For today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we check in with illustrator and cartoonist Alice Meichi Li.
I’m an illustrator who works in both the comic and pop-art gallery world. My art has been in Image Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Archie Comics, MOCA NY, MoCCA, and various galleries around the country. I’m also a huge geek who grew up on comics and cartoons, finding escapism in them while growing up in one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in Detroit. As a queer woman of color, I’m passionate about social justice and have spoken on various panels about women in comics or people of color in comics. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr.
When you were in your 20s…
What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade? In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?
I told myself that if I hadn’t hit X, Y, and Z goals by the time I was 30, then I should just give up and do something else. But now that I’m 30, I’ve realized I hit so many other goals along the way that I hadn’t even realized were there, that inform and support my overall goals. In many ways, that decade delineation was completely arbitrary and likely spurred on by ageist attitudes in society — which is something that women are far more affected by than men. I know I’d been told on multiple occasions, mostly by men, that my things that denote my value to others (my youth, my appearance, my talent, etc) would magically vanish when I was no longer in my 20s. Thank goodness that I’m far too stubborn to fall for that.
What was your first job like?
My first freelance job was a private commission of a woman imagined as a “goddess of dreams.” It made it into two different illustration contests, but I couldn’t publicize upon my client’s request. I then took my first day-job out of college because freelancing wasn’t earning enough income for me to live in NYC and look financially-stable enough on paper for the U.S. government to approve bringing my fiancé over to the States from England. I worked at Forbidden Planet, pretty much the coolest comic book store in NYC, doing everything that wasn’t straight-up retail (web design, graphic design, social media, finances, HR, admin, shipping/fulfillment).
What was your first apartment like?
My first apartment was this tiny 8’x10′ room in an all-women’s Salvation Army building called the Parkside Evangeline. (It has now been turned into a luxury condo, like so many buildings in NYC.) It was so small that if I set up my painting table to work, I would have to climb over it to get out. Other than the size factor, it was almost exactly like Peggy Carter’s building in Marvel’s Agent Carter, complete with the strict Christian no-men rules. But I loved it because I was floormates with Tintin Pantoja, who was one of my best friends in comics at the time, and taught me so much about the industry. She was an inspiration to be around.
Did you experience any big life changes?
My father passed away suddenly and unexpectedly when I was 22, and then I got married about 2 months after that. It wasn’t planned that way. My dad was only diagnosed with stomach cancer after he collapsed 3 weeks before he died. And I legally had to get married within 90 days of my now-husband entering America on a fiancé visa. Everything was out of my hands, and I never felt so helpless in my life. And everything after that was all a blurry tailspin out of the original 5-year plan I had for myself, with me desperately clutching onto any form of security I could.
In what ways did your friendships change?
I took a much more pragmatic approach with friendships. It became less navel-gazey, less prone to over-analyzation, less judgmental, and more about acceptance and supportiveness.
What did you learn through your romantic relationships?
My early 20s saw the ending of my relationship with my then-girlfriend and the overlap/beginning of my relationship with my now-husband. I think that the previous relationship taught me how to prioritize what I really wanted in a partner by hitting me over the head with unresolved issues that I absolutely never wanted to deal with in a relationship again. And for that, I’m grateful. Even though my husband was living an ocean away, was uneducated, and we were both unemployed at the time and both from poor families… I chose him instead because he had qualities she lacked that were very important to me.
How do you feel you changed emotionally?
I lost faith in invisible things. I became much more skeptical and less trusting, constantly double-checking everything I was presented with. I came to terms with the fact that death was permanent. The real weight of its permanence never affected me so much before, and began to accept that I may never stop grieving. And if I never stopped grieving, then perhaps happiness would be forever elusive — and I’m at peace with that. It’s ironic that I’m so much less optimistic/idealistic when I was an actual goth.
How did you change intellectually?
I became far more vocal about the injustices I saw in the world, and that I personally experienced. As a teenager, I would passive-aggressively speak in vague terms about the racism and sexism I saw/experienced in my social circles because I wasn’t yet equipped with the right tools and logic to address it in open discourse. My 20s was a long exercise in appropriately identifying these issues and addressing them. I have a lot to learn still, but I’m increasingly excited that more and more people in my generation are interested in shaping the world for the better.
In what ways do you feel your identity changed?
When I was a teenager, I was internet-popular (as much as one could be before social media) under a fandom-based pseudonym. A lot about how people perceived me was influenced by the character whose name I used rather than who I really was. When I turned 20, I revealed my legal birth name to my network and vowed to make a name for myself based on my true self. Throughout my 20s, there was definitely a theme of getting in touch with Reality and becoming less of a daydreamer/escapist as I was throughout my teens. I was operating under my Real name, pursuing Real goals, and had Reality kicking me in the ass with my dad’s death.
How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?
I’ve actually gotten more liberal/progressive — says the girl who once tore up an anti-gay propaganda pamphlet when she was 16 in high school Theology class. There are more resources and more communities out there that support the causes that I’ve always been invested in, and I’m just so fortunate to be able to constantly challenge myself and my perceptions of the world. If I ever stopped learning, trying to become a better person, and do better in terms of my relationship with society… then that’s the day that I no longer deserve to be here.
Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?
If it wasn’t clear before — my dad’s death. After that, I came to the conclusion that I needed to get as much out of this life as I possibly could. None of my spiritual beliefs up to that point prepared me for or relieved me from it. I used to spend so much time over-analyzing everything, finding meaning in everything, but now I focus on getting shit done and moving onto the next task. Life is just too short to spend too much time working towards the imaginary and the undefined.
In terms of a “historical moment”, the Great Recession in 2009 definitely hit me and my peers hard. Suddenly, our financial futures weren’t guaranteed anymore and the stereotype of the Boomerang-Generation Millennial was born. This amplified the sudden clutching-to-security state I found myself in, and I started to get serious about my professional hustle and building a future for myself.
Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
I have many regrets, but it’s useless to dwell on them. See why above.
Is there a story that you feel best sums up the decade?
When I got married, I put away the silver-and-amethyst jewelry I’d been wearing since I was a teenager and wore the gold-and-jade jewelry that my mother gave me for my wedding instead. I used to be really into New Age-y concepts like gem-work, and I felt that this symbolized me putting away my younger pursuits into spirituality and the ethereal and focusing more on tangible success. The kind of person I am now, I’d be hesitant to say that the jewelry I wear affects me in any significant way… but maybe it was more effective than I thought, eh?