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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

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Wait for Me

*This review was originally posted on Teenreads.com*

Scottish writer Caroline Leech pens a debut young adult love story in Wait for Me, set in the countryside of Scotland during World War II. It’s 1945, and 17-year-old Lorna Anderson’s daily life consists of farming, going to school, knitting Red Cross scarves and praying every day for an Allied victory. When Paul Vogel, a German prisoner of war is sent to help her father with the farm, Lorna is repulsed and angry. But as she gets to know the boy behind the soldier—including learning the backstory to the horrible injury on his face—Lorna finds herself conflicted over what society expects of her, and her own heart.

The premise of this story had a lot of potential, but the pacing was a bit slow for me. The attraction between Lorna and Paul is almost immediate, but their romance stays innocent throughout the novel, consisting of a few kisses, hand-holding and minor flirtation. Nothing major happens between them until the last third of the book.

Outside of the romance, there was minor characterization and plot development. Although the characters were likable, Leech does very little to help readers empathize with them. Lorna is the typical storybook heroine: hardworking, brave and kind. It was a pleasure to see her mature—if only slightly. She realizes that war is not always black and white, and the horrors her brothers experienced in the trenches can be matched by Paul’s own experiences fighting on the side of the Germans. Leech does add in a few other storylines involving Lorna’s friends, father and older brothers, but they lacked substance. Despite a few conflicts with villagers who were prejudiced against Paul, and an unexpected aerial bomb on the farm, the stakes were not high or realistic enough to hold my interest. 

This book is perfect for middle-grade/the younger range of YA readers who enjoy slow romances, female friendships and whimsical historical fiction. It’s similar to Michael Morpurgo’s An Elephant in the Garden, which features a young German girl and Canadian navigator who cross paths after the bombing of Dresden in World War II. Like Wait for Me, this book illustrates the importance of love, forgiveness and hope, but with slightly more nuanced characters.

Rating 2.5/5

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

It's Time to Let Go Of What is Not Yours

*This article was originally published on Thought Catalog.*

We all hold on to that person who changed our lives in every way - the one we didn't expect to meet when we were out exploring the world, discovering ourselves, learning about the people around us.

It's not every day you come across one of those individuals. The ones who you're drawn to, whether by a physical attraction or a spiritual force seemingly beyond your control. The ones who take you on late night adventures in Italian streets, getting lost at 4am amidst the smell of fresh bread and the sounds of drunken laugher. The ones who you stay up all night talking to, discussing music and philosophy, relationships and life goals. The ones who lie in bed with you until 2pm because your bodies fit together like a finished puzzle; all you had to do was walk into an apartment in Italy in order to find the missing piece.

The ones who make time stop.

You feel as though you've struck gold. How can you be so lucky to have found someone you connect with on all levels - spiritually, emotionally, physically and intellectually? How is it possible for someone like this to exist in real life? What are the chances of running into this person halfway across the world?

Of course, life is not that simple, and you both know that time doesn't stop for anyone. When it's finally time to part ways, you hug goodbye, kiss one last time and promise to let each other know if you're ever in the same city. You don't know when you'll ever see each other again. You pack your bags with a heavy heart, because you’re not only leaving a place you may never return to, but a place you will always remember as the Italian city where you met him.

Time has flown by, and you've moved on with your life. You've accepted that although there was nothing wrong with your relationship, timing really is everything, and it's not often that time is on your side.

But sometimes you still find yourself wondering. He travels across your mind when you least expect it, like reading a quote you know he'd appreciate, or running your fingers along the lining of a beanie you know he'd wear. Sometimes, you hear a song that reveals forgotten memories of red wine and dancing. If only you could hold him again, whisper in his ear that you still love him - despite all the time that's passed.

On bad days, you fantasize about what could have been if only you were not leading separate lives, running in opposites directions instead of running together. You wonder what would happen if your paths crossed again, if the world wrapped into itself and two paths merged into one. What if you were given a second chance at a love truer than any love you've ever experienced before?

Perhaps you should have made different decisions when the time came to part. Maybe you should have kept in touch, gave him a call, admitted that "I still love you" despite all the time that's passed. Maybe it was a mistake to let him go in the first place. But this person is not yours.

He was never yours to begin with. 

We often romanticize the people we can't have. We romanticize the good memories, the stirring in our stomach at the sight of the one we love, the sleepless nights in European cities, the spontaneity of falling in love in a foreign country. We never consider what would happen if we fall too hard. 

In the end, he's the one who got away. No matter how much you loved and danced, explored and transformed, he was never yours to begin with. Whether he walked away or you ran, whether he stopped talking or you stopped responding, time doesn't stop for anyone. Timing is everything, and in that moment, the timing just wasn't right.

This doesn't mean you should forget that person, or the parts of you that have changed because of him. This doesn't mean that he didn't love you or that you didn't love him. Don't waste away the hours wondering whether or not you should have ended up together. "What ifs" and what "could have beens" do not matter. 

Let yourself remember that he was never yours to begin with. Let yourself think about him, to look back on all those memories fondly; what you had together is an irreplaceable experience. But understand that he got away for a reason. Don't let your life fly by for someone who was never yours.

Perhaps time is on your side and you're with him now. Perhaps you're not.

In the end, you can't change the fact that he became a part of who you are today. Even if the relationship didn't work out, you've changed because of that person.

Let him go, but never let go of who you are because of him.