Trail running

A meditation on being a startup founder

It’s been almost 20 years and I still remember the dread of Mile Day in high school gym class: four terrible loops around the track, greeted at the graceless end by the rest of the class long awaiting us, some of the cool popular athletic girls laughing in that mean girl way at the misery of the final finishers.

Last week I went out with no particular training and hit an 11.5 mile rocky trail run through the desert, up 1600 feet of elevation gain. One thought kept drifting through my mind as I pushed through the sand and gravel and rocks: A mile on this run is so much harder, and in so many ways I didn’t even know it could be harder! than a mile on one of those synthetic rubber tracks, but damn am I feeling so much stronger and more powerful and yes it still sucks and I’m hurting but I’m going to make it.

It reminded me of a cartoon I saw in a diversity & inclusion workshop a long time ago. There are two runners at the starting line of a race. One, to the left, is in his running uniform and cleats, sprint position, ready to tear down a smooth track lane. On the right is someone who doesn’t have proper athletic gear and is looking down a path that’s torn up, obstacles in her way, rain and weather adding insult and mockery to the course she’s about to run. Tell me, is it fair to compare their mile times?

In high school, in that artificial, controlled environment, we were all on the same track, close to perfect conditions for running our best. In the real world, in life, in work, it’s not so comparable. Some people are still on the track and others of us are out here on the trails. I think running is hard no matter what the conditions (“running never gets easier — you just get faster”), but I’ve learned it can be comically more difficult than I ever imagined. I’m going through unknown terrain, under hot desert sun, on a path so poorly marked and mislabeled I keep losing it, up rocky inclines, through dried out river washes that sap my energy as my feet keep slipping through the sand and gravel, dodging accidental cactus pricks, just barely avoiding face-plants when my shoes catch against rocks, the strap of my hydration vest rubbing against a blistered bug bite.


I feel like I’m doing a miserably tough trail run version of the startup founder race. Of course startups are always hard. But I’m a solo female founder, working on a problem that most of the gatekeepers of capital and power neither understand nor empathize with. I’m an activist trying my utmost to dismantle those systems of bias and privilege that have elevated them and kept them floating in those roles. As a competent and experienced software engineer in my own right, I also threaten some people’s notions of what a woman in tech might be capable of. Anticipating the reply guys who’ll come along to tell me it’s unbecoming of me to be sure of my worth, I will not enumerate all the ways in which I am outrageously better than most of my peers and yet still am treated with far less respect or even outright disrespect.

I have been sexually harassed during fundraising. I have had different investors inquire about my age and relationship status and tell me about their first time having sex. In roomfuls of men, I have been completely ignored and talked over, despite being the expert in the room. Although Twitter is the water cooler of the tech industry, on that platform being a woman of color with an opinion and a minor following means I deal with harassment every day, some drive-by, some extremely targeted and persistent, spanning 6+ years by this point. I get racism, misogyny, sexually explicit threats, links to Asian porn, incoherent and disturbing professions of love, conspiracy theories involving me and a former FBI director, all sorts of anonymous heroes just letting me know that I’m off-putting to men and I would be more attractive and dateable if I weren’t so angry. I have been stalked in real life and then gaslit by law enforcement and private security firms trying to make me feel like I’m self-obsessed.

Over and over I’ve had men who purport to be advocates of diversity & inclusion try to take advantage of me and my company, costing me months of invaluable time, attention, and energy, not to mention so many tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, billed by the 6 minute increment. One, I discovered later, has a pattern of using his position of fame and wealth to prey on female founders, I suppose because we are more vulnerable. A potential co-founder, after negotiating vigorously for special terms that I almost acceded to, accidentally emailed me his diary full of unflattering and coded sexist thoughts about me, wondering if I would be able to step up to the role of CEO. Another job candidate sent repeated emails after a bombed interview and subsequent rejection berating me for making a huge mistake and not seeing that he would be a huge asset to the team and telling me I was a bad interviewer anyways.

The stories go on. It’s a lot of abuse to take, in so many different forms.

Through all of this, I’m just trying to build my company. The great irony is that everything I’m trying to do directly addresses the adversity I’ve had to face and stare down. The tech industry’s dearth of diversity, ethics, and accountability has led us to a place where our real and digital worlds are rife with harassment, and disproportionately women, minorities, and other marginalized groups bear the brunt of it. I started my company not only to give people a safer experience online, to empower them and protect them from bullying and abuse, but also to attempt another existence proof for a company run by a woman, with a diverse team, that prioritizes the well-being of our users.

The people who care most deeply for me ask me if it’s worth it to put myself through all of the pain, suffering, and stress. But how could I not? I’m one of the few that even has the privilege to try. I am immensely lucky to be able to do what I do. And my crucible of experiences makes me uniquely suited and determined to solve the problems I’m trying to solve.

I was never a gifted runner but by force of will and perseverance over decades I can now casually do the kind of trail running that I once thought sheer impossibility. The rocks, the hills, the sun, the heat, the dehydration, everything that makes the running a challenge is that much more a reminder that I’m alive and it’s glorious to be able to move through this beautiful world. And it’s that same endurance and brutality of training that I trust will make me stronger, faster, and more resilient as a founder, an activist, and someone trying to make a little bit of positive difference.

A gearhead post for digital nomad coders

The standard issue tote bag for all new members of the women’s co-working space The Wing exuberantly describes us as:

T A K I N G . U P . S P A C E

That is indeed exceedingly accurate for me when I’m at the Wing, though more by coincidence of my digital nomad coder travel setup than an intentional effort to manspread. I have a widescreen monitor at home, but I’m so frequently away from home that I had to find a better solution than collapsing all work down to my 13″ MacBook Air screen. In particular, my coding workflow typically consists of having many screens of code from different files open side-by-side, white and fluorescent green on black background, very movie hacker stereotypical of me. I also like a couple other Terminal windows or tabs open for monitoring logs and build status, or testing code in an IPython shell. The 13″ screen only fits 2 columns, and it gets squishy if I reserve any space for my other shell needs.

Back in the days of being geographically fixed and working from an office where I had a beautiful Thunderbolt display, my primary concern was that my handbag be able to fit my laptop. Now I’ve come to terms with the fact that I must carry a sturdy backpack stuffed full of electronics all the time. Apart from being far less stylish and far more bulky, though, I’m quite happy with the setup I’ve landed on.

The core electronics:

  • 2019 13″ MacBook Air, which has a 1.6GHz processor and 16GB of RAM. It is gold and decorated with an Arya Stark sticker because
  • ASUS ZenScreen MB16AC, which is just a flat panel that connects and charges off the same USB-C to USB-C cable plugged into the computer
  • Apple Magic Mouse, in space gray for aesthetics
  • Apple Magic Keyboard, the one with a numpad, only because that was the one size that came in space gray, and again, aesthetics
  • iPhone 11 Pro, which is my main phone
  • Pixel 3A, which is on Google Fi and serves primarily as my international wifi hotspot, but also has a really nice camera with incredible Night Sight
  • AirPod Pros, necessary for the many video calls inherent to distributed work
  • Mophie external battery pack, Lightning charging tip built in, rose gold, obviously

Cables, chargers, miscellany:

  • MacBook Air charger, with a blockhead adapter for American outlets and a UK adapter for when I’m there
  • USB-C to Lightning cable for charging the iPhone off the MacBook Air
  • USB-C to USB-C cable for charging the Pixel off the MacBook Air
  • USB-C to USB-C cable for the ASUS screen
  • The shell of a metal pen that has lost its inky bit and whose sole function is to be inserted into a hole at the bottom right corner of the ASUS screen to prop it up. It came with the screen and I’m sure some industrial designer thought they were super clever when they came up with this. This is the silliest part of my setup
  • A global travel adapter with 1 one outlet that takes any wall plug, 4 USB-A ports, and 1 USB-C port
  • USB-A to Lightning cable for charging the iPhone off the wall adapter
  • USB-A to USB-C cable for charging the Pixel off the wall adapter
  • USB-A to Fitbit Inspire HR charging cable
  • USB-A to dual-tipped Lightning/micro-USB cable for charging the Mophie

Packing it all up:

  • Away backpack, large, light blue, designed with an open back flap that can be slipped over the handles of an Away carry-on luggage which of course I also have in matching light blue
  • Leather case for the MacBook Air, navy blue, from Apple
  • Standard-issue screen cover for the ASUS screen
  • A poorly fitting garment travel bag that I Velcro around the keyboard and mouse to avoid too much scuffing during transit
  • Small felt ProCase for the MacBook Air charger and the 2 USB-C phone chargers. If I’m dropping down to laptop-only for a lightweight work session, I only need this bag of chargers
  • Larger Herschel cosmetics bag re-appropriated to store the aforementioned felt cable case, as well as the ASUS screen connector cable, and sometimes the global travel adapter
  • The global travel adapter always has the 4 USB-A cables plugged in, and I use it in the States as well as abroad. It’s nice to not have to manage all those cables separately
  • Leather pencil case for my pens and very importantly the fake pen that is my screen stand

It takes a few minutes to do setup and teardown but the larger second screen and external keyboard and mouse do wonders for my productivity. I need it especially for coding but the extra screen space is useful for lots of other things as well, like reviewing designs and cross-referencing text documents.

I stood on a chair to take this photo. I know.

The things that don’t work so well:

  • The MacBook Air is slightly underpowered and occasionally Chrome or Slack chokes it up. Luckily I code in emacs which is much more lightweight than GUI editors; Atom completely destroyed my machine when I experimented with it
  • The MacBook Air only has two USB-C ports so when I have the external screen plugged in I have to choose between either charging the laptop itself or charging a phone off of it, plus the screen draws extra power so it is much slower for the computer to charge
  • The MacBook Air has issues with core audio services and the AirPod Pros have a lot of connectivity hiccups with the computer, though my previous AirPods (not Pros) were fine, and the AirPod Pros connect to my iPhone with no trouble
  • Google Fi service internationally is a lot less reliable than advertised, and God help you if you try to use the SIM in an iPhone. I set up dual SIM on my iPhone when I was still in the States and at first when I went overseas I liked being able to get the Google Fi data boosting on my iPhone, but then I started running into issues. Most importantly, Google Fi doesn’t support international data hotspots on iOS. I switched the SIM into the Pixel temporarily and was able to get things semi-working, but after that I couldn’t switch it back to the iPhone. Apparently the Google Fi SIM must be re-activated on the device in the States, so then the dual SIM situation was busted
  • With the Google Fi SIM relegated to a separate phone, it requires both battery and wifi hotspot management for that other phone
  • The Mophie I have doesn’t have a built-in charging cable for USB-C, only Lightning and micro-USB, so I can’t charge up the Pixel without carrying an additional cable
  • Back to the original point, T A K I N G . U P . S P A C E my setup is certainly guilty of and unless I’m at a co-working space or somewhere that it’s socially acceptable to pull out full coding equipment, I feel a bit embarrassed to use it. Come to think of it, though, I once saw someone with his desktop computer tower and full-size 25”+ monitor camped out in a 4-person corner booth at an otherwise completely packed Chiltern Firehouse; he had over-ear headphones on, hood up, computer glow on his face, and absolutely no concern about sitting in one of London’s most scene-y cocktail spots with dressy crowds around him paying 25 quid a cocktail and the deliberately sexy female serving staff in extremely clingy form-fitting pantsuits stalking around the dark and bustle. I thought he might be a Saudi prince or some such staying in a suite at the hotel and basking in the confidence of royalty or at least extreme oil wealth, but maybe I should just stop making excuses and learn to take up space so confidently

句號 Full Stop

I was recently in Taiwan for a few days and though I’m American born and raised, the trip reminded me how much Taiwan feels like a second home. There’s family and generational history and culture, of course, but more than I might have anticipated when I was struggling through painful hours of Chinese homework, it feels exceptionally like home because of the language. Seeing Traditional Chinese everywhere, on signs and advertisements and newspapers and menus; hearing Taiwan-accented Mandarin everywhere, from transit announcements and store attendants and street passersby; and most importantly, being able to understand it all — I feel connected to the place. I suppose I get some sense of belonging from being part of the exclusive club of 1 billion plus who know the language!

I’m what college course designations term a “bilingual speaker”, because I grew up in a Chinese-speaking household. I went to a weekly extracurricular Chinese school from grade 2 until grade 12. But I really only learned the language because I was obsessed with Mandarin pop when I was in high school and college; I went from slightly above-average ABC-level Chinese to newspaper-literate by studying song lyrics, copying them over and over in my notebook and translating them to English.

This song 句號 is the most recent release by G.E.M., a Chinese singer (originally from Hong Kong) who’s sometimes called the Taylor Swift of China. She’s a very talented singer with great vocal range who also composes and writes her own songs. And like Taylor Swift, who calls out gendered double standards and discrimination in her song “The Man”, in this song G.E.M. also addresses gender issues, describing a relationship where the long-term (male) partner cuts the woman down, unsettled and angered by her success, wanting her to always be an obedient little doll. It’s ambiguous in the song and sounds like it could be a romantic relationship, but she is actually referencing her previous record company Hummingbird Music — another good analogy to Taylor Swift, fighting against mediocre men at record companies bullying her about her music.

作詞:G.E.M.鄧紫棋 作曲:G.E.M.鄧紫棋
製作人&編曲:G.E.M.鄧紫棋 / T-Ma 馬敬恆

可惜我們終於來到 一個句號
What a shame, we’ve finally come to a full stop
窗外不願飛的蜂鳥 也在哀悼
Even the hummingbird that won’t leave the window is mourning
城市再也不會聽到 我們爭吵
The city will never hear our fights again
你會不會少了一點煩惱
Will you be a little bit less upset

回到十二年前 回憶就在眼前
Thinking back to 12 years ago, the memories right here
你帶著帽子 而我樣子 帶著靦腆
You were wearing a hat, I was shy
不過第一次的見面 你說
But when we first met, you said
你有先見 我的先天 被訓練過 我能有片天
You could see the future, I had talent, the sky was my limit
我當時天真 寡見鮮聞
Then, I was innocent, naive
不像成年人 有能力辨認
Not a grown woman, able to discern
不是為了賺了有錢分 我為我的前程
It wasn’t to make money, it was to build my career
希望我寫的歌裡面有更好的和弦聲
That I wanted to write songs with more beautiful melodies

時針滴滴答 你還記得嗎
The clock hand ticks, do you still remember
說句心裡話 你還懷念嗎
To tell the truth, do you still miss the old times
第一次發唱片 就一馬當先
The first time I released an album, I immediately shot to the top
從此在大場面 我不再站旁邊
From then on, I never again stood to the side at those big events

我是真的感謝 佩服你的眼界
I was truly thankful for and admired your vision
怎麼想到和你是帶著刺痛地完結
Who would have thought, we’d come to such a stinging, painful end

你看著一朵花慢慢萌芽
You saw a flower, slowly budding
我卻看著你意氣慢慢風發
But I saw your temper like a rising wind
慾望聚沙成塔 價值慢慢分岔
Desires like grains of sand gathered to form a castle, the value dividing
太多失望讓我對你的信任慢慢崩塌
After too many disappointments, my trust in you crumbled

可惜我們終於來到 一個句號
What a shame, we’ve finally come to a full stop
窗外不願飛的蜂鳥 也在哀悼
Even the hummingbird that won’t leave the window is mourning
城市再也不會聽到 我們爭吵
The city will never hear our fights again
你會不會少了一點煩惱
Will you be a little bit less upset

時針滴滴答 你還記得嗎
The clock hand ticks, do you still remember
說句心裡話 你還懷念嗎
To tell the truth, do you still miss the old times

你說我是個商品 沒有你我就不可以
You said I was just a commodity, without you I couldn’t be anything
這些扭曲的真理 差點毁掉我的自信
These twisted truths almost destroyed my self-confidence
如今的我已覺醒 如今我不再哭泣
Today I’ve awakened to the truth, I will cry no more
再不怕堅持自己 做你沒做對的決定
No longer afraid to persevere in myself, I will redo the decisions that you made wrong for me

你知道嗎 這一輩子除了我的爸爸
Did you know, my whole life, apart from my father
你曾是我最信任的男人吧
You were the man I trusted most
但空白的娃娃 總會慢慢長大
But the blank doll of a little girl eventually grows up
抱歉我沒法永遠當你聽話的傻瓜
Sorry I can’t forever be the fool that just obeys you
可惜我們終於來到 (終於來到) 一個句號 (一個句號)
What a shame, we’ve finally come to (finally come to) a full stop (a full stop)

窗外不願飛的蜂鳥 也在哀悼
Even the hummingbird that won’t leave the window is mourning
城市再也不會聽到 (不會聽到) 我們爭吵 (我們的爭吵)
The city will never hear (will never hear) our fights (our fights) again
你會不會少了一點煩惱 (我們終於來到 一個句號)
Will you be a little bit less upset (we’ve finally come to a full stop)

(可惜我們終於來到) 多少年裡 多少遍你 (一個句號) 多少錯卻沒多少歉意
(What a shame, we’ve finally come to) how many years, how many times (a full stop) how many wrongs, not so many apologies
(窗外不願飛的蜂鳥) 但過去了就不再介意 (也在哀悼) 把珍貴的放心裡 把痛的傷的全都忘記
(The hummingbird that won’t leave the window) But let bygones be bygones (it’s also mourning) Keep what was precious in our hearts, let’s forget the hurting wounds
(城市再也不會聽到) 我青春的全部回憶 (我們爭吵) 那愛的恨的全都是你
(The city will never hear again) All the memories of my youth (our fights) All I loved and all I hated, it was all you
(你會不會少了一點煩惱) 希望你偶爾也會想起 就讓我真心真意 把歌唱完重新開始
(Will you be a little bit less upset) I hope you will remember ever so often, let me sing this song to the end sincerely and wholeheartedly, and then start fresh

時針滴滴答 你還記得嗎
The clock hand ticks, do you still remember
說句心裡話 你還懷念嗎
To tell the truth, do you still miss the old times

The year of reading female

At the end of 2018 I reviewed my reading list and was ashamed to find it all too male. Roughly three-quarters (!) of the books I read in 2018 were written by men. Coincidentally, that is right on par with how male most engineering teams in tech are, which is likewise embarrassing. And similarly I could explain it as a lack of intentionality, something that just happened in the natural course of taking recommendations from friends, looking at bestseller lists and public accolades, but in the end I’m still missing out by not reading more from female and generally more diverse authors.

As it’s now Women’s History Month, it’s a convenient time to check in on my reading for 2019, which is thus far 100% female authors and an excellent crop of books. Not to belabor the analogies to diversity and inclusion elsewhere, but I’ve found the overall caliber and resonance of these books higher than an average selection from my past reads. Perhaps I’ve held the bar higher, or perhaps women just have to be better to make it in a world that stacks everything against us. Regardless, as a reader I’m enjoying it.

Hot Milk, Deborah Levy ⭐⭐⭐
I think I might have enjoyed this book as beach reading on a lazy European summer holiday, but it felt a little too literary for me. 

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin ⭐⭐⭐
Was hoping to like this more, but science fiction is always very hit or miss for me, so I’m not that surprised. I do always appreciate how science fiction holds up a mirror to current society, and I find the writing of female authors in SF/F to be particularly illuminating in that capacity. 

So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I’d had my eye on this book for a while but held off on reading it because I’m already so emotionally exhausted from diversity and inclusion work that I needed to muster the energy to delve into a book on this subject. It’s a fantastically practical guide and I found it both reassuring from the perspective of someone who is often stuck in the job of trying to gently educate those who do not want to see privilege, and also discomfiting, in a good way, in the reminders of areas where I still have plenty of room for growth myself. 

Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
The New Yorker calls Sally Rooney the “first great millennial novelist for her stories of love and late capitalism”. I am inclined to agree. I adored this book. 

(I first started hearing buzz about Sally Rooney, who is an Irish author, when I was in the UK, and I regret not picking up her second book, Normal People, while I was still there, as the US imprint isn’t out yet. One more month!)

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I finally get all the Mr. Darcy references! Regency English is a little slow to read, but Jane Austen writes some of the most delicious, wittiest dialogue I’ve ever seen. I think she would kill it on Twitter if she were around today. I aspire to her level of snapback. 

Shrill, Lindy West ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Funny but not light. I particularly appreciated her writing on fat acceptance, which is an area I am not as well-versed in, and on online harassment and dealing with trolls, which is an area I am unfortunately well-versed in. 

Small Fry, Lisa Brennan-Jobs ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
This was a beautiful, heart-wrenching memoir. It’s so exquisitely written it made me long to be a writer, that I could capture memories and stories and the essence of people and place with such deftness. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time. 

Women & Power, Mary Beard ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Short, punchy. Mary Beard is a historian  and her references to women in Greek mythology were a nice tee-up to the next book on my list. 

Circe, Madeline Miller ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
An extremely engaging feminist re-telling of the story of the Greek goddess, who I’d previously only known as the one who turns Odysseus’s men into pigs. I want to say this book “humanized” her, though that’s not right; perhaps what I mean is that she is relatable, when we can see her full story, and from her point of view. Some reviews called this book subversive, which to me that suggests that the forever male-dominant version of history and mythology is the “real” one, and this is deviant. Bleh, but I guess that’s the point, right? History has always been written by men, sympathetic to the male protagonists, at best dismissive of and at worst horribly misogynistic to female characters. 

Useful Phrases for Immigrants, May-lee Chai ⭐⭐⭐⭐
This book of short stories was so wonderfully resonant for me as a Bay Area Asian-American, both in the story arcs and in the little details. 

I loved passages like this: “Anping pursed her lips as though she were sucking on a sour plum pit, weighing a new complaint. Every night it was something else. The Ranch 99 no longer carried her favorite brand of dried cuttlefish, the price of eggs was too high, the Kumon in the strip mall had a waiting list.” The sour plum pit description is perfect. Ranch 99, the NorCal way of saying it — not 99 Ranch, as they say in SoCal. I have a favorite brand of dried cuttlefish too, the one I remember from childhood, and I still look for it when I’m in Chinese grocery stores. And Kumon! I finished the whole math program and my first job was grading math worksheets at Kumon. 

Is this what white people feel like when they can identify with all the references in the literature they read? 

The Private Lives of the Impressionists, Sue Roe ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Back in January I happened upon a lovely Impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery in London. In the temporary exhibit, plus the permanent collection, was a highlight reel of representative works from all of that early group: Monet’s water lilies, Manet with scenes of the Seine, Degas and his dancers, Pissarro painting Montmartre, Cézanne’s card players, Renoir’s studies of women. (I will never stop marveling at how much culture is accessible in London!) It inspired me to pick up this group biography of the Impressionists. I’m glad I did. I now want to go back to London and see all those paintings again, as well as to visit Paris and bask in the wide boulevards and parks of Haussmann’s renovation that were the setting for this group of friends making art history. 

New and Selected Poems, Volume One, Mary Oliver ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I love the simple, clean lyricism of Mary Oliver’s poetry. My copy of this book is all marked up with pencilled underlines of my favorite lines, so many unusual, captivating descriptions of scenes from nature: “the snails on the pink sleds of their bodies”, “the red thumbs of the raspberries”, “the kale’s puckered sleeve”. I rarely buy physical books but this is one I’ll keep around. 


One last diversity observation: I’m sad to report I somehow fell into the trap of mostly white women and Western/Euro-centric world first, though there is some diversity along other dimensions (like genre: literary fiction, science fiction, Greek mythology/historical fiction, short stories, political/social science non-fiction, memoirs, art history, poetry; and age: authors living and passed, amongst the present-day Sally Rooney is 28, Mary Beard 64). Fortunately I still have nine and a half months to make amends, and next I shall work to line my virtual bookshelf with more writers of color. I might even think about including some token men, but I think they’ll be fine without my readership and patronage.


[Update, April and onwards] For convenience, I’ll keep tracking my year’s reading here. Happy to report that since March I have done much better on finding a more diverse set of authors whose work to enjoy. It’s been easier to find strong fiction recommendations than non-fiction while also filtering on female/non-binary and non-white, and I’ve been seeking escapism anyways, so my reading is skewing literary vs. “practical” or “educational”.

Three Daughters of Eve, Elif Shafak ⭐⭐⭐⭐

An easy read, flipping between the events of one evening in present-day Turkey and the protagonist’s college years at Oxford. Interesting themes around Islam and feminism. According to one review, Elif Shafak is the number one best-selling novelist in her native Turkey; she writes in both Turkish and English and is quite well-received for her fiction as well as her other writing, which leans towards the activist. 

Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Pulitzer Prize-winning book of poetry by the most recent United States Poet Laureate, a Black woman whose father was an engineer on the Hubble Space Telescope. Dreamy and cosmic, but also grounded in everyday earthly life, Smith’s poetry presents the particular kind of focus on our own existence that only comes from a telescopic lens on the expanse of the universe. 

The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Quick, straightforward read with highly relevant takeaways for a generally stressed out population: We are taught that stress is a bad thing, but the scientific underpinnings of our pop culture understanding of stress are questionable. Worse, our belief that stress is bad for us becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Luckily, that also means that mindset interventions can be very effective. Reframing our perspective on stress as something that is good and productive can actually make it so in our lives. 

Given that this is a non-fiction, science book, it was not one where I necessarily anticipated the identity (and specifically, the gender) of the author to be significant. Not in the way, say, that personal experience forms a palette of details that a novelist might paint their exposition with. But there were numerous places throughout the book that I noted the relevance of a female scientist perspective; for example, in experiment design and research analysis that did not consider a difference in female and male subjects, and inappropriately over-generalized male responses to both genders. 

Chemistry, Weike Wang ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The deadpan narration of a high-achieving Asian-American female graduate student’s anxiety about her work, her relationship, her family, her self-worth, and her future. Her anxiety stands out in even starker relief when she does the compare and contrast with her white American boyfriend, who has a wholesome Midwestern family and a clear life path. The writing is crisp and excellent and I found the story eminently relatable. 

Severance, Ling Ma ⭐⭐⭐

Zombie apocalypse fiction, unusual in that it features a Chinese-American female protagonist, and also thus unusually resonant with me, especially given the setting of the story in New York City. Apart from that, though, not my preferred style of fiction. 

Normal People, Sally Rooney ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

One of the books I’ve most anticipated reading, and it did not disappoint. I liked Normal People even more than Conversations with Friends; Rooney’s exposition of millennial concerns about relationships, social status, and wealth, is standout. 

The Friend, Sigrid Nunez ⭐⭐⭐

Well-written and skillfully executed second-person narrative, the story of a student turned friend who wanted more. I thought the book had great literary merit but it wasn’t a story that spoke to me. 

In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Historical fiction about the brave revolutionary Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic; one who lived, three who didn’t. 

Kindred, Octavia Butler ⭐⭐⭐⭐

There’s that darkly funny bit about time machines by disgraced comic Louis CK: “Here’s how great it is to be white — I can get into a time machine and go to any time and it would be fuckin’ awesome when I get there! That is exclusively a white privilege! Black people can’t fuck with time machines. A black guy in a time machine is like, ‘Hey anything before 1980, no thank you, I don’t wanna go.'” 

Without deliberating much on the mechanics of the time travel, Kindred unceremoniously drops its protagonist, a Black woman from the late 1900s, in the antebellum South, taking with her the present-day reader back to confront American slave history and the psychology and persistence of racism and inequality, as well. 

Heart Berries, Terese Marie Mailhot ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

One of those memoirs that reads like fiction, from First Nation Canadian writer Terese Marie Mailhot. It is troubled, haunting, telling of intergenerational trauma, addiction and abuse and violence in the family and the community, a chronicle that she begins writing during her own institutionalization at a mental hospital. 

The Power, Naomi Alderman ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The wordplay and double meaning of the title capture the book well: In this work of speculative fiction, at first adolescent girls, then women, develop the ability to shoot electricity from their bodies, such that they become the dominant gender and the ones with the position and ability to abuse their power, literal and figurative. I found The Power extremely thought provoking as a novel-length version of the sexism test to invert the genders in a situation to consider whether it is problematic (hi, @manwhohasitall). As for the plot, character development, and writing generally, I thought they were just okay, but certainly serviceable. 

Whereas, Layli Long Soldier ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

An extraordinarily creative collection of poetry by a Oglala Lakota poet. The title references the conjunctive adverb that introduces pompous proclamations and legal disclaimers, appropriate to the many agreements that have shaped Native American compromises and reservation life in the United States. 

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, Dani Shapiro ⭐⭐⭐

Topic: What the title says. It was a decent read, and I could imagine it being spectacular for people working through questions about genealogy and family, but it didn’t have any strong resonance for me with my background and for where I am in my life. 

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

All the Single Ladies, Rebecca Traister ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Maybe my new Bible. As I was reading it, I found myself wanting to underline every sentence. It was a very thorough examination of the history and sociology of single and unmarried women. I credit this book as the third and final step of my conversion from perpetually anxious about relationship status and lack of progression towards marriage as critical life milestone, to gloriously delighted about being single, free, and unfettered. (For the curious: The first step was ending an emotionally abusive relationship with a sociopath, and the second was getting my eggs frozen.) 

Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Lori Gottlieb ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

All the Names They Used for God: Stories, Anjali Sachveda ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Short stories with a delicate touch of magical realism. 

Seeing People Off, Jana Beňová ⭐⭐⭐

I picked up this book because I was visiting Bratislava, Slovakia, and wanted a taste of local fiction. Nothing exceptional, though I did enjoy the descriptions of the city as I got to know it in real life: “Bratislava. A city that forces you to pounce on something, just as it has pounced on you.” “It’s a small city. The minute you start off, you’ve already got most of it behind you.” “The city was lit with matte light and only tourists and freaks moved through the empty streets.” 

The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek ⭐⭐⭐

Another geo-located read, because I was transiting through Vienna from Bratislava back to London. This is the book that the critically acclaimed erotic psychological thriller of the same name is based on. It is a deeply disturbing tale of a middle-aged woman, a piano teacher at the conservatory, who is repressed and tormented by her overbearing mother; she finds escape in secret visits to the porn cinema, and masochistic self-injury. Then there is a handsome young student who seduces her, or she seduces him, it’s ambiguous, and they have a destructive and short-lived illicit affair. Not my favorite type of reading but I suppose it’s good in the way that people find Lolita good. I also appreciated that music and music institutions are important in the book and not merely incidental, since I was specifically seeking a story set in Vienna, and music is so integral a part of the city’s history and identity that it is known as the City of Music.

Rage Becomes Her, Soraya Chemaly ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is the number one book on my required reading list for a potential partner, since I am attracted to men (obviously not by choice) and men typically participate in the weight of the patriarchy and misogyny crushing me and my fellow women in this world. It was empowering to be reassured that I indeed should be angry, because there is injustice, my rage is an acknowledgement of that injustice, and its seething power is also a demand for change. 

Chocolat, Joanne Harris ⭐⭐⭐⭐

A light read that I chose for its setting in rural France, inspired by the couple days I spent in the countryside outside Paris at Fontenay-Trésigny for a developer conference-festival. This is the book that the movie Chocolat is based on. I liked it for its traces of magic and female, witchy impudence against the misogynistically hostile powers of religion and marriage. 

Beauty Sick, Renee Engeln ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Another must-read for potential partners. This one is number two on the list. It talks about how societal and cultural obsession with women’s appearance is a sickness, an epidemic even, and about the cost to women of constant body monitoring. How can we scheme to tear down the patriarchy when we’re all using our brainpower to count calories? I liked that there was an actionable takeaway at the end: Instead of worrying about how we look, a framing which positions our bodies as objects to be judged, we should focus on what our bodies can do, we are the subjects, we are the ones doing things (shoutout Outdoor Voices tagline), we have agency and power. 

No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, Greta Thunberg ⭐⭐⭐⭐

A short collection of speeches by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Like the Parkland High gun control activists, she is remarkably compelling in her youth and sounding a clarion call to action. If you don’t yet feel the urgency of the impending, self-induced destruction of our world, please read this book. 

Three Women, Lisa Taddeo ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Non-fiction, about female pleasure. The author spent almost a decade criss-crossing the States interviewing women for this book and in the end selected three women whose stories she told in surprising sexual detail. Spoiler alert: The kicker for me, at the very end of the book, was that the one woman whose life seemed so effortlessly sexy and perfectly fulfilling… really just longed for her husband to pitch in on household chores. 

LaRose, Louise Erdrich ⭐⭐⭐⭐

How Long Til Black Future Month?, N.K. Jemisin ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 

The Song of AchillesMadeline Miller ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls, Carrie Goldberg ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Internet is a terrible thing if someone wants to ruin your life. I know this firsthand, and so does Carrie Goldberg, who’s a lawyer fighting back against revenge porn and online abuse. 

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I loved this book. I picked it up randomly while wandering through the English language section of a bookstore in Dubrovnik as I was avoiding the Game of Thrones tour groups. I sat down on a stool in the shop and couldn’t stop reading. It’s a very loose re-telling of the story of Rumpelstiltskin with a girl who “spins” silver. Great especially for people who like the fantasy genre. 

Outline, Rachel Cusk ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Well-written but kind of floating and intangible. The descriptions of Mediterranean summer brought me back to my last sun-drenched vacation on the sparkling Adriatic, but there wasn’t much plot or character to hang onto.  

She Said, Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, Fuschia Dunlop ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was both a lovely and loving travel memoir, a very tasteful chronicle of the British author’s embrace of Chinese culture and food.   

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

My Sister, The Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Christy Lefteri ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Know My Name, Chanel Miller ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Female Persuasion, Meg Wolitzer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, T Kira Madden ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Nine Pints, Rose George ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind, Barbara K. Lipska ⭐⭐⭐

Chasing the Sun, Linda Geddes ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Red at the Bone, Jacqueline Woodson ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Brit(ish), Afua Hirsch ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Dominicana, Angie Cruz ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Ensemble, Aja Gabel ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Disappearing Earth, Julia Phillips ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Invested, Danielle Town & Phil Town ⭐⭐⭐⭐

How to Date Men When You Hate Men, Blythe Roberson ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Ghost Bride, Yangsze Choo ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Your library makes our small corner of the world feel big

I’m back in San Francisco now after two and a half years away. It’s so trendy now to hate on the city that I’m reluctant to jump on that train, and I had really hoped it might pleasantly surprise me, that I might be able to find a fresh appreciation for it after being away, but it has been a rough adjustment back.

For the time being, I’m staying in Noe Valley, so perfectly pleasant with its stroller-friendly sidewalks and pastel-colored Victorians, and yet—in a word, the word that clings to my every attempt to describe how it feels to be in San Francisco again, after time in New York, London, abroad—it feels so provincial.

Every morning as I wander my way towards 24th Street for coffee, feeling the neighborhood starting to wake up, I think of Belle’s opening lines from Beauty and the Beast:

Little town, it’s a quiet village
Every day like the one before
Little town, full of little people
Waking up to say,
Bonjour! Bonjour!
Bonjour! Bonjour! Bonjour!

And as she continues through the town, the refrain:

There must be more than this provincial life!

Not that I particularly needed reason to read more, but being a bookworm of a child I always loved that Belle finds her escape through reading, and I am again inspired to take that approach in adjusting to my life back again in this tech monocultural filter bubble materialized as a city.

Today I stopped by the neighborhood bookstore and picked up a collection of poetry, a beautiful selection of works from the late Mary Oliver. And it is everything, just so; lovely, simple, pure, love letters to nature, existence, life. I’ve been hiding inside all day, recovering from a dull headache of exhaustion and weariness, but her words are such a breath of encouragement for keeping that sense of curiosity and wonder towards the world:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

What is it like to move from New York City to London?

Crossposted from Quora.

I lived in New York City for two years, from October 2016 to 2018, before moving to London a few months ago. I also spent substantial time in London prior to moving. Overall, it’s an easy move, as the cities are quite similar in being modern, diverse, cosmopolitan capitals. I am finding London more delightful since I am still new here and I like being an expat, but I do miss the energy of NYC. (Definitely not the endless honking and wailing of sirens, though, I’m glad to be rid of those.)

Transit

Particularly given the state of despair of NYC MTA in 2019, one of the most standout features about moving to London is that public transit here works really well. You can get around reliably with Tube and bus, even to the major airports. And you can use contactless to pay —none of that flimsy yellow Metrocard swipe flailing.

For some lines, the Tube comes every minute! It was an adjustment for me to not race to the platform whenever I heard the train coming. In NYC, where I lived off the F, missing a train might mean waiting 10 minutes for the next, so I got used to running at the sound of a train entering the station. In London, people hear the whooshing of the train and continue at their normal speed, completely unbothered. There is good bus coverage of the city as well, especially for areas like Shoreditch which aren’t as connected by Tube. The buses aren’t nearly as convenient as the Tube, since they don’t come as often and can get stuck in traffic, but they are still quite nice and it’s fun to sit at the front of the top deck of the double deckers and feel very British.

As for the airports, Heathrow, Gatwick, and Stansted are all well served by transit options, both with express trains (Heathrow Express, Gatwick Express, Stansted Express) and other trains, and for Heathrow it’s possible and even quite common to just take the Piccadilly Underground line all the way out.

However, London does feel a bit more sprawled out than NYC, and even with the good transit, it feels like “everything” takes 40+ minutes to get to. For example, I was living in Notting Hill for a month and a half when I first moved, and getting to the Entrepreneur First office in Bermondsey took 40 minutes. Now I’m staying in Aldgate East, which is in the East End, close to Shoreditch, and it still takes 40 minutes to get to Bermondsey. Long commutes seem much more standard in London than in NYC.

Payments

Contactless everywhere! I almost never need to pull my wallet out, since I can just use Apple Pay on my phone.

And, restaurants will bring the credit card machine to you, making it easy to split bills, as you can easily tell the server what part of the check you want to pay, tap your card or your phone, and then they move on to the next member of your party.

The only times I’ve really had to deal with cash so far were to pay rent, because it does take a little bit of work to get set up with a UK bank / debit account. As far as that process goes, though, it seems a lot easier here than anywhere else, since UK financial regulations are quite progressive and there are a lot of fintech services, like TransferWise, and challenger banks, like Revolut, Monzo, and N26, that are new and millennial-friendly.

I’ve also needed a UK debit account to pay some subscriptions which require direct debit, e.g. PureGym’s month-to-month payment scheme requires direct debit (though in that case I just gave up and found an alternative gym option), and Soho House membership requires payment from a UK debit account.

Housing

Only to a New Yorker would London housing prices seem reasonable, but especially with the weak pound, thanks Brexit, I’ve found housing in London to be quite easy. Not cheap, but definitely more affordable than Manhattan or San Francisco, and easy to find flat shares with sites like SpareRoom. I didn’t end up using a letting agent in London, so I don’t know the whole process, but from watching my friends find housing it doesn’t seem anywhere near as absurd as NYC with all its brokers and 15% broker fees. Yes, I’m still annoyed about those mandatory broker fees and honeypot “no fee” listings on StreetEasy that turned out to be, surprise, brokered places.

Food

There’s really great food in both cities, and a wide variety of it, from cheap to posh and lots of different cuisines.

London has more fast casual places, like Pret, Itsu, Leon, Wagamama, etc., but fewer salad places. I miss sweetgreen and Whole Foods. In general, produce in London doesn’t seem as fresh, but maybe that’s because I’m shopping at Tesco Express and Sainsbury’s Local instead of Whole Foods.

I haven’t found as many good Chinese food options in London compared to New York. There are some good spots, and within 5 minutes of me now I have a great Xi’an noodle place, Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles, which is like Xi’an Famous Foods in NYC, and a Szechuan restaurant, My Old Place, but they’re quite a bit pricier than their equivalents in New York and there’s nothing like the crop of trendy Chinese shops now in East Village and around town, like Ho Foods for beef noodle soup, 886 for Taiwanese food, and Meet Fresh for Taiwanese desserts.

However, the Indian and South Asian options in London are fantastic. Dishoom is a favorite, of course, and there are dozens of good curry shops and other Indian places on Brick Lane and around the city.

Coffee

London’s coffee scene has caught up quite a bit in the last few years, and particularly in East End there are a lot of hip coffee shops with good vibes and good coffee. And they have non-dairy milk options! As someone who is lactose-intolerant, I’m very happy about the now-prevalent alternative milks, since even a couple years ago it could be hard to find soy, almond, or oat milk — now they’re everywhere.

However, London does still trail NYC in the very important (to me, anyways!) category of cold brew. I’ve been on a hunt ever since I moved here and discovered, sadly, that there are very few places that serve it, mostly in East End, some in Soho, and even then it’s mostly bottled cold brew. Usually Sandow’s, which I find weak and a bit sour. There’s another brand, Minor Figures, that’s available in some grocery stores, but I also find them underwhelming. There is nothing like Chameleon cold brew here, my favorite in the States and which is sold at Whole Foods. People have told me London is still more into tea than coffee.

Culture and Diversity

Both NYC and London are very culturally vibrant and diverse cities, with lots to recommend in terms of art, theatre, shows, museums, history, and things happening around town. I have found the arts to be more accessible in London, with most museums being free, and very discounted options like £7 gallery tickets for the Proms. I like the concept of returns queues for shows here in London as well; whereas the only way to get tickets to Hamilton in NYC was paying exorbitant prices, I was able to queue for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in London and get same day tickets at face value instead of being scalped by re-sellers.

London has a more international mix of people, with a lot more Europeans, Africans, Arabs, and South Asians (and people of that heritage). I’ve enjoyed getting to know and befriend a much more multicultural cohort. One cute thing I’ve found is how people here like to refer to each other by nationality, much more common than back in the States. I also really like being called American, if only because in America I’m so tired of being identified as Asian and not American.

Parks

I’m totally in love with London’s parks. NYC mainly has Central Park, which is wonderful if you’re close to it, but I rarely visited it since I lived downtown, and only went running there for races. In London, there are many more of them throughout the city and the green respite from the bustle of the city is such a treasure. They make London a really nice running city, too, with so many options for routes inside the different parks and you can also string together multiple for longer runs.

Please indulge my love affair with Hyde Park in the fall:

Fitness

London doesn’t have nearly as much of a fitness and workout culture as NYC, but it’s still pretty strong. Not too many of the US brands have made it over here yet, just a handful of Barry’s Bootcamp studios and an Equinox in Kensington, but many equivalent / similar studios. I like 1Rebel, which has cardio + HIIT classes like Barry’s, as well as spin, and Psycle is supposed to be pretty similar to Soul Cycle. Grow Fitness does group rowing classes similar to CITYROW in New York. And there are CrossFit boxes all around town as well.

I used to do ClassPass in New York City, with Blink gym membership as part of my membership, but I’ve cut down my ClassPass usage quite a bit in London. One, because there aren’t as many studios that I like, but more importantly, because there are two Soho Houses with gyms in London, White City House and Shoreditch House. I joined Soho House when I was in NYC, but members clubs are way more of a thing in the UK, and being able to use the fitness facilities at the houses here has been a big boost to my quality of life. I’m sorry for my insufferable bougieness.

Travel

“The difference between America and England is that Americans think 100 years is a long time, while the English think 100 miles is a long way.” — Earle Hitchner

Everyone says this, but it’s worth repeating: travel in Europe is incredible. Two hours on a plane can get you anywhere, and Paris is just two hours away on the Eurostar. It’s such a treat to be able to explore so many different countries and cultures on quick weekend trips, and there is so much history in the streets and architecture.

Budget airlines are really popular in Europe. Cheap prices, the tradeoff is just that you have to pay for every possible amenity you might want, including assigned seating. Getting status on an alliance (or multiple alliances) isn’t really a thing.

Time Zones

If you want to coordinate with people back in the States, whether for personal reasons or professional, the time zone differences can be pretty rough. London is +5 hours from NYC, and +8 from SF / LA, which means people back in the States are just getting their day going as the day is ending in the UK. I’m naturally a morning person so having to shift my work hours so much later in the day is not easy. It’s also not good for being social after-hours.

Pub Culture

I’m still really amused whenever I pass by a pub and see Londoners standing on the street outside, drinking their beers and pretending like it’s not depressing weather out. There is a lot more pub culture here and it’s kind of a thing for people to go for drinks after work and skip proper dinner.

Weather

London has much milder weather than NYC. The summer is not so hot and humid, and the winter doesn’t get so cold, snowy, and slushy. Spring and fall are positively beautiful.

People complain about London being grey and gloomy, and maybe it is a little bit that, and in winter 3:30pm sunset is sad, but it’s really not so bad. Also, in December…

Christmas

London wins at Christmas. Hands down.