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.
fall back in love eventually.

back in sacramento. it's different this time. i don't know what it is. most likely, it was that weekend in seattle, a long weekend with no plans. three whole days where i wouldn't talk to a single person. my coworkers must've wondered why i wouldn't ever shut up on a monday. but yeah, there it was, friday off, and surprise, surprise, it's fucking cloudy and dreary out. maybe the sun breaks through for ten, fifteen minutes, but it isn't enough. it isn't damn near enough at all. and i shoot out texts. what are you upto tonight? everyone is busy. so it's just me, and the tv tonight. and the next two nights. and guess what? i'm too cheap for cable.

come saturday afternoon in seattle, i have to get out. i can't just nap and read books and think about which direction my life is heading, even though the clear answer is nowhere. i have some money, so what the hell. go shopping. i take the bus, i take the light rail. i go to nordstrom rack, i go to nike, i go to j. crew. i hit up the mall in southcenter, banana republic, hell, i even go to zumiez. and that's when i know i've hit rock bottom. i'm 27 years old and i'm trying on clothes at zumiez. i've done something wrong. somewhere in my mid to late twenties, i've missed my stop.

i go back to my apartment, and there isn't sadness, or ennui, or frustration. there's just nothing. like being stoned and realizing half the movie is over. auto-pilot, checked out, going through the motions, etc. there are many ways of putting it. i call my mom, and i know she's going to say exactly what i want to hear. you can just quit. which means no more money, no more job, no more structure. everything i thought i needed to make me feel better about being alive. even though i already knew it wasn't the answer. a whole generation of us who've seen films like fight club and american beauty, got the message, but never lived it out.

back in sacramento where there's nothing to do, no jobs available, no cool lefty liberal kids to mirror and thus validate my apathetic political views. at least it's sunny here. and my cousin lives nearby, so i can watch her kids grow up. and i tell myself, enjoy waking up at noon - you won't always get to do this. no need to be so hard on myself this time around, we're in a recession, don't-cha-know? and anyway, that peace corps letter should be coming in the mail anyday now. and if that doesn't work out, well, somebody hired you and gave you a job that you could probably do for the rest of your life if you had no other goals or ambition. therefore, somebody is bound to give you another chance at some point, somewhere.

so i go for a run, discover a part of the neighborhood i haven't seen despite my years of being here. i'll take the light rail if i wanna. i'll go to my cousin's house and play modern warfare for hours on end. i hang out with joseph, who doesn't give a shit that he still lives with his parents and works as a custodian. at least he has kung-fu, billiards, and his swords and daggers collection. maybe it just has something to do with getting older and not really aging, but for the most part, the post-college pressure is gone, and the floundering in life isn't such a dramatic issue. it doesn't nearly weigh as heavily on me as it once did.

don't get me wrong, hard times are far from over. but there isn't the same sense of urgency anymore. it's all just kind of funny to me now.
i'm so sorry this happened to you.

ok, so maybe it is a story worth telling.

but where should i start? how about back in my dante class. dante said the worst sinners of all were those who committed fraud. "why fraud?" someone asked. "even worse than rape and murder?" father rowan said yes, even worse than rape and murder. because in a fraudulent society, where the individual distrusts everyone, rape and murder wouldn't even be possible. everyone would just live extraordinarily isolated lives and have nothing to do with one another.

i didn't buy it at first. but now that i've been a victim of fraud, i agree. the guy who stole my entire savings account ($15,680) can go to the worst part of the inferno and stay there for all eternity.

you're probably wondering, how did a broke joker like me even save $15,680? it wasn't hard. it was just time consuming, and it took a lot of scrimping and saving, foregoing dinner some nights, not turning on the heat when it was cold. i had a $10 bus pass, i paid $615 in rent, i didn't have kids, i didn't date, i'd already paid off my student loans. what was i even saving for? i don't know, just to do it? i figured i'd need surgery for something at some point, and the anesthesia alone would be in the thousands. i figured i'd get married, and it'd be something for the honeymoon. maybe a down payment on a house. maybe i'd finally have a car in my name. maybe i'd go back to school, and then i'd have enough for a semester.

when i clearly saw none of that was gonna happen, i said fuck it. i'd spend the money on traveling. i'd quit my job, join the peace corps, and i'd have a good enough chunk of change to carry me through financial emergencies, small trips here and there. $15,000, $16,000, $17,000. how much was enough? how much did i need before i could quit my job and live out the last days of my youth? i'd been good for so long. it was time for a change. it was time to be reckless.

i quit my job. i threw a christmas party for my family. i went to manila. i went to bangkok. and then on february 1, i checked my chase online bank account. $0.00. zero. haha. you're fucking kidding me, right? the transaction was still pending. $15,680 going to somebody named william yong's bank of america bank account. surely my bank wouldn't be stupid enough to transfer my entire account, which i've had with them for ten years (back when they were washington mutual), to some fool named william yong. this is clearly a mistake, and they'll fix it immediately. right? right?

i flew back to manila, and i called chase immediately. "let me transfer you to our wire department," they said. "let me transfer you to our fraud department," they said. "let me put you on hold for just a minute," they said. clearly, nobody knew what the fuck was going on. their call centers are spread out all over the world, and at some point, i spoke with a representative working in manila. he could've been next door to me for all i knew. one rep said i'd need a notarized affidavit. another said a notary was unnecessary. one said i should close my account immediately. another said they'd just send me a new debit card. all the while, i'd get transferred from one department to the next, the next rep more clueless than the last. still, i put up with it. what choice did i have? this was all my money. everything. and i was in a foreign country burning international minutes, using a shoddy magic jack that cut out every now and then.

"you should fly back to the states," my aunt said. i didn't want to. i was supposed to stay in the philippines forever, marry a beautiful brown-skinned girl and have ten daughters. i was gonna live in a ramshackle house in the provinces, and i'd learn to love tabo-tabo.

but i didn't. i flew back. i learned that the hacker got into my gmail account, and set it up so that any emails including the word "chase" would go directly to my trash. he contacted at&t and had all my voicemails go to some number he set up, most likely a prepaid burner. at&t refused to release any of my information or records to chase without a subpoena. chase said they asked bank of america to return the money, but bank of america cited "insufficient funds," and the money couldn't be returned. chase said they needed a statement from at&t saying that my phone was set to call forwarding the day the transaction occurred. again, at&t said they needed that subpoena.

in other words, i have to prove i was robbed.

i filed a case at the sheriff's department. the officer more or less shrugged his shoulders, and said, "depending on our workload, we may get to it." it sounded like they weren't even going to investigate. the chase rep at my local branch said, "because it was a wire transfer, once it leaves chase, there's really nothing we can do at that point." the bank of america rep at my local branch said, "this might not even be his real name. we don't even have his account number." i emailed my boss. i called my lawyer friend. i posted the story on reddit.

all i can do now is try to convince myself it was just a number. a large number, yes, but still, just a number. and what was i going to do with it, anyway? buy an ipad? visit france? i'm probably better off without it. just another test of character, of my patience. an expensive lesson in how to (yet again) deal with grave disappointment.
more intensity!

"my stupid maid forgot to pack my payong!" it was snowing in osaka, and big fat franco was searching for his umbrella. it turned out to be just buried deep in his suitcase. we trekked out into the snow, and i walked far ahead of my traveling buddies. "what are you, running a marathon?" he called out to me. i looked all around me, japan covered in snow, and i was able to lose myself in it. the snow melted into my onitsuka tigers, and my feet and hands were freezing. it was the first time kathy had ever seen snow. "how can you tell when you've gotten frostbite?" she asked. we hauled ass to the osaka castle, and we took pictures. big fat franco had his camera stick with him, so he could take plenty of self-portraits. kathy and i would just watch him and laugh.

we rode the bullet trains, tried to explain to cab drivers where we needed to go, shopped and ate. in five days, we covered kansai, osaka, kobe, kyoto, nara, tokyo, and mt. fuji. the train ride from tokyo to mt. fuji was one of the most beautiful rides i'll ever take in my life. i watched japanese cartoons and morning shows, and i had no idea what the hell was going on, but everything felt like you had to be on drugs to create such things. i couldn't understand pachinko or the buttons on the remote next to the toilet bowl. almost every seat was heated, and everything was more expensive than i could have imagined. still, i loved every second of it. i understood why so many non-japanese people were obsessed with the country.

in tokyo, i saw cosplay girls, a fully functioning tower records, tokyo tower, shibuya square, buildings with lights everywhere. it was surreal to be there, the place that had given me nintendo, sega, akira, paprika, lost in translation, the concept of tentacle-rape, the idea of schoolgirl panties being sold in vending machines, the lyric "goddamn you half-japanese girls," seizure-inducing cartoons, the atomic bomb, sushi, godzilla, the phrase "they're big in japan," sumos, ninjas, geishas, tokyo drift, seppuku, ponyo, mama-sans. how did one country pack so much craziness into its collective existence?

because it was a japanese holiday, our hotel in kyoto was $1,000 USD for the night. our lunch in kobe was $200. to karaoke for one person for two hours in tokyo with a bottle of sake, it cost $50. every meal, no matter how small, was at least $10. as soon as you step in a cab, it's already $10. thanks to franco's rich friend, we were v.i.p. at a club in roppongi hills, and it cost $25 just to sit there. the girls dyed their hair brown and everyone wore black. african guys handed out flyers in the streets, and they worked as bouncers at the bars and clubs.

by the final day, i had a cold and i was exhausted. i had to take the train back to osaka by myself, as my flight left early in the morning, and franco's and kathy's flight wasn't until evening. by the time i reached my hotel, it was 10 p.m., and i looked like death. i found a small restaurant near the hotel, where i ordered a yakisoba for one. i gobbled it down and made as much noise as i could in the process. franco told me that to make noise while eating was a way of showing the cook that you enjoyed the food. so i slurped that shit up noisily, and while i was sick, exhausted, cold, and alone on valentine's day, at least i wasn't hungry anymore.

one thing at a time, man. one thing at a time.
if one day you just up and leave.

all my money is gone, but that story isn't even worth telling.

bangkok was just kind of eh. once you've seen one major asian city, you've seen them all. what's it like? a bunch of asians crowding together in markets. street vendors selling meat on sticks, fake purses, fake watches, fake t-shirts. i went on a tour by myself. it was good, to be alone again. can i do this? for two years? just be by myself and have no one to talk to? in the bus, the guides spoke thai and broken english, i heard indians, and i heard french. i listened to kanye west, and the song "runaway" made me very sad.

my cousin, her friend, and i went to patpong, the infamous red light district. it was homely looking girl after homely looking girl popping things out of their vaginas. one smoked a cigarette out of hers. another popped ballons by shooting darts out of her hoo-ha. yet another shot ping pong balls out of hers, and i returned the serve with a paddle. one tooted a horn. another blew out birthday candles. if there is a god, why does this kind of thing happen every night? we went to another place, and there was just straight up fucking. nothing left to the imagination. penetration right on the stage, and i thought i was gonna be sick. i just looked at the girl's face, that look of hopelessness, a look that said, hey, i'm being fucked in a chalee bar, and you foreigners paid $15 to watch me get fucked in this chalee bar, congratulations.

at least the food was delicious. on the last night, i treated my cousin and her friend to dinner, and it cost around $70. but it was worth every penny.

i've come to realize that i don't really like traveling. i kind of just want to be in one place until it gets old and then move on. but that's no way to live, right? that's just being a bum, or more specifically, a hobo.

but a few weeks ago, i was in a van, and we were coming back from a full day of swimming at calatagan. the street was dark, and the driver was really putting the pedal to the floor, despite the oncoming tricycles and motorists. it was dark, and other than the sound of the engine, it was quiet. i felt peace, at ease. i thought, i am going to remember this. it was a good memory, and it came to me when i truly believed there were no good memories left to make. that night gave me hope. but the combined speed and darkness also gave my mom a panic attack.

and then i was walking back to my niece's house in fairview. we had just spent the evening playing music in her friend's bar. we walked along a dirt road, and we were out in the countryside, so i could hear the crickets, see the full moon and stars directly above us. another good memory, i'll keep it.

i could picture myself back in california. i'm sitting on the sidewalk, and there's no one around. my parents are inside, they're watching tv. some kid will walk by, but he won't even look at me. i'm sitting there the whole day, just imagine it. the mailman delivers the mail, not even a hello. the whole fucking day will go by, no one will say a thing. not one word. no one will ask, why the hell are you just sitting on the sidewalk all day? no one will ask, what the hell's the matter with you? and that's not what i want. that's not it at all.

contrast it with this: i'm in fairview, my niece's house. her three friends come over. one of them, janine, is a very cute, dark-skinned girl with crooked teeth. she smiles all the time to show those crooked teeth. and they're taking hours just trying to figure out how to play some indian movie on a usb inserted into a portable laptop that's going into the hdtv. someone comes downstairs, and she's holding her baby. the friends coo over the baby. another friend stops by, and my cousin, espie, she invites everyone to sit down at the table to eat. a neighbor stops by, and she's adorable, too, this incredibly thin, shy girl who just wants some ice cream. she just gets the ice cream with her head bowed low, and she tries to slip away unnoticed. i want to grab her and tell her that life is too short to be shy, that she should spend her days making music, screaming her head off, demanding her fair share from this shit, lonely world. she should love and be loved, as we all should.

and that's what i want: community, family, a sense of belonging. not taking things too seriously. to show gratitude for the small bowl of ice cream that's already melted. this is all i've ever wanted.

i'm almost home.
just own the night.

"so, that's it, huh? you're quitting life," she said, "trading work for karaoke?"
"yeah," i said. "might as well."
"what are you gonna do when you get back?"
"i dunno," i said. "get a job at a supermarket or bookstore, if i'm lucky."
"nothing wrong with that," she said. "i was just talking about that today," she said, "how americans are so goddamn competitive."
"yeah," i said. "we're only fooling ourselves."

my aunt, she put out this full spread, crabs and coca-cola and squid and eggrolls, but none of us could eat a damn thing. it was for my dead grandparents and the other deceased. if there was an afterlife, i could picture my grandparents chilling on clouds, and laughing at us from above. jesus, they'd think, why didn't she spend that money on the living instead? i watched as she picked out hopia, chicharron, and other snacks from overcrowded tiny shops.

earlier this month, my cousins and i went to boracay for four days and three nights. every night, we drank san miguel light until our faces turned red and we no longer felt self-conscious about dancing to bad pop music. "firework," "the time (dirty bit)," "like a g6," "the club can't handle me," "i like the way you lie," "we r who we r," etc. we karaoked until our voices went out, and we swam in the ocean until our mouths filled with salt, and we tanned until our skin peeled. we drank shakes from jonah's and ate all the seafood we could handle. because that's how you fucking do boracay.

and then there are the go-go bars. miss universal, east asia, malizia-2, air force one, golden dove, club 9, so many go-go bars and nineteen year-old girls sitting in rooms that i don't know what to make of it. chloe, she sits on my lap and sings "a thousand miles." i know it, so i sing with her. i ask if she's in school. she says she dropped out. why, i ask. financial problems, she says. duh. why else would be she be here, sitting on your lap? i look to my left, and my buddy angelo is shirtless, smothering his chosen one.

sometimes, i stop. you have to stop sometimes. am i really doing this? did i really just drink every night this week and say what i said to that young girl? am i really dancing like a fool right now and finally, completely letting go? is there any love in this world, or is it all just lust and its consequences? maybe the purpose of life is to just take one amazingly long hot shower. what i wouldn't give for a hot shower right now.

but it's best to not overanalyze. don't think about things too much. just keep going at it hard, nonstop, 24/7, e'rry goddamn day until you die.
i see you colourful.

there's a little girl who sits outside shoemart at harrison plaza, and she looks at me. she wants money, that much is clear. i don't know what her story is. maybe she sleeps on the street, maybe she has some family, and they don't care where she is or what she's doing. i know enough tagalog to ask, where is your mother? but i don't ask. her clothes and hair are dirty, and she dances in front of the store window. the security guards try to shoo her away, but eventually, they resign - it is what it is - and she gets to loiter all she wants.

my cousin, jojo, he tells me that he's sick of living in vietnam, and he won't return there. instead, he'll break his contract, pay the $2,000 fee, and try his luck flying planes for another airline, zest air. he says that his previous employer, cebu air, had horrible working conditions, and they weren't worth his time. a small child peeks into his tinted window, and jojo knocks once, a signal for the child to get lost. jojo just keeps going on and on about how saigon is no place to live. it's a place only for tourists.

jamie, she works in the ktv cellar bar at our hotel. she says she's 21, single, lives in quezon city. she said she used to model, but not anymore. i asked her why, but she didn't have an answer for me. she rides the jeepney to work, where she entertains guests like me from 5 p.m. - 1 a.m. when there are no guests like me available, she just sits there with the other girls, and they talk about things. i don't know what it is they talk about. she said she liked the rhianna song, "i like the way you lie," and that her dream was to go to boracay. together, we sang journey's "open arms," and her voice was better than mine.

there's a guy who works at the small gym in the hotel. he was here last year, and probably the year before that. he says, "hello, sir," and once, he asked me if i was on vacation. i think he wants someone to talk to english, but when i run, all i want to do is listen to music. he tilts the tv monitor so it faces his small table, and usually, he watches game shows. if he has to use the bathroom, he tells me he'll be right back. once, i forgot my water bottle, and he called my room to tell me that i'd forgotten it. when i picked it up, i tipped him 40 pesos, about a dollar.

another guy, he drives a tricycle. he's wearing a basketball jersey, faded shorts, and dusty sandals. he's got a bandaid on his cheek, and he asks me where we want to go. i tell him, pancake house. i hear him ask another tricyclist in tagalog where pancake house is, and that person gives him directions. he struggles with the pedaling. he is, after all, trying to transport two well-fed americans, a good 350 pounds combined. all around us, cars, jeepneys, and motorcycles are whizzing by, honking and blasting black smoke into the air. the heat is thick and sticks to your skin. you can smell the sewage, the food, the piss, the kalesas, yourself. when the ride is over, i ask him how much? he says ten pesos, i give him twenty.

i'm walking around, and it's just a normal day, nothing special about it. i think about the lyric from jonsi's "animal arithmetic": everyday, everywhere, people are so alive. it's not like that where i'm from. where i'm from, it's not like that at all.
who was that girl?

a beautiful woman sat next to me on the plane from seattle to sacramento. she was a bit older, early thirties or so, and blonde. she flipped through the pages of a sacramento magazine. it was either talk to the beautiful blonde woman or listen to the jezabels on my iphone.

"is this your first time visiting sacramento?"
"no, i'm from there."

we had this in a common, a similar hometown. what did she do? she traveled around here and there. her husband was a helicopter pilot, and they were last stationed in louisiana, and before that, germany. she had a daughter, and the kid was with her dad in olympia. what did i do? i just quit my job, working in an office. i was waiting to hear from the peace corps, but i didn't know where i'd end up yet, or when i would be going. so until then, i was just going to go to sacramento and then to manila, and then who knows what?

she told me that taking the trains around in europe was easy. she said she'd never been to the philippines, but that she would like to visit it eventually. we never even introduced ourselves. we spent the whole flight talking, and i didn't get her name. there was no mention of facebook or email or anything like that because there wasn't a point to it. she was a married woman, and that was that. why bother? it was nice, though, the conversation. we just talked and talked and the flight didn't seem that long.

we got off the plane, and she said something about how she loved coming into sacramento's airport. i had nothing to say about that. i was too busy thinking about how my dad was gonna ask, who is that girl? and i'd have to explain that she was just someone i met on the plane, and she was married, so what did it matter? she said something else, and i was just like, uh huh. i was thinking about that moment when i'd see my parents, and i'd feel like a child again, like some dumb kid who didn't know anything, and that whole grown-up conversation i had just had with the blonde woman would have become nullified.

her father and what looked to be her brother met her first. her father hugged her and she laughed and looked so happy to see him. i hesitated for a second, but then i said, fuck it. why would i introduce myself to this married girl's family? i looked for my parents, ready to play the part of the child who failed at life, the one who couldn't make it in america on his own. my dad and i waited at the carousel, and we barely talked.

we were the last ones there, standing at the carousel. i was worried they'd lost my guitar, but later i discovered they already had it waiting for me in a small office. the blonde showed up. "it was nice talking to you," she said. she shook my hand. "have fun in the philippines!" and that was that. just one more person i talked to for a little while, and who i will probably never see again for the rest of my life.

why wasn't that my life yet? flying helicopters, being well-traveled, married to a gorgeous, intelligent woman? why was i the kid again who loved useless things like writing and playing the guitar? was i ever going to get to be an adult?

"who was that girl?"
i knew you were gonna ask that. i fucking knew it.
at least he looks happy.

well, i'm about to turn 28, and i'm spending my third birthday in a row in manila. i haven't taken any pictures. i'd only be taking shots of things i've seen. but there i was, two, three months ago, walking to work on a cold morning, and i said to myself, i need a drastic change. i was ready for traveling and being on my own then. maybe it was a little bird who kept telling me, you've got nothing to lose! and she was right. what is there to lose? when you are single, and have no personal or financial obligations, why wouldn't you try to shake things up a little?

the cereal prawns were new. there was a new line of restaurants in makati, and i ate cereal prawns, and they were amazing. but to think of food now only disgusts me. when visiting manila, there are only two things i can feel: full and sick. i saw my pamangkins, and that was nice. they called me uncle and laughed because i still couldn't fluently speak tagalog. they said, do you have a girlfriend, and i said no, and they said, but you are dating, and i said no. and so they are trying to set me up with a girl named april. and they aren't the only matchmakers. my aunt said, how old will you be tomorrow? and i said, 28, and she said, it's time to get married.

and then we were at miss universe, a shady little spot only a few blocks from the hotel. there were girls there, and i was ready to pay for them, but i couldn't bring myself to do it. there was place after place of this, thousands of young women looking to get paid, and thousands of lonely men willing to pay any price just to feel something, some great release from the banality of shopping, of working, of paying taxes, of feeling anxious, of living. there are shots of coffins on the local news, some hit and run, some landslide, some massacre, some fools lighting off fireworks.

my uncle now lives in a different area, ever since he pissed off my aunt, his sister. they still don't talk. christmas came and went, they didn't say a word to one another. new years came and went, and still, nothing. he's 52, though years of drinking and smoking make him look much, much older, and he knocked up a 21 year old girl. my mom said to me, his place is sad, isn't it? i didn't answer her, but i didn't want to use his bathroom, either. there was a cockroach in it. my cousin looked at pictures of him and his girl, and he said to me, at least he looks happy.

i have friends back in the states, and they're mostly white. they are thinking about their careers and advanced degrees, and making a life and having a nice home. they are worried about finding jobs and holding onto love and pursuing their dreams. and here in manila, there are men who just sit on crates. they are dark skinned, and they wear dirty tanktops, and they've got a towel resting on one shoulder. i don't know what they are waiting for. i don't know if they just sit there and hold those towels all day long or what.

my mom still says, it didn't use to be like this. my cousin says, why is it so goddamn dirty everywhere? he also says, i'm sick of malls. my dad, he doesn't say anything. he just feels at home, and i can tell by the look on his face. we still talk about what needs to be done to make this city great, or at least livable. we still talk about the dangers of riding a cab, and watching out for pickpockets. we still eat more than we should, and swim, and shop, and live like kings.

but i'm still walking down that cobblestone path at seattle university, the one that runs down between lemieux library and bannan, and i'm still thinking to myself, i need a drastic change.