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When the West is on Fire

The fires in California have me thinking about my own dry, woody state and a wildfire that happened in my valley in July. The mountains and wildlife in my hometown are a piece of art in their own right, and the reality that they could burn away during my lifetime is terrifying.

I grew up in Colorado where we had 300 days of sunshine a year, but when the snow fell, it would stick all winter. Every couple of weeks another blizzard would come through to replenish the supply and we would celebrate another few inches on the mountain with our skis. Winter always went late into the year, and we even experienced occasional May snowstorms. This was no problem for our little town: it was the off-season so local ski-bums could skin up to the top of the most precipitated-on mountain (by this time the ski lifts would not be in service) and make their way down the mountain through an amalgamation of sticky snow, rocks, grass, and dirt. “Spring skiing” is what they called it. Eventually the temperature heats up and the only snow which remains is on the mountains’ peaks, and the flora turns green and vibrant: the grass is silky and from it sprouts smooth, velvet flowers, the forests are thick with the woody smell of pine. During the summer I am always stunned by the presence of life in these plants– I almost overwhelmed by a feeling that they are truly sentient, basking in the energy of the forest and intensity of the Colorado sun just I am. In the fall, our mountains were a gradient of hot colored Aspen trees, so bright that the leaves practically reflected off of our cheeks. Within a month or two comes the first snow fall, light at first, like the tiniest sprinkle of powdered sugar over red and yellow trees.

When I was a child learning about global warming, I did not expect to see the effects of it in my hometown. The snow had been there my entire life, in abundance. The mountains outside my door were my only sense of home, of landscape, Earth, etc. and the snow always came when the trees were still red and it always reluctantly left at the end of May to reveal a lush, wet summer brimming with life. But last year when I came home for winter break, there I was in the middle of December, staring out of my windows at bleak, brown, snow-less mountains. Longtime locals said that there had not been a winter so brown since the 1970s. I worried for my town. While a large percentage of the Aspen population has nothing to lose due to a dry ski season, there is another group of ski company employees and business owners that suffer from the lack of tourism. Beyond economic loss, less snow leads to dry summers. My whole county was placed under a fire-ban this summer: no campfires, no fireworks on the 4th of July, and no cigarette butt left unattended. One month into our third hottest summer in recorded history, two people decided they would fire outlawed tracer bullets at the local shooting range, about 20 miles from my home. A spark from the bullets led to a full on forest fire, incinerating 12,588 acres of land, burning three houses down, and displacing thousands of wildlife animals from their habitat. Next to Highway 82, a road I drove on for my whole life, I saw an entire mountain twinkling with embers and flames. The environment that was my Home and my first understanding of the Earth has disappeared into char and dust because of the carelessness of two people.

I know I don’t have control over what happens to my home. I try to stay present when I’m outside and  feel the vitality of my environment because I know it’s not going to be there one day. If I have seen things change this much in just 20 years of my life, I’m afraid to see what happens next. But the earth is resilient. The earth will fight defend herself how she sees fit and give right back to us what she receives. Maybe we’ll be compelled to take action, or maybe we’ll sit back in fear.



“The Assassin” and Pacing in Action Movies

Despite being about an actual assassin, “The Assassin” nearly put me to sleep. The film is based on a classical Chinese text from the 9th century titled “Nie Yianning”, a notable entry of Chinese fiction’s famed ancient martial artists, and is rendered beautifully with stunning cinematography and gripping premise. Yet its pace leaves a lot to be desired.

The film stars Shu Qi (“Journey to the West”) as the titular assassin Nie Yinniang, who has been trained for years and has become a superb killer sent to murder corrupt government officials. Qi is badass and kind of terrifying in her unwavering resolve as the assassin, appearing just enough in action to illustrate her skills without getting too attached to believe she is a sympathetic character. Yinniang reaches her limit, however, when the next target she is sent to kill is the nun who raised her. She does not complete the task, and as punishment is sent to kill the governor of the far Weibo province, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). The plot development of the movie, while slow, still manages to establish the premise within the first 30 minutes, which kept my expectations high at the start. The catch? Tian Ji’an is her cousin who she had been arranged to marry. Drama of the stickiest order ensues as Nie Yinniang takes up her next mission.

I can’t stress enough what a feast for the eyes “The Assassin” is. The cinematography of the Chinese landscapes are absolutely beautiful and breathtaking. The lighting is exquisite as well, making the gold of the rich main characters shine in a way that adds to the luxurious sets and costumes. The shots of the uninhabited mountains transports the viewer back in time, another stunning element paid careful attention to in order to bring to life this historical drama. Some of the visuals foreshadow the plot as well, like when a blood-red sky at sunset is reflected in a lake, contributing to the mise-en-scène as well.

Unfortunately, the editing does not allow the screenplay to breath, making you feel every minute that passes by while watching this movie. There is far too much exposition, especially at the beginning where the assassin is given her orders to kill, only to then attempt to kill the following shot. Instead of feeling like a detailed chronicle of the assassin’s life, it often feels terribly redundant. Additionally, the shots themselves are way too long. Despite being a martial arts movie, the movie seems more preoccupied with the mundane aspects of daily life than the fighting itself. You literally watch people sit, eat and sleep while stuck with the same forlorn expression for the entire time, making you wait for any plot development (of which there is too little). This adds gravity to the characters, but in an unoriginal way as if they were all in a Western playing mysterious sheriffs who blew into town to restore law and order. To be sure, the editing wasn’t all bad. There was an effective switching from black and white to color in order differentiate the past in flashbacks from the present. But this does nothing to quicken the pace, making important developments feel understated and inconsequential, like when Governor Tian’s interesting origin story is delivered through a boring monologue.

Overall, “The Assassin” is a solid piece of film that feels more like a recorded play than a movie. There is a limited number of sets that the camera stays stationary on the majority of the time as monologues and exposition are dished out like nobody’s business. If you love historical pieces, this will surely delight. But damn, is it boring.

How To Write

Some of my friends have always asked me how I came around to writing. Most of them didn’t know I started out 4 years ago, back in high school. Embarrassing poems were penned down in small notebooks, in between my worksheets and elsewhere. I wasn’t much of a good writer then. Nonetheless, I’ll have to credit my high school friend for prodding me to begin my writing journey:

  1. Get a notebook. Yes, I’m all for the old fashioned way. Nonetheless, you can always type down in your phone notes whenever you feel the writing fever coming on to you.
  2. Write about what inspires you, your thoughts, your observations. In light of my great-grandmother’s death, I wrote a short piece about her, which what I eventually used as my admissions essay.
  3. Read, a lot. Thats a really great way to explore what writing styles, phrases you’d like to incorporate in your pieces.
  4. Decide what kind of writer you want to be. I decided early on that I wanted to be a writer who can relate to people who don’t write, and to not use super fancy words to references that weren’t ultimately relevant.
  5. Write down any quotes, excerpts that you find particularly interesting. You can use these quotes to inspire you further.
  6. If you can’t find anything to write, write about your surroundings. A lot of my pieces revolve around the weather, the rain, how the cars seem to blind me as I cross the roads, how the cold bites my hands as the wind blows. And sunsets.

Letting it Go

We are regulated beings. We fold, crimp, and scrunch our lives until they match our specification. This is especially true in college as students plan out every step of their next decade. Excel sheets are laid out. Schedule builders are used obsessively. And in our minds, the process never stops. Rewinding to search for missed opportunities. Fast-forwarding to a future that may never happen. And when I do misstep, it feels like something has been shattered inside of me. Then, there is a new plan, an altered goal. There is certainly no room for uncertainty and no time for doubt. I am always looking for a new box to fit myself into. I am always searching for a structure.

We came to college for independence. I think a pamphlet told me that once. We came to get away from overbearing parents and their never-ending concerns about our futures. Most of all, we were promised control. A chance at the driver’s seat. In high school, I thought I would be a good driver. But when you are steering, all the roads begin to look blurry. You start to worry about the dark ditches and sudden swerves. And your grip on the wheel becomes tighter and tighter until it feels as if your heart is racing as fast as the car. No, you’re not in control. You are not free. It feels easier to keep pretending, to spin the wheel even when it feels as if we are having no effect.

It gets frustrating, sometimes. Sometimes, I let go of all the schedules and rules. I stop squinting at every aspect of my life and close my eyes instead. I remember the first time I skipped class. To be honest, it did not take long, probably a month into my first semester. I watched as my alarm clock ticked closer and closer to 8:30 and imagined the impossibly long walk to Angell Hall. The day stretched before me with all its blocks of occupied time. Perhaps, just this once, I could pass the block on my own terms. True freedom. Classes are, after all, a professors’ domain. We sit in seats and are pelted with information with only the occasional chance to insert a question. Most of the time, it feels as if we only exist to press an iClicker. We dutifully enter on time, exit on time, renter the next week. We do what we must, so that eventually, eventually we can do what we want to. But that day, I pursued my wants first.

It was a squirming, sly pleasure to defy all the rules that I set for myself. It was a pleasure that I wanted to indulge like a child suddenly exposed to chocolate. If my control meant nothing, if I was to be ignored in lecture, then why shouldn’t I lie in bed for the indeterminate future? But I was ultimately still a regulated being and this time, it was my stomach growling that I move. I was once again reminded of all the invisible forces that act upon my life. All the forces that snatch my power away, make me feel small. Sometimes, I do battle against these forces with Excel sheets. Sometimes, I refuse the fight altogether.

Open Floor Studio @213 S State St

This is Lily. Lily has outsmarted the world. She can do whatever she wants…and be successful.

I would write a short biography of her life thus far, but truly, I don’t think I or anyone knows exactly what’s she’s up to…the one thing we know though is that she’s always up to something. Here are some glimpses of Lily in the world:

Lily and I met in high school, I knew her to be someone who is fond of music, she was exceptional pianist as well as first chair cello in the high school orchestra. One evening, Lily came to my house to hangout….with a guitar. Lily explains, “I’m teaching myself how to play guitar.” And so she did.

Lily spent a year at Kalamazoo College, then transferred to UM the following year. One day, I saw her at the CCRB on the stationary bike with headphones in watching the children’s show Caillou. No question of why. It’s Lily. She’s probably up to something. I took a seat on the bike next to her, and she acknowledged the fact that she’s watching a show for toddlers. “I’m learning Portuguese.” And so she did. Next thing I know I got a Facebook message from Lily indicating that she was traveling in Portugal. 

Lily had mentioned “I’m interested in studying medicine.” I texted Lily last month to ask if she was free on Friday. She responds, “I’ll be in Uganda, as I am currently in Uganda.” Lily was volunteering with Operation International, a surgery team that provides health care around the world. Upon her return to the States, Lily found herself at center stage in front of a small crowd at a newer singer-songwriter venue called Open Floor Studio. From the girl who could roughly play a C chord on the guitar at my house years ago to here in Ann Arbor performing her own original folk songs, Lily is a self taught musical prodigy and self-taught whatever she wants to be. I admire how Lily always has an idea and then will to make it come true. She is a breathing embodiment of Walt Disney’s expression: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” I can’t wait for the rest of the world to meet her.

The Archetype of the Wayward Muslim Boy

Growing up in a South Asian Muslim community as a girl, I’ve witnessed some of the most cringy and boorish displays of masculinity. The expectations placed on men by their families and cultures are overtly different than the expectations for women. Simply put, it is a fact universally known by young women in the South Asian culture that boys get away with troublesome behavior much easier than a girl can or ever will– moreover, the expectation for a man’s success is much lower than that for a women’s. Is he going to school? Wow, shabash, beta! Is he eating the food his mother prepares him? Wow, shabash, beta! Is he doing the bare minimum any decent human being would do, like saying thank you and greeting visitors? Wow, shabash, beta! Meanwhile, girls much work much harder to prove to our families and communities that we are serious about getting an education and being young professionals in America, and are often told over and over again that we are so lucky to have the opportunities that our male counterparts take for granted. I grew up knowing that I would have to work harder and fight longer to gain the respect that the men in my community already had. This archetype of the hard-working, idealized young woman and the dundering, wayward young man is constantly propagated in Muslim media, and though it is realistic, I honestly can’t help but feel annoyed and constrained by it.

Take The Big Sick for example, the famous rom-com by comedian Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani that took its ranks among Muslim-American media in 2017. The story follows Kumail, who has been perpetually lying to his parents about studying for the LSAT and does stand-up comedy professionally, when he meets Emily, falls in love, and persists at lying to both his girlfriend and his family about his dedication to either. Kumail is clearly torn between two worlds– the world of his “American” life (Emily, stand-up, his passions, etc)– and the world of his family and culture (complete with arranged marriage and expectations to be a lawyer). The movie acts as a clear sympathy-builder for Kumail in the sense that we pity his poor and constrained life circumstances– it seems like the one thing standing between him and all his dreams is his family, culture, religion, traditional expectations, etc. And I’m not saying that these aren’t very real problems faced by men in South Asian American communities– they are. But somehow, this movie subtly degrades two really important facts in favor of winning a “white” audience: 1) the value of culture, tradition, and family, and 2) the compounded problems of women in these communities.

There is one particular scene that I’m still so annoyed by: when Kumail is meeting potential brides by his family, one of the girls asks him if he would like to meet up again. He refuses honorably, saying, “I don’t deserve you.” If this is the case, then why don’t men in these communities work harder and do better rather than seize their privilege by the reins and go to town? And why don’t we, as responsible art makers and consumers, attempt to challenge these notions?

The archetype of the wayward Muslim boy is not only present in The Big Sick, but so much of Muslim media that is put out today. It’s the case in Fatima Farheen Mirza’s bestselling novel A Place For Us, where the male protagonist runs away from home and renounces his religion (to be fair, though, I love this book with all my heart– it’s a very mature grasp on the culture and people). It’s the case in Osamah Sami’s Australian-Iranian rom-com Ali’s Wedding, where a young man lies to his whole community about getting accepted into medical school. There’s a blatantly ignorant son in Wajahat Ali’s play The Domestic Crusaders to contrast his socially aware younger sister. The archetype is real and constantly a tool used by Muslim writers because it reflects some truth in Western Muslim cultures.

I know this is a niche worry in a small subset of American culture, but it’s really important nonetheless– we have to have characters that not only represent the wrongs of a particular society, but also characters that show us that we can do something right. I want to see men that care about their background. I want to see men that are socially aware of the faults and beauties of their culture. I want to see Muslim men and women and all people working together to make their communities places of success and joy in corners of the world that are not their own. I don’t want to constantly see the poor, dundering young Muslim man who feels so torn by his two worlds that he is pitifully forced to lie and hide who he is, while his sisters, who usually have much more grotesque expectations placed on them, slink in the shadows of their traditions. There have been great advancements in the literary field in making diverse art– now we need to curate and be mindful of how the archetypes affect American and American-Muslim people alike.