May’s Monthly Memo – November

One starless night, I was stranded. Needless to say, foreigners are often stranded. I decided to translate the stories of eight girls who survived the Sancheong-Hamyang massacre, which took place in Gyeongsangnam-do, a southern province of South Korea, in 1951. My decision to translate the girls’ stories wasn’t entirely mine alone. It can take billions of years for light to reach us through the galaxies, which is to say, History is ever arriving. So it’s most likely that the decision, seemingly all mine, was already made years ago by someone else, which is to say, language – that is to say, translation – always arises from collective consciousness. Be factual, you say? As I mentioned, foreigners simply know. I will name the surviving orphans one by one in honor of the nameless children who are still homesick, captive, in detention, in internment, in concentration camps, in seas, in deserts, on Planet Nine, and such. And let’s not forget the children who are still in school.

Excerpt from Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony, winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry. I teared up during her acceptance speech, which I watched during the NBA’s livestream. The translations, which are difficult to read, can be found at Granta.

Every month in quarantine felt Very Long and same-y, but November has been an exception to that pattern. After all, this month has shouldered both a grueling election and a stressful holiday, two events of nationwide importance that brought the country together, divided it, had everyone talking about the same things, while showing that we are not all on the same page.

When I was growing up I had a very shallow understanding of US politics and Thanksgiving, and that wasn’t necessarily because I was young and uninformed, but rather because neither was relevant to my life back then. I remember high-fiving friends at lunch when we found out that Obama won (the main thing people at school talked about was that he represented hope, and was pro-same sex marriage), and when Thanksgiving rolled around I remember some of my American friends posted photos of their turkeys. But it wasn’t until 2015, the year I left Hong Kong for Chicago, that I’d first taste stuffing (love it) or learn what the electoral college was (don’t love it so much).

Even now, I feel like I’m standing on the outside and looking in—or looking from the sidelines?—when I see people talk about the election and Thanksgiving. I do think that voting is important and that carving a turkey can be a really nice moment, but there might always be a part of me that feels like these are narratives I’m just not a part of. But this year, as Kevin and I walked past Kamala Harris’s childhood home in Berkeley (a few blocks from our place) shortly after the election was called, we found ourselves among a crowd of people who were playing music, dancing, celebrating. It was impossible to not feel a sense of collective effervescence right there, even as alarm bells were going off in my head (pandemic! people! crowd! gathering! pandemic!). Which brings me to Thanksgiving, a holiday that often hinges on swathes of people coming together. Of course, now is not the time to be flying places and sitting at the dining table with old relatives, but many Americans took that risk nonetheless this November. I found myself sitting at home fuming about the “selfishness of Americans” and feeling terribly homesick for Hong Kong and Taiwan. I don’t think I will ever self-identify as an American, I told myself, downloading Cantonese podcasts and reading Chinese texts ferociously. But I know that I’m selfish too, even though I’m not risking other people’s lives for my mundane needs this holiday season. How difficult it is to hold oneself accountable for one’s actions, especially as the world we live in grows more complicated.

Kevin and I cooked enough food to feed seven people on Thursday, and had a nice two-person Thanksgiving at home. Although I pelted him with annoying questions in the aftermath (Why are so many side dishes sweet? Why do Americans go out of their way to make turkey, a difficult bird to bake, once a year?), we also took long walks and talked about gratitude. It’s been a miserable but also magical year, and as much as I sit at the table and sigh about being morose, the simple pleasures of being alive and with someone I love are not lost on me.

🎬 This month, we finished watching The Great British Bake Off! Our favorite contestant won, so we’re happy. The final episode was a real tear-jerker. We also watched The Queen’s Gambit, the Netflix limited series about an orphan-turned-chess whiz. The series stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy who makes playing chess seem effortless, sexy, and dangerous. She’s relentlessly standoffish throughout the show, and almost always looks impeccable despite struggling with an addiction problem that seems potent enough to topple her. Learning chess begins as a fantasy for her (she hallucinates pieces on the ceiling), her brief relationships all seem to be founded in fantasy, and in a way the whole show hinges on us suspending our disbelief—a classic ingredient for a viral Netflix hit (the chess is cool, I admit).

Earlier this month I also watched My Octopus Teacher, a moving nature documentary about a man who forms a special relationship with an octopus (and in doing so, with nature). The scholar Sophie Lewis wrote a very persuasive Twitter thread arguing that the doc is actually about “a straight man who has a lifechanging erotic relationship with a female octopus.” And… she’s not wrong! The octopus in the doc is essentially a manic pixie dream mollusk who helps the narrator reach various epiphanies before (SPOILER) dying. I don’t think I’ll be able to eat octopus for a while.

Finally, I’m watching Start-Up, and it’s the first time I’m watching a K-drama as it airs! In other words, I can’t binge it all at once…and frankly, it’s better this way. It’s nice to savor the drama over a long period of time, as opposed to gobbling it all up in a week. The drama centers on rising entrepreneurs/engineers trying to find purpose and love in the start-up economy. I’ll say more next month when the series wraps up…

📚 November has been a fruitful reading month. I read Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear, a novel about a translator who goes on a quest to find the Brazilian writer she’s translating, who suddenly goes missing. The book kind of turns into a thriller, which I wasn’t expecting, but it’s very much a love letter to translation as well (Novey is a translator).

For translation to be an art … you have to make the uncomfortable but necessary transgressions that an artist makes.

Then I read Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, a book that many have recommended to me and has been on my to-read list for a while. Trick Mirror is a collection of seven essays and they are spellbinding. Seriously, Tolentino is worth all the hype. Throughout the book, she’s endlessly clever, persuasive, intimate, and witty, which are some of the best qualities a writer can have. She comfortably writes at the intersection of pop culture and highbrow analysis, citing Britney Spears and the Bible in the same essay. She’ll talk about the very contemporary trends of athleisure and barre classes while discussing enclothed cognition and the 1950s origins of the Barre Method. One of the best essays, “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” charts the past decade through seven crucial “scams” (including the Fyre Festival, Theranos, Trump’s Election). At the center of the collection is a problem—have we all been duped, and/or are we all delusional? Seeing only what other want us to see or what we want ourselves to see, as if looking through a trick mirror? Tolentino describes the “trick mirrors” at work in society, in institutions, and in her own life. She is thoroughly self-aware and rigorously critical of every assumption. We could all learn something from her.

A lot of my reading this month has also come, blissfully, from translation. In the name of translation, I’ve Googled a lot of tree names, used the Hong Kong Herbarium Database as a primary resource, learned about Jesus’s Way of Suffering, read Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad (it’s like the Japanese version of The Little Prince), looked up a Zhuangzi reference… after spending hours translating passages about autumn leaves, every red or yellowing tree that I pass on my jogs now seem more familiar, more intimate. I translated a poem about azaleas and was super excited that Kevin and I got to check out a rhododendron garden this month (next to Lake Merritt, a lagoon and National Historical Landmark in Oakland). In Chinese, 杜鵑 means both “azalea” and “cuckoo,” and while there’s no such twinship in English, translation can indeed make you look at the world in a different way.

🎶 This month, Grammy nominations were announced! My girl Taylor scored six nominations, which didn’t surprise me. There was no way folklore wasn’t getting nomm’ed this year, especially given the Aaron Dessner collab. That being said, the Grammys have a history of snubbing Taylor (see: Lover, Red). As a result, Swifties have learned not to take them too seriously… I’m thrilled that she’s nominated, but also wary at the same time, because I’ve spent so long trying to de-emphasize the Grammys’ importance in my mind. And to be honest, the Grammys are still kind of the Scammys. Justin Bieber’s “Yummy” (a meh song that did meh on the charts) was nominated for Best Pop Solo Performance while The Weeknd’s astonishing “Blinding Lights” (a song that broke Billboard records while being critically acclaimed) was not nominated for anything at all. In fact, The Weeknd’s omission can scarcely be called a “snub.” Something is UP! To make things even more suspicious, Bieber has been complaining that his album was mis-categorized as “pop,” for he intentionally set out to make an R&B album. Personally, I think his statement a classic PR trick aiming to distract the press from asking the obvious question: why was he nominated in the first place? There are a lot of closed doors involved in the Grammys nomination process, so who knows what’s really happening. As Abel of The Weeknd says, “the Grammys remain corrupt.”

But in other news, I rediscovered my love for Simon and Garfunkel this month. Maybe because Thanksgiving has got me thinking of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, and their lovely rendition of “Scarborough Fair.” In general, I’m re-entering a folky phase. Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons” and Dolly Parton & Chet Akin’s duet of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” have been on repeat lately.

I’m tired of runnin’ ’round lookin’
For answers to questions that I already know
I could build me a castle of memories
Just to have somewhere to go

Count the days and the nights that it takes
To get back in the saddle again
Feed the pigeons some clay, turn the night into day
Start talkin’ again, when I know what to say

💬 For better or for worse, “scam” is my word of the month. Conceptually, it’s been everywhere this November. First, the country voted a scamming president out of the Oval Office, and he proceeded to spend the weeks following claiming that the election was a giant scam. Too many Americans have scammed themselves (and others) into believing that traveling across the country for Thanksgiving this year is a safe, or even reasonable, proposition. Netflix is scamming people into bingeing shows that are actually just “okay” or actually quite bad (Emily in Paris, for one) but seem worth the hours because everyone on the Internet talks about them and we’re in a pandemic. And on top of all this I’m afraid that I’m allowing myself to be scammed into believing that I’m doing “well,” or that I’ve royally messed up, or that everything Twitter tells me is true, and so on…

We are all what we do, and we do what we’re used to, and like so many people in my generation, I was raised from adolescence to this fragile, frantic, unstable adulthood on a relentless demonstration that scamming pays.

—Jia Tolentino

May’s Monthly Memo – October

It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.

I am
at work, though I am silent.

The bland

misery of the world
bounds us on either side, an alley

lined with trees; we are

companions here, not speaking,
each with his own thoughts;

behind the trees, iron
gates of the private houses,
the shuttered rooms

somehow deserted, abandoned,

as though it were the artist’s
duty to create
hope, but out of what? what?

the word itself
false, a device to refute
perception— At the intersection,

ornamental lights of the season.

I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against

the same world:

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.

— October (5), Louise Gluck

Louise Gluck received the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this month for “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” There is always hubbub and controversy surrounding the prize, no matter whom it goes to, so I feel like I pay less attention to it every year. Nonetheless, Gluck’s October feels especially resonant this month. The poems (you can read the other parts here) are heavy with grief, violence, and despair, which are unfortunately relevant moods for a month saturated with pandemic and polls–related anxiety. The poem acknowledges both hope and hopelessness, which seem to receive equal weight throughout the sequence—but I particularly like how this section ends by personifying the poem as a companion. This month, I also felt like language, literature, and art illuminated tunnels for me.

It’s easy to assume by default that nothing much happens these days (we’re working from home and staying at home, there’s nothing new), but if I really cast my memory back to the first of October I’m inclined to conclude that it was a comparatively eventful month. Cynthia flew back to Taiwan, a country that just surpassed 200 days without a locally-transmitted COVID-19 case. From what I’ve heard from my sister, mom, and aunt about their experience landing and quarantining in Taiwan, it’s not difficult for me to see why Taiwan has so successfully contained the pandemic. This month the ALTA conference that I’d been preparing for also took place, and I had the opportunity to present some of my translations of Chung Kwok-keung’s work on two free panels. Although in a pandemic-free timeline I could have been in Arizona for the conference, I must say that the virtual format worked surprisingly well! It allowed folks who normally could not have attended the conference to tune in, and from a presenter’s perspective, I also felt less nervous because I could present from the comfort of my own home. Kevin and I have also been busy making crosswords this month, and 10 of our puzzles were recently featured on the Redstone Games’ mobile app, which you can download here (Android / iPhone). As a kid, I never thought that I’d one day be paid for translation and crosswords, and I’m both grateful for these opportunities while hyper-aware of the privilege that affords me these possibilities. Finally, I’m pleased to say that my Korean learning has continued this month! Which brings me to…

🎬 I watched three K-dramas this October! Heads up: I am about to ramble extensively about them so feel free to skip ahead if you aren’t interested… 1) Legend of the Blue Sea is a love story about a con-artist (Lee Min-ho) and mermaid (Jun Ji-hyun) who meet in present-day South Korea, but have actually crossed paths before—in the Joseon era. The mermaid has superhuman strength and can erase people’s memories with a single touch, but must learn how to survive on land. LOTBS was written by the same writer who wrote Crash Landing on You (so I had high expectations), and it was rewarding and amusing to see how similar tropes recur in both dramas. 2) The King: Eternal Monarch is set in two parallel worlds: the Republic of Korea and the fictional Kingdom of Corea. Lee Min-ho plays Lee Gon, the King of Corea, who owns half of a magical flute (his traitorous uncle owns the other half) that allows him to travel between worlds. He accidentally travels to the Republic of Korea and meets Jung Tae-eul (Kim Go-eun), a police officer whose ID card he has had since he was a child. If all that sounds confusing, it’s because the show is actually kind of hard to follow. But overall TKEM rewards viewers who enjoy theorizing, forgive plot holes, tolerate incessant product placement, are good at remembering faces (lots of dopplegangers), and stan Lee min-ho. Finally, I watched 3) Goblin, the show that in part influenced me to watch TKEM in the first place (same writer and same actress, Kim Go-eun). Goblin (also translated as Guardian: The Lonely and Great God), follows the story of a 939-year-old goblin (dokkaebi 도깨비), his fated bride Ji Eun-tak (Kim Go-eun), a grim reaper, and the owner of a BBQ Olive Chicken store named Sunny. The Goblin can only die when the sword that “killed” him, which is still stuck in his chest, is removed by his bride. Of course, things get complicated when he falls in love with Eun-tak and realizes he doesn’t want to die anymore if it means they can’t be together. Another complication is that Eun-tak herself is a “miscellaneously omitted person,” someone who escaped death once (the goblin saved her pregnant mother) and thus will always be followed by it (also, she can see ghosts). And on top of all this, there is a ~reincarnation~ story line that ties the past and present together. Overall, it’s a remarkably beautiful story about love, friendship, fate, and forgiveness. Particularly through the grim reaper’s storyline, the show explores moving questions about mortality and memory. Of all the dramas I’ve watched so far, none of them has made me cry as much as Goblin—I honestly sobbed through the last three episodes. So. Good!!

If there is one theme that is absolutely paramount in all the K-dramas I’ve seen so far, it’s FATE, 운명. The signposting is transparent; in Goblin, Eun-tak even wears a necklace with the French word Destin on it. The idea that those who are fated to meet will always find their way back to each other is particularly pronounced in LOTBS and Goblin, which both have storylines that include reincarnated lovers. And the idea that fate is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem also comes across in TKEM. Are two people fated to meet because of what happens in the past, or what happens in the future that in a roundabout way also affects the past? 🤷

I find it interesting to compare the K-dramas I watched with another show Kevin and I finished this month, The Good Place. The Good Place explores the theme of mortality through a hypothetical afterlife in which you either go to “The Good Place” or “The Bad Place” depending on how many points you “earned” for being a good person in life. The show champions the idea that no matter how many mistakes you’ve made, you can always strive to be a better version of yourself. The characters in The Good Place get “rebooted” over and over again, and while it’s not quite “reincarnation,” the same four friends always end up together again. But interestingly, this is not framed as a result of “fate” or “destiny.” The notion of a “soulmate” is also first introduced, and then later dismissed (although perhaps not entirely). At one point, Eleanor (protagonist played by Kristen Bell) wonders whether free will truly exists in a world where everything is determined by factors outside one’s own control, even in the afterlife. The show is warm, clever, and ferociously funny. It would be nice if a “Good Place” really does exist!

📚 I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation this month; I loved Offill’s Last Things, so was looking forward to reading another book by her. Truthfully, though, while the prose in the book is compact and graceful, I felt like the novel overall was lacking “umph.” It’s a portrait of marriage, motherhood, and balancing the writer-domestic life, but I felt like its speaker was too “invisible.” Maybe this was the point? I might have felt differently if I encountered the book later in life.

I did finally get round to reading Cathy Park Hong’s powerful Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. The book falls into one of my favorite genres, the mishmash of cultural criticism and personal essay. In the book, Hong interrogates the position of Asian Americans in the US by looking at poetry, her own life, and history. In particular, I found the chapters of the book where Hong talks about the legacy of poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha most moving and haunting. Cha was a poet and artist best known for her 1982 book Dictee. But an aspect of her life that is often silenced, although not in Hong’s book, is her brutal death—just a week after Dictee was published, Cha was raped and murdered.

So much of the book made me feel indignant and sad. But there were also moments that felt so resonant, even comforting. Here’s one example:

English is our ever-expanding neoliberal lingua franca, the consumer language of brand recognition and outsourced labor. The more developing the nation, the more in need that nation is of a copy editor.

The book’s title comes from literary critic Sianne Ngai, who “wrote extensively on the affective qualities of ugly feelings, negative emotions—like envy, irritation, and boredom—symptomatic of today’s late-capitalist gig economy. Like ugly feelings, minor feelings are ‘non-cathartic states of emotion’ with ‘a remarkable capacity for duration.'”

Minor feelings occur when American optimism is forced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told, ‘Things are so much better,’ while you think, Things are the same. You are told, ‘Asian Americans are so successful,’ while you feel like a failure.

Hong also frames minor feelings in terms of literary forms; “because minor feelings are ongoing, they lend themselves more readily to forms and genres that are themselves serial, such as the graphic novel or the serial poem”—or, I wonder…the blog post? Lol…

🎶 My playlist this month just has been more Korean songs, with the addition of some Blackpink hits (I just watched their documentary last night)!

💬 My word of the month has to be fate. How are constructs of face thrust upon us, and how do we challenge or embrace those circumstances? Much to think about.