Just over two years ago, I took a twenty hour flight across the Pacific to attend Tin House’s Winter Workshop, with little more than a dream and a vague idea there were people in America who wanted to read my work. It wasn’t an easy trip. We knew nothing about Covid then—it was a scary disease from Wuhan, Chinese-appearing people were getting harassed everywhere, Singapore at one point had the highest number of cases in the world—and at the airport, fifteen minutes before I was supposed to board my flight, my AirB&B host in Portland cancelled my stay. Frantic, I sent out a call for help on Twitter. I had a very short window of time in which I could tuck tail and return home, or take the risk and board my flight—with no idea where I’d spend my first night in the US. I took a deep breath and boarded the plane.
Thanks to friends, I was connected with a lovely Korean American family in Portland. My host, serendipitously enough, had spent time in the same neighbourhood in Seoul, and at the same time as my novel was set. I will never forget the sunlit conversation I had with her mother, who told me about her childhood in post-war Seoul, or the way she grasped my hand, observing me as though she was looking into my soul. Not long after my trip, she passed on.
My trip to America ended up expanding my world in ways I could not have imagined then. In the ensuing months (and years) I grew close to a few writers whose friendship has sustained me through the pandemic, signed with my dream agent, and got to work with one of my very favourite writers, who supported and encouraged me to take my writing in directions I never knew possible.
But like many others in the past two years, my world has also shrunk tremendously. Singapore is a tiny place. It’s hard for people who’ve never been here to understand, but the best way to describe it perhaps is this: get in the car and keep driving. You’ll be making loops around the island in forty-five minutes, tops. With our land, sea, and air borders mostly shut, and under multiple lockdowns both soft and hard, the world began to feel very dark and depressing. On top of all that, I was hit by what feels like an unending series of family and personal emergencies, the latest just last month, at the very same time I came down with a nasty bout of Covid.
I’ll be the first to admit I was pretty cavalier about getting Covid. I didn’t want to get it of course, not with elderly and immunocompromised parents. But after building up a solid running/swimming routine over the pandemic, I felt fitter and healthier than I’d been for years. And then my son came home from school with a high fever. It’s been more than a month since, but we both still have a cough that comes and goes. I feel fine most days—but then the fatigue hits me out of nowhere and I need to make myself lie down. It’s been a rough time. I’m probably not getting enough rest. But I also didn’t realize how conditioned I was to being constantly on the go. I’m so used to juggling a dozen things at once, managing the household, work, writing, keeping the kids healthy and fed—it really is quite counter intuitive for me to, as this tweet advises, be a potato.
I wasn’t sure at all I’d make this trip—it’s been rescheduled so many times I’m not even going to post this until I’m on the plane—but tomorrow, I’m flying to the US again, this time to New York. I’ve been invited to take part in a series of literary events at Bard College, as part of the Asian Diaspora Initiative Speakers Series, and if you know me, there’s nothing I love more than thinking and writing about Asia—as identity, as illusion, as object of fantasy. As you may remember from an earlier newsletter, and this Tiktok video I did with Indonesian literary translator and novelist Tiffany Tsao (it feels like a century ago!): how do you talk about decolonising Asian literature when the very concept of ‘Asia’ is a colonial legacy?
I explored some of these questions in a recent essay for Catapult Magazine, where I wrote about how race and power dynamics influence perceptions of artistic merit in East & Southeast Asian art, how what we think of as ‘good’ literature is really white literature, and how I came to uncover these biases in my own writing journey.
I’ll also be in New York for another reason. I’ve been thinking for some time how to cultivate a life centred around writing, and was recently accepted to Brooklyn College’s MFA program in fiction. There are so many reasons to go: community, mentorship, refining my writing practice in one of the world’s literary capitals (everyone here thinks it’s a ‘hobby’, obviously), and most importantly, the time, space and distance to just write. (Here’s a little micro-fiction I wrote for the debut issue of Jiksun Cheung’s delightful new litmag The Bureau Dispatch, on writing and the places we need to write).
I don’t have any illusions about New York, as I said to my mentor a few weeks ago. I haven’t been there since 2005, but in my few short visits to New York as a student from California, it felt cold—both the weather, and uh, the people. I’ve been warned by enough friends in New York that it’s frightfully expensive (although Singapore is no slacker in this respect), chaotic, unsafe and dirty. But also, I’m not a teenager going out into the world for the first time. I turn forty at the end of the year. There’s no utopia out there. The pandemic has been some version of terrible or traumatising—for everyone. The collapse of America’s critical social safety nets has impoverished many and directly or indirectly, led to the scapegoating of Asians and a sharp increase in hate crime. Everyone is on edge. Many places around the world, not just the US, have turned inward-looking and xenophobic. It’s a nasty, brutish world out there.
Why leave? Singapore often feels like a bubble. A clean, safe, warm cocoon. My family and children are here—they’re curled up at my feet like cats as I type this. Leaving them is always the hardest thing.
But as an artist, remaining in Singapore also feels deeply trying. I want to feel excited about the possibilities and new direction an MFA might bring, the adventure of living in a vibrant artistic hub for the first time in my life—but right now, right here, all I feel is the unrelenting weight of responsibilities society expects of me, as a woman of a particular age, status and social class.
I want to feel the lightness of dreams again. I want to remember what it feels like to be me—something that I know many women around the world have lost during the pandemic, due to caregiving and other family responsibilities. It is my small hope that I can inspire other women, in both my writing and my choices, that it’s also okay to choose ourselves. I come from a culture and lineage where women are expected to devote themselves several times over to others, where people look askance at those who even dare dream of a life they cannot imagine. But really, we should respect both: the courage of women who choose themselves, and the sacrifices of those who don’t, or simply cannot.
It is with much trepidation, a lot of apprehension, but also a tiny bit of hope that I’ll be boarding the plane tomorrow. I’ve always thought of writing as an act of resistance. A wild act of hope. Like sending a 孔明灯 into the boundless night sky.
The world feels like it has gotten a whole lot smaller in the past two years, but maybe—even if just for this trip—I can play a tiny part in making it feel a little bigger, kinder and more inclusive.
If you’d like to tune in to my talks, my first event, Writing Southeast Asia: A conversation between Tiffany Tsao and Jen Wei Ting next Tuesday, 12th April, 5pm EST, is free and open to public. Just join us via this zoom link. We plan to post the recording at a later date.
My second event, The Art of Whiteness: A Lecture & Discussion on Race & Power in Southeast and East Asian Literature, is unfortunately only for Bard students and faculty. But I do plan to deliver this talk again in the future—do reach out if you’d like me to speak with your students or at your reading group.
Please see below for more details - and let me know if you have any queries or thoughts to share! As always, thank you for reading.