Calligraphy, Middle School Flashbacks, and the Miracles of Rice

Monday, June 22, 2009

Thinking about where I was last Friday made it difficult to imagine how these past two days in Ithaca could possibly hold a candle to my time at home in the city. I spent last weekend in New York after a long ten-day hiatus, splitting my time between Julie’s barbeque at her house in Queens, my cousin’s post-wedding reception with family in Brooklyn, and as much time as I could with Chloe, on this, the last weekend I would get to see her before her two-month trip to Korea. But inherent in my pessimism was also the hope of avenging the previous weekend at Cornell, a long two days where I relegated myself notably to sitting alone in my room and feeling sorry for myself. Since then, I had bridged a couple more friendships and was hopeful that this weekend could make use of the new phone numbers I had had the foresight to acquire. In the back of my mind, I knew, at least, that these two days couldn’t be any worse.

And right I was! Far from a spectacular weekend, this weekend was also not abysmal, a favorable tradeoff to be sure. Following the tenets of TGIF, Friday was met with another short day of class, but this week we had the choice of going to an optional calligraphy lesson that our professors promised would be fun. An over-achieving bunch, the entire class made an appearance, and we spent an hour-and-a-half after lunch listening to the talented, if not slightly crotchety, local artist and calligrapher of over 40 years, Jim Hardesty, lecture us on the merits of his craft, taking most of that time to actually wow us with some demonstrations. With the stipulation that we would all practice and come back to the next class, we all got to keep a brush and some practice paper along with what he called “The Bible” for learning how to paint characters using the correct strokes. We also got to chime in every time he was finished with a piece to reap the spoils of his labor. Trying to hold out until his most “advanced” work, I was fortunate to get the last of the paintings that he demoed for the day.


A Jim Hardesty original—now proudly adorning the blank walls of my room! The Chinese proverb on the right has something to do with the moon’s reflection on the water.

It made me think a lot about my own experience with calligraphy. For those who didn’t follow my email blog missives from Japan, I took a
sumi-e Japanese calligraphy class at Kansai Gaidai University during my semester abroad. I originally thought that it would simply be a class devoted to the practice of making our characters look artistic, thus better enabling me to memorize the scores of kanji for class. But quite to my surprise, we focused very little on the actual writing, and instead spent the semester learning the various elements comprised in landscape painting—trees, leaves, branches, rocks, cliffs, different types of flowers, etc. It was the first art class I had taken since perhaps middle school, and it completely made me rethink my relationship to it. I don’t know what this class at Cornell has in store—sadly, we only have four sessions scheduled over the course of the summer—but if it’s anything like the brush painting in Japan, I’m in for a treat.


My final project from my sumi-e class in Japan, on display at a showcase of student art at the end of the semester.

Calligraphy was followed up by the weekly tradition of “Tea Time,” a nice outing despite my being the only member of the 200-level class to attend. If nothing else, I at least made up for my peers’ absence in the staggering number of cookies and cups of tea that I consumed before heading home. The afternoon was followed by a nice evening out—my first real jaunt into Collegetown to eat with a group of friends. We dined at what might rightly be called the Olive Garden equivalent of Mediterranean fare, and grabbed some bubble tea at a local café afterwards for dessert. Despite the tea being exceptionally sweet (unfortunately not up to Chinatown standards), conversation flowed effortlessly until it eventually became too chilly to brave the outside deck any longer. Afterwards, we left to go play video games at a friend’s apartment, and with the lack of Rock Band notwithstanding, it was enough to make my old housemates at Oberlin proud.

I woke up late on Saturday, my body’s way of needing to repent for a week’s worth of under-seven hour nights of sleep. It felt a lot like coming home from Oberlin on school breaks—requiring at least 10 hours to feel remotely charged, and even then needing an extra effort to actually get out of bed. I think it’s a product of knowing what there is to wake up for. For the most part, I haven’t been able to replicate what became a routine six hours of sleep per night rotation at Oberlin. Even when I was working during the summer, a certain part of me was cognizant of the value of going to sleep early to prepare for a full day’s work. On the weekends at Cornell, it’s especially hard because there isn’t anything at all pressing that needs to be accomplished between the hours of 8 and 11am. If anything, that time falls by the wayside anyway, lost in some bizarre combination of daydreaming and Facebook stalking. I have always held fast to the belief that, if all else fails, food is one of the only true incentives for waking up, which is why on the rare occasions that I do nap, it is always before dinner.

And so it came to pass that shortly after waking up, I headed to the dining hall for lunch. Saturday was the first day that the Cornell dining halls were open for the summer and I was curious to check them out. Having not given my dining situation too much thought before, I originally signed up for the meal plan concurrently with my enrollment in the FALCON Program because I figured that it would be an easy way to keep track of my meals, save me from spending a lot of time in the kitchen, and make it easy to bill Shansi for the costs. However, after two weeks of cooking and grocery shopping, I have come to really relish my newfangled mealtime ritual. But thankfully, at least for the sake of Cornell’s meal plan, I am in dire need of a trip to the supermarket, so it was fortunate that I had a meal waiting for me. When I arrived in the vicinity of the dining hall, I was immediately met by a swarm of parents and young students. Unbeknownst to me, Saturday was also the start of Summer College, what I have come to gather is a program designed for select high school students to take college classes prior to their enrollment as undergrads. What I also didn’t expect was how intimidated I was in a place dominated by people four years my junior.

It wasn’t the first time that this sort of thing has happened. Take middle school for instance. It scarcely mattered how old I was—eleven, twelve, thirteen—but every day on my way home from school I’d have to pass through Carroll Park, notorious for the ruffians who would linger out by the basketball nets and the baseball diamond past dinnertime. Often there was no trouble at all—a stiff-faced, nose-to-the-grindstone Daniel would walk briskly from one end of the park to the other, trying to prevent eye contact at all costs. But occasionally there was, and more often than not it came at the hands of 4th- or 5th-graders just looking for something to do after school. For some reason those memories still stick with me, the fear that I was so powerless to hold my own against kids seemingly half my age. To this day, there are still certain articles of clothing that I refuse to wear—sweatpants, jerseys, bandanas, baseball caps—all from simply reaping up that past. I guess to a certain extent your inner child will always be with you, a reminder of the insecurities and fears that you harbor, no matter how badly you try to forget.

Needless to say, though, the situation at the lunch table didn’t result in my need to prove myself to a group of high school juniors and seniors. I realized instead, though, how hard it must be to hack it as a kid these days. Everyone around me looked so incredibly grown-up and hardly fazed about their upcoming summer away from home. Was I the only one feeling the least bit lonely and insecure? Looking around the room, many once-strangers were already starting to mingle, discussing class schedules and meeting places, and lamenting about the fog and rain that still hung in the air like an omen. Meanwhile,
my primary concern was snaking around the oblong dining sphere, trying to investigate all of the many food options and guard them greedily on my plate like a rabid animal. Maybe I’m just shy. Or just especially shy when I’m hungry. In any case, the food actually proved to greatly exceed my expectations. Out of the comfort of familiarity, I headed straight for the "Asian" counter first, helping myself to a plate-full of steaming white rice. It hardly mattered that I have a twenty-pound bag of the stuff at home that I dig into almost every day (this tidbit will prove useful later). I must say that their generous spread made me a bit jealous of the somewhat hackneyed selection offered at Oberlin’s dining halls, but thanks to eating in a co-op, I didn’t have to travel there too often as it was.

Fortunately for me, the dining hall at Cornell was located squarely across from the gym. Thinking ahead, I packed all of my necessary work-out accoutrements before I left my house, but as I was about to go into the gym, I chanced upon a familiar face. A guy from my Chinese class was followed by an eager pack of friends, brandishing a Frisbee, and generously offered if I wanted to join them. What the reader needs to know about this situation is that it was still raining out—as it had been almost continuously for the last 48 hours up until that point. The ground had also just been aerated, and with the onslaught of rain, was now peppered with soggy, pulverized clumps of soil. In the unending quest for friendships, I hastily agreed despite my better judgment—namely, because I am terrible at throwing a Frisbee and I am not often inclined to running around in the mud.


This weekend also marked the first official day of summer, a welcome respite from two days of bitter rain.

The game turned out alright for the most part. We played “Asians” versus “Whites” and despite my silent “But what if I’m half?” plea, I got clumped in, for perhaps the first time in my life, with Team White. Cornell has such a robust population of Asian Americans that I would surely have felt slightly inadequate as a mixed-race person had I gone to school here. In many ways, I am fortunate that Oberlin has a relatively small but close-knit community that helped to foster my identity formation and enabled me to get so involved with Asian American causes on campus. No one’s really said anything to me about race here yet, but it just feels like the general attitude is somehow different.

Long story abridged, I quickly learned to play Ultimate, after strangely avoiding it for my four years at Oberlin, all while getting pelted with falling rain and upturned earth. Despite my griping, it
was strangely refreshing to get that dirty, even if it now means putting up with the horrible stench those clothes emit until my next laundry cycle. But much to my distress, when I finally left the field, I realized that my sweatshirt had been eviscerated from under the safety of an umbrella and was steeping in a puddle of water. Amongst the waterlogged contents was my cell phone, which would not turn on at the time I fished it out of my pockets. Slightly panicked, I remembered perhaps the most valuable nugget of information I had gleamed from my summer internship at Popular Mechanics last year: how to save a wet cell phone. I immediately went home and got a nice bowl of dry rice for my phone to wade in. The next day, when I popped in the battery and turned it on, miraculously the phone worked like a charm. I’m convinced that doctors should start trying to devise a curse for cancer out of this stuff.

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