Here’s Volume 2 of Chinese New Year with the Cousins-in-law. Am I a real zinester yet?
As I’d hoped, I went to the AAPI Dialogues zine-making workshop in Powell Library with Isabelle last week. The workshop was part of the Common Book events related to Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, which started as zines. Someone explained how to make a zine out of a single sheet of paper (the same technique we’d learned at the Long Beach Zine Fest), and then the rest of the workshop was completely unstructured. There were tables set up with stacks of colored paper, pens, crayons, glitter, and piles of magazines for cutting up. There were a lot of issues of KoreAm, and I also found an issue of the bilingual WAPOW/華報, an LA Chinatown magazine. I made a larger format zine about some of my friendships. It’s all text, no illustrations, except for borders in colored Sharpie. Toward the end of the workshop somebody saw how much I’d written and remarked that I’d produced a lot of “content.”
The next day, I made it to the AAPI Dialogues book club for Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do. It was the second week, but they alternate between Wednesdays and Thursdays, and I can only go on Wednesdays. It’s a very small group, but I enjoyed it a lot; it was nice to get out of my department and spend some time with some folks in Asian American Studies. We actually only talked about the book about half the time. The rest of the conversation was wide-ranging. There were other writers, so we talked about our stories, and opportunities for writers of color, and speculative fiction. I’m looking forward to going back!
At the zine-making workshop, I’d folded a single-sheet zine but hadn’t started making a zine out of it because I didn’t have a fully formed idea. I’d had the seed of an idea about preparing for Chinese New Year with new relatives I didn’t know very well, but it wasn’t until later in the week that circumstances gave rise to new material for such a zine. On Thursday evening, I wrote and illustrated most of what would become Chinese New Year with the Cousins-in-law, Vol. 1. I left the last page blank because I didn’t yet know what was going to happen!
Last year, I wrote about going to my mother’s cousin’s wedding in Maui. My cousin’s wife is from Los Angeles, and this year I was invited to join her family for Chinese New Year. My cousin and his wife and my great-aunt from Minnesota, who was visiting them, came down from San Francisco. I got picked up on Friday afternoon and stayed with the cousins-in-law for about 24 hours. On Friday evening, fourteen of us had dinner at a restaurant. We had lobster, crab and fish maw soup, and white cut chicken, among other dishes (I only figured out what some of the food was (called) afterwards). I stayed overnight, and the following morning, my great-aunt, my cousin, his wife, her aunt, and her aunt’s son went to Din Tai Fung at a mall that was well-decorated for the Lunar New Year. We had xiaolongbao and other dumplings and noodles and black sesame buns for dessert. Later that day, my cousin took me back to the Westside, and in the evening, my friend Meng hosted the Chinese and Chinese-affiliated folks from the department for hotpot. So I think I can say I thoroughly celebrated Chinese New Year.
And here is Chinese New Year with the Cousins-in-law, Vol. 1! Stay tuned for Vol. 2!
Last week Isabelle and I went to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. It’s a splendid aquarium, and we spent a long time looking at everything. Here are some of the highlights:
In addition to the above, we saw:
- Penguins, who did some every enthusiastic laps of their tank, leaping and diving like dolphins and swimming very fast
- An otter
- A petting tide pool with colorful starfish, anemones, and sea urchins. If you put a finger or two among the sea urchins’ spines, the spines gently close around your fingers–the tide pool volunteer called these hugs!
- Seahorses and seadragons (both weedy and leafy)
- Many, many fish, many of which have fantastic names. There are all the compounds imaginable, from rabbitfish to porcupinefish, and then there are the Korean lumpsuckers and the sarcastic fringeheads…
After visiting the aquarium, we had pho for lunch and then walked to the central public library, which has a zine collection. (We’d tried to go after the Long Beach Zine Fest, but that was a Sunday, and the library was closed.) First we found my books!
Then we browsed the zines, picked out ones that had caught our eye until we each had a stack, and sat down to read them. I had chosen a couple by and about indigenous women and one that was a collection of someone’s Livejournal entries. Isabelle passed me one in which the artist/zinester annotated the journal he’d kept on a high school trip to Paris. I like the idea of reading other people’s diary entries, I guess, though I should know from my own journal that they’re often quite boring. I’m definitely not enmeshed in zine culture, and so far zines have tended to be hit or miss for me, but every so often I stumble upon a sentence that’s so relatable it feels a little magical.
A few weeks ago, a cart of free books appeared in the entryway of Campbell Hall, the building that houses the Linguistics Department. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, but this time the books were all the same, and the cart was stuffed with them. After making certain the books were really free for the taking, by anyone, I slid one out to take a look. The book was Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir The Best We Could Do, and when I leafed through it, I realized I’d read an excerpt of it online a while ago. The books were a special edition with a UCLA Common Book seal on the cover and discussion questions inside. I took the copy I’d picked out up to the phonetics lab and told two friends about it. When they saw the book was graphic (a comic book, if you will), they both immediately went downstairs to snag copies for themselves. The book cart was replenished in the days that followed, and I think the campus is actually swimming in copies of The Best We Could Do.
I read the book soon after, over the course of two days. The Best We Could Do is the story of Thi Bui’s family. It opens with her giving birth to her son in a hospital in New York with her husband and her mother. Then it goes back to tell of her mother’s experiences of giving birth, to six children, four of whom survived. The narrative skips around in time, but it traces her mother and father’s very different childhoods and youths against the backdrop of the end of French colonial rule and the beginning of the Vietnam War. It also follows what became of her parents’ parents and grandparents, especially on her father’s side. Thi, her two older sisters, and her parents left Vietnam on a boat, spent time in a refugee camp in Malaysia, and then immigrated to the United States. Thi depicts many different threads of family history, complicated relationships and choices, willingness and reluctance to speak, closeness and distance, and her own inherited fears and instincts and her desire to know her parents better.
I enjoyed Thi Bui’s book, and it also made me envious. She writes about starting the work for this book as a graduate student, trying to interview her parents. It didn’t work that well; they didn’t seem to want to answer her questions. She also writes about how her mother was more willing to tell her (Thi’s) husband things about her past, in English, than she was willing to tell Thi things directly. These difficulties were on the page, but at the end of the day, Thi Bui had produced this family memoir that contained the histories of her parents and some of her grandparents and great-grandparents. She found out what there was to find out. And I envied her because I don’t know much about my family members’ history before they arrived in the U.S. from Hong Kong, and before they arrived in Hong Kong from China, and I’m not sure it would be easy for me to find out more. Generationally speaking, I correspond roughly to Thi’s mixed race son while my mother corresponds to Thi.
Last week, Thi Bui was on campus for an author event, part of the UCLA Common Book/First Year Experience programming. I went with Meng and ZL, two friends from the department, both of whom had also gotten the book. The audience appeared to be heavily Asian-American, kind of like at the panel with MILCK, Yumi Sakugawa, and Krista Suh last year. The first part of the evening was a conversation between T.K. Le, from Asian American Studies (down the hall from Linguistics!), and Thi Bui. T.K. had prepared a number of questions, and the discussion was fairly wide-ranging. Thi said something that made me feel less disappointed that I hadn’t learned everything about my family history: her parents were talkers, that is, willing to talk about the past, and the more she spoke with other Vietnamese-Americans the mroe she realized this wasn’t typical. So, maybe not everybody can write a family memoir if only they try hard enough! Thi also said that before The Best We Could Do was a book she took the first chapters to zinefests as zines!
After the conversation, an audience Q & A began. The very first question came from the person sitting right behind me, and when she introduced herself, my heart leaped. It was the film student I’d met at Yumi Sakugawa’s meditation workshop last June, the one who had been working on a documentary on Yumi! After the Q & A (lots of questions from Vietnamese-American students), I turned around and reintroduced myself to the film student. My friends decided not to stick around for the book signing, but the film student and I stayed, and somehow we ended up practically at the tail end of a very long line. During the hour and a half we waited to meet Thi Bui, we more or less told each other our life stories. And she sent me her documentary!
I’m glad I got to meet Thi Bui and get my book signed, but the most delightful part of the evening was the serendipity of meeting the film student again. Also, in the coming weeks, the campus collective AAPI Dialogues is hosting a zine-making workshop and a lunchtime book club on The Best We Could Do. I’m hoping to make the workshop and at least some of the lunch discussions, so you might hear more about that.