young nights

young nights

by julie wan

Rolled down windows feeding hair between our teeth

Bass pulsating through our veins

an anthem to the young night

We run this velvet blue kingdom

bathe in the saccharine stain of streetlights

and stumble across the fast lane leading us nowhere

Anything to outrun the void within…

We wilt onto beds like frail orchids

eyelids drowsy while the bittersweet sun peeks through

Here our words lie unclad

stripped of make-believe

Worries and dreams and deep-rooted fears

are exchanged and tacitly kept secret

This shade of intimacy is only found in platonic love

It spills its intoxicating colors

and drowns our responsibilities

Maybe it helps us face the void within…

beauty standards

“pretense,” oil on canvas

On trips back to China, it was always amusing to hear relatives praise my height, considering my grand stature of five-two. (You can imagine how short the local girls were.) But quickly followed by that would be acclamations for my skin color, or the lack thereof. Bái. That’s the word for white. There’s even a Chinese proverb, Yī bái zhē sān chǒu, which translates as “A white complexion can hide all other faults.”

At the time, I did not yet understand the notion of racial hierarchy due to skin color. Growing up in the Bay Area as an Asian American, I’ve been exposed to cross-cultural interactions throughout my life: I’ve enjoyed Biryani at Indian parties or Rugelach at Jewish ones, sometimes being the only Chinese girl there. I’ve tried learning Hangul, binged anime with my brother, and I’ve taken my racially-diverse friend group to eat hotpot. I’ve blissfully nested myself among the motley inhabitants of Silicon Valley, a suburban bubble where I’ve been privileged enough to never have experienced overt discrimination for my skin color.

But eventually, the deeply embedded legacy of race structures made its way into the forefront of my consciousness, served to me on a silver platter called the beauty industry. Unknowingly, I had been sucked into its perpetuation of colorism and marked exactly where I wanted to fall on that color spectrum. As a child, I internalized East Asian beauty standards and glorified fairness. Fair skin somehow became synonymous with positive, lovely adjectives. Fair was beautiful, fair was attractive; subsequently, dark skin was unalluring—it was inferior. I wish I was kidding, but I remember on a trip back to China, my aunt told me watermelon rind would whiten skin thus I sat on the couch chomping pink watermelon flesh to rub the green rind all over my body.

Later on, in middle school and early high school, I began to hyper-fixate on my ethnic features. I wanted the big, doe eyes and tall, slim noses of Asian celebrities, and secretly wanted double eyelid surgery and rhinoplasty to physically realize those ideals. At the time, I hadn’t noticed how Eurocentric the Asian mainstream beauty ideals were, and looking back, I was actually hoping to mold myself into my Caucasian counterparts since Asian media subscribed to Western ideals.

Another facet of my quiet disdain for my racial makeup was my exaltation of biracial people. Specifically, half white and half Asian individuals. I saw features of myself in these Wasian or Eurasian people, but those features were, in my mind, enhanced. I was jealous of their natural Western features and how the racially hybrid space they occupied allowed them to be and look Asian, but a seemingly, more beautiful Asian.

Something more confusing cut into my chase for beauty standards. White skin became no longer desirable for me. I was deemed as a ghost and friends would make flippant jokes about how I blended into a white wall, thus I spent a summer oiling my pallor with self-tanner, wanting to look like those sun-kissed Western stars instead of those Asian porcelain dolls I had previously looked up to.

The overall landscape of American beauty ideals also began shifting and diversifying, but in a way that still centered around whiteness. I saw Caucasian women wearing the features of women of color. Box braids that held deep ancestral roots for Black women, became an Instagram photo for Kim Kardashian, nothing more than a disposable accessory that can be donned and then ditched. Fox eyes that Asian women have historically been mocked for were now sexy when adorned on white women, the slanted and almond-shaped look that was once a source of oppression now an aesthetic. 

When Black women wear box braids, they’re kicked out of school, or they’re seen as ghetto and unsophisticated. As for people tugging on their eyes to mimic the natural physical features of a particular race—well, maybe it’s just to show off how good their winged eyeliner looks. There may not have been malicious intent in sporting these racially coded looks, but I believe I and other women of color have the right to find specific actions offensive when we’re so personally implicated.

While everyone deserves the right to change their nose as they see fit, it’s worth noting that there exists a racial history that influences the current standards. I’ve spent my whole life conforming to Western ideals and after being aware of its damaging implications to my own ethnic background, I might spend the rest of my life navigating the complexity of internalized racial oppression. I hope American media continues to champion the representation of monolids, chocolate tones, and expand its definition of beauty, heroines, and protagonists. And as a minority female, I hope to continue making the conscious effort to relearn my definition of beauty and value the features that connect me to my cultural roots.

– julie

art and emotions

still life with pencil

I scrutinized my recent drawing studies of fruits, wine glasses, or flower vases. I had arranged these inert objects on top of a table cloth, the styled fabric folds as artificial as the fluorescent lamp I positioned over the locale. Still life drawings required calculated compositions and precise strokes, which meant I could already picture the end result of my sketch.

To avoid falling deeper into a burgeoning art slump, I knew I needed to push my creative boundaries with an off-kilter, experimental piece. So I abandoned my sketchbook and graphite pencils, grabbed a thin slab of wood, and began to glob thick layers of acrylic paint with a palette knife. I had no foresight of the outcome, but letting the myriad of colors and organic textures flourish into a new piece brought a refreshing sense of excitement.

My droughts of artistic boredom followed by bursts of childlike, tactile exploration tell me that art cannot exist separate from emotion. An artist’s inner experiences manifest into outward expression, maybe hoping their creations will resonate with a receptive viewer. Or, maybe art is simply an outlet, a process for its own sake, the means with no particular end.

Perhaps I could use psychoanalysis to explain my gravitation towards the arts: it is unconscious defiance against my nuclear family of STEM pundits, the submerged iceberg that is my inability to voice my opinions on computability theory or database systems during family dinners.

But truly, I have no hard feelings—I practice the language of art, and it gives me a lens through which to unabashedly admire the beauty of life and human experiences.

body acceptance week

drawn with colored pencil and Procreate

I’ve witnessed my peers and girls at school scrutinize the fat on their bodies, criticize themselves for not being “disciplined” enough when it comes to their diet and exercise regime, and express guilt for indulging in what they and society deem as “unhealthy” foods.

Diet culture, as defined by a University of San Diego article, is:

“A set of beliefs that values thinness, appearance, and shape above health and wellbeing. Additionally, the concept places importance on restricting calories, normalizes negative self-talk, and labels certain foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad'”

It is alarming how pervasive diet culture is in modern society, how it has become ingrained in our daily rhetoric and thus internalized to dictate our self-perception. Thinness is glorified and synonymous with hard work, regardless of the unhealthy methods used to attain those ideals. Skipping meals, exercising to “burn off calories”, or compensating for a “cheat day” with detoxes and cleanses is seemingly normalized.

Subsequently, fatness is equated to negative traits such as laziness or a lack of willpower. Perfectly normal, healthy bodies are categorized as unacceptable and shameful when a monolithic beauty ideal is centralized.

I believe the dangers of diet culture lies in the linkage between a person’s eating and exercises habits with their moral character. An individual’s appearance, then, can easily feel like their entire worth as a sentient person— not their personality or talents. Diet culture perpetuates and validates unhealthy eating behaviors, which can potentially lead to an eating disorder, a serious and life-threatening psychiatric disease that has the highest mortality rate among all mental illnesses.

National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has launched a new initiative in 2021 called Body Acceptance Week. From November 1-5, the purpose of this project is to promote body acceptance in the forms of body positivity, body neutrality, and body liberation. These concepts encompass beliefs such as how our bodies are instruments and not ornaments, and that we can learn to appreciate what our bodies allow us to do over its appearance.

A systemic issue takes time to change. But collectively, we should strive to be inclusive of all sizes, combat weight stigma, size discrimination, and build a safe space for all bodies to exist free of judgment and oppression.

– julie

moldy cantaloupe and moldy mary

Featured
the grand legacy of cantaloupe (drawn with Procreate)

I never liked eating cantaloupe. It’s akin to a filler TV episode within the main plot of fruit salads. Something about the taste of this orange-fleshed melon I find inexplicably repulsive. 

Yet, cantaloupe is my favorite word. Although its flavor is leagues below muscat grapes or golden kiwis, can any other fruit be accredited for spawning the most widely used antibiotic in the world?

Before the Second World War, researcher Mary Hunt fatefully discovered a mold strain that would adequately yield penicillin— on a moldy cantaloupe in a grocery store. I find it fascinating that with the help of a blighted cantaloupe, enough penicillin was available to treat every injured D-Day soldier. This miracle drug would eventually save countless lives from bacterial infections and various diseases.

My brother has a penicillin allergy. Thus, I find it equally riveting that if he contracts Salmonella from his excessive rare steak consumption, penicillin will not save him from diarrhea or abdominal pain. 

Scientists Alexander Fleming, Ernest Chain, and Howard Florey would go on to receive the Nobel Prize for their discovery of penicillin. Mary Hunt would be another female figure excluded from the male-dominated narrative of science.

The word cantaloupe reminds me of the beauty of chance, that something excruciatingly mundane could yield unfathomable wonders. It reminds me of the unsung heroes in history like “Moldy Mary,” and of my brother, who has the most unfortunate allergy in my book. 

My adoration of cantaloupe runs deep—except, of course, if it’s on my plate. 

– julie

what is social impact in business?

A socially responsible company, B+J’s is always in my freezer

What are social impact companies?

In essence, they are organizations that seek to make significant positive changes in communities and solve social challenges through conscious, systemic, and sustainable business methods. These companies attempt to create deep, structural shifts in the status quo, helping underserved populations and often those lacking essential resources or services. 

Social impact is systemic in the sense that a business’s entire operations across the supply chain commit to sustainable and ethical values. Companies may choose to source their materials from suppliers that respect human rights and pay their workers a living wage. For example, Ben and Jerry’s purchases their brownies from Greyston Bakery, a Certified B Corp. employing adults who have struggled with homelessness and substance abuse.

This holistic approach expands the definition of sustainability, a term often associated with environmentalism, to the social equity and economic development of businesses as well. A corporate value system of promoting ethical treatment of employees, advancing inclusion and diversity in the workplace, and prioritizing the health of our planet for long-term economic success are all important principles that drive social value. 

How do business leaders identify the social problems to tackle?

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 17 Social Development Goals (SDGs), which outlines a blueprint of global thematic issues for government and business organizations to advance by the year 2030. Some of these goals include eradicating extreme poverty worldwide, reducing inequalities for persons with disabilities, combating climate change, and advancing gender equality for women and girls. 

Image from United Nations

Many businesses are already aligning their strategy with the SDG framework. Huawei’s TECH4ALL digital inclusion initiative built DigiTrucks, or mobile, solar-powered classroom bringing digital schooling and resources to underserved communities. Levi Strauss recognizes the negative impact of the apparel industry—The denim company has launched Levi’s SecondHand, a buy-back program that allows customers to purchase second hand clothing to reduce our carbon footprint and encourage a more circular, sustainable supply chain.

Levi’s SecondHand initiative

Why does social impact matter, and what are the limitations of it?

Social impact creates new opportunities for minorities and underprivileged groups and helps reduce the degradation of our natural capital. It encourages companies to develop innovative strategies aimed to solve complex social challenges and bring about long-term positive impact. However, these companies alone are not enough to solve all of our social problems; the synergy of individual efforts and government policies are other important components to bring about global change. To help, we can opt to be more conscious consumers by supporting brands that make a positive impact. Although shifting a historically unsustainable paradigm takes time, many companies are striving to contribute to the greater good. ✽ 

– julie

the california sun

image by me

On trips back to China, locals would rhapsodize my bilingualism.

But I didn’t feel worthy of envy. 

The Sichuan dialect I grew up speaking 

was an old photograph fading in the California sun, 

its diphthongs sitting wrong on my tongue 

and its syllables spilling out awkwardly in terse phrases. 

As the language became more distant, 

cultural discord with my family grew louder

and the Chinese words from my lips 

dwindled to hushed obsolescence.

I don’t want to lose connection to my culture.

So I dusted off the Chinese storybooks on my bookshelf,

whispering the pictorial characters in secret

as I am afraid of how terrible my skills have become.

Although fluency is a long road ahead,

I feel a renewed sense of determination 

to communicate with my parents and relatives in their native tongue.

And navigate the crossroads between my identity,

hopefully embracing the East and West,

both the street vendors selling lamb skewers and the California palm trees.

are we all living in a male fantasy?

For him she is sex—absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other.”

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

The “male gaze” is a term coined by filmmaker and film theorist Laura Mulvey in her 1975 academic paper titled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In essence, the “male gaze” is the way women in visual and creative arts is depicted as an object of heterosexual male desire. Mulvey uses psychoanalysis (Freud’s set of theories/therapy techniques used to study the unconscious mind) to support how the cinematic narrative is dominated by men. She explores how women fit into the story in relation to the characters, the profilmic camera, and the audience. She talks about the concept of scopophilia and voyeurism in cinema, and overall the complexities of “the look” in Hollywood, a historically monolithic industry spearheaded by men.

Mulvey claims that in a patriarchal society, “…pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female,” where the dominant male gaze controls the diegesis and “…projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.” Women are the ones being looked at, they are the corporeal spectacle and their appearance is coded for visual and erotic impact to signify to-be-looked-at-ness. The men on the other hand are the “bearer of the look”, the “active” do-ers that advance the narrative.

The paper also goes into the paradox of phallocentrism. Phallocentrism, according to the Routledge Dictionary of Feminism and Postfeminism is: the advancement of the masculine as the source of power and meaning through cultural, ideological, and social systems. Another word for phallus is penis. In the Freudian concept of “castration anxiety,” the presence of a female figure supposedly frightens the male because he realizes that he too, could be without a penis. Therefore, fetishizing the woman is a way to relieve the threat. (Just an object, my penis is safe!) Women in this sense are the “male other”- they exist to symbolise the lack of maleness.

Under the “male gaze”, the women displayed function on two levels: “as an erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium.” To understand this concept, let’s explore scopophilia. Scopophilia in psychology, quite literally, is the love of looking. In cinema, scopophilia is the male gaze that likens women into mere objects to look at, rather than subjects with their own voices. Mulvey says that watching a film is like engaging in voyeurism, “…the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire onto the performer.” Exhibitionism is the intense sexual fantasies involving the exposure of one’s genitals to an unsuspecting stranger.

This intimate atmosphere of spectating a private world where what’s going on in the film is indifferent to the presence of the spectator allows for a voyeuristic fantasy. The male character in the film controls the film fantasy but also transcends the screen as the bearer of the look of the spectator.

It’s kind of meta, but Mulvey breaks down the “voyeuristic-scopophilic look” into threefold: that of the camera, that of the audience viewing the final film, and that of the characters within the illusion on the screen. So not only is the male gaze reinforced by the male director creating the film, or the male character on-screen that is living the fantasy in the film, the spectator, regardless of the gender, is watching the narrative through a male gaze. Mulvey mentions how this is what differentiates cinema from striptease or theatre, because cinema methodically shapes the way the viewers perceive the woman with carefully crafted narratives, editing, and shots. It’s so interesting. 

– julie

tangyuan, glutinous rice balls

drawn with procreate

tangyuan

Tangyuan are chewy, round rice balls made from glutinous rice flour. You can eat them plain, but fillings such as black sesame, red bean, or peanut paste make for a sweet surprise. Tangyuan is served in a simple bowl of hot water or sometimes, in a soup of sweet fermented rice, it’s sour taste balancing the sweetness of the rice balls. Sometimes the dessert is topped off with fragrant osmanthus flowers for even more flavor!

 In China, Lunar New Year is a grand festival that lasts for fifteen days. The last day is called the Lantern Festival, or yuanxiao jie. On this day, Chinese families eat Tangyuan together to celebrate the coming of a prosperous new year. 

The round shape of Tangyuan symbolizes unity and harmony. Doesn’t it also look like a full moon? The Lantern Festival is on the first full moon of the lunar calendar. The words Yuan xiao mean “first evening”, and it’s actually another moniker for this dessert. 

You may be wondering…what’s the difference between Lunar New Year and, well, regular New Year? Lunar New Year is based on the lunar calendar, which starts on the first new moon of the year rather than on January 1st like the Gregorian calendar. In this phase, the moon is a barely-noticeable sliver. Since many Asian holidays follow the cycle of the moon, they likely start on different days for each calendar year. Confusing, but pretty cool, right? 

cultural comparison

Lunar New Year is not just celebrated in China. In Vietnam it’s called Tet and families share traditional food like Banh Chung, or sticky rice cake. Korean Seollal is often accompanied with ddeokguk, or rice cake soup. Many Asian cultures have their own holiday customs but they seem to have one thing in common: delicious food! 

an odd choice of breakfast

My uncle digging into his breakfast

My uncle is a tall and lively man. He blurts out English phrases in a terrible accent, chain-smokes, and worships white wine. But since he remarried and now busies himself with changing diapers and patting a milky-skinned baby’s back until he burps, his rituals consists less of the latter two. But more than his ability to swig hard liquor, I’m fascinated by his daily choice of breakfast: a big bowl of beef noodles from a noodle shop about five minutes away from our apartment. 

Gud-eh Muhning was the greeting I woke up to at the early hour of six one morning. My uncle dragged me out of bed and the two of us made our way to the noodle shop, him with a light bounce in his steps, me still picking crust from my puffy eyes. We arrived to see other locals slurping dough strands loudly, stopping periodically to drink the broth and vocalize their content with a noisy, breathy Ahhh!

The waiter brought over the noodle dish with green, wilted water spinach and thin slices of salty beef bathed in a pool of red, spicy broth. I watched as my uncle expertly handled the chopsticks and weaved them through the strands like he was spinning gold. He ordered a bowl for me as well, and we spent the next ten minutes slurping and chewing and sighing. 

Although here in the states, my breakfast consists of yogurt, bread, eggs, or oatmeal, I find myself craving noodles and missing my uncle’s awful English skills from time to time.

– julie