I woke up this morning to news that my uncle passed away. He was admitted to the hospital a little over a week ago and had just returned home on Thursday upon his request. I talked to him via Messenger while he was still at the hospital and he told me that he was ready to go. I know that losing someone you care about isn’t something you can truly prepare for, but how I wish you could.

I wish I could’ve hugged him one more time. The last time I saw him in person was 6 years ago.

I’m reminded of my 6-year-old self, hanging from his arms as he’d lift me off the ground. I called him “Dada” instead of “Tito” because he was the first father figure in my life. When I was born my dad was in the US and I didn’t meet him until I was 3.

I can hear Dada’s voice clearly in my head. Someday I won’t remember what he sounds like anymore.

Being thousands of miles away tricks you into thinking it’s not real. Until you see grief on your aunt’s face, hear your mom sniffling quietly, and watch your dad send numerous messages, anxiously waiting for a response when it’s late at night on the other side of the world.

My uncle passed away in the afternoon. It was 5 am here. Hours away from sunrise. The beginning of a day your mind knows comes eventually.

He said he was ready to go. His voice fills my head. Remember this. Remember him.

Extraordinary Things

Today I celebrate another revolution around the sun.

Unlike previous years, I made no plans. And not just because of the pandemic. I wanted today to be simple, to find comfort and joy in the smallest of tasks and actions. There were only 3 things I had to do today: 1) eat noodles, 2) buy alcohol, and 3) go to Flavor Cupcakery to get my free cupcake.

In 2012 I started to write down in a notebook exactly how I celebrated my birthday. I stopped journaling at the time so I must have wanted to remember and document my birthday, fearing I’d forget them and the people who helped make it special.

There were a few years when I performed at the INTERSECTIONS Festival at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Northeast DC as it usually falls around my birthday weekend. Once, I invited my friends over for a “make your own brunch” party. I even spent a weekend at the beach because why not go to the beach in the middle of winter? Sometimes I celebrated for a whole month, picked events and adventures, designed a postcard invitation and handed it out to friends to join me whenever they could. Almost always food and a brewery were involved. The most memorable was the year I went to the Baltimore Museum of Art with a few friends which lead to dinner, followed by a concert at the Rock & Roll Hotel. That birthday stands out because it was only partially planned (the museum) and the rest was impromptu.

Today, I got my free cupcake and a half dozen more, bought alcohol, and ate noodles. I had an early dinner with my family. We laughed often–the kind of laughter that comes from deep within. A very dear friend of mine surprised me with a FaceTime call. And so many people have reached out to wish me a very happy day and year. Now I’m about to blow out candles on an ice cream cake and make a wish.

All simple, extraordinary things.

My culture’s dessert as an underwear color?

A good friend shared with me an Instagram post/ad by Shethinx in which a white model is modeling the latest hue of their underwear: Ube. Pronounced as oo-beh, ube is a purple yam originally from the Philippines. It’s one of our quintessential desserts, often boiled, mashed, and mixed with condensed milk.

Note that the caption makes no mention of the origin of the name, or even how to pronounce it. You can imagine the thousands of people calling it “oob” because they’ve never heard of it as “oo-beh.” Yes, you can cringe now. Actually, keep cringing because it is more than cringeworthy.

In our conversation I talked about how it reminded me of the t-shirts Abercrombie & Fitch sold in the 2000s with images of slanty-eyed Asians and slogans of “Wong Brother’s Laundry Service: Two Wongs Will Make It White” written in that East Asian-looking font. You know what font I’m talking about. While I won’t go into why those t-shirts were offensive because it should be clear just by reading the description (and if it’s not clear to you, may I suggest you do some reading on Asian American history), the difference here is while one was clearly racist and offensive, the Shethinx new hue feels like an attempt to be inclusive, maybe even relevant, and also cute. Someone on staff must be or have connection to Filipino people. But being inclusive is not just about the staff, it has to be evident in every aspect of the organization/business from the products, to the marketing, to every day conversations among the staff and with consumers, to the way we think. Why was the model not Filipino? Why did the explanation about ube come after the fact? And just because one or a few Filipino people thought it was ok to name underwear after a dessert does not mean that the Diaspora will agree.

You could argue that using a word that is a color and a dessert is not new. Caramel being a good example. But you know, not the same. Because caramel is widely accepted as both; no one claims caramel as part of their cultural or ethnic origins, identity, or their current reality. Ube is. It is part of our culture, our food, and it’s not ok to use it as a color especially when the words “purple” or “aubergine” could suffice. Also, the color of that underwear is more plum than purple yam.

In my Law and the Arts graduate course, I wrote about cultural appropriation and copyright, referencing the time when VINTA Gallery, a Filipino-Canadian atelier specializing in modern Filipiniana—a broad term that encompasses traditional Filipino formalwear and design–found itself embroiled in dialogue and debate about the difference between appropriation and appreciation. In my paper I discuss how the First Amendment of the US Constitution and copyright law thrives on expression and the proliferation of ideas, but they often do not provide space for social responsibility. For example, an artist has the moral right (droit moral) to create or to refrain from creating. Other moral rights include the right of disclosure (to decide whether or not to disclose a work), the right to withdraw (not recognized in the US), name attribution, and integrity. Here’s a short excerpt from my paper:

It is the idea of refraining from creating that is a compelling one to imagine as it relates to cultural appropriation. If only we lived in a society in which creators would take a second or two to ask themselves if they can use an image or a fabric, if they are the most appropriate person to write a particular song or play or story. Believers in the absolutism of the freedom of speech and expression would probably label this as chilling speech, being asked by a community to not make that dress or write that play. But is being asked to refrain or to not be the one to create a specific thing truly chilling speech? It may chill one person’s speech for the moment, but the dress, the fabric design, the song, the play, the story can still exist in the world for the public benefit; it would just be created by a different person.

So next time Shethinx–or any retail company for that matter–wants to make a connection to specific racial/ethnic groups, take more than a few seconds to ask yourself if you should create the thing. Because not doing something can also be powerful. It seems weird to say that, but in this context, yes, it is. And if Shethinx wanted to be more relevant to Filipino Americans, why not talk about how difficult it can be sometimes for second generation Filipinas to speak to their mothers about their period, about their bodies in general? That’s relevant. That’s the kind of outreach and conversation that is worthwhile and true.

Neuroses of an Asian American writer

I subscribe to The New York Times, but I must confess I often quickly scroll through the daily morning email that arrives in my inbox then delete it. But on this particular day, as I was clearing out my inbox, something caught my eye: near the bottom, a short blurb about The New York Times Magazine cover article featuring Steven Yeun. I guess you could say I’m a fan of Steven Yeun, although I’ve never seen “The Walking Dead.” But I tend to read his interviews because I find him to be particularly articulate and introspective about being a Korean American actor. (While he was born in South Korea and I was born in the Philippines, the experience of growing up in both countries and in primarily white areas in the US is something we have in common.) His answers don’t sound rehearsed; you can sense that he’s trying to figure it out just as we are. What makes “The Many Lives of Steven Yeun” different from other articles I’ve read is how it began, with the writer, Jay Caspian Kang, discussing the neuroses of being a writer or artist in the US who is not white.

“I only want to chart the neuroses that result from realizing that your work will almost certainly be read as an outgrowth of your identity, along with the rage, doubt and ambition this brings on. The problem is that the anxieties never go away. Every capitulation to the “white gaze” comes with shame; every stand you take for authenticity triggers its own questions about what constitutes authenticity. And once you feel comfortable with the integrity of your work, someone says something that flips everything around, and you’re right back staring at your own lying face,” Kang says.

What a punch to the gut. It threw me back to several moments in the past 18 months since I started to work on Yappie the Musical when I questioned whether I could adequately and authentically capture a voice and experience that was not entirely my own, whether I had a right to, and ultimately, moments of disagreement among the creative team about who exactly I was writing for, which resulted in me writing a rap battle a la “Cabinet Battle #1” from the musical, Hamilton.

As a spoken word poet, my work has always been and continues to be grounded in my own experiences. On occasion I have written poems that tackled issues I cared about like human trafficking, women’s rights, immigration, and more. But I usually did not write in another voice, let alone create characters based on real people or experiences. So, I never really had to ask myself if what I was writing came from an authentic place. Because it most likely always did. Until I started to write the book and lyrics for an original musical.

Kang continues, further ripping apart my chest:

“There’s something I’ve realized over the past decade of writing about race and Asian immigrants. Not everybody cares about our obsessing over belonging and not-belonging and displacement. That presents a problem for writers, artists and filmmakers: Do you take what is in some ways the easiest path and simply cast Asian actors in traditional roles without talking about that choice — a form of colorblindness that merely puts Asian faces on white archetypes? Or do you try your best to document the neuroses because you feel them within yourself — and while you understand that there are certainly worse forms of oppression in this country, there’s some personal or, perhaps, therapeutic value in expressing yourself in front of an audience? But who is the audience? And is there any real value to the narcissistic self-expression of an upwardly mobile immigrant who has nothing else to worry about?”

“Not everybody cares about our obsessing over belonging and not-belonging and displacement.” I listened to Kang say this sentence and I read it over and over. Kang struck at a truth that wanted to escape from my mouth in a conversation with a friend the other day. I was expressing my frustration with the way we talk about race in America, our inability to hold multiple truths at the same time, and the kind of oppression Olympics we seem doomed to repeat. I wasn’t making much sense, but maybe that was the point—to just spill the thoughts out on to the pavement and sort it later.

Then Steven Yeun in this interview said it all: “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”

Cue the screaming into the void. Decades of it. Of trying to insert yourself into conversations, into positions of power. Of jumping as high as you can, waving your arms in the air, waiting to be noticed so you’ll know you exist, too.

Maybe it’s the isolation talking. And I don’t mean just in the past year. I’ve been isolated from other Asian American writers and artists for a long time now. We’ve also changed as people and I wonder if any of them is questioning who they are in the same way I seem to be. Through my writing, Asian American Studies courses, and relationships with friends, many of whom are Asian American, I figured out my place in the world, how I am perceived, who I am outside of that perception. I had reconciled what it meant to be a daughter of an immigrant and being one, too. I remember thinking once, after writing several poems about mother-daughter relationships that I had no need to write any more of them because there was nothing more to say. I thought the same thing about my racial identity. I spent so many years claiming I belonged here, that this is my home that I never imagined I’d ever feel any different.

It was naïve to think I wouldn’t come back to these questions again, that my answers would not waver. Right now, I don’t know where home is. I don’t know if any of my writing will matter apart from being an act of self-preservation and survival. I feel like I know myself and yet not well enough. Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel differently. Maybe the same. Maybe we’re bound to question everything and know nothing. What I know right now is that I don’t want to feel like I have to start from zero. I’ve spent too many years building up my confidence to have to do it all again because I can’t make sense of these changing, conflicting thoughts and emotions about writing, purpose, identity, and belonging. Making the decision to quit my job 2.5 years ago without a job lined up so I could start graduate school and pivot my career and life direction was already starting from zero. It was yet another reinvention. Maybe that’s it: I’m tired of reinvention.

To a new year

Growing up I was told to always wear polka dots on New Year’s Eve. Polka dots symbolize round things, like coins, which symbolize wealth. We were also told to keep coins in our pocket to invite riches for the new year. We bang on pots and pans as loudly as possible to ward off evil spirits. And lastly, we always eat palutang, a rice dessert that’s boiled in water. If it floats, it means that the following year will be light.

I follow these traditions like clockwork down to the polka dots on my underwear to my socks, and this year, even to my blouse and sweatshirt. I wouldn’t say I’m superstitious–this is one of the few times I actually follow tradition. I don’t put coins in my pockets expecting that we’ll be rich every year. It’s more the belief that my family and I will be ok. I jump up and down, scream as loudly as I care to without waking up the neighborhood, and bang on pots with the energy of a kid on Christmas until my sister and parents tell me to stop because it’s annoying.

These traditions never really meant more than what they were: small actions and symbols I got used to doing. But this year they are a comfort, a reminder that the world keeps turning whether you turn with it or not. Time passes whether you’re moving or not. Whether you’re living or surviving or thriving or not.

I don’t have a theme or a resolution or specific goals (yet) for 2021. I can’t recall if I even decided on a theme for 2020. I realize now, hours before we ring in the new year, that what you bring to each new year is hope, your body, your voice, and the love of those around you. Sometimes, oftentimes, that is more than enough.

Imagine this moment

Sometimes you can only find your words within someone else’s. With so many feelings from this weekend, I turned to Vice President-Elect, Kamala Harris’, speech on Saturday night, November 7, 2020. This is a found poem from that speech.

little girl watching

little girl watching
imagine this moment--

generations of women paved the way. 
they marched to victory. 
tested, they proved their backbone. 
overlooked, they did the good work
with heart, integrity, generosity. 
their beautiful voices
delivered a new day. 

little girl watching--
be heard. 
be prepared. 
be unburdened. 

You won't be the last. 

(c) jenny c. lares. 2020.

(A found poem is a poetic form where you take a piece of literature, circle words that resonate with you and a create a poem from those words. It’s a go-to form for me because sometimes a blank page is scary and intimidating so starting with words already chosen fuels the writing and creativity.)

10 years later: Tracing remnants of an artist life

The first Sulu DC show. Basement of St. Stephen’s Church, Mt. Pleasant, Washington DC.
November 21, 2009.

Two weeks ago I was part of the 10 Year Tribute + Retrospective of the AAPI Community of the DMV presented by DC APA Film via YouTube live. Christian Oh, President of the Board of DC APA Film and co-founder and former Executive Director of Kollaboration DC, reached out to me in August about recording a video for the event. (At the time, Kollaboration DC was the DC branch of the Asian American talent competition.)

We’ve known each other for 10 years now, first meeting in person at a restaurant near George Washington University’s campus. I was co-director of Sulu DC at the time and he had just started Kollaboration DC. Both organizations had similar missions and visions—to nurture artistic growth and to increase the visibility of Asian American artists. One was a talent show competition, the other a monthly showcase of artists in a variety of artistic disciplines. Cousins, you could say. Our audiences went to their shows—I even performed in the first one as a guest performer along with spoken word poets, Gowri K and Alex Cena, who is also a Sulu DC co-founder. Quite a few performers from the competition eventually featured at Sulu DC shows.

That period of time from 2009-2013 was truly extraordinary. You could sense the urgency and the hunger for spaces in which we could bring our whole selves, build community, and just have a grand old time. For many DC transplants, especially those from the West Coast, Sulu DC was a little bit of home. For those from the rest of the US, Sulu DC was a home they didn’t realize they had been searching for.

I’ve been reflecting on these years a lot in the past year. First, when I was writing my application essay for graduate school (MA Arts Administration), and then in leadership class my first semester. There are times I am weary of always thinking about it because it’s been so long since I was immersed in it and let’s be honest now, memory can’t be trusted completely. Even in this post I get the sense that I’m romanticizing that time.

One particular night stands out in my memory. It’s not from a show, but a year or so after I left the organization. I was drinking wine outside a bar with a friend in Fells Point. I shared what I had been thinking for a while but didn’t want to admit: I don’t want the best of what I have to offer to be behind me. The fear that I wouldn’t somehow do bigger and better things after Sulu DC consumed me for a while. It’s part of why I didn’t write and perform for years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I tuned into the live stream. Within a few minutes I found myself squealing in my room at remembering certain performances from the first Kollaboration DC competition. We were all so young. We believed we could make a career as artists. The world felt so open and endless then.

Prior to writing this post I took a look at my twitter account, which I last updated in 2015. Aside from photos and Facebook statuses, it’s the only evidence of my life back then. I stopped writing in a journal during that time and I lost all the blog posts when I discontinued my website (I know, I’m still very sad about it). What a busy little bee I was! In DC 2-3 times a week, a Sulu DC show here, a college show in Georgetown, rehearsals and meetings, hosting open mics. (Oh, and I was terrible at twitter. It was a bunch of tweets about “en route to the city” like anyone was that interested in where I’d be next. Who did I think I was? A rock star?) I was living that artist and artist manager life. I wasn’t tired yet, just eager to share my poetry and do whatever needed to be done to produce our shows. I certainly had the heart, the drive, leadership instincts, and some skills. Even more important, I was surrounded by such a supportive network, who were still there even after I left.

Now 10 years later, I am a lot more intentional, more self-assured, more forgiving especially of myself, and still angry. In the video above you’ll hear my response to what I hope to see in the next 10 years for AAPI communities. Here’s what I didn’t say but I’m saying it now. That we never have to hear the question, “Where are you from?” ever again.

“Where Are You From” written and performed by Alex Cena, Gowri K, and Jenny C. Lares. 2010.

Reading until the sun rises

A few days ago I started to read Randy Ribay’s novel, Patron Saints of Nothing. I was about half-way through when something compelled me to read even though it was already way past a decent hour to go to bed. I ended up reading the novel to the end, closing the book as the sun started to rise, beams of light chasing away the need for a lamp light.

I couldn’t stop reading it. In my hands was the first book I had ever read that mirrored the experiences I, myself, could not write. About the times I went back to the Philippines, the contradictions many of us who were born on the archipelago but grew up in the US feel but can’t describe. The guilt we feel sometimes, the judgments we so easily think and speak, the times we fall silent, the awkwardness as we try to connect with cousins whose life experience feels so separate and strange from our own. The recognition of—or is it the yearning for—belonging in a place we barely remember. I cried and not just because of what actually happens in the novel, but because of how real it was to me, how it took thirty years to read about myself. (Let me confess now: I do have shallow tears when it comes to films, but not with books.)

It was similar to the first time I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. I was in high school, I think. My sister had brought the book home after reading it for a college class. I connected to it as an Asian American woman, fighting battles with your family, finding the worth of your own voice. But Patron Saints of Nothing hit me on another level. I’m still trying to find the words to explain. Maybe I don’t have to. I know how much it means to me. I know the moments I stopped briefly, to nod in acknowledgement. Yes, this happened to me too. Yes, I felt this way too.

I will carry this novel with me for a long time. I will carry it with me.

One Year Later

Public Workshop Performance of Yappie: A Musical Comedy. Cohen-Davison Family Theatre, Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore, MD. October 4, 2019. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography

Today marks one year after the workshop premiere of Yappie the Musical (well, half of it. We also changed the title shortly after the workshop performance.) Yappie is a creative project I’ve been working on since July 2019 with composer, Bobby Ge, and producers, Roger Wu Fu and Donna Ibale. I had never written lyrics up until last summer, and I never imagined I’d ever write a musical.

The night before I remember feeling nervous and strangely confident. I was nervous about how it would be received by the audience. Would they find it funny, endearing, irrelevant, terrible? I hoped they would enjoy it at least, but I knew deep down that no matter their reaction, I was proud of my work. Proud that I pushed myself to be a better writer even if there was a great (and very public) chance of failure. (I mean, who writes half of a musical in 2.5 months? Apparently we do.)

The night unfolded better than I could have imagined. The cast was brilliant, the audience laughed, and so many friends came out to support us. My mom and sister sat right in the center, second row from the stage. My former co-workers came together, my former students-turned-friends-for-life brought their friends, a few friends from the DC area made the trek to Baltimore (on a Friday night nonetheless!), and my dear friends from undergrad who have witnessed my writing and performing career from the beginning were there once again to see me embark on a new one. My heart grew exponentially that night. I wasn’t sure I deserved all that support. But I was and am so very happy to be surrounded by such amazing people.

Fast forward a year, and here we are, the arts in a precarious position because of a global pandemic, an economic downturn, and the very necessary uprooting of racism in arts and cultural institutions and organizations.

We were slated to premiere the complete musical in May this year and decided at the start of the pandemic to postpone the premiere to the fall. We will not be staging this production any time in the near future; however, we will be sharing a part of it with you soon. I can’t share in what form yet, but know that we’re working on it and are excited to release it into the world! 🎵🎵🎵

I know our creative endeavor was one among many that had to be delayed, change course, or shelved indefinitely. The pandemic gave me more time than I ever thought I’d have to write the lyrics and script. It also made it incredibly difficult to write. To write about anything other than missing putting on shoes, missing in-person conversations, missing any sort of contact, missing wandering the streets with no destination in mind, missing sitting at a bar drinking a pint, missing being immersed in a live performance with people in a room—an experience that really can’t be replicated. It also pushed us to flex our creative muscles and think of ways to produce a version of it with everyone’s safety in mind.

For this time around, I’m not nervous at all.

Check out the Events page and follow us on Instagram: @yappiethemusical for updates.

Color Scavenger Hunt + Haikus

In early April, a few weeks after lock down started in Maryland, I came across the color scavenger hunt, an activity idea for kids via The Color Factory and party expert, Darcy Miller. The idea is simple: Gather items of a specific color in your room or house, lay it all out, and then take a picture. What was an idea for kids became for me, a fun, necessary break from my computer and being online, and surprisingly, a chance to flex my haiku writing skills. Not to mention I got a chance to look through all my stuff. An abbreviated version of tidying, so to speak.

I discovered that a few colors are well-represented in my possessions. Others, while I wear a lot of the color (like gray), were surprisingly lacking in numbers. I found items that are relatively new, ones I had forgotten exist, some I rarely use, and others that have been with me for decades. Items that have stories of their own.

I realized how our styles evolve and how some stay the same but are a bit more curated. This evolution is closely tied with growing older, as I’m trying to not have as much stuff and love the stuff I do own. As I am more drawn to classic patterns and neutral palettes now, I do love pops of color and I hope I always will.

At some point the captions for these posts on Instagram turned into poems—mostly haikus. A few I wrote after I shared the photos, so here are all the haikus in their colorful glory:

red wax pools 
seals my heart within until
you come and break it


yellow metro card
a record of where i've been
where shall i go next? 


brown, color of earth
natural--but darker hues
condemned as less than
when they/we hold the power
of a thousand suns


together we can
rule galaxies--worlds full of 
and beyond color


the white bone folder
has creased thousands of pages
my life wrapped within


i am brilliant.
i am bright and beautiful. 
shine, shine like the stars. 


a feast for the eyes
every color imagined
in play, in contrast