AGP #145: The Modern Chinese Princess of My Dreams

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I started watching Chinese lifestyle YouTubers when I moved to LA about five months ago. I had a lot of free time on my hands, and during quiet nights, it was comforting to have something in my family’s language playing in the background.

Have I wasted a shitload of time watching strangers eat hot pot and share their recent luxury purchases? Definitely. But I’ve also gained a lot more than comfort from these YouTubers*, like a deeper understanding of Chinese culture, especially that of my generation, and better speaking skills. Hearing Chinese spoken by people outside my family on a regular basis has upped my game, so much that I’m the one teaching my parents hip lingo now. Because of that, I think it’s improved our relationship dramatically, since I’m such a verbal person and I find it hard to express myself in Chinese past a fourth grade level. (A whole other topic for another time.)

Okay, that’s the backstory. But today I wanted to share this exceptional Chinese YouTuber, Li ZiKai (李子柒), and my fascination with her.

In a nutshell, Li ZiKai makes short cooking and lifestyle videos that have the production value of Travel Channel shows. There are endless reasons to find her appealing–her videos are on unique topics, they’re detailed, educational, beautiful (as is she), peaceful, and…mysterious. They’ve got that je ne sais quoi. Oh yeah–they also have 30 million Chinese subscribers (on Chinese sites not including places like YouTube, where she has 2 million.)

Anyway, if you watch the clip above, you know what I’m talking about.

When I first saw her videos, my inner skeptic immediately decided it was an artificially-produced channel. They build a set like the Garden of Eden in a warehouse, hire a pretty actor to step in when the work is done, and market the whole thing as a fantastical escapist channel. I respect that.

I mean, that’s just bad Photoshopping.

I scrolled through her YouTube comments, filled with marriage proposals and supportive fans–all people who legit believed this woman was real. And I thought wow, are they dumb! I’m so smart! Ha! (Because I have hubris.) I mean, the woman builds a set of furniture out of bamboo with her bare hands. She spins / dyes her own wool to weave into coats. Her wood spoons rival those sold in LA boutiques. And also, there isn’t a speck of dust or age or decay in her farmhouse, which I simply couldn’t believe is the reality of Chinese farms.

But as I kept watching over the months, she brought us into her house and showed her daily life taking care of her grandma, editing videos, doing sponsorships for big brands, and curiosity got the best of me. She kinda seemed real.

I Googled her and tried to decipher shoddily-translated Chinese articles. I asked my dad help me do some digging on Chinese sites. And still, all signs point to her being a real person living that life in the Sichuan mountainside. It’s known fact that at this point she has a production team behind her, but her story is an inspiring one involving being orphaned at a young age, going to the city to find work, missing home and returning to the countryside to take care of her aging grandma. So we’re to believe that these videos are basically real life, polished up.

During my research I also found that she’s been the #1 influencer in this category since 2017–so I didn’t stumble upon some hidden gem. But even before I knew how popular she was, I was already fascinated not just by her content, but the social implications behind why it’s so damn charming and addictive.

Whether she’s real or not, it seems she’s cracked the formula for making something super interesting and satisfying for Chinese urbanites. Sure, her content is probably universally appealing for people of all ages and cultures, but it’s especially meaningful and interesting for Chinese people because of the contrast to real life.

The world she sells (not to get too cynical) is so peaceful, yet meaningful. There’s no one else other than her grandma and a bunch of cute animals. She lives in a pristine and lush farm surrounded by all the resources she needs (fat sheep, clear streams, citrus trees, bamboo forests, etc…) She’s Sleeping Beauty, pre-prince.  

Even with my limited first-hand experience, I know this is palpably different from young Chinese people’s reality. Based on what I hear from my family in China and the media, daily life is a constant struggle, especially in big cities. Job security is hard because competition is fierce, clean resources and food are difficult to find and cost a month’s salary, and it’s hard to trust brands and people. Everyone is in it for themselves, and getting anywhere involves complicated networking and schmoozing. Especially for young migrant workers from villages, daily life is a lonely, uphill battle.

Maybe I’m overthinking it (surprised?) Mostly, online commentary attribute Li ZiKai’s success on how relaxing, wholesome and unique her brand is. But every time I watch it, I think of dog-tired young people (like my cousin) or migrant workers who work six days a week and go home to their family once a year if they’re lucky. I think of them at the end of a long day of emotional and physical labor, eating their instant noodles, hoping to lose themselves for a while in this fantasy where nature has taken care of everything–all you need to do is reach out, grab it, use your hands and good sense to create what you need, and pet the dog.

It’s always a bittersweet experience for me, watching these videos. It’s so far from the truth of what my peers in China live. But it’s so fucking pretty. Anyways, it complicated. I like complicated. That’s the point I’ve reached right now, but I’ll check back in if I learn anything new about my favorite Chinese princess.

*The main channels I watch are Vicky Soupsss, 巧手姑娘是仙女, 子时当归. I try not to subscribe to a bunch because it’s a rabbit hole.
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Asian Girl Problem #144: Narrow-minded people who think they’re helpful

Here are some seemingly random anecdotes that have rubbed me the wrong way lately:

  1. I took two tv writing classes over the last few months. Naturally, I wrote a comedy pilot for a 30 minute sitcom called “Asian Bitch Problems” inspired by my coming of age as a weirdo stuck between two cultures. The remarkable thing is, in both classes, both of my teachers (and some classmates) felt impelled to make sure I knew that the family foibles I wrote about were very “universal” and “relatable”. This was an attempt to assure me that what I was writing was relevant, and post-cultural, I think? I could only smile and say “great” because I honestly don’t know the reason for their comment. A) They didn’t say that to any other students ,and B) I made no indication that I didn’t think my story was relatable.
  2. I posted a question to a public Facebook group about soundproofing my studio because my neighbor parties some weekends. I got a good amount of useful advice, but several women very firmly told me to report the noise to the landlord (anonymously) or if that didn’t work, the police. I get that their knee-jerk reaction is to support me and my tenant rights, but that has nothing to do with my point. I didn’t need to get schooled in how to stand up for myself. If I want my neighbor to stfu, I’d just tell him (we’re on friendly terms). But I know I’m the world’s lightest sleeper, and more importantly, I’ve been 24 before. I’ve had my share of loud parties, and I’m not yet driven to complain to him for not being able to enjoy my old lady bedtime of 8pm. Of course, none of this matters. The women on Facebook don’t have the backstory, but what they do palpably have is a lot of unnecessary presumptions and prescriptions.
  3. This article on why women don’t write to the editor more. Essentially, an article attributed the overwhelmingly high amount of white male letter writers to women having confidence issues and unbalanced social norms. A barrage of women responded with amazing rebuttals, such as lack of time, greater empathy, lack of interest to POVs clearly from other voices, etc…and FUCKING AMEN.

This is why I’m irked by people trying to be helpful, but coming from a completely ignorant perspective. If they’re just stop talking and drawing alarming, fake conclusions, making broad generalizations based on anecdotal evidence, maybe they’d make room for other voices and actually learn something.

Culture is based on a set of extremely narrow rules and modes that are extremely hard to look past, for anyone, but especially if you’ve never had to straddle multiple spheres. Instead of just keeping an open mind and seeing each person and situation for themselves, angry/confused people judge too quickly, doling out advice and opinions that are often irrelevant or harmful to the greater understanding of individuals.

I know it’s a tense time. There are certain issues like “gender norms” and “privilege” that rank high in people’s minds and are easy artillery in any cultural discussion. But I’m tired of inane advice from people who’d rather push their higher-than-thou beliefs on me than stop and consider that they’re clearly not for me. Whether it’s because of outlying circumstances, personal preference, or mostly likely, cultural differences they’d never fathom (aka privilege).

So I come back to the moment a girl in my college poetry class flippantly called me meek during a critique. Because apparently I’ll never got over it.

At the time, there was no time to process or refute her, but now 10 years later, I pose these other possibilities, other than meek, why I was a quiet student in that class.

  • I’m just quiet ok? I’m not scared or damaged or submissive or repressed, I just don’t fucking have anything to say to people I don’t really know
  • I place lots of weight on my comments, making sure each is thoughtful and different that what’s been said
  • I don’t think my comment will be useful for the receiver
  • I don’t care

Let’s start with those four. I have other things to do now so that’s it for this post.

Moral: Stop putting your own standards for what’s healthy and good and right on other people, especially when you have no idea where they’re coming from. Your advice doesn’t make you a do-gooder. It makes more clutter I have to cut through.

Everyday Homesickness

It starts around the second month in a new city, after the initial high, and fades around the year mark, when you settle in.

That’s what everyone says about homesickness and moving to a new city. It’s a tidy timeline to keep in mind to keep me sane, but there are other revelations granted by my current bout of homesickness that I think has changed me forever.

(Note: I didn’t have to move to LA and I see it as a long-term sabbatical, so my experience may be different. Maybe I’d embrace it more easily if I knew I was staying. Certainly I’d settle in faster if I’d moved with a partner or family instead of alone. But I digress.)

Bay Area is home
My parents moved me from China to Ohio when I was too young to remember. Then to San Diego before I had a solid concept of home, only enough to miss my friends. Finally, I moved myself from to Berkeley, eager to escape suburban sprawl and conservatives. Even though I’d never visited the Bay Area, I knew it was for me. For the first time, I felt at home.

It’s easy to chalk up my childhood fascination with that region to the list of famous people from the area or the beautiful landscape, but I believe certain cities are better for a certain people, period. Just like kindred spirits you understand with the glance of an eye. The intellectual vigor, the cool clean climate, the modest awkwardness, the social/environmental awareness. All qualities about the Bay Area that, stereotype or not, make me feel like I am whole and I belong.

Home is ownership
It’s multi-layered relationships and community that built over the dozen years I’ve been there, and also a feeling of pride and desire to enrich the place. I wish I felt more compelled to do so in LA, but it’s hard to care when you don’t know any of the landscape, the businesses. I don’t know what’s changed either, because I never knew what it was like prior. Leaving the house always causes me a smidge of stress (traffic doesn’t help) and I feel like I’d adrift, slightly lost geographically and in my identity. A self-consciousness I’ve never felt in the Bay Area, where I was sure of myself and who I was.

Part of the reason I left was to experience this discomfort. It helps me see a new point of view, but yeah it’s not fun. You know those people who are loyal to their city’s sport team until death, or reppin’ their zip code? I always thought they were closed-minded townies who needed to get with the times–globalization, baby. But I get it now. Their city is a source of comfort, a balm for anxieties represented by the unknown.

Having a home makes me better at leaving it
It’s a bubble like every city is a bubble. But it’s the particular bubble I choose to nurture and live in. I’m so grateful for my opportunities in LA as a long-term tourist, but none of it would be as exciting if I didn’t know I was eventually going home to the brisk fog, the Oakland hot topics (contentious as they are), and familiar faces at my favorite beer garden, yoga studio, the lake, etc…As someone who never really liked to travel because of poor planning skills and a love for routine, I’ve now realized that the best way to appreciate and love my home is to travel more and do it with my parents while they’re still young.

Learning to make myself at home
I’ve always been hard on myself. Easily disappointed in myself for not achieving enough, for my weight/looks, for my lack of a relationship, etc…But being homesick in a new city without anyone to comfort me, I’ve learned to sooth myself, take it easy on myself, treat myself like a precious object. And that has been the biggest reward for this move so far.

I listen to my needs and wants with an attuned ear. I eat whatever I want, whenever I want. Sometimes I feel guilty about it, but I let myself feel it too, because changing my relationship with food won’t happen overnight. I take myself to parks and bakeries and man I bought a ton of clothes. Truth be told I spend and eat a lot more. I plan events with my friends and let them know I miss them and need them. I smile at strangers and chat if I want to, but don’t feel obligated. I’ve stopped dating altogether and it’s the best thing I’ve done to get in touch with the “real” me. I let myself stay in as much as I want.

I indulge day in and day out. In things like writing/yoga/community college classes, cooking shows like Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (Key takeaway for this post! Watch this revolutionary show. Even though it makes me more homesick for Berkeley), making mugs of hot drinks I don’t finish, buying presents for strangers, fancy face masks, massages, reading for 3 hours, sleeping 9 hours a night, new prescription glasses, the list goes on. I’m gifting myself all the little things I used to put off, waiting for the day I “deserved” it. Granted, I don’t want much in the way of things that cost money. But just practicing letting myself have anything in theory has brought me abundance.

So that’s what I’m thinking about today. Homesickness. It’s not fun, but it’s worth it.

update on my move to LA and an epiphany quickly published before it loses its luster

Hello! I’m writing this from my studio apartment in Los Angeles, where I’ve lived for the last almost-three months. I’m going to be posting here more often but probably in short snippets. I’ve also been journalling a la Morning Pages for over six months, but while that’s a half-awake stream of consciousness only for myself (usually ends up being about what I plan to do and who I’m annoyed at that day) posting here makes me feel just sliiiightly more inclined to tighten it up and share possibly interesting things about my time in LA.

Which brings me to the reason I even started this up again. Long story short, coming here felt like a random decision without much purpose. Sure, the city intrigued me, my job had ended, and I was offered a good place to live. But I just couldn’t get a strong gut sense of whether it was right (unusual for my sensitive gut!)

And the last three months have reflected how turbulent and unstructured I’ve felt inside–I’ve been lonelier than ever before, which made me intensely depressed/antisocial, which triggers my OCD. I’ve flip-flopped on whether or not I should get another copywriting job, which led me to a dozen interviews, which got me interested in entertainment advertising, which I thought I loved, which helped me land a job, which then made me freak out and realize a 9-6 plus an hour’s commute each way was never and will never be for me, which led me to switch to part-time and now sees ya girl underemployed again (but cashing in those unemployment bennies yo)

If you’re still reading I love you.

So I’ve been up, (mostly) down, and all around literally running around town and running unhealthy thoughts in my head, since I’m alone 80% of the time. But today, just minutes ago, I remembered why I’m here!

Yep, I had a problem and the answer appeared to me from the ether. I wish most things worked that way. Which is why I ran (figuratively) to you/Wordpress to share it.

Basically I realized: I came to write!!! Shocker.

Okay, I knew this in theory, in the sense that I talked about it am taking writing classes. But I’d forgotten a tiny crucial thing which is this image that I used to have back when I was still considering moving to LA:

It was basically a vision of the ideal life for my time here (I’m likely staying for just a year) in Echo Park. I imagined a bungalow cottage with jacaranda bushes and hummingbirds and a wooden slab of a desk where I’d have room to sprawl out with multiple mugs of beverages and stacks of books that would inspire me when I was stuck.

Well, I have none of those specific things. But I did envision seeing things differently, learning more about myself, spending days alone writing. Which is the part i DO do (doodoo). I’ve dived into a piece of work I’m inspired and proud of, lost track of time, felt at peace with my own company, and even made myself laugh out loud like a crazy person.

My point is, remembering this vision I had back in the day is the balm that soothes me. It helped my mission to write finally sink in. Writing means being alone and uncomfortable. Questioning everything. Spending more time with friends created by words than friends in real life.

So I’m kinda doing something I said I would, which in turn helps me build trust in myself. If you write or want to, you probably get how much that tiny success makes a big difference. Because the hardest part is not having anyone give a fuck about your success or whether or not you write, but still just going ahead and spending hours of your life doing it anyway. It’s very rebellious to everyone except yourself. That’s part of why I love it.

Being alone has always scared me and fascinated me at the same time. Facing this fear and writing are synonymous to me–they come as a pair. My hesitation to write and hesitation to be alone are chicken and egg. That’s why I came to LA. Realizing this is just the beginning. I haven’t even done the real work yet, but now I see where the work lies.

Anyway, that was my “short” update for today. Peace.

Why Write

I’ve had a lot of time lately to think long and hard about why I should write. The usual questions like What’s my goal? Who am I writing for? Would it be okay if it’s just for me? How much am I willing to commit to someday getting marginally “better” at writing? What’s it all for anyway? (And I had to fend off the host of existential questions it later spawned.)

While journalling this morning I think I came closer to understanding my motivations. I ended up making a pretty broad statement that can be applied to all self-expression in general. But hope that this awareness will help me better define the shape, scope, and purpose of writing:

🖤 Writing is a political act. That feels more true and genuine than any other I participate in. Every moment I write (or read, depending on the piece) is a moment I’m choosing not to engage with all the inane/toxic dribble that tries to steal my attention. The majority of stimuli that fight dirty to demand my most precious resources (time/money/spirit) 🖤 It is as much a resistance of fake promises as a search for original thought, human connection, and self-expression. Writing for myself is true and unsullied it’s attempting to tap into the source, both primal and evolved. It’s undiluted, has no ulterior motive, free from agenda, free from bodily and societal limitations 🖤 Writing is a conscious act to block out the noise – so loud and copious – demanding me to look up. Almost none of that noise comes from a good place. By writing, I take it upon my powers to shut them out and invite truth into my space. I would never stop writing because it’s all for myself, like meditation 🖤 Writing is a practice of negation just as much as creation. It’s much easier to remove the trash when I focus on filling the space with something else. Where you tend a rose, a thistle will not grow 🖤

Journalling For Anxiety

Update: My job ended and I’m moving to LA next month. The changes are hitting me hard this week, as I’m wrapping up a familiar life in my favorite city and trying to create a footing somewhere new and intimidating. This is rough patch that I know I’ll get through. These are some thoughts I’ve jotted down during my (ample) spare time.

How did I used to write memoirs? Truth is, it was always a crapshoot. The only routine I’d instated was working in a café. Getting myself to the café was the trigger for the habit. Everything after that was in ..a higher being’s hands. I’m not sure how I can do this. So once again, I’ve gotten myself to the café. The brief rush of caffeine or a pastry ameliorating the pain and hesitation I have of leaving the house at all.

But I have a low threshold for pleasure and these stimulations are enough to still lure me out, after all these years. over seven years of stalled motivation or interest to write anything at all personal. Except for profitable writing like a marketing email or website copy, I basically haven’t written.

English is foreign to me when I have to devise what goes on the page. So many options, and so few ideas in my big empty head. I’m looking out this café window hoping something external will strike me, so I don’t have to go through the labor of looking inward. All I see are lithe young bodies walking around in the nice weather (I’m in a university town).

I think about my own body, enough though it’s the last thing I want to think about…I’ve given up on a body getting me anywhere. In a few weeks I’m moving to the land of youth, at a time my body is on the cusp, at best, of youth and middle age. My body is as good as it’s ever going to get. I’ve always sort of harbored this hope that I’d attain a body I’d want to proudly display—that I’d turn into a ‘swan” as they say on talk shows. But it’s almost with relief that I put those aspirations aside now.

It’s time for my mind to shine, but have I put anything in it all these years other than diet tips and music lyrics? No not that I can recall at the moment. This relinquishing of my reliance on supple skin and thin arms and a determination to start being a person of substance is an experience I’m probably sharing with 30 year old women, especially single women, all over the country.

Still, every day I drink my green juice hoping it will keep my skin soft and clear. Every day I feign offense when someone calls me “Ma’am”, every day I give myself excuses for not writing a book or starting a family or getting a promotion because I still feel 20. All sacrifices of my time and energy that feel like too much work. Too much sacrifice. But what am I sacrificing? This feeling of being totally untethered? Yes, that’s the main thing. No responsibilities, no failure, no attempts.

On some level I want this feeling don’t I. How does this make me any better or enlightened than those who push forth into the tasks, the hard work, the sacrifices, even though they know just as well as I do that they might not mean much? It doesn’t make me better, it makes me worse. Because at the end of they day, they have something to show for it. And I have a list of things I don’t want to do and have crossed off my future.

The thing is to know that life is filled with hard work that makes very little sense, but to keep doing it regardless and push past that so maybe there’s something fun and new that comes out of it. Though I don’t feel depressed, this lack of agency and movement is akin to the depression of being uninterested in things. Asking what it “means” all the time and putting so much weight on that, it’s silly. It’s a product of my parents’ generation and my upbringing, but instead of “why” I need to ask “what” and take the action towards doing.

We find our own callings and whims and follow them through as best we can. Otherwise what are we. Well, in my case, I’m my mother. she doesn’t do anything she doesn’t need to do, and she doesn’t need to do anything. End of story. Nothing gets done. She has zero substance or accomplishments barring giving birth and a few other socially-imposed tasks.

Find something that makes you smile and want to improve, and do it with all your heart. That’s what this journaling has taught me. this begs the question–is writing actually what I want to do? Have I been idolizing the life and title of “writer” so long and beating myself up about not doing it, when I should’ve been pursuing other things?

Well, the idea of being a writer still entices me more than almost any other profession, and that counts for something. But my lack of motivation is cause of concern. I’m at a loss. So I’m going to take a bite of my pastry instead. That’s life. You work hard at something. Then something confusing or difficult stalls you, and you take a bite of a blueberry muffin.

I’ve taken many bites of blueberry muffin when I should’ve given more thought into the actual problem at hand. Mistaking my need for meaning and drive with hunger for sugar. There I go again, taking another bite of pastry I’m not hungry for. We don’t eat sugar when we’re hungry, we eat sugar to be more hungry because nothing else sounds appealing at the time and we need to feel something. We need to feel the desire for something simple that can actually be satisfied, as opposed to the gnawing insatiable void I feel when it comes to my questions regarding life, writing, purpose.

Resolutions for 2018

I go over them in more detail than you ever wanted to know in this video.

  1. Spend more quality time with my parents. Even if it’s lower in quantity because I have less free time on the weekends now. I feel our relationship drastically improving and I feel a new love for them like never before.
  2. Do standup at least once a week in a variety of venues. Work towards a solid 30 minute set (ultimately aiming for 60).
  3. Meditate every morning.
  4. Buy most of my food at farmers’ markets.
  5. Make an effort to build relationships with more people at work. Those I don’t work closely with or see often.
  6. Travel to Chicago, Colorado, LA, and either SE Asia or S. America