talking about hard times.

from an essay i wrote in college:

My parents and I packed up the rental car and headed towards Seattle University. During the fourteen hour trip on I-5 from Sacramento to Seattle, I put in my favorite CD that summer: Rilo Kiley’s Take Offs and Landings. At the conclusion of the fourth song, “Picture of Success,” the lead singer, Jenny Lewis, sings the lyric: These are times that can’t be weathered and we have never been back there since then. As Jenny repeated the lyric like a mantra, my mom, sitting in the passenger seat, listened closely and looked at me.

“She’s talking about hard times,” she said.

good enough.

so, yo. check it.

this dude is like twenty-four years old when he starts this blog. he doesn't even know, really, what a blog is. but it sounds like something to do, something manageable. his friend has one, and he likes hers, so he decides to start one, too. it's 2007, and he's two years out of college. his first entry (and quite possibly the entire thing) is inspired by a speech by this guy, victor villasenor, who talks about how writing is a sacred act. he believes it. in college, he majored in creative writing. he wrote a twelve page essay on the act of revision alone. he worked as a writing center consultant, and he really felt like he was good at his job. it was the first time he'd ever found something he actually believed he was good at.

he had these professors, see, and they were paid to tell him his writing wasn't total shit (even though it was). they were paid to tell him to keep writing. something would happen eventually, if he would just keep at it. that's where the blog came in. he started to write, even though he didn't think himself interesting, didn't think he had anything worth telling. he was just an introverted asian kid, an only child, who felt as though the world continually conspired against him. and who knows? maybe it did.

it earned him some recognition. a local girl read his blog, and she was hot, too. he'd gotten a fan even in idaho. some guy in new delhi followed it. it got him a job. friends and some family read his writing. he didn't know what to think of it. he didn't really think about it at all. sometimes, a friend would say, "please don't blog about this." another might say, "you're going to write about this, aren't you?" and sometimes he did, sometimes he didn't. it was just what he wanted, though. he could write about what he wanted, when he wanted, and sure enough, somebody was gonna fucking read it.

he became more adventurous just for the sake of having something to write about. it challenged him, this blogging business, to get out there, seize the day and all that. because he was such a poor fiction writer, had such an unintelligible imagination, he had to go out there and get the material for himself. he didn't actually exist anymore. he was just a character in this long, rambling story that may or may not have a point, or even an ending. was the story poignant? did it have meaning?

at 24, when he started to blog, he said he was gonna be a doctor. then he decided he was just going to be a teacher, instead. when that didn't work out, he was gonna work for the state, or else go to grad school for writing or something. and for a split second, it was law school, and then he was gonna join the peace corps. he was gonna do all these things, but he never got around to doing any of them. because he didn't really want to do those things. he just wanted to write, and be appreciated for wanting to write. and while no one ever outright said he couldn't do this, he continued to believe it was impossible. as it turned out, all he wanted was to live in a world where he didn't have to feel inadequate, like he wasn't quite there yet. so he made up these fictions about his personal future plans, a sort of choose your own adventure book he never even bothered cracking open.

but it didn't matter anymore. in a little over four years, he'd started and ended multiple friendships, lived in three different cities, visited dozens others, quit a job, got a job, then quit a job again, gotten robbed and reimbursed, learned to love karaoke, shot handguns, proctored exams, saw a bear, climbed mt. si, gone to concerts, had wisdom teeth extracted, pissed in central park, told a go-go dancer he loved her, gotten better at speaking tagalog, eaten balut, gotten lost in osaka, recorded songs, read books, reconnected with old friends, put up christmas lights, learned how to be alone. it was a hell of a story. and it was good enough. he was good enough.

it's now been over four years since he started, and it's time to move onto something different. it's been a good run.

hard times are over, haven't you heard?

thanks for reading.
just gotta let it all go.

i decided the night before that i was gonna drive to l.a. by myself and see the jezabels two nights in a row. my only l.a. friend was having a bachelorette party, so staying with her was out of the question. i booked a hostel. i'd stayed in one before, but it was in a private room. i remembered it being full of young international kids looking to party. just what i needed. and at twenty dollars a night, how could you argue with that? i bought the concert tickets, made the hostel reservations, and i was on my way. my dad was worried about the car breaking down. he offered to pay for a rental, but i said that was a stupid waste of money. so i drove the newer of the two cars my parents own, a honda crv.

my mom packed me two oranges, two bananas, two hard-boiled eggs, and a package of cookies. i filled up on gas - $30 something dollars for a little over half a tank - and i hit the road. why don't i do this more often? i've driven solo once from seattle to sac, and taken multiple solo drives from watsonville to sac, but that was about it. i had a car, but i didn't drive it. i had money, but i didn't spend it. i was raised to live carefully, to not make a lot of noise, to keep to myself, to avoid confrontation. no one ever told me to go big or go home. no one ever told me to go at it hard. this accounts for the lack of trips i've taken.

it was a beautiful day on i-5. splotches of clouds and green hills, shit looked like screensavers. i thought about stopping to take pictures, but then i thought, what for? can't i just have something for myself in my mind? pictures don't mean anything anymore. they're just a means of making your friends jealous on social networks. i didn't have tapes or cds, so i listened to the radio. i heard pink a lot, and bruno mars, and the far east movement. i sang out loud to "just the way you are." this is the kind of thing people without life plans did.

i got to my west hollywood hostel around 4 p.m. and checked in. this asian chick showed me my room, and my two roommates - two kids from florida on spring break - said wassup. they were job-hunting, looking to have a good time. i said we should get some beers later. they said, yeah cool. why the fuck didn't i do this in college? what the hell did i do on spring break but come home and watch tv? i'm making up for so much lost time, living life backwards. i drove out to silver lake and ate thai food: pad thai, a thai iced tea, and spring rolls.

waiting for the show, i sat in my car and played skee-ball on my iphone. i learned the trick was to roll as many balls as possible really quickly. after an hour or so of that, i stood in line in front of the satellite, where the jezabels would be playing. this woman asked me, what band are you here to see? the jezabels, i said. i told her i found their music because of a bmx video on youtube. and they were amazing enough for me to drive seven hours to see them. twice. she introduced me to the drummer, nick. we shook hands, and he said we should get a beer after the show. we didn't.

they were amazing.

i didn't bother sticking around for the two other bands because i didn't give enough of a shit about them. i got back to the hostel, and my florida roommates were about to smoke some dope. there was a girl with them, too. the girl looked worried, like i was gonna narc on them or something. don't worry, the boy told her, he's from sacramento. the four of us smoked dope outside, talked march madness, talked college, talked about places we've been, places we've seen. and then i said goodnight and never saw any of them ever again.

i picked up mary from l.a.x. we went to umami, amoeba, and hotel cafe, where the jezabels played again. i met mary's friend, heather, and then i met up with pete. the four of us drank and played shuffleboard. i hadn't seen pete in eight years. the last time i saw him was at a hella show, and i didn't want to talk to him. there was no reason not to talk to him. i just didn't. and then when i saw him this time, we just started talking like no time had passed. he went on tour with afi, and his dad has parkinson's. back in the day, he was my buddy, and i just let that shit fall apart. i don't know what's wrong with me, what's wrong with people. why we do these things to each other.
drunk driving lessons.

jojo picked me up at century. byron didn't come along because he wasn't feeling good. jojo was disappointed about that. i thought he was gonna take me to a strip club, or else a shady massage place, but he wanted to get some food first. "what do you want?" he asked me. i said i didn't care. he said, "how about hooters?" i said that was ok. "junjun is going to meet us," he said. and as he drove past the cultural center, he started telling me about his passion: video games. "do you know what the best machine is for gaming?" of course i didn't. "alienware," he said. "after all these years, it's still number one."

at about 5'3" or 5'4" jojo is significantly shorter than i am, but it doesn't detract from his confidence at all. he's the son of a millionaire, after all, and he makes good money as an international pilot. somehow, we got onto the subject of facebook, particularly the social network. anything involving lots of money interests him greatly. i couldn't really follow his logic, but i listened anyway. "if i'm a hacker," he said, "why would i work for mark zuckerberg? i'm not gonna work for him. i'll make my own website and work for myself!" ok, jojo, ok.

he then jumped onto the subject of l.p.'s and cassettes. "your dad, he used to have all those beatles' records!" yeah, he did. "does he still have them?" no. i don't know what happened to them. "sayang (too bad)! were they the originals?" i think so. "those could be worth a lot of money. you know, those collectors buy everything on ebay. they spend so much money just for an old l.p.!" i told him i started listening to a lot of r&b and hip-hop, and that mash-ups and remixes were making a comeback. "i don't like remixes," he said. "it ruins the integrity of the original song."

we got to hooters and took a table outside. naturally, he flirted with the hostess, the waitress, pretty much every girl on staff. he wore a white polo, khaki shorts, a rolex, and he smoked his cigarette. we ordered buffalo wings with celery, nachos, and naturally, san mig lights. he said that i should eat american food, since i'd probably only been eating kare-kare, crispy pata, and seafood, which was true. so there it was, a friday night in manila, and i was drinking beers with my cousin, fourteen years my senior. from a distance, we could hear the screams for charice, glee's filipina star, who was performing at the mall of asia.

the more he drank, the more personal he got. he told me about how he'd spend summers in america, moving from one aunt's house to the next. the way he tells it, my aunts weren't very nice to him, and he didn't like being this vagabond kid with no real sense of place or belonging. why was he telling me this? maybe he thought i was feeling the same. it was, after all, my third straight winter in manila. what had i been doing? taking advantage of a deeply discounted vacation, or was there more to it than that? i let him talk. at some points he seemed so upset or saddened by his recollections that i thought he was about to cry. but then he'd move onto something else - like how our aunt darna owned a condo in manila, or how her son, ralph, fixed up vintage cars in l.a. he would tell me these things, and then he'd be perfectly content again.

eventually, junjun came around. he took a seat, finished our leftovers, smoked a few cigarettes. my two cousins spoke to each other in tagalog, and i half-listened, but their conversation moved too quickly, and they used too many words i couldn't understand. jojo would throw his head back and laugh, and then he would high-five junjun. i wanted to be a part of it. i wanted to live here, to have grown up here, to feel the way a white person must feel in america. i watched the fireworks, downed another beer, picked at the nachos. it was time to move on. the night was just getting started.

there was a club nearby, l.a.x., and i had been wanting to check it out. the line out the door was a young crowd, though, and junjun was wearing crocs. jojo walked straight up to the bouncer, and they had a little exchange. the kids in line were typical middle-class manila scenesters: girls with straightened brown hair and too much blush, boys with their button-downs and spiked hair. junjun made that face he makes whenever he's shocked by something. his eyes bug out, and he sucks in cheeks. "how am i supposed to get in wearing these?" he said, pointing at his crocs. i don't know, i said, and we both laughed.

jojo said we'd go to a bar in makati instead. we hopped into his jeep, and junjun followed us. jojo told me that he hoped manila wouldn't enforce penalties for d.u.i.'s because he usually has a couple after work on his way home. i wasn't surprised the police didn't enforce penalties for a d.u.i. if they weren't going to regulate speeding, seatbelts, or even occasionally blowing through red lights, what difference did it make if a driver was drunk?

at this bar in makati, we shot some pool, ordered more beers with sisig (pigs' ears). after dominating both me and junjun in several games, jojo gave me some tips on how to shoot. i went to the dingy bathroom to take a piss, and there were pictures of nude women all over the walls. i was glad i didn't have to take a shit because i was sure the facilities were manila standard: no toilet seats, no toilet paper, and i'd forgotten to pack my pockets with tissue. after a few more games, we were ready to call it a night. we said goodbye to junjun, and jojo drove me back to the hotel.

jojo was about six beers deep at that point, and he started teaching me how to drive stick. he stopped in the middle of the road. "this is first gear, see?" he stepped on the clutch and switched gears. behind us, a car flashed its lights and honked. "see, now we're going about 40, 50, that's third gear." i just kept nodding, and hoped he'd soon realize that giving me lessons on how to drive stick while drunk at 3 a.m. in manila probably wasn't the greatest idea. "it's just practice, like playing pool." he drove down makati avenue, where prostitutes were making their rounds. "hollywood boulevard," he said. i watched a big white guy walk down the street while carrying a filipina slung over his shoulder.

he dropped me off at the century hotel. "we'll have to do this again," he said. "just call me if you need anything." ok, i will.
what are you gonna do now?

the call came at 7:30 in the morning, and i wasn't expecting it at all. yet, somehow, when it rang, i knew immediately what it was. i'd been waiting for this call for months, and it went nothing like i planned. the placement officer asked me some questions. he tried, as other interviewers had done, to dissuade me from the program. he said things like, "even though you've had experience with this kind of work, you're most likely going to be in a very isolated, rural area. are you okay with that?" not really, but i guess i don't have a choice, right? "you're going to face lots of emotional and psychological challenges, how do you deal with stress?" i ball it all up inside, and remember that nothing really matters because one day, i'm just going to be dead.

of course that's not what i told him. i told him the exact opposite of what i was really feeling. and that is that i don't want to be isolated, and i don't want to be emotionally and psychologically challenged in a foreign land. i just want a job that doesn't completely suck, party on the weekends, and be happy somewhere. it doesn't matter where. but i wasn't honest, and i didn't like being badgered at 7:30 in the goddamn morning. so i fed him bullshit. yeah, i'm ready for it. sign me up, buddy. how soon can i leave?

and then he said exactly what i didn't want to hear. africa. i told him no. i told him my family would freak. they were, after all, the ones who wouldn't stop linking me to the 20/20 segment about the girl who was murdered in benin, and articles about the boy who was shot in lesotho. what was i supposed to say to them? no, this won't happen to me. i won't get shot or stabbed because i'm...different? also, aids, genocide and lions. i can't unsee hotel rwanda. of course, these aren't good excuses to refuse a placement. these are reasons people sign up for the program to begin with.

he got aggressive, and i shut down. "is this really about your family, or is this about you?" i didn't know what to say. "do you seriously have to wait for your family's blessing before you can begin service?" umm, no, i guess not. "to me, it doesn't sound like you're even ready for an invitation. at this point, i'm going to need you to convince me that i should even give you an assignment." ok. "this is really disappointing. you've come so far in the process, and now you're telling me this. i'll give you a week to think about it." ok, bye.

i was infuriated. everyone else - my recruiter, the return volunteers i had spoken with - they were all so kind and supportive. and then i get this guy, and he's not even hearing me out. i look him up, and he did his two years in tonga. there are pictures of him sitting on the beach and eating ice cream. there's a girl in a lot of the pictures, too, and i assume he was there with his wife. t'was a legit vacation. and he berates me for refusing an assignment in rural africa. my stomach turns, and i'm fuming all day. do i really want to volunteer two years for an organization that makes me feel like this?

i go for a run. i talk to everyone i can about it. i don't want to live in a hut in the middle of god-knows-where futilely teaching english on a stipend to kids who will never use it. i might as well just move to folsom. do i even like being around kids anymore? why am i even in this line of social justice work? i thought i decided years ago that it was stupid, that non-profits are disorganized, and that they don't actually accomplish anything, ever. the placement officer just gave me a taste of what was to come: being treated like a dumb kid again for the next two years. all i'm asking for in this world is a little fucking respect, some common courtesy.

three days later, i officially withdraw my application. i don't have a backup plan. the placement officer calls again. "what are you gonna do now?" what the fuck do you care?

i book a month-long flight to madrid. because the story has to continue. something has to happen next.