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…

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

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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

the medium is the message: AOC’s met gala dress

Image via New York Times

I’m sure you’ve heard about AOC’s 2021 Met Gala Dress.

US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez donned a white gown with “Tax the Rich” cascading down her back in big, blood-red lettering. 

The medium is the message she posted on her Instagram. Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan first coined this phrase in the sixties, essentially prophesying the proliferation of social media and an interconnected society through digital means. 

I can’t stop thinking about this phrase. The medium is the message. It’s the idea that the method used to send and receive information is more important than the information itself. In our current digital age where the circulation of political issues and activism is enabled through social media, AOC’s bold political statement seems to be the correct means of transportation. It’s repostable. It’s pithy. It’s jarring. It’s blood stains on a pure, snow battleground. 

Frankly, I rolled my eyes upon first seeing pictures of her fashion statement. Must we bring politics to a costume party? Seems awfully tawdry. But it’s a fashion statement, one I would assume to have stirred up controversy among the right-leaning crowd. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, especially in this case. Succès de scandale, non?

Many of us consume bite-sized news about this event, wondering who the best-dressed, worst-dressed, the most scantily-clad, and whatnot celebrities are. In the elite, opulent stage of the Met Gala, AOC delivers a message knowing it would be highly publicized and exposed to media consumers from all ages and political beliefs. 

Some may say her gesture of performative activism will not produce far-reaching impacts. It’s not like the government will see “TTR” and decide on a tax policy reform for the top 0.01%. Although it won’t produce immediate impacts, Alice Cappelle asserts in her video “Why AOC’s Dress Matters,” that the representative’s actions are in fact transformative on a bigger, long-term scale.

Cappelle introduces the “Overton Window,” a model illustrating the range of political policies acceptable to the mainstream public at a given time. AOC is pulling this window of discourse towards left-wing, progressive ideals, and feeding the unthinkable into the minds of the masses, letting it stew in hopes that these values eventually become sensible, acceptable, and bear fruit into a policy. 

While AOC was amplifying her message to celebrities dressed in stones and haute couture being ushered by security guards, protestors right outside The Metropolitan Museum of Art were being handcuffed by the NYPD. They dream of a better America and they fight with their chants and signs. I imagine AOC unzipping her dress, shedding herself of the glitz and gold, buttoning her blazer, and whispering to the world that she’s going to fight alongside them.

coffee shops and strangers

Hissing milk cuts through the humdrum buzz of a freezer. Syncopated footsteps tap to the crisp sound of grinding coffee. The baristas perform their number while I, sketchbook in hand, quietly spectate. Like an antiphony, I respond to this music with soft, graphite strokes. 

Soon, more performers file through the stage door, their clinking wallets and casual dialogue adding to the symphony of the room. I rough out their costumes, the v-neck of a scrub top or the embroidery of a college crewneck. In my back pocket sits an eraser that is seldom used. Why alter improvised scenes?

Bodies flurry through the door, faces frown at a laptop screen, eyes run across book pages, mirthful laughter escapes mouths between sips of coffee. Among the eclectic pool of strangers, I can find solace in my insignificance. I like feeling unseen. I’m afforded a glimpse of a stranger’s day, a moment of mundanity where I withhold judgement and simply observe. 

When fleeting interactions go as quickly as they come, observational drawing is a tool that helps me focus in the present moment. Each pencil stroke is an anchor grounding wandering thoughts, a reminder that dwelling on the past or worrying about the future is a fruitless endeavor. 

Each stranger on the page is a challenge against my need for perfection, whether the proportions are slightly wonky or the eyes don’t sit right. It seemed fitting for these quick sketches to be flawed— an ode to our imperfect existence.

In an off-kilter way, I feel at home in this community of strangers. Our lives intersect in a transient interlude, the catalyst being our shared love for this ambient atmosphere and a warm cup of java. At my local coffee shop, my humble role as just another obscure face in passing gives me a sense of solace and belonging.

– julie

rotini hair

A friend sends me a video of him spiking a volleyball and I tell him he’s so cool. His response of the smug emoticon with sunglasses is a testament to how uncool he actually is. In the lovely, casual manner all teenage tête-à-têtes have, our conversation contingently shifts to his hair. Curious, I ask what his hair care routine is. See, his sprouting curls resemble a bowl of rotini and there ought to be a refined ritual to keep the head of pasta in al dente condition. 

To my dismay, he says he doesn’t have one. He mentions how when he aimed for straight hair, he followed a tedious hair care routine. But now his all natural approach allowing his curls to see the light of day and spares him of extra upkeep. I think of the hours I spent burning curls into my hair with a hot, iron rod because people with straight hair inevitably want curly locks, and curly-haired individuals stare wistfully at straight hair. Quoting from Murphy’s Tenth Law, “mother nature is a bitch.”

Sometimes when I come to a revelation, I like to divulge my secret anecdotes about life to the person who inspired the thought. I tell him how deep his previous remark is because it shows us that once we stop our relentless pursuit for what we don’t have, only then will we truly feel contentment and gratitude for all we’ve been given. He sends another sunglasses emoji in response, so I toss the phone aside and continue on with my day.

– julie