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Review: 100 Days My Prince

Netflix, 2018

(16 episodes. 67-85 min each.)

Life has been super crazy lately, but I haven’t forgotten my desire to review the third Joseon-era K-drama I’ve been watching lately (the first two being Moon Embracing the Sun and Love in the Moonlight, though perhaps I should also be counting The King’s Affection).

Like the dramas I’ve mentioned above, 100 Days My Prince (also known as Hundred-Day Husband) has a lot of the same roles. There is a King, but he is a shady character who stole the throne from his brother and whose first wife died as a result of the usurpation. There is a Queen—the King’s second wife—who has a son by the King and who is keen for that son to become Crown Prince, so she schemes behind the scenes. There is a Crown Prince (Lee Yul), but he is cold and resents his father for what he did, blaming him for the deaths of both his mother (the King’s first wife) and his first true love (more about her later). There is also a Crown Princess who is married to the Crown Prince (though he disdains her and refuses to consummate the marriage) and who also happens to be the daughter of the Prime Minister. And there is a Prime Minister (Prime Minister Kim again), who orchestrated the King’s path to the throne and who holds the entire court in his iron grip.

(Oh, there’s also a bodyguard, childhood friend of the Crown Prince, but he doesn’t have a very significant role and isn’t on screen for that long.)

100 Days My Prince begins when the Crown Prince was a child and was not the Crown Prince: instead, he was just Lee Yul, nephew to the previous king, who preferred to play than study, and who liked to bully the peasant kids around him. But a girl named Yoon Yi Seo intervenes, sticking up for his victims and rebuking him for his behaviour. Struck by her wisdom and compassion, Lee Yul turns over a new leaf and applies himself to his studies, vowing to one day marry Yi Seo.

Unfortunately for the childhood sweethearts, tragedy strikes: in the upheaval that results from Lee Yul’s father seizing the throne, Yi Seo’s father, the general and right-hand man of the previous king, is killed at the hands of Kim Cha Eon (who becomes Prime Minister Kim). Yi Seo and her older brother, Seok Ha, flee and are pursued. Lee Yul’s father ascends as King, his mother is killed (presumably also at the hands of Kim Cha Eon), and Lee Yul himself becomes Crown Prince against his will.

Fast forward 16 years. Lee Yul is now married to Prime Minister Kim’s daughter, Kim So Hye, the Crown Princess. But he has never forgotten Yi Seo, even though he believes her to be dead. Furthermore, he resents Prime Minister Kim so much for what the Prime Minister did that he refuses to consummate his marriage with the Crown Princess. He also keeps getting sick, and his discreet investigations into the cause of his illness point to the Prime Minister for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

For her part, Yi Seo is now living as a peasant girl named Hong Shim in Songjoo village. She has been adopted by a kind commoner man named Yeon who is a widower, his wife and child having died a while ago. (If you’ve seen Love in the Moonlight, you’ll recognise him as Hong Ra On/Sam Nom’s father.) The night of the coup, Yi Seo was separated from her brother, but because they had promised to wait for each other at this particular bridge at the full moon, every month she makes the trek to the capital to search for him.

It is during one of these pilgrimages that she is spotted by the Crown Prince, who thinks he might be seeing a grown-up Yi Seo. She also comes to the attention of a lowly official and son of a concubine named Jung Jae Yoon, who, despite suffering from prosopagnosia or “face blindness” (which basically means he can’t recognise faces), seems to remember hers and therefore begins to fall for her. (Cue love triangle. You know there has to be one! Also, the prosopagnosia is an important plot point.)

Meanwhile, the Crown Prince is facing pressure from the royal court to consummate his marriage, with many officials suggesting that him doing so will break the terrible drought the country is facing. The Crown Prince is rightly sceptical and decrees that if that’s what it will take to bring rain, all the single people in the kingdom must get married within the month or face the consequences.

Unfortunately this has consequences for Yi Seo/Hong Shim, who is the oldest spinster in her village. The local lecherous nobleman makes her an offer to become his fifth wife, but she turns him down, hoping for another solution.

The King sends the Crown Prince to officiate a ritual for rain, but on the way, he is attacked by assassins and flees, accompanied only by his bodyguard. To keep the Crown Prince safe, the bodyguard switches clothes with him and leads their pursuers away. But the Crown Prince has an accident and ends up wounded and unconscious near Songjoo village.

He is found by Yeon, Yi Seo/Hong Shim’s adoptive father, and nursed back to consciousness. But as he is now suffering from amnesia, Yeon takes the advantage of the situation and tells him that he is actually a young man named Na Won Deuk, who is betrothed to marry Yi Seo/Hong Shim. Thus the two of them save Yi Seo/Hong Shim from getting flogged. Yi Seo/Hong Shim and the Crown Prince/Lee Yul/Na Won Deuk actually get married. But their relationship is far from harmonious, with the Crown Prince proving himself to be a rather useless peasant, landing himself in enormous debt (thanks to his upper class tastes!) with the local money lender not long after the wedding.

Meanwhile, the palace is in an uproar, trying to locate the missing Crown Prince, even though some factions within wish him dead. Jung Jae Yoon is pining for Yi Seo, even as he secretly investigates the Crown Prince’s disappearance and is unexpectedly made governor of Soongjoo Village. And Yi Seo’s older brother, Seok Ha, comes back on the scene—only now he seems to be at the beck and call of Prime Minister Kim …

There’s a lot of things I enjoyed about this drama. I liked the way the plot combines a number of Joseon drama/romance tropes into one coherent storyline: there’s the Prime Minister controlling the court, trying to undermine the king; there’s a romantic lead with amnesia; there are hidden identities; long-lost/childhood lovers are reunited without them realising (also a feature of Moon Embracing the Sun); there’s a marriage of convenience; and there are enemies who become lovers (watching Lee Yul and Yi Seo bicker is very entertaining, as well as instructive about how marriages were supposed to work under Confucianism). I liked that this drama focused on the lives of the peasants and how hard things were for them under the heel of the nobility. (I really felt for Yi Seo, anxious over the financial stress the Crown Prince’s bad decisions cause her family.) The minor characters are delightful and humourous, and do well to portray village and community life where everyone is so reliant on one another. And I liked watching Lee Yul and Yi Seo gradually fall for one another and discover the truth about each other, even as they try to deny their feelings. (There’s also a sly dig at romance novels, with the Crown Prince taking a job copying out works of popular fiction—including a volume titled Fifty Shades of Mr Gray.) Although there are aspects of the main story and the subplots involving some of the minor characters that are grim and tragic, these are balanced by the lighter fare in both the romance storyline and the villagers. Furthermore, justice comes to those who deserve it, the love triangle does not end badly, and the ruse the King pulls that finally brings about the Happily Ever After was, I thought, rather satisfying as it brought aspects of the story full circle.

The one quibble I had with the drama was the final scene: although it hints at the Happily Ever After and tries to tie up everything in a neat bow, I still wanted a little bit more. Unlike Moon Embracing the Sun where we’re given a glimpse of life several years later, 100 Days My Prince just ends. There were a couple of plot arcs and character threads that I felt were unresolved—such that the final episode left me unsatisfied and full of questions. It reminded me a bit of how Eternal Love ends: the lovers are reunited and get their Happily Ever After, but their union is not quite established in community the way it should be—which wouldn’t matter if Lee Yul and Yi Seo were just commoners, but he is the Crown Prince, for goodness’ sake.

I realise this sort of thing might only bother me. But if you happen to watch this one, let me know what you think and whether this annoys you too.

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Review: Love in the Moonlight

Netflix, 2016

(18 episodes; 59 min each)

So following on from my review of Moon Embracing the Sun, I wanted to talk about Love in the Moonlight, which is a much lighter, happier show. I’m not a big fan of the title and don’t see why the translators couldn’t have just stuck to the original title of the book from which the series is derived: Moonlight Drawn by Clouds (by Yoon Yi Soo and Kim Hee Kyung). The image is a metaphor: in this case, the moon is the King and the clouds are the people, and the idea is that of a King “drawn with the will of the people”.

This is important to remember, because at first glance, Love in the Moonlight seems like another Joseon-era romance. Oh, it certainly has the trappings of a palace drama much like Moon Embracing the Sun. But it’s not just that. There is a King on the throne, but he’s a bit unstable, having been very affected by the peasant uprising 10 years ago that left thousands dead. There’s a Queen, but she’s a second wife, daughter of the Prime Minister; the first Queen, mother of the Crown Prince, passed away under suspicious circumstances. There’s the villain of the piece—the Prime Minister (Prime Minister Kim, this time), who pretty much controls the court and prevents the King from doing any good. There’s a Princess, sister to the Crown Prince—Princess Myeong Eun, who is portrayed by one of the few plus-size actresses to appear in a K-Drama (though—spoiler: she undergoes a makeover). And of course, there’s the male lead: the Crown Prince—Lee Yeong—who is based on a real person: Crown Prince Hyomyeong, who lived 1809-1830, who was famous for being a very talented writer, composer and choreographer, and who died very tragically at the age of 20. (His death is not part of this drama though. I wonder why the authors decided to use a real historical figure instead of just making one up.)

In addition, the Crown Prince has a handsome bodyguard, Kim Byung Yeon, who grew up with the prince, as well as with Kim Yoon Sung, the only male heir of Prime Minister Kim’s family (the third side of the love triangle). When they were children, Yoon Sung was once the Crown Prince’s best friend. But now that they are older, they are estranged because of Prime Minister Kim and the Prime Minister’s suspected involvement in the death of the former Queen.

“But what of our female lead?” I hear you ask. Good question! In this drama, she’s a young lady named Hong Ra On who has spent most of her life disguised as a boy named Hong Sam Nom. It’s for reasons she doesn’t quite understand, but her mother said it had to do with her safety. Now at 18 years old, she has lost her mother and is living with a travelling performer who found her just after the peasant uprising 10 years ago and took her in. But he’s sick and feels guilty for being such a burden on her. She makes money by writing novels, giving out relationship advice (for which she has a particular talent) and even writing love letters for people. However, she’s also in debt with some very bad people.

The series opens on the Crown Prince, who isn’t really taking his role as the monarch’s heir seriously. But when he finds out that his sister, Princess Myeong Eun, has been receiving love letters from a stranger, he resolves to put an end to what he sees as an unsuitable relationship. The thing is, Hong Sam Nom has been writing those letters, and her patron begs her to go meet with the Princess (who she doesn’t know is the object of his affection) to call it off and to apologise for falling for her in the first place. Even though Hong Sam Nom is a commoner, she dresses up as an aristocrat to attend the meeting and runs into the Crown Prince, who is in disguise. This confuses her initially as she thought she was going to meet a woman. For his part, the Crown Prince is suspicious of Hong Sam Nom and wants to find out what noble house she belongs to. To extricate herself from the situation, Hong Sam Nom causes them both to fall into a deep hole, and the only way out is for the Crown Prince to hoist her up on his shoulders so she can climb out and go for help. She doesn’t, though: she leaves him in the pit, promising that if they should ever meet again (and you can tell she doesn’t think they will), she will do whatever he says.

Unfortunately Hong Sam Nom’s matchmaking activities have gotten her in trouble and there are people after her. While on the run, she encounters Kim Yoon Sung, grandson of Prime Minister Kim, who works out pretty quickly that Hong Sam Nom is a girl and not a boy, and who helps her. (He also falls for her later, though he pretends not to know her secret.) This respite is short-lived; her debt collectors catch up with her and she is sold to the palace as a eunuch. (The scene where she manages to avoid castration is both hilarious and mildly horrifying in that this is what they used to do to people.) And then when she is forced to enter the palace, she runs into the Crown Prince again (not knowing he is the Crown Prince). He, remembering her promise to him, makes it his mission to help her pass all the eunuch examinations so that she has to stay. And then over time, she and the Crown Prince begin to fall for one another …

Of course, no love story is easy, and there is plenty of drama and heartbreak as their relationship unfolds against the backdrop of palace intrigue/Prime Minister Kim’s machinations, the return of the peasant uprising from 10 years ago, and the truth about Hong Sam Nom’s/Ra On’s identity, which threatens to split the two lovers apart.

There is a lot I love about this show. The leads are absolutely adorable: Kim Yoo Jung (who plays the younger version of Heo Yeon Woo, the female lead in Moon Embracing the Sun) is gorgeously expressive, regardless of whether she’s doing a comedic scene or a dramatic one. She doesn’t quite pass for a boy (everyone keeps going on about how she’s too pretty), but she does a decent job at playing one, and clearly seems to relish some of the freedoms that passing as a male gives her.

Park Bo Gum, who I had never seen before in a K-Drama, makes a wonderfully handsome Crown Prince, and the way he brings out the prince’s emotions throughout the course of their turbulent love affair makes him very deserving of the awards he won for that role.

The chemistry between those two are part of what make the series so very addictive, and I could watch the scenes where they come to know the truth about each other over and over again, and not get sick of them. (The scene when Hong Sam Nom learns that Lee Yeong is the Crown Prince is absolutely hilarious!) Also, unlike Jung Ji Woon, the male lead in The King’s Affection, the Crown Prince, in the midst of falling for Hong Sam Nom/Ra On does actually seem conflicted about the idea that he might be gay, instead of glossing over the issue (though that doesn’t last very long).

The leads aside, my favourite cast member is Kwak Dong Yeon (who makes a brief appearance in very memorable episode of It’s Okay Not to Be Okay as the son of an assemblyman who has been diagnosed with mania). Dong Yeon plays the bodyguard, Kim Byung Yeon, who is trusted and valued by the Crown Prince but who is also secretly working for the resistance. Although he doesn’t say much, he does a lot of acting with his eyes and his body, and you can really see how conflicted he is, torn between his loyalty to the cause, and his friendship with both the Crown Prince and Hong Sam Nom/Ra On. (There’s a lovely scene at the end of the second episode when the three of them are enjoying a chicken dinner outside, sitting on a pyung sang—that is, one of those square wooden benches found in the yards of Korean houses—and Hong Sam Nom/Ra On is waxing lyrical about how unpopular the Crown Prince is among the palace staff while Byung Yeon is trying not to laugh and failing, much to the Crown Prince’s disgust.) Also, the way Byung Yeon puts out candlelight—and the way Hong Sam Nom/Ra On complains about it—had me in stitches.

The other minor characters are also terrific and well-rounded. I particularly liked Cho Ha Yeon, daughter of Minister Cho, who becomes Hong Sam Nom’s/Ra On’s rival, but not in a way that reduced her to a two-dimensional stereotype like the Queen in Moon Embracing the Sun. In addition, if you’ve seen Moon Embracing the Sun, you’ll notice some of those actors popping up in this—for example, the actor who played the King and the actress who played the Chief Shaman.

Secondly, I appreciated seeing palace life from the perspective of the eunuchs and ladies-in-waiting—something that was not really present in Moon Embracing the Sun. These are the people who work closely with the royal family, tending to their needs and carrying out their wishes. But I’d be willing to bet very little is known about them and their inner lives. I liked learning small historical details about them—for example, I did not know that women who serve in the palace are considered property of the King and are not allowed to have relationships with other men. There were little shots of what the palace kitchens were like (I find it interesting that the food is usually cooked outdoors). Also, there’s a couple of attempted poisonings, and you can see why Korean royalty were paranoid and ate off metal tableware using metal chopsticks in the hopes of detecting dangerous substances.

Thirdly, I liked how the romance plot tied in so well with the larger story about the kingdom and the different factions wrestling for control of it. The lovers’ suffering always feels organic instead of forced, and at times, I did wonder how on earth things were going to result in a Happily Ever After.

That said, there were two things that made me unhappy. Firstly, as usual, the love triangle doesn’t end well. I don’t know if that’s a spoiler, but it never seems to end well for the extraneous side—which is a shame, because I really liked Kim Yoon Sung, and he could have had a happy ending. Secondly—and this is my main critique of the series—I liked the way the whole thing unfolded up until the very last 20 minutes when everything felt really rushed. Apparently the network wanted the creators to make 20 episodes, but the actors had only been booked for 18, so they only made 18. I think they could have used at least one more to tie up all the loose ends. This is why the ending feels less like a Happily Ever After and more like a Happily For Now, and I found it less satisfying than Moon Embracing the Sun. That said, perhaps my expectations were wrong: this is not solely about the core romantic relationship, but also about the King being drawn by the will of the people. In that respect, at least, I guess it sort of lived up to its title, and perhaps I am just being greedy in wanting a little more.

Final thing: apparently this drama is leaving Netflix on 15 May, which is sad. You can also find it on Viki Rakuten, but not if you’re in Australia (or at least not yet. Perhaps that will change once it leaves Netflix). If you do check it out, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Review: Everything Everywhere All at Once

I don’t think I have ever seen a movie as absolutely insane as Everything Everywhere All At Once.

If you were to go to a producer and say, “I want to make a movie with dialogue mostly in Mandarin and broken English about a middle age Chinese woman named Evelyn who gave up everything—including her parents’ acceptance—to migrate to the US with her husband Waymond and run a coin laundry, where they raise their daughter Joy, who is clearly struggling with living as a child of two worlds and who seeks wider acceptance for her relationship with her girlfriend—particularly during the family Chinese New Year celebration, when Evelyn’s super traditional and rather frail father has come to stay, but of course, this is happening at the same time as Evelyn and Waymond are being audited by the IRS, plus Waymond is filing for divorce and trying to talk to Evelyn about it, and then Evelyn gets drawn into a crusade by the Alpha universe to save the multiverse from the evil schemes of a shadowy figure named Jobu Tupaki, who looks suspiciously like Joy and who wants to destroy it all—and by the way, there’s a universe where everyone has sausages for fingers, as well as a universe where no life evolved, though there are a couple of talking rocks, and also, could we get some googly eyes?”, I reckon no movie producer in their right mind would ever have wanted to make this film.

And yet somehow, the Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) got it made and it is BRILLIANT.

First of all, the cast is phenomenal. Michelle Yeoh makes the seamless transition from down-on-her-luck so-very-Chinese-in-only-the-way-Chinese-mums-can-be Evelyn to absolutely awesome take-the-room-apart kung fu master of the multiverse. Stephanie Hsu matches her as Joy, undergoing more over-the-top costumes changes than a Lady Gaga concert. The one who blew me away the most, though, was Ke Huy Quan as Waymond, making the leap from mild-mannered/painfully submissive and pathetic Waymond to take-charge/swoon-worthy Alpha Waymond sometimes multiple times within the one scene. (Special mention should be made of Harry Shum Jr, whose scenes could have easily ended up on the cutting room floor but were among the most enjoyable, even as they were crazy. SO CRAZY!)

Second of all, although the film is a high-concept save-the-multiverse science fiction action adventure, it is also a rumination on the roads less travelled and the choices that make us who we are AS WELL AS being a smaller drama about one particular family struggling with their own very particular problems that span generations, encompass cultural issues and are characteristic of the Chinese American migrant experience, where east clashes with west. If that sounds like a lot, it is. And yet the script never loses the details, it never simplifies the issues, and it never lets go of the tension, even in the midst of the more ridiculous scenes that had me in absolute stitches, gasping for air. In the hands of other directors, things could have easily spun out of control, leaving the audience lost. Not here: you know exactly what’s going on at all times, even during scenes that cut rapidly back and forth with other scenes—other universes.

Thirdly and finally, although there is a lot of violence and some amazing martial arts on display, the way the plot is resolved is as unexpected as it is beautiful, tying together everything I’ve just talked about—the science fiction elements to do with saving the multiverse, Evelyn’s feelings about her life and where she has come to be at this point in it, and even the conflicts in the core relationships between the principle characters. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” comes together in a neat bow that is both emotionally satisfying and hugely poignant. I couldn’t have asked for more.

5 stars.

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Review: Moon Embracing the Sun

Netflix, 2012

(20 episodes; 63-72 min each)

I’ve been escaping reality lately by watching a whole slew of Korean Joseon-era dramas. Sometimes I think watching period dramas is a lot like watching fantasy: everything is different enough to seem like a completely different world—from the clothing to the social structures to the food to the customs and so on. (Certainly Bridgerton is pure fantasy that seems to completely ignore Britain’s colonial history.)

There are three that I’ve completed recently and I thought I’d review them over subsequent blog posts. (Sorry Facebook friends: I’m posting these reviews to my blog because my blog is way easier to search than my Facebook page.) I did consider putting all three reviews into one post, but that would make it waaaay too long. Nevertheless, I’m hoping I can still compare and contrast them, because I find the commonalities between them quite interesting. I don’t know if the Joseon K-Drama is an actual genre the way that wuxia and xanxia novels/films/TV shows are in Chinese culture—it probably is and I’m just ignorant—but it’s interesting identifying some of the tropes and how each series uses them.

The Joseon era of Korean history (from my very meagre knowledge of the subject) lasted for about five hundred years—1392 to 1897. From what I can gather, it was a pretty turbulent time, with Korea existing as a vassal state to China, on the one hand, and being invaded by Japan on the other.

Moon Embracing the Sun was adapted from the novel by Jung Eun Gwol and contains many of the trappings of a Joseon K-Drama: a King is on the throne, but his rule is unstable due to various factions within his court—the largest one led by one particular court official with a lust for power, who often is/becomes the Prime Minister; the King’s successor, the Crown Prince, is usually the romantic male lead in the A plot, who often clashes with his father because their desires and goals do not align; there is a Queen, who may or may not be the Crown Prince’s mother (though in this particular drama she is); there’s a Crown Princess, who is not necessarily the romantic female lead (more about her later; it’s complicated); there’s a Princess, the Crown Prince’s sister, who carries the B plot; and there’s the third side of the love triangle involving the romantic leads (though depending on the drama, there can be multiple triangles involving various characters).

Moon Embracing the Sun begins with a bit of a prologue: the Queen, concerned about her son’s succession to the throne, orders the assassination of her stepson, the King’s son by a concubine, and enlists Lord Yoon Dae Hyung to help bring it about. Unfortunately the hit is witnessed by A-ri, a shaman of the Royal Astrology House who grew up with the stepson and knew that the bastard prince had no interest in becoming King.

A-ri is discovered and pursued, and in her flight, she runs into the pregnant wife of the Chief Scholar, who helps her and hides her. In return, A-ri vows to protect the unborn child and prophesies about the child, who she claims will have a noble, but tragic fate. Here’s where the imagery of the series title comes into play: the “sun” is the King; the “moon” is the Queen. But there can only be one sun and one moon. Two suns spells instability for the kingdom; two moons spell instability for the King. She predicts a bloodbath in the palace, and the rest of the series plays out in the shadow of this prophecy.

Unfortunately A-ri is captured, tortured and sentenced to be executed. Before her death by dismemberment (definitely not a nice way to go!), A-ri enlists her best friend and fellow trainee at the Royal Astrology House Jang Nok Yeong to look after the Chief Scholar’s child in her stead.

Fast forward 13 years. The Chief Scholar’s child is born: Heo Yeon Woo, a girl of great beauty and singular intelligence and wisdom. (As a 13-year-old, she’s played by the absolutely adorable Kim Yoo Jung, who goes on to do Love in the Moonlight, which I will review next.) Jang Nok Yeong ascends to become the Chief Shaman of the Royal Astrology House and therefore at the beck and call of the former Queen, who is now the Queen Dowager. In the absence of any competition, the Queen Dowager’s son has become King and has sired three children: a son by a concubine (Prince Yang Myung), the Crown Prince (Prince Lee Hwon) who is two years younger than Prince Yang Myung, and Princess Min Hwa. In addition, the Queen Dowager’s murderous accomplice, Lord Yoon Dae Hyung, has become Prime Minister (Prime Minister Yoon).

(Hopefully you’re still with me after all those names! For the purposes of the A plot, the most important ones you need to remember are Heo Yeon Woo, the Chief Scholar’s Daughter, and the Crown Prince.)

One fine day, Heo Yeon Woo goes to visit the palace with her mother because her older brother, Heo Yeom, who came first in the academic exam, is being honoured, along with the other graduates of the civil service examination. (This includes Kim Jae Woon, who came first in martial arts and who was childhood friends with Heo Yeom and Prince Yang Myung. I only mention him because he eventually fills the role of the Crown Prince’s bodyguard. Strangely enough in these dramas, the bodyguard is the only male at court who doesn’t wear a manggeon/circular headband, and his wild hair usually makes him appear more attractive. See Kim Ga On, the bodyguard in The King’s Affection.)

During the ceremony, Heo Yeon Woo becomes distracted by a butterfly and decides to chase it, which takes her into another part of the palace grounds. There she runs in the 15-year-old Crown Prince, Lee Hwon. (The younger version of him is played by Yeo Jin Goo, who was the hotel manager in Hotel Del Luna.)

At first, Heo Yeon Woo thinks that Crown Prince is a thief, because he’s carrying a bag full of stuff and is trying to escape the palace by climbing over its walls. He seeks to defend himself, saying that he just wants to go visit his brother, Prince Yang Myung, who has been sent to live outside of the palace—perhaps by the Queen Dowager, who is concerned, again, about the line of succession. But the Crown Prince does not reveal his identity to Heo Yeon Woo—at least, not at first, fearing that if he does, she would change the way she is treating him. Instead, he begins to fall for her, thanks to her intelligence and wisdom, and very strong sense of what is right and wrong. Nevertheless, before she leaves the palace grounds that day, he finds a way to send her a note with a riddle that causes her to work out who he is.

Now for the love triangles—of which there are two: not only does the Crown Prince fall for Heo Yeon Woo, but his older brother Prince Yang Myung is also in love with her, having been acquainted with her through his friendship with her older brother, Heo Yeom. For her part, Heo Yeon Woo has no interest in Prince Yang Myung, but instead develops an affection for the Crown Prince—so much so that when the time comes for the Crown Prince’s marriage to be arranged, she willingly becomes a candidate, even though she knows that if she fails to become the Crown Princess, she can never marry.

Of course, Heo Yeon Woo isn’t the only candidate, and there are forces at work behind the scenes, trying to make sure that the future Queen is someone who can be controlled—who can influence the future King in the “right” direction. The Queen Dowager and Prime Minister Yoon put forward Prime Minister Yoon’s daughter, Yoon Bo Kyung, who takes one look at the palace and decides she wants to live there. She and Heo Yeon Woo are placed in the company of Princess Min Hwa to befriend there, but there’s a rivalry between them from the start—particularly as Princess Min Hwa favours Heo Yeon Woo because she is in love with Yeon Woo’s older brother, Heo Yeom. Shaman Jang Nok Yeong sees immediately that the two girls are the two moons who will bring instability to the King.

The Crown Prince is desperate to marry Heo Yeon Woo, but unfortunately he has no say in the matter as royal marriages are usually decided by the Queen Dowager. The way he gets around this is quite inventive, though, and fortunately for the two young lovers, Heo Yeon Woo passes all the tests and becomes the Crown Princess.

This does not please the Queen Dowager and Prime Minister Yoon, though, and they enlist Shaman Jang Nok Yeong to curse her with magic. The Royal Astrology House is dependent on the patronage of the Queen Dowager for its survival in an age of Confucianism, you see, and so this places Shaman Jang Nok Yeong in a very difficult position. On the one hand, she needs to appease the Queen Dowager or risk the destruction of her order; on the other hand, she made a promise to A-ri to watch over and protect Heo Yeon Woo. Her solution is to pull something of a Romeo and Juliet: she casts evil spells on Heo Yeon Woo that make her seriously ill—so ill that she is forced to leave the palace, much to the Crown Prince’s distress—and then she gives her a potion that makes her seem dead. Shaman Jang Nok Yeong hopes to give her a fresh start, and at first, things certainly seem that way—particularly as, after Heo Yeon Woo is revived, she loses all memory of her former life and is taken away by Shaman Jang Nok Yeong to become her apprentice.

Fast forward eight years to episode 7 (and I promise I’ll stop recounting the plot in a moment). The entire cast changes and that’s quite disconcerting as you then have to get used to who the new actors are playing. The Crown Prince has now ascended to the throne as King. He has been married against his will to Prime Minister Yoon’s daughter, but he disdains his Queen and refuses to sleep with her, despite of the pressure his court places on him, because he still mourns for Heo Yeon Woo. Prime Minister Yoon controls his court and works against him, on the one hand; the Queen Dowager, who is still alive, also tries to manipulate things behind the scenes from her end. Prince Yang Myung still isn’t that welcome in the palace, and the relationship between him and the King is strained. (The Prince also still mourns Heo Yeon Woo and has also not moved on.) The King’s only friends are his chief body guard, Kim Jae Woon, and his chief eunuch. (His interactions with his chief eunuch are one of the few moments where the series feels more lighthearted; otherwise, it’s all very serious and tense, much like The King’s Affection.) Princess Min Hwa, however, has been given her wish and has married Heo Yeom.

The Prime Minister, sensing the Queen Dowager’s influence is waning, is seeking more power for himself. The Queen Dowager, for her part, is keen to establish her dominance, and summons Shaman Jang Nok Yeong back to court. This brings Heo Yeon Woo (now known as Shaman Weol) back into the palace—and back into the orbit of the King, who has never forgotten her. But it’s been eight years and she still has amnesia …

Moon Embracing the Sun, much like The King’s Affection is a very tense drama. There’s not a lot of lightheartedness to it, aside from a few of the interactions between the characters. (The King, for example, likes to tease his chief eunuch by implying that he and his chief bodyguard are romantically involved.) That said, I thought the cast was excellent: the younger actors in the lead roles were particularly charming, and I could see why both the Crown Prince and Prince Yang Myung fell for Heo Yeon Woo in the first place, and why they mourned her for so long. Their older counterparts do a good job, and I did like Kim Soo Hyun who plays the older Crown Prince/King, even if he does get a bit shouty and impatient at times. (Kim Soo Hyun was the male lead in It’s Okay Not to be Okay, which, unfortunately, I have never reviewed on this blog, but it is excellent. Also, not a Joseon K-drama. I think Moon Embracing the Sun was his breakout role.) Ha Ga In is lovely as Heo Yeon Woo/Shaman Weol (though, in my opinion, overshadowed by her younger counterpart), and while the amnesia plot is somewhat frustrating, it’s also very satisfying in the third act when the truth finally comes to light and the suffering of the leads is vindicated. The more minor characters I have not mentioned here are also terrific because they are fully fleshed out with their own smaller arcs, and at times, they are even given more to do than just aid the leads.

The court politics were not that interesting to me, though they did spur a lot of the tension that plays out in the backdrop of the A plot love story. I did like that much was made of the morality of characters’ decisions, with those decisions determining whether they will walk the path of righteousness or no, and therefore whether justice will be eventually be served (even K-dramas can’t escape fate!) Princess Min Hwa’s arc in particular was very well done, though devastating.

The part that disappointed me was what happened with the extraneous sides of the two love triangles: the Prime Minister’s daughter/Queen Yoon Bo Kyung never really stands a chance, and Prince Yang Myung never finds happiness (though his actions are very heroic).

But I did like that the series tied things up well at the very end, particularly as not all K-Dramas do that: after all that tragedy, you do actually find out what happens to all the characters. There is a reckoning, there is forgiveness and there is even redemption. But there is also peace and the re-establishment of order. Things are made right in the end, and while not everyone gets a happy ending, there is still a happily ever after.

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Intentional time

Weeks go by when I think about blogging, but don’t actually blog. (My inner drill sergeant would like to point out that if I wasn’t such a perfectionist, I might actually blog more.) Given the current COVID situation, I keep having the impulse to do some sort of life update about how COVID has affected us. But I don’t want to do that—well, not necessarily.

The summary is that this year so far has felt very … haphazard, for want of a better word. Just when I think I have a handle on life, something happens that throws the balance of everything off again. Part of me is impatient because I want to be doing things and there seem to be so many obstacles to doing things—responsibilities, my never-ending To Do list, COVID messiness, my fatigue. Part of me feels like there’s some sort of life lesson here—about learning to work within your own limitations, being content in whatever situation you find yourself (Philippians 4:11, anyone?), accepting the things over which you have no control.

And yet.

I feel like I’ve been running a bit of a marathon since mid-February. I had my normal work commitments. But on top of those, I attended GenreCon (conference for genre writers) virtually and enjoyed it. (The title of this post is the one big thing I took away from it, which I will get to in a moment.)

(Here are some screen caps of GenreCon’s Gather environment. I loved the secret room that you access through the fireplace.)

I organised family events to celebrate Miss 7 becoming Miss 8. I participated in the Futurescapes Writers Workshop, which meant doing a heap of reading beforehand and getting up at 6am three days in a row. (I am definitely not a morning person.) I went straight from that to running the first live event for the year for work (the first in-person and livestreamed one in almost a year) as well as organising Miss 8’s birthday party with a few friends, dealing with an infected cyst on my neck and working on Miss 11’s high school applications. (Yeah, I can’t believe she’s almost in high school already either.)

And then on the back of all that, Miss 11 came down with COVID and we went into isolation.

It’s more than seven days later and we’re out. Mostly; NSW Health advises those who have been exposed to COVID to avoid people and indoor settings for at least seven more days. So I’ve only been doing school drop-offs and pick-ups, and avoiding the gym. Though Miss 11 was definitely COVID-positive, the rest of us never returned a positive test—RAT or PCR—and our symptoms have been various and very short-lived. So I don’t know if I can say if I’ve had the dreaded plague or not. Is my fatigue COVID-related or February/March madness-related? Dunno.

In an alternate COVID-free universe, I imagine my life running much as it did last year before we went into lockdown in July: I managed to keep my working hours to about three days a week so that I could spend Tuesdays and Fridays working on my novel, handling the housework and all the household admin, and doing all my volunteer stuff (uniform shop, looking after Book Club for the school, church commitments, which included leading Bible Study and doing band for the morning service).

In reality, this year hasn’t looked like that at all. I had one very lovely day a couple of weeks ago when I did school drop-off and then went and wrote in cafés and libraries all day until school pick-up. That was an anomaly and I despair of ever getting that again.


Three-salad lunch during a rare productive writing day.

All right. I’m rambling. I know I am.

Back to the post title. One of the best things of attending GenreCon was this seminar by YA crime/thriller writer Ellie Marney called “Finding time to write when you’re busy”. I cannot express how much I appreciated it and how grateful I am that she delivered it at just the right time. In addition, it really meant a lot to me that Marney was coming at the topic from the position of working part-time, writing part-time and being a mum of four boys, instead of a privileged male author who has someone else to take care of all the house and kid stuff for him and who lays down the law about writing every day just because, without taking the time to explore why that can be impossible for some. Marney didn’t lay down the law; instead, she gave us some things to try, with the caveat that not every tip will suit our particular situation and that some things will only work for a time, and then it’s worth trying something else. I’m not going to regurgitate all her tips because I tweeted them all in this thread (but go read; they’re worth checking out).

I just want to share a couple things she said—specifically,

3. Use your time confetti (my term, not hers)—e.g. time spent waiting in doctor’s offices or for trains or Saturday sport. Bring your laptop or notebook, and use those short chunks of time for writing.

Even better, plan how you’re going to use them for short tasks, e.g. the dialogue for a particular scene; how to describe this house; researching something. Don’t expect to sink too deep into your project during this time, but use it well.

and

4. (Related): plan ahead what you want to get done with the time you have. Ellie says if she knows she has three 40-minute chunks during the week and two hours on the weekend, she will use those 40-minute chunks to do things like Point 3 (above) so that she is ready and primed when she gets to the two-hr block.

and

6. Thinking is also writing, plus you can do it anywhere. It’s especially good when you’re doing repetitive tasks (e.g. housework) that don’t require your brain so much. 

Most of all, think about your characters as that is always going to be enjoyable, rich and useful.

and finally,

12. Don’t exhaust yourself. It’s fine to give yourself a break sometimes. Writing is important, but not as important as your physical and mental health, and your close relationships. Fallow time can also be helpful and inspirational.

Maybe you’re not blocked, you’re just tired.

Marney’s seminar highlighted for me that I’m not very intentional about my time; I tend to fritter it away instead of using it constructively. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a fairly structured and organised person—at least in my professional life—and while I manage to get a lot done by putting certain systems in place to keep the housework from spiralling out of control and getting the major things done, I can be lazy about all the other stuff.

Like writing. I feel frustrated with myself because theoretically, I have two days in which to work on my novel. But instead, I don’t use them well or they get filled with other things. (Or maybe, as Marney said, I’m just tired. I’m tired now, and have given myself a much-needed day off today to just laze around, read books, catch up on my Twitter feed and write this blog post.)

I’m trying to be more intentional about my writing time. I’ve taken Marney’s advice to heart about using my time confetti better. I even bought a steering wheel desk so that I can write in the car because I always get to the school early for pick-up just to score a good parking spot. 


My steering wheel desk. I’ve tried it out once and it works pretty well for longhand; not sure about laptop yet.

I’ve even tried to be a bit more organised with writing the novel by uploading key world building documents (maps, character lists, timetables, the outline of this chapter, etc.) to Google Drive so I can access them wherever I am. (Duh, not sure why I haven’t done that earlier.)

But I’m not just being more intentional about my writing time; I am also making myself be more intentional about my leisure time. I don’t know if this fatigue is because of all the energy I’ve been expending lately on various things or because of COVID (though one good thing I can say about isolation is that sleeping in is excellent and highly recommended). I do know that I continually shortchange myself by continuing to push myself while tired. It doesn’t mean that I will never do it again; I know I will because I’m stubborn and stupid that way. But I am starting to take more of a leaf out of whoever it was who said small breaks more often can go a long way to fuel the rest of your life. (I know it was Alex Soojung-Kim Pang who said something like that in Rest: Why you get more done when you work less, a book that annoyed me because it was filled with privileged men who had other people to look after their households and children. But he was more concerned with vacations, whereas someone else advocated little breaks throughout the work day as a valuable tool for getting through the workday. I wish I had Google for my brain as I can’t remember who it was.)

Right. This seems as good a point as any to end this messy, imperfect post. Until next time, whenever that is.

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Review: Hotel Del Luna

Netflix

(16 episodes; 70-94 min each)

I’m distracting myself from the current COVID mess and the associated anxiety it’s causing me by writing another review of a recently completed K-drama.

Hotel Del Luna kept coming up in my Netflix recommendations, but it wasn’t until a friend recommended it that I decided to start watching. One thing that continues to impress me about K-dramas is the way they’re able to mix genres almost seamlessly, and this one somehow manages to have a bit of everything. The main story arc revolves around a girl named Jang Man Wol who, I think (with my very poor knowledge of Korean history) was born during the North-South states/later Three Kingdoms period when China’s influence on the country was a lot stronger. In the opening scenes, we see her leading a horse and cart bearing a coffin-like box through the wilderness, fending off bandits that dare to attack her. She says she’s looking for the “Guest House of the Moon”—an inn for ghosts before they pass on to the afterlife—and it’s hinted that she’s done some things in her past that she’s not proud of. She meets an old woman called Mago who isn’t quite who she seems, and when Mago points her in the direction of the guest house, she finds herself bound to an ancient tree and in the role of  the new proprieter of the Guest House of the Moon.

Fast forward almost 1300 years. The Guest House of the Moon is now called Hotel Del Luna, and it can’t be seen by ordinary mortals. A little boy named Goo Chan Seong lives with his father, a single dad who’s down on his luck and who strives to make ends meet by engaging in shady activities. It’s Chan Seong’s birthday and his dad wants to get him something nice. But Chan Seong, knowing his father’s situation, just tells him to get him flowers because he likes flowers. “You can even pick flowers for free,” he says. The father bears that in mind. But later that evening, he tries to steal something and ends up on the run, and then somehow ends up at Hotel Del Luna, where he decides to hide out until the coast is clear. While exploring the amazing hotel (which has its own private beach plus a fancy rooftop bar with a spectacular view of Seoul), he stumbles into the garden, finds Man Wol’s tree and plucks some of its flowers. In a Beauty and the Beast-type occurrence, Man Wol appears at that moment and says she will have to kill him. Falling to his knees, the father begs her to spare his life because of his son, Chan Seong. Man Wol agrees—on the condition that he give her Chan Seong. But not now; later, when he’s older. Faced with little choice, the father agrees, and Man Wol, wanting to make sure her investment turns out well, transfers money into the father’s bank account to pay for Chan Seong’s needs.

Fast forward another 20 years. Chan Seong, who has been studying and living in America, returns to Korea with a degree in hospitality and an MBA from Harvard. He was warned by his father to stay out of Korea for 20 years, and now that that period is over, he’s back and keen to work for one of Seoul’s most prestigious hotel chains. But on his birthday, as with previous birthdays, he receives flowers from Man Wol—this time, with a card congratulating him on his employment with Hotel Del Luna. Chan Seong isn’t happy about this as he’s already obtained a job elsewhere. But Man Wol shows up to persuade him. When he continues to refuse her, she gives him the gift of being able to see ghosts—a gift which, unlike flowers, he is unable to give back. And then over time, Chan Seong finds himself starting to care very much for the prickly Man Wol.

Unlike most of the K-dramas I’ve watched in the past, this one operates more like procedural drama: there’s the overarching series arc (Man Wol’s story: gradually we learn more and more about what happened to her); there are smaller stories contained within each episode that involve various ghosts—some of whom become guests at the hotel; and there are slightly longer storylines that span multiple episodes that involve secondary members of the cast—like the three primary employees of Hotel Del Luna, a teenage girl named Yu Na (who has her own complicated story), and Chan Seong’s housemates and college friends. The series contains elements of mystery/crime, horror (because, you know, dead people. Also, I think The Ring is referenced at one point), fairy tale, fantasy and, of course, romance.

Ji Eun Lee (also known, in the K-pop industry, as IU) is fantastic as Man Wol, bringing out the various nuances of her character—particularly in the flash back scenes where she’s playing a much younger and more vulnerable version of Man Wol. I’m not sure if the spiky, difficult female lead is a trope in K-dramas (I haven’t watched enough of them), but aspects of her character reminded me very strongly of Go Moon Young in It’s Okay Not to be Okay. (Her wardrobe is also just as fantastic.) In contrast, Yeo Jin Gu is super sweet as the soft-hearted Goo Chan Seong, and I will never tire of watching leading men being nice to their leading ladies, even when said leading lady is being a total bitch. I also liked that Chan Seong’s character is not afraid to be vulnerable (from my limited viewing, it seems more normal for the male characters Asian dramas to cry on screen; I can’t recall that many scenes in western dramas where that happens)—and he even embraces situations that have the potential to hurt him simply because it’s the right thing to do. Together, they are arguably among the best-looking couples on screen.

The minor characters were also delightful. Their role was often to provide comic relief, but I liked that each of them had very weighty character arcs that caused them grapple with the big themes of the drama. (I just wish the bartender’s—Kim Seon Bi—had been foreshadowed and drawn out a little better; it pretty much gets crammed in at the end and it didn’t make as much sense as some of the others.) Indeed, one of the things I really liked about Hotel Del Luna was watching characters having to confront the anger, resentment and grudges they’d been holding onto for so long (for centuries, for some) and learning to let them go—and then in letting go, finding peace. That’s not a topic I’ve seen tackled very often on television.

All of this was made all the more poignant because of the shadow of death, which stretches long over the entire series. The worldview of Hotel Del Luna is one of reincarnation—to something better if you have lived a worthy life, or something worse if you have not—and reincarnation is something of a plot point involving some of the secondary characters. But even though reincarnation is this world’s reality and death is not really the end, the characters still struggle with the awfulness and finality of death, and have trouble letting go of life, even if they have not truly lived in hundreds of years. There were points where I empathised so strongly with them, I found myself in tears.

Even though the ending hints at a second series (and there’s a definite link to It’s Okay Not to be Okay that I won’t spoil), nothing has been confirmed. If there was a second season, it would be interesting to see the writers take the stories in new directions. But so much terrain has been covered in this one, it’s hard for me to see where they would go with it. Still, I think I’d still watch it—if only for the lead actor.

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Review: The King’s Affection

Netflix

(20 eps/60-70 min ea).

The thing with K-dramas is you have to count the cost before you start: episodes are usually around 60 minutes long, but can also extend to 70 or even (as in the case of the finale of Crash Landing on You) 84 minutes. A 10 or even a 12-episode K-drama is pretty manageable—if there aren’t too many sentimental flashback montages; a 16-episode K-drama can really drag.

The King’s Affection is a whopping TWENTY episodes. Which had me worried. But I am pleased to report that, apart from a few overly sentimental flashback montages set to verrrrry slow K-pop ballads by Lyn and Baek Z Young (ballads being my least favourite musical genre in K-pop), The King’s Affection does not disappoint.

The story is set during the Joseon era: boy/girl twins are born into the royal family, and because it’s considered shameful for a king to have shared a womb with a girl, the royal order is given for the girl to be executed, with Jung Seok-jo, Royal Chief Investigator and right-hand man of the twins’ scheming grandfather on standby, ready to do the deed.

But somehow the twins’ mother saves the girl (Dam-i) and sends her far far away. Then the royal college of midwives is slaughtered to cover up the fact that twins were born at all.

12 years later, Dam-i comes to the capital to serve as a maid in the palace. Because she looks just like the Crown Prince (her brother), she is brought to his attention. The Crown Prince’s beloved tutor has been arrested for treason, and desperate to find out what has happened to him, the prince makes Dam-i swap clothes with him so he can sneak out of the palace and investigate.

Around this time, Dam-i also meets Jung Ji-woon, son of Jung Seok-jo, the Royal Chief Investigator. After she saves Ji-woon from drowning in a pond in the palace grounds, the two become close and start spending time together, and a shy romance begins to blossom between them.

Unfortunately Jung Seok-jo gets wind of the news that the girl twin did not die that night 12 years ago and starts to suspect Dam-i. During one of the instances when the Crown Prince swaps clothes with her, Jung Seok-jo pursues who he thinks is Dam-i and ends up killing the wrong twin. (Trigger warning for those who can’t watch violence against kids: there are a couple of instances of this in the first episode.)

Because of the fact that everyone who had a part in sparing Dam-i’s life when she was a baby would be executed if the truth were ever to come out, Dam-i is forced to step into her brother’s shoes and live her brother’s life as a man, even though she is a woman—and even though she still has feelings for Jung Ji-woon, who ends up coming back into her life years later.

I liked Park Eun-bin (who plays Dam-i) a lot: she does an amazing job in that role, bringing out all the nuances of what it would have been like to be a woman in that era pretending to be a man—and a prince at that. Sometimes I get annoyed with the girls-cross-dressing-as-men trope in Asian dramas, because not all girls can pull it off. (See, for example, Handsome Siblings, where the twin who calls himself “the smartest man in the world” utterly fails to recognise that Tie Xinlan is obviously a woman.) Ni Ni in Rise of the Phoenixes is the most successful, in my humble opinion. Park Eun-bin is still a little too pretty to pass (or maybe the make-up artist gives her a little too much lipstick). But she does well in both her body language and her speech, and I like that the role gives her a lot of freedom not afforded to the other female characters, even as her character is still something of a prisoner. Also, she does a good job of balancing the dramatic moments with the more comedic ones.

I also really liked Rowoon (Jung Ji-woon): he’s given far more to do here than in Extraordinary You, where he functions more as eye candy. (That was a 16-episode K-drama which I also enjoyed, but which really suffered under the weight of far too many sentimental flashback montages, and also could have done with some trimming to make it 12 episodes, not 16.) Also, Rowoon is adorably funny.

I know nothing about attitudes to homosexuality in the Joseon era, but in the world of this K-drama, it seems to have been frowned upon in broader society. So it seemed a little weird to me that Jung Ji-woon experiences little to no conflict within himself about his feelings for the Crown Prince/Dam-i. Indeed, there were elements of the story that made me wonder if the scriptwriters were playing with BL (Boy Love) tropes.

But if they were, that was overshadowed by the main plot concerning Dam-i, the throne, palace politics and her identity as a woman. I liked that, aside from the sentimental flashback montages, the scripts sustained the dramatic tension right up until the very end, making it hard to see how everything could ever come out right in the end. There isn’t a lot of room for the minor characters to have arcs, but the ones who did had some very satisfying ones. (I really liked Kim Ga-on’s, who becomes Dam-i’s body guard.)

You might think that almost 1,400 minutes on one K-drama is not worth it, and I can understand where you’re coming from. But this one I do highly recommend.

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Review: Séance Tea Party (Reimena Yee)

Seance Tea Party (2020)

Reimena Yee

Random House Graphic

(NB: I tried to post a quick review to Instagram a couple of weeks ago, but it exceeded the character limit, so I will post it here.)

Oh man, I seem to be reading all the sad and painful middle grade comics at the moment!

A recent read: The Séance Tea Party by Reimena Yee: 12-year-old Lora Xi is right on that cusp between childhood and adulthood. She still loves to play pretend and make up stories, but she feels like her friends are moving on without her—getting older and turning their attention to more “adult” concerns, like makeup and boys, memes and politics. Lora doesn’t feel ready, so when her close friend Bobby remains out of contact for a while, around the time of Halloween, Lora amuses herself by having a séance tea party and trying to communicate with ghosts.

But then an actual ghost turns up—a ghost named Alexa who is just as lonely as Lora. The two pledge to be BFFs forever, with Alexa showing herself to be a true best friend in helping Lora through some of the parts about growing up that scare her most.

The thing is, helping Lora has stirred up things for Alexa. She can’t remember her past, but over time, it all starts coming back to her …

This book started off a little shakily with a bunch of silent pages: they’re beautiful (and indeed the whole book is in an art style that I quite love—all colour and little to no outlines), but I find it difficult when it’s not always clear who the characters are, what their main relationships are and what’s going on. For a good chunk of the beginning, I thought Lora was a lot older than she is—that she was a high school or possibly a college student.

Once the story hits its stride, however, it’s a poignant depiction of adolescence and the grief tweens can feel over not fitting in, growing up, changing and losing the person they once were. There are some wonderful scenes in the story that I loved—for example, Lora connecting with some older girls and discovering that some of her weird interests align with theirs, or Bobby engaging in some self-reflection on how he’d treated Lora. I liked the ending—particularly what one character says about adulthood—and the final scene seemed like a very fitting conclusion to Lora’s arc.

One thing that surprised me, especially given that Yee is from Kuala Lumpur and now lives in Melbourne, is that the story seems very American: Lora is in junior high (I think) and her school holds a prom. Having read a number of middle grade books recently with that sort of setting, it made me wonder if that’s what the market is demanding. It also made me wonder if non-American middle grade books will fare in that market just as well. The concerns are a little different as, say, the Australian education system is only divided into primary school, high school and university, as opposed to elementary, middle and high school. But hopefully there’s an audience for that sort of thing …?

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Sifting through the culture pile

I’ve been trying to write this post for weeks and part of me feels like I still can’t. It’s not that I don’t have any material; I have stacks of material. It’s that I don’t know what to do with it. I think it might also be part cowardice as well. And fear, which goes with that cowardice: I feel like if I commit these thoughts to publication, they’ll become more real, and that scares me because I’m not entirely sure that this is what I actually think.

But I feel like it’s time I addressed what I am calling the “culture pile”—that is, the big mess of culture stuff in my life that continues to affect me on a day-to-day basis—stuff that, most of the time, I resist examining too closely because I don’t know what to do about it and I don’t know how I feel about it. The thing is, I need to: at the last meeting of my writing group, we workshopped part of my novel and the main bit of feedback I received is that they wanted more of what my protagonist was thinking and feeling about the things that were happening to him/around him. It made me realise that I hadn’t put much of that in because it would mean confronting what I felt/thought about similar things that happened to me. What did I think about those things? How did I feel about them? How did I deal with the experience of being made to feel like I don’t belong—that I’m always on the fringe? And as I thought about these things, I realised my answer is, “I just don’t know.” And maybe, “I don’t want to know.”

To find the answer means digging into the culture pile and I am so not keen to do that. I’m not keen because it’s going to be uncomfortable and difficult and even mildly stressful. There’s a reason why I normally leave it alone. Nevertheless, I think I need to—for the sake of my novel. Perhaps even for the sake of myself.

So strap in. This is going to be another long one, because I am incapable of writing short posts—particularly posts about this sort of thing. And spoiler warning: it’s not going to end well.

Where are you from?

Like most people of colour, this question has dogged me my whole life and it’s annoying because the real answer is complicated. Usually the person who’s asking is usually looking for something in particular, so they ignore the parts of my answer that aren’t relevant to them. They want to know my ethnic/racial heritage, not my cultural heritage, whereas to me, my ethnic/racial heritage is the least interesting part.

In recent years, however, I’ve come to take an almost perverse delight in confounding strangers with what I’ve come to tentatively embrace as my triple cultural heritage. It’s almost a form of revenge: I want them to feel the uncomfortableness I feel, so I no longer make it easy for them. Also, I don’t see why I should. On paper, my name sounds Western: my first name is Scandinavian in origin and my last name is German. If you met me in person, the first thing you’d notice is that I look Asian—black hair, brown eyes, olive skin. But my external appearance isn’t enough of one kind of Asianness to make it obvious what sort of Asian I am: I’m curvier and heavier, and, dare I say, slightly taller than most Asian women, and my nose is different. (Tangent: I remember seeing a weight loss ad while travelling on a bus in Hong Kong and realising I looked like the “before” ad. Not long after, I tried to buy jeans at Uniqlo HK—only to discover that none of them were big enough to fit me. It made me glad that I hadn’t grown up there; perhaps I would have developed an eating disorder.)

This is why I get the “Where are you from?” question most often from other Asians trying to work it out. (Someone—someone who wasn’t Asian, by the way—also once thought I was an indigenous Canadian—perhaps because of my nose and because this person heard that I was born in Canada, which confused them.) Furthermore, I can’t speak any of the Asian languages, and when I do speak, I speak in a mongrel of an accent that’s part Australian and part North American. People ask me to repeat myself all the time because I sound weird to them and I sometimes use terms that are slightly unfamiliar. (I make a point of refusing to pronounce “tomato” the Australian way, for example, [unless it’s with my kids as I didn’t want to confuse them] and for the longest time, I said “washroom” instead of “toilet” or “loo”, and “sidewalk” instead of “footpath”.)

So what am I? Where am I from? I’m going to try and answer that question now. In my own way.

I am Chinese …

Me at the ancestral house in the ancestral village of my father’s family in 2002.

Firstly, ethnically and racially, I’m Chinese through and through. My ancestors came from southern China where it’s hot and humid for most of the year. I think this is why I struggle so much when it’s cold and yet don’t mind the scorching Australian summers as much. My father can trace his family line back to the sixth century AD. My mother knows less about her forebears, but they seem to have come from the same general area. Both my parents were born in Hong Kong to Chinese parents. The only ethnically dubious thing is this very vague reference to one of my father’s ancestors marrying a “princess” from “across the sea”—a woman we know nothing about, and the only reason why we know about her at all is because it’s written in the genealogy on the wall of the temple of my father’s family ancestral village. (I haven’t been there since 2002, but it should be noted that it’s less a village now and more a sprawling metropolis of several million people.)

…. but I am not very Chinese

The thing is, apart from my looks, I am not very Chinese at all. I don’t speak my ancestors’ language—Cantonese. Neither do I speak Mandarin. I know bits and pieces of Cantonese—how to say “Happy Chinese New Year” and a few random words and phrases. But I can’t speak it. I can’t read it (aside from a character or two). Language is a window into culture (as I’ve been learning while progressing through Japanese on Duo Lingo), and me not being in possession of the language is A Very Significant Thing. Well, at least to Asians.

Why did I never learn? My parents didn’t really speak it around me consistently. My mother said that it was easier to just talk to us in English instead of Chinese. My parents sent me to Chinese school when I was young, but when we moved to Australia, there were no Chinese schools—that we knew of, anyway; this was the mid-80s. There was a half-hearted attempt by my father to have me and my brother tutored one time when we visited Hong Kong during the summer and were staying with my grandmother. But my parents didn’t persist with it. So I didn’t persist with it.

Furthermore, the way I was treated by my Chinese relatives and by other Chinese people for not having the language pretty much killed my desire to learn. When we would make those trips to Hong Kong, I was constantly asked, “Why can’t you speak Chinese?”—as if it was my fault and as if genetics should determine linguistics (which is sometimes the attitude of some people I meet, even though it’s illogical). I got so sick of it that, in my childhood pettiness, I resolved never to learn. (Victoria Ying’s comic “Growing up, I felt rejected by the language I was “supposed” to know, so I rejected it back” encapsulates similar feelings.) I realise in hindsight it was the perfectionist part of me getting angry and choosing to rebel. I was a child when these things happened, so I reacted as a child, not as an adult.

Now as an adult, I have found myself learning Chinese very indirectly through Japanese, because Japan borrowed the Chinese writing system (the kanji), so even though the words don’t sound the same, the meaning usually is (sort of). This means that I can recognise certain characters now—numbers, certain nouns and so on. I did start the Duo Lingo Mandarin course once, but found it difficult and stopped. Cantonese is probably more useful to my life, but there is no Duo Lingo Cantonese course (too difficult, perhaps?), and even if there was, I wonder if my emotional baggage around all this would prevent me from giving it a go. I don’t know. The nice thing about Duo Lingo is that, even though it’s not proper and serious language learning, you can do it in private and not have people laugh at you for stuffing up. Which is another thing I am overly sensitive about. (I identify with some of the people interviewed in this NPR Rough Translation episode “How to speak bad English” who feel awkward about speaking English because they don’t speak it “well”. But for me, it’s speaking all languages other than English.)

I am also not very Chinese culturally. Well, I am and I’m not. It should be noted that I have never lived in and I did not grown up in an Asian culture; my upbringing has taken place solely in Western nations. And yet there are things that resonate with me about being Asian. When Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings came out, I found the media coverage about it absolutely fascinating. For example, this tweet by main actor Simu Liu (who is Chinese Canadian, by the way):

It made me laugh, and I sort of identified with it, even though I didn’t have Tiger parents who pushed me and who made me feel not good enough. On the contrary, my parents never put that kind of academic pressure on me. But then I suppose they didn’t have to: my grades were always good and I was a model student. I always conformed to the Asian academic ideal—often without even trying. I showed respect and obedience to my elders (parents, relatives, teachers, anyone older than me), even if I didn’t feel it. I took on my parents’ work ethic, which they led by example; I didn’t need it drummed into me. If I wasn’t good at something, I always tried. If I didn’t know how to do something, I would find out. If I didn’t know something, I would figure out where to learn. I don’t know if that way of operating independently was because of them or because of my education or because I’ve always been quite self-motivated. I suppose it’s all those things.

Growing up, my family ate Chinese food and celebrated Chinese holidays (mostly Chinese New Year; less so the August Moon Festival). We’d go to yum cha and dinner in Chinese restaurants where we ate real Chinese food (not your Australianised fried rice/honey chicken/beef in black bean sauce variety), where my father would always know the boss, where we’d get seated at the best tables, and where he’d order for everyone without consulting anyone, but always including our favourite dishes. My father would take us to Hong Kong regularly to visit his mother and other relatives. (My mum never came with us; she was usually working.) We would stay at my grandmother’s place, and my dad and grandma would buy us toys to play with—the kind you couldn’t get in Australia (usually Hello Kitty stuff for me, but some other toys too; hey, I was raised on the concept of kawaii, which seeped into Chinese culture from Japan, and I don’t have a problem with adults liking stuffed toys). We spent a lot of time watching Hong Kong TV (anime-type shows that I couldn’t understand; there were no subtitles), eating out in places where I couldn’t read the menu, and visiting relatives who would often be critical—not just of my lack of language, but also other things in the way relatives do—making comments about my appearance (most of which, fortunately, I didn’t understand. But I do remember once an elderly relative telling me I shouldn’t tie my hair up in a ponytail because I was young and unmarried as only older and married women wore their hair up; girls of my age should wear it down).

The things I struggled with were more to do with traditions and values I didn’t understand or didn’t share. Filial loyalty and the importance of family (which I think only hit home when I watched The Legend of White Snake on Netflix and reached the scene where Xu Xian’s family refuse to let him marry Bai Suzhen because they know nothing about her and her family.) The importance of making lots of money and being wealthy—and therefore pursuing a good career. (Wanting to be a writer and studying Creative Arts did not go down so well with my extended family, though my immediate family were mostly supportive.) Who to marry, and whether he was well off enough to support me. (I married a white guy and it was A Big Deal, though I didn’t know that until later.) Who gives gifts/red packets to whom. (I’m still confused about that and it’s become more of an issue now that I’ve got nieces and nephews.) The endless number of obscure Chinese superstitions that I find ridiculous and refused to let rule my life—for example, it’s bad luck to give someone a clock as a gift (because the word sounds like death???), but watches are fine; the numbers four and nine are a problem; you eat black hairy fungus at Chinese New Year because the name for it sounds like the word for prosperity and riches; the fights I got into when I got married because we had set the wedding date too close to Chinese New Year, which was unlucky and inauspicious, plus I got in trouble for wanting to print my wedding invitations in blue and white. (This is why the wedding banquet scene in The Farewell doesn’t seem right to me; the characters would never have decorated the room in blue and white.) Also, being Christian (though my parents never opposed that outright and more or less respected my beliefs—perhaps because they were nominal about that sort of thing themselves).

There are Asian things (like Simu Liu’s tweet) that I recognise and identify with, and yet there are many things I don’t. I present as Chinese, but I’m not really Chinese. And to compound things, sometimes Chinese people don’t think of me as Chinese either—because I don’t speak the language, because I never lived in Asia and because I’m married to a white guy. (Tangent: I can understand where the writer of this Salon.com article “K-dramas cured my prejudice against Asian men” is coming from because, like her, I didn’t grow up in a culture that viewed Asian men as being desirable. My [very short] romantic history has only ever been with white men. But then I also wasn’t around very many Asian men.)

If I’m not Chinese to Chinese people and I’m Chinese to everyone else, what am I? (Cue College Humor video: “Are you Asian enough?”):

All this further complicated by my feelings about the so-called “Motherland”: China. China feels like a behemoth to me: it contains such a long, rich and complex history of different peoples and cultures that it has tried to subjugate and unify through things like its writing system, Confucianism, Buddhism, education, government policy, and persecution of anyone who is different. (An over-simplification, perhaps? Still, surely it’s fair to say that China is way less multicultural than other parts of the world.) I saw some of the footage of protests in Hong Kong against Chinese interference in government elections, and the response of the authorities, and I could understand where the protestors were coming from. I read about the treatment of the Uyghur people at the hands of the Chinese government, and then Chinese people I know tell me it’s not true and that I’m being brainwashed by Western media. I’m all too aware that being Christian in China is problematic. (Recently, Apple took down a Bible app and a Quran app in the Chinese app store at the request of their government.) So how can I call myself Chinese when there is so much I am uncomfortable about with regards to China?

I am Australian …

Me at the beach sometime in 1997. Look at my Australian tan!

The second part of my triple cultural heritage is that I am Australian. I wasn’t born here, but I hold Australian citizenship and I have the right to vote in Australia’s elections. I have spent the majority of my life living in Australia: I’ve been here from the age of six. My education has been thoroughly Australian—primary school (all except Kindergarten), high school, university, and even theological study. I was taught Australian history, Australian government and Australian spelling. We learned the national anthem by singing it over and over again in at assemblies. I danced the Nutbush, along with all my other school mates. I learned to dodge swooping magpies in the spring, and my friends served fairy bread, meat pies and sausage rolls at their birthday parties. We observed Australia Day by watching the fireworks, and I had to adjust to celebrating my birthday in winter and Christmas in summer.

In many ways, I am what they call a “banana”—yellow/Asian on the outside; white on the inside. My education was very Western: I grew up reading European fairy tales, as well as Shakespeare, Austen and the other giants of English literature. All the history I learned was very Western/English/European-centric. It did not to occur to me, as I was learning art history in Year 12, that the curriculum was only focused on one part of the world. I imbibed Western values such as freedom, the rights of individuals (over the collective), the equality of all human beings, the importance of self-expression and self-actualisation, and multiculturalism.

It’s not that Australia is free of racism. It most definitely is not; it’s in deep denial about the fact that its history has always been multicultural. But when you live in a place like Sydney whose inhabitants include people from all over the world (which hasn’t always been the case, I know; a lot changed between when my family arrived here in the mid-80s to now), you learn to co-exist peacefully. You benefit from the rich array of cultures you brush up against. I had friends in high school and university who were Australian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Malaysian, Singaporean, Indian, Afghan, American, and so on. When difference is all around you, you get used to living with it.

… but I am not very Australian

That said, I’m not very Australian. I grew up here, but I didn’t have the typical Australian upbringing that many of my Aussie friends had. I don’t recognise some of the things in Bluey that resonate with them. There are overlaps, of course—things I talked about in the previous section. But there were also differences: my friends didn’t celebrate Chinese New Year. They didn’t have the large sprawling extended family that I had, with too many uncles, aunts and cousins to name or count. They didn’t get their toys and stationery from Hong Kong—Hello Kitty toys, double-sided coloured pencils and pencil cases with pop-up compartments—the kind that didn’t emerge until Smiggle started making them about twenty years later.

Furthermore, when I first arrived in Australia, Asians were a very small minority. I stood out like a sore thumb. For the longest time, there was only one other Asian kid in my entire primary school, and the other kids would make jokes about how we should pair out and go out because we were both Asian. That changed in late primary school—particularly around the time of the handover of Hong Kong in 1987 and the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, when many of Hong Kong’s residents decided to emigrate to Australia. By the time I reached Year 5, the number of Asian girls in my class had quadrupled, with the four of us having alphabetically consecutive (English) names: Jennifer, Karen, Loretta and Michelle.

Even so, by that stage, I was still very different from them. Too different, perhaps. Not only did I not speak Chinese, I had lived here for 4-5 years longer than they had. I was effectively more “Australian” than they were, but I wasn’t as Australian as the Australians around me.

And to some Australians, I was not Australian at all. As I said, Australia is largely multicultural, but it has a long history of racism that it has never come to terms with. Remember, the White Australia Policy of 1901 was largely enacted in response to Asians coming to this country during the gold rush. Asians fought for Australia in World War II and were treated abominably by the government and not allowed to stay. There are Asian families who can trace their lineage back generations and who have known nothing but Australia their entire lives. Yet they will still encounter people who say to them, “Go back to your own country!” (You can read some of their stories in Growing Up Asian in Australia, which I have started, but not yet finished.)

It’s hard to feel like you’re Australian when other people don’t treat you like you are. I remember a couple of women knocking our front door about something (they might have been Jehovah’s Witnesses) and asking me if I spoke English. I remember a boy whizzing past on his skateboard who, when he caught sight of me, started to kowtow mockingly. I remember going to a Chinese restaurant with a bunch of Australians and feeling mystified when they all picked up the dishes and passed them to each other to serve themselves food, instead of reaching out and grab the way my relatives did. I remember how the way the waiters at the local Chinese restaurant we frequented acted one way when my father was around and another way when it was me and my Australian friends. All these things reminded me how different I am.

I am Canadian …

Me at Casa Loma (i.e. Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters) in Toronto in 2005.

Prong three: I am Canadian. I was born in Canada (in summer). I hold Canadian citizenship. I attended primary school and two years of kindergarten in a Canadian school that taught me French as well as English. I remember tobogganning and making snow angels in the winter; the slush and the flowers blooming in the spring; the hot glorious summers when the sun wouldn’t set until 9pm; the maple leaves falling into large piles you couldn’t resist kicking about and going trick-or-treating in the fall. I remember going to childcare and pulling the ribbon out of a cassette tape, and not being able to sleep during nap time. I remember going to the wrong classroom on the first day of school because Kindergarten 2 had a play kitchen, which looked WAY more fun, and when they’d realised they’d lost me, someone came to bring me back. I remember refusing to wear ski pants in the winter because I hated them and would only permit leg warmers. I remember eating lunches in a cafeteria, though I think we still had to bring our own. I remember going to after school care, being served celery with peanut butter (I ate the peanut butter and left the celery), and getting freaked out by an animated short about a giant cake that came to life and ran around the countryside, eating people.

I remember being surrounded by kids of other races—including Chinese kids—and race never being an issue among us. That said, I also remember growing up reading the children’s version of Obasan by Joy Kogawa and not quite understanding about the internment of the Japanese during World War II, as well as another book about a girl from one of the indigenous peoples of Canada learning to perform one of the dances of her tribe. I also remember going to Chinese class with some of those kids after school. (I remember nothing about actual Chinese class.) I remember going to dinner at a Chinese restaurant with a white family and their kid eating more of the food than I did. (I would only eat white rice.)

My Canadianness is harder to define. It comes out in my mongrel accent, though a couple of years ago, a Canadian couple at church told me they couldn’t hear it, which made me sad. (Recently when I went for a medical appointment, the specialist asked me about it, so obviously he could hear it and that made me happy again. Though I’ve noticed in recent years that I have actually become better at sounding Australian, depending on who I’m talking to.)  It comes out in bits of terminology that I haven’t been able to jettison—“washroom”, “sidewalk”, “to-MATE-to”. I see it in my confusion over the gender segregation of certain spaces—like the Moore College dining room, where girls would only sit with girls and guys would only sit with guys (though if Ben and I sat down at a table together, it would fill up with married couples, which was just as weird). Being good friends with someone of the opposite sex is not done so much in Australia, or at least it wasn’t when I was growing up. (Or maybe it was because I went to an all-girls high school.) Those friendships between girls and boys you see on the silver screen in American cinema aren’t so much a thing here, I think. I also see my Canadianness in my refusal imitate the Australians in cutting down the Tall Poppies (arguably one of the worst parts of Australian culture): Canadians, like most North Americans, I think, are a lot more encouraging and supportive of others. In Australia, if you talk about talk about your achievements, people think you’re boasting.

… but I am not very Canadian

It’s been over 30 years since I lived in Canada and enjoyed white Christmases. It’s been at least 16 years since I was last there and no doubt, a lot’s changed. For one thing, a number of people we used to know there have died. Obviously the country in which I was born is no longer the same, and my memories of it are of a particular time and place. While I still sound a bit Canadian, my mongrel accent also marks me as Australian, so I can hardly blame other Canadians for thinking I don’t quite belong. There is nothing about my appearance that marks me as a Canadian, and yet I am one. And the only way I can prove it to you is with my birth certificate and my passport.

Culture stress

Me and a lovely Totoro cosplayer at SMASH! in 2015

The year I was a student at theological college, I remember taking a subject on cross-cultural communication with Mike Raiter, who had been a missionary in Pakistan. He talked about this thing he called culture stress—the discomfort and strain you feel when you have to adjust to a new way of living in a new culture. He told us a story about coming back on home assignment and having a minor meltdown when a cashier innocently asked him if he wanted to pay by EFTPOS—a technology he was not familiar with, having lived in a place where it was unavailable for the past three years.

You’re probably familiar with this feeling by now, because you, like the rest of the world, have actually experienced it in recent years: Simon Gilham, Head of Mission at Moore College, pointed out most helpfully on the CCL podcast that during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, we were all experiencing culture stress:

[B]efore I went to be a missionary in Africa—so we were eight years in Namibia—before we went, we spent six months doing cross-cultural mission training. And during that training, we learnt a heap of things. But one of the big things we learnt was about adjusting to a new culture and the idea of culture shock. And you get culture shock because you’re in a world in a place that is so different to what you’re used to. And that difference is exhausting and it’s off-putting, and I used to know where everything was and now I don’t know where things are, and I used to know how to shop, and now I’m not sure how … and—and there are different languages and different greetings and different ways of communicating … and every single one of us is now living that experience.

So we’ve all entered a new culture, but with no training! And I think one of the things I’d like to say to everybody is if you’re feeling exhausted by this, yep: that’s about normal. You’ve got to expect that this is exhausting. There’s a whole lot of grief tied up in it. So I’m grieving the things that I used to know how to do, but now I don’t know how to do. I mean, even just think of going to the shops: I used to be able to go there anytime and I’d be able to pick up exactly the brand of thing that I wanted and pay my money and get back in the car, and it was—it was a simple thing. And now it’s not. And I used to be able to go out whenever I wanted—to meet up with people whenever I—and I can’t. So there’s a whole lot of grief. People have planned weddings—have planned big parties—there’s anniversaries—graduations. Cancelled. And all of those things bring grief and that grief with my new incompetence is exhausting.

When I first heard about that idea of culture stress, it really resonated me and made me realise that with my triple-barrelled cultural heritage, I feel like that All. The. Time. After so many years, it’s now more low-level, and most of the time when these things aren’t in competition with each other, it’s not a problem and I don’t think about it. But every now and then, it does take a mental and emotional toll. I constantly feel like I’m on the outside, even when I’m on the outside—that I don’t belong, even though everyone’s being very welcoming and no one is doing anything hurtful or racist or exclusionary.

I realised the difference the first time I went to SMASH!, the Sydney manga and anime show. I wouldn’t call myself a big fan of anime; there are movies and shows I like, but there are also masses of movies and shows I’ve never seen, and if you talk to me about Naruto or One Piece or Attack on Titan, I would be lost as I actually don’t know anything about them, aside from their titles. Even so, at SMASH!, I felt curiously at home—arguably the most at home in a public place I’ve ever felt in my whole life. It was partly because the demographics of con-goers was very multicultural and strongly skewed towards the Asians. It was partly because I was surrounded by the trappings of Asian culture I was familiar with, even if many of them were mostly Japanese—anime pop culture, maid cafés, karaoke, kawaii culture, craft tables for making origami and other little things. But also, it was also being able to be there in a very Asian space without anyone expecting me to speak in any language other than English.

Another example: when Crazy Rich Asians came out, I remember feeling excited and keen to see it, despite not having read the book at the time. Then I asked my father and stepmother when we were out at yum cha if they had heard of it and would go to see it, and being slightly discouraged by their lukewarm response. Then I realised why it mattered more to me than it did to them: they live in China and Hong Kong and see representations of themselves in mainstream media all the time, whereas I live in Australia where the only Asian on TV when I was growing up was Lee Lin Chin, a newsreader for SBS. When Neighbours introduced an Asian cast member in the early 2000s, I was shocked at how much I had never thought about it before, and when So You Think You Can Dance? Australia aired for the first time in 2008, I was bowled over because it was the first time I had ever seen the multiculturalism of Australia on full display on Australian TV. (It’s interesting that Simu Liu says something similar about Asian representation in media, growing up in Canada.) The night I went to see Crazy Rich Asians at the cinema with two Asian Australian friends in the middle of the city was amazing and reminded me of being at SMASH! The cinema was packed—again, a multicultural audience, but strongly skewed towards Asians—and even though we didn’t know anyone else in the theatre, I still felt like we shared an understanding, laughing at and identifying with the same (or similar) things in the movie. 

In contrast, I went to see The Farewell with one of those friends in a small indie theatre in Newtown in a theatre full of white people, and he and I laughed at things that everyone else didn’t laugh at (and they wondered, perhaps, why we were laughing), and I nudged my friend to point out the incongruity of the colours during the wedding banquet scene while the rest of the audience didn’t batt and eyelid.

It’s a shock, you see, for me to be somewhere and actually feel comfortable. I’ve spent the majority of my life feeling mildly uncomfortable—feeling that I don’t quite fit in, that I don’t quite belong, that I don’t quite match with the culture around me. There are certain friends in whose company this is not the case. But as for the rest of the time …

I am Christian

Me and baby on mission at Sawtell in 2012.

Of course in all the above, I’ve neglected one key thing in the cultural pile—the thing that is the true locus of my identity, which lies not in my race, but in my religion. I am a Christian, and Christianity brings with it its own pieces of culture that overlap with all the others. It’s not completely Western or Eastern, and it’s not completely Chinese or Australian or Canadian. But there are aspects of it that dovetail with aspects of those. It’s just that we tend not to realise what those are until we hear from missionaries.

For example, a missionary family in Africa that we partner with at my church talked recently about how looking to and respecting elders and teachers is a big part of African culture. This means that questioning them is a sign of disrespect, and the students at the Bible college where these missionaries were serving would never ever do it. However, our missionary friends were trying to teach these students how to read the Bible for themselves, encouraging them to ask questions of the text and then work out the answers together. They didn’t want to tell the students what the Bible was saying; they wanted the students, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discover that for themselves using the tools of good Bible reading skills that they were teaching them. Furthermore, they wanted to normalise a culture in which it’s okay to say you don’t know something. The Bible is a large and complex book, and not even the most expert of experts knows everything about it. But in African culture, it’s unheard of for those in authority to say they don’t know something because it’s a sign of weakness.

I could go on. I could go on about Christianity’s egalitarian attitude towards humanity—that we’re equal in sin and equal in redemption (Rom 3:23-24); how racism is completely inappropriate because all nations were created by God under God (Gal 3:28; Acts 17:24-27); how gathering with other Christians is important (Heb 10:24); how singing is an essential part of worship (Col 3:16); how Bible reading and prayer are the non-negotiable activities of all Christians (2 Tim 3:16; 1 Thess 5:17; James 5:13-16)—and so on, but I fear I have tested your patience with the length of this post for long enough. Let’s finish up.

Where are you really from?

Me in Sydney in 2020.

I am pulling out all these examples and thoughts, and presenting them to you for your sampling pleasure. But to return to the questions from the beginning of my post, how do I feel about all this?

And I still don’t know.

Well, I know some things. I’m angry about the times when I was intentionally excluded. I’m tired of trying to make myself be understood. I’m constantly stressed, trying to navigate spaces and cultures where I still don’t feel 100 per cent comfortable. I’m exhausted with the effort of doing all that, and I’m resigned to the fact that things will, for the most part, continue to be this way.

That said, I’m overjoyed when I discover places and spaces where I feel like I fit. I love that I can talk about these things with certain people who are actually interested and who don’t mind my tentative explorations of culture and language and identity. I’m starting to embrace some of the benefits of being a child of three different nations/nationalities/cultures. I’m still learning to sit comfortably in my difference.

Is that a satisfactory answer? Does that help me with my novel? Hmm, good question.

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Review: Nightbooks

Netflix, 2021. 1hr 43 min

The creep factor is present from the very beginning of this movie: it is, of course, a dark and stormy night, and 10? 12?-year-old Alex is upset and raging, tearing down posters of shlocky horror films from the 1980s and screaming about how he wants to burn it all. His parents are having an argument about him and some trauma that he’s recently endured. Clearly, they’re worried about him. He runs out of their apartment and into the lift, intending to set his books alight in the building’s boiler room. But instead, with a slice of pumpkin pie and an unattended television screening The Lost Boys, he is ensnared by a beautiful witch named Natacha (played by Krysten Ritter, who looks like she’s having way too much fun) and forced to prove his usefulness to her by reading her a new scary story every night.

Alex is not the only child that Natacha has ensnared: her creepy granny kitsch apartment also houses Yasmin, a girl about Alex’s age who cooks and cleans for Natacha, and a hairless spiteful cat named Lenore, who acts like a spy for the witch and who likes to turn invisible. At first, both Yasmin and Lenore are hostile to Alex. But shared adversity forges powerful bonds, and soon Alex and Yasmin are plotting together to find ways to escape.

I haven’t watched or read that much middle grade horror (Stranger Things and Monster House is about the extent of it), and horror really isn’t my genre. Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed this one—perhaps because it was consciously steeped in fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel references abound) and 80s horror tropes. It was fun seeing Alex read his stories (which were dramatised in a heavily stylised way that I thought befit the tale-within-a-tale thing they were going for) and having to endure the world’s worst writing critique group in the form of an impatient, nitpicky and exacting Natacha. (“Writers. Always so insecure.” *Cue snarky giggles from me.*) The way his writers block was depicted made me laugh while, at the same time, I kept yelling at the screen for him to go take a walk or read some of the many tomes that comprised the library he was forced to work in. (Indeed, give it’s Week #15 of lockdown, I rather envied the fact that he had TIME and SPACE to write—time and space UNINTERRUPTED, at that!) It was also very emotionally satisfying seeing him and Yasmin slowly begin to connect, and I enjoyed the spark of cleverness Alex displayed in trying to trick the witch into revealing some key piece of information. The jump scares were a little cheesy, bordering on predictable. But this is a kids movie, and perhaps some leniency is in order.

Indeed, I wondered how much my viewing the film as an adult was colouring my perceptions of the film. There were points at which I felt that the kids were being a bit slow or a bit stupid—that they should have acted and done certain things to help themselves, or done certain things sooner. I wondered how a kid would have found it and whether they would have empathised with the main characters’ paralysis and indecision. In particular, I wonder how they would have responded to the big reveal, when Alex finally answers Natacha’s question about why he was so keen to burn his writing (which he has scribbled in journals he calls his “Nightbooks”). For me, I felt like this could have been seeded better and earlier so that the emotional weight of Alex’s trauma could have hit harder.

Indeed, in spite of some pretty decent pacing, some of the plot twists and character arcs felt a bit predictable (even though I liked some of them), and if you think too hard about the story and its world building, you’ll come across some curious holes. (That said, and given that the movie is based on a book of the same name by JA White [which I have not read], I wondered if the movie would have worked better as a miniseries, with more time and space to allow the stories—and back stories—to breathe a little more.)

Final thing: the production design on this movie is gorgeously nightmarish—from the William Morris wallpaper to the antique porcelain dolls to the cobwebbed spiral staircased library, and even a gingerbread house that looks both mouthwatering, yet sweetly and sickly gross. Natacha’s wardrobe is also fabulously retro and over-the-top, with iridescent fabrics, sequins for days and eye-wateringly high platforms galore. The score was comprised of some rather over-used high strings. But I really like the CHVRCHES cover of “Cry Little Sister” (which comes from The Lost Boys): not only are they one of my most favourite bands, I felt that fit really well with CHVRCHES’ aesthetic.

If you and/or your kids like creepy stories, this one’s for you—and just in time for Halloween.