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In a couple of hours, I will be 23. No matter how much we try to convince ourselves that birthdays are no longer worth celebrating, there is no denying that we will acknowledge the day on which we were born. We can say that it’s just an arbitrary day to which we ascribe an arbitrary meaning, but isn’t it the case for just about everything else?

23 seemed a much more onerous number than 22. It’s on the fringe of having a consistent adult life. Questions about the meaning of things seem frivolous. Responsibilities weigh in on decisions. It wouldn’t be a forgiving decade. Chance has it that I have so many unanswered questions. While conviction grows ever stronger, so does doubt.

The fork ahead never seemed so apparent. I thought I have chosen, but choosing is a never-ending chore. And there are no wrong paths. I could have mistaken this fact; it might just be a belief that I wouldn’t deny myself.

I’m turning 23, and all that is palpable is my hollow hope, my blind courage, and my insecurity. So much for this conviction – I can hardly speak my mind.

"But I am young no longer now; for sixty years my heart's 
been gone. 
To play its dreadful music there, beyond the valley of the
sun.
I watch with envious eyes and mind, the single-souled,
who dare not feel.
The wind that blows beyond the moon, who do not hear 
the Fairy Reel.
If you don't hear the Fairy Reel, they will not pause to steal
your breath.
When I was young I was a fool. So wrap me up in dreams
and death."
The Fairy Reel, Neil Gaiman

I’d wished myself a fool anyhow. A 1000 times over.

Oh kids, aren’t they a noisy bunch? Mid-afternoon, the bus that gets to the train station would be packed with students on their way home. The top deck, without the close supervision of the bus captain, would overflow with their excitement. Surely, it’s their favourite time of the day; it’s a momentary relief from teachers, parents and expectations. Even the most studious children would forget about their homework until they get home. Some share glorious feats of slaying the great green gargoyle in their virtual quests, others sneak treasured snacks amongst their closest pals. The common denominator is their chatter – loud, sincere, and unrestrained.

It shouldn’t be surprising that many aspects of our living experience follow an inverted parabolic path. In our childhood and adolescence, we crawl and climb and hop to higher grounds. At some point, the roads take a turn downhill, often sooner than we would expect them to. Independence is one example; the sweet taste of the first paycheque would hardly portend the need to have someone else change our diapers when we are all decrepit and broken. Other factors that are associated with independence, such as ability or income, follow the same pattern.

Reticence is another. As we grow older, we speak less of our minds, and perhaps more lies. Could we be less verbally expressive on the whole, as we pass into adulthood? A study of the average number of words spoken each day by people of different ages would be interesting. Past the tipping point, one wouldn’t be too far from being that nagging grandmamma or that grumbling grandpapa.

No doubt I’m generalizing, and over-simplifying. If there was only a single turning point in life, it would be too predictable, too easy. Only in the twists and turns we are lost and found, and then there are those who wander.

I’d wished that I could speak my mind more often, although it wanders off every now and then.

A couple of days ago this was on my feed: Hanging with High School Hank from the vlogbrothers. Who? John and Hank Green, if these names ring a bell. VidCon? Nerdfighteria? The fault in our stars? OK I’ve not read the book or watched the film, but you would probably recognize the last mention. Check out their original channel, or watch vids from their CrashCourse channel and you’ll probably learn more things than can be taught in business school pffft! (OK no hating this time around, considering how grim the previous post was.)

On a lighter note, I thought I should make a list of “Things to achieve in Year X”. I know I’m not in high school any more (sigh) but hey! I’m still young! (right…) So here goes nothing!

2014: Bake an awesome birthday cake.
2015: Finish The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir.
2016: Be free.
2017: America!
2018: Chocolate.
2019: Work somewhere in Spain/France.
2020: Make bread.
2021: To the edge of the world.
2022: Buy an espresso machine.
2023: The Great family meal.
2024: Israel/Syria/Egypt, if there’re still there.
2025: Learn a new language.
2026: Live 10 days without any communication device.
2027: Cook eggs.
2028: Send 10 letters.
2029: Invent a new snack.
2030: Balloons!
2031: Run.
2032: Keep running.
2033: Venice, if it’s still there.
2034: Stay on a boat.
2035: Visit a coffee plantation.
2036: Wish upon a star.
2037: Write something and get it published.
2038: Read a novel overnight.
2039: Northern Lights, if there’re still there.
2040: Look forward, if I’m still here.

Yeap so I guess that’s a pretty long list. No particular reasons for anything, just whatever that comes to mind. It will be nice to look at this list again, a few years, decades down the road. (Hello the 40-year-old-me, this is you when you’re 23. Can you imagine you’re actually typing this with your fingers when they have yet to invent a consciousness translator?)

For most parts of my life, as short as it is and for as far as I could remember, learning has never been a chore. Quiet joys comes from deriving mathematical models, identifying historical significances, or understanding how water, flour, yeast and salt transform into bread. There were times when I had tried to tear down the doors of my classroom in kindergarten, and when the cane was a study companion. Yet, I have never taken learning as an obligation to achieve some other goal. It is a necessity in itself, as much as it is a desire. For if one could not learn, then one couldn’t be better. If one couldn’t be better, one could only become worse.

Of late, school reeks of rusty metal bars, and curriculum paints the classroom walls a sombre grey. Even so, the nail-scratched markings counting down the days wouldn’t fade. Projects are the shackles, and class participation – roll calls. Resolve is the colour of the uniforms that could only fade; motivation is the meagre light that penetrates the high walls – present, but without warmth.

In the usual case, two paragraphs of cathartic indulgence wouldn’t suffice. One would expect some contorted transition to whimsical talk of coffee or cakes (or both all the better), almost always forcibly so. Today, I’m having ice-cream instead. Maybe, just maybe, there is this little inner imp trying to orchestrate despair so that my old friend would take pity and visit me. O blind courage, where art thou?

At a great place, with an even greater mentor.

At a great place, with an even greater mentor.

People say summer is a dream. I couldn’t be less sure, on the eve of a new semester. Am I waking up into a dream, or am I falling into reality? Ever since my enrolment at the university, my life has been oscillating between who I am and who I want to be. This incoherence is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be discomforting on occasions. At least, I know where I am headed.

My mom tells me that when I was really young, I wanted to be a fireman. In primary school, I wanted to be an astronomer. For a while, I wanted to be a doctor, then, a scientist. I couldn’t remember if there was a time when I didn’t at least have a vague idea of what I want to be. I don’t need a fixed direction, but I can’t live with having no direction at all. That’s me.

“My name is Han, and I want to be a pastry chef.”

This proclamation sounds frivolous and strange enough, but it helps me stay on track. I don’t suppose it takes such difficulty for most to find their place in the kitchen, but I could use a little more clarity. Business schools and commercial kitchens are rather disparate worlds, and I suck at transitions.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that summer break is over. The previous month has been eventful – leaving Pollen, a week’s stint in the military, a trip to Tokyo, and being a photographer for Freshmen Orientation Week. This summer has been more than rewarding and I hope that the next would be just as fantastic, if not better. Before then, the second year of school wouldn’t be short of adventures to look forward to! For one, I’m taking another French module, super! Getting to see friends around in school will be awesome too, and not forgetting an exchange programme to Hong Kong in the second semester!

As usual, I’ll promise more time for baking and French. More reading too, with more positivity. Here’s to a great year ahead!

The Land of Tsukemen.

Nothing beats a bowl of Tsukemen.

There are a thousand and one articles on the internet reiterating the benefits of travelling. I don’t see a reason to encourage people to travel, unless they are on the related industry’s payroll. When our ancestors settled down and took up agriculture, their thirst to explore, so as to understand, only grew stronger. We have never left our nomadic tendencies behind. It is still in our nature to explore the worlds beyond our own.

Silly talk aside, after a year of freshman toil and a summer internship, I decided that I needed a break to simply relax. I had conceived a solo trip but it turned out to be a father-and-son trip, which I didn’t mind. Except that there were fewer bits of relaxing, and more of trying to be a better son. Leading a trip can be more tiring than wandering off on your own. In any case, nothing beats family and my dad’s pretty cool. Thanks Dad.

Japan never disappoints. It isn’t a perfect country, nor can it sway my attachment to Paris, but its wonders are boundless. It tops my list of most-visited countries, yet there remains so much more uncovered treasures, waiting to be discovered on my next visit. And Japan is so much more than Tokyo. Admittedly, for Tokyo, I’ve gotten used to marvelling at its amazing produce, unparalleled hospitality, and endless food basements. On this trip, I sought out a few special places, which have impressed upon me subtly, yet indelibly. By chance, these places line up in their respective categories: Coffee, Tsukemen, Pastry, and Sushi. I will write about these highlights individually, in time to come, otherwise this would make a very long post. In short, dedication is key to excellence, and the Japanese know it best.

Who can walk away from fireworks?

Who can walk away from fireworks?

Moving on from all things edible, this trip also coincided with the Sumidagawa fireworks festival, which also happens to be on my dad’s birthday. I don’t like crowds, but I couldn’t walk away from my first Japanese festival. Everyone had put on their yukata-s, brought bentos for their picnics along Sumida River. Night came and so Tokyo celebrated my dad’s birthday, with lights and sparkles incomparable to the little candle on my dad’s cake, which we had later in the night. Surely the crowd was nearly unbearable, but it is difficult to regret attending such a festival.

No regrets too, to have stayed in Tokyo for six days. It was slightly longer than necessary, but not having to rush from city to city was a blessing. Perhaps it would take a few years before I return to this city, but there is no doubt that I would visit again. Till then!

The sunrise by the Flower Dome.

The sunrise by the Flower Dome.

It is July, and summer break is almost over. It has been a tasteful experience; being back in the kitchen felt liberating. Compared to school, long hours for most of the week has been quite a strain both mentally and physically. But to acknowledge that one has pushed on further toward one’s goal can be quite fulfilling. It is not to say that I am anywhere near an end-goal, if there is one, but I am happy with making progress, however small it is. It is something.

On the other hand, the idea of nothingness is dangerous. We avoid it, although there is nothing to be afraid of. We fear being compounded into nobodies making unnoticeable differences, of having a muted existence in the infinity of the past and the future. This explains our constant strive to be somebody.

Then, the problem of that is: losing somebody is worse than losing nobody. As much as we will our presence to be everlasting, we are mortal. Like ephemeral boulders, we can only surrender our fleeting bodies to the permanence of flow – that is the species as a whole. Nevertheless, only rarely do we hold this perspective, and never do we let it hold us back.

In the twists and turns of the tides, we always have to say goodbyes. It isn’t the same as losing someone, but we would never know. We cannot step into the same river twice; we change more unpredictably. This summer, I have lost count of how many times I had to bid farewell to somebody. Friends and old-friends, colleagues and ex-colleagues, as well as mentors, who always will be mentors. Farewells will always be difficult, like it or not. To deny its inconvenience is to swim against the currents. Peter Pan would say, ‘never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.’

We tend to brush off fairy tales like these, thinking we have outgrown them. But really, how do we know that we have actually grown up? I like to think that there’s a part of us that never grows up, that we can always sit by the river and feel complete, no matter how many good or bad goodbyes we’ve been through. Of course there are different types of fairy tales. Brothers Grimm against Disney. Even if we are really grown up, we still can learn a lot from them, and from everything else. One of the most heart-wrenching goodbyes in Disney’s films is when Sulley had to close the door in Boo’s room. How more metaphorical can a farewell be than to close a door that would never open to the same place again?

Just as Wendy leaves the window open for Peter, Mike puts the shredded door back together for Sulley. Some things would have changed, others not. We will never know unless we forget, which is neither difficult nor easy. What we must not forget is how we have been changed, for better or for good, by people we meet. That is one way of expressing gratitude and appreciation.

In this season of goodbyes, I am feeling surprising positive, because I am excited for those who are embarking on new chapters of their lives, right here or somewhere out there. I am moving on too, to the second year of university life. I will be taking a little break before that – a week in green uniform, and the other in Tokyo. I will miss walking past the sunrise by the bay, making chocolates in a giant greenhouse, and being around the awesome people in Pollen pastry team.

We are boulders; we are rivers. Till we meet again, halfway through the woods. Bon courage !