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

Friday, April 29, 2016

Parenting, Like Art, is a Revolt

I recently read Kim Brooks’ piece A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom in New York Magazine. And I have some thoughts about it. I tried to be legit and I sent a "letter to the editor" to NYMag, but while I wait for them to discover the genius of my thoughts, I'll share them here. 

Several of my mom-artist friends had re-shared the piece on Facebook. The responses were positive; most friends agreed with Brooks. Brutally honest, someone commented. I clicked on the link, my heart fluttering faster at this chance for emotional camaraderie. But the truth is, while I did mutter a couple of internal "amens," I was largely nose-scrunching, and eye-squinting, and squirming at the core. My disagreement crept in like a slow burn; the reason for it was not obvious to me. I needed to read the piece at least five times, printed out on paper, with a highlighter, to get to the center of why I was feeling so crummy. The heart of her argument is that the qualities that make for good artists make for bad parents, and vice versa. I couldn’t disagree more. 

Brooks writes that having children changed her view on the value of suffering, “Pain is constructive. And misery can be useful. I believed that like I believe the sun rises in the east. Then I had children, and I slowly began to disbelieve and disavow it.” In her view, she must become a boring, conventional, cautious person so that her children will suffer and struggle less. I share Brooks' beliefs on suffering, but I unlike Brooks, having children did not change my position. Regardless of our efforts as parents to keep them safe, our children will suffer, they will struggle, and they will also overcome adversity. There is nothing we can do as parents to prevent it.  Hopefully as they grow, they will come to find that their pain and misery can be constructive and useful. What if, instead of resisting our children’s suffering, we artists held fast to it, and with deep curiosity sought to understand its roots? Psychology and art both lead me to believe that our lifelong fears and pain are rooted in the first moments of life, at a time when we don't yet have words to describe our feelings, while we are figuring out whether our needs in life will be met. As parents we are closer than ever to the source of suffering. Parenting a child gives us a way to understand suffering at large, which helps us make better art. 

What's the point?
When it comes to the point of art (and there are so many opinions out there), I agree with Brooks. Quoting her friend, she writes, “the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe." But, she adds, "that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.” Shouldn't it be? I have a problem with her take on the point of parenting, especially her assertion that people make families for the opposite reason they make art.

What if all artists approached parenthood the way they do their art? Brooks quotes one of her first writing teachers, "Art, itself is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think." Are our inherited methods of parenting so stable and so reliable that we don't need to undermine them, or destabilize them, as an artist would? Brooks points out, Hippocrates says, “Art is a revolt.” I say, parenting is a revolt too, or it should be. For the first time in history, we get to choose whether we will, when we will, and how we will make families. And maybe our reasons for making a family should be changing too. My husband and I married outside our family and cultural backgrounds. In some ways, our relationship is a revolt. Why should starting our family be different? What if, like artists, we see our task as critically examining the way we were raised, saving what served us well, and aggressively tossing away the rest? I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but maybe I do mean to be subversive. 

Brooks thinks that our parenting suffers when our artist brains are at work. I think all parents would benefit from thinking more like artists. We don't have to just rely on the status quo of parenting. In my opinion, there are major problems with the current parenting culture. So many of us engage in it with whole hearts and minds and guts, and yet, there is this sort of unspoken agreement we won't really talk in depth about what we think or feel or discover within parenting. Out of respect, we do things exactly the way they've always been done, because "we turned out fine," as the previous generation tells us. Or out of respect, we do things differently, but quietly. Outspoken parents who share their convictions are shamed, or blamed for starting a "mommy-war."

We don't have to settle for the way our families did it. Why should we? Do we think that humanity has reached its peak potential? Is the world as wonderful and thriving as it could be? If not, then we should be doing everything we can to raise children who will grow into adults who will make it better.  

I’m art-making and family-making for the same reasons right now. I do both in my corner to heal my piece of the world. I’m challenging what’s already here. I do think it is lovely and fine and great that my experiences as a parent feed my art, as Brooks shares of her friend’s experience at the end of her piece. But I think the more powerful realization is that the artist in me feeds my parenting. 

I’m not talking about how art makes for creative moms, who can throw Pinterest parties, craft up a storm, and improvise twenty verses of Twinkle, Twinkle (though I do love those things). I’m talking about how, as artists, we have the potential to be uniquely excellent parents. Parenting well is not about raising the most well-behaved, socially acceptable, highest-salaried, or even happiest child; but neither is it about creating a protected utopia for our children, free of pain, suffering, or struggle. As artists, we have a deep and obsessive desire to understand relationships, to hold our children’s tears, to dwell with them in the pure pain of childhood, and to feel life's suffering more fully. We challenge what's here, we struggle with the status quo. Maybe we do this, selfishly, to be better artists. But I think it's our selfishness and our deep empathy for the people we love, that will grow our children into people who will also question, undermine, and force this world towards a place we’d rather inhabit.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Chris Rock Made an Asian Joke: A Confession, and My Thoughts

On Monday morning my husband and I were very romantically hovering over the bathroom sink, sonicare-ing our teeth, and simultaneously scrolling through Facebook on our phones. He paused the vibration of his toothbrush to say, "looks like people are pretty upset over Chris Rock's Asian joke?" He was asking me, because while he was busy prepping for a week of classes on Sunday evening, I will confess that I was watching the #OscarsSoWhite with a dear friend. I admit this sheepishly, as despite my quiet outrage at the fact that no actors of color had been nominated, I looked forward to passive night of viewing awards for movies I haven't seen with a glass of wine and the treat of female friendship post-children-in-bed time.

I'll admit something else. I wasn't paying enough attention at that point during the show to recall what the bad Asian joke was. So, I had no answer for my husband as his toothbrush resumed buzzing.

But I wanted to have an answer. I wanted to have an Asian American answer. I immediately started to ask myself if I had been a bad Asian. Where was my outrage? How did I miss that moment? Am I offended? Should I be? I am an Asian artist. I am a writer. I should have an opinion. This is precisely the moment I need to chime in.

I went back and watched the clip of the joke. If you know me well, it won't surprise you to hear that I have been Asian my entire life. I have encountered racism in various forms over the course of 36 years. Sometimes the form was a joke. Some made me laugh, some did not. Sometimes it was a comment, a situation, a declaration. Sometimes I felt angry, blood-boiling, fire-in-my-face mad in the moment. Sometimes it took years for me to realize the sting. Sometimes it came from a dear and close friend. Sometimes from a stranger on a bus. Sometimes the form was flirtation. Sometimes it came from the parent or grandparent of a friend, of a boyfriend. Sometimes it came from a superior, a teacher, a director.

I watched Chris Rock's joke again. And in the midst of trying to formulate my perfect Asian answer to what I ultimately consider a poor choice that hurt rather than furthered the cause for actors of color, it hit me what I was feeling. And what I was feeling wasn't anger at a racist joke. What I was feeling can more accurately be classified as protective mama-bear horror as I witnessed the faces of three young children, who I have a strong sense did not understand why they were on stage.

Do you think they know why the grown ups are laughing?
I imagined my daughter in their shoes, dressing up, being quiet, hitting her mark (or missing it in the case of the little boy in the middle), and standing still in a Dolby-Theatre-sized room as the laughter of grown-ups creeps up from the audience. My heart is saddened, and there's anger behind my eyes. In addition to seeing and hearing our children, I believe it's our job to protect them, not only from physical harm, but from the psychological and emotional harm that being the butt of a joke they don’t understand can harness. 

I’m saddened and angry because we live in a society where the lure of 15 seconds of fame is stronger than parents' protective instinct against exploiting our kids. And laughing at kids' expense, when they have no agency in the matter, while their brains think concretely and they don't yet perceive the difference between the nuance of a joke and real life, that's exploitation. While we're asking how such a joke got past so many people, based on its racist content, I'd also like to ask how it got past so many parents, how it got past these kids' own parents, based on its exploitation of children.

Those are my thoughts. Today I'm furthering the cause of artists of color by giving myself not just the (per)mission, but "the mission" to use my voice. I am an artist. That I am also "of color" is an added descriptor due to where and when I happen to exist in history (a predominantly white country in the 21st century). Today I contribute to the conversation, which I'll argue is the only way to combat any “fill-in-the-blank so white" situation. I join the conversation even though today I was moved more by my mother identity than by my Asian identity. Alternatively, I don’t need to wait until something happens that involves Asian Americans, to lend my voice. I can lend it anytime, whenever I have something to say. Maybe the more I, and other people like me, join the conversation, and wake up our quiet outrage, the less likely our society will be to allow, or even imagine a joke that relies on the cooperation of silent, obedient, Asian kids. Let's make it so that silent Asians aren't even "a thing."

Monday, February 22, 2016

I Thought I Was Better Than You

I'll chalk it up to a healthy dose of self confidence, of positive thinking, maybe some arrogance. I really thought that I was going to be a fantastic stay-at-home-mother, and I thought I was going to make it look effortless. When you were posting Facebook updates of the crazy things your kids were doing, and how exhausted, and drained, and at your wit's end you were, I felt bad. I sympathized. But I secretly thought that I would never be you. I am Asian American after all. Overachieving is part of my culture.  

It was possible, wasn't it, that I would be the exception? Some people think running a marathon is crazy, that performing on stage is terrifying. Hadn't I done those things? You guys, I like a challenge! I enjoy trying to do it myself, to figure it out myself, to make it from scratch. It feels good to me. This might be an annoying thing about me to some, but I think it might bring a certain charm too?

Anyway, hopefully it's obvious where this is going. Maybe I don't need to tell you that my visions of cooking with my daughter, singing with my son, endless cuddling, painting and sculpting art projects, spontaneous dancing, and dramatic storytelling, got tossed out the window. Maybe I shouldn't even mention that I was going to do all this while looking incredibly fashionable, and having a super connected, passionate, compassionate relationship with my husband. Out the third-story window too.

In the fall, I was rehearsing for my neighborhood's community theatre production in the evenings, and I was teaching music classes during the day for families and children. These felt like reasonable pieces of creative work and life that would make my life better, that would help give me enough of this sense of professional identity I was craving outside of being a mother. We were hiring a sitter when I was working and rehearsing. She was working about 20 hours a week. But it wasn't enough, it wasn't even close.

Here was our reality. On a typical day I would get up, and not shower, not wash my face, and not put on any make up. I would MAYBE brush my teeth, and I would very likely pop my contacts in. I would struggle with 3 monsters before 8 am, and send my daughter off to daycare with my husband without giving either a kiss. I would forget to eat breakfast and hand a wailing baby to the babysitter, rushing out to teach a class where I would muster lots of energy to be an engaging and fun music teacher. I'd roll though a fast food drive thru, and sit in my car parked outside my apartment, enjoying the precious 20 minutes of "me time" while my boobs filled with milk. Upon coming in the door, my son would crawl-cry toward me, and I'd pull my shoes off and my shirt up so I could breastfeed him. My stomach would gurgle because of the very fast not very healthy lunch, and I'd feel guilty that my daughter was in full day daycare that day. On the days she was not in daycare, I'd come home to that same crawl-crying baby, and another laugh-crying daughter. Mama milk mama milk! And I'd pull my shoes off and my shirt up so I could nurse both of them. My stomach would gurgle from lunch, and I would ask myself why I didn't just send my daughter to full days of day care every day.

I wasn't enjoying motherhood. By the time my husband got home, I was angry and resentful. I felt dirty, and unappreciated. I was mad at my son for being so needy. I couldn't give my daughter the attention she received before he was born. I was mad at my daughter, for regressing, for wanting more from me when I didn't have any more me to give.  I couldn't give my son the kind of undivided attention she received when she was born. Nothing felt fair. I made dinner while my son screamed from inside a pack n play, and while my daughter screamed for chocolate. I wasn't smiling very much. I was ornery, all the time. 

I left for rehearsal at night feeling more loads of guilt for leaving two children under 3 with my husband. I think I spent 80% of the day feeling angry, resentful, and/or guilty. Hopefully, for the other 20%, I was sleeping.

If you're a parent of young children, maybe this all seems completely normal. I was having the same small-talk conversation over and over again about how hard this time is, but how I'll miss it so much once they are older. And I knew it was true! All the while, I knew that so many mothers do this, that so many mothers have done this. My mom and my husband's mom each had three children, my friend Kelly has four, I know someone else who has five! Why can't I do it? I should be able to do it! And more guilt and disappointment would set in. My experience was such a far cry from the original expectations I had for myself. 

Trip to L.A. in December
If you're in suspense as to how this chapter concludes, I'll fill you in quickly. We started hosting an au pair, and our lives have completely changed. Au pair. it's a French term which literally means "on par" or "equal to." Practically, it refers to a young person from a country different from ours, who helps with childcare in exchange for a cross-cultural experience, and room and board. She's someone who is an "equal" in our family. Her name is Julia, she is from the southern part of France, and she's our new family member. 

Prior to making this fairly impulsive decision, we had all sorts of knee-jerk oppositional reactions to the idea. I think this could, in part, be a result of our Midwestern upbringing. We feel like we not only can, but should do everything on our own. I believe we link some amount of shame to employing help. Having "help" is upper-crusty, and something only "fancy" people have. But I think that hosting an au pair might be an underutilized solution frequently dismissed without honest thought by families all because we think of ourselves as down-to-earth. I think it's possible that we allow our cultural norms to make decisions for us. And while it is true that not everyone has the means, space, or the interest to make this decision, I think that more families might find enormous benefit from this kind of childcare. After running numbers, and if we’re just talking about money (but I’d argue that this conversation is more than about “money”) I can tell you, this solution is less expensive than a full-time nanny, or full time daycare, for a single child here in Chicago. Maybe I’ll talk about that more in a future blogpost. 

Right now, I want to talk about what's changed. 

This morning my daughter got up earlier than usual, but my son was half nursing half sleeping in our bed. My husband had an early morning meeting at work.  But this morning, instead of sacrificing the baby's and my sleep, we got an extra half hour. My husband got to get ready for his meeting on time without rushing. And my daughter got to play with Julia, the kind of playing I always want for her, where a variety of hilarious voices in multiple timbres ring down the hallway. And the dolls are having a dance party. And they bake chocolate cheese broccoli cookies out of blocks. 

This morning I can take a shower, and I have time to write a blogpost and a scene of a play. I can read a chapter from a book. I can drink a cup of tea. I can teach a class. And then after lunch I'll pick my daughter up from half-day daycare, so she can spend the rest of her day with me and her brother. I'll get to be with them, the way I always wanted to, because I'm not as tired, I'm not as angry, I'm not resentful. I don't have this feeling that I’ve given up every part of myself for them. 

Tonight, I can make dinner, and my daughter can help me (one of her favorite things ever). Julia can hold my son up so he watch, or sing songs with him in another room. Tomorrow night, Julia can make dinner, we'll all learn a new recipe and my daughter can help cook again. I can play with my son, we can roll around on the floor making funny faces and sounds, we can read books together. We can all laugh a lot. We have time and energy to laugh. We can cry too. I have the energy to be with my kids when they cry.

We still have lots of whining, crying, frustration, and jealousy. The beds still get wet, and I still don't "sleep through the night." I think these are normal parts of being a growing family with young children, and I'm not sure I want to trade those things in anyway. But we have something else now too, we have a little extra time and with that extra time comes extra energy. Energy to be a lot more like the mom I always wanted to be. We also have a new friend. A new friend who tapes collaborative multi-media art projects on our walls, and helps us with the dishes. Life is full, and much better. 

I’m becoming a little less concerned about what “kind” of a mom I am these days. Maybe I don’t fit into the “stay-at-home-mom” box, or the “working mom” box, or the “work-from-home-mom” box, or the “part-time working mom” box. I am learning to care less about those boxes. They mean less and less to me everyday. I am a mom, and I’m a lot of other things too, and maybe that’s okay.

A part of me is terrified that I've lost you, and that your eyes are rolling at my privilege and at this "too easy” solution. I know that we are tremendously privileged, and I am grateful for this. But I'm hoping very much that you've stayed with me and that you can hear what it is I'm trying to say. Maybe it's okay to look for help if we need it. Maybe it's okay for us to think about what it is we need. Maybe our cultural norms don't have to tell us how to be parents. Maybe there's another way.