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Movie Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

Five Stars. I haven’t been this excited about Disney since Frozen (the first one) came out back in 2013. And I hope Raya and the Last Dragon goes the way of Frozen in terms of popularity. Before I gush on about why I love Raya, let me go over two minor factors I wished was different. Before you proceed: Spoiler Alerts!!

Music

We all miss the Disney musical magic when it hits the right spot with songs. I can imagine how awesome it would be if it was a full blown musical with sounds of traditional Southeast Asian instruments such as gamelan, angklung, kendang (the list goes on because there is so many) mixed with the modern orchestrations of James Newton Howard.

Ending

Everyone that was altered by the Druun (a form of negative energy that turns living beings into stone) returned back to their original form in the end. Okay, so we probably saw this coming, being a Disney children movie and all that, but it’s clichĂ©. Every one comes back to life? We know that’s not what happens in reality. I mean, so far not one person I know that has died has ever managed to come back to life, no matter how much I decide to trust other people…I guess once you have experienced death, your outlook on everything changes (read about my discussion on coping with grief). One might argue it’s a children movie, but children face death, grief, and loss just as much as adults do.

One might argue it’s a children movie, but children face death, grief, and loss just as much as adults do.

That’s it. Now moving on the the reasons why I cried buckets until my eyes were swollen afterwards.

Southeast Asian Culture

As an Indonesian, I know the richness of the culture in this area of the world. It’s one of the hotspots of cultural diversity, and I have always wondered when Disney would create something from Southeast Asia folklores. FINALLY, it does so with a bang in Raya and the Last Dragon. I loved all the little cultural details they depicted, like taking off shoes as a sign of respect, soup which looks like tom-yum (my favorite Thai soup), Tuk-Tuk (a term for a vehicle which is a cross between a motorcycle and a car), even the con baby. Yes, they use con babies here to beg money from you in the streets. It’s a sad but true sign of the large socio-economic disparity you can see everyday on our streets.

My favorite cultural detail was how they incorporated wordless gestures as a sign of respect. When Namaari passed the garden of the stone dragons in worshipful silence and showed the statues the circle hand gesture of respect – gorgeous.

Female Power

There was no trope gender issues like in the recent Mulan. The females here were skilled, trained, and powerful. There were no problems that the Chief of Fang was a woman, nor that Raya was to be the next Chief of Heart after her father. Cute old Grandma was the meanest mafia boss Talon had ever seen, and of course, baby Noi steals the show!

Humor and Richness of Emotions

So much joyful humor, especially from the dragon Sisu as voiced by Awkwafina. The young entrepreneur (boatpreneur?) Boun was also a lovingly hilarious treat. His character shows the optimistic, youthful entrepreneurial spirit that exists all across Southeast Asia.

The emotional intensity of Raya and the Last Dragon lays in trust and betrayal of that trust. Everyone who has ever been betrayed or stabbed in the back will understand Raya’s internal struggle.

Sense of Wonder

What cemented this movie for me was Namaari’s love and sense of wonder for the dragons. That look on her face when she saw Sisu for the first time-I know that look. It’s the look on my face when I dive and see a mola-mola (the elusive sunfish) for the first time, or when a whaleshark suddenly appears in the deep blue.

Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.

Rumi

Disney hit this on the nail. In the midst of brokenness, there is astonishing unexplainable beauty for those who still seek it.

Have you seen Raya and the Last Dragon? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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How Music Helped Me Deal with My Eating Disorder

This is a summary of my Instagram Live Interview last Friday 15th of Januray 2021 with Mutiara Nusantara International School in Bandung, Indonesia. It was hosted by Mely Sutrisno, School Director. I would like to thank the school and Ms. Mely for making the talk happen.

What is an eating disorder?

Let me give a disclaimer first that I am not a psychologist. I will be sharing what I experienced with eating disorders, from my point of view. There are three common types of eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Details of each type can be found in this great article by Healthline.

What type of eating disorder did you have? Was there a trigger that started the disorder?

My eating disorder was bulimia nervosa. At that time I was 12 years old, studying in a junior high school in Bandung. I was a very unhappy teenager. My relationship with myself was bad, I did not have a mentor to speak openly regarding emotional issues, plus ideals of beauty from images shown in the media were all factors that contributed to the disorder. The trigger however, was when a friend called me “montok” (which translates into curvy). I thought that being curvy was not beautiful, and so I had to do whatever I could to change my body. I had this disorder for 10 years, until I was 22 years old.

At which point did you realize that this was bad for you, and when did you try to stop?

At that time in Bandung, there was no awareness about eating disorders. So I did not realize that it was a destructive or dangerous habit. When I went to college in Michigan, there was more awareness about various types of disorders. Some people openly talked about their disorders. Student counseling services were also available, and that made me understand that this was something I needed to stop. From then, it took me about 4 more years to be able to heal from the disorder.

Did your family know you were dealing with bulimia? Or did you keep it all to yourself?

I kept it to myself because I was ashamed to be doing this. I did not know how they would react if they knew about my habits. My parents were also busy, so they probably did not notice the symptoms and my behavior patterns. At the time, they probably did not even know that such a disorder existed.

What are some symptoms or behavior patterns for parents of teens to look out for?

In our culture, we can easily miss the symptoms because one of them is eating a lot of food without control. We tend to encourage eating a lot, especially in family gatherings. So eating a lot can be (mistakenly) seen as a good thing. After the binging, I would always go to the bathroom to try to throw it out. So be on the lookout for that-going and staying in the bathroom for a longer period of time after one has eaten a lot of food.

Were you affected also by your social life in school?

For me, not so much. It was more the home situation, including the eating habits in the family. Older people tend to dump food on my plate, making it harder to be in control of my eating. So that’s a good tip for families: don’t put food on people’s plates, or force them to eat more food. Just let them serve themselves.

So how did you manage to stop the habit? How did you distract your emotions?

This is where music comes in for me. In college I studied piano performance so I had to practice 6-8 hours everyday. Piano practice required intense focus and high concentration. Since it was my degree program, I wanted to do it well. I needed to do it well, so I threw myself wholeheartedly into piano. One thing about music is that when we succeed to make better sounds, it feels great! It made me happy. I became proud of myself. (Check out this related post about how being happy helps to build a healthier mindset.)

Another factor was a college roommate that also had the same disorder. We trusted each other and made a pact to try to support and help each other change. This is crucial. I would not have been able to do it by myself.

What are activities would you suggest for teenagers who don’t like music?

Anything that is physical, requires concentration, and makes you happy. Drawing, dancing, sports,…lately I got into diving and that is an activity that requires full concentration underwater plus makes me really happy. But diving can be expensive, so just find another option that fits your budget!

Why should we try to stop the habit? What are the dangers if we live with that disorder?

Well, with anorexia you are malnourishing yourself, so you will be losing out essential nutrients your body needs. With bulimia, I was throwing up everyday. On my worst days I would throw up twice to three times. Imagine all that acid coming up through your system several times a day for years. It causes stomach, esophagus, and oral irritation and damage. Not to mention the emotional and mental destruction you are doing to yourself.

It is quite damaging for the long run. So one really should try to get help from a professional, or at the very least find a supportive community with a positive mindset.

Yes! And don’t get discouraged when you start trying to tell other people. Parents might not know how to react, some friends might not understand, but don’t get discouraged until you are able to find the help you need.

So what would your advise be if a child or friend told you that she/he is struggling with eating disorder?

Do not judge if your child or friend shares something with you. Acknowledge that it takes a lot of effort to be able to speak about it, so receive the words with care and love.

We’re at the end of our talk for today, do you have any last words for our teenagers?

Being a teenager is so difficult isn’t it? I hated being a teenager. But life gets better. As you get older you will have more experiences and be more confident in handling others and handling yourself. Hang in there.

Okay! I think that’s a good end for today. Thank you very much for your time, and I wish the best success for your music, work, and writings.

Thank you so much for the invitation and the opportunity. Have a good evening 🙂

*The full interview (in Indonesian) can be accessed on Sekolah Mutiara Nusantara IGTV.

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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.