8 Asians

Strawberry Moon by Amy Vachal
(Independent, 2018)

I’ve waited too long, baby

Until a few weeks ago, the only thing I knew about Amy Vachal was that she was a contestant on The Voice, a show I hate.  Don’t be mad.  I just think these singer contest shows on network television seek musicians who appeal to very large audiences, and if something appeals to the masses, it is most likely bland, unoriginal, boring, or crap.  Am I wrong?  It’s always struck me as ironic that judges on The Voice, like Adam Levine, Pharrell Williams, and Cee-Lo Green, would probably have bombed on shows like this.  They made their splash by being different from everyone else.

Geez.  What an idiot I am.  Vachal’s first full-length album, Strawberry Moon, dropped January 31, and it’s freaking terrific.

Putting down pictures when we were together

  1. Golden Boy (3:49)
  2. Taken (4:03)
  3. Honey (3:19)
  4. Strawberry Moon (3:14)
  5. Wait (4:28)
  6. Darling You (3:35)
  7. Lightning (4:36)
  8. You Can Have Me (3:48)
  9. Cashmere (3:52)
  10. Below My Feet (4:06)
  11. Stones (2:38)

I’m falling like seasons

While Strawberry Moon is pop-flavored, this is no mainstream pop album.  From the light, airy, lilting notes of opening track “Golden Boy,” you’re reminded of that girl who sat in the back row of your 11th grade history class, drawing all over her binder, her forearm, the desk, and her Chuck Taylors.  You thought she was pretty in a trying-hard-not-to-look-pretty way that didn’t fool anyone, and you admired her but were afraid to talk to her because she seemed like she Knew Things.

My idiotic anti-The Voice bias had me expecting completely the wrong thing.  It’s like when Lisa Germano, John Mellencamp’s violin player and always the most intriguing musician in his band, released her first solo album and it was creative, angsty, whispery, and potentially psycho and you were like holy cow where did that come from?

That was a long time ago.  I’m old.

I am not too old, however, to be really taken by this album, mostly a blend of folk, alterna-pop, gospel, and something like clove cigarettes or lapsang souchong.  The tunes are unique, not only in a gigantic field of solo singer-songwriters, but each among the ten others on the album.

Vachal apparently writes her own lyrics (it’s impossible anymore to find album credits if you don’t buy the physical CD, which I have done but it’s not here yet), and they’re the best thing about an album with no weaknesses.

Best album of the year so far.

Words in my skin and lips on a letter

Best song: “Taken”
Second-best songs: “Stones” and “Golden Boy”
Best lyric: “September took a turn on a highway west / whiskey and pie / held up a telephone to our lips / we’d kiss we’d fight / I was taken.” (“Taken”)
Second-best lyric: “I have seen gold / I have seen silver / I’ve been in love / I felt its fever / but give me the words / the ones that matter / I’m tearing out pages / I’m saying goodbye.” (“Stones”)
Best moment: Whatever that plucked string instrument is in the intro to “Honey” and throughout the song.
Second-best momentThe sound of a door, suitcase, or guitar case closing at the very end of “Stones.”
Song to make you text your ex (don’t do it!): “Strawberry Moon”

Rating: 9/10

I can’t change where you are

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I wrote a review about how I really liked the Pixar Short Bao that appears with The Incredibles 2, but apparently not everyone one likes as much as I did or even gets it.  A number of articles (some spoilers) like this one, this one, and this one, mention how some non-Asian Americans just don’t get it.  Some were confused or even laughed.  Leaving in the Asian American bubble where I live, I initially thought “WTF!” but on further thought, I realized I shouldn’t have been surprised.

One niece of mine said she was bawling at the end, and the Daughter said she was about to cry.  I think if you have never faced the tension of having to deal with conflicting cultures in your household tearing at you in different directions, its much easier to not understand.  I first saw Bao at Pixar, and I don’t recall any one really laughing at the points mentioned in the articles.  Then again, there were a lot of Asians Americans there and also a lot of people who knew about Bao since many of them helped make it.  When I saw it with The Wife in a commercial theatre with a mostly non-Asian audience, there definitely were some annoying laughs.

I still think Bao has some universal themes such as the tension between generations, but other parts resonate strongly with many Asian Americans.   I did find it sad that many people just didn’t get it, but again, as I mentioned, I really shouldn’t have been surprised.

(h/t:  Mike)

I was pleasantly surprised to see this Bounty commercial while watching NBC Nightly News over the weekend recently depicting a dad with his two daughters:

“Spilled something? Quick! The Quicker Picker Upper! Bounty paper towels pick up spills quicker and are 2x more absorbent* so you can get back to more important things.”

Reminded me of my brother’s family, since he has two young daughters. I thought the slow motion reactions displayed also added a bit of humor to the commercial.  It’s good to see Asian American families portrayed as regular American families.

Before we knew it, we were flying

Amy Ahn’s three-song EP dropped June 1.  The classical harpist with harp performance degrees from UCLA and the Boston Conservatory at Berklee blends genres in a poppy-jazzy-r&b style.   In an interview with & Strings, she says,

If I’m going through something and feel like there are truths that need to be heard in this world, I like putting it in the form of a song. I put together a three song EP, very very small but quality wise very very big and put a lot of heart and effort into it.

Every song is really different. So if I were to describe it sonically, the groove is like Emily King, the soul is like Corrine Bailey Rae, my voice wilts a lot, and my classical background comes out with a string quartet that plays in one of the songs, which I’m super excited about.

 


What’s a girl got to do?

  1. Never Thought I’d Be (5:03)
  2. Bird’s Eye View (2:58)
  3. Mangoes (3:50)

An ocean full of ideas unheard

Most immediately notable is Amy’s voice, which reminds me most of Karen Peris’s sweetness combined with Norah Jones’s sultriness.  It’s very breathy, sometimes distractingly so, in the way that many contemporary folk-influenced singer-songwriters are breathy, only breathier.  What sets Amy apart is her vocal style, which leans heavily on r&b sensibilities but with an admirable jazz vocal attack.  I imagine her laying down vocal melodies and deciding they weren’t challenging enough, because she seldom takes the easy vocal path getting from here to there.  It’s pretty refreshing, and it’s refreshingly pretty.

“Bird’s Eye View” opens with just vocals and a harp, something else you don’t hear much of in pop-inflected music, and it compares nicely with the intros to the other tracks, which open with just vocals and acoustic guitar, the much more common approach.  All three songs develop into rather complex multi-instrumental arrangements.  The layering is really nice; I especially appreciated some nice piano coloring in “Mangoes,” and a weird, fascinating, oscillating industrial sound I can’t identify at about the :55 mark in “Bird’s Eye View.”

If there’s a lyrical theme, it’s “I used to be that, but now I’m this.”  If I have one complaint, it’s that the mix doesn’t leave enough room for Amy’s lyrics, making them difficult to understand in places, especially “Bird’s Eye View.”  I’m not sure, but I think she actually uses the lyric, “never thought I’d be in like with you” in “Never Thought I’d Be,” a phrase I’ve always favored but don’t remember hearing in a song.

“Mangoes” is the best song, musically and lyrically, so if you’re in a hurry start there.  Otherwise, put the whole EP in your earbuds on repeat for a few spins or a few days.

Rating: 7/10

I really do like you

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With the box office domination of all things in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a lot of people don’t need an extra reason to see the latest Ant-Man movie, Ant-Man and the Wasp.

If you’re a Randall Park fan, as I have been for years, you will be happy to finally see his handsome face on the big screen in this film, after his casting had been announced a year ago. I was able to see an early screening on the Disney lot earlier this week and without spoiling the storyline, Randall stars as Agent Jimmy Woo, a character with a long history in the the comic book world. While he isn’t one of the two major characters in the title, he has a decent-sized role with a storyline that makes sense and a lot of funny lines.

His hilarious interactions with Ant-Man (played by Paul Rudd) make me wish for a spin-off film for just Agent Jimmy Woo.

Hey, Marvel, why not!?

 

In the Waiting by Kina Grannis
KG Records (2018)

There was a time when there seemed to be something new to talk about from Kina Grannis just about every week.  While she has remained engaged with her rabid fanbase on seemingly a daily basis, these last few years have seemed pretty close to event-free.  So it was something of a surprise when her new album, In the Waiting, was finally available for preorders, despite regular tweets about personal songwriting retreats and informal surveys about where she should take her next tour.  A whole studio album for the first time in four years.

You know how much stuff happens in four years?  A lot, including a hundred days’ detainment by the Indonesian government during which Kina and three tour companions were forbidden from publicly communicating their situation.  Stuck in a hotel where she didn’t know their status on any given day, she wrote two songs appearing on this album, “California” and “For Now.”  If you’re a fan and you haven’t read her story, you really must.  It’s pretty horrible.

You calling me back to your side


I listen again for your song

  1. When Will I Learn (3:13)
  2. History (3:44)
  3. In the Waiting (4:12)
  4. Birdsong (4:36)
  5. For Now (3:18)
  6. Lonesome (4:27)
  7. Beth (3:51)
  8. Souvenirs (3:10)
  9. All Along (2:01)

There was a delay with physical CD shipments (this has been happening to me a lot lately), so I’ll add album credits later.

I am open, I am ready

There’s no question that Kina has purposely reframed herself for her audience over the years, and while I’m here for that, I admit it’s been an adjustment for me.  The Kina you and I fell in love with isn’t musically the Kina we get on this album.  She long ago shed any hint of coyness, and while she can certainly still present as sweet and sincere, her childlike playfulness is gone, quite possibly for good.  It’s okay.  It makes sense.  It happens to us all, as I suppose it must.

So what we have here is undoubtedly the same musician, just in a different place and time.  And this Kina is mellow.  Wistful.  Pensive.  Cautious, almost, stepping softly but determinedly through some tricky emotional ground.  Seriously, every track feels like a meditation on some daily, heart-squeezing near-paralysis.  “Beth,” my favorite song on the album, starts like this:

Beth, rest, you are on top of the world
Yet you disagree
And it’s too long, longing for something to give
When the taking is free
And it’s not in the way that you said your goodbye
Not in the way that you laughed
And it’s not in the way that you started to cry
When you heard that the worst part had passed

and it doesn’t get any easier to deal with.  Kina’s bravery as a lyricist is admirable, and I imagine I’m not the only one wishing I could reach out to the personae in these songs and buy them some ice cream.  Between tracks, my heart still begs her to jump up and sing “Message from Your Heart” next, but this album’s not the place for that kind exuberance.

This is not to say the album lacks lightness.  “California” is waltz-like and dreamy, while “For You” is driven mostly by quick fingerpicking on an acoustic guitar, the most reminiscent of earlier Kina songs.  You could almost float away on it, if it weren’t so sad!

It’s a solid album, but not everything is a viral video made with a hundred thousand jellybeans in stop-motion animation, and the songs here probably don’t quite have this kind of holy-molyness.  On each of her previous albums and EPs, I texted friends to say hey you gotta hear this song from the new Kina album and oh yeah hear this one too.  That may not happen for many of us on this one, and that feels appropriate.  It’s so darn personal.

I know nothing but the meaning

  • Best song: “Beth”
  • Second-best song: “For Now”
  • Meh: “All Along” is growing slowly on me, but very slowly.
  • Best lyric: “It’s too long, longing for something to give when the giving is free”
  • Best moment: Birdcalls and piano intro to “Birdsong”
  • Song to make you text your ex (don’t do it!): “Birdsong”
  • Song to make you whip out your old guitar and write your own song (do it!): “Lonesome”

Rating: 8/10

The ones that I am missing

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If you somehow have never seen Kina’s “In Your Arms” video, you need to see it now.  And if you have, you know you want to see it again.  Third-best video of all time behind A-Ha’s “Take on Me” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

 

It’s amazing how you can speak right to my heart

Marié Digby released an album of  pop covers this week.  I’m pretty sure these were all recorded before and are only collected and put into sequence here for the first time.

I love Marié.  You love Marié.  There’s no need to sell anyone on checking this out, and you pretty much know what to expect, although the Soundgarden cover might be a nice surprise!

You drown out the crowd

  1. Hold On, We’re Going Home (Drake) (2:05)
  2. Diamonds (Rihanna) (2:48)
  3. New Rules (Dua Lipa) (2:57)
  4. Too Good at Goodbyes (Sam Smith) (3:03)
  5. Let it Go (James Bay) (3:41)
  6. Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden) (2:49)
  7. Ordinary World (Duran Duran) (3:16)
  8. Enjoy the Silence (Depeche Mode) (2:55)
  9. When You Say Nothing at All (Alison Krauss) (2:45)
  10. Empire (Shakira) (3:13)

What’s being said between your heart and mine

I do not like the original recordings of any of the first five songs, so I am quite possibly the wrong person to evaluate these as covers.  I do very much like the originals of tracks 6 through 9, and Shakira’s always been semi-interesting.  Context for deciding on my cred.

Marié gives even the songs I don’t care much for her usual sweet, breathy treatment and I don’t have a single complaint.  Reinterpreted as mostly acoustic, stripped-down songs, everything here works.  I was surprised to find myself really liking the Sam Smith cover, “Too Good at Goodbyes.”

The real highlight is Alison Krauss’s “When You Say Nothing at All,” which is itself a cover of a Keith Whitley recording.  I’ve heard (and seen) Marié play a bunch of songs on her guitar, but she gets a really clear, ringing tone on this one, something a little different sounding from what I’m used to from her.  It sounds like she recorded the vocal live, as she accompanied herself, and rather than cheap or hurried, it sounds spontaneous.  It’s also one of the few tracks here where she doesn’t do the moaning-into-the-notes singing and it just sounds freaking pretty.

Although I’ve heard many of these recordings already, putting them together this way makes them more interesting.  Whether you’re a casual fan or hardcore, you’ll probably want to put this in heavy rotation for the rest of the summer.

Now you say it best

  • Best song: “When You Say Nothing at All”
  • Second-best song: “Ordinary World”
  • Meh: “Enjoy the Silence”
  • Songs I didn’t know before I spun this album: “Let it Go” and “New Rules”
  • Not an improvement on original: “Enjoy the Silence”
  • Huge improvement on original: “Hold On, We’re Going Home” and “Diamonds”
  • Best moment: The piano intro on “Let it Go”
  • Second-best moment: The almost yodel-like melody in the chorus of “Empire,” minus the hooing, which is better than in the original recording but still doesn’t do anything for me
  • Song to make you text your ex (don’t do it!): “Let it Go”
  • Song to make you whip out your old guitar and try to write a song (do it!): “When You Say Nothing at All”

Rating: 7/10

Old Mr. Webster could never define

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Image courtesy of NBC News.

Back in 2015, I had watched on 60 Minutes and also read with dismay Chinese American Sherry Chen’s story:

“On Monday, Oct. 20, 2014, Sherry Chen drove, as usual, to her office at the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio, where she forecast flood threats along the Ohio River. She was a bit jet-lagged, having returned a few days earlier from a visit to China. But as she headed to her desk, she says, she had no reason to think it was anything other than an ordinary day. Then her boss summoned her.

Once inside his office, a back door opened and in walked six agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The agents accused Mrs. Chen, a hydrologist born in China and now a naturalized American citizen, of using a stolen password to download information about the nation’s dams and of lying about meeting with a high-ranking Chinese official.

Mrs. Chen, 59, an adoptive Midwesterner who had received awards for her government service, was now suspected of being a Chinese spy. She was arrested and led in handcuffs past her co-workers to a federal courthouse 40 miles away in Dayton, where she was told she faced 25 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

“Why,” Mr. Zeidenberg said he asked, “if she’s a spy, is she coming back from China and telling her colleagues that ‘I met this guy in China and this is what he wants to know’? Why is she telling the guy in China, ‘Here’s my boss’s phone number’? Why is she asking for a password over email? Why would you do that?”

Mr. Zeidenberg says the prosecutors listened. On March 10, the day after their meeting, they dismissed the charges.”

I actually got to meet Chen in Palo Alto where she was a guest for a talk on “A Seminar on Trade Secrets and Economic Espionage: Legal Risks in Advancing Technology between the U.S. and China.” Although I’m an American-born Taiwanese American, I have worked for two Chinese companies, so I am acutely aware of the possible discrimination against Asian Americans. In fact, I remember finding out that one of my Mom’s church friend’s siblings was Taiwanese American scientist and falsely accused spy Wen Ho Lee.

So it was with great pleasure that I had read about Chen getting back her old job that she had cherished so much:

“Yet the National Weather Service terminated her from employment doing the job she loved at its offices near Cincinnati, Ohio.

Determined to stand up and speak out, Sherry challenged the termination decision through the Merit Systems Protection Board, an administrative system meant to protect hard-working public employees such as her. On April 23, the decision was issued that ordered she be returned to her work on behalf of the public and be given backpay.

In the 118-page opinion, the judge also found:

Ms. Chen asserts that she is the “victim of a gross injustice.” After reviewing the evidence and testimony in this matter I believe Ms. Chen’s assertion is correct . . . It was, however, extremely evident by their demeanor, that both [decision-makers] were simply digging their heels in when it came time to support the decision they had made. . . . In short, [they] seemed more concerned about being right than doing the right thing. Based on the unyielding nature of their testimony, I would not have been surprised if they rejected that 2 + 2 = 4.”

The Commerce Department has planned to appeal the ruling, so she still does not have her job back.  Several Asian American organizations released this joint communique condemning the appeal.

There are legitimate cases to prosecute when it comes to Asian Americans and espionage for national or commercial means, but with the increasingly mostly economic rivalries between the United States and China, the U.S. must ensure that the proper due diligence is applied before more innocent Americans are wrongfully charged and terminated.

Young Fina: slanty-eyed dreama

This is the summer of Awkwafina.  The New York rapper’s new movie Ocean’s 8 is a hit, and her next film Crazy Rich Asians is expected to blow up in August.  With all the “Who’s Awkwafina?” buzz I’ve been hearing in film reviews, I didn’t notice until the other day that she released a new EP right when Ocean’s 8 hit the screen.  This is what she says on her website.

To whom it may conce:

I made this album for my Day 1s — the fans who believed in me and were for me from the jump…I came to terms years ago that my music isn’t for everyone — and I like it that way.

So that’s why I cherish the small group that “gets it.”  My first album, Yellow Ranger, was recorded/produced/mixed&mastered on my bed.  It encapsulated a raw-ness and a memory of myself as an unsure musician, trying to find her place.  With your help, I finally found it.

I.F.W.T. is for my fans, my city, my hometown, and for all the young girls who it might inspire to follow their dreams in a world that often tells them they can’t.

I owe my career to you guys.

I will be eternally grateful for you, and will never stop making music for you.

With love and gratitude,
Awkafina

I’ve been an admirer since someone sent me links to her “My Vag” and “NYC Bitche$” videos about four years ago, and while I’m not much of a Snapchatter, for a while I couldn’t get enough of Awkwafina’s snaps, which featured a lot of hanging out, riding in Ubers, and harassing her beloved grandmother.  If she’s still actively snapping and you’re into it, check her out there.

I been writin’ these rhymes on the 7 train

  1. The Fish (Intro) (1:47)
  2. Cakewalk (1:55)
  3. Inner Voices (2:42)
  4. Pockiez (2:01)
  5. Ghost (2:01)
  6. Testify (2:38)
  7. The Fish (Outro) (0:39)

Let me testify this

Awkwafina’s right: her music is not for everyone, but if you’re at least casually into hip-hop, you’ll probably find something here to enjoy.  On this five-song EP, I have to say I don’t care much for “Cakewalk” and “Inner Voices,” but things really warm up with “Pockiez.” “I got good genes and I’m aging well / Is the bitch 13? They can never tell!” she boasts in typical hip-hop fashion, but if you know Awkwafina, you know self-deprecation is always right around the corner from any boast. In fact, her intro and outro tracks are a dramatized encounter on a train where someone mistakes her first for Bingbing Fan, then Kimiko Glenn, Constance Wu, George Takei, and Randall Park. When she IDs herself, the response is “Who the **** is Awkwafina?”

The highlight is easily “Ghost,” in which she talks about ghosting a couple of guys.  The track has a stuttering high-hat sounding rhythm with twangy, bouncy instrumentation and a catchy chorus.  The next track, “Testify” sounds like Awkwafina’s getting sincere about struggling to create her art and get people to connect with it.  Even here, when she says “I’mma make the city so proud,” and “ain’t gotta justify ****,” she adds, “not a happy camper when I’m stepping off the weight scale.”  There’s a sense of longing here that feels disarming.

They don’t need to know the details

Best track: “Ghost”
Second-best track: “Testify”
Meh: “Inner Voices”
Song to make you rethink your personal brand: “Ghost”
Song to make you want to take off her glasses and call her Nora: “Testify”
Best lyric: “I’m yellow as a egg-yolk / So I’m gettin’ side-eye by these alt-right white folk”
Best moment: The chorus in “Ghost”

Rating: 7/10.

I didn’t hit the game ’til 2008

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And you’ve probably already seen her video for “Green Tea” with Margaret Cho, but in case you haven’t.  Don’t click play if you’ve delicate sensibilities.

 

Number One Son has a “nephew” who is also a college student in Boston. When I mentioned this to my brother, he couldn’t understand how Number One Son could be the “uncle” of someone who is the same age and who is neither his son nor the son of The Wife’s siblings.  I told him “uncle” is the English translation of a Filipino term for a male who is one less generation away from a common ancestor than the other person being referenced.  My explanation, while totally correct, totally failed to make him understand.   If you are curious how my son can be an “uncle” or are wondering why Filipinos sometimes call each other by weird names like “kuya,” “manong,” or “ading” instead of their regular names, this article by Myles Garcia can explain.

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If you followed my blog posts, you know I am a fan of Din Tai Fung (DTF) and note every new opening of the restaurant in the U.S. (the latest announced restaurant will be in Portland, Oregon). Many say that DTF is “overrated,” but I don’t care. Din Tai Fung has created a Taiwanese brand that is beloved and known to those in the know for Xiaolongbao (XLB) and quality Chinese food.  So it’s not surprise that I was excited to see a Tasty video on Facebook about how Din Tai Fung makes its Xiaolongbao, or how it’s known in the West as “soup dumplings.” You get to see how DTF’s Xiaolongbao are meticulously made by hand.

What’s also interesting in the video is that the grandsons of the original founder of Din Tai Fung, Albert and Aaron Yang. I also read about the brothers recently in an industry publication (who according to the video, manage the U.S. operations of the restaurants):

“… In 1972, the store was transformed into a restaurant specializing in soup dumplings and noodles. The elegant, best-in-class dining venues have since expanded to Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Macau, mainland China, Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Dubai.

[Albert] Yang and his brother Aaron, both graduates of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, run day-to-day operations in the U.S., where they have established the company’s dominance.

When Din Tai Fung opens restaurants, diners descend on each location with wait times reaching up to two hours. In the dining room, customers are treated to a show, as dumpling masters fold hundreds of the juicy wonders in an exhibition kitchen. The hand-folded, thin-skinned dough is filled with meat, often ground pork, and gelatinized stock. The stock liquefies upon steaming, creating a juicy burst with every bite.”

 

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by Chris Sedayao

While a little less than 1 in 7 of all Americans smoke, around 1 in 4 Vietnamese American men smoke, according to the Center for Disease Control.  The use of cigarettes has decreased significantly in the United States since the days of the Marlboro Man, with young adults smoking 18-24 less than the average.  Still, cigarette companies have found ways to sell into this younger demographic.

Asian American youth have found an alternative to cigarettes, but like their predecessors, use highly addictive products such as vapes, Juuls, Suorins, and countless other e-cigarettes products. According to a study posted by the US National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, use of these products was high among Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Chinese Americans in that order. Filipino American use was higher than the overall US average.  Being a young adult and growing in an Asian American community, I have been exposed to all these products. I have seen the effects vary from person to person, but in general, most people who use these products become addicted. These companies have become successful in targeting the youth with their products over the last few years.

Despite that, there is still hope in changing the way kids look at e-cigarette products as the government did with cigarettes throughout many years of stigmatizing advertising. Starting with FlavorsHookKids.org, one can share the downsides of using these products and help limit the use of e-cigarettes for current users and future generations of youth.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Chris Sedayao grew up in Northern California and is currently a student at Northeastern University.

(Disclaimerflavorshookkids.org is an advertiser on this site.)