wait but why? (blog)

[Topics explored: bilingual; languages; Chinese; intentions; curiosity; benefit of the doubt; talking with strangers on airplanes; The Atlantic magazine]

Contemplating art (I know nearly nothing about art) at The Broad Museum, Los Angeles, USA

Why has it been so long since I posted to this website that I pay SiteGround to host and claim my domain name? And that is coming up for renewal next month? And therefore causing me some anxiety about my low post rate? (Yes, this is also a bald attempt to draw attention to my referral link here. A girl’s gotta get that bag, er, a few free months of hosting rather.)

Alright, I should take a deep breath. Just write and create for me, right?

This is also what I said to myself on one of the legs of my flight returning from Palm Springs. (The second part came later…that is, now, as I write.) Why?

Towards the end of the flight, an old white man in the middle seat next to me asked me, apropos of nothing, if my magazine was (in) Chinese.

It wasn’t. I had open on my lap the latest issue of The Atlantic, an American magazine that is definitely in English. I forgot which article in it I was reading at that moment, but it was definitely in English because I can’t read more intellectual, “fancy” material in Chinese. I am sad about this for reasons upon reasons, but I acknowledge while I’m fully bicultural in my social mores, language-wise I am clearly stronger in English–writing, speaking, and in this case, reading.

Of course, a few ways I could’ve reacted:

a) flipped a sh*t and asked him, “what is wrong with you? Can you not clearly see that this is in English? You think because my face is Asian that I can’t read English?”

This didn’t happen even though I am prone to sh*t-flipping because my rational brain said “he looks to be on the older side and therefore maybe has vision difficulties I mean god knows without corrective lenses I am blind as a bat.”

b) tried to smile and calmly explained that no, my magazine is in fact in English because I am not as fluent a reader of Chinese as I’d like to be

Ding ding ding. Well, maybe I spoiled and hinted at it above.

c) said nothing

This didn’t happen because I am educated and was level-headed enough to speak up for myself. This is also because this wasn’t one of those high-stakes, high-danger encounters that keep showing up in the news. Exhibit A, B, C, D – plug to the NextShark team for reporting, always. #StopAsianHateCrimes #StopHatingAsians (I know there’s a more popular hashtag out there, but I have mixed feelings about the mixed signals it can send.)

So I’ve given you the answer as to what actually transpired: b. The man responded by saying something along the lines of oh, got it! He couldn’t tell because of his age and being without glasses.

Ahh. “Haha, no worries! I do wish I could read something this dense in Chinese, but I grew up here so.” Shrug.

OK! He didn’t mean anything by it other than being curious and seeing (the wrong) things. OK!

Right?

Right.

Right?

Let it go. I’m getting off the flight soon. We were silent the whole flight. He probably just wanted to start some conversation. Not everyone is like you, you who is perfectly fine with not speaking with people for an entire day because they TIRE YOU OUT.

I am proud of the way I responded: it was factual, unbothered, and ultimately ended the interaction in a way desirable to both of us.

More importantly, I operated under the principle of staying open, open-minded, open-hearted. It is more of what we need in the world today. That’s about as much of a statement regarding world affairs that I feel qualified making.

But there is definitely a niggling thought in the back of my mind that goes, “Why the f*ck do we have to always be calm? Why can’t we lash out every once in a while because god knows we deserve to? Why do we, or rather other people, give so much benefit of the doubt to those who doubt, mock, or prod at us?”

Cue searching for my stress relief squishy toys.

So: who is the “we?” Why didn’t I say “I?” Short answer: Asian. (For the more enlightened, they’d maybe tack on American, Canadian, etc. But you and I both know that people see and think “Asian” first.) Longer answer: because my face is my face, I’ve learned that people tend to–incorrectly–not see us as individuals. This grates at me. And yet, there is a strength to being “grouped” per se. It’s how people think of voting blocs and customer groups, e.g., “XYZ-Americans will be the deciding voters in this election,” “the spending habits of ABC consumers are changing how retailers think about [RETAIL CONCEPT HERE].” In summary, thank you for trying to understand any of this.

And this is why I am back on here again. I spent a lot of time recuperating from my trip and digesting this particular interaction, trying to make sense of it. Putting fingers to the keyboard, with the ultimate intention of sharing my thoughts out into the ether of the internet, has helped me because I’m forced to put a form to the swirl in my head. Maybe it’ll help someone else think through tangles, too.

Maybe someone will say: I get you. I see you. I want to hear you.

And that is why I paid for another year of being able to say to my friends, “Sometimes I share my thoughts at iamjwang.com. No pressure though.”

OMG, it’s the NY Times! (acting career update)

Forgive me for gloating, but I want to take a moment on this blog of mine to totally geek out and celebrate the team at Main Street Theater (MST) and myself for our work in staging the first “digital premiere” of The Book of Magdalene (promo video on YouTube here)! Today is the last date of the play’s digital run, and while it’s been a strange and difficult pandemic world for live entertainment to navigate, I am truly hopeful that more plays will be recorded going forward. Is it that I don’t believe live theater and events will ever return? Absolutely not. In fact, I am kicking myself for not going to more concerts pre-pandemic (but immensely thankful that Netflix has not one but two concert films of Ariana Grande’s). It’s because when I get to be part of a purposeful, meaningful, and hopeful new work, and also get to embody more diverse representation on stage, I want to share it with as many of my family and friends as possible. Although we filmed at MST in Houston, I had friends who could watch in San Francisco, London, Atlanta, and more. Many of them shared their impressions of the show with me, as well as messages that stuck with them, things that puzzled them, and general feelings of excitement and happiness for me. I am super gratified by all of these but especially the last part, because in those periods where I was stuck in traffic going to auditions and wondering if I should give up on my love for performing, I kept going with the encouragement of many of those same cheerleaders. This lead role was of course a win for me personally, but I also see it as a win for my support network and their love. I did not let them down.

Digital poster art for The Book of Magdalene, a play by Caridad Svich.

Recognition from family and friends is number one, but it certainly got easier when the play was reviewed and covered in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Houston Press, and so many more esteemed outlets! For better or worse, recognition in one of these long-running outlets is an immense mark of legitimacy. I can confidently say for everyone at MST and myself that we were beyond thrilled! I’m grateful to all those who took the time to see and think critically about our show. I’ll share a few wonderful quotes below, followed by a few more behind-the-scenes photos…including my funny mug in the NY Times!!

“The dicey thing about putting theater online is how easy it is to, accidentally, make it seem like something else: a panel discussion on Zoom, maybe, or a not-great video. But Caridad Svich’s spare and immediate new drama, ‘The Book of Magdalene,’ feels every inch a play…even before a giant cicada puppet makes a fabulous cameo.”

Laura Collins-Hughes for the New York Times, February 19, 2021

“Symbolism-intensive and purposefully poetic in diction, “The Book of Magdalene” is not the sort of play to which I ordinarily warm, but its stageworthiness is self-evident, and Amelia Rico, the director, and Afsaneh Aayani, the set designer, have served Ms. Svich outstandingly well. Good cast, good costumes, and a giant insect puppet whose unexpected appearance (in both senses of the word) will startle you. Even if you don’t care for magical realism on or off stage, you should consider giving this one a shot.”

Terry Teachout for the Wall Street Journal, February 18, 2021

“[Len] is played by Jennifer Wang, whose beautifully luminescent performance is the anchor of this dreamy, poetic play…Delicately directed by Amelia Rico, the production features design that cleverly hints at the dystopian society without going full-out Mad Max. The sets by Afsaneh Aayani are spartan and effective and the costume design by Victoria Nicolette Gist is positively ingenious, featuring garments that are both familiar and odd. Both the lighting (by Grey Starbird) and the sound (by Janel Badrina) compliment the video format and provide nuance in the moodier scenes.”

Nella Vera for CultureVulture, February 2, 2021

“The austere set design, by Afsaneh Aayani, lends a proper touch of surrealism to Svitch’s verselike rhythms. (Both the Times and the Journal were rightly taken by a rather large cicada puppet’s scene-stealing walk-on.) Rico’s alternating between close-ups and wider shots, coupled with Grey Starbird’s haunting lighting design, help foreground Len’s inner turmoil.”

Chris Gray for Preview – Houston Chronicle, February 25, 2021

For the photo slideshow above, I of course had to highlight our amazing cicada puppet by Afsaneh Aayani!

I hope to have more happy updates for 2021, but even if there aren’t any more mentions in the papers, I am already super grateful for these memories to carry me through the rest of the year. Thank you!

grace and gratitude (acting career update)

In spite of all the complaining I could’ve done about 2020 and its ills, I chose to check myself. My family is well enough, all things considered, and that matters more than anything.

Anything beyond that I’ve considered a plus. And one huge plus I got to experience, coming to a screen near you, is The Book of Magdalene, a new play by Caridad Svich. It’s a new work that was written in the summer of 2020, so it’s literally of the times. Main Street Theater in Houston, Texas put up the “workshop digital” production of the show, and I had the honor of playing the lead role of Len. I was cast in December last year, and our show streams from February 11-21, 2021. I got to explore so many feelings in the performance, and all together, I deeply enjoyed the thought-provoking but ultimately hopeful show. Caretaking, providing solace (or is it?), feuding with friends, seeking answers to the big questions in life…a true treat.

I’m in the first row, first from the left. Around me are my talented castmates! Names are in order from left to right, top to bottom.

A little behind-the-scenes tidbits from me: In accordance with the new reality we’re living in, our cast rehearsed over Zoom videoconference first. (Many a “you’re muted” utterance occurred.) We then filmed in a black-box style theater with a small but passionate group consisting of cast and crew, supported by a wonderful theater staff. (I am so grateful my costume was, let’s say, forgiving, given pandemic anxiety snacking.) We upheld stringent safety and health standards in response to the pandemic, and of course, there was no audience. While the communal experience of watching stage lights go up is not available to us in the near future, the benefit is that anyone around the world (with an internet connection stable enough for streaming video) can experience this new work. It excites me and also makes me nervous: will people enjoy the performance? Will they walk away with that tingly feeling that we seek from live events?

I have to remind myself that none of that is in my control. What I can do (or could, I should say, given we’ve finished filming) is trust my director and crew, and give my 100% when performing with my castmates. I like to think I did all that, and I look forward to hearing what friends, family, and audience members say! From the entire team behind The Book of Magdalene at Main Street Theater, we’d be grateful for your support of this show and the arts.

For now, get hyped by reading this wonderful writeup of an interview with Caridad on The Theatre Times; she has a compassionate intellect. Finally, I’ll leave some amazing production photos here by RicOrnel Productions!

finishing a pen and working again (blog)

[Topics, not necessarily in order: the nature and meaning of “work”; pens; ballet; airplanes; writing; re-learning; figuring out what I really want; how to get what I really want]

This is not the pen I finished, but one that I thought would look good with this decorative pile of glass fruit.

As I’ve pivoted to working from home during this pandemic, I’ve been doing less of some things and more of others. In the latter group? Finishing pens. Or using up pens. Or running out of ink. I can call it many different ways, but for some reason, “finishing pens” has stuck as my favorite. Maybe because it’s the most efficient. I finished a writing course through Stanford University’s Continuing Studies department lately, and one of the students had shared a revision guide by a famous editor (think: Farrar Straus and Giroux level): the first tip was to “omit needless words.” Or, to go the opposite and maybe more subjective route, while “finishing words” is the shortest at just two words, “finishing” is linguistically appealing to me. I’m also no poet nor musician, but the amateur in me finds some melody to the phrase, too: the musical rhythm it might correspond to could be a triplet then quarter note. Ta-ta-ta, dun. (Yep, that’s the proper notation alright.) After all, writing can be done for different purposes, and sometimes, it’s just about what sounds nice to the writer, or what gives the desired effect.

All this to say, I’ve found a lot of satisfaction in finishing pens and the rediscovering of the tactile art of writing by hand again (omit needless words!) during this otherwise shite time. I wanted to honor that feeling by going on a journey with a sentence and then a paragraph, a good sentence and a good paragraph. To me, at least. Good in that I limited the amount of parenthetical interjections (my bad habit, oof!). Good in that damn, I was able to find some art or melody in my words; there is room for neither in the emails I write for work. Finally, good in that I was able to put some of the mess of my thoughts into an organized, comprehensible form for sharing. Though if I think about it, it’s only because I know I’ll be sharing them on the interwebz that I can even make them comprehensible. If you’ll notice, I haven’t posted in a while–despite having plenty of thoughts–because I went through yet another period of asking myself, “If a writer makes a blog post and there’s no one who reads it, did the words land?” Yes, that was my rendition of the question about a tree falling in a forest.

We're All Mad Here GIFs | Tenor
Cheshire Cat art rights are Disney’s (hello former employer!). GIF from Tenor.

There is another thread here, which is that I’m going through the fits and starts of learning to work for things again.

This sounds hilarious, right? We’ve all been working this year: working from home, working in tough environments (which could be home), working to retain a shred of our sanity.

I mean in terms of working towards something I really want and that fulfills me, beyond the types of things attached to being able to keep one’s job, such as a promotion or at least a good performance rating. Something like strength, meaning, integrity, community. All those “fluffy” things that I re-realize every few years are difficult as hell to maintain. They change form, I change, climate change–you get it.

I think the analogy I’ll use here is an airplane. Specifically, the conditions required for one to fly. The explanation makes you marvel at science, math, physics, all that good stuff (though apparently there are still ongoing attempts to explain…?!). Basically, there are many forces and factors that have to align for a plane to be able to fly (and carry people and luggage and and and).

To continue the analogy, I’m at a point in my life where I’ve been able to “take off” and keep myself in flight for a short while post-college. But I am now hitting that point where I don’t know whether I want to land my plane and board another one, or keep flying in my current one. In this analogy of course, my fuel supply is limitless, a very bold assumption.

To make the choice, I have to do a lot of work. Some of it mental, some of it physical–if what counts as physical is typing a gajillion Google and YouTube searches for variations of “how to figure out what you want to do with life.” Little of it is easy. Little of it is glamorous or pleasant or Instagrammable.

And this specifically is where the work has re-begun for me. Not only working on finding my next “plane,” but learning to sit with the discomfort and enjoy the small, positive breakthroughs that occur as I’m working on that. (Like my small flash fiction win! Or getting signed to a new talent agency!)

Here we go with another analogy. I promise it’s the last one for this post.

One of my hobbies is ballet, an interest I began to cultivate after serious figure skating became too hard on my body, and I’m a total nerd about it. I watch it. I read about it. I listen to its (traditional) music; the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” from the Nutcracker suite by Tchaikovsky is a bop and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. I try to dance it adequately, nothing divine like Marianela Nunez – there’s an accent on the “u” and a tilde on the n, but I clearly haven’t figured out WordPress formatting quite yet.

In ballet, before dancers can progress from soft shoes to pointe shoes, they work to strengthen what I’ve heard called the “intrinsic” muscles in their feet. Their daily dancing already provides general strengthening, but then they also must do targeted exercises that prepare their feet, ankles, and entire legs, really, for the safe and precise technique required of dancing en pointe. But this ritualistic strengthening doesn’t end when dancers go on pointe or go professional. In fact, from what I’ve observed about ballet, and really any other demanding activity–physical or non–what separates professionals from amateurs is this constant working of intrinsic muscles and basic skills. But it’s also the mindset that distinguishes: there is a deep respect for how there is really nothing “basic” about basic skills. In fact, there is a love and admiration for honing them, if my watching hours of Royal Ballet rehearsal videos (thank you YouTube) has taught me anything.

This is sadly what I realized I’ve forgotten. I’m ashamed, honestly, because “doing the work” is how I got a ticket for my plane, got my plane to lift, and so on, but I still somehow let myself get complacent and unhappy. But I hope to keep the sadness brief because it also provides clarity on what to do or how to think from now on:

  • Enjoy the work of finding my next work or line of work, starting from the basics (researching, meditating, thinking, making lists, tearing up lists, etc.)
  • Also, get comfortable with the fact that the “work” is endless, which I am earnestly trying not to see as a death sentence (I know, #dramatic much)

Actors talk about needing to enjoy the work first and foremost. (Whoops, guess I broke that “no more analogies” promise.) Pithy motivational calendars or quotes remind us to “enjoy the process,” or “the journey matters more than the goal.” But if you’re anything like me, these words never really sunk in until you’ve had to, well, find enjoyment in a process or journey. Maybe this is what acting teachers mean when they want you to personalize the text. Maybe it’s because we’re attracted to glamour and memorable milestones in life, such as graduations, weddings, and so on. There are also so many challenges still to overcome, which I acknowledge could be even harder for those not in my position. That can easily be another post.

For now, I wish you luck in your process. Tell me about it?

Shoebox Confessional: Part H

Dear reader,

If I wanted to break my current form and make the title of this post more eye-catching (read: clickbait-y), it would be called “How to Lose a Friend in 10 Years.” Additional subtitle: how I, a coddled millennial, learned that good things don’t last forever. But people would expect a list-icle, and this is not one. 

It wouldn’t be a very long and annoying listicle though. The only item on it would be: time. Its eroding power isn’t something I learned about recently, but I always try to forget it. Deny it, if I’m being honest, as somehow for me, the dissolution of friendships is even less pleasant than romantic breakups. Maybe because I’ve learned that friendship is the foundation to any relationship. That’s really all there is to it.

Thank you,

J Wang


The story I used to tell people about how we met was that I was mesmerized by your skirt when you first walked into our high school Japanese class. Some might consider this an expected, maybe even cliché, entry way into a female friendship. Taking gender out of the equation though, the piece you wore would’ve been a work of art in anyone’s eyes. When you stood, the cotton material fell almost to your slim ankles, so unlike mine, and unfurled visions of tropical splendor, the brushstrokes of the leaf and hut prints delicate yet evocative of another pace of life. I can see now how it might’ve appeared to be an item made for tourists, but no. The way you carried yourself in it suggested it had more meaning and maybe even a history, that it was a treasured heirloom. But to you whom I’d known for a minute up until then, I’d simply said, “I love your skirt.” And that was enough. You welcomed the compliment and soon, me. A new friend.

But technically, you had not been totally unknown to me. A few days before, I’d seen you when I stepped onto the ice to begin another session of struggling to master moves for my next figure skating test. You’d zoomed by, unafraid of your speed and potentially colliding with the other skaters, a foil to my cautious self. I admired that but really it was more so your lack of hesitation to assert that you had arrived, a new face here to stay. And after we’d shared chips dipped in your mom’s guacamole, study sessions that were too short but maybe also too long thanks to our goofing off, and shifts working together in the rink’s pro shop, I wanted you to. 

And you did. Through my ambivalence and “hater” period, when you successfully convinced me that prom must not be missed. Through the greatest surprise of my life, when you brought me back down to earth and assured me that it was true: I would be going to a college few get into and few thought I could get into, including myself. And shortly after, through the most painful, unexpected grief I’ve experienced, even though you could not be with me in person. In your stead, an arrangement of white flowers shaped like a puppy arrived at my door. The delivery man did not know what depths he’d pulled me out of. That you’d pulled me out of.

We would be forever friends, I’d thought. So many people dream of finding their true romantic love, but for an only child like me, our kind of bond was my unspoken wish. A sister before misters. Unoriginal and oversimplified, but I clung to the phrase. Near the end of college, during which we kept in touch over separate continents thanks to that relic Skype, I thought back to an article that had made its way around the internet, saying that if a friendship lasts seven years, it was likely to last forever. I counted up our years: by the time we graduated with our bachelor’s degrees, we would be firmly over that mythical line. A wish realized. Even better, soon you’d be back in the same country after our diplomas were in hand.

For a year or two afterwards, reality and fantasy were one and the same. We were both working adults with some amount of discretionary income to use as we pleased. Over one long-awaited three-day weekend, we reunited in the happiest place on earth. Riding with the top of your convertible down, my heart flew. We had made it back to each other. Our sixteen-year-old selves could not have imagined the lives we’d created. 

There was my error. I marveled at our present through the lens of the past, while you must have already begun to move on to a future without me. Seven, eight, nine, we climbed but didn’t make it to ten. Monthly calls turned into biannual turned into no more. Then, I learned, secondhand, that you’d wanted to exclude me.

So recently I’ve found different evidence to sustain me: one study found that most friendships don’t last more than seven years. With that in mind I can say we had a good run. Above the average, enough to celebrate and little to regret. 

Maybe we’ll be in the same place again someday, or the same context, the more technical term. There could be something else of yours that I’ll love. But you can be assured, it’s not a new wish of mine. I have no more claim on you than you on me now.

Old friend, love you, too.

Shoebox Confessional: Part A

Dear reader,

The confessional that started this series was about an old romantic relationship. This one is about a friendship, and I surprised myself by writing a longer piece for it than the first one about feelings unspoken.

Actually, I talk about feelings unspoken here, too, but unfortunately they’re of the more petty type.

I’ve kept this letter shorter because I won’t lie, writing the confessional itself was hard enough. However, confronting the hurt I’d caused, when I haven’t articulated it so fully before, was a necessary form of self-flagellation. Maybe there is no need to publish this, but I was inspired again by an NPR podcast I listened during the past week. The episode is here and called “Do Self-Help Books Actually…Help?” Kristen Meinzer, one of the women involved in a social experiment of living by self-help books, explained that displaying the results and struggles of the experiment helped to create a community. She was able to see that people connect through vulnerability, and so she felt that if she “can start that dialogue by being shockingly vulnerable at times, that’s awesome.”

This is hard to do in practice for so many reasons, including cultural and psychological factors. But it’s a noble goal, and I couldn’t agree more.

Thank you,

J Wang

P.S. I should’ve explained sooner, but the person’s first initial is what I’m using to name each part in this series. It’s TBD as to how I’ll deal with same first initials. I’ll probably add their last name initial, still keeping it anonymous enough.


I know I lost you, A, because I forgot how to be generous. The same kind of generous as when I don’t hesitate to donate three hundred dollars for refugee aid but also don’t broadcast my contribution to family, friends, or strangers. Until now, that is. Perhaps this is the issue. Maybe I didn’t forget how to be generous because I never knew. After all, this need to be recognized for how good I’m being—or more specifically, how much good I’m doing by someone—is the complete opposite of a genuine giving spirit and who a friend should be. I’m a fraud or was, as I like to think, but not anymore. Even though I view myself as having improved in this aspect, if only to preserve the remaining friendships I have now in my mid-twenties, it doesn’t mean I get you back. I don’t really deserve to. 

We found each other on the ice, and then had so much to share off the ice. In a population of our fellow tween figure skaters who found us offbeat for not sharing their love for One Direction or Justin Bieber—baby, baby, baby, ooh, be damned—you were my lifeline. We both liked anime before Michael B. Jordan being a fan of it made it cool. You shared with me your earliest versions of singer-songwriter style tracks, not fully formed but I found them incredible anyway, given my untouched music composition notebook. I put together poor imitations of outfits I’d seen in Teen Vogue and served as your photography study. 

With you, I could be my full weird.

How stupid it was, then, for me to resent you over some money. This was a hazard of friendships crossing into adulthood that no one had warned me about. In any case, hindsight is not twenty-twenty. Hindsight is being able to objectively see what happened between us but still not comprehend why I could convince myself to think so poorly of someone I’d shared my tweenhood with. How I could not be giving with what I had, like you always had for me, even if it was only time that you could afford to give.

After months of anticipation and saving up for your Los Angeles visit, you and your flight finally landed at LAX. I remember feeling like the night was forgiving for summertime, and how maybe that was what kept people’s tempers cool in the notorious traffic circling the LAX terminals. Making LAX trips was an act of love, the local pop radio station hosts often joked, and I still agree. I’d been able to at least keep that self-congratulating quip to myself.

You had made a list of the things you wanted to see and places where you wanted to eat and take photos of. I had helped vet and curate, using my extensive three years of experience in the sprawl of LA as a guide. I offered to add Disneyland to your joy, using up the last free passes I had saved from my former job. You were staying at my place, minimizing your costs, and since I had a car and did drive, I’d be driving us everywhere. I understood my role as a hostess. And as a thank you, early on in your trip planning, you had promised to treat me when we got to the Korean barbecue item on the list. It sounded like enough. It should’ve been. 

At the time of your visit, I was back to searching for full-time jobs after spending a year trying to be a writer, living a cliche. You’d been there for me through it all, giving feedback on passages of my mediocre novel and listening, or reading, my venting in the messages I sent: sometimes a torrent of clips, sometimes bigger blocks of frustration. And I didn’t just come to you about my novel. The stupid ubiquity of unprotected left turns in LA. The confusing parking restriction signs, one stacked on top of another, so how I was supposed to make a call while navigating a busy street? There may be a more technical term for it, but I can say I was generous in this crap way. 

I’d known my risk of failure was high, but the living of it, trying to get out of it, and sitting through traffic getting to tutoring jobs to survive it changed how I saw things, and in uncharitable ways. The days I spent with you weren’t paid vacation days. (I know they weren’t for you either, though I couldn’t see past myself at the time.) When I had to tutor a client during your visit and dropped you off at the movies, I breathed a sigh of relief, alone in my car again, even though before your visit, that kind of loneliness and the romance to it had long faded away for me. 

For all the years we’d been friends up until then, I should’ve been able to admit all this to you at some point during the week you were with me. Instead I stayed tight-lipped and acted my way through it badly—as in, not good at it. You saw through me earlier on and asked if anything was wrong. If you’d known, you may have pitched in more. Even if after my admission you couldn’t though, at worst you’d just see me as a cheap hostess. At best, we’d still have an open line between us, and I wouldn’t be writing this now.

I had a narrow fixation on what it meant to give. You had already helped me so much, and I wanted more. I never acknowledged how your tendency to empathize and receive could exhaust you, how much of a burden I was to you, then I went and made you feel like one in an unfamiliar city, when you were meant to be a guest. I’m sorry.

We didn’t discuss again the now-obvious mask I’d put on before you left, and after you flew back to Houston, I saw the advantage of our message exchanges in a different way. Before your visit, I could pour my sorrows out to you and not worry about the toll it might’ve taken. Separated again by a two-hour time difference and the advantage of a backspace button, I chose not to be upfront about how I’d really felt. You shared videos of fun things you came across on the internet. I replied immediately with a short acknowledgment of mutual admiration. I thought my act was working. You must’ve thought you could go on, too.

You didn’t. 

This time, the big block of words came from you, and you were clear. I was not good for you, you realized. 

The sad thing is, I kept trying to act. I told you I couldn’t see what about my recent responses made you feel belittled or not taken seriously. You told me if I couldn’t see it, then I never would.

Just like with the novel I gave up, I respected that we also had to end. I respected your choice to go.

To soothe my ego, and because she is my mother, my mother agreed with me that you should’ve done more of this for me and I couldn’t have done more of that for you. But in the end, this was a friendship between you and me, and I did not do well by you.  

You were not the first friend from my grade school years who I assumed I’d get to keep growing up with. And when we could still be vulnerable with each other, I had learned that I wasn’t the first for you either. By now I hope you’ve found a new friend, or many, who make you feel confident in that, yes, they value your company. They share your interests without hesitation and unconditionally. They are people you want to keep close as long as they’ll have you. For having known you for the years that I got to, I can only imagine how lucky they are.

Shoebox Confessional: Part M

Dear reader,

I’ve named this series the way I have because I’m writing it with my laptop perched on top of a large plastic storage container that’s serving as a shoebox.

Why a series of confessionals? And why don’t I have a proper desk?

The second question isn’t as important though easier to answer. I am still in the unmoored phase of my life, and where I can avoid acquiring heavy objects, I do. Interpret that as you will, though to be honest, it ain’t that deep. (For those who need it, an Urban Dictionary definition is here.)

As for the first, the content of these confessionals have weighed on me, and I finally decided to give them words, as a way of owning them and also letting them go. Recently, after listening to a poignant NPR podcast episode called “The Reluctant Immortalist,” I learned that a tiny, otherwise insignificant animal called the hydra is potentially immortal. This is due to its unique biology, with more details you can learn in a separate article here, but boils down to how it’s essentially continuously shedding what (cells) can no longer serve it or even harm it. From the podcast: “The best guess scientists have these days as to how it cheats death, as Rob Steele explains, isn’t just its crazy stem cell production, but its highly unusual ability to let go.”

Where this analogy ends: I don’t see these memories as no longer serving me, but as lessons. I looked to the earnest style of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the first in a young adult novel series I love by Jenny Han. Sharing them though, letting them go on my site here, which is maybe brave or maybe brazen, I can hold myself accountable. Names have been redacted out of respect. Maybe these memories will become or beget something else. And perhaps someone else, after reading, becomes inspired to take the time to reflect on significant episodes in their own life. On this topic, I’ll admit that I used to not be a fan of memoirs or non-fiction. I almost exclusively read fiction, unless non-fiction was demanded for academic work. This is largely because it is a lifelong dream of mine to (traditionally) publish a worthy novel. Of course, to do this, one not only has to read great examples but also to write. For roughly the past two years though, I had stepped away from writing for so long, scared of the blank page or screen and overall feeling like an impostor. Through writing these confessionals, I’m finding my way back into writing in general. What a joy it is. And during the time of COVID-19 we’re living in now, we should allow ourselves that when we can.

Thank you,

J Wang


Ever since my dad passed away, I became accustomed to sleeping next to my mom in my parents’ bed whenever I was back from college. It wasn’t so strange to me, since the king size had become too much for her.

One night when M crashed at our house, after making sure he had what he needed to sleep, I turned away and headed to my parents’ room as usual. It was only after our stilted greetings the next morning and after M had left when I realized. Fully awake, a more coherent reading of our texts had clarified things. I wasn’t supposed to turn away and follow my mother. He thought I’d join him in the room he was staying in, a room we’d converted into a guest room. He’d wanted to bang, in short. Didn’t I?

What I’d wanted to find was some sentimentality in our simplistic messages. It wasn’t there. And really, should it have been? I was home only for a short fall break. But I guess his thinking was: we’d had something for each other once, and since then, we’d both had more experiences in and out of relationships. These should have been sufficient ingredients to set off a physical reaction. If I hadn’t wanted more at the time, I might’ve gone for a bang, letting it serve as a delayed declaration of sorts. 

When we were together in high school, I deemed “I love you” off-limits. I’d simply felt that it was cheapened when said too often. That went for expressing affection for my friends too, so at least I was consistent. I thought that it had to be reserved for when people really knew and felt deep regard and care for one another. Maybe my friends and I did, despite the small scales of our lives then: soothing each other over the sting of an A- versus an A, preemptively grabbing straws for each other’s bubble tea. But in my eyes, we weren’t truly responsible for anything beyond being our parents’ children, so I didn’t believe we could commit to or feel anything profound. Of course, I’ve learned since then.

So was it that I felt I had to save it for a big, pivotal moment? I had my chance at senior prom, the quintessential American high school event I hadn’t wanted to go to but did, thanks to my former best friend. I can’t remember M without her, but she is another memory. She’d been the one to push M and me together, prompting him to ask me to be his homecoming date. What I had with M, I owed to her. 

What happened instead has been my wondering until now if I should’ve just said it. Should’ve just snuck away to the bed he was waiting in.

In any case, I know now that by any average, reasonable person’s definition, the affection and care M had shown me when we were younger was love. Driving to the hospital and waiting with me and so many others for the inevitable passing of my dad, even though I had not flung myself into M’s arms, cried on his shoulder. Then years later, calling me to tell me that his father had passed away, too, and that he wanted me to know before I heard it through the grapevine. It was a kindness to me, even though it’s unlikely that I would’ve found out that inelegant way. Most of my surviving high school friendships are too tenuous, rarely getting past the basic updates out of politeness, for sensitive information like that to be divulged. So in recalling this gesture of M’s, I found another reason to believe.

I must have always known it was love. And though it’s passed, I’ll treasure that sense of high regard and care forever. I can’t ask for more, not when I’ve had friendships I believed to be forever dissolve instead. 

Thank you, M. And did you know? In my main college application essay—also so long ago—the alias I gave to the little boy I wrote about was your name. That was my first paying homage to you, however small. I don’t think I ever told you, just like I never said I loved you.

NaNoWriMo 2017: The Now What? Months

From emojipedia. I do not claim any rights.

I wasn’t sure whether to tack on 2017 or 2018 after NaNo in the title of this post, since I thought I might confuse people (or myself, reading this later on :P). Technically I won back in November, but my novel process has continued until now. The NaNoWriMo organization formally calls January and February after NaNo the “Now What?” months and encourages people to pull out their first drafts and revise them. Therefore, 2017 won out, and also I realized, duh, NaNo 2018 would mean this November. Silly me.

After a long January, I ended up with just shy of 81k for my manuscript! I wish I could say writing the last word came with an elated sigh, fist-pumping, and other celebratory gestures, but really, I kind of just sat there thinking to myself, “I’m done?” While my story ended where I plotted it to, I felt unsatisfied somehow. My friends tell me it’s me being a perfectionist, and they’re right. Because now what? Well, once I’d done what I could for my manuscript, it was finally time to find an editor!

Finding an Editor

I’ve learned so much through this novel writing and creation process, and one of those things has been just how many types of editors are involved with a book. Again, I’m self-publishing, so I don’t have the support of a publishing house and editors on their payroll. Before I waded into Google search results, I figured out what types of editing I needed at this stage. Below is a quick-quick summary; italic text represents the kind of work I just contracted an editor for (!):

  • Developmental/content editing: Called by differing names, this stage deals with “big picture” items like plot, characterization, style, structure, and other aspects of storytelling. It goes without saying that this stage of editing is incredibly important, and while I’ve pored over my plot outline, character bios, and even visual mood-board thousands of times, I (and any other human writer) need a second pair of eyes. I found a lovely editor who specializes in YA fiction, and I am so anxious to see what she has to say. Frankly I’m also bracing myself for the worst, but I need the detailed notes, not any ego-stroking!
  • Copy-editing: Here the editor is looking for any overly repetitive sentence structures, appropriateness of word choice, and clarity of meaning. (Yes, that last bucket was a bit of a cop-out on my part.) While we say that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, said covers are well-made to get a potential reader to pick up the book and peruse its pages. The copy editor’s goal is to help make the words on those pages shine and serve the story.
  • Proofreading: This work is done on the manuscript just before sending it off to be published. Here the proofreader is making sure all the i’s are dotted, t’s are crossed, and–you get the idea–no other grammar and spelling errors remain. (I’m definitely not ready for this yet!)

Now, how did I find my editor? To be honest, I was firstly constrained by the spring/summer publication date I’m aiming for, so immediate availability to start on my manuscript was my first filter. Then, or maybe ranking equally as important, was expertise and experience in my genre of YA contemporary. Beyond that, I evaluated based on email exchanges, information available on the editor’s website (prior books they’ve worked on), and also price. Good editing is invaluable, but girl is definitely on a budget. Instead of going on freelancer aggregation sites, I searched in Google via keywords: YA, contemporary, romance, editor, content, developmental, etc. I was able to find an editor who could do passes for both content and copy editing at the same time; I can’t tell you how thrilled I was by that!

Now What?

After I get comments and notes back from my editor, so begins the trials of squaring my impressions after reading my manuscript with her suggestions, then of course, revising (cue tears).

This may seem bold, but I’ve also learned (from many helpful “author-tube” YouTube channels) that you do not in fact have to agree with everything someone giving you feedback says! Of course, I hope you, like me, show your work to people who are invested in its success, your happiness, etc. However, at the end of the day, I know it is my story that I want to tell. Hopefully, I’ll be able to post soon about how to balance the protective author brain with outside feedback! Stay tuned…

NaNoWriMo 2017: Why, What Now, and Welcome

Happy New Year, all! This NaNoWriMo recap post should’ve come right after I completed the grueling month of churning out a first draft of a novel (holy moly, right?), but I couldn’t bring myself to write about my experiences. The post would’ve been a lot of complaining about the back pain I’d acquired pumping out about 1,700 words per day, and nobody should have to sit through that. 😛 To learn more about NaNo however, please follow the link to the official page!

So why the delay? Come December, I launched right into reading my draft. Okay, technically I took a break for two days, but that’s as long as I lasted. Generally, a longer break is recommended. It wasn’t that I was super excited to read my draft, if anything I was apprehensive because I knew it wouldn’t be exactly what I wanted, but more because I’m on a self-imposed deadline to self-publish my first novel this year. I can do a separate post on my decision to self-publish and not find an agent and publisher. (Long story short, my story isn’t necessarily something that will rake in big bucks by getting a movie adaptation, and that’s not my primary goal.) Let me know if that’s something you’re interested in reading!

I attempted NaNoWriMo in years past, like many people, but this was the first year I “won,” or finished 50,000 words over a November. For me, the target length of my book is 70,000 words, so I actually started writing in October. Before I say anything else about the lessons learned over this month, I truly marvel at people who win while working full-time jobs. They are the ones who deserve big super-writer capes!

Why NaNoWriMo?

Every person has their reasons for dedicating themselves to their stories during NaNo. Like many, I have always wanted to write a novel, having treasured books by other authors for so long. My actual writing journey started well before this year’s NaNo, but it was accelerated then. Without launching into my life story (no need for that eh), I took a break from full-time work halfway last year in order to embark on my writing dream, to bring a story fueled in equal parts by personal experience and imagination to a reader like my younger self somewhere out there. Of course, I carefully considered my circumstances and had prepared financially and mentally for the leap, so I am in no way recommending that people carbon-copy me. It is not at all necessary, and like I said above, there are people who win the month while working. For me, this decision coincided with an inflection point in my life, and I figured that now was the time to dedicate myself completely to this novel endeavor. I knew I had to do this because the weight of wondering whether I could write a novel would weigh on and distract me for the rest of my life otherwise. Dramatic, I know, but hey, I am trying to create a work that evokes emotion in people, right? 🙂

From reading all the blogs about previous winners and attempters (no losers here!) and what they learned about themselves and their writing during NaNo, I knew the month would force me to do the difficult work of creating a first draft. I can’t understate the importance of being willing to cringe at your screen (or page) and just start putting words down. The desire for perfection often stops or slows people (myself included) down from their personal path to greatness. Even if you do not hit the 50,000 words, the official goal for the month, any number of words is more than zero. During my slow days when I felt like I couldn’t write more than a sentence, my kind friends reminded me of this simple fact (a true mathematical statement) over and over. Two months later, I’m a more resilient writer, instead of telling myself that I’m a failure on any given day I don’t get as far in my story, which I’m now rewriting, as I wanted to.

What’s Next? (Or What Now?)

As I mentioned above, I took a first read of my novel and am rewriting it now. (Cue tears, many tears. Some happy tears, I swear!) My word count goal for today, after finishing this blog post, is about 2,000 words. At first, I thought I could embark on a NaNoReviMo (a month of revising), soon to polish and release my work, but at the end of the day, I realized my story had a lot of weak points. Coming to terms with this and barreling on with the work of improving it has been humbling, but I wouldn’t trade the discipline I’ve honed so far for anything in the world. Like going through any other monumental challenge, once you come out the other side, you grow and appreciate your past self for putting you through the discomfort and pain to become a better version of yourself. I remind myself of this daily as I mold and mold my new draft.

jwang's laptop at cafe
Not writing in my room for once! 😛

Hopefully, by the end of this January, I will be able to hire an editor to help me with the next step of preparing my work for self-publishing. I try not to think too far ahead about getting a cover designer and book formatter, as exciting as these steps are, but I do let the thought of them motivate me.

Another reason for my rewrite, besides my desire for a quality narrative, is the simple fear of being negatively judged. Having really thrown myself into the process of creating a whole darn book, I find it hard to truly criticize any work I know someone has put their heart into. However, I know that my story will not work for everyone who reads the genre I’m targeting, so there will be people who point out things they didn’t like about the book. I won’t lie, I’m still preparing for the first bad review I get, but I try not to let this limit me in my day-to-day work. All I can do is write my tail off and hope the story resonates with someone else. I’m confident it will, and I hope it could inspire that someone else to tell their own story because one book can’t be everything for one person. This I know, since it’s what drove me to create my story.

Is NaNoWriMo The Only Way to Write a Book?

The answer is, of course, absolutely not. You can begin writing anytime. I think aspiring writers, myself included, often forget this, as simplistic as it sounds. Remember that you can file away (never throw away) those first few sentences or pages if you don’t like them, but if you have a story to tell, begin now. There is no way to be completely ready, and as with many things in life, you learn as you go. Your story can change as you go, but once you settle on an idea and find yourself needing a period of time to turbo-charge it into fruition, remember that NaNo and a community of like-minded, supportive storytellers is waiting to welcome you, including me.

What’s in your cup?

February 17, 2017 | sippin’

My mother, like many excellent Chinese mothers, brings me some sort of health supplement each time she visits me in my new home. Last time, I got a bag of red goji berries to steep in hot water or tea.

Goji!

Her explanation is never scientific, and frankly it doesn’t have to be if your mother says it’s “good for you.” However, I did have to draw the line once at sea cucumbers. I take this at face value and while I don’t know what the exact effects are, if any, I make my tea and feel grateful that I will forever be her growing child. Never mind my fancy pants corporate business card.

So it upsets me that despite never enduring the trauma of non-(East) Asian peers wrinkling their noses at my lunch food, I experience a dampened version in my adult life. (Granted, I am a rare case and went to a public school with faces from across the melanin spectrum.) Of all things, someone wrinkled their nose at my goji berries. They don’t smell, they’re not furry with fruit fuzz, and their color is a bright, happy red-orange.

You might say that it was a simple, one-off question. “Ew, what are those things?”

But it also could’ve been even simpler, less shrill sounding. “What’s in your tea?”

Call me sensitive, call me a snowflake, but I was a touch annoyed and called it out. Of course, I did so in a light-hearted way that’s safe for consumption in a work environment. It’s a skill I’ve honed having been a first-generation college student and now a first-generation member of corporate America. I’ll continue sippin’…