Latest pieces

Here are a couple of things I’ve written recently:

clips_iu_moderntimes New Music from South Korea — The Guardian
This is a column I’m writing for The Guardian on their new global music series. The blog showcases music from all over the world, and I’ll be writing about new songs from the K-pop scene. I recently featured tracks from IU, Seungri, and Lim Kim.

clips_juliechen ‘Asian Eye’ Surgery and Media Racism — The Atlantic
Julie Chen admitted on “The Talk” that she got plastic surgery on her eyes in order to advance her career, and I wrote about how harmful it was for her colleagues to have reacted so positively to her admission. Their “you go girl!” stance just reinforces Chen’s own fears about how she was “lacking” physically before her surgery.

clips_jenlinliu Talking Noodles, Gender, and China with Jen Lin-Liu — China Daily USA
Author Jen Lin-Liu wrote in her latest book On the Noodle Road about traveling along the Silk Road in pursuit of the origins of the noodle, and I talked to her about her experiences.

clips_pandas It’s been a panda-ful year — China Daily USA
A piece I did on the panda’s haters. Lots of people think the panda attracts more attention (and funding) than their rate of survivability deserves, but as much as they hate them, the truth is pandas earn zoos big bucks for the institutions they visit.

Conversation With a Stranger At the Park

Stranger: Looks like you’re reading something really interesting there.

Me: Yeah, it’s a book on China.

Stranger: Is that where you’re from?

Me: Am I from China? No, my parents are, but I was born and raised here. What about yourself?

Stranger: I’m from Haiti.

Me: Oh okay, how long have you been here?

Stranger: About 12 years.

Me: Do you go back to visit often?

Stranger: I visited more often when my grandmother was still alive. Now that she’s passed away, I have less of a desire to do so.

Me: Do you still have family there?

Stranger: No, all my family is spread out in America. Here, Florida, Connecticut, Chicago.

Me: What do you do for a living?

Stranger: I’m a personal trainer.

Me: That’s cool. I had a personal trainer for a day, and I almost died during that one-hour workout. Where do you train?

Stranger: I work out of Trump Tower.

Me: So, residents who live in Trump Tower train in the private gym facilities in the gym, I’m assuming?

Stranger: Yes, that’s how it goes. I have about 13 clients, and I just had a session this morning at 6AM, and then 8AM, and then noon, and then I have another one at 4:30.

Me: You train really rich denizens of New York City then. Who’s the biggest asshole client of yours?

Stranger: (laughs)

Me: I’m serious! It’s okay, he or she won’t ever find out.

Stranger: Well, she isn’t an asshole, but she has a really negative energy to her. Always complaining about how she can’t do this, can’t do that, don’t want to do this, don’t want to do that. Negative energy is very contagious — just as positive energy is — so it’s a really huge put-off to be around that.

(Conversation was from August 29th.)

What the Backstreet Boys Can Learn from K-pop

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I wrote about the Backstreet Boys and what they can learn from K-pop for The Atlantic. Read the piece here.

I’ve written a lot about boy bands — well, Asian boy bands — but this is my first time writing about one that I actually grew up with here in America, and so I’ve never gotten a chance to experience what it’s like to be gunned down by predominantly American boy band fans.

I have to say, the experience is almost the same, it kind of warms my heart. The quantity of feedback is less and the fans do seem way older than the usual crowd I deal with — tweens, teens — but fans are reacting with a similar kind of a disbelief. It’s a lot more subdued and concise but what I get from all of this is that boy-bandom inspires the same kind of fervor everywhere.

I now kind of wish I had written what One Direction could learn from K-pop, or what Justin Bieber can learn. Just to see what the response could’ve been.

Wait, did I say I kind of wish? I meant I don’t wish, I fervently don’t wish to incur the wrath of One Directioners and Beliebers.

(Anyway, find me on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram.)

Yu Hua’s “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” and Erasing Culture

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I finished Yu Hua’s “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” this morning. I read his “China in Ten Words” a couple of months ago and was really moved and impressed, so I am now going through Yu’s fiction.

I looked into Yu Hua a little bit more to have a better understanding of where he came from and what he’s written, and was surprised to see that the original Chinese title of “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” is “许三观卖血记,” which roughly translates to “Chronicle of Xu San-guan Selling Blood.” I remember a translator’s note at the end of the book mentioning that that was the original name, but I can see why the publishers decided to modify it to “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” — it’s much more striking and can connotate a bigger issue at hand, rather than pegged to a specific character’s plight.

But a big part of me also feels like the name change was because having a distinctly Chinese name in the title would make buyers less-inclined to pick it up. The foreign name becomes a signifier of the potentially “foreign” content, and an English name transliterated from Chinese would give the book a Chinese tinge that a white-sounding name would not. Meaning, the book wouldn’t be divorced from race and ethnicity. I’m sure the impulse is always there, to minimize the other-ness of a piece of art to make it more appealing to the mainstream audience.

That bothers me, but I completely understand it from a business point of view, and I’d rather a bigger audience be exposed to it than not, because Yu Hua is a great writer.

But in line with cultural erasure is another personal Yu Hua anecdote. After I finished reading “China in Ten Words,” I went to Strand Bookstores to find copies of his fiction, and could not for the life of me find it under the letter “Y” (surname “Yu”) in the fiction section. I know they carry his books, so then I had a hunch that maybe they placed his books under “H” for “Hua.” I went over to “H” and lo and behold, there were copies of his works.

I was annoyed, so I made it a point to tell two Strand staffers that they misplaced his books under “H.” One staffer clearly did not care, and went back to his business in front of the computer. Another staffer quickly explained to me that it’s done that way because customers themselves look for books (Yu Hua’s books? Asian authors’ books?) under the faulty assumption that “Hua” is Yu Hua’s surname, and thus Strand abides by that confusion.

Bookstores and libraries hold so much culture and so many thoughts from so many places that categorization is necessary. I get that bookstores probably have a more lenient system in place than libraries and that the addition of foreign authors with non-Roman names adds to the difficulties of classification, but Strand is willfully perpetuating a mistake they know is wrong. If someone looking for Yu Hua doesn’t realize that “Hua” is not his surname, he or she would — and should — go ask for help, and the Strand bookkeeper should guide him or her to the right section.

What they shouldn’t be doing is letting the culturally ignorant continue to be culturally ignorant. And really, this is not about the culturally ignorant. It’s about those whose cultures and identities are being forsaken, just to help ease the trouble of the English-speaking readers who can’t be bothered to learn that not all names operate in the same way Americans’ and Europeans’ do.

And that’s a pity.

That Santa Claus-Looking Dude

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The Daily Beast did an interview with Rick Rubin: “You Listen to This Man Every Day.”

I’m sure the impetus was that nobody knew who that Kris Kringle fella in those Jay-Z “Magna Carta Holy Grail” commercials was. I didn’t know, but I thought that was just because I wasn’t street enough, but for the Daily Beast to put together a piece with that hed means that tons of other people don’t know either. I feel less like a loser now.

These questions and answers:

How did you get from the Beatles to hip-hop?

I was the only punk rocker at my high school. And there were at least a handful of black kids who liked hip-hop. Both were kind of the new music of the day, and it was lonely being the only punk. If times were different and we’d had the Internet, I would have had punk-rock friends all over the world. I probably never would have gotten into hip-hop. But because of where I lived and because there was no community to be a punk with, I started hanging out with the kids who liked hip-hop. And I learned about it through them. They had cassettes of Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack, which was the one place where hip-hop was on the radio.

Was crossing over difficult for you?

More just a fish-out-of-water feeling. I went to a lot of places where I felt like I didn’t belong. But I think that the oddity of me being there made it OK. Like, something about it was so strange that I was in these places where there were no white people at all.

It’s interesting that you were bold enough to make that leap.

The thing is, when you’re a fan from the outside of something, you can embrace it in a different way than when you’re a fan from the inside. Run-D.M.C. could be sort of gangstery in their own way, pre-gangster rap, because they were suburban kids. Kurtis Blow, who was from Harlem and really around gangsters, he didn’t want to be a gangster. He wanted to look above it and wear leather boots and be more like a rock star. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were really inner-city, hard-life guys, and they wanted to be from outer space.

Not to downplay Mr. Rubin’s long career of successes, but that’s some white male privilege right there.

The semantics of his answers and the interviewer’s questions are pretty telling. Rubin’s is asked if his crossover is “difficult,” he gives an answer, and then the interviewer calls him “bold” to make the “leap.” Really? Tell me more about your struggles.

Rubin was an “outsider,” but this is the kind of faux-outsider status that has no real world consequences. If Rubin was never accepted into the hip hop clique, he would have gone on with his life. People in the hip hop world — Russell Simmons specifically mentioned in the article — are shocked, shocked, that he’s white. But that’s the sort of racial difference that helps and doesn’t hurt. This outsider arrangement would not work for anyone not white.

I would love to see a journalist interview the “handful of black kids who liked hip-hop” who hung out with Rick Rubin. See what they’re up to. See how they were listening to a genre of music derived from their own culture — something they had “insider status” on — and see how their racial status and racial privilege, or lack thereof, is impacting them today.

Just something to think about.