Apparently 2017 was the year of the Chinese adoption books

Looking at Little Fires Everywhere, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and The Leavers.

I always thought I had an understanding about adoption. Never questioned much, just accepted everything I was grateful for. After reading Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, and The Leavers by Lisa Ko, I’ve started thinking about it again.

It hasn’t been easy, or particularly fun (I should probably talk to a professional about this, but blogging will suffice in the meantime.) I set out with the goal to compare the three, and while reading them back-to-back-to-back started to weigh on me, it’s been enlightening too. Reading them together put into words a lot of the feelings I didn’t realize I even felt. By the end, finishing with Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, I had a new clarity on the topic. But I never felt like any one of them told a complete story of adoption. Here, let me explain each one a little better.
(Warning, spoilers ahead.)

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

I love Celeste Ng. I was psyched when she announced her second novel and that a Chinese adoption would be a central storyline. But I don’t actually consider Little Fires Everywhere an “adoption story” specifically. It’s a central plot point for all of the characters, but it’s not the central focus of the story. The story, by the way, is about a small Ohio suburb in the late 90s and focuses on two families: the Richardsons, the epitome of suburban excellence, and the Warrens, the artsy-hippie mother and daughter who shake things up. That’s putting everything very broadly for the sake of brevity; you really need to read the book to understand all of the inner character nuances, family ties, and deep look at the human condition that makes LFE such a powerful book.

The adoption part comes in a little unconventionally. A Chinese woman, recently immigrated to the U.S., has a newborn girl and no support to help raise her. Struggling with finances, the stress of being a new mother alone, and postpartum depression, she leaves the baby on the steps of the fire house (I had no idea this was a real thing and not just a euphemism.)

A rich white couple in the town adopt the little girl after having trouble conceiving on their own. The birth mother hears about them and a custody battle begins on who the baby should stay with: adoptive parents or birth mother. During the custody battle a Chinese American lawyer argues for the birth mother, and really starts to question what it would mean for a Chinese American girl to be raised by a white couple in a very bland suburb. And while there’s no doubt that the adoptive parents would be great parents, there’s this quote:

“But would there be something — something — missing from her life if she were to grow up with them?”

When you’re adopted, of course there’s something missing. Especially when you’re a trans-racial adoptee. Your whole life is just one big question mark from day one. But this vague question put into concrete words that distant emptiness that’s always been there. No matter how many language classes I take, or history I learn, or clubs I join, or food I eat, there’s something that’s just missing. I’m never in on the joke. And there’s no way to fix it, it just is. I don’t think it’s something bad, or a “downside to adoption,” or something to be sad about, it’s a fact of my life.

And then there’s a page of inner dialogue from the adoptive mother that makes me choke up every time. The mother recalls the early days when they brought the baby home and all of the painstaking care — and love — it requies to be a new mom. From pureeing baby food, fighting a fever, feeding her medicine, and knowing her daughter “in pitch dark by one cry of her voice — no, one touch of her hand. No, one breath of her smell.”

Celeste Ng did the best job writing from both mother’s perspectives. I’ve heard too many different takes of adoptive parents being “saviors,” or “not real parents,” or some other such nonsense. In adoption stories, especially literary fiction, it’s easy to focus the story on the bio mom and write off everything afterwards (including the kid! You’ll see in a second.) I’m tired of stories that only look at it from the biological side, which, in my view is a cop out. Family is complicated, the struggles of parenthood I can only imagine, and every adoption is different. Celeste Ng is perhaps one of the best writers who understands what that actually means and can tell it in the best way.

(By the way — the custody battle rules in favor of the adoptive parents, and it’s bittersweet for all. Until the birth mom kidnaps the baby and flies back to China with her. What a twist, m’I’right?)

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng:

  • Book as an overall read: 5/5
  • I Want A Greater Understanding Of Adoption: 2/5

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Lisa See

This was my least favorite of the three. It’s written beautifully, sure, but plot-wise and As A Chinese Adoptee I couldn’t get behind it. I’m sure others will disagree, but by the middle of the book it felt like an obligation to see it through and hope, really hope, it didn’t end in the most predictable way possible. Spoiler alert: it ended in the most predictable way possible.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane centers on the life of a girl who grows up in the mountain village province Yunnan in Southern China. Li-Yan’s life revolves around Akha traditions and farming tea. It’s full of hardships. Like, Asian drama-level hardships. This book is an Asian drama. It’s incredibly well researched and full of beautiful detail on the people, culture, and scenery. I learned a lot about the Akha people and tea. Oh, my God. I learned so much about tea. Anyways, Li-Yan ends up having a baby and is unable to care for her in the village, so she takes her daughter to the nearest city and leaves her at the orphanage with only a packet of the family’s rarest tea (tea girl, you get it?) Then she returns home a changed person and plot ensues.

I won’t get into all of the plot Li-Yan faces over the years. I would focus on what happened to the daughter, Haley, and her life as an adoptee in Southern California (living on Hummingbird Lane), but Lisa See did not do that. We don’t see Haley again until almost a third of the way in. Most of the book focuses on Li-Yan and her life, and that’s fair. But oh wait. Aren’t we supposed to be reading about the life of The Girl Of Hummingbird Lane? Where did she go?

To group therapy, apparently. Haley struggles a lot in school, and her parents find a counseling group for Chinese adoptees to talk and share experiences. Ah, finally, the adoption stuff I’ve been waiting for. Oh, it’s only a few pages long. Okay.

I’m probably being a little harsh on the book, but when I kept seeing it touted over and over again as the literary fiction book on Chinese adoption, I was hyped. Then I was disappointed. Adoption is a major plot point, not the plot. To me, See didn’t spend nearly enough time on Haley’s life and perspective. The group counseling scenes said some memorable stuff that I resonated with — Haley mentioned something about being grateful but angry, which is me af — but it also felt like quotes from a Chinese adoptee focus group. I wish Lisa See would have spent half the time explaining the life of an adoptee as she did the nuances of tea.

Also, I hated the ending. As the final climax in the ending chapters got more and more inevitable, I just felt rising dread. It all fell into a pattern, like when you see the final pieces of a puzzle and just plug them in where they’re supposed to go, mystery gone. Like I said earlier, I think focusing on the bio mom is a cop out and too-perfectly-coincidental reunions between mother and child just enrage me (in fiction. In real life it’s amazing.) That might say more about my own underlying insecurities with adoption, but I’m just going to keep saying it’s a cop out. It’s a cliché and frankly, completely unrealistic.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Lisa See

  • Book as an overall read: 3/5
  • I Want A Greater Understanding Of Adoption: 1/5

The Leavers, Lisa Ko

I read this one last, and it ended up being the toughest one to get through. Maybe because it was the third, but in a lot of ways it was the heaviest of the three. A dual perspective story between the bio mom and adoptive son, it’s also one of the most original adoption stories I’ve heard. The mom, Polly, is a Chinese immigrant to New York City, and shortly after arriving she gives birth to her son Deming. Then, one day, Polly doesn’t come home and Deming is adopted by a suburban white couple who take him upstate New York and rename him Daniel Wilkinson. The book is split into different parts as the lives of both sides are told and revealed.

It was the only book out of the three to really focus on both lives involved in this story. It felt like I finally understood what a complex birth mother could look like. Instead of the romanticized tragic figure, she was a woman who made an incredibly tough choice. Well, in this specific story, kind of. In The Leavers, the mom was technically deported so it wasn’t so much a choice for her. But the same sense of abandonment and guilt kinda applies. Anyways.

It was the last part of the book when it suddenly got harder to keep reading. The mother’s perspective, finally saying why she left and never returned, got too real. The way she described how much she loved Deming, always thought of him, was always haunted by him, got to me a little bit.

“I want you to know that you were wanted.”

However, I think Lisa Ko was a little too harsh on the adoptive parents. They weren’t villains — they were really good parents to Daniel and he loved them as his family — but they definitely had the aura of “benevolent savior” around them. I’m sure for some families that’s true, and it’s a fascinating approach to adoption, but in this book I just read it as more pro-bio mom bias. There was a lot about how Daniel acted, reacted, and felt towards the Wilkinsons that I think should have been explored a bit more.

I really felt like I connected with Daniel/ Deming. He’s 21, directionless, lost in a big city, and constantly trying to figure out why he never feels fulfilled. Even though I don’t identify with all aspects of his story, he’s an adoptee and that feeling of constant searching for something is also a part of me. He keeps thinking that some other thing out there will give him the answers or the definite sense of Place Where I Belong, but in the end he realizes that he’ll always be somewhere in the in between.

(And can I just say how I’m so cynically entertained that Lisa Ko managed to write an adoptee story and a child-of-immigrants story. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in conversations or heard stories about what it’s like to be the child of immigrants and just felt so utterly out of place. I get that’s the usual background for a majority of the AAPI community, who I love and fight for every day, but damn. Talk imposter syndrome. And Lisa Ko managed to do both in one book? Wow. Anyways.)

Overall, I enjoyed The Leavers. I don’t know what I was looking for in it, but I found something to hold onto. I think I’m in the same place as Daniel in a lot of ways: I too went back to China, connected with my roots, better understood my family, and am now living contently with where I am in life — at least for now.

The Leavers, Lisa Ko

  • Book as an overall read: 5/5
  • I Want A Greater Understanding Of Adoption: 4/5

Phew, ok, thanks for sticking with me in that three-part saga.

I liked all three books and they each shed new light and perspective on adoption. Through telling different sides of the topic, I could piece together one whole understanding of it. All three hit on the big issues — abandonment, loss of self, unanswerable questions, family and parenthood — and gave neatly packaged answers. But that’s what bothered me the most about them: they had answers and happy endings. When in reality, adoption is so much emptier than that. At the end of this journey, I’m glad it got me thinking more about my own story, and ways I can finally explore it.

Because now I have a newfound understanding of how important it is for adoptees to start telling our own stories. In books, like the one from Nicole Chung I am anxiously waiting for, through music like Dan aka Dan, or in movies like Sam Futerman’s Twinsters. These are all people whose work I love, but also, they’re all Korean adoptees. So if 2017 was the year of Chinese adoptee books, let’s see if 2018 is the year of Chinese adoptees doing our own stuff.

“The college-aged counselors, also adoptees, talked with such bare emotion that he felt embarrassed for them.” — Daniel/ Deming from The Leavers talking about an adoptee camp he went to, while also personally attacking me.

“Crazy Rich Asians” y’all

A presentation on the upcoming movie, and the intense pressure around it.

A while back, my friend asked me to give a presentation on anything, as long as it had something to do with books. I had 0 ideas, but got inspired by the special Entertainment Weekly edition of Crazy Rich Asians, so I decided to talk about every reader’s favorite topic: book to movie adaptations.

It went pretty well, and I ended up having a lot of fun making my slides. So for fun, and because I have a lot of thoughts about the upcoming movie, I’ll share them and my speaking notes here.
(I should note that the event was hosted by one of my school’s publishing clubs, hence the literary event references.)

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It all comes down to representation. You can read a book and know in your head that this whole cast looks like you, reflects your family and culture. But it’s a completely different experience when you see it, especially in a mainstream format like a Hollywood movie. I’ll let the professionals explain it better:

Plus, all the other major movies with Asian American casts came from books: The Joy Luck Club premiered in 1993. Memoirs of a Geisha premiered in 2005, and it only made the list because it’s one of the few mainstream American movies with an entirely Asian and Asian American cast. The book was written by a white man and there’s a number of conversations about the validity of Memoirs. Not going to lie, it’s pretty problematic, but the movie soundtrack was really good. Fresh Off the Boat aired in 2015, and even though it’s not a movie it was a big deal in recent pop culture. After the second season it split off from Eddie Huang’s life story, and I think it’s become a better show for it. Would not recommend the book, to be honest.

And finally, the one we’ve all been waiting for: Crazy Rich Asians. Release date: August 17, 2018. As the third major movie, and following “Fresh Off the Boat,” CRA has to be a verifiable box office success. Because if it “fails,” studios will use it as an example to affirm all the old stereotypes and misconceptions about casting Asians in movies and telling their own stories.
And if this fails, publishers might not pick up as many books by Asian authors because clearly if Crazy Rich did poorly, there’s no mass market for our stories.

…To be honest, the book wasn’t that good. It switches points of view between a lot of characters, Kwan uses footnotes as personal asides which can take you out of the world he’s writing about, and a lot of the drama is so rich it feels a little unrelatable.
So I’m scared that this movie will be bad — and it can’t afford to be.

I believe that if CRA does well, then that gives the first nudge for others to follow. And there are so many others that can follow. Including 2 more books in the Crazy Rich Asians series! Movies, mini series, TV shows, Netflix originals — we’re at peak media right now, and of course that comes from books leading the way. And no matter what movie comes out, the book is always better, so more movies will lead to more book sales — right? That’s how that works?

And look at this cast! Don’t you want to support this cast?

Photos from Emerson College Quidditch

Some photos from Emerson College’s quidditch totally real and somewhat ironic quidditch league.

For two years, I took the fictional sport from Harry Potter very seriously. I don’t remember when I heard about the intramural quidditch league at Emerson College, but it was one of the first things I signed up for when I moved to campus freshman year. Then I was put on the Jamaica Plain Jaguars, and chased for the rag-tag team until junior year. My poor athleticism aside, I had fun playing this ridiculous sport — but my favorite part was photographing games.

The South End Slothbears celebrating.

A quick breakdown of real-world muggle quidditch:

  • Teams have all of the position from the books: 3 Chasers, 2 Beaters, 1 Keeper, and 1 Seeker.
  • The Snitch is a person and they wear (or at least when we played) yellow shorts with a sock “tail” attached on the back. Their job is to basically run and-or wrestle the Seekers to keep the tail out of reach.
  • Our “brooms” are PVC pipes. It’s not weird after a while, you get used to them.
  • The quaffle is a volley ball and the bludgers are deflated kickballs the beaters throw at players. The hoops are hoolahoops on stands. A little bit like ultimate frisbee meets dodgeball.
  • There are a lot of rules, which you can read here via US

Yeah, it looks silly. But man — It. Gets. Intense.

So when I wasn’t playing I took photos, most of which are posted in albums on ECQ’s Facebook page. It was a while ago, so I don’t remember all of the photos I took (at one point I had around 3,000 quidditch photos sitting on my computer) but here are a few my favorites I took.

A Seeker pulling the Snitch and ending the game.

Beat in the face.

Lots of (friendly) agression.

More aggression.

The Park Street Pulverizers winning ECQ’s Griffith Cup.

The last Jamaica Plain Jaguars. Rest in Peace (the team disbanded)

Leap, Kill!

A fresh, needed perspective from a living female rock critic

Jessica Hopper’s book, “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic” goes beyond the simple story of a review or profile.

After years of music criticism, Jessica Hopper assembled her best work to plant a flag in pop culture criticism with her second book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Her dry humor and honest reviews make this First Collection an enjoyable read, but Hopper’s refreshing point of view on female musicians and fans really make these essays cultural criticism. She took each artist, body of work, and the overall culture to contextualize it within her own perspective.

The earliest essay dates from 2003, the latest in 2014, and in that decade of music criticism Hopper chronicles all the ways music stays the same or its lack of cultural change. For every new rapper who speaks to his community, a stereotyped rock star tries to work beyond her debut image, and a band from the past desperately wants to stay relevant. Hopper opens the book by setting the ultimate art critic scene: “Dancing in pitch-dark rooms, room illuminated exclusively by the tiny light on the turntable, is an activity which fits very well with my ideas of ‘rock-critic behavior’ (which is like normal music-fan behavior, but substantially more pitiful and indulgent).” This beginning piece and pseudo-introduction, “I Have A Strange Relationship With Music” kicks off the tone and attitude for the rest of her First Collection.

She breaks up the book with different themes like “Chicago,” “Faith,” and “Nostalgia,” and the book breezes by pretty quickly. Her longer, in-depth pieces like “Conversation with Jim Derogatis Regarding R. Kelly” and “You Will Ache Like I Ache: The Oral History of Hole’s Live Through This” carry readers through to the end not only for the content, but also because of the gravitas and nuance she uses to tell such heavier stories. This living female rock critic has a deep understanding of the different cultures and backstories that create the pop/ punk/ rock/ etc culture that we, the mainstream, adore and consume.

Hopper has the best understanding of music and the performers behind it, what they mean as artists and how they fit into the culture. In the piece recalling the time she spent reporting from a “concert” in a Chicago club that featured women’s mud wrestling and little to no music, Hopper wrote she must, “consume with appetite infinite — never satiable. My humanity stiffens — reporting this, writing this out means I have to process it, I have to take it all in, and it feels like a burden.” Her book reflects this service (it doesn’t always seem like burden), when she details out the commercialization of the Vans Warped Tour, the legendary Coachella, the rise and fall of, and what faith means for the now agnostic singer David Bazan. Hopper observes everything from her immediate surroundings, cultural trends and shifts, the individual styles of every performer, and turns it all into an acute critique of the moment as she sees it.

And as the only living female author of the first collection of criticism, Hopper’s best insights come when she talks about tropes and expectations female artists and their fans deal with merely for existing. From her first essay in “Chicago,” Hopper calls out the total lack of representation in the punk-emo genre, except for the eerie idealization of girls within song topics. She ends the essay with, “Us girls deserve more than one song. We deserve more than one pledge of solidarity. We deserve better songs than any boy will ever write about us.” It comes as a surprise to no one that female musicians get discounted or put in boxes too often by the mainstream and critics. Now for female performers to stake their claim in the music scene they must upset expectations or through do it sheer force of will. Reading her essays, I gained a better understanding of the ideas and ways female pop stars present themselves as an “image” and — sometimes versus — “artist.” Both valid views and ambitions for artists, and Hopper really digs into the double standard women face in music holding up that duality.

She spends just as much time addressing, even writing to, the female fans of music and the reputation “fangirls” earn. In a 2012 article for the Village Voice, she calls out how fangirls get discounted because of inherent sexist bias: “When it comes to music, image is believed to be the teen girls’ area of fascination and special expertise; young women’s arduous fandom is often taken as the very proof of a performer’s artlessness. The perception being that girls are so rapt with an artist’s surface image that it supersedes any sort of real connection with or understanding of the music itself.” Female stars and fans get held to unfair double standards, stereotypes, and expectations, but manage to thrive despite it. As a result of that work and loyalty, the rest of mainstream pop culture gets lucky too.

The three chapters I liked the most — “Real/Fake,” “Females,” and “Strictly Business,” — specifically addressed the ways female artists struggle with their “validity” in the mainstream, what pop music means beyond simple escapism, and how changing times means musicians need to do what they must to make a living. Hopper made each essay her own with her voice and observations, adding to the conversation instead of repeating what most others already said. The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic firmly stakes Jessica Hopper’s place in the canon of rock criticism, living or dead.

2017: The whiplash year for K-pop

What does it mean to go from one of the most validating years to its most heartbreaking.

2017 was the year that put Korean pop (K-pop) on the map. And not in a mocking, other-ing way, like how “Gangnam Style” swept pop culture in 2013. No, this year K-pop, specifically boy bands, hit mainstream America and made an impression. As a fan since 2012 (I came late to the game, I know) watching K-pop’s rise was both one of the most amazing things to see… and eventually one of the most heartbreaking.

Let’s start with the one, the only, BTS. Wow. What a year. Historic is just the start of it. Their meteoric rise to fame really began earlier this year when they won the Billboard 2017 award for Top Social Artist (and beat Justin Bieber’s 6-year record), but this year changed everything when they were invited to perform at the American Music Awards — the first Korean boy band to ever do so. As a part of their time visiting Los Angeles, the group appeared on The Late Late Show with James Cordon, performed a mini concert on Jimmy Kimmel Live , and took over Ellen. Then of course the AMA performance itself was legendary.

There were fan chants, light sticks, people dancing —it was the best part of the AMAs (but admittedly it was the only part I watched.) After that I heard BTS on the radio, my friend heard it played at her work, and mainstream American celebrities on Twitter were declaring themselves ARMY (their official fan name.) I’m not even a big BTS fan, but I could feel the change they brought to the game.

And it was so validating. For all those times in high school I felt like an idiot fangirl (which, to be fair, I was pretty obnoxious) for liking K-pop, I finally saw it becoming the next big thing. Not to dismiss Psy and the work he did with “Gangnam Style.” But the entire time he was promoting, it always felt like people were laughing at him, and I was never sure what part of the craze was the joke. For many people, Psy was as far as their knowledge and care for K-pop went. At least, until this year when BTS brought “DNA” into the mainstream to be celebrated.

But still not fully understood. K-pop brings a whole new culture and its own context to American/ Western standards. I’m not saying K-pop gets a pass for its problematic practices —issues best pointed out and discussed by Sandra Song in Teen Vogue— but there are different standards and learning curves at play. Fans, idols, labels, and agencies from both sides need to reconsider and re-educate themselves on what they think pop music and culture means. And in the wake of the hyper-consumption of BTS, I wonder what that means for new fans coming to K-pop at one of its most tragic times.

On December 18, 2017, lead singer of Shinee and angel too good for this world Kim Jonghyun passed away. It’s most likely a suicide. He was 27.

If you’re going to be a fan of K-pop, either the whole genre or just one person, you need to understand its place as a part of larger context. Part of larger cultural contexts of South Korea (parts I don’t fully understand as an outsider) K-pop can be brutal and that causes real damage to its idols.

“The 27-year-old’s passing highlights South Korea’s alarming suicide rate, which an October 2017 report from the Berkeley Political Review says claims the lives of 40 people every day and is the fourth-most common cause of death in the country,” Jeff Benjamin in NPR.

Talking about mental health in Korea does not happen. Again, it’s part of a greater Korean cultural context I’m not qualified to talk about. But it needs to be start getting discussed by those who can affect change. Reading Jonhyun’s final letter shows how much pain he felt, how it was clearly unaddressed, and that he never found the help he needed. I can’t offer answers or guesses for what will happen in the future of the industry, but all I know is that it can’t stay the same. I can only hope that maybe the new (buying) power BTS brought to K-pop will be that catalyst.

This genre, fandoms, and performers are valid parts of the music industry. We’re way past my days in high school when I when tried to explain K-pop to some of my friends, and no one bothered to try and listen to songs or watch a music video. Now we’re hearing BTS on the radio, K-Con is a massive concert in New York and Los Angeles every year, and idols are starting to collaborate with big-name musicians here and abroad. That means fans, artists, and labels need to recognize all aspects of the industry. Because blindly following the next glittery thing only perpetuates the system, when it’s time to change it.

Please remember there are always people to talk to, if you need to reach out. Here’s a list of international hotlines to call, and if you don’t see a country listed please call your local emergency number.

You did well, Jonghyun. You did so well.

Overlooking Japanese anime film “Your Name” discredits an animated hit

Leaving the movie of the 2016 Academy Awards shows its inherent bias.

Out of the 89 years of the Academy Awards, only one Japanese anime film won Best Animated Feature Film: Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Spirited Away in 2003. In the almost fifteen years since then, very few anime films and shorts show up in the list. The snobbery for anime showed up again last year when the Academy did not nominate the internationally successful film Your Name (Kimi no Na Wa) from director Makoto Shinkai. After its release, multiple awards worldwide, and critical acclaim, the Academy missed recognizing Your Name as an example of a work that goes beyond the standard anime genre to tell the story of fate, missed connections, and first love.

Set in contemporary Japan, Your Name revolves around two students who intermittently switch bodies for no apparent reason or cause. Taki Tachibana lives the modern dream, attending a good school and living in a nice Tokyo apartment. He feels discontent though, an unknown missing piece weighing down his life. Across Japan, in a (fictional) mountain village of Itomori, Mitsuha Miyamizu lives a quaint rural life that she can’t stand. As a keeper of her ancestral home shrine, Mitsuha longs to leave her town, explore the larger world, and become a handsome Tokyo boy in her next life.

Her wish comes somewhat true when she and Taki realize that their “dreams” of switching places with each other actually take place in reality, and the two form a bond over their fated connection. Their story, however, doesn’t remain a cheery romantic comedy and innocent slice of life for long — an impending comet flying over Japan breaks off, the chunks landing in Mitsuha’s town, and destroying all of Itomori. When Taki realizes he actually lives three years ahead of Mitsuha, he must figure out how to use their connection to save her and her town.

Your Name became an early contender for Oscar fodder at its release in the summer of 2016. It premiered at the massively popular anime convention Anime Expo in Los Angeles, California, and became a crowd favorite following its debuts around the world. When it made its theatrical launch in the United States the following April in 2017, it grossed over $5 million dollars on opening weekend. Over a year later, Your Name earned over $355 million worldwide, and its deluxe DVD pre-orders already sold out in the United States. For the first major work and feature-length film from up-and-coming director Makoto Shinkai, Your Name had no reason to get overlooked by the Academy.

Shinkai’s trademark on the industry remains his hyper-real animation of his settings, characters, and an almost otherworldly Japan. From glistening Tokyo, to Mitsuha’s small mountainside village, all of the backgrounds and settings look like real places in Japan. Other anime styles look realistic when they take place in Japan, but Your Name works on a higher level for the photographic clarity of every scene. On top of that, the comet acts as a driving force in the movie, but he animated it so well it looks almost innocent. The celestial look to the way Shinkai drew the sky, the town of Itomori, and the comet created a more magical feel to an otherwise everyday life movie.

Take the moment when Mitsuha watches the comment fly over Itomori, on the same day as the town’s spring festival. Lanterns illuminate the traditional vendor stands in a soft orange hue, students walk around in traditional kimonos, and the early evening sun turns the whole sky pink. Mitsuha goes for a walk with her friends to the fields for the best view of the comet, and inbrilliant arc it sparks across the sky, like pastel fireworks. The audience feels the same awe as Mitsuha staring up at the dusky blue sky. As the stars fall, it dawns on you at about the same time it this Mitsuha the imminent danger Itomoria faces. The artistry of the scene going beyond any form of animation, because once immersed in Shinkai’s Japan, it doesn’t feel like watching an anime, it feels like enjoying a film.

Aside from its identity as modern Japanese pop art, anime as a medium affords certain factors that only work through its own definitions, tropes, and artistic styles — and even then some more specific references to Japanese culture. I think that this level of foreign media puts off a majority of Western viewers. When seeing anime imports like Pokemon, Sailor Moon, and Dragon Ball Z, the genre earns a reputation that only masterful works — but still heavily “other-ized” sensibilities — like Miyazaki can afford to pull off. But Your Name manages to keep Japan at its core as the characters move around it and tell an otherwise not too unbelievable human story. In the same vein as Disney’s trademark look, or the beauty of Pixar animation, the style of anime in Your Name uses its medium to tell a meaningful story.

The anime industry in Japan amasses about $18 million dollars, according to the Association of Japanese Animations in an NPR story, and yet preconceived definitions and misconceptions of anime discount its films for consideration from the legacy Western awards such as the Oscars. I believe that the Academy acted with a bias against anime when they didn’t consider Your Name for Best Animated Feature Film in 2016. Your Name compares easily to heavy hitters like Zootopia, and Moana, sharing the same core themes of good animated movies: family, friendship, saving the day, and doing good. Your Name marks Shinkai’s first major stake in the game of animation, and the Academy should not — and cannot — continue to ignore his work.

Photos from Anime NYC 2017

I tried to be a cosplay photographer for a weekend.

Last weekend my friends and I went to New York City for the first ever Anime NYC convention. It was one of (maybe the first?) anime-focused cons in New York, and held in the Jarvits Center — the same place as New York Comic Con and the building where our hopes and dreams died on November 8. This wasn’t our first weeb con — Anime Boston is the OG — and seeing Anime NYC’s first year got us excited to see how it’ll expand in the future.

I have a passing interest in photography, a simple Canon DSLR suffices for most of my needs. And cosplay is my favorite part of any convention, I can sit in one place forever and just people watch. So for this con I decided to try my hand at something a little more in-depth than quick portraits with my phone.

(PS: Sorry I didn’t get any names of the cosplayers. If you find yourself in any of the photos and want your own copies, let me know!)

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And finally, my favorite photo from the weekend:

No Face from Spirited Away moments before it scared the life out of my friend

Thank you to everyone who let me take photos of them this weekend, and thank you to the team who made Anime NYC happen. See you next season!

The Woman: The femme fatale in modern Sherlock Holmes

Irene Adler in Elementary is the perfect femme fatale.

In the vast canon of Sherlock Holmes, only one woman stands out: Irene Adler. Introduced in the short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Adler receives the dubious introduction as “the woman.” She’s an object of affection or desire, because the great detective Sherlock Holmes could never feel something so base as love; instead Dr. Watson recalls that to Holmes Irene Adler “eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.” Now over a hundred years and two successful TV shows later, Irene Adler evolved from a mildly scandalous New Jersey opera singer to the classic femme fatale.

A standard trope of film noir movies of the 1920s, the femme fatale served as the dangerous female to draw in and often trap the male protagonist using flirty banter, dark eyeliner, and well-angled shadows. She only served her best interests and escaped to live another day to torment the protagonist’s dreams. Sexy, dangerous, and a little basic, the femme fatale recently became a sort of ideal for women in action-mystery adventures. Black Widow in the Avengers, Catwoman to Batman, and in the case of the BBC and CBS, Irene Adler.

For context, Arthur Conan Doyle introduces Irene as a cunning and unassuming woman who only shows up once in all of the Holmes tales. The prince of Bohemia comes to the Baker Street detectives asking them to retrieve a scandalous photograph of him with Adler before the prince gets married. Holmes takes on the case, and in one of the rare times through the series, fails. He tricks Adler into revealing the location of the photo, but she realizes his deception and outsmarts him by escaping the city with the photograph. Holmes, awestruck but not in love, forever immortalizes her “under the honourable title of the woman.” This brief short story launched a thousand Irene Adlers, and all befall the fate of the femme fatale.

None more so than seen on the BBC and CBS with their respective modern retellings. Viewers can debate which show, Sherlock or Elementary, took their Irene-as-the-femme-fatale farther, as both versions took her in completely new and darker directions. However I believe Elementary had the most original and in-depth take on The Woman never seen before in the canon: spoiler alert, Irene Adler and the criminal mastermind Moriarty exist as one and the same. The twist follows the overall arc of season one, as Sherlock struggles with sobriety in the wake of a two year heroine addiction sparked by the bloody death of Irene Adler at the hands of Moriarty. As the season drew to a close, the writers pulled out all the stops to tease Sherlock’s final showdown with Moriarty — aka Irene Adler, aka Moriarty in disguise.

Adler-but-actually-Moriarty could fulfill the trope of the femme fatale in all of the expected ways, but Elementary still managed to give both characters a new slant. Now the somewhat devious Irene Adler becomes the criminal mastermind Jamie Moriarty, the woman who runs one of the largest criminal organizations in the world, kills people regularly, and still fell in love with Sherlock Holmes. Complete with loose blonde curls, seductive eye contact, and a smooth British accent, the writers of the show took the woman one step farther and turned her into the ultimate villain, and in turn the ultimate femme fatale.

I think this twist in Elementary created a more intense show than its BBC counterpart and their female dominatrix whose ultimate downfall ended up showing in her devotion to an unloving man. But the real strength of Elementary lies in its casting between Jonny Lee Miller (Sherlock), Lucy Liu (Dr. Joan Watson), and Natalie Dormer (Moriarty and Adler). The natural chemistry between the three of them builds off their character’s backstories, which only enhances the tension of the plot. Their on-screen build up created the most dramatic moment of season one, and it’s not the final arrest. The final argument of the episode, when Joan realizes how close to the edge Sherlock stands, acts at the climax of the episode. The intensity between Sherlock, Joan, and Moriarty makes the audience ask: Will the duo have to really admit defeat at the hands of Moriarty?

Elementary built off the way all of the characters were running on high emotions, and the entire time the audience wonders if Sherlock will go over the edge: lose to Moriarty or use heroine to escape his fate. By combining the one woman Holmes loved with his nemesis, the show took all of the famed Conan Doyle characters in a new bent.

The New Yorker cover for Hillary Clinton devastated me

What could have been means so much.

After Hillary Clinton recently published “What Happened,” her book chronicling her point of view through the hell-scape that was the 2016 election, the New Yorker posted the cover they would have run if the election ended up with her in the Oval Office.


And I was wrecked. I couldn’t stop looking at it, studying it, and even tried to make it my wallpaper (FYI iPhone users: the “New Yorker” covers up the date and time.) There’s nothing outright or loudly celebratory about the design. The color scheme is dark, the lines are simple, the character vaguely looks like simplistic cartoon of Clinton. There’s nothing immediately remarkable about the cover in any other time. But this isn’t any other time.

Imagine how it would have felt seeing this cover in November. After the what felt like the longest and most infuriating presidential election ever, we could all take deep breaths (not victory laps) and feel secure that it was finally over. We had survived, and an able, well experienced captain was guiding the ship. We would have seen this cover on newsstands and Facebook, and remembered that this was the start of history. A woman president. Would you look at that.

What got to me the most about the cover, and still gets me every time I see it, is the way she’s standing. Calmly, at night, in the Oval Office, looking out at the moon. It makes me want to take a breath out, drop my shoulders, and reflect back on how I got here. The journey through the inferno, the arrival at the destination, and the anticipation for what’s to come.

I know that feeling. It’s finally — finally — feeling that everything you’ve worked for has been worth it. It’s seeing that A on the project you spent weeks working on. It’s that paycheck in your bank account. It’s that one person’s eyes lighting up when they see what you’ve created and it resonates with them. It’s when you can look around, take a deep breath, and say, “Yeah. I did it.

But that is not what happened.

Not anything like it in the least. Instead I spent the night of November 8 panicking, watching the numbers come in on west coast time, and then curling up in my bed later that night. I woke up the next morning and immediately wished I hadn’t. There was no relief, or deep breaths, or security. Just sadness and fear.

Eventually, like everyone else, I got out of bed. I used my meager little platform to write how I was feeling, and began getting ready for all that’s to come. And on newsstands I saw the New Yorker getting covered by a brick wall.

What could have been is tough to think about. There’s never a winner in the “what if” game, so I try not to play. But when I saw the New Yorker of What Could Have Been, I had to stop and stare. Because I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would have meant to see that cover everywhere. Couldn’t stop thinking about how hard she worked, and for so long. Couldn’t stop thinking about where we are now. Staring at a brick wall instead of the moon.

This is journalism goals with Lisa Ling

Exploring America with one of my favorite journalists.

I’d heard about the Taiwanese American journalist Lisa Ling, and in high school I read the book she co-wrote with her sister Laura — Somewhere Inside — about Laura’s captivity in North Korea. Both the sisters became huge inspirations and role models to me as journalists, women, and Asian Americans. So when I saw CNN put all of Lisa Ling’s series This is Life on Hulu, I knew how I was spending my weekend.

This Is Life is somewhat in the same vein as Ling’s previous series on OWN, Our America, where in both she travels around the country to different communities to talk to people and learn more about their lives. With CNN she’s talked to the Satanic Temple, the Mongol biker gang, explored the heroine and opiate epidemics, legal prostitution, and more. Ling really sheds a light on interesting and under explored people and groups in America, with a mix of understanding and genuine curiosity. I would say genuine objectivity, but often times Ling will say in brief self-recorded cut aways how she feels about each topic so people watching get a sense of how her thoughts change as the story goes on.

As a journalist who wants to write, watching Ling’s series is my own little crash course in how video journalism is done. Everything from her transitions, voice overs, and and the way she she talks during interviews is all about telling the complete story of these people. It’s an outsider’s point of view, but not in the exploitative, “Whoa, look at these weirdos!” kind of way. When I watch, I can see Ling trying to enter every new space with an open mind, her training as a journalist coming through to humanize the story and ask the long-term questions. Every episode isn’t the definitive nutshell for every case and person, but just a passing glimpse at a community you never knew about or had preconceived notions about.

Watching Ling tackle difficult stories and situations, like seeing a heroine addict shoot up, talking to survivors of abuse, or fathers in prison really shows the depth of a reporter’s understanding and investment in a story. She’s not afraid to cry, show she’s a little unnerved, or worried about the situation she’s in. This style of raw embed speaks more to the story than any classic journalistic objectivity ever could. You feel like you’re there with the people, and Ling, as events unfold. You feel like you understand, just a little bit more than before, what their life is like.

I’ve looked up to Ling and her journalism style since high school, and seeing a face like mine as a prominent journalist has been a big motivator throughout college. Right now, Hulu has three seasons of This is Life, and each one is only eight episodes. She’s filming season 5 right now, and I’m excited to see where she goes across the states, who she meets, and the stories she’ll tell.