I moved out of my host family’s house on May 24th. The administration office at my school said I was the first international student who does not travel back to their home country during the summer, and there were lots of things to figure out. My decision to stay in States was complicated. I’m a rising senior and there were college preparatory things that I’d like to do, like writing application essays early. I’m also going to a two-week archaeology camp in June and a two-week writing workshop in July which I’m thrilled about.
I felt a sense of guilt not being able to visit my grandparents. But I decided to not let guilt and shame to swallow me. I’m done doing what I’m supposed to do. I’m going to do what I want to do. I’m not living my life to become who I’m supposed to be, I’m living my life to be who I am. (For those who feel like they’re not living their authentic life, I highly recommend Choose Wonder Over Worry by Amber Rae. It’s an inspiration.)
I have been here for two years, and although imperfect (it’s hard to not be furious at the state of today’s world), America had felt more familiar than my country of origin. I’m proud of my cultural heritage, but I adopted this country as my new homeland. I love my grandparents dearly and cherish every opportunity to talk to them by phone calls or FaceTime. But I will stay, and I will not feel ashamed the next time someone say I’m Americanized. I’m a mixture of both continents that nurtured me and I’m not meant to be fit in labels.
An older friend generously offers me to stay at her place during the summer. The past couple of weeks, I gradually moved my boxes into her closets. I finished unpacking on Friday when she was at work, brought necessities at Target, and microwaved frozen dinner. Yesterday we brought groceries and I began my cooking journey. I started with upgrade ramen noodles and baked shrimp. Doing the cooking and cleaning makes me feel closer to adulthood because having control over what I consume gives me a sense of power.
I became more adaptable than I thought. I used to resist changes, but now I see them and the anxiety that comes with them opportunities for growth. I’m young and I will move many times more in my life, but hopefully, each step will bring me closer to my passion and my dream life (aka a cabin in the woods).
PS: I created an Instagram account: thisisaplacetocreate. If you want to see more of my photography and writing process, please feel free to follow me.
We woke up early in the morning and drove an hour to the Waitomo Cave. During the ride, my plant-photographer friend drew our cartoon portraits on the icy window. She is so talented! My best friend taught us this game which we claimed the cows we saw. If one person sees a graveyard (or a water body, in this case), the other two lose all their cows. There were so many cows and sheep on the hills! The weather was gorgeous. The caves originally belonged to the government, but as time passed the farmers complained that their cows and sheep got lost in the caves so the government granted them the ownership. The farmers there live like kings!
My best friend and I changed into swimsuits early and I felt a little self-conscious. But it was an appropriate place to wear them and I learned to feel comfortable in my skin. Putting on wet suits was painful. And it was hard to hike in those water-proof boots (I wore size 2—they didn’t have anything smaller) and a tight jacket. We climbed down the ladder and walked on the uneven rock underneath the water. The rocks we held on to were sharp. I’d have more fun if I don’t have to worry about keeping on with others’ speeds: I’m relatively fast, but I still worried I blocked anyone. Plus I wanted to enjoy the experience with my friend. There were times when we needed to crawl through narrow holes which could be scary. But I wasn’t scared.
The tour guides, Charlie (who was really good at remembering names) and Ben, were funny and friendly. They gave us chocolate and a drink that tastes like hot orange soda. Cave cafe!
My favorite part was the tubing. We each had an individual tube that resembled a swimming ring. We held the previous person’s leg and floated in the water. It felt nice. We turned off our headlights on the hamlets and looked at the glow worms on the roof. They were neon blue (and not actually worms). And we sang. We had a few girls from our a cappella group and we sang “Clearing in the Wild” and “This Town”, two very tender and lovely songs.
We were starving when we were done. After stuffing a hard boiled egg and some leftover fries in my mouth, I ordered a lamb and mushroom pie and shared a raspberry lemon Zumbocha with my friend. We sat at a nice little table in the sun and talked. I took another nap on the way back and we stopped at a store that said “cat cafe” but there was no cat. I brought a beautiful star that changes color when you press it. I named it “Cassie” and my other friend named her cloud “Charles”.
By the time we got back, everyone was tired. The place smelled questionable and you had to share a public bathroom with the whole floor. Like a boarding school dorm. Like my old French school. (I should stop insulting it because it wasn’t even French. It was an international school in France.)
Then we went to this pool where the water changed temperature. Your arm can be in a really warm area but your legs might be freezing. The boundaries between hot and cold were blurry and indefinite. There were candles on the stairs and the atmosphere was relaxing. I talked to my friends in the dark. The sky was beautiful and my teacher said the stars were like glow worms in the sky. She also offered advice in term of mental health. It was getting late and my stomach growled, so we went to a variety place and I ordered delicious Singapore rice noodles. Then I went back, tidied things off, and caught up on journaling.
Day 6 (Geothermal park & gondola + luge ride)
I ate a chocolate muffin, peanut butter bread, and a boiled egg for breakfast and didn’t get hungry the whole morning. We went to a geothermal park and saw the hot (100 degrees!) pool that has white fog all over. There was a neon green lake but if you pull out a cup of water, it’d be clear. The tour guide was only two years older than us. We also saw the mud pool, which can range from really cool to mildly creepy to extremely disgusting.
We went back to the place we went to last night. There wasn’t Zumbucha so I brought ginger beer, ate the leftover ride noodles that I carried with me (it was surprisingly still good) and stole my friend’s fishes and chips. We haven’t talked much during the tour so I was glad we got time to catch up from eating habits to politics in China.
Then we went Skyline where we took the gondola and lugged. We had a beautiful view in the gondola but the luge ride was kind of rocky. My friend didn’t really enjoy it. It was scary when people passed her. It was interesting how people changed lines like car drivers though. We had fun trying on helmets and discussing head size. We then sat with our teacher and another friend. I brought two scoops of ice cream: cookie ’n cream and Boysenberries. It was delicious and we had good conversations.
Later on more people joined in and someone pointed to me that there was a cat! I petted them for a while and kissed their forehead. It might be the best part of that day! Then I talked to my friend who co-writes a play script for our school’s theatre production with me. Since our initial script was rejected by the editorial group a few days earlier, we decided to restart with a brand new plot. We brainstormed ideas and figured out most of the characters. I’m excited for our creation about turn into lives!
After that, most of us agreed on having some downtime. I went back into my room and journaled. My roommates were talking to their boyfriends so I plugged my earbuds in. Music transferred me to a calming, magical world. I listened to City of Stars (from La La Land), I Had a Dream and Thank You For the Music (from Mama Mia). That night, our chaperone asked us about our highs and lows and I realized I have had so many fun and meaningful moments during these few days.
Special Section (Fun quotes)
*my artistic friend draws on the icy window*
“His mouth could be a croissant!”
“Who’s that?” *points to a devilish smiley face on the window*
“My inner critique.”
“I have a hundred cows, get mounted.”
“Mounted” is a local word which means “screwed”. “Get mounted” is an incorrect usage according to the locals, but it’s so fun to say!
“Be wild and free.”
“Like my leg hair.”
“Don’t eat too many nuts, you’ll get indigestion or whatever you get when you eat too many nuts.”
“Or maybe I’ll just go nuts.”
“What are you doing?”
“I should have found my head.”
“They have a very American sense of humor.”
“Probably college students.”
“I got sunburn on my shoulder but then it ran away.”
Sorry for the late upload! I went on a college visit trip (which I will also document here) which lasted a week and was kind of exhausting. Warning: This is going to be a long post.
Day 3 (The hike & the sail & Sky Tower)
We took the train to the city, then took the ferry to Rangitoto Island. I grabbed a Beetroot Kombucha on the way. My best friend said she felt edgy drinking it. I felt like holding a bottle of beer, especially when we cheered. I don’t drink alcohol, but if I do, this was a perfect time. The blowing sea wind reminded me of my sailor dream. Oh! I still want to learn to sail someday. It’s on my bucket list.
I enjoyed the hike on the island. The road was hot and rocky and we went uphill most of the time, but we made it with lots of snack break. It was the hardest hike during the trip. One thing I especially liked was that I didn’t only get to talk to my friends, but also people I like but don’t have the chance to talk during school days. My wonderful chaperone hugged us when we reached the top and complimented my Little Price socks. (Have anyone read that? It’s the only book I read in three languages!) I forgot my lunch so I ate mint chocolate biscuits, veggie straws, and nuts instead. My friend and I took selfies by the ocean.
We strolled downhill more on the way back, but we also tripped a lot. My friend and I talked about families, although her stomach was feeling well. It was a warm afternoon. During the ferry ride, I felt heated up by an oven. I fell asleep. After I got my friend a stuffed bird for her birthday (this friend loves animals. She wants to be a zoologist. Woohoo!), we went on a sailing boat.
The guides explained the history of the boat (primarily the awards it won), and we had a chance to participate by “grinding” or steering the wheel. “Front group backward! Back group forward!” It wasn’t that difficult and it was cool looking at the sea on a slope, but the skin between my thumb and pointer got ripped up. After someone replaced me, I sat with my friend in the front part of the boat. It was a peaceful ride, but I didn’t feel a deep connection with the ocean. Maybe my blood thrived for something more exciting and adventurous. I wanted the wind and the waves to slap me and empower me.
Then we walked to the Sky Tower and went on the highest (60th) floor. From the floor-to-ceiling window, we saw the beautiful combination of the city, the sea, and the islands. I took a goofy video of my best friend and brought some outdated but still hilarious pins at the gift shop. My friend and I went to Denny’s for dinner and they didn’t even have root beer float. The chili fries were good though. When we got back, our other friend (the plant photographer) told us about the two beggars who cursed them.
Day 4 (local school & the beach)
We went to a local school this morning, and the experience can be summarized by the thank you letter I wrote them.
“On the third day of our international trip to New Zealand, the students visited Pakuranga College. From the moment we stepped onto the campus, local students came up and introduced themselves. We visited three different classes. My group joined the music classroom where we listened to and analyzed a beautiful European song. The teacher explained music in a way that everyone could understand without too many confusing, technical terms.
During recess, we ate our snacks and got to know the students. We were a little shy at first, but some students approached and started playing American football with us. The diversity at Pakuranga amazed me; there were students of all colors and shapes laughing and learning together.
My favorite part of our stay was the language class. The teacher was enthusiastic and experienced with teaching people who are not familiar with Māori culture. The students were friendly and professional. Before the lesson began and ended they said a beautiful prayer which made us curious about the words.
We made a small booklet about “My Pepeha,” which is a way to introduce yourself in Māori. It said a lot about their culture, and I admire how they honor their land and ancestors. We also braided “Poi,” which we learned to dance with. Bella, the girl who instructed us, was very friendly and we chatted about the similarities and differences of our schools. When she heard that we have goats at our school, her face was priceless. We learned a lot about the Māori people in a fairly short amount of time.
Later on, we went to the gym we played netball, which was similar to basketball. The students were incredibly energetic and had about the same level of competitiveness as us. We shook hands after the game was finished. Some people in our group said it was one of the best parts of our trip.
We are extremely grateful for the teachers and students who gave us the opportunity to learn about their culture. It was so meaningful to talk to students from a local school, and it was probably the most educational part of the trip. We will remember the hospitality of Pakuranga College and hope to come back.”
Of course, there are things that I didn’t share in the letter. For example, despite the excellent teaching, some students were texting or watching videos during class. I was too exhausted that I almost fell asleep. Or one part that especially touched me when they honor their ancestors was their understanding that your parents might not be great, but you can still be grateful because you wouldn’t be here without them. (My best friend said she was thinking about me when she listened to this part too.) And we came to the conclusion that our school isn’t an accurate representation of American high school because of our uniqueness. And that gym class had always been anxiety-inducing for me and some of my friends.
It started raining so we did a quick grocery run instead of heading to the beach straight away. After we got home, another friend cooked pasta so we had a low-key party with Tim Tam (seriously, this snack is addictive! You can find it in the U.S. as well) and smoothies. We drove to the ocean before sunset. My best friend and I walked along the sand. I climbed to the top of some rocks. It was so pretty, like a 3D video game. We talked about what kind of characters we would be in a video game and took goofy dance videos. “Family” came up again in our conversation. Maybe I’m not meant to have a functional family of origin, but that’s okay. I heard from a podcast that before we came to this world, our souls chose our parents. You might ask, why would I choose a toxic family? Well, maybe your soul knew that without all the adversities, you wouldn’t become the person you are today.
Some of our classmates jumped into the ocean. My friend and I hesitated. We did swim in the ocean though. It was magical how the waves came to us and pushed us. “I feel like the ocean is holding me……I’m chosen!” The water was really salty. Three of us swam to catch another friend (who is both an Aries and a Gryffindor) and we were screaming-singing “friendship never ends”. So that was fun. Afterward, my friend and I took another walk and ate the best fish and chips that we’ve ever had. All of us put our arms around each other, swung, and sang “Country Road”. It was a night to remember.
Special Section (Fun quotes)
“You know that meme where a person drops a croissant? I just dropped a croissant.”
“I glow in the dark.”
“I just think A+ looks good on me.”
“You’re always eating an apple. Like a squirrel.”
“When I went on boating, the wind used to taste like cheese.”
“Let’s mark the sand with more sand.”
New Zealanders use the phrase “sweet as”. My best friend keeps saying it, and it makes everyone cracks up. When she said “nice as”, my immediate reaction was “What the heck?”
It was the first Sunday of 2019 and I was visiting a friend. We took a walk along the river nearby. It was a rare gorgeous sunny day and the weather was warm.
My friend and I are almost two generations apart and our conversation has a unique atmosphere. She is a physical therapist who trains people who just had surgeries or suffer from various diseases, helping them relearn the essential life skills like climbing stairs or going to the bathroom. I asked for more details, and she delineated movingly how she guided a man to buy a Christmas present for his girlfriend and how surprised she was. Mid-conversation I caught myself thinking about a related scenario and fantasizing how would I recount the story to others.
Although she didn’t notice, I felt bad for spacing out. It would be understandable if I’m in a boring class, but not when I’m talking to someone I love and care about. It became “normal” for me to think about the next item on my to-do list before finishing the last. I blamed the internet and social media for my shorter concentration time and decided to relearn how to focus.
The first step is becoming intentional. Whenever I catch myself either censuring myself for past mistakes or listing the best and worst scenarios of future situations, I hold up a huge stop sign in my head.
The second step is changing the mindset. I convinced myself that planning something else mid-task will not increase my productivity. I could finish my homework without thinking too hard, but maybe I wasn’t memorizing the formulas. Of course, there are exceptions like listening to a podcast while driving or showering, but most of the time what you are doing deserves your full concentration. If it doesn’t, maybe it’s the time to rethink your priorities and reorganize your time.
Practice, practice, and practice. Making concentration a habit, and after weeks and months your brain won’t see multitasking a feasible option and you’ll appreciate life a lot more.
Have you ever felt like you’re not really living?
Lately, I have been practicing the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. For those who never heard of it, the technique means acknowledging five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. I prefer saying them out loud; there is a magical feeling of hearing yourself reciting things. It helped me with anxiety (I even successfully used it to prevent an anxiety attack) and refocusing on the present moment when I’m feeling grumpy.
Being present is the secret to happiness. Being happy is the secret to success. The world will be a better place if we stop worrying about the past or future and cherish the present—like a wise person said, it’s called a gift for a reason.
Last weekend, I was sitting on an unmade bed in a hotel room and scrolling down my 165 pages novel draft. In our English class, all honors students are required to do an Independent Writing Project. While it might be a pain in the ass for others to write two hours per week after school, it has never inconvenienced me. I write for two hours every day if time allows.
My IWP project was the YA novel I finished during NaNoWriMo and rewrote without a revision outline. I typed the last word with a smile on my face and a feeling that I won’t come back.
When I go to college, I probably won’t read YA novels as much. Not because my taste becomes more “advanced”. My to-read list is just too long (it has 56 books already!) and there are so much in the world that I want to explore. I want to live the life of people who are so different from me that I shout with delight, “I didn’t know a person could think like that!” They might be at a drastically different age, live on the other side of the world (or a different world!), and/or come from a different culture. And I want to read more literary books and non-fiction.
That’s how I feel about my novel. During the teenage years, a writer grows immensely, and the improvement is even more tangible for a non-native speaker. I am amazed at how much I’ve grown every time I read something that I wrote two months ago.
Counting Clouds was a fantastic project—it was right what I needed. I started writing it when I fully accept my sexuality, when I question about religion and love, when I finally let go of the feeling of abandonment. And when I miss the elephant (whom I still couldn’t bring myself to call a stuffed animal) I lost years ago but still couldn’t get over, because the countless days and nights when my parents are “too busy”, she stayed by my side and listened and comforted me.
Carmen Kessler was so different from me, yet we experienced growing pains and confusions together. We bonded over of our passion for writing and chatted from the warm summer liveliness to the chilly fall tranquility. I have amazing friends now and no longer seek companion from fictional characters, but Carmen and I shared a special relationship that I always hold dear to my heart.
But now, it’s time to say goodbye.
Farewell, Carmen Kessler. May your future be clear and bright. May you get into your dream college. May your young love with Leela lasts forever. May you stay lifelong friends with Joanne and Dylan.
So, Dr. H, is it too late to change my IWP project?
I have been gratitude journaling for more than a month. Every day. It helps me to appreciate life in a whole different level. But lately, I couldn’t bring myself to it.
Saying “it’s okay to not be okay” is unbelievably lame. In fact, I used it in my first blog. But sometimes, I couldn’t bring myself to believe it.
I know under all the gratitude, I am not okay.
My stomach feels terrible.
Activities that I always enjoyed have only bred insecurities. They bring me no joy but stress and anxiety which aggravate my performance. I wish one day I won’t feel like the most untalented person in the world. I wish one day I can be normal.
Seasonal depression—or maybe it isn’t about seasons after all—has returned. I have gotten nothing done after school (not that we got much done at school this interim). Trust me, as an overachiever in high school, this is like the end of the world. (Apparently, exaggeration does not make me feel better. I’ve tried being an edgy teenager.)
Suicidal thoughts came back, too. Though I haven’t told anyone, I’ll hand my keys to my host family and stop driving if I have them one more day. I don’t want to risk my life. I want to live. Every little thing could go wrong. If I simply close my eyes for three seconds. Please help me, dear universe. Please don’t let me hurt anybody.
I feel ugly and monstrous. Inside and out.
Is it the weather? The coldest winter was gone. We just had a gorgeous sunny day. But I guess monsters always come into sight at the least expected time. They hide in your shadows and attack when you’re laughing with your friends thinking everything will be fine. That maybe it’s different this time.
I’d like to believe that it’s the darkest moment before dawn. Like when you write about the “Dark Night of The Soul” in a novel. It’s a mountain that I can, and will, conquer. Except that, no matter how much I love writing, real life is much more excruciating than any fiction.
I have hope somewhere inside me, although I wish to disappear. The rock on my chest is so massive that I scarcely feel the pain in my stomach. I haven’t been studying. I haven’t been writing. I haven’t been petting my cats. I long to do the things that bring me joy, but I couldn’t bring myself to.
I hope no one who knows me is reading this. If you are, know that I’m terribly sorry for sharing and that I love you.
(This was written on February 6th, 2019. I suppose I am feeling a lot better when this is published. I’ll be okay. Maybe it will take a couple days, maybe it will take two weeks. But don’t worry, I’ll be okay.)
When I decided to come to America, I had no idea what I was getting into.
I was fourteen years old, and despite the adversities I endured, naive and unsophisticated. I exceedingly underestimated the cultural difference and overestimated the quality of the social rules my no-often-around parents taught me. When someone told me I should say “can I please use the sink water” instead of “I’m gonna use the water sink”, I was enraged and ashamed.
Since then, I had always been afraid that people will find out something uncouth about me.
When I look back, it’s less about cultural difference and more about social interactions. Spending all of my childhood weekends alone and never really talked to anybody besides my one best friend in the boarding school (spoiler: we broke up), I never learned how to interact with other human beings. The misunderstandings caused by language and the cultural difference just magnified the problem.
The fear still exists, but I’ve learned a lot about American customs.
There are millions of unspoken social rules in this country, in this area, even in our tiny high school. I observed and analyzed how others behave and imitated them. I made countless mistakes, recovered, and learned from them. I felt a secret accomplishment each time someone asked how long have I been here and dropped their jaws when they heard the answer. Your English is really good, they said, and you seem so American.
I’m proud of my adaptability, but did I lose myself?
In a casual conversation, one of my friends mentioned that they admire people who came to America but kept their own cultural identity. She wasn’t referring me, but the incident made me wonder: did I keep my cultural identity? Off the top of my head, the answer is no. I say “oh my god” and swear like any other American teenager.
How can you still be yourself when you can’t find a hint about where you come from?
Sure, I have yellow skin and black hair. Stereotypically speaking (by the way, I hate stereotypes), I’m good at math. But I haven’t practiced my native tongue except for the occasional phone calls with my parents. I have wondered if I am cold-blooded by not feeling joy when I see someone with the same heritage. But there is nothing wrong with being indifferent with race, is it? I guess in a foreign place, people who came from the same country are supposed to help each other out. America isn’t a foreign place, it’s my second home. But I admire other transplants and use my experience to help them.
I haven’t forgotten where I came from.
Since a young age, I was fascinated by the rich, enchanting culture of ancient Asia. How the language evolved in thousands of years, how empire raised and fell, and the food……omg. THE FOOD. It would be a lie if I say I didn’t miss Asian cuisine at least a tiny bit.
Sometimes I think that if I stayed, I’d be a completely different person. This realization terrifies and excites me. I’m content with where I am now and I will stay in America because of the culture, the possibilities, and my friends. Not gonna lie, last time I went back to my native country, I had a culture shock. I didn’t have any culture shock where I came here……
So maybe, this is the place where I’m meant to be?