13 Good Reads That Inspired My 2013

Dear friends,

It’s that time of the year again! In 2009, I started a mini tradition for myself of summing up the year, with a list: “9 Crazy Things I Did in 2009.” Then, it was “10 Best Things from 2010.” 2011 saw “11 Unexpected Things in 2011.” Things got a little crazy in 2012, so instead of my #newyearslists you got, “12 Months in the Air in 2012” as part of my annual holiday greeting.

This year, before I hop on a plane to celebrate Weinachts in Deutschland, I’d like to share “13 Good Reads that Inspired My 2013” with you. I’d love for you to share your favorite reads and news from 2013 with me too. Happy holidays and early happy 2014 to all!

13 Good Reads That Inspired My 2013

1. “Hyperbole and a Half” by Allie Brosch

Part comic, part rant, part quiet self-reflection, this blog and eponymous book of illustrations can cheer you up when you’re having a crappy day, or inspire some reflections on your own Self when you’re in a contemplative mood.

2. “Philomena” by Martin Sixsmith

Yes, there’s a film coming out, but read the book! I learned a bit about 1950s Ireland’s church and state relations, about the Republican National Convention, about struggles of the gay community in the US as recently as the 1980s, about how a person’s childhood experiences shapes their life and Work. It was a fast read and a real tearjerker (the guy who sat next to me on that flight must’ve thought I was strange).

3. “Yoga Sequencing” by Mark Stephens

This year I tried to approach my yoga teaching and practice more scientifically. Mark Stephens’ book is my new bible for understanding the mechanics of anatomy and vinyasa.

4. “Bhagavad Gita”

I started with “Bhagavad Gita For Beginners” but a package from Mumbai containing a behemoth “as it is” version (thanks JP!) arrived in time for Christmas. This reading project will continue into 2014.

5. “This Is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz

Wow! Not since Mrs. Valles’ IB English class have I enjoyed the madness of reading pure fiction (although the short stories of Diaz are somewhat autobiographical). I felt ludicrously indulgent getting to know different cultures, times, and socio-economic segments through reading, without a thought of what functional use I would get out of it. I may have to stalk Junot Diaz a little during his teaching semesters at MIT next year.

6. “The Human Game” lecture by Alan Watts

I owe my introduction to Alan Watts’ philosophy lectures to VQ. This particular one made me think about Life and Living. “Say when dancing, you don’t aim at a particular spot in the room – that’s the where you should arrive; the whole point of the dancing is the dance.”

7. “Theory U” by Otto Scharmer

LXB brought this mega tome onto my reading list. I’m not done with it yet (it’s about a thousand pages long), but so far I’m enjoying the way Dr. Scharmer blends waxing poetic, management theory, and “transcendental” teachings into one book. More stalking of authors to be done at MIT in 2014…

8. “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

Fast, fun read. And if you read too much into it, it could freak you out about the psychology of women, men, and marriage. Interested?

9. “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed

If you love nature, hiking, Bill Bryson’s travel adventure books, or if you’re a woman in her 30s / 40s / 50s going through major life changes, you’ll enjoy this. It’s funny, it’s painful, it’s perfect for a vacation read. Thanks TW for the recommendation!

10. “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain

A fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway and first wife Hadley Richardson’s life together in 1920s Paris. Need I say more? Oh, lesson learned from this book – brilliant people are often crazy!

11. 《孩子你慢慢来》by 龙应台

It’s been a while since I read for fun, and not for research, in Chinese. I didn’t think there would be a book that combines English, Chinese, Swiss French, Swiss German, and child psychology into one perfect read…but ZRK found it for me (thank you!). Primary reading language for this book is Chinese.

12. “Oh, wie schoen ist Panama!” by Janosch

I fell in love (with a dirty old German artist-writer, it turns out) after reading this. Then I devoured the Metzler Family’s entire attic collection of Janosch children’s books. Thanks, FM, for bringing these stories that inspire dreaming into my life. The primary reading language for this book is German, but you can just bring a healthy imagination as you flip through the pictures. (There are also many translations available – Google / Baidu it).

13. “Bounce” by Matthew Syed

Written by a two-time Olympian and sportscaster, “Bounce” explores the “talent vs. practice” debate with plenty of case studies (or, if you’re a real scientist you may dismiss then, in which case they’re just inspiring stories of highly motivated individuals).

Happy reading, happy holidays, and happy new year my friends!

If your life were a movie, what would you put in the trailer?

What are the three things you’re asked when you first meet someone new?  What are the things that, with or without you consciously recognizing it, define you? What’s your 30-second life story? 

These are the three questions I was asked most often when I lived in New York in the mid-2000’s:

1. What’s your name? 

2. What do you do? 

3. Where did you go to school? 

From these questions, I could extrapolate on some values held by a certain slice of mainstream American culture:

 

1. The importance of Identity

Duh. As cognitive psychologists can explain better than I can, having a word, a name for something is linked to the the existence of that concept  itself. In most cultures, not just American, your identity starts with the words “I” and your name. (Although, in some cultures, like my native Chinese culture your last name – and therefore your relationship to a family or clan – is emphasized more than your first name).

2. The (extreme) importance of Work

I give credit to my European husband for pointing this one out. At this time in America (and in China as well as many other countries), our Work has come to define us. When people ask, “What do you do” they don’t mean, “What’s your passion?” or “What would you do if you never had to work for money?” They mean, specifically, “What’s your job?” 

3. The importance of Education

…but not just education for the pursuit of knowledge. This question immediately follows the Work question and was often proceeded by (at least in that slice of America I inhabited in New York) name dropping of common acquaintances. I think this question is more about education and the presumed social networks they bring to you.

 There’s a lot to be said about these implicit values. So much that I think they deserve a separate post. 

 

I don’t want to ruminate on why we’re confronted with these three basic questions when we meet new people, and whether this is a good thing or a bad thing here.  The fact is, these are the questions I’m faced with when I go out to meet people in mainstream society. So how do I answer these questions? What’s my 30 second life story?

1. What’s your name? 

This one’s easy. Or, at least it should be. (It’s a bit trickier if you live in an English-speaking country and your name starts with a Q but isn’t followed by a U, and that Q sounds more like a “ch”… FYI for the non-Chinese speakers, Qi is pronounced kind of like “chee”)

2. What do you do? 

This one was easy. At my first job, I was a “management consultant.” Then, I became an “equity salesperson,” or to make things less complicated if I met non-finance industry people, “I work at a bank.” It started to get a little complicated when I quit my bank job and embarked on my “time off” adventures. I was at times an “editor,” a “yoga teacher”, or a “freelance writer.” 

3. Where did you go to school?  

Phew, this one was and still is easy to answer. 

Of these, #2 gave me the most trouble. Especially after I rejoined the corporate world while maintaining my yoga, writing, and other “alternative” pursuits on the side. I felt like I had two separate identities. I didn’t want to tell people “I work for an asset management company” because I increasingly felt that it painted a stereotypical image of an old stodgy guy in a suit (which clearly wasn’t me). I also didn’t want to define myself by my paid  work, because my other (lesser paid) work was equally important to me. And it was too much of a mouthful to tell people I’d just met, “I work in finance during the week and teach yoga slash pursue other endeavors during the weekends.”

If my life were a trailer, I wanted to fill it with all the snapshots that help capture who I am as a whole person.

I found an answer to question #2 that I like recently. Dr. Otto Scharmer, an incredibly widely read lecturer at MIT’s Sloan business school, writes in his book “Theory U” about “the rise of a creative class” (a phrase coined by Richard Florida of Carnegie Mellon University): 

Some 38 million Americans, or 30 percent of all employed people, belong to this new class, whose core includes people in science, engineering, architecture, design, education, arts, music, and entertainment together with professionals in business, finance, law, health care, and other related fields. What do all these people have in common? Florida says it’s shared creative ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit. The key difference between people in the creative class and other classes lies primarily in what they are paid to do. Those in the working class and the service class are paid primarily to execute according to plan, while those in the creative class are paid to create and have considerably more autonomy and flexibility than other people.

Though I’m not sure yet that I’m primarily “paid to create,” I definitely approach all of my (different) Work with the idea that I don’t just want to “execute according to plan.” If my life were a movie, I would choose to put in the trailer images that represent business, literature, music, philosophy, spirituality, and physical wellness. The movie I’m trying to make would then flesh out the commonalities between these seemingly different fields. 

 

In the future, when someone asks me  “What do you do?” I think I’ll say, “I’m a creative.”

So you “made it”…then what?

My 10-year college reunion is happening this week in California. Seriously, I graduated 10 years ago? I remember being 10 years old , maybe, and thinking that by the time I reached my 30’s I’d be “so grown up” and have it “all figured out.”

Guess what? I’m not, and I don’t.

Some time around 30, I started reflecting on just what the heck I was doing with my life. A kind of unidentifiable malaise had set in. I brushed it away with easy excuses, the stuff I could see on the surface: “Oh, it’s my relationship. As soon as we fix a couple of things that are wrong with us, I’ll be fine.” “Well, my father passed away, I’m just grieving.” Or, “It’s all these grumpy cab drivers fouling up my mood every morning.”

It took a couple of years – and a lot of exploring through yoga, traditional healing, Western psychology, Eastern philosophy – for me to realize that the easy stuff were symptoms of what was wrong with me , deep down. The root cause of my malaise was that I had, on the face of it, “made it” but had never taken the time to find out if the things I had “accomplished” were meaningful to me.

My Stanford graduate degree certainly made my parents proud. And my job at Credit Suisse made my bank account feel good. But I wasn’t happy. I had been racing through life, trying to get to where other people told me I “should” be, but when I got there, it gave me a lot of stress and bad acne.

For a long while, I dealt with the realization that I wasn’t happy with my “success” by “talking down” to myself. “Why can’t you be like so-and-so, just get on with it and do your job?” “Look at her, she works a much more demanding job than you do and she’s not complaining.”

But eventually, I came around to seeing that it doesn’t matter what other people were doing, and what made them happy (who knows if they’re even happy anyway). I needed to stop and ask myself what fulfills me, my life mission, and start doing those things!

So, I did. I gave myself a long break during which time the only goal I set was “try something new everyday.” I discovered yoga, and writing, and other random endeavors. Eventually, I returned to a more “normal” day job, but I continued to do the things that were gratifying to me on the side.

Recently, I came upon Alan Watts’s lectures on Eastern philosophy. I wish I had read this stuff years ago. Watts puts into words those vague uneasy feelings I experienced in 2009 and provides a framework for thinking about big questions, like “Why am I here?”

If you’re asking these questions at all, don’t repress them! Make the time and space to reflect on them. You never know where they’ll lead you…and I can say from first-hand experience that it’ll be a better place than you’re in now!

Here’s an excellent (excellent!) excerpt from Alan Watts’ “The Human Game” lecture (for a transcript of the whole lecture click here).

So then, in music though, one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition. If that was so the best conductors would be those who played fastest. And there would be composers who wrote only finales. People would go to concerts just to hear one crashing chord, because that’s the end. Say when dancing, you don’t aim at a particular spot in the room – that’s the where you should arrive; the whole point of the dancing is the dance. But we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our everyday conduct. We’ve got a system of schooling which gives us a completely different impression.

It’s all graded and what we do is we put the child into the corridor of this grade system with a kind of – come on kiddie, kiddie, kiddie. And now you go to kindergarten and that a great thing because once you finish that you get into first grade. And then come on first grade leads to second grade, and so on. And then youet out of grade school and you go to high school, and its revving up – the thing is coming. Then you’ve got to college, and then maybe grad school. And when you’re through with graduate school you go out and join the world.

Then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance. And then you have that quota to make, and you’re going to make that. And all the time the thing is coming, its coming; that thing, the great success you’re working for. Then when you wake up one day when your about forty years old, you say ‘my god, I’ve arrived.’ I’m there! And you don’t feel very different than what you’ve always feel. And there’s a slight let down because you feel there is a hoax. And there was a hoax – a dreadful hoax. They have made you miss everything; by expectation. Look at the people who live to retire and put those savings away. And then when they’re 65 they don’t have any energy left. They are more or less impotent and they go and rot in an old people’s senior citizens community; and because we’ve simply cheated ourselves the whole way down the line. Because we thought of life by analogy with a journey – with a pilgrimage. Which had a serious purpose at the end and the thing was to get to that end; success or whatever it is or maybe heaven after your dead.

But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing and to dance while the music was being played. But you had to do that thing, you didn’t let it happen.

My yoga story

I first encountered yoga at university in California in 1999. For ten years, I “did” yoga here and there, going to class once a month, following instructions to get into the postures with funny animal names (seriously, Downward Dog?), sometimes breaking a sweat and occasionally (maybe) remembering to breathe.

In 2009, everything changed – love, death, life. After doing a weeklong fasting retreat on a desperate whim, yoga finally “clicked” with me. Breath, meditation, flexibility, and the quietness of being, it all started to make sense. Shortly after, I quit my job, opening up the mental and physical space that led to unexpected adventures. Yoga was my constant throughout.

Inevitably, I began to walk on which many yogis serendipitously find themselves. I wanted to share yoga with others. So I received my 200-hr teacher training at Absolute Yoga in 2010 and I’ve been teaching vinyasa classes in English and Mandarin since. I travel frequently for work and for leisure, always finding my way in a new city by visiting local yoga studios. I feel instantly “at home” on my mat wherever I set it down around the world.

Beyond physical postures, yoga has brought music, philosophy, art, and creativity into my life. I can better balance the cerebral with the spiritual and emotional. I’m better at my day job because I practice yoga. I’m a better friend, wife, daughter, and colleague because of my practice.

Now I get it: yoga isn’t something I “do.” It’s a way of a life, a platform for discovering the world around me.

What does music have to do with yoga? What’s kirtan?

Kirtan is the practice of call-and-response chanting most often performed in the bhakti yoga tradition. The singing of mantras, accompanied by instruments such as the harmonium and tablas, helps you tap into the energy of your heart, and of the universal vibrations around you. Ever been to a party and danced yourself “high” to a DJ’s awesome mix? That’s kind of what kirtan is like, except it’s sometimes a party held in a yoga studio room without any alcohol.

Qrious playing the harmonium

Qrious playing the harmonium


In modern times, kirtan has been popularized by western musicians like Jai Uttal. Many modern yoga teachings, such as at the Jivamukti Yoga School in the US, also artfully use music to bring students into meditative moods or high energy states, leaving you with the ultimate “yoga high” at the end of class.

Think you’ve never sung a mantra before? Think again. “Aum” – or “Om” – is the most popular mantra in the world. If you’ve chanted three times at the start or end of a yoga class, then you’re already a beginner kirtankar.

Below is an excerpt from Jai Uttal’s “Invocation” track on the album “Kirtan!” that explains more about this practice. Hope to see you on September 8 at Chaoyang Park for some kirtan along with our yoga practice!

Nowadays most people think of yoga as a system of exercise. But it was much much more than that. The yogis of old recognized that one of the big components of human beings is the heart, the center of emotions. We can tune our body like crazy, we can become super smart, but what about the emotions? They seem to rise and fall. They seem to go like waves of the sea. We never know what’s going to happen with our emotions. We try to control them, we try to suppress them.

But the old yogis knew that that wasn’t the way. They knew that these emotions were a crucial part of bringing a human being to divine consciousness. They knew that these emotions weren’t a mistake. They said, “Rather than get rid of them, use these emotions. These are your fuel. These are your energy.”

Western kirtan master Jai Uttal playing

Western kirtan master Jai Uttal playing


They created bhakti yoga… Kirtan is the repetition of the many many names of god…[It] doesn’t matter which name we chant, which mantra we sing. It’s all a vessel for our unspoken prayers to sail into the river, to the source of the river, to the divine infinite cosmic source. The music has changed, but the words of mantras have remained the same for centuries.

Most of us are not used to singing. Most of us are self-conscious about singing. Most of us are inhibited about singing. And likewise, most of us don’t really know how to express our emotions. We have a limited range in our lives that we have been conditioned to feel comfortable with. But, wow, we have so much inside of us. And the more that we express, the more that we open up, the more that we release, the richer our lives are, the richer our hearts are.

At first you’re a little shy…then you get into it…and the window opens, the feelings open… the more we can give up our inhibitions the more we can give up our self-judgment of what we sound like, the deeper and more profound the experience can be.

Try it. Make it an experiment. Put the analytical mind outside for a minute. Just sing a little bit. The most important thing is to not critique your experience… Put your hand on your heart and feel the vibrations the heart makes at its center. I put my hand there and it wakes up a little bit more and I sing outward. Sometimes I also sing inward, very softly, into that place, into that great great ocean of divine feelings inside of me.

Stop judging others so harshly, and you’ll stop judging yourself so harshly…

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The things we did when we were younger…

We, in our twenties, made elitist jokes about “retail bankers.” People who don’t work on Wall Street don’t get the punch line. Thank goodness they don’t. Because the world doesn’t need this much presumption.

We, as teenagers, joked about certain “tomboys” at school, based on their pixie haircuts and devil-may-care attitudes. Our Danish friend’s artist mother admonished, “Girls, don’t label people so.” That was the first time we knew we had learned to judge.

We, nine years old in the back of the car, nodded apprehensively when the adults up front turned the corners of their mouths down to discuss a single mother, an unwed thirty-something female, and other disapprove-able characters. We pretended to know what these life choices meant. But inside, a little question formed: “Who decided these things are ‘wrong’?” And a fear too: “What if I grow up ‘wrong’ without meaning to?”

 

As we grew up, we carried these thoughts, labels, frameworks, expectations around with us. To far away places. To different times. To instances where they no longer made no sense (if they ever did make sense). Little by little, and then a lot by a lot, we judged everything and everyone around us. And most of all, we judged ourselves. We decided this was “good” and that was “bad,” not because we knew but because we never thought to question. Then the life cycle of judgments really took off. We derided other people’s choices, because they made us feel better, more secure, about our own.

We can go through life like this. Or we can choose to stop for a moment, think for a while, and step outside the walled garden of judgments we’ve built around ourselves. Think about it, if you stopped calling others “ugly,” might you allow yourself more ways to feel beautiful? If you stopped calling others “weak,” might you give yourself more room to fail? If you stopped calling others “poor,” might you ease the pressure of building up riches on yourself?

So, stop, think, and step outside. Who knows what may lie out there for you, in a boundless world where everything is considered “good” because nothing is considered “bad”?

“Super leftover girl”…Super Shengnv!

Photo art credit: ROSEANN LAKE, LEO LEE, AND RYAN MYERS @ The World of Chinese magazine

Photo art credit: ROSEANN LAKE, LEO LEE, AND RYAN MYERS @ The World of Chinese magazine

“It’s a girl… It’s an old girl… It’s ‘Super Old Maid’!” My book-writing friend RL has teamed up with the magazine I used to edit and put together an awesome comic series about her personal superhero, Super Shengnv! For those of you who don’t know, “shengnv” is a single girl heading into “old maid” territory, which poses a big headache to The All-China Women’s Federation and our population planning honchos. Read more of Super Shengnv’s adventures here!

For the a more thorough look at China’s gender imbalance and preponderance of singles, check out RL’s article “Bachelor Padding” in Foreign Policy magazine.