I met a friend for a movie and drinks today. On the way there, I was walking up the street when I noticed two guys on the side of the road smoking. I'm a single woman from Calgary, so I gave the gentlemen little thought as I crossed the 5th Avenue intersection and walked past. My headphones were in my ears, BORNS was pulsing into the sides of my head (a little louder on the left side after I accidentally ran my headphones through a laundry cycle on my last night in Tokyo, oops) and I looked down at my phone and pretended to text and walk, just in case I was going to get catcalled. When I did walk past, I got a nice check to my elitist Calgarian ego when I found that the men weren't paying attention to me at all. And then, I took a breath. A deep breath. In that moment I got a hit of what may have been the finest skunk I'd smelled since Amsterdam. I wanted to turn back, take a hit with them, and talk about my day. They seemed cool. But it's Calgary and I had to catch my train, because the next one wouldn't come for 20 minutes, and I was already late. Plus, weed isn't legal here. At all.
If only this were Toronto.
When I got to the C-train platform, I moved through a sparse crowd, as well as a few short lineups of people waiting to board the Blue Line. Mine was Red. I found a place to stand and continued to listen to my music too loud, now trying to drown out the sound of 7th Avenue at City Hall. A Red Line train bound for Somerset finally came my way. The train cars were full. About eight people standing in front of me gave up on trying to board, and so I remained standing behind them, leaning slightly against the wall behind me. Between the people in front of me, I peeked in through the doors to see just how full the train cars were. Each door was a tight squeeze, but realistically another four to five people could make their way in, should the patrons already on the train decide to be considerate enough to take off their laptop bags and backpacks. Just as the train was about to pull away, one door opened, and a young guy about 18 scurried out holding a skateboard. There was definitely room to get on. I wondered, where were the Japanese men and woman with the white gloves, keeping commuters in straight lines on the platform and gently gathering breathing bodies into each door, all the while keeping everyone safe? This city could sure use some of them. Even just for a day. And it's a fucking Thursday.
If only this were Tokyo.
The not-so-crowded train rolled past, and in a few minutes, another Red Line C-train bound for Somerset rolled up. As I waited for it to stop, I caught my reflection in the window before I approached the door. The way I look these days still catches me off-guard. The woman staring back at me had short, ash blonde hair under a black snapback, a heavy tan, thick-rimmed glasses, and half a sleeve. When I boarded flight TS 334 to Amsterdam three months ago today, I didn't look like this. Didn't feel like this, either. I had forgotten in that moment - just like ten minutes before when I was walking past the two guys smoking a joint - that I was no longer a doe-eyed, long-haired Asian woman who smiled too much just to please. Cutting off and bleaching my hair was one of the least drastic things I did all summer. Yet it was enough to make me do a double-take on myself, because for the first time in my life, my face is framed to look exactly how I feel: confident. A level-3 undercut clears a round and pointed shape into the back of my head, revealing the least-known of my four tattoos to the public. It is a script piece that reads the word, "gratitude". Now, everyone behind me knows where I stand. And so do I, after today, and every other day since I got back from Toronto. Whether I'm on a train platform or on the Great Wall of China, I stand on my own two feet. It's all I want, and it's all I need.
I love this photo just as much as I hate it. I gush, while I’m repulsed. Look at that pretty fucking girl. The natural smile that comes from light laughter, my long, dark hair, and my easy stance. I’m beautiful. I’ll admit it, I wore this look well. The day of the shoot, I chose my beloved combat boots (and an emergency pair of heels), ripped jeans, and a loose-fitting blank tank top as my "uniform". The dark lipstick and curled hair added glamour to the toughness, sparkle to the rugged. I posed for this shoot weeks before I took a trip around the world which would change my life entirely. Change me. I never expected that I would come home and feel such a stark mix of disgust and praise for my own face, but looking at this photo now, my smile in it is fake enough only to be a peephole to a much larger picture. My new, big picture looks like light hair, dark glasses, and a black snapback that says 'Thank You Toronto' silkscreened across the front. (Common knowledge among Calgarian locals: if you ever see someone who's sporting any kind of Toronto paraphernalia, don't fuck with them. Especially if it's a Blue Jays hat. You're DONE.) The masterpiece is in the details: if you pay close attention to the words I choose when I speak, and for how long I pause when I don't, you'll see that the changes in my appearance frame a heart and mind thoroughly reconstructed from top to bottom. The part of me that hates this photo doesn't do so because of where it was shot. Contrary to my common blog themes, it has nothing to do with my Calgary biases and everything to do with my identity. The part of me that hates this photo does so out of confusion. It still graces my bio page, that playful smile introducing the unlimited world to a site filled with my own words. That face is still mine, but the woman in the photo is no longer me.
"You must be a completely different person now."
"Yeah. Yeah, I am."
I wanted to write this to tell you all how much traveling the world has changed me. I wanted to be able to tell you just how I found myself. But I'm not here to write anyone a prescription. I'm not gonna tell anyone, whether I know them or not, that getting on a plane by yourself is good or bad or that you should or shouldn't do it. I don't know what feeds your soul; you know you. I know me. And I suppose that's the way I changed, not changing at all by composition but having the way I see and experience the world altered completely. This is what finding yourself is in my mind. It's when you go looking for something and the things you learn don't surprise you. Maybe you even find out that you were right all along about some things, but never gave yourself the credit — I'll check those boxes off a couple hundred times. The truth is, this piece that you're reading right now isn't my best work because I don't know how it ends. If I'm lucky, it never will. I know that now that I've gotten to experience pure, unadulterated happiness for myself that anything and everything is possible. I've transcended the barriers of my own mind, and the sky's the limit when you're flying. (Sorry FLOTUS - your speeches are apparently really easy to rip off.) I knew, long before I boarded flight TS 334 that I would never find myself in a place, a person, a thing, a job, or an idea. I also knew I needed to get the fuck out of Calgary to save myself and I didn't know where I was going. I basically didn't feel like I belonged anywhere. In the words of my great millennial predecessor Lena Dunham - even now, I still have better hair - I needed to go where the me-shaped holes were and fill them. I learned there are many of those. Those holes are in Toronto and Hong Kong and Amsterdam and any other city on water with good sunset views and a reliable subway network. I figured out how to fill the me-shaped holes inside me, too. With patience, understanding, self-awareness, and self-care. With the reminder to use my voice whenever I had something to say. With being my own cheerleader, not because no one else would but because I had to cheer louder. Oh, and with vibrators. Those too.
Demolitions are messy, no matter how necessary they are. Sometimes they're sudden or they seem unplanned. But when the dust settles and you're left with empty, even ground again, you get something to rebuild on. That empty space is what I was looking for, and I was incredibly fortunate to find it during my travels, as it doesn't happen for everybody. There's only so much space in the world to live your truth. When the wrong thing has been standing in your way for too long, tear it down, and get the fuck out. You want my advice? You want to know what this whole thing taught me? I learned that demolitions are messy. Change is destructive. You can always clean up the mess later, but get out of your own way, and save yourself first. Like the safety demos say: before helping others, put your own mask on first.