Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Letter to Help with this Hate

Earlier this year, I performed in a devised theatre piece, Self-Evident, directed and curated by Melissa McNamara, and created in response to the 2016 presidential election.

As part of that piece, I performed a letter I wrote to my 4-year-old daughter, Lena. In it, I tried to explain to her what's going on in the world post-election. I looked at it again today, sure that my words would be far too simple and easy to describe what happened in Charlottesville, what's happening everywhere. But I still believe what I wrote a few months back, I still think that it's our collective aversion to fear that fuels the anger and hate. I look into the vengeful, self-righteous white faces of all those tiki-torch toting men, and I see the little boys they used to be. Little boys who were taught that it wasn't ok to be afraid. Little kids who had to swallow their fear and put in its place pride, and anger, and rage.

So I'm offering this simple letter, written to my 4-year-old, as a way to think about how to talk to our children, and as a way to think about our own fear today. It's not THE answer, but it's an answer. It's a framework, a lens, a little piece of something to help us get started.

Dear Lena,

I love you. I know that ever since Jonah was born, you've had to share that love. But I think you know that I love you. I hope you always know that. I hope you always feel it. Sometimes I think my love will be enough for you to live in this world, but I'm afraid it might not be.

Do you feel afraid sometimes? I wish I could tell you that someday that'll go away, but the truth is, everyone feels afraid sometimes. Not just little kids like you. Big kids feel afraid too. And grown ups, even me.

When we feel afraid we have a choice about what we do. Some people, when they are afraid, they pretend they are not, and they talk with a louder voice, and they become mean, and they become angry.

You asked me why I don't like our new president. Let me explain it this way. I don't like our new president because he's one of these people who, when he's afraid, pretends he's not, and then he uses a louder voice, and he becomes mean, and he becomes angry. And when a person is angry, it's hard to listen, and when a person doesn't listen, it's hard to learn and it's hard to understand why he's afraid. When we don't understand why we're afraid, we're stuck feeling afraid. When we're afraid, it's hard to be kind.

And I believe that the only way all people can really live in this world together, is for us to be kind to one another.

So there's another choice we can make when we're afraid. It's what I try to do when I'm feeling afraid. I reach out for those people who love me, like Dada, or Aunt Erin, or Aunt Sarah, and I tell them, I'm afraid right now. And then we talk about it, and I do my best to listen, and understand. And the more I understand about why I'm afraid, the less afraid I feel. And when I feel less afraid, it's easier for me to be kind. I really wish that everyone would make this second choice.

Lena, when I first told you that I didn't like our new president, do you remember what you said to me? You said, maybe he just needs more time, mama. If he is new, maybe he just needs some time to work on being nicer.

I hope you're right, honey. I hope you're right. Your hope, that he can be better, your hope that people can be better, it makes me think that we're going to be okay.

And you know what? I think I change my mind about what I said before, I think that our love... Our love IS enough for us to live in this world.

I love you so much.

Always always,
Your Mama

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Dirty Drawers: Musing on Clutter, Tampons, and My Son's Awesome Mind

I am his mother. That is my preface. I am prone to thinking the world of him, to being amazed by his brain, those empty pockets quickly filling and swelling with new ideas and information, bulging with delightful discoveries, emptying out, sorting and pouring back in.
I do not apologize for my amazement, and I encourage other parents to stop apologizing as well. The fear of raising a spoiled child weighs heavily on our shoulders, passed on to us from previous generations. Can we rethink the means of spoiling? Did a child ever truly suffer because his parents were too proud, too supportive, too amazed? It’s possible. But it’s a risk I’d like to take.
My son is two years old and he is special. I encourage every parent to see her children this way. I want to build us up against the eye-rolls, the judgments of others. In our efforts to avoid over-parenting, hovering, helicoptering, micro-managing, let’s not miss out on basking in the brilliance of our children’s brains.
My son is two years old and every morning, he opens the drawers in my bathroom, pulls them out repeatedly - open close open close - making the contents shift forwards and backwards, crashing against the inside of the drawer. 
If my dad were in the room with us, he’d likely yelp out, Be careful! You will hurt your fingers! You will pinch them! You will bump your head! Often, in an effort to protect our children, we tell them that the bad thing will certainly happen. In reality we have little idea if it will. 
Would a photo of my real-life drawers be too embarrassing? Too late!
If Marie Kondo (is it obvious I didn't read her book?) were in the room with us, she might be horrified by the disarray and the sheer volume of contents in the drawers. Housed inside are all my short-lived and long-term obsessions: essential oils, handmade jewelry, make up brushes, lip glosses, nail polishes, and skincare products. Do these items “spark joy” in you? she might ask. My son pulls q-tips out of a box one by one. To him they are magic wands, invented one morning during a game he and his four-year-old big sister played. The wands lose their powers after the fluff has been pulled off, or drenched by water, or dropped into the shower drain. I need more wands, he insists as I try to close the drawer, I only have six wands! Perhaps this is what joy feels like.
If my mother were in the room with us, she might be concerned about the colorfully wrapped tampons tumbling onto the floor.
What are dees? my son asks in his one-volume (loud) voice.
Mama needs them for her vagina. That’s a hole in her vulva where blood comes out sometimes because she’s a grown up girl, my daughter explains. 
Oh I see, he says, lining up the tampons from biggest to smallest.
A brief history of my relationship with tampons: I was 12 years old when I first got my period, and at the time my mother was against using tampons. She did not use them herself. And it was not just fear of toxic shock syndrome, which is what will scare me if my daughter chooses to use them one day. She was worried about the affect they would have on my virginity. 
Half a year into my period, I lost my virginity to a tampon. I smuggled them from a friend. I used my first one because I really wanted to go to a pool party during the summer between 7th and 8th grade. I put one foot up on the side of the toilet seat and relaxed my vaginal muscles like the box instructions said I should do. It was easy, maybe because I was determined.
I didn’t want to hide them. I didn’t like how it felt to be dishonest. When I started to use them regularly, I tossed the wrappers out in the garbage right next to the toilet that our whole family shared.
Don’t leave these out in the garbage, Lyn! my mother scolded, your little brother will see. My brother was seven years old at the time, and he was asking questions.
Maybe I wanted to show my mother that I was the boss of my body? Eh, or more likely, like the messy drawers my son empties onto the floor, I’m just kind of a cluttered person. Was it intention or carelessness that led me to leave used tampons in the toilet bowl, losing patience to make sure the water flushed it all the way down before rushing off to something else? Now, I have to tell him what it is, my mother was flustered. I like to think that my actions reflected my early rumblings of railing against the idea that menstruation should be mysterious to men … or to anyone.
But enough about periods (for now). Every morning my son pulls open our drawers and out come the contents - cotton balls, toothpaste, spare change, contact lens cases, vitamin bottles, nail clippers, face cream, hair spray, dental floss, bracelets, lonely earrings, single mismatched socks. I mean to throw the empty bottles away, I mean to organize the products, I mean to. I will. 
All the heads are shaking at me. My husband’s head too, though he is relieved that my stuff stays, for the most part, on my side of the sink. Twelve years ago, after meeting with us for our pre-marital conversations, our marriage officiant had looked my husband directly in the eye and said, You cannot change Lynnette. She will not transform into a tidy person one day, this is something you’ll need to accept about her.
Lately, he might be starting to believe her. Some days, I still want to prove her wrong. But I haven’t yet. 
Honestly, most mornings when my son is going through my drawers, I heave and sigh in exasperation. The thoughts running through my mind are of genuine resolve to organize better, to purge, to buy child locks for the drawers that will keep him out for a couple years. Rubbing my eyes, I position my body in between him and my drawers. Yawning, I tell him that I don’t want him to make a mess of my things, I ask him to help me clean up.
But this morning ritual also pulls me inside his beautiful brain. And I take a mental step back to marvel as he pulls my chaotic drawers open one by one. I forgive myself for the clutter today. I think instead, that this is the child I want to raise. A child who will not leave a door closed because someone has told him not to open it.
A child who will open the same drawers over and over again, noting what is familiar, finding what is new, asking question after question, curious about what has changed. Identifying, filing, categorizing, editing, revising.
A child who is not satisfied with just one answer, who will continue digging, unearthing, wanting to know what is inside, wanting to look behind, to discover how it opens, how it closes, unafraid of getting hurt, knowing he might get hurt, getting hurt.

I want to raise a person who will get hurt and still choose to come back again tomorrow to uncover something new.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Curiosity Above Incredulity

"Why did you do that?" I ask my daughter, through a clenched jaw. One minute ago my son erupted in a sea of tears and I approached my children, as calmly as possible.They'd been playing together quietly until now and so I ask the pair of them, "what happened?" adding a lilt to my voice that I hope sounds direct but nonchalant.

"I got mad, and I bit him," my daughter says.

I examine my two-year-old son, on whose round cheek emerges an equally round circle of bright red teeth marks. It will continue to darken and raise for the next hour, the mark will linger for days. One look at the tooth circle and my eyes dart toward my daughter. Still trying to be calm, I ask, "Why did you do that?" The words ooze out from between my lips, "why did you bite him?"

She looks at me, and at four years old, she can sense the difference between curiosity and incredulity. She knows what she has done is wrong, she knew before she did it. But past that, she also knows that I think it was so wrong that I can't even begin to understand her. She is ashamed, but she's old enough to mask her shame in defense. "I don't know," she nearly sings with a shrug.

"Think about it for a moment," I hiss, because I am trying to help her process her feelings, to gain an understanding of her perspective, to bridge a gap. My words attempt patience and curiosity, but the hissing in my tone suggests that there is nothing she could possibly be feeling that could warrant a bite on her brother's cheek. The sub-text, reads clearly, what is wrong with you? My incredulity builds a wall between us. We are separated, now going through our own personal struggles alone.

Incredulity is not curiosity. Incredulity puts up walls. Curiosity can tear them down. But curiosity, true curiosity, is really hard.

In the days since November 8, or, let me be more honest, ever since our current president first received the Republican nomination, I have been wallowing through life, feeling incredulous.

Incredulity feels good when paired with a shout and a fist in the air. Incredulity feels good when you're surrounded by like-minded people, who are also shouting, chanting, and punching their fists in the air. My months of incredulity have been accompanied by anger, by rage, by sharp impatience. Incredulity doesn't just feel good, we need it, it forces us to sound the battle cry.

But in the moment when two people look each other in the eye and aim to connect, incredulity is a slap in the face. I've been replaying the words from a conversation I had with my father after I'd learned he voted for Donald Trump. My intention was to understand him, to know his key issues, to empathize. I have transcribed the conversation from memory, written it down, typed it on a screen. I have recounted the dialogue over and over again. The transcript is blameless, pristine; there is no malice in my chosen words.

"I'd like to understand why you chose to vote for Donald Trump. Will you tell me why?" I'd asked, calmly, with a deferential tone. So why did the conversation that followed, even after two attempts on two different days, fail? 

In the days and weeks and months that followed, I found myself moping around in incredulous victim-land, how could he? Why does he hate me, why is he so cruel to me? Why did he attack me? Why did he attack my parenting, my choice of faith? Why doesn't he want to connect with me?

This week as I've trudged through daily life during a dreary, albeit unseasonably warm period on the south side of Chicago, I felt overwhelmed by it, my incredulity. I felt it toward my father, toward our new president, toward all the women denouncing the women's march, toward the anonymous commenters on the internet. I felt it toward the aggression my kids display toward one another.

What is wrong with all of you? I want to scream. 

But in the midst of the overwhelming incredulity, I had an epiphany about that conversation with my dad. Despite all my best intentions, my calm tone, and the genuine desire to understand my dad, my questions to him smelled of the incredulity I'd been steeping in for months. My best acting couldn't cover it up. And like my daughter, my father felt a wall go up, but unlike my daughter, he is not just four, and so his experience in 67 years of "being a man" thrust him into a fight with me.

I also realize I know exactly what it's like to be on the other side. It's decades of my parents' incredulity that keeps them from seeing me. My father does not mask his, "I don't understand why you left the faith," he hurls accusingly at me during our conversation. For 20 years I have been telling him why. I have been sharing my entire journey of traveling away and eventually detaching from evangelical Christianity. I've provided no shortage of explanation, but my parents don't understand me. This is not because they don't love me, or don't want to understand me, but because they are not truly curious to hear my answer. They can't imagine, out of their fear, that grew out of their protectiveness, that grew out of their genuine love for me, a possible answer that could warrant my decision.

Curiosity above incredulity. Incredulity disguises itself as a question, but it has no desire for an answer. Curiosity wants to know. Curiosity heals, curiosity sees. 

"Honey, why did you bite your brother?" I'd been so focused on sounding calm, but I hadn't been truly curious. I ask again with true curiosity, and then, as the wall tumbles down, I already know the answer. Because how many faces have I wanted to bite? How many faces have I chewed through in my mind? I know what anger, frustration, and helplessness lead me to envision.

"Why did you bite him, honey?"

"I was just so frustrated, mama. He wouldn't listen to me," and I understand.

My father does not fit the Trump-supporter profile that Trump opponents have created. He's an immigrant and, with a double PhD, he is more educated than all of his children. He's an engineer, someone who used science for a living, who worked for years in Ford Motor Company's science lab to reduce vehicle emissions. He doesn't need more education to understand me. Our incredulity blinds us to one other. No matter how calm my delivery, he'd have sensed the incredulity, because its not just mine here, he'd have sensed the incredulity his media presents, of a swarm of angry people who already believe that there is nothing he could possibly say that would warrant his views.

10 actions, 100 days. After participating in this past weekend's Women's March on Chicago, I am inspired. I'm on board. I'm grateful for the incredulity that brought me here. Let's get to work, write postcards, call our representatives, sign petitions, hold up signs, rally, publish blog posts, make truth-telling art, fight, forward emails, share Facebook posts, hang Black Lives Matter posters in our windows, write our senators, submit op-eds. But all this work will do nothing to help me connect when I'm sitting across the table from my dad once again. It will not help anyone connect with anyone on the other side of the wall. Not without curiosity.

Curiosity above incredulity. Curiosity helped me understand my daughter in a moment of conflict. Incredulity has kept me and my dad from understanding one another for years. 

Curiosity above incredulity. I propose practicing this, starting now. Let's thank incredulity for its vital role, and then practice being curious.

Don't mistake my curiosity for weakness, a white flag, or an apology. I'm ready to get to work. I'm thinking big. My intention is to heal the world, starting by mending our broken relationships. And so with deep curiosity, I'll start by asking, why did my dad vote for Donald Trump? What will you be curious about?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Invisible Invincible

Invisible is so close to invincible. In my sloppy cursive, they almost look the same.

I was taught to be invisible. Not just me. But my whole people. This whole people that I seldom yet constantly claim. Even after 40 years of China's one-child policy, this whole people are one fifth of the world's population. Han Chinese (that's me) are the largest ethnic group in the world. Only a people taught to be invisible can be the largest ethnic group in the world and still seem like a minority. Our faces blur, not only to western society, but also to ourselves.

Ourselves. For me, “ourselves” is culturally American and Chinese. In the classrooms where I teach, when Chinese families show up with their children, I eavesdrop on mainland accents of a language so old and familiar, yet foreign. When I try out my broken Mandarin, there’s an excited chatter of acknowledgement. "Ah! Ta hui shuo pu tong hua!" A bit of pride showing. And my westernized ego can't help but suspect that they are proud because "this Chinese language of ours is so great that this American-born woman can speak it."

Invisible. This not being able to tell our faces apart is caused by systemic racism, by unfamiliarity, by lack of understanding, isn't it? Is it also because we're taught to be invisible? 

On a train traveling north from Guilin to Beijing, there is a couple from a small nameless town. She is pregnant. She is also ill. Though Chinese couples show little physical affection in public, he has a hand on her elbow, she's rocking, and not only with the rhythms of the train car or the hard seats beneath them. She's rocking for her baby. She's rocking to the sound of an unknown voice calling. Were it years before, she might have heard the voice of Buddha, or heard the voice of her grandmother's grandmother, or God. Maybe God. But because it is today, she hears and rocks, but has no name for the voice. If she'd heard God, or her great-great-grandmother, she might have told her husband. She'd have told him where she was going.

In the hard-seat train car, the cheapest of the four classes of seats, the chickens are more at home than the bodies of people. Yet quietly, the people sit upright, or they squat on the floor. Cigarette smoke floats, instant noodle bowls trash the tracks, and a pregnant woman rocks. If she had known the voice, she might have told her husband. Maybe. Then he might have known, at a train station near Wuhan, to get off, to find some water. To ask for a doctor.

She rocks and rocks and rocks to sleep. A forever kind of sleep, the kind that forces her husband to grasp her body, more than just her elbow, her waist, her neck, her head as they swing low toward the ground. Her belly compressed and flattened in a way no pregnant woman folds. He wails. A cry for help? No. No one hears you, invisible one. We cannot see you, and we cannot hear you either. We cannot smell you or the urine in your wife's dress. We cannot feel your bodies even as they splay across your neighbors' laps, and across our own.

The man wails, not to God, not to his ancestors, they are no longer here. He wails. Not to his wife, she is no longer here. Not to the fellow passengers, who don't look his way, who shift and compress more tightly to adjoining train cars, sitting among the chickens. Not to anyone, just the small fetus, its sex still unknown. He wails to that fetus, who is still fighting the way all life fights.

If they were in a different country, if they had more money, if she had told him where she was going, maybe he would have held that almost-baby. It would be a girl. Conflicted though he might be, he'd still love her. And he'd raise her to be invisible, like her mother. Invincible. If you cannot see me, you cannot hurt me either. Invincible?

One in five people is Chinese, even more are Asian. But we cannot imagine one of these people could carry a major Hollywood film. That's why, we say, we found the best actor for the role, regardless of race, we say. 

My four-year-old daughter is hilarious, curious, imaginative, and talks circles around kids two years older. And she has not a performative bone in her body. She could care less if you know her powers. She's happy to hold them quietly and let the dumb kid sitting next to her get wowed and oohed for his hammy over-the-top participation.

My almost-two-year-old son is equal parts goofy and serious. He understands jokes. He is protective of his sister and mother. He also talks circles around some kids twice his age. If he doesn't feel like doing something, he doesn't do it. He doesn't care if the anonymous grown-up claps and laughs.

For their mother, this is a difficult thing to watch. Because the dark secret behind years of invisibility is wanting nothing more than to be praised for accomplishments. My culture values keeping the embarrassing parts invisible at all costs, and showing only the praiseworthy parts.

Look at how good I am, and tell me, and then I will shake my head, no. It's nothing, I am nothing. Compliment my children, and I will say, He is nothing. She is nothing.

I promised I would not let my children hear me say these things. She will know when I'm proud of her. He will hear me say it aloud. And I'll be curious about what things make them feel proud of themselves.

They are little tiny balls of truth. All babies and toddlers are, aren't they? Everything they do and feel is real and unfiltered. Can I get out of her way? Can I just observe him grow? Can I hold my tongue, my impulses for long enough to let them be invincible their way?

Hyde Park, Chicago
She's doing a tiny dance with her feet under the table, Dance for us! I don't want to right now, she says. He's singing to himself, Sing for us! I no want to sing, he says. The three-year-old me is dancing and singing, but for whom? She is smiling, but for whom?

For God? The voice of my great-great-grandmother? For swarms of adoring fans?

For grown-ups, husbands, boyfriends, cool kids, poor kids, unpopular kids, for boys and girls, who might like me more, if they only knew the praiseworthy me? I dance for everyone but me. Was there a time when it was only for me?

Do it for you, my daughter. Little, big, powerful you. Do it for you, my son. Little, big, powerful you. And I'll try to do it too. As long as you can see you. Invincible you. You will never be invisible.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

I Belong Here

I woke this morning in the dark; I wish my kids understood the beauty of "falling back" for daylight savings time. My body left warmth on the sheets of my bed, my lungs breathed in some autumn chill, and I thought to myself, I belong here. It's the same autumn morning I woke to as a child, when my father, wearing a tie, would kiss me goodbye before going to work at Ford Motor Company, his silhouette appearing  and the hallway light drawing a long bright triangle into my dark room. This morning, my children ran through the hallway, creaking the 100-year-old floors, their feet bap-bap-bapping, echoing in our dear neighbor's hallway on the floor below. Our neighbor was still in bed, where she would remain for a couple more hours. She smiled sleepily at the bap-bap-bapping, in the way only an 89-year-old woman who misses her own great-grandchildren can. She heard my children's tiny feet, and I thought, I belong here.

My son and I took a walk to Lake Michigan, just 2 blocks from our home. The water sprayed against the large rocks as we made a loop along Promontory Point. It shot high into the air making a sparkling wall. "I see water!" my son said. It's the same water I swam in as a child, camping in Michigan state parks along the Great Lakes. It's the same water my college friends and I dipped our feet into, as we watched the sun set late on summer nights in Western Michigan. My son and I scrunched our noses as the lake misted our faces. I belong here.

Promontory Point, Hyde Park, Chicago
Earlier this year, in the summer, I spent a few hours on a warm day with my children on the beaches of St. Joseph, meeting a dear friend who was visiting her family in Grand Rapids. The sun kissed my skin the way it kissed the skin of those around me, it left it pink and warm and tender to touch. The fresh water splashed and wrapped around my daughter and me, and we squealed. I belonged here then. I belonged in the sun, the way the sand belongs between our toes, the way it settles in and remains in your pockets for days, in the rug of your car as seasons come and go. I belonged that way.

Late last Wednesday night, I held my breath and my heart beat faster with millions of fans in my city and around the world as the Chicago Cubs opened the 10th inning and it started to rain in Cleveland. When they won game 7, clinching the World Series, something inside me erupted with joy, just as the car horns, hooting, and singing outside our windows erupted with joy. And I felt, I belong here.

Recently, I walked down Michigan Avenue, leaving a voice lesson in the Fine Arts Building, the oldest place for musical study in the City of Chicago. I rode the rickety elevators. I belonged as I shook back and forth, watching the different floors go by quickly.

I walked down Michigan Avenue and watched as every person in front of me dodged the pamphleters and signature gatherers and petitioners and election ballot-ers and grassroots movement-ers. I watched them sway away, pretend to be on their phones, shake their heads sorry, I don't have time right now.

I slowed my walk, attempted to make eye contact with three different eager grassroots millennials ready to change the world. I smiled their way, I welcomed them with my body language.

"Do you have time for equal rights?"
"I do!" I practiced my cheery response.

But they don't talk to me. They raise their gazes above my head, to some potentially supportive ally behind me. I slow, I wait a moment. They don't talk to me. I didn't feel like I belonged then.

We went to our neighborhood farmers' market. I sat at a table eating a pizza. I wasn't looking at my phone, I'd left it in the car. My husband had brought our kids down the row to another stand for ice cream with sprinkles.

I was surrounded by tables of people, a young white college couple, a group of elderly black women, a black man and a white woman with their two children, and a lone white man in his twenties, dressed in black with painted nails, and me, an Asian-American woman, eating a pizza with an empty double stroller parked next to me.

A woman approached each table, with a flyer advertising her art show. "It's for art and social justice," she said; "there will be live jazz music," she said; "activities for kids," she said; "it's a free event," she said. She approached every table, to every person, to every single table, except mine. My best phone free-ing, pizza eating, eye contacting, didn't convince her that I was worth a flyer. The empty double stroller next to me didn't signal to her that I belonged here.

My face, like the faces of Michael Luo, Tiffany MartínezAdam Crapser, and Tammy Duckworth, signals to some that I don't belong.

Where do I belong?

Not in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, or Xiamen, where I trip over words, where my sun-tanned skin signals that I must be poor or uneducated. Not on the streets of Chicago's Chinatown, where, hugging my elbows into my body, grasping the broken handles of a shopping basket, I am jostled by Chinese folks both young and old. I hold my breath in the smaller circles of personal space, and the American in me feels violated by the jabs and nudges. I can't bring myself to offer a lower price than the one advertised. I say over and over in my mediocre Mandarin, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I use the phrase in an American way, like "excuse me, pardon me." But it doesn't translate. There is nothing to say in Mandarin when you bump into people in public. I don't belong here.

Do I belong in California, where I lived for seven years, where there are "more people like me"? More Asian Americans, both children of immigrants and those whose families have been here for three, four, five generations. They would ask about growing up in the Midwest. Were there other Asians in your town? Did you feel alone? I thought back to that first day in my freshman year in Kalamazoo, MI, when I walked into a vocal jazz ensemble rehearsal. I remember when someone giggled nervously because she thought I'd sing with an accent. I remember when I was told that singing might not be for me because wasn't it true that my parents would prefer I study something more academic. I remember when a music director said to me, "hey stand up, and open your eyes!" when I was already standing and my eyes were already open. And when I didn't laugh, "Lighten up, Lynnette, it's a joke." I remember a high school boyfriend's grandmother who thought I was "just ugly." And another boyfriend's dad who joked he should have ordered egg rolls before having me over.

I remember the people who said things that hurt and made me feel like I don't belong here. There are more than I could ever count or completely recall. Sometimes they were mentors, classmates, colleagues, friends that became like family. People say things that hurt me in California too. Where do I belong?

I belong here. I belong here in the Midwest, where my mother birthed me, where I grew up to be me. I belong in the Great Lakes that bathed me and that now bathe my children. I belong in the parks where my family went camping, in the rivers where we went canoeing. I belong in the cities where we helped build some houses, where we watched fireworks glowing over the water, where we helped served soup on Thanksgiving morning. I belong in the grass where we played soccer, where we burst water balloons, on the hills where we sledded, in the yards where we built snowmen and igloos, on the streets where we learned to ride our bikes. I belong here, my children belong here.

I will continue smiling as I walk down the street, as we American Midwesterners do. I will say good morning. I will thank those who tell me my English is good. If I have time, I will explain why my English is good. I was born in Dearborn. I will kindly respond in English to men who try to flirt by saying "konichiwa" or "ni hao." I will attempt to talk in mediocre Mandarin when I encounter a person who feels more comfortable speaking in Chinese. I'll continue planting my feet in this earth, stomping around, leaving parts of me where I go, because I belong here.

On Tuesday, I'm going to cast my ballot for the next President of the United States. I will vote because I belong here. My vote is one small step toward making this a place where fewer Americans have to feel like they do not belong. I belong here today, I will belong here tomorrow.

Friday, June 10, 2016

My Daughter Might Call You Fat. Please Remain Calm.

She's three and a half, and really into using adjectives lately. She likes to stop and touch flowers, twigs, rocks, on the side of the street. She tells me they are soft, bumpy, wet, dry, or slippery. She likes to touch my hair, my hands, the mole on my right cheek. They are smooth, rough, shiny.

Then, the other day, she said, while thinking about a good friend of ours, "Mama, Donna* is very fat." Now, I have the reaction that I think most American women have upon hearing these words. The first responses in my head are "Don't say that." "That's not nice." Or "people don't like it when you call them fat, honey." But I don't say any of those things to her. I look at my daughter's face, at its pleasant, relaxed, happy, and curious expression. To my daughter, there is nothing negative, nothing unpleasant, about "fat." In fact, she likely has very positive associations with the word. Other things she describes as fat include but are not limited to: the very hungry caterpillar just before his metamorphosis, her belly after a big meal or when she puts a "pretend baby" inside her dress, her baby brother's cheeks, the dinosaur on page 17 of “Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs,” and the fluffy black dog that lives on our street.

Sometimes she uses negative adjectives, like icky, stinky, yucky, scary. When she uses these words, her brow crinkles, and her nose bunches up, her lips turn down at the edges, o
r her eyes widen and water. She makes none of these faces when she uses the word fat.

I hate the power this word has in our culture. I hate how women struggle with the implications of this word for most of our lives. When did it start? When did fat become bad? We weren't born with this idea.

When my daughter was born, my parents were quick to joyously proclaim how fat she was. “Look at her fat thighs!” my mother said. “Look at her fat cheeks and her fat butt!” she cooed. Like in many cultures, a fat baby is a good thing in Chinese culture. These were wholly loving statements. My husband's side of the family was a little taken aback--"never call a lady fat!" they joked.

There's a HuffPost blog post that began circulating when my daughter was a baby. It's titled "How to Talk to Your Daughter About Her Body." I love it. I shared it on Facebook, I circulated it among friends, I forwarded it to my family. The piece begins, “How to talk to your daughter about her body, step one: Don't talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works.” The piece also says, “don't comment on other women's bodies either... Not a single comment, not a nice one or a mean one. And don't you dare talk about how much you hate your body in front of your daughter.”

My husband and I were on board. For the record, I believe it applies to the way we talk to boys as well as girls. We avoided all talk about bodies. We taught our daughter about bodies and how they work. By two she would talk about her vulva, about how mama has one too, but dada has a penis, her baby brother has a penis too. Penises make her laugh. We all have nipples, but only mama's have milk behind them. Someday, maybe hers will too, if she has a baby. When she was inside mama's belly, she started as a tiny egg, then she grew and grew and grew. Inside her face are bones, and blood, and muscle, and fat.

We were feeling very proud of our little talker and all the words she was learning. It felt good to know that she could identify parts of her body, and it helped tremendously when she hurt herself.

But as she grows, I'm finding that simply "not talking about bodies" is not enough. Not talking about appearances doesn't prevent my daughter from observing people's appearances. Just because I don't say anything about her body, or mine, or others' will not make it so that she will not notice. And especially during a period of time in which she's very interested in describing things, acting as though there are no adjectives that apply to bodies is not helpful.

"My fat belly"
So the other day when she said, "Mama, Donna is very fat," I lost a little breath. It's not something we say so nonchalantly. But my daughter's face held no judgement, no loathing, or hate, or disgust. It held none of the things that we as adults have learned to attach to certain adjectives. Here's the thing: without hate for our bodies, none of these words has any power. Think about that. If I love myself, then the adjectives used to describe me, are just words, just descriptors. Words only mean as much as we feel they mean. And for my daughter, a word like fat has only neutral to positive associations right now.

When I was in the eighth grade, the awkward barrier between boys and girls was tumbling down, and I was memorizing lots of boys' phone numbers. My mother started fielding calls not only from Christine, Jennifer, and Sarah; now she was passing the phone to me after hearing from people named Jon, Nate, Nick, and Marc. I think this must have been a tough time for my mom, watching her first child grow up.

Neither my sister nor my mother remembers saying what I'm about to share, but then it's not the kind of thing that you remember unless it is said to you. My sister told me one day something my mother had said to her in private, I can't remember exactly when it was, but I'd guess it was during the summer between middle and high school: "I don't know why all those boys like Lynnette, she's not even pretty." I'm not sure what inspired my mother to say that, and since she doesn't remember saying it, I don't think I'll ever know. But over the past 20-some years I've been thinking about those words. Before you conclude that this was a terrible thing to say, I want to tell you, these words were one of the greatest gifts to me in my life.

I can still remember how it felt to hear the words. There was a slight sting, and a fogginess around my ears, making me feel like for a moment, I was in my own fuzzy world. The truth was, I didn't really view myself as pretty. I was up to my nose in the awkwardness of my early teens. I wore very thick glasses, my teeth were covered in braces, my skin was experiencing puberty at its finest. My mother's words left me curious, deeply curious. Something in her upbringing, and in her experience of the world, led her to believe that boys liked you if you were pretty. Yet, here I was, unpretty, yet still in the midst of developing exciting friendships and relationships with boys. I was forced to draw a different conclusion from the one my mother drew. Boys like me for something besides being pretty.

Some day later, I received another gift, when a boy told me (bless the honesty of adolescents), "I've got a crush on two girls, you and Susie*, I like Susie because she is hot, and I like you because you have a good personality." How many coming-of-age rom coms would paint that as a burn? "Ouch! That sucks!" But even back in the eighth grade, it taught me something about physical appearances. Maybe they don't matter that much. Maybe people like me because they like the kind of person I am, the way I treat people, and the experience of hanging out with me.

Please don't let me mislead you. I have certainly lost many hours of life stressing about my body and my appearance. Later boys and girls, many of whom I called friends, would describe me with other words, like "bitch," "desperate," "poser," "flat-chested," and "Neanderthal." Yeah, those words stick around in your memory for decades, because they hurt and shock. But those words also lost their sting over time, and even then I think I already believed they had nothing to do with who I am.

Hearing our bodies described as fat only has power over us if we believe that being described as fat has anything to do with who we are, what we can do, and our worth as human beings.  Can we stop believing that?

I am learning something about writing blog posts. I set off to write about one thing and I learn that it's really about something else. I thought I was writing about fat, about not shaming my daughter for the words she uses. But this is about more than that.

Someday my daughter will hear words describing her appearance. They will run the gamut. Someone will tell her she is too fat, too skinny, that she is ugly. It will probably hurt her feelings. I will not be there to say anything, or maybe I will. I hope she will be able to hear these words and know that they have nothing to do with her worth, her person, her capabilities, or her potential. Because that is true. That is true of everyone. The words used to describe our appearance have nothing to do with who we are. Nothing to do with our compassion, or our will. They do not reflect the goodness or badness of our thoughts or inner drives. This is true for all of us. So can we all stop responding like they do?

If my daughter calls you fat, please stay calm. Don't scold her. Don't act offended. Please consider that these words, whether spoken by a three-year-old or an 80-year-old, have nothing to do with who you are.

A lot of our cultures value appearances, some speak it out right, others think it, or imply it. I wish I could change all these cultures, persuade everyone to stop talking about appearances, like that HuffPost blog does.

But it's hard to control other people. I suspect it'll take more than my lifetime and my children's lifetimes for the world to stop talking about physical appearances. So for now, the culture I'm interested in changing is how we receive these words and descriptors. I'm interested in helping my children believe that the words other people use to describe bodies, that the words they use to describe their own bodies, have nothing to do with who they are.

I'm not totally sure how to do this. But I have an instinct that it starts with remaining calm when my daughter calls someone fat. I invite you to do the same.

*the names aren't the real names