8Books Review: Secrets We Kept by Krystal Sital

Krystal Sital’s debut memoir, Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad, is an intimate and powerful memoir about three generations of her family — their stories, their traumas, their secrets, and their relationship to the author’s grandfather. Eloquently written and deeply personal, Sital dives deep into her own history, the contradictions, and the troublesome relationships between men and women that powerfully shaped her grandmother and then her mother’s lives on the island they were all born on.

Trinidad is our fears and our loves. There we discovered our beings, we dug deep and planted our roots assuming we would never leave, sucking on the armored cascara with its silver-plaited shell, devouring the sweet flesh beneath, the only fish the legend says ties you to the land forevermore, smacking our lips when we were done. We never thought we would have to leave this place . . . But in the end we chose to flee.

A story of diaspora and migration, it is also about family and obligations and culture and tradition. Their flaws and freedoms. Shiva Singh, the author’s grandfather and a wealthy Hindu landowner, is the circle around which much of the book revolves. As he lies in a hospital in New Jersey, Sital watches her mother and grandmother cope with the decisions of his care. It leads to a slow unraveling of her mother’s story, of her childhood, her relationship with the man lying prone in a hospital bed undergoing weeks of surgery. A brutal past full of trauma, beatings, and terror.

Continue reading “8Books Review: Secrets We Kept by Krystal Sital”

Comparing Chinese Death Beliefs with Disney/Pixar’s ‘Coco’

During opening weekend, I took my daughter to see the new Disney/Pixar movie, Coco.  It’s a movie she’s been looking forward to seeing for almost a year, since the trailers for the new movie came out quite some time ago.  I didn’t have much expectations for the movie, as I figured it would be similar to a previous animated film, Book of Lifeanother film centered around Día de los Muertosor the Day of the Dead.  But the movie is completely different, and definitely worth a viewing.  As I watched the film Coco with my 12 year old, I began to realize that many of the practices and beliefs that were being practiced by the Mexican families were similar if not identical to many practices that we performed for my deceased ancestors as a Chinese/Taiwanese immigrant family in the United States.

Before I make the comparisons, I’ll remind readers that discussing the dead, or customs and practices around death is generally considered taboo in Chinese culture.  But I have previously broken this taboo by writing about Chinese funerary customs, so I’ll wander again into dangerous waters.  If you’re from a Chinese family, you might want to refrain from talking about this topic with the elders in your family.  In fact ghosts and the supernatural are generally still considered forbidden topics in mainland China, and it was a surprise that Coco made it past Chinese censors without any edits.

One of the major Chinese holidays is also known as 盂蘭節 or Ghost Festival.  The holiday is sometimes called Chinese Halloween, and is very similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead.  I remember when I was growing up, that my mom would set up an altar on major Chinese holidays, like the Ghost Festival, and the center of the altar would have the photographs of the deceased ancestors.  We would burn incense, and joss paper and lay out food offerings, typically oranges and cooked rice with other dishes for the deceased, so they would have food and money in the afterlife.  We would eat the food it had been left out for a long time, long enough for the deceased to partake their portion of the food.  It’s common for Chinese to burn paper replicas of cars, boats, houses, etc. for the deceased to have these things in the afterlife.

Similarly on the Day of the Dead, in Coco, there’s a strong importance to having the photograph of the family ancestor placed in the family ofrenda.  The belief in Coco, is that if your photograph is not in the family ofrenda, you won’t be able to pass over on the Day of the Dead to visit your relatives.  You’re essentially forgotten.  In Coco, if you’re forgotten, your spirit will disappear from the afterlife and cease to exist when the last person who remembers you dies in the real world.

Similar to Chinese culture, the Mexicans lay out food for the deceased, so they’ll have food in the afterlife.  The amount of food the deceased have in the afterlife varies by how much they were remembered and offered food in the real world.  So a popular singer, like the character Ernesto de la Cruz in the movie Coco, had an abundance of food in the afterlife from all his devoted living fans, while Hector, who was forgotten had none.

By the end of the movie, these similarities between the two cultures got me wondering if they arose from the same source.  My guess is yes, since at the end of the movie Coco, there was a disclaimer saying the beliefs around the Day of the Dead, had roots in Mexican and indigenous peoples. And with the knowledge that indigenous peoples traveled from Asia to settle in the Americas, I think we’re fairly safe in assuming these beliefs have a common beginning.

In case you haven’t seen Coco yet, won’t spoil any more of the movie for you, but I will say it’s one of the best kids movies I’ve seen in a while, and well worth the price of admission.

 

 

 

8Books Review: “Pashmina” by Nidhi Chanani

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani is a delightful graphic novel about a young girl looking for herself, navigating two worlds and two cultures. Priyanka is your average Indian American teenager until she finds a magic pashmina in her mother’s closet. Her mother won’t ask questions about the India she left behind or about Priyanka’s father, but the pashmina opens a new window.

The story follows Priyanka’s eventual journey to India and back again, all along insightfully considering questions about the choices we make, about family and growth, about when to hold on and when to let go. Priyanka is imperfect in the way all teenagers are, but I was charmed throughout by her audacity and spunk and her journey of self-discovery. Beautifully illustrated, Pashmina is a quick and enjoyable read.

Filipino American Downward Mobility and other Asian American Data Points from Pew Research

Filipino American Data based on data compiled by the Pew Research Center

After he graduated from high school this year, Number Two Son mentioned to me that one conversation he has continually had with a close Filipino American friend regards how few of their Filipino American peers were ambitious with their college choices.  Their levels of achievement and college choices seemed much low, especially compared to other Asian American students at their Silicon Valley high school and despite that many of their parents were well educated.  While I personally could see some examples, without real data, it was hard to say whether the kids he saw were just cherry picked examples within a self-selected group in an area heavily obsessed with education.  A Pew Research Center compilation of Asian American data shows that Filipino Americans are indeed downward mobile from the initial immigrant generation (data shown above).  This compilation should be useful to people who want to make data driven conclusions about Asian Americans.

The Pew Research Center has conveniently disaggregated data nicely into specific facts sheets for specific Asian American groups.  A blog post looked at the aggregate data, and some of the findings surprised me – there are more than 20 million of us now and growing.   Other interesting facts – Asian Americans are 11.3% of illegal immigrants, with the top country of origin being India (not what I expected).  Asian Americans live in a multi-generational household more frequently than the general population (been there).

The data that shows that Filipino Americans are downward mobile doesn’t explain WHY that is the case.  I looked up some work in that area and found Susan S. Kim’s Ph.D thesis comparing Korean American and Filipino American youth.  The thesis concludes that Korean American communities have education institutions that encourage and support education much more heavily, and that the rapid acculturation that Filipino Americans experience, especially given the colonial history of the Philippines, doesn’t necessarily contribute to better performance.  This makes a lot of sense to me.  Also, I find that Filipinos, like many Americans, buy into the myth that academic performance in things like math is much more from innate abilities rather than hard work.  “Such bullshit!” is Number Two Son’s comment on that myth.

While I find disaggregated data to be very useful, others find the mandated collection of disaggregated data to be objectionable.     Other studies looking at Filipino American downward mobility are here and here (focusing on San Diego), and Susan Kim’s thesis contains many more references.

8Books Review: “The Leavers” by Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko’s debut novel, The Leavers, follows a mother and son separated by immigration agents, borders, and new families. Deming Guo wakes up one day in the Bronx to find that his mother Polly has disappeared. Soon, he is Daniel Wilkinson of upstate New York. We follow Daniel as he struggles through high school, the emotional turmoil of his mom’s abrupt departure, makes a friend who isn’t white, makes a friend who was adopted from China (same but different), and graduates high school. Until he learns some information about his mom’s whereabouts.

The novel flits back and forth between Daniel’s story and Polly’s, told from her own perspective. But while we follow Daniel’s story more or less linearly, Polly’s unfolds more circuitously. From her present life in China married to a successful businessman who doesn’t know she ever had a son, we follow Polly’s life backwards and around: Days raising Deming in the Bronx to her life as a child in China, to the terrifying series of events that led to her forced separation from her son unfolding in the very last pages.

This is a story about family, about bonds that are broken and reforged. About immigration and injustice. About forgiveness and moving forward. Who are the people who live in between and how will they find their way? Lisa Ko’s two protagonists are deeply human, flawed and enticing, shaped by circumstances often beyond their control, yet seemingly fully aware of the choices they make. In the end, Polly and Deming search for themselves, in each other and in constant turmoil over what kind of life to lead. Parts of The Leavers are truly gripping, stunning in their storytelling arc, in other places, a bit slow, but overall, Ko offers an interesting arc and a truth about our current time.

8Books Review: “Heroine Worship” by Sarah Kuhn

Heroine Worship by Sarah Kuhn is the riveting sequel to Heroine Complex, starring not just one, but two badass Asian American superheroines. You may or may not recall that I loved Heroine Complex when it came out last summer. The first book in this series followed Evie Tanaka as she morphed from sidekick to full blown superhero with fire throwing powers. Throw in a budding romance thrown in and an at times testy relationship with her best friend, boss, and San Francisco’s beloved superhero Aveda Jupiter, and it’s a thrill of a read. Now in Heroine Worship we switch gears to focus on Aveda, formerly Annie Chang, who is now sharing the spotlight with Evie. We follow Aveda/Annie as she struggles with a demon-less SF, deals with the fact that she’s been a less than great friend to Evie, and where she falls in the Aveda-Annie spectrum. The plot revolves around Evie’s engagement and impending wedding. That backdrop provides all the necessary quirky props, settings, and bridal beasts, but in the end, like the first book, this one is really about Evie and Aveda/Annie’s friendship.

Heroine Worship starts a bit more slowly than its predecessor. And I think it’s only natural that fans of Complex love Evie a little more and Aveda a little less. Aveda spends the first half or so behaving in expected Aveda ways (mostly a belief that she knows best), but in the second half, the novel really takes flight. We get more of Aveda/Annie’s back story, including a wonderful and deep set of scenes with her Chinese parents about expectations, pride, and family. We get a fun and sweet romantic line. We get more feelings (FEELINGS!). And we watch Aveda become comfortable with herself as Annie and what that means. It’s really in that journey that she ultimately enamors herself to us readers.

Heroine Complex is the book I immediately sent to my friends. I have already followed up with them for Heroine Worship, accompanied with the advice, “Keep reading, it’s worth it.” And when you’re done, schedule a viewing of The Heroic Trio.

 

8Books Review: “Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire” by Susan Tan

Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire is the debut novel from author Susan Tan about a spunky and spirited half-white, half-Chinese eight and half year old with grand visions for her future and astute insight into her past. Cilla is our narrator, and this is her memoir–her first step to reaching her destiny as Future Author Extraordinaire.

Now I know I’m not the target audience for Cilla Lee-Jenkins (ages 8-12 says her publisher’s website), but I did thoroughly enjoy this book. I laughed and cried along with Cilla, followed her high drama and quiet reflections on growing up, on growing up biracial, and on the potential responsibilities of big sisterhood. It’s just the right mix of Capitalized Indignation and Big Moments. Cilla’s voice is so strong throughout that you get the feeling of her talking.

Continue reading “8Books Review: “Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire” by Susan Tan”

Breast Cancer Rates Increasing Among Asian American Women

Scarlett Lin Gomez
Scarlett Lin Gomez

A new study from the Cancer Prevention Institute of California (CPIC), with Scarlett Lin Gomez as the lead researcher of the study, is showing an increase of breast cancer in Asian American women.  This is particularly troubling because the rate among other racial groups has stabilized.

The study looked at women in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, from 1988 to 2013, and included women from different Asian American backgrounds, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, South Asian, Vietnamese, and Southeast Asian and compared it with results from non-Hispanic white women.

The rate of cancer has been growing fastest in South Asian (Indian and Pakistani), Vietnamese, and Southeast Asian (Cambodian, Laotian, Hmong and Thai) women.  The common thread among these women seems to be that they are among the more newly immigrated to the U.S. (and those that are newly introduced to American diets/environment/etc).

A recent NBC News article on this topic talks about how one doctor told his patient that Asian American women didn’t get breast cancer.  But of course, Asian American women do get breast cancer and in ever increasing rates.  The woman’s sister Mai-Nhung Le, a professor at San Francisco State University, studied the needs of Asian American women and found that Asian American women reported more “unmet daily physical needs”, such as needing help with cooking, housework, and transportation. Le also noted the significance of the CPIC findings that indicated Vietnamese and Southeast Asian women are more likely to have breast cancer before age 50.

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer back when she was about 50 years old, but it almost didn’t happen.  She went in for a mammogram, which apparently the normal image would not have caught her breast cancer. Since her lump was so far off to the side, it presented as pain under her arm.  It was only because she mentioned her under arm pain to the mammography technician that he took a separate side image that caught the image of the lump in her breast tissue.

At the time she was lucky in that they diagnosed my mother as stage 1, and she received a double mastectomy along with many rounds of chemotherapy, and couple of years later was declared cancer free.  Fast forward 15 years later, and her cancer returned, metastasized and incurable.  She passed away a few years later.  I’m grateful for the many years we got to have my mom because of the early diagnosis, but I’m still mad that we don’t have a cure yet, and we had to lose her, too soon to see her own grandchildren grow up.

If you’re an Asian American woman, make sure you understand the warning signs and that you get your mammogram.  Don’t let a doctor tell you that Asian American women don’t get breast cancer.

8Books Review: “The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui

The Best We Could Do is a beautifully drawn and beautifully narrated memoir by Thi Bui. It is the story of her family and how she reckoned with their past, flight from Vietnam, family members lost and found again…and all the whirling emotions that always come with anything that has to do with family.

None other than Viet Thanh Nguyen graces the cover with the recommendation, “a book to break your heart and heal it.” And indeed, his statement captures the complexity that the author tackles head on. She begins with herself, with a preface that talks about the journey of the book, one that began more than 14 years ago. Bui opens the first chapter with her own labor, birthing, and a new appreciation for parenting. From there, she delves backwards into her family’s story, jumping around from their flight from Saigon in the 1970s to memories of her childhood, continually returning to her own experience of raising a child for the first time. Like many memoirs and graphic novels of this style, we are brought fully into the author’s own growing understanding. We too get the past in fragments, slivers of deeper meaning, hidden secrets, and untold stories about parents and children, immigrants and refugees. What do we carry with us, from generation to generation, that we see or don’t see?

 

With a simple color palate of blacks, whites, and reddish orange, Bui’s drawings bring her story to vivid life. I was riveted from the author’s preface to the thank yous at the end; the title bearing a profound resonance by the last page. An excellent addition to the field of illustrated memoirs, refugee stories, and reflections on parenting and family, The Best We Could Do is well worth the read.

8Books Review: “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee’s second novel Pachinko follows several generations of a Korean family living under Japanese colonialism. In the 1930s in a small town in colonial Korea, a young woman named Sunja is abandoned by her wealthy lover, but saved by a young minister who marries her and takes her to Japan. If there can be said to be a central character it is Sunja, though Lee weaves such an intricate tale as to make it hard to pick from the many family members–her two sons, Noa and Mozasu, her sister-in-law Kyunghee, her grandson, Solomon (the opening pages begin briefly with Sunja’s grandparents, to give you a sense of scope).

The book comes in at a weighty 485 pages, but I found myself compelled to enter further and further. Delicately drawing out a story about love, loss, identity, and otherness, Lee draws a picture of the travails of being other in a colonial nation, the limitations and possibilities. As their fortunes rise and fall, rise and fall, we seamlessly move through time, exploring a breadth of human nature and resilience.

So while not a page-turner of the traditional sort, it is nonetheless enthralling, elegantly revealing layer after layer of possibilities with enormous empathy for this family. And Lee provides a window into a little-discussed population–the Koreans living in Japan in the twentieth-century–that is at once unfamiliar and familiar (see also, this recent New York Times opinion piece on the value of books). Pachinko is well-worth the journey.

8Books Review: “Lucky Boy” by Shanthi Sekaran

Shanthi Sekaran’s novel Lucky Boy is the bewitching story of two mothers and their love and expectations for themselves and the one boy each calls their own. Young Solimar Castro Valdez braves the border crossing in pursuit of a better life in California. In the turmoil of the experience, she finds love. At the end of it, she’ll be expecting. Kavya Reddy, already married several years to her husband Rishi, is looking for the next step in life, for something that will make herself complete in her otherwise good Berkeley life. And so she decides to have a baby, to start trying to have a baby.

As we jump between the stories of the two women and those who surround them, we become slowly enmeshed in each’s inner turmoil, hopes and dreams, and sense of self. The boy in the title, Ignacio, doesn’t enter the picture as a baby until more than halfway through. Instead, Sekaran focuses on the aspirations of Soli and Kavya — of Soli’s struggles to figure out what life in America looks like as a maid and then nanny to a wealthy Berkeley family, of Kavya’s struggles with fertility and how it affects her marriage. When Soli, who is undocumented, is detained, Ignacio goes into foster care, where he becomes a part of the Reddy family. This second series of dramas occupies the latter half of the story.

Sekaran’s novel is enthralling in how her characters are developed, how she explores what it means to be a mother. We feel the pull of imperfect systems, of immigration, foster care, detention, expectation. There is palpable hope and equally palpable desperation throughout, for Soli, for Kavya, and even for Kavya’s husband Rishi.What does it mean to love a child? What does it mean to lose a child? Vivid and heart rending, Sekaran’s Lucky Boy asks its readers for thoughtfulness and empathy, and explores the uncharted emotional intersection of undocumented immigrants and foster families.

The Continual Evolution of Asian American Youth Culture

One of the (few) benefits of having teenagers is getting a glimpse of what youth culture is like these days.  Given that I myself am decades removed from that time period, I like to compare what I see and hear from them to how it was when I was young.  Since my kids and I all grew up in communities full of Asian Americans (unlike John), I have some perspective on how Asian American youth culture has evolved.  I was amused to watch the above video by the Fung Brothers on the evolution of Asian American youth culture.  I found myself agreeing with some of their observations, while questioning others.

Continue reading “The Continual Evolution of Asian American Youth Culture”