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

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