Tarragona in March is chilly. Luckily, the day was bright and the sun glittered on the turquoise water. The Roman ruins dotted across town look over the coast, and a few locals took in the early spring sunshine in fragrant parks next to the amphitheater or on the breezy beach. Hungry from traipsing around the empty stone ruins, we ventured into the town, down a rough-and-tumble road, stopping at the first deli-café hybrid we stumbled across–

A hole in the wall, with a menu written only outside and featuring hamburgers, platos, sandwiches. The three of us ordered bocadillos with jamón. The friendly café owner had kind eyes, and the place was empty save one other person sipping café con leche and reading the paper. He brought out our bocadillos, spread with tangy tomato sauce on crispy baguettes. Jenny had ordered a café con leche, delicious with the baguette. It was too late in the day for caffeine, but I was trying to pin down a craving.

“How much would a cup of milk cost?” I asked in meager Spanish. The owner smiled— “Don’t worry. Un regalo.” A present. In that tiny café in Tarragona, Spain, I enjoyed warm, creamy milk with my bocadillo.

Arguably it was just a cup of milk. What about the regalo made it so special?


Regalo—faithful Google says it comes from the old French word for “galer” or “to make merry, to amuse, to rejoice” Etymologically speaking, a regalo is at its heart something that makes us happy. Our English word “gallant” comes from the same root, apt when the verb became the adjective for “bold or amusing one.”

In English, the word “gift” or “present” implies a special occasion. It tastes like frosting and ice cream, sounds like the crinkle of wrapping paper on a snowy morning. Gifts are surprises from those that care about you, or maybe quid pro quo for the invitation. Gifts happen sparingly, so sparingly that I was euphoric when my mind automatically translated the café owner’s “regalo”—it was my lucky day!

An English speaker would have used some sort of idiom—like “on the house”—to describe the free milk. Perhaps Spanish speakers see the word “regalo” as the same, and my English-wired brain perceives the use of that particular word as something special merely because of the way that standard English-Spanish dictionaries translate it. Maybe I’m ascribing English nuances to Spanish words.

But wouldn’t it be a nice thought if “regalo” is used because of its special connotations? That is, we can find small regalos in everyday life, things that we don’t have to wait once or twice a year for, that can make us incontrovertibly happy? We don’t have to spend a lot of money or take a lot of time to give a regalo that will brighten someone’s day. If a shop owner with kind eyes can, in a single moment, simply hand a complete stranger (and tourist, to boot) a cup of milk as a regalo, what’s to stop any of us from giving simple regalos away?

Regalos don’t have to be complex, or beautiful. They can be simple and spontaneous, bringing nothing but happiness to the receiver.



The Price of Vanity

My mother’s catchphrase is “beauty is pain.” Implicit in the motto is that beauty is (obviously) worth the pain. For her, a woman who grew up deprived of both male companionship and the joys of female preening (she sported a bowl cut in an all-girls’ school for eleven years), the acts of plucking, polishing, blending, lining—are all part of the regular maintenance of a woman. In a word, like keeping your car washed or your lawn trimmed.

And my mother is beautiful. The day of bowl cuts and baggy clothes are long gone. Like a fine wine, she’s grown sweet and oaky. Growing up, I was often confused for her sister. If I were her sister, then I was the gawky one next to her flawless face and trim body.

She, however, always insisted I was beautiful. In the classically Korean modus operandi, all of our family and friends agree. I’ve been called pretty for as long as I can remember, my height grounds for becoming the next “Miss America,” for as long as I’ve been in the 99th percentile.

There is a subtlety at play here: you can be told you are beautiful as much as you like. But it will never improve your self esteem unless you actually believe it. The trap is this: you refuse to believe such a thing, partly because society has told you this is unacceptable, but mostly because you know that if you do, you will become the world’s most insufferable pretentious bitch.

But, paradoxically, if you don’t make peace with your own inner or outer beauty, every time you hear the words “how pretty!” they will do nothing but fuel your vanity.

Key point: low self-esteem and vanity are not mutually incompatible. In fact, they downright fuel each other.

Vanity, unlike self-confidence, is needing to be the prettiest person in the room because you were told that you are. Vanity is looking in the mirror too much because you are afraid you won’t be the prettiest. Truly self-confident people don’t need to look—they are self-assured enough to know that whatever some reflective surface might say, they’ll retain their intrinsic beauty and worth.

What I inherited from my mother and everyone else who had a nice thing to say about my looks is not self-confidence, but a fundamental sense of vanity fueled by my own lack of self-worth.

Beauty is not pain. The vanity that comes from “beauty” is pain.


What are the immediate consequences? Let’s talk about one obvious one: love. If you are self-confident, similarly self-confident people will be attracted to your aura. No matter what you look like physically, you’ll glow with assurance.

If you’re vain, you will attract everyone who looks with their eyes. The price of vanity is love. What I get in return for exchanging the potential to love somebody good, and true, is my constant judgment of everyone who doesn’t maintain themselves as well as I think they should. People look at me with their eyes, but I look back just as much, with standards that are not only unrealistic, but harmful to everyone I impose them on.

Thus, love and vanity are mutually incompatible. The tired old idiom is true. If you can’t see your own inner beauty, how could you possibly see that in others? Vanity is the poison that stops us not only from loving ourselves, but also from loving others.


I’ve been working on curbing my vanity. Walking on my street, my head flicks towards any reflective surface—like an owl spotting a vole. Nowadays I try as best as I can to turn away from those reflective car mirrors, resisting the urge to critique my figure in every glass door I pass. These are small steps. There is still much work to be done.

But I’m grateful for having taken the first step: realizing the price of vanity, and, more importantly, that it’s not a price I’m willing to pay anymore.