About Me

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Mabuhay! I'm an Asian American writer (Back Kicks And Broken Promises, Abbott Press, 2012), martial artist and teacher who was born in The Philippines, raised in Hong Kong and ended up in New Jersey.

18 December, 2014

Little Reminders - Observations On Fitting In In This World

Since coming to America almost thirty years ago, I’ve been hyper aware of my mixed-ethnicity and I’ve been trying to reconcile it - what I am and where I fit in. For those of you who don’t know, I’m Asian, of Chinese and Filipino origins, and Caucasian (German and Spanish). Of my Asian side, I’m mostly Filipino but I grew up in Hong Kong so, in many ways, I relate more with the Chinese part of my ethnic makeup.

Over the past month or so, things have happened that, in my mind at least, have reinforced my differentness and/or pushed me to identifying with my Asian side. Even before these incidents, I’ve always seen myself as Asian and referred to myself as one but, when I look back on my youth, I feel that I was never quite Asian enough in Hong Kong and being an immigrant in America I’ve never felt white enough here. The impact of this duality hits home when I go to the Asian grocery store and I catch other customers giving me interesting looks of surprise, as if to say “What’s he doing here?” With my Filipino brethren, it’s funnier still when I speak Tagalog. I’m usually greeted with expressions that display equal amounts of shock, joy and disbelief. My Tagalog isn’t great by any means but, if I keep it simple, it’s passable.  One time, I was mistaken for a US serviceman who learnt to speak Tagalog. And the other Filipino insisted I was even after telling her I wasn’t. Not that all non-Filipinos who learn to speak Tagalog mispronounce their words but, going by movies and shows like Back To Bataan and Bring ‘Em Back Alive, my Tagalog pronunciation and accent are actually quite good and better than that of John Wayne and Brue Boxleitner.

As a writer, I’m trying to work my way into the literary community. As an Asian American writer, I’m trying to break into that literary world as well. So, last year, when Hyphen magazine interviewed me for a piece on Asian American authors who’d self-published their books and when I was invited to submit my novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, to the Asian American Writers Workshop for its annual Asian American Literary Awards (although the invitation was withdrawn, as per the rules, when AAWW found out my book was self-pubbed), I was naturally excited. I was thrilled because my work and the fruits of my work were being recognised but I was further excited because I was starting to make my way into a community I hope to fully belong.

Well, recently, three subtle but impacting events helped me get closer to sorting out my feelings about my identity crisis. Before I go on, please take note that I’m talking about my identity crisis with regard to my mixed race makeup and upbringing. I embrace the fact that I’m mixed because it allows me to see things in the unique way only a mixed person can. However, not all mixed race people have an identity crisis but if my experiences can help those who do discover ways to sort theirs out then job done.

Anyway, here’s what happened. I was at breakfast with my son at McDonald’s. It was our usual Sunday thing before his swim lesson and we see the same people there week after week. There’s a very nice woman, around 60, who goes there after mass. She eats her breakfast and reads the church bulletin and, on occasion, she’s come up to us and said hello and commented on how sweet and well mannered my son is. The Sunday before Thanksgiving, she came up to us and said hello and told me that my son is sweet. She also, hesitantly, wished us a Happy Thanksgiving without actually saying “Happy Thanksgiving” and was apologetic in suggesting that we might celebrate it. She even used the words “If you celebrate.” This event enhanced my feelings of being different. It even reinforced my being an immigrant and, with my obviously Asian son with me – he must’ve gotten the majority of the Asian genes from my wife and I and not so much the German or Spanish (my wife is part Spanish also) - it reinforced that part of me also. My son, ironically, is not an immigrant having been born and being raised in New Jersey. The woman was so kind and genuine in her words that I couldn’t help from feeling like that immigrant who’s come to a new land filled with hope and promise.

The second event was when I bought a beverage at the café at my local Barnes and Noble. When I gave my name, Juan, for the person to write on the cup, she verified its spelling and said, “Wan?” I smiled and I even liked the mistake but I did correct her although, to be honest, I almost didn’t.

The third was in Chinatown last weekend. With a friend, who is also a ‘third culture kid’ like me (Filipina who grew up in Indonesia and lives in New York City), my family had lunch at a noodle shop on Mott Street. I spoke with the wait staff in Cantonese and it felt like being back home in Hong Kong – the sights, the sounds, the smells and the tastes. Funnily, even though I know fewer Cantonese words than Tagalog ones, which is embarrassing considering I grew up in Hong Kong, my Cantonese intonation is better than my Tagalog and I’m more confident with my Cantonese over my Tagalog. After lunch, we crossed the street to a store so I could buy my son a gung fu uniform. There, the elderly saleswoman and I spoke to one another in Pidgin English and Cantonese. When she asked me, in Cantonese, if I were Chinese, I answered her in Cantonese that my grandmother, my father’s mother, was part Chinese (Manchurian).

While these incidents are minor, they reinforced in me that people see me as Asian and that I can and do fit in that world; as an Asian in Asia when I go back home and to The Philippines and as an Asian living in America. They also reminded me that the keys to finding a place to belong as part of an ethnic group or as a writer or anything else for that matter are often done so incrementally and not always with a grand moment. So, if you’re like me, struggling to find his place in this world and make sense of it all, keep an eye and ear out for the little things. They won’t be obvious but they’ll often be the most meaningful.

19 November, 2014



I'm not not PC but I also think that sometimes - perhaps, many times - we're too sensitive to things. I'm Asian American (Filipino and Chinese; American, of German decent, from my mother and with a touch of Spanish from my father). I've enjoyed a joke or two with racial overtones and I don't mind ethnic humour when it's smart and, quite simply, funny. Russell Peters, for example, is one of my favourite comedians and I'm jazzed to be seeing him live next month at Madison Square Garden. In his humour, he pokes fun at his own Indian heritage. He's also had a go at Filipinos and Hong Kong Chinese. Having lived in Hong Kong for sixteen years, I regard Hong Kong as my home and my hometown. But, Mr. Peters' humor is based on observations and character traits he has witnessed and, to be quite honest, what I have seen myself. And, he doesn't take cheap shots. 

When an ethnic stab is done, however, cheaply and for pure exploitative intentions, I do take offense. When I first moved to America, I was received with statements likes "Oh my God, your English is so good." Or, "You grew up in Hong Kong, so you must speak Japanese." In some ways, these kinds of statements can almost be forgiven. They're largely based on ignorance. But, when I saw this newspaper - tabloid, really - piece a couple of weeks back, my Offended Asian Radar - my OAR, if you will - took notice and I wanted to hit the tabloid's editor upside the head with it. The Canadian speedster, of Chinese heritage, is a criminal and should be punished for his twenty-four minute race through Manhattan. However, to use the headline they did, the editors and writers of that tabloid should be ashamed of themselves. Scandal and offense sell as much as sex do but this was such a blatant stab at the stereotypical trait that Asians are unable to say the letter R, instead replacing it with a L. It is true that some Asians have this, for lack of a better word, affliction but that's simply due to accents and second languages. I've encountered many a native English speaker get defensive and downright offensive when their mistakes when attempting to speak a language foreign to them are pointed out. I suspect that the editors and writers of this piece may be among them. This headline, however, is such an offensive cheap shot. 

I'm writing this post purely on my immediate gut reaction when I saw this headline. Like I said, it was two weeks ago. I gave it time to simmer and/or die down. Unfortunately - perhaps, fortunately - it has simmered and not died down. I can't even recall which New York tabloid it came from. I rarely read them but I was at the barber shop and picked it up as my son was getting his haircut. As I write this, a scary thought just popped into my head. I didn't check to see who the writer of the article is and who the tabloid's editors are. What's scary and, hopefully not the case, is the chance that either party is Asian or Asian American.

The bottom line, for me anyway, is that the writer's attempt at a pun was poorly executed. The tabloid has basically printed, in bold letters no less, a racial slur. The perpetrator's careless and reckless speeding had nothing to do with his ethnicity. So why bring it up? This wasn't a hate crime based on prejudice. It was a stupid man's attempt to do something he thought was cool. He could just as easily been white, black, brown or something in between. 

Like I said, I don't even know which New York tabloid it was that published that headline. I also said I rarely read them as it is. Well, I am less likely to do so again.

07 November, 2014

Confidence and Passion: A Writer's Essential Allies...or, How To FeelGood And, Hopefully, Succeed At A Pitch Slam

It seems that the idea of change is on my mind. In one of the latest posts in my food blog, Panlasa, I talk about the changes in the way I make some dishes now compared to how I was taught to make them years ago. Here, I'm going to talk a little about the agent pitch session at this year's Writer's Digest Conference and how it has changed and how my tactical approach to pitching my work to agents may have also changed since the first time I participated in it in 2010.

I've participated in the pitch slam three times now. The first was, like I said, in 2010. That was the last year when it was part of Book Expo America (BEA) and Writer's Digest hosted BEA. The subsequent pitch sessions I attended were in 2011 and just this past August. In 2010 and 2011, I'd pitched my first (and, so far, only published) novel, Back Kicks And Broken a Promises. Unfortunately, it wasn't published through an agent, with a bestseller-making bid war and with the engine of a big traditional publishing house behind it.

When I pitched in 2010, I'd really done it just to get the experience. But I'm not going to lie. I did hold on to the dullest glimmer of hope that something might happen and I wasn't going to turn it away if it had. I'd have busted my butt to finish and polish my novel. The conference hosts's recommendation was for an author not to pitch unless his book was  finished or, with utmost certainty, the author knew exactly where his book was going. The pitch session was also part of the conference, not requiring a separate fee. I decided to pitch two agents. One is Asian. I chose her, yes, because of that. I'm Asian and Back Kicks has an Asian American protag, is strong in Asian themes and is set as much in Asia (Singapore and The Philippines) as it is in America (New Jersey). This agent did ask for a submission but she obviously passed and, naturally, I was bummed out. But, I was okay with it. I hadn't felt a strong vibe with her and, really, my novel was only about two thirds done. The other agent I pitched that year, who I pitched because she's from New Jersey, also passed but she was very pleasant, encouraged me to keep writing and said she'd welcome future queries from me.

In 2011, Back Kicks was finished and I was fully ready to put it out to the world. The agents I pitched were very receptive and gave my book - its pitch, anyway - some very encouraging and flattering words. Three of them - I pitched five in the time I had - said the story reminded them of Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao. All five agents requested pages and/or the book's synopsis. Alas, they all passed. So, feeling that my book was ready to go out and wanting to put some closure on it, I self-published it through Abbott Press, the then brand new indie publishing arm of Writer's Digest Magazine, in 2012. A year later, I made further revisions and updated my book with Abbott. Now, I can say I'm truly done with it. I'll still promote it and such but, in my mind and heart, it's a done deal and I can't and don't want to change it further. The agents I pitched in 2011 were YA generic, literary or adult fiction focused. 

This time, I didnt just go in with the idea of a book or a newly finished manuscript. I went in with my heart and my mind. Huh? Back Kicks, like many first books, is semi-autobiographical. This can work both positively and negatively. For me, while there is a story with sub-plots, arcs and strong characters, I think it worked against me. I never like talking about myself. In typical writerly mystification, I have self-confidence and self-esteem issues and I don't think my life is very interesting yet I can write about parts of it, albeit fictionalising it, and share it with the world. So, because of my lack in self-confidence and, perhaps an artist's self-loathing, I likely didn't present myself all that passionately about my own book. 

In 2014, it was a lot different. For one thing, I thoroughly researched my targets and went with the agents who, based on their bios provided by the conference organisers, were close to being a 'perfect fit.' What I've written is a YA fantasy auctioneer called Sky Warrior. It's a fun, educating and entertaining novel that I would want to read, even if I hadn't written it, and wish were a movie. There's nothing high falutin' about Sky Warrior. There's multiculturalism, action, martial arts, magic. What's not to like? Perhaps the difference in 2014 is that I'm coming to terms with what I want to write and not what I think I should be writing. At least for me, talking about and reading Back Kicks was like touring my own head. With Sky Warrior, it's a case of being taken somewhere far away and very different from where real life lives.

I pitched five agents last August. One was a movie producer and she asked me for a business card. Her partners have since passed but we're keeping our lines of communication open in case her partners change their minds and if I have anything else she might like. Two agents passed at The Pitch Slam but their bios didn't state they weren't into 'high fantasy,' which is what one of them called my novel. They both complimented me on my pitch, however. The other two were super excited. One, after I finished my pitch, said, "You had me at gung fu." Naturally, I was jazzed. I've since followed up with her and I'm still waiting to hear back. The other one was even more enthusiastic and we discovered that our sons both enjoy Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender. I've followed up with her and she replied and she asked me to give her more time and said she'll get back to me soon. That's better than getting the broom. 

So, if I can be so bold as to offer any kind of advice about pitching to agents, it's this: be passionate and know who you're talking to and/or know who you want to talk to. Nothing may come from what happened at The Pitch Slam last summer. Of course, I'm hopeful something will especially in light of how enthusiastic the agents I pitched responded to my novel. But, if nothing does, I know I can go with Sky Warrior to other agents feeling confident and passionate about it. And, nothing is more contagious and fostering in trust than confidence and passion. 

19 July, 2014

Going Crazy With English

Germany proved to be a great team at this year's World Cup.

Lately, I've been craving a piece of Banana Cream Pie.

Both of the above would put me in a good mood.

I have a love and hate relationship with the English language.

I love words. I'm a writer, after all, and I don't think I could be one without loving them. I love how, when you read them, they create tapestries in your mind and take you places. They make you feel things; something new or intensify an emotion you were already experiencing. In the right construction, they can be conjure irony, anger, insightfulness, confusion, enlightenment. But, in doing all of that, why does it have to be terribly inconsistent?

You've likely thought about this yourself. If you look at the three sentences at the top of this post, you'll see what I mean. The first one has the words great and team and both words have 'ea' in the middle yet they have completely different sounds; one is pronounced 'ee' while the other is 'ay.' The second one has piece and pie. In the first word, the 'ie' sounds like 'ee' and in the second it's like 'eye.' Finally, good and mood. You know how they sound differently. 

Before I go on, I do understand that there are accentual reasons why some of these words might be said differently. I grew up in Hong Kong and had some Scottish friends and their pronunciation of good often sounded like mood. My fellow Filipinos might pronounce team like tim, for instance, but that's not what I'm talking about. Here's my thing: why can't the same letters in the same combination have the same sounds across the board? English words have come from a lot of different sources throughout the course of history. Many are from Latin, Germanic and Greek origins. Some are more recent and from Asian origins (e.g. boondocks came from the Filipino word bundok (mountain) and was brought into English usage by American soldiers who were in The Philippines during World War II). Words, however, have evolved from their origins to become what they are today yet there are differences in pronunciation even when there are consistencies in spelling.

The other thing that drives me a little nuts, which came on recently as my wife and I teach our son to read, is silent letters. For example, tight or might. I get the need for the 'h.' There's a breathy quality, a gasp almost, just before the 't' in the pronunciation to both words. But, there's no 'g' sound whatsoever so why do we need to have the letter in the word? Some words do have to be spelt differently. No and know, for example. If both were deconstructed to their simplest forms, they'd both be no and reading could get confusing. Context would take on a larger role. But that brings me back to my first 'hate' of the English language. Know is pronounced like no but the 'ow' in other words, like how and cow, have a different sound. And then there's bow, which has both sounds. Another double sounder is tear.

One can go crazy thinking about this stuff and, perhaps, I am crazy. The deeper I get into the world of words, though, as someone trying to forge a career as a writer, the more I become aware of these inconsistencies - or, at least, challenges - in the English language. They won't stop me from writing, however. I'm a writer and writers write. Heck, maybe I'll write a book with streamlined spelling and pronunciation to see if the language can actually be approached that way. 

Happy writing!

04 June, 2014

Being A Fan - My Day At BookCon

I attended BookCon last Saturday. BookCon is one of the events that happens in conjunction with Book Expo America (BEA) and it's the book fans' day to celebrate their favorite authors, attend panels, get autographs, buy book-themed merchandise and get free galleys and other swag from publishers. It was, and will be again in 2015, held at the Jacob Javitts Convention Centre in NYC and it was an enjoyable madhouse. A friend who also attended and with whom I tried to meet up for lunch, refereed to it as a 'religious experience.' In addition to being a lover of books, she's also an English Lit teacher so you can imagine the overwhelming elation she must've felt. 

I'd never attended a 'con' before although I've always wanted to - and may still yet - attend ComicCon. The other times I've been to BEA and its related events, I've gone from somewhat of an insider's perspective. I'm an writer, with one book out so far (Back Kicks And Broken Promises), and I've gone to BEA attend workshops, network, and to learn about the business. This year, however, my schedule didn't allow me to take the three days off from my day job to attend BEA in earnest so I decided to go as a fan and attend BookCon. After all, what lover of words and book wouldn't want to? And, who knows? One day I might be on the other side, signing autographs or speaking as part of a panel, so I might as well make sure I know how my readers might feel. Ha ha!

Well, a few days post event, I have to say it was well worth it. It was crowded, there were long lines (I didn't get into the chat between Alex London  (Proxy, Guardian) and Veronica Roth (The Divergent series) but I did get to attend the Stan Lee (Marvel Comics, Zodiac) interview and the dystopian panel with Veronica Roth, Marie Lu (The Legend series), Danielle Paige (Dorothy Must Die) and Alaya Dawn Johnson (The Summer Prince). From both sessions, I walked away with free teasers - a galley sample of Lu's upcoming The Young Elites and a teaser booklet of Roth's Four series and a signed galley sample of Lee's upcoming novel, Zodiac

In addition to these two fan-targeted sessions, I also attended a couple of less fan and, perhaps, more industry-type sessions. The first one I went to was a discussion with an esteemed panel of authors that included two of my favourites,  Matt de la Peña (The Living, Mexican WhiteBoy), who I refer to as 'my mentor' after having taken three workshops with him and for his major influence in guiding my hand as I wrote Back Kicks, and Grace Lin (Dumpling Days). It was called We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), a campaign spearheaded by Asian American author Ellen Oh (Warrior, Prophecy). In a nutshell, the panel discussed the need and ways to get books written, published and distributed to our youth of colour with story lines and protagonists that better represent them and that allow other (read: not of colour) children - and adults - to learn about and understand the other side of the ethnic colour spectrum. As an Asian American author, I was naturally pulled to this panel. And, I am fully behind Oh's campaign and will do whatever I can to support it. I do believe WNDB is planning its first event in Washington, DC for 2016. 

The second non-fan centred panel I attended was a discussion with two publishers who specialise in putting out books for minority readers - Cinco Puntos and Just Us Books. Both publishers seem to specialise in books for Hispanic and African American readers but I'm sure, with a good story, they'd consider books by and for other ethnic groups. What was interesting to learn at this session, though, was that more than half the books by and about minorities come from indie or small presses like Cinco Puntos and Just Us. It's about time the big houses get on the diversity train. Lee And Low is another publisher focusing on diverse books, particularly for children, and its imprint Tu Books focuses on science fiction and fantasy. 

In addition to the above panels, I roamed the show floor and picked up some galleys. Partly because I was green in how things worked, but also because I didn't want to pick things up indiscriminately (which part of me regrets), I didn't get some of the free totes and other swag and books the hordes of fellow attendees got. Next time, I'm going to have to be more aggressive and barge my way through. I've never done a Black Friday 2am shopping spree but the way the crowds stormed in I can imagine it's very similar. Of the books on hand, and one of the freebies I regret missing, the one that seemed to be the most pushed (I base this on seeing placards and posters for it just about everywhere I turned) was E. Lockhart's We Were Liars. Next time, the instant I feel an inkling for a book, for whatever reason, I'll snap it up or queue up and bring it home. 

So, will I go again? Yeah, if I'm not attending BEA proper or off in another city doing a book signing of my own books, Back Kicks or the one I'm finishing writing now. Hmm. Haha. For those of you who were there - and of the masses who were there the majority appeared to be women and girls ranging from about 12 to 40 - I hope you had as much fun as I did. 

Happy reading!

20 May, 2014

Ten Years

In a week, my wife and I will be married for ten years. Of course, many of you reading this have been married for much longer than us. Some of you, a little less. Honestly, I don't know if I feel that we've been married a long time or a short time. I've known my wife, after all, since we were kids and our dads have been friends since the 1950s so our families have been connected and, in many ways, my wife's and my lives have been intertwined from the get go.

Nonetheless, 'ten year anniversary' has a nice ring to it. There's still so much more ahead of us and there's still so much more to learn and things to experience, to live and cry and laugh about, through which we can grow together - especially as our son gets older - but there's a certain feeling of accomplishment with ten years. We don't know it all but there are times when we've been the ones people who come to us for advice. It's like we've earned some street cred in the ways of the married. 

It reminds me of what one of my Taekwondo masters and examiners said when I got my fourth dan (degree black belt) in 2001. (I started Taekwondo training in 1985.) He said that he respects everyone who trains and takes the bumps and bruises but it isn't until the person has been doing it for, at least, ten years that he regards him as a 'martial artist.' He went on to remark that many people start martial arts - and, remember, for us masters, martial arts is more than kicking and punching, self-defense and trophies - but after a month, six months, one year, three years later they've stopped training and never come back. Ten years, for this master, was a milestone, not just because of the time, but because in ten years of training the practitioner begins to understand and accept things about himself. In ten years, with regular practise, a student can get to his third dan, a degree before 'master.' And, whether in martial arts or marriage, understanding and acceptance are key ingredients to getting through and being successful. 

Life, particularly through marriage, is much the same way. These ten years haven't always been roses and rainbows. There have been struggles mixed in with the smooth sailing, tears, both sad and happy, and yet we've come through them each time with better knowledge of our individual selves and our partnership. Certain words and their meanings take on greater significance  with marriage, too. I'm talking about words like patience, compromise, time, me and I; things we, as humans, take for granted when we're single but change drastically when your life is now responsible to and for a wife and, in our case, a son. With approximately 50% of American marriages ending in divorce, it's nice to know that my wife and I aren't a statistic. In fact, the numbers are greater for subsequent marriages. First time marriages have a 41% chance of ending in divorce. Second time marriages is at 60% and third time is 73%. I'm not saying that divorce is always a bad thing. I have friends who've gotten divorced and they're better off for it. Sometimes things just don't work out and it's better to get out of a bad situation rather than staying in it and making things worse. When getting married, though, you like to hope and believe the marriage will work,  otherwise, why do it? In my friends' cases, divorce wasn't something they pursued whimsically at the first time of trouble. That's not any good either. 

As we get to our ten year and look ahead to the next ten, I want to thank my wife. She's given me the courage to do lots of things I probably wouldn't have done without her - pursue, earnestly, my writing dreams; compete at the US Taekwondo National Championships; try out for a spot on the US Taekwondo Poomsae (Forms) team, become a more active member of our community (I'm pretty reclusive), take a weekly dance class, to name a few. She's also a source and reminder of positive energy. She's a listener and helps me everyday to be the best version of me I can be and, to that end, she's the best partner I can have to be the best father I can be to our son. 

So, to end, I'd just like to thank her for everything she's given me over the last ten years and tell her, in front of the whole world (well, my blog following world anyway), that I love her. Happy Anniversary, darling. 

15 May, 2014

Musical Tastes

I wonder if I'm just getting old or if I really don't fancy much of the music I hear on the radio. There are individual songs and some artists I enjoy, don't get me wrong. I really like the song Only Human but I'm not compelled to buy Christina Perri's album. I do, though, enjoy P!nk and have bought many of her albums and went to her concert in New Jersey last December. Lady Gaga's Edge of Glory has an 80s feel that instantly drew me to it. So, too, too does Stephanie Treo's I Love It. I also enjoy Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson but I still prefer the classic sounds of Queen and The Beatles and artists who sing their songs like they mean it; artists like The Eurythmics, Neil Diamond, and U2, to name a few. 

Perhaps I'm simply a child of my generations, having gone through my tween and adolescent formation in the mid to late 1970s to mid 1980s. I'm not jazzed about today's songs, mostly by female artists, with all the riffs and excessive vocal acrobatics. This, of course, is purely subjective - strictly my opinion - but I'm also not fond of the sameness with the boy band love ballads with their over-layered whispering voices. Whenever I hear one I feel like I'm eavesdropping on a friend who's trying to convince a girl, using less than sincere but flattering words, to go out or sleep with him when she's clearly not (that) interested. It's almost like watching someone begging.

Whatever my musical preferences can be attributed to, there are some timeless songs and artists I recently rediscovered. Once Upon A Time, You Don't Know Me, My Way and Somewhere Down The Road recently crept up on my musical radar again and resurrecting a playlist in my iPod I listened to these songs and allowed the feelings and memories - some happy, some not so - to wash over me. 

Once Upon A Time made me think of a couple of things. It reminded me of a trip I took to Manila in 2003. On one of my first nights there, my parents, brother and I went to a piano bar in Intramuros. It's a place my dad knew from many years ago, where journalists frequent and have a brandy or a beer and join the pianist in impromptu live music karaoke. It was a cool (not in terms of temperature) night. When my dad sang, I got a glimpse of him as a young man and, with my own journalistic and writerly aspirations, I could imagine living that life - banging on typewriter keys all day and chilling with the same people night after night and forming meaningful bonds. 

You Don't Know Me, a song from the same generation, brought me back to the late 1990s when I'd just watched the movie Two Girls and a Guy, starring Robert Downey, Jr and Heather Graham. The song is, obviously, used in the movie. I loved the feel of the movie. It was like a craftily written play and I was also at a time of my life when things were looking up. I was fit and going to taking film and writing courses in New York City. 

My Way, well, My Way is My Way. Need I say more? Well, actually, I'd heard renditions of this song growing up. Frank Sinatra's version, of course, is a classic but I do like Paul Anka's, which is interesting comparing the two because Anka wrote it but Sinatra made it the timeless hit it is. This song came in my consciousness, in a big way, in 1982 when my family was on a whirlwind summer holiday that began in San Francisco, moved to Los Angeles, jumped to New York and culminated in Europe (London, Paris, Munich, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome). Being my first trip outside of Asia, even though I was only thirteen, I felt that My Way was going to have some distinct meaning in terms of this trip and in my own life. Of course, we can all claim some connection to the song because, by definition, whatever we've done we've all done it our own ways. 

Somewhere Down The Road, Barry Manilow's song of love, loss and hope, was introduced to me on the same 1982 vacation. And, again, it seemed to be telling the story of how I was feeling during the trip. The thing was, I didn't  have a girlfriend at the time nor did I have any particular crush. It just seems to help define my vacation; that, perhaps, my path will lead me back to one of those cities or experiences I had that summer and it would be a reunion of major significance. 

I think - I know - a lot of my musical preference has to do with my parents. As far back as I can remember, every Sunday, I'd wake up to the unique sound of an LP playing in the living room. Without fail, it would be some kind of Broadway musical entering my ears - Oklahoma, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, The King and I, Gypsy, you name it. From that, I started to enjoy the classic sounds of Hammerstein, Rodgers, Porter, Gershwin and, as a tween, I started listening to my sister's Little River Band albums, The Beatles, Linda Ronstadt. 

Whatever music you enjoy, the music and the words and the voices elicit lots of different and mixed feelings. They can excite you, warm you, make you cry, inspire you, inform your moods and thoughts. Whatever music does to you, don't forget to look - and listen - back. Now, crank up that gramophone and be careful with that stylus. You don't want to scratch that vinyl.

08 May, 2014

Intra-Asian Conflict: Differentiate But Celebrate

The title of this piece could be the story of the Asian part of my Asian American identity. I’m mostly Filipino, was born in Manila but I was raised in Hong Kong and I have Chinese blood from my paternal grandmother, who was half Manchurian. I call myself Filipino but, in many ways, I associate more with Chinese culture than I do Filipino culture. I speak neither Tagalog nor Cantonese fluently and my understanding of Tagalog is better than my Cantonese but the sound of Cantonese pulls at my heartstrings harder and with more affection than Tagalog does.
This article, however, is not about my Asian American identity. Instead, it is about some observations I’ve made, after living in America for almost thirty years, about how Asians deal with one another and how non-Asians regard us – at least here in America, anyway. Bear in mind, as you read, that this piece is purely anecdotal based on what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard and what’s been said and done to me. There was no formal survey or research study done from which I’ve come to any conclusions based on  experiences I discuss below. Before we continue, however, I should also point out that I am going to be discussing, primarily, East Asia and the Asians I encountered growing up. I am not necessarily going to be discussing Central Asia or The Middle East or Asia Minor.

The biggest thing I’ve noticed, discovered and experienced is the myopic, narrow-minded and, largely, ignorant view of who and what are Asian. The worst part of this is that it’s not just non-Asians who possess this lack of knowledge (as you might expect and, perhaps, even excuse of non-Asians) but Asians are also guilty of disregarding other Asians.

There are, of course, accounts throughout history of Asians mistreating other Asians. These incidents have, unfortunately, developed distrust and animosity between the groups involved and, sadly, such feelings are often passed from one generation to the next. There have been – and is - animosities between Japanese and Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, Japanese and Filipinos, Filipinos and Malaysians, to name a few. These conflicts have come from one nation conquering or invading another and mistreating those who were conquered (e.g. Japanese invasions during World War II). In some cases, the conflict was over territory resulting in bad blood between the nations and their people (Malaysia and The Philippines arguing over sovereignty over the island of Sabah). In some cases, the conflict has derived from territory and religion – the battle of Kashmir, for example, between India and Pakistan. The feelings borne from these conflicts are often legitimate – after all, who wants to be or deserves to be conquered and oppressed, anyway? – however, that they should last from generation to generation, I feel, is a tragedy and a lost opportunity for healing and strengthening of the Asian ideal.

Since moving to the United States, though, I’ve noticed there almost appears to be a hierarchy of ‘Asianness.’ It’s almost a status symbol and something that is determined by what kind of Asian you are and how well your country or type of Asian is known by non-Asians. I have many Caucasian friends and students who have never heard of Malaysia or Indonesia, for example. To these same friends, their idea of Asian is Chinese or Japanese and, recently, Korean. There’s nothing to be said about Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos, Indonesians and Malaysians. And let’s not forget the Vietnamese, Tibetans, Thais and Hmong. In fact, when I people find out I’m Filipino, I’m often remarked by comments like “The Philippines isn’t Asian. You’re Pacific Islanders.” Yes, The Philippines are islands – the largest archipelago, actually – in The Pacific Ocean but those islands are located in South East ASIA. I’m sorry if it messes with your mind that Filipino can be both Asian and, by definition, Pacific Islanders. India is also referred to as the ‘Asian sub-continent’ and Indians referred to as ‘South Asians.’  Do these groups not count then as Asians?

One fantastic example of intra-Asian ignorance is an interaction I had with the Korean mother of one of my son’s kindergarten classmates. My wife ‘looks’ Asian. I put looks in quotes because, really, what does Asian look like? Speaking in generalizations and typical (or stereotypical) viewpoints, my wife has sharp eyes, a yellow-mocha complexion, and a flat nose. I, on the hand, have brown eyes that are slightly rounder, freckles, a sharper more Roman nose and a lighter brown skin tone. When people meet me for the first time, I am greeted with confused looks and I still get the questions “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” So, when we met my son’s classmate's mother, she regarded my wife, who is three quarters Filipina and a quarter Spanish, with instant Asian familiarity. In fact, she thought my wife was Chinese. They chitchatted, laughed. One may even have touched the other on the arm in mid banter. There was that Asian thang, sisters from another mother and all that. When she learnt that my wife is Filipina, there was a muted “Oh” that accompanied the revelation. Being mixed (I have Filipino, Chinese, Spanish and German blood), I can accept that she didn’t think me to be Asian. So, you can imagine her surprise and disbelief when she found out that I'm Asian too.

After both discoveries, though, the most intriguing statement came out of her mouth. I’m sure she didn’t mean any offense by it but I was definitely taken aback when she said, about us being Filipino, “Philippines is not really Asian, though.” What does one do with that? I was torn between getting into a heated discussion of what that meant and correcting her ignorance, calling her an idiot and walking away, saying something in the little Korean that I know (which I’ve been told by other Korean friends is quite good in pronunciation but, admittedly, is limited to basic greetings, food items, and, of course, Taekwondo commands), or just smiling and letting this faux pas go by and wait for a better time to correct her. She is after all, since our sons are in the same grade, class and school district, someone I could be interacting with for the next thirteen years. And, lo and behold, my son and hers have come to form a friendship at school.

This isn’t the only slight Asian versus Asian slight I've experienced.  On Facebook a few years back, I took one of those quizzes that pop up now and again. This one, naturally, was called How Asian Are You? Well, I took it and answered honestly (which I was later told I shouldn’t have since those Facebook quizzes are largely satirical and tongue-in-cheek) and I got a rating like ‘Not That Asian.’ The quiz items may or may not have been made by Asians. If they were, though, they were very centric to Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. There were questions like “How often do you use chopsticks?” and “Do you put sugar in your tea?” and “Do you read anime?”

In other things I’ve noticed, you never hear of Asians being cited as a demographic in consumer spending. I was told, not directly but at a Q&A, by director Justin Lin, after a screening of his movie Finishing The Game, that this is because Asian spending habits tend to mimic Caucasian spending habits so the two sets of numbers are often lumped together. I guess, in this regard, Asians just don’t even exist in America. This, of course, is far from the truth. A 2012 US Census Bureau report showed that Asians are the fastest growing minority in the United States, rising 2.9% (530,000 more than the previous census bringing the total number of Asians in America to 18.9 million). In the same year, the Pew Research Center identified Filipino Americans and Indian Americans as the second and third largest growing Asian American populations, respectively, in the United States ahead of Japanese Americans and Korean Americans. Chinese Americans were first. I don’t mention this to rank Filipinos and Indians above Japanese and Koreans but to further illustrate that Asians in America are not only represented by Chinese, Japanese and Koreans.

So, what is it about Asians in America? We’re regarded as the ‘model minority’ yet our say doesn’t count and, even within our own Asian collective, there seems to be a rank among which groups are more Asian  and which groups are not. Moreover, there is, from what I’ve seen, a distinction between mixed Asians and pure Asians and between immigrants and Asians who were born in the United States. And, don’t even get me started on Asians living outside the United States and how they often look at Asians in America, regardless of whether they are mixed Asian or immigrants or both (like me).

With the Internet, satellite television, immigration and easier air travel, globalization has happened and is here to stay. This has brought people together but, in a weird way, it has also heightened the awareness of our differences and, perhaps, pulled people apart. Differences can be good if we’re celebrating them but not if we’re recognizing them in ways that raise one culture while putting down another. For Asians to strive in this country, we need to celebrate each other’s differences and unify those differences in a total Asian identity and, when one of us succeeds, cheer it as not only a Chinese American or Vietnamese American or Korean American or Whatever American triumph but as Asian American triumph.

12 April, 2014

The Joys and Not So Joyful Things About Spring

After the winter we had in New Jersey, with record snowfall and record low temperatures, it's without surprise that spring is welcomed with open arms. Longer days, chirping birds, brighter and colourful surroundings all have a natural way of making people happier, walk lighter on their feet and seemingly more positive in their outlooks towards life.

As a teacher, it means a step closer to the summer when teachers are off and get to have time for themselves. As a writer, it means Book Expo America and the Writer's Digest Conference and, generally, more time to write and edit. As a husband and father, it means more time with my family, playing soccer outdoors with my son and splashing around in the pool.

But, as winter ends and spring begins, it's a reminder that another year is passing and we're all one more year older. With that, a new (or renewed) list of achievements and failings can accompany the changing of the season. As humans beings are wont to find flaws and as much as we like certain things, like the warmer weather and brigher days, we still find things about which to complain about those things we enjoy.  So, with that said, here are my current (things could change next year or tomorrow) top ten positives and negatives about spring. 

10 Negatives About Spring (not in any particular order)

1. Allergies
2. Bugs. I'm not scared of them. I just find them annoying, buzzing around your ears and such.
3. Bug bites 
4. Severe fluctuation in weather (day-to-day and within each day)
5. Yard work. I really hate having to do it but I like the results after it's finished. 
6. The season in which taxes are due. However, this is due to no fault of the season. If taxes were due in the winter, then I'd feel the same way about winter in this regard.
7. The looming end to the English football (soccer) season
8. Spring cleaning. This is very much like indoor yard work. 
9. Spring colds. Cold and flu should be things of winter only. Spring and summer colds, intuitively, just seem contradictory. Just say it. Spring cold. Summer cold. Worse still, they're harded to deal with because, if you're like me, you've got allergies on top of the flu.
10. Noisy and, sometimes, rowdy latenighters. Usually, those guilty of this are returning college students and high school seniors. I don't begrduge them their fun. They're entitled to it. I just wish they were a tad more considerate to those of us who have, perhaps, passed their prime and don't hangout like they used and/or have kids who they're trying to keep asleep through the night. 

10 Positives About Spring (again, not in any particular order) 

1. Warmer temperatures
2. Longer days. Goodbye standard time, hello Daylight Savings!
3. Spring Break
4. Outdoor tennis
5. Running outside
6. Nature's colours
7. Driving with the windows and moonroof open
8. It's the writer's season. Spring and summer appear to be when most of the conferences and workshops happen. Although writers write and share 24-7-365, in an odd way it feels like late fall and winter is when we cram inside and bang out on the keys to our laptops and spring is when we start to reconnect and share what we've written. 
9. Street fairs and farmers' markets.
10. Baseball. Although I'm not a baseball fan, the way I am a football (soccer) fan with a team I support and follow, there is something very special and truly American about ball parks filled with kids in helmets and carrying bats, wearing mitts and the smell of hot dogs and burgers wafting through the air. There's a tradition aboury. it and something pure, too. The unique sounds of a ball landing in a glove or coming off the bat - the ding of an aluminium one or the crack of a Louisville Slugger - is pure Americana. It's innocent and hopeful, the way spring itself is. 

06 April, 2014

"Judge not, that ye be not judged"

Here's one for inclusion in the annals of 'mind your fucking business.'

I've waited for this to happen and it's a good thing for the person's sake she didn't confront me directly. Just short of witnessing someone actually hitting or molesting his or her own child, I'm very much an advocate of letting parents parent in their own way. Abuse and neglect are very real concerns and, as a parent and a teacher, I'm hyper-sensitive to them. But in today's world on ongoing psychobabble and knee jerk responses to everything, thanks to our undereducated readings of reports and articles on parenting in publications like The New York Times and its weekly magazine, TIME, Psychology Today, Parents, Parenting and the like, we need to stop putting the cart before the horse and ask before shooting.

I play squash every week on Sunday at 7 am. My son has swim lessons Sundays at 9:55 am at the same location - Lifetime Athletic in  Florham Park. Instead of driving to the gym for squash, back home or to my wife's work to get my son, then back to Lifetime, my son and I make a father-son morning of it. We go to bed the night before earlier than usual, get up early on Sunday and get to the gym for my squash hour. After playing, I give my son a brief squash lesson before the next players who booked the same court arrive. Then we take a short trip for hot cakes after which we return to the gym and chill before swi.

Today, as usual, we arrived and were greeted by the same employee who works the desk every Sunday. We were met with her usual smile and offerings of a good day. It was about 6:15am. After hot cakes, the same employee was at the desk and she told me of the woman who came in just after us. I wasn't even aware there was someone behind me, to be honest. I wasn't even aware there was someone behind me. From the way it was told to me, the impression I have is that the other gym member was, at best, surprised but really, I think, shocked that a six year old would be at the gym that early. There is a day care at the gym but it doesn't open until  8 am. The employee at the desk appeared to have my back. The woman apparently inquired if there were programs for kids that early. The employee did mention that the gyms (there are two basketball courts) aren't used and children could play there, if there aren't any pick-up basketball games going on. And I've seen other kids at around 7 am shooting hoops or kicking a soccer ball.

I'll give the other member the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps she was just surprised and curious but, in my experience, when people can't mind their own business it's usually to tell someone else that he or she is in the wrong. And, with my stance on parenting - let the child's parents parent the child - it's best that the woman hadn't confronted me directly. If she had, I would likely have just shaken my head and walked away. If she'd persisted, however, I would've reminded her that she knows nothing about me or my son and how he's raised and, basically, for her to mind her own fucking business. 

Perhaps this entire post is me judging those who judge but I believe people really do need to remember to clean up their own backyards, not throw stones in glass houses, and be aware that if you spit in the wind it's only going to come back at them. Ironically, I turn to The Bible to help illustrate this point. I say ironically because, while religion can be good in a general sense, I think it is one of the greatest proponents of 'judgmentalism.' That notwithstanding, in Matthew 7:1-3 it says "Judge not, that ye not be judge." Hypocrisy, self-righteousness, holier than thou attitudes, closed-mindedness are, in my opinion, things that cause more problems than good. There is more than one way to do any one thing - parenting, spirituality, exercising, generosity, what have you - and I think it is worth reminding everyone to see things from other people's eyes, to walk in their shoes, practice tolerance and acceptance and to remember that no matter how wise you are, and how much of an expert you are at whatever it is you are an expert in, no one of us is wise enough or expert enough to be able to judge the heart of a fellow human being. More importantly, none of us are perfect.

So, when asked for your input, remember to give it respectfully and humbly. And, if you're not asked for it and no one's lives or limbs are in danger, mind your own fucking business. 

26 March, 2014

Literacy, Literacy Everywhere - Characters

Literacy, Literacy Everywhere - Characters

Left to right: Me, Elisa Pupko, Peter Mercurio (school principal),
  Honi Wasserman (school media specialist)

For years, since I was a child really, I've written. Since the early 1990s, in fact, when I was getting paid for articles I'd written as a freelance journalist, I've called myself a 'writer.' Since the mid-1990s, when I started writing screenplays, going into the 2000s, when I started earnestly writing fiction, and today, with one indie-published book under my belt and on the verge of finishing my second novel, I've been working on becoming a full-time writer. In addition to, hopefully, being able to support my family that way, I've also tried to establish, within myself and those with whom I interact - inside and outside of the writing community - a writing identity. By that, I mean for people to see me, first and foremost (outside of being a husband, father and martial artist), as a writer. I often describe myself as a "writer trapped inside a teacher's body." I'm a teacher by trade, as the saying goes, but in the land of Hard Work And Perseverance and it's close neighbor, Where Dreams Come True, one day, what I do and who I am will become one.

Well, my writing identity took a major boost last month when I spoke at my son's school. My son is in kindergarten and I was asked by one of the class moms, who's a writer herself, to be one of three speakers at the school's launch event for its annual Academic Fair. The theme this year was 'Literacy, Literacy Everywhere - Characters.' The other two speakers were Elisa Pupko, a New York-based actor and founder of Treasure Trunk Theatre in Brooklyn, and the school's media specialist, Honi Wasserman.

Each of us presented for about fifteen minutes during which we shared our own take on the theme. Honi read from Dr. Seuss and Gary Paulsen, extolling the virtue of books. Elisa shared pictures from several of her acting experiences and discussed how she uses elements like a play's setting (location, era), costumes, her characters' age, their physical appearances, limitations and their social statuses to inform her interpretation of a role she's playing.

Me, I discussed how literacy is a skill but more than that, to borrow from the rock group Queen, how literacy is a kind of magic. And, I truly, mean that. I didn't simply use such a 'ruse' to get the K-2 and 3-5 audiences to buy into what I was saying. Literacy - reading and writing - is magic. Words take you places, let you be other people, do superhuman things. And that's when you read a book. When you write something and create worlds and people and put them together in interesting, educating and entertaining ways, you become the magician. 

Discussing creativity and imagination
with an excerpt from my favourite book,
The Little Prince
I explained to them that my creativity came from many places and how I expressed that creativity with poorly written short stories and unfulfilled story ideas when I was as young as nine or ten. I recalled to my listeners that my brother and I grew up playing with action figures. (I'm a guy so I have to say 'action figures' but, really, they were dolls.) We had eight inch dolls of superheroes and movie characters from The Planet of the Apes (the original) and the original Star Trek series. They were made by Mego. I also had a GI Joe and my brother had dolls of Steve Austin and Jamie Summers. For those of who too young, that would be the main characters from The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman

Anyway, at first, my brother and I played with them as they were. Captain Kirk was Captain Kirk, Supergirl was Supergirl and so on. Eventually, however, we started creating different characters for them and we would rearrange our bedroom so it would become another world. One time, we folded our mattresses and turned them into mountain ranges. One of our Klingon figures was the town's mayor. We wrote newspapers for the dolls to hold and 'read' and we even cut out tiny monetary notes. What I didn't realize at the time was that I, with my brother, was being creativity. I was even more clueless that my creativity would get me to writing screenplays and novels and speaking in front of impressionable young people. So, basically, I told them that anything and anyone can spark their creativity and imagination. 

I also emphasized that they must do everything they can to prevent from losing their imagination; to remain a child when reading and writing. To illustrate this, I read from my all-time favourite book, The Little Prince. I read from the opening section. To prevent a spoiler - and if you haven't read this wonderful book or you haven't read it in ages, make sure you do so now - I'll just say I read the part about the boa constrictor and the hat. 

Finally, I offered a bit of writing advice with a more practical bend. Since the theme was characters, I told them that character is action. I told them it's better to show their character being good - or bad - instead of merely writing or saying so.

Funnily, as things work out, as I was sharing my pearls of wisdom, I found myself feeling that I was talking more to myself than to my son and his schoolmates. Grown ups, you see, like myself can be such fuddy-duddies. We say "Stop!" and "No!" too often and we want things to be just so and exactly what and how they were intended to be. And, ironically, I think we become more fuddy-duddyish when we become parents, albeit without realizing it or intending to be. So, whether you're five, like my son, or forty-five, like me, remember these things - literacy is magic, don't lose your imagination, character is action, don't be a stick in the mud - and live by them. As writers, remembering these things is invaluable to our process and what we do. As readers, they make the book's enjoyment that much more meaningful. And, if you can enjoy reading and writing with a refreshed childlike innocence, you'll participate fully and enjoy another crazy thing: life. 

Happy creating everyone!

15 February, 2014

My Winter Games

My Winter Games - Surviving The Snow

It's snowed more this year than it has since 2011 when we had three blizzards in the span of a week or ten days. By the end of the second blizzard, there were snow banks as tall as me at the end of our driveway. I'm 5'11 1/2" which isn't NBA proportions but I'm also not short by any means. The snow banks this year, so far, after this week of four storms, is only about four or four and a half feet high. (It's snowing as I type this post so who knows how high the banks will be by the end of the holiday weekend.) 

Anyway, with all this snow, while I've had my limit of seeing it, feeling it and removing it, I have developed an efficiency in how I clear my driveway, the walkway and the front and rear paths to my home. Two snow storms back, there was more wet snow and, consequently, a lot more ice. While clearing our driveway, my wife shoveled and I removed the mini (and some not so mini) ice boulders that the snow plows left behind. I successfully tossed about nine or ten of them (no joke) in a row into a gap, about two by two feet, at the top of the hedge separating my driveway and my neighbor's. I felt like a point guard shooting mini-jumper after mini-jumper and making it each time. 

So, this got me thinking and with it being a Winter Olympics year and being someone with an Olympic connection (I tried out for a spot on the 2000 US Handball Team), I came up with my own version of the Winter Games. To be honest, it's more World's Strongest Man than Olympics, but it was fun thinking up the events and helped make the back-breaking task of shoveling yet again less physically, mentally and emotionally painful. 

So, here are the events of my Winter Games. Feel free to comment and add your own.

1. Shoveling Events: These can be divided into categories with shovels of different sizes (shaft length, shovel width and shovel depth). There can be contests for speed, amount of snow carried in a single scoop, endurance, distance (how far and how much is retained at the finish line) and, of course, a shovel snow toss. 

2. Obstacle Course: This can, of course, be exactly what it is; some kind of race, with snow in a shovel (or some other carrier) through an obstacle course. This can also and alternately be a test of how clean a person and, in a separate event, a team can clear a driveway or parking lot in a given time with a given set of tools. 

3. Ice Toss: This can have multiple versions. Boulders created by snow plows, in varying shapes and sizes, can be thrown for distance and accuracy. In another event, the Summer Games Athletics event Shot Put can be duplicated in the winter with puts made of ice. Now, all joking aside, how cool - pun intended - would that be? Same technique, same type of shot circle, just in the snow with balls of ice. 

4. Snow/Slush push: This is more like the World's Strongest Men event in which contestants are strapped to a Toyota or single decker bus and they pull it as far as they can. In this event, each contestant is given a shovel and upon a "Go!" signal has to push as much of the snow as far as he or she can. 

So, while I enjoy the winter for the cooler temps and, of course, for Christmas and my son's joy at playing in the snow, speaking as a fuddy-duddy grown up, I've had enough. I could always move to another state and town but, really, wherever one goes there's always going to be something. So, as the snow falls and coats my car and steps yet again and as I watch the Sochi Winter Olympics, I dream of the club pool and our annual vacation to MontaukI think of wearing shorts and a t-shirt and getting tanned. And I actually year for the insufferable heat, with affection, knowing I can get relief when I come home and turn on the aircon.