Tuesday, December 31, 2013

diving in: 13 things about 2013.

I'm not quite sure what to make of 2013. In many ways, it was wonderful; in some ways, it was the complete opposite. It was a year of gains and losses, of rising progress and crashing hopes.

I've never been one for lengthy lists of resolutions, but if I resolve to do at least one thing in the new year, it's this:
"To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves--there lies the great, singular power of self-respect." -Joan Didion
I've always been so adamant in telling others to own their narratives. "Don't let someone control your life," I said once to a friend. "Tell your own story."

Perhaps now is the time I take that advice as well.

Writing has always been difficult for me, though I'm convinced it's the only real form of expression I'm somewhat decent at achieving.

When I think back through 2013, the things that stand out the most are the lessons, realizations, and thoughts that I'm taking onward to the next year. So, in no particular order...

13 things about 2013.

I couldn't resist: Marquee is a beautiful publishing platform, though not without its flaws. While I figure them out, you can read my full 'year in review' (which includes thoughts on loyalty, social media, and why I think Jesus probably would have bought a smoke machine) here: 13 things about 2013.

On a side note, some of my favorite reporting I've done this year:
And some of my favorite notes from a coffee shop:
  • i get it now.
    • "Mei gok - "golden land." A land of opportunity. My grandparents didn't do it for themselves; they did it for their children and their grandchildren, and the generations to come."
  • when to say 'ni hao' to a stranger. (spoiler: never.)
    • "It isn't cute, it isn't clever, it doesn't show her how worldly and suave you are. It makes you kind of a jerk: you're assuming, first, that she is Chinese--and no, not all Asians look alike. Second, you are acknowledging that you see her ethnicity before you see her as a human being."
  • who is 'the girl next door'?
    • "To those who continue to argue that we live in a post-racial society, it's important for them to take a careful look at this diverse portrait of America they see and use as their proof that racism doesn't exist anymore, and understand that there is still an unease about this "changing definition" of "being American" that exists beneath it all."
  • we need to change the culture.
    • "What can you say in response to a racial slur that is protected by others who don’t understand the offensive connotation behind the language they’re using? That’s when you realize that perhaps there needs to be a larger conversation so the possibility of a culture shift is in sight; and yet…where is that conversation in the mainstream media? Who’s talking about the anti-Asian statements still pervading society?"
See you in 2014...

Sunday, November 3, 2013

we need to change the culture.

I could bore you with a lede about how social media has made it easier to be mean to one another on the internet, but instead I'll jump straight to the point, because the point is there's no way to lead into this tweet I received on Friday:

There were so many things I wanted to respond with, but ultimately I held back from responding at all. What surprised me about this response was my reaction to it: I was genuinely hurt.

Which is weird, because trolls are nothing new. Mean tweets have become part of my daily work life, particularly when I write or tweet about issues such as marriage equality or women's reproductive rights. At some point a few months ago, a well-known conservative pundit began following me and blasted my articles to her followers, who all jumped on me and the network that employed me. None of that really bothers me, though, because I don't care to feed the trolls. That's not how I choose to use Twitter. 

But a few weeks ago, I had already received a tweet that also attacked me for my ethnicity and requested that I "go back" to where I came from since I "hate freedom." I responded that I was born and raised in America, and that was that. 

So why, when @Fire_BenMaller tweeted at me, was I upset? One look at his Twitter profile and timeline told me a lot about the kind of person he was online, so there was nothing to be upset about--he was a 100% troll who wasn't worth anyone's time, and I had already decided I wasn't going to engage. 

Perhaps it was the same reason I was upset over this news item about a cheesesteak shop in Philadelphia that changed its name after 64 years to eliminate the racial slur from its name. "You make me sick," said one resident and patron--which I found appalling. This name had come about because the founder, a non-Chinese man, had "almond shaped eyes," and so his classmates called him "Chink."

It's upsetting because what can you say in response to a racial slur that is protected by others who don't understand the offensive connotation behind the language they're using? That's when you realize that perhaps there needs to be a larger conversation so the possibility of a culture shift is in sight; and yet...where is that conversation in the mainstream media? Who's talking about the anti-Asian statements still pervading society?

Take these Halloween "costumes," for example: three men dressed as the fake Asiana pilots KTVU had erroneously reported on air. Not only was it in poor taste to turn a tragedy into a joke (where three people died, and nearly 200 were injured), it was also taking something deeply offensive to the Asian community and making a mockery of it. What gives anyone the right to do that?

And what about this "yellow make-up cream," packaged and sold with a person in yellowface on the front. Why not a photo of someone dressed as Tweety Bird or a banana or a thing that is yellow? The message is the same to those who chose to wear blackface for Halloween: melanin is not a costume.

I keep looking for the larger conversation about the pockets of anti-Asian language and actions that exist in America, but I think the answer is that it's time for the AAPI community to start the conversation in a more public way. We could all do with stepping out of the echo chambers we've grown comfortable in and start talking.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Macing dozens of students in the face can be stressful, according to former UC Davis police Lt. John Pike--so stressful, in fact, that Pike is receiving $38,056 for "psychiatric injuries" and legal fees.

Pike filed his disability claims earlier this year, nearly one year after he was officially fired from the UCPD. Pike had been on administrative leave with pay for eight months prior to being let go.

The incident at the root of Mr. Pike's health problems? This:

On Nov. 18, 2011 during a demonstration at UC Davis to protest rising tuition costs at what was intended to be a free and public set of campuses for California students, Pike doused dozens of students with a can of pepper spray.

In this particular protest, which was part of a growing Occupy movement spreading across California college campuses during 2011, students had set up tents on the quad, which Chancellor Katehi had ordered to be removed citing safety reasons. When police arrived in riot gear and began making arrests, students sat on the ground and linked arms in protest.

The students didn't resist or fight back. In other videos of the protest from that day, there is no violence, just the typical protest scene so common on UC campuses since the absurd 32% mid-year fee hikes in 2009. The anger that boiled up in the autumn of 2011 across UCs was fueled by the success of the Occupy Wall Street movement at the time, and it only made sense: if anyone had been getting screwed over in California since then-Governor Reagan ordered Clark Kerr's removal as UC President in 1967, it was the students.

via Davis Enterprise
I'm not arguing that protests and sit-ins are always the solution to getting your voice heard. If you know me, you know where I stand: simply put, the argument between "action before education" vs. "education before action" has always been the key debate that has destroyed many a movement, but the students had a right to be on that quad that day. What they did not have a right to is the painful consequences of the lack of restraint shown by UC police officers.

In a statement about Pike's disability reward--the result of Pike's claims that he received threats of violence in various forms after the video of the incident went viral--UC Davis spokesman Andy Fell said in a statement, "This case has been resolved in accordance with state law and processes on workers' compensation."

When you add up how much Pike is receiving from his disability claim along with the money he made while on "paid administrative leave" after the incident, he'll have gotten more money than the students he brutalized that day in 2011.

Apparently, that's not enough for him.

Mr. Pike should be ashamed to have requested compensation. Harassment and threats are obviously not helpful responses to what he did, and there is no excusing those actions by angry citizens--but perhaps the anger that resulted from what he did should be enough to send him the message that what he did was wrong. Instead, it's as if he lacks the ability to see the wrongdoing he committed. It's greedy and selfish, and tells the world that he has no remorse for what he did.

On an end note, I think we would all be wise to also remember what happened the day following the pepper-spraying incident after Chancellor Katehi gave a news conference inside a UC Davis building. After speaking, she refused to step outside for hours while hundreds of protesters gathered. When she finally emerged from the building, the students cleared a pathway and stood quietly as she walked to her car.

Their silence is powerful:

Days later, Chancellor Katehi attended a student rally and apologized, explaining her orders were for no arrests and no police force and promised nothing like what Pike did would ever happen again. 

And though her words cannot ensure incidents like this are past the UCs' days, an apology is a step--which is much more than one could say for Pike, who never issued an apology, but rather defended himself during an internal review: "Grappling [with students] would have escalated the force, whereas pepper spray took 'the fight out of them.'"

I guess his words are speaking as loud as his actions on this one.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

who is 'the girl next door'?

Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014
It's been two years, but there's something that still bothers me: one night in 2011, before a midnight showing of this horrible movie I was dragged into seeing, the conversation somehow turned to ethnicity and how much I had in common with another girl in our group of moviegoers--a  girl of Vietnamese descent.

"Well, you're both pretty whitewashed," the guy I arrived with, who knew us both, said.

I sat up a little straighter and prepared to bite back, refusing to accept this label from someone who, while I was close to at the time, seemed wholly unaware how offensive that statement was. But before I could say anything, the other girl laughed and said, "Yeah, I totally am!"

What even makes a person "whitewashed"? Is it the food he or she chooses? The music, the films, the clothes that he or she prefers? Or the language he or she speaks most often at home?

Does it make that person more American? What does that--"being American"--even mean anyways? And what does that mean for me, the daughter of an immigrant family who was born and raised in California?

"I have always viewed Miss America as the girl next door, and the girl next door is evolving as the diversity in America evolves." That was Miss New York Nina Davuluri's answer to a question she received on Sunday night at the annual Miss America pageant about Julie Chen's plastic surgery to make her look less Asian. Davuluri, whose pageant platform was "celebrating diversity through cultural competency," walked away with the crown at the end of the night--becoming the first Indian-American woman to be named Miss America, and the second Asian American in pageant history to win.

First, a disclaimer: the majority of my knowledge surrounding pageants comes from Miss Congeniality. "It's not a beauty pageant, it's a scholarship competition!" And, to be fair, Miss America is in large part a scholarship competition: in fact, it's the single largest scholarship competition in this country, according to this discussion on Sunday's Melissa Harris-Perry before the competition aired. (I highly recommend watching that video segment and the segment that followed it, as it dives into the deeper discussion of the relevancy of the Miss America pageant--a topic that is very interesting and complex, but one I won't be focusing on here in this post.)

Second: if you thought Davuluri's achievement wouldn't go without racist remarks from the internet peanut gallery, you were right. "Miss New York is an Indian.. With all do respect this is America," one person tweeted. Others called her an Arab and a terrorist, and said her win was offensive so close to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Posts that featured these negative remarks were shared thousands of times within hours of the pageant's conclusion. And while the sharing of these negative remarks was criticized itself, I think it's important that we recognize the racism that still runs through our society in this day and age, and understand that it goes beyond those who use a social network and choose to express their discriminatory thoughts in such a casual manner. Alyssa Rosenberg over at ThinkProgress put it best: "What’s interesting about the reaction to Davuluri’s crowning isn’t that teenagers say stupid things, but that people are uncomfortable with a woman of color being held up as an ideal of All-American beauty and femininity."

In this 2005 short documentary "A Girl Like Me," filmmaker Kiri Davis explores what is considered to be beautiful in America through the eyes of young African-American teenagers and children. One teen explains, "When I was younger, I used to have a lot of dolls but most of them were just white dolls with long straight hair that I would comb and I would wish I was just like that Barbie doll." Near the end of the documentary, Davis recreates the Kenneth Clark experiment from the 1940s and asks African-American children to choose between a white doll and a black doll to play with. Of the 21 children who took part in Davis' experiment, 15 chose the white doll as being the "nicer" one. 
In recognizing and acknowledging that this sort of thinking still exists in 21st century America, it can open the conversation to include more voices in the cry for change. To those who continue to argue that we live in a post-racial society, it's important for them to take a careful look at this diverse portrait of America they see and use as their proof that racism doesn't exist anymore, and understand that there is still an unease about this "changing definition" of "being American" that exists beneath it all.

That is why Davuluri's success is meaningful: this daughter of Hindu immigrants--who was born and raised in America, who does not look like a Barbie doll, and who is proud to share her culture with a national audience--showed that "being American," while also being of Indian descent, has nothing to do with the color of a person's skin. "Being American" isn't about assimilation, or how many stereotypes about your race you defy. How you look has nothing to do with whether or not you share the same American values so many accused Davuluri of not respecting.

Perhaps Davuluri's win will be panned by those who don't see the Miss America pageant as worth much (and, again, I'd implore you to watch this MHP segment to hear both compelling sides of the debate), but I don't think that we should downplay the competition's effect--as well as the effect of television and music and fashion, etc.--on young women who see the images of Miss America on magazine covers, talk shows, and more, but have never seen themselves as Americans.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

'because of your Asian eyes.'

You can watch the full video by clicking the image, or this link. I would've
embedded the video, but it autoplayed on the page, and I hate that...
On Wednesday, TV personality Julie Chen revealed she underwent plastic surgery nearly 20 years ago after being told she could never make it in journalism because of her "Asian eyes."

"I asked my news director over the holidays, 'If anchors want to take vacations, could I fill in?' And he said, 'You will never be on this anchor desk, because you're Chinese,'" Chen said about her time at a local Ohio station. "He said, 'Let's face it, Julie, how relatable are you to our community? How big of an Asian community do we have in Dayton? On top of that, because of your heritage, because of your Asian eyes, sometimes I've noticed that when you're on camera, when you're interviewing someone, you look disinterested and bored because your eyes are so heavy, they are so small.'"

Chen attempted to find another job shortly after that with the help of a new agent--but the agent she approached agreed with her news director. "He said, 'I cannot represent you unless you get plastic surgery to make your eyes look bigger.'"

The issue divided Chen's family, she said, but she went forward with the surgery. "After I had done it, the ball did roll for me," she admitted. After her surgery and after leaving Ohio, Chen landed CBS anchor gigs and an eventual job hosting Big Brother, and also ended up marrying the head of the network.

I will admit that when I first saw the headline Thursday morning, I didn't think much of it (other than to shake my fist at the racist news director and agent who advised Chen.). Yes, it was terrible, but was it that surprising this was a thing that actually happened? Of course not. The concept of this kind of surgery is not new, particularly to those in the Asian community. I remember playing with makeup when I was younger with my non-Asian friends, and wondering why I couldn't use eyeshadow the way our Seventeen and Teen People magazines suggested. I felt frustrated backstage in makeup rooms before musicals and shows because the women applying makeup would have lengthy conversations in front of me about what to do about my eyes (not to mention that alopecia had taken my eyebrows early on as well).

But I was surprised at the reactions I browsed through on Twitter and in the comments sections on various articles. There was a genuine shock that a Chinese woman would have surgery to make herself look less Chinese. Some people were angry that she gave in to the pressure and changed who she was in order to further her career, but I don't think that's necessarily fair: Chen's choice was a personal decision she made about her own body. Women (and men) of all color make decisions about their own bodies every day that are theirs to make. Perhaps if Chen's decision was a result of the growing pressure on personalities to look a certain way, then we can have a different conversation about the standards of beauty set in Hollywood and the media.

But Chen's decision was a result of racism, a statement she took for truth, and it resulted in her conscious choice to try to distance herself from a visible marker of her heritage. And it worked: she was rewarded for it. And that's unfortunate, because it doesn't celebrate the diversity that makes up America; it punishes those who look different.

"Did I give in to 'the man'?" Chen wondered aloud to her co-hosts. I think the frank answer to that is: yes, at the time you did. But she felt it was necessary to be successful in her chosen profession, and she turned out to be right about that. At the time in the mid-90s, there were very few Asian journalists on network TV. (Hell, in 2013, there are still few.) Chen may have "given in" to the pressure to change her appearance in order to gain any sort of recognition from her peers that she could be a major player in the media, but I absolutely disagree with any suggestion that she was wrong to do it. And she's speaking out about it now, which is so necessary because it's opening up a conversation that I don't think many Americans knew was being had.

When Chen started talking about how she would watch back the tapes of her interviews and focus on her eyes, I began to instantly relate: I did that with photographs often, and would notice snapshots where I would look bored or disinterested, though it had nothing to do with my mood. My smiles looked fake because my eyes weren't expressive, and I used to obsess over it. In fact, I still do obsess.

So I changed myself too, after struggling to find a photo to put on a campaign poster for a 7th grade school election--not with plastic surgery, but I forced myself to engage in active listening, even in my day-to-day casual conversations with friends or with family. Whether I was genuinely interested or not, I learned to nod with the rhythm of the other person's speech, and when to interject with words or sounds that indicated I was indeed listening and interested. I made myself make eye contact, and found the right moments to repeat back key words or phrases. (You can imagine how much this, plus the countless number of interviews I watched Barbara Walters conduct on 20/20 before bed each Friday night, helped as I developed my journalism skills later in life.)

My mother's oldest sister used to use the "Scotch tape" method to create that double eyelid illusion, and while I never did it (okay--I tried it once, and nearly blinded myself), I met more than a dozen people in an Asian American Psychology class in college who admitted they've used it before too. It was a painful solidarity to feel, but it validated the anger I knew I rightly felt when, as an 18 year old, a stranger balked at the idea I could ever be a journalist--because I "don't look like the people you see on NBC or something."

One girl who sat next to me in the psych class admitted she'd gone the Scotch tape route, but "only for big events, like prom and class photos."

"Wasn't it uncomfortable?" I asked her. She just shrugged, as if to repeat that old adage: beauty is pain.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

i want to be a part of it--new york, new york.

The view from a rooftop bar--another reason to love NY.
Today was one of those days I hated New York City. I was 10 seconds late for every train I needed to catch; I wore the wrong outfit for the gross, muggy weather; some guy threw his dying cigarette onto my foot on the sidewalk; I felt useless at work; every subway car seemed to smell like urine--and the air conditioning was broken in those cars too.

I kept thinking about what everyone told me my whole life on the west coast: "New York City is the greatest city in the country." The greatest in the world, some would argue. There are certainly reminders of that every block you step in Manhattan. I still remember the January afternoon I got off the bus from DC, with my two suitcases and no place to live--but when I stepped off that bus, I saw a poster in Port Authority that told me to leave my troubles at the door, because I was in New York, baby.

Since moving here, it's felt like a non-stop rollercoaster of ups and downs. Did living in the 'greatest city' mean struggling to stand on the sidewalk somedays? New York City, with its fast pace and loud noises--it never stops.

But as I rode the subway home today, I looked around at the group of commuters packed into the 1 train with me--they looked annoyed and tired, and many sighed that familiar sigh that really says, "I just want to be home." It made me realize something about that struggle I, and others, complain about: it bonds the people of this city together--the unpredictable subways, the inconsistent weather, the trash, the pressure, the stress of it all. We hate it; yet, it's what makes New York unique. It's really all those qualities that we can point to and say, "Our city is great"--the key word being our--"because of these things we never seem to get used to." And it's great because we still live here, no matter how many subway trains we miss and how many still-lit cigarettes get thrown at our feet. We choose to live here, because you never know what it'll throw at you next.

On this eve of the 12th anniversary of 9/11, I can't help but think about how strong that bond must've been in 2001 in this city when the towers came down. Two years ago, I wrote in D.C. about my memories of that morning and how it felt to be so far from something that felt so personal. Last year, I saw the lights for the first time that marked where the towers once stood.

I didn't understand for the longest time what made New York great, but I think I get it now: greatness has nothing to do with perfection. There are problems in this city that've yet to be confronted and issues that need to be fixed, but I truly believe that there are people working to keep this city moving forward.

You can't be a survivor until you've battled something, and won. What makes New York City great is that it keeps battling. It keeps standing tall. Even at times of suffering, when it takes a punch and can't stay up, it finds a way to come together and lift the fallen. It's not perfect, but it's certainly great.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

let's talk about 'yellowface.'

I adore Audrey Hepburn, but I can't stand to watch Breakfast at Tiffany's. What would be an otherwise lovely film is tainted by Mickey Rooney's portrayal as Hepburn's Japanese neighbor Mr. Yunioshi--now one of the most commonly-discussed examples of 'yellowface.'

But although Rooney's character has been denounced by critics since the film's premiere in 1961, it hasn't stopped yellowface from appearing in popular culture--only this time, there doesn't seem to be many people denouncing it. While it is quite the achievement for Linda Hunt to be the first to win the 1983 Oscar for portraying a character of the opposite gender, the man she portrayed was a Chinese-Australian photographer.

In the 2007 comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Rob Schneider played an Asian minister, complete with slanted eyes, a wider nose, and darker skin. Schneider is a quarter Filipino, but apparently that didn't make him "Asian" enough for the role. And, most recently, Cloud Atlas casted non-Asian actors to play Korean characters--including Jim Sturgess, who previously starred in the 2008 film 21, the story of six MIT students who learned how to count cards and cheat the Vegas casino system. 21 was based on the true story of Asian-American students, but you wouldn't have gotten that based on the film.

(Update: My friend Laura makes a great point in the comments section about Cloud Atlas and essentially calls me out for not having seen the film. I stand corrected!)

2007: Rob Schneider in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry"

So, perhaps all of this just further proves that there needs to be more Asians in the mainstream in order to debunk the apparent myth that there are no talented Asians who deserve the spotlight in films, television, music, etc. It's disheartening when it has become the norm to simply accept that we will never be leading men and ladies.

Take, for instance, this recent interview with Olivia Munn, who flat out says she will never be Wonder Woman because she is Chinese: "That's probably not what they would do. I don't know a lot of Asian-American women who are getting great opportunities yet, and the other actresses (vying for the role) are probably really famous and Hollywood tends to go for the girls who are already in the big movies."

It's frustrating, yet true: Asian-American women are not seen as leading ladies because there aren't many leading ladies who are in fact Asian-American. So then, how do you get to be a leading lady? Good question. (And for all of you who are going to throw Memoirs of a Geisha at me, consider the fact that the leading lady in the film is a Chinese actress playing a Japanese character while speaking English.)

As I wrote last February, we continue to see a lack of representation in the mainstream media--this extends from entertainment to journalism--and, more unfortunately, a subconscious anti-Asian sentiment that runs beneath the conversation: "Saturday Night Live covered it best last week during the show's cold opening during a mock game recap in which three anchors made plenty of jokes about Asian Americans, but when one anchor tries to make a joke about African Americans, he's immediately stopped."

This is a conversation that extends beyond eliminating yellowface as a practice in Hollywood in the 21st century, but until we can all agree that that's offensive and should be stopped, perhaps the conversation needed to break barriers is a long way away.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

'to the boy i already knew i would never marry...'

I've come to expect that the pain associated with a forced goodbye is an inevitable emotion. There is no easy way to part with someone who once occupied a space in your heart, and there is no easy way to remove every trace of that person without feeling like you're losing a part of yourself.

Exhibit A from an earlier blog post: "I was four-years-old when Colin proposed. It was snack time and he casually offered me a celery stick and a ring from the toy box." (Spoiler alert: he moved away the next day after our wedding, and so came my first introduction to the kind of boy who walks away without warning.)

At the age of 24 now, I can only think of one person for whom I fought against my every natural instinct to walk away from--a boy I loved for more years than I should have, until telling myself not too long ago that love never happens so easily that you should assume the other person is fighting to stay with you too. (No, it wasn't Colin. My four-year-old self got over that fairly quickly.)

If you know me, you'll know my affection for Joan Didion, and you can already guess that I'm about to quote her. Didion has a lot to say about enduring heartbreak and suffering from heartbreak and recovering from heartbreak, and there is one line in particular in "Goodbye To All That" that I never really noticed before in my dozens of times of reading it until recently: "All I could do during those three days was talk long-distance to the boy I already knew I would never marry in the spring."

I didn't move across the country and from city to city just to get over a boy, but that reason certainly crossed my mind. The first month I spent on the east coast two summers ago was lonely and filled with dread and regret as I wondered how many moments he and I would be missing out on apart. More than spending the previous year in a passive tug-of-war of emotion, he was someone who changed my life when I needed a reason to believe in living again.

There is no rhyme or reason when it comes to cutting off ties with someone you once so casually said, "I love you" to. There is no explanation for why our hearts feel a metaphorical break when we reach for the phone to call or to text, only to remember that it is no longer the norm to be in touch. There is no rationale in purposely choosing to walk away from someone we care about because we believe it will be better for our own sanity.

And yet we do it, because hanging on and talking for days with someone we will never be with despite how much we long to be with that person...it's something that we think may comfort us because it's something that's familiar.

But letting that go, moving past it and saying, "No more"... does that mean I've truly grown up? At least, enough to no longer love someone who I trusted too much with my secrets and my dreams? I've only ever had my heart broken so completely once in my life, so I'm no expert, but perhaps heartbreak should be something that can move us to push forward. It could destroy us, or it could be something that builds us into stronger people. Let's hope for the latter.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

when to say 'ni hao' to a stranger. (spoiler: never.)

"I speak Mandarin, you know."

I looked up from the text message I'd been writing, unsure of how to respond. I hadn't been expecting a stranger I'd gotten into an elevator with to say that, especially as his first words to me.

"I'm sorry?" I asked, thinking I misheard him.

"I know Chinese," he said. "Ni hao."

He looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to respond back or smile or applaud--I don't know. I just stared. "I don't know Mandarin," I responded. The tone of my voice was dry and unemotional, and I wanted to be sure nothing of our interaction could be confused for any sort of delight. I was not delighted.

We unfortunately got off on the same floor, so he continued the conversation:
HIM: "So what kind of Asian are you?"
ME: "I'm Chinese, but I speak Cantonese."
HIM: "Oh. I don't know Cantonese. [pause] You should learn Mandarin. I can teach you--want to go out?"
One hundred points to Gryffindor if you guessed the answer to that question.

Angry Little Girls by Lela Lee
Three tips for those wishing to speak to an Asian female you do not know:

1. Don't greet her with "ni hao." It isn't cute, it isn't clever, it doesn't show her how worldly and suave you are. It makes you kind of a jerk: you're assuming, first, that she is Chinese--and no, not all Asians look alike. Second, you are acknowledging that you see her ethnicity before you see her as a human being. (It's the same as going up to a redhead and saying, "Top o' the mornin' to ya!" in a terrible Irish accent that you've learned to mimic from a Lucky Charms commercial.) It is a form of fetishizing her, treating her as an object you've defined before actually getting to know her as a person.

2. Don't suggest she learn a language she isn't familiar with. I suppose this goes for anybody who is talking to any stranger. There are plenty of Asian Americans who grew up only speaking English in their homes, and they don't need to explain to you--a stranger they've just met--why they don't speak an Asian dialect. Do I ask every Caucasian person why they don't speak Latin? Telling an Asian person to learn a dialect she doesn't know can be seen as patronizing. You do not need to instruct someone you've just met to go learn something.

(Side note: Once, I had someone get belligerent with me because I couldn't translate something in Korean for him. "Why didn't your parents teach you Korean?!" he yelled. Because my parents are Chinese, sir.)

3. Don't ever (ever, ever, ever) ask, "What kind of Asian are you?" Think about that question for a moment: by asking "what" in the context of "what are you," you're turning a "who" into a thing. "What kind of Asian" implies that the person you're interrogating is part of a grab bag of ethnicities. If you absolutely must ask a stranger about her ethnicity, why not just ask that? "Excuse me, what is your ethnic background?"

Bonus tip: cut the "Where are you from? No, no--where are you really from?" questions from your mental phrasebook. When you ask somebody that, you're that person into an "other." You've judged, by the way the person looks, that she must not be from this country. But there are plenty of Asians born in America, and when you ask, "Where are you from?" and we reply, "California" or "Connecticut" or "Ohio," don't push us to validate your assumption that we aren't American.

Monday, August 5, 2013

'you were born in America, so why does it matter?'

This 1886 propaganda poster shows Uncle Sam
booting a Chinese man back to China. The
poster claims, "The Chinese Must Go!" and is
meant to assure Americans that washing machines
would easily replace Chinese laundry washers.
In the summer of 2000 during the Sydney Olympics, I remember sitting in my living room with my mother and asking her why the phrase "Chinaman" was bad. We'd been watching a men's diving match, and I had meant to ask Mom about one of the athletes from China, but instead of asking about "that one Chinese man," I accidentally said, "that one China man."

"Don't say that," my mom responded quickly.


She explained it was an offensive term, used once-upon-a-time as an insult to Chinese immigrants. We talked a little about how Americans treated Chinese immigrants in the past, and about how she and my dad both experienced racism as children when they came to America in the '60s.

Up until that point, I was aware of the concept of racism, but at 11 years old, I hadn't been entirely aware of its reality. But as I got older, I began looking back at and learning more about the environment I grew up in and what being the daughter of an immigrant family really meant.

Why didn't Asians stand up and protest too? I remember thinking after a lesson in the Civil Rights Movement in junior high. I was starting to get angry about racism and injustice, but in the early stages of my teenage years, I had no way to really express what I felt. My friends in school didn't share the questions I had, and most just didn't want to talk about it.

"You were born in America, so why does it matter?" somebody asked.

It mattered. But I stayed quiet. And then in college I learned what "model minority" meant, and I didn't want to stay quiet anymore for the reason that Asian Americans were, and still are, expected to stay quiet--to be a good worker, to keep our heads down.

I often wonder if that's why some feel it is okay to make remarks at or about Asian Americans--because rather than lash out or speak up, the belief is that we'll look the other way and just keep our anger to ourselves. I've been stopped multiple times by strangers on the subway, in elevators, on the street, in stores--all so they can ask me what my ethnicity is, what "kind" of Asian I am, or if I speak Mandarin (or Korean or Japanese or, occasionally, English)--that's all they want to know: if I speak the language. They never need help translating or anything like that; they just want to know if I can speak it. A man once literally grabbed my arm as I was walking up the stairs from the subway to ask me if I spoke Mandarin. When I pulled away and said I had to go, he called me a "rude chink."

Another time in the grocery store, a man called me a "Jap" and ranted at me about how "my people" ruined everything. He followed me around the store and screamed at me about how I should "go back home" because I didn't belong, and threatened to "finish the war" right then in the produce section.

He was most likely crazy, as I had noticed him earlier talking to himself in one of the aisles. I left and didn't look back--but what bothered me the most was not that this man had threatened me like that. What bothered me was that nobody in the store full of people said or did anything. They all looked, some whispered. Nobody intercepted.

When I started writing this blog post, I wanted to talk about several things: the fake Asiana pilot names, the completely racially insensitive song "Asian Girlz," the community of people angry that a business owner changed his restaurant's name in order to remove the word "chink"... and I realized there were just too many things I wanted to say about all of it.

I've blogged often in the past here about race and identity, and the representation of Asian Americans in society and popular culture. For several reasons having nothing to do with my interest and passion in the issue itself, I stopped. But I think now is absolutely the time I begin again. Now is absolutely the time to not stay quiet.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

reflections on injustice.

Reporter Luo Jieqi feels sympathy for the Beijing airport bomber--not because of what he did, but because of what led up to the moment of his death, his suicide. And in her reflection of the stories of injustice that never get told, one question keeps coming up from those around her who beg her to tell their stories: "Aren't you a reporter? Why don't you tell people what's going on here?"

Here's the thing they don't tell you in j-school: at some point in your career, you will report a story that may never leave you. The details, the interviews, the uncomfortable silence that hangs between you and a subject after you ask for an explanation to an alleged crime.

And it will feel like a perverse relationship. Aren't we all using one another? To tell a story, to get a story out. After all, consider Janet Malcolm's opening sentence from The Journalist and the Murderer: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

But it doesn't make any of us heartless, no. It's gut-wrenching having to watch and report on every detail of a mass shooting or a war abroad. It's gut-wrenching to not react at so many of the stories that flash across our screens.

I will never forget how, over the course of three months of reporting, I realized just exactly how horribly unjust the system really was: that they put one female cop in an interrogation room with you to "hold your hand" while several men grill you on the details of your assault; that the assistant DA dodged your calls for weeks, only to tell you in the end, "Well, he didn't finish, so it's not a crime..."; that your attacker could admit what he did and still be let go with a slap on the wrist because he apologized.

These stories can be told, over and over, but it feels like it won't ever really end--just as the stories of mass shootings and wars and inequality feel perpetual and never-ending. The more immersed one gets in observing it all, the more cynical one may become about the concept of justice.

I wish I had a better conclusion to all this, but perhaps that's just what this profession calls for: loose ends, to ensure we never stop writing.

Monday, July 15, 2013

'are you prepared to get arrested?'

About three years ago at my college's largest protest since 1967, I witnessed a moment I've yet to forget, and one of the moments that defined my research senior year:
After an hour and a half of speeches, the marching began. Their numbers grew to approximately 800 as the protesters made their way around Ring Road. As the group headed toward Aldrich Hall, where UCIPD waited with barricades in place, half of the protesters suddenly broke off and marched onto Campus Drive. A few students pushed shopping carts into the street and cars slammed on their brakes to avoid potential disasters.  
The protesters continued their march along the surrounding streets and, after an hour, finally returned to campus and headed toward Gateway Study Center. About 100 students entered the building, creating chaos inside the quiet study space, while the rest remained outside. Some students who had been studying before the invasion stood up to leave, but protesters blocked them by closing doors and barricading the entrances. However, the attempted occupation of Gateway, the location of the 1967 protest and teach-in, failed: in 20 minutes, a disagreement broke out among the protesters inside.

“Are you prepared to get arrested?” one student asked another.

“I’m prepared to get arrested,” she responded.

He sighed. “Then good luck.” And he left.

The “occupation” ended before the police could get involved, and the remaining group of approximately 60 students still on a protesting high regrouped at the flagpoles to discuss their next steps. All of the others had disappeared.
Six days later at an organized event, one student fought back against the "agitate before you educate" model, saying, "If I’m at a protest and screaming and someone asks, 'Why is he screaming?' then it’s your job to say, 'Let me tell you why…'"

Education leads to informed organization, the student and others argued. "We can work on being assertive without being violent."

In a 1969 editorial from the New University criticizing the KBS movement (a very long, and fascinating, tidbit from University of California history), there was a graf that spoke to the division of a movement based on the differences in protesting methods: "They will not organize students, they will not bond a movement for acceptance of the two demands (rehiring, and change in tenure system) together. They will divide students. They will fractionalize them. They will give them no decision-making power."

While it was speaking specifically to what the protests over the firing of professors Kent, Brannan, and Shapiro, I think it rings true for many situations.

When you take on a cause, you take on a responsibility to create chaos for the purpose of seeking justice, to disrupt the status quo in order to deliver a message--peacefully, passionately. You lose your message when the action itself dominates the message.

Friday, July 12, 2013

why do i need an umbrella in the summer? oh yeah, because - new york.

I'm really bad with getting rid of things. It took me months of pro/con lists to finally put away old memories from a past life for none other than the simple reason that I have a hard time with change. I'm fairly convinced this is the reason I was so against leaving DC at the end of 2011: it had nothing to do with wanting to be there for the elections, really; I just didn't want to move again.

That plus the fact that I procrastinate is probably the reason I got into a taxi earlier tonight--and, if you know me, you know that means something bad happened.

So, I have this really terrible umbrella that didn't use to be terrible. But somewhere between it being decent and today, a part of the wire frame snapped and broke. I mean, it still WORKS, but only if it's a light rain with no wind.

Summer rain in New York City is neither light nor absent of wind.

So I'm walking down Mott, and it's pouring all of a sudden. My broken umbrella is over my head and suddenly it becomes more and more useless as the rain picks up and the wind begins. Also, I'm wearing these really cute open-toed flats that might as well be made of paper because I'm basically swimming. Oh, and I'm still getting over a nasty cold.

This wouldn't be a problem if I at least had a decent umbrella but I procrastinated on buying a new one even after I told myself I would replace this crappy excuse for an umbrella over and over and over...

Instead of continuing to swim down Mott, I saw an empty taxi approach and decided to flag it down. I knew the ride uptown wouldn't be cheap, but I just got paid and had few bill to pay, so I grit my teeth and just went for it. So I get in the cab, tell the driver where I'd like to go, and sit back to enjoy being out of the rain.

Literally two minutes into the ride, the driver says, "If I were you, I would just take a subway."

I leaned forward. "Excuse me?"

"Take a subway."

I'm slightly dumbfounded. What stress am I causing him? I'm the one who has to pay the ridiculous cab fare, and he'd get a good tip out of it. Also, isn't it--I don't know--the law that you have to take me where I want to go in the city?

I explained to him that, not only was I in a non-rain proof sweater and skirt, I was sick, I had on the wrong shoes for wading through mini lakes, and my umbrella was also broken. He asked me what train I take to get home and I told him the 1. We were nowhere near a 1.

So then he pulls out his phone (keep in mind he's still driving and my fare is still ticking up), looks up the nearest 1, and says, "I'll drive you there."

"Sir," I responded, trying not to get mad, "my umbrella is broken, and I am really ill-prepared for the rain." I sneezed, which I thought helped my case too.

He ignores me and keeps driving. When he pulls up next to the 1 stop, he calculates the fare and asks me how I want to pay. I irritatedly swipe my card (knowing the charge will show up on my bank statement with his information so I could file a complaint) and don't tip. I exit the cab, step straight into an ankle-deep puddle, and run toward the subway steps while he shouts at me out his window for not tipping.

By the time I get down the stairs and through the turnstile, I look as if I'd been dumped into a lake. Oh, and I missed my train and had to wait 7 minutes for the next one, and then spent an hour riding home next to a wailing baby.

I'm going to go buy a new umbrella tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

an apology (to myself).

Dear Self,

I know it's odd to write to you in such a public way, but perhaps this way will force you to remember what I'm about to say. I think you need to remember, because you often forget, and that's my fault for talking you into believing anything but the truth.

I wanted to apologize to you for dragging you down the road of self-deprecation and hurt that I told you I'd avoid in the future. It was too easy to bend to the pleas of others, of the people who said they "needed you," and to the people who told you how important you were to them--the opposite of reality, and you knew it, but you thought maybe things were different this time. I did too, so I pushed you.

I pushed you to help those boys find jobs and homes and lives they said they so desired. I pushed you to pick up the phone and make those job calls and send those emails and force people to look at resumes they had no real interest in at first. And I forced you to bite your tongue when the fights came and the ties unraveled, because as much as I wanted you to throw it in their faces, I think we both knew better.

I'm sorry I made you stand beside the boy who treated you like a nuisance, who had the nerve to email months later and pretend as if he will always be grateful to you for helping him achieve his dreams. I'm not sorry for the sake of the situation you sat in that church that rainy Saturday, but I'm sorry for what happened after you went home and tried to forgive, because I wanted to believe we didn't waste two years of our life standing, loving, driving across state borders because of...what I told you was love.

I'm sorry I asked you to do the same for a second boy too, who acted so much like we were better friends than we turned out to be. I talked you into thinking he was not the same as the last, and so he wouldn't turn his back on you when you needed a friend. I'm sorry I forced you to keep trying, even after he never showed up when he promised all those times.

I'm also sorry for the friendship I told you to let fall apart because I didn't want you to get hurt by your "best friend," the way we'd just been drop kicked by those others. I should have been encouraging you to step back and really look at your life choices, at what you were doing and who you said you wanted to be. Instead, I convinced you it was your fault for not trying hard enough to be the friend they all deserved, all the while ignoring the friends in your life who made the effort to stand by you. I told you it was okay to take them for granted. I'm sorry. Please don't do that anymore.

Cheers for the future, and for doing what's best for you,

Friday, June 14, 2013

one foot in front of the other.

Shutting down the 4th floor station...
I worked until midnight alone on the 4th floor the day before the Video Team moved up to 27. The IT guys had already moved everyone else's computers, and I was surrounded by dust bunnies and empty chairs as I worked through my shift. When I left for the night, I followed instructions to shut everything down and seal my boxes for the move, and walked out to a quiet Sixth Ave alone. It felt like the end of some sort of era, though nothing was really changing too much. I would still go to the same building the next day and do the same job I'd been doing for over a year.

But I think I got comfortable in that cave-like office. I liked the quirks, despite how much we all complained about the low ceilings and bad lighting. It was the first placed I called home inside of Rockefeller.

On Monday, I will get up and take the same subway line to the same building, but it will be different--a welcoming kind of different, though. It's like the first day of your second or third year of high school/college: same place, familiar faces. But different.

Change is scary, but I've always tried to operate on the belief that being scared means you're simply stepping out of your comfort zone, and there's nothing wrong with challenging yourself. That's what life should be about: pushing yourself to do more and be more than the person you were when you woke up the day before.

I took my time leaving the building earlier tonight after putting my shows to bed. (Keva understood this, but it's funny how attached you get to the little things. Also, I really do admire and appreciate the people I got to work with and know each night.) I stopped to chat with some folks, share a couple of laughs and sarcastic remarks with a friend, and this time I didn't leave work feeling tired or frustrated about the things that hadn't gone smoothly during my shift. We walked outside, waved goodbye, and things didn't feel as final as it did the night before we moved upstairs; it felt like a new beginning.

I don't know. Changes always make me anxious, but I'm ready for it. Life is going to happen whether or not I'm on board, so I might as well buckle up and go for the ride.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

i get it now.

My grandparents - most likely in Hong Kong, post-war.
I used to watch my grandma work on her garden through the living room window of her Sacramento home. The backyard was more than just a place to grow food; it was a place we explored and pretended was another world. The grass was our soccer field, the clothesline was a jungle, and the sprinklers were what we imagined running through a waterfall must feel like. In the mornings, it was a tai chi space; in the afternoon, it was a playground.

As I grew a bit older, I was envious of my classmates and friends who lived near parks and whose parents allowed them to go to sleep-away camps and join sports teams. Their worlds seemed to have no limits to where they could go and where they could play, and yet I could only call the rectangular space in a Sacramento suburb my park, my world.

But I think I get it now.

Na and I spent a large part of our childhood calling our grandparents' home our own home, so it goes without saying that the story behind that front door is as important as the one housed in my parents' two-story home. To get to the home my parents built and nurtured, you have to understand where each of them came from: from different homes in different places, all traced back to a country halfway around the world. Both sets of my grandparents found love during war, and escaped into Hong Kong when the Communists came. Their worlds changed dramatically, and even more so when they came to the U.S. at a time when a quota stopped many Asians from doing so. I get it now why they stuck to their kin, afraid of being the obvious foreigners.

Mei gok - "golden land." A land of opportunity. My grandparents didn't do it for themselves; they did it for their children and their grandchildren, and the generations to come. It never occurred to me as a child that the stories of war and torture and escape weren't just inside the pages of an unwritten book. These were the realities of real peoples' lives, my families' lives. The wealthy landowner who was tortured and killed and his wife who committed suicide were my great-grandparents. The diligent engineer who abandoned proof of his educated status to avoid being taken, the young girl who hid her younger family members during war...the soldier and the nurse who stood by the Nationalists until they lost...those were my grandparents.

I get it now why they held us so close when we were young, and spend their days and nights worrying about us now that we're older. I think there's still a lot of pain for what they lost back home as children and young adults. I think they want to make sure that despite all the people they couldn't quite save, they could at least save us from whatever might hurt us.

They came to America with broken hearts, and so I get why they pushed us so hard: to make sure we we were strong enough one day to push on despite our own heartbreaks and struggles.

I don't think my grandparents know how much their grandchildren know about their lives back in China. I remember the look in yeh yeh's eyes when he saw the book of old photographs we'd put together for him from old photo albums we found in their spare bedroom. It must've been 60 or 70 years since he saw many of those faces in person, and the stoic army man I remember growing up with disappeared for just a moment. I wished I could unlock his heart for a second and know everything he was feeling, but I know I'll never know. I can only hope I understand the strength he and my family mustered up to keep going despite all that had happened.

After spending a short week in Beijing and seeing thousands of faces that reminded me of my grandparents, I was overwhelmed just thinking about the sacrifices so many of our elders made for us. And as a child, I know I never appreciated it, and the funny thing is they never forced me to appreciate them for what they did. They stayed quiet so much of the time about the things they saw, the emotions they felt, the anguish of losing everything they knew. When we fought and cried and pouted over what we thought were robbed childhoods, they knew better. I know better now. I get it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

narrow death by taxi driver, five nights a week.

The corner where I almost die every night,
as seen by Google Maps in the daytime.
I have a lot of really terrible stories about New York City cabs. Greg once told me I should write a series of essays about my experiences because everything terrible always seems to happen to me. Did I tell you all about the time a cab driver refused to let me out of his car, so I had to jump out and run and then realized I was stranded in East Harlem at 11 p.m. with a dead cell phone?

It's a funny story, I'll tell you about it later.

But of all the crappy things that have happened, I think I've finally settled on my least favorite one: it's a nightly occurrence that happens as I'm walking down 50th and crossing 7th Ave. Because of my work schedule, I don't get to leave 30 Rock until about 11:30 p.m. or later, and for some reason I always either miss the walk signal when I get to the 7th Ave crosswalk, or it changes to 'walk' as I'm several paces away so I have to run to catch it before it turns to 'stop.' I've realized if I don't catch it, the resulting domino effect is that I end up missing the train and have to wait 20 minutes for the next one.

Anyways, so crossing 7th Ave every night is the biggest hazard ever. Cabs make a right onto 7th at that corner, you see, and if there's one thing you learn quickly about New York City cabs, it's that they don't slow down. I've seen a cab cut off an ambulance before--and yes, that ambulance had its siren on.

Tonight, for instance: I see the 'walk' symbol appear from a short distance, so I speed up and step off the sidewalk even before it changes to the blinking red hand, but the line of cabs waiting to turn sure don't give a fuck. They're already turning. I let one driver swerve dangerously in front of me, and then boldly keep walking because, hey--it's my right of way. But then the next cab in line decides, "NOPE, MY TURN NEXT," and makes a sharp right. I run forward and my purse falls off my shoulder into my right hand, and as it's trailing behind me, the cab hits it and I stumble into the sidewalk.

The driver jerks to a stop momentarily to roll down his window and yell at me. I give him the middle finger, he calls me a bitch, and then he drives off.

The only good part of the night was that I caught the train right as it pulled into the station. I still didn't make it home before midnight, but at least I'm alive (and got to flip off a cab driver), right?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

tl;dr: i'm going to write that book.

After two and a half years of growing her hair out, my sister
cut and donated her hair to NAAF in December. What a gift!
I often wonder what my life would be like if I were brave enough to walk outside without a wig.

It's such a part of my daily routine (wake up, wig on; wig off, sleep) that I often don't think about it until the weather gets extreme. The winter chill hits my scalp in a way I'm almost positive wouldn't happen if I had real hair on my head, and the unbearable humidity in the summer makes me wish I didn't have a wig on my head at all.

It's been easier to lie in the last couple of years about my condition because the people around me didn't grow up with me. They didn't see the slow transformation that happened between the ages of 7 and 18. And though I am no longer ashamed, the truth is that it is much easier to pretend than to divulge my entire life story. To tell you that I wear a wig is more than one line; it is a narrative that I only just began to understand myself three years ago.

But, like with any lie, there needs to be some convincing. Which is also why I find myself walking through Chinatown and taking mental notes of the names of different hair salons and their locations and the prices listed on boards propped up inside their windows. I realize that I really know nothing about going somewhere to get my hair cut. The last time I sat in a chair while somebody trimmed my hair, I was being fitted for another wig--and I definitely knew the cost of that. Last December, I went with Na to get her hair cut and was fascinated by the whole song and dance, from the wash and shampoo (Why does it cost extra at some places?) to the dozens of combs in all shapes and sizes sitting at each station (and they seem to all be used at once too).

The same goes for getting your hair "done" at a salon. I remember when Na went to prom and Mom took her to get her done. She came home with really pretty curls and looked as elegant as a celebrity. For every dance and every event that warranted that special trip, I stayed home. All it took was one motion to put a wig on my head, and there was nothing fancy to it. Mom would buy different barrettes from time to time because I think she didn't want me to feel left out, so I'd choose one from a box and clip my hair in a half ponytail. It never took more than 10 minutes. For my high school graduation, I sat on the couch for half an hour with my hair on a styrofoam head in front of me and curled it. It took half an hour. Na spent longer on her hair that night than I did on mine.

Hair salons, nail salons, Sephora makeovers, spas--you name it. I've never taken part in any of those beauty parlor adventures, and spent years doing my own hair (which ranged from tying bandanas and scarves around my head to the aforementioned barrette-choosing) and makeup (I have terrible memories of the women backstage before a play who would try to draw eyebrows on my face; it never, ever looked good) and nails. Then, as an adult, it became such a habit to not go to those places, and so I've never done any of it. I wouldn't even know the first thing about how to do any of it.

This, all to say: I've been thinking lately about the narrative that I said I wanted to finish, and about the people in my life who've asked me about finishing it since. I always said I wanted to "write that book," to really make something of the workshop piece I wrote in 2010 (I've excerpted very small bits of it before on this blog). In fact it was Joon who asked me a few weeks ago on my visit back to California if I was still writing, and I had to admit I haven't been, and scrambled to find a good reason as to why I stopped. So, I guess this seems like the right time to actually do more than just talk about wanting to write.

Monday, April 29, 2013

i meant to go to the grocery store, but stopped to buy shoes instead.

Rainy day at a subway platform--but with a new pair of shoes!
I buy shoes when I'm sad. It's the most superficial thing about me, next to the dozens of bottles of nail polish I keep with me as a security blanket.

My favorite pair of shoes are entirely unwearable these days. They're red pumps from Nine West that made the top of some "best shoes" list on The View back in 2006. They were comfortable until they suddenly weren't, but I took them to college anyways, wearing them a few times my second year before deciding the smashed pinky toe and sore soles weren't worth it. And, yet, they traveled with me from apartment to apartment, city to city, coast to coast--and now they sit in my closet here in New York City where they will inevitably collect dust until somebody stages that "shoe-tervention" that everybody jokes about from time to time.

Anyways, those shoes were the first frivolous pair of shoes I ever bought for no real reason other than just to have them. Every other pair of heels I'd bought before then were for recitals or dances or weddings, and so owning a pair of shoes that didn't already accompany an outfit in my closet was a big deal. Whenever I would feel sad about something, I would take out those shoes and put them on, and somehow I'd feel better--prettier, more confident, whatever. You know that Kellie Pickler song, "Red High Heels"? That was my soundtrack.

And then I started discovering that I could have the same effect on my psyche with a chic pair of flats or a pair of really awesome boots. My first job in college at Albertsons had me wearing the same pair of practical, boring black sneakers every day, and so when I quit, I got a pair of stiletto boots that made me feel like I was moving up in the world (it worked--I got a great job two months later).

So even though I know it's a fairly impractical obsession, and a pair of shoes will never cure me of a cold or sadness or a broken heart, there's a very shallow part of me that is convinced otherwise.

I also bought three pairs of shoes yesterday, so there's that.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


The D had just pulled up to the station when Zoe fell. I heard her cry out before I saw her at the foot of the stairs. Her maroon hat was on the ground, and her gray hair was a tangled mess. The Fairway groceries in her hand landed beside her, and she was grabbing her ankle in pain. Around her, people rushed up and down the stairs--the Dance of the Commuters, some have called it before. But I broke choreography and turned away from the train.

When I dropped to my knees to help her sit up, I noticed Zoe's face was obscured mostly by a large pair of sunglasses. She told me she had just come from the hospital where she had her eyes dilated because of an infection. She said she knew she should have taken a taxi, but she thought she could do it on her own. "I don't want to go back to the hospital," she said. "I'd be so embarrassed."

I asked her a few basic details, and sent a young man in a tie up the stairs to retrieve the station manager. A minute later, an MTA employee arrived with a chair. She settled into it and her breathing returned to normal. Zoe then looked behind me at the second express train that had arrived and pulled away. "You missed your train again. I'm so sorry." I shrugged and told her there were plenty of trains.

It turns out that Zoe lives a block away from me. She repeated that she knew she should have waited to get groceries and go about her life, but she was impatient and wanted to be at home. I imagined my own grandparents, and could see them doing the same in all their stubborn glory. In fact, six years ago, hadn't that been what happened to Grandpa? A stroke at a bus stop, and I could only pray that there were people who would stop to care for a stranger.

Zoe asked me what I was doing in New York, and I told her I'd come from California and worked at MSNBC. "Stop," she said, her jeweled fingers reaching for my hand. "That was my career."

She told me about her years as a news producer at NBC, and the few years she also spent as a production manager for Saturday Night Live. Her eyes lit up behind her sunglasses as she talked about "the old 30 Rock" and how much she had loved her career and her coworkers. "Oh, but you wouldn't know anyone I knew," she said. "I don't even know who's there anymore."

The station manager reappeared with emergency responders at the ready just as another train arrived. Zoe insisted I catch it. I gave her my number and email address, and asked her to let me know later if she was okay. She thanked me and I got off the floor to rejoin the dance.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

in the history books.

"Journalism is the first rough draft of history." -Phil Graham, publisher, The Washington Post
(from the Newseum in Washington, D.C.)
I first noticed the books in the fall of 2009, half hidden behind the orphaned couch and obscured behind trinkets and gag books received via mail. I'd been working at the New University for eight months, and until that point, I'd never bothered to look too closely until, one Friday while I waited for dummies, I finally did.

When I asked the then-Layout Editor what they were, she said they were old copies of the newspaper, but that we didn't really look at them unless we had a layout question and needed to consult the previous year's issues. I remember the then-Editor-in-Chief chiming in to suggest we move them into storage because the layout of the newsroom was awkward and we could use the extra space.

But we left them, and I didn't think twice until five months later when someone tossed me a pen and it dropped behind the couch. When I reached for the pen, I saw the bottom shelves of books that dated back to 1967, when the New U used to be The Spectrum, and then at one point also The Anthill and The Tongue. Over the next week, I stopped into the newsroom between classes to look through the older archives, marveling at the stories of a campus and city that no longer exists in the same way. Even the national news coverage was unique because it told a story from the UCI perspective. After all, what good is a newspaper if it isn't going to give you your community's take?

As I leafed through the pages, I noticed an evolution that was documented with care and concern for a campus that rose up in the middle of nowhere, and a city that would close in on it within a decade of its inception. It was in those pages that I learned how different UCI once was, with a chancellor who led the campus' first walkout protest and a radical student body that sent a delegation to Berkeley's People's Park protest that ended up being arrested and bailed out by the university itself. Those stories led me to my own year-long research into the failure of the Master Plan, along with the rise and fall of student activism at UCI, but it also led me to realize what was missing from the New University in the 21st century, and it motivated me to apply for Managing Editor to try and bring the vision of the old New U back.

I wanted the editors and writers and photographers to be inspired by the rich history of UCI, to understand that the story of the campus before the Irvine Company painted everything beige, and to know that there was still so much more to be told. I didn't want people to just clock in and clock out; I wanted them to be passionate about the community they reported on. I wanted them to feel the weight of what it meant to contribute to this documentation of history that nobody else was really documenting anymore.

I'm proud of what we accomplished by the end of the 2011 school year and, returning to campus yesterday, I'm even more proud of what's been accomplished since. There was nothing but praise and admiration for the current staff, and although I've been removed from campus happenings for two years now, I can see it is well-deserved based on a single whirlwind visit. I know that voting is over to try and save the New U, and results will be out in just a few hours, but I hope everyone who's worked so hard is proud of themselves for all they've contributed to the paper's success. The New U may not have always printed what people wanted to hear, but it's always printed the story that needed to be told. I hope 50 years from now, there'll still be proof of that.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

the way i see it: you show up (no matter what).

Don't stop reading because I'm beginning with a Sex and the City quote, but...
Carrie: Will we still be friends when we're this old?
Miranda: Sure.
Carrie: What do you mean "sure"? l could barely get us together for the weekend and we're all mobile!...How are we gonna make it to 70 if you've already zoned me out?
Miranda: l'm listening. Talk fast.
Carrie: Friendships don't magically last 40 years. You have to invest in them. lt's like savings. You don't expect to wake up when you're old and find a big bucket of money. My point is, we need an emotional retirement plan. This is important, making time for each other and taking trips like this. As we can see, at the end of the line, it's gonna be us ladies riding a bus.

Near the end of the night, my coworkers and I were discussing--among many topics--the real, true importance of having friends to vent to when things in life are rough. I was surprised to hear them state a concept I had tried to articulate before, but to no success: "I don't need someone to fix my problems or tell me exactly what to do. I just need someone to be there."

That concept of "being there," of "showing up" when the time calls for it. I always thought it was intuitive--a friend needs you, so you're there. That's what I was always taught, but maybe there was a part missing: don't get taken advantage of either. I learned this from my mom, but sadly the hard way. My mother, the most caring and wonderful person I know, always showed up when people needed her. She made sure she was always there. She's reliable, dependable, and she always tries to do her best because she loves people--that's just who she is.

And she would never tell me this (because I think it hurt her a lot), but my dad told me that somebody whom she loved made a comment about the fact that she never got a four-year college degree. The context is a long story, but the basic fact is that somebody my mom was trying to help was frustrated about something, and basically called her stupid in front of a lot of people.

Which infuriates me, but that's another story for another time. The point is: despite all that, I think that my mom would still show up for those people, no matter how hurt she is, because she's never been the kind of person to make her life about herself; she's spent her life nurturing and loving people, and doing her best to lift them higher when they fall.

I've been wrestling with this idea lately, though, because in all of my attempts to show up for others, I hadn't really sat back and wondered if those same people would show up for me. Over the last few months, I'm afraid I've gotten my answer, and so I'm learning to set the boundaries I guess is necessary to make sure I don't end up spent.

But I think, at the end of the day, I am my mother's daughter: I would still show up for the people I care about. I don't like cutting people out of my life, and so I almost never do it. Maybe that makes me weak, but if I could spend my days nurturing and loving people, and doing my best to lift them higher when they fall...well, I think it would be worth it.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

'you throw the sand against the wind, and the wind blows it back again.'

There is still sand in the navy blue
flats I wore to Long Island the day the three of us went to brunch and ended up on the beach.

"I don't know if you know this," I said, "but I'm a Californian who doesn't like the beach."

That's not entirely true--some of my best memories come from evenings on piers, and watching the waves from the sand. The beach is unavoidable when you spend four years in Orange County. What I hated were crowded beaches in the daytime and sunburnt bros and the sand that followed you home and appeared for months in clothing you never even took to the beach in the first place.

But hopping on that train last October and heading out to a beach, the first I'd been to since moving to the East Coast, was refreshing, rejuvenating. It wasn't just the fresh air and the empty sidewalks; it was being with two amazing people while close to the ocean again, and laughing over torn cardigans and spilt ketchup.

That was only six months ago. It feels like it's been years. I don't remember much about the city or the streets there, and I can barely recognize the friends I fell asleep next to so comfortable on the train.

This French novelist once said, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." I used to scoff at that notion because if things were always changing, how could I hold onto the love and the dreams and the optimism? You feel certain things when you're 16, 18, 21, 22 in new and different ways. I couldn't imagine being who I am today with the same thoughts and feelings of a 16 year old.

But what I think that saying really means is that there are memories you hold inside of you that don't ever change, and that sometimes it's the insecurities you may have felt as a 10 year old on the playground or the mistrust you've held in your heart since you were 18 that remain so deeply engraved on the cover of your life. There's a part of you that is built on all of the things you've never forgotten--whether they be good memories or bad ones--and even as you grow up and learn more and become somebody new with each passing year, you can't ever really distance yourself from memories and from the past. Maybe sometimes that's a good thing, maybe sometimes it isn't.

The person I am today is built on the foundation of every experience I've ever had. Those beach-filled memories of bonfires and boardwalks and little bottles of alcohol tucked into a crevice between us in the sand don't just disappear. No, perhaps they became painful to see all around, and it was best to leave it behind, to move forward onto new memories and a new chapter, but it doesn't mean they're gone.

I've been in New York for over a year now, but it feels like less because I didn't really start that new chapter until it was almost too late. I guess I didn't expect those old memories to follow me 3,000 miles east, and I think that's why I'm not done with New York yet, even though the chance to leave it could be just a phone call away. Perhaps I don't love things now the way I did six months ago, but I know I loved them once. That didn't disappear. I still have the sand to prove it.