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fictional coping mechanisms by Mel N. '24

learning to love unapologetically

I’m gonna be honest: I’ve written and deleted and re-written and deleted this post at least three times now.

It’s literally not even that deep of a topic. “Just write about your favorite shows and stuff, Mel,” I keep telling myself. “How hard can it be?”

But some part of myself still wants to be like, “Oh my god, I can’t let other people know that I have interests.”

The logical part of me knows that’s probably the dumbest thing ever, but I think the thing that’s holding me back is just how much I love my favorite pieces of media. Turning to fiction for comfort has pulled me through some of the roughest times in my life, especially in the last year.

So it’s because I hold these things so close to my heart that I clam up whenever I’m asked to talk about them. They’re too important to me to risk judgment by other people. The fact that there are things that I don’t just casually enjoy feels like a crime. Admitting that I like something to someone I’m not familiar with feels like forcing a confession out of my mouth.

And it shouldn’t feel like that! Being passionate about stuff is good!! I love it when people ramble to me about their interests! Still, for some reason, I’m reluctant.

That makes me think about the version of myself during my senior fall–if you asked me what my favorite piece of media was then, I’d have trouble answering.

“I like The Good Place a lot,” I’d offer, after some hesitation. And while The Good Place is an incredible show that captures the essence of what it means to be human, and the immensity of the love that Chidi and Eleanor have for each other bowls me over, I wouldn’t say that I was ever head over heels in love with it. Not to the point where it was what I was thinking about when I brushed my teeth.

In fact, senior year me was a little proud of my ability to go, “Haha, yeah, I like that show,” and move on. Being able to enjoy things without getting obsessed the way I used to felt like a badge of honor.

But in all honesty…that’s pretty sad. And I think it’s also unfair to my past self. Sometimes I talk about the things I used to love in a self-deprecating way, like, “Oh man, my Undertale phase was so bad,” but the thing is, I was just a kid who really liked a cool video game. To reject that younger version of myself by consuming media at arms length doesn’t seem right, and in a way, it also implies that once you get past a certain age you can’t be overly enthusiastic about stuff anymore.

I saw a post today that was eerily relevant:

having interests is like. I am unashamed of these. no I’m not . yes I am. i am not <3

Which, yeah.

I’m trying to move past that, though, and I think this post is a testament to that. I want to love things unapologetically. I want to talk about my favorite characters without getting embarrassed or feeling like I’m being annoying. I want to appreciate the same passion in myself that I admire in others. And I want to acknowledge what my interests have done for me, because some of these things have tangibly changed my life.

If you made it past everything up there, congratulations–now I’m going to let myself ramble about all the things I’ve loved in the past year, listed in (approximately) chronological order.

1. Mo Dao Zu Shi (魔道祖师)

In January last year, my friend Promi sent this message into the 2024 Discord server: “Has anyone ever read MDZS?”

Two weeks later, I had consumed almost every adaptation of MDZS in existence.

It’s a Chinese webnovel by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (墨香铜臭). I often find it difficult to provide a summary that captures the essence of the story, but the one from the MDZS wiki does a good job:

As the grandmaster who founded the Demonic PathWei Wuxian roamed the world in his wanton ways, hated by millions for the chaos he created. In the end, he was backstabbed by his dearest shidi and killed by powerful clans that combined to overpower him. He incarnates into the body of a lunatic who was abandoned by his clan and is later, unwillingly, taken away by a famous cultivator among the clans—Lan Wangji, his archenemy. This marks the start of a thrilling yet hilarious journey of attacking monsters, solving mysteries, and raising children. From the mutual flirtation along the way, Wei Wuxian slowly realizes that Lan Wangji, a seemingly haughty and indifferent poker-face, holds more feelings for Wei Wuxian than he is letting on.

MDZS singlehandedly flipped a switch in my brain, turning me from “oh yeah this show is cool I guess” to “I’m so in love with this story and everything it means to me.”

For one, it reconnected me to my culture. I speak Chinese at home, but I had never really been into any Chinese entertainment or media, and growing up in white midwestern suburbia didn’t help much either. Discovering MDZS felt like finding a missing piece to a puzzle–unlocking the doors to a world that was made for people like me. I was reading about Chinese protagonists written in Chinese by a Chinese author for a Chinese audience. That was life-changing.

I’d initially read the English translation of MDZS, but I moved on to the donghua/animated version, the audio drama, and the live action adaptation afterwards. It was thrilling to be able to understand what was going on without needing to rely on subtitles. I felt like I was in on some great secret.

I started reading more webnovels, some in Chinese. I’d suffered through years of Saturday Chinese school when I was a kid, but I was suddenly very, very grateful for them. I still had to rely on online dictionaries and translation software to understand some parts, but my Chinese skills were soaring.

I even started translating things myself. My high school required us to do a senior project in order to graduate, and I chose to translate ten chapters of a coming-of-age Chinese novel.

I no longer struggle to read messages that my relatives send me on Wechat. I can communicate easily in Chinese and dive into the incredible stories that webnovels hold in their original form. For that, I’m infinitely grateful–I’d neglected my first language for so long.

Another thing that MDZS did for me was it got me back into content creation. I’d been drawing ever since I could remember, but with all the stresses of senior year I had slowly stopped making finished pieces, aside from occasional doodles in the margins of my notes. Having MDZS under my belt relit my artistic flames, though, and before long, every single piece of paper I could get my hands on was covered with drawings of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji.

scan of test

i doodled lan wangji on one of my anatomy tests before lockdown, and when i got it back, this is what my teacher wrote…

MDZS inspired me to create some pieces that I’m still really proud of. My art improved by leaps and bounds last year. I tried new things, challenged myself, and drew tirelessly because I was fueled by so much love.

Above all, MDZS helped me find a community that was more than willing to welcome me into its arms.

I met some of my closest friends through MDZS. The weeks after Pi Day 2020, it was like I was collecting a little squad of MIT MDZS01 we call ourselves mitdzs lovers all over the place. Promi introduced Ella and me. I recognized Emi and Qingyuan’s profile pictures in various Discord servers, Kath and Rui DM’ed me because I had talked about MDZS in an introduction. Tiffany found us through Qingyuan’s CPW event where she streamed The Untamed. Miranda and Eva were Qingyuan’s floormates in Random. I met Seun through a mutual MDZS friend on Twitter. Alison clicked on a link to the MITDZS server I posted on the ’24 server in July. Gwen, Christina, and Mimi found their way to us too. I got Sarah into MDZS when we were figuring out our whole fall housing situation. Alex followed me on Tumblr after I started posting about it there and I eventually met Ace through them.

Knowing so many people who loved and appreciated this beautiful Chinese story was mind-blowing. The love I saw for it helped me love it too, and ultimately love myself.

 

2. Maplestory

Oh, Maplestory. The definitive game of my childhood. I saw my cousin Annie playing it in 2009 and I was drawn like a moth to a flame.

Fun fact: Maplestory is actually one of the things I wrote about in my blogger app, because in July, it was the thing I was bursting to talk about. I had figured out how to partition my Mac so I could play it again. Going back and reading it now, there’s a lot of things I wrote that still ring true:

i was never much of a gamer. other than the occasional pokemon game and some petz games, from catz clan to horsez, maplestory was the only video game i was fully invested in. it was something about the charming, hyper-customizable sprite styles, the aesthetics of the playing maps, the vibrant online community it created at its peak.

The friendships I made in Maplestory were so important to me, and the friendships that I’ve made from nostalgia for Maplestory have been delightful surprises. I actually had never met anyone who’d played Maplestory until last year, when I met two.

My friend Ace was one of them.

conversation with ace

Transcription from screenshot above for screenreader accessibility:

ace: looking back at my gun slinging pirate avatar in maplestory
me: hghghjghgjkfhgk
me: MAPLESTORYORY
me: I MISS MS SO MUCH
ace: I MISS ITTTT UWAHSHDLDJDKS I WAS LIKE A DECENT LEVEL FOR SOMEONE WHO COULDNT BUY STUFF
me: OMGHGHGGG

 

So we played Maplestory together. We chose Cygnus Knights as our class and went nuts. Ace was a Thunder Breaker and I was a Wind Archer.

Ace had to watch me struggle to fight the mole boss like twenty times because I kept getting killed while they cleared it with no problem…

Another integral part of my childhood Maplestory experience was making little sprites of my dream characters on sites like Bannedstory that had collections of every single Maplestory accessory ever. There used to be a ton of Maplestory AMVs that were made with Bannedstory, and I always wanted to try my hand at making one, but I wasn’t ever that good ad it. When I tried looking Bannedstory up last summer, though, I found that it was unfortunately taken down. However, I found an alternative called maples.im!

maplesim wangxian

i made wei wuxian and lan wangji in maples.im :) i had to add lan wangji’s bun myself, but otherwise, the level of customization available with maplestory accessories is insanely impressive

I stopped spending that much time on Maplestory when school started, but that’s when I found out that Daniel had also played it when he was a kid. I taught him how to get it on his Mac, which might have been a mistake because he ended up playing his Hoyoung up to level 200+ (holy crap) but it was nice having another person to reminisce with about classic Maplestory days.

I think the main emotion I have towards Maplestory is nostalgia. The Maplestory soundtrack always brings the memories rushing back, and the comment section under YouTube soundtrack compilations makes me feel so at peace.

maplestory youtube screenshot

Transcription from screenshot above for screenreader accessibility: Growing old is the worst thing to ever happen. All life seems to be about now is work, being successful, studying ect.. Honestly wondering if life will ever be great again. I’m 25 now and all I ever seem to think about is the past and how care free I used to be. I teared up a little while listening to these tracks. Brought back the feeling of pure happiness, something that seems so distant sometimes. Yeah I have good times still don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think it will ever compare to being a 14 year old without a worry in the world. A magical time that I will cherish forever. Thanks for the memories…

As I said in my blogger app,

in maplestory, every song, every note has a story. everyone who has listened to ellinia’s background music as they hunted slimes at the big tree has a story.

perhaps these are all fragments of a bigger, boundless, undefinable story. for some, maybe maplestory is a fading, indistinct chapter near the beginning. for others, maybe it’s longer and more detailed, yet still a thing of the past. but no matter how faint or distant, maplestory has left a mark on thousands of people’s stories. i’m glad that maplestory was a part of mine.

 

3. The Umbrella Academy

I watched the first season when it dropped in 2019, and I really liked it, but it was still definitely in the casual-enjoyment category. But then season two dropped at the end of July 2020, and I got sucked in hard.

I love Five so much. He’s my emotional support fifty-eight-year-old teenage temporal assassin. Every scene he had in season two was gold (“I’M THE DADDY HERE!”) and what makes me really soft is how much he loves his siblings. His entire narrative is centered around saving them from the apocalypse, and he is willing to take extreme measures to make that happen.

Vanya’s a close second. She really deserves so much better. Watching the first season broke my heart because of how she was treated, constantly being told she wasn’t good enough or important, and of course that ended up majorly backfiring by the end. I’m glad that she was able to find more happiness in season two and reach a better understanding with her family.

I finished reading the original comics by Gerard Way02 it's wild that gerard way was the one who wrote the umbrella academy, btw, like whenever i think of him i just think of mcr , and it was interesting to see the choices that the show made when it was adapting the story, because the comic universe and the show universe are pretty different. There are a lot more talking apes, for one.

From August to mid-September, Umbrella Academy was on my mind 24/7 before BNHA took over. I miss the intensity of the love I had for it, though, and I definitely plan on doing a rewatch at some point in the future–maybe when season three comes out. I think they just started filming, actually, so I hope that’s going well! Fingers crossed that it’s just as good as the first two seasons.

 

4. My Hero Academia (BNHA)

Near the beginning of the school year, Daniel and I did a media exchange, where we would each watch a show that the other person really loved and message each other with our reactions.

BNHA is big. Like, really big, so of course I’d absorbed some knowledge about it from friends and just from being online. I knew that there was a green-haired kid named Deku, a frog girl, and someone called Uravity. I vaguely knew the premise of the anime, which was that it was a superhuman society where they all have “quirks,” i.e. superpowers. I went into it expecting Todoroki, the red-and-white-haired character that can control fire and ice, to be my favorite character.

And he was…at least for a while.

screenshot of a conversation with daniel

Transcription from screenshot above for screenreader accessibility:

09/30/2020 apricot: OMG TODOROKI
09/30/2020 apricot: TODOROKI’S SO COOOOL

But then, after a certain plot point03 it was during USJ. seeing him fight was...just...wow... happened I found myself suddenly in love with Aizawa, the grumpy, scruffy teacher who cares a lot more about his students than he’ll ever admit out loud.

screenshot of conversation with daniel

Transcription from screenshot above for screenreader accessibility:

10/18/2020 apricot: move over todoroki i’ve got a crush on aizawa now

And I’ve just been sitting here in my little Aizawa-loving corner since then. When I finished the anime, I went back to read the manga and catch up with the current arc, which meant that Sarah and Selena had to hear me yelling “OH MY GOD” every so often from across the apartment, usually due to something involving Aizawa.04 the manga...hurts. it hurts so bad. please horikoshi i just want aizawa to be happy and not in pain all the time (emotionally or physically)

I really can’t emphasize how important he is to me. I adore characters that have grouchy exteriors but soft cores, and on top of it all, Aizawa is so incredibly strong. The first time I saw him fight, it took my breath away because of how graceful yet powerful his style is. He’d do anything to protect his students, and he’s put himself through a lot to keep them safe, but he’s willing to sacrifice it all. He’s an amazing teacher. Just thinking about him motivates me when I’m feeling down.

All of my friends are well aware of how much I love him, because as you can probably tell by now, I literally never shut up about him. In fact, we hosted a Secret Santa exchange in December, and as for the gifts I got…well, I’ll just show you.

I love my friends. So much.

In terms of creativity, I had a bit of a lull in my art after I started drifting from MDZS combined with all the business of the start of a new school year, but something clicked in my brain with Aizawa and tossed me back into the content creation zone.

Honestly, he’s not that easy to draw, and every time I draw him he ends up looking a little different, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming my main muse.

More recently (and this is the part that’s most embarrassing to admit because of how personal it is, but I wrote a whole spiel about how I am not going to be embarrassed by my interests anymore, and I’m not about to back out now) I’ve been writing and drawing stuff that uses him as a vehicle to process my thoughts and emotions.

At the beginning of the month, I was going through a bit of a rough time. I felt lethargic all the time and found it difficult to complete the things I needed to do (aka study for the 5.111 ASE, which I ended up failing anyway), and because of my reduced energy, I started withdrawing socially, which just made me feel more isolated and lonely, but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it. When all of this came to a head, I started writing something05 in the notes app, which probably is enough to tell you exactly how well i was doing... where it was like I was talking to Aizawa about my problems at a therapy session.

I felt mildly insane for doing so, but the thing is–it helped. A lot, actually. It meant that instead of keeping all my feelings bottled up inside my head, I had a chance to get it down on paper without being judged and to work through my thoughts, figuring out why exactly I felt a certain way and what I could do about it.

And then I turned that into a comic.

Transcription from comic above for screenreader accessibility:

mel: im sad
aizawa: why
mel: i have all this pressure from parents to do well in this exam and studying has been rough and i dont have the energy to keep up with my friends and ive been doing bad in my extracurricular and i just got some not great health news and i feel tired and guilty and inadequate all the time and and and and and
aizawa: [drinking coffee] that sounds rough
aizawa: [smiling] but you’ll always have your fictional coping mechanisms right
mel: [panel of surprise, then a smile]
mel: [leaning against aizawa] yeah

I posted it on Twitter on a whim, mostly so that I could have it somewhere other than my laptop. I ended up getting a lot of really sweet support and virtual hugs, which helped pull me out of my haze a bit.

I decided I wanted to draw some more, because there was something about having a visual medium with all my thoughts laid out that was really helpful. So I created a sort-of self-insert original character to project all my issues onto.

page with drawings of my oc remi

Remi’s design stemmed from the fact that a) I like drawing bangs, and b) I was too lazy to draw eyes. But I like the way they turned out, because I think there’s something cool about how I can still make them an expressive, emotional character, even without showing their eyes, which are usually the most expressive part of the face.

I started drawing.

Transcription from comic above for screenreader accessibility:

Panel of Aizawa sitting legs crossed on a couch in a therapist’s office, text saying Thursday. He takes a sip of his coffee, then says, “Let’s get started, then. So, what brings you here?”
Remi says, “Recently…” Looking into the mirror, the text says, “I’ve been feeling lost.” Panel of gum stuck to shoe: “Stuck.” Remi in bed: “Too tired to do anything but lie in bed, and let my thoughts consume me and I can’t do anything about it.”
Remi with a hand on their head in frustration: “I keep making easily avoidable mistakes.” Holding a phone, then turning it off: “I can never respond to people on time.”
Remi sighs. “There’s more, but…I just don’t know where to start.” Waving a hand, “Plus, that’s probably more than enough material to work with for now, hahahaha…don’t want to be a bother…”
Aizawa: “Hm…”
Aizawa: “First of all, you are not a ‘bother.’ The feelings you have don’t deserve to be diminished, no matter how trivial they may seem, because YOU don’t deserve to be diminished.”
Remi pauses, then sniffs: “I’ll try to remember that…”

I didn’t finish all the dialogue that I planned out, but four pages of art was enough to make it a cathartic experience. And again, since it was so personal, I wasn’t expecting much out of it when I posted it on Twitter. But people related to it, people told me that it helped voice some of the feelings that they’d been having but were unable to put in words.

Someone said that seeing Aizawa say it made it mean more than when they said it to themselves, and I think that really is the core of it. We turn to fiction when we have a question inside us that we might already know the answer to, but sometimes, we just need to hear another person say it.

 

5. Jujutsu Kaisen

I first heard about this from Flora in our groupchat for 21L.00406 reading poetry last semester when we were talking about anime. Jujutsu Kaisen is a manga by Akutami Gege that got an anime adaptation last fall, and I’ve been keeping up with it every week since episode four.

It’s kind of hard to find the words to describe it, but the basic premise is that a high schooler named Itadori Yuji eats a cursed finger (it’s exactly what it sounds like) and becomes a vessel for an ancient demon, Sukuna, who he has to kill. The animation is absolutely incredible. Everything about it is incredible, actually–the opening and ending themes, the fight scenes, the characters. The magic system operates on cursed energy, and it’s so cool.

My favorite character is Megumi, which falls right in line with my tendency to like grumpy but well-meaning characters. He’s actually my Discord profile pic, if you look at the screenshots from a bit above. His whole thing is that he can summon shikigami to aid him in battle, which are basically familiars, and their designs are really good too.

I love the rest of the cast, too–Nobara is MEAN and I love her all the more for it, their teacher Gojo acts all sunshiney but he’s actually absolutely unhinged (and hot…he wears a blindfold most of the time, but when he opens his eyes to unleash his full power, WHEW), Miwa’s the sweetest, Inumaki has my heart…I definitely, definitely recommend watching it!!

 

6. Hades

my cat

a picture of my cat vibing as i played it on the tv

I’d been hearing about Hades for months before I actually ended up buying it when it was on sale, but it was worth every cent, because oh my god, this game is a masterpiece. The fact that they have voice acting for every single piece of dialogue is honestly amazing. Like, I’m not that big of a gamer, but the games I’ve played in the past haven’t had that. Also, the art style is SO pretty. I wanna draw like that!!

It took me a little while to figure out the mechanics, and it definitely is kind of a button masher which hasn’t been easy on my thumbs, but god, it’s such a good game. I love the way it interprets Greek mythology and puts a unique spin on it, and the romance options are really good too–Meg and Than, I’m free this Sunday if you want to hit me up…

I haven’t beaten it yet because I got a little busy, but I’m hoping I can get back to playing it soon!

 

7. Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!

I’d actually seen gifs of this anime floating around since early last year when it first came out, and I thought Eizouken was a character that had to be protected from bullying or whatever, but I didn’t sit down and watch it until a couple months ago. I’m so glad I did, though, because watching Eizouken makes me feel like I’m wrapped up in a cozy blanket by the fireplace.

Eizouken is about a group of girls who want to make anime, so they start a club at their school and have to dodge all sorts of trouble to achieve their goal. It’s very slice of life, and that’s what makes it so special in my heart–the characters are so well-developed, relatable, and real.

I honestly feel like I can’t talk about how much I love Eizouken without tearing up, because this anime makes me so happy. I watched it in a period where I was burnt out and on a break from making art. This was the perfect show to watch. Eizouken’s message on finding inspiration and dealing with artistic burnout made me cry, because it hit so close to home on how I was feeling at the time.

Plus, the art style is so fun and comforting–it gives off Studio Ghibli vibes with how warm it is, and what’s really nice is that the characters all look like regular teenage girls, something that can be a little rare in anime. The storytelling is breathtaking, too. The way that Eizouken seamlessly incorporates imaginative elements with the real world sweeps me off my feet and I’m more than happy to go with the flow. They just have so much fun in this show, and it helped me find my creative spark too–remembering all the fun parts about making art.

As you can probably tell by now, I collect grumpy characters like candy, and Kanamori is my token grump from Eizouken. She’s the rational one out of the trio, the manager-type, and she is good at her job. She keeps Asakusa and Mizusaki on track when they’re floating away with their ideas, but she values and respects their abilities so much. She wants the club to succeed and she’s more than capable of finding ways to do so.

Finishing Eizouken was bittersweet, because I loved it so much and I didn’t want it to end, but it also concluded its narrative in a way that felt complete to me. This is the show that I’ll be returning to whenever I feel like I’ve lost my way in the creative world.

 

If you’ve made it all the way down here through my ramblings, I really, truly appreciate it. I’m so glad that I finally figured out how to write this post after months of grappling with it, and in the end, I just had to take a leap of faith. Only by shaking off fear of judgment could I allow myself to be perceived. I’m proud of my interests and the love I have for them.

  1. we call ourselves mitdzs back to text
  2. it's wild that gerard way was the one who wrote the umbrella academy, btw, like whenever i think of him i just think of mcr back to text
  3. it was during USJ. seeing him fight was...just...wow... back to text
  4. the manga...hurts. it hurts so bad. please horikoshi i just want aizawa to be happy and not in pain all the time (emotionally or physically) back to text
  5. in the notes app, which probably is enough to tell you exactly how well i was doing... back to text
  6. reading poetry back to text