Remembering our roots

Illustration by Carmen Johns

One should not forget one’s roots.

My father, Bàba 爸爸, is an electrical engineer by training, a precise man who wore neatly pressed suits and silk ties to work for thirty years at a phone company. He taught me, an only child, to be careful and methodical. Read manuals first and always, always follow rules. An immigrant who came to America from Taiwan in 1956, he took classes to reduce his accent. …

I look at my reflection in the mirror and repeat a mantra: “I am not my mother. I am not my mother.”

Illustration by Alison Underwood

1. 媽 mā — mother. If you pronounce mother in a slightly different tone in Chinese, the word becomes 罵 mà, which means to scold or to curse. To me, they represent the same thing.

“Why don’t you like your mother?” my daughter piped up as my son slurped ramen next to her.

At five, she had noticed my harsh tone towards my mother during her Christmas visit. “Put your phone away, Mom,” I hissed at her, growing more annoyed each time she ignored my requests. She should be paying attention to her grandchildren, not texting or typing emails. I…

How my father’s love of kites followed him from China to America.

When I was a kid growing up in a small town in New Jersey, my dad, a Chinese immigrant and engineer, used to call me from work and say, “Let’s go fly a kite!”

“O-kayyyy,” I’d say, mostly because he sounded really excited. I was 10 and couldn’t care less about kites. I was happier reading a Nancy Drew book or watching an episode of Inspector Gadget.

He’d say, “I looked outside my window and the flag was really blowing in the wind.”

I’d peek outside but didn’t…

I am America.

As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, I was raised in suburban New Jersey, amidst manicured lawns and shopping malls, to be polite, not ‘rock the boat’ and speak only when spoken to. Like many ABCs (American-born Chinese), I excelled in school, played in piano competitions and studied hard to go to an Ivy League college — way before ‘Tiger parent’ entered the lingo.

I am America.

Like many girls, I was told I was ‘cute’ and ‘nice.’ These compliments kept me on a straight and narrow path, striving to be the teacher’s pet. I was taught to…

A trip down memory lane triggered by notes from my childhood bestie.

Betty (left) and me circa 1986

territorial squawks
warnings, perhaps
jet-black raven
clutching a juicy fruit
wrapper in his beak.

washed up pufferfish
inches from the water
thin blue-gray horizon
stretching out her arms
life hanging in the balance.

one shell collector
hunting for rare specimens
thousands of grains of sand
leave nothing behind
but footprints, says the sign.

bubblegum pink tube
floating lost, then found
tiny mermaid in a navy suit
with white polka dots
shivering with happiness.

snowy egret, salty breeze
whispering reveries
nestled in conch shells
waves rippling to shore
ever without fail.

Jen Soong

Dream big. Or in this case, dream tiny.

Sometimes the biggest dreams start small. Or in this case, tiny. I’ve been fascinated with the tiny house movement and recently started exploring building a tiny house that could be part getaway, part artist studio.

Started mentioning it to a few people and the seed was planted. Went down to Serenbe to take a look at the site where they are working with Rural Studio at Auburn University to build two $20K houses for artists.

Then I reached out to Decatur-based architect William Carpenter who built an idyllic, tiny house in North…

Making friends, stepping out of your comfort zone and connecting again.

Me (on left) and my best friend in 5th grade

Growing up, I was a shy kid with a pair of coke-bottle glasses and my head usually buried in books. I had the same circle of friends from elementary through junior high. It was only in moving to a new bigger high school (plus getting contacts and losing my braces) that I learned to be more social.

Decades later, that shyness still creeps in — usually when I step out of my comfort zone.

Recently, I reached out to two new friends to meet for coffee or a walk. Something in their writing spoke to me. …

Sometimes when you’re trying to carve out alone time, you find room for unexpected encounters.

For one week, I rented a room (thanks, Airbnb) in Savannah for what I dubbed a creative retreat. People asked, “Who are you doing this with?” Me, just me. A solo sabbatical.

To daydream. To ponder. To plot.

I brought with me a hefty stack of books for company.

The first one I opened 168 Hours by Laura Vanderkam talks about how we believe we’re always working and never have enough time for the things we’ve always wanted to do — write a book, learn a new language, etc. …

You can become the very kind of traveler you want to be.

In my last post on shifting gears, I talked about ending one chapter and starting another. Putting it out there to the world was both scary and exhilarating.

Seeing the responses that flooded my inbox was such a pleasant surprise. One of my favorites came from a high school friend and entrepreneur I haven’t seen in years (Thanks, Rodney!):

“You had the courage to shoot for the moon when so many others barely get their head out of the clouds. Stand proud and move forward with no regrets. Cheers!”

Running out of time

For the past few years, I’ve been obsessed with time (never…

Jen Soong

NorCal writer + VONA fellow. Published in WaPo, NYT + GAY. Memoir-in-progress about family ties, depression and the silences we learn to break.

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