writing

crazy rich asians, a reflection

A Chinese cover of Yellow from the Crazy Rich Asians soundtrack.

I saw “Crazy Rich Asians” a few days ago with my mom, and my family has spent a lot of time talking about this movie, what it means to us, and why we resonated with it so much. I was aware of this book when it came out in 2013, but I had some skepticism about its content, and didn’t really bother exploring what it was about. I thought it had to deal with rich Chinese people from China, which, now living in Orange County, I am all too familiar with.

When I found out that it was being made into a movie, I was excited that an Asian cast would make it to the big screen, but otherwise, didn’t think too much about it. It wasn’t until the trailer came out a few months ago that I realized this was not the type of Asian representation I was expecting. It was significantly more.

To explain my connection to this movie, I have to explain my family’s rather complex immigrant story. My grandparents on my mom’s side met in Fujian Province in China. My grandmother has spoken Fujianhua, or Hokkien, to me since I was a child. Although I don’t speak to any degree of fluency, I can completely understand conversationally. My grandparents were part of the Chinese diaspora to Southeast Asia, residing in Hong Kong and Indonesia. My mom lived in Palembang, in the South Sumatra province of Indonesia (where they faced all sorts of discrimination) until she was 18, and then moved to Hong Kong. She speaks Mandarin, Indonesian, Cantonese, Hokkien, and English - these were the languages I was surrounded with growing up. My dad’s side of the family immigrated to Northern Ireland when he was young, where Chinese people made up less than 0.2% of the population. He grew up there, eventually studying engineering in London, and then moving to the United States to work at JPL. My parents met in California, where my brother and I were born.

I grew up as a Chinese-American, because that’s what I was - I was an ethnically Chinese person who grew up in America, but I always felt different than other Chinese-Americans. I received confusing looks when I entered kindergarten. My English pronunciation was off, but not because I didn’t know how to speak, but rather because I was used to hearing Northern Irish, UK, Hong Kong accents, not American ones. I was put in ESL until I could speak “correctly”. I didn’t understand why “colour” or “favourite” were wrong ways to spell. I listened carefully to how other people said “aunt”, and tried my best to emulate. I attended Chinese school and am still proficient in Mandarin, but felt alienated because Mandarin was not the primary language for anyone in my family. My parents wanted me and my brother to speak Mandarin because it is the most widely spoken, and did not speak any of the other languages with us. Other than when she was talking to me, my mom was always speaking Cantonese, Hokkien, or Indonesian. My grandmother on my dad’s side speaks Cantonese to me, and I answer in Mandarin. My aunts, uncles, and cousins speak to me in English with their unique Irish/Cantonese accents, and I respond in my Americanized English. Throughout my entire life, I have never met another Chinese-American with a background even remotely similar to mine. I’ve mentioned that my family is from Belfast and that I have UK citizenship, and received blank stares or laughs. Most people think that I’m kidding (would that be a funny joke?). I’ve been asked whether I was adopted, or if I’m actually half white and just look full Asian. When I was younger, I would mention foods that I would eat at home, like pempek and gado-gado (Indonesian foods), and get confused when my Chinese friends didn’t know what I was talking about. I had no idea where cultural boundaries lay in my incredibly multicultural home.

Crazy Rich Asians hit almost every component of my cultural identity. The movie is about Asian-Americans, British-Chinese, and Chinese people in Southeast Asia, and I resonated with every single one of those groups. The grandmother, like my grandmother, grew up in mainland China and is more “traditional”. The mom, like my mom, aunts and uncles, carry a distinctly Southeast Asian experience - not quite as Chinese as their parents, but not fully anything else either.  I understood the American jokes, the Cantonese jokes, the Mandarin jokes, and the Hokkien jokes. I resonated with this movie more than I ever reasonably expected to resonate with anything in mainstream media ever, and that feeling is incredible. If there is ever a question as to my representation is important, it is this. I’ve never felt more seen. 

thin, lady bird, crippling self-doubt

It's probably posts like these that will one day convince me to make my blog more private, but I'm pretty sure I know the few people who actually keep up with this regularly (love you all), so I'll just go with it. 

I've been thinking a lot about life lately. It's a very normal thing, I'm told. So much of life has been spent going through school, with little time to think about much else. Graduation felt like being fired out of a canon, the summer a blissful freefall. And now I feel like I've landed in an empty field. The dust has slowly settled, and I am lost.

Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I'm brought back to a room. My old room at 1425 Lyndon St, in South Pasadena. This, as I am realizing, was such a defining space for me. It was here that my various dreams were both hatched and buried, where broken hearts were mended, and where I slowly began to learn who I am. 

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I've been feeling so indescribably lost lately, and it took a movie for me to find the words. I watched Lady Bird back in November, mostly due to excitement about a few of the scenes being filmed at my high school and the local coffee shop where I went often (and where I had my MIT interview). Leaving the theater, I didn't really think that much of the movie. It was definitely good, but I focused a lot on the embodiment of the characters and setting, not about the emotional responses, which were the heart of the whole film. I joked that it was a really "white" movie. And that was it for a while. 

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I got incredibly homesick in January. I sort of expected it, with the miserable Boston winters, lack of sunlight and all. I missed the sunshine, the beach, the moonlit drives, the feel of a longboard on smooth concrete. I missed the warmth of friendships, the exquisite pain that comes from laughing too much, and the feeling of wanting to bottle up beautiful moments to save for later, and for forever. 

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I see my past so visually and so vividly. It's painful and lovely at the same time. Memory and photography are so inherently tied for me that it's hard for me to explain the difference at all. I guess the major difference is that I press a shutter to take a picture, but there exists thousands of clips in my head that never make it onto a film strip or sensor, whether real or imagined - strangers' smiles, sunlight reflecting off buildings, ocean waves, drifting snow. 

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In 9th grade, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to make movies. I spent the majority of my free time reading about screenwriting techniques and watching cinematography reels on Vimeo. I dreamt about going to USC film school and becoming a DP - making the visual nuances that make me so happy come to life for everyone. I made a few random videos on my own or for school projects, but I never allowed myself to fully immerse in a world where this dream seemed like a feasible reality. I started taking photos as a less serious alternative, deleted my video editing software, and went on to search for new dreams. Did I want to be a dentist? Yes, until I had to wash people's mouths for 8 hours a day. A biologist? Oh, I never took biology. I went to an MIT summer camp, became interested in mechanical engineering (because I started fixing cameras), and the rest happened how it happened. 

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MIT was an incredible place, for many, many reasons, but it's also the place where I felt like I lost myself the most. I made some truly wonderful memories and met some of my favorite people in my life, but in retrospect, I felt forced to believe that I wanted something I didn't. I feel horrible writing this because I know that MIT is a lifelong dream for so many people. I really wanted it, too, and I was lucky to have genes from incredibly smart parents and also parents that created an environment for me to build a strong work ethic and intense self-discipline. I wasn't sure about engineering when I went to MIT, but I wanted to be sure about it. I wanted to follow in my father's footsteps, to show him how well I turned out, and to prove my own value to myself. I wasn't sure about engineering when I was at MIT, but I didn't have anything that I really liked that much more, until I started taking more social science classes towards the end of my time there. I got into product design, which was something I liked because I could use the engineering I didn't really want to do, and combine it with the social science parts that I did enjoy.

And now here I am. 

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I went home last weekend since I was out in Palm Springs for a work trip anyway. I rented a car and drove back on Friday, right through sunset. The shades of pink, yellow, blue, and purple in front of the sandy mountains was more than my heart could really bear. I smiled the entire way home. I suddenly thought of Lady Bird - the last scene, where she calls home and asks her mom whether she got emotional the first time driving through Sacramento. The memory of that scene just hit me so hard. 

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I got home, and was able to spend a few days in Irvine and around South Pasadena. I saw the aforementioned coffee shop, and scenes from the movie came back to me again. It was weird, because the locations were just triggers - I started identifying with the subtle emotional trajectories of the characters, months after I had seen the movie. And then I would recall the way it was filmed - the colors, the sunflares, the tonal quality - and it reminded me of the ways I construct my own memories. 

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There's another scene that hits me really hard from the movie (sorry for anyone who hasn't seen this movie, it's hard to explain how the delivery changes the meaning, or how spectacular Saoirse Ronan is): 

Mom: I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.
’Lady Bird’: What if this is the best version?

This scene kills me. I've never had this sort of conversation with my mom, but this sentiment is something I struggle with internally on a daily basis. Not the idea that I won't be better, but the sense of crippling self-doubt. 

I've always prided myself on being able to go for things that I want, and my ability to be willing to pick up new skills and try new things. While I still think those things are true, I'm coming to terms with the fact that I've never actually tried that hard for the things that I genuinely love doing with all of my heart. I'm actually really scared of putting my all into something and realizing that I'm not that good at it, or that I'll never make a difference with it. Since college, I've been working towards things that provide stability. Job security, good income, ability to support myself, insurance, etc. I was convinced  that once I had those things, happiness would follow, but...

Money is not life’s report card. Being successful doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. It just means that you’re successful. But that doesn’t mean that you’re happy.
— Marion McPherson, Lady Bird

It's weird - I never really understood people that loved their jobs, or wanted to work more than they had to. This judgement, I've realized, comes from a bitterness within myself. I think, deep down, I just really envy people who work just because they love it. This doesn't apply to people who have to work for financial stability or people who attach their self-worth to a paycheck or external validation - I feel for those people. But working for enjoyment? That's completely foreign to me, and it's only now that I realize that it's because I've never let myself even try to turn something I love into a job. Yes, I've done some freelance photography, but not before I grossly undercharge to eliminate any real expectations from me, and this just worsened during my time in college. I'm so terrified of disappointing myself by trying too hard and failing that I've built an entire separate track of my life that walls off life productivity from personal happiness. As a result, I'm judged for things that I don't feel that strongly about, so if I fail, it's easier to move on from. It's easier to pursue the things I love in my free time, away from any actual responsibilities or ability to make a real impact, and that's sort of cowardly. And I convinced myself that this was desirable. 

We’re afraid that we will never escape our past. We’re afraid of what the future will bring. We’re afraid we won’t be loved, we won’t be liked. And we won’t succeed.
— Parish Priest, Lady Bird

To be honest, I don't really know where to go from this realization. I'm proud that I'm able to support myself with my education and skillset that I built for my career, but I want to push myself to take more risks, expressively. I'm working on my photography a lot more now, and eventually do want to become a well-established photographer. Shooting for a magazine or a website would be really cool. I want to make a documentary one day. Maybe even work on a film. I want to use the food knowledge that I'm gaining to make systematic change. Most of all, I want to empower people through the way I see the world. And one of these days, I want to be able to let go of an expected 9-5 job to pursue, in full force, something that doesn't have me checking the time every half an hour. I want to be someone who gets up excited to do something with their day, even if that day is challenging as hell. I want to think about something 24/7, not because it's stressful, but because I know that it truly matters to me. To be honest, I just want to feel some of the fearlessness I used to feel, before logic, fear, and an expectation of what my life should be led me to a very stable emptiness. 

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terraform / frustrations, questions

I feel like every blog post starts with a realization of how much time has gone by since I last posted. I've been trying to write for a while now, but life can be...overwhelming, and I find it difficult to write unless I have a clear direction. 

I've been working full-time for more than 2 months now. I like my job, so it's actually what happens after work that stresses me out more than my 9-5. 

As I mentioned in my previous post, I started a personal learning project about food. As someone who grew up vegan for health reasons, awareness of food was necessary. I was often on the outskirts of food culture, and was able to observe habits that were so drastically different than mine. My mom conducted a lot of research about diet and health as I was growing up, and, whether intentionally or not, also developed more sustainable living habits that I accepted as standard (ie. eating local/organic food, avoiding plastic waste, recycling carefully, reducing material consumption). I never thought I was "environmentally friendly" - I took AP Environmental Science in high school and enjoyed it thoroughly, but it was really just another class to me. I don't think, in retrospect, I became passionate about the environment at all until I was confronted with a staggering amount of apathy and willful ignorance when I started college. 

I've been reading about fishing for the past five weeks. I don't eat fish, didn't know anything about fish, have never been fishing in my life, hate boats, and get really seasick. I have no direct interest in the ocean, but I wanted to learn more about the impact humans were having on the world. I learned a lot of fascinating things about the ocean, but my main takeaway was...how come I didn't know any of this earlier? And in general, how come I only know a small handful of people that are even interested in talking about pressing environmental issues? Why is caring about the environment an "interest" or "hobby", as if being invested in what is going to inevitably devastate the following generations of life on earth is the same as playing basketball or watching a new TV show? 

I want to blame individuals, but I can't. The societal baseline for caring is just too low. We pat ourselves on the back for everything, even actions that should really be the baseline. We refill our water bottles at the water fountain, where it kindly reminds us of the number of bottles "saved" from the landfills. Yes, refilling that bottle does replace a disposable plastic bottle, but why doesn't every bottle say "one more piece of plastic added to the landfill"? Why do we give out plastic bottles, straws, and cups in absurd amounts at every social event? And what's the difference if we collect reusable water bottles like they're disposable, anyway? Why do we feel good when we recycle, but don't really notice when we toss plastic into a trash bin just because it was closer? Society doesn't lead us to actually make a difference, it just wants us to feel like we're making a difference. 

I'm surrounded by amazing people who care greatly about an impressive variety of things. I went to school with people who were incredibly hardworking, passionate about technology, and left with dreams of making the world a "better place" (I use quotes here just because I think every person has a different definition of better). For many, that meant newer, faster, more reliable, more advanced technology. More innovation. I share many of my peers' passion for technology, and ways it can be harnessed to  better the lives of humans. I love well-designed products, cool tech, and I am constantly in awe of what humans are capable of creating and understanding. And yet, I'm also constantly frustrated, because in tech, sustainability is often a buzzword, used vaguely on websites to check a box and move on with it. Actually caring about the environment is delegated to hipsters and crunchy granola types (ie. Patagonia), or so my experiences have led me to believe. But the environment is the one thing that will affect all of us. No matter where you live, how much money you make, what you studied, or how many cars you own, whether you are religious or not... what happens with our environment will affect all of us. 

We are imagining and building the future, but blissfully ignoring it at the same time. I'm not asking for everyone to drop their jobs or personal passions and dedicate their lives to environmental causes - that would be hypocritical of me. However, I do believe that we can all spend a little bit more time thinking about the less glamorous parts of our future - pollution, climate change, ocean resource management, sustainable agricultural production, trash... We don't think about it because we're taught that humans are incredible, adaptive beings that can use our big brains to solve any problem we're encountered with. I think that's quite egotistical, but I can put some trust in it. Yet, I can no longer maintain comfort in that thought, because around me, there are very few big brains that I see working on these issues. 

These are issues that will (and already are) affecting our lives. These are issues that will burden the lives of humans for generations to come (if nuclear war doesn't kill us all by then). We imagine the future as such a colorful world filled with wonderful technology - we have no trouble talking about self-driving cars and fearing about the implications of AI, but we cannot forget about our physical planet. We cannot forget that there will soon be 8 billion people on this planet, each one fighting for food, water, infrastructure, and energy (and scrambling for the quality of living and rate of consumption that Americans have taken completely for granted). 

I think it's easy to think about the future and dismiss it as something to deal with later on, but it's important to realize how much can be at stake if we don't find viable solutions. If you love sushi, think about what it would be like if your favorite sushi no longer existed in the world, because the fish it came from went extinct due to poor fishery management. If you get really bad seasonal allergies, think about what it would be like when year after year, increased CO2 and longer spring seasons make allergies even worse.  What would it be like if our drinking water became a significant health risk? What would it be like if droughts led to a severe scarcity of water, let alone clean water? What would it be like to fear "once in a lifetime" type of hurricanes every year?

The future scares me. It's not really these "what if" questions that scare me, but the lack of people who are willing to think critically about these questions. I really don't know how to get people to care about these questions. We can talk about our future homes, how many kids we're going to have, where we want to travel, what kind of pets we want, our career trajectories, our retirement plans, but we don't talk about what we can do to make sure the world we're retiring in is the one we imagine. Why?

Maybe I'm being too pessimistic, too critical. I don't know. I would love to talk about this - please comment or email me if you have thoughts. 

graduate / fake meat

Aaaanddd, I'm done with my final semester at MIT! It's been a crazy ride, and I don't know how I feel about it, except a sigh of relief at the moment. I'll probably have more thoughts about it later now. 

For now, I wanted to share an academic paper that I'm pretty proud of. I definitely worked on it harder than I ever have for pretty much anything. I grew up knowing about fake meat and accepting it as a normal food item, but I was recently inspired to think more critically about it in a food history class. 

HERE'S THE PAPER - IT'S KINDA LONG.