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.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

BOOKS! (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao + Not Too Far from China)

Today I've got a Pulitzer-winning novel that I eyed many times back when I worked at a bookstore, but only decided to buy a few months ago. I've also got the second poetry collection from an artist I met at the inaugural Detroit Festival of Books (Detroit Bookfest).

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz managed to educate me about Dominican history and culture AND tell me about myself in the same novel, so it took me longer to get through it than I otherwise would. The similarities between me and Oscar kept piling up, and things just got too real for me to simply take a leisurely stroll through this book.The son of a single mom who emigrated from the Dominican Republic at the end of the Trujillo era, Oscar spends most of his life as an outcast in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. Be it for his obscure references, lofty way of speaking or his dearth of "normal" Dominican male characteristics, he is ridiculed by most people he interacts with. Oscar is a fat nerd, a gifted writer, and an awkward hopeless romantic who is oft-rejected and prone to depressive episodes.

Most of the novel is narrated by Yunior, a fellow Dominican-American guy who used to be Oscar's roommate at Rutgers and also dated Oscar's sister Lola for years. Yunior and his friends called him "Oscar Wao" in college after making a correlation between his chubbiness and that of the prolific writer, Oscar Wilde. Hence, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. After a tumultuous undergraduate career at Rutgers which included two suicide attempts, Oscar graduates and works as a teacher at his old high school, re-entering the hell that is daily teenage cruelty. Feeling like his life is going nowhere, he uncharacteristically joins his mom and sister on a summer stay in the DR, visiting relatives. During this time he falls in love with a prostitute who is also his family's neighbor, and having finally tasted love, he's willing to die pursuing it. Literally, die.

If nothing else, Yunior (and by Yunior I really mean Junot Díaz) is exceptionally thorough. I thought I was cracking open a simple story about an anguished Afro-Latino youth, and ended up diving headfirst into a family history, footnotes included! You can't tell Oscar's story without also telling his sister's (his only tried and true friend). Can't tell either of their stories without telling how their mother ended up leaving the DR, and for that you have to start all the way back from her childhood. Can't mention Beli's childhood without telling how she became an orphan. Can't tell that story without telling how her immediate family was destroyed by the dictatorial Trujillo regime, seemingly cursing the family forever. And you can't tell that story without explaining who Trujillo was, and how he ruled selfishly and brutally over the DR for 30 years, seemingly cursing the island forever. In Oscar's family alone there are experiences shared between generations, such as betrayal by authorities, visions of men without faces, beatdowns in cane fields, being led back to life by mongooses, and devotion to lovers or would-be lovers who never truly love you back.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is, in a word, magnificent. It taught me so much about the Caribbean and reminded of some personal "stuff" that I've persisted in not dealing with sufficiently. Even now, I am left with a sense of awe and gratitude. Read it, y'all! Just read it!

Favorite quotes:
"The next day he woke up feeling like he'd been unshackled from his fat, like he'd been washed clean of his misery, and for a long time he couldn't remember why he felt this way, and then he said her name" (40).

"Beli, who'd been waiting for something exactly like her body her whole life, was sent over the moon by what she now knew. By the undeniable concreteness of her desirability which was, in its own way, Power... Telling Beli not to flaunt those curves would have been like asking the persecuted fat kid not to use his recently discovered mutant abilities. With great power comes great responsibility... bullshit. Our girl ran into the future that her new body represented and never ever looked back" (94).
"Nothing else has any efficacy, I might as well be myself.
 But yourself sucks!
 It is, lamentably, all I have" (174).

Not Too Far from China: A Poetic Escape by Zuri McWhorter

Full disclosure, the Detroit Bookfest was and is a great idea, but everyone severely underestimated what the turnout would be. Rather than hundreds, there were likely thousands of people who floated through the event that day. So it was more of a hustle to find good reads while staying out of people's way, rather than the casual book-perusing experience that I'd expected. But anywhooo.

I chanced upon a novel called Beijing Doll at the table of Zuri McWhorter, and on that same table she had stacks of her own work which included Not Too Far from China. I was too shy to chat with her, but she seemed like a dope person, her poetry collection seemed interesting, and her typewriter logo and stickers looked cool, so I bought both books.

Most of the poems are about the unspoken subtleties of relationships, self awareness and self doubt, the sensations of being alive. A young black creative soul wandering through life. This entire "poetic escape" is remarkably observant and sincere. Support this independent, native Detroiter, WOC artist and order this poetry collection!

Favorite quotes:

"I'm ready to forgive 
My heart and hands 
For holding on too tight

To draw a straight line 
From a thought 
To an action" (from "Out of Pocket") 

I may deteriorate 
in peace;

tear down these haunted hallways
let the library get some sun

breathe in dusty thoughts,
interrogate the chipping walls

I may redecorate;
hopefully, still at peace" (from "Deteriorate")

"in coils, her 
voice bounced
in the air and hung

rows of weeping 
willows overflowed
with joy and encouraged 
the earth
to do the same" (from "Cornwall")

Thursday, August 3, 2017


This is what I'd do,

I'd stay at home (stay at home)
Locked up in my room
With all the windows and doors shut tight

But now I'm free (now I'm free)
I can go where I want to be
And know that everything's alright

The Winans, "Goodness Mercy and Grace" 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

BOOKS! (Woman at Point Zero + Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too)

Both of these books were endorsed by media personalities that I follow either sporadically or actively. The first is a novel (or "creative nonfiction") which supposedly served as the inspiration for Ariana Grande's Dangerous Woman album and her single of the same name. The second is a storybook for adults that came highly recommended by Tracy from the Another Round podcast.

 Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi

The most famous work of Egyptian feminist, activist, doctor, and literary giant Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero is a fictionalized account of conversations she had with a female prisoner in 1974, days before the woman was executed for murder. El Saadawi visited the woman as part of her psychiatric research on Egyptian women, and was so profoundly affected by the woman's story that she wrote a book to memorialize her and the plight of women in the Arab world.The book is narrated mostly by the first-person voice of Firdaus, whose interactions with men over the course of her life take her through female circumcision, repeated sexual assault from a relative, abusive relationships, rape, prostitution, and finally, murder.

What I appreciate most about this book is how it explores sex work as both exploitative but also a source of autonomy. Though Firdaus is initially lured into selling her body, eventually she becomes her own boss, running her own life without anyone intercepting the money or telling her what to do. For a short while she attempts to be "respectable" and get an office job, but then witnesses how regular women toil with little in return, and after getting her heart broken she goes back into business for herself. And you know how she becomes most successful? By saying "no" to men. It's genius. It drives them wild because they can't stand to be rejected, and so she keeps naming her price higher and higher. Until one day a man, with better connections in higher places than her, shows up and demands to be her pimp simply because he can.

Certain lines are frequently repeated in the novel to emphasize the cyclical nature of events or feelings that occur in Firdaus life. Searching people's eyes, waiting on first and second loves to reappear one last time, muted sensations of pleasure, abandoning her body and withdrawing within herself every time she's with a john. Firdaus goes out a criminal and is treated by male authorities like a deranged threat to society that must be disposed of, but she is free. Even if only in her mind, she has escaped the matrix of male-centered appeasement, degradation and servitude, and she is free.

Favorite quotes:
"Who says murder does not require that a person be gentle?" (4).

"It was as though money was a shameful thing, made to be hidden, an object of sin which was forbidden to me and yet permissible for others, as though it had been made legitimate only for them" (91).

"That I knew nothing about patriotism, that my country had not only given me nothing, but had also taken away anything I might have had, including my honour and my dignity... the man from the police looked as though his moral pride was greatly shaken by what I had said. How could anyone be devoid of patriotic feeling? I felt like exploding with laughter at the ridiculous stance he was taking, the paradox he personified, his double moral standards. He wanted to take a prostitute to this important personality's bed, like any common pimp would do, and yet talk in dignified tones of patriotism and moral principals" (122-23). 

"I want nothing. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. Therefore I am free. For during life it is our wants, our hopes, our fears that enslave us" (137).

 Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book by Jomny Sun

Jonathan "Jomny" Sun, a Canadian man who does everything (theater, architecture, design, engineering, comedy, everything!), wrote and illustrated this story about an alien sent to Earth to study humans and report his findings back to his fellow aliens. This alien's name is also Jomny, presumably pronounced "Johnny". On Earth he only meets animals, and assumes them to be humans.

There's a lonely tree. A workaholic beaver. A hedgehog striving to find himself as an artist. A love-starved bear. A sophisticated otter. An egg anxious about what it will be once it hatches. A flock of birds who worship the sun. A bunch of bees, one of which spells what he wants to say, instead of speaking in full sentences (a spelling bee, get it?). And nothing is a character. Literally nothing. Though we would otherwise consider it a void, a dauntingly bottomless concept, or empty space, nothingness is a character too.  

And these animals (plus a couple inanimate/intangible objects) teach Jomny everything about humanity that he needs to know. Love, sadness. The uncertainty of pursuing goals or becoming something. The fact that mortality sucks because it's scary and unavoidable, but it's okay because everyone and everything dies, and in that sense none of us are alone. The idea that you should enjoy your sadness, because it's okay to feel sad and it won't last forever. Plus, being sad often means you've been lucky to have someone or something in your life worth missing. Aliebn is creative, it's funny, it's cute, the dialogue is simple but also sarcastic and deeply probing. Take an hour to read this book cover to cover, and then keep it close so you can read it again whenever you need a reminder that life may be a struggle, but that struggle is common.

Favorite quotes:
"everybody tells me i am too small and too slow to make a diference in this world but i am making a diference in my own world and i hope that is enough"

"i've been wonderimg why the lonely ones make the most beautifubl music and i thimk its because theyre he ones most invested in filling the silence"

"i was so woried about wat i woud become in the future that i didnt realize i can be anything i want to be right now"

"look. life is bad. everyones sad. we're all gona die. but i alredy bought this inflatable boumcy castle so are u gona take ur shoes off or wat"