Saturday, July 31, 2010

sorry to disappoint you, but...

Mulan, as portrayed by Disney. I can safely 
say I've never donned this look...
"Excuse me, are you Vietnamese?"

I looked up from my sketches. The man had taken a seat at the empty table next to mine. By now, I've gotten used to the random conversations that arise at Peet's, but rarely do I ever enjoy them - especially since the last conversation contained statements of overt racism.

I shook my head and hoped that would be the end of the conversation. The man was young, in his late 20s most likely, and sporting a casual appearance. "Chinese?" he asked. Clearly, I wasn't getting rid of him anytime soon. I nodded and he started speaking Mandarin at me.

Since moving to southern California, I've been surrounded by Mandarin speakers. My Cantonese has never been the best, but at least I can understand the words. Mandarin is completely foreign to me. I quickly interrupted the man and informed him I didn't understand Mandarin. That'll end it, I thought to myself, hoping the rejection would be enough to embarrass and quiet him. But he kept talking, telling me about how Bruce Lee was his hero growing up and the reason he began taking martial arts lessons. When it came to learning Chinese, he taught himself Mandarin, even though Bruce Lee spoke Cantonese. "More people speak Mandarin," he said and it almost felt like he was trying to embarrass me now. Here was this Caucasian man, speaking better Mandarin than I probably ever would in my life; but I only shrugged. He then asked me if I did any martial arts. I said no. "But you've seen all the Bruce Lee movies, right?"

Bruce Lee, kicking ass
No.

Once again, the stereotypes persist. All Asians know kung fu. All Asians drink tea from dainty ceremonial tea cups. All Asians wear cherry blossoms in their hair and sit on the floor because they have no "real" furniture. Etc, etc.

I never took karate and I don't think I've seen an entire Bruce Lee movie all the way through. And when I sit on the floor to eat, it's mainly due to the fact that I'm a college student in an apartment. I like the floor.

I remember the kids at Mustard Seed asking similar questions. Their experiences with Asians were limited to what they saw in Mulan and Japanese anime. I couldn't blame them. Being young and homeless didn't allow you much exposure. But this random man in Peet's who chose to engage me in conversation would hopefully have known better than to assume I was his idea of the "perfect" Chinese girl - a walking stereotype whom he could converse in Mandarin with all day long.

Or maybe this was another one of those instances where I'm really oblivious to his true intentions. You all know how I am.

Friday, July 30, 2010

fitting in.

At Citiwear the other day, I pulled a denim blue dress off one of the racks and skeptically read its tag. The "L" must be a mistake, I laughed to Rachel, because there was no way this small garment was made to be large. A trip to the dressing room confirmed our observations: I had trouble fitting into the dress. Returning to the rack, I pulled off other sizes to compare. That's when I realized we were actually the wrong ones. The "medium" dress was smaller and the "small" even smaller than that.

I remember when Citiwear first opened in the Lake Crest Shopping Center near my house. Sandwiched between a Marshall's and Payless, the store was a cross between Limited Too and Forever 21 - the perfect balance of tween and public school fashion trends. Like Forever 21 though, Citiwear's image quickly morphed to market toward a "cooler" crowd, one more urban and hip that you'd find splashed across the screens of VH1 and sprawled across the red carpet at the VMAs. The Citiwear I walked into last week is definitely not the Citiwear I grew up with.

Somewhere along the transition, the strange transformation of "large" clothing happened. But discovering that tiny blue dress I couldn't even fit into properly was a "large" was just too shocking. Are we in the '90s again? Has it become trendy again to wear size zero garments and vie for a gaunt and sallow reflection, a la the supermodels of Vogue?

"A size zero is not something to aspire to," Rachel said, and I agree. Society wants to avoid obesity, but we also want to avoid anorexia. So where's the happy medium? Everybody has different body types, shapes and sizes so it's hard to find one type that you can classify as "average." I'm 5'2", which is far from considered "average," yet amongst my cousins, I'm one of the taller ones, despite being the youngest.

The matter of ethnicity also comes into play. The Chinese women I see in magazines and on screens are generally thin and dainty. Growing up, I always felt like I needed to look like that too in order to "fit in" - which is the ironic part. We all feel like we need to "fit in" by looking like models and actresses, yet if we all don't look like those people, then does that mean none of us fit in? And by none of us fitting in, don't we just create our own average? Who really defines the standard of beauty we see? Hollywood? Fashion editors? Movie producers? What is REALLY "average" and how do we all "fit in" to that standard?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

tl;dr.

Travis Kevie in front of the Valencia Club
(from the Auburn Journal)
On July 16, Travis Kevie broke into the famous Valencia Club in Placer County, but not to squat or cause mischief; he did some housecleaning. Then, he went down to the gas station, bought a six pack and opened for business. With the profit he made, he bought more alcohol and sold it. The local Auburn Journal got wind of the club's comeback and did a front-page profile on Kevie. The morning the paper went to print, a local detective recognized Kevie's picture from previous encounters with the law, went down to the Valencia Club and arrested him.

Kevie ran the club for four days before being shut down. All of the elements of this story put together inspire a single thought: What a baller.

Because let's look at the facts: This guy broke into a bar in order to clean it and then sat down for an interview with a newspaper. Clearly, he wasn't trying to do anything illegal and he wasn't trying to swindle customers out of their money. He just wanted to make people happy, and now he's facing charges for it. All possibilities of a mental disorder aside, this guy's pretty awesome.

"I have fun with life," Kevie told Gus Thomson of the Auburn Journal during that famed profile interview. "I live it up and take it for what it's worth."

Wise words, Mr. Transient Rodeo Cowboy, and as much as you are my fucking hero, the real story I'm interested in is Mr. Gus Thomson of the Auburn Journal. With the Shirley Sherrod debacle making headlines as of late, it's not wrong to ask, "What happened to well-researched reporting?"

Gizmodo had an article recently that brought this question to the forefront. Have we, as a society, lost our patience for stories? How often do you hear from people, "I don't have time to read"? I know I'm guilty of that terrible sentence myself, yet it's not entirely true. We have time to sit in front of our computers and time to watch bad TV, yet when it comes to reading books or watching full speeches or doing a quick check on a person's history (and in this Age of the Internet, this search is quite simple for a journalist), we suddenly lose the time.

In a world full of 140-character news items and three and a half minute Youtube clips, is there a need for long form journalism anymore? Attention spans are shorter, news moves quicker...have journalists become obsolete?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

roots before branches.

When I was four, and Na and I had separate rooms, Dad went on a painting kick and re-painted the exterior and interior walls of our house. He let Na and me choose the color of our room (it had to be the same though because there was no way he'd buy more than one color that he'd probably never use again) and so we chose, as most little girls would, pink.

"Don't touch the paint," Dad instructed after he finished my room. He let me walk inside though to see the new color. When he wasn't looking, I reached a finger out and poked at a spot near the window. The paint got on my finger and left a splotch of the white wall underneath it uncovered. I didn't tell Dad (obviously) and he didn't notice.

Every time I go home, I always expect something to be different, but Sacramento rarely changes -- at least, not the Sacramento I see in my mind's eye. The landmarks are still there, the streets curve the same and my house still looks as if the trim was just painted that cornflower blue. With the exception of some additions and items shifted around, it feels like nothing has changed within my house. While I was living at home, I got so used to it that I hadn't realized how stagnant the environment was. The music notes from seventh grade are still on the kitchen walls, Yosemite Sam is still on the whiteboard, the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers poster is still on the closet and the splotch of white wall near my bedroom window is still there. It's all been untouched.

Sitting in my old room, I realized how much everything really has stood still. The posters and pictures and memorabilia on the walls are all the same -- from the Johnny Depp posters to old LHS paraphernalia. Old journals still line the desk and there's still a Gundam Wing action figure or two. You never really realize how much you change until you return to a place where your former self has been frozen in time. If I were to move back home and live in my old room, I don't think I could maintain any semblance of the person I've become. The longest I've stayed back in Sacramento since moving away has been, at most, two weeks for winter break. The length is not enough time to bring my changed persona back into my childhood environment.


When you leave for an extended period of time without making a regular appearance in people's lives, they tend to lose track of you and forget bits and pieces of who you were. Most times, they have trouble seeing that you've changed so their perception of you remains that of what they remember from "the good ol' days." I notice this the most in my high school friends, the people I'd had as my family for four years. All too quickly, that bond and connection falls apart unless you make a conscious effort to keep it up. Being hundreds of miles away, it's hard to do so. There's a desire to hold on to the people of the past in order to preserve your hometown roots, yet that keeps you from really moving on and embracing your present and, inevitably, your future. I let that happen for quite some time, and to no avail.

So how do you keep yourself grounded, knowing that the place you set your roots no longer has room for you to grow? I suppose the only answer I can suggest to that vague and open question is simply the title of this post: you have to have (invasive) roots before branches. We all "move on" in life, as nothing really remains static, and there's no sense in staying trapped in the past and dwelling in the fact that the place you called home is no longer really that. Growth goes upwards and climbing higher, despite not knowing how high that is or whether there's a possibility a branch will snap and fall, is the interesting part of that journey.

If I had truly known and understood that lesson three years ago, my experience in Irvine would have been different. But who likes playing the "what if" game? To be honest, I'm glad it took me three years to figure it out for myself because it makes the other trees and their branches that I've intertwined with all the more amazing.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

blame it on the biology.

A recent TIME Magazine article highlighted a recent study that sought to examine the exact reason why breakups hurt. Answer: they're supposed to.

"In a way, nature gave us this response as a protection," Professor Lucy Brown of neuroscience and neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine said. "It helps us keep relationships going under adverse circumstances, which is important for keeping our species going."

Heartbreak is difficult, the study (and article) reiterates. It's a feeling most everyone can relate to -- the overwhelming flood of misery combined with an exaggerated dread that causes one to wonder if they'll ever be okay again. It's dramatic, it's depressing, it makes you think your life is a million times worse than it actually is.

Overall, it's also kind of silly.

I won't lie and say I haven't engaged in the teenage angst that comes with the depressing end of any sort of relationship. I question anyone who says they've never cried over a breakup or falling out. It's a natural human reaction. We feel helpless and scared when things we thought were reliable just don't work out. It's only in retrospect, when we look back, that we realize how silly it is to cry over a natural part of life: things come to an end, for better or for worse, and we just need to learn how to deal with it.

I just finished reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking in which she ponders the process of loss and grieving following her husband's sudden death, which was followed by watching her daughter slowly die. "Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity."

Is there really any "simple" way to explain our actions and reactions? Shit happens. We lose people, we lose things. Why do we grieve? "Grief was passive," Didion wrote. "Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention." And how true that is. It's easy for us to cry over something lost; it's much more difficult to confront that loss and find a way to eventually move on.

Heartbreak. Pain. Suffering. It may keep us going, but for how much longer? Until we can learn to "deal with it" and pick ourselves back up? Or until we build up tough enough barriers to stop anyone from ever allowing us to hurt again?

The latter, unfortunately, is a choice too many choose -- myself included.

"We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all."

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"It never hurts to consult the oracle."

I'm cheating a bit and jumping ahead: tomorrow's horoscope begins with asking me why nobody has ever thought to put mac and cheese in a taco shell. I think food is following me.

If I haven't already made this clear - I don't take horoscopes seriously. Fortune telling has always been a carnival trick to me. You could call me a hypocrite after a cursory glance around my apartment due to the presence of The Complete I Ching and my Arthurian tarot cards (you'd be surprised at my actual knowledge of Wicca during my "I'm going to study every religion/faith/whatever" phase). But don't worry, I never make a decision based on what a coin or a card says. It doesn't mean I'm not utterly fascinated by those concepts though.

Cheever always reminded us that the I Ching existed to tell you where you were in life, in the universe, in the bigger picture of everything. It wouldn't give us a magical answer or pull us down the path to perfection. It was a guideline, an ancient Chinese text at the core of Chinese philosophy. One of the first books I packed away when moving to college was The Complete I Ching, not because I planned on relying on it for the next four years of my life, but because I was still trying to grasp this definitive translation. (I also bought a deck of I Ching cards at a used bookstore, so I'm not sure how seriously you can take me.)

It never hurts to consult the oracle. Sounds like a line out of The Matrix, huh? Let's see where I am in this vast, complicated universe.

Gua 21: Shi He, Eradicating: "When things are worthy of careful attention, surely people will draw close together. Thus, after Watching, closing together follows." Removing obstructions in a peaceful community. Sometimes punishment is necessary. Clear in mind. Firm in action. Attitude should still be compassionate.

Okay. So that means absolutely nothing in that weird, truncated Sparknotes summary I've babbled onto the web. But when I think about it, it makes sense.

I'm terrible at being assertive. I hate demanding things. I was raised to be, and let's be honest here, slightly submissive. Is it an "Asian thing"? Possibly. Born leaders, we Lees are not. We do what we're told and my self-consciousness causes me to believe I have no real authority to tell others what to do, even if it's my job. This leads me to send up S.O.S. signals all too often, hence my firm belief in "faking it til you make it." Now if only someone would tell me when I've "made it"...

I've started to become more assertive over the course of the past three years though, I think - mainly because my patience has worn out and it's quite possible I've just turned into an obnoxious and intolerant bitch. Or maybe, you know, that thing called "growing up"...whatever that means. John said something once awhile ago while we had lunch: "having responsibilities" and "growing up" aren't the same thing. Which makes total sense when you really think about it: you can collect all of the duties and jobs in the world but it doesn't make you a grown up nor does it make you mature. In order to grow up, learn when to say "no" and when to remove the obstructions from your life that prevent you from moving forward. Learn to put your foot down and be assertive. Stop allowing your fears of speaking up and creating potentially awkward situations from becoming a stronger person. I don't think I've finally started to "grow up" until very recently. And in "growing up" and removing those obstructions, you can find new experiences and new people and embark on a strange and wonderful journey filled.

Though, for the record, I have thought about mac and cheese in a taco shell. I don't think it'd be very good at all.

Friday, July 9, 2010

the comforts of food.

When I lived in Sacramento, anytime I wasn't feeling well, Mom would make chicken broth from scratch and pour it into an old, oversized Campbell's Soup mug. It didn't matter what time of the day or what the weather was like; I felt instantly better. When it comes to "comfort food," I suppose you could say that's the closest thing I've had.

Simply Recipes calls chicken and dumplings "the ultimate comfort food." A survey by About.com says that PB&J or grilled cheese sandwiches are the top comfort foods of choice. A lot of people I know define macaroni and cheese as their comfort food of choice. From what I can gather, it seems like the concept of "comfort food" is distinctly American.

A Google search for "Chinese comfort food" to see what I could unearth shot me down memory lane. Porridge, winter melon soup, pork soup over a plain bowl of rice...The funny thing about Chinese food is that it all seems to be "comfort food." Whether I had a fever or a cold, porridge via the rice cooker paired with a plate of saltine crackers was choice. Among the many vegetables Grandma grew in her backyard, winter melon was one of my favorites and never failed to satisfy the taste buds. And soup over plain rice has the memories of Na and I pretending like it was cereal and milk attached to it. And I don't even like putting milk in my cereal.

But despite my memories about food and my love of eating, all I've eaten today was a salad and a couple of snickerdoodles. Yet when I looked at the mirror today, I felt perfectly fine. Good, even. That's a bit frightening, I think. Food is so essential to one's identity, more so than we realize from day to day because we, in our first-world country, take it for granted. By not eating, am I not taking it for granted as well and embodying what I loathed about people after spending so much time at Loaves & Fishes? "Starving college student" isn't enough of an identity for me. My cultural connection to food has been fading since I moved. Is this connected to my own act of fading away?

caffeinated and (not really) carefree.

Honey vanilla latte art at Kean Coffee in Newport, Calif.

"I'm too dependent on coffee," I bemoaned to a friend a year (or so) ago.

"What a journalist," she replied. I could tell she was rolling her eyes over the phone.

Is an unhealthy dependency on coffee that stereotypical of journalists and writers? It would seem so -- coffee and alcohol, I guess. I know I've had my share of both, along with the other things I suppose classifies me as the "typical" writer: an endless amount of coffee mugs, pocket-sized Moleskine notebooks, a tendency to correct a friend if he or she makes a grammatical error and a penchant for buying blank journals. When I'm sitting at Peet's, reading the New York Times off of my Macbook while sipping a soy latte and jotting down a to-do list in my Moleskine, I can't help but flip the switch on the neon sign above my head that reads: "Warning: Wannabe Writer."

I wonder if I am that way because of my profession of choice, or if my profession of choice leads all of its hapless wanderers down that particular coffee bean-lined path.

I drink a lot of coffee. Too much, perhaps. A morning without a cup of joe sends me into a consistent series of yawning. A few weeks ago, I decided to challenge myself: In an attempt to stop myself from drinking so much coffee, I would keep track of how much money I was spending on caffeinated beverages (soda excluded). Yesterday, I decided to give up. 

It's not because I was becoming disgusted with how much of my earnings go back into the corporate cash cows that are coffee chain stores (I am though), but I was having a hard time remembering to keep track of what I was drinking, where I was drinking it and how much I was spending on it. I don't even want to do the math right now. 

Vague and non-specific studies have shown that coffee actually has no effect on a person's productivity. Sure, the caffeine may hit you hard enough to keep you alert for a certain amount of time, but eventually your body just becomes used to it. I feel as if I've become immune to the effects of one cup of coffee. Instead, give me three, please.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

to eat or not to eat.

There's this new ABC Family show called Huge. It's a terribly-written show with a terrible name. Basically, it's about a "summer weight-loss camp" and, according to Wikipedia, has been described as "Glee meets Ugly Betty." However, after experiencing one hour of it, I can safely say the critics are wrong. This show may be "inspiring" on some levels, but it's just poorly executed.

But show criticism/review aside, let's get to the real meat and bones of why I was watching Huge (other than I had the TV on to ABC Family anyways).

Discussions about body image have always frustrated me. Everyone around me always seemed to be obsessed with weight. "You're not eating enough," my grandmother would worry as my grandfather lightly teased me about eating too much. Everyone, from family to elementary school peers, had pounds and ounces on their minds it seemed. From a young age, I was very conscious of appearances and, after I started losing my hair, I was afraid other aspects of my appearance would begin to spiral out of my control. I kept a mental note of the sizes and shapes of people around me to compare to my own small body. The day my mother told me she had to loosen the button on my uniform skirt in fifth grade was a devastating day. It hadn't occurred to me that I was just growing at a normal rate and that other girls' skirts were probably being altered in the same way; I was convinced I was getting fat and I already had enough of being stared at for one lifetime, I felt. During doctor's visits, I would carefully memorize the number the nurses would write down for my height and weight, then use our slow dial-up service later that night to look up what was average for a girl at my age. If I was below the average, I'd feel better about eating dinner that night; if I was above the average, I'd feel guilty, but still eat because I found the concept of dieting to be strange and impractical. I could never consciously deprive myself of food, at least at a young age.

As I became busier and busier throughout high school, I began to think about food more. On the way to school in the mornings, breakfast would normally consist of a muffin to go or a Pop Tart or two - whatever could be eaten in the car. On the mornings I'd wake up feeling sick, I wouldn't eat at all and just drank hot chocolate or tea or coffee instead. While my friends would snack at break, I rarely did - not because I was avoiding food, but because I just wouldn't feel like it. When lunch came, I'd eat, but as I became bogged down with more responsibilities and duties -- meetings, last-minute studying, early starts on homework due to late-night practices -- I stopped eating lunch. After months of this routine, by my senior year, I started to realize: I just wasn't that hungry anymore. It seemed as if I'd lost my appetite for good. I would get hungry, but half of a sandwich or a bag of chips would make that hunger go away.  I loved food, but it wouldn't bother me when I wouldn't eat.

One of the things people like to scare you with before you move away for college is "the freshmen fifteen." I continued to eat sparsely, though my penchant for snacking increased. For the past three years, when I'd get bored, I would snack. When I'd study or do work, I would snack. When I watched TV, I would snack. But then snacking too much makes me feel guilty for reaching some sort of nonexistent food quota for the day. Any sort of regular eating schedule I once had was gone.

But in the past week, since moving into my new apartment with my new roommate, I've been eating three regular meals during the day - not every day, but most days. It feels weird, and it almost feels abnormal and strange. My body's been too used to running on caffeine and water. Not eating doesn't make you not fat though, but that's not my goal: I don't eat enough because I've gone too long not eating normally. What is normal, really?

Oh, but my Dashboard Horoscope is telling me to think back to my favorite childhood meal and recreate it for someone I love today. Today, apparently, is a great time for good food.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Hiccups in the road.

"I see and realize now more than ever how much I need to break away from my life here in Sacramento...I think once I do step away, no matter how frightening, I can work toward really finding my true self...I guess there's no choice and no way to really stop it: It's time to grow up." (Mar. 15, 2007)

"Ever since I've had alopecia, my parents and my family have been the people to make the big/major decisions for me. I can't rely on that and for this past year I've been trying to do it on my own. They're scared. I'm scared, but I need to move forward by myself...It's hard to be the person I 'want' or' hope' to be when I know I shouldn't wish for that constantly. But Na's right - soon I will be on my own, making decisions for myself and figuring out who I am. It's up to me to stop letting other people define me...I don't want to wake up in 10 years and regret the choices I have made (and will be making) in this period of my life...I know I have made a lot of bad/not-so-good choices in my life, but that doesn't mean I have to let those things define or change me or cause me to dwell. I am who I am today even due to those bad choices." (Mar. 16, 2007)

"I'm scared because I want to find myself in these next four years, but at the same time I don't want to lose the person I've managed to find in this last year." (Sept. 13, 2007)

Question: Can people ever truly be convinced they've "found" themselves? Life - or rather, living - is an ongoing process and I would like to think (and hope) that we gain something new out of it every single day, whether it's something good or something bad.

I was a different person three years ago. You were different too. We were even different just three months ago. It's cliché to say it, but it's true: Most people don't end up where they thought they'd be and nobody remains the same in one lifetime. Reading old journals is always interesting because it's strange to see how certain I once was about things in my life. Who knows, maybe I'm still the same in that aspect; maybe I haven't changed or grown out of that yet. I was convinced I knew exactly who I was when I left Loretto but I'm even more convinced right now that I have no clue who I am.

So how does one "find herself," and does it all even really matter? We spend so much time "searching" for bits and pieces of our lives, something to give us an identity and a purpose. We create personas for ourselves based on what we want others to see. Our favorite movies say something about our sense of humour or our penchant for drama; our favorite bands hint at our general moods and tempers. Whether the reading lists we rattle off are filled with Fitzgerald and Hemingway or chick lit can instantly tell the person across from us everything they need to know: you're either a hipster or a Carrie Bradshaw-wannabe. Even our appearances, from our t-shirts to our shoes, brand us with a dreadful stereotype.

A row of lockers at Loretto
(photo by yours truly)
Three years ago, I don't remember what "type" of a person I thought I was. I was leaving the comfort of Loretto and Sacramento, packing my life into boxes and moving hundreds of miles south. I'd gone to school for twelve years with uniforms and dress codes. I was overly-involved in activities and obsessed with my GPA. I had three best friends.

Those are the facts, but what do they really say? It's a fairly typical description. Here I am now in 2010 in a place I call "home," just having unpacked those boxes once again into a new apartment. No more uniforms, yet I still have it packed away in a drawer. Am I still as involved? Probably not. Obsessed with GPA? See previous post. I've lost "best" friends and gained some too. Nothing lasts "forever"? You bet.

And yet...that's alright. More and more recently I've come to realize and accept that transience isn't so bad. Things don't last forever for a reason. We can figure out parts of our identity and slowly piece them together. We can be inspired by the people in our lives, be motivated by affliction and let ourselves become broken by emotion. I think that's how we start to really "find" ourselves, and that's something that doesn't happen until you separate yourself from the identity you think you've created for yourself.

"Have I really changed that much? Or is it the world that's swept me forward?...I don't need my old journals to tell me some of the more obvious things, but it surprises me by what I find sometimes. Did I really think those things? Did I really say those things?...These days are different and I don't know whether to be excited, scared, nervous, or sad. All of those old memories seem like light years away. That was before I had to worry about being on my own, dealing with finances on my own...just being on my own in general...I changed a lot throughout high school. I think everybody does. And soon it'll be college for me--Will I change a lot too?" (Aug. 28, 2007)