Category Archives: key notes

Why I write Things I Love Thursdays

A few days after graduating from secondary school and at the beginning of my blissful summer-to-come, I was woken up by the shrill ring of the telephone.

Who was calling at 6 am on a weekday?

‘Meimei,’ my mother began, my family’s name for me, ‘little sister’, shaking me out of my half-sleeping state, ‘something’s happened to your father.’

In those few moments before she went on, there was only freezing and the dread need to know: Is he still alive?

My father had a stroke while on a business trip to China. My mother, also in China for different reasons, travelled overnight to find him. I went up to Tianjin with one of her employees just over twelve hours after she called me. My brother flew back from Vancouver a few days later.

For days, we waited to see if he would pull through safely. We lived on the edge of a world threatening to fall apart in one failed breath. We made plans for the worst and waited to find out if we could even hope for the best. Not being religious, there was no one to ask anything from — just life, that gives what it gives.

We laughed a lot in those days. I don’t really remember what over — probably anything and everything that could relieve the pressure, for a while. A pig-shaped sponge I delighted in doing the dishes with. How much my cousin could eat. The soap operatic qualities of life, when my mother ended up on an IV in hospital a couple of days after my dad, from the toll of the whole situation on her already weak health.

No, I suppose the last one wasn’t that funny, but it wasn’t too serious and we were living by the old adage, ‘Laugh, or you’ll cry.’

Luckily for us, everyone pulled through better than I’d dared to imagine. My father eventually made a 99% recovery. I moved away from home to come here. And we’re all well enough for me to now regularly lecture both of my parents on the importance of taking care of their health whenever they seem to disregard it (which is often) — most recently regaling my dad last week with accounts of a friend’s father who’s had a second stroke and the consequences of that; he swears he’s been exercising more since then.

Life hasn’t stopped happening. I could spend my days, like the girl next to me on the bus yesterday, counting the ways it makes me unhappy — the fruit fly infestation we had a couple of weeks ago, the loss of my UBC library photocopy card with more than $10 on it, the assortment of health issues I’m accumulating this term — or I can write about the things I am glad for:

  • my friends who are willing to listen and support me even when I am not at my best,
  • the continued safety of my friends’ families in Japan,
  • the kindness of a girl in my class who mistook me for being Japanese and asked me if my family was okay,
  • my daily gratitude that I can still say, for now, that yes, they are.

Contrary to popular ignorant belief, I don’t search for the silver lining in the clouds because I’m

a) naturally sunny,

b) faking more optimism than I genuinely feel, or

c) in denial about the reality of life.

I have sat with too many people who have lost loved ones, who have been hurt and broken to the bone, who have wanted, or tried, to die because they couldn’t see a way out, to not be aware of how hard life can be.

Focusing on joy is not being unrealistic: being in denial about the kinder bits of life is just as unrealistic as being in denial about the harsher ones, when all of these exist. It won’t stop you grieving; it won’t stop you dealing with your problems.

But I still do it, to feed my beliefs that life is a beautiful mess of heartbreak and happiness that can still be worth it, and that I have a choice in giving myself enough chance at happiness to tide myself over for the times when it is anything but.

I haven’t been blogging lately because I’m worn out, physically, mentally and emotionally, but I’m trying to piece things back together. Comments on posts may be turned off sporadically until then, in an effort to catch up on reading them, something I am also very much behind in. It’s entirely personal.

In the meantime, please participate in the fundraising efforts going all around campus and throughout the local, national and international communities for Japan. It can be something as simple as dropping your spare change in the Japan Association’s donation box in the SUB — the reason ‘every little bit helps’ exists as a cliche is because it’s true.

Thank you, and have a lovely weekend.

Climbing trees

I’m home this weekend to visit my brother and there’s a tree in the front yard that I’ve passed countless times in the last few years with never a thought to climb it.

Until this evening, that is, when the world is being draped in white, and the orange glow of the lamplight is shining steadily against a deeper and duskier night than the ones I know, and it’s easy to see your surroundings with new eyes.

Also, the snow is too powdery to make a snowman, so I had to think of something else to do.

And isn’t that how it is? A restless urge, when something changes, to change as well, to do something different, to be someone else, somehow, for a while. To forge ahead, even when you don’t know what that’s going to look like, or even how you’re going to do ‘different’.

So you latch onto one of the ideas that you already have, one that’s been floating around in the back of your mind and perhaps doesn’t appear significant, or reasonable, or the answer to everything, but you take it up and run with it because really, that’s all you’ve got to go on right now.

And not having many ideas for what I can do when the world is snowing except make snow angels (check), snowmen (uncheckable) and have snowball fights (attempted check), I looked about me and realised there was a tree with no leaves in winter (very good) and very low branches (very good) that would make it possible to climb it.

If I wanted to.

I’ve never climbed a tree before. I have it on my list of things to do (Plus More), but I’ve been nervous about this prospect for a while. I tried, unsuccessfully, to climb a tree in our Hong Kong garden at the height of Christmas heat two years back, but my trainers just kept slipping and slipping on the bark. And then another year I acquired pinkeye, possibly from tree-hugging, which made me apprehensive about rubbing my face against bark again any time soon. There’s an apple tree in the backyard that I’ve been eyeing for a long time and sussing for its potential as a tree to climb, but I put it off. Not now, it’s summer. Not now, I’m busy with school. Not now, it’s just not now.

But it’s snowing and I couldn’t make a snowman and I wanted to climb this tree in the front yard instead.

So I clambered up to the first branching out at the trunk. I stood, perfectly still, realising, I’m on a tree! And stepped up to the next branch, and the next.

Leaning against snow-covered branches, I looked around me and delighted in my perch. The world was a little different from where I sat, but not by much.

It was almost disappointing.

But even though it wasn’t as exhilarating or life-changing as I’d hoped, I was sitting where I’d never imagined I’d sit, and that was something. I’d done something I secretly thought was never going to happen for me, and even though this wasn’t what I expected — it is a very low tree — sometimes, it really is that easy.

To my friends who don’t know what the future holds and are afraid: None of us know what the future holds, even when we make plans and think we do. Making the right choice isn’t about making a single decision that will result in a perfect outcome, but in making the best decision that you can at this moment in time, with what little that you know now. If you should learn more and think you need to change, then that will be the best decision you can make then. It’s a process, not a one-shot conclusion. Sometimes you’ve just got to pick something and run with it; it probably won’t end up the way you imagine it will, but you’ll get something out of it anyway. Promise.

Lastly, to my friend whose boyfriend made her read my blog while dining at The Keg: This post really isn’t related to any of the things we’ve been discussing together lately, but I hope you enjoyed some of the other things around here I’ve been pointing out, like the playable Angry Birds cake.

Also, this is one of my favourite pictures:

Rawr! It means 'I Love You' in Dinosaur!


(And to her boyfriend — thanks!)

When you have eating problems

‘I remember when you were such a fat kid, but look at you now — you’re gorgeous!’

What do you do with a statement like that? Thank you for reinforcing my insecurities regarding my weight and the pressure to stay thin even though you can’t possibly know that I have these issues?

What do I do when you, a perfectly skinny friend of mine, say, ‘I need to lose a few pounds. I’m so fat’ or ‘I lost ten pounds!’ or ‘I wish I were as thin as you’?

I want to tell you: Don’t. Don’t do it the way I did, because that was not the way to go.

When I was in my early teens, I had eating problems.

(Eating problems, mind you, not an eating disorder — when counselling, providing peer support, or simply having a conversation with someone, it is only right to reflect the other person’s choice of language.)

So, eating problems.

Like many other young people of my age, I had terribly low self-esteem and a poor body image. No one who knows me now will believe it, but I was a fat child. Roly-poly about to explode out of my skin in one photo sort of fat. My parents, bless their hearts, subscribed to the Chinese belief that a chubby child is a blessing, so my brother and I were both overweight examples of that belief in action.

Like many other plump children of that age, I got bullied a fair bit for being so. No wonder I didn’t take kindly to being fat.

And, of course, there were the media messages we’re all familiar with by now, aren’t we? Thin is good, fat is bad. Thin is good, fat is lazy. Thin is good, fat is not what you want to be. I didn’t want to be fat, if only to get people off my back. And maybe to feel okay about myself, too.

It wasn’t until I was thirteen when this desire really kicked in, though. Looking back, I have no idea why it happened then — I’d been gradually losing my baby fat throughout the years, and while not quite slender yet, I was by no means fat.

Whatever the reason, I decided to eat less. Eating less seemed like the quickest, easiest way to lose weight. And it was something that was easily in my control.

So I ate less, and lost some weight. Encouraged, I ate even less, and lost even more weight. Other girls started telling me they wished they were skinny like me. We can see where this is going, can’t we?

Before long, I was down to one real meal a day, and my parents could not understand where all that food they were giving me was going. I couldn’t understand what the problem was, because I genuinely did not feel hungry anymore. Eating was something I had to do to function — but I tried to get by on as little as I possibly could. It seemed like such a time-consuming activity, after a while. I developed all sorts of methods for throwing my food away without anyone knowing how.

All the while this was happening, I didn’t think of myself as fat. I just want to lose a few pounds, I kept telling myself. It’s much easier to gain weight than lose it; if I have a low base weight, all I need to do is maintain it. I don’t have an eating disorder because people with eating disorders think they’re fat, and I don’t think I’m fat. It wasn’t a problem that I kept lowering my target weight — just a little more…

It wasn’t until I was sixteen and looking at a photo of myself when I realised that I had a problem. By this point, I wasn’t losing any more weight and was just ‘maintaining’ it (by making sure to eat less whenever I started gaining a couple). I’d gone out to a friend’s farewell party and had returned happily, thinking that I’d looked great. Flicking through the photos, however, I was taken aback: that skeletal girl was not me. I could make out every part of her collarbone and there were hollows where cheeks should have been. How on earth had I deluded myself into thinking this was attractive? No, really — how?

I’ve spent years since then trying to develop a healthier body image. No more weighing myself three times a day — no weighing myself at all, most of the time, because I freak out whenever my weight goes up or down, these days. Telling myself that my BMI is more important than my weight; that as long as I am eating and exercising well, I’ll be at my optimum, and everyone’s optimum is different.

But when you tell me you wish you could be thinner, it’s hard for me to tell you honestly not to, because I know exactly what it’s like to want this.

And when someone tells me that I look great thin, without thinking how that might have come about, it reinforces all my latent insecurities I try so hard to reject. It makes it hard to want to do things differently, healthily.

Do a good deed and help the people around you develop healthy body images by speaking about it in terms of health, in terms of eating nutritiously and exercising regularly, not in artificial binaries of thin/fat, muscular/flabby. Just because you don’t know about it, doesn’t mean that they’re not struggling with these issues.

Redefining Valentine’s Day

Are you doing anything for Valentine’s Day?

I don’t mean that in the ‘Are you going on a date or are you going to be raging about how you aren’t going on a date?’ kind of way, because I think there’s already far too much of that. I’m not interested in defining myself in or out of the romantic love circle that seems to have such a vice-like grip on some people I know.

No, I’m curious to know if you’re planning on doing anything for the other people you love most: your family and friends.

You see, I like to think of Valentine’s as a general day of love and a great opportunity to express that extra bit of affection to my loved ones. In high school, my friends and I would buy roses for our mothers and each other. One year I decided to write terrible, cheesy acrostics for my best friends. Last year, I mailed a Valentine’s to my parents. (The only hiccup with this was that I didn’t know the postage rate had changed, so the card got returned to me two weeks later and my parents were pleasantly surprised to receive a Valentine’s in March!)

This year I’m toying with the idea of organising a Valentine’s brunch for my volunteers and just hanging out with friends afterwards — and I think the world would be a more fabulous place if more people used Valentine’s to show their loved ones how much they care.

So go on: surprise someone!

Rethinking Significance

As usual, the UBC Student Leadership Conference was a great start to the term. Drew Dudley was amazing. The Buried Life boys were cool. If there were a few pieces of advice I would give to new students, one of them would be to go to the SLC at least once during your time here. Like many things in life, you simply don’t know if you’ll like something or not until you give it a go. So give it a go.

I trust that my fellow bloggers over on the UBC Blog Squad will give a much fuller and more exciting account of their experiences on Saturday, so I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to share what I have actually been rethinking, as a result of the SLC, and also of my own thinking over the last several months:


Let’s think of it in terms of leadership first, because that’s what the conference was about anyway. The conference which I’d faithfully attended for three years and was seriously considering not attending for a fourth.

You see, in third year the question I asked myself had changed from ‘What can I do on this campus?’ to ‘What have I done?’ I wasn’t really happy with the answers. In fourth year, the question has become even more pressing, and I felt even more dissatisfied, particularly when I compared myself to the many high-achieving students that I know and hang around — you know the kind, the ones who seem to do everything, and everything well. Many of these truly admirable, wonderful human beings were presenters and facilitators at the SLC this year — and part of me didn’t want to go because I was afraid of thinking, all the time I was there, how much they were giving and how much I was not. It took some encouragement on the part of one of the SLC Faces of Today (who didn’t know what I was thinking, bless their heart) for me to sign up, but I was still nervous about feeling lousy.

Until I got an email about opening keynote Drew Dudley, and I knew it was going to be a good conference.

His story hits home for me because it clarifies something I’ve been wanting — and struggling — to believe: that the small things matter.

As Drew so eloquently pointed out, we’ve made leadership into something bigger than us, a title that has to be given to us by other people. We think we can only be significant when we’ve made big changes, so most of us go about thinking that we’re not significant, because we’re not among the exceptional 10%. We’re so used to considering that topmost tier as the standard of excellence that we fail to acknowledge the hugely significant groundwork that’s been covered by the other 90%.

And yet what we do everyday is perhaps what leaves the greatest impact for all of us — including that top 10% — because they are so daily.

The Buried Life guys were lovely, but they didn’t affect me as much because I already have lists (e.g. Day Zero) that ask me what I want to achieve by certain set dates, rather than my death-day. It’s never a question of what I want to do before I die — because frankly, I could die at any time — but how I want to do it all. How do I want to live my life?

A couple of months ago, an old classmate from my primary through secondary schools died after a decade-long battle with cancer.

Over the winter break, one of our volunteers also passed away.

I don’t really know about their other commitments and achievements, but I do know that they were both exceptional in the lives of their families and friends. Their love and kindness mattered. They were significant in the gentlenesses they exhibited and the sincerity and enthusiasm with which they approached their lives. They were important.

For most of my life, I thought I had to do everything in order to get the upper edge on someone else in university, job or other applications. I was inspired by the sheer number of meaningful activities that the student leaders who mentored me in my first and second years here could do, and told myself I had to be like them before I could think of myself as significant. I’ve made my resumé as jam-packed and high-achieving as many other people do (particularly in my first two years here) — yet I’m not feeling any more significant than when I started at UBC. I still worry that I’m not competitive enough.

And there are an extraordinary number of people who manage to achieve extraordinary things in their limited time. It’s a little impossible to hear the sheer number of activities with which the SLC Faces of Today and the Nestor Korchinsky nominees are involved and not feel overwhelmed and admiring. They deserve to be recognised for what they do.

Not everyone can be like them, however — and the rest of us end up despairing, because we don’t know how we’re going to stand out in what sometimes feels like an ocean of exceptionality.

I’ve got a theory I’m going to test, though: be passionate.

Some people do things just to put on their resumés. They don’t really care. I can tell you that at Speakeasy, we don’t want that kind of people, and if we, a volunteer organisation, can afford to look for the people who want to be here, then it stands to reason that larger organisations which are going to pay you will ask for the same. Caring about what you do will make you significant.

I’m not saying you don’t need skills and qualifications to succeed — obviously you do. What I’m saying is to get the skills and education you need and get involved in the things that matter to you. This last clause is important, because there are plenty of people with skills, but a shortage of people with passion. Find what you like, and do it well, because when you really care, you make a difference. Passion is one of those things that is hard to fake; we can tell when someone genuinely believes in what they’re doing, because it lights them up and changes their whole being.

Doing twenty things at once is surely impressive, but doing a few things you are truly passionate about will also make you stand out.

Doing what you care about is also what will stand out to you when you look back on this period in your life. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the things I’ve been involved in, many of which I’ve enjoyed, but few with as much dedication as I devote to Speakeasy. I want more of that — more times when I feel like I’m committing myself to something I really believe in, more certainty that I am giving something back to the community.

Finally, I’ve decided to stop moping about what I haven’t achieved and focus on what I can still do in my time here. I want to be significant and do the things I care about, to have the courage to follow my dreams (the ones I hide under my bed because I’m too afraid to tell people about them).

More importantly, I want to be significant to the people around me, on a daily basis. Because I’ve decided that if I change the world in some large way yet neglect the people around me, I will feel like I’ve failed somehow. Even if I don’t change the world, however, as long as I feel like I’ve been important to the people around me everyday, I will be okay with that.

Will you?