This story was originally published in the October 19th, 2018 issue of The Slant. Want more Asian American stories like this one? Subscribe to the newsletter for free.
This is the full transcript of our feature on Lulu Cheng.
Your email newsletter stands out among all the other emails I get, because it’s personal. It’s interesting that email has kind of resurged because you get that direct view into the author, and you get to have those conversations. What got you to pursue /tell it slant/?
So when I started the newsletter, maybe a few years ago now maybe, it really was an experiment to see if I could write more. Because I enjoyed doing from a young age. But I’d kind of drifted away from it after college and graduation. I started doing a bit of it on my blog — it’s just my name, lulucheng.com. I haven’t posted in a while.
But the content I was posting was more work-related, and I felt this intense pressure to make everything perfect because it’s about work and it’s very public. And I had this suspicious that if I didn’t have that pressure and that constraint, I would write a lot more. So that was the original inspiration for the newsletter, and the first post I sent out was right around when Beyonce came out with “Formation,” so it was about “Formation.” And it was a hint of the topic I wrote about now, about Asian American identity.
I felt this sense of longing with a cultural icon like Beyonce, where that song is for people who are like her. No apologies, no explanations or qualifications for references that she makes in that song. And I thought, wow. When I look back on my childhood, who were the icons in media and culture that reminded me of me? And it was like less than 5 people. Michelle Kwan, Lisa Ling, Lucy Liu, and none of them are really at the level of Beyonce. And so yeah, that foreshadowed a little. Since then, I’ve touched on a number of different topics.
The two that I continually return back to are scenes around personal growth and emotional development, tying into my interest in coaching and mental health. Increasingly, actually, focusing around Asian American identity, and I think the experiences of 1.5 generation immigrants, which is my particular experience.
And I’m kind of at the point now where I’d like to spend some time in China — I’ve only been back twice since I left and the last time was almost a decade ago. So I’m feeling this sense of wanting to reconnect with my past, my family stories, and hopefully glean some creative inspiration from that.
Do you think that’s something spurred on by your newsletter?
I think it’s definitely been. One of the best things about that newsletter is that conversation between not only friends and families, but also strangers. And I think the hope for anyone who makes art is to have that momentary connection with someone, to feel less alone. And reach out in that visual “I see you” to create that moment.
What kind of conversations have you been having? You mentioned how unapologetic Beyonce was in “Formation.” Meanwhile, I noticed you used Chinese characters in a recent newsletter, too, in a similarly unapologetic way.
I haven’t gotten anything specific around using characters and not using translation. It’s actually stylistically something that you see more and more in works of literature. I recently finished The Wangs vs. the World, and one technique the author uses all the time is writing out sentences in pinyin. Entire paragraphs sometimes. And it was kinda crazy. It was hard to imagine someone reading it while knowing pinyin, ‘cos I’m doing translations in my head. And I remember seeing reviews on Goodreads complaining about these entire paragraphs of prose in another language. (laughs)
But honestly I think we’re gonna see so much more of that going forward. You know, with Google, it’s not that hard to use Google Translate if you’re really curious. And it’s about knowing the audience. Knowing there are people out there who will understand immediately what you’re saying and providing more contextual signposts so that readers aren’t completely lost.
But it’s so important, that switching. Because that’s what we’re doing as people who are bilingual and communicating with family where fluency is at very different levels. You’re constantly doing this switching, this translating when you’re talking with them. And so I think it’s just a reflection of the reality of my experience, and what it’s like to talk with them.
So I think the kind of dialogue that’s kind of touching for that specific piece is many people reached out with their own stories about grandparents, family members who are dealing with dementia, or Alzheimer’s. And what that’s like, kind of the daily slog of that journey. And also a lot of people who wrote [about the experience of] 1.5 generation immigrants.
I talk to my grandparents once or twice a year on the phone. I don’t have that relationship, I don’t see them multiple times. Once or twice a year maybe, on holidays. I don’t have traditions or anything. It’s a different relationship, and different burdens that come with that. And so I have a lot of conversation around how that’s different, how it’s not really a dynamic you see represented in mainstream media, and I think that was really refreshing for people as well.
Something that struck me about what you just said was that for a long time, when people read “Asian American literature,” foreign language is an exoticization. Like, “let me translate two words here into Chinese, but the rest will be English.” But now it’s not for the sake of Orientalism, but for the sake of being authentic. And suddenly that’s something to be complaining about when before it was so exotic. And I’m so glad there’s less of a need to defend yourself from outsider interactions there.
How do you decide what you write about for each newsletter?
I have a Google Doc of running ideas and generally I’m adding to that occasionally. And if I find myself returning to an idea multiple times, and think, “okay, there’s something there that I could flesh out more,” some of the posts develop that way, and others — this last one, trying to remember if there was something specific. Catalyst for this. I think my last post was more precipitated by generational feeling. The one before that was about my mom and trying to work through and heal that relationship with my mom, and there’s a lot of emotions and feelings there.
The last posts have come from this instantly emotional place and less of a building over time, so I know that’s not that helpful or insightful but. (laughs) The process is so different for everyone who writes.
What have you learned from doing this newsletter?
There’s an interest and a hunger for broader stories with diversity for Asian American people. And by Asian American people, I mean just like the nuance of these experiences. When Crazy Rich Asians came out, I had tweeted something about, the hard part about being the first of something is — which everyone was like, “it’s the first Asian American movie in 25 years blah blah,” that line was quoted so many times. The burden of that is it’s impossible to meet everyone’s expectations about what that should be like, or what that one story should have told. There are gonna be so many stories left untold.
But the interest and reception indicates that, I mean, I’m actually super excited about the future, and what this means for literature. And what young people who are growing up now, the kinds of role models they see in media and culture. I think maybe, just to be a part of that moment, and to contribute my voice.
[The newsletter] definitely helps me grow into my voice and my confidence. If I were to rewind three years ago, I feel much more developed in my voice now. Not that I‘m anywhere near where I’d want to be, but just these sense of my style and the types of issues that I’m passionate about.
And it’s funny, ‘cos I’d never written fiction. Most stuff I’ve written has been narrative nonfiction. But increasingly I’m thinking about fiction, maybe poetry. That is scary, but I think it’s something that feels much more possible for me now.
Everything in /tell it slant/ has been autobiographical?
So how are you planning on getting it out there? Like, “this next part is going to be fiction.”
(laughs) I’m not sure how I’d approach that process. It could be interesting to use the newsletter just to document the meta behind the scenes. I don’t know if I’d actually — it’s pretty different signing up for the newsletter for, “oh hey, Lulu’s gonna share occasional updates on things she’s thinking about, things going on in life,” versus “I’m going to start sharing drafts of a fictional story.” And so yeah, the lucky thing is, there are so many mediums you can play around with, you know. Maybe just start a Twitter account and play with a new voice and a new premise, or try something on Instagram Stories and see what resonates there.
There are so many different avenues, and yeah, like, that’s something I’ll ponder some more.
Something that I think about a lot is why email? Like people tend to think of email as something a little more old school, whether it’s a marketing campaign or a personal email. Like, “oh you sent me an email? why didn’t you just message me?” And I like it because it feels nice to get something from something that is not a corporation or a politician asking for money.
I think people have been predicting the demise of email every year for the past 20 years. LIke, “this is the new email, this is the new email killer.” Email has stuck around so long because it’s useful. It’s really valuable. At the end of the day, it’s really hard to beat this direct personal communication.
I think the asynchronous nature of it is really nice, where you get an email, you open it, there’s no pressure to respond right away. It’s not unusual to let something sit, where sometimes you’ll get responses a month or so after you send the thing. And I think that’s totally fine.
And also, it’s really well-suited for literally just, “I love this emoji” responses all the way to paragraphs and paragraphs. The flexibility there is really nice.
And I still think there’s really no more direct way to get to people, especially nowadays when attention is so fragmented and there’s so many pulls on your attention. Email is kinda the universal thing that you know everyone from your mom to your little cousin is gonna have.
When I think about it, it’s funny. Because (laughs) if you were to think about, what’s the value of a Twitter follower? Or an Instagram follower? Or an e-mail address? If I can get the email address, please give it to me, you know? It just means so much more.
So something we like to do is ask a question the last guest asked, and have them ask another question to the next guest. So the last guest were Adina and Vivian from The Kids Table.
I think you actually mentioned to me before how you watched the whole thing.
I loved it. I watched literally — I remember because you sent the newsletter — instead of working that morning, I just watched all the episodes. (laughs)
I sent over your comments, and they’re awesome folks, and they want to know what the most overrated Asian food is.
Um, okay, so hot take. Maybe controversial. I honestly, I don’t understand the boba fascination. Like, I have a sweet tooth. And maybe I’m just pickier about how I spend my sweet allotment for the day. But I’d much rather eat … anything else. A moon cake. A mochi. On its own, not in boba. (laughs)
I’m trying very hard to hang up on you right now
I’m like, oh man, this might backfire. But yeah, I don’t know. Not a boba person.
I get it. You’re like, I have x amounts of sugar I can eat, and I can spend it on this thing … or boba.
Yeah! So maybe it’s also like a consistency thing. Like I (laughs) this maybe is just betraying my OCD tendencies, but I would prefer food where with each mouthful of the thing, I’m getting an even distribution of all the things in the thing. Whereas with boba you have to take 5 sips of just the tea and then getting a huge mouthful of boba in the next one.
Sounds like you’re drinking bad boba.
(laughs) Maybe it’s user error or faulty product. I don’t know.
That’s a hot take and I’m sure maybe the readers will agree with you, and I won’t know our demographic anymore. What’s a question you wanna ask the next guest?
Who’s another Asian American creative that you’ve discovered recently that you love and you think more people should know about?
Lulu is a product manager on the Discovery team at Pinterest, where she’s building illuminating recommendation experiences. In her free time she writes anewsletter on Asian American identity, among other things, and tweets things that sometimes go viral. She’s also a transformation coach and would love toconnect via Twitter if there’s an area of life where you’d like some change or are feeling stuck.