A View into the Shrinking Box

I meant to post this back in May when it was Mental Health Awareness Month, but when May came around, I second-guessed myself and didn’t. After all, I don’t feel (as) depressed as when I wrote this piece in 2017. No one needs another sad story, right?

As time went on, it didn’t feel right to keep this unpublished. I think it’s one of the worst feelings to feel that you’re alone, whether you’re by yourself in your room or when you’re surrounded by people who technically care about you. For a while, I scoured the internet trying to find someone who felt or thought the way I did. But I never did. Either each of us has a different experience or others, like me, couldn’t figure out how to say it. And even once I figured out how to say it, I put off posting again and again.

Today marks the beginning of National Suicide Prevention Week. While I’ve never made any plans or taken action in that direction, suicide is something that I have wondered about. So I’m publishing this in the hopes that it can help someone in those darker moments to feel that they’re not alone, that there are others like them out there, and that they can and will get through those times to see the sunlight again.

Rainy Day
Inktober 2015. “Rainy Day.”

 

October 2011
An apartment within 5 minutes of Rice University
Houston, TX

I quietly shut the door behind me and hope that none of my suitemates are home. My room is big and bright, a box full of sunlight. I used to love it. This room used to be my haven. My collection of Pikachus smile in unison from the shelves. The big white bear, almost as tall as me and much rounder than me, sits propped against a cushion—the plush bear is a gift from my boyfriend for last year’s Valentine’s Day.

But I’ve just come from architecture studio. My throat is raw from screaming, my eyes encrusted with the salt of tears recently dried. My car, a 1994 gold Toyota Previa, passed down to all of my siblings and now to me, is my new haven. In the car with outdated upholstery, out by the stadium parking lot, I can cry and cry, and no one can hear me, no one will know how much I hate architecture. The only other time and place I can do that is in the showers at night, when the water pummels my skin and drowns out my cries.

All of a sudden, my room feels smaller, like a shrinking box. I can see every corner, every wall, every plank in the floor. I’m too aware of the door frame, that it must be about three feet wide, the hinges in the door, the handle of the door at a height perfect for gripping. There must be beams in the wall placed at every such length, held together by a certain number of nails. The height of the curb. The angle of the parking lot spaces. The height of each stair step. The height of the handrails.

I feel hemmed in. I have to escape. I have to break this box.

I lie down on my bed and close my eyes. After a while, the panic recedes. I open my eyes, and the flickering numbers, instead of filling my vision, now hover at the periphery. I go into the bathroom, a dark cave with a single bulb over the sink. I avoid looking at my reflection. I don’t want to see my swollen eyelids, the telltale red of a too-hard cry. As I stare down the drain, I wonder if it would hurt to cut my wrists and let it bleed, like they always show in movies.

I mentally snap out of it. My life is not that bad. I have a roof over my head, food in my belly, family, friends, a boyfriend.

But I’m a little afraid of myself. I can’t believe a thought like that would ever populate inside my head. Suicide? Me, the happy, laugh-until-my-cheeks-hurt kind of gal? I can’t remember the last time I laughed freely. Since starting college, I haven’t felt comfortable enough with anyone to do that. Standing in the darkness, I feel alone because no one knows what I go through every day that I have architecture studio—Monday, Wednesday, Friday. I live for the in-between days—Tuesday, Thursday, the weekends. One day, architecture will be Monday through Friday, and I will have to drag myself through five days to live for two.

It’s a future I can’t bear. I should be working on my architecture project, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I spend hours looking at websites for schools such as School of Visual Arts or Savannah College of Art and Design, dreaming for what could have been, what could be still.

The next morning, I wake up. I feel better, relieved, excited even. I’ve decided. I’m quitting architecture. I’m doing what I should have done from the start. I’m pursuing art, full-time. I don’t care what anybody else says. I’m going to be happy. I’m going to do what I want. I’m going to live for every single day of the week.

*

I’ve struggled a lot with how to write about my experience with depression. It’s not easy when the reasons can be so complicated. One thing leads to another. New reasons rise up. Old ones leave or morph or return in cyclical fashion. I get lost in a network of crisscrossing thoughts and lose track of what I really want to say. That’s how it feels every time I sit down to write about depression.

So I end up throwing away everything I’ve written and wait for the moment I figure out the secret. Other times I think about giving up the idea altogether. No one needs to know my personal story. But again and again, I come back to it. As I read friends’ posts or articles that a stranger wrote about their experience with depression, I feel compelled to share mine because depression has so many facets. It can be short, bitter bursts or long and drawn-out for days, weeks, months, years. What works for one person won’t work for another. So far none of the anecdotes that I’ve read has worked for me. I am one of billions of people on this planet. I cannot be the only one to feel that way. It’s a lonely battle, one that only you can fight for yourself, and it’s a much easier to battle knowing that you are not the only one struggling to be free, or normal, or happy, or simply content.

To be content. That is a state of mind that I think people heavily underrate. People are too busy searching for the next novel experience or pursuing their so-called ambitions when maybe the life that they want is already there, in motion, every day. It’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned since working at Whole Foods Market. It’s imperfect, fast-paced, slapdash at times, but it’s also more intimate, more real, more supportive than the gleaming corporate ladder. Some might call it settling. I call it being appreciative.

I’ll appreciate any day that I’m not in the grips of spiraling, depressive thoughts. I’ll appreciate any day in which I can function as my normal past self, answering emails and texts within the day. I’ll appreciate any day in which I can laugh and feel settled in, thinking this is where I belong.

Maybe the secret to writing about depression is this: provide a window into the moments of darkness that I do remember.

Meditation
Inktober 2015. “Rothko Meditations.”

April, 2014
Wiess Residential College, Rice University
Houston, TX

I close the door to my room and find myself cut into slices of burning sunlight. I forgot to close the blinds earlier, and now the full wrath of sunset fills my room. I used to love this room, too, this west-facing box of sun, one side of it all windows. I have a view looking over the intramural fields that light up with fluorescents and college pride at night. A little farther out, beyond the field of wildflowers, I can see a part of the Medical Center, its tall buildings rising up jaggedly. Whenever I get tired of working, I can look up from my desk and gaze out at the rest of the world, the place I’ll finally join next month after graduating.

I flip the blinds shut, darkening the room. I take off my sunglasses, throw my sunhat on a chair, pull the neon orange sun guard off my arms. At last, I am free—or free enough. I stare bitterly at this room, this room that reminds me of too many things that went wrong. This was the room in which my relationships fell apart. This was the room in which I lived as part of a suite with four girls, who I thought we’d all stay friends forever. This was the room from which I wrote about my old skin condition, the first one in which I picked at the skin behind my ears, and then wrote about my current one, the one in which I had UV overexposure from using the light box in screenprinting studio. This was the room in which I believed I could write my story however I wanted it. This was the room in which I thought I had it all.

And now, this room feels far away, as though I am looking in at a distance, through someone else’s eyes. How could it be that this room was my world? How could it be that this was my room at all? With its ugly green carpet and the standard furniture found in every other dorm room?

I want to escape so badly. I want to go back home to the comfort of shady trees. I want to go on my trip to New Haven, where it’s cold enough for long sleeves, and to enjoy the familiarity of my boyfriend, who I never should have left the first time. If I could, I would stay for his graduation ceremony over mine, except that would upset my mother, who no doubt wants to see her fifth and youngest child walk the same stage that my siblings did.

I always wanted to hurry up and leave college. The art professors were busy acquiring favorite students, no internship leads here. My fourth and final student loan topped a staggering amount that would take years to pay down. Better to learn, on the job, as I had through part-time student jobs, than to pay for the atmosphere of education, without learning anything of substance at all.

Now, more than ever, I want to leave college behind me. I want to go back to where I was, in high school, surrounded by my friends and my boyfriend, drawing towards a future full of possibilities.

There is no going back to high school, no matter how many times I dream of calculus class. The closest I can get to that is moving back home and taking long, meditative walks beneath the trees—with a hat, sunglasses, and long sleeves.

*

Two months before graduating from college, my maternal grandmother passed away. I wasn’t that close to my grandmother. I did see her from time to time at family dinners and learned how to make traditional Vietnamese cakes with her, but I didn’t think that her death would affect me that much.

I was wrong. My parents are on the older side, since they had me so late. I envy my siblings for all the years they got to have my parents when my parents were young and strong. My parents saw all of them graduate, marry, and have a kid or even two. What about me? They saw me graduate. I hope they see me marry. And maybe, if I am lucky, they will get to know at least one of my kids. But how much time do I have? Will my kids be old enough to remember them before they go? Time is flying by like an Amtrak train that must depart on schedule. One day, I will have a question about a word or a tradition in Vietnamese culture. There will be no one I can turn to and ask.

Life is so precious. We must spend all the time we can with the ones we love and care about. But everyone else is so caught up with life, they have no time. Some people, we used to share such great memories, but they no longer think it’s worth it to hold on to the past, to keep trying in the present. Other people, we live in the same city, but they are too busy to drive thirty, forty minutes across town to hang out more often than once a month, if even that. Virtually everyone has a job or a career to pursue.

We spend so many hours at work, so few meaningful hours with the people we care about. What is the point of life? Is it to make money? Spend forty hours a week with coworkers who may or may not annoy us by the end of the day? But it’s a luxury to stay at home and not worry about money. Will I be one of those wives who work from home, but everyone says “work from home” behind my back, so that I can spend those forty hours in the company of my kids, should I have kids? Or must I prove to the world that I’m not a starving artist and that I can manage just fine, with or without a husband, because I work forty hours a week at a design firm while my kids are in daycare with strangers?

I didn’t think my words would lead me down this path, but perhaps this is the root of my frustration. That I want, more than anything, to spend time with the people I care about, but they have other things on their mind, other things they want to do, other people they want to spend time with, other than me. I might be sitting in the same room as them, singing karaoke and laughing along as though I am part of it, but sometimes I feel like a plastic piece in a board game. I am there, but I’m not really there. They only see me when they need me. But perhaps too, they only see what they want to see—a room full of friends, singing and laughing, and that is all.

Monsters
Inktober 2016. “Monsters in the Shadows.”

May 2016
Vintage Heart Coffee
Austin, TX

I’m excited for today—Pentatonix is performing. I remember when I first heard them, I hadn’t been all that impressed, but they’ve grown over the years into an acappella group to be reckoned with (Pitch Perfect anyone?). It just goes to show that even the most niche interests will have their heyday. Even better? The original trio started out from Texas. Support local artists, all the way!

Finals are around the corner, so my boyfriend’s sister, who I’ll call R, took my boyfriend M and me to Boteco, a Brazilian food truck. The sun was shining, the food was good, the company great, and I’m in Austin, Texas (Keep Austin Weird). Across the way is a wall of graffiti illustrations. Life cannot get better than this. After lunch, we tuck into the coffee shop with the wall art, a cute place called Vintage Heart Coffee. R grabs an empty table by the wall, M pulls over a neighboring one, and we sit down to study. Well, M and R have classes to study for. I’m a working woman, so I read a book.

Vintage Heart Coffee’s structure resembles a shotgun house with a door at the front and another at the back. Only one or two small windows have been punched into the walls, so there’s not much natural light. That plus the dark wood of the floor and furniture keeps the atmosphere on the dimmer side. Some might call it cozy. I wish there is more sunlight. I’m a cat, seeking out the perfect spot to bask in for hours, but I make do with the darker ambience. Hopefully my book, Lauren Oliver’s Vanishing Girls, will take me somewhere interesting.

One or two hours into the afternoon, something has changed, though nothing has changed. I look up from my book, and I can feel it happening, the sliding feeling, like the world is being slowly tipped over. I’m sliding, and I try to stop it, but I can’t stop it because gravity is too strong. All of a sudden, the coffee shop sits around me in too much clarity. The wood planks in the floor. The dim, yellow lights from the bare bulbs. The barista softly clinking glasses as she cleans them. The other guests, all staring at screens plugged into outlets. I curse architecture studio for doing this to me, making me hyper-aware of the boxes we box ourselves in, every single nail and screw in the beam, the width of the doorways, the height of railings and stairsteps—and all the people inside, oblivious to these human-imposed boundaries.

R, sitting to my left intently studying, has with no idea that the world sits tilted at an angle. Does R even enjoy spending time with me? I know I’m not perfect. I’m a nerd and a weirdo compared to her extended family. We would never have been friends on our own. And now we’re supposed to be sisters, maybe. We don’t get to choose our sisters. My boyfriend could have dated someone else, but he never did and R has no other point of comparison. What if she could have gotten someone better? Someone more fun, more interesting, more responsible? More sisterly? Heck, I have three sisters, all different from each other and from me. We get along as best as we can, but I bet we wouldn’t have chosen each other given the choice. M and R, by comparison, are two peas in a pod, perfectly in sync from hobbies to ice cream flavors. Even when they disagree, they take it all in stride. That’s what I wish I had so badly—comradery and support, a kind of oneness without having to ask for it.

My boyfriend, sitting across from me, is bent on getting through medical school now that he’s in. I’ve asked him again and again. Why me? Why did you pick me? Why do you love me? We were so young in high school, we had no idea what we wanted, or needed, for that matter. I broke up to look for the answer. I thought I found it, for I came back to him, but now I wonder if I’ve been pondering the wrong question all this time. Before, the question was, why him? Now, the question is, why me? I dress like a flashy, tropical bird, wearing stupid outfits because they looked good in my head. I’m an artist with a lower-paying job than what most college graduates will start out with. I have no aspirations for graduate school because I believe, now with a mountain of student loans, that school is overrated. I thought I was a traditional Vietnamese girl, but now I see that I’m too American. And while I think I’m American, I’m too Vietnamese among Americans. I’m not Catholic. I’m not outgoing. I’m not talkative. I’m not charming. I’m not strong. I’m not independent. I’m not conventional. I’m not edgy enough. I’m not enough of anything. If I removed myself from M’s life, he could have that option to find someone who is all these things that I’m not. Wouldn’t everyone be happier, then?

I don’t have to look down to know in my hot pink top and white skinny jeans that I positively glow in the darkness of Vintage Heart Coffee. In this moment, more than anything, I want to disappear, I want to get away from this, whatever this is. Is it my boyfriend and his family? Is it my life? Or depression? Or all of the above? Some days as I’m driving to work in the still black hours of early morning, I fantasize about heading west, as far west as I can go, until I disappear.

We’re supposed to meet up with C, a friend from high school, but he’s the last person I want to see. Or rather, I’m already stuck with M and R. I cannot escape them. But C isn’t here yet so there’s a possibility out there, an alternate reality that exists in which I don’t see C. I’m in no mindset to make small talk. We have so little in common since leaving high school. But there isn’t another option for me. Austin isn’t my town. We’ve only got R’s car, and even if I had my own car, where would I go?

I grapple with this dilemma for the rest of the afternoon. When M and R declare that they’ve studied enough, I itch to get outside. Usually I can reset myself with a nap, but a nap is out of the question. Maybe some fresh air and sunlight will do the trick. I walk outside, and the world is still too sharp, too full of pores, empty holes between things. We drive to meet up with C. It’s like I’m living life through another lense. I’m irritable, snappy, can’t get my thoughts straight. I don’t remember what I said. I don’t remember what we even talked about. Stupid stuff. The same conversation everybody talks about when they haven’t seen each other in a long time. At one point I go for a walk alone to get some distance. Too soon, the food is ready and I have to come back. I can’t stand M and C’s bro-to-bro interaction. I’m third-wheeling them. Bros before hos. The four of us—M, C, R, and me—are supposed to go to Universal Studios at the end of this month. What if I slide into this alternate me during the trip? How do I get out of this dimension? How do I get out of who I am?

We finally go to the auditorium where Pentatonix is performing. I’m relieved when the lights go out and the concert opens with Us the Duo. I don’t have to talk to anybody. I don’t have to pretend I’m better than how I really feel. I don’t have to overthink things. I can just listen to the music, let the notes wash over me, let my neurons soak up the intricate melodies and harmonies. When Pentatonix comes out, I’m up on my feet clapping and singing. By the time the concert is over and we’re in the car, waiting to crawl down the spiraling garage, the world looks a little straighter. Guilt nibbles at me for how I treated C. He did nothing wrong. I was in this other dimension, and now I’m not, so I send him an apology for being out of it earlier.

Poison.jpg
Inktober 2017. “Poison.”

When we go to sleep in R’s apartment, though, I feel lonely, even though I’m on the couch and M is on the air mattress next to me and R is through the closed door. My boyfriend is my best and closest friend. Did he realize anything was off with me? Did R see something was different? Or do they see me being petulant and uncooperative because they think I’m a spoiled brat, youngest of five? Do I have to wear a sign around my neck that says “Depression In Progress—Try Again Later” for people to know every time it happens? But I can’t bring myself to say anything. There is no point in saying anything. It’s the weekend. We’re supposed to be having fun. Why bring a cloud of gloom over the festivities by announcing, “I’m feeling depressed”?

But the worst part of it is, even if I do tell people “I’m feeling depressed,” no one seems to care. I know because I’ve tried. I thought it might help to open up. In some cases, people ignore what I said. In others, they might briefly acknowledge it. I’m sorry you’re feeling that way. There’s no reason to be down. Lighten up! Pentatonix is here! And then it’s back to the task at hand. Once, I was full-on screaming and crying over the phone while driving. In the moment, the person on the other end tried to talk me down, but after that—nothing. No check-ins, no follow-ups, no “how are you feeling today” because it must have been a weird little blip that happens once in a blue moon. No. The worst part of it is, you live with it every day. You bottle up that screaming and crying so no one else knows, and when it finally comes bursting out, the other person is taken by surprise.

The truth is, no one wants to hear it. No one has time to hear about it because they’re so wrapped up with their own lives. They don’t want to know if you’re broken and shattered and have trouble standing up. They only want to see you at your sparkly best. Put on a mask. Wow them all with a show. Be charming. Be funny. Be smart. Be talented. Be amazing. Be perfect. Feeling down? Stop being lazy and get something done. You’re depressed? Hm, that’s interesting—next. Depressed again? Oh, me too, and mine’s even worse than yours.

For the people who do listen and try to help me talk through it, it helps immensely. It makes me feel like opening up is the right thing to do. But it’s a fifty-fifty chance that talking to them will make me feel better. Regardless, their time is not limitless and the number of people willing to talk to me when I need it is very small. My boyfriend has to go back to studying for exams—he’s only got a half hour for me. I’ve got millions of half hours, and I’ve got to live every single one of those half hours. In some of them, I’m in the car by myself, screaming and crying so no one else will know. Or in the shower. Or in my bed. Or in my room wondering when this will ever end.

*

Sometimes there’s no helping it when a depressive attack comes on. It could have been triggered by something I read, something I said, something you said, or nothing at all. Then I spiral through the same angry thoughts, the same arguments that I always go through. Friends. Family. Finance. These triggers are never going away, but I don’t want to live my life like this forever. When I’m alone in my room doing the things that make me happy—reading a book, watching a movie, writing a story—I can momentarily forget about the triggers that set me off. As soon as others’ voices seep into my head—books are boring, TV shows are where it’s at, no one wants to read your stupid story—I begin to crumble. I wish I could be my younger self, my stronger self, my blissfully oblivious self, but college knocked down the foundation of who I am and I haven’t been able to build myself back up. I always need more time, but life constantly throws lemons at you—friends who passive aggressively fade out, family putting on pressure, student loans brimming with interest. One day I will bake these damn lemons into a meringue pie and throw it back.

At one point I considered seeing a psychiatrist. That’s what you do when you’re feeling depressed and need help, right? I asked a friend who she was seeing. I looked him up and thought about making an appointment. But the people closest to me didn’t seem to support my decision. They thought it was a waste of money to see a doctor for something that didn’t require medicine to cure. Others didn’t necessarily say anything against it; they simply had no opinion. Maybe I was overreacting. A year later, I start getting the advice that I should see a psychiatrist. By this point, I’ve made up my mind that I’m going to do it on my own. My depression is fairly mild, and I feel confident that it’s just a matter of learning to snip which threads so that I don’t feel like I’m strangling in a sea of obligations. Going to see a psychiatrist feels like adding another thread in my life. It’s easy for others to say, “You should see a psychiatrist.” But tell me this: will you find me, no matter where I am, and drag me to my appointment? Not just the first day. But every day to make sure I go and get better. No? Then, no thank you. I’ll do what I think is best for me.

All right. How can I get better? If I feel bogged down by too many obligations, then the solution is to reduce them, right? It’s been a struggle, snipping the threads that I can, only to find later that I’ve re-woven them into existence. Facebook messages I need to respond to. Texts I need to respond to. Snapchats to snap. Instagrams to gram. Emails, wads of them. Waking up and going to work Monday through Friday. Visiting my boyfriend every other weekend in Dallas, a four-hour trip one-way. Calling my boyfriend every night. Making breakfast, making a sandwich for lunch. Returning that library book I never got around to reading. Art exhibits that I should go to because I’m an artist. Walking around my complex for exercise since I can’t get myself to do anything else. Writing because I want to be a writer.

During the most extreme moments, I wish I could erase myself and simply not exist. Other times I wish I could unplug from life and not worry about integrating myself into the circuitry of real life. Perhaps the thickest thread of all is knowing that to remove myself is to make it noticeable in the worst way possible. As long as I pretend that everything is normal, then I make no ripples. If I were to end my life or to mysteriously disappear to another city with a new identity, I know what will happen. The people I leave behind will wonder what went wrong. They will blame me, or they will blame themselves. They wouldn’t ever understand why. Either way, I will leave a gaping hole, proof of my existence, rather than my intention to quietly depart unnoticed. So I put on my least cracked face and try to pretend everything is okay while I struggle alone with feelings of frustration, bitterness, disappointment, anger, and sadness.

Death
Inktober 2016. “Flight.”

When the feelings get to be too much, I have a place that I escape to. It’s in the center of my townhouse complex. I walk out there, open the creaking black gate, and go to the basketball court, where no one ever plays basketball because management removed the hoop. There, on the sea green concrete of the denuded basketball court, I lie down, pick a song on my iPod, and watch the sky. Massive Attack’s “Teardrop.” Coldplay’s “Clocks.” Sarah Brightman’s operatic ballads. Anything by Enya. Honeyroot’s “Falling” is especially good with its slow, calming rhythms. Freshcut’s “Orange Sunshine” is another favorite; it contains a snippet from the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the part where Kirsten Dunst’s character reads aloud the poem from which the movie takes its name.

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;

Overhead, the clouds seem so effortless. They float across the sky, graceful as royalty. At sunset, they change colors. White to pink to purple, sometimes orange and gold thrown in. Here, in this spot on the basketball court, I can’t see anything but trees at the periphery. No streetlights. No houses. No buildings. No sign of civilization. For a moment, I can imagine I’m somewhere else. In a field. By the ocean. Another state, or country, even. I could be anywhere, anywhere but inside my wrinkly, warped mind. I can get away from all of the voices crowding my head, telling me I should do this or act a certain way or change how I am. I can finally be free. I can simply exist—and that would be enough for me.

 


 

Author’s Note

If you follow my Instagram, you know I participate in Inktober every year. All of the illustrations here were drawn with the intent to visualize depression. I was having such a difficult time putting it down in words that I tried to draw it instead, which may or may not have been successful in my intent. It was, in a way, my indirect call for help. One person noticed and reached out, and for that I am thankful. I am not even all that close to him. But all the same, it scared me that despite the number of people seeing my drawings, only one person seemed to notice something was amiss and bothered to ask. A couple of factors may have contributed to that. He’s a doctor who has also experienced some level of depression himself. I admit that before I experienced it firsthand, I had a hard time understanding the effect depression could have on someone. I am not a health professional, but I recommend this: reach out to the people you care about and listen—to the things they say and to the things they don’t say. You never know if someone needs you, and you could make a difference in their life.

https://www.helpguide.org/articles/suicide-prevention/suicide-prevention.htm

Mondays
Inktober 2015. “Flattened.”
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A View into the Shrinking Box

Returning to Roots

This weekend I volunteered at an event called the Youth Excellence Recognition Luncheon, organized every year by the Vietnamese Culture and Science Association (VCSA), to honor Houston-area Valedictorians and Salutatorians of Vietnamese descent. I’m no stranger to the event. I’ve been volunteering since high school, maybe as early as 2008, and I had the privilege of being an honoree in 2010. Over the years, I’ve come back again and again to help, including as Co-Chair in 2011 and this year to sing the U.S. national anthem. I’ve always known this was a great program, but for some reason, this time, I felt the full impact of this program, now celebrating its 22nd year, and the important role that the Vietnamese-American community has in our lives.


I remember my first impressions of VCSA, even if the exact events have long since faded from my mind. It was summertime, either right before I entered high school or shortly after. I was used to lazing around at home, perhaps reading or swimming. Concerned that I wasn’t being productive, my mother strongly suggested I come with my sisters to weekly VCSA meetings. Grumbling, I let myself be dragged along to a tiny center situated on the corner of a parking lot on Bellaire Boulevard. My sisters were ten and eight years older than me—probably in college at the time—and I remember feeling dwarfed by all of these older volunteers. They looked so put together and adult. I was just a kid. I didn’t say a peep. My sisters introduced me to a friend or two, who promised to take care of me on their team for a volunteer event called TOPS (Tobacco Obesity Prevention Summit), a one-day event educating children ages 5-16 on the health effects of tobacco and obesity.

197240_1013194662043_1377_n
TOPS t-shirt design 2008

My first TOPS passed in a blur. I was young enough to be a participant, but since I entered as a volunteer, I continued volunteering in the years after. I gradually embraced interacting with kids ages 7-9, my sweet spot, and drew the t-shirt designs for a couple of years. It must have been fun enough that I thought about volunteering for other VCSA events during the summer. Their other major event was VVDV, short for Vẻ Vang Dân Việt, or the Youth Excellence Recognition Luncheon. I was definitely too young for that my first year and had to wait until I was a high school sophomore in 2008 to begin helping out. Since I hadn’t even graduated and this event was geared towards honoring high school students, there wasn’t much that I could do except one thing—sing the U.S. national anthem. Most Vietnamese parents enrolled their kids in piano or violin or focused on academics. I was the only one studying voice (and piano), which gave me this unique opportunity. I was used to performing at recitals and competitions, so I didn’t think much of it at the time, but looking back, it’s quite an honor getting to sing at an event with 500+ attendees and numerous important figures, ranging from school superintendents to senator representatives.

As I watched these eighteen-year-old honorees walk across the stage in their caps and gowns, I couldn’t wait for my turn to be a VVDV honoree. All of my sisters had their introduction to VCSA through this very program. Though I wanted the same, I also felt anxious at the possibility that I wouldn’t do well enough to earn the title of either Valedictorian or Salutatorian. During senior year, I struggled with Calculus and Dance, the two classes in danger of receiving a B. With the help of my boyfriend at the time, I eked out a 90 in Calculus, and by the mercifulness of my dance teacher, she gave me an A. It was happening. I was going to be honored at VVDV. And after that, I’d finally get to do more than sing as a volunteer.

My high school was one of the few that used a system of co-valedictorians and co-salutatorians, so my boyfriend and I were two of nearly thirty valedictorians that year. When the VVDV 2010 Co-Chairs reached out to me, I readily filled out their questionnaire and reserved the first Sunday in August for the event. My boyfriend, however, had never heard of it. I persuaded him to join in.

At the orientation for the VVDV 2010 honorees, I met a number of bright young people I still keep in touch with today. At least two others were attending Rice University in the fall, like me, while a number of others, like my boyfriend, were headed to the northeast. The vast majority would go to either UT Austin, A&M or U of H. Dressed in red, the color of my high school, I felt ready to take on the world.

During the orientation, the Co-Chairs administered a Vietnamese language test that measured reading and writing skills. The top three students would earn a small scholarship. Thanks to my mother’s diligent efforts, I aced the test with flying colors.

That year I was hoping the Co-Chairs would ask me to sing the national anthem again. Wouldn’t that be something, to have an honoree sing the national anthem! But that year they found someone else, and I thought that was probably for the better so that I could fully enjoy the program as a participant.

At eleven o’clock on Sunday, the Co-Chairs lined us up in two rows in the hall on the second floor of Kim Son Restaurant. When the time came, we filed into the ballroom to “Pomp and Circumstance” and enormous applause. With the speeches, it felt like graduation all over again. After a short entertainment program consisting of a fashion show and a few dances, we moved onto the honoree portion. Each honoree went on-stage to receive a trophy presented by either a board member of VCSA or an important official. I don’t remember who handed mine—I think he was a judge of sorts. Afterwards came the Rose Ceremony in which the honoree presented their parents with a single rose as thanks for their hard work and sacrifice. To be perfectly honest, I felt that this was a waste of time. How could a single rose possibly be sufficient for what our parents had done? Why did we need to present the rose on-stage family by family? Why not have us present the rose to our parents off-stage once the event was over? But this was tradition, so I didn’t question it. In a few hours, the whirlwind ended, and we dispersed to the winds.


If you did the experience of volunteering for VVDV right, this was how most people would have done it. They would be recognized as an honoree at VVDV. A year later, they would come back and serve on a team—Reception, Program, Entertainment, Technical, Security or as an MC, either Vietnamese or English. The following year they might step up and become a team lead. After that, they might step up and become Co-Chairs for the event. I knew a lot of people expected me to become Co-Chair eventually since I had volunteered for so many years. I just didn’t know which year I’d have the courage to do it. What if I didn’t get along well with the volunteer who stepped up to Co-Chair with me? I didn’t feel close enough with anyone to ask them to join me as Co-Chair.

The following summer after I was recognized, I heard that J, a childhood friend of mine and the same age as me, had stepped up to be Co-Chair for VVDV 2011. It was much too soon. I hadn’t properly served on a team yet. How could I think of being Co-Chair? But it seemed as though there was difficulty finding Co-Chairs. As the days passed, I worried that someone else would grab the position. I knew J, and I knew she would make an excellent Co-Chair no matter who shared the role with her. So I went for it.

The summer passed by in a blur. Within a month and a half, we contacted about 25 honorees, slapped together a flyer, conducted weekly meetings, promoted the event on Vietnamese radio, led the related College Workshop Panel, welcomed the honorees at the orientation, sped through the event, and before we knew it, it was done. It was the most work I had ever done, coordinating a team of about 50 volunteers for a 500+ attendee event.

In all honesty, I probably did not make a good Co-Chair. I have never felt comfortable leading a large group of people. My preferred position is to help behind the scenes. I remember being the main contact for all of the honorees, reaching out via email or Facebook to explain the event and encourage them to attend. I wrote the weekly meeting minutes and touched base with volunteers via email to ensure we were all on the same page. Even though I ranked first in the Vietnamese language contest, I’m not a fluent speaker. I gave the English Co-Chair speech while J gave the Vietnamese one, and she answered most, if not all, of the questions on the Vietnamese radio talk show. Swamped with coordinating the event, I reached out to a Vietnamese performer in San Antonio to sing the national anthem.

By that point, my sisters had long stopped volunteering for VVDV. I asked them why when it was so fun getting to meet young people—people like me, who share the same cultural heritage of being Vietnamese-American? How else would we meet people like us if not through volunteer organizations like VCSA? They said it simply wasn’t their thing. One of my sisters did help, however, by connecting me with local Vietnamese fashion designer Danny Nguyen Couture to provide áo dài for the fashion show.

I vowed that next year I would come back and take on a smaller role, team lead or a regular volunteer, maybe. No matter what, I knew I was coming back.


The summer after, I discovered that once you’ve served as Co-Chair, there’s no going down the ladder of leadership. It’s the most amount of work you will ever do, and knowing the big picture, it’s difficult to take on a smaller role. J, being out-of-state, and I helped mentor the next pair of Co-Chairs on organizing the event, essentially becoming “Program Consultants”—a role, I learned, that all previous Co-Chairs take on afterwards if they continue to volunteer. With other commitments during the summertime, I declined taking on a major role and ended up where I first began—singing the U.S. national anthem.

My relationship with this song has evolved over the years on its own journey of personal discovery. One reason the national anthem is so difficult for most people to sing without previous training is due to the wide range of notes. I’m no Beyonce or Mariah Carey, but through the years I’ve done my best to sing the national anthem as well as I can. Sung in the original key of B♭ Major, the lowest note is a B♭ below middle C and the highest note is an F about an octave and a half above middle C. At the highest point of the song—“o’er the land of the free”—some singers sing just the F. If they’re a bit more ambitious, then they first hit the F before soaring up to a B♭, but that’s pretty tough to do.

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Here’s an interesting thing I learned about singing as a soprano from my voice teacher. The breaking point from when you switch from a lower voice to a higher voice is between F and F# above middle C. That means if a song is mostly written at or above F#, it fits the vocal range of a soprano than a song mostly written at or below F. “The Star Spangled Banner” originally starts on an F, a less than ideal note, and in high school I had a lot of difficulty hitting the lower notes like B♭. Since I was the only one singing the national anthem acappella, I decided to transpose the song up to start on an F#. That would give me an easier starting point as well as raise the lowest note by a half step.

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The first year or so, I stayed on the conservative side with just the high F# for “free,” no reason to try anything crazy in front of 500 people. As I continued to sing in college as part of an acappella group, I decided to push myself and try to hit that extra high note. Maybe because I was practicing my lower range or the fact that my voice was maturing, I found myself able to hit the A below middle C with about a 50% chance of it feeling comfortable. So I transposed the song to start on an E with the lowest note as an A. That meant when I sang “free,” I would start at a high E and soar up to an A, a note I knew I could comfortably hit. When I nailed that high note at the next VVDV, some of the volunteers noticed and congratulated me on my efforts. I continued to sing it that way through 2014. After all, once you’re at the top, there’s no going down.

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Transposed to the Key of A Major
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Original Key of B Flat Major

Then I took a long break after. I don’t know whether it was intentional or not, but I didn’t volunteer for the next several years. No one asked me to sing the national anthem. Either they had found someone else or the younger Co-Chairs simply didn’t know I was available. I had graduated from college and was working anyway. I barely had the energy to do laundry when I got home, much less drag myself out to a weekly meeting.

Summer of 2018, they reached out to me about singing the national anthem again. Well, why not? I did it before. I could do it again. So I said yes. In the four years since college, I’d stopped singing regularly. Hopefully with a bit of practice, it would easily come back to me.

Wrong.

My voice had become a rusty pipe. I spent several weeks just getting my voice to feel comfortable singing mid-range songs. To my surprise, my voice had dropped several notes lower, especially early in the mornings before I had a chance to speak a lot during the day. Hitting the A below middle C presented no problems, and I could even hit the G below middle C in my “speaking” voice, something I couldn’t ever manage during high school. For singers who want to hit notes lower than their typical range, they sometimes “speak” it to fake it. Likewise, for singers who want to hit notes higher than their typical range, they sing in falsetto. I’ve never had a need to master falsetto, so I can’t exactly explain how that works, but one example is Coldplay’s Chris Martin whenever he sings in a higher, breathier register.

Over the next month, I struggled to get my voice to reach the higher notes that once came so easily to me. As the big day neared, I finally had to confront the fact that I could only comfortably sing the high F/F#. Attempting to hit either the A or B♭ was out of the question. Maybe if I had accompaniment, the instrumental part could hide my voice straining, but in the dead silence of acappella, you can hear every single wobble. I also hadn’t performed in front of a crowd in four years. Singing for 500 people, including superintendents and senators? I could not take the chance.

The dress rehearsal was my chance to sing in front of a modest crowd of 50 volunteers. This time, I downloaded a piano app so I could play F# right before going up on stage. It was my equivalent of an acappella director’s pitch pipe. While the app worked great at home, I could barely hear anything in the vastness of the ballroom. In the end, I had to do what I always did, and that was to find it relatively by singing a quick test of the first measure. Could I hit that low note? Did it feel too low? Did it feel too high? Okay, it felt right. And then I had to trust that my voice would be able to hit the high note.

It took me awhile before I could summon the courage to start singing at the dress rehearsal. My nerves were wound up tight in a ball, my voice came out wobbly, and my pacing alternated between too fast and too slow. I had to fix this before Sunday. Another thing I’d learned singing acappella was the importance of stage presence.

I know now that I’m not cut out to be a performer either. Back in high school, I still entertained thoughts of becoming the lead singer of a band. Nope, not for me. In my acappella group, I preferred singing as part of the accompaniment, accompanying the soloist with a harmony, arranging music, or designing flyers—literally anything but being the soloist. I make a terrible soloist because I either space out and forget where I am in the song or I’m not very energetic or charismatic in personality.

The U.S. national anthem is the only song that I’ve memorized and always remember no matter how long it’s been since I last sang it. There are a few reasons why I think I’m willing to come back and sing the national anthem time and again. One, I love singing Italian arias. Their graceful melodies are perfect for sopranos, nothing like the low, often repetitive melodies of today’s top 40s. The national anthem is fairly aria-like. Two, it’s a stately song with not many frills. I don’t need to dance around energetically on stage. Did I mention how Dance was one of my two hardest classes in high school? Three, I’ve been singing this song for so long that even if I do space out for a tiny bit, my mind can sort of direct my voice on autopilot.

This time around, I was determined to improve my stage presence during the song. Even though it’s a stately one, I didn’t want to stand there on-stage like a tree devoid of its tree limbs as I’d done in the past. Music, to me, is best enjoyed when you’re naturally moving and grooving to the music. My friends know that at music concerts, I’m the first one out of my chair.

The day arrived. I woke up about two hours before the event to give my voice some time to get acclimated. Singing first thing in the morning is one of the hardest things because the voice hasn’t had time to limber up. After a light, grease- and dairy-free breakfast of a single kiwi, I poured myself a glass of fresh lime juice with a sprinkle of honey and warmed up on the piano. After a couple of run-throughs, it was time to get ready—except for one thing. After the U.S. national anthem, I always end up standing on stage during the Vietnamese anthem, sung in a choir with a guitar, but I never know the words to the song and can’t even satisfactorily lip synch it. It’s rather sad, actually, that even though I’m proud of being Vietnamese-American, I only know the U.S. national anthem by heart and not the classic “Tiếng Gọi Công Dân.” In a panic, I downloaded the lyrics to my phone and hoped I could memorize it when I got to the venue. Perhaps I fattened out because the ao dai’s neckline felt uncomfortably tight and triggered my gag reflex—worst uniform ever for a singer. Plus the traditional hat always felt like it was going to fall off my head if I didn’t balance it right. There was nothing for it. I had to get driving before people started calling me to see if I was on my way.

Once I reached the venue, there were five things I had to worry about. One, I had to keep my voice limber. To do that, I made sure to chat with all of the volunteers. Two, I had to go over the national anthem enough times that I could sing it on autopilot but not too many times that the words turned into meaningless mush in my head. Three, I had to memorize enough of the Vietnamese anthem that I could pretend that I knew it. Four, I’ve never been able to burp as easily as other people, and this is a real problem as a singer. I had to hope I forced a painful burp right before I got up on stage. Five, I needed to stay hydrated enough to “oil” my voice without drinking so much water that my mouth stopped making its own spit and therefore trigger a cough attack.

The moment had come. We lined up beside the stage. We walked up on stage. I stood on the duct tape X. The color guard marched in. One of the color guard members gave a nod of his head. I prayed that all of my preparation would pay off for the next minute and a half. I opened my mouth and sang the first note. As nerves rattled inside me, I tried to imbue some emotion, a head bob here or there (not too much or the hat would fall), and added hand gestures instead of stoically keeping my free hand by my side. I kept my pace deliberate to counteract adrenaline and tried to continually project my voice with force to prevent any wobbliness. I could hear some of the volunteers softly singing along with me. Before I knew it, the song was over. My part was done. I didn’t burp or cough or forget the lyrics or falter at any point. As I stepped back to join the choir, my hurried memorization of the Vietnamese anthem pulled through, and I didn’t feel as glaringly obvious as in previous years. If I ever returned to sing the national anthem, I’d make it my next goal to thoroughly memorize both anthems.

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VVDV 2012

Once I made it to my chair, I gladly stuffed myself with greasy food while listening to the speeches. One of which was U.S. Representative John Culberson’s. An actual Congressman! Political officials rarely made the appearance in person. Usually they sent a representative. Thank goodness my rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” went relatively well. The first verse lasts less than two minutes, but two minutes can say a lot about an organization or community. Every time I sing at VVDV, I want to represent the Vietnamese-American community in the best light possible, that we respect America and its anthem, and that we’re proud to be here as Americans while building the Vietnamese-American community.

And then I found out why Rep. John Culberson was present.


In mid-June of this year, protests broke out in Vietnam over special economic zones and a new cybersecurity law. Attention over the protests most likely would have slid into the nebula of world news except that something unusual happened—an American present at the protests was detained by the Vietnamese government. And this wasn’t just any American. This was Will Nguyen, a 32-year-old Vietnamese-American from Houston who attended Yale and passionately cared about his studies of Southeast Asia. And he was a VVDV 2004 honoree.

The news exploded on my Facebook feed. Classmates I’d met through Rice University Vietnamese Student Association (Rice VSA) and previous VVDV honorees posted news articles and links to sign a petition demanding Will’s immediate release. It hit even closer to home for me because there are so many similarities between Will Nguyen and my boyfriend, now my fiancé. They’re both young Vietnamese-Americans from Houston who attended Yale and were VVDV honorees. What if my fiancé was the one trapped in the prison of a country halfway across the world? How far would I go to secure his release? Despite being in different cities or attending different colleges, we as Vietnamese-Americans all saw Will Nguyen as someone we knew in our lives, and knowing he was in prison without any contact to friends and family frightened us to the core. Because of that, we instinctively rallied together to protect one of our own in the community.

In mid-July, we anxiously watched and waited for the trial outcome. Would Vietnam prove to be fair and release him or would they truly sentence Will to seven years for disturbing the peace even though he was an American citizen? Would it change how we viewed ourselves as Vietnamese-American, a part of us always drawing back to Vietnam though some of us have never even been to the country and a part of us always struggling to fit the idea of being American? Would it shed a new perspective on our parents’ narratives as immigrants and political refugees? Had we done enough to support one of our own?

They released him. With a huge collective sigh, we celebrated with another round of posts on social media. Will was coming home. There was no telling what he went through during those forty days, but he at least seemed safe and sound physically, unlike the student who died after being detained in North Korea.

A few weeks later at VVDV 2018, Rep. John Culberson recapped the efforts and success of the Vietnamese-American community and government officials in securing Will Nguyen’s release. Will stood and waved when Rep. Culberson acknowledged his presence in the audience. There he was, standing straight and tall in his distinctive black áo dài with floral motifs. The crowd went wild.


As far as keynote speeches go, I rarely remember the contents afterward, even a day later. But for this year’s VVDV keynote speech, Councilmember Dr. Steve Le’s stuck with me because of his three points: 1) hi, 2), one, and 3) remember your roots.

In Dr. Steve Le’s anecdote, he talked about his time as a family medicine resident in a hospital. He always made sure to say hi to everyone, no matter whether they were the CEO or the janitor. Six months later, the janitor retired and invited Dr. Le to his going away party taking place on the topmost floor. Dr. Le had never been on the topmost floor. When he arrived there, he found all the important people at the top—CEO, president, prominent doctors, you name it—present at the janitor’s retirement party. Dr. Le was the only “nobody” there. The lesson here? Always say hi because you never know what doors it could open.

After his residency, Dr. Le moved to a small rural town in Texas called Cleveland to open a practice there. He was initially hesitant at how the people of Cleveland, located not all that far away from the seat of the KKK, would take to having an Asian face serve their community. As he began to employ locals and meet with patients, he always made sure to treat each person as though they were number one, the only one with his attention. Eventually the townspeople came to embrace him and he the people as well, as evidenced by his Texas twang. The lesson here? Treat a person as though they are the only one and you can win their heart.

For the last one, Dr. Le related the story of when his family left Vietnam. They landed at a refugee camp in Pennsylvania, where the summers were moderate and beautiful—but the waitlist to be accepted into the actual city itself, away from the refugee camp, was three months long. His parents, not wanting to wait, asked if there was any other city willing to take them in immediately so that they could start rebuilding their lives. The city? Houston, Texas. So they gave up temperate summers for blistering heat and humidity, not unlike their home country. Yet despite the heat—or perhaps because of it—the Vietnamese community in Houston harbored a blazing passion that left a mark on Dr. Le. No matter how far he traveled for medical school or residency, he kept his Texas Driver’s License knowing that one day, he would return home. And today, in 2018, he was here in Houston, Texas, serving as Councilmember for District F. The family is the most basic unit of a community. Without it, we are nothing. With it, we are stronger. By always coming back to your roots, you can be sure that you’ll never go astray.

And that, I realize, is what VVDV, Vẻ Vang Dân Việt or the Youth Excellence Recognition Luncheon, is really about: taking the time to recognize the achievements of a new generation and the people who made it happen—parents, family, friends, teachers, the community. As many of the speeches noted, “it takes a village to raise a child.” This year, the program added a video montage of each honoree thanking their parents. Some spoke in fluent English, others in fluent Vietnamese. Still others stumbled in Vietnamese or mixed a bit of both into Vietlish. Some of it was funny and relevant. How many of us have never been “the best son” or “the best daughter”? How many of us never did the chores, choosing instead to goof off? Some of it was poignant and heartfelt. How many of us had parents who worked long hours or every single day of the week, month, or year, even, to make sure we had the opportunity to pursue academics and dreams that our parents could never fulfill when they left their home country? How many of us have lost a parent or both or grew up knowing only one? The running joke is that Vietnamese families are notoriously bad at expressing and giving affection. I think it’s much broader than that. All of us, no matter the ethnicity, are bad at taking the time to express and give affection. And who deserves it most but our parents? As each honoree presented a rose to their parents, I found myself tearing up and let the tears run down my face. All around me, others were also moved by the tribute. The Rose Ceremony wasn’t a waste of time at all. It was, perhaps, a rare moment when we actively choose to recognize those who matter the most in our lives while we still have the opportunity to do so.

In Vietnamese, “Vẻ Vang Dân Việt” doesn’t directly translate to “Youth Excellence Recognition,” which always bothered me. I always had a rough impression of what “Vẻ Vang Dân Việt” meant, but it wasn’t until I sat down to write this piece that I tried to nail a more exact translation. On Google Translate, it means “Vietnamese Glory.” According to a Vietnamese-English dictionary, it means “Vietnamese Triumph.” Neither of those really get at what it’s trying to convey. The best I could come up with, with my parents’ help, was “Pride of the Vietnamese People.” This new generation, full of hope for what could be—as U.S. Representative Al Green said in his speech at this year’s VVDV, maybe one day we’ll have a president of Vietnamese descent—this new generation is the Pride of the Vietnamese Community. Though we are a diverse group with different dreams, different beliefs, and different levels of knowledge in Vietnamese culture, we all have something in common. We’re proud to be Vietnamese-American, we’re proud of the achievements all of us have done, and most of all, we’re proud that we accomplished them as Vietnamese-Americans. No matter how far we go in life, no matter what we choose to do in life, we’ll always remember our roots.

Returning to Roots

Reflection: The End of an Era

When I was a kid, I used to think it’d be so cool to be the person doing all the chalk drawings at Whole Foods Market. What kind of person was behind the magic? What would it be like to work at a grocery store? Was it as fun as it seemed to work at a place where you were constantly surrounded by food? My family eventually persuaded me to set my sights on a proper career, like architecture, and I buried my kid dream alongside paleontologist and artist and writer.

Fast forward to today, I’m an artist who’s working on becoming a writer, and I’m saying goodbye to my position of Graphic Artist at Whole Foods Market Bellaire. It’s a funny series of doors that led me to the job, and it came at a time in my life when I felt lost and needed a place where I could be myself. A lot of people like to joke “Whole Foods, whole paycheck” or think it’s just another retail store. I used to be one of those people. Having the opportunity to work here showed me just how much I didn’t understand about what a place like Whole Foods Market can mean to someone—like me.

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My first A-frame chalk at Whole Foods Market Bellaire

 


 

It started on a crisp Tuesday morning in November. I was working at an oil and gas company five minutes from my house. That day I decided to wear my “company” outfit, a combination that matched the branding palette (I know, what a graphic designer thing to do)—black pants, red top, and a beige blazer for a neutral piece. I’d barely sat down at my cubicle when the CEO called us for a town hall meeting.

We were being laid off.

Strangely, I remember feeling nothing. I knew it’d been coming, in a sense. At the last town hall meeting, the CEO had painted us a cheery projection with the promise of nonstop work from Mexico. Since then, oil prices had tanked. Work had always been slow-paced, and now it crawled like the minute hand as I struggled to stay awake forty-five hours a week. Objectively speaking, I should have been cut much sooner. After all, I was just a lowly Junior Graphic Designer—a fast and efficient one, sure, but nothing as crucial as the geology team.

All around me people broke into tears and sadly packed up their things into cardboard boxes. I fit everything into one box: a framed picture of my boyfriend and me in NYC, a plush Pikachu, a Unikitty Lego figurine, art posters and postcards, magnets, free knickknacks from O&G conventions that the Marketing Director attended, my work sketchbook, print samples of projects that I’d worked on. I backed up my work files on a USB. I exchanged personal emails with my fellow designers to stay in touch. The Senior Graphic Designer wasn’t being laid off yet, but she figured her turn would come soon enough. All this time she’d been dropping hints for me to work on my portfolio and find a more creative job, one in which I could use my illustration skills. I didn’t get it, but she’d been trying to tell me the truth that was to come. Some people left without saying good-bye; others lingered. A group talked of walking across the street to a frequent haunt, the bar at the Whole Foods Market on Wilcrest and Westheimer, to commiserate about being out of work.

I passed on the bar. I wasn’t big on drinking. After much hugging and well-wishing, I took my box out to the car I’d bought last month, shiny and red in the parking garage. It was only ten or so in the morning. The sun was shining. The air felt cool and bright. I was excited. This was the moment I’d been waiting for, a chance to do something different. I had a concrete reason for finding a new job. I wouldn’t feel bad about taking time off to go to an interview because I was in control of my schedule. I could finally revamp my website and portfolio. I could finally figure out Society6 and all those art sites to promote my work. I could go for walks in the morning, in the afternoon, whenever the heck I felt like without feeling guilty or judged for slacking. I could make a fresh, hot lunch every day while enjoying the view of sunlit trees through the dining room window, no more sandwiches or microwaving Vietnamese food and praying that no one would complain of the smell. So many possibilities stretched before me.

God, I thought. There were so many things I couldn’t enjoy while working from eight to five every day.

I knew I might be one of a few who felt excited about leaving. Maybe others had dealt with too much politics or bureaucratic loops. But most people were sad for seeing the end of a company they’d been with since its inception fifteen years ago, and most people, too, had families to support. Sure, I suddenly had to rely on a reduced monthly income. I still had student loans to pay and now car loans on top of that. I had to fill out a weekly log that proved to the Texas Unemployment Agency that I was, in fact, actively searching for jobs. But I had the luck to be young and single and living at home with my parents, and I was going to make the best of it.

I spent the next month feverishly working on updating my resume, portfolio, website, and LinkedIn. I completely changed the branding from my previously clunky design to a much sleeker one in black and white. No frills, just the essentials. I posted more on social media; I was riding on the back of finishing an Inktober drawing marathon in which I drew one picture every day in October and posted it on social media. I signed up for new job notifications in both Dallas and Houston. Who knew? Maybe I could finally make the leap to Dallas, where my boyfriend was attending medical school.

Back in school, I used to dream about working in the corporate world. My own cubicle. My own computer. Someone to clean and dust every day. Free stuff. Free food in the breakroom. Dress for success.

But now that the corporate stint was over, I didn’t want to go back, at least not yet. I was sick of sitting for eight hours pretty much non-stop. My stomach was settling into a pooch shape that I’d never had. The veins in my legs were probably suffering for lack of circulation. I could feel my lifespan shortening the longer I sat hunched over the keyboard not speaking for hours at a time and listening to music non-stop. Walking up and down the stairs once every day, my office’s attempt to stay healthy, was not going to cut it.

I was also sick of oil derricks and oil pumps and never wanted to see another one for a long time.

In December, I saw a job that I’d had my eye on for a while: Graphic Artist/Signmaker for Whole Foods Market. More than a year ago, I’d applied to Graphic Artist at the Sugar Land location, but I didn’t get it. This time, it was for the Bellaire location, which was closer to me anyway, and plus I could hop over to Rice University for events because campus was only ten minutes away. I chuckled that it’s too bad it wasn’t for the Wilcrest position. Wouldn’t that be a hoot, working across the street from the place that laid me off. The job description seemed straightforward and doable. I was only apprehensive at the part that said I’d need to set up in-store 3D displays. How involved were these displays? I’ve always known that I’m a 2D kind of a girl, and I don’t know much about the more practical aspect of installing signs. Still, I sent in my resume and hoped to get a response.

I was at Memorial City Mall one morning. I thought if I was somewhere different, maybe I’d find inspiration to draw. I didn’t draw anything worth posting, but I did get a call in the parking lot as I struggled with my keys, my sketchbook, and my phone all at once. It was from Whole Foods Market. Just my luck. I asked to call back in twenty minutes, though when I glanced at the clock I realized it’d be right smack in the middle of lunchtime. The lady on the phone said twenty minutes was fine. Later I’d learn that “lunchtime” was relative in the retail world.

At home with my resume, portfolio, and application all open on my laptop, we went through preliminary questions. We set up a time for me to come to the store and check it out. I received instructions from another lady, this time from Regional Headquarters, with a project to complete. I had three days until my interview on Friday, the day I’d been planning to go up to Dallas. I asked to move the interview to Monday, then learned that it was a panel interview, and they wanted to interview all three candidates back-to-back. I moved my bus ticket to Saturday morning thinking this interview had better be worth me missing out on quality time with my boyfriend. I drove to the Wilcrest location to get a better feel for the signage and branding. I hand-drew peaches, scanned them in, threw everything together in Photoshop and Illustrator, printed a set of ten at Office Depot, got home, opened the prints to find stupid squares around every peach drawing, fixed it in Photoshop, printed a test print at home, printed another set of ten at Office Depot, went to the Bellaire location to meet with the first lady and to get a tour of the store, prepped for interview questions, found out that I’d probably have to chalk something in three minutes, decided against buying chalk markers, and went to sleep. Either I’d get the markers to work with me or I wouldn’t. Life drawing studio had prepared me for fast drawings. I could do this on the fly.

The next day, I made sure to arrive at Bellaire early for the interview. When ten o’ clock came and went, I started getting antsy and called the lady from Regional to let her know I was here. She came to get me fifteen minutes later. I’d later learn that this was typical of panel interviews at Whole Foods Market. Nothing starts on time when everyone needs to convene and powwow. This was my first panel interview, but I wasn’t anxious about that. If anything, I’d been more worried about being late than answering questions. After going through several interviews, I figured that there’s no point stressing. Either I thought of a reasonable answer or I didn’t.

The entire panel grilled me with their most difficult questions. The whole time I couldn’t help but think, was Graphic Artist important enough to merit an entire panel consisting of the Store Team Leader (basically, the person who runs the entire store), the Marketing Team Leader, Regional Sign Support, and half of the Team Leaders? I had something to say for everything, though I hoped that I was specific enough in my answers. Throughout this entire process, from the first phone call to the tour to the interview, they kept repeating that this wasn’t a glamorous position. Of course it wasn’t. What position is glamorous? Every job has its grunt work, and sometimes you might get a glimmer of excitement. Next concern, please.

Let’s talk about the peach project. Here I had what I thought was my biggest faux pas. I hadn’t thought to ask if it’d be okay to include original hand illustrations. Sitting in the chair facing the panel, I suddenly felt the full weight of me being grilled on the spot. What if they wanted someone who was resourceful with only what had been provided in the toolkit? They had to maintain brand standards somehow across hundreds of stores across the US. It was too late to backtrack. I added something to the effect of, “I’ll make sure to ask for permission next time.” If there was a next time.

Then the clincher. Chalk “frozen at the peak of freshness.” Three minutes. Go. I grabbed a paper and pencil, sketched something fast, then took the white chalk marker, and wrote the whole sentence before going back in to add icicles to “frozen.” My old art professor would have been proud—draw the big picture, then zero in on the details.

Time was up, and my chalk looked pathetic. There was nothing for it. It’s so bad, I never took a photo to document it, so no, you don’t get to see my pathetic chalk.

The Marketing Team Leader, the lady who I first spoke to on the phone, seemed as though she was rooting for me, but nothing was certain, especially now that I’d learned that Whole Foods Market liked to promote from within before taking on outside candidates.

I went home and made myself two fried eggs, all the time thinking that originally I’d have been on the bus to Dallas by now. My phone rang while I was mid-bite, and I rushed to swallow.

I got the job.

We celebrated when I got to Dallas. My days as a sort-of-unemployed-freelancer were over, and a new era of my life was about to begin.

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A much more polished version of adding icicles to handlettering

 


 

I learned a great many things once I started working:

  1. As I mentioned, Whole Foods Market loves to promote from within. I don’t know if the other two candidates were internal or external, but regardless, I managed to clear that hurdle.
  2. People are much friendlier at Whole Foods Market. For one, everybody says hi. I’d fallen out of habit at my old workplace, where everyone would silently glide past cubicles—like ghosts.
  3. Whole Foods Market just went through a restructure and cut the position of Graphic Artist Assistant. That’d been the actual name of the position at Sugar Land that I had applied for. I don’t really consider myself lucky, not when you compare to the things that happen to my boyfriend (100th customer and free meal at Chick-fil-a anyone?), but I do think that I’m lucky in work. I’ve managed to find clients or companies who pay me on time and with unexpected perks—a much larger than anticipated paycheck or really great coworkers. This time? My luck was landing Graphic Artist, no assistant, and a terrific Marketing Team Leader.
  4. At Whole Foods Market, I’m known for being calm and serious. At my last job, I tended to laugh a lot, as though I had to make up for the lack of humor. But here, there’s so much humor and high-strung emotions from stress that I do the opposite. You need a sign pronto? Okay, will do. Something’s not working out? We’ll figure out a solution. Gotta keep moving. I send out emails that would be considered professional in the corporate world, but here at my little store in Bellaire, people think I’m mad that no one returns the scissors in my office. I’m not mad. I just need scissors to do my job, so if you borrowed them, by all means borrow them, but please bring them back.
  5. Retail moves at lightning pace. And lightning pace is me. At my last job, time crawled. I earned the nickname “Speedy Gonzales” for finishing what normally took a full week in only three days. Here at Whole Foods Market, sign prices needed to be accurate or we’d very likely have an unhappy guest complaining to the shift leader.
  6. Groceries still manually count inventory once every quarter. Yep. Every single granola bar or bag of chips on the shelf has to be counted by a living, breathing person. You would think in this modern day and age that there’d be machines counting inventory. Nope. During inventory I tend to count in Vietnamese. It’s a subconscious decision, as though for the simplest, most monotonous task, I need to make it a little more challenging, even if that means counting in a language that I’m not as fluent in. So if you ever catch me counting out loud in Vietnamese, that’s where it comes from.
  7. Bellaire is the place to be. People get promoted to Regional or Global from Bellaire. The Team Leaders are dedicated. We have an established, loyal guest base. If Wilcrest (or Westchase as it’s now known) had an open position, I’m too loyal to Bellaire to go to another store.

But the two biggest lessons I learned from Whole Foods Market are humility and ambition. Those two concepts don’t seem to go hand in hand, but surprisingly, they do.

It’s ironic because I came to understand why the Marketing Team Leader wanted to make sure I had no notions of glamor in this job. Other Graphic Artists were divas about their job. While it’s true that artists need to have a bit of the diva about them to get their name out there, Graphic Artists, to me, aren’t supposed to be known by name. We are just another cog in the great wheel of Whole Foods Market to carry out brand standards in signage. Invisible. Serving a greater purpose. Sounds boring and unglamorous to you? As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that there is something valuable in working together towards a unified vision rather than spouting your ego at the top of your lungs. It’s a similar realization I made when transitioning from singing solo all throughout high school to becoming an acappella member and providing the accompaniment for the soloist. A song’s strength depends on both the accompaniment and the soloist. If you only have one, the experience isn’t the same. The same is true of graphic designers and those who work behind the scenes. We help present the front that you see, even if you don’t see us. Humility, to me, means understanding how your role fits into the bigger picture.

Just because you are humble doesn’t mean that you don’t have ambition. Some coworkers are much older than me, others younger than me and already in positions of leadership. Some want to grow within Whole Foods Market and have their eye on Store Team Leader or Regional or Global one day. Many coworkers look too young to be mothers or fathers, but I later find out that they do have children, and for that, I have incredible respect for them. Others are grandparents, close to retirement, and they’re still on their feet for a full shift of eight hours. They’re working in retail and managing to support families or buy a BMW. Anything is possible. You don’t have to go the traditional route of college and a string of office jobs to be successful. You can be successful right here, right now with what you have.

I’d already given up on the idea of graduate school, mainly because I don’t think it’s what I need right now. Maybe in the future. But when I originally applied for Graphic Artist, I thought it was going to be temporary. Six months. A year. One of my own sisters had called this job a “gig,” which irked me to no end, and another had assumed I’d taken on a cashier position before I said, very clearly, that I was a Graphic Artist. As time went on though, I was happy being where I was because this job taught me so much about life that I never learned at my previous job. In the corporate world, it’s easy to be selfish. Here at Whole Foods Market, I’ve learned to be more understanding, to think beyond myself. I’m still not selfless, but there are constant, everyday reminders to be generous with time, be generous with effort, be generous with understanding. Whole Foods Market is not perfect, but Whole Foods Market does get some things right. There was no room for me to grow at the store level, so I set my sights on jumping to Regional, or Global even. I didn’t make it to either Regional or Global, but I also have no regrets with the fact that I stayed as a Store Graphic Artist far longer than I originally intended.

Again and again, I see how important it is to be humble and appreciative of what we have. Without it, we always see the grass as being greener in someone else’s pasture. I know where that road can go. I once thought I could find better than what I had. It led me down a road of mistakes until I hit a major pothole, at which I realized what was happening with my life and made a u-turn out of there.

No one has said aloud that I’ve “settled” in my job, but I sense the unspoken expectation that as a high school valedictorian and Rice graduate, I should be aspiring to higher ambitions. I should be climbing the corporate ladder. I should be firing it up at a startup. I should be having art shows left and right. I should be doing something meaningful with myself or at least making oodles of money to compensate. Some Team Members don’t have a degree, others working towards one, and others might have one, and we’re all here at Whole Foods Market. Some of us aspire to be Store Team Leaders, others Regional or Global or beyond, and others nowhere but the job and the store we’re currently serving.

There is no shame in doing work that you enjoy. I love my job, I’m living my kid dream, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Lettuce embrace food puns!

 


 

In August 2017, Amazon bought Whole Foods Market.

And nothing changed. At least, not right away. Eventually they dropped prices in a series of waves, the first right smack in the middle of Hurricane Harvey and the other some time in January.

At any rate, I wasn’t too worried. Sure, mergers usually meant jobs would be cut, but as far as Graphic Artists were concerned, we had a plateful of work every week. My guess was that Graphic Artists had anywhere between six months to a year before we’d get axed. And while I knew that I should probably begin the job search to get ahead of the game, I found myself not wanting to because it would become too real—that I would be leaving the job that I love one day.

Six months went by and still no sign of transition although the whispers were getting louder. Maybe, just maybe, Graphic Artists would last for a year—or a year and a half. Anything to stretch out my time at Whole Foods Market.

In the middle of March 2018, my store was picked for a series of walks by the top people in the region. Bellaire flew into a frenzy to get everything in place. Then two days before the walk, it was suddenly canceled for a very important Global meeting in Austin. I walked in on a Thursday morning to find an invite to a mandatory conference call that same afternoon. I knew it couldn’t be good, especially when the Store Team Leader invited me to sit in on the call in her office when I could very well take it in my own office.

We packed into the closet-like office—the Store Team Leader, both Associate Store Team Leaders (or only one? I don’t remember), the Store Support Team Leader (my direct leader), and me. Roll call for all of the stores in the region took a good fifteen minutes. When the call finally got rolling, they launched into the new direction Marketing would take in the future—and that future didn’t include Graphic Artists or Metro Marketers.

In that instant, I wished I wasn’t sitting in the Store Team Leader office with all eyes trained on me. I was so busy carefully composing my face to stay the exact same that it took a much longer time for the news to sink in. I mean, what emotion could I feel? Everyone in Marketing had known it was coming. We simply hadn’t known when and who would be affected. And here it was, the reason to begin the job search. I was handed the official letter along with a sticky note of my severance package based on how long I’d been working for Whole Foods Market.

When I got back to the privacy of my office, I let out my first tears. Whole Foods Market was one of the last big companies to hire full-time artists. Besides Trader Joe’s and a few Central Markets, our options were getting slim. Who else would take us in and make use of so many skilled artists, the ones who didn’t want to freelance or work as a contractor? What will the world be without hand-drawn beauty? Most of the world doesn’t realize how important visuals are, but take it away and the world will be a vastly less interesting and engaging place.

And my family at Bellaire. All the Team Members who regularly pop in to check in on me—M down the hall, B dropping off used ink toners and cartridges, H on break, J or A from Front End stopping by, K with the daily package drop-off run, Y saying hello, L when she’s officing from Bellaire, and all of the many Team Members with requests for signage.

I cried the whole way home. What would I tell my parents? I decided not to. It would only confirm their fear that artists were unemployable, the reason why they were originally so adamant against my major in Visual Arts. I’ve had jobs in the past, I still have one for now, I will find a job in my field. I might have to return to the corporate world or the oil and gas industry. My only consolation is that I’ll make more money and it’ll only be for less than a year, until my boyfriend moves for residency.

It took me a few days for reality to hit. Once it did, my motivation kicked into gear and I began churning out application after application. My boyfriend came home for two weeks of Spring Break and wanted to play board games all the time. In addition to working full-time and job hunting, I also had to meet deadlines for contract work on the side. Needless to say, I was a little grumpy.

In the middle of it all, my boyfriend proposed to me at a beach at sunrise.

I spent one day in blissful happiness before reality returned. I had four breakdowns in a week over wedding planning. Once I outlined as much as I could for the wedding, I went back to the job hunt at full speed. Now I had another reason to find a higher-paying job—to finance the wedding and our future life together. I couldn’t keep it a secret from my parents anymore, and to my surprise, my parents were incredibly supportive about my employment status. Which goes to show that I might be stressing over all the wrong things.

In recent months I started changing the A-frame chalk at the front of the store in full view of customers instead of dragging it back of house, out of sight from customers. I’d park myself out front with my supplies: a towel, a bottle of Spitfire, disposable gloves, an array of chalk markers, an actual piece of chalk, a Magic eraser, and a sketch or mock-up of what I’m going to draw. I’d say about 25% of customers took the time to stop or comment.

“Oh, you’re the person behind the chalks!”

“I wish I could write as beautifully as you.”

“Glad to see some young folks know how to handletter.”

Before when I didn’t know the end was coming, I’d smile and thank them, flattered they’d taken a moment out of their day. Now, I smile on the outside and think to myself:

Not for long. Enjoy it while it lasts.

You could too, if you wanted to put in the time and effort.

That number is dwindling, and even I am winging it. They used to train for this kind of work.

My favorite part is when a little kid, usually under five, stands behind my shoulder and watches me. One of these kids might want to grow up and be a chalk artist at Whole Foods Market, like me. But they’ll never get the chance. Their parents will enroll them in music, sports, math, science, anything but art. They’ll squash it out of the kids because it’s every parent’s fear to have a starving artist on their hands, bumming out of their basement while saying things like a signed urinal is a piece of art. Or if they do get to do art, they’ll never get the chance to be a chalk artist at a grocery store because Whole Foods Market is ending my position.

Am I a dying breed or are we meant to evolve into something else?

The second time I cried was during preparation for Team Member Appreciation Week, which usually takes place in April. As I put together the calendar of events and made cute pizza/pie coupons, it dawned on me that this would be the last TMAW I’d ever help out with as a Graphic Artist. Who will do the calendar of events in the future? Who will make all the custom signage for last-minute price changes? Who will advise Team Members on brand standards? At some point, we—the Graphic Artists—have to let go. The rapid pace of retail will survive. In fact, it’ll thrive and swallow up the gaps until no one remembers the era when every store had two or even three Graphic Artists to build life-size gingerbread houses for a Christmas installation in the foyer.

The third time I cried was when the Metro Marketers left at the end of May. I only saw them once a week when they popped in to check on their assigned stores, but every visit offered gems of wisdom, friendship, and a sense of community. While they were here, we were in it together, all of us paddling hard and offering canteens of moral support. Without them, we’re alone, the last wave to fade out. As Graphic Artists, we don’t get to spend much face time with each other. Our support comes in the form of emails or phone calls or social media or covering another store when a Graphic Artist is out. Each of us is an island floating in the wide ocean. We can’t see each other, but we know we’re all out there somewhere.

The fourth time I cried was the Monday of the last week I had scheduled myself. To be honest, these last three months had been a blur between wedding planning and job hunting and losing motivation. I continued to submit my weekly schedule and attend team meetings, though every time I had less and less to say. Packages continued flooding my office, but more and more often they came ambiguously without instructions or timelines of when to go up and when to go down. Originally I had written my last day as Monday, July 2. A few days later I changed it to Friday, June 29 because—who am I kidding—I’m not coming in on a Monday. Team Members around here are notorious for not reading emails and signs, and yet surprisingly, several Team Members commented on the date change. On my last Monday, Team Members started expressing their thanks or double-checking that Friday was, indeed, going to be my last day so that they could be sure to say their final good-bye. Other Graphic Artists seemed to have it worse off—no one speaking to them, Team Members taking off with GA supplies, Team Members asking about what to do with the GA office—but I know that I will miss the team at Bellaire more than I’ll realize. Everyone has been either angry on my behalf or sad that I’m leaving or both. As I started making plans to write thank you notes, that’s when it hit me.

This is my last week ever as a Graphic Artist at Whole Foods Market.

The fifth and last time that I cried was on the Thursday of that week. I was working at the Sugar Land location, as I had been since Christmas. Originally I hadn’t wanted to spend one day a week at Sugar Land. I didn’t know the team that well. I didn’t know where anything was in the store. Heck, I didn’t even know where their conference room was until four months in. And I couldn’t access any of the previous Graphic Artist’s files since she locked the hard drive prior to heading out for maternity leave. But if I hadn’t gotten voluntold to go to Sugar Land, then I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet one of the other Metro Marketers and I would have never known the Sugar Land team at all. Though they repeatedly asked me when the other Graphic Artist would return (which I had no idea if she would or not), they always said hello to me and made me feel welcome. After we learned that our position was ending, the other Graphic Artist made the decision not to return. I don’t blame her at all. If I had been in her situation, I would have done the same. As it was, though, I felt bad that Sugar Land wouldn’t have a Graphic Artist to help them transition, so I continued to come once a week until the very end. With the way timing turned out, my last week fell on the same week as Inventory, meaning many of the usual Team Members weren’t there during the day while I was working. As I was writing my goodbye email to Sugar Land, one of the Associate Store Team Leaders came in to ask me when I was leaving. I said in another two hours or so. One hour later, she came back with a card signed by Team Members. Inside it held a $50 gift card. I hugged the ASTL and stayed cheerful about future prospects, but as soon as she left, I started to cry. I hadn’t been at Sugar Land for all that long and not even that often, but they still thought to give me a parting gift. It was more than I had expected. Would my home team do as much for me the next day?

Friday flew by in a blur. In the last few weeks I hadn’t been all that motivated and I kept waiting for a transition plan, so I left a lot of the cleaning to the very last day. I threw out old danglers I’d held onto for future custom projects, which now would never be needed. I threw out any collateral from old seasonal toolkits so that no well-intentioned Team Member would bring it out on the sales floor. I threw out all the scraps of paper I’d accumulated from trimming paper over the years. I cleared off my desk and finally wiped down all the dust. I cleaned off a stack of chalkboards with Spitfire for the last time. I shipped the last shipment of empty toner cartridges to be recycled. I went to my exit interview. I came back to fire off my last round of thank you emails.

A couple of Team Members dropped by to say goodbye, but again, Inventory had taken place the previous night and not many were present that morning. Again, one of the ASTLs dropped by to ask when I was leaving. I said in about two hours. One hour later, a Team Member said that the ASTL wanted to see me in the conference room. I had an inkling I knew what this was about. I went down to the conference room and—

Surprise! At least ten or twelve Team Members had packed into the room, which was an impressive number considering how lean labor had gotten in recent years. Both ASTLs were there. The Store Team Leader, unfortunately, was not there, but she’d left me a handmade card at my desk. Bakery had made a Berry Chantilly Cake with the words, “Thank you so much, we will miss u!” The Bellaire Team also gave me a signed card. The longest handwritten message came from one of the Team Members who I trained as a backup Graphic Artist for those days I was away at Sugar Land since she was currently pursuing an Associate’s in Graphic Design. I remember in the beginning, I’d hoped that eventually she’d get the chance to become a full Graphic Artist in her own right and be able to call the shots at her own store. But now she’ll have to find her first design job somewhere else. There are many other great opportunities out there, but I felt that Whole Foods Market would have been a great starting point. The culture is quirky enough that you have the freedom to experiment and be creative while also providing you with the framework of company branding.

I was surprised that I didn’t cry on my last day. Looking back, I think I had just been too busy wrapping things up before I left and I’d had more time to process it at my home store. Sometimes I wonder if I made a mistake not staying on with the team in another capacity. While I love my family at Bellaire, I know in my heart that I am first and foremost an artist. Other Team Members are chameleons, transferring to Receiving or Front End or a product team, but for me, art drives my ambition. So onward with art I go.

 

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Goodbye Party at Bellaire

 

I’m no longer as fervent a fan of Whole Foods Market as I’d been while employed, but Whole Foods Market still has a special place with me. Bellaire will always be my home base, even though I live closer to at least three other locations. I wondered if I would be one of those people who never returned to Whole Foods Market. As luck would have it, I was in the area near Bellaire on the last day my Team Member discount card was active, so I dropped in to pick up a few last items for Fourth of July. It felt natural saying hello to everyone. There were a couple of Team Members who didn’t even know I’d left the company or that I didn’t get to see on Friday, so I said another round of goodbyes. After checking out, the Front End team gave me another signed card, the first one they’d made that had gotten misplaced on my last day, so now I have two signed cards.

How honestly do I feel about my time with Whole Foods Market? Despite the ups and downs, I enjoyed my time there and am so glad that I had the opportunity to experience being a Graphic Artist at a grocery store. I’ll miss swinging by the Hot Bar on the days I forgot to pack lunch from home, or grabbing six pastries for $12, or checking Produce for fresh local basil. I’ll miss seeing all the friendly faces I’ve gotten to know over two and a half years. I’ll miss wandering around the store knowing I have the power to go back of house and work on signage that guests will see every time they shop at Whole Foods Market Bellaire. I wasn’t there for the days when a team of Graphic Artists would construct elaborate in-store installations, but I’m glad I got to taste a little bit of it, enough to realize my kid dream—which is true! One of the ASTLs asked me if I had made it up, but I’m being serious about wanting to be that person behind the chalks. And it’s kind of a weird feeling being able to fulfill something I’d always dreamed about. What other dreams do I have that I can make happen? The world is full of possibilities, and this is just one of my chapters in life. Here’s to the next one, wherever that may lead!

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I’ll always love drawing food!
Reflection: The End of an Era

Music and Magic

February 26, 2016

I wasn’t a big fan of Rachel Platten, and yet I was going to her concert in Dallas, Texas at Granada Theater. My boyfriend M and I love live music, and the weekend I came to visit he bought tickets to the only artist whose name we recognized.

Rachel’s biggest song to date was “Fight Song,” a fantastic anthem describing her struggle to stardom. I admired her for persevering. She was the same age as my middle sister—her at 34, me at 24. I hoped I would achieve something in the next ten years. If anything, Rachel’s fight to fame proved that if you wanted it enough and worked hard enough, you could get there.

By the time I got off the Megabus, I was late and starving. M made salmon for dinner, which I wanted to savor, but Granada was standing room only. We had to get there early if we wanted good spots. I didn’t even take time to change into the outfit I’d set aside for the concert. We arrived during one of the opening acts. After settling on a spot with a decent view of the stage, we finally focused on the singer. She was tall, or she looked tall in black shorts that emphasized the line of her legs, and she had a good voice, a stunningly good voice. She had a clear tone while also keeping it a little rough on the edges. She regularly switched between her breathy and her belting voices with hardly any effort. I tried to catch the lyrics to look her up by song, but the words “some day my prince will come” were too strongly linked to Disney’s Snow White to get me what I wanted.

“I wonder who this is,” I said.

“Let’s figure this out.” M pulled out his phone. Within minutes he found the name of the opening act: Christina Grimmie.

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“No way. Like the YouTube star, Christina Grimmie?”

“Yeah, the one who made the cover of ‘Just a Dream’ with Sam Tsui and Kurt Schneider.” Both Sam Tsui and Kurt Schneider had attended Yale, also M’s alma mater, which was how M discovered the cover to Nelly’s song featuring Christina Grimmie.

Up on the gigantic screen next to the stage that we had somehow missed before, live tweets to @therealgrimmie continuously scrolled down the black background.

I bemoaned my own slowness. “We should have gotten here earlier.”

M shrugged. “We didn’t know.”

M’s sister, currently attending the University of Texas, saw our Snapchats at Granada and asked if she should see Rachel Platten in Austin the following night.

We told her yes and make sure you go on time to see Christina Grimmie.

Too soon, Christina Grimmie’s set ended, and she disappeared in the darkness of the stage. I almost wished this was her concert instead of Rachel Platten’s. Though Rachel did not disappoint—she sounded great live—my ears lingered with the haunting melodies from Christina Grimmie.

 

May 29, 2016

Today’s destination: the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I would finally be able to experience the wondrousness of all things Harry Potter in full.

It all began in third grade. I used to pride myself for resisting mainstream trends. Even then, I wanted to be niche and alternative. But my mom wanted me to read more, and she somehow found out that kids my age were reading this phenomenon called Harry Potter. One afternoon, she dragged me to the school library.

“Mrs. G, do you have any Harry Potter books for my daughter to read?” my mom asked in her thick Vietnamese accent.

The friendly librarian beamed. “Excellent choice! They’re the number one book series right now.” Mrs. G checked the system. “It looks like all of them are checked out. Wait one moment—”

Mrs. G ducked into her office, then returned with a book: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “This is my personal copy,” she told me, “but I know you’re a very trustworthy student, so I’ll let you borrow it.”

I couldn’t very well say no after that. So at home, I cracked it open and jumped into the middle of a seven-year storyline that made no sense to me. Who was this Tom Riddle kid, and why was he so important to the rest of the book? The Quidditch Worldcup scenes were boring, too, but I slogged through it, and after I finished it, I prowled through the Scholastic catalog and asked my mom to buy me Book #1 and Book #2 so that I could start from the beginning and be prepared for Movie #1. Then I acquired Book #3, also through the Scholastic catalog, and got my mom to buy me Book #4 from a brick-and-mortar store.

“So,” Mrs. G chirped as Hamilton the puppet hamster, “who knows the title of the next Harry Potter book coming out this summer?”

All the way in the back row, my hand shot to the ceiling, Hermione-esque.  “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix!”

The longest book in the series, I managed to finish it in three days before passing it along to my middle sister, the only one in my family who also hopped aboard the Hogwarts Express. I hated Professor Umbridge, and Harry was so annoying with all of these anger issues (I’d yet to be a teenager myself at that point).

As soon as Book #6 hit the stores, I dragged my mom to Kroger for fear there’d be a line like I’d read on the internet of people camping outside bookstores from midnight. Not a single person crowded the display at Kroger except for me, but I didn’t care. I wanted to race through Book #6 before spoilers got to me first.

Then I bought the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and there ended Rowling’s seventeen years of work. The movies stretched the magic a little longer, but by summer of 2011, there was nothing to look forward to anymore. No more classes at Hogwarts. No more sneaking around under invisibility cloaks and conjuring patronuses. No more summer holidays and Christmas dinners with the sprawling Weasley family. In fact, I missed holidays with the Weasleys the most. I come from a large family of five kids, and the Weasleys are exactly how I imagined big families should be, not like mine, scattered around the country, only coming together a few times a year and usually only some combination of us. The other scene I cherished is in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in which Harry writes history essays at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour with ice cream on the house. I didn’t care for thrilling battles; I lived for those daily moments.

Five years after the last movie, I was in Orlando, Florida with the crew—M, his sister R, and a mutual high school friend, C. M and R read up strategies on which rides to ride first to beat the lines and make the most use out of that extra hour before general admission to Universal Studios. I didn’t care. I just wanted to see Hogwarts, breathe Hogwarts, live Hogwarts.

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Strategy apparently required us to run from the entrance all the way to the very back of Universal’s Island of Adventure for the ride “Forbidden Journey” at Hogwarts. The instant I saw Hogsmeade Village and its ridiculous snow-capped eaves Memorial Day Weekend, I was struck by two thoughts: 1) I want to explore every nook and cranny of this place! and 2) This is so awfully fake—why am I torturing myself like this? The crew didn’t let me do either. They dragged me to Hogwarts, which turned out to be a very, very, very long and tortuous waiting line crawling through Hogwarts’s innards. I was both awed and disappointed—awed by all the details they put in, like having the photos move in the newspaper clippings, and disappointed in that I didn’t get to explore Hogwarts like a real Hogwarts student. I wanted to meander the corridors, visit the Gryffindor common room, go up to the owlery, see the sky in the Great Hall—but no, Hogwarts was merely a waiting line for some amusement ride I had no wish to ride.

As for the ride itself, if I was flying on a broom—actually flying my very own Nimbus Two-Thousand—I probably would have loved it, but no four-person contraption swinging us around like a yo-yo could compare. When we came out, I learned that we had a photo taken in the middle of the ride.

“Yeah, didn’t you see the flash?” said C, like it was common knowledge that Universal Studios would take your photo while you’re trying your best not to be sick or fall out of the contraption to your untimely death.

My eyes were squeezed shut in the photo. The crew teased me for it, but I didn’t care. I was determined to tell them, “I’m exploring Hogsmeade while y’all ride the roller coasters.”

Never got the chance. Next thing I knew, we were boarding the Hogwarts Express (only after meandering through another long, tortuous waiting line). I found it extremely disorienting to stare out the fake window, which was in fact a screen showing a video of the Weasleys riding broomsticks and the Knight Bus careening around muggles. I, however, loved the frosted compartment doors, which doubled as videos of Harry’s, Ron’s, and Hermione’s silhouettes traipsing through the carriage (“Oh look—a bunch of fuhst yearsthough I jumped at Hermione’s voice; they’d gotten someone other than the iconic Emma Watson to say her lines).

We emerged from the London Tube to pass through a brick wall into Diagon Alley, which was easily three times the size of Hogsmeade. I had to explore every nook and cranny of Diagon Alley until I carried a perfect map in my mind.

But no, the crew dragged me to “Escape from Gringotts” in which we slogged through another long, tortuous line, and then I suffered through roller coaster-esque drops that made me think oh s***, how did I get myself into this? After a non-Harry Potter ride we strategically had to visit, I finally broke off from the crew.

My Strategic To-Do List: 1) explore Diagon Alley, 2) ride the Hogwarts Express going towards Hogwarts, and 3) explore Hogsmeade Village.

In Diagon Alley, I methodically combed every single shop in counterclockwise-order. To my delight, Universal included an air-conditioned Knockturn Alley complete with a ceiling bewitched to look like constant nighttime. Every ten minutes, the dragon perched atop Gringotts Bank spouted fire so hot, I could feel the burn even a hundred feet below. Kids in robes (costing $100+) ran about waving wands to shoot arcs of water or make skeletons dance. With butterbeer stalls at every corner, I could imagine the everyday hustle, that daily life I craved from the books. As fake as all the sets were (some shops were merely facades, and no, green M&Ms disguised as the Weasley Twins’ U-No-Poo were not going to make you poo), walking around a place called Diagon Alley was physically real—and that was magic to me.

 

June 11, 2016

Exactly two weeks later on a Saturday morning, I woke to my alarm at 8:30 am. The only reason I was awake this early on a Saturday was because I had too much work to do and needed to knock out a few hours’ worth of chalk drawings at Whole Foods Market. To get my brain going, I stayed in bed, scrolled through Facebook, and—

Christina Grimmie shot dead at concert venue – ktnv.com

I stared at the link. This was a joke. This had to be a horrible joke. Christina was about my age and a rising star. No way was she dead.

I clicked on the link. It was no joke. Christina had been shot three times while signing autographs after a performance in Orlando, Florida. I shared the link to M and dropped my phone on the pillow.

Christina had been alive just three months ago. I saw her perform. In Dallas. About forty feet away from me. Wikipedia said she was 22, a mere two years younger than me, the same age as R, and she was no longer alive. The surreal detail was Orlando, a city I had walked around in, gone on Uber rides, and experienced Hogwarts. A Brazilian Uber driver had said to the four of us with a shudder,

“No Texas for me. Too many guns.”

But Orlando has guns, too.

On the drive to work, “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire popped up on my iPod. I loved both the movie version and the version featuring Nicole Sherzinger of the PCDs, but today I was thinking about another version—the acappella cover by Peter Hollens and Alaa Wardi, two fellow YouTube stars. They must have known about Christina Grimmie if they hadn’t collaborated with her. And what about Sam Tsui and Kurt Hugo Schneider? They definitely collaborated with her. How well did they know her and what was going on in their minds? It would have been one thing if, say, Beyonce had been targeted. Everyone knows of her, and she had countless songs make it to the Top 40. Christina Grimmie had competed in The Voice, trained under Adam Levine of Maroon 5, and become good friends with Selena Gomez, but how did any of those things possibly make her a target in the shooter’s mind? Selena had been performing only miles away from where Christina was shot.

At work, I opened up Spotify and listened to Christina’s latest album, Side A. That first song, “Snow White”—that was the one Matt and I heard her sing at Granada.

Some day
my prince
will come
for me

Save
me from
this harm
that haunts me

Did she ever meet her Prince Charming? Her brother, Marcus, and she apparently had tattoos that said “Player 1” and “Player 2,” a symbol of their strong sibling-ship. He had been there in Orlando with Christina and “tackled the gunman,” as the news said. He prevented anyone else from getting hurt, the princeliest deed anyone could have done in that situation, but even he couldn’t save his younger sister from harm.

The song with Christina’s vocals that I loved the most wasn’t on Spotify—not on hers, not on Sam Tsui’s, not on Kurt Hugo Schneider’s page. Nelly’s “Just a Dream” had been good on its own, but the Schneider-Tsui-Grimmie cover on YouTube blew me away. I pulled up the video, and already, Kurt had added, “I am devastated, sad, angry, and heartbroken. Rest in Peace Christina you will be missed down here.” In the days that I listened to “Just a Dream” again and again, the numbers jumped from 117 million to 118 million plus. Uploaded in 2010, she would have been sixteen. The first time I listened to this cover was just after midnight on early Tuesday, October 30, 2012—about four years ago. M must have shown me a link to one of Sam Tsui’s songs or a collaboration between Sam Tsui and Kurt Schneider. From there I found Christina Grimmie, the real gem in the three-way collaboration of “Just a Dream.” The great hair, the lively expressions, the hand gestures. All of those recorded forever, and they would still be there long after Christina was gone.

That day, Sam Tsui uploaded an acoustic version of “Just a Dream,” just him singing the chorus and first verse:

I was thinking ‘bout you, thinking ‘bout me
Thinking ‘bout us, what we gon’ be
Open my eyes, it was only just a dream

So I traveled back, down that road
Will you come back, no one knows
I realize, it was only just a dream

The song no longer read about a boy and a girl in my mind. This song was about all the young, rising stars in the YouTube music scene—Sam, Christina, Kurt, and so many others. If the ones still living opened their eyes, Christina was just a dream; if Christina opened her eyes, her life was just a dream. Sam echoing Christina as she sings “traveled back, down that road” is like the living echoing the dead. We try to follow them, speak to them, bring them back, but it’s impossible to catch up. The dead are always one step ahead. J.K. Rowling knew that best when she wrote the Mirror of Erised and the cursed ring of the three Deathly Hallows.

I remembered how differently I felt about the Harry Potter series when I reread them all again in 2015. This time, I understood Harry’s teenage angst in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This time, I hated Harry’s perpetual snooping under his invisibility cloak in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This time, I cried so hard at Snape’s fate in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. What had changed since then? Both of my grandmothers passed away. I’d taken them for granted in my life, and now their daily presence, just knowing that they were somewhere on this earth, was gone forever. Now we, as the living, are left with the daunting task of picking up the pieces to patch over the hole left behind.

For a lot of us, I think we wish that life was a storybook, that there’s a clear-cut evil villain and a happy ending, that we know all of our hard work will culminate into something grand and predestined. But life is anything but a story with a climax and denouement. Christina Grimmie never made it as big as Rachel Platten who still hasn’t made it as big as the countless other artists out there, but that doesn’t mean Christina wasn’t successful in her own way, her own time. We each just have to take life day by day, to appreciate those daily moments, and to make every moment count because one day, we might not get those chances anymore.

If you ever loved somebody put your hands up
If you ever loved somebody put your hands up
Now they’re gone and you’re wishing you could give them everything

Said if you ever loved somebody put your hands up
If you ever loved somebody put your hands up
Now they’re gone and you’re wishing you could give them everything

 

 

Music and Magic

Living the Dream

This past weekend I attended a video game convention called DreamHack in Austin, Texas—and it turned out to be one of the most fun weekends I’ve had. I never imagined myself going to a video game convention, not when I play only here and there, but with the persuasion of my fiancé (who I’ll call M) and several friends, I found myself at DreamHack. For a very affordable $30 Saturday pass, DreamHack offered arcade freeplay, console freeplay, tabletop freeplay, VR, artwork, free swag, and tons more—the dream of every gamer.

So why exactly did I enjoy DreamHack? Two things.

1: Analyzing games from a graphic design / artistic standpoint.

Sounds dry and academic? Well, some people might geek out over playing games. I, apparently, geek out over analyzing games as a graphic designer and artist. I am, after all, a full-time graphic artist, and I served as graphic designer / game artist for an iOS casual running game during my undergrad days. My skills in playing games aren’t all that great, so learning a new game always presents a huge learning curve for me.

Proof in point: I have enough trouble moving my character around on-screen while the character is visible. In the Indie Game Alley at DreamHack, my friends and I came across At Sundown, a top-down multiplayer shooter game, in which players control characters who are visible in patches of light and are invisible in the shadows. M said he had to mentally keep track of where his character was at all times. If I was playing, I wouldn’t be sure if my character was where I thought it was or if it was stuck in a corner. By having M play, I get to observe and take in all of the subtle graphics—flashes of lightning, the spurt of colored dust every time a character boosts, the details in each of the different maps. Maybe, too, this goes back to my childhood days when I used to watch my brother play while seven-year-old me sat on his bed. Anyway, isn’t eSports a thing?

2: Cosplay.

For the longest time I wanted to cosplay because it seemed like so much fun—Halloween, but on a bigger, more dedicated scale. As an artist, I’ve got at least some of the skills to make a badass costume. I just couldn’t seem to find the right people to cosplay with or what to cosplay since, as a I said, I don’t really play video games or watch much anime. At DreamHack, I finally got to live out my dream, and it was even more exhilarating than I ever thought it’d be.

Four years ago, my brother introduced me to an indie game called Transistor from Supergiant Games. And it changed my life. (Just like when he introduced me to the Flight Comics Anthology and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and… I’m seeing a trend here.)

As I mentioned, I don’t play a lot of video games. In fact, the last game I played before Transistor was probably The Sims (yup, the original). My brother promised to lend me his Steam account but, in classic fashion, never did. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to play it, so enter my then boyfriend (and current fiancé), who bought it on his Steam account. And that was my introduction to Transistor.

What is Transistor? According to Supergiant Games’s website: “Transistor is a sci-fi themed action RPG that invites you to wield an extraordinary weapon of unknown origin as you fight through a stunning futuristic city.”

I’ll let you enjoy the artwork and music of the launch trailer here. Both art and music are integral to the experience of Transistor.

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If there is such a thing as a “spirit game” (you know, spirit animals, Patronus, etc.) this would be it for me. It’s beautiful. It’s atmospheric. It’s mysterious. It’s intriguing. It’s everything I could want for in a game.

And the character Red? She is my spirit character. She sings (like me). She wears yellow (like me). She’s got a guy (like me). And her outfit is pretty doable for an amateur (like me). A number of cosplayers have already done Red much more accurately, down to a dress that rips off the skirt like in the intro cutscene. My goal was to maximize existing materials that I had for an economical and easy cosplay while still making Red recognizable. I was so excited about Transistor that I went ahead with the outfit for Halloween that year even though it was unlikely that anyone would recognize the character. I was that in love with Red.

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The next part will be more technical going into the details of what exactly went into the cosplay. Let’s face it. Cosplay—good cosplay—is all about the details, just like everything else in life.

What makes Red Red:

  • Yellow dress: Not just any yellow dress. I felt like her long evening gown needed that iconic fishtail design, so I opted for the short version since I conveniently have short yellow dresses in my possession.
  • Black corset with yellow triangle: I searched high and low, but in the end, I couldn’t find any corsets that went straight across. Luckily, one of my sisters used to be a fashion designer, so she left behind a stash of fabric to make my own corset/belt.
  • Black/brown jacket with yellow triangle: I originally tried to find a cheap men’s jacket since the jacket belonged to Red’s lover, the “Boxer,” for both M and me to match each other. Anything that looked like the one in the game, however, cost a fortune, plus I was worried that it would look too oversized on me. I ended up buying a more accurate women’s jacket from my go-to, Forever 21, while M bought a cheap jacket from Amazon. Add yellow triangles to both. Done.
  • Knee-high black boots: Red’s boots have yellow accents. I’d always wanted knee-high black boots for everyday wear, so I bought a pair and didn’t make any alterations.
  • White feather collar: Red’s signature collar is structured with the feathers splayed outwards and bigger feathers at the back of the neck. I didn’t feel like tracking down feathers of different sizes and gluing them into a collar, so I bought a white feather boa, wrapped it around white pipe cleaners and trimmed it shorter around the ends. Beware—loose feathers everywhere, and it itches.
  • Yellow nails: I rarely paint my nails and own only two colors—opaque yellow and translucent sparkly yellow, which are perfect. The opaque yellow lays the groundwork and the “live wire” yellow adds an extra sparkle to brighten and add dimension.
  • Triangle ring: I couldn’t find one with a circle inside the triangle or a yellow triangle. The best I could do was a triangle ring covered in rhinestones.
  • Transistor sword: Perhaps the biggest and most important piece. I found a super detailed blog explaining how to build a true-to-size transistor sword, but it would have blown my budget buying enormous pieces of colored plexi—not to mention the effort to cut, glue, and put it all together, or the hassle of carrying it with me when I traveled via bus to Dallas or anywhere else. I really wanted it to light up, so I found a set of tiny LED lights and built a transistor pendant based on the size of the LED light. It’s undeniably the coolest piece of the outfit.

The first time around for Halloween, I went without three things:

  • Blue contacts: While I’m sure my dad as an eye doctor could have gotten me blue contacts for cheap, I consider contacts too invasive for my personal comfort.
  • Sheer thigh-high stockings: It seemed impossible to find a cheap pair of sheer thigh-highs that weren’t overly lacy or used a garter. Many online reviews said that thigh-highs without garters tended to roll down. Seeming like too much trouble, I scrapped it and wore tights instead.
  • Red wig: Amazon’s options for red wigs were very limited. Either they would require hair styling, which from my experiments I know I am terrible at, or dying to get the right color. There was nothing cheap enough I was willing to burn my money on. At the time my hair was cut short in a bob, so I opted to buy temporary hair dye instead. When Halloween rolled around, I ended up not using it for various reasons, so the box of hair dye remained unopened for a very long time—two years to be exact. As it collected dust on my desk, it served as a reminder of my lack of dedication to the vision.

 

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Fast forward to a week before the convention.

M texted me to say we should cosplay as Red and the Boxer from Transistor. I asked him if he wanted to do better known characters like Link from his favorite game, Legend of Zelda, or characters from Avatar: The Last Airbender, since we were both fans of the show. He insisted on Transistor saying we’d look cute. With a week to go, there wasn’t much time for me to rustle up a new outfit from scratch, though I later found out why M was satisfied doing Transistor despite it being an indie game with a small fanbase. His outfit was super easy—jacket with yellow triangle, white shirt, black slacks, black shoes, and boxer wraps on both arms.

I, meanwhile, scrambled for last-minute orders on Amazon prime.

The transistor sword. The one I made still lit up, but none of the backup lights worked. If the one in the transistor fizzled out, I was done for. Besides, the first set I ordered was blue bordering on violet, which had always annoyed me. I found LED lights from a different brand with brighter blue. Add to cart.

The red wig. Thankfully, Amazon now had more options. I found a “fox red” wig that exactly matched Red’s curly bob. The shade, however, was browner than I would have liked. All of the bright red wigs were the wrong shape. It was a risk, but I hoped that I could figure out how to dye the wig the right color rather than styling the right-colored wig. Add to cart.

Sheer thigh-high stockings. The bane of my searches. I didn’t trust any of the crazy cheap brands. Besides, they were all either overly lacy or plain and opaque—until I had the bright idea to search for thigh-high compression stockings. I figured if I was buying stockings, I might as well buy something I’d use in the future. Plus with compression stockings, they might stay up better than non-compression. It just so happened that the company that made compression thigh-highs had a lacy version that was simple enough so as not to distract from the overall outfit. Add to cart.

I spent the next couple of days waiting in agony. The notification for the red wig arrived. The notification for the delay on the stockings sent me into mild panic mode. This was probably the one and only time I’d ever wear thigh-highs. Thankfully everything arrived by Thursday.

First things first, I threw the stockings into the wash along with the rest of my laundry.

Second, I took out the bottle of 91% isopropyl alcohol I smuggled from work, poured some in a glass jar, and left a red marker to bleed in it as instructed by a DIY blog for creating your own alcohol inks. A coworker who often makes cosplay outfits for her daughter told me that spraying alcohol inks is a fast and easy way to dye something. So I thought I’d give it a try.

When my mom saw me unwrapping the wig, she asked me what on earth I was wasting my money for (typical Asian parent response—later when my dad came home, he said, “Is that a cat?”). I tried to explain to my mom the concept of cosplaying at a convention, and the best I could get across was a costume ball. Close enough. Intrigued, she asked me to put it on. The wig came with a foolproof cap liner that easily took care of all of my hair. The tricky part was putting on the wig. I struggled a good five minutes trying to keep it pristine and yet secure on my head. Looking in the mirror, I felt enormous self-doubt. When I came out, my mom was unimpressed, plunging me deeper into the abyss of “You’re crazy for wanting to cosplay!” This was further exacerbated when the alcohol ink did nothing to change the color of the wig.

In a panic, I ran to my room and got out the Redken hair makeup from two years ago, all the while praying that it would work because if it didn’t work, there was no time for anything else. I pulled out the plug of the bottle, inserted the sponge, and gave it a good long shake. When I checked on the sponge, there was no sign of red dye. Had I left the product to dry out? I wasn’t going to give up yet. If anything, my time as a Whole Foods Market Graphic Artist had taught me that when priming a new chalk marker, keep shaking until something comes out because something will come out. Shake, shake, shake, shake, shake. Shake it like a polaroiiiiid.

At long last, I saw a sign of red and made my first swipe—bright red. With a huge sigh of relief, I brushed on the product starting from the top of the wig. I figured it was more important to get the top of the wig and fade out to the “fox red” towards the bottom. For one, the makeup slowly stopped coming out of the bottle, so I didn’t know if I’d have enough for the entire wig. For another, I’d read online reviews that most temporary hair dyes tended to stain, and I didn’t want it stain the white boa.

Third, the new LED lights. They were a true blue, not as green as I’d hoped, but blue enough, and they shined much brighter than the old lights.

Fourth, I sat down and painted my nails—three coats of opaque yellow for the base, one coat of live wire yellow to add sparkly dimension—and remembered all the reasons why I never painted my nails outside of cosplaying. Maybe other nail polish is odorless, but the ones I had smelled so strong that my mom could smell it down the hallway. The other reason is the wait time. To pass time, I played several rounds of Two Dots, took a long walk outside with Pokemon Go, and then gingerly moved each article of clothing from the washer to the dryer. Even then the paint was a little chewy on the right hand, and I left a fingerprint on one of the nails.

To top it off, I packed a portable bluetooth music player and my iPod. Just in case anyone asked if I could sing like Red, I could put on some music for accompaniment.

When it came time to pack, my outfit took up an entire suitcase. Everything else had to fit in my backpack. With all the trouble for this one “doable” cosplay, I doubted that cosplaying at the convention would make the effort, time, or money worth it. Besides, what if no one recognized Red? True, at a video game convention, the odds were much better that someone would, but every time I compared my slapdash DIY efforts to the cosplays I’d seen online, my confidence dropped even lower. By the time I arrived in Austin, my confidence was crawling at shoe level. I didn’t even know if I could walk out of the bathroom with the wig on in front of my own fiance, much less strangers, some of whom might be professional cosplayers.

To sweeten the deal, Austin was friggin’ hot. I was sweating in regular clothing, and now I was supposed to don a jacket and wear knee-high boots over thigh-high stockings with an itchy feather boa at my neck and a wig, which I’ve heard from others can be itchy too.

A high school friend, C, picked me up from the bus stop. He’d just gotten off from a successful trip at a military thrift store in which the guy who owned the shop helped him get all of the pieces for Big Boss / Solid Snake and even suggested he go to CVS for the eyepatch. Off we went to CVS and got a classic black eyepatch with the strap around the head as well as some eyelash glue to adhere a piece of “shrapnel” to his head. Afterwards we hopped across the street, where C strode in the store and said to the clerk, “Give me your cheapest cigar.” Then we went to his lab to search for black latex gloves to turn into black fingerless gloves. He said he was going to beat me at the cosplay game the next day. With my confidence at the low, I admitted he might but not to underestimate me. After all, I had a cool light-up pendant and spent way more time working on my outfit than he had.

Come Saturday afternoon, I locked myself in C’s bathroom and proceeded to undergo my transformation. Twenty minutes later I stepped out to a mediocre response. M had already seen my outfit (minus the red wig), and no one else had played the game. C was still confident he would beat me. I had to admit, his was pretty convincing, even if I didn’t know Big Boss (which I didn’t). As M’s cousin drove us to the convention center, I asked for only one thing:

“Can we please crank up the A/C?”

M’s cousin parked in front of the convention center. There was no turning back. I stepped out onto the sidewalk. The world didn’t explode. I helped C pin his scarf back to prevent it from falling over all the time. M and his cousin were a block ahead of us. C and I hastened to follow after them. Lucky ducks without a cosplay or a cosplay that barely counted as a cosplay. With a deep breath, I walked into the convention center.

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No one else in the lobby was cosplaying. What if no one else had cosplayed? At least I was in a group of three cosplayers. So what if no one else cosplayed? I was here to have a good time. We walked up to get our tickets scanned. The guy behind the table lit up.

“Oh my gosh, you’re the first Transistor cosplay I’ve seen! I love that game. Wait—let me come around and give you a hug.”

That hug made my day. I could have been happy if this was the one and only enthusiastic hug I received in my short cosplay career.

“Can I take a picture too?”

Of course!

I walked in with my green wristlet and a bounce in my step. Inside the main hall, most of the overhead lights were off to let the lights from the computers, booths, digital displays—and my transistor pendant—glow in all of their soft-spoken splendor.

As we meandered through the hall to get a sense of where everything was, another guy stopped me.

“I just got through playing Transistor! That game is so great. I’m on my way out, but can I take a quick photo?”

After he left, C said, “Wow. A lot of people don’t play the game, but the people who do sure love it.”

M talked it up for me, going into the finer points of the gameplay that I used to know two years ago.

I got two more requests throughout the day, one from a guy manning an indie game booth and another from a girl in cosplay who I think was a convention photographer.

M, walking ahead of me at one point, fell back to tell me he heard a passerby say, “That’s a pretty good Transistor cosplay.” M and I were the only Transistor cosplayers I saw all day, so it’s possible that it’s only good because we were the only ones. Regardless, I was stoked that people recognized me and extremely flattered that people asked for photos. It made me feel like I was renting celebrity aura for a day. I’m not one much for the spotlight. I don’t know if I would be comfortable being famous for myself, but all the work I put in to make a character come to life, to be able to share it with others, and to interact with fellow fans—it was an exhilarating experience that helped me understand why others might find cosplay so much fun.

M and I are already plotting the next cosplay we might do if given the chance.

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Living the Dream

Wrapping Banh Chung: an Annual Lunar New Year Tradition

banh chung steamed

The Story

Every year around this time, many Asian countries celebrate a major holiday that I realize quite a few people in America have never heard of. Or, if they have, they have no clue what it is or why it fluctuates between January and February. I’m talking about the Lunar New Year. Some might know it better as Chinese New Year, but in fact, many countries other than China celebrate it too. According to Wikipedia, the list includes Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mauritius, Australia, and the Philippines. That’s a lot of people.

In the Gregorian calendar, New Year’s always happens on January 1. The Lunar New Year calendar, however, is based on the moon, which doesn’t line up with the Gregorian calendar on a day-by-day basis. This is why the holiday usually falls some time during January or February but has no fixed date. So if you’re trying to figure out what animal you are in the Eastern zodiac and you’re born during one of these two months, you need to look at whether your birthday fell before or after Lunar New Year of that year. Anyone born through February 15, 2018 of this year will be born in the Year of the Rooster. Anyone born on February 16, 2018 or after will be born in the Year of the Dog.

As for the actual holiday itself, it’s a grand affair that some people might take a week or two off to prepare or visit home, if they live in Asia. As a kid I used to envy the time off. American kids get two weeks off for Christmas, so why can’t Asian kids get two weeks off for Lunar New Year? Now that I’m older, I envy the time off because I’ll never be able to fully experience the preparation and celebration that happens in Asian countries. This year, we consider it lucky that the first day of Lunar New Year falls on a Friday, February 16. The first three days of Lunar New Year are the most important because you spend those days with your family and close friends. With day one on a Friday, this means we get an entire weekend to celebrate.

There’s so much that goes into Lunar New Year that I can’t possibly talk about it all in this blog post. Most people probably best remember getting red envelopes with money, or li xi (“lee see”) in Vietnamese, that elders give to children for good luck. I’m going to focus on an annual tradition that I’ve been doing since 2006—wrapping banh chung (“beng chung” or “ben chung” depending on your dialect), a savory dish that goes back thousands of years to the beginning of recorded Vietnamese history. Vietnamese vendors and supermarkets only sell this dish around this time of year. A lot of work goes into it, so not a lot of families make this at home from scratch. Home-made food always seems to taste better with love though, so my family decided to tackle it, and it’s become a tradition for us as much as it is to put up the Christmas tree every Thanksgiving.

During the Hong Bang dynasty (“hum bang”—c. 1712–1632), King Hung (hung = “hoom”) had eighteen sons. To settle the matter of succession, King Hung declared that the one who offered the best dish to the ancestors would become the next king. The sons immediately dispersed to the farthest reaches of the world. Some climbed into the mountains, others deep into the jungle, and others far out in the oceans to find the most exquisite, the most delectable, the most valuable dish of all. Except for one, the youngest son named Tiet Lieu.

Prince Lieu wasn’t as wealthy as his older brothers, so he couldn’t afford to go off in search of rare or powerful ingredients. One night a god appeared in his dreams and told him that rice is the most valuable food in Vietnamese culture. Upon awakening, Prince Lieu decided to make two dishes—banh chung, a green square-shaped cake to symbolize the earth, and banh day (“beng zay” or “ben yay”), a white circular cake to symbolize the sky. Both are made from rice with everyday ingredients like mung bean or pork belly for the filling.

When the day came for all of the sons to assemble, they laid out their many dishes on the banquet table and waited for the king’s decision. When King Hung saw the two humble dishes, banh chung and banh day, they piqued his curiosity, and he asked Prince Lieu for the story behind them. Upon hearing Prince Lieu’s explanation, King Hung declared the dish as not only delicious but also the most meaningful, taking a staple grain of the Vietnamese people and presenting it as a worthy offering to the gods.

Myth or not, the Vietnamese people continue to enjoy making and eating banh chung today. I first learned the art of wrapping banh chung from my maternal grandmother when I was in middle school, but it would take me a couple more years before I was skilled enough and patient enough to undertake the annual wrapping marathon. In the beginning, my sisters did all of the work while it was my job to measure and cut the string to tie the banh chung at the very end. Now, it’s only my mom and me who do everything from beginning to end (to be honest, mostly my mom—I just do the wrapping and eating).

Before any wrapping takes place, there’s a lot that goes into the preparations. Firstly, my mom and I agree on a date to wrap banh chung. My mom prepares the ingredients in the week leading up to the day, and I find a day in which we have a solid seven to eight hours of time. Ideally, banh chung is a family effort done on the last day of the year so that as soon as the banh chung finishes cooking, we can enjoy a steaming slice at midnight of the new year. While my mom and I usually wrap a couple of weeks beforehand, that doesn’t stop us from enjoying a slice after a day’s hard work wrapping banh chung.

banh chung station

The Preparations

Recipe for about 20 banh chung:

  • 3 packages of banana leaves
    • Notes: This amount can vary depending if the leaves are fresh or frozen and how many leaves are included in a package. Fresh leaves will infuse the sticky rice with stronger coloring (it’ll never be super green without additional dye, but it gets better results than with frozen leaves). Frozen leaves will be easier to wrap with and take up less storage space since it’s not as crunchy and voluminous as fresh leaves. My mom and I prefer fresh. Can be bought at most Asian grocery stores.
    • How to prepare: Leaves need to be washed with water to get rid of any dirt. I ask my mom to keep the leaves as large as possible and only cut them apart where there’s a natural tear because you can always cut down later but you can’t make them bigger. We usually wash them right before wrapping, so I keep a towel on hand to dry them off. Fresh leaves might have a white residue from natural wax. These leaves have stained the white countertop in my kitchen, so be aware of this and either line your workspace or wrap on a surface that won’t stain.
  • 4 lbs mung bean
    • Notes: This can be prepped a day before wrapping. Can be bought at most Asian grocery stores.
    • How to prepare: Rinse the mung bean multiple times until the water runs clear. The more you rinse, the less foam you’ll get later on in the process. Soak for at least 4 hours in clean drinking water until the mung bean expands. If you have a rice cooker, cook the mung bean with ½ tsp salt. If you don’t have a rice cooker, place mung bean in a stainless steel pot with a little bit of oil, ½ cup water and ½ tsp salt. Cook on low heat and stir once every ten minutes to prevent the mung bean from sticking to the pot. Mung bean is fully cooked when it turns opaque and is soft to eat. Using too much water will turn the mung bean into a consistency better suited for dessert (che = kind of sounds like “chyeah” but without the attitude). If the mung bean isn’t soft enough, add 1-2 tsp of water at a time and let the steam cook the mung bean. Once cooled, use a food processor to get the mung bean to a floury consistency and store in a sealed container in the refrigerator.
  • 3 lbs pork belly
    • Notes: This can be bought pre-sliced at most Asian grocery stores. H-Mart seems to know what’s up because they had a TON of sliced pork belly when my mom went shopping. If you prefer to slice at home or can’t find it pre-sliced, slice to 2-3 mm or 1/8” thick. Pork belly is ideal for this dish since it’s got a lot of fat to spread throughout the mung bean and sticky rice during the cooking process. By the time you get to cutting the banh chung for eating, you won’t be able to see any of the fat.
    • How to prepare: Season with black pepper and salt to taste. You can add shallots (see below) for aroma and flavoring. Store in refrigerator until ready for wrapping.
  • 5 shallots, thinly sliced
    • Notes: My mom uses 3 shallots because she’s not a big fan of it, so this is personal preference how much you’d like to include with the meat.
  • 10 lbs sweet rice
    • Notes: This year my mom and I used only 9 lbs because I wrapped 14 medium (5”x5”) and 6 small (4”x4”) banh chung. If I wrapped all medium, I’d probably use all 10 lbs rice. We used to have a large (6”x6”) mold, but the bigger the size, the more rice and mung bean it requires, it’s not as easy to eat at one time, and it requires a bigger pot for boiling. We’ve found that the smaller sizes are better worth the effort and resources. My mom prefers buying the round grain to get a chewier consistency but the long grain sweet rice is more economical.
    • How to prepare: Rinse the rice until water runs clear to get rid of excess starch. Soak for at least 2 hours and up to 6 hours in clean drinking water. Pour out water and let rice drain. Immediately before wrapping, add 3 tsp salt and thoroughly mix in. I often wrap while the rice is still draining so it doesn’t have to be super dry.
  • 3 packages 25’ cooking twine
    • Notes: My grandmother used to use an enormous, neverending roll of red ribbon that you can split along the fiber lengthwise to get thinner strands. That stuff is cheap and lasts forever. My mom, however, doesn’t trust red dye or plastics in most Asian products, so she’s opted for cooking twine, which we get at Bering’s. This can get kind of pricey, so we often save the old twine from last year’s banh chung and reuse them. The twine from last year’s medium banh chung is great for a tieing a small banh chung.
    • How to prepare: My grandmother had a really neat trick for measuring ribbon (or twine) at the right size. She happened to be 5’, which meant that her armspan would also be 5’. Just hold the ribbon across the armspan, snip, and then voilà—your ribbon is the perfect length for a 5”x5” banh chung. I’m about 5’ and my sisters are all 5’4” or taller, so that was another reason why I was conveniently the designated ribbon cutter. I usually measure and cut as I go since I never know how many banh chung I’ll have the energy to wrap, but if you’d like, you can get a headstart on this and cut them ahead of time. For a 4”x4” banh chung, you can take off about 4” of twine.

 

Need the list of ingredients condensed without the notes? Here you go:

  • 3 packages banana leaves, washed
  • 4 lbs mung bean, soaked and ground
  • 3 lbs pork belly, sliced
  • 3-5 shallots, thinly sliced
  • 10 lbs sticky rice, soaked
  • 3 packages 25’ cooking twine

 

Other things you’ll need:

  • A mold
    • Notes: One of my sisters made wooden molds at three different sizes – 4”x4”x1.5”, 5”x5”x1.75”, and 6”x6”x2”. You can wrap banh chung without a mold, but I was trained with one, so I’ll go through the steps for with one.
  • Scissors for cutting twine and/or cutting banana leaves
  • A pot with lid big enough to boil banh chung

 

The Wrapping

Great—you’ve got all the ingredients prepped, now it’s time to get wrapping! What are the steps?

First, you need to find a stretch of banana leaf big enough to make a square diamond around your mold.

1_banh chung_diamond

This is where it comes in handy to have bigger banana leaves. If you’re using fresh, I recommend using the softer part of the leaf so that when it comes time to fold, the leaf won’t crack. With frozen leaves, you don’t have to worry about cracking. Trim off both edges—one edge will be hard where it was attached to the plant, and the other edge is often ragged or brown.

A banana leaf has two sides, a smooth waxy side and a ridged green side. To remind myself which side goes where, I usually think, “Green side out, green side in.” The big square is the outside wrapper of the banh chung, what you’ll see when it’s all tied into a pretty package. So place the leaf ridge side down on the table, then center the mold.

Next, you need to find four panels, one for each side of the mold. They should be about the width of each side or slightly smaller and long enough to cover the bottom of the mold, come up the side, and then fold across. Again, trim off the hard edge and ragged edges. The side panels are where I usually use the “crack-able” part of the leaves because they’ll only need to bend, no folding required. Position the panels as close to the mold as possible with the ridges in towards where the rice will go to get the “green side in.” I like to order them north-south, east-west instead of arranging them north-east-south-west to get a tighter wrap later on.

2_banh chung_panels

Then, you need to find two pieces of leaf about the height of the mold to line the inner corners. This is where you can save and use the smaller scraps as you cut down the bigger leaves. You could theoretically find one super long strip to cover all four corners, but that’s pretty hard to find. Two is less work than finding four pieces for each corner, but if it came to it, you could probably do that. I remember one year, I forgot to place the liners on the first one, and when I lifted the mold, the rice and mung bean came spilling out of the corners, and I had to start all over again. So they might be the smallest pieces, but don’t forget the liners!

3_banh chung_liner

Frozen leaves tend to stay put more easily, but fresh leaves don’t crease well. With one hand holding the panels and liners in place, use the other hand to scoop 1-2 cups of rice. Spread the rice evenly across the bottom, making sure to get the corners. The rice will help keep the leaves in place while you work on laying down the mung bean. Shape the mung bean layer in a slightly smaller square—you don’t want the mung bean to touch the banana leaves since this is the filling. I like to use my thumb to press down on the mung bean and create a smaller square within the mung bean, the “bed” for the pork belly slices.

4_banh chung_filling

The pork belly slices will be too long to fit, so I usually fold them in half and nestle two pieces like an S. For small banh chung you can fit 2-3 pieces. For medium banh chung, 3-4 pieces. When placing a third piece, I try to make it as evenly distributed as possible. The idea is to make sure every piece of banh chung will get a little bit of meat, so it’s important to make sure the meat is placed as close to the corners as possible while staying within the mung bean “walls.” At this point I sprinkle more rice along the outer edges to raise the rice “wall” higher. Then I slowly cover the pork belly with mung bean, continually pressing down with my fingers and always making sure the mung bean stays within the rice “wall.” My mom’s favorite part of banh chung is the mung bean, so I try to pack as much as I can without it spilling over the top. It’s important not to compress the mung bean too much or it’ll be too dense when you eat it.

(In the picture below, it shows Chinese sausage or lap xuong (“lup sung”) as an additional ingredient.)

banh chung wrapping

Once the pork belly is completely covered in mung bean, cover the mung bean with rice. The rice will expand during the boiling part, so don’t put too much rice or it can be overwhelming, but if you can see any mung bean now, then you’ll be able to see the mung bean after boiling. The trick is to cover it as thinly and as completely as possible.

This is where the north-south, east-west orientation comes into play. It doesn’t matter which direction you start with, but whichever panel you pull first, you’ll also do its pair before doing the other directions. For example, pull the north panel tightly across the rice. Trim if needed so it fits perfectly. Now pull the south panel tightly across and trim. Pull the west panel tightly across and trim and repeat with the east panel. With one hand keeping the panels in place, use the other hand to lift up the mold. Set mold aside.

5_banh chung_panels

Wrap the large banana leaf like you would wrap a present. Pull together the left and right corners, fold in the sides and pull the top corner down. Turn 180 degrees and repeat to remaining corner.6_banh chung_wrapping

Position the twine so the center of it is situated under the banh chung. Make sure to keep one hand on the banh chung while you do this or get help from a second pair of hands. Now we’re going to tie the twine so that it makes a 3×3 grid or tic-tac-toe formation. Position the twine underneath the banh chung. Then bring the loose ends together and cross them at right angles. Pull one of the loose ends to come around and repeat the process three more times until you’re at the start again. Tie a secure knot, and now you can re-position the twine to make it more tic-tac-toe-like. I try to tie the knot on the “bottom” side of the banh chung so that in pictures, it’ll be a perfect green grid from the top side.

7_banh chung_twine

Once you’ve got several wrapped, place them in a pot and cover with drinking water. Add salt, put on the lid, and keep at a constant simmer, 6 hours for the medium size or 5 to 5 ½ hours for the small size, always making sure to add water when the level runs low.

When it’s done boiling, take out each one on a plate lined with a paper towel and let cool. If you can’t wait, you can eat a steaming slice. I like to cut my banh chung into a grid of nine pieces. My mom always takes the center one, and I’ll take the sides. If you prefer a more evenly distributed approach, you can slice into eight pieces so everyone gets a little bit of the center. Once cool, you can keep in the refrigerator until you’re ready to eat. To reheat, place in a pot with water and steam until soft (about 1 1/2 to 2 hours).

8_banh chung_slice.png

Another way to eat it is banh chung ran (ran = “zahn” or “rahn”) or fried banh chung. You can either fry it in slices or flatten it to make a pancake. For the first one, slice steamed banh chung into strips and then sear on each side until golden and crispy. For the second, slice steamed banh chung (how you slice it doesn’t matter in this case) and flatten with wooden spoon until it fills the entire pan. When golden and crispy on bottom, flip and wait for it to get golden and crispy on the other side. Then it’s done!

banh chung done

Vietnamese Glossary

Bánh chưng — “beng chung” or “ben chung,” green sticky rice cake symbolizing the earth
Bánh chưng rán — “beng chung zahn” or “ben chung rahn,” fried sticky rice cake
Bánh dày — “beng zay” or “ben yay,” white sticky rice cake symbolizing the sky
Hồng Bàng — “hum bang,” first Vietnamese dynasty during the Bronze Age
Hùng — “hoom,” the name of a Vietnamese king

Wrapping Banh Chung: an Annual Lunar New Year Tradition

Logo Spotlight: Famous Footwear

Every morning on my way to work, I drive down Weslayan past a huge neon sign with logos of all the companies in a strip mall. Of all the logos on that sign, there’s one that got me thinking: Famous Footwear.

At the time, it looked like this:

Famous-Footwear

Actually, the logo on the sign was in black and white. I had no idea Famous Footwear’s primary color was red until I started doing some research. Red or not, I couldn’t help but think, “Why would the designer not line up the right edges of the icon? And what’s the deal with that perfectly circular dot?”

Where the two edges stop might not seem like a big deal, but the fact that they stop at different points meant someone had rationalized the decision. If they were going for some swoosh action, the two different stopping points makes it seem like they’re not in sync and they don’t go on forever. They literally have stopping points. Whereas if the edges were lined up, they’re now in sync and they give the illusion of extending forever. This would have been just a snapshot to make it fit on a piece of paper or a neon sign because you can’t have undefined edges on a physical object.

Well, one could argue that the two different edges better imitate the shape of an F. If you look at the Fs in the name, the top arm is longer than the lower arm. That’s a fair observation except that I’d also like to ask, “Why did they choose a serif font when a sans serif font would have better complimented the icon?”

(What are serifs you ask? Serifs are the little hooks extending from the letters.)

sansserif

Not to mention that the font choice makes it look dated and bland, like something you can find automatically installed with Microsoft Word. It’s okay for local mom and pop shops to use free fonts that come with Microsoft Word if that’s all they can afford (maybe… I personally wouldn’t advise that, but then again, I’m a designer), but it’s not okay for a brand as famous as Famous Footwear, which definitely makes enough profit to hire a designer and get a brand refresh. To get Famous Footwear on Whole Foods Market level (now there’s a company that understands the value of design), they need to ditch the serif font and go for something bolder, maybe throw in some all caps too.

What about the dot? Isn’t it kind of like an O? I mean, they’ve got three Os in their name. Except with the font they chose, the Os aren’t perfect dots, so this one dot feels out of place. A dot that circular looks like a period. And do you really want a period in your logo if you’re a company that’s all about movement and being dynamic and on the go? In case you were wondering, the answer is no. Maybe someone thought the dot was some sort of starting point, the place where the swooshy things come from. Or maybe someone thought the dot kind of looks like a ball, like a soccer ball, and if you wear shoes, you can kick it around. Or maybe someone thought it could be a comet—a comet that’s swirling down to an inevitable crash. Or maybe someone thought it’s kind of like a heel of a foot so the whole icon looks more like a foot. You know, Famous Footwear. We need feet, right?

No.

But it’d be super meta if a shoe company could get a swooshy foot!

Okay. If they really wanted a foot-like logo, I would have turned the dot into a swooshier shape to give it more of a natural flow. Here’s the thing. Their name is Famous Footwear. They sell shoes. They don’t need to bang it over people’s head that they’re all about feet. We know that. What’s more important is to capture the essence of footwear. Footwear means movement, and movement is fast.

This logo probably should have been updated on the early side of the 2010s. I sure hoped that someone at the top was doing something about the branding or else I’d have to spend every day wondering about the design decisions behind this logo.

Lo and behold—around comes 2018, and BAM! They’ve got a new logo on that neon sign. And it looks a lot like what I thought they ought to do. Guess there was only one way to go about updating the logo, which they actually did back in 2014. It’d taken them four years to finally roll out the new logo to this location on Weslayan. Of course, I can’t really talk since Whole Foods Market revamped their logo in 2016 and they haven’t gotten around to updating the logo of my store location either.

famous footwear

Now, I’m not usually a fan of putting an icon in a box because it gives the icon, well, very definite boundaries. In this case, however, I think the box is brilliant. What is a swoosh? Fast moving air? Air doesn’t have a color, so it makes perfect sense for the swooshes to be negative space.The swooshes are effectively flying out of there, breaking the boundaries, and leaving the box in the dust. The period has either gone away or sort of merged into the lower right corner of the box.

As for the text part of the logo, they’ve now updated to two different sans serif fonts. Between the two words, it’s a no-brainer which one should be in all uppercase and bold. The lowercase, thinner font for ‘footwear’ keeps the logo balanced. If everything had been in all caps, it would have felt like Famous Footwear was unabashedly clamoring for attention. In the old logo, they made ‘Famous’ and ‘Footwear’ justified to each other. In the new logo, ‘Famous’ and ‘footwear’ end where they like, carrying on a little bit of that F shape from before. As a graphic designer, my first instinct would have been to make ‘Famous’ and ‘footwear’ the same length, but here, the unevenness perfectly balances the boxiness of the icon. The swooshes have broken out and formed the name of the company. Famous Footwear.

However, something unexpected happens when you invert the logo and have white on red.

FamousFootwear-1462908429

shoes_ib22082

The swoosh has been turned inside out. In the old logo, the swoosh is made of air. In the new logo, the swoosh becomes part of the background and is also literally placed in the background as a design motif. I’m torn because the old logo clearly had its problems in its primary form. But in the new logo, the swooshes lose their effectiveness because they’ve become positive space instead of negative space. The design motif, while clever, seems a bit much repeated in such close quarters to the icon. Maybe they were trying to get some of that negative space back, but to me, it doesn’t succeed because the white text reads as negative space over the design motif, which reads as an object, a thing, anything but air.

On their website, they use the inverted logo, which I think is a mistake. Usually, inverted logos are secondary, used only when you can’t have the primary logo because of the way the colors interfere with legibility or the design scheme. This usually happens when a company is featured in another company’s marketing collateral. For example, a marathon event plans to give out blue t-shirts to everyone and Famous Footwear is one of the sponsors. Famous Footwear’s red would clash with the blue and make it totally illegible. The white logo is the only way to go. Any other color would be off-brand. So if there’s one place in which a company can use its primary logo in all of its blazing full-colored glory, it’s their own website. If you end up using the secondary logo more often than the primary logo, then is the primary logo really the primary logo?

Let’s talk about color. Is red the best color for Famous Footwear?

Everyone knows that red is the most eye-catching color. But just because something is red doesn’t mean that it’ll stand out the way you want it to. First example: on a bulletin board there’s ten different flyers, all red, each featuring something different because every single person who put out the flyer wants theirs to stand out. The whole board is red. Nothing’s going to stand out—unless it’s in a color other than red.

Second example: someone thinks it’ll be a good idea to paint a hospital wall red. They might want to rethink that. Sure, red is a warm color with lots of energy, but maybe it’s too much energy and with too many negative connotations like danger or lots of blood. It’s time to get out those soothing palettes of sage green and sky blue for calming and healing.

Third example: a company’s flyer has a blue background using the blue from the approved palette but then wants one line of text in red to make it stand out. First off, the red should be from the approved palette. If it’s not in the approved palette, it’s got no business being there. Secondly, red should be used sparingly, not an entire sentence smack in the middle of a paragraph. If that information is so important, why is it buried in the middle of a paragraph? Better to break it up and put it in bullets or make it the header or have its own line front and center.

Let’s go back to Famous Footwear. To be honest, I’m not sure what color I would have picked for Famous Footwear. I first saw it in black, so that’s how I think of it—black and white. But maybe I’m biased. A quick Google search shows that a lot of shoe companies have black and white logos: Nike, Adidas, and Puma to name a few. Reebok is both red and black. DSW is a dark gray. Payless Shoesource is blue and orange (has it always been those colors?). New Balance is the only all red one from that search.

Black is so ubiquitous that it’s the default. Black can be powerful, sleek, and luxurious. Or black can be dark, moody, and funereal. Black is understated or a statement, depending on the context. I would have been fine if Famous Footwear had used black. Maybe someone picked all red because they wanted Famous Footwear to stand out. Or maybe the word “famous” can’t be any other color but red. Roll out the red carpet. Famous Footwear is here.

Final Thoughts: The new logo is a definite improvement, and there’s nothing I would personally change. The only thing I would reconsider is using the red logo on white instead of the white logo on red for all things officially Famous Footwear.

Logo Spotlight: Famous Footwear