we live for such miracles

“Who can say if the thoughts you have in your mind as you read these words are the same thoughts I had in my mind as I typed them? We are different, you and I, and the qualia of our consciousness are as divergent as two stars at the ends of the universe.

And yet, whatever has been lost in translation in the long journey of my thoughts through the maze of civilization to your mind, I think you do understand me, and you think you do understand me. Our minds managed to touch, if but briefly and imperfectly.

Does the thought not make the universe seem just a bit kinder, a bit brighter, a bit warmer and more human?

We live for such miracles.”

– Ken Liu, Preface to The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (2016)


I just flipped the last page of this lovely (and at times disturbing) collection of magical realism/science fiction short stories featuring Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese narratives. The writing has a beautiful ability to make you feel comforting familiarity, revulsion, sadness, or intense curiosity–sometimes all at the same time. My friend Fernando gifted it to me for my birthday and told me he read the title story at a hike’s cliff-side resting point. He finished reading, burst into tears, and called his mother. Knowing this, I sat alone enjoying a bowl of Okinawan soba (white wheat noodles garnished with pork belly and pickled ginger) at Onna Soba waiting out the pounding rain and for my bus to take me back to Naha when I cracked open The Paper Menagerie. Between mouthfuls of soba I felt tears welling and then streaming down my face, my fellow diners furtively casting confused looks my way whilst I put down my book and dabbed my face with an already damp oshibori. I also called my mother later that night.

I love to read and it’s been a long time since a book has made me feel so much. Touching upon perspectives I grew up with or have come to know well: the image of a woman, a Chinese immigrant, a person in love, a child of an incredible mother, or a contributing citizen to Japanese society, I felt a deep affinity with Liu’s words and his considerations of good, evil, and mystical are both poignant and incisive. Reading these stories simultaneously took me outside myself and urged me to consider my own experience as an Asian American. This book review describes the feeling very well.

Ken Liu is also a living interpretation of a version of my own dream. He is amazingly expressive in two languages, professionally trained as a lawyer, and simultaneously pursuing a path as a dreamer/writer. I have come away from this book with a new source of inspiration and I am so grateful.

You can read The Paper Menagerie here. Please tell me what you think.

xo your friend alice

Location: Tokyo, Japan

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west and the rest

“The Western scientific heritage is founded upon an epistemological system that prizes the objective over the subjective, the logical over the intuitive, and the empirically verifiable over the mystical. The methods of social-scientific examinations of cultures are thus already value laden; the choice to examine and understand other cultures by these methods involves a commitment to certain values such as objectivity. Scientific discourse has a privileged place in Western cultures, but the discourses of myth, tradition, religion, and mystical insight are often the dominant forms of thought and language of non-Western cultures. To insist on trying to understand nonscientific cultures by the methods of Western science is not only distorting, but is also an expression of an attempt to maintain a Eurocentric cultural chauvinism: the chauvinism of science. According to this objection, it is only by adopting the (often nonscientific) perspectives and methods of the cultures studied that real understanding can be achieved.”

– Against the Multicultural Agenda: A Critical Thinking Alternative, Yehudi Webster (1997)

brought to you by the LSAT study grind…some of this material is actually really interesting

xo your friend alice

Location: Tokyo, Japan

spotted in: ohori koen

I impulsively decided to take a trip over a long weekend to spend the first day of spring in Fukuoka. The impulse was spurred by a feeling of restlessness after my friends left, a hope for early cherry blossoms in the western isles of Japan, and just wanting to take advantage of three consecutive days off work. The trip from Tokyo takes about 5.5 hours on the shinkansen (bullet train). It was my first time visiting Kyushu, so I’ve now seen parts of Honshu, Hokkaido, and Kyushu. The only remaining major Japanese island I’ve yet to visit is Shikoku. My goal is to visit all four before my stint in this beautiful country is over for the time being.

“Both life and death manifest in every moment of existence. Our human body appears and disappears moment by moment, without cease, and this ceaseless arising and passing away is what we experience as time and being. They are not separate. They are one thing, and in even a fraction of a second, we have the opportunity to choose, and to turn the course of our action either toward the attainment of truth or away from it. Each instant is utterly critical to the whole world.”

– Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (2013)

My friend Shuyi hates having her photo taken, but she gave me approval to shoot anything but her face (which is a shame because it’s a lovely one).

girl x waves

IMG_6545IMG_6540xo your friend alice

Location: Ohori Park, Fukuoka, Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan

aishiteru (means i love you)

‘How much do you love me?’ Midori asked.
‘Enough to melt all the tigers in the world to butter’, I said.

Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami (1987)

Happy Valentine’s Day everybody. I hope you are practicing jiai 自愛, or self-love today, and everyday. (The kanji for this idea is the same in Chinese and also happens to be the first character in my name, ‘ai’.) My dear friend Lin (from our little concrete jungle photoshoot) shared a beautiful bilingual post about this concept on her blog, which you can read here.

This space has been a bit stagnant to me the past 2 months. Maybe from a lack of excitement or a natural lull as it occurs to all creative forms. Consistently creating something I am proud of is difficult, and the more drafts I go through, the more I can whittle away the unpublishable or what is simply not quite ready to be shared. I would rather sacrifice quantity than quality, and as I am both self-critical and continuously appraising, I have been collecting photographic ideas and sentiments in my mind for what may come into existence in the future. Even if few people ever see this page, it matters to me that I make something that I am proud of. My best mate Kelly thinks I should combat the artificial norm of only sharing triumphant moments and dreamy vacations on the internet, and while I generally agree with this perspective (sure I have fun, but I don’t post photos of my late nights at the office), I think I will save my daily thoughts for my journal as they may not inspire anyone but me at the moment. Just know that life has been relatively calm over in these parts. Actually, I have been feeling quite inspired and energized today reflecting on what I will be doing this time next year and researching how to further my ultimate dream of a life of international engagement by deepening my multilingual proficiency and pursuing more working opportunities at the intersection of cultures. I am doing some plotting, but I will be patient until I have more concrete plans.

xo your friend alice

p.s. I finished reading Norwegian Wood the day my favorite uncle died, and for that reason, I will never forget it.

p.p.s. While aishiteru 愛してる means ‘I love you’ in Japanese, it is rarely used in spoken communication as it is a very serious, intense proclamation of devotion. Instead, daisuki 大好き is said, which can apply to really loving your partner, or really loving strawberry shortcake.

Location: Tokyo, Japan

pnin

A warm flow of pain was gradually replacing the ice and wood of the anesthetic in his thawing, still half-dead, abominably martyred mouth. After that, during a few days he was in mourning for an intimate part of himself. It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft; but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate.

– Vladimir Nabokov (1957)

Ha. This reminds me of getting my four wisdom teeth taken out last summer. I was hopped up on laughing gas and numb-er than a tongue left out in the cold, wandering the halls of Kaiser Permanente on Broadway in Oakland to pick up something or other medication, when a passersby looked upon me in shock and quickly ushered me into a single-serving restroom. I looked at my reflection in the mirror and realized I had gashes of blood streaming down my chin in two gory rivulets. Cotton rounds stuffed into my fresh crimson coves, I would have handily won the Miss American Vampire (chubby bunny) contest or been mistaken for a psychotic killer (squirrel).

Pnin was written in English rather than Nabokov’s native Russian, and contrary to popular belief, it is credited with his initial success, not Lolita, which was published one year later in the U.S. rife with controversy over its illicit subject (originally published in Paris 1955). There are lots of meandering, banal chunks to this book, but also lyrical gems throughout such as the metaphor above. My interest in Nabokov was rekindled when I read about the recent publication of Letters to Véra, a compilation of romantic missives written to his wife. For a creative type to admit his only source of angst is “the impossibility of assimilating, swallowing, all the beauty in the world”, I figured that such is a mind worth encountering again (I read Lolita ten years ago.). Writing every day is a long-abandoned ritual for most, and even moreso, writing declaratively to someone you cherish. The reason for which I have kept every love letter I have ever received. What romance is there to a fraught digital correspondence? Easily blocked, distilled, deleted. Letters are the physical manifestations of an intimate piece of ourselves, memorialized by handwriting, instrument and ink, fingerprint and scent. Like teeth they will eventually leave us, but their imprint on us and hopefully another, remain.

(You can read the NY Times Letters to Véra book review here.)

Any other Nabokov readers out there? I also have Pale Fire sitting on my shelf. Shout out to my dear friend Miles (whom I’ve known since the 7th grade) for mailing them to me.

xo your friend alice

you are the only person I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought—and about how, when I went out to work today and looked a tall sunflower in the face, it smiled at me with all of its seeds.

Location: Tokyo, Japan

Quote

the sympathizer

She believed in birth control, gun control, and rent control; she believed in the liberation of homosexuals and civil rights for all; she believed in Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thich Nhat Hanh; she believed in nonviolence, world peace, and yoga; she believed in the revolutionary potential of disco and the United Nations of nightclubs; she believed in national self-determination for the Third World as well as liberal democracy and regulated capitalism.

I recently finished reading The Sympathizer (2015), by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and I highly recommend it. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while and has remained in my thoughts. The prose is lyrical and amusing, yet fraught with  the realism of war and death. It made me seriously yearn to see the Vietnam of the 20th century that he describes, one that is both idyllic, textured, and brutal. The protagonist is a Communist sleeper agent who works as a cultural aide-de-camp to a prominent General in the South Vietnamese army. It follows his bisected life, from his tormented upbringing as an illegitimate child of a Vietnamese mother and French father, to his attachment to American culture and simultaneous derision of its political aims and ignorance.

This book came with me on my travels to Cambodia, Hong Kong, and Mt. Fuji in July, and helped me ponder the relationship between story and personal experience. How lovely it would be to read books about each place one travels to! And though Cambodia is not Vietnam, learning about the Civil War under the reign of the Khmer Rouge at the War Museum in Siem Reap and subsequently reading about Vietnam’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia in the late turn of the century seemed to me a well-timed confluence of history and narrative. Mr. Bun, who drove my friend and I to see the Angkor temples, made an offhand comment about how there were too many Vietnamese people in Cambodia, an indicator of perhaps underlying hostility due to this recent occupation. (It should be noted that the hostility ran both ways.)

People often think of impressionability as a bad thing, but part of what I love about reading books is being affected by them and allowing their ideas and my ruminations on them to permeate my life during the period of time that we spend together.

The above quote is about a girl in the book who rebels against her conservative and rigid military family; she runs away to attend Berkeley and becomes a lounge singer determined to create her own destiny. Maybe that’s why I so relate…

By total happenstance I was reading an anthology of travel writing and this story  about the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon led me to deduce that one of the main character’s in the novel, the fallen General of the South Vietnamese Army, is modeled after real life General Nguyen Cao Ky, a French-trained soldier and American-backed Prime Minister of the Vietnamese government beginning in 1965. Like the character, he fled to California after the fall of Saigon in 1975 despite vowing to stay “until [his] last blood”. His daughter was a singer famous among Vietnamese expatriates for her musical variety show filmed in Paris. I love it when detective work finds you.

I appreciate the author’s proposition that the only truly objective way to render a story between foes is to show the humanness and in-humanness of both sides. The acknowledgement of fault and evil perpetrated by both in the struggle allows us to recognize the complexity of these interactions, softening the us vs. them narrative of history.


Here is a cheeky extended metaphor from the book, the kind which Nguyen demonstrates mastery over in his debut novel:

While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilization, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, but was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Men had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the opening and closing of a well-stuffed billfold.

The book won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and collected numerous other accolades. You can read the book review by the NY Times here. 

Have you read The Sympathizer? If so, what did you think and what books on Cambodia/Vietnam should I read next?

xo your friend alice

P.S. Nguyen graduated from UC Berkeley. Go Bears!

Location: Tokyo, Japan