“Define who you are and what you are, and be clear on that. Meditate on that and then, live and die by that…”
— Nipsey Hussle
I cried for Nipsey the other day, having finally listened to the Victory Lap album.
I was mesmerized by his voice and saddened that I will never hear it again outside of this capacity — in songs and interviews.
And I was reminded of the deaths of my favorite rappers, having grown up in the ’90s, exposed from the jump to the rise of rap and hip-hop and subsequent fall of some of the pioneers that paved the way for MCs like Nip.
So I broke down listening to “Last Time I Checc’d” and wished I could’ve lent my ears to his message a little earlier, when he was still alive.
Sometimes days are better, sometimes days, it’s light.
I live these days because I have to – and we have to.
“Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
When “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival was first released in April 1969, the United States – as it was and seemingly always will be – in full disarray. Civil rights, racism, war, anxiety, assassinations, and an ever-present threat of death pervasive at family doors.
A quick listen of the song today — it reveals that despite nearly 50 years of time passed, the lyrics remain as poignant as ever.
I feel a great sense of connection to these lyrics and to those who listened to them and loved them throughout the years.
“I don’t think I was actually saying the world was coming to an end, but the song was a metaphor. I wasn’t just writing about the weather.”
When I listen to “Bad Moon Rising” today, I feel my anxiety heightening because of its lyrics, and knowing that an entirely different generation of Americans have gone through a similar tumult that I’ve endured these past four years.
And my takeway after a couple of repeat listens is that life persists despite of it all.
Then I eventually come down and think about this pandemic, the racial divide being wider than it has ever been, the election so vital and crucial to our immediate future, climate change, and wonder if death is in my room, and maybe, it’s already holding my hand.
There was one day, one era, in the past where anyone who looked like me was considered to be alien, wrong, and unwelcome.
There are times today when this sentiment seems as raw as it was during that day and era, and there are feelings that perhaps nothing has changed at all.
I think, if anything, this year’s Filipino American History Month should be a reminder that, more than ever, there is an urgent call to deliver a stake into the ground to let others know that we — Filipinos and peoples of color — are here to stay and that — in no time — we’re here to take over.
One way to do that is to create art, to tell stories, to reconstruct our identities, and push the boundaries of what’s expected. For me, it’s about writing fiction.
I look at Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen who, as an Asian American, became one of the most revered writers of our time. There are times when I feel like I can be like him, that I can pull off the work, get published, win prizes, and find an audience who will find my writing to be pleasurable. Then there are times when I just feel like quitting and feel like my writing is complete and total shit.
But as I think about what this month brings to Filipino-Americans and all peoples of color, I simply cannot let the idea of quitting take over because there is an obligation, that urgent call, that forces me to think beyond what I can or cannot do, that there are generations beyond mine and yours that will one day look back, as I look back now, at this time and wonder – can I do what they can do?
I’ve been imagining and dreaming of becoming a fiction writer since I was a teenager, having written plenty of works in progress but never anything to completion, and it’s really only been two years since I’ve started writing fiction in earnest. There have been many times where I feel broken and feel like a failure, and there are times when I see writers of color like Mr. Nguyen and say, yes, it’s definitely possible.
“The constant reworking of sentence and narrative through writing short stories was my version of rubbing two sticks together. Suddenly, at a decade’s culmination, the fire started, and I could write with greater conviction and concentration than I had thought possible.”
“The scale of the audience bears no testimony to the worth of the work.”
I relate to Mr. Nguyen because of the color of his skin, and I want to be on his level of writing one day. And with the context of this month and with the urgent call constantly ringing in my head, I don’t see why I cannot be like him one day.
And that what’s important is not who’s reading my work but it’s whether or not my work is valuable to me because if it doesn’t sting or hurt, make me cry or laugh, make me want to jump or crawl under the bed, then what’s the point? It’s called “life’s work” for a reason – it’s work that’s most important to me.
Filipino American History Month is a celebration of what we’ve done in the past, but it also is a reminder that we should never stop chasing what’s most important to us — for the next generation’s sake and for those who sacrificed so much in generations past.
My mother had told me: “Read the newspaper. You’ll be smarter.”
And so I did, and so becoming, I fell in love with words, sentences, bold type, small type, bylines, and stories.
So when I first moved out of my parents’ house, the summer after I graduated high school, one of the few bills I paid every month was my subscription to “The Press Telegram.”
I remember how proud I felt writing that monthly check and mailing it to the subscription department, adulting like a motherfucker.
Then every morning I’d see that folded up paper on the front door of my $350 per month studio apartment right next to the Green Leaf Motel in downtown Long Beach, and I’d take out the sports section and check the boxscores.
Eventually, my love for the medium drifted away and my need to get informed was satiated by many other outlets.
And up until this day, I had subscribed to nothing.
I don’t want to forget — ever again — why words matter to me so much.
In one bit on Dave’s Chappelle’s groundbreaking For What It’s Worth comedy special, he reminds us, right before he breaks into his famous Ja Rule bit, that we should stop worshipping celebrities.
If I had the chance to go back in time and catch Dave writing that bit, I would’ve said, “Hol’ up. I’mma let you finish…”
You see, I’ve been worshipping Dave since his Comedy Central show for being hilarious, of course, he’s one of the best to ever do it, but also for always keeping it real when it comes to politics, society, race, and class. He somehow intertwines both like perfectly braided Manila rope, and each time he does it, I come out laughing my ass off while coming out smarter and more aware in the process.
“That is a very subtle psychological nuance of oppression to have a dictator on your money. Our money look like baseball cards with slave owners on them.”
It was a lonely and dark night in December of 2005 when I had broken up with my girlfriend, or rather she had broken up with me, an 8-year relationship done just like that — dead.
We had lived together for nearly as long and she kicked me out, gave me like a month to get out of the apartment, and the only thing I could find in that short amount of time was an apartment that was right across the street from ours her’s.
That’s right, I fucking decided to live right across the street from my ex, like a mad man, and for the first few weeks of my living alone, I was not only depressed, but I was also broke as fuck. I couldn’t afford shit, much less cable TV, much less the fucking internet — all I had was electricity, a TV, a DVD player, and one DVD — For What It’s Worth.
“It’s either you fuck monkeys or you fuck people. There’s no in between.”
— Dave Chappelle, For What It’s Worth
Until I had enough money to afford cable, I had Dave’s stand-up set from San Francisco to keep me entertained night after night. That was like a two-week-long binge of the same jokes, the same laughs, and the same Dave every night until pay day.
All the while, after each viewing, I grew less and less lonely, slowly forgetting about the woman across the street, and I began to appreciate myself again, I began to have hope again.
For two weeks, I had a friend in Dave, and so today, after realizing that my favorite comedian is getting recognized for an award named after one of my all-time favorite writers, I just wanted to tip my hat to him and thank him for being who he is, for sharing his thoughts, for sharing his life, shamelessly, without fear, and he definitely doesn’t know it, but he helped a lonely man out when he was drowning deep in the throes of the deepest of oceans.
Stand-up is a form of art, and if you hadn’t already known that, “The Opening Act” is proof evidence.
Written and directed by Steve Byrne, “The Opening Act” dives deep into what is often the driving force behind what makes a comic become a comic.
Will Chu (played by Jimmy O. Yang) is an insurance adjuster who moonlights as a comic — and as all types of moonlighting go, as in other art forms, like literature and painting, there will come the time when that moonlighter, or artist, enters a crossroads that forces the artist to choose between life in dedication to the art or just — life.
And so Will chooses and this is where we first begin to root for our hero, at the start of his journey as so many before him have done.
His antagonists are played by three other comics who are dealing with their own personal journeys:
Billy G, who is played by Cedric The Entertainer; Chris played by Alex Moffat; and a brief-yet-important appearance by the comic who plays Whitney Cummings. Each one haunts Will like Ghosts of Christmas Past as he endeavors on his first real challenge of his quest, and each moment he spends with these three comics, he is pushed into all types of directions, some inspiring, others dire.
And that’s the main keyword here that I took from the movie, a keyword that I have experienced each time I come to a blank page, having quit my own career to pursue the Letters, and that main keyword is “dire.”
Every art form worth its mettle, an ever-present Ghost of Dire stands in the corner of every room the artist sits in to serve as a reminder that if and when the art is disrespected, the scythe of failure will strike with the swiftness. There are levels to everything, and the Ghost of Dire doesn’t give a damn about your kids, your money issues, the pandemic. Always respect the art. And what looms over Will is his response to that: Will he disrespect the art form? Or come at it on both knees begging for any help?
There are also plenty of treats in this movie that is simply a must-watch. One is the huge treat getting to see Asian Americans in film. Jimmy O. Yang does an outstanding job in this movie. Steve Byrne is a great writer and director — he should be nominated for an Oscar in Screenwriting for this script and that’s not hyperbole, dead serious — and also dead serious about how Cedric The Entertainer owned every scene that he’s in. He should also get an Oscar.
Cedric embodied that darkness, that dire, and it was inspiring to watch — not gonna lie, the movie made me tear up just a little. Another treat is the messaging, which is key for the moment that we’re all in, that it’s never a good idea to quit, not in these moments, not in our lifetimes, and not in what we want to do.
“You in pain,” Billy G says to Will, “When we find that pain, got to learn to embrace it.”
Again — stand-up is an art form and every art form comes with levels and each level welcomes you with a more profound level of both enlightenment and pain — even in its last level, the ultimate demise — as pain and enlightenment is what I believe we will feel before we die, and it’s up to us while we’re still here to live through it, to get to know about that pain and enlightenment intimately so when the last one of them hits, we will be comfortable, we will welcome it, and then we can truly pass on.
It was January, 2016 when I realized that I was dying inside. Nothing medical, though had I continued on my path, I was sure to lose a part of myself that was critical to who I was, my identity, which never even had a chance to blossom — the part that wanted to be a novelist, a writer, an artist of words — and I would’ve surely degraded into some stranger, a foreigner to my own family, my wife, and to myself. I might as well have been dead.
“Identity is crucial in ideology and action — central to the problem of self-determination at any level.”
When I was 16 years old, I decided that I wanted to be a writer. Something in the words of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye pulled me in, something hypnotic about Holden Caulfield, something altogether magical — and not in the Mark David Chapman kind of way.
From Catcher to my studies in English at UC Riverside to graduation, writing remained a career goal but I then quickly realized that there was no money in writing, and as someone who grew up in near poverty, what I needed most at that time was a job that paid. So I promised myself that I needed to stack up some chips first before I pursue something so … broke. You see, at the time, I was tired of being broke.
And so I got a job as an editor for a car magazine, which led to a job as a content producer for a dot com, which ultimately led to multiple jobs in marketing and advertising, each one a major step up the corporate ladder, each one more lucrative than the other, and each one another pull away from that initial goal, like a strong magnet, a dark force, a bite from some zombie. I was losing my way. Some may have even called it a successful career, but to me, they were all just jobs. At each company, at every meeting, from business trips to business retreats, from a cubicle to an office, all I wanted to do was write.
And so January, 2016 came along and my firstborn had just turned six months old, and I remember whispering to him as I fed him his bottle, “You can do whatever you want to do when you grow up. You can even be the first Filipino-American President of the United States of America.”
And then I thought about what he would’ve said to me had he had the power of language, “Did you do what you wanted to do, dad?”
This imaginary question was like a mountain of bricks falling atop my head. I realized that I had no business telling my son to follow his dreams when I hadn’t even attempted to do the same.
I decided then to end what was killing me inside — another meeting, another conference call, another motherfucking business trip, another cubicle, another day at the ditch, digging and digging and digging.
I also took in account of that broke-ness that so drove me away from writing and of my status as a person of color in America, raising another person of color in America. Cliché alert: I really had nothing to lose and so much to gain. Being a person of color requires triple the work in the face of triple the hardship, and so I might as well do something about it now lest my child be in the same situation with no one to give him advice. And so I promised myself that my being broke will be temporary — and put in my notice.
I was also fortunate — because I know how difficult it is to make it in the writing game — that I have a wife who was is beyond supportive and understanding and willing to switch roles that society has set upon all of us, that I stay at home to raise our child (now two children) and she work and take home that bread.
It’s been four years since I decided to become a write-at-home dad, and nothing’s been easy. I need to cook, wash the dishes, shop for groceries, clean the house, fold the laundry, find ways to keep the kids busy other than sit them in front of the TV, manage my time, forego some sleep, enjoy my coffee breaks, take care of my health, and all of that and more before I can even put words onto paper.
But after 15 years in the office, multi-tasking in other ways with no positive results other than my salary, I’m glad I found the courage to let it all go for this — to make art with confidence, to be creative for my own purposes, and simply, to write. Times felt like they were ending for me in January, 2016, and times are certainly ending for many now (i.e., climate change, Iran, the continued genocide of black and brown men in America, etc.) so — on the real — there is no better time to do what you want to do than right now, at this very moment.
And if I’m lucky enough to have that imaginary discussion about following your dreams with my children when they’re a little bit older, that they can do whatever they want to do, I can actually back it up and show them the way.
And to those struggling with the same issues (work vs. passion) just know that you’re not alone.
My journey is not over, it really is still the beginning, but I don’t ever regret ending my marketing career jobs to pursue this, to be a full-time write-at-home dad.
In September, 2015, I was assigned to create content for the basketball category at Under Armour and found myself standing in front of several basketball courts from around the world.
I had grown up playing basketball at a young age, and it continues to be my favorite sport.
There’s just something serene about watching street ball, watching kids organize teams, assigning positions, keeping score, high-fiving each other, a stranger perhaps, a potential friend, and as I look at these photos of courts from Beijing to Manila, I feel blessed for the opportunity to witness the sport grow as much as it did.