May’s Monthly Memo | March

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.

Sonnet 8 from Clearances by Seamus Heaney

🖼️ For a long time, March has been a complicated month for me and my family. March is beginning and ending; celebration and grief; life and death. But perhaps it is this way for much of the world, too, for this is the month in which winter melts into spring while sunlight stays around for longer, beaming its way through the living room even at dinnertime.

When I first visited America, always in the summer, what I loved most was the longevity of sun. Here, the sun rose early and took its time to set. As a child, I was entranced by how light lingered, elongating an ordinary day.

Did I ever have an “American Dream”? I never thought of my feelings towards the US in such terms before, but sometimes you only recognize the shape of a feeling when it is ending. At 18, I made the decision to come to the US because this country produced so much of the art and literature I loved. In America, the parking lots were the size of soccer fields, universities were prestigious and promising, and the sun always seemed to be shining. As a teenager living in one of the densest cities in the world, I felt that America was where I’d find space and freedom—the blessing to do whatever I wanted. 

In many ways, I found what I was looking for here. Chicago has become my second home; it’s a place that has shaped my thoughts and my future. But this March, even as I make plans to stay in this country, I know that my “American Dream” has somewhat splintered. Perhaps it’s the convergence of political crisis (I am talking about the primaries, yes) and public health emergency that has finally broken me. But I think part of it is also watching people around me earlier this month shrug off the coronavirus when Asian countries (and Asian people abroad) have been compromised, traumatized, and stigmatized by COVID-19 since January. Oftentimes, the feeling that you can do whatever you want has large-scale repercussions.

Recently, I came across an article about the pandemic titled “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” I began this piece by saying that March is a complicated month for my family, and that’s because 10 years ago this month, my dad lost his fight with lung cancer. 16 years ago, he was diagnosed—at the same time SARS descended on Hong Kong. Now, as I read about ventilator shortages across the country, I think about how my dad depended on complicated respiratory equipment to survive. I think about how regular hospital visits wove themselves into the fabric of my childhood years. COVID-19 impacts not only those who are infected with the disease, but also anyone who depends on emergency services, medical machines, and hospital access. When SARS came to Hong Kong, I had no idea that my family had not one, but two deadly illnesses to worry about. All I knew, as a kid who disliked going to school, was that I got to stay home. Now, I wonder how many of my favorite childhood memories originated from the SARS era. I always like to believe that my memories are more accurate than they are.

When I was in Hong Kong this December, I catalogued my old diaries (over a dozen; I was a prolific journaller). I revisited my diary entries from March 2010, confident that I’d find, in the spaces of grief, my own handwriting; proof that I had journalled my way through crisis. After all, this is what I remember doing—writing, writing my way through grief. To my surprise, I found nothing. An absence, a clearance. The final poem from Seamus Heaney’s sequences of sonnets “Clearances,” written in memory of his late mother, comes to mind.

Grief takes the form of its subject, loss. And, as something that is difficult to talk about, even with family, grief is deafeningly silent. When you see an empty restaurant, a shuttered shop, or a silent campus, you are observing grieving spaces. It is little wonder that so many people I know risked passing through germy airports to return to their families despite travel warnings. To grieve apart always accentuates the loss, for grief itself is a vacancy. 

But March, as I said at the beginning, is also about celebrations. March is, and it almost feels underwhelming to say this, my birthday—and not just mine, but my brother’s, too. To have a twin means to grow up with someone who has been with you since there was nothing at all; to have a companion in the countering of loss. For the first time in four years, Henry and I got to spend our birthday together, and I don’t take this gift lightly. He flew in from Syracuse last Sunday, and the days before the flight were turbulent and nerve-wracking; Henry’s flight was hastily booked, cancelled, rescheduled, and then rescheduled again. He was flying in from an airport near New York City (as I type this, my poor brother is still in room-quarantine). Everything had to be cleaned—Henry himself, his clothes, his suitcases. While he showered, I stepped outside to where we had left our shoes. When I picked up his boots, prepared to wipe them down, I glanced at the sole and saw—to my surprise—that we’d both been wearing the same shoes that day—Clarks. What are the odds? Twinning, as they say.

I am lucky that I get to be quarantined with Kevin, Henry, and our great roommates. I’m lucky that I get to work from home, and that I can FaceTime my mom and sister. In times of crisis, it always feels trite but crucial to count your blessings. March 2020 has been a master class in escalation, but also a lesson in patience. It has been a month of cancellations and grief—but also celebrations and sunlight, the miracle of watching the days last longer. As we continue our social distancing, alone or with family, we are joined in protecting our loved ones and strangers. As March turns into April, let us hopefully move past our grief, fill in the vacancies, and safeguard the coming of spring. 

*

🎬 Okay, I’m going to be concise for the rest of this memo. This month, Kevin and I finished seasons 4 and 5 of Clone Wars. The series becomes stronger as the seasons progress, which is largely due to the maturing of Ahsoka Tano and the series’ filling-in of plot holes from the original prequels. If you read February’s monthly memo, you’ll know that we watched seasons 2 and 3 last month. So, we are making good progress—but also watching literally nothing else, perhaps to our roommates’ disappointment.

📖 I finished reading Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney. The novel’s multiple protagonists include a translator, a poet, a publisher, a mother. A translated book about translation? What else could be more up my alley? I also started reading, but did not finish (alas, I had to return it to the library) Sour Heart, a collection of short stories by Jenny Zhang. My favorite book that I read this month was Last Things by Jenny Offill, whose imaginative language and lean prose made from great bedtime reading. I’m currently working my way through Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which feels uncannily relevant to my life right now. Why is it that the books we read always mirror our lives?

“My mother said that one day the pictures wont make any sense anymore … because everything will be inside … and we’ll all live in huge buildings connected to one another by tunnels…. Our skin will be thin as paper from staying inside and we won’t even remember that we once told time by the sun.” – Jenny Offill

“History has failed us, but no matter.” – Min Jin Lee

“How does this thing about remembering the future work? … If you dedicate your life to writing novels, you’re dedicating yourself to folding time.” – Valeria Luiselli, tr. Christina MacSweeney

🎵I started “zooming” this month, so”Zing a Little Zong” by Bing Crosby has been stuck in my head (when I sing it aloud, to Kevin’s amusement/frustration, I change the word “Zing” to “Zoom”). “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” by Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington also feels very apropos right now. Additionally, I challenged myself to learn a solo jazz routine to “Melody in Swing” by the Don Byas Quartet, so that’s probably my most-played song of the month.

💬Quarantine. That’s it, that’s the tweet.

Concerning Coronavirus

In 1997, the year that I was born, the H5N1 virus in humans was first reported in Hong Kong. Almost 20 people were infected while 6 died. This would not be the first time the “bird flu” virus descended on Hong Kong.

In order to contain the 1997 outbreak, the government ordered a ban on chicken imports from China and then a mass slaughter of chickens; around 1.3 million birds. According to a CNN article from 1998, “Hong Kong’s chicken killers haunted by guilt,” the slaughtering of chickens was a deeply traumatic event for workers in the Agriculture and Fisheries department. Many of these workers were religious and did not want to kill birds; some could still hear the cries of the murdered birds when they went to bed at night. “Hong Kong Destroys Its Chickens,” a Washington Post article published in December 1997, goes into more detail on the killings:

More than 250,000 chickens were killed with carbon dioxide gas in the first day of an operation that involved thousands of government workers from a half-dozen agencies as well as private vendors, who also slit the throats of the birds and dropped the carcasses into plastic garbage bags. Yellow dump trucks and earth-moving machines made huge piles of poultry remains at three large landfills….. So massive is the job that the government did not have enough salaried workers and ended up hiring day laborers to kill chicken and geese for one Hong Kong dollar — the equivalent of about 12 cents — per slaughtered bird.

Although the public was assured that you could not catch the bird flu by eating chicken, this did not stop restaurants from removing chicken from their menus or the government from ordering the slaughter. My favorite poem by Chung Kwok-keung is 家務 “Housework” (translation forthcoming in Circumference Magazine later this year). The first time I read the poem, I teared up. It tracks the speaker’s relationship with chickens from his childhood to adulthood, as he watches chickens go from being creatures of love and affection to the faces of a fatal virus. I won’t share my full translation here yet (message me if you want it), but here’s the last stanza:

Is that love? I see a thin fluid flow from your beak like tears
Is that the flu I see a whole city of people with long faces
Between rainy and sunny days, I learn to wear masks and hazmat suits
Deeply raking the mud, doing that never-ending work
Oh-oh, I hear again that voice that voice stopping and going
Mouths sealed in every stuffed black plastic bag
Is that love, for the children we removed you from the cookbook
Is that love, for our own sake we piled up your bodies
Like houses crowded together in the morning at night in a shut-up city
I hear that voice that voice is nearby is at my feet
Without understanding it that language is buried like the days

Original text here.

I mention the bird flu because it is the first influenza that took place in the timeline of my life so far. Since then, there have also been SARS (2003), H1N1 swine flu (2009), Zika (2015), etc, listed here. And now: COVID-19 (2020).

How do infectious diseases shape cultural and personal memory? I have been thinking about the influence of diseases such as SARS and H5N1 on HK’s history as I translate some of Chung’s poems, a number of which touch on these diseases. I have also been thinking about how I am personally reacting to COVID-19, which is the first serious pandemic that I am experiencing as a functioning adult. Now is certainly the first time I am making decisions surrounding personal health in a place other than HK, in times of a virus. This distancing in some ways makes homesickness all the more acute.

I actually have distinct memories of the SARS era, or so I believe. What I remember is not SARS, however, but a blissfully long chunk of time spent at home; piecing together puzzles on the study room floor; making art with my mom; reading. It’s absurd to think that while this deadly virus was proliferating in Hong Kong, my artistic interests as a child were also proliferating. When I remember SARS, I remember staying at home (school was cancelled) and thriving off tons of playtime. Only years later did I realize that it was a totally different narrative for my parents. For the city.

Trauma, grief, and disease create voids in our life of different magnitudes. 1.3 million chickens eradicated from the face of a city. A misremembering of months spent away from school. Cancelled conferences and international gatherings. A 3,000+ global death toll.

This Thursday, I was supposed to attend AWP, the largest literary conference in North America. On Saturday, the largest physics conference in the world (to draw 11,000) was cancelled 36 hours prior to the event. AWP is supposed to host 12,000 writers. To make matters worse, the CDC released a patient who had tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend in San Antonio, and said patient immediately went to the mall, a food court, and a hotel near the airport. Yesterday, the mayor of San Antonio declared a public health emergency. He later claimed he did so purely to seek legal leverage. He would later publish a letter saying that San Antonio is as “wonderful as ever,” encouraging others to visit. The co-executive director of AWP (now former director; she resigned this morning, long story) sent mixed messages about a potential cancellation through her personal Twitter account; writers panicked; misleading information was tweeted; planes and hotels were cancelled; and then came the announcement that the conference is still on.

Rumors, proliferating rapidly alongside the virus, are powerful vehicles for self-fulfilling prophecies. People hear that supermarkets are running out of rice, so they go and buy all the rice; next thing you know, the supermarkets are out of rice. People hear that a conference is cancelled, so they cancel their hotel reservations and registration; next thing you know, the lack of attendees in-effect cancels the event.

Crises always expose flaws that are already inherent in a system, and the institutional issues that have arisen since the COVID-19 outbreak remind us that our world is, at its ugliest, a place where xenophobia can run amuck; where decisions about public health are set aside for profit; where fear can drive irrationality.

Now is the first time I’ve thought about how a pandemic can affect the publishing industry. The London Book Fair will soon experience the same lack-of-attendance woes as AWP is now, for example. Small presses who shelled out to attend the conference will take an economic hit. This is the first time I have seen so clearly a combined crisis of health and governance in the literary world. In his takedown of AWP in the LA Review of Books, former AWP executive director Matt Burriesci wrote: “How can this board restore the organization’s health when they don’t seem to even acknowledge the sickness?”

There is a lot more about the virus that I want and need to think through, but perhaps not on this platform. Years later, when I look back on this time, I wonder what I will remember.

May’s Monthly Memo | February

“These kind of soy sauces are passed down for generations. They are heirlooms. If you look into yourself, you see past, present and future. You see that time revolves endlessly. You can see the past from the present. By looking into myself, I see my grandmother, my mother, the elders in the temple, and me. As a result, by making soy sauce, I am reliving the wisdom of my ancestors. I am reliving them. It’s not important who or when. What is important is that I’m doing it in the present. I use soy sauce, and I acknowledge its importance. It is no longer just me that’s doing things. It’s me in the past, in the present, and even in the future. Soy sauce is eternal. It is life itself.”

– Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist nun from Korea. She said this during an episode of Chef’s Table. It’s not a poem *per se,” but it is the most poetically heard-rending thing I came across this month so I wanted it to serve as the poem of the month.

🖼️ February tends to be a short but crammed month, and this year was no exception! This month, my ALTA mentorship officially kicked off, and I got to meet my mentor Jennifer Feeley in Chicago, which was wonderful. It’s crazy to think that my book project is slowly, yet surely, underway. This month, we celebrated both Kevin’s birthday—I made a Yoda cake using spinach and honey—and valentine’s day (back to back, convenient for me). We felt lucky that the annual UChicago Folk Festival took place over that weekend. We go every year, so neither of us had to brainstorm date ideas (our ideal date night is probably binge-watching Clone Wars at home, so thinking of “real” dates is challenging). But we did end up having a nice dinner at Strings Ramen and then a surprise Saturday night dinner at Giordano’s, where I bit my tongue so hard that I took an entire week to recover and couldn’t speak/eat properly for like 3-4 days. On the subject of my February afflictions…this month, I also had to get my ears cleaned (first time using my medical insurance) after my ear wax accumulation became unbearable (sorry if this is TMI), and for the past 2 weeks my left neck muscle has been kind of sprained (from trying to knock water out of my ear; from doing bad crunches at Cardio HIIT; from waking up the wrong way and yanking it). Anyway…February has also been a busy, busy month at work, as we’re gearing up to go to AWP in San Antonio next week (more on that in March). But I’ve still found time to work on some translations, and co-translated this op-ed for Lausan HK: “I went to eat at three ‘Hongkongers Only’ restaurants.” It’s “a reflective account of what it has been like to be Mainland Chinese in Hong Kong under the dual conditions of epidemic and ongoing political struggle.” I’ve said it before and will say it again; translation is all about having empathy.

🎬 If you follow this blog, you’ll know that I watched Miss Americana and wrote a long, “extra” blog post about it. I actually watched it a second time in a more relaxed setting (just me and Kevin and one other roommate) and that was waaay more fun. February is actually quite a significant Movie Month; the Oscars happened! I am delighted that Parasite took home four major awards: best screenplay, director, foreign film, and PICTURE. Of course, Parasite‘s win also behooves the Academy. It feels like the first time in a while that a Best Picture win has been so widely celebrated. I’ve been reading some more analyses of how the film is a technical masterpiece; e.g. the simple “ram-don” dish is a striking metaphor, lines are employed in the cinematography to represent class divisions, timing is perfect and exacting in the film and screenplay, etc. More on Parasite later. This month, Kevin and I also successfully finished Season 2 of Clone Wars and are now on Season 3. Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much time watching these cartoons, but then again I realize how much fun it is to indulge in these concise, tightly-written episodes. Actually, one of the episodes even made me tear up! An episode we watched today (I am composing this sentence on Monday, Feb 24) also made me think a lot about how the accents of voice actors are used to suggest, sometimes problematically, racial differences between different aliens. For example…Cham Syndulla is French? Lott Dod and the other Neimoidians are…East Asian? Of course, given how Neimoidians are depicted as being somewhat slimy and treacherous, you can see how casting them in Asian voices is kinda problematic. I did some digging on the Internet and feel justified by this article from 1999 that confirms some of my thoughts on the matter:

The Phantom Menace is filled with the hierarchies of accent and class status. The Jedi knights speak in full paragraphs, resonant baritones and crisp British accents…. The “status-obsessed,” hive-dwelling Neimoidians, on the other hand–who lead “a labyrinthine organization of bureaucrats and trade officials from many worlds that has insinuated itself throughout the galaxy”–speak like Charlie Chan.

Also, wiki.starwarsminute points out that the stereotyped demographic changes based on which version of the movies you’re watching:

In the English language version, Silas Carson (the actor playing Nute Gunray) imitated a Thai actor’s reading of the lines.

In the German version, they were dubbed with French-sounding accents.

In the French, Spanish, Czech and Italian versions, the Neimoidians were given Russian accents.

Okay, enough on Star Wars (for now). This month, Kevin and I also watched To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You (we’d seen the first movie together) and I think the movie may have convinced me that I’m no longer a rom-com gal. The movie was generally fun to watch, although the on-the-nose attempts to emulate Wes Anderson (and Buzzfeed Tasty) were a Bit Much. Kevin was frustrated at how “extra” everyone in the movie was; I felt personally attacked by how Lara Jean wears a perfect outfit (and new shoes) in every scene; we both thought the movie did John Ambrose McClaren dirty! And, like Star Wars (I guess I am bringing it up again), To All the Boys tries to thrust diversity in our faces through its casting while steadily uplifting something else; in the case of the rom-com, it’s what can best be described as a “basic white girl” aesthetic. The movie stars an Asian-American lead, which is great. But when you cast an Asian-American woman in a film that isn’t fundamentally interested in race yet sporadically gestures to it throughout, the screenwriting begins to feel a bit checkbox-y. It’s telling that the press circuit has mostly been interested in the male heartthrobs in the film, too. The audience isn’t actually primed to root for Lara Jean throughout. At times, it feels like she is explicitly directed to get on our nerves. In this way, I think she and Kelly Marie Tran (as Rose Tico) are in the same boat. Maybe. On Feb 28, fueled by sheer curiosity, I sped-watch Love is Blind, the new reality TV sensation taking over Netflix. It’s 10-episode show that begins with a simple, yet dystopian, conceit: if you put 10 women and 10 men in two different rooms, and allow them to have conversations without seeing each other, can they find true love based on *personality* alone? By episode 10, they are supposed to get married. Of course, because it’s reality TV, no one on the show looks “bad” to begin with, so it’s not exactly a princess and the frog situation. The real experiment of the show is not, as they claim, to discover whether love is blind. Instead, it’s a concentrated character-study on the ways in which gender dynamics manifest even in the absence of physical interaction.

📖 This month, I read Severance by Ling Ma, who teaches fiction in the Creative Writing department here at UChicago. Severance is an eerily timely novel about the “Shen Fu Virus” that turns New York city into an apocalyptic city. The fevered zombies repeat mundane actions over and over again until they turn into the walking dead. The novel probes us to consider: does one need to be fevered to be trapped in an infinite, mindless routine?

“Memories beget memories. Shen fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories. But what is the difference between the fevered and us? Because I remember too, I remember perfectly. My memories replay, unprompted, on repeat. And our days, like theirs, continue in an infinite loop.”

All zombie narratives are about the disintegration of society in some way (politically, environmentally, socially), and Severance is also a story about immigrating, “severing” from a home country. The parts in the novel that really resonated with me were what the narrator had to say about moving to the US; her mother telling her to moisturize and their realization that milk is sold in the US in gallons.

I’ve also started reading Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, translated by Christina MacSweeney, as well as Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart. I also read quite a few poetry books this month; Suzanne Buffam’s The Pillow Book, Ted Kooser’s Kindest Regards, and of course a number of poems by Chung Kwok-keung.

Two articles published online that I loved reading this month are 1) Lok Fung’s piece on the “Ups and Downs of Poetry,” in which she mentions me alongside a number of other women writers as “同類人” (kindred spirit, birds of a feather, etc.): “旅居芝加哥的黃鴻霙從現代性的換喻入手,拆解那些愛情與城市的現象” (something like “Chicago-based May Huang uses the modern literary device of metonymy to unpack images of love and the city”). Lok Fung was one of the poets I wrote about in my thesis and now we are pals! Love to see it.

2) The second article I loved is Sharon Choi’s op-ed for Variety, in which she discusses her experience interpreting for Bong Joon Ho throughout the film awards season. This piece brought tears to my eyes, it’s so beautifully written. And her grit and kindness is so evident throughout all of it. My favorite passage is this one:

Switching back and forth between languages has never been my job; it’s the only way of life I know. I’ve been my own interpreter for 20 years. A psychologist specializing in bilingual children once told me that most people have a similar brain capacity — if a monolingual knows 10,000 words, a bilingual would only know 5,000 in each language. All my life I’ve been frustrated by having to choose one of the two. This is why I fell in love with cinema’s visual language. Filmmaking is a similar process of translating my interior into a language that can communicate with the outside world, but I didn’t have to search for equivalents that were only approximations of the original.

🎵 After my long rant on movies + books, I will spare you with a mercifully short paragraph on my February in Music; the Folk Festival took place this month, and the one band whose sound really stuck with me was Bill and the Belles, an americana band from Johnson City, Tennessee (I really hope y’all read that as a Wagon Wheel lyric). My favorite tune by them is “Lonesome Blues.” There are such clever rhymes in that song, and its percussion presents fun opportunities for dancing. I feel obliged to add that Doja Cat’s “Say So” was also a significant song for me this month because it is the track my Cardio HIIT instructor uses for the weights circuit of the workout. Lollllllll

💬 Finally…my word of the month this February is….SHOES. Because this month, I finally decided to invest in shoes again. Shoes for work; for the snow; for dancing; for general coolness. I have a difficult relationship with buying shoes, and once considered writing a dystopian short story in which the protagonist is trapped in a large, suburban DSW for 24 hours and can only escape if she buys the perfect pair of shoes… but anyway. Shoes enable you to fully become the person you want to be, whether that person is a runner or swing dancer. This is nothing new, of course; just a life lesson I had to remind myself again this month. And shoes also remind me of the timeless saying, “to put yourself in another’s shoes.” I feel like I’ve been doing that a lot this month, not only through my translation work, but also at work; while watching the DemDebates; when thinking about the coronavirus; during phone calls with my family. Onwards to March!