The Pandemic Reignited My Purpose

It was a sunny afternoon in Fullerton, California, about 35 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. I was inside on this sunny day, but it was a sunny day during 2020’s lockdown, so I can’t tell you how the sun’s rays glided across my shoulders or how the grass crushed beneath my sandaled feet. I suppose I could have but, well, I didn’t want to walk around outside, I wanted to watch a show or nine as one does during COVID. I was munching on a bowl of freshly popped Costco popcorn in my apartment. My eyes were transfixed on the screen before me. A young Asian actress was playing a still in the closet Lesbian in a romcom on Netflix. The film was directed by an LGBTQ Asian American woman called The Half of It. The film is a triumph for the Asian American community, especially the LGBTQ Asian community, but that’s not why I was transfixed. The young woman, Leah Lewis, had something that I wanted. Not the fame and fortune, though I’ll gladly take that, but drive. Grit. She had the tenacity to go after her dreams no matter what the odds and it paid off.

I lived much of my life in fear. As a kid, it was fear that I wouldn’t be accepted by my peers, that my parents would see me as a failure, that the boy I crushed on hated me. As I got older, those fears turned into being fired by my job, being dumped yet again by another boyfriend, and doubting I’d ever get married or have children. I let those fears run my life so I stopped writing. I dropped out of college. I stopped acting. I thought I should just accept a life behind a desk and be happy with whatever came my way. My dreams were just too big and too unattainable.

Thirteen years ago, as I was temping for a vacation rental site loading content, which was little better than data entry, I received an email. It arrived in my personal inbox and the subject was “Saw you were a writer”. If this wasn’t odd enough, what made it odder was this email was forwarded from my dating profile’s inbox. I had created a profile for myself a few months back in hopes of finding a relationship. I had cited that I was a writer, even though I had never published anything or gotten paid for writing. The guy that wrote me was named John, he lived in Toronto and claimed to be editor of a magazine. He provided links from his magazine. It was an Asian lifestyle magazine featuring celebrity interviews, do-it-yourself tips, recipes, book reviews, and opinion pieces. I was understandably skeptical. I also thought he might just be trying to get into my pants. All the way in Canada. Knowing this, he offered to PayPal me fifty US dollars as an advance for an article which he’d pay me $200 for. This wasn’t a huge sum of money, but for a broke woman in her twenties, it may as well have been a Louis Vuitton bag. I accepted, still skeptically, but wrote the article with the guidelines he provided and submitted it.

A couple of days later he replied and said he loved my work. He sent the rest of the payment and promised more if I agreed to come on as a freelance editor and writer. Thirteen years on, I still write occasionally for the magazine and John and I have become good friends. I currently work full-time as a copywriter, am taking a full course load at a private university, and am a full-time parent to my son, Kai. Life is hectic to say the least, but I am grateful for beautiful, chaotic mess it is.

I had written a poem which won a contest at school when I was in fifth grade but had pretty much canned writing in my pre-teens, teens, and early twenties. I did however become an avid reader, consuming three-five novels a month. The more I read, the more I thought I could do this as well. I thought I had a lot of great stories within me which I wanted to share with the world. So I never thought including that I was writer in my dating profile would allow the universe to usher me into the writing world. I’m fortunate enough to have written for universities, healthcare agencies, travel websites, makeup brands, and electronics companies but there was still something missing.

I loved writing, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love writing. When I am immersed in penning a story, sometimes my fingers fly across the keyboard. There’s something almost supernatural that comes out of me and I know that this my life purpose. However, it’s not my only life purpose. Of course, the most important purpose is being a mother to Kai. He is in first grade and struggles with ADHD so he is my top priority. Professionally, apart from writing, only one other thing has made me feel alive; that thing is acting. In my early twenties, after dropping out of college, I pursued acting head on. I did theatre in high school but stopped thinking it was just a silly kid dream. In the year I pursued it, I was fortunate enough to become part of an exclusive acting group. I didn’t know how fortunate I was till now. This acting class normally required being put on a 6-month to 1-year waiting list, and even then there was no guarantee. I met a fellow actor on set while I was doing extra work. He gave me the contact info and I called right away. Once I started, an agent took me on as a client and gave me access to tons of auditions and casting calls. But then I stopped again. Why? Fear.

If I’m being honest, if John had not contacted me years ago, I may have been stuck in the fear of becoming a failed writer and never pursuing it. His encouragement gave me the push I needed to keep going. And now I am taking Leah Lewis’ performance in The Half of It as my push to pursue acting again. I take headshots tomorrow, haven’t done this in 18 years. From there, I can begin submitting myself for auditions through Backstage or Casting Frontier. Wish me luck…wish that I break a leg. Something, never know what the difference is.

What It Means to Be Asian and American

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While my authorial identity is important to me, equally important is my identity as an Asian American. When you grow up Asian in predominately white neighborhoods in Australia and the US as I did, you have two choices when it comes to your cultural heritage; downplay it/ignore it and live in crippling shame or embrace it.

Sadly, I took the first route for the better part of my teens and early twenties. I saw white women and men grace the glossiest covers of magazines and star in televisions shows and movies, I thought this was the standard for beauty and cool. I wanted to be accepted by my peers so badly that I did my best to dress, talk, and act “white”. I laughed when my friends impersonated a Chinese person. I rejected anything I thought was too Asian, like traditional clothing, shows, and speaking Mandarin. I chose hamburgers over fried rice. Listened to punk bands and alternative rock. I joked about my own “Asian-ness” to somehow dull the sting of a race-based insult or joke from a non-Asian friend, acquaintance, or stranger. This never felt authentic and it put me in so much pain and misery to the point of wanting to take my own life.

When I was 27, I accepted a job at my uncle’s company in Malaysia, I saw it as a change of scenery and a chance to travel around Asia. I certainly did, and I am grateful for the wonderful life experience this trip afforded me, it became so much more however. In addition to Malaysia, I also experienced Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and China – this forced me to confront my Asian identity once and for all.

After I left my job with my uncle, I was offered the chance to go to Hong Kong and China, all expenses paid, by the magazine editor I freelanced for. He wanted to start a travel series and wanted me to kick it off. He joined me and together we visited Hong Kong and six different cities in China. It was my first time there and my editor booked a bus tour for us. I initially viewed what I learned through this tour as a tourist, interesting and educational, but soon, I started to identify with the culture. Sure, Chinese people from China and Chinese people from America are pretty different yet our culture binds us. I realized this as I sat in a theatre in Hangzhou and watched in silent awe as the history of China played out before me through dance, song, and storytelling. In that moment, I felt proud to be Chinese. I also wondered why I had been ashamed to be Chinese in the first place. Every culture has contributed to the progression of our planet, every culture has made their mark. My Chinese heritage is not something to be hidden or ignored, it is to be celebrated. China’s history is mired in the invention of paper, the production of silk goods, food creations, and song and dance played with traditional musical instruments, to name a few.

I’m often asked if I’m mixed because of my pointed nose and large eyes. As a teen and young(er) woman, I took it as a compliment, because people thought I was half-white. I am in fact, fully Chinese, with a touch of Indonesian, but the gene wheel of mystery just happened to dole out some Eurasian features to me, too. I understand that people say this as a compliment, not as an offensive remark, but I am careful not use it as my ticket into acceptance within Caucasian society as I tried to do in my youth. Instead, I stand firm in my identity as a Chinese American, I cannot be anything else. Of course, this is just one part of me because I’m also a mother, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, and an artist. I can be all of these things all at once because that’s the beauty of identity – we define who we are, society only dictates it if we allow it.

Once I decided to say “fuck it” and hold my head up high and proclaim that I’m Asian, instead of in a barely audible voice, I felt peace and a deep, unrelenting rush of pride flowing within me for the first time. It was freeing but also grounding.

And I still listen to punk and alternative rock, but I won’t turn away the latest Chinese pop hit.

“Why Did You Become a Writer?”

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This is a common question posed by friends, acquaintances, and relatives. It’s a difficult question to answer however because I can’t pinpoint the exact moment my love for writing started.

I know that writers always start as readers. I can confirm this as I became an avid reader at a young age. My mom read to my sister and I constantly and as a child I devoured all of the Babysitter’s Club books and Sweet Valley High. When I hit my pre-teens I started nicking my mother’s Danielle Steele novels. As I got older, I read articles in local newspapers as well as teen girl and women’s magazines like Teen, Marie Claire, and Cosmopolitan. My mother went back to school when I was a teenager, and she would bring home the college’s magazines and those found a way into my hands as well. Perhaps reading a wide range of topics from different writers sparked the flame. I studied writing styles and adapted my style from writers I admired.

When I was ten, my elementary school celebrated Earth Day. One of our activities assigned by the teacher was to write a poem. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Sawa, told the class that a few students’ work would be chosen for the school newsletter. I wrote a poem using the letters from “peace” to write what I considered peace. A few days later, Mrs. Sawa told me my poem would be featured in the next newsletter. Writing was something I enjoyed but I didn’t feel confident in my abilities. Being recognized by the school helped build up me build up my confidence manifold.

It wasn’t until I turned 26 that I realized my love of writing could be turned into a career. I started freelancing for different companies and landed a full-time in-house position as a content writer for a travel website, after that I wrote for a state college’s international program, and now I am working as a copywriter for an electronics company. I, like many, writers write stories in my free time with dreams of one day getting off the hamster wheel to pursue novel writing full-time.

So going back to the question and the title of this entry, the simple answer is I became a writer because I enjoy reading. This is the single most important desire a writer needs to go from reading to writing.

Write Like It’s Your Job

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Even if you have a full-time job, setting aside time to write each day is crucial to your success. Set a time that works best, after the kids are in bed or early in the morning before work. Stick to it and give yourself a word count or page count goal.

I add an event to my Google calendar and block out 9:30 pm to 10:30 pm for writing every day. I aim for 500 words per session. I don’t try to make the writing impeccable or polished, I just write. Renowned writers like Stephen King and Anne Rice agree with this. When you are writing a draft, the goal is to just get words on the paper or screen. Don’t worry about grammar or misspellings; just write. Once you have the bones down for your story, you can go back and start the wonderful process of writing. This is where the magic happens, this is not to discount the first draft process however, without that foundation, you couldn’t build your house of words.

Often times, I will write a sentence that I’m not entirely happy with. Years ago, I would agonize over the sentence and wouldn’t move on till it was “right”. This consumed a lot of time and would get me behind schedule. After reading about famous writers telling up-and-coming writers to get words on the page, even if it was lousy, I decided to change tack. After writing lousy lines of story or copy, I would carefully focus on each word of text. Somehow, better words popped into my head. Sometimes a word or two was replaced or removed, sometimes whole sentences and paragraphs were completely re-written.

There is no right way to write, or maybe I should say there is no write way to write? Do what works for you. I know editing while writing caused me a lot of anxiety and a lot of unfinished stories. Once I told myself to write forward and keep writing, no looking back, not only did it help me push out more content but improved my writing. I began to write better drafts because they were free of inhibitions I harbored in the beginning because of wanting to get it right. As they say, writing is like working a muscle, the more you do, the better you get. So, write like it’s your job and write like it’s a workout, the message remains the same: work.