Likes It Hard

This weekend I caught up with some old friends.

One of them I’ve known since high school. She used to spontaneously drool while talking and got teased so much that she had to change schools. Now, she is the regional manager for a national company and she talks in millions when referring to the increase in sales volume under her leadership.

The other I’ve known since undergrad and ever since I’ve known her, she has been applying to, and getting rejected by, medical school. She used to tell me that she’d give up after the third try. But apparently, third time is the charm. Next summer, she will be fully licensed and raking in half-a-million a year.

So, it looks like my friends will just fine. It’s me people have to worry about. Because apparently, I like it hard.

Apparently, I like quitting a well-remunerated job to go to grad school. Apparently, when the same well-paying job welcomes me back after I finish, I like quitting it again for a less well-paying job that is inline with what I pursued a Master’s for. Apparently, I also like turning down a lucrative offer to lobby for a multinational in order to stick with said lower-paying job.

Oh, but it doesn’t stop there.

Apparently, I like to go to Paris to meet a Norwegian who wants to work in Africa when I could have rode the elevator one floor up at Carleton to find the Canadian equivalent of UN-worker-wannabes (Canada’s number one international relations program is located one floor above where my Master’s was housed). Apparently, I like to meet a Slovak studying in the U.S. during his academic visit to Ottawa and I would go see him in D.C., Boston and even Bratislava. Apparently, I also like never forgetting the Latin American exchange student who was the first person I set my eyes on in grad school so that every time a relationship fails, I seriously consider taking up his standing offer to fly me to Mexico.

So apparently I like being poor and getting entangled in impossible loves…

There BETTER be an awesome ending to this.

Luck, Love and a Huge-Ass Buddha

I’m not the brightest tool in the box but I am definitely VERY lucky. When I was checking into my hostel room in Chengdu, a girl came up to the front desk to ask about how to get to Leshan. It is a sight that is on my absolute To Do list in Chengdu and I was just fretting about getting there on my own. The girl wore a pair of tortoise-shelled glasses in a shape that was very popular in Paris this spring (my landlady had the same) and she had on a pair of large, ethnic-inspired earrings. In my head, I was like “Style? Check!”, this girl must be a cool bird.

Later, when I was showering in my dorm-styled room, I thought about how I could find that girl again to proposition going to Leshan with her. As luck would have it, when I stepped out of the bathroom, I ran into her. It turns out she’s one of my roommates! In the time it took me to put away my shampoo, I successfully invited myself to join her on her trip the next day… I’m pretty shameless when it comes to going after what I want.

Leshan basically translates into “The Happy Mountain”. It’s beside a river two-hours drive outside of Chengdu and famous for a mountain-sized Buddha carved into its side. After having a breakfast at a local dining hall where all the items on the menu are spicy (I swear the AIR in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan cuisine, is spicy), I followed after my instant-friend Effe on a city bus, a greyhound then another local bus to get to Leshan.

I don’t know why, but I’m particularly wary about traveling in China. I guess when I travelled in countries where I didn’t speak the language, know the culture or look like the locals, I had low expectations and didn’t know enough to be afraid. In China, I’m very lucky to have had Max in Shenzhen, Effe to introduce me to Chengdu (she’s heading out earlier) and when I get to Beijing, I’ll be laughing. I’ll be living at Chloé’s place (a fellow exchange student at Sciences Po) and hanging out with my childhood friends. Even Effe will be there, as she’s a Beijing local! So me the “big-sized one”, have been bumbling after these sharp-witted girls two-thirds my size all over China. It must’ve be quite the scene to see these skinny, capable girls confidently jaywalk across China’s wide boulevards (while shoving their glasses up their noses) and me hopping after them, leaving a trail of blaring horns and emergency braking in my wake. Occasionally, they leave me to do something on my own and I just want to cry out “No please, come with me. I can’t negotiate the price of this. I don’t know what the going rate is!”

All that to say is, without Effe, I might have been sold as a third wife into China’s countryside on my way to Leshan. But to Leshan I made it and it was glorious to cross off another Bucket List item. In fact, this is so personal that it’s beyond the Bucket List. You see, my mother did her residency here in Chengdu when she was about my age. It was the first time she lived on her own and my father and her honeymooned here. So Chengdu and all the places they visited here represent youth, freedom and love to me. It’s a mystical place.

As I staggered down the narrow mountain passage on the side of the Buddha (with what seemed like a million people as if we were ants on a string, baking in the summer sun), I thought about the beauty of continuity (though admittedly, mostly about how to get the best shot of me and the Buddha). It’s like completing a circle for me to be retracing my parents steps, at a place they visited before there was even a smidgen of me. It was like time travel of sorts.

On our bus ride back to Chengdu, Effe slept soundly while I went over photos of my parents, comparing the ones I have in my phone, taken before I left for Paris, and the black-and-white ones from my memory, of when they toured Leshan. Time may have washed away youthfulness, added layers of complexity and perhaps even left scars of hurt. However, they are still together after all these years, from China to Canada. If anything, they look like a pair of giddy kids, with even more devilish little sparkles in their eyes than in those black-and-white photos.

Their marriage isn’t perfect, there were epic fights where I’ve been used as a token. Since I was little, I’ve also played Switzerland to both parties and lend an ear to their complaints of each other. Sometimes, even I would snap and say to them “Oh geez would you stop it. With attitude like yours it’s not like anyone else would marry you if you got divorced.”

Most of the time however, my parents are supportive of each other when I was ready to throw in the towel on them. They throw themselves into each other’s “N”th pet project when I just want to roll my eyes and tell them to refer to how the “N-minus-one”th project turned out. They’ve done things for each other that they never told (and the other never knew, or didn’t appreciate as much as I think he or she ought to have) but I saw. While they may be bigger drama queens than me on the small things, they’ve always kept their word on the big things. To each other and especially, to me. I really was never judged by them, I always felt safe telling them everything and I do know with certainty that home is a safe harbour that’s always ready to receive me. I’ve made mistakes that even I couldn’t forgive myself for but they masked their hurt, put on a brave face and told me it’s “no big deal” and “snap out of it”.

Even though had they married different people, they may have been richer, had better in-laws and perhaps led more colourful lives. However, that’s only a possibility but the reality is that they have in each other someone who has been and will always be there for them, some who loves them without any conditions. Some people have said they are ready to trade a lifetime of loneliness for a short period of pure joy, that it’s better to have had then lost than to never have had at all. Then I think it’s truly a blessing to be like my parents and spend a lifetime with the one you love.

When we finally scrambled down the Buddha, Effe couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there so I didn’t get to spend as much time appreciating this special place as I would’ve liked. However, I don’t think it’s a place I could ever spend enough time in. I wonder with whom I’ll grow old, I wonder what my compromises would be and I wonder where MY Buddha is. Until then, I have the rest of Chengdu to explore and more spicy food to burn my oral mucal lining with.

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The Universal Religion

I think two types of people come to Paris, believers and cynics. The religion in question? Love.

The stereotype is that people go to New York for money, L.A. for fame and Paris for love. Unlike the first two cities that have as many tales of broken dreams as there are of dreams come true, I cannot think of one cultural reference in which Paris has failed to deliver on its promise. Perhaps I’m not well read or perhaps the Parisian government works with an excellent PR firm. Either way, this is still a tall order for a city that also has to ensure the rest of the world feels bad about how unstylish they’re dressed and how uncultured they seem.

The reason I think Paris delivered on love every time is that pilgrims of love come to this city with expectations conducive to a self-fulfiling prophecy. It’s like people are on their best behaviours when dating in Paris, a city in which love is pure, love conquers all, love like you’ve never been hurt before. One forgets about the pressures love faces and the challenges it must surmount in the real world. People arrive with their loves or are looking for love, hoping this legendary city would heal a broken heart. Even the cynics wouldn’t mind giving love a go, if only to be able to say “Nope, it didn’t work. Not even in Paris”.

Exchange students are coupling up at a shocking speed. It almost makes me wonder if it’s part of our curriculum (let me check the syllabus). There has got to be a humanity clause against commencing relationships that have an obvious expiration date. Most of us do not know what we’ll be doing after Paris or where in the world we’ll be. Can we begin finding our other half when we don’t know where we are? (Actually, I know the answer to this one) Then, wouldn’t it be efficient to find ourselves first before diverting our attention to finding others? (Oh wait, I know the answer to this one too. *Rose recites* “You find yourself while looking for your match.” Gee, thanks Rose.)

One thing I will say is that regardless of how much your belief in the goodness of mankind and trust in your own judgment has been shaken, don’t deprive yourself for too long. Eat, however tasteless you may find it. Otherwise when you finally nibble, you will realize how ravenous you feel and you just want to pig out. But boys and girls, no bingeing please, the French diet is all about moderation.

Finally, I wonder how it would be different with the French students. After all, they are local and perhaps less susceptible to the fairy dust they sprinkle at Charles de Gaulle.

Best,

Rong Rose Liu

At the front line of anthropological research

A Westboro Kind of Man

Westboro is a neighbourhood in Ottawa, the neighbourhood of my teenage years. Nestled along the Ottawa River, it was Bytown’s (Ottawa’s founding name) original cottage country. Its 19th century Town Hall still stands and its leafy boulevards shield outsiders’ eyes from its national historic sites.

Westboro is where I got my first job (I once served cheese to the then mayor of Ottawa, Bob Chiarelli, now the Minister of Infrastructure for the province of Ontario); had my first crush (I may or may not have walked around in the snow-covered field in front of his house to write “I love you”); and most importantly, learned to grow by pushing myself past my comfort zone.

Westboro is a neighbourhood of quiet dignity; The parents are federal ministers and top prime ministerial aids, and the children play field hockey and rugby. As a new immigrant family, my parents couldn’t afford the million dollar Westboro homes but insisted that I be immersed in this environment. We rented from one of the few apartments on the edge of the neighbourhood so that I could attend the local, WASPy high school. The Nepean High School experience was inextricably intertwined with Westboro; All the girls used the MEC fanny pack as pencil-case and the Newport Restaurant was a first-date favourite (the world headquarters of the Elvis sighting society). My time at Nepean High School had a pivotal impact on my perspective of the world, my standards of others and my expectations of myself. Nepean and Westboro shaped me in all the way a person can be shaped.

While Nepean moulded me into the person I am today, I saw Westboro taking its shape. I still remember when the site of Ottawa’s first Lululemon was a dusty PharmaSave. I witnessed the crop of yoga studios, free trade coffee shops and 100-mile-diet restaurants sprouting up along Richmond Street. Some people describe Westboro as the new Glebe, these people could only be Glebeites. No, there is something tangible, edgy and raw about Westboro. It could be because its genteel streets rapidly extend into the “questionable” neighbouring Mechanicsville and Hintonburg. It could be its tantalizing contradiction of having an American Apparel across the street from a Tubman funeral home. The Glebe on the other hand, is hemmed in by the Rideau Canal. Everything is proper about the Glebe; Its houses are similar, their lots are the same and even the streets are named “First Avenue, Second Avenue and Third Avenue”. If the three of my favourite Ottawa neighbourhoods were men, then:

Rockcliffe would be the blue blood you marry for wealth and status at the risk of being the song bird in the (mammoth) golden cage. You attend lawn parties at the embassies next door but you return to a cavernous home as hollow as your heart.

Glebe is the definition of the perfect husband and father but you can’t quite put your finger on what is missing (while pushing the stroller to your weekly brunch at the Wheatberry on Bank…and Fifth Avenue).

Westboro is the man with impeccable credentials but still has hot blood coursing through his veins. He’s real and he’s gritty, he’s incredibly sexy. Driven in his professional life, equally passionate in his personal life. You don’t care if you ever marry him, you’re just glad you’ve known him. (Okay now girls, don’t you all go fighting for a window seat at Thyme and Again in hopes of catching a Westboro kind of men.)

In the 11 years I’ve been in Ottawa, I’ve never had a bad day in Westboro. It is truly my refuge. There’s something ritualistic about Sunday morning yoga at Lululemon, birthday cakes from Three Tarts and pawing through vintage goods at A Fine Thing. Everyone I’ve invited to spend time with me in Westboro are still happily in my life. With every new guy I date, I wonder if he’s finally someone I can share my Westboro with (If I ever invite you to do something in Westboro, I either consider you a great friend or I’m ready for you to meet my parents).

I started this piece to write about the kind of man I could share Westboro with, now 700 words later, I realized I’m in love with Westboro itself. I suppose everyone has their own Westboro, a place pristine in their memory. At the same time, we’re all looking for people with whom we can share this special place. If you’re ever in Westboro with your Westboro kind of man, may I suggest stopping by Jupiter for their signature cocktail, the Island Park Drive. After all, where else but in Westboro can you get a drink named after a famed local street?