On the harmfulness of captivity (kind of)
TV recommendations from another self-quarantine, including The Bear; plus the Hearts in Taiwan podcast, a survey for Taiwanese Americans, and Book Club
Forgive us for being absent, friends! We’ve been overwhelmed—with travel, childcare, family duties, and COVID brain fog—and basically unable to work on anything for a month.
We’ve been back in Taiwan for a week. It’s muggy! Mercifully we haven’t really had to face the weather, since we’re in government-mandated quarantine, as required since June. You can do three days in your house and then “self-manage” for four more, which is much more humane than the fifteen days we spent last year in a Taoyuan hotel, which as you may recall we endured by beating Super Mario World.
But the day this quarantine ended, our two-year-old tested positive for COVID, throwing us into another week of isolation. By the time we’re done, we’ll have spent roughly the same amount of time in quarantine as last year! Poor baby P. has now tested positive twice in six weeks. In Paris, she recovered within forty-eight hours, though her fever ran high. So far her symptoms this time have been light. Every time her nose is runny, she yells, “Nose.” A sample conversation:
Baby P.: Nose
Baby P.: Nose.
Baby P.: Nose, nose!
Us: [runs over to her and wipes her nose]
Really, the only ugly part is having to force-feed her medicine. I (Michelle) hold her arms back while Albert shoves a cup of orange liquid past her lips. As she howls helplessly, I wonder, “Am I any different from a violent prison official force-feeding an Irish hunger striker?” (Reader, Patrick Radden Keefe’s book on the Irish Troubles must have made an impression on me.)
We’re also lucky to have experienced two world-class healthcare systems. Both France and Taiwan adopted telehealth options for people who home-test positive for COVID; the doctors have been great, and we’ve paid next to nothing for consultations and medications. The main difference has been surveillance and follow-up. In France, the doctor prescribed a PCR test, but while we assume the result was automatically reported to public health authorities we received no further contact. In Taiwan, the clinic reported P.’s positive result to the CDC immediately, and the next day Albert was contacted the by the clinic (phone call), our local government’s health center (phone call), and the CDC (multiple texts). We got the point: they were monitoring us!
Since late April’s Omicron surge, Taiwan has seen a relatively high number of child deaths. In one particularly tragic case, a family had to wait eighty-one minutes for an ambulance because the fire department wasn’t sure whether it could pick up a confirmed COVID patient. The death sparked public outrage, and the CDC quickly revised its procedures. Creepy as it sometimes feels that the government has its eyes on us, it’s also reassuring to know we’re not alone in dealing with this.
Anyway, back to what you all obviously signed up for: television recommendations.
Quarantine television: the good and the bad
Michelle here (though Albert and I compiled this together). I regret to report that the haze of television intake that follows is not actually a product of quarantine, but in fact indistinguishable from my normal life in which I’m allegedly allowed to leave the house. Here are a few shows we’ve been watching; no major spoilers.
The Bear (FX/Hulu) is “about” so many things: creativity and obsession, ambition and homecoming, family and responsibility, addiction and self-destruction, love and grief, perfectionism and avoidance. Miraculously, this moving and brilliant show, set in the kitchen of a Chicago restaurant, manages to stitch all of these things together with humor, brisk pacing, and human characters.
One beautiful trick of the show has to do with the choice the protagonist, Carmy, makes to return home. He’s cooked at the best restaurants in the world, so why would he come back to run his family’s sandwich shop? You could say—as I initially thought—that the show is grappling with the poles of ambition and home. But that would be inaccurate: Carmy never once considers going back to his old life. The top restaurants, it turns out, are run by a bunch of toxic assholes, and the show never questions his decision to leave that rarefied world behind. Instead, the question is how to deal with coming home.
And once you come home, why stay there? Why not leave again? Because love—however unexpressed, however unfulfilled—permeates his kitchen. From the very first episode, the show takes it as a given that a sense of soul is there. Every person in the kitchen has it. (Of course, they also have, in varying quantities, grief, financial precarity, labor-based physical exhaustion, and distrust.) While this kitchen has a ton of heart, there was none in the restaurant where Carmy used to work—just a cruel taskmaster who brutalized his underlings by demanding fastidious precision. The tacit principle in Carmy’s kitchen is that what ought to be shared will be shared. Food, yes, but also the remembrance of loved ones, the aspiration to be better. The journey the show takes us on is the one from a love that suffers unarticulated to a love tangibly and collectively acknowledged.
Another amazing feat is that the setting feels convincingly—and effortlessly—working-class and multiracial. Black immigrants are visible, as are Poles and Italians, yet the politics are never in your face. Even minor characters are real, nuanced, unpredictable. You never feel the characters are repositories of a writer’s ideology, which can really ruin a show. My favorite is Sydney, the understated newcomer who tries to assert authority. Albert’s is Marcus, a soft-hearted dreamer who becomes obsessed with recreating a purple jelly donut that stands for one of his happy childhood memories.
But a friend convincingly made the case for Richie, the embodiment of toxic masculinity. As she put it, he “has the most complexity and is utterly convincing, sympathetic in spite of himself, and tragic.” He’s an asshole, sure, but just when you think he’ll never get any less insufferable he has a moment of tenderness or self-awareness. Look out for the explosive arguments between Richie and Sydney. (As my friend said, “Power is so complex, unstable between these two, which I find riveting.”)
Few shows out there have such a nuanced treatment of race, gender, and class. And those words never appear in any character’s mouth.
Reservation Dogs (FX) is another gem of a show. Set in Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma, it follows four Indigenous teenagers who dream of moving to California. Like The Bear, it grapples with how a community copes with loss, but it’s also about the inner lives of teenagers in a rural setting, and it’s irreverent, surreal, heartbreaking, and hilarious. It also weaves in Indigenous folklore in surprising, often radical ways, and the acting, from a largely Indigenous cast, is marvelous from top to bottom. We’ve found ourselves thinking about these characters for days after each episode. We’re grateful to Philip Maciak, who turned us on to the show with a wonderful essay in LARB.
Only Murders in the Building (Hulu). Steve Martin. Martin Short. Selena Gomez. Need we say more? This comedy is light and smart, though the first season is more watchable than the second. The rest of the cast has also been delightful, but we’ve particularly enjoyed Amy Ryan (Beadie from The Wire!), who plays a professional bassoonist.
Stranger Things (Netflix). Like you, dear reader, we binged it all (including the two-hour season finale) in less than two days. In this season, more than any other, we kept asking ourselves: why don’t we know whether this is a good show or a bad show? It definitely was good at one point. Now we can’t tell. But Hopper, Eleven, and Dustin are our favorites, and we’ll be loyal to the bitter end.
Westworld (HBO) has its mojo back! Just kidding. This season is ridiculously bad. We keep coming back for one reason only: Thandie Newton.
Forecasting Love and Weather (JTBC/Netflix). This Korean soap opera, fervently recommended by Albert’s haircutter in Nangang,1 is about the love affairs among the staff of a government weather agency (KMA). Apparently—I learned this from the show—Korea’s unique geography makes it the toughest country in the world to predict weather.
If you’re an auteur type and you watch this, please don’t hate me. Actually, just don’t watch it. But if you’re a fan of Korean soaps and want something to fold laundry to, it’s kind of perfect. It’s no Crash Landing on You, but it does explore the sacrifices working women have to make, and quite profoundly at that; for a Korean soap, it’s pretty modern. As usual, the main characters are so beautiful you have a hard time feeling sorry for them when their love lives are challenging. But the supporting cast steals the show; one particularly satisfying late-season hookup involves, thank God, ordinary-looking people.
I especially love the situation-room scenes, where a bunch of meteorologists freak out over where a typhoon will land. You find yourself considering questions that have never crossed your mind: will there be a cyclone following a migratory anticyclone? How badly will the cold season hurt the radish farmers? Why doesn’t Korea issue a national fog advisory? See, these are fun questions!2 This is not an irredeemable show!
The metaphors relating weather to love can be heavy-handed, but once in a while they’re sweet and funny. If this quarantine continues, I plan to make a bingo card. (“A blizzard of feelings swirls through me.” “Lovers, like the ozone layer and earth, must maintain an optimal distance.” “Weather is so unpredictable… like love!”) Next time I’m in South Korea and my weather forecast is incorrect, I’m going to feel a lot of sympathy for the staff over at the KMA.
Television for parents of young children
People often assume baby P. is constantly doing educational activities because her parents like to read. Not so! We’re crappy parents! In quarantine and non-quarantine alike, she watches endless servings of television. Of the roughly ten sentences she can currently utter, one is “Baby watch TV?” Another is “iPad, please?” (But don’t worry: just as often there’s no “please.”)
Sarah and Duck (BBC) is the show in P.’s repertoire that we genuinely adore. It’s playful, surreal, inspired, and charmingly animated. We keep intending to write a love letter to the show’s creators, but for now a summary will have to suffice: Sarah and her bestie, a silent duck, befriend a cast of characters including a mopey moon, a talking rainbow, a coterie of shallots (don’t ask, we don’t get it either), and a donkey. They have human friends too, include a Japanese dancer and a French baker. Sarah and Duck go on adventures, such as persuading the moon to take up painting again (he lost his confidence) and teaching a donkey to jump (he … also lost his confidence). Other scenes involve opera, robots, insect jazz bands, and silent films. Everything about this show is magic.
Her other animated favorite is the movie Back to the Outback (Netflix)—or, as she calls it, “snake show!” She’s been watching it on repeat during quarantine. (Albert rationalizes this by arguing that she’s getting into more “longform” content; the film is over an hour, which certainly does seem like an improvement over those torturous three-minute Peppa Pig clips—or, worse, clips of people playing with Peppa Pig figurines—that she watches on YouTube Kids.)
This film’s hero-protagonist is a snake, which does make me worry she’ll go out of her way to hug a snake one of these days. But I guess there are a million cartoons about bears, and how many kids do you hear about getting mauled trying to hug one? The snake’s besties include a crocodile, a scorpion, and a tarantula. Together these “wildly misunderstood creatures” (per Netflix) band together to escape the zoo, battle society’s negative prejudices, and find freedom in the outback. I was won over upon my sixth viewing or so, declaring the film a sneakily abolitionist text about the harmfulness of captivity and the mutual project of liberation. Nonetheless, I continue to fret that baby P. will try to pet a scorpion, which means I’ve learned none of the life lessons on offer here.
Links: Hearts in Taiwan podcast, plus a survey for Taiwanese Americans
• We were interviewed on the Hearts in Taiwan podcast, hosted by Angela Yu and Annie Wang. They’re the perfect combo, effortlessly conveying the delightful sense of being on a journey toward self-understanding. We’ve been bingeing on episodes and there are too many to recommend, but we especially loved this interview with Christine Lin, who explains the history and the importance of the Presbyterian Church to the Taiwanese independence struggle. (Michelle hates the way she sounds in any recording, so she’s listened to many episodes of this podcast but not the one featuring us.)
For those new to Taiwanese identity, the first episode is a compelling and accessible primer. Angela asks out loud the question that those descending from Chinese-identifying emigrants of Taiwan want to ask: “Can I call myself Taiwanese?” Shocked that her benshengren mother, whose family is many generations in Taiwan, called herself Chinese, she wonders whether she should break rank. The approach of this pair of cousins, characterized by humility, curiosity, and a sense of humor about themselves, provides a model for how to create bridges across ethnic and generational divides. Personally, we hope they’ll pave a path for children of Chinese-identifying parents in or from Taiwan to appreciate the new generation here that increasingly embraces a Taiwanese identity, as well as recognize how fluid these identities are.
A special shoutout to Catherine Chou for telling us about the podcast a while back, and for connecting us with them. (Read her wonderful piece about learning Mandarin and Taiwanese here!)
• The aforementioned Christine Lin, a Taiwanese-American lawyer who works on immigrant and refugee rights, has posted a call for people who identify as such to fill out a survey on Taiwanese-American identity (those who also identify as Chinese or another ethnic/racial identity are welcome too). Feel free to share with others! Christine has also researched issues relating to Taiwan local autonomy and Taiwanese Americans.
Book Club: Siobhan Phillips’s Benefit and Lisa Chen’s Activities of Daily Living
We’re so excited to discuss Siobhan Phillips’s Benefit on the coming Friday, July 29, 4 PM PDT/7 PM EST. And we’ll talk about Lisa Chen’s Activities of Daily Living on Friday, August 26th, 4 PM PDT/7 PM EST. (We’ve been traveling without childcare, as well as battling Covid, so apologies for having to delay discussing these two books.) Can’t wait! Please email us (or reply to this email) if you want to join.
Albert wants to make it clear that he doesn’t endorse Forecasting Love & Weather. Even when he gets all judgy, though, he agrees that it’s still better than this season of Westworld.
A migratory anticyclone brings cool air. The cold season is bad for radish farmers. Fogs are localized in South Korea, rendering national advisories ineffective. This is due to the unique terrain of South Korea, whose land is 70 percent mountainous and has narrow valleys, eleven major rivers, and a thousand dams. You’re welcome.