What I Googled Wednesday (2/24)

I am back with another edition of “What I Googled Wednesday” (yesterday)! A pithy window into my life via my Internet history.

I woke up earlier than usual yesterday and decided to start the day off by fixing a corner of a crossword-in-progress. The word that ended up working best for the grid is CURASSOW, which I learned is a *stunning* tropical bird that looks like a cross between a turkey and, uh, a spartan? Apparently, there are a few in the Oakland Zoo, so perhaps a field trip is in order.

I haven’t made sushi/gimbap in a while, but I finally restocked on seaweed so made some rolls for lunch. I’ve finally got my ingredient ratios down (e.g. cups of rice = 5 rolls of sushi) but am still trying to perfect my rolling technique. Yellow pickled radish is really the star of these sushi rolls (which also contain Gardein meat, carrots, avocado, cucumber, egg), and I’ve had some sitting in the fridge for a while. Sources say they keep for 1-3 months.

I’ve developed a weekly ritual of singing along to my favorite Jay Chou songs while/after washing the dishes, and it’s so much fun. Therapy isn’t free, but singing Jay Chou’s deep cuts is. I sometimes feel that I sing better in Chinese than in English. I wonder if that’s a mother tongue thing? 說好不哭 (Don’t Cry) is such a simple song (same verse and chorus, repeated twice, basically), but it’s such a banger.

I’m translating a short story that has parts in it about mixing fertilizer and I had to Google “atomizer mister spray plant” to figure out what a “spray tank” is. It’s often hard to find the most basic name for technical equipment because most Google searches will lead to Amazon, and Amazon usually packs as many technical terms as it can into one line. For example, “Hand held Garden Sprayer Pump Pressure Water Sprayers.” So… is it a “garden sprayer”? “Pump pressure”? “Water Sprayer”?

Kevin and I decided to rewatch the Harry Potter movies (they’re available on Peacock, with infrequent ads) and it’s such a nostalgic experience. We also realize that there’s so many things we’ve forgotten about the books/movies—for example, what is Dumbledore’s “light thing” called? (Deluminator). Watching the first movie as adults, we also keep saying—wow, Harry/Ron/Hermione are so CUTE! I guess when we were younger we didn’t think of them as being “cute.” Now that we’re no longer kids, though, their cuteness is jumping out. We are planning to watch all 8 movies, although did you know the Sorcerer’s Stone is 2h39 mins long?! How on earth did I sit through that as a kid?

On Zodiacs and the Zeitgeist

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about tradition; In part because I’m translating a book about the effacement of old religions and the ushering in of new faiths… but also because it’s the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Ox to be exact, and that’s my Zodiac.

Some might assume that it’s propitious to be in the same year as one’s birth sign but one’s 本命年 (běn mìng nián) is actually considered inauspicious.

“2021 will be a turbulent year for the Ox,” says chinesenewyear.net (lol). “You may encounter unexpected challenges, especially in your career and studies, which can leave you feeling stressed out, distracted, and emotional.”

Oh, no.

If it weren’t for the fact that we’re in a pandemic and I don’t have a full-time job yet, I probably wouldn’t feel on edge, but the combination of my 本命年 and this Terrible Time that we’re living in makes me a bit nervous. Yesterday, I began to wonder: did I take the right precautions? Am I doing an adequate job celebrating the new year? How come I barely own any red clothing?

Earlier this year, my mom visited a temple in Taiwan to 安太歲 (ān tài suì) on behalf of me and my brother, the two oxen in the family. Praying to “Tai Sui,” sometimes translated as “Grand Commander of the Year,” can be a way to fend off calamity during one’s 本命年, since 太歲 wields the power to create obstacles for you throughout the year. Although I’ve never paid much attention to astrology, the knowledge that Tai Sui may go easy on me does bring some comfort.

Do all children grow up “less” religious than their parents? I subscribe to some, but not all, of the traditions I grew up with, and my mom in turn believes in some, but not all, of her mother’s beliefs. I don’t stick my chopsticks into a bowl of rice and avoid clipping my fingernails at night. But I also don’t visit temples or pray regularly to any gods. Will I visit a temple to appease Tai Sui during the year of my future children’s Zodiac? Will I buy them red underwear to wear for good luck? What is the half-life of faith?

Although old customs and folklore are slowly eroding, it’s not as if our society has become less devout, per se—it’s just that faith is often placed elsewhere these days. Instead of going to a temple to pray for good fortune, one might post a “summoning circle” on Twitter instead:

Image result for summoning circle twitter

Instead of keeping the shrine of a deity at home, millennials might opt for a few celebrity prayer candles:

Image result for celebrity shrine candle

It’s worth noting that the word “idol” can both mean “a representation of a god used as an object of worship” or a celebrity we admire. K-pop stars are called “idols” and are worshipped as such. Swifties are obsessed with numerology because Taylor times all her music releases around the number 13 (she announced her “Love Story” re-recording on 2/11 (2+11 = 13) and the new Fearless is arriving on 4/9 (4+9 = 13)). Is stan culture so different from organized religion?

Every generation has its new rituals and new gods. Some people say a prayer first thing in the morning, others check their phone.

Of course, this is not to say that religion in the “traditional sense” isn’t still of vital importance in 2021. Because of religion, deadly wars are being waged in parts of the world. Because of religion, a large number of Americans believe that abortion is immoral. But because of religion, there is also joy, unity, and love.

One of the most stirring scenes in Fleabag, a show that in some ways explores the place of “faith” in contemporary culture, is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s confessional monologue in Season 2. She says to the (hot) priest:

“I want someone to tell me what to wear in the morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat. What to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love and how to tell them.

I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong — and I know that’s why people want people like you in their lives, because you just tell them how to do it. You just tell them what to do and what they’ll get out at the end of it, and even though I don’t believe your bullshit, and I know that scientifically nothing I do makes any difference in the end anyway, I’m still scared. Why am I still scared? So just tell me what to do. Just fucking tell me what to do, Father.”

It’s an extraordinary scene because it puts our timeless need into words—our need for affirmation, security, and direction. No matter what time period we’re in, and no matter what gods we pray to, we all want something to believe in at the end of the day.

So, in the Year of the Ox, I will try to wear red from time to time. I’ll pay attention to my health. I’ll draw on oxen traits—diligence and perseverance—to make it through an uncertain year. And in the worst of times, I’ll encourage myself to believe—to have faith.

Publishing News: On Sestinas and Literary Translation, Words Without Borders

My essay on the affinity between sestinas and literary translation was published in Words Without Borders yesterday! You can read it here:


I’ve been mulling over this idea for quite some time, ever since I translated a sestina by Chung Kwok-keung back in 2018. In 2019, I translated another—”Fish Tree.” Last year, I translated the final one, “Gecko,” which I presented at the ALTA conference. After ALTA, I started writing this piece, reading more sestinas, and delving into the literary theory on the form. Now, this essay is out in the world!

It’s been heartening to see folks share and resonate with the piece on social media. LitHub even gave me a shout-out in today’s LitHub Daily, which kinda feels like a mile stone!

Here is one of my favorite pull quotes from the piece—

If the sestina is a form that adds depth to words through iteration and replication, does it not also engage in a form of translation? When translating a sestina, translators keenly experience the tensions and reverberations at the heart of literary translation.

After translating Chung’s poems, I now wonder: what’s next for the sestina? Translating Chinese sestinas allowed me to see the possibilities that the form has outside of Western literature

Fish Tanks and Fortunes

(I’m going to make it a personal goal of mine to alliterate all of my blog titles in 2021)

For the past month, I’ve been translating a story that is about, among other things, fish. Fish feature prominently in the story, as do fish tanks, which are described in vivid detail. In the story, there’s a scene where the protagonist goes on walk, looking for fish tanks that others have discarded and are giving away for free. She plans to use these tanks to store specimen of dead fish, which must be preserved in formalin and ethanol. 

Going on a walk/jog and looking for objects (books, bowls, etc.) that people no longer want is an accidental hobby of mine. I’m a slow runner and the idea that my run could double as a treasure hunt certainly makes the journey more appealing. Over the past few months I’ve seen plenty of unwanted things on sidewalks: plush toys, college diplomas, old clothes, glass bottles. But it was today, while I was thinking about the author and her writing, that I happened to come across—you guessed it—a fish tank.

I suppose this is a “coincidence.” But as a writer, I seldom believe in coincidences. If something appears more than once in a text, it becomes a motif. If a character has a dream that then replays in reality, the dream is a prophesy (both these things happen in the story I’m translating). So when a scene I translate happens to me in “real life,” I also want to imagine that it’s an omen, a sign from above, perhaps the universe’s way of affirming that my work as a translator matters somehow.

But it’s not just in my translation or on my jog that I’ve found fish tanks. This morning, I was re-watching the marvelous dinner scene from Fleabag (Season 2, episode 1), during which one of the characters describes a miscarriage as “a ‘goldfish out of the bowl’ sort of thing” (he later gets punched in the face). For the past couple months, I’ve been revising a fish-themed crossword puzzle, and am now on my fourth attempt to build a strong grid. Isn’t the grid that contains my theme words also a kind of tank? As I create new grids but keep my theme words more or less the same, I feel as if I’m changing the water of a fish tank so that the fish inside can continue to live.

I bought a bag of fortune cookies last week, and Kevin and I have been eating one each day. I have always been obsessed with fortune cookies; the idea of finding meaningful words inside something sweet seems very poetic to me, probably because a lot of good poems are often the exact reverse: a sweet feeling hidden inside meaningful words. Each time I read my fortune, I spend the next day or so wondering whether that fortune has already “come true,” or what it may suggest about my life. 

The idea of having a “fortune” is particularly appealing during times of uncertainty about what the future holds. Most people are stuck at home right now, perhaps like fish inside their tanks. But at the end of the day, the most important thing isn’t whether the words inside a cookie bear truth, or whether a fictional moment also has real-life relevance. What’s more important to me is the belief I attach to these “fortunes.” Simply believing in the serendipitous, which is in a way the same as being hopeful, may be the most fortuitous takeaway about my fish tank encounter.