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Turning 30: The Four Cities that Defined My Twenties

In the middle of an exhibition opening, climbing 43+ mountains, and recovering from said mountains, I turned thirty years old last week. I almost forgot about it, until the studio surprised me with fruit and cake after another long hiking day. While it is a big number, perhaps due the hysteria and excitement that I’ve seen people my age show with this milestone, I felt that with everything that has happened in the past years, it was absolutely time to turn 30. Finally! The level of growth and travel that transpired made the passage of time very natural.

I also realized that I reached certain milestones in the cities I have lived in. Not just traveled to as a tourist, but lived in, for at least six months. For practical reasons, six months is usually a time when most receiving countries require you to get an alien registration card that states why you are living in that country. You are meant to declare your goals, and as such, you engage in activities that define your identity while in that place. This is in contrast to being a floating tourist for several weeks or a few months, having “fun” and getting inebriated. When you are an official resident of a country, you come out with something tangible, be it a degree, an exhibition, a portfolio. For personal reasons, well, growth just takes time. And with time often comes silence and reflection.

Now that I’m thirty, I would like to take some time from post-project recovery and thank the four cities that defined my twenties, and why:

1. Seoul, South Korea
For being the city I am happiest in (for now)

What could be better than turning thirty in one of my favorite cities in the world! In the six months of living here, I did the hardest project I have ever done, I have made some of my dearest friends, I do my favorite sport everyday, and I’ve broken a lot of personal boundaries. I love the people here,  I’m constantly challenging myself with doing new things, and I love visiting new places in the country. Because Seoul is the safest and most efficient city I’ve lived in, I can feel lost in my thoughts and let creativity take form. Perhaps it’s because this is the country where taekwondo was born, perhaps because I look like a local, or perhaps it’s because Korean and Chinese cultures have many similarities, but I feel least alien here. Go figure.

2. New York, USA
For training me to go forward

New York, without a doubt, trained me to go against anything. Five years in the City that Never Sleeps made me keep going because no one was going to do it for me. As the hardest city I lived in, it taught me not to sit on my ass and to keep working hard. There is no time for self-pity in New York. I think my years at graduate school were very formative, and started what I hope will be the trajectory of my life’s work. Oh, and I got my black belt there, so I’ll always remember it. But New York wasn’t just about the harshness or the push-ups—I also loved seeing the most diverse people, which I haven’t encountered in any other city I’ve lived in or visited.

3. Barcelona, Spain
For showing me beautiful things everyday

I ran away to Spain after one of the most difficult times in my life, and there was no better city for rejuvenation than Barcelona. You can eat the city with your eyes—it was just so beautiful in ways both small and big. I will always remember going through the old city, feeling the bullet holes in the walls and then coming across a guerilla art piece by Space Invader. I read many of the books that I still reference in my work, discovered poetry, saw some of the most astounding art and architecture in the world, and made some wonderful friends.

4. Manila, Philippines
For letting me dream

I only realize it now, but I am extremely grateful for the Philippines for having such outspoken women. I deliberately write this in a city where I feel that women do not have as many rights. Here in Seoul, I am constantly being gawked at as an Asian woman who can be very assertive with few inhibitions. I think most of the women in the Philippines, particularly my mentors, are among the toughest women I have ever encountered. Most people reference the Philippines for its beaches and natural wonders (which are better in person), or for the other extremes, such as gates-of-hell poverty (also true), but I see it as the city that allowed for the incubation of my dreams.

So that’s four cities in my twenties. I write this in gratitude, but also as a reminder to myself that the world is huge and there are more places to explore and languages to learn.

As I said, there is no momentous “whoa-I’m-30” occasion—in Korea, I’m already 32.

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