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On the Road with Words
a journey inside the human body, life lessons from Michelle Obama, the making of "Asian Americanness", and meeting Michelle Zauner.
Every Tiny Thought is where I share bookish thoughts on diverse stories from around the world (occasionally before publication), tiny joyous things, and finding home in America. If you are new here, welcome!
Before my recent move, my commute to my new job was 1.5 to 2 hours each way at the mercy of the Bay Area traffic. This commute lasted about a month and a half with driving on some days and taking public transit on others. To reclaim the “lost time” into my found time, I turned to (audio)books and podcasts for company, and here are some of my favorites.
The Unseen Body: A Doctor's Journey Through the Hidden Wonders of Human Anatomy by Jonathan Reisman (2021)
I first learned about Dr. Jonathan Reisman while my partner was listening to The MeatEater Podcast by Steve Rinella. In this episode, Dr. Reisman talks about his efforts to petition the USDA to allow the use of livestock lungs for human consumption. Although I don’t like the tastes of most animal internal organs, I grew up around people who like them and am a big fan of beef stripe for its chewy texture and seasoning absorption. And I was surprised to learn that consuming animal lungs is prohibited in the US while it’s allowed in the UK and Europe.
This fascinating discussion led me to read his 2021 book The Unseen Body. This book takes you on a journey inside the human body from a physician’s perspective. As I drove down south on I-280 in the misty bay area mornings through the mountains, the book accompanied me on an audio tour inside the human body. It explored different body systems, from the ear, to the heart, to the lungs, the brain, and to the skin, as well as to the different bodily fluids that help physicians decipher what’s going on inside our bodies. Intriguingly, I learned was "leech therapy," where leeches are used to relieve blood clots and increase blood flow in patients. I couldn’t believe it at first and so I immediately googled it, and a leech therapy clinic pops up on the map 30 minutes from where I live with a 4.2-star review!
The Unseen Body reminds me of the often-forgotten fact that the different systems within our body work incredibly well with each other (most of the time), and the amazing things physicians do to help us heal and live. As I was near the end of this book, I found myself even looking forward to my drive.
The Light We Carry by Michelle Obama (2023)
I became an official fan of Michelle Obama after reading, Becoming. It was her memoir but she didn’t make it all about her. A large part of the book is dedicated to the people who helped and supported her along the way that made her who she is today.
In her follow-up book, The Light We Carry, she becomes that person for all of us and offers a candid and inspiring guide to finding hope and resilience during difficult times. This book is a toolbox, she says, and each chapter is a tool with fireside-side-chat-like advice on parenting, being parented, making friends, and leaning into our vulnerability.
When talking about making adult friends, Obama clears up my frequent self-doubt on whether I should be the one that risks the possible rejection and awkwardness to invite someone interesting I just met to hang out again. Her answer is a resounding yes, because the possible beautiful and lifelong friendships that this might lead to make all the risks worthwhile.
Every friendship has an ignition point. By necessity, it involves a deliberate extension of curiosity from one person to another, and I believe this is an offer you should never be ashamed to make. To say I am curious about you is a form of gladness, and gladness, as we’ve established, is nourishing.
May we all be the ignition point to future friendships.
Chinese Prodigal: A Memoir in Eight Arguments by David Shih (August 2023)
Chinese Prodigal is a memoir in a series of essays by David Shih, an Asian American literature professor at the University of Wisconsin. Shih recounts his childhood growing up in the Dallas suburb to immigrant parents from Hong Kong, and the formative years of his life making sense of his identity as an Asian American in the wake of Vincent Chin’s racially motivated murder.
To be Asian in this country and learn about Vincent Chin was to find out that you were related to someone you’d never met before. Our kinship didn’t trace back to Asia, to any custom or language we might be assumed to share. It could be born here. What Vincent Chin and I had in common as Asian Americans was our vulnerability in America.
Every immigrant parent has their own way of shielding their children from their own fear of being an outsider. Shih’s father, Shih later learned only after his death, decided not to teach Shih and his sister Chinese because “[his father] hoped to spare him the same fear he had speaking English, to smash that fear…leaving not a single trace of the country in our syntax or idioms.”
A cultural and historical discussion of what it means to be Asian American, Shih’s memoir complicates the often binary discussion on race and racial identities. Along with his own exploration of his identity as a son and a father in a country that does not make enough space for people like him, Shih’s writing is reflective with a subtle heaviness and sadness to it. Reading his memoir has been a rare literary treat and has given me a lot to think about. He is a literature professor after all.
Thank you NetGalley and GroveAtlantic for sending this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
I also listened to The Education by an Idealist by Samantha Power, a 21-hour audiobook narrated by the author, finished The Coldest Case in Laramie in a day, which says a lot about how long my commute is, and found immense joy listening to This American Life once again, especially this episode where writer Etgar Keret tries to come up with stories that capture his late mother. It’s moving, heartbreaking, and very funny. You can follow Etgar’s Substack: Alphabet Soup. I am also convinced that the best time to listen to This American Life is when you’re alone in your car.
I am thankful that my commute is now a lot shorter with mostly local neighborhood traffic. But the month and a half when I was on the road 3-4 hours a day feels nostalgic in a quiet and peaceful way. It only lasted for a few weeks, but somehow it feels like a whole era, an era of just me on the road, alone with words and with great minds, undisturbed by the outside world.
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Tiny Joyous Things
Between our unpacking and organizing our new home, there’s been a lot of TV time too. I’ve come down with a cold last week, but at least Succession is back with its final season. I’ve been savoring each episode as it comes out every week while reading the recaps by Linda Holmes and listening to the show’s companion podcast.
Just when I was doubting if binge-watching is overrated, I binged the whole new Netflix dark comedy BEEF, starred by Ali Wong and Steven Yeun. It’s a show about two strangers that get into a road rage incident and become obsessed with each other, and how their lives unravel after that. Each character is fully developed with depth, complexity, and nuance. The plot twists and turns and takes you to unexpected places. It’s one of the best shows I have seen in a while.
Lastly, my starstruck moment came about two weeks ago when I attended the paperback launch event of Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart, a best-seller and a memoir that has been talked about since it first came out in 2021 and hasn’t stopped. Zauner revealed that she plans to move to Korea and learn Korean (her late mother’s language) while living in Korea for one year so that she could communicate with her aunt to learn more about what her late mother was like before she became a mother, and her next project is to write about this experience. Of course, Zauner is well-spoken, charming, smart, and funny.
During the book signing, I told her that I started writing on Substack, and, she urges me to keep writing, which I have been working hard on lately.
Tell me in the comments, what have you been reading lately? And what has brought you joy this week?
Thank you to those who joined recently, and to those who have always been here.
Until next time,