‘Unusual’ Names in Life and Fiction: Part 1

I wrote this post (part 1) in December 2017, and then never got around to writing part 2, leaving this draft to gather dust in the unpublished corner of this blog. However, this is relevant to a discussion that occurred last week, so I finally decided to blow the dust off this draft and post it.

I read the thought provoking essay “Let’s Talk about Characters with Difficult Names”. I want to write my own reflection on characters who have ‘difficult’ names. But first, as a preface, I want to talk about my own life experience.

First of all, my name is Sara. Legally, ‘Sara’ is my middle name, which means that it appears on some of my official documents, and not on others. It is a biblical name, which means it’s a common name in any society where Abrahamic religions are widespread. I do use the spelling which is less common in the United States (the more common spelling is ‘Sarah’). I also do not use the common American pronunciation – I use the ‘a’ as in ‘father’ not the ‘a’ as in ‘care’. It has proven useful in my life that I use a less common pronunciation and spelling because it allows for disambiguation from people who use the more common American spelling/pronunciation.


If you were to ask me what is the ‘correct’ way to pronounce my name, my answer would be ‘modern Hebrew pronunciation’. The modern Hebrew ‘r’ sound is different from the American English ‘r’ sound (the modern Hebrew ‘r’ sounds like the French ‘r’). However, I don’t expect the people around me to pronounce the ‘r’ correctly, and I will straight up tell them that it’s okay for them to use the American English ‘r’. Heck, when I introduce myself, I usually use the American English ‘r’ to simplify my interactions. In other words, even ~I~ usually do not use what I consider to be the ‘correct’ pronunciation of my name.

I do not want to reveal my legal first name here. However, even before I went to Taiwan, I sometimes chose to introduce myself as ‘Sara’ rather than use my legal first name. This sometimes led to situations where people knew me as ‘Sara’, then they found out my legal first name, and they say things like “hey, ‘Sara’ is not your real name!” (Of course ‘Sara’ is my real name. Though I would not say that a name has to be on a birth certificate to be ‘real’ it is also true that ‘Sara’ appears on my birth certificate).

In Taiwan, I at first introduced myself using my legal first name, since I wanted to conform to what is written on my legal documents. However, my employer in Taiwan asked me to use ‘Sara’ instead of my legal first name because it is easier for Taiwanese people to pronounce. Since I was already used to be addressed as ‘Sara’ I did not have a problem with this, so at my workplace in Taiwan everyone addressed me as ‘Sara’.

I never legally adopted a Chinese name in Taiwan. I have known Americans who did need to legally adopt a Chinese name in order to get something, and if I had decided to settle in Taiwan permanently, I would have probably needed to adopt a legal Chinese name as well. I do have an informal Chinese name, and that is the name I would have use if I ever need a legally recognized Chinese name. I personally never had a problem with this system, and I would have been willing to legally adopt a Chinese name if were necessary. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. However, even though it was never a problem for me, it has been a problem for other people (such as the indigenous people of Taiwan).

Outside of the workplace, how did Taiwanese people address me. I let them choose. If they wanted to call me ‘Sara’ I let them do that. If they wanted to call me ‘Shālā’ (that is the Sinicized form of ‘Sara’) I let them do that. If they wanted to call me by my informal Chinese name, I let them do that too.

Now, my family name…

I have a fairly unique family name. It is so unique that, the first time I ever put my name in a search engine (this was probably around the year 2000) one of the top hits was a fantasy story that someone posted online. That story is long gone from the internet, so now one of the top hits is Wookiepedia – because there is an obscure Star Wars character who shares my name. Yep, I have one of those ‘weird’ names that appears in fantasy & science fiction but not so much in real life (unless you are me, or one of my relatives who shares the same name).

Star Wars – the only major media franchise in the world where characters have family names like my family name.

How did I get such an obscure family name? Well, to begin with, it was an uncommon family name. Then my family immigrated to another country, and adapted the name to fit the local language, and then my mom immigrated to the United States, and adapted the name again. Hence the unique spelling and pronunciation. While I suppose there is now a ‘correct’ way to spell my family name since it’s now consistent across all of my documents (that was not always the case – when I was very young, my family name was spelled on way in certain documents, and spelled differently in different documents), there have been so many pronunciation changes within the last three generations that I don’t think there is a ‘correct’ way to pronounce my last name. Therefore, as long as the consonants are correct (since the consonants have somehow managed to stay the same) nobody is ever going to ‘mispronounce’ it.

To better explain what I mean, I am going to use a hypothetical example. Let’s say an English guy with the family name ‘Smith’ immigrated to a Chinese speaking society. He Sinicized his name to Sīmì​ (斯密) so that it could be written in Chinese characters and was easy for Chinese speakers to pronounce. He had children, and they grew up with the name ‘Sī​mì​’ because Chinese was their primary language. Let’s say there was another generation, and a person from this later generation immigrated to North America. Because they grew up with the name ‘Sī​mì​’ they use that name instead of ‘Smith’ in their immigration documents.

Yeah, that’s what happened to my family name.

While I do not want to reveal my family name, I will say this. The way it was written and spelled three generations ago could pass for a German name (I’m not sure if my current spelling and pronunciation would pass as German). How do I know? There was a branch of my family who lived in Germany during the Nazi regime, and they survived by hiding their Jewish heritage and passing as ‘Aryan’ Germans. Though they did not change their name, they succeeded, which means it is a name which did not make the Nazis suspicious. However, while that form of the name is more common than my form of the name, it’s still rare, even in Germany and Austria (and in Jewish communities). It’s so rare that we were able to re-establish contact with that branch of the family BECAUSE our names were so similar – the odds are fairly high that anyone with a family name that is even SIMILAR to my family name is some kind of relative.

Then there is my father’s family name.

My father does not like his last name. He does not hate it enough to go through the hassle of a legal name change, but he was determined to never pass on his last name to anyone else. He had an agreement with my mother that, if they had a daughter, she would take her family name, not his. I am their daughter, so that is why I have her family name. However, if they had a son, they agreed that their son would take … his mother’s maiden name. If he were to decide that it was worth changing his legal name after all, I know he would choose to use his mother’s maiden family name.

I don’t know exactly why my father dislikes his name so much. His response is usually ‘I don’t like it because I don’t like it’. But I have a speculation.

His family name is German in origin. It has been partially Anglicised. The partial Anglicization makes it easier for American English speakers to pronounce it, but it is still an obviously non-Anglo name. Weirdly, it now can pass for a Swedish name, which is why some people mistake my father for being Swedish-American (as far as I know, there is no Swedish ancestry in my family).

In the 19th century and early 20th century, German Americans experienced a lot of prejudice. They were more privileged than Italian Americans, but less privileged than French Americans. During World War I there were laws passed against using the German language (for example, some states banned the use of German in school), the Red Cross banned anyone with a German family name from joining, newstands and advertisers boycotted German language newspapers, which caused the collapse of the German language press (before World War I, German was the second most printed language in the United States), things like that. The ‘choice’ offered German-Americans was basically ‘assimilate into Anglo-American culture, and we’ll let you have white privilege, otherwise we’ll punish you.’ That is why, even though more Americans claim German ancestry than ancestry from any other ethnic group (including ‘English’ and ‘Irish’) one hears little about German-Americans these days.

My father’s family had never tried to hide or expressed shame about its German origin (and unlike many German-American families, my father’s family did not adopt an Anglo name), but … I don’t know.

My father’s mother was not German-American, and her maiden name was an Anglicized Scottish name. It is considered to be very ‘normal’ and ‘easy to pronounce’ for Americans. Maybe that’s why my father wishes that he had his mother’s maiden name instead of his father’s.

Anyway, that’s enough about me and my names and my family. In the next part I’ll talk about names in fiction.

And that is the end of what I wrote in December 2017. Part 2 was written in response to a discussion which has been happening online in the English-language wuxia fandom recently, and will be posted here in a few days, and yes, it is about ‘difficult’ names in fiction.


Odyssey of a New Bed, Part Five (End)

As I have explained in previous posts, I decided to go with an organic cotton shikifuton for my new bed. It cost a little under 300 USD (including taxes), and I spent about another 100 USD (including taxes) to get goza mats. So let’s say my new bed cost about 400 USD. Since I continue to use an old mattress protector, I did not pay any money for that.

There is a store in my neighborhood which specializes in nontoxic mattresses. I’ve talked to people at that store, and they say that some of their customers are cancer survivors who are obsessed with removing as many toxic chemicals as possible from their homes. If you want your jaw to drop, I suggest you browse their website and see how much their mattresses cost. And that’s just the cost of the mattress, not the bed frame, mattress protector, or any other component of a bed. And those prices do not include the sales tax (California has the highest sales tax of any state in the United States). Suffice to say, I think getting the organic cotton shikifuton + goza mats was a much better deal.

However, there are other options for a organic (or at least natural/biodegradable) bed which cost a lot less than 800 USD.


Many natural/organic/nontoxic mattresses use natural or even organic latex. It is a lot cheaper just to buy the latex slabs and assemble a mattress oneself. For example, this store sells organic latex slabs at a very reasonable price (note: I am not recommending this store specifically, there are other stores which sell similar latex slabs and may have better deals, I’m just using this as an example of what I am talking about). Most people would want two or even three 3-inch slabs of latex for comfort, but that is still cheaper than most ‘ready-made’ mattresses which contain natural latex.

That said, there are additional expenses. First of all, one needs to put a mattress case on the latex slab, otherwise it will degrade very quickly. Second, though it is ~possible~ to put latex slabs directly on the floor and use them as a bed, it has been advised that this may cause the latex slabs to become moldy. It is recommended that latex slabs are used on slatted bed frames. Fortunately, basic metal bed frames can be cheap, and adding slats to basic metal bed frames can also be cheap. The total bed can easily cost less than 1000 USD. It’s not cheap, but it is a heck of a lot cheaper than most of the beds marketed as being nontoxic/natural/organic/etc.

Why didn’t I choose this type of bed: While this type of bed costs less than 800 USD, it costs more than 400 USD (unless one cuts a lot of corners, such as only using a single 3-inch slab of latex). Additionally, though multiple latex slabs would certainly be easier to move around than an all-in-one latex-based mattress, latex is heavier than cotton (and it would be more difficult to roll to discourage mold – in fact, frequent rolling may even damage the latex, I’m not sure). I also do not feel any nostalgia for latex slabs (like I feel nostalgia for the washiku bedrooms I used in Japan). Finally, though I am not currently allergic to natural latex, I would be concerned that I would develop an allergy in the future.


Buckwheat hulls are obviously a natural material, and can also be organic. Since buckwheat is primarily grown for food, and the hulls are not edible, the hulls would be sent straight to compost if they are not used in crafts.

Based on my experience with using a buckwheat pillow, I expect a mattress made from buckwheat hulls would also be very comfortable (for me individually, not necessarily for everyone).

As far as I know, the only seller of buckwheat mattresses in the United States is Open Your Eyes Bedding which sells a DIY buckwheat hull mattress kit. Here is a review of this buckwheat hull mattress kit. There are also some stores in Europe which sell ready-made buckwheat mattresses. The European buckwheat mattresses are much cheaper (which does not surprise me, since more buckwheat is grown in Europe than all other continents combined). Buckwheat hulls are also heavy, which means that, for people in North America (like me), buying + shipping a buckwheat mattress from Europe would probably not be any cheaper than buying + shipping a buckwheat mattress from North America.

Another interesting feature of the Open Your Eyes Bedding hull mattress is that it is made from pods which can be assembled/dissembled. Thus, if one wants to move the mattress, one could dissemble the pods, carry the pods individually, and then re-assemble them.

Why didn’t I choose this type of bed: First of all, it would cost me significantly more than 400 USD (especially including the shipping cost). Second, it requires some labor to assemble (and dissemble, when I move it). Third, though it is possible to use this bed directly on the floor (or rather a rug on the floor, since my bedroom’s hardwood floor is too slick) it is advised that using this type of mattress directly on the floor in a damp/humid climate may lead to mold (and I live in a damp/humid climate). It is not compatible with any of the bed frames we currently have, so I would have to get a bunky board or something like that (or get a totally new bed frame, which would be more expensive than a bunky board).

That said, I find this type of mattress intriguing. If the total cost were lower, I would be tempted.


This is hands down the cheapest type of organic/natural bed I was able to find. Organic hammocks can cost less than 100 USD. I would need to get a hammock frame to hang a hammock bed in my room, but even with the hammock frame, the total cost would be under 300 USD.

Hammock beds are common in Central and South America because they work very well in hot and humid climates. There is obviously a lot of air circulation under the bed (i.e. it resists mold and is not directly connected to the ground). They also contour very well to the body.

Though I have only used hammocks occasionally in my life, and I’ve never slept in one, I generally like them.

Why didn’t I choose this type of bed: Mainly, I’m not nearly as familiar with hammocks as I am with washiku bedding, so it would be more of a leap in the dark for me. I don’t know how easy or hard it is to set up a hammock bed. Furthermore, to use a hammock in colder temperatures, one needs an underquilt for insulation. Can one just use a regular quilt as an underquilt, or does one need a specialized underquilt? I’m not sure because I don’t know much about hammocks.

Maybe if I had spent 3-4 years in Central/South America rather than 3-4 years in East Asia, I would know a lot more about hammock beds, and have nostalgic feelings about hammocks rather than washiku bedding. But that’s not how my life happened. And maybe I’ll try hammock beds in the future. I don’t know whether or not I will ever try to hike the Appalachian Trail, but if I did I would be consider using a camping hammock.

This concludes my series.

I never imagined that I would have so much to say about beds. I guess I am compensating for those decades when I hardly paid any thought to my bed.

Odyssey of a New Bed, Part 4

When I say that I am worried about flame retardants, I am particularly worried about brominated flame retardants and chlorinated tris. I found this article from 2004 helpful for understanding the chemistry of these flame retardants. I find these types of flame retardants especially scary because a) they bioaccumulate (i.e. once they are in your body they are going to stay in your body for a very long time, possibly the rest of one’s life) and b) they generally are carcinogenic and disrupt the endocrine system. I don’t want cancer, and I already have a vulnerable endocrine system. Specifically, I’m in the grey zone between ‘does not have Hashimoto’s disease’ and ‘has Hashimoto’s disease’ and I want to preserve my thyroid’s ability to make hormones so that I don’t need to take prescription hormones.

Ironically, one of the household products with the highest levels of brominated flame retardants is plastic casings in computers – and hey, I’m using a computer right now. Here is an article about brominated flame retardants in electronics. It makes me glad that it’s been over 15 years since there has been a TV in my room (well, except when I was in Taiwan, but the TV was far from my bed and I almost never touched it), and glad that I insisted on keeping computers out of my room until my mid-teens. And my keyboard, which I am using to type this post, may also contain high levels of brominated flame retardants. Great. I’m going to wash my hands after I finish typing this.

But this is about my bed, not my electronics.

And the answer is, yes, my new futon mattress contains a flame retardant chemical.

BUT the only flame retardant chemical it contains is sodium borate, more commonly known as borax. Borax does not bioaccumulate, is not a carcinogen, and one needs a fairly high dose in order to be poisoned. I don’t plan to eat my mattress, so I’m not worried about exposing myself to a high dose. The borax will make it more complicated to compost my mattress after its no longer useful as a mattress, but it is still biodegradable in some circumstances (I’m almost certain a municipal composting facility could handle it), so it’s not going to poison the world for thousands of years or something. There are some who claim that sodium borate is not ‘green’ or safe to use at home, but upon further research, I did not find those claims convincing (here is an essay about that).

Besides being a flame retardant, borax is also a bed bug deterrent. I have never had a problem with bed bugs, and I want to keep it that way.

And borax is also antifungal. For reasons I explained in the previous post, I appreciate a little extra help keeping the mold at bay. Borax is not antibacterial, so benign bacteria are welcome to live in my bed (I think our living environments already have too many antibacterial chemicals – antibacterials in my mattress would be overkill).

Of course, I learn that pillows can have flame retardants too. Where aren’t there flame retardants?

I took a closer look at my pillow and found that 1) it is 100% polyester (probably a lot less flame retardants than foam pillows, but possibly still has toxic flame retardants) 2) it was moldy and 3) it was generally gross. The last two things weren’t really a surprise since I have been using this pillow since I returned to San Francisco in 2014, and it was probably an old pillow lying about the house back then (i.e. not new), and I’ve never cleaned it, and I drool in my sleep.

I decided to replace it with a millet hull / buckwheat hull pillow. Since buckwheat pillows are common in Japan, it’s consistent with the washiku aesthetic of the mattress and goza mats. I also liked the idea of being able to combine millet and buckwheat in whatever ratio was most comfortable to me.

I started out with having it be a full buckwheat pillow (not millet). A lot of people report that they need a night or two to get used to using a buckwheat pillow. Not me – I thought it was very comfortable right away. Then again, I also think paperback books are okay pillows, so I’m not the most discerning of pillow connoisseurs. Then I experimented with a few different buckwheat / millet ratios. I think the main thing millet hulls add is that they are quieter than buckwheat hulls. I think the thing where hull pillows really excel (for use/comfort) is that they provide excellent support for the head, which means I move my head less when I’m in bed. I did have a problem for a little while with my ear getting sore after lying on the pillow all night, but I fixed that problem by adjusting the fill.

I also think a queen size pillow is a bigger than I need. Not that having a big pillow is a problem – it’s just more than I need.

While I appreciate the versatility of being able to have various buckwheat/millet ratios in my pillow, I think in retrospect, I would have preferred to spend less money and just buy a smaller pure buckwheat pillow (BUT definitely one with a zipper – it is important to be able to adjust/replace hulls).

I still drool when I sleep. Thus, the hulls may eventually get moldy. In fact, they will probably get moldy even faster than polyester. I suppose if that happens I could just replace the hulls, and use the old hulls as mulch in the backyard.


Out of the five mattresses which were in my old bed, the two old futons and the feather mattress are now gone. We arranged a bulk item pickup with the local recycling/trash service, and we got rid of some other bulky items which are no longer usable (we can request ten items be removed per pickup). I assume they will recycle the parts which can be recycled, and send what cannot be recycled to a landfill.

The box spring mattresses – including the one which was poking me in the back – are now in our basement.

Since we easily have ten items for the bulky item pickup, I did not insist on putting the box spring mattresses in the pickup. But I am irritated because I want to have space in the basement for things which are potentially useful, not mattresses which we are never going to use again, and which will become harder to move as my dad loses physical mobility. My mom is the one who insisted on keeping those mattresses, at least for now. Yes, even the mattress that pokes people in the back. She says ‘what if we have overnight guests?’ Hey, we already have a guest mattress, and we would have to rearrange a lot of furniture to make space for a second guest bed. It would be easier to put people in sleeping bags/tents in the backyard than to place TWO guest beds in our home – especially since the mattresses in question have to be moved by two people (what if my dad is no longer in good enough shape to move the mattress at that time?) whereas I can set up tents/sleeping bags by myself. And why would we want to offer guests a mattress which pokes them in the back?

At first, she was even against getting rid of the moldy futons and the useless feather mattress. However, once it sunk it just how useless these mattresses are, she agreed to have them removed.

My mom has trouble letting go of a lot of material goods, not just these mattresses. My guess is that it has to do with her childhood experience of poverty, when getting adequate clothing for everyone in her family was a struggle.

And that is why my bed was piled up with all of these bad mattresses in first place. Those five mattresses were not there because they were each contributing to my sleep. I would have slept just as well with the bottom box mattress as will the five mattresses – better, because I would not have been poked in the back. Heck, I was probably exposed to even more toxins/mold with those five mattresses than I would have been if there had only been a single box mattress. All those mattresses were there because it was a place to store them, not to serve my benefit.

I do not think my parents really thought through all of the costs and benefits of keeping those mattresses in my room. I do not blame them, because until these past few months, I had not thought through the costs and benefits of all of those mattresses myself.

If we put in another request for bulky item removal, I am going to try to persuade her to agree to get rid of these mattresses. I really would prefer to have more space in the basement.

In the next part and final part, I will talk about three alternative types of natural/simple beds which cost less than 1000 USD (i.e. are not as outrageously expensive as most natural/organic beds sold in the USA), and why I decided not to try them.


A Tribute to “Very Far Away from Anywhere Else”

The cover of "Very Far Away from Anywhere Else"

Ursula K. LeGuin died this week.

I met Ursula K. LeGuin once when she visited my local library. I did not talk to her individually, but I was in the same room with her, and I heard her speak. I was quite young at the time, and though I had already the Earthsea books and the Catwing books (cats! with wings! I’m not sure why the Catwing books are not more popular), I think at the time it had been more meaningful for my father, who had been reading her novels long before I was born.

Later, when I was in high school, I read some of the Hainish Cycle books, as well as The Lathe of Heaven. I was awed and impressed by The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed and The Lathe of Heaven, and I also enjoyed Planet of Exile (City of Illusion was a DNF for me).

When I was eighteen years old, I moved out of my parents’ home for the first time and lived in Mountain View. There is an awesome used bookstore there (I hope they are still there), and on a whim I picked up “Very Far Away from Anywhere Else” by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Unlike Ursula K. LeGuin’s most famous works, “Very Far Away from Anywhere Else” is not speculative fiction. It’s a contemporary story (contemporary to the 1970s, that is). It’s about a teenage boy who meets a teenage girl, and they get along better with each other than they do with anyone else they know. Nope, it’s not an original plot. However, what really stood out to me was all of the subtlety put into the story, especially how they were navigating the social expectations placed upon them, and trying to figure out what they actually wanted rather than following social scripts which did not necessarily work for them.

A moment which I remember especially sharply is when Natalie’s father, who is a conservative and very religious Christian, is assuming that Owen and Natalie ~must~ be having sex, and how his conservative Christian mindset actually encouraged him to fixate on sex.

When I was eighteen, I did not consciously identify as ace or aro, but I was already aware that I was different in some way. I think graduating from high school and living away from my parents raised my awareness of this difference, since I was obviously mature and independent enough to be a girlfriend and it was becoming increasingly improbable that I was ‘just a late bloomer’, yet I wasn’t interested in being a girlfriend.

And that’s when I read this novella.

That was more than ten years ago, and I’ve become fuzzy on the details, so I looked for summaries on the internet to jog my memory (I remember how I felt while reading the story much better than I remember the story itself). That is how I discovered this personal reflection.

I will be the first one to say that The Dispossessed is probably Ursula K. LeGuin’s greatest literary work (not that I’ve read all of her novels, but it’s the best of the ones I’ve read, and a lot of other people seem to point to that one as being the best as well). But reflecting back on my experiences of reading LeGuin’s work in the light of her death, my mind goes back to “Far Away from Anywhere Else” as meaning the most to me. It relates more to how I try to navigate my life than The Dispossessed does.

Though I cannot guarantee that anyone will like “Very Far from Anywhere Else” I definitely recommend it to anyone who reads this blog. I especially recommend it to anyone who is wondering about why people make such a fuss about Ursula K. LeGuin yet do not like reading speculative fiction.


Odyssey of a New Bed, Part 3

So, as I mentioned in Part 1, I now have a new mattress.

Why is portability one of the features I most want in a bed?

One reason is that I relied on a portable bed this summer, and I grew to like it. I’ve gone on backpacking trips before, but never for an entire month before, so I settled more into that way of sleeping. My ‘sleep system’ (sleeping bag + sleeping pad + tent + “pillow”) needed to be portable because I was literally carrying it with me for hundreds of miles (my pillow, by the way, was whatever I had on hand which I could put in a stuff sack under my head. Usually, it was my rain gear. I used to use paperback books, and in the future, I think I’ll go back to paperback pillows).

When my sleeping bag is in the compression sack (shown on the left in this picture), it is slightly smaller than a basketball. The sleeping bag weighs about 2 pounds (less than 1 kg), though the compression sack itself adds a few ounces. The compression sack means the sleeping bag only takes a modest amount of space in my pack, leaving more space for other stuff. The silver/yellow thing the middle of the picture is my sleeping pad, which weighs 10 ounces (about 280 grams). Since the pad takes a lot of space, it rides outside of the pack, not inside. This sleeping bag + sleeping pad is a very portable ‘bed’.

Between July 24 and August 29, I only slept in beds for three nights.

My bed at home, as I described in the first post, turned out to be even less comfortable than my sleeping bag. So why was I sleeping in the bed rather than my sleeping bag?

In a broader sense, both my travels in Japan and my backpacking trips have given me a taste for simplicity in my beds. Bed frames? Not necessary, and a hassle.

The other reason I care so much about portability is that, sooner or later, all beds have to be moved. I had to move out all five of the mattresses and the bed frame, and except for the lightest of the five mattresses, I needed help. And my dad is the one who helped me. He is currently transitioning from able-bodied to disabled. He was capable of helping me this time, and I’m grateful for that, but I cannot depend on him in the future. I could also ask neighbors to help, but I would prefer not to depend on them either. Thus, it made sense to get rid of this bed now, while my dad is physically capable of helping me, and to replace it with a bed I can move all by myself.

By the way, my dad has been talking for at least half a year about replacing his own bed, and portability is also one of his top concerns.

I didn’t remove all of the mattresses in one day. I peeled them off, like layers. One of the reasons they did not go in one day is that they have to be stored in the front room or the basement, and it took time to find space for all of them.

Two of the mattresses were western-style futons. And both of them had evidence of mold. Yep, I had been sleeping on moldy mattresses. One of those futons is older than I am – my dad says he had it before he even know my mother. Futons, even with good maintenance, generally will not last more than twenty years, and my dad admits that he did not maintain them properly.

Another mattress was a feather mattress which is just about as old as I am – my dad bought it when I was born. Like the futon mattresses, it had not been properly maintained, which was why it was all clumpy and generally not very useful as a mattress anymore. It is possible to restore feather mattresses, but it also has a tear which leaks feathers, which would have needed to be repaired before restoration. Plus, it probably has some flame retardants in it, albeit a lot less than foam mattresses (my dad said the reason he chose a feather mattress was that he thought it would probably be the less toxic than other types of mattresses, and sadly, in the 1980s, he was probably right). Ultimately, it was in such bad shape that it was not worth saving.

I was a bit concerned about what gross things I would find *under* my bed after I removed the mattresses and bed frame. I was relieved that it turned out to be more interesting than disgusting. I found old pieces of homework from when I was in high school.

Anyway, back to futons, mold, and maintenance.

One of the things I learned from camping is that live humans are humidifiers. If you put a live human in a small enclosed space, unless it already has an extremely high humidity, the human is going to dramatically increase the humidity. This is why condensation is such a common problem in tents.

If you put a live human on top of a futon (or any mattress, but I’m talking about futons now) then you have basically put a humidifier on top of the futon. The futon is going to suck body moisture from the human. This is why it’s generally recommended that (western-style) futons are places on slatted bed frames, or frames designed for futons. With a proper frame, the air below the mattress will allow the moisture to escape. But if you put the futon on a hard surface – like a floor – then the moisture will be trapped. And trapped moisture invites mold.

Back in the day, my dad didn’t think it was important to put the futon on a frame, so he just put it on the floor. He says that he remembers being surprised by how moist it was.

And my new shiki futon is made almost entire of cotton – and cotton tends to absorb and retain moisture even better than most textiles (which is why many long-distance hikers consider cotton to be the fabric of death, not ‘the fabric of our lives’).

Oh, and I am not using a bed frame.

On top of all that, I live in a building built in 1908 in San Francisco.

I am going to deal with this the Japanese way. Traditionally, futons are rolled up or folded during the day so there is more living space. Ideally, one would air-hang the futon every day, but few people do that. Even the process of rolling/folding the futon when it’s not in use helps it dry out. Rolling also stretches the cotton batting which helps it retain its shape. I plan to periodically flip the mattress, and once in a while (as in, maybe twice a year) drying the mattress outside in the sun.

It takes me about 10 seconds to roll the mattress, and 5 seconds to unroll it. That’s a quarter of a minute of labor per day.

There is my new mattress, rolled up, next to the goza mats (note: my mattress is inside an old mattress protector my family purchased in the 1990s – since the old mattress protector is still good, I saw no need to replace it. Besides, the Chinese characters fit the washiku aesthetic. The new mattress is the color of undyed natural cotton).

Another step I’ve taken is that I am not putting the mattress directly on the floor. I’ve gotten some igusa goza mats. Igusa is a type of rush grass which has been used in Japan for centuries. Though it can trigger allergies for some people, it’s nontoxic and biodegradable. It has a distinct smell (which I like) and it pulls moisture. Thus, it will take some of the moisture out of the mattress, and when the mattress is rolled and removed, the igusa can release the moisture back into the air.

I was originally thinking of using tatami mats instead of goza mats. But tatami mats have a few problems:

1) Nowadays, most tatami mats contain particle board, and most types of particle board release toxic fumes. I’m not always against particle board, but I don’t want it where I sleep.
2) The traditional tatami mats which are filled with rice straw instead of particle board are very heavy, and thus not so portable.
3) Tatami mats, especially high quality tatami mats, are very expensive.
4) Tatami mats, like futons, require good maintenance, otherwise they will also get moldy. I remember once staying at a place in Japan with nasty tatami mats. They were so nasty that I was allowed to walk on them with my shoes on (this is almost never permitted in Japan). I did not mind because I got a private space with a permanent roof over my head for just 800 yen per night (that is about 8 USD per night). It helped me appreciate what happens when tatami mats are not maintained.

Goza mats are much cheaper, are primarily made of igusa (rather than being igusa filled with particle board or rice straw), are lightweight, and are easy to air out. Yes, I had to spend about a hundred USD to get the goza mats, but if they help keep the mattress in good condition, it’s worth it. And I like having some barrier between the mattress and the floor.

And the goza mats I bought were made in Taiwan, the only place I’ve ‘lived’ outside of the San Francisco Bay Area. I think that complements my made-in-San-Francisco mattress very well.

(Update: after less than two months of using the goza mats, I discovered one of them had some mold. That was fast. I cleaned it with vinegar. Meanwhile, my mattress shows no signs of moistness or mold. Maybe the goza mats are doing their job and sucking the moisture out of the mattress?)

Does my new mattress contain any flame retardants? What’s happening to my old mattresses? What about my pillow? These questions will be answered in Part 4.

(Spoiler: my new mattress does contain a flame retardant, and I’m actually okay with that.)


Sixth Year Anniversary Post

As of today, this blog is six years old. To quote the very first paragraph of my very first post on this blog:

I had been thinking about starting a blog for years. However, I never had ‘enough time’ to maintain a proper blog. Finally, I realized that I will never have ‘enough time’ to blog, so if I am going to blog, I have to do it now, when I don’t have ‘enough time’.

Six years later, not having ‘enough time’ still has not stopped this blog. Huzzah!

While I was writing and posting that very first blog post, I was reading the novel Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ for the very first time. Since it was only the second book I had ever read in Chinese, my reading speed was very slow, and since it is more than 1500 pages long, it took a lot of time to read. I spent about 2-3 hours per day reading, and it took me several weeks. On top of that, I was also spending about two hours a day studying Chinese in other ways, such as watching the classic Taiwanese TV show Meteor Garden, so that I would develop my listening and speaking skills, not just my reading skills.

The first time I read this novel, this was the edition I read. I preferred the editions which came in smaller sizes and only about 250 pages per volume rather than the editions with thicker books and fewer volumes because a) the smaller volumes were easier to carry around b) I was not confident in my Chinese reading skills at the time, so being able to complete a volume faster (because it was much shorter) gave me an extra motivation boost.

The fact that I was reading Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ and studying Chinese (as well as working at my job, sleeping, taking care of chores and errands, etc.) was one of the main reasons I did not have ‘enough time’ to start a blog. Somehow, I started this blog anyway.

At the time, I would not have predicted that I would be referencing Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ so often in this blog, even six years later. Heck, the post which was published yesterday mentions Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ. Meanwhile, I rarely (or even never?) reference Meteor Garden in this blog, even though that was the TV show I was watching when this blog started.

Do I reference Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ so much because of the Jin Yong Jolt? Partially, perhaps, but if that were the case, I would probably be referencing The Deer and the Cauldron, which is without question the most WTF???!!!! of Jin Yong’s novels, even more often. Yet I rarely mention The Deer and the Cauldron in this blog.

Do I reference Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ so much because I headcanon the protagonist as ace? That definitely has a lot to do with it, but I also have brought up Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ in a lot of posts which aren’t about asexuality.

Something about this specific novel really stays with me in a way that few novels do, and it’s been reflected in this blog for six years.

Oh, and I recently watched the 1983 TV adaptation of Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ. That means there are going to be even more blog posts referencing Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ in the near future.


Odyssey of a New Bed, Part 2

The simplest of all beds is the ground. But what is ‘the ground’? That depends on where you are. ‘The ground’ could be soil covered with dry grass, a sandy beach, a slab of flat rock, etc.

While there is no doubt that ‘the ground’ is the cheapest, simplest, and lowest tech bed of them all, there are three main problems. The first problem is cleanliness, though that is going to depend on what ‘ground’ we are talking about, as well as how much one cares about ‘cleanliness’. The second problem is that the ground may be hard and apply a lot of pressure to certain points of the body, which can especially be a problem for side sleepers (and even ground which is initially soft may compact over time). The third problem – and this is the doozy – is that the ‘ground’ is a heat sink. In warm temperatures, that’s not a problem. In cooler temperatures, it’s very uncomfortable, and in cold temperatures, lying directly on the ground can cause hypothermia and death.

This is a photo of the corner of the bedroom where I roll out my goza mats and mattress right before I cleaned the walls (the walls look whiter now than they do in this picture)

The floor of my bedroom is not exactly the ground. It is made of hardwood, is above a basement room full of (unheated) air, which is on top of the foundation, which is on the ground. However, even though it’s removed from the ground, the floor of my bedroom is still enough of a heat sink that sleeping directly on it in cool/cold weather is not going to happen.

Unless one lives in a climate where it is always warm at night, one has to sleep on a surface which is not a heat sink. There are basically only two ways to do this: heating, and insulation.

There are of course multiple ways to heat a sleeping surface. One could heat the air around the sleeping surface. However, it is generally most efficient just to directly heat the sleeping surface, such as in the traditional kang bed-stoves of Northern China and Manchuria (which are typically made of brick or clay) or traditional ondol floors in Korea. When the sleeping surface is heated, one wants a surface which can retain heat for an entire night, hence the preference for brick/clay/stone/etc.

Yang Guo lies on the cold jade bed, and Xiaolongnü prepares to sleep on a rope.

In a novel I sometimes mention in this blog, there is a ‘cold jade bed’ which, though very uncomfortable, will develop one’s nèigōng (inner power). I’m no expert of traditional Chinese medicine or martial arts, but my guess is that the body is learning to resist the heat sink effect of sleeping on a cold stone bed and thus building nèigōng. This is, of course, fiction; in real life this is a recipe for hypothermia.

Jade beds are real. I’ve lain on a jade bed in Dragon Hill Spa in Seoul, though that was in a heated bathhouse. There are also heated kang beds made of jade (which I am sure are extremely expensive).

So that’s heated surfaces. What about insulation instead of (or complemented with) heating?

I know that some people who camp in forests create ‘beds’ out of duff (fallen leaves, pine needles, cones, etc.) which is a very low-tech type of insulation. A higher-tech type of insulation commonly used in camping are portable sleeping pads, which may be made of foam, or inflatable air pockets (essential a small air mattress), or polyester, or any other lightweight insulating material which will insulate even under the weight of human being. If one does not need great portability, and has a wider choice of materials than forest duff, then there are a lot more possibilities for insulating material.

This is the only place I’ve ever done ‘cowboy camping’ (so far). ‘Cowboy camping’ is sleeping outside without a shelter. The white thing in the center-left is my groundsheet, and the silver-yellow thing in the center of the picture is my foam sleeping pad. The sleeping pad was the main insulation I had from the ground this night.

Another thing one can do is to lift the bed up so that there is air between the sleeping surface and the floor. Air is an insulator, so this helps, but if the air flows it’s also going carry heat away as it flows. Thus one either needs to trap the air (this is what an air mattress does, and foam with air pockets does this too) or use an insulator which is not going to flow away.

My new mattress is an excellent insulator. It provides all of the insulation I need to avoid losing my body heat to the floor of my bedroom, and it also does not flow away and take my body heat with it.

That leaves the problems of hardness and cleanliness. And a bed needs to provide something else – support. Most types of ground provide excellent support, but if one is not sleeping directly on the ground, then support may become an issue. While the rope which Xiaolongnü in the picture up there sleeps on is an extremely simple bed, it does not provide nearly enough support, unless one has superhuman qīnggōng like Xiaolongnü (wuxia fiction is not known for having realistic depictions of sleeping technology, okay? Pity, I’d be curious to try out the addictively comfortable bed in Happy Heroes, though it’s probably a good thing that best does not exist since I might never want to leave.)

Generally, firmer surfaces provide better support, and softer surfaces provide worse support. Furthermore, a surface which contours to the body provides more even (and thus better) support, and a surface which does not contour to the body provides less even (and thus worse) support. Ideally, one would sleep on a firm surface which contours to the body.

My new mattress provides a lot of support (which ultimately comes from my bedroom floor) while contouring to my body better than the floor would. However, while I think it strikes a good balance, it’s not perfect.

And as I mentioned in the previous post, because it’s easy to roll up and only about 30 lb (14 kg), it is a very portable mattress.

Why is portability an important feature to me? What disgusting discoveries did I make when I removed the five mattresses which formed my old ‘bed’? What will I do to keep my new mattress usable for years? The answers to these questions will be in Part 3.