Personal Column: The art of collecting


Courtesy of Nina Nguyen

Me as a 5-year-old, looking fabulous while holding my handbag filled with yellow crayons.

Two pigtails, purple sunglasses, a small, cyan handbag. I remember this was the ultimate gear I wore when pursuing the first dream I ever had.

What was this dream you may ask? 

Yellow crayons. 

Hundreds of them.

As a kid, everyone had a color that they label themselves with and, in my case, it was the color of the stars. A color that symbolized happiness and hope. A color that painted my favorite character, SpongeBob SquarePants. My infatuation with yellow led to a crazy idea my 5-year-old self deemed acceptable: I smuggled all the yellow crayons from my entire pre-K class into a tiny handbag. Thinking back, this was simply a memory that showcased kleptomaniac behavior; however, it symbolized the first piece of the puzzle that would complete my life. 

My brain has always been scattered, like fragments that don’t seem to piece together. I never knew why I functioned like that; perhaps it was undiagnosed ADHD or something. But as a kid, it was difficult for me to focus on anything. Unlike me, my older sister, Annie, was able to discover her passion for theatre at an early age. I envied this ー her ability to center her attention and pursue things unwaveringly. There was the occasional instance where I broke through from the clouds and narrowed in on something, such as stashing yellow crayons. It wasn’t because I desired to steal them, but seeing them accumulate brought joy and a sense of purpose to my life. It became my goal to surround myself with this fleeting feeling, to protect myself with a passion, as my sister did.

Due to the cruelties of time, I stopped collecting yellow crayons at a certain point and even lost the handbag. That sucked. But as the seasons cycled through, I also reflected new interests in my collections ー an array of silly bands, a hoard of “Littlest Pet Shop” figurines, an obsession with “Marvel” movies and “Funko Pops.” Each time I fell upon a new hyper-fixation, excitement consumed me. Almost like the honeymoon stage of a relationship. But as the serial speed hobby-ing continued, these relationships became short-lived and I was blinded by life, where permanence is solely a mirage. Like the spirit of a lonely 30-year-old, it was impossible for me to find something that I could commit to and stay loyal to.

“What do you want to do when you’re older?”

Every time someone asks me that, I can never produce a single answer. You would think someone who had multiple interests would have a better understanding of what they desired. What they loved. Because my interests never stuck, I always doubted my sincerity towards them in the first place. 

Perhaps I should just stop. 

This idea ate away at my conscience, and I couldn’t help but stop collecting.

Just like everyone, quarantine left me struggling big time. Being labeled as an “extrovert,” you can only imagine what it felt like to have energy sucked away bit-by-bit by isolation and silence.

The yellow had faded.

Everything became dull, and there was nothing I wanted to chase after. 

That was until I heard the sweet sound of Jungkook’s voice. Of course, to no one’s surprise, I found K-pop. Although it seems like a simple genre of music, it’s much more than that. Collecting albums and photocards were ingrained in the community, which was enough to entice little ol’ Nina. When I bought my first K-pop album, it felt like I was 5 years old again, obtaining my first yellow crayon. The immense spark that once felt familiar appeared again, and it finally dawned on me: having these collections ultimately represented puzzle pieces that completed my identity. Being built for a one-passion type of life didn’t fit the bill for me, and I’m sure my 5-year-old self would be disappointed to see self-doubt limiting my options.

Just like seeing the crayons amassing, there was a unique feeling that arose when opening a K-pop album. It was essentially like a gacha game where you never know what K-pop idol’s photocard you’ll pull. This level of uncertainty brought suspense to each album I bought, and when I didn’t pull someone I had hoped for, I turned to online trading communities. Through this hobby, I connected with people worldwide and bonded with them over a shared interest in growing our collections. Coming to terms with collecting further expanded my interests in “Sonny Angels,” “Smiskis” and encapsulating my love for certain anime characters through their figurines. Because why should I choose just one?

What once started out with innocent thieving turned into an unwavering passion I had harnessed for myself. Collecting didn’t feel like an empty goal anymore, and I learned to embrace the true value of my hyper-fixations. Because of this, I feel like the inner little girl with pigtails and a handbag will always persist within me.