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.


  1. This is beautiful. I don't know what to say. Concerning you, you've always been so visible to me. For the little time we have spent together, I think so often of how I wished to be near you because I know my life would be better with you here. My point is, you have made a huge impression on my life, even though our time together was really limited. At the same time, when reading this, I just kept thinking, "Lynnette's right," and I hate that she's right. Why is there a cultural reality of being so invisible that you and the life inside you can easily disappear in front of a crowded train of people?

    1. Afbloghi, thank you so much for seeing me. I think an important reason of why I value friendships like yours, is that you do see me. I am attracted to friends who are artists or artist hearts. We make our or daily mission to see what is difficult to see. Maybe it's not even a mission, maybe it's something we cannot help but do.
      I often find that I feel most invisible to my family. It's not that they don't want to see me, but so much about me that makes me proud of myself is lost on them, or worse, might even be a source of shame.
      I think the invisibility is a survival technique at the core.