Alice in Christmasland – A puzzle story


It started on Christmas Eve, or rather kurisumasu, and now I’m stuck in a time loop. Or maybe I’m just in Tokyo.

My grandmother was happy when I told her about the Teach-English-in-Japan job. Finally, I was visiting the land of our ancestors. My first night in Tokyo, I stood beneath the blinding lights of Shinjuku station, lost in a trance while a surge of people moved by. It looked like a scene out of the Matrix.

Dinner was a hamburger and soggy fries from a hot food vending machine because I didn’t need to speak to anyone to get it. I don’t think this is exactly the land our ancestors lived in, Baba.

Very quickly, I learned to say kudasai and arigatō and spent a lot time pointing to things I’d searched up on my cell phone. Or I just spoke English. I was here to teach English to a bunch of people who already spoke English.

“We want to talk like native English speaker,” my host explained.

A few months went by. Even though I was getting the hang of Tokyo with all of its quirks and routines, I didn’t anticipate how homesick I would be during the holidays. I was told the Tokyo Christmas Market was a big thing, so I went to get hot chocolate and a bratwurst among the glittering trees. Young girls dressed as elves were passing out candy canes while greeting everyone with a cheerful, “Merīkurisumasu!

This is what Christmas looks like to the Japanese based on pictures and movies, and I can’t say they’re entirely wrong.

I had just finished my Christmas bratwurst when I spied movement in front of an alleyway. It looked like one of those plump, lucky cats you see in sushi places, but it was a real white cat. It was actually smiling. And waving.

I went to get a closer look and ended up following the creature into the alleyway and then…time loop. No matter what I do, it’s Christmas Eve and I end up back in the alleyway chasing after that cat. Was it a cat I saw?

Maneki-neko, explained a man selling reindeer ornaments the first time I emerged from the alleyway. The cat isn’t waving, it’s apparently beckoning. Like “come hither”. That might have been useful to know before I ran after it. Every time around I inevitably go through a series of adventures trying to find that cat, but always end up in the alley, back at the beginning.

Just turn around, you say. Head out the same way you’ve came into the alley. Don’t you think I’ve thought of that? Don’t you think THEY’VE thought of that?

Once I’m in the alley, it doesn’t matter which way I go. I end up back in Christmas town. There are weird Santas everywhere. One of them does a Mission Impossible thing cabling down into the crowd.

I want to go home. And I have to find that maneki-neko to do it.

The man at the ornament stand who told me about maneki-neko always points me to a tea room. I’ve tried not going to the tea room. I’ve tried shoving the vendor into his heavily ornamented Christmas tree in a rage. That gets security chasing me until at some point I duck between two buildings to get away and then…You get how this goes, right?

My cell phone doesn’t work either. Well, it works as a cell phone should. I’ve tried calling my host family. My Tokyo friends. I called home to Wisconsin, begging them to send someone from the embassy, the CIA, the United Nations. Nothing anyone does can get to me before everything resets.

I’ve Googled time loops. The results were not helpful.

This time around, I decide to go to the tea house. It’s green tea, which I didn’t used to like because I thought it tasted like drinking grass, but the stuff is growing on me.

The tea house is very traditional and they whip up a bowl of tea until it’s frothy before bringing to you on a lacquer tray. It’s the only place in the village where I can’t hear “All I Want for Christmas is You” on repeat.

After I finish my tea, there’s an old man with thick glasses and long crickety arms that challenges me to a game of Go. It’s a strategy game with white and black stones and the only rule is that you place one of your stones on one of the open corners on the grid that’s carved on the board.

At first, I had no idea how to play, and just tried to make interesting patterns, but after a hundred loops or so, I started getting the hang of it. It’s a strategy game where you try to capture territory by surrounding the other players stones with your own. At the end, the old, crickety man always tells me, “Anata wa ushinatta.”

I looked up the meaning after the first couple times. He’s telling me, “You have lost.”

Today our game goes on for longer than usual. At the end, he bows and his words have changed.

“Watashi makemashitawa.” I have lost.

I understand him without using the translation app on my phone. I must have been stuck in here longer than I thought. When I look down, I can almost make out the shape of a feline face in the white stones.

I step outside into the cold, walking through the lane and events that at first seemed so strange to me and finding an odd familiarity in them now. I pass a snack counter where I’ve tried ordering everything on the menu, even the fried octopus balls.

“Don’t take my fish cake!” an irate girl in a green felt hat cries to her companion. A ridiculous argument is about to ensue which will somehow lead to me being chased into an alley if I stick around. As I hurry away, I’m compelled to repeat the girl’s words out loud: “Naruto o toru na.”

Something feels curious about the sound of it, but I’m pulled away from my thoughts by the sudden flash of a snow-white tail.

I break into a run, weaving through the crowd. The maneki-neko is sauntering toward another alleyway.

“Stop!” I cry. And then I try it in Japanese, with extra politeness: “Chotto matte kudasai!”

The cat stops and turns around to face me. He is smiling.

And that is when I remember a drawing from a children’s book Baba gave me. One of another smiling cat. A cat that was all smile. On the same page, there had been a letter puzzle drawn into the shape of a diamond.

Was it a cat I saw?

I think I have it then, like a pattern of white stones falling into place.

“The world is a warm place,” I tell the maneki-neko, but in his language, the language of my ancestors, and one that is becoming mine too. I speak each syllable carefully.

“Yo-no-na-ka, ho-ka-ho-ka na-no-yo.”

The cat grins, eyes closed and content, and beckons me forward.

How does Alice get out of the time loop? (SPOILERS)

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On Being Everything: The Fall of Saigon and Butterfly Swords

Disclaimer: This is not a gush post on Everything, Everywhere All at Once other than to say that movie is genius and everyone should go see it, like twice, maybe three times.

I used to joke to myself that I knew when AAPI Heritage Month was coming because of the requests I’d start getting to blog (this was back in the day of blogs…). I started turning down requests to blog or speak at conferences if it was solely about the experience of writing diversely, writing while Asian, being different.

Part of me was perhaps running out of things to say because that’s what people kept on asking for. Part of me was worried that I was actually hurting “the cause” of representation because here I was, this poster girl, this icon (OMG, I’m doing this…this is hard…this is going to get ugly…) this icon of being able to break barriers in the romance writing industry. Maybe it was actually hurting the cause of representation to keep on othering myself and showing up as only being held up because I was writing while Asian and not because I was, you know, awesome at writing longing glances, emotion, immersive worlds….

Maybe it was another cut, every time, to have to tell people how different and unusual and all those words. I started joking, “I prefer the word groundbreaking…” when people would say my special stamp was that I was writing something different.

My sales have always struggled. People. Romance readers overwhelmingly don’t sit down thinking, “Oh yes….let’s look for different. Let’s look for something that doesn’t fit in.”

And if they do. For the few that do….who’s name keeps popping up?

And each time my name pops up, I LOVE it. Don’t get me wrong. My sales have always struggled. Publicity is what I need. So I love it. I hate it. It lifts me up. It’s another tiny soul cut.

Do you see where this is going?! On being everything…I know something about that. Oh, do I know something about that.

That thought about “am I really helping when it comes to representation”…I don’t know if that’s a thought debut authors normally have. I mean….maybe it’s something they have when their books become runaway hits and sell a million copies and they actually DO represent a segment of the industry. But to have this happen to a book that was only on the shelves for a month before being stripped. For a book that only sells a couple thousand copies and was pre-destined from the moment it was contracted to only sell that much.

I’m saying all this now because…I don’t know….because it’s been ten years. Because there are awesome Asian romance authors out there now writing awesome Asian characters and settings and I no longer feel as much of a weight on my shoulders to represent? Maybe I’m stronger now? Maybe I’m just tired….

I’m saying this now because I finally found my super power. And for all the people who’ve said I inspired them…I feel like I held back a crucial piece of the puzzle all along (OMG, this burden….I didn’t say the burden went away….finding the super power doesn’t bring absolution).

I just want…if anyone else is feeling the same way. If these same thoughts hold them back ever….I just want them to know…I know. I know. I know….

Before my book came out, I could see the hype. I could see the HOPE people had for Butterfly Swords. I could feel the pressure. I knew it would never live up to the hype. People said things publicly like, “I hope this book lives up to the hype…”

I knew Butterfly Swords would be more than my book. And I knew, as good of a story as I tried to make it, that it couldn’t be everything. And as reviews came rolling in and sales and all these hopes and fears from so many people, I was happy my first book was getting such notice. I was…sorry I couldn’t write a better book, a bigger book…one that would truly open all the doors that people said it should, would, could…

OMG, this hurts. This hurts. I’m looking at everything I wrote after Butterfly Swords. Can you see…can you see me trying to BECOME the perfect, straight A student that everyone wanted me to be?

For readers, for anyone who might find this appalling, let me tell you it wasn’t. It isn’t. I wasn’t writing all these books and angsting about holding up the sky the entire time. It’s not writing while walking on glass. Writing is the JOYFUL part. To someone who has done this all their lives, it feels like breathing. The fear, the pressures, they’re all microscopic. How else would they be able to seep into every cell?

How the heck does an anyone stick with this despite the mind-fuck? When Butterfly Swords is an okay book, but not the game-changer everyone hoped it would be? How do you keep on going after your first book sells less than 15,000 copies and most of those to people who were subscribed to a Harlequin service and didn’t choose you…

I only was able to stay. And do it with a smile. Because I’ve done this all my life.

I was born in 1975. Months after my family arrived in the U.S. as refugees from Vietnam. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. I was born in November. I’m doing this calculus right now and realizing that the timing puts me at the forefront of that first wave of kids going to school. The first examples of what our families could become in the U.S. When I graduated at the top of my class, my suburban, mostly white high school class, the few Vietnamese familes in attendance came up to take their pictures with me. The Vietnamese kid, the one who was showing them…we could do this. I would go to an event in Little Saigon and hear people say, not whisper because Vietnamese people don’t whisper these things. That’s her, they’d say. “Cô đó học giỏi lắm.” She’s very good in school.

So this is how you take being unexpectedly thrust into the limelight with a book like Butterfly Swords, one that industry insiders adore, but few readers have ever read. Yes, there’s a little fear. There’s a little angst. But most of it, most of this journey, feels like breathing. This was not my first rodeo.

This is how Jeannie Lin did it while joking, laughing, handling good reviews with grace, handling bad reviews with humor, sighing at disappointing sales, never quite being good enough. And just being. Just sticking around long enough. Most of the time, I don’t even notice. That’s the only way you go on.

Then some book blog lists your book between Irresistable Forces by Brenda Jackson and Fifty Shades of Grey as one of the twenty most influential romance novels of the last 100 years. You laugh. You proudly show it to your kids who ask in awe, “Are you famous, Mom?”

“Almost famous,” you humble brag.

And then I curled up into a little ball and didn’t want to come out again ever. I know why Butterfly Swords is thought of like that. I know it’s both true and untrue. I know that I write awesome books. I know that I write awesome books that no publisher wants to touch. I know how a book can be all these things at once because I know that a person can be all those things at once.

I told my therapist, “I wonder…if it’s imposter syndrome? Not just the writing, but the job, the burnout. Everything.”

Because I felt shame. I was ashamed that Butterfly Swords wasn’t a breakout book. That despite all of my efforts, none of my books were. That the industry largely hasn’t changed. That when people look to me as an inspiration, that I’m selling a lie. People wanted to point to books like mine and say, romance isn’t all Fifty Shades of Grey. It isn’t. But it’s more Fifty Shades, than it is Butterfly Swords.

But my therapist, bless her, wouldn’t accept anything so easy and reductive as imposter syndrome. And that was when she helped me realize my superpower.

The ability to walk into the unknown.

Jeannie Lin. The one who’s…not afraid of the dark?

That’s not true, by the way. That’s the message I wanted to tell everyone. On this anniversary of the fall of Saigon. I am afraid. I just walk into the unknown anyway. Saigon is my origin story — what is more unknown than a family getting onto a broken boat as the capital is falling? Heading out to sea not knowing what would happen next?

The message I wanted to say is that I hid a bunch of stuff all this time because I thought, as a poster girl, as an icon, I was supposed to be graceful, intelligent, funny, witty, smiling, above it all…to show you that it can be done.

And then it just got really hard. Or I got really tired. Or I finally became unafraid of my own fears. All those things.

I’ve had all the fears. All the doubts. All the hopes. All the disappointments. I’ve been afraid of being “Too Asian” at times. I’ve been ashamed of even having that thought. I’ve been ashamed of being not Asian enough. I’ve been ashamed of giving presentations on how to write when my books don’t sell. Like, who wants to follow my example?

But if you’re here. If you’re still listening, then heck, let’s do this. I’m going to be impossible to live with now. I’m an icon. I did change the industry. Maybe in small ways, but most books out there change the industry zero. So live with it Jeannie.

The revelation is this. I’m not an icon, a groundbreaker, a QUEEN because I wrote a breakout book. Or because I’m a fabulous writer. Or because I created opportunities for others. Or because I’m good in school…

When I framed it that way in my head, I was always living a lie. Butterfly Swords was a failure. Lotus Palace, a failure. Each book that I write, I shoot for the moon, I do. And each one was a failure when I didn’t do the iconic things I was supposed to be doing…

But it was never about writing a breakout book. It was always about walking into the unknown. I’m not iconic because I wrote Butterfly Swords. I’m iconic because when it failed, I wrote The Dragon and the Pearl. Then when it failed, I wrote My Fair Concubine. Sword Dancer….yes, I’m going to f$#king name them…The Lotus Palace failed and I still shot for the moon with Jade Temptress which failed HARD.

That one stung. I was kind of done for a while. Because I had my super-power all wrong. Still, I tried again. The Hidden Moon. I always play to win. Failed. The Rebellion Engines. Major fail. I think that book has sold like….200 copies?

But when I discovered my true super-power. When I found I was chasing the wrong power all along, I was finally able to look back and see the last ten years, the last lifetime, with new eyes.

I’m still here because I have the ability to write for the moon, even not knowing. “I didn’t know better,” I’ve always said, laughing. I’ve said this publicly, oh gods. I think the last time was even recorded.

“You did know better,” my super-astute therapist told me. “You had so many voices telling you not to write those books. You did know better.”

My super-power was always to do it anyway. To walk into uncertainty. And knowing this now, none of it was ever a failure.

This is my fall of Saigon post. This is my obligatory AAPI Heritage Month post. Do you like it?

Be #VeryAsian. Be #VeryYou. Fail hard. Play like you mean it. Dare greatly. Dare greatly.