Sunday, November 19, 2017

roll out your maps and papers

For 2017, my New Year's resolution was to "live a life worth photographing." I came up with it as a spinoff to the line from "You Should Date An Illiterate Girl" (a problematic essay, I know) that goes: "You will accept nothing less than passion, and perfection, and a life worthy of being storied." I wanted to capture every moment this year that mattered to me, and less than a week into the new year I realized how impossible that was. I felt like I shattered the perfect candidness each time I took out my phone or camera and asked Alice if she could take a picture of me, and when I came back from Taiwan in January and picked up my film scans from Photolab, I felt like I couldn't post a photo diary here of that trip because I didn't get the story I wanted to tell just right.

It took me until now to decide that maybe that's okay.

Here are some of my favorite shots from the first quarter of the year, mostly film photos from January to March. Pictured are Kaohsiung, Shifen, Jiufen, Taipei, San Francisco, Tempe, Tokyo, and Kyoto; not pictured are Hualien, Berkeley, Oakland, Phoenix, and Osaka. Coming soon: photos from Europe this summer. It's been a wild and colorful year, and I think I'm finally ready to share more of it here.

Stay tuned.

xoxo, vivian

Film photos shot on Fujifilm Superia 400, Kodak Gold 200, and Kodak Portra 400; others on iPhone 5s

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

so I stayed in the darkness with you

It started pouring a few minutes after I arrived at Blue Bottle that October morning last fall.

I don't think I'll ever tire of spending my day at a coffee shop reading and writing and watching the rain drench the world outside, and this cafe on Shattuck and University was after my heart when it branded itself as a place "haunted with literary ghosts" occupying a "liminal space between campus and city...[a] setting quiet enough where the muses’ whispers reach the ears of aspiring writers." I wrote my paper on Eileen Chang's novella 《沉香屑:第一炉香》("Aloeswood Incense" in the English translation by Karen Kingsbury) for my modern Chinese literature course at Blue Bottle in one sitting last year, and in the spirit of both Halloween and college nostalgia, I wanted to write about the parallel sentiments in two of my favorite stories from two very different contexts.

First: Eileen Chang.

I'm not sure where exactly the enigma surrounding Chang and her body of work starts and ends. Maybe it's a mistake to separate the two in the first place. Her stories are deeply informed by her own lived experiences, set to the backdrop of growing up in an aristocratic family, the outbreak of war, a marriage to someone who kept company with the enemy, and of course the prodigal literary talent that sold out within days of her initial publication. She wrote many of her famous stories by the age of 21 and wrote about relationships between people, often in times of war. Chang was both a sophisticated literary writer and a popular romance novelist, and if that seems mutually exclusive to you, her stories are proof that it's not. When she was criticized for squandering her talent by writing about such "trivial things" (this was, after all, a time in Chinese literary history that propagated revolutionary writing), she argued that human history isn't about the big revolutions: it's about the every day, the mundane, the ordinary people in all their unheroic glory.

Chang's collection《传奇》(chuanqi) is known as Romances in English; a more direct transliteration of the title is "tales of the marvelous or strange," which refers to the chuanqi style of "marvel stories" that sometimes centered on transgressive relationships between ghosts/fox fairies (women) and scholars (men) that break boundaries of life and death. Although Chang's stories are devoid of supernatural elements, she is very much interested in female characters that find themselves trapped in harsh realities and the sacrifices they make for love.

"Aloeswood Incense"—the first story in Romances—tells the story of Ge Weilong, a Shanghai girl who enters the world of opulence and vice of Hong Kong society and gets trapped within it by falling for and sleeping with the mixed-race playboy George Qiao. He works for Weilong's aunt Madame Liang as a honeytrap: he attracts gullible young women to Liang's estate to bring young men for Liang to seduce, while rich, older men take their pick among the pretty girls who don't know any better. But Weilong isn't like the other girls (or so she thinks); she refuses to be sold to the man Liang set up for her, and instead falls for George in spite of everything she knows about him and her aunt's sordid business.

If writers like Edith Wharton or F. Scott Fitzgerald were astute but perhaps more measured observers of the hollowness and the extravagant carelessness of the rich, Eileen Chang's incisive storytelling holds nothing back in sparing her characters from the inescapable cruelty of life as she sees it. When Weilong discovers that the reason George won't marry her is because she isn't rich enough to support the decadent lifestyle he refuses to give up, she resolves to make her own money—by prostituting herself to her aunt. The thing about love is that it's not about wanting someone for all their virtues; it's about wanting someone after seeing them at their worst without making excuses to justify their self-centeredness; it's about wanting someone so much that you make the choice to cross the point of no return for them without ever looking back.

Deep in the forest of the Scottish woods ruled over by fairies, a girl named Janet must also make a choice for love at the crossroads at midnight on Halloween.

In the old medieval fairy tale of "Tam Lin," a mortal man turned fairy knight is captured by the Queen of Faeries and is about to be sacrificed to Hell. It befalls on his lover Janet, a human girl pregnant with his child, to save him. The Faerie Queen turns him into all manners of beasts and creatures, monsters and horrors and burning coal, all to compel Janet to let go but she holds on to him through every terrible form he takes through the night. In the end, Janet wins: when the night is over, Tam Lin goes back to being human again, freed from the Faerie Queen's magic and back in the arms of the woman who loved him through his most monstrous iterations.

At their cores, both "Aloeswood Incense" and "Tam Lin" are stories about women whose love overcomes the abject ugliness of their lovers true and worst selves, but that doesn't meant that the women who save them are there to redeem them. Chang is unforgivingly honest about her characters’ ambition in chasing ephemeral and material pleasures; at times, it seems as though Weilong and George are both more seduced by the grandeur of Hong Kong society life than they are by each other, but that doesn’t make Weilong and George’s love is any less genuine. By day, they continue to play their games of greed and lust to attract the rich and pretty, but by night, they are able to strip away the false pretenses they put on for everyone else and can momentarily be themselves with each other.

In the penultimate scene as George and Weilong—now husband and wife—walk through a bazaar in Aberdeen, he tells her in a moment of self-awareness: “one day, you will recognize how base of a person I am. And by that time, you will regret everything you’ve sacrificed for me.” He knows he doesn't deserve the sacrifice she made to be with him, and on some level he doesn't understand why she did it in the first place. Maybe he doesn't have to.

Weilong replies: “I love you, so what does that matter?”

In a world in which people relentlessly consume and use each other, Chang posits that love means the unabashed acceptance of another person exactly as they are. It doesn't have to last forever to be worth it, and in the ultimate scene as Weilong thoughts drift to the terror of her unknown future, she forces herself to only see the here and now. Sometimes the choices we make are as simple as the desire to hold on to the inexplicable truth of love, real love, even when it's as ephemeral as the dull orange ember tip of a stick of burning incense about to go out. And maybe that's enough.

Maybe that's all that matters.

xoxo, vivian

Monday, June 19, 2017

I'm someone you maybe might love

"Thought you said you would always be in love / but you're not in love no more" Lorde sings in "Green Light," the first track of her second album Melodrama released last Friday. "it's the first chapter of a story i'm gonna tell you, the story of the last 2 wild, fluorescent years of my life. this is where we begin" she tweeted the night before her first single from the album was released. For a song about trying to get over an ex-lover "Green Light" is surprisingly buoyant, its major key and building crescendos balancing out the pointed anger and betrayal felt over the all small things we fixate on after the end.

The rest of the album is filled with moments of lucidity cutting through lush instrumentals and breathy background vocals. Lorde is hyperaware of how melodramatic her narrative construction is, but that's what makes this album so powerful. What I love about Melodrama is that it's complicated but it's also not: it's about the stories we tell ourselves and other people, memories bubbling to your lips and spilling over, spilling out with laughs and tears on the dance floor of a house party you'll never quite forget.

"it's very different from her first album. more intense and raw, less ethereal" I messaged a friend when I found out the first new Lorde song in three years just dropped. The music video to "Green Light" is overlaid with green cross-processing, muting the reds, magentas, blues, and greens from appearing too bold against the sparkling city lights backdrop. I wasn't sure if I liked this song the first few times I listened to it: it sounded too happy to be properly angry, and I'm a sucker for quiet tragedy. It took me until I started listening to the full album on Saturday to fully appreciate its brightness. The line I whisper things / the city sings them back to you makes me feel a little less lonely, because even if I don't have you to listen to me anymore I feel like I can trust that the echoes of my words will reverberate back me somehow.

I'm acting like I don't see / every ribbon you used to tie yourself to me because it's easier to play pretend, isn't it?

So let's let things come out of the woodwork  
I give you my best side, tell you all my best lies 
See me rolling, showing someone else love  
Hands under your t-shirt 
Know I think you're awesome, right? 

"Homemade Dynamite" is that moment your eyes meet across a crowded room, a sudden and unexpected spark of recognition. That's all it takes for you to decide you've found your reason to stay. You smile for him—a smirk, really—because you like the way you look through his eyes. "Come with me" he says, or maybe he doesn't even have to say it before you find yourself getting up and following him into another room.

It feels important.

It feels wrong too.

You didn't realize how much you wanted to know what destruction tastes like until now. (It tastes like the whiskey shots you weren't going to take because you took cold meds earlier that night but are knocking back now anyway, in case you were wondering.) You light the fuse.

Blowing shit up with homemade d-d-d-dynamite.

I think that in spite of our cynicism, we all want to believe that love is significant in some cosmic way, and that those summer obsessions and memories made in the still heat are worthy of being put up on display, that the wild beating of my heart is proof that we're the greatest / they'll hang us in the Louvre (down the back / but who cares / still the Louvre). "The Louvre" is poetic but sharp, an attempt to justify being a sucker who let you fill her mind and get her heart broken by someone who shouldn't have had that privilege to begin with. 

The opening lines baby really hurt me / crying in the taxi reminded me a little too much of the voicemail I left my best friend not too long ago, the quiet bravado of trying to keep the tears lodged behind the base of my throat when I knew it wasn't my fault but I couldn't help but feel like it was. It didn't work, by the way. The tears I tried to deny started falling by the time the second sentence tumbled out of my mouth, but thankfully there was nothing else left to say because the story is so startlingly simple. "Liability" captures the paradox of simultaneously being too much while somehow still not being enough: 
The truth is I am a toy that people enjoy 
'til all the tricks don't work anymore 
and then they are bored of me

The ending two lines: They're gonna watch me disappear into the sun / You're gonna watch me disappear into the sun reminded me of Medea, one of my favorite characters from classical antiquity. For those of you who aren't familiar with the myth, Medea, a sorceress and former princess of Colchis, falls in love with the Greek hero Jason, sent on a mission to steal the Golden Fleece. She gave up her family and her kingdom to marry Jason, only to watch him leave her for the princess of Corinth instead. The vengeance she exacts aside, the image of Medea flying off into the sun at the end of the play is triumphant if not a little lonely. She never needed him, but that doesn't change the fact that she wanted him and was too much for him in the end. 

So I guess I'll go home into the arms of the girl that I love
the only love I haven't screwed up 

We slow dance in the living room, but all that a stranger would see

is one girl swaying alone, stroking her cheek

Go back and tell it Lorde whispers. I still remember everything / how we’d drift buying groceries / how you’d dance for me.

They've gone home but who am I? The spell is broken, the magic fades, the lights come on. "There’s such a sadness to the lights being on after a party, you know, this whole room has sort of been washed in this dark, and to see the corners of the room again can always be a little bit heartbreaking," Lorde explains in an NPR interview. 

When morning light breaks through your window, you only remember fragments of that momentary heartbreak. Mostly, you try to hang on to the feeling of being on the dance floor, with those strong hands on your waist pulling you closer whispering words you don't remember into your ear, the pulse of the bass vibrating through the very core of your being. 

The stripped vocals and witch-like croak of the high notes in this song make me uneasy, not because I've ever broken a writer's heart but because writers have a way of remembering everything and insist on having the last word; because I'll love you 'til my breathing stops and you should be terrified of that kind of devotion.

In your car the radio up
We keep trying to talk about us
I'm someone you maybe might love
I'll be your quiet afternoon crush
be your violent overnight rush
make you crazy over my touch

When you think back to that night, you think about how you crossed into a place of no return when "400 Lux" was playing in the background. We're never done with killing time / can I kill it with you? was all you dared to ask for right before the space between you disappeared. You almost believed got a lot to not do / let me kill it with you was true then, even when you knew it wasn't. 

You kiss him anyway.

If "400 Lux" is the moment you're driving down the streets where the houses don't change and realize just how desperately you don't want this to end, "Supercut" is the the highlight reel of a string of perfect moments in hindsight, memorized one last time as you're driving away from the city you made your home in the last four years because ours are the moments I play in the dark / we were wild and florescent come back to my heart

Remember this: you're not what you thought you were.

"Perfect Places" takes us back again to the house parties we used to imagine when we were seventeen and innocent, only now we're actually invited and are laughing and drinking with the rest of them. The problem with growing up as an outsider is that you never quite believe it when you make it in. You feel like an imposter, always just a little too sober to completely let go and let loose, and you can't help but see how hard everyone is trying to escape their demons for just one night. Are you lost enough? / Have another drink, get lost in us they say as they hand you another red cup. 

You drink, but you don't forget.

xoxo, vivian

Photos from behind the scenes of Lorde's March 2017 SNL appearance. Listen to "Melodrama" here

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

I'm the ghost in your machine

"An eating disorder is, at the most basic level, a bundle of deadly contradictions: a desire for power that strips you of all power. A gesture of strength that divests you of all strength. A wish to prove that you need nothing, that you have no human hungers, which turns on itself and becomes a searing need for the hunger is a protest against cultural stereotypes of women that in the end makes you seem the weakest, the most needy and neurotic of all women."
I finished Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher in the middle of last August and I haven't been able to stop thinking about this book for months. This was one of the most difficult books I've ever read because of how close it hits home: I'm only a year younger than Marya was when she published her brutally honest and Pulitizer Prize-nominated memoir, and as much as Wasted is a visceral and chilling account of Marya's eating disorders, it's also a painful reminder of all the pressures young women like myself have to deal with just to feel okay about existing as we are. 

On a theoretical level, I'm fascinated by the dichotomy of hunger and satiation and the spectrum in between. Hunger, especially female hunger, is often defined by its inverse because there's something particularly offensive about a woman with an appetite, sometimes for food and sometimes for power or sex or love. The good woman is always satisfied by what she is given because if you want less you will always be given enough; the great woman rejects her desires completely because if you want nothing at all you are overcoming human nature itself—even if doing so will kill you.

The celebration of women who can somehow transcend their hunger compared to the vilification of women who are voracious is by no means a modern phenomenon: in classical literature from over two millennia ago, the Greeks valorized σωφροσύνηself-controlto the point where Phaedra in Euripides Hippolytus starving herself to death so she doesn't give in to her love for Hippolytus is venerated, while Pandora in Hesiod's Theogony is reviled by mankind because she all she does is sit at home and consume the fruits of man's labors. And in the contemporary western world, wellhave you ever seen women's magazine covers

Hunger is fundamentally a physiological signal to your body that you need to eat; it causes physical pain when denied and for most people, denying or rejecting food when you're hungry feels wrong in a human sense–a crime against nature, the body, the soul, the self. But for some, the ability to "overcome" the primal instinct of hunger can become both a literal and a symbolic demonstration of power and control over the body. In the mind of someone who sees this power struggle, to succumb to that desire is a sign of weakness; they must deny it in order to be in control. Marya puts it like this:
"'ve split yourself in two. One part is the part you're trying to killthe weak self, the body. One part is the part you're trying to becomethe powerful self, the mind. This is not psychosis, this splitting. It is the history of Western culture made manifest. Your ability to withstand pain is your claim to fame. It is ascetic, holy. It is self-control. It is masochism."
Her account of the dichotomy between mind and body and how withstanding the pain of hunger to become better makes sense in some deeply embedded cultural framework. The damnation of women who eat is in our myths and religion and fairy tales when you look for it: if only Persephone didn't eat Hades' pomegranate seeds; if only Eve didn't eat the apple; if only Rapunzel's mother didn't eat the lettuce from the witch's backyard. It's in our media because insecurity sells; I don't even need to be telling you about how pervasive thin culture is because I know you've read or at least heard about those diet tricks and bikini bods and what clothes we should wear to look skinnier. And so the shame and guilt at our existence is perpetuated: "Women use their obsession with weight and food as a point of connection with one another, a commonality even between strangers...we talk ad nauseam about the fact that we don't like our bodies."

Although this is by far the most annotated book I've ever marked up myself, I don't know if I would recommend Wasted or not. This memoir haunted me for weeks because of how much I saw myself relating to her anecdotes and social commentary; even though I've never had an eating disorder, I couldn't stop thinking about just how easily I could see myself succumbing to this mindset if I wasn't naturally thin and received a slightly different upbringing than the one I had. I couldn't not notice the dangerous cocktail of my own neuroses that plague me every once in a while: my personal desire for self-control, pursuit of high-stress environments, anxiety over [nonexistent, improbable, healthy] weight gain, and weird relationship with food and "deserving" to eat. While I've never committed physical violence to myself it scared me how I could imagine it were me. 

Marya is critical but not flat-out accusatory of any and all of the factors that led to her eating disorders. While she contends that the combination of a thinness-obsessed culture, unhealthy relationships with food within her family, a high-pressure school environment, and personal neuroses were all factors that led to her disordered eating, she balances clinical facts and statistics with anecdotal speculation in a way where it seems like she's not quite sure what the source is herself. 

As much as we might want an easy, end-all answer on who or what we can blame as if that will lead us to an easy, end-all solution to eating disorders in general, Marya avoids universalizing her experiences and prescribing a solution because the only truth she can speak to is her own story: this is what happened to me, this is my story, this is what I lived through. The differences between how you and I and every woman deal with desire and appearance and self-esteem and everything in between are infinite; perhaps the most we can ever ask of anyone trying to make sense of it all is by learning through lived experiences so that we can become more conscious and understanding.

xoxo, vivian

Saturday, May 27, 2017

it's not love that keeps me here

March 9th 2017 | Berkeley, CA
There's a lot to be said and then there's nothing to say about it at all. It's not so obvious in this journal because I haven't really been writing about it in this space but I can piece together the fragments from other corners to discern the pattern of general unhappiness and dissatisfaction that grew for months. I've been listening to and thinking about "Afraid" for a while now—how me is it that one of those ~significant firsts happened beneath the fashion collage I made that says "IT'S NOT LOVE THAT KEEPS ME HERE" on pretty pink origami paper amidst the floral prettiness of what one conception of love is supposed to look like? I've grown so much since I created that collage but also in the last couple of weeks (we'll get to that at some point). The thing I've never quite publicly fixated on about "Afraid" are the lines: it's not love, it's just the fear / you've put down for all these years / but I'm leaving now. I'm not saying it's not love per se, but all those months of trying to make it work on just love [in tandem] with the fear of not having it was unsustainable. I'm at peace, more at peace than I would have imagined, putting the panic and the fear aside in the end.
What is it about me and seeking comfort in leaving anyhow? Why do I always come back to this: running away and seeking temporary respite in unfamiliar places, even when I know I've faced direct confrontation and come out okay? Why do I feel like I need to have a backup escape route and not be able to let things just settle around me? I like to think I've gotten better about this, and lately I think my rationale for running in the first place has fundamentally changed: before, it was all about going somewhere no one really knew me at; now it's about coming home to the ones who love me. I don't know why I can't think of the parallel sentiments song to "Old Money" but I think that these last two years have certainly taught me a lot about who I would run to and conversely, who I would let run to me. It's not love that keeps me here is perhaps just as true as if you send for me you know I'll run because love is about devotion, loyalty, steadfastness. I don't regret being there and having [person] as my pole—something in your magnetism—for the years we were together but at the same time there's something liberating about leaving that gravitational field and drifting out again. I've felt a little too free but not lost; I couldn't have expected this. I'm kind of just taking it each day as it comes.
I wrote here [in this journal] once over a year ago that I wouldn't be able to listen to "Video Games" after [person] because of how much this song and the memories I had of it meant to this particular relationship, but that turned out not to be true. I think I'm talking and thinking and writing about music because it's all we listened to this weekend in Arizona, but also because these were the words imprinted on my memories of these two years (and what came before, and what's come after): the chorus of "Video Games" and crooning it on Seventh Street when I was still so happy and in love; the hazy, haptic happiness of "My Best Days" in Chicago that somehow wasn't as magical in the pink glow of distant forest fires in my hometown later that summer; the low click of a ticking clock of "Don't Lie" still stuck somewhere in one of those days I can't quite remember spent on that couch in the apartment on Parker; the sparkling mundanity of walks home to "Teenage Wasteland"—
I could go on and on it seems but the thing about these songs and the particular memories I associate them with isn't static. It's what I choose to make of them at any given time and I know I can see myself being able to talk about the feeling of being in love (again) through "Video Games" or that sense of overwhelming comfort enveloping me when I wake up in darkness but somehow still have you through "My Best Days" because music, like good books or movies or art, can evolve in meaning and come to represent different things to you when you encounter them again at different points in your life.
On a final note about recent music—"Love" troubles me because it fundamentally contradicts the pragmatic undercurrent that love isn't enough through the most sincere Lana songs from earlier eras. There's something about it that just feels off, about going back to work or the coffee shop, about getting dressed up with no place to go in context of it all. Maybe it is and isn't enough, and this song came into my life during a week/month that set in motion so many questions I couldn't answer without some serious consideration. I haven't come to any good conclusions yet and maybe I don't need to. Sometimes I think I should sit back and let things just be.

I always panic when people ask me "what kind of music do you listen to" because most of the time, I listen to the same seventy Lana del Rey songs (and thirty other songs, because I have exactly a hundred downloaded to my phone) on shuffle while walking to campus or riding BART or editing photos. Otherwise, I don't normally listen to music because I can't multi-task; I get so caught up thinking about the music I'm listening to that I have a hard time focusing on whatever it is I'm supposed to be working on. For all you music lovers reading this right now who can't relate: I'm sorry. And to all my friends who have let me take over their car stereos to play the songs I've never been able to get out of my head: thank you.

 In August 2014, I wrote the line "IT'S NOT LOVE THAT KEEPS ME HERE" from "Afraid" in all caps after studying abroad in London and hung that collage up over my bed where it's been for the last three years. I'd never been in love at that point, but I became attached to the idea of choosing life over love when you reach that fork in the road. It isn't supposed to be an easy choice but maybe sometimes it's the right one at the time; we all have theories about how the world is supposed to work and go to great lengths to prove ourselves right, and this was the one I repeated to myself this semester when I ended my first real relationship in February. 

I'm leaving Berkeley next week and I don't know when I'll ever be back again. I feel like I've spent this entire semester hyperaware of the imminent goodbyes, but I want to say that I did everything I wanted to in the last couple months before I hop on my one-way flight away from here next Wednesday. I had my last commencement ceremony a week and a half ago and since then I've spent my postgrad life spending time with different friends almost every day, exploring new corners of the Bay Area and semi-spontaneously going on a three day trip to SoCal with the closest friends I made in college earlier this week. 

I'm grateful for the chance to have been able to properly enjoy people's company in my last couple of weeks here: it reminded me of just how loved I am, and I think I'm surprised at the outpouring I've received. For a girl who spent half her life dreaming of running away to the next big city I didn't think I would be so sad to leave somewhere I never felt I completely belonged to in the first place, but maybe what's changed in my last semester is that I realized how much love I have for this school and the people I feel I didn't fully appreciate over the last few years. It's been simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking to have discovered some sense of belonging to this place after all, and maybe, even if it's not love that keeps me here, it'll be love that brings me back again someday.

xoxo, vivian