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Super Heroines of Classic Young Adult Fantasy

Growing up with my nose in books, fictional characters were as real to me as everyday people. Their wits, courage, and attitude facing adversity inspired me during my moments of challenges. Here are five of my favorite super heroines of classic young adult fantasy.

5. Matilda from ‘Matilda’ by Roald Dahl

Matilda Wormwood is considered a misfit and a failure by her irresponsible parents.

Often neglected, she learns to take care of herself with the resources available to her which included intelligence and telekinetic powers. She also shows some leadership skills when she rallies her classmates to defend their beloved Miss Honey from the evil principal: The Trunchbull.

4. Princess Eilonwy from ‘The Chronicles of Prydain’ by Lloyd Alexander

“I’m Princess Eilonwy. And you’re in bad trouble, aren’t you?”

The headstrong, talkative, kind and brave Princess Eilonwy of Llyr is definitely someone I would want on my team, whatever the adventure is. She is an enchantress by heritage. Her relationship with Taran the Assistant Pig Keeper is interesting because it develops from friendship first and evolves into a romantic relationship as they grow up in the course of the five books.

3. Hermione Granger from ‘Harry Potter’ by JK Rowling

JK Rowling is currently under a lot of heavy criticism about being a transphobe (someone who irrationally fears a transgender).

Her devoted fans have turned against her, including many actors from the movie series. This gives me many mixed feelings, as I literally grew up with the Harry Potter books. In the end, I decided to keep Hermione on this list because she is surely one of the most brilliant witches in the history of magic! On top of that, she is also loyal to her values even when it gets really tough.

2. Miri from ‘Princess Academy’ by Shannon Hale

Miri and her sister Marda come from a small village on Mount Eskel where the community mines for a living.

When the Capital decides the next Queen is to come from the mountains, a temporary school is set up so the mountain girls can be educated. Here Miri learns to read for the first time. Hungry for more, she digs into history and learns some truths that eventually save her village. The heart of the ‘Princess Academy’ trilogy is the importance of education. Freedom is freedom to learn, and a woman can be powerful when she has the necessary knowledge.

1. Sophie Hatter from ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ by Dianne Wynne Jones

I am a huge fan of Diana Wynne Jones. Guess what, so are authors such as Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, Robin McKinley, and JK Rowling.

‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ is one of her most popular fantasy books, especially after being made into a box office animation by Studio Ghibli. Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three daughters. In the land of Ingary, this means she is cursed to live a dull life at home. She is doubly cursed when the Witch of the Waste turns her into an old woman. Sophie then goes on a journey to find the Wizard Howl to help her lift the curses. In the end, it is Sophie that lifts her own curse while saving Howl in the process.

Who are your favorite fictional heroines? Let me know in the comments!

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How to Say “NO” to Figures of Authority

Girls that grew up in conservative patriarchal societies will be told by their parents, teachers, community leaders, and so on, to “be a good girl, and obey.” Children will carry this way of thinking until adulthood, unless they have very special parents who raise them to think critically and question authority.

Be a good girl, and obey.

The problem arises when figures of authority abuse their power and ask you to do something which you really do not want to do. When this happens, how do you say “NO” to these figures of authority? How do you disobey “orders” when you have been conditioned to blindly obey them your whole life?

Watch this video tutorial, and I hope this is helpful if you often deal with these situations in your daily life.

Send me a message, or leave a comment about how you say “NO” to figures of authority around you. Visit this post for the Box Breathing Tutorial to stay calm in stressful situations. Visit this article from World Health Organization on statistics of violence towards women in Southeast Asia.

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How to Stay Calm During Stressful Situations with this Breathing Technique

four rock formation

Box breathing, also known as four-square breathing, is a deep breathing technique that will help you stay calm in stressful situations. It is especially useful when an emergency arises, and you really need to stay calm instead of panicking. With a calmer attitude and clearer mind, you will be able to assess the situation at hand and see what needs to be done.

This breathing technique is also useful if you have a high pressure job that needs extreme concentration, or when there is a high stake moment like an important sales pitch coming up. Resetting your breath and grounding your mind will relax your body, which will increase your performance. I myself use this breathing technique almost on a daily basis.

Watch this tutorial to understand how it works. When you try it, make sure to expand the rib and the belly as you are inhaling. Shallow, fast chest breaths will only cause you to panic more. Repeat as many times as you need.

The relaxing music in the video is by Bensound. To read more about deep breathing techniques, visit this article from Medical News Today. To read daily habits for improving self performance, visit this blogpost.

If you have found this video useful, please leave a comment, share, or subscribe so airinefferin can visit your inbox!

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Signs of Emotionally Abusive Relationships

Emotional abuse can occur in dating, family, or even work relationships. If you are not aware of the signs, sometimes it is hard to tell when you are being emotionally abused by a lover, parent/sibling, friend, or colleague. It happens more often than you might think, and its very likely that you will come across emotionally abusive people several times in your life.

Emotionally abusive people are usually after dominance and control-of you, of the group, or of the project. Often abusers are active substance addicts or have disorders such as psychopath, pathological narcissist, or borderline personality disorder. First impressions of them can be great, as they are able to be very sweet and accommodative at the beginning. In fact, they can come across as too charming or too good to be true.

I have experienced being in emotionally abusive relationships, so this is a sign I have learned to look out for.

In fact, they can come across as too charming or too good to be true.

What are some other signs?

  1. I was constantly unsure of myself. Did I say the right thing, do the right thing? Would he/she be angry at this text and ignore me, or would he/she forgive me and carry on?
  2. I was always so exhausted. I felt drained emotionally, mentally, and physically. Sleeping held no relief, instead it made me more tired because there were constant nightmares.
  3. I took no joy in my accomplishments. On the contrary, I felt guilty for outshining the partner/colleague/friend.
  4. I felt so powerless. As if there was nothing I could do to change the situation, and I had to either accept it, or leave.
  5. I spent more money than I should have, because I wanted to make the other person happy.
  6. My world got smaller and smaller and smaller. All other relationships were considered a threat to the current one.
  7. The consequences of my mistakes were amplified and used as a tool to punish me. It was my fault things went awry. I was the one who messed things up.
  8. I did not feel comfortable being near them. In fact, I was afraid that at any moment they could blow up and physically hurt me, or someone else around them.

What should I do if I am in an emotionally abusive relationship?

If you think you are in an abusive relationship, I heavily suggest seeing a therapist or talking about it with a trusted adult. Neutral third party observations can help you see things from a different perspective. Create boundaries, build a support network for yourself, make an exit plan, and get the heck out. Don’t hang in there because you think you can fix the person, or because you love the person, or because you owe them your successes. Don’t try to understand or justify their actions.

This is easy to say, and I know from experience these actions can be incredibly difficult to do. Try to be brave for yourself, and take the first step: talk about it. As Fred Rogers said: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”

Fred Rogers

Remember that you deserve an amazing relationship, and an amazing life!

Featured image photographed by Chameera Laknath during Southeast Asia Leadership Academy January 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam.

To read more on emotionally abusive relationships, visit this article from Health Line. If you need a reminder of your worth, visit our core beliefs.

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I am Giving Away a Free Sample of Nisha

I grew up reading fantasy books with strong heroines. These stories planted seeds in my mind that girls did not have to grow up just to be what society wanted her to be. She could grow up to be whoever she herself wanted to be. This is a radical notion if you are from conservative origins.

The coming of age novella titled Nisha is my own addition to the collection. It is set in a fantasy world with witches and wizards, but also incapable leaders, annoying brats, and a girl who is trying to figure out what is happening around her.

A good friend then suggested I record a narration. Hmm!

So, just about a month ago I brought the manuscript to a studio, took a deep breath, and recorded myself reading it out loud. As promised, click here to download the free sample of Nisha (audio).

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Lessons from Indonesia’s Richest Woman

One of the most illustrious women I have the privilege to get to know is Giok Hartono, wife of Budi Hartono, the richest person in Indonesia. He is listed on Forbes with a net worth of US $18billion, most of the fortune coming from their family business Djarum clove cigarettes and stakes in Bank Central Asia. His wife is well known to love and support a wide range of the arts from visual to performing. It is through her philanthropy in music that our paths crossed.

Tante Giok (or Auntie, as I called her) was a patron of Cascade Trio, Indonesia’s premiere piano trio which I co-founded, active around the region from 2014-2019. In addition to financial gifts, she also opened her private facilities for us to rehearse at while we were in Jakarta. There are only so few Steinway pianos in Indonesia, and to be able to practice on one was an unimaginable luxury. Needless to say, her support made a huge difference to our musical careers.

From several conversations with her, I observed some daily habits which I have since tried to implement in my life.

1. She takes cold water showers every morning.

Although this sounds like self-torture, it actually has health benefits from increasing endorphins, improving metabolism and blood circulation, all the way to beauty benefits for hair, skin, and scalp. Tante Giok looks about 20 years younger than her real age.

2. She exercises at least one hour every single day.

I will never forget how in my first meeting with her. She proudly told me that she could still do the splits, and promptly demonstrated it right in front of me. I was speechless-not just because she was so flexible at her age, but more because I certainly did not expect the wealthiest lady in Indonesia to be so…unorthodox.

3. She always responds to her WhatsApp messages.

She might not respond immediately, but she would respond at least within 1-2 days. For someone like me who has done so much fundraising (this is the reality of a musicians’ life), I have gotten hundreds of rejected asks, and even more ignored asks. I was used to being disregarded by “important” people who had a lot of money. From getting to know her, I learned that truly important people don’t make other people feel bad. On the contrary, they make YOU feel important. Her default mode is treating everyone with respect, even the lowest person in the social chain.

I’ve been very lucky to be able to learn these lessons from Tante Giok Hartono. Are there super successful people that have surprised or inspired you with their daily habits?

Featured image: Giok Hartono as the goddess Dewi Banowati with Ali Marsudi as the heroic Arjuna in a wayang performance, December 2015. Photographed by Romli Sawunggaling.

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You are Beautiful

You are beautiful

no matter that you gained some kilos,

or that you keep losing weight.

No matter that you are forty and still a virgin,

or that you slept with people who took advantage of you.

No matter that you focus on your career,

or that you are broke and in need of some help.

No matter what happened to you

or who happened to you

No matter where you are right now in your life.

You are Beautiful

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Find What Makes You Happy

hands hand notes music

In spring 2008, I won a music competition at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I was studying piano performance. Now it is called Calvin University, but back then it was one of the finest private liberal arts school in the States. A liberal arts education meant the school offered well-rounded approach to the undergraduate degree, equipping the student with various disciplines of knowledge not only the major she / he is pursuing. For someone like me, this meant that even though I majored in music, I also had to take classes in world literature, philosophy, sciences, psychology, and even fun sports classes like tennis and karate.

The piece I won with was the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major by Dmitri Shostakovich. I worked on this piece intensively with my piano teacher Ms. Hyesook Kim. By intensive I meant 6-8 hours a day, no matter what day, for about a year. I remember one cold winter-and winters are FREEZING in Michigan- when I was practicing with my eyes closed to focus on memorization of the piece. I felt the piano keys getting sticky, and when I opened my eyes I was surprised to see blood on the white keys. My fingers were dry and the skin was cracked. The vulnerable skin must have gotten caught while doing fast passages on the wooden keys, causing them to bleed without my notice. That was how much effort I put into the concerto.

However that year for me was especially meaningful not only due to winning and performing the piece with the Calvin College Orchestra (under the direction of Robert Nordling). It was important because that was the first time I really focused and worked SO HARD on something, with amazing results. For the first time in my life I tasted the feeling of satisfaction and how good it felt to have my hard work acknowledged. “Success breeds success” is a well known Suzuki concept in the music education world. For me, though, the success was more than musical.

For the first time in my life I tasted the satisfaction of having my hard work acknowledged.

For the first time in my life I tasted the satisfaction of having my hard work acknowledged. I had been a bulimic since my junior-high years in Bandung, Indonesia, way back from 2001. I tried to stop, but was constantly met with my own failure. In 2008, my daily piano practice routine was mixed with hours of binging and purging. I go into more detail in another post about my journey of healing, which included loving friends who struggled side by side with me. What I would like to point out here is that my success with the piano concerto boosted my confidence and happiness. The more I played piano, the happier I became. A happy Airin grew to be a strong Airin who would eventually win her 10 year battle with the disorder.

In 2018, exactly a decade later, Maestro Robert Nordling invited me to perform this piece again with the Lake Forest Civic Orchestra in Illinois. The performance is available here for your listening and enjoyment. The blue haired pianist is happy, strong, and very proud of herself.

Do you know what makes YOURSELF happy? Do you remember moments when you were very proud of your hard work?

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The Language of the Universe

Ask me how many calories are in a pineapple smoothie. Or a bowl of noodles. Or a blueberry muffin. I can rattle the numbers off the top of my head, because I am obsessed with the food I consume.

There is an app called MyPlate which helps me calculate calories  throughout a given day. It breaks down the information to the macro and micro nutrients level, so I can monitor if I had too much of any one element. I then average throughout the week according to suggested health guidelines, factoring exercise and water intake. The result : I never have to guess or worry whether I ate too much. I just look at the record.

This is me now, in my early 30s, implementing  some heavy duty Military Discipline. 

Let’s rewind back a decade, to a Me in her early 20s. 

She’s in the bathroom, kneeling over the toilet bowl. Two fingers are in her mouth, poking her own throat to stimulate gagging. Her stomach complies, and starts to throw up. In reverse order, the Thanksgiving meal came back out. Brownies,pumpkin pie, the meat. The sour cream and chips which were appetizers her American hosts had prepared. They had a tradition of inviting international students over for Thanksgiving meals. Airin was an Indonesian student on F1 visa, studying piano performance in Michigan. Her fingers were long and beautiful – they looked like they were made for the keys. 

They didn’t know her fingers were also adept at making her digestive system throw up every meal, every single day. On bad days, she would be hogging the common bathroom. It was common because she always lived with roommates and apartment mates, some of whom noticed very quickly her queer bathroom habits. 

Back then, I looked in the mirror and hated who I saw. The binging and purging which started in my early teens stayed with me for 10 years. I had no control over myself, my mind, my eating habits. I lost the daily war with my own beast. And it made me hate myself more. 

My saving grace came first in black. Seriously. It was a house mate who reached out to me. She was Ghanaian, and No, I was not participating in any intentional cross cultural living programs, although that semester many eyebrows were raised when I moved in to live with 3 African girls. They were loud, noisy, and laughed so much. They constantly fretted about their hair. My introverted Asian self was thrilled and amused, at the same time thoroughly out of place. We’re friends until now, keeping the Accra – Bandung connection alive via Whatsapp and regular Zoom calls. 

She first reached out to me, asking me if I needed help. I denied everything, but she wouldn’t buy it. It also didn’t help that I left my diary lying around – for this I credit myself. At least I wrote. I wrote in my diary, and I accidentally left it on the common kitchen counter. So Ghanaian eyes had solid proof, and her loving heart wouldn’t let me off the hook that easily. 

To have other people know my flaws and harmful habits was essential to breaking that hellish prison of the mind. The next semester I started living with other friends- lo and behold fate brought another fellow bulimic. This time I was the one who reached out to her. Together we stumbled, fell apart, held hands, picked each other back up, and began our healing journeys. Our sisterhood held strong over the years until now, across the vast Pacific. 

The final unseen, powerful force which carried me to my liberation was Music. With capital M, because I believe Music is is not just sounds, or instruments, or musicians, or microphones. Its more than what you see on stage, on a computer screen, or on a piece of paper. Its more than what you hear with your ears, or through your headset, or blasting through gargantuan sound systems in a stadium. 

Its something like the sweat drenching the drummers’ back, the drop of blood from the clarinetist’s lip, or the calloused left fingertips of the cellist. Its something like the chirping birds, the deep notes of the blue whales, the shrieks of the winter wind. 

Its something like the silence after Amen, the unheard overtones of the harmonic fifths in the air, the rhythm of the rolling waves. 

This Music is the language of the universe itself, and I was so privileged to experience shimmers here and there in my studies as a concert pianist.

This Music is the language of the universe itself, and I was so privileged to experience shimmers here and there in my studies as a concert pianist. Being so close to such a force slowly yet steadily awakened my inner voice. The joy of a Bach prelude, the pathos of a Brahms intermezzo, the sublimity of a Beethoven sonata… The time I spent with Music continued to strengthen my inner voice, until I was slowly able to master, love, and be at peace with my one and only, dear self.  

Published in FemAsia Magazine July 2020. With thanks to Devika Brendon. Click here to view.

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White Heels and Avocadoes

I walked to greet some of the wedding guests, seated spread apart across the Heritage Kitchen and Gallery’s garden. It was a hot sunny day, not ideal for sensitive skin but much better than rain, at least for this occasion, on this location. My heels sunk into the soft earth, and I almost lost my balance.

Darn! I thought.

I am not a fan of heels, but today, my wedding day, I pulled out these 8 inch white T straps. They were a perfect match with the asymmetric layered Carla top and white palazzo pants. Pants! I loved wearing pants for my wedding. The loose fabric of the wide cut allowed me to sit, stand, or dance comfortably anywhere around the garden.

One of my favorite moments was during the ceremony when we had to put on the wedding rings. Except in Cung and my case, we both agreed no rings. We had bracelets instead. And I put them in a lovely pouch in the pockets of my palazzo pants. No standing uncomfortably still looking lovely while waiting for the groom.

Not this time.

This time I paid for most of the wedding necessities: food, venue, photographers, church certificates, you name it. Last time my father paid for most of it.

This time I had semi casual outfit, last time it was a princess gown dress by Harry Lam, a top designer.

This time I wore almost no make up, since most of my face was covered by the mask required for Covid Protocol. Last time I woke up at 3 AM and started the 2 hour make up process with the make up artist.

This time, I married Cung, a one eyed rebel architect-historian-curator. Three years ago, I married Oky, a gentle genius architect.

Oky, my first husband died two years after we got married. I became a widow.

So what am I now? A once widow? An ex widow? A wife? A second wife ?

Life, love, and death does not fit neat categories, boxes, nor timelines.

I am all the above. Life, love, and death does not fit neat categories boxes, nor timelines. They defy our expectations, and we are left wondering: What Happened?

Rumi, a 13th century poet and scholar once said “sell your cleverness, and buy bewilderment.”

The white heels was the only article of clothing which I wore for both weddings. Custom made by the maker, it fit the contour of my feet perfectly. Amazingly, they stayed clean the whole afternoon, even after several more times sinking into the lawn. The heels endured.

With them, I walked towards the guests sitting at the far end of the lawn, one of whom was wearing an avocado around her neck. Avocado was the theme of my second wedding. Guests continued to ask : why avocado?

I thought : why not ?

Originally written August 6, 2020