Zìjǐ Xiězuò (自己寫作) I Write for Myself: Ugly Chang

ORIGINAL CONTENT – HARRY POTTER BOOK SERIES SPOILERS (So if haven’t finished the series come back when you’re done)

Unexpectedly, I was on a 3-hour layover in Chicago and I was simply looking for something to pass the time. This was the days before smartphones and free Wi-Fi. I saw a huge display in the airport bookshop of the Harry Potter series. Apparently the first two books were 20% off in anticipation of the release of the third book. I had heard so much hoopla that I thought, why not – I have nothing to do for the next three hours anyway so might as well see what all the fuss was about. So I purchased both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

This was the beginning of my descent into the magical world of all things Harry Potter, Hogwarts, and Sorting Hat. I loved the books, the story, the mystery wrapped in magic, family, and friends. JK Rowling is a maestro, effortlessly and elegantly guiding us readers into a fictional world which we collectively want to will into reality. She arranges her words with such cadence that lures me to read on, ‘one more chapter,’ I would say to myself. ‘A few more pages,’ I would promise myself. ‘Another paragraph or two,’ I would continue to negotiate with myself. And before I knew it, it was 0230 and I had to get the boys ready for school in 4 hours. It was an escape from being the mom, the wife, and the household CEO. It was as if I was invited to temporarily indulge in the lives of these characters which I just could not abandon in their hour of need. Rowling is a true artistic master of the written word and with such regards, established an air of perfection – whether true or not.

On September 8, 1999, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was released in the United States. I forego to lines of Harry Potter fanatics and waited until after work to pick up my copy. Despite many not particularly fond of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it was my personal favorite. I intensely identified with Harry with his longing for family and against all odds, crossed paths with Sirius Black – his feared champion against a cruel world. Perhaps I was even a bit envious of Harry as I had to grow up being my own champion.

The third book in the series was also the introduction of the one and only Chinese character, Cho Chang. Cho was introduced during the Ravenclaw verses Griffindor Quidditch match.

“The Ravenclaw team, dressed in blue, were already standing in the middle of the field. Their Seeker, Cho Chang, was the only girl on their team. She was shorter than Harry by about a head, and Harry couldn’t help noticing, nervous as he was, that she was extremely pretty. She smiled at Harry as the teams faced each other behind their captains, and he felt a slight lurch in the region of his stomach that he didn’t think had anything to do with nerves.”

JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I remember how excited I was that a Chinese character was going to be a part of this world. Cho was the perfect combination of intelligence, athletic, and pretty. If I had a bone to pick, I would say her name had always bothered me. Although Cho was described as “extremely pretty” her name disappointedly failed to reflect that. For many years I wasn’t sure if Rowling was being clever or just ironic, ironic in terms like nicknaming Hagrid ‘Tiny’ or Gregory Goyle ‘Einstein.’

The name “Cho” to a native Chinese (Mandarin) speaker can be interpreted to two very common words and neither are flattering. The first is “Chǒu” (醜) with the “ǒ” in the third tone, meaning “ugly” as in Ugly Chang. The second is “Chòu” (臭) with the “ò” in the fourth tone, meaning “smelly” as in Smelly Chang. I had considered that perhaps Rowling was confused and had intended for “Cho” to be the last name, as traditional East-Asian names often are arranged with the last name first and the first name last. So if Westernized, it would be Chang Cho – Change being the first name and Cho being the last name. However, that is not what Rowling had written or how Cho Chang was introduced. Granted, Google didn’t launch until 1998, but I can’t imagine that any amount of research would have avoided such a peculiar choice.

Perhaps Cho could have been Zhūbǎo (珠寶) Chang. Zhūbǎo (珠寶) is a rather common girls’ name meaning “jewels” as in the child is the parents’ precious jewel, which is a lovely sentiment. Or better yet, perhaps Cho could have been Měilì (美麗) Chang. Měilì (美麗) is also a very common girls’ name literally meaning “beautiful” and easily Westernized to “May Lee” or “May Li.” Perhaps those were too common or too ordinary or even boring. However, the main character’s name is “Harry” which was ranked 30th most popular boys’ name in 1994 and had never fallen out of top 50.

So if commonality is not the concern then I can’t help but wonder why Rowling felt compelled to emphasize a Chinese character in such a manner. Names likes Emily Chang, or Sarah Chang, or Olivia Chang seem not to be quite Chinese enough. It certainly seem to be a misguided notion that Chinese characters have-to-have a traditional Chinese name in order to be Chinese enough. It all seems a bit thoughtless. It also leads me to speculate whether Rowling have any Chinese friends or acquaintance or even someone at the Chinese take-out to bounce names off of before going with “Cho.”

Zìjǐ Xiězuò (自己寫作) I Write for Myself: Girls’ Trip Complicated

ORIGINAL CONTENT

Anyone who knows me know three things about me – #1- I love Harry Potter, #2- I have embraced being fun sized, and #3- if I had to declare a role model, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be it.

So when the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland, Ohio announced that there would be a Notorious RBG exhibit, almost immediately I texted M to make a girls’ trip out of it. She secured a lovely Airbnb, our exhibit tickets purchased, and we had a tentative agenda for two-days of food indulgence and good conversations.

However, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but to be burdened with safety concerns. Being of Mongolian-Chinese descent, in the year 2021, I had thought being verbally and physically bullied were just bad memories growing up in Flushing, New York. Never would have I dreamt such concerns would arise again in such ferocity. But sadly, I was wrong.

The previous administration routinely engaged in inflammatory language to rile up their cult following while stroking their own egos and disregarded the consequences. It does not take much for any minority group to be the scapegoated, much less being called out in the midst of a world-wide pandemic. A Korean GOP candidate recently joined in the tirade singling out Chinese immigrants hoping to endear herself to the cult members. She brazenly made incendiary statements followed with a pompous declaration that she was entitled to say such things because she was Korean. However, what she fails to understand, is that it makes no difference if one is Korean or Chinese or Japanese because to some, we are all chinks & gooks and all should go back to China, although many of us has never been.

After serving 11-years in the United States Army, I feel like I have earned the right to feeling safe in my own country. I shouldn’t have to warn my elderly mother to only leave her house if it was on fire. And a perfectly simple girls’ trip shouldn’t be complicated with strategies of how to minimize my Chinese-ness so that I am not targeted.

I use to ponder when I will be American enough. But now I understand it was never about assimilating in order to be American. No. It always has been about how to minimize my foreignness.

Zìjǐ Xiězuò (自己寫作) I Write for Myself: Just Write

ORIGINAL CONTENT

Stories swirls about my brain like an annoying nag. So many had come to me but I ignorantly denied the compulsion to give them life. ‘I’ll get to it later,’ I’d reassure myself. The words gradually visited less and less often often, forcing to annotate the fleeting sparks of creativity at its’ convenience rather than mine. To my disappointment, I have not made much in the way of progress in finishing my book since obtaining my MA. As a matter of fact, for all my plans of grandeur, I have not even had the motivation to submit the publishable essays to editors to be considered to be published.

My line of thinking was that I didn’t want to piece-meal my best work by publishing them prior to my book being ready. My reservation was that I didn’t want to write new book-worthy essays and have them disqualified to be published because they were previously published on my blog. My fear was that I couldn’t present the perfect, publishable essay in every blog post, hence ruining any chances of book agents, editors, or anyone in the publishing world to see me as a worthy undiscovered author. My strategy was to segregate book-worthy essays, from blog-worthy essays, and to only post the most perfect essay that will go viral & effortlessly lead to being a published author. However, what resulted in all my extravagant planning and strategy was being too overwhelmed to write at all. The very idea of reserving one set of writing for this and other writing for that caused me to forego writing all together.

Until one of my best friends in the world inspired me to do something different. I seem to have an odd talent in making friends with those younger than myself … sometimes by decades. This persistent phenomena perhaps is an attestation to the maturity of all the wonderful brilliant women I call my best friends, or its an attestation to my own lack of maturity … who really knows. Nevertheless, my best friend M is probably the most ambitious person I know. To witness such conscious, proactive, and strategic effort in self-advocacy in a male-dominated industry was awe-inspiring.

So much so that it forced me to re-evaluate my ultimate goal(s) as a writer. Do I need the validation of having a published book in order for me to be a writer? Do I want to write because I feel like I have worthwhile stories to share or do I only write with the aspiration of being published? What is my definition of a successful writer?

That is when the concept of Zìjǐ Xiězuò (自己寫作) (roughly translated to I Write for Myself) came into fruition. At a bare minimum I have to actually write to be any resemblance of a writer. And in order for me to write, I have to let go my personal mandate that being published is the only worthy reason to tell my stories. I cannot continue to create an infinite amount of hoops for myself to jump through in order to start writing. So here I am. Writing. First time in years. Feels rather good.