Sunday, April 3, 2022

Disowning My (Korean) Mother's Unhappiness

For most of my life, I have carried my mother’s unhappiness, sloshing in an aged brown vat atop a rolled towel on my head, the way old ladies do in the countryside in Korea. It was always threatening to topple or overflow, contaminating me, no matter how carefully I maneuvered to find the right balance. It cramped my neck, bogged me down, and caused aches and pains in unexpected places.

When I was younger, my mother used to creep down the stairs to my room after my dad had gone to sleep. She would enter without knocking and start talking until I put my book down and scooted over on my bed to make room for her. Under the beam of my gooseneck lamp, she would wedge herself in with her knees tucked under my comforter and enumerate the various ways my father had failed her. She would follow with a litany of complaints of the wrongs she suffered at the hands of his relatives, the visceral anger growing with each recollection. She would pine for a different life, one where she could sip coffee in a cafe like everyone else, where she could travel, where she would matter.

In my head, I have reels of painful moments of her adulthood, like the time she called weeping that my father refused to take her to the doctor after accidentally slamming the car door on her hand, as I, a 19-year-old girl half-way across the continent in a cinder-blocked dorm room, stood clutching the phone. Or the nights she woke up wailing from the pain of crushing migraines, and I raged at my father and brother to take her to the ER, even as they stood mute and unresponsive. Or the days my mother suffered from shingles while taking care of my brother’s young children, and all my father did was remind her that they were running low on kimchi.

Over the years, I became the holder of her complaints and longings, even as I begged her to free me from the role. I did not want to see my dad through her eyes and despise him as a result. “I am the child of both of you,” I said. But she tells me she has no one else to tell, and all our family stories must stay within the family. Besides, who else would listen to her sorrows?

So, when she secretly withdrew $50 and $20s from our family dry cleaning business on days she felt particularly bad, I helped her deposit the money in a bank account. When I worked as a paralegal with an overtime dinner budget, I skipped my own dinners to pick up some Nathan’s hot dog nuggets for her at the LIRR train station, the bag warm on my lap as I rode home. When I started making some money as an attorney, I gifted her with a cashmere coat from Neiman Marcus, a Louis Vuitton purse, and many pieces of jewelry, even though she told me later that the stones were too small for a woman of her age.

Conjuring happiness for my mom has been my preoccupation du jour. During the right season in San Francisco, I used to cab over to Whole Foods during my lunch hour to buy pounds of fresh black mission figs, her favorite fruit. The cashier’s eyes would pop open.

“What are you making? Are you having a party?”

“No, I’m feeding my mother,” I would say.

I would pack them in neat rows in plastic containers purchased ahead of time, one layer with the stems facing up, the next layer fitted like puzzle pieces with stems facing down. I would ship them overnight to New York and pray that they would not over-ripen or bruise before she could bite into them.

Like a safety net underneath a trapeze artist, I have actively sought ways to cushion her from any possible mishaps. When she complained of back pains, I arranged for her to see a chiropractor. When she felt trapped by the inequities of her marriage, I encouraged her to divorce. When she ached from loneliness, I begged her to attend church, with offers to drive her myself or set up a car service. I have invited my Korean-American friends to dinner along with their parents so that my parents could meet some other Korean immigrants and find a sense of community and reprieve from their isolation. I spent much of my teenage years organizing and re-organizing her underwear drawer, cleaning every inch of the house, doing the laundry, and making dinner to alleviate any additional load she may have to carry.

If I ran a travel agency and mapped out all the trips we organized to satisfy her longing to travel, I could have earned a hefty commission. When I first started working, I sent my parents on a group trip to Europe. Later, after I got married, my husband and I took them along on most family vacations, including several trips to Hawaii, to Sedona, Palm Springs, Catalina Islands, Vancouver, and on a Disney Cruise to Alaska. A few years ago, I organized a trip for my mom to meet up with her sisters and their husbands in Honolulu, and most recently, shortly before the pandemic, my family and my parents traveled throughout South Korea and toured Jeju Island on a private minibus with our generous aunts and uncles.

Over the years, I played the role of her advocate, her defender, her protector, and her cruise director. None of my efforts has made a difference. Her incessant complaining never ceased, and happiness seems as elusive as ever. She walks with her shoulders slumped, her eyes downcast, and sighs are never far from her breath. She is ever ready to lash out at my father, like a caged animal. But when I offer to take her out for an afternoon, she refuses, claiming he would be lonely if she left him alone. She insists she has all that she needs, even though she has filled my head with complaints of all that she lacks.

In many respects, our family’s immigration journey has been a failure. After more than four decades in this country, my parents live as outsiders. They have no community. They do not attend church, are not affiliated with any organization, and have not one friend we could invite to their funeral. They spend most of their time in isolation, with no one other than each other. Their days are droll, dictated by my father’s penny-pinching anxiety and my mother’s begrudging passivity. Their time is spent bickering, preparing and cleaning up after three meals a day, and watching shows about other Koreans who never left Korea.

The rest of our family is no model of immigrant success. Among the three children, we have no doctors or astronauts in the family, nary a PhD. None of us are Fulbright scholars or even Ivy League graduates. Not all of us even have good credit scores or own homes. During dinners growing up, we children were held captive to our father’s incessant re-telling of how he escaped a life on the farm by walking miles down the mountain to attend school, eventually graduating from Seoul National University and becoming a regional director of a Korean conglomerate. Against the oppressive backdrop of those stories of resilience, we children now only see failure reflected in my parents’ eyes when we dare to look. And my mother does not hesitate to tell us we are defective children.

“There is something wrong with each of you,” she says.

She looks at my face and sees only the wrinkles. She scrutinizes me for weight gain and then tells me to eat more. She sees my purse and openly wonders why I carry such a cheap accessory. She sees my children and wonders why I don’t dress them better, even though they have been picking out their own clothes for half a decade. There is always room for improvement: more eye cream; less and more food consumption; more conspicuous accessorizing for me and the children.

Apart from these superficial markers of success, however, we have failed in the most basic ways. If I were to draw a string from each member of the family to the other, most of the connections would be broken. My sister estranged me over fifteen years ago, with no explanation, and my brother and I keep up a superficial conversation. My sister and brother never talk, and my parents receive perfunctory calls a few times a year from them and the two grandchildren on the East Coast. The last time we all got together as a family was more than fifteen years ago, and there is no one to take the role of leadership to steer us as a group. We have failed to find a way to get along, to find the language or the courage to bridge our differences, or to build a common framework to give meaning to our experiences.

Like a child dreaming of Santa, I have for most of my life yearned for a better version of our family. I long for a family that vacations together, laughs at each other’s jokes, gathers for holidays. I want us to be one of those families that dines out, chatting easily across the centerpiece. Who knows how to be tender with each other, knows how to listen and show care. Somehow, nurturing these skills with my husband and my own children is not enough. I long to reach back into my family’s past and restore us as we could have been, before immigrant became our defining identity, before we fell out of our community, before we ricocheted in uncharted directions.

I have begged my mother to help us be that kind of a family. I have cried and asked her to somehow help me to restore my estranged relationship with my sister. I have lamented our failure to be a cohesive family, and I have cajoled her to take on some of the responsibility of bringing us together, instead of passively responding only when I initiate. But my pleas have gone unheard, and my mother shoos me away, as if I were a whiny toddler asking for a piece of candy.

“What do you expect me to do?” she says.

So, when I learned last fall that my breast cancer had metastasized all over my body, eating through my bones and creating innumerable lesions on my lungs and liver, and my oncologist told me that my type of cancer has a median prognosis of three years, I emerged from my weekend with puffy red eyes and a vow to live my best life yet. And I wondered how to bring my 78-year-old mother along.

My father and my siblings seemed beyond reach, but I entertained fantasies of creating a normal life for my mom, particularly in a neighborhood with more Koreans where she can talk and be understood. Taking her to church, helping her make a friend or two, and relocating her to an environment where she could move about the world without debilitating dependence on my father. I had ideas of helping her learn how to use an ATM, setting up a garden for her to grow her perilla leaves and Korean peppers, and creating occasions for joy and levity, like slurping jajangmyun together, watching K-dramas as a family, and celebrating the holidays. And given my life expectancy, this felt like my final chance to inject some happiness into our lives.

The week following my diagnosis, my husband and I decided to move back up to the Bay Area to work with an oncologist renowned in triple negative breast cancer research. I asked my parents if they would move with us and help us. And more importantly, were they up to the task of being happy? Would they be willing to leave their unhappiness behind?

My mom lowered her gaze and stared at her fingers. She was quiet for so long that I wondered if she heard me.

Finally, she said, “I can try.”

My dad sat with no reaction, no eye contact.

“Mom, we’re asking you to come with us to help us with the kids. We have to have a happy environment for the kids. Do you think you can do that?”

“I’ll try, but it’s not easy,” she said again.

“What is making you so unhappy? Are you unhappy we stayed in America? Do you wish we had gone back?”

She stayed silent.

“I think we’re doing ok here. I’m glad we stayed. So many terrible things could have happened, but none of them did. We’re all alive, we have food, we have homes, what’s so terrible?”

She seemed to be listening as she kept her gaze low and repeated, “I’ll try my best.”

A few weeks later, while I lay in a hospital in Pasadena after having titanium rods nailed into my femurs, Jeff drove the kids and my parents up to our new rental in Los Altos. After a few days of unpacking, Jeff drove back down to Pasadena to take me to our new house, leaving our children in the care of my parents.

As we passed the Grapevine, my cell phone rang with our 10-year old daughter in tears.

“Halmoni said I can’t call you. She said I have to leave you alone, and I have to be strong! Why can’t I call you?”

Shortly after, our son called us to tell us Halmoni was threatening to go back to San Diego. When I talked to my mother, I was shocked to learn that she was seriously considering returning to San Diego as I lay in the car with my legs propped by pillows to prevent a clot, still hours away from home.

“Children not easy,” she said in English.

When we stopped for our next 30-minute interval to exercise my legs, I burst into tears. Our reliance on them seemed misplaced, foolish.

This incident marked the beginning of a series of events that made me realize that perhaps I was too late, that my hopes for a restored family had been misplaced all along.

For the next six weeks, as we attempted to live with each other in a 2000 square feet house, I could feel the framework of my values grate against my mom’s by the way my teeth started grinding every time she jumped off the couch to prepare my dad’s meals. As she cooked, heated up his soup, laid out his utensils, scooped his rice, and called him over to eat, even as she muttered under her breath, I wondered about this self-imposed prison of hers.

One evening, I watched her screaming at him when he asked to eat something from the pot on the stove.

“Why don’t you eat what I set out for you! Isn’t what you have enough?”

As she ranted and snarled at him, she stomped over to the stove, grabbed a trivet and the pot and stomped back to the table. She set the trivet, then the pot in front of him, turned the handle away from him, opened the lid, and put the spoon in the pot as she continued to seethe, her promise of happiness in front of our children long forgotten.

While my dad spent most of his time napping on the couch under a blanket or sitting on a chair by the sunniest window in the house, my mother cleaned our house endlessly, even as I asked her to stop and to relax. She reported to me regularly about the food stock in the fridge, giving me updates like when she moved the kimchi into a smaller jar, even when I told her she could do what she wanted, and reminding me of all the food yet to be eaten as I lay in bed nauseous after a chemo treatment. When we offered to set up the television with Korean programming, she declined, explaining that she did not need it, even though we often found her hunched over Netflix on her iPad.

The pandemic seemed to conspire against us as the Korean churches in the area were still closed for services. When I encouraged my mom to call them to see when they may open for in-person services, she said, “Why do you want us to go to church so much?”

And yet, in her next breath, my mother complained that there were not enough Koreans in the area.

“I thought you said there were more Koreans here,” she said.

When we took short day trips on the weekends to see the beautiful coastline or the redwoods, my parents often fell asleep in the car. When I found a jajangmyun place in Sunnyvale, my mother complained that we were driving too far just for jajangmyun. When I invited them to go see the local holiday parade, they refused because it was too cold out. When the children’s school held an outdoor carnival, they came by for a few minutes and returned home as soon as the sun set.

During a week when I was feeling better, we drove around Los Altos Hills, where we hoped to buy a house with a large enough lot to build an in-law unit for my parents. When I pointed out the lack of commercial areas within walking distance, I asked her if she could enjoy living there. She nodded compliantly and said she could live anywhere. Yet, weeks later, when I goaded her to share what she hoped for her future, she told us that she and my Dad would probably move back to Flushing where she could walk to stores and shop as they wished. I cried, realizing that once they moved back to New York, I may never see them again given my condition. I wondered if they even considered the possibility and if it mattered. And I felt this age-old sense of rejection that what I had offered was just not good enough.

When I asked her why she did not want to live in Los Altos Hills with us, she said that my husband is a foreigner and she could not be comfortable around him. I was baffled to hear her explanation as she and my father had been the ones who moved us to a foreign country 43 years ago and later decided to stay. I have been married to Jeff for almost 15 years. If Jeff is a foreigner, are my children also foreigners to her? Were we ever a family? Were they always uncomfortable with us, even when we took them to Hawaii or on the Disney Cruise? I reflected back on those trips and the countless meals we have had with them, when they made little effort to make conversation with my husband and the children.

I thought of all the times Jeff drove over to their house to help set up their TV, fix their iPads or laptops, and move their furniture around. He had driven them to the DMV when they needed to take their driving tests because I could not. He had patiently bitten his tongue when I asked my parents to join us vacation after vacation, and he had driven us all from one touristy spot to another, helping them get in and out of the car, tending to their needs. I have felt pangs of guilt whenever he did the bulk of the driving or paid for dinner with my parents while my parents rarely offered. He had treated my parents better than my own siblings had, and yet he was relegated to the status of a “foreigner”.

The final straw, however, came unexpectedly. I talked to my mother about my prognosis, partly to help her better understand my situation in order to prepare her and partly to counter her incessant urges to eat more.

“Mom, this cancer won’t be cured by eating more. Most people die from this cancer. In maybe three years. I may die before you,” I said.

With her eyes downcast, my mom said, “Well, at least you have the hope of a miracle.”

She said it almost in a whisper, as if she were making a confession to a priest who could absorb her lament.

Whenever I had previously tried to explain the seriousness of my condition, my mother had brushed it aside. “Miracles happen,” she said.

But she had never before spoken about it in relative terms, comparing my situation to hers, even though she had no situation that I knew of, other than old age I would now pay a sizable fortune to reach.

At that moment, I felt cursed by this role I was playing as my mother’s keeper. Even as I am dying from cancer, must I be consoling my mother for her old age? For the life she has already lived? Must I be the one to reassure her of the choices she made or could not make, even as I seek solace for my own fate?

It felt like a cage I helped build. Over the years, I had done her bidding. Intervened during her arguments with my dad, taking her side as she watched me say the words she could not speak. Stepped in when she claimed helplessness. Endlessly cajoled my sister when my mom claimed inability to persuade. Harshly criticized my brother on her behalf. Over the years, I had perpetuated this role, me as the doer and she, the helpless. Me, an extension of her, ever ready to fulfill her needs or wants.

And now at a time when I needed a mother, she was nowhere to be found. In a time when I wanted to be comforted, to be on the receiving end of sympathy, she was incapable. I sought inspiration, a defense against the looming despair, but she had none to give.

In truth, I wished for a better life for her so that she could be a better mother for me. A mother who cannot take care of herself, steeped in her own despair, has little reserve for her child. She could never show up for me as I needed her to. Just as she could not speak English or drive me to band practices when I was in middle school, she is absent from my current life with my friends, my husband, and my children. When she comes to my children’s birthday parties, she hides in the shadows, smiling in performance, mute. I remember the loneliness of crying in a cavernous dressing room, as I tried on wedding dresses alone in a fancy shop in the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco.

I, who grew up in a different culture, part of a different generation, cannot understand her constraints. I do not know how it feels to be raised in a servant class, trained to elevate and serve the men in her family. I do not know how it feels to live on the outskirts of a society with no hope of belonging. I do not know how it feels to hang all hope of survival on a man probably beset with autism, devoid of empathy or care.

It is painful to watch someone you love live a suboptimal life, when the solutions seem obvious, the potential within reach. When she cried, my heart felt like someone was plunging into my chest with an oversized hand and squeezing it until I could no longer breathe. When she told me the regrets of her life, I felt like pulling my hair out in clumps and shaking them loose until they fell like dead leaves from a rotting tree. When she complained yet again about the same social slight from forty years ago, I clenched my teeth and held myself still to let the words pass through me without violence.

Over the years, I watched my mother become buried deeper in her isolation, as she refused to grab my extended arm over and over again. I watched the effects of this isolation creep over her, the dependence on television, the awkward off-comments during conversations, the lack of synchronicity with others. I watched her become more and more like my Asperger’s father, the only person regularly in her life, as their world shrank to the size of their bank account and the contents of their fridge. I wondered about learned helplessness and how we forget how to help ourselves when the world does not respond, and I wondered if blaming others rather than making changes is one of its symptoms. And I can see the slow mental decline as she ages. I tried to save my mother, but she did not want to be saved, at least not by me. I was always but a pained perpetual bystander.

Unexpectedly, cancer entered my life and permitted me to do something I could not do alone. It allowed me to center myself. Perhaps because I no longer have the strength or the energy to take care of others as I was able to before. Or perhaps because I am now dependent on others to survive, given my recent surgery, cancer-eaten bones, and crippling fatigue from the chemo. Without voicing my needs, I may become lost, forgotten.

But most notably, my mother is suddenly no longer worse off than I am. I am no longer the one living a better life, with my happy marriage, many friendships, meaningful work, and a future. While I still have my relationships, my career has been halted and my life possibly curtailed, my children to be left behind to fend against life without me. My time now feels more limited than hers as she may well live into her 90s. We are finally on equal footing. I have been relieved of my guilt, and for once, I do not have to apologize for my life.

Cancer forced me to take stock of my life. I need not be my mother’s keeper. I can give myself this time to enjoy the few remaining years of my life outside the shadow of her unhappiness. I can no longer afford to carry the vat of my mother’s unhappiness on my head.

This is not the ending I planned for our story. I envisioned us reaching a stasis, a plateau where we could look back on our lives together with some hard-bitten appreciation. A coming together, instead of this failure. I thought I had the power to infuse her with our happiness, but I am retreating in fear of contamination.

This outcome is a repudiation of all that I have been raised to value. I was raised to be a good daughter, a hyo-nyo. I spent most of my life bending toward my parents’ way of living, speaking Korean with them, following the Confucian hierarchy, and adopting their norms. I was the heir apparent of our traditional Korean family, assuming the role of taking care of my parents as they aged, even though I am not a first-born son. It happened not by any group intent or design, but by implicit understanding that I have always played the part of the responsible child.

In our family, we follow an unspoken rule of who is supposed to take care of whom. I have always played the role of the caregiver. It was delegated to me as the eldest daughter. I recognize a shadow of the sidekick in myself, one raised to be a member of the servant class, in my mother’s image. This unspoken rule was an injustice that I recognized even as a child. I remember screaming as an eight-year-old to my sister and brother that I was not their servant. When I was accepted to Georgetown Law, I asked my mother why I had to be the one to be sacrificed to become a lawyer when my brother and sister were free to live as they wished. At the same time, I found meaning in helping, particularly in times of crisis, just as I did in receiving good grades and earning my parents’ approval.

I have failed my mother, but she has also failed me. She was unable to see the world through the eyes of her child, so eager to help, so yearning to please. As a child raised as an outsider in this country, I desperately wanted to belong somewhere. If I could not fit in as an American, I needed a family where I belonged. I wanted to be right in some context. But no matter where I went, I walked in dissonance, even in my own family. No one aligned with the other in our family of five. I have spent most of my life working to find a way out of this dissonance.

There is no satisfaction in this reprieve. Every deed feels like a betrayal: this new stance; my writing; dining out without them. I am that climbing partner in Touching the Void, who cuts the rope attached to his injured partner to save himself in a storm. All I can do is walk on, thwarted, relieved, disappointed. Yet, I refuse to be shrouded in secrecy and shame. These values have never served our family.

In Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir Wave, she describes how she rushed past her adjacent parents’ hotel room to save her husband and children as the tsunami loomed. She could not afford to save her parents in that moment because she had to save her own family. While my cancer is not a tsunami, I feel the crushing urgency of the situation. I am trapped in an hourglass, and each grain of sand feels precious, like a lump of my own flesh. Like Joy in Inside Out, I now find myself putting all my effort to fill each bubble of experience with meaning, happiness, togetherness. I want to saturate my children with happiness to overwhelm the sadness that will eventually befall us. They need enough of a quota to last them when I am gone.

For me as well, I have to center my own happiness. I cannot afford to continue to play the role of the sidekick. I, who always bought souvenirs for others but never for myself, am now surrounding myself with flowers and plants, trinkets, and new colorful outfits to fill my senses. I call on friends who make the effort, but do not bother with those who seemingly do not. When I shop, I look for snacks not only for my children, but also for me. For the first time in years, I agreed to a birthday party for me.

This outcome means giving up my story of redemption. No happy ending for our immigration story, where all that we lost through our displacement was meant to be replaced by something even better. But I recognize that this has been my story, and perhaps never my parents’. I am finally giving myself permission to disconnect my trajectory from my parents’ decisions: their decision to relocate to a new country; to give up their middle-class life to flip burgers and remove stains from other people’s party dresses; to withdraw into isolation and depression rather than celebrating all that we still have.

As in cell division, we need a balance of push and pull to manage our growth, to resist abnormal development. Like my cancer that has metastasized uncontrollably, we as a family sprouted in irregular directions, overgrown weeds with no pruning or support. Year after year, we lived without extended family or community, largely forgotten by our relatives in Korea and unseen by those around us. Alone in this country, we lived as an orphan family, feral, under-socialized.

Our journey as immigrants is a metastasis, an uncontrollable growth. We have exceeded the boundaries of our origins. The ways of the past no longer apply, even as we lack guidance for our future. We longed not for this outcome, but I lack the power to control it. In this space, we roam freely, without guidance but with latitude to create.

This writing is my call for community. For our generation to find a continuum in each other. Maybe some of you will find yourselves and your families in this telling, and you can relate. Maybe some of you will find it in your hearts to tell me I did the best I could, that I have not forsaken my mother. Maybe others of you will have stories to share. Maybe in your stories, I will find some forgiveness for myself as well as deeper understanding. And maybe in each other’s stories, we can decipher some meaning, discover new values, and forge paths for our futures, however long or short they may be.

Monday, March 14, 2022

My Tightrope

For decades, I pined for more time to write, through years of law school and then a decade of working in law firms, later through the early years of motherhood as I pumped, changed diapers, and hovered over my little ones. If only I could be free to write, I used to think. It was one of the constant laments of my life. Now that I suddenly have no demands on my time, I find myself frittering it away.

Instead of writing, I’ve been lying in bed, surfing the web. I scour Gap and Old Navy websites, and then move onto Nordstrom and Macy’s, scrutinizing each top, dress, and skirt, imagining myself in each outfit. I watch endless episodes of K-drama, engrossed as if the characters were my friends, and rewatch sections I find endearing as I sip my coffee and adjust my pillows. I scroll through social media sites endlessly, even when I reach the posts I had seen the day before, though I rarely comment or participate. Frequently, I walk around examining my numerous house plants, watering each one carefully not to damage their delicate petals. These activities seem more than enough to fill the time wedged between lunch dates with friends.

I have gotten used to not moving much. My body no longer feels restless as it used to in the early months, when I first found out my cancer had spread to my bones, liver, and lungs. At that time, I quit my part time clinical job as an associate therapist and relieved myself of all my teaching and writing obligations. Suddenly, there were no outlines to draft, no PowerPoints to create, no research to undertake. All of my work-related zoom meetings were cancelled overnight. I felt officially cut off from my professional future.

Freed of all my external responsibilities, I find myself focused only on the present needs of my body. I am hyper-focused on whether I have new pain, as that may indicate further spread of the cancer, how my body feels at the moment, whether I have enough energy to make it to the shower. On some mornings, it takes effort to wake up early enough to sit with the children while they eat breakfast. On good days, I do a couple of loads of laundry or bake some zucchini bread for the children. I feel proud of myself when I make it to the grocery story. I spend much of the day managing my discomfort and fatigue and figuring out what foods my body would tolerate. I am a hostage to my body and its limitations.

At this point, personal ambitions feel meaningless, irrelevant. What difference will it make to write one more post, another article? What if few others read about my experience? Will it make a difference? These questions feel overwhelming, because of my new reality that gives rise to these questions. It is the stance of one already extricated from life. Ironically, the enormity of the situation makes it easier to seize on the mundane obstacles of the day. All my hopes for the possibilities of the future are suddenly deflated, shriveled and torn like popped balloons.

The time passes quickly, unnoticed, like dead skin that sloughs off as dust before we take notice of their accumulation. Before I know it, it is almost time for my children to return home from school. I listen for their chatter and steps as they near the house and then the turn of the key. When they walk in, I am ready with hugs and bright smiles. I inquire about their day and listen as they prattle stories from their time away from me, who said what, what the teacher did, which child behaved inappropriately. I watch their little mouths as they munch on snacks I place in front of them, a napkin ready in my hand to wipe the crumbs off their cheeks, even though they have long passed the need for such help. I lock eyes with them often, caressing their hair, as I remind them of the good qualities I see in them. Most evenings, I invite them to sit next to me in bed and we watch some episode of a show together, our heads careening toward each other, my hand often in one of theirs, our cheek pressed together. It’s a period of incubation, where I imprint all my love for them and hope that they remember my touch, my warmth.

It has become a discipline to not think about the future. Not thinking about the future delivers the only hope of a salvation, as the three-year prognosis, even if couched as a "median survival rate," feels too certain, too statistical, too scientific. When they first delivered the diagnosis, I kept crying that it is not enough time, my children are too young. The nurse who treated me said, “You’re still here. You’re still here.” I cling to those words, and remind myself, I’m still here. It’s a cursed tightrope, walking toward a future where I no longer exist as I straddle a present that forces me to put on blinders. 

There is a certain sense of victory in being able to squander time now. I’m in charge. I can choose to value time or disregard it. I can tell myself it matters little to me. But I know in the end, I will be pining for more, begging to live longer, to watch my children grow one year older.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Minari's Daring Hope

[Spoiler Alert]

Years ago, my Korean-American friend Bonnie told me she hates reading stories about Korean-Americans. "They're so depressing. They're always about loss. What are we supposed to do with all that sadness?" 

It's almost as if writer/director Lee Issac Chung were eavesdropping on our conversation when he made Minari, as if he came along years later to answer that question for us. 

In Minari, Jacob relocates his family from from LA's Korean community to rural Arkansas where he sets out to grow Korean produce on the side while he and his wife Monica work as chicken sexers during the day. It is, as they find out, where other Koreans have landed to escape the Korean church. They are exiled not only from Korea, but from the Korean-American community as well. They are outliers among outliers.

Jacob's move is not only a reverse gold rush, but a repudiation of the idea of luck itself, as he derides the water dowser. It was the pursuit of better fortune that landed the couple as chicken sexers for the past decade. This move to Arkansas is simultaneously more inspired, more cynical, and more defiant. For Jacob, the church and the community of others offer no possibilities. All we have are our own dogged determination and arduous labor - and our ability to reason, Jacob teaches his son. 

A pivotal, foreshadowing occurs near the beginning when Jacob, with a smokestack ominously blowing in the background, explains to his son David that all male chicks are killed. The males are useless, he tells him. We have to make ourselves useful.   

His is what Erving Goffman calls a spoiled identity. Such identities are deemed less worthy than the identities of others. Jacob (and by extension David) bear not one facet of spoiled identity, but three: immigrant-Asian-male. As emasculated Asian males, they are the most vulnerable. Even though Jacob is married, his wife is on the verge of leaving him. He spends his time looking at butts of baby chicks. His only son is a "pretty boy" with a damaged heart and a broken penis. Jacob's desperate need to prove himself is decoupled from his family's chances of survival. It is not as much a response to America, his community, or his family, but to his internalized view of himself. His current position in the social order is a drastic fall from the privileged status as the eldest Korean son. 

His desperation to de-spoil his identity is not understood by his family, where he still presides as the dominant member who disciplines the children, makes financial decisions, and determines their place on earth. The only way to maximize his chance of success is to protect himself from the judging gaze of others. Nothing can happen to us here, he tells his wife. No one is around. Shielded from the outside world, he need only rely on his own effort, without the complicating factors of society. Alone, he has a chance of prevailing, of finding a way to prove himself worthy.

Throughout the film, Lee Issac Chung questions the idea of utility. What does it mean to be useful? Growing up, we were guided by this principle. As green card holders, we in our family were acutely aware of our status as guests in this country, and as visible minorities, we lived at the mercy of the dominant communities who found us useful to keep around - or at least not useless enough to reject. Utility framed our understanding of our present, past, and future. It provided the raison d'etra for our immigration life; not to put our utmost human effort toward our future was to make a mockery of the painful decision to uproot our family. Achieving success would provide the redemption to validate our relocation. 

To not be useful was to fail each other when we had only each other to turn to, when the needs were so dire. In our family, we traded in needs; more effort by one meant the other could expend less. When our mother lost pound after pound and suffered from painful hemorrhoids from running our dry cleaning business, I picked up extra chores at home, cleaning, doing the laundry, cooking dinner, and picking up groceries. As teenagers, we helped out at the store on the weekends to try to reduce their workload. I was not the only Korean-American kid who vowed to get a good enough job to pay off my parents' mortgage. Being useful - in the service of each others' needs - became our only language of love. 

Chung litters the film with plenty of examples to help us explore this concept of utility. A grandmother who comes to take care of the kids, but spends her time gambling and watching wrestling. A neighbor who spends his weekends dragging a wooden cross for miles. A trailer house that may not be secure enough to provide shelter during a tornado. A dowser who offers the dubious service of finding a water source with a stick. Expensive Korean hanyak that has no curative connection to little David's heart murmur. A living made as an experienced and efficient chicken sexer. 

On the other side of the coin of utility is the question of value. What gives us value as human beings? What happens when we do not have the ability to be useful, like little David whose body does not even allow him to run? Or when the outcome does not match the intent, like the grandmother who only seeks to help when she burns the trash? What do we do when our utility depends on the performance of others who may fail us, like the Korean produce buyer who breaks the contract? Does our utility dictate our value? 

In college, I sat around with my Korean-American friends in a musty cafe pondering these questions with a cold coffee mug in my hand. Did Korean parents believe in unconditional love? Is there such a thing, or is all love conditional? These questions masked the internal personal questions we did not voice, like did we somehow fail to achieve all that we could have? Were we not useful enough, and therefore, not as lovable? We had been so steeped in the language of utility that once freed of our home environment, we wondered what else existed beyond it. We spoke without betraying any emotions, except for an occasional set of glistening eyes, as if we were speaking solely about philosophical matters that do not bear on our sense of self-worth or well-being. 

I never had satisfying answers to these questions until I watched Minari. It felt as if Lee Issac Chung had been sitting next to me in my college conversations, beset with the same questions, the same quandary. As the children grab the grandmother's hand to bring her back home and the couple reach for each other during the fire, I suddenly understood. During our moments of failures, we are forced to be seen. Stripped of our ambition, aspirations, bravado, and our array of defensive masks, we appear in our nakedness. When we fail, our humanity becomes manifest.

Like my friend Bonnie, I too felt trapped in the sorrows of our immigration stories. They felt like dead ends, suffocating emotions, with limited hope for reprieve. But in Chung's story, it is the very suffering that saves the family. When the crops are destroyed and Jacob's human effort laid to waste, they are suddenly exposed in their desperation, freed from the hamster wheel of Jacob's determination. This is where they meet each other. 

Growing up, I watched my father after he plunged from his role as a managing director of a Korean conglomerate to a dry cleaner, spot checking stains on other peoples’ three-piece suits and sequined party dresses. He never fully recovered from the sadness of losing his status. It had been his unabashed boast to escape a destitute childhood on a farm in the remote mountains of Sancheong. Having to revert to manual labor after reaching Seoul National University felt like an undoing, a negation of all that he had worked toward. Yet, it was also in this space where we came to understand the depth of his dreams, the expanse of his tenacity, and the human capacity to reach around painful adversity. It is also here that we came to appreciate the fragility of our lives, the uncertainty of the future, and the possibilities that await any of us. Previously, I always assumed we had missed out on a life that should have been, but now I wonder if we lived differently, more intensely, more humanly.

In the movie, minari is planted outside the perimeter of the area the parents consider safe. The older sister cautions little David not to go so far. But holding the grandmother's hand, he ventures further. Here, they find a creek and a snake. And it is here where minari thrive. It is delicious, nutritious, and medicinal, the grandmother promises. It is a resilient plant that grows with minimal effort. 

It is as if Chung is quietly comforting us. You will be ok. You can put down your exhaustion. Know your people will multiply. Trust that you too will reap the bounties of this Eden, if you allow yourself to traverse past the boundaries of your fears. The seeds have already been planted. 

Ironically, this film about immigrants grants me permission to transcend my own immigrant identity. I can imagine the director saying, You can put down the burdens of your immigration. Do not be defined by it any longer. You no longer need to prove yourself worthy.

I have been waiting all these years to hear these messages. 

Monday, February 8, 2021

The Making of Asian-American Identities

Jay Caspian Kang’s recent New York Times Magazine feature on Steven Yeun is not really a story about Steven Yeun. It is an exploration — through the medium of a famous body — of what it means to be an Asian-American in the United States. It is a slog through what Kang refers to as “prismatic neurosis”, a mild, yet controllable, disorder that he equates with our immigrant identity.

This slog feels apologetic, though nestled in the folds of the New York Times Magazine. Kang refers to his endeavor as “narcissistic self-exploration of an upwardly mobile immigrant”, something he believes no one else cares about, even as I scrutinized every word. He asks Yeun whether he wants to talk about “Korean stuff” and assume the risk of being seen as “some Korean guy”, as if that is somehow negative. It is a self-conscious, public conversation between two men discussing the intimate plight of identity and ambition under the gaze of unknown faces whose political existence may contribute to the construction (or destruction) of those identities.

On one hand, this exploration is a protest. It is a protest against the type of immigration story often associated with us. Of stories defined through the lens of others, where we play the good ones needing redemption, where we don’t exist on our own but only in relation to the white majority, where we are placed into cookie cutter narratives. There is a come on to his protest, like come on, really? I too carry those. Are we ever more than parables of acceptance and tolerance? Must we always be pitted in stories between Black-Korean struggles, as white adjacent? Must our parents be reduced to binaries between success and exploitation?

In Kang’s writing, I sense a fear: will we ever be more than middle-persons, in service of other identities? I wonder if he feels the unfair pressure of being put up as one of the few representing the rest of us, the way Joy Luck Club (incompletely) represents the Asian-American story, the way Steve Yeun represents all Korean Dads with his rendition of the immigrant accent. That would certainly give me a tinge of neurosis.

The article is also a protest against the perceived universalism of certain kinds of bodies, but not ours. The stories that emanate from our bodies are relegated to a niche, while others — like a man’s relationship with a dog or the chasing of a whale or the desperation of having to marry off a daughter — get elevated to universal truths. Out bodies and corresponding stories must be justified while others simply get to exist.

On the other hand, his article also reads like a plea, a plea to be seen in all the complexity that is our racial identity muddle, one constructed not by minoritized groups alone, but by the interplay among various groups. It is a plea for others to acknowledge their part in this, and not to pit the “neurosis” on us alone, the way Yeun’s father’s frustration at Murray’s Auto Shop was not an individual act but a response.

As Asian-Americans, we have been churning in post-structuralist waters, navigating differing and shifting perspectives, power dynamics, and the tyranny of self-evident truths, while waving desperately to be seen by those blithely sipping martinis on shore, tipsy with the blissful ignorance of modernity.

Kang, as a challenge, asks what is a typical immigrant story. The framing of this question already stakes a position. It is not a story about emigration, where one departs — but a story of coming to. To ask this question is to draw the arc of arrival — where we are to be delivered to a place of stasis, of elevation, of achievement. To pursue a typical immigrant story is to circumscribe the story, where all else fades except for factors relevant to the making of the journey.

To be an immigrant is to live aspirationally, to be in the process of becoming. This implies a wanting, a deficit. We are forever on a trajectory, yearning for some redemption, to become some rendition of the Great Asian Hope, whether it’s on behalf of our parents, our peers, or strangers who look like us. Implicit to the state of being an immigrant is the foregone: the life left behind, the losses, the sorrow. We can never escape the greener pastures of what could have been.

The story of immigration is framed from the perspective of those who came before us, as they watch us land as huddled masses. Imagine the story of colonialists told through the lens of native Americans. In the American imagination, the colonialists are not rendered as immigrants, but as settlers, as conquerors. As immigrants, we arrive, not to conquer or dominate, but to be accepted, to be assimilated. The power dynamic is implicit in the immigration status.

We should stop calling ourselves immigrants — or at least “only immigrants”. To be trapped in the immigrant story is to be trapped into an identity shaped by the gaze of others. We are othered when we are immigrants. We are the kids who did not fit in school, who sat inches away from the rest of the class. We are the kids who cried throughout school. We are the ones who cannot be as we wish except at Korean churches. All of these stories are book-ended by the rejecting gaze of those who already belong.

Like those beset with Stockholm syndrome, we are trapped in the perspective and language of the dominant majority. Like a giant slingshot flung from us through them and back to us, we see ourselves through their eyes, as the outsider, the minority, the misfit. We see ourselves in the reflection of their eyes, as their eyes glaze over. To be rendered invisible — even as we actively beckon — is an invitation to shame and rejection.

In this vacuum, we pit ourselves as the problems, the neuroses. We often perceive ourselves as outliers or aberrants, despite our tireless efforts. In this vacuum, we wonder if these conversations are worth having. Does it matter? Does anyone care? Kang’s so-called neurosis is a conundrum. His story may get relegated to the immigration shelf. But the dearth of our own stories traps us in the stories of others. How do we find ways to thrive when our stories are still largely untold, unknown, and unfamiliar? How do we make sense of our reality through our eyes? How do we begin to imagine different ways of relating, of understanding ourselves, or taking up space in this country if we are pigeon-holed, only told what we are to be?

In the language of narrative therapy, we have to dig for the details that have been rendered invisible. Research shows that we struggle to absorb details that do not conform to our preconceived notions. Why do we see Minari as an immigration story, and not a kin to Grapes of Wrath? Why do we think of Sandra Oh as Christina in Grey’s Anatomy but forget her role as Stephanie in Sideways? Why do we remember Margaret Cho’s failure in All American Girl and downplay her crude, hilarious social critiques?

We have to train ourselves anew, to see ourselves outside of the narrative of the dominant majority that makes sense of us solely through their perspectives. We have to fight the human tendency to miss the details that do not fit in the prescribed story of what it means to be Asian immigrants. Instead, we have to search actively for details that do not conform to the stories imposed on us. We have to learn to see ourselves through untrained eyes.

We have to show up with a slice of fuck you attitude. One that says I don’t give a fuck if you get my story. The attitude that says it is not my responsibility alone to bridge the gap between our lived experiences. It’s not solely my responsibility to make myself understood. We have to put aside the humiliation of the professor’s stale and untested assumptions and ask why that professor’s words are given universal truth status. Whose job is it to see the universality in a story: the writer or the reader — or both? We have to stop ceding power to others to construct our identities.

In the article, the two men talk about the therapeutic value of their conversation. We need not solely rely on so-called experts to tell us what we could be; we can talk to each other. To be seen by each other is enough. At its core, this article is the display of an intimate construction of an Asian-American identity, where one man sees his image reflected in another, which allows him to expand the possibilities of what he could be. The commonality and the differences between the interviewer and the interviewee is what allows each to examine his stories. This is how we make sense of our lives.

Would this conversation have been any less valuable if it had not been performed in front of the New York Times audience? What did the gaze of others do to the conversation? I wonder how the article would have differed if Kang had written it for a Korean-American audience.

Something in Kang’s writing feels like a silencing — of ourselves, an enactment of the invisibility Yeun notices of the Asian-American identity. It is as if in writing for a larger audience, Kang forgot that we — Korean-American readers — are here too, or did not deem us worth of mention. As if writing for people like us isn’t enough, even in the age of BTS, Psy, and Parasite. As if there is some implicit hierarchy between an actor like Yeun and other “identifiably Asian-American” actors. The way we are only talking to non-Koreans when we claim, “But we’re American too.”

But perhaps this is the plight of being American, a fictional identity created by paper, not history. As Richard Rodriguez writes in Hunger of Memory, we bring our private conversations into the public arena. Our intimate exchanges become public affairs. The stories of our parents become the birth of American identities. And in this making, there is also a parallel loss. In making ourselves comprehensible to others, we sacrifice some of what only we know.

Kang suggests we remove ourselves in the telling of our parents’ stories. It is a plea for everyone to own the subjectivity of their gaze, as Lee Issac Chung did in the making of Minari, even as Kang acknowledges the difficulty of doing so. There is a hope that stripped of personal agenda, our views of others avoid distortions, which in turn helps us see ourselves more clearly through them.

I wonder if extricating ourselves is the solution — or even possible. The idea of distortion exists only if we subscribe to the idea of objectivity, authenticity. We must abandon such ideas. Authenticity does not exist, and we have never had the luxury of living with such a notion. If anything, displaced people are by definition inauthentic. We arrive with a certain set of values and jettison them in lieu of others. Or invent a new hybrid.

We have something better than authenticity. We know the power of context, as we have always had to move from one context to another. We weave in and out, and with each context, we access a different story. There are multiple stories at our disposal — as there are multiple identities for each of us. In the words of Walt Whitman, we contain multitudes.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Must Asian-Americans Cast Their Stones at Tou Thao?

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, Asian-American writers and activists have flocked to urge fellow Asian-Americans to speak up in support of Black Lives Matter. Many argue that Tou Thao, an Asian-American officer who stood guard while Derek Chauvin suffocated and killed George Floyd, symbolizes Asian-Americans’ silence on racial strife in America. They cast silence as adjacency to whiteness, a miscalculated strategy of social mobility and position of privilege that only foments further harm against Blacks by playing to the myth of the model minority. 

Arguing against silence, these writers fill Thao’s. Jeff Yang on CNN interprets Thao’s silence as indifference, avoidance, a sign of apathy. Sara Li in InStyle casts Thao’s inaction as complicity. Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt in Truthout characterizes it as “bystander syndrome.” 

For Jeff Yang, the mirror image seen in Thao is one Asian-Americans must deflect: “His inaction was painful to witness — and a stark symbol of why, now more than ever, Asian Americans cannot afford to be voiceless watchers of this moment.” Thao is our other, the one we are not. 

Similarly, for Larry Lin, Thao’s moment of inaction is his moment of awakening: “I confess that I, like the Asian American officer at the scene of George Floyd’s death, have been a part of the problem.” Where Thao failed, we will compensate. 

They claim him as one of their own, in order to disclaim him. Thao is a strawman, the one we need to knock down, in order to build the case for our own consciousness, our superior, enlightened understandings. The irony of setting up Thao as a foil to argue against marginalization is lost on these writers. We cannot afford another inscrutable Asian in our mix, so writers with fancy advanced degrees, with connections to American corporate media, scramble to speak on behalf of a man who reportedly did not complete community college, because after all, he is one of us. 

Our designation as Asian-Americans is a handle of expedience. For those of us within the group, this identity allows us a united front for the sake of political power, even as we remain acutely aware of the differences in our sub-group histories and cultures. For those on the outside, the designation has a secondary function as an accommodation; the generalizing saves others the bother of having to tell us apart. They can assume us to be monolithic. They need not know our individual histories. The designation of Asian-Americans is a convenience, a lumping of many people of disparate backgrounds for the sake of politics and for the sake of simplifying the story of race in America. 

When Asian-American writers outside the Hmong community stake a claim to Thao, there is a confusion in perspective. They forget that they are insiders only for the sake of political unity. When it comes to explaining the motivations, frameworks, and the conditions of our individual lives, generalities do not suffice. The history of Chinese in America does not provide a shortcut to the Hmong-American experience. The Asian-American designation does not negate the disparate sub-groups within; yet, these writers argue as if Asian-Americans are monolithic, even as they claim to refute the model minority myth. Our practice of convenience does not bestow one sub-group ownership over another. Just because others cannot tell us apart does not make our stories interchangeable. No Korean-American, Chinese-American, or any other hyphen-American has the right to speak for Thao. He does not belong to us. 

As we scramble to distance ourselves from Thao, we miss yet another opportunity to humanize ourselves. He becomes another soulless scoundrel, a degenerate, a viper. Yet another paper cut-out in line behind the masked doctors, emotionless engineers, voiceless grocery store owners, and Chris Rock’s accountants.

The presence of a Black officer at the scene complicates the story. Unlike Thao, Alex Keung has been given a complex narrative, a Black man out to change the system, even as he is caught in a horrible scene of injustice. His family and friends have different reactions to him, even after he helped to restrain Floyd physically. Others come to his defense and implore us to consider how much power he could have wielded against the system as a lone officer. He expressed ambivalence about his supervisor. He cries. He is loved. 

No such story is told for Thao, just as there was none for Bong Jae Jang in the Red Apple boycott or Soon Ja Du in the LA Riots. As we have been throughout American history, we are rendered voiceless, devoid of inner conflict, complicated thoughts, shifting perspectives. What was Thao thinking as all this went down? No one bothers to ask. What was his intent, his goal, his expectation? What did he understand his role to be? What would he have done had he taken the role of physically interacting with Mr. Floyd instead of standing guard and managing the crowd? Would the outcome have differed? What do we know of his character, his general demeanor? We do not know. All we need to know of him is the record of complaints against him and his appearance in the nine minute video of the killing where he stood by, weaving in and out of frame, speaking into the radio in his vest. The story is clear cut, the guilt obvious, the evil undeniable. 

In this story, Thao is reduced to a symbol: of white oppression; of police brutality; of white adjacency; of Asian-American silence. We have been reduced to symbols many times in this country. Japanese internees as the symbol of Japan’s military threat. Vincent Chin as the symbol of Japanese automotive industry’s dominance. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sihk killed in a hate crime shortly after the September 11 attacks, as a symbol of Al-Queda. An Asian family attacked in Midland, Texas as a symbol of the threat of the coronavirus. We have been interchangeable. All Korean small business owners as stand-ins for Soon Ja Du after the killing of Latasha Harlins. Other Hmong-Americans blamed for Thao’s inaction. To be reduced to symbols is to be rendered faceless, nameless, and interchangeable in ubiquity. This is the running theme of Asians in America. 

Humanizing one in our mix who does a grave wrong requires us to speak, even when it is inconvenient. What would be his story if he could speak? Would he tell the story of a people paid in rice to fight America’s secret war against enemies who looked more or less like themselves? What does the Black-white divide in America mean for a people whose history includes persecution by the Chinese, mistreatment by the French, scorn by fellow Southeast Asians, betrayal by the US government, and rejection by West Philadelphia? 

Is his story not a counterpoint to the model minority myth, one we have been gasping to tell? Hmong-Americans suffer from a 30% drop out rate for high school, and a mere 39% can afford health insurance. Around 28% live in poverty. These statistics stem from America’s broken promise and a citizenry ignorant of and ungrateful for their surrogacy. America’s orphans, Hmong refugees were resettled in some of the most neglected neighborhoods, and many of them live among the poorest, the least privileged. They are not ones who benefit from white adjacency. 

We need to tell his story not to vindicate him, but because the same system that killed George Floyd created Tou Thao. If a system creates its victims, does it not also create its villains? 

Yet, as others who have been caught in political flashpoints, the cumulative weight of historic injustices fall on Thao, and he is suddenly cast as the oppressor, the privileged. In this reconstruction, his failure to act unleashes an avalanche of wrath and judgment. This loaded story was written long before Thao even showed up at the scene. It was written through the merciless killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, and countless others. It was written by a culture of fear, ideology of police departments, the acceptance of gun proliferation in America, a culture that presupposes a clear divide between the good and the bad, and various other factors we have yet to identify. 

As Asian-Americans, we are caught in a fishing net. We are grouped together, creating a facade of unity, not because of any inherent commonality, but situationally, as a result of being in the same space and time. This grouping deprives us of the original background that may explain some of our motives and understandings. The deep ocean from which we have been gathered is rendered irrelevant when discussing how best to survive in our new, common displacement. 

Perhaps it is this limitation that allows writers like Jeff Yang to ask on CNN, “Do we seek adjacency to whiteness, or coalitions of color?” or for an op-ed in Truthout to claim that Asian-Americans have been complicit in “white supremacy”. Reducing the survival strategy of more than 20 million Asian-Americans as “white adjacency” ignores the centuries of history of diverse groups of people who immigrated with their own value systems as well as social and economic strategies acquired over generations. It deprives us of our own cultural frameworks and perspectives. How did any of us manage to survive before there were white people to suck up to? 

This framing renders Asian-Americans as parasites, creatures who cannot exist onto themselves. It also centers whiteness as omnipotent. What do we say of our own agency, our participation in our own histories? How easy to simply blame the white people. Have we only played supporting roles, always aligning ourselves to forces larger than ourselves? 

Setting up the country as a binary silences Asian-Americans. We are reminded once again that in America, we live in a black and white world. Our only choice is to be subsumed into one of two groups and become either complicit in white racism or enlightened supporters of Blacks. We do not exist onto ourselves. In this binary framework, we negate ourselves as people with different, unique perspectives, with the ability to pave novel paths. We are given the illusion of choice, but it is clear that the cost of membership is to align with one of the two identified groups. Implicit in this argument is a concession that alone, we are powerless. When we speak up, we are nothing but a reverberation. We are forever sidekicks. 

In this black-white framework, we are judged not against a full spectrum of values relevant to our personal lives, but what is deemed to be relevant at this point in time in America. In this case, actions of all Asian-Americans of the present and past are filtered and judged through the lens of black-white racism in America; other possible interpretations are not even considered. What remains is a thin narrative of us. We are not afforded any subplots that may cut against the larger narrative on race. When we are left with only one or two possible storylines for Asian-Americans and we are limited to singular attitudes (“many of us have internalized a racist, reductionist history”) and motives (“their (sub)conscious preferences for lighter complexions is a result of deep-seated anti-Blackness”), we are once again reduced to stereotypes. 

This binary framing also negates the complicated history of Asians in America. Amongst ourselves, we have often wondered where we stand. We have fought against white majorities as well as other ethnic minorities. We have also stood alone when alliance was not available. We have wondered if we are a distinct group onto ourselves, and how we fit into the larger story around race in America. This uncertainty and complexity is also a story of Asian-Americans. 

There are important reasons to support Black Lives Matter. We must not tolerate a state of terror against our Black friends. We should be outraged at a justice system that condones extrajudicial killings. We must condemn a culture that promotes a sense of safety for some at the cost of others. We must not perpetuate a state that inflicts needless trauma on its own people. We must reject a caste system that creates a perpetual cycle of disenfranchisement and oppression. The rapidly growing list of innocent Black people murdered for no justifiable reason raises the urgency to support BLM and to speak out. We should speak up — loudly and with indignance. 

It is possible to speak up without shaming each other or effacing ourselves. We can speak up because we care. Because we are citizens. Because we have a voice. Because we too are fed up with the injustice of it all. 

Those who purport to speak for us all should attune to the silence among us. If some of us are silent, perhaps it is because there are painful truths in our corner. Racism comes in many forms. We have been called Chinks and told to go home not just by white Americans. When white Americans speak to each other, Black Americans recede. When Black Americans speak to white Americans, we recede. 

As a college student, I watched, glued to the TV, as Korean-American shopkeepers on tops of their stores were portrayed as menacing vigilantes. At that time, I wondered, who will speak for us? Who will humanize us and our parents? It is painful now to read Asian-Americans typecast as racist perpetrators of a white system, as its beneficiaries, when Korean-Americans have been burned by the very fire started by the system. Sara Li’s one line description of the LA Riots as simply a consequence of “anti-Blackness” of the Korean-American community pits all the blame on one side, with no understanding of the systemic dynamics involved. The ongoing failure of America to redress its 400 year history of enslavement and oppression came crashing down on one immigrant community. 

Let us not confuse casting stones with speaking up. Historically, Asian-Americans have not been shy about breaking the silence to distance themselves. Filipinos argued they were not Mongolians to fight for rights not afforded to other Asians. Koreans and Chinese wore buttons that said “I’m no Jap” and “I am Chinese” when Japanese-Americans were rounded up like cattle and thrown into pens in the middle of forlorn deserts. The rest of the Asian-American community let others know they were not Koreans during the LA Riots. And what better way to distance ourselves from the likes of Tou Thou than by condemning him? By casting our stones at him, we publicly differentiate ourselves and position ourselves as the good ones. 

The imperative to find safety for Asian-Americans is understandable, especially against the bursts of hate crimes reignited by the pandemic. The hope that just an alliance with one or another dominant group in the US would save us, however, is misguided. Time and again, alliances have frayed in times of strife. We may wax solidarity now, but no one admits that it is easier to do so when our businesses are not the ones being looted, when our parents are not perched on roofs of our small businesses armed with handguns, when there are no picket lines in front of our groceries and liquor stores, when we’re not cast as the enemy. When we have been cast as the enemy, as in the Red Apple boycott or the LA Riots, the only voices that rang out were those asking for police protection, which never came. The Asian-American alliance did not materialize. 

I am not suggesting we give up on all collective action. There is power in numbers, but we will never be seen or heard as a group unless we are seen and heard as individuals. A collective without humanity is no different than an enemy. The current BLM protests were fueled by George Floyd’s humanity. His cries for his mom reached the ears of mothers in all corners. His vulnerability in those terrible minutes spoke louder than any statistic or missive. We cannot forfeit our humanity for the sake of the collective, no matter how expedient it feels in the moment. 

The Asian-American call to arms in the shadows of Tou Thao’s inaction is a screed of shame: for not having done enough for our Black friends; for being too successful; for not having suffered as much as our Black and Brown friends; for having aunties with racists views; for enjoying the privileges of capitalism; for taking on the wrong survival strategies; for not being brown enough. We are an underdeveloped bunch who fail to live up to the ideals of American democracy, who inadequately exercise the right to protest. We cannot avoid comparing ourselves to other ethnic groups, even as it plays into the hands of racist policies that set up success as a zero sum game. 

Tou Thao has unleashed all of our misgivings. It is not simply enough to support BLM; we have to fall on our swords and repent. We need to prove we belong as we see ourselves through the judging gaze of other communities. 

One day, we will be afforded all the foibles and emotions that come with being human. One day, we will enjoy an identity that is not fused with all others who look like us. Maybe we will get there if we put down our stones long enough to own up to them.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Dreams of the Past


As immigrants, we lived for the unknown. This thing called the future held out the promise of a better life. When it stretched out its arms in possibilities, as limitless and amorphous as the word itself, we latched onto it because there was nothing else. The future was synonymous with becoming, an unknown that represented all that the present was not.

Our present was a musty dry cleaner’s. A cocktail of perc, human odor, and disinfectant. Pipes caked with grease, chemicals, and dust. Ever swirling fans in constant hum, creating a sense of chaos in the background. Clothes creased with wear, folds fanning out from the joints and the crotch. Sequined party dresses rumpled and twisted, with misshapen bra pads. White office shirts with stiff necks and yellow rings of perspiration on the armpits, and trousers stained with dirt and other bodily fluids. Light yellow sweaters splattered with bearnaise sauce and bloody mary. The remnants of lives lived, of parties enjoyed, of gatherings concluded.

As teenagers, we rummaged through their pockets, like scavengers, searching for forgotten items: receipts, bunched up cocktail napkins, torn theatre stubs. Here, we got a whiff of life's offerings. Our parents’ job was to remove the stains, press them, and package them in films of plastic to reset them for another outing.

Such outings were not for us. Our present was lived from inside the windows. The world existed outside, and we watched it pass by without us. On Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, after we had handed out the last evening gown or tuxedo, we wiped down the counters, emptied the cash register, packed up our empty lunch containers, and arranged the hangers for the next day. When we stepped out onto the empty street, our father locked the door. Then, he grabbed the handle with both hands, checking, double-checking, and triple-checking the lock, throwing his weight into the push and pull. Safeguarding this store was his focus, because it was the source of our livelihood and security.

In silence, we scurried to the car and drove home to eat some food hastily foraged from the refrigerator. We didn’t speak about the celebrations happening in other homes, for other families. We didn’t articulate any longing for an evening different than the one we had. Celebrations were not for people like us. They were for families who wore khaki pants and took annual holiday photos. For people who dined out and ordered wine. For those who knew how to carve a turkey.

Once, when I asked my mom why we didn’t invite people over for dinners, she said, “Inviting people requires spending.”

We couldn’t afford the luxury of celebrating. We were too poor. Too exhausted. Too desperate. Too busy preparing for the next day.

There were glimmers of hope, however. The hope came embedded in incessant messages. If you go to law school, your dad and I will be able to retire. If you become a doctor, you could help us so much. Our hardship will be worth it. If you do this, if you do that…

It was there, for me to grab. Some hope of a better future -- all in my hands, as if I held the key, the secret code, the magic dust. I never questioned that a financial solution would be the answer, even though I had no understanding of the problems to be solved. And I never challenged this assumption that my parents' dream of financial security would be something I would help deliver.

I clung to this hope of a reprieve, a break from the ever-present anxiety that loomed over us. I longed for a day when we could while away our time in a coffee shop like others, buy a trinket without worrying about how much it cost, indulge without feeling guilty. These longings were so pedestrian, and yet out of reach. Still, I never doubted that those days awaited us in our future.

The other day, I suddenly realized that I am living in that future. I am now almost 50. I obtained my law degree, practiced law for 10 years, and have a beautiful family of my own. Over 15 years ago, my parents sold their dry cleaning business and retired with an adequate nest egg. Just four years ago, they moved out to San Diego to live near us.

Despite all that, the present has no semblance to the future that I had imagined for my family of origin. It’s hard to even call us a family. My sister does not talk to me or my brother. We never get together for the holidays anymore, not all of us. We have never vacationed together. During the past 13 years, the family has never gathered as a clan. The quality other families may have that draws them together is elusive for us. We’re not at ease with each other. There is no obvious affinity. We have no family rituals, no running jokes, no matching ugly sweaters.

Any effort to get together as a family, even a faction of us, however sporadically, has been instigated by me. No one else initiates, including my parents. My parents seem complacent enough to see the family in its current state. It is incomprehensible to me.

For a long time, I rallied against this baseline state. I carried dreams of us vacationing as a family, going on cruises, eating holiday meals together. I imagined us restored, a family who suffered but healed, a people who can look back with satisfaction at all that they endured but survived. I have been playing out these scenarios in my head for as long as I can remember.

As I look back, I now wonder about this audacity, naivete, the gall. Who was I to presume that we carried the same dream, as if I spoke for us all? And who was I to believe I could weave others into my dream, as if I were the puppeteer.

From the crevasse of our failed family relationships, I now reassess the past. It is my relationship to my dream that requires scrutiny. Perhaps, it was never my prerogative to dream for all of us. Maybe it was never a part of their hopes for their future. That dream embodied my own hopes, expressed my own needs. It is humbling, this reminder.

A part of me rebukes myself for having carried this dream at all. It adds to my unhappiness and frustration because it highlights how far we fall short. At the same time, I tell myself that this dream carried me forward as well. It provided focus, a goal. It is this dream that drew a sharp line around the past and made it bearable.

I wonder about the role of our dreams and the purposes they serve. Perhaps it is dreams that draw us together as a people, and they carry us forward as if on a dinghy. During those rough days when my family worried about every quarter spent or every customer lost, I clung to this dream as I fought to stay afloat in the sea of anxiety that was my family. We lacked the ability to soothe and allay each other's fears; instead, all of us shut our eyes and held on to whatever was within reach. When both hands are needed for one's own survival, there is none left to extend to others. And as obvious as our needs must have been, we never spoke of them. We never learned to say, "I am scared" or "I need some help." Instead, we lashed out in resentment at those who failed to meet our needs -- and learned to do without.

Perhaps that dinghy was not big enough, not refined enough, not sophisticated enough to carry us all, not in the way we each needed. Now that I find myself having to examine this dinghy, I can see how inadequate it is, how decrepit, how flimsy. I also remember how precious it felt when there was nothing else to latch onto. How I urged others to hold onto it as I did. How desperately alone our family was in this unknown territory, and how little I had to offer. I can now surrender to the unknown. From where I currently stand, I think about what it means to weather the storm, to survive, as I release the dinghy back out to sea.