My summer has been shaped by its “negative space”--the time I spent not doing stuff, or doing “unimportant”1 stuff--so that’s what this post is about.
Prior to last year, I listened almost exclusively to Kpop. In the South Korean music industry, music releases are accompanied by several weeks of endless public promotion; against a backdrop of non-activity, promotion periods become bundles of time so distinctive they’re remembered as “eras”, and these eras can summarize an artist’s entire career. Kpop taught me to listen to music, and so I began to associate songs with eras of my own life.
Red Velvet is one of my favorite Kpop artists, and their discography is my endless collection of three-minute time capsules; every release, their songs morph into distinct snapshots as I listen, my memories of the time growing inextricably linked to the music. The moments I recall most vividly are small: hearing the school buses start-stop-start-stop below the third-floor AP Chem room window. Wandering the colorful aisles of the Asian grocery store on a Saturday morning, taking in the tang of live crabs and stinky tofu. These songs tell the quiet stories of subculture within suburb.
They also tell the stories of my growth over the years, because they carry not just these small moments but my small reactions to them. When I heard those buses, I dreamt--just for a second--it was a metropolis below. And when I wandered those aisles, I smiled softly, unconsciously, because where I stood was the closest place to China in Little Rock.
To me, growth is marked by shifting perspective, by changes in the ways I react to these moments. Years from now, when I listen to Red Velvet Irene and Seulgi’s “Naughty”, I’ll look back on this summer and remember the first moment I didn’t hate my hometown.
I moved to Little Rock in middle school.
Immediately, I curated a list of (entitled, and frankly ridiculous) complaints. It’s hot and humid in the summer. It’s not urban enough to be bustling, not rural enough to be charming. There’s one decent Chinese restaurant, and no H Mart. Nothing ever happened here; in my mind, it was a waypoint en route to some bigger place or purpose. This year, I’d begun preparing to leave Little Rock behind, when suddenly I was trapped indefinitely--so for the first time ever, I stayed in this place I hated for an entire summer.
To me, Little Rock has always felt like a grand contradiction. In a nutshell: we’re at the center of Arkansas, one of just a few blue islands in a sea of solid red. Within my social circles, there’s a widespread dislike of state leadership. In 1957, the Little Rock Nine integrated my school, Central, cementing it as the battleground of one of the most important victories for racial equality in American history. Yet today, housing and education here are effectively partitioned by two major interstates. We read The New Jim Crow in English class as our local police department covered up misconduct and waged a war on drugs (and a year later, an overcrowded prison just an hour away became the site of one of the country’s largest COVID outbreaks). Our public schools have endured state control for over five years, and last October, we found ourselves fighting an egregious school district resegregation plan. Even within Central, it feels like not enough has changed.
Prior to high school, I’d never tried to confront my complacency--I’d never even tried to understand anything beyond my suburban west Little Rock bubble. I’d always lived in Little Rock comfortably, I’d spent my formative years here, yet I always acted as though this place owed me something. Even worse, my hatred only made its struggles seem more inevitable, as if nothing I (or anyone else) did would change the way things were. Cynicism was cheap and easy. In retrospect, I’m alarmed it took a summer here--and involuntarily, at that--for me to reflect on this.
For the first time, I’m experiencing Little Rock as someone moving along slowly, taking everything in--not someone hurrying towards some far-off destination. Because my middle- and high school years were often stressful, and because I waited so long to leave, this tranquility feels strange sometimes. For instance, I know Central students started school already, which makes me feel a bit idle. And I know the mornings here will soon smell crisp, and the leaves of the ginkgo tree behind Central will turn a vibrant yellow again, and I will still be here.
I can’t say I love Little Rock now, but I don’t hate it anymore. I still don’t understand its every dimension; I still have a lot to learn. But I’ll be spending my freshman year of college at home. I have time.
I recently built a playlist in the form of a web app.
At first, I wanted to create a simple HTML page with a list of my favorite songs and my favorite lyrics from those songs. But then I thought this might be a bit boring; it would condense music into words, when instead I wanted to augment. So I decided to incorporate sounds and images too.
Adding sounds was easy enough--I just embedded a Spotify or Apple Music player for any songs or albums I wanted to include (in hindsight, though, this wasn’t the best idea, since it made the app very janky). Adding images was more interesting: it compelled me to think about the ways I relive and remember music--by season, by day or night, by place. I spent a lot of time this summer biking through and around Little Rock along the Arkansas River, so I created a set of graphics that include some of the landmarks I observed along the way, as well as others that weren’t along the way but are still important to me (for example, Central). Finally, I pulled quotes from a variety of sources--lyrics, as well as articles and interviews--to display side-by-side with the music. Some of these reveal some sort of truth. Others mean nothing, but I like them anyway.
The music is categorized by winter, spring, summer, and autumn. I’ve always loved the changing seasons, because they made me feel as though I might change too. Now, especially, they’re my only evidence that time is still moving, that I’m still growing. As I mentioned, I’m accustomed to moving through life at breakneck pace; in the past, I’ve always spent one season listening to music for the next, waiting in anticipation for the change. But I think this coming year might be different.
You can view the playlist here, if you want.
My freshman year of college begins tomorrow, which means my summer is coming to an end.2
Back in May, I wasn’t sure how I would make it to September. (Isn’t this how much of life works? As Angela Ma writes in “My 7-Year Pursuit of How To Live”: “I couldn’t do [it] before, and now that I’ve done [it], I can.”)
To end this post, here’s a collection of moments I captured from around Little Rock this summer.
See you in the next post. Until then, take care and stay safe.
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