A Summer of Rejections

20 Sep

Hi Daphne,

Thank you so much for your interest and effort in the application process. Unfortunately, we have made the decision to not move forward at this time. Ultimately, we had so many qualified applicants and a very limited number of positions.

Blah. Blah. Blah.

a nice enough editor who didn’t send a computer-generated email

I clicked away yet another rejection email. For a few minutes, I gave in to another round of silent meltdown, another thought of giving up on this writing career sh*t. It doesn’t even pay well, I sneered. Pretending like the 50th rejection didn’t hurt, I went about my usual day. Practice self-love, they said.

My egocentric, naive self thought it couldn’t be that hard to find a full-time writing job in New York, where one could find most major publications and seven million people who were more talented. Once I came back to New York, I started applying for jobs frantically, only to later realize that my resume keywords weren’t even searchable by computer algorithms. There went my first 50 enthusiastic resumes and cover letters, as well as my motivation.

I then put the job hunt aside to focus on my summer writing classes where I met some of the loveliest writers, who also shared my eternal worry of: “Am I just a shitty writer who ought to pick up a career in carpet cleaning instead?” But my professor reassured us that, hey, you’ll be surprised how many idiots are running the journalism industry — and you’re better than them.

Regaining confidence from the love of my feature writing (/therapy) class, I threw myself at the potential heartbreaks and rejections again. I refined my resume and made sure it was readable by computers. Only this time, I was getting real rejections without any excuses. It wasn’t just submitting my resume and not hearing back because no one ever saw it. On a brighter note, I did get phone calls and requests to complete a few writing tests.

The most lengthy writing test lasted 3.5 hours. Glassdoor reviews had forewarned that this publication often stole pitches after rejecting applicants. But I was going to be the chosen one despite all odds. My birth chart indicated nothing but good fortune.

…and golden girl, were you wrong.

I received instead an electronic wave of polite no’s informing of their robotic regrets, leaving ripples of shame in my hollow, self-absorbed writer brain.

However, I found one particular rejection from a literary agency puzzling. Upon reviewing what I thought was a brilliant, insightful book pitch, the interviewer rejected me despite the good rapport we had developed during our interview.

“I’m afraid the standard of the other applicants was very high, and your writing test didn’t quite make the mark,” she wrote in her email.

My heart sank into a black hole of self-loathing. Her rejection email sounded personal. I assumed it was because we had built a virtual relationship via our pleasant chat and emails. She had higher hopes for me, and her disappointment was seeping through the lines into my inbox.

Hold on — my “writing test didn’t quite make the mark”? I’ve run that pitch through at least four to five writers and non-writers – I was even impressed by my own writing.

Desperate for an answer, I emailed back to ask for editorial feedback. Did I take the wrong approach? Or was my writing just horrible? I needed to know if I was ungifted and should stop myself from writing before spending the rest of my 20’s in delusion. Just let this editor turned literary agent lady sentence my passion to death.

“The writing was very professional but it was more the thought behind it? You are welcome to do another test to prove me wrong!” she wrote.

My writing wasn’t very professional, but too professional. I took the conservative approach and played it safe by writing elegantly. But I needed my words to come alive with my personality. In the end, reader, I proved her wrong (I’m Jane Austen-possessed right now).

What survived the summer of rejections were one published feature and one job contract. A small step forward after slipping a thousand feet. This 2018 summer marked by a long stretch of failures is only the beginning of a writer in the making. Failure is what a writer awakes to and sleeps with. Rejection is what she eats for breakfast. Humiliation is whom she dances with around the dinner table, nightly. 

I’ve read about many published authors recounting their hundreds of rejections before a fleeting moment of redemption. If anyone wishes to learn humility, try being a writer. Hoping to move someone with only words and paragraphs, trying to keep one’s attention with punctuations when an Instagram selfie would have served the purpose better, that is, the most stubborn desire and the stupidest passion in this world. And despite that, the writers write on. 

In the Back Alley of Modernity and Gentrification

10 Sep

*Article originally published on New Bloom Magazine.


There’s light glowing again in the narrow stone alley after two decades.

When the night falls, a corner of the pitch-black alley is illuminated by a few orange lanterns. The soft light comes from Xinqiding (心起町), a new coffee shop and creative space on this quiet backstreet. Jia-wei Lee, the owner, often spends the day here with his only staff, Teddy, a black and white bull terrier. Teddy usually curls up for a nap in his peaceful corner by the staircase. But if an occasional guest walks in, he makes sure to give his warm welcome by barking and tackling for a hug.

Jia-wei mostly stays behind the miniature coffee bar browsing on his laptop. He would ponder about the next community event, the next exhibition in his small basement gallery. He’s not inviting business. He’s simply waiting for a good conversation with the right person, or the wrong person.   

In the face of Taipei’s gentrification, Jia-wei wants to preserve his community’s collective memory and history by creating a communal space in an otherwise lifeless alley. He is, however, struggling with the rapid socioeconomic development in the neighborhood, Ximending.

xin qi ding coffee shop

Photo Credit: Xinqiding / Facebook

Opened in 2018, Xinqiding is a quiet coffee shop tucked minutes away from the bustling traffic of Ximending. It’s a compact neighborhood where thousands of tourists pour through daily for shopping and entertainment. While Taiwan has seen a general decline in its tourism industry, Ximending’s visitor growth continues to break the government’s record. The train station in Ximending recorded three million visitors last year, of which 70% were tourists.  

Commercial billboards and bright neon signs tower over the center of Ximending. Visitors can find cosmetics stores, international fashion brands, and bubble tea shops in the crowded pedestrian zone. Vehicles are banned from the shopping area to boost foot traffic. Ximending’s vibrancy and liveliness encourage people to shop and wander tirelessly. If they do need a break, there’s always a movie theater or a popular food chain nearby.  

Near the pedestrian zone stands a major historic landmark, the Red House Theater. The government recently completed the renovation of the building’s façade and converted the interior into a hipster market with contemporary designer shops. History is, after all, a profitable commodity in the tourism sector.

Twenty years ago, Xinqiding’s previous occupant was a toy store selling handcrafted wooden toys and candies. Before children had access to easy entertainment through iPads, they spent much more time outdoors. Simple handmade toys like bamboo dragonfly and yo-yo were popular items among kids. Sadly, this type of traditional toy store has vanished in Taiwan.

Photo Credit: Xinqiding / Facebook

Jia-wei used to walk by the shop every day. The location had been vacant for two decades since the previous owner retired and passed away. The adjacent units, too, have been abandoned and filled with scrap wood and old furniture. Last year, Jia-wei stumbled upon the listing when he decided to create a community space. The family of the previous owner had finally wanted to make use of the abandoned space again.

Jia-wei named Xinqiding after the village that was established during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan in the early 20th century. The written character “Xin ()” translated into “new,” implying a sense of renewal and reform. With a different vision in mind, Jia-wei changed the word to have the same pronunciation but a different meaning – “soul ()”.

He envisioned Xinqiding to be a place where people could interact and exchange their thoughts and cultural perspectives.

The interior design of Xinqiding shies away from the modern minimalist design. Vintage movie posters against the rustic yellow walls intend to transform the space into a time-travel experience for visitors. The tiny space is barely enough to fit two small tables, a cluster of local artisan handicraft, and a postcard stand featuring a Taiwanese artist’s retro designs.  

Xinqiding is a curated space first, a coffee shop second. Jia-wei has decorated the space with his precious collection of personal items, like his black and white photographs, vintage radio, and yellowing poetry books. The espresso machine behind the coffee bar was, ironically, the last purchase for the space.

“We wanted to recreate the atmosphere from Ming-liang Tsai’s movies, which were mostly filmed in Ximending in the 1990s,” Jia-wei explains. “The movie scenes included our memory for the public space, not just for the pleasure of viewing, but for our own feelings derived from our childhood years of wandering on those streets.”

Ming-liang Tsai’s debut film, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), echoed with Jia-wei’s nostalgia for his rebellious teenage years. The movie followed a few troubled teens and portrayed a “sinister feeling” that reminded Jia-wei of his growing up in Ximending.

Photo Credit: Xinqiding / Facebook

The now trendy district was a place of darkness then. At night, teenagers wandered on the streets, smoking, gambling, and seeking for trouble with the triad gangs. Street fights, drugs, and petty theft were common sights.

“The film captured young people’s feelings of isolation, a sense of helplessness, like there’s no exit for them at the time,” Jia-wei says.

Rebels felt like a mirror to Jia-wei’s life growing up in the 1990s in a conservative Taiwanese society. Teenagers were expected to have a university education. Those who failed the admissions became the outcasts – the ones who lingered on the streets of Ximending. The ominous environment Rebelshad captured in its time, however, exists only in memories and screens now. Over the years of neighborhood restructuring, the government has greatly reduced crime rate and increased mainstream retail activities in Ximending. 

Today, Ximending is still a thriving hub among teenagers, but the environment has changed. Smoking is largely prohibited. The video game arcades where people used to gamble illegally have closed. Some welcome the pleasant changes, others find the new façade of Ximending destroying diversity and traditional culture.  

Jean-Robert Thomann, 46, is a French filmmaker residing near Ximending. He discovered Xinqiding by chance and became friends with Jia-wei after a long chat over coffee. He was later invited to show his experimental film, My Short Story at the West Gate (2016), at Xinqiding and share his commentary with the viewers. The film’s main character was forced to wander around Ximending after hours.

“After midnight, Ximending has a completely different atmosphere. It quiets down, and you’ll suddenly see lots of homeless people sleeping on the streets,” Jean says.

As a witness of the neighborhood’s changes the years, Jean worries about the cultural decline in Ximending’s vicinity. He adores the old houses built outside of the shopping district, the cheap and delicious street food, and the older folk who stroll around leisurely. But those scenes are slowly replaced by luxury homes and commercial development.

“The new buildings are so expensive that only 7/11 and high-end restaurants can afford to rent them,” Jean complains. “And the new buildings all look the same without a trace of the traditional Taiwanese features.”

Photo Credit: Xinqiding / Facebook

Almost every tour guide book on Taipei recommends Ximending as a must-see destination. Many tourists praise the neighborhood as a shopping paradise with an abundance of clothing retailers and designer shops. Movie premieres and mini concerts happen frequently, attracting tourists and locals alike. Today’s Ximending is a place of diverse entertainment. 

“I don’t think Ximending has a diverse culture. It’s a singular kind of diversity. You can only find the same types of stores, like those popular crane claw machines, but not much genuine creativity,” Jia-wei says.

Thanks to the surprisingly affordable rent in Xinqiding, Jia-wei is able to keep up with the business. However, his lack of entrepreneurial skill barely helps to generate sustainable income for the business. His postcard sales amount to zero profit and his coffee menu is underpriced. On a good day, rarely, he earns around NT$ 1,000 by serving 10 cups of coffee.

“We can’t increase the price on the menu now, otherwise the neighbors would stop coming in,” Jia-wei says. We – Jia-wei often uses the pronoun “we”, as if he’s speaking on behalf of the community. The neighbors he’s referring to are the elderly residents who walk by the coffee shop daily.

Jia-wei continues, “I can handle the business for now because of the low rent. But if the rent increases, I might have to move or look into applying for a non-profit permit.”

Yayoi Chang, a museum coordinator, frequents Xinqiding on her days off. Yayoi loves observing Teddy by the staircase when she chats with Jia-wei casually. Their conversations often last longer than a cup of black coffee. Other customers sometimes bring their own pieces of artwork or antiques to spend an afternoon sharing anecdotes with Jia-wei; perhaps they find refuge in a small oasis hidden away from the ever-changing city.

“I don’t think Jia-wei is trying to fight against changes. He just wants to bring life back to a decaying place and revive its energy again,” Yayoi says. “But he has no idea how the future will pan out. Isn’t this like Taiwan itself? Our collective helplessness.” 


In My Dreams, I’ve Died a Thousand Times.

24 Jul

Panicking, I scrambled to dodge bullets in the middle of a student slaughter in a contemporary museum. It was Battle Royale on steroids. Men in army green combat uniforms were sweeping the floor with their rifles. Students in white uniforms were running like flies. In a matter of seconds, the white shirts turned maroon. The bodies piled on the ground, lifeless.

I don’t recall how I reached an elevator and escaped the bloodbath. The elevator went upward and reopened on the 12th floor, the administrative office. Another round of bullets could be waiting as the doors opened. The military could have infiltrated the whole building. Death awaited on the other side of the doors.


The doors opened. Two ladies behind the front desk were simply staring at their screens, unaware of what I had just survived. Quiet. It was business as usual.

My vision flashed to the museum’s entrance. Tour groups were still marveling at the paintings on the second floor. Business as usual.

Just outside of the building, the troops encircled the museum and more of them were rushing in. There was no way out.


I screamed in desperate silence, and I woke up, drenched in sweat.

The dream haunted me for days after. It wasn’t my first nightmare of the week, and it wasn’t the last.

I don’t sleep well in New York. I could never feel energized whenever I came home for a brief stopover. Only this time around I was determined to stay longer, for better or worse. During the first month, dreams of plane crashes were the norm. It was just a flight anxiety hangover, I thought, a good excuse to stop flying for awhile. Then, the nightmares slowly evolved into a murder, a witch-hunt, a massacre.

But I never witnessed my own death — even after the plane had crashed into a skyscraper — even though death was the only certainty. I’ve only seen the physical objects fracturing into pieces, the moment shattering into fragments. What came after was a void, or my consciousness — let’s call it consciousness for the lack of vocabulary. In the end, I had awakened to what we call the real world.

Is it real? My nightmares almost shared the same force of reality, bolstered by the vividness of details and the extreme of emotions. In my dreams, I’ve died a thousand times, yet I don’t know any better about death than I know about life. These two subjects have both become, to me, as familiar as they’re perplexing.

I’m living between deaths, dreaming between lives.


less poetically,

I’m trapped in New York pursuing life and routine, but my mind still travels.

A Pizza’s Survival Guide to New York City

12 Jun

New Yorkers simply don’t say no to pizza, whether it’s a dollar slice from 2 Bros Pizza or a classic coal-fired oven slice from John’s Pizzeria.

Being a New Yorker requires a strict adherence to the following rules:
#1: Never say no to pizza.
#2: New Yorkers rise above stupid rules.

For the record, all rules are stupid.

After 20 months of travel, I came home to the land of attitudes (correction: opportunities) on a nippy mid-April evening. Excited about spending time in New York again, I immediately took up Cameron’s offer to visit the Empire State Building.

Spring was late to arrive this year. People hurried around in their winter jackets on a Wednesday evening. Some were rushing home, others heading to their first dates. Cameron and I caught up over a post-workday cocktail at Bo Peep, a dark and stylish bar nestling beneath a midtown restaurant. The red-velvet banquettes and dim lighting seduced people away from the bustling, filthy streets. Men in their elaborate suits and women dressed to impress were lounging around to share two hours of intimacy. Did I dress well enough to fit in? Damn it.

We then proceeded to our 7 pm dinner reservation upstairs at The Rag Trader, a hip restaurant in a former garment factory. Its overdone industrial interior, embellished with a blinding neon sign that read “blah” in my head, was another glamorous attempt at pleasing the fellow New Yorkers. The extravagance, though, was a necessary prelude to our trip up the Empire State Building. It was a subtle reminder that screamed: Welcome Back to New York.

Although unprepared, I rather enjoyed a glimpse of the glittery metropolitan lifestyle. After living out of a suitcase and rotating the same five outfits for a while, I missed having an elaborate closet. If a girl could hope, I also wished to own more than three pairs of shoes again. Overpriced dinner and cocktail could be desirable too, sometimes. And eventually, I shall be able to commit to owning a flatscreen TV without feeling tied down by its needy weight.

After enjoying our nice meal, we left the restaurant with a box of leftover gourmet pizza, ready for our grand tour to the Empire State Building. As soon as we hit the street corner, a homeless guy with his bicycle (an upper-class homeless man, I assumed) walked up to us and asked for money. He seemed warm enough in his beanie and down jacket, but he was hungry for food. After Cameron offered him a dollar or two, I wanted to give him the leftover pizza.


I nodded and raised the pizza box ever so slightly.

“God no, I don’t want no pizza! I want hot dogs – hot, hot dogs, man,” he demanded.

“…uh…I’m so sorry,” I lowered the pizza box in hope of easing his anger.

He was appalled, perhaps even furious that I had offered pizzas instead of hot dogs. As soon as I apologized for my grave mistake, I walked away bursting into laughter. My poor pizza, rejected, denied of its value.

“I cannot believe he said no to pizza!” Cameron exclaimed.

A slew of emotions rushed through my veins: I was shocked, amused, and thrilled at the bizarreness of it all. Remember rule #1? New Yorkers never say no to pizza. Yet a hungry New Yorker had just refused my pizza and insisted on having a hot dog – the best rejection one could ever ask for.

The media often spoke of New York-style pizza, fashion, manner, whatsoever. This man, a man of integrity, was a New York-style homeless. He knew what he wanted: a hot dog, not pizza nor bullshit. He was on the hunt for a perfectly hot hot dog. A thin-crust pizza simply couldn’t have fulfilled his desire even if it saved him from starvation. The triumph of rule #2: New Yorkers rise above all stupid rules… even hunger, in this case.

To this man, I say, keep your eye on the prize, and someday, may New York City bless you with the hottest hot dog you can ever dream of.

If you wish to know what happened to my lonely box of pizza afterward: it had gone up to the Empire State Building, and raised a middle finger at the hot dog stands while overlooking Manhattan in the biting wind. 

Hong Kong: Underneath the Skyscrapers

1 May

When foreigners told me how much they loved Hong Kong, I was always at a loss. Did they mean they loved partying in Lan Kwai Fong? The delicious food? Or the misery clouding over the city?

Growing up, I knew Hong Kong had the most enchanting skyline even though I didn’t see much of anywhere else. I was so proud of my birthplace as a teenager. Coming back to Hong Kong as an adult, however, yielded a different perspective.

The streets in Hong Kong were a lot narrower than I remembered. People walked at such a nauseating speed that, I could stand in the middle of the street and felt completely invisible as a swarm of people rushing through and around me. Senior citizens strolled around painfully slow compared to the crowd, but they didn’t seem to live in the same dimension as everyone else. They, too, were invisible.

Then came the infamous subdivided units. A 75-sqft apartment… No, a 75-sqft human cage cost somewhere between $400 USD to $1200 USD a month, depending on the area. It’d fit exactly a mini bathroom, a bed, and a bedside table. How could people expect or define comfort in this kind of living environment?

Pearl of the Orient, what a proud nickname for a city so vibrant, yet so small and congested. Hong Kong’s iconic cityscape features 317 skyscrapers today, far outnumbering New York City’s at 257 and Dubai’s at 177. It’s an impressive number accompanied by a bitter irony: the abundance of high-rise buildings becomes a lure for people to jump to their own deaths.

In Hong Kong, youth suicide happens every 9.3 days on average, and at least half of these suicides involve jumping from a height. These statistics were meaningless until an old friend of mine became one of them. I didn’t know how to react to the news other than staring at the vivid reports of the tragedy online. The depth of his despair must have been more painful than the thought of leaping to a brutal death.

How much does one have to bear before making a deliberate decision to cease life once and for all? How ill is this society if a young adult’s suicide is nothing but another forgettable headline?

Hong Kong always tops the chart in terms of wealth and productivity as an international city. But all else is neglected in the face of economic progress: affordable housing, proper prenatal care, mental health resources, education. Even living space is at a dire scarcity. High pressures penetrate all aspects of life. The skyscrapers, unfortunately, are just the glorious facade of a deteriorating society.

CNN described mental illness in Hong Kong as a secret burden. Cultural stigma and the lack of resources have pushed too many people off the edges of the high-rises. On average, a city should have a ratio of 10 psychiatrists per 100,000 people. In Hong Kong, the ratio is 4.9 psychiatrists to 100,000, and a therapy visit costs almost $400 USD an hour. The ratio is reflective of the systematic imbalance in, not just mental health, but all fronts of the society.

The list of sociopolitical issues could go on without end, but who cares? Most of the people on this planet have their own cross to bear. Only my generation who grew up in this city would share the heaviness of its downfall. I now feel pain, instead of pride, as I watch my birth city eroding away.

I was the lucky one who escaped. As I kept reading about youth suicides in Hong Kong, I couldn’t help but think that it could have been me. My brutal death would have been reported and my bloody face would have been featured in the newspaper. I would have gained my 15 minutes of fame in yet another unsurprising headline. If I never had the chance to move to New York, it could have been me.

I was the lucky one who escaped.


Taipei, Taiwan: A Small But Certain Happiness // 小確幸

14 Feb

Yeah… life sucks, we agreed and sighed, longing for an answer to life’s absurdity.

It was a breezy winter evening in Taipei when I walked home with my roommate Yayoi.

I remember our routine, awkward Airbnb introduction followed by the first night of an eerie silence in the 3-bedroom apartment. It was so quiet that even my slow breathing seemed like a disruption. I had just been back from Tainan, where people frequently laughed, chatted, and gathered for hot pots. Taipei instantly seemed much more aloof in a stark contrast to the cozy nights down south.

Strangely enough, I came to appreciate the tranquility in the new apartment rather quickly. Yayoi was a translator who always worked long hours on her laptop, and another roommate was barely home. Having to work late nights as well, I always chose to work in bed instead of sitting properly at a desk. But through my window, I could tell if Yayoi was still working. There was a soothing comfort in seeing a warm orange hue coming from the lamp, knowing that someone was just a doorstep away.

In the morning, or rather, at noon, I often strolled through the empty streets in Shida to look for food. Many of the stores would still be preparing for the day’s business or just opening their doors. Shida Night Market used to attract many food lovers and tourists alike, but through a neighborhood restructuring, now Shida is more of a peaceful residential area. The convenience was kept intact, though, with a variety of restaurants, convenience stores, clothing retailers, and hair salons. It was everything I loved about Taipei in one place, minus the crowds, which equaled perfection.

Yong Kang Street Taipei

Strolling around Yong Kang Street

My quarter-life crisis definitely crept up on me since 2018 struck. Nonetheless, the slow-paced city living in Taipei was a saving grace to my looming depression. I lingered in bookstores and coffee shops to pass time and think about where my life was heading. In the physical sphere, there wasn’t much to worry about besides my clothes being eternally damp from the neverending rain. I walked a lot slower and spent a lot of time just breathing in the atmosphere.

There were so much creativity and personality instilled in everything I came in touch with: local coffee shops run by weird owners; street markets that had different stalls every day; an independent bookstore owned by a rambling old man; antique stores that were filled with literal trash, etc. All these little corners of life gave me yet another vision of what my future could be, or should be. I’ve been living a rather comfortable lifestyle, but why couldn’t I look as happy as the little old man who sat in the same chair every day?

In Taiwan, 小確幸 (“a small but certain happiness”) is a prevalent life philosophy, especially among the millennials. It’s a term popularized by Haruki Murakami in his novel Afternoon in the Islets of Langerhans, where he wrote: “without this kind of small yet certain happiness, life is but a desert in drought.” 小確幸 can be anything found in mundanity: an iced coffee on a hot day, a butter-filled pineapple bun at 2 pm, Yayoi’s lamp lighting up my window at 3 am. The lesson of a small but certain happiness was a souvenir from my stay in Taiwan. It’s a steady flow of minor contentment, hard to be felt after leaving the environment that breeds it, yet ought to be practiced regardless.

A coffee shop on a quiet street in Jiufen.

On one of my last nights in Taipei, I was walking home with Yayoi, just chatting about random things as usual. We had spent a late afternoon in an artist-owned coffee shop and had a delicious meal at a Thai restaurant next door. Having been a pessimistic person lately, I complained about how dreadful it was to live life on a daily basis. How we worked our asses off for the sake of nothingness. How meaningless chores consumed most of our energy. And I said it all in a rather flat tone as if I was just reiterating a common fact.

Instead of giving me pep talks, Yayoi just casually agreed and said: 對啊 生活真的很麻煩 / yeah, life is really annoying. We shared a long sigh, a brief pause, and at last, a giggle of relief. What a petty complaint about the pettiness of life. What an irony that we found a fleeting second of joy in lamenting the dreadfulness of it.

Perhaps that was it — at the very end of an unanswerable question of life only comes an apathetic laugh. Then, we simply move on and live the questions without attempting to answer them again.

An Unfinished Road Trip

8 Feb

Like good old teenage days, a group of us were taking the MTR for an exciting day trip. We were all caught up in chatter when L suddenly decided to get off the train and leave us.

“Hey, wrong stop! We haven’t seen all the places yet!” I yelled.

“It’s okay. We’ll go in the next life,” he turned around and said with a calming smile.

I wanted to pull him back. Instead, I woke up in the dark, in my small Airbnb room in Hong Kong. That’s L’s farewell, a year too late.

The newspaper wrote that your body smashed on top of a truck and bounced off to the road. Did the stupid truck hurt you? I hope it didn’t. Let the rest of us feel that pain on your behalf. We won’t go anywhere else in the next life because I wish there isn’t one, for any of us. Rest easy at your stop, L.

南十三 / Nan-Shisan: Alternative Coffee Culture in Taiwan

22 Jan

Tainan, Taiwan.

In the narrow, intertwining alleyway of old brick houses, we paused in front of a rusty, sky blue door. It looked like a private home entrance without any business sign. I peeked through the mesh window and saw a mid-aged man conversing with a younger gentleman. Behind them was a modest cupboard with siphon coffee makers and an old-fashioned water dispenser sitting on top.

“Is this 南十三 (Nan-Shisan / ‘South 13’)?” I asked, lowering my head to show my face through the mesh window.

The mid-aged man raised his eyes through his thin-rimmed glasses and signaled us to go in. He dressed as if he’d just woken up in a comfortable track jacket, and his hair slightly messy. With his permission, we walked into his space like Alice walking into the wonderland… of coffee.


南十三 / Nan-Shisan: Tainan’s Most Hidden Coffee Shop

南十三 is a coffee shop in Tainan located inside of a 300-year-old house. Its crude interior didn’t resemble any cafe I’ve seen. There’s a long wooden table consuming the center of the small space, with six or seven chairs around it. The owner, 文哥 (Wen-ge), stood behind the table with a simple setup of his siphon coffee makers. A set of large speakers stood by the wall full of classical CDs. Meanwhile, a symphony brimming with passion was playing in the background, but only to accentuate the coffee notes.

“If you want water, pour it yourself,” he pointed at the water dispenser on the cupboard. “No menu here, you’ll just have whatever I’m making.”

We nodded obediently, amused.

“It’s $100 twd per person, just so you know the price. Don’t worry about being robbed,” he continued lightheartedly.

“Yes, we know. Our friend has already told us about the ritual,” I smiled.

He raised his eyes again and said, “oh really?”

Through the brief second of his softened facial expression, I thought, “YES, we’re in!” I assume he’s glad that Chloe and I weren’t just naive tourists who stumbled upon this place via the media.


We chatted up the younger gentleman next to us about Tainan while Wen-ge went about his siphon magic with a faint smile on his face. Several minutes later, a couple walked in and sat down in the corner like it’s their usual spot. They casually told Wen-ge that they were going back to Taipei for the holidays and wouldn’t be able to visit him in the coming weeks. If this wasn’t a coffee shop, I’d think they were having a family conversation.

Life seemed to work that way in Tainan, where customers had faces and names, and business owners had personalities and notable reputations. Business transactions were beyond cash-product exchange; they were personal, even meaningful at times.


Coffee as a Communal Experience

Every time Wen-ge brewed a round of coffee, he’d let us smell the coffee grinds first and explain their origins and special notes. Then, he’d pour everyone a small glass to taste. In that kind of communal environment where you share the same coffee with everyone else, you also start sharing your life stories and travel adventures. Remember the time when you talked to random strangers around you at the bar? 南十三 was like that for us, except we’re under the influence of coffee instead of alcohol.

What’s special about the coffee in 南十三? Instead of using a machine roaster, Wen-ge hand fries the green beans in a ceramic pot. This method, not to mention the difficulty, retains more of the coffee bean’s original flavor and magnifies each origin’s special note. Although light roasts are trending in Taiwan, Wen-ge still prefers medium roasts for the denser body.

What I love the most is the absence of a menu. Imagine visiting an artist’s studio: you’d breathe in the atmosphere, engage in an inspiring conversation, and appreciate the space that’s crafted by a creative mind.

Back in New York, coffee is merely what we need to survive the day. In Croatia, coffee is a joyful excuse for people to sit around and do nothing. But in Taiwan, coffee is a craft, in which, we admire the barista’s meticulous precision, consistency, and quite simply, his/her devotion to the love of coffee.

I remember walking out of the coffee shop spellbound, like Alice in Wonderland waking up from her dream. This is why I love traveling, I thought. To encounter bizarre people and things that leave me in awe, thinking life isn’t real.

A Picture Perfect Day Trip to Ljubljana, Slovenia

19 Dec

Ljubljana, what an intriguing name for a capital city. My love for the Slovenian capital started when I searched for its pronunciation on YouTube. No one really knows the origin of the name Ljubljana. Some say it stands for a flooding river. Others point out the Slavic prefix “ljub-” means to love. And I… will take the latter interpretation.

Train Travel Between Zagreb and Ljubljana

I only came to know of Ljubljana when I was exploring day trip options from Zagreb, Croatia. The two capital cities are only 2.5 hours apart, making Ljubljana a popular weekend destination for Croatian locals and travelers alike.

The convenience of train travel in Europe never ceased to amaze me. Two hours of train ride could get me from one capital city to another, with a different language and currency. The railway system, a triumph of modernity, knitted European borders and societies together with steam engines and steel tracks. It essentially forced people to rethink social mobility, geography and so much more that was once unimaginable. I sound like a Victorian traveler who’s never seen a locomotive before, but I’m sure you understand the romance of train travel!

Seat 61 is the ultimate train travel bible that helped with my route planning in Europe. Taking Seat 61’s advice, I bought my train ticket to Ljubljana several days earlier. The round-trip ticket from Zagreb to Ljubljana only cost a jaw-dropping €18 — budget travel at its finest. 


A Note on Prešeren Square

Hopping off the train bright and early, I strolled to the main square in a pleasant morning breeze. I could almost tell if I’d like a place within the first two minutes. A natural smile always crawled its way onto my face if the new destination pleased me. Ljubljana was one of them.

Like all other town squares in Europe, Prešeren Square is a central place of happenings. In the summertime, you can catch sight of an installation titled Ljubljana’s Own Weather. You’d see raindrops falling within a magic circle in front of the church, but it’s completely dry everywhere else. I thought it’s a weird weather phenomenon before I finally realized the almost invisible sprinklers were hanging on a wire above the circle!

Prešeren Square took its name not after a general or a great leader, but a Slovene poet, France Prešeren. The Homer of Slovenia, who also wrote prolifically about his unfulfilled love, Julija. A monument of Prešeren was also erected on the square, an emphasis of his cultural importance.

I suppose a country that salutes to its national poet more than anyone else is a romantic country in itself. 🙂


My Favorite Part: Ljubljanica Kanal

Ljubljanica Kanal

You can hit all the sightseeing spots in Ljubljana in one day. It’s that small.

Neither the historical landmarks nor the farmer’s market impressed me as much as the Ljubljanica river. Makalonca was the perfect bar for people watching because it’s right down the river. Boys were paddling and fighting in the river and sometimes there’s a river cruise boat with a rapper? Grab a beer, and it’ll be hard to leave.

Mexico City: Life After a Devastating Earthquake

29 Nov

Earthquakes are sterile. You can only remember them by the year, the magnitude, and the number of deaths.

Mexico City earthquake: September 2017; Magnitude 7.1; 228 deaths and thousands injured; 44 buildings collapsed and over a thousand deemed structurally unsafe. How come no one names massive earthquakes like how the hurricanes are given generic names? As if John or Maria can characterize natural disasters in a memorable way.

Two weeks after the series of devastating earthquakes, Tarene and I arrived in Mexico City with excitement and slight worries. The city was quieter than usual, nonetheless carried on its daily routines. We barely spotted any foreigners as if we were visiting an unexplored territory. Pointing out any gringo on the street oddly became a mini-game for us. Our apartment building was even quieter — newly built but strangely empty. The temperature in our building was constantly a few degrees colder than outside, highlighting the eerie silence even further.

I was worried that another earthquake might strike when we’re asleep. The earthquake survival manual advised not to go anywhere if you’re in bed. Simply put the pillow over your head and neck… and hope for the best? I had restless imaginations of how an earthquake would crush our skulls in our sleep. To prevent rolling myself out of the window in case of an earthquake, I’d purposely sleep away from it. Was I going through a phantom PTSD even though I wasn’t there during the earthquakes…? How did everyone else sleep at night?

For the first week of our stay, we already experienced a variety of apartment problems: power outage, water outage in the middle of a shower, a lack of toilet pressure, intelligent mosquitoes, etc. Every day we dealt with an inconvenience but we laughed it off… at least the building is structurally safe. Aside from utility issues, we each hilariously struggled with making the most basic foods like white rice and oatmeal. Who knew it’d be so hard to perfect cooking oatmeal?

When we stepped outside, Mexico City almost looked no different than before. The morning streets were undisturbed and the rush hour traffic was still as congested as ever. But the aftermath of the earthquakes became more vivid when we took a surprising turn of a corner or walked two blocks from our brunch spots. Evacuated buildings with cracks and broken windows surrounded by caution tapes. Collapsed buildings where we could peek at the once vibrant interior decor. An entire street blocked off with a white flag hanging that read, “No photos please. Respect the victims.” Some affected residents built temporary shelters out of camping equipment, not knowing when they can have a home again. The streets turned into a playground for the children, who were smiling and running around without a hint of despair.

For all that we know, reconstruction is a lengthy struggle in Mexico due to heavy corruption and poor governance. It’s always the people who unite, never the government, my Mexican colleague said. The only reassurance is the cheerful spirit among proud Mexicans, those who hold their clenched fists up high and strong.

By the end of our stay, Mexico City pretty much returned to its normal pace. Loud tourists started pouring into our building right before Day of the Dead, breaking the shortlived tranquility. An interruption I awkwardly appreciated, because the city was waking up from a nightmare.

Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores.

Sing, and don’t cry.