A Closer Look at Asian American Night Markets: Ramen Burgers & Kimchi Fries Galore

Ramen burgers, kimchi fries and pho tacos. Stinky tofu. Spiral-cut fried potato skewers sprinkled with a variety of seasonings. And balls — lots and lots of balls: curry fish balls, fried yam balls, takoyaki squid and octopus balls, kimchi fried rice balls with DMZ sauce, gourmet rice balls with honey Sriracha, crispy tofu balls covered with Vietnamese green crisped rice and spicy orange aioli. Truly, the wealth of options at an Asian American night market can be overwhelming for an attendee. After all, we only have one stomach.

Last October’s OC Night Market — the latest extension of the 626 Night Market that has since branched out from Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley (home of the 626 area code) into downtown Los Angeles and Orange County — was filled with over 200 vendors competing with each other for the attention of 60,000 potential customers. Sometimes that involved shouting Korean BBQ menu items from a loudspeaker or flashing eye- catching disco lights; sometimes it took three half-naked Asian girls encouraging onlookers to buy delicious Vietnamese coffee. But the most effective and envied form of attraction was a long line of customers, signifying the food must be worth the wait.

Though many Asian countries have their versions of outdoor food markets — from Singaporean hawker centres to Korean pojangmacha — the term “night market” was popularized in Taiwan, where these nighttime food markets still remain a key attraction for foreign tourists visiting the country, eager to experience the noisy atmosphere, crowded food stalls, mouth-watering smells and cheap eats that you consume on the spot (or while walking in search of your next snack). According to Taiwan’s government information site, food bazaars that operated at night in ancient China were originally called ghost markets, and contemporary-style night markets began to appear in Taiwanese cities during the turn of the century, when the government actively set aside blocks of streets for permanent night markets.

For Asian immigrants and their second-generation children, night markets elicit fond memories. “I always remember visiting the night markets with my family and friends to eat all different kinds of food,” says Jonny Hwang, the founder of 626 Night Market, who was born in Taiwan but immigrated to the U.S. when he was a child. So when his family relocated to Alhambra, a suburb of Los Angeles with a large Chinese and Taiwanese immigrant population, he wondered, why didn’t they have one?

“There are tons of little businesses and good restaurants, but they all have Chinese menus and signage, so it can be very foreign and intimidating to outsiders,” he says. “Because so much good food is hidden, I thought a night market would be a great showcase for the talent and entrepreneurs in the area.”

Hwang had heard of a couple successful night markets in Vancouver, as well as previous attempts to start a night market in Southern California that didn’t work out. Assuming it had to do with the challenges working with health departments and government agencies, he and his partners went straight to different cities of the San Gabriel Valley with a night market proposal, figuring that if they had the government backing them, the entire process would be a lot easier.

At first, most of the cities in the area were not interested. “The people running their events recreation departments didn’t even know what night markets were, because they weren’t Asian,” says Hwang. “Which is kind of sad, because they serve a very Asian population. They were used to doing their Lunar New Year Festivals, so they figured they already had an Asian event.”

Pasadena was the only place that was interested, because they happened to have an initiative to attract more Asian businesses to the area. So the very first 626 Night Market was scheduled for April 2012, with plans to shut down a couple streets in Old Town Pasadena for the event.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 5.05.16 PM

Spiral cut potato skewers from Hotato Potato. Photo courtesy of Fritz Batiller/ 626 Night Market

Hwang’s team was optimistic that they could get 8,000 attendees, but the Pasadena special events folks, who had years of experience planning signature events like the Tournament of Roses parade, tempered their expectations. As first-time organizers, they’d be lucky to get 500 people to attend, they were told. But come event time, Hwang says the team had mobilized hundreds of thousands of people — many of whom ended up stuck in long lines, trapped in walkways like sardines or unable to even get in.

“If we had gotten 8,000 to 10,000 people throughout the day, it probably would have been OK,” says Hwang. “But people were coming from Orange County and Riverside, and all the way from San Diego and Las Vegas.” The surrounding freeways and side streets were packed. A police chopper had to monitor the traffic jams and crowds from above.

Though it seemed like a disaster to attendees (many of whom blasted the event through angry Yelp comments), business-wise, it was a huge success. Vendors were happy because they all sold out, and most importantly, it proved that there was a huge demand for a night market. The 626 team learned a lot of things, and soon, the other cities that had originally shunned their proposal came knocking.

Though 626 Night Market was not the first night market in America — Night Market Philadelphia, for example, though not focused on Asian cuisine, began in 2010 — it has made the biggest impact.

“626 are the ones that really started this night market hype,” says Jeff Shimamoto of The Original Ramen Burger, whose ramen-bun burgers have been a fan favorite since his brother Keizo debuted it in New York in the summer of 2013. “Our type of food probably wouldn’t have existed in a regular food market. It’s when the Asian night markets started popping up that we were able to participate.”

Shimamoto now has a brick-and-mortar of sorts, offering The Original Ramen Burger at a take-out window in Los Angeles’s Koreatown. Tonight, he’s hanging out at the adjacent Lock and Key bar with his fellow night market veteran friends, Phillip and Carol Kwan of Mama Musubi (who specialize in a gourmet version of onigiri rice balls, a popular Japanese snack) and Matthew Hui of Fluff Ice (a Taiwanese-inspired snowflake ice that takes flavored ice blocks and shaves them into what they call “frozen cotton candy”). They’re celebrating the end of another busy and successful night market season.

Since 626 debuted, night markets have opened up in other areas of Southern California, like Koreatown and Little Saigon in Westminster. Hwang himself was contacted for advice or collaboration requests from groups who wanted to start their own night markets in San Jose, San Diego and St. Paul. There are now night markets in Seattle, Honolulu and New York, and the list goes on. Even the team behind Studio City’s Sportsmen’s Lodge 1st Thursdays Night Market, who Hwang remembers jokingly called themselves “the white night market,” wanted in on the action. Now, you might be thinking, isn’t a Caucasian night market just … a fair? Like every single county fair in America? But this was just an indication of how the term “night market” was catching on. It had looped back into the mainstream.

Benjamin Kang, one of the organizers of the KTOWN Night Market and the MPK Night Market in Monterey Park, California (both debuted in 2014), believes it’s a good time for night markets because Asian culture is trending more than it ever has in America. “All my white friends want to come to Koreatown,” he says, laughing, citing the Koreatown episode of Anthony Bourdain’s CNN show Parts Unknown, as well as the numerous Asian American chefs on mainstream TV cooking shows. “They’re always asking me what the best Chinese or Japanese restaurants are in L.A.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 5.05.28 PM

The Ramen Burger. Photo courtesy of Albert Chen / 626 Night Market

“I think the food industry revolves around the Asian population,” says Hui of Fluff Ice. “When all the Asian people think it’s cool, then the non-Asians flock to it. Because all the foodies on Yelp are Asian girls named Grace or Nancy.” He laughs. “The Yelp elite start reviewing all these places, and they become the definitive source.”

While 626 Night Market also had creative entertainment to go along with the food — Asian American performers, live art battles, eating competitions and the unveiling of the new Guinness World Record for the largest cup of boba milk tea — KTOWN Night Market made use of their Korean American showbiz connections, bringing together high-profile food celebrities, like the guys behind Seoul Sausage Company, who won Season 3 of the Food Net-work’s The Great Food Truck Race, as well as musicians like rappers Dumbfoundead and Shin-B. Six months later, KTOWN Night Market also hosted a Halloween Food Fest, where there were costume contests and carnival rides.

“Night markets in Asia are open all the time, so they don’t make a festival out of it,” says Shimamoto. “But here, they turn it into a big event, and that’s what makes it fun. We have concerts and beer gardens. And that’s why we get so many people concentrated at one time.”

The Kwans launched Mama Musubi at the first 626 Night Market in 2012. The brother-and-sister duo wanted to test the market and see what people thought about fresh Japanese rice balls. Would people get their gourmet version — with 24-hour braised Berkshire pork belly — or would they assume it was the same as the refrigerated kinds you can get at Mitsuwa supermarkets? Turns out, there was excitement for rice balls not only in the night markets but in non-Asian markets like the Altadena Farmer’s Market, where they are regulars. But though they work these markets and also cater, their ultimate goal is to launch their own store.

Similarly, The Original Ramen Burger started participating in night markets in Los Angeles because California foodies were asking for it. They do pretty well, but they see night markets as a transition into eventually running four to five restaurant franchises.

“There are two crowds of vendors at the night market,” says Phillip Kwan. “Vendors like us who have long-term visions of opening up brick-and-mortars. And others that make a comfortable living for themselves doing festival-type events.”

Some vendors may have a full-time job on the side. Others might be there just for fun. “On the last day of the night market, there were these 15 Vietnamese ladies from Orange County [in the booth next to us],” remembers Shimamoto. “They showed up four hours before everybody else, and they were all perky and ready to go with all their juices. And they said, ‘We all go to the same church, and we decided we were going to come out here and try and sell some lemonade!’” He laughs. “And that’s great! Maybe they’re just doing it once a month for a little money. Or maybe they could become the next Mrs. Fields Cookies. Either way, they were just so happy to be there.”

Hwang encourages it all. “In the beginning, most of our vendors had stores, but we really encourage the ones who don’t,” he says. “It’s such a good platform for people to try new ideas for cheap. Just do it for one weekend. If it’s good and you like it, then do it again. Those are the types of food you can’t eat anywhere else. You have to go to our event to find them.”

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 5.05.41 PM

Takoyaki, one of the many variety of balls available at 626 Night Market. Photo courtesy of Bryan Cole / 626 Night Market

“Phil and I think that the model for starting a restaurant is going to start changing,” says Shimamoto. “In Los Angeles, you see a lot of restaurants come and go. But [working the night markets] is a way you lower your overhead and costs, and it’s a great way to get some exposure while retaining flexibility to work on other things, like food trucks or developing your brick-and-mortar.”

Even Fluff Ice, which already had a store in Monterey Park when 626 first opened, found that attending night markets is just a good way to network, advertise and grow your business. “There’s just so many layers of income you can get with a business like this, whether it’s night markets, school fundraisers or Hollywood catering,” says Hui, who has catered for How I Met Your Mother, Parks & Recreation, The Office and the upcoming film Paranormal Activity 5. They now have four locations in Southern California.

But these Asian American night markets aren’t without its skeptics. In Taiwan, you go to the night market because you’re craving certain foods, whether it be oyster pancakes, ba-wan (Taiwanese meatballs wrapped in gelatinous dough) or aiyu jelly drinks. You’re also expecting a certain atmosphere — makeshift stalls where you see and smell the food being prepared right in front of you — and a certain experience, a.k.a. cheap stuff, whether it be food, shopping or games.

In the beginning, that was the source of some of the disappointment for night market goers in America. It didn’t look right — health codes in the U.S. require covered canopies so it looked like a typical fair. It’s not cheap: there’s usually a cover charge of $5 to $10 just to get in, and everything, even a tiny plate, usually costs at least $5 (which adds up!). And there was a random mix of foods, both Asian and non-Asian, that weren’t necessarily what you thought of as “street food.” (One vendor at a recent KTOWN Night Market was serving up 100 percent grass-fed, organic, pasture-raised Australian bone-in lamb.)

“But I think that’s what makes us different in a good way,” says Hwang. “If you think about the night markets in Asia, it’s all the same foods. We always get a good amount of vendors that are new or tweaking their menu, and it’s exciting to see people experimenting with new things — whether it’s fusion foods like the ramen burger, pho tacos and new types of guabao [Taiwanese pork belly buns] — or if they’re bringing in traditional stuff that we never had before, like yam balls and chicken sausages. It’s a competitive marketplace, so you have to be creative. Don’t do the usual things, or if you do, figure out how you can do it differently.”

“You can’t be stale,” agrees Carol Kwan, who recently collaborated with the Shimamoto brothers to create a one-month-only specialty mash-up: the Mama Musubi 24-hour Pork Belly Ramen Burger. “It’s the same even if you’re in a restaurant. You have to innovate and keep creating something new to keep people coming.”

That said, for every food item that’s worth waiting for in the night market lines, there are many, many more that are underwhelming and overpriced. It’s also hard to tell whether something is innovative or just gimmicky, and with so many copycat renditions of almost the same idea (there’s a reason Ramen Burger changed its name to The Original Ramen Burger), it’s tempting to assume the latter.

But one can only hope that the truly tasty, fusion or not, rises to the top — that the prevalence of night markets are giving those gems a place to grow and a community of like-minded food fans a place to gather.

CL1330-Hyphen300x250px

“One of the major pluses [of the night markets] is how it impacts the current and hopefully the next generation of Asian Americans,” says Christine Chiao, a food writer who’s contributed to LA Weekly and Sunset. “A regular or seasonal night market can be a platform for more than just the vendors. It can become a channel, too, for young Asian American attendees to seek and express their identity.”

So did Hwang ever imagine that the 626 Night Market he created would become such a cultural touchstone?

“Not really,” he says. “At first I really did it for fun, as a side thing, because I knew it’d be something that people would enjoy. I never thought I’d end up working full time to produce night markets.” He laughs. “Who goes to college thinking that? It’s surreal.”

 

 

 

Feature image: 626 Night Market at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California. Photo courtesy of DANNY LIAO PHOTOGRAPHY. This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here. 

 

 

Haikus With Hotties: Yen Chen

 

Our latest Haikus with Hotties poet is the Taiwanese American piano prodigy turned American Ninja Warrior competitor Yen Chen. He recently joined an esteemed group of athletes on the hit NBC obstacle course competition show, based on the Japanese sports entertainment television special Sasuke.Chen first heard about Sasuke when an English-dubbed version of the show called Ninja Warrior was being broadcast in the U.S. on the now-defunct G4 channel. Producers announced they were making an American spin-off in 2009. An audition tape Chen filmed, where he made light of Asian American male stereotypes, went viral, and as a result, he got a shot at the course. Though he didn’t have an athletic background, he had previously taken up rock climbing to conquer his fear of heights, and his resulting grip strength now serves him well in difficult obstacles, including the Salmon Ladder, Giant Cycle and the Doorknob Arch.

This year, Chen became one of only 18 finalists to make it to Stage 2 of the Las Vegas Finals at Mount Midoriyama — an impressive feat considering only 90 competitors from the multiple-city national tryouts made it to Vegas, and only two athletes made it to Stage 3, where they both fell. So the challenge to become the first American Ninja Warrior to complete the course still remains, and it could be Chen.

So what does it take to tackle Mount Midoriyama while maintaining ultimate hotness? We seek answers through the ancient art of haiku.

 

Ninja warriors
like you need badass nicknames

starting with “The.” Right?

YEN:
A moniker, aye
Would be cool if I had one
But alas, I don’t  : (

 

Warped wall. Spinning bridge.
Salmon ladder — which required 
musical talent?

YEN:
My ear shattering
A capella just before
I hit the water. 

 

Hotter ninja look:
Cliffhanger’s bulging biceps,
ripped shirt at buzzer?

YEN: 
This question you ask
Should be a question I ask
And you to answer 

 

 

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 2.10.46 PM

 


 

Photos courtesy of Craig Stubing, unwrittenfilms.com
This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here

Get to Know Actress, Writer and Filmmaker Ayako Fujitani

 

When her latest film Man From Reno won the top prize at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival this summer, Ayako Fujitani was initially confused. “Dave [Boyle, the director,] told me, ‘We won!’ and I said, ‘For what?’” she remembers. She laughs. “I had forgotten it was a competition! The project had come such a long way from the [initial] Kickstarter [fundraising campaign]. We had such a tough time even finishing the movie, and we were super happy to even get in the L.A. Film Festival. So when we won, we were super shocked and surprised, in a good way.”

This is the second time the hapa actress (born to Japanese aikido master Miyako Fujitani and American action star Steven Seagal) has worked with Boyle, the first experience being in his 2012 black- and-white indie romance Daylight Savings, in which she had a supporting role as Goh Nakamura’s ex- girlfriend. After that wrapped, Boyle was working on a crime film that started out as a pair of simultaneous mystery stories with vastly different protagonists, a Japanese writer and an elderly sheriff. The sheriff character, who’d eventually be played by Pepe Serna, came from an unproduced screenplay Boyle had written previously, but the Japanese writer Aki was a new addition and written with Fujitani in mind.

“I think she has a unique cerebral soulfulness about her that was perfect for the part of Aki,” says Boyle. “While the sheriff’s storyline is more of a traditional police procedural, Aki’s is a bit more emotional and character driven. She is the classic amateur sleuth, but she has secrets of her own that make her darker than your average heroine.”

“Aki is a very successful Japanese mystery novel writer who’s not happy about her success for some reason,” explains Fujitani of her bilingual character. “She runs away from her book tour to San Francisco — and runs into a real mystery.”

During post-screening Q&As during the film’s festival run, Fujitani remembers Boyle joking that after she got involved, the Aki character suddenly became super dark. “Before, the character didn’t feel too much regret or sadness,” says Fujitani. “But if she was happy, no one would really care about what she goes through.”

man from reno

“[Once] we realized how game Ayako would be to push the character further and further into the darkness, she made all three of us [Boyle and co-writers Joel Clark and Michael Lerman] braver as writers to make the character rougher around the edges. Her fearlessness gave us confidence,” says Boyle.

Though Fujitani wouldn’t describe herself as the type of actress who practices method acting, it was difficult for her to get Aki out of her head. Part of the reason was because they shot many of the film’s foreboding scenes in a hotel room in San Francisco, which was right next door to the actual hotel room where Fujitani stayed during the weeks they were filming in the city. “When you’re basically on the set in the same hotel room the whole time, it’s almost impossible to forget the character,” she says. “It helped my acting a lot, to get into the maze of this world, but I felt like I had no way out.” She laughs.

“So after I finished the movie, it was like, I need to go to Hawaii or something!”

A relaxing vacation wasn’t in the cards, however, because Fujitani, also a filmmaker herself, has been working on numerous projects that take her back and forth between the U.S., Japan and Korea. Her short film The Doors, shot entirely on an iPhone 5 without any special lenses, recently played at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas. (It was originally made for the Olleh International Smartphone Film Festival in South Korea.) She also co-wrote a four-episode short film series, A Rose Reborn, a collaboration between acclaimed Korean director Park Chan-wook and the Italian fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna, which stars Daniel Wu and Jack Huston. She is currently developing another Korean short film, a dark comedy that follows a nervous, picky, routine-driven businessman.

“She’s very confident and has a great eye and ear for unusual characters and interesting dialogue,” says Boyle of Fujitani’s work as a writer and director. In fact, he often relied on Fujitani’s instincts when it came to the Japanese-language scenes in Man from Reno, which also stars actors Kazuki Kitamura, Yasuyo Shiba, Hiroshi Watanabe and Tetsuo Kuramochi. “We worked with a lot of great translators during the scriptwriting process to make sure the Japanese version would be up to snuff, but a couple of days before we started shooting, Ayako and I did a last brush up that did amazing things for the movie,” says Boyle. “Having her ear at our disposal was huge.”

Man from Reno, which has also won awards at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and Wichita’s Tallgrass International Film Festival, has a theatrical release planned for next spring. Next up, Fujitani is off to shoot a film with Japanese director Takashi Miike, known for bloody cult films such as Ichi the Killer, Audition and 13 Assassins. “After I had been in Korea for a while, I visited Japan, and as soon as I arrived and turned on my Japanese cell phone — which is never on when I’m in another country — I get a call from Miike’s producer,” says Fujitani of the role she seemed fated to get. A fan of Miike’s work, Fujitani said yes before she even read the script. She plays a nurse in a medical drama about doctors from Nagasaki, Japan, going to Kenya. “This is a departure for him,” she says. “It is definitely not one of the horror, crazy-in-a-good-way films that Miike is known for.”

 

Photo courtesy of Chika Okazumi.
This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here

 

‘Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One With the Universe’ by Yumi Sakugawa

 

One year after her debut comic book, I Think I’m In Friend-Love With You, artist Yumi Sakugawa has released her second book, Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One With the Universe, complete with nine black-and-white, ink-illustrated metaphysical lessons about how to slow down, appreciate your surroundings, overcome your insecurities and feel more connected with the world around you.

“As a self-help junkie who used to read a lot of self-help books to get through periods of depression and extremely low self-esteem,” she says, “this book is my own way of contributing to the self-help genre, but in a more visual format that is very different from the usual style of self-help books.”

Originally intended to be part of an online course before it became a book, the content was inspired by Sakugawa’s own meditation practices that she’s been doing (and doodling about) since 2008. Some of the other illustrated meditation practices she created while she was working as a blog editor on a wellness website include “Anxiety is a Heavy Rock,” “Sometimes It’s Okay If The Only Thing You Did Today Was Breathe,” “How To Be A Silent Witness To Your Thoughts,” and “There Is No Right Way to Meditate.”

An excerpt from Your Illustrated Guide, where she advises people to have cake and tea with your demons, was selected as part of the Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014 anthology. This section is also her own personal favorite. “Loving my own weaknesses and flaws is never easy for me, and thinking of that lesson helps me put things in perspective,” she says. “I also love hearing from other people how that lesson has helped them through their own personal struggles and issues.”

Details Hardcover, $14.99, adamsmedia.com.

This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here. 

yumi

 

CL1330-Hyphen300x250px

Ameriie is Back: New Albums, New Novels, New YouTube Channel

 

Listening to Ameriie talk a mile a minute, it sounds like she’s working on a million creative projects at once. The singer and musician is most known in mainstream America for her 2005 hit single “1 Thing,” back when her name only had one “i.” (The second “i,” which doesn’t affect the pronunciation, was added in 2010 for a different “vibration.”) Since then, she’s released two albums — 2007’s Because I Love It, which was only released abroad, and 2009’s In Love & War, her first release under her own label, Feeniix Rising, which she created with her husband and collaborator Lenny Nicholson. And she has two more in the works (BILI, a nod to the initials of the earlier album Because I Love It, and Cymatika Vol. 1, the first of a trilogy in mind) that are scheduled for a 2015 release.

Ameriie is constantly planning, constantly thinking and constantly putting together vocals, chords, beats and drum riffs in her head, even if she encounters writer’s block and needs to go on a run to tempt inspiration to come. She doesn’t like to write down her ideas, because she feels like it loses some of the magic. (“If the idea is good,” she insists, “I’ll remember.”) And she’ll throw herself into each project. “I always record in the dark, and then I pace,” she says. “I go into a corner and face the wall, so it probably looks creepy.” But after she’s done, she’s on to the next thing. And when she’s not writing, recording or performing music, she’s working on her novels. Yes, novels, plural — one a young adult story and another that has a fantasy theme. She makes it a point to write almost every day, and her drafts and outlines are impressively organized on Scrivener, her choice of writing software she can’t stop raving about.

She’s been like this since she was a kid. Before she pursued music, she wrote stories and even worked on an epic saga that took her from third grade to eighth grade to finish. “I could have sworn it was hundreds of pages, but recently, I found it and it was only like 200 pages,” she remembers, laughing. “It was about a lone 9-year-old who arrives at the stables and asks if they need a stable cleaner. The family hires her, she befriends the youngest daughter, and the two of them are terrorized by her older twins.”

The creativity gene comes from Ameriie’s Korean mother, who, in addition to being a voracious reader, is also a painter, a pianist and a poet. Her mother introduced her to traditional Korean music, classical music and singers like Barbra Streisand, while her African American father introduced her to Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson. On top of that, she moved around a lot as a kid, living in Germany for three years where she discovered German pop and ’80s new wave, and she later went through a phase where she only listened to heavy metal for a year. As a result, even though many of her fans know her for her R&B/soul/hip-hop sounds, for which she earned two Grammy nominations, her musical influences are equally diversified.

ameriie 2

“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Sensory overload! Sensory overload!’” she says, “and I can feel overwhelmed. But I do love to create.”

That was the theme for Because I Love It, a celebration of making art for the pure love of it. While the upcoming BILI will retain a couple of songs from the 2007 album, it’s mostly filled with new music that is sonically similar — a blend of hip-hop, soul, new wave and electronica. The album’s first single, “What I Want,” produced by her husband, and its lyric video have been released.

In contrast, Cymatika Vol. 1’s sound is bolder and more cinematic. “Cymatics is the study of visual sound,” explains Ameriie. “They’ll take sand on a plate and put vibrations through it, and you can watch the sand making shapes when you go from one frequency to the next. The patterns aren’t random; sound affects the matter in a certain geometric pattern, so that made me think about what sound does to us, how we’re affected by music and our own words.”

A lover of sci-fi and fantasy, Ameriie always likes to think big, which sometimes results in disappointment. “Things I want to do always cost too much money,” she laments. “I always have a big production in my brain. And then it’s like, ‘That’s great that you want it to snow in the middle of the forest, but that’s not really going to work within our budget.’” But that’s what she loves about writing music: Even if she can’t squeeze in a whole apocalyptic storyline into one of her music videos, she can add as many vocals and instruments as she wants to her songs and make it as grand as she likes. She imagines Cymatika Vol. 1 as a score for a movie like the epic fantasy war film 300, based on the comic book series by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.

CL1330-Hyphen300x250px

Looking forward, she wants her art to go weirder, and she wants to take more risks. But mostly, she wants to release music faster. “Putting out projects traditionally is hard for me,” she says of working with her former label, Columbia Records. “Sometimes it was two to three years in between projects!” If she had it her way, she’d be able to release music whenever she felt like it.

But until then, Ameriie keeps herself busy. Two albums, a potential EP she’s thinking of giving out free to her fans, two novels, a new YouTube channel called Books Beauty Ameriie, and a long-standing goal to improve her Korean language skills. Though she’s conversationally fluent — she’s done music collaborations with K-pop artists 4Minute, Se7en and Tiger JK — she wishes she had more confidence when she spoke. So creating her own Rosetta Stone language class — just another thing to add onto Ameriie’s to-do list.

To keep up with Ameriie, follow her on Tumblr, Instagram and official website.

 

Photos courtesy of Mr. Nicholson, Feeniix Rising Ent.
This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here. 

 

GIRLS WHO CODE: Reshma Saujani’s Nonprofit Encourages Girls to Pursue Careers In Engineering and Technology

 

In Reshma Saujani’s 2011 Ted Talk, she discussed the importance of encouraging more American youth to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers in order to create jobs and re-ignite our economy. Not only are twice as many degrees being earned in business and social science compared to STEM, she also pointed to a startling gender gap, especially in technology fields. While 58 percent of women earn bachelor degrees, only 25 percent of them are in STEM fields, and only 12 percent of computer science graduates are women, down from 37 percent in 1985.

Research has shown that in a poll of fourth graders, two-thirds of both boys and girls claim to like math and science. However, by the time girls graduate high school, only 0.3 percent choose computer science as their college major.

“I think there are subtle things we do to girls that tell them that these fields are not for them,” says Saujani, who provided the voiceover for this summer’s “Inspire Her Mind” campaign, a cultural dialogue ignited by Verizon and MAKERS, a digital platform showcasing stories of trailblazing women from all walks of life. The commercial shows how parents discouraging their daughters from getting their dresses and hands dirty, telling them to be careful around electric tools (while passing them off to their brothers), can really have an effect on girls’ perceptions of what they think they can be.

“It’s not intentional,” Saujani continues. “I was home in Chicago with my two nieces and nephew, and my father called my nephew to come help him fix something, instead of calling my nieces. After he watched the ‘Inspire Her Mind’ ad, he realized he may also be unconsciously not pushing girls toward creating and building things.”

To combat this gender disparity, Saujani created Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that exposes girls to engineering and technology at a young age, with hopes that cultivating these interests early will encourage them to become the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators. In 2012, Girls Who Code kicked off an eight-week summer program in New York City that taught programming to 20 girls, many from underserved communities. Since then, those girls have been inspired to spread their knowledge and enthusiasm by creating Girls Who Code clubs at their high schools across the country. A year later, the nonprofit had grown to eight programs in five different cities, and they are only getting bigger. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that, by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings; Girls Who Code aims to provide computer science education and exposure to 1 million young women in the next six years.

“If girls have this skillset, they’re going to build tools and products that are going to make the world a better place,” says Saujani, pointing to her first set of students who built apps that tackled issues like bullying, obesity, cancer and world hunger.

“These girls want to create a product that will make communities better, and having the technological skills and being able to code will be important to solving these problems.”

One former participant of the Twitter Girls Who Code summer immersion program, Ming Horn, started a nonprofit called Khode Up! to teach web development and graphic design to teenage orphans in Cambodia. Though the high school student was inspired after meeting Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg through the program, Saujani believes that “the kids’ biggest role models are each other.”

Though Saujani grew up in a family of engineers in Illinois, she says she was terrified of studying math and science, a regret that gnawed at her all through adulthood. She eventually studied political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, earned a master’s of public policy at Harvard and attended Yale Law School. She had discovered a passion for public service and political activism early in life. Her first march was as a 13-year-old youth activist fighting against racial and social injustice, and later, after 9/11, she worked to educate Muslim immigrants in Queens about their legal rights post-Patriot Act.

“It reminded me of what my parents, who came here as refugees from Uganda, went through,” says Saujani. “How your rights can literally be taken away at a moment’s notice if you don’t participate in the political process.

“That showed me how much the South Asian community lacked a voice in politics,” she continues. “In many ways, politics wasn’t encouraged in my family. In Asian families, you’re not supposed to put yourself out there like that. But I’ve always loved it. I’ve always had the desire to serve.”

Eventually, she worked as the deputy public advocate at the Office of the New York City Public Advocate, and in 2010, she was the first South Asian woman in the country to run for U.S. Congress. While she suffered two political defeats — she also ran for New York City Public Advocate in 2013, coming in third in the primary — she’s determined to change public perceptions of what’s possible for a South Asian American woman.

During her time campaigning, Saujani visited many schools and was impressed by their technology. She was also looking for a way to support the economic transformation of New York City, and it was then that the seeds of Girls Who Code were planted.

“After [the Facebook film] The Social Network, more boys think technology is cool, but I don’t think it has had the same effect for girls yet,” says Saujani, who published her first book, Women Who Don’t Wait in Line: Break the Mold, Lead the Way, in 2013. “And that’s what we’re working on. No matter what you want to be, whether it’s a doctor, dancer or artist, technology is a part of who we are.”

Find out more about Girls Who Code at girlswhocode.com.

 

This story was originally published in our Fall 2014 issue. Get your copy here

 

 

 

 

Olympic Gold Medalist Kristi Yamaguchi Creates Women’s Active Wear Line

 

The latest endeavor by the Olympic Gold Medal figure skater and Dancing With the Stars winner is Tsa.ya, a women’s active wear line that draws on Yamaguchi’s training as an athlete, life as a mom and passion for childhood literacy. 

 


 

One of Kristi Yamaguchi’s favorite aspects of figure skating has always been the costumes. She still loves the iconic black and gold sequined outfit that she was wearing when she won the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics when she was only 20 years old.

“I wasn’t planning to wear it because all year, I had worn a pink dress with short sleeves,” she remembers. “I got superstitious and wanted to wear the pink one again. But I’m glad my mom encouraged me to wear the gold one because it was so much more elegant. The look is so ’90s, and we had costume restrictions back then, so it’s more conservative than what you see now. But I still like it!”

Fashion was an early passion for Yamaguchi. She was not only involved in designing her skating costumes, but post-Olympics, she was the official spokesperson for the apparel fiber company Celanese Acetate’s fashion campaign, where she was able to work with designers including Tadashi, Carolina Herrera and Carmen Marc Valvo. Years later, she slipped back into a number of beautiful, extravagant costumes for her 2008 winning run on the TV reality competition Dancing With the Stars, her favorite being the gold evening gown she wore while dancing the foxtrot with partner Mark Ballas.

When Yamaguchi decided to launch her own product line Tsu.ya in 2012, active wear was a natural choice. She wanted to create fashionable clothing that could transition easily from exercise to everyday life, which was especially important to her as an on-the-go mom.

“I knew there was a way to create fun, trendy active wear that was comfortable,” says Yamaguchi. “To be different, I like to add pieces with ruffles and things to make it more feminine than what typical active wear looks like. I’m designing for a certain demographic that might like our mesh panel on the waistband for extra support, relaxed shapes in certain tops, ruching in areas to flatter the feminine figure.”

 

 

Yamaguchi is intimately involved in the design and development of a brand that bears not just her middle name but also the moniker of her grandmother. “It’s a nod to my family and our Japanese heritage,” she explains. “The literal translation is ‘shiny,’ so Tsu.ya encourages women to shine and find the spark of brilliance in all that they do.”

The personal connections don’t stop there. The “Keara” keyhole tee is named after her daughter, and a portion of all Tsu.ya proceeds go to Yamaguchi’s charity, the Always Dream Foundation, which focuses on childhood literacy.

Yamaguchi says she’s excited for the fall 2014 line, which features color-ways in teal, raspberry, heathered grey and, of course, black and white.

“There’s a beautiful, strappy active tank, mesh details, flattering silhouettes, a comfy wrap and a fun moto jacket,” she says. Indeed, the moto jacket, called “Mica,” is all style and all comfort, made of soft French terry and detailed with trendy gunmetal zippers. Other standout pieces include the perfectly slouchy “Lori” capri pant and the “Julia” jacket, a stylish mesh zip-up with extra long sleeves and thumb holes. Check out the entire line at tsuyabrand.com.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 1.31.49 PM

 

This story was originally published in our Fall 2014 issue. Get your copy here

 

 

Vietnamese American Kathy Uyen in “How to Fight in Six Inch Heels”

 

Growing up in San Jose, Calif., Kathy Uyen worked as an actress in Los Angeles for several years before she got the opportunity in 2008 to work on her first Vietnamese film, Passport to Love. Though she was quickly accepted in Vietnam’s show business world — she received a Best Supporting Actress award at the 2009 Golden Kite Awards (the Vietnamese version of the Oscars) — she still felt like a fish out of water.

“When I first moved to Vietnam, I’d go to [industry] events, and everyone would be dressed up in really beautiful gowns,” Uyen remembers. “And I’m coming from L.A.; we don’t wear gowns. But I had to get all these long gowns made in order to be respectful. I felt like this klutzy girl on the inside. Everyone was all properly posed on the red carpet, and I would just smile and pretend, even though I didn’t know what I was doing.”

After a few years, though Uyen had achieved a certain amount of fame and celebrity in Vietnam, she realized that roles for Vietnamese American women were still few and far between. Though her Vietnamese language skills had become more fluent, she still spoke with an American accent and found herself losing roles to Vietnamese locals. That’s when she decided to take matters into her own hands, come up with a story idea for a film she could star in, and pitch it to producers.

 

“I’m not a professional writer, but they say you should write from your own experiences, and that’s what makes it honest and genuine,” says Uyen. “So I’m surrounded by all these women, and, as modern-day women, we gotta have it all. We gotta make money, have a great husband, be a great wife, be social, look good, wear the latest trends. … The expectations are overwhelming, and I wanted to write a character who was trying to juggle all of that.”

The resulting film, How to Fight in Six Inch Heels, which was eventually fleshed out into its full form by scriptwriter Tim Tori and directed by Ham Tran, stars Uyen as Anne, a fashion designer from New York who has a very rigid three-step plan for career, marriage and babies. She’s got the career, and she’s got the fiancé, Kiet, but her life takes a detour when Kiet is sent off to Vietnam for work overseas, just months before their wedding day. After a late-night video chat with Kiet where he seems to be hiding something, Anne becomes suspicious that he is cheating with one of the models he works with. She secretly flies to Vietnam to infiltrate the entertainment industry and poses as a model in order to get to the bottom of her fiancé’s philandering.

Much of the comedy comes from Anne’s transformation into a believable model, which is kick-started by a boot camp led by her stylist friend Danny (Don Nguyen), a character based on two of Uyen’s closest gay friends, her real-life stylist and makeup artist.

“It sounds silly, but a lot of these moments really happened,” says Uyen, referring to how she needed to be taught (and to practice) how to pose on the red carpet and in photo shoots. “When I first walked the red carpets, the photographers would always catch me in [an awkward] half-smile. I didn’t want to be fake, so I’d do a real smile, then I’d stop, and then give another real smile. And my makeup artist was like, ‘No! You have to hold your smile the entire time you’re standing there!’ So I had to practice thinking of positive things the whole time while posing and hitting the marks.”

There’s a scene in How to Fight where Anne is on the catwalk for the first time, and she gets hit with an unfortunate bout of indigestion. But she somehow turns her violent stomach cramp into a comic catwalk pose. “That came from a joke between me and my makeup artist,” says Uyen. “At photo shoots, we’re always joking about the poses. ‘Oh, my cheek hurts,’” she demonstrates, brushing the back of her hand lightly on her face. “‘Oh, my shoulder aches,’” as she moves her hand oh-so-delicately across her chest to grasp her opposite arm. “We’re always making fun of ourselves when we’re taking pictures.”

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 3.22.26 PM

Anne’s journey in the modeling world went through multiple transformations before the How to Fight creative team eventually arrived at the film ending that they were most satisfied with. “It was important to show that the more Anne tries to be someone else, because she’s wearing this mask of makeup, the uglier she gets [in her behavior],” says Uyen. “Whereas when she’s not wearing so much makeup and able to show her fears and insecurities, she’s able to be herself, open up and make new friends.”

When How to Fight in Six Inch Heels premiered in Vietnam, it was the number one film at the box office for weeks and eventually earned Uyen a Best Leading Actress prize at the 2014 Golden Kite Awards. But more than that, Uyen is proud to have created and starred in a female-driven film where the male characters were there to move the women’s friendships forward and not the other way around.

Next up, Uyen will star in a martial arts comedy directed by Charlie Nguyen that starts shooting at the end of the year — another script about empowering women that Uyen calls a cross between Kung Fu Hustle and Nine to Five. She’s also looking to develop and produce more films, including a fantasy musical for teens and another women-centric drama.

 

How to Fight in Six Inch Heels is being released in American theaters this fall. 
This story was originally published in our Fall 2014 issue. Get your copy here

Japanese Artist Crystal Kay Is Ready For Her International Debut

 

Born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, to an African American military father and a third-generation ethnically Korean singer mother, Crystal Kay was constantly surrounded by music. She started singing commercial jingles at the tender age of 4 (“My mom’s friend who owned an advertisement production company would borrow me when they needed a child’s voice,” says Kay) and released her first single, “Eternal Memories,” at 13. Fifteen years and 11 albums later, Kay, 28, is looking forward to branching outside of her Japanese fanbase and introducing her unique sound to American audiences.


 

Audrey Magazine: What kind of music did your parents introduce you to when you were growing up?

Crystal Kay: My parents listened to all of the great music of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, from Earth, Wind & Fire, Maze and Luther [Vandross] to Celine Dion and Bon Jovi. My favorites were Michael and Janet Jackson. Watching their videos and shows really inspired me to become an entertainer. My parents’ eclectic taste in music definitely influenced mine in a great way because I love to incorporate different styles to make borderless music of my own.

 

AM: You started in the industry so young. What do you think of when you revisit songs, like “Eternal Memories,” that you performed when you were barely a teenager?

CK: I think, “Damn! I was such a baby!” [Laughs] But I love that song, and I think it captured my innocence and pureness, visually and musically, in a perfect way. It’s also fun to reflect on how much I’ve changed and grown both as an artist and a woman. I’m very proud of my earlier albums and videos.

 

AM: You are a cool and unique mix of cultures. Can you talk about what you’ve taken from growing up in Japan, in addition to the influences of an African American father and a Korean mother?

CK: Thanks! Growing up in Japan has helped me understand unique Japanese traditions and culture. It’s a culture that’s very polite and courteous — sometimes a little too courteous [laughs] — but it’s a nice trait to have, and it makes me different when I’m in a foreign country.

My African American influence is definitely in my sense of music and rhythm. I love to dance, and people always tell me my soulfulness and the way I feel the beat is definitely my black side. I never lived in Korea, but one thing I’ve learned is that Koreans are passionate people. They love to sing and dance, and I love how they are proud of their musical history. I feel I have the best of both worlds musically, and I’m very thankful for that.

 

AM: As a trailblazing mixed-race artist in Japan, has it ever been difficult to express or explain your identity in the public eye?

CK: Moving to New York, I’m finally starting to become more comfortable defining and explaining who I am. In Japan, I never had to really explain myself often, because it was rarely asked. I think that was probably because many people in Japan were just not used to multiracial people like they are in the U.S. And also, I was the first black and Korean singer in Japan, so I was a rare breed. [Laughs]

 

AM: How has the music landscape changed in the last 15 years since you first started?

CK: It’s definitely changing for the better. You can see the growth in number and popularity of mixed-raced artists in the entertainment industry throughout the years. It’s nice to see this change because it helps the youth to be open-minded and see people for who they are, whether they are mixed or not.

 

AM: What prompted your desire to debut in the U.S., and what can we look forward to?

CK: I’ve always wanted to share my music with the world. When I first debuted at 13, I thought, “Oh yay, I have a single out, so I’m automatically worldwide!” I always thought, naturally, that music is universal. When I realized I was a “Japanese singer,” my drive to become an international star became stronger, and it was always just a matter of when.

I have over 50 [songs] as of now, and I hope to release an EP very soon. Then I want to start performing so I can finally start spreading my music and create a following.

 

AM: One of your goals is to bring Japanese youth culture to an American audience. Can you elaborate on what Americans are missing out on that you want to share?

CK: Because I’m a multicultural Japanese girl, I want to show a side of Japanese girls that hasn’t really been shown to the world. Let’s reset that stereotype that is often misunderstood as bubblegum cute. There are a lot of sexy, powerful and real women and girls that take charge of their lives. They have their own powerful expression.

 

AM: What do you think about international artists like Gwen Stefani, Katy Perry and Avril Lavigne who incorporate Japanese culture into their music? Is there a way to do it well versus a way that is questionable?

CK: I think it’s really cool how Gwen Stefani played with the Harajuku girl concept, because she really made it her own by creating her version of the Harajuku culture and paying tribute to it in her own way. I also think it’s cute that Katy wears a lot of Japan-themed costumes. You can see that they both adore the culture and appreciate its uniqueness and are not mocking it. Because of them, I’m sure a lot more people became interested in Japan and its pop culture.

It really bothers me when people overuse the neon signs, wrong kanji and geisha girls in white faces and incorrectly worn kimonos in their videos just to be “different.” I remember seeing something similar to that in this R&B singer’s video — I won’t mention any names. [Laughs]

But I want to introduce a cooler and more authentic side of Japan that, at the moment, only I can. I want to show a really unique Japanese subculture that the world doesn’t really know about.

 

AM: And lastly, since we’re talking about crossing cultures, which other international stars would you love to work with?

CK: I would love to work with Calvin Harris. I love his style of dance music, and he has great melodies. I think we can be a killer combo

 

 

To get a taste of Crystal Kay’s new music, click here

 

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 3.53.16 PM

All photos courtesy of Alli Nakamura
This story was originally published in our Fall 2014 issue. Get your copy here

Exploring The Chinese Postnatal Tradition of Zuoyuezi: No Hair Washing, No Television, No Crying

For new Asian American mothers, the Chinese postnatal practice of zuoyuezi, or “sitting the month” — where bed rest is mandated, only certain foods can be eaten and you can’t even wash your hair — can be a confusing clash between Eastern traditions and Western conventions during those first critical 30 days after childbirth. But as Contributing Editor Ada Tseng learns, there is nothing wrong with a postpartum helping hand — whether it’s family or a zuoyuezi nanny for a month. In fact, when done in moderation, the ancient practice can serve as a more graceful transition into the daunting world of parenthood.   When I first told my husband about the postpartum tradition of zuoyuezi, he thought I was making it up. Literally translated to “sitting the month,” but sometimes referred to as “postpartum confinement,” zuoyuezi is a Chinese practice that encourages a new mother to rest in her home for one month after giving birth. During this time, there are many instructions on diet and recovery that range from drinking herbal soups and eating pork liver, to not washing your hair for 30 days and being confined to the house, room or even your bed, depending on how strictly one adheres to the tradition. In the meantime, family members, friends or hired help collectively pitch in to assist the new mother with cooking, cleaning and taking care of the baby so she can fully restore the balance to her body before attacking motherhood at 100 percent in month two.

“You just don’t want to do anything for a month,” my husband joked. He assumed that I, never one to be called maternal, was apprehensive about the drastic life change that motherhood would inevitably bring and was therefore excited about the idea of inviting anyone and everyone to come help us raise this baby. At least for 30 days. This was only half true. Both my husband and I are Taiwanese Americans born and raised in California, and our links to our heritage can be traced more through our love of food (shaved ice and beef noodle soup), culture (Taiwanese films and karaoke songs) or general philosophy (respecting our parents!) than formal customs. Never in our years of knowing each other have either of us insisted on adhering to any tradition, so when I waxed poetic about this ancient zuoyuezi practice that dates back to the 1st century B.C., he wasn’t buying it. That is, until he asked my OB/GYN, who happened to be Taiwanese American, about it, and she admitted that while the practice of zuoyuezi, which takes heavy influence from traditional Chinese medicine, was definitely not something that’s taught in medical school (most Western experts would argue that many of the benefits are unproven), her mother had made her do it when she gave birth to her own children. — I was surprised when my mother first mentioned that I should look into zuoyuezi resources partway through my pregnancy. At the time, my only knowledge of zuoyuezi came from the more extreme and divisive practices that get reported in the news — of the “look at the crazy things Chinese people do” variety. On one hand, it’s known as an antiquated tradition (some would say superstition) that’s more akin to torture than relaxation. The herbal soups you’re forced to eat are disgusting, you can’t wash yourself properly because you can’t risk any cold air touching any part of your body, you’re trapped in your own house, not allowed to watch TV or engage in any activities that will strain your eyes, and mothers or mothers-in-law are on your backs like drill sergeants to make sure you follow the often excessive and old-fashioned rules to a tee.

Alternately, several years ago, reports surfaced about a growing trend of luxury zuoyuezi postpartum confinement centers booming in places like mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which paints zuoyuezi as, for lack of a better description, something that rich people do. Taiwanese celebrities went on talk shows to rave about these facilities that are basically boutique hotels with first-rate nannies and doulas on hand to take care of your baby while you and your husband rest, take classes about parenthood or even enjoy their spa and salon services. And Taiwanese talk show viewers, like my mother, in turn, raved about how these celebrities were able to stay beautiful, skinny and youthful, even after having multiple kids, because they took care of themselves properly after giving birth.
The first scenario seemed unappealing and the second unrealistic, but my mother assured me that there was a middle ground. She explained it to me like this: Western culture likes to glamorize the act of bearing children with phrases like “the miracle of birth,” whereas the Chinese see labor as one of the worst traumas that can happen to the body. Special care is required to help us recalibrate. My mother didn’t feel the need to follow every single rule — for example, many people nowadays who practice zuoyuezi believe that rules like not washing your hair for a month are outdated, harkening back to the olden days when you would wash your hair in the bacteria-laden river, putting your baby’s health at risk. It was more about practicing the “spirit” of zuoyuezi: resting so you can gain your strength back as quickly as possible, maintaining a healthy diet and relaxed state of mind so you can properly feed and take care of your baby. Later, when I told my mother my husband thought I was trying to get out of work, she laughed. “You’re going to be responsible for and worried about this child for the rest of your life,” she said. “Us helping you out for one month doesn’t get you out of that much work.” 14-0510_EDU_Multicultural_Parent_Banner_HS_AudreyMag_BD1Many immigrants from my parents’ generation who grew up in Asia but gave birth in the United States believe in zuoyuezi, not necessarily because they had done it themselves, but precisely because they didn’t do it. The Chinese believe that postnatal recovery is critical to maintaining long-term health, so as a result, many women of my mothers’ generation, now seniors, blame their current health issues — whether it be migraines, backaches or arthritis — on the fact that they didn’t properly rest during the month after childbirth. Perhaps it was because their parents and extended family were abroad and unable to pitch in, maybe their in-laws didn’t believe in it, or perhaps they just didn’t have the resources at the time to find a support network in the United States, where postpartum care is still, for the most part, glossed over in the mainstream. (Even now, babies are coddled and scheduled for multiple check-ups right away, but new mothers, even if they are recovering poorly, often don’t return to their doctors until six weeks later.) Because of such regrets, these experienced mothers often vow not to let their daughters suffer the same consequences.

There are many ways to practice zuoyuezi, and while the details vary, the general principles are consistent (see below). Many opt for the do-it-your- self version, where the grandmothers take it upon themselves to carry out the tradition for their daughters or daughters-in-law. While this is the cheapest option, it’s a lot of work to ask of someone, especially in this day and age where many of us wait until we are older to have children. And by the time we do, our mothers are also older and less capable (or willing) to do the hours of shopping, preparation and cooking in order to prepare specific meals meant to heal the body, restore blood loss, prevent swelling, promote production of breast milk, speed up uterus contractions, restore hormone levels and help the new mother get her pre-pregnancy physique back. Another option is the postpartum center mentioned previously. While it’s more common in Asia, these “mommy hotels” do exist in the U.S., though they’re more underground, often only advertised in Chinese-language newspapers and television programs. Though they carry a stigma in the Western world — as the sites of the “birthing tourism” controversy, where foreign mothers give birth in the States to secure their children the American citizenship that they can’t get themselves — more and more Asian American citizens take advantage of these centers where the mother and husband can stay for a month, while their babies sleep in a separate room, looked after by a team of nannies, nurses or doulas.
Somewhere in the middle lies the option of using food-delivery services — nowadays, there are even tastings for expectant mothers — or hiring a live-in nanny (ah yi or “auntie”) who will cook all your meals and take care of the mother and baby, especially at night, so the new parents can get their rest. After considering our own specific needs and preferences, we opted for the live-in nanny, who would stay in our house to help out for the first month. — While I can only speak from my own experience, the process of hiring a live-in nanny in the United States remains strangely shrouded in mystery, and looking back, required more last-minute improvisation and luck of the draw than most people may prefer. Because these services are not widely advertised online or in English, we could only depend on word of mouth. Friends, and friend of friends, directed us to a woman who ran a nanny referral service from the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California. (Later, we would learn that there are many different nanny referral services, but at the time, it seemed like all our inquiries led to the same woman and cell phone number.)

Without a website or even a contract that outlined how this would work, the woman told us that we couldn’t meet or interview the nannies in advance, because they were all currently working for clients 24/7 (many of these nannies are literally booked for back-to-back months with no break), but we would be assigned a caregiver based on my projected due date. We were assured that all the nannies were extremely experienced and had proper certification. That said, because zuoyuezi traditions vary from region to region (not only China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, but many Southeast Asian countries have adopted their own versions of the postpartum traditions as well), it’s hard to believe there’s any sort of consistency.
The only instructions we got were that we needed to prepare a bed for the nanny in the baby room and to call back a month before my due date to work out other logistics. During that phone call, I was told that I was in luck: she had two nannies that would be available during the week of my delivery date. “What if I go into labor earlier than that?” I asked. “Don’t worry so much,” she said. “Then I’ll find someone else.” Under normal circumstances, trusting a faceless voice on the other end of the line — and, sending her a check for the referral fee to reserve my spot, no less — seemed to defy all logic. There were even rumors that nannies were often sent back by unsatisfied clients, and as an American not used to taking leaps of faith to uphold Chinese traditions, there seemed to be no guarantee that this wasn’t all a scam. But my mother trusted in the process, and I, valuing the promise of postpartum help above all else, had committed to the ride. As it got closer and closer to my delivery date, I had become comfortable with the notion that this could go a myriad of ways, taking solace in the fact that, worst case, we’d send the nanny back.

Sure enough, I went into labor eight days early, and the nannies she had been reserving for me were still out of state, finishing up their previous jobs. But sure enough, she was able to go through her contacts to find another nanny, who had just finished up a job the day prior and could be picked up at a location 20 miles away from us the next day. Looking back, there were many ways things could have gone wrong with the prospect of allowing an unvetted stranger to live with you for a month — not to mention, trusting that stranger with the high-stakes task of taking care of your baby. One of the most complex and frustrating aspects of having kids — from pregnancy, labor, post-labor recovery, to parenthood — is that everyone from family members to professionals give often-conflicting advice, and adding in a zuoyuezi nanny with her own convictions just adds an extra variable to the madness.

Especially for Asian Americans, clashes of East versus West beliefs abound, from macro levels (in a sense, the entire philosophy of confinement clashes with Western medical science that does encourage rest but not extreme bed rest, which may cause your muscles to atrophy and, in turn, cause you to recover slower) to the micro-minutiae (Westerners tell you to drink lots of water to generate breast milk, whereas Chinese believe that water makes you bloated and less able to shed your baby weight, opting instead for herbal drinks and teas). However, the zuoyuezi ah yi can also serve as a neutral third party who is able to dispense advice and reach compromises with a new mother, without the emotional baggage of a nagging parent or the unintended consequences of disobeying the wishes of a well-meaning in-law. As a result, the experience can be an exercise in trust and communication, with much less at stake. In my particular case, our nanny — a middle-aged woman who, as is typical, didn’t speak much English — had certain principles about how to properly sit the month, but was flexible about other aspects, turning a blind eye when I slipped out of the house every so often to get some fresh air, when I spent the better part of the day watching videos on my smartphone when I was supposed to be resting, when my hair was clearly washed every other day, or even when my mother, who was responsible for grocery shopping, took it upon herself to not even buy ingredients (like the infamous pork liver) that she assumed I wouldn’t like or certain Chinese herbs that she thought would stink up the entire house. In the end, it was like my mother said: We didn’t follow all the rules, but we captured the “spirit” of zuoyuezi. Not only am I grateful for the recovery time where my sole responsibility was to rest and bond with my baby, but I was given the gift of one month to observe someone who’s been taking care of babies for decades; to practice regular acts of breastfeeding, burping and changing under professional guidance until I was comfortable; and to soak up her advice that was catered to my individual baby.
Two months later, I can say that I feel fully recovered, but perhaps more importantly, now that nannies and grandparents have left the nest, I’ve learned to trust myself a little bit more and be confident that, if nothing else, my month of zuoyuezi sent me off into the abyss of parenthood in the right direction.
As for the long-term effects, will the fact that I was able to practice zuoyuezi keep my body strong and slow down the aging effects associated with childbirth? Will I regret bending the rules and wish that I had resisted washing my hair for 30 days? Find me in 30 years, and I’ll let you know.   Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 2.53.41 PM     This story was originally published in our Fall 2014 issue. Get your copy here