Monday, June 24, 2013

The Middle Name Game

My friends in the UK often ask if I keep in touch with friends from grade school. I like to tell them this story:

I am nine years old. It is 8 pm. I am at a slumber party.

I am sitting cross-legged on my pink cotton Disney's Cinderella sleeping bag at Katie's house. There are eleven of us in total - I counted. We have just returned from a sweaty rollerskating session at Tiffany's Skating Inn and eaten as much Hawaiian and Pepperoni pizza from Domino's as our little bellies could handle. The Mighty Ducks is in the VCR and popcorn is being made, when a small, but authoritative voice pipes up from the back. "Hey guys, this is boring. I know what we should do - let's play the Middle Name Game!"

A cold sweat breaks over me and the handful of Nerds and Twizzlers I had gluttonously consumed from my party favor pack just ten minutes ago threatens to rise in my throat. "Really?" I say, casually. "Why don't we just watch The Mighty Ducks instead? I love this movie!" I try to say, with bright laughter.

Rachel, the girl who suggested the game, shoots me a death glare. "Don't be lame. It's fun! Okay, okay, Mary," she says, pointing at the brunette next to me. "You go first."

And the girls form a circle from which I am both semi-included but semi-excluded, on the periphery. They squint at Mary and take turns guessing: "Meredith!" No. "Paige!" No. [dramatic pause]

"It's like, so embarrassing," Mary sighs. "Like, a name from olden times."

"ELIZABETH!" they squeal. Mary's face turns red, which signifies the correct answer.

"That's not too bad," one girl says. "You could always shorten it to Lizzy."

I, on the periphery of their circle, am somehow next. I really don't want to play this game.

"Okay, okay, it's your turn," they say and turn to me. They start guessing.

"Elizabeth!" No.

"Rachel!" No.

"Sarah!" No.

After about 5 more half-hearted guesses of fairly typical Anglo/American names, they give up.

"What is it?" snaps Rachel impatiently.

My voice is so small, it comes out in a croaky whisper, which is masked by the TV.

"Chak-mei," I pronounce quietly.

The disbelief is palpable.

"Chuck-WHAT?" someone asks incredulously from the other side of the circle.

"Chak-mei," I say a little louder. "It's my Chinese name," I explain hastily. I see Mary exchanging glances with the girl sitting next to her. I am so embarrassed. More than that, I am humiliated. By my own name.

"That's weird," someone else comments. It remains silent for some time.

"Is that what they call you in China?" Rachel sniggers.

"I'm not from China. My family is from Hong Kong. I was born here. In Puyallup. At Good Samaritan Hospital. Like you," I say, defensively.

"Whatever. Hong Kong, China, Ching, Chang, Chong, Japan, same thing," says Rachel, rolling her eyes. "Let's guess Bethany's middle name next."

As the night goes on, I become more withdrawn; I participate less and less in the fun and games being played, even "Light As a Feather, Stiff as a Board," which I usually like, where a girl lying prone appears to be "levitating" with only the aid of two fingers of each of the party-goers lifting her up.

You know, my parents still display their shock and shake their heads at friends when exclaiming how surprised they were that I went to college on the other side of the country and ended up living halfway across the world from them. "Why, she used to cry at slumber parties! We'd have to go and pick her up at night around 10 or 11! She had such bad separation anxiety," they'd recall.

And yes, for a long time, I too, believed I had severe separation anxiety. I hated being away from my parents and my home, where I was comfortable, even if my friends' houses were just a 10 minute drive away. I'd panic, feel sick, and the parents of whichever child's house I was at would call my mom to come pick me up.

But now as an adult, I look back and realize, that wasn't separation anxiety - that was just me, a child, wanting to escape from a situation that I felt uncomfortable in. Where my identity was constantly being questioned. Where I didn't feel liked because I was different and therefore, didn't feel safe.

Those girls didn't invite me to their parties because they liked me. They invited me because their parents told them to. To be nice. Those same girls scooted their desks away from mine and held their noses when I opened my lunch at school - a bento box lovingly prepared by my mother of whatever delicious Chinese meal she had whipped up the night before (always with rice), kept warm in a thermos lunchbox. I'd take it home, partially, or almost totally uneaten. My mother would admonish me for wasting expensive Chinese barbequed pork that my father had purchased on a rare trip to Seattle. Today, I long for those lunches. Especially when sitting with a growling belly at my work desk.

Were those girls bullies? No. Ignorant? Yes. Should we hold children accountable for being politically correct on the playground? No. Is it important for parents and teachers to educate children about different cultures, races, customs and dispel any stereotypes or prejudices they may hear coming out of their children's mouths so as to not perpetuate said stereotypes and prejudices? A resounding yes.

I hope that, if I have a daughter, she will happily go to slumber parties and play the Middle Name Game and not be embarrassed of whatever first or second name she is given - no matter how unpronounceable it is; that her friends' middle names will vary and have roots in French, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Malaysian, Nigerian, and plenty of other cultures. That she'll feel safe and strong in her identity as a mixed-race child, and that this will outweigh the ignorance she'll undoubtedly face from society from time to time.

It is only now as an adult, living in Britain, that I play the Middle Name Game with pride and feel as though I belong in my environment. And no, I don't keep in touch with any of those girls.

Photo source


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Father's Day

Seven years ago, I was studying for a Master's degree in Renaissance Literature at the University of York. I was fresh out of college, having graduated from Mount Holyoke only five months before the date my Master's studies commenced in England, and truly believed the hype MHC had instilled in me: that I could achieve anything I wanted to, that I was the best, that I would have the greatest graduate school experience ever because MHC had prepared me so well for it.

Well, that turned out to be kind of true and yet also utter bullshit, so when I found myself arriving at York on a campus littered - I mean, replete - with goose droppings, not making any friends despite being three months into the course and having volunteered myself as the president of the Graduate Students' Association, and generally not having a good time whatsoever (read: eating pasta out of a plastic picnic set given to me by John's mom when I moved, watching Family Guy episodes one after another at night and crying into my food), I felt pretty downtrodden.

The academic experience was also proving to be disappointing, as I felt it lacked the structure and leadership I'd gotten so used to at Mount Holyoke, not to mention how readily available our professors were there. Here, my dissertation adviser held a meeting with me on the phone during her train ride down to London. I was thrilled when the literary critic I most admired took up a post at York as a visiting professor and I was assigned to his course, only to discover that he had no interest in teaching students and made time pass during our tutorials by asking us to read Milton's Paradise Lost aloud.

John was working in Paris and the distance felt immense. He made late night journeys into York on the cheap ticket trains whenever he could, arriving at 12:51 a.m. We'd spend a weekend together, I'd cry when he'd have to leave and then feel miserable for a week or so.

Above all, I was lonely. My offers to plan activities with people on my course were rebuffed with polite excuses and, since the majority of them had been undergraduates at York, they already had established cliques and weren't interested in adding new faces.

Anyway, I was clearly unhappy but I didn't want my parents to know. I was also broke and terrified, as it was the first time I'd taken out a loan in my name to pay for the school fees. I remember going on a grocery shopping trip with John when he was over and refusing to buy Cheerios because I felt I couldn't afford them.

I lost about 15 pounds because I was worried about money, about performing well on my course, and also because I was just desperately homesick. My lack of friends, despite all my efforts, added to the stress.

A few months later, an envelope arrived from the US, addressed to me in my dad's familiar, angular, but perfect, architect's scrawl. Puzzled, as it felt like a card but wasn't anywhere near my birthday, I opened it, only to find a blank piece of thick card stock folded in half. Inside, two crisp fifty pound notes (that's "bills" to my fellow Americans!) were carefully sandwiched inside, along with a handwritten message that said, in all caps, "GO BUY YOURSELF A NICE DINNER. DAD".

I burst into tears. It was like a hug, a pat on the back, as if to say, "I know. You're doing fine. You'll get through it." And I did. I had one of the best years of my life that year; I learned a lot about myself and did well on the course, plus secured a temporary position in the fall at Little, Brown, where I started my publishing career, before moving on to Penguin. I eventually did make some great friends, some of whom I'm still in touch with today.

So, sometimes my dad can be aloof, pretend to be clueless, but really, he knows. After all, how could he not? He was the first person to hold me when I was born. And he's looked after me ever since.

Love you, Dad. Thanks for everything.

Note: I should also add that I made two student loan payments during my time at York, only to receive an email shortly before my third payment was due that read, "Thank you. We have received payment of your loan in full." Turns out my dad had decided to pay off my loan for me as he "couldn't stand" to see me pay interest, according to my mom. I still owe him big bucks.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Angloyankophile Takes Over @LondonIsYours

If you haven't already heard, I've been invited to take over the @LondonIsYours Twitter account this week, which I'm really excited about. This account provides the opportunity for one London resident to offer a glimpse into his/her unique perspective on London while sharing/swapping experiences and stories with other Londoners (and non-Londoners too!) as well.

So far, it's been fun and I'm looking forward to the rest of the week. If you have any ideas for topics you'd like me to tweet about, drop me a comment below, or join in on the conversation over on Twitter.

See you there!


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Big City Living: The Questions I Get Asked Back Home

Sometimes, my mom's friends will ask me, "So, what's the biggest difference between living in London and Puyallup [city in Washington where I'm from, population c. 38,000]?" And I kind of just want to show them this picture:

This, really. Crowds. Black cabs. Tourists. Lots of tourists. Busy. Hectic. Go, go, go. Bus. Foot. Walk. Trample. Push. Shove. Win.

And then they ask, "What's so good about living in London? Why do you like living there so much?" In those exact words. The mental image of chaotic Oxford Circus during rush hour flashes before me and suddenly, I'm at a loss for words. I think about it for a beat or two, before offering something along the lines of, "Well, there's always something to do." Faltering. "I like the pace of the city?" Question?

I can't really explain why I love London living so much. I'm not even sure I do, but I know I love the view of Southbank from Waterloo bridge on a sunny day as the Thames sparkles like a snaking bracelet, reflecting Westminster and the London Eye; seeing St. Paul during sunset, even on a grey, rainy day as I approach the foot bridge from the Tate Modern; shouting praise from the top tier seats at the Globe after a particularly rousing performance of All's Well That Ends Well; marching down High Holborn on my way in to work, feeling purposeful with a cup of Nero coffee in my hand, thinking, 'this is my life, this is me, this is who I am'; getting on a high speed train from St Pancras to Leicestershire and being thrust into the English countryside in less than an hour; that moment when I place my crisp, white linen napkin across my lap on a date night in Marylebone; lying on my back in a garden in Maida Vale, counting the number of Virgin Atlantic or British Airways planes making their way across the ocean; listening to the third movement from the Shostakovich 5th Symphony on the Overground back to Dalston after a Royal Orchestral Society rehearsal in St. John's Wood; shopping imported Scandinavian fashion on Regent Street with my Qatari-American best friend after a cup of vanilla rooibos tea.

But I can't explain all of this; can't offer it to them in one, simple, straightforward answer. Instead, I fidget and stutter, finding it difficult to describe what it's like to live in one of the most thrilling, cosmopolitan, forward-thinking, culturally diverse, fast-paced cities in the world. I feel like that nine- year-old again, who, when asked where she went on her summer vacation, was met with blank stares and disgusted looks from her classmates upon uttering, "Hong Kong", when everyone else went to Disneyland and Universal Studios, Florida. Or Hawaii.

I'm anticipating a lot of questions this summer, as we head back for our wedding reception in Seattle. I think I'll just answer with, "I don't know." But of course I do.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Our First Date, Eight Years Later

While in Oxford this weekend, John and I decided to stop by the restaurant where we had our first date, over eight years ago: Kazbar, a Spanish/Moroccan-inspired tapas bar located on Cowley Road. I remember being super impressed that John had taken me there on our first date - being from a small town in Washington and attending college in a possibly even smaller town in western Massachusetts (although, the Pioneer Valley did have a lot of restaurant options), I had never had (or even heard of) tapas before and I think it was also the first time I'd tried sangria.

I remember thinking that the restaurant was so cool, with its souk-like feel, candle-lit lanterns, and Bob Marley crooning in the background. I asked John if he had tried to impress me by taking me to Kazbar and he shrugged, "I didn't think about it too much, to be honest. I just thought it was a fun place to go to." But if you think about it, tapas (and at Kazbar in particular) is the perfect way to get to know someone. You find out if they're picky eaters (I avoided the olives wrapped in anchovies, for example), if they're good at sharing, and you get to sit close together on the stools/benches for some first-date appropriate canoodling.

So, just for fun, we went back last night and the restaurant was just as I had remembered. The staff was super friendly and I couldn't help but confide to my waitress as soon as we were seated that we were re-living our first date. "That's so cute!" she said enthusiastically, although I realised I must have sounded really old as soon as the words, "eight years" slipped out of my mouth.

No matter. I preserved my youthfulness by ordering a Moroccan iced tea (infused with Absolut) and we started selecting our tapas from the diverse but focused menu: gambas al pil pil (prawns cooked in chilli and garlic butter), octopus, beef tagine with cous cous, more cous cous (because I love it), jamon serrano, patatas bravas o aioli, freshly baked bread, and some extra virgin olive oil for dipping. The food was delicious and it was a fun, atmospheric environment that soon livened up when the pre-party students arrived. Filled to the brim, we still opted for some cinnamon sugar churros served with chocolate dipping sauce and mint tea at the conclusion of our tapas extravaganza. They arrived to our table piping hot and chewy (otherwise known as, perfection).

During our meal, John and I discussed what made a restaurant "good" and agreed that it isn't necessarily the number of Michelin stars that have been awarded, or food critics' reviews that impress us. Instead, the reason why we return time and time again to certain restaurants is quite simple: we like home-cooked, quality food in a fun, relaxed environment, served up in a friendly style. It's not a difficult formula, so I'm wondering why more restaurants haven't cracked it.

And that's what I love about places like Kazbar. Everyone's friendly, everybody's having a good time, the food is tasty but not gourmet, it's okay to get cous cous on the table and use your bread to mop up your plate, the twinkling lights on the ceiling are enchanting, and before you know it, you've spent two hours having a terrific time.

As for my date? Well, he's pretty special himself. Even eight years on.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Biggest Purchase I Made This Year: BHLDN's Divine Downpour Gown


One of the perks of not having a traditional wedding is not having to shell out a fortune for a big, white dress. In fact, my worst wedding nightmare would be to a) walk down an aisle, any aisle b) walk down said aisle in a big, white dress, or any dress that resembled a wedding dress c) say my vows (which I consider to be extremely personal and private) in front of anyone save for two witnesses as required and a registrar. The thought of doing any of the above makes me shudder.  

Thankfully, I didn't have to do any of that since John and I had our dream wedding with just the two of us in Wales and we're celebrating this summer by throwing two huge parties for our friends and families to attend in Seattle (hosted by my parents) and Oxford (hosted by us). Aren't we lucky? I sure feel that way.

But still, that didn't stop me from browsing the BHLDN website (brainchild of Anthropologie) from time to time, checking out their fabulous "alternative" wedding dresses. My best friend was recently married and is having similar transatlantic celebrations around the same time as us, so we've been swapping websites and reception ideas for a while.

As soon as I saw the Divine Downpour dress from BHLDN, however, my heart fluttered. I was in love.

I'm not sure if it was the delicate beading and flowers featured throughout the body of the dress and hem, the way the model was posing, or the exquisite detail to the back that made me swoon, but I sent it to my mom anyway with the subject heading, "My DREAM Dress" and couldn't get it out of my head. "Don't buy it," my mom advised. "It'll be more of a headache than anything else. Look at how long it is! It'll cost a fortune to have altered and I'll doubt you'll find anyone experienced enough to do it correctly! It's beautiful, but not worth it." And she was right. At $2,500, it was completely out of my price range as a reception dress, so I tried my best to put it out of my mind.

But I couldn't. I even took a picture of it with me to Vietnam, in hopes that one of the tailors in Hoi An would be able to make something similar (they couldn't). I searched every ivory, cream, and white dress on every website you could think of, looking for a dress that would speak to me as much as this one did, but after months, I gave up. 

A few months after I initially found the dress on the BHLDN website, it was reduced to $1,500. I came very, very close to buying it (i.e. I was about to click "buy" after entering all my credit card information), but decided it wasn't justifiable in the end, especially when there were all the costs of the receptions themselves to consider.

Then, a few months after that, I was on my way home on the bus and read on BHLDN's Twitter feed that there were further reductions in their sale. I quickly visited the website and sure enough, the Divine Downpour gown was reduced to $800. And some sizes had already sold out. I called John in a panic. "What do I do?" I blurted out as soon as he answered. "Buy it!" he said immediately.

So I did. It arrived a few weeks later at work, accompanied by a £200 customs charge to be paid on the spot. Ouch. The UPS guy delivering it (with a serious attitude, I might add!) couldn't take the payment himself for some reason but wouldn't hand over the dress until the duties were paid over the phone! I tried to remain calm, but he said he'd have to take it back to the depot and wouldn't be able to deliver it again. So, I did what any grown-up, rational, confident woman does when faced with a situation like that: I cried. Not whimpering, sobbing tears, but one, sole tear that embarrassingly trailed down my face like a small child being told the bouncy castle was closed for the day. Luckily, the postroom staff at my office are incredibly nice and got the rude UPS guy to leave his mobile number so I could call him back once I had sorted out the payment with UPS over the phone. When that all finally happened, the guy returned with my dress, feeling contrite and apologizing for making me cry. 

I took it home and tried it on - my hands were shaking with excitement! It was about a size too big (I wear anything between a size 2-6 in the US and had ordered a 4), but it looked gorgeous. I was so excited. I took it to my co-worker's mother-in-law to have it altered and she did an amazing job, charging me only a fraction of the price of what I would expect to pay on the high street. To thank her, I brought along a bouquet of flowers and a gift from Crabtree & Evelyn to my final fitting.

So that's the story of my dress. I love it. It's beautiful, and I take a little peek at it almost every day. I can't wait to wear it in August. Now I know why women get all worked up over a silly dress.

Toro y Moi @ KOKO Camden

You know you're uncool when your little brother posts a song to your Facebook wall, assuming you know it, and you simply pretend to know it and write a comment along the lines of, "I know right? This song is so ... cool." Then you spend a weekend tentatively testing out this new, cool artist who has infiltrated your life thanks to your younger sibling only to become obsessed a week later and search frantically for his UK tour dates. That's so uncool.

The artist in question is Toro y Moi, a 20-something recording artist and producer also known as Chazwick Bradley Bundick, who makes music in the "chillwave" genre (the first time I heard of "chillwave" was when I Wikipedia-ed Bundick, btw - I don't know what's more uncool, the fact that I've admitted to not knowing what "chillwave" is or simply using the word/phrase "chillwave").

Luckily for me, he was playing a show (they call them "gigs" here in the UK - to me, a "gig" refers to the instance when I was hired to play Aerosmith's "I Don't Want To Miss a Thing" as part of a string quartet at someone's wedding. The bride came down the aisle, which was in the middle of a field, on a motorcycle. True story) at KOKO in Camden. The show happened this past Tuesday, and I bought tickets in March. I'm such a dork.

Anyway, he was nothing short of amazing. I definitely wasn't expecting actual instruments, so when he rocked up with keyboards, two guitarists, and a drum set, I was thoroughly impressed. He opened with a crowd pleaser, "Rose Quartz" (which is one of my favorites), and played quite a lot of the new album, as well as some of his older stuff. How would I describe his sound? Well, before I learned the term "chillwave", I'd call it funk plus electronic, which sounds horrible, I know. But it isn't. It's one of those magical combinations, like peanut butter and jelly or sea salt and caramel. And if you don't like peanut butter and jelly, well then, I feel sorry for you.

Also, have you ever been to KOKO? It's so fun! It's possibly the best (and definitely the prettiest) UK venue I've been to for live music. The interior resembles a ballroom, with sumptuous burgundy red carpets and decor, plus possibly the largest disco ball in London dangling from the ceiling.

Anyway, if you're all, "Who's this Toro y Moi guy and what's chillwave?" I'm featuring a video for you below. Enjoy.

Photo source


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Real Estate Hell

I'm currently residing in a place that might be familiar to you renters and home-owners alike: Real Estate Hell. Raise your hand if you know what I'm talking about. Yeah. That's what I thought.

Our landlady has decided to sell up (which only seems to happen to us when we find a flat we like e.g. the same thing happened in Maida Vale four years ago), which is fine, really, since we had been house hunting since the beginning of this year. What's not fine, though, is the fact that we put the house hunting on hold for a while since we're also in the middle of planning two transatlantic wedding receptions, which are happening in July and August.

So, as if deciding on the color of chair covers in Seattle or putting in a bulk order of wedding favors from a chocolatier in London aren't stressful enough, these mornings find me fumbling for my iPhone, with my head still under my pillow, squinting with one eye open, and scrolling frantically through the newest properties that "match" our search terms on It's become a well-rehearsed habit now, my flow-chart of deciding factors that will make me place the dreaded call to the real estate agent within the first fifteen minutes of my working day: 1) consider the price and our budget 2) location via map view 3) floorplan/square footage 4) outside space or no outside space 5) transportation links, bus routes, etc.

Then I arrive at my office desk at 9:15 a.m. and make the 3 or 4 calls to my selected targets. The words rattle off my tongue as I describe the properties we're interested in to the sales person on the other end of the line who sounds like a candidate for The Apprentice - and I mean that in the least possible nice way. I spell out my name once, twice, three times, and the agent still sends property emails to the wrong person (a man who shares the same name as me, different spelling, who happens to reside in Canada, btw), then texts me to say, "I have sent you 11 properties in the past 7 days. Please let me know if you are still looking as I haven't heard from you." You haven't heard from me, because I'm not the random Canadian man you've been sending the actual emails to, you idiot.

Or, I call an agent about a specific property I'd like to view, either with or without John, depending on our schedules. "That one's had an offer accepted, I'm afraid," he says with all the smugness of the Cheshire Cat over the phone. He's not afraid, not really. He's not apologetic - in fact, he sounds, could I be right? Downright gleeful. Yes, I have called agents before to cancel a viewing, only to have them chirp, "Perfect!" They're not disappointed you've cancelled. They're laughing at you. Because they know you're desperately looking and desperately not finding, but also that they have 1,000 other buyers just like you lined up and waiting to be screwed over. They're rubbing their hands in anticipation.

Of course, when you're the other side, i.e. the tenant whose landlord has decided to sell, you also get delightfully screwed over by agents. My favorite experiences include the agent who, given the responsibility for finding us a new place to rent last year when we were looking to move, sent us a photo of the very flat we were currently residing in. I wrote a one-line email that said simply, "Hi. We live there. Thanks." Or, the very same agent, who, after showing our flat to some potential renters left both doors unlocked for me to walk straight into after a late night excursion with a friend. Imagine walking straight into your home at 10 pm at night without having to use your keys, after a full 14 hours of not being in it. Scary, right?

When I hang up the phone with these agents, my hands are very nearly shaking with rage. It's the bullshit I can't stand. When I tell them my budget (which is already between £100-200k more than the average couple in our age bracket could afford, I'm guessing), they suck in their breath through their teeth: "Well, it's a bit difficult to work within that price range, I have to say. Everything I've sold in the last few days are going waaaaaaaayyy [and they like to stretch this word out] over the asking price. I doubt you're going to find anything for that. Still," he continues gravely, "I'll try my best, I'll try my best." As if they are a surgeon informing a patient that she has an inoperable disease but will nevertheless "try their best." I mean, come on. Have you seen me before? Do I have the words, "STUPID" or "GULLIBLE" written across my forehead? Bottom line is, I don't care if properties you've sold have gone over the asking price. I am not here to award you a medal. Just get on with your job.

Speaking of medals, I had a "sales trainee" call me up from another agency a few days ago who announced that I had been "shortlisted" for a property as if I had been shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize. I mean, seriously. I actually laughed out loud, which he mistook for joy. No, my friend, it was a pure, unadulterated, ironic laugh.

But it's the agents who'll be laughing all the way to their next commission.

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