My College Essay on 4chan

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You guys – remember when 4chan was a thing? It might very well still be, but I don’t run in those circles anymore and I think the last time I heard someone utter the word “4chan” out loud may have been years ago.

Nevertheless – I was trying to clean up my computer when I saw this essay I wrote during my junior year of college. It was for a media and communications course. I have to say… I’m impressed with 21 year old Jin. It might not be the most STRUCTURALLY compelling essay, and there may be some grammatical idiosyncrasies but some of the turns of phrases are rather compelling.

Here it is, in all its glory:

Hejin Chua – Dec 16, 2011

The difficulty in defining 4chan as a community is largely due to the anonymous nature of its users. With no single identity with which users can be attributed to, the populace that makes up 4chan will necessarily be nomadic, shifting, and amorphous. Being wedded more to time than space, the users that you see on 4chan today might not be the same users that are on 4chan tomorrow. This ephemeral nature of 4chan personhood also allows the same individuals to adopt different positions at different times. The lack of a consistent user base leads to a structural instability, which is exemplified by divisive ideologies that have since spawned from 4chan. Despite our inability to adequately place certain individuals as 4channers and construct an all-encompassing ideological manifesto that we can confidently attribute to them, 4chan is still a community which is governed by a unique etiquette and language. 4chan’s temporal and transgressive nature also attracts users of a certain strain: those who are digitally literate, immune to the gross and shocking, and constantly clamoring for additional stimulation.

 

The social media platforms of today all strongly stress the importance of having a single, coherent identity that can be tied back to your true identity. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Foursquare, tumblr, and so on can all be integrated with each other. Update one social media profile and it is possible for all your social media profiles to be updated en masse. However, 4chan subverts this by being an identity-free community that turns this notion of unity over its head. 4chan is where you can let loose, where you don’t have to conform, where your voice is no less powerful than the next person’s.

 

While 4chan’s anonymity might give rise to an ambiguous ideology, it also means that the community is less susceptible to groupthink. Consequently, 4chan is an excellently fertile ground for memes to grow and disperse. Memefactory refers to the Internet meme as a “content creation game”. In a community where there are no holds barred to creative expression, the power of crowd-sourcing that corporations can only dream about come to full force here. An image is posted, and 4channers then put their own spin on it by adding captions, superimposing other images, or converting it into multi-framed comics. Several mainstream Internet memes were borne out of the brain-churn that is 4chan: Socially Awkward Penguin, LOLcats, Rage Guy and many more. 4chan’s ability to collectively generate diverse and vibrant content is antithetical to one of the key tenets of the Western Hemisphere: that capitalism and private incentive is what gives rise to innovation and progress. The people of the 4chan community instead allow their individual identities to be subsumed by 4chan, while their artwork achieves anonymous fame.

 

The 4chan community has given birth to several expressions that would mean little elsewhere. Part of what sets apart one community from another are the kinds of “rituals, accents and objects” (140, Hebdige) that that particular community chooses to adopt. Since the 4chan community is relegated to the virtual world, physical artifacts such as a punk’s safety pins and ripped tee shirts (Hebdige, 141) are not relevant to 4channers. However, 4chan is rife with bizarre, offensive and esoteric expressions, some of which mean little outside of the context of the imageboard. For example, the /b/ board’s nameless users call themselves /b/tards, a nod to the general mentality that no one is to leave 4chan uninsulted. “Fuck”, “shit” and “nigger” are used liberally. “Tits or GTFO” refers to the consensus that pictures of females on /b/ merely exist to titillate. Original posters are “OPs”, newcomers are “newfags”, people who try (and usually fail) to create an uproar are “trollfags”, source is “sauce”- and many more. The expressions in 4chan are full of abbreviations, portmanteau and offensiveness. They speak in a dialect that is not immediately apparent to the casual browser, and it is this common understanding of what certain expressions mean that lends 4chan a sense of community.

 

Anonymous arose out of 4chan ten years ago as a loosely-organized “pseudo-political activist group” who is responsible for “for a variety of unrelated pranks, hacks, and protests beginning in 2007”. (Stryker) It would be erroneous to conflate the 4chan users and the group Anonymous. What both groups have in common is their proclivity for the irreverent, mischievous and offensive. Anonymous, like 4chan, also has no barrier to entry. It is a group that does not have initiation rites and screening procedures. However, Anonymous is a subgroup that spawned from 4chan, and is positioned as a group with a political agenda that aims to protect “freedom, free speech, privacy, the individual, and meritocracy”. (Coleman, 513) Anonymous integrated a political agenda but at the same time tamed the lulz of 4chan. Anonymous did not originate as a political enterprise. Anon is like a bonfire, that can be left alone and it grows by itself, and how it has grown, resulting in ideological or organizational contradictions. (514, Coleman)

 

It is key to note that Anonymous is inherently divisive because its anonymous nature allows its users to assume the moniker for various seemingly unrelated causes. Surely not every single individual who was part of hacking Mastercard would have found trolling Jessi Slaughter a worthy cause. It is hard to pinpoint the exact morality of Anonymous, given its amorphous and shifting structure. Anonymous might have divergent political agendas and subgroups within it, but this does not negate its status as a community. In fact, it only reinforces the notion that communities are not static entities but “a living idea…an idea that can be edited, updated, remanded–changed on a whim…a living consciousness.”[1]

 

But this is the beauty of operating under the Anonymous banner: “Anonymous is premised on a robust, anti-leader, anti-celebrity ethic, and its operations are open to all who care to contribute.” (Coleman, 511) The one thing that ties this community is its understanding that while differing opinions might look like “immorality”, it is merely a “rival morality”. (Warner, 5) While what Anonymous might do next is hard to predict – even to those on the inside – beneath the sectarian nature of these various subgroups is a grudging commitment to the belief that “allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views”. (513, Coleman)

 

While Anonymous chastises those that seek personal fame, one questions if perhaps the individuals who operate under the Anonymous banner derive a certain sense of smug self-satisfaction to know that they are part of a greater, burgeoning cause. They might wax philosophical about the sublimation of personal identity, but Anonymous is perhaps one of the most attention-seeking groups out there. They actively taunt and tease the media, taking a sense of grandiose pride in their carefully worded manifestoes and apparent superiority. This contradiction seems to me, troubling. Is there a real difference between an individual aspiring to fame and glory out of millions of individuals versus a community achieving fame and glory out of millions of communities?

 

In a community where the lack of a continuous identity could mean getting blamelessly and rampantly trolled, it also allows one to be whoever they want. Transgression loves company, but where one is entirely anonymous, company loves transgression too. 4chan is both the cause and effect of transgression: it provides a venue for “bored, Internet-savvy teenage boys” to let off their surfeit of “hormonal energy” (Stryker), but it also draws out the dormant macabre freak in the most pleasant-minded of us. 4chan is a place where one can seek solace in the possibility (and the reality) that there is always someone out there who is even more morbid than we are. 4chan is a really fascinating community, one that is inclusive and exclusive at once. It is a massive contradiction, since its lack of identity continuity and barrier-free entry means anyone can join in, but the coded expressions with which they speak and the offensive and bigoted remarks also make sure to keep the newfags out.

[1] h “Operation Payback Manifesto from Anonymous : Indybay.” San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center. 9 Dec. 2011. Web. 16 Dec. 2011. <http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2010/12/09/18666107.php&gt;.

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The Five Ways Couples Announce That They Are Getting Married

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Now that I am 26, it’s that time of my life when my peers are getting engaged/married/proposed to. Given that the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is peak engagement season, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe the different ways people express their commitment to be with someone for the rest of their lives.

Disclaimer: all of the examples below have been inspired by people in my social network. It is not my intention to single any one out, but if an example sounds just like your scenario… then you were probably an inspiration for it 😉

Please note that the list below is not mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. I have not lived long enough to see sufficient proposals borne out of, I dunno, green card marriages or tax benefits.

1. Applying for a Built To Order (BTO) flat

Now, this is a uniquely Singaporean thing, but as I had the pleasure of explaining to my mom (whose Mrs Bennet sensibilities have come out in full force), signalling one’s intent to get married works quite differently in the US compared to in Singapore. In the US, the man proposes with a ring, the couple address each other as fiancé and fiancée during the period of their engagement, then they bask in the glow of engagement for a while before a date for the wedding is set.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Singaporean proposals since I spent my adulthood in NYC, but things work differently in Singapore. Some context: over 80% of Singaporeans live in public housing. The government encourages the proliferation of nuclear families by making it difficult for single, unmarried adults to obtain public housing. (There are age and income restrictions, I believe. Couples living in sin or willfully single people must be either rich enough to afford private housing, be over 35, or continue to live at home.) Built-To-Order flats are typically housing developments in new neighborhoods that have not yet been built, and will take four to five years before it is move-in ready.

This means that that young couples typically broach the pragmatic question of, “Should we apply for a BTO?” much sooner before the question, “Will you marry me?” Applying for a BTO involves a nonrefundable down payment of $10-$20k, which is arguably a weightier consideration than a ring.

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Posting a flat selection receipt like the one above is therefore a huge deal – a multi-thousand dollar deal – and worthy of all the Facebook likes. A successful application for a BTO means the cessation of the anticipation of whether a couple will get married. From then on, the lady simply twiddles her thumbs, waiting for the man to get his act together and perform the ceremonial part of the proposal, i.e. the ring.

2. A caption-free Facebook relationship status update

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Of all the ways to announce one’s engagement, I find the Facebook relationship status update most egalitarian. Presumably, the post appears identically on both parties’ walls, and it is also effective for those who might feel that no words can sufficiently capture their joy.

3. “She said yes!”

There’s a touch of paternalism in this, isn’t there? Like as if marriage is not a union of two consenting adults, a partnership entered into by two equals? That one is the holder of power, and the other bequeaths it? I also would hope that when someone finally decides to pop the question, it is because they are 99.99% sure that the answer would be a yes. Being surprised by the proposal or the answer to the proposal seems to belong to the oeuvre of the 2000s rom-com – unrealistic and outdated.

However, I also understand the trepidation one might feel going into such a proposal. Despite having extensively discussed the prospect of marriage, he may have an internal looping monologue of “please say yes please say yes please say yes” – then when she says yes, he reflexively and triumphantly proclaims “SHE SAID YES!” for all the world to hear.

4. A picture of the ring

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One could also announce their engagement by posting a picture of the ring – whether it is the centerpiece of the picture, or an oh-so-casual clasp of a bejeweled finger upon a champagne glass – I have mixed feelings about this. Rings are status symbols. Rings, whether you like it or not, invite judgment. And maybe one DOES want to invite judgement. Maybe, like Kim Kardashian, you WANT people to notice your 20-carat diamond ring.

Look, I like jewelry, and I like pretty things. However, I could also see myself getting an artistic tattoo instead of a ring since my ring finger is all bungled up and wouldn’t look good with the kind of ring I’d like 😦 My point is – should the primary focus of an engagement announcement be a ring, a material object, and a typically expensive one at that?

5. The follow-up thank you message (and the next one, and the next…)

After an engagement announcement, some couples feel so overwhelmed with love and joy that they put out a second message thanking their friends and family for their well-wishes. Sometimes, they follow up with professional photos from their engagement photo shoot. What I cannot abide, however… is repeated posts of the actual proposal process itself. Can we please ban #throwback posts of the proposal process? Can we just make a single announcement, leave the rest of the proposal private and intimate, and curb the groveling for additional likes?

***

I realize that this post contains some degree of judgment and opinion. I have not been proposed to. I don’t know what I may do, in the heat of the moment, when it happens. Perhaps I may defy all engagement announcement etiquette and be the most obnoxious social media fiancée ever.

Bumble BFF Review – Does The Online Dating Format Work For Friendship?

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I wanted to write a post after my first Bumble BFF date, but then I thought that one date was certainly nowhere near enough data points to prove a trend – after all, I did a comprehensive blog post on my 55 OkCupid dates. Then I met a second person, then a third, and then a fourth – and now I finally feel like the time is ripe to opine on whether Bumble BFF works or not. (tl;dr: it may.)

For the uninitiated, Bumble BFF is a mobile app that connects people who are seeking platonic friendships.

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What a profile would look like

It is a spinoff from Bumble, which is a dating app with a feminist twist – upon matching, women have to make the first contact before a conversation can progress. (I am uninformed about how Bumble would work for non-heterosexual relationships.)

Why I joined Bumble BFF
My motivation for joining is pure. I simply wanted to expand my social circle and meet some new people I enjoy hanging out with. Research has shown that with every romantic relationship you enter, you lose an average of two friends. It certainly makes sense in my now-partnered status, where spending time with crazy party girls and/or back burner guys just isn’t as appealing anymore.

How I created my profile
Based on my preliminary research on the mechanics of making friends, I quickly understood that a friendship profile must project a very different image from a dating profile. I swapped out all my close-up, wide-eyed, vaguely pouty selfies with fun activity shots – look at me in a party photo booth with my friends! Here’s me adventuring in Japan! Here’s another one of me in front of art! It was important to be seen as fun, and not just a pretty face.

As for the 300 characters in my bio, I tweaked and tweaked it until I settled on something that I thought would both indicate who I was and who I didn’t want to meet. I made sure to avoid any mention of brunch, rosé or girlfriends, and also wrote my bio in such a way that a brunch-eating, rosé-swigging girlfriend might perhaps find inaccessible.

What the swiping process is like
Unlike Tinder, I swiped with a great deal of deliberation. I read every single bio, or noted the absence of one, who would automatically be deigned to a left swipe.

The other mechanic within Bumble BFF that encouraged thoughtful swiping was that matches must communicate in the first 24 hours of matching before the match expires. (The 24 hour cap is lifted with a paid upgrade.)

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This means that strategically, I should only swipe right to as many matches as I can handle because the alternative would be to ‘waste’ them. Compare this with Tinder, where you can accumulate a vast number of matches and message them at any point in time, assuming that they do not unmatch you. I knew that I wanted to meet up with a maximum of three new people a week, and with that in mind, I stopped swiping when I had enough budding conversations going on, or started swiping when I needed more going on.

Talking with Bumble BFFs online
The process leading up to the face to face meet up is challenging precisely because there are no social norms that dictate this courtship. How do you say hello without being creepy? How do you move offline at the right time without seeming thirsty or disinterested? Who does the asking out? When the date is over, who sends the “I had a nice time, blah-blah-blah” text?

I like initiating a meetup within the first 3-5 messages exchanged. I certainly don’t need a texting buddy.

Meeting your Bumble BFFs offline
Despite my small sample size, I will hypothesize that turning a match into a friend will take as much trial and error as online dating would. There will be people that seem more interesting online than off. There will be first dates that fly by with pleasure despite the full confidence that that will be the last date. There will be dates with so much potential, but your schedules constantly clash and then one of you gives up on trying to orchestrate a meeting.

There will be dates where you leave dreamily envisioning a future of braiding each other’s hair and sharing your souls but then realize that these fantasies ring hollow when your friendly text is ignored. There will be flakers, ghosters, and the worst of them all: club promoters.

But there will also be people that you share indubitable chemistry with; I’m just not sure I’ve met them yet. And I think therein lies one of the many issues with trying to force friendship into an online dating model.

1. There is a socially understood script for romantic courtship, but not for friendship.

In dating, the onus is (typically) on the guy to take the lead. He initiates the date. He plans the date. First, second, third, and fourth base are tangible milestones for physical intimacy. After a few months of dating, it is common knowledge that the exclusivity conversation comes next. (Or not, if you’re just in it for the lay and that’s been made clear.)

Not so much for friendship. There is no obvious marker for friendship, no clear line to draw as to where you two stand. When does a person become a BFF? Which leads me to my next point.

2. Attraction is formed in seconds. Friendship takes repeated exposure.

In general, friendships are formed due to some combination of proximity, similarity and repetition. A lot of our friends are made from places where you gather on a regular, frequent basis – school, work, neighbors, etc. Precisely because there are no clear markers for the evolution of a friendship, you pretty much have to keep interacting on a semi-regular basis until some kind of kinship emerges either from the discovery of a shared interest, worldview, or some circumstantial duress brings you two together.

Is progressive intimacy something you can orchestrate in a Bumble BFF scenario? I would argue that it is possible by following the rules of proximity and repetition, but would require constant effort on each other’s part to make a point to meet up and interact. It’s a lot of effort, relative to how we make friends the old-fashioned way where they just happen to be around. Which then leads me to next point…

3. Finding a romantic partner ranks higher than making one friend out of many.

The amount of effort someone is going to put into finding a romantic partner is almost certainly going to be higher than making a friend. Yes, I can keep trying to orchestrate semi-regular dates with a Bumble BFF, but that is typically the kind of effort reserved for romantic courtship. It’s a lot of fucking work, and for what return? For someone where the line in the sand is constantly moving, for someone who will just be one friend out of many?

Many people balk at the idea of having to do the whole online dating jig. Why can’t I just meet my lover at my workplace? Why can’t I just form a romantic connection with the person who stands in my morning coffee line everyday?

People feel this way about romantic partners, and I suspect feel even more hesitant to put in such deliberate effort into making friends. And here’s what I think it boils down to: if in relationships, trying too hard is a turn-off, in friendships, trying too hard is a faux pas. On a superficial level, one’s value as a friend can be demonstrated by their popularity, i.e. how much they don’t need friends.

***

Bumble BFF has not been long enough for people to form lasting friendships yet. (It’s interesting, because couples can get married in 6 months, but sufficient time lapsing is almost a necessary criteria for friendship.) The big question that comes to my mind is: Would an online dating model work for friendships?

I like the idea of connecting people who otherwise wouldn’t meet, but the lack of a social script post-meeting makes it awkward to organize subsequent dates. I haven’t had a successful second Bumble BFF date yet. There are only so many personal facts you can share with each other because who wants to spill their opinions, hopes, and dreams to someone they have only met once? (Per the Seven Levels of Intimacy I share in this post)

I haven’t experimented with this yet, but I suspect the typical drinks-and-conversation format is not ideal for subsequent friend dates. An activity is probably necessary – a class, a party, etc. I would also ask to become Facebook friends on the following dates, so the friendship maintenance can be conducted online instead of awkwardly, in person.

In the meantime, I’m probably joining a book club.

When I Move, This Is What I’m Getting Rid Of

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Finally, I’m taking a big step forward in my life – after years of living with roommates, I’m moving to my own apartment. It will be but a humble little studio apartment, sparse with amenities, in a less hip neighborhood.

But so much has transpired in the past ten months that has made living alone an option. Or namely, it boils down to two things: I switched jobs, and I got promoted. Here’s a provocatively-titled article that corroborates my case: Employees Who Stay In Companies Longer Than Two Years Get Paid 50% Less. (Get on it!)

There’s just so much to look forward to now. The beautiful things I will now have the wherewithal to own, the liberty to do what I want with my pants the minute I step into my abode… it’s quite wonderful.

Yet there are things that I have to leave behind: some I’m sad about growing out of, others I wonder what took me so long to get rid of.

Like my grey skirt suit.

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Not actually mine, image from here

This was my interview garb in college. The grey skirt suit was actually an upgrade from my previous black pantsuit – I thought it would serve me well to veer away from looking like a banquet waiter. How flattering, I thought to myself, the skirt suit is for my figure. Surely it will make me look like a powerful yet feminine woman! Especially when I’m making the rounds interviewing at accounting firms (I double majored in marketing and accounting) – surely they would be impressed.

Barf. How far from the path I had strayed. I can’t say I see myself interviewing for a job in the future that necessitates complete erasure of my style and personality, and so I donated my skirt suit to The Salvation Army. May an un- or underemployed soul benefit from it!

I’m also tossing out this half-used bottle of purple hair dye.

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Tragic, I know. I am in my mid-twenties now… will people take a girl with purple hair seriously?

Don’t you trust the woman on the right to take care of your shit so much more?

I’m kidding. I never thought my hair color was discrediting, and certainly not in the supportive environment I work in. I cut it off because my bleached ends were getting real crispy. And pastel hair is kind of outmoded in 2016, anyway.

All (but one) of these bottles of liquor belong to me.

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Check out that handle of whiskey I’m almost done with

At the height of my college days, I used to throw house parties in my sweet little East Village dig and did my best to make sure no one was thirsty. Nowadays, a glass of wine is enough to get me tipsy. I have encountered the two-day hangover. I am aging! And the joys of liquor aren’t nearly as appealing anymore.

What am I going to do with all these bottles of hard liquor? I was considering leaving them on my stoop for the homeless guy who posts up there at night… then was talked out of it by my boyfriend who sees dozens of drunk homeless people lifelessly dragged into his ER. Oh well.

I am not putting up with three-tined forks.

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This fork is part of an IKEA set of cutlery that was the cheapest darn set to buy. It’s so cheap that they don’t even sell it anymore; I think it was $3.95 for a 16-piece set. Apart from the cost-cutting by reducing the number of tines, it was also just really cheaply-made stamped metal. I’ve bent just about all the teaspoons when I rammed it into pints of Ben & Jerry’s.

I think I’m going to get a set of copper-hued flatware… which would go nicely with my future marble dining table. #foodiephotos

I just wish I were getting married, so I can have other people pay for all of this stuff for me. Are there registries for “I’m ditching roommates” registry or “I’m getting divorced”? Totally legit reasons to have a registry! They can then come to my housewarming party and admire all the beautiful things they contributed to.

If you think about it, getting your own place is definitely a privilege and not a natural rite of passage for most people…

These pictures won’t go with my desired aesthetic anymore.

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These might be the things I am least wont to give up, since they do carry some meaning for me. As a freshman in college, I was hugely depressed and unhappy. I did not fit in, I did not understand American people  – it was quite the culture shock. I’ve learned so much in my 7 years here – mud butt, Monday night quarterbacking, nosebleed seats, fupa… Toilet humor and sports analogies are courtesy of my beloved American-blooded bro.

About those pictures – work on some of your hobbies, my sister said. I bought a few tubes of paint and got to work. I was pleasantly surprised by my experiment in sponging streaks of paint. But I’m not sure these bright colors are going to work with the aesthetic I’m hoping for…

This is what I want.

[Sources, clockwise from top left: 1, 2, 3, 4)

Do you see a spot of color in these rooms? Nope.

All that’s said and done, I am literally counting down the days till I get to move in and get to feel so free in spirit but much poorer in the bank account. Viva la liberte!

7 Years in the US, But You Can’t Take the Singaporean Out Of Me

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Come July, it would have been seven years since I moved from Singapore to New York City at the tender age of 18. It’s funny how I’ve spent all of my adult life here, yet I still retain several attributes that earmark me as an immigrant. Some of these attributes are retained by sheer defiance, and others are involuntary reflexes etched deep into my core.

I use Celsius instead of Farenheit.

Farenheit simply doesn’t make sense. Only five countries in the world are still using Farenheit. Whenever I am aboard a flight, I am heartened by the pilot’s announcement of the arrival city’s temperature in Celsius because which man of science doesn’t Celsius?! I’m certain that I could adapt to Farenheit quickly but it has not been a problem in my everyday life except for when people ask me the temperature and I respond with some variation of  “sweater weather,” or the like.

I prefer subtitles on my shows.

More often than not, I don’t have a problem understanding what’s being said. My ear is, at this point, well-attuned to the American accent. However, my comprehension drops significantly when people talk fast or vary from the standard American English accent. In the movie The Revenant, for example, I had a pretty hard time with the gruff, throaty, mid-Atlantic mountain man accent.

I also prefer to put on subtitles when I’m watching comedies, when punchlines can be missed in a split second. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just particular about hearing every single sentence that’s uttered, or if other people don’t care about missing a few lines. If I’m watching TV with someone who hates subtitles, it’s a trade-off – do you want text on your screen, or do you want me to interrupt you constantly because I have no clue what’s going on?

I lapse into Singlish with my nearest and dearest.

When I first moved to NYC, after countless instances of having to repeat myself, I made it a point to learn the American way of speaking. English *is* my first language, and I probably had a wider range of vocabulary compared to my peers in college at the time. Still, the fact that I didn’t sound American was enough to be a stumbling block. So on to the YouTube videos I studied. Litter is pronounced “lidder”. For Clinton, say “Clint-NNN” instead of “CLINT-tUHn.”

Although I now know to use trash instead of garbage, standing in line instead of queuing upelevator instead of lift, I recall queuing (or, ahem, standing in line) at a MacDonald’s once and I asked for some serviettes with my order. The cashier was like, “You want what?” I repeated myself, this time louder and slower. She remained quizzical. A helpful guy behind me chimed in (as is common of the American way, to butt in and interrupt when it is not your business): “She means napkins. Serviettes is like, a weird British term.”

It was a lot of trial and error in those days. These words are now ingrained into my lexicon, but the accent and the choppy, ungrammatical Singlish syntax is the toughest to shake. I speak the most American when I’m meeting someone I need to impress – a date, people at a party, job interviews – but since my friends and my boyfriend loves me, they get the full force of my Singlish and are also at liberty to make fun of me endearingly for it.

For those who are interested in what Singlish sounds like, I’ve included a video below of Xiaxue, an eminent Singaporean blogger, against her Texan husband.

I’ve definitely evolved as a first-generation immigrant in the US, from being offended when people are ignorant to the fact that Singaporeans are taught English as their first language, to being able to laugh with my boyfriend who lovingly teases me for exclaiming “aiyo” in my most unguarded moments. I feel somewhat obligated to make commentary on what it means to be a minority in the US, but I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience but my own.

My year in review

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I would say 2015 has been a pretty good year for me, all things considered. Here are the key things that have been a major part of my 2015.

  1. My new job
  2. My relationship
  3. Healing from my wound
  4. Hobbies

1. My new job

Oh, my current job is great. I’m a quantitative UX researcher in a consulting capacity. It’s the perfect intersection of data, psychology, and design for my proclivities. I occupy the “Research” bubble in the Venn diagram below and it’s just right for me.

There’s a variety of clients to work on so I’m never bored. The smaller sized nature of the company also means that the company’s employees can be more deliberately curated. Geeky, curious, and thoughtful are how I’d describe my coworkers – a large proportion of my colleagues have PhDs in psychology. I feel like I have finally found my groove  at a workplace where my coworkers enjoy playing Sporcle during our office happy hours.

A digital advertising agency was not as good of a fit for me. Yes, creativity and liberal attitudes abound, but for all that emphasis on being a special snowflake, a surprisingly large proportion of my coworkers aspired towards Longchamp bags or Tory Burch flats. I can’t even.

Also, digital advertising agencies (or at least the one I was at) pay really poorly for the amount of work they wring out of you – the pay bump and the increment in free time at my job now has made my quality of life so much better.

2. My relationship

My relationship has also been another significant event of this year. Most of you who have been reading my blog for a while might have witnessed the evolution of my feelings from dating to falling in love and agreeing to exclusivity. As we close in on our one year anniversary, I quote the words of Marshall and Lily of How I Met Your Mother: “As we mature, the relationship matures with us.”

Milestones have been passed – exchanging I love yous, intermingling social circles, revealing our dreams and vulnerabilities, meeting family – some more smoothly than others. Still, my fondness for him grows and there plenty more milestones ahead of us to look forward to.

3. Healing from my wound

It’s been almost exactly one year from the fateful day that I got mauled by a dog. Indeed, it was that fateful event that led to the birth of this blog. It’s been a large struggle both physically and emotionally. My ring finger is permanently swollen and crooked and occasionally mildly arthritic from being bent 24/7. My grip strength and my ability to put weight on my wrist during pushups and yoga is compromised due to the dysfunctional ergonomics of misshapen hand. The thick scars make my palm feel taut, while the keloids on the back of my hand rub against the knob of my watch.

Then there’s the emotional aspect. The dog attack nightmares have ebbed considerably, but they do occur every now and then. Visiting home is now a decision fraught with emotional distress that I have no need to be reminded of by the callous and unsympathetic.

4. Hobbies

The combined effect of: a) having an increase in disposable income, b) a decrease in work hours, and c) having a first-year resident for a boyfriend meant that I had the wherewithal to engage in several hobbies. Unfortunately I’ve neglected this blog in the past few months, but well, I’ve been pouring my energies into other things and I *do* have something to show for it!

First up – jewelry-making! I took ring-making classes at the 92nd St Y, and part of my motivation for making rings is to adorn my broke-ass hand. I never wore rings prior to the incident and now I do. It kinda sucks that rings that fit my swollen joint are too large for my ring finger, but whaddyagonnado.

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The rose gold ring with a little moissanite stone is a favorite. (FYI, moissanite is much more brilliant than diamond, whose prices are artificially inflated by the industry – IT’S ALL A LIE PEOPLE) I made it in silver and got it plated in rose gold for $12. Seriously, I would highly recommend gold-plating as an option for cheapo silver jewelry you see on Etsy or wherever. Knowing that I can modify things on my own really widens the array of options. The silver ring in the middle was my first ever project. It was meant to be a silhouette of the NYC skyline, here’s a poorly lit, upright video of it (I’m ashamed of not obeying video-taking conventions, sigh)

Then I made these dual-sided dangly chain earrings, which were the BANE OF MY EXISTENCE as I had to drill 0.5mm holes into a 1mm wide wire and I can’t tell you how frustrating it was to work with something so tiny and delicate. I’d say these took me about 6 hours of bench time and a couple more for getting the jump rings laser-soldered shut outsourced (since the studio torch melted the chain, grr).

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Then I also made these earrings that were simply just three silver rods placed at an angle. It’s quite delicate and pretty, but it did take me two attempts, and the final pair took me about 3 hours.

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Outside of jewelry-making, I’ve also engaged in weekly yoga, group classes at Crunch, and pole dancing. My upper body strength has increased tremendously, and it’s rather empowering to be using my hands in such a strengthening way.

I’m not a New Year’s resolutioner, but in 2016, it would be nice to visit Europe, lose body fat, and maybe take French classes again.

Jin’s Iceland Travelogue Part 2: Reykjavik, Blue Lagoon and the South Coast

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Hello everyone! As promised, this is Part 2 of my Iceland Travelogue, Part 1 being my review on the Landmannalaugar hike. Iceland is the second solo trip I’ve taken (the first being a two week stint in Paris, London, Amsterdam and Berlin) and this one was superior. I think 6 days was just right; any longer and I probably would have been miserable at the lack of meaningful in-person exchanges and creature comforts. A girl can only survive so long on small talk alone!

Iceland has been an incredibly inspiring trip, and I’m very happy with how it turned out. I know Iceland is becoming a trendy vacation spot now, but I feel like its culture is still quaint enough to be appealing.

I’ve organized my thoughts into the five main sections below, so if you’re a man or woman with a mission (as I am wont to be), you can just click on the topic you want and skip straight ahead. But I gotta warn you: I saved the best for the last.

  1. Cuisine
  2. Culture Night (Menningarnott)
  3. The Blue Lagoon
  4. Vik and the South Coast
  5. My hostel, the Reykjavik Downtown Hostel
  6. Random observations
  7. How much I spent

Cuisine

Icelandic food is, of course, characterized by fish, given its island-in-the-Atlantic geography. The preferred meat in those parts is lamb, as they wander around the Icelandic hills and cold temperature with ease. Hardier root vegetables grow better in those climates, and potatoes, beets, and carrots are mainstays of the vegetal diet.

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is well-rated on Tripadvisor, but I was initially skeptical about this humble hot dog shack. After all, how great can a hot dog be? Hot dogs aren’t even a uniquely Icelandic thing! However, it was in several must-try lists and its proximity to my hostel and small portion size made it a good option for a jetlagged breakfast.

After I tried it, I understood its appeal. At a low, low price of 400 ISK (~3 USD), it gets you a tender and juicy hot dog with the snappiest casing. Icelandic hot dogs contain lamb, which gives it a stronger flavor. The hot dog lies on a bed of raw onions and fried onions, glued to the bun with a swab of ketchup. On top of the dog are swiftly applied strips of sweet mustard and remoulade, a mayo-based relish condiment.

The different textures and flavors made it a hit for me. I came back here a second time and omitted the ketchup, and regretted doing so as it failed to anchor the onions to the bun and was messier to eat.

Fiskfélagið (Fish Company) is considered to be one of the best fish places in town. I wanted to treat myself to a fancier place just for the experience, and after deciding between a few (Dill, a fancy, multi-course, molecular gastronomy-type restaurant and Matur og Drykkur, the Icelandic equivalent of “New American”), I settled on Fiskfélagið.

Arctic char at Fiskfélagið (Fish Company)

I ordered the arctic char (which is related to salmon), which the menu describes as “slowly cooked & rolled ARCTIC CHARR with SCALLOPS, smoked APPLE sauce & apple globes, cured & burnt LOBSTER with BEER sauce”.

This dish was delicious. The fried brown chips you see are apparently artichoke, which added crunch to the velvety, fork-tender fish. The plate was delicately flavored, with sweet-sour green apple, floral notes from the dill oil, and little globules of savory fish roe.

They then gave me the check in this cute knitted coin pouch. It only came up to about USD 21, which is not that bad at all for a plate of such complexity and multitude of components.

Sægreifinn (Sea Baron) is a no-frills eatery that serves you two things: grilled fish and lobster soup.

Saegreiffin (Sea Baron) fish kebab shelf

You choose from any of these skewers in the open fridge, and then they grill it for you. Just like that – fresh fish cooked simply. There’s whale (the top left dark red meat), cod, arctic char, scallops, and so on.

Saegriffin’s lobster soup

The lobster soup was the bomb. The flavorful bisque seemed to be thickened solely by lobster shells and no cream at all. The meat was soft and plump.

I also tried the mink whale: you can buy a tasting piece for 300 ISK, or ~2.30 USD.

I didn’t like it. It had the texture of steak with the taste of overly fishy tuna.

Cafe Loki was what started my love affair with rye bread. I ordered the Icelandic Plate III, which looks like the below:

From left to right: rye bread ice cream (!), mashed fish on rye, and herring on rye. Let me start with the herring: it was the most unexpectedly yummy thing ever. The fish is preserved in a sweet brine, so it almost tastes candied. I personally really enjoy canned fish like mackerel and sardines, so this was right up my alley. The rye bread it was on was dense, moist, and sweet. It was just such an delightfully unexpected bite of sweet where I expected salty, and moist where I expected crusty.  The mashed fish (lokkfishkur) was less appetizing to me – it’s basically white fish mixed with mashed potatoes. It was more potato than fish and the carb on carb wasn’t doing it for me.

Unless it’s rye bread ice cream.

Cafe Loki’s rye bread ice cream

So rye bread, or rúgbrauð, is similar to pumpernickel, only that the Icelandic version is made with a large amount of sugar and the texture is more akin to a moist breakfast muffin than a typical wheat bread. That’s why it works so well in an ice cream – it almost functions like the chocolate chips in a stracciatella ice cream.

I ended up being slightly obsessed with rye bread after my meal at Cafe Loki and I bought one budget loaf at the grocery store, only to realize that the the more expensive one, pictured here, (just a dollar more) was definitely moister and sweeter and not quite as cardboardy as the cheaper one. I also found Cafe Loki’s recipe for their rye bread – mmm, I want to recreate the herring dish!

Slippbarinn is an inventive cocktail bar that’s relatively upscale, but every cent of the ~18 USD cocktail I paid for was worth it. (This includes tax and tip, so it’s really not bad at all.)

“Nobody Beats the Beets”

I had two drinks, but the real stunner was this bourbon-based drink with beet juice, sage, muddled blackberries and a sprinkle of crushed liquorice candy. I would have never thought to add beet juice to a cocktail, but the earthy sweetness plays off of the woody bourbon notes perfectly.

I actually bought some fresh beets at Trader Joe’s last night in an attempt to recreate this. I don’t have a blender or a juicer, so I may have to get my manly boyfriend to squeeze raw beets with his bare, rugged hands until they  bleed.

Damn I should really think about investing in a blender.

Culture Night (Menningarnótt)

I had planned my trip to coincide with Iceland’s Culture Night, an annual event where the entire city turns into a big block party.  The day kicked off with a marathon, followed by musicians performing on the streets, free waffles, and all kinds of shenanigans.

This was by the marathon finish line. There were several international participants; I had met an American participant the day before at the Landmannalaugar hot springs.

At least five different locations were giving out waffles, but I chose to go to the church because I knew they would always have waffles for wandering souls.

While eating my waffle, I got to watch some teenaged boys play their wind instruments. I think the cutest one is on the right. I think he plays a tuba.

Here are some Icelandic teenagers and party trucks in the main town square, Ingolfstorg.

There was a makeshift stage on a street intersection with turf laid out and a disco ball held up by a crane. It was pretty fuckin’ cool. The music was sleek electronic dance music, and kids and adults alike were all dancing in broad daylight. I took this picture when it was just warming up but it became quite a dance fest later.

What struck me as unusual about the entire festival was the lack of the smell of weed. If you had a culture party in NYC, you can bet your ass people are going to be getting high. Or maybe the Icelanders do harder stuff and is therefore imperceptible to the common nose. But overall, it was a truly family-friendly event and I didn’t notice any drugs or drug-addled hoodlums.

The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa with mineral-rich waters that tout several skin-healing benefits.

It’s kind of a tourist trap, but not in a bad way at all. It ends up being a well-oiled tourist-churning machine, requiring you to book a time slot in advance and not showing up willy-nilly. The facilities are modern and clean, and instead of keys or a one-time use locker, you get a magnetic-scanning wristband that both grants you entry into the premises and enables you to open your locker multiple times.

I didn’t take any pictures of the lagoon while I was in it because I didn’t want to risk ruining my phone in the water, but it’s quite a spectacular sight.

Not my photo but the lagoon actually does look just like that, only with less spectacular skies when I went; click to source

It’s a vast, steaming pool of milky blue, with billowing steam swirls and pockets of ruddy-faced Caucasians meandering around like they are neck-deep in molasses. The warm water is especially inviting in contrast to the wind-whipped surroundings. The water is rather shallow (0.5m to 1.6m), and you can’t really swim in it. Although you *could* drown in it. Secondary drowning.

Frankly, I got bored there after about half an hour. Since I went alone, there’s really not much to do other than soak and lie around like beached whales. I’d probably stay longer if I had company, but I only had myself for entertainment. Anyhow, it was a fairly expensive experience for how much time I spent there (I got the bare bones package at 45 Euros and tacked on a 5 Euro towel rental fee) but I had a good experience.

One piece of advice if you have long hair: tie it up. I ignored the advice of the attendants, thinking that my hair was immune to the silica/sulphur-filled hard water but now my bleached hair is a dry stack of hay that STILL smells like sulphur five days after having been there.

Vik and the South Coast

Like I had mentioned in my previous post, Iceland’s black sand beaches were my initial motivation for heading there. I found a tour with Island Guide Tours that took us there on my last day, and also a small town, Vik, on the southernmost point of coastal Iceland with a little over 200 residents.

I had this homey lamb soup at the sole restaurant in Vik, I actually really enjoy root vegetables and cabbage in a soup

The tour itself was good by most standards – the native Icelander driver/tour guide Elias was very knowledgeable and accommodating, willing to stop for our group of 10 for photos or bathroom breaks at our request. He was also charmingly fluent in English in the way a non-native speaker is fluent – entirely understandable, but uses slightly odd expressions that you have to think twice to decipher.

For instance, when we asked him how long he’s been in Iceland, he replied, “I’ve been here until I was *here*,” capping the top of his head with his palm. He then redacted his statement by gesturing at eye level to say that he had spent some time in Germany. It was cute.

What I didn’t like about the tour was how static it was. It was too much of sitting in a van and getting driven around to photogenic sites purely to take photos. I much prefer exploring a place on foot, and this van tour reminded me too much of the boring tours I took as a kid with my parents, which probably seeded my teenage abhorrence for nature.

Nature is a lot more fun when you have to be challenged to experience it. See: hiking, trail-running, sky-diving (still on the to-do list!). We got to see waterfalls, glaciers, and black beaches. I’m not sure if my lack of enthusiasm was a function of the boring mode of travel or if I was just getting worn out from being away from home.

This waterfall is called Seljalandsfoss

I got to walk behind the waterfall and got pretty damp after that

The gift shop at the waterfall

Here’s a pro tip for you: all the gift shops sell the same shit. Take your money to Keflavik airport, which is both duty-free and tax-free and buy all the moss tea, lava salt, chocolate-coated liquorice and wool sweaters that you desire

The Eyjafjallajökull glacier in the foggy distance

The glacier is dirty because of volcanic ash from the 2010 eruption. Kinda reminds you of the Boston snow pile, doesn’t it?

I was also disappointed to find that the black sand beaches were more like pebbles than sand. I guess time has yet to wreak its course on Reynisfjara’s beach.

As you can see, it isn’t really sand… more like small pebbles.

The size of the pebbles ranged from that big to that small. You can see my shoes on the edge of the frame for reference. I was really hoping for silky black sand 😦

Here’s a pretty amazing cave with striking basalt rock column formations. Look at that layer of moss just draped over the mountain face like a carpet.

Reykjavik Downtown Hostel

I stayed at the Reykjavik Downtown Hostel, a hostel I chose for having the highest ratings on Booking.com. I stayed in a 4-bed dorm. Dorm living isn’t the best, of course, but I can compromise on creature comforts and privacy for 6 days in exchange for more $$$ to NOT lie around in bed when I’m on vacation.

What made the hostel experience more tolerable when I started getting sightseeing burnout was this lovely lofted living room that provided some respite from the shared bedroom. The one faux pas was the lack of bedside outlets or lighting, so it’s a little inconvenient to be up when no one else wants to be.

Downtown Reykjavik Hostel living room

This living room is upstairs from the common kitchen (where there’s plenty of free food; I returned from my Landmannalaugar hike starving but it was too late to get dinner, so I ravaged some leftover cold cuts and made myself two sandwiches), and it’s right by a heater and a lovely window. You can see that I made myself very comfortable with some covers and a hot mug of tea.

The hostel also had some redeeming features like playing Avril 14th and Sonnentanz. I swear, Iceland has awesome taste in music. This is what the Icelandair in-flight entertainment default rank order of music genres looks like:

Whuut. It’s like as if Iceland is my music soulmate, electronic and ambient being the top two choices.

Random observations

Skyr is an Icelandic yogurt-like soft cheese, and what I have here is a drinkable version. I’m typically not a sweet beverage person (and I bought the drinkable version accidentally, thinking it was solid-state skyr) but this was fucking delicious AND also has 16g of protein to ~150 calories. Oh man, if I had access to this I would drink it on the daily.

Bonus is a budget supermarket that keeps its prices low by having limited hours (they typically close by 6 pm) and also only stocking budget foods. They don’t have refrigerated shelves, but instead have an entire cold room where cold cuts hang on a rack and milk and yogurt are stacked on wire shelves. Wear your coat when you go grocery shopping!

I got this carrot cake from Bernhoftsbakari, which is supposed to be the oldest bakery in Iceland. I asked them which pastry to try because there were just so many, and the lady at the counter looked at me imploringly, trying to instill utmost confidence: “I know this sounds strange, but the carrot cake is very good.”

Hah! Really makes you think about how derivative American food is, isn’t it?

In the hostel, someone left free beer in the fridge. I had one as I was penning my Landmannalaugar post. It was nothing special, but I sure like free beer.

I bought a can of smoked cod liver, which was marketed on the packaging as being the “foie gras of the sea”. I haven’t tasted it yet, but I’m excited.

“Birkir snaps, with its distinct woody but fresh flavour is hand-crafted from distilled grain spirit and flavoured with Icelandic birch handpicked in the spring.”

I also bought some birch schnapps and a rhubarb scented candle. Both came with little booklets to help extend my experience even further. Oh, Iceland, you seduce me with your poetic words, rouse me with your ambient electronic music, and permeate my senses with moss-covered lava fields, sulphuric geothermal hot springs, and birch forests, don’t you? I love the smell of European forest. Ahhh~

“Homemade candle scented with rhubarb and longing”

Also, currency pro-tip: If you’re only staying in Reykjavik, there is practically no need to get any Icelandic Kronas. Every establishment I’ve been to accepts credit cards, even a hot dog stand. The only places where cash may come in handy in the city may be if you’re planning on shopping at Kolaportið, the weekend flea market, which is pretty mediocre and I thus won’t be reviewing.

How much I spent

  • Plane, non-stop from JFK: $583
  • Bus to and from airport: $33
  • Hostel for 6 nights: $403
  • Day hike at Landmannalaugar: $146
  • Vik day trip: $100
  • Food: $125 (I had groceries for half of my meals and ate out the other half)
  • Shopping (catchall for the random non-essential stuff I bought): $190
  • Blue Lagoon: $82
  • Total amount spent: $1,662

I actually feel pretty comfortable about this figure. I could have done without Vik, perhaps, and maybe I didn’t have to buy birch schnapps or a candle scented with rhubarb and longing, but I feel like I had a good mixture of fancy and “live-like-a-local” experiences. In fact, what made me snap out of homesick churlishness was when I cracked open the birch schnapps and lighted the rhubarb candle: the scent, the flavors, the warmth of 72 proof alcohol spreading through my body… Ahhh, Iceland, I love you again.

Now I’m craving to go another trip… Where to next?