Tuesday, May 28, 2019

In Response to Min Jin Lee

In a recent op-ed, Min Jin Lee defines power as the "confidence to speak for yourself."

In 1979, three years after Min Jin Lee's family, our family moved to the US for what we expected would be a three year stay. Those three years turned into forty. Like Lee's family, we also landed in Queens. We arrived over the weekend, and on Monday morning, I was registered to attend P.S. 20 in Flushing. I didn't even know the alphabet.

Like Min Jin, I never felt like I had the right to speak publicly. In eleventh grade, I had something to say to a teacher. Not knowing how to speak out, I wrote a letter overnight and watched, as if mute, while she read my words. During my first job at a big law firm, after also graduating from Georgetown Law, a well-established litigation partner pulled me aside to admonish me about not displaying enough confidence. I don't remember his exact words, but he told me that he had seen many Asian-Americans come through the firm and wondered why so many of us, who were clearly bright and talented, did not carry ourselves with more confidence.

I've wondered about confidence. Where does it come from? And why do some people have it and not others? I wonder why it matters. Confidence seems foreign to me. What does it even mean to feel confident about some future event? It rings of a mainstream substitute for what religious people call faith. It also feels misbegotten. I recall reading a survey of American kids who reported high confidence about math scores they did not achieve. Confidence does not correlate to results, yet there seems to be an assumption that it leads to something, that it is a necessary ingredient. Forget about confidence, I wanted to say. Just look at my results.

An online etymological dictionary defines confidence as "assurance or belief in the good will, veracity, etc. of another." By this definition, confidence reflects a relationship, not an inner trait. It is a concept about how one relates to the outside world. It is a knowing that others will respond with good will, that those around us will respond with affirmations. It is akin to a sense of security among our fellow beings. As an eight year old from another culture, I received no such assurances.

What I knew was the opposite. The country we had moved to was not sophisticated or complex enough to hold space for people like me and my family. It wasn't hostile, at least not generally in my experience, but those we encountered on a regular basis made it known that they were not of us, and we were not of them. We did not belong to the same tribe. The two simple syllables of my first name did not exist in juxtaposition here. I was relegated to a color. As for my body, my face felt too big, my torso too long, my calves too stumpy. A small sampling of the food we ate was reserved for international day festivals. The words we used had no expression outside of our household. The values our parents taught often clashed with what we learned in school or saw on TV. The stories I read in elementary school (I recall Judy Blume most vividly) were not stories of my family. My upbringing was marked with more negations than affirmations.

When I was growing up, my parents rarely talked about confidence. Instead, they encouraged us to apply ourselves, to practice, to study, and to keep trying. They told us that we could not rely on America to do anything for us. We were outsiders, we were alone, and we had to rely on ourselves. Our relationship with this country was one of uncertainty and insecurity. We did not have the luxury of confidence.

To me, this poses a conundrum. If confidence is a feedback loop dependent on an affirming environment, what happens to those of us who grow up without such affirmations? What does it do to our identity to not see ourselves reflected in others, and vice versa?

I know I carry a timidity I've seen in some others like me. Immigrants. Racial minorities. Those with a past that disqualifies them from automatic membership. I see it in their smiles, the way they smile too readily. The way we let others lead the conversation, passively nodding along, and rarely speaking up even when we disagree. The way we divert attention from ourselves, even as we perform like good soldiers, saying the right things while dressed appropriately. I know I don't like attention on myself. Sometimes when eyes are on me, I find myself muttering, repeating myself, tapering off. Often, the burden of being an individual feels like too much, of finding something to say that is worthy of attention. It feels easier to take on a role - the room parent, the organizer, the foodie, the reliable friend, the easy-going sidekick. Better to pass the evening smiling affably and glibly.

I don't always know how to relate to the external world. The world I see doesn't feel multi-faceted enough to hold the complexities and contradictions I carry within. And even when I am sure that the person on the other end similarly holds those complexities, it takes effort to bridge over and create enough safety to discuss them. Sometimes, in those moments, I retreat, and silence becomes my home.

Recently, in a conversation, one of my professors said that when others don't know enough about us, they project qualities onto us. In one of his books, he wrote (applying concepts from Foucault): “Within human communities, what can be said, and who can speak, are issues of power.” It makes me wonder about all the stereotypes put on Asian-Americans. The model minority. The inscrutable. Lack of personality. So many others. And it makes me wonder about my relationship to silence and how I don't show up in certain spaces -- and whether the silence should be filled by me or others. Who should define who we are?

As I was thinking about this, I ran across this article. It calls for a reframing of perspective, from the myopic to the universal, from what we can see immediately in front of us to a larger scope. It also suggests the ability to create a community with those not just in our vicinity. A selected community with those who may be able to affirm us in ways others cannot, those who may be able to be a sounding board for our confidence loop. It invites us to zoom out, to reflect, and to search.

It's complicated for some of us who arrived as immigrants, as outsiders, and are now trying to figure out how to make this country our home. I'm like a latecomer to a party who now finds herself moving in. Do we spend the rest of our time hovering at the corner, or do we let ourselves settle into the sofa? Do we dare speak up, stake a claim, and assert that we belong?

I've spent a lot of time in the corner. Like a timid turtle, I shrink into myself when I'm not sure how to fit in, when the world does not feel receptive. Despite my wavering confidence, I think about how I want to show up in my own life. I want to have a say. I want to be in my own story, not someone else's and not some other people's rendition of how my story is supposed to unfold. I want to be a leader in my own life. It feels like an obligation to myself, something I owe myself more urgently as the days pass.

I think about the importance of sitting in our own discomfort. Of sitting in our confusion, in situations that don't make easy sense, in a state of limbo where easy templates don't suffice. Of seeing and hearing our stories for what they are, not through some contorted lens to fit someone else's version. Maybe if we take the risk of telling our stories, we will find others who understand our stories. Maybe we will find others who have similar stories they are willing to share.

The benefit of a loop (or a spiral) is that the beginning and outcome have no clear boundaries. One merges into the other, and there is no obvious starting point. Confidence may be a consequence that comes from doing: from finding community, telling our stories, and having our stories heard. And while doing may require some confidence as an ingredient, maybe we will find another substitute, like a sense of responsibility. Confidence may also come from taking the risk of letting ourselves be seen.

So in my pilates class, I take a reformer in the front row, right in front of the wall of mirrors. I look at myself, not with my usual disapproval or shame, but with curiosity. What have I not noticed before? What is there to be discovered? I give myself permission to be and to belong -- before I look around the room.