Friday, November 10, 2017

Things People Give Me #33 and #34

For the past 6 months  I've been volunteering with a group of middle school kids who were going on an exchange trip to their sister city in Kusatsu, Shiga-ken, Japan. I got involved because one of the organizers/chaperones is my neighbor as well as the mother of a girl I went to school with from elementary through high school. The group returned from their 10-day trip last week, and my neighbor invited me over to show me pictures and tell me all about their experience. They visited a number of elementary and junior high schools in that city, and one of the schools greeted each visitor with a hand-folded origami bookmark. My neighbor let me have hers, as well as a box of tea that she bought while there. Thanks, Ms. Sturgis!

Today I received a free lunch bag from my bank, as a token of gratitude for being a member for 15 years. And I was so confused. Fifteen years? Since when did I....? And then I remembered that I've been with the same bank since elementary school, when my mom signed me up for the "little savers" program (or whatever it was called), where they let us kids open bank accounts and make deposits once a week to teach us about saving. I might just give the lunch bag to her, since she's the reason why I have the account in the first place. Thanks, Ma! And thanks to my bank!

Sunday, November 5, 2017

BOOKS! (Ghana Must Go + We Are Never Meeting in Real Life)

Don't know if reading slumps and life slumps coincide (usually I can keep reading no matter what), but for some reason since autumn started I've had the hardest time getting through books as quickly as I have been this year. I finally managed to finish two, one of which I bought in Mackinaw City last year and another I bought on a whim while killing time at bookstore some weeks ago.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

For a while, Kweku and Folasadé's meeting at an HBCU in Pennsylvania in the 1980s was the beginning of their own African immigrant success story. Kweku, having escaped poverty in Ghana, established himself as a talented surgeon in Boston while Folasadé, having escaped war in Nigeria, traded her would-be law career for selling flowers and raising their four children. The family's wellbeing and the solidification of their place in America rests on Kweku, until his ability to provide is wrested away from him. Too proud to admit his failure to his family, he runs away from home, eventually divorcing his wife and moving back to Ghana, leaving Folasadé to carry the family on her own. Fifteen years later Kweku dies from a heart attack at home with his second wife, prompting Folasadé and her grown children to congregate in Accra. Not only must they renconcile their feelings toward Kweku, but they also must contend with unresolved bitterness between each other.

Olu, the eldest, is a surgeon just like his father but resents the stereotypical deadbeat dad that Kweku represents. He is also afraid to love his own wife in the full and vulnerable way that she deserves. Taiwo and Kehinde, the twins, have always been revered for their beauty and they possess an otherworldly connection to each other that is respected as sacred. Their relationship is ruptured by events that occured during an abbreviated stay in Nigeria not long after Kweku left the family. In the present Kehinde, a famous artist, is recovering from attempting to take his own life, and Taiwo, a law school dropout, is angry at the world and can't stop going back to her married lover. And lastly there's Sadie. Kweku was instrumental in helping her survive after being born premature, but he left when she was too young to know him as her father. Sadie resents being treated like a child, and unlike her siblings she doesn't seem to possess any special skill or beauty. She idolizes her wealthy white friends and uses bulimia to cope with feelings of inadequacy. Each of the six family members lends their perspective, with Kweku's voice being most prevalent in the first part of the book. Giving Kweku a proper send-off is integral to his posthumous redemption, and sets the stage for each family member to wrestle with their own lingering hurt and identity issues.

What I love most about Ghana Must Go is that Taiye Selasi is in no rush to tell us everything we want to know. She'll offhandedly throw in a hint of extremely pertinent information about a character or event while discussing something else entirely, and won't provide a complete explanation until she decides to do so in her own time, giving us little tidbits along the way. You almost have to read the book twice to fully get it, because you realize that you were given clues previously but weren't aware of it. If you have ever had a difficult relationship with a father figure, have any connection to immigrant families, have ever dealt with sibling rivalry, or would like to learn more about West African history and customs, then definitely read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"that the world is both too beautiful and more beautiful than he knows, than he's noticed, that he missed it, and that he might be missing more but that he might never know and that it might be too late... and that it might not even matter in the end what he's noticed, for how can it matter when it all disappears?... how can he be faulted for all that he's missed when it's all wrapped in meaninglessness, when everything dies? He is pleading his innocence (I didn't know what was beautiful; I would have fought for it all, had I seen, had I known!)" (20-21).
"Only foolish artists wait until they're famous" (83). 

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

I believe I first heard about this book when Crissle from The Read gave it a shoutout. Then a few weeks ago I spotted it in a bookstore, skimmed through it and read the line "ALSO HER PERSONALITY WAS TERRIBLE. THAT BITCH DIDN'T EVEN PURR" (35), and I was sold! To be honest, I don't enjoy reading personal/opinion essay collections that much, but I keep doing it because I'm nosy and I hope that the people who write them have something both challenging and humorous to say. This one took me longer to read than I'd expected because, like Oscar Wao, it got a little too real for me and I related to much of it on a very personal level. It's one of those books that makes you cackle and then depresses you and then makes you cackle again, and so on.

In a nutshell, Samantha is a Chicago-based writer who uses humor to interrogate pop culture and the various aspects of life that suck. And life has kind of sucked a lot for her. She grew up poor in a dysfunctional family, and both her parents were deceased before she entered her twenties. As an adult she is a black, queer, fat, opinionated woman in America with digestive issues and a chronic illness. And let's not forget the depression and anxiety that she didn't have the privilege to be treated for until she was on her own. She has self-professed weird habits, likes to stay at home whenever possible, and has a comical love-hate relationship with her cat named Helen Keller. She's kind of a mess, but as far as she's concerned, with everything she's dealt with and still has to deal with, she's earned the right to do whatever she wants (and I don't disagree)!

My favorite essays are as follows. "The Miracle Porker" tells how she ended up with her sickly and spiteful cat. "Do You Guys Pay Your Fucking Bills or What?" is about paying for things as an adult and how impulse spending is different for people who grew up poor. "You Don't Have to Be Grateful for Sex" is a candid reminder that fat or "ugly" girls don't have to share time or their bodies with anyone who doesn't treat them well; being able to have sex with a hot guy changes absolutely nothing about your quality of life. "A Total Attack of the Heart" is all about mental illness, beginning in her youth. "Mavis" gives the ins-and-outs of a lesbian relationship (eye-opening for me, as I definitely need to read more LGBTQ literature). "Fuck it, Bitch. Stay Fat" deals with weight, weight loss, and body image, and I love this essay the most simply for its title. "I'm in Love and It's Boring" discusses first loves and the boring-ness of being in a healthy relationship for once. And "Yo, I Need a Job" details the skills she picked up by working as a receptionist in an animal hospital. The other essays are great too, but the aforementioned are my favorite. If you like reading a mixture of jokes, adorable awkwardness, and sadness, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I don't know that I'm always happy in this big body. Or what there is that I can actually do about it. I was not born to delicate people... This rotting meat corpse they created is riddled with inexplicable disease and is wide as it is tall. I was never destined to be a waif, or to have a less-than-terrible relationship with food. I grew up poor, anxious, and unhappy, with cheap carbohydrates the only affordable substitute for joy. If I had a depressed kid right now, I'd drag him to a doctor and ask for some Wellbutrin, but that was never an option for tiny me" (154).

"If 'it gets better,' I'ma need to know when" (200). 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Things People Give Me #32

When your best friend since 2nd grade has a Netflix account and you don't, and she invites you over to her family's house to spend the day watching What Happened to Monday and the first season of 'Stranger Things'

...and when you arrive you're greeted with a large hot honey lemon tea with two sugars from Tim Horton's, plus warm jiffy cornbread muffins that your friend made herself, plus other snacks

... and your friend insists you lay out on the big couch and lays a blanket over you that she'd warmed up in the dryer just for this occasion

...and then her parents come downstairs to join the binge-watching party, and when dinnertime comes they make hot sausages and tater tots and salad and everything is so so so good

...and you're reminded of how necessary it is to cherish people who make you feel safe and welcome and free to laugh as loudly as you please, and how necessary it is to spend time with said people

...and you're reminded that God has called all of us to LIVE, and you been slippin'.

Thank y'all.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Scripture & Lyrics

"Hush your mouth sometime and let 'em teach you, that's law." - E-40

"Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise." -Proverbs 19:20 (NIV)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

BOOKS! (Green Island + Free Food for Millionaires)

Both of these books took longer for me to read than usual, and so they ended up being my second-to-last and last reading selections for the summer. The first was recommended to me by a friend. The other is the first novel written by an author whose most recent novel I read earlier this year.

Green Island  by Shawna Yang Ryan

Spanning from 1947 to 2003, this story is told by an unnamed narrator whose family is directly affected by pivotal events in Taiwanese history. She is the youngest of four children, born on the February night in 1947 when a cigarette-selling widow is violently accosted by law enforcement. This event sparks the 228 Massacre, in which government forces violently put down an uprising among Taiwanese people who protest the widow's treatment along with other grievances, including corruption and economic mismanagement.

Green Island showed me that I knew even less than I thought I knew about Taiwan, but here's the context that I gleaned from the novel, which helped me understand its plot. After Japanese  colonial rule over Taiwan ceased at the end of WW2, Nationalists retreated from mainland China to Taiwan and used it as their base from which to continue their campaign to defeat the Communists and re-take all of China, aiming to unite both the mainland and the island of Taiwan under the Kuomintang (Nationalist) government. The KMT was fiercely devoted to itself and its mission, and was also incredibly insecure to the point of paranoia, constantly trying to root out enemies from within Taiwan (whether real or imaginary). It took a brutal authoritarian approach to ruling the people, so that anyone who spoke publicly in favor of democracy (the US had a military presence there at the time), who openly criticized or organized action against the government, who was denounced by their fellows in forced confessions, who was associated with the wrong people, or who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, was liable to "disappear". The 228 Massacre set off this purge, as well as an era of martial law in Taiwan that didn't end until 1987.

The narrator's father is one of those people who "disappeared" for expressing his ideas, spending 11 years of torture and hard labor at a brutal penal colony called "Green Island". Soldiers forced the narrator's family out of their home in Taipei, but they relocated to Taichung where she spent her formative years. The narrator's personal life is a canvas on which decades of tumult are displayed: the forced forgetting of 228, her father's release from prison and continued surveillance by authorities, the completion of Taiwan's virtual loss of political existence after the US formalized relations with mainland China in 1979, the narrator's first-hand experience with KMT spies in both the US and Taiwan due to her professor husband's involvement in the resistance, and the swine flu pandemic.

Even with all its gruesome details, Green Island is a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. I got a crash course on Taiwanese history and got to bug my friend with questions along the way, since her parents and especially her grandparents lived through the events of the book. There were times where I thought the book ran too long, as I sometimes got bored reading about the narrator's relationship with her husband, Wei (he's an insufferable man in his own special way). But I suppose that the mundane was needed to balance out the drama, and it helped build up to the novel's final act. If you want to learn about Taiwan, read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"When I got older, I still thought I could write life. I didn't understand, as my mother had just realized that evening, that it is the other way around. And yet, here I am, still trying" (90).

"Wei had told me a gentler era was encroaching upon Taiwan. Brutality belonged to the previous decade. Does brutality ever get old? I wondered. Each generation brings a new group of men who have not yet learned the guilt of the last. They need to feel bones breaking under their very own fingers to know for sure how they feel about it" (333).

"We are curious creatures, we Taiwanese. Orphans. Eventually, orphans must choose their own names and write their own stories. The beauty of orphanhood is the blank slate... 'The country is broken, but the mountains and rivers remain'... We are the mountains and rivers, no matter what the country is called" (372). 

Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

Casey Han is the eldest daughter of Korean immigrants who are devout Presbyterians and run a laundry for a living. In the 1990s, despite being a Princeton economics grad, she is jobless and still lives with her parents in Queens (Mercy from The Expatriates vibes, anyone?). The book opens with an argument between her and her father about her future, which ends with him hitting her and kicking her out of the family home. She goes to stay with her college boyfriend whom she already lives with part-time, only to catch him in the middle of a threesome. Now jobless and homeless, Casey's worst night ever is also the beginning of  her journey to finding her footing as a 20-something on her own for the first time in New York City.

Being a Princeton grad and knowing a handful wealthy and well-connected people, she's never completely at a loss. There's Sabine, who runs her own department store and married rich, and thus is a Korean immigrant who's "made it", so to speak. She employs Casey on the sales floor and also acts as a surrogate mother or cool auntie of sorts, dispensing advice but also disapproving of most of her choices and not-so-subtly attempting to groom Casey into her successor. There's also Ella, a rich doctor's daughter who grew up in the same church that Casey did and always wanted to be her friend, but whom Casey ignored for years because she couldn't stand being around this girl who seems to have everything. A chance meeting between them leads to Casey living with Ella, which allows her time to get back on her feet and even leads her to getting a job on Wall Street (thanks to Ella's alpha male fiancé Ted, another man who's insufferable in his own special way).

Ella also introduces Casey to Ella's cousin Unu, a young divorcee who also works on Wall Street. They eventually start a friends-with-benefits thing, which evolves into cohabitation, which evolves into a relationship, but it's not without its problems. Money is always on Casey's mind, as she grew up poor and never seems to have enough of it to sustain herself and also pay off her mounting shopping debts and student loans. From Princeton to Wall Street, she is adept at navigating social strata in which money is no object for people, but she can never live with the sense of carefree security that they do. In contrast, Unu comes from a wealthy family and has never had to worry about money, but he has a gambling problem which, coupled with his denial and being too proud to accept Casey's help with household expenses, lands him in a deeper and deeper hole.

Min Jin Lee has this gift for taking an omniscient stance with her characters, writing from multiple points of view concurrently and getting the reader invested in the intricate details of a handful of interconnected lives, and then managing to tie up the story without leaving anyone out (see Pachinko). So there are a number of other people and incidents that influence Casey's progression from "confounded by this thing called life" to "wisened, but still confounded by this thing called life", but I'll leave them for you to discover. If you're having a quarter-life crisis or any similar crisis of existence, and if you like reading about plucky women who are their own people, read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"'The funny thing is that if you were a millionaire like some of these managing directors shaking down seven figures a year, you'd have known to push your way ahead and fill up your plate. Rich people can't get enough of free stuff... So, this is the game, Casey. You have to take what's offered'... She'd pretended to be otherwise to be ladylike and had moved away from the table to be agreeable, and now she'd continue to be hungry" (91-92).

"No explanation was necessary. They were collecting Mr. Jun's departing gift... Even if one Korean was nothing in this strange land, a church full of Koreans meant something to each other, and they intended to care for their own" (322).

"You can be grateful and angry. Such feelings can coexist" (494).

Sunday, August 20, 2017

ドラマ (Dorama) Time! 18

Summer is almost over, I've got my summer Jdrama selections lined up, but I'm just now finishing my shows from the spring. What else is new? The two shows I that watched from the spring 2017 broadcast season can be found with English subs here and here.

リバース (REVERSE) - TBS/2017

I picked this show simply because Che'Nelle sang its theme song, "Destiny". I'm more a fan of her journey as a non-Japanese entertainer in the Japanese music industry than a fan of her music, but she is one of the more gifted vocalists in that scene. But I digress.

At the center of 'REVERSE' is Fukase, a man who graduated from a prestigious university 10 years ago but doesn't lead a very prestigious life. His best and only friend during his college days was a guy named Hirosawa. During their senior year, Fukase, Hirosawa, and three of Hirosawa's friends went on a snowboarding trip that ended in Hirosawa's death. Though it's unclear who was directly responsible, the four remaining friends know that it wasn't a simple accident but don't discuss it for fear of incriminating themselves. All seems to be forgotten until ten years later (the present), when Fukase and the other three start receiving ominous letters and realize that their lives and reputations are being tampered with. Someone hasn't forgotten about Hirosawa, and they're determined to punish his friends until the truth comes out.

There's a coffee motif that seems innocuous; making coffee is Fukase's hobby, and numerous scenes take place at a cafe which he frequents and is also where he meets his girlfriend Mihoko. But coffee also ends up being integral to figuring out the whodunnit. For a stretch, the mystery of how Hirosawa died takes a slight backseat to the mystery of who's been stalking and threatening his friends, but the reveals for both are quite satisfying. I was shocked not once, but twice.

I enjoyed the show way more than I'd expected to, and I was especially impressed by Toda Erika's performance as Mihoko. I saw her in 'Taisetsu na Koto ga Subete Kimi wa Oshiete Kureta' (2011) a long time ago and apparently she was in 'Summer Nude' as well, but I wasn't aware of her as an actress then. Hers was the most multi-faceted character in the show. Also shoutout to actress YOU ('Going My Home', 'Mondai no Aru Restaurant') who plays the owner of Fukase's favorite cafe.

母になる (Haha ni Naru/Becoming a Mother/My Son) - NTV/2017

This show was a bit of a 'FIRST CLASS' reunion, which is why I watched it. Itaya Yuka and Sawajiri Erika go from mentor-mentee in the fashion world to best friends and professors' wives in 'Haha ni naru'.

Yui (Sawajiri Erika) and Yoichi live a normal and happy life with their 3-year-old son Kou, until the day that Kou is kidnapped by a disgruntled student of Yoichi's. They search doggedly for their son, but to no avail. The loss and public backlash that they face ruptures their lives and ends their marriage. Nine years later, a case worker at a boys' home realizes one of the residents is in fact Kou, now 12 years old. Kou was abandoned in a squalid apartment and found by the next door neighbor, Asako (Eiko Koike from 'STARMAN'). Starved for love and having been jilted by her lover, Asako raised Kou as her own rather than taking him to the police. One day she dropped Kou off at the boys' home without an explanation, and he'd already been living there for two years when the case worker reunites him with Yui. While Yui and Yoichi's family reunites around Kou, the show mostly focuses on Yui and Kou's relationship and how they both deal with Asako. Kou essentially has two moms, and the question of what makes someone a mother is brought up numerous times.

There's a segment in episode 10 that shows Asako going to therapy and acknowledging the events and psychological issues in her life that led her to do what she did. It's only about two and a half minutes long but I appreciated it, given that  mental illness is one of many taboos in Japan, and mental health services there leave a lot to be desired, from what I've read. 'Haha ni Naru' is like 'Hajimemashite, Aishitemasu' in that it explores alternative forms of parenthood with some depth and is willing to explore the ugly and uncomfortable.

Though I'm not familiar with much of her work, I have to say that I'm a little proud of Eiko Koike. I remember her playing the busty forever-single best friend in 'STARMAN' who was hardly more than comic relief, and here she is getting to flex her dramatic chops as a troubled yet pivotal character.

I finished 'REVERSE' weeks ago and finished 'Haha ni Naru' literally just before I started writing this post. My memory of the former is a little foggier but it left a stronger impression on me, so I pick 'REVERSE' as my favorite of the two.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Little Elephant

A little over a month ago, literally right before we hit the road for Michigan after our family reunion weekend, on the day that also happened to be my natural hair anniversary... I got my first tattoo.

It's something I'd half-heartedly considered ever since I was old enough to legally get one, but I never had an idea that I'd be willing to commit to for the rest of my life. Until this summer. I was in Louisville for Father's Day weekend and was chatting with my cousin, admiring her tattoos. She said I should get one and I balked at first. Not cool or daring enough for that. But then I changed my mind.

I was just coming off of a major personal disappointment, having accepted that despite my diligent and occasionally frantic efforts, my one big life-changing goal for the year was not going to come to fruition; time had run out. I was feeling more and more despondent about myself (self-loathing is a heckuva drug), my life (not moving forward) and my current job (dead from the moment I started there, nowhere to move in that place but in circles). I was just over everything. I've lost, and if these two post-college years are any indication, I'm liable to keep losing, and if I'm going to lose at life anyway, what does it matter? So I get a tattoo, so what? Might as well. Why the heck not? 

So my cousin and I agreed that when I came back to Louisville three weeks later for the family reunion, we'd get tattooed together. An initiation for me, a seventh (eighth? ninth?) go-round for her, and a bonding experience for us both. She'd arrange everything. In the meantime, I turned to my college friend Irene Li to draw a design for me. I had an idea for the tattoo and knew where I wanted it to be, but didn't have the skills to actually put it together. Irene's in the Bay and I'm in Michigan, so we went back and forth for a week through FB messenger, going over ideas and reviewing sketches that she came up with. And in the end she came up with something perfect!

 Cut to Monday morning after family reunion weekend when my cousin, my mom, and I went to Committed Ink Studios to do the deed. My cousin had already decided not to get another tattoo after all, but I was so committed (teehee, puns) to the design now that I was determined to go through with it. Lou, the owner of the shop, was focused, quick, and extremely affordable. A talented man and a true artist! Ma and my cousin watched. It hurt, my palms got sweaty, but I only winced inwardly and I didn't cry. And again, the result was perfect!

I'd done something that I couldn't take back, and I hit the road for home feeling more grateful and satisfied than I had in a long time. Even now I still stare at my arm in wonder multiple times a day. At first I was awed by the fact that this part of my skin is forever changed, like Wow, did I really do this? But after that wore off, a different feeling began to surface. Pride. I'm proud of my tattoo. Nearly my whole life I've gotten through the day by dissociating myself from my body as much as possible. This isn't the real me. This is how my body happens to look now, but once I finally manage to look different, then I'll really be my true self. The self I was meant to be all along. I've realized that getting this tattoo was an act of acknowledging and claiming ownership of my body in a way that I've never done before. This isn't a provisional me. I am what I am at this moment. And this image carved into my skin is forever. (Shoutout to my friend Dany at The Dear Body Project for inspiring me to reflect on myself this way). To be honest, the enthusiasm doesn't really extend past my left wrist, but it's a start. And now I have a personal, custom-designed, permanent reminder.

Oh, and what does the tattoo mean, you ask? Well. I've loved elephants since I was little. It's holding a quill, which is a reminder to me to keep creating things, even if I don't have the courage to share my stuff. The feather is red to represent the city of Louisville where my mom and her family are from. Coincidentally (totally unplanned!) the shape and lines are reminiscent of Rafiki's painting of baby Simba, and The Lion King is my favorite movie of all time.

Thank you Kayla, Irene, Lou, Ma, and Dany.