Sarah Kuhn’s new YA novel I Love You So Mochi is an utterly delightful book about self-discovery, romance, family relations, and good eats. Kimi is at the end of her senior year in high school when she receives an unexpected plane ticket to Japan — from grandparents she’s never met. In Japan, she goes on adventures where she learns about her family, her passion, and, of course, there’s a very cute boy.
I’ve loved Sarah Kuhn’s work since I first picked up Heroine Complex, the first in her series of books about kickass Asian American superheroines, the kind of thing I wish I’d had growing up. I Love You So Mochi is no different.
It’s fun-loving, heart-warming, and investigates the complexities of Asian Mom Math. In addition to the whirlwind of Kimi’s love life, there’s also a moving exploration of family bonds, as Kimi gets to know her grandparents for the first time, and starts to understand what’s been left unspoken between herself and her mom, and between her mom and her grandparents (I don’t want to give any details away, but tbh I teared up a bit).
And there’s always a line that makes me laugh out loud. In this case:
“What. Is this extremely handsome piece of mochi trying to flirt with me?”
You have to read the book for it to make sense, but it’s worth it — an ideal summer read.
Named one of the most anticipated books of 2019, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is Ocean Vuong’s novel debut. In 2016, Vuong’s poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, earned national recognition, winning the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Whiting Award. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous sings with Vuong’s poetic voice, snipping the narrative form into bites of elegant prose.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is written as a letter from a queer Vietnamese son to an illiterate Vietnamese immigrant mother; the novel is in English–a language out of the mother’s command. The premise itself is sentimental, and when compounded with the tender vignettes of Vietnamese matriarchy, poor immigrant lives, and deep war histories, the novel pushes emotional boundaries in a way that I found deeply Vietnamese. Vietnamese language and storytelling consistently play with words and imagery. Simple wording can give way to florid descriptions that toy with serious subjects like death, while also providing dissections of words (see Vuong’s surgery of the word nhớ). This novel exemplifies the importance of specificity.
As the neoliberal impulse of universalism continues to assert itself with the rising representation of minority voices, Vuong is able to capture the minutiae of a Việt American queer experience with subtlety. As a queer Việt American, I finished the book with dozens of dog-eared pages, sometimes frustrated that I wasn’t able to flag both sides of a page. Tiny details sparked memories from my childhood I hadn’t even stopped to consider: “…her breath a mix of Ricola cough drops and the meaty scent of sleep…”, a search for oxtail at the butcher, “bahgeddy” or spaghetti, Cool Ranch Doritos with jasmine tea. Amidst these were new threads: a gay hate crime in Vietnam to the recent Pulse shooting in Orlando, a death of a young lover to death of family, links of our collective Vietnamese history to contemporary Việt Nam burial customs
For those of us who read Vietnamese, Vuong inserts a gift in his spelling of Ma. The Vietnamese language has a variety of words for mom, but the Vietnamese Americans I know fall into two main camps, me or má. Vuong does not shy from using Vietnamese within his novel. He maintains the language of his mother and grandma throughout, adding the appropriate accents where necessary. His use of Ma for his mother then is a deliberate choice, hinting to the close assimilation of Việt Americans, but also Ma in Vietnamese means ghost, a choice that will overshoot many but those of us who understand this significance deeply.*
I highly recommend picking up a copy of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous as soon as you can. Enjoy the richness that Vuong brings, the specificity that he captures brilliantly, and the nuance that his minority voice adds to American histories. Vuong’s writing captures joy and grief in stark relief and I look forward to his burgeoning career. I leave you with a particularly beautiful image that the main character recalls early in the novel (no spoilers):
You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even know there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
*I later found out Vuong gave this away in his New York Times interview! Still claiming this (and the entire novel) as something for us Viet kids–which Vuong also openly declares in the same interview.
Timmy Pham lives in New York City and once said he would be happy with rice and ruốc as his last meal (read the book, you’ll get it).
Happy Cleaners (2019) Hyanghwa Lim, Charles Ryu, Yun Jeong, Yeena Sung. Written by Kat Kim, Julian Kim, and Peter S. Lee. Directed by Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee
If it seems (and it does) that new Asian American filmmakers keep making the same film about generational tension, cultural identity, and familial values, I suppose it’s because we continue to deal with these issues, or because there are as many ways to work through them as there are immigrant families: my half-Japanese experience in Honolulu isn’t like someone else’s Taiwanese experience in Southern California, and they are both stories worth telling.
For these reasons, I came away from Happy Cleaners encouraged, because if nothing else, the film’s familiar conflicts for new generations of Asian Americans mean we’re still coming over, still adding color and flavor to a country that appears alternately to have come a long way in embracing us and to have regressed so we’re not being embraced at all.
Happy Cleaners is owned by the Choi family in Flushing, New York, and despite the family’s hard work, the struggling dry cleaner may find itself without a lease in a few months, thanks to a weasely new landlord from the Weasely Caucasian Landlord multipack they must sell at Movieland Costco. Daughter Hyunny is some kind of medical professional, and college-aged son Kevin (backward baseball cap, one earring in each lobe) works in a food truck with aspirations of opening his own truck on the West Coast.
Arguments abound. Kevin fights with Hyunny. Hyunny fights with her boyfriend Danny. Dad fights with Mom, and Mom fights with everyone. Chances are you’ve seen this all before, if not in a movie then for sure in real life. Graduate from college first and then you can do whatever you want. My family will never accept you if you continue to work as a janitor. Do you want to end up like me, married to someone who can barely support his family?
I admit I said, “Oh, this again” more than once during the first act of the movie, but the film won me over with very good acting by all four principals and solid filmmaking everywhere else. There are a few self-aware shots, but mostly the camera work is well done. Lighting and sound quality put this well above most other Asian American indie films I’ve seen. Mostly, the directors don’t overdirect, the actors don’t overact, the writers don’t overwrite, and the soundtrack doesn’t oversoundtrack, although the Food Network style sound effects and cutting-board close-ups get a little out of hand more than once.
The use of language in this film sets it apart even from other Korean American movies. I appreciate the writers’ willingness to give us full-on Korean through much of the film, including what the movie’s Kickstarter page calls “a mix of Korean and English … we warmly label ‘Konglish’.” There’s nothing wrong with the Korean-accented English dialogue we usually get (it’s one of my favorite accents), but it’s great to hear the family speak the language these families speak.
I am most impressed by the writers’ delicate touch with conflict resolution. The fights themselves may be pyrotechnic at times, but the make-up scenes are gentle, sympathetic, and utterly believable. One-on-one, characters share a beer, or a bite of rice, or a whole meal, looking right at each other without overdoing the apologies, or sitting alongside each other, or nudging one another with a gentle toe. Physical proximity is an act of love, strong enough to heal the casual wounds of being in a family, something I’ve not seen much of in popular media. And props to the actors for not overdoing these excellent scenes. Shout-outs go especially to Charles Ryu as Dad and Yeena Sung as Hyunny.
Happy Cleaners is a well-made movie, a slight improvement on what seems to have become a genre: the Asian American Generations Movie. Despite my jadedness, I got teary at least twice, so everyone’s doing something right. A fraction of a bonus point for being set in Flushing, where a good chunk of the German-Italian-Irish side of my family lived.
7 out of 10. Check it out.
Happy Cleaners screens at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Wednesday, May 8 at 9:15 p.m. The filmmakers will be in attendance.
It also screens at CAAMFest Saturday, May 11 at 2:40 p.m. and Monday, May 13 at 9:10 p.m. Director Julian Kim is scheduled to attend the May 11 screening.
Former 8Asians writer Brian Jian has just published his very first graphic novel, Broken Toys, Extraordinary Machines, so we’re asking him the really important questions (hint: it’s the last one).
1. Your book has a pretty intense plot. What was the inspiration?
I’m not quite sure! The “Cliff Notes TL;DR” version of that answer is “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon meets Wu Tang Clan.”
2. I love that you dedicated Broken Toys, Extraordinary Machines to your readers. What do you hope they come away with?
There are so many options now for entertainment. For anyone to take time out of their day and spend it on anything I do, I’m extremely grateful. I’m just trying to tell a story that hopefully resonates with anyone who likes a good story, with characters who seem genuine and relatable.
3. Have you always wanted to create a graphic novel?
I was heavily into comic books and superheroes as a kid in the 80’s and 90’s (this was DECADES before this whole superhero staple in our entertainment diet). Becoming a comic book artist was probably my first career goal, but then school, college, sports, etc. got in the way. Next thing you know, 25 years have passed and I decided, “It’s now or never!”
4. What’s something you wish you’d know before you started the process?
Everything. I self published this book so it was all on my shoulders; from the drawing, writing, researching, editing, lettering, tech support. And copyrights! There was one page where I used the lyrics of a KRS One song (it fit nicely with the narrative of a scene I wrote) but thank god I looked it up and found out lyrics are copyrighted (not just the music) and you can’t print a line from Hey Jude or Hotel California without being sued. Who knew . . .
5. Ok, fun stuff. Broken Toys, Extraordinary Machines is being made into a movie. Who would you cast?
Most the characters in this story tend to skew older than the characters featured in most of the typical properties put out by our youth obsessed culture. That was completely serendipitous and not by design but I do like that it turned out that way. My dream cast would include people like Don Cheadle, Idris Elba, Whoopie Goldberg. One of the main characters is a woman named Amaka who’s in her mid 40’s. I didn’t realize Gabrielle Union was in her mid to late 40’s! She’d be perfect!
6. What are you reading right now?
Just finished “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and just started “X” by Chuck Klosterman.
7. Where can people find your work? What’s next for you?
Williams begins as World War II breaks out and Japan becomes an enemy of the United States. He examines the Japanese Buddhist communities in Hawaii and the mainland, how Buddhism’s role in the community impacted the decision making around who was interred and in what sequence, how Japanese Christians fared in comparison, how internees found ways to adapt Buddhism for strength and survival, how Japanese Americans fighting in the war petitioned for their own priests and proper death rites, and countless individual stories.
This is an academic book, so it’s not for the faint of heart, nor is it what I would suggest as an introduction to the history of Japanese American internment (if you’re here, reading this, I can only assume that you don’t need such an intro), but what it does offer is a detailed, thoroughly researched, and thought-provoking new angle. Religion offers an important lens, understudied and under acknowledged. Williams offers multiple views on its role, from Buddhism being another way in which Japanese were identified as alien, to its ability to offer solace to a Japanese American soldier being tortured in the Philippines.
And though covering a dark chapter in American history, Williams pitches this as a hopeful saga about American multiplicity, religious freedom, and offers a timely call for inclusion over exclusion.
The Lonesome Bodybuilder, by Yukiko Motoya, contains eleven stories wrapped in a dark fantasy. Drawn from a collection of stories originally in Japanese, the work was only last year translated to English by Asa Yoneda, and published by Soft Skull Press in November 2018. This collection is Motoya’s English-language debut.
At the heart of the stories is “An Exotic Marriage”, a new translation of “Irui konin tan” (previously translated as Tales of Marriage to a Different Sort), for which Motoya won the 154th Akutagawa Prize in 2016. The novella-length story centers on a troubled wife who has noticed her individualism slipping away both figuratively and literally as her marriage continues. The story builds itself around the realism of neighbors, an apartment dog park, and her husband’s obsessive media consumption, but, as with all the eleven stories, takes turns of dark whimsy, their faces begin to droop and metaphors of snakes devouring one another become more reality than figurative gestures.
The other stories of the collection are similarly haunting in a way that feels like Motoya has brought Grimm Brothers to the 21st century. In the story “Typhoon,” a child waits at a bus stop and learns about flying umbrellas from a raggedy man. The title story, “The Lonesome Bodybuilder,” is the quiet journey of a housewife who channels her quiet determination into a newfound hobby. “How to Burden the Girl” is especially odd, centering around a new neighbor with an anime appearance and Oedipean backstory that sounds like it was lifted from bloody video game. The stories are indeed dark, but demure in a way that is haunting. To call the stories feminist is an easy, but lazy label, as Motoya is able to offer a range of dark insights from capitalism and consumption in “Fitting Room” to women in corporate culture in “I Called You by Name.” Give The Lonesome Bodybuilder a read, as Motoya’s work will undoubtedly leave you confused and amused.
Timmy Pham lives in New York City and only recently trained himself to read on public transportation without getting a headache.
There are many things to love about Rina Ayuyang’s Blame This on the Boogie, but one that stands out to me is her waxy, crayon depiction of skin tone. In her first autobiographical comic, Ayuyang captures snippets from her life growing up as one of few Filipino Americans in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to the struggles of motherhood and postpartum depression in sunny California. Drawing from the vibrant colors of Hollywood musical cinema and flashy television, Ayuyang crafts a beautifully scrappy look into a unique and relatable (for me at least) Asian-American experience.
But back to the art for a second. Asian-American graphic novelists have been the rise, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang from 2006 was the first graphic novel by an Asian American I read and fell in love with. More recently, I was thrilled to read and witness the success of Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do. Both illustrators present clean story-lines with equally distinct coloring and lines. Blame This on the Boogie provides an entirely different approach. Ayuyang’s stories bleed into one another, with no clean panels to guide the reader, and her colors are pure and stacked. It is a strong and well-executed choice that echoes her love of dance and sport. As a darker-skinned Viet boy, I grew up avoiding the brown crayon, reserving it for trees and ground, but Ayuyang artful layerings of yellow, red, orange, and brown all help lend the full range of tone and dimensions to her depictions of herself, her family, and the racial diversity of an American experience. Cheers to that.
Content-wise, Blame This on the Boogie reflected back much of what I knew as the child of immigrants. Living room dance parties, a hungry acceptance of new American culture (yay football–though I grew up in Seattle and therefore am obligated to grimace at her love of the Steelers), and the fascination with American pop-culture that bleeds onto the internet (Ayuyang stans Kym Johnson and Hines Ward’s partnership in Dancing with the Stars) all reflect a familiar experience of a blended Asian-American world amid loud visiting titas. Give this graphic novel a pass through, the ballet sequence at the end (as is customary with Hollywood musicals) is a treat.
Fayeza Hasanat’s debut short story collection, The Bird Catcher and Other Stories, is set in the Bangladesh and the United States. It is filled with questions about identity and belonging, about those who are seeking answers under the weight of expectations–their own or otherwise.
A favorite discusses a talkative grandmother who wrestles with the idea of home, herself an immigrant, residing with her children in the U.S. Several others turn on gender dynamics, and those who are between genders or missing some traditional aspect associated with proscribed roles for men and women. Many take dark turns, faced with life on the edge.
Hasanat’s writing is a bit flowery to my taste, but her concepts are intriguing and her characters vulnerable, and their experiences of feeling out of place honest.
If you need some last minute inspiration for your Thanksgiving extravaganza, take a look through Marvin Gapultos brightly-colored book of finger foods, Pulutan! Filipino Bar Bites, Appetizers and Street Eats. Now given if you don’t cook a lot of Filipino food (hi, me), you might not have fermented shrimp paste on hand which makes the pork meatballs with spicy coconut sauce temporarily out of reach. But you probably do (or your neighborhood run-of-the-mill American grocery store will) have the ingredients to whip up some spam mac’n’cheese.
Pulutan! is seriously flashy, with bold colored pages, and drink pairings for every dish. Organized by how you cook it (grilled, fried), the opening chapter introduces the concept of pulutan to novices (hi, me again). No recipe is longer than an open spread, so you know it can’t be all that complicated. The instructions are easy to follow once you’ve got all the ingredients on hand.
Lloyd Suh’s new play, The Chinese Lady, takes us on a journey with the first Chinese woman to set foot in the United States. Her name was Afong Moy. She arrived in 1835 at the age of 14 and was put on display as “The Chinese Lady.” The cost of admission? 25 cents for adults, 10 cents for children. Co-produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company and the Barrington Stage Company, the cast of two–Shannon Tyo and Daniel Isaac–takes the audience on a journey through Afong’s life.
Afong (played by Shannon Tyo), we are told, comes from a well-off family, the youngest of seven, and has bound feet–making her a curiosity to New York audiences. Her family sold her into two years of service with American merchants. We are quickly introduced to Atung (played by Daniel K. Isaac), her translator, who we are told speaks both Chinese and English. Most of the speaking stays with Afong, with occasional interjections from Atung that bring warmth and comedy and humanity to these largely forgotten historic figures.
We follow Afong as she ages, but remains on display, even meeting President Jackson. Her optimism begins to waver, her clothes changes, and still she thinks about relations between the U.S. and China, between her and her audience. Towards the end, the play rapidly casts its audience through Chinese American immigration history via Afong–1882 Exclusion Act, the Geary Act, and on–before jumping to the present. This is an important lineage, but I felt this contemporary jump overly much and a bit didactic.
Still, Suh’s play seeks to dive into and through our constant conversations about identity and cross-cultural understanding and belonging and otherness, all the while weaving in our collective past. And that makes it worthwhile.
Fresh Off the Boat, Season 5, Episode 5: “Mo’ Chinese Mo’ Problems”
Original airdate November 9, 2018.
The ladies will kick it: While going door to door as a U.S. Census volunteer, Evan discovers there’s another Chinese family in the neighborhood (Reggie Lee, Ming-Na Wen, and Jimmy O. Yang). The Huangs and the Lees are overjoyed, but Louis feels his new buddy moving in on his friendship with Marvin, and Jessica becomes disillusioned when Elaine turns out not to be the role model she hopes.
Eddie and Emery, inspired by Evan, pose as Census volunteers in order to find out which neighbors have their own swimming pools and when during the day nobody’s home.
The rhyme that is wicked: I’m not going to lie. I’m totally here for anything Ming-Na is in (okay, except Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), so I was going to like this episode almost no matter what. Add Jimmy O. Yang, this year’s runner up (to Awkwafina) for Summer of ________ status, and I’m willing to forgive almost anything. I love the decision to play Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” when Elaine saunters up to the mural wearing her low-rider jeans. Everyone bows to Ming-Na.
There’s an interesting and almost surely deliberate irony when Jessica twice, in the company only of Louis and the Lees, utters stereotypes of Chinese people and Jewish men in an episode where she protests the stereotypical portrayal of Asians in a school mural. I am not smart enough to break it down, so somebody please do it in the comments!
Deirdre is hilarious in this episode.
Lines I enjoyed:
“You always find fresh ways to be boring.” (Eddie)
“I’m usually four times more beautiful than this.” (Elaine)
“My oldest son’s middle name is Elvis.” (Louis)
“I hate racism and I love a trap.” (Jessica)
“Betrayed by my beautiful face.” (Jessica)
“Maybe turn you into a sausage man.” (Marvin)
Those who don’t know how to be pros:
I said I’d be willing to forgive just about anything. Among “anything” are tons of overacting by all the principals including the guest stars (but not including Yang).
Is “whale tale” an anachronism?
FOB moment: The Huangs welcome the Lees with a fruiting lemon tree.
Soundtrack flashback: “Ladies First” by Queen Latifah (1989). If you haven’t heard the early Latifah stuff, I recommend it highly.
Get evicted: The episode is rescued from a C by the end, with Horace’s redo of the We Are the World mural, plus of course the guest cast, whom I adore. B.
Fresh Off the Boat, Season 5, Episode 3: “Workin’ the ‘Ween”
Original airdate October 20, 2018.
It’s the heart afraid of breaking
Marvin and Honey ask Louis and Jessica to be their baby’s godparents. Jessica eagerly agrees, mostly so Marvin and Honey can have a date night, leaving the Huangs to babysit on Halloween night, and shutting down Louis’s efforts to persuade Jessica to dress in a couples costume with him.
Jessica and Louis are alarmed to discover that they aren’t the naturally talented parents they thought. Their claim that Eddie was weaned from the pacifier with no problems is a deception by Louis; their claim that Emery’s weaning was even easier is a deception by Jessica.
Eddie gets a job selling mattresses (his boss is played by George Wendt) and works Halloween night to prove he has what it takes. Trent comes by to help, but he’s much more of a hindrance.
Evan and Emery, dressed as Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, get to hand out candy at the front door, where they have a problem with a girl who shows up repeatedly, each time in a different costume.
That never learns to dance
Another silly but mildly entertaining Halloween episode. The costumes are great, and it’s nice to see the continued development of Eddie’s character (in two separate plots!). There’s a moment at the end of the teaser where Louis gives his dejected face. That face is some excellent Randall Park acting. My favorite costume in the episode is Grandma as Freddy Krueger.
Despite this being a really meh episode, the tag at the end is completely unexpected, perfectly in character (which is a brilliant paradox), terrific character development for Eddie, and genuinely sweet. Sweet Eddie is the best! Eddie made Evan!
Lines I enjoyed: “Alf was a puppet?” (Jessica). “You love black dresses and putting words into my mouth” (Louis). “Not being wise is being dumb. You make me dumb” (Jessica). “Damn you, perfect Evan!” (Louis).
It’s the dream afraid of waking
Trevor Larcom as Trent was, last season, regularly the best actor among the young men who play Eddie’s friends. He has an off episode here, and it may not be his fault. Trent’s part in this episode is idiotic. Hudson Yang as Eddie feels pretty off as well, although he has a few good moments in the mattress store. All three plots feel like something out of the sitcom plot handbook.
FOB moment: “A Japanese man saved my father’s life once, so you’re hired.”
Soundtrack flashback: “The Rose” by Bette Midler (1979) and the theme from The X-Files by Mark Snow.
That never takes a chance: The wonderful final few seconds of the episode give it a boost, but not much of a boost. B-.