Thou Shalt Schlep

In typical Wendy fashion, this blog entry is approximately two months late. I am no longer in Chicago. I’m now living in Paris and completing my masters program. 

While lifting off the dusty tarmac of Cairo International Airport, I anticipated the reverse culture shock of arriving back in Chicago after a full year abroad. It took me ten months to adjust to the lack of sidewalks, manic driving, and thick air of Cairo’s metropolitan core. Ten months to consider the two-hour commutes as comfortable, the festive crowds as commonplace, and the unrelenting sun relaxing. What will my charming Midwestern, American city be like after such a crazy ride? Turns out, I needn’t have worried one bit. Returning to the pace of life back home was as effortless as breathing.

cairo-traffic

What’s not as effortless as breathing is stomaching full-force Cairo pollution jammed down your lungs.

A couple years too late but home this summer meant working a summer job. The art of the side hustle, the struggle, and the extra mile is an American covenant – Thou shalt schlep.

To that end, this summer I took a serving job at a theme restaurant located in Chicago’s tourist central – Navy Pier. Half motivated by the lucrative tips and half motivated by the thrill of trying something completely new, I signed up to sling fried shrimp and po’ boys five days a week. Trademarked birthday songs, trivia questions at every table, and decor dripping with movie references came neatly packaged in the deal of a summer jaunt on the Pier. Just because I was at home-sweet-home doesn’t mean I should get too comfy, said my inner masochist.

A central belief I have developed for myself over the past few years is to always try new experiences that make me feel uncomfortable, or to push my boundaries of comfort. I was walking behind this group of teenage boys last week on my way to work. One of them had on a t-shirt that read, “Pain is weakness leaving the body” splashed in caps across the back. Similarly, experiencing discomfort is like purging limitations from my mindset. The more you do what you once thought impossible, the more you begin to believe in your unlimited potential.

hushpuppies

Tried hush puppies for the first time ever and my life is changed. Who knew corn, cheese and oil could make such a magnificent orgasmic experience.

If you know me, you would know that I am not loud, pushy, or beguiling. Well those are apparently the three traits one needs to be a successful server. Of course, one should definitely not come off as loud or pushy to the customer, but as I quickly learned, one needs to be forthright in the kitchen and with managers in order to get orders out fast and problems fixed without a hitch. I also come home smelling like fish and chips every night. Mmm beer-battered seafood is quickly becoming my signature scent. I scream. I smell. I schlep. Summer exploration of the many sides of myself is indeed an immersive sensory experience.

Peace, love and coleslaw.

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Still lasted longer than Eric Forman at Fatso Burger.

“I like slice-of-life.”

I am tired. There are so many ways that a person can be tired and I have felt them all this week.

When you’re young, you can have an infinite number of dreams. One morning you can fancy being a conceptual artist. By dinner you can want to be a human rights lawyer and that’s fine because by the time you go to sleep you can dream of being a rapper. Growing up is giving up on having endless dreams and aspirations as you realise there is only time enough to do a handful. It’s not the giving up on any specific dream that breaks me – it’s the loss of the idea of unlimited possibilities.

If I were to move back to the States, I would only really want to live in Chicago. If I were to live in any American city other than the one I call home, I may as well live across the globe. I guess this means I’m homesick.

Running is freedom distilled into a physical movement. You don’t need anything other than what you already got, to go on forever and ever and ever.

I hate how it’s sometimes considered a bad thing for a girl (or a guy) to be really into dressing up, doing their hair, and/or makeup. I appreciate a carefully cultivated aesthetic. The image of a woman is a construction of smoke and mirrors and a spritz of fairy dust. There’s power in that visual. Own it.

I like hugs (but not from strangers).

An Egyptian Family Christmas

It was the morning of Christmas and my apartment smelled like cat piss. My refrigerator was painfully similar to that of a fraternity house – half a whiskey bottle, a couple of eggs, and some mushy apples. Scholarship applications rested unfinished somewhere on my Mac desktop, probably floating (sinking?) in my Chicago River screensaver. Worst of all, the meet and greet service guy who was supposed to pick up my parents in 12 hours still had not confirmed. But that was okay because all this stress meant that I would be with my family for the winter holidays, Egyptian border control be damned. 

It’s daunting to wake up knowing that you have all this stuff you must get done. Suddenly the world outside our bed just seems incredibly frightening. Nonetheless I dragged myself up and out the door to give my life and apartment a parent-friendly makeover. I started by waiting an hour for the Syrian pastry shop in Tahrir to open. Take note – almost nothing is open in Cairo before noon on Fridays. But the barista at the chain cafe across the street put a cute animal face in my cappuccino foam as I waited and apparently, that’s all it takes to brighten my day.

coffee art bear

I forgot to take a picture, but it looked as adorable as this one.

With a delicious assortment of honey drenched sweets in hand, I headed down to the jewellery stores in Maadi to pick out delicate silver bracelets for my mother, and to eat hearty Chinese dumplings with my Egyptian friend who made sure the meet and assist guy confirmed.

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Let it be known that the Chinese food in Cairo tastes better than most Chinese food in America.

By early evening I was back in my apartment and everything had turned out fine – I got the piss smell out of my apartment by thoroughly washing the litter box and throwing open all the windows. I even had time to whip up a quick dinner.

After a hasty hour of cleaning bathroom sinks and sweeping up mounds of cat hair, it was 8pm and I was in an uber on the way to Cairo International Airport. An hour ride later, and a half-hour of waiting outside later (for security reasons), I was in the arms of my mother and father. Just like that, after a six month absence, I was smelling my mom’s hair and kissing my dad’s cheek in the middle of the parking lot. It’s so weird.

We spent the last two hours of Christmas at my apartment unwrapping gifts and playing with the cat around my coffee table, spread with Syrian desserts and instant ramen. My dad had a cough for the past week and apparently all he ever felt like eating was instant ramen. As I watched my mom nibble at the kunafa, her shoulder hunched in that familiar slump- her mouth making circular motions as the chewed, I couldn’t stop thinking – one day, I will never sit across from my mom and watch her eat. Because one day she will die. Then I became obsessed with memorising the exact detail of how her face wrinkled and the color of her eyes and the movements of her hand as she tucked her hair behind her ear.

One day you feel infinite and then one day, you don’t. Over the past few months, I was so busy being annoyed at my parents and avoiding them that I overlooked their mortality. They’re getting older and it’s showing. Now everything seems like there’s a time limit, and I am fixated at counting the grains of sand I have left in the hourglass. Yes I know that that’s a rather morbid thought to end on, especially for a Christmas post, but it’s better to be aware of this now than to regret it when it’s too late. 

I am not a foodie but I eat well

I am not the person to whip out my DSLR camera to snap food before consuming it. I am also not the person to seek out restaurants known for their hip, new-fangled way of preparing grilled cheese or tiramisu. But I love eating well and eating diverse. Cairo is an amazing city for trying cuisines from all over the world. My favorite restaurant in Cairo (and one I already frequented four times) is Mori Sushi, and I am constantly getting recommendations for Thai places, Indian restaurants, Yemeni joints, and Syrian bakeries.

So enjoy this collection of my screenshotted snapchats, poor quality photos sent over Facebook chat, and my trademark unimpressed selfie face (but with food). I think this presents a more accurate view of my Cairo life anyway. Hover and click for captions.

Favorite Food Places in Cairo —

The Post-Graduate Reading List

Many of my friends who have just graduated college are getting back into free reading. A few even joined book clubs. As a consequence, I’ve been asked by a lot of people for book recommendations. This makes me feel like a fraud – I actually don’t read as many books as my friends think I do. I’m much more an essay/short story/Aeon/New York Times person. Out of the recommendation list below, there’s only two full length novels – the rest are collections of short stories or a novella. I blame my impatience and/or inability to sift through long-winded allegory for meaning.

Anyway, the following are my favorite books that I’ve read after college graduation, listed in the order in which I read them.

Books and Novels

1. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera

Honestly, The Unbearable Lightness of Being was much better. But to uphold the integrity of this post graduate reading list, I had to leave that Kundera novel off and replace it with this one instead. This book is a classic Kundera – set in communist-era Prague, with a bunch of cheating husbands and wives and spies scattered around. For those new to Kundera, he writes like a philosopher whose primary concern is to explain a concept. His focus is not in realistic character development or tantalizing plots. He’s perfect for those who dabble in existential crisis.

Buzzwords – orgy, horoscope, ostriches

2. Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto
kitchen

This is a very simple story about a girl and a boy and a mom persevering through life despite hardships. However, the context in which I read this book gave it incredible meaning to my life. I borrowed it from Angela to read during the five-hour ordeal that is college Commencement, and then I finished it on the plane to Beijing just two days later.  It’s one of those stories that soak up and illuminate the environment in which you read it. I bet if I reread it in less terrifying, less daunting circumstances, I would experience a different interpretation and mood.

Buzzwords – pineapple, katsudon, taxis

3. On Beauty, by Zadie Smith
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Zadie Smith is non-stop wit and satire in this novel. At its heart, this is a story about family relationships, but a mixed “modern” family with transatlantic roots, from England to New England. It does a wonderful job of depicting the diversity of experiences within black communities.  I especially recommend it to my college friends because it paints such a vivid picture of the pretentiousness and hypocrisy in elite higher education. Certain one-liners had me snickering out loud.

Buzzwords – slam poetry, aesthetics, Haiti

4. Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, by Vincent Lambloodletting-and-miraculous-cures

I recommend this collection for those who want more Asian characters in fiction but don’t want the entire plot to center around the struggles of being Asian and born in a non-Asian country. (God I wish this book took place in America so then I could have written Asian-American instead of writing that convoluted sentence, but it’s important to acknowledge the difference between the Asian-Canadian and Asian-American experience).

Buzzwords – premeds, purple birds, Canada

5. Graduates in Wonderland, by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-DaleGraduates_FINAL-cover

Coming clean here: I am still reading this. But I knew from page one that I had found the voice(s) of my generation. In this non-fiction memoir, two best friends keep in touch through detailed, charming emails about their new post-grad lives in Beijing, New York, Paris, and more. Of course, terrible dates and awful jobs are analyzed in detail. Quite a few of my friends have scattered across the world in search of adventure and work, and I know we all get pangs of loneliness from all the unfamiliar. Reading this is like reading emails from your best friend and being home again.

Buzzwords – Beijing bikini, beard brother, grad school

___

I know, I know. Given that it’s been over four months since graduation, my book list is rather paltry. But since I’ve been abroad for that entire time, getting my hands on a physical copy of a good English-language book (I refuse to join the Kindle revolution) has proven difficult. The selection has been limited to discarded books from faculty and hostels. I made up for it by reading a lot of online short stories and essays sourced from my friends (many thanks to @thenarrowroad). I would just load them on my laptop for times when I had no wifi, which was way too often. Sometimes, I read an idea that actually changes my life. This happens more with short stories and essays than it does for full-length novels.  I think it’s because essays are more direct and to-the-point.  In times of distress, certain lines from an essay would pop into my head and I would repeat it like a mantra to calm down.  I love essays – they can save you. The best part about essays is that they can be easily shared with people for free over the internet.

The following pieces all introduced a new perspective to my life – my routines, purpose, relationships, etc.  Or I just found them to be fantastic writing that made me really feel something. I hope they do for you as well.

Short Stories

Essays

___

And of course I’ve been a total basic bitch and reading quotes off of tumblr. But whatever. Words are words. Here’s the most recent:

“Sometimes we must undergo hardships, breakups, and narcissistic wounds, which shatter the flattering image that we had of ourselves, in order to discover two truths: that we are not who we thought we were; and that the loss of a cherished pleasure is not necessarily the loss of true happiness and well-being.” – Jean-Yves Leloup

Finally,  great books and stories spark unforgettable conversations with friends and loved ones in real life. So please let me know if you have read anything amazing recently. I would love to expand my reading list. Or if you also read any of the stuff listed above, in which case I want to pick your brain for your reaction and thoughts.

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#goals.

Tokyo in 24 Hours: Vlog

I originally wrote my usual casual-yet-witty-and-insightful styled post for my trip to Tokyo (hehe), but then I decided to experiment with a new form of memory documentation called video. It is now almost 2am and I have work tomorrow. But it was so worth it to have churned out something creative. And learned a new skill to boot. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: I know Shibuya Crossing is not actually called “Title Text Here.” It took forever to convert the video, then compress it, and upload it to YouTube – all on unreliable Beijing wifi. And I tried fixing it and reuploading that version but iMovie wouldn’t save the new one. Whatever, I forgive myself.

Music by Oliver Heldens & Shaun Frank, Shades of Grey (feat. Delaney Jane) (Leeyou & Danceey Remix)

Takasaki: The Iowan-Bellybutton of Japan

It was 1:00am. Technically a Thursday morning. My backpack straps were securely fastened into the marked indents on my shoulders. Under the alien-blue lighting of the train station convenience store, I browsed Pocky snacks of every flavor imaginable. Each box was only around $1. I knew then and there that I was in a good place. An out of breath, slightly shrill voice yelled my name from behind. I whipped my head around to see a tiny girl in blue-speckled glasses too big for her slim face, huffing at the glass entrance. Embracing in the middle of the potato chip aisle was the most comforting feeling I’ve had in months.

takasaki view

The view from Takasaki City Hall.

Greetings from Takasaki, Japan! My saintly host and friend, Angela, who’s doing two years of the JET programme here, describes it as “the Iowa of Japan.” I’ve never been to Iowa, but despite the boring and slow connotations associated with Iowa, I think that “idyllic” is the best word to describe Takasaki, in the summer at least. Angela lives right by the river – a slow moving body of water cupped by twisting green banks with tall, shooting grass. There are always people riding their bikes along the raised sienna paths. Chatty bands of school girls off to cram class, uniformed office workers singing bar songs as they pedal home… it’s a view straight out of an anime.

collage takasaki

The first day, Angela let me be her shadow. We followed her JET friends to the mall to set up their phone bills and bank accounts. Later, Angela’s boxy white Honda was delivered to her apartment. Her apartment is very Japanese. In my crude American mind, I want to describe everything in Japan as shaped like a bento box. But it’s true! Even the tatami mats in her room are fitted together like Jenga blocks. I’m very happy to be helping her move into her new home and new life. I’ve seen many glimpses of friends’ post-grad lives over snapchat or skype, but it’s a real treat to live it with them in person. Finished the night with an absolutely stellar bowl of Hokkaido miso ramen and girly chats.

ramen

Gyoza chilling in the back.

Writer at her desk

The writer masters her craft in the early morning.

On Friday, we drove up one of the mountains surrounding the eastern edge of Takasaki. This area of Japan is famous for its decadent onsen (hot springs) and I desperately wanted a good soak. I forgot how much I love driving, especially in the countryside. At ikaho onsen (which doubles as a traditional Japanese inn), Angela and I were lucky enough to have the entire women’s onsen room to ourselves. The spring water looked a dark, murky jade and the entire experience felt like sitting naked in a cup of steaming green tea.

onsen outside

After onsen, skin-a-glowin.’

That evening, I had katsudon at a family restaurant recommended by Angela’s former host mom, Yoko, who says it’s the best katsudon she’s ever had. Yoko has been all over Japan but has never found katsudon comparable to Kiyosumi’s. Washed down with a bottle of Kirin Beer, the egg-battered pork cutlet definitely hit the spot. If you’re into reading fiction books that explore the healing comfort of great food, I suggest Kitchen by Banana Yakamoto. Katsudon makes an extra special appearance.

propic

I drove an hour for this and it was 100% worth.

Saturday (this) morning, I finally finally finally had the opportunity to do a morning run somewhere that didn’t damage my lungs (I had started to develop a Beijing cough). Japanese people are quite active. May it be jogging, cycling, golfing, soccer practice – there were a fair amount of people up and about outside at 6:30am. Rising early rewards you with a luxuriously long, lazy morning during which Angela and I completed our first vlog. It’s basically fourteen minutes of us eating pudding and chatting nonsense. View at your own peril.

iowa

Early morning traffic buzz even on a Saturday.

Now, I’m on the Joetsu Shinkansen (bullet train) en-route to Tokyo. Takasaki gave me slowness after almost two months of China mayhem, but I’m pumped to take in Tokyo’s neon lights and crowds. Harajuku, Shibuya, Shimokitazawa and more in 24 hours? I’m definitely down.