New LikeWise Fiction: "How to Be Chinese," by Celeste Ng

Episode 2 of LikeWise Fiction features the story "How to Be Chinese," by Celeste Ng. In this story, Mackenzie is a Chinese American adoptee who has grown up with a white mother in a Michigan town with few other Asians. As she goes off to college, she's excited to explore and connect with her heritage, but finds the question of identity to be complicated.

Listen to the story at:

You can also listen to the full episode and read the story text at the episode page on the LikeWise Fiction website.

Subscribers to the Likewise Media Patreon campaign at the $5 level and above can hear my special bonus interview with Celeste Ng. In our conversation, Celeste and I talked about the relationship between this story and her novels, and the complicated question of what heritage and culture mean for us as Asian Americans.

Ocean Storm, Bayberry Moon

One of my best friends from college died about three weeks ago. I only found out yesterday. I was attending an art event—a gallery tour in Tijuana—and happened to check my email in between stops. At first, not recognizing the sender's name, I thought it was spam, but it turned out to be an ex-girlfriend of his, a woman I'd heard about many times but had never met. It's a strange, isolating experience to receive terrible news while you're surrounded by friends who are having a good time. My impulse was not to ruin everyone else's day, but of course I couldn't entirely keep my feelings to myself. A few people checked in with me, sensing my distress. I demurred.

In some ways, I suppose this friend was already gone from my life. It had been a couple of years since the last time we saw each other, or even really spoke. We had grown apart, and in some ways I had already grieved that loss. But in the back of my mind I guess I thought things might turn around. He'd had some changes in his life recently, and was engaged to be married. I was happy for him, and part of me thought that we might reconnect some day. That won't happen now.

I've thought so much about this man over the past few years, so often with sadness or worry. I met him the first day of college, and still, more than two decades later, that is how I remember him. He was slender and energetic, enthusiastic and outgoing in a way I've seldom seen, before or since. He laughed loudly and often. He hugged with his whole body. He was utterly un-self-conscious in telling his friends that he loved them, a rare thing for men of my generation. And that was something he gave to me—a willingness to say it back without feeling strange.

He was a man of big appetites and a passion for pleasure unlike anyone else I've ever known. He carried around a recipe for cheesecake in his wallet, and happily took every opportunity to make one and share it with you, even—usually—on the spur of the moment. Back then we all drank too much, ate poorly, failed to care for our bodies. A few of my friends drank like they were punishing themselves, but for him drinking and substances were always and only about pleasure. It took him to some dark places, eventually. I don't know how or why he died, but for some time now I have feared and maybe even expected the worst. I still thought we'd have more time.

And this is the thing that has haunted me, saddened me, worried me about our friendship as we got older. Some of the things that make us fun or funny or endearing when we are young become less and less excusable as we age. And, hopefully, as we learn. Some things he never learned. Some of the things that made us laugh at nineteen make me cringe now. Some of the things we said and did then are things that hurt people, or hurt ourselves. We were ignorant then, or maybe we were innocent. Maybe we should have known better then. Maybe somewhere inside some of us did. Either way, we should know better now. The fact that he couldn't or wouldn't learn to be better made it hard for me to be around him. Increasingly, in mixed company I found myself having to make excuses for him, or apologizing for him afterwards—something I'm sure he didn't want and certainly never asked for. He was sure of himself, even when he was wrong, even when the horribleness of what he said was evident to everyone but himself. When he dropped away from me I was sad, but part of me was also relieved.

I wonder if he was confused about why we stopped connecting. I wonder if he was angry with me. If he was, he never said so. As much of a pain in the ass as he could be, he was also one of the most unfailingly generous people I knew. He took genuine pleasure in seeing his friends enjoy things. Maybe in distancing myself, I was unfair to him. Maybe I was justified in doing what I needed to do. Did I cut him off, or did he move along on his own? I don't know how he saw it. Now he's gone, and I have to live with the fact that that's where we left things.

I try to take comfort in knowing that he was unafraid of dying. Neither of us believed in an afterlife, which terrified me and comforted him. Once—perhaps twelve, thirteen years ago—I was working myself up into a panic attack about my impending nonexistence. He just said to me, calmly, "It's nothing to be afraid of." I try to remember that, but of course the pain I feel now is about the hole he's left in my life. An absence that, yes, I will some day get used to, but which will never be filled. This is the thing about life: the longer you live, the larger and more numerous the holes become. Eventually everyone goes away, or we do.

And yet I cannot think about my friend without thinking about all the ways that he pursued his pleasures. The landscapes of our souls become furrowed and holed by loss, and new joy and new love cannot fill those voids. But what they can do is expand the boundaries of our emotional territory, giving us someplace new to stand.

I remember my friend smiling. It's all I can do.

• • •

I do have updates on my projects and my work, but I'm going to let them sit for now. It can wait.

I hope you're well, and that whatever you need, be it joy, peace, nourishment, or anything at all, finds its way to you soon.

Take care,


Launching LikeWise Fiction!

Episode 1 of LikeWise Fiction is finally here! In this inaugural episode I'm reading Alvin Park's story "Whale Fall." In this beautiful flash fiction piece, a whale washes ashore, a village loses its memories, and a relationship falls apart.

Listen to the story at:

You can also listen to the full episode and read the story text at the episode page on the LikeWise Fiction website.

Subscribers to the Likewise Media Patreon campaign at the $5 level and above can hear my special bonus interview with the author of today's story, Alvin Park. In our conversation, Alvin and I discussed the flash fiction form and why he's attracted to it as a writer, and what it means to be a "hyphenated American" writer.


I noticed a lot of people talking about kindness yesterday because of a video that was going around in which a celebrity was talking about being kind to everyone. It probably won't surprise you to know that I do believe we should be kind to everyone. I don't always live up to that ideal, but I try. But I think it's worth thinking about what kindness actually is, and what it does.

Because kindness isn't the same as politeness. It's not the same as non-confrontation. It's not the same as forgiveness, which is itself not the same as forgetting, or a lack of accountability. Kindness is not, at its root, about reducing tension. Kindness is, I think, about giving people what they need. When we focus on removing tension from our interactions, it may be more comfortable in the moment, but it doesn't necessarily feed us in the long run. Often, focusing on reducing tension merely delays a reckoning. It allows us to ignore harm, which often compounds that harm. That is not kind, I don't think.

I do think that difference is something that should be tolerated, even celebrated in many instances. But I think it's also important to recognize that not all differences are benign. Some differences of belief result in people choosing to harm other people. I think that using the language of kindness and tolerance to ignore and erase past harms is, itself, a harmful thing. It enables current and future harms. And it is therefore not kind.

We can have compassion for everyone, I think. Because everyone is in some way suffering—indeed, it's often because someone is suffering that they choose to harm others. And I think we can with kindness mitigate that suffering and enable people to be kind and generous to others. But I think it is important to understand that having compassion for someone's suffering does not mean that we must condone their actions. Neither does kindness mean that we must always make people comfortable.

Kindness is not amoral. It does not require us to eliminate our emotional or ethical boundaries. Indeed, I find it is just the opposite: it is only through understanding the difference between right and wrong that we can be truly kind. Kindness is not simple. It is not easy. It requires us to look at each other and ourselves clearly, to understand deeply, to overcome our own very natural urges toward seeking our own comfort or lashing out against others. Kindness is not safe. In order to be kind, we must be willing to see and understand our own shortcomings and complicities. We must be willing to make ourselves vulnerable, over and over again.

So, yes, let us be kind to everyone. Let us be kind across difference. Let us be kind also to ourselves. But let us not mistake deference or niceness or comfort for kindness. If we are going to commit to kindness, let us do so with the understanding that kindness and healing and justice are all of a piece, they go hand in hand, that none of them have meaning without the others.