My (very late) end-of-the-year letter for 2023
January 29, 2024

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything for you, my friends on the other side of the internet.

I had a whole end-of-the-year post planned, but because I live in China, I don’t have any real vacation time to coincide with the end of the year. (China’s big vacation is instead timed around Chinese New Year.) In fact, because I had secretly gone to Xiaoxi’s family’s house back in Jinan and had to be physically present in order to humor them while having a bunch of math stuff to do, whatever time I would have had for writing evaporated away. Once I got back to Shanghai, I had even more nonsense to take care of — so it’s only now, three and a half weeks into the month, that I’m more or less free to do as I please.

I’m not a very tactical person. Any kind of large project I engage in is done in a pretty haphazard way. I’d compare it to trying to break through a wall by digging a bunch of tiny holes under it. Of course, if one is capable of digging holes beneath a wall, why not tunnel all the way through and skip the wall entirely? That’s exactly what I can’t do. It’s as though there is a massive spring tied to my body — just long enough to let me reach the far edge beneath the wall, but if I try to go any farther and tunnel my way upwards, its spring force is too much and I immediately lose my footing and get pulled backward. So, if I want to destroy this wall, I'll have to dig dozens of tiny tunnels under it until it collapses.

When I’m writing regularly, I’m always digging tunnels. It’s easy to start a new piece because I have tunnels left over from previous pieces to get me started. But when I go too long without writing, those tunnels get filled up and I have to start from scratch. That’s the feeling I have now. That analysis of 2023 I already wrote several thousand words of feels pointless now. Now that I’ve stepped away from it, I don’t even know where to begin in stitching it together — and besides, enough has already happened at the beginning of this year to make 2023 feel like a distant memory. So this month of zero posting has given me enough distance from what this site used to be to give me the courage to do things completely different for the new year.

I don’t like, for instance, how messy the site was in 2023. I had 5 different places to put essays, 4 of which didn’t advertise themselves to people who weren’t literally visiting the site every day.

In 2024, our relationship is going to become much more intimate, if you’re willing to follow along with me.

2024, I’ve decided is my year of optical media. As the name might suggest, Optical Media is, of course, The Media You Can See (or at least point a laser at), but more importantly, it’s the media that you can touch, and which is stored in plastic jewel cases that, no matter how carefully you handle them, end up covered in a thousand microscopic scratches.

The essay that started this blog was Descent, about my intellectual descent from my brother, and my emotional descent from early 2000s digital technology. One of the key themes was that as a kid, I observed my “elders” (i.e. my brother) interact with media and the world in a certain way, which I assumed was just the way things are — and yet by the time I was old enough to care about art or media or the world, the way everyone around me — even those same “elders” (again, my brother) — interacted with these things had changed completely.

I haven’t really written about those themes since then, but I’ve thought about them a lot. It was my first real attempt at writing an essay about something, as opposed to a fictional story or a diary entry. I haven’t been able to convince myself to read it all the way through since publishing it, but I occasionally open it up and scroll to a random paragraph.

That’s probably the best way to read it. I wrote most paragraphs of that essay in isolation from each other, on notebook pages in my school’s library, then I typed them up, put them in a semi-coherent order, removed redundancies, and added glue sentences. Some variation of this process is how I’ve written most of the essays on this site.

This particular writing process is of course influenced by the same technological forces described in Descent. Writing this way using just paper isn’t exactly practical. The essay was obviously quite skeptical of the mental habits new forms of technology instill in us. One of those that I’ve alluded to quite often in my music diary is the massive amount of albums I’ve downloaded and listened to since 2017. For many years, I’ve listened to something new at least once a week, and often every day. This of course isn’t possible if one is restricted to CDs one has to buy, borrow, or inherit.

I had a portable CD player as a kid, but I never used it very much. It was a Christmas gift from my dad. I have no recollection of what brand it was. He gave me a U2 CD to go with it: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Maybe this album expressly designed for the middle-aged man market being my only piece of listening material resulted in me not caring about music until I was 13 or 14. I started listening to 60s rock using a (very low quality) turntable with a CD player built into it that my grandmother gave me. In those precious few years when CDs were my main medium for listening to music, that’s how I listened to them — completely headphone-less. Once I started using my computer to listen to music — first on Youtube then later on via torrenting and Soulseek — I started using headphones.

Music became something one engages in privately and in massive quantities — a very personal form of perversion. I’ve always been paranoid about my massive ignorance of all of human culture, which is one of the main factors in my addiction to New Music. But maybe I know enough music? At least for now. Maybe I can try a different approach temporarily. Maybe, just for a few months or even a year, I can try returning to the CD life.

With those thoughts going through my mind, I took my girlfriend’s old Panasonic combination CD/VCD back to Shanghai when we were in Jinan for New Year’s. I took a few of her old CDs and bought a few of my own. Here’s the tiny collection I’ve amassed thus far:

Xiaoxi’s family is so different from mine. Her dad still has the box of every electronic device he ever owned. My family always threw all the packaging out.

What would it be like to be a person like that? A collector? A hoarder?

The first hoarder that comes to my mind is Haruki Murakami. He’s written extensively about the music he collects — and recently he has a book collecting magazine columns he wrote about his t-shirt collection.

He is of course a very particular kind of hoarder — a guy who grew up in Japan with a deep interest in Western (particularly American) literature and music. People like Murakami of that generation don’t really exist in China. Someone who came of age in 1960s China wouldn’t have really had the opportunity to engage with Western music and Western literature until deep in adulthood. I’m sure there are plenty of people who started listening to, say, the Beatles in their 30s or 40s in the 1980s and who learned as much about rock music as they could — though that creates a different sort of hoarder than the Haruki Murakami style hoarder. From what I can tell, the earliest generation of Chinese hoarders of Western music in the Haruki Murakami vein is only in their mid-to-late 40s now.

I’d like to pretend I could be some reverse Haruki Murakami — an aging uncle with a slightly perverted imagination and an intense interest in the cultural minutiae of the East (as opposed to Murakami’s West). I am of course not anywhere near being the uncle age, which I figure coincides with Confucius’s 不惑之年, i.e. 40. As I’ve stated before, my personality is more of the little brother type than the uncle type. But I might as well plant the uncle seeds now — and that’s the direction this site will be slowly veering towards for the time being.

For many years, I’ve been wrestling with the conflict between doing one’s homework and making something of one’s own.

In different mediums, I find I have completely different approaches.

With games, I hardly play other people’s games at all. I make my own and have my own philosophy which I’ve never really seen reflected in anyone else’s games. The trouble is that making games is extremely slow — especially the particular kinds of games I make — so my creations exist mostly as fragments on my hard drive, unable to be interpreted by others.

With music, I’m much more biased towards doing my homework. I listen to a huge amount of music, and when it comes to playing music, I tend to spend most of my time doing exercises and learning other people’s songs (often only the fragments of other people’s songs that interest me most — so I can’t even give a cover performance to anyone). It’s only recently that I’ve engaged in creating something of my own musically, and that’s been pursued mostly by throwing out all the rules I’ve learned doing my homework and finding other “non-standard” ways of playing the guitar.

I suppose it’s only with literature that I’ve found a balance — and perhaps that’s why writing is the form of expression that feels most natural to me.

Unfortunately, there is too much to write about. Over the last month, I’ve been overwhelmed by how many words I’ve accumulated in my brain that I want to put on this website.

The trouble is that my brain uses a qualitatively different language from the English that you’re reading now on your computer (or phone) screen. My native language can’t be spoken — it can only be thought in. A word in my brain might take 100 words to explain in standard written English. This translation process is always a massive labor for me — and until I’ve put my thoughts into writing, there’s always the fear that I’ll forget them. Beyond that, I find it so hard to manage words. That’s the real difficulty of writing to me. I produce so many sentences, but then have to wrangle them into some kind of coherent order. After a while, there are just too many of them, and looking at all these words makes me stressed.

Organization — this is a science in and of itself. A science I don’t understand at all! If you saw the process I use to write anything (even just emails to friends), you’d be astounded that I manage to form any coherent thoughts at all. My desk is covered in printer paper and notebooks. My Macbook has Pages, TextEdit, and the macOS Notes app open, each program having several different windows or tabs open, all with words that may or may not be relevant to several different projects I’m working on. When I think back to any of the essays I’ve written, I can’t really remember how they got into their final form. I just remember typing or writing sentences in one place or another.

It’s important to note that each piece of paper and each word processor window does serve some purpose — it’s just these purposes aren’t necessarily distinct. There’s a massive system of interlocking Venn diagrams, so any sentence that pops into my brain — any “unit of thought” — has several places it can go. The purposes of each window evolve as they fill with words. Most of my essays are written over several days, weeks, or months. Every day I’m a new person with a new perspective and new ideas. My computer and my desk become the ruins of a city inhabited for millennia by different civilizations, peoples, and races — who somehow are all contained within a single human body (my human body).

That lack of organization has leaked over to this website, which is already very confusing to navigate for even my most ardent fan (Xiaoxi).

That all being said, there is a (perhaps paradoxical) craving that has roots in both my soul and my body for even more disorganization. How can I make my life and my website even more confusing? I remember in middle school I’d always write and draw pictures on my hand during class. Maybe I should start doing that again. Or I could incorporate more sticky notes into my process. Or I could start writing essays in Twine?

But then I remember the words of certain grand masters — e.g. Shigeru Miyamoto (lol) — that organization is more important than creativity.

My worry is that every form of organization is derived from a theory. I don’t have any problem in engaging with theories, but by organizing my thoughts around one theory or another, it seems too easy to be trapped in the theory. Instead, I’d rather skip from one theory or another. Maybe it’s only by exploring the implications of one theory as far as they go that one finds the most interesting thoughts and ideas — which then could be lifted outwards and explored in other contexts.

Writing is ultimately communication. I suppose the hidden other side of this blog has been the conversations it’s spurred with a handful of people who’ve reached out to me, either by email or other means, to talk about essays I’ve written or to share their own mental conundrums with me.

In some sense, I probably could have talked with these people and had many of these conversations without starting a blog — though that’s only a theoretical possibility, and not at all likely. I’m very bad at starting conversations. This blog has served as a tool to overcome that particular failing of mine.

One thing I’ve noticed is that each time someone reads my writing and talks about it with me, I have a new person I’m writing for. With each new person is a new purpose, which leads to new ideas. This, in fact, is why I’ve been so overwhelmed since the end of December. This blog of mine all at once started bearing the fruit I fantasized it would when I first dreamed of having a blog as a 17-year-old: it’s made me friends. Being in English, I assumed most of the people reading it would be “folk back home in the old country (The United States of America)” — though that hasn’t been true at all. To my surprise, the words I’ve written on this website have had an impact on my real life here in Shanghai. Yifan and Jia Xiao of The Shanghai Oscillators Group graciously translated my journal entry about them into Chinese. Talking with them and their friend Xingchi about the essay after they translated it was such a weird experience — I had never before interacted with anyone who had read my writing so closely. Hearing Yifan use metaphors I’d come up with watching their performance in order to describe her own feelings (perhaps very different from my own) felt like a metaphor in and of itself. It made me want to find even more ways to communicate — more mediums to listen through and more mediums to express myself back through.

A lesson one (not necessarily me) might learn from this experience is that some of the most rewarding writing has its origins in carefully paying attention to someone else’s creation. We’ll see if meditation on this observation results in me writing more essays about the performances I attend — or if I just go back to writing about whatever it is I normally write about.

Ultimately the reason I write these essays and journal entries rather than, say, work on fiction or games, is that there’s a much more reasonable turnaround time on how long it takes for me to publish these. That’s the most novel thing about having a blog. Creation doesn’t have to be just me sitting in isolation. I can use art as a tool for communication, which, it turns out, is all I ever really wanted to use art for in the first place.

That said, sometimes it feels like what I can express through these essays is still very shallow. If I think back on what I’ve written on here since the beginning of May when I first started this website, it doesn’t really feel like I’ve managed all that much. The first essay I published here was an attempt at a sort of “genealogy” of the nostalgia and fantasies I’ve developed about the internet. It seemed like an appropriate topic to discuss on a platform like Neocities which is constructed out of a half-remembered fantasy of the old web. I’ve written about musicians I’ve watched, and the strange combination of distance and closeness their music makes me feel. I wrote about a strange relationship I more or less accidentally found myself in (and which, for the most part, has since ended now that my girlfriend moved). I spent some time pondering different neighborhoods of Shanghai and that mysterious loneliness I’d always feel as I ran through them and felt them disappear around me.

I’m sure I’ll be revisiting all these themes in the future, but it’s the last one in particular that I’d like to focus on writing about more. If I have a goal for 2024, it’s not that hard to put into a sentence. I want to continue trying to understand Shanghai. For all I’ve written about the isolation I feel and the barriers I encounter every day trying to interface with this city and the people who live in it, I hope I never have to leave here. I want to spend my whole life in Shanghai. I realize I haven’t done a very good job explaining why that is — which is perhaps another goal I’ll have to work towards in 2024.

Along with that goes improving my Chinese. I didn’t really spend that much time consciously studying Chinese in 2023.

In using English to write about my life in China, I’ve experienced all sorts of mental conflicts that I’m not going to get into here (though maybe I’ll write about them more later). A lot of those conflicts would be solved by writing in Chinese — though that of course introduces new problems — the two big ones being a lot of the people I’m writing for don’t speak Chinese, and Chinese isn’t my native language, so writing in it can be excruciating and embarrassing.

This is one of those problems we’re going to have to figure out together, very slowly.

I’m going to start writing more in Chinese on this website — which will mean figuring out how exactly a person such as myself expresses their innermost thoughts using the Chinese language. The exact form that my Chinese writing will take on this website is still to be determined, but hopefully, if you’re not able to read Chinese, it won’t bother you too much to encounter it here.

A terrible temptation I’ve found myself experiencing lately is the desire to educate others. As I hope to write about one day soon enough, I more or less see my own childhood education as a failure, and a lot of my personal efforts since high school have been an attempt to give myself a new kind of education. There’s an anxiety I have that knowledge in itself isn’t all that important — its the process through which you acquire said knowledge that determines how you can use and access it. This anxiety is related to the aforementioned anxieties about organization and disorganization I’ve mentioned already. The knowledge acquisition process seems to be vital, but I’m not really sure in what way. I have no idea what “the ideal” is, and part of me is worried that trying to control this stuff too much is harmful. The result is that my self-education has been a complete mess and source of endless shame, as I constantly feel like every effort I make to learn has been “wrong”.

Somehow, I still feel the need to play the teacher. In one sense, this website is a place for me to think to myself, and in another sense, it’s a medium to share my thinking with others. I'm still trying to figure out the best way to do that in a way that inspires conversation.

Two days ago I read Eliot Weinberger’s book/essay 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which is a collection of 19 Western translations of Wang Wei (王维)’s poem 鹿柴, presented chronologically, along with Weinberger’s comments/criticisms. In the edition I read it in, there is a postscript where Weinberger describes a letter he received from “a furious professor” lamenting “The curious neglect of Boodberg’s Cedule.” This, it turned out, was a reference to the Russian Sinologist, exiled to California, Peter A. Boodberg’s “still inadequate, yet philologically correct, rendition of the stanza (with due attention to grapho-syntactic overtones and enjambment)”:

“Deer Wattle (Hermitage)

The empty mountain: to see no men,
Barely earminded of men talking — countertones
And antistrophic lights-and-shadows incoming deeper the deep-treed grove
Once more to glowlight the blue-green mosses — going up
(The empty mountain . . .)”

Upon sharing with us this quite mysterious and delightful little translation, Weinberger ended his postscript with an expression of gratitude towards the “Furious Professor” who inspired his search for “Boodberg’s cedule.”

I’d like my website to be a place where I send my thoughts off to the world, and in return, the world sends back angry missives that inspire quests that end in my discovery of pleasure previously unknown to me. Up until now, I’ve only received positive feedback — but I wish I could produce more visceral reactions in my readers. The key though is that this needs to be done sincerely. No deliberate trolling allowed. Instead I hope I can express myself with writing so sparklingly sharp it pierces the skin of all those who read it.

That’s the goal I’ll be chasing in 2024. It remains to be seen how successful I will be in that pursuit.