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!

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