Half of a Yellow Sun

This is a hard book to review. It was moving and merciless. The language was so consuming, when my mother called, “Come! Eat your chicken udon before it gets soggy!” for a moment I gawked and thought, We have meat! Then I realised what a fool I was. Of course we have meat. We always have meat.

Another image swam through the many imagined ones still treading in the shallows of my mind. My friends and I were sitting on the uneven planks of a stilt house. The wooden, wall-less structure served as Ban Chôk’s community centre. We had just eaten our first meal in the village and our interpreter was asking us what we thought of the food. Someone said, “There’s no meat. Can we have some meat next time?” Others nodded. I also nodded, even though I did not notice that there was no meat and I liked the coriander soup and boiled vegetables anyway. After the man left, our teacher said quietly, “Meat is expensive.”

I remember those words from time to time. They always kindle in me something akin to shame. School voluntourism trips are always somewhat hollow, but it was another level of irony to demand so unthinkingly from the people we were supposed to have been helping.

Half of a Yellow Sun is commanding like that. It immerses you in the mundane, meticulous details, which bring other details from your own life with them. From the eyes of five characters (an uneducated village houseboy, a radical professor, his rich and beautiful and cultured lover, her twin and an Englishman), we see an intimate, pitiless tapestry of the years leading up to and embroiled in the Biafran War. Adichie’s narrative is one that needs no exposition – the famine, rapes, forced conscriptions, international politics, national politics, civilian massacres… all were palpable through her characters’ individual treks through love and loss. In the first half, at least.

In the second half, those same details lost their potency. The metallic tang of war was already in the air, yet we were still tangled up in personal scandals that took entire chapters to unfold. I was irritated by how frequently the precipitating event was clumsily alluded to – obvious attempts at building suspense. But reading “the months before Baby was born” twice on the same page only fanned my frustration more than anything.

My criticism may sound paradoxical; after all, these deeply personal narratives are what make Half of a Yellow Sun so evocative. But somewhere in the middle, they just became distractions. I wanted awfully to like the book, so I took a break and read something else first. I only came back to it four books and a month later.

I’m so glad I finally finished it. Once we moved past the scandalous event, the prose returned to its unflinching brilliance. Half of a Yellow Sun is a book I would recommend to everyone. I will never adequately articulate how arresting and haunting and relevant it is. This story is not over yet.

Favourite quote: “This is our world, although the people who drew this map put their land on top of ours. There is no top or bottom, you see.”
Rating:
4/5

New York City: Coda

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The San Remo. Book pictured is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, bought in McNally Jackson.

Much of my final days were spent wandering through Tribeca and Chinatown, alternately popping into antiquarian bookshops and – and I am not ashamed – Karlie Kloss’ favourite restaurants. There is something deliciously liberating about just doing everyday things in a foreign cosmopolis and imagining you were a local – especially when travelling alone. Besides, New York really does have the most photogenic cafés and desserts.

Disparate thoughts I had while racewalking the OG concrete jungle:

  • Is that wall worth asking a stranger to take my photo? Because 80% chance I won’t look good the first time round so I’d have to ask a few and wait in between so the previous stranger(s) won’t get miffed… Nah.
  • This is surreal.
  • Reading a book while eating makes eating alone 10-fold less awkward.
  • (When two men in front of me on the Brooklyn Bridge complained about how ‘humid’ the week had been) Hah ahaha haha. I’d choose New York summers over Hong Kong summers any day. Except in the subway. What is this, the Victorian era? It’s a friggin’ cast iron furnace.
  • The Bridge is definitely worth asking a stranger to take my photo.
  • This is surreal.
  • Fun fact: On the Manhattan side, the Bridge has purpose-built cellars for wine!
  • If Manhattan were Hong Kong Island and Brooklyn were Kowloon, then I’m still strictly an island girl.
  • But most of all, a Hong Kong Island girl. Manhattan is too organised; everything penned up in grids, unchanging horizons as you look down never-ending avenues and streets… I missed the hills and convoluted roads and glass skyscrapers glinting in the perennial sunlight. The homes and shops and offices and people spilling on top of each other in eclectic chaos. Besides, once you have grown up in the superlative clutter and crowdedness of Hong Kong, few other cities can ever compare.

Did I mention it was surreal? Though these posts may seem to suggest otherwise, I am not some jet-setting #richkidofHongKong with five-figure allowances and unspoken permission to jump onto last-minute long-haul flights. In the last three years, I had only gone on one vacation to Taiwan with my family. I am nevertheless ridiculously fortunate. But ask me two months ago, and a trip like this one would have been a frivolous fantasy.

I never would have entertained the possibility of my parents condoning it. Then there is the $$$. My life savings (all 18 years’ lai see money had remained untouched until now) may have been able to cover the exorbitant expenses, but as a Chinese child still living under my parents’ roof, they have the final word on how I use my money. And tanking it all did not sound very wise. Honestly, I have no idea why they said yes. Maybe they were just too shocked. After all, I never ask for birthday presents, let alone something like this. To be fair, I did jokingly ask my mother at 4:00 a.m. as she was desperately cramming for her Theology exams. She probably didn’t process what I’d said until after I’d bought the ballet tickets. 🙈

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Brooklyn skyline from the Brooklyn Bridge.

But about Days 6-8. I managed to get sunburned just from the 45 minutes I had spent on the Brooklyn Bridge because #pastyproblems. I also perfected the art of asking strangers to take photos – I haven’t reached iPhone-tripod-solo-travelling status just yet.

Back on Manhattan, I also bought myself Baron Fig notebooks. They open flat! Like, perfectly flat. So you will never have to choose between ugly spiral bounds and wasting expensive space in #aesthetic notebooks ever again. The dimensions are wider, which makes a surprisingly significant difference in handwriting comfort. The paper is thicker than Moleskine’s and Leuchtturm’s too = your fancy brush pens won’t bleed. Low-key checked out this start-up because Jennifer Chong (cult brand Linjer co-founder and my high school alumna) loves them.

What else? Oh! Food.

  • This will make me sound so basic but The Good Sort has the best avocado toasts, which they top with edamame, chilli and Chinese dukkah. Avocado + edamame = the best thing since, well, avocado toast. Their rainbow lattes are also very #Instaworthy.
  • Sprinkles has a 24/7 cupcake ATM and it’s the cutest thing ever. (HK please get it together.) They also claim to be the first cupcake bakery in the world.
  • San Remo only has the very basics (plain black or white coffee). But the marble tabletops and black and white mosaic floor are perfect accompaniments to your #ButFirstCoffee ‘grams. Plus, Bella Hadid was there just two days before me, so I’m basically a certified coffee shop hipster.
  • The eggs at the Egg Shop are indeed very good. The barista accidentally spilled water all over me and gave me free coffee. Thank goodness because it was near impossible to find flat whites in New York City.
  • Two Hands has really really good charred broccolini.
  • Taiyaki is overpriced but the presentation is hard to beat.
  • Gregory’s has good coffee but the barista judged me quite severely when I ordered a flat white out of habit. (Spoiler: They do not make flat whites.)

And thus concludes my all-over-the-place post. I’ve been struggling to translate the trip into words for the last two weeks. But the longer I leave it, the more I’m afraid of forgetting some small but significant moment or thought, so I finally hashed it out tonight. This is where I’m supposed to end with a memorable finale, but I don’t have one. So thanks for reading! Here’s to more crazy impromptu adventures. 🌃

Click here for Day 1. Click here for Days 3-4.

New York City: Days 3-4

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Oh look – an actual photo of me on this blog!

Of the three most famed museums New York has to offer, the MoMA is currently my obvious favourite. The Met was a mess. It began assuredly enough; the Hellenic halls flowed chronologically from the fifth millennium BC to AD 3, revealing an intriguing progression of techniques and themes. Sure, even there, some sculptures were dubious – a surprising number were mere replicas or ‘reconstructed’ from a single limb. Not sure how they deduced that an isolated torso belonged to a centaur. Not sure how accurate the head, arms and equine body they added are either. Within each room, there was also little rhyme or reason to how they arranged the artefacts. It was often impossible to judge each item’s relative importance. I suspect the curators simply grouped similar-looking objects to sufficiently fill the space.

But where it really started to break down was when I stepped out of the Greek and Roman wing. And immediately into Oceania. Wait, what? And as if bewildering its visitors is the primary objective of the museum, the artefacts in this hall were not even arranged chronologically. In fact, I doubt they were arranged at all. The next hall was the Modern Art section, which should not have been too hard to organise. Yet the paintings were grouped neither by artist nor by date. Picasso portraits sporadically appeared at the beginning, middle and end. There was a random ‘sculpture’ in one corner. The Met was, quite literally, a labyrinth.

The Egyptian wing was particularly perplexing. Several instalments felt as if they belonged to a history museum instead: the tomb, the room of miniature dioramas, and the incongruous modern map of the Nile. These exhibits were obviously not displayed for their artistic merit, yet the accompanying plaques encouraged only a terribly contrived historical understanding. I would rather spend an afternoon in the Victoria and Albert, thank you very much.

The American Museum of Natural History had some awe-inspiring fossils and life-size models. But as a whole, it was somewhat underwhelming. The building felt much smaller and less impressive than, for example, the British Museum. And it was nothing like the grand hallways I saw recreated in Night at the Museum.

The MoMA, however, knew what’s up. Monet’s Water Lilies triptych was deservedly given a prime display space, taking up three entire walls in a room without any other distractions. The Starry Night and Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31 were likewise given centre stage. Picasso had his own room dedicated to his astonishing stylistic evolution. Everything was purposeful. And as I walked among Frida Kahlo’s Fulang-Chang and I and Oppenheim’s hairy teacup and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, quiet reverence pervaded the atmosphere. It was surreal to finally see these works in person after years of studying them in secondary school. Beyond the famous works, I especially liked Untitled (Dreams) by Louise Lawler with its cheeky postscript almost buried beneath the long list of references: “This will mean more to some of you than others”.

Day 3 was also the day of this trip’s main event: Jewels. I am no ballet critic, but it was spectacular. Perhaps the Parisians were a tad too chic in Emeralds – the female soloists were a little too polished to be the spry wood sylphs I always imagined the roles to be. But Teresa Reichlen was a powerhouse in Rubies, partnering not one but four men. And the Bolshoi’s Diamonds was phenomenal – the finale with everyone dancing in complete unison was so breathtaking, I had chills. And to think Alena Kovaleva only joined the illustrious Russian company a few months ago! Flying halfway around the world for this was not a bad decision.

To conclude the weekend, we went up to the Top of the Rock. Sadly, it was a cloudy evening, so we weren’t able to catch one of New York’s cotton candy sunsets. But at least it did stop raining during the hours we were up there. There was also an unbreachable wall of tourists packed against the wall facing the Empire State, so no photos could have been taken until the sun was well below the horizon. Still, I like to think it was less crowded than the Empire State itself. And you can’t see the Empire State from the Empire State. So the Top of the Rock is definitely my recommendation for getting that perfect skyline selfie in the morning or late afternoon for a clear, blue expanse, or braving the gathering sardines at dusk for a sienna sky.

For Day 1, please click here.

Swimming Lessons

Yesterday (or rather, the day before, since it is now past midnight), I walked into the most beautiful bookstore in Tribeca, with floor-to-ceiling shelves, gleaming brass ladders, and the kind of muffling carpet that belongs to grand hotels of old. It was called The Mysterious Bookshop.

Feeling quite overwhelmed, I simply plucked the first pretty cover I saw and sank into the burgundy leather sofa. The book was Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller. It began beautifully – the prose was limpid, like running water. The words tumbled and pooled into Southend Pier summer snapshots – pastels, sunshine, bubbling laughter. I was hooked.

But it quickly dissolved into a love-hate relationship, though thankfully not quite as tempestuous as Ingrid and Gil’s. Flora was the generic self-centred, sexually assured, ‘screwed up’ millennial younger sister. Nan was the generic Bert to her Ernie. And Gil was the generic smooth-as-silk seductive English professor. The only character that had any flesh was Ingrid, the vanished mother we only meet in hidden letters. Her voice was a lucid dream, and I was rooting for her from her very first page. Sadly – and I suppose it was already clear from the novel’s premise – everything only spirals downwards. I only became more and more frustrated by her complete inability to turn back. To properly process how disastrous her relationship is and to run the hell out of there.

Even with the countless affairs, illegitimate children, and betrayals by almost everyone around her, she continued to just let her life crumble into precisely what she had sworn she would never let it come to. Back when she was young and had dreams and did not know Gil Coleman (Get it? Gil? Gill? Swimming lessons? Hah.). Come to think of it, we never learn her dreams. Details of her life before Gil were disconcertingly absent. Her identity was wholly built on her relationship with her husband. Gil was infuriating too. He had the nerve to think, as he fell, that he wanted to tell Ingrid how much he loved her. Pah! If he had ever loved her, he would never have caused her such relentless humiliation and emotional torture. He loved her body and he loved how he managed to catch and tame her mermaid soul. He did not love her. I was even frustrated by Flora and her infantile frustration at Nan, just because she was more responsible. Basically, I was frustrated a lot.

But what was the most frustrating was the epilogue. After going through the maddening lows of Ingrid and Gil’s marriage and their daughters’ present-day unresolved grief, we were given no answers. At all. Which would have been a little more bearable if the novel had ended at the final chapter. In some ways, Swimming Lessons was about being okay with not knowing. Flora finally accepted that her mother had drowned, and tentatively began to move on. Yet Fuller completely unravelled her own arguments by throwing in the epilogue, which implied that Ingrid was, indeed, alive. Now what? Was she there because she needed closure too? Was she there to reveal herself to her daughters after eleven years? Was she there to see if Gil had missed her? Or was it a random woman after all? But by then, I’m not even sure I care anymore.

The entire book was a fine dining restaurant well past its glory days, presenting an exasperating parade of amuse-bouches and never managing to make the entrée. No amount of mesmerising prose can ever make up for the perplexing mess Fuller somehow managed to spin out of nothing.

Rating: 2/5

New York City: Day 1

Today, I touched down in the Big Apple. Alone. Two months ago, I had impulsively bought tickets for a ballet half the world away from home. To celebrate its golden anniversary, three of the most renowned companies are collaborating to perform an act each of the late, great Balanchine’s iconic Jewels. The cast is so apt it is almost poetic; the Paris Opera Ballet will perform Emeralds, a piece heavily inspired by the French Romantic aesthetic; New York City Ballet, for whom Balanchine had originally choreographed Jewels, will take Rubies, a staccato archetype of Balanchine athleticism; and the Bolshoi Ballet will take Diamonds, the regal finale that radiates Imperial Russian grandeur. A tortuous 16-hour flight later, I have finally made it.

While I did spend most of the day (or night, by Hong Kong standards) wondering whether I would develop deep vein thrombosis like so many of the cases we had discussed in our tutorials, it still was not as uneventful as I would have hoped. Critical note to self: Always look behind you whenever you leave a seat. Or risk leaving your phone in the airport like I did in Hong Kong. By the time I had finally realised, the plane was already taking off. So now I’m alone in New York without a phone.

I also learned that a 16-hour flight is really long. If flight times and our perception of time were graphed, it would show an exponential curve. Just a year ago, 12-hour flights were my norm. I was never bored; a movie fit snugly between take-off and the first meal, and afterwards I would always spend the next eight or nine hours struggling to get as much poor quality sleep as I could with some wailing infant a row away. But when you add just four more hours, you can suddenly read an entire book, watch two movies, get a solid eight hours of sleep, and still have an exasperating stretch of time to stare into the darkness and contemplate your chances of getting a pulmonary embolism from all your inactivity.

Anyway, besides the ballet on Saturday, I still don’t know exactly what I will be doing here. I quite literally came all the way to New York ‘just’ to see a ballet. Of course, I have a general list of things (MoMA, Museum of Natural History, The Met, The Whitney…), but no set plans at all. I suppose I do have some time tonight to allocate the destinations to days. If I don’t nod off from jet lag first.

Unfolding Photographs

As I stare unthinking at my haphazard notes, I surreptitiously recall the pleasant surrealness of an unidentified language, the pulsating vibrancy in the night market air, and the comforting stillness of rural evenings. The unbridled laughter of incredulous children, chasing tirelessly, sun-bleached hair flying across the pitted path, rings phantom notes beside my ear. It is on solitary nights like these that I unfold sepia images and stain my fingers brushing the fine films of dust. In youth, our inherent flaw is to overestimate ourselves, and I am surprised by how unfocused these mental photographs have become. My memory is evidently less crisp than I had believed.

It was during those moments, many spent sitting on rickety floorboards playing Chinese card games (one particularly lively match had resulted in a sprained finger), that I had found myself enveloped in unexpectedly deep camaraderie. The adage, ‘nothing strengthens bonds quite like a holiday’, proved very true. This sense of membership had come after months of uncertainty and self-doubt, and my relief was comparable to the electrifying streets of Hanoi, which we had run across blindly with our cumbersome suitcases, then still protected by our indomitable sense of invincibility. (I suppose a streak of it is still alive and well, given the laughable amount of studying that I attempt to get by medical school with.)

The songs that had saturated our endlessly meandering bus rides, our pathetic construction efforts and the dangerous sway of an elephant’s neck are all fond Polaroid snapshots. What feels like half a lifetime later, I can only regard my younger self – who had led a shameless performance of the Hoedown Throwdown before politely baffled locals – with utter bemusement. I had also taken my first selfie (on a point-and-shoot, for that matter), bargained for the first of many shoulder bags, and discovered a lasting love for Korean barbecue (despite having been over 3,000 miles away from Seoul). Though the draft for this post originally began as a short aside, here I am about to publish three paragraphs positively oozing nostalgia. This may be an abrupt departure from my usual (slightly) less directionless reflections, but this platform is supposed to be a personal blog after all. I cannot help but include the occasional rambling reminiscence.

To intrepid youth and more adventures. ☄️

Playlist

Subtitled ‘grainy evenings in Laos’. 🇱🇦

  1. We Are Young – Fun.
  2. It’s Time – Imagine Dragons
  3. Radioactive – Imagine Dragons
  4. Tonight Tonight – Hot Chelle Rae
  5. Hoedown Throwdown – Miley Cyrus
  6. 99 Bottles of Beer (American folk song)
  7. Hey, Soul Sister – Train
  8. Chasing Pavements – Adele
  9. Royals – Lorde
  10. Some Nights – Fun.