Riffing on a commonplace



Walking up a street toward the old Blue House in Wanchai, dodging commuters on the busy sidewalk on a Friday afternoon, my friend suddenly asked, Do you think it’s possible to be in love with the same person for the rest of your life? He thought that this romantic ideal was doomed to produce boredom. I said, I think it depends on the quality of one’s attention. Walking briskly, he did not ask me to elaborate.


Pico Iyer in My Ideal Bookshelf: What more could one ask of a companion? To be forever new and yet forever steady. To be strange and familiar all at once, with enough change to quicken my mind, enough steadiness to give sanctuary to my heart.



Months ago, when I was new to this city, the same friend told me about his evening walks along the river, a walk that usually ended at the Light Rail station in the Town Centre, and recommended that I walk in that area sometime. Like most rivers in Hong Kong, the Tuen Mun River courses through an artificial channel, its bed and banks covered with concrete, its natural tributaries turned into underground waterways or cut dry. This means that even when it rains for days, people around here don’t worry about the river spilling into the streets, but also that when I gaze at the river, I do not think “river,” I think “canal,” and if I wanted a picnic on a bright day, I would rather spread a red-checkered cloth in a more idyllic elsewhere.

I said, Do you find the river pretty? He said, It depends on my mood, my state of mind.



Another time, he said that he didn’t find the beach I frequented beautiful, that it was just like any other beach, that it was not even natural, that the white sand there was quarried and brought from somewhere else (I wonder if they brought the sand from my home country that has the longest coastline and some of the finest beaches in the world). Maybe so, I may or may not have replied (this was a long while ago), but I like that beach because I’ve had memorable conversations there, nursing a bottle of soju or beer, sitting on the shore and watching the sun sink down the horizon, or dipping in the water, bobbing with the waves.


Lionel Shriver in We Need to Talk About Kevin, a novel on nihilism: Nothing is interesting if you are not interested.


Written after an afternoon spent with J. in Golden Beach in the last month of last year: “Love, like so many other things that make life worth the bother of being in the world, is a willful fiction, anchored on and realized in concrete, everyday practices. In an object-world devoid of inherent value, meaning-making is a matter of mythopoesis.”

If love occurs as a function of meaning-making, then it is imperative to remember that this labor is constant. Because circumstances change, because mere feeling is fleeting, because what is real and true and beautiful here, right now, may be gone in a minute.

As to why this labor must be done and redone — how do we decide what anything or anyone is worth?



The people I find beautiful, I find beautiful not because they conform to any aesthetic standard, but because I’ve decided that I like them. When I want to find someone beautiful, I look them in the eye, I attend to the timbre of their voice, I call them by their name, I learn what makes, what could make, them smile. The people I don’t care about, I often fail to see, because I require a reason for looking.


No one would accuse me of having fallen in love with handsome men, but every person I have wanted, I’d imagined was the objective correlative of my desire. I look long to see more of what I could find interesting, believing that, as with the books I keep, every reading would reveal something I hadn’t considered — especially since a man, unlike a book, doesn’t stay put. In a sense, it is possible to love many different persons in one, changing body in the course of a lifetime.



Lately, I have been taking photographs more than I have been writing “creatively,” whatever that means. I feel, less than ever, the need to process my inner life, which, these days, is as serene as an aquarium, disturbed only by little fishies of anxiety relating to my thesis. No Sturm und Drang for me. I must be on the way to becoming halaman.


John Berger in Ways of Seeing: Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.



Things I don’t fail to see: the sky, flowering plants, trees, dogs in the street, bodies of water, the way concrete buildings change color depending on the time of the day. This is how I photosynthesize pleasure in the succession of days unremarkable for their similarity — by fishing an image out of the river of sense-perception.


As I have taken to taking photographs daily, I am realizing how the apprehension of beauty is not about vision but selection and composition — deciding what is worth paying attention to, from which standpoint to gaze, what to put in the frame, what to leave out, what kind of light or color resonates a certain feeling — choices that rest on the structure of sentiments that shape the perception and understanding of the seeing I/eye. The aesthete approaches life and meaning-making cognizant of the power of selection and composition, of image, interpretation, narrative. The aesthete lives everyday life as curatorial practice — she chooses what to keep in her room, in her closet, in her pantry, in her contact list, in her thoughts. She knows why and what for.



Solmaz Sharif: Let me LOOK at you. Let me look at you in a light that takes years to get here.


Instead of wondering whether someone looks at me the way I look at the world, I look at the world, and yield these treasures of my inwardness, even if they matter to no eye but my own.


Missed missive

I was mucking around my Evernote archive, sifting through fragments and unclassified notes, when I found the draft of a letter I wrote on my birthday last year but probably never sent? I write so much and often, I forget what I’ve put down or communicated. In any case, it seems like a letter to myself now, but I have no time to write a reply–as Martha Baillie wrote in The Incident Report (2009)“There are moments when time dilates like the pupil of an eye, to let everything in.” My eyes are defo dilat(ed) these days, as I’m usually caffeinated, puyat, and pagod, hahaha.


Dear [name redacted],

All I want today is to drink up–something sweet, intoxicating, and ice-cold–while breathing in highland air and scanning the sky with someone whose company I enjoy. Alas, none of these are forthcoming. Tonight I have a class, and by the time it ends, it will be too late to hotfoot it out of the city and wake up to pray at dawn atop a mountain or beside the sea.

Today I turn [age redacted]. It seems that no longer can I claim to be young, or use youth as an excuse for bad decisions, pigheadedness, sheer stupidity.

How the days pass. It feels like I last saw you a lifetime ago. How have you been? How have you changed? Have you changed? Can one go somewhere new, meet new characters, and stay the same?

Still the days pass. Bring me news of your here and now.




I came here in the last week of August


and just like that, a month has passed, quicker than I can think to say “dōjeh” instead of “mh’goi.” There remains not much to tell except that I am well — that nothing’s up, I’ve little progress to report, but I am managing the quotidian in a way that gives me little reason to welcome disruptions to my everyday. I wear this new life like a skin by slipping into a mantle of old habits: buying the same kinds of goods off supermarket shelves, making coffee with a French press in the morning, practicing yoga when I can, wearing black to work. I have been making friends and learning how to swim and how not anxiously to be in the water, or in love. I try not to stay in the office too late, to wake up with the rising of the sun and to sleep before midnight, but in these I have been failing. There is always so much to do. I read too slowly and squander minutes, and feel always at a loss over lost time. Elsewhere, autumn colors the trees and the pavements in fire; this morning my view from the window was sleet gray with residential towers and rain. Still, there are spaces for joy–as when I dive into the pool and lose sense of sound and see only refractions of light in the blue water. When I take my washing from the tumble dryer and feel my clothes clean and warm in my arms. When I walk back to the dorm late at night, bopping to The 1975. When I think of him smiling as he opens a book or a door, when I hear his voice, smooth and mellow, like milk tea, calling my name.