Wednesday, November 20, 2019


Ever since I started reading Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), I can't stop imagining myself as an actor in different scenes wherever I go. A sociologist, Goffman described our social interactions as theatrical performances, where our daily actions are presented, as if on stage, with scenery and props to be displayed and interpreted by our audiences.

Conceptualizing my interactions as performances has helped me understand my life in ways I never have before. I now realize that when I am with my own family and my parents, I am simultaneously in two different scenes, one with my husband and children as a mom/wife and another as a Korean daughter with my parents. Even though we are together, I am engaged in two or more separate dramas, each with a storyline of its own, one with my parents in Korean and another in English with my kids and my husband Jeff.

For example, picture our lunch together yesterday at a local pizza joint. The six of us are sitting around a table during a school fundraising event.

In the scene, I am sitting across from my parents, with Jeff to my right and the kids to his right. I am speaking to my parents in Korean (a language neither Jeff nor my kids speak), asking them what they would like to order. My parents quickly peruse the menu and mumble that they don't know what to order, that I should order for them, and that they will just eat whatever. I push back, as I put the menu back in their hands. Can you just look at the menu? Here's the section on salads, here are the main dishes. What would you like to eat?

We have played out this scene many times. We are in a public setting, and they recede, as if they have no preferences, as if they are not there.

I feel my irritation surfacing. There is a historical context to this irritation. Their passivity unleashes the resentment of the perennial parentified child. I do not want to be your mouthpiece, not again. It also threatens to cast our lives in America as a failure, a poor decision that landed us in a foreign country where we do not function publicly.

In this setting, I am acutely aware of the pressure to perform. Here we are, in a restaurant, in a public scene. I am conscious that we don't quite fit in. My parents and I are the only Asians in the place. My parents do not interact with the waitress in English. They do not send or pick up the same social cues, such as making eye contact or returning the greeting.

I am sure I am more self-conscious in these settings as a result of having grown up as an outsider in this country. To me, the scene presupposes a certain performance out of us: to be ready to order when the waitress returns, to smile back at her, and to identify our dishes. To play the part of a happy family enjoying lunch together.

While I am in this scene with my parents, I am repeatedly interrupted by my children who demand that I take in their activities; their drawings, their recounting of the day, their mile-a-minute thoughts. In those interruptions, I am pulled into their scene as a mother.

Throughout the meal, I am in separate snippets of conversation with my parents while I toggle back and forth with my own family. My parents rarely communicate directly with my children or Jeff. The language skills aren't there, and even when they try, my father's limited hearing shortcuts the dialogue. They often comment on the children to me, or they will try to speak through me. For example, my mom will often say, "Tell Jeff to eat more. Here, give him this."

On these occasions, I am diving in and out of different scenes, playing multiple roles, and tending to various needs. In this picture, I am never sure of the role I am supposed to play. Which scene am I in at any given moment? Who am I in this picture? Who do I tend to first? Once, during my daughter's birthday party, I assumed my parents would join the party. Instead, they huddled by themselves inside while our guests and their kids played joyfully in our yard. It felt like a failure on my part, a failure to tend to my parents. I failed to give them their own scene, a safe haven in our own home. I second guess myself through two different value systems, and I may find reprieve in one, but not always both.

I am often left feeling like I neglected someone, whether it's my parents, Jeff, or the kids. I am painfully aware that when I am speaking Korean with my parents, Jeff is cut off from the conversation. He is cut off from adult company by virtue of our language, even though he is sitting with us at the same table. Less than a foot away from me, he has no access to the events happening in front of him. Similarly, when I am talking to Jeff or the kids, my parents are excluded. I don't know how to be a wife, mother, and daughter, all in the same scene.

In these situations, I am alone in my emotional experience. My conversations with my parents are often laden - with history, habit, cultural differences, and misunderstandings. Their words, perhaps intended to be helpful, sometimes land as criticism. And often, interacting with them in a social setting reminds me of all that we're not as a family, all that I would like us to be.

I often come out of these gatherings slightly peevish and mentally fatigued.

Later, when I describe to Jeff all that happened at the table, he listens and nods along. He says I am a "gasket," there to keep two parts together. A gasket is usually needed to join two parts that do not fit perfectly together. It fills the space between the two parts and protects the whole from leaking when it is pressurized. To function well, a gasket should be made of yielding material in order to fill and conform to the space, particularly where there are irregularities. 

I think about being this gasket. As a gasket, I am never in a space of cohesion; instead, it is up to me to provide the cohesion. But that cohesion never feels within reach. My arms are not dexterous enough, malleable enough, or expansive enough to wrap around all of us and tie us up in a beautiful bow. It feels like playing two different songs on the piano, one with each hand. Each song has its own rhythm, logic, and beauty, but they have no relation to each other except through the person sitting at the bench. The result is dissonance - with occasional, accidental harmony.

I think about sources of frustration -- and inaction. When we cannot act, we are sometimes caught in a crevice between different scenes, wedged between conflicting value systems. One of my professors recently commented that we cannot possibly hold all of our values at once. There are too many that we have collected over our lifetime, through too many different contexts, and they don't always align. She said that we may have to let some go in order to attend to what is in front of us at the time. I'm not sure how to work that into my life yet. I find myself juggling, trying to keep them all afloat. It never occurred to me that we can put some down. Perhaps because attached to these values are lives getting shorter by the minute.

I live a life of dissonance. This dissonance often gives me a headache and diverts me from where I would like to be. I cannot always be as attentive as I would like, and I may play a lesser part than I had imagined for myself. It can be lonely in this space, and there is always a yearning for something more, something better. At the same time, I like to think my striving counts for something. I'm trying to make something coherent out of disparate parts, not through anyone's choosing, but because that is what life is at this time. Abandoning this effort has never been an option. And I relish the occasional harmony, as fleeting and sporadic as it may be.

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