Sunday, February 24, 2008

Valentine's Day: The Most Depressing Holiday Ever

Portrait of the author as a lonely old man trapped in a young man's body.
Photo by Elizabeth, my Shanghai flatmate.

Why does a holiday about love make me so bitter? Instead of "feeling the love," I usually just feel crappy and glower at couples I see on the street. Valentine's should really be called "Suicidal 'cuz I'm single" day. Probably wouldn't sell as many cards and chocolates, though. Here are some random thoughts and stories on love.

The Valentine's Day Card story

In my freshman year of college, I finally got over myself and embarked on a massive Valentine's Day Card campaign. Just because I was unhappy didn't mean I could make an effort to show some appreciation to the many cool girls I knew.

I ruled out writing a generic "have a Happy Valentine's Day" greeting on every card. Only a personal message would fully express how special I thought each girl was.

To do so, I tried to put in little details about each girl and compliment them on it. This was easier said than done. I spent hours struggling to remember conversations that sometimes happened months earlier. Like how a certain girl wanted to be a singer, so in the card I encouraged her to pursue her dream. Another had told me she wanted to be a psychiatrist, so I praised her for being such a good listener.

One of my worries was that my cards wouldn't be noticed, because these girls were so magnificent. I thought, "What's the point? They have so many admirers, they probably get cards by the bag-load." I finally decided to write them cards anyway, joking to myself, "Maybe my writing will be so awesome it'll burst through the crap all the other guys wrote!"

At the end, I had a giant stack of envelopes. I dropped them off at the campus post office and promptly forgot about them.

Valentine's Day came and it was the same as every other year. I always hope a girl will suddenly confess that's she had a huge crush on me. Of course that never happens.

When I got back to my dorm room late that afternoon, the voicemail light was blinking on the room phone. Robbie, my Chinese-American roommate, said, "Dude! You have to check out your messages!"

"What? Why?" I asked.

"Just do it, playa!" He grinned.

I shrugged and picked up the phone.

The girls had loved my cards! In message after message, girls thanked me sincerely for the cards. They said I had remembered things even their boyfriends had forgotten.

Dating on Valentine's Day

I hate dating. I'm trapped with a girl I don't know and there's all this pressure. I have to be smart, funny, cool and entertaining, but I can't pull it off. Meanwhile, the girl probably wonders why she agreed to go out with me in the first place.

There's this pervasive tension. Not sexual tension, the good kind. I mean the sinking feeling when it seems like everything I do only make me look more dorky.

This all reaches a climax on Valentine's Day. I can't avoid seeing happy couples traipsing about while I feel like Quasimodo from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Being alone on that day is pure hell, because I feel like I'm someone that nobody wants.

I stumbled onto a solution when I was studying abroad in England. I ended up spending Valentine's Day with
Candace, a literature major from the States, and Ashley, a Taiwanese exchange student.
International Party 5--Candace Me and Ashley
It was such a relief to be around girls that I could relax with. There was no need to try to impress, since they already appreciated me for who I was. I highly recommend asking out a close female friend (or two) to Valentine's.

Before I ask a girl out, she has to pass the Say Anything test. Since most of a date is talking, I should be with a girl I can talk to freely. Not everyone gets my sense of humor, and it feels like I'm dying when I'm trying to be funny and a girl just looks at me like I'm an idiot.

On the flip side, the girl should hold up her end of the conversation. She should have opinions to share and also try to keep the conversation moving too. Otherwise, I end up prolonging the talk by asking lots of questions and feel like I'm interrogating her. It's hard to find girls who are great at conversation like this.

Brynn exceeds all this criteria, which is why I hastened to ask her to be my date for Valentine's Day. I had to beat the hordes of other guys who would try to ask her out first.
Brynn and me at Alleycat's Pizza
I took her to Golden Chicken Garden, my favorite dumpling restaurant in Taipei. It's on Yongkang Street, which is famous for having eateries from all over the world. In case we changed our minds, there was a plethora of choices nearby.

We had our usual good time talking about everything and nothing, from Brynn's ongoing quest to find a permanent apartment in Taipei to the latest travel destinations I wanted to visit.

The Art of Writing Love Letters

For me, writing a love letter was a major milestone, since I tend to hide my feelings from girls I like. Once you tell a girl how you feel and she doesn't respond in kind, it creates an awkwardness that NEVER goes away.

I could have used the practice, though. When I started to write one, the emotion flooded out of me. I aimed to spin the most beautiful and poetic prose I could.

Instead, I ended up putting in just about every cheesy line you hear in love songs on the radio. We're talking howlingly bad stuff here. Probably elicited more snickers than swoons from that exceptional lady.

Despite how horrific the writing was, I still felt a great sense of release. It was liberating to not have to hide and summon the courage to tell a girl that I thought she was a superb human being.

I closed the letter with this:

"Spending an eternity with you wouldn't be long enough."

Friday, February 8, 2008

Taiwan Times Vol. 8 -- Turning 25

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The serious business of eating: my friends Colin, Sandra and Ted figure out what to order at my birthday dinner. Click on the photo to view the album.

I hate throwing parties for myself. Especially birthday parties. It's like, "I'll get all my friends together and remind them how great I am." I abhor that stink of self-aggrandizement. I marked my last birthday by eating a pizza alone and reading a book I'd just bought.

That being said, I decided to make an exception for my quarter-centennial. I had to do something to mark my quarter of a century on this planet.

By throwing a party, I had to break my lifelong habit of keeping my friends separated. I find it easier when my various groups of friends don't know each other. That way, they can't cross-reference information and discover more about me than I'd prefer them to know. Example: "He's so quiet and shy at work. I had no idea he goes to nightclubs and busts out hip-hop dance moves!"

Colin and Sandra
Colin and Sandra

The other stressful part was deciding who to invite. I had to keep things confidential, because I didn't want to offend the people I didn't invite. The stumbling block was that some of my friends had friends that I found annoying. It's amazing how often I'll have a friend who's really cool and fun, and one of their close friends will be someone who's just the opposite. Maybe opposites attract in friendships as well as relationships.

Ken, Lee, me and Brynn
Ken, Lee, Marcus, and Brynn

After struggling with this, I decided to risk looking like an arrogant snob by telling my friends they could not bring along specific people. As I get older, I'm less and less willing to voluntarily spend time around people I don't like. Luckily, my friends all readily agreed. Maybe it added a sense of exclusivity to my party.

Shinyi, Silas and Me
Shin-yi, Silas, and Marcus

My dinner party was at Chili House, a restaurant that specializes in Sichuan (a.k.a. Szechuan) cuisine. Sichuan Province in China is famous for its hot and spicy food. It's one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in Taipei. Chili House and Madame Jill's were my top choices because I love both of them. Since the latter is a Vietnamese restaurant, Chinese cuisine triumphed.

The other reason I chose Chili House is that it's near lots of nightlife, in case people wanted to go out after dinner. It's better to be within walking distance. If we had to get separate taxis to go to a club or bar, everybody would get lost. It's happened to me so many times when a group tries to move on to the next venue.

At Sofa Bar after dinner
At Sofa Bar after dinner: James, Thomas, Marcus, Brynn, Colin, and Ken

The weather was rainy and crappy on the night of my birthday dinner. I was worried that no one would show up and I'd look like a fool. I arranged to meet at an MRT station, then we'd walk over to the restaurant, to reduce the chance of people getting lost.

Eventually, half my friends showed up and we began walking to Chili House. It's a fair distance away from the MRT station, but that turned out to be a good thing. There was more time for my friends to chat and meet each other before we all sat down. "How do you know him?" was the common question. The usual reply was, "Oh, we lived in the same hostel" or "We used to work together at the news agency."

When we got to the restaurant, everyone else showed up, and then some. Now I had the reverse problem: I wasn't sure if there were enough seats for us. The waitress said we might have to split into two tables. I really didn't want that to happen, because I would've felt bad for the people marooned off in the second table.

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The Latecomers: Sandra and Ted

I stood next to my friends who came late and chatted with them, so they wouldn't feel awkward about not being able to sit down yet. I did it out of reciprocity, I hate it when a friend brings me to a party, then abandons me to talk to people they know. Meanwhile, I stand by the wall not knowing anyone and feeling stupid.

After what seemed like an eternity, the waitress came back with extra chairs and everyone was able to sit at one table. Now I could relax. The other reason I don't like throwing parties is that sometimes it can be hard work, I have to allocate myself fairly so that all my friends get to talk to me and I have to make sure they're having a good time.

Once everyone was settled and talking to each other, I could focus on having fun and enjoying the food. My favorite dishes at Chili House are the kung pao chicken and the dumplings in chili sauce. Both are exquisite with subtle, complex sauces.

The nice thing about being the host was that I got to hand-pick my favorite people from the different crowds I move in. My friends meshed together well, despite meeting each other for the first time. There's always the risk that some people might not get along. I specifically invited friends that were gregarious, well-read and good listeners, to guarantee fun conversations.

The funniest part was when Colin went on his usual rant about the "Breakfast Club." It's an early-morning class that he teaches, not the classic 80's movie. Watching this video instantly transports me back to those good old days of living in Taiwan:

As I looked around at my friends, I felt proud. They were a diverse, interesting bunch: English teachers, translators, journalists and above all, avid travelers. Brynn, an English teacher and one of my close pals, smiled and leaned over to talk to me. She said, "You have really cool friends!"

That made my night.