I turned 30 this year.
Wait, this beginning sounds too familiar to my editorial on turning 30 years of age. This is what happens when my birthday is relatively close to the end of the year. So after having just done a reflection on the past 10 years of my life, here's the look back at 2017.
Indeed a big component this year was the crossover to the fourth decade of life. I'm not going to hash out again all my thoughts and feelings here (for that I suggest you go read the editorial), but to sum it up, now that I am on the other side of the proverbial mountain, I am at once relieved and excited about what's to come. In 2016 I was quite worried and feared turning 30, but as with most things in life, everything turned out for the best.
My 20s were a period of discovery and experimentation on what shapes me as a person, and I think for the 30s decade it’s time to put that knowledge into action. As long as I ensure my foundation is in good shape: proper sleep, exercise, diet, and financial stability, I’ve got all the tools and time to pursue whatever I want.
Whatever that may be I cannot say because if there is one thing I learn the previous decade is that the future – and our related thoughts and personality then – is incredibly difficult to predict. Cliché as it may to say take it one day at a time, I think it’s a good technique to avoid straying off the present and looking too much into the future.
A big theme of this year in terms of personal development is practicing stoicism. Borne from all the fear and anxiety that I had about turning 30, late 2016 I picked up the writings of Seneca, one of stoicism's founding fathers. Call it fate or what have you, but it was the exact sort of advice I needed at that time:
Life is long enough if you know how to use it.
One of the primal fears of turning 30, however manufactured by society it may be, is that 30 represents the top of the mountain that once crossed over you are then on the rapid plunge towards death. On a macro level that seems ridiculous because isn’t the life expectancy in the U.S. somewhere in the 80s? For someone starting his 30s I'm still in the ‘spring’ of my life.
For sure the allure of youth have a terrible grip on the mind. One of the big reason we hold onto our 20s so dear is because it is the prime of youth and beauty. Athletes start to not function so greatly after they’ve turned 30, and the decline can be dramatic. We have it in our minds that 30 is the end of our youth and thus a sobering reality of "actual" adulthood and decline looms in the immediate future. We shall never look as awesome and spry ever again.
Even if that's true, that is okay, because that’s nothing you or I can control. One of the big tenets of stoicism is to only focus on things you can control. Worrying about things you cannot is a waste of time and energy. Aging and turning 30 is a naturally process that will occur no matter what I do; why would I want to stop it anyways? Isn’t the opposite, death?
I resigned to tolerate the uncontrollable reality of turning 30, and I ceased to be stressed about it. The other things in my everyday life as well: stuff that used to bother me, that upon reflection I have no power over, they no longer do. Imagine getting mad at every little slight that happens on the road whilst driving: it’s almost guaranteed that everyday some driver will do things that will annoy you, and if you let that get to you then that’s a very harmful way to live. I choose to let them occur, brush it off because I can’t control what other drivers do, and motor on with my business.
Through stoicism I found joy in driving again. That’s how much I use to internalize things I have no power over.
Another major point I worked on over 2017 related stoicism is the focus on the present, and only the present. It’s tough for sure, and I reckon it’s going be an ongoing practice for the rest of my life, but it’s highly worth it. I’ve become calmer with less anxiety, and the thing or person I’m currently focus on gets the benefit of my full attention.
One example: the past few years I’ve been traveling a lot, and it’s wonderfully rewarding indeed. A constant trouble I have is anticipation for what’s next, rather than looking at and enjoying what’s in front of me. The week before I set off on trips I’d be quite useless because my energy is so intensely focused on the trip that my daily tasks and whatnot gets forsaken. While on the trip I’m constantly looking ahead to what is next, to the point where there were moments I’m thinking about what I’m going to do once I get home – while still overseas(!).
It’s a destructive habit because I don’t/can't experience the trip to it's full. When I keep looking ahead (or behind), what’s directly there is but a blur or mirage. Something is very wrong when I get a better enjoyment of the trips while editing the pictures I took afterwards at home.
That’s not how the force works.
It’s always a struggle to keep in the present, but all I can do is to keep working at it every day. As soon as I detect my mind wandering, I snap it back to what’s here and now. Nowadays I don’t get overly excited about traveling until the day of getting on the plane: the week before I am still focused on what I need to do at work and personal. It’s funny that now when people ask me what I have planned for or how excited I am for a trip, I tell them I've got too much to do before then to even think about it.
Don’t mean to sound like an asshole, but it’s a defense mechanism from wandering into the future.
I like to think Stoicism and staying in the present moment are big reasons my trips overseas this year have been dramatically more enjoyable and fruitful than years before. I shall tell about them now, because while work and personal life have been fairly constant in 2017 from 2016, traveling is the big differentiator, without which there would be much less to write about in this reflection piece.
YEAR OF TRAVEL
In January this year I once again traveled to Hong Kong because I just love it so much over there. The people, the culture, the food, it’s so familiar to me. Diversity is great here in America, but there’s no shame in finding joy to be amongst people that look and speak like I do. Our tribal ancestors would agree, and so would any high school cafeteria during lunch hour.
Being that it’s a second trip within calendar year, I was much more prepared that I was last time. I had the bearings down and it was simply a matter of scouting out potential locations to visit and making it happen. We stayed in the same hotel and it’s quite the surreal experience to be eating at the same local restaurants a year apart. While the proprietors don’t remember us, we sure remember the place and the food. It’s oddly homey, even with the time distance.
It’s on this Hong Kong trip where I had my first sample of Din Tai Fung, which is this famous xiaolongbao restaurant originating from Taiwan that everyone raves about. The Bay Area actually has one in Santa Clara, but as you’d expect the lines are enormous and you practically can’t eat without a reservation. Hong Kong to the rescue.
The verdict: it’s excellent xiaolongbao, but I wouldn’t wait in line for it, though I tend to not want to wait in line for most things.
One reason I wouldn’t is because in March I went to the birthplace of xiaolongbao: Shanghai. I took the week off during the campus spring break, and the sights there were spectacular. Never mind the food: The Bund waterfront area is an absolute jewel, so much so that I went twice: once during the day and then a return at night to take in the complete spectrum. March weather in Shanghai is cold enough to be bearable – much like San Francisco, so it was perfect.
Obviously when in Shanghai one must eat xiaolongbao, and as expected they can be found literally everywhere, like Starbucks coffee in Seattle. We didn’t go into any fancy restaurant because even the xiaolongbao from a side-street food stand is the best I’ve ever had. There’s indeed no substitute for eating a particular food at its place of origin. The xiaolongbao in Shanghai differs from what I’m used to in the States in one way: it’s a thicker bun. The ones in Shanghai actually is a ‘bao’ as its namesake, while the ones we have here more resembles dumplings.
An hour from Shanghai by high-speed rail is the city of Hangzhou with its world defining feature: West Lake. It’s a vast lake with beautiful scenery that poets of ancient China visit to attain inspiration as if a muse. The lake is gorgeous, and we spent the entire day simply walking alongside it. Those who rather venture into the lake itself can find a multitude of boats for hire. It’s a shame we went during too early in spring because many of the fauna have yet to blossom. My advice: go during April.
The coup de grace of trips I took this year was the two June weeks I spent in Korea. A trip that’s been a long time coming, seeing as I’ve been into Korean culture for the longest time, and started to learn the language in 2016. It was the culmination of all the pent-up anticipation that made it extra special, though now that I think about it there was absolutely zero reason we couldn’t have done it way earlier than this year.
Stoicism says you must let things develop and flow as they are, and they usually turn out for the best.
And indeed it has for Korea, because thanks to my rudimentary Korean language skills, the trip was less awkward and smoother going that otherwise. While English may be the universal language, it’s still nicer to be able to speak the local lingua franca. One advantage is the ability to eat at the super local restaurants that's only got written menus with no pictures and zero English. It’s certainly not tenable to do this for every foreign country you visit, but it's great when you can.
I was glad to put my Korean to test as well, because the trip was the first time I spoke Korean with other people in conversation. Nothing like trial by fire, and there were some truly awkward moments indeed, but overall, it’s a net positive because it’s by making mistakes that I learn and advance. Too bad I’m not white because otherwise the locals in Korea would find it amusing rather than rude that I’ve forgotten to insert honorifics when speaking to someone older than I. Instead I look like a Korean with no manners.
I had the best time in Korea. The food alone is worth the trip, especially if you like Korean food as much as I. Not only is it cheap when considering we are spending U.S. dollars, but the quality and taste is so dramatically better than the Korean restaurants here. I naively thought this wasn’t possible, but same as Hong Kong ruining Chinese food for me, so has Korea for Korean food. Since coming back from the trip up til now I’ve had Korean food here a grand total of two times. It’s a tragic problem of the first world magnitude.
Summertime in Korea is hot and muggy, though not quite Southeast Asia levels. It was for sure shorts and t-shirt weather for us, and anytime we can find shade and a building with air-con was a welcomed reprieve from the heat. We definitely got used to it, and a positive side-effect of going during the summer is that at night it’s the best atmosphere ever. The temperature comes back down to mid 60s, and wandering outside in Seoul taking in all the night scenery is a absolutely wonderful. Sitting on the shores of the Han River watching the Banpo Bridge’s Moonlight Rainbow fountain show was an incredible highlight.
And the city doesn’t close down early like we do in San Francisco: deep into the night and early morning there’s food places to be found, and you can do so because it’s an extremely safe country. The lifestyle in Korea is sublime.
The two weeks in Korea we stayed in Seoul for eight days, then Busan for one day (high-speed rail there is supreme), and the rest in picturesque Jeju Island (one hour flight). Jeju is like the Hawaii of Korea, super laid-back, and renting a car to get around is a must. We booked an entire house on the outskirt of the main city and basically treated it as a vacation within a vacation. Lounging around doing nothing and simply enjoy being there is how we did Jeju. We did drive around for a bit, visited some beaches and landmarks, but other than that the only time we got out the house was to eat.
The famous Sunrise Peak of Jeju is a must-do: wake up in an ungodly hour to hike up a natural crater to see the first light of the morning. The view is so worth the lack of sleep and physical discomfort.
I am smitten with Korea, and for sure will be going back in 2018.
There was an uncomfortable lull between the Korea trip and the next trip I took in 2017: Taiwan during Thanksgiving week. After blowing two straight weeks on Korea, I did not have any vacation time to use on another trip later in the summer, so I had to wait a long time (for me) until I could leave the country again.
Travel withdrawals, they are real, and they are first world.
The trip to Taiwan this time was special because first I wasn’t sick as I was two years ago, so that automatically increased the amount of activities two-fold, and secondly it’s the first time I vacationed out of the country with my father and brother. Call it bonding time, call it father-son(s) time, it was quite special indeed, especially wonderful to see my father have a great time traveling after working so hard all these years.
Yes, a second time in Taiwan, specifically Taipei. I’ve done practically all the major tourist stuff during the first visit, but it was great to visit them again because this time I had a better camera with me. Due to sickness, last time I didn’t really take any photos so one of the main reason I went back to Taipei again was specifically to shoot belatedly all the places I went to the first time.
Taipei is a beautiful city, and the fact it was semi-rainy weather the entire week we were there made for more dramatic pictures. Traveling during November also has the advantage of avoiding the unbearable heat and typhoons of Taiwan summers. The winter weather in Taipei is alike to San Francisco, which for us cannot be better.
Right, the food. Yes, Taipei is known of its massive variety of street food and street markets, and they don’t disappoint. The sort of food truck festivals we have here in San Francisco pales in comparison to the almost industry they have over there. In Taipei alone there’s something like seven established night food markets – dinner for the week is practically covered should you decide to visit a different one every night.
We did no such thing (we went to three) because it’s important to have proper dinners and eat other Taiwan specific food stuff such as hot pot and seafood (it’s an island, after all). Nevertheless, if you’ve got the stomach, Taipei is food heaven. Just don’t expect much for breakfast because most restaurants don’t open until 11am at the earliest. My advice especially to those not familiar with Chinese is to get a breakfast package at your hotel.
All told I traveled four times during 2017, and all four destinations were in Asia. You know adults often go to Las Vegas to unwind and escape their “normal” life? I think Asia is my Las Vegas. I love it over there, and will always go back at every opportunity.
Therefore 2018 should be more of the same. The second week of January I’m once again going to Hong Kong. Now that I’ve practically exhausted all the touristy stuff to do, I think I’m simply going to hang back, focus on food, and explore the city at my leisure – like a vacation at some remote place. Another reason for going to Hong Kong is my cousin is making the mistake of getting married so it should be a fun time with the family.
In June the current plan is to finally make the trip to great old Europe. The itinerary hasn’t been at all figured out yet, but for sure on the list is England and south of France. Great thing about Europe is that everything is so close and connected so it should be great fun crossing multiple country lines within a day.
Lastly, I think I shall make it back to Korea during Thanksgiving week. I’m a bit apprehensive about this being winter in Korea is properly cold – we’re talking negative degrees, which is not something I am used to. That said, I’ve been told the winter atmosphere in Seoul is altogether different and amazing from summer, so I think braving the cold to go there in November ought to be worth the extra layers of clothing and heat packs.
A primary reason why I travel so much have to do with the photography hobby. I simply would not be taking as many pictures otherwise, which is kind of disappointing now that I think about it. A major goal of mine in 2017 was to take more pictures than I did the year before: I want to match the enthusiasm and forwardness back in the early 2010s when I went out to shoot more often than I did in recent years. I want the magic of photography back, which I admit have lost some of its luster for me. Too lazy to get out of the house, perhaps.
With the assist of having traveled outside the country four times, I’ve succeeded the goal of taking more pictures than 2016. The aim next year is to repeat and increase.
Upgrading to a full-frame camera have been a dream of mine ever since I started shooting, and this year I finally made the jump to the vaunted 35mm sensor. Sold is the Canon 7D and Sony A5100, and in comes the much beloved Sony A7R2, and that thing is as amazing as advertised. A full-frame photograph has massive amounts of detail, and when paired with a Zeiss lens, things seemingly pop out of the 2D plane. Perhaps a touch vain, but the switch to the A7R2 have done most to reignite my passion for taking pictures. The difference is so striking that I want to go back to everything I’ve done before and redo them. It’s that magnificent.
42 megapixels is ridiculous and awesome. Do I even need a zoom lens when I can crop halfway into a shot and still retain as much detail as most cameras? Well, yes, a proper long zoom would be awesome. I’m currently shooting with a 24-70mm G Master and it’s fantastic but the holy grail next-up would be the 70-200mm G Master. Baby steps.
I cannot talk about photography without bringing up the iPhone X. I upgrade my phone every year despite the protest of good financial sensibilities because Apple deems it correct to advance the camera system with each iteration. With the iPhone 6S and 7, I finally felt confident in the quality to make prints – it’s gotten that good. The iPhone X is a quantum leap above that.
The new pair of lens along with upgraded processing system is producing pictures so good that I have no qualms putting them up on my website in full resolution. I had an extensive go at it during the Taipei trip, and on Instagram people cannot tell the difference between shots from the X and the Sony A7R2. That is simply amazing, and a huge credit to what Apple has done in the decade with the iPhone. I can conceivably see myself leaving the Sony home and only taking the X on trips, or rather I wouldn’t be all that sad if I were to accidentally forget the A7R2 at home.
I mentioned my website: in 2017 I made the switch from tumblr to a fully realized website hosted by Squarespace. I really should have done this a long time ago. I started a tumblr back when it was cool many years past and sort of stuck with it due to sheer lack of momentum to switch. It sufficed for quite a bit because not too long ago making a proper website was a daunting task, and Internet speeds weren’t yet fast enough anyways for a full-fledge high-resolution photo website. Times have changed, obviously, and tumblr’s paltry limit of 700 pixels wide on uploaded images no longer did the job.
Therefore, I made a Squarespace website, the one you are reading this on. It was dead easy: I picked a suitable template from the many they offer, and did a few customizations to taste. The actual difficult part was porting over all the information from tumblr. Photos must be re-uploaded entirely due to resolution, and blog posts transferred piece by piece due to difference in metadata handling. Took a bit of time but I’m extremely happy with the results. The photographs are presented well, and the blog continues on.
In the same vein, I’ve also consolidated my online presence in regards to photos. The flickr account is deleted, and I now upload photos taken with my camera to Instagram. The old tumblr website had a social element to it, and I wanted to replicate that somewhat so what better place than Instagram. Instead of only spontaneous shots from the iPhone, I upload prepped and edited camera photos as well, treating it as a photo blog.
It was dangerous at first because as with any human being, I was very cognizant of feedback in the form of ‘likes’. Instagram is addictive that way because you can tell what your audience prefers based on what photos get more likes. However, it can also be a negative in that I inevitably get disappointed in photos not so well received. Even before I started uploading camera photos it was like that.
It’s not exactly a good way to live, because I was stressing over and spending lots of time deciding what photo to upload, instead of simply doing it because I and I alone like a particular picture. Stoicism warns that it’s not good to care too much about what people think because it can distract from you doing what you want to do. Indeed, caring about how many likes I get on a photo was highly hurtful to the creative process. Posting on Instagram is the last step and ought to be straight forward, and I shouldn’t be spending hours on it making decisions to please other people.
In practicing stoicism, I am constantly trying to ignore the likes and feedback; if I myself am happy with what I uploaded, that is and shall be good enough.
As mentioned, plans for 2018 for photography is to take more pictures than this year. I think it’s also time to start dabbling in video editing, a natural offshoot of still photography, especially since most photo cameras can shoot video too. I once put together a video for my cousin’s wedding off GoPro footage and that was extremely time consuming but loads of fun so I want to get back into that. I bought a brand new 5K iMac this year so it’s time to really stretch its legs.
Stoicism teaches us to be content with what we’ve already got: wishing for more and more leads to negative consumerism, debt, and an ultimate lack of fulfillment. There is always ‘more’ to be had in this world. Instead we should shift the perspective and look at the things that's already there: wouldn’t you be pinning for them all the same if they are not in your possession?
I relate this to my love of cars. I’ve had the Miata now for two years, and it’s getting to be that time I’m in danger of having wandering eyes. Not to say the Miata is bad, far from it: the ND generation MX-5 is a wonderful car, full of character and driving thrill it’s criminal how relatively little Mazda charges for it. I have wandering eyes because that is just the tendency of a car enthusiasts, especially one who subscribes to a multitude of car related YouTube channels and therefore constantly bombarded with new and awesome cars.
The new Honda Civic Type R looks the business, doesn’t it? I can certainly afford it. I gave up a WRX STI for the Miata, why not keep the line moving. What’s stopping this great?
Stoicism, again: every day I remind myself how lucky and awesome I get to drive the Miata, and how if I didn’t own one I’d most certainly want one. Besides, I’ve barely put 14K miles on the car in two years – it’s practically brand new (internally; wish I can say the same for the front-end paint). It’d be a huge waste if I were to move on having barely familiarize myself with it.
Being an adult turning 30 also stops the greatness. The five year ago me would’ve bought a new car no contemplation, but now it’s a completely different mindset. What is it about being a proper adult that seems to stop all my previously wanton spending tendencies? Nowadays any purchasing decisions over one hundred dollars requires some serious contemplation on whether I truly need the thing or not. This has saved me plenty of money, and the things I do end up buying I’m much happier with them.
One example: Apple Airpods. It took me over a year to decide on buying these wireless earphones, and it turns out to be the most favorite thing I bought in 2017. The freedom of motion adds an entirely new and magical dimension to music enjoyment.
Back to cars: I think I will be keeping the Miata for a long time, mainly because I want to use it more before moving on. The goal in 2018 is to drive more miles to more places with the car: no more weekends where it’s parked for two days until I must drive to work again on Monday. A car is only worth its purchasing cost if I use it; it’s no good being stationary.
This applies to other items I have bought as well. For 2018 I resolve to fully utilize the things I already bought, and be content and happy they are in my possession. In my 20s I tend to buy things that I fancy but half the time they end up sitting at a corner, neglected. I don’t think I’ve turned on the PS4 at all this year, the GoPro only gets used as a dash-cam, and my Surface Pro 4 tablet is only for when I need to watch YouTube while eating. Imagine that: a $1,000 machine doing the work a $300 tablet could do. Why the heck did I not simply buy an iPad?
Back in October I wrote that I would start putting upgrades to the Miata slowly, but now I’ve changed my mind. There shall be no money-wasting upgrades to the car; I’ll only spend to keep it in good fettle, ready for the extra miles I plan to drive. The car is perfect for me as is from the factory. I rather conserve the money for the car I deeply want, over anything on the market today and to come in the next few years: a Porsche 911.
Preferably in GT3 guise.
At the end of 2016 I wrote about how I aim to simplify my life into a few core areas of focus: learning, reading, photography, and traveling. It was done because I was deep in the throes of anxiety over turning 30: I had felt time was running out and I needed to capture as much of what’s left. This past year most of my free waking hours were dedicated to those four areas, with no exceptions even on weekends. Any deviations from them felt like I wasn’t seizing the day and wasting time.
Turns out one can go overboard with that kind of stuff.
For sure it’s important to not waste time and to utilize it completely towards things that better myself. However, it’s important to not let the ticking of the clock dictate the pace and quantity, because that’s how I got in trouble psychologically. I started reprimanding myself for wasting time, even though some days I really could use a day of having nothing to do with learning, reading, or photography. Even though those things weren’t “work”, and I love doing them immensely, sometimes the brain still needs a break from them – and I don’t mean sleep.
I learned to take a few truly off-days here and there, and my productivity has been better for it. I also shifted my perspective from looking at time like it's a deadline to instead as a counting mechanism for the flow of life. I don’t set arbitrary limits and quotas anymore: if it takes me longer than two weeks to read a book or I’ve lingered on a single chapter of Korean for a month, so be it. I’m not going beat myself over it; so long as there’s forward motion of any kind, I’m content. Let things flow and take things as they come and go.
These are some things I simplified out in 2017: in addition to episodic television, I stopped watching sports almost entirely. I still enjoy the few games here and there, and attending a baseball game at the park is always a treat, but other than that I feel like the three hours or so dedicated to watching a game can be better used elsewhere, even if it’s car videos on YouTube. I can learn something from those.
Another thing pared down was the material things I own. You know the technique people use to spring clean their home? The one where you look at an item and if it hasn’t been used for the past year in goes to the trash. I’ve tried many times previously to do just that, but of course the human psyche is strong: I always tend to favor the side that tells me I should keep something if there’s even a minuscule chance I’ll use it in the future.
That future never comes. Especially when it comes to clothing.
This fall I went through everything in my room, and I put to trash anything that hasn’t been used in the past year – with no regard for future usage – and decorative items that have ceased to bring a smile. The result was a spectacular 10 trash-bag full, three of them just for clothes.
Why did I keep textbooks from high school? Seems stupid now.
What they say is true: the things you own weights you down. After throwing away the 10 trash-bags worth of stuff, my room was transformed: it’s whole new area. The air was better, and it felt more open even though dimensionally it can’t possibly have changed. Everything there now have a logical purpose, physically or mentality. It’s one of the best things I did in 2017.
LET'S GET IT
Towards the beginning of this piece I mentioned that so long as I continue to keep my foundation sound (sleep, exercise, diet, money), then I’m in good position to tackle the whatever I desire. I don’t foresee the core four of study, read, travel, and photography changing in 2018. Books are a forever project: there’s no better way to learn from/borrow someone’s mind, and a terrific tool for keeping a solid vocabulary.
In regards to studies, I think Korean will still consume most of 2018, as I’m barely in on the third of three textbooks. One thing I can say about learning a language is that it better be full-time or it’s not going to stick. There are no shortcuts: you’ve got to Malcolm Gladwell it. That said I eventually will move on, and as of right now I think I’m going to pick something I’ve wanted to fully learn since middle school: music theory and piano.
Wonder if these old and malformed fingers of mine will hold up. Didn’t Ryan Gosling learn the jazz piano for La La Land? He’s almost 40 isn’t he? I still have time.
As 2017 draws to an end, the only emotion I wish to express is gratitude: gratitude for being alive another day here in this wonderful country. Thankful for family and friends, and their continued good health. Grateful for a job I love going to every weekday, one that’s so rewarding in many facets. An appreciation for all the things – good and bad – that have happened thus far in my 30 years on this earth. It’s all so wonderful, and I only hope to live in such a way to perhaps be deserving of it.
In 2018, let’s get it.
2017 TOP 10 SONGS
1. Crush - 잊어버리지마 (Don't Forget) Feat. Taeyeon
2. Zico - She's a Baby
3. KARD - Oh Na Na
4. TWICE - LIKEY
5. Red Velvet - 피카부 (Peek-A-Boo)
6. 여자친구 (GFRIEND) - 귀를 기울이면 (Love Whisper)
7. Bolbbalgan4 (볼빨간 사춘기) - 우주를 줄게 (Galaxy)
8. Taeyeon - Curtain Call
9. Big Bang - 에라 모르겠다 (FXXK IT)
10. 방탄소년단 (BTS) - Go Go (고민보다 Go)