Reflections

Pseudonyms and Milk Carton Faces

In The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney, Janie recognizes her own baby photo on the back of a milk carton (the pre-internet version of an AMBER alert). The resulting drama stretches through a total of five books and was even adapted into a made-for-tv movie.

The part that stuck with me happens early in the story. Janie is in English class, finishing an essay. She writes her name at the top of the page but the way it looks on paper is sooo boring. She'd already tried sexing up her name last year from Jane Johnson to Jayne Johnstone.

Now she took the "h" out of Johnston and added a second "y" to Jayne.

Jayyne Jonstone. It looked like the name you would have if you designed sequined gowns for a living, or pointed to prizes on television quiz shows.

Later on, her English teacher hands back the corrected essay.

At the top of the page he had circled Jayyne Jonstone, adding, "Janie, you having an identity crisis?"

I burst out laughing at this point. Every single time. 

Like Janie, I hated my name. I thought it was sooo boring. It never felt right, like I was an amnesiac trying on a name.

In high school, Susan turned into Susyn then into Suzzyna. Teenage insecurity and awkwardness donned a figurative cloak made of y's and z's. I'd watched enough teen movies to believe in the magic of makeovers. Suzzyna could dazzle the world into submission. She was the superstar my parents pushed me to be — unafraid, confident, beautiful, successful.

I wore her cloak for a very long time. And when Suzzyna wasn't bright enough, I created other personas based off of people I admire. I eventually ended up with so many that I could even choose which one to put on, like costumes hanging on a rack.

Doors turned into stage curtains. Whenever I was about to walk into a room, it felt like I was waiting in the wings, counting down my entrance. One deep breath to suppress my fears then I'd step out into the spotlight.

Afterward, once the curtains lowered and I was safely back in the wings, I could never remember what happened on stage. All I had to go by was audience reaction. Applause told me I did something right; laughter meant it all went wrong.

Living this way was stressful but it didn't seem too bad. I graduated, got married, started a career, but after having worn so many masks this long, I couldn't remember what I looked like.

When I tried to be myself, anxiety cut through my skin, flaying away composure to expose raw panic. I felt like a fraud and a failure. I was trying to make sense of my naked body when I'd only ever seen the photoshopped version. I'd been taught to judge myself by how well I blended into the glossy pages of a superficial world.

It wasn't until recently that I learned those masks were a coping mechanism. What I'd thought was teenage insecurity and awkwardness turned out to be crippling social anxiety, complete with selective mutism and sensory processing issues. 

Whenever environments or situations became too much to handle, stepping into a different persona dialed down the panic. Adding y's and z's into my name helped me feel just safe enough so I wouldn't shut down. 

Looking back now, I see how this anxiety has affected my writing. I could only ever write under pseudonyms — each one tossed aside as soon as I felt unsure. I experimented with voices and styles, trying to mould myself into someone I thought I should be. And because I worried what others thought, I did what I'd always done — disappear into yet another persona. The unfortunate result? All the things I had to say vanished too.

Which brings me to the point of this entry.

I dug up some old blog posts that had been published under pseudonyms. They've been migrated to this site because I want to start writing under my own name. No more personas. No more masks. (A brand new site design marks this occasion.) I may be afraid of so many things, but I know now that I am also confident, beautiful, and successful. I've always been. All I needed was to recognize the face on the milk carton — the missing me that I've only just found.

A New Year's Reflection on Five Years Worth of Writing

I've been writing regularly for five years. And in those five years, I have written the following:

  1. Three fanfic pieces (10K to 20K words each)
  2. Two novel-length manuscripts (150K words)
  3. Six novellas (15k to 30k words each)
  4. Hundreds of blog posts, short stories, personal essays spread throughout various websites

It might not seem like a lot, but prior to those five years, I only wrote about 100k words in the span of ten or fifteen years. Creatively, that is. I'm not including papers for school or reports for work.

I wish I hadn't stopped. If I'd been writing for all those missing years, my writing would've been on a whole other level today. But then again, I'm not sure if I really had anything meaningful to say back then.

Time goes by so fast. I was a different person five years ago. Different priorities. Different dreams. It's the end of 2014 (at least it was when I was writing this), and nostalgia has been keeping me up at night.

Also, a really bad cold. (I'm surrounded by snotty tissues right now.)

I tell everyone that Bioware changed my life. Looking back, if I hadn't been so inspired by their stories, I wouldn't have started writing again. If I hadn't been writing, I'm not sure I would still be here. At some point, showing up, typing out my words one at a time became my only way to breathe.

I talk about the girl I used to be as if she was a different person. And in a way, that's true. The cells inside me today are different from the ones that used to make up my body back then. But maybe there's a thread that connects the kid-me to the person I am today. If there is, I'd like to imagine that little girl—the one I see in my writing—giving me permission to keep breathing.

Growing up is a funny thing. When you're young, you think you're growing into the person you want to be, but I'm starting to think it's more about rediscovering who you used to be. We're made up of scattered memories—some good, some bad—but it's not until we're older that we can tell the difference between what's real and what's not.

I've always liked this particular quote by Steve Jobs:

"You can't connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path and that will make all the difference."

Which also happens to be the first part of my favorite motivational video:

I have a love-hate relationship with well-worn paths. It feels like I've been out of step with life since I was old enough to walk, yet I can't not be out of step anymore than I can stop writing. The more I talk to other writers, dreamers, artists, weirdos, the more I see this sense of unease, or dissatisfaction, in them too.

If wishes were real, then my New Year's wish for you would be to follow your heart no matter where it leads you, to fall down a lot, to dream. I hope you dance. A lot. With or without pants. Be brave, be strong. I hope you find your joy, that one thing that keeps your feet on solid ground when things turn crazy but also that one thing that will give your heart beautiful, giant, extraordinary wings with which to fly.

I'm starting to ramble. I blame the cold medicine.

Anyway, my goals for the next five years? Keep writing. Keep making meaningful art. Keep breathing.

In Which I Finally Understand Bruce Lee and Discover What “Being Like Water” Means to my Writing

My birthday is coming up. This one feels like a milestone even though it's not. I'm not turning thirty—I passed that a while ago—but I think my heart's finally catching up to my age. It's a good feeling, because I think I finally understand what Bruce Lee was talking about.

"Be like water," he said. "Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow."

When I first heard that quote, I was in my twenties.

"Ridiculous," I said. "Water's weak. It's shapeless. It dilutes."

I wanted to be like fire: vibrant, painful, all-consuming. The passion of my youth was like a roaring bonfire. I graduated from a program that I'd fought so hard to get into and got a job everyone told me would be near impossible to get. I binged on life so hard that I never had to deal with the repercussions of taking whatever I wanted whenever I needed it.

I was a winner, because I had to be.

Part of that was to make up for lost time. When I was in my teens, I felt like rock: dull, lumpy, stuck. I was forced to sit still while life roared at me like wind buffeting against cliffs. Whether I was in class or at home, I was surrounded by people who knew what was best for me. I followed someone else's dreams, believed in someone else's way of thinking. It may have taken a while, but enough of my pieces chipped away until I was ground down to sand.

And now, with another birthday on the horizon, I finally want to be like water.

It's not about being the strongest or the brightest in the room, it's about showing up and having the discipline and honor to put in 110% no matter how shitty I'm feeling. It's not about being shapeless, it's about having the quiet confidence to flow around obstacles. Not to smash or burn them away, but to accept their presence and acknowledge the resulting ripples as beautiful and necessary things. It's not about following a path—whether career or personal—it's about being true to yourself.

And the truth is: No matter how I've changed, my writing has been the only constant in my life. Maybe the style or the purpose behind it has changed, maybe I wrote on blank pages with pencils instead of on a laptop, but the act of creation makes more sense to me than anything I've ever done. I may have wanted to be like fire or forced to be like rock, but my writing has always been like water.

And it only took me a couple of decades to figure that out.

A Life in Pursuit of Hikaru's Go and Jiro's Sushi

A manga turned anime, HIKARU NO GO was released almost a decade ago. It's a coming-of-age story and a story about devoting one's life to a singular passion. When Hikaru discovers an old go board in his grandfather's attic, he accidentally awakens a ghost named Sai, a go player who lived during the Heian era of Japan. All Sai wants to do is study go, and Hikaru reluctantly plays a few games to appease the friendly spirit. But when the young boy's lack of interest soon turns to enthusiasm, Sai is surprised to learn that Hikaru displays an innate talent for the game.

The heart of the story lies in their master-student relationship. The most poignant scenes happen after Sai begins to see that in Hikaru lies the path to achieve the divine move—a move so perfect and inspired that it is considered the pinnacle achievement of every go master. Sai's quest for Kami no Itte, or the Hand of God, is the reason why his soul has been unable to rest.

Sai never reaches the divine move, and by the end of the anime, he quietly accepts that sometimes you are but a single step toward something greater. He sets his ego, his sense of self, aside, and the master becomes the student when Sai lifts Hikaru in his stead to reach for the stars.

Over a decade later, a popular documentary titled JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI is released. The film follows the life of a sushi master named Jiro Ono, an eighty-five year old man who has devoted his life to crafting the perfect sushi. His Michelin three-star restaurant is in the basement of an office building near a Tokyo subway station. It takes months to get a reservation, and a twenty-minute meal costs over $300.

The documentary is a study in the simple joy of devoting your life to mastering your craft, but mastery doesn't come without sacrifice. In Jiro's case, he rarely saw his family while his children were growing up, and they lived in poverty for years.

In a review of the film, Roger Ebert asks: "If you find an occupation you love and spend your entire life working at it, is that enough?"

Yes.

For me, it is.

Sometimes, the hardest part isn't about figuring out what you love to do, but in humbly accepting that even if you never reach your Kami no Itte, it is enough to dedicate your life in pursuit of its truth.

This is what writing means to me.

Stories that Matter

My Facebook life has to be perfect, because if my story didn't exist online, I'd disappear. Having no likes on a post is like me standing at the edge of a cliff, shouting into an abyss but not hearing an echo. I wait and wait and then I start to wonder if maybe it's not the echo that's the problem, it's my voice. Because what if I think I hear my voice, but really the sound just never existed in the first place? Maybe my mouth is a figment of my imagination or a tumor in someone's brain. School taught me to dress for the job I want, so I dress my profile for the life I want. We're all made up of stories anyway, so somewhere along the way I decided to write my own except I somehow ended up writing shitty fanfic about people who aren't me. In anime, characters with the loudest hair matter the most. Maybe that's why I color my hair so often.

My profile is starting to remind me of this creepy photo I saw on Reddit of a decapitated woman dressed up like a doll. NSFL. Not suitable for life. Not because I post photos of dead people, but because my profile has turned into a Pinterest collage with vacations and family and friends and pets and a fulfilling career. I'm thin and beautiful not because I am in real life, but because I watched a vid on Vimeo once on how to pose in front of a camera for the most flattering photos.

I looked into deleting Facebook once and ended up deactivating my account instead. Temporary deactivation is safe, permanent deletion too scary. I ran away from my Facebook life just to prove that I could, then I physically ran away too.

I think I was hoping for something magical to happen when I ran away, like maybe I'd glomp onto that one magical turn of phrase and be instantly transformed into somebody who mattered, and then I'd drive home a brand new person brimming over with inspirational desktop quotes. The only thing I learned from that trip is that it's impossible to leave Facebook behind. When you reactivate your profile, everything is as you left it. The Internet has a longer memory than I do.

***

I once read this short story in high school about a girl who found solace in sitting fully clothed in an empty bathtub. Its cold, hard shape kept all her bits and pieces safe while the rest of her fell apart. When she climbed back out, she was fine, just great, thank you very much. I don't remember the rest of the story, but I remember wanting to try it once, except the tub was dirty, and I didn't want to clean it.

There was also this short story about a girl who drank milk before every meal. It was a certain kind of milk drank in a certain kind of way that made it easier for her to throw up her food afterwards. I remember this story was an English assignment, and my teacher talked about how eating disorders are bad, but all I got out of it was so that's how you do it. Except I hated milk, and I hated having to taste the same milk twice.

I see stories everywhere because I'm addicted to metaphors. Maybe I'm a tragic comedy in two acts or maybe a cautionary postmodern tale. Life has to impart some kind of meaning, right? There has to be some tiny thing that seems insignificant at the time but carries through to the end—an empty bathtub or a cup of milk—something that can be identified and analyzed. Like, when I sit down to write a story and end up staring at the blank page instead. I know empty spaces are supposed to be filled by things—something is better than nothing—because why am I here if not to be filled by pretty things?

At Starbucks, I write stories about characters who never achieve their goals or characters who get everything they want then find out they wanted something else all along. In college, I learned this is a postmodern thing. Something something about how the war screwed everyone in the head, and now we write these stories about people who feel increasingly disconnected.

And love stories. I love writing tragic love scenes like the ones that happen the night before you wake up in bed to find yourself alone. You don't know why he left, but when you reread those scenes you know exactly why. There are a lot of furrowed brows and trembling fingers and ellipses. Also boobs. And engorged members. Writing sex can be a lot of cock this, cock that, but it's also about one or two (or more) bodies filling empty holes. I like to think our bodies tell the kinds of stories we'd never dare to say out loud.

***

I watched a YouTube video on Bruce Lee once. The slant of his eyes and the curl of his tongue made me think of fortune cookies and gongs. He talked about being like water—formless, shapeless—but I didn't get it. I think it's because I'm not Asian enough. I'm neither wise nor mysterious, my eyes are only a little slanty, and I only have an accent when I try to speak in my native tongue. And instead of learning how to be like water, bits and parts of me end up trickling down the drain. All that's left is a cold, hard tub and an empty glass once filled with milk. All that's left is my reflection.

All that's left are these words.

I'm writing a lot more these days. A decade of work and grown-up responsibilities made me forget the person I wanted to be when I was a kid. Back when all I did was daydream about incredible, fantastical worlds, I hid books in my jacket sleeves, snuck them into class, read them when I was supposed to be learning algebra and geometry. I wrote my first short story in math class behind my teacher's back. I thought I was being so sneaky, but I only just realized that maybe my teachers let me get away with it because that quiet Asian girl with her nose stuck in a book was the kind of person who mattered.

My dad asked me recently how anyone could choose to study English all through high school and college. For once, he wasn't angry. He actually wanted to know why, and I found out that after all this time, he thought studying English was learning how to spell and how to use grammar properly. When I told him about stories and how much they mattered, he laughed. Not at me, but because he was relieved that his daughter knew how to spell.

And maybe that's where I went wrong. Maybe I shouldn't have tried to please him by tacking on a management degree and moving to the states to work in a big building behind a big desk. Maybe I shouldn't have stopped reading and writing all these years because being a writer is about having a voice, and somehow I'd lost mine along the way all because of a misunderstanding about what it means to study English.

Maybe it's not about deleting my perfect Facebook life, because even my profile is a part of me like how a lie becomes real when you tell it to yourself too often. The Internet has a longer memory than I do, and Google knows me more than I know myself. The problem is that I was born before the Internet was born, and the person I am—the one with the stories who mattered—never made it online because she used to write on paper with ink instead of on a laptop in Starbucks.

Writing is a little like standing at the edge of a cliff, but instead of shouting into the abyss, you listen to the world that's always been inside your head. It's dizzying and crazy and none of it makes any sense, but the sound you hear is so much more beautiful than the echo of a million Facebook likes.