Observations Abroad

with Joan Wong — Part II


Joan Wong worked at Penguin Random House in New York for the past five years as a book cover designer.


Among her well-known work are the paperback covers of the Crazy Rich Asians series by Kevin Kwan, Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists. She could easily have stayed at her job indefinitely and followed a fairly predictable path of success as a designer.


However, in evaluating her next steps, this plan sounded a little too safe. She decided to leave her full time job in order to embark on a year long trip around the world that began in October 2017.


This second conversation between myself, Charis, and Joan took place near the end of her trip, but looks back at the second third of her journey.

Visual designer Joan Wong

Charis Poon: So at this point, because it’s been a minute now, where do you remember the most clearly? Or do you have like a pretty good memory of everywhere you’ve been?


Joan Wong: Not really. I think certain months definitely stand out more. Chiang Mai, Thailand I would say was a big highlight. I feel kind of guilty that Chiang Mai is my highlight, because it’s one of those places that has just a really huge expat community. It gave me a really great lifestyle there I never paid more than five dollars for a meal.


The food was delicious. The apartment was really beautiful. The weather was perfect. It was just a really great standard of living for me but also it started to feel a little bit weird to be a tourist for that long.


And you really start to think about what my role as a tourist is and whether or not me travelling to this place is doing any good. It just seems like Thailand is one of those places that really really caters to tourists and expats and it almost feels like I’m taking advantage a little bit.


Charis: Taking advantage of the people?


Joan: Taking advantage of the lower cost of living and then spending a month there.


Charis (VO): Joan Wong, a close personal friend of mine from our time together at Parsons The New School for Design in New York, worked at the publisher Penguin Random House for five years as a book cover designer.


Among her well-known works are the paperback covers of the Crazy Rich Asians series by Kevin Kwan, Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s AmericanahHalf Of A Yellow Sun, and We Should All Be Feminists.


After Kevin Kwan’s book Crazy Rich Asians was adapted into the hit 2018 rom-com starring a majority Asian American cast, Joan’s book cover designs for the series continue to be on front tables in bookstores and airports across the globe.


Joan didn’t give up designing for books and narratives, but she did give up New York. In October 2017 Joan left her full time job in order to embark on a year long trip around the world. Her itinerary included Croatia, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. In part one we talked about the start of her trip while she was in Prague.


This conversation, part two, was recorded in August 2018 towards the end of her year long journey, but mainly discusses her time in South-East Asia and the bigger themes of the trouble with tourism, working and travelling at the same time, and how design or illustration can be fulfilling.


Charis: This questioning that you have of is my presence here good for the city—how do you think it isn’t good for them?


Joan: I guess I don’t know that it’s not good for them. It’s just I do feel a little bit of guilt when I visit places where their main economy is tourism and there’s something about landing in a place and everyone you see is a foreigner and the only locals I get to interact with are people at the restaurants or…


Charis: Is it a discomfort with clearly being someone that they want to make sure has, like, a really good time, like, they’re almost protecting you/all tourists from the reality of the country.


Joan: I think it’s a discomfort with… I felt like part of the purpose of being a tourist is to really get to know the local culture. And it felt impossible to do that in Chiang Mai.


And to be on the road for so long, like everywhere you go I think everyone treats their tourists differently. And when you land in a place where tourism is their main economy they’re a lot more accommodating in a way that I almost don’t need them to be. But also it’s kind of convenient.


You start thinking about is traveling so much a self-indulgence and then, when you enter and leave a place it’s almost like—if you can quantify it in some way—are you leaving like net neutral in terms of, like, how much harm done in terms of your visit or like how… ‘cause I don’t think I’m doing anything positive. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like I’m not sure tourism is really good for any place and it feels more apparent in certain places.


Charis: It seems like you and everyone else that travels to Thailand is this beneficiary of the system they’ve set into place. It seems kind of like a theme park-ification of a country. Like it’s not the real deal.


But it’s also arguably to their benefit to be providing you, like you said, you had a really good time, like you really enjoyed the living standard, and the ability to pay five dollars for really good meals. So I mean, I don’t know. I don’t have the data either. Like, is so much tourism good for them or not.


Joan: I don’t know either. But there is an article one of my fellow travelers sent me. It’s from brightthemag.com and it’s called The Next Trend in Travel is Don’t: Tourism Can Destroy Environments and Drive Out Local Residents, It’s Time to Rethink the Purpose of Travel.


It basically talks about how tourism affects the local community. So it says when tourism dominates an economy some governments prioritize tourists over their own citizens.


Charis: Yeah, and that’s worrying. I mean we talked about it in our first conversation. Both of us did expect this to be, like, a recurring theme on your year of Remote Year—the unique privileges that people like us have, with the means to travel.


It’s funny that you… Well, like, I asked you, like, a neutral question about where do you remember and you said Chiang Mai, Thailand for all these reasons about how good it was to stay there and eat there, but it also stirred up all these intense feelings.


Joan: Well, those are memorable too.

Book cover of We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche designed by Joan.

“When I was working I felt like I wasn’t taking advantage of being in a place enough and when I was sightseeing, I felt like I wasn’t working enough to fund the sightseeing… So everything is working out and a lot of it was just me mentally being paranoid about not doing enough.”

Charis: Do you want to talk about why you decided to go to New York halfway through your trip?


Joan: I just missed home, being on the road for so long. And I figured it’s the six month mark, it could be a good time to visit home, see some family and friends, and have some familiarity before I tackle South America and also geographically it made sense.


Charis: What was the most challenging thing up to this point?


Joan: It’s probably an accumulation of things. I think I missed my community at home. That would be… as much as I like the people that I traveled with, it was still people that I’ve only known for six months and it does take longer than that to build a true friendship and to have someone really get you and know you.


Something that I didn’t think about—which was probably very naive of me—but I didn’t think that I would have such a hard time physically. Travel, it kind of wears on you to be on a plane all the time and then to live in a new space and you don’t really sleep as well in the new space and the time time zone changes.


And luckily I’m young and I haven’t really had big health problems in my life, but I got sick a lot when I was abroad. That was… that was draining to not be at your physical best.


Charis: Yeah that’s actually really interesting because one thing we’ve talked about at MAEKAN, that I’ve talked to Eugene about, is how travel has become so much easier with things like—not not just for you and Remote Year—but things like Airbnb and the Internet and just, like, having things at the drop of a hat.


But some things you mentioned aren’t going to change. You know, places are still far away and there are time zone differences. And the human body, even, like, with technology, we’re still susceptible to other germs.


Joan: Yeah. And I think health is something as a young person I’ve taken for granted up until now.


Charis: Even if we get to a point one day where there’s even faster air travel, okay, like, it still does not eradicate those things like that physical toll.


Joan: Yeah.


Charis: Did anything get easier?


Joan: I think everything gets a little bit easier. I wouldn’t say anything got harder. I think that’s also something interesting. Where I think even though it almost feels like my physical self was not as strong as I thought it would be, but my mental self was because it really does feel like you can acclimate to anything.


Charis: So last time when we spoke we talked about balancing work and travel. Did you eventually kind of make peace with a lighter schedule? How did you continue navigating the balance between traveling and seeing what you wanted and then also doing work?


Joan: I think I just try to not stress about not doing enough of either. That’s where the stress was coming from where when I was working I felt like I wasn’t taking advantage of being in a place enough and when I was sightseeing I wasn’t, I felt like I wasn’t working enough to to fund the sightseeing.


I’ve been very fortunate that my work has been going well and I’ve been getting a lot of projects. So everything is working out and a lot of it was just me mentally being paranoid about not doing enough. So, I think the trick really was just to tell myself to keep doing what I’m doing.

Book cover designs for two Samantha Irby books created by Joan.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to be too humble, but I do think that when it takes on a life of its own a lot of the driving force behind that is because the book has taken on a life of its own.”

Illustration by Joan for Should Doctors Ignore Race? published in The New York Times’ Sunday Review.

Charis: What are some projects that you’ve worked on?


Joan: Well, I’m still working on a lot of op-ed articles for The New York Times. I recently worked on one for the Sunday Review cover called Should Doctors Ignore Race, about the medical field and how there’s still this reputation that race plays a big role in what kind of illnesses that you can get and whether or not that should still be the case.


There’s a couple of books that I worked on a while back but it’s finally being published. So one of my favorites from this year is a book called Meaty by Samantha Irby. It’s a book of essays, semi-autobiographical, and it’s funny, but it’s also really heartbreaking, and it’s one of my favorite things I read in 2017, so I’m really happy that that came out.


Charis: I’m just going to describe it. It’s this hot pink cover with the title which is also brilliant. It’s called Meaty, M-E-A-T-Y, and it’s just large across the top and then smaller beneath it, “Essays” and then there’s this amazing angry hedgehog. And what I love though, so I’m on your Instagram at the same time as you, is that you have this relationship with the author.


Joan: Well, this is the second book that I worked on for her and it’s actually the first book that she wrote, but it was previously published by an indie publisher. After how well her second book did—that we published at vintage—we picked up the rights to that and kind of rebranded it.


And so the first book that she wrote for us was called We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. And that one has a yellow background with an angry cat on it. So, like, angry cute animals is now her brand. And I think she’s really into that.


Charis: I particularly just like that you have some projects that you work on where you personally know the author. So it’s not like in-between. I mean obviously there are these other people involved, but it’s not just this anonymous person.


Joan: And that’s actually pretty rare. I think I would say most of my projects go through the editor and I don’t really have any contact with the author, but I do… I make an effort to when I really care about the content.


Charis: Yeah, and I think it’s just so strange. I feel like we might have talked about this before, but I think it’s strange to be a book author and then have not a lot of control over your cover and not have that direct say, which, I mean, on one hand might be a good thing because maybe you don’t know what’s best for your own book, but on the other hand just feels really weird because it’s like the packaging of your work.


Joan: Yeah, I think occasionally if they have a very optimistic response I will see what that is but for the most part I get, like, “Oh, it’s approved” or “Not approved” so I don’t really know to what extent they like it or are they just accepting it.


Charis: It’s funny because I’m on her Instagram now and she did a whole series of Meaty, well, your book cover, Photoshopped into all these different situations with, like, famous people, on the set of Family Feud, at an MLB game.


Joan: Yeah. Michelle Obama is holding it. Hillary Clinton is holding it up. D.W. from Arthur is holding it.


Charis: I love how some of your covers take on their own life, like we talked about the Chimamanda one before too. When it’s really good and it becomes more than just a book cover.


Joan: I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to be too humble, but I do think that when it takes on a life of its own a lot of the driving force behind that is because the book has taken on a life of its own. 


For example, Chimamanda’s work has taken on a life of its own because it’s very good and people relate to it and people want to buy it. And the more people buy it the more people talk about it, the more the cover is going to exist in people’s vision, right, but I don’t really think it’s the other way around that the cover’s so good and that’s why it’s being seen more.


Charis: Okay, well, I think the cover definitely plays a part. If the We Should All Be Feminists cover wasn’t that, the book doesn’t change but even if the design wasn’t so good it might not have the traction it does, or people would have to come up with another way to illustrate it.


And obviously a good book is the things that are between the covers but I would still believe that the cover plays a part in how much it graphically is shown.


Joan: I guess, for me, it feels like because I work on a lot of books and I do love to read, I am equally fan-girling over some authors, you know. So, like, for someone like Chimamanda I just love her so much, not just as an author but as a public figure and for what she has done for feminism and I just… Yeah, you can talk about the design but all I want to talk about is, like, how great I think she is. It feels meaningful for me to be a part of her work.

Illustration by Joan for an opinion piece in the Times titled “Don’t Report Mass Killers’ Names”.

Joan’s illustration for the Times editorial “Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban Is Cowardly and Dangerous”.

Charis: I wonder if you feel that way about op-eds though. Those illustrations they come up frequently and they’re short. Does it matter to you that you illustrate something you care about? Have you ever had to illustrate something you disagreed with?


Joan: No. Not yet.


Charis: Do you think about that possibility?


Joan: The thing is, a lot of the way the system works—and I’m almost grateful for it because I’m thinking about the possibility of having to illustrate for something that I don’t agree with and then do I turn it down—but the way the system is is usually you’re on call for the week, you don’t know what the subjects are until you get it and by then you’ve already committed to being on call so you kind of have to do it as part of the agreement.


And I’m almost grateful that I don’t have that choice because I don’t want to overthink it. Sometimes I end up working at a time where the news is very… the news feels very urgent, like I remember I happened to be on call the week of the Muslim ban at the airports and I was there and I just… like I was in New York and then my… you know you hear about what happens and then my friend was going to the airport to protest and I was going to go with her but I was on call and then the subject they gave me happened to be about the Muslim ban and how unfair and unjust it is.


And so instead of going to the protests I ended up illustrating for the article for that and it did make me feel like okay, I’m contributing in some way, but it just… it still doesn’t feel like I’m doing enough but at least it feels like I’m contributing in some way, I don’t know.


Charis: Something I asked you last time as well is whether the traveling in any way inspired your work. Your answer then was, like, “No, not really” so has that changed at all.


Joan: I think it must have inspired my work but in a very subconscious way.


Charis: Maybe it’s not the content of your work. But in some ways because the environment in which you did it changed so that would affect how you make things. I don’t know, it’s just a theory that somehow not working in an office and working in coffee shops and—


Joan: I can’t point out a specific scenario where it was like because I was in this place I designed this one thing this way, but I do think that in the way that traveling has helped me learn a bit more about myself I think it also helped me develop my visual identity a little bit more. I feel like my taste is more specific now.


Charis: Are you happy with that?


Joan: Because I think I feel more confident in certain decisions that I make and I feel like I have a better eye in what I actually like and don’t like and feel confident in saying so.


Charis: We did talk a lot about lessons like about learning about yourself and learning about the world. But I just wonder, like, what is the half life of travel memories?


Joan: It’s so frustrating when you feel like you accumulated a lot of nice memories and then you don’t remember them when someone asks you. One of my travel friends he has a, what he calls a captain’s log. So actually like every month he goes in and has just bullet points of his most memorable memories from that month and I should have done that.


I think the first thing, since we were talking about Thailand, I associate Chiang Mai with the food and so khao soi is something I really like that I only discovered—I’ve had a lot of Thai food my life—but I only discovered khao soi then, because it’s like more of a Northern Thai dish.


But it is basically an egg noodle in a curry coconut broth with some kind of meat, so sometimes it’s a chicken legs, sometimes it’s like a Thai sausage. It’s just one of the most delicious things I’ve ever had.


Charis: I love that in our first conversation you talked about beef goulash and now you’re talking about khao soi.


Joan: Food is an important part of the experience.


Charis: You’re not very view-oriented.


Joan: I saw a lot of beautiful views but it’s not the thing that I remember the most.


Charis: But maybe it’s because it’s like more visceral like food when you put it in your mouth—


Joan: Like of all of the things we’ve talked about about traveling and food is one of the most non-controversial aspects of it. So it’s just, it always feels wholesome and good.


Charis: I think maybe sometimes we, like you and I, go about travel is more about this overall experience or this duration in our life.


Joan: I mean, I feel like every destination has their big attractions and things that you must do and, you know, the top tourist thing to do and you do them because you feel like you should.


And those are hardly ever the most memorable things about the place. The most memorable thing for me, probably, is usually the food or if some kind of happy accident happens or the people.

To see more of Joan’s work, take a look at her portfolio or follow her on Instagram.

Take a look at Joan’s Sister Life project and contribute your own sister life story. For the first part of this story, click below.

David Kenji Chang talks with the founder in his LA studio and new shop to talk about his life’s work and staying weird in a weird world.