I’m Alive!

Hullo!! Whew. It’s been a while. WordPress editing has really upped its game! I had to take a break last exam season and never got around to reworking the writing bits in my brain (which have atrophied by now) till my mandatory gap year ended last week. Not that the Internet is particularly concerned, but this was what I’ve been up to over the past twelve months!

For the fall semester I was lucky enough to snag a spot at the University of Pennsylvania, where I took classes in British and Russian Literature and French. Highlights include seeing Terry Crews live, New York Comic Con (and meeting Tomi Adeyemi!), freezing my ass off in Montréal and being able to read books for my degree. Had multiple existential crises and am still questioning whether I’m suited to / still sufficiently passionate about medicine, but that’s a post for another day. 🙃

Halfway through the fall semester I was bored out of my mind by the East Coast so I applied to a couple schools in London. Thank God because travelling in Europe is much more reasonably priced. Also, stacking all my classes on Wednesdays and Thursdays meant that I always had long weekends to travel on. Highlights include Hamilton, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, being told [je suis] magnifique! in Paris, trying white chocolate foie gras in Barcelona, climbing over five barriers and under two barbed fences and scaling a hill for an ill-advised photo of Neuschwanstein Castle, all the while wearing three-inch heels, seeing the legendary Natalia Osipova as Kitri, singing songs that make white people turnt in the Temple Bar Pub, bottomless brunching on a boat in London and the Warner Bros. Studio Tour.

So yup, that’s what I’ve been doing. For more juicy juicy deets (excuse the shameless self-promotion), check out my Gap Yah: EU highlight on Instagram (@cloudninekid)!

New York City: Coda

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.

The Paradox of Free Time

Matcha and red bean roll from La Boheme bakery, vegan mocha from Genie Juicery, and The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

Students are familiar with the following paradox: during the maelstrom surrounding exams, we yearn for free time to do more, whether ‘more’ means hobbies and niche interests or even additional academic pursuits. But once we do find some free time, we are suddenly, helplessly lost; we slip into directionless idleness, then irritated boredom, and eventually mild disappointment.

For the first few days of bliss, this is to be expected. After continuously striving for months on end, a complete break is, of course, more than wise. But the true paradox lies in the unforeseen and excessively prolonged duration of this ‘break’. A week stretches into two, which stretches into a month, which threatens to consume half of the summer holiday. There may well be faint dapples of productiveness splattered throughout, but they rarely conform to our grand envisions at the end of the school year. It is necessary to note now, before we discuss any further, that references to ‘procrastination’ and ‘unproductiveness’ are made with the broadest senses of the words in mind. Spending a structureless day with friends is productive. Watching four seasons of the trashy werewolf romance that you were secretly desperate to binge on is productive. After all, these are things that you had aimed to do when free time finally graces your schedule.

That leaves the lone (unproductive) option: aimless faffing around. You certainly have concrete ideas of what you want to do, but somehow cannot muster enough willpower to put any of them into practice, even if many are extremely appealing. As you mindlessly scroll through social network after social network, continuing even after you are absolutely sure that there will not be anything new to see, you know that you would be much less bored and restless if you were on a beach, drinking in the blithe atmosphere, as you had frequently wished to do so when you were tackling your exams. And yet when the opportunity glaringly presents itself, your backbone is inexplicably stapled to your dusty sofa.

Elaborating on this incongruity does not solve anything, but it does illustrate the fickleness of human motivation. When our circumstances pretty much force motivation upon us (during exams or in other high-stakes situations), we find it much easier to be motivated to do other things, no matter how unrelated. Without any serious consequences or threats, however, we only have ourselves to look to. So how should we seek to motivate ourselves? An interesting and succinct video explaining the science of long-term motivation can be found here.

Of course, maybe the problem is not that we are too ‘unproductive’, but that a compulsion to constantly occupy ourselves is hard-wired into our brains. Drilled into us during the school year and reinforced by our generation’s insistence on maximising both quantity and quality (especially relevant for Hongkongers), a sudden long stretch of freedom only magnifies any inactivity. Recognising this fails to remove the underlying sense of unease and restlessness that repeatedly resurfaces when we sit idly by. But the irony of this pressing need to productively enjoy ourselves is blindingly obvious. In order to make the most of my holiday, I should do X, Y, and Z, and try A, and maybe learn B, and take up C as well… As each generation becomes more privileged than the last, and has more access to resources and choices, it seems logical to conclude (as older generations have done and still do) that life is much easier for young people nowadays. But these privileges go hand in hand – and are somewhat offset by – significantly increased demands and expectations. A poignant example: in Hong Kong, grade eight on the piano or the violin has already become relatively ‘standard’ and ‘expected’, and with younger and younger children accomplishing this feat, it is now considered ‘invaluable’. Whatever next? FTCL?

The quest to be outstanding at everything is particularly apparent in the years leading up to our university applications, especially those for colleges in the United States. After all, American colleges emphasise their holistic assessment of potential students, further compelling us to focus on our extensive repertoires of co-curricular activities and awards. It is not unusual to see four- or five-paged curricula vitae produced by Hong Kong students, nor to take part in more after-school activities than there are days in a week. I have no intention to argue that life is harder – I would definitely still prefer to be blessed with the privileges that I have now – but ‘difficulty’ can manifest itself in multiple forms. Unfortunately, having seen parents and domestic workers dropping three year olds at tutorial centres, any shift in societal attitudes is unlikely to happen anytime soon. But having identified this impossible, perpetual desire to achieve more, at least we can individually attempt to reach self-satisfaction and acceptance. After all, at one point, many of these achievements become meaningless and unimportant anyway. Even universities are asking students to only include four or five activities, so even on a superficial level, there is no longer as much incentive.

Photograph by Christy Lau.

Corner Kitchen Café

Sweet potato fries and chilli mayonnaise HK$65

Cafés have been so relentlessly romanticised in Western literature and films that they have become somewhat basic and clichéd, which is ironic because the quintessential coffee shop represents the independent and idiosyncratic. The displeasure of the French at Starbucks’ arrival in their country (evident in the transnational company’s failure to turn a profit there) and the wariness with which the Milanese are appraising Starbucks’ first Italian store are testament to the strong schema that Europeans hold dear for their cafés. The word offers cosy connotations for those who seek solitude, but also a warm eclectic community where barriers between strangers evanesce. Most negative criticism aimed at chain stores mention their ‘impersonal’ and ‘alienating’ atmospheres.

So it comes as no surprise that Corner Kitchen Café caught my attention. The name itself implies a friendly neighbourhood corner shop. It is a deceptively small, two-storey café tucked away on a hill in Sheung Wan, and serves burgers, wraps, tacos and the usual range of coffees. Situated 10-15 minutes away from the closest MTR stations, it is a pleasantly quiet location on weekdays. On weekends, however, be sure to arrive well before noon to secure a table. And even then, you may be asked to wait for 10-15 minutes.

After visiting four times, I can safely confirm that Corner Kitchen Café embodies the ideological coffee shop much better than either Starbucks or Pacific Coffee (the main chains in Hong Kong) do. The relatively inconspicuous location and the simple fact that it is a single, independent shop help it steer clear of the ‘fast-food feel’ that Europe so despises. The marble tabletops, wooden lawn chairs and comfortable couches add to the cosy-but-chic ambience.

My absolute favourite item on the menu is the pot of sweet potato fries, which comes served with a tin of the most delicious chilli mayonnaise that I have ever tasted. The wraps, although not as great as those at Mana! Fast Slow Food, are decent, but I would suggest avoiding the Greek yoghurt, salmon and coriander one. The yoghurt tasted too out of place – I would have preferred a dollop of another less tangy sauce. The coffee, served in Instagrammable mason jars and ceramic mugs, is smooth and creamy, and I would certainly rank it above Starbucks’ drinks. Unfortunately, it is just as expensive if not slightly more so. Prices for brunches are significantly cheaper; as Corner Kitchen Café offers all-day brunches on weekends, it is no wonder that the coffee shop is so popular on those days.

This tranquil coffee shop is perfect for catching up on your leisurely reading or lab reports on weekday afternoons, and for meeting up with friends for brunch on weekends.

Photograph by Christy Lau.