MY TOP TEN BOOKS
Being a lover of books – as a reader and, of course, as a writer – and with 'Top Ten’ lists popping up almost everywhere you look this time of the year, I feel compelled, as I did last year, to share the top ten books I read in 2014. Since this list is of the books I read in 2014, be aware that not all the books were published in 2014. In some cases, the book may be thirty years old. Additionally, some books that are beloved by many may not rate as highly on my list as others may like and that may be due to many factors. Sadly, I may have already been ‘brainwashed’ by more recent books of a similar vein or I read the book around the same time the movie version came out and, having seen some previews for the film, I may have been unintentionally influenced. So, without further ado, here is my list of top ten books I read in 2014 with the one I enjoyed the most at number one.
1. Waylaid by Ed Lin (Kaya Production, 2002; first published in 2001)
2. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012)
3. Under The Blood-Red Sun by Graham Salisbury (Wendy Lamb Books, 2008; first published in 1994)
4. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (Penguin Young Readers, 2014)
5. The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances by Matthew Inman (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014)
6. Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige (Harper Collins, 2014)
7. The Living by Matt de la Peña (Delacorte Press, 2013)
8. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green (Penguin Young Readers, 2012)
9. Amulet, volume 1: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi (GRAPHIX, 2008)
10. Monkey King, volume 7: The Expulsion of Sun Wu Kong by Wei Dong Chen and Chao Peng (Illustrations) (JR Comics, 2012)
The Giver by Lois Lowry (Laurel-Leaf Books, 1994; first published in 1993) and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (Tor Books, 2010; first published in 1985).
With 2014 having come to an end and as I do every year, I look back on the past twelve months and relive the standout moments, both good and bad, that happened to and for me. I look back on them to relive the memories of the fond ones and to learn from the less than happier ones. In some cases, the moment or event may have connotations for both, a kind of bittersweet episode of 2014.
I look back on these moments, too, to take stock of my life and see where I am in relationship to where I want to be. Younger people and, perhaps, single people and individuals who aren’t parents or guardians may not be in a stage of their lives where taking stock is as important but, for me, once I hit forty, I really started to feel the need to assess this – to know where I am, who I am and how far or near I am to being where and who I want to be. This annual self-assessment took on greater importance when I became a father at thirty-nine.
So, as you read on, relive the moments with me, which aren’t listed in any particular order, and relive your own 2014 highlights.
1. Arsenal wins the FA Cup. I’ve been an Arsenal Football Club fan since 1980 and have suffered the frustrations of not seeing my team win any silverware for nine year and of seeing my team underperform and/or perform brilliantly only to crumble during the second half of the season. This year, however, Arsenal showed grit and came down from a very early two-goal deficit to beat Hull City 3-2 and lift the trophy, albeit a newly minted cup, of the oldest club tournament in the world.
2. Sticking with sports, 2014 was a World Cup year, hosted by Brasil but bested by Germany. And, yes, I am a Germany fan. I grew up in Hong Kong watching Hong Kong, English and German football. There weren’t many chances to watch anything else and, while I am a self-proclaimed Anglophile, I don’t have any direct blood ties to England. I’m also racially mixed – Chinese, Filipino, German and Spanish – but for some reason I never clicked with the Spanish National Team and the Filipino National Team has been making international strides only recently. China almost competed in the World Cup in 1982, the first World Cup I truly followed, but it was then West Germany that caught my eye. With my German blood it seemed natural and I’m also a fan of Hamburger SV who, at the time, had a big hulking centre forward named Horst Hrubesch with whom I felt some kind of simpatico as I was also a big hulking centre forward. There were other players I liked too, of course: Pierre Littbarksi, Hansi Müller, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Manny Kaltz, to name a few. So, Germany became the national team I would follow and has been my number one national team ever since. So, to watch Die Mannschaft essentially breeze through the tournament, including an 8-1 demolition of Brasil, in a word, I was overjoyed. Deutschland, Deutschland über alles!
3. Another sports moment for 2014 was with my volleyball team. I coach high school girls’ volleyball and, after over two decades of coaching various sports, the girls helped me to win my first championship. We won the Colonial Division of the Super Essex Conference of Essex County, New Jersey and it came with years of hard work, sacrifice and, I’ll admit, a little bit of luck. At one point in the season, the championship might’ve been shared four ways but with my team (Columbia High School, Maplewood, NJ) winning seven straight matches in the division and other teams beating each other along the way, the title was ours and ours alone. Additionally, at the end of the season, five of my girls were named to the Colonial Division All-Conference Teams (two on first team, two on second and one on the honourable mention squad) and one of them was named and chosen to play in the New Jersey Senior All-Star showcase.
4. My son has grown, as expected, physically, mentally and emotionally. One area that really struck me this year was his confidence in the swimming pool, especially after he passed his 25-metre test. Swimming is a sport and, I believe, a life skill. It’s also a great form of exercise and recreation and, the minute after his passed his test and got his wristband indicating so, he was in the pool doing things he’d never done before – forward flips underwater, backward flips underwater, swimming along the bottom of the pool between my legs. He’s not ready to venture out into the ocean solo but just to see him grow in his confidence and swimming technique was one of the best moments of 2014.
5. We Need Diverse Books. This campaign came to fruition in 2014 and I discovered it when I attended Book Con in May in New York City. Basically, this organisation promotes books for everyone, but from my understanding mainly for young people, that have themes and protagonists and other characters that better represent them. And by ‘them’ I mean ‘us’ – the ethnic minority readers: the Asian, Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ populations. Looking back there have already been many books written about and/by authors who fall in these minority groups but that was before such heavy-handed classification appeared in bookstores and book listings. WNDB doesn’t say there’s anything wrong with the books that are written by authors and with protags who don’t fall into these minority groups. What it’s trying to do is gain equal exposure to those that do without being called ‘ethnic books.’ Check WNDB out. Here’s the link to its website. http://tinyurl.com/mqm7flh
6. With a friend away on vacation to visit family and friends in The Philippines, my wife, son and I were able to use her place and enjoy a three-day, two-night vacation in New York City during this past holiday season. This may seem very innocuous to include in a Top Ten List, and taking it for what at face value it probably is, but for me it had special impact. You see, I used to spend a lot of time in NYC attending writing classes, visiting museums, reading The Book Review while sipping on a morning coffee at a café in The Village, writing in bookstores as my wife took ballet classes; all art-related activities. I’d been doing these things fairly regularly over the last twenty years of so. That is, until life took hold other important things needed my time and attention. And, sometimes, as humans are wont to do, in taking care of things, I forgot about the things I used to do and the things that used to drive me So, while this vacation was brief, it was different enough from the daily grind to be exciting but familiar enough to a part of who I am that I’d forgotten that it reignited the mojo inside – as a writer and as someone who wants to live life to its fullest - that’s been dormant these past few years.
7. I ran my first road race in years last October. Much like our mini-vacation, it rekindled some parts of me that I’d missed. I used to be an avid runner and, for this race, I’d committed and trained properly. On race day, although it was cold and wet, I didn’t shy away from the challenge. Instead, as I used to do, I faced it and simply ran. While I’m much slower than I was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when I was running 6:50 miles and 21-minutes 5ks, I still ran well. I ran negative splits, felt physically and mentally prepared and, based on his comments post-race, was an inspiration to my son. Incidentally, my son ran his first road race – a kids’s 0.1 or so mile sprint – a week before my race so running was on his mind and, perhaps, it will become of one ‘our’ things as he gets older and stronger.
8. As a writer, I finished my second novel in 2014 and I pitched it so some agents. I’m still waiting to hear from a couple but the responses I got at the Writer’s Digest Conference Pitch Slam were highly positive. I’m hopeful that I’ll make major headway in my writing career in 2015 but, either way, to have finished a second novel feels really great – more than a relief - and validates, at least in my mind, that I am a novelist; that I’m not simply a one-trick pony and that I do have stories to tell.
9. My son earned his blue belt last month at his most recent Taekwondo test. This is special for me because blue belt is the first intermediate belt. My son is no longer a beginner and is on his way to becoming an advanced student. Blue belt is special to me for a couple of other reasons as well. When I got my blue belt, I’d contemplated giving up on Taekwondo (and likely all martial arts) but my sister talked me into sticking it out until black belt and deciding then whether to quit or not. Well, I stuck it out and, as the saying goes, the rest if history. I’ve been a Taekwondoist for twenty-nine years and I hold a master rank. My son, proudly wearing his blue belt, feels the monumental level of his rank as well. He doesn’t get it intellectually but I can see that he gets it intuitively by his actions. He’s also joined the sparring-specific classes, which he loves. Lastly, my wife, who trains with me on-and-off depending if our schedules allow us to workout and we can find a place to train, is also a blue belt. For me, while it’s not quite fulfilling my Taekwondo goal and dream (having my own dojang (training hall) with my son training under me and getting his black belt from me and with my wife taking classes and getting her black belt also), my son getting his blue belt means, at some point in our lives, that we’ve all been Taekwondo blue belts and there is something in Taekwondo that we all have in common (other, obviously, than the martial art itself).
10. My best moment of 2014, which I’d kept close to my heart until now, was at my son’s kindergarten Reading Celebration. At the event, which took place in his classroom on a Tuesday morning in June, saw each student read something he or she had written. Earlier in the school year, I’d gone to my son’s school and spoke at an assembly about literacy and creating characters. It was my first speaking engagement as a writer. Well, at The Reading Celebration, after hearing his classmates read reports they done in class about butterflies and sharks, I expected to hear my son read about he’d done in class on similar subjects. What he did, though, couldn’t have been a bigger surprise and nothing could’ve warmed my heart any more than his story. He’d written and read a story about how I came to his school and spoke, about how I write books and how he loves me. I’m getting teary-eyed typing this but not because my son loves me or wrote about me. Rather, for the same reasons I got teary-eyed on the day, his story made me realise he knows who I am and what’s important to me. He’s been to the school where I teach Health and Physical Education. He’s watched me coach volleyball. He’s seen me play squash, run and practice Taekwondo. But he rarely sees me write. It’s something I usually do when he’s sleeping. Writing also isn’t like running or doing Taekwondo that someone can see happening and get excited by the action. Honestly, watching someone write is boring. So for him, at age six, to get what I do and to know what I am/want to be touched my heart more than anything has ever touched my heart in my forty-five years of being on this planet. My son gets me and loves me and, at the end of it all, there’s nothing better than that.
So, that was my year. I hope you had some great moments too – great by your standards and no one else’s – and I hope we all have even greater ones in 2015. Happy New Year!
Since coming to America almost thirty years ago, I’ve been hyper aware of my mixed-ethnicity and I’ve been trying to reconcile it - what I am and where I fit in. For those of you who don’t know, I’m Asian, of Chinese and Filipino origins, and Caucasian (German and Spanish). Of my Asian side, I’m mostly Filipino but I grew up in Hong Kong so, in many ways, I relate more with the Chinese part of my ethnic makeup.
Over the past month or so, things have happened that, in my mind at least, have reinforced my differentness and/or pushed me to identifying with my Asian side. Even before these incidents, I’ve always seen myself as Asian and referred to myself as one but, when I look back on my youth, I feel that I was never quite Asian enough in Hong Kong and being an immigrant in America I’ve never felt white enough here. The impact of this duality hits home when I go to the Asian grocery store and I catch other customers giving me interesting looks of surprise, as if to say “What’s he doing here?” With my Filipino brethren, it’s funnier still when I speak Tagalog. I’m usually greeted with expressions that display equal amounts of shock, joy and disbelief. My Tagalog isn’t great by any means but, if I keep it simple, it’s passable. One time, I was mistaken for a US serviceman who learnt to speak Tagalog. And the other Filipino insisted I was even after telling her I wasn’t. Not that all non-Filipinos who learn to speak Tagalog mispronounce their words but, going by movies and shows like Back To Bataan and Bring ‘Em Back Alive, my Tagalog pronunciation and accent are actually quite good and better than that of John Wayne and Brue Boxleitner.
As a writer, I’m trying to work my way into the literary community. As an Asian American writer, I’m trying to break into that literary world as well. So, last year, when Hyphen magazine interviewed me for a piece on Asian American authors who’d self-published their books and when I was invited to submit my novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, to the Asian American Writers Workshop for its annual Asian American Literary Awards (although the invitation was withdrawn, as per the rules, when AAWW found out my book was self-pubbed), I was naturally excited. I was thrilled because my work and the fruits of my work were being recognised but I was further excited because I was starting to make my way into a community I hope to fully belong.
Well, recently, three subtle but impacting events helped me get closer to sorting out my feelings about my identity crisis. Before I go on, please take note that I’m talking about my identity crisis with regard to my mixed race makeup and upbringing. I embrace the fact that I’m mixed because it allows me to see things in the unique way only a mixed person can. However, not all mixed race people have an identity crisis but if my experiences can help those who do discover ways to sort theirs out then job done.
Anyway, here’s what happened. I was at breakfast with my son at McDonald’s. It was our usual Sunday thing before his swim lesson and we see the same people there week after week. There’s a very nice woman, around 60, who goes there after mass. She eats her breakfast and reads the church bulletin and, on occasion, she’s come up to us and said hello and commented on how sweet and well mannered my son is. The Sunday before Thanksgiving, she came up to us and said hello and told me that my son is sweet. She also, hesitantly, wished us a Happy Thanksgiving without actually saying “Happy Thanksgiving” and was apologetic in suggesting that we might celebrate it. She even used the words “If you celebrate.” This event enhanced my feelings of being different. It even reinforced my being an immigrant and, with my obviously Asian son with me – he must’ve gotten the majority of the Asian genes from my wife and I and not so much the German or Spanish (my wife is part Spanish also) - it reinforced that part of me also. My son, ironically, is not an immigrant having been born and being raised in New Jersey. The woman was so kind and genuine in her words that I couldn’t help from feeling like that immigrant who’s come to a new land filled with hope and promise.
The second event was when I bought a beverage at the café at my local Barnes and Noble. When I gave my name, Juan, for the person to write on the cup, she verified its spelling and said, “Wan?” I smiled and I even liked the mistake but I did correct her although, to be honest, I almost didn’t.
The third was in Chinatown last weekend. With a friend, who is also a ‘third culture kid’ like me (Filipina who grew up in Indonesia and lives in New York City), my family had lunch at a noodle shop on Mott Street. I spoke with the wait staff in Cantonese and it felt like being back home in Hong Kong – the sights, the sounds, the smells and the tastes. Funnily, even though I know fewer Cantonese words than Tagalog ones, which is embarrassing considering I grew up in Hong Kong, my Cantonese intonation is better than my Tagalog and I’m more confident with my Cantonese over my Tagalog. After lunch, we crossed the street to a store so I could buy my son a gung fu uniform. There, the elderly saleswoman and I spoke to one another in Pidgin English and Cantonese. When she asked me, in Cantonese, if I were Chinese, I answered her in Cantonese that my grandmother, my father’s mother, was part Chinese (Manchurian).
While these incidents are minor, they reinforced in me that people see me as Asian and that I can and do fit in that world; as an Asian in Asia when I go back home and to The Philippines and as an Asian living in America. They also reminded me that the keys to finding a place to belong as part of an ethnic group or as a writer or anything else for that matter are often done so incrementally and not always with a grand moment. So, if you’re like me, struggling to find his place in this world and make sense of it all, keep an eye and ear out for the little things. They won’t be obvious but they’ll often be the most meaningful.
I'm not not PC but I also think that sometimes - perhaps, many times - we're too sensitive to things. I'm Asian American (Filipino and Chinese; American, of German decent, from my mother and with a touch of Spanish from my father). I've enjoyed a joke or two with racial overtones and I don't mind ethnic humour when it's smart and, quite simply, funny. Russell Peters, for example, is one of my favourite comedians and I'm jazzed to be seeing him live next month at Madison Square Garden. In his humour, he pokes fun at his own Indian heritage. He's also had a go at Filipinos and Hong Kong Chinese. Having lived in Hong Kong for sixteen years, I regard Hong Kong as my home and my hometown. But, Mr. Peters' humor is based on observations and character traits he has witnessed and, to be quite honest, what I have seen myself. And, he doesn't take cheap shots.
When an ethnic stab is done, however, cheaply and for pure exploitative intentions, I do take offense. When I first moved to America, I was received with statements likes "Oh my God, your English is so good." Or, "You grew up in Hong Kong, so you must speak Japanese." In some ways, these kinds of statements can almost be forgiven. They're largely based on ignorance. But, when I saw this newspaper - tabloid, really - piece a couple of weeks back, my Offended Asian Radar - my OAR, if you will - took notice and I wanted to hit the tabloid's editor upside the head with it. The Canadian speedster, of Chinese heritage, is a criminal and should be punished for his twenty-four minute race through Manhattan. However, to use the headline they did, the editors and writers of that tabloid should be ashamed of themselves. Scandal and offense sell as much as sex do but this was such a blatant stab at the stereotypical trait that Asians are unable to say the letter R, instead replacing it with a L. It is true that some Asians have this, for lack of a better word, affliction but that's simply due to accents and second languages. I've encountered many a native English speaker get defensive and downright offensive when their mistakes when attempting to speak a language foreign to them are pointed out. I suspect that the editors and writers of this piece may be among them. This headline, however, is such an offensive cheap shot.
I'm writing this post purely on my immediate gut reaction when I saw this headline. Like I said, it was two weeks ago. I gave it time to simmer and/or die down. Unfortunately - perhaps, fortunately - it has simmered and not died down. I can't even recall which New York tabloid it came from. I rarely read them but I was at the barber shop and picked it up as my son was getting his haircut. As I write this, a scary thought just popped into my head. I didn't check to see who the writer of the article is and who the tabloid's editors are. What's scary and, hopefully not the case, is the chance that either party is Asian or Asian American.
The bottom line, for me anyway, is that the writer's attempt at a pun was poorly executed. The tabloid has basically printed, in bold letters no less, a racial slur. The perpetrator's careless and reckless speeding had nothing to do with his ethnicity. So why bring it up? This wasn't a hate crime based on prejudice. It was a stupid man's attempt to do something he thought was cool. He could just as easily been white, black, brown or something in between.
Like I said, I don't even know which New York tabloid it was that published that headline. I also said I rarely read them as it is. Well, I am less likely to do so again.
It seems that the idea of change is on my mind. In one of the latest posts in my food blog, Panlasa, I talk about the changes in the way I make some dishes now compared to how I was taught to make them years ago. Here, I'm going to talk a little about the agent pitch session at this year's Writer's Digest Conference and how it has changed and how my tactical approach to pitching my work to agents may have also changed since the first time I participated in it in 2010.
I've participated in the pitch slam three times now. The first was, like I said, in 2010. That was the last year when it was part of Book Expo America (BEA) and Writer's Digest hosted BEA. The subsequent pitch sessions I attended were in 2011 and just this past August. In 2010 and 2011, I'd pitched my first (and, so far, only published) novel, Back Kicks And Broken a Promises. Unfortunately, it wasn't published through an agent, with a bestseller-making bid war and with the engine of a big traditional publishing house behind it.
When I pitched in 2010, I'd really done it just to get the experience. But I'm not going to lie. I did hold on to the dullest glimmer of hope that something might happen and I wasn't going to turn it away if it had. I'd have busted my butt to finish and polish my novel. The conference hosts's recommendation was for an author not to pitch unless his book was finished or, with utmost certainty, the author knew exactly where his book was going. The pitch session was also part of the conference, not requiring a separate fee. I decided to pitch two agents. One is Asian. I chose her, yes, because of that. I'm Asian and Back Kicks has an Asian American protag, is strong in Asian themes and is set as much in Asia (Singapore and The Philippines) as it is in America (New Jersey). This agent did ask for a submission but she obviously passed and, naturally, I was bummed out. But, I was okay with it. I hadn't felt a strong vibe with her and, really, my novel was only about two thirds done. The other agent I pitched that year, who I pitched because she's from New Jersey, also passed but she was very pleasant, encouraged me to keep writing and said she'd welcome future queries from me.
In 2011, Back Kicks was finished and I was fully ready to put it out to the world. The agents I pitched were very receptive and gave my book - its pitch, anyway - some very encouraging and flattering words. Three of them - I pitched five in the time I had - said the story reminded them of Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao. All five agents requested pages and/or the book's synopsis. Alas, they all passed. So, feeling that my book was ready to go out and wanting to put some closure on it, I self-published it through Abbott Press, the then brand new indie publishing arm of Writer's Digest Magazine, in 2012. A year later, I made further revisions and updated my book with Abbott. Now, I can say I'm truly done with it. I'll still promote it and such but, in my mind and heart, it's a done deal and I can't and don't want to change it further. The agents I pitched in 2011 were YA generic, literary or adult fiction focused.
This time, I didnt just go in with the idea of a book or a newly finished manuscript. I went in with my heart and my mind. Huh? Back Kicks, like many first books, is semi-autobiographical. This can work both positively and negatively. For me, while there is a story with sub-plots, arcs and strong characters, I think it worked against me. I never like talking about myself. In typical writerly mystification, I have self-confidence and self-esteem issues and I don't think my life is very interesting yet I can write about parts of it, albeit fictionalising it, and share it with the world. So, because of my lack in self-confidence and, perhaps an artist's self-loathing, I likely didn't present myself all that passionately about my own book.
In 2014, it was a lot different. For one thing, I thoroughly researched my targets and went with the agents who, based on their bios provided by the conference organisers, were close to being a 'perfect fit.' What I've written is a YA fantasy auctioneer called Sky Warrior. It's a fun, educating and entertaining novel that I would want to read, even if I hadn't written it, and wish were a movie. There's nothing high falutin' about Sky Warrior. There's multiculturalism, action, martial arts, magic. What's not to like? Perhaps the difference in 2014 is that I'm coming to terms with what I want to write and not what I think I should be writing. At least for me, talking about and reading Back Kicks was like touring my own head. With Sky Warrior, it's a case of being taken somewhere far away and very different from where real life lives.
I pitched five agents last August. One was a movie producer and she asked me for a business card. Her partners have since passed but we're keeping our lines of communication open in case her partners change their minds and if I have anything else she might like. Two agents passed at The Pitch Slam but their bios didn't state they weren't into 'high fantasy,' which is what one of them called my novel. They both complimented me on my pitch, however. The other two were super excited. One, after I finished my pitch, said, "You had me at gung fu." Naturally, I was jazzed. I've since followed up with her and I'm still waiting to hear back. The other one was even more enthusiastic and we discovered that our sons both enjoy Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender. I've followed up with her and she replied and she asked me to give her more time and said she'll get back to me soon. That's better than getting the broom.
So, if I can be so bold as to offer any kind of advice about pitching to agents, it's this: be passionate and know who you're talking to and/or know who you want to talk to. Nothing may come from what happened at The Pitch Slam last summer. Of course, I'm hopeful something will especially in light of how enthusiastic the agents I pitched responded to my novel. But, if nothing does, I know I can go with Sky Warrior to other agents feeling confident and passionate about it. And, nothing is more contagious and fostering in trust than confidence and passion.
Germany proved to be a great team at this year's World Cup.
Lately, I've been craving a piece of Banana Cream Pie.
Both of the above would put me in a good mood.
I have a love and hate relationship with the English language.
I love words. I'm a writer, after all, and I don't think I could be one without loving them. I love how, when you read them, they create tapestries in your mind and take you places. They make you feel things; something new or intensify an emotion you were already experiencing. In the right construction, they can be conjure irony, anger, insightfulness, confusion, enlightenment. But, in doing all of that, why does it have to be terribly inconsistent?
You've likely thought about this yourself. If you look at the three sentences at the top of this post, you'll see what I mean. The first one has the words great and team and both words have 'ea' in the middle yet they have completely different sounds; one is pronounced 'ee' while the other is 'ay.' The second one has piece and pie. In the first word, the 'ie' sounds like 'ee' and in the second it's like 'eye.' Finally, good and mood. You know how they sound differently.
Before I go on, I do understand that there are accentual reasons why some of these words might be said differently. I grew up in Hong Kong and had some Scottish friends and their pronunciation of good often sounded like mood. My fellow Filipinos might pronounce team like tim, for instance, but that's not what I'm talking about. Here's my thing: why can't the same letters in the same combination have the same sounds across the board? English words have come from a lot of different sources throughout the course of history. Many are from Latin, Germanic and Greek origins. Some are more recent and from Asian origins (e.g. boondocks came from the Filipino word bundok (mountain) and was brought into English usage by American soldiers who were in The Philippines during World War II). Words, however, have evolved from their origins to become what they are today yet there are differences in pronunciation even when there are consistencies in spelling.
The other thing that drives me a little nuts, which came on recently as my wife and I teach our son to read, is silent letters. For example, tight or might. I get the need for the 'h.' There's a breathy quality, a gasp almost, just before the 't' in the pronunciation to both words. But, there's no 'g' sound whatsoever so why do we need to have the letter in the word? Some words do have to be spelt differently. No and know, for example. If both were deconstructed to their simplest forms, they'd both be no and reading could get confusing. Context would take on a larger role. But that brings me back to my first 'hate' of the English language. Know is pronounced like no but the 'ow' in other words, like how and cow, have a different sound. And then there's bow, which has both sounds. Another double sounder is tear.
One can go crazy thinking about this stuff and, perhaps, I am crazy. The deeper I get into the world of words, though, as someone trying to forge a career as a writer, the more I become aware of these inconsistencies - or, at least, challenges - in the English language. They won't stop me from writing, however. I'm a writer and writers write. Heck, maybe I'll write a book with streamlined spelling and pronunciation to see if the language can actually be approached that way.
I attended BookCon last Saturday. BookCon is one of the events that happens in conjunction with Book Expo America (BEA) and it's the book fans' day to celebrate their favorite authors, attend panels, get autographs, buy book-themed merchandise and get free galleys and other swag from publishers. It was, and will be again in 2015, held at the Jacob Javitts Convention Centre in NYC and it was an enjoyable madhouse. A friend who also attended and with whom I tried to meet up for lunch, refereed to it as a 'religious experience.' In addition to being a lover of books, she's also an English Lit teacher so you can imagine the overwhelming elation she must've felt.
I'd never attended a 'con' before although I've always wanted to - and may still yet - attend ComicCon. The other times I've been to BEA and its related events, I've gone from somewhat of an insider's perspective. I'm an writer, with one book out so far (Back Kicks And Broken Promises), and I've gone to BEA attend workshops, network, and to learn about the business. This year, however, my schedule didn't allow me to take the three days off from my day job to attend BEA in earnest so I decided to go as a fan and attend BookCon. After all, what lover of words and book wouldn't want to? And, who knows? One day I might be on the other side, signing autographs or speaking as part of a panel, so I might as well make sure I know how my readers might feel. Ha ha!
Well, a few days post event, I have to say it was well worth it. It was crowded, there were long lines (I didn't get into the chat between Alex London (Proxy, Guardian) and Veronica Roth (The Divergent series) but I did get to attend the Stan Lee (Marvel Comics, Zodiac) interview and the dystopian panel with Veronica Roth, Marie Lu (The Legend series), Danielle Paige (Dorothy Must Die) and Alaya Dawn Johnson (The Summer Prince). From both sessions, I walked away with free teasers - a galley sample of Lu's upcoming The Young Elites and a teaser booklet of Roth's Four series and a signed galley sample of Lee's upcoming novel, Zodiac.
In addition to these two fan-targeted sessions, I also attended a couple of less fan and, perhaps, more industry-type sessions. The first one I went to was a discussion with an esteemed panel of authors that included two of my favourites, Matt de la Peña (The Living, Mexican WhiteBoy), who I refer to as 'my mentor' after having taken three workshops with him and for his major influence in guiding my hand as I wrote Back Kicks, and Grace Lin (Dumpling Days). It was called We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), a campaign spearheaded by Asian American author Ellen Oh (Warrior, Prophecy). In a nutshell, the panel discussed the need and ways to get books written, published and distributed to our youth of colour with story lines and protagonists that better represent them and that allow other (read: not of colour) children - and adults - to learn about and understand the other side of the ethnic colour spectrum. As an Asian American author, I was naturally pulled to this panel. And, I am fully behind Oh's campaign and will do whatever I can to support it. I do believe WNDB is planning its first event in Washington, DC for 2016.
The second non-fan centred panel I attended was a discussion with two publishers who specialise in putting out books for minority readers - Cinco Puntos and Just Us Books. Both publishers seem to specialise in books for Hispanic and African American readers but I'm sure, with a good story, they'd consider books by and for other ethnic groups. What was interesting to learn at this session, though, was that more than half the books by and about minorities come from indie or small presses like Cinco Puntos and Just Us. It's about time the big houses get on the diversity train. Lee And Low is another publisher focusing on diverse books, particularly for children, and its imprint Tu Books focuses on science fiction and fantasy.
In addition to the above panels, I roamed the show floor and picked up some galleys. Partly because I was green in how things worked, but also because I didn't want to pick things up indiscriminately (which part of me regrets), I didn't get some of the free totes and other swag and books the hordes of fellow attendees got. Next time, I'm going to have to be more aggressive and barge my way through. I've never done a Black Friday 2am shopping spree but the way the crowds stormed in I can imagine it's very similar. Of the books on hand, and one of the freebies I regret missing, the one that seemed to be the most pushed (I base this on seeing placards and posters for it just about everywhere I turned) was E. Lockhart's We Were Liars. Next time, the instant I feel an inkling for a book, for whatever reason, I'll snap it up or queue up and bring it home.
So, will I go again? Yeah, if I'm not attending BEA proper or off in another city doing a book signing of my own books, Back Kicks or the one I'm finishing writing now. Hmm. Haha. For those of you who were there - and of the masses who were there the majority appeared to be women and girls ranging from about 12 to 40 - I hope you had as much fun as I did.
In a week, my wife and I will be married for ten years. Of course, many of you reading this have been married for much longer than us. Some of you, a little less. Honestly, I don't know if I feel that we've been married a long time or a short time. I've known my wife, after all, since we were kids and our dads have been friends since the 1950s so our families have been connected and, in many ways, my wife's and my lives have been intertwined from the get go.
Nonetheless, 'ten year anniversary' has a nice ring to it. There's still so much more ahead of us and there's still so much more to learn and things to experience, to live and cry and laugh about, through which we can grow together - especially as our son gets older - but there's a certain feeling of accomplishment with ten years. We don't know it all but there are times when we've been the ones people who come to us for advice. It's like we've earned some street cred in the ways of the married.
It reminds me of what one of my Taekwondo masters and examiners said when I got my fourth dan (degree black belt) in 2001. (I started Taekwondo training in 1985.) He said that he respects everyone who trains and takes the bumps and bruises but it isn't until the person has been doing it for, at least, ten years that he regards him as a 'martial artist.' He went on to remark that many people start martial arts - and, remember, for us masters, martial arts is more than kicking and punching, self-defense and trophies - but after a month, six months, one year, three years later they've stopped training and never come back. Ten years, for this master, was a milestone, not just because of the time, but because in ten years of training the practitioner begins to understand and accept things about himself. In ten years, with regular practise, a student can get to his third dan, a degree before 'master.' And, whether in martial arts or marriage, understanding and acceptance are key ingredients to getting through and being successful.
Life, particularly through marriage, is much the same way. These ten years haven't always been roses and rainbows. There have been struggles mixed in with the smooth sailing, tears, both sad and happy, and yet we've come through them each time with better knowledge of our individual selves and our partnership. Certain words and their meanings take on greater significance with marriage, too. I'm talking about words like patience, compromise, time, me and I; things we, as humans, take for granted when we're single but change drastically when your life is now responsible to and for a wife and, in our case, a son. With approximately 50% of American marriages ending in divorce, it's nice to know that my wife and I aren't a statistic. In fact, the numbers are greater for subsequent marriages. First time marriages have a 41% chance of ending in divorce. Second time marriages is at 60% and third time is 73%. I'm not saying that divorce is always a bad thing. I have friends who've gotten divorced and they're better off for it. Sometimes things just don't work out and it's better to get out of a bad situation rather than staying in it and making things worse. When getting married, though, you like to hope and believe the marriage will work, otherwise, why do it? In my friends' cases, divorce wasn't something they pursued whimsically at the first time of trouble. That's not any good either.
As we get to our ten year and look ahead to the next ten, I want to thank my wife. She's given me the courage to do lots of things I probably wouldn't have done without her - pursue, earnestly, my writing dreams; compete at the US Taekwondo National Championships; try out for a spot on the US Taekwondo Poomsae (Forms) team, become a more active member of our community (I'm pretty reclusive), take a weekly dance class, to name a few. She's also a source and reminder of positive energy. She's a listener and helps me everyday to be the best version of me I can be and, to that end, she's the best partner I can have to be the best father I can be to our son.
So, to end, I'd just like to thank her for everything she's given me over the last ten years and tell her, in front of the whole world (well, my blog following world anyway), that I love her. Happy Anniversary, darling.
I wonder if I'm just getting old or if I really don't fancy much of the music I hear on the radio. There are individual songs and some artists I enjoy, don't get me wrong. I really like the song Only Human but I'm not compelled to buy Christina Perri's album. I do, though, enjoy P!nk and have bought many of her albums and went to her concert in New Jersey last December. Lady Gaga's Edge of Glory has an 80s feel that instantly drew me to it. So, too, too does Stephanie Treo's I Love It. I also enjoy Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson but I still prefer the classic sounds of Queen and The Beatles and artists who sing their songs like they mean it; artists like The Eurythmics, Neil Diamond, and U2, to name a few.
Perhaps I'm simply a child of my generations, having gone through my tween and adolescent formation in the mid to late 1970s to mid 1980s. I'm not jazzed about today's songs, mostly by female artists, with all the riffs and excessive vocal acrobatics. This, of course, is purely subjective - strictly my opinion - but I'm also not fond of the sameness with the boy band love ballads with their over-layered whispering voices. Whenever I hear one I feel like I'm eavesdropping on a friend who's trying to convince a girl, using less than sincere but flattering words, to go out or sleep with him when she's clearly not (that) interested. It's almost like watching someone begging.
Whatever my musical preferences can be attributed to, there are some timeless songs and artists I recently rediscovered. Once Upon A Time, You Don't Know Me, My Way and Somewhere Down The Road recently crept up on my musical radar again and resurrecting a playlist in my iPod I listened to these songs and allowed the feelings and memories - some happy, some not so - to wash over me.
Once Upon A Time made me think of a couple of things. It reminded me of a trip I took to Manila in 2003. On one of my first nights there, my parents, brother and I went to a piano bar in Intramuros. It's a place my dad knew from many years ago, where journalists frequent and have a brandy or a beer and join the pianist in impromptu live music karaoke. It was a cool (not in terms of temperature) night. When my dad sang, I got a glimpse of him as a young man and, with my own journalistic and writerly aspirations, I could imagine living that life - banging on typewriter keys all day and chilling with the same people night after night and forming meaningful bonds.
You Don't Know Me, a song from the same generation, brought me back to the late 1990s when I'd just watched the movie Two Girls and a Guy, starring Robert Downey, Jr and Heather Graham. The song is, obviously, used in the movie. I loved the feel of the movie. It was like a craftily written play and I was also at a time of my life when things were looking up. I was fit and going to taking film and writing courses in New York City.
My Way, well, My Way is My Way. Need I say more? Well, actually, I'd heard renditions of this song growing up. Frank Sinatra's version, of course, is a classic but I do like Paul Anka's, which is interesting comparing the two because Anka wrote it but Sinatra made it the timeless hit it is. This song came in my consciousness, in a big way, in 1982 when my family was on a whirlwind summer holiday that began in San Francisco, moved to Los Angeles, jumped to New York and culminated in Europe (London, Paris, Munich, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome). Being my first trip outside of Asia, even though I was only thirteen, I felt that My Way was going to have some distinct meaning in terms of this trip and in my own life. Of course, we can all claim some connection to the song because, by definition, whatever we've done we've all done it our own ways.
Somewhere Down The Road, Barry Manilow's song of love, loss and hope, was introduced to me on the same 1982 vacation. And, again, it seemed to be telling the story of how I was feeling during the trip. The thing was, I didn't have a girlfriend at the time nor did I have any particular crush. It just seems to help define my vacation; that, perhaps, my path will lead me back to one of those cities or experiences I had that summer and it would be a reunion of major significance.
I think - I know - a lot of my musical preference has to do with my parents. As far back as I can remember, every Sunday, I'd wake up to the unique sound of an LP playing in the living room. Without fail, it would be some kind of Broadway musical entering my ears - Oklahoma, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, The King and I, Gypsy, you name it. From that, I started to enjoy the classic sounds of Hammerstein, Rodgers, Porter, Gershwin and, as a tween, I started listening to my sister's Little River Band albums, The Beatles, Linda Ronstadt.
Whatever music you enjoy, the music and the words and the voices elicit lots of different and mixed feelings. They can excite you, warm you, make you cry, inspire you, inform your moods and thoughts. Whatever music does to you, don't forget to look - and listen - back. Now, crank up that gramophone and be careful with that stylus. You don't want to scratch that vinyl.
The title of this piece could be the story of the Asian part of my Asian American identity. I’m mostly Filipino, was born in Manila but I was raised in Hong Kong and I have Chinese blood from my paternal grandmother, who was half Manchurian. I call myself Filipino but, in many ways, I associate more with Chinese culture than I do Filipino culture. I speak neither Tagalog nor Cantonese fluently and my understanding of Tagalog is better than my Cantonese but the sound of Cantonese pulls at my heartstrings harder and with more affection than Tagalog does.
This article, however, is not about my Asian American identity. Instead, it is about some observations I’ve made, after living in America for almost thirty years, about how Asians deal with one another and how non-Asians regard us – at least here in America, anyway. Bear in mind, as you read, that this piece is purely anecdotal based on what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard and what’s been said and done to me. There was no formal survey or research study done from which I’ve come to any conclusions based on experiences I discuss below. Before we continue, however, I should also point out that I am going to be discussing, primarily, East Asia and the Asians I encountered growing up. I am not necessarily going to be discussing Central Asia or The Middle East or Asia Minor.
The biggest thing I’ve noticed, discovered and experienced is the myopic, narrow-minded and, largely, ignorant view of who and what are Asian. The worst part of this is that it’s not just non-Asians who possess this lack of knowledge (as you might expect and, perhaps, even excuse of non-Asians) but Asians are also guilty of disregarding other Asians.
There are of course, accounts throughout history of Asians mistreating other Asians. These incidents have, unfortunately, developed distrust and animosity between the groups involved and, sadly, such feelings are often passed from one generation to the next. There have been – and is - animosities between Japanese and Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, Japanese and Filipinos, Filipinos and Malaysians, to name a few. These conflicts have come from one nation conquering or invading another and mistreating those who were conquered (e.g. Japanese invasions during World War II). In some cases, the conflict was over territory resulting in bad blood between the nations and their people (Malaysia and The Philippines arguing over sovereignty over the island of Sabah). In some cases, the conflict has derived from territory and religion – the battle of Kashmir, for example, between India and Pakistan. The feelings borne from these conflicts are often legitimate – after all, who wants to be or deserves to be conquered and oppressed, anyway? – however, that they should last from generation to generation, I feel, is a tragedy and a lost opportunity for healing and strengthening of the Asian ideal.
Since moving to the United States, though, I’ve noticed there almost appears to be a hierarchy of ‘Asianness.’ It’s almost a status symbol and something that is determined by what kind of Asian you are and how well your country or type of Asian is known by non-Asians. I have many Caucasian friends and students who have never heard of Malaysia or Indonesia, for example. To these same friends, their idea of Asian is Chinese or Japanese and, recently, Korean. There’s nothing to be said about Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos, Indonesians and Malaysians. And let’s not forget the Vietnamese, Tibetans, Thais and Hmong. In fact, when I people find out I’m Filipino, I’m often remarked by comments like “The Philippines isn’t Asian. You’re Pacific Islanders.” Yes, The Philippines are islands – the largest archipelago, actually – in The Pacific Ocean but those islands are located in South East ASIA. I’m sorry if it messes with your mind that Filipino can be both Asian and, by definition, Pacific Islanders. India is also referred to as the ‘Asian sub-continent’ and Indians referred to as ‘South Asians.’ Do these groups not count then as Asians?
One fantastic example of intra-Asian ignorance is an interaction I had with the Korean mother of one of my son’s kindergarten classmates. My wife ‘looks’ Asian. I put looks in quotes because, really, what does Asian look like? Speaking in generalizations and typical (or stereotypical) viewpoints, my wife has sharp eyes, a yellow-mocha complexion, and a flat nose. I, on the hand, have brown eyes that are slightly rounder, freckles, a sharper more Roman nose and a lighter brown skin tone. When people meet me for the first time, I am greeted with confused looks and I still get the questions “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” So, when we met my son’s classmate's mother, she regarded my wife, who is three quarters Filipina and a quarter Spanish, with instant Asian familiarity. In fact, she thought my wife was Chinese. They chitchatted, laughed. One may even have touched the other on the arm in mid banter. There was that Asian thang, sisters from another mother and all that. When she learnt that my wife is Filipina, there was a muted “Oh” that accompanied the revelation. Being mixed (I have Filipino, Chinese, Spanish and German blood), I can accept that she didn’t think me to be Asian. So, you can imagine her surprise and disbelief when she found out that I'm Asian too.
After both discoveries, though, the most intriguing statement came out of her mouth. I’m sure she didn’t mean any offense by it but I was definitely taken aback when she said, about us being Filipino, “Philippines is not really Asian, though.” What does one do with that? I was torn between getting into a heated discussion of what that meant and correcting her ignorance, calling her an idiot and walking away, saying something in the little Korean that I know (which I’ve been told by other Korean friends is quite good in pronunciation but, admittedly, is limited to basic greetings, food items, and, of course, Taekwondo commands), or just smiling and letting this faux pas go by and wait for a better time to correct her. She is after all, since our sons are in the same grade, class and school district, someone I could be interacting with for the next thirteen years. And, lo and behold, my son and hers have come to form a friendship at school.
This isn’t the only slight Asian versus Asian slight I've experienced. On Facebook a few years back, I took one of those quizzes that pop up now and again. This one, naturally, was called How Asian Are You? Well, I took it and answered honestly (which I was later told I shouldn’t have since those Facebook quizzes are largely satirical and tongue-in-cheek) and I got a rating like ‘Not That Asian.’ The quiz items may or may not have been made by Asians. If they were, though, they were very centric to Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. There were questions like “How often do you use chopsticks?” and “Do you put sugar in your tea?” and “Do you read anime?”
In other things I’ve noticed, you never hear of Asians being cited as a demographic in consumer spending. I was told, not directly but at a Q&A, by director Justin Lin, after a screening of his movie Finishing The Game, that this is because Asian spending habits tend to mimic Caucasian spending habits so the two sets of numbers are often lumped together. I guess, in this regard, Asians just don’t even exist in America. This, of course, is far from the truth. A 2012 US Census Bureau report showed that Asians are the fastest growing minority in the United States, rising 2.9% (530,000 more than the previous census bringing the total number of Asians in America to 18.9 million). In the same year, the Pew Research Center identified Filipino Americans and Indian Americans as the second and third largest growing Asian American populations, respectively, in the United States ahead of Japanese Americans and Korean Americans. Chinese Americans were first. I don’t mention this to rank Filipinos and Indians above Japanese and Koreans but to further illustrate that Asians in America are not only represented by Chinese, Japanese and Koreans.
So, what is it about Asians in America? We’re regarded as the ‘model minority’ yet our say doesn’t count and, even within our own Asian collective, there seems to be a rank among which groups are more Asian and which groups are not. Moreover, there is, from what I’ve seen, a distinction between mixed Asians and pure Asians and between immigrants and Asians who were born in the United States. And, don’t even get me started on Asians living outside the United States and how they often look at Asians in America, regardless of whether they are mixed Asian or immigrants or both (like me).
With the Internet, satellite television, immigration and easier air travel, globalization has happened and is here to stay. This has brought people together but, in a weird way, it has also heightened the awareness of our differences and, perhaps, pulled people apart. Differences can be good if we’re celebrating them but not if we’re recognizing them in ways that raise one culture while putting down another. For Asians to strive in this country, we need to celebrate each other’s differences and unify those differences in a total Asian identity and, when one of us succeeds, cheer it as not only a Chinese American or Vietnamese American or Korean American or Whatever American triumph but as Asian American triumph.