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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Wicked Charm

*This review was originally posted on Teenreads.com*

After moving to the murky swamps of Georgia with her family, Willow Bell is warned to stay away from her new neighbor, Beau Caldwell. He’s mysterious, cold-blooded and on the top of the suspect list for a series of murders in their small town. But there’s just something that draws Willow to him. When the dead bodies of young girls begin to surface, Willow questions whether or not she should trust her instincts about Beau. Part-murder mystery, part-love story, Wicked Charm, Amber Hart’s young adult romantic thriller will appeal to fans of Pretty Little Liars and April Henry.

On first look, you’d think that a love story set in the Okefenokee swamp—a location that also serves as a murder scene—would be odd, but somehow Amber Hart makes it work. Willow and Beau fall in love with each other from the moment Willow sets foot in the small town. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Willow and Beau. From Willow’s perspective, there’s something captivating and mysterious about Beau, and she’s determined to find out what he’s hiding. From Beau’s view, Willow is totally unlike the other girls he’s dated. She sees right through the walls he puts up to protect his heart from being broken, again.

Wicked Charm is a fun, late-night read with a charming romance and a mystery to keep you on your toes. The unusual setting of Georgia’s creepy woods and swamps made a fabulous backdrop for a serial killer’s rampage. Additionally, the multilayered characters of Gran and Grandpa Caldwell offered a different perspective from the younger generations. Charlotte, Beau’s sassy twin sister, had a cool exterior that was a refreshing contrast to Willow’s more reserved temperament. I’m new to Amber Hart’s books, but found her writing style to be simple, fast-paced and compelling. Reading Wicked Charm was like slipping into bed with a cup of coffee and a warm blanket.

Although there were things to love, the plot of the book was predictable and the main characters often read like caricatures rather than real people. Beau in particular quickly falls into the tall, dark and handsome trope. There’s not much depth to his character other than his clichéd “tortured” past. His reasons for picking Willow over every other girl in school was unconvincing, and their relationship felt forced. Similarly, Willow, a relatable and somewhat authoritative character, was too trusting of the people around her. She lost credibility for me when she became more focused on making out with Beau in the swamp than on the five murders that happened in the same area. Overall, the romance had little substance and the characters could have been better developed.

This book would be great for younger teens. It is not so much a mystery rather than a love story though, so I would not recommend this for people who don’t want romance taking a front-seat.

Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Looking Back, Saying Goodbye, and Staying Healthy in 2018

(Gunnuhver, Iceland)

2017 was an immensely difficult year for me, for many reasons. Every time I sat in front of my computer and attempted to blog, words jumbled together in my head. I didn't have anything to say that didn't sound superficial, and I had no desire to share my private, often painful experiences so publicly. All in all, I no longer enjoyed the idea of having strangers read about my personal life.

Aside from wanting to keep my personal life off social media, my family went through a number of severe health scares in 2017 that I find myself still coming to terms with. I believe I will always have trouble putting these experiences into words, but it doesn't feel right avoiding them entirely, as they marked two major transitionary periods in my life. Before I post another book review or travel post, I feel that I owe my friends and readers a bit of transparency, something we often do not see online.

The first health scare happened in February, a day before my 21st birthday when I fell off a motorbike in Yangshuo, China. I was immediately taken to a hospital (more of a clinic) where I was treated for cuts and bruises, and given 10 stitches on a deep wound just an inch away from my left eye. The next few days were a blur. I was in pain, could barely open my left eye, and was in the worst state possible to be celebrating a 21st birthday.

My mom, being my #1 support system, was devastated after hearing about the accident. She actually flew to Shanghai to make sure I was okay. She told me, after seeing a picture of my black eye and bruised face, that she banged her head repeatedly on a table. I imagined the absurdity of that image: my mom sitting alone in a room, gripping the edge of a wooden table and hitting her forehead over and over again like a madwoman.

“Why?” She must have begged God. “Why did you let this happen to my daughter?”

The physical recovery period took about 6 months and the scar has finally faded to a dull baby pink, but the emotional trauma of that experience took much longer to overcome—for both myself and my parents. Looking back on that experience now, I realize the accident could have been way worse. I could have lost an eye or broken a bone. Despite how we appear on the surface, self-esteem comes from a genuine contentment with life and a happiness within oneself. This is something that I had to learn on my own.

Fast forward to August. I was in New York City at the time, interning and enjoying being back in the city. Yes, our country was going through a hell of a time. Diversity took a backseat to deep-rooted hatred and violence. Women were forced to lay bare their trauma in order to prove that our cultural norms foster sexual assault. We decided not to protect a free and open internet. But despite these terrible events happening in America, I was still thankful; at least my family and I were healthy.

It was a Thursday night when I got the call from my dad. He told me he had waited a few days to call because he didn't want to scare me. But because he had no idea what was going to happen, he felt he should finally come clean: my mom had a hemorrhagic stroke.

Suddenly, all of my worries and frustrations—everything from the national news, to having to move apartments three times, to starting my last semester in college—disappeared. Nothing mattered anymore, except for the fact that my 56-year-old mom was in the hospital and we weren't sure if she was going to make it.

In the time between Thursday and my flight home on Tuesday, everything seemed to move in slow motion. I threw things, I banged my head on a table, I yelled at people I loved. I prayed to a God that I have never believed in. You could say that I was a zombie, because that is absolutely how I felt.

A number of MRIs and tests were done in the two weeks that I was home. The first MRI showed about a quarter-size bleed on my mom's right frontal lobe, a second one 5 minutes later showed that her brain was 90% full of blood and that nothing surgical could be done. My mom was transferred to Neuro ICU to wait for the swelling to go down. Her brain continued to swell for weeks while she was in a medically-induced coma, even after I had flown back to New York City to start my last semester of college.

A month later, my mom woke up in the ICU and immediately started writing with a pen. Her left side was completely paralyzed, but her mental capabilities were still intact. I flew home again in October to see her, and finally in December for winter break. As of now, my mom is learning how to walk again with a cane and doing physical, occupational, and speech therapy every week. She's returned with a refreshing sense of humor, an optimistic outlook, and a new purpose in life: to stay healthy and to get better.

2017 was tough. It really, really was. However, I'm choosing to look back on last year as a learning experience with a few important lessons:
  • Emotions (esp. showing emotions in public) do not make a person weak
  • You absolutely cannot rely on someone else to bring you happiness or support
  • Everything painful in life is a reminder not to take anyone or anything for granted
These all seem pretty self-explanatory, but these are lessons that I benefited from. No matter what life hurls at your face and then continues to hurl, there are always places and people to be thankful for.

So with that, goodbye tough year. Hello, 2018. I will not take you for granted. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Hearts We Sold

*This review was originally posted on Teenreads.com*

In The Hearts We Sold by Emily Lloyd-Jones, demons run free and humans are making deals with them. What do demons desire the most? Your limbs, in exchange for anything you’ve ever wanted. For some, it’s a finger for endless beauty, a leg for fame, an arm for someone else’s life, etc. For Dee Moreno, however, it’s her heart for an escape from an abusive home.

When Dee finds out that her boarding school is cutting off her merit scholarship, she knows she’s in a difficult situation. Her parents are alcoholics, and her emotionally abusive father refuses to help pay her tuition fee. Without a way to support herself, Dee does the only thing she can think of: she makes a deal with a demon. But this demon wants more than just a body part. He wants her heart—for two whole years.

At first, all seems well. Dee can stay in boarding school, where she lives with her eccentric roommate, Gremma. More importantly, she doesn’t have to depend on her parents. However, Dee soon realizes that she’s gotten into far more than she’s bargained for. It turns out that demons aren’t the only monsters roaming the universe. Dee finds herself among a team of other deal-making teenagers, including the charming artist James Lancer. These teens are the only ones who can shut down the voids threatening our reality and allowing otherworldly creatures to enter our world. On top of that, Dee finds herself falling hard for James. But can she give someone her heart when it’s no longer hers to give?

A modern Faustian tale, this book is the perfect read for fans of fantasy and sci-fi, who appreciate a gothic fairytale twist. While some aspects of the book could have been better explained—such as the science behind the voids in our reality—and how the teens are able to jump back and forth through them, The Hearts We Sold is surprisingly refreshing, with a diverse cast of characters and an endearing narrative voice.

Author Emily Lloyd-Jones tackles tough issues like depression and self-doubt, while asking questions about life and immortality. Is it better to die young and be remembered forever, or live a long life without accomplishment? As Dee learns to make choices and live with them, she also finds the strength to let go of her past and choose to survive. The Hearts We Sold is dark, compelling and romantic and will have readers questioning the nature of humanity and the meaning of being alive.

Rating 3.5/5

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Hiatus in Asia: Reflections of a Chinese-American in China

(Shanghai, China)

Hey readers, happy July! Wow, it's been quite a few months since I've written something for MM. I still can't believe my last post was from January. If I wrote about everything that's happened between now and then, this post would probably end up being ten pages long, so I'll keep it simple. Long story short: I spent the last five months living and studying in Shanghai, China.

While there, I was able to travel throughout China to other cities, including Suzhou, Guilin, Hangzhou and Yangshuo. I also visited Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Looking back on it now, it feels as though moving to China was an impulsive, last-minute decision that I made in order to prolong my undergraduate study abroad experience. But the motives go deeper than that. There are many reasons why I chose Shanghai, yet it's difficult to pin down exactly why it felt right for me to go to China at this particular time in my life.

Shanghai is a beautiful, vibrant city. It's a major global financial hub and well-known for its mix of European and Chinese architectural styles. Attempting to define Shanghai is futile, as the the city is constantly evolving, and therefore its identity changes over time. If Shanghai could be described in one phrase, it would be "West meets East" or simply "groundbreaking."

I would not call Shanghai an easy place to live in. There are major cultural differences between the U.S. and China, including perspectives on family, privacy, money, education, individualism, community...the list goes on and on. It didn't help that our campus and dorms were located in Pudong, with a thirty minute drive to get from one to the other. You might hear the phrase, "There's nothing to do there" commonly used to describe Pudong, as it's the newest district in China and home to financial buildings and modern skyscrapers, but nothing else.

Our dorms were an hour metro ride away from Puxi, the historical center of Shanghai, and what we study abroad and dorm kids liked to call "the place where things actually happen." Having to balance these cultural differences while adapting to a massive, modernizing city was a challenge.

One could spend hours complaining about Shanghai. About how one needs a VPN in order to access sites like Google and Facebook, how people cut lines and shove each other in the metro stations, how nothing important—like directions or restaurant menus—are written in English, how the streets are chaotic and people, cars and motorbikes will definitely run into you if you're not careful.

But if you make an effort to look for them, Shanghai has its upsides. Not only is Shanghai cheap, but it's safe. As a woman, I've never felt more safe walking in the city streets alone, even after hours. I won't deny that the commute is long, and metro lines close around 11pm, but transportation is easy and trains are always on time. Like any city, Shanghai has its pros and cons.

(Yangshuo, China)

Now, the real reason why I chose to get on that flight and leave my New York life behind was for more personal reasons. Growing up, I'd always dreamt about visiting China. A common predicament shared by immigrant children, I'd always felt tethered to a history of people, language and culture that I never knew and never had the opportunity to know. My family used to take yearly trips to Hong Kong to visit my relatives, so I believed Shanghai would be a similar experience. But Hong Kong is not China. Taiwan is not China.

Before going to Shanghai, I thought that my familiarity with Cantonese and Hong Kong culture would give me a greater understanding of culture in China, and would be enough for me to quickly adapt to the city. I could not have been more wrong. Cantonese is not Mandarin, and while many Hong Kong citizens speak both languages (including my parents) most Chinese people in Shanghai do not speak Cantonese. In fact, in Shanghai they call Mandarin "普通话" or "normal language," which goes to show how different a Chinese person's perspective on language is to a Hong Kong person's perspective. While solo-traveling in Taiwan, I quickly discovered that they also have a different name for Mandarin, "國語," which just means a standardized variety of spoken Chinese.

Being Chinese-American in China is a whole other story.

Danwei.org writes a thoughtful piece in the WSJ about China's unfriendliness toward its own diaspora, and Foreign Policy posted a response about how it's tough being an American in China if you're Chinese-American.

"Yet holding a foreign passport doesn’t make these expatriates any less Chinese. Of all people, they are expected to be most attuned to the complex realities of life in China. When they fall short, they are treated with official suspicion and individual disdain."

To this day, I struggle for an answer when a Chinese person asks where I'm from. Foreigners in China generally get two different reactions when communicating in Mandarin. For my white or non-Chinese friends, they typically get something like, "Your Chinese is so good!" or "How long have you been learning Chinese?" My answers, however, are far more complex: "No, you're not American!" "But you look Chinese!"

(Suzhou, China)

In America, when asked about my background, I would simply respond that I was born in the U.S. and my parents were born in Hong Kong. But in China, do I respond that I am American? To them, my Chinese appearance automatically disqualifies me as a "外國人" or "foreigner." Yet, answering that I'm from Hong Kong is not exactly right either. So where do I fit in the picture?

If I called myself American, I would inadvertently be stating that I was not Chinese, which plays into a common stereotype of Chinese disapora: that I had lost or rejected my Chinese-ness as a result of being born outside of China. It would be equally bad if I called myself Chinese, as my accent and mannerisms would imply that I'm obviously from someplace else.

The struggle of being Chinese-American in China stems from ignorance, misunderstanding and the general complexity of nationality and ethnicity in China. I'm still reflecting and processing my experience as a Chinese-American in China, and there is so much more I could talk about, but I'll save it for another blog post. For now, I'm relieved and happy to back in New York: my home, my support system, my city that never sleeps.

More travel posts