On Pretending to be a Morning Person

After I returned from my trip to Guangzhou, one of my coworkers asked me whether it was harder to beat jet lag after traveling to my destination or after returning home. Six hours fresh from my landing at JFK, I told him that in this case going was more difficult than coming back. After all, I had a conveniently timed flight. I boarded my plane in the wee hours of Tuesday morning in China, which would give me plenty of time to sleep and be ready to hit the ground running at 5:00 am on Tuesday morning when I emerged in New York.

Reader, I was terribly wrong.

I did not have a restful flight. Because I’m a kind person (read: pushover who fears passive aggressive glowering from the elderly), I gave up my coveted window seat in the emergency row aisle to an old woman who wanted to sit with her traveling companions for a seat between other two elderly ladies, both of whom were extremely chatty and interrupted my attempts to watch Argo without interruption.

These past days spent in Eastern Standard Time have been a confusing time.* On Tuesday, I only made it until 11:00 am before I felt a sleepiness so overwhelming that it felt like someone had wrapped a heavy blanket around my brain. On Wednesday, I walked out the door and made it downstairs before realizing that I’d forgotten to wear my glasses and that was why I couldn’t see. On Thursday, I was wide awake by 4, despite having successfully stayed up until 10:30 the night before. I’ve temporarily resorted to writing everything down on old receipts because my memory has become sieve-like, thoughts breezily passing through and then vanishing without a trace. The “20-minute naps” that I’ve begun taking before dinner have left me awfully confused about why it’s suddenly 5:00 am the next morning instead of 8:00 pm yesterday evening.

A more interesting and less miserable side effect of being jetlagged is the chance to masquerade as a morning person. Prior to this trip, my mornings were a frenzied affair in which I would wake up, make myself presentable, and remember to bring my lunch under 20 minutes in order to arrive at the office barely on time. When you’re awake at 5, there is time to watch an episode of Broad City in between brushing your teeth and getting dressed. While I didn’t want to spend more mental energy than I usually did with my clothes, I liked having the option of carefully crafting an outfit. There was time to eat breakfast in the comfort of my own home. There was even time to decide whether to make scrambled eggs or walk three blocks to buy a bagel or in my case, do both. This past week has been filled with bagels, and I’m beginning to suspect that I’m really using bagels as an excuse to eat an otherwise socially unacceptable amount of cream cheese. (Side note: I got distracted by this Serious Eats article, which tells me that I can save money by slathering my bagels with cream cheese myself.)

Because I live in New York, there is no such thing as a completely quiet morning. When I took the subway from the airport back to my apartment, there were already enough people on the E train to fill the seats in my car. That being said, the trains are less crowded. It is easier to maintain the illusion of personal space. There are also more school children, whose existence I was skeptical of but I guess I was just never awake early enough to notice them. I also found out that arriving to work at 8:30 isn’t too bad. While I’m never the first one there (thanks to a boss who is truly a morning person), I like how the rooms are half-dark and that the desks are unoccupied and that the normal soundtrack of Pandora playlist and furious typing is absent. When I’m not running late to the office, brewing myself a cup of tea is something I can dwell on rather than something to do as quickly as possible so I don’t feel like I’m behind with my day.

But there are costs to suddenly become a morning lark. My leisurely mornings come at the expense of a misallocated day. The time I spend doing things slowly at the beginning of the day mean that there is less time and alertness for the personally productive things that otherwise fill my time. I’ve found myself devoting my shortened evenings to getting ready to sleep rather than reading, journaling, browsing social media, or thinking about the next hobby I should try. The solution to this problem is that I should start doing some of these things before I head to work and when I’m still attentive and still actually awake.

It was this mini-dilemma that made me realize what the hardest thing about being a morning person. And it has nothing to do with waking up early. What I dislike most about my hopefully short-lived tenure as a morning person is knowing that there is a time later in the day when I will not be at my peak. At work, I felt that I was racing the clock, knowing if I didn’t complete tasks A, B, and C before the early afternoon, the likelihood that they’d be done with same amount of attention and speed would plummet. The option of doing something later wasn’t truly available anymore, and as a person who is used to being more alert as the day grew on, I had trouble organizing my day. One of my coworkers, who also used this week to experiment with being a morning person, described how there was an intensity to starting your day much earlier. And intensity is an excellent way to describe it. Instead of settling into my day, I needed to start it at my best and knowing that it was as good as it was going to get. I’m sure it’s a system that works well with a lot of people, but as someone who is used to being most alert at night, it was something that was difficult to get used to. (I’m also sure that being jet lagged has a lot to do with it too. My anecdotal evidence and sample size of four days are not very impressive or very statistically rigorous.)

Luckily, I don’t have to get used to being a morning person. With any luck, I’ll be back to my normal sleeping schedule in no time, and while being a night owl is not conducive to a society organized by a 9-to-5, it’ll be a state of being that I’ll know how to navigate.

* I’ve spent some time thinking about why I’ve been having much more trouble with jet lag than I remember ever experiencing. My first thought was that I’m just getting old, but if that were the case, I would have had a much miserable time during the beginning of my trip. My current theory is revolves around the fact that I had to go to work right after returning from my travels. With previous run-ins with jet lag, I generally didn’t have any real responsibilities besides staying awake until a reasonable hour whereas I’m obligated to use my brain for 8 straight hours, regardless of how much sleep I did or didn’t get.

On Learning Turkish

I’ve never not had class on a Friday, and this was the reason why I was dressed, while my roommate, who enjoyed the luxury of spending the entire day at home, had only recently decided to change out of the sweatpants she had worn all day. We were about to walk to a friend’s apartment where we would find a party, our other roommates, more friends, and maybe one or two strangers. While she blew dry her hair, I waited on a rickety Ikea chair next to the island counter. As usual, I had a book in my hand.

At the time, what I had really wanted to read was a Patricia Highsmith novel. I had been in the mood for a smart thriller, but as luck would have it, Powell’s did not have a copy of Talented Mr. Ripley or Strangers on a Train. I picked up The Black Book instead because the blurb on the back cover promised a detective novel-like plot.

In the dim kitchen light, I tried my best to read carefully. Orhan Pamuk’s prose was dense. It was easy to breeze through the pages and still form the images written on the page, but the book also rewarded you for paying attention. The sentences were woven together with an eye for detail that felt lush. They were also long.

Take, for example, this one:

Although the radio was on from the first thing in the morning till the last thing at night, the thick-coated and not-at-all Turkish-looking china dog curled up on top of it never woke from his peaceful slumber.

The first time I read this sentence, I tripped over its syntax. The second time around, I was only half-paying attention. But then I tried again. A radio, a china dog, a peaceful slumber. I reread it one more time before running to my roommate’s room.

When she saw me at the doorway, she held out a skirt in each hand. “Peach or black?”

I pointed to the black one. “Do you know what’s really cool?” I didn’t wait for her to reply. “You can tell that this book was translated from Turkish! I just read this sentence…”

I tried to explain how the verbs in Turkish were always the last words of a sentence and how it was an agglutinative language. My professor had told our class how Turkish sentences and words could often go on forever, with clause after clause and suffix after suffix piled on top of one another. I described how reading through the short, simplified passages in my textbook was strenuous, even on the best of days, because my English-accustomed brain was not used to sifting through so many words to find the actions that drove a sentence. But that was why the sentence about the radio and the china dog was so astonishing. I had just read a string of words that managed to capture how meaning in Turkish revealed itself in peaks and glimpses, and once you understood, you felt a little silly because the message had been there all along, waiting patiently to put the pieces together.

The next morning, I read the translator’s afterward at the back of the book. Maureen Freely talked about devrik cümle, or a sentence “in which words appear in an order different from that ordained by custom and practice, and cascading clauses create a series of expectations that are subverted by the verb at the very end.” Quoting the poet Murat Nemet-Nejat, she described Turkish “as a language that can evoke a thought unfolding.” Thinking of my jumbled explanation from the night before, I admired and envied her eloquence. Continue reading “On Learning Turkish”

Second Impressions of DC

  1. According to Google Maps, the distance between the Jefferson Memorial and the White House South Lawn is 1.2 miles. It’s a 24-minute walk, and on the morning that I took this route, it was windy, and the grass was muddy and covered with geese droppings. I wanted to see the National Christmas tree because nothing pleases me more than a city dressed up for the holidays. When I finally reach the southern edge of the park, I discover that because it is before 10 am, public access is restricted. The tree from the distance looks puny and plastic-wrapped. I am not impressed.
  2. Near the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and K Street, there are a four park benches, placed perpendicular to the sidewalk curb. If you sit on the side next to the street, you’re close enough to the traffic that to stretch out your hand means running the risk of amputation. Chunks of gravel and small pebbles clatter along the gutter. Breathe at the wrong moment, and you’ll inhale a lungful of exhaust from a passing 42 bus. This is my favorite place to read.
  3. In a city known for brunch, I am still waiting to find a place that does not oversalt their hash browns or make me miss Valois.
  4. The best way to find your way to the Jefferson Memorial is to follow a group of women carrying little lunch bags from Pret A Manger.
  5. I’ve been told that while DC is not a literary city, it is the most literate city. Someone is always reading on their morning commute.
  6. The bonsai trees at the National Arboretum are surprisingly impressive. (I also like all things miniature, so the impartiality of the above statement is dubious at best.)
  7. The best place to people watch: 11 o’clock on the corner of U Street and 12th Street, right outside the U Street Metro station.
  8. My favorite museum: the Hirshhorn, or as a friend once called it, “the poor man’s Guggenheim.” Second place goes to the Phillips Collection because of their Rothko Room. But all this doesn’t matter because you’re most likely to find me at the National Portrait Gallery at the end of the day.
  9. During the summer, I waited for a bus in Adams Morgan in the company of a homeless man. Skinny with a buzz cut, he wore a neon jersey (the kind a traffic director would wear) and sat on a milk crate, selling copies of Street Sense and talking to the voices in his head. Four months later, I am waiting for the bus outside McPherson Square. As the Circulator headed towards Woodley Park pulls up, I see the same man, still dressed in his jersey and holding a milk crate under his arm, walk towards the stop and board the bus. The world feels extraordinarily small.
  10. At Dupont Circle (the roundabout), there is a healthy growth of moss and algae on its fountain. Crabgrass and clover have displaced most of the grass in the park. Amateur brass bands play show tunes during the summer. I watched pigeons and sparrows devour an apple core that someone dropped on the walkway. Across town, there is a roundabout in Capitol Hill that is always emerald green, which might also make it inhospitable to urban wildlife for there are no vicious birds hunting for food. Instead, you might run into an outdoor wedding with guests walking in their Sunday best from the doorsteps of their townhouses.
  11. Nothing is more frustrating that a Metro system that refuses to run 24 hours, even on the weekends.
  12. And why does it take up to 3 business days for the money I add to my transit card online to be usable?
  13. The fact that DC does not have a real also Chinatown boggles the mind. But at least there are a lot of interesting grocery stores.
  14. The city is pretty in the rain.
  15. Any of life’s sorrows can be cured by the white peaches or the free samples of apples found at the local farmers market.
  16. The National Mall has its perks. Like many other vast green spaces, it offers opportunities for pickup soccer games, scenic walks, impromptu picnics, and suntanning, among other things. But it also spans nearly two miles. The walkways are unpaved, and there is shade only on the outer perimeters of the park. In most cases, the only way to go from one place to another is to go by foot. I am totally uninterested in wasting my energy and time traversing a giant patch of grass.
  17. From The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu (this year’s pick for DC Reads): “That’s the dirty little secret about D.C. For all its stature and statues, the city could just as easily have been one of the grander suburbs of America, an appendix hooked to Virginia or Maryland. As the joke goes, everyone who has lived here long enough suffers from an inevitable inferiority complex, size not being the least of it.”
  18. I’m pretty ready to go.

How to Read on the Bus

On the bus, my preferred way to sit is sideways. I had gotten the idea one summer afternoon after telling someone that I was never able to read in anything that lurched as much as a four-wheeled vehicle. I could do trains and planes, perhaps a boat too. But in the instant I focused on printed text in anything else,  I began to feel the lingering nausea that is unique to carsickness, the kind that lingers even after I spend minutes staring at a fixed point in the far-flung horizon. The friend, upon hearing this, nodded and agreed, “I could never read on a bus either, but when I have my back against the sides of the bus, I’m usually fine.”

I’m not sure whether it’s the placebo effect or something about the altered perspective of sideways sitting that keeps me feeling grounded. But in either case, it lets me be productive and curbs my people watching, which is no longer discrete in the narrow, air-conditioned, confines of a grumbling Metrobus.

The rules to successful bus ride reading are simple. The sideways seats on busses are often also the ones plastered with handicap signs. To avoid confrontation, you should always move when asked and always take the seats at the end of the rows. The former is mandated by law. The latter keeps the elderly from glaring because they have to dodge the corner of your bag and your outstretched elbow. Both let you read in peace. You will be left to your stories and your essays and your well-wrought prose.

***

“What are you reading?”

The man who asks me this peers over my shoulder. Today, I am reading The Black Book, and I explain that it is a Turkish novel about a man whose wife disappears.

“Oh, it’s a mystery!”

I think about the non-linear narrative and the current passage that I’m reading is actually about movie stars and newspapers in Istanbul. And then there’s the fact that the protagonist begins to impersonate his journalist friend, who also disappears as the same time as his wife. Which makes me think about doubles because two springs ago, I read The White Castle, written by the same author, for a class on magical realism that taught me that doubles are everywhere if you look closely enough.

“Yes, it’s a mystery,” I say. I smile and return to my book.

After a few minutes, I hear, “You must be a student.”

I look up again. “I actually just graduated.” And I explain that I went to the University of Chicago.

“So you’re from Chicago!”

“No, I’m actually from New Jersey.”

He ponders this for a moment. “What are you doing in DC?”

I describe how I’m interning for a small academic press and how I want to go into publishing.

“Go into what?”

“Publishing. Book publishing.”

He nods. I pull the stop cord and wish him a good day. At the National Museum of American History, I sit outside at a park bench to finish the chapter before seeing the Star-Spangled banner and a replica of Julia Child’s kitchen.

***

Once, an old woman carrying a shopping bag from a museum complimented me on the design printed on the front cover of my planner. I had taken it out to glance at the directions I had written inside.

“That’s very pretty.”

“Thank you!”

She tells me that she is now retired and spends her free evenings taking textile classes.

She then proceeds to ask, “Are you from Asia?”

“No. I’m from New Jersey.”

For the rest of the bus ride, she talks about her art classes and asks for my opinion of Japanese landscapes.

***

“What are you reading?”

The man who asks me this question on this particular afternoon also looks like a retiree. He is toothless, wearing a short-sleeved collar shirt, and he smells faintly of old beer.

Today, I’m reading Joan Didion’s “Slouching towards Bethlehem.” When he hears me talking about how Didion wrote about 1960s counterculture, he shakes his head. He mumbles, and although I can’t hear exactly he is saying, there is garbled disapproval about how writers “who were never there” have no right to be talking about the hippies.

“She was there actually. She talked to a bunch of people.” I gesture towards the book that is open in my lap.

He repeats the same thing again.

“Yeah, I guess.” I reply.

Satisfied that he has imparted some wisdom, he lets me read one sentence and then interrupts.

“Are you nineteen?”

I shake my head and correct him.

“Well, you look nineteen! I just had a birthday last week. I’m 78!”

Interested in more biographical details, he asks if I’m from Japan.

“Nope. New Jersey.”

“How about your parents?”

“They’re Chinese.”

“That’s great.” He stares off into space for a moment. I reread the same sentence when I hear, “Now, do you feel connected to Japan at all?”

After hearing my answer, he sighs and smiles sadly. I notice that he still has one tooth left. He mumbles something to the effect of “it’s so nice knowing what your roots are.” And for the next five minutes, he talks about how he is descended from slaves and talks about Civil Rights activists that I do not know about and shares his thoughts on Hilary Clinton. Will she be elected? Probably not.

I nod in what I hope is a sympathetic way. Through the bus window, I see the white dome of the Capitol Building.

***

When I hop on the 32 for the third time in a day, I notice that the bus is almost empty. Instead of sitting on the last sideways seat in the row, I pick a spot in the middle and feel indulgent. I read a few pages before I notice that there is a girl, maybe about three or four, and her father sitting across from me. She wears a beige striped dress and pink polka-dotted raincoat, her hair tied in a topknot, more stylish than I ever was as a preschooler. Her father is dressed in the uniform of a bus driver or some other kind of public transit official. He adjusts the brim of his Yankees cap as he hands an open bag of Mini-Oreos to the girl.

He has spread a paper bus schedule underneath his daughter to catch the stray cookie crumbs, of which there are many. His daughter pouts as he explains to her that her snack is the same as her mother’s. He points to the bus driver, who shouts something to placate her daughter. The girl eats a cookie but remains unconvinced that her Oreos are just as tasty.

I’ve lifted the page, and it hovers in mid-air, waiting to be turned, but I pretend to look out the window and watch the family out of the corner of my eye. I picture the bus driver parking the bus and leaving the door open. With her last trip behind her, she climbs out with her daughter holding her hand, as the man gathers the cookie fragments and crumples them into the crinkled paper map.

“Cross your legs. Like that girl over there.”

I look up and then back down, pretending that I was just taking a break from the printed page.

The man smiles and misinterprets my startled expression. “I’m sorry. I was using you as an example.”

I say it’s no problem and return to my book.

I almost reach the end of the section break when a sudden onslaught of people parade onto the bus. They linger at the fare box, which means that they are tourists, surprised that the buses do not make exact change and unsure of how far they want to go. Uninterested, I keep reading as the sideways seats around me fill with people. As the bus begins moving again, I glance at my new neighbors, and there are five of them, three men and two women. The men wear t-shirts, plaid shorts, and sneakers. The women wear sandals, stylish capri pants, and tunics in muted prints. They carry all the vitality and grace that old age can imbue and none of its back-breaking weariness. They sit close together. They are French. They are confused.

The man in the uniform asks them where they are going, but he speaks too fast for them to understand. He explains to them how they will reach a Metro station that can take them to Alexandria, where they are staying, and he also advises that it will be cheaper to use a Smartrip card and pulls one out of his wallet. The French tourists absorb the directions, but at the sight of the plastic card, they nod in the vacant, cheery way that conveys only a thankful incomprehension.

“Do you like DC? Do you like the museums? The museums?” he asks. These bemused French tourists intrigue him, and they lean in closer when again, they can’t make out his words.

The woman next to me, whose English is better than her friend’s, whispers, “Oui, le musée,” and later, “Le Maison Blanc.”

Her travel companion nods and lists the things he and his friends have seen in a thick accent. In his hand, he holds a travel book with L’États Unis printed in sans-serif font on the spine. The United States was a country so big, how could they fit all there was to see into a book slimmer than the travel guides  I used for France, a country a fraction of the size? I am half-tempted to ask if I could borrow their book to see what it said about DC or Chicago or New York.

The French tourists continue to chatter to themselves, and they peer out of the window when we reach Foggy Bottom. The woman next to me pulls out her travel guide and begins reading its description of the neighborhood. The way she pronounces “Foggy Bottom” emphasizes how dense English can sometimes sound. I listen along with her friends although I do not understand a word. There is a mention of George Washington. Or are they talking about the university? She says “Foggy Bottom” again. Foggy Bottom. The more I listen, the more I begin to understand that it is a ridiculous name.

It is only when they exit the bus, on M Street in Georgetown, that I remember that I am supposed to be reading a book. By the time I reach my own stop, I still have not made it to the section break.

***

One day, a guy wearing square-rimmed glasses and a green t-shirt steps onto the bus with an armful of books and a white tote bag tucked flat under his arm. The bus has just passed the Georgetown Public Library, and the man, still standing, begins to leaf through the cookbook he has just checked out. There is also another cookbook, a McSweeney’s compilation, and a DK Companion to Architecture in the pile that he holds against his chest.

His eyes never leave the page. The bus jostles as it winds up the steep hill on Wisconsin Avenue and jerks to a shuddering stop at each stoplight. When a seat next to him opens, he slides seamlessly into it, head still tilted down and eyes scanning a recipe for some kind of stew or soup.

When the bus reaches his stop, he stands and makes his way towards the front door, the volumes still nestled in the crook of his arm and the cookbook still held open as he steps down the stairs and onto the sidewalk. He looks right and then left at the intersection and crosses the street. Halfway across the crosswalk, he returns to his book. He continues to read, and I watch him until the bus pulls away, and there is nothing else to do but to pull out the battered paperback I picked up from the same library and read and read and read.

A Walk Down Pennsylvania Avenue

One of the questions that has been floating in the back of my mind is why DC seems to lack a certain liveliness, a joie de vivre so to speak, that make other cities seem energetic and dynamic. Last week, while I was on yet another of my museum excursions after work, I decided to walk. The distance between the office and the Museum of American History is about a mile and a half. Because I was too impatient to wait for a bus that theoretically comes every fifteen minutes but only shows up every thirty, I decided to travel by foot. Even the weather was cooperating that afternoon. It was sunny, but the humidity had temporarily disappeared, and the temperatures floated down to a temperate high-70s. The locals were calling it a polar vortex; I tried my best not to laugh out loud.

The most direct path from Dupont Circle to the National Mall is Pennsylvania Avenue, which cuts a straight diagonal through the heart of the city. The beginnings of the evening’s rush hour brought people with government IDs and badges hanging on lanyards from their necks. As I approached the part of the avenue that passes the White House, tourists began to outnumber the men and women wearing suits and pencil skirts. Instead of badges, they had DSLR cameras.

It certainly wasn’t emptiness that gave the city its soulless feeling. There were plenty of pedestrians, but similar to the ones that I saw everyday in Dupont Circle, they seemed to be walking for the sole purpose of getting to Point A to Point B. Had Baudelaire lived in DC instead of nineteenth century Paris, he would be hard pressed to find anyone remotely resembling the flaneur who loves crowds and walks passionately through the bustling streets. I’ve never walked downtown at night, but I can imagine it deserted. The bureaucratic buildings, which already stare blankly on the brightest and busiest of days, could only become more anonymous without its inhabitants. There would be no restaurant goers, odd passerby gazing in wonder at the moon-lit office buildings, or night owls recounting their evenings as they wait for a bus or funnel into a metro station.

A few days later, I found an article on Facebook (posted by either The Atlantic or CityLab) explaining how Pennsylvania Avenue largely fails its purpose as DC’s grand boulevard. The article cites the absence of street-level attractions and retail, its inhospitable public gathering spaces, and its sheer size to explain why the thoroughfare is far from a “lively and engaging street.” It was gratifying and reassuring to receive a tiny confirmation that my discontents with DC were not solely a result of my own fickleness.

What the article mentions is not only confined to Pennsylvania Ave. I was waiting for a friend to meet me for dinner and drinks in Adams-Morgan. I had two options for sitting space: the bus stop where I had gotten off or these uncomfortable brick boxes. I couldn’t tell whether I was inhabiting an actual public plaza or an extension of the bank next door. Were the brick structures meant to serve as places to sit? If not, then why were they there in the first place? With the exception of Dupont Circle (the actual park that makes up the roundabout that gives the neighborhood its name), the small patches of green space that dot the city are mainly inhabited by the homeless, other shady characters, and the occasional weary local, who has nowhere else to sit. I miss the tiny parks in Manhattan, where people walked their dogs, took their children, ate food on their lunch breaks, and gossiped with their friends.

This is what surprises me everyday about DC. The city has all the trappings of a bustling metropolis. Its landscaping is impeccable. The buildings possess all the majesty and history you could ask for in a nation’s capital. Cultural institutions abound. The people form a colorful cast of characters–the young and seasoned professionals; the rich, famous, and the powerful; the bright-eyed students and interns; the parents who manage their fussy children on the bus; the tourists snapping pictures in Capitol Hill. Yet despite all this, everything fails to cohere. All these components seem to run parallel to each other. Rather than intertwining to form that living, breathing fabric that I’ve always loved about cities, they sit, blank and impassive.

A Library, Chris Colfer, and a Japanese Grocery Store

Although I’m only scheduled to stay in Washington DC for a summer, I am still eligible for a library card. With an electronic copy of my signed sublease stored on my phone, I made my way to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library downtown to sign up. I had a simple afternoon itinerary planned for myself. After work, I would pick up some books at the library and head towards U Street to Hana, a Japanese grocery store that promised to have soy sauce and fresh produce.

As luck would have it, the sky split open. In the same moment that I stepped off the bus, it began to downpour. To say that it merely rained does not capture how the water fell in a thick sheet that rippled in the wind. I stood under the awning of the bus stop along with half a dozen others as the storm continued outside. A fork of lightening struck nearby. Everyone stopped talking when the thunder tore through the sky. A few buses passed by, their windshield wipers flinging water onto the slick streets. Small waves of liquid lapped the curb of the sidewalk as the cars paused at the traffic light.

Because I still haven’t quite figured out how to navigate this city, I had gotten off at the wrong stop. I only had an extra block to walk, but even with an umbrella, I would have been drenched. So I waited. The crowd thinned when an X9 pulled up to the corner. I watched the people across the street. Some tried to sprint and outrun the rain while others walked stoically as if the heavy raindrops were simply a light morning mist. Twenty minutes later, the rainstorm eventually thinned into something manageable. I tiptoed around puddles and finally stepped into the library.

The lobby was large, the carpet in the adjacent reading rooms brown, the lights fluorescent. I had to fill out the registration form twice because I did not list my DC address. The woman at the front desk was amiable and did not mind that I wasted a sheet of paper. She handed me my card. As I made my way to the Popular Media room, I walked past rows of plastic chairs and a makeshift stage. Large crowds of preteens and their parents lounged in the seats or stood in line to pick up their copy of the latest book written by Chris Colfer.

Chris Colfer? That guy who plays Kurt on Glee? He writes books? Yes, apparently he writes very popular books. And he was hosting a Q&A at the library. I had arrived at about 5:00, and by the time I finished browsing, it was 6:00, leaving only a half hour before this famous preteen idol would emerge onstage. I decided to stick around.

At this point, all the seats had been taken. I stood in the back, next to a middle schooler peering at the thick layer of foundation on her face with her iPhone and a boy and a girl who complained about their mothers posting their picture on Instagram. At about 6:20, another gaggle of children pushed past. About fifteen minutes later, Chris Colfer appeared, flank by security guards and waving to his adoring fans. “It’s raining Republicans and Democrats out there!” he said. I’m pretty sure that he could have said anything, and everyone would be happy to laugh along.

The Q&A only took about twenty minutes, but during that time, I learned that Chris Colfer’s literary crush is Bellatrix Lestrange; his preferred sandwich involves turkey, avocado, and provolone on white bread; and that he thinks Snow White needs to reevaluate some of her life choices. I have a feeling that he rehearsed his answers beforehand, but to his credit, he sounded at ease and earnest in front of his fans.

***

I didn’t stick around. As soon as Chris Colfer finished answering his last question, I slipped past the middle schoolers and walked three blocks to catch a bus that would take me north to Columbia Heights.

My mission to find soy sauce was complicated by a number of factors. The first problem is that I’m picky, which is nothing surprising, but I’ll be the first to tell you that the offerings at your normal grocery store just won’t do. The second problem is that Chinatown only exists in name only. The Friendship Archway is the only emblem of something that is even remotely from the eastern hemisphere of the world. Otherwise, you’ll find some cafes, a Chipotle, a Verizon store, and other retail establishments whose only claim to China is their translated signs. The third problem is that although the buses are supposed to arrive every ten minutes during rush hour, they actually materialize once every half an hour.

Hana is a small corner store, and they did have some interesting offerings. But as a small corner store, they charged higher prices than what I expected at an Asian grocery store. And their soy sauce selection was mediocre at best (although still cheaper than your average grocery store–I suppose all was not lost). I remembered my parents being disappointed by the Chinatown in Chicago and wondered what they would say about the offerings here in DC.

I returned home at 9:00. In my bag, I had Remainder by Tom McCarthy, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, a travel book on Japan, a Chinese grammar book, a small bottle of soy sauce, a bag of green onions, some mushrooms, and a package of wheat noodles. I also returned with a battered umbrella, seven mosquito bites that I acquired as I waited for the bus, and two pictures of Chris Colfer on my camera. As I was putting away my groceries, someone asked me how my day was. “It was good,” I replied. “I got a library card today.”

First Impressions of Washington DC

I’ve been in DC for a little over 24 hours now, and from the brief amount of exploring that I’ve done so far, it’s quite scenic. It’s also quite different but first, a brief disclaimer. I’m mostly comparing DC to Chicago and New York (since those are the only two American cities that I’m reasonably familiar with). More importantly, I’ve only walked through Georgetown and Dupont Circle, so opinions are likely to change. With this in mind, here’s a brief list of the things I noticed.

  • There are hills here, the kind that blocks your view of the horizon if you’re standing too close to them. Although Manhattan means “land of many hills” in the Lenape language, you can power walk for blocks without any sign of an incline. And then there’s also Chicago. All this means that walking five blocks may not be the breezy stroll that you expect it to be.
  • There are also a lot of plants. Along the sidewalks and into the distance, there are saplings, expanses of grass, small patches of forest, flowering shrubs, flowering trees. It makes the tulips on the Mag Mile look like the work of amateur gardeners.
  • On the other hand, there are no skyscrapers, at least not from what I’ve seen so far. You can see the peak of the Washington Monument along the Georgetown Waterfront Park (which is also a dumping point for sewage overflow, according to the many signs posted along the pathway). The absence of skyscrapers makes the city feel residential, especially when some of the tallest buildings are luxury apartment complexes downtown. (Among the many things I miss about Chicago: being dwarfed by all those architectural marvels looming along the coast of Lake Michigan.) All this also makes me think of Paris, which has a similar restrictions on skyscraper construction. But despite this, it still has the feel of an urban center at all times of day.
  • There also aren’t that many crowds, which again, might be because I haven’t been to many places yet. However, I’d imagine that any crowds that I do encounter will consist mainly of tourists, but I’ll provide an update once I wander around the Capitol Hill. In addition to not having crowds, the people seemed very straightforward. What I mean by straightforward is this: I wandered around Dupont Circle during my lunch break and after work to check out the environment. I saw suit-wearing business people looking for food, a few people headed towards the local Trader Joe’s, some joggers, and a few families, and it was easy to figure out what everyone was doing. In contrast, when I had lunch in the parks near the Flatiron District in New York, there were always people that made you wonder. That’s not to say that people in DC are boring, but there’s an everyone-is-going-about-their-ordinary-lives feel to walking through the streets here.
  • The public transportation system so far annoys me rather than impresses me. Like many others cities, the Washington Metro uses an automated card that you can load online. The Smartrip card promises convenience, but everything takes up to three business days to activate or process, from my online account balance to the 7-day bus pass I bought yesterday and still cannot use. Transfers between buses are free, but anything involving the subway requires you to pay over 25 cents, which makes me miss the CTA a little. To be fair, New York has a similar system, but I’ve never really needed to use anything besides the Metro when I’ve been there. Monthly passes in DC are also very expensive, especially in comparison to the CTA and MTA; it requires me to be a little more deliberate about how I get places, and not thinking about those questions was always my favorite thing about buying a transit passes. There’s a kind of freedom in it.
  • Numbered streets run west to east instead of north to south, which I’ve constantly forgotten in spite of devoting part of my evening staring at Google Maps. Lettered streets are the ones that run north to south, but the letters run in descending order. I’ve backtracked several times today, trying to find my way home.
  • There are a lot of cool brick townhouses that are painted in pastel colors, and the sidewalks are sometimes made of brick too, especially in Georgetown. It makes for a picturesque walk through the neighborhood. I wonder if the landlords/homeowners color coordinate.

That’s all I got for now.

People Watching #5

Hyde Park is a disaster once the end of the quarter rolls around. This is what happens when you have students sleep-deprived and stressed out by their last round of finals, visiting families, and/or graduation. Signs of chaos include:

  • Students wheeling luggage, often upset when the humidity causes their shirts to stick to their skin
  • Students loading their belongings into the trunks of 5-passenger sedan, often upset by size constraints of said vehicles in addition to the humidity
  • Students hauling furniture across town, which is just about the most terrible part of moving that you can ever imagine
  • Son and father at the post office with a giant crate of books that probably weighs more than several small children–the father looks stoic as he tapes the box shut and thinks of the cost of international shipping
  • Local residents peering curiously into the overflowing dumpsters for interesting finds–one man looks on as Hannah and I deposit cardboard boxes into the dumpsters on 53rd and Greenwood and looks disappointed when we drive away without leaving behind anything worthwhile
  • Speaking of overflowing dumpsters, the local garbage collectors must hate us all

The lengths people go to move in and out into their apartments, while quite impressive, is never quite as fascinating at the people I see at the airport. As I’m writing this, my flight has been delayed by one hour due to some eastward bound thunderstorms, and the people around me deserve a brief mention. They include:

  • A pair of sisters with matching red-dyed hair and Duck Dynasty sweatshirts; one sister sports a giant tattoo of New Jersey on her left calf
  • Elderly Russian couple: the wife asks me to accompany her husband because we have the same boarding positions on our Southwest flight and offers to “save me a good seat” and a handful of mini-Oreos in return; husband nods politely and continues reading a translated version of an Isabel Allende novel while also eating mini-Oreos
  • Man and woman conversing next to me: Man is dressed in business suit while the woman, who has a book in her bag, seems ready for a vacation. But based on the number of times they have mentioned HIPPAA, FDA regulations, and physician assistants (apparently PA stands for more than Pennsylvania), they not only know each other, but also must work in something health related. The woman talks about her seventeen-year-old daughter who is dying her hair for the first time, and the plot twist: she has to pay for it herself!
  • Also, they are clearly sitting in the wrong gate. Health professional man and woman are soon replaced with family consisting of mother, father, and young daughter.
  • Daughter is well-behaved and quite happy with a pacifier in her myself and her mother’s tablet in her lap. The stroller carries the mother’s Michael Kors handbag, child-size juice box of apple juice, child-size container of McDonald’s French fries, empty container of milk with hot pink label that matches daughter’s backpack, and the most bizarre thing I’ve seen in a while: purified drinking water bottled in a soda can.
  • Mother on the phone, twice to two separate people: “This is like the worst trip to New York ever.”*
  • Snarky airplane captain comforts cranky passengers on the loudspeaker: “We apologize for the delay folks. Newark has been congested for the past ten years.” Truer words have never been spoken.

*Little did she know that in addition to being delayed for one hour, we would sit on the tarmac for another sixty minutes, and upon our arrival, we would sit in the plane for another forty-five minutes because of course, our gate is occupied.

Fighting Nature

The view outside my window shows that nor’easters might be overrated. There is a fine coating of fluffy snow on the ground. I live in a cul-de-sac, so the snow that has fallen so far remains pristine, almost delicate, like something with which you can knit lace. What the view outside my window doesn’t predict though is the fact that the unspoiled snow will soon be ruined by my mom’s car when she comes home with my brother in the next half hour. Nor does it know that most of the snow that will pummel the New York metropolitan area will not arrive when most of us are sound asleep, into the wee hours of this Thursday evening.

Judging from the doomsday reports I heard this afternoon on the television, the chances that I will make my Friday night flight back to Chicago tomorrow will be determined by natural forces beyond my control. I have four open tabs on my browser related to weather and flight tracking although at this point, it’s probably too early to tell whether my flight will be canceled or delayed. I place my faith in highway salt, efficient plow trucks, and New Jersey’s preparedness for natural disasters. This faith is potentially misguided but it is faith nonetheless. If anything, I will arrive to the airport prepared. I downloaded the latest issue of the New Yorker, made sure Crime and Punishment was on my Kindle app, and have plans to update my resume. That is, if my flight is not canceled altogether, which would be so inconvenient because there is likely a statistically-significant chance that I’ll have to fly instead at the dawn of Monday morning, miss the first day of classes, and arrive back in Chicago just in time to enjoy a large arctic air mass bringing a high temperature of -7 degrees Fahrenheit.

News outlets inform me that people everywhere are rushing to hardware stores and stocking up on shovels. The weather advisory I keep checking to see when the snow is supposed to stop advises people to stock up on water, food, and other emergency supplies in their car. I absorb this information with an air of incredulity. Yes, the airy snow combined with gusting winds will create blizzard-like conditions, and it’s probably not a great idea to go driving in these conditions, but at the end of the day, it’s just six to nine inches of snow.

I explain all this to my mother, who looks concerned. My flagrant disregard for nature’s destructive powers has that effect.

Perhaps it is because I have not experienced true hardship in the face of natural disasters that allows me to still view out-of-the-ordinary meteorological events as an event of novelty. It’s exciting when the power goes out, and you have the perfect opportunity to play board games in the dark. Watching the pine trees tilt sideways from hurricane-force winds can keep me occupied for a good fifteen minutes while the sound of a torrential, monsoon-like downpour falling on windowpanes and rooftops is just so, so soothing. While you won’t find me storm-chasing, I will run to catch a glimpse of an approaching tornado, just to see what it looks like, before fleeing in terror down into a windowless basement.

Natural disasters simultaneously captivate yet fail to impress me. But at the end of the day, I do not believe in letting weather derail my plans. Of course, the weather could not care less about what I do or don’t believe, so I am left sitting here, wondering what will happen when I wake up tomorrow morning. There’s a grandiosity to daring nature to do its worst or maybe it’s more foolishness because of course, at the end of the day, nature can easily win without much of a fight.

Yet I still roll my eyes when I read another headline about this raging storm while also crossing my fingers. I hope this combination of impertinence and reverence will let the air pressure systems work in my favor. Let the snow fall. Let it thrash wildly into windshields and faces, but also let it drift neatly into piles and let it collapse easily into shovels and melt compliantly into storm drains. Tomorrow morning, I want to see the snow crisp and untouched, but I also hope I can drag my suitcase across it. Think of it as an act of defiance.

On Speaking English

I really think the Eiffel Tower is a little overrated, but I still insist on visiting to take pictures of it. For all it’s uselessness, it does make a pretty snapshot. After romping around on the Champ de Mars, I am making my way back to the RER C stop to head back to the Cité. Behind me, a British couple examine a map and call, “Excuse me!”

I turn around, and they ask, “Where is the nearest metro stop?” They speak in English and point to the map. I reply, giving them directions about how they should turn around right at the corner and walk two blocks down the street. It is sunny, and the man squints as I gesture ahead of me. They nod and smile. The woman folds their map.

The man smiles and says, “Thanks a lot.”

“No problem.”

As I am about to walk away, he tells me, “You speak very good English. Have you been learning for many years?”

I turn to face him. “I’m American.”

The man and woman blink. They look sheepish and astonished.

“I’m studying abroad for the fall, so yes, I hope I would speak pretty good English.”