Search high and low, follow every social media platform, every path you (don’t) know; or, Of Names and Mountains

So apparently it took a pandemic for me to get an Instagram account. It’s over @shiningathetop – which might have you wondering why I’m not at the usual carotidartistry. Allow me to save you from what I’m sure would be endless sleepless nights of wondering. At the root of it, of course, is the fact that I resisted getting an account for so long that both my traditional username (which, for the record, I’ve been using since I needed a new, non-embarrassing handle for the resurgently popular Les Misérables messageboards in 2012) (no shade to the other account here, you got there first, it’s fair play, I should have known better as a former LiveJournal user) as well as any variant on my professional name that wasn’t excessively Early AOL Chic were all taken. So I was stumped for a bit, until my brain turned up a question that artist Chloe Rozo once posed, which asked that if you were to get a dream tattoo, what would it be? Now, I am far too commitment-shy to get a tattoo, but I’d considered the question and spitballed a geometric abstraction of the meaning of my birth name, something that I hadn’t thought about in a long while.

The meaning of my birth name is, as you might have now guessed, allegedly “shining at the top.” I say “allegedly” because neither accuracy of records nor cultural competency were particularly hallmarks of the international adoption scene of the mid-1980s. But where’s the fun in letting rigorous accuracy get in the way of some good personal mythology? So, no, while my very healthy ego has been supportive to me during these trying times, this isn’t based (entirely) in my sense of personal superiority. There’s also a lot of personal stupidity and pig-headedness. Realizing that this name was available to me set me reminiscing about the opposite of quarantine and the ultimate in distance: my trip to South Korea in 2017, after I’d finished working on an opera for the Japan Society at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan.

It was my first time returning to Korea since birth, and I knew that one of the things I needed to do while in Seoul was go hiking around Bugaksan. Simply due to the dates of the job, I was arriving at the tail end of chuseok when many attractions would be closed, so I’d planned that I’d go whenever the first day of good weather occurred. That ended up being my first full day there. So, with no experience with the transit system whatsoever, a three-year-old’s grasp of the language, and no actual hiking gear, I set out from my adoptee lodging house, got off the bus too early, learned the hard way that google maps doesn’t work for walking directions there, and had already walked for heaven knows how long before I even reached the entrance of the park. Up I went, climbing so many stairs, passing signs warning about wild boars, climbing more stairs, and then running out of stairs but still having farther to climb, all the while reliving my childhood memory of the martial arts instructor at Camp Mujigae telling us how taekwondo has so much kicking because Korean people have strong legs because they had to climb so many mountains. I honestly had no idea where I was actually going, just that as long as I could still go up, I’d keep going. And then at some point, sweaty and dusty, literally climbing hand and foot up rocks, I reached a peak. I ate my convenience store kimbap and then just sat alone for a long while.

Based on the map I found when I came back down, I somehow deduced that it was maybe Bohyeongbong Peak, but honestly, I don’t really know. I was very informed and civilized for the rest of my trip, dressing up to go to the palace and visiting many museums and participating in many other cultural pursuits, but somehow, stubbornly walking along the side of the road to get to a park to climb up a mountain past the point where the path stopped – without specifically aiming to, I feel like I started out that journey with peak me. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing for me to be keeping in mind.

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Yeah, me, too, buddy.

“Is it anything and everything you hoped for?” Black Panther, PyeongChang, and me.

Last week, Thursday was a major holiday in my world. The atmosphere was already high from the Olympics running in PyeongChang. And it was the Lunar New Year (i.e., “Chinese” New Year, which is a fine name for it if you’re actually Chinese, but pro-tip: maybe don’t repeatedly ask an Asian what they’re doing for Chinese New Year if they’re not, you know, Chinese). And on top of that, it was opening night for Black Panther. (Thank you to the marketing folks who realized that old people with early bedtimes get very excited about movies, too.) And not only was Black Panther just, you know, Black fucking Panther, but two schoolmates from graduate school had major roles in it, one of which was their first movie role ever.

Basically, Thursday night was the night of Turn The Fuck Up.

As you might have heard by now, this was a movie event where the hype did not match the reality – because what was expected was a movie that brought a black heroic narrative into the mainstream and didn’t fuck it up, and what was delivered was many steps above that.

(And here’s where I say: if you haven’t seen Black Panther, stop reading this and go see Black Panther because spoilers and also treat yourself.)

There are plenty of people with insights and opinions about Black Panther who know a lot more about the subject matter and/or film in general than I do. Here are a few of them:

My thoughts about Black Panther don’t really matter, to be honest. But what Black Panther means to me does matter, if only to provide just one more example to illustrate how wide-reaching the effect of this movie is.

I’m not sure how many other people who were little non-black POC girls in the early 1990s had this experience, but I remember poring over the American Girl catalog and trying to decide between Revolutionary War era Felicity, the settler immigrant Kirstin, bougie Victorian Samantha, and spunky WWII Molly. The Revolutionary War was already my jam, but immigrant stories touched me in a certain way and also Samantha had the best clothes. So I hemmed and hawed as I tried to decide which American Girl would be the one that went in my letter to Santa.

Then, Addy was released. And I went full Issa Rae:

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I did, indeed, become an Addy girl and proceeded to be a Civil War history nerd for a good five years or so, which is a lot of time when you’re in elementary school. And not just within the American Girl oeuvre, either – I’m talking As Seen On TV boxes of historical flashcards, family trips to Gettysburg, hats. I eventually shifted over to the French Revolution, but for me, growing up in a white family in an overwhelmingly white community, Addy had started my connection to Black history. This didn’t make me woke by any means but, in hindsight, it raised my awareness and investment above the sadly low mainstream level.

Now, let me pause right here and emphasize that I have no claim to either the historical trauma of Black people in the United States of America or the present-day injustices still endured. I may feel drawn to increase my awareness and knowledge not just because I believe being an educated citizen is a moral duty but also due to finding a personal resonance, but it’s just that: resonance, not identification. Is there a Black culture equivalent of “weeaboo” that’s public-use-acceptable by non-Black people? I just barely dodged the former during the anime phase my adolescence, so I hope to hell that I would not be foolish enough to pull those tricks as an adult.

The relationship between Black American culture and Asian culture, both American and abroad, has long been interesting to me. While Asian-held anti-Black sentiments are far too common and I can guarantee that you’ll pretty much always peep one East Asian motherfucker at any given white supremacist rally, Eddie Huang (of restaurant and Fresh Off the Boat fame) is a current publicly-identifiable face of a notable affinity and exchange that has been going strong for decades. Korean hip-hop artists are coming to more prominence now (the artistic and moral integrity of the commercial music industry is another topic) and, well, the Wu-Tang Clan exists. Samurai Champloo. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.

But curious to me in my specific experience, I think back to lunchtime during my freshman year of high school. My elementary school was so overwhelmingly white (at its most diverse point, the 500-student population had six non-white kids, myself included) that there really was no choice when it came to demographics, and my middle school was so small that my entire class fit at only two lunch tables (boys and girls, which I still regret in hindsight). But looking back at the start of my high school career, when I came in not knowing anyone to a class of 70-odd young women who mostly also didn’t know each other, I can’t help but wonder what led me to end up at, to put it bluntly, the Black lunch table.

It certainly wasn’t a conscious decision. But when you’re the odd one out, you often gravitate toward other odd ones out. And in many parts of the U.S., there is that little voice inside of you screaming to get out of that sea of whiteness.

(Jordan Peele was, in fact, correct about Get Out being a documentary.)

There was a lot that was conscious decisions and deliberate awareness in my anticipatory lead-up to Black Panther. It was a fact that the team was good and could be counted on to do good work. It was the fact that this movie was placing Black culture to the forefront in an unprecedented way. It was a fact that the teaser trailer had more women in it than the whole of the MCU. It was the fact that I had gone to graduate school with two members of the principal cast, one of whom was actually a year-mate with whom I’d worked on a number of shows. All of this meant that I signed up for ticket sales alerts months ahead of time and bought my opening night tickets for my second-choice showing as soon as I got home from work on the ticket release day in January because my first-choice showing was effectively sold-out after only four hours. I wanted to see a good movie, and I wanted to give my financial support to it.

I think that there are things that goes further back and deeper down for me, though. Continue reading ““Is it anything and everything you hoped for?” Black Panther, PyeongChang, and me.”