery in Norway.

Why Norway? I could never give a satisfactory answer, yet I’ve grown to become fixated on the entirety of Scandinavia, the northern lights and crisp mountains, the top of the World Happiness Report, the liberating sense of solitude.

There’s something deeply alluring about starting afresh, in the middle of nowhere, forging a new identity, connecting threads unburdened by the past. Norway is an escape, the prevailing theme of my daydreams. And it seems that most of my best experiences have come from the need to escape – a pandemic, a dysfunctional family, the Boston winter… By running away, I inadvertently run toward something.

So, for now, perhaps I can only hope that I am once again running towards something. Blindly stumbling down an unbeaten path with no light to follow, simply trying to leave the cold behind, moving my legs until I no longer feel numb. There’s just too much I don’t want to become, too many lives I don’t want to live. And it seems that only by continuing to introduce turbulence into my world am I able to break free from the identities we are forced to embody.


The last time I cried was on August 21st, 2021, sitting in the back of a taxi cab at 3 am, watching Yang Yue wave at me from the window until her outline eventually disappeared into the blurred backdrop of the Beijing smog.

This time, I am waving myself off. No tears. Just my body floating somewhere on Mass Ave, watching the train leave with fragments of my soul that I will learn to piece into something that resembles art.

So catch me somewhere far, attempting to breed lilacs out of dead land.

(Not a goodbye yet. But soon. )


(totally meant to post this in October, hence the ‘happy fall.’ It is past winter now. Oops)

Hello, happy fall, back from another blogging hiatus. I have wanted to write this post for a while now, but was kind of swamped with other writing commitments. I finally have some time to reflect now, on this crisp autumn day, sitting inside a crowded Darwin’s (which I frequent for the vibes and proximity, despite the overpriced drinks and shitty wifi).

Late August, I visited Riverside for the first time in two years. I had not gone ‘home’ since leaving the US to start my gap year, and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was ready yet. Spending six months trapped in Riverside during the pandemic had destroyed my mental health, my relationship with my parents, and any lingering goodwill I might have had for the place I grew up. In fact, I believe it was the desperation to get the hell out of there that drove me to take my gap year. I hopped on the plane two years ago and never looked back, trying my best to abandon – to forget – all the trauma that had accumulated in the decade I spent there, exacerbated by the heat (literal) of the COVID summer. So when annual health checkups and dental cleanings necessitated me to finally visit the site of my insurance coverage, I was just a bit apprehensive.

Well, the week was, surprisingly, not too bad. Riverside is still a shithole, of course, but there were certain things I missed about SoCal that didn’t conceptualize until going back. For example, the diversity. MIT is quite diverse ethnically, but it was still nice to hang out with Asian friends who didn’t go to fancy prep schools, or simply see the sprinkles of ethnic neighborhoods that harbored a sort of culture missing from Boston’s gentrification central. And with diversity, of course, comes better food. Boston is a literal food desert, and that part was made quite apparent when visiting places like LA and Irvine, where even your average restaurant is better than most of the top-tier places over here. Oh, how I missed tacos that didn’t cost $6 a piece.

The trip itself was also quite reflective, hence the title of this post. Unlearning. It’s not until being away from ‘home’ that you realize just how much unlearning you need to do, for so much of our current baggage and insecurities are a reflection of our surroundings, from our parents’ imperfections to the random utterings of kids in the playground that somehow remained ingrained in our mind for the next decade.

It’s freeing even, to realize that the traumas of the past do not bind you, that the arbitrary rules that you had held so dear, when unraveled and deciphered, are merely invisible ropes you have the power to step out of.

I started running during the pandemic as a means of getting out of the house. Even in the scorching heat, my runs were a means of solace from the environment that I could not bear to remain in any longer. The best parts of those runs were the beginning, where the loop took me further and further away from home. It felt like, at least figuratively, I was escaping, with the lyrics ‘I just keep running, running, running, running from my home’ blasting inside my head. During those stretches, I fantasized about successfully returning to a pandemic-free life in China, about living in Beijing for the first time since childhood – almost like some scene from a sitcom where we would live together, in our own house, without the fights – about all the happiness. Nothing was certain back then, but those daydreams fueled my runs and my conviction to leave. I envisioned the new life ahead of me, free from the darkness and uncertainties that had plagued my world since March 2020.

‘So much happiness we wouldn’t know what to do with it.’ A line from a movie that made a stronger impression than the film itself.

The end of the run was always my least favorite part, for no matter how far I had gone, the loop would always take me back. Back home. Back to reality. I rested my hopes on a faraway vision, so blurry yet so bright.

I traced those same running paths on this trip back, reliving those memories, reflecting on how dark of a place I was in the last time my feet dashed across those sidewalks. I wish I could go back and tell myself that everything that I had dreamed of in those desperate days would come true. True in its own way. No, living in Beijing together will not fix your family, because it is not the location that is broken. But you will find a new family. And you will have so much happiness that you won’t know what to do with it. And you will become a different person. And everything will be okay.

Everything will be okay. Perhaps growth is when you realize you’re in a position to say those words to your past self.

And, of course, being back again for winter break means that I need to keep reminding myself to unlearn. Keep analyzing those stray emotions and nudging discomforts so that your future is not bound by vestigial trauma. Keep reminding yourself that things will eventually make themselves okay. Not in Riverside, but somewhere.

a fragment of that summer was blue

a tribute to a dear friend

I saw her for the first time on May 4th, when she sat down with a book at the far end of our well-lit library. The day was cloudy, the theater semi-crowded from the last of the labor-day crowds. A depression-themed play called “D” was being performed that afternoon (an experimental piece for mental-health awareness that was later – unsurprisingly – canceled due to “negative societal influence”).

I handed her an iced Americano and told her I liked her hair. It was blue – a splash of indigo waves with lighter, faded lowlights at the fringe. A bold choice, I thought, remembering all of my own blue-hair attempts that would fade to green within a week. I later commented on her hair to a coworker friend, who suggested that I try to get her WeChat. I laughed it off.  

On June 5th, I came to work and was surprised to see Blue Hair behind the bar counter. My grinning coworker pulled me aside. The girl had returned to watch a play, and my friend, remembering my comment, managed to convince her to stay as a volunteer, expecting a busy day at the café.

And so Blue Hair and I spent the evening chatting behind the bar as I showed her how to prepare each drink. A gin and tonic for the lady in the dress, a shot of espresso for the drama student with glasses, and the dreaded cappuccino for the dreaded old man. She was a quick learner, soon mastering the iced latte with a layering that would make our manager proud.

Her name was E. Like me, she had several piercings (and an earring collection that could match my own, as I would later find out). She also had three tattoos: Matisse’s Dance on her right shoulder, a portrait of RBG on her left wrist, and a small rainbow on her left ear. I was surprised to learn that she was a student at Tsinghua, where I worked at the time. Thinking of my own friends at Tsinghua, none seemed to share the same vibrancy in appearance. But then again, no other researcher at my lab had pink hair either.

That night, after being way too full from another midnight hotpot session hosted by our friends at a nearby restaurant, the two of us biked back to Tsinghua, a 1.5-hour trek that took us through three rings of Beijing. It was a bike ride that I had always wanted to make but had been too daunted by the distance. But that night, fueled by Sichuan peppercorn-induced adrenaline, we decided to make the journey.

Hopping on the yellow bikes scattered outside the Nanluoguxiang station entrance, we breezed through the smoggy, semi-empty streets of Beijing: up Gulou West Road, across the second ring at Deshengmen, through underpasses and back alleys, across the third ring, the fourth ring… until the skyscrapers of Wudaokou came into view. It was peaceful, blending into the fabric of the city, shouting over our shoulders as we passed buildings and streets that seemingly emerged out of the blue during my long periods of absence from the city. I learned about E’s interests in advocacy and education – particularly pertaining to women’s rights and gender equality – as well as the intractable challenges of social activism in a place like China. She was an econ major, but wanted to devote her life to something radically different. I was intrigued.

After splitting off at Tsinghua, I continued on home (through yet another ring). When I got back, I found that she had sent me several podcast recommendations based on our discussions, as well as relevant readings about the state of feminism and queer rights in China. These would contribute to the growing list of podcasts and literature that would educate – and invigorate – me on the social issues that persist in a place where I am too privileged to experience.

From that day on, E became an integral part of my life at the theater. She was present at my birthday party the following week, where she gifted me a tote bag embroidered with the words, “I try my best to be just like I am,” in the same shade of blue as her hair – a reminder of her commitment to originality as I carried it through countless wanderings around the world. Along with the tote came a postcard with a handwritten quote from Li Yiyun’s novel, Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life:

“The train, for reasons unknown to us, always stops between a past and a future, both making this now look as though it is nowhere. But it is this nowhere-ness that one has to make use of. One looks outside the window: the rice paddies and alfalfa fields have long been the past, replaced by vineyards and almond groves. One has made it this far; perhaps this is enough of a reason to journey on.”

It’s amazing how the little fragments that someone sporadically sheds would gradually integrate themselves into our own lives, until one day you realize that these pieces have become a part of you, stuck like shards of glass on crushed velvet.

We never used to have oat milk at the theater, but, slowly, grey cartons of Oatly began to appear in the fridge. (E was lactose intolerant.) Similarly, rainbow flags and Ally stickers found home on walls and in flower vases, as with a box of condoms on the back shelf that mysteriously emptied as the summer progressed. Sometimes, E would show up with bags of popsicles, a small piece of comfort in the heat wave of our non-air-conditioned kitchen. (Kukafei – bitter coffee flavored – was the group favorite.) Once she brought a rainbow cake to celebrate pride month (though we agreed that my cakes tasted better).

She rented an apartment in the hutongs for the summer, which soon became a gathering place of sorts for our group, who never seemed to want to sleep in our own beds. We were like vagrants, crashing on her floor after late evening shifts and drunken bar hops, inviting puzzled looks from her elderly neighbors. There was a cup full of toothbrushes in her bathroom, a color for each friend.  

Blueberries were her favorite fruit. And soon, they too started appearing in the fridge, this time from us. Whenever we stumbled across cartons for sale in the hutong markets, we would bring one back for her, stacking them up behind the bottles of oat milk, Perrier, and Laotian beer. For one weekly dessert special, I baked a blueberry lemon cake that we named ‘E’ on the menu. It was sold out in 24 hours, but her name remained in the cash register, perhaps to this day.

We both had our last day of work at the theater on August 20th. I left for the states two days after, while she remained in Beijing, finishing up her own production of the Vagina Monologues, continuing her pursuit of change in a system that she couldn’t just fly away from. We didn’t interact much after, save for the occasional ‘like’ given on an IG story, but her presence in my life seemed to only intensify.

Small things would remind me of her: purchasing new earrings, eating blueberries, ordering an oat latte, or seeing my own tattoo in the mirror. (She inspired me to finally get one, shortly before I left Beijing.) But there was also a deeper, far more profound impact – sparked by our interactions – that manifested and began to define the trajectory of my later pursuits. I found myself more invested in the societal affairs of China than ever before, becoming engrossed in the hidden stories and pockets of muted idealism. I became absorbed by not just those podcasts, but also articles, discussions, and movements – threads that somehow connected me to a place I had once conditioned myself to shun. And with new knowledge came new layers of emotions, of anger, of empathy, of sorrow. In the face of injustice, I found myself thinking, what would she do?

I don’t know if I’m bold enough to do what she did. Or if I’m just another ‘foreigner’ dipping my fingers into affairs from the comfort of my sheltered, privileged life. I think about the quote she gave me often, because at some point I’ve stopped looking out the window, believing my train to be back inside the dark tunnel. But occasionally there would be sparks of light outside. And I would feel just a stir, a connection, drawing me to visions of better views ahead – to stick around for, to fight for.

One has made it this far; perhaps this is enough of a reason to journey on.

Happy birthday E.