Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Days of Negative Surge

The highlight of my coronavirus quarantine has been the appearance of the H Mart logo on Instacart’s homepage. It showed up one day, an unassuming red and white logo, in the midst of other primary colors, with the word “Ethnic” underneath. The minute I saw it, I did a little jig at my end of the kitchen counter and announced the discovery to my husband at the other end. I hastily added a few items to the cart to claim a delivery slot and called my mom.

“Mom, we can get delivery from the Korean grocery! They are coming next Thursday!”

“Korean grocery?”

“Yes, yes, H Mart!”

I heard her gasp on the other end.

“Start making a list of everything you need. I’ll call you on Tuesday.”

For the first few weeks of the quarantine, I searched the web incessantly for a few items that I had not considered important enough to purchase before the shutdown. As the virus spread in China and the U.S. government airlifted Americans out of Wuhan, I stocked up at my local Korean grocery, driving 20 minutes from my house in North County, San Diego, to gather bags of rice, seaweed, soy sauce, red pepper paste, adzuki beans, and honey ginger tea. I foolishly bypassed the aisles with instant noodles and pre-packaged meals.

As soon as California announced social distancing, I suddenly developed a craving for Neoguri ramyun, jajangmyun, and ddukboki.

I started Googling. Sites for World Mart and Asian Mart lured me in with search results, but frustrated me with “out of stock” messages when I tried to check out. I visited the sites for Zion Market and 99 Ranch, hoping they might have gotten an overnight technological makeover, only to be left with nothing but my magical thinking. I found the Neoguri ramyun on Amazon.com, but I could not stomach paying $12.84 for four packets of instant noodle. No self-respecting Korean-American would pay more than a dollar and change per packet.

When Google searches proved futile, I started scouring the pitiful online “Asian aisles” at my local Von’s and Ralph’s in hopes of finding something worth purchasing. I managed to grab some soy sauce, sesame oil, and curry paste for my mom. I even bought a few packets of Sapporo Ichiban for nostalgia’s sake, but I had no luck scoring the few items that were starting to feel more essential by the day. I had all but decided that I would have to go without. I consoled myself that kimchi is now available at Costco, as is dried roasted seaweed, tofu, frozen chive dumplings, and medium-grain rice.

I could have simply driven to the local H Mart en mask, but my husband and I had decided early on that we would limit our exposure as much as possible and stay home. With my two cancer treatments in the past few years and our son’s asthma, our decision seemed sensible. Defying this decision to grab my Korean comfort food felt like a needless risk.

My near desperation to stockpile these few items came as a surprise to me. Before the quarantine, I barely opened one pack of ramyun per month. The last time I had jajangmyun was when we visited my favorite noodle shop in San Francisco a year ago. I cannot remember the last time I ate ddukboki; I skipped it when we visited Korea for three weeks last summer. Perhaps the idea of scarcity was triggering a hoarding impulse. Or I was influenced by the photos of the South Korean government quarantine care package, where Shin Ramyun was featured so prominently. Wasn’t I too worthy of a care package?

When I went back and started filling up my cart for H Mart delivery, I noticed myself selecting a lot of food we used to stockpile when my parents worked as dry cleaners in New York. While they worked 14-hour days, we kids fed ourselves a lot of pan-fried bologna, Spam fried rice, Neoguri ramyun, and other dishes I was suddenly craving.

The rhythm of our current pandemic life in many ways mirrors our life back then. As immigrants, we lived with a pervasive sense of desperation and an expectant feeling of doom. The days, stripped of all but their bare essentials, felt suffocated. My parents had no friends, as they had no time for socializing, and they spent their days with two long-term employees, a presser and a tailor. They ate the same chicken and rice for lunch every day. As a family, we ate out maybe once or twice a year, usually after a heartbreaking argument between my parents about the expense. There was limited time or money for indulgence. My mom’s singular longing was to sit in a cafe one day and sip coffee, like other people.

We lived braced against the possibility of a downfall. Every penny earned was saved for the unpredictable future. Alone in the U.S., our nuclear family had no support, whether financial or emotional, and no safety net. The bottom could fall out with a poor decision, a bad accident, or an illness. As a teenager, I lay in bed at night and listened to my parents breathing as they slept in the room next to mine. I could almost hear the chemicals coursing through their veins, plotting and scheming until they converged into cancer, ready to overtake their bodies.

On Saturdays and school holidays, my siblings and I helped out at the store, running the cash register and sorting clothes. Once in a while, our parents would allow us to purchase a roast beef sandwich from the deli next door. The footlong meal of an inch tall mound of sliced beef nestled in perfectly crusted Italian bread came hastily wrapped in parchment paper. Perched on a stepstool, I would savor this indulgence, even as I closed my eyes to avoid looking at the blood drenched loaf. After closing the store one hour earlier on Saturdays, we would sometimes drive out to Flushing to buy Korean groceries. There, we would shop as if we were preparing for a quarantine. We would walk up and down the aisles methodically, filling the cart with several 15 pound bags of rice, a box or two of apples, bags of seaweed, mounds of soy bean sprouts, tubs of tofu, boxes of instant noodles, pounds of fresh fish and meat, and anything else needed to survive the next month.

After my parents retired almost 15 years ago, the rhythm of their day-to-day life did not change much, even though they moved out to San Diego a few years ago to be closer to me, my husband, and our two children. They still have no friends, and they do not socialize. They eat out with us only when we cajole them. They spend the days by themselves, watching TV, eating their meals. My mom tends to her plants, and they take daily walks. The quarantine has not changed their routine at all, except that I now order their groceries for them.

Growing up, I used to rue the days spent in the store, for me and my parents. The time felt precious and wasted. As teenagers, we rummaged through pockets of our customers, like scavengers, searching for forgotten items like receipts, bunched-up cocktail napkins, and torn theater stubs. Here, we got a whiff of life’s offerings. Our parents’ job was to remove the stains from their clothes, press them, and package them in films of plastic to reset them for another outing.

Such outings were not for us. We lived behind the window underneath the neon sign. 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. By the time we stepped out to head home, others had already taken their celebrations inside.

My parents spent more than 20 years of their lives in this little box of a store, and I ached for them to have a social existence, a public life, even after I escaped to the West Coast to build my own. I never anticipated that we would live through a time when public life recedes for all of us. Strangely, for the first time in forty-one years since our family moved to the U.S., my parents live in sync with other Americans.

This convergence is as surprising as the appearance of H Mart on Instacart. As immigrants, our family understood that the question of whether we survived was ours alone, and we never imagined that the matter of how we survived would concern anyone else. Who would notice us and consider our needs? Who could be bothered to cater to our context, our preferences, our palate?

I usually shop for Korean food by myself. I never send my non-Korean husband, as I sometimes do for milk or flour at our local grocery. It would be too complicated to explain all the distinctions to translate my preferences, like the difference between radish and cabbage kimchi, sold cut or whole, seasoned in salt water or with ground red pepper. The fresh noodles alone come in various sizes, like thin cuts for bibimguksu, slightly thicker cut for jajangmyun, yet another for knife cut noodles, and thickest for udon. The array of rice and instant noodles can be dizzying for the newcomer. The cuts of meat follow a different system of categories, depending on the type of soup, stew, or barbecue. These details are not a part of the American mainstream lexicon, at least not past what’s shared on Korean restaurant menus. Until now, I maintained a partition between my Korean shopping and my American life.

I think of the people who will shop for us. If not fellow Korean-Americans, how will they know to choose the right variety of chive, the right kind of sprouts? Will they be able to identify the burdock and lotus roots for my mom? Will they have the patience to scour the foreign or unfamiliar labels at HMart, unlike at Costco where bulk items are recognizable from down the aisle? Will it be worth their time to drive out to my suburb?

In this pandemic, feeding my family has become an intimate, public exchange. Strangers take the risk of contagion to bring us our food, risks we can forego because they do not. To feed my cravings, they venture into a space I do not share even with my husband. I worry about the health of these strangers. Do they have decent masks? Am I asking them to shop when there are too many people in the store? I wonder what they think as they pull up the driveway of our house in our coastal town. Will they judge me for my privilege, just as I used to judge our dry cleaning customers?

When the shopping day arrives, I sit in front of my computer, fielding texts. As many items are out of stock, he sends photo after photo of possible substitutes for rice cakes, anchovies, panko bread crumb, perilla leaves, and roasted chestnuts. I respond with “Yeah, that’s great. Thanks so much!” and “That’s ok, we can skip. Thanks again!” As the number of missing items increase, his tip decreases. I reassure him that I’ll give him the original amount. It takes him more than two hours to find the 30 items on our list.

When my delivery appears, I watch from behind my glass front door. A masked Filipino man, in the age group urged to exercise extra caution by the State of California, drops off my six bags of H Mart groceries before scurrying back to his Toyota. I wonder about his need to feed his family, his financial state, his proximity to desperation. In him, I see my father.

As immigrants, it was our job to bend to the ways of this country: to learn to perform its customs; eat its food; and follow its social conventions. We made decisions about what to forego, even as our bodies yearned otherwise. We struggled to make our home in this new country. Even as we witnessed the emergence and rise of Korean fried chicken, Bong Joon-Ho, and BTS, I never expected anyone, especially during a pandemic, to cater to my Korean cravings. On the one hand, it feels like an antidote to the anti-Asian xenophobia on the rise, a mask for the ugly slurs. On the other, it feels like receiving a fastpass I never asked for on a sweltering day at Disneyland under the glare of 2000 other sweaty parents and their whining children.

This quarantine is a clearing, like the receding of the ocean before the coming of a storm or a tsunami. The negative surge reveals the life teeming underneath, and what could not be seen before becomes visible. As most of America retreats, public spaces open up for those who cannot — the delivery workers, the lawn keepers, the sanitation workers. They have been there all along, susceptible to risks others can afford to forego. In this space and time, the different Americas I have known converge, and briefly, life feels more expansive, even as we face the threat of a possible devastation.

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.