Building a Crossword

I started constructing 15×15 crosswords a few months ago, and while I’m still very much a rookie, I wanted to share an example of my process here! Typically, Kevin and I publish algorithm-generated grids (that are later edited and expanded by hand) on Crossworthy, but I’ve also been aiming to publish my own crosswords at least once a month. Today’s crossword, titled “Build Your Order,” is now live, and it’s a puzzle that I made on my own. I documented most of the process since the beginning, hoping that if everything turned out well I could share how I went from square one to a full-sized puzzle. If you’re a Crossworthy fan or enjoy playing crosswords, you may find this post interesting!

STEP 1: BRAINSTORMING THE THEME

Deciding on a fun theme is the first step in making a themed crossword. Kevin’s algorithm can churn out themeless crosswords very quickly, so I’m more motivated to make crosswords “the long way” when there’s a theme or specific set of words that I’m totally committed to.

We got burritos for take out in late September and that got me thinking…what if I attempted a burrito-themed puzzle?

The first thing I did was draw up a list of burrito ingredients and take note of how long each word is. Here’s what I had in my notes folder (I bolded the “promising” ones):

  • Crema – 5 
  • Salsa – 5 *
  • Avocado – 7
  • Jalapeno – 8 
  • Spanishrice – 11
  • Refriedbeans – 12
  • Beans – 5*
  • Queso – 5
  • Cheese – 6
  • Lettuce – 7
  • Rice – 4
  • Guac – 4
  • Guacamole – 9 *
  • Sour cream – 9*
  • Carneasada – 10*
  • Carnitas – 8
  • Pinto beans – 10*
  • Tortilla – 8 
  • cornTortilla – 12
  • Flourtortilla – 13

Since American-style crosswords should adhere to rotational symmetry, you need pairs of theme words that have the same number of letters. A theme word of 10 letters that goes in the bottom right corner should correspond to another theme word of 10 letters that goes in the top left corner, etc. This is much easier to understand visually. Sometimes, we also put a single theme word in the center. Most importantly, I needed to choose pairs of theme words that had matching lengths. After consulting my list above, I settled on 6 candidates:

GUAC (4)
RICE (4)
PINTOBEANS (10)
CARNEASADA (10)
CREMA (5)
SALSA (5)

In retrospect, I could have also went with: beans (5), salsa (5), rice (4), guac (4), carnitas (8), and tortilla (8), but I had an ambitious dream for including “tortilla” in the puzzle (you’ll see)…

STEP 2: GRID DESIGN

Now that I had my potential theme words, the next thing to do was design the grid. So… my “tortilla” dream was to have the letters of the word “wrap” the grid, in effect “wrapping” the ingredients. Man, I really wish this would have worked out in the end! Spoiler: it didn’t. But I’ll show you how I tested this idea.

As you can see, the theme words are kind of “squished” together, which is not ideal. The puzzle looks much better when theme words are spaced out. I also designed this grid such that I wouldn’t have to deal with words that were too long (i.e. 15 letters), so there’s always a black square creating divisions while ensuring that every word has a “cross” and is at least 3 letters long.

Grid construction is crucial because the better the grid, the easier it will be for you to fill it in.

STEP 3: TESTING THE GRID

It’s always important to not get too attached to any theme words or grid designs in the early stages. There’s a high chance you’ll have to change things around! So after I established my tentative layout, the first thing I needed to do was look for the most difficult corners and “test” build there to see how feasible the construction would be in the long run. It’s tempting to start building in “easy” places first, but the last thing you want is to end up in an “impossible” corner and realize that you need to change the whole grid. I heavily rely on onelook.com when constructing my puzzles; the website allows you to search for words that match certain criteria (e.g. searching for ???A will give you a list of 4-letter words that end in A).

I started with the two areas of the board that have the most theme words—the middle section. Luckily, stacking rice/salsa and crema/guac did not create major construction problems. Afterwards, I moved on to the top left corner; there aren’t many 6-letter words that begin with T and end in C (1-down), so I wanted to see if I could make things work there.

The “order of construction” is important because of the aforementioned rotational symmetry. If you change something in one corner, you have to change something in the diagonally-opposite corner. So after briefly testing out the top-left “tragic” section, I moved on to the bottom-right area, which is also challenging because of the “A” in the corner (I’d need 2 six-letter words to end in A).

As I tested more words, I realized that I could potentially un-stack rice/salsa and guac/crema to create a more aesthetically-pleasing board. So, I moved guac to the top-left section of the board and rice to the bottom-left. Just some minor shuffling!

STEP 4: MAKEOVER

After more testing, I realized that the grid above was giving me too much trouble, so a do-over was necessary. All part of the process! However, I wasn’t ready to totally give up on the “tortilla” wrapping:

Sometimes, it’s easier to totally reconstruct the grid when rearranging theme words so that you can see everything more clearly. Side note: I should have mentioned this earlier, but I make my crossword drafts in Microsoft Word (using a 15×15 table) so I can easily shade important words and delete or change letters.

I got pretty far with this new layout, but as you can see below, the tortilla wrapping started to fall apart, especially at the top. The top left section was just giving me toooo much trouble! While I was relatively satisfied with the lower half of the grid, the top half was truly a mess. A lot of the words that you can see here aren’t ideal—”ruel,” “monbera,” “rich media.”

So it was with a heavy heart that I abandoned the “tortilla” wrapping. I decided it was more important to keep my ingredients intact! The grid can be the metaphorical tortilla wrap.

STEP 5: FINE TUNING

After letting go of the “tortilla” constriction, I began to edit the entire puzzle with an eye towards filling everything in and eliminating as many “unideal” words as possible. Starting from top/left to bottom/right, here are the different revisions I went through before completing the puzzle. Most of the changes happened in the upper half of the puzzle, particularly in the “rice” and “crema” sections. If you look at where “rice” is, you’ll see that the down-word crossing the “I” changed several times—from Wikipedia to Lithuania to finally Minnesota. I truly had to give the right side of the puzzle a facelift several times as a result. Similarly, while I really wanted “crash” to appear in the puzzle (3rd picture, the “C” above the “R” in “rice), I knew that “philomathy” had to go (I really want to write a Crash Landing on You clue…).

A few interesting things to note—”USSENATE” was kinda the only thing I could put above salsa, meaning that “TSARS” was also kinda the only word that could fit in the TS??? section. I say “kinda” because I’ve seen words like T SLOT in crosswords before, but ultimately I think readers will have an easier time with TSARS. In the first 3 puzzles below, you’ll see that I put “EASY A” next to “TSARS.” “Easy A” (the 2010 Emma Stone movie) is one of my favorite words to use because it’s a really handy way of isolating that pesky “A.” But once I got rid of that “A” I suddenly had way more options in the bottom right corner.

Anyway, here’s the final puzzle, inputted into AmuseLabs (the platform we use to publish our puzzles):

To be honest, I’m not totally satisfied with the final fill—I want to never put “EMU” or “EMUS” (55-down) in a puzzle ever again (nothing against the bird, but it appears way too often) and I also want to avoid using too many French words. I also don’t love “rabic” (5-across, it’s just kind of a yucky word) or “cert” (9-down) or “terr” (13-down). But since all those words have appeared in crosswords before, I felt that it was acceptable to keep them. To see how many times a word has been used in past crosswords, I use the very-handy wordplays website, which also shows you the different clues that were written for the word. Both “cert” and “terr” have appeared at least a 100 times (the max. number of entries that Wordplays displays), so they are crossword-acceptable. However, it is important to note that using the Wordplays website is not a foolproof way to determine crossworthiness. For example, “soh” has appeared at least 89 times in crosswords as “fifth musical note,” but a simple Google search will tell you that it’s really more often spelled “sol.” 30-across used to be “soh,” but I later changed it to “sav” for this reason. By the way, I mentioned earlier that I like to use “EASY A” because it isolates the “A;” 6-down is an example of this theory in reverse, whereby “A” begins the word—”a rest,” as in, “give it a rest.”

Another useful tip I’ve learned along the way is that when you fill in long words, it’s handy if they are long words with “some flexibility”—for example, 4-down could have also been chemistry, in case palmistry didn’t work out. That way, I don’t have to change the middle section that crosses the letters “mistry” in the event that the top section needs to be edited. Similarly, “determiner” and “stationer” could have been “determined” or “stationed,” such that 13-down could end in “err” “erd” or “edd.” I would have liked to use the word “nerd” but unfortunately that would have caused problems in other areas of the puzzle. Just to show you, though, if I didn’t need to keep “rice,” I could have easily incorporated “nerd” without changing too much of the rest of the puzzle. “Omit” would have become “I’m in,” “rice” –> “dice,” etc (see the picture on the right below). But then I would have had another French word, “Ete,” lol. Alors, c’est trop!

What I love about crossword constructing is that every single word in the puzzle ends up with its own story. I can look at each word and remember exactly how I ended up with that word instead of another. And what’s more, they all have a shared history because they all exist in relation to each other. But as time-intensive as constructing a grid is, it’s all for naught unless you have good clues…

STEP 6: CLUE WRITING

It’s always important to have a sense of what your clues for your theme words will be before you start constructing. This is because your theme is the “shiniest” part of your puzzle and you want your clues to do them justice. I had vague ideas of what I wanted to do before I finished the puzzle, but when it came to clue-writing, I decided to go with a fun, narrative approach. “Build your order” is a reference to Chipotle’s burrito assembly process.

The clues for the theme words are:

  • Time to build your order! Choose between white or brown RICE
  • Never too early to think about tangy toppings, like Mexican CREMA
  • Next up: refried, black, or PINTOBEANS (2 wds.)
  • Pick your protein! Chicken, steak, or CARNEASADA (2 wds.)
  • To go with chips, SALSA is a must
  • Finally: pay extra for GUAC!

When I was writing the clues, I realized that the ingredients don’t really appear in “order of construction.” Notably, when we order a burrito, we usually add sour cream / crema at the end… that’s why writing clues “narrative style” was helpful. That way, I could say it’s “never too early to think about toppings,” thus making it seem more natural that “crema” comes after rice. I hope so, at least. Another issue I ran into is that I realized I can’t describe “crema” as “sour cream” because they’re not exactly the same thing. Also, “crema” is Spanish. So, I described it as a “tangy” topping and put “Mexican” before the blank so that players could more easily infer that the answer is a condiment and in Spanish.

When I write clues, I always like to have a few clues that are inspired by my personal life or own interests. That’s why I’ll probably always clue “Red” as “Taylor Swift album named after a color.” I think clues like this add personality to the puzzle, and reveal something about its constructor.

STEP 7: FEEDBACK

The final step of crossword constructing is really a step that happens at several stages throughout the process: collecting feedback! My sister Cynthia is a pro crossword player (she plays the NYT puzzle every single day) and also gives us great feedback on our fill and clues. If something doesn’t sit right, she won’t hesitate to let me know (in fact, it was largely because Cynthia and Kevin both raised eyebrows at “philomathy” that I ended up redoing half the puzzle although I had already “finished” it).

After this step, the only thing left is for the crossword to be published, played, and judged by others!

Final thoughts:

This puzzle took me about a week to construct, and I probably spent 9 hours on it altogether, if not more. I try to construct a bit each day instead of trying to do everything at once so that I don’t burn out. In fact, it’s sometimes a good idea to simply spend a day coming up with an interesting theme and sleeping on it so see if you still like it the next day.

Constructing a crossword…can be like building a burrito. The order of construction matters, and each ingredient has its own story. And, if all goes well, you end up with a yummy product that you’ll want to order again!

September – May’s Monthly Memo

Between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice, Today

I read a Korean poem
with the line “Today you are the youngest
you will ever be.” Today I am the oldest
I have been. Today we drink
buckwheat tea. Today I have heat
in my apartment. Today I think
about the word chada in Korean.
It means cold. It means to be filled with.
It means to kick. To wear. Today we’re worn.
Today you wear the cold. Your chilled skin.
My heart kicks on my skin. Someone said
winter has broken his windows. The heat inside
and the cold outside sent lightning across glass.
Today my heart wears you like curtains. Today
it fills with you. The window in my room
is full of leaves ready to fall. Chada, you say. It’s tea.
We drink. It is cold outside.

Emily Jungmin Yoon
Although we experienced multiple heatwaves this month, I love Emily’s poem and think it’s a fitting poem of the month—for reasons that this post might make clear!

🖼️ Hello, or should I say 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo), because this month I started learning Korean! I’ll be honest, I did not see this coming despite my ongoing infatuation with Crash Landing on You, but I guess my 16-day streak of learning Korean (Duolingo reminds me every day) shows that I indeed have the capacity to add another item to my daily list of to-dos.

Learning a language feels so good. In high school, French was one of my favorite subjects and I remember going the extra mile to learn the language, taking reams of notes, listening to French music, reading French books (moment of silence for the French copy of Swann’s Way that I never finished). So now that I’ve latched onto another language, I guess it’s not surprising that I am really getting into it!

Here’s how I’ve been learning Korean (apart from watching K-dramas)—every day, I complete a few lessons on Duolingo. It was the first resource I decided to use, since I’ve used it before, and it’s got that “game” factor which makes it a fun way to learn languages. But Duolingo alone is not sufficient, since it mostly feeds you a very specific selection of words and doesn’t do a good job explaining why certain characters (particles) are placed in front of nouns/objects, etc. So once I realized I wanted to take my Korean language learning more seriously, I decided to start from the top. I found a great YouTube video that teaches you Hangul, the Korean alphabet, which is surprisingly “easy” to learn but harder to master, of course. Back when I had 0 knowledge of how the Korean language worked, I remember thinking that the script was mostly characterized by lines and circles. Now that I know the alphabet, I realize that all the strokes in Hangul actually help you read each character! I was relieved to learn that Hangul is in this way unlike Chinese, a language that you cannot read simply by “spelling” out an alphabet. As long as you know how Hangul works, you can technically pronounce any character even if you don’t know what it means. Since a major motivation for my Korean learning is being able to read the lyrics of my favorite Korean songs (lolol), this is a big plus.

Hangul - Wikiwand

I’ve also been working my way through the lessons offered by Talk To Me In Korean, a fantastic online resource. Each lesson is digestible, comes with an awesome podcast, and introduces you to relevant, everyday vocabulary (unlike Duolingo, which thought it was more important to teach me how to say “Baskin Robbins” in Korean before, like, “food.” But Baskin Robbins is super popular in South Korea and a good example of Konglish, so I guess it makes sense…).

In order to strengthen my vocabulary, I’ve also downloaded Quizlet on my phone, and I use its flashcard feature to practice identifying and even typing out Korean characters. In terms of learning new words, Quizlet has perhaps been the best resource. I really hope I’ll be able to keep up this new hobby!

🎬 This month, I watched two more K-dramas, My Holo Love and Itaewon Class (both are on Netflix). The former is a limit series about a woman with face blindness who falls in love with an AI hologram—but also its creator (plot twist: they share the same face). The latter is about a group of misfits who are trying to bring down the biggest food corporation in Korea, run by a corrupt man who is the protagonist’s enemy. As someone who studied literature in college, I’m fascinated by ~tropes~, and K-dramas are a treasure trove of tropes (sorry, could not resist the alliteration). In the three K-dramas I’ve seen so far, identical tropes appear—one of the main characters is an orphan, product placement is conspicuous, there’s a love triangle, the “bad guy” is sometimes inexplicably evil and also older than everyone else, the male lead always strokes the female lead’s hair, and so on…. of course, each show has their own OST (original soundtrack) and the music never disappoints. The theme song of Itaewon Class is actually so empowering, lol. Very good running music!

📚 We live near a fantastic bookstore called Moe’s Books, and my colleagues gave me a gift card to spend there! So I made my first purchase this month—Ted Chiang’s Exhalations. It’s a collection of science fiction stories, although the stories are really more about human life, history, and the future of our planet than fantasy. One of my favorite passages comes from the story The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling:

“We don’t normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound.”

The story is about the power of revision; in an oral culture, people can easily revise history. In oral cultures, “histories don’t need to be accurate so much as they need to validate the community’s understanding of itself.” It’s not that “their histories are unreliable; their histories do what they need to do.” Chiang describes each human as a “private oral culture.” People may confabulate, reframe, dramatize, or forget memories according to their own needs. But in a fictional world where memories are recorded, like writing, this “revision” would no longer be possible.

My favorite short story in the collection is “The Great Silence,” a lovely and moving piece narrated by a parrot. If you have a few minutes to spare, I recommend you read it online here .

It’s no coincidence that “aspiration” means both hope and the act of breathing.

When we speak, we use the breath in our lungs to give our thoughts a physical form. The sounds we make are simultaneously our intentions and our life force.

I speak, therefore I am. Vocal learners, like parrots and humans, are perhaps the only ones who fully comprehend the truth of this.

It’s been a good reading month! For my essay on Hong Kong housing and poetry, I’ve come across two sources that really resonate with me. The first is Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1957), a phenomenological text on how the spaces we live in influence the way we think and dream. Bachelard thinks of houses, memory, and words as being in relation with one another, and perceives the world in a highly imaginative way:

Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home. Late in life, with indomitable courage, we continue to say that we are going to do what we have not yet done: we are going to build a house. This dream house may be merely a dream of ownership, the embodiment of everything that is considered convenient, comfortable, healthy, sound, desirable, by other people. It must therefore satisfy both pride and reason, two irreconcilable terms. If these dreams are realized, they no longer belong in the domain of this study, but in that of the psychology of projects. However, as I have said many times, for me, a project is short-range oneirism, and while it gives free play to the mind, the soul does not find in it its vital expression. Maybe it is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later, always later, so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to achieve it. For a house that was final, one that stood in symmetrical relation to the house we were born in, would lead to thoughts-serious, sad thoughts-and not to dreams. It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.

One can establish a dialogue between Bachelard’s text and Leung Ping-kwan’s short story from the 70s, “People Searching For A House.” Leung, better known as Yasi, was one of Hong Kong’s most important writers and many of his poems touch on the subject of housing. He actually also wrote a poem about UChicago’s Robie House, which really made me feel nostalgic. I love finding connections between Hong Kong poets/literary people and Chicago. I hope I can consider myself part of that lineage. I’ll aim to translate the poem next month. Anyway, I wanted to skim Yasi’s short story about a young couple searching for a house because I thought it would inform my chapter. But I ended up loving the story more than I thought—it’s amazing. It at once captures the difficulty of living / finding housing in a place like Hong Kong, as well as the flighty personalities of millennials, a condition of the city itself. Here’s my favorite passage, translated into English by moi:

他們幾乎住遍香港每一區。他們住在山邊,遇上山泥傾瀉;住在漁村,豪雨帶來水淹;住在機場旁邊,飛機飛過震破了玻璃;住在電力廠對面,電力廠發生爆炸;他們住的舊樓要拆卸;他們搬進的新房子鬧鬼;住的地方附近有大檔和私人會所,他們搬;有垃圾站和焚化爐,他們再搬;住的地方要拆了建地下鐵路,他們被迫遷,住的地方要填海建馬場,又祇好再搬;他們住在鬧市,因為治安不好搬家;搬到鄉下,因為村民的閒言搬家。他們因為各種原因搬家,因為轉換職業、因為與鄰居、業主或管理員吵架、因為不耐煩或不安份、因為想追求更好的生活而搬。

They had lived in practically every district in Hong Kong. They lived by the mountains, then encountered landslides; lived in the fishing village, where violent rains brought flooding; lived near the airport, and glass shattered when planes flew past; lived opposite a power station, where there was an explosion; they lived in an old building that had to be demolished; the new place they moved into was haunted; they lived in a house near underground casinos and private clubs, so they moved; waste transfer stations and furnaces, so they moved again; the house had to be torn down to make way for the underground railway, so they were forced to leave; land was being reclaimed to build a racecourse, so they had to choice but to move once more; they lived downtown, then moved because it was unsafe; moved to the countryside, and moved again because of the village gossip. They moved for all sorts of reasons: because they got new jobs, because they fought with the neighbors, owners, or managers, because they were impatient or restless, because they wanted a better life.

🎶 This has turned into another loooong monthly memo so I’ll wrap things up swiftly here—apart from the Korean music I’ve been listening to this month, I also revisited some favorite oldies by The Carpenters (“Top of the World,” “Rainy Days and Mondays”) and Don McLean (“American Pie,” “Vincent”). Kevin has a songbook full of American classics, and we’ve been playing the guitar and harmonica together. A fun song we’ve learned to play is Roger Miller’s “Oo-De-Lally” from Disney’s Robin Hood. Finally, Alicia Keys’ album dropped this month, and it includes a beautiful track: “Gramercy Park.” The live version, performed on Tiny Desk a while ago, still rules.

💬 My word of the month is the Korean word for “no”—아니요 (a-ni-yo). It can also be used in response to “thank you” (Koreans say 아니요 more often than the actual phrase for “you’re welcome”). There are other ways to say “no” depending on levels of formality, but 아니요 is the most common one, and it’s also what you hear very often in K-dramas. I didn’t realize how often I say “no” until I started using 아니요 (or 아뇨 / a-nyo, “nope”) at every opportunity! Which is not to suggest that it’s been a “negative month,” 아니요. 🙂

May’s Monthly Memo – August

The Presence In Absence

Poetry is not made of words.
I can say it’s January when
it’s August. I can say, “The scent
of wisteria on the second floor
of my grandmother’s house
with the door open onto the porch
in Petaluma,” while I’m living
an hour’s drive from the Mexican
border town of Ojinaga.
It is possible to be with someone
who is gone. Like the silence which
continues here in the desert while
the night train passes through Marfa
louder and louder, like the dogs whining
and barking after the train is gone.

Linda Gregg

As Taylor Swift says, “august slipped away like a moment in time.” It’s a particularly relatable lyric these days, as most of my conversations with people involve one of us remarking, “what is time” or simply “time” with a sigh, often the easiest thing to say about the most challenging of circumstances.

August was our first full month in Berkeley. Kevin started work, I resumed freelancing, our Shipment of Stuff from Chicago finally arrived, our home is now more of a home. I cook a nice homemade dinner almost every day (unless we are finishing leftovers), not only because we’ve gotta eat but also because it feels like a reliable form of therapy.

I think that my tendency to let my stubborn obsessions consume me has become more pronounced over quarantine, either because I’m more impressionable and vulnerable (?) or because “exciting” events are scarce these days. August has been a month for obsessions indeed; I was obsessed with folklore (as evidenced by my 2000 word review), obsessed with cleaning/organizing our home, obsessed (still) with the picture-perfect world of Pinterest (and succulents), obsessed with Crash Landing on You, a K-drama that Kevin and I started watching this month (more on #CLOY later). In my translation work, my obsessiveness often leads me down helpful rabbit holes as I try to get to the bottom of a text (for example: I spent a while Googling the use of limestone powder on graves for a poem I am translating). When I’m making crosswords, obsession motivates me to construct better grids and search onelook.com until I’ve found the right words to fit the puzzle. I guess two contradicting synonyms for “obsession” in my mind are “focus” and “distraction”—I’m just really focused on stuff right now while being continuously distracted, I guess.

🎬 Two of Kevin’s friends suggested that we watch CLOY, a K-drama about a South Korean heiress, Yoon Se-Ri (Son Ye-jin) who is transported into North Korea by the winds of fate in a paragliding accident. In the forest where she crash-lands, she meets the Captain of the Special Forces, Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin), who ends up hiding her and does his best to send her home discreetly. Predictable spoiler: they fall in love.

7 Places To Grab Korean Fried Chicken In Manila

But seriously—the show is somehow full of unexpected twists and turns despite delivering many of the tropes that you would expect of K-dramas. The script is hilarious, the performances are gold, and on top of it all the whole thing is very romantic. I don’t remember the last time I was so genuinely touched and moved by a show. Cynthia and I stayed up until 5 AM binge-watching the final 5 episodes one night (this is very out of character for me, so you can understand the extent to which I was possessed). Another ingenious aspect of the show is its spot-on product placement. I knew that product placements are common in K-dramas (huge source of revenue), but I didn’t fully realize until a few episodes into the show that the tasty fried chicken and conspicuously shiny jewelry that kept reappearing were, in fact, the result of brand partnerships and sponsors. In truth, one can feel slightly duped when realizing that their favorite scene largely revolves around a commercial product that was strategically placed there to satisfy a corporate brand. But ultimately, any TV show is trying to sell you something, be it a Range Rover or a love story. You’re going to be sucked in no matter what—it’s just that a particular brand might happen to profit off of your emotional investment (South Korea’s Gold Olive Chicken, which featured prominently in the show, apparently experienced a 100% sales boost after the K-drama aired).

Son Ye-jin will always have a special place in my heart because she starred in The Classic (2003), one of my dad’s favorite movies that we watched many times when I was young. Watching her bring Yoon Se-ri to life (and she did suuuuch a brilliant job) felt like such a gift, and actually helped me remember the joy (and emotional turbulence, lol) of watching The Classic.

📚 Last month, I made a promise to myself that I would read more this month, and while I didn’t exactly deliver, I am off to a good-ish start. I read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which remains a timely text in our current climate. I plan to go to Moe’s Books this weekend (my former colleagues got me a gift card!) to pick up some September reads. I’m still translating Chung Kwok-keung’s poems and preparing for two panels at the virtual ALTA conference next month, so I’ve been reading and translating his work. I’ve been invited to contribute a chapter on Hong Kong poetry for a book that is being published by Routledge, so I re-downloaded Zotero and put my academia hat back on. The working title for my essay is: “Writers in Residence: Housing and Property in Hong Kong Poetry.” Not bad, eh? I’ll be writing about Chung Kwok-keung’s “The Growing House,” Lok Fung’s “Days When I Hide My Corpse in a Cardboard Box,” and P.K. Leung’s “A Poetry of Moving Signs.” In preparation for writing the paper, I also read Martin Heidegger’s essay on poetry and dwelling (like I said, putting my academia hat back on for a bit). Finally, I’m copyediting a full-length book on marketing (also for Routledge), so I’ve been reading and learning a lot about the future of branding.

🎶 This month, I have been listening almost exclusively to folklore and the CLOY soundtrack. Songs that Kevin is sick of hearing on repeat include: Flower by Yoon Mirae, Here I am Again by Yerin Baek, and The Song for My Brother, a lovely piano track composed by Nam Hye Seung and Park Sang Hee that plays an important role in CLOY. In typical obsessive fashion, I have also learned to play the song on the guitar!

💬 My word of the month is “marketing.” It’s just something I’ve been thinking about as I edit this book on branding and ponder the product placements in CLOY. Of course, marketing is always in every aspect of our lives. But it feels like a fitting word for August, a month that went by so quickly, yet was packed with so many obsessions. I want to end with a quote that I saw on Twitter the other day:

She remembered it was August and they say August brings bad luck.

But September would arrive one day like an exit. And September was for some reason a lighter and more transparent month.

—Clarice Lispector, In Search for a Dignity (t. Katrina Dodson)

Folklore: Tales, Traditions, and Taylor Swift

On July 23, Taylor Swift surprised fans worldwide by announcing a midnight album-drop—an unprecedented move by an artist who is known for carefully-orchestrated “Easter egg hunts” and well-timed single releases. The record, she wrote on social media, would consist of 16 tracks largely co-written with The National Aaron Dessner and include a Bon Iver feature. Taylor wasn’t just releasing a surprise album—she was releasing her first alternative album.

Taylor is no stranger to genre-crossing, having written songs that topped both country and pop charts. folklore isn’t her first foray into indie territory, either; her 2012 collaboration with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody gave us one of her best duets, “The Last Time.” That same year, she teamed up with The Civil Wars to write “Safe & Sound” for The Hunger Games soundtrack. Even “22,” one of her poppiest tracks, has a memorable line about an “indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” Taylor is also a self-proclaimed The National “stan.” All this is to say that folklore has been a long time coming.

A trademark feature of Taylor’s songs is their focus on her personal life, something that has both brought her praise and much unwanted attention. Both the media and her fans go to great lengths to track the subjects of her lyrics, which are sometimes hinted at in the song title themselves (“Dear John” is about John Mayer, “Style” is about Harry Styles [allegedly]) or otherwise addressed through clues (Taylor used to capitalize letters in her lyric books to spell out secret messages). Since the Lover era, however, Taylor has been vocal about the evolving scope of her songwriting. She’s not just writing about her personal life anymore, but drawing inspiration from books, films, and friends.

Folklore makes a triumphant return to Taylor’s storytelling roots, and three of the album’s best songs form a narrative arc: “august,” “betty,” and “cardigan” (coincidentally “ABC”). As Taylor explained in a YouTube comment shortly before the “cardigan” video dropped, there are three songs on the album that form a “teenage love triangle.” The three players in this triangle appear in “betty”—Betty, James, and an unnamed “she.” The song is sung from the perspective of James, who recalls a summer where he falls in love with Betty but then ends up in a fling with another girl who invites him into her car. The song ends with him making it up to Betty (musically, through a very welcome key shift), showing up on her porch and letting her know that he misses her. Here’s how Betty ends:

Yeah, I showed up at your party
Will you have me? Will you love me?
Will you kiss me on the porch
In front of all your stupid friends?
If you kiss me, will it be just like I dreamed it?
Will it patch your broken wings?
I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything
But I know I miss you

Standing in your cardigan
Kissin’ in my car again
Stopped at a streetlight
You know I miss you

Now, “cardigan” is written from Betty’s perspective. Although “betty” and “cardigan” are sonically quite different (“betty” is country and harmonica-laden, “cardigan” is more alternative), both songs share similar motifs:

I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired
And you’d be standing in my front porch light […]
And when I felt like I was an old cardigan
Under someone’s bed
You put me on and said I was your favorite

So “cardigan” shows us that there is a happy-ish ending for Betty and James, who end a tortuous summer by reconciling. By the way, I like that “cardigan” falls into the clothing line of Taylor Swift songs over the years, joining “Tim McGraw’s” “little black dress” and the “Dress” of reputation. As the album’s first single, “cardigan” also has the sonic flair and catchy hook that make it a strong contender for radio airplay.

So it’s a love story for Betty and James, but how about our unnamed troublemaker who got between them? “august,” the most pop-reminiscent and arguably most “fun” song on the album, is sung from her perspective (“remember when I pulled up and said “get in the car?”). The song invites us to empathize with her, for whom “august slipped away like a bottle of wine, ’cause you were never mine.” The best part of the song is the surge at 3:09.

Although “ABC” may be the holy trinity of folklore, its themes are still resonant in the other tracks on the album. The opening track, aptly named “the 1” (“august” is track 8, “seven” is track 7, I see what you did there, Taylor), laments that “the one” got away, setting us up for the loss in “cardigan” that immediately follows as track 2. It’s a springy song that ties remorse and optimism together, just as “cardigan” paints a sad ending as a romantic compromise. Interestingly, both songs are also connected by motifs of days long gone—“roaring twenties” and “vintage tees.” The theme of infidelity explored in ABC also finds fuller volume in “illicit affairs,” a haunting track about the heartbreak that romantic betrayal brings. Unlike Taylor’s typical “you-burned-me-so-I’ll-burn-you” songs about broken promises, though, “illicit affairs” is decidedly more helpless and somber. It’s less assertive, but more mature and vulnerable than her other cheating-themed songs such as “Should’ve Said No,” “Better Than Revenge,” and “Getaway Car.”

As a “quarantine” album, folklore makes its starkest pandemic reference in “epiphany,” a song that begins by alluding to Taylor’s grandfather Dean, who served in the 1942 Battle of Guadalcanal. In the second verse, however, the song fast-forwards a few decades to today:

Something med school did not cover
Someone’s daughter, someone’s mother
Holds your hand through plastic now
“Doc, I think she’s crashing out”
And some things you just can’t speak about

By drawing an analogy between the PTSD of wartime and pandemic times, “epiphany” is a subtle but moving nod to healthcare workers on the frontlines who “dream of some epiphany … to make some sense of what you’ve seen.”

Lyrically, the best song on the album is “the last great american dynasty,” which really goes to show Taylor’s storytelling potential. “Rebekah rode up on the afternoon train, it was sunny,” begins the song. “Her saltbox house on the coast took her mind off St. Louis….” The song tells the story of Rebekah Harkness, an oil heiress/composer/philanthropist whose story is intertwined by glamour and tragedy. Throughout the song, Taylor tells us about Rebekah’s life while artfully describing her own—Rebekah was the owner of Taylor’s now-infamous Rhode Island mansion. During their time in the mansion, Taylor and Rebekah were known for throwing big parties, having a ‘girl squad,’ and upsetting local authorities. It’s a tongue-in-cheek song that’s both a fascinating history lesson and a very big flex. “And then it was bought by me,” sings Taylor in the song’s turning point (the house sold for $17.75 million), reinserting herself into the song’s narrative. “tlgad” has the same chaotic energy as “Blank Space,” for both songs are sung from the perspective of someone who calls herself “mad” while reminding you that she’s also mad successful and mad rich.  Speaking of “mad,” the song “mad woman” is a fitting follow-up to “The Man,” although the former has more of a gothic-woodsy aesthetic than the latter. “mad woman” might not dominate the pop charts the way “The Man” did, but it certainly gets the message across in a spookier way (the song is believed to be a reference to Taylor losing her masters to Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun).

As much as folklore focuses on other stories and perspectives, the album absolutely shines when we see Taylor getting introspective and self-referential (some might say that the “Old Taylor” is back). One of the loveliest songs on the album is “seven,” which takes us back to a childhood memory in Pennsylvania. Taylor sings it in a high, effortless falsetto, a style that suits her far more than the belting style of pop. Another close favorite of mine is “invisible string,” which has the loveliest guitar opening and catchiest run, courtesy of Aaron Dessner. It’s a welcome reprieve from the album’s sadder songs. The lyrics are on-point too, with verse 2 being my favorite. It’s funny that Taylor references “Bad Blood”—the two songs could not sound more different.

Bad was the blood of the song in the cab
On your first trip to LA
You ate at my favorite spot for dinner
Bold was the waitress on our three-year trip
Getting lunch down by the Lakes
She said I looked like an American singer

An invisible (or not-so-invisible) string ties the many songs in this album together as well. The lakes alluded to in “invisible string” reappear in the album’s bonus track (“the lakes”), which draws heavily on the imagery of romantic poets. With lyrics like “I want auroras and sad prose / I want to watch wisteria grow right over my bare feet,” the song is a bit too saccharine for my tastes, personally, even though I spent an entire quarter reading romantic poetry in college. But it’s always nice to get a bonus track from Taylor—the last time we had one was in the 1989 era.

My review of any Taylor album wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t touch on track 5, which in Swift lore is traditionally the most emotional song on the album. Track 5 of folklore, “my tears ricochet,” is the first song Taylor wrote for the album, and like “The Archer” from Lover, it has a slow payoff. It’s not one of my top picks, but it does have the sharpest retort in the album: “if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?” Despite the melancholy reputation of track 5s, I often find that other songs on Taylor’s albums pull more emotional weight. In the case of folklore, it’s the two songs that sandwich “my tears ricochet.” Track 4, “exile,” is Taylor’s best collaboration to date (sorry, Gary Lightbody). The Bon Iver feature is a dramatic call-and-response between two ex-lovers who are watching the metaphorical credits of their love story start to roll. Who thought that pairing the grittiness of Justin Vernon’s baritone with Taylor’s soft vocals would be such a good idea? “exile” is exemplary. Track 6, “mirrorball,” sounds just like a sparkly disco ball and yet describes someone who is as fragile as one—liable to shatter into a million pieces. Taylor’s vocals are carefully layered in a continuous harmony in “mirrorball,” as if she were lost in a crowd or out of reach. In terms of production and execution, both songs overshadow track 5 to my ears.

Overall, the album moves at a measured, nostalgic pace, making the black-and-white woodland backdrop a fitting image for the cover. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that some of the songs are a bit too slow—“this is me trying” feels a bit too trying to me, and the shiniest part of the song is its over-too-soon bridge. It does have some stellar lines (“they told me all of my cages were mental, So I got wasted like all my potential”), but the song as a whole does not take flight. This is not to say that I was not a fan of the slower, stripped-down songs on the album, though; “peace” and “hoax,” the two closing tracks, were some of my early favorites when I first started listening to folklore. Like “seven,” they present Taylor in her vocal strong suit: singing clearly, honestly, and tenderly. Unlike many of the other tracks on the album, “peace” and “hoax” also sound like songs from the present, not the nostalgic past. Perhaps they feel more grounded in this way.

Composed entirely during isolation, folklore presents us with Taylor in ultimate focus-mode, and seeing her introspection and imagination run wild on this album has been a silver lining in quarantine. Things I would love to see from the folklore era include a live/virtual performance (especially of “exile”), a movie-music video of the ABC arc, and more insight on the making of the album. Also, it would be great if Taylor could reveal the identity of the elusive William Bowery—an anonymous cowriter on “betty” and “exile.” But Taylor loves mystery after all, which is an important element of some of the best stories. We’ll just have to wait and see where her visionary mind takes us next!

May’s Monthly Memo – July

Fishing on the Susquehanna in July

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure—if it is a pleasure—
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one—
a painting of a woman on the wall,

a bowl of tangerines on the table—
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandanna

sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.

Billy Collins

I write this memo from my new apartment in Berkeley, which Kevin and I will be calling home for the foreseeable future! It’s lovely here—the weather is perennially nice, I’m surrounded by the nicest plants I’ve ever seen in my life, and our first-apartment-out-of-college is pretty ideal, too. Since I’m already in an August state of mind, I’ll keep this monthly memo short (I had to really motivate myself to write it, frankly). It’s not that July seems a long time ago, but rather that I’m no longer sure whether I still think of units of time in months anymore. Anyway…

This is my second time in Berkeley, but my first time living on the west coast. While the sun is out every day, I’ve noticed that it doesn’t start getting sunny-sunny until after 10 AM (typically), which means that I have more time in the morning to go on a run while it’s still overcast outside. Right outside our living room window are a cluster of trees with spiky, burnt leaves and softer fern-like things springing out the top. They’re not the most radiant plants in the world, but I’ve grown fond of them nonetheless. Our neighbors to the west grow a lot of trees (even a lemon tree), and I have them to thank for our kitchen view; if I look directly out the window, I can imagine for a moment that we’re in the woods.

I spent a lot of time on Pinterest and Apartment Therapy in July, daydreaming of how I’d furnish this home when we got here. After all, this is the first place I’m living in as an adult that I get to furnish myself! That being said, a lot of my interior decor dreams needed a reality check once we got here. Alas! At heart, I’m still a functionality/budget over aesthetics/$$$ girl. Our dining room table, TV stand, coffee table, and chairs are currently all from IKEA (which is fine, IKEA is great for staples). Once the rest of our stuff arrives (I imagine our worldly possessions are in a truck somewhere, stuck in traffic) we’ll have a better sense of how to furnish this space into a cozy home. I suppose I feel a bit like the speaker in “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July” (by Billy Collins, one of my favorite poets), “trying to manufacture the sensation / of fishing on the Susquehanna.” Trying to imagine an experience from a painting or a photo, sometimes so viscerally that it feels within reach.

🎬 We watched a lot of Lucifer last month, and I honestly think the show does better job of exploring themes such as vulnerability, agency, and desire as the seasons progress. I was giving someone life advice a few days ago and realized that what I was saying was inspired by Dr. Linda (the therapist) from the show. In some ways, Lucifer is really a show about how to manage your emotions.

📚 My reading draught ends now! After forgetting how to read for a very long time, I’m determined to turn reading back into an essential life habit this month. I did finish Joshua Wong’s Unfree Speech on the plane, though. It’s a very moving and heartbreaking read at this particular juncture in time.

🎶 Just when I thought I had everything under control, Taylor Swift decided to drop an ENTIRE ALBUM!!! I had less than 24 hours to emotionally prepare and the album landed on the day I flew to Berkeley, too. It’s actually quite nice, easing into a new chapter of my life with a new Taylor album. I will probably be writing a separate review of folklore soon. My current favorites from the record are: cardigan, exile, august.

💬 Word of the month, and biggest distraction of the month: Pinterest. For reasons explained above…

May’s Monthly Memo – June

節日

節日來了我們在門前踢球
狹窄的空間尚有兒子起腳的良機
我長於通坑渠,把皮球準確放在
樹與籬笆之間,一個角落
影子如常的黑

節日來了兒子跟表弟玩電腦 
皇馬對英格蘭可以12比0 
碧咸掃跌碧咸——Penalty! Penalty! 
我在翻報章斗大的標題
戴墨鏡的地產商大義滅親
笑咪咪把昨天的自己摑落在報屁股下

節日來了我們吃肉
吐骨,把湯喝得呼呼作響
電視上舉起的木楫像筷子一樣齊
水花一樣高。 我們喝掉所有青啤
眼睛跳進城門河洗掉去年的晦氣

節日來了我們摘樹上的黃皮
妻子說甜我說有點酸
沉色的才是成熟的呀妻說
我拿了一 把給兒子他說不想吃
我拿了一顆給女兒她掉頭便走了

節日來了電視上有脅殺人質的消息
蒸氣升騰母親的湯越來越入味
父親說買來的雞須養一段時日才宰殺
粽子吃淡了我們的餐桌需要一點糖

節日來了我暫停問功課
兒子反問那人為何跳下去
我說或許,或許他要證明一些甚麼吧
但事實證明他還未學會游泳呀
對,這世代,要學好游泳便是這道理

節日來了我們難得胡謅
我們唱歌然後忘記歌詞
我們歡聚然後各自歸家
節日來了我們潛入海底隧道
慶幸還有引擎聲音
像波浪不斷為我們催眠

6/23/2004

Chung Kwok-Keung, tr. May Huang
Festival

The festival is here we play football by the door
Even in a tight space my son can nail a kickoff 
Skilled at the nutmeg, I plan to place the ball
Between the tree and hedge, a corner
The shadows are dark as always

The festival is here my son games with cousins
Real Madrid and EFL are down 12 to 0
Beckham fouls Beckham—Penalty! Penalty!
I turn the paper’s looming headlines
The shady real estate agent holds law above family
Cackling, he slaps yesterday’s self onto the paper’s ass 

The festival is here we eat meat
Spit bones, noisily slurp soup
The paddles they lift on TV are neat as chopsticks
High as splashes. We down all the Tsingtao
And our eyes jump into the Shing Mun River
To rinse away last year’s bad luck

The festival is here we pick wampee fruits 
My wife says they’re sweet I say sour
The darker ones are ripest, she says
I bring a bunch to my son he says no
I bring one to my daughter she walks away

The festival is here news of murder is on TV
Steam rises and mother’s soup grows tastier
Father says you must wait to slaughter chicken
After plain zongzi our table needs a little sugar

The festival is here I stop asking about homework
Yet my son asks why the man jumped in
I say perhaps, perhaps he had something to prove
Aha, but in truth he proved he could not swim
Yes, in today’s age, this is why you learn to swim

The festival is here we get to talk nonsense
We sing and forget lyrics
We gather and go home
The festival is here we dive into the cross harbor tunnel
Thankful for the whir of engines 
Hypnotizing us like waves

🖼️ Like most things that are turned in late, this monthly memo is brief, scattered, retrospective, and a bit lame (sorry). June was a month of big life-changes for me (on paper, mostly) although life feel the same-ish. I guess that’s how the state-of-the-world is, too—laws are signed and orders are passed, but they just seem to formalize or ignore a concurrent reality. Much like the translated poem I’ve included above, this piece still feels like a work-in-progress, but here it is anyway.

🎬 This month, I re-watched Knives Out (still satisfying the second time round), wrapped up Legends of Tomorrow with Kevin, finally finished watching My Cousin Vinny, and also watched the first season of Rhythm + Flow, which is like the hip-hop version of The Voice. I’ve never really been an avid listener of rap music but thanks to Rhythm + Flow, I now have a better understanding and appreciation of the genre. Truly some of the best rhymes are found in rap verses.

🎶 HAIM’s highly-anticipated 3rd album, Women in Music Part III, debuted this month and the sisters never disappoint. While the promo singles they released earlier this year are still (to my ear) the main bangers from the album, most HAIM songs get better after several listens—especially when heard live. All in all, I think they’ve strategized their music-release-during-quarantine very cleverly. Other songs that have been on repeat this month include Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem,” Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out” (a timely tune, as I moved out of Hyde Park), and Jawsh 685’s “Laxed – Siren Beat” (a TikTok hit).

📖 Tragically, I did not read much in June, unless you count many tweets, the Illinois Rules of the Road handbook, and USCIS instructions as “literature.” However, I am hoping to read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and finish reading Joshua Wong’s book in July. I feel that my writing has been dry and drab recently and I think I can chalk it up to the utter disintegration of my reading habits….

💬 June’s word of the month is cul-de-sac, a term that seems to crop up everywhere for me. I encountered it multiple times in Legends of Tomorrow as a recurring trope, then in a NYT crossword (I’ve also used “sac” in my own crosswords), and then IRL in the streets of Naperville. Cul-de-sac is one of those words that I sometimes hear, know exists, yet never really need to use in daily lingo. I feel like it is a very American concept, particularly in relation to suburban life. It’s also a phrase that can sound kind of fancy (it is French, after all), until you translate it plainly: dead end. 😬

On a metaphorical, large-scale level, I wonder whether big movements happening in both the US and Hong Kong can be compared to cul-de-sacs, passages that lead nowhere. I experienced a similar frustration when I was learning to drive in the suburbs. What’s the point of driving into a cul-de sac if you just end up exiting the same way you came in?

In urban planning, cul-de-sacs were originally integrated to create safety and connectivity, but they now sometimes come under fire for being unsafe, and even bad for your health (residents living in cul-de-sacs often need to drive to get anywhere, increasing car exhaust levels as well as safety concerns for kids playing outside their home).

As we navigate the fourth month of quarantine, I also feel that the pandemic situation in the US feels a bit like driving in a cul-de-sac, going in circles without making progress. But perhaps that is taking the metaphor too far…

Anyway, I will aim to publish July’s monthly memo before the month is up. I’ll be pressing “publish” in Berkeley when the time comes!

We Made Our Own Engagement Ring—Here’s Why

This weekend, Kevin and I got engaged! 💍We have been together for the past three years, and have known for a long time that we are in it for the long haul. It comes as no surprise to our close friends and family that we’ve decided to tie the knot, and I feel very lucky for all the twists and turns in my life that led me here. Okay, enough sappiness…

Naturally, we have been thinking a lot about “engagement”—particularly, how it happens. Traditionally, an engagement follows a proposal—usually an offer extended by the groom to be, who gets down on one knee and whips out a ring. Typically, the ring is expensive. And in some cases, the proposal is a surprise—or a public event, where onlookers gasp and gawk.

Earlier on, Kevin and I had floated different possibilities to each other. Maybe “I” would propose, hence flipping the stereotypical proposal process on its head. Or maybe we would both plan to surprise the other person at a specific time. Or maybe we would just skip the “proposal” and focus on the marriage. Over time, however, it became very clear that no matter how we handled the situation, we should approach it the same way we approach our relationship: by working as a team, and doing things our own way.

In Taiwan and Hong Kong, an engagement (訂婚) is a family event that comes with a number of traditional procedures (禮俗). Usually, a special meal is prepared and families from both sides have to be present. However, in the US, an engagement is typically a more personal affair, something arranged between the couple. Of course, what I’ve described is just a reductive explanation of how engagements transpire in different parts of the world. But they do usually share one thing in common—an engagement ring.

Ah, the ring—’twas a source of stress for both of us early on in this process. Did I want an engagement ring? Yes, but I also knew I didn’t want Kevin to shell out $$$ for an engagement ring that I’d eventually trade for a wedding band (I’m not the wear-two-rings-on-one-finger type). I can think of so many ways to better spend that money. I also knew that nothing would stress Kevin out more than picking a ring out by himself, since we like to make big decisions together. So, if we were to get an engagement ring, we’d pick one out together. And I did not want to ring-shop online—I wanted to try the ring on in person. Then came our next challenge: due to the pandemic, all the shops were closed. What next?

Kevin and I had planned to get engaged and married around this time, and the timing would have been perfect—my mom was scheduled to visit the US in May, so she would have been here to celebrate with us. However, I reiterate: the pandemic happened. We realized that we had to improvise… which brings me to the ring.

I have been beadmaking since I was young, for both my mom and my aunt enjoy making beaded jewelry. Almost all of the jewelry I’ve worn in my life has been handmade by them, and this is a big reason why I never wanted to pierce my ears; my favorite earrings were clip-ons that they made using beads, thread, and wire:

Last December, when I returned to Hong Kong for the holidays, I started beadmaking again. In fact, I started to make rings. Here’s a sample at some of my creations:

So when I returned to Chicago in January, I brought with me a box of beads. And last month, my aunt shipped me even more beads (alongside masks, bless her).

So although Kevin and I could not go ring shopping in person, we had everything we needed to make a very special ring right at home. And given the number of rings I’ve been making since December, I think it’s safe to say that I knew my beadmaking experience would come in clutch very soon…

MAKING THE RING

Both Kevin and I are very hands-on people; we enjoy DIY, making food and supplies from scratch, fixing furniture on our own without calling the landlord (well, I guess he enjoys that), etc. So constructing a ring together made sense and seemed very fun (unlike stressfully shopping for a $$ ring).

To make the band, we followed a very simple beading technique that I use for almost all my rings. We used fishing string—which feels symbolic since Kevin and I have very nice memories fishing in Alabama and on our first camping trip together.

We initially considered a different centerpiece, one made using beads and pearls. Here was an early candidate—a sunflower!

However, we both then thought that it might be better to have something more prominent as the centerpiece. Looking through my jewelry box, we found the gem you now see in the picture. It was originally attached to a pair of my earrings, but it sometimes fell off. So I decided to just remove both of them (I have jewelry tweezers at home). As you can see, the earrings look just fine without the beads. Here’s another fun fact about these earrings: I bought them in Mongkok while Kevin waited for me to make up my mind for like, 40 minutes. So in a kind of sweet way, they remind me of Hong Kong—and Kevin’s indefatigable patience.

The next step was to affix the gem onto the ring. Ultimately, the best way to go about it was to glue the gem onto the beads using Gorilla Glue. Here’s trial 1 (spoiler: it didn’t work). The glue work was kind of messy and bubbly, and the band itself was also too loose.

So we tried a different technique… As you can see in the photo below, we altered the beading of the band so that the gem could actually sit on the ring more comfortably (thus leading to a cleaner gluing process).

Before finally tying the ring together with a surgeon’s knot, I wore it for a while (loosely tied) to make sure it was the right size. We also had to glue the gem back on a few times (lol). But here it is now, looking quite good!

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’ve been thinking about the Taylor Swift song “Paper Rings,” which contains this lovely line: “I like shiny things, but I’d marry you with paper rings.” In truth, I have been thinking about that song since last summer (lol). But I also think it’s notable to mark the difference between Taylor’s first worldwide hit, “Love Story,” and “Paper Rings.” In “Love Story” she sings about a prince who “knelt to the ground and pulled out a ring and said ‘Marry me Juliet’….” In “Paper Rings,” we see a more practical, less fairytale, yet just as romantic version of marriage. For ultimately what bonds two people together is the relationship they share and their commitment. A ring, shiny as it is, shouldn’t be at the center of any engagement. One day, this engagement ring is going to rust and I might just tuck it away somewhere. But the relationship that forged it is everlasting. 😊

May’s Monthly Memo | May

The Trees

In my front yard live three crape myrtles, crying trees
We once called them, not the shadiest but soothing
During a break from work in the heat, their cool sweat

Falling into us. I don’t want to make more of it.
I’d like to let these spindly things be
Since my gift for transformation here proves

Useless now that I know everyone moves the same
Whether moving in tears or moving
To punch my face. A crape myrtle is

A crape myrtle. Three is a family. It is winter. They are bare.
It’s not that I love them.
Every day. It’s that I love them anyway.

Jericho Brown

🖼️ This month, Jericho Brown won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, becoming the first black and queer writer to win the award. His poem The Trees is exactly what I needed this month: a gentle, although sorrowful reminder that familial love, complicated as it may be, is often unconditional.

Many people assume that I was born in May because of my name, and although I was a March baby, it’s true that I have a particular affinity with the month of May. This month, I’ve been making crosswords (more on that later) and I’ve noticed that my favorite words to hide in a grid are names. Names have the quality of being both unique and shared; everyone has their own name, but chances are someone or something else has your name, too (unless you’re X Æ A-12, whose name was recently changed to X Æ A-Xii). So it’s a beautiful thing to find your name in the world, and while I’m no astrologist, I’ve always thought that the month of May has powers to clarify my life.

In many ways, this May has been a month of mourning. The COVID-19 death toll in America surpassed 100,000. George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis Police on May 25. Hong Kong received heartbreaking news. As many of us shelter in place at home, how do we process the sweeping loss that connects us all?

French writer Georges Péréc famously wrote the novel La Disparition (translated as The Void , The Vanishing, or The Vanish’d in English) without a single e. When I was younger I used to think the novel was a gimmick. But e is essential in French; it appears in most words, including je (I), mère (mother), and père (father). Raised in post-war France, Péréc lost his family at a young age. His novel, devoid of a single e, reckons with loss and trauma. What is louder than silence? Don’t the subjects of our writing and concentration hide in our texts, like clued answers in a crossword? In The Trees, Jericho Brown uses the motif of a crying tree to show us sorrow instead of directly describing his family. The poem is short, and we don’t get a clear picture of the people implicated in its final stanzas—but through a trio of crape myrtles, Brown tells us exactly what we need to know.

I have been thinking about how I can write about Hong Kong without talking directly about Hong Kong. How I can contribute and continue to be a part of the city that raised me. How I can grow older, moving across this complicated country while holding on to home. Maybe to write about Hong Kong is to leave it out entirely, like an e that anchors a language. Perhaps I may write about Hong Kong by telling you about Chicago, a city that is stubbornly flat, mostly winter, and divided into grids. In Chicago, I mostly live in one language. I use the oven when I cook. I don’t always like to use public transit, and don’t like to take the train home late at night. But like many other places in this world, Chicago has a long history of protest, and had to learn to rebuild itself after a fire. Have I ever fought for Chicago? I’m not sure.

I find it curious that, despite the absence of e‘s in La Disparition, Georges Péréc’s name is always on the book cover—often alongside a giant E. Many e’s appear on the cover of the book, as if the book itself is bound by the absence it so diligently marks. Perhaps there’s some relief to be found in the fact that Georges, even when weighed down by the loss of e, held four in his own name.

So, what’s in a name? In the wake of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery’s deaths, the hashtag #SayHisName went viral on the Internet. The New York Times printed 100 names of the 100,000 people who lost their lives to COVID-19 on its front page. In the abyss of loss, names echo to shape the human lives and stories that once were. Once spoken, they become something we share and acknowledge. So every May, I am grateful for 31 days of feeling my name resonate with the world around me. One of the poems I’ve been translating this month, 字典 (“Dictionary”), contains the following line:

要碰上的字
終會碰上
那麽日子裏新生的事物呢
該如何對應?

one will always meet
The words one is meant to meet 
What about the things born every day 
How should we name them?

This month, when so many lives and possibilities have been lost, may we hold on to names.

🎬 Alrighty, I’m going to wrap up the rest of this memo hurriedly. The TV I watch nowadays is basically whatever Kevin watches. So this means I finished watching The Mandalorian and watched some superhero TV from the CW network (Flash, Supergirl, etc.) this month. We also watched some of the animated Beauty and the Beast — did you know that the film was supposedly Disney’s first “feminist” film? I also started watching the Bon Appetit YouTube videos, which truly live up to their hype. I wish I could elaborate more on this section but my screen-life is a blur these days…

📚 A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean – This is one of my favorite short stories of all time and I’ll never forget the deep pang in my heart I felt the first time I read it. A River Runs Through It uses the art of fly fishing to tell a story of brotherhood and love, and it captures so much of the thorny emotions felt between siblings: pride, helplessness, love. Fun fact 1: MacLean was the William Rainey Harper Professor at UChicago! Fun fact 2: Brad Pitt starred in the film adaptation.

“Yet even in the loneliness of the canyon I knew there were others like me who had brothers they did not understand but wanted to help. We are probably those referred to as “our brother’s keepers,” possessed of one of the oldest and possible one of the most futile and certainly one of the most haunting instincts.

I also started reading Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, and the sentences in his stories are gorgeously woven. What a formidable talent.

🎶 I don’t have anything too profound to say about the music I’ve been listening to this month… here are some highlights!

HAIM – Don’t Wanna
Artie Shaw – Cross Your Heart
Carly Rae Jepsen – Felt This Way and Stay Away
All of Taylor Swift’s acoustic songs from the “Live From Paris” concert
Taylor Swift – Paper Rings

💬This month’s word of the day is, undoubtedly, “crosswords.” I made a crossword for each day of the month, and you can play all of them here. I also am working on an essay about translation and crosswords, which I hope to publish soon… that’s all for now! More soon~

May’s Monthly Memo | April

Sit down. Inhale. Exhale.
The gun will wait. The lake will wait.
The tall gall in the small seductive vial
will wait will wait:
will wait a week: will wait through April.
You do not have to die this certain day.
Death will abide, will pamper your postponement.
I assure you death will wait. Death has
a lot of time. Death can
attend to you tomorrow. Or next week. Death is
just down the street; is most obliging neighbor;
can meet you any moment.

You need not die today.
Stay here–through pout or pain or peskyness.
Stay here. See what the news is going to be tomorrow.

Graves grow no green that you can use.
Remember, green’s your color. You are Spring.

Gwendolyn Brooks, “To the Young Who Want to Die”

My monthly memo is a day late, aaaah! As you read, please think of “this month” as April, which is when I began writing this piece.

🖼️Every April you hear someone say “April is the cruellest month,” and T.S. Eliot’s words—composed in post-WWI England—ring particularly true now. Yet the poem I want to spotlight this month is Gwendolyn Brooks’ beautiful reminder that cruelty can pass, and that hope is generative. Green’s your color. As we enjoy warmer days, I’m sometimes taken aback anew by the influential power of natural surroundings. I grew up with the sea and the mountains as neighbors, and have always relied on nature to shape the way I feel and create. I love how the day-to-day transformations of trees tell us that change is on its way. These sweeping gestures, like the sunlight hitting the trees just right, or a night’s rain forming a makeshift pond for ducklings, are blessings. These days, it often feels that nothing is more reassuring than green.

I guess “not much” happened in April, although the start of the month does feel a lifetime away. My brother’s 2-week quarantine period ended, and we celebrated with a hearty fried-chicken dinner from Harold’s. My little sister celebrated her 21st birthday (aaaah!) so we celebrated with green tea cheesecake. Another big event I’d be remiss to omit: this month, our apartment united in a concerted effort to drive out the mice in our apartment, although I regret to say that a few probably remain, alongside their telltale droppings. We did find and trap a mouse in our sink, though—that traumatic memory remains stark. This month, I also cut my roommates’ hairs (all boys), watched Kevin grow out his beard and then finally shave it, and revived my foodstagram. What have I noticed about myself this April? I am emotionally appreciative of things that may seem mundane, like my glasses (remarkably clear after cleaned) and my two precious stuffed dogs (my mom drew their portrait this month!). I am also relentlessly distractible, prone to multitasking at a desk that has become a workstation for too many tasks. And I know even more now that my body relies on movement, be it dancing in my room or going on walks, to stay sound and sane.

They say April showers bring May flowers, and I am—as always—thrilled for the coming of May, a month I tend to over-symbolize (I can’t help it! I’m May!).

🎬 This month, we not only caught up on, but eagerly await every new episode of Clone Wars, Season 7. Now the show is the whole apartment’s Friday night bonding activity. Star Wars has been a big part of my life ever since I was young, influencing my fashion (one too many Star Wars t-shirts), usernames (I am “maytheforce” on Instagram), and holiday plans (new movies tend to come out in December). But I never thought Star Wars would return to me in the form of an animated series during the Quarantine of 2020. Aside from Clone Wars, Kev and I have also been watching Jane the Virgin, which many friends told me to watch years ago. I guess quarantine is when you find time for things you put on the back burner, right? Wish the same could be said for my longstanding plans to write more! Jane the Virgin is totally up my alley, though—the show is centered on female protagonists, Jane is a writer, there’s tons of meta-narration (which is probably my favorite literary device), and it’s a comedy. I used to always think that books are where I find uncanny parallels to my own life, but this month I’ve realized that I find them in film as well. But, fear not—no parallels are to be found in the reality TV show Too Hot to Handle, which Kev and I also watched this month. It’s a reality TV dating show with an AI “big brother” named “Lana” who scrutinized the contestants’ every move…

📖 Should I set a goal to spend more time reading books than watching TV next week? Anyway… I finished Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. It’s a heartrending read about a Korean family’s journey through generations during the Japanese occupation of Korea. It was hard to get into the novel at first, and it contains a number of scenes that are difficult to read, but once you’re past the 200 page mark you can’t put it down! I’ve also started reading Unfree Speech by Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong activist who was one of the leaders of 2014’s Occupy Movement. Joshua is a controversial figure in Hong Kong, of course, and a household name. And I’ve been reading about him in the news since the early 2010s. So why am I reading Unfree Speech now? I guess it’s a way for me to revisit a part of Hong Kong’s recent political history that ties so crucially into its present and future.

🎵Songs that have defined my month include…

  • Taylor Swift — “Shake It Off” — I have always wanted to choreograph a solo jazz routine to this song and this month, I finally did it! I may post a routine breakdown here next month.
  • Red Prysock – “Jump For George” — Two of my friends and I decided to collaborate on choreographing a section of this song. I’d never heard it before, but it was fun to choreograph!
  • “1973” — James Blunt — Does quarantining make you nostalgic? Real question. Nostalgia is important in Ling Ma’s “Severance,” a novel about a pandemic, and I wonder whether being on lockdown encourages me to cook meals that are closer to home and listen to older music. Anyway, I used to love this song and I love it again now.
  • Conan Gray’s new album came out, and his style is a blend of Taylor Swift and Lorde. So it’s unsurprising that he’s on my music radar.
  • Laura Marling, one of my all-time-fav musicians, also dropped her album Song For Our Daughter this month, plus is hosting a series of Instagram live guitar tutorials!

💬 My word of the month is Crossword. But as I’m already a day late to posting this month’s memo, I’ll elaborate on why in a future post! For now, I leave you with one of May’s Minis:

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.