Dear 23-Year-Old Jenny

Grace Bonney of Design Sponge wrote a letter to her 23-year-old self back in August which inspired me to write one. I was finally able to write it now that I’m on a short break from writing Yappie: A Musical Comedy. In some ways it feels like a letter to my current self and maybe that’s what I need.

Dear 23-year-old Jenny,

2007 is a big year for you. You self-publish your very first chapbook and organize a chapbook release party in two different states. Enjoy it—really take it in and be grateful for the folks who support you and come through for you because the moment fades quickly but the people do not.

When you move back home to MD, it’s going to be a tough transition. You’re going to rack up a lot of miles on your car and a lot of debt doing what you love: performing spoken word and leading an arts organization for AAPI artists. Trust your instincts and stand up for yourself. Own your decisions. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

You’re also going to put yourself out there for the first time and be hurt. You’ll write a lot of poems out of it, but editing is going to be your best friend. It’s okay to write just for you; you don’t always have to write for public consumption.

You’re going to make one of the hardest decisions you’ll ever have to make: leave the organization you co-founded. You’re going to know it’s the best and right decision. But you’re also going to know fear and doubt in deeper ways than before. You’re going to stop writing, stop performing. You’re going to be lost for a while. You’re going to think that the best of what you can do and offer the world is in the past. It’s not. You have so much more to give and you don’t have to prove it to anyone.

When you get to your mid-30s, you’re going to weigh at your heaviest yet look and feel your best. Take care of your body and your mind and heart. Ask for help (but your friends are not therapists). Apologize when you’ve messed up. Go outside even though you want to stay in bed. Let people love you. You’re going to fall for people you shouldn’t and you’ll question your own worth. But you’re already loved as you are by a community of people, and you already matter to them. Keep those people close and give them the best of you.

Lastly, allow yourself the space to feel whatever you’re feeling and the time you need to heal and grow. Keep being brave. Continue to be open to experiences and people that come your way. Become better at managing your finances. And always remember that you are a writer and that you are more than worthy.

Love,

35-year-old Jenny

Workshop Performance of YAPPIE: A Musical Comedy

Two months ago I officially signed on to write the book and lyrics for an original musical about Asian Americans. As of today, we are 11 days out from the workshop performance of Yappie: A Musical Comedy.

Hours before rehearsal last night I started to get nervous. My leg was twitchy; I felt my heart rate rise; I tried to control my breathing. The magnitude of this project and the urgency to get it ready by October 4 finally hit me. I’ve spent most of the past two months writing dialogue and lyrics; thinking about dialogue and lyrics (which come at the most inopportune time, like when you’re in the bathroom); editing scenes; reading scenes out loud; discussing scenes, themes, and dialogue with the creative team; reworking the storyboard; calling my sister at random times throughout the night to ask if a scene, situation, or line is funny; doubting my own sense of humor and ability to write humor; and staring at the blinking cursor on Microsoft Word for long, excruciating minutes.

I knew October 4 was coming, but I was focused on the script, trying to let a story unfold. A story I wasn’t too sure of when I first began to write it. A story I wasn’t sure I could write given my inexperience with writing plays and songs.

At some point in rehearsal last night, I hit my stride. I heard the actors breathe life into two new scenes I wrote this week, and I let myself be proud of it. I was proud of my work. Scratch that. I AM proud of my work.

Sometimes I don’t give myself enough credit. I know a lot of women who don’t; we just do the work and keep doing the work, praise or no praise. That’s not a cycle I want to continue, so I am taking up this space. I am embracing the compliments and assurances the creative team and cast send my way. I am owning this story and this experience and everything that comes with it. I’ve been full of excitement; I’ve been frustrated; I’ve been upset; I’ve silenced myself; I’ve procrastinated on grad school assignments because all I want to do is write this musical; I’ve let the doubts take over my day; I’ve been happy. And I am always grateful.

I am beyond fortunate to work with and be supported by the dream team of Roger Wu Fu + Bobby Ge + Donna Ibale. So many factors in our individual lives converged to bring us together. When I think about it, the machinations began last summer: an arts organization focused on AAPIs was in the works in which Donna was a founder; Roger and Bobby started their graduate program at Peabody; I quit my job. None of us thought we would be here right now, days away from the premiere of an original musical (maybe Donna). But here we are. And it’s exactly where I want to be.


Yappie (a combination of YAP, a young Asian professional, and yuppie) follows the story of Grace, a young Asian professional living her best life in the corporate world. Or is she? Passed over for a promotion, Grace finds herself in the unlikeliest of places: auditioning for a musical. Having spent most of her life living up to the expectations of her family, Grace begins to question who she is, what she wants, and what it means to be Asian American. Yappie: A Musical Comedy promises to be a fun journey asking hard questions about identity and stereotypes with tons of empathy, warmth, and lots of laughs. 

Story by Roger Wu Fu, Jenny C. Lares & Bobby Ge

Book & Lyrics by Jenny C. Lares | Music & Lyrics by Bobby Ge

Directed by Donna Ibale | Produced by Roger Wu Fu & Donna Ibale

Tickets: $8 General Admission, $5 for college students, Free for JHU students/faculty/staff

I’m writing a musical!

It’s been a summer of writing, collaborating, performing, being open to all possibilities, and taking chances. A year ago, I was still very lost and very much full of doubt. I binge watched tv shows to drown out my own thoughts and to avoid making any kind of decision about my future. And then, slowly, after reading books, and making myself write more consistently in my journal (and with the immense support of my family and close friends), things started to shift. Every day I felt closer to a version of myself I had lost along the way years ago. I finally put myself out there again; I put forth positive energy into the universe and now it’s coming back to me in ways I never thought possible.

I can’t remember exactly when I said this and to whom, but I said that I was interested in learning more about theatre and being part of the creative process somehow. I guess the universe was listening because I’m writing a musical. A musical!

When I was first approached about joining the creative team as the playwright and lyricist in mid-July, I thought I wasn’t “ready” as a writer to take on such a challenge. I’ve written skits for college performances before but never a full script (but now I’m remembering I technically co-wrote a play for the Philippine Culture Night at the University of Maryland many years ago. Does that count?). Writing skits or a play for a college audience as a college student is one thing. This was a bigger, more expansive project. With music, nonetheless!

My sister thought I was crazy to agree to it. Did I think I was crazy? No. It was exactly what I was looking for, and to be honest, exactly what I needed: an opportunity to challenge myself artistically and to grow as both an artist and person.

I have wanted to collaborate on an artistic project with other artists for a very long time, but it didn’t pan out for a variety of reasons. One of the visions I had for Sulu DC years ago was creating a monthly jam session for artists to connect and play together, with the hope that it could transform into actual collaborations between artists. I was not able to create that space, but now, years later, I am in that space with other artists and I am enjoying every second of it. Even the times when I’m struggling with a rhyme for a song, or I can’t seem to get the cadence or voice of a character right. Even when I keep staring at a blank page, hoping dialogue for a scene I’ve outlined will magically pop into my brain from nothing. Even those moments are worthwhile, and made even more so when I do come up with the next verse and I send it off to my creative collaborators and they love it (and even when they don’t love it).

The next couple weeks of my life (more like 8 months) is going to be hectic in the best way. I’m so honored and happy I get to work with talented, bright, driven, truly amazing people. I wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to join the project so quickly had they not been my partners in this endeavor.

The workshop performance of our musical, YAPPIE: A Musical Comedy, is slated for Friday, October 4 at 7:30 PM at the Cohen-Davison Family Theatre at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University . Check out my Events page for more information. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Instagram for updates and behind-the-scenes look at our process.

ABOUT THE MUSICAL

Yappie (a combination of YAP, a young Asian professional, and yuppie) follows the story of Grace, a young Asian professional living her best life in the corporate world. Or is she? Passed over for a promotion, Grace finds herself in the unlikeliest of places: auditioning for a musical. Having spent most of her life living up to the expectations of her family, Grace begins to question who she is, where she belongs, and what it means to be Asian American. Written by Jenny C. Lares and composed by Bobby Ge, Yappie: A Musical Comedy promises to be a fun journey asking hard questions about identity and stereotypes with tons of empathy, warmth…and lots of laughs. 

Producer & Music Director: Roger Wu Fu

Producer & Director: Donna Ibale

The Farewell

I saw The Farewell last week at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore. Having watched the trailer and skimmed a few reviews, I was ready to see Awkwafina shine and to cry out my feelings. But surprisingly, I didn’t. Not because there weren’t moments worthy of tears—I more or less psyched myself out of it.

I thought I’d walk out of the theater a crying mess because I’m sensitive to any story about grandparents, having only spent a significant amount of time with one grandmother, and never being around a grandfather. Instead I was filled with this yearning to be surrounded by my family—all of them, from both sides—and all our imperfections.

There’s a scene in the movie when the camera pans around the table and Billi (Awkwafina’s character), her dad, her nai nai (grandmother), uncle, and cousin are playing a drinking game. I may not have understood what they were saying but there was so much joy in that one moment it’s almost bringing me to tears as I recall it.

I can’t remember the exact details of a moment like that from my own history, but the feeling is familiar; I know it’s happened before. And so, the next day, with The Farewell fresh on my mind, I put aside some work and spent more time than I usually would with my mom. We didn’t talk about anything in particular; I simply accompanied her to her best friend’s house. She picked vegetables from their garden and afterwards, we all shared halo-halo (the Filipino dessert made with shaved ice, lots of different toppings, ube ice cream, and evaporated milk all mixed together, hence the name “halo halo” which translates to “mix mix”). It was a most ordinary and extraordinary Friday evening.

(Part 2 coming soon)

The last of a generation

I found out last night that one of my great aunts passed away. She was 88 years old.

This is the part about growing older that I can’t ever get used to.

She was my favorite Lola (grandmother) growing up in the Philippines. I absolutely adored her. She let me pluck the white hairs off her head! I don’t know why I did that, and why she even let me, but it’s one of my fondest memories. I remember being at her house for hours almost every day. Our mom worked a lot and was gone most of the day so my dad’s extended family took care of us (he was in the U.S. during this time).

She was kind and loving; one of the few grandmothers who showered me and my sister with affection and not criticism. We may not have been related by blood but it didn’t matter to her. At times she felt more like my actual grandmother than my dad’s mother ever did.

And now she’s gone.

And this is the only way I know how to say goodbye.

Typing words into the void of the internet. Trying so hard to recall memories from three decades ago. Wondering why I never wrote her any letters, or called her, only seeing her a few times whenever I visited the Philippines.

She was the last of her generation. My elders have all moved on, leaving us to carry their memories for them.

I hope she was proud of who I became. Time and space and oceans and language separated us but I like to think she was always with me somehow, deep in my memories, knowing without a doubt that I was loved.

In my element

On Saturday I was the Master of Ceremonies for the 33rd Anniversary Dinner Dance of the Filipino American Association of Upper Chesapeake (FAAUC). My family has been part of this organization since 1996. It’s an integral part of our history and life in Maryland; my parents met many of their closest friends through the association and I grew up with a group of friends many of whom have families of their own now, although we’ve grown apart in recent years. I have hosted this event on and off since I was 16. I’ve lost count exactly how many times I’ve been MC; it all blurs together most of the time. Except for this one.

For the first time, my outfit matched how I felt inside: powerful, grown, self-assured. My hair was styled. I was wearing make up. My cue cards in my hand, handwritten numbers on the top right corner in pink marker (I wrote my script that morning). I was ready to go.

(For those interested, I wore a faux jumpsuit—black, shimmery wide leg pants and a black v-neck satin sleeveless top—with a Filipino kimona, and blush heels. I’m usually not that trendy.)

I shared a poem about balikbayan boxes which was, surprisingly, a big hit with the crowd. I became part of the cultural program providing the transitions between acts–most of it ad lib as I had only prepared the minimal thinking that I wouldn’t have to introduce each dance or singer; in the past the program has been one long medley of songs without breaks. I made people laugh.

For the first time in a long time, I showed who I was and what I could do without giving a thought to my weight or my unruly eyebrows or how I would be perceived. When I featured at Busboys and Poets at the end of March, I still didn’t take up space and was super conscious of how large I must have looked to others up on stage, the lights so intense there was nowhere to hide.

So when someone asked me why I was so beautiful that night, I said, “Because I feel good.”

I took this selfie before I left the house. I usually don’t take a selfie alone. I’m not that comfortable taking a selfie alone. But I made it a point to take one so I could look at my face and not criticize every inch of it, to recognize how long it took me to get to this point of acceptance and love, to capture me at my best, in my element.

I’ve struggled with my weight for a long time, more notably so in recent years. I dread going to the Philippines and seeing family because they’ll always comment on my weight first. Once, a childhood friend saw me for the first time after 15 years and when we were alone, his first words to me were: “Why are you so fat?”

I’m not conventionally pretty (my mom would argue that I am, but what parent wouldn’t?). Cute would be the closest I’d say. Only because of my dimples. It bothered me more growing up when comparing yourself to others is a daily ritual and none of the boys around you seemed to find you attractive. So I focused on academics and writing instead, on developing skills and my sense of humor, on community and working towards social justice, believing that in the end, those things would matter more. And they do.

It is all of those things and talent and stage presence and practice and experience and my support network that created me in this specific moment in time. We carry all of who we are every day and everywhere. And on this particular day, I felt good. Despite certain parts of my life in limbo for the past 11 months and being fabulously broke, I know who I am, I know I am powerful, I know I have a lot to offer. And I wanted to celebrate that.

Circling back

Over the weekend I was surrounded by Filipino aunties and uncles, little kids running around, teenagers chatting doing anything so as not to be bored, and music—traditional and contemporary Filipino music. On repeat. I watched as yet another generation of Filipino American youth danced between bamboo sticks and tried to swing their hips while gracefully moving their arms from the right to the left as their feet tapped to the beat. The young girls—no more than 10 or 12 years old—could sense everyone watching them, their cheeks turning a little pink. One even teared up when she stepped on the bamboo and fell. We were all worried about her well being. But for a moment I thought I saw more embarrassment than pain and the pressure of expectations.

It’s been two decades since I was that little girl. Twelve years old. Roped into joining the dance troupe with a promise of a meal at McDonald’s (I know. I know. So gullible). My memory of those days is untrustworthy, as memory often is. But I remember feeling like people were always watching, calculating your worth in their head, almost waiting for you to mess up. That one over there is pretty. The other one, not so much. She’s smart but that’s trouble. I’m not surprised she got pregnant. Does she have any talent? She may be graceful but she’s a little fat.

I wish I could say these calculations stop at some point. Or maybe I wanted to believe that they do. That I had grown up enough—that my life experience, skills, and relationships speak for itself. That there is no space for others’ calculation here.

Instead I found myself explaining what I’m doing now. Stating (with a bit of hesitation and uncertainty) that building community, especially among AAPI artists, and providing a platform for our stories to be heard and celebrated is very important to me. The interaction bothered me enough that here I am writing a public blog post about it.

Thinking it through now, I don’t think it was their question or response that really bothered me. It was the tiny hesitation I heard from myself. It’s the young girls going through the same thing I did—a handful of people watching them, expecting things from them that fall within the limits of what they consider to be “normal” or “traditional.” Young girls who may not, for a long time, know what it means to be your own person. Know what it means to be free.