Field Trip To The Smithsonian And The Indian Embassy

This Saturday, November 5,  I'll be heading to the South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History (1000 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20004). My panel is from 2-3 p.m., but the entire day's program is free and open to the public, so if you're in the area please come and bring friends.

As for Saturday night, I'm busy because I received this thrilling invitation from my country of origin:
You are invited to kindly attend a reception with the participants of the South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival (SALTAF) on Saturday, November 5, at 6:30 pm at the Embassy of India.
Now here's the key question: sari or suit?

Why Not Write A Novel This November?

No sun—no moon! No morn—no noon—
No dawn—no dusk—no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member—
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds!—

From the poem "November" by Thomas Hood
What do we have to lose? Join me by writing a novel of your own during the 30 darkening days of November. National Novel Writing Month has everything we need to keep us inspired, along with pep talks for writers of all ages.

(I'm going to take my own advice, because I'm one of the 2011 Pep Talkers.)

Writing the Empty Nest at Parents' Weekend

I'm back from parents' weekend at Saint Mary's College of California where we attended classes without quizzes. I signed up for a writing class taught by Rashaan Meneses, who led us through a brilliant workshop on enhancing voice with detail.

We started with a short story by Sandra Cisneros called "Eleven" from Women Hollering Creek, discussed it, and then each chose an object from our past for the writing exercise. Here's what I scribbled (stet), surprised by how freeing it felt to write once again via pen on page:
The night I left the boys at Saint Mary's, I tried to cry myself to sleep but sleep kept slipping from my hand like a leash yanked hard by an eager dog.
I scanned the room, my old room where I'd slept as a child, and my heart did a double take.
There he was. High on a shelf, alone, forgotten. Faded, eyeless, mouthless, but waiting for me, for this wakeful night full of endings. I grabbed him, held him close. 
He tried, oh how he tried. But he wasn't made in today's soft stuffed animal times. He was as hard as a skull. 
Still, I didn't let go, and soon his silence eased me into sleep, as sweetly as it used to, once upon a time.
Thanks for reminding me of the sheer joy of writing, Rashaan. I miss college.

First Prize: 2011 Teens Between Cultures Poetry Contest

by Yun-Jung, Korea/MA, age 18

It surrounds me,
The smell of dried ginseng and fertilized bean curd,
Clay vases that I could curl up in
But hold instead a snake immortalized in rice wine.
My father tells me
The persimmon tree was planted when he was born
In this strange country.
Now it stretches out sturdy branches,
Weighed down by an abundance of blushing fruit.
He plucks one from the branches I can’t reach,
And hands me the sticky sweet product of their efforts.
Scraping dirty feet across stone steps,
My sister and I slide open the panel doors and wonder
How people can live in a house made of paper.
And we hurry to find the answers to our questions
Sitting in our grandmother’s bedroom.
She sits as if the whole world was hers to bear on her
Tiny shoulders.
When she speaks, her words make little more sense to us
Than a fork being run across a plate.
And when we can’t piece together the words to answer her questions,
She sighs at the failures of her son
To pass down the inheritance of her tongue.
But she takes from me the soft persimmon
And peels the skin back to reveal the ripe summer’s sunset.
She shows me how to slip out the meaty fruit
And suck out the sweet juices between my teeth,
Smiling at my proudly candied hands.

Photo courtesy of FariaC via Creative Commons

First Prize: 2011 Teens Between Cultures Prose Contest

First Prize 2011 Prose Contest
Picking a Side by Helen, Korea/CA, Age 16

At age five, the only thing that separates you and your seatmate in class is, well, nothing. His sandwich is as good as your packed Korean food, and your handwriting is just as good as his. You play with the same lego blocks and throw around the same rocks during recess, and you even share bits of your lunch.

At age nine, you’ve measured the length of your table and found where the halfway mark is, and then drawn a shaky line across your table. That’s all that separates you from your seatmate that, and that he’s a boy, with cooties. He still reaches across and slaps your arm when he’s feeling manly, and you can still extend your leg to kick his knee in retaliation.

At age thirteen, you learn a new word : racism. You’ve learned it in classrooms before, since a young age, since you can actually remember history class. You’ve learned about the slave trade, and you know the dictionary definition of the word. But you really learn it - see it, hear it, experience it - when you’re thirteen, at the age where adding the ‘F word’ before every word makes you look ‘mature’ and being racist makes you ‘funny.’

Even though you’re not ‘white,’ you successfully avoid being bullied for being Korean, because you were born here and you dress in Hollister and you don’t have such an obvious accent.

Then you hit fourteen, and you become a little more aware of such a thing as ‘popularity.’ You go for the latest trends even when you don’t really like the clothes you’re buying, and your hair looks identical to the girls in your posse: pin-straight hair with side-swept bangs, never mind the hour it takes to iron your hair that way. But something’s a little off, even when you sit with the ‘cool kids’ - you suddenly realize there’s something more than just a pencil line separating you and the rest, when they call you a ‘white-washed Asian.’

You’re louder than the one they nicknamed ‘the loud one,’ and you have more shoes than the girl known for having a lot of shoes, but in the end, you’re still ‘that white-washed Asian.’ Your skin color defines who you are, forget the fact you’re really good at drawing and you can sing really well.

You can read and write Korean and you can speak it, too, and you bring Korean food to lunch. But you think being known for something is better than not being known at all, so you avoid speaking in Korean around your friends, and quietly, without a word, stop bringing lunch to school and buy it instead.

Despite all this, you’re still labeled as ‘Asian.’ Every flaw is ‘because you’re Asian,’ and every talent is ‘because you’re Asian.’ Get a bad grade in English?

“Well duh, you’re Korean!”

Yeah, that, and you were born in Los Angeles, California, and have never set foot in Korea.

Get a good grade in Math?

“Ugh, I hate you, why are you Asians so good at math?”

Maybe because you studied for four hours for that test? Using an American textbook?

Can’t drive that well?

“She’s Korean,” as if that explains everything.

But you smile and nod because amongst your white friends, you consider yourself lucky to not be that other ‘Asian kid,’ who sits by himself during lunch reading a book and munching on rice balls.

For a while, you go through a phase : the ‘wannabe’ phase. You won’t dare let your friends know - your gang of entirely American friends - but you start hating the black of your hair and the brown of your eyes, and you start wanting their pale skin and blonde hair and blue eyes. You give up Korean music entirely and you act annoyed when people talk in Korean around you, and you go as far as to stow away your Korean books when your friends come over.

When your mom drives you and your friend to the mall, she starts off talking in Korean - but you cut her off, answering in English, because you know she understands and you feel oddly embarrassed when your friend, blonde and blue-eyed, turns a confused, amused smile towards you at your mom’s Korean.

Your parents ask you what’s wrong - why you try to act like you’d prefer a salad over kimchee, why you grimace in distaste when a Korean song comes on the radio. You shrug it off, and say, “I’m not a fob.”

Your parents grow irritated, then angry: “You’re a Korean person! Be proud of your heritage!” they say, but you can only feel a slight twang of guilt beneath the desire to fit in. You don’t want to have your merits and flaws accredited to ‘being Asian,’ and you don’t want to be labeled as ‘the Asian.’

You hit fifteen, and when your parents say ‘Happy Birthday’ to you in Korean, you stop being embarrassed. You stop wanting to have golden hair and sapphire eyes, and you grow happy with your own. You realize the term ‘comfortable in your own skin’ means a lot more than the simple meaningless phrase you brushed off years ago.

You listen to a mix of Korean and English songs, and you’ll go back and forth from Korean to English when speaking to your parents, even around your friends. You’ll buy lunch sometimes, and on the days you feel like it, eat your Korean food without the bat of an eye.

You realize your skin will stay the shade it is for the rest of your life - and all that ‘separates’ you from your friends is not that you’re Korean, but that you’re conscious of it.

To the comments ‘Because she’s Asian,’ you reply with a confident “Yeah I am. And I write better English essays than you, so what of it?”

Because you’re a Korean-American, and you don’t have to be American to feel good.

Helen on Life Between Cultures: 

The hardest part is the expectations that come with two cultures - it's hard enough to try to fit into the American culture, but with one's deep-rooted family continually forcing traditions upon you, it feels at times like I have to 'choose.'

2011 Fire Escape Prose Contest: Second Prize

Second Prize 2011 Prose Contest

 by Chisimdi, Nigeria/NC, Age 17

“Michael Brown?”


“Lucy Dune?”


“Jennifer Grise?”


“Morgan Kringle?”


It was a Monday morning, the start of a new school year and students were settling into their classrooms, faces eager to learn or just to converse with all their classmates, some old, some new. In their minds, this was the day where they could make the friendships and bonds that would last them a lifetime or maybe just for the rest of the school year because, no one wants to spend the rest of the year as a loner.

Class had already begun and the teacher at the moment was calling roll, making sure that everyone was at school, in the right class, sitting in the right seat. It was the first day for me at this school. I looked around the classroom, starting from back, all the way to the front where my teacher stood. Everything about the classroom screamed, “small town.” Most students had been in the same grades together so everyone knew each other. Others, from what I could tell by the lack of people sitting around them, stood out as being the new students, including me. The teacher and all of the original students didn’t wear the latest fashions, but the type of clothes that suited them—pleated skirts, small sweaters, and well pressed khakis. This was where I coined the term, “suburbia wear”. Most students were white with Southern accents and wore hairstyles that were recognized by the town. Everyone sounded like they were from the Deep South. I thought Raleigh, North Carolina was the deepest that one could get but I was proved wrong. Monroe, North Carolina surpassed Raleigh. Noticing all of this in only 30 minutes surprised me and made me feel uneasy. I could tell that my year was off to a bad start.

The teacher was still calling roll and I knew that she was getting closer… closer to my name and I was dreading it.

“Sarah Lowell?”


“John…John Mathews?!”

“….I’m here!!!!”

“Ashley Nancy?”


Then the teacher stopped talking. There was a moment of silence. I knew, and I think everyone knew that it was my name that would be called next since I stood out as one of the new students. This was the moment that everyone had been waiting for and I could sense it. I really hoped and prayed that it wouldn’t happen this way but I knew it was inevitable. My name and looks gave everything away. Just by one glance, anyone could tell that I did not have a common name, and that I was not common. But the thing that everyone didn’t know was that my name was not one of those generic names that usually people of my color had. It was unique, different, and beautiful. I just hoped that everyone could see that in my name. The teacher began to speak.

“Okay, now this is not a name that I usually come in contact with so I’m sorry to the student who has to hear me butcher it up.”

In my head, I thought, “This is a new reaction. I’ve never heard my name referenced to meat before…”

“Okay, so is it, Chrriiisssseemmmeeedee Onwaaateeekitaaahh??”

I raised my hand, as soon as I heard “my name.” I was mortified and I felt red all over, even though my skin color never gave my feelings away.

“No, Ms. Leslie, that’s not how you pronounce it,” I said quietly.

“Oh, this is your name?”

“Yes, it is. My first name is pronounced Chisimdee like Chi-Cindy with an ‘m’ instead of an ‘n’. My last name is pronounced Onwootee-kaa. But most of the time, I go by nickname, Simdi.”

“Wow! That is a mouthful! You’re going to help me with that throughout the year, okay? Can I ask, what’s the origin of your name? Does it mean anything?”

I gulped, taking in a deep breath.

“My parents are Nigerian and my father thought of it even though my mother wanted to name me Amanda. My name in our language means, God wants you to live.”

My teacher laughed and then smiled, exposing her bright, white teeth.

“Well, Simdi, I’m sorry to say this but the funny thing is, that I don’t see you as an ‘Amanda’. I think your dad was right in naming you Chisimdi. Your name suits you because I can tell already; you’re going to be great addition to the class."

Right at that moment, I felt my heart flutter a little from relief. Not only was my name being accepted, but also my culture and my personality too. Just then, I thought to myself, “Maybe, this year wasn’t going to be as terrible as I thought…”

Chisimdi on Life Between Cultures:

Being raised by my parents under Nigerian beliefs and traditions has had ups and downs but I honestly love the richness of my culture and I’m proud of it, whether or not others agree with every aspect of it. Most of the time, I consider myself more Nigerian, even though I was born in Santa Cruz, California. Just by being around family, especially my cousins, I connect and laugh with them over the typical life of an “African” family. Things like getting tired of eating the same food (gari/fufu with soup) or talking about how crazy African parents can get over the littlest details has allowed my family to relate with one another and also bond over the common traits that we have. And because of my experiences, my culture has become the most important thing to me and I don’t want to ever lose it. My background has inspired me to learn about others with various ethnic backgrounds and has also exposed me to new, exciting perspectives. Some people find it difficult to understand another person’s culture, but if they took the time to look past the differences, they would find that every single person in the world, possesses the same, universal feeling of love.

Photo courtesy of KorePhotos via Creative Commons

2011 Fire Escape Poetry Contest: Second Prize

Second Prize 2011 Fire Escape Poetry Contests

I Am Too 

by Hailan China/CA, age 16

I am from
a snow still morning that perches aloft
and blushes at a wintry sunbeam kiss,
like crimson lanterns of velvety soft,
and red-pigtailed child’s sugar-coated bliss.
In rusty black bikes rattling and tattling,
letters and pretty art not prosaic,
into stifling swarms in subways battling,
these waves of heads, a weaving mosaic.
But as gossamer floating, passing by,
a tear for my home, and good-bye

I am from dumplings steaming
silky tofu quivering
and swirling memories of grins with each
savory smell of shops and fairs,
smooth, sliding noodles in rich beef broth
strawberries ruby red and glistening black seeds
luscious, plump, and steamy rice
dinner together, tonight, everyday
snapping chopsticks
and laughter leaping
happiness soaring

I am from
Milady and Amaranta,
loquacious Miss Bates,
a stubborn red-head, freckled too,
Hot cocoa on rainy days,
a single ivy leaf through a winter’s storm,
Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve,
Marmee knitting by the fire, a country gentleman,
and a muttering rabbit by their ear

I am from
delightful shelves of books and books
the art of losing is not hard to master
let other pens dwell on guilt and misery
nowadays a broken heart will run to many editions
it is a truth universally acknowledged
and down they forgot as up they grew
but most, most heartily,
the mere habit of learning to love is the thing

 Photos courtesy of ginerrobot and nightthree via creative commons

Hailan on Life Between Cultures:

The hardest about balancing two cultures is experiencing and knowing the uniqueness of both while seeing the often untrue stereotypes that each has about the other. It's difficult not to bristle when Chinese parents are mocked on Youtube or the word "communism" is flung with rampant fervor, even though it is ignorantly used. But by the same token, I can see the Chinese wrongful impressions of an American, often an unfair portrayal of laziness and gun-wielding danger. I'm glad that for many of us who have two cultures in our lives, we are knowledgeable of the inaccurate impressions that one culture may have of the other. But it is difficult to be courageous to step into the spotlight to bring up the subject because we are all very sensitive about nations and patriotism. Of course, I also know only a little about the world but am constantly learning. 

To me, the best part about being an immigrant has been the conglomeration of unique experiences of two very different cultures that I otherwise would not have had. I think experiencing both Chinese and American cultures has helped me grow as a more conscientious, observant person. It really has given me a broader perspective on people and life in general, and I hope that I will always be mindful of the people of all cultures because of my multicultural life.

2011 Fire Escape Prose Contest: Third Prize

by Julia, China/MD, Age 14

Dear Judge,

My name is Jacob Smith*. I am American.

My parents are Joe and Anne Smith. They are also American.

In fact, my whole family is American. We were one of the first to settle in America, the first shipment aboard the Mayflower.

I always regarded that with pride. We were the first immigrants. And that made me, Jacob Smith, the descendant from a proud lineage of true Americans. I was the most American of Americans.

Well, we don't really live on the East Coast anymore. My family moved to California years ago, during the big Gold Rush. And stayed in a little town, until it became a ghost know what? I might as well skip the story. We have a long history. Just know that we moved a couple months ago, and we were stuck on the outskirts of San Diego.

So there I was. The lone white kid, in an all Hispanic community. And I hated it there. I loathed it there. I abhorred it there.

It was always the same. At school, I was the only one. I was the only one with a last name like Smith. I was the only one with blonde, curling hair, and blue eyes, and perfect English. I was alone.

I thought I got picked on, of course. They all spoke their Spanish-y words with those Spanish-y accents. Like, ¿Cómo te llamas?* I got that a lot the first day there. I was sure that meant something bad. Maybe like, "Are you a llama?"

And after a while, the girls all started saying "Tu eres muy guapo."** I always smiled and nodded. I had no idea what they were saying. But I always figured they probably were making fun of me. "You are a fat kid." I can just imagine it. It doesn't seem out of their range...those freaky Spanish kids. I had thought they were probably all illegal immigrants anyway. They didn't come here like my family had, the first of the Americans.

I admit. I was scared of them. I was scared of seeing so many tanned, black-haired faces. I was scared of all the Linda Gonzalez's, and the Jorge Lopez's. I didn't see anyone like me. And I hated that.

Well, looking back...I misunderstood everything back then. And I had responded badly. "Shut up! I don't want to hear another stupid word out of your stupid mouths! All of you! Shut up!" I had shouted, after the bell rang so I wouldn't get in trouble with the teachers. "You're all so stupid! You're all stupid!"

Okay. Here I confess: I bullied them horribly. Every day. Every second. Nobody asked whether I was a "llama" again in Spanish. None of the girls giggled and pointed at me and told me I was a "fat kid" in their little Spanish-y voices. I had taken that as a good sign.

And then, one day, I was expelled. That was it. End of the story. All the kids' parents ganged up on me one day. They told the administration of my bullying. How I had punched others. How I threatened people. And now...I'm in juvie, writing this you, Mr. Judge.

And just to let you know, I met a really nice Hispanic kid here—his name was Juan Criado*. Criado meant servant. I thought that was sort of demeaning, but he was cool with it. And then, he told me why he had come to juvie. There was a white guy at his school, a lonely white kid. His name was Chris. And Chris had bullied them too. Chris was like me.

So Juan stood up one day. He and his friends fought Chris. Chris was killed. And Juan was charged with first degree murder for standing up. I asked whether he really did it, and he cried. A tough guy like him...he cried. He said he couldn't remember if it was him, or his friends, or whether the whole thing was a bad dream that he was going to wake up from. But Chris was dead. Everything was a whole mistake.

I wish I hadn't bullied them. I wish I had stopped to understand. I wish I could go back and redo everything. Because Juan opened up new doors. He told me about his parents, who were nice people. They weren't aggressive. He loved his parents. Before juvie, when he came home, he would speak another language to his parents, because they didn't understand English. And they would eat yummy Spanish food, and play a little soccer, and his dad would come in with a flamenco guitar and play a couple tunes and his mom would dance and they would all clap together.

My family was American. But we never were a family like Juan's. They come home, and they eat Hispanic food. They drink water from the municipal aquifer. But they have two cultures—two worlds that made them unique.

I come home, I eat the same food, fresh from the Spanish vendors. I drink the same water, tapped from the same aquifer. But what did I have?

Only one heritage.



P.S. I know that this won't change anything. I know that I am sentenced, and that I cannot get out of juvie without appeal. But I just wanted to let you know my story. If you could, could you tell everyone about this? I wouldn't want any more people like me going around making life harder for immigrants. And to anyone with prejudices—please know that it's both hard and great to live a life with two cultures. Just ask Juan.

*All names are made up. Any real people in juvie with these names are coincidences.

**"¿Cómo te llamas?" means "What is your name?"

***"Tu eres muy guapo" means "You're really handsome."

Julia on Life Between Cultures
The hardest thing about balancing two cultures is trying to discover and maintain that perfect amalgam between the two. Both countries can claim me, but I cannot fully claim either country; I can only struggle to search for my own little niche that incorporates my heritage and my birthplace. Coming from an immigrant family isn't terrible, however—straddling two lands also means that I get to experience both cultures!

Photo Credit: Look Into My Eyes via Creative Commons

2011 Fire Escape Poetry Contest: Third Prize

Playing Between Two Worlds
by Jingyi China/MD, age 15

The girl delicately plucks the strings of the zither
creating a rich and harmonious music that no one else can seem to understand.
Music flows out, soft and graceful against the backdrop of run down apartments;
with trinkets strewn about on the hard pavement sidewalks, vying for attention.
The music becomes louder and more demanding
as cars zoom thoughtlessly across the tumbling streets, thinking not of lights nor people.
Everything is shaded with hues of brilliant red and sunlight yellow
reminding people of glory, pride and trust.
The music continues, with tired bodies walking home against a brilliant fading street, dim and worn down, holding bags upon heavy bags of groceries barely tumbling out.
The girl smiles, nonchalant and undaunted, not afraid;
bravely playing alongside the border of two very different worlds.

Photo Credit: Clyde Robinson via Creative Commons

Jingyi on Life Between Cultures:
The hardest thing about balancing two cultures is being dedicated to both. Sometimes, it's impossible because cultures are often completely different and independent of each other. The best thing about being a part of two cultures is the different types of food you get to eat and the fact that you fit in with two completely different groups of people.


In August, thanks to First Book, the Kaufman Center in New York City adapted my novel Monsoon Summer into a musical. Here's the gorgeous cast:

The composer/songwriter, Beth Sorrentino, sent me a demo of herself (listen above) singing "Monsoon Summer," which was sung as the finale by the entire cast in (her words) "a full-out Bollywood number." The Center is going to send me a DVD of the show, and I can't wait to see it and hear the kids singing this and the other beautiful songs Beth created for the musical.