A Tale of Five Cities

From PEK to BOS, circa 2017.

Obliteration Room by Yayoi Kasuma

When I ask myself what I learned last year, I never have any answers. What I do have, in abundance, are stories. Anecdotes of the people I’ve met, memories of the things I’ve done. Inklings of how my experiences have changed me.

I have a theory that stories are more important than answers. That’s why we tell them and re-tell them, when all else is lost. The stories we tell others, and especially the ones we tell ourselves — they are our only legacy, the atomic bonds that hold our universe together.

Because when you’re puzzling over the pieces of your life, fretting about how they fit into your future, you keep what’s beautiful close to your heart, in case you only get to see this once. You immortalize your stories in writing, social media, photographs. Anything to ensure them against time.

You do this because you know they were once precious to you.

You do this so that you don’t forget.

January ‘17: Beijing

We’re walking out in the middle of the street. A gaggle of Harvard students in business formal, several with breathing masks on (much to my dismay). I’m in China coordinating a private equity winter internship. It’s after work and we’re hungry. Our stomachs are rumbling, our pockets jingling with RMB.

We’re in a part of town where the shopping malls are slick, bourgeoisie in that brand-new-money kind of way. The new bourgeoisie likes luxury and bling. Italian labels, French handbags. German supercars taxed at over 100% of their retail value. Consumption is cosmopolitan, and it seems that a capitalist economy has been serving China well — for the fuerdai, at least.

We’re strolling through a boulevard of glitter and grime, narrowly avoiding death by rickshaw. The adrenaline from the near-miss brings a welcome reminder of what it feels like to be alive in the Middle Kingdom. In the midst of the crowds, the construction, the frigid winter laced with smog, the imperial city has never looked better. I marvel at the fact that even the lights seem brighter in Beijing, as if they’re raring to go and ambitious, the kind of ambition that scares you with its intensity.

Seeing this kind of exponential growth, you get the feeling that nothing is impossible. My family immigrated away from this impoverished country just two decades ago. Now all around me are skyscrapers, glass-and-steel-dragons bleeding blue into the open sky, concrete evidence of just how far the fastest-growing economy in history has come. This feels like the New World, Shangri-La 2.0. Instead of coming to the once-fabled United States, perhaps future émigrés will come to China to stake their fortunes instead.

January to June ‘17: London, et al

Candlelight bounces off the silverware in the hush before the fellows are seated. The dining hall is dark and hallowed, with vaulted ceilings and long mahogany tables. We are children in our formal gowns, barely suppressing giggles behind adult pretensions, and the air is frenetic with tense energy.

Black tie dinners are old-guard élite, but the British are nothing if not sticklers for tradition. Though I’m surrounded by some of the most well-mannered individuals I’ve ever met in my life, the playing field is somewhat leveled after three glasses of chardonnay. Right before digging into a slow-cooked leg of lamb, I remember looking around the table and thinking, wow. So this is how life could be.

Europe mesmerized me. While England certainly held its own in the charm offensive, given the incredible cultural history of its neighbors, it was hardly a fair fight. Every other weekend I was flying out of London on the cheapest budget airlines I could find, with my strictly 20-kilo-maximum backpack and modest personal item, crammed shoulder to shoulder with strangers on tiny planes. I would fall asleep in one time zone, and wake up weightless, a thousand miles away.

I slept on couches and bunk beds and hotel mattresses, befriended locals from Switzerland to the Czech Republic. Traveling always changes you; you never come back quite the same. Like all drugs, too much of it ruins your ability to live a normal life, making everything else seem dull in comparison. The biggest difference, in my opinion, is a shift in perspective — because after this, you can never look at a map again and think that you are the center of anything, much less the world.

June to August ‘17: Seattle

The Pacific Northwest. Rolling mountains, glassy seas, stratospheric tech salaries with no income tax. After a six-month rendezvous overseas, I suddenly and unexpectedly found myself in Seattle.

Ah, Seattle. It’s the kind of laid-back city where you can head to the local bar during happy hour weekends, tossing back $7 artisan beers until you are nursing a hangover for days on end. Where you can clock out of work at five o’ clock on the dot without giving it another thought until the next day. Where you can meet an endless array of Midwest transplants, replete with plaid button-downs, vegan diets and computer science degrees, walking the cutest dogs the world has ever seen.

Two months prior I was dialing into a conference call for my final round interview at Amazon. It was late April already, and I was desperate for good news — any news — of where I would be for the summer. To call the offer email a sigh of relief would be a massive understatement. Big tech had taken a chance on me, and for 10 weeks I’d be employed.

Now that I had a reason to be, I was finally back in the states. Here the cobblestone of Cambridge was supplanted by Seattle concrete, and the evening sky was the same shade of navy as my American passport. But I had left my heart in Europe; I came bleeding from the ribs. Seattle was comfortable, but it never truly felt like home.

In some ways I guess I’m still looking, for the place I’m supposed to belong.

August to December ‘17: Boston

Twelve students crowd around a classroom, taking apart stories with the analytical precision of an open heart surgeon. We are in a creative writing workshop and our instructor tells us, write like you have something to say.

So we wrote about pain, and we wrote about longing. And we wrote about a lot of other things, too. We talked about alien fish, how every story has layers — the basic waves everyone can see, and the deeper waves under those, and the strange alien fish lurking underneath even the deepest of waves, meanings in the story that even the most astute readers could only guess at.

For years I had known that there were three things I had to complete before graduation. Get a job, write my senior thesis, and apply to graduate schools. Recruiting, thesis, apps became the siren song of my senior year, a hypnotic little ditty that was at once paralyzing and brutally, forcefully productive.

After one too many days where my to-do list was so long I couldn’t get out of bed, I finally realized the obvious: that I couldn’t do three things at once. So instead I did one thing at a time, and I prayed for absolution.

One layer down, there are brief respites. Weekend trips, red-eye flights. Moments of laughter, of quiet bliss. And buried a little deeper, lurking among the alien fish, there are stories. Stories glimmering on the surface, stories yet to be extracted. Stories that one day, I hope I’ll get a chance to tell you.

December to 2018: Atlanta

The cashier at Chick-Fil-A wears a pretty dimpled smile and looped French braids. I count the freckles sprinkled over her dark skin as my mother insists on ordering me a classic kid’s meal: 2-piece chicken strips, waffle fries, boxed apple juice, and a small vanilla ice cream cone.

In Georgia, Chick-Fil-A is as consecrated as the Lord’s Supper — as southern as Sunday morning church service, Friday night college football, thicker-than-honey accents, and a diehard conviction in the second amendment. I must have eaten here a thousand times, but now I stare at the fried chicken on my tray like it’s Michelin star haute cuisine, trying to feel the passage of time.

Did I really grow up here? Was this really my life? I had lived in 25 cities in the last 52 weeks, and none seemed more alien to me than my own hometown. I felt a bit like Dorothy, returning to Kansas after Oz. I wondered where home was for me, now.

Finally having time to kill was a luxury, so I savored it. I slept with impunity, put up Christmas lights, took them down again, swilled champagne, counted down from ten, and out of nowhere it is January 1st and I am hit with the realization that I’ve finally come full circle, writing futilely on a year that no longer exists, watching crowds of faceless people going wild on TV over another chance to live the way they always wanted, the way they promised themselves they would in 2017.

Everything else is gone, reduced to a roll of pictures, a handful of souvenirs, a distant sense of wonder. And it always catches me off guard, how everything I ever do will someday just be a memory. How a year can pass in a single inhalation. Even now, I ask myself what I learned this past year.

But all I have are stories.