Following the Atlanta tragedy, so many stronger writers than me took on the exhausting task of making visible some of the previously invisible traumas of living as an Asian woman in America. But I wanted to do something, contribute something useful to help better explain this moment.
Since I’m in LA, I did a Hollywood-related story for VICE News Tonight, about how the makers and shapers of pop culture have perpetuated dangerous tropes about Asian ladies.
We are at a moment in our national reckoning over race in which racism against Asians is finally in the spotlight, despite having existed for ages. I am so devastated by the thousands of racist attacks on Asians in the past year and grief-stricken over the killings of eight people at spas in Atlanta on Tuesday, six of them Asian women.
We have since learned they were former elementary school teachers, US Army brides, mothers and sisters and friends, just like so many of us.
“I cried all day,” my friend Lucy texted me. “They could have been my mom, they could have been my sister.” We Asian Americans and especially Asian women have been reaching out and supporting one another always, but never more obviously and visibly than this week.
These past week was fear, anxiety and hangover symptoms all mixed into one feeling. I was intermittently hyperactive and adrenaline-fueled, despairing and exhausted and fried and scattered in-between. I don’t know how they’ve done it, but some scholars and writers have managed to put the complicated racial dynamics for Asians and Asian women into important historical and socio-economic context. Here are the readings I recommend:
“The act of violence itself is wrong. You cannot excuse it. I think many Asian Americans have never talked about it, and so white people still don’t believe that Asian Americans face racism. Because we’re invisible, the racism against us has also been invisible.”
“Killing Asian American women to eliminate a man’s temptation speaks to the history of the objectification of Asian women, whose value is only in relation to men’s fantasies… akin to ‘I raped her bc her skirt was too short.'”
Long curious about stand-up paddleboarding, I waited until my late 30’s to finally give it a try. And only with the prodding of my Canadian-Californian friend, Janet, who decided to take me for my birthday. (Janet’s daughter: “But Auntie Elise’s birthday was last month! And we already got her a cake!”)
Things that happened:
Serious trouble figuring out how to steer.
Wound up in a little cove with kids on the banks, watching me struggle. Young boy, maybe 10 years old, said, “It’s okay, I was wobbly my first time, too.” He proceeds to coach me from land, encouraging me to think of the paddle as a scoop and use my arms more. I told him, “I hope my kids will be as kind and encouraging as you,” and he goes, “You look so young to have kids of your own!” (I LOVE THIS KID.)
Slow-motion crashed into a boat, almost tipped over. Janet couldn’t stop laughing and had to get on all fours on her paddleboard because she was in stitches. She had to explain to me how steering worked, again.
Got passed by a sailboat called MacGyver.
Something tells me I looked quite ridiculous. The dudes on the motor boats that passed us when we finally got into the channel actually yelled from their boats, “Don’t fall over!”
Hopefully this will be the only pandemic birthday. Seriously. But damn, I feel so overwhelmed by the birthday love.
I have made no secret of my despair and how excruciating I’ve found the past year to be. Knowing this, despite the distance, my dearest loved ones showed up in ways they could. My friends proved how well they know me by making sure my door didn’t stop ringing with food deliveries and found ways to socialize, within limits. Thank you for this haul:
An Olive Garden(!) gift certificate
A whale watching tour (where we saw two whales and HUNDREDS of dolphins when our boat came upon their pod)
A pineapple lychee boba from the San Gabriel Valley
Cupcakes and the best banana pudding, from Magnolia Bakery, delivered to my door
Two mini-cakes from my fave bakery, Angel Maid
A giant box of snacks, also delivered to the door
An outdoor, distanced get together hosted by Jenn and Drew
A second outdoor, distanced bday soiree hosted by Sam Sanders
A sushi dinner on my actual birthday, in Janet’s backyard
A giant strawberry cake from my daughters
A surprise Doordash delivery of seven(!) different boba teas and a shaved ice delivered straight to my door
A book about how to unleash my creativity using the tricks of advertising
Assorted cannabis gummies and chocolate
“Zhong Sauce,” which is apparently some amazing hot sauce you can put on anything
A “morning hangover cure” bottled beverage
To sum up: Enough sugar to plunge me straight into diabetes
Y’all know I’m obsessed with the OJ Simpson story and trial and believe it is America in microcosm. So when Friend Liz surprised me with a personalized video message from KATO KAELIN you can bet I totally lost my mind, collapsed into a heap of laughter, tears and delight on the sidewalk, and made so much of a ruckus that my neighbor came rushing out thinking I needed an ambulance.
Psychiatrist Dr. Mark Goulston asked me to be a guest on his show, and I never turn down time with therapists. So we ended up having a wide-ranging (and rather discursive) conversation about this once-in-a-century global pandemic we’re all enduring, the roots of my identity, how to pay better attention and deepen our relationships and a lot more.
After Trump was elected, I made it a goal to spend more time reading books, as an escape from the ephemeral headlines that were zapping my brain and frying my soul. In 2017, 2018 and 2019 I read at a pace of a book a week.
This year I signed a deal with Dutton, a division of Penguin Random House, to write my own actual book! But when it came to reading books, I didn’t do much of what I intended.
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
Wow, No, Thank you, Samantha Irby
The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle The Masters House, Audre Lorde
Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems, Danez Smith
Between the World and Me, Tanehisi Coates
Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong
Someone Who Will Love You In All You Damaged Glory, Raphael Bob Waksberg
The First Bad Man, Miranda July
Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
How Much Of These Hills Is Gold?, C. Pam Zhang
Started but Didn’t Finish: Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov. I know, I know, such a classic. I just got too distracted. The Night of the Gun, by David Carr. I am a great admirer of that late journalist, and he signed Stiles’ copy of it, but neither of us had gotten around to reading the book. I made it about halfway through but lost interest. The Sexual Life of Catherine M, which the poet/artist Maggie Smith cited as an inspiration for her work. I don’t know if it was the translation from French or the lack of a structure but I just could not get through it.
Picking ‘Em: I had been prioritizing works by women and people of color, but this year I just read anything I was reviewing for work, books my friends recommended, or art by artists I already like. For example, the end of Bojack Horseman swelled and broke my heart, so I had to read its creator’s short story collection. In the fall I reconnected with Matt Weiner, a hypersmart dude who wrote Mad Men, so a couple of the books at the end of my year were from his recommendations.
Books by Author Gender
Books by Classification
I still read on my Kindle, and got a second one this year because I misplace my Kindle so much. Recall from my previous years’ posts that I read the most on planes. This year I spent less time on planes than I have since I was maybe 18 years old. So that evaporated my dedicated book reading time. I still love it, though, and just need to be more disciplined about reading at home.
It goes without saying 2020 was a Vegas buffet of awfulness and suffering. But damn, there were a few video snippets that brought me such joy when I saw them that I made a note to round them up at the end of the year. Herewith:
The moment these two kids discovered the drum solo in the middle of “In the Air Tonight”
This genius Yakult+Sprite+soju smoothie demo, on TikTok:
BTS’ “Dynamite” dropped sometime in the summer when we were in a curfew (for the protests and potential police violence) in the midst of a stay-at-home order (for the plague). And damn, it is still such a bop.
And of course, this moment at an LA gas station, the night the election was finally called for Biden.
“It felt vaguely like being forced to live in a building splintered by a wrecking ball before the rebuilding had begun. Quarantine didn’t just take things away; it revealed — with a harsh, unrelenting clarity — what had already been lost.”
This year forced us to our knees. Like so many others, I found myself disoriented and trapped inside, falling to my emotional nadir. We lost Kobe Bryant. John Lewis. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And some 300,000 Americans to the plague. We yearned for the days when the rule of law was a given. America as we know it came apart at the seams. Even our best efforts to bridge differences won’t work by themselves, they require that the digital platforms shattering reality in the name of “consumer choice” will have to dramatically change or be regulated into doing so.
I experienced COVID year primarily as a loss of innocence — the year I finally, finally had to grow up. At one point this summer, we were under stay-at-home orders (for rioting) in the midst of stay-at-home orders (for coronavirus). Did we ever think we’d miss each other like this, that we’d yearn for the joy of company and coincidence, serendipity and surprise, the magic of sharing poorly ventilated spaces with strangers? Grief, loss and identity shift defined 2020, both in the universal sense, and in a personal one.
Despite a year of radical change, I write this post feeling privileged and contented. The threat of the virus took away so much — loved ones, freedom, hugs, travel, an entire way of life I took for granted. But it gave, too. A return to nature. A stillness in which, egad, we could be alone with our thoughts. Time for introspection! And for me, a real deepening of my relationships. Because there were no longer the “friends” you just run into at a drop-off, or at conferences, you had to be intentional about how you spent your time and who you reached out to check-in on. I was more deliberate with my friendships than ever, and I felt that intention among the loved ones who supported me.
I’m also fortunate to be surrounded (more than ever, since they aren’t in school) by my loud, vibrant, healthy kids who remind us how adaptable humanity is at its essence. To borrow from Des’ree’s anthem from my millennial coming-of-age, we gotta be a little bit badder, a little bit bolder, a little bit wiser, harder, tougher.
Moments of Unadulterated Joy:This gas station in LA, the day the networks finally called the election for Joe Biden. These kids, experiencing the drum solo in “In the Air Tonight”
MVP New Friends: Jenn and Drew, who are the parents of my daughter Eva’s good friend Leif. They were rocks as we made Sunday pool time a regular thing to get through this hell year. Sarah Svoboda, who is my producer at VICE, became one of my closest girlfriends overnight. Rob, with whom I’d split giant breakfast burritos after five mile runs. I am now simultaneously fatter and in better cardiovascular shape.
MVP Snack:Brown sugar boba popsicles saved my 2020. I became an accidental boba pop influencer! My only other influencing was for the Saved by the Bell pop-up in West Hollywood, which was a special treat.
The Energy To Bring To All Things: It’s what I call the Michaela Coel energy, after reading this landmark profile of the singular artist who brought us Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You. We say this, from here on out: ‘This is what I need. Are you good enough to give it to me?’ Not ‘Am I good enough to deserve the kind of treatment that I want?’
Regrets: Never did learn how to play the ukulele. Barely made progress on my book, which was supposed to be mostly done by now, in a parallel universe. My relationships felt very COVID-blocked, to different degrees.
My Gamechanger: Jungian depth psychology with a dream analyst. This is the most woo-woo I’ve ever sounded, I realize. But after dipping in and out of traditional, more conventional cognitive behavioral therapy for most my adult life, Friend Jenn told me about her dream analyst and I started seeing him over Zoom and I have never had a clearer and deeper understanding of my inner life. I feel more whole and more grounded in an organizing philosophy for meaning than, well, ever. I credit it with keeping me contented through the crucible that was 2020.
Also this year, in no particular order, and an admittedly incomplete list:
Watching TED Talks is my day job, so I did a quick tally and it turns out I watched at least 252 TED Talks this year. They covered topics far and wide, and come from the main TED stage, TEDx stages around the world and other TED programs, like TED Salon and TED-Ed.
I have such breadth of random knowledge now that it’s a shame there are no parties anymore, because I keep thinking I will be amazing at cocktail chatter.
On my Instagram Stories, I asked y’all to ask me anything about my TED-viewing experience. Since InstaStories don’t last — they disappear after 24 hours — here’s how I answered:
What was the most valuable thing you learned among the TED Talks you watched?
Actually just last week I watched Lori Gottlieb’s talk from TEDxDupont 2019. She makes a point that will stay with me: That most of our life struggles boil down to two themes — freedom or change. But something we neglect to think through in our quest for change is that it requires an unshedding, an unbecoming — that to grow and change, we must also experience some loss and grief.