When Lianne Lin moved to Taiwan to study Chinese, she didn’t realize that she’d become a study in modern sociocultural relations.
ISSUE: Winter 2010
DEPT: My Story
STORY: Lianne Lin
An Uncertain Education
Earlier this year, I moved from Los Angeles to Taipei, Taiwan — my mother’s birthplace — to study Chinese and experience life in Asia. I enrolled in school and started making new friends. For income, I looked for English tutoring jobs through a website that posts your photo, résumé and email address online.
One day, I got an email from a 43-year-old Taiwanese businessman who wanted conversational English practice. He was thin with average looks and height, and spent most of our first “lesson” bragging (in excellent English, incidentally) about his financial success. He was a cocky, overconfident go-getter who had started companies in several different countries. His cowboy-style shoes had custom-made heels to make him look taller, and every day he wore a huge, obnoxious ring containing a dead bug preserved in amber.
“I realized that no matter what was happening in my life, when I was in the kitchen, that was my safe place.” – Aarti Sequeira
ISSUE: Winter 2010
STORY: Janice Jann
Time spent with Aarti Sequeira really is a party. The season six champ of Food Network’s number one series, The Next Food Network Star, is full of life, from her cascading waterfall of dark curls to her lyrical British accent.
THROUGH MY LENS
One last look at the season, through an artist’s point of view.
photo AUDREY CHO
ISSUE: Winter 2010
“Last winter, when work presented an opportunity for a three-day trip to Seoul, I jumped at the chance. On our half day off, I was able to roam the famous street markets and, despite the freezing cold, there was such activity! I just love street food and even though it was a total freezing cold spell, all the street food stalls were open and getting ready for the lunch crowds. I took this photo of a huddle of merchant ladies who were sharing a lunch not only as a communal meal but to brace against the cold.
“I got to experience the street food that I loved as a child and reminisce for a few carefree hours. I plan on going back as soon as possible, but perhaps during a more palatable season.”
— Audrey Cho, Los Angeles, Calif.
More stories from Audrey Magazine’s Archives here.
To tell her story, one reader has to delve into the journey of her mother, a mail-order bride, whose sacrificial love inspired her daughter to give hope to hundreds of impoverished women artisans today.
ISSUE: Summer 2010
DEPT: My Story
STORY: Gianna Driver
Tears streaming down her face, my mother grabbed my raging hands and dropped to her knees.
“Anak, I do everything for you! I fight for you, I work for you, I live for you. Everything I do is for you.”
I was 9, and having a temper tantrum because she refused to get me the Barbie I wanted. We didn’t have the money. The other girls had one, of course, and I was tired of being different. Not that Barbie would magically give me the blonde hair and blue eyes needed to blend into my small, eastern Texas cattle town … but still.
Still, there I was, with my mother kneeling in front of me, literally sobbing. It was a humbling moment forever etched in my mind. In one moment I felt her pain, her heartache, her loneliness, her anxiety, her fierce love, and her even fiercer hope for the future. And it was all for me. Because of me.
My story begins with my mother.
Orphaned at 13 on the streets of Manila, Philippines, after witnessing my grandfather’s wrenching death, my mother faced the choices many orphans fear — become a sidewalk vendor selling trinkets, a thief or a prostitute. My mother chose sidewalk vending and did whatever she could to survive. She dreamed of having a child and giving that child every opportunity. Looking around her at the rampant poverty and increasing destitution, she knew she had to leave Manila to make this happen.
So my mother became a mail-order bride. An agency placed an ad in the back of a magazine, and a Texan cattle-rancher answered, offering a one-way ticket to the land of opportunity. Scared to death but holding fiercely to her love for her future child, she boarded that plane and rode into uncertainty.
Trusting a stranger to keep you safe — to feed you and house you and protect you — is a frightening undertaking, both physical and emotional. And when those hands violate that trust, you must choose to stay or go. So, almost two years into her marriage, my mom moved us — I was just a year old — into a woman’s shelter, where we would live until I was about 7.
My mother quickly became the night manager at the shelter, and her job exposed me to women at their most vulnerable. Our life there was decent, because my mother knew and still knows how to take care of people. She finds the threads that connect women and lifts them up. These women entered the shelter bleeding, sobbing, torn and hurt. I witnessed a lifetime’s worth of abuse and I always thought, “It’s not right. We can do better.”
These women, and women like my mom in Manila, didn’t know how to break the cycle of poverty and abuse because they lacked education. Knowing that education was the ticket out, I worked hard in school and my mother sacrificed much — always buying second-hand clothes, saving every penny from her three jobs, moving us out of the shelter and into a slummy apartment — so I could take advantage of every opportunity.
After graduating from the Wharton School, I moved to San Francisco to work in corporate insurance for a couple of years and, while I understood the value of it, I felt that I wasn’t living my values. This began a reflective journey. I thought about women, my family, the women from the shelter, and about empowering women abroad so they have alternatives to prostitution and becoming mail-order brides, like my mother. I wanted to break the cycle and help provide not only other options but a sense of value. I wanted to help women live their dreams.
Inspired by the women of my past, and the ones in my future, I founded Gianna, an online boutique that works with and provides fair trade opportunities to severely disadvantaged women artisans in the developing world. We partner with NGOs to teach them life skills and educate them so they can live independently. Most importantly to me, these women learn to value their work and themselves in the process. This education and independence leads them from poverty into a life of empowerment.
The daily obstacles these women face are largely the limits imposed upon them by poverty. For example, Lang, a single mother, wanted to send her son to school, but couldn’t afford school fees from her meager earnings as a rice field worker. Her dream was to make enough money to send her child to school.
I met Lang during a trip to Laos, and through a translator, she told me her story. Lang now works as a master weaver in one of the villages, and every scarf she weaves holds an incredible amount of her gratitude. Each scarf helps to pay her son’s school fees. Now, she says, her son won’t have to work in a rice field; he can become a professional and follow his dream. Lang is just like my mother in that sense, and like all mothers everywhere.
We are all connected. In fact, we are much more similar than we are different. Our artisans and our customers both have global relevancy in the world — each affects the other, and each affects a world greater than the two combined. My goal is to show women how we are connected, how we impact each other, and how we can help each other. Women here in the U.S. have the purchasing power to help women abroad achieve their dreams, and our customers broaden their lenses, see the interconnectedness of our world, and understand how their purchasing decision has global impact. For the women artisans, the very creation of a product is emblematic of a transformation.
My mother transformed herself, too. She came to this country with the goal of starting a family and, with determination and sheer will, she gave her child every advantage possible. She has created a life of love — her daughter is happy in her work, and so she is happy. My mom and I sometimes reflect on how we women live in a cycle; whether we live in poverty or wealth, we live in the cycle that connects us as women. From the orphan to the mail-order bride, from the Wharton grad to the professional woman — we are all amazing women.
As told to Bridget Flynn.
Paul Nakayama says long-distance dating can be A-OK. Guest columnist Far East Movement see things a little bit differently.
ISSUE: Summer 2010
DEPT: The Awful Truth
STORY: Paul Nakayama and Far East Movement
Whenever I go to karaoke (which is far too often for someone my age) I’m reminded of one of my personal greatest weaknesses — I can’t rap for spit, not even the easy Sesame Street ones meant for toddlers. I was always convinced that if I could just overcome this one hurdle, I would be surrounded by dozens of googly-eyed girlfriend candidates drawn to the masculine rhythms of rap as opposed to my Glee show tunes. And so when I had a chance to hang out with the boys of Far East Movement (FM) and see all the love they got from the ladies, I was surprised to learn that they have love maladies of their own — the issues of dealing with long distances. It’s my job, then, to let them know how good they got it. Long distance is not so bad, and can even be the perfect litmus for a relationship.
If you take a glance at my dating portfolio, you’ll notice a couple of things, besides the fact that it can fit into a fortune cookie. One, my relationships were almost all long term, and two, they almost all transitioned into long-distance relationships. Now, most of you would probably interpret this to mean that my girlfriends were forced to move to another state or country to escape my grasp, and some of you punks might be right. But my interpretation for this trend is that life is short and ever changing, and if you’re like FM, you’ve got to take to the road if you want to realize your ambitions. That means that in any relationship, there is a remarkable possibility of being separated by work or family or crazy 2012 earthquakes. This means, of course, that you either survive the distance or don’t. And me, well, I’m writing a relationship column while being almost monk-like single, so take a guess at my track record.
As painful and frustrating as long-distance relationships can be, I was always subconsciously drawn to them on some molecular level. My former roommate and I would have a running ritual whenever I traveled to another country. He’d say, “Don’t come back with a girlfriend!” I’d promise not to, even pinky swearing despite his homophobic protests, and yet a week later, I’d come home professing that I’d found love. I idealized these girls from Farawaynia, found everything to be marvelous and disregarded anything that resembled straitjackets. I’d fly home, thinking, “For her, I could do the whole long-distance thing.” But truth is, it never lasted very long or went beyond phone calls and IM chats that started and ended with “How was your day?” And why should it last? There was never a real connection strong enough to begin with that could sustain a relationship beyond the superficial.
Despite my failures with long-distance relationships and knowing logically that they’re unlikely to work, I’m still drawn to them … because of the “what ifs.” What if it did work? Would that make her The One? I hate drama as much as I hate mayonnaise or reality TV, but I suspect that I’m constantly finding myself in long-distance relationships because it’s the ultimate test. If you can survive living six hours apart, then you can survive petty arguments, jealousy and probably zombie attacks, because you will trust each other. I guess when I’ve been with a girl for a long time it’s good to know that we can survive anything, if we try. Of course, the problem is, most people I’ve dated didn’t really want to try. Hold on a sec while I wipe my tears with this here fiddle.
Now, the good news is, if the relationship is going to fail anyway, at least with a long-distance relationship you’ve got plenty of free time to do the things you want to do. I went out with my friends if I wanted. I’d spend Friday nights playing hours and hours of video games in my underwear while I stuffed my face full of Red Vines and drank eight liters of Mountain Dew. I’d dance along with America’s Best Dance Crew while eating out of a bucket of fried chicken. I’d choose to watch Bruckheimer over effing Nicholas Sparks. But, if we were living together and the relationship still went sour, well, then I suffered Letters to Juliet for absolutely nothing, and my soul would have a gaping hole in it the shape of a vagina. Yes, I know. Nicholas Sparks brings out the worst in me.
It’s hard being separated and making real relationships work. It takes more energy to send real love when you’re spanning hundreds of miles. But if you can survive it, then that’s good love right there, and that’s not something easily distilled. In my book, long distances aren’t necessarily non-starters for a relationship. Actually, in some ways, it’s a true starter because you have to really want it, and you’re forced to compromise to get the things that matter. And if you mess up, at least you’ve got a head start on running away or the time difference to think of an apology. There are worse things than being in love with someone on the other side of the planet … falling out of love with someone on the other side of the bed, for one. Hearing me rap is another.
FAR EAST MOVEMENT SAYS:
Tour life is a dream. You’re so removed from all immediate worries like bills, responsibilities and the general stress of everyday life. No one really knows you when you enter a city, and no one really knows you when you leave the next day. It’s just you and your best friends, going to new places, seeing new things and creating new memories. Life on the road is all we really know so when it comes to romance and relationships, what we know is quick and from a distance. A few of us have had long relationships with girls we might have loved or maybe still do, but keeping those relationships might be harder for us than getting a hit song on the radio.
Over the years we’ve learned good women need good attention, and good intentions don’t take the place of immediate action. We’re going to keep names out of this because we value our privacy, but we can each give examples from our lives for days on end. We’ll tell a few stories, so you know what we’re talking about.
One of us had a girl he wanted to ultimately marry. His mission was to do anything he could to be successful in the music business. He wanted the chance to be able to take care of her for the rest of her life. Extra late nights at the studio, months on tour, and all the hard work were motivated by wanting to take care of this girl and create a family. In the end, however, great intentions don’t make up for being around for things like cooking dinner or the holidays. Slowly that relationship turned to resentment and eventually died. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t make up for lost time. Buying a stuffed animal in every city stop or staying faithful through any temptation don’t counter the feelings a girl gets when her man is away.
Then there’s the flipside to this in FM. One of us has been able to keep a great relationship going like a Duracell battery. For a relationship to last with careers like ours, it takes two people that understand each other better than they understand the English language. This understanding is what allows for crazy trust, which will get you through the lowest, darkest times. We’re constantly away for months, but as soon as we step off the plane in L.A., she’s there to pick us up. Immediately, they chat like he never left. A relationship like that gives us all hope, but to earn what they have, you’ve got to endure more turbulence than our last flight to Tokyo. It takes a strong man to stay true to his woman at a club across the country or overseas, but it takes a stronger woman to trust that man.
As touring artists, we know the single life oh so well. When we were younger, people would always suggest finding a girl quick. Once our careers took off, it would be impossible to find someone who could understand our schedule without having that history in place. Late-night recording sessions, impromptu meetings, booze-fueled shows at nightclubs, tours that last for months can all spell trouble for a budding relationship. In this lifestyle, you always catch yourself looking out the window of the tour bus for your own Penny Lane, like the character from Almost Famous; someone who enjoys freedom and is willing to accompany you on the road. But most girls that we’re drawn to usually have day jobs or school they can’t leave behind. And, besides, we can’t bring anyone with us on the road, because space is tight and limited only to people who own a meaningful role on the tour. But the single life doesn’t necessarily mean we are lonely when it comes to the ladies. We meet some extraordinary girls that sweep us off our feet. It just means we haven’t been able to build that thing called “love” into a relationship. Maybe the time just isn’t right yet.
We love what we do and wouldn’t trade it for the world. Over the next few years, finding a balance between our dreams and our relationships will be essential to keep us inspired and movin’ like a Movement. We have a saying that we, the Far East Movement, are “Free Wired” … and we need girls who are the same. A “Free Wired” girl is supremely comfortable to wild out and just be herself. She’s wired not because she parties all night, but because she’s able to stay connected to us. Her communication skills are off the hook. It’s a free and full exchange in getting to know one another. If you run across one of us someday and want to get to know us, live free and stay wired.
Getting Byrned: Comedian Steve Byrne brings down the house with his new Comedy Central special, The Byrne Identity.
ISSUE: Summer 2010
STORY: Naomi Fujimoto
“We are known for cool things,” quipped Steve Byrne, referring to Asians, in his 2008 Comedy Central special Steve Byrne’s Happy Hour. “Technology. Martial arts. Eating hot dogs.”
But this 35-year-old Korean-Irish American comedian is moving beyond his ethnic background and The Kims of Comedy. His new special, The Byrne Identity, airs on Comedy Central at the end of July. And it covers his take on, well, everyone.
“The basis of it is, who are you? And then, who am I?” he says. “It’s about how I view race. It’s how I view people through music, because you can stereotype people through music. How I view the sexes.”
Byrne doesn’t want to pigeonhole himself by gearing his act toward Asians. “I’d rather be inclusive instead of exclusive,” he says. African Americans, Mexicans, cougars, boy bands, fans of emo — everyone is fair game. In The Byrne Identity, the comedian covers what your favorite music says about you, why women aren’t hunters, and what “I love you” means.
These are broader topics than in his earlier act, which featured plenty of jokes about his Korean mother. “I’ve thrown my mom under the bus so many times that she deserves a break,” he laughs.
Audiences have seen Byrne graduate from five-minute sets to hour-long specials. He has performed on USO tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and recently traveled to Japan and China. His take? “People are just people.” They want to laugh.
If Byrne tends to see the commonalities between people, it’s because he thinks we’re all immigrants to some degree. That means no one is safe from his observations. But that’s all right — because in any culture, he’s funny. — Naomi Fujimoto
Miss Congeniality: Jeannie Mai of E! Style network’s How Do I Look? is making a name for herself, one look at a time.
ISSUE: Summer 2010
STORY: Anne H. Kim
Jeannie Mai is probably the only person who gets paid to rummage through people’s closets and toss out anything that doesn’t meet the rules of good dressing. It can get ugly (and we don’t mean just the clothes). The dressing-impaired who appear on E! Style network’s How Do I Look? have been known to break down in tears, plead their case in a desperate attempt to get just a bit more mileage out of a tired college sweatshirt, and just plain get defensive. It’s a delicate operation to say the least. But as the show’s newest host (Mai took over for Finola Hughes), Mai deals out her fashion judgment with such a sunny and bubbly disposition that those who (grudgingly) appear on the show are won over soon enough. Mai’s happy-go-lucky attitude doesn’t seem to know boundaries either. Besides boosting up the self-esteem of her Look guests, she also reports on fashion and entertainment on Extra with Mario Lopez and chums it up with Natalie Morales as the resident fashion expert on Today. Mai is quickly building a brand as a congenial host with plenty of personality. She’s even adding a fresh dose of high energy into Avon as the iconic beauty company’s resident fashion expert.
Guest columnist actor Roger Fan and our very own Paul Nakayama weigh the benefits — and costs — of snaring a VGD (that’s “video game dude”).
ISSUE: Spring 2010
DEPT: The Awful Truth
STORY: Paul Nakayama and Roger Fan
Romance does not have to be complicated. If you’re a single lady who is truly ready to embark upon a lifelong journey of happiness and genuine romantic affection with a guy who won’t Tiger Woods you, the answer is simpler than you think — get good at video games. Forget the diet, the tan, the hair extensions, the accent reduction courses, the exotic body glitter, the plastic surgery to get the double eyelids, etc. All that stuff is unnecessary. The only thing you need to do to snare that bloke who will forever treat you like a queen even when your crow’s feet sprout to the size of tree roots, is video game mastery. And don’t worry, you don’t need to get good at all the games. Just pick the top two or three most popular ones (currently “Uncharted 2,” “Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2” or “Bioshock 2”) and master them. I know this concept may seem rather confusing and perhaps alien. But sometimes a massive paradigm shift is necessary to right Occam’s razor of love and happiness. So grab a joystick ASAP and get ready to have your mind blown. It’s time to vacate any and all traditional hunting grounds of love and head on over to Best Buy. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here just yet …
Don’t buy into the hype. I have worked in the entertainment industry for almost 14 years and I can say with clear conviction that my business is single-handedly responsible for creating a completely fictitious and utterly unobtainable idea of love, romance and relationships that most civilized ladies on earth mistaken as personal entitlement. Forget the Mr. Right Checklists. It’s all bunk and bull dookie; lies mistaken for gospel. I know it sounds somewhat counterintuitive, but if your primary checklist has stuff like tall, good-looking, athletic, smart, ambitious, successful, funny, businessman, lawyer, rich, etc., you are basically assembling a cocktail of personal misery mixed with a twist of heartache. Men with those dominant qualities will cheat on you the second you become boring and/or predictable. Here’s the truth — on the surface, true romance and genuine life partnership is rather unimpressive and sedate and more closely resembles the stillness of the American Gothic portrait rather than the vibrant flirtatious noise of a Michael Bublé music video. It’s time to stop being seductively misguided by all the bling and start focusing on the true love and happiness thing. Yes, I meant that to rhyme.
So let’s cut to the chase — get yourself a serious case of VGD. That’s right, a “Video Game Dude” (not some sort of funky medical condition). Cast your net in this pond and you’ll get what you’ve secretly been looking for since the day you first swiped an Oxy pad across your forehead. A VGD, you say? But aren’t they mostly pale, skinny chaps who live at home with moms and drink Grape Crush? Yes, but do not be alarmed. This is just the primary screening tool. Limit the pool to VGDs first, and then you can start sifting for your own personal gold. But why a VGD instead of the prototypical GQ? The answer is simple — Video Game Dudes have spent a life enveloped in a cocoon of social isolation and electronic fantasy, too scared and intimidated to explore and engage the human world. Find a way to connect with a VGD and he will gift you with eternal loyalty and forever worship you even when you mature into a raisin. One word of caution, however: Like any seabird just emerging from the trauma of an oil spill, a VGD may not exactly be impressive to the eye. But do not fret. They will do whatever you say. Style him and ask him to work out. He will not protest. In fact, give him a smile and a moist peck on his cheek and he’ll dive into a nest of hissing cobras without pause just because he loves you (eternally). So where do you find this VGD? Simple. Just go to your local Best Buy and troll around the gaming section. He’ll be that guy busy playing the new hot game at the demo kiosk. Like him? Good. Want to snare him? Be careful. These VGDs are delicate. They know that you’re there and are easily startled. Do not engage a VGD at a gaming kiosk in your traditional girly way. It’ll scare him and cause him to cry and run home to mom. Instead, waltz up to the kiosk, grab the vacant game controller and join in the second his avatar dies. Do not look him in the eye. Just casually say in a slightly commanding register, “Can I play?” He will not say no. Once he lays witness to your impressive gaming ability, even letting out a giggle or two in glee, he’ll strike up a conversation with you and look you in the eye. If that happens, congratulations, your mission is accomplished. The VGD is yours for life, just like when a Na’vi bonds its halu with the banshee for the very first time (that’s an Avatar reference, btw). So go forth now, young butterfly. Go snare yourself a VGD and embrace a life of infinite happiness and eternal love. If you require my further romantic assistance, please feel free to find me at YouOffendMeYouOffendMyFamily.com. Just know, I too was once a VGD …
Knowing that Roger was once a VGD gives me great hope because he’s something of an industrial-strength chick magnet and I’m something of a full-power geek. And so it pains me that it’s my duty to provide a counterargument to his proposal, which left alone could convince some of his hot actress friends to go out with me, finally. But I’m a writer first and a lover second (but only because I was told to keep my day job). Truth is, and you’ll likely be really shocked by this, but we VGDs are not the incredible catches Roger makes us out to be.
Going after a VGD, especially by adopting his world, is a tremendous undertaking and one not to be taken lightly. Jumping in half-assed will result in that cheek getting slapped hard. You see, hot female celebrities recently figured out that playing video games or spouting sci-fi/fantasy trivia was a surefire way to access nerds and geeks, the undiscovered country for rapidly increasing fan base. G4’s Olivia Munn’s entire career is based on this simple tip. I’ll admit that even I googled the crap out of her. But now, every actress or model is trying to be geek chic, and it’s transparent and frankly a turn-off to VGDs everywhere. You will likely be called out on your facade by the denizens of the Web, kind of like how people post photos of bad plastic surgery, but more mortifying. Nobody likes a poser, unless said poser is totally into showing her boobs, in which case she can pose all she wants.
If you take Roger’s advice and truly begin training in video games, there are some physical changes you should come to expect. One, your neck will begin to stretch forward like a chicken as you attempt to focus on the TV screen. Two, you will find yourself involuntarily veering your body left and right as you control your game characters. Three, you will develop odd muscles around your fingers. Finally, you will find your mouth agape on a regular basis; I’d watch for stray insects and pools of collecting drool inside.
Now, if you actually happen to try video games and decide that you like it, I need to include some warnings about dating VGDs, as is my duty for the term of this column. While I simply adore girls that sincerely love video games, I have to say that dating a VGD isn’t as rosy as Roger would lead you to believe. Even as you play together, you should know that video games will be a direct competitor for your attention. A romantic dinner with the bird or playing 20 solid hours of the newly released “Final Fantasy XIII”? Oh, that’s a toughie. VGDs won’t cheat on you with another woman, but we will certainly cheat on you with a game. I’ve been known to sneak out of bed to squeeze in some extra game time. That’s the reason why we VGDs so closely studied Ross’ “hug & roll” technique on Friends.
When I played “Warcraft,” it was all my friends and I talked about during dinner. Now that I don’t mess with that crack, I realize it’s as fun to talk about as calculus. For the newly initiated, general video game talk will have the same effect. It will also likely reduce your libido in the same way anti-depressants work. Of course, once you’re fully converted, you’ll be unable to have normal conversations with non-gamers. You’ll even begin to interject gamer-speak, which is confusing. See how your co-workers react when you say you’re going to “pwn” the competition or if you exclaim “w00t” at the end of a meeting. Of course, the VGDs in your office will probably give you a fist bump and/or flowers.
If, after reading all this and ruling out lesbianism, you’re still interested, by all means seek me and my fellow VGDs out at the local Best Buy, preferably on Tuesdays when all the new stuff is out. We promise a hot evening of a Yelp-approved restaurant, a Twitpic on Twitter as proof of our date, engaging conversation on topics like why Princess Peach from Super Mario Bros. is a bitch, and a guaranteed “Like” on anything you do on Facebook henceforth. We may even go buckwild and hold your hand. It will be magical. Won’t you come and be my Player Two?
One Hot Mama: Jaden Hair is steaming up the kitchen and the airwaves with her one-woman Asian food empire.
ISSUE: Spring 2010
STORY: Jimmy Lee
Like her mother, Jaden Hair is making friends through food. Except the community that Jaden has fostered around her blog, Steamykitchen.com, far outnumbers the social network her mom built for herself in North Platte, Neb., even though she didn’t speak English. After the family immigrated to the heartland from Hong Kong when Jaden was 4, her mom communicated through cooking. “She would teach her neighbors how to make fried rice,” says Jaden, “and they would teach her how to make apple pie.”
Now a 21st-century version of the American dream is coming to fruit for the 37-year-old wife and mother of two: more than 34,000 Twitter followers; a new cookbook with the namesake of her blog; a column for the Tampa Tribune and Discovery’s TLC cable network; appearances on the morning shows of CBS and NBC; and No. 6 in the top 10 “Hottest Women in the Food Industry,” as chosen by the website Slash Food.
Jaden, a self-taught cook, has tempted and won over thousands with the Chinese dishes of her childhood, as well as other Asian cuisine and a growing number of recipes from other parts of the world. “She makes everything simple. It’s not too hard or intimidating,” says Manouschka Guerrier, a fan who happened to shop in the Los Angeles Sur La Table store where Jaden was holding a cooking demonstration last November. “And she’s funny.”
Behind the bubbly personality is a fiercely driven entrepreneur with a steadily expanding enterprise. “After the blog became popular, I just said, ‘I’m going to make this a business because this is really fun. I’m going to write a business plan around Steamy Kitchen, and be smart about how to do things because this isn’t a hobby anymore,’” says Jaden.
Yet it all might not have come to be if she hadn’t chosen to move her family from San Francisco to Bradenton, Fla., in 2002 and ended up in a local restaurant, in which she overheard a woman say: “I’m having sushi at the Chinese restaurant.”
“I flipped,” recalls Jaden. “Man, this sucks. So my husband said, ‘Do something about it.’” So she offered to teach classes at a local cooking school for free, with subjects such as the difference between Japanese and Chinese food. It’s been all uphill since then.
Audrey Magazine: How did the blog start?
Jaden Hair: I started writing my recipes on 3-by-5 cards, but I would lose them. Then I would start typing my recipes in my computer, but then my hard drive would crash. So there’s got to be a better way, and the better way was a blog. I started reading other people’s blogs, and they came to my blog, and that’s how I started to become part of the community. That’s when things started really happening.
AM: You didn’t have any problems transitioning to writing about food?
JH: The part I really had to work on was measuring and being precise, because I’m not a precise person. I’m a little chaotic; that’s how my husband calls it. I call it bursts of brilliance [laughs].
AM: I assume the Chinese recipes you get from your mother don’t have precise measurements. How do you communicate to get the recipes?
JH: I don’t speak Chinese and she still doesn’t speak much English, but we communicate about food. It’s always about sharing recipes. A lot of the baking stuff she learned from her friends, [like] banana bread and apple pie, you do have to use measurements. But it’s hard for her to measure. [My mom would say,] “Oh just put some soy sauce in.” “How much?” “Just some.” So I have to figure out her recipes sometimes, and I’ll re-interpret them differently, and make them my own, with exact measurements.
AM: Were there any “That’s not how I do my recipe!” reactions then?
JH: She did. She goes, “I don’t make my egg rolls with pork, I make it with chicken!” And I’m just like, “You said meat! You said meat!”
AM: The criticisms still find a way to come out.
JH: Of course, it’s the Asian mom. But now she gets what I do. It has brought us a lot closer together. Now she goes to the bookstore, and she’s like, “That’s my daughter.” And I walked into a bookstore with her and we saw the book together, and that was like the ultimate, ultimate moment.
“To this day, I don’t feel our band really arrived yet. Once I feel that way, you know, I won’t work as hard. In my head, it’s always a struggle, and it’s staying hungry to write better songs. It’s not to downplay what we’ve accomplished so far, because I’m proud, but I want to keep that attitude.” — Richard On, O.A.R.
ISSUE: Spring 2010
DEPT: Feature Story
STORY: Paul Nakayama
This interview started unlike any other. It began with a dinner date in Culver City, Calif., with an attractive woman, Sueann. As we strolled through downtown, the night was humming with the possibilities of romance, and as she turned to face me, I expected the evening to take a certain turn.
“So …” she began.
I took in a deep breath. “Yes?” I asked, my eyes twinkling with tears of joy, a sure sign of my anticipation.
“There’s someone I think you should really meet. I think you’ll really get along,” she said.
My heart sank. I kicked a trashcan. Maybe an innocent bystander, too.
A week later I received a call from Sueann. She said there was someone else on the line. A voice much deeper than I was expecting to hear followed: “Hey, this is Richard On.”
Christ, I thought, she thinks I’m gay. She is setting me up with a dude. But, sensing my neuroticism, she explained, “Richard is the lead guitarist for the band O.A.R. We talked about doing an interview.”
I’d heard of O.A.R. before; an ex had used one of their songs on a mixtape. I sat down to Google a little pre-interview research and was blown away by what I learned. Close to two million albums sold, a number of chart-topping singles and an enormous cult-like fan base. Yet, they’ve remained mostly off mainstream radar and much of their success is without a major record label (by choice). I thought, I need to know their secret to success.
I listened to O.A.R.’s 2008 album All Sides, and watched a number of their online videos. Their sound is definitively mainstream and catchy, despite their indie mentality, and combines pop-rock with hints of light reggae. I found myself, hours later, singing their hit single, “Shattered,” in the shower and again in the car. I’d developed a man-crush on the Chinese American guitarist/songwriter Richard On. We traded tweets for a week and finally decided on an interview date.
O.A.R. and Richard’s musical career both began in the 1990s at an eighth-grade talent show alongside bandmates Marc Roberge and Chris Culos. They formed under the name Exposed Youth — a name that raises my eyebrows. A laugh escapes me, and Richard interjects, “Let me explain. You know, before you think we were …”
“Naked?” I ask, still snickering like the mature 30-something that I am.
“Or really young pedophiles,” he jokes. “This was around the grunge era with Pearl Jam and Nirvana coming out. That was a big changing point for a lot of kids our age, and you felt like a part of that movement … you know, like parents just don’t understand and like we were these oppressed kids, so we thought the name sort of fit. Of course, we grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. so we probably faked we were more miserable than we really were.”
While on the topic, we talk about his other musical influences: The Cure for understanding pop melodies, Bob Marley for the feeling and the groove, and U2 simply for their songs. “The Edge is probably my favorite guitarist because despite how simple his parts are they speak so loudly. And I’ve never been a shredder myself,” he admits. I feel compelled to offer my own, but there’s no place for Olivia Newton-John in this conversation. At least, not yet.
In 1996, their junior year of high school, O.A.R. recruited Benj Gershman, their bassist, and recorded their first album for $500 using Benj’s father’s credit card. The Wanderer went on to sell 300,000 copies without the help of a record label, an incredible feat. Richard says, “It’s really hard for me to listen [to it] because I was a really horrible guitar player back then, but there’s something about the innocence of making that record that caught people’s attention.” It’s not surprising that Richard’s favorite song to perform to this day, “That Crazy Game of Poker,” comes from this album. “The album version was nine minutes long because we didn’t know anything about songwriting back then, and we were just freestyling, but people really responded to it. We play it at every show and it’s really grown since. It’s the song I always look forward to playing.” I can’t help but wonder if this song is a metaphor for the band itself and its evolution through the years.
But like any path in life that you’re passionate about, everyone reaches a crossroad. For me it was a hard decision to give up “Dungeons & Dragons” and my life as a Dungeon Master upon getting accepted into a university; I wanted sex and not with girls into elf cosplay. Richard had real things to consider as his bandmates were deciding between attending Ohio State and the University of Texas, the two largest schools in the country, and in their minds, the two biggest venues for their blossoming musical career.
The band was determined to stay together, but Richard also wanted to be realistic. When Marc, Chris and Benj left for Ohio State, he didn’t immediately follow. Instead, he took classes at a local junior college, taking some time to figure things out and “getting into typical punk Asian kid trouble.” Eventually, his bandmates convinced him that Ohio State was an amazing opportunity, and he transferred there to focus on the band. That’s also when they recruited their fifth and final member, saxophonist and Ohio native Jerry DePizzo. “That’s a pretty lofty goal — choosing a school just because you wanna play music for all those people there,” Richard reflects. “Not to sound dramatic, but I really don’t know what I’d be doing without [the band]. The band really took me to a good place and made me feel like I matter.”
The crazy thing is I believe him. Having the same “co-workers” for more than 15 years is hard to imagine for someone like me; I’ve probably switched companies every two years for the last 10. The fact that his bandmates are some of his best friends doesn’t make it easier for me to comprehend; it’s harder to grasp. I’ve had screaming matches with friends over the last roll of toilet paper, so there’s a long pause on my end while I process all this.
I think Richard senses my struggle with the concept that mixing friendship with business could work. I ask him, bluntly. He admits there was a rough patch in the early days. “We were guys with our own ideas and agendas, but once we knew we had to be a team, it was simple. We’re all on the same team, and it isn’t every man for himself or an ego thing. We need each other. And once we realized that, our roles within the band fell into place.”
Their approach to songwriting is similarly honest, direct and mature. “Early on, all of us would just sit around in a room,” Richard explains. “As we got older, we all live in different cities now, and we all have our individual ideas and opinions. So the band is run like a democracy. We vote on everything. Even if you feel really strongly about something, but you’re outvoted, that’s it. Each of us will make our own demos and share with the group. And, if it’s good, it’s good, and if it sucks, it sucks. When we first started, we weren’t being honest with each other, and so the band suffered and the music suffered.”
Meanwhile, I’m taking notes. This is really good life lesson stuff. If I had applied this whole democracy notion to my own Movie Club and our film picks, we probably would’ve been spared the travesty that was G.I. Joe. It definitely sucked, and I definitely suffered.
The band’s hard work and commitment to their craft certainly paid off. O.A.R. has sold more than 1.7 million albums and performed for more than 1.5 million people. They’ve sold out shows at Madison Square Garden numerous times. I ask if that’s when they felt like they’d arrived as a band. Richard is modest in his response. “To this day, I don’t feel our band really arrived yet,” he says. “Once I feel that way, you know, I won’t work as hard. In my head, it’s always a struggle, and it’s staying hungry to write better songs. It’s not to downplay what we’ve accomplished so far, because I’m proud, but I want to keep that attitude.”
But if there was a defining moment for O.A.R. to look back on, it would have to be the first time playing at a 1,700-capacity venue in Columbus, Ohio, called the Newport Music Hall, where all the big bands play. “We always told ourselves that one day we’re gonna play that joint,” Richard remembers. That day arrived when they were invited to be the opening act at a CD release party for a popular local band. Richard’s expectations were low since their set was set to begin at 3 p.m., and there was virtually no marketing set aside for them. “You never really know how you’re doing as a band, but when we got there, the place was packed. It was all word-of-mouth. We assumed the crowd was for the other bands, but as soon as we finished our set, everyone just split. That was a big wake-up call for us that something special was going on.”
O.A.R.’s manager and Marc’s brother, Dave Roberge, agrees that there was something special and recalls a conversation following the band’s graduation from Ohio State. The band wondered if they should pursue their careers or if they should pursue the band. “I told them it wasn’t their choice or my choice to make. The fans had already decided,” remembers Dave. “‘Look at the numbers,’ I said. ‘People don’t want you to just go away.’ That year a lot of music industry guys thought we would fall on our faces, that we were a college band, but we sold 98 percent of our tour tickets.”
Even with their popularity, I ask if there were any challenges as an Asian American musician. Richard grew up in a predominantly Jewish and Asian community. Describing his multiethnic band sounds like the setup to a joke. (“Three Jews, an Italian and a Chinese guy walk into a bar …”) So, it wasn’t until he ventured to the Midwest to attend Ohio State — then not the most diverse campus — that he first encountered culture shock. “I definitely experienced some nasty things out there, but I think part of it came from mutual ignorance,” Richard recalls. “I was being dumb and complaining that there weren’t any Asians instead of focusing on why I was there. I did hear my fair share of slurs that left a bad taste in my mouth, but in the end that kind of spurred me to change people’s thought processes rather than fight it.” O.A.R.’s music was a big equalizer in this regard. He adds, “People were definitely surprised when they found out I was Chinese, that I wasn’t a Caucasian rocker. But I like that surprise. Music is color blind.”
We take a short break as Richard has an unexpected visitor at his door, a young girl from the neighborhood offering a dog-walking service. “Do you own a dog, sir?” she asks.
“No, but I want one. Do you sell dogs, too?” he replies with a chuckle. I can practically hear her rolling her eyes. It’s cute. Richard’s real cool with her.
It’s funny because Dave and the others occasionally refer to Richard as the Stone Buddha because of his stern exterior and Zen-like calm. “He’s the rock, but if you peel back the layers, you’ll see that Richard is the most fun-loving, humorous, tongue-in-cheek guy, and he tends to bring that out in the rest of the guys. He brings style to the group,” says Dave.
Listening to Richard chatting with the girl affirms the band’s reputation as down-to-earth and humble. O.A.R. is popular among music fans because of a long history of hands-on dialogue with their fan base. Since the beginning, Richard and the rest of the band made the effort to respond to emails and message boards from fans. When social networking took off, they embraced it. Personally, I’d be terrified of disturbed stalkers tracking me down, wanting to smell my socks and such, but I applaud their dedicated and open adoption of Myspace, Facebook and Twitter. They even ran an interactive Twitter campaign asking fans to collaborate with them on the lyrics to a new song for their next album. The resulting song, “Light Switch Sky,” is probably the only song created from fan submissions and is likely the first professional song born purely from tweets.
When Richard returns, I ask what they do for fun. He admits to being a workaholic, even sneaking in songwriting and emails while watching TV with his wife. How Asian of him, I joke. After some prodding, he reveals an unspoken but time-honored tradition of bands pranking each other on the last stop of a concert tour. “There are classics like the ol’ baby powder on the snare drum so a giant cloud goes up with the first beat. We put so much on that we’ve had drummers cough and fall off their seats. Taping down keyboards so a single key makes all the keys go down with an awful sound. Easy wins like vodka in water bottles,” says Richard, as we’re both laughing. “We pranked our buddy Robert Randolph once during a song where he likes to bring up girls from the audience. But instead of hot chicks, we sent our grungy, bad-ass crew up in tutus and shirts off, smelly and hairy, doing ballet steps and freaking him.”
We end the interview on that high note. A few days later, as I’m reviewing the interview tapes, I’m still chuckling over the jokes (some of which I regrettably can’t publish). My man-crush hasn’t waned. It’s not a starstruck kind of man-crush, but rather admiration for a cool guy who just happens to be a talented rockstar. O.A.R. just released their four-disc live CD, Rain or Shine, and will be in Los Angeles in March to record their new album. I’m planning on giving Sueann a call around then, see if she wants to go out again … she can chaperone my man-date with Richard.